Thoughts on Guatemala - Saturday, March 29, 2003

We were only there for 3 weeks, but were quite taken with the place and the friendly, colorful, happy people. The country offers so much scenic beauty - the Mayan ruins throughout the country, massive mountain ranges, beautiful Lago de Atitlan, colorful and historic Antigua, and so much we didn't have time for! Amidst all this beauty underlies devastating poverty and a still corrupt government (what government isn't).. Our brief visit was quite impactful, as we both had never seen so much garbage, waste, pollution, and squalor over an entire country.

In summary, here are a few visuals that will be hard to forget:

- The smiling, weathered faces of thousands of tiny Mayans wearing their distinctive and colorful hand-woven clothing (each major tribe has their own distinct fabric pattern)

- Looking down from our bus windows throughout the country and seeing an unbelievable amount of garbage flowing down hillsides, in ditches, on the side of the highway (often burning), and clogging waterways

- Guatemalan families tend to be large in order to have kids help out with housework, childcare, and farming. Picture kids under five carrying their infant siblings on their backs while there mother carries another infant with a 50 lb bundle on her head!! Amazing....

- Entire villages constructed out of cinderblock or mudbricks. Over 75% appear to be unfinished or in some state of extreme repair. No glass windows nor doors, allowing a breeze, yet much dirt and weather in..

- Dogs, cats, and Mayan people carrying heavy loads balanced on their heads/back wandering down busy highways

- People bathing, swimming, and washing clothes in waterways that are also obvious garbage & sewage dumps

- Smiling children (in abundance) everywhere... playing soccer in the street, riding bikes, and looking VERY happy

 Mexico Bound - Friday, March 28, 2003

After riding a jam-packed water taxi back to Panajachel from Casa del Mundo, we caught a 4 hour bus to the Mexican border. We had heard that entering Mexico through the state of Chiapas was difficult for folks who need more than 2 weeks in Mexico. The border folks don't want reporters or Zapatista sympathizers hanging around!! Besides having to compete for time with "Raiders of the Lost Ark" playing on the Mexican Border Official´s desktop TV, our trip through the border went off without a hitch. After finally finding the local collective bus from the border (thankfully just before sundown), we endured a 45 minute hot, humid, and slightly comedic ride from the border town to the town of Tapachula. Similar to our Chicken Bus experience, this mini-van packed with about 17-20 people at any one time and with my pack across our lap, we stopped, started, and lurched our way to Tapachula. Much to our dismay and discomfort (especially riding in the back of the van), the Mexican Police have a habit of putting large speedbumps along the highways.

Immediately upon crossing the border into Mexico, we noticed that Mexico (not without it´s own problems) seems to have more infrastructure in place for its people: better electrical access including streetlamps, more built out houses (not cinder block cities), and a higher level of cleanliness. Just our first observations before boarding our 10:30 PM overnight bus to the Huatulco area (on the Pacific Coast south of Acapulco). Hopefully, we´ll get some sleep on the 11 hour ride and awake to blue skies and clear water, this is going to be one long day/night/morning. Oh wait, we aren´t allowed to complain much, we don´t work!

 Lazy bones.. - Thursday, March 27, 2003

So much for our plan! After overnighting at a complete dump in crowded Panajachel with people trying to sell us their wares at EVERY moment, we took a small boat over to Santa Cruz, the poorest, smallest town on the lake. Lago Atitlan is JUST BEAUTIFUL, like Lake Tahoe...We ended up staying for 3 days in Santa Cruz instead of tramping over to some of the other hippie towns around the lake filled with expats, meditation centers, yoga and mucho pot.

Hotel Arca de Noel is our new, favorite place on the planet. The hotel stretches along about 100 yards of lakefront with wood tables, chairs, cushions, and hammocks strewn throughout the lush garden. For a mere $15, we rented a room in a quaint stone structure with a REAL mattress (1st one in 2 weeks). With a hammock and several comfy chairs to relax on, we were sloths for 3 full days. Well, we did a little planning for the next leg of our journey to Mexico. We are not that excited about being around the busy city of Acapulco around Semana Santa (week before Easter). It is like Xmas time...very crowded. Perhaps we'll go to Nicaragua instead!!! No say...

Our favorite thing about this hotel was the family style dinners. At a long table filled with huge candles for light, we met a slew of interesting people every night and ate a 5 course meal for $5. The food was incredible!! It was all vegetarian and was actually good. Yes, I ate carrot soup, squash soup, chile rellenos, eggplant parmesan, veggie lasagna and survived without meat. I actually liked it. I'm shocked and happy to have found some new yummy foods to eat. It was fun chatting it up with like-minded travelers well into the night.

We reluctantly left our new favorite hotel (Arc de Noe) for another highly recommended place called Casa del Mundo. We packed up and hiked 30 minutes along Lago de Atitlan and were rewarded with a very unique hotel built into the side of the mountain. All the rooms had a view of the lake and/or volacanoes. Because the weather was rather rainy, we didn´t really move from the hammocks for much of our stay there. NO PROBLEMA! Again, we met some very interesting travelers over family-style dinners and even managed a swim in the deep, crystal clear blue waters before starting our journey to Mexico. Even though Casa del Mundo was a bit fancier than the rustic Arc de Noe, the staff just wasn't as personable. It REALLY makes all the difference in the world!!!.

 Lago de Atitlan - Sunday, March 23, 2003

This past Saturday was our last day of Spanish School, woo hoo! No more homework. Now the trick is to keep using the language. We´re doing pretty well with it so far. We took our host family out for dinner on Saturday night and enjoyed our last evening with them.

On Sunday, took the early morning bus to Lago de Atitlan which is big lake formed by a collapsed volcano sitting at about 1500m in elevation. It´s very beautiful here and we now why many people visit this area. We stayed one night in town, and today are off for the small Mayan village of Santa Cruz de Laguna. Our accomodations are right on the beach so we´re looking forward to relaxing and reading our books. On Tuesday, we´re off for two nights to the very hippy town of San Marcos de Laguna. There are many people involved in the healing arts, yoga, massage, etc. in this little hamlet. Should be fun. Both of these places will cost about $10US a night for the both of us.

We end our stay in Guatemala with two days at the Casa del Mundo right on the lake. It costs about $18US a night and is supposed to be one of the nicest accomodations on the lake. Hopefully we´ll be able to rent some kayaks, do some swimming and catch up further on our travel planning and books.

After this last week in Guatemala, we´re off for the fun and sun of the Pacific Coast of Mexico. We look forward to many fish taco´s and cervezas while lounging in hammocks on the beach. We´ll be sure to reportl and let you all know how much fun and relaxation we´re getting when we get to a town with the internet. Should be cool. Gotta go catch a water taxi!

 Antigua & Escuela Espanol #2 - Friday, March 14, 2003

Our first week of spanish school is over and we can actually communicate and understand, although our verb conjugation leaves something to be desired. The more we use it the better we´ll be for the rest of our travels from Guatemala up into the Pacific Coast of Mexico. Our typical consists of 3 meals with our host family, 4 hours of spanish classes with our teacher Rosa Maria, and some wandering around Antigua. We were lucky that our Bristish friends Will & Arabella were in Antigua for a number of days so it was fun to hang out with some familiar faces and not speak spanish.

We chose to live with a family to get full immersion with the language. It has proven to be a wise choice as it has forced us to really use the language to communicate with the family members. They know only words and no sentences in english, so it has been a challenge at times to get understand each other. Our accomodations were a simple room with two beds and a bathroom. The Guatemalan people are pretty short, so we had to take the mattresses off the bedframes and put them on the floor so Dave could stretch out. The food has also challenged us because the typical Guatemala cuisine is very simple with lots of beans and rice to complement the light use of meats in their diets (mainly due to cost). The portions aren´t very big either, so we have had to supplement our diets with a few pizza´s and yes, we know it´s sad - McDonalds & Burger King.

Our family provides us with constant entertainment. Between the crazy 5 month old cat, to the kids and relatives that were always visiting the Casa we have kept busy. The host mother and daughter were very interested in our life in the US and our travel plans. We´ll be sending them update on our travels via e-mail. We even offered to cook a couple of times so we could vary the diet. One night we had a stir-fry with cherry jello for desert, and for breakfast we made fried eggs with bagels.

Our first Friday night with the family had us heading to a church outside of town (about a 20 minute walk) for some sort of a gathering to show off a statue of Jesus, etc. It was absolutely jam packed with locals and very few gringos. We weren´t quite sure of the significance of this event as we couldn´t understand our families explanation. Either way it was an interesting experience.

Our time in Antigua has been interesting. This old Spanish Colonial city has many historic buildings some of which are still standing after the many severe earthquakes that have hammered this area over time. It was pretty cool walking around town photographing old buildings and doors. Many times you would see a plaque saying the building was built in the 1600´s. Aside from the interesting old buildings, we have enjoyed just walking around the cobblestone streets and seeing movies. They have these great little movie cafes where you can get a meal and watch a video in a small room. Usually, there were only 3-4 people total and sometimes it was just the two of us which allowed us to pick our movie of choice. The rooms were complete with stereo sound and comfy chairs like you find in your grandparents basement. It was good fun seeing some movies and eating a dinner (to supplement our families food) or snack for about $5-7 US dollars.

At one of the cafes the owner was a very small and very flamboyantly gay Guatemalan man who reminded us of Chris Kattans´character Mango from Saturday Night Live. When ever the movie was about to start, he put one hand on his hip, stick it out and then ring a little bell and say "the movies on, let´s go". We had a blast talking to this guy who started the Cinema Cafe craze in Antigua.

 Ever hiked a Volcano? - Thursday, March 13, 2003

We did it for the 1st time yesterday with our friends Will & Arabella. IT was amazing!! Volcan Pacaya is about 2 hours southwest of Antigua through some pretty rough looking neighborhoods. We opted for a tour instead of taking the chicken bus, as we were told that the area was not very safe- banditos. Our $5 tour included a round trip shuttle ride, a guide for the 2 hour trek up the mountain, and our own personal security guard-complete with machete. Pretty good value!!

Our driver got lost for a while on the way to Volcan Pacaya, and we had a tour of the slums - tons of trash amidst the horrible pollution in the area. The harsh reality is that Guatemala is one of the poorest countries in Central America. Since 1996 with the new government, the country has apparently made great strides of improvement for its people. Tourism has become an major economic force here...as witnessed in Antigua, Tikal and a few other cities.

....We made our way up a windy road towards Pacaya and encountered an overturned truck that lost its breaks. His onion pickings were strewn across the road and the driver miraculously emerged unscathed, but it was pretty scary!! Thankfully our driver did not attend driving school with his counterparts who drive the chicken bus...slow and steady up the windy roads!

The trail was VERY dusty from recent smoke eruptions, but since our guide wanted us to stay closely together for security, we ended up sucking a ton of the pumice dust into our lungs/noses. We ascended over 800m to the summit at 2500ft. Pretty darn steep at the end, especially since the pumice dust made it more difficult to grasp good footing. It much like running up a very steep sand dune but more slippery. While I was gasping for air, Mr. Billy Goat (Dave) had no problem, of course... The view was incredible. It was surreal hiking on the rim surrounded by clouds with complete silence/stillness. At the summit, the noxious smoke was poofing out at regular intervals--pew!

The descent was so much fun that it made up for the grueling hike up. The pumice sand was on our side this time, and we were basically skiing down the mountain very fast! SO MUCH FUN!! Pics to come. On the descent, we enjoyed talking to some folks who had traveled around Asia and got some good ideas.. On the way home, M had the honor of sitting next to a member of the National Police Force who happened to be guarding the trail that day. Perhaps the tourist office propaganda about the park being much safer lately is not propaganda at all!

We were complete dust bombs, came "home" to our familia for a shower and grabbed a dinner-drinks with Will & Arabella. A LOVELY day!! And yes, we did memorize 5 new verb tenses and complete our other homework before bed. HOMEWORK SUCKS!

 Escuela Espanol - Monday, March 10, 2003

No 1st day jitters at Spanish School today. We arrived at 8 am anxious to learn some conversational Spanish and boy did we learn a ton!! It was fun but completely exhausting. Our teacher, Rosa Maria, took us out to the lovely courtyard to one of the many tables full of students and teachers and spoke only a few words of English for the next 4 hours. Needless to say, immersion is the best way to go. I think I learned more today then the semester long class from high school.

With our heads swimming with too many random words and verb conjugations, we were swished off by our host family to our accomodations for the next 2 weeks and a much needed lunch break. Our hostess and her two daughters are VERY friendly and got us settled into our simple room atop their small cafe. It's VERY basic, but spotless and the patio has an incredible view of one of the volcanos. Lunch was full of new tastes and ZERO English. Tons of hand gestures, pointing, and frustration, but many smiles. We lucked out and got a great family. The Asparagus soup and rice/cinnamon/sugar drink were both very yummy..

After a family trip to the grocery store, we have a few hours to ourselves before dinner. My head feels a bit swollen with the massive effort it is taking to communicate, but I'm sure it will get easier as the days progress. We hope to meet our amigos, Will & Arabella from Tikal, for some cervezas after dinner. That is, if and when we finish our 1st long homework assignment since 1992.

Today was a great day.

 Ride from Hell ends in Paradise - Sunday, March 09, 2003

Eight hour bus ride, no problema! After two bus rides in the middle of the day through weather similar to Texas in the summer, we have finally learned how to do it right. The key is to figure out what side of the bus the sun will be shining on for the shortest portion of the trip before picking your seats! We've now learned our lesson. The bus was actually nicer than a greyhound and was double decker, served lunch (stewardess!), seemingly had air conditioning (didn't work), played a video (Cats & Dogs), and had reclining seats. Not bad, except for the fact that it felt like 100 degrees in the bus if your face wasn't stuck out the window. Our bad.. We had two of the 8 or 10 seats not in the shade and M had one hell of a naucous bus ride... Lesson learned!!

Thank goodness our new friend Will remembered some of his Spanish from the year he spent in South America 15 years ago. Guatemala City after dark is not a good place to be, especially in the part where our bus let off. With ~20 minutes to spare, Will helped us find our way to the chicken bus to Antigua. Just like the guide books say, Guatemala City really is a pit. Overwhelming pollution, trash, and traffic. I'm sure there are some nicer areas, but we've made no time to go back.

What a wild & crazy ride to Antigua!!! The very old school bus was painted colorfully, the horn sounded like it belonged to an 18-wheeler, the seats were 3 on one side and 2 on the other with ~5 inches in between. The driver and his partner were an AMAZING duo. The partner - a very little man - slung our backpacks atop the bus. We have NO IDEA how they rigged it so that our bags stayed on. On the 45 minute Mario Andretti-like ride from Guatemala City, the partner jumped out of the bus at junctions and sachayed riders through crazy traffic onto the bus. Quite a skilled man. No injuries on our trip. Though I did find this very believable chicken-bus account on the internet. Hopefully our next chicken-bus ride won't be as colorful as this guy's!

We made it to Antigua after dark and were immediately impressed with the cobblestone roads, cleanliness, the picturesque lighting of all the colorful homes, and the FRESH air. The Spanish colonial style seems to permeate every part of town-even the slums. Apparently, Antigua is THE best-preserved colonial city in Spanish America. We quickly found a quaint, stylish hotel with comfy beds for VERY cheap and went out for dirt cheap meal with our friends that would have cost up 5X as much at home...

It was GREAT to finally get a decent night's sleep!

 Ruins, Ruins, and more Ruins - Saturday, March 08, 2003

Our adventures to Tikal required a pretty long day of travel. We picked up our enjoyable one and a half hour water taxi ride through the islands from the Caye back to Belize City in order to connect with our bus to Guatemala. We were informed by a local that we should expect our 10am bus to show up on Belize Time. So of course this meant the bus would be about an hour or so late. He was right. During the wait we managed to meet many colorful characters who were attempting to sell things, recite poetry, and just jabber away with someone from a foreign country. Of course there was no way in hell that we could have even been mistaken for a local. The bus finally arrived and we headed off for the 5 hour bus ride and the Belize/Guatemala border crossing.

One thing we need to point out is that none of the roads in Central America are "freeways" in the sense we know them in the US. They seem to only have 2 lanes, max speed limit of about 80k/h, cattle & horses crossing at will, and horrible drivers. This all makes for very lengthy travel times between cities. On top of that, traveling is very noisy as many cars have no mufflers, squealing brakes, and the drivers seem to speak to one another in a special language using their horns. So at anytime as you pass another car in either direction it seems to be followed by a beep, beep! They also use this special language to alert the many people before we pass them, who just seem to wandering the roads in and around the countryside.

After passing through the Guatemala/Belizean border crossing unscathed, we proceeded on our trip to El Remate - a good town to use as a jumping off point for visiting the Mayan Ruins of Tikal. The way to visit this famous World Heritage Site properly involves the following:

- Waking up at 4:30am to meet your shuttle bus to the ruins
- Take sunrise photos across the ruins
- Tramp around with a guide for 1/2 a day starting early to beat the heat of the CA sun and humidity.

The park opens at 6am and then you get one of the highly recommended tour guides to take you around. These guys all have college degrees in tourism with an emphasis on Mayan history and culture, so they really know their stuff about Tikal. On our shuttle bus ride to the ruins, we met several folks who wanted to get a guide - Will & Arabella from our hotel plus a few others.

Hector expertly led us around explaining in depth the fascinating history, building styles of pre-, post- classic, and inside information that only a local guide would know about Tikal. Many people were wandering around the ruins clueless, without the services of a guide or guidebook, and just soaked in the sights without really getting any good information. I'm sure they got a good tan, but we were really glad that we decided to hire a guide. It was only ~$10 for the two of us...what a bargain!!

One thing that really pissed us off was that random folks seems to join our tour group at every stopping point to drink in Hector's knowledge. So, not only did our group grow in size from 10 to about 20, these extra people failed to pay our guide and monopolized his time! A few of them paid what amounted to a tip of about 1/8 of what he should have earned. It´s really sad when you know that a guide is being taken advantage of. Hector worked hard for his education and to learn English (not easy), obviously is taking a lot of pride and interest in his countries history (a long embattled history at that), and is part of the movement in the country to welcome tourism as a viable resource for this very poor country. Hector should have made about $90-100 off the group, and it turns out he was jobbed. We were suprised that Hector didn't keep the group size small or at least inform everyone of the costs.. Whatever...we still learned a ton!

Besides that, Tikal was quite amazing, and we enjoyed crawling around the ruins and walking in the places of ancient leaders. Many of these ruins are over 60m high and the tallest is 80m, offering an amazing view over the vast Peten area jungle. The screeches of howler monkeys and parrots could be heard as the jungle awoke to the morning sun. The Mayans were quite sophisticated architects, astrologers, engineers and had a very complicated religion. Besides building amazing structures, we saw their ability to precisely align and engineer their city of Tikal so that they always had building at all four points of the compass. The aquaduct system which supplied fresh water for the city was quite sophisticated. Set in the jungle canopy, the site today consists of over 3,000 buildings, including a handful of impressively tall temples that tower above the forest. At its peak some 1,500 years ago, Tikal was home to an estimated 100,000 Maya living and working together. They also made alliances with other cities in the Mayan world to benefit their survival and protect the empire.

All in all, Tikal has been one of the most fascinating places we have visited on our trip. We highly recommend it to anyone heading to CA. Pics coming soon!

 Sun, Snorkeling and Fun - Belize Style! - Thursday, March 06, 2003

The windy weather we´ve been having here on Ambergris Caye finally let up on Friday enough to get out snorkelling on the Barrier Reef that follows the coastline of Belize. After a 15 minute boat ride and a quick refresher on snorkelling ettiquete (i.e. - don´t touch the coral, etc.) we hit the water. It was a crystal clear day so the water was very clear and brilliantly colored fish and coral were everywhere. After checking out the Hol Chan marine park area for about 30 or so minutes we proceeded to Shark Ray Alley.

Yup, you guessed it. We were in the water snorkelling with all the stingray and sharks. The stingrays were very friendly and were looking for handouts from the snorkelling guides who feed them everyday when groups go out to the reef. Marisa finally confronted a fear and touched one and thought it felt like a portabello mushroom floating in water. After floating around with the stingrays acosting us for handouts, we went looking for sharks. The guide led us on the hunt for the harmless Nurse Sharks who also hang around in this area. Again, they are very used to humans being around them everyday and sometimes they are fed by the guides as well. We found a pair lurking around some coral and followed them around for a few minutes. Hopefully our photos with one of those Kodak toss out waterproof cameras will turn out.

Tomorrow, we head off for NE Guatemala and the Mayan Ruins of Tikal. We can´t wait.

 Beans are YUMMY! - Tuesday, March 04, 2003

One minute we are freezing our butts off in the ICE STORM of 2003 in Dallas, the next minute we found ourselves BOUNCING to a halt at tiny Belize International Airport. After breezing through customs and baggage within 5 minutes, we were whisked through Belize City just in the nick of time to catch the last water taxi to Ambergis Caye.

We were immediately struck by how improvershed BZ is - shanty houses, dirty, barefoot kids running around, broken cars, boats, and homes that looked like they never recovered from the hurricane a few years ago. The country is sparsely populated with about 225,000 people. Strange since it's about the same size as El Salvador which has over 3 million people! The country used to be known as the British Honduras, another country that Brits got their hand on. Come to think of it, over the past year, we've only visitied former British colonies!

Belize is an interesting mix of folks from Central American and Carribean countries. Is often that you'll hear Spanish, English, and Creol/Carribean English spoken in the same conversation or sentence by people who are black, white, Indian/Mayan, and Creole. The people here are quite friendly as well.

Back to the boat... We quiickly handed our backpacks over for stowing under the boat and boarded the water taxi to San Pedro (Ambergis Caye), an area famous for the diving/snorkeling trips to the 2nd largest Barrier Reef in the world. Sitting amongst the boxes of tomatoes, bags of laundry detergent, families with little kids acting like they were riding the bus, we both realized our adventures were truly just beginning!

The water taxi was a 32ft dingy with two big engines and a haphazard crew and driver. The seats were around the outside and the staff used our heads as a hand rail saying "Qcuse me, pardon me" as they went by tapping your head walking the rail of the boat gathering groceries, supplies and children into any available space on the boat they could find. Oh yeah, while we didn't have to dodge too much water splashing from the waves as the boat cut it's path, we didn narrowly miss getting splashed by the "Drunky" who got sick as we were pulling out of the harbor. Thankfully, we were packed into the boat like sardines which caused us to be forcefully propelled toward the middle of the boat narrowly missing upchuck coming our way. Needless to say everyone was grossed out.

After spending the past week or so planning for our trip to Costa Rica in 2 months (some friends are meeting us), we crammed for our short week or less trip to Belize. After the hour and a quarter boat ride, we checked into our little hotel on the cheap but not a piece of crap. How cool, Hotel del Rio has grass thatch huts and hammocks to relax right on the beach. We stepped out for a quick bite to eat and definitely enjoyed our first taste of Belizean cuisine and Belikin Beer. We approached a very tan and very blond American looking woman for a suggestion on a place to eat. Turns out the place this blonde suggested was a hit with the locals.

Miracle of miracles, this restaurant converted Marisa from a bean hater to a whole bean (stewed, not refried) lover. This sand floored restaurant turned out to have amazing cheap food as well as offering some interesting overheard conversations from the other patrons. "is Bush bluffing", PUD or UDP (2 parties going at it for the local elections on Wednesday) as well as "I don't think of God in the first person, but rather in the third person". This was a long overheard conversation mixing english and spanish.

Lucky for us, George, a random stranger from the restaurant offered us a ride home with his wife Marie in their golf cart. Golf carts are one of the primary modes of transport here on the Caye (key). This lively older couple from Texas, George in his 80's and Marie a bit younger, own a hotel in San Pedro, some land on the North and South ends of the 36 mile long oasis. Marie also owns the record for the largest tarpon fish ever caught off the island (224 pounds and took 3 hours to pull it in).

We're heading snorkeling on Wednesday with Roberto. Tomorrow also happens to be the last day of Carnival so the little town is probably going to be quite crazy. More later from the wonderful blue waters of Belize.

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