Sunday, August 17, 2008

Hostels, Hot Chocolate, & Homing Instincts

Journal excerpts, August 16, 2008. Entries written in the restaurant punctuated (of course) by comments about my food.

6:20 p.m., Restaurante La Taquería, Xela

I made it to Xela at last! It was a nearly three-hour chicken bus ride, but I miraculously had a seat to myself the entire time, so I wasn't scrunched. The minibus ride from the Minerva Terminal was a different story, however -- I had to manhandle my pack all the way to the far back corner, and then share the seat with it because they still expected to get the same number of bodies in the back seat. Fortunately, it wasn't a terribly long bus ride, and only cost Q3.

***The waitress just brought me two bowls of salsa and a basket with three chips in it. The chips are about 3mm thick, though, so it's an entirely sufficient appetizer.***

I am attempting to withhold judgment on Xela until I've been here for a few days and had a chance to get used to it, rather than let myself be instantly overwhelmed by the fact that I'm once again in a large city and have no idea how to find my way around.

***My chicken and spinach enchiladas just arrived -- three of them! For Q28! (about $4) Yum!***

I'm finding it difficult to reserve judgment on my hostel, however. Casa Argentina was described by my guidebook as "Xela's definitive budget choice," but I'm inclined to believe that that's not so much because it's the best choice so much as it's the only choice for super-low cost accommodation. Figuring I might get a chance to meet some people, I asked for the dormitorio, which turned out to be one very large room absolutely packed wall-to-wall with 23 single beds (one with a top bunk), all jammed right against each other except for a very narrow path between the outer ring and the inner mass. No place to put one's belongings except right in this narrow path, which would block it entirely. Fortunately, there were only a few people there (and I hope to goodness that it stays that way!), so I pretty much had my choice of beds, which came down to a decision between:
1. Easily accessible but right next to the door and the bathroom (noise and stink and security issues);
2. A far corner I'd have to navigate my way toward carefully, but which might be a bit quieter/safer; or
3. Turn around and find a different hostel.
I chose option 2, mostly because I was too tired to walk any further with my pack. I decided to give it a chance for one night, but am scouting out other options for tomorrow. Oh, and there's a bathroom in the room, but it didn't have either toilet paper or running water. I tried the next sink down the hall and the tap came off in my hand. So the closest functioning sink is down the hall, down the stairs, and down another half a hall. Sigh.

8:45 p.m., Casa Argentina

While wandering back towards the Plaza after dinner I stumbled upon the Café y Museo La Luna, which I had read about in my guidebook (seven different kinds of drinking chocolate, open weekends only, 4-9 p.m.) and had planned to investigate tomorrow. But since I was there already, I decided to pop my head in and see what it was like, and ended up poking around looking at all the wonderful old things they had on display -- from Mayan artifacts to old sewing machines, meat grinders, cash registers, cameras, irons, you name it -- and then ordering myself a "Chocolate Francés" and sitting down and spending a delightful half hour drinking chocolate and reading my table. Yes, reading my table. All of the tables in La Luna are covered in old (as in, 1890's-1940's) newspaper clippings, which are always a hoot to read, though a bit more of a challenge when they're in Spanish. My table had poetry, funny love quotes, remedies for removing stains from all manner of things and for keeping eggs fresh (for up to a year!), obituaries, lawyers' advertisements, and random facts. It was a small square table, and I just kept standing up and moving to the next side to sit in a new chair and read from there. It was a highly enjoyable evening, and the hot chocolate was good, too. :)

I've been studying my guidebook's map of central Xela and trying to plant a picture of the layout in my head so I don't always have to be pulling out my guidebook and looking like a lost tourist, especially at night in the dark. I was proud of myself in that I managed to get all the way back to the hostel without looking at my map, though I did get a bit worried when I went too far after coming out of La Luna, and started walking up relatively dark, steep, deserted streets. But I kept going purposefully (the main thing is to look like you know where you're going), keeping my eyes peeled for street signs (there aren't enough to go around in Guatemala, so you have to take them when you can get them), and as soon as I saw one I was able to set myself back on the right course. Cristie would have been proud. :)

There is a beautiful full moon tonight, peeking in and out of the clouds. It is shining on a big city, or at least, big to my eyes, looking at it from the third-story walkway of my hostel. I feel small here. I want to give Xela a chance, but I may just not be a big city person (and this isn't really a big city in the grand scheme of things).

Bed time now (yes, it's still early). First task tomorrow: find myself a new hostel. Well, maybe after breakfast.

.... P.S. My pillow feels like it's been chewed up, spat out, and stuck back together with silly putty. I think I'll fold up my fleece and use it instead.

Lessons from Guatemala, Part II

Part I can be found here.

11. Whenever possible, eat market food.

12. Traffic lights here have three colors, but four signals per cycle:
Green: Go ahead, barrel through the intersection.
Flashing Green: Hurry up, the light is about to turn yellow.
Yellow: Last chance to gun it before the light turns red.
Red: Sucker! Wait impatiently for the next green.

13. If you're lucky enough to get a hot shower, avoid touching the showerhead while the water is running... unless you enjoy mild electric shocks.

14. The difference between a minibus and a microbus is that in a minibus there's just enough room for extra passengers to stand between your knees and the seat in front of you,and in the microbus they all pile into the space behind the front seat and along the side. Both can still "seat" up to 25 passengers.

15. Saying "no" to a trio of winsome young girls trying their hardest to sell you beautiful scarves is possible, but very, very difficult.

16. Always carry diarrhea-combating medicine in your first aid kit, because if you really need it, you won't be able to make it to a pharmacy to buy it.

17. Wear a good, supportive bra when traveling by chicken bus (or lancha).

18. If you absolutely must jaywalk across a large, busy highway, try to make it at least halfway across before you have to pause.

19. Mobile ice cream stands in Guatemala play the same music as ice cream trucks in the states.

20. A young Guatemalan boy standing up in a wildly careening minibus can make change faster and more accurately than a college graduate with a cash register back home.

Friday, August 15, 2008


July 30, 2008

If you ever find yourself in Lívingston, Guatemala (on the Caribbean coast), go straight to the Restaurante Bahía Azul and order the tapado. It may be the most expensive thing on the menu (Q90, or about $13), but, by golly, it´s worth it. In fact, to my mind, it´s pretty much the only reason to go to Lívingston at all (illustrated by the fact that I´m not even going to bother writing about the rest of our experience there). Incidentally, if you do ever find yourself in Lívingston, Guatemala, don´t even think about staying (notice I didn´t say "sleeping," or "showering," or even "flushing the toilet") at the Hotel Río Dulce.

My guidebook describes the meal thus: "Tapado is probably the region´s signature dish, a seafood soup that´s a superb mix of fish (typically snapper), prawns, coconut milk, peppers, plantain and spices." Cristie and I shortened it to: "Wow."

That tapado was one of the more complicated and adventurous meals either of us had ever eaten, and the meal was punctuated by disbelieving exclamations and peals of laughter as we continually unearthed new discoveries in our bowls. The plantain was absent, but just about everything else you could imagine was there -- fish, clams, crab, whole shrimp (including the heads and googly black eyes, which we weren´t brave enough to swallow), squid, and probably more that I either can´t remember or we couldn´t identify.

Now, let me clarify two things. When I say there was fish in the tapado, I mean there was a fish in the tapado. As in, a whole fish, draped across the bottom of the bowl, with its head (eyes, teeth and all) peeking out on one side and its tail on the other. (We ate around our fishes for a while, marveling at them, then finally broke down and asked the waitress how on earth we were supposed to eat them. She pulled the plates out from beneath our soup bowls and told us to lif the fishes out of the soup and eat them off the plates. Of course!) And when I say there was crab in the tapado, I mean there was an entire crab in the tapado. I was practically crying with laughter when I discovered my crab, because I had foolishly assumed that it was just a few crab legs floating around in the broth, and that I had discovered everything there was to be discovered.

Ah, tapado memories. Photos and videos will eventually be up on Flickr, and I´ll try to remember to put a note back here when they are.

Update: Photos and videos from Lívingston are up! They can be found here.

Finca Ixobel

July 28-30, 2008

According to the Rough Guide to Guatemala, "Finca Ixobel is a supremely beautiful and relaxing place," where "many travelers are quickly seduced by the tranquil nature of the finca and end up staying much longer than planned." Cristie and I managed to escape after only two nights, but we were constantly discovering reasons that travelers get lured into long-term stays.

First of all, our accommodation was a tree house. How cool is that? It wasn´t literally built in a tree, but more like a little room on stilts nestled into the trees. It was just large enough for two beds side by side. One bed slid under the other during the day, and when it came out at night it completely blocked the door -- no slipping off silently for midnight runs to the bathroom! The porch was just long
enough and wide enough for a narrow bench and a hammock, which we made full use of -- as, apparently, did an ambitious frog, who I inadvertantly sat upon early one morning as I settled down to write in my journal. Fortunately, he seemed none the worse for it, though perhaps a trifle startled (as was I!).

Secondly, the food was amazing -- great variety (no traditional Guatemalan food here), well cooked, huge portions, and mouth-wateringly delicious. They grow a lot of their own food at the finca, and bake all of their own breads and pastries (including heavenly cinnamon rolls with at least 7 wraps). For dinner the first night I had the vegetarian main dish, which was chick peas in wine sauce, and Cristie had stuffed rolled beef. Side dishes included bread, salad, roasted potatoes (the potatoes in Guatemala are amazing!), and ratatoille. It´s no wonder dinner was more expensive than accommodation! (though a huge plate with all those items was still only Q45, or about $6.)

We didn´t participate in any of the organized activities the finca offered, but we did decide to check out one of the self-guided hikes advertised in the reception area. There is a large hill/small mountain behind the finca called Cerro Ixobel (Ixobel Hill), but more commonly known as The Pyramid because its profile against the sky is an almost perfect triangle. Directions for the hike were simpleÑ just walk past the parrot enclosure and past the horses, then follow the yellow arrows. Simple in theory. In practice, we were very glad we´d changed our skirts and sandals for hiking boots, because the ascent up The Pyramid turned out to be about 1/8 hiking, 3/8 clambering, 5/8 rock climbing, and 2/8 sweating buckets. (Yes, Mom, that one went up to eleven.) No switchbacks to speak of, just a trail (if it can be called that) straight up the mountainside. Fortunately, there were plenty of rocks and trees and roots to assist us in our clambering, and in about an hour we made it to the top, where we found a small flattish area mostly covered in trees, through which we could peek to catch lovely views of the finca and marvel at how high we´d climbed. We were pleasantly surprised at how much easier the descent was than we´d anticipated, but still glad to get to the bottom and go for a dip in the pond.

Other Finca Ixobel highlights included:

- Laundry! A desperately necessary chore after the sweat and stickiness of Tikal. (And, besides, I enjoy washing my clothes by hand.)

- Fireflies, countless stars, and the Milky Way

- A very silly game of Cranium which eventually involved everybody at the bar, and which my team lost dismally

- One salsa dance (in sandals on a concrete floor past my bedtime, which is why there weren´t more)

- Re-meeting nice people we´d met at Tikal (remember the family that bought us limonadas for Cristie´s birthday?) and meeting new nice people, connecting with fellow travelers

And some final thoughts, excerpted from my journal, 7/29...

This is a wonderful place to be, and I can definitely understand why people get sucked in and stay for a long time. At the same time, however, one can easily have pretty much the same resort-like experience pretty much anywhereñ Finca Ixobel happens to be in Guatemala, but there is nothing that really identifies it as Guatemalan other than its location. Most of the more visible staff members are volunteers who came as visitors and liked it so much they decided to stay on; the food isn´t traditional Guatemalan fare for the most part (no matter how delicious it is); and the "culture" of the place is very much a vactationer´s resort type of culture, rather than any sort of local Guatemalan culture. So, it´s great for a while, and I might be tempted to stay and volunteer for a bit if Cristie weren´t here, but at the same time I know this is not what I´m looking for, this is not why I´m traveling. Perhaps as a break down the road, if my other traveling experiences get too intense and I need a vacation, but for now it will be good to move out of the world of the vacationer and back into the world of the traveler.

On The Road

Excerpt from my journal, July 28, describing the journey from Flores to Finca Ixobel. (Side note on pronunciation: "x" is pronounced as kind of a soft "sh" or "zh" - so "Ixobel" sounds like "Izhobel".)

The trip to Finca Ixobel was highly amusing -- who says you can´t experience true local culture if you´re not on a chicken bus? We bought our tickets from a travel agent in Flores, who arranged a shuttle taxi service to Santa Elena (just across the causeway), where we caught the 15-passenger minibus that would take us to the Finca. When we left the bus terminal there were four passengers, the driver, and two young men (ayudantes, or "helpers") hanging out the open side door shouting, "Poptún, a Poptún!" to rustle up more passengers (Poptún was the main town closest to where we were headed).

We drove really slowly through town (like, molasses slow), and then straight into a major market street which did not look like it was meant for buses -- narrow and winding, one-lane with market stalls on either side and people milling about everywhere. And when we got to the very center, we parked for about ten minutes while the ayudantes called out for more passengers, and young children approached the bus trying to sell sodas and snacks, and random people got on board and sat down for a few minutes simply because it was ever-so-slightly cooler in the bus than it was outside. Cristie commented that "Guatemala is a place where, a lot of the time, I have no idea what´s going on." It brilliantly summed up the afternoon.

We finally filled up the bus and departed for Poptún, picking up more and more passengers along the way (did I mention we were full when we left?) -- they either crowded into other peoples´seats or simply stood up between the seats -- thankfully, the bus had a tall ceiling, and was much roomier than some of the other microbuses we´ve been in. At its max, we counted 26 people (including an infant on a lap) in that 15-passenger bus! It was pretty exciting; we could scarcely believe it when the ayudantes kept calling for more passengers. At one point, three young women wanted to get on, but when they saw that there were no seats left they said they didn´t want to. The main ayudante pretty much told the three men in the seat in front of us to get up, and they did, giving up their seats and standing so the girls could sit. It was a very interesting and informative bus ride.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Market Metaphors, or, Nausea Nightmares

August 13, 2008

Notes to self:
1. Don´t drink the carrot juice if you´re not sure how (or if) the carrots have been washed/peeled.
2. Anti-diarrhea medication on a completely empty stomach may or may not be worth the potential side effects.

I´ve been in bed for two days. Well, no, that´s not entirely true -- I´ve made it to the toilet several dozen times, and this morning I actually managed to get dressed and go out for a whole hour (most of which I spent sitting down), though it took a three-hour nap afterwards for me to recover. But, in essence, I´ve been in bed for two days, recovering from the unpleasant (and, initially, bright orange) side effects of a giant glass of fresh carrot juice I probably shouldn´t have drunk. At least I have a private room, with super-nice Danish neighbors who went to the store and bought me water and crackers in the pouring rain last night.

My main problem the first day and night was nausea. Pain I can handle. Diarrhea I can cope with. Nausea, on the other hand, is a completely different beast, and one I am poorly equipped to fight. I managed to fend it off during the day by remaining horizontal at all times when not in, or on my way to or from, the bathroom, but there was a major battle on Tuesday night, when the fight went from the physical realm to the mental realm, and I had to overcome the nausea in the dream world.

The scene was a Guatemalan textiles market in chaos. My job had something to do with making sense of it, though it was not at all clear how I was supposed to go about it. The only thing I knew was that my ability to keep myself from vomiting in real life was inextricably linked to my ability to sort out this market in dream-life. It was a long, rough night.

Nothing behaved as it should. Piles of scarves, shawls, blankets and other goods covered every surface so that all I could see was a never-ending sea of fabric. I shopped, I haggled, I arranged piles of cloth in different ways, but things always seemed to jump back into place -- or all the way across the market -- as soon as I glanced away, so that my progress was always one step forward, two steps back. After three hours (real time - I was awake enough to look at my clock), I was practically crying with frustration, and had made up my mind to just get up, throw up, and have done with it, but somehow the dream wouldn´t entirely let me go, and sucked me back into the market.

I finally realized that I was going about things all wrong. Rather than simply rearranging things at the market (a mimicry of how the nausea was rearranging my insides), I had to actually get rid of them, to make them disappear so that they could no longer plague me. I became very methodical, working quickly to create piles of similar products and then obliterate them before they could perform their tricks on me. I´m not quite sure how I did this, but it took a huge mental effort. After a while, though, things became a bit more manageable -- I could see patches of ground beneath the piles of cloth, things became easier to organize, somehow simpler, and eventually it reached the point where whoever was in charge was satisfied and let me go. I slept hard the rest of the night (12 hours in total) and woke up weak, sore and mentally exhausted, but nausea-free.

I´m not sure why the Guatemalan textiles market became the metaphor for my nausea; perhaps because it is one of the most complicated, organic, and unfathomable systems I have encountered in Guatemala so far. Thank goodness I didn´t dream about the public transportation system, whichis the other!

08/14/08 Recovering slower than I´d like. Trying to make myself eat something other than crackers. I foresee another day or two in Panajachel.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

New Beginnings

Excerpts from today´s journal:

7:30 a.m.

Today´s Angel Card: Birth. The last four days, my Angel Cards have been alternating between Compassion and Birth. I suppose it´s appropriate - Cristie leaves this morning for Guatemala City (and home on Tuesday), so after 10:00 today I´m on my own, beginning my solo adventure. It is a kind of rebirth, and I´m sure it will take compassion and patience.

10:18 a.m.

Well, I just walked back to the hostel after getting Cristie onto the bus for Antigua and Guate. I am now officially on my own, and I need to spend some time working out how I feel about it. There are parts of me that are sad, nervous, excited, reflective, tired, anxious, eager, tentative, jubilant, calculating and recalculating in turn. But I woke up alert and joyous this morning - "awake and ready!" as they would say at Ananda - and I want to focus on that feeling and remember that sensation.

1:30 p.m.

Cristie admonished me not to hole up in my room by myself after she left, and with good reason - that´s definitely going to be a tendency I´ll have to work on overcoming. I took a (hot!) shower and spent a couple of hours sorting through photos, reflecting, and thinking about next steps, and then, when I finally felt like I really needed food, decided to venture out for lunch and an afternoon of uploading photos at the internet café (yes, still a very solitary activity, but it´s a start). I´m treating myself to a licuado de fresa with lunch, and it´s delicious - with actual chunks of fresh strawberries! On the other hand, the sopa del día that was just brought out bears a remarkable resemblance to Campbell´s vegetable soup. :P

It´s funny, walking down Calle Santander (the main drag here in Panajachel) is an entirely different experience without Cristie. We spent almost two days walking around Pana together, mostly on this street, and it´s odd now to walk it alone. I noticed a definite tendency to walk faster on my way to find lunch, but almost immediately realized that doing so created a shell around me - I wasn´t really looking at what was going on around me, wasn´t noticing details or watching faces or admiring goods for sale. There was a definite dulling of my perception, which has felt so keep these last few weeks, and I didn´t like it at all. It was as if I´d suddenly become more vulnerable and was trying to protect myself by withdrawing into invisibility. All of that hit me in the space of a few blocks, and gave me a sharp reality check, a taste of what I´m going to be up against in traveling with myself. I need to practice presence and attention, with "constant vigilance!" to full experience. It is okay for me to spend time alone, but when I´m out and about in the world I want to be fully present.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Serenades and Ceremonies

Excerpt from my journal, 9:30 a.m.:

The town of Santa Cruz del Quiché did not want us to sleep in this morning. For the last several hours we have been serenaded (if that can possibly describe the experience) by a cacophany of drums, marimbas and trumpets that sound as if they´re just outside our hotel, each apparently playing along to its own beat. It reminds me of the Hogwarts school anthem, which Dumbledore directed everybody to sing to whatever tune they liked best. We´re going out to investigate shortly.

Unfortunately, the music stopped by the time we made it outside, so we never found out what it was. But we set off on a walk to find the ruins and caves of Utatlán, which turned out to be a beautiful walk along winding roads through the country. We couldn´t actually wander around the ruins much because there were some Mayan ceremonies going on, so we did our best to stay respectfully unobtrusive. We were kind of bummed that we didn´t get to explore the caves or get close to the temples, but at the same time we both thought it was a much more unique experience to be able to witness a bit of true Mayan culture. It is amazing and wonderful that they are still using these old sites for traditional rituals and ceremonies.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Lessons from Guatemala, Part I

Cristie and I are learning a lot in our travels through Guatemala. Here are some of the lessons we have come across (I am sure I will be posting future volumes as well):

1. There is an easy way and a hard way to get into a sleep sheet in a hammock.

2. Never, ever assume you have a clue about what´s going on, especially where transportation is concerned.

3. Always check your hammock for frogs before sitting down.

4. A 15-passenger van holds far more than 15 passengers (as in, say, 26).

5. Wear a bathing suit on the trip from Río Dulce to Livingston - there are hot springs on the way, complete with what might be pirhannas.

6. If arriving in Antigua in the rain, wear either sandals or waders, as you will have to ford numerous rivers to get to your hostel and your hiking boots will be soaked in street juice otherwise.

7. No matter where you are, you´re never far from a bag of Doritos, even halfway up an active volcano.

8. No matter what restaurant you eat in, your food may still come from down the street.

9. When buying chili-spiced mango, always buy at least one bag per person, then sit down to savor the experience.

10. Accept the fact that you have no idea what´s going on, and go with the flow (I know, I mentioned this one already, but it´s so important it deserves another appearance).