Thursday, May 31, 2007

Tilapa photos and phone number

I've put some photos from my weekend in Tilapa online: If you've forgotten what this is in reference to, please see the fourth paragraph of the previous entry.

Also, I wanted to remind everyone that my phone number here is: 011 502 5117 4443. Please feel free to call me whenever, as it's always nice to hear your voice!

Monday, May 28, 2007

Xela, Guatemala

After three weeks in Xela (aka Quetzaltanango), I'm getting ready to leave this weekend. I was supposed to get a ride from someone I met at the hostel, but he told me yesterday over the phone that he had a change of plans. So now it's back to the buses.

(Change of plans: Border run to Mexico tomorrow to renew my visa then one more week in Xela before setting off to Todo Santos, Coban, Semuc-Champe, Rio Dulce, Livingston, Tecal, etc with Lisi from Austria.)

Xela has been a really good place to stay for the past three weeks. It was so nice to be settled and not moving around all the time. I really like this city for its size and weather, for the people who make it their home, and for its proximity to so many beautiful places. It is somewhere I could see myself coming back to and staying awhile.

I've also had some interesting weekend excursions from here. The first weekend I was in town, Sara, a friend from the hostel and I went to the small beach community of Tilapa with around 11 other volunteers to do an organized clean up. We left at 5:00 in the morning (gross) and got to the beach around 9:00. It was already incredibly hot. The van dropped us of in the very small downtown area and we walked over a series of bridges to get to the beach. The first bridge crossed a marshy area that was totally covered in garbage. It turns out that this town does not have any kind of a system for dealing with their trash so people don´t really have a choice besides throwing it wherever or making big piles on the beach or in their yards.

Once we got to the beach, we were given two garbage bags each and told to start picking up. When the bags were full, we were told to dump out the trash into a big pile on the beach. It felt really unproductive and we were dripping with sweat. It just sucked. Fortunately, before we decided to quit and go home, we saw that other people were having a break and decided to join them. Most of the rest of the morning and afternoon were spent lying in hammocks, drinking beer, and eating greasy food cooked in the comedors on the beach. We had a meeting with some members of the community in the afternoon to talk about the garbage situation and allow them to discuss some options and brainstorm possible solutions.

We did some more cleaning up in the evening when it was cooler, then went to bed early because it was dark and there wasn't much else to do. We slept on the porch of a guesthouse because the rooms were stuffy and had no mattresses on the beds. (Yes, they'd warned us in advance that the accommodations would be rustic.) Luckily, Sara and I had been able to borrow sleeping bags, so it wasn't too uncomfortable and there weren't any mosquitoes, which was nice. The next day, we got up bright and early to do some more trash pickup and then had another greasy meal. After breakfast, we were taken on a mangrove tour in a small launcha. Mangroves are crazy looking plants, I'll post pictures someday. (I know I've been saying that for ages about a variety of subjects, but it's true. Just you wait.) The tour went on and on and I'm not sure if we got lost or they were just trying to be very thorough. After 2-3 hours, they brought us back to the beach where one of the comedors had a big lunch of seafood medley soup--fish with heads, shrimp with peels, half a crab... And then it was into the ocean for one last splash and back on the bus to Xela.

Last weekend was great as well. I climbed Tajumulco, the tallest point in Central America. It was an overnight trip organized by Quetzaltrekkers, a volunteer-run hiking organization that funds a school called Escuela de la Calle for kids who are homeless or can't afford to attend regular schools, as well as a home for orphans or kids who can't live with their families due to abuse, etc. I met with the group (~24 hikers and 4 guides) on Friday to borrow equipment and clothes and get everything organized. I had to borrow a lot of stuff because I only own one long sleeve shirt, one hoodie, and one pair of jeans.

Saturday morning, we all met at 4:45am to set off on our trek. We all piled into a pickup truck which took us to the chicken bus/camioneta station. In case I haven't already mentioned it, I love the whole chickenbus system. They are recycled old school buses from the US and Canada and you can get anywhere in the country on them for really cheap. Maybe you have to ride three to a seat with more people standing in the aisles, but you'll get to where you're going.

The second of two buses let us off near the bottom of the mountain. And by that I mean that you can't see the top from the departure point. Scary. I soon found myself in last place on the hike. This was my first time hiking with a pack and I didn't realize how different it would be from just walking on my own. For most of the ~6 hour hike, I was probably 10-15 minutes behind everyone else. Luckily, one of the guides, Lizzy had to stay at the end of the line, so I had company the whole way up. We took a lot of breaks and it was hard but not terrible and no one quit. We reached base camp around 4 or 5 in the afternoon and set up the tents. Everyone went around looking for firewood while the guides started preparing dinner--soup to start then pasta with homemade sauce. We had a big campfire and everyone went to bed early (~8:30) in preparation for the next morning.

In the morning, we were woken up at 3:30 to hike the final hour to the summit. Once again, I was really slow, due to the altitude more than anything I think. At one point, three of us were wandering up the mountain alone, as the end guide had stayed behind with someone who had altitude sickness and had to take it really slow. I was worried that we'd miss the sunrise from the top, but we had some great views along the way. We finally made it and it was like being on the top of the world. The guides said this was the best sunrise they had seen. We could see a mountain in Mexico, the mountains around Lago de Atitlan, and the shadow of Tajumulco. I've posted some photos here:

Last weekend was the first I've spent in Xela and I picked a good one. Saturday was the final championship cup soccer game and Xela was playing San Marcos, the capital of a neighboring department (which is like a state). This was the second soccer game I've watched in my life, the first being game one of the championship. It was really fun as the bars were full of people because the game was pay-per-view and no one wanted to stay home. They won 4-1 and everyone partied in the bars and in the streets in the rain. The game got over at ~6:30 and people were out until 3:00am when the team showed up--it was an away game--and was awarded a huge gold cup.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Lago de Atitlán

For the past week, I´ve been in the lovely and COOL city of Xela, Guatemala. But to catch everyone up, I´ll begin by writing about my week touring the pueblos of Lago de Atitlán. This was one of the most beautiful places in the world that I have ever seen, a huge crater lake surrounded by volcanoes, very green and natural. Most of the people here are Mayan and many continue their indigenous traditions and many women (and some, esp. older, men) wear the native clothing, beautiful and colorful skirts (or short pans on the men) and blouses. All travels between towns on the lake involved taking a boat, a nice change after so many bus rides.

I got off the bus and met two Americans named Dave and a German called Vivian. Vivian had plans to go to Santiago and we figured we´d try something different before going to San Pedro like everyone else so we tagged along. Santiago is a place that is generally visited as a day trip to see the market, so it wasn´t touristy at all. We walked around, drank some beers in a local pub, and spent the night in a kinda crappy hotel. The next morning we had breakfast on the patio at the one "expensive" ($22/night) hotel in the area with a beautiful view of the lake and the mountains.

After breakfast, we set off on a walk towards a town about 4 miles away called Cerro de Oro (Hill of Gold). After walking for about 10-15 minutes, we decided it would be better to take a pickup and flagged one down. Pickups are the main form of transportation in the rural areas. They are regular trucks with metal frames attached to the sides of the bed for people to hold onto while they stand up for the ride to wherever they`re going. It was really fun to ride and talk with the locals who thought it was funny that there was a bunch of gringos on the truck with them.

We got to the town, talked with some people, and got directions to the hill (aka small mountain). Once we found the path and started walking up, we realized that it would have been a really good idea to bring some water. Oops. So up and up we go, finally getting to a nice lookout over the lake. We had a rest and took some photos. During this pause, a couple men with huge loads of wood on their backs went past us down the hill. I realized later that most of the weight was resting on a strap that went across their foreheads. When we got to the bottom, we met up with the men who were having a rest and the two Daves both tried picking up their loads, which of course they couldn´t budge. And these guys carried them all the way down a steep path! Amazing.

Before leaving for San Pedro, we decided to visit the local idol, Maximus. We got directions, got lost, and ended up paying a kid to take us there, which was good as we probably would have never found him on our own. This was a very strange thing. It was a life-size mannequin type guy (for example, see pictures of Jesus from Easter in Granada) sans legs who was all dressed up including a cowboy hat. He was smoking a cigarette that one of the attendants ashed for him every few minutes. We saw a man praying before him and then pouring him a glass of rum. Apparently this is a saint with some vices.

San Pedro was next. This is where everyone goes to party and study Spanish. It was really strange because the town was distinctly divided into the section for locals and the section for tourists and I don´t think the two mingle much. We took a walk and ate lunch in the main part of the town and then hung out in the tourist section. There were lotsa places to drink and eat and party, so it was a nice place to chill for a couple days.

Next I went over to San Marcos, the town most known for being a "spiritual" center of the lake. What this means for foreigners is that it is the place people go to get massages and do yoga, among other `hippie´ stuff. I did both and it was a nice change of pace. One thing that I really like about the tourist part of this town was that it was pedestrian only, just paths through the forest. Another thing that I liked was that there was a huge storm the night I was there, guess I was in the mood for lotsa rain.

The day I was there, the was also a big celebration in the real town. The marimbas (xylophones) could be heard from everywhere so I went to see what was going on. There were about 20 or so boys and young men dressed up in extravagant costumes of every color, small strange masks of white men with blond hair, and lotsa feathers. I asked a few spectators what was going on, but no one would give me a straight answer. Vivian told me later that she found out it was some kind of celebration that they got from the Spanish 500 years ago and that the people danced for a whole day or more.

My final destination on the lake was Santa Cruz. Most travelers go to Santa Cruz for one reason, to party at La Iguana Perdita. Every Saturday night, they have a big BBQ/Drag party. It was really fun and a nice way to end my time at the lake. One of the staff members, a guy covered in tattoos with the voice of a pirate, danced in heels better than anyone I´ve ever seen. Besides the party, I also walked up a long hot hill to the town and finally got around to swimming in the lake--very cold but I got to see my first floating rocks!

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Antigua, Guatemala

I recently left Antigua after spending a relaxing four days there. It is the most colonial, touristy, and, some would say, the most picturesque (though that depends of course on one´s definition) town in Guatemala. Cobblestone streets and brightly colored buildings all touching one another.

On Thursday, I hiked up Vulcan Pacaya. The initial hike through the forest takes just over an hour and then you reach the lava flows. I never realized how many different shapes lava can make when it flows and hardens: long smooth patches, rough clumps, small separate brittle stones, and, my favorite, the waves. Once we reached this part, I understood why there were so many kids at the bottom of the hike renting walking sticks to tourists (~$.70). Luckily, I had rented one because it was impossible to tell if the rock you were about to step on was stable or not until you poked it. After stumbling about on the hardened lava for some time, I finally looked up and saw how close we were to the hot flowing lava. By the time we reached shoe melting point, we were about 5-6 feet away and could see it slowly moving. Pretty cool (and hot!). Unfortunately, it soon began raining and our guide made us leave because he said the rain evaporating on the lava caused a lot of bad fumes. By this time, it was getting a bit dark and on the walk back we could see the lava glowing under the stones we were walking on. I had no idea it was so close the whole time. Of course, we had to try poking it with our sticks. It was too far to reach, but the sticks caught on fire a little anyhow, due to the intensive heat. The walk back through the forest was mostly in the dark, though Lisi and I had one borrowed flashlight between us (which broke halfway down the mountain--luckily the guide let us borrow his).

As cool as the volcano was, the best thing about Antigua was the hotel we stayed at, Los Encuentros. The lady who runs it, Irma, took care of everyone like a mom. A double room with two big beds cost less than $7 per person and included free internet, laundry (which she did for me), use of the kitchen, bottled water, and coffee. The rooms are pretty nice and there is a large patio with a bunch of tables in the middle instead of a hallway. And Irma is so nice and helpful, offering Lisi the use of some sneakers for the hike and reminding us to bring jackets when we went out. I would definitely recommend it to anyone going to Antigua--let me know if you need directions!

Besides lounging about the hotel and walking around the town--it's central park is my favorite so far, we also managed to: accidentally see Night at the Museum (instead of Babel), find a live Mexican ska cover band, drink a lot of Gallo (English translation: cock) beer, buy a fruit we'd never seen before (I forgot what it's called, but it looks like a really prickly avocado. The girl who sold it to us thought we were ridiculous because it was so strange and amusing that we had to keep laughing), eat Italian and Thai food, and meet a lot of Israelis. There were six of them, Lisi from Austria, and me staying at our hotel. I never met anyone from Israel before, so it was great to talk with them. The three guys were really friendly and the three girls were really rude and antisocial to Lisi and I. Really strange. They told us that all men are required to do three years of army service and all women are required to do two years. After their service is up, most people travel for a year or two before going to university. To fund the trips, a lot of them go to the US and work for a few months selling Dead Sea cosmetics in the malls. They gave me some demonstrations of their spiels and they were quite charming and convincing.
I´m now in San Pedro on Lago de Atitlán. More about the lake towns later.

Photos from Honduras