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.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Props to those who've done the hard work

I should have gotten these in earlier but these websites were a big part of the reason I picked Xela over other possible targets.

Has a good discussion board and a ton of information and other links. If you get here stop in and say hi to the proprietor Tom. He and his Xela born wife had successful careers in San Francisco but decided that Xela might be a better place to bring up their kids. They have a very nice internet center a short walk from el centro.

The english language guide to nightlife and more "in the city that sometimes sleeps". Funny and packed with loads of info its available in hard copy all over town or yours on the web.

The maps page is great for getting acclimated with detailed city maps and a nice isolated map of the western highlands where I'm sitting as I type.(Listening to, now playing NRBQ, Get Rythym)

To market, to market

Photos from the top

My nemesis El Baul

Stalking old fat hikers

The square from Baul

El Templo de Minerva for which this end of town is named.

I´ve put a ton of miles on the old sneakers (had to buy some powder today to spare my neighbors). Finally made it to the top of Cero Baul, a small mountain within a half hour walk of my home. It doesn´t look like much but it´s a good hour (for me) up a trail of switchbacks and ruts but well worth it for the panoramic views of the city and surrounding countryside. A nice park awaits at the top (you can drive as well)with picnic pavillions, bathrooms, statues, monuments, and lots of shade and a fresh breeze.

I made my first visit to the Minerva section of Xela today, a real study in contrasts. My first stop was the Minerva Market, another large open air venue with literally hundreds of vendors selling everything, food, meat, fresh fruit and veggies, clothes, shoes, electronics, hardware, bootleg cd's and dvd's, watches, more loofas, cowboy hats, wonderful smelling prepared food, and much much more. Every one of the vendors wants your $quetzales and will compete, within reason, to earn your business. Is the super center progress?

If your tastes are more refined, a short walk out a lovely but trash strewn tree-lined street brings us to the 21st century. The Pradera Shopping Center is a beautiful modern mall. Need the GNC, Gap, Radio Shack, Taco Bell, Burger King, or Pizza Hut, they're all here along with lots more. La Pradera is anchored by Hiper Paiz the central american Wal Mart, where I picked up some Colgate dental floss, and could of had Herbal Essence shampoo or, well you get the idea. If you're a young, hip Guatamalteca with a dad who's making some decent money in the thriving industrial and commercial endeavors that dot the city, hanging at the mall looks a lot like the USA, except there don´t seem to be any morbidly obese people waddling along with them.  A short walk up the street there's another mall with similar fare.

Its definitely not a nanny state here. If you´re not paying attention as you stroll around the city you'll trip over uneven pavers or fall into a 15¨x12"x10" hole in the concrete thats missing a lid. If you should fall in front of a business someone will probably rush out to help you, not because they're afraid of a lawsuit but because they're actually concerned with your well-being. Oh, and you'ld be laughed out of the courtroom not that you'ld find a lawyer willing to take your case. You stepped in a hole? Silly you, you really should watch where you're walking. Consequently the percapita concentration of lawyers is miniscule compared to the good old USA where if you spill hot coffee in your lap you can probably find someone with deep pockets to blame. Haven´t seen any lawyers advertising on tv either. Do you suppose that has anything to do with the lower cost of healthcare?

Want a soft easy white bread that may cost more than you expected? Try Bimbo! Always rich, always fresh!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Allright class today we're going on a field trip.

Most days after class there are extracurricular activities that students can participate in. We've been to a textile museum, had a lecture about the system of government in Guatemala (and the US's involvement but we'll get into that another day), and even a free salsa lesson which confirmed that, yes, I do have two left feet. I can jump around all night at a Little Feat concert but salsa is just a little too structured for me.

On Saturday's we get a little further afield. My first week we went to a traditional home business near the village of Momostenango. Luis, his pregnant wife, lots of children, and a grandmother, make beautiful woven rugs, and other traditional textile items. Their homestead is carved into a hillside that would be untillable in the US. In Guatemala there's a lot of land in the hands of a few doing big agribusiness and not a whole lot of prime stuff left for the indigenous majority of the population. Luis and every member of the family work hard every day. They raise their own food, keep a cow for milk, chickens for eggs and an occaisional sunday dinner, have a very tasty looking pig (we don't eat much meat here), and keep sheep for their wool(ummmmm lambchops). They raise plants that become the dyes used in their beautiful weavings. A vertical operation that provides for the large family.

Luis and his wife gave us a hands on demonstration of how they do their weaving. Students got to spin and use the 150 year old loom built by Luis' great grandfather. After the demonstration Mrs. Luis had a tasty snack waiting for us, yummy herbal tea, fresh tortillas hot off a ceramic grill placed over an open fire on a stone hearth with a hole at the top of the wall for the smoke to exit. I've never had better guacamole and everything else was delicious as well.

Next stop was the market in Momostenango, Saturday isn't market day but there were still dozens of vendors peddling their wares. Grabbed an apple and a bag of roasted peanuts in the shell for a couple quetzales, toured Luis´church and then back on the road in our minivan.

Xela is about 7700 feet above sea level and to get to Momo we climbed up into the mountains until the trees turned to evergreens. At one point we could look from our mountain over at the adjoining one where a waterfall reminiscent of Yosemite came out of the side of the hill and dropped 100' or more to the forest floor.

Monday we had the chance to hop on a chicken bus, just a retired US school bus that has been customized with lots of chrome, a stereo system to keep things lively, and lots of graphics on the upper part of the windshield that usually say something like Deos es Amor(God is love). The place where it used to say school bus above the windshield tells you where the bus will wind up. Hold up your hand and they'll stop for you anytime, anywhere, and no matter how many are aboard there´s always room for one more and chickens are optional.

The school's assistant director, Alma, walks us out the front door of the school down to 8a avenida and within moments we´re on a bus headed to Salcaja. It´s a 25 minute trip north of Xela and the fare is 25 cents. Salcaja is a major textile producing town and monday is their market day. Street after street have vendors in the middle selling wonderful looking fresh fruits and veggies and everything else. Clothes, tools, shoes, livestock, fast food, even a guy selling loofas almost as big as one of John Runyan's legs. We sampled fruit I´d never seen before, saw some brightly dyed chicks (where easter eggs come from?) and stopped at a stand selling carved wooden kitchen tools. Our guide and I both bought pestles, her's was Q2(26c) and she thought I was extravagant buying a larger one that was Q5. After leaving the market we walked to a home where they have two looms on the roof and participate in Salcajas other home industry, moonshine. When we came downstairs from seeing the looms the matriarch had a table set with sample glasses of liquor, bottles for sale, and the fruit used to ferment and flavor the shine to munch on. Smoooooth, and at $2.60 a pint I had to take one home. As we were getting ready to leave the doorbell rang and a regular customer entered, bought a large bottle, hopped back on his motorcycle and took off down the road.

Salcaja is home to the oldest church in central america, built in 1524 at the orders of the conquistadors, its a beautiful wood and adobe structure that has survived almost 500 years defying earthquakes and lava flows. The picture of the girls and I a couple posts down was taken there as was my profile picture. I´ll be uploading more photos soon but it´s time consuming and I´m trying to get caught up.

Today is saturday the 25th of January and today's trip was to the hot springs at Fuentes Georginas. I arrived at school to find that no other students were going, bummer. No hay problema. My teacher wants to go anyway and it´s out the door and down to the chicken bus terminal, a short walk. We grab a bus for Zunil and watch the city turn to countryside within moments. The first town we pass through is Almolonga, it's located in a valley and every inch of the valley floor is a patchwork of tilled plots. The soil is rich and at any local market those in the know want Almolonga produce. Bigger carrots, tastier tomatoes, sweeter fruit, the valley floor has rich volcanic soil and delivers the goods.

We continue a few clics more to Zunil where we get off the bus and into the back of a Toyota pick-up that has racks to accommodate a dozen or more standees. Gladis and I are early and we ride alone sitting on the floor against the front of the box. As we climb, and climb and climb the view opens up to an unbelievable scene of volcanoes, mountains, the town far below, waterfalls, families working their plots on both steep sides of the road, and a beautiful cloudless azure sky. I can smell onions growing and Gladis points out the aromas of saffron and sulfer. Gladis can't remember ever making the trip when the mountain wasn´t in fog and I tell her, ¨tenemos buena suerte¨(we have good luck). She agrees but tells me to get my pictures now because it could change at any time.

We arrive at the top and schedule our descent with our driver. Fuentes Georginas is a wonderful private enterprise built around hot volcanic springs. Q20 gets us both in, Gladis gets in free as my guide, and we change and rent a locker for our stuff. It´s very cold at the top of the mountain and my bare feet can´t wait for the hot water. The main pool is made of rock carved primarily by nature but with a dam at one end to flood a larger area. When they say hot they aren't kidding.
The main pool is fed buy a waterfall of hot sulferous agua. The pool is large and the far end is cool enough to lounge in for about ten minutes but if I swim for the inlet I feel like I'm starting to parboil. The outlet leads to another smaller pool which is a little cooler and beyond that another one that's cooler still. There's a cute little restaurant for snacks and after a couple hours we meet our driver and descend ro Zunil and another bus back to Xela. A very relaxing saturday morning.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

I love Xela

Hate New York City its cold and its damp,
And all the people dressed like monkeys,
Lets leave Chicago to the eskimos,
Randy Newman, I Love LA

It´s about a 15 minute walk from my house to the Central Parque. The hub of the old part of the city, it's a well kept beehive of activity.

Within a few minutes walk are a large variety of restaurants serving everything from traditional local dishes to middle eastern, Indian, Mexican, and Chinese food. Mc Donalds is right on the square, pizza just down the street and a choice of bakeries who provide the bread eaten in most local homes. There's a variety of bars, clubs and coffee houses with live music, salsa dancing, DJ´s, internet juke boxes, and probably anything else you might want, even local rock bands in addition to tradional trova and mariachi. Between the local universities and the kids from north america and europe coming to learn spanish you might think you were anywhere but ''a third world country''.

The next stop is a small park devoted to Simon Bolivar the George Washington of Latin America. There are small landscaped areas with flowers out of sight.

These Kitty´s are advertising thread to a very active community of weavers. An ancient mayan art that continues with few changes today.This advertisement and many others are painted on the wall, not printed and pasted.

Had to put this last one in for mi hermana a big Frida Kahlo fan. A stationary store just ahead. In Guatemala the government provides no educational materials for the children so parents must purchase whatever pencils, notebooks, workbooks, etc. to the best of their ability. There are dozens of these spread across every barrio in the city. From little more than closets to bigger stores in more commercial areas.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hi mom, I´m home!

This is the view out my front door looking down 8A Avenida. There are two internet cafes, lots of tiendas, cervecerias, and a boatload of other businesses. Cabinet makers, a funeral director, a place to have a suit made(for the funeral, I suppose), an ice cream shop, and all within a 5 minute walk from here.

My family in Guatemala is headed by Doña Esmerelda, 4´8¨of boundless energy and encouragement. (Did I mention that for the first time in my life I´m well above average height!My nephews would be giants here.)

Did your mom make you a nice hot breakfast before school? Mine does. She also cares for her grandson Carlos, Carlito to his grandma, three young Guatemaltecos who are attending college here, and a girl who goes to secretarial school. Seven mouths get fed three times a day and she cleans, launders clothes, and all the other domestic chores it takes to keep a houseful going.

The house has an open courtyard in the back and originally I had a very cute but very chilly room off the courtyard next to the room shared by the three amigos attending college. El baño
is also off the courtyard which is full of plants, a clothes line, and two desks for homework. Yesterday Doña E. moved me to a much larger interior room which is a whole lot warmer. I no longer cringe at the thought of swinging my feet out and onto the concrete floor in the morning.

Doña Esmerelda gives me a hug and a peck on the cheek when I leave for school and I think she´s probably asking me in spanish if I have my mittens. Life is hard for an old gringo in Guatemala.

The water heater is an electrified shower head (take that Consumer Protection Agency). If you reduce the flow to a gentle rain it´s almost hot (the learning curve was very chilly, imagine a 45 degree shower room with water only slightly warmer). Doña E. has a very modern washing machine, a microwave, a good gas range, and cable TV in almost every room including mine.

My Guatemalteco brothers are bright, good looking, interesting kids who work hard and eat like ponies. They´re glad to help me with my espanol and I try to return the favor with their english studies. Doña E. also takes time from her busy schedule to join me at the table and visit about the days activities.

This is, without question, the friendliest city I´ve ever been in. And it's not just mi familia, even the taxistas and bus drivers, who pilot discarded US school buses on streets that were built for horses and carriages, don´t seem to get upset at life's constant aggravations.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Up in the Morning and Off to School

At 7700 feet above sea level it gets chilly nights and mornings. My first day is no exception but a hearty traditional breakfast, aka El Ranchero, consisting of two poached eggs, a small steak, 2 pieces of fried plantain, frijoles, tortillas, bread, and delicious coffee(grown just up the road) warms me up in a hurry. The Maya Cafe is a block from central park and it's clean and bright with tablecloths on the tables and a friendly staff, while I wait for my food to arrive the owner brings me the morning's paper. The tab is Q20 (the most expensive breakfast) or $2.60. I feel like I've fallen through the looking glass.

A somewhat cirquitous walk through the maze of narrow cobblestone streets brings me to my school. A gracious welcome awaits and soon the school director's husband drives me back downtown to get my luggage. There's no room available to live at the school and so I'll be staying with a host family about a block up the street.

Before long I'm at a desk in the garden of the director's home/school looking at a crazy backdrop of volcanic mountains and being quizzed on my spanish by the director. Feeling pretty good about myself I assure her that I´ve never been to another school or lived in a spanish speaking country and no my wife´s not spanish either. I've only studied with CD´s on my basement floor and treadmill but she asks me twice more on Wednesday and once more for good measure on Thursday. I don't get a big head(well at least it doesn't get any bigger) because I still can't understand a tenth of the rapid-fire spanish spoken by natives. To the envy of the other students she takes me as her pupil. All of the teaching here is one on one, one teacher to one pupil and your luck finding a compatible professor determines a large part of your success or lack thereof.

Gladis and I hit it off pretty well. She´s studied and traveled in the US and Germany and is very quick witted. Her english is good and thats a big help when I want to know what the meaning of something is or the shades of difference between two similar words. She´s also funny and bright and a good portion of our time is spent conversing in spanish as she tells me about her life and asks me questions about mine. There's also a fair amount of structure as she writes in a notebook she provides and asks me to do the same. She has infinite patience and schools with praise and encouragement and it doesn't get much better than that.

School starts at 8:30 five days a week and I finish at 12:30(there are five hour programs as well but I was afraid that would overload my brain). Coffee and tea await early arrivals and we take a morning break for snacks and drinks as well. Snacks are traditional fare and usually consist of fresh tortillas with a topping of the day and fresh spicy salsa to top it off. I have homework every night and a little extra to get me through the weekend. Every school day there is an optional activity which is usually included in your tuition. I´ve been to a salsa lesson, seen a mayan textile museum, watched a spanish language film(with english subtitles) about the Guatemalan civil war called ¨The Daughter of the Puma¨, and there´s more in store this week. I´m not bored.

My classmates are primarily college students with a couple hippies bumming around central america thrown in. There's a group of twelve pre-med students from the US including one Dinosaur BBQ fan(a great biker/rib joint in Syracuse). They´re here for six months but people come and go every week. Friday night I said goodbye to a cute couple from the UK who quit their jobs and are out on the road until the money runs out. Sunday an old buck, my peer group,
arrived from Scotland for his second visit to the school. He leads walking tours in europe and is hoping to branch out to spain amd latin america.

El Mundo en Espanol is the name of the school and this is the address for their website.

Friday, January 16, 2009

On the road again

Leroy picked me up on monday the 12th at midnight. If you're looking for a pleasant, traffic-free trip to Newark that's a great time to go. With a 5:30 am departure there wasn't much choice if we were to leave some margin for problems. None occur and at a little before 3:00am I'm on the curb with my luggage. The terminal is a pretty sleepy place at this hour but it's not long before friendly, smiling Guatemaltecas begin to arrive. The typical traveler has at least 4 or 5 huge duffels for carrying North America's bounties back to the family. One gal has two cart loads and dutifully heaves the heavy nylon bags on and off the scales so Continental can tally the fare.

Wasn't sure we'd get airborne with all the luggage and a full passenger compartment but all went smoothly and by 8:30 local time I was dashing through George Bush International Airport in Houston with just enough time to make an honorary pit stop and catch the second leg. Once again Continental did their job and by 12:30 local (same as Houston time) we were on the ground in Guatemala City. It's thrilling and a bit unnerving to watch the mountains grow as the plane loses altitude, then the mountain tops disappear out the plane's windows and we continue to descend. Customs, immigration and baggage are a piece of cake in a beautiful modern airport.

Guate, as the citizens call their capital city, is a huge sprawling place. The downtown area has a fair share of high rises but most of the architecture consists of one or two story buildings built of concrete and block reinforced to withstand the not so occaisional earthquake. Cement gives way to tin and wood as you move away from the city center. Combined with outlying towns which have grown and intermingled over the years the capital area is home to nearly three million inhabitants.

Gangs are a problem and there are private security guards toting factory sawn-off shotguns at almost every business of any size. They smile and nod at my buenas tardes but they're still pretty scary looking dudes. A great deal of the gang violence centers around the transportation of drugs to feed our big appetites in the good old USA. Demand and supply, we demand and they kill each other for the privilege of being our supplier. Not just Guatemala but many countries from the US border to Columbia, Peru, Bolivia, and the Caribbean struggle with violent crime. The countries that don't produce still have illicit traffic running through their borders giving narcotrafficantes an opportunity to earn a better than average living in countries with limited opportunities. How's that war on drugs going, Mr. Nixon?

Maybe its time to legalize it, regulate it, license it, and tax it because it isn't going away. The money generated by the taxes would pale in comparison to the savings in tax dollars currently spent trying to eradicate the problem not to mention the time freed up for law enforcement to chase crooks rather than kids smoking pot. But I digress.

From the airport it's a Mazda Protege 5-speed taxi to the first class bus station. Q70 (70 quetzales, the local currency) or about nine bucks buys passage on an older, slightly threadbare Mercedes bus with restroom and in-route movies (broken of course, although the driver-piloto en espanol-gave it a valiant effort trying to start it several times as he muscled us through the crazy traffic. It's an express run which lessens the chance of being waylaid by highwaymen after dark. A very real problem. There are lots of uncontrolled intersections, drivers darting in and out of unmarked lanes, pedestrians, bicyclists, moto-scooters, and more. The rule is, use your horn, hit the gas and go, and count on the other guy not wanting to wreck his ride.

Lots of familiar names mix with the unrecognizable. American fast food is well represented. Citibank is here and apparently Sherwin Williams truly does cover the earth. American car companies too, although with a very different product line (maybe a Daihatsu or Daewoo micro mini cargo van sporting a Chevrolet bow tie for instance). Very cool chinese forward control duallys narrow enough to navigate many of the smaller streets and still haul a couple ton. No NTSA or EPA rules here. A large percentage of the fleet are diesels and the air is thick with their exhaust.

The bus climbs up and up eventually escaping the suburbs and moving into a countryside cultivated in tiny patchwork plots. All but the very steepest hillsides are terraced and productive. Dogs run loose everywhere apparently breeding at will. Two carefully come down the narrow median as we pass the remains of a third who wasn't as cautious. Our ride continues on CA-1, the pan-american highway, which is being widened and is under heavy construction in many places. Looking out my passenger side window there's no shoulder, no guardrail, and a several hundred foot drop. I experience a brief death-row conversion but the driver is a pro and we wind our way on tenaciously clinging to the sides of mountains that make West Virginia look flat.

About three hours into the ride our piloto who, in a crisp white uniform, looks every bit as professional as he drives, pulls into a roadside restaurant where another bus is just leaving.
Beautiful, clean, and of attractive and robust wooden construction, Rapi-Comida (literally quick food en espanol) is set up as a cafeteria type operation. A tasty tostada with fresh guacamole, a chicken burrito and a 20 oz water set me back Q20 ($2.60). Mucho Gusto!

Back on the bus, gus. Another hour of passing slow moving vehicles on blind corners and dodging the same from the other direction and we enter Quetzaltenango through an ornate gateway called the rotunda. Grab a cab at the station and take a short ride to the historic center of the city where the kind folks at Casa Dona Mercedes have a nice room waiting with private bath, comfy bed and nearly hot water. The street noise is typically annoying but earplugs save the day and at $22 bucks its a pleasure after a long day on the road.