Saturday, January 1, 2011

Guatemalan Adventures

A splendid greeting to you. I hope this finds you and finds you well. I believe much of the north eastern America place is quite snowy, so pull up a hot cup of chocolate/tea/coffee and enjoy.

**(Writer’s Note: Between December 17 and 23, Al and I traveled through Guatemala. The following entry was written throughout the trip to give you a clearer picture of my thoughts and impressions at the time. All editing was done in a Guatemala City bus station.)**

It’s 10:03 at night in Santa Elena, Guatemala, and Santa Elana has brought back my belief in another Santa. This one, of course, is Santa Claus.
Before you appear too confused, let me speed you up to things.
At approximately 10:30am today, we (Al and I) left Punta Gorda with Father Jeff. After a nice long drive up to Belmopan, Al and I squeezed onto a bus to Benque, the last town in Belize before the Guatemalan border. We walked the 2.5 miles to the border. The next few hours were a rush. We crossed the border, probably got screwed by men changing money, made a costly and unnecessary bus ride, ate some chancy street food (moi bien), and finally reserved the bus to Guatemala City.
Thus, here we sit, with blankets across our laps, a kindly gift from our bus driver in a Santa hat, bearing a whitening beard and the friendliest face I’ve seen in this country. Everyone loves Santa, not because you can understand him or because you have profound conversations with him, but because he is kind. Everyone needs a kindly face, especially when last amidst a culture you don’t understand in the least. This was my early Christmas present, so gracias, sir busdriver, gracis.

long walk to the border

eating in Santa Elena

People Watching in an Antiguan Café
The café itself is a duly lit, yellow hued, noisy little hole. It teases patrons with a gated door in the back, that would open up to a green courtyard, if the lock had been a little more open. A short bar protrudes from the left wall, tempting visitors with small stools and a place to rest the elbow.

cafe in antigua

Two ladies serve as our baristas, whipping up caffeinated confections carefully and quickly, sending men and women alike off with steaming chalices of the sustaining liquid they crave and worship.
People watching takes on a distinct flavor in a foreign country. Elsewhere, a snippet of conversation can be picked up by the astute ear, adding some substance to observations. Here, the bouncing of Spanish between friends can be heard by my untrained ear. Only laughter needs no deciphering.
Faded eyes gaze out of the doors to the street beyond, searching through the progress of our age for memories long deemed obsolete. No one draws near nor speaks to him, so there he sits, hands clasped upon the table in silent prayer.
Children giggle into their pastries while parents stare distractedly into their drinks, thankful for a moments rest. The arrival of dinner will soon jolt their brief serenity.
Across the worn wood of the bar leans a young man, smiling charm to the lady on the other side. She smiles with her back to him, savoring the attention, as well as the barrier between them he strives to cross. The fast approaching evening cools off his efforts and he slips into the night, leaving his love and perhaps some hope.
Gossip is exchanged by the recent shoppers, valuing news over their newly acquired goods. Hands rest on chins as these stories are shared, bring about moments of surprise, confirmation, laughter, and disgust. The ladies slip into the chilly night, tightening up their coats against the winter.
Wreathes hang golden and green, festive amidst scarves and sweaters that come and go. Strains of music from outside remind one of the holiday season, even nestled among palm trees and towering volcanoes. Spirits of merriment and joy know no boundaries imposed by climate or environment, always finding a home in the open hearts of the world.
And so we sit, human wreathes, filled with the wonder and joy of all those who pass, following stars that remain a mystery all but ourselves.


cops getting shoes shined

Morning in the Volcanoes
Early was the time I chose to awake, far before the sun had stretched its tired rays across the land. I lay in my bed, wondering why I hadn’t work socks that night, yet unwilling to make the trek to my bag to grab a fresh pair. Instead, I waited until the church bells in the distance assured me I wasn’t alone in my consciousness. I roused myself and stepped onto the patio outside my door to greet the day.

morning in antigua

The day immediately greeted me with a chilly bite, prompting me to retreat for my wool cap I had procured the day before. Outside, my breath rose in front of me while, in the distance, smoke rose similarly out of the awakened volcano. The terra cotta roof tops hosted avian visitors and the warmth of the sun, while above the clouds, already long basking in the warmth of the day, sat Volcan Agua, watching the city come to life.

view from our hostel

more awesome houses

breakfast spot. coffee eggs and beans

antigua streets

favorite picture

nuns bridge

Pretty homes


wild market

Beds and Warmth
I sit right now under numerous layers of warm, soft blankets in a room with four solid walls and a lovely ceiling, all a calming yellow hue. They remind me of my childhood bedroom, except without the racecar wallpaper zipping around the top of the walls.
We don’t often think about our beds. Sure, maybe you have a fancy Temprapedic that gives you massages and makes you coffee in the morning, but how often do you climb in, literally climb into a beautiful mix of blankets and sheets and give thanks for the comfort it unquestioningly provides. Not often enough is what I say. And, continuing with what I say, here’s how we got to bed(s).
Our story begins, fittingly enough, in a bed. This particular one was found at the Black Cat Hostel in Quetzaltenango, or, as the locals call it, Xela (Sh-ay-la). For those intending on traveling to Xela, don’t stay here. The rooms are overprices, you can’t bring in your own food, and you have to pay for purified water. And don’t get me started on the beds. Yes, it was a bed on which I found myself awake, contemplating if the squeaking was part of the décor and if the inadequate amount of blankets was a conscious, money saving, backpacker screwing effort on the part of the management.
However long these thoughts lasted (I awoke quite early), they subsided when the clock struck 6am on my watch. I suppose digital time pieces do no striking whatsoever, as they are much too smooth for such barbaric practices.
I arose from this poor excuse for a comforting dream ship and began to pack my bags. In an hour, Al and I were rumbling through the awakening streets of Xela, then soon on the winding, twisting roads to Tajumulco. Tajumulco is a volcano, inactive at that, which stands a lofty 4220m above the level of the sea. This is the highest point in all of Central America. The thought of adding such a feat as climbing this beast was motivation enough for Al and I to schedule a two day hike. Along with us on our journey was Carols, the best guide one could ask for. A man of many stories, jokes, helpful Spanish phrases and a warm heart is Carlos. Formerly a member of the military, he now runs hikes throughout the region.

long hike ahead of us

carlos! and valley!

Our ascent began at around 11:30am with the sun shining brightly through the thin mountain air. My nose already burned with each breath I took, alerting me to this new height I had somehow already attained. Our hike took the better part of three and a half hours, up dusty roads, past the wind chapped faces of boys watching sheep grazing on the volcanic slopes, through open fields of dead grass, between looming pines settled defiantly on the steep sides, up paths of pebbles that threatened to betray every step, all set on the most glorious backdrop of villages, roads, fields, and lives far below under clouds sweeping through the mountain valleys.

ladies hiking down

al hiking up

heading into the trees

The air gradually got thinner and colder was we climbed, though by the time camp was made, sweat had made a grand entrance on my countenance. Over my disbelieving face I pulled a sweatshirt, feeling the chill in the air. Upon reaching our campsite, the immediate task at hand was to collect wood to keep us warm when the sun fell down. After an ample arsenal of branches was assembled by our tent, our sunset assent began. Out across the land we saw thousands of lights on the ground, mirrored in the countless spots in the night sky quickly spreading above our heads. The wind was in a delightful mood, playing with the dust at our feet and whistling through the open arms of the hardy trees, sucking all warmth our trek and the memory of the sun had provided. Our fire was lit and food was prepared. Even so, my toes and fingers, the most vulnerable of my appendages it seems, were not eager to revive themselves from the blast of winter. Lazy they have been in Belize.

on top!

hello clouds



The situation only worsened with the advent of altitude sickness: splitting headache and nausea. However, this did not me from partaking in the events of 1am.
We happened to climb on the night of the winter solstice, the full moon, and a full lunar eclipse. The earth lined up directly between the sun and moon, slowly casting its mighty shadow over our rocky neighbor. Gazing up at this cosmic even between the boughs of a pine, I could only wonder how dire my situation on earth was becoming. The heavens are even sending me a warning. Back into my tent I climbed, shivering in the extreme frigid air. On the cold, rocky ground lay my sleeping bag, intended to bring me comfortable rest that evening. My pillow, an empty water bottle, lay at the head of the sleeping bag, eager to be loud and hard just when I needed it.

lunar eclipse

That night, I lay awake, contemplating the new areas of my body pain had discovered, all the while cursing the cold that managed to sneak into the supposedly warm reaches of my body. I didn’t sleep at all that night. At 5am, feeling utterly defeated and exhausted, we were aroused by Carlos to begin the trek to the summit to witness the sunrise. In the face of such adversity, I mustered the strength and put on foot in front of the other until the peak was under my feet. Out in the distance, the most spectacular view presented itself to me.

volcano erupting in the distance

incredible dawn

mountain views


holding mr. moon

moon setting in the distance

The sun rises and falls every day of our lives. Never has there been a day it simply didn’t. No, it is an event we are used to and take for granted. If you find yourself on top of Volcan Tajumulco, the rising of the sun, the star that makes everything, everything possible on this earth, will not appear normal, but incredible. Simply nothing can compare to the slow rise of the sun over countless millions, illuminating homes and fields and clouds and mountains, all together on this planet we call home. Never will you feel so in awe of the unity of people, even if they may be still asleep in their beds.
Beds. That’s where we began. So, here I sit, in a bed. Not a bag, not in a tent, but in a room, on a mattress, with a blanket. And it is amazing.

The Buses of Guatemala
The first, very first thing you notice about Guatemalan buses is the chrome. Each bus is different in design, but the chrome industry is alive and well in Guatemala. I guarantee if school buses looked like this in the US, children would never want to miss school. Fancy lettering, flashing lights, religious messages, sweet decals all find a home on these bus exteriors.
Inside, there’s a different story. These cheap, “2nd class” modes of transport are commonly known as chicken buses. Why? Well, the first one we got on in Guatemala did, in fact, have chickens on it. The seats are uncomfortable and the overhead racks are completely bulging with personal effects.
The bus, after leaving the station, will not head to the destination right away. No, the conductor will lean out the door as the bus inches along the narrow streets, shouting out the destination in the hopes someone else will get on. Many someone elses get on and the seats begin to fill up. Three to a seat, with children on laps. The isle then gets packed with people until the conductor can barely move through to collect money. Often, to get back to the front, he climbs out the back, over the roof, then down to the front door again, all while the bus is moving. Now, after the conductor declares no mas, no more, the driver ceases his meandering ways through the streets and kicks it. How these drivers manage to maneuver the buses through city roads at insane speeds is beyond me. Passengers are tossed this way and that, puppets to the whim of the cruel master of a bus.

passing on mountain passes

Now, there are usually three or four main stops for the bus, but passengers can get off anywhere along the route. Thus, random, sudden stops occur, briefly halting the rollercoaster ride.
Bus rides take between 30 minutes and four hours, depending on destinations, and cost between 5-35 Quetzals ( $.80-7 US). Between Xela and Tajumulco the road winds up the sides of mountains, presenting spectacular views of valleys below and mountains afar. Small homes, horses, fields, children playing, children working, women laughing are all sights you will see. Most people in Guatemala make a living on the farm. Poverty is quite high and quite apparent in the country. Carlos told us that the president made it so parents must pay to send their children to school, and while it is a small amount, many families can’t pay. Thus, many kids are seen looking after livestock or helping in the fields. From the bus window brief snapshots of these people’s lives can be seen, but the bus keeps moving and so do we, traveling onward yet retaining memories of these sights.

Traveling though a Spanish speaking country with no Spanish, and surviving, gracefully (at times) (well, maybe once)
Immediately after crossing the border into Guatemala, I was overwhelmed. Never have I felt so incapable of understanding what is going on and unable to communicate with those around me. I came into the country with a few useful phrases, like “donde estas le autobus por Antigua,” “quando,” and “si.” Now, I new I was beyond screwed when it came to communicating, and, yes, this was the case. However, the Guatemalan people have revived my faith in humanity. After arriving in Guatemala City we had to get to the other side for the bus to Antigua. Guatemala City, a place of 3.1million people, is quite intimidating at 6am, especially coming from Belize (total pop. 320,000). However, with the help of friendly policemen, women on the street, and that man selling newspapers we gound our way to the bus, all without English needed. Maybe there is something each human shares that allows for us to understand each other, even if we have no idea what we’re saying. Just now we arrived in the Fuente del Norte bus station in Guatemala City on our journey home. We were sitting on the bus here from Xela when the conductor seemed to be asking me where we were going in the city. I said the Fuente del Norte estacion and a man turned around, nodded to me, said something to the conductor and something to me. From just this conservation, of which I understood zero words, this man would take us to the bus station when we got off the bus. Sure enough, we followed him to public transport and a short walk and here I sit in the station, awaiting a 10:30pm overnight bus to the border of Belize.
It is hard to travel in a foreign country where you don’t know the language. It is exhausting. However, Al and I traveled some 1720km this past week and we made it. I don’t think I can honestly say I can’t understand somebody anymore, because if I can’t, I’m just not trying.

stalls where we ate most of our meals

Xela square

christmas tree

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