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.


Volcan Pacaya

Took a trip up to Pacaya volcano, a couple of hours from Antigua. It’s an active volcano, only the second one in my life I’ve seen up close. The other was about 10 years ago in Bali.. they stuck eggs in the steam vents to demonstrate the heat. Cool idea, but the eggs tasted awful from all the sulfur.

After arriving at the base, we had a choice to hike up or take horses. Naturally I chose the harder route. Jessica had also forwarned me to buy (actually, rent) a walking stick from one of the local kids. Not so much to assist in walking, but rather to poke the lava with. I’m always impressed with the entrepreneurial ingenuity of local kids. Anywhere tourists congregate, a small market springs up to serve their needs.

The hike was harder than I thought it would be. Fast, and up. Volcanoes are so cool. Each one is different and so weird looking. Dead and extraterrestrial looking. Like melted black ropes piled on top of each other as far as the eye can see. On this particular day it was nearly a complete white-out, so we didn’t get the views over to Antigua or of the sunset they normally see. But the clouds and fog added to the surreal feeling of the place.

After crunching up the black scree for a couple of hours, we could see the steam and start to feel the heat of the lava. The cone of the volcano was still another hour or so up but I don’t think they take people that far, it’s too dangerous on this particular volcano. We were taken as far as where the lava tubes began crunching beneath our feet. I was lucky enough to have a French geologist in my group who explained a bit about the processes at work. He was in heaven, having studied this stuff but never seen it in person. Through occassional fissures and cracks you could see the red-hot lava slowly moving just below where we were walking. If you stood in one place too long your shoes would begin melting. This was cool enough, but then our guide encouraged us to crest the next hill if we were brave.

continue reading the rest of this post (and view the photos)…

Written by in: Guatemala | Tags: , , ,

Election Day

It’s Election Day in the U.S., and I’m going to climb a volcano.
Actually, I’m going to postpone that so that I can glue myself to the television to watch the returns come in.

After looking around a bit I found a great little hotel that has everything I need for very cheap (80 Q/night, about $11). All I was looking for was something cheap, which is not easy to find in Antigua. But this place is more than cheap – every room has a cable television, with lots of American channels – including CNN! AND, Wi-Fi! Really no reason to leave the hotel, other than to eat. 🙂 Oh, on that front – there is a kitchen we can use if we want to prepare our own meals! [Sounds like a hostel, except it’s a lot nicer and 40Q cheaper than the actual hostel I spent one night in.] The family that runs it is very sweet, too.

Anyway, back to politics. Everyone I’ve talked to the past few weeks brings up the U.S. election (I mean locals, not just fellow travelers). It’s enlightening to see how in touch the rest of the world is with U.S. politics.. because, well, it actually affects them a great deal. Or as one person put it, “this election is too important to be left to the Americans”. I wish we had mandatory voting laws like in most countries.
Everyone I meet checks to make sure I’m for Obama. “Obama is for the poor people, McCain is for the rich people”, I’ve heard often.

One of the rich locals I met (more on her later) is an active member of Democrats Abroad, which does a lot of work for ex-pats – making sure they’re registered, assists them in voting, organizing drives, etc.
For example, Jessica is a resident of Ohio, so her vote is vital (unlike mine, which is worthless – being a resident of NY state, which is guaranteed to go Obama). Jessica had requested an absentee ballot, but it never arrived. So Democrats Abroad picked up the cause and got her a ballot and had it postmarked by today. Most likely the election will be called by the time the ballot reaches Ohio, but just in case this turns into another Florida 2000, she made sure to cast her lot.

Guess what? There is no Republicans Abroad. I guess all the Republicans stay at home with their guns and religion. Seriously, traveling opens the mind and lets light shine on all those boogeyman fears that right-wingers hold so dear. I don’t think it would be possible to travel for very long without giving up a lot of those notions.

I’ll be watching the returns along with you, with baited breath… Give me a call (or send an e-mail) if you want to chat.

Many more posts and photos coming in the next few days. I’ve decided to chill in Antigua until the end of the week in order to get things organized and wait for my friends to be ready to travel. But that’s another story to come…


First day at language school

A quick recap of yesterday –

Wandered around Antigua in the morning, checking out the great crumbling architecture of several churches. Tantalizing ruins. Had breakie at a lovely cafe set within a botanical garden. Took some great photos in the market that I’ll try to get up soon. Bought a SIM card! Once again, the folks in the store were so kind, finding the one English-speaking person, insisting that I try his card to make sure my phone would work before I bought one, etc. So I have a Guatemalan phone number now. Ring me if you like – from a U.S. land line, you would dial 011 502 440 084 24. From a U.S. mobile, substitute a + (hold down the zero to get plus) instead of 011. 502 is the country code for Guatemala, and the rest is my mobile number. I have no idea how to check voice mail, and I don’t know how much I´ll have it on, so if you want to chat, perhaps it’s best we arrange a time by e’mail. This español keyboard is driving me crazy. Apparently I can text, but Arnie couldn’t text me because AT&T doesn´t have an agreement with this carrier, so I´ll probably be switching carriers (and therefore phone numbers) when this one runs out. I´ll keep you updated.

Negotiated with a couple of vendors for sunglasses and a hat. Fun to try my hand at bargaining. Then a bus touristica came to pick me up for the 3-hour drive to San Pedro (no boat ride unfortnately, we took the overland route). Got to talking with my seatmate, an interesting woman who talked nonstop but had interesting things to say and it passed the time. Unfortunately I didn´t see much of the scenery, although what I did see was beautiful. Misty jungles opening onto mountain vistas, poor little towns way up in the hills, etc.

Said seat mate spent several of her teenage years growing up in Guatemela, because her parents were Evangelical missionaries. Later they lived in Peru, and they told her her only way out was to marry someone. So she found an Italian tourist 10 years her elder, married him, and escaped. Needless to say, that didn´t work out. Anyway, she is writing her doctorate on linguistic anthropology, if I understood correctly. So she is living in a small village near here, interviewing the old timers. She speaks Spanish fluently of course, but more importantly, speaks 2 of the 26 Mayan languages. These languages sound crazy, I´ve never heard anything like them. I knew embarrassingly little political history of Guatemala or Central America in general, so most of the ride was spent with her giving me the complete 20th-century history (albeit from a leftist perspective, would I have it any other way?)

Upon arrival in San Pedro, I had no idea where I was or where the school was, so luckily I had this phone and rang up the director who came to get me. Apparently the host family I was meant to stay with had a familia emergencia, so I had to crash at a place next door to the school. Here I experienced a bit of culture shock – some would say these are squalid conditions, particularly the bathroom. Squalid is a bit of a stretch, but it was definitely no Four Seasons. Not sure how the locals get on without toilet paper (and frankly, I´m not sure I want to know), but fortunately I was able to find some at the corner shop. I was glad I had my silk sleep sack, so I didn´t have to sleep between those questionable sheets. I had a difficult time there for a few hours, between being newly arrived in what at first appears to be a depressed poor town, being shown these crappy sleeping quarters, and of course, it was dark and raining by this point. So I had a wander around to familiarize myself with the town. Didn´t do very well – it´s a warren of little lanes all built hodgepodge on top of one another. Reminds me of towns in Indonesia that don´t have any local government planning or viewing the big picture. Everyone for themselves – power lines strung haphazardly, all the contruction built half-assed but never finished. None of the concrete is sealed, for example. Doors half-hung, holes in walls and roofs, not much is painted. I guess it has to do with economy.

For reasons I have yet to discover, this town has become a favorite landing (and staying) spot for gringos – specifically hippies and their ilk. It makes me think of what Goa must have been like, or other towns on that international hippie trail. I had dinner in one such den. On the one hand, it was comforting to speak English, but it was such a far cry from an authentic cultural experience. I take that back – it was simply a different kind of cultural experience. Everyone working there was from a different country, none of them America. That´s a nice change. The guy I talked with the most is from Georgia (the country), and he has made his home here now. He pays $140/month for a 2-bedroom house with a deck, kitchen, etc. One can see the appeal, at least on cost! Unfortunately the internet situation is crap, so it´s out for me 🙂 There is only one ISP, it´s dead slow, expensive, and they turn it off at night! Oh, and a 200MB cap per day, so certainly no movie downloading.

Speaking of, several of the cafes and bars show (American) movies in the evenings. I expect I´ll be partaking in that at some point. I also befriended a sweet Korean girl who is staying in the same place I was. She is in the middle of a year-long journey, visiting as much of North, Central, and South America and Europe as she can manage. She´s doing this alone – very unusual for a Korean woman. It was cool to hear all the places she´s been so far, and her plans to come. I´m so impressed at her gumption. This sweet, innocent young Korean girl getting into all these questionable, at times dangerous situations, and getting herself out.

This morning I met my teacher and some of the other staff and students at the school, and began my lessons. I like my teacher, thank god. He´s very good, and fairly patient. I suspect I´m slower than most students, because I literally have never taken a single language class in my life. Also, even though I´m fairly fluent in English, I have no idea about verb tenses, participals, definitive vs indefinite articles, why or when we use am/is/are, etc. I distinctly remember being asleep in that 6th grade class when diagramming sentences was happening. So he can´t very well make comparisons in English, since I don´t even know what he´s talking about there! Nonetheless, we gave it our best shot. We work one on one from 8am-12pm each day. Four hours doesn´t sound like much, but boy, was it painful. I have a lot to review before tomorrow´s class. Although frustrated, I´m also excited – I can already see how studying it this intensively will lead to quick progress. In the afternoons, there is an option to practice with other students. Then there are optional activities – salsa lessons, films, talks by locals, etc. I plan on taking advantage of all of the above.

After my lessons, one of the daughters of my new host family came to get me. This house is a step above the one last night. Still quite rustic, but not as dingy or dirty. Mom and Pop are still out of town until tomorrow, but I met the two daughters (ages 11 and 13) who were wonderfully helpful and patient with me. I suppose they´re used to stupid gringos like me. Still, they were very kind to speak slowly and explain things. I also met a woman who either works there making meals, or is just a family friend covering while mom and dad are out. Not sure which. My room is on the roof, which is nice because it affords some privacy and some outdoor space with a nice view. There is a toilet and sink up there as well as a shower, but cold water only, so not really a shower. The lukewarm shower is two stories below. No problem, I´m happy. All I wanted was some privacy, an electrical outlet, and some daylight. Check.

That about catches me up. It looks like it will be nose to the grindstone these next few weeks, with some activities on the weekend, and exploring more of the hippie venues in the evenings.

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