Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Past Couple of Weeks

Besides lounging by the lakeside, I´ve had a pretty active couple of weeks. First I swam in a hot waterfall in Rio Dulce. It was really cool...a hot spring came out of the mountain, gathered in little hot-tub-like pools and then spilled over a small cliff as a waterfall, mixing with the natural (cool) stream. You could sit in the pools above, swim in the cool stream or swim up to the falls where the two met.

After that I came back to Antigua and worked for two days with a volunteer group digging out a town where many houses are still drying out from being flooded with mud up to four feet high during Hurricane Stan. I saw a sign in my hostel which said just to show up, so I did, expecting to find other tourists, but instead it was just me and a gang of 14-16-year-old boys, part of a summer volunteer program, who spent their days wrestling, whistling and yelling out to passing girls, and also doing some work. They were really sweet and funny, and if I could have understood any of what they were saying, I´m sure I could have picked up some new colorful slang. Then I went to the lake, where I helped out for a few days at a program to give breakfast and lunch to the kids in San Marcos, many of whose families are still suffering after the flooding there.

Yesterday, I was in Quetzaltenango, usually called by its Mayan name, Xela (pronounced Shay-la). I went to see one of the most interesting things I´ve seen here: San Simon, the Mayan Saint, kind of a mix of Catholic and Mayan traditions, but definitely unique to the highlands of Guatemala. I put a lot of notes on the picture I took (for which I was charged $1.25) so you can click on it to learn a little more.

San Simon

Friday, November 25, 2005

Día de Dar Gracias

Yesterday was the sixth Thanksgiving (out of 29) that I have spent abroad. Here´s a recap:

1996: Aix-en-Provence, France. Thanksgiving a la Francaise with the other members of my study abroad program. I don´t remember what we ate but I´m sure there was turkey (dinde).

2001: Amsterdam, Holland. A gathering of American colleagues, catered by our local Canadian resident chef and definitely featuring a big turkey (kalkoen). Hosted by the company president, who told me during dinner, "Don´t worry Jess, we´re not moving to Basel."

2002: Lucerne, Switzerland. One year later, we are indeed not in Basel, but in Lucerne, after the company announced in April that it would move to Switzerland. Dinner with a couple of friends at a local restaurant (no turkey), followed by fresh-baked apple crumble at my (still only partly furnished) house.

2003: Queensland, Australia. I don´t remember the name of the town where I stayed, but I hadn´t met anyone in my hostel so I went to the local pub for a hamburger and a beer (no turkey) and chatted with a retired Dutch couple. My first Thanksgiving without other Americans.

2004: Lucerne, Switzerland. On the eve of my departure, my friend Susana invited me over for dinner. It wasn´t until I was helping her fry up potatoes that I remembered it was Thanksgiving. Luckily, we were having a roast chicken, so it was almost like turkey (Truthahn).

2005: San Marcos la Laguna, Guatemala. Back on Lago Atitlán, I´m in a small village filled with places to meditate, do yoga, have a massage or other holistic alternative treatments like Reiki or Indian head massage. Knowing this, it´s not surprising that this was my first vegetarian Thanksgiving. But at least there were mashed potatoes, and some nice people from Switzerland, France, the U.S and El Salvador.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Colors, Caves and Coffee

I´m up in the highlands of Guatemala, in the town of Cobán (not to be confused with Copán in Honduras). Yesterday was a long day: I got up at 5:30 to catch a bus to Semuc Champey, nestled in the hills, where there are caves to be explored and swimming holes to dive into. I was confused by the lack of tourists in Cobán, as supposedly it´s the common stopping point on the way to the Mayan ruins at Tikal. I saw very few in town and none on the bus, leaving me to wonder if I´d be all by myself out there. But when I arrived, there they all were, having spent the night in the quaint village of Lanquin, or in Semuc itself. I even caught up with four people I´d met in other parts of Guatemala. I missed the boat on that one: it would have been much nicer and more relaxed if I´d stayed out there instead of doing it as a day trip. Oh well. The visit to the caves was lots of fun, and absolutely insane--the kind of thing you´d never find in other (perhaps more safety-conscious) places. We went in wearing only our bathing suits and old pairs of Keds handed to us for the occasion, with a candle for light. These we tried to keep lit as we walked, climbed and swam our way through an intricate, and very dark, network of water-filled caves. We saw some bats and stalactites but mostly just followed our guide, who, luckily, knew exactly where to find all the foot- and hand-holds. At the end, with only a few rudimentary instructions he shouted in Spanish (which some in the group didn´t understand) we had to slide on a rushing waterfall through a narrow hole into a little pit, and from there feel our way under a rock wall and out the other side! It was cold in there and I was shivering by the end and had bits of wax dripped on my arms, and several of us had scrapes on our legs or bumps on our heads from unexpected underwater or overhead rocks, but it was lots of fun overall!

Unfortunately (but typically) I forgot a t-shirt in Semuc, the only long-sleeved one I have, so I had to wait for it to come in on a bus today, so I had time to fully explore Cobán. I visited a very interesting Mayan museum, a hilltop church, a coffee plantation (where my free cup at the end came with Coffeemate instant non-dairy creamer, which would seem like sacrelige if it wasn´t so absolutely normal here) and an orchid farm. At the orchid farm, I thought there were very few in bloom, but then met one of the caretakers who began to show me some of the varieties of tiny orchids, some of which could fit easily underneath my smallest fingernail, and which are so small that only the tiniest of insects can get inside to drink the nectar. My shirt was delivered this evening by a Swiss-Australian couple I´ve met in several places so far, and we will be continuing on to Rio Dulce tomorrow together. (Also, they said that today a German guy bashed his head during the cave tour and had to get stitches!)

Click on the White Nun orchid (Guatemala´s National Flower) for more photos:
White Nun Orchid

This past Sunday, I visited the country´s largest indigenous crafts market in Chichicastenango (usually called Chichi for good reason). As I think I´ve well established, I love a good market and I wasn´t disappointed. This one was pretty congested and chaotic but had lots of beautiful goods for sale and colors everywhere: on the fabrics for sale, the Mayan masks, the tablecloths, bedspreads, clothing, bags and various carved wooden objects. It was a successful day, I´d say my Christmas shopping is off to a good start.

Click on this lady for more market photos:
Chichi Woman

Thursday, November 10, 2005

First Week in Guatemala

Market in front of ruined church, Antigua Locals at Lago Atitlan

I got to Guatemala about a week ago and have visited two of the top tourist spots. Antigua, an old colonial city about an hour or so from Guatemala City, is a beautiful place, full of colorful buildings, old churches, great restaurants and cozy cafés. It´s a definite magnet for tourists, and it was nice to hang out there for a while, meeting people, seeing some movies, eating bagels with cream cheese and basically hanging out. On Monday I went with a group and we hiked up Pacaya Volcano, which is active--so active that we could see the glow of lava when we peered over the edge of the crater at the top, felt the heat on our faces and were occasionally choked by sulphurous fumes when the wind blew in our direction. One man in the group had hiked the volcano two years ago and he said there was a whole section at the top which wasn´t there then--the volcano has spit out enough lava in the past few years to add about 15 or 20 feet to its height.

As opposed to the rest of Central America, here in Guatemala there is a sizeable population of indigenous people (Mayans) who dress in traditional clothes, speak Mayan and maintain some of their cultural traditions. It was sort of strange to suddenly arrive in a place and find people in colorful clothing, women carrying babies in cloth on their backs, and other sights which remind me more of parts of South America than of the countries right next door. Lake Atitlan, where I am now, is dominated by Mayan communities and as a result it is a really colorful, beautiful place. The lake itself is gorgeous, surrounded by mountains and volcanos, and the towns are full of women in predominantly blue and purple clothes, with hair ornaments and fancy belts, and men in cowboy-type hats and beautiful embroidered three-quarter-length pants. The amount of handicrafts, clothing and souvenirs for sale is overwhelming and extremely tempting. I might come home with an entirely new wardrobe if I stay here much longer.

Lake Atitlan was one of the areas hardest hit by the landslides after Hurricane Stan. I rented a boat on Tuesday with some other travellers and cruised around the lake visiting some of the smaller towns and enjoying the beautiful weather. All around us we could see muddy streaks in the mountaintops of sections of forest which had been washed out. While most of the villages have cleaned up and are getting back to normal, there are some which were completely buried (along with their residents) and have disappeared off the map. I´ve been trying to find a way to help out with the recovery effort, as many travellers have, by cleaning or painting schools or hospitals or doing whatever is necessary, but I don´t seem to be looking in the right places and haven´t found any opportunities yet.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

My First Mayans

Mayan Sculpture

Today I visited what will probably be the first of many Mayan sites. This site had several pyramids and some stelae (monument-type stones) carved with symbolic hieroglyphics. I learned a little bit about the ancient city of Copan (which died out due to overpopulation and undernourishment in the 8th century) and a bit about the Mayans. The first interesting thing I learned is that Mayan Rulers had very interesting names. The 11 known names of the 16 rulers at Copan are: Blue Quetzal Macaw, Mat Head, Cu-Ix, Waterlily Jaguar, Moon Jaguar, Butz Chan, Smoke Jaguar, 18 Rabbit, Smoke Monkey, Smoke Shell and New Dawn. A quick Google search shows that there is no Mayan Name Generator out there (an obvious missing piece of essential internet tools). So we will have to make up our own. Mine's Cloud Puma. What's yours?

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Riding the Chicken Bus

I finally made it to Gracias on Monday evening. The original name of the town is Gracias a Dios, which is an appropriate name for a town which took me 13 hours to reach, the last two of which were spent in the rain and cold in the back of a pickup truck with six other weary travellers. Transportation throughout Central America is often in what is lovingly referred to by backpackers as chicken buses. These are retired US school buses fitted with luggage racks and bars on the ceiling to be held by the people who ride standing up. Drivers take on passengers regardless of how full the bus already is, so it can be a pretty cramped ride, and it is always a bouncy and usually uncomfortable one (especially if you wind up in the seat with the tire hump--remember that from your school days?) I suppose they are called chicken buses because in these, as opposed to in regular, coach-type buses, you can bring anything on it that you need to transport. I shared bus space with many a chicken in South America, but as yet I haven´t actually seen any on chicken buses. I have seen sacks of rice, beans, coconuts, coffee, oranges, and other foods, but no animals as yet. I´m sure it´s just a matter of time.

So, i took buses from Danlí to Tegucigalpa to La Esperanza and to San Juan, then along with everybody else, grabbed the next passing pickup to Gracias. It wasn´t what I was expecting, but apparently there are only a couple of actual buses per day that go there, and the rest of the time everyone just hitches. As we were (finally) pulling into Gracias, we came to the site of an accident: another truck had hit and killed a very large cow, which was lying in the road. We stopped, our driver got out and there was much discussion of whether or not they could still use the cow´s meat, and whether the cow´s owner had to pay for the damage to the truck, or the truck´s owner had to pay for the cow. There was no debate over how to remove the cow from the road, which to me seemed the greatest mystery of all.

Yesterday, after a well-deserved long night´s sleep, I went with some people I had met at dinner to the nearby national park for a hike. The park is in the cloud forest, and on days with particularly bad weather (like yesterday) the entire view is of cloud. So where on our map it said "beautiful views" or "view of waterfall" we just saw white. But it was a good hike anyway, and nice to get some exercise after being pretty lazy for a couple of weeks. Today I took a few more chicken buses and finally arrived this evening at Copán Ruinas, the town nearest the ruins of the Mayan city of Copán. I´ll visit the ruins tomorrow and then wander around the town to see what it has to offer.