Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Holidays with friends, Nica style

As Chris's club foot and moon face shrank back to normal size, we were really excited to have our first visitors from the US join us in Granada for a week. Driving to the Managua airport to pick up our friend Laurie, the first to arrive, was a bit of an adventure. You might think that the capital city of a country as well as its only international airport would have some road signs indicating the correct direction, but then you wouldn’t be in Nicaragua. After many wrong turns, we had the metal Honda emblem ripped off the back of our car while the windows were being washed at a stoplight, and got directions from a 10-year old girl selling ducks at an intersection to finally make our way to Managua International Airport. Steve successfully navigated the Managua airport on his own the next day, and luckily he did not have to resort to using his Spanish flashcards to communicate with the cab driver.

The four of us wandered the colonial streets of Granada, explored some old churches, enjoyed a horse-drawn cart ride to better see the city, ate some lovely meals in pillared courtyards filled with tropical flowers, and lounged around our hotel pool while chowing down on Christmas cookies that my mom and sister had sent to me using Laurie as their mule. We also took a bone-jarring 4WD drive up the steep slopes of nearby volcan Mombacho to explore the cloud forests covering the peak and peer into the dormant volcanic craters. However, due to split pea soup fog, all we managed to see was a sloth hanging from the branches of a tree. Much more exciting was the zip-line trip we took through the jungle canopy. The local guides whooped and hollered as we sped from tree to tree, snapping on our safety harnesses and pushing us off the platforms with glee.
The four of us wanted to check out the beaches at San Juan de Sur, but renting a car or taking a bus to our next destination was too expensive for our tastes. Instead, we kicked it Nica style and drove with Steve and Chris laying in the back of our car with the hatchback open . I know, I know, the real Nica style is having 10 people packed in the back of a pickup truck, but you have to give us an A for effort.

With all that money saved on bus rides, we decided to splurge when we arrived in San Juan del Sur and rent a sweet condo in the hills looking down on the turquoise horse-shoe shaped bay. It was still a steal by United States standards, but for us budget travelers having three infinity pools along with a private deck equipped with a bar and rocking chairs was heaven. We enjoyed two days lounging on the beach and by the pool and playing poker while sharing litros of Tona, the Nicaraguan beer. We then headed back to celebrate the New Year in Granada. Steve and Laurie were great sports and stayed out quite late considering they were catching a 4 am taxi to the Managua airport the next morning.


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Crazy zig zag around Nicaragua

When we left El Tunco in El Salvador for Nicaragua, we knew we were in for a painful experience. A 40 mile section of Honduras stood between us and Nicauragua, and given our last experience with corrupt border officials and police there, we were in for a grueling day fighting crowds and avoiding bribes. Armed with our previous experience, we were not shocked by the chaos and disorder that ruled at the El Salvador-Honduras border. 40 miles later the crossing from Honduras into Nicaragua was largely uneventful, as we received our car import permit for free and purchased Nicaraguan car insurance at the border. We breathed a sigh of relief as Honduras disappeared into the distance behind us and the volcanoes of Nicaragua loomed ahead.
We were very underwhelmed by Masachapa and Pochomil, the first beaches we encountered in Nicaragua. Ramshackle shanties and half assembled thatched-roof huts ringed the beaches, and the restaurant and hotel owners seemed to have learned their sales tactics from the Honduran border. We were chased down the sandy street by men waving menus and shouting the dinner specials. After losing the crowd following the car, we found an overpriced dump of a hotel and stayed the night, hoping that the beaches further south would be more appetizing.

On our drive south, we learned some valuable lessons about how to avoid bribing the Nicaraguan police when they pull you over for some bogus reason. Whether it was speeding, passing, or not having an orange safety triangle, we almost enjoy interacting with the police at this point. They are always friendly as they sadly explain that we have violated some law and will now have to pay a fine. Unfortunately they explain, this means they will have to keep our license and we will have to drive to some distant town the next day to pay a fine in order to retrieve our license. Because this particular police officer is a good guy though, he will offer us the very reasonable alternative of paying him directly to avoid the inconvenience of waiting a day and driving around. Knowing that we haven’t been speeding, passing, and the triangle excuse may be bogus, we play along and state that we would be perfectly happy to retrieve our license and pay the fine the next day. This sends the police officer into a state of confusion, causing him to ask if we understood what he said. He then pulls his last trick out of his hat, and whips out a pad of paper as if to write a ticket. We just sit there serenely, nodding, and wait for him to give up and hand us back our license when he realizes we have called his bluff. Works like a charm. We have probably been pulled over 10 times in the last 2 weeks, and this has worked every time.

We had high hopes for San Juan del Sur, a beach town in southern Nicaragua close to the Costa Rica border, as the Lonely Planet guides described it as slightly ‘vacuous and gringofied.’ In general for beach towns, we have found that this signifies the availability of a variety of nice restaurants, hotel options, and usually a beautiful location. While the town was pleasant and we were looking forward to several days of sun and surf, our stay there was cut short by two unrelated and unfortunate events. First, Chris had a bizarre infection that caused his foot to swell up alarmingly, which we refered to as 'club foot' for the next few weeks. Without an appointment, we paid $1.50 and waited only 15 minutes to see the local doctor, who prescribed antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, rest and ice. Later that night, his eyes swelled halfway shut making him look like a freak of nature. Second, we befriended a local restaurant owner who helped us translate the Spanish legalese in our Nicaraguan insurance document, and we found out that our car was dangerously underinsured by the policy we had purchased at the border. After calling the Nicaraguan insurance office the next morning to try to purchase sufficient coverage, we had to rush to Managua. To buy sufficient insurance, the Nicaraguan insurance company had to see our car in person, and was closing for the Christmas holiday in three hours. Two and a half tense hours later, we navigated our way through the un-named streets of Managua, frantically asking directions from the locals, and interrupted the holiday party of the insurance company. They were very gracious, quickly wrote us an excellent policy, and turned off the lights behind us as we left the building. Exhausted by the frantic driving and medical semi-emergencies, we found a lovely hotel in Granada with swimming pool, AC, and cable TV, and happily lazed around for two days while awaiting the arrival of our friends Laurie and Steve from the Unites States.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Beach-bumming in El Salvador

We entered El Salvador with the plan to stay in the small town of La Palma near the border of Honduras. With very little information in our guide book, we drove through town looking for a place to stay. We saw a billboard on the way through town that said something in Spanish about cabins and camping. Sounding like an excellent option, we followed the sign and turned onto a bumpy dirt road. We arrived at the place, opened the gate, and asked a woman inside how much camping would cost. She looked a bit surprised, and led us down to a nice building to wait at a table. After a few minutes, a group of nuns dressed in brown robes entered the building and sat down with us. This is when we realized that we had completely misunderstood the sign. We were sitting with a group of sweet nuns who were trying to understand why two people from the United States were asking them how much it would cost to camp on their lawn. We apologized for our intrusion, but the nuns insisted that we stay for some food and drinks. While we ate we talked to them about our trip, and continued to repeat our apology for disturbing them.

Later we did find a place to stay, and the next morning left for the coast. We followed the poor advice of our Lonely Planet guidebook and drove to the highly touted 'undiscovered' area of El Salvador. They were definitely right about the undiscovered part. We spent hours driving through small villages lacking hotels or restaurants. The only hotel we did find looked abandoned and expected us to pay $70 a night, which was ridiculous. We were glad we had our own car, because anyone taking the bus would most likely be spending the night on a deserted beach enjoying pains of hunger as they prayed to baby Jesus that they would make it through the night without being robbed.
We finally came to El Tunco, luckily a 'discovered' small village with a cluster of hotels and restaurants on the beach. Looking out on the water we saw people surfing, and knew we found a perfect spot to kick back for a few days. Kristin found a simple but very nice room with a shared bathroom and kitchen for $15 a night, so we relaxed by the pool, surfed, and watched the sunset while drinking dollar beers at the beach front restaurant. Not a bad way to spend six days.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

I hella hate Honduras


I know my opinion is very biased since we didn't see any of the highlights Honduras does offer. However, if your only experience with Honduras is driving through on your way to Nicaragua, you may find yourself feeling the same way. Our plan was to leave Guatemala and head to the Pacific coast of El Salvador for some surfing, and looking at the map we had two options. We could take a longer route driving south through Guatemala directly to El Salvador, or take the faster beeline from our location at Rio Dulce straight down to the Pacific. It sounds like a simple decision, except that the shorter route passes through a small stretch of Honduras for only 20 kilometers (15 miles). This would force us cross two borders in one day. “No problem!”, Kristin and I agreed. Borders can be a pain, but how bad could it be?

Semi trucks parked halfway on the roadway as we neared the Guatemala-Honduras border forced us to crawl along the pothole-choked road. We soon found ourselves in the middle of a dirty place of mayhem, with men sprinting after our car and crowding around us yelling to get our attention. The men in this welcome party want to “assist” you across the border. For a fee you get to hand over your passport, car title, registration and a wad of cash, then hope they return after an hour or so with your paperwork completed. Men banged on our windows while others stood in the parking lot trying to wave us in. To add to the confusion, very few of the government officials working at this border wear uniforms, making it hard to weed out the hustlers from the officials.

Getting our Honduran vehicle import permit turned out to be even more fun that we expected. We entered a dark, dingy room filled with cardboard boxes overflowing with old documents. There we spent an over an hour waiting for a T-shirt clad official to work on our paperwork, as he was interrupted every few minutes by a sweaty man handing him wads of cash. After finishing, he asked us for $100 US dollars for a processing fee, which caused Kristin to start yelling “that is not correct” in Spanish. One of the few uniformed officials overheard her complaints and told us that price was indeed incorrect, and we only needed to pay $40. I naively expected that the person attempting to extort us to be led out of the building in handcuffs. Instead, the crooked official walked us over to border guards, handed them our completed paperwork, and shook my hand. Just like the police who tried to squeeze money out of us in Mexico, once the gig is up, you are given a firm handshake and called their amigo. The grin he had on his face seemed to say “I almost got sixty bucks off you, but you caught me! You have to give me credit for trying through, eh?”

Our opinion of Honduras worsened when the police at a roadblock several miles from the border motioned us to pull over. After taking Kristin's driver's license, the policeman asked us if we had a fire extinguisher and orange safety triangle, which we did not. He then claimed that Honduran law requires all drivers to have these items in their car, and he would need to confiscate Kristin's license until we paid a fine. I did not catch the exact amount of the fine since the number was much larger than we were used to dealing with. I did hear the word miles, which means thousands, so the price was equivalent to at least one hundred US dollars. He quickly pointed out that all of this could be taken care right here by giving him $30 directly. At this point I got so mad I could no longer pronounce any words in Spanish, but through Kristin I insisted that we would be happy to pay any fine the next day at a police station, but would give nothing to the policeman himself. He dropped his “fee” from $20 down to $5, but we held our ground. I finally used the last ditch effort I picked up from Tom and Kelsey. I pulled out a sheet of paper and a pen, then asked him his name and number as if I was going to report this issue. It worked, and he grudgingly handed Kristin's license back, and we continued on our way. Luckily we are from the United States, a country with some clout. I did hear an unfortunate story from an El Salvadoran where he said that the police in Mexico handcuffed him, drove him and his vehicle to a side road, then searched his car until they found $500 USD he had hidden. The police in Mexico knew that the government of El Salvador would never have the resources to investigate into a missing five hundred dollars.

Crossing the El Salvador-Honduras border on our way to Nicaragua, we had to go through a different but just as painful process again. This border was located on a river, where women sat on rocks washing clothes while a pig rooted his way through garbage along the riverbank. On the Honduras side of the bridge we were stopped by a guard sporting a wooden stock automatic weapon that would look more at home in a museum. We parked our car in the middle of the bridge blocking one of the two lanes as we were told, and entered a small single room cement building that smelled like urine. The only furnishings in the building were 3 yellowed official looking documents taped to the wall and a rickety wooden desk. The official inside sat at the desk working on our paperwork in between what seemed to be personal phone calls on his mobile phone. I looked out the small window on the back of the building to gaze upon a tree covered slope filled with more piles of trash. Welcome to Honduras!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

From flowers to sweet rivers

We enjoyed 24 hours of the hottest weather we’ve encountered Flores (flowers in Spanish). This city was once known as Tayasal, founded by Mayans in the 13th century. Is located on a small island about the size of 4 city blocks in the middle of Lake Peten Itza close to Tikal in northern Guatemala. In 1541, Hernán Cortés visited this island on his way to Honduras, and amazingly left peacefully. Cortés left behind a lame horse, which the Mayans fed and cared for until it died. When Spanish priests came to the island many years later, they found the Mayans worshiping a shrine representing the horse as an incarnation of one of their gods. Flores was one of the last Mayan cities left unconquered by the Spanish, but in 1697 it finally fell by an attack by boat. As in other cities, all Mayan temples and buildings were razed to the ground, and the Spanish city of Flores was founded on their ruins.

After a peaceful afternoon in Flores wandering the narrow alleys and admiring the views across the red roofs, we spent the evening on the roof of our hotel drinking dollar beers and watching a huge thunderstorm gather over the jungle. Sounds from surrounding houses, music from nearby parties, and fireworks explosions filtered through the streets while we enjoyed the warm night air, quite the change from the cold weather we’ve gotten used to in much of Guatemala. We parked our car in the alley next to the hotel for extra security, however, the security guard was so drunk he could barely stand to guard the car. The next day we gave a small tip to the very hung over security guard and continued south to the El Salvador-Guatemala border.
A hectic market pushed in from both sides of the highway as we entered the steamy town of Rio Dulce (sweet river in Spanish) where we planned to spend our last couple of days in Guatemala. We rolled up the windows and almost kept driving as hoards of men on foot and bicycle swarmed around the car, shouting about their parking lot, restaurant, or hotel. Luckily, we did not let the aggressive crowds deter us and found the lovely quiet oasis of Bruno’s marina complex, complete with hotel, pool, restaurant, and wireless internet. Steve, the manager, made us feel at home by showins us around the place, giving us some local travel info, and helping us find the perfect place to park our car. After camping for a night and chatting with all of the friendly yachters who were quite curious about our car-camper deployed outside the restaurant, we grabbed a morning water taxi and sped up the river to the small town of Livingston. Along the two hour ride, we went through gardens of water lilies, passed small thatched house on stilts, glided next to young children paddling small hollowed-out canoes, and stopped for half an hour to dip our feet in some natural hot springs.
Livingston is only accesible by boat, and sits at the mouth of the Rio Dulce (sweet river) as it empties into the Caribbean Sea. It felt like we had arrived in a different country as we clambered off the launch. Pastel colored wooden buildings line the small streets, and the people are a mix of descendants from Caribbean Islands, slaves from Africa, and indigenous Guatemalans. We spent the afternoon enjoying some of the local foods, and wandering around the town.

Later that evening we watched the dancing and chanting crowds on the street while sharing many litros of beer with our three new friends from Denmark and Colombia. We met Mix on our boat ride into town, and Ben and Elisabeth ended up talking to the three of us as we sat at a table on the sidewalk. When Ben found out that we were driving to South America, he talked about how impressed he was that we would do something so daring, and kept asking us questions about our trip. After answering his questions, I asked him how he ended up here in Livingston, and he explained that he sailed from Colombia. Later in the evening, we found out that a few years ago he sailed around the world, and in the middle of the Pacific the keel of his sailboat broke causing the ship to sink. The rescue team found his rescue beacon floating in the open sea and abandoned the search, believing everyone drowned. After 3 days at sea in a liferaft with his two sailing companions, he luckily managed to contact a nearby ship via shortwave radio. Funny that a man who almost died sailing around the world thought we were being adventuresome.

We returned by speed boat the next morning to the town of Rio Dulce, and spent one last night at Bruno’s before we said adios to Guatemala and drove into El Salvador.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Getting ruined in Mexico and Guatemala


Walking through any of the Mayan ruins, it is easy to be look around in awe and wonder what these majestic cites must have looked like in their peak more than two thousand years ago.

The Mayan empire covered an area from Southern Mexico to Northern Honduras. During its heyday from 250-900 AD, it was one of the most densely populated and sophisticated societies in the world. Among its many accomplishments, Maya have the first recorded use the concept of ‘zero’ in 36 BC, had a fully developed written language, used sophisticated mathematics and astronomy, and built many huge elaborate stepped pyramids and throughout the dense jungle. The Maya had no single center of power, but were a diverse group of powerful city-states that often were engaged in a struggle for power with their neighbors.

There are hundreds of major Mayan sites and thousands of minor ones in existence today. We ended up visiting three sites in Mexico, and one in Guatemala over the last two months. Palenque (Palisade in spanish), the first site we visited was in southern Mexico, is set against beautiful jungle hillsides. We were awed by the pyramids crowned with temples, elaborate living quarters, aqueducts, and carved reliefs that covered the walls.The buildings that exist today are probably from a reconstruction effort after the invasion by the city of Calakmul in 599 and 611 AD.
Close to Palenque is the very small but important site of Bonampak. In one of the temples, rainwater slowly leaked through the roof in a way that covered the walls with a thin layer of calcium carbonate. Unlike most Mayan sites, these magnificent murals are still visible. It is amazing to imagine that such murals would have covered many of the interior walls of the temples and royal living quarters. The discovery by archaeologists of these murals in 1946 (the local indigenous Lakandons led them there) changed the previously held notion that Mayan were a mostly peaceful society.
We then went to Yaxchilan, a small site on the border between Guatemala and Mexico. With its maze of cavernous rooms and pyramids crowned with towering structures, this site is only accessible by a one hour boat ride from Frontera Corozal, the closest town. Yaxchilan was built on a river bend, but during a rainy period the river flooded and turned Yaxchilan into an island. The Mayans solved this problem by building a 100 meter suspension bridge in the 7th century. The 63 meter span remained the longest in the world until the Italian Trezzo bridge surpassed it more than 700 years later.


Finally at Tikal in Guatemala, we climbed one of the tallest pyramids of the Mayan Empire and looked across the jungle to see the tops of three other pyramids rising above the trees. These temples were the tallest of all the places we visited, and since people have died from falling down the steep stone staircases, rickety wooden staircases just as steep (but with handrails) have been installed.
Around 1000 AD, the Mayan civilization rapidly declined from its height. The cause of this collapse is still subject to rigorous debate. Some people believe that a 200 year drought may have strained the dense population that had settled on land poorly suited to intensive farming, while others point to evidence of internal political strife.

Today, over 6 million Mayan people live in southern Mexico and northern Central America today. Many Mayan still speak one of the 21-29 different Mayan languages, wear colorful traditional clothing, and practice a blend of Catholicism and pre-conquest Maya customs. Many Mayans consider the ancient temples sacred. Ceremonies are still performed at Tikal, and in 2007, spiritual leaders performed a cleansing ceremony at the ruins of Iximche after US President George Bush's visit.

When you visit a Mayan site, try to ignore the grass lawns (a European invention) and the vendors selling inaccurate Mayan reproductions. Imagine seeing priests instead of tourists on the top of the temples, and instead of seeing the jagged exposed bricks, imagine the temples beautifully painted and covered smooth with limestone stucco. And, if you are a person well known for your unpopular foreign polices, expect a spiritual cleansing ceremony to be performed in your honor.

(video of our experience at Yaxchilan)

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Fear the sheep, not the devil

The Sunday market in Chichicastenango lived up to its reputation as one of the best in Guatemala. The main square and surrounding streets were jammed with indigenous people and their small stalls packed with goods. Everything from shoes, underwear, bolts of cloth, fruits, vegetables, purses, and wooden masks was available for aggressive bargaining. We found the best technique was to admire, ask the price, offer less than half of the asking price, barter a little, then walk away if we couldn’t agree on a price. Most times the person would then shout at our disappearing backs that our last offer was OK, although they acted like we were taking food out of their mouths (hopefully not). We bought some beautiful trinkets, and then anxiously awaited for the "Burning of the Devil" to begin.

Quema del Diablo, or burning of the devil, is celebrated to varying degrees throughout the country. Effigies and garbage are burned on the streets to symbolize a cleansing before the Christmas Holiday. The party in Chichicastenango far exceeded our wildest expectations. A glowing statue of the Virgin in shimmering blue robes was paraded through the town, accompanied by raucous bands and a quiet crowd of devotees carrying candles. Men ran ahead of the procession to light off deafening fireworks. Shrines to the Virgin, decorated with lights, candles, pine needles and burning copal incense were set up outside many people’s houses on the parade route. The parade stopped at each shrine for a brief prayer, then continued toward the main square for the party. When the Virgin shrine reached the main square, it was placed on the top of the stairs leading into church. It was from this vantage point that the Virgin watched as men wearing devil and sheep "costumes" danced to a marimba band. The costumes were actually metal contraptions covered in a wire structure. It wasn’t till the lights were dimmed and the first fuse lit that we realized these contraptions were in fact huge wire cages covered in fireworks. The brave (possibly insane) men wearing these structures continued to dance, whirl, and run towards the surrounding crowd as the fireworks exploded, shooting sparks and bottle rockets in every direction. Highly entertaining and likely quite dangerous, we were mesmerized for an hour by the display. We returned to our hotel, ears ringing, and settled down to what we thought was going to be a peaceful night of rest. However, we awakened by bed-shaking explosions starting at 4 am, making us think Guatemala was back at war. We were told later that during the civil war the same explosives were fired at crowds during the Guatemalan civil war to break up riots. Fortunatley they are now only used as a really big firecracker. Wearily getting out of bed at 6 am, we returned to the main square to watch a choreographed dance of random costumed characters like Homer Simpson, Elvis and Che Guevara, which no one we talked to could explain. After we left Chichicastenango that morning and drove north towards Tikal, all traffic on the highway was stopped twice in small towns to make way for similar dancing parades.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Getting cleansed for Maximon in San Andres Iztapa

On our way out of Antigua, we decided to stop by the small town of San Andres to visit a shrine of Maximon to ask for good luck on our travels. With about 20 shrines found throughout Guatemala, Maximon is considered to be a manifestation of Pedro de Alvarado (the Spanish Conquistador who conquered Guatemala), the underworld Mayan god Mam, and the biblical Judas. Wearing a 18th century style black suit and hat, he can be found sitting in a chair smoking a cigar. Depending on the shrine you visit, he may be wearing other accessories such as sunglasses, a bandanna, or even an ammo belt.

At first glance it seems strange that anyone would come to worship such an evil character. However, you do not come to worship Maximon, but more to offer gifts to appease him. He is like a Mafia deity that works on extortion - you need to offer him gifts of alcohol, cigars, cash, and candles or you may run into trouble.

Without good directions and no road signs, our recent Spanish classes came in handy as we talked to people on the side of the road to first find the town, and then to find the small unmarked road in the middle of a corn field that led us to the shrine. Small vendors outside the shrine's gate sell colored candles, amulets, fragrant bundles of herbs, cigarettes and alcohol so pilgrims could purchase their offerings. We wanted to participate in a limpia, or cleansing ceremony, so we bought two bundles of herbs, blue candles for safe travels, yellow candles for protection, a bottle of beer, and headed in to the temple. A local woman spotted the slightly confused looking gringos and immediately offered to help us find a shaman who could perform our cleansing ceremony. After a hurried and incomplete negotiation about the price of the cleansing, the shaman grabbed a bundle of herbs, our beer, and Chris. He poured the beer over the herbs, and thoroughly beat Chris with the dripping bundle. At this point I decided one limpia would be enough for the two of us, and grabbed the camera. The shaman than took large mouthfuls of beer and sprayed them all over Chris until he was dripping and sticky (they say a picture is worth a thousand words, I think our video below is worth a million).

A bit bewildered by this ceremony, we assumed we had been duped as clueless tourists until we saw the line of Guatemalans waiting to be subjected to the same cleansing ceremony. Unlike our ceremony, the Guatemalans we witnessed were taking this process very seriously, and spending a good amount of time after their cleansing talking and praying to the shrine. This ceremony is very similar to the Mayan medicine rituals we learned about while in San Cristobal, Mexcio. For some ailments, Mayan shamans will sweep herbs over the body while sprinkling floral water.

We joined the line to climb the stairs and stand in front of the shine in order to make our offering of a few Guatemalan quetzal coins and a Darien Plan card to the effigy of Maximon. Back at the car Chris changed into a clean shirt and we set out for the small market town of Chichicastenango knowing that our travels are now being protected by a powerful Guatemalan deity.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Toasting marshmallows over molten lava

After the slightly gritty, gothic feel of Xela, Antigua felt like a European paradise. Antigua was founded in 1543, but was mostly abandoned in 1776 after an earthquake destroyed the city. By the mid 1800s, people were returning to Antigua to rebuild. Brightly colored houses line the wide cobblestone streets mixed with the crumbling ruins of churches. Antigua definitely has a ‘discovered’ feel as the streets are filled with camera-toting gringos while Italian and Chinese restaurants compete with cigar and wine bars. Guatemala is one of the most volcanically active countries in the world, and the three volcanoes that pierced the near horizon were a reminder of the city’s dramatic history.
One afternoon we took a guided trip with Old Town Outfitters to climb the active Volcan Pacaya hoping to see some activity. The Pacaya volcano erupted in 1965, and has been in a state of continuous eruption since. It seems to be hit or miss: some people we talked to said they didn't see any lava, but their friends that climbed a week earlier did.

As we got out of the tour bus, hoards of kids clamored around us trying to sell walking sticks for the slipper ash slopes high on the volcano. We had our hiking poles (ski poles) with us, but this still didn't stop one young entrepreneur from telling Chris that his lightweight collapsible poles were no good, and what he really needed was a good sturdy stick. As we hiked out of the small town and through farmland, Chris tried to casually ask our guide Renaldo how "safe" climbing an active volcano was, and his response was, "very dangerous, be careful". Unfortunately his English was not good enough to give any details of what we needed to worry about. He did have duct tape wrapped around his shoes, and he explained that his shoes were melting from the heat of the ground. This did not make Chris very comfortable. If the ground is hot enough to melt your shoes, doesn't that mean there is a thin layer of rock between you and a underground river of lava? We decided to stay away from any shoe melting areas in order to be safe.

After passing through the lower forests of the volcano, we entered into a weird moonscape completely devoid of vegetation. Scrambling over loose ashy rocks we followed a ‘path’ up the side of the volcano to the area of most recent activity. We weren’t sure what to expect, but I don’t think we ever imagined that we would be toasting marshmallows over open pits of molten lava. I don't think most of the people coming up the side of the volcano expected this either, since you could hear everyone who came over the ridge scream explicatives of amazement when they saw the red glow. Sitting on the rocky slope, we watched glowing flows of lava churn and roll down the side of the volcano. After admiring the fiery show for about an hour and watching the sun set across the valley ringed with other smoking volcanoes, we headed down for dinner and the ride back to Antigua. Looking back up at the volcano in the pitch black night we saw the flowing lava illuminate the clouds above with an eerie pink glow.



Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Fighting spiders and trinket vendors on Lago Atitlan

With much regret we said goodbye to the Castillo family that we have been staying with for the last three weeks on Monday morning and drove to Lago Atitlan. This lake has been called one of the most beautiful in the world and is ringed with small towns of varying different characters as well as many dramatic volcanoes. A couple of years ago, Sergio sold televisions to the owner of a hotel in the town of Panajachel on the lake, and he kindly called ahead to guarantee us a reasonable price at the hotel. The warm breezes at Lago Atitlan were a welcome break from the cold fog of Xela, and Panajachel felt like a beach town. Colorful open-air restaurants perch on the lakefront while rows of vendors hawk handcrafted Guatemalan items alongside tourist trap trinkets. I think you can buy the same beads and rasta hats in any tourist town between here and Bangkok.

We spent an uneventful afternoon and evening eyeing the crafts, eating, and chasing off the many children pestering us to buy trinkets from them. These children will cling to your side without feeling the least bit rejected as you repeat the word ¨no¨ to them. Ignoring them doesn´t help; we tried that tactic and ended up having a boy standing at our table paging through our guidebook as we ate dinner. It breaks your heart to see these kids try to make money for thier family, but a guide in San Cristobal, Mexico told us that giving money to these kids encourages them to stay out of school.

That night we were awakened by a terrific windstorm that whipped the avocados off the trees onto our car and set off our alarm. The gusty winds continued the next day, so rather than braving a boat across the lake we decided to drive to another small village on the lake. A bump and dusty ride on gravel roads through farms and small villages followed by a road that put highway 1 in California to shame with its steep grade and crazy curves brought us to the town of San Marcos de la Laguna. This town is a hippy Mecca and is known for its yoga, massage, and meditation workshops. Small paths wind through the jungly forest and along the lake side connecting most of the restaurants and schools by foot. We thought we found an ideal place to stay on the lake; it had parking, killer views, and was cheap. Little did we know that the rooms also came pre-infested with huge spiders. As soon as the sun went down, we came back to the room and found large spiders clinging to the walls of the room. The closer we looked, the more we could see, making us wonder how many more were lurking in the shadows. After unsuccessfully trying to kill a few of them, we decided to sleep in the car.





Sunday, November 30, 2008

Taking the chicken bus to a Mayan festival

After the morning fog on Saturday burned off (see our art film on mornings in Xela here), we met up with four friends to spend the day at the indigenous village San Andres Xecul (shea-kool) for its annual festival.

After meeting Ben, Krista, Kelsey and Tom outside our Spanish language school ICA in Quetzaltenango, we walked north to find a 'chicken bus' that could take us to Xecul. It turns out that old school buses don't die, they just get shipped to Guatemala and converted for use as public transportation. The conversion process includes a custom paint job, a booming sound system and pimped out accessories such as an air horn and a Mercedes logo mounted on the grill.

Bus drivers work in tandem with an ayudante, or helper. The ayudante seems to magically float on, around, and on top of the chicken bus. At one moment he is collecting our 3 Quetzales (0.40 USD) fare, the next he is weaving his way through the throngs of people to hang out the front door and shout out the bus destination. As the bus slowly winds through small towns, the ayudante will jump out and ply the streets for more customers, then run and jump back onto the moving bus a few blocks later to squeeze people into the seats and aisle to maximize the amount of passengers the bus can carry. If you get on the bus with more chickens than can fit on your lap, the ayudante will lug your package to the top of the bus, then swing into the bus through the back emergency exit door as the bus rolls down the road.

Walking several dusty blocks to the chaotic central bus station of Xela, buses sped past us honking as the ayudante hung precariously from the open door shouting the bus destination. As our group of six tall, fair foreigners arrived in the central bus terminal, we were immediately swarmed with people offering rides. Every bus is named, usually after the driver's daughter or mother, and the bus we boarded for the trip was named Graciella. Men and children selling sweets, ice cream, and what looked like jello shots made their way through the bus shouting their wares and prices. The bus was packed full, with three people to a seat and standing room only in the aisle, but as usual the ayudante somehow made his way through to collect the fares. After a bumpy 20 minute ride we arrived at the dusty crossroads of Morales, and the ayudante waved us off the bus toward a waiting bus for San Andres Xecul. This bus sped up through fields and farms to the deforested hills surrounding Xecul, blaring its horn at every passing vehicle.

We arrived in Xecul as the marimba orchestra was testing the decibal limits of the band's wall of speakers. Vendors crowded the narrow streets selling baskets, sugar cane, sweet bread, handmade candies, and the typical assortment of cheap trinkets found at many county fairs in the US. We headed uphill to the hallucinogenic church dome that poked above the surrounding cement buildling. Painted circus red, yellow, and blue and adorned with grinning cherubs, dancing tigers, and climbing vines, this church faced the central plaza and ground zero for the fair.
Rickety faded amusement park rides that I imagine had their heyday in the US in the 1940s were set up in the central square, and filled with shouting children wearing multicolored traditional clothing of the local indigenous people. This was a green fair: all of these rides were hand powered by men heaving levers or simply pushing the rides to keep them moving. After losing a couple of quetzales trying to land a coin on plates floating in a kiddie pool to win a soda, we headed to the church to see if the décor inside matched the outside. Neon lights illuminated the central altar, and hundreds of candles were burning as women prayed and children sat quietly. While we could still feel the pumping bass of the marimba band coming from outside, the relatively quiet church was a welcome break.

Back in the central plaza, following a speech of mixed Spanish and K’iche (the local Mayan language) and some earsplitting fireworks, a crowd gathered around a roped-off area. Three men adorned in sparkling costumes and wearing freaky masks (we think they represented Spanish conquistadors) began to dance haltingly back and forth as the crowd watched. Larger groups of dancers dressed in black and white bedazzled monkey costumes, or yellow and black spotted tiger costumes made their way into the roped-off area and danced as a group. They jumped forwards and backwards, hoping from one foot to the other, facing each of the 4 cardinal directions, before bowing to the crowd. Over and over, individual dancers faced the crowd, shook their rattle and beat their whip on the ground, then stood still while cupping their hand to their ear. After watching for about an hour, we headed back down the hill to catch another chaotic yet entertaining bus back to Xela (click here for a video of our day in Xecul). While we enjoyed the chicken bus experience, it made us appreciate having a our own car for transportation. We couldn’t imagine riding for 6 hours packed into the back of cramped school bus on the way to Tikal.

Saturday evening Shirly and Sergio dropped the kids off with their parents so the four of us could explore Xela’s nightlife. This is our last weekend in Xela, and we are very sad to be leaving our Guatemalan family. We shared two pitchers of cerveza mixta, another Guatemalan specialty made from a combination of the light lager of Gallo and a darker porter called Moza, at Cantina Tecun. This bar is the oldest in Guatemala, and serves up some mean pizza. Sergio and Shirly wished us luck on our travels, and told us that whenever we returned to Xela we would have a home with them. They also gave us a bottle of an indigenous alcohol called Quetzalteca and a tablecloth. In our halting Spanish we thanked them for welcoming us into their home and family. As the night continued and the litros of Cabro disappeared, we listened to live music in a small bar as all of the locals shouted the words along with the singer. We leave the Castillos on Monday for two weeks of travel through Guatemala to visit Lago Atitlan, Chichicastenango, Antigua, and Tikal.
(Shirly and Sergio with cereza mixta, Chris and Kristin much later in the night with a litro of Cabro)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Just another weekend sitting in hot springs and working on the farm

It was bone-chilling cold in Quetzaltenango (Xela) this week, so on Friday afternoon we headed to the Fuentes Georginas, a natural hot spring high in the mountains.  A bumpy ride on a retired American school bus took us through the outskirts of Xela and into the surrounding farms and countryside.  We passed small produce markets of brilliant fruits and vegetables, women in brightly colored dresses tending the fields, and people carrying unbelievably heavy loads of wood on their backs.  The road narrowed to one lane as we climbed higher into the mountains, and when we smelled sulfur we knew we were close.  The hot springs are nestled in a narrow green valley shrouded in fog.  The hot water, naturally heated by the surrounding volcanic activity, pours out of cracks in the rocks into three pools of varying temperature.  The hottest pool became unbearable after about 10 minutes of soaking, so we retreated downstream to a pool that soaked away the cold that had permeated our bones from our unheated bedroom and icebox classes (see video of our trip and the hot springs here).  In addition to relaxing in the hot springs with our friends Tom and Kelsy (joydrive.ca), we also brought our friend Ron Botran.  Chris picked him up at the local liquor store during our morning break from classes.
 
(Relaxing in the hot springs; Chris getting our friend Ron ready for the trip)

Saturday morning we woke up early to join a volunteer project hosted by ICA, our language school.  For the last 15 years, the school has sponsored a reforestation effort in the surrounding mountains.  This project's mission is to raise a hundred thousand trees of local species such as alder, cypress, pine, and eucalyptus every year.  Deforestation in Guatemala is a problem as 60% of Guatemalans still use wood for heating and cooking.  We walked about 2 miles to a nursery on the outskirts of Xela with great views of the erupting volcano.  It felt strange to walk in a city past internet cafes and clothing stores, while goats are herded down the street. On the tree farm working with friendly Laura, her son Julio, and another farmer named Carlos, we hoed, weeded, and raked until our hands blistered and our backs ached.  Chris was especially brave and helped me pick the transparent finger-sized worms out of the freshly turned dirt.  We felt totally beat after only working 4 hours, but we were quickly reminded of how lucky we are when we passed city block sized gravel pits where all work was done by hand with wheelbarrows and shovels.  I think another trip to the Fuentes Georginas with Ron may be in our near future.