Sunday, June 10, 2007

Dispatch 28.5 Guatemala Part 2

Guatemala is estimated to have a 40-50% indigenous population, mostly Mayan (in stark contrast to El Salvador where the indigenous people were purposely purged and make up a small and unnoticeable part of the population). The Mayan people retain their clothes and traditional spiritual practices mixed with strong Catholic faith. The belief systems were parallel enough to co-exist. The Mayan clothing is part of what makes the country so colorful and, even in Antigua, the Mayans were there, wearing their woven fabric skirts, held up with woven belts and topped with gorgeous huipil shirts with stunning weaving and embroidery in vivid colors. They wore weavings on their heads as well and carried their children in woven shawls on their backs. We fell in love with the gorgeous textiles. Alas, they are also aware that we tourists want to buy their wares and set their prices where they think you will buy (as high as they can). Luckily, everyone barters for everything and we never found something we couldn’t walk away from if the price was too high—it was just exhausting and solicitation was the name of the game. It’s best not to ask the price unless you are ready to buy because, once started, the bartering process does not stop. They will follow you everywhere lowering the price as you go even if you weren’t really interested in the item, just curious about the price. We were hounded by merchants and guides until we learned that lesson!!

We left Antigua after a week to explore more of the fascinating country. First we headed to the famous Chichicastenango market in the highlands. Chichi is a town that is nearly 100% indigenous Mayans. We signed up for a $5 shuttle for the 2 hour drive, a minivan with 9 other tourists. Unbeknownst to us, the tour agency had not been able to get enough people for a van to Chichi, so this van was going to Panajachel, an hour away from Chichi. One other couple on the van was also going to Chichi and the driver planned to stop in a town between the two and find us a ride to Chichi. Well, we were annoyed, but at least there was a plan to get us to our destination. We were dropped in Los Encuentros and loaded onto another minivan for Chichi. This van, however, was a local transport full of local people, mostly Mayans. “Full” in this case referred only to the technical fact that the 4 of us took the last remaining “seats” if you count the fact that Richard and I made the 3rd and 4th people on the back bench seat made for 3. Clearly, over the next 30 minutes we learned that filling seats is only the beginning of filling a van. By the time we arrived in Chichi, we had more than 25 people in this 11 person van—OK, 3 were kids, but they still took up room!! We found ourselves heartily amused and gave up our annoyance at the tour agency because we had such an entertaining experience. Personal space is such an American concept!

The Chichi market was in full swing when we got there. We quickly found a hotel recommended by friends, dumped our packs and hit the market. It was overwhelming. We had a couple things in mind we wanted to purchase after our wanderings in Antigua, but, mostly we were just looking. The scene was amazing with blocks of stalls selling everything but largely full of the gorgeous textiles. Everyone was hawking their wares. At times there was no room to move. We had no sense of orientation in the town as the stalls of the market allow no visual reference to the streets they fill. As we wandered, we found the church which is a Mayan/Catholic church. Inside are cruicifixes as well as altars on the floor where Mayan spiritual ceremonies are conducted. For lunch, we extracted ourselves to a second story restaurant to get some peace and catch our breaths and have, as it turned out, a lovely buffet lunch for $8 each that served as both lunch and dinner. We returned to make some last purchases. Richard inadvertently pulled off one of the classic bargaining strategies where he walked away in disgust at the high price of an item and left me there as the merchant called after him with lower prices. A street vendor cackled beside Richard as she watched the interaction as I said various things about “mi esposo, muy caro, etc.” and she cackled and pulled on his sleeve, “mi esposo, ha, ha” until we got the price he stuck to and she nodded as she recognized the ploy. The hotel we found was marvelously comfortable and pretty and we collapsed there after our market ordeal.

We walked through town in the late afternoon to watch the market be disassembled. The stalls looked so solid that we imagined they stayed in place all week. To the contrary, we watched as everything was removed through the afternoon and evening only to be reassembled on the other market day, Wednesday. Meanwhile, we picked up a guide who would not let us alone (due to a bargaining misstep on my part). Ultimately, he took us to the Mayan shrine on the hilltop the following day where we watched 3 Mayan ceremonies take place led by shaman. The ceremonies were for better business or health or anything and were quite pricy for the locals probably costing $70-100 for a ceremony. There have been sacrifices done on this shrine, but none were done the day we were there (and no humans anymore).

Our next stop was beautiful Lake Atitlan, a volcano ringed lake up to 1000 feet deep surrounded by mainly Mayan villages doing traditional farming of corn. The launch to the villages is from Panajachel, a touristy town full of hippies. We saw lots of dreadlocks and tie dye and felt old. We hopped on a lancha (basically a panga) which drove to the various villages. Our chosen spot was San Marcos, a place with a famous spiritual retreat known as Los Pyramides. You all know us well enough to know that was not our destination, but we had heard good things about this town. It turned out not to be our cup of tea, particularly Richard’s who found it overwhelmingly “woo, woo”. For me it was simply a lovely place that was jarringly incongruous—gringoes “finding” themselves through meditation, massage, yoga while the poor indigenous people sold mangoes on the paths and lived above in their very poor village. The hotels and restaurants were scattered in fairly dense woods connected by footpaths, not roads, and we were routinely warned about not hiking with valuables and of recent robberies. Our hotel was lovely, cheap and without soundproofing, but a good bed and bath made up for that. One night was all we chose to do there which we regretted but only in retrospect. There was no view of the lake from the tourist settlement due to the thick woods, but we did hike to breakfast the next morning at a stunning hotel overlooking one of the bays and appreciated the local beauty of the spot.

We packed up and left for Santiago Atitlan, a town on the opposite side of the lake. There we were amusedly anticipating our visit with Maximon, the revered and very important local god idol we had heard so much about. Santiago was a poor indigenous town, dirty, a bit apathetic toward us (bordering on a sense of hostile) other than our role in buy, buy buy. (As one fellow tourist put it, “it’s our job to buy things while we are here.”) We learned that many of the Mayans don’t speak Spanish—only now the children are being taught Spanish in school—they speak one of 22 Mayan dialects and that may have been why people didn’t seem very friendly—the only way for us to communicate was in our rudimentary Spanish. A potential guide hounded us unmercifully until we escaped into a gallery and ultimately to a restaurant for lunch. We had hoped for young boys to take us to Maximon as had happened to our friends, but none were around until the next day when we had already made the visit. We checked into a hotel that we think prompted another friend, recently returned from Guatemala to comment, “We just hope we didn’t catch anything that is hard to get rid of.” This hotel was cheap ($13/noc) and basic. The sheets seemed clean and the water in the shower was hot, but, woe to the person who touches the wall or the floor with unprotected skin. The ceiling was corrugated iron with peeling paint. Did we mention it was inexpensive? The town did have a couple luxury resorts but they were quite a bit out of town on the lake.

We finally made our way to Maximon with our pesky guide. Maximon is a lifesize wooden statue dressed in gift clothing, housed in a local person’s home; he changes homes once/year (we’re told to keep the balance of power in town). He looks a bit like the old dimestore wooden Indian but is seated (or has no legs, couldn’t tell) and is dressed in a striking Italian fedora, Japanese silk scarves, woven indigenous shirt and pants and is always smoking a cigar. His preferred gifts are cigarettes, cigars and liquor, particularly rum. The local shaman keeps up ceremonies all day—the room is almost unbreathable with incense, decorated with whatever is available—crepe paper, hanging CD’s, ornaments, a glass casket of Maximon’s “father” we were told (I think it was Jesus in the case), flashing lights, candles are burning constantly and the room is dim. We paid to enter the room and were encouraged to buy offerings (they had convenient small rum bottles or cigarettes sold on the spot). As we entered with our guide we were introduced, our rum offering was poured into Maximon’s mouth (he was lovingly tilted backward to receive the offering) and the cigar then replaced. We had a safe journey prayed for by the shaman, stood and watched the proceedings for a few minutes, and then our long awaited meeting with the god was over. I guess we both just had to see the god whose preferred offerings were rum and cigarettes—it beats human sacrifice, although, judging from the smoke in the room, I’d say human sacrifice was ongoing just over a longer time frame…

We happily left Santiago the next days via chicken bus for a 4 hour drive to Guatemala City. This chicken bus never got completely full and we had a pleasant ride through lovely countryside passing whenever and wherever we could and driving as fast as we could all to the tune of Latin music. Vendors entered and left from stop to stop and we were serenaded by a pair of singers with their guitar for about 30 minutes trying to sell their CD. In short, we were entertained the whole time. We taxied to the bus station for the next leg of our trip and spent too much time waiting for our overnight bus to Flores near the Mayan ruins of Tikal. At last the bus came and, anticipating the wonderful luxury of our El Salvador/Guatemala bus, we were sorely disappointed. We planned to travel from 9 PM to 5 or 6 AM and get our sleep on the bus (saving a night’s hotel in the process). We became quite cold from the AC and asked for blankets. No blankets. No pillow. There was a movie but the sound system filled the bus—no choice, we all had to listen to it. There was a “meal”—a sandwich of a tiny bit of chicken, ketchup and cabbage on a roll. Beggars can’t be choosers we reminded ourselves. Last, the seats didn’t recline nearly as much as on the other bus and there was no support for the lower legs. Hmmmph. Long night.

Of course we were exhausted when we arrived in Flores. Still we managed to find a shuttle to Tikal with some other folks, found a hotel in Tikal and crashed. The hotel was more expensive than our usual, but it did include dinner and breakfast, had a pool and was lovely, and, when we saw our room, we were tempted to move in permanently after the places we had stayed before. The room was huge with a large bathroom (tub and shower), and the grounds were surrounded by nice plantings backed by jungle. We could hear howler monkeys and parrots much of the night.

In the afternoon, we entered the park for the first time. Tikal is a Mayan civilization ruin, continuously occupied from about 600 BC to 900 AD, with its peak of civilization around 750 AD. The Mayans built pyramids up to about 80 meters tall, were excellent astronomers, had beautiful carvings, hieroglyphic written language and up to 100,000 people lived in this one site. Unlike other ruins we have seen, Tikal rises from the jungle and is not yet fully excavated. While the Mayans were there, the jungle surrounding their town must have remained clear, but, currently one hikes between thick jungle areas to the next pyramid. From atop the taller pyramids the other pyramids poke out of the jungle canopy. As evening came, we saw spider monkeys swinging in the trees as we descended a pyramid and watched parrots flying tree to tree calling to each other. We watched the sun start to set from atop a pyramid facing west. The following morning, we were at the park at 4:30 AM. We walked with a guide through the dark jungle with our group of 10. Howler monkeys roared in the trees around us, frogs croaked and parrots squawked. We were the first group at the distant tallest pyramid and we quietly climbed to a lookout to watch the sun rise. Several other guided groups arrived until there were more than 50 people perched on the pyramid looking to the east. Alas, it was too overcast for a sunrise so our guide pulled us aside and took us away from the pyramid and through the site to teach us more about it. He was an astute wildlife observer and showed us a variety of birds including toucans, parrots, woodpeckers, a type of turkey that lives in the trees, spider and howler monkeys and we saw a fox trotting through the site. The wildlife is the reason to get up so early. In short, it was an incredible experience overall.

After the early morning site visit, we relaxed at the hotel a bit then headed back for the reverse trip to Guatemala City (via overnight bus again—better prepared with sweaters this time), and on to El Salvador. We arrived at our boat after 21 hours of continuous travel and were pretty thrashed. Still we were ecstatic about our experiences and delighted to find our home much as we had left it. Other than one overnight, we’d been gone over a month. Boat sweet boat!

Addendum for our friends who may also be budget travelers, here are the hotels/buses we took:
San Salvador: Villa Florencia Hotel (the one in Centro near the Puertobus station—there’s another run by the same people in the Zona Rosa which is much more expensive)
Antigua: we stayed with a family but checked out a nice mid-range hotel: Posada Don Vicente
Chichicastenango: Posada El Arco
San Marcos: Hotel Paco Real
Santiago Atitlan: Hotel Chinim-ya (stay at your own risk)
Tikal: Tikal Inn
King Quality bus from Puertobus station in San Salvador to Guatemala City
Linea Dorada bus from Guatemala City to Flores

Dispatch 28 Guatemala Part 1

May 4 – 19, 2007
Guatemala is a fantastic country, colorful and culturally fascinating. We returned from our US visit/family reunion and found our boat in fine shape. Since it was closed down for our travels, we made the snap decision to leave after just one night aboard even though we were exhausted from our late arrival. It just wasn’t worth restarting the boat systems to live aboard for a couple days only to leave again.

Our trip to Guatemala was full of travel incongruities. We left our marina in the shotgun protected, luxury, air-conditioned van with a bunch of our fellow boaters out on their provision run to Usulutan. From there we took the local bus (loud, hot, crowded, stops everywhere) to San Salvador. We elected to just crash overnight in San Salvador at our now familiar $18 hotel (with AC!) that is conveniently located a half block from the bus station for Guatemala. San Salvador has at least 5 bus stations, 3 of which we became familiar with depending on our destination. We walked around the Centro of San Salvador and the blocks of permanent street market where nearly everything can be bought. It is loud, crowded and fascinating and reportedly not a safe place at night.

Our luxury bus to Guatemala City left at 6 AM and it was our favorite bus. The bus itself is new and, on our return trip even had leather seats. The attendant brings blankets and pillows shortly after take-off to ease your rest in the seats that recline almost completely with back of the leg rests. Breakfast was served during the first of the 2 movies that could be listened to (or not—an important distinction from later buses) on individual headphones. Too bad the trip only lasted 4 hours! We were torn between the movies (both romantic comedies instead of the usual beat ‘em up, shoot ‘em up stuff we found in Mexico) and the scenery unfolding before us. The border to Guatemala was a breeze as the bus line had already searched our bags and we had already exchanged money. They looked at our passports leaving El Salvador and then again entering Guatemala, both times from the comfort of our seats and we reclined and dozed to the tune of the money changers crawling around the bus with handfuls of money screaming “Cambio, cambio” (change). All this for $28 each.

Literally as we crossed the border to Guatemala, the scenery seemed greener. We had heard and also found that there was less garbage on the roads. Guatemala City which we only saw from the vantage of a taxi was modern and busy with interesting architecture. We chose not to spend time there but were torn by that decision in retrospect. Still we headed to the local bus to Antigua as it was just 11:00 AM; these buses are known to all as “chicken buses” famous for their avian cargo along with the human kind. Although we saw no chickens on the bus, we certainly saw fruit and veggie baskets, various bound-for-market goods. Our hosts in Antigua said they had guests who referred to the buses as “las latas de sardines” (cans of sardines) which is apt as these former schoolbuses are never full. You can always fit more on. The seats made for 2 and 2 usually held 3 and 3 with the center 2 people filling the aisles and propping each other up and then the rest of the people standing in the remaining space in the aisle. Somehow the bus assistant manages to walk the aisle (what aisle?) and collect the money and remember who already paid. The assistant usually hangs out the back door yelling the destination for potential riders, then bangs on the bus or whistles or yells when it is clear to take off jumping on the moving bus at the last minute. We saw buses in the morning rush hour with at least 3 young guys hanging on the outside of each door they were so full. On the old school buses, the exit is from the front or the back door “emergency exit”. I always wanted to get off the school bus by the back door and I finally got my chance in Guatemala!

We arrived in Antigua dazed and disoriented and unsure of where to stay. We had a vague idea that we wanted to do a week of Spanish school, but, as there are more than 50 schools there, we weren’t sure where to start. We thought we would find a hotel but couldn’t even figure out what street we emerged on when we were found by one of the compelling salesmen of Central America. This guy had various brochures and started to suggest a hotel (for $85—way out of our league) then somehow we mentioned Spanish school and, hey, what a coincidence, he represented one of them too and it was nearby and they could place us with a family right now in time for lunch if we wanted and we thought about being comparison shoppers and finding our own school and/or hotel, looked at his earnest face, shrugged and followed him to the school. The price was about what we expected ($150 each for a week with 4 hrs/day individual instruction, family home stay and 3 meals/day for 7 days) so we signed up. Alas, we missed lunch with the family but were taken right there to settle in.

Our family was a lovely bunch of people. Their home was behind the family printing business on the street and consisted of at least 6 bedrooms on 2 floors. There was one other student in the home, a young man from Iceland who had been with the family 5 weeks. The family consisted of the mom (Carolina) and her husband, 4 of 5 of their children, the youngest of whom was 15 and the 5th child and her husband came for 1 or more meals of the day with their daughter age 5 who was outgoing and hilarious. Oh and lets not forget the pregnant cat and 2 terriers (“married” said Carolina) who sometimes got spooked at night and barked for a while. Meals were attended by up to 9 people altogether. All talk in the home was in Spanish although I’m pretty sure our hosts knew some English. It was a marvelous experience as they were warm and welcoming, especially Carolina. When she learned I was a doctor, she asked for information on some rare genetic diseases for a talk she was giving at her church and I used that as a homework assignment to write up something in Spanish for her. Her speech in particular was purposely clear, slow and simple for us, her student renters, and, by the end of the week, I was able to go for an hour walk with her and understand 95% of the conversation.

There were a few inconveniences to deal with. Showers in Guatemala often have on-demand water heaters right in the shower head. In the less well-made ones, wires just stick out of the head (note to self: don’t touch the showerhead!), in others they are built in and less visible. This results in just one faucet for hot or cold water—turn it slightly and it is mostly hot, turn it more and more cold is mixed in. We wish we knew this important information right away but it took a few days of experimentation to get to a hottish shower with adequate water pressure. The house didn’t have any windows as it was located between 2 buildings and the front was a storefront. The ceiling of part of the second story was open air, but covered with an umbrella for rain. The floors were cement in the hallway and never could get clean and because (I learned in class) electricity is very expensive in Guatemala, there never was very much light to study by in the house. So we spent the week fighting over Richard’s stronger reading glasses, squinting at the impossibly small type in the Spanish dictionary, putting on shoes to walk anywhere so our feet didn’t come back black, figuring out the shower and living without ambient light indoors. To balance it out, the family was warm and welcoming, the food was pretty good, Maria Jose the 5 year old grandchild was adorable. With my medical background, it often happens that I learn more about people than I set out to and this was no exception. I’m not sure how many other students found out about the son-in-law’s seizure disorder, Carolina’s diabetes and liver problems, etc. Still, it’s a good door opener.

The school was in a courtyard and the students were from around the world—Denmark, England, Japan, Korea, Iceland, the US, Canada to name a few we knew of. We were by far the oldest students there. We would sit with our instructor either in the classroom or around the porch of the courtyard and work intensely all morning. My teacher, Veronica, spoke little to no English and my whole class was conducted in Spanish. She covered points of grammar, vocabulary, conversation, we read stories (often nautical ones she picked out when she learned of our lifestyle) and, at my request, some terms and expressions that would help in medical interactions in Spanish. Richard, who knew very little Spanish at the beginning of the week, picked up an enormous amount of info on grammar, conversation and vocabulary from his instructor who did speak English part of the time to make it easier for him. She also took him to the market one day to help her with an errand and so he could observe her bartering with the merchants. Overall we both felt like the week was incredible.

Layer on top of that the magical beauty of the city of Antigua which we explored every afternoon and the result is bliss. We loved our week there. We arrived on a Satuday and didn’t start school until Monday so, on Sunday, we booked an outing to a local active volcano, Volcan Pacaya (for $7 each). They drove 10 of us an hour and a half each way then left us with a guide to walk us up the volcano from a village on the slope. They had a geothermal plant near the village and the volcano has been actively spewing lava for 7 years after a devastating eruption. The first part of the walk was through forest on a well tread path and our guide gave us information about local trees and about the volcano (in Spanish). Then we climbed over an old lava flow (9 months old) up to where the lava is currently flowing. Lava is very rough stone, hard to walk on and very irregular in surface, a challenge for our boat sandals, the only shoes we had thought to bring in our packing rush. Still, we got close to the lava, within 30 feet of red-hot lava still flowing down the hillside. The guide picked up some wood along the trail and showed us how hot the white spots between the rocks were by starting an immediate fire upon throwing the wood in. Don’t fall in those spots! In fact, we both thought this tour wouldn’t meet the “safe enough not to be sued too often” benchmark for US guided tours by a long shot!! It was a phenomenal experience. The group we traveled with included people from the US, New Zealand, France, Switzerland and England. One of the English guys had his cell phone ring on the mountain and received a call from his brother in Japan—what a global world it is!

Antigua is a gem of a city, a colonial Spanish city built in the 1600’s and capital of Guatemala until a devastating earthquake in 1773. The building style is lovely colonial with churches and monasteries in abundance throughout the city, some of them in picturesque ruins, others gloriously restored. The central square is park-like with beautiful plantings and a lovely fountain and is used extensively by the townspeople day and night. The climate is “eternal spring” with warm days and cool nights although it was just before the rainy season for us so the usual beautiful blue skies were cloudy much of our week. The city is in a valley between volcanoes over 10,000 feet elevation, one active (different from the one we climbed), a remarkably picuresque setting. There were museums, galleries, artisan markets, all kinds of shops (including one of homemade chocolate which naturally we checked out) and we explored it all. The largest monastery in town has been converted to a stunning hotel/park/museum complex—Hotel Santo Domingo. It is a unique blend of ancient ruins, maintained and being restored, and a 5 star hotel and convention center. We strolled the grounds (parrots on perches throughout), walked through the 5 museums and admired how the residences were put in restored building but maintained the flavor of the monastery with its several foot thick walls.

Nearly every day the school sponsored an outing. One day we went to a local coffee farm where they had a museum describing all the steps in coffee production. On the grounds were also a music museum, developed to help maintain the traditional Mayan musical instruments and knowledge of its music, and a museum of Mayan clothing and crafts. The guides spoke very slow, clear Spanish in deference to the many Spanish students in town—no tours in English--but, by then, we understood the tour. It was a fascinating afternoon, well worth the time. The city is toured by people from all over the world and we enjoyed the fact that most Guatemaltecans asked where we were from, didn’t assume we were Americans as had always previously been the case. Guatemala is one of the largest producers of coffee in the world, but, ironically, the excellent roast coffee beans are almost all exported so finding a good cup of coffee is a challenge and expensive (especially for the locals). Nescafe is the coffee served most universally as sad as that is. Also sad is the fact that less than 10% of the profits from the lucrative coffee business make their way back to the original farms and the workers doing the backbreaking labor.