Real Time (Between the Waters at Lake Atitlan)

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There’s always that moment when you see or experience something in real life that  you previously had only glimpsed in photos.

That sense of comparison.

Of disappointment or surprise.

Of noticing things that even the most expensive of camera lens wouldn’t be able to capture.

After I impulsively decided to fly to Guatemala during my last full week of summer vacation, the internet told me that Lake Atitlan was one of the most highly suggested sites to visit within this beautiful Central American country. The pictures were fantastic, and I held in my mind this image of where I was going and precisely what it looked like.

And so, as the shuttle bounced along the pot-hole roads, and took curves at an alarming speed, I perched on the edge of my seat ready to see The Lake.

Because that’s what the locals call it – simply The Lake.

Granted, it’s for a good reason – Lake Atitlan is a massive body of water cradled nicely within a former super volcano’s crater (also called a caldera). Surrounding the lake, are numerous Mayan villages, stunning hills and highlands, and a couple other “smaller” volcanoes just to make things interesting.

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I began to see snippets of blue – azul – through the fast-moving cars. It was hard to place whether I was looking at the horizon or a body of water. My driver, who spoke very little English, proudly announced one word: soon. Moments later I saw him smile in the rear view mirror as he slowed down after yet another break-neck curve.

There was The Lake: A picturesque natural phenomenon littered with man-made buildings and boats both across and around its perimeter. It was dazzling in the early morning sunlight, and I couldn’t wait to get closer.

Down the hill we went, and that’s when I began noticing and collecting images that are more valuable (and last longer) than the tchotchkes available at tourist markets.

  • The way the boats bobbed in the calmness of the harbor, rising up only when an arrival or departure stirred the water
  • The ominous rise of the sharpened peak of San Pedro volcano, reflected on The Lake
  • The vast incline of the surrounding land, making walks into local villages an exhilarating challenge
  • The perfect blend of sky, water, volcanoes, hills, rock, and local people that made this place better than any postcard or online picture

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Perhaps this is what it comes down to: nothing can replace personal experiences. Photos on computer desktops might be serene and interesting (thanks Windows 10), but seeing those places for myself is a fantastic rush. Personally witnessing a wild and natural space increases my happiness levels ten-fold.

My challenge to you, dear reader, is to find a picturesque place and go.  Make it happen. Life is too short to look at two-dimensional photos of sought-after outside worlds.

See and experience real life.

You can do it. 🙂

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San Pedro volcano and its reflection

I’m going to start adding some helpful tips to the end of my blog posts. If You Decide to Go will provide specific information for those who may take a similar trip. Stay tuned for more upcoming changes to the site!

If You Decide to Go:

  • You can hire a guide for the day (bilingual if necessary), or you can just pay one of the boat operators to take you to the surrounding villages. Be sure to agree on a price beforehand! Typically a day will cost you anywhere from $10-$50.
  • Be sure to check out San Juan, my favorite village. I watched a chocolatier make authentic Mayan chocolate, and a local woman hand dye cotton thread for their brightly-hued clothing.
  • Wear sunscreen and sun protection! The high elevation and proximity to the equator means a high UV index.
  • I wasn’t able to do the Indian Nose hike, but I’ve heard that it’s incredible. Check it out and let me know what you think!
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Chocolate-making! It tasted yummy (though much softer than the type of slabs I’m used to).
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High (Slightly Dangerous) Places

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It was slow-going. For each step that I took, I slid down half of a pace. The loose rubble crunched under my hiking boots, and I was glad that I had worn such sturdy shoes to traipse across the rugged, winding terrain. I felt the heat acutely, both from the sun shining down overhead and the steam coming from the black piles of rock in front of me. Every time I looked up, I was in awe.

I was hiking an active volcano.

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On the way up: two other volcanoes (Fuego and Acatenango) in the distance.

No, I’m not crazy – this is a popular activity in Guatemala, as the country has over 37 volcanoes, three of which have erupted in the past couple of years. I was told that the hike would be 5ish miles there and back. Piece of cake, right? Perhaps, except I didn’t take into account that I would be at elevation. Pacaya Volcano stands at over 8,000 feet above sea level. I was huffing and puffing, my pulse beating rapidly with each step I took. Edwin, the guide-slash-park-rancher, practically skipped upwards, looking back with a flashy grin every so often to check on the slow American.

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Partway up!

I was glad that the scenery was absolutely gorgeous; it gave me an excuse to regularly stop and snap photos. The luscious green of the surrounding countryside juxtaposed nicely with the black ashy volcanic rock. I’m not quite sure what came to mind when I envisioned Guatemala before this trip, but I was overwhelmingly surprised at all of the mountainous landscape, covered with immaculate shades of green.

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A couple of wild dogs trailed me the whole way up, hoping for a handout. One bounded ahead, and I realized that I had arrived – or at least as far up as I could safely go.

It was incredible.

The steam from the volcano came at regular intervals, and the whole eastern side was on fire. I expected a viscous lava flow, like Hollywood has taught me to believe, yet it was more like a huge scree field of campfire coals. As rocks tumbled – small and large – glimpses of red could be spotted. In fact, there was a rock pile right close to me that looked like the remnants of an epic bonfire.

And then marshmallows started to get passed around.

I was literally toasting fluffy sugar balls on top of an active volcano. The weariness of the hike behind, I rested and enjoyed this unique experience. The sky was blue, fluffy white clouds mixing with steam from within Earth’s crust. The breeze helped cool down my over-heated body, and my muscles relaxed with each breath of smokey air. I was happy to be exploring a wild place so out of the norm from anything I’ve done before.

My marshmallow caught on fire, and I didn’t even care.

It still tasted delicious.

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Capetown Recap

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Awe-inspiring.

Length of Stay:

  • 5 days, 4 nights

High:

  • Memorable ocean views
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Muizenberg beach.

Low:

  • Getting my luggage lost by the airline and going 2 days sans clothes/toiletries

Favorite Hike:

  • Elephant’s Eye Cave (part of the Table Mountain National Park)

Favorite Treat:

  • Biltong (dried, cured meat)
  • Braai (South African style barbecue)

[Cape] Point and Good Hope

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It was windy.

I saw wild ostriches.

The kelp anchors looked like something from a Sci-Fi movie.

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Pretty. Note the tubular kelp.

Ah, Cape Town. Existing below the equator, this South African city is renowned for its unique coastline and urban-meets-nature feel. I was bracing for chilly winter weather, but this metropolis (found at the edge of the continent) was rain-free and replete with sunshine! Having recently come from Mozambique, I was excited about the change in scenery, as well as some longed-for creature comforts (mainly hot showers and veggies).

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Of course, I had to go to Table Mountain National Park, a protected space that stretches much more extensively than I had originally anticipated. Yes, it includes the iconic Table Mountain, but this natural place also encompasses an assortment of gorgeous hikes and impeccable coast land around the city and throughout the peninsula.

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It was a beautiful drive down to Cape of Good Hope – the southwestern most part of the continent. Sure, the place was riddled with tourists, but I was able to pull away from the crowds to enjoy the crashing waves, unique cliffs, and sea-salt-infused air.

But mostly I enjoyed the sights. 

You’ll recall that Channel Islands National Park was one of my favorites. The combination of rock, ocean, and greenery was the perfect recipe (in my opinion) for an outdoor setting. Well, picture this same assortment all around. It seemed that whenever the car turned a corner or whichever direction I faced, there were impeccable vistas that absolutely captivated me.

The ocean(s), in and of itself, was sublime – this is where the Indian and Atlantic meet. The shrub-covered ground was teeming with interesting plants while the mountains served as an amazing backdrop. There were wild ostriches flocking about and some odd-looking antelope (apparently called an eland). Warning signs about mischievous baboons made me anticipate seeing one, but they must have decided to stay hidden.

Yes, the area around Cape Town is so pretty! It was a delightful place to spend time out-of-doors.

I’m glad that I came. 🙂

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Fabulous weather! The sign behind me warns about staying away from the oft-aggressive baboons.

Farmstead

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I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing. The roll of flattened tubing was heavy, and uncooperative as I tried awkwardly to unroll it. My hands were already filthy, so I gingerly used my inner elbow to hold back the sweat already dripping from my brow. I began to hum an indistinguishable tune, finding my rhythm as volunteer farmhand-for-the-day in the northern region of Mozambique.

I had eagerly agreed to help install a basic irrigation system on land owned by Iris Ministries just outside the city. This system would coax thirsty tomatoes into hearty plants during the dry season. On the truck ride over, I learned of the incredible value that viable farmland adds to an impoverished community. Besides the obvious job creation and food production, local farms contribute much-needed nutrition and add to the overall economic sustainability of an area.

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The farm itself was gorgeous (and somewhat reminiscent of my time at Capitol Reef in the Fruita district.) Picturesque trees dotted the landscapes, interspersed between plots for carrots, eggplant, onions, and other veggies. I was told that the mango trees absolutely droop with delicious-tasting fruit when in-season.

I unrolled tubing. I measured. I marked. I cut. I turned. I fastened. I twisted. I straightened.

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With a hard-working team, the installation process moved along fluently. My hands relished the opportunity to touch the African soil; my eyes regularly peeked upwards, paying homage to the lazy clouds in the sky.

When the system was successfully completed, we celebrated the outcome with some carrots pulled fresh from the soil. They were delicious (and organic). I walked to the edge of the property and peered into the marshy creek edge, searching for the crocodiles that I was told regularly lurk there. I didn’t see any.

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One of the local farmhands surprising us with a treat!

Two years ago, while I traveled around the country in a teardrop trailer, I never imagined I would one day spend time on an African farmstead. It makes me excited to realize how far I’ve come, how much I’ve done, and how many more things I have yet to see!

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Looking for some crocs… (not the footwear kind)
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Finished!

Mozambique + Outdoor Ed

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Outdoor education is near and dear to my heart.

Along with the mental and physical benefits, getting kids outside in a school-based environment encourages them to become passionate about the places that they will one day seek to protect. In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv talks about the inevitable joy for natural spaces that is founded upon both experiential and academic knowledge.

Yes, outdoor ed has recently become a field that I have both researched and championed in hopes of inspiring the next generation to get out-of-doors and connect with nature. It’s my soapbox, so to speak, that just so happened to unknowingly be toted along with me to Mozambique.

You can imagine my delight when I was given the impromptu opportunity to lead a group of high school English students in a learning engagement. Yes, I was tired – it had been a long week of humidity, manual labor, and an emotional outpouring. But here I was, on my last day in the country, making the most of a chance to collaboratively participate within a unique educational setting. I found myself in a room without air conditioning, the windows open to catch the hint of a cross breeze. The students fanned themselves listlessly while maintaining polite eye contact during my brief introduction.

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The K-12 school. The younger students attend class in the morning, and the older students attend in the afternoon.

I eagerly introduced myself, mentioning how delighted I was to have spent a week in their country, immersed in all of the beautiful, natural surroundings. The students seemed intrigued when I described my job as a teacher in the United States and leader of Muddy Monday escapades on a regular basis.

And then I posed this question: What is your favorite part of the outdoors in this area?

I could see the high school class pondering the question as they mentally translated it into their native language, brows furrowed in concentration. Their faces were pensive as they sifted through years of experience in an outdoor environment that, at times, had been very unkind to them.

In a country where poverty and hunger are rampant, most individuals focus primarily on daily survival. I could tell that this consideration was a new one, so I prompted them to discuss within their seat groups. I walked around the room, and, in halting English, I could hear some of their endearing responses.

“I like the elephant. I saw one with my father when I was young.”

“My favorite is the baobab tree. It is large and strong.”

“I enjoy the sea. I hope to sail on it one day.”

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The majestic baobab tree

I joined in on some of their conversations, drawing out smiles when I recollected my recent encounter with moringa, a green super-food that tasted like bland, gritty spinach. (This nutrient-packed plant is an local phenomena that was enthusiastically served to me over a bed of rice at recent meal.) I received murmurs of agreement when I talked about the gorgeous African skies that seem to change shades and forms at a moment’s notice.

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My portion of moringa and rice (dinner)

It was delightful to see these young people engage wholeheartedly with a question that was so far removed from what they might normally regard. They seemed to appreciate the focal point that was placed on accessing multi-sensory outdoor experiences, as their thoughtful answers indicated.

After a sweet time of sharing responses collectively, I left the class with this exhortation: “When you’re outside, stop and take a moment to appreciate the beauty of your land. Look for the wonder in the glorious things that surround you on a daily basis.”

The students waved goodbye and assured me that they would.

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The view from the classroom. Note the Indian Ocean in the background.

Beauty and Suffering

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The sea was an alarming cobalt blue, hinting at shades of azure and turquoise when the sun hit it just right. In all its glory, the sky looked like a drawing from my childhood, with fluffy innocent clouds and careful shading. Yes, the blue-hued background of Pemba, Mozambique was a natural wonder, drawing my eyes, but only for a moment.

“Salaama!” The singsongy voice of children brought my focus back to the foreground. Heaps of trash swelled at the edge of the path and large black flies buzzed lazily about. A thin layer of dust seemed to cover everything within this small community, located at the very edge of a garbage dump within the city. The precious little ones flocked about, eager to hold my hand or play with my hair. The adults were welcoming, but weary, a tiredness evident within their countenance.

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Children from another village I visited during my stay.

I was here, in Africa, to love people. I was here to bring hope, sustainable aid, and lots of hugs. On this bright day full of sunshine, I marveled at the juxtaposition of beauty and suffering. The Indian Ocean was a sight to behold, contrasted by the poverty surrounding me.

I was struck with gratitude. My adventures to natural places are such a gift, one that I am able to enjoy because my immediate needs are not in danger of going unmet. These children bear the marks of malnutrition – swollen bellies, skin blemishes, and tiny frames. They live day-to-day, finding appreciation in a warm, starchy meal or discovering a piece of trash they can turn into treasure. My heart broke for this country and these people.

So I wholeheartedly chose to look at the beautiful faces of those around me. The landscape was awe-inspiring, but I found an even greater wonder within the resourcefulness and kindness of a community that faces challenges I’ll never have to worry about.

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I looked down at the kids clinging to my arms. Carefully cupping a small boy’s chin in my hand, I gazed into his eyes. They were an astonishing chestnut brown, hinting at shades of gold when the sun hit them just right.

In all its glory.

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The edge of the Dump
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Flying over the Indian Ocean, while admiring the coastline of Mozambique.