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Guatemala Trip Report - Visit to a Peace Corps son
Guatemala Trip Report - Visit to a Peace Corps son
Guatemala Trip Report - Visit to a Peace Corps son
Guatemala Trip April 1-19, 1999
It was wonderful to have Ryan meet us at the Guatemala City airport after we went through customs without any inspection of our luggage. We had wandered around a bit before we found him. As we were heading for a taxi, he ran into a PCV friend, Julie, who had seen him in a taxi in Honduras earlier in the week where he had gone scuba diving. He had not seen her there.
Ryan knew his chances of getting a cheap taxi wouldn't be as good if they saw us and our bags, so he went out to negotiate by himself, while I sprawled down on top of the bags on the floor--airports in 3rd world countries having no benches like Americans take for granted at home. This reminded me much of the Nairobi airport in Kenya where I remember doing the same thing!
Soon we were leaving the airport in the taxi on a wild ride into Zone 1--the sketchiest part of Guatemala City to the Pasada Oslo Hotel where the PCV's stay. It was cheap ($2 a piece) seemed clean with the toilet outside and up a few steps. We learned right away that you never put toilet paper in the toilet--the sewer systems in Guatemala are not able to handle paper, so there's always a receptacle for any paper you use beside the toilets! Occasionally we saw a sign in a bathroom, but it was just taken for granted that no one ever puts paper in toilets!
At the hotel we met Jen, the volunteer from S. Dakota, whose 'Care Package' we had brought down with us. She had a great sense of humor and we had lots of laughs sitting around on the bed and eating mini Snickers bars before we went out for a bite of dinner.
The main trick we quickly discovered upon leaving the hotel was to avoid stepping into holes, tripping over bricks and cobblestones laying around haphazardly on the sidewalks and streets. You had to keep your eye on the ground constantly. We were quite conscious of this 'sketchy' (as Ryan called it) area--prostitutes on the corners and young fellows without much to do who seemed to be waiting for an opportunity to 'snatch and run'! We followed Ryan to a place he knew about, but it was closed, so we ended up just going into a 'little hole in the wall restaurant', and made selections from the pots of hot food at the front of the store. We were eager to try the corn tortillas we'd heard so much about, chose rice, grilled sausage and pork; and there was also chicken and beef. Ryan ate a typical raw grated cabbage and carrot salad with radish and tomato slices, that had been marinated. We chose the cooked beets, not anxious to get dysentery right at the start. Had soda pop for beverage, and there was bottled water. It was interesting to watch people in this quite 'untouristy' place! The food was not highly spiced and was really cheap!
Next morning we were awakened by the taxi driver at 5:00 a.m. who whisked us to the airport to catch our plane to Tikal. However - he failed to give us our tickets or any paperwork which the tour operator had sent for us, so we sat around waiting for Tikal Jets to open, then discovered that their planes left from another place at the far side of the airport!. We loaded ourselves into a taxi and shelled out 30 quetzals ($4) to get around to the place where the plane was leaving. After a lot of discussion and not finding our names on anything, we were eventually able to get out on an 8:30 flight to Tikal. The plane landed at Flores where we were then shuttled to Tikal. We never did hook up with our tour, altho Tikal Inn did have our names down for that evening so we had a place to stay in the park that night, fortunately. Our package was supposed to include a guide, but Ryan negotiated with a man and we ended up with a good Guatemalan guide who spoke marginal English so Ryan did a lot of translation for us. The guide not only showed us through the massive Mayan ruins but was good spotting and explaining the flora and fauna as well. We saw a group of coatamundis with their long, upright tails foraging around under the leaves on the jungle floor--related, I'm sure, to raccoons. There was a gray fox with something in his mouth, a strange large rodent called a cotusa, spider monkeys and howler monkeys, not to mention a handsome pair of great currasows, ocellated turkeys and many other interesting birds (listed at the end). We invited our guide to eat lunch with us which he did.
It was really hot and humid, so Ryan and Bob headed back to take a dip in the hotel pool (and catch a few
z's). It was getting close to closing time when Ryan finally decided to go find "Mondo Perdito" (lost world)--part of the ruins we did not have time to see with the guide. It got quite dark on him before he could get to the clearing he was heading for. Now totally lost in the jungle (he'd taken a "shortcut" to save some time) he thought he was on the trail back to camp, but after about 10 minutes he knew he was not on the right path, so turned around. It was pitch black by then, no signs and he eventually found a caretaker's house. The man gave him only vague directions how to get back, and upon leaving his place, Ryan became hopelessly lost again! After going a long way down a dirt road, he realized it was not right so turned around. It was pitch black and he was blind without his prescription sunglasses. H took what looked like a little side trail, but he sensed a hole or drop-off ahead. He had no flashlight or matches, but did have his camera with one flash left, so he used the flash to illuminate the trail. He saw enough of the terrain to get around the hole and eventually he found his way back to the hotel a couple hours after nightfall. We were hugely relieved. We had been wondering at what point we should notify someone for help. Seems things are never quite normal with Ryan!
It was wonderful to be able to stay in the park! With Ryan back we went next door for dinner to the Jaguar Inn where the power shuts down at 9:30. Everyone sat around and continued what they were doing--one young couple were playing cards, another gentleman was reading--all by candlelight. We first had liquados there--enormously wonderful fruit drinks made with pureed guavas, pineapple, banana or melon) mixed with powdered milk and crushed ice. Like Bob said, sitting there separated by a screen from the dark jungle with all it's interesting night sounds by candlelight--it was like something out of Hemmingway!
Next morning Ryan and I got up at 5:30 when it was first getting light and we headed up the trail to the ruins, stopping to check out all the birds along the way. The lizards (called Jesus lizards for the peculiar way they stand upright when they run and can actually run across water) were great fun to watch--one was at least 4' long! Ryan and I discovered a wonderful toucan sitting high in one of the trees. I think what impressed us both the most, however, were the howler monkeys! We scrambled down a ravine behind one of the Mayan temples and stood beneath a couple of tall trees where one family group was screaming at another. Our presence didn't seem to upset them in the least because they were so worked up with each other. Their mouths formed perfect little 'squares' and they sounded so fierce--more like leopards growling and roaring than monkeys! I could not get that strange sound out of my head for hours afterwards.
When we finished birding, Ryan went back to take a dip and then took a nap. I went over to the tour center and spoke with a fellow who was willing to be a bird guide when another group showed up. I decided not to use him--he didn't seem to know what any of the smaller birds were and his English wasn't very good--seemed like I might be able to figure stuff out on my own. So I birded until it got too hot and things quit moving. That evening I met a British birder and he had seen entirely different things than I had--convincing me that there are truly a LOT of different bird species at Tikal. He was excited about the things I'd seen that he had not. He helped me figure out the limpkin which was not in my field guide but in the N. American field guide which I did not bring with me. (Limpkins are found in Florida where I have never birded.)
It was very hot by noon when we climbed back into the shuttle to Flores. While we were sitting in the HOT airport at Flores and Bob and Ryan went for rum and raisin ice cream cones, I looked down and found a wad of quetzal notes ($4 worth) on the ground beside my seat! That was the beginning of money I found on this trip! We eventually caught the Tikal Jet back to Guatemala City. At first there was no one to pick us up at the airport, then 2 taxi drivers seemed to have our name--one from the Elizabeth Bell Tour Company that we never did hook up with, and one from the Radisson Hotel where we would be staying in Antigua. We never did figure that one out. Well, the Elizabeth Bell Tours deal had done nothing for us so we took the Radisson van.
Later from Antigua Bob contacted the Elizabeth Bell ("Antigua Tours") tour people to determine what went wrong and made sure the Tikal Inn wasn't paid for twice--by the tour company because we paid them when we left. After introducing himself to the Antigua Tours employee on duty, there was not so much as an apology, but the statement that we were liable to pay for part of the expense even though they had left us stranded at the airport. Needless to say Bob got a little hot in denying any liability. Come to find out later, they had changed the airline from Tikal Jets to Mayan Air - without bothering to tell us! If it were not for Ryan who could communicate in Spanish, we would have been 2 seriously stranded tourists. Oh well. We ended up seeing and doing everything just fine by ourselves - on the busiest weekend of the year!.
The ride from the airport into Antigua was rather slow because the Easter week (Semana Santa) were winding down and we saw bits and pieces of the processions which involved many people carrying large floats containing statues from the cathedrals marching down the streets--across intricately designed 'carpets' of sawdust! Men in black robes were walking along swinging containers of incense, and throngs of people were in the streets. Many streets were completely blocked and it took forever to wind our way through colorful Antigua to our hotel, but we had a good vantage point from which to see a lot of the festivities. There were many vendors selling 'street food' that we could nearly reach out from the windows of the shuttle and grab on the street corners!
We checked in at the Antigua Radisson where Bob and I had a suite to ourselves that included a living area with fireplace and balcony with table and chairs, then a bedroom off of that with bathroom and raised tub. We wouldn't have normally chosen the Radisson, but we had time share points to burn, so we forced ourselves to accept it in all its plushness. There was supposed to be another bed for Ryan, but lacking one, he was given his own room several doors down the hall--with it's own bathroom, TV and 2 queen-size beds! He assumed it was his responsibility to keep the room fully utilized, and with all the PCV's coming and going, he never stayed in his room alone. Some nights it was two, sometimes 3 (or more?) fellows shared the facilities. There were always PCV's in Antigua--it was not far from the training center where groups come for the week for seminars--and he always knew each night where the 'group' would be hanging out. So he had lots of fun bringing these kids over to share in the pool, tennis court, sauna and exercise room.
After we got settled in our respective rooms we went down to check out an elaborate buffet down in the hotel courtyard complete with live entertainment, and had dinner there outdoors on that warm, balmy Saturday-before-Easter evening.
Monday we rode into Guate on our first chicken bus and visited the Peace Corps office. We got to meet Sal, Ryan's local boss who has been very pleased with Ryan's work in his mountain village. Then we met Charlie, the head of Peace Corps/Guatemala and had a nice visit with him. Ryan showed us the book of Peace Corps Volunteers since the beginning of Peace Corps' existence, and found both Bob's and my names. Even though I wasn't in Peace Corps, I had my own line! Guess they thought I hung out with Bob enough in Morocco that I qualified as a PCV!?
Tuesday we enjoyed exploring Antigua. I had developed a blister wearing my tennis shoes (!) doing all the scrambling over big rocks in the ruins at Tikal, so I switched to sandals. I just HAD to heal up for the quetzal hike Ryan had arranged for the following week at Doug Booth's site--one of Ryan's friends who shared his room in Antigua.
Walking on the cobblestone streets was not easy, and the sidewalks were very narrow. You had to be alert to avoid running into the wrought iron grillwork over the windows of houses that jutted out over the narrow sidewalks. There's always lots of walking in the streets, hoping you don't collide with a car!
In the afternoon Bob and Ryan returned to the hotel and I stayed down at Parque Central to listen to the little men in dark suits (in spite of the heat) playing the marimba under the balcony. In addition to the music, there were very tall (2 or 3 times the height of the average Guatemalan) 'people' with large heads made from paper maché and bodies which consisted of a wooden frame covered with cloth. There were long arms which would swing to and fro dangling from the square shoulders, and men would climb inside the fabric-covered frames, and you could see their bare feet as they danced to the marimba music over the cobblestones. These giant figures looked so ridiculous! I thoroughly enjoyed the low chuckles of this little Guatemalan girl who stood right next to the step where I was sitting. She was so engrossed in these huge figures she was completely oblivious to my watching her! Such simple pleasures! The music was wonderful and I cherished the 'foreignness' of it all so much that pleasant afternoon.
Something seemed to be happening every evening in this plaza which had a large colonial cathedral at one end and a big municipal building and another side as they all do. Guatemalans love fireworks, and we watched in amazement several evenings as one old man kept letting off 4 inch thick bottle-rockets that are totally illegal in the States! Another time, wires had been strung up horizontally just over our heads across all 4 sides of the plaza, and at a certain time, someone lit the first fuse. One would shoot down to the end, smash into the wooden frame where it would ignite the next fuse and the next one would shoot off horizontally down to the 2nd corner, which was repeated a 3rd and 4th time, going around the square many, many times! It was quite spectacular watching how fast they went. We're used to fireworks going straight up. Constrained to project on their sides was simply amazing! Then someone climbed into a small wooden frame which had bulls' horns simulated on one end, and horizontal rows of fire crackers along the side. He'd run through the crowds of shrieking people as these things would discharge. Seemed like a pretty risky thing to us, but they seemed to enjoy living dangerously!
Bob found several internet places--cyber cafes--where he could send and receive e-mail just off the plaza. I enjoyed doing the 'shops' and bought several hand-woven tapestries in Antigua. The little Mayan women could speak a few words of English and had such a sweet soft way of imploring you to buy their hand-woven articles, saying, "I made this for you; this good for you" etc. If you paid too much interest they would follow you for blocks, I quickly found out!
On Wednesday Ryan and I took the chicken bus (never did see a chicken on the roof, but there was usually big, net bags of produce) to Guatemala City where we enjoyed the zoo and botanical garden. The zoo was very well laid out--first an African Savannah section--we were quite impressed with the natural-looking enclosures. I was particularly interested in the indigenous animals. We loved watching the feeding of the coatamundis, the hippo and loved looking at the variety of cats which live in the jungles of Guatemala and Central America. There were tapirs and other pig-like rodents, like tepezcuintles and a number of ferret/weasel type creatures who were very active. Of course, the monkeys are always wonderful, and we thoroughly enjoyed everything!
The botanical garden held many treasures, but I didn't find Latin names, only Spanish, so I really didn't learn what things were. While I'm on the subject, I did enjoy 'meeting' the Guatemalan national tree the ceiba or kapok--sacred tree of the Maya. We learned to recognize it by it's flared trunk down by it's broad base. We enjoyed seeing how huge avocado trees become, and saw many mangoes loaded with fruit, papayas, tamarind trees, etc.
Riding the chicken bus is a whole story in itself. When you get to your destination you kind of feel like a survivor! Changing buses can be tricky. The ayudantes all beckon you to get on their bus; it's done quickly through the back door, which means you climb up a ladder, and sometimes the bus has standing room only. It's expected that three will be on a seat, and if you happen to be the third one in, you hope to be able to lean against the third person in the seat across the aisle so you have some support, because you might only have one cheek on the seat. Mostly, there are no fat Guatemalans, so you're ok unless your spouse and son and yourself are all big people and are trying to sit together in a seat designed for 2 originally. We would always sit separately when we had the chance!
The buses are old school buses from the States, with beefed up engines, air horns and lots of decorations. Most say something across the top of the front windshield like "God will save us", "Jehovah is my God", "Jesus is King", in Spanish. The ayudantes are a study in themselves. (Ayuda means help. We learned to say in Spanish, "Necesito ayuda" in class (I need help!)). These wiry guys jump off while the bus is still moving and motion for passengers to get on. They absolutely NEVER get back on themselves unless the bus is rolling again. To let the driver know when everybody's on, they'll slap the side of the bus and then they'll run alongside the moving bus and hop on. One time we never saw the ayudante get back on and as the bus picked up speed Bob saw him climb down from the roof where'd secured someone's bundle! Then, even tho there are three on each seat and the aisle is packed, he'll walk down the aisle collecting everyone's fare. He has a wad of paper money in his hand and is very good and quick at making change. They are really fascinating to watch. Several of Ryan's friends want to come back to Guatemala when they've finished Peace Corps and be ayudantes! I'm sure they must be joking!!
Bob bonked his head real good several times getting in and out the rear doors. But to never ride a chicken bus in Guatemala would be to miss a huge part of Guatemalan life! The whole first week we held off getting a car and took chicken buses wherever we wanted to go while we were staying at the Radisson.
Ryan took us to Doña Louisa and the Contessa--two excellent restaurants we returned to several times. They are Peace Corps and expatriate hang-outs and you always hear English being spoken. Then we checked out some of these magnificent restored colonial restaurants/inns behind walls several feet thick--into patios and courtyards light with candles on wrought iron stands, beautiful wrought iron grillwork, vines, and blooming plants, sometimes large trees all lit up with ground lighting--just gorgeous places often with fountains, beautiful tile, arched hallways that led off into other magnificent rooms, etc. Of course, you need the warm, dry climate to enjoy this style of architecture, we decided after considering how we could put an enclosed courtyard off of one corner of our new house! Might not be so romantic in the rain!
Bob and I also visited one of the many old cathedrals, the church and convent of Santa Clara ruins with it's underground cavernous rooms, narrow hallways, cloisters, grand courtyards and gardens which gave the nuns plenty of privacy, etc. This was just one of many old, HUGE cathedrals in Antigua, having been built in 1699.
Another day we took the chicken bus to Quetzaltenango which is called Xela (pronounced shayla) and went through it's large, colorful market where I bought several more hand woven blankets. Had lunch in a typical little comidor upstairs overlooking the colorful vegetable market. There was an active, interesting cathedral where people were burning incense and the smoke from it sort of got to me.
Before we knew it, it was Saturday morning, and the little Daihatsu Ryan had lined up for us to rent the day we went to Guate to the zoo and botanical gardens was delivered to the Radisson. Ryan was diligent in explaining the 'rules' of the road down there! On the way up into the western highlands to his site we visited Panajachel and its many shops and street stalls, at the top of Lake Atitlan. We were disappointed that it was a hazy day and visibility of this lake which was supposed to be so beautiful was poor.
Ryan decided to take us to some hot springs at Zunil, and we drove and drove on back roads, climbing up into a cloud forest. We arrived late (after 6pm) and the gate was closed. However that did not discourage Ryan who told us it was closed the last time he was there, but that he had just climbed over and gone up to the restaurant. While we were waiting for someone to open the gate, we were serenaded by the most exotic birdsong we had ever heard. It turned out to be a brown-backed solitaire sitting high in a tree, in full view, singing these flute-like notes--the most incredible, long beautiful song.
Ryan came back with good news--they had room for us and he had ordered dinner for us. Someone came to open the gate and by the time we walked up to the restaurant, our plates were served at the table by one of the pools of steaming water. It was the usual--scrambled eggs, refried beans, tortillas and fried plantains. We changed into our swimsuits and by flashlight went to a lower pool that Ryan knew about. We had it all to ourselves under the stars and we basked in this delicious hot water! At the back side of the pool where it ran down over the rocks the water was very hot, but only on the surface--it was totally pleasant and we stayed out there quite a while. Because it hadn't rained in quite a while, it was hotter than when Ryan had been there previously, in the rainy season. Back in the kinda clammy room, Bob built a fire in the fireplace, and we sat on the ends of our beds and warmed ourselves up before crashing for the night.
Next morning we were awakened by a poorwill-type bird calling just outside our bungalow. I could do no more sleeping after that, grabbed the binoculars and saw some incredible birds at daybreak. There was a deep ravine just beside the bungalows so I could see birds in the tops of the trees at eye level. The highlights were the pink-headed warbler who was making a nest near the ground, the cinnamon flower-piercer and the blue-throated motmot, and the common bush-tanager which was more like a chickadee in size!
On to Ryan's village, past San Marcos, through Conception Tutuapa, climbing, climbing, past terraced, neat little patches of farmlands on hillsides and in valleys, we drove. We were impressed with the number of trees that WERE still standing. We had pictures of these hills all being totally denuded. In many cases, all the lower limbs were missing from the pines and cypress trees, and we saw people walking with huge bundles of sticks on their backs--fuel for their planchas, no doubt.
We stopped at Jen's house, and she invited us in. There was a peculiar odor to her rather Spartan one-room house, with hammock strung across from one side to the other. We didn't discuss it, but later it came out--the landlord keeps dried fish stored under the wood floor! We tried to befriend her dog, but it stayed under the bed the whole time! It had gotten out and killed someone's chickens and turkeys--she was not very happy about that. I am surprised this does not happen more often with the number of half-starved dogs, and the free-roaming poultry everywhere.
She came along with us for a spaghetti dinner at Ryan's place--a few miles farther up the road. We had fun preparing the meal and eating together in Ryan's simple one-room, windowless adobe house. The outhouse was out back, no indoor water, but he brings in inside in a large pot which he has suspended from the ceiling. He cooks over the 3-burner PC issue gas stove, and washes dishes outside in his pila--a cement 3-compartment sink. He soaks things first before washing them using this strange little ball of grainy soap he keeps in a plastic dish on the roof of his outhouse!
The little garden plot in his backyard was full of dry corn stubble, with bits of plastic and other garbage lying about. I wanted to pick it up and tidy things up a bit, but there was no basureros (dumpsters) so what would be the point? On one occasion after eating street food, I walked around with some litter, hoping to find a receptacle, to no avail and eventually ended up dumping it in the ditch with all the other garbage like everyone else does. Once in a while people sweep up this stuff and burn it in little piles--all this plastic going up into the atmosphere seemed not too healthy. Maybe its better to just let it fly about.
I developed a bad cough and needed to rest once we got to Ryan's side (at 10,000 ft.)--actually got the chills and had a fever, I'm sure. It was very disappointing to have to spend time in bed when there were so many homes of Ryan's indigenous families who wanted to meet his 'padres'. Bob went with him one day, and by the next day I we feeling much better, and made it to 5 or 6 different homes of some of the sweetest people who obviously enjoy Ryan very much! He even took us to meet the mayor of the village--we interrupted a meeting they were having in this dark, crude room. Each man had a brass-tipped wooden stick on the table--their symbol of authority, and the mayor made a very flowery speech (Ryan translated some of it) about how welcome we were to his village and their country, and how much they appreciated the work Ryan was doing there, and he told Ryan many places in Guatemala we should see while we were there, etc. etc. It was very interesting!
The one very humble place that will forever stand out in our minds was owned by a simple farmer and his wife whom Ryan has worked with. We drove to it on a walking trail--I seriously doubt a car had ever driven there before. The farmer and his nephew were very friendly and showed us everything--all their mango and guava trees, their one-room adobe hut with thatched roof where they had tried cobs of corn stored over the ceiling that you could see through the slats. His wife had a fire on the dirt floor where she was preparing to make their tortillas. There was no chimney--the smoke had to escape through holes under the roof. She gathered her water in plastic buckets from a spring at the bottom of the hill--which had been grazed closely by sheep, turkeys, chickens, etc. There was another little water hole nearby that they used for washing and bathing--they pointed out how they were separate! With their many shy little grandchildren running about, they seemed to be happy people in their little isolated valley. When I pulled out my binoculars to check on some birds in the nearby trees, they were not too shy to ask how much they cost. I felt guilty telling them the truth which would probably amount to more money than this family would see in years...
Ryan got a message on his pager that Cory, wanted us to come to his site at Santo Tomas a day earlier than they had originally planned, so that cut us down to only 2 days at Ryan's village. So off we headed going out of Aldea Tutuapa on a back road that was not even on the map! We got down and across the river okay, then had a paved road for a few miles into Huehuetenango where Ryan stopped to see another PCV friend. From there we headed due east on highway 7w across Quiché. Ryan had heard that some people have experienced difficulty (roadblocks and holdups of truckers hauling coffee are not uncommon) on this road, so we pulled over and hid some our money in the transmission boot before proceeding on! It was an incredibly rough road--rocky in some places, dirt for the most part after the first 1/2 hour of pavement ran out! We traveled for 11 hours in very remote country, yet there would be little farms as far as you could see up and down the steep hillsides--eaking out an existence wherever they could plant a little field of corn.