Pulpology: Mark & Sonia's Intercontinental Absurdities!

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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.


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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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


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