Lake Atitlan, a place where the Gods of the mountain meet the life-giving lake, and magic touches every soul that enters. With the world getting smaller by the day and western culture permeating every corner of the globe now. There is one place, the quickly changing world seems to have less of effect, and that is in Lake Atitlan. Mayan Shamans are still the first person the locals call when they have health issues, and magic is liberally felt throughout the ancient supervolcanic valley.
The Mother in the Water, the Magic of the Mountains
If you travel 3-hours by car to the heart of the Sierra Madre Mountains; you will find the beating soul of Lake Atitlan in the local Mayan people. There are many names that the people here give to the lake, ‘the place of the water’, ‘the place where the colors of the rainbow come from’, and even ‘place of the gringo’.
While the small villages that dot the edges of this 11.8 x 6 miles wide (19x10km) lake, the gringos (or a comical term for a non-native) have tales of mysticism and magic and deep spiritual connection to this area just as the local Mayans do.
Backpackers and anthropologists frequently visit this area, and many who did not believe the influence of the other-worldly in this place – often leave believers after visiting. Stories and accounts of strange and vivid dreams happen while staying at this popular Yoga retreat. Mayan mythology is still told in reverence and whispers and still holds a very strong place in the hearts of the locals.
Mayans in Lake Atitlan
Despite having so much western influence, the people here thrive, and live off of the tourism that is brought to this isolated part of Guatemala. Their roots into their Mayan culture still go as deep as the 1,049 foot (320m) lake. In order to preserve their culture, they are discouraged from marrying outsiders – and also wear the traditional dress. They have made their travel niche in the world but conserving and preserving the core values of their culture & made it their selling point.
It is difficult to know the exact time that the Mayans inhabited the area, due to the two active volcanos and earthquakes that have happened in this region. There is, however, an archaeological site called Chuitinamit, also known as Chiya. Chiya is known to have served as the capital of the Tz’utujil for about 150 years, beginning in 1400 AD.
The Gods of the Mountains, The Lifegiving Lake
Mayans are known for worshiping all things connected with nature. Four animals are assigned to each person when they are born, and as they age they become more known and represent different parts of their life. These spiritual animals are called Nuuals. Corn is the giver of life, and you will often see it represented on drawings, used in ceremonies and hanging on houses.
Fire is known as the great purifier, the fruit of the land, the eggs of the chicken, the Gods in the mountains with their storms and thunder, and even the life-giving waters of the lake are all prayed to and for – for what the Mayans needed.
As the Spanish conquerors moved in, the Mayans were made slaves, placed into special clothing that is now considered traditional – but was used to distinguish the local natives as slaves.
There are still elements to the clothing that retain their Mayan roots, and Nuuals are still sewn into clothing as a way to give strength and power to the individual that wears it.
When I came to Lake Atitlan, I didn’t realize how strong the Mayan culture here was. I didn’t realize there were so many dialects of the Mayan language, and that it is no closer to Spanish than it is to French. Locals and those in the most remote villages, still needed translators to be able to interact with me while I was there helping a friend spread the word about Empowering Mayan Women in San Pedro.
The cultures here rely so heavily on tourists, to come and explore these areas. It helps to put food on the table, get pills for the back pain and arthritis that plagues the older generations from years of carrying heavy bags of coffee, beans, and other produce up and down the steep mountains.
They also heavily rely on Lake Atitlan for washing clothes, transportation to and from major villages to sell their clothing. The tiny Lanchans, or boats, will run across the lake – even with 6 foot swells rocking the boat. Women and men alike fall to their knees in the cramped space and pray that they will make it safely across. The lake is refreshed slightly every year during the rainy season, but this vital piece of their culture may be dying.
A Dying Lake Atitlan
A major earthquake in 1976 left a crack in the bottom of the lake allowing water to seep away into the crust of the earth, locals watched, horrified as the lake dropped nearly 6ft (2m) in one month. It isn’t just the dropping waterline, it is also a deadly bacteria that has infected the lake – turning it from a brilliant blue, to a sewer green.
The catastrophic slow death of this lake started when non-native black bass was introduced into the water to lure tourists to the area. These ended up eating the entire food chain of rare Pato Poc duck, leading to the extinction of Atitlan Grebe a rare bird that would have kept the deadly bacteria at bay.
Phosphorus rich Fertilizer that the poorest farmers here use, waste from local hospitals pours into the lake almost daily. This ends up feeding the cyanobacteria that can produce cyanotoxins, which are extremely harmful to certain species and can cause harm to humans as well.
Despite all of this, local Mayans will come and clear a space in the mornings and evenings to do what they must. You can see and hear the slapping and sloshing of the locals at the lake, washing and beating their clothes. Stray dogs play on the shores, and people can still be seen trying to fish. Despite the danger, it is the only source of water in which they are able to clean their clothing, fish, and rely on for their daily life.
Daily Life in Lake Atitlan
I couldn’t believe the explosion of color surrounding me when I visited San Pedro, a small city on the shores of Lake Atitlan. From the buildings to the signs, to the people. Mayan Women dressed in their colorful shirts wandering the streets, each shirt exhibiting a different color/arrangement/Nuual that represents their village.
It is common for a family to not have food on the table, but they will dress very well. There is a belief here that how you take care of yourself and the way you dress is one of the most important things you can do.
The men dress in western wear more commonly now, but in traditional gatherings will wear white pants, broad embroidered belts, and colorful mountain shirts.
The Daily Work
The work varies, but consists of mostly men working the paid jobs as it is typically considered the woman’s job to be home with the kids or cooking. Be sure to read how my friend, Sheri Keller from She Rides Dragons is trying to empower women in San Pedro to work through her company.
Many of the jobs that the men are hired to do there require knowing Spanish because of the tourists that come to Lake Atitlan for Yoga retreats. Because of this, and many tourists who stay, the Spanish schools in this area are quite good and this is also where many women like Dora Abelina González Gonzalez are allowed to teach Spanish.
If the women don’t know Spanish, or are unable to speak it – they often speak a dialect of the Mayan language and revert to selling tortillas, textiles, ceramics and agricultural products.
Agriculture in this area is the next biggest source of income for many locals. The volcanic soil is rich in nutrients and allows beans, onions, tomatoes, squash, garlic, strawberries, avocados, chiles, cucumbers, pitaya, and coffee beans to grow.
If you look to the surrounding mountains, you might see lines of crops clear up on the mountainside. This isn’t a unique feature to the local flora, it is a man made perfect farming line of crops. I learned the higher up the farms and land were, the cheaper the land was for the farmers – but deaths during the rainy season are quite common due to the steep slopes.
Healthcare in Lake Atitlan
The beauty and abundance of the surrounding area, and the constant feeling of peace and calm in the area. Made it a wonder people here could be afflicted by health maladies just as commonly, if not more than those in the states.
Being a Physician Assistant, I wanted to see what a pharmacy looked like in this area. To get Advil, or even Tylenol you had to go to the Pharmacy and just ask for what you needed. If you need Xanax, well that is readily available as well. While the medications may be varied, and sometimes shocking at how locals are able to treat themselves so easily; these things can be highly regulated in the States.
I watched and listened as a woman and her mother asked the local pharmacist what she could take for her back pain. Xanax was suggested to help her relax, Tylenol was suggested when the women said that it wasn’t anxiety. I heard them describe the pain, and knew that the pain was likely coming from her neck and radiating down her arms and to the middle of her back. I humbly suggested medication and told them in Spanish that I was like a doctor in the USA. They asked a few more questions, and then had to barter for the price on the medication. I kicked myself mentally for not bringing my wallet, as we were just going to leisurely stroll through the last hours of the produce market. I desperately wanted to pay for their medication, or help in some way, other than just giving my opinion.
As I was leaving, they asked me if I had a clinic they could come see me at. You see, her mother had Diabetes, and they couldn’t afford the medication. They wanted some ideas on how to control her blood sugars naturally. It broke my heart that the education, and medical services in this area were lacking so readily. That the women had to barter with the pharmacist over 2 pills to help with what I assumed was arthritis from carrying massive bags on their heads up and down the steep slopes of the villages. I don’t think I wanted anything more at that moment than to stay for an additional 3 weeks and just answer questions and help educate those in this village.
It isn’t just arthritis though, parasites here are quite common. The water supply is not considered clean, and you have to boil, filter, bleach, and minimize water usage. If you want clean water to drink, you can buy gallons of it at a nearby store. Then you are left to carry it back to your house.
With so few westernized medicine resources, medications, and lack of education – the locals tend to turn to their Mayan roots for healing and guidance. A Mayan Shaman has a vast knowledge of local plants, remedies for common ailments, and has been taught from his father and/or her mother before her – for generations on how to naturally heal. Often components of what they have discovered for healing common ailments have been modernized and are used in medical treatments in western medicine as well
Meeting A Mayan Shaman
I decided to meet with a local Mayan Shaman in the area that my friend Sheri Keller knew. I had to pay for supplies, but the Shamans in the area consider it a calling to do the type of work that they do. They typically do not accept payment, and if they do, they will use it to buy supplies for someone who needs them – but cannot afford the Shaman services. If you want to ‘pay them’ then bring a meaningful gift, or pay it forward for someone else, or at the very least take them to dinner.
While I won’t go into great detail in this post, I will address my truly humbling experience with the Shaman in another article. The long of the short of it is that I came to San Pedro La Laguna because I wanted to pay it forward. Of all the years I spent in Physician Assitant School, of all the years I have labored, been blessed, had people come into my life at the right time, the trauma of Rape I endured, the death of my Grandma, my father leaving to live a life I never dreamed he would – the last few years have been the hardest. There was a mental block within me that I felt was prohibiting me from having meaningful relationships, being able to connect with my family again, and ultimately healing from the pain of my trauma. I was worried about so many things in the future and was mentally trying some things to each other that was inhibiting me from moving forward with life.
I let my own pre-conceived ideas of what I thought ‘real medicine’ was go, and opened my heart and mind to this Mayan Shaman. I begged whatever power lay with the mountains of Lake Atitlan to help heal me, help me get past the blockade of what happened that wouldn’t seem to budge.
She arranged the flowers, she lit the palo santo, burned the special resin, rubbed me with oils, ingredients, said prayers in Mayan, and our hearts connected on a very intimate level. I did what she asked when she asked, I let go of my personal space and in the end – a weight I asked to be lifted was indeed lifted.
As many of our minds do when something akin to ‘magic’ happens, I doubted, I took it with a grain of salt. Yet, I still believe that the barriers she said were inhibiting me, would no longer be an issue.
We cried together when she left, she was empathetic and said that it was very heavy what I brought to our session together – but she was grateful I called her. She apparently has to hear many stories of women in the area, who have yet to be impacted by the #metoo movement that has taken place in the United States.
Leaving the Magic in of the Mountains
I came to Lake Atitlan as a skeptic with an open mind, and a scientific assessment of what I experienced. When I left San Pedro, after only four days of witnessing the beautiful Mayan Culture in Lake Atitlan – I realized how lucky my life was. My heart felt light again, I could feel love for the people there when I hadn’t felt love in a long time. Now several months later, I am dating again, I have reconnected with my family, I laugh, I feel hope and most of all I believe once again that good things can happen – and maybe everything does happen for a reason.
While the Mayan culture may be isolated, and often forgotten by the rat race of life in the surrounding cities. I am grateful for the chance I had to witness such a humble, hard-working, kind, and generous way of living.
While it may not look and act exactly like the ancient ancestors, being able to be a witness of a living history in Lake Atitlan was one of the greatest experiences of my life. It is an experience I would recommend to those with an open heart and mind. There is so much good that could and should be done in the area there, and the people will give it back ten-fold if you let them.
Despite time, western culture, polotics, weather, volcano, earthquakes, and so many other elements and factors against them, the Mayan people survive. They strive for a better life and want to share and preserve their culture with those who come to visit.
As I left the magic in that mountain valley, I knew I would return again one day – when I needed to, and when they needed me. For now, I cherish the short time I had there, and will always hold a special place in my heart for being able to experience it.
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Where to Stay Near San Pedro La Laguna
San Pedro is considered the lakeside hotspot and is a straight shot across the lake from Panajachel (about a 30-minute trip and 15 quetzales/$2.00US). I would suggest staying in San Pedro for a more authentic local feeling, rather than in Panajachel where it is quite busy and chaotic.
Casa Elena is the most popular hostel located right on the lake in San Pedro. The rooms are quite cheap and have swimming and sunset viewing access. The hotel is locally owned by a friendly Mayan family, and their cleanliness ensures that you stay healthy, and sleep well during your trip.
Health and Safety Tips
ATM’s are iffy – bring all the cash you need, stuff it in different places and don’t carry the full amount with you
Ensure you bring a Lifestraw water bottle with you, hand sanitizer, and a buy some bleach at the local market.
Bleach your plates, spoons etc…. be sure to let it dry completely after bleaching for proper decontamination. Parasites here are common, especially in the dogs in the street. So don’t play with the local wildlife unless they are owned by a family. If they are owned, they typically will be well taken care of.
Getting there: Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan region is about 70 miles from Guatemala City, home to the nearest major airport. If you don’t want to rent a taxi to get there (around $70 for a 3-hour trip), then I would recommend heading towards Panajachel. Getting to Panajachel will get you to Lake Atitlan and from there you can take a boat to your desired town. It would be a four-hour bus trip leading to the country’s western highlands. Please keep in mind that the buses are recycled School Buses from the States, go slow, and often crowded and don’t run at night. The Rebuli bus station on 21st street and 1-34 Avenue (Zone 1) in Guatemala City leaves every day at 6, 9, and 10 a.m. for Panajachel.
Getting around: Small public boats called lanchas transport people to the different villages around the lake for anywhere from 10 to 25 quetzals, which is equivalent to about $1.30 to $3.25 U.S. There is a time schedule for the boats, and rain or shine they will take you across. I don’t believe they run at night though, so be cautious in your planning when you arrive.
Once in your final destination, it is easy to travel by foot, or you can flag down a tuk-tuk and show them the name of the destination in Spanish or tell them where you would like to go.
Have you been to Lake Atitlan? What are some of your suggestions I may have missed? Leave them in the comment section below 🙂
“You have to howl!” Sheri screamed up at me as I summited my first climbing route in Joshua Tree National Park. This would make a lasting impression on me for the rest of my life, to throw caution to the wind and celebrate the accomplishments we have in life, out loud and proud. I could write a book about Sheri, following her adventures of van life from San Diego to San Pedro, and making her home in Lake Atitlan. The story I want to tell you about though is one of true compassion, connecting cultures, and empowering the women in San Pedro La Laguna with Sheri’s Company – She Rides Dragons.
Sheri Keller and She Rides Dragons
Sheri is a wanderer at heart, but somehow San Pedro and the people in this town stole her heart and she chose to stay. Once there, it wasn’t long before she started making friends. One of her closest friends is Dora, a Spanish teacher, and seamstress who has a smile that will light up the whole room when she allows you to see it.
After several months exploring San Pedro and the other small villages in Lake Atitlan, Sheri discovered the Mayan textiles and an idea began to form. After a lot of trial and error, and drawing on her resources in San Diego, she was able to set up a clothing company called She Rides Dragons. I will explain that name a little later.
Sheri is a Yoga teacher, juggler and all-out fabulous performer that brings magic with her wherever she goes, which fits in perfectly with the backpacking town of San Pedro. So naturally making yoga bags, and other clothing items with Mayan adorned symbols was the next step along her incredible journey.
Collaborating For A Cause
Little did I know, that after following Sheri’s journey of fulfilling her dreams – she had started to follow me as I pursued my dreams of being a travel writer, photographer, and videographer – She would ask me to be a brand ambassador for her company, She Rides Dragons.
I was just starting out but flabbergasted that this woman that I had held in my mind as a goddess of adventure was asking me to collaborate with her for a cause. I, of course, agreed, right after I pulled my jaw back up off the floor and re-attached it to my face.
I received one of her clothing items, a full-length ritual robe, exquisitely hand-crafted and designed with more attention to detail than some of the best brands I have seen. Colors are perfectly matched, the fabric is thick, heavy, and you can almost feel the magic of Lake Atitlan flowing out it.
I immediately messaged her when I received it and thanked her profusely. “Sheri I cannot believe how well made this is!” I was nearly bubbling over with excitement, she replied in her usual cool-as-a-cat way “I know, the women here do such a great job. I hope we can continue to make these because the money is so vital for these families”. This piqued my interest, as my first love has always been humanitarian work and travel for a cause.
Sheri explained that the culture in Lake Atitlan is one of strong patriarchal power. The men often drink, and work is often hard to find, with very little pay. For this reason, she specifically buys the fabric for her company from local women and hires local women as seamstresses to make the clothing and bags, weave the ‘tehido’ that become the tassels on those bags, and as translators to assist with different Mayan languages, of which there are many. Some of the Mayan women Sheri works with speak little or no Spanish and having a translator has been crucial in learning about the different textiles, peoples, and towns around Guatemala. The money that the women make goes straight into their pockets, not their husbands, and they decide how it gets spent.
The women put a lot of their income toward their children and putting food on the table. Many of the women have to weave and sew by the light of the fires they burn near their homes as they cannot afford electricity. If a guest comes, they will feed the guest before they feed the children. The families in Lake Atitlan are not beggars, they work for what they have…sometimes to their own detriment.
Sheri has a gift for observational power and has often found families in need of help. With connections all around the lake, she is constantly on the phone, in her ‘magic makers’ circle – trying to help the families and animals that need it the most. I think she tries to fix the major issues in San Pedro and Lake Atitlan because of how much love she has for this place. Her home has been a haven, an animal rescue, a place of creativity and love – and the people in the city all know her as a giving wonderful human being with boundless love and charity. It is hard for her to walk down the streets without people coming and thanking her for one thing or another.
Yet if you point these things out to her, she will often dismiss it as ‘oh its nothing’, or ‘it isn’t as much as I want to do here’.
Meet Dora – A Seamstress and Spanish Teacher extraordinaire
Dora was born and raised in San Pedro La Laguna. She is Sheri’s friend, a seamstress for She Rides Dragons and so much more. Sheri and Dora met at a Spanish school in San Pedro where Dora taught Spanish. It wasn’t until months later that Sheri discovered Dora was also a seamstress and the two of them began working together on She Rides Dragons.
Dora is so proud that she is able to provide food for her family, can afford electricity, has her own stove, and lives in a very good part of San Pedro. She is able to do much of this because of her work with She Rides Dragons, where she receives pay directly for her work.
Her greatest pride and joy though, is being able to provide a good education for her boys so they can have the best life possible. The best way to ensure survival in Lake Atitlan for the children is to provide education, otherwise, they will be forced to work in the cornfields and coffee farms on the steep slopes of the mountains and volcanoes that surround Lake Atitlan.
Dora is now trying to pass on the love, by getting her Aunt involved. Her sweet Aunt Maria only speaks Mayan and lives high up on the mountain. The home she lived in before her current one was no better than a shanty house with a roof. While she still cannot afford electricity at this time, she was able to afford cinder block floors, walls and a decent roof over her head with a real door. There is a small wood-burning stove on the balcony that she makes tortillas from every morning at 3 am to sell to the local shops so that her daughter can go to school.
There are 36 different dialects of the Mayan language that have survived in this area, and luckily Dora was able to translate from Mayan into Spanish and Sheri then translated into English for me. So trying to communicate in 3 different languages, and get the meaning across was quite comical but we made it work.
Maria, weaves all the tassels for the yoga bags by hand for Sheri. There are many different types of loom weaving that happen and the tradition is passed down over many generations. There are some loom weaving classes in the San Pedro area for tourists, but these women are the real heroes of this story.
Where Does the Fabric Come From?
The fabric for She Rides Dragons comes from all over Guatemala. Fortunately for Sheri, there are fabric markets that offer up incredible inventories so that she doesn’t have to travel to each town when she wants that town’s specific style of weaving or embroidery. There are also traveling saleswomen who visit San Pedro La Laguna. These women make their living by selling second-hand fabrics that their hometowns. The fabric markets, as well, mostly offer second-hand fabrics with a much smaller inventory of new fabrics. When the Mayan fabrics and clothing, huipils (blouses) and Cortes (dresses), are new they are so colorful and bright that you have shield your eyes from their glare when the sunlight touches them.
In order to get the best quality fabric, Sheri takes a 30-minute boat ride across Lake Atitlan – sometimes with waves so bad that people drop on their knees and start to pray (not joking) – to another town called Panajachel (Pa-na-ha-chel). Then it is a long hike up a hill to the fabric market. The market takes place twice a week at the fire station. Sheri has been coming here for four years and has developed a familiar relationship with one of the families that sell fabrics such that when she arrives they know exactly how much fabric Sheri needs, the kind she likes, and it is already, awaiting her inspection.
Sheri sifts through the fabric, sorting, swapping, matching, inspecting for frayed ends or imperfect patterns. After about an hour or so of choosing fabric, then it is a call to her partner, John to check on fabric funds. It is difficult to get cash in San Pedro, they do have an ATM, but can be spotty at best on if it is broken or not.
After some negotiating with the women for the amount of fabric she buys, the fabric is then loaded into large bags for transport back across the lake. I bought a few pieces myself while there because how can you resist the Mayan symbols of Dogs and Dragons!
Grabbing a Tuk-Tuk, we headed back to the dock to take a launcha (boat) back across the lake to San Pedro.
Sewing the Clothing
We hauled the bags back up the hill in San Pedro, grabbed another Tuk-Tuk, and went to Dora’s house to deliver the fabric. Sheri instructs Dora in Spanish once we arrive on the ideas she has for each set of fabric pieces she picked out. Dora makes notes, and patterns are pulled out and set near each pile of fabric.
After a long day, and the afternoon rains coming in we finally get to rest and eat some food. We head back to Sheri’s House. Yet the day doesn’t end there for Sheri, she isn’t one that can sit still for long – despite sometimes needing to. So she gets on the phone with Dora again, to see if she can arrange for another woman who sells huipils – the traditional blouses worn by the Mayan women in Guatemala – to meet with us the next day.
A Long Journey
The next day we head back to Dora’s House to meet with another inspirational woman, Rosa. It is a long journey for Rosa to meet with Sheri. She comes from a small town called Chajul (Cha-hool) that is about twelves hours away by bus. This is how Rosa makes her living, traveling around Guatemala and selling fabrics from her hometown of Chajul. The fabrics are gorgeous and coveted by many women all over Guatemala for their soft feel and durability. Sheri met Rosa 3 years ago when Rosa was traveling though San Pedro and selling fabrics at the Sunday market in San Pedro. Since that time they have developed a beautiful working relationship and Sheri is one of Rosa’s best customers, which is why she is willing to travel all the way from her home to see us.
Rosa arrives at Dora’s house with two large bags full of fabric, Cortes, and huipils. After greetings, how-are-yous, and some water to drink, Sheri, Dora, and Rosa begin looking through the bags. Sheri picks out the fabrics she thinks would be a perfect match for the Yoga bags. Carefully choosing symbols that she thinks would resonate with her ideal customers. After paying her for the items, Rosa takes the remaining fabrics and clothing to Panajachel to sell what she can at the fabric market. Then it is another long journey home, all to help feed her children and keep them from having to work on the farms.
Creating The Clothing Infused With Magic
There are many reports from those who visit Lake Atitlan that there is some kind of magical pull there. They have ‘odd’ dreams, and tend to live more on the wild side of life – yet the local community is very conservative and Catholic.
It sounds a little odd, and I didn’t believe it at first – but waking up the morning after I arrived and seeing the incredible Lake, it made me wonder if it was true. Lake Atitlan was made after a Super Volcano erupted, then imploded creating a caldera for the lake to be born. The lake itself is 1115 feet (389 meters) deep, and 11.2 mi × 5.0 mi (18 km × 8 km) surface.
The Sierra de Los Cuchumatanes mountain range surrounds this lake with the highest mountain, Atitlan Volcano, reaching an elevation of 12,588 feet (3,837 m). The name Atitlan is a Mayan word that means “the place where the rainbow gets its colors.” There are two other volcanoes that are also part of this range, Toliman volcano, and San Pedro Volcano.
There is so much Mayan folklore and stories that the local Mayans still believe about this place it is hard not to believe it yourself when you are there. The local mythology considers Lake Atitlan to be the birthplace of all creation.
So not only is the clothing and yoga bags that Sheri makes selectively handcrafted, it is done so in a place and by the people that have lived in this area since 300 BC. I really hate describing a place as ‘magical’ because I feel it is often overused – but there are two places I have been so far that I can truly use this with – one is Scotland, and the other is now Lake Atitlan.
A Force For Change
There aren’t many people I have met in my life that have inspired me as much as Sheri and the women of Lake Atitlan who help her. They have a hard life, compared to the rest of the world.
I asked Sheri why she named her company ‘She Rides Dragons’ and she explained the strength of Dragons and their ties to Magic. I think it is more than that though, she is a strong, beautiful woman who is tackling the problems in San Pedro that are much bigger than what one person should handle on their own. She is helping to empower Mayan women to create change in their hearts, their homes, and provides food for the table their children eat at. The children also get to have an education, giving them a chance at a better future than poverty and starvation. If this wasn’t enough, she also rescues dogs and cats in the area – pooling resources to help treat for worms, feeds them, bathes then and raises money to help neuter them. She is known for her healing abilities, yet has seen many animals not make it because of lack of education in the community.
This isn’t about a clothing company, it is about women in Lake Atitlan trying to ride these giant problems – dragon-sized problems. These problems are unruly, difficult beasts that tend to bury most people in depression and anxiety of the acutest kind. Yet Sheri has collected a group of people, women, and literally a whole community to help fight them and she is succeeding at it – even if she doesn’t always give herself credit for doing so.
How Can You Contribute?
Take a look at She Rides Dragons, buy some of the clothing she offers. Now that you know the attention to detail, the love poured into the clothing, and the magical place these items come from – it will be an item that will hold more meaning for you than any other piece in your closet.
If there isn’t anything, in particular, you would like to buy you can also donate to her cause. Her dream is to be able to hire 8 women, to change their lives, and so their children’s lives can change and it will balloon from there. If you would like to donate for Maria the weaver to get electricity, send the donation via PayPal to SheRidesDragons@gmail.com – and make a note for something, in particular, you would like to donate to.
If you would like to help with funding or volunteering at an animal hospital or donate to help with education on how to care for animals and recognize diseases – email SheRidesDragons@gmail.com and she can get you in touch with the right people there.
Also, if you are interested in learning Spanish, Dora is an excellent Spanish teacher and does online classes starting at $10 an hour. Please contact send me an email (email@example.com) and I will connect you to her. I started taking lessons from her and think she is an absolutely incredible Spanish teacher. It is difficult but immersive and I’m learning quickly.
In a whirlwind backpacking Eastern Europe trip, I made sure to include Berlin on my MUST SEE places to visit. With missing my train in Prague, because it was my first time using the train in Europe. Then the next train I boarded on caught on fire, making me miss my original tour. Berlin Historical Walks came in for the save! Sean Stewart (my tour guide) taught me how to tour Berlin in 12 Hours or less.
I gave Sean the task of convincing me that Berlin was more complex than what the History Channel teaches. I remember sitting with my Grandma and Grandpa on weekends watching movies about the history of Berlin, and WWII movies.
I also gave him the task of convincing me that the German people weren’t rude, and aloof like I had been told they were before visiting. So come with me, as I go on a walking tour of Berlin with Sean, and learn just how much this country has been through.
Map of the Walking Tour
The purple and orange are where I would suggest you visit. If you plan to visit a museum, you must weigh and measure the amount of time you would like to spend there. Also, factor in a time to grab some street food along the way because all the walking is going to make you hungry. The Yellow is where you can find a bathroom. The Black are other important sites I would suggest you visit if you have the time to travel that distance. Otherwise, all of this can be reached on foot.
Luggage Storage and the Train Station
Arriving at the Train station is going to be very confusing, especially for Americans who are used to driving their cars or taking the subway. This is a whole other animal in public transportation. This train station is complex and easy to get lost in. The ticket counters are on the main level, I suggest you buy your ticket prior to leaving on any tour so you don’t get stuck there overnight – even with a EURail Pass you must have a seat reservation or you can get fined.
The luggage locker is about 2-6 Euros depending on how much time you want to store your luggage. Smaller the luggage the better, because then you can empty out your squishable bags into the smaller lockers that are usually leftover. If you arrive early in the morning, you might get a larger luggage locker – but don’t count on it.
There are four different levels to this train station and is one of the main hubs of connection for much of Europe. Do not expect people to speak English, I can’t recall if they have Wifi or not – but I would get Google translate access on your phone just in case. You don’t want to end up on the wrong train to your next destination. Google translate will be your best friend when getting onto the right train, the right car, and in a good seat.
If you book with Sean (no I’m not sponsored to say this- but I should have been, lol) – he will meet you at the train station to help you figure it out and help you to store your luggage. He will also help you get onto the right train/bus to get back to the station or the airport.
Sites To See During 12 Hours in Berlin
We started our 12-hour tour of Berlin near the Brandenburg Gate then wound our way on foot throughout the town. If you go in the off-season (early spring/late fall), it is not going to be crowded and you can really take it all in without fighting hoards of tourists.
Built around 1790 by Prussian King Frederick William II as the main entry point to the city of Berlin is the Brandenburg Gate. If you look at the top of the gate, there is a large statue, the Quadriga. It is said to represent the statue of the goddess of victory, as she appears to be barreling into the city on her chariot pulled by four horses. I’m a little bit vertically challenged and it was starting to rain, so this picture is as good as you will get of that statue.
This gate has survived and been witness to Napoleon’s seizure of the city, Hitler’s propaganda parade to the presidential palace, World War II. This was on the side of East Berlin and stood firm against all the tragedies of the Cold War. It has morphed, been repaired, altered, and throughout it all still stands as a monument to the resilience of Germany and its people to come back from dark places of history.
Photography tip: The Brandenburg Gate is best shot from Pariser Platz, facing west. I would suggest photographing it at sunset (not pictured) as you get the sun shining through the columns, or during the blue hour with the sky is a brilliant blue and the lights on the gate light up. If you don’t want people in your shot, be sure to take multiple long exposure shots and stack them together in Photoshop.
Memorial of the Berlin Wall
The Memorial of the Berlin Wall is located along the historic Bernauer Strasse, extending 0.86 miles (1.4km) with the preserved grounds behind the last remaining piece of the Berlin Wall.
This memorial reviews the function of this border, how it separated families and destroyed lives. Keeping people from East Berlin, separate from West Berlin. Photographs, oral quotes from speeches, histories written and passed down. The photographs show people trying to escape from East Berlin by jumping from windows, rooftops. East German Police attempting to jump the barbed wire fencing.
The reconciliation church was also blown up after being stuck in the death strip when the wall was built. The Reconciliation chapel is now rebuilt in the same location where the prior chapel was built.
There is also the window of remembrance commemorates the deaths that occurred at the Berlin Wall. While there has been much debate about how many deaths actually occurred. A study done in 2017 estimates that nearly 327 people died at or because of trying to escape past the Berlin Wall. Many of those who died were young men between 18-25 and 10% of them women, one report stated that there was a baby that suffocated inside of a boot in the back of a car.
There were many ways the East Germans tried to escape like on air mattresses, paddleboards (the antique kind, not the new kind), a home built hot-air balloon (where is the movie of that!) and my favorite – a man who shot an arrow across the death zone and zip lined his way across to West Germany.
I highly suggest visiting this memorial and reading the chilling and heroic stories that surround the history of this important place.
Topography of Terror
Located on the former site of the headquarters of the Gestapo and Secret State Police. The original building was badly damaged during WWII, and the remains were demolished after the war ended. When the Cold War began, this area became a fortified area. The building remained rubble until the final structure was formed in 2010 and opened to the public.
The museum is free and well worth the effort to walk through and see some of the darkest days of Germany.
While the location of Hitler’s Bunker, where he took his own life, was highly debated for some time. The final place of the bunker was determined (in 2006) and in one of the oddest places for such a historical site, you will ever see. While it isn’t technically much to see, it is interesting to see how East Germany built the ‘saving face’ apartments right near the Berlin Wall that stood just feet away from West Berlin. Even though the rest of East Germany was starving, they made the appearance that everything was fine and refined in the decadant apartments. Only the most elite and elected were allowed to stay in these apartments, as it was so close to the wall, they didn’t want more people escaping.
There is a sign here to explain how the bunker system was laid out and which bunker was assigned specifically to Hitler. The oddest thing about the former bunker? It is now a parking spot for one of the former East German ranking society members descendants who became million-dollar apartment holders overnight when the wall was torn down. If that isn’t the oddest historical story you have heard, I don’t know what is.
No matter what time of year you visit, this is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful squares in Berlin. The concert hall (the center building) is a perfect balance between the French and German churches. During the summer there are open-air concerts, and during the winter you will find the square transformed into a Christmas Market.
The square was built during the 17th century and the French Protestant community was given one church in the square. The Luthern congregation the other church on the opposite end. Interestingly, the two congregations funded each others church. Sean explained how this would be akin to a Christian building a Mosque. The churches at the time where so at odds with each other, that it shows just how tolerant and inclusive Germans were at that time.
In between the two churches once resided a stable for the regimental horses. This was torn down by Fredrich II and the concert hall was built. If you look at the base of the concert hall steps on the right, you will see a white statue of Fredrich Schiller, a passionate French poet. After the Second World War, the square was in ruins. In the 1970s, the East Berlin government had it rebuilt to how it looks today.
The Holocaust Memorial- Memorial to Murdered Jews of Europe
When I first saw a photo of this memorial, I did not realize these weren’t Jewish graves. These are slabs of concrete arranged in a way to create an interactive art piece, that is meant to cause reflection on what it was like to be a Jew during the Holocaust.
The designer of this Memorial did not give his meaning or interpretation of this piece so that each person visiting could draw their own conclusions. I like to think of it as the outer slabs that are very close to the ground are meant to represent racial slurs, and jokes. As the racial slurs became more severe, they then became accusations that rose too high for any one person to control.
As you walk between the stone slabs they rise higher and higher overhead, until you are standing in the center of the piece and can barely hear the sounds of the city. There is a feeling of apprehension as you are walking through this maze, not knowing who is going to come around the next corner- and really have no place to hide. The only way to stay hidden is to keep moving and hope you don’t run into someone around the next corner.
It was odd walking through this maze as I’m typically very self-aware, and can feel people near me without even opening my eyes. Yet walking among these slabs, I was shocked that someone could round the corner at any intersection and I could barely hear them until we were nearly on top of each other.
After walking through this area, I had an eery sense of dread and felt very disconcerted. The message of the artist certainly affected me and still does to this day.
This beautiful cathedral is located on Museum Island, a central location I highly suggest at least passing by on your way to the other sites. This cathedral was originally built in 1895 but was so heavily damaged during World War II that it was just reopened to the public in 1993.
The first church built on this site was in the 14th century and was used by the Hohenzollern family, whose palace was just across the street. The mausoleum of this family that was housed in this church for centuries has now been moved due to reconstruction. There are still 94 sarcophagi’ of Royal Family members that are housed here today. The main piece to see in this cathedral is the 7,000 pipe organ that hosts over 100 concerts every year.
The Dome of the cathedral is open every day from 9 am to 8 pm (except State Holidays). The admission is 7 Euros, and there are also guided tours you can take as well. If you are only there for a short time I would just pay for a one time pass. If you have more time in Berlin, I would suggest getting the Berlin Pass, because you get access to 200 different sites and public transport.
If you want a realistic view of what life was like in the 1940s under the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, or DDR – this is the place to visit. It takes you into the lives of the people of Germany. From 35 different stations, you can see what it felt like to be ‘bugged’ or ‘wiretapped’, watch TV in a recreated homeroom of the 1940s. I personally didn’t have time to pop in and see this, because I had arrived so much later than planned – but it came highly recommended and is great for families as well.
There are also areas to teach about Media, literature, music, culture, family, private niche, health, equality, diet, childhood, youth, partnership, fashion, border, Berlin, education, and work during that time. You experience first hand what daily life was like from the household citizen to a ranking member of the DDR.
The Library Memorial: Bebelplatz
This is not a traditional memorial, in that it is actually underground. If you are strolling across Bebelplatz, you might miss it because you can walk right over it. If you see people looking at the ground, this is what they are looking at here. It is a memorial to the books that were burned in this spot by the Nazi Germans as a nationwide act against the ‘un-German spirit’.
As you look down through the glass plate, there are white shelves, empty of anything. What should be on these shelves are the 20,000 books they burnt that day on May 10, 1933. The books they burnt were those of independent authors, journalists, philosophers and academics that did not coincide with the regime message.
The bronze plaques you see near this memorial read:
That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well. Heinrich Heine 1820
If you walk across the square, you might see a pop-up stand of a few people selling books. These are copies of the books that were burned that day, available for purchase at a discounted price.
Soviet War Memorial
The Red Army or Soviet Soldiers are honored in this park. I didn’t realize personally, how much Russia played a part in liberating Germany. There were 80,000 Soviet Soldiers who died fighting to liberate Germany; with 7,000 of them being buried at Treptow park. Treptow park is where the Soviet War Memorial is now housed. It has a triumphal gate entrance and peaceful park that wreaths and flowers are laid on the steps every year.
Just to give you an idea of how many people died in World War II per country (to name a few):
Soviet Union 24,000,000
United Kingdom 450,700
United States 418,500
Unter den Linden
This has been the ‘main drag’ of Berlin since 1791 when the Brandenburg gate was completed. It morphed and changed over the years, until the 1920s when it was a bustling, anything goes type boulevard. The 250-year-old trees adorned this beautiful street, and time period shops glittered at night over the passing crowds. When Hitler took power, he ripped out all the trees and put up Nazi flags, much to the discontent of the public. Hitler later replanted the trees, and after Berlin was liberated the crowds washed through the Brandenburg gate like leaves blowing in the wind.
If you follow this road from Brandenburg gate, you will come across museum island, the memorial to the Jews of the Holocaust, and even a ghost subway, a statue of Frederick the Great, and the tomb of the unknown soldiers and unknown Holocaust victim.
You eventually end up at the Lustgarten park, which was once a military parade route, now turned (and to remain) a beautiful park for the public to enjoy a sunny afternoon.
Named after Elector Friedrich III, who ruled here from 1688 to 1713. This area, once full of Royal Apartments and surrounding fields, is now a lively amusement part of Berlin. This is where many of the tourists flock to shop, visit theatres, and to see the famous Checkpoint Charlie, romanticized by spy book novels.
This area may have been my least favorite area, because of how many tourists were here. They all come in droves to see the gimmicky Checkpoint Charlie, that if you actually look at it – doesn’t resemble a true checkpoint at all. There are pictures of an American Solider and a Soviet Soldier, both who have the wrong time period uniforms on. The American Soldier pictured, actually has a military ribbon on his uniform from Desert Storm….which hadn’t even happened yet.
Sean, my guide, jokingly said that Germany models are paid to stand there with an American Flag and expect a tip to do it. If despite knowing this, you would still like to visit then feel free. Yet, I preferred to take a seat at the cafe across the street and watch the hoards of tourists take their photographic momentos. I refused to take a picture of this, as I don’t really want to encourage people to visit this site and instead visit key points to the winning the war like this bridge that played a huge role in the battles of liberating Berlin.
Sammlung Boros Bunker
It was a little chilling for me to stand on the street corner and see this, now converted, bunker. Sean said that he had a visitor who came, and he started to explain what it was and what it is now used for. A woman in the group chimed in with a shocking revelation. She explained how it felt to be in the bunker with her Mother and sisters hunkered down and feeling the vibrations of the bombs landing.
It gave me chills to think of how scary it must have been for them, yet torn over the crimes their leaders committed against the Jewish people. Yet, as with most of Berlin – they are moving away from their past and repurposing the dark into light.
This bunker now houses a contemporary art collection from international artists’ from the 1990s onward. While I didn’t have time to go in, it is definitely on a ‘must-see’ list for me when I return.
Wrapping Up My Tour of Berlin in 12 Hours – Moving on to Backpacking Eastern Europe
While there was so much more I was able to explore and discuss with Sean (see the video above) this will give you some ideas on how to best explore Berlin in one day. Despite hearing how boring, and rude Germans were/are – I found it to be quite the opposite. The city holds a special place in my heart because of the things I learned.
The people there are private, and passionate and want to move forward from their past – which is what most tourists come there to see. So if you have limited time to see Berlin, I would highly recommend choosing from the map above, book with Berlin Historical Walks (not sponsored to say this ), and I guarantee Sean will be able to change your mind about this city and its people.
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Traveler Tip: Make sure you reserve your seat on the train prior to leaving the train station when you arrive. This will either give you more time, or save you from camping overnight at one of the busiest and most complicated train stations in Europe.
How to Get Around Berlin
The train system in Europe and walking is my preferred method, as it is cheaper than flying to each individual country when backpacking eastern Europe and attempting to get around Berlin.
They also have the Berlin Welcome Card, that for around 20 Euros you can get unlimited public transport and entrance to 200 sites.
Belize is a country unlike most in the Caribbean, it is quickly being considered as the next Venice of the South. Luxury hotels, incredible food, and hospitable people make this a truly spectacular place to vacation to. Yet the two things I enjoyed most while visiting Belize were the Lamanai Mayan Ruins and Rio Secreto. I was able to take a cruise to the Western Carribean, and visit this ancient city – learning all about what life was like in ancient Mayan times.
How to Get To Lamanai Ruins
Getting to the Lamanai Ruins is half the adventure! I would suggest picking a tour group as the journey can be quite extensive – but easily done within the time allotted for a shore excursion. The drive from the port to the boat launch is around an hour, from there you take a boat along the New River.
The boat ride is up a very tropical river, albeit hot so be sure to bring an umbrella or a wide-brimmed sun hat. You will likely see Spider monkeys, howler monkeys, a variety of tropical birds, plants, and maybe even a drifting crocodile or two that the guides are great about pointing out to those on the boat.
I would suggest getting a spot on the front to middle of the boat for a nice breeze, excellent view, and a bit of spray from the river as many of the boats do not have shade on them.
You can also drive, but the drive out is long and really bumpy (think four-wheeling in a small van). You can choose either option from the Orange Walk area.
The History of the Lamanai Ruins
Entering the ancient Lamanai city, the guide pointed out mounds of dirt we had to walk over. The two mounds were about 8-9 feet in height, with a trench in between – suggesting that these were strategically dug in order to be used as a defensive protection for the city.
These ruins date back as far as 1500 BC, and have been excavating the ruins here since 1974 so it is still fairly new to the archaeology world. The three temples they have uncovered so far are the Jaguar Temple, The Mask Temple, and the High temple. These are the main highlights in the Lamanai ruins, and unlike Chizen Itza, you are able to climb up the High Temple for a great view over the canopy.
Something I learned about Mayans was that they put their faith in animals, and believe they represent different parts of a person. These animals are called Nuals or spirit animals that help shape our personalities as humans. They are also believed that in worshiping them, it provided a way for the specific power they would hold to enter them.
Temple of the Jaguar
This was my favorite Temple here apart from the high temple because you have to use your imagination to see the Jaguar. It was used up until the 15th century when the Lamanai people were converted to Christianity by the Spanish. The Jaguar is a cleverly structured so that the extensive time to carve the face from stone was avoided. Instead there are slots placed for the eyes, mouth, and nose. The slots placed here were used to leave offerings to the Jaguar God.
The Jaguar was considered the God of the Underworld, but takes the image of the nighttime sun God. He is often connected to fire rituals, which are very sacred to the Mayan Shamans. He is also considered to bring trade, riches, and is connected to the powers of sorcery.
The Mask Temple
This temple was built during 200 BC, and has two massive limestone heads carved carved into either side of the temple. Many historians believe this face represents one of the early leaders of the Mayans.
Beneath the temple, archeologists found a burial chamber with a male and a female buried here with several jade statues. These can be representative of a possible trade route between Copan or Quirigua and the Jade mines of a Guatemala.
The High Temple
The Lamanai Mayan Ruins in Belize are unique in that it has the tallest Mayan Temple, the High Temple. Rising 108 feet (33m) into the sky, this temple provides an incredible view of the canopy surrounding the area. This would have been the tallest building in Mesoamerica and was a bit of a billboard for those on the new river.
The long part of the temple (now deteriorated) once extended the entire length of the open area in front of the temple. This former part of the temple was used for sacrifices, and other offerings to the Gods. The guide told us when they were excavating they found parts of animal bones, and human bones.
The High Temple would have brought them closer to heaven, and allowed them to plot the stars and check the position of the sun. You can still climb to the summit today, but it is quite steep and so make sure you have good knees and are not afraid of heights. Take is slow and steady and you will be awarded with an amazing view.
It is interesting to think about how much science has taught us vs what ancient civilizations would craft in their minds to explain simple processes. It makes me grateful to live in a time and age, where I’m able to know the ‘why’ for most things. Why the stars rotate, how animals function, how to heal the human body – and especially like that human sacrifices for the purpose of religion has become a thing of the past.
The Sunken Crocodile
Lamanai is the Mayan word for Sunken Crocodile, first recorded by Franciscan Monasteries visiting the area in the 15th century. My inquring mind wondered, ‘Why would you name a city after such an ugly creature?’. Crocodiles, in Mayan theology were typically associated with fertility. Crocodiles were associated with the fertility of the soil, and the timeliness of the rains. Later on, the crocodiles were associated with the nobility. The God Itzam Na was commonly associated with the God of nobility.
There are a few things that crocodiles do well, and that is search for life, search for water both which are crucial elements of the earth. The Mayan’s believed that like a terrestrial being they can find water and absorb the energy from it. They also obtain it through a Celestial element by commanding the rainfall. So they believed that the crocodile is both terrestrial, celestial and from the underworld as well – rising from the depths to contact humans and give inspiration.
Water is, and was revered as a sacred element of life – despite all the rain, jungle and resources – the people in Belize have often known drought as much of the surrounding water is undrinkable. So to have animals like Crocodiles search out water sources, I could definitely see the connection of importance to the Mayans and these ferocious creatures.
This Stele was one of the first items found when uncovering this building. I didn’t understand the meaning of this Stela until after I came home and was researching it.
It has a long Heiroglyphic text on it that provided quite a bit of insight into the Mayan culture and religion. Many ‘writings’ with the Mayan Culture were done in images, that were then interpreted.
Stela 9 shows a image of a king dressed in symbolic attire. The symbolism of the attire reflects that of cosmic events (interpreted as acts by the Mayan Gods) that would happen in this area.
This King is wearing a serpent-monster headdress (likely a crocodile) symbolizing his celestial/divine birth/descent to being King of this region of the land. There is a dragon-like serpent head that protrudes from the top of the sceptre he is holding, and has a god appearing from its mouth, which is said to be the patron deity of Lamanai. The God from the sceptre wears goggles and has a curling serpent seeping from the corner of its mouth, both of these images are often associated with the rain-gods, such as Cicoyo/Chac/Cauac/Tlaloc.
While it is hard to see this in the photo, this is an important piece in the Lamanai Mayan Ruins in Belize as it provides further evidence of Mayan culture, their beliefs and images associated with certain Gods they worshiped in this region.
Entertainment without TV in Lamanai Mayan Ruins in Belize
It might be wrong to call it entertainment, the Mayans used it as a way to hold rituals and even ritualistic sacrifices. There are several basketball courts in Lamanai, shaped in an I shape with two slopes on either side. There was a long narrow playing field and two end zones. There was a 20 foot (6m) ring which competing teams would try to score through.
These rings are twice the height of a NBA net. The rules are not well understood as they weren’t documented well. There were, however, end results for the winners….some being not so enticing.
Many Mayans played this game, and often were mere betting on the teams that would happen. Other times it was done as a significant spiritual and ritualistic meaning. The significantly ritualistic events turned spectacle in rigged games where prisoners of war played and were sacrificed in the end.
Mayans believed that the Gods needed needed human blood to keep the sun and moon orbiting for their harvests. Thus it was also seen as a game between life and death, good and evil, with the possibility of the winners becoming demi-gods themselves.
There are over 1300 of these basketball courts throughout mesoamerica. There are over 500 of them in Guatemala alone, where they believe this game started.
While no one knows the exact rules of the ball game, Spaniards who saw the Aztec games in the 1500s reported that two teams of two to five players had to keep the ball in the air without using their hands or feet. They hit the ball with their upper arms, thighs or hips.
The rubber balls they used were of varying weight and size, from the size of a softball to a soccer ball. Solid rubber balls were heavy—up to eight or nine pounds—and could cause serious injury or even death. Games were won mostly by points. Around A.D. 1200, stone circles with a hole in the middle were attached high up on the walls of the ball court, up to six meters high. While getting a ball through the hole was rare, if a player got the ball through the hole, it was an instant win.
I knew there was a reason I have never been a big basketball fan. Now every time you watch a game, think about the opposing team being sacrificed in a blood ritual, lol.
Trade in Lamanai
Lamanai was a great trade route, being so close to the river. There have been remnants of trade materials within Lamanai, namely trade metals like copper dating back to 1150 AD. There was also Jade, bells, clothing ornaments, pins, chisels, axes, needles and fish hooks found.
Learning Mayan Culture
The Lamanai Mayan Ruins in Belize have yet to all be unearthed as funding for it is quite scant, yet I highly encourage a visit to see this ancient city. The Mayan culture was a unique and highly developed civilization for that time period.
It is always fascinating to learn about these ancient cultures, how they made sense of their daily lives, deities they worshiped and how they handled territorial disputes in the Jungle.
A visit to this Mayan city is highly encouraged for all those who have a sense of adventure, and want to learn how these people lived, worshiped, and died.
I personally found this interview with Emma from Amsterdam to be compelling as My Heritage is largely Dutch. Emma is a receptionist at ClinkNoord, the Hostel I was staying at. She was a petite woman, tall, with blonde hair and blue eyes.
After looking at her, I felt as if I compared to my Scottish Ancestors more than the Dutch as I am 5’4″ tall. She had a sweet unassuming smile with an open countenance, but also a professionalism that would make you not want to challenge her in a duel of wits. Although she consented to my interview, she did not want to have any photos taken of her, so I apologize I cannot provide more of a visual for you. Read the full interview below:
The People of the Netherlands:
Me:How do the people in Amsterdam identify themselves? Stoic, Kind, helpful, funny, laid back? Emma: I believe that people here are open-minded, blunt, optimistic, and yet always in a rush. They are typically blonde with blue eyes and are very tall as well. Me: Do you feel that your culture and traditions have changed in any way in the last 10 years? Emma: The Dutch culture is fading away, the smaller villages still wear clogs, but it is very modernized and different than what it was.
Me: How can we as tourists help maintain your culture? Emma: Clean up after yourselves! Please do not throw garbage on the street, the Dutch people are a very clean people, even in the streets. Me: How many days off a year do people get in the Netherlands? Emma:20 days and if you work for a company you can get another 5 days, especially if you are a teacher. Me: If I moved to the Netherlands, how would you suggest I assimilate into the culture? Emma: Connect with people in the bigger cities as most of them speak English. You want to speak Dutch if you are planning to live in the smaller towns. Me: What languages are spoken here? Emma: Dutch, English for the younger people, and German for the older people.
Me: What is the best mode of Transportation here? Emma: (laughs and responds with a grin on her face) You must use a bike or a bus. You can trust Uber, but it takes awhile to drive through cities. Me:What are the major religions here? Emma:Catholic, Protestant, Muslim Me:Are people here devoted to their religion? Emma: Yes Me:What are the biggest Misconceptions people have about the Netherlands? Emma:That the people are arrogant with strong opinions. The thing is, is that people in the Netherlands know their shit and it comes across as arrogant, but it really isn’t true. Me: What are your favorite memories of this city and why? Emma:The beach for sure, and the flower fields, cows coming into my backyard. This was usually at my Grandparents house that the cows would come into the flower fields.
For the Tourist:
Me:What are some Festivals that you think are worthwhile for people to visit? Emma:Tomorrowland, Mystery land, and the Pinkpop Festivalis very very popular with a lot of big artists, Justin Beiber was there last time.
Me: What are the biggest tourist traps that you see here? Emma: The tourists come and get caught up with the drugs here. There is also an area that I would say to avoid called Bijlmer area, it is a homeless area and can be dangerous. Me: Where are the best places to eat Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and get a beer? Emma: For breakfast, I would say the Pancake Bakery which is here in the Netherlands about a 10 min walk from ClinkNoord. Then for lunch, we don’t really eat a lunch, just eat a snack or something. For Dinner, I would say Jordaan or Hannover streets you can find really great places to eat all along those streets. If you want a good beer, you can really go anywhere in Amsterdam but the type of beer is what will make the difference. So for the beers, I would suggest getting: Amstel, Heineken, Grolsch, Hertog Jan, or Bavaria. Me: How do you tip at restaurants? Emma:We don’t really expect a tip, but if the bill is 13.50 you might round up to 15 euro so that you don’t have change. We like the round numbers here, but I would say do not tip more than 5 euros for a meal for one person maximum. Me:I have noticed that they charge you for bottled water here, and tell you that you cannot have tap water. How would you as a local get around this, or is there a way around it? Emma:They tell you they can’t give you tap water, but it is not true. You can ask for tap water and they cannot refuse it, it is a way for the restaurant to make more money. So how I usually get around it, is to say, ‘Can I have tap water, to begin with’, and then you can bring a water bottle for in between meals.
Me: What is one of the best-hidden gems in the Netherlands? Emma:Haarlem, it gives you a really good local experience and it is right next to the beach where they have fairs and different experiences for the tourist and for the locals. Me: Are there places in the Netherlands that you would say are Romantic? Emma: Romantic in Holland? (She smiles a huge smile and stifles a laugh) Dutch people aren’t Romantic….we just light a candle and call it romantic. (Laughs again). Me:Where is the best place for nightlife in the Netherlands? Emma:The Sugar Factory is really nice, also Melkweg or Paradiso are great places for nightlife that aren’t super crazy. Me:Where are the best places to go for outdoor adventures and hiking? Emma: The Flatlands, the forest, they have caves here that are fun to explore and Veluwe. Me:If you were to get hurt doing these fun adventures, what number could you call for an emergency in the Netherlands? Emma:Call 112 for emergencies, or just ask someone to call the paramedics for you because they will know the area better and how to direct them to get to you.
Schooling in the Netherlands:
Me: What are the school systems like here? Emma:At 3 years old the parents decide if they want you to go to school, from 4-6 the kids go to Kindergarten, 6-11 reading and writing school, 11 years old and older is High School until 17-18 where you decide if you want to go to a higher education. We have here MBO, HBO, and the University. The MBO is a practical industry school, HBO is the economy school and you must be smart to go here, and then the University is where the smartest people go. Me: Does it cost anything to go to a lower level school? Emma:Yes, the parents have to pay to send you to school. The government can give you money for this, but you have to pay them back in 12 years. Me:How do they advance grades? Emma:You have to pass a test after each grade. If you do not pass you can take it again, but after you fail the second time then you go to a lower level. Me: What about higher education, how are people able to access that? Emma:it is much harder because you have to have money to do that….lots and lots of money.
The Family Unit in the Netherlands:
Me: How does the family unit work here? Emma:It depends on how close the family is. Young kids go to the city & leave their parents. Some stay and buy a house if they have a good job. Me: Who wears the pants in the family, or who is in charge? Emma: Mom definitely wears the pants in the family. Dad is the money. Dad typically goes to work, eats, sleeps, and repeats day after day after day. Me:Where do the elderly go when they can no longer walk? Who takes care of them? Emma: They go to the old folks home where their family can visit them. They do not move into your home because you have to work and then take care of them all the time and it just creates a bad situation. Me:What is the view on feminism, gay, or minorities here? Are they treated equally or do you notice a societal difference in how they are treated? Emma:It is an unusual thing to separate them, but I see that the younger generations are ok with it. The older generations are still traditionalists and have a hard time, but if you look at forms that people fill out there is options for man, woman, or other. We were actually the first country to approve gay marriage.
Me: Is having children common here? Emma: yes Me: Do people get Maternity leave here? Emma:Yes, you usually get 5-6 months of maternity leave. Me: What age do people here get married? Emma: Typically in their twenties. Me: Are their customs associated with marriage you would like to share? Emma:Not really, they just go to the church, they might have a reception and eat some cake. Then there is a party in the evening with a dinner and a DJ. The party typically lasts all day. Me: Is it common to live together prior to getting married? Emma:Yes Me: What is the classic place that people get married here? Emma:The city hall (laughs), there is no special place, you go, you get married and it’s done. If you go on Monday morning actually you can get married for free at City Hall.
Politics, Stereotypes, Citizen Rights:
Me:What are the common stereotypes that are encountered here? Emma:It is always the immigrant’s fault, and people feel it is always those from Serbia, Turkey, or Morocco. Me: What are the different political parties here? Emma:There are a lot of different parties that represent different things like the animals, religion, elderly, economy, immigrants and religion. Me: Can you vote? Emma:Yes, from the age of 18 you can vote. Me:Are the citizen’s allowed to do demonstrations? Who are the people that typically do this? Emma:There aren’t usually demonstrations here. There was a time where Kindergarteners were demonstrating because of the low salary for the teachers. Me: What are the Police and the Military system like here? Do you have confidence that they would protect its citizens in the event of a terrorist attack? Emma: You don’t want to call the police because they will want to do a ton of paperwork. The citizens take care of the problem themselves and just beat the people up because they don’t trust the police.
Me:How do you say thank you in Dutch? Emma:Dankjewel (sounds like Dunk-ya-vell) Me: Well a big Dankjewel to you Emma for taking the time out of your day to answer these questions I really appreciate it. Emma: No problem, they were interesting questions and some of them made me think a little bit.
Emma was so kind in answering my questions, and I was so grateful that she was willing to do so as it was so difficult to find someone to Interview in Amsterdam. I personally found the Dutch people to be a people motivated by duty. Duty to make their lives better for themselves, their family, and their country. There is a certain pride within them from being Dutch, but I felt that it was not as forthright as other places I have encountered like Texas. They are a quiet, clean, kind people as a generalization and humble enough to not want to be on camera or have photos taken.
I really enjoyed my time and all of the cities I was able to visit while in the Netherlands. Stay tuned for more posts on Edam, Haarlem, Zannse Schans, Den Hague, Delft, Jordaan, Kinderdijk, and Dordrecht. If you would like my full itinerary please email firstname.lastname@example.org Should you ever visit the Netherlands, make sure to stop by and say hello to her at ClinkNoord, she is a receptionist there and like most of the Dutch, is tall, blue-eyed with blonde hair and looks like she stepped out of a magazine.
Have you been to the Netherlands yet? What was your favorite place to visit?
**The purpose of ‘Ramadan Made Simple’ is to educate, not offend. To those who are of the Muslim faith, feel free to comment and help educate us all, and Rhamadan Kareem to you**
From all the movies I have watched of Muslims bombing Americans, treating women poorly & the mysterious secretive nature of the religion — to be honest I started to become afraid of Muslims & those who wore Hijab’s. So me, being who I am, set out to face my fears and educate myself on what the truth was. I don’t like to give into the mainstream media, and I’m not a ‘follow the crowd’ kind of personality.
As fate would have it, I started working for a Muslim doctor in Las Vegas, and ended up rubbing shoulder with his friends & colleagues who were also from the same religion. He was actually from Pakistan, and after 2 years of working for him & with a nurse who converted to the religion, I learned a lot & my perspective radically changed.
Bottom line, they are human beings, who find passion in their religion that gives them a sense of community – when many do not treat what they believe with much respect. No matter what religion you come from, there will always be the ‘few’, who skew the perspective of the ‘many’. Being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (aka: Mormon, as the public calls us- see LDS.org for more on this), we also have a problem with this aspect and many assuming we are part of the “Sister Wives” – which couldn’t be further from the truth. I think this is why I wanted to learn more, because I know how it feels to be misunderstood, and have people assume things about me that aren’t true.
Quiet frankly, it is hurtful & makes me feel more isolated when people don’t bother to ‘seek first to understand’ instead of just Ass-uming. So after several years of observing, learning, reading (yes, even read ‘The Koran for Dummies’ lol)
What I Learned About Rhamadan:
1- It Is Deeply Religious
It is a deeply religious time for them, which is celebrated as a family. And follows the Lunar Calendar, which means it is a few days earlier each year. This year it begins on 5/27/17
2- Preparation Is Extensive
Days of preparation happen beforehand, each country is different in what they prepare but typically involves special dishes rich in calories and electrolytes that help sustain them throughout the day. (Below is Harrira, a traditional soup made for Rhamadan that is a Tomato base with spices and is very very delicious)
3- Timed By The Sun
Rhamadan begins and ends with the phases of the Sun and coincides with their calls to prayer. The Morning prayer of Fajr (must eat & hydrate for the day BEFORE this prayer); and Maghrib (eat til you are sick, and celebrate the day with family & friends). For local times on call to prayer (for education, I found this App for Iphone and Samsung)
Fajr: it is a prayer & intention of the heart, you fast to show your obedience to Allah (God) and submit your will to his for your life.
4- Why is it required?
Rhamadan is one of the 5 pillars of Islam, or one of the 5 major lifetime commitments that they believe is required by God to be rewarded for in heaven. It is also the Lunar calendar month in which the Quran (their Holy Book) was revealed & in a way is a world-wide celebration for showing God how much the appreciate the direction it provided them.
Note: If you read about when their Prophet Mohammad was inspired to found this religion & belief system, it was in a time of a lot of turmoil – where women were sold, bought, killed. Pagan beliefs were rampant & it was a call to leave that aside and live life as a higher law and it ended up saving thousands of lives within the region because of its founding.
My Soap Box:
Whenever a life is saved, I am deeply grateful to whatever source helped to save it. Working in the medical field and seeing the frailty and emotional struggle with physical ailments; consoling those who have lost a loved one — it takes a lot out of me emotionally.
So realizing this bit of history, made me particularly grateful to their Prophet Mohammad for providing an avenue in which lives could be saved during its founding. While I know that their are lives lost in the current situation with terrorists and bombings, this is not the first time that lives have been lost in the name of religion. Christians have slaughtered those of the Jewish faith, Romans caught Christians and put them into gladiator pits and drug them behind chariots for sport and their are centuries of people doing this over and over and over….in the name of religion.
This does not diminish the pain or the loss experienced by those that have lost their lives in the battle against terrorism; it is a cruel, hateful & heart-breakingly evil thing that is happening in and to our world. But the best way to battle that, at least in my opinion, is by education, reaching across the isle and showing forgiveness, spreading understanding not spewing words of hate that further isolates us from our fellow human beings. History is going to keep repeating itself until we as the human race can stop labeling, self labeling, identifying others as ‘bad’ ‘wrong’ or ‘crazy’, just because they believe something different than us. #endofsoapbox
5- Practicing Discipline
They feel that abstaining from food is a way to practice discipline and restrain for the human desires of this life. Muslims believe (similar to Mormon beliefs) that the body is a vessel that was given to us by God to allow our spirits (or celestial bodies) come to Earth and be tested with all the associated trials that come with being human. (We are spiritual beings having an earthly experience, not the other way around). So in a way, it is their way of proving to God that they are focused on improving their spirituality & hope (if done correctly & with true intent of the heart) that he will accept their fast. In accepting their fast, they will be rewarded when their life is over. It is also a way for Muslims to appreciate all that God has given them, to feel what it is like to be hungry and thirsty all day; so as to soften their hearts to the hungry and sick. Which strengthens empathy, which in my opinion is something we definitely need more of in this world of ours.
6- Are There Exceptions During Rhamadan?
There are those who are exempt of course!
Children generally don’t participate until they hit puberty, but because most of them want to be ‘a grown-up’ they end up at least doing a meal or two with their family.
Those on menstrual cycles & women during childbirth
The elderly or those with health problems
My thoughts: totally reasonable, and glad there are exceptions honestly, and after researching it, these individuals have the option to just go and feed the poor one meal a day for each day of the fast to substitute for what they can’t do themselves.
7- There Are Six Things That Make Fasting Invalid
Intentional Eating or Drinking
If someone eats or drinks due to forgetfulness, a mistake, or coercion, then his fast is still valid and should continue to fast.
If you choose to eat or drink, for any reason, then your fast will become invalid.
My thought: reasonable, as a Mormon we fast once a month at the beginning of the week, with the same idea.
If one is overcome by the urge to vomit, and vomits unintentionally, then he should continue to fast.
My thought: well who would want to eat anyway if they are vomiting.
If someone chooses to vomit, for any reason, then his fast will become invalid.
My thought:if they are vomiting intentionally, well they likely need a lot more help and should get the reason for vomiting intentionally looked at (ie/ Binge and purging is a serious issue that should be addressed by a Psychologist and Nutritionist)
Intentional Sexual Intercourse
If one has sexual intercourse while fasting, then he must perform kaffaarah, expiation of the sin. (Fasting continuously for sixty days or if unable then one should feed sixty poor people).
My thought: women will love this idea, lol, but if you think about it, sex puts your mind into a dirty lustful place. So if the idea is to clear the mind and have it more in-line with the thoughts of God; well abstaining from sex is likely not the best thing to be doing during your Holy month.
Menstrual or Childbirth Bleeding
The fast becomes invalid during menstrual or post-childbirth bleeding. Even if such bleeding begins just before sunset, the fast of that day is invalid and the day must be made up at a later time.
My thought: this was a little irritating to me, mostly because I hate my menstrual cycle and don’t feel women should have to fast longer because they are on the cycle. But on the flip side of this thought, its likely better to not fast when you are on your menstrual cycle and just delay it, because you are likely to already be bitchy & then to add Hangry on top of that — well there would be no more Muslim men left if they had this deadly combination. Just my opinion, take it or leave it. Regarding Childbirth, I totally agree, no woman should be fasting when growing a human being in their belly; it would be harmful for the child.
8- The Three Day Festival Is Amazing
The Holy month of Rhamadan ends with a 3 day festival (massive amount of food and several parties) called Eid el-fatir. And who doesn’t love a party 😉 In the end I came to appreciate a small part of what makes up Islam and its people, and have learned so much from my friends who are part of this religion.
I haven’t met one Muslim yet who hasn’t been warm, kind, inviting, and patient with me and my questions (which at times I know were slightly rude and racist– my apologizes).
Taking Time To Understand
So as with anything in our lives, if you are afraid of it, seek first to understand — and in the end you will be able to make a very personal & educated decision on if those fears you had were founded or not. It is ok to disagree, it is ok to get angry at the attacks that are happening by these terrorists & protect your lives/livelihood and families; but its not ok to lump an entire religion into one package.
So my takeaway? Its a month of reflection, giving thanks, abstaining from our animalistic human natures & coming closer to our divine nature. Developing our spiritual selves, helping those that are less fortunate & remembering the history of how human kind was drastically changed by a book called the Quran.
I have tried the ‘give up something for lent’ & now after studying and reading all of this (ok and participating in some of the parties associated with this), I might just have to give it a try in my own way. Focusing on my spiritual side and realizing that I am a spiritual being having an earthly experience.
I hope that this article has been informative to those not of the Islamic faith, and I truly hope my Muslim friends feel I have given honest opinions in a way that has not offended them or what they believe, to you I say Rhamadan Murbarak & Rhamadan Kareem 🙂
Rhamadan Murbarak (Congratulations its Rhamadan, or congrats on the month of blessings for this month)
Rhamadan Kareem (Have a generous Rhamadan, or generous in the way of have generous blessings from God this month)
I had misconceptions about those of the Islamic Religion – if I’m being honest. I was nervous to go to Jordan, I had heart horror stories about the people of Jordan and how men harassed women tirelessly. Yet, once I was there I learned more about their culture, way of life, and personalities – my opinion changed. Before I get ahead of myself though, let me start from the beginning.
Booking My Trip To Jordan
My first Solo travel was to Jordan in 2014. I had started to become very unhappy and burnt out being a Physician Assistant in Las Vegas. I was working 7 days a week 10-12 hours a day with every other weekend off. I didn’t feel like I was drained at the time, but I just felt like one of those workers on the assembly line that was treating patients and sending them home. The job started to lose its joy, I was fighting with my roommates all the time. And finally decided that life was too short to live so irritable and unhappy, so I started looking up cruises.
I have been on a cruise before and loved it, but came across this website called Cruise Lady, and this white haired bubbly looking lady popped up on my screen with a deal on a Land Tour through Jordan & a religious tour through Jerusalem. The wheels started to turn, and I ended up booking by just putting a down payment down first (I think it was around $300) and then calculated when they were going to leave (a year from the time I called), they gave me the option of paying into it like a bank account until the trip was payed for. There was a single supplement of around $500 for both Jordan and Israel, but it was worth it.
In the end I was able to get a ‘bunk mate’ and get that price decreased as well. Total for the trip, transportation, professional guide in Jordan, and a Professor with a Masters (or Doctorate) in Middle Eastern Studies, and the Cruise Lady herself and her Husband — was about $2,400 without my flight. So I put away around $200 a month towards the trip and saving for my airfare and was able to go on the trip. I used Delta, as it was easier for me to navigate their site, and I hadn’t had a good experience with American Airlines or Southwest Airlines; and I knew Delta partnered with Air France, which I haven’t had a bad experience with to date.
I have their Delta Skymiles program and wanted to get the perks with that too. I made the arrangements, made sure my flight was on time and timed it so that the flight arrived about the same time that the other members of our group arrived. I spent 28 hours in Airports…….and remember getting to Atlanta after a Red Eye flight & then couldn’t get into the gate because I had an 8 hour layover there from Dallas and they do not allow you to go through the gates, especially for international flights until 4 hours before the flight is suppose to take off.
I ended up sitting by the Wheelchair area—- in a wheelchair, put my sunglasses on and got my baby blanket I bring on every international flight, set my alarm for 4 hours and fell asleep. When I woke up and started going through Security again, I think I was stopped at every security place and asked to dismantle my carefully packed backpack (which was so heavy),
Traveler tip: don’t pack a bunch of wires into your backpack….apparently it looks bad on the luggage screening screen.
Interlude in France
The flight from Atlanta to France wasn’t terrible, I met a man from Chad whose brother was in France and he was meeting him to go to his mothers funeral in Chad. Such a sweet guy, he ended up helping me get onto the train in France to head into the city for an 6 hour tour of Paris.
Every step of the way I was helped onto the train, into the city center, and back onto the train. It was overwhelming doing that for the first time solo – but I did it. Getting there at 6am was exhausting but there is no better feeling than standing in front of Notre Dame with the entire square to myself….well and a bunch of Pigeons.
A taxi driver even took me around the entire city pointing things out, the major sites of the city. I tried to pay him, but he refused! He wouldn’t even take a tip! I tried to insist, and then just asked, “….but why?” — he gave a coy smile and said, “em…Welcome To Pariee”. This is the moment that I fell in love with the people of France and with traveling. It still makes me tear up a little thinking about how nice he was to me.
This was also my first lesson in not taking what other people say as truth. I had family members who had a much different experience while in France – and came with a cautious approach to the people there. Yet my personal experience was so vastly different, I learned very quickly to form my own opinion about certain travel spots.
Arriving in Amman – Meeting the People of Jordan
On arriving at the airport in Amman Jordan, I found my travel group, with our guide who was a white haired fireball of fun. She had all of our Visa’s to travel in the country and I have to admit that standing there in the airport seeing mostly men in the airport in their traditional headscarves and garb, made me feel a little out of place. I was glad that I had decided to join a guided tour in the end.
We arrived at the airport around 11pm Jordan time, and by that time I had been in airports for more than 28 hours. Our guide got us through the security, which was the heaviest I have ever seen in all the places I have traveled. We boarded a bus, and there was an armed cop who was our escort, which was different. We arrived at our hotel in Amman safely. I was so grateful to have my own room, I don’t think I even showered, but plopped onto my bed after lugging the luggage up the stairs, and fell right to asleep. I may have cried a little before actually falling asleep because of sheer fatigue.
The first thing to mention is our security guard, it was my mistake that I didn’t notice how gorgeous he was in the beginning. His name is Mohammad, like several other million people in this world, I found out later that this is not his full name, but a name he uses in public.
It is interesting how they name their children in Jordan, they are given a first name, then take on their fathers name as a middle name, and their grandfather’s name as a last name or additional middle name. I took the picture of him & his blue eyes with his dark hair outside the Hippodrome in Jordan. He was very quiet and reserved and polite man, with a cute little crooked smile. He was embarrassed to have me take his photo, but I’m glad I did in the end. He told me later, he was uncomfortable because the police are not suppose to allow foreigners to take their photos while in uniform, and his commanding officer had been talking to him at the time…..Oops……
Public Space Interaction
While our guide told us about the Hippodrome and its history of Rome, chariots, and jousting games. I soon became distracted with the little boys and girls that were running amuck throughout the area, apparently a school outing.
I had always had this skewed view of Muslims that soon began to change the more I interacted with them and observed them. The girls there were fixing their head scarves, giggling to each other, glancing at the boys and giggling, take selfies, texting on their phone…..just as I had done when I was a child. The boys were totally oblivious of the girls, leaping and jumping over the ancient stones, and ruins that lay strewn about, jabbering in Arabic, and what I assume were heated discussions about Barcelona’s latest soccer match.
I enjoyed seeing the ruins here, they were not fenced off like those in Rome and the natural beauty of the wild flowers, wandering goats and the beautiful sunshine likely contributed to my complete enjoyment of the grounds. I think having these things so closely integrated to something with so much history allowed my mind to wander and realize I was standing among things that were bigger than I was.
Our Next day was in Petra, I was so close to riding my Camel and seeing one of the Seven Wonders of the World I could hardly sleep the night before. We took a bus to Petra (which is actually the city, not the name of the tombs themselves) and stayed at a Bedouin camp. In my mind camp always means tents, no running water, and in particular a camp in Jordan I assumed I would be getting a total body sand scrub down by morning. But to my surprise, we pulled up to very modern looking buildings with a gym and everything…..can I say happiness?
My room was lovely, it was a little cooler in the evenings than I expected, and despite how long I let the water run I couldn’t seem to get it to a warm level. But I was in Petra, and realized I was fulfilling my dreams, and for the first time I felt proud of the person I had become and for overcoming the fear of coming to Jordan. I put a sweater on and walked out to the courtyard after failing miserably trying to take a hot shower. I sat there looking at the stars, and appreciated the sounds of running water and livestock making their bleats and bahhh’s as they settled in for the night.
Now visiting Petra was such an experience. We arrived at the gate, paid our dues, and one of the uniformed guards asked me if I was single….. ‘ummmmmm, YEAH!’….I thought in my head, as I giggled and kept walking, he came after me and was polite but relentless, and he said, “I will give you 1,000 camels if you would agree to marry me. I am being very serious”. At first I thought it was a joke, and I was thinking, ‘how is it that when I travel I get hit on by every male I find attractive, but at home I am plagued with thoughts of insecurities and self deprecating thoughts because I don’t look as good as the next girl’.
It was nice to play coy and be embarrassed by all the attention……little did I know, that was just the beginning of the marriage proposals I would get that day. American women, especially in Petra are known for their, ahem, loose morals……so consider yourself warned.
The Treasury of Petra
As we walked through the canyon towards the Treasury, I couldn’t help but giggle to myself. I was walking through sandstone canyons with beautiful colors & hundreds of tourists…..just like Las Vegas…..where I was living at the time. So basically I just traveled 7,457 miles and paid hundreds of dollars to come back to something that looked exactly like Las Vegas. We learned about all the history of the canyons, how they were used to trap armies and enemies in their walls. The treasury which was built and guarded by the Nabataens, who worshiped Gods, Goddesses and animals. Well I had no clue who the Nabateans were, and I will be quick to assume my readers don’t either. Well according to Wikipedia, lets educate ourselves:
were an Arab people who inhabited northern Arabia and the Southern Levant, and whose settlements, most prominently the assumed capital city of Raqmu, now called Petra, in CE 37 – c. 100, gave the name of Nabatene to the borderland between Arabia and Syria, from the Euphrates to the Red Sea. Their loosely controlled trading network, which centered on strings of oases that they controlled, where agriculture was intensively practiced in limited areas, and on the routes that linked them, had no securely defined boundaries in the surrounding desert. Trajan conquered the Nabataean kingdom, annexing it to the Roman Empire, where their individual culture, easily identified by their characteristic finely potted painted ceramics, was adopted into the larger Greco-Roman culture. They were later converted to Christianity.
So there you have it…. Now onto the treasury, the jewel of the area….. and where I met my favorite little Arab girl. I swear she was the best sales lady, and couldn’t have been more than 12. I felt like I was being hounded by the little children in Mexico selling the gum packets again, except this time, she was selling handmade jewelry.
The jewelry pieces were small polished colored rocks held together by string used to sew clothing together. She made sure to show me how the rocks reflected in the light, and said over and over how she would give me a good deal like any other. I couldn’t believe how good her English was. Our guide said that most of the Bedouin children and people in the area knew several different languages because that is how they make their money.
I feel like this little saleswoman, could smell that I was a person that loves unique jewelry. Well I got suckered in and thought she did such a good job selling it & telling me I needed to appreciate the high points of the pieces that I ended up paying her double of what she was asking.
The Girl and the Scarf
She was so excited that she told me how beautiful I was, and that if I was going to wear a scarf I should wear it on my head, and she proceeded to tie the scarf on my head like the traditional Bedoin and Jordanians do.
Apparently everyone ties it on their head differently, and people can tell where each person is from by how they tie the scarf on their head. Well the other members of our group when crazy with pictures, I felt like I was stealing the glory of the Treasury away by interacting with this girl. She showed me and 1 other member of the group around the immediate area and even brushed off my butt and legs after I crawled into a grave (totally legal there by the way, and it ended up being a lot creepier than I anticipated). She then had to go back to work, and said she needed to make more money that day to help feed her family. So I asked her for a hug, I gave her a big hug, and didn’t even mind her musty tobacco scent. I wanted to take her home with me, but I suppose that is the woman instinct to want to protect children like that from the hardships of life.
Tips for Visiting the Treasury
Just a piece of information for my readers, when you see the Treasury poking through the cracks of the Canyon…..the whole journey becomes worth it. Learning that it isn’t actually a building, but a tomb, that has been blocked off in a way that you aren’t allowed to go into it any longer to preserve it. You can trek up to other tombs and look inside them. Honestly, we only had about 6 hours here, its hot, but there is a store at the bottom with water and snacks and they sell a lot of souvenirs of course. Lots of calendars and photos.
Be careful of the camera man by the treasury. If you are American they will literally lure you into an area by the treasury that is slightly secluded and when asked how much will expect a kiss…… NOT saying that I actually did, just warning you…..The Jordanian men are not exactly versed in kissing, and the Bedoin men have very prominent musty smells and I question that their hygiene is regularly practiced.
Riding My Camel
After my extremely brief and uncomfortable interlude with the camera man, I ended up paying for a camel, make sure to bargain this price & try walking away before you agree completely on something…..they always end up coming down on the price. Well I got on my camel and it felt pretty stable and secure while it was on the ground, but when it was prompted to stand up, I felt like I was back on the mechanical bull in Las Vegas again trying to stay on.
TIP: LEAN BACK WHEN IT STANDS UP & PUT YOUR LEGS ON ITS NECK BEFORE IT DOES TO HELP STABILIZE YOU.
Camels don’t taste that great, and be sure the Bedoin men are watching your every move. If he asks if you want to jog with the camel…..don’t……this will get you comments such as, “hey you wanna ride me like you ride that camel?” Which made me blush about 14 shades of Red, and wished I was fending off the policeman with the 1,000 camels instead.
I ended my camel ride, and explored a little bit walking the ruins and such. It was hot and humid, and noticed our tourist guard over in the snack tent and decided to go and chat for a bit. He couldn’t stop smiling every time I came near him. I showed him pictures of Las Vegas and couldn’t believe how similar it was. I could tell when I walked up and after talking to him, he was a bit smitten with me….he ended up taking a picture of me, and just kept sighing saying how beautiful I was in my scarf. After being embarrassed by this, I told him I wanted to go explore some more. After exploring a bit more, the group met up again, and started the long walk back up to the gates.
May I make a suggestion…..hire a donkey to go back up…..walking through sand uphill for what seemed like 3 hours in hot, humid, body baking weather is not as fun as it seems when you still have to stay upright for the rest of the day. I’m not a super athlete, but could fend for myself in a soccer match, and let me tell you it was not just rough, but RUFF. I also really envied the other ladies I saw riding up the canyon in their chariots, especially with the beautiful Bedoin man with piercing green eyes, dark skin, lightly curly black hair with his whip……alright, less I digress…..bottom line……take the chariot, its worth the cost.
The People of Jordan – And Their Men
Last but not least, was the travel along the King’s Road and my departure. My Arab crush Mohammad, told me that he had gotten me a gift, and asked if it was ok if he gave it to me….OF COURSE! He walked down the bus (my claimed seat was in the back) and pulled out a green checkered scarf with tassels.
He gave it to me and was so embarrassed, when the other members of our group oooohhh, cawed and awwweeed at him singling me out. He then gained some courage and asked if he could wrap it around my head. I consented, and then he wrapped it around my head with his fingers shaking and I think if his smile got any bigger it would have cracked his face wide open.
I was so embarrassed by all the cat calling echoing in the bus that I didn’t even thank him properly & for the first time in my life was tongue tied. Well the bus started up, and we headed to the crossing into Israel…..a very precarious area that we were warned MULTIPLE times to not make ANY jokes, don’t make eye contact, and don’t speak when the guard entered the bus.
This was also a point I was grateful to be in a group, and it forced me to sober up & start to regret not saying anything to Mohammad about how grateful I was for the gift, because I felt like I would never see him again, and it made me sad. Well, as we approached the border, I sneaked some shots of it, and the guard on our bus before he got to the back to interrogate us.
An Issue At The Border
I kept my eyes down until he asked for my papers, and he looked at me, and without looking at my papers said, “where did you get that” pointing to my scarf Mohammad had just wrapped around my head. I’m glad I was sitting down at the time, because I probably would have fainted. I told him it was a gift, and he asked from whom, I told him, “Mohammad” which doesn’t exactly narrow it down in that country. He asked what he did, I told him he was our Policeman that had been with us during the trip. The couple across the isle tried to defend me, but he didn’t seem to have it. He handed my papers back to me, and headed down the isle. He said, just a moment to me, and came back on the bus, everyone tense and waiting……with a colleague….the original policeman was talking rapidly in Arabic, and his friend asked the same questions.
They both turned, and after waiting for 20 minutes, and our guide got back on the bus, fuming mad, and said that the bus had to turn back around and go back to the transfer station (where we had left Mohammad). I felt bad because I thought it was my fault with my stupid twitterpation and scarf. We took the long winding road back to the transfer station, and it ended up being that the papers didn’t have exactly the correct stamps or whatever on them, so that’s why we were turned around.
Phew…..well now that I felt less guilty, here was my chance, I went into the Police holding area at the transfer station, and asked for Mohammad the Tourist Policeman. Went back to the bus and there was our guide (the local Arab one) and he was standing next to…..drumroll…..Mohammad. And what do you know, our guide handed me a piece of paper with Mohammad’s email and facebook address on it. I gave our guide and Mohammad a tip, and felt my magical moment was completed. But after a quick trip to the bathroom (where they charge you for toilet paper, so make sure you bring change) other guards and bus drivers noticed my scarf.
One of them complimented me on it, and said, “Are you staying in Jordan?” which I responded no, and why….. and he said, “well you know what that means don’t you?” …”no”…..”it means he has claimed you as his, and wants to marry you”. I was shocked, and embarrassed and quickly went to the bus.
Leaving Jordan to Israel
In the end, we ended up getting into Israel, and across the barbed wire, multi-walled border full of tensions. Having my sentimental gold ring stolen by one of the Israeli soldiers there, being singled out because of the scarf on my head, patted down in a makeshift changing room, held in the Jordanian side until the supervisor gave the go ahead for me to cross….we made it. In a post script thought, I later learned that the scarf really had no meaning attached to it, other than a nice gift.
After becoming friends with Mohammad, and my interactions with other Jordanian men since then…..one thing I know now…..Jordanian Arabs like to talk shit, scare foreigners and love the American ladies (mostly because they come with passports and green cards. And dancing in a Jordanian wedding will involve the Debka (a dance aimed to kill you from how crazy the dancing gets– see Youtube videos) and shooting hundreds of guns into the air which has since become illegal after some people were inadvertently killed.
My Final Opinion on the People of Jordan
All in all I love Jordanian people, their passion for life, their unfailing resiliency, their romance (even if it is only in words alone), and the rich history their country possess. I hope I will get to go back and meet old friends, and explore Petra again. I wouldn’t suggest doing this trip completely alone, as the men are pretty aggressive, but traveling in a tour group was by far the best experience I could have had.