Three Countries in 10 hours and New Years Celebrations

Flores, Guatemala

I didn’t sleep well.  I was nervous.  It was sometime around 4AM in the twilight hours of the last day of 2009. I had an early bus to catch, was traveling on a holiday, would spend time in 3 different countries over the next 10 hours, and had to sleep with my camera. Why the odd bedfellow?  In the absence of an alarm clock, watch, or other time keeping device – the internal clock on my Canon G11 was my sole time piece.  Luckily my internal clock held true, waking me a half hour or so before I needed to be up.

Sunset - Flores, Guatemala

I stretched, groaned at the odd noises one of the local birds was making, and then stumbled over to my locker.  A few brief minutes later I found a bench outside my dorm room and sat down, carefully making sure I had everything as I tied my shoes.  The sun had just begun to rise.  It was the start of a gloomy, but invigorating day.  The type that was made for travel – gloomy enough that you don’t feel like you’re missing something, but nice enough that downtime between buses etc. isn’t miserable.

From there it was down the uneven cobblestone streets to the waterfront where my Flores (Guatemala) -> Chetumal (Mexico) bus would pick me up at 7:30.  I confirmed my booking, then opted for a bit of breakfast at the small cafe next door.

Flores, Guatemala

As I sat down at one of the outside tables, I chuckled while making eye contact with a vibrantly colored, inquisitive parrot who was carefully perched (dare i say stranded) on top of the “Break Fast” sign.

There were a few of us out and about. All bleary eyed. All wishing we were still in bed. My food arrived, as did a bland black coffee just as there was a loud POP! Crackle! POP! From somewhere overhead.  Startled I looked over and up in time to see the large power pole begin to spark and smoke.  The two locals underneath it jumped back as I leapt out of my chair and got under the cover of the building, carefully eying the power line which stretched directly over the table i’d been sitting at.

The owner quickly grabbed a wooden broom, then ran around turning off all of the electronics as the power pole/line continued to smolder and throw off periodic sparks. Eventually it died down…just in time for the local who had previously been standing immediately under the pole to walk over and tentatively touch it.  Luckily, the danger appeared to have passed and with a wary eye I returned to my table, plowed through my food, paid my bill and made my way to the bus stop.

The bus ride itself wasn’t anything special.  A long trip with brief pauses ever hour or two.  Two quick stops – one at the Guatemala/Belize border and another at the Belize/Mexico border where we disembarked, paid a plethora of fees, then wandered aimlessly into the country.  The highlight, however, was a wonderful husband and wife who were traveling together. The husband was a scientist and professor at UNLV who shared a wealth of insights with me about climate change, recently discovered micro-organisms in extreme locations, and other like-kind scientific insights.  Our conversation was both fascinating and extremely informative which went a long way towards speeding up the trip.

Eventually we arrived at the Chetumal bus station, where we would book the second leg of our trip.  For me it was onto a 1st class bus for the 4 hour bus ride to Play del Carmen where I hoped my hostel reservation was waiting for me.  Unfortunately, the first bus was sold out, leaving an hour plus layover and adding to my anxiety.  Nervous about losing my reservation I found a tiny internet cafe in one of the Bus Station coffee shops, from which I sent a follow up/confirmation e-mail to my hostel.  “Please hold my spot, I am coming from Guatemala today! If everything goes according to plan I’ll be arriving sometime between 10-11:45”.

I was exhausted, smelled, and stressed. The last thing I wanted to do was spend New Years on a Mexican bus.  Luckily, the bus eventually appeared, was on time, and got me safely to Play del Carmen by 10:30PM.

Nervous about my reservation I made a B-line to the hostel and was relived to find that they’d received my e-mail right about the time they were debating giving the bed away.  I was in luck, they’d kept a bed set aside for me in one of the dorms. I’d made it before new years – and I was ready to celebrate.

In a small mealstrom of activity I washed up quickly, deodorized, changed and made my way up to the hostel bar.  A couple of dollars later and with a beer in each hand I set to the task of making new friends.  I quickly fell in with a Dane and some Aussies. As the seconds ticked by we counted down,  drinks held in in the air:  10, 9, 8, 7 – whew I’d made it! – 6, 5, 4 – What an amazing year.  I’d kicked it off in the Plaza del Sol 12 months earlier in Spain and now I already found myself saying goodbye to 2009 on a different continent, with equally delightful people after a year of incredible adventure – 3, 2, 1…..and then the rooftop bar exploded with a roaring cheer.   Hugs and high fives were exchanged, glasses and beer bottles clanked together and as one, people from all over the world celebrated the start of a new year and a new adventure.

After another hour or so at the Hostel bar, a group of us formed up and set out to explore a few of the local clubs.  Before long we found one along the beach with an incredible view of the ocean and great music.   For the next few hours we danced, drank, socialized, and exchanged stories.  At 4AM I realized I was quickly approaching the 24 hour mark and that I was drained of every last ounce of energy I had.   I said by goodbyes and made my way back to the hostel where I crawled into my bunk, let out a great sigh and drifted towards sleep.

Unfortunately, I was in the top bunk located in the very corner of the room, immediately between two large windows. The good news was, that the sunrise was spectacular.  The bad news was, that between the sunlight and eventual heat coming off the windows I was awake and drenched in sweat by 8:30AM.  Hungover, I set out to walk the beach and get some fresh air. To my amusement and surprise the party was still raging at one of the beach clubs.  With more than a few people passed out along the beach in front, the bar itself was full of people dancing.  Many were still in evening dresses from the night before, though most had long since lost their shoes.  Most of the guys were in similar form, though almost all had long ago abandoned their shirts.

Beach New Years Day

As I strolled along the beach I paused and couldn’t help but laugh.  Immediately in front of the club, half buried in the sand a reveler was sound asleep.  Passer-bys had decorated the individual with beer bottles, sand breasts, and upended cups.  The only sign of life was a periodic roaring snore.

Eventually feeling refreshed I made my way back to the hostel where the Air Conditioning had kicked in.  I crawled back into bed for a quick nap.

By 1 I made my way to the rooftop common area, where I settled in with a large water and my book.  Before long Daniel and Jesse joined me.  We exchanged stories from the night before, and I quickly learned that after I’d left Jesse and Daniel had continued full force.  As it turned out, much to Daniel and my entertainment – Jesse was locked out of his room.  With nothing better to do, we opted to head down to a beach front bar for a lone drink as we recovered.

Play del Carmen

Before long we’d stumbled on the site of a week long rave/music festival that was operating 24/7.  Set up around a resort’s beach front pool the area was packed with people dancing, celebrating, and relaxing. The scene was an incredible chance to people watch and full of entertaining antics.  Before long, someone volunteered to grab the first round which obliterated any hope we’d had for a relaxing 1 beer afternoon.  As the part picked up steam we drank, danced, and met an entertaining mixture of locals, travelers, and vacationers.   In what seamed like the blink of an eye 1PM had turned into 6PM which had bled into 8PM.  Hungry we tore ourselves away from the party long enough to make our way back towards the hostel.  The walk there was amazing, mostly along the beach,  and under a full Blue Moon.  Once back to the hostel we picked up a few more people, changed quickly, then found a near by dollar taco stand.  The jokes were hilarious, offensive, and often told around a mouth full of taco and Pacifico.

With laughter and salsa induced tears streaming down our faces we eventually finished dinner, before striking out to find a nightclub.  The first attempt was a failure…apparently night clubs didn’t care for one of the Australian’s ball-bulge-spedoesque-swimsuit, which set off another round of jokes and laughter.   Making a scene as we ambled through the street – often laughing hysterically or making odd faces – we eventually found a club that welcomed us with open arms…and free drinks.  From there it was on to the Blue Parrot where we watched a fire show, danced, and laughed at each other mostly because  Daniel, Jesse and I had all begun to lose our voices and sounded ridiculous.

By 3 we’d all started to hit a wall and eventually opted to limp our way back to the hostel and turn in.  If New Years Eve/Day was any indication, 2010 will be one hell of a great year.

Celebrating the New Year in Madrid

The small travel alarm I had with me let out a loud chirp ripping me from the throes of my quasi dream state. I’d mentally told myself I needed to be up early – which left me just awake enough to spring into action. Rolling over and silencing the small alarm clock, I quickly glanced around the room feeling a bit guilty. I was relieved I hadn’t woken up any of the others in the room. Apparently, the alarm was nothing compared to the trinity of earth shattering snores two of my fellow hostel mates and I had been responsible for over the previous 4 nights. Holding my breath I gently eased myself down from my perch in the back of the room on the top bunk bed. Making more noise than I’d have liked I quickly dressed – pausing to moan and rub the sleep from my eyes. I tossed on my backpacks and made my way to the elevator. It had been a late night and my train left far sooner than I’d have liked.

Half in a daze I checked my e-mail in the lobby before setting out into the crisp morning air. It was a cold, wet, gray day. It made me regret leaving Granada a bit less, for which I was grateful. Five minutes later I was standing on the Grande Villa scratching my head and hoping I was about to board the right bus. Eventually, I found the one I needed and after a quick five minute ride, disembarked in front of the train station. With a few minutes to spare I picked up a small box of Pringles and found a bench. Eventually the train arrived and I said my goodbyes to Granada. It was a bitter sweet moment. Effectively the end of my explorations and my latest adventure. From Granada it was back to Madrid for New Years and then onto a plane for the 12:40pm flight back to the states.

The train ride back to Madrid was comfortable. The scenery attractive. Having arrived at the central station, I quickly found my way back to the Musas Residence. I’d stayed at this hostel when I first arrived in Spain. There I settled into my room, showered, grabbed a kebab and began taking vitamins. It was December 31st – I knew I had a long night ahead of me, and with a 14 hour flight waiting for me on the 1st it was time to prepare. I read, napped, ate and drank water. Only venturing out to enjoy the city briefly for food or fresh air.

New Years Eve in Madrid

As evening settled in, there was a palpable electricity in the air. Everyone was excited and eager to begin the evening’s celebrations. Madrid has a reputation as one of the most exciting New Years Eve celebrations in the world and I was eager to experience it. I swung by one of the local stores which was still open and picked up two bottles of wine and another kebab before heading to the hostel’s kitchen/common room. There, after a bit of a hunt, I found a cup and corkscrew and settled in at a table with 3 other Americans – a brother, sister and their mutual friend. They’d just arrived from the Midwest and were eager to kick off their trip. We shared wine, stories and got acquainted – quickly polishing off a bottle of champagne and both bottles of wine. As we warmed up for the evening we joked, laughed and teased each other and the others who drifted over to our table. We decided to make our way out on the town and headed towards Puerta del Sol – Madrid’s New Years Eve celebration ground zero.

As we wound our way from plaza to plaza…and past bar after bar…we eventually found a fantastic little dive which had bathrooms in the basement, down a winding flight of stairs that resembled a dungeon more than restrooms. We paused for a side of olives, quick tapas and glass of Sangria before rejoining the throngs flooding through Madrid’s streets. Everyone was in high spirits and most of the Spaniards were dressed with colorful wigs and fanciful outfits as part of the festivities.

Starting to feel the bottles of wine we’d had earlier, I led us through the winding streets towards the Puerta del Sol. With about an hour to go, we found the entrance to the event…A barricade across the street with at least 6 police officers standing guard. We paused, taking in the sight, and quickly realized that instead of carding or giving people grief as they entered the police were handing out giant plastic cups to party goers. Not to be left out, we quickly backtracked to one of the entrepreneurs turned street vendor selling grapes (more on this later), beer and bottles of wine – expecting price gouging we were surprised to find a bottle of champagne was only 5 Euro. Hardly more than we’d paid earlier at the local supermarket. Two bottles and 4 large plastic cups later we were inside the barricades and working our way through the crowd. We’d managed to beat the majority of the crowd and as a result ended up with a great view of the main building (note the building in the attached video).

Once in position we settled in and waited, quickly getting to know the various groups around us. Some were Spanish, others were English, others Australian and yet others German. The square was packed and despite it’s great size quickly filled to overflowing. The dull roar of the crowd was deafening…and then the final countdown began. Marked by twirling lights we all stood, jumping up and down and shouting at the top of our lungs with 12 grapes in hand.

As the final 12 seconds of 2008 clicked by we quickly ate our grapes – one for each second. The 12 grapes signify the 12 months of the year and have become a fun tradition, albeit difficult to execute. Cheeks stuffed with grapes, Madrid ushered in 2009 with the roar of thousands of voices and one of the most incredible fireworks shows I’ve ever seen. As one the crowd jumped and cheered – pausing only long enough to steal a new years kiss – we watched as vibrant explosion after vibrant explosion lit up the evening sky. As the firework show subsided the crowd slowly began to untangle itself. Like water poured onto parched earth we flowed back out and away from the square en-mass. Heading in every direction and clogging all of the side streets.

After a quick pause I realized I’d lost the others. After a few minutes spent looking for them, I eventually gave up and undaunted slowly made my way back to the hostel – pausing as I met new friends along the way. Once back at the hostel I reconnected with the Americans and settled in for a few rounds of drinking games with a group of other travelers and hostel employees. Somehow time quickly slipped past and long before I was ready I realized it was 5am. With a heavy heart I said goodbye to three Italian girls I’d met (all from Milan) and crawled into bed. I had to be awake at 9am – there was an hour’s commute to the airport, and then the typical 3 hours advanced check in for international flights.

In rough shape I woke at 9. Half standing, half rolling out of my hostel bunk I crawled into the shower for a quick rinse before hoisting my backpack up and onto my back. The walk to the metro was easy. The stale metro air however, was not. With a grimace I purchased my metro ticket and waited for my train all the while fighting the urge to vomit and sweating in silent misery. It had been a good night. It was going to be a rough morning. As the metro train rattled along its tracks I paced at one end of the car as women nervously watched me. I quickly realized that my pacing – though necessary – made me seem nervous. Combined with my size (I’m 6’4″, 200 pounds), general appearance and two backpacks (one on my back and a smaller a smaller day pack strapped to my chest) the pacing understandable left them a little edgy. The whole scene was comical. The metro itself looked like a war zone filled with hundreds of party-goers in all different states – all bedraggled – making their way home.

Somehow, I managed to hold it together for 40+ minutes across 3 separate metro lines. Believe me when I tell you that when I reached the airport station I was the first one off. Like a lightning bolt I made my way to the surface and to fresh air. I never actually got sick…but it was a close thing. Another 5 minutes on the metro and I doubt I’d have made it.

Once inside the airport, I made it through security in a matter of minutes. So much for needing 3 hours! I grabbed a quick bite to eat, then quickly located a set of benches where I could stretch out. It was 10:30 – my plane left at 12:40. I took a quick nap and recovered some before heading to my gate. Luckily I arrived early. In some sort of odd Spanish form of efficiency the plane was boarded and heading towards takeoff by 12:35. Scratching my head in wonder, I shrugged and counted my blessings – it was a good thing I hadn’t arrived late.

The flight back was long…the planes old and the service mediocre. Despite the discomfort though, I didn’t mind. It had been an amazing adventure from start to finish – and oh what an ending.

If you ever have the chance to celebrate New Year’s in Spain head to Madrid. It’s without question, one of the most amazing parties in the world.

Oktoberfest Day 3

After pushing hard the previous two days we took it easy Sunday morning. We slept in until about ten and then kicked around the hostel until about twelve when we went for a bite to eat. After washing up we decided to stop by Oktoberfest and pick up some pictures. From there we planned to head to the old town and explore it in a bit greater depth before booking our train tickets for later that day.

We made the 15 minute walk to the fairgrounds where we took a number of photos, each bought a few souvenir t-shirts and casually wandered about. Eventually we worked up a bit of a thirst and couldn’t resist the urge to pop into one of the tents and poke around. We had heard fantastic things about the Augustiner tent and beer and so chose it. Luckily it was still early enough that the majority of the tents still had openings. We found the Augustiner tent and quickly located a small spot at the end of a bench next to two men and a woman dressed in traditional garb. In usual fashion we started talking to them and in no time had made friends. They helped us flag down our forgetful waitress and even shared a bit of their beer with us while we waited for our own steins when it became necessary to toast to a song.

As we sat and chatted we learned that they had been there since 9 in the morning and were already starting to hurt. One of the guys (the woman’s husband or fiance) went from drunk to partially passed out in the 2 or so hours we sat there with them. The three were incredibly friendly, sharing stories, food, history, harassing each other and all around including us in the fun. When anyone ordered food, it got passed around and shared and as the two foreigners we had to try everything. This ranged from a red cabbage/beet thing, to gravy-covered meat, pretzels, and a herring and onion sandwich. While I didn’t notice a huge difference between the beer in the Augustiner tent and the beer in the Pauliner tents we’d previously visited it was definitely fantastic beer.

The tent itself was incredible, see my photos (facebook – message me if you need the link) for an idea on how big it was and the atmosphere. The barmaids and men were fantastic, no idea how they did it but they would carry 5 or 6 steins at once, sometimes stacking an additional one in the middle on the handles of the others. The whole place smelled of rich food, beer, and people. The energy in the air was ecstatic as everyone was happy and as friendly and hospitable as could be. At one point there was a family who was sitting on the other side of our 3 German friends. I presume they were German and one of their kids – he had to have been 16 maybe 17 had a stein for himself. As we pounded on the table with our elbows, lifted our steins in the air to “prost!” and shouted along he kept pace with his own stein…which was about as big as he was. The funniest part was when it came time for him to leave, we all toasted him and he scuttled the last bit of beer he had to cheers from all of the surrounding tables.

Later, an older German man easily in his late 70s who was sitting behind me leaned back and challenged me to a toast. Though his english was very limited, I was able to talk to him for a bit which was really neat. Then, he would periodically lean back into our table and cheer or toast with us. He’d also sing along with one of the three (the guy who was still going strong) and they would collectively sing old drinking songs and bellow them out. Later we also picked up a German doctor who sat sandwiched in with us and reminded me of Mr. Bean…the similarity was uncanny….and he had a french-style pan haircut which made it that much better. The guy was nice, and merrily drank along with us. Another family also ended up sliding in later and though their two young girls were way too young to drink (even by Oktoberfest standards) the parents joined our merriment.

Around 3 we finally succeeded in finishing our drinks and avoiding having more bought for us. We dragged ourselves away from the tent. It was hard, the people were all so warm and the atmosphere so incredible – it almost hurt to leave. Once outside we wandered around a bit, picked up a few more items and some photos then made our way to the rail station. The unfortunate news was that our train options were pretty limited and as always expensive. The good news was after dealing with a complete ass of a rail attendant when I first tried to book my ticket, I talked to a nice lady at another window and got a sleeper compartment for the trip to Prague. Amber found a train back to Cologne later that night that left about the same time as mine. With time to kill we walked into the city center as night fell, ate and explored.

The inner city was beautiful, especially at night with the buildings and cathedrals lit up. We stopped for gelato and then found a 3-person classical street group playing in an alcove (cello, violin, flute). There we paused for a good 20-30 minutes and listened. As with so many other things on the trip it seemed straight out of a movie. Eventually we got back to the train station and hunkered down to wait for our trains. While we waited in the small coffee shop we started talking to a few of the others. The first couple ended up being Americans traveling – we exchanged stories and tips. Then I noticed that the two somewhat rugged travelers (with huge packs) had what I immediately recognized as a fly fishing pole holder. I engaged them in conversation and it turned out they were from Kansas over in Europe backpacking and fishing. Though their fly fishing luck had been really poor we chatted about fishing stories until it was time for my train to leave. They were interesting chaps, each about the size of a mountain . When we all stood up (cafe had closed) they dwarfed me…weird the people you meet, such contrast on the road!

I got lucky for my sleeper car – it was 6 beds, 3 stacked on each side of the cabin and reminded me of what I’d imagined the bunks on a submarine must look like. 4 of the other bunks were filled by a group of Asian American girls who were my age and had just finished some program or another. We got acquainted then settled in. It was somewhat comical as I warned them that I might snore and invited them to nudge me if it was disturbing them. Well at two points during the night I must have been snoring because as I was in a half sleep I remember a pillow from above flying down (I was in the middle bunk) and thwomping me on the head. It was hard to keep from laughing. By a stroke of luck, I just barely fit (and by that i mean my feet only kinda dangled) and I was able to get a good night sleep.

The next morning I awoke in Prague. I’ll continue that story soon.