That Time We Lost All Our Money and Were Stranded in Guatemala

A year ago right now, I was on a vacation in Belize and Guatemala with my love. Eight days of sun bathing on the beach, adventuring in the jungle, and every outdoor activity you can imagine. 
Not on our list? Losing all our money and getting stranded in the jungle.
I realized I never told this story, and it's one of my better misadventures. It surely deserves telling. Especially because it happened on Phil's birthday (which, you guessed it, is this week as well. Happiest of birthdays, Phillip!), making now a good time for reminiscing. 
A bit of background.
I'm atrocious with numbers, math, and money. I almost never calculate numbers - I just guess at them - because a guess is nearly as good as my math, but takes a fraction of the time. On the other hand, Phil is a math teacher and a total whiz with numbers. Typically when we travel, he's the one in charge of currency exchanges and calculating costs of activities. 
When we planned our trip to Central America, we had our itinerary set to spend 6-days in Belize and 2-days in Guatemala. The first half of our trip would be in Belize, then we would hop across the border to Guatemala, then spend a few more days in Belize before heading home.
The main draw of Guatemala was visiting Tikal - an incredible Mayan ruin site in the jungle. The complex is much larger than the more-famous Chichen Itza (in Mexico), but most of it is still buried under the jungle. The tallest Mayan temple to be discovered - Temple IV - is on site in Tikal and is fully excavated. And the coolest part? You can climb to the top of it. And, for a bit more money, you can watch the sunrise from the top. 
Pretty freaking sweet, I know.
So when Phil and I discovered this, we decided we absolutely had to go. How cool would it be to traipse through the jungle in the dark, arrive at the temple before dawn, and then watch the sun appear over the jungle while howler monkeys and toucans serenaded us?
We timed it perfectly so that we could do it on Phil's birthday, making it his gift and celebration, of sorts. 
We found a really great deal on a hotel - the only one inside the Tikal national park - with an attached sunrise tour. It would be nearly half the price of other tours, but just as good (from what we could tell). We booked it, and I paid a deposit on it. 

Alright, so, a bit more background. In Belize, they use either Belize dollars or US dollars as their primary currency, the exchange of which is pretty simple (1BD to .5USD). In Guatemala, their currency of choice is the Quetzales, which equals out to about 8Q to 1USD. In Belize, the national language is English, while in Guatemala they speak Spanish. 

Flash forward: we are now in Belize, in the city of San Ignacio. San Ignacio is near the border with Guatemala, but is about 6-hours from Tikal. Phil and I had been staying in a hotel in the jungle and hadn't made plans on how to get to Tikal, but figured we'd find a bus or something. During our last day there, we met a couple from the US. The guy was [originally] from Argentina and on a road trip from Florida to Argentina, and his girlfriend had just flown in to visit him on his stop in Belize. He was leaving the next day for Tikal, after dropping her at the airport. After a bit of chatting, he offered to drive us to Guatemala for free [this is a story I'll save for another day - it's a goodie], which we agreed to. 
We headed out the next morning for Tikal. At the border, we had to wait for quite some time for our visas to be approved. While waiting, loads of locals came up and offered to exchanged currency with us. Both Phil and our new friend agreed that we should wait to exchange our money, since it's always a bad rate near the border. At that point, we had $20BD and $10USD, and 0-Quetzales with us. 
We continued on our journey to Tikal. The drive through the jungle was beautiful, but the Guatemalan countryside was quite rural, and there were no towns or cities to be seen. We finally made it to the small town outside of Tikal, where our driver/friend's hotel was. At that point, he would drop us to get a taxi, and we would part ways. 
Being the only Spanish-speaker, he called us a taxi when we arrived in the town. From what we could tell, our hotel - inside the entrance to the park - was a bit further past the town. We decided to find an ATM for a bit of cash, although we had our credit cards with us. There was one in a nearby shop, which we found just as the taxi showed up. Phil was dealing with the taxi-driver, leaving me responsible for withdrawing money. 
I went to the ATM and entered in all the required info, at which point it asked me how much money I wanted to withdraw. 
"Uhhh, I don't remember the exchange rate... 300-Quetzales sounds pretty good though. That should cover us till we get back to Belize."
My math-less mind saw 300 and assumed it was a large sum, equating it to USD. Rookie mistake. 
I took the money and walked back to the taxi. Phil asked me how much I got, and I told him. He looked at me strangely but didn't say anything. We were both exhausted and wanted to get to our hotel, and it was starting to get dark out. We got in the taxi and headed on our way. 
The taxi continued down the road we had entered on, which quickly turned into a long, winding path through the forest. There were 'Caution: Panther' and "Watch for Capybara" signs posted every once in a while, which we found quite humorous. We watched the jungle grow dimmer and darker, and soon enough it was pitch black outside. We'd been in the taxi for about 30-minutes, and there was no sign of life on the horizon. 
I started to get a bit anxious - who knew that Tikal was so far away from the town that was supposedly 'just outside' the entrance? I asked Phil if he knew was was going on, but he figured we must be getting close. It took us about 45-minutes to get to the marked entrance of the park, at which point the driver pulled over.
"Go... pay" he said in a mix of English and Spanish that we couldn't understand. We had to pay? Pay for what?
Phil and I walked over to the small building he was pointing to, on which we saw a 'prices' sign posted when we got a bit closer. A man in the building opened the window and looked at us, waiting.
"Daytime? Two of you?"
"Tickets? Yes, we need two daytime tickets"
"It costs more to go into the park at sunrise. You can buy those tickets inside the park in the morning, though. Two daytime tickets will cost 200-quetzales."
I looked at Phil, getting a bit nervous. 200-quetzales? That was 2/3 of the total amount of cash I withdrew at the ATM.
"Uhh, do you take credit cards?"
"No, cash only."
"And we have to buy our ticket now? We can't get it tomorrow? Our hotel is in the park."
"You must buy your ticket now, even if you're staying at the Tikal Inn."
Welp. That was that. I handed over the majority of the cash I had, and prayed for the best. He handed back our tickets, and we got back in the taxi. 
"The cabby fare had better be less than 100-quetzales..." I whispered to Phil, getting seriously anxious about the money situation. 
"Don't worry about it, I'm sure there's another ATM in the park," Phil responded. 
After about 10-more minutes of driving, we finally arrived at our hotel. The cabby took out our bags and led us to the [very] dark hotel. A doorman with a flashlight greeted us.
"Sorry, the electricity is only turned on between 6:30 and 11:00pm. It should be on shortly," he said. We got our bags inside, and turned to the cabby. 
"100-quetzales" he stated. Given the extent of our journey (nearly an hour), the price didn't seem out of the ordinary. Phil and I exchanged looks as I handed over the last of our quetzales, eyeing the dollar bills still remaining in our wallets. 

The taxi-driver left on his merry way, and Phil and I entered the hotel. There was a battery-powered lamp on the front desk, and I could see flashlights bobbing down hallways in the distance. We checked in, and I handed over my credit card to pay for the room.
"Just a reminder, you must pay for the sunrise tour tomorrow morning if you plan on going."
"Oh, can I just pay for it here and now? I thought it was through the hotel," I asked.
"No, I'm sorry, the tour guide is private and requires a separate cash payment before it begins in the morning."
"Where is the nearest ATM?"
"There aren't any inside the park. The closest is the one in the nearby [ha! nearby!] town outside the entrance."
At this point, I about broke down in tears. This was supposed to be Phil's birthday gift, and the whole reason we came to the park! We can't have spent a whole day traveling to Tikal only to miss out on the main purpose of coming - the sunrise tour. Plus, we hadn't even considered having to pay for another taxi back, and then a bus beyond that. How were we even going to get out of the park if we couldn't get cash?
"So, is there anyway you could withdraw cash from your register as part of my hotel payment?" I pleaded.
"Well yes, but I personally can't do it. The only person who can do such a transaction is my boss, and she's on vacation."
Panic. Serious panic. I started pouring out my story to the man behind the counter, explaining my own stupidity and my desperate need for the cash so that we could at least get back to the town outside the park.
"I can try contacting her, but there's no guarantee she'll pick up," he said. I asked him to please do so. At this point, we wandered down the halls looking for our hotel room while sporting headlamps. We found our room, went in, and collapsed on the bed.
"Did you know I didn't get enough money?" I asked Phil.
"Well yeah, I mean, it didn't seem like very much, but I figured you knew what you were doing." he laughed.
PHIL WHY WOULD YOU ASSUME I KNOW WHAT I'M DOING WITH NUMBERS. At which point I half-jokingly half-seriously tried to blame our predicament on him. 
"Promise me from now on you will be the only person in charge of our money on our trips" I told him. We laughed a bit more in the dark and I pretended not to be freaking out about being stranded in the jungle, and hour away from our only chance of money/escape.
A few minutes later, the lights came on and we made our way to the hotel restaurant. Thankfully, I could pay for things inside the hotel with my credit card, otherwise we wouldn't have been eating for 24-hours either. 
I compulsively went to the front desk to check on the guy trying to get ahold of his boss. Every time I walked into the lobby, he just sadly shook his head, not having gotten a response from her. 
Phil knew how worried I was about the situation, and being the amazing person he his, tried to reassure me that it would really be ok if it didn't work out, and not to worry about it. He made the executive decision that we should go swimming in the pool for a while, rather than to stick around the lobby and stalk the desk worker. 
The pool ended up being the best decision, as it was totally dark outside, but there were fireflies everywhere and bugs of every sort chirping in the jungle just a short distance from the water's edge. Absolutely picturesque. It still couldn't stop me from going in after 30-minutes for an update. Of which there was none.
We finished up in the pool and headed indoors. By this time it was about 10:30, giving us 30 minutes more of electricity and our last hope of getting cash, and as a result, going on the sunrise tour. 
By this point, I'd basically given up on getting the money. I apologized profusely to Phil about ruining his birthday, and he of course was totally chill and mostly had to calm me down (ha ha, this is a recurring pattern). 
With ten minutes left, I went for a last trip to the hotel lobby. The man behind the desk looked up at me and said "Oh good! I was worried you went to bed. I got ahold of my boss!"
I swear, the relief I felt...
"There's a small problem though. Because of issues with taxes and our bank and credit card rules, there's a pretty hefty tax. You'll have to pay a 75% fee to withdraw money from us..."
I DON'T EVEN CARE JUST GIVE ME THE MONEY I practically shouted at him. Thankfully (or not?) my inability to calculate anything made it so that a 75% tax didn't sound terrible and totally do-able. 
I handed over my card, and he did his thing on the computer. 
"Alright, here are your quetzales," he said, as he handed me the cash.
I could have kissed his feet. I took the cash in hand, and did a happy dance down the hallway to our room. 

"PHIL WE ARE GOING ON THE SUNRISE TOUR! HAPPY BIRTHDAY!" I shouted as I jumped onto the bed. 

And that, kids, is why math is important and why you should never withdraw money without calculating exchange rates. 

PS- it was absurdly foggy the morning of the sunrise tour, so we didn't actually get to see the sun rise till about 20-minutes after it had officially risen. Still totally worth it, though. 
Pin It!


Differences between American and British Universities

Yes, I'm alive. No, I'm not depressed, overworked, or otherwise overwhelmed. Why haven't you heard from me in nearly three-weeks then? Good question. I suppose I felt that I didn't have anything particularly important to discuss, and it was better for me to put out quality rather than quantity. 
But all of that is behind us now. Because I'm back! 

The only things I've been up to lately are settling into campus life and not spending all of my money (a true feat in London, ha). And while I've been feeling more comfortable living here, the one thing I've been struggling with is my course. 
Too difficult, is it?
Nope. Quite the opposite, actually. Of all things, my courses are absurdly easy, and it's left me feeling anxious and confused.
What do you mean, your MSc is too easy, Taylor?
Well, let me just lay it out for you.

As a disclaimer, I go to a relatively small, modern university in London. My program has a total of about 20-people (for 5-different anthropology degrees). I've talked to people from other universities in the UK, and from what I can tell, most of what I'm experiencing here seems to happen on other campuses as well. But, it may very well be the case that my experiences are unique to my particular university, not to all universities in the UK.


Classes are only one day a week. Yes, you heard me right. I have 5-classes total, and each is only once a week. For 2- or 3-hours, depending on the particular course. I believe the idea behind this is to give us time for doing reading on our own, that more closely relates to our particular area of interest or expertise. However, what actually ends up happening is that I go to class on Monday and Tuesday, and then have five days off during which I wring my hands and try to ascertain what to do with all my free time. (This is particularly difficult considering how much it would cost me to go into Central London every day and explore). I find myself getting annoyed because I really enjoy going to lectures (yes, I know how strange I sound), and I wish we had more class-time to learn about our material rather than doing it on our own. 

There is no coursework/homework. A degree with no coursework or homework? How is that even possible? Good question. For my course, I have no tests and no assignments. I am graded solely on a single essay due at the end of the term, and my dissertation. While I do have a lot of assigned reading for seminars, there are no required assignments otherwise. This isn't the case for undergrads, though. In the US, I would expect tests and/or multiple essays throughout the term, but that's not the case in the UK. 

Finals are after vacations, not before. I think that this is done as a supposed kindness, but I really hate this system. All final tests and essays are due on the first day of the second term, rather than the last day of the first term. So, my final papers for this term aren't due on December 13 - the end of Term 1, but on January 6th, the first day of Term 2. You might argue that it's nice to have the extra time, but I am a procrastinator at heart, and I know I will struggle immensely with completing my assignments before my vacation is supposed to start. And I certainly don't want to spend my Christmas break writing essays and doing research!

Masters programs are only 1-year. Most masters courses in the US run 2- to 3-years in length, including time for your field research and dissertation. In the UK, the same program is only 1-year including time for field work and dissertation. This was one of the major selling points for me coming abroad, as it means I spend less money and time overall for the same recognized degree. 

Undergrads and postgrads share classes. This particular point I think might just be a feature of my university because of the small number of students in the anthropology program, but it might be a more wide-spread phenomenon - it's unclear. All of my classes are more or less undergrad classes, with a few postgrad students thrown in. For me, this is a huge shock. Never at my university in the US would juniors or seniors take classes regularly with masters students, but here, there are more undergrads than postgrads in any particular course. Which quite annoys and befuddles me. We take the same classes, for less time, with no assignments, but I get a higher degree than they do? Of course, I do three months of field research and a dissertation, but still. It seems highly unfair. Also, many of the undergrads don't seem particularly interested in the topic, just in graduating, so they tend to talk a lot, be disruptive, and overall annoying to deal with in class. That was one thing I was looking forward to avoiding, but alas...

Participation isn't required or graded. I found myself in the first week of class looking like an absolute fool, because I realized studying in American universities had trained me to feel obligated to speak and participate in class. The entire regime of cold-calling students, giving a grade for participation, and discussion in small seminars has conditioned me to say something - anything - to make sure I get my 'participation points'. But here? Nada. It's not expected that everyone speak at some point (even though the classes are quite small), though I do think it's still preferred. So, I'm working through my forced-desire-to-speak complex that I've somehow developed, so that I don't spurt out meaningless anecdotes and questions in an otherwise interesting discussion. 

So, in review, I have less work, less class time, and nearly no supervision. I expected some of this, but I guess I'm overwhelmed with the lack of expectations and boundaries. So I'll sit here and do my best to just read in all the free time I have, and try not to complain about wanting more lectures and less undergrads present, ha. 

Have you studied in both the US and the UK, and noticed these as well? Which system do you prefer?

Pin It!


Dorm Makeover

Dorm rooms are notoriously bland, often old, and rarely cozy. As a result, I made it a priority to decorate my dorm, and make it as comfortable and homey as possible. The best part? My entire dorm 'makeover' cost lest than $100! And, it can be translated into any room, dorm or otherwise. 

The dorm I have is 'en suite', meaning that I don't share my room and I have a private bathroom. The only thing I share with my flat is the kitchen, which actually works out really well because my flatmates are fantastic and we've become really close as a result! (Tonight is Nigerian food night, Indian food is next week, and Russian food was last week. It's pretty sweet). 

The majority of my decorations for my room I purchased in the US and packed with me. It was also the major reason I was nearly over the weight limit on my luggage [worth it]. The one thing I can't change in my room - a nagging misfortune - is the brown striped drapes on the windows. I mention this as a disclaimer, so that you're aware I have slightly better color-matching abilities than what it may appear ;)

Anyways, I did my best to decorate on a budget, but to still attempt to have a room that felt like 'me'. I think I did a pretty good job at accomplishing just that - even in my teensy-tiny bathroom! 

Bedding: $30
Photos/Posters: $15
Potted Plants: $15
Bathmat/Towels: $30


1. Add some greenery. Potted plants not only add a bit of color, they'll also help to freshen up your room and keep you responsible. I purchased these from a grocery store, and I've managed to keep them alive for 2-weeks, so I'm feeling like I'm on top of the world. I personally enjoy terrariums of succulents and cacti, but I have yet to find a place to purchase these in my area.
2. Hang posters with washi tape. Many dorms have rules against damaging the walls with thumbtacs or nails, making hanging things nearly impossible. Rather than resorting to poster putty that might fall off over time, a more colorful solution is to use washi tape. I had rolls in a few different colors that matched my color scheme, which I used as borders around each of the prints I hung. If you're feeling extra creative, you could even 'paint' with the washi tape by using it to write things or form images on your walls. 
3. Use bright colors. Dorms are typically pretty cramped and rarely have good lighting. Plus, staying in a room alone for hours on end of studying can get a bit depressing. To combat all these issues, try using bright colors. While mustard yellow, coral, and turquoise might not be your jam, there are lots of lovely hues to suit anyone's tastes. 
4. Organize everything. Minimal space in a dorm is a given, so it's important to use all space efficiently. I use baskets for holding my hats/headbands, school supplies, and other miscellaneous items. I label things with washi tape (seriously, washi tape is the solution to everything), and keep some table-tops clear to avoid looking cluttered. 

What are your dorm decorating tips?

Pin It!


Study Playlist

If you've recently gone back to school, then, like me, you've probably been reintroduced to the bane of 500-page daily readings. 
I mean, don't get me wrong, I love reading. But it can be difficult to motivate yourself to do that much note-taking when you've got a lovely bed just a few steps away.
Ok, so maybe I'm just terrible at studying.
But, the one thing that does help encourage me to work is having some good background music. I understand that there is a population of people who have a difficult time concentrating with music in the background, but I come from the other population: the one that can't function without some tunes for atmosphere.
So, in an effort to increase my own productivity as well as your own, I've created a playlist of my favorite songs for playing while studying. These songs are all lively enough to keep you awake and motivated, but soothing enough so as to not be distracting. If nothing else, these are just great songs you can put on when you have guests over or your need to relax. 
So sit back, hit play, and get to being productive. 

Study Playlist by Taylor on Grooveshark

What are your favorite songs for studying?
Pin It!