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.

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