Feb. 10-15, 2010
Back in the ’80s, I was a right wing retard. I’m feeling much better now, thank you. But as a result of reading too many Soldier of Fortune articles, my impression of Guatemala (and most of Central America) was that it was full of corrupt cops, paramilitary death squads and dead bodies by the truck full. I’m happy to report that after spending a few weeks in Guatemala, all my naive assumptions about this fascinating country have been squashed – except for the corrupt cops (which I’ll get to in the next blog entry.)
Roz and I crossed the border from Talisman, Mexico to El Carmen, Guatemala in about twenty minutes – a full hour less than it took us to cross from British Columbia to Washington state. Despite what we had expected, the process was simple. First, we cleared ourselves through immigration. Then we got our car cleared through customs. My distrust of “helpers” almost backfired on me when I ignored a guy without a uniform who was trying to get me to stop at some orange pylons. Thinking he was trying to scam me somehow, I drove between the orange cones and parked in front of the customs window instead. The guy said something to the armed guard who in turn directed me back to the fumigation area – in front of the cones. I apologized, saying my Spanish was terrible, and sheepishly backed the truck up to be fumigated.
But other than that, it was easy. I had to get photocopies of various documents, like my newly-stamped passport and international driver’s license, but it was all a short walk to a nearby building where everyone was very helpful. The only “helper” fee I paid was to a 10-year-old kid hanging around our truck who said he was guarding it. He was nice enough, so I gave him a couple of Quetzals, the Guatemalan currency, which was worth about 25 cents. He wanted an American dollar, but as we hadn’t negotiated the price beforehand, he couldn’t insist. An older man, a ‘helper”, seemed to appreciate me giving the kid anything at all, so shooed the boy away saying 2Q was enough. With a smile, he gestured to the open road ahead and said, “Welcome to Guatemala.” Boy, what an entrance.
Driving in a new country down new roads, we were almost giddy. And then I spotted it – another Suzuki Samurai hard top. I madly waved at it as we drove by and the other driver returned our greeting with a smile. But as we made our way along Highway 1, we passed a couple more Samurais. And then a couple more. Roz commented that the Samurais were as ubiquitous to Gautemala as the VW bugs were to Mexico. That first guy I waved to must have thought we were nuts, but hey, if these gringos want to say hello, why not humour them? This wasn’t an isolated incident though, as the Guatemalans were very friendly anytime they spotted us. There was always a wave and a smile. I had assumed that with the way the U.S. had turned their country into a banana republic and war zone for most of the 20th century, they’d harbour dark resentments against us. Not so. In fact, they were incredibly gracious.
(ROZ: Weeks later, I mentioned this phenomena to our Spanish tutor, Luis, wondering why the Guatemalans weren’t more hostile towards us. He said that the recent history of Guatemala isn’t taught in the schools, and the old people don’t talk about the war for fear of reprisals – even though the peace accords were signed over 10 years ago. So there’s a whole generation growing up who know nothing about their country’s recent civil war, unless they study it in University or research it on the internet. Furthermore, most Guatemalans aren’t even aware of the role the U.S. has played in Guatemala’s history, either as a corporate colonial force (United Fruit Company, et al) or the CIA’s role in the overthrow of Guatemala’s democratically-elected President Arbenz Guzman in 1954, which was the catalyst for the formation of guerrilla groups and the beginning of the 36-year civil war – a war in which an estimated 200,000 Guatemalans were killed, a million were left homeless and untold thousands ‘disappeared.’)
Five hours of twisting mountain roads later (including a half-hour wait at a construction zone), we rolled into Quetzaltenango – more commonly referred to as Xela (Shayla). It’s a big city, a little dirty and at first, not very inviting, but we had had a long day and were perhaps not in the best spirits to receive it. We walked around the narrow streets on the even narrower sidewalks looking at a bunch of hostels until we finally decided on the clean Hostal Don Diego (with wi-fi!). We dined well at Casa Babylon, an excellent restaurant with an extensive menu. (ROZ: The salads alone took up two pages and I ravenously devoured a huge, delicious spinach salad that the menu guaranteed had been sterilized in purified water.) While Roz gorged on salad (okay, I had a few mouthfuls and enjoyed the novelty of eating fresh vegetables again), I looked at the free English language magazines there, all of them filled with ads for Spanish schools. We soon discovered that Xela is one of the most popular places in Guatemala to learn Spanish, which explained the non-stop parade of gringos we kept bumping into (mostly in their 20s). There are over 30 Spanish schools in Xela, so it’s easy to find a good deal and it’s cheaper in Xela than in Antigua, so many “serious” travellers spend at least a month in Xela learning Spanish.
We spent the next couple of days exploring the city and trying to decide what to do next. We wanted to spend a week learning Spanish somewhere, but we weren’t too keen to be in a city while studying. The rural schools seemed more appealing. While trying to decide what to do, I spotted an ad in one of the local English language magazines for a foreign couple to be caretakers of a private estate. I showed it to Roz and we were both intrigued. We had agreed before our trip began to be open to any type of job that might allow us to travel longer and/or would be a good experience. Roz called the number in the ad and, after a half-hour gab with Brian, an American artist living near Antigua, made an appointment to meet him and his wife in a few days. The timing was perfect as we felt we had had enough of Xela (except for its excellent restaurants and used bookstores) and were keen to hit the road again and check out this interesting opportunity.
The plan was to spend the weekend at Lake Atitlan, which was on the way to Antigua, so on Saturday morning we left Xela, stopping first at the beautiful hot springs of Fuentes Georginas. We had met a lovely American gal named Debbie at the hostel and she joined us too (squeezed between us in the front of Yuki). We couldn’t believe what a treat this natural pool was, nestled into the lush mountainside above the green farming community of Zunil. Since it was a Saturday, the place was pretty full of both gringos and locals, but the vibe was definitely “chill” with everyone wearing the same blissed-out smile on their faces. As soon as our bodies hit the hot, soothing water, we understood why and knowingly smiled back. Ahhhhh …..
After saying goodbye to Debbie in Zunil, we got onto the recently paved four-lane Panamerican Highway. The road was lovely and carved into the hills, but I couldn’t help wondering what would happen when the rainy season attacked the bare dirt walls next to the road. It was as if excellent engineers had been hired to build the road, but no one thought about how to deal with the erosion that those cuts would create. My theory is that the someone’s brother owns the contract for keeping the highway clear and it’s better for the bottom line if the hills keep dropping mudslides onto the roads. Who knows, but it was very peculiar. Also peculiar was rounding a corner on the highway to find a truck on its side in one of our southbound lanes. Staggering from the wreck was a man with a bloody mouth – looking in a state of shock. We pulled over, but before we could get out, a bunch of other cars had pulled over and were already helping the guy. It was a weird moment, and a good reminder that we needed to reacquaint ourselves with our First Aid books. You never know when you might need it. With the man’s bloody face fresh in my mind, I slowed down and reminded myself that we are all very fragile beings on this Earthwalk. No sense hurrying if you don’t need to. (ROZ: It was, among other things, a very paradoxical moment for me. On the one hand my immediate response was to stop and help in any way we could. On the other hand, I realized that I didn’t have enough Spanish to either communicate to the injured man what he should do or to understand his tale of what happened and where he hurt. And, as Trond reminded me after we left, at least the Guatemalans would know what number to call and what the procedure is for an emergency. We may had been stuck in a hospital filling out forms for the rest of the day.)
We continued on our somber drive towards Lake Atitlan – one of Guatemala’s most famous tourist destinations. Descending from the mountains, we stopped at a number of lookouts to gaze at the lake below. It was huge and beautiful. From the last lookout, we even found a launching pad for the local hanggliders and paragliders. While there, we spotted a paraglider floating down to our destination town, Panajachel (Pana). I gotta try that one day!
We drove around Pana looking for a campground and eventually settled on a hotel just outside of town that allowed camping on their lawn by the lake. The views of the lake and the nearby volcanos were stunning. (ROZ: The final selling point for me was Arturo, the 30-year-old talking parrot. As we made our way towards the office, I heard “Hola” in a sweet, high-pitched voice. I looked around, thinking Trond was messing with me and then heard the “wolf whistle” in the same tone. Then I spotted the most beautiful parrot I’d ever seen, hanging upside down from a tree branch. The owner of the hotel, Eduardo, came out and introduced us to his pet. I never knew I could feel such affection for a bird, but Arturo was so friendly and gentle. I suggested to Trond that we buy a parrot to travel with us, but he wasn’t keen to wipe up bird poo all day). In the parking lot, we bumped into a bunch of Canadian paragliders, who gave us an update on the Vancouver Olympics, and then we went into town for dinner. The main tourist strip in Pana was like a carnival. Latino and gringo tourists walked up and down, checking out restaurants and souvenir shops while dodging tuktuks (3-wheeled taxis that are all over Guatemala). It was kind of fun in a terrible, touristy way.
The next day was Valentine’s Day, so we took a romantic cruise on one of the many boats that service the half-dozen communities along the Lake Atitlan shoreline. Our destination was San Marcos La Laguna – a small village known both for its clean swimming waters and its attraction to hippies who claim the place has a particular spiritual energy to it. The swimming was marvelous – especially considering that last year the lake was covered in a thick layer of green algae. Some sort of bacteria is attacking the lake which is probably enjoying the shit dumped in there from the growing lakeside communities. Although the water seemed cleaned where we swam, I made a point not to swallow any since I didn’t want to repeat the experience of my nasty lagoon water gulp at Pie de la Cuesta.
(ROZ: A week later I was getting a pedicure in Antigua – I know, it’s a hard life, but someone has to live it – and the woman next to me was an American who had been living in San Pedro on Lake Atitlan for the past six months. She gave me more details about the bacterial invasion of Lake Atitlan, insisting that if drastic action isn’t taken soon, the lake could very well be dead by the end of the year. I thought she was being alarmist, but when I researched it on the internet, the facts confirmed her grim and depressing news. From one report: “Guatemala’s Lake Atitlán acquired a film of green scum in October and November 2009. A large bloom of cyanobacteria, more commonly known as blue-green algae, spread across the lake in green filaments and strands. Cyanobacteria are single-celled organisms that rely on photosynthesis to turn sunlight into food. The bacteria grow swiftly when nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen concentrate in still water. According to local news reports, the nutrients feeding the bloom in Lake Atitlán come from sewage, agricultural run off, and increased run off as a result of deforestation around the lake basin. Cyanobacteria are a serious problem both because they are toxic to humans and other animals and because they create dead zones. As the bacteria multiply, they form a thick mat that blocks sunlight. Dense blooms can also consume all of the oxygen in the water, leaving a dead zone where other plants and animals cannot survive. The density of the bloom also affects the cyanobacteria. Since only the top layer of the bloom receives life-sustaining light, the bacteria in the rest of the bloom die and decay, releasing toxins into the water. These highly toxic harmful algal blooms cause illness in people and other animals. The government of Guatemala estimates that it will cost at least 32 million dollars to clean up the lake, install water treatment plants, and implement other measures to limit the flow of pollution into the lake to prevent future outbreaks, reported the Guatemala Times.”)
Upon returning to our camp site, we met fellow Canadian campers, Michel and Jeannette, who were also making their way down to South America in their converted camper van. He had us laughing with stories of ugly Americans (they’re not all like that, thank doG) and of making the most of life while you can. He too was looking for paradise on the road. I hope he finds it.
That night, it poured rain, but we were safe and dry inside our tent drinking booze, eating popcorn and celebrating Valentine’s Day by watching the Sandra Bullock film, “The Blind Side”, which had Roz blubbering like a teary school girl. Girls are so dumb. (ROZ: Sniff. Boys are so heartless.)
The next day, we left Pana and got back onto the Panamerican Highway, which eventually went from a nice four-lane affair to a beat-up two-lane deal. Oh well, nice while it lasted. In the crummy town of Chimeltanango, we ran into our first traffic jam and inched forward at a glacial pace in the sweltering heat. Eventually we got through the quagmire and found the road which took us to Parramos, where Brian lived with his Mexican wife. After a few unsuccessful attempts, we eventually found our way to his high-security compound and outrageously beautiful home. We enjoyed a lovely couple of hours sitting by his pool, laughing at his stories of life as a crazy, paranoid, rich gringo artist. I tell ya, we meet the most interesting people while we travel. My favourite story was of him flying his twin-engine Beech-18 airplane without a license and buzzing a restaurant in Bacalar, Mexico at tree top level. He landed nearby, drove to the restaurant and had dinner while listening to patrons still talking about that plane that buzzed them. “Did anyone get the number?” they asked. That made Brian laugh. Made me laugh too.
We left the interview unsure of our status, since we never really discussed our qualifications or the details of the job, but I sensed that he was looking for an older couple to take care of his home. As we shook hands though, he mentioned that he was still researching details on a business venture on the Caribbean Coast and that he would need some managers if the deal went through. He looked directly into my eyes when he said that, so I took it to mean that he’d consider me. I told him we’d be in touch to perhaps meet again. Roz and I left a little confused about what to do next, but thoroughly enjoyed the surreal encounter.
We drove into Antigua, which had been recommended to us by many people during our trip. The poorly laid cobblestone roads may have looked “postcard” pretty, but they jarred us into next week. We stopped for a late lunch (early dinner) at Cafe Flor, which specializes in Thai food, and enjoyed talking with Jose, the upbeat owner (and jazz pianist) who had learned English in England. It wasn’t pretty to the ear, but we all understood each other fine.
That night we drove up a dark road into the mountains. (Remember folks, this is how NOT to travel to South America). Our destination: Earth Lodge. Would we make it? Would we get drunk and play poker? Would we stay for two weeks?
Tune in next week for: Earth Lodge Drunkard Does Guatemala from a Hammock.