Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Geography first so you know where we're going

Slightly larger than Tenessee, south of Mexico and north of Honduras and El Salvador(sort of), the Brits took the piece to the east and it's currently Belize although the Guatemalans haven't given up on getting it back.

Political links are next, and then lots of photos and stories.

This blogging makes an odd book with the final chapters appearing first and vice versa.  Its a brave new world(more Huxley references later) but if you're old fashioned you could always start at the end and work your way back.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Why don't they hate us?

Unlike the answer you might get from a cocky fratboy born with a silver spoon in his mouth it has nothing to do with our freedom.

A little bit of the recent history of Guatemala

In a nutshell, at the urging of the United Fruit Company (Chiquita Banana) the CIA helped destabilize the elected government of Guatemala which lead to a thirty-six year long civil war (accords signed in December 1998).  During the Reagan years we supplied arms and training (US advisors) which in the hands of the Guatemalan government were used to exterminate around 200,000 Mayan men, women, and children.  Over 400 villages were wiped off the face of the earth because no witnesses (even little tykes) were tolerated. Your tax dollars at work.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Photo postscript

Here's a link to all the pictures(350+) which I'll caption as I have time.  The were all taken with a little Sony point and shoot with malfunctioning auto-focus motor(a common fault, I hear).  

The Dream is Over

I feel like I'm swimming in vaseline.  People in the Houston airport are doing all the things you'ld expect, yelling into cell phones, pushing, shoving, all manner of typical type A behavior.  I can't seem to get into gear so I casually lean against the people mover and rest my bag on the railing as the natives streak past to my left. I've got almost three hours to kill before the flight to Newark and eventually I wind up in Pappadeauxs for the bargain lunch time buffet. It's $23 bucks including a glass of wine to fortify my spirits and a tip.  The food's ok but I'm spoiled, I want the fresh stuff, cooked to order for a fifth of the price, oh and throw in a lot of smiling, friendly faces instead of all these high-powered masters of the universe, please.

"The current threat advisory level as determined by the Department of Home Land Security is.............ORANGE"   Runnnnnnnnnnnn!  Now it's.............. YELLOW, because you've just wet yourself, ...................oh no, it's worse, check your shorts, it's BROWN!   Be afraid, be very afraid, and don't forget to vote. 

Guatemala isn't for everybody (I hope).  There are lots of problems.  It's very poor.  There is some nasty crime.  The government benefits the few and tries to BS the rest (well OK there are similarities here too).  If you go take your street smarts.  Don't look rich(leave your jewelry and Rolex home).  Don't get drunk and stupid and act like a fool(you just might offend someone carrying a knife or gun).  It's best to use the buddy system (although I did most everything on my own).  Xela isn't Guatemala City but the guys riding shot gun on the beer trucks carry real shotguns for some reason.  Anyplace you go you'll be recognizable as the outsider(unless you're very small with dark features) and perceived as more likely to have something of value in your pockets than most of the other available targets.  I took taxis home from el centro any night after 8:30 or so and often times the driver would wait and watch me walk the 100 feet to my door.  Drink bottled water and no ice as in most countries south of the border.  As much as I wanted to I didn't eat anything off the street vendor's carts.  If you acclimated with acidopholus supplements or yogurt you could probably graze at will from any of the vendor's that have a strong local following(they know who runs a clean, ship-shape operation).

I spent a full four weeks, walked over 100 miles, lost 10 pounds and never once felt threatened. I've been in much scarier places within 250 miles of home. The people were friendly and helpful or at the least tolerant and sometimes amused.  My school, with full room and board was $155 week. My Guatemalan mom wants my wife and I to visit next year and I'm sure that my school was taking more than half my tuition to cover their end of things so with full room and board we might spend $75/80 week.  Even if you stayed in a basic hotel and ate typical foods in local restaurants you should be able to get by on less than almost anywhere else in the world.  You'll need a little spanish but you can get a start with cd's or dive right in at one of the many available schools.

I loved my school, El Mundo en Espanol.  The instruction was thorough and enjoyable.  My teacher and her family treated me like an uncle they were fond of. The garden setting with occaisional volcanic eruptions in the background made an awe inspiring classroom.  The other students were fun and very tolerant of an old guy in their midst.  My guatemalan family was great.  The conveniently located "Ponderosa" had ice cold Cabros and Gallos served with a smile by the friendly barkeep Erik(hard to resist after a long afternoons walk). Oh and let's see you could live very well for maybe $1200 a month.  Hey, maybe next election I'll vote with my feet.

Photos from the top:

My teacher Gladis with one of her instructors, Maurice.

My family, Sebastien, a shy secretarial student, Pedro, Julio, Mama Esmerelda, Juan.

To market to market to buy a fat pig, or anything else at San Francisco el Alto.

My front door, bedroom window, and The Ponderosa.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

San Pedro la Laguna

Aldous Huxley famously wrote of it: "Lake Como it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing."

The trusty Kia once again carries us over even larger tumolos and up and down the most severe mountain switchbacks yet after crossing several ridges on CA1. It takes us 2.5 hours to cover what might take 15 minutes in a corporate chopper. Our final descent to Lake Atitlan features deep ravines covered with coffee plants. Just around too many bends there's a family or a solitary farmer sitting on huge sacks of coffee beans barely far enough off the pavement to avoid hurtling steel. Yes kids you can take a chicken bus here or a tourist van but I'm old and I'm wondering if the long route through Panajachal arriving by launch might have been less stressful than direct by car. But it's worth it. After many thousand feet the gut wrenching twists start to moderate and Lake Atitlan starts to caress your eyes, ears and olfactory glands.

Downtown San Pedro has an older centro replete with a small but well stocked mercado, churches old and new, and nearly vertical cobblestone streets. A few blocks away, near the docks that host the launches from Panajachal, is the touristy center. There are dozens of small hotels, restaurants, bars, and souvenir stands (selling earrings, textiles, flasks, bongs, pipes and what not) near the docks and strung out through an area that winds its way along the shore to the docks for Santiago on the other side of town.

San Pedro hosts the largest concentration of extranjeros I'd seen. (I missed Antigua and Panajachal). Many of the bars and restaurants are owned and operated by refugees from the US, Canada, Europe and beyond. There's a lot of Bob Marley mixed with a little Che and the weather, food, flowers, constant birdsong, laid-back attitude, and delicious local coffee may make this the location of my next spanish school. There are LOTS of them here but you could probably get by with very little knowledge of the language.

My clean comfortable room with private bath, forgotten amounts of hot water, and a million dollar view from the comfy rocker on the terrace was $10. At the foot of my hotel's steps was a killer coffee shop with Mayan ladies in the street out front selling fresh banana, nut, or chocolate breads and very american tasting cinnamon buns(12oz con leche $1.20, fresh pastry .50, tourist prices and change in your pocket too).

A few steps further from the docks another hotel had nice looking rooms with the same amenities, plus hammocks on the terraces, parking, and a pretty garden for Q50/pp ($6.50). The tourist strip is a mile and a half of enticements. The pungent odor of coffee being processed mixes with smells from smoky meats, onions, garlic, and hot fat dripping off hamburgers. Its tough out there but even my stomach will hold only so much.  We settle on delicious fried fish and chicken near the Santiago docks served with fresh salad, hand cut fries, guacamole, tortillas, etc. for about $5 a head including drinks. Techno, rave, reggae, folk, jazz, and reggaeton drift out at varying volumes from bars as we waddle home down the strip. 

Walking San Pedro our warning cry of "tumolo, tumolo" is quickly replaced by, "tuk tuk, tuk tuk". The little three wheeled taxis purr along quietly on air cooled four stroke gas engines and can be on top of you in moments if you're not vigilant.  Many of the streets are too narrow for anything wider, and parts of the tourist strip are so tight that only foot traffic and motorcycles are accomodated.

We eat well, those of us with earplugs sleep well, and as always we revel in the massive daily doses of vitamin D provided by that big yellow thing in the sky that we don't see much of from November to March in my part of the world. The natives are friendly(when I try to order a round of drinks in spanish the bartender looks at me like I've got a third eye and asks in native american english exactly what I'm trying to say).  It's an idyllic place to spend a weekend or like a lot of gringos you might just forget to leave at all.

Breakfast Sunday morning is about $4/each but we don't eat lightly. Sergio has "the Gringo", eggs, bacon, fried potatoes, toast, jam, and tortillas.  I opt for the "Mexican", a soft flour tortilla wrapped around scrambled eggs, beans, rice, and queso with fresh pico de gallo on the side, Gladis is more sensible and has homemade granola with fruit and yogurt.  Topped off by a nice dose of lakeside ambience and delicious fresh coffee, Cafe La Puerta makes a good launch pad for our return trip to Xela. 

The photos (as always clickable for much larger views) are, from the top :

After hitting bottom looking across to San Pedro at three o'clock

Two views from the rocker outside my hotel room.  To give you an idea of the scale those little light colored patches over the umbrella and next to the thatched roof are a good sized town on the opposite shore.

Launches arriving from Panajachal, Q25 with a little espanol or whatever they can get away with for the unexpecting.

Tuk tuk and a bar from the coffee shop under my hotel. The Pana dock is just down the hill.

Tasty beans drying in the sun soon to be roasted, brewed and cupped for your enjoyment

Breakfast view from Cafe La Puerta

Its not Florida but the oranges are ready for picking and no grumpy old people are in sight

Fried fish near the Santiago dock

Many hands make light work but not when you're freeing a huge boat thats been high on the mud for three months having an engine overhaul.  You should have heard the cheer when it finally floated.

Playing futbol with his brothers and juggling with his feet for the camera

My teacher/guide Gladis with her husband/driver Sergio

Yours truly on the roof of the hotel looking american in a shirt which combines beer and nascar

The facts

The fun

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Chapter 13 in which we eat our way to the coast and back

It´s been a busy week. Monday night was a birthday party Guate style for the school director's daughter, her 21st. Tasty food, a huge cake, feliz cumpleano a ti, to the tune of happy birthday to you. Then the traditional dousing of each other with confetti and the smashing of blown-out, colored eggshells on anyone's head who wasn't looking.

Tuesday was my last day of espanol in the class room now it's time to practice it with some trips here and there.

Wednesday morning at 8:00 guate time (more like 9:00) La Directora (my teacher), her husband and I pile into the Kia Sephia 5 speed and head for the coast. Our first stop is San Felipe a small town overshadowed by a very active volcano. Gladis picks up a new swimsuit at el mercado and we buy some snacks. Chicharone(deep fried pork fat/skin), carnitas(tasty semi dried cooked pork), moronga (yummy blood sausage with onions), tortillas, and limon to enhance the flavor. We snack in the park where we can watch the volcano blowing it's lid in the distance. I escape the chicharone with only a taste, knowing the likely after-effect but the carnitas and moronga are delicious and a fine snack is had by all.
Next stop is Retalhuleu an upscale town with palms lining the main boulevard ala Los Angeles. Sergio (Gladis' husband) needs to replace some forgotten meds at Dr. Simi's a generic pharmacy where no prescription is required. It's convenient and inexpensive. Sponsored in part by Rigoberta Menchu's nobel prize winnings.

Onward to Takalik Abaj, a mayan ruin dating to 800 years B.C. Lots of stone statues to various Mayan dieties. A very pregnant fertility goddess, an owl for wisdom, a jaguar with a warrior inside to signify his strength and agility, and many more pieces that are more than 2500 years old. Pretty incredible. A nice tour with our own guide lasts an hour and a half and then its back in the car.

We continue our long descent from 7700 feet to sea level. At the start we were flanked by the now familiar patchwork quilt of garden plots but as we descend they give way to coffee plantations followed by huge stands of gum trees and finally endless fields of bananas and plantains. A sign for Chiquita Bananas tells us the United Fruit Company must still wield influence.
None of the small towns and cities we pass through have police to enforce the speed limit, instead they have tumolos, large nasty speed bumps that defy passage at more than a crawl. They're effective but not always well marked and at 60 mph they could very well send the Kia to an early grave. We are all vigilant and often times a chorus of "tumolo! tumolo! tumolo!" is followed by screeching brakes and another mild jarring as we reduce speed.

We make another stop in Coatepeque, a busy lowland city about 50 kilometers from the Mexican border, where I pick up sandals for the shore. Q69 (about $10) and we're off again. We've scheduled lunch at a carniceria named La Illusion in Las Palmas. It's a good sized mostly open building right next to the highway. We choose the piece of hanging beef that looks best to us and the fourteen year old grandson of the owner deftly butterflies it with the skill of a journeyman butcher. You order by the pound and our two pounds are quickly seasoned and marinated in pineapple and lemon juice with other savory ingredients. Placed over wood coals on an open hearth it starts sizzling and before long our table is filled with bowls of salsas, one a fresh mix of jalapenos and onions in lime juice, frijoles, tortillas, guacamole, small tender grilled onions, and a heaping platter of steaming meat. Absolutely delicious and at $5 a head including sodas and cervezas it looks like a certified bargain to me.

Back in the Kia and another 45 minutes down the road we park in the dusty fishing village of Tilapa. From here its necessary to take a launch up the river through the mangroves, storks and pelicans another ten minutes or so to a landing in Tilapita. A long strip of beach separated from the mainland by a tidal river, it has no cars, streets of sand, lots of beach homes that won't be busy till Easter, and a couple small hotels. We're booked at the Pacific Mar, a low block and concrete structure, with electricity, running water, and a small restaurant. My single room with private bath and a good bed is $8 a night and I can hear the surf pounding as I unpack. It's hot by Xela standards and the 500' walk to the ocean is all thats necessary to get psyched for my first ever swim in the pacific. The temperature of the water is perfect, the surf agreeable (3-4' rollers), and there isn't another soul in sight except the clean-up crew consisting of one dog and two pigs.

Unbelievably we're hungry again after a couple hours splashing in the surf and walking the deserted beach. The owner's wife whips up a tasty supper of huevos and frijoles with tortillas for my companions, shrimp with rice, papas fritas and salad for me. There are hammocks hanging under a palapa for shade and it makes a perfect place to use up the daylight reading and listening to the surf.

In the morning we are somehow hungry again and so we have a light breakfast of fried fish, rice, tortillas and frijoles and then more sun, surf and sand to work it off. Time flies when you're having fun and so all too soon its time to get ready for the three hour ride home.

I'm not hungry BUT I had mentioned in class that I wanted to try ceviche while I was in Guatemala and before we load up for the trip home three bowls appear brimming with shrimp in lime juice with tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and some crackers on the side for good measure. Hey, there's no fat in sight and its delicious so I'll skip dinner in Xela and walk instead.

Although I don't want to think about food for a day or two Gladis has lots of hungry students and family members in Xela to think of. We return to Tilapa and walk to the docks where she picks up eleven pounds of fresh fish (we watch as it's carried from the small fishing boats to the merchants stands) for about $14.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Another Sunday in the Parques

Gave Mama Esmerelda the day off cooking, took my books, and headed out for a sunday wandering the city.  First stop Baviera Cafe, small fruit plate (enough for two), cafe con leche, and a quiet table with nice jazz playing in the background.  Great place for a little homework.  I've learned to locate myself away from a group of ex-pats who congregate there for a regular sunday morning bitchfest.  Blah, blah, blah, the us govt sux, the guate people are ignorant, yada yada. Ugly americans with a capital ugh.  Lifes too short and the weathers too fine so out into the calle.  Here are a few of yesterdays scenes.

Opera at the theater in February.

Flowers for sale near the cemetario.

Always seems to be some saints day replete with fireworks and a parade.

Sleeping it off.

Sanitarios at the central parque Q1 gets you some tp and a clean attended restroom.  Bring your own seat however.

Skaters feel persecuted in Xela, too.

Teeny tiny truck.

Shine Mister?

Artesenias peddle their wares the first sunday each month.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Welcome to the Jungle

Another beautiful saturday on the road. We left Xela around 9:00 and headed up into the mountains southwest of the city. Crested the ridge at about 10,000 feet and slid down into the town of San Martin Sacatepequez. Switchback after switchback our Mitsubushi minivan (diesel, 5 speed, piloted by the talented and knowledgeable Josh, from Monte Verde tours, who arrived here for a short visit nine years ago) carried nine of us down to about 4000 feet and the Santa Anita Finca. They're a cooperative of former guerillas from the civil war who produce organic coffee and bananas on a little more than 100 acres of steep hillside. The folds (skirt) of the mountain are difficult to cultivate and the labor is all done by hand.

First we had a presentation detailing the history of the Santa Anita Finca. How it came to be and how they produce and market their production. Next a tour through coffee bushes shaded by banana trees and a very strenuous hike down a trail of switchbacks to the jungle floor. After a brief rest at a pool beneath a waterfall it was an old guy killing climb back up to the farm community. The women of the cooperative served us a delicious lunch of ground beef patties mixed with chilis and onions prior to cooking, lovely fresh veggies, rice, fried potatoes, tasty juice, and a nice cup of coffee.

Their website has a wealth of information about their community and their history. I hope you´ll take a few minutes to look it over.

The first shot is San Martin, the very colorful area in the background is a cemetary. They're about 9500 feet above sea level and are known for their potato production. It's the dry season and the unirrigated plots lay fallow till May.

The flower near the bottom is a poinsetta, I believe.

The last shot is what was left of me after the hike.

You can click on all the photos in the blog for much larger files.