A few weeks ago I was robbed at gunpoint in Buenos Aires. Not so different from a many other tourists and luckily I came through it just fine. As I write this, the mugging is just a distant memory. But it’s worth writing about as a cautionary tale. I got too comfortable in other peoples world. I made mistakes. Here’s my story.

Background

It was a beautiful day in Buenos Aires. I’d transferred hotels and was feeling excited about my new neighborhood and itching to

robbed at gunpoint

A stunning city, full of energy and vibrancy

get out and see more of this massive, overwhelming city. But I was tired too, having really pushed myself the past few days. I didn’t do all the research I should have. I decided to go to the La Boca neighborhood, which I heard was charming and colorful, Since I wasn’t feeling very energetic, I decided to take a taxi. La Boca is a popular destination for tourists visiting Buenos Aires, with colorful houses and famous pedestrian street, the Caminito, where tango artists perform and tango-related memorabilia is sold. Immediately when I arrived I realized I’d made a mistake. Although the houses were beautiful it was 100% tourist trap and awful. It was not my speed at all, but I shopped around a bit and had an Alfajors, the famous and much beloved sugar bomb cookie/cake found in this region. Then I decided to venture off the beaten path, as I’d done so many times before.

What Happened

Since I was not interested in the tourist trap that was Caminito, I decided to walk around a bit off to the side of the tourist extravaganza. I had bad blisters on my feet, was feeling tired and decided to make it a quick tour. But I allowed myself to get lost. I was wandering a bit aimlessly, being sucked in by photo opportunities of the ramshackled homes. Although the area was clearly poor, I wasn’t uncomfortable as I’d traveled extensively in Central America, where poor is the norm, but I’d always been safe, There were a few people around, but not many. I thought nothing of it and taking photos of the beautiful, dilapidated buildings. I had my eye out for a taxi, and was ready to go home. All of a sudden, a man sprinted in front of me, turned around, flashed a gun and yelled something in Spanish. I think it was Spanish, but in my head it was English “Give me your stuff now”. The flash of a gun in your face is a universal language, however, and for all I know he didn’t say a word. At the same time, I felt someone behind me, helping me out of my purse, which was slung across my body – the safe way to carry it, I used to think. I didn’t resist at all.

They knocked my hat off in the tussle. For some reason both robber #1 (from the front) and I both went for the hat . . . I won that round, for what it’s worth. And then they ran off. I turned around after then and said something. Maybe I said “wait” or “stop”. I regretted not resisting and wanted to negotiate. Obviously this is not rational, but I was shocked. One of the robbers pulled out the gun, pointed it at me and said something which I translated to be “get out of here”. Or something. Again, the universal language of the gun. I turned around and went.

Were their witnesses? Yes. There were at least 3 people that saw what happened. They did nothing. Who knows why. There’s no real incentive for them to get involved. Maybe they fear the gun too. I asked the observers where the police station was and they politely, but without emotion, directed me to the station, which was two blocks away.

The Police Station

When I arrived at the first police station, there were about 20 police officers hanging around. They were texting on their phones, chatting with one another and generally looking unconcerned about street crime. They acknowledged me and listened to my story, halfheartedly. They nodded their head, loaded me into a police car and sent me to another station to make my report. When I arrived at Comisaria de Policia 24a, it was to a parade of others who’d undergone similar experiences. Some were wounded from resisting, some crying, some in shock. It made me feel better that it was not just me, a single women, who had been targeted. I met a young, athletic man from Madrid and his father. They had tried to reason with the robbers, who got nervous and hit the father in the head with their gun. Another young couple from New Zealand had not seen a gun, but had been jumped from behind and attacked. Both tourists and locals were at the police station reporting robberies.

Eventually I gave my statement. They told me there was no hope of getting my possessions back and asked me to sign the statement, which was in Spanish. I was asked to sign two pages and when I signed the first one “Melissa C, non-speaker of Spanish” all hell broke loose at the police station. After taking my statement with one eye on their cell phone and the other on the clock, suddenly South American passion showed its face. I had insulted them by not trusting their translation of my pidgen Spanglish. I know some Spanish but not enough to verify every word, without the google translate app on my stolen phone and certainly not enough to sign my name to it. The chief of police was called in for a consult and his reaction was pretty much “whatever”. Emboldened, I signed the second page the same way I had the first. That did not go over well and I was then kicked out of the comisaria with even an answer as to which direction my hotel was located.

I finally found a taxi driver who took pity on my and agreed to take me back to my hotel and wait for payment. He told me “the police here see nothing” and I agree. I’d encountered at least 30 police between the two stations, but not a single one on the street in an area I now know to be quite rough. I learned later that police in Argentina earn less then the workers who clean in hostels, so it’s no wonder they’re not interested in getting involved. In the nicer areas of BA, however, there were always cops on the street.

What I Did Wrong

Well I’ve gotten a bit soft traveling around with no problems for all this time. I love to go off the beaten path. I hadn’t adequately checked out the neighborhood first. If I had, I would have seen this written on the State Department web site under Safety and Crime:

“Be careful in San Telmo, an older traditional neighborhood specializing in antique stores, and La Boca neighborhood (home to the famous “Caminito” street and “Boca Juniors” soccer stadium) in Buenos Aires, where violent robberies have been occurring with increasing frequency. Tourists who go to La Boca should limit their visit to the designated tourist areas during daylight hours.”

Soooo, lesson learned. I was also flashing my camera AND cell phone in a dangerous area.  Target.

What You Can Do if You’re Robbed at Gunpoint

Although it pains me, resisting is not an option. Never resist. Don’t even try to reason with the criminals, especially if you’re robbed at gunpoint. My comrades in the police station with bloody heads and worse made this point clear. It’s not worth it. Although I mourned my possessions for a few days, I’m so happy I didn’t end up in the hospital, nursing wounds or worse. As my dad says, it’s only money. I wasn’t carrying an expensive camera or iphone so I’ll recover. Here’s my to-do list, post robbery:

1) Go directly to the police station to report the event (this is critically important if you’re insured as most companies as that you report the crime within 24 hours).
2) Alert banks or credit card companies that are impacted
3) E-mail your embassy. They won’t do a thing, but if your crime is part of a pattern, they’ll report it in future alerts and it may keep other travelers safe.
4) Treat yourself. You’ve been through an ordeal. I booked a nicer hotel in a better neighborhood to put my mind at ease. Within a day I’d recovered and was back to my old self.

How to Keep  it From Happening to You

It seems obvious but don’t let down your guard. Keep valuables out of site and always keep the bulk of your money outside your main wallet or purse. I usually keep some money in my bra or shoe, so if my purse is stolen I still have cash (foolishly I didn’t do this the day I was robbed). Don’t go out with your passport, credit cards or any bank cards you don’t need.  Keep your pockets or purse clean of items you won’t need. The day I was robbed I had a watch in my purse that I wasn’t using as well as documents that should have been in my hotel safe and random items that should have been in my suitcase. If you need to take photos, stash your camera immediately after. Remember, locals are watching. The fewer who see your valuables the better chance you have of being robbery free.

Also, some great advice I learned from a hostel owner in San Salvador – if you’re around a lot of people, your chances of being robbed at gunpoint are reduced. If you’re on an empty side street, get to more populated ground as soon as your able. Keep your valuables hidden and . . . if the worst happens, don’t beat yourself up too much. Sometimes, robbery is the price of travel. Your in other peoples world, you’ll always be a focus of curiosity or worse, a target. That’s life as a traveler. Protect yourself, and never forget the disparity. If you’re traveling anywhere, you’re luckier than most of the world population. Take your licks and move on.

Thoughts or tips on staying safe are appreciated! Leave ‘em in the comments below.

Stay safe and happy travels!

 

 

Impressions of Montevideo

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Impressions of Montevideo

Plaza de Independencia, Montevideo, Uruguay

There are no potentially rabid stray dogs following me around. Rats, if there are any, remain out of sight. Fireworks aren’t exploding at all hours of the night, cars stop at stop signs and the local men don’t have semi-automatic weapons sticking out of their belts. Garbage goes in the bin. Transportation options, which are plentiful and orderly, do not include riding around in the back of a pick-up.

Which is to say that I’m a bit bored.

Well, not really. But Montevideo is more civilized than I’m used to. Now that the sun has come out – literally and figuratively – here are some first impressions of Montevideo.

Impressions of Montevideo – the Upsides

Impressions of Montevideo

My hotel . . . LOVE!

Montevideo – it’s stunningly, beautiful and charming. There are tree-lined streets upon tree-lined streets with breathtaking and well preserved examples of Spanish colonial buildings mixed with modern, art deco and belle époque architecture. It is clean. There is order. I can eat food from street vendors without fearing a parasitic infection. There’s a wide, beautiful promenade by the sea

(called a rambla) that runs the length of the city and features parks and beaches every few meters. The parks even have outdoor built-in fitness equipment – free outdoor gyms!

It’s kind of like heaven here. A small, livable, orderly, beautiful city. In fact, Montevideo ranks #1 South American in quality of life. I absolutely could live here. When I settle down that is.

And the people of Montevideo are just my style. Solid, down to earth, no-nonsense folks that value function over frills and will  not stand for nonsense. There is no tomfoolery in Montevideo, and if there were to be, the people would not have it. They do not suffer fools. That being said they are very kind and patient. You see, I can not understand a word they say. Heavily influenced by the Portuguese language, I find their accent difficult and the rate of speed with which they rattle off words leaves my head spinning. But they just smile indulgently, as one would smile at a toddler, and point and try to help the best they can.

Impressions of Montevideo

Just another meal in Montevideo

Impressions of Montevideo – the Downsides?

The only down sides as far as I can see are cost of living, which I have yet to grasp completely. I believe I’m paying approximately double for food and lodging vs what I paid in Nicaragua, the cheapest Central American country. This is, of course, a big, sophisticated city.

Tomorrow I’ll head to the beaches – first to Punta del Este, the “Monaco of South America” and then on to some more remote areas. And then onto the pampas, or countryside. I’ll have a richer understanding of financial impact after that.

Oh and the other down side? I haven’t seen a vegetable since I arrived. But I have found something I that was rarer than a pearl in Central America – AGED CHEESE. I’ll take it!

That’s all for now – I’ll report more impressions of Montevideo and Uruguay as I discover this rich and lovely country!

Time to Hit the Road Again

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It’s been a long time since I posted here. As many of you know, I returned to the United States earlier than planned after getting word that my father had suffered a cardiac arrest on St. Patrick’s Day. Although that was a difficult period, he recovered and is doing very well. I am extremely lucky!

Boca Grande, Florida. It makes many of the so called exclusive beaches look shabby in comparison.

Boca Grande, Florida. It makes many of the so called exclusive beaches look shabby in comparison.

I have spent the last few months here in Boca Grande, Florida, as I did last summer.  It’s a nice way to relax, refresh and reduce the potential for travel burnout. Well, it would be if I didn’t over-schedule and over-commit myself! As I did last year, I was heavily involved in volunteer work with our historic library and their related foundation, which has a special place in my heart. Of course the summer wouldn’t be complete without a heavy dose of turtle patrol. You can learn more about turtle patrol and the sea turtle conservancy of which I am a board member, here. The turtles take a lot of time, but just as last year, I met a lot of amazing people. Add to that my consulting business, some odd jobs on the island, a heavy social schedule and a few old friends visiting and you have the recipe for a very, very busy summer.

So I am ready for a vacation from my vacation. I am just starting to get the ball rolling on

Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia - the world's largest salt flat! There's even a hotel made of salt!

Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia – the world’s largest salt flat! There’s even a hotel made of salt!

planning where I’ll go, but it will certainly be somewhere in South America. The original plan was to meet a friend in Ecuador, where she, my coolest friend, was to shoot a movie. Sadly her project was cancelled. I can’t imagine going there without her, at least initially. So I’m off to find plan B. That will likely involve Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay. I’ve always been drawn to those countries because of their amazing natural and historical wonders, rich indigenous character and a perception, at least, that they are off the beaten path.

I’d like to do things a bit differently this time. Rather than racing from place to place, this time I’ll stay for a while. I’ll work on my (terrible) Spanish language skills, learn the ins and outs of the culture, spend less time with other gringos and perhaps even get a teaching position. I did, after all, spend a lot of time getting certified so I might as well try it at least once!

So stay tuned for further developments . . . I’m excited to move forward and if I can make a Dia de los Muertos (day of the dead) happen in Bolivia, I will be happy. That happens on November 2nd so there’s no time to waste!

 

 

The Challenges of Full Time Travel

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It’s been almost five months since I started traveling and I hear things all the time from my friends back home like, “Your life is so glamorous!” or “You’re living the most amazing life!” Or, my personal favorite . . . “You’re living a completely stress free existence!”

Nope. I figured it was time to dispel all the misconceptions about life on the road, which is tough sometimes. It’s amazing, it’s my dream come true . . . but it’s a big pain in the ass a lot of the time. So here is the unvarnished truth and some of the challenges of full time travel.

The Challenges of Full Time Travel

A few days ago I was coming home from the grocery store, and I couldn’t remember where I was. I remembered the NAME of the city I was in, but my brain got confused

about the set-up of the streets vs other places I’d been and I couldn’t figure out how to

Life on the Road

No doubt about it, I love to explore new places, despite the frustrations

get back to my hotel. Was I looking for the statue of the nun on the corner, or the horse with the fallen soldier? Did I see that store earlier today, or am I remembering the place from the city I stayed in last week? I’ve been on the road for approximately 135 days and stayed in over 30 different places. In every one of those places, I need to learn my way around, learn how to find a grocery store, an ATM, my hotel and a place to eat – bare minimum. If I want to see the sites, and I always do, things get even more complex. I was never good with directions to start with, and now I have unfamiliar situations almost every day. Not to mention that I have to do this in an unfamiliar language, not knowing the local customs and courtesies, and where it’s safe to be. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t remember where the bathroom is. Am I sharing a bathroom or do I have my own today? Left or right? Everyplace I stay is set up differently.

It gets exhausting.

Not to mention the planning. I spend a lot of time in front of the computer screen, figuring out how to get where I want to go next. Luckily, I love a good challenge, so I

actually enjoy this part, in fact it’s become a bit of an addiction – I must see the MOST

LIfe on the road

More food prepared with lard – delicious but not healthy

amazing places. I have to choose hotels and figure out how to get there, which is no easy task in a developing country. Sometimes  I luck out and end up in an incredible place. Sometimes I feel like I’ve entered the depths of hell. Getting there is the hardest part. Sometimes, there’s an easy option – a tourist shuttle. But I try to avoid those (both because they’re expensive and I feel you miss an opportunity to experience the flavor of a country if you’re in a tourist shuttle), so I rely on unpublished bus schedules, which are almost impossible to figure out and the information I get is often wrong. Sometimes, opportunistic locals give me misinformation to try to get me to spend money with them. For example, at a bus station, multiple locals recently tried to tell me that the Costa Rican boarder closed at 5pm and the only way I could possibly make it across that day was to take a US$80 cab ride vs the $2 bus. That one I knew was bullshit, but sometimes you just don’t know, and so you get ripped off. And then there are customs officials, who want their share too, and gringo pricing at the market . . . the things you can no longer take for granted go on and on.

Eating healthy is a challenge too. Sometimes I have a kitchen at my hotel, where I can cook my own meals. Usually, it’s cheaper and easier to eat on the street or at a restaurant. When you’re on a two week vacation, it’s OK to eat anything. You can

splurge, you can eat fried food every day or whatever you want. When you’re on the

Challenges of full time travel

Meeting interesting people makes it all worth it

road full time, you have to try to get some vegetables every once in a while, which can be surprisingly difficult in Central America, outside the expensive gringo targeted restaurants. Not to mention that every country has their own specialties, their own names for things and sometimes they even call the same thing by a different name. Why, Central America, why? A lot of food is fried, or made with lard (rice and beans included). I can’t wait to see what my cholesterol level is when I get home.

In my old life, when I traveled, I had plenty of money to splurge. My goal was to see as much as possible, as quickly as possible. Things are different now. I have a lot more time, and I try to conserve money when I can. Sometimes it’s easy (Nicaragua). But sometimes, things come up. I recently booked an amazing, cheap place in a beautiful national park, but found out I’d need to spend the night somewhere incredibly expensive in order to get there, or pay through the nose to get there quickly. Local transport is sometimes spotty and you need to hire a taxi to get you where you need to go. Or you just can’t get an answer from a hotel . . . so you decide to go anyway, and end up without a reasonable place to stay, so you’re in a $50 hotel for the night.

Another down side of travel - bugs!

Another down side of travel – bugs!

And then there are the people. I have met some INCREDIBLE people on the road. Travelers in general are sophisticated, interesting people. In general. But not always, and you don’t really get to choose who is in your hotel with you. There are crazy party people, whiners, clingers and other unsavory, smelly or loud people. People who get up 20 times a night to go to the bathroom . . . slamming the door every time. I’ve had precious little privacy since I’ve gone out on the road, and occasionally I want to book my own island and be alone for a bit.

And I work. Usually, this is no problem. But sometimes, things come up at the last minute, when I’ve booked a day of travel and suddenly, I need to get something done. I’m never sure how long it will take me to get somewhere, so I never know if I can make the deadline, or if the wifi will work, or if there will be dogs barking or reggaeton music blaring in the background while I try to make a business call. I don’t want to have to dip into my savings or let my clients down, so this is a huge stress.

Despite all these challenges of full time travel, I wouldn’t change anything. I’ve learned not to sweat the small stuff. I love what I’m doing now, and every time I see an amazing site or get to interact or learn something about the people whose country I’m visiting, it’s worth it. I’ve had some of the best times of my life in the last few months and although I get frustrated occasionally, I love this life and the challenges it brings!

Just don’t ever say my life is stress free!

 

Reflections on my Year on the Road

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Around this time last year I gave notice at my corporate job, said goodbye to all my friends, finished packing everything I owned into a Lexus SUV and headed east. It’s

Reflections on my year on the road

Me at the Taj Majal – just dreaming at this point

hard to believe I’ve been gone from the corporate world for almost a year and traveling non-stop for almost five months. Time has gone by in a blink and when I really think back to all I’ve done and seen, I can’t believe it. My life now looks absolutely nothing like it did a year ago.

People from back home ask me questions all the time. What’s my life is like now? Am I happier? Do I miss my job? Do you think you made the right decision? And, most often, what’s next?

So on this anniversary of change, I thought I’d write a post about it.

Reflections on my Year on the Road

First of all, yes, I am happy with my decision. Wherever this path leads me, I am so happy that I made this change. There is nothing as invigorating as taking a risk, remaking your life, challenging yourself and learning new skills every day. I was never

Reflections on my Year on the Road

My old life in California was pretty sweet!

unhappy in my ‘old life’ and there were many, many incredible things about that life. But let’s face it – doing the same thing over and over gets dull. Life is short. There are so many amazing things in this world, and I’d like to experience as much of it as I can before time runs out.

Reflections on my Year on the Road

Celebrating life with some smurfs in Nicaragua

Taking this time has given me the opportunity to know and interact with other cultures. It’s given me the space to explore things I enjoy, like learning new languages and writing. Opportunities I never expected have popped up, like being appointed to the board of directors of a sea turtle conservancy. I’ve made more new friends in the last year than I have in my whole life, and I’ve realized how important my old friends are, and how to keep up those important ties. Although I make nowhere near the amount of money I did before, I am close to breaking even and being completely location independent and self supporting.

Most importantly, I’m not on autopilot any more. Every day, I make simple decisions about my daily life that I used to take for granted. In my old life, I had a routine that I rarely strayed from. I woke at 7:35am, had some coffee, drove to work, etc. Now, every day is an adventure and a choice to do what’s important to me. In those daily, small choices there is a new life, and one that can change at any time according to what is meaningful to me.

That is not to say that everything’s perfect. I still have frustrations, disappointments and all the bullshit that comes in life. I get sick, customs agents rip me off, buses

Reflections on my Year on the Road

Life is an open road!

break down. But now I feel I am better able to see these moments for what they are, and through the lens of both my past and a limitless, bright future. This too shall pass.

And yes, sometimes I do miss my job, a lot. Especially the wonderful, intelligent and creative people I was lucky enough to engage with on a daily basis. I look back on my days in corporate america with incredible fondness and nostalgia and consider it one of my greatest accomplishments.

As for what happens next, it’s anybody’s guess. I’ve planned enough for now, and I’m happy with the way things are. In the short term, I will temporarily wind down my travels in a few months and head back to Florida for summer vacation. I intend to head back out, probably to South America, the following November.

So there you have it. My reflections on my year on the road. As you can see, I’m still a little starry eyed. I can’t believe I really did it! To those who have supported me, cheered me on, helped me and sometimes just listened . . . I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I would never have had the courage to make this change without you and I will forever be grateful.

Please come visit any time!

Ash Wednesday in Leon Nicaragua

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Leon Second Trip Ash Wed 036

I’ve stuck around Leon a bit too long and one of the reasons is the Fat Tuesday/

Ash Wednesday in Leon

The main basilica in Leon on Ash Wednesday

AshWednesday traditions. Nicaraguans love to celebrate so I was hoping to find some fun here. But it has been pretty tame so far.

What is Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of a 40-day liturgical period of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving for Christians, called Lent. It occurs 46 days before Easter and kicks of this

There is revelry in the streets!

There is revelry in the streets!

very holy time. What is Lent? This is the time Jesus Christ spent 40 days fasting in the desert, where he endured temptation by Satan. Lent is a solemn religious observance of this time. Typically Christians will abstain from something they enjoy in observance of this time (typically sweets or swearing).

Ash Wednesday gets its name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of believers as a celebration and reminder of human mortality,

Ash Wednesday in Leon

Getting ready for Ash Wednesday Services

and as a sign of mourning and repentance to God. The ashes used are typically gathered from the burning of the palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday.

Ash Wednesday is directly following Fat Tuesday . . . or Mardi Gras . . . or Carnival. . . I’m sure it has an official name too, but essentially the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is the celebratory day when you can eat and drink what you want, before you have to give things up for Lent the next day.

Ash Wednesday in Leon

Ash Wednesday in Leon

The Ash Settles on Ash Wednesday

One thing I will say, is that any event, fiesta, religious holiday, court ruling or sporting event is an excuse for Nicaraguans to blow stuff up. I’ve never seen anything like it! I’m not complaining either, I just have a bit of a disconnect with religious traditions involving rocket launchers.

So here is my assessment of Ash Wednesday in Leon

There is revelry in the streets!

There is revelry in the streets!

Nicaragua. Go to church, which is decorated in lovely purple for the occasion, get some ash on your forehead, then go blow stuff up. Let me know what you found on your travels on Ash Wednesday!

Earthquakes and Hospital Days in Leon

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Earthquakes and Hospital Days in Leon

You can read part one of this little hospital mini-drama, here. The earthquakes and hospital days in Leon, Nicaragua are keeping things interesting!

Leon Hospital

Nicaragua is in the ring of fire, and very active lately

Earthquakes and Hospital Days in Leon

I’ll start part 2 with the earthquake. Apparently there were seven earthquakes that night three over 5.0, but I only woke up for the big one – 6.4. Now I have spent 20 years in Southern California, so I’m not naive to earthquakes. But I’ve never been in anything over 4.6 in California. Central America is a whole new ball game. My first earthquake was in San Salvador – I think it was around a 5.4 or 5.6. At the time, that was my biggest and I couldn’t believe the extra power.

While I was in Xela, I felt one earthquake every day – usually over 5.0. I couldn’t believe it but really enjoyed seeing my Spanish Homestay family run out of the

Earthquakes and Hospital Days in Leon

This church in Antiqua Guatemala was destroyed by an earthquake and shows the power of these natural disasters

apartment and on to the patio across the way at the first sign of rumbles. They were busy!

Well last night’s earthquake was pretty epic. Luckily there were no injuries. It happened around around 4am and I initially woke up not knowing what was happening. I generally just stay in bed and wait to see how things pan out, but my first thought was that the nurse had locked my door before I went to bed. I think because I had my camera and my computer out, and she was being helpful. But my first thought is that it would slow down my rescuers if necessary. I flew out of bed to the door, forgot I was trailing an IV line and nearly pulled it out of my arm, but in a flash was at the door and unlocking it. And then it was over. I opened the door and saw everyone starting to stir . . . and decided to head back to bed.

Of course I was comforted by experiencing my earthquakes and hospital days in Leon at the same time!

And I slept like a rock until the church bells started ringing . . . at 6am. 6am? And they continue every half hour thereafter. Good fun.

Anyway, have you ever experienced an earthquake while away from home? Tell us what happened in the comments, below!

 

A Few Days in a Leon Hospital, Part 1

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A few days in a Leon Hospital

It started innocently enough with a couple of blisters I noticed on my foot after diving in Utila, Honduras. They seemed to be healing up fine, but a few days later I got

Utila 001

I knew diving could be dangerous, but I didn’t expect a blister to put me in the hospital for four days

another bum pair of fins, and my blisters opened up again. Coincidentally, that night I got caught in the rain, and lost in a swampy area while walking to dinner with some friends. We had to ford some nasty puddles, and I think that’s when things started going down hill. A few days later, I was ready to leave Utila, I wore shoes, rather than flip flops and had a long walk to catch the ferry. By the time I reached my destination, Leon, Nicaragua, 15 hours later, my foot was swollen and painful. I knew it was bad.

So I self medicated for a day and when there was minimal improvement, I went to the pharmacy. In Central America, pharmacies can dispense some drugs without a Rx. So the pharmacists sold me some ciprofloxacin. I mentioned that I’d had an allergic reaction to the drug 10 years ago, but the pharmacist said it would be fine, since it was so long ago.

A few days in a Leon Hospital

My room. The second bed is for a friend or family member who wants to stay over – free!

It wasn’t. All evening I could feel myself breaking out in hives and my breathing getting labored. I stopped the drugs, and in the morning went back to the pharmacy to see if I could get something else. They took one look at me and sent me to the doctor. An hour later I was in a hospital bed for a few days in a Leon Hospital.

It was a very different experience than any hospitalization I’d had in the US. Here’s how it went.

A Few Days in a Leon Hospital

I walked into the reception of the hospital and the receptionist asked what was wrong. I told her I had an infection on my toe and she said. “You have a rash too”. I told her it was from the antibiotics I took the night before and she immediately got up and led me back to a doctor, who immediately checked me out. That has definitely never happened in the US, even with an appointment, which I didn’t have!

He looked at my toe and looked at my rash and told me I would need at least 3 days in

A few days in a Leon Hosptial

The typical IV bag

the hospital, that both the allergic reaction and the infection were bad and I needed to be monitored. This was all happening in Spanish, and I started freaking out. I kept saying “No no no, what? I don’t understand” not because I didn’t understand the words, but how this could happen. But they thought I couldn’t understand the Spanish so they went to find an English speaking doctor, who relayed the information all over again. They told me to get my bags, check out of the hotel and head to the hospital ASAP.  Within an hour I was checked out of my hotel

A few days in a Leon Hospital

Private bathroom – even here you can’t flush the toilet paper

and back at the hospital. The receptionist saw me and immediately got up and took me upstairs to the private wing of the hospital. She told the nurses “this girl needs a private room”. And I was immediately taken to one. It had cable TV (Spanish and English), two beds (one for a friend who was welcome to stay and keep me company – for free) a private bathroom, area for my luggage, a comfy wooden rocking chair and two guest chairs. Sweet!

I should mention that I signed nothing, filled out no paperwork and answered almost no questions – not even a medical history! At some point after I was hooked up to an IV, someone asked me my name (no one asked to see my passport) and a doctor came in and asked me to e-mail my insurance company so he could bill them directly. Easy.

So here I sit for a few days in a Leon Hospital. It’s comfy, the food is good (although not a lot and there’s no where to buy snacks!) and I’m bored out of my mind. I am sadly missing my chance to see Carnival this year and I won’t be able to travel until Thursday since Ash Wednesday is a national holiday here. But on the upside, my foot is healing up nicely and hopefully I’ll be out soon.

As for the care I’m receiving, it is a little more casual than in the states, where the nurses seem to have everything under control and can get an IV port into my vein in under 3 seconds (vs. 5-10 minutes here in Nicaragua). But everyone is friendly and helpful and I have two doctors, that visit regularly! For something reasonably minor, I do feel like I get good care, but it worries me that there was no medical history taken – AT ALL. I have several allergies to meds, and came in with an allergic reaction to medication . . . shouldn’t someone ask? I might get a medical bracelet in Spanish that has my allergies to medicine and perhaps some medical history on it just to make myself feel better. Maybe they’ll read it?

Stay tuned for my next installment and the big reveal . . . how much does 4 days in a Nicaraguan hospital cost!

Remember, you can find me on facebook and twitter for late breaking news and more photos! I’d love to see you there!

 

Police/ Military Searches in Central America

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I am often asked how the drug wars and violence in Central America impact my travel. I am happy to say that they really don’t. Unless you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, you are rarely privy to what is going on and each country takes special care to ensure tourists are safe. The one place you do see the impact is while traveling on public transportation,and at border crossings, in the form of police or military

Military Searches in Central America

Thank you, Mauricio Funes. I feel safer with these guys.

searches. So far, I have been involved in searches in El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico. Quite honestly, I’ve lost track, so they could have happened in the other countries I’ve been in so far (Guatemala, Nicaragua and Belize), I just don’t specifically remember. Here’s how it goes. I’ll save Mexico for last since it was the most shocking and also vaguely ridiculous.

I should mention that I am a fan of police/military searches in Central America. There have been many incidents where guns are drawn on buses and passengers robbed or worse. I stay off these routes, but anything can happen anywhere, so I like some over-site of the buses. Certainly drug gang activity is rampant throughout the area so perhaps the police/military searches in Central America drive the gangs off the bus systems – which is just fine by me!

Police/ Military Searches in Central America

Military Searches in Central America

Gotta get the bad guys

The most common way it happens is that you’re traveling on a bus and all of a sudden you come to a checkpoint. Sometimes you can tell it’s a checkpoint, sometimes you can’t see a checkpoint, you just know, because uniformed officials suddenly board the bus, with guns. This is quite intimidating. Most often, they will ask all the men to get off the bus. From 15 years old to 95, all the men must disembark, except for the tourists. They then stand with hands in the air, or in one case, lay face down with hands over their head. The military or police (honestly I can’t tell which they are) then hand search each man. As this is fairly exciting to watch, all the women crowd the windows to watch. Usually there are around five officials checking. Two stand back with guns drawn while the others do the pat down. No one has ever been busted on my buses, but a friend I was traveling with in El Salvador witnessed the cops finding drugs on a man, and taking him off to jail after roughing him up a bit. The one thing they don’t check is the luggage of these men, so it seems a little incomplete to me. Do all the men carry the guns or drugs in their pockets? Perhaps.

The other common method is the hand luggage search. The military/police will board the bus, usually just two. Others wait outside the bus while one officer checks the hand luggage of sketchy looking men and another officer stands in the front of the bus, with his gun ready. Once I was seated next to a person whose luggage was searched, and it was fairly thorough – there was a plastic bag that looked suspicious to the officer, and he made the man pull it out and show what was inside. Just dirty laundry. I find this system incomplete as well, as, if the theory of the first search is true, and people carry drugs and guns on their person, rather than in their luggage, they’re completely missing that opportunity in this search style. But perhaps the point of these searches is just intimidation and creating fear for the potential criminal. It certainly works on me.

Occasionally, there’s a third type of search, with dogs. The dogs are taken into the storage area where luggage goes, and they do drug sniffs. Again, the dogs have never found anything on the buses I was traveling on and they’ve never boarded the buses. Of note here, apparently the dogs can’t sniff Rx opiates such as Oxycodone or sedatives like Xanex. I am carrying a good supply of both – legally prescribed in the United States. And I often get worried that the dog will go crazy on my luggage, but they never do. Whew!

I also think it’s worth noting that since they’re profiling only men, at some point the gangs will get smart and start getting women to carrying the drugs and guns, if they haven’t already. I must say, however, that none of the women I see on the buses look even mildly suspicious.

Police/ Military Searches in Mexico

The military searches in Central America were repeated in Mexico, with one major difference I’ll describe in a moment. As you know, Mexico is experiencing some extreme violence, particularly in the state of Michoacan (graphic content in that last link) and there is an American traveler missing in the area – you can get updates on Harry Devert here. My point is, the Mexican government, police and military have a lot to focus on as it relates to the drug wars.

Instead, they are focused on this:

Border crossings are always a little stressful, because you never know what to expect, they are hotbeds for illicit activity and scams and they can take forever. Mexican border crossings are notorious. So I was prepared for trouble as I made my way to the

Military searches in Central American

No gun? No problem

water taxi station to go from Mexico to Belize First, I was scammed by the immigration agent in Mexico’s favorite scam . . . “Pay me this extra fee, or you can go to an office 3 hours away, pay them, come back, give me a receipt and then you can get on the boat, but not until this extra fee is extracted. You’ll probably miss the boat today, but you can go tomorrow”. What do you do? I paid, even though I knew it was going directly into the agents pocket. Then, I made my way to the dock, sat down and waited with 30 or so other gringos for the taxi to depart. About 10 minutes before the boat was scheduled to leave, the water taxi agents suddenly disappeared and a large military vehicle pulled up, staying back around 30 feet from where we were sitting and blocking our exit from the dock (and the bathrooms!). No one got out of the vehicle, but we could see there were about eight men inside and at least one dog. They continued sitting there for about half an hour. Our scheduled departure time came and went. The officers then started taking photos of the group from their vehicle, over a period of another 15 to 20 minutes. Intense and intimidating. Since there were no water taxi personnel present any more, there was no one to ask what was happening.

Finally the officers emerged. And then things got dramatic. In the hot midday sun, they lined the group of gringos up, with our luggage in front of us. With six officers supervising, with guns in ready position, they brought the dogs out. Slowly, the handler took the dog to each piece of luggage. The dog reacted to four pieces of luggage, which were taken out of the line and set aside. The dog made another pass. And then another. Thankfully, the dog did not react to my luggage.  When the officers were sure the remaining luggage was clean, they pulled the people out of the line who belonged to the luggage the dog had reacted to.  Four of the officers formed a tight circle around them, guns at the ready, while they hand searched their own luggage in front of the officers. The remained of the officers kept an eye on the rest of us.

Again, not to split hairs, but how effective is having the potential criminal search their own luggage? It doesn’t take a Mensa brain to realize that if you’re searching your own luggage with drugs hidden inside, you’d avoid the drugs and pull everything else out.

No drugs were found. The dog boarded the boat and searched it, and after about an hour of this, the officers called back the water taxi staff, who loaded up our luggage and we finally boarded the boat. While we boarded, the Mexican military fanned out in a semi circle around our group, guns ready, and watched us. I asked the captain . . . “why are they still here, why are their guns pointed at us?” He said that they wanted to make sure we got on the boat and didn’t go back into Mexico since we had had our passports stamped out of Mexico. OK? There didn’t seem like much chance that would be a problem as we were all anxious to get to Belize, now over two hours behind schedule.

As I’ve noted, I’m a fan of military searches in Central America overall. But what is the point of this type of intimidation and time wasting on tourists? I’m sure some tourists do bad things, but . . . the Mexico to Belize route is in the opposite direction of the drug route. We were leaving the country with limited potential to cause much trouble. We were all tourists, and fairly clean cut. Why focus on tourists vs the headless bodies being found daily in Mexico and general day to day violence? Why intimidate the tourists? I’m not sure but if you have insights, I’d love to hear in the comments below?

International Mel Nominated for Liebster Award!

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liebster-awards

Yippee! Honduras does not have much in the way of champagne, or even white wine, so I have cracked open an Imperial Beer to celebrate. I’m excited to report good news – International Mel nominated for an award! This is the blog’s first nomination, so it will always be special to me, along with the blogger who nominated me, Jenice of Lollypaper! Thank you, Jenice! We have never met, but we have a lovely friend in common, Michelle, who introduced us to one an others blog. Lollypaper is a crafting blog and although I have no interest in crafting . . . Jenice’s blog charmed me with it’s incredible creativity and lovely writing. She is an amazing artist and if you enjoy a birds eye view of the creative process along with amazingly useful gift and holiday/party decorating ideas, you should definitely check out her blog. Her medium is paper and ephemera and you will want to step up your next party, gift or event after you see what she can do!

Rules of the Liebster Award

First of all, what is the Liebster Award? I had never heard of it prior to my

International Mel Nominated

Next up . . . the Bloggies!

nomination.  There is a web site for Liebster Awards, but it’s in a language I don’t understand. Basically, it’s a way to share and recognize new, startup blogs with small readerships that deserve to be read and recognized. Blogging is hard work and networking and supporting your fellow bloggers is important for many reasons. Sometimes I . . . I mean new bloggers . . . . can feel a bit isolated and have difficulty growing their readership. So this award recognizes  the hard work, promotes the best of these blogs and shares them with potential new fans!

So here is what you do when you’re nominated:

  1. List 11 random facts about yourself.
  2. Answer 11 questions, that the blogger who nominated you, has asked.
  3. Nominate 11 other bloggers that deserve more readers.
  4. Let those bloggers know you nominated them.

Blogging is hard work! And I love this ‘award’ because it allows me to share some of my favorite blogs with my readers. Due to my current obsession with travel, most of the blogs I follow regularly are travel related, but they all have a creative twist! Stay tuned for the full list of blogs after I complete some of my requirements . . .

International Mel’s 11 Random Facts

  1. Blogging keeps me safe! I do it after dark, when it’s more dangerous for a single woman to be out and about in Central America.
  2. If I could get away with it, I would live my entire life in baggy sweatpants.
  3. I miss cheese most of all since I have started traveling. Any kind, but melted cheddar sounds good right now!
  4. I recently discovered that I’m extremely skilled at doing laundry in a sink.
  5. I went on a date in the early 90’s with David Lee Roth from Van Halen.
  6. All my possessions fit in two big suitcases and a couple of large boxes.
  7. I have no piercings (including my ears) or tattoos.
  8. I love ice in my wine.
  9. I’m on the board of directors of a sea turtle conservancy.
  10. I feel superior to people who feel superior to other people.
  11. I have spent more than a year of my life on crutches (not continuously though, thank god!)

My 11 Questions from LollyPaper

  1. In what state do you live? I am currently a legal resident of Florida, but I have spent most of the last 20 years of my life in California. And at the moment, however, I’m traveling long term through Central America.
  2. If you could be any animal, what would you be? If a dolphin counts as an animal, I’d chose to be one. They seem to have a lot of fun.
  3. Your favorite place you’ve ever traveled to. Hard question, since I love
    International Mel Nominated

    Celebrate!

    many places for many different reasons, but the place that changed my life forever, was Africa (Kenya and Tanzania).

  4. Dog person or cat person? Dogs. But not those yappy little purse dogs.
  5. What is your favorite fruit? I am currently obsessed with papaya.
  6. Your biggest challenge as a blogger? Posting interesting ideas that engage my diverse readership!
  7. What is your favorite dinner recipe – help me out…I’m running dry lately on dinner ideas! My go to dinner is a tortilla warmed in a pan with plenty of cheese, black beans, tomato, onion, some garlic, a ton of cilantro and jalapeno. Add a dollop of greek yogurt and it’s a heavenly (and reasonably healthy) dinner.
  8. What is the most daring thing you’ve ever done? Quit my comfortable, easy, secure corporate job.
  9. The best advise you’ve read, or have been given about blogging. Have a unified, clear vision that you stick to. Good advice I don’t follow!
  10. Your favorite TV show. International House Hunters! Bring it!
  11. Your proudest moment. Quitting my comfortable, easy, secure job. Oh, and being nominated for a Liebster!

My 11 Nominations (Minus 5)

Things that Should or Should Not Meet – creative, interesting with a different spin on life, this blog is one I hope will be updated more often! Topics include male speedos, benches and neighbors, little miracles and the implications of overdressing at the beach. More please!

Neli’s Big Adventure – A dog, Neli, relays his experiences in Central America. Neli is living my dream. I would love to take a camper van down the PanAm Highway. It’s on my bucketlist. Neli’s owners seem pretty adventurous too.

Unwire Me – This blog helped me get the courage to take the leap to location independence. There are many great tips and interesting information on living a location free lifestyle from a guy who is successfully doing it in Guatemala. I highly recommend this blog if you wish to pursue the location free lifestyle and if you don’t, he’s a very interesting writer (based in Guatemala) and you’ll enjoy his posts!

Mountains and Giraffes – A world traveling newborn specialist. Cool. Some really interesting locations too in Africa, Iceland, etc.

Sucre Life – A couple living in Sucre, Bolivia. Since I am obsessed with visiting Bolivia, I can’t wait for their next posts!

Michelle’s Blog – there is not a URL for this one, because she hasn’t started it yet! But as one of the most original and creative thinkers I know, I am waiting . . . and maybe this will be the push she needs!

I was only able to nominate five blogs this time, as so many of the bloggers I follow are already giants . . . and Lollypaper has already been nominated. I am always interested in new blogs, especially travel themed blogs so if you have a good suggestion, please leave it for me in the comment section! Congratulations to my nominations and I hope

11 Questions for the Nominated Bloggers

  1. What’s one of the scariest things you’ve ever done?
  2. If you could visit any country in the world, where would you go?
  3. What makes you happy?
  4. What’s your favorite joke?
  5. If someone asked you to give them a random piece of advice, what would you say?
  6. Do you prefer vacations in the city, mountains or at the beach?
  7. What’s your dream job?
  8. What’s the skill or personality trait you’re most proud of?
  9. Do you prefer salty or sweet snacks?
  10. If someone were to make a movie about your life, who would you hope would play you?
  11.  If you were a super hero what powers would you have?

If these bloggers wish to accept their nomination, and I hope they do, just answer the 11 questions, provide 11 random facts about themselves, nominate 11 blogs of their own, and we’ll be on our way. In terms of winning the Liebster . . . I do not have details of that process, but the nomination is enough for me!

Happy blogging everybody, from International Mel!