Pulpology: Mark & Sonia's Intercontinental Absurdities!

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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.


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