Dear friends, faithful readers,
I am weeks behind on writing my blog. Something that I enjoyed so much has fallen behind. For me, it’s a bit of a shame, and I hope to catch up to schedule. To those who continue to read these entries- thank you.
The colorful culture and the spectacular highlands make Guatemala a favorite country of mine. In May 2012, we crossed the sweaty dry lands of Peten, followed by a journey in Belize. The second entry began from the Caribbean port, Livingston, in July. We maxed out out 9O day allowance; nearly 4 months in Guatemala including a 24 hour checkout in Mexico. we found many reasons to stay in Guate.
From the coast, we headed east, into the Central Highlands. This area was a very special place, unlike any life I knew. The Verapaz (translate as place of peace) is a region home to many indigenousness Guatemalans. Many of Guatemala’s “poverty stricken’ societies live here. Yet, the indigenous have remarkably preserved their culture and customs and their hardworking people. It’s far from the more populated regions where popular tourist destinations, like Lago Atitlan and Antigua, are. The minuscule tourism in Verapaz offered us a more authentic look into the Guatemalan life, hidden in these mountains. Cycling though this quiet world, was precious.
For nearly 3 weeks, we cycled on dirt roads amongst the misty mountaintops. We exchanged smiles with the farmers on the road. With their brimmed hats and machetes, they made the long commute out to the fields at dawn or heading home before dust. I did not expect to see women dressed so lovely and formally out in these rural parts. They wore long skirts with intricate patterns and blouses (known as huipils)of vibrant colors, shimmery threads, and embroidered flowers. Subsistence farms plotted on steep mountains grow the worlds best coffee, cardamom and fruits in the rich volcanic soil. In the Verapaz there is a large concentration of diverse indigenous languages, dominant over Spanish. We learned how to say hello “Wan b’i” in Q’eqchi. Yet, the next day they said “C’alen jau” in Pocomchi. The Verapaz people are shy, yet they smile and warm when we say “hello”.
Some nights camping were not so comfortable, like when we had a swarm of mosquitoes in our tent. It rained many nights that we couldn’t pitch our tent in the mud. When the search for a back-country camp settlement failed, we would ask around the small villages. As usual, but never expected, a nice family would let us camp under the roof of their patio.
It wasn’t too long until we discovered the welcoming hospitality at the fire stations. In a small highland town name Tactic, a team of firemen welcomed us to stay for three days while Paul was recovering from a flu. We stayed at about six more Guatemalan fire stations. Many of the fire stations in Guatemala are volunteer stations. It was wonderful to meet these admirable young Guatemalan men who dedicate their time to rescue lives.
We were also invited, twice, by the mayor of the town to have a secure sleeping ground for the night. It was the first occasion, when were approached on the football field by the mayor and the whole village. He welcomed us to stay in a water park on a patio, with security and free to swim in any of the ten swimming pools. The second invite was in Aleotenango. The mayor arranged a night in a local theater.
We began to experience the chaos of popular Guatemalan destinations, beginning with Chichicastenango. There, we explored the bustling mercardos (markets). We took a month long brake at Lago Atitlan, and visited Antigua and Guatemala city. In the urban jungle,the streets come alive and the markets are explosive. Swarms of brightly dressed Guatemalans bulldoze through the market halls. Vendors swim upstream yodeling their advertised goods. These places were fun, yet sad, because no longer were the indigenous Guatemalans smiling at us. Instead, they shoved artesian goods in our faces.
It could have not been a complete Guatemalan experience had we not boarded the Chicken Bus wild ride. Our first excuse was when we took the bus from Maya Pedal to Guatemala City. We tried to get a visa extension at the migration office. At the desk of a migration representative, we were told that we would have to leave our passports for a week at the office for processing (sounds sketchy… no thank you!) Our second chicken bus trip was from Antigua to Mexico. We found out from our friend Aram in Antigua, that our 90 day allowance was for all the 4 Central American countries thanks to this CA-4 agreement. We assumed we had 90 days to stay for every Central American country. We didn’t want to pay the heavy fine at the border of El Salvador, so the next day, it was back on the Chicken, back to Mexico.
Boarding the yellow school bus in Guate is not quite like a morning trip to 3rd grade class. The driver pushing 1oo kilometers and hour, increasing seed at every blind turn, with a maniacal grin and the reggaeton is dialed to 11. Meanwhile, the copilot/fare collector is swinging out the door side or strapping luggage on the rooftop, while bus is in motion. Or, he is hanging out the door screaming the permanent destination “AGUAT-E-A_GUAT-E-A-GUATEE” really fast. You can’t miss such a beast with vibrant paint and decals of feel good messages like “God blesses this bus ” and cartoon roadrunners. At least, they seem to enjoy their job. It’s more reassuring to see our driver have fun rather than driving with road rage.
The hip hop videos on the chicken bus flat screen couldn’t keep my attention due to the unusual volcano activity from the volcano name Fuego. A big cloud of ash was growing bigger by the minute. The locals said this was “normal”.
It was getting scary because our bus was driving in the direction of the volcano. We could see closer, the clouds of the volcano were growing bigger and the ash was rolling down the mountain. Later, our bus rolled through the ash cloud. We were a bit freaked out, thinking we might have been caught up in a natural disaster… But all was fine. After 30 minutes we passed the cloud. Next day, on the bus back from Mexico, we read the Guatemalan news headlines; Seven villages were evacuated due to the volcanoes ash and the mayor of Antigua was jailed for charges of fraud.
After Antigua, it was downhill towards the Pacific and to the border, of El Salvador. We rushed to get to the border because the locals had us nervous about the criminal activity on this highway. There had been many cased of road robberies.
We left Guatemala with many good memories. We had wonderful host offering nice places to sleep; like our night on a sailing boat thanks to a French man who goes by the name of Winnie (because like the bear, he loves honey); a house at the lake of Atitlan, with the magical Merlin; and our friends like the Dennings who are on the road with their 5 kids.
One of my dearest memories: We were climbing uphill though the Central Highlands, and it began to rain. We asked a road-side store owner if we could camp under her roof. She invited us in and gave us a room with a layered tin roof cover. The rain grew into a ferocious rain storm like a typhoon. Water was blasting over surfaces and the wind was blowing trees over to their sides. We were backed into a dry corner as our room was flooding. The family came into the room to fix the roof that was peeling from the wind. They brought out the bread, and we offered our coffee, and together we shared the evening. I recall a good feeling, together, with our friends during this storm. It was the fist time I could share small conversation in Spanish. When it was time for bed, the mother invited us to sleep in her bed and she would sleep in the other bed with her children. We had cozy sheets and the kids were sound asleep. There was this peaceful feeling and assurance that Paul and I both felt there. It was peace and I felt so grateful for that moment, for the room, and the family. This night promised me; that I am safe, loved, and that everything is going to be great.
Thanks Guatemala, for the memories! Who could forget riding a bike amongst a land of green jungle, volcanoes, and nargly steep grades, like..
‘Til next time, folks!
(*) Thanks Paul for sharing your beautiful photos: m.piem.org