Road tripping Guatemala to Belize

To fill in the gaps between San Pedro and Belize –

My fellow students Jessica and James (the multimedia couple) had a couple of friends visit the night before I left San Pedro. A lovely couple named Alex and Sarah. Alex’s mother is Panamanian, and his father is American. His father worked for USAID, posted in Guatemala for many years, so Alex spent his first 16 years growing up in Guatemala City. They also had a weekend place on Lake Atitlan, so he knows the country well. After that, he came to the States for the rest of high school, college, and grad school. He also spent two years in the Peace Corps stationed in Maldova which sounds like an absolute nightmare, but he says it was rewarding. Because of all of this, Alex is wonderfully confident, knowledgeable, self-actualized, and able to freely interact between cultures and languages. In other words, a wonderful traveling companion.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.. after dinner that night in San Pedro, they invited me to catch a ride with them back to Antigua. But we first had to get across the lake, which was really choppy that day. At first it didn’t look like any boats were running, there was so much wind. But we found one. Imagine 3-4 foot swells in a 20-foot boat. Lots of slamming and twisting and spray. The girls were pretty freaked. For some reason I’m rarely bothered by stuff like that. Although you certainly hear enough stories about boats capsizing or buses falling off cliffs, I guess I figure that statistics are on my side. Surely it’s in the captain’s best interest to stay alive as well, so he wouldn’t make the crossing if he didn’t feel it could be done.

After the jarring boat journey, we jumped in Alex’s car and drove to Antigua. It was fun doing this drive with someone who knows the area. The Pan-American highway is a funny road. Parts of it are smoothly paved and divided, while other stretches are filled with debris, or totally dirt, or freaky with buses playing chicken with each other. I’d like to drive it myself sometime. We made a pit stop for some incredible smoked ham.

We all got along so well during the drive that Alex invited me to stay at his parent’s place in Antigua rather than getting a hotel. Well, this opened up a whole new view for me on a part of Guatemalan society I had not seen before. By American standards, it’s an average sized middle-class house with three bedrooms, kitchen, dining room, living room, etc. Which means that in Guatemala, it’s in a gated community with guards and barbed wire. With a maid to clean up and make breakfast.

I was in culture shock after spending six weeks in the highlands, where even a TV is a luxury. Here, they had TiVo, WiFi, and Slingbox – have you heard of this? It’s brilliant – you connect their box between the cable line (or PVR) and your internet connection at home. Then from anywhere in the world (with broadband internet) you can watch all those TV channels you get back home. It simply streams your home channels (or shows you’ve taped) to wherever you are in the world through the ‘net. It’s as if you’re sitting in front of your television at home. Wow. So we watched Jon Stewart, got caught up on all those SNL parodies of Palin, it was heaven! We also watched some of the YouTube videos of one of the conspiracy theorists we had gotten to know in San Pedro. Check it out here for a good laugh.
All four of them are also Mac & tech heads, so I spent the weekend surrounded by MacBooks, PowerBooks, iPhones, and tons of other gadgets. You can imagine, I was nearly creaming myself from all this geekery.

We lived it up that weekend – flush toilets, hot showers, grilling steaks, good wine, salads, deserts, things I couldn’t get in San Pedro even if I tried. We even rented motorcycles to explore the countryside. One could get used to this life!

Antigua is so different from San Pedro. San Pedro is in the country, so everyone rises early to work the land, cook the food, build the houses. Antigua is more white-collar, so no one rises early, since their jobs don’t depend on the light.
In the highlands you see entire families all piled onto a motorcycle. In the city, it’s more likely to be the girlfriend sitting (sidesaddle, since she’s wearing a skirt) behind her man on the bike, applying makeup as they snake their way through traffic!
People also don’t say “hello” as you pass them in the street, as they do in the country. One thing that always bothered me was that fellow travelers would rarely return my “hello”, or even look me in the eye. I can’t decide if they still have the wall up from whatever huge city they just came from or if they’re pretending not to see me because they want to have the “authentic” experience sans other travelers. Ridiculous either way – when someone says “hi” as you pass them, you return the greeting! Jeez, I’d like to have a word with their mothers..
Antigua has wonderful ruins scattered throughout, similar to walking through Rome and coming upon some ancient church..
It’s possible to blow a lot of money in Antigua. It’s the place all the nice package tours come, so there are tons of jewelry shops, fancy restaurants, and high-end clothing stores. I thought about getting a massage, but decided against it. (OK, i think it came out to only about $25, but that’s expensive when you’re on my budget!)
I met a local kid in the park who ended up shining my sandals. Didn’t particularly want him to, but I’d rather give money to a working kid than to a begging kid.

At the end of that weekend, I was going to take off for other sights in Guatemala, but… with the election coming up, I wanted to be somewhere with CNN, which meant staying in Antigua. That, and the four of them were planning on spending the following week vacationing together in Belize, and invited me to join them for that! So I spun my wheels for a few days in Antigua taking it easy before everyone was ready to travel again.

We first drove to Guatemala City to spend the night at Alex’s sister’s house. Actually, this is the same house they grew up in. They both went to the American School, which is where her kids now go. Similar to other countries, it’s the one good private school where you know your kids will get a good, balanced education. The sons and daughters of all the diplomats and politicians go there.
Maya (Alex’s sister) is a generous woman in her 30’s who is fully living the upper-middle class life of a typical Ladino in Guatemala. She lives in a fabulous house with wonderful architecture in another gated community with her lap dog and three children. Her ex-husband is the minister of transportation in the national government, to give you some idea of what level we’re talking about. She has great stories about the corrupt politicians. Her life is comparable to that of an Orange County housewife – going to the hair & nail salon, shopping for art, throwing dinner parties, etc.

She employs a driver/bodyguard (mostly for the kids), a cook, and a maid. These people all live in the maid’s quarters except every other weekend when they go home to their families. This whole servant thing was rather uncomfortable for me. The cook ate after we were all served, and relegated to eating in the kitchen while we ate at the fancy table. But they’re not indentured, it’s just a job to them. And Maya is not stuck-up at all, she (like Alex) is such a sweet, generous person. It’s just my white guilt popping up, I suppose.

Guatemala is in an interesting time right now. The Mayans (traditionally the most shat-on group) have won large concessions from the government in recent years. They have representation and anti-discrimination laws have been enacted. But there continues to be a great level of institutional racism. Similar to elsewhere around the world, the lighter your skin, they higher you are on the socio-economic ladder. Therefore the Mayans have the poor, shit jobs, while the descendants of the invaders hold the purse strings. 5% of the poplulation here owns 95% of the land. There’s incredible disparity.

The security is so vital because car-jackings, kidnappings, and robberies are so commonplace. Even dog-nappings! Alex said when he was growing up, his friends would regularly get shot. Some killed. Guns are just so common here.

One minor but interesting thing I saw – we went to buy beer at the corner deli. Standing there waiting by the side of the road was a gentleman dressed to the nines in a fantastic outfit. Turns out he’s a mariachi player waiting to be hired. Apparently instead of booking a mariachi band ahead, you just go and hire them from the corner when you want them. For a dinner date, birthday, whatever the occasion. They wait there for hours in their getups, and people know they’re free.

After the luxurious night in Guatemala City, we hit the road. It should have been an 8-hour drive to Belize, but it turned out to be 13 hours. Alex bore the brunt of the rough roads. He’s a great driver, and handled it all with ease. At one point we lost the way, and after asking the locals, they just pointed across a river. Umm, ok, I understand we’re supposed to go that way, but how?? Eventually an earth mover pushed aside some dirt, a rickety old ferry appeared which we drove onto, and we were on our way. All the recent rains flooded a lot of the countryside and knocked out a lot of roads and bridges.
Funny to observe how some towns use the highway for their own personal use. We drove through a market that was set up right in the middle of the road! Vendors had to move their wares every time a large truck rolled through. Just before hitting the border we squeezed through a town that was having a graduation celebration. Instead of parking 100 yards away where the road widened, everyone parked right in front of this hall (that was playing “76 Trombones” and “Pomp and Circumstance” oddly), thereby narrowing the road down to one barely passable lane. Huge container trucks were trying to squeeze past us without crushing kids on bikes. But I loved watching how the locals jumped right in and gave everyone guidance in getting through. Not a lot of foresight, but helpful in the moment.
Although it was only 7:30pm, it looked like we might be too late to cross the border. After nightfall things pretty much wind down out there. Thank god Alex was with us, since he knew which palms to grease and how to talk. They sprayed the car down with insecticide and ended up “confiscating” have of our beer and Cokes (because you know, their shift was almost over, not because transporting that was actually illegal or anything) which pissed us off, but it obviously could have been a lot worse.

We pulled into a little village called Bullet Tree, right outside of San Ignacio. Alex and Sarah had stayed at this place before, and the individual cabins sounded lovely right on the river. Unfortunately they were closed due to the recent flooding – just a week previous, the river rose higher than it had in 50 years, so a lot of stuff got damaged, including these cabins. Fortunately there was room down the road with a lovely English couple who ran a nice guesthouse. We cooled our heels here for two nights, dipping into the river, taking walks, cooking, mostly chilling.
From here we drove on to Blue Hole (the caves I blogged about) before finally reaching Placencia, the end-of-the-road beach town I also wrote about. One of the loveliest surprises came when we ran into Marisol, my pal from school that I was so sad about leaving. She just finished vacationing here with her fiancee, and was hanging around for a few extra days, volunteering at the local school. So we’ve spent the last couple of nights all hanging out together, cooking, drinking, telling stories.

Sol and I are maybe going to travel for a bit together, but we have different timelines and desires, so it may not work out. From here, I’d like to go back to Guatemala to finish seeing those sights, whereas she prefers to carry on to Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Alex says I should skip Honduras (except for the Bay Islands) and El Salvador because there’s nothing to see, but I want to read up to make sure. Don’t want to have any regrets about having not seen something. Plus, they’re so cheap!

Tomorrow I’ll probably go to Tikal (one of the main Mayan ruins, of which I still have yet to see a single one) for a couple of days, then south to Lanquin and Samuc Champay, a region with a lot of caves and natural pools and springs.

My phone doesn’t work in Belize, but it should once I’m back in Guatemala. I will probably not be near any ‘net cafes for a few days, but will endeavor to update once I’m back in civilization.

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