Saturday, January 31, 2009

Santa Rosa de Copan

It´s cool here in Santa Rosa. We are spending time in the internet to help pass the time because there ain´t much to do. We arrived here about 10:30 am after an easy two bus rides from Copan, quicker than we thought. The first ride was in a colectivo van, nice and new, and only as many people as there were seats. Geordie was directed to a seat in the back but made me tell the guy in Spanish that he would ¨vomitar¨if he sat there, so they let him sit up front with the driver instead.

We left at 8;20 and were in La Entrada at 9:50 am where we were dropped off at the madhouse of a bus field (not quite a terminal although they called it that). We had competing offers for buses to Santa Rosa, each claiming to be the faster - we were practically being dragged to the buses. We hesitated though and after almost going on the old school bus, opted for the more "modern" but equally old highway bus. And guess what, it was the one which left first and didn´t stop at every corner for passengers. Looks like we lucked out for a change. It was almost comfortable except for the broken arm rest - and Geordie wasn´t happy with the woman standing up next to him rubbing her thigh against his leg. She only had two fingers on her left hand and was not a young ducky, so he may have misinterpreted her intentions. Well, he says she wasn´t even aware of it. The bus was full and had standees from the back to almost the front of the bus. We haven´t travelled like this in ages. Ah, the good old days.

In Santa Rosa we took a taxi up to a hotel that was recommended in Lonely Planet. The ride cost more than the trip from La Entrada for one person. Maybe they saw the gringos coming. The hotel is actually a B and B with only four rooms and is a converted house. Quite pleasant, with big large beds which are comfortable, a living room where we can sit and read and we have ordered breakfast tomorrow for 7:30. We had first ordered it for 8:30 but after a walk around town, realized that we didn´t need to stay any longer so could get on our way early. We did a little walk up to the central park and beyond, looking for a pizza place that came well recommended. That´s where we are going to eat, sorry all you foodies. For lunch though we had roasted chicken, Peruvian style -which brought back memories of some of the small towns we stopped at in Peru where roast chicken was the most easily found food. Tasty, and the french fries were good, made with real potatoes and fried a la minute.

Tomorrow we are off to El Salvador. We have to catch a bus to the border town from here, and then a bus to the Honduran border, do the formalities, then walk to the El Salvador border and a bus from there into El Salvador itself. We will probably change buses somewhere off there to get to the town we are heading to, if we manage to get all that done right. We´ll find a bed somewhere anyway.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Ruinas and Guns

We climbed pyramids today, without coughing, so we must be getting better. We got up nice and early, to discover there was no electricity - it was not on again until 3 pm. We had been expecting that since the last time we were here we lived with lack of electricity everywhere we went because of rotating power outages. I think they've fixed some of those problems, but obvioulsy it's not perfect.

It was a nice walk to the site though, about 15 minutes along a stone path, past a couple of stelae and then into the park and to the entrance where we were met with a flock of squawking Scarlet Macaws. They are so beautiful but so noisy. They are always there since they are fed. We think they may even have hutches on the site where they sleep at night. However, they are free to fly around - I guess they know when they've got it good.

The site of these Mayan ruins is very large and is famed for its sculptural works. The stelae are tall stones, which have been carved, many with human figures in ceremonial headdresses, often on one or two sides, while the other sides are covered with Mayan heiroglyphic writing which tells the reader about the ruler therein extolled. These are unlike any other sculptural works in the mayan world so are indeed a precious historical resource. As I mentioned in the last email, many of the originals are in the museum but the copies on site are faithful to the original so do give one the real flavour. One of the most important things on the site though is the Heiroglyphic Stairway which was found intact for the bottom 15 steps, but in a jumble above. The stairs were reconstructed but it is unlikely that the top tiers were restored in the correct order so it is still a task to decipher everythng. Luckily those bottom 15 stairs give lots of etail. It is indeed a magnificent site.

We wandered around the ball courts where the warriors played a rubber ball game, and might be sacrificed if they lost. Tell that to the NHL. I guess it could mean the loss of some good players though so seems very unsensible. How did they learn to improve? Of course it may have been considered glorious to be sacrificed, so who knows.

We only spent about two hours at the site wandering over the pyramids, up to the tops, some still covered with huge trees which have been allowed to grow or have not been cleared. There are often lots of temples which have been cleared so one can see how imposing the place would have been in its full glory.

And now for something completely different. This is a wild west town, and it feels very odd to walk around among all the cowbows in town. All the men seem to wear blue jeans, big white hats and many of them have big rodeo buckle belts. I don't know whether they do rodeo, but the belts can be bought in the market, so one doesn't have to be a bull rider to own one. These guys don't pack guns, but there are also lots of guns around. Outside the coffee shop where we enjoyed coffee today, there is a bank which is watched over by the hawkeyes of four guards. Two of them stand guard across the street, one of them right outside the window, with huge shotguns at the ready. A third stands outside the door with his shotgun and the fourth carries only a wand metal detector and a pistol on his hip.

And not only that, but there's a clothing store near the square, where on the first day I saw a guy standing at the door wearing a pistol tucked into the front of his pants. It would not do to act suspicious, and I don't know what would happen if someone tried to shoplift a hat or something. We are keeping our fingers to ourselves.

We are off tomorrow for a little interior city called Santa Rosa de Copan. We will take a bus first to a town called La Entrada from whence we will transfer to another bus heading there - we expect. It will take about four or five hours depending on the number of times the bus has to stop to pick up passengers. From there we are making our way to the El Salvador border to cross there and start exploring that country.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Copan Ruinas

After our arrival here we havent been in too much of a rush to do things. We arrived early as we said, but later in the day had one of those hotel problems we come across every now and then. There was no water. For about five hours. We went off checking other places which did indeed have water, so it was just our hotel. One of the problems was that we couldn't find any body around our hotel to talk too. We have to go off to the corner restaurant where we were told that there was a problem with the cistern and it would be fixed "ahorita" - really soon. Well, we went off, came back a half hour later and there was still no sign of water, so we found someone else and told her that if the water wasn't fixed by 6:30 pm we were moving. Got back at 6:30 and there had been action - we had water so we were happy again. The cistern was ful and we could flush our toilet, and there,s even hot water.

Yesterday was our visit to the museum and we certainly enjoyed it. There is a full replica of the temple which was found beneath the present temple in the ruins themselves. It has many stucco carvings which represent macaws, and gods or deities as well as some human figures. The buidling is painted in brilliant reds, greens and whites. all colours that were found on the original when it was discovered. Apparently the temple was considered so holy that it was decided to bury it instead of destroying it to make a new temple.

There are many other sculptures in the musuem which have been moved from the site to protect them for the elements and perhaps the unsavory. These have been replaced by replicas so when we go see them tomorrow, they will add to the awe this site inspires. I took lots of pictures of the originals though and so far I havenñt managed to delete any more photos by accident.

This morning we went out to Macaw Mountain which is a bird sanctuary about 15 minutes out of town by tuk tuk. It{s a wonderful site, down in a little river valley, surrounded by high cliffs. All the birds here have been rescued or donated. The owners do not capture birds, but protect them. There were many macaws - scarlet, blue and gold brazilian ones, and green winged macaws as well as many many parrots. Also in some of the very large cages that have been constructed there are a number of toucans ' including the ones with the multicolour beaks and the yellow fronts. They are wonderful clown like but also very beautiful birds.

There{s even an old swimming hole at the site and we can go back if we wish to swim there over the next couple of days. We probably won{t but it sounds nice.

We had a very interested place for dinner our first night. We met the two guys from Frankfurt and all four of us went out to dinner at Carnitas Nia Loa. There we began by attempting to order a couple of drinks. It was happy hour so we thought we could make one order and get two drinks. Not quite. The woman arrived with eight drinks ' four run and coke and four cranberry and coke. So we all got two drinks each and enjoyed the different flavours. The food was tasty ¿ it{s a meat place, so I had steak and Geordie had something like fajitas with strips of meat, green peppers and onions. No vegetables though.

We are off to the ruins tomorrow, to see the site in it{s enirety. I{m looking forward to it, even if I do have to get up early so we can have breakfast and get to the site nice and early so we don{t get overheated. We are both still fighting our colds. Hey maybe it really is dengue fever. Lots of coughing, but we hav}en{t had any of those odd taste sensations that our friend Joanna had when she got dengue in India. But I{ve had a headache most of the time which is annoying. But I am coping not to worry.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

In Honduras

Yes, we survived our three thirty am wake up call and our van arrived on time to take us to Copan. We drove past Guatemala City in the dark and were glad we weren´t going in, because that could add a lot of time to a trip. We think that every truck in Guatemala was on the highway though, and our driver had few qualms about passing six or seven of them at at time. Looks like we were on the main road to the Caribbean side port town so the trucks were hauling lots of freight, and of course there´s no railway.

I actually slept for part of the journey early on because I had the back seat to myself and could lean up against the luggage stored on the rest of it. I woke up after daylight and enjoyed the amazing scenery on the way. I also had a lovely conversation about travel (what else?) with the two german men who I noticed were wearing matching rings. And if that weren´t enough, one of them went to sleep in the other´s lap. Very sweet. I hope we run into them again - they´ve have traveled a lot too and I´m sure could give us a few ideas.

Border formalities were pretty simple. Our driver rushed us off our van to beat the fancy Hedman Alas pullman bus that was just ahead of us. We did it too. First we had to check out of Guatemala which cost us 10 quetzals each (about $1.50), and then we had to enter Honduras which cost 25 quetzals each. AFter that we negotiated to change all the rest of our quetzals into Honduran Lempira which is about double Quetzals. The prices seem similar to Guatemala too - a drink which might cost 10 Q costs 20 L, so it will be easy to convert. When we get to El Salvador we get to deal in dollars, and then in Nicaragua we will switch to Cordobas. Hmmm - maybe these guides need to have a little chat with the European Union.

We emailed the hotel we are staying in to request a reservation - word is that they had a power outage yesterday so didn´t see any mail. That reminds us of the last time we were here when they were rationing power. Copan where we are now, had no power from midnight to 6 am then, which meant the fans were not much good to us. However, this is a different season and I think the evenings will be a little cooler.

Our room is quite colourful. We have red tiled floors, blue bedspreads, the walls are yellow orange till about a foot from the ceiling where there is a strip of Aqua blue and then the ceiling is pink. Think we´ll rest comfortably with all those colours competing?

Today we just wandered around town a little. We had a coffee first and a really nice biscuit - two shortbreak like cookies sandwiching some Dulce de Leche caramel. Yum. We got to town earlier than expected so we even decided to have a nap before going out after the coffee. Then we did a little wandering, got some money from the bank machine (we were worried about that after our experience in Monterrico where there was no ATM that would take our card. Lunch was at a very local place where we had pupusas, which are a Salvadorean specialty. They are tortillas stuffed with a choice of fillings, including squash and flowers. We did not go so exotic and had chicken and bean fillings although Geordie did have some chicharron with his beans - that´s crispy pig fat I think. It tasted nice and porky.

We are going to head to the Ruins Museum tomorrow. It is new and was not here when we visited last. The guide books suggest visiting it first. We may do things a day at a time. Today we looked at the little local museum. Tomorrow the big museum, next day the ruins themselves, if we can keep ourselves out of them since we will be right there after the museum visit. There is another ruin site not too far away and there is also a bird park with lots of macaws and other exotic birds flying around, and a butterfly farm too, so we have lots to do.

Now it´s time for another nap. We are still coughing away - the poor people on the bus had to listen to both of us hack. I don´t know whether they could hear my wheezing while I was sleeping. That´s a phenomenon I´ve never experienced before - it seems to keep Geordie awake as well as me. He has good hearing. We will start being better with ourselves and drink more water (thanks Kerri), and we are guzzling cough syrup, taking flu medications. We have everything one could need. Even a powder which dissolves in hot water, tastes of lemon and has paracetamol in it - which should help one sleep.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Antigua No. 3

This is Geordie. Nigel is in bed at 2 pm in Antigua.

Today we had assured tickets on a shuttle (van) from San Pedro la Laguna on Lake Atitlan direct (no boat) to Antigua at 9 am. By 9:10 it was obvious from all the phone calls the guy was making that there was a problem. Problem? We got our money back and walked down the street to the dock. Got a launch direct to Pana (no stops at the villages). We walked up the hill to a tuk-tuk (3 wheeled thing which they call taxis) and drove to a travel office. Arrived at 9:55 and before 10 we were on a shuttle to Antigua. All worked very well. Over the years it has have often been able to jump from one vehicle to another and another and another. The driver took a different way which was very rural, very up and down and very curvy. Nigel who has something (flu)?? was near to sick most of the time. Other than that the drive was beautiful.

We will be here for at least 2 nights until Nigel feels he can make a 4 am shuttle and 6 hour ride to Copan, Honduras.

Off to the square for a visit to the bank and coffee. Guatemalan coffee is sooo good. I won't have my usual protector with me at the bank so must check if anyone is following me after.

Friday, January 23, 2009

La Casa del Mundo and San Pedro de la Laguna

We had four wonderful days in La Casa del Mundo in Jaibailito, although I apologize for the long delay between our messages. (Note to Kerri, Cathy, Dolores, and Jenny - I´ve included you in this message, and can add you to our list which many of our friends read. Let me know if you would prefer not having these missives. You can decide after reading this one I guess, lol.)

You already know that we arrived in La Casa safely, and that we even met some wonderful people there, but it was more than that. We had a great time, with good people with whom we seemed to share some real camaraderie, and not just folk met on the road. I guess it was cemented on January 20th when I met Kerri and Jenny down at the water for our first 7:30 am swim. It was Kerri´s birthday and it was a promise we´d made and of course must keep. She was in first (not her first time) but Jenny and I took a little longer to commit to the water - that first bracing brisk plunge made us odd converts to the pleasures of the waters of Lago de Atitlán. Kerri says it´s therapeutic - maybe, but it was certainly shockingly cold for the first moments in. Remember that this water is about 600 feet deep just a few meters out from the shore. And a 1000 feet deep further out. Little surprise that the temperature was a little shocking. But in moments that water had become an inviting silky pleasure. I even went back at 11:00 am for another swim. And joined our merry band at 7:30 am for the next two days we were there too, although it wasn´t till after the first I learned that part of the ritual was to stop off at the restaurant for a coffee on the way down. That was just nice. (Jenny christened us the Lago de Atitlán Sociedad Aquatico (LASO), and we will be that forever now.

As well as the wonderful opportunity we had to bond in the lake our meals were as pleasureable. Our second evening we had a great time together along with several others at the resort, helping the continued celebration of Kerri´s birthday. We ate well at all our meals too - they were always four courses, and each night was very different from the one before. Delicious food. We ate Thai one night, Guatemalan another, but since the old memory is going, at the moment, the other two meals are just a blend of good food, good wine, good conversation and sympatico!

Of course we did go off and do things on our own. I casually suggested on our second day that we could walk to Santa Cruz, the next village to the left of our place. Our other intrepid band members had done it the day before and even said the hill was a killer, but I didn´t get the significance of that until we did it ourselves. Yeah, the walk along the hillside, with sometimes a very narrow strip of path to stand on (a foot wide?) was daunting, but hey, it wasn´t that bad. Until we decided we should walk up into the village instead of just hang out at the pier. Oh, my, god! The hilltop villages in Spain and Italy must be jealous of that hill. And as we went up this paved, bare, unshaded slope, we kept being passed by tuk-tuks - (hey you guys back there at La Casa - ya coulda told us, lol.)

But we did it. And were glad we did. There were no child labour events happening the day we walked up, but the church at the top has some fascinating statuary - including a Santiago, to remind us of our camino plans for Spain. Certainly if we stayed here at La Casa for the whole time we are away we would be ready for the hills and the long walks of the Camino. Going up and down the steps four or five times a day, to our room, to the restaurant, to the swimming deck, and our little walks to Jaibalito and Santa Cruz we would be guaranteed to both get ourselves fit and to lose that excess weight we have acquired this past year.

We felt great sadness when we left the Casa to continue on our way. With our departure on the same day as Jenny and Cathy, we left Kerri to fend for herself. But she is such a wonderful person that we know she can make friends in an instant. Hugs Kerri.

We left yesterday for San Pedro de la Laguna. We thought we needed to see more of the lakeside, so we reluctantly headed off. The boat trip over was fun; I had a good conversation with the 15 year old boatboy who was coolness personified, but also smart. I hope he makes his way in the world with great success. We arrived at a sensible hour and found a cheap but comfortable hotel very quickly, then set off to have something to eat for lunch. We walked along the rough path that passes for a road on the little maps we´ve seen - there are real roads here, but these are just dirt tracks, but they did take us along to a really lovely restaurant with a Spanish chef from Barcelona who fed us tortilla de Espaná and Jamon Serrano - now that was a surprise and of course another lovely memory of Spain for us to indulge in.

Following lunch we walked some more, through cornfields with corn actually growing in them (not all the corn fields are in growth) and in a couple of places big swathes of fennel which gave off that wonderful scent of licorice when we brushed them. Mmm. I haven´t seen any sign of fennel on the menus - I wonder what they do with it.

We ate well last night, tuna with a lovely herbed sauce for me, with tiny new potatoes stirfried with mint. Then we went back past the coffeed processing plant which is just across the road from us which at that later hour was in full swing. I have to tell you that whatever is going on, the smell off that plant is not pleasant. I can´t figure out if the smell is from the coffee skins which are being husked off, or whether they are using some chemical to process it. But it´s not pleasant. At least in our room the wind seems to be going the right way.

Today wasn´t my best day though. I woke up this morning, after feeling under the weather last night and knew I had some bug or other. My throat and my chest both hurt when I cough and I had a really bad headache. We are hoping this doesn´t interfere with our plans. I took aspirins twice today but they never touched my headache, so at four o´clock I broke down and took some of my emergency supply of tylenol3, which seems to have helped a lot. I don´t feel quite as feverish, although maybe staying in bed from 11:00 am till 4:00 pm helped that too.

We have booked tickets on a shuttle tomorrow morning that leaves at 9 am for Antigua. We have decided to skip going to Pana - because when we drove through it on our way to the lake we were not at all impressed at how much it had grown and over gringoed - and it was bad enough the last time I was here 18 years ago. We have booked the same hotel for tomorrow night in Antigua that we have already enjoyed twice and it´s likely that I´ll vote for another day to see if this flu-ey feeling goes away. I don´t relish the thought of going to Antigua tomorrow and then leaving the next morning at 4 am for the shuttle to Copan in Honduras which is really our next planned stop. We will be finished with Guatemala then and be planning our trip though El Salvador to Nicaragua for the next six weeks or so.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Guatemalan food so far!

Well, I guess I can talk about food now. We have had several requests for it, so we thought it would be a good idea to share. We have a confession first. We really haven't gone out of our way to find Guatemalan food. We have seen some evidence of it on menus, but I have resisted since I'm not much of a fan of corn tortillas which are certainly ubuquitous here. Geordie likes them and has had them with his breakfast but not much else.

We have mentioned our discovery of Hector's No name restaurant in Antigua. It has very European food - and great french fries, although we only had those once. The menu is very small and the first night one of us should have ordered the special because it was chicken stuffed with leeks and he hasn't had a special on any other of the nights we ate there. The duck breast with a pave of potatoes and carrots and a lovely surprising creme fraiche topping was wonderful. Geordie had the boeuf bourgignon twice, the first more successful than the second (which was a little chewey).

In Montericco we stuck to fish, fried and for me a pasta or two. The pasta's were nice - I'm really into comfort food like that. But we really did need to go out and search for more authentic food, so when we were back in Antigua we made the effort. The first place we tried was good. It is mentioned in the guidebooks and truly does have all the food sitting on a stove that's at the entrance. All are in red sauces, and one of them was described as picante, but the others were not. There was pork, lamb, pork feet, beef, cow stomach, etc. We got to choose a meat and then two sides. I chose lamb ribs while Geordie chose the shredded beef. The lamb was tasty, and I had it with tiny potatoes and black beans. Geordie's beef had potatoes and carrots in it so he chose rice and potato salad. He enjoyed them both, but they weren't spectacular.

At another place Geordie ordered a turkey soup which I watched being dished up from a big pot. He was served it in a huge bowl, wonderful tasty broth, that one knew had to have been flavoured with some intriguing spices, and alongside it he was given three little bowls, containing onions and cilantro in one, a herb like sage or savory in another, a red powder, which was not chili in the last. He kept adding more and more of that, which changed the flavor but didn't make it hot. It was good. I had a simple roast chicken there whose skin was redolent of garlic. Yum.

At the next meal, I ordered something different - Pupusas with Pepian. These were two thin corn tortillas which were stuffed with chees and chicken, and fried. It was simple and very delicious. Even with corn tortillas I'll order that again. The pepian was a sauce made from pumpkin seeds, tomatoes, cinnamon and other flavours but it didn't tast at all strong. It was lovely. The garnish was a cabbage salad which I also enjoyed.

Geordie's meal that time was a dish like a Mexican tostado, a crisp tortilla layered with guacamole, spicy chicken, cabbage relilsh and lettuce. It was great although he enjoyed the fact that I got rice with my dish, so he could expand his meal - because it was dinner, while the food was really more snacklike. It would have been perfect for a small lunch.

Last night at dinner here in La Casa del Mundo we had a chicken and vegetable kebob affair, which was delicious. I can't tell you the other flavours but it was so well cooked, moist and tender with that smoky flavour from the grill. It was served with potato puree, a tomato and avocado salad, and we had a delicious corn soup to begin - again with the corn I don't like. Hmmm. Dessert was a sort of strawberry shortcake which was lovely and we ate the whole thing with a bottle of Cab Sauvignon from Chile - cheaper than other bottles we've had in Antigua.

There are lots of more food adventures to be had. I'll get to another report some day. Until then, buen provecho..

La Casa del Mundo

"I'm writing this quickly because I know you all read fast!" (Adapted from Ethel Pottle, my mother).

Really, this place has expensive email so I have to get as much in as possible not to waste money. We arrived at La Casa yesterday (yes, Joanna, it's the same place) but I haven't yet gone swimming in the lake. I did manage to delete everyone of the pictures on my camera about 15 minutes ago - do read the messages on your cam screen carefully, and don't just blithely presss ok!) No matter, it just reminds me of our trip to Africa where my camera died very early in the trip - I got to use all my senses after that to enjoy the trip way more than I might have through a lens.) But we still have six weeks to go, so I'll still take pictures and will do my best not to delete the rest. There will be no pictures of Monterrico and bird life though.

We arrived here to a piece of heaven I think. Well, if heaven means climbing up to the sky on stone steps for about 185 steps to our room from the wharf. The restaurant is located half way between them so no matter where we go we will walk up and down ths stone steps. The info explains that the people bought this land to build their home and a lovely hotel. I just question what they mean by land - this place is vertical. However, that means that everywhere you go there are views of the incredible Lago de Atitlan, Lake Atitlan. Directly across from us are two amazing volcanoes, one behind the other, while to the right is another volcano - both come directly down to the shore, and in several places villages cling to the sides, which at night are lit so that there is a string of diamonds strung along the lake.

Evening meals here are communal - and incredibly tasty last night. We had a great time talking to the people at our end last night. It's amazing how many travel stories there are and how much fun it is to share them. One of the people from last night will be celebrating her 50 th birthday tomorrow, and she's invited us to help her celebrate.

This morning after a wonderful leisurely breakfast we did a walk to the little village nearby - about 10 minutes walk up and then downhill on a very steep and very narrow path. Geordie warned me to be careful lest I slip off like I did once on a little jaunt above Puerto Vallarta. I stepped with great care.

In the village we were shocked to see a very blatant example of child labour in action. It's Monday, and as far as we are concerned the kids should be in school. Not here. There were a group of children ranging in ages from 8 to 12 working their hearts out. The youngest were given a cement block each held by a rope and a tump line around their foreheads, up the path that we knew we would labour up ourselves in a few minutes. The oldest boy set a 20 kg (44 lb) sack of cement in his own forehead tumpline and then another boy laded a second one on his back above it and he set off with his 88 pounds. That other child arranged 4 cement blocks for his load and a woman who may have been his mother loaded herself up with six of them. We only hope that the people for whom they are hauling these loads are not gringos who should know better. Mind you, one of the other guests pointed out that if they didn't work, these children could well go hungry. It's a vicious circle if you ask me.

I was going to tell you all about some of the interesting meals we had in Antigua two nights ago, but after the last paragraph I feel that it would be wrong to talk of such frivolous things. There's a quandary. I'll save it for another day when I'm not quite so wracked with guilt. This is the first time we've seen the real privation that exists in this country after 10 years of peace. School may be free for these children but their parents still can't afford to clothe them, feed them and keep them without some work. So they miss school we guess. It's sad because as Elizabeth Bell mentioned during our tour in Antigua, anyone here who finished school is almost guaranteed a good life. It ain't going to happen for many of these children.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

No Se Permite!

We made it back from Monterrico to Antigua last evening, after a hair-raising drive. I thought we should give the poor man enough money for a haircut at least because he spent so much time adjusting his longish hair - with both hands, as he drove hell-bent for leather on the highway. Geordie says he was also falling asleep, and kept himself awake by leaning on the steering wheel while he drove with his elbows. He drifted over the yellow line quite often and his gear shifting skills were the worst. I fear for the engine and the drive shaft and the poor vehicle may be in trouble soon because the oil light was on the whole time we drove - for two hours plus.

But we are here. And we have made arrangements to travel on. When we arrived last night we drove past the travel agency where we had arranged our ticket to Guatemala for today. But we had decided to cancel that trip, so after we got back to our hotel (15 minutes later because our driver stopped one block from our hotel and did some business first) we walked over to cancel our trip. And now it was closed!

We went off to our favorite restaurant instead and sat there, then decided that we should call to cancel since there was a 24 hours number. We used the restaurant phone, but I got a recorded message which I could not understand a word of, so I hung up. Five minutes later the phone rang and it was for me - or at least that guy who had called and hung up - guess they have call display. I still couldn´t make myself understood, so I got the waitress to do my cancelling for me, except that I said I was cancelling our trip to Rio Dulce instead of the one to Guatemala City.

We then relaxed and enjoyed our steak meals with a lovely bottle of Tempranillo. Then Hector the owner arrived and was glad-handing everyone, and then decided to open a bottle of the local wine made in a vineyard nearby. It was a Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot and quite dry and tasty so we celebrated that too.

When we got back to our hotel we decided we should attempt cancelling again, correctly this time, so we had the desk clerk call for us and do all the talking. No one came by this morning at 7 30 am to tell us our shuttle was outside so it seems to have worked. After breakfast this morning we went back to our travel agent, told him our story, booked a trip to Panajachel for tomorrow morning at 7 am and only had to pay the difference of four dollars. Success.

Now the explanation of the No Se Permite. It´s a sign at the Palapa restaurant in our hotel at Monterrico. It reads: "Por Favor. No Se Permite Emborracharse!" Or as it might read in English - "Please. It is forbidden to endrunken yourself." We did our best to follow the rule.

The other thing we noticed in Monterrico, which is true all over the country I´m sure, is that the delivery trucks, those guys who deliver the frozen chickens and the sliced meats (we saw both) have a guy riding shotgun. Literally. When the truck stops the guy with the shotgun gets out first, and then the driver, and then both go to the shop where they are delivering - the shot gun at the ready. Makes us feel so confident. Of course all the banks have armed guards and the jade shops, but then so does our favorite breakfast place where a uniformed guard with a revolver on his hip stands sentinel at the door. Bacon and eggs never felt so safe.

We are off to see a museum or two now. There is a Printing press museum really close, and we visited it last time. We are going to see if they´ve added anything.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Como un pescado

The sea is like a sheet of mirrored glass which was shaken as it cooled so that the liquid glass set and hardened - the ripples, waves and seacrests all frozen above the silvered surface. The sun blinds you as it shines relentlessly on the splendor.

The palms stand sentinel. The breeze just brushes the fronds with nary a backward glance. Just a breath and gone, but another breath follows and another, so that the palm moves, always in motion as it stands still.

The streets are hot and dusty here in Monterrico. A step along the back street raises a little puff of dark volcanic sand, and a dog fight which has dogged our steps the length of the street causes a dust cloud to engulf the snarling, snapping animals which bare their teeth, bark at each other defiantly, then pull away back to their indolent life in the dirt, stretched out, barely alive in the enervating heat.

In the tienda up by the mangrove lagoon we stop for a cold drink and ask the tiny old woman "¿Como estas?" "How are you doing?" "Como un pescado, como un pescado", she replies. "Like a fish" as she waves her hand in and out as if she was swimming through a stand of reeds. "Como un pescado!" - A fish alive and leaping in the humid air of Monterrico. She is grey-haired, tiny and wrinkled - her thin arms reaching for the cool bottle of Coke in the non-freezing freezer.

I see her skipping effortlessly through the limpid waters through the mangrove roots, two eyes looking down to watch the bottom, two looking up for hungry birds. So a fish she dreams as she sits in the heat and humidity of another day while the palms stand sentinel and the mirrored sea gleams in an impossible light.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Monterrico Lifestyle

I think we are growing used to the life in Monterrico. For the first day or two, this was just a dusty little place, with nothing happening, and no life. Now though the people are appearing - it´s as if we´ve just begun to notice them. Of course it´s because we have wandered off the beaten path and are exploring the side streets where the people actually live as opposed to seeing the area where the tourists like us hang out.

Yesterday we went on our lagoon tour through the mangroves - but we cheated. We took a sunset cruise instead of a sunrise cruise. There were still lots of birds and it was so very tranquil hanging out on a boat on our little plastic chairs while we were poled along the edges of the red mangroves. The young man with whom we had booked our tour passed us over to Rubén who was quite taciturn, but gently talked while he poled us around about the life of the mangroves. His Spanish was a little beyond me sometimes, so I just nodded, but often he was able to explain the wildlife we saw.

There were lots of tall white cranes (garzas blancas) treading carefully in the water, eyeing the area for fish to swallow. We even caught one catching a fish - an exciting moment. There were gray cranes too, and some small dark herons which sit hunched in the trees with their eyes on the water too. And there were some funny little birds, all dark, black and rufous coloured feathers who surprised as they flew with their bright yellow underwings which flashed like the wings of a grasshopper as they skipped from lily pad to grass at the edges of the mangroves. Overhead were kingfishers on the electrical wires, which made me ask myself how you put up electrical poles in amongst mangroves, which are in fact floating islands of trees which make their own land by dropping their leaves amongst their trailing roots. Not too secure for walking on, that´s for sure.

We also wandered out into a wider expanse of water, lake like in its tranquility, where we had a fine view of the two volcanoes, Agua and Pacaya. Pacaya wasn´t smoking at this time, but it´s a common occurence because it´s a very active volcano along with Fuego. Both erupt all the time, with Pacaya the one where one can climb to see the lava flow by at your feet as our Australian friends did. We know we are not in shape to climb up a lava slope with the shifting sands beneath our feet.

This morning we went out to Johnny´s Place for breakfast and had huevos rancheros - the Guatemalan version of a Mexican favorite. The difference is that the Guatemalan one is not one bit spicy. After breakfast we wandered over to their hammocks to lie in the shade under the palapas. Because of the gentle slope upwards of the beach, we could see only a long wide strip of dark sand (black sand is really dark grey) a thin strip of brilliant blue where the water stretches across the horizon and then the pale blue sky sweeping up and over us like a canopy of watered silk. Peaceful and exactly what we wanted to do right then.

As we were readying ourselves to leave three young women introduced themselves, by asking where we were from. They turned out to be from Victoria. As an aside, it´s amazing how many people think that Victoria is on Victoria Island, instead of Vancouver Island. I guess we need to do a little more tourist promotion as we go. I met a man yesterday as I was lying in the hammock at our place who told me he had been to Victoria Island and it happened just two days ago too. The man I met yesterday was Japanese, and was spending two months in Guatemala. He had already spent a month studying Spanish and insisted on speaking to me in that language, which was very good for both of us becuase we seemed to be in sync with our level of language. He was doing well, although I don´t think he once used the past tense - that´s the tense I think Spanish teachers should start with - really, we talk about what we did far more than what we are doing.

After our sojourn under the shade we went off to check out the turtle, caiman, iguana sanctuary. It´s a little ramshackle but they are doing their bit to protect the sea turtles, by digging up their eggs as soon as they are laid and taking them back to be buried in a safer spot. We are not sure how things are going though because as we looked at the pool where some of the hatched turtles are living it was obvious that some of the tiny creatures were quite dead and others were struggling. But last night apparently we missed an event because people who ate at Johnny´s Beach side restaurant saw a turtle come in to lay its eggs. Two groups told us about this - perhaps tonight we should go over there for a beer on the off chance.

Further back in the sanctuary we wandered through concrete enclosures with some very languid and indolent looking caimans slumbered in the heat. They are suck prehistoric looking animals, these alligators. Thy are not huge, maybe only 5 or 6 feet long, but they look like they would love to take bite out of a leg or two. In another enclosure were some big iguanas, also basking in the heat, while a third enclosure held a whole crew of green lizards, all one atop another in a great pile of green.

Last night we had dinner at a really good restaurant, where the food was not only tasty but also quite well priced. We ate with our friends from Mendocino county and enjoyed good story telling. They have recommended a place on Lake Atitlan where we are going to reserve a place. It sound quite idyllic, as it climbs the cliff above the lake with gorgeous views and even an opportunity to swim in the lake which is 1000 feet deep (yes, there are three zeroes in that number).

Tonight we will probably ate at the same place we ate last night but will go over for that goodnight drink at Johnny´s and hope for turtles. And if not we can still have a nice Cuba Libre (rum and coke) or a shot of ílegal mescal, three varieties available at higher and higher prices.

We are off tomorrow back to Antigua and another night at our lovely hotel there and then we will make our way to Lago de Atitlan. We have to figure out if we can get our ticket changed to the lake from Guatemala City which we had booked already. If not, I guess we suck that up too. We will take the opportunity to get more money, although I think we can use our bank card in Panajachel, the gringo town from which everything on the lake is accessible.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Yesterday we made our journey to Monterrico on our shuttle bus. It was quite new, and roomy with only six of us in all on the bus. The driver did chat a little as he drove at 100 km an hour down the highway. I remarked to Geordie that 100 km an hour here is similar to 30 km an hour on a highway in India. Not quite as scary, come to think of it.

And yes, Monterrico is hot! The thermometer on our clock only shows 30 celcius, so it´s not as bad as I thought it might be, but it´s plenty hot enough. The people here wear shorts and tshirts - they are not formal as they appear to be in Antigua - where only the tourists wear shorts. The town has one long paved street which runs from the Pacific Ocean to the lagoon on the other side of the peninsula. At that side there are barges lined up waiting for vehicles to get over to the highway on the other side. While we were there, a truck pulled up, pulled onto the barge and then sailed majestically up the lagoon, with a little outboard motor providing the power.

When we arrived at our hotel, we were greeted by a guy who wanted to offer us a morning tour of the lagoon - which would start at 5:30 am. Hmmm! It would last about two hours and the guide would be poling the boat so as not to disturb the wild life, which includes plenty of birds and even a four-eyed fish. We have not yet decided whether we want to be knocked up at that early hour - this morning I hauled myself out of bed at 9:00 am - which felt a little early.

Our hotel is similar to a motel, with little buildings parallel, facing eachother across a pool. To get our view we have to head up to the restaurant where there is a palapa roof, some nice breeze, a row of hammocks on either side of the table area, and of course some ranchero music playing constantly. The room is very basic, as you might imagine, with two beds, four walls, a thin plywood ceiling with a palapa roof above it, and a fan which creates a major strobe effect with the light which has been installed above it. It was impossible to read with that strobing so Geordie sent me out to ask for a stand up fan which I got. English is not well spoken in this area, so we are lucky that we know enough Spanish to get around.

We met a couple from Mendocino County in the USA on the bus and had dinner with them last night. They had planned to study Spanish for a week here in Monterrico, but when they went to the school, it had no record of them and no teacher available. So scratch the idea of taking a week of classes impromptu, which had been one of our options.

We also did a wander of the beachside restaurants yesterday. The sand is black here and thick so it´s not easy to walk on in the heat. We stumbled down the beach until we couldn´t take it anymore, then went inland to the sandy road, which is almost, but not quite, as hard to walk on.

We are staying here four nights in all - I imagine it will be all about where we will eat, how much time we will stay in the pool, how much we will read, and how much we will sleep. Pretty basic stuff. We have discovered that noone around here takes Mastercard or Amex, only Visa - the card we left at home. And there is no bank machine either, so we will have to ration our money. We were able to use MC last night at the Swiss-Guatemalan restaurant after about 10 minutes of them on the phone to get the right confirmations. But it worked so we may eat there again soon.

We are now considering our next move. Originally our plan was to go back to Antigua, take a shuttle to Guatemala City then a bus to Rio Dulce. But after tallking to Joanna and her husband, and considering the heat here, we are thinking maybe we don´t want to spend more time in the heat and humidity filled lowlands, so we just might to to Lake Atitlan, which is higher so will be cooler at night even though it is still quite warm during the day. There are many villages around the lake where one can visit and stay, so we are weighing our options right now. We´ll see.

One thing I must say about Guatemala. The people are really so very charming. In the restaurants you are welcomed the moment you enter and the service is always with a great smile. And the phrase "at your service" sounds so very genuine. On the streets people greet one with a smile, a buenas dias, or buenas noches, and everone seems genuinely pleased to meet you. We love that part of Guatemala, and the incredible scenery makes it that much more desirable to travel in.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Antigua still

We have been exploring Antigua for four days now, and are ready to leave, since today we saw all the rest of the monuments we missed in the days before. We´ve explored so much that I´m not even sure where I should start. We arrived late at night so we went right to bed in our cool room, with the twin beds. The man checking us in had asked if we wanted one bed, I asked if it was a queen, and he said yes, but when we went upstairs there were two beds, one facing each way against either wall. Oh, well. so much for my communication. I figured he though I meant a ¨tween¨. The next day we went out to explore and to check out some of the tour options. (When we got back, we had acquired a huge king sized bed - by pushing out two beds together, it seems.~

Antigua is surrounded by volcanoes, three of them - including Agua (water) and Fuego (Fire) which you may have guessed is active. We weren´t aware of that so much, since for a lot of the day clouds sit about halfway up the volcanoes. but these are usually not there in the morning or the late evening. Agua is a very beautiful shape and sits at the end of our street (I suppose it´s at the end of all the streets). The climate is probably perfect - with temperate days and nights, although at this time of year, the evening temperatures drop a lot and a few warm blankets are certainly useful. During the day, especially if the sun is out, it´s overwarm, so we start out with a shirt and end up carrying it not too long after.

On our first day we didn´t do much touring. We did go to a travel group which offers highly recommended tours and booked two -one of the nearby villages and one of the city centre. The second is offered by Elizabeth Bell who has lived in Guatemala for 40 years, since she was 14 and her parents moved there. After booking the tickets with her charming son Julio, we headed off to find the church of San Jeronimo which like almost all the churches around here is in ruins. Most of the buildings were destroyed in the 1773 earthquake after which the government decided to move to it´s present capital in Guatemala City. It wasn´t the end of Antigua but certainly all the churches were forced to move so they took all the decorations with them, leaving the empty churches we see now.

We also visited another church which holds the tomb of Saint Hermano Pedro who was canonized by the Pope in 2002 -not too long ago. His tomb is very popular with people looking for miracle cures and there are little wax candles representing parts of the body, hanging in the area behind his tomb.

On our second day we did the village tour which took us out to several villages in the surrounding area. We had a guide and driver and too other tourists, self-described as New York Jews. They have both lived in New York all their lives, they both work in the same university and have known each other for over 40 years I think, but have been together officially for only the last 8 years.

The tour generally consisted of us arriving at the main square outside the church, looking at the church facade, talking a little about the village then hoping into our tour bus to continue to the next town, to do it again. At one town though there was a huge outdoor laundry facility where the women were out in full force doing their clothes in the basins surrounding the huge water facility.

The next day was the busy one. We started out with our city tour offered by Elizabeth. She is an amazing fount of knowledge and knows so much about the city and it´s history. It is her assertion that the town was never abandoned and even though the capital was moved, many of the people stayed and continued living there. She took us to the main church, the Santiago church (echoes of Spain there) where there was a first communion taking place. It was obviously an important person whose children were being communed because they had their very own solist who sang Ave Maria - with great histrionics but also with a beautiful voice.

We also saw a local house which, although converted to a hotel, we did get a sense of how the monied people lived, in these huge compounds with several interior courtyards. Our second last stop was at a jade factory, which was a little out of character for the rest of the tour we thought, but it also included the restroom and coffee stop. so we didn´t complain. Our last stop was a very new hotel which has taken over what seems like acres of land and turned it into not only a hotel, but also three museums, a church for very exclusive weddings and the usual other accourtrements of a fine hotel. The museums were closed, but Elizabeth used her pull and had them open the museum with the precolumbian collection which has been intermingled with a collection of contempory glass from all over the world including one excellent piece from Canada.

That afternoon we went back to our place where we had the great pleasure of meeting up with Joanna - one of the Australians we toured with in India, and her husband, who were now on tour in Central America. We spent a great time with them at lunch reminiscing with Joanna and talking about her travels here. We met again for dinner at a great little place we had found the night before which has only about 8 items on the menu. The place has no name, but produced some amazing food from a tiny open kitchen. The first night I had duck breast on a bed of gratineed potato and carrot, and graced with a dollop of creme fraiche. Geordie had a huge bowl of Boeuf Bourginon with large slabs of roasted potatoes. For dessert we shared a lemon tart on a chocolate base. MMMM.

This morning we decided to see all those churches which we had been saving until after Elizabeth´s tour. We went off at 9ish, and had breakfast at a great little place that was hopping today, and then took off for the far corners of the town. All the churches are ruined, having fallen in to ruin after the huge earthquake of 1773. The pillars of the first church almost filled the centre of the nave and we had to climb up and clamber over the stones to see it. The pillars fill the space to about 12 feet deep. Amazing. All around, as with all the churches there are large gardens which are planted very nicely with great flowers and lots of grass where we found many young Antiguans who had hoped to find privacy for their wooing. They were in all the little side rooms too. Disconcerting to come upon them smooching in the dark nooks and crannies.

Each church had it´s major feature - the last one had two, the biggest fountain in Central America and a round collection of cells where the nuns lived. In two of the places we were able to climb up and see the views too, although today the clouds were very low. (I forgot to mention that while we were with Elizabeth yesterday we saw a huge plume of smoke rising up from behind the clouds surrounding Fuego´s summit. Very exciting.

Tomorrow we are off to warmer climes. We will be taking a shuttle which will take us to Monterrico on the Pacific Coast. Julio promised us temperatures of 85 to 90. Maybe we´ll want to come back to the cool evenings of Antigua, but we´ve booked four nights and our return shuttle bus, so I guess we had better suck it up.

Thursday, January 08, 2009


This morning we stepped out of our ancient house/posada and at the end of the street there was a very tall volcano. I guess we're not in Kansas (Vancouver) any more. All our flights were on time and arrived early. Our private driver appeared with his wife outside the Guatemala City airport and we were off through the night. Thirty minutes later we arrived at our posada in the ancient town of Antigua. To bed and slept for 9 hours. Sitting on planes and 5 hours in Houston was tiring. Had a great breakfast at Dona Luisa's - juice, coffee and eggs with black beans and little home made buns. So good. Next is more coffee and sitting in the main square to watch the world go by. I love it down here.

More to come once we have done something.