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29 July 2011
Photo Friday: aye-aye, cap'n!

Oktapodi seems to be in a cruising state of mind lately, so here are a few boat-related images to take us into the weekend...

Lago de Atitlán, Guatemala
Lago de Atitlán, Guatemala

Grand Canal, Venice
Grand Canal, Venice

Loy Krathong, Thailand
Loy Krathong, Thailand

Tamarindo, Costa Rica
Tamarindo, Costa Rica

Rio Dulce, Guatemala
Río Dulce, Guatemala

Oranjestand, Aruba
Oranjestad, Aruba


For more fabulous travel snaps, check out Delicious Baby's Photo Friday blog carnival.


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Posted by sonia at 12:00 AM | Link | 1 comment


04 February 2011
Photo Friday: young and old at the Chichi market

Just so you don't think I've fallen off the planet, here are two quick flashback snaps from my 2007 trip through Central America. The Chichicastenango market in Guatemala is one of the typical stops on the backpacker circuit. It offers a mindboggling array of crafts & photo opps. Nearly everyone's trying to sell you something, but there are also quiet moments of reflection in the burning offerings at the Mayan shrines on either side of the marketplace.

crafty and persistent urchins
crafty and persistent urchins

burnt offerings in front of the chapel
burnt offerings in front of the chapel

For more fabulous travel snaps, check out DeliciousBaby's Photo Friday.


RELATED LINKS:
* Browse all Chichicastenango pics
* Browse all Guatemala pics
* Read posts from my Chichi experience


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Posted by sonia at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments


05 February 2010
Photo Friday: friendly schoolkids in Barrio El Calvario

the girls were the first brave ones (claro!)
the girls were the first brave ones (claro!)

My original impetus for hopping a chickenbus and taking a daytrip from Xela to San Andres Xecul was to check out the technicolor church in the main square. And the church facade is pretty cool, with a riotous display of carvings in primary colors depicting scenes from the Mayan holy book the PopolVuh. But the real treat was farther up the hill, where I encountered a group of school kids in an area called Barrio El Calvario.

Barrio El Calvario schoolkids
Barrio El Calvario schoolkids

I had to huff and puff a bit to get up the steep hill, but was rewarded by stunning views of the valley and highlands. Meanwhile a group of kids seemed to be having gym class behind me. They were a little shy at first, but soon came over to check out my pen collection as I wrote in my travel journal. And then, gradually, everyone wanted to get their picture taken! First the girls, then the group, in various configurations.

gym class
gym class

I also got the chance to admire a creepy Mayan shrine dug into the hillside just beyond the gym class area. These are fairly common in Guatemala, although this one had the added bonus of wild turkeys running through it. You'll notice I got much closer to photograph the children than I did to the turkey.

creepy Mayan shrine with... turkey...??
creepy Mayan shrine with... turkey...??

These photos are from my 2007 Central American trip through Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize. For more fabulous travel photos, check out DeliciousBaby's Photo Friday!


RELATED LINKS:
* all San Andres Xecul pics
* all Guatemala pics
* original story: Making friends in San Andres Xecul


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Posted by sonia at 12:00 AM | Link | 2 comments


14 August 2009
Photo Friday: poofy Guatemalan hairdos

poofy Guatemalan hairdos
poofy Guatemalan hairdos

In August of 2007, I happened to be in the town of Nebaj, Guatemala, during one of the biggest festival days of the year. The Feast of the Assumption is celebrated on August 15 through many Catholic countries, but it's an even bigger deal in Nebaj because the Virgin Mary is the town's patron saint. The traditional festival garb was pretty stellar, but by far my favorite part was the poofy hairdos sported by the women. Sometimes it takes me a while to get my hair done up for a special occasion, but daaaaaaaaamn, this was something else entirely!

I gotta learn how to do my hair like this...
I gotta learn how to do my hair like this...

Nebaj crowd watches the festivities
Nebaj crowd watches the festivities

Related links:
* browse all pics from Nebaj
* browse all pics from Guatemala
* read blog story about Nebaj festival

* Be sure to check out other great Photo Friday pics on Delicious Baby!

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Posted by sonia at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments
23 August 2007
Many modes of transport, and a Honduran border clown
Couldn't make this s**t up if I tried
Whew! A long-ass travel day! But fortunately I had three fabulous companions for this journey, as Matt, Helen & Evan were also planning to head to Honduras at the same time. I've been really lucky to meet up with the right people at the right time. It makes crazy travel days such as these a bit easier to take.

The first adventure was trying to find a way to get some cash, so we could all take care of our tabs at the Iguana. Normally this wouldn't be a big deal, just hit up one of the ATMs in town. But power was still down from the previous night's storm, and not expected to return until the afternoon. We needed to get an early ferry to get started on our multi-pronged journey. Hm.

We walked into town to see what was shakin', figuring we should be able to at least go into a bank and extract some Quetzales that way. Along the way we checked both of the ATMs on the main road. Both had power, which was great, but both also displayed the "No funciona" message indicating they were outta service. Not so great. Evan and I waited for the bank to open while Helen walked back to get her other card. I've been pretty fortunate in that my debit/Visa card has worked with just about every ATM machine so far, but that's not always the case with cards from other countries. The bank actually opened around 9am, and they must have rebooted something because the ATM started working as well. We had no hope of getting the 9:30 ferry, but at least we'd be able to pay our room/bar tabs and catch the 11am boat. This is progress!

Livingston portAfter settling up and saying some sad goodbyes to the Iguana staff -- gonna miss those guys! this was another fabulous place to stay -- we packed up and headed for the port. We caught the 11am ferry to Puerto Barrios with no trouble, and it was actually a very enjoyable one-hour journey. Traveling by boat is so much more fun than land-based options! When we landed in Puerto Barrios, we were immediately swarmed by touts offering directos to Corinto, our next stop along the way. We still needed to find a bank for Helen, plus we figured we could handle the local buses instead of the tourist shuttles, so we shook 'em off (took a while, they are persistent buggers!) and found our way to a bank. From there, it was a matter of heading in the direction of the market and we soon found a micro heading for Honduras. Crammed into the van with two dozen locals, our bags securely (we hoped) lashed to the roof, we headed for the border.

The first stop was migración in the town of Entre Ríos. We were expecting to have to pay something, but the ayudante merely took our passports (always a little scary to let your passport out of your possession, even for a short while) and we stayed in the car. A few minutes later, we were off again. OK. We drove a bit further and got to the Honduras border. End of the line! It was just a barren stretch of asphalt, like an empty mall parking lot, with a flat concrete building on the other side. We marched across the border, presented our passports and $3, and once again I had to explain the situation with the stamp on the Dreaded Page 11, and then we were off.

this is it???Ehm, OK, now what? According to the book, Corinto, which is the closest town, where we were supposed to catch a bus to Puerto Cortés. As we walked towards a small area with snack vendors and taxis, we noticed a figure heading towards us. He was wearing funny clothes... a strange Honduran fashion statement? And big floppy shoes. What the... Sure enough, as he approached, we noticed we was wearing face paint and carrying a big trash bag full of... well, full of god knows what strange clown accessories one carries over the border between Guatemala and Honduras. Just when you think you've seen it all. A Honduran border clown. Dear me.

Anyway, after gathering our wits (as much as possible in a situation like this) and exchanging some Quetzales for Honduran Lempiras (which I can't help but think of as Lemmywinks) we headed towards the bus. Turns out this particular one was heading all the way to Puerto Cortés. Sweet! We piled our stuff on board, and after grabbing a few snacks, hopped on the bus along with the clown and an albino ayudante. All we needed was a fat lady or a midget, and we'd have ourselves one helluva circus. But I digress. As in Guatemala, the bus was a revamped US school bus, but seemed much much larger than its Guatemalan counterparts. Not only was there a bit of legroom, but we each had our own seats! Oh, the luxury!

At Puerto Cortés we easily caught a bus heading to San Pedro Sula, the next stop on our journey. And this bus, more of a shuttle even though it was public transport, was pretty cushy. Even had air conditioning! Swoon! Unfortunately there was no roof rack so we had to smush our bags in the aisles. But otherwise it was a very swank ride indeed.

Finding the right bus in the sprawling noisy lot at San Pedro Sula proved a bit more challenging. But we employed the tried-and-true method of wandering around looking lost and asking for help, and eventually we got pointed in the direction of the bus to La Ceiba. OK, last vehicle of the day! Whew! It was a 3-hour ride to La Ceiba, and the bus looked like it'd be pretty comfortable, with reclining seats and everything. But it was hot as an oven on that thing. The last leg was a lonnnnnnng one.

We finally arrived in La Ceiba, and after a bit of mucking around, finally found a hotel. We got a basic and fairly clean room for all four of us, and sacked out early. What a day. Tomorrow, the Islands!
Posted by soniaz at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments
22 August 2007
Jungle Tour and blackouts
downtown LivingstonThe Iguana offers two local tours, one a beachy/boozy kinda day ending at Siete Altares waterfalls, and the other a tour of town and Garífuna culture also ending at Siete Altares. After my veg day, I decided it was time for a little cul-cha, and chose the second tour. We had a pretty good crew: Matt & Helen, Evan, two Israeli girls named Mor and Tair, and two crazy dentists named Al and Philip who'd spent some time volunteering at a dental clinic elsewhere in Guatemala. Along the way we were joined by an odd French couple -- she was bubbly and chatty, and he said no more than three words the entire day -- and a woman named Marisa from San Francisco. Led by local Garífuna guide Francis, we had a good group.

The term Garífuna refers to both the language and the culture of the local people, who are of African descent. They're found throughout the Caribbean Coast of Central America. I'm not going to give the full history lesson here, but if you want to learn more there's a good site called Garifuna.com (of course!) that explains all about their tumultuous history, culture, and society.

Francis, our, um, like, tour guideWe started the day strolling through the town of Livingston, while Francis gave us some stilted history and cultural notes. He'd lived there all his life and was clearly interested in sharing his knowledge with travelers from all over the world, but he wasn't the most articulate fellow. So it was a little tricky to parse out his, um, you know, like, information about the, like, um, local people, you know? As with the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica, the accents here are more Jamaican-sounding. So even when they're speaking English, you have to listen closely to understand what's being said.

creepy saints inside the hybrid churchBut Francis was a fun guy and eventually we became accustomed to his delivery. He showed us the local church, where they have three types of services: standard Catholic, traditional Mayan, and a Garifuna version with a lot of Afro-Caribbean practices that must be really interesting to witness. The church was decorated with the usual creepy-eyed saints along the walls, dressed in local fabrics. This time they took it a step further and even put wigs on some of the statues. Freaky deaky.

festive wreath on a colorful tombNext stop was the cemetery, which looked like a funky blend of Pere Lachaise, New Orleans, and clown college. Each grave was painted a different bright color, and many were festooned with huge plastic leis or flowers. Francis explained that they celebrated Dia de los Muertos here, similar to Mexico, and the belief was that a person's life should be celebrated with a riotous party. Gotta love that. So they basically have a huge block party once a year, right in the graveyard, and relatives bring items that their loved ones would have appreciated during their mortal time on earth. Bottle of rum for Uncle Junior, big plate of tamales for Aunt Maria. Lots of music and food and drinks for the living, as well. Sounds like quite a time.

backyard jacuzzi, Livingston-styleWe trooped through the village, stopping to wave at cute indigenous waifs with big brown eyes who would occasionally pose for pictures. It was getting really hot and incredibly humid, so when we hiked up a small hill to see a mirador that afforded views of Belize and Honduras, it felt as though we'd just climbed a huge mountain. That beachy boozy thing was starting to sound better and better. We walked, and walked, and walked, all the while Francis keeping up a friendly banter with whomever was at the front of the group. Finally we hit the river, where a man in a small canoe was waiting to take us to the next spot. We went in two groups, and although there was little breeze along the river, it was a tranquil trip to skim across the water's surface, passing  mangroves and other lush vegetation.

beauty and the beachWe regrouped at a small restaurant for a quick beverage and to feed bananas to the local spider monkey, tethered to a huge tree by a long rope. A bit cheesy and canned, yes, but still fun! From there we walked over a huge suspension bridge and to a small beach. Finally! We all rushed into the water, only to find it to be the approximate temperature of bathwater. Ehm, refreshing, not! Plus there was some highly nasty slurm on the bottom that squished ickily underfoot. Bleccccch. Still, it was fun for a quick dip and a brief swim without touching the bottom at all. And the breeze on the beach was lovely indeed.

Marisa takes the plungeAfter a brief lunch of ubiquitous ham & cheese sandwiches coated with the requisite mayonnaise (hey, there's a reason they're not known for their cuisine around here!) it was time for the highpoint of the day: Siete Altares waterfalls. We had to sign into the park -- I always wonder what the heck they do with all this "sign in" information -- and then head up a short series of steps. The pools were shallow like at Semuc Champey, with rock formations throughout that made it easy to walk across, and small waterfalls trickling between them. The very last pool had a really cool waterfall that people jumped off. And the water was actually refreshing! It was also fun to hang out behind the waterfall and watch people go plummeting over the side.

The trek back to town was made more interesting when only two taxis showed up instead of the requested three. Two cars for a dozen people? How are we supposed to do that? Why, the Guatemalan way! Stuff a few folks in the open trunk and have them hang on for dear lives over the bumpy roads! Unfortunately I was laughing too hard to get any pics of this adventure, but it was hilarious. Until one of the taxis ran out of gas. Apparently this is a pretty common thing, since gas is so expensive and they can only afford to put in a few eyedroppers of gas at a time. We left that group behind and our driver sent another person to go pick them up, so once again all's well that ends well.

That evening a huge storm ripped through Livingston. Remnants of Hurricane Dean, coming to say hello? Who knows. It knocked out power right in the middle of my shower, which isn't as big a deal when the shower wasn't hot to begin with, but it did make it challenging to finish up in the dark. We spent the rest of the night hanging out at the Iguana by candlelight. I wasn't in the mood for drinking games and hit the sack early, in anticipation of a long and tiring travel day to Honduras.
Posted by soniaz at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments
21 August 2007
A veg day, and some new friends
G'day, Bruce!

A much-needed catchup day, where I did very little of note, and recharged the ol' batteries. The Iguana is a comfy place, indeed, and I can see why people stay here longer than expected. Livingston is also not as seedy-sketchy as I'd thought it would be... or maybe I've just not seen the bad parts of town. Which is fine with me!

It is hot & humid as a MFer around here, and there is some talk of the hurricane coming through. Looks like it will bypass us and go north to Belize or Mexico. A bit of rain wouldn't be so bad, though.

Helen and MattA whole new crop of people came in this afternoon, and I met some cool folks who will also be going on to Honduras from here: Matt & Helen (a couple from Brisbane), and Evan (a Canadian by way of the UK). They seem like good peeps and I'm happy to have some companions on the next leg of my journey. We bonded over some drinking games that night at the Iguana. One was a strange game Rory taught us (G'day Bruce! Say g'day to Bruce, Bruce!). The other was the old standby animal-sounds-and-gestures game, but Matt put a new twist on it by finding a great cow gesture. Moooooooo! 

Posted by soniaz at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments
20 August 2007
Onward to the Coast, again
A trip up the Rio Dulce

A fairly straightforward travel day. I finally got to take one of the funky little tuk-tuks that are so pervasive throughout Guatemala. (Never expected to see those outside SE Asia, but they are a cheap way to get around!) Took a long, hot bus trip to Rio Dulce, and grabbed a boat along with a French foursome for the ride up the river to Livingston.

entrepreneurial fisherkidYou can only get to Livingston, on the Caribbean Coast, by boat. The trip up the Rio Dulce is a nice one, about an hour of scenic travel past green cliff walls and the occasional fishing canoe. Our driver stopped a kid in a canoe who'd just caught a huge fish, and purchased his dinner for about 75Q. Nicely done!

We arrived at the dock and were greeted by a funky Rasta dude who offered to find us a hotel. I had already chosen a place based on a recommendation on the boards at Black Cat Antigua, so the dude walked me over there and we dropped off the French folks along the way. I don't know what this guy'd been smoking, but he kept up all kinds of crazy chatter about being 63 years old and living in New York before it was called that and hanging out with the Beatles. I was worried he was leading me off to someplace sketchy -- I'd heard some sketchy things about Livingston, a key stop on the drug trail -- but he did in fact take me to Casa de la Iguana as I'd requested.

Casa de la Iguana gardensThe place was great. Beautiful gardens, wooden bungalows and dorms with hammocks everywhere. The staff are about as friendly as you could ask, and I got a nice introduction to Iguana and Livingston by the lovely Allie. She gestured to a pile of bodies hanging out in front of the TV and mentioned that folks were still recovering from last night's drinking games. Good times.

Happy hour started around 6pm, and it was a bit mellow due to last night's craziness, but still quite festive. Everyone ate dinner together at 7pm, which was really nice, and very convenient, and then the drinking resumed afterwards. It was something of an early night, but still a nice introduction to what seems to be a great place to spend a few days.

Posted by soniaz at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments
19 August 2007
Hurricanes? We don't need no stinkin hurricanes!
Once again, a quick shout-­­out while I am updating the blog entries. (Hey, I'm getting there! Have fallen woefully behind on the pics, though.) I did the 3am sunrise hike to Tikal today, which was challenging but also really REALLY fun. Tomorrow I'm headed to the Caribbean coast once again, to visit Rio Dulce and Livingston before heading to Honduras. Fingers crossed that Hurricane Dean continues on its northward path towards the Yucatan peninsula, which means it will likely bypass the area where I am. Never a dull moment!
Posted by soniaz at 5:30 PM | Link | 2 comments
Temples in the mist
Sunrise in Tikal

Getting up at 3am wasn't as bad as I'd thought. Guess it helps when you go to bed at 9pm! However, getting to Tikal was a bit of a CF. The Guatemaltecos could take some tourism lessons from the Ticos... they don't quite have it down yet...

So a bunch of us were waiting in the street outside the hotel at the appointed time of 3:20am. And we waited. And we waited. At about 3:45, a shuttle pulled up. Woo-hoo, our ride to Tikal! Nope, it was full. And everyone in the street had a voucher from a different tour company, so I had to wait for three or four more shuttles to come by before I finally got on one. And then the driver circled a few more loops while he figured out who else he needed top pick. Guess who it was? That's right, the ducks were back! Fortunately they were all a bit more subdued at that hour, and there was no chatter on the way to the park.

The ride was about an hour long, just enough time for everyone who had been awake enough to get in the shuttle to fall asleep and get really groggy by the time we arrived. They hustled us out, in the dark, and instructed us to follow a guide to the sunrise point. Again, for some reason the man found it necessary to sprint through the park, on a very uneven path, with only a small flashlight. I am amazed nobody broke an ankle or anything.

When we got to Temple VI, the highest temple in the park, it was time to climb a series of steep rickety wooden stairs. More of a ladder, really. Whew! This is hard work! At the top were probably about 100 other tourists, trying to find the best spot, rustling through their bags to find cameras and water, and just generally fidgeting like tourists do. Two girls were actually trying to meditate. The scene before us was shrouded in mist, with howler monkeys and other creatures starting to warm up with a chorus of screeches, chirps, and growls. Very mystical and mysterious, and mostly tranquil if you could ignore all the fidgeting people around you.

Eventually the sun started to come up, and the air was filled with the familiar beep-crunch of a hundred digital cameras firing off. Very gradually the sun started burning off the haze, and temple sillhouettes began to appear in the distance across a great valley. It was spectacular. And for once, the weather was on our side! The past few days had been disastrously rainy. Can you imagine all that work just to get up there and sit in the rain? Nope, we definitely lucked out. It was a wonderful sunrise.

We got re-organized into groups according to our tour company and preferred language. Louis, our guide, spoke pretty good English (although his accent did sound a bit like Father Guido Sarducci) and was incredibly knowledgable about Mayan culture as well as the various flora and fauna in the park. We spent the next few hours climbing temples, watching trees full of toucans and monkeys, and learning about the many species of plants in the park. It was the most wildlife I'd seen since Costa Rica! And in an amazing setting. The civilization of Tikal was abandoned eons ago, and the forest grew in and over and around it. They're still unearthing huge temples from under mountains of dirt and foliage. It's a fascinating place.

The best part of getting there so early was finishing up by about 10am. (I felt a bit like I'd been drafted into the army... We get more done before 9am than most people do all day!) This was perfect, because it was starting to get ridiculously hot, and crowded. Apparently that day was Guatemalans Get In For Free day, and huge buses full of schoolkids and other locals began pouring into the park as we were leaving. Timing is everything!

Posted by soniaz at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments
18 August 2007
Pecked to Death by Jewish Mothers
A long schlep to Flores

(With apologies to Tim Cahill...)

Another long, hot, dusty travel day. It turns out that the Israeli families from yesterday's outing were also in my shuttle to Flores, the closest major city to the site of Tikal Mayan ruins and one of the most popular spots in Guatemala. No great surprise there. We are back on the Gringo Trail, after all. What made it exhausting was that the two moms from the two families had been chatting nonstop the entire trip yesterday, apparently hadn't stopped for a breath all night, and continued to chat away the entire five-hour shuttle ride to Flores. Now, Jewish Moms (and Bubbes everywhere), you know I love ya. But two days straight of listening to these women chatter away in Hebrew, a challenging language to listen to even on a good day, was almost more than I could take.

I was more than a little relieved when we arrived in Flores.

Turns out my first choice of a hotel no longer existed. (Another email update to the folks at Rough Guide!) And by the time I found a place it was pouring cats and dogs. Despite a desperate need to do laundry, I booked a spot on the sunrise tour of Tikal and tried to get an early night's sleep. Tomorrow would be another exhausting day!

Posted by soniaz at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments
17 August 2007
Semuc Champey and Lanquin Caves
And more frickin' stairs!

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

I decided to take a daytrip tour to the Semuc Champey waterfalls and Lanquín Caves. Originally I'd been planning to stay there overnight at a cool hostel I'd heard about, but the fact that I had a nice hotel in Coban, which also offered a shuttle straight to my next destination of Flores, won out in the end. Plus the tour came with breakfast and lunch, so it sounded perfect.

Rene, tourguide extraordinaireThe drive out to Semuc Champey was long, hot, and very bumpy, especially towards the end. Fortunately we had a really funny tourguide named Rene, who kept us all amused. Not that it was a particularly friendly crowd... the group consisted of eight Israelis (two families of four), a German family of four, a Spanish couple, and me. So everyone else had a pre-defined group to chat with in their own language, leaving me to sit and stare out the window. This was one of those times when it would've been nice to have a travel companion, or even my own posse!

where the Rio Cahabon exits the underground caveAt any rate, we arrived at the Semuc Champey park grounds after about two and a half hours of bumping and jostling in the van. It's become quite a popular spot to visit in recent years, as it's a pretty unusual natural wonder. The Río Cahabón flows down through a huge cavern into a series of shallow limestone pools that cascade down in a tranquil flow. The bulk of the river goes underground and cuts back out from a hole in the canyon a few miles downstream. It's pretty spectacular.

oktapodi checks out Semuc Champey from aboveThe walk out to the pools was mellow enough. And then Rene asked us if we'd like to go to the mirador, or viewpoint. Silly me, forgetting that everything in Guatemala involves some grueling uphill race to the death that usually results in me feeling like the Weakest Link, Goodbye! Yes, I forgot all that in the excitement of seeing the pools from up above, and I agreed to go. Not only was it the steepest, slipperiest climb yet, but for some reason everyone else seemed hellbent on getting to the top as fast as possible, with no stopping at all. Am I really the only one who thinks it's reasonable to stop and smell the jungle from time to time? Guess I am. Anyway, the view from the top was, of course, splendid. Almost worth the humiliating climb up there. It was interesting to see the pools from above... the turquoise colors were magnificent and the rushing river downstream was amazing. Not sure why we had to climb vertically to the absolute top of the stupid gorge to see it, but, hey, it made for some nice pics. Which you'll see eventually, I promise.

Fortunately we went down the other side (ah, see, there *is* an easy way!) and for some reason everyone else wanted to take it nice and slow, so I got totally ahead of the group. But, y'know, why be like everyone else? When we got back to the main area there was plenty of time to float in the water and explore the small series of waterfalls. It was reeeeeeeally relaxing.

On the way back, we stopped at the Lanquín Caves, which were OK but not as cool as the spelunking caves we went through in La Fortuna. It was just a series of slippery walkways and a few steps, with lights strung inside and a sign here or there calling out interesting formations. Not that many bats, either. But not a bad way to end the day's excursion.

 

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16 August 2007
The Great Space Coaster
How I found myself hurtling through the Cuchumatanes mountains in the back of a pickup truck

Oh, Faithful Readers, you would not believe the day I had today! I can´t quite believe it myself. What an adventure.

I started with a fairly leisurely rise in Nebaj, around 7:30 I´d checked the previous day, at a travel agency, and the woman had assured me that there were plenty of buses to Cobán leaving throughout the day. I had originally planned to head to Antigua to catch a shuttle tour to Semuc Champey, but looking at it on the map it seemed silly to go five hours south only to head another five or six hours north, with an overnight stay in Antigua necessary in the middle. So I headed off to the terminal to find out when the next bus to Cobán might be leaving.

And here is where I had to learn again the lesson I should have heeded in San Pedro la Laguna: when dealing with Guatemalan travel agents, always ask for a second opinion! There was in fact only one direct bus to Cobán and it left at 5am. Right. I checked with another agency to see if there was a more expensive shuttle option, and they said no. Lovely. So this left several options, but the most appealing seemed to be to try for a less direct route to Cobán rather than waiting around here or in Antigua. So I headed back into the agency, and a different person outlined the route I´d have to take:

1. Micro from Nebaj towards Quiché, but ask to be let out in Entronque
2. Catch a bus to Uspantán
3. Bus from Uspantán to Cobán

OK, now we´re getting somewhere. I can handle that! Especially with the route written out on a scrap of paper that I could point to if necessary.

waiting in the clouds for the bus, like ya doI found a microbus crammed full of people. Cool, that means it´s about to leave. The driver agreed that he would be passing by Entronque, but seemed reluctant to stop there. Never mind, I had to trust that he would, otherwise I´d need to go all the way to Quiché and backtrack. So I was somewhat relieved and somewhat anxious when the bus stopped by the side of the road seemingly in the middle of nowhere and the ayudante shouted out "Entronque!" Guess this is my stop. But where the hell are we? Fortunately three other people got off at the same stop, and one other guy said he was going to Uspantán and that I could just follow him.

the mighty Cuchumatanes mountainsWe waited by the side of the road, looking down on clouds to a beautiful valley below, until a pickup truck pulled up and someone shouted "Uspantán!" This was apparently our next mode of transport. I hopped in with my pack, and began the second and most fabulous part of the day´s journey. Fantastic! Screw chickenbuses, you haven´t really traveled until you´ve bounced along in the open bed of a pickup truck with a few piles of random goods, three farmers, two old ladies, the farmer´s wife with a papoose strapped to her back, and a 10-year-old girl. The scenery was breathtaking. I know I keep saying that, but this was the most incredible so far. Bright blue sky, fluffy white clouds, eye-popping (and ear-popping!) mountains splashed with every possible shade of green and brown. Really, truly splendid. Made the Monteverde scenery look like child´s play. I would´ve taken a million pics but I was too busy hanging on for my life as we dipped and swung around curves at breakneck speed. At one point we stopped to deposit some of the stuff (and one of the chickens) at someone´s house, and the driver caught my eye with a smile that said "Hey, you won´t get this kind of ride on the Gringo Trail, sister!" Damn straight. Once again, I was so glad not to have taken the packaged convenient way out.

I was almost sad when the ride ended -- and for 10Q, this was the best bargain ride indeed -- and we arrived in Uspantán. I easily found another micro headed for Cobán, and settled in for the long drive. The first half was nice enough, with the same beautiful scenery (not quite as stupendous from inside a closed vehicle, though) and decent paved roads. Then the road got seriously bumpy -- oh, I see, they´re still in the process of paving it! -- and at one point we had to stop for nearly an hour on the hot dusty road, for seemingly no point at all. I guess it had something to do with the big contruction trucks schlepping huge piles of rock up the hill. My brain was too fried to care much.

Casa d'Acuna gardenWe eventually arrived in Cobán, a nice enough place with not much going for it besides being the gateway to nearby Semuc Champey and Lanquín caves. The recommended hotel, Casa d´Acuña, was quite nice and had decent dorm rooms for a good price. Huzzah, the book redeems itself after that awful Nebaj recommendation! Tomorrow, a tour to Semuc Champey.

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15 August 2007
WWJD?
The Great Allentown Fair comes to Nebaj

I´ve decided to spend a few extra days in Nebaj, where they are celebrating the Feast of the Assumption with a gigantic street fair. I´m pretty sure this is how Jesus (and Mary) would´ve wanted the day to be commemorated, with cacophanous marimba bands, bad town hall speeches, lots of drinking and hideously loud firecrackers, cotton candy and bad plastic trinkets for sale, games of chance under fluorescent lights, and rickety-ass carnival rides. Seriously, if Winger had been headlining that night, I would have thought I was back at the Great Allentown Fair. The only thing missing was funnel cake stands.

Dude, this place is weird.

After a horrible false start at a dump called the Hospedaje Nebajense -- I´ve written to the good folks at Rough Guides to request they remove this filth pit from their recommendations -- I found another room at a nice place a block from the plaza. An American I´d met on the bus ride out here said that Wednesday was the big fiesta day, so I hung around the main square, peoplewatching and waiting and wondering what to do. There are only four or five of us gringos in town, so I was as much of a curiosity to them as they were to me. Every time I sat on a park bench, someone struck up a conversation wondering where I was from and what I was doing there. The pastor of the local church even proudly introduced himself in English.

traditional Nebaj poofy hairdosThroughout the next few days there were a few parades, musical acts, and some goings-on in the church. (For those of you keeping score at home, please note that I was at Mass on the Feast of the Assumption! Maybe Santa Claus will get me that iPhone for Christmas this year after all.) There is a very distinct traditional uniform for the folks of Nebaj, and they were all decked out in their finest for the fiesta. The women wear dark red skirts and blouses with geometric designs in green and purple and sometimes maroon. They wear headclothes woven around their finely-coiffed hair that end in brightly-colored pom-pom tassles that they pile high on their heads. And even some of the men were dressed, in dark red cotton jackets with black embroidery. It was really interesting to see so many people dressed exactly the same.

The only other thing of note was a strange procession in front of the church, with men wearing gold-spangled costumes and masks and pirate hats. They were accompanied by the everpresent marimba band. The men lined up and did this strange marching two-step dance, over and over again for like an hour, and then they packed up and walked away. I have no idea what that was supposed to be about, but it provided a bit of entertainment in the middle of the day.

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13 August 2007
Mountains and markets
A week in the western highlands

Happy Birthday to Richard (who has the honor of posting the first comment to this blog, thanks!) and Fidel Castro! Didn´t realize you guys shared the same birthday.

OK, I know I said I wasn´t going to add anything new till I got caught up with previous entries, but I didn´t want y´all to think I´d fallen off the face of the earth. (I did come close, a few times! The mountains in this region are FIERCE!) I´ve spent the past week based out of Xela, exploring the various towns of the western highlands region of Guatemala, hiking and checking out the markets and enjoying the traditional culture. Today I´m off to Nebaj for one final day of highlands, then I´m going back to Antigua to catch a shuttle to Samuc Champey to visit the waterfalls and caves.

I have been updating the previous month´s worth of adventures, so don´t forget to scroll down to past dates (or click a topic or date at left) to get the detes. And feel free to enter comments! You´ll need to "subscribe" to this blog, but don´t worry, I promise not to send you any spam. ;)

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12 August 2007
Market day in Chichi
I made it out alive!

flowers and offeringsWell, I managed to make it through a busy morning at the Chichi market, and even escaped with my dignity mostly intact! Huzzah! Quite the cavalcade of peoplewatching, both locals and gringos! I grabbed an early breakfast and was pleased to sit and watch the world go by for a bit. Men and women with huge bundles balanced on their heads, merchants setting up for the day, many women in indigenous dress with children strapped to their backs and in tow... and the gringos started trickling in...

a sea of fresh produceI did a few laps around the marketplace, and stood on the second floor of the Centro Commercial to watch the vegetable market in full swing. Interesting stuff. I have never seen such huge piles of carrots, onions, tomatoes, and other unrecognizable vegetation. Some vendors had actual scales but most used a system of stones in a hand scale to weigh the purchases. Then I sat on the steps of the church for a while, watching men and women swing cannisters of estoraque incense and chant prayers, while more urchins selling magnets and wooden necklaces made urgent pitches. And the gringos kept flooding in.

offerings in front of the churchWisely having taken stock the night before, I realized I had enough tchotchkes and mementos to satisfy my needs. (And anyone wishing to make a contribution to the Sonia World Tour Fund, just lemme know and I can arrange to send you a lovely fridge magnet! I knew a girl who funded most of her RTW trip that way, sharp cookie.) I popped in the church, carefully going in through the side entrance as the book recommended, and sat for a while to watch the festivities. Inside was an interesting mix of Mayan and Christian traditions. Old women lit candles and sprinkled rose petals in offerings on low stone tablets in the aisles. A priest was leading a prayer chant in the back. People lined up to make additional offerings in front. Gringos streamed by, ignoring the many posted requests to not take pictures and generally making asses of themselves by disturbing the proceedings. Just another market day in Chichi.

cheapest lunch in townAfter spending a bit more time on the stairs outside the church, watching the world go by, I decided to try to find some lunch. The market is sprawling, but there is some method to the madness and the food stalls were lined up on the very inside of the plaza. Fortunately they were covered, too, because as I sat down the heavens opened and it began to pour in Biblical proportions. I enjoyed my chicken, rice, and papas fritas (happily, another bargain meal) and listened to the rain beat down on the tin rooftops. It stopped within an hour or so, but left behind muddy swirling motes and lakes on the cobblestone streets. Muck! Slurm!

Fed up with the teeming masses, I headed out to an internet cafe to catch up on email and plan my next day´s journey to Nebaj. As it´s a bit off the beaten Gringo Trail, it should provide a slightly different picture of Guatemalteco life.

 

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11 August 2007
So much for haggling
Apparently I am as stupid as I look

Another travel day, and also an uprooting from the Black Cat Xela, my home away from home for nearly the past week. Surprisingly, I will miss this offbeat place... my odd chats with Joanne, the bizarre Claire (whom I have forgiven for her past transgressions), and most especially the breakfasts! Mmmmm, desayuno típico, with your eggs, beans, friend plantains, tomato, avocado, toast, and weird crumbly tasteless cheese, I shall miss you the most!

Anyway, I grabbed the now-familiar micro/camioneta combo and headed to Chichicastenango, which on Thursdays and Sundays hosts the most famous market in all of Guatemala. Found a nice room with a spectacular view of the town and the church, and set off to see about getting a guided tour to the Pascual Abaj shrine, a Mayan altar perched high in the hills above town.

Pascual Abaj Mayan shrine, main altarI wandered down the street, and sure enough one of the "licensed" guides approached me. Not learning from my Santiago Atitlán experience, I failed to pre-negotiate a price, but decided that 20Q should be adequate. We headed up a really steep hill -- curse this frickin country where everything is up-frickin-hill -- and had a pleasant enough conversation in Spanish. And when we reached the top of the hill he had lots of good information about the various Mayan altars and rituals. We´d obviously just missed seeing an actual ceremony, though. But he went through a litany of info about what each altar is for (requests for a good marriage, healthy pregnancy, end to vices, peace in the country, good harvests, etc) and some information about Mayan shamans (there are equal numberes of men and women in each village, as guys have to go to a male shaman and women to a female. And then he offered to take me to the local weaving cooperative where I could buy a mask or a hand-made blanket, and everything was authentic, and he´d make sure I got a good price, yada yada yada. I tried getting him to tell me what a decent price might be, as it´s hard to haggle when you´re not sure what your goal is, but he deflected with the old "don´t worry, I´m your guide, I´m here to guide you!" Right.

the ripoff crew (and she looks so innocent!)Long story short, I wound up spending more than I´d intended, albeit on a very nice piece of tapestry that may make a lovely wedding present for a certain brother and future sister-in-law. Once again I felt somewhat used and abused, but I guess that´s what we gringo tourists are here for. To make matters worse, I had trouble finding the right change, and had to stop at like three stores before I found a shopkeeper who would break a 100Q bill. (It started to feel ridiculously like that South Park episode where zombies wander around asking for chaaaaaaaaange, doesn´t anybody have any chaaaaaaange?) And then the coup-de-grace, when I offered the guide his 20Q he was incredbily offended and demanded 50. No way, man, not after you just helped fleece me outta my hard-earned cash for that weaving! I reminded him that it was supposed to be a voluntary thing, and he snarled and wished me Bad Luck and stalked off. Great, that was a stellar start to my Chichi visit.

After cooling down a bit (literally and figuratively) I wandered around the plaza area and watched the vendors set up for the next day´s event. I also took a look at the church, which is on one side of the plaza, and the smaller Calvario Chapel, which is on the other side. The chapel was pretty interesting, with Mayan copal offerings out front, and dark spooky saints on the inside. The attendant suggested I contribute some "alms" and then seemed disappointed when I only tossed in a few coins. Cram it, sister, I´m not in the mood.

crafty and persistent urchinsOutside, I sat on the steps and watched as the setup continued. I was relentlessly pestered by some persistent urchins trying to sell fridge magnets. A foreshadowing of Sunday´s activities! The second one actually gave me some rap about Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes, waggling his dirty sandals in my face. And when I declined he was like "How ´bout you just give me a Quetzal, then?" How ´bout you give me a frickin break?? I know I look like a walking dollar sign to you, but for just five minutes can I sit here in peace? Clearly not.

I did manage to get a good deal on dinner at a local comedor, and was amused at the WWF entertainment on TV. They love the fake wrestling in this country! Wandered back to my hotel, and decided to get a good night´s sleep in preparation for the assault tomorrow.

 

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10 August 2007
San Francisco el Alto
Ode to a chickenbus

Another great day of adventures! I decided to visit the Friday market in San Francisco el Alto, supposedly the largest in the country and not as touristy as the one in Chichi. The book made it sound like it would be tricky to find a bus there, but I had no trouble whatsoever and hopped aboard one that left a few minutes later. Good timing! Sometimes you wind up sitting and waiting a while until the bus fills up. I was so inspired by this triumph that I wrote a double-haiku in honor of chickenbuses. (OK, so it´s not completely thematically correct, but bear with me...)

Bumpy chickenbus
Four to a seat, minimum
Vendors come with snacks.

¡Dios nos bendiga!
Driver´s a mental patient
Vamos a morir.

::: gonnnnnnng :::

Right then, on to the day´s journeys! The market was indeed massive, and wound up a huge hill for more blocks than I could count. And it did seem to be geared more towards locals, with imported American clothing, cheap hair trinkets, plastic buckets, and cell phones on display for sale. I did manage to practice my haggling skills a bit for some traditional wares, and was rather pleased to be one of the few gringos around. At the very top of the hill was the animal market. What a show! All manner of pigs, cows, sheep, cats, dogs, rabbits, turkeys, chickens, goats, and god knows what else were on sale. Locals were haggling madly. The animals seemed a bit disenchanted by the whole affair.

handwoven baskets and other treasures cow on a rope now *there's* a pig in a blanket! an important selection these piggies have had a bit too much day

Next stop, Momostenango, aka Momo or Momos for short. This required finding the correct bus and squishing into a seat with an entire Guatemalan family, hanging on for dear life as we rocked through the pine forests, and watching with amusement as the driver got into a fistfight with his ayudante. Never a dull moment.

the crowd in Momos attends a Mario Estrada rallyWhen we got to Momo, there seemed to be some big gathering in the main square. Turned out to be a rally for Mario Estrada, the UCN candidate for president. (The one I thought looked like JR Ewing on his campaign posters, with a big cowboy hat and everything.) He schmoozed the crowd with ease, saying the usual "I´m one of you" and "Together we can make the world a better place" kinda things you hear politicians everywhere spouting off about. The crowd was enthusiastic and everyone from small children to elderlies waved banners and clapped loudly.

my new friend and fabulous tourguide MarioI headed off to find Los Riscos, mentioned in my guidebook as a set of bizarre sandstone pillars on the north edge of town. Well, they turned out to be more east than north, and after several wrong turns I just stopped and asked a random local for directions. To my surprise, he escorted me all the way there! (Which was great because I never would have found it on my own.) And he didn´t even ask for money or try to sell me anything! Way to restore my faith in humanity. Los Riscos were indeed a bizarre set of Grand Canyon-looking pillars, made of crumbly sand and just sorta plunked by the side of the road. Something interesting to see, especially when you have a new friend to chat with along the way.

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09 August 2007
Subimos y subimos y subimos
Olympic hiking on Volcan Chicabal

An exhausting morning. I'm not sure whether to be proud that I made it back alive, or embarassed that apparently I am the weakest link, goodbye.

I failed to realize the steep angles drawn on this map are entirely accurateUpon advice of my German friend Valeri, and with some encouragement from Claire at Black Cat, who said it would be "a nice walk," I decided to go on a hike to Volcan Chicabal. Heh, a nice walk, indeed. We set off at the buttcrack of dawn, a 6am departure that once again precluded breakfast, boo-hoo. They do give you an anemic sandwich on occasions like these, but it's a poor substitute to a plateful of pancakes or the big-ass breakfast burrito. Anyway, we headed out towards the volcano, and the shuttle dropped us off outside the closest town. Right away the trail was almost straight upwards, although our guide and the Austrian mother and daughter who also came along seemed to think nothing of it. Right then, onwards and upwards.

And upwards. And upwards. Without stopping. Yikes! I managed to mostly keep up, slowing for a drink of water here or there. At one point we started going downhill a bit, but then the trail quickly went back up. Eventually we arrived at the entrance to the park. Great, that was just the warmup! We signed the guestbook, and headed off to the trail. I felt a deepening sense of despair as the trail wound ever steeper upwards. Why aren't we stopping for any breaks? Am I the only one who thinks this is hard?? And how badly am I going to maim Claire when I see her again??? A nice walk. Gonna kick her ass into next week. If I can ever move my legs again.

Volcan Santiaguito erupts (kickass!)After what seemed like days of climbing and struggling (ehm, that would be the other three chatting merrily while *I* struggled) we did eventually reach the top. And there was a nice enough lookout point... two, actually. One over the lake and the other overlooking Volcanes Santa Maria and Santiaguito. The latter of which is apparently the most active volcano in Guatemala, and treated us to a small puff of ash while we sat and watched. OK, that's pretty cool.

lakeside meditations (thank god, a rest!)After pausing and munching a bit, during which time our guide convinced the Austrian Mother-Daughter Olympic Mountaingoat Team that they should go on a 2-day hike with him to Tajumulco, it was time to head down to the lake. Yep, like 300 steps down! Which means at some point we have to come back up! Well, no point worrying about that now, might as well try to enjoy the scenery. And it was lovely, with Mayan altars sprinkled around the perimeter and fluffy clouds rolling by. But then it was time to head back up. No fair, a hike that's uphill BOTH ways! Fortunately we didn't take those maldito stairs (they would've had to leave me behind), but went the "easy" way. Easy?!? An hour of straight uphil climbing over slippery sandy soil, once again not pausing for any hint of a break... that's easy?? Nope, I had to take a few breaks on my own, and the mountain goats got further and further ahead till I thought they *were* going to leave me behind.

a long, if scenic, walk back through townUnfortunately they didn't, and once we reached the top it was time to head back down. And just to give you some sense of the incline, it was just as hard to go down as it was to go up. My knees may never forgive me. Of course the other three went racing down, leaving me to carefully zigzag at my own pace lest I slide and fall on my butt. I held out some faint hope that our shuttle driver would be waiting for us at the park entrance, but of course he wasn't and we had to hike further into town. Starting uphill again (that's uphill THREE ways, for those of you keeping score) we trekked back from whence we came. To add insult to injury, when we got to the spot where we'd been left off... no van. OK, just a little further, then... And we continued the descent all the way through the town. Just as I asked if we were going to have to walk all the way back to Xela, the shuttle showed up and we piled in. Whew!

I treated myself to a big lunch at a nearby Italian restaurant, with a glass of wine, and then took a nice afternoon nap. I was actually feeling ready to go out and find something to do when Valeri mentioned a folkdance performance that evening. Perfect! We trooped over to the Teatro Municipal for an evening of traditional dance from various countries in Central America. Also a tango performance from an Argentine pair. Very cool! Reminded me a bit of WolfTrap, albeit with slightly lower production values. Still, it was a very fun way to spend the eve.

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08 August 2007
Making friends in San Andrés Xecúl
Have pens, will travel

Decided to go a tad off the beaten path today and take a chickenbus to San Andres Xecul, a small mountain town with a famous technicolor church. I could have taken another tourist shuttle, but getting there on my own turned out to be so much more rewarding. First, I had to grab a microbus (something like a cross between a minivan and a clown car, where they pack in as many people as possible and a small boy leans out the side window yelling the destination in the hopes of attracting *more* people) to the main bus terminal. In order to get to the bus departure area, I had to walk through the local market, which was absolutely fascinating. Little old ladies selling chickens and pigs, stands with enormous stacks of fruits and veggies, piles of clothing and batteries and superglue and pirated CDs and probably much more I didn't even get to see. Reminded me a lot of the market we went to in the Philippines, where the locals gawked at the strangers and offered us bizarre fruits and other unmentionables. Also as in the Philippines, here again I was about a foot taller than everyone else, which is pretty funny since I'm only about 5'5". And I was seemingly the only gringo around, so I got lots of stares. Kickass.

church facade detailsI got to San Andres Xecul and found the brightly-colored church pretty easily. It's bright yellow and is covered with red, purple, and green carvings depicting everything from the harvest to scenes from the Popol Vuh, the Mayan bible. Inside it was dark and dusty and somewhat creepy, with dressed-up saints in glass cases and intricate ironwork on the altar. And it was quite possibly the loudest church I've ever been in! Besides the noise bouncing in from the plaza -- everything from screaming children to honking chickenbuses -- the supplicants inside were praying loudly and sometimes even singing. Definitely not like the quiet and somber Catholic churches I'm used to!

schoolkids in Barrio El CalvarioI headed up a precipitous hill to another brightly-colored place of worship, the Calvario chapel. The chapel itself was not much to see, but the view from the top of the hill was absolutely stunning. And a bunch of schoolkids were having what looked like gym class next door, skipping rope and having races. I watched them for a while, and they shyly avoided having their pictures taken. (Wow, that's a first! Kids love digital cameras!) Until I pulled out my journal (and special colored pens, of course) and started writing. Then they swarmed me and insisted on knowing what I was writing about, where I was from, did I have any kids, what were the names of my brothers and sister, etc etc. And when I showed them the pens I was writing with, they grabbed every last one and ran off! Hey, I need those! I know everyone worldwide has a fascination with my special pens, but they also serve a purpose! I managed to get one back (my favorite lime green one) and figured the rest had gone to a good home.

my bunkmate JoanneBack at the hostel, I had an interesting conversation with my bunkmate, an American college student named Joanne who is doing an audiovideo project with the local tribes around Xela. Cool! More Xelapan for dinner, and I was happy to make it an early night. The evenings get really cold around here, which is something of a nice change, but it makes it hard to rally for any nighttime activities.

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07 August 2007
Fuentes Georginas and Zunil
And a risky spinach salad

I decided to go for the tour option today, since it was only $10 to see the Fuentes Georginas hot springs and the town of Zunil, and the pickups alone to/from the hot springs would cost that. Turned out to be just me and a couple from Spain. We left the Black Cat around 8am, sadly missing out on the fabulous free breakfast, and headed to the Fuentes in a minibus.

oktapodi enjoys the Fuentes from a distanceGot there around 9am, and it was COLD!!! Nobody else there, either, except for a French family having breakfast. You can stay in the cute cabinas on the grounds, and there is a bar/restaurant there as well. The hot springs themselves had more character than the ones we went to in La Fortuna, with steamy water trickling directly from the side of the mountain into a natural rock pool. Unfortunately the water was only tepid, and the ambient temperature was frigid, so I only dipped my lil toes in the water. It was still nice and relaxing, though. And the gorgeous mountain scenery made it nice to sit and contemplate absolutely nothing for an hour or so.

another version of Maximon, with offertory candlesNext stop (after leaving the facility and then coming back in a huge hurry because I'd left my camera behind while contemplating) was Zunil, a short way down the mountain. The town is known for its textile cooperative, beautiful white colonial church, and another spot to see Maximón! OK, let's see how it compares with the last time... Long walk up a steep hill, check. Duck into a random house in a narrow alley, check. Pay to get in, gringo tax, check. Many multicolored candles around, check. In this case there were actually people going up and making "requests" of the deity, who looked a little more like an escapee from Reno 911 with a big cheesy moustache and sunglasses. There was an extra charge to take photos, and when they tried charging me for *each* photo, I knew  it was time to leave. Alrighty then, I think I've satisfied my Maximón needs for this trip! At least I didn't get ripped off by a grubby little guide this time.

Back in time for lunch, which I spent with a German girl named Valeri at a neighborhood restaurant called Casa Babylon. Feeling lucky (punk), I even ordered a spinach salad, something you're not supposed to do in these parts, but I was in such desperate need of green leafies that I threw caution to the wind. I doused it with lime juice, something that's supposed to help kill any residual creepy crawlies, and apparently that worked because I suffered no ill effects. Rock on!

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06 August 2007
I love Xelapan

After yesterday's harrowing journey, I took a much-needed day of rest and email catchup. I also discovered the joys of Xelapan, favored destination of broke backpackers and Spanish language students staying in Xela. It's a bakery, where one can pick out wonderfully cheap breads and pastries, savory and sweet, some with chocolate on top, some with other lovely surprises inside. I was inspired to write the following ode to Xelapan, to be sung to the tune of the South Park Cheesy Poofs jingle:

I love Xelapan.

You love Xelapan.

We-e-e-e all love Xela-Xela-Xelapan.

I love Xelapan.

You love Xelapan.

If we didn't eat Xelapan, we'd be lame.

Thank you, goodnight!

Posted by soniaz at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments
05 August 2007
Travel day from hell
Vamos a morir
I hadn´t gotten a great night´s sleep to begin with, since the walls of Casa Maritza are paper thin and I could hear every stupid conversation in seemingly every room. But I got up bright and early to find the bus to Quetzaltenango, aka Xela /shay-la/. I´d checked with a woman from Big Foot Travel the day before, and she assured me that buses to Xela left practically all morning long from the main plaza by the Catholic church.

So I schlepped up the huge hill, waiting for one of the little tuk-tuk taxis to come buzzing by looking for a fare, but none did. I huffed and puffed my way to the top, eventually found the Catholic church, and headed to the front in search of something resembling a bus stop. No such animal, so I asked several passersby, several times, is this where the buses to Xela leave? Oh yes, right here! This is the spot! OK, good. What time? Blank looks. Eventually I found a guy who said the next bus would leave around 8am, maybe 8:30. It was about 7am by that point, but I figured it was better to be too early than too late.

have turkeys, will travelWhile I waited, I observed townspeople coming and going from church, some dressed in their Sunday finest and some barefoot & carrying chickens. (To be fair, the market was right next door, so the poultry might not have been destined for mass. But you never know.) Around 8:00 a chickenbus pulled up. It said "Guate" on the front, which meant it was destined for Guatemala City, in the opposite direction from where I wanted to go. OK, maybe the Xela bus will be next. As the bus started to fill up, the helpful guy with the time asked if I wasn´t getting on board? Uh, no, I´m not going to Guate, I´m going to Xela. Xela? There aren´t any buses to Xela on Sundays.

WHAT?!?!?!?!?

At that point all language skills -- Spanish or English or even sign language -- completely fled my brain and I was unable to put into any semblance of words the dark cloud of angry thoughts buzzing through my brain. Why hadn´t anyone told me? Why, mister seemingly helpful little man, did you let me wait here for the past 90 minutes if there´s no hope of getting to Xela?? Is everyone in this town in cahoots against me?

10 out of 10 chickens surveyed would ride this busOK, deep breath. There´s got to be another way. In fact, I knew there was an expensive shuttle because the Big Foot lady tried selling it to me yesterday. So I headed to a different agency (screw you, Sasquatch) and inquired about a shuttle  to Xela. Oh yes, the lady told me sweetly, but it left at 8am. Great. Is that the ONLY one today? Well, let´s see... there may be another one leaving from Panajachel, across the lake. She made a few phone calls and determined that in fact, there was not. OK, how about a public bus? That´s what I wanted to take anyway. Nope, not from San Pedro. Maybe to Chichi! A few more phone calls, and she determined that in fact there was a bus to Chichi at 9:30 and also a bus to Xela at 11:30. I´ll take it!

After waiting an interminably long time for a water taxi to fill up with enough passengers, we finally left for Pana. With a bit of help from a local shop owner, I hopped the "Luna de Oro" chickenbus bound for Xela. It was already chockful of people, so when we stopped to pick up about a dozen more I was seriously unsure where they would go. But they all managed to pack on board, and we hung on for the ride uphill towards Sololá.

Fortunately, at Sololá most of the people piled off, and I had not only a seat but a seat totally to myself! Oh, the luxury! Then a little man got on, and even though there was almost an entire empty bus behind me, he chose to sit on the seat next to me and smushed right up against me as though there were two more people who wanted to fit in next to him. I was a little wigged out for a minute, until I realized that in Guatemala, that´s just What You Do. He struck up some pleasant conversation in Spanish, and for the next hour or so we discussed everything from Hillary Clinton to travel in Guatemala to why Americans hate immigrants so much. (Well, that last one was less of a discussion than an inquiry on his part, to which I had no good answer.)

God bless this bus! (pleeeeeease!)We had nearly reached the final stretch to Xela when an oncoming camioneta lingered too long in the "passing" lane (aka the lane we were driving in) and our driver had to swerve like a madman, nearly driving over the construction barrier on the right side of the road. The Swedish girl in the seat ahead of me screamed and ducked. The driver just smirked, turned around, and said cheekily, "Vamos a morir!" Right, is that supposed to be FUNNY?? I guess that´s why they have all those "Dios bendice a este carro" signs in the front of the bus. Clearly you need all the divine intervention you can get!

I did eventually make it to my destination, the Black Cat hostel in Xela, and collapsed in a heap for the remainder of the afternoon. Time for this travel day from hell to be over!
Posted by soniaz at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments
04 August 2007
Devil Saints in Santiago Atitlán

I made it to the Lake Atitlán area yesterday, via shuttle and then a boat across the lake to San Pedro. It is very scenic here, but for some reason I´m getting a weird vibe from the place. Could be all the drugs, or maybe the sketchy guy who tried whisking me away from the internet cafe across the street from my hotel. I opted to stay here instead of the more tranquil San Marcos, because I was hoping to meet some friendly folks... but not *that* friendly!!

Anyway, today I took a boat to another part of the lake to check out Santiago Atitlán and visit Maximón, the Mayan devil-saint who sits in a small dark room and smokes a stogey. Sometimes he´s known as San Simón, but in the Mayan dialect his name is pronounced /mash-ee-MOHN/. According to my guidebook, some say he represents a Franciscan friar who chased after young indigenous girls. He´s always associated with vices such as smoking and drinking. My kinda guy! Had to go check him out.

two friendly kids on the ferry On the ferry ride from San Pedro to Santiago Atitlán I was befriended by two local children who were heading back home with their mom. They caught me taking pictures of them and were fascinated by my digital camera, insisting I take several pictures of them and then taking some of me. Then they proceeded to ask me all about myself, my family, my travels, and about a million other questions. It was a fun way to pass the time.

It´s pretty easy to find a guide once you hit the dock at Santiago Atitlán. I was told you should expect to pay around 10 quetzales (less than two bucks) and that the first guide who proffers himself, even if it´s a small child, will suffice. OK, so I grabbed the first guide on the dock, and along with another woman and her daughter, we headed into town to find the house where Maximón is hanging out this year. They change the location each year, and it´s nearly impossible to find the place without a local guide to lead you through narrow alleys and up ridiculous hills. Finally, we ducked into a dark corner, and waited our turn in line to see the man himself.

Maximon and his current handlerSanta Cruz in a creepy coffinThe statue sits in a dark room, minded by a Guatemalteco who supposedly engages him in rituals such as drinking rum and smoking cigars. None of that was happening when we were there, but the room itself was filled with candles and other creepy quasi-religious paraphernalia. Mayan religions tend to mix a little from Christianity and a little from indigenous traditions, resulting in a bizarre melange of some familiar Catholic icons and lots of other not-so-familiar bits and pieces. There was a coffin to the side of the room, containing a creepy mannequin representing Santa Cruz, supposedly the patron saint of the Mayan people. From the corner of the room came some cheesy electronic Christmas carols. (WTF??) The woman in front of me almost caught her pants on fire on one of the burning candles on the floor, which people light when they come to make a request of Maximón. Apparently each color signifies a different request -- good crops, healthy baby, good marriage, etc. When it was our turn to approach Maximón, we had to pay extra to take photos and then got rushed along for the next group to move through. Not much in the way of explanation or anything from either the minder or our guide. The statue *was* pretty creepy, with a big white face, black hat, and no legs just funny little feet. Definitely something ya gotta see to believe, even if it is a tourist trap.

Next stop was the big Catholic church further up the hill. This was actually much more interesting, even if we weren´t allowed to take any pics inside. In front, a funeral mass was being conducted and townspeople gathered to pay their respects while the priest intoned prayers and waved incense. Inside, there´s a shrine to Father Rother, an American missionary killed by guerillas whose heart is interred in this church although the rest of him is buried in Oklahoma. All kinds of saints dressed in brilliant fabrics lined the sides of the church, and the entire front wall was covered in wood carvings representing various Bible stories.

We approached the end of the tour, and our little guide waited patiently for his cash. You have to go through this dance where you ask how much, and they say "Oh, it´s a volunteer gig!" And you´re supposed to pay "whatever you think it´s worth." Well, in this case I happened to have some inside information, but when I offered 10Q the little bugger insisted on 100! Do I look stupid? I mentioned that I´d heard 10Q was the going rate, and he insisted that was *just* to see Maximón, and we´d gone to see the church and all... Criminy. I suck at bargaining. I offered him 30, but he wouldn´t settle for less than 50. Feeling like a big fat sucker, I slunk off to find some lunch.

my new friend NicolasI soothed my wounded pride with a lovely meal at El Pescador, which serves black bass fish fresh from the lake. Yummy! And on the boat ride back to San Pedro a friendly old man named Nicolas struck up a conversation and once again I passed some time fascinating a local with tales of my travels. All in Spanish, no less. Spent the rest of the afternoon taking a leisurely dip in the lake and relaxing in the hammock garden at my hotel. Mmmmm, that´s better!

After a quick dinner, I found myself with nothing to do. I could sit in my windowless room (well, there was a window, but I had to close it against the mosquitoes since there was no screen) and try to read by the dim light until my eyes went completely blind. Or I could go out and find something more social to do. Freedom Bar, one of the hotspots of San Pedro, was practically next door to my hotel, so I wandered over there to see what was shaking. The place has some trippy decór, with lots of fluorescent lighting and dark little nooks overlooking the lake. I sat at the bar for a while and nursed a few Cuba Libres, which were shockingly cheap since it was, as the goth Canadian bartender with a bit of a Gina Gershon thing informed me, "la hora de triste." (Hey, I thought it was funny. But that´s what happens when you sit at a bar in a foreign country and the only other people around are a sullen French couple to your right who make no attempt at small talk.) Just as I was about to give up, an engineer from Berkeley who was waiting on a handful of drinks for his friends struck up a conversation. FINALLY! Somebody grasps the concept! He invited me to join the rest of the clan, and I spent the next hour or two engaged in pleasant traveltalk (where you from, what´d you do, where you been, where ya going next) with two other Bay Area engineers and a Polish chick. The cheap drinks flowed for the rest of sad hour, and every once in a while someone would return from the bar with a "space cookie." I didn´t feel much of an effect, but the conversation did seem to get wittier so maybe there was something to it after all. There was some mention of going back to smoke somebody´s stash, which didn´t really appeal, but nobody seemed to be organizing anything so the witty banter continued.

stoner #1 stoners #3 and 4 stoner #2 (this guy is reeeeeally stoned)

Eventually some sort of rap open mic started up, and we all moved toward the dance floor to get a better look. A few minutes later I turned around, and everyone had left. Dude! Ditched by stoners! That´s it, I´ve had enough of this place. Tomorrow it´s on to Xela.

Posted by soniaz at 4:50 PM | Link | 0 comments
02 August 2007
Whatever, minger, your mom works at McDonalds
Hanging with Brits in Antigua

My first chickenbus experience! Not nearly as traumatic as I´d been led to expect -- once again, don´t believe everything you read -- or maybe I´m getting better at this travel thing. Percy helped me find the right bus, headed to Antigua, and I squeezed on with my huge pack. For the uninitiated, chickenbuses are old US schoolbuses, tricked out in bright colors outside and many "God Bless" statements inside. You soon realize why all the god-fearing rhetoric is necessary once the bus starts moving. The driver barrels forward like a mental patient, stopping random to pick up anyone who flags the bus down, even if the vehicle already seems packed to capacity. There´s a minimum of three to a seat -- sometimes four -- and keep in mind that these are seats outfitted for 9-year-old schoolchildren, not full-grown adults and their entire families. The aisles are so narrow that people actually sit suspended *in* them, that is, if the crowd isn´t standing packed into that same aisle. The real fun starts when the bus rockets up the side of a mountain, swinging left to right along violent curves. Everyone hangs on for their lives. And if the bus happens to stop at an intersection, vendors climb aboard offering everything from the daily newspaper to bible stories to "chuchitas." (Never did find out what those were, since nobody ever seems to buy them...)

Good times! Seriously, the most fun you can have for about 50 cents. I think this is a brilliant form of transportation and fully endorse bringing this system to the States. Provided someone can come up with a way for these hulking vehicles to run on some sort of clean-burning renewable fuel.

Anyway, the ride into Antigua was an adventure, and so was getting to my chosen hostel, The Black Cat. Apparently I´d written down the wrong address (I´d spotted a flyer for this place on the board at Gringo Pete´s) and went to the completely opposite side of town. Fortunately Antigua´s not that big, and I eventually found my way to the right place. After settling into my room, a stuffy dorm crammed with four other people, I decided to go out and explore a bit.

Capuchin ruins and gardenscreepy nun mannequinThere seemed to be only a handful of things to see in town, most of them ruins of some sort. Working my way through the ones closest to the hostel, I ended up at Las Capuchinas, a well-preserved convent previously inhabited by Capuchin nuns. The gardens are beautiful, and they´re in the process of restoring parts of it, including the creepy "cells" where the nuns used to live. Parts are blocked off by sinister-looking iron bars, and there are creepalicious mannequin nuns praying in dark corners. Good stuff.

just how big is it?I went back to the Black Cat and planned out my next few days´ activities for a while, and when it got too dark to read (the place was curiously lacking in well-lit nooks, and there was someone sleeping in my room) I went down to the lounge to hang out. Met a interesting quartet of folks -- two Lucys and their friend Dan (all Brits) and a Peace Corps dude named Kody. Funny, funny folks. The Lucys picked Dan up on a bus somewhere in Nicaragua, had been traveling together for several weeks, and had tons of great stories to share. Including the time in Belize when an entire golf cart full of beauty queens rolled by, and Dan insisted they stop so he could have his picture taken with them. And apparently Miss Honduras grabbed his bum. We all had a lot of laughs comparing British and American slang, and learned that there is a series of hand signals to convey the derisive phrase "Whatever, minger, your mom works at McDonalds." Remind me to show you sometime.

nobody knows!We all went out to dinner, and were joined somewhere along the way by some other random Brit named Tristan. Grabbing a big table at Cafe No Sé, we managed to be the loudest group in the place. Kody entertained us with Guatemalan trivia about the upcoming elections, the fact that a mullet is referred to as a "Quetzal," and various hand signals to convey the size of one´s member. And we´ve all learned something today!

 

Posted by soniaz at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments
01 August 2007
Che Guevara, yoga, and Harry Potter
See, Guate City´s not so bad!

Thanks to my fabulous CouchSurfing host, Percy, I had a great two days in Guatemala City. Everything you might ever read or hear about the place instructs you to high-tail it out to Antigua as soon as possible, which is pretty much what everyone does. But since when am I like everyone else?? It´s all about having friends in the right places.

Percy met Bronwen and me at the Ticabus station, and took us to the nearby mall for some lunch. Yes, you read that right, friends and neighbors, I ate at the mall foodcourt! Who´da thunk it?

I give up, write your own caption for this one...Afterwards we went downtown to run some errands (sheeeeeeesh, a trip to the post office is expensive in this country!) and check out the Parque Central. Which was a nice little square surrounded by a huge cathedral and defunct government buildings, with a big fountain in the middle. And lots of goats! Not to mention a very strange display of rubbery... ehm... "marital aids" sitting on a blanket on the sidewalk. You´ll just have to wait till I get the pics uploaded to fully appreciate that one.

Bronwen and Percy are starting a revolution... or just having a beer...We headed across the street to El Portal, a bar supposedly frequented by Che Guevara -- after Motorcycle Diaries and "before all that revolution stuff in Cuba," according to Percy. Coooooooool! It was exactly the sort of dark & smoky hangout you´d expect to find a revolutionary and his Guatemalan mistress, plotting to change the world. After dropping Bronwen off at the airport, we went to another leftist hangout called Las Cien Puertas, which had really cool graffiti on the walls.

This morning Percy brought me along to his yoga class. I don´t know if it was the result of sitting on a bus for two straight days, or because my yoga-Spanish isn´t that great, or what... but that class kicked my butt. It felt great, though! As the ever-wise Janet Wilson said: "Sometimes it´s good to stretch and be stretched." Namaste!

Afterwards I spent a bit of email catch-up time at Percy´s mom´s house, and his housekeeper made us a fab traditional breakfast of eggs, refried beans, and toast. I also got to meet Percy´s mom. She´s very cool, and quite the world traveler. And then we went to see Harry Potter! In Spanish, no less. This was definitely not the way I expected to start my Guatemalan odyssey, but it totally rocked. Thanks, Percy!!

Posted by soniaz at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments
31 July 2007
Taking Red Umbrella to a whole new level
One lonnnnnng day morphs into three

Y´know, I figured it was gonna be a *long* day, I just didn´t realize it was gonna be one of THOSE days...

Up and at ´em at the butt-crack of dawn, I made my way down to the dock to catch my 6am water taxi to Moín. I was dismayed (but not entirely surprised) to hear that there weren´t enough passengers for the early run, and we´d be leaving at 10am instead. Dagger! Not fatal, but it does severely muck up my plans for the day. Not only will I not get to run my various errands in San Jose as planned, but I will be arriving into San Jose just as it´s getting dark. Something I was trying to avoid. Well, there´s nothing I can do about it, and no sense worrying. Might as well make the most of the extra time this morning.

So, with four hours to kill, I scoped out some breakfast, and the only good deal in the otherwise very expensive Tortuguero: bottomless cups of coffee for less than a dollar! Sweeet, things were looking up a tad. Despite the horrendous Muzak offerings in the cafe -- Celine Dion (twice!), Lionel Ritchie, Knights in White Satin, god help us -- I spent some time catching up on my journal and catching a serious caffeine buzz. Next stop, the internet cafe, where I informed Bronwen of my slight change of plans and let her know I´d find an i-caf as soon as I got to San Jose. She was supposed to arrive before me and would be online after 4pm, so everything should fall into place eventually.

While waiting for the 10am boat to depart, I learned that there was a better way to get to San Jose, via another connection through another town. Which of course nobody had told me about. Grrrrrr. Once again, live and learn, there´s nothing much to do about it now. The boat trip back to Moín was unremarkable, although I did strike up a conversation with a friendly Canadian couple who were heading to Puerto Viejo. I managed to put in a plug for Margarita´s Guesthouse, and we had a good laugh about the David Hasselhoff thing.

we arrived at the lovely scenic port of Moín (love the smell of oil refineries in the afternoon! smells like victory!) and just about everyone from the boat hopped into a tourist shuttle headed for Cahuita and Puerto Viejo. The Canadians (never did get their names!) and another girl and I decided to grab a cab into Limón, where we would connect to our respective buses. Only one problem... no cabs to be found. Apparently if you didn´t choose the expensive tourist shuttle, you were on your own. No worries, our intrepid band of four trooped out to the main road and eventually flagged down a cab. It was just the sort of thing one might feel nervous about if one were all alone, but in an impromptu posse, it was an adventure rife with possibility!

I got dropped off first, and, dodging a crumbly-looking homeless woman, made my way into the terminal to buy my bus ticket to San Jose. With fifteen minutes to spare (sweet, again!) I glanced around at the denizens of the terminal. It was mostly the usual suspects -- women with little kids in tow, old guys selling stuff, an Artie Lange lookalike shoveling chips into his sweaty gullet -- nothing too scary. But I was glad not to have to spend any further time in Limón, and I was glad to be leaving the unrelentingly hot and humid and sketchy Caribbean Coast behind.

Got on the bus, and oh look! My assigned seat was next to the Spanish Artie Lange. Fantastic. His terrible aftershave only faintly covered his funk, and the combined smells resembled something like the inside of a rancid paper grocery sack that´s been filled with cheese and left in the sun. Charming accompaniment for the next three hours.

After a quick pitstop in Guápiles, leaving just enough time for the resourceful snack vendors to hop aboard chanting "MangoMangoMango! Jugosaguafríasodaplátanos! Mangomangomango!" we headed up into the mountains, signaling the return to San Jose. And, despite my best intentions to keep it all together, I started to freak myself out with "What´s the Worst Thing That Can Happen?" scenarios. Apparently my little brain can generate LOTS of appalling worst-case scenarios! I´ll spare you the details.

And then we crested the hill and started down into San Jose amid quite possibly the most brilliant sunset yet. The entire sky ws splashed with shades of pink, purple, and orange, and the hills seemed to be on fire in the glow of the setting sun. Truly the best Costa Rica had to offer, even in this most ugly and dangerous of places.

Bronwen keeps her chin up on the awful Nica borderOK, to bring this long story a bit closer to its end... I hopped a cab, found an internet cafe that was still open, got the address to Bronwen´s place, and had the same cab take me there. We hung out for a few hours with her roommate -- both of them were in Costa Rica for a three-month internship at a human rights org -- and tried valiantly to stay awake until our 3am bus left. The next 25+ hours on the Ticabus were spent attempting to sleep, stay warm in the frigid chill, and occasionally hop off and back on the bus at border crossings. The worse was the Costa Rica-Nicaraguan border, where we sat in the bus for about three hours, then waited in line to get our bags checked. When you reach the front of the line you have to hit a button attached to a big stoplight. If it´s green, you can get back on the bus, if it´s red... well, fortunately neither of us had to find out as we both got green. But how frickin´ random is that?!?!

the Dreaded and Troublesome Page 11There was also a somewhat scary moment on the border between Honduras and El Salvador, when the immigration officials couldn´t find the correct stamp in my passport. Now, my passport happens to have a lot of stamps and even some extra pages, but I *know* the guy stamped it at the Nicaraguan border, I saw him do it and so did Bronwen! But they kept flipping around and shaking their heads and saying "This is a big problem!" I thought for sure they were going to ditch me on the El Salvadorean border in the middle of the night. Turns out the miscreant had put a fifth stamp on an already crowded page -- hereinafter known as the Dreaded Page 11 -- which it took three officials to eventually find and not until after several long moments of intense sweating on my part. Never a dull moment! It was small comfort to have a CouchSurfing compatriot along for the ride, if only to tell my story if I never returned to civilzation...

 

Posted by soniaz at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments