Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Xela in the Rearview

Someday I'm gonna leave this dirty little town
Where the talk is cheap on the dirty little streets
And the trees are dying underneath the sky thats purple and brown
You can't drink the water can't breath the air
If you go out at all well you better take care
People packin' heat on the mean old streets of this dirty little town
          Kieran Kane  (Steve Earle/Lucinda Williams)

Seriously, I love Xela, my wifes first visit was an unqualified success (she'd like to return) and I don't want to be like the folks who move to my little corner of Pennsylvania thinking its wonderful and then immediately want to change everything BUT everytime I watch a gay caballero dump garbage from their car to the calle I wonder if there's any concept of civic pride amongst the average citizens of Latin America.  Today it was a guy in his guard uniform casually dropping his soda can at arms length from his buddies Honda as they rolled by the bus station.  From Puerto Rico, to The Dominican Republic, Honduras to Guatemala everyplace I've visited has the same FU attitude towards crapping in their neighbors and their own backyard.  My first visit to Xela, two years ago, the kids at El Mundo organized a Cero Baul clean-up.  While I didn't go check I'm guessing it was not a permanent solution.  Another possible project for those energetic evangelicals perhaps.

Puerto Barrios has a nice airport that doesn't have any flights in or out, ditto Xela.  The bus to Puerto Barrios is 6hrs and $13 bucks for what was a 35 minute $40 flight at one time.  While I was out touring with taxista Manuel we were stopped at a government checkpoint near the Honduran border.  When he told the PNC (scary big gun toting quasi military) officers that I was a tourist from the USA they practically rolled out a red carpet. They value our limited interest in their beautiful country very highly.  Which doesn't mean you don't need to check your restaurant/bar tab but the welcome mat is out.

Speaking of bus travel I learned first-hand the difference between first-class and direct.  Comparing schedules I thought that the 1:00pm Transportes Galgos would get me to the capital a couple hours earlier than the 3:30 Linea Dorada (before dark).  Wrong-o!  The lightly populated old greyhound (love that they use the old logo as well,   do not believe the picture of the bus     http://www.transgalgosinter.com.gt/ ) pulled out of the Rodolfo Robles station about 1:20 and proceeded to Minerva to round up more passengers, followed by stops at Quatro Caminos, Los Encuentros, and everyplace else anyone could be persuaded to climb aboard.  I think we beat the 3:30 LD by 40 minutes however I did save Q20.

In the hard way to make a living department.  A handsome, ambitious guatemalteco, complete with sample case, climbed aboard our old hound in the middle of nowhere and after briefly conferring with  piloto and ayudante proceeded to deliver a sales pitch for some miracle healing herb he had available for purchase.  I thought at first he was speaking allegorically and would eventually get around to a little soul saving but not the case.  Recipe books were also available to help get more of the herb into our diets.  No sales were made to the tough but captive audience and he left us at the next stop to board another rolling showroom.

The Albamar restaurant off the square does a pretty nice job.  A huge boiling bowl of caldo tlapeno soothes the road ravaged tummy as well as anything I've run across.  It's pricy by Xela standards with tablecloths, chilled crockery beer mugs(but with huge chips) nice bowls of condiments (but cracked enough so liquid would run out and thus used for queso or cebolla).  My favorite twist is the urinal cake hanging from the flush lever (they last longer if you don't pee on them).

I hate that my government doesn't want me to have any of the great trucks, vans and cars that populate the autopistas and calles of Guatemala.  From the little tiny cargo vans and chinese hatchbacks sporting Chevy bow ties to the 5 speed diesel mini-vans that don't want to go the mall.  Flat bed forward control dump trucks with available 4x4 that will fit down 500 year old  cobblestone streets and little tiny Nissan El Camino/Ranchero clones.  I'd probably just hurt myself and then sue somebody.

 How we roll
Willie Loman doesn't know
 The rest room smelled fresh
 Excellent gas mileage if you don't overload it
no se divierten

I don't know why I love you like I do, I don't know why I just do.  Hasta luego, hopefully.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sunday in the parques plus two years

Sunday morning the sun is out as is the electricity.  Cold showers in Xela include stinging pellets of ice so thats out of the question.  I'm the first arrival at La Baviera where they probably assume I've been out all night on a bender.  Yummy coffee con leche, the small fruit plate that would still feed two, some granola and still no power at the hotel.  

Where do you go when you're feeling not so fresh?  I walk to the zoo where I believe I'll blend in without attracting too much attention.  The Zoo is free to residents and tourists alike.  I missed it two years ago and its better than expected.  Lots of green space with picnic areas, room for frisbee tossing, and isolated benches for the ever-present young guatemaltecos to discreetly smooch on.  It is very much alive and kicking on a sunny sunday afternoon.

The animals appear to be humanely housed.  They range from a couple of imported leopards to falcons and parrots and monkeys.  The zoo has a nursery which raises the flowers to be transplanted all around the grounds as well as feed crops for the animals.  The reptile house is closed but I'm slimy enough to make up for it.

There are two big playgrounds filled with incredibly dangerous equipment, a concrete pipe train to run through, a snake made from discarded tires to crawl through, and a four story tower with concrete slides from each of its levels to the ground (the kids will sleep tonight).  Los ninos run and play, fall and get hurt, get picked up and dusted off and reminded to be more careful.  No OSHA, no liability, no lawsuits.  While its got tons of staggering problems there is a sense of personal responsibility here which is refreshing coming from our cradle to grave nanny state.

 Shining beacon of goodness above Cerveceria Nacional
 Lots of hens and chicks in the nursery
 Tower of fun and danger
 El mono
 Falcon crest
 Non-canadian touq
 Carrot tops little brother, parrot tail
 Well used green spaces in la ciudad
 Hellbound train on right
In the parking lot, seriously.

My feet are begging me for a return to hammocks and soft sand beaches but its not in the cards.  I hobble back to el centro over concrete and cobblestones and grab a couple of Cabros with a Tecun burger. The hot waters back on and its probably time for an after shower nap.  Yesterdays dumped garbage was being collected on my walk home so things are definitely looking up.

Los SUPER Chivos

Rams are symbolically manly and strong in Guatemala as are roosters.  The two local beers of favor, Gallo - rooster, and Cabro-ram. El Gallo Mas Gallo is a manly chain of stores selling electrodomesticos - appliances.  It goes on and on but somewhere near the top of the goat heap has to be the futbal club of Xela, the fabulous Super Chivos.

Litegua runs around the clock so a red eye from Puerto Barrios on a comfy modern bus is no hardship.  The 1:00am direct pulls out on schedule with a small band of viajeros on board.  The wide leather seats do a 3/4 recline. padded legrests hinged at the bottom of the seatback in front of you fold down to meet the front of your seat cushion, add earplugs and the six hour trip to Guate disappears with the night.  There's only an hour to spare but Linea Dorada is in the next block and soon the pullman class snoozing and cruising continue.  In a little under twelve hours time steamy sea level Puerto Barrios is exchanged for the crisp clean nearly 8000 ft. air of Xela.

I'm slow off the bus and collecting my baggage and the taxis have all departed with other fares before I'm ready.  Its all downhill to el centro so with gym bag strapped atop rolling suitcase I set off down the familiar cobblestone streets.  Rounding the first corner its obvious that Xela is in full party mode.  Streets are closed to traffic and are filled with vendors tents advertising beer, food, tequila, rum, and everything Super Chivo from hats to t-shirts to mini vuvuzelas.  Its the beloved local futbal clubs 69th anniversary weekend and they're scheduled to play their top ranked rival.  Los Chivos are number two in the rankings but a victory tonight would turn the tables and put them in first.

Although I don't roll in until 2:00 our friends at the Mini-Max lavenderia have mi ropa washed, dried, and folded by 5:00 for Q55.  With just enough time to drop it at the hotel and chug on up to Mario Camposeco stadium I join thousands of fans to queue up for the 6:00 start.  I pick the wrong line and wind up in the cheap seats with the more...uh...rabid fans.  Q20 buys your choice of whats not taken yet in seating.  I wander down the sideline and wind up with one of the plastic seat pans mounted on concrete terraces that form this side of the stadium.  I've got a pretty good view of the field with the goal Xela will be shooting for in the second half close at hand.

Pageantry, ceremony, fireworks, free-flying commemorative hot air balloons carrying fire aloft, a BIG brass band, competing fan clubs with lots of BIG drums at opposite ends of the field, and vuvuzela blowers.  I participate in several waves which still appear to be in vogue here, and as an added bonus within the first few minutes of play I've learned several new spanish words and phrases that I probably shouldn't repeat here.

At half time it's still 0-0 but at 36:30 into the second period the Super Chivos score the nights first goal and of course all hell breaks loose but in a good way.  They hang on to withstand a couple of last minute charges and when the buzzer sounds Los Chivos are number one.  This is the perfect excuse for much drinking and public urination but I slip away after scoring an awesome piece of fanwear for Pammy.  On the walk back to el centro a three wheeled cargo carrying tricycle hastily dumps a dozen or so bags of garbage in a park and then speeds off into the night as fast as he can pedal.  Ah, Xela!

 Starting to get crowded
The cheap seats, whaddya want for $2.60 
Super Chivo and Chivita 
The Q40 seats 
A full two minutes into the second half the smoke lifted

A night of Guatemalan futbal with ten or fifteen thousand fans probably doesn't rival Arsenal or Madrid but it is an awful lot of fun.  The non-stop nature of the game works well live surrounded by partisans.  No time outs, no replays, no challenges, (when do they advertise beer and chips?) no concussions, no steroid pumped mutants, just twenty two well conditioned athletes running their butts off for 90 minutes while doing amazing things with their heads, feet and torsos.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

El Dia de Las Vacas Flacas

Skinny cows, also hard times "tiempo de las vacas flacas".

I've had more crazy stuff happen just walking around Guatemalan cities than I ever imagined.  The people are connected in a way that is reminiscent of the 40's or 50's in the US.  I was looking for somewhere to have breakfast with real coffee and something other than huevos and frijoles. Spotted a little storefront panaderia with a banner advertising cafe y jugos natural.  After my usual tortured order placement in espanol the mujer behind the counter says "english?"  Si, senora.  She and her husband both spent time in the US where she earned a masters in hospital administration.  She got a high paying job here complete with lots of stress and dangerous solo travel by car all over the country.  Last April they dropped out and opened a little bakery in Puerto Barrios where they are making a living and are expecting their first child about the time the panaderia celebrates it's first anniversary.  I inquired about renting a bike or car or moto for the day and they thought that for the same money I could probably hire a driver.  The called their friend Luis a professional guide, who in turn called Manuel an english speaking taxista.

 Skinny cows looking for shade
 Spooky cave reputed to join caverns and underground rivers running from Tikal to Coban
 Rio Dulce, sweet hurricane hole for yachties trying to escape coastal storms
 Castillo San Felipe overlookng El Golfete
 El Mismo
 In need of a "bro" en frente del castillo
 Nice patina on bronze cannon, golden guide Manuel
 Rio Dulce schoolbus, low freeboard
 Mas vacas flacas
 The triumvarate includes Del Monte and Chiquita as well
Taking a dip in the shadow of the freighter

Manuel spent 10 years or so in the US working in Las Vegas.  His sister still lives there.  He was a pro futbal player for the local Puerto Barrios Club.  "Back when we played for fun and the love of the game and a little money, not like today." He pays $15 bucks a day for his cab ( a sweet 5-speed Geo Prizm) plus his gas at $4+ per gallon.  A ride in the city is around Q25/$3 so it's not an easy living.  We spent the day  touring Rio Dulce, and the surrounds.  The country outside of Puerto Barrios is primarily large fincas, formerly UFC plantations, which still produce bananas, pineapples, gum rubber, and milk and beef cattle.  It's lush, hot and humid, carved out of the jungle years ago.  We had a ball, a big lunch overlooking Lake Izabal, and a steady stream of insider observation on the local scene which would have been hard to come by elsewhere.
Manuel's coach would bring the team out here to the rubber plantations where they would drill running the hills and zig-zagging through the trees.  Speaking of futbal, according to Manuel, the elusive Super Chivos are having a weekend celebration in Xela so as the wind appears to be blowing that way its back on the bus.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Livingston Turnaround

The ferry from Puerto Barrios takes about an hour and a half and costs about $2.75.  Faster lanchas are available for a few quetzales more.  Given the choice between the slow boat loaded with cinderblocks, rice, whiskey and all of the other things which only get to Livingston by water versus the fast lanchas slamming from wave crest to trough its no contest for me.  More boat ride for less quetzales seems like a good deal.  Watching the tropical coast slip past covered with palms and dotted with the weekend getaways of Guatemalas rich and famous while breathing the rich salty air and being gently rocked by the warm carribbean sea keeps the vacation pace in low gear.

The guidebooks refer to Livingston as a different sort of Guatemala populated by afro-caribes who arrived on these shores from St. Vincents.  While that may have been the case at some point in time today it is a pleasant beachside town at the mouth of the Rio Dulce with primarily spanish owned businesses paying lip-service to the Garifuna by way of Bob Marley posters on the restaurant walls and reggae on the muzak.  It looks a lot like any other tourist venue in Guatemala with mayan ladies in traditional garb hawking souvenirs from streetside stalls albeit here they include carved wooden boats and drums and rastafari t-shirts.  Or how about a nice big tortoise shell?  I'm hoping it was natural causes. The main street through town is dotted with restaurants, bars, hotels, and tiendas and with few cars and a fairly courteous scooter contingent its pedestrian friendly.

Hospedaje Dona Alida was my home in Livingston.  A short walk from the main drag all of its concrete structures are layered into the hillside above garifuna beach. All rooms are oceanfront with balconys and cooling breezes.  My single with private bath cost $20/nite.  Clean, good beds, unheated shower (nothing here is cold unless its in the fridge), laundry service available at reasonable pricing, credit card acceptance, hammocks, lounging areas, and friendly hosts, it gets two thumbs up on the schmaltzy scale. There are much fancier digs available but none with better views.   It is steamy, sweltering, and probably hot enough to boil a monkey's bum here as soon as you're any distance from the water but on the rare occasion when I have a good internet connection US reports are wintry so let's bake some more and try to forget what lies ahead.

I expected a lively musical scene but it was on vacation, too.  Saturday night there was a brief performance of garifuna drumming and dancing in front of Dugu bar, just up from the docks, which ended shortly after the hat was passed for the performers.  Had I been better acclimated (I'd arrived by ferry from Puerto Barrios that afternoon),  I might have found my way to the actual garifuna part of town where it was rumored a bar did have live music.  According to a local garifuna hustler I met, the spanish speakers arrived during the civl war when it was a remote refuge with little conflict in the immediate area.  My guide to garifunology said he'd been conscripted into the Guatemalan army and spent his portion of the war as an ambulance driver.   When the injured mayans were left to die he said that he and other conscriptees would dress them in dead soldiers uniforms and take them to the army hospitals where they would be treated and released.  He claimed a lot of other things including residency in Livingston by Jerry Garcia who he said paid for his education in the US.  How much truth or fiction lies in any of this will have to wait for better internet connections and fact checking at some later date but for the price of a beer it was an interesting yarn.

Tour operators in Livngston advertise lots of different packages but most require a mnimum of six and although I put my name in for a possible snorkeling excursion to the Belizean Cayes no one else had an interest and I settle for a trip to Playa Blanca, Guatemalas only white sand beach, located about a half hour north of Livingston.  Seven of us pile in with Captain Rone (like "timmay" but with an o) and his mate at 8:30 and once the captain collects our Q100 apiece he can afford to gas the boat after which we slide out of Livingston on a glassy sea and zip up the coast for a stop at Siete Altares.  Leftovers from the era of active local volcanos these natural pools make great swimming holes.  The cool waters of the stream are in sharp contrast to the steamy jungle as we hike the seven falls and although its only ten-ish when we return to the lancha to continue northward icy cervazas are not without merit.

Playa Blanca is a beautiful caribbean beach with no infrastructure beyond a hut which sells water and beer, an outhouse, and a couple fellows who provide plastic chairs and straw mats included with your Q10 admission.  Unspoiled for the time being it is as paradiasical a setting as you're apt to find.  When the shadows start to lengthen we hop back in the lancha which bucks and slams it way back to Livingston over the afternoons waves

Livingston has a couple of student manned eateries where local kids get practical training in the hospitality industry.  Cafe Buga Mama (don't say it out loud) serves up a wonderful vegetable curry which healed an upset tummy I'd been traveling with for a day or two.  While the students service skills are still being polished they do a very respectable job at a reasonable price and the profits go back into the program.  Hotel Rosada is a very cute place with thatched guest houses right on the water.  They have a wonderful restaurant as well although somehow my spanglish ordered (by number) tuna sandwich appears as a tasty vegetarian omelet when delivered by the abuela who took my order.  Hey it could have been a pile of the dreaded leaden steaming tamalitos the locals like.

How many mornings does it take to get tired of waking up to the sounds of gentle surf and tropical birds?  Trick question but don't fall asleep with your balcony door open unless you want to wake up looking like you've got a case of the mosquito measles.  Nothing a little calamine and some anti-malarials won't cure I'm sure but after almost a week its probably time to think about returning to civilization.

 Carefree carfree Livingston calle (don't look under the bridge)
 Working waterfront
 View from room 5 at the Dona Alida
 Siete Altares
 Shrine where the Q25 entrance fee to Siete Altares is collected
 Rare Guatemalan white sand beach, perhaps 25 people this weekday
 Bob watching the indians sell food and drink
Delicious tuna sandwich

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Coochi-coochi, cucarachas, capybaras y borachos

 Long lonely porch
 Branding is key
Underutilized palapas

Did you hear the one about the guinea pig who married the ground hog?  Me either but I've seen their offspring and they will not be winning any beauty contests.  Thank god it was daylight and I hadn't been swilling beer.  Capybaras (don't believe everything traveling evangelicals tell you, they appear to be agouti's) run free on the grounds of El Hotel del Norte in Puerto Barrios.  Adults can reach 200 pounds but these little guys are more in the 10-20  pound range.  Begging from tourists and upping the ante on rodents like grey squirels many hundred-fold they appear to be harmless but unsettling nonetheless.

Hotel del Norte is a large wooden structure built 120 years ago.  It has a refreshingly cool swimming pool surrounded by lovely shaded areas to sit, eat and drink, while gazing out over the caribbean or watching the action on the malecon.  The second story rooms have louvered double doors opening to a wide screened in porch which encircles the structure.  There is a more modern wing with hot water, cable, etc., at $35/nite.  I opted for the original with 12 foot ceilings, private bath,  double screened doors behind the louvered ones, fan, two tired beds and lots of built in shelves and workspaces for around $12.  The United Fruit Company's visiting executives used to reside here while visiting their operations and pulling strings in the original banana republic.   Today it's a shadow of its former self but with the edition of some new mattresses and pillows could still be quite comfortable in a Bogie and Bacall sort of way.  My first visit to el bano gave me time to get positioned with feet spread before the flourescent lighting's starter kicked in.  My little friends never had a chance.  The combination of 200 pound man, ceramic tile floors, hard soled shoes and a quick tap dance resulted in corpses which must have discouraged the troops as I had no more visitors.  It is, after all, really and truly a jungle out there, and there are bugs.  From what I've seen they inhabit much fancier places and are bigger on Roatan.  

I liked the old place and probably would have stayed another night.  It's location, directly on the newly constructed malecon, is hard to beat.  A big new restaurant/bar complete with thatched roof and a palapa over the water has just opened next door.  On a friday night the little concrete strip next to the sea was hopping.  Food vendor's carts, pony rides, kids with their car blasters pumping reggaeton, and drinking and peeing in the park, and me with an almost invisible perch on the porch above.  What a great show.  Much better than Guatemalan cable TV from my POV.  I had a couple beers with a friendly local at the new place next door.  Pedro resided in LA for 20 years and worked in the hospitality industry.  He met Al Gore (great guy) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (total dick) while working there and picked up much better english than my espanol.    He now works for some gringos speculating in Rio Dulce real estate as a foreman/translator.  I'm always a little wary of locals with good english as they often have an agenda.   My new amigo casually mentioned that he could get girls, not putas but really nice girls who would act like putas but not overcharge me.  He could provide other services as well should they be needed but I thanked him and retired to mi cuarto where with the insertion of earplugs I was out like a light. 

I was surprised that with 20+ rooms available on the second floor they gave los chicos the one adjacent to mine.  The pool party started about 3:00am with cannonballs, drunken shouting, and frequent trips to the room for???? About 4:30 the yelps turned to pain instead of pleasure as someone apparently got a little friendlier with their concrete surroundings than they'd planned.  Too bad. With the party over its back to sleep till 5:00 when a cell phone, which must've been in a pair of pants hanging on the opposite side of the large resonant wooden boards seperating our rooms, starts to sound an alarm.  Los chicos son muy borrachos and don't get up.  After five or ten minutes burly man in recently donned boxers has had enough and I'm out on the porch hoping to find the phone and send it to the bottom of the pool but no such luck, instead I shake their doors violently till someone shuts off the alarm after an indignant grunt or two.

As a dirty little port town, still handling tons of bananas and a lot of other fruit on its way to north american tables, Puerto Barrios gets a lot of sailors and truck drivers.  What's the first thing they want when they hit town?  I know, you're thinking clean sheets and a good connection to phone home and let mom know they're ok but not the case.  They want girls!  I'll avoid allegories but there are probably almost as many puta bars in Puerto Barrios as there are bananas.   I believe that even if they had truth in advertising requiring their signs to show overweight single mothers with less than full sets of teeth instead of hot models they'd still be busy.  On the bright side they also have a perfectly acceptable marketplace where I bargain, amongst the fruit, veggies, and room temperature meat, for sandals and a couple of "Pierre Cardin" (si, son reales) sport shirts for my trip to Livingston on the mornings ferry.  Sandals Q35 ($4.50) Two shirts about $20 (Pierre Cardin, senor).   

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Down to the coast

                                                                     The big green bus
                                               My waiter looked and dressed like Uncle Ben
Where the capybara play
                                                                End of short malecon
                                                            Nightclubs who say "nigt"

One of the last things I see leaving Guatemala City are two young men driving a herd of goats down a city street. It's a six hour ride on a luxurious Litegua double decker Mercedes bus complete with uniformed pilot (tested daily for blood alcohol level according to company literature), uniformed steward, and two american action hits on flat screen tvs (Runaway Train, and some Tom Cruise flick, neither of which appear to lose much without english dialogue).  I look out the window and groove to i-tunes.  The countryside starts out god-awful dark side of the moon ugly, then turns to Arizona desert with jagged mountains on either side and lots of cactus, and finally a lush flat river valley filled first with cane and fruit and then lots of cows and Guatemalan cowboys.  Next to one huge sugar cane plantation is an equally huge and apparently thriving Coca-cola plant.  Real sugar in the tasty stuff not our better living through better chemistry high fructose corn syrup (I suppose we should update that to better living through bigger government subsidies for corn farmers).

Over the six hour trip we lose 5000+ feet of elevation.  From my perch on the arriba level of the Mercedes I discover that the huge canvas covered trucks of produce carry passengers in the valleys formed between stays.  Some of them awake catching the breeze in the sweltering humid lowlands, others catching some zzzzz's.  I can't help but wonder what happens in a panic stop or swerve but as usual I appear to be the only one worrying.  No two hour early arrival or baggage hassle on either end combined with the truly wonderful ride of the big bus and the gracious service of Litegua make a good case for cheap sensible intercity transport.  Six hours, 5000 feet, $12.50, not bad.  Now if you could just match that to a good highway system.