Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Saturday, February 23, 2008

On Traveling to Mesoamerica

By Sariah S. Wilson

I don’t much care for cruises. Now it’s possible I simply had a bad experience. We went on a Norwegian cruise ship, which is supposed to be a very good one, and I would rate the overall cruise-ness as average (I can’t see myself rushing to do another one. I discovered that I’m the type that would rather go to one spot and stay for a week than a bunch of different countries in a few days). The service was excellent, but I was a little disappointed with the food, the entertainment options, the cost of said entertainment options; but mostly it was the constant rocking of the boat.

I had asked my husband if the boat would move a lot. I didn’t know if I would get seasick. He explained about the stabilizers and how the boat would sway a bit, but shouldn’t move too much.

Enter the storm of Day 1 and Day 2.

I do, in fact, get seasick.

The next day the seas had calmed, the skies had cleared, and we were headed for Roatan, a small island off the coast of Honduras. We went on this trip with my husband’s family – his parents (who paid for it all), his siblings (three) and their spouses (surprisingly enough, also three) and Dr. Joseph L. Allen and his wife. We spent time before docking in classes. Unfortunately because some members of my husband’s family are either non-members or no longer members, a great deal of time was spent on basics of the Book of Mormon. I was a little frustrated, because I’d hoped by being in such a personal setting with Dr. Allen that I would get some good and fun information. (My in-laws compensated for this fact by seating me next to Dr. Allen on some of the road trips and at dinner so that we could talk more. The problem with this is that I didn’t always know what questions to ask.)

In Roatan we took a taxi to an unpopulated beach. I use the term beach loosely – it wasn’t quite what I had imagined a beach would look like in Central America. We were shown to a rocky overhang with steps that lead right down to the water (no sand). Everyone was going snorkeling. I’m not a big fan of the snorkeling. I don’t much like things in the water touching me. I’m also a big scaredy cat of eels and crocodiles. Whenever I have really bad nightmares, they involve eels or crocodiles or some hideous combination of both. I don’t know why. I’ve never actually seen them in the wild where they could hurt me. But they’re just creepy. I found out that they had many eels in their coral reef and that was enough for me.

But I did get to see one of the most incredible sunsets imaginable. Here’s me and my husband just as the sun touches the ocean.

On Day 4 we were in Guatemala, first home of the Lamanites and Nephites. Here we hired a tour guide to take us to the ruins at Quirigua. As we were on the bus headed for our destination, Dr. Allen began speaking about some Book of Mormon facts, but our tour guide interrupted us. She explained to him in rapid Spanish that she was also a member of our church. She said that during Hurricane Mitch her home had been destroyed and she needed assistance, and no one came to check on her until later from the church, so she had been offended and had stopped going. She said that recently she had been feeling as if she should return, and felt that being our tour guide (as we had hired them right there on the dock, it wasn’t pre-arranged) was a sign for her, particularly since there were so many other mitigating factors of how she wasn’t supposed to have even been at work that day, wasn’t supposed to have gone with us, etc.). She called us her Nephites, and said she was a Lamanite. Dr. Allen gently corrected her (despite the fact that he had actually been born in Nephi), but she called us her Nephites and her brothers and sisters for the rest of the day.

Quirigua is best known for the stela that exist at the site. Quirigua had been a vassal state to Copan, until Cauac Sky overthrew the king of Copan (18-Rabbit) and beheaded him in Quirigua, shifting the area’s base of power to Quirigua. The stela are amazing, but we only have movies of it and not any pictures of just the stela so I won’t post any. We did go over to the main site to see where they were recovering the temples, and here is a picture of me among the ruins.

I should mention that it was HOT. I’ve never experienced this sort of heat before, and it was winter. No wonder the Nephites wanted to get back to the highlands of Guatemala to the lands of their inheritance. It was winter and I felt like I would die (plus we had been told to wear long sleeves and long pants because of the mosquitoes, so doubly hot). I spent a large portion of my time sitting in the shade trying not to turn into a puddle of goo.

We got to eat at a fast-food restaurant called Pollo Campero . It was sort of like KFC, only there was an armed guard in the parking lot with one of those huge bars that stop cars from going through until it is lifted. It was fun realizing that I could order in Spanish and actually understand the menu and my server. I also enjoyed getting back to the docks and bargaining in the open-air market with the vendors completely in Spanish. Two years of Spanish at the Y goes to some use after all.

Day 5 we landed in Belize. Belize was a former colony of England so the national language is English, and they use the same measurement system (miles, feet, pounds, etc.) that we do. Their native Spanish has a totally different accent and I couldn’t understand a word they’d say when they lapsed into it. They’re also one of the few Central American countries that will allow foreigners to buy real estate. One acre is currently going for between $500 and $1,000. (My husband’s brother is the type who hopes to be totally self-sufficient some day and live off the land, so this is very appealing to him. I couldn’t get past the roaming armed forces with big AK-47s).

But this day was totally amazing. Dr. Allen wasn’t able to accompany us, as he’s had some recent health issues and came down with an infection. First we drove to Orange Walk, at which point we hired a speedboat to take us up New River to Lamanai. Interestingly enough, most Maya sites do not have their original names (i.e., archaeologists will give them their names). But Lamanai is a site whose original name has not been lost. So how interesting, of course, that Laman makes up part of that name. Lamanai means “submerged crocodile” because the lake and lagoon outside of Lamanai are filled with crocodiles. See a few paragraphs above to imagine how much this freaked me out and how much I prayed for the boat NOT to tip over.

Yes, we did see crocodiles. Fortunately they were only at the surface for a moment before quickly submerging, so I could pretend they were only sinking logs.

We passed by a Mennonite settlement right on the river. One of our guides explained that there were also “progressive” Mennonites in Belize City who drove Mercedes and had big beautiful houses.

The birds along the river were simply amazing. Herons, egrets, hawks and all other types of birds that I’ve only ever seen in pictures taking to the sky and roosting on their nests. The river was gorgeous, lined with walls of greenness on either side, the water calm and still like glass. We would slow down whenever we encountered native fishermen as the wake from the boat would tip their tiny canoes over. Fishing seemed extremely good there.

We got to Lamanai and had an excellent homecooked meal of tiny chicken breasts, beans and rice, coleslaw and potato salad. They brought water and soda for us – all of the soda being in glass bottles which reminded me of my childhood. Also, while it was still relatively warm, it was nothing like the day before where I thought I might actually melt. Here a nice breeze blew the entire time and it was much cooler.

The flora in this area is just incredible. Added to that the native knowledge of our tour guides and I was in heaven. I kept asking about plants and trees and finding out all their uses and seeing just what they looked like and the guides showed me how to get water and what things would be beneficial in the jungle. It’s one thing to read about these things, it’s entirely different to be standing there with a native in the jungle and hearing about how different bark and sap and leaves are used.

We saw the jaguar temple first, but quickly moved on to this temple (N-56):

We saw the top of the temple from the lake, it was so tall. This is the temple you could climb. We passed through a small ball court (which was exciting to me and when you read my Ammon book you’ll see why) and then arrived at the temple. The guides kept telling us that we were climbing at our own risk. Fortunately, I don’t have a fear of heights (although I do have a bit of a fear of falling off large temples) but I didn’t come halfway around the world to not climb this temple. So here I am climbing up the stairs:

It shocked me how steep and how high the stairs are. The Maya were not a large people and if I had a hard time at six feet tall getting up these steps, how much harder did they have it? I imagined King Noah scrambling up steep steps like this to escape Gideon. I thought of the bloodshed, of the priests and kings who had climbed these stairs before me, of the victims forced to climb to their death.

But then at the top…I have never in my life seen anything like this. Green as far as the eye could see, mounds and hills that indicated a temple beneath them simply waiting to be discovered. When people ask why it is that we have no definitive proof on buildings in Central America of the Nephite/Lamanite cultures, you could look at a site like Lamanai where 800 structures have been identified and only five have been uncovered (and of course many LDS scholars have identified gods and symbols that they think are Christ centered, but that’s a story for another day).

And as I took in that view, I realized why these men felt like gods. How could they not at this height, with the world at their feet?

We also saw the Temple of the Mask, with an Olmec mask on the outside of it. Completely fascinating that that culture came this far south and that a Maya structure had an Olmec decoration (or a Lamanite temple had a Jaredite mask). I was disappointed when we had to leave.

The last day we landed in Cozumel, Mexico. By this point, despite all the amazing things we had seen, everyone was exhausted (particularly since many of us had been battling an awful flu strain. One of my husband’s brothers spent almost the entire vacation in his bed he was so sick). My husband’s sister asked for us to go to Akumal, to a beach area where they’d had many childhood vacations. We were supposed to go to Tulum, but as almost everyone else had already been to that site, they decided against it. It was a bummer because I’ve seen so many pictures of that coastal site where so much trading went on, and thought it fascinating that it was one of the few Maya cities still being lived in at the arrival of the Spanish. My mother-in-law also wanted me to see a cenote (because of the important scene in one in “Secrets in Zarahemla”), but as it cut into beach time the majority overruled.

So off we were to white sands and turquoise waters, which is what I had envisioned when this trip was first mentioned. I’ve never been to a place like this, and its beauty was awesome.

Cozumel was a fun port – you had to go through an open-air mall to get off the boat and there were Mexican dancers and scarlet macaws and iguanas and monkeys (oh my). I loved going shopping there. It was difficult not to buy everything I came across (particularly everything Maya-related). Fortunately, lack of money necessitates restraint.

The next day we spent relaxing on the ship in our room watching movies that aren’t even out on video yet (i.e. Bee Movie) and ordering chocolate mousse from room service.

I was glad to come home, grateful for the things I take for granted living in America, but I was also glad to have had my adventure.

(P.S. - Probably one of the most fun parts of the cruise was that 70 percent of the crew were from the Philippines, and I can't even tell you what great service we got since my husband talked to everyone in their native language. He caused a scene everywhere we went! LOL We actually got almost the entire staff of the buffet one night gathered around him to figure out how this gringo spoke Tagalog so well.)


At 2/25/2008 11:20 AM, Blogger Tristi Pinkston said...

Thank you for this report on your trip! I'm sorry for the stuff that didn't go well, excited for the stuff that did, glad you had the experience, and am glad you made it home safely.

At 2/25/2008 5:39 PM, Blogger Jennifer Leffler said...

Where did your husband learn Tagalog. It is a difficult language. We were in the Philippines for three years (1985-1988) and I couldn't pick up any of it.

At 2/25/2008 6:24 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Wow, what a trip! Thanks for the report and the cool pictures!

At 2/25/2008 10:13 PM, Blogger Sariah S. Wilson said...

Thanks, Tristi! I know I might sound like a bit of a downer about some parts, but that's honestly how it went. And I think it was good that I got the chance to try a cruise and see what I thought. It's always fun to have a new experience and judge for yourself whether or not you like it.

Jennifer - my husband seems to have an affinity for languages. He picks up computer languages like no one's business (and is totally self-taught). But he served a mission in Quezon City in the Philippines and that's how he learned it. Somehow, despite the fact that he's been home for 13 years, he has retained it.

And I'm glad you enjoyed the pictures, Stephanie. I did not take them. I'm always getting lectures about how I have no feel for composition (husband's family is really into photography). I'm much more of a point and click type gal.

At 2/25/2008 10:42 PM, Blogger Rebecca Talley said...

What a trip. Love the photos, especially the gorgeous beach.

My nephew also served in the Phillipines and speaks Tagalog--he's been home about 3 years or so.

At 2/26/2008 10:18 AM, Blogger Alison Palmer said...

Ha, Sariah! This sounds just like the cruise I'm taking my daughters on next month. I didn't make the connection with all of your earlier references, then I started reading the names of the places you went and my dim little lightbulb went off. "huh" says I. "That sounds like some of the places I'll be going" I checked my stuff and sure enough... too cool!


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