flwyd: (xkcd don quixote)
I slogged through 2960 photos, mercilessly paring them down to 475 pictures of Guanduras suitable for public consumption.

I used Google's Picasa to post this set of pictures in large part because it has integrated mapping so you can navigate my geotagged photos geographically. Picasa has a lot fewer features than Gallery, though fewer features often means an easier user interface. The feature lack I noticed first was lack of sub-albums, so I can't have a Tikal album in a Guanduras parent album, nor can I have said albums oldest-first. (Since I only have Guanduras albums up at the moment, this is not a huge deal.)

I realized I haven't posted any of my day-to-day photos since January, so I hope to get those up soon too. Let me know if you like Picasa's format better than Gallery or Flickr.


Monday, June 22nd, 2009 11:09 pm
flwyd: (spam lite)
In most of Latin America, "chevere" is a word that means "great" or "awesome," e.g., "¿Como estas?" "Chevere!" ("How are you?" "Awesome!")

In Guatemalan lingo, "chevere" also means "hot dog," and is written on all the hot dog stands. While this means you can ask for a "Chevere chevere" ("great hot dog"), you can also have this conversation:

"¿Como es?" ("How is it?")
"Chevere." ("Awesome.")
"¿Chevere como un chevere?" ("Awesome like a hot dog?")
"Chevere como millon cheveres." ("Awesome like a million hot dogs.")

(See: Eddie Izzard, "Circle")
flwyd: (xkcd don quixote)
In addition to fresh fruit, Spanish speakers, colorful fabric, ancient stone religious sites, and aquatic marvels Guatemala attracts active travelers with 37 (más o menos) volcanoes. So far I've climbed two, with very different experiences.

Volcán San Pedro is the third highest mountain at Lago Atitlan. Though most hikers start at 6 AM, I thought I'd complain a lot less if we started at 7, and thus was it agreed. Had I realized I'd have a restless night of sleep, waking up regularly due to drunks by the lake, celebratory canon explosions, worry about missing an alarm, and vague awareness of a gorgeous sunset I would've agreed to 6.

With rain gear, water, a camera, and some fruit and bread in our backpacks, a guy met us in front of our hotel (5100 feet) and led us through the quiet Sunday morning streets of San Pedro La Laguna and up the highway to the volcano park entrance (around 6000 feet, if I recall) around 8 AM. There we met our real guide, Pedro de San Pedro. The trail is pretty clear all the way up, but we'd read that hikers are occasionally attacked on the route, so we were glad to accept a guide. Not that he'd overpower an attacker with his machete, but because he knows the locals, which adds a lot more risk to a potential attacker. Pedro didn't seem to understand this role ("I'm not security, the police on the mountain are security" / "What are the police going to do halfway up the mountain?") and several times strayed out of eyesight and later suggested we summit on our own while he rested below. He also made some rude comments while chatting with Molly, but at other times he was an entertaining guy to chat with.

The San Pedro hike is intense, mostly a straight 45° path up the mountain with at least a dozen stair sections. It starts through coffee, corn, and sweet potato fields. After an hour (and a half?) or so we reached the mirador (scenic overlook) and took a rest and pictures of the northeast corner of Lake Atitlan. Pedro assured us that we were allowed to turn around there, but we insisted that we were in for the long haul, even though we walk at a slow pace. We continued through the cloud forest, admiring the bulky mossy trees, trying to spot calling tucans, and breathing hard as our thighs complained about the incline. Around an hour from the summit, we passed some folks heading down who assured us we were a half hour away. Did I mention we hike slowly? We finally summitted -- 9850 feet -- around a quarter to noon and collapsed into a mandarin orange and coconut bread lunch. From the top, we could see most of the picturesque lake, its small towns, its striking mountains, the clouds building in the valley behind the Indian's Nose. Our view further afield was occluded by clouds, the lake's higher volcanoes, and San Pedro's other peak.

After half an hour or so at the top, we headed down the mountain. As a kid, I did a lot of growing up in the mountains, so my Year of the Goat nature gets a big thrill whenever I run down a mountain. With Pedro's steep and sturdy trail, I felt free and safe sailing over roots and whipping around trees. I was also in the odd condition where running was a lot less painful than walking. Yet I didn't want to build up too much momentum, so I'd run for half a minute and then pause for two, meaning Molly's slow walk far outpaced my downhill run. Pedro was getting rather annoyed at his delayed lunch. What kind of mountain guide doesn't carry food and water? We finally reached the base camp at quarter to 3 PM, drinking the rest of our water and massaging our thighs. We caught a pickup back to town and walked gingerly down the steep streets until we found ladies selling jugo de naranja and licuados de piña y mango. MMMM.

So... San Pedro. Listed as 3 hours up, 2.5 down. From our hotel, it was nearly 5 hours up and 2.5 hours down to the base. Total ascent around 4700 feet. Photos: A couple dozen. Legs: extremely sore (full recovery took about five days).

Fast forward past a disappointing "horseback ride" and some gastrointestinal distress to Quetzaltenango, Guatemala's second city. At the beginning of our trip, we ran into Jason, a cool guy who volunteers for Quetzaltrekkers, an all-volunteer hiking organization whose profits go to two charities to help street kids in Xela. He noted they're not in our version of Lonely Planet Guatemala (known affectionately to many as "The Bible") due to a bad experience the author had, but he convinced us the organization was awesome nonetheless, so we tracked them down at Casa Argentina. Although the challenge and beauty of a six day hike from Nebaj to Todos Santos sounded like a great experience, our plane tickets ruled out that option. But what sounded most enticing was a (mostly) full moon hike up Volcán Santa María.

After a casual rainy Wednesday using the Internet for 7 hours, eating curry, kafta, and hummus for dinner, and sitting in on Guatemala trivia night, we met the trekkers at 11 for soup, tea, and bag packing. Their selection of lender gear was impressive, providing several fitting hiking boots so Molly didn't have to wear Chaco sandals in the cold and dark. I was less impressed with my loaner backpack, barely wide enough to fit the sleeping bag, and which seemed intent on placing weight in the middle of my butt cheeks which I'd rather have used solely for walking. (As it turns out, I hadn't adjusted all the relevant straps, and half way up I got a lot more comfortable.) In contrast to Pedro de San Pedro, a local guy who knows the trail and has a machete, the six humorous young international guides (for 15 hikers) carried a first aid kit, three shit kits, three tubs of tasty trail mix, several pounds of banana bread, a tub of hummus, and a big pot for hot drinks at the top.

We rode in the back of a pickup from Xela (7700 feet or so), admiring the freshly cleared sky and lingering rain smell to the start of the trail (8100 feet), met the two dogs who love the hike, and started hiking at 20 to 1. By 2 AM we were finishing the trail mix and enjoying the rest area at 9700 feet. Looking back, we could see city lights and moonlit mountains with small clouds tentatively gathering. The steep section was thankfully full of switchbacks, limiting the angle of ascent and providing regular vistas of the cloud-cloaked valleys below. As we transitioned from bushes to trees around 10500 feet, the fog rolled in. The moon cast a disperse white glow, my headlamp's dim glow pointed out the roots and rocks in the moist trail while white flower petals marked the edge and the occasional firefly blinked in the bushes. For only the second or third time on the trip, I wished I'd brought a tripod. Oh for a 30 second exposure of the moon seeping out from behind a stolid dark tree!

I reached the cloudless rocky summit at about 4:30. Carefully minding my way through cows and their patties (would you climb a volcano if you weighed a ton?), I donned my fleece and jacket and rolled out the sleeping bag to huddle in the dark, wishing I'd brought gloves. Fifteen minutes or so later, the sky started to get interesting, and I decided my fingers were not so cold they couldn't operate a camera. To the northeast, an ocean of clouds blanketed a valley, a mountain becoming an island, a ridge becoming a cloud waterfall splashing into the town of Zunil. To the east was a photogenic sequence of mountains -- nearby peaks framed the mountains around Lake Atitlan, standing coolly in their typical blue haze, while a plume of black smoke identified Volcán Fuego and the mountains of Antigua far in the distance. A few kilometers below us to the west smoked Volcán Santiaguito, its white plume complementing the black triangular shadow cast by our own mountain. To the northwest were patchwork farm fields and green ridges. Somewhere out there in the Cuchumatanes stood Volcán Tajamulco, the highest point in Central America. It was like a view from an airplane, but with crisp cool mountain air and banana bread with hummus.

In addition to the food, first aid and sanitary supplies, the Quetzaltrekker guides had something else in their backpacks: absurd costumes. Complaining loudly as they switched from fleece to sequined spandex, they posed for several absurd vistic photos, indulging in the silliness and camaraderie that comes with three months in an intense volunteer organization. These folks are great.

At 7:20 we headed down the mountain, the dark and looming shapes revealing themselves in the light to be pleasant evergreens and verdant green bushes. The gentile incline meant I didn't feel compelled to run down; a good thing considering the recent rains. We gathered trash on the way down, making the path look more like a backpacker trail and less like a Central American road. By quarter to 11 I was relaxing in the shade, waiting for the chicken bus to take us and our trash bags back to town.

So... Santa María. Billed as about four hours up, with summit before sunrise. I took just a little under four hours up and three and a half down and arrived for the predawn light. Total ascent was 4300 feet. Photos: Over 200. Legs: not sore at all. (Knees were a bit tender for a few hours later that afternoon. No lingering effects the next day. My legs have hurt more after a night of sleep on a budget hotel bed.)

Hiking San Pedro was a good rigorous physical challenge with some nice views and lovely plants. Hiking Santa María was one of the best nights I've ever had, full of tasty food, good people, healthy but not painful exercise, and one of the most amazing views of my life. I highly recommend the hike and I highly recommend Quetzaltrekkers.
flwyd: (xkcd don quixote)
When we started, we didn't have an itinerary beyond "Spend two months in Guanduras eating fruit and speaking Spanish." After we arrived in Guatemala City, we looked at the map and scanned country highlights. "Let's head towards Peten first to avoid the rainy season, going via Cobán. That should take a week or two, right? Then head towards Honduras. Three weeks in Honduras sound good? Then we can sweep back through the highlands, going through Antigua, then a week in Atitlan, a week in Xela and maybe a week at the end along the pacific coast. And if we decide to spend some extra time in Atitlan or Xela or something, we'll have a buffer."

It's buffer time now, and we followed the plan quite well. Even though we never planned more than 5 days ahead (and that was just signing up for a diving course), we spent exactly three weeks in Honduras and exactly a week in Atitlan. We'll be back in Boulder in two weeks and have seen most of what we wanted to see. But I'd rather have too much time in a fantastic country than too little. If we'd constructed an itinerary first and then bought tickets to fit that, we probably wouldn't have budgeted time for hanging around a friendly hotel all day in case the bathroom needs a visit. I wonder if U.S. customs has the power to deport our bacteria and amœbæ at the border...

We have spent the last four days in Quetzaltenango (aka Xela) like a weekend. We can sleep in, then walk a few steps to the kitchen which is well stocked with our market vegetable purchases, not to mention granola and Boulder-made soy milk. We can walk around and find specialty stores, pay 25 cents an hour for Internet, have our choice of tasty cheap bread, and catch a good movie at 8. We can go for a pleasant hike, take a wrong turn, walk with a long-term visitor, chat with locals, pet a cow, investigate a Mayan altar next to a corn field, and find the attraction: Los Vahos, volcanic vent saunas, only $2.50 a person. Xela is an attractive place to visit -- lovely mountains, neat town, plenty of services -- but it's not a tourist town. 150,000 Guatemalans are here going about their daily business, which for the most part doesn't involve catering to people who are in town for two days to see something famous.

I can see why so many foreigners stay in Xela for quite a while. It feels like home, just without all the people I know. But you guys can wait for a couple weeks, right? Anyone in desperate need of a post card should notify me ASAP.
flwyd: (bad decision dinosaur)
I just read Bruce Schneier's post about the Boston Police wanting semi-automatic assault rifles. Police in Guatemala and Honduras carry semi-automatics (not to mention security guards at banks, department stores, and McDonalds with shotguns), and it doesn't really make me feel safe. Sure, it might deter armed robbers from attacking tourists, but I'm more worried about what they do while nothing exciting is happening. I feel rather uncomfortable when I'm sitting next to a police officer eating lunch with an AK-47 across his lap. Molly chewed out a guard sitting on the steps outside a bank, twiddling with his rifle´s safety. We shook our heads in disbelief as a uniformed army soldier used his assault rifle as a walking stick. I get nervous when the guy guarding an appliance store doesn´t take his finger off the trigger. I'm sure the Boston Police have better gun safety training than Guatemalan security guards, but I don't think the plan improves public safety.

But hey, at least the Guatemalans are using the presents we sent them in the '80s...
flwyd: (xkcd don quixote)
While journaling last night, Molly noticed that the last time we got robbed was also the last Thursday of the month. I never could get the hang of Thursdays...
Fortunately, we'll be back in Boulder on the last Thursday of June. It's not that Boulder is crime-free, it's that theft is less of an affront. If I leave my backpack on a bus and someone takes my wallet out, I feel stupid. If someone steals my wallet while I'm getting off the bus, I feel violated. The first I would expect in Boulder, but not the second. I feel worse about this incident than the break-in; here they stole from a person, not from a place.

After we got off the bus yesterday, we took note of the nice images that didn't need to be photographed. Sitting in a panadería/internet café I remarked with a smile on the modern scene of a woman in traditional Maya garb hunting and pecking out an email on Yahoo. After she left, we found out she was an American, living at Atitlan for 25 years and doing social work. A gringa pretending to be Mayan hunting and pecking an email on Yahoo is also a nice image to remember.

Lying in bed last night, Molly ran through all the images on the stolen camera. She remembered exactly where she was standing, what she was smelling, what was around but not in the frame. She expressed special regret for a few photos: a fantastic family who run a new licuado shop in Copán Ruinas; a bunch of kids staring at the two white people visiting the campo, right before we were invited in for a beer, some tamales, and birthday cake for a four-year-old girl; Trevor in scuba gear jumping off a boat for the first time; a drip sand castle on the beach at night at Tela's beach; Mormon missionaries on Utila with the nameplate for Elder Beach clearly visible. We both had waking dreams of catching thieves on a bus, calling out as they snatch an object, twisting their arm and sitting on their back, demanding that no one leave the bus until the police come and arrest the thieves. A small number of Guatemalans are thieves, but a large number are complicit and silent when they see a white traveler taken advantage of.

I was wondering the other day why so many stereotypically libertarian folks stay in the U.S. and complain about all the government regulations when they could move to Central America. Cars don't have to pass emission tests; glass bottle recycling is enforced by a monetary incentive to the vendor; McDonalds has shotgun-wielding guards; you can sell food in the street without a license; people burn trash and excrement; goods are sold without price stickers, letting merchants charge more if they think someone's willing to pay more; building codes are lax if they exist at all; municipalities don't treat the water supply for you: if you want to drink, you have to buy bottled water; the number of passengers on a bus is not limited by the number of manufacturer-intended seats; drug use and drug organizations are quietly tolerated. Yet despite the claims of libertarian idealists, Central America is not as safe as the North.

Plenty of people have guns, but crime is still a problem. Thieves target foreigners and people who look like they have money. Most buildings in a city have bars on the windows. Crime in Antigua dropped significantly when tourist police were deployed. Conflicts are still handled by assassinations. A well-armed public is not as good of a crime deterrent as a vigilant police force with a good track record of apprehending criminals post factum.

The air and environment is less enjoyable. I hold my breath on the street as a bus drives by (thank goodness most cars on the street are manufactured according to California standards). I wince as I try to breathe between trash fires and jungle slash. I've had some sort of a cough, excess phlegm, or digestive problem for most of my visit. Bus riders throw bottles out the window and the sides of the streets are lined with trash.

People with lots of guns, drugs, and money and minimal government interference are not good neighbors. An expat living in Río Dulce told us that a drug gang had opened a new hospital in Morales (as a money laundering scheme, presumably). They told his gynecologist to come work for the hospital or they'd kill him, so he fled to Atitlan. ("He's visiting his gynecologist for thumb surgery? Huhuh.")

It's precisely government, with well designed laws and fair enforcement of strong regulation, that can help establish security, public health, and equal opportunity. It is, of course, not a task for government alone, nor is extreme regulation the answer. Security always involves tradeoffs, but when libertarians propose trading public health and security for theoretical liberty, it turns out that there are many things you still can't do... like breathe clearly. I believe in metaliberty, and I don't want to choose the idealist libertarian offering.

Fortunately, the people are interesting people, regardless of the social system or how public institutions behave. Yesterday we
played basketball with a babbling toddler,
relearned how to greet someone in Kaqchiquel ("Utsa watch," response: "Utsa madiosh"),
tried to estimate the number of actual gallons (three, at least) that would fit in the novelty hat inspired by a Mayan folk story,
paid Q40 ($5) for a hand-woven (two months work?) long belt (maybe a drum strap?) so the woman would stop embarasing herself by rapidly lowering the price ("It's worth 250, but I'll give it to you for 150" deteriorated into "90... 80... 70..."),
had nearly a dozen locals ask where we bought our pico de oro mangoes,
compared Molly's "I'm waiting for Trevor to finish something" macrame leg bracelet with the Mayan style,
teased a mobile vendor carrying a baby ("How much per pound?" "Only per unit? Do you have a special, two for one?" "It's hand-made, nine months work!"),
pronounced strange words and asked what language they were in while two women tried to explain that you can buy a bracelet with your first initial on it,
lectured a vendor on not having a gringo price which Molly noticed because he said "Uh" before quoting Q25,
winced at the gringo accent (yet full vocabulary) on cell phone calls,
called out the drinks on offer to pedestrians ("¡Arroz con leche y leche con arroz!" "¡Rosas con lechuga!"),
and invented meaningful symbols for tacks and string, stick figures, and mushrooms on kitschy handcrafts.
This is why I want to speak Spanish well: not just buying stuff in the market, but joking around with locals, even though only some of them realize it's funny. I also want to speak Spanish well enough to find out how people feel about international trade, local politics, environmental issues, and other deep thoughts. Unfortunately, I often find it challenging to start those conversations even in English.

Instead, I'm blogging therapeutically. Time to get to know the town and take some more pictures of the volcano-ringed lake.

More Casualties

Thursday, May 28th, 2009 08:45 pm
flwyd: (xkcd don quixote)
On the bus from Antigua to Chimaltenango (the closest city on the Pan-Am Highway), a woman sat next to us on the school bus seat. I thought it was a little odd, since there was an empty spot or two still. "Maybe she's fascinated by my hair or something." She was silent through the ride, but as we approached the highway junction she said something I didn't catch. ¿Que? ¿Xela? No, vamos despues. ¿Panajachel? Sí, vamos hoy. She pointed at a bus parked on the highway, so I grabbed my bags and headed for the bus door. I was about to get off, but she and the ayudante (he collects the bus fares and puts people's stuff on top of the bus) indicated I should stay on until our bus turned the corner. I sat in the front seat, the women across the aisle, and Molly was behind me. A guy behind Molly was jostling her, she responded by telling him to have patience. In the span between waiting at a stop sign and pulling in front of the other busses, the woman unvelcroed and unziped my pants pocket and filched the wallet I bought two days ago to replace the one stolen in Poptún. Meanwhile, the guy had unzipped Molly's backpack and snagged my old camera that she was borrowing since hers broke.

So, to update the casualties list:
  • My brand new Mayan weave billfold with Q250 (approx US$30), stolen by a middle-aged woman on a bus in Chimaltenango. With the money in the wallet, she can pay for 25 more round trips to Antigua.
  • My five-year-old 3.1 MP Pentax Optio 33L with three weeks of Molly's carefully framed photos and visual memoranda, stolen by a middle-aged man on a bus in Chimaltenango.
  • A $20 bill and two $10 bills, missing from Molly's small blue bag, departure date and location unknown. Oddly, several other bills remain in the same place.

Clearly, Chimaltenango is a wretched hive of scum and villainy.
Lonely Planet advised us not to leave our things unattended there on account of bag-slashing, but I didn't think through the scenario of theives robbing me before I got off the bus. We discovered the theft a few minutes into our ride to Lake Atitlan; too far to turn back and wrestle the theives to the ground.

We spent most of the ride making light of the situation:

  • Now Molly won't get frustrated that my old camera doesn't do a good job taking the photos she likes to frame
  • Now I have an excuse to get a better pocket-sized camera in the next year, saving shoulder stress from carrying an SLR hiking
  • Maybe we should buy several decoy wallets, place them in easily-accessible pockets, and fill them with notes like "Aquí está su boleto al infierno. Es de ida, no más. ¡Disfruta el viaje!" (Here is your ticket to hell. It's one way only. Enjoy the trip!)
  • The average time I've owned a wallet in my life is about 8.5 years. 17 years on the first one, two days on the second
  • With the money from my wallet, the woman can fund 25 more round trips on that route
  • Nathan's advice: "Frustration is a magician's misdirection, leading the audience's eyes toward a distraction while in otherwise plain sight the fraid is perpetrated"
  • (In a discussion about the black plumes out the back of the '80s-vintage school bus) "It's a problem with the catalytic converter." "The Catholic converter is dirty, so it can't put the holy air into the high confession chamber, thus leading to sinful smoke."
  • Things that wouldn't happen in the U.S. #2365: A guy opening the bus's emergency exit to climb on the roof to untie a box while the bus is doing 45 uphill on a curve. #2366: Passengers boarding and departing the bus through the emergency exit while the bus is not at a full stop.

Inventory of valuables still in possession:

  • Two sane minds with senses of humor and knowledge of several languages
  • Two relatively healthy and intact human bodies
  • Two United States passports (with expired visas for China)
  • Two Visa bank cards
  • Two full camera memory cards
  • A camera bag containing a Canon Rebel XT, a 4GB Compact Flash card (over half full and containing fantastic pictures of Molly kissing a horse), and a Garmin hand-held GPS device with the locations of all my photographs
  • Two journals containing daily descriptions and observations
  • One MP3 player/recorder with a few dozen sound clips to share what cannot be photographed

Everything else could be replaced or let go with a minimum of greiving and frustration.

While it's clearly to the immediate personal benefit of the thieves to steal petty cash and old camera equipment, in the long run it hurts their community, and in turn their chance at true prosperity. While I know that not every Guatemalan is a theif, others who hear stories of theft on busses may conclude that Latinos are untrustworthy. They then don't treat them with respect and pay them a poor wage when they work in the north, lowering the flow of remissions to the south. They may also think twice about traveling in "the third world;" if they do, they may choose to stay in expensive foreign-owned hotels and take direct shuttles run by companies that don't keep their money locally. I certainly wouldn't recommend anyone stay in a hotel or eat at a restaurant in Chimaltenango, a place tarnished by the actions of a few who deny respect to people because of the color of their face and the style of their luggage.

Minor Adjustments

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009 09:45 am
flwyd: (xkcd don quixote)
Now that we're back in Guatemala, we've successfully readjusted from Honduran vocabulary:
Salva Vidas is water, not beer.
Sodas are aguas, not refrescos.
Mantequilla means butter, not some strange variation on sour cream.
A fist full of currency is actually worth something.
Baleadas (tortillas with beans, eggs, and onions) are not to be found, but if you look hard enough you may find atol de elote (hot liquid corn with sugar and spices).

The town of Antigua is kind of like Mayan ruin sites, except:
The ruined temples have Catholic, not Mayan, symbology.
The ruined temples have small maintained areas where the culture still worships.
Outside the ruined temples, people sell candles, not replica stone work.

We've been staying at a hotel called Ummagumma. It's only been open for a few years, but it totally feels like a place backpackers would have hung out after gathering with several species of small animals and grooving with a pict.

Aquatic Adventures

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009 08:22 pm
flwyd: (xkcd don quixote)
Waters we've played in or on:
Jumping into crystal clear limestone-bottomed pools in a river at Semuc Champey, near Cobán, Guatemala.
Paddling a canoe around a mangrove forest in Río Dulce, Guatemala.
Standing under a hot waterfall in a cool river at Finca Paraiso, near Río Dulce.
Riding in a lancha down the Río Dulce to Lívingston, Guatemala.
Swimming in a pool at the top of, when it's not the dry season, seven waterfalls outside Lívingston.
Paddling sea kayaks around clear ocean waters at Omoa, Honduras.
Splashing in the river after a day in the botanic gardens in Tela, Honduras.
Scuba diving and snorkeling at various points along the Caribbean coral reef on the south side of Utila, Bay Islands, Honduras.
Soaking nude for an afternoon in a tub-temperature concrete pool and river at Glenda's Hot Springs Paradise outside Sambo Creek, Honduras. The water probably would have been warmer if it hadn't been raining all day.
Watching and listening to a hard-core rain storm during a power outage while we ate dinner at ViaVia café in Copán Ruinas, Honduras.
Soaking in the "acropolis" Maya-themed tropical-forest-shaded stone pools of Luna Jaguar hot springs spa in Agua Caliente, near Copán Ruinas. (Note, this is not the Agua Caliente across the border from Esquipulas, Guatemala).

Remember: When you travel, always pack a bathing suit.

We return in less than a month. Still on the agenda: returning to Guatemala for Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Quetzaltenango, and the Pacific Coast. ¡Buen provecho!

Open Water, Insert Body

Thursday, May 14th, 2009 05:41 pm
flwyd: (xkcd don quixote)
I am now a PADI-certified open water scuba diver.

I still suck at swimming, though.

What I really want to do is float on calm clear Bay Islands Caribbean water and look at fish and coral with a snorkel.

(Background: I have a really strong aversion to getting water in my face. I'm careful where I spray in the shower. When I jump in a swimming pool, I often have a quick panic reaction and instinctively breathe in, which sucks water in my nose, so I surface sputtering. I'm bad at any kind of face-down swim stroke because the water-in-my-face feeling is unpleasant and I always get water in my mouth. Scuba training involves things like removing a facemask 8 meters underwater, swimming to the surface in one breath because you're out of air, and other things I'm surprised I signed up for.)

Casualties So Far

Saturday, May 9th, 2009 11:32 am
flwyd: (xkcd don quixote)
My wallet - stolen by a guy masquerading as a Nicaraguan tourist at Finca Ixobel
My watch - committed suicide while eating a mango in a mangrove forest in Rio Dulce
My pen - expired in Lívingston after too much time journaling upside down
Molly´s umbrella - caught a slight breeze walking across a bridge in Flores
Molly´s umbrella, take two - didn´t like the pleasant sea breeze in Travesía
Molly´s camera - eloped with a grain of sand from the Travesía beach
Top layer of Molly´s skin - also did not survive the Travesía beach
Clearly Travesía is a travesty.

Time to pay my limps and head to the next Honduran beach town.
flwyd: (xkcd don quixote)
"It´s a very trusting place" Molly said as I left my amulet with our passports and money in our treehouse at Finca Ixobel while we went for a swim. "It´s kind of a vacation away from Guatemala." They trust you to write down what you eat and do (though they double check) and pay when you check out. Molly provided a zapote to satisfy her fantasy of the perfect smoothie, and promised big zapote seeds to the owner who waxed poetic about the tree that used to drop fruits that thundered on the roof. I almost mustered the combination of energy and annoyance to organize their National Geographics in chronological order.

The next day, I wore my amulet as we took a hot walk to a lovely, fairly pristene, limestone cave. I left my wallet in my backpack, though. I took it out of my pocket to wash my pants and didn´t put it back since I didn´t need to buy anything in the cave. When we got back to the treehouse, I saw my comb and moustache wax on the floor. I may be messy, but I´m not that much of a slob. "I think someone tried to rob us." As I looked through my backpack, my suspicions were confirmed: all zippers were open, even the one that doesn´t lead to a pocket, and my wallet was gone. The theif was pretty quick, though -- he left my camera in a pouch on the table and didn´t check out the other objects around the room, just bags. One of the caretakers stopped by to investigate and found clear signs of a break-in: chipped wood by the lock and slivers on the floor. When renting a room and checking its security, make sure the latch points the right way. I only lost about 300 quetzales, about $45 and was joking about it pretty quickly -- "Well, it´s all part of the authentic Guatemalan experience." There was a lot of things worth more than $45 that they didn´t take -- my backpack, travel books and a dictionary, a small digital camera, water shoes... all hard to replace down here. The Czechs in the dorm had it worse: passports, two credit cards, all their cash. Fortunately they were in a place they could stay a bit without cash and they still had netbooks with Skype, but losing a Canadian work visa is rough. Plus, the nearest Czech embassy is in Mexico City which is shut down from the flu. A couple people saw the thieves, who were passing as tourists from Nicaragua. They managed to spend $250 at a gas station (do they sell liquor there?) before the card was disabled.

We spent Beltane, aka Labor Day in the non-socialistaphobia world, in a river under a hot waterfall. It was a very refreshing experience, one of the best cost to fun ($5 including entrance and bus) hot spring experiences I´ve had. Then we caught a lancha down the Río Dulce to Lívingston, a Garífuna town that´s also kind of a vacation from Guatemala. There´s nobody guarding stores with a shotgun, people give each other sass on the street, and the famous soup -- tapado? topado? -- a big bowl full of crab, fish, shrimp, prawns, and a delicious broth. Today we met Polo Martinez, an old Garífuna musician, who talked about struggles to keep the culture alive, how the latinos are running all the stores on the main drag while the Garífuna kids are wearing rasta hats and smoking herb, identifying more with the African immigrants than the Carib with a dash of African that he identifies. He offered us some CDs that cost three times as much as the one the kids on the street were selling, alongside pirated DVDs and fake Casio watches. But I´m not here trying to get the cheapest trinkets. I´m here because the Garífuna are a fascinating culture and I´m happy to lend a hand to keeping it alive. He says the money goes to an orphanage, but I´m fine if he keeps it himself... musicians need to make it in this world. In 18 hours we´ve had great fun and found neat people by saying hello. Without being friendly, we wouldn´t have realized the women were selling pan de piña -- ¡¿pan de piña?! -- and we wouldn´t have scored some mangosteens from a guy with a bag full of them, then met the owners of the only mangosteen trees in town. And the whole conversation with Polo started because he mentioned my old hiking boots and then talked about playing music in Boulder (Tulagi) back in the day. We´ll meet him again this evening and he´ll take us to a family who will serve us a traditional Garífuna dinner.

So remember: when you go to a tourist town known for an indigenous culture, make sure to seek out members of that culture and have a conversation with them. You´ll learn why people thought it was such a cool place before all the souvenier shops opened.

Also remember: when traveling, think about how you would feel if any object didn´t return with you. If you would be highly upset or inconvenienced, keep it in your sights. In the end, what´s important is the experiences, and it´s hard to lose those.
flwyd: (xkcd don quixote)
How does a pirate greet you in Spanish?

¡Buenos tarrrrrrdes!

I don´t think I could live in the jungle. The foliage is nice, though it´s kind of oppressive when folks burn it. I could get used to the bugs -- sleeping in a hammock surrounded by a mosquito net is a fun way to listen to howler monkeys. But I just feel so lethargic in the humid heat, where I sweat just by sitting around.

But even with the oppressive heat of the jungle, Tikal is awesome. We hitched a ride there in a pickup; the driver didn´t accept any payment for the trip. We ate coconuts and watermellon and hung out in hammocks in the heat of the day until 4 o´clock, when tickets are stamped for the next day. We got great light and blue skies for photos of ruins. We climbed Templo IV and watched colorful birds chase each other above the canopy. Three guards with shotguns stood by as we ducked under the scaffolding and around to the west side to watch a gorgeous orange sun sink into the arbol green sea. We listened to the jungle come alive as we walked out in the dusk. We awoke to the calls of birds and explored the other side of the park. We met an old Mayan park employee who said he´d just done a ceremony in the ancient palace. He said he wasn´t a shaman, but a trabajador de la luz -- a worker of the light. He was also kind of a creepy old man. We watched French tour groups come and go; we climbed a tall ladder to sit atop Templo V and see the rocks peek above the trees. We paid Q15 for a gatorade, but on the whole we got a pretty good deal for a world famous ancient city.

Meanwhile, everyone seems to have gotten their panties in a wad about swine flu. There are a lot of ways to get unpleasantly sick in the jungle, so I don´t think I´ll expend energy hyperventalating about one in particular. I´m sweating just sitting in an Internet café, so I don´t think I´ll sweat about flu in particular.


Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009 05:09 pm
flwyd: (xkcd don quixote)
So inverse of most people's Central American experiences, I caught a virus(?) in the U.S. before arriving. At home, I had a day of aches and a few days of spacey headaches. In Guatemala, the headache kept up, sucking away my initiative and decision-making capacity. In addition, my throat glands swelled and my throat got really scratchy, giving me an aversion to swallowing while my stomach was rather queasy. Since the parts of my body not involved in thinking or ingesting seemed to be just fine, we plunged ahead with a tour to Semuc Champey and the Caves of Lanquín. My mouth didn´t start in very good shape: I had trouble making mucus, so it took me about 40km to eat a piece of toast with jam. My legs didn´t get the memo, though, so I had a nice hike. The benefit of a guide became clear as we waded across the river and he said "Okay, dive here!" and plunged into the clear water. After we went down two levels, he thought to ask Molly "Can your friend swim?" to which I shouted "¡Más o menos!" After climbing a slick limestone formation to inspect the underside of a waterfall, I found I was able to eat a sandwitch fairly rapidly. Maybe next time I feel sick I should take the day off work and go for an adventurous swim. I've still had a residual sore throat and periodically not wanted to eat anything, but when I've eaten, it's been quick and tasty.

The morning of the next day we got in an extra caving expedition, holding candles as we climbed steep wet ladders held in place by two pieces of jute and clambering from one murky pool to the next, all without helmets, naturally. Aside from the inner tube ride afterwards, the whole area was a "You can't do this in the U.S." zone. The Lanquín caves were significantly safer, though slick with a fine layer of batshit. But without crossing a thin barrier of crazy, we wouln't have had as much fun.
flwyd: (xkcd don quixote)
This Internet café has 21st Century technology, but 1980s music. "Use a computer" isn´t the first thing I think when I hear Billy Jean. )They also offer the courtesy of a Latin American keyboard layout but a U.S. keyboard for added con?¿¡'´fusion.= I guess American culture percolates at different rates. Of course, in the U.S. if you want fresh goat milk, you can´t wait for the guy with a whip and eight goats to saunter up the sidewalk.

It seems like most times I fly, there´s rain involved. I remember bussing through drizzle from airports in Minneapolis, Detroit, Hong Kong and even Las Vegas of all places. Surprisingly, Denver was overcast and rainy (and I hear snowy), but Guatemala City was dry if muggy. Oh, and after an hour of absurdism in Benito Juarez (Mexico City), I´ve got lots of respect for the efficiency of transition in Narita (Tokyo). "No, we don´t want to go through immigration, we aren´t leaving the airport..."

I didn´t expect to see so many prostitutes on the taxi ride to our hotel last night, but by day this city is friendly and colorful. The favorite hobby of small children is chasing pigeons and many shops and fruit stands are run by quiet and unassuming entrepreneurs. I have a new hat in record time. We´re often hesitant to take photos of people just going about their daily lives. They´re fascinating, but recording it feels imposing. That´s why it´s convenient to have a cathedral as a backdrop. Nobody knows that the actual subject is a kid diving for a pigeon.

Now that we´re here, we´ve concocted something resembling an itenerary, heading first to Cobán, hoping to get to Tikal and the rest of El Peten before the rainy season begins in earnest. There´s a lot to visit in Guatemala, so we only budgeted a couple weeks in Honduras. The Honduran flag is blue and white horizontal stripes while the Guatemalan is blue and white vertical stripes. It should be easy to make a checkered Guanduran national flag, no?


Thursday, April 16th, 2009 12:53 am
flwyd: (xkcd don quixote)
Camera? Check. GPS unit? Check. Towel? Check. Supplies for playing Boggle by hand? Check. Two shirts, two pants, five underpants, six pairs socks? Check. High-volume RSS feeds removed from main LJ friends group? Check. Hiking boots and river/beach shoes? Check. Ginger candies and trail mix? Check. Passport? Check. Debit card? Check. Hepatitis vaccinations? Check. International health insurance? Check. Three hats? Check. Itinerary? Uh...

With two Lonely Planets and command of the Spanish Language, I think we'll just make it up as we go along. I'll post short updates when I get the chance, but you'll have to wait for photos until I have reliable Internet access in late June. I make no promises, but if you'd like a post card, send me your mailing address.

If you need to get ahold of me while I'm out of town, drop a line to my gmail account: trevorstone. If it's not important that I read it in the next two months, toss it @ trevorstone.org. Have a great spring!
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