Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Semuc Champey - Nature's Water Park

The name was so exotic - Semuc Champey, the loveliest spot in Guatemala. It was nature at its finest, a natural water park. The question was how anyone ever found it. Along a winding road from Guatemala City to Coban my son and I went 3 1/2 hours, continuing on for over an hour to the turnoff where the sign promised only 22 more kilometers (13.2 miles). Soon to be there, right? No, this road turned ugly. It was uneven and rocky and the pick-up truck listed back and forth as it maneuvered up and down the mountains, often requiring first gear. One and a half hours later, we arrived at the end of the road. (I didn't add in the time when we had to turn around because our driver forgot to get gas nor the extra time it took to deliver a rope to his cousin.)

The good news is it’s worth it - vale la pena. At Semuc Champey, the thundering Cahabon river disappears under ground. Above it are gently layered pools of clear, jade colored water for swimming and wading, all located in a lush area of mountains with green, green, ferns, flowers, and pine trees. It was raining hard when we first arrived. As it shifted to a light rain, we went out - the only ones swimming. Everyone else was huddled under shelter. It was easy to make our way from pool to pool. The sun soon emerged, lighting up the pools and bringing in the crowds. There was a balance of Guatemalans and foreigners visiting the site, clearly distinguishable by shade and dress. Below the pools, the river emerges with a roar, causing some grand falls which we observed from below.

The second part of the day was a cave tour across the river at Kan’ Ba. As usual, we had to sign in and I noted that five of the last seven registrants were Israelis. It is a custom for young Israelis to take a year off for travel after serving their "sherut tzvai’l" or mandatory time in the military. They are adventurous travelers and we saw many of them.

Truthfully, I had been anxious about the cave tour since the morning. We knew what to expect from previous participants. An indigenous guide would give you a candle as you enter the water at the base of the cave. You would wade at first, but then swimming was required! After registering, I was reassured to meet our guide, Israel, a small, wiry, man with a huge, beautiful smile, reminiscent of Xi, the bushman in the movie, "The Gods Must be Crazy". There were only two of us on the tour. In the dark of the cave, we would have three candles and a weak battery powered flashlight around Israel's head. As we started, I was having serious questions about the wisdom of this adventure but I was still a mother and I couldn't let my son go in there alone, even if he was twenty-four years old.

The water was cool, not cold. I was already breathing hard as we began to swim against a strong current flowing towards the cave opening while trying to keep the candle dry. There were stalactites to grab here and there. Israel stopped occasionally, pointing out various patterns with his headlight. It was hard to appreciate the different formations when all I could concentrate on was water rushing by, exiting in unknown places. The rains had been very heavy, preventing us from crawling out of the cave for a view of the waterfalls above us. Instead, we spent more time inside, climbing up to some dry caverns. When we finally turned around, it was wonderful to be flowing with the current. At one point, we had to direct our heads between two stalactites almost caressing the water with two feet of clearance between water and cave. Daylight never looked so good.

But Israel was not through with us. The tour also provided innertubes for a river float. Because of the rainy season, the river was on the run, making it more of a river dash. We hooked up our tubes, my feet under my son’s arms, and Israel's small feet under my arms, putting in just below the falls. Floating along with waterfalls and mountains around us, children waving from the banks, and an occasional rapid was way beyond what Disney could ever provide. I was sorry when this part ended.

As with all adventures, it felt good to be done. If the cave tour had been in the U.S., I’m sure life jackets and better lighting would have been required. But many countries of the world let you access and assume the risk of your chosen undertaking without worry of a lawsuit. As an attorney, that’s bothersome. As a participant, it is exhilarating. So, until the next column, remember ‘always pack your swimsuit and some extra courage.’

Semuc Champey - Two hour drive from Coban, Guatemala. Their web site, http://www.semucchampey.com, has lovely pictures.
Aventuras Turisticas has reasonable tours - http://www.aventurasturisticas.com.
Kan’ Ba Caves - located immediately downriver from Semuc Champey.
Hotel La Posada in Coban - a private residence that became a hotel in 1939. 1a calle 4-12, zona 2, 502-7952-1495;http://www.laposadacoban.com
Casa D’Acuna - wonderful restaurant and home of the best waiter in Guatemala - extensive menu. (It’s also a budget hotel.) 4a Calle 3-11 Zona 2, 502-7951-0482

Friday, February 1, 2008

Oklahoma City - Anyone Speak Vietnamese?

How is it possible that a life-long resident of Texas (which borders Oklahoma a good distance) and a current resident of Paris, Texas (which is only 20 miles from Oklahoma) had never been to Oklahoma City? It was too far north or too far west and really wasn’t on the way to anywhere for us until our daughter and son-in-law moved there. It was time.

First - the drive. How different than the drive to Dallas. Head straight north up the Indian turnpike, through the Ouachita mountains, take a left on Interstate 40, cruise through more rolling hills with open fields and ponds, and take in a few (large) Indian Casinos on the way. Other than slowing to pay tolls, you could make that drive in just over three hours without releasing your cruise control or spotting a Starbucks.

The expressways of OK City are elevated with high curving arches as the interstates meet and part in the wide open sky. Below the exchange, downtown is divided into three parts. The arts district is an architectural history lesson with a modern art museum and an Art Deco musical hall. Included in this area is the Oklahoma City National Memorial, the chilling and yet soothing testament to the 1995 bombing of the Alfred Munch Federal Building. Midtown has the renovated Skirvin Hilton and other major hotels, several bank buildings, the Cox Civic Center and the Ford Center where their hockey and basketball teams play.

The third district, Bricktown, was originally a compact, commercial center with red brick warehouses and store fronts. It declined after the Great Depression and was not revitalized until the 1990s. Someone had vision. Bricktown is now a lively cross between the San Antonio river walk and downtown Ft. Worth complete with historical buildings and a new section that has captured many national restaurants and stores. There’s even a Bricktown baseball park for the AAA Oklahoma Red Hawks. The river walk is particularly charming in the evening with restaurants spilling out onto sidewalks and boats motoring by.

Oklahoma City became even more interesting as we ventured out of downtown. It’s no surprise the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum resides here. They were having a special western day when we arrived, complete with cowboy greeters on horseback and gifts of red and white bandanas. A statue of John Wayne was to be dedicated that day. After an unsuccessful try at roping a saddle, we moved on to our biggest surprise, Little Saigon.

The large Asia District in Oklahoma City branches out from 23rd street. Asians are three percent of the OK City population, most of them Vietnamese who originally came after the fall of Saigon in 1975. When my daughter told me there was a Vietnamese grocery store near her, I expected a 7-11 type store. The large Super Cao Nguyen was named for the Central Highland area of Vietnam. It has been owned by the Luong family for over 25 years. Many of the fruit and vegetables of southeast Asia were available such as durian and jicama. It also had pig and duck as well as some of Asia’s more common gift items. They have recently begun to attract the Whole Foods crowd by carrying European specialties such as Greek olives.

There was a special program in the store’s parking lot that morning. One of the boats that had been used to escape Vietnam in the 70's was making a tour of the United States along with black and white photos of the refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines. To make a journey of thousands of miles in that small ark was inconceivable. We heard the South Vietnamese national anthem sung by those present, many with tears in their eyes. It was obvious the crowd still missed their homeland.

Since we were in the neighborhood, we stopped at the Pho Hoa restaurant where we sampled Bun Thit Nuong, a dish I had liked in Vietnam. The clientele here was primarily Asian American, but I also noted a table of Native Americans and one of African Americans. There we were - a slice of America in a Vietnamese restaurant in Oklahoma City. I saw that melting pot again in December when I worked with my daughter in a Red Cross shelter after their ice storm. The shelter was heavily used by those whose power was lost. During 24 hours, I translated for Spanish speaking customers, wheeled an elderly African American woman to the curb to catch a cab, held a Vietnamese woman’s daughter, and served lunch to a cowboy.

You’ll find what you expect in Oklahoma City - a friendly, open community with heavy influence from the cowboy and native American cultures. But if you look a little deeper, you’ll find what you didn’t anticipate - a robust example of the melting pot that is America. And that’s what makes it even more interesting. So, until the next column, remember "cowboy boots fit everyone".

Oklahoma City National Memorial - 620 N. Harvey Avenue, 405-235-3313; http://www.oklahomacitynationalmemorial.org
National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum - 1700 NE 63rd, 405-478-2250; http://www.nationalcowboymuseum.org
Super Cao Nguyen Grocery Store - 2668 N. Military Ave., 405-525-7650; http://www.caonguyen.com
Pho Hoa Restaurant - 901 NW 23rd, 405-521-8087
Saturn Grill - "Eat Great Food on a Cool Planet" - wonderful sandwiches, salads and slogan - 6432 Avondale Dr., 405-843-7114; http://www.saturngrill.com
Cheever’s CafĂ© - Great for a special evening out. (We saw a wedding proposal here) 2409 N. Hudson Avenue, 405-525-7007; http://www.opentable.com

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