Road to Ruin(s)

You can check out Cahal Pech and Xunantunich and be back in your hammock sipping a Cuba libre by lunchtime. Visiting Caracol, on the other hand, takes commitment.

Getting there is half the fun. If your idea of fun is a long, bone-jarring drive on roads like these:

As we began our journey, a nice man in a gatehouse wrote down our license plate number and  passed me a clipboard, saying something about his father… cancer treatment… would I like to donate money? That caught me by surprise, especially since I could hardly understand his quiet, accented English. I let him down easy and drove on.

The guidebook recommends allowing three hours to drive the next 50 miles. And visitors need to be at a meeting point by 9am, so they can be escorted along the last stretch of road by guards (a system originally instituted to prevent banditos from robbing tourists along the route, though the area is safe now).

STOP at checkpoint

For two long hours, the only break in the scenery was this checkpoint. I pulled over and looked around, but it was deserted, so I drove on.

Arriving at the meeting point just before 9:00, we were surprised to be the first ones there. Until we realized we were actually at the ruins. That checkpoint was the convoy meeting point, and we’d blown right by it! The armed policemen drinking coffee at a nearby picnic table didn’t seem particularly concerned, and this minor mix-up meant that we got to see Caracol before any other tourists had arrived.

On this bright, sunny day, having the sun beat down on us was a welcome change from the weather at home, as Karen explains:

The local howler monkeys put on a show for us, though they were awfully quiet for a creature with “howler” in its name.

Time to start the long trek home, over that same rough road. After driving for a while, we came upon the checkpoint I had ignored earlier. I slowed down to see if anyone was around. Someone was. He was motioning me to pull over.

Pasting a smile onto my face, I hopped out of the car and bounded into the small hut. Two young men in uniforms lazily reclined in wooden chairs, their rifles sitting on the table in front of them. My strategy: kill ‘em with kindness. “Hi, ya know, I apologize, but earlier-”

“You’re the ones who didn’t check in this morning,” one officer said without emotion.

I put on my best dumb tourist act, telling him how we had mistakenly… innocently… ha, ha, how silly of us… driven past HQ this morning. He slid a notebook over to me and asked me to sign in. I wrote my name beneath all the law-abiding tourists who had checked in earlier. Car make and model. License number. Then I stopped.

“Do you want me to fill in the time?” I inquired. No, he would take care of that. I had suspected he’d say that. He’s going to mark down that we checked in this morning and exited this afternoon. We won’t get in trouble for driving through; they won’t get in trouble for missing us. We were on our way.

Rio-On Pools

After run-ins with gun-toting boy soldiers, I always like to relax in a natural pool. Like the Rio-On Pools, along our route back. They’re really impressions in the rocks along a river.

Panorama pools

I found a mini hot spring and relaxed, until I felt the call of the bumpy road once again.

After a couple more hours of driving, we passed through the gate that marked the beginning of our journey this morning. The friendly guard put a checkmark next to our license plate number. All vehicles accounted for, nothing to see here.

Thanks for visiting Caracol. Now where’s that Cuba libre?

Belize Bound

Preparing for our two-week trip to Belize involved a new wrinkle that we haven’t encountered in years.

What to do with the dog.

Cosmo

Meet Cosmo! He’s a rescue mutt who joined our family last fall, and this is our first extended time away from him. Luckily, we have friends kind enough to look after him. Shortly after Karen dropped him off, I received this text from our dogsitter.

Cosmo waits

Attaboy, Cosmo. Remember who loves ya.

Next Stop: Belize. All it took was two short flights: Milwaukee to Atlanta to Belize City. At the airport, we were met by Jeff, a Couchsurfer who had contacted us the week before about sharing a ride. We piled into a junky rental SUV and headed west (east would have put us in the drink) to San Ignacio.

Mayan ruins abound in this area of Belize, two of which are very close to town and easily accessible. The next morning, we explored Cahal Pech, which may have once looked like this:

Cahal Pech mural

Now it looks more like this:

After lunch at the famous (apparently) Benny’s Kitchen, we headed for the other nearby ruin.

Cows in the road

This is the sort of thing you encounter on the road in Belize.

Xunantunich is one of the earliest Mayan sites, and it’s fun, too, because you can climb all over it (should we tourists be allowed to do that?).

Back in San Ignacio, we walked around as the shopkeepers were closing up for the night and discovered more of those stray dogs, this time using the decorative fountain as a drinking fountain.

San Ignacio fountain

San Ignacio watering hole

And yes, Karen pets them. Even ol’ Big Ears, who we saw a few nights in a row.

Big-eared boy

Don’t worry, Cosmo, it’s only temporary. Her heart belongs to you.

Next Stop: Belize

Whew! The blizzard of Prague/Dresden posts from the past is at an end, and we’re beginning a new adventure in the present: Karen and I are seeking warmer climes for two weeks in Belize.

As I finish packing, it strikes me that once upon a time, I traveled around the world for nine months with the orange bag pictured below. Now I need the blue one for two weeks in Belize.

Packed for Belize

Have I become a clothes horse? Nope. A scuba diver.

While not as geared-up as the true die-hards, I do bring along my own mask, snorkel, dive computer, and flashlight. On this trip, I’m going to try out a newly-purchased underwater camera housing, taking my photography to new depths.

Onward, to Belize!

Guten Morgen, Dresden, Gute Nacht

Riverfront

On my last day in Dresden, I hit the bricks early to experience the city waking up.

Moon over Dresden

Trams rolled down nearly-empty streets as the sun emerged from behind majestic buildings.

After snapping photos for a while, I found a park bench overlooking the Elbe River and watched the day begin.

Guided by the map I’d picked up at my hostel, I tracked down a shadowy remnant of Dresden’s Socialist past.

Some other images from my Dresden wanderings.

At night, I finally got around to exploring the more modern area of downtown and found shopping, shopping, and shopping. And the obligatory wacky-shaped movie theater.

One last glimpse of the Academy of Fine Arts on the Altstadt side of the river.

Academy of Fine Arts

On the Neustadt side, a Tim Burton moon looms overhead. You know, the kind of moon that wouldn’t be out of place in The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Tim Burton moon

Each night, walking back to my hostel, I’d pass a statue of a golden rider. That’s Dresden’s golden boy, August the Strong, Elector of Saxony, King of Poland, and- most importantly to me- patron of the arts. He attracted to Dresden the artists and architects who created the impressive buildings I’ve been ogling this week.

Thanks, August.

August the Strong

East Germany Under Glass

Mauerfall

No, this is not the poster for a new James Bond movie called Mauerfall

Another former Eastern Bloc city, another museum full of Socialist detritus. More elaborate than the Museum of Communism in Prague, Dresden’s DDR Museum occupies several floors in an appropriately stark building.

DDR Museum

There are rooms full of artifacts and walls full of posters from youth rallies, evocative photos, and year-by-year timelines. Mostly in German, which made the visit less fulfilling for me, but this is, you know, Germany.

A common feature of these museums is reconstructed rooms and shops. What is this supposed to convey, exactly? That people had funny, square TVs in 1950? I knew that.

I am a sucker for abandoned currency, though. And abandoned film technology. And the Robotron!

Patrons start their visits on the top floor and work their way down, so it was at the end of my tour that I discovered the automotive collection, including the Trabbis that the members of U2 and I are so taken with.

Seeking Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five editions

To fans of Kurt Vonnegut (like me), Dresden is synonymous with his novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, Or the Children’s Crusade.

During World War II, Vonnegut and his fellow prisoners of war hid in the basement of a slaughterhouse while the Allies bombed the crap out of the city. I’m a big fan of Vonnegut, the observant cynic, lover of words, Mark Twain for our time. I brought along my copy of Slaughterhouse-Five and re-read it on my way to Dresden. This required me to temporarily set aside the new Jim Henson biography- not an easy feat for me. When the main character, Billy Pilgrim, is captured and transported to Dresden, Vonnegut writes:

The Americans arrived in Dresden at five in the afternoon. The box car doors were opened, and the doorways framed the loveliest city that most of the Americans had ever seen. The skyline was intricate and voluptuous and enchanted and absurd. It looked like a Sunday school picture of heaven to Billy Pilgrim.

Somebody behind him in the box car said, “Oz.” That was I. That was me. The only other city I’d ever seen was Indianapolis, Indiana.

So here I am in Dresden… Oz… Vonnegut’s city, the backdrop to his most famous novel. What will I do?

Take the Kurt Vonnegut Tour, of course. Details were a bit sketchy on the website, but a couple emails later, I had a date with Danilo. We met next to the statue of King Johan on Wednesday morning, and since I was the only person on the tour, we basically chatted as we walked around town.

Dostoyevsky statue

And Dostoyevsky looked on

Honestly, there’s not that much to see here related to Kurt Vonnegut. Danilo regaled me with tales of Kurt Vonnegut’s life and pointed out various buildings as we walked, providing a bonus architectural and cultural tour.

Apparent mosque

For example, he pointed out the distant building that looks like a mosque. Danilo says it’s actually a factory; apparently, the designer took advantage of a law that exempted religious buildings from paying certain taxes.

Mosque factory

But let’s not get off track here. The ultimate destination of our tour is slaughterhouse five, the actual facility where Vonnegut sought shelter from the bombing. We walked for quite a while along a tree-lined sidewalk, leaving the city center behind, passing a hill that is made of rubble from the bombing.

Rubble hill

Finally, we came upon a collection of buildings enclosed by a gate. Danilo walked up to the guard shack and exchanged some words and gestures with the guard. The Kurt Vonnegut Tour, it turns out, is really a handshake deal by which some guards let us in the back door.

The back door of what? Well, check it out:

Hold that place in your mind, and read this:

There was a fire-storm out there. Dresden was one big flame. The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn.

It wasn’t safe to come out of the shelter until noon the next day. When the Americans and their guards did come out, the sky was black with smoke. The sun was an angry little pinhead. Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead.

So it goes.

Odd to be contemplating man’s cruelty to man while standing next to the coat check, but  that would probably suit Kurt Vonnegut just fine. And by taking this tour, I had seen parts of Dresden I never would have with my nose buried in a guidebook.

Freed from the “we’re on a tour” formalities, Danilo and I chatted about topics non-Vonnegutian while riding the tram toward downtown, and I learned that he was a teacher in the Soviet days. Though he has no wish to go back to the old ways, he says it’s been difficult to make a living since the fall of Communism, as politicians spend more time looking out for themselves than their constituents.

Danilo and Ken

I tipped Danilo with my leftover euros, we said our goodbyes, and I was left alone with my thoughts. As my buddy Kurt put it,

And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like “Poo-tee-weet?”

Fall and Rise of the Frauenkirche

Colorful city block

If it were February of 1945, this street would be on fire.

At that point in World War II, the German army was retreating but had not yet surrendered, and the Allies were looking for ways to hasten the end of the war. As part of a campaign of air strikes against rail lines and factories, multiple bombing runs rained fire onto the German city of Dresden. But many industrial facilities in the suburbs were left untouched, while buildings in the cultural center of the city were laid to waste. Days earlier, Allied leaders had made plans at the Yalta Conference for the reconstruction of Europe, and yet thousands upon thousands of civilians were killed in Dresden. Fire ravaged the city and left charred bodies in basement bomb shelters. Debate over the military necessity of the bombing continues to this day.

I first learned about these events through the lens of a great book: Slaughterhouse-Five. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was there, as a young prisoner of war, and he used the bombing as the backdrop for his unhinged, stream-of-consciousness, semi-autobiographical, postmodern novel.

Frauenkirche rubble

Frauenkirche after the bombing

I heard about it again when my friend Lori visited the city in 1995, finding the iconic Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) still nothing more than a pile of weathered rubble. Voices began calling for its rebuilding as soon as the war ended, but East German leaders didn’t have the will or the Deutsche Marks for such an undertaking. The pile of charred stones was probably a handy propaganda tool, as well, reminding citizens of the indiscriminate hostility of the West.

But the winds of history blew across Germany and set the stage for the Frauenkirche to rise again. After German reunification, donations poured in and engineers went to work restoring the church to its 18th century glory.

Frauenkirche

In 2005, the Frauenkirche was reconsecrated. Standing in front of this ornate giant, I felt sadness at the terrible events that brought this city down and awe at the efforts that rebuilt it.

Thousands of original bricks, darkened by fire and weather, were incorporated into the new exterior.

Engineers also brought the building up to modern safety standards, allowing us tourists to ascend to the top of the dome for a 360-degree view of 21st century Dresden.

The church sits in a crowded square- a little too crowded, in fact, for my taste. I was disappointed that city leaders would allow huge buildings to surround the church on several sides, but then I saw historic photos showing those buildings in place before the bombing. It’s kind of hard to bemoan the way things are done “these days,” when those days were a hundred years ago.

In one large open space in front of the church there is an archeological excavation underway, so it appears that the face of Dresden is changing once again.

Next Stop: Dresden

Prague is so darn close to other historic European cities, and I had a couple of unclaimed days in my itinerary. I couldn’t help but add a third country to my two-week trip.

Venice is a just few hours away, as are Berlin and Nuremburg. I chose a closer destination, right over the border: Dresden, Germany. As part of the former East Germany, it fits into the Cold War theme taking shape on this trip. My interest had also been piqued by two individuals: my friend Lori and a guy named Kurt. We’ll get to them later.

Praha hlavni nadrazi

First, gotta get there. As one would expect, the trip was easy. An English-speaking clerk in Prague sold me a train ticket (for 724 Kč, about US$36) and then waited in Praha hlavní nádraží station (they could use more benches) until my platform was posted. If you’ve ever watched a train arrive at the station and wondered which car you’re supposed to ride in, you’ll understand my delight at finding a screen identifying each car.

Train cars revealed

We cruised through the countryside, our only indication of crossing the border being that the announcements changed languages. In just over two hours, we arrived at Dresden’s Hauptbahnhof.

Dresden Hauptbahnhof

Oops, my hostel is actually closer to Dresden’s Neustadt station, so it’s back onto the train for a short hop to the neighborhood north of the Elbe River.

Bahnhof Dresden Neustadt

Lollis Homestay (which is a hostel, not a home stay, but why nitpick?) came highly-recommended by Lonely Planet. After just a few moments on its website, I knew I had to stay there.

They promise 10% off your bill if you can prove you don’t use nuclear or coal-fired energy:

Lollis Phase out Nuclear Energy

And a free night’s stay if you can entertain the other guests for an hour:

Lollis Play for Stay

You don’t get that at the Four Seasons (this is where my friend Henry deadpans, “That’s why I stay at the Four Seasons.”).

Sadly, no, I didn’t break out the Czech puppets and entertain the crowd for an hour. Neither did anyone else. However, I did experience a dose of that quirky Lollis charm… in my room.

 

Do I Have To?

Lamppost

Obviously, when you go to Prague, you’ve got to visit Prague Castle. It’s up there on the hill, photobombing every picture you take of the skyline. It’s the embodiment of centuries of history. It has six different admission options.

Do I have to?

I figured Prague Castle was just another big, empty castle. Even when Rainer strongly recommended it, I was still hesitant. But perhaps inevitably, early one morning I caught a tram ride up the hill. And perhaps inevitably, I got off one stop too early. It should have been a clue when, on a tram full of tourists, no one else got off. Oh well.

Prague was shrouded in a morning mist.

St. Vitus Cathedral was founded over six hundred- aw , let’s just take a look around.

The castle consists of many separate structures and rooms. Here are a few of them.

Wandering these hallowed halls does impress one with the sweep of history and the pageantry of human existence… and then one crosses paths with a fashion train wreck like this.

Fashion disaster

It’s the little touches that make Prague Castle so memorable. Like the disaffected twentysomething guarding the pay toilets, babbling continuously into her cell phone while we each paid 20 koruna to take a pee.

Just when I was about to give up on the castle experience, I spotted an exhibit ready-made for me: the gargoyles.

I do love a good gargoyle. Especially a ghoulish, how-did-that-creepy-thing-wind-up-on-a-church gargoyle. And this place has got ‘em. Turns out the elements have worn away most of the originals, so there’s an ongoing process of making casts and fashioning new versions of old favorites.

Just a few of the stalwarts on active duty outside:

For me, when all was said and done, Prague Castle was pretty much just another big, empty castle.

But I did enjoy the gargoyles.

Boo!

Boo!

Communistalgia

Commie nesting doll

I’m fascinated by the fading vestiges of Communism. Back in high school German class when Frau Andersson taught us about die Mauer (the Wall), it seemed like it would endure for generations.

And then it was gone.

McCommunism

Prague’s Museum of Communism is located above a McDonald’s. Of course it is.

Stoic Stalin

Uncle Joe (Stalin), oblivious to history’s march, presides over the museum’s cramped hallways.

Commie hallway

Prague has a Stalin story to tell. In 1948, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia staged a coup and took over the country. Work commenced on a huge monument to the Soviet leader. Construction took more than five years, and with good reason: this representation of Stalin at the head of a line of patriots was huge.

For scale, look for the actual people in this photo- those little dots halfway up.

Stalin monument

The statue was unveiled on May 1, 1955. It was over 15 meters high! It was the largest representation of Stalin in the world! You can practically hear the men’s chorus warming up for a stirring rendition of a heroic anthem!

Just one problem. Joseph Stalin had died in 1953, and the process of de-Stalinization had begun. Soviet leaders were turning away from the brutal legacy of their former General Secretary/dictator/egomaniac. A giant granite likeness of him seemed a bit out of place.

What to do? Get rid of it.

But, the story goes, the Communists wanted to avoid the embarrassment of slowly dismantling the epic edifice. So one day in 1962, without warning, they blew it up.

Stalin goes boom!

Nowadays, a rather lame metronome sits on the statue’s base, a touching symbol of, um, the passage of time or some such nonsense.

Metronome

I’ve got no love for Stalin, but his statue was undeniably the more accomplished work of art. Let’s take a moment to remember its sculptor, Otakar Švec, who committed suicide the day before it was unveiled.

Replica shop

The museum’s exhibits, like this sterile replica of a Cold War-era shop, didn’t do much for me. Feeling a bit of Commie fatigue, I wandered into a stuffy screening room, sat down on a hard bench, and watched a video that made it all worthwhile: no-frills news footage of the Czech people pouring into the streets of Prague in 1989 and demanding their country back.

When it looped, I stayed to watch it again. My heart broke as regular people in puffy coats and stone-washed jeans (it was the Eighties, after all) stood up to police in riot gear, with sometimes bloody results. This wasn’t soundless black and white film of our grandparents going to war; this was VHS-quality video that reminded me of home movies shot in my backyard in Brookfield (possibly shot with the same Quasar model I used). The course of history changed one day while I was sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner, a newly-minted college freshman.

Wenceslas Square, November 23, 1989

Wenceslas Square, November 23, 1989

I guess that’s why I’m fascinated by the remnants of the Cold War world that I came of age in just as it drew its last breath. Even with all the masterful propaganda, the towering granite, the parades in Red Square, and Frau Andersson’s resigned inevitability… the people won.

Is that a tear in your eye, Vladimir?

Lenin looks on