Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico - 2013

This girls' trip to Mexico was a 40th birthday trip for my sister Nancy and our friend Cynthia.  We were the "Three Amigas" from Feb 3th - 10th in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico staying at the all-inclusive "Friendly Vallarta Resort & Spa".

Feb 3rd
One week in Puerto Vallarta was supposed to start this morning.  Has anyone had a flight delayed 14hrs before?

15hr flight delay to Puerto Vallarta.  Sunwing Airlines sucks!  A strongly worded letter to Sunwing headquarters to follow....

Feb 4th
Highlight of day #1 in Mexico:
Afternoon beachside happy hour musical entertainment by a Mexican man in a sombrero on a dancing horse.

Feb 5th
Highlights of day #2 in Mexico:
Oceanside massage, several good games of beach volleyball, and oceanside beach chair service of fajitas and cervesas by our cabana boy Jorge.

Friendly Vallarta Resort & Spa

Feb 6th
Highlights of day #3 in Mexico:
Groundhog day of same highlights from day # 2  + dinner at the gourmet fancy restaurant at the all-inclusive resort

Feb 7th
Highlights of day #4 in Mexico:
Waking up to the view from our oceanfront balcony overlooking the volleyball court.
Happy hour drinks perched at the edge of the infinity pool listening to the sound of the surf.
Mexican fiesta party at the resort with local entertainment.
PS. Things got a little crazy at Andales bar last night.  I may or may not have danced ON the bar.

Fiesta party at the resort
Dancers at the fiesta party

Heather, Nancy & Cynthia
Heather & Nancy
Heather & Nancy - dancing ON the bar at Andales
Heather & Nancy dancing ON the bar at Andales

Feb 8th
Highlights of day #5 in Mexico:
Ziplining through the jungle set of the 80's movie "Predator".
Swimming with cervesas in the river/waterfall afterwards.
Getting schooled in the fine art of tequila tasting.
Happy hour margaritas and fish tacos at Sea Monkey beach bar in old town.
Enjoyed a special order prawn dinner beachside at the resort.

The movie set of "Predator"
Lounging by the river after ziplining


Feb 9th
Highlights of day #6 in Mexico
Riding the local chicken bus to the hippie dippie surf town of Sayulita
Flopping on the beach and getting WAY too much sun
Margaritas and fish tacos at one of the local joints
Daydreaming of returning to that town for a trip with my #1 guy
Fancy dinner at an offsite restaurant
PS - Note to self: don't lose your wristband for the all-inclusive resort. The resort won't replace it, so I'm on the lam at the resort where I paid a lot of money to stay.  One more day to evade capture from "Friendly Vallarta Resort & Spa"

Sayulita beach
Cynthia, Heather & Nancy - Fish tacos and margaritas

Cynthia, Nancy & Heather - Dinner at La Leche

Feb 10th
Mexico 2013 in review:
Resurrected my cage dancing, tequila drinking, broken Spanish speaking Latina alter-ego "Rosita" - it's fun being a different version of myself for one week.
Laughing and smiling muscles have had a good workout, and the stressometer is at zero.
Successfully dodged the authorities at the resort - apparently only fraudulent criminals lose their all-inclusive wristbands coming in for a hard landing when ziplining.
Significantly improved my overhand volleyball serve.
Left for the airport wearing my swimsuit and flip flops covered in ocean and beach - I guess I have to leave, but it's under protest.

Dancing in the cage at "The Zoo" bar

Tequila shots in the cage at "The Zoo" bar

Friday, August 15, 2008

Beijing Olympics 2008

Beijing Summer Olympic Update #1 - July 29, 2008

Just a quick note to let you know that I've arrived in Beijing.  This is day one of my five weeks in China to work on the Olympics.

I flew from Vancouver to Beijing via San Francisco.  I can officially report that my Olympic fever started on the lay-over in the San Francisco airport.  The gate lounge was filled with people going to the Olympics in an official capacity.  The US Men's water polo team, a whole bunch of press, and a school band that will be playing on one of the stages at the Opening ceremonies. The water polo boys (all tall, blond and gorgeous.....) were all wearing official Olympic team uniforms, and getting their photo snapped by tourist paparazzi.  Beijing airport is a sight to behold.  Huge, modern, fresh paint, brand new just for the Olympics, and operating like clock work.  The city has Olympic signage everywhere, the 'look of the games' is very prominent.  The whole place is a buzz with Olympics already. My hotel is great, 4 star right in the city centre, not far from the Silk Market.  The headquarter hotel for the adidas program is a sister hotel one block away.  The weather is pretty warm here, about 25'C.  There is a light layer of fog/smog, but I'm told today is the clearest they've seen in awhile.

I have the night off (Tuesday), but tomorrow morning after some training sessions, I’ll be launching straight into my ticket manager duties for the adidas sponsor VIP hospitality program. 

I'm hoping to send regular update emails to share a few memorable moments, so stay tuned for more.


2008 Beijing Summer Olympic correspondent at large

Did you know?
70,000 - Olympic volunteers for the Beijing games
500,000 - capacity of Tian'anmmen Square
91,000 - capacity of the National Stadium for Opening and Closing Ceremonies
10,000 - athletes competing in the games
3,000,000 - number of pieces of apparel that adidas will be contributing to athletes, volunteers, staff, and technical officials for the games
150,000 - police and security personnel working the games
290,000 - security volunteers working the games
100,000 - anti-terror commandos on stand-by near Beijing

Beijing Summer Olympic Update #2 - August 3, 2008

I'm about one week into my Olympic experience, and having an incredible time.  I just love the team I'm working with on the adidas sponsorship hospitality program.  About half the people are first time 'Olympians' and the other half are Olympic gypsies and have stories about past Olympic games going back 10 or 15 years.  Everyone is really fun, REALLY competent and hard working, and we are constantly laughing and cracking jokes.  I love my team!

Breakfast is included at my hotel, so every morning I join some of the other team members for the 'breakfast club'.  It's a huge international buffet, hot and cold.  At first I was eating cereal and yoghurt because that's my regular pattern.  I've ditched that now, opting instead for noodles, rice, stir fry and salad.  It seems breakfast is the big meal here, so when in Rome.....    The company provides a per-dium for our food, so we have to go out and get what we want for lunch and dinner.  Lunch has been Subway or salad bar or pizza.  And for dinner I've been dipping into my snack stash.  I brought a wagonload of Costco snacks with me and they are really coming in handy.  Nuts, power bars, tuna & cracker packs, etc.

Traffic and pollution
The news media portrays a much bigger problem with traffic and pollution that I've been witness to so far.  That said, apparently half the cars are mandated off the road right now, and I think a bunch of factories have been ordered to close for August.  I usually wake up to beautiful clear blue skies, gorgeous hot sunshine.  Average temperature is somewhere between 25' and 30'C.   And the traffic just hasn't been a big problem so far.

Olympic Green
This is a huge Olympic park home to about a third of the Olympic venues.   It would take hours to walk from one end to the other.  You have to go through typical airport style security to get onto the 'Green', and no professional cameras are allowed in.  The National Stadium (aka Bird's Nest) and the Water Cube swimming venue are amoung the most notable venues on the Green.  The Bird's Nest architecture is really unique with huge steel 'beams'  wrapped and twisted around the entire building.  It holds 91,000, open air with covered stadium seating. The pictures don't properly convey how massive this structure is.   

Opening Ceremony rehearsal
Our entire team got last minute tickets to see the rehearsal of the Opening Ceremonies at the Bird's Nest.  This experience goes down as one of the best in my life.  It was the most amazing spectacle I've ever witnessed.  I was completely awe struck the entire time.  We arrived 30minutes prior to show time, and the performers were loading in.  Even that part was a work of art.  Words can't properly describe the show, but I'll give it a shot. The first part was a synchronized LED drumming sequence of over 2500 performers in a perfect grid.  There was a perfect circle people performing Tai Chi  doing their moves in unison, and a huge globe that came out of the floor with acrobats walking sideways on it.  There were thousands of performers in LED bodysuits that lit up it a patterned light show.  People dangling in the air and coming up from the floor.  A huge human powered Chinese typewriter with pillar/keys moving up and down with people inside each key.  Every once in a while fireworks would explode from the stadium lighting up the entire surrounding area, and spilling into the stadium through the roof.  Amazing use of projection and special effects.  It was very 'Chinese', with select international elements.  The thing that struck me was the exact precision and unison on a scale that I didn't know was possible.  My jaw was on the ground the whole time, and at times I was almost in tears.  I can't believe I'm actually here for the Beijing Olympics and I'm so grateful that I got to see the Opening Ceremony in person.

My average work day has been about 14 hours so far.  I'm responsible for 20,000 event tickets for all adidas VIP and celebrity guests.  Most of my days have been spent counting and sorting and logging tickets.  I have three full days before the first wave of VIP guest arrive and will be picking up their tickets.  I'm in pretty good shape, but I'll be glad when I get through the first wave (five waves in total).  My work so far has been grueling (brain fatigue), but the work coming up will be even more challenging trying to keep track of all the changes that we anticipate.  It's a huge responsibility, but so far I'm feeling pretty comfortable with it.

Time of my life!!!!


Beijing 2008 Summer Olympic correspondent at large

Did you know:
$450/night - cost of my hotel room
$3.75 Billion - cost to build terminal 3 at Beijing Airport
1.5 Million - visitors expected for the games

Beijing Summer Olympic Update #3 - August 9, 2008

Holy smoke, this is what it feels like to be at the centre of the universe.  It feels like the eyes of the world are here on Beijing, and I'm right in the middle of it. 

Some of the coverage that you'll see of some of the athlete interviews is video taped in the adidas Hopitality Suite where I'm stationed.  adidas has transformed a regular roof-top terrace and adjoining banquet rooms into an elaborate adidas themed indoor/outdoor lounge with TVs, refreshments, displays of the 17 Olympic team uniforms that adidas supplied to athletes.  We regularly have athletes coming in and out of the space for TV interviews.  It's so cool!

Opening ceremony
Last night was the opening ceremony for the games.  I'm so grateful to have seen the rehearsal a few nights ago, it was actually quite fun to experience it from the outside the second time.  My role was as bus parking lot manager responsible for positioning my team to direct adidas guests to the correct bus (in a sea of 100's of other sponsor buses) after the event.   We pulled it off perfectly, (ie. didn't leave any guests behind).  The logistics and security around the event were amazing. The entire surrounding area of the stadium (10 block radius?) was completely shut down to local traffic, only accredited vehicles were allowed access.  The roads to get to the stadium were all clear, no traffic in sight.  The security around the stadium was staggering.  Police stationed every 20 feet.  SWAT tanks and army troops on patrol, check points at every intersection for the accredited vehicles.  Getting into the Olympic Green / Bird's Nest Stadium through the 'airport security' was heightened.  Helicopters were swarming in the sky.  The streets were swarmed with locals watching the stadium from afar taking photos of the fireworks and the lighting of the cauldron.  Speaking of fireworks, HOLY SMOKE!  The fireworks show that was part of opening ceremony, and which carried on for 30 minutes after was amazing, even better than HSBC Celebration of Light  (sorry HSBC....).  There were fireworks on Olympic Green, in the stadium, throughout Beijing, and even on the Great Wall, all timed as part of the opening ceremony.  It was really cool to see the ceremony performers come out after the show, and walk the streets to their transportation.  Thousands of people walking in the same costume all together.  Everything at the Olympics is on a massive scale.  And there's no way to describe the energy until you've experienced it.  I'm in complete awe.

Aside from venue security, I've noticed a heightened security around Beijing in general.  There is a security check point getting into the headquarter hotel, and now I have to show my room card to get to my guest room.  There are more military and police around the streets, even SWAT tanks patrolling the highways.  This city is in complete lock down.

One of the things that strikes me is how corporate the Olympic games is.  There is so much money spent on sponsorship, branding, and showcasing.  Each sponsor has a pavilion on the Olympic Green, and each one is more elaborate than the one before.  There are other consumer showcases set-up all over town. Coke has one close to the hotel, where they've turned a regular retail space into a Coke themed experience, complete with an ice tunnel, LCD screen completely covering the ceiling, and free Coke products for all. 

Look of games
The whole city is covered with Olympic signage in the themed design and colours.  There is no mistaking it anywhere you go, the Olympics is in town.   Buildings are wrapped for the games, there are Olympic street signs, flower garden displays, signage on pedestrian walkway overpasses, flag pole signs, entire city blocks wrapped, etc. 

Work schedule
I didn't know it was possible to work 20 hours, have 1 hr sleep, then work another 20 hours.  But, I did it.  It's amazing what lack of sleep does to the brain.  Errors happen, things take 3 times as long, everything is an overwhelming task, logic becomes skewed, the simplest solution eludes you.  Add to that, I haven't been eating properly.  When I get in the zone on a task, I don't take the time to eat.  Thank goodness for my stash of snacks.  I anticipate that my workload will lighten for the rest of the games.  In my position as ticket manager, the largest sorting and organizing happens on the front end, and that's done now.  I think my schedule will be much more manageable from now on.

First sporting event
I went to my first event this morning.  Women's volleyball, Italy vs. Russia.  Those girls are TALL!!!  At this level the athletes are playing such a tight, strategic, well planned game. They had a sequins dance troop that came on the court during the breaks between games, so hilarious.  Even the court sweepers were choreographed, with their little hop over the mop, and synchronized patterns.  Airport security to get into the venue, no food or drink allowed.  Only small little portable cameras, no umbrellas or musical instruments.

Chinese names
This is one of the biggest challenges on the program.  Chinese people have several different names, and they use them at different times. This makes for a lot of confusion on so many levels.  Organizing an event that relies on accurate guest count information is very difficult when you don't know if you've got duplicate registrations for one person who registered information with two different names.  This is one of the biggest challenges so far. 

Celebrities and VIPs
The city is swarming with celebrities, and some have been in my general vicinity.  adidas held a "Gold Metal" gala party here at the hotel two days ago, with all sorts of 'A' list guests.  The production itself was amazing.  Millions of dollars to convert the hotel's tennis court facility into an extravagant night club for just one night.  The whole back wall of the stage was LCD screens, the stage was illuminated with the adidas logo.  The entire room is wrapped in gold, including gold carpet, drapes, furniture.  The guest included: Donovan Bailey (sprinter), Maurice Green (sprinter), Nadia Comaneci (Gymnastics), Ian Thorpe (swimmer), Tyson Gay (sprinter), Jeremy Wariner (runner), Jet Li (martial arts).  Last night I helped one of our guests out of a cell phone snafoo at opening ceremony, turns out he is the President and CEO of Reebok Global.  He was so grateful for my help, so now he and I are good buds.

Smog and heat
The clear skies that I mentioned before turned out to be a blip on the meteorological radar.  Most days since have been 'foggy' most of the day, 35' temperatures, and 80% humidity.  It's HOT here! 

This is good.  VERY good!

Beijing 2008 Olympic correspondent at large

Beijing Summer Olympic Update #4 - August 15, 2008

It's day 8 (of 17) of the Olympics, and into wave 3 (of 5).  I'm continuing to have an amazing Olympic experience with lots of great highlights to share.

Olympic events
The adidas client encourages us to get out to events, and there are lots of tickets available on a regular basis.  I've been able to make time in my schedule to attend two more events since my last message.  I went to gymnastics the other day, men's team gymnastics.  It was held in the National Indoor Stadium, right beside the Bird's Nest and Water Cube on Olympic Green.  Part of the experience is just being on "The Green" with so many other international Olympic visitors, amazing Olympic sculptures, great photo ops, and tonnes of extra-curricular things to do.  The Olympic Green is in fact very green.  Lots of grass, fragrant flower gardens, park area, mini lakes, bridges, etc.  There are Bellagio style fountains, over-sized golf cars for optional transportation, lots of concessions and public 'honey pots'.   The gymnastics event was really cool.  There were eight teams (China, Japan, USA, Germany, France, Russia, Korea, Romania), and they took turns at each of the six apparatus (floor, rings, pommel horse, vault, parallel bars, high bar).   It's amazing to me what those athletes can do with their bodies.  The awards ceremony happened immediately after the competition, and is obviously a really moving and exciting part of the event, especially because China won gold.  The part I enjoyed the most is the energy of the live crowd, flag waving, chanting, 'the wave', the crowd eruptions for amazing performances, and cheers for the Chinese team "Jia Yo"  = "Let's go / Keep going".  I also really love that they serve beer in the stands, even for morning events (not that I partook...).  I also attended swimming at the National Aquatics Centre / aka "Water Cube" this morning.  What an amazing and unique venue.  The structural design is based on the natural formation of soap bubbles which give a random, organic appearance.  The exterior of the building is a continuously inflated double layered plastic membrane.  The competition itself was really exciting because it was finals.  The medal ceremony happens immediately after the swimmers get out of the pool, then the next competition begins.  In one case, Michael Phelps (USA) was awarded gold for men’s individual 200m medley (backstoke, breaststroke, freestyle and butterfly), then got right back into the pool for the butterfly event.

The most common style of public toilet is a squat style, with a central supply of toilet paper on entry in the main room.  The public 'honey pots' on Olympic Green are squat style that are on permanent flush, and with a steady supply of foaming bubbles in the repository. This definitely takes some getting used to, with some logistical adjustments required regarding clothing etc.  This is one thing on a long list of cultural differences that makes travel so interesting to me.

I've taken to having massages on a semi regular basis.  Some of the other team members scoped out a good place right across the street from the hotel, they take drop-ins, and are open until 12 or 1am which fits with my schedule.  My back and feet are really sore, and although massage helps, my lower back is almost too sore to massage.  The other night, five of us went together and dropped in all at once.  They put us all in a room together with reclining chairs, and in came a massage troupe with foot baths, warm neck and back packs, and all sorts of lotions and potions.  I brought a pizza in with us, then we ordered some hors d'oeuvres and beer from the spa waiter.  How's that for gluttony?

Tourist killed in Tian'anmmen Square
I'm not sure if international news reported the recent killing in Tian'anmmen square.  The story we're told is that it was a lone attacker, who injured one and killed another, then jumped off a building and killed himself.  It wasn't targeted or considered terrorism, it was random and isolated.  The victims are American, family members of a basketball coach here with the US team. Very shocking and sad.

Apparently I am one.  Whenever I’m out, I’m stopped all the time by locals wanting to have their picture taken with me.  I’m not sure if it’s because I’m foreign, blond, look remarkably like someone famous, or that I’m wearing a uniform that makes me look like I’m official.  Speaking of celebrities, apparently David Schwimmer (Friend’s TV show) attended the opening ceremony and was trying to get into the adidas hospitality suite afterwards. The local hostess staff that were working the door turned him away because they didn't recognize him, and because he didn’t have an adidas namebadge.  By the time our senior staff knew what happened, it was too late to drag him back, however one of our team snapped a picture of him in the crowd walking away.  And rumour has it that David Beckham will be visiting the adidas suite soon.  I just learned that today, and I’m so excited about the prospect catching an up close glimpse of that fine specimen.

Local staff
SportsMark has hired approximately 350 local Beijing college students to work on the various sponsor programs (adidas, Visa, Coke, Manulife, Chevron, Qualcomm, Hilton, etc).  These local staff speak reasonable English, and have been a great help in translating for our mainly Asian guests.  Most of the kids are late teens, early twenties, and as sweet as pie.  They all work really hard, conscientious, eager to do a great job, and love practicing English.  The locals choose they own English name, and most have a story about the name they picked for themselves.  One of our staff is named “Coffee” because she likes the drink.  Another is named “Vanilla”, and one is named “Seven”.   I just love our local team members. 

As I’m writing this, sitting at the hospitality desk in the adidas suite, there is a UK track and field athlete standing talking to some guests right beside me, and Maurice Greene just walked by (Gold medal Olympic sprinter, ‘fastest man alive’).  Members of the Antigua/Barbuda Olympic team just walked in and are now camped out in the adidas lounge watching Olympic event coverage on the TVs.

I had a bit of a set-back technology wise.  I had been saving all my files to an external USB hard-drive instead of on my computer (per the company’s instructions).  All of a sudden it crashed and I lost all of the work for the past two weeks.  Luckily I had emailed two of the most critical documents two days prior, so had to re-do two days of work from my scratch pad of notes.   As if I didn’t have enough work to do!

Sleep & extra-curricular
For the most part, I’ve been getting enough sleep and feel rested and refreshed most days.  And last night, the whole senior team got a night off!!!  Shock and dismay!  We all went out for dinner together at a really beautiful traditional Chinese garden restaurant.  Afterwards a few of us went to Holland Heineken House, which is a huge Dutch party that serves only Heineken.  Heineken converted a huge traditional Chinese art gallery type building, into an Olympic party venue complete with live Dutch band, dance mosh-pit and huge outdoor beer garden.  The place was filled with Dutch people  and international guests alike, many wearing orange.  If you’re willing to get soaked in beer (from people throwing their full plastic beer cups up  in the air), then the centre of the dance floor is the place to be.  I stuck to the periphery and still felt the odd beer shower.  My head hit the pillow at 3am, and got up at 7am with a little headache.

I have Olympic fever!!!

Beijing 2008 Olympic correspondent at large

Did you know?
·  Sponsor guests waste +50% of the Olympic event tickets given to them
·  China has the highest incidents of traffic accidents (per capita) in the world
·  The probability of a natural disaster occurring during the Beijing Olympics is high
·  The order of countries in the parade of athletes at opening ceremony was in order of the number of brush strokes in the Chinese characters of the country names
·  110,000 tonnes of steel to make the Bird’s Nest Stadium – all made in China

Beijing Summer Olympic Update #5 - August 20, 2008

This experience continues to be one of the most memorable of my life.  I’m in disbelief every day about how privileged I am to be a part of the Olympics.

The Olympic dream
I’m having tiery moments all the time, and the theme of a recent emotional moment was regarding international harmony.  The Olympics is one of the only events in the world that brings people from every nation together in the spirit of goodwill and harmony.  The moment struck me as I was sitting in the stands listening to a dozen different languages spoken by people from every corner of the world.  I also get tiery eyed at every medal ceremony that I see, either in person or by broadcast.  It never gets boring.  Each and every medal represents a lifelong goal for these athletes, so much sacrifice, dedication and hardwork.  It reminds me to dream big and stay focused in my own life, because the impossible IS POSSIBLE!!!

Olympic events – Athletics x 2, WaterPolo, Diving, Beach Volleyball
My work has lightened up significantly during the last half of the games.  Since my last message, I’ve been able to attend an event almost every day, and sometimes twice a day.

Athletics  (aka Track and Field)
This event is held in National Stadium / “Bird’s Nest”, which is the same venue for opening and closing ceremonies, and where the Olympic cauldron is burning.  It is such a breathtaking building, and so incredibly massive (91,000 seats).  I attended two athletics events, with seats as close as they get to the field each time.  I could feel the breeze of the sprinters running by 20 feet in front of me.  And the medals ceremony podiums were also directly in front of my section.  I watched the finals of the Men’s 100M sprint.  This is one of the most hyped events in athletics. The finish was amazing, with Usain Bolt from Jamaica miles in front of the others, and strutting across the finish line posturing and gloating in his win.  He broke all sorts of records (Olympic and world), for the newest rank of ‘the fastest man alive’.  After the race he went crazy running all over the stadium floor in his victory circle around the track.  Also watched the javelin throw, men’s long jump, women’s heptathlon, hurdles, pole vault, discus throw, steeplechase and women’s shot put finals.  The 3000M steeple chase is an ancient event, which includes 4 hurdles on the track, one of which has a puddle that runners have to run through. The part I loved best about that event was the last place steeple chase runner.  He fell at the beginning, and ended up MILES behind the pack, but kept going regardless.  The whole stadium started to cheer for him, getting up out of their seats as he approached their section.  The place went nuts when he finally crossed the finish line minutes after the pack.  I love those examples of perseverance and determination, and how a potentially embarrassing performance can turn crowd inspiring.  The winner of the shot put was a New Zealander who also went crazy when she won.  She was running across the track to her family, while a running race while in progress.  Another highlight was the women’s pole vault final, with adidas sponsored Elena Isinbaeva from Russia blowing all other competitors out of the water, and breaking all sorts of records with a bar height of 5.05M. 

Men’s Waterpolo
WaterPolo was a blast.  We watched two matches, both preliminary (not final) games.  Serbia vs. Italy, then Hungary vs. Canada.  I’ve never even seen that game played before, so it was really cool to see it at the Olympic level.  Very fast, exciting game, and very animated spectators.  The crowd was almost entirely Hungarian fans, chanting, waving flags and going crazy for every goal, and then went completely bananas when Hungary beat Canada 12 vs. 3.  The inflatable mascots came out at half time and did a little dancing for the crowd at poolside, that was hilarious.  The part I like the best was the back-sides.  Those waterpolo boys have very nice physiques.  Most of my photos from this event are of waterpolo bums. 

Mens’ Diving
I attended with one of my team mates, who was a Illonois state diving champion back in her day.  It was interesting to learn the subtleties of the sport while watching the best in the world compete.  I enjoyed the scenery here as well.  Diving bums are just a nice as waterpolo bums.

Men’s Beach Volleyball
I attended the semi-final games for Men’s Beach Volleyball.  USA (Rogers/Dalhousser) vs. Georgia (Terceiro/ Gomes), then the second game was Brazil (Ricardo/Emanuel – defending Olympic champions) vs. Brazil (Araujo/Luiz).  This is my favourite event so far.  It’s basically a big beach party complete with DJ, dancing bikini clad beach hotties, an announcer that gets the crowd going with the wave, sing-a-longs and all sorts of other crowd revving.  USA pummeled Georgia to secure a place in the final game.  The two Brazilian teams had really close matches, but the under-dog Brazilian team beat the defending Olympic champions for a spot in the final game against USA.  The gold medal game is tomorrow, and I’ve signed up to GO!!!

Pin trading
I’m having a blast trading pins with people from all over the world.  I have a whole bunch attached to my lanyard, and when I’m out and about at events, I get accosted by people wanting to trade.  Many cannot speak English, so we communicate by doing pin trading charades.  At one event, I was sitting in the stands beside some members of the Saudi Arabia Olympic Committee, and traded pins with them.  Their pin has swords and a palm tree with the Olympic rings.  I also traded pins with a guy from Latvia and one from Russia, who gave me a pin of their respective national Olympic Committees.

People I know
I’ve run into three people that I know from Vancouver.  One friend of my cousin’s who works for Vancouver 2010 Olympics.  I knew he was coming, but didn’t know he was staying at my hotel, and certainly didn’t expect to run into him coincidently.  I also ran into the President and the Director of Sport Marketing of PRIME Strategies, one of the event planning companies that I work with.  They were sitting four rows in front of my at an Athletics event in the Bird’s Nest Stadium.  I knew they were coming to Beijing, but it’s a big city, and HUGE stadium, what a coincidence that I would bump into them.

More brushes with celebrities
- I got an email the other day from a fellow ticket manager, looking to fill a ticket request from Misty May-Treanor (Olympic gold medalist in Beach Volleyball).
- adidas got a call the other day from Ian Thorpe (US Olympic swimmer – adidas sponsored athlete), asking for assistance in escorting him to the Water Cube to watch a swimming competition.  It seems that whenever he goes out in public, he gets mauled by fans.  So adidas organized one of the staff members to escort him in one of our VIP cars, and get him into the swimming venue bi-passing the mob of fans. 
- The adidas hospitality suite continues to host all sorts of Olympians, including the gold and silver medalist in the women’s heptathlon.  Just looking at those ladies walk by inspires me to hit the gym more often.

There are only four days left in the Olympics, with closing ceremony capping it off on August 24th.  I fly to Hong Kong on Aug 28th for a visit with some family, then home on September 1st.   My next and final update will be from Hong Kong just before my return.

Jai Yo!!!

Beijing 2008 Olympic correspondent at large

Did you know?
-     302 gold medals will be awarded in the Beijing games, 214 have been awarded to date
-     China is leading the gold medal count with 45, but USA is leading the total medal count at 82.
-     92 athletes have won multiple medals, with Michael Phelps (US swimmer) leading with a record breaking 8 gold medals
-     The summer Olympics (10,000 athletes) is three times as large as the winter Olympics (3,000 athletes)
-     Over 900 adidas guests and 14 days of games so far - there have been no medical incidents or security threats with the adidas guests/program to date
-     The Great Wall of China has turned into a contrived amusement park with a gondola, chair lift and bob sled slide
-     adidas founder Adolf Dassler (nickname Adi  Dass) started the company with his brother, then had a falling out and the brother founded the Puma brand.
-     One of my team mates found a market in Beijing selling knock-off Tiffany jewelry.  Yippee!!!!!

Beijing Summer Olympic Update #6 – August 31, 2008

What an amazing, exciting, exhausting, thrilling, memorable five weeks this has been. 

More sporting events
During the last week of the games, my vault of tickets was pretty empty, so I shifted gears from ticket management to helping escort the adidas guests to the various sporting events.  This is like herding a bunch of cats.  It's almost impossible to keep track of everybody, but somehow we manage to get everyone back on the bus.

Men's Beach Volleyball final
This was probably my favourite event of the whole games.  Sitting in the sunshine, 25'C cloudless skies, 75% humidity, with cooling mist machines blowing on the audience, watching the best in the world compete in a game that I love.  This event is basically a big beach party with people dancing to the music, singing along, doing the arm gestures to the music, bouncing the beach balls around in the crowd, etc.  The Brazilian and US fans were in fine form decked out in patriotic colours with face paint & crazy wigs, draped in their country's flags and using all sorts of noisemaking devices to cheer for their team.  Brazil won the bronze medal match against Georgia, winning by a landslide, and the US (Rogers/Dalhausser) won the gold medal against the other Brazilian team (Araujo/Luiz), in a tight match, down to the third game.   There was a 75 minute wait in between the bronze and gold medal matches, which was filled with entertainment.  There were dancing bikini clad beach babes, audience member volleyball game (10 people each side), as well as audience members taking turns serving the ball over the net, trying to hit the inflatable mascots and knock them over.  So hilarious.

I've never seen this game played before in my life.  For those of you in the same boat, I would describe the game as a cross between basketball and hockey.  You have to bounce the ball when you move with it across the basketball type court, but instead of shooting up in a basket, you throw it into a hockey net.  It's a very fast, very rough and physical game.  I watched the Men's semi-final game of Croatia vs. France, with France winning to advance to the gold medal game.

Table Tennis
The Chinese totally dominate this sport.  I saw two semi-final matches: Sweden vs. China and China vs. China.  The #1 and #2 ranked players (both Chinese) emerged from these games to face off against each other in the gold medal match.  What an amazing sport to watch in a country that reveres the sport.  The game starts with the players and referees being escorted into the gymnasium like royalty.  I loved how the players serve the ball.  It seems like they have a little pep-talk with the ball and the paddle, then a few little tiny bounces of the ball while crouching close to the table, and finally a tiny little soft serve across the net. A few rallies back and forth, then they start to spike the ball and the play moves several feet away from the table, with jumping and lunging all over the place.  The crowd was VERY animated, shouting cheers and encouragement to the players in the local language.  Very exciting game to watch.

My birthday
I celebrated the 9th anniversary of my 29th birthday while in Beijing.  I received all sorts of lovely birthday wishes by email, and the whole adidas team surprised me with birthday cake.  They lured me to the surprise claiming a David Beckham sighting in the hospitality suite. 

Pin trading rehab
I've admitted myself into rehab for my pin trading habit.  It was getting to be a bit of a problem logistically, so I quit cold turkey.  I was finding that people would come up to me and start man-handling the pins on my lanyard (ie. chest area), which was starting to invade my personal space.  Also, I was finding it hard to go anywhere in a hurry.  I was always being stopped by people insisting that I trade with them, and I didn't want to be rude and tell them I didn't have time. 

Closing ceremonies
I helped to escort the adidas guests onto Olympic Green for Closing Ceremonies, but didn't have a ticket to get into the stadium.  While the ceremony was taking place, our whole adidas team hung out in the adidas section of the "OHC - Olympic Hospitality Centre" located on Olympic Green.  This is a zone where all the major sponsors are provided a pavilion, which they completely customize with branding, furniture, TVs, food and beverage facilities, etc, and in which they can host their guests.  We lounged on the couches, shoes off, feet on coffee table, in air conditioned comfort, having drinks and food, watching the live broadcast of the ceremony on the big screens, and having the benefit of seeing the fireworks explode from the outside of the stadium and throughout the Olympic Green.  Before the end of the ceremony, our team (20-30 people) dispersed throughout Olympic Green with handheld adidas 'lollipop' signs directing guests to the adidas buses.  My job was in the parking lot (as with opening ceremony), directing adidas guests onto the buses (in a sea of other sponsor buses), counting heads and sending buses when full.  The ceremony itself was pretty amazing if you ask me.  I loved the bouncing jumping guys, and the ribbon covered tower that came up from the floor.  The London 2012 portion wasn't my favourite, I thought it was pretty predicable and uninspired.  One of the parts I love best about the Olympics is feeling like I'm at the centre of the universe, and that feeling is amplified during the opening and closing ceremony events. 

More celebrities
Bill Gates – was staying at our hotel for a few days during the Olympics. 
Vince Vaughan – was everywhere.  He walked past me on the street, he was part of an NBC group being escorted out of the mens' gold medal basketball game.  Two of my teammates bumped into him in various venues around town.  Another of my teammates saw him at the NBC party the other night.
David Beckham – was in town, and visited Beijing's flagship adidas store (largest adidas store in the world).  A copy of his itinerary and media interview questions was laying around the adidas suite, accidently left by one of his handlers, so I grabbed it for safe keeping.  David Beckham is an adidas sponsored athlete, and was the token British athlete that was London's feature star in the closing ceremonies.  London 2012 is the next summer Olympics.

There were plenty of parties around town during the Olympics, but once the games ended, the wrap-up parties for the event operations teams kicked into high gear.  The adidas team party was held at the headquarter hotel, in the adidas hospitality suite outdoor terrace.  100 team members all kicking back, drinking, eating, playing Nintendo Wii on the outdoor big screen, and singing karaoke.  One of the team members put together a DVD with photos of the team set to music, so that was revealed at the party as well.    It is so hilarious, filled with photos of all our crazy antics and inside jokes from the games.  The SportsMark "Xie Xie" Party (=thank you) was held at a really cool Chinese club/restaurant with some tented outdoor seating pods, lots of dancing and drinking.    About 500 in attendance, included all of the SportsMark teams as well as clients and suppliers.  And on my last night in Beijing, the core adidas team hooked up in Tian'anmman Square to watch the daily flag ceremony, then went for traditional Peking Duck at a restaurant close to the square.  After dinner 10 of us went for a massage, 6 in one room, 4 in the other.  90 minute treatment, includes shoulder, back, feet and legs, with snacks included for ~$20.  We were all fast asleep in no time, it was quite a picture to see, and the perfect ending to an amazing time together.

I've done some serious damage at two of the major markets in Beijing.  Handbags, scarves, shoes, jewelry and gifts.  Add to that all the Olympic souvenirs and adidas swag that the team received from the client.  I've had to buy an additional suitcase to bring all this stuff home.

Beijing to Hong Kong
Beijing airport is like no other I've ever seen.  When you first walk through the doors, you must pass through a security check-point.  Then you must find your check-in desk, which is coded A-Z depending on your airline (Air China was in the 'F' section).  Once checked-in, you pass through a temperature (SARS) detection screening, then two check points for Chinese immigration, then the security mag and bag, with a full body man-handle and wand inspection.  Then onto a train for 4 minutes for transportation to the international departures gates.  I would guess the walk from that point to my gate was over 1km.  Once at the gate, you board a bus to take you for a 10minute ride on the back area of the tarmack to the plane. For some reason the airport doesn't use their air bridges to connect the airplanes to the terminal, instead they park the planes far away, only accessible by the bus service.  The whole process from check-in to boarding the plane took about 1.5hrs, most of it walking within the massive terminal.  I'm in Hong Kong for four days, visiting with my sister-in-law/brother-in-law once removed (ie. my sister's sister-in-law/brother-in-law), and their 9mth old daughter, which I've declared as my niece.  They have a lovely home in Discovery Bay on Lantau Island, close to the airport.  5+ bedroom home, with seaviews, a private garden terrace, and children playing in the street.  We're sticking pretty close to home for this visit, just walking around town, reading books, having naps, going out for dinner, visiting and playing with my little niece.

Things I'm looking forward to when I get home....
- body mainternance - pedicure/manicure/facial/hair removal/haircut
- home cooked food
- exercise
- sleeping in my own bed
- reconnecting with friends and family

Goodbye from China!

Beijing 2008 Olympic correspondent at large

Did you know?
- Olympic sponsors customize the buses that they use for transporting their guests during the games.  The buses are completely 'wrapped' on the outside in custom branding, and customized on the inside with branded headrest covers, etc.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Central America 2007

Central America 2007

Chapter 1 – Beaching in Belize

Hello!  I'm a little over one week into my trip, so I figured it was time to send my first report. Chapter 1 is entitled "Beaching in Belize".
Caye Caulker, Belize
I landed in Belize City from a red-eye flight, took a bee-line for the water-taxi station for the first boat to Caye Caulker (one of the nearby islands).  It was a 45minute transfer in an open air speed boat.  On arrival to the island, one of the locals 'Jesus' befriended me and told me about a good place to stay, and by the way, he'll take me there in his golf cart for $2US.  I took the bait.  The place turned out to be really great, $15US per night for a private room, right on the beach, with electricity, a fan, and shared bath.  Belize is HOT, about 90' in the day and blazing sun.  The island is pretty small, with one main sand road, and only golf carts and bicycles for vehicles. I walked everywhere.  The slogan for the island is "GO SLOW", and so I did.  I met another local as I was buying some fresh fruit, and we started hanging out for the rest of my time there.  He took me out in his canoe for a paddle around the island and a swim off one of the best docks.  The water here is hotter than bath water, not exactly refreshing, but swimming is necessary to avoid melting in the heat.  I call my new friend "Tarzan" because he walks barefoot everywhere, and scales coconut trees to collect coconut, then cracks it and drinks the water.  He caught a baracuda when he was fishing, and together with some of the other locals, made a fish stew over open fire right on the beach one night.  It was so hilarious, we had to scrounge a pot, knife, bowls and spoons from local restaurants, then go buy the veggies at a local corner store.  It was really delicious.  We ate sitting on some old lobster traps right beside the water.  The frigate birds swarmed above and neighbourhood cats wandered below in hopes that some fish bits would be offered to them.  I took an all day snorkeling trip to the Blue Hole (you should Google this, it's cool), with a stop at a nearby island for some more snorkeling followed by lunch.  In one of the snorkel spots, there were so many fish swarming us, it was like fish soup!  So much fun.  My parents sent me with some little trinket giftie-poos to give to the children, and I decided to start giving them away here.  I befriended a couple of enterprising kids that were trying to sell me some shells they collected, and as I sat down with them on the picnic table in the middle of town with the bag of goodies, all the other local children caught a wiff of what was going on, and all of a sudden I was swarmed.  The kids were so thrilled, and it was such a highlight for me too.
Tobacco Caye, Belize
My next stop was Tobacco Caye, which involved a 4hr bus (old school bus) south from Belize City, then another water taxi over to the island. This country is so hilarious.  At one point on the bus ride, one of the passenger's luggage flew out of the open bus door.  They had to stop the bus, and back up to go find it.  On arrival to the seaside town of Dandriga, I managed to find the water taxi dock (read - a couple of planks on the shore of the inlet, no sign).  A local named 'Charlie' was hanging around that area, and told me that I can catch a ride to the island from a guy who is going over in about an hour.  I told Charlie I was hungry, so he said he would go get me some food from a lady that he knows a few houses away.  He told me it cost $7BZ (=$3.50US).  I wasn't sure whether he could be trusted to come back again, but I figured it was a small gamble.  In the end, the food took so long to make, that I had to track Charlie down to give me my money back because my boat was leaving.  He agreed.  Tobacco Caye is about the size of a postage stamp (couple of acres of land??) 30minutes off the coast by speed boat, complete with dolphins jumping at the bow. There are several places to stay, and without an advance reservation, I took a chance there would be availability.  I booked into "Paradise Inn", with private huts on stilts over the ocean, each with a private balcony and hammock for $30US/day.  This place reminds me of summer camp on Gilligan's Island.  The stay includes three squares a day, and you can get snorkeling gear to check out the reef which circles the little island.  The property caretaker 'Joe' typically cleans fish off the dock each day around 4pm, and the stingrays are now in the habit of circling the area at that time for the fish scraps that he throws into the water.  They are a bit skiddish, but if you are really still, you can get in the water and just float with snorkel gear while they feed.  I hit an all time record for laziness in this place.  For an entire afternoon, I lay motionless in my hammock, reading my book and dozing in and out of naps.  There is a little beach bar hut, which I wandered over to the first day.  One of the locals introduced himself as "Crazy", then there was Captain Buck, and Kirk the bartender.  By the end of three days, I was friends with many of the 30 locals that live on this tiny little island. I loved it here, I was barefoot and in my bathing suit the entire 3 days.
Placencia, Belize
I'm in Placencia, in the Southern part of Belize.  While on Tobacco, I met a nice couple from the states who where headed this way as well, so we travelled together.  We stopped part way and went to Cockscomb Wildlife Sanctuary.  It involved getting off the bus in the middle of nowhere, wandering over to a little hut on the side of the road and paying the admission fee, then finding a taxi to drive us the 7miles deep into the jungle along the rough dirt road, and convincing him to come back for us at an agreed time.  The santuary is home to many local jaguars, which remained elusive for us unfortunately.  This place is in the Belizian rainforest, and it lived up to it's name that day.  The downpour started as we began our hike, and poured heavy for the entire time.  It's a good thing I brought a dry bag for my camera equipment, because every square inch of me and everything else in my bag got totally soaked.  We saw a couple of armadillos, some lizards, some cool birds, a small snake and a toucan.  We saw some jaquar tracks and marks on the trees where they sharpen their claws.  After getting back to the main building at the santuary, we traded our wet clothes for dry ones, and caught our return taxi to the main road.  We had to stand on the side and wave for our bus to stop for us.  Back on, we travelled another hour to the town where we catch another water taxi to Placencia.  I love the company names in this place.... "Hokey Pokey Water Taxi", "Pickled Parrot", "Jake's Purple Space Monkey Internet Cafe", "Ocean Motion Tour Company",  "Jake and Julia's Last Resort", "Tipsy Tuna".  I'm staying at a nice guest house right by the ocean, with double decker verandas and hammocks for $15US/night.  Loving it!  I just came back from an all day snorkeling tour to go see the whale sharks.  This is one of the only places in the world to see these huge filter feeding sharks, the largest of all fish species.  And as luck would have it today is a full moon, which is when they are most often sighted.  The average size is around 20meters long, they are harmless and actually quite curious around humans.  I was dissapointed to only see one swim past me as I snorkeled today, but did see and swim with dolphins and little tiny ( ie.5feet) reef type sharks.  
Meeting people
I'm meeting tonnes of other travellers here.  It's funny actually, because paths cross all the time with people from the last stop on the travel circuit.  I know about ten people in Plancencia (where I am right now), met all of them at the places I visited before coming here.  I'm also noticing that there are TONNES of ex-pat Americans living down here.  They came on vacation, and never left.  They traded the hustle bustle of the western world for a slower paced lifestyle in this little slice of heaven right here on earth.  I'm tempted to do the same.........
English is the first language in Belize, so I haven't been able to dust off and practice any Spanish yet. Belize is apparently one of the most developed and civilized of the Central American countries, so it's a good place to start to ease into the culture.  
Next on the itinerary....
San Ignacio, Belize (caves and jungle)
Flores, Guatemala (Mayan ruins at Tikal)
Panajachel, Guatemala - for a week of Spanish school
Quetxaltenango (Xela), Guatemala - for a week of Spanish school
Then.... Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica
Barefoot, sunkissed, waterlogged, and completely decompressed,
Belizian Beach Babe

Chapter 2 – Caves, ruins and Spanish School

Hello again.  So much has happened since my last update, I figured I was due to send another.  This chapter is entitied “Cave, Ruins and Spanish School”
San Ignacio (Cayo), Belize
My trip from Placencia in the south to San Ignacio took about 6hours.  First a water taxi, then short taxi ride to the bus stop, then travelled by bus, with one bus change required.  The local buses are fondly known by all as ´chicken buses´ because of the livestock that often accompanies the passengers.  They do the milk run through the country, stopping every 200 feet if there are passengers to pick-up.  Most of the time, I´ve been the only gringo on the bus.  On arrival to San Ignacio,  I checked into a basic little hotel for $11US per night, for private room with shared bath.  This place is smoking hot, in the 30´s day and night.  The town itself isn´t much, but San Ignacio is a hub for all sorts of really awesome excursions.  The most popular tour is called  ATM Tour, which stands for Aktun Tunichil Muknal, which I think is the name of the mountain.  It´s a cave tour, lead by a guide deep into the jungle to the site of an ancient Mayan ceremonial site inside these caves.  It´s a wet tour, which means that we tredged through the water, and actually swam through sections of the river that runs within the cave.  This may have been my favourite day so far on my trip.  Outfitted with helmets, headlamps and wearing soaking wet hiking boots, we carefully manuevred our way through some tight rock formations, for about 1km deep into the cave.  The cave is completely pitch black, and totally unnavigable without headlamps.  At the end of the cave was the dry chamber, which we had to climb high up into carefully.  One wrong slip of the foot and it would be game over.  The dry chamber is a very spiritual and ceremonial location for the ancient Maya.  We walked amoung the skeletons of the humans that were sacrificed in their ceremonies.  I loved the stalagtite and stalagmite formations in the cave, and all the calcium crystalization.  I think caving is my new favourite passtime!  My second day in San Ignacio was more relaxed.  I wandered up to some local ruins, then spent the rest of the day at a foo-foo resort ($2.5US drop-in fee).  I swam in the pool, drank a few beers and chilled to the musical stylings of Anne Murray and Dionne Warwick playing at the pool bar.  
Flores and Tikal, Guatemala
My crossing from Belize into Guatemala was hilarious.  First a short local bus ride from San Ignacio to the border town.  Then a short taxi ride from the bus stop to the border station.  Once I checked-out at the Belizian station, I had to check-in at the Guatemalan station.  Both had a small fee for doing so.  It´s totally chaotic, with people hanging around wanting to sell you stuff, change currency, and offer ongoing transportation.  I took a taxi from the border to the town of Flores.  The two hour drive by air conditioned private taxi cost me $10US.  Flores is a really nice island town on Lake Petan, quite quaint and safe.  It´s a hub for tourists coming to visit the Mayan ruins at Tikal nearby.  While wandering around Flores late one morning, I was approached by a charming old man that managed to explain to me that he has a boat, and would take me on a private tour of the island and surrounding area for about $15US.  I had the loveliest time with this old guy.  I had a chance to dust off my Spanish, and was able to communicate reasonably well.  At the end we traded compliments of each other, and a short embrace.  The Guatemalan people are so lovely, I can´t tell you!  I took a tourist mini-bus ( 1.5hrs) from Flores to the ruins of Tikal.  I decided to stay overnight just outside the ruins in order to take advantage of sunset as well as sunrise the next day.  I stayed in a cute little cabana set in this beautiful jungle setting, complete with hammock.  Hiking through the ruins in the late afternoon, the jungle was filled with sounds of exotic birds and howler monkeys.  The monkeys sound very much like a lion roar, which was quite disconcerting at first.  I climbed to the top of one of the pyramids to watch the sunset with other park visitors.  The climb up was challenging, but the climb down was absolutely harrowing.  Standing at the top, I could see the base of the pyramid through my toes.  A tourist died the week before when he lost his balance and tumbled down.   The 20 minute walk back through the jungle was a bit nail bitting, since darkness fell quickly in the jungle after sunset, and we were warned that the jaguars, snakes and crocodile come out after dark.  That night I fell asleep to the sounds of the jungle birds and crickets, and was awoken by the howler monkeys early in the morning.  My sunrise tour of the ruins started at 4.45am.  We hiked to the farthest and highest most pyramid in the ruins, then climbed up and sat to watch the sunrise.  Magical.  That was followed by a three hour tour of the ruins lead by a guide.
Chichicastenango, Guatemala
From Flores, I took an internal flight to Guatemala City, then travelled by mini-bus to the lakeside town of Panajachel.  As luck would have it, the largest local Mayan market in Guatemala was happening in the nearby town of Chichicastenengo the next day, so I decided to go.  Locals and tourist alike flock to this market from far afield.  What a mad house.  Make-shift stalls errected to form a maze throughout the town centre.  Locals buying and selling everything under the sun.  Kids walking around with canvas bags full of clucking chickens, huge slabs of meat on display in the blazing sun, eggs by the thousand, people hollaring their sales pitch into the crowd, and lots of textiles to appeal to the tourists.  
San Pedro, Guatemala
My intention was to stay in Panajachel for a week of Spanish school, but on arrival, I just wasn´t comfortable in that town.  It´s quite touristy, didn´t have any charm for me, and my spidey sense was that it wasn´t altogether safe.  I decided to enrol in a school in the nearby town of San Pedro, also on Lake Atitlan.  I wandered down to the local dock, and started talking to people, and before you know it, I´m talking to a guy with a boat that will take me to San Pedro for $3US (40min by speed boat).  I love San Pedro.  It´s a cute little lakeside pueblo at the base of a huge volcano, with lots of excellent Spanish schools.  I am staying with a local family, and have one-on-one instruction for 4hours per day under a little thatched cabana beside the lake.  The cost is about $15US per day for school, room and board.  Can´t beat it.  The locals have a hard time saying my name, so for the rest of my trip, I´ve officially changed my name to “Rosita”.  Rose is my middle name, and “Rosita” is the spanish version of that.  My house mother affectionately calls me Rosie.  School is from 8am to 12noon each day.  I´ve been filling my afternoons with all sorts of cool stuff.  Thermal pools, massages, salsa dance lessons, weaving lessons, conversation classes and kayaking.  One afternoon I volunteered to deliver food packages donated by the school to needy local families.  I had the opportunity to go into their homes and speak with them and their children.  That was really cool.  As I was studying in my room one evening, I felt the earth start moving, it was an earthquake.  I ran out of my room assuming that the family was heading for cover. They were not.  They told me that the earth moves quite often around here.  No biggie.  Maybe it´s the rubblings of the volcano beside the town, I´m not sure.  Another evening I was studying in my room, and I heard a huge racket outside in the street, I opened my window to find a huge parade of people running with fire lit torches, apparently in celebration of something.   Another day, all of the town's three wheeled tuk tuk taxis were decked out in streamers and balloons, and drove around town in a convoy throwing candies and toys into the crowd of onlookers.  Still not sure what that was about.  One of the big selling points of any hotel or home is 'hot showers'.  In most places they achieve the hot water through an electric shower head with a heating unit inside.  Most of the ones I've seen have loose electrical wires connected by duct tape.  I'm a little concerned about the safety of the units, so if you don't hear from me again, the shower head might be the villain.   I just love the people in this town.  Everyone in the street smiles and greets you, and in some cases stops and wants to chat.  The females all wear traditional dress and carry supplies around on their heads.  The little children playing in the street stop me and want to play.  The town itself is a little rough around the edges, but that´s what I like about it.  It´s authentic Guatemala, nothing fancy, but a really genuine and lovely spirit.  
San Marcos, Guatemala
My itinerary so far has been in constant flux.  I ditched my original plan to go to Xela, Guatemala (the second largest city in the country), and opted instead to stay in the rural lake district and just move to the next pueblo on mountain encircled Lake Atitlan.  I enrolled in the sister school to the one I had been attending in San Pedro.  I love the quiet country living, and being able to walk everywhere.  I choose San Marcos because of it is a centre for massage, meditation, yoga and all sorts of spirituality and alternative healing practices.  Apparently the place has some special energy, which is good for healing and enlightenment.   On arrival to this place by boat, I saw a nude woman meditating on the rocks by the beach. The same woman ended up being my yoga instructor and masseuse. Spanish class is four hours every morning, with my same Spanish teacher from last week.  Some days we conduct class on the beach, or walking around the pueblo in conversation.  One day we conducted the conversation portion of class while attending the huge summer fiesta in a nearby town.  I filled my free time with lots of yoga and meditation classes, massage treatments, breathing practices, swims at the local beach, wood burning stone saunas, eating vegetarian and school homework.  The yoga here is mui loco.  Breathing like a lion, standing on your head doing fish faces, spinning around in a circle doing little hops, breathing like you are in the throws of passion, and doing swimming arms for five minutes in the seated position.  I'm convinced someone is just making this stuff up to see what crazy things people will do in the name of yoga.  The yoga studio is in this really cool pyramid shaped building, with entry from the bottom of the building through a door in the floor.  San Marcos is a TINY little pueblo, consisting of two little pedestrian streets.  It's necessary to carry a flashlight after dark, because there are very few lights to guide you otherwise.  The big event each night is the movie (sometimes English, a veses en EspaƱol) that plays at a local restaurant at 7pm.  The restaurant seats about  20 people, and the movie plays on regular sized television in the corner of the place.  Es mui tranquile aqui.  The school is new in this town, so they don't yet have a network of families for homestays in the area.  Instead I'm staying at the little 5 room hotel on the school property.  Private room with shared bath, veranda, hammock, hot showers, view of the volcano, and beach volleyball court for $8US per night.  The lake district in Guatemala is definately cooler than everyplace so far.  My long pants and fleece have come in handy here.  I have a feeling they won´t be needed for the remainder of my trip though.  I´m bracing myself for temperatures in the 30's and 40´s for the rest of my trip.   
Next on the itinerary:
Antigua, Guatemala - where I join a three week tour with other adventure travellers.  We'll visit Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
Chilled-out, stretched-out, and all spanished-out,
Guatemala's newest Spanish speaking sensation

Chapter 3 - Honduras and Nicaragua

Hola mis amigos!

Chapter 3 of Heather´s Central American Adventure is titled “Honduras and Nicaragua”.  But first, just a quickie on my last town in Guatemala, before crossing the border into Honduras.

Antigua, Guatemala
I joined my tour in Antigua, Guatemala and met the 8 other adventure travellers in the group, all from Europe.  A couple from Sweden, a lady from Norway, three girls from Germany, one from Switzerland, and one from Holland.  Our tour leader is originally from Mexico, but has lived all over the world.  We all commented that I´m the only one in the group with English as my first language, and yet English is the language we all have in common.  Antigua is a beautiful colonial city, once the capital of Guatemala. Really beautiful old buildings, lots of lovely cafes and restaurants, and cute little shops.  I spent my time in Antigua roaming around this quaint little town, taking photos, taking to the locals in the town square, stopping for a leisurely coffee, checking out some of the local ruins, and taking salsa dance lessons.  Antigua is known to be a hub for Spanish schools, and therefore attracts a lot of English speaking people.  I heard a lot of English being spoken in this town.

Copan, Honduras
Our group left in a private van for Copan, Honduras.  The six hour journey took us through Guatemala City, then through the countryside, finally crossing the border of Honduras at about 7pm.  These borders are so hilarious.  This one was quite quiet at that hour, but still the border vulchers are in full force, mostly with offers to change money.  The exchange rate isn´t good, but it´s still a good service because leftover currency is of zero value after you leave the border.  The trick is to arrive to the border with as little leftover currency from the last country as possible.  Our tour leader took charge of our passports and collected the border fees from us in order to process the exit from Guatemala and entry into Honduras.  Neither country has a proper office, it operates out of somebody´s house.  We just pull over to the side of the road and park.  There is no gate or border guard.  Nobody makes sure that the number of passports matches the number of people in our van, and nobody makes sure that the passports match the people.  Nothing is computerized, there is just a handwritten log book where our guide fills in the passport details for each person.  “Copan Ruinas´´ is a cute little village, which sprouted up beside the Mayan ruins of “Copan” We took a guided tour of the ruins in the morning, lead by a Spanish speaking archaeologist, and translated by our tour leader.  I was impressed that I could understand a fair amount of what our guide was explaining in Spanish, even before the English translation.   In the afternoon, a bunch of us decided to go to the local hot springs.  We piled into the back of Pepe´s pick-up truck, and bounced around in the back for the one hour drive on a really rough country road to the location of the hot springs.  We sat in a natural pool of hot water in the river, and climbed to explore the water source in the adjacent forest.  We had a barbecue dinner beside the river, then returned to town.  That was the best fun, I loved it.

Roatan, Honduras
We travelled by local chicken bus to the port town of La Ceiba.  The bus played the same collection of 80's ballads on replay for the entire trip.  Blast from the past with Air Supply, Chicago and Toto.  After the bus ride, we  boarded the 1.5hr ferry to the Caribbean island of Roatan.  I think I´ve found paradise.  This is my favourite place so far on this trip.  Warm crystal clear turquise water quietly lapping onto the powdery white sand beaches.  Roatan is a fairly large island, we stayed in the main beach town called “West End”, which consists of one sand road, lots of guest houses, great seafood restaurants and dive shops, immediately beside this beautiful white sand beach.  Our group went snorkeling at the local reef one morning, followed by a full afternoon beach flop.  I lay in the shallow surf reading my book, sipping cold beers, and trying to think of a way I could move to this place.  In the evening we feasted on lobster and beer.  I LOVE IT HERE!!!  The second day was equally lazy in the morning, but the afternoon was spent waterskiing.  My Norwegian friend was a superstar, getting up on the first try, and skiing around for 15min before calling it quits.  I managed to do some slolomn (one ski) skiing, which I haven´t done in many years.  So much fun!

Leon, Nicaragua
We had a very long travel day getting from Roatan to Leon.  5am wake up call, for the 6am flight to the capital city of Tegucigalpa, Honduras.  Two flights actually, the first one in a tiny little dual prop plane from the island to the mainland, then a larger plane into the capital city.  The planes were decked out in 60´s upholstery, and looked like they haven´t been cleaned since then either.  In the capital city we had a private van to take us to the border of Nicaragua.  We asked the driver to take us to his favourite local breakfast joint, which he did.  A little hole in the wall place with no sign, filled with locals, not one English word being spoken.  Full breakfast with coffee for $1.50US.  The border of Honduras and Nicaragua is the craziest I´ve seen so far.  The rough dirt road is absolutely jammed with hundreds of semi-trucks waiting to be processed.  Most of the drivers had hammocks set-up under their rigs to hang out and relax in the shade while they waited.  The border vulchers were in full force here as well.  Lots of money changers, but also lots of beggers.  Again with the disorganized passport processing, but this time there were a couple of officials that came out of their huts and took a glance inside the van.  The roads in Nicaragua are very rough, lots of potholes, making it difficult to get up any speed.  We saw quite a few local kids along the route that set-up a string ´baracade´ in an effort to get us to stop and give them money.  One such ´baracade´ was constructed with empty plastic pop bottles in a line on the road. The kids weren´t dangerous, they were just poor and desperate.  That said, I´m glad I was with a group, and happy not to have stopped the van.   We arrived in Leon, Nicaragua after 14hours in transit.  Leon is steeped in history including being the centre of the revolutionary war in the 70´s and the home of the beloved Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario.  It is a cute little colonial town, quite near the Pacific Coast.  I spent my time here just wandering around the old town, and climbing up to the roof of the beautiful old cathedral, the largest in all of Central American.
Granada, Nicaragua
From Leon we took a private van to Granada.  This was a really fun travel day, because we stopped along to way to see some really cool stuff.  First the Masaya Volcano, which is one of the world´s most active volcanos.  We drove right into the crater area, and right up to the active part which was spewing smoke and gases.  They say not to stay longer than about 20min of you might feel the effects of the gas.  Our next stop was an old prison used at the time of the revolution to house and torture opposition to the dictatorship, and subsequent to that, opposition to the Sandonista communist government.  It´s amazing to me that these heneious acts took place in my lifetime (in the 70´s).  This history is still very raw here in Nicaragua.  Granada is my favourite place so far in Nicaragua.  Really quaint colonial town right beside Lake Nicaragua. Lots of cute pedestrian streets, cobblestone, beautifully painted buildings, old churches, and lovely little cafes and restaurants.  There is a really cool project here called “Seeing Hands Blind Massage”, where blind locals are trained to give massages to earn some money.  My 35min massage by two different blind men cost $5.  I love to just walk and get myself lost, then figure out the way back, so that´s what I did here.  That´s the best way I´ve found to have authentic, local experiences, talk one on one with the people, and see the place as it really is.  I took another Salsa dance class here, $1 per hour for private instruction.  Can't beat it.   
Ometepe, Nicaragua
We travelled by chicken bus to the port town of Rivas, where we caught the passenger ferry to the volcanic island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua.  This open deck, old wooden ferry looked like it was held together with paper clips and rubber bands.  Boarding is by walking along a narrow plank from the pier.  They handed us life jackets immediately upon boarding, still not sure it that is a good sign or not.  The water was as rough as I've ever experienced, especially for a lake.  Ometepe Island is really cool, it was formed by the two active volcanos in the middle of the lake.  It is the largest lake in Central America, and is home to the only species of fresh water sharks.  The island is very lush, raw and wild.  There are small towns and some tourism on the island, but it is very unspoiled and natural.  Our hotel was right on a beautiful black volcanic sand beach, complete with volleyball nets.  Parrots and monkeys could often be seen in the hotel and outdoor restaurant.  I spent my time here doing a little forest wander, renting a bike to go to the local natural springs for some swimming, and chilling in the beach chairs and reading my book.  Bonfires on the beach and star gazing were popular nighttime activities.  On our van transfer back to the ferry, the van driver let his six year old son take the wheel to practice driving.  The main hazard he had to watch out for was the herds of cows, and occasional road crossing of other assorted animals.

San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
This is the only stop I have on my trip to the Pacific side.  Lots of great seafood restaurants right on a big beautiful white sand beach.  This is a big surfing town, so I decided to take surfing lessons here.  17 of us piled into a delapidated old van with surfboards strapped to the top, and we drove half an hour on a rough dirt road to a local surfing beach, called Playa Madera.  Surfing is a really hard sport to learn, the best I was able to do was to ride the waves on my knees instead of standing up.  One night we spent watching the sunset while enjoying happy hour at a foo foo resort just up the hill from our hotel.  Great view of the whole beach and town.  Each night we feasted on fresh cheap seafood at local beachside restaurant.
Next on the itinerary:  two weeks in Costa Rica, with a possible jaunt across the border to Bocas del Toro in Panama.  My next and final chapter will be two weeks from now, prior to my return to Vancouver on July 21st.

Hang ten,

Certified Central American Chicken Bus Surfer

Did you know?
- Ricky Martin´s career in alive and well in Latin American
- There is a Spanish salsa dance version of the Eagle´s song “Hotel California”
- There is Toronto TV channel airing in Granada, Nicaragua.  As I was watching TV one night in my room, an ad came on for Ontario Place and the Toronto Zoo.
- Central America was formed through a series of volcanic eruptions gazillions of years ago.  The whole thing is volcanic, and therefore very lush and filled with a wide variety of wildlife, flora and fauna.
- Guatemala is crawling with Israeli tourists.  
- The Maya language is alive and well in Guatemala.  Many older people speak only Maya, no Spanish.
- Central America is an interesting juxtaposition of modern conveniences such as plasma TVs and cell phones alongside horse buggies and chickens running in the street.

Chapter 4 – Costa Rica and Panama

Chapter 4 is the final installment of my Central American adventure, and is titled “Costa Rica and Panama”
Monteverde, Costa Rica
Crossing the border from Nicaragua into Costa Rica has been the most frustrating and time consuming border crossing yet.  Our van dropped us off and the border station and from there we had to walk about 1.5km in total.  First we had to pass through a gate which is manned by a money taker person.  Each person must pay $1US to pass through the door.  I'm not quite sure who gets the money, it all seemed a bit shady to me.  Then we had two separate offices to visit to exit Nicaragua, one with a charge, the other with a passport stamp.  Then we had to walk 1km with our heavy bags to the Costa Rica border station and stand in line in the rain for 30minutes before they would let us in the building for processing.  A new van picked us up on the Costa Rica side, and from there we drove about 4 hours to our next destination.  Costa Rica has a big problem with illegal immigrants passing from Nicaragua, much as the US has with illegal Mexican immigrants.  We passed through countless police check-points where they wanted to search our vehicle for smuggled Nicas.  Our drive to Monteverde was really quite beautiful.  Lush green rolling hills with wisps of cloud at the tops of the mountains.  Costa Rica is known as the Switzerland of Central America, for several reasons.  The landscape is similar, the politics are similar, and apparently they make good cheese.  Monteverde is high in the mountains in the cloud forest.  It was actually quite cool here, which is a shock to the system.  We had a guided tour of a wildlife reserve where we saw lots of rare birds, monkeys, interesting plants and bugs.  We were even lucky enough to see a quetzel bird, which is an endangered species and only found in a few areas.  The hotel wasn't my favourite of my trip.  I hate to complain.... but....  the scorpion, the musty smell and the uncomfortable bed combined to make me a little grumpy.
La Fortuna, Costa Rica
We had a short boat crossing on man-made Lake Arenal enroute to the town of La Fortuna.  The big attraction here is the Arenal Volcano, but this place has morphed into the adrenaline capital of Central America.  You can drop, dangle, hike and ride your way through this place. Bungee jumping, tarzan swings, white water rafting, volcano hiking, ATV tours, caving, canyoning, rappel down waterfalls, suspension bridges, zip lining and amazing hot springs.   One night we drove to a look-out spot to watch the lava spew from the volcano while eating take out pizza.  Daytime activities included a visit to the local waterfall, white water rafting and a walk through a local eco-reserve.  This town in Costa Rica is like the Disneyland of Central America.  Very touristy, lots of English spoken, tour buses, tour companies on every street corner, signs in English, souvenir shops, etc.    Costa Rica is very lush and abundant with all sorts of tropical crops.  We passed through plantations growing: coffee, plantains, rice, yuca, papaya, pinapple, banana, etc.   
Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica
My three week group tour ended in San Jose (the capital), and from there I travelled by local bus with my Swedish tour mates to this Caribbean beach town.  This place is pretty laid back, with a pretty serious weekend party scene.  The beaches are big and beautiful, the weather is warm, and the beer is cold. I'm staying at the Lizard King Resort, which includes a pool and a resident pet pig, "Piggy". I spent my days wandering around this surf town, chilling with a beer at a barefoot beachside bar.  One day I rented a bike and checked out the beaches a little farther down the road.  It's so undeveloped and natural here, huge beautiful beaches with nobody on them.  The slogan "Pura Vida" / "Pure Life" is used as an all around greeting here.  People use it to say "Hello", "Goodbye", "I agree with you", “Be cool”, etc.
Bocas del Toro, Panama
I took a local bus to the border station which was another memorable Central American experience.  First check-out on the Costa Rica side, then negotiated my way by foot over a train bridge to the Panama side.  I had to buy a $5US Panama tourist visa card at the first office.  There were five 'staffers' in the office doing nothing, and only the guy on the phone was actually able to conduct the business at hand.  So I waited.  Once that was sorted out, onto the second office to get the card stamped.  After the border formalities, I took a taxi to the next town, and water taxi to the islands of Bocas del Toro in Panama. Driving through the countryside on the mainland, I saw fields and fields of banana plantations, and learned that this is home to the Chiquita Banana empire.  The 45 minute water taxi to the island was quite an experience.  Mortoring through the narrow canals in the jungle, the horizon opened, and we moved into the open ocean.  The islands here are pretty cool, with oceanside businesses and houses built on stilts over the water.  These islands have lots of beautiful beaches, dolphins, snorkeling, surfing, and sea turtle nesting.  I stayed two nights in the main town, and two nights at a more remote island just 10minutes by motor boat.  The second place was my favourite, very small undeveloped island with only one pedestrian walkway, no cars.  I stayed in a treehouse mini-hotel here, complete with mosquito net and personal hammock. I met some really great new friends in this place, and together we decided to explore the nearby beach.  It was a 30minute hike through ankle deep mud across the island.  I fell in the mud more than once making my way through the slippery muck.  It was worth it though, long white sand beach and roaring waves and absolutely nobody around.  My last day was possibly the best day of my trip. We took a boat tour through the island archipeligo.  The first stop was at Dolphin Bay to watch the dolphins playing and jumping, then to a remote restaurant on stilts beside some mangroves.   This was a good spot for snorkeling by the reef, then sunning on the dock, flopping in and out of the shallow warm torquise water, laying in the hammocks, having a few beers and a bite to eat. Our last stop was a beautiful remote beach, called `Red Frog Beach`.  We flopped in the surf, and went exploring to find the frogs, and then took our boat back home.  While eating dinner one night, we were befriended by one of the locals `Joseph` who played his guitar for tips at the local island restaurants.  We talked at length with him about his life here, and the changes that tourism is having on these islands.  
San Jose, Costa Rica
I decided that I've had it with chicken buses and longhaul overland journeys so I bought a plane ticket from Bocas (Panama) to San Jose (Costa Rica).   I walked four blocks to the little local airport in Bocas and took the 45 minute flight by dual prop 20 seater plane.  This instead of 10 hours by land with countless taxi and bus changes. My time in San Jose is short (about 24hrs) before taking my international flight home later today.  I walked around the pedestrian shopping streets and hooked up with my Swedish tour mates for dinner.  I was grateful to have someone to go walk with after dark, this city is known to be quite dodgy.  I've had a great trip, but I'm ready to come home.  Here is my trip-in-review:
Trip in review:
# weeks travelling: 8
# of countries visited: 6
# of flights: 9
Worst attempt at a pick-up line: “I´ll bet you were pretty when you were young”
Health incidents: only one short blip where my energy was zapped
# of books read: 13
# of bandito incidents: 0
Average cost of a beer: $1.50US
# of beers consumed: lost count.......
Least amount spent on a room: $4US
Most spent on a room: $30US
Things I'm looking forward to at home: foot treatment, haircut, flushing my toilet paper, and not having my money duct-taped to my body 24hrs a day.
Value of this adventure: PRICELESS!!!
Pura Vida!!!