Night at the “International” Airport

4/9/09
At the Airport

Since our flight to Costa Rica departed at dawn, we opted to spend the night in the Guatemala City airport. Apparently, although it is an international airport, people simply do not stay overnight. We arrived close to 8 p.m.-all the airline counters were dark and deserted. In the food court restaurants above, the “late night” shifts were wiping counters and storing food. Even Pollo Campero would not let us order any pollo. Fortunately, trusty old McDonalds was still serving the last of its fast fried goodness, which served as our last meal in Guatemala.

We found a row of leather seats and settled in for a long night. There was not a passenger in sight and the only people we saw were the occasional guard, janitor, or flight attendant heading home after a full day’s work. I fell into an uncomfortable and restless sleep, each set of footsteps convincing me that we were seconds away from being kicked out to spend the night outside on the streets. When I had finally fallen into a sound sleep, I awoke to an airport security officer asking for our passports. He asked us a series of usual questions (Where were we going? For how long? Where did we come from? What time was our flight?), and then asked us to follow him. Anxious and groggy, we followed him to the entrance of the airport where he conferred at length with the woman guard at the door, trying to make sense of what to do with these stupid foreigners who apparently were camping out after hours at the airport. Fortunately for us, they allowed us to stay, albeit in significantly less comfortable plastic chairs attached together by metal armrests, making lying down impossible. Jeff courageously asked (in Spanish, no less) if we could possibly move back to our leather seating area, to which the guard replied, “Solamente aqui” (“Only here”). So there we remained for the rest of the night, staring at the shiny floors, empty kiosks, the vast empty silent space of the concourse, and the darkened food court above. When the doors to the airport opened at 4 a.m., employees appeared behind their now illuminated stations and a slow but steady stream of passengers began filing in. We grabbed our bags, headed to the ticket counter, checked in, and then proceeded to our gate as we watched the duty free shops and cafes open their gates to serve the early bird travelers and to wait for another two hours to board our plane.

Posted: April 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Guatemala | Tags: , , | 1 Comment »

Volcan Pacaya

Being told the prices of things in other countries is a little like constantly having to adjust a barometer. Price equates to value, and so by adjusting to the countries price systems, I gain a better understanding of the country, its resources and/or direction. I might not put such a high value on Pizza Hut, but Guatemala apparently does.

So last week when Mari and I were told of a $5 volcano hike, not only was the bar not raised, we didn’t even pick it up. But the guide told us it would take 5-6 hours, so we thought if nothing else we’d get some exercise and save a little on the day doing it.

Our first inkling that we were going to get our money’s worth was when our bus stopped at the foot of the volcano, and 2 men got on the bus to try to sell us walking sticks. The French people beside me purchased them, which did nothing to persuade me of its need. As we got off the bus, a dozen horses met us and were being offered as taxis up the mountain. Mari and I said no. Instead, we lined up behind our guide, a man who looked to be in his late fifties and topping out at about 5 feet. In Spanish he told the group to go at our own pace, take rests if we need it, and to walk carefully. Then he turned around and sped off up the mountain. We followed suit, racing up the hill, at a pace too fast to take in our surroundings. Instead, I concentrated on 3 things: not slipping on the thousands of Pumice stones lining the path, trying to catch my breath, and not falling to the very back and becoming “that guy.”

About an hour into the hike, a Spanish mother of 2 overtook me for the final time catching up to her daughter as she ran up the hill back and forth on the trail because the hike in itself didn’t offer enough of a challenge to her youth. Behind me was an American, one of the few people having a more difficult time than me, in full Under Armour outfit, sweating ridiculously. A European boy near me constantly asked his dad if he could get off his horse taxi and walk the path. I almost asked the dad if I could have his son’s horse ride if he didn’t want it. Mari overheard near the back of the group an American accent say, “I’m already walking as fast as I possibly can!” 2 hours in and the French couple with the walking sticks passed in front of me. Damn.

Every once in awhile I would turn to Mari to see how she was faring. The length of the hike seemed inversely proportionate to the length of her answers and the fairness of her face. Near the top of the volcano, Red Mari made an appearance and was only answering that she was OK by nodding her head.
Eventually though, our ascension up the mountain turned into an even-leveled hike as the terrain turned to a volcanic black sand with sharp rocks jutting out. The fog rolled thick here, giving an other-worldy sense to all the fast-walking Euros, Mari and myself.

Finally, we got to a steep hill entirely made up of loose volcanic rock. And to our right was a slow flowing river of lava. There was no guard, no fenced off area, no rules besides those of common sense. So, people made their way to the lava, scrambling in every direction. Some ran up the hill sending mini-landslides of loose rocks on others, some went directly across to the lava eventually standing on recently cooled magma, red hot lava still visible through cracks a couple of feet below where they stood. Above me I heard an American yell “dude, it’s so hot…it’s so hot!” as he ran back from the lava sending rocks flying down the hill. His walking stick was on fire, a foot from the lava where he had just been.

My barometer had me sensing that this is so cool, and would NEVER be allowed in the United States.

Posted: April 1st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Guatemala | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Spice of Life

3/27/09
Guatemala was never on our original itinerary, but things change. Talking with travelers along the way convinced us to do a “highlight” tour of Guatemala. According to the travel websites, guides, travelers, and even a few locals, these are the places you visit if you are in Guatemala: Flores/Tikal, Antigua, Semuc Champey and the Lanquin caves, the villages of Lago de Atitlan (there are more of course, but these are the big ones). So we have managed to get to all, with the exception of Semuc/Lanquin, which we opted not to do since we’ve had our monthly fill of water and caves.

Right now we are in one of the lakeside villages of Lago de Atitlan, called Panajachel (also known as “Gringotenango”, 1) because of all the tourists and 2) the fact that many of the nearby towns end in something “-tenango”. After arriving and looking around for a place to stay (wow…have I reached the point of not having to have reservations?? Stay tuned.), we settled on the third option, Villa Lupita, slightly off the main drag. First option-too expensive; second option-too grungy (the shared bathroom was gag-reflex inducing). At this point, I have developed travel standards. They are that the room be relatively clean (spotless is not something you get at the places we are staying), and in a relatively secure area or building. TV, internet, soft pillows, clean towels, mirrors, and additional furniture other than bed and occasional shelving unit are serious luxuries. I have learned that there is no such thing as a mattress pad, which is why I love my sleep sack, and that “hot water” means that at least sometimes there is hot water.

Aside from the dual bouts of food poisoning, we have been lucky so far with food. Very few places we’ve been to have had anything extraordinary, but when you’re aiming for under $4 per person per meal, you don’t expect it. My problem is that I love food and living in San Francisco has spoiled me beyond belief when it comes to variety and cuisine. We found a little place here in Pana that serves dinner; a piece of chicken, coleslaw, rice, tortillas, and beverage for 10 quetzales (roughly $1.25 USD). It’s nothing fancy, but filling and a decent meal for an unbeatable price. Jeff said he could easily eat there every night of our six day stay (and in all seriousness, he really could). I wanted to say “Me too!” It’s not that it’s a bad meal, but after our third night in a row, and looking at all the other menu items that are available, not to mention the row of restaurants across the street, it’s the lack of variety that gets to me. But I remind myself that I am in “Travel Mari mode” now, so I will suck it up and enjoy the especial de la semana (“weekly special”).

Posted: March 31st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Guatemala | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

Cayes, Caves, and Crackers

3/14/09

It has been a couple of weeks since we have been able to post, due more to lack of consistent (free) internet access than lack of activity. We weren’t able to leave for Belize as planned via ferry, due to rough seas, so we hung out with a group of fellow stranded travelers, discussed alternate plans, and ended up staying as a small group in the nearby town of Omoa. The five of us took what I felt to be a semi-arduous hike, through ankle-deep mud (in flip-flops no less!) in an attempt to reach a waterfall, which turned out to be more like a small babbling brook. We must have taken a wrong turn, but it was a fantastic hike and we were in good company. The next morning we got on the ferry and made it to our respective destinations in Belize, where we parted ways (if you guys are reading this, hope you enjoyed the rest of your trip!). We spent one night in Placencia, a small, very quiet, beach town with seemingly not much more to do than snorkel, swim, and lie around. Luckily a couple of local girls befriended us, giving us the local lowdown, and we had a fun evening at happy hour (with free nachos!) at the new Rumfish bar in town. Spent the night at Deb and Dave’s Last Resort, cabin-style lodging, and my first shared bathroom experience. But shared baths are really only such if you actually have to share them, and in our case, it was always open and vacant when needed (yay!).

The next morning we caught a water taxi (getting used to these now) to take us across the lake to catch a chicken bus from the town of Independence to Belize City. Four and a half hours later, of which half the ride was spent sitting three persons to a seat, we arrived in Belize City, taxied to the ferry building and took another ferry to Caye Caulker. Apparently, if you go to Belize you either go to Caye Caulker or Ambergris Caye, as they are pretty much set up for tourists. That being said, we did pretty well staying on our limited budget, found a guesthouse cabin for $10 a night per person, complete with private bathroom and porch with hammock. Aside from Jeff experiencing backspasms towards the end of our stay, which rendered him bed-bound, we had a great time. We completed our first scuba dive (technically second, but really the first dive done without the security blanket of our instructors in Roatan, upon whom I had developed an incredible amount of faith in). Needless to say, the dive was spectacular. Within seconds of descending, we saw several nurse sharks swim by, followed later on in the dive by giant green eels (I’m sure there is a more scientific term), lobster, stingrays, and varieties of colorful fish that I have never seen.

We had been planning to go back to Placencia to experience the whale shark migration with our two new friends, however after doing an indepth cost analysis, and with Jeff’s back going out, we had to make the decision to keep heading in our original direction. After another ferry-taxi-bus combo, we made our way to San Ignacio, where we found very spare and semi-clean lodgings at a hostel. By the sheer coincidence that sometimes occurs during travel, we spotted a couple whom we had met as stranded ferry companions back in Honduras. We arranged to take the much talked about ATM tour together the next day. I have to say I was a little wary, given that everyone had said it was “the coolest tour ever” and all the guidebooks herald it as “the one must-do experience in Belize”. All I could hear was a little voice in the back of my head saying “overrated”. Luckily, I was wrong. Splashing, slipping, swimming, crawling, and climbing through ancient caves, seeped in Mayan culture, shadows, shining stalagtites, and rock formations, through clear cool waters was, I cringe to hear myself say it, magical. Totally NOT overrated. Definitely one of those moments I had hoped to have during our travels.

We are currently in Flores, Guatemala, a beautiful island town with views of the water, shops, restaurants, hotels, tour companies, and not much else. It feels almost like a ghost town during the day, as most visitors take day trips out with the various tours to places like Tikal. We did just that a couple of days ago. Instead of going with a tour company, we took the advice of our friends and tried it on our own. We arrived at mid-day, stayed at one of the only three hotels in Tikal, and bought a park ticket that was good for the late afternoon as well as the full next day. Our afternoon at the ruins was awesome. For some reason, we ran into only a handful of people during our entire stroll, sat atop Templo IV as the sun went down (but not set, as that would have cost us 50 more quetzals), gazed in awe at the well preserved ruins in the Gran Plaza at dusk, then raced out of the jungle as night fell. We had planned to enter the park again at six a.m., but a debilitating case of traveler’s diarrhea and food poisoning prevented that from happening. Instead, after some time spent on and above the toilet, I attempted to shuffle my way out of the room and through the park (I should also mention that I had somehow managed to strain a leg muscle the day before), armed with a roll of toilet paper. We saw some cool wildlife, but I was feeling too crappy to learn their names. As expected, I did not enjoy much of the day. We took off soon after, somehow managing to survive the one and a half hour ride back to Flores, where I now appear on my way to recovery while Jeff gets his turn to experience the full wrath of Montezuma’s revenge.  This has been only to the benefit of our budget, as we have subsisted on Gatorade and crackers for the last two days.

Posted: March 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Belize, Guatemala | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments »

Guatemalan Justice

I had just finished my chicken and rice, while Mari was still working on her dinner. I entertained myself by looking out at the water. There was still some light flickering on the lake, as the sun had just set.
A woman ran over, and spoke to everyone in the restaurant. Excitability crosses languages. By the time Mari and I compared notes and decided we picked out the words “over there,” “man” and “white” from her speech, the restaurant manager had jumped on his motorcycle and taken off. Everyone’s eyes naturally followed.
Down the road a few men had gathered and seemed to be talking. Mari kept eating. A few cars had thrown on their hazard lights and pulled over next to the manager’s motorcycle and the gathering of men which had now grown to the size of a group. The women behind our table were standing, looking towards the sight, and talking. From their conversation we thought we picked up the word “caught.” Mari kept eating. The group of men was turning into a crowd when Mari looked in its direction and said “ooh! They just threw a guy to the ground!” while gulping down the last of her meal. We quickly paid and walked towards the commotion. For a flash I thought about the black guy in horror films.
The man on the ground was being held there by 3 others. One held his neck down and a second grabbed at the man’s wrist and shoulder. The third man involved held on to the captive’s shirt, probably knowing he wasn’t necessary in the equation but still wanting to participate. Around him the crowd grew, now involving women, a couple of children, Mari and me. He tried to escape multiple times, but was forced down each instance. A woman appeared with a camera as one of the 3 men held up the man’s face, presumably to get his good side. A rope came out of the crowd, and they tied him up to the guard rail. A minute later 3 police officers arrived, the local news media (photo and film) ushered to the scene by their sirens. After the cameras and videos got their fill, the police took him to their car. They let him stop and get his shoe that had fallen off in the scuffle, as if by that act his dignity could somehow be mended.
We asked someone in the crowd what his crime was. A woman laughed and answered by pointing to a stack of white plastic chairs, about 6 of them. Apparently he was trying to steal lawn furniture. Mari looked at me and reminded me not to steal anything, especially in Guatemala. I thought about all of my college furniture, instantly felt thankful I hadn’t attended University in this country, and assured her I wouldn’t.

Posted: March 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Guatemala | Tags: , | No Comments »