Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Rio Dolce and a Jungle that Grows Sideways

The Rio Dolce is a river in the eastern Guatemalan jungle that flows through a couple of gorgeous lakes and into the Caribbean. It is a place of intersections....the clashing and melding of Mayan, Ladino, and Caribbean culture....the acute juxtaposition of the richest and the poorest of Guatemala....and a smattering of hard drinking crusty old expats that often tinker about on boats....but more about them later.

Getting There
Ok, lets start from the beginning....always with the early morning pick-up....5:00am this time. Geeeze! I decided to try Guatemalan "first class" travel in the form of a Pullman bus. This however requires catching the bus in Guatemala City in an armpit of a neighborhood. I arrived to find the bus I had planned to take to Rio Dolce had been cancelled and the next one did not leave for hours.....while I was stumbling to speak in something approximating Spanish, the woman behind the counter suggested I take a bus to Morales...close to Rio, and then grab a van into town. What the hell. I went for it.

After hours of bumpy hallucinogenic half sleep, we reached Morales and I was instructed to exit the bus at a strange intersection with a gas station, a couple tiendas, and local vans stuffed with mostly human cargo whizzing this way and that.

¿Donde esta el bus a Rio Dolce? Juan Pablo, a short adorable young college student from Guate said he spoke English and he was headed to Rio also. We found the van stop and waited only a few minutes and then we were stuffed into the vehicle and, as is the way here, picked up many folks along the way.

Now there is something you should know about the vans here. Picture a light-tinny Toyota minivan with 4 rows of seats plus the front. Now envision the isle used to access the rows of the end of each of these rows there is another seat that folds down so that as each row fulls, it is ultimately closed off with one more seat. Well for claustrophobics like me (ask my sister about holding my hand during an "open" MRI while I sobbed and hyperventilated fucked up on a Valium....not pretty). Well, there I sat in the back of the van, stuffed onto the seat, another 3 seats folded down in front of me and filled with escape rout whatsoever....and somehow I stuck my elbow out the window, felt the breeze, breathed....and we bumped along the road towards Rio without me losing my mind.

The town of Rio Dolce was chaos with an inexplicable traffic jam in the main intersection of this strange little place. I jumped out of the van and into another that took me to my hotel after sitting in the traffic mess for quite a long time....sweating....waiting.

Clean Sheets Again
I stayed at a nice hotel slightly out of town and on the river. I learned that this resort is frequented mostly by rich Guatemalans....the 2% or so that have a grossly disproportionate amount of the wealth of this country and have exerted, in collusion with the USA, a political stranglehold on the poor people of Guatemala. I sat next to them and ate excellent food and enjoyed the comforts of affluence. It was strange....spending my money there...lounging in my passing for straight when I am so damn queer...or being white in the south having tea with polite and refined and complicated.....but there I sat, undeniably privileged. It was weird. I arranged for a boat tour the next day and slept on clean sheets and a decent bed.

The Rioi Dolce
Captain Daniel and his son Don picked me up at 8 in a 15 foot panga with a bimini top and 40hp outboard engine. We putted up through the eastern end of the huge Lake Isabal and into the Rio Dolce towards the Caribbean....into small lagoons with cormorants and beds of floating water Lillie's and thick mangroves strutting over shallow water thick with underwater growth. We passed by small simple thatched roofed homes of fishermen working with nets out of traditional dugout canoes...buoys made of bits of Styrofoam or a plastic orange juice bottle. We were approached by young children in their smaller dugouts....smiling....a small boy holding up a wiggling crab he had caught, a proud young fisherman. Me, a strange rich gringa...a woman alone venturing about with her male guides....looking.....$500 camera clicking shots of the poor but happy others. Goddamn my education!!

Then into the canyon....hundreds of feet up the canyons climb....and out of them grows the jungle still! Sheer cliffs can not stop the fecundity...the determination and adaptability of the rainforest....and so she grows, trees perpendicular...orchids hanging from cliffs...ferns and god knows what all growing green and lush on the sides of this stunning canyon! And then turning the corner she appeared, the Caribbean, calm and flat and humid.
We pulled into Livingston (see pic) a small town more Caribbean in culture than not. The music distinctly more African and the food more greasy. I spent a few hours walking and sweating and eating something fried.....called my family...bought some gifts. Then back to the boat bringing Daniel and Don ice cream to cut the heat some. We motored back through that gorgeous canyon and I sat quietly, in awe.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

My Christmas...An International Feast

Wandering around, alone as usual as is my way during the day, I ran into Mike and John from Cafe No Se....predictably they whisked me off to the Cafe chastising me for not having been by in a while. I explained I was letting my liver heal. We had not been together but a few minutes and Mike asked if I had somewhere to be on Christmas Eve....nope...then you must join us for dinner. I enthusiastically accepted.

Once at the Cafe John introduced me to many folks and then arrived Nora (Mike´s girl) and her mother Barbara...both from Germany and both beautiful souls. Barbara had just finished a 50 hour journey from Germany to join her daughter for the holidays. And so we commenced on another night of drinking and talking and Carlos showed up and Steve was there and Justin played guitar in the corner and confessed it was his birthday and it was mescal shots and a grand toast and finally I practiced some self discipline and grabbed a cab home knowing the next night would be a marathon. I was right.

Being fairly new to Gt when Mike said come at 8pm I thought 8:30 would be fashionably late...I was very wrong. In Gt time I was geeky early and Nora hadn´t even had a chance to shower yet! But soon enough the gang trickled in...Carlos and his new girl from Taiwan that he had just met...and Genesis an expat from Ca (see pic below of Genesis, Barbara & Nora)...and Martha another expat and Jason the singer from Seattle who teaches in Honduras....and John and then Steve came streaking through the house with his nutty French expat pal, Benito....shirts off and tattoos...they giggled and ran back to No Se to tend bar.

Barbara and Nora had spent the day creating an amazing gourmet feast (see pic of master chef Barbara). We had celery soup and salad and turkey and duck and rabbit and two kinds of potatoes and zucchini casserole...and bread and cheese and wine and my god we all stuffed ourselves! It was a stunning meal in a stunning place. Mike and Nora´s apartment is gorgeous, open air with tall ceilings with chunky exposed beams and wood molding and course walls and eclectic decor. The table was set with candles and decorations and fruit and wine....and suddenly Mike looked across the table and said he needed my help. He said his family had a tradition that to start the holiday dinner someone would chuck a roll across the table....well, sweet Mike picked me and chucked the roll he did...I caught it of course and he said he knew I would have good hands.

After stuffing ourselves with incredible food the night eased into the slow long comfortable decent into a torpid evening of conversation and disclosure punctuated by burst of laughter and singing...and of course...lots of drinking. I heard about Barbara's younger men and her time in Paris and the gay clubs in Berlin and how the gays are so great there....and Nora shared about her crazy rock&roll marriage in Denmark and then to Antigua and sleeping with Mike a year and a half later...woops. And we heard Mikes stories about smuggling their new brand of mescal into Gt from Mexico (they have since become legal but their brand bears an appropriate moniker...Illegal Mescal is the brand! One story involved a guy dressed up as a priest and his friend had put porn in his bag which the border guys found....confused they just zipped up the bag and sent the "padre" on his way.

I lasted until 3:30am and felt more welcome there then I ever could have imagined would happen thousands of miles from home...a stranger just weeks in this town. These folks are amazing and I am so blessed to have the privilege of their company and generosity. Cafe No Se and the boys have become a touchstone for this quirky broody butch dyke from Ca.

My New Cell Phone

Up until December 24 I had intentionally avoided phones...for a variety of reasons. However, missing my family on Jesus´birthday (I believe he was actually born in June?) I bought a pre-paid cell phone for about $28 bucks. Now the thing is, I barely know how to use it as all the instructions are in Spanish. I have successfully made a few calls to family and friends and the thing worked pretty good. I finally figured out what my number is....what gave me a clue? Well, I turned the phone over and noticed the giant sticker on the back that says "mi numero 45277956." So if anyone wants to call me now you have my number...and from what I can figure you would need to dial these numbers first (001+502+number). But don´t bother leaving a message if you don´t get me because I have no idea how to retrieve my messages....perhaps I will find someone to help me. But I am pretty ok not having much phone in my life....for now.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Rambling Bit of Musing on CA Politics....

I can not tell you just how comforting it is to walk out of the Guatemala City Airport and see a sweet Guatemalan man, smiling, sans a couple teeth, holding a sign that says ¨Mary Rainwater." This is a tough town and the more I read and hear the more it sinks in. I would not want to negotiate Guate in a car by myself....or with inexperienced westerners. Every structure near the airport....houses and businesses alike, are walled and the walls are covered with barbed wire or glass fragments cemented into the top of the walls. Some sweet souls have planted vines that grow to obscure some of the wire.

As our plane descended over Guate the city comes into clearer view....the amorphous squares suddenly become detailed....tin roofs and trash and poverty...the neighborhoods in this sprawling city. This city has been one of the nodes of violence in the recent decades as the civil war raged in the rural highlands and in Guate. Politicians and students and activists plucked from their lives and killed or¨"disappeared." For most of the 20th century Gt has been exploited by an elite few, foreign interests, and the nefarious intervention of the CIA. The many attempts by brave politicians to affect reforms have been met with violence. At the root of much of the struggle is the land ownership which, as would be expected, is mostly (now and past years) owned by a very small elite and enterprises like the United Fruit Company (US).

Decades ago there was a modest move to nationalize a small amount of land not being actively use by United Fruit....the result was a backlash, the paranoia of the Monroe doctrine and a CIA backed coup. Since then, the government has been largely controlled by the military and political attempts at significant reforms have failed.....beyond the violence, the politicians are impotent because of the military strength which is associated with the elite interests. Anyone who knows anything about the last hundred years of Central American politics knows this is a very common story....US policies in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama, is repulsive. And the poor folks, the worst hit the indigenous Mayas struggle to get the slightest bit ahead...the slightest bit of improvement in the quality of their lives.

But there is some hope. With the help of international human rights groups a few Mayan families have successfully prosecuted the army for disappearances and death squads killing their family members. This has happened only in the last few years and would not have been successful without the shielding affect of international NGO support. The Gt. army is a little less likely to gun down a bunch of lawyers from the west.....but poor Mayans in the hills, no problem. And fortunately under the recent presidents there has been a reduction in the military...both in personnel and overall spending.

Anyway, having long been aware of the politics of some of Central America and the appalling interventions of the US government (i.e. Reagan and the Iran Contra fiasco....or lets talk Cuba for Christ sake!) it is another thing to come here and see the actual faces of so many people drive through the towns and see the standard of living and hear the stories. It brings the stories into a vivid reality that doesn´t come off a page in a book or through the nefarious master storytelling of Oliver North.

Below is an article that exemplifies the stuff I am learning about and is a persistent reality in this country.

March 16, 2005

On March 15, in Colotenango, Huehuetenango, at least two demonstrators protesting the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) were shot and killed by Guatemalan army forces.

The men who were shot to death were Juan López, from the village of Xemal, Colotenango, and Ical resident José Sanchez Gómez, who died from his wounds in the hospital. Both were members of the Campesino Unity Committee (CUC). According to CUC, at 6:30 in the morning on March 15, CUC members gathered to demonstrate peacefully, along with members of the National Indigenous and Campesino Committee (CONIC), the Association for Community Promotion and Development (CEIBA), MAMA MAQUIN, MAGISTERIO, and the National Coordinating Committee of the Displaced of Guatemala (CONDEG).

Guatemalan farmer Juan Lopez from Xemal was shot dead by armed forces.
The demonstrators were blocking the Inter-American Highway as a form of protest when, as CUC reports, a contingent of police from the departmental seat of Huehuetenango faced off aggressively with demonstrators, while army troops surrounded the protestors. At around midday, without a word, the government forces began to throw tear gas into the crowd towards the women and children, and opened fire on the men. In addition to the two men killed, at least ten protesters were injured, two critically. The Center of Informative Reports of Guatemala (CERIGUA) reports that the number of injured reached fifty. The names of some of the wounded:Marcos PérezSantiago MoralesJose Gomez SánchezDomingo RamosMiguel Angel VelásquezPedro Pablo Domingo Prior to the shootings, CEIBA had reportedly learned that the army planned to surround protestors and attack them.

The Associated Press wrote "Mauro Guzman, mayor of Huehuetenango, a city near the site of the protest, said police were fired upon." However, Mauro Guzmán is the governor of the department of Huehuetenango, and not the mayor of the town of the same name.
BACKGROUND:On March 10, the Guatemalan Congress ratified CAFTA. On Monday, March 14, about 4,000 demonstrators opposed to the agreement rallied in the streets in Guatemala City. Police used tear gas and a water cannon to disperse them after police were pelted with rocks and bottles. Nineteen people were injured and 16 were detained.

The government and the leaders of civil society reached an agreement on the evening of March 14 to initiate a dialogue process, to be mediated by Cardinal Rodolfo Quezada Toruno, with the aim of ending the violent protests of the previous few days by coming to some agreements regarding the trade agreement. Nonetheless, before any meeting was held, President Óscar Berger on March 15 bypassed the dialogue process and gave CAFTA his full approval.
Vice-president Eduardo Stein is meeting today, March 16, with leaders of the movement opposed to CAFTA to try to defuse mounting tension over the treaty. It is not clear how Stein will seek to placate the protesters now that CAFTA is a fait accompli. The protesters want CAFTA to be put to a national referendum.

The protesters are also calling for the interior minister, Carlos Vielmann, and the director of the National Civil Police, Erwin Sperissen, to be removed from office and want a response from the government to their demands by today, March 16.

1. Express concern about the recent extra-judicial executions carried out by the government security forces in Colotenango, Huehuetenango
2. Urge President Berger to negotiate an end to such conflicts rather than allow repressive measures to be taken by the security forces.
3. Calling on the government to carry out an immediate, impartial and exhaustive investigation into the killing of Juan López and José Sanchez Gómez, to make the results public and bring those responsible to justice

A Marie is a Marie and By Any Other Name is Still a Marie...

In this country I am Mary, Merry, Marry, Maria...and to a select few, Mer, Mar or Maar. I am never Marie. There are no Marie´s in Guatemala....but I am so ok with that....and I answer to any of the above, happily....I will answer to anyone generous and interested enough to call me by any of my many names.

The Peten, Tikal, ¨"the Serbian Guy from the Jungle"....Freak Shows and More

The Peten
I am in the the peten...the lowland jungle of northern Guatemala. There is something about this place that seduced me last January when I drove from San Ignacio, Belize, over a long, bumpy dirt road through small pueblos with shack houses with tin roofs and perfectly dressed school children...and then into the biosphere/National Park and Tikal. The jungle....I just had to come back and spend more time here. For some reason, I was enamored with this land of extremes....even with all it´s heat, humidity, and bugs....

There are two seasons here: wet and dry. Literally folks recognize a winter and a summer...these were the seasons also recognized by the ancient Mayans. A subtropical rain forest, the winter, which ends in November, brings an average of 12 hours of rain a day. The summer brings oppressive heat and thing about the peten, you sweat.....and nothing seems to fully dry once wet.

I have been lucky in that the weather has been far more moderate than my previous trip. The heat is a bit less and the humidity not as intense....and praise the lord, the mosquito's have been moderate as well...I think I have about 10 new ten from the Honduran jungle leaves me with about 20 itchy spots.....and hopefully no tropical diseases.

But let me start at the beginning. I have been known to say that I prefer to get up early only if it involves sex or fishing....well, I guess you could add jungle trips to the list. Of course this trip started with a 4:00am van pick-up and then a drop off at a small bungalow at the Guate City airport....still dark, the driver pulled over at a building that looked nothing like an airport and indicated I should get out. I was the only one to leave the van....trusting into the dark I went.

After checking in, weighing our bags to make sure we were under the 20lbs limit for the small craft we boarded a prop plane and headed north....most everyone crashing as soon as the plane took off. After nearly an hour we descended into a thick layer of clouds and landed in Flores airport....a stark place. I was greeted by a guy from Jungle Lodge who collected a few of us and into the van we went. An hour drive to Tikal and the lodge....entering the park it was just as I remembered it from a few months ago. We checked in, dumped our bags, and met our guide Carlos, an affable middle aged guy with an infectious smile and a limp. We walked the park and Carlos educated us on the history of the site including descriptions of the political tensions regarding the archeology and excavations. We spent hours walking the park, climbing the temples, taking in the jungle....seeing the birds and creatures, spider monkeys....something that looked like a raccoon....toucans.

Carlos and the Jungle Lodge
While walking Carlos and I invariably talked politics....he said he makes a clear distinction between the US government and the US people. He said that whenever there is a crises in Gt. the US people respond with great generosity....he explained that he was in a motorcycle accident and hurt his leg badly. He could not afford surgery in Gt. Visiting US surgeons operated on his leg for free and he is now recovering.

Carlos was born in Gt. and is of Mayan and Spanish decent. He speaks excellent English and pursued archeology as a second career, earning a BA at the University of Florida in Gainsville....he boasted, "I am a Gator." Back to the lodge we were served an excellent lunch. One man´s salad was late in coming and Carlos seemed very agitated about this....he finally confessed that his family owns the Jungle Lodge. His father had been associated with the site and excavations from the 1950´s....and he is credited with discovering temple 5. There are amazing historical pictures in the restaurant showing the early excavations and the archaeologists and excavators working diligently to reclaim the site from the jungle...a very daunting and laborious task. Only 10-15% of Tikal has been excavated and it is suspected that there are more than 3000 structures. Carlos was animated and warm regularly hugging folks...we were lucky to have him as a guide.

After a 4:00am start and walking miles through the park, a long siesta in my modest but comfy room was in order....hmmmm....clean sheets and extra pillows. Yummy! It was a satisfying nap.

Zoran...the Serbian Guy from the Jungle
On the tour a sweet, handsome guy named Zoran seemed extra friendly to me. After a bit he "casually" mentioned he had been married for 12 years then was involved with a man for 5 years....having recently been dumped. We immediately clicked and I invited him to have dinner with me and he enthusiastically agreed. After a siesta and a shower we met at 7:00pm and started drinking a lovely white wine from Chile. We had an excellent meal and immediately shared many details of our lives....Zoran sharing his heartache about his coming out in Serbia....the war and harboring his family in Greece....his world travels.

We ate and drank and formed the fast friendship that comes from being thousands of miles from home, heartbroken, in the jungle, traveling alone....the winter solstice promising a rebirth and healing. God bless the gays. We drank more Chilean wine and lamented that the lodge would close at around 10:00pm because the electricity would be turned off (it is on for a limited time each day...couple hours in the in the afternoon....and in the evening till 9-10pm...then off with the generator). We were lucky that we got light until 10:15pm. Zoran was leaving first thing in the morning and he considered trying to change his flight so we could do the sunrise hike together....but in the end it made no sense. So he walked me to my bungalow and we hugged good night promising to keep in touch and visit each other...SF and Athens. He wrote down his contact info titling it..."the Serbian guy from the jungle." Special guy and I hope to make it to Athens someday soon....and I promised to take Zoran sailing in the SF Bay....and to the Castro of course!

Sunrise in the Jungle
I woke at 4:30am to the sound of my travel alarm....dressing quickly in the dark with the help of my headlamp....then to the lodge where folks gathered and checked in with the guides. We fell into a line and trekked through the dark jungle...only the light of our lamps shining on our moon or star light could penetrate the jungle canopy.....and a thick mist hung all around us making the air heavy and wet.

We crossed through the central plaza where the previous nights solstice ceremonies endured into the early hours (mostly westerners...more on this later). They maintained a large fire with fuel and a constant supply of incense. People played music and were dancing in the blackness of the night.....the two temples of the plaza undulating in the flame light.

We continued to temple 4 and then made the steep climb up the rickety stairs to the top. Temple 4 peaks well above the jungle canopy offering stunning views. When the sky is clear you can see the temples of the main plaza and a few other are literally looking down on the jungle (had climbed it the previous day with a clear sky). This structure was the tallest human-made structure in the western hemisphere for over a thousand years until the late 19th century when the towers for the Brooklyn Bridge were erected (pic of ruins above canopy....temple 4 on the right and to the left temple 1 & 2 in the central plaza).

Once to the top, we all settled on the steps and our guides instructed us to be quite, explaining that this is a place for guide suggested that we consider how often we should be so lucky to be quiet at such an amazing site on the solstice with people from all over the world. We shut our pie-holes and waited for the sun.

The dawn was not really a sunrise....rather with the typical heavy morning mist of the jungle, we watched the jungle emerge through the mist. Now, it is difficult to describe the noises that come with the waking of the jungle (this happened in Copan also). As the sun comes the place just bursts with noise and activity. Birds everywhere squawking and singing....and howler monkeys and spider monkeys and things I can´t even imagine all yelling and screeching their good mornings. We all watched and listened in silence for the better part of an hour as the jungle woke up and started the trip towards summers light. It was a stunning start to a new year....presenting a unique solute to the light and the promise of good things to come.

Juan and "A Lady in Red"
For the rest of the morning a small group of us were given a tour by Juan, a half Mayan half ladino man who has been in the peten his whole life. Juan spoke good English and knew a lot about the wildlife. We took more circuitous routes to the sites....single track trails through the thick of the jungle. We saw many toucans and parrots and a bunch of spider monkeys. At one point the monkeys threw things at us from high in the canopy. I had a pair of small field glasses and watched them eat plums...doing their incredible gymnastics while they ate and looked for new bunches of the fruit.

Now Juan and I chatted as I am want to do with the folks I meet on the road. When he learned I was studying in Antigua he started talking to me only in Spanish....making his sentences slow and simple. He advised I should listen to romantic Spanish songs where the singers enunciate. He explained that he learned English in this manner and noted a good song was "A Lady in Red."
Freak Shows...Westerners Where They Should Not Be
The evening Zoran and I ate dinner a man most of you would recognize from Berkeley or the Haight. Mid 50´s, long gray hair, hippy-dippy clothes (see pics). He and some other folks like him invited us to view his video about the "Mayan chakras". Well, as a cultural exploration, I could not resist (and Zoran and I were a bit tipsy by now). "Lionfire" gave some barely coherent introduction explaining that the Mayan chakras come from the back and up over the crown chakra....ok. We watched a short video that was a bizarre montage of Tikal images and psychedelic colorings and FXs. Very fucking bizarre. I feigned appreciation and Zoran and I took our leave preferring a bit more conversation and Chilean wine.

What I discerned from pressing a few of the locals is that the bulk of the Mayan traditionalist do not do there ceremonies in the central plaza on the solstice anymore because of the presence of these hippy-dippy freak-shows that come from mostly the states. There were not many, maybe 35 or 40 total and they stayed the night in the jungle with the fire and whatnot. I gotta say it was repulsive.

A few of this crew had meals at the lodge and I was subjected to their prattling nonsense and obliviousness. One corpulent and clueless man talked incessantly at his two female companions....didactically talking about the peace and bringing the peace to the people and the book he was going to write about the trek to Tikal for the solstice. He spoke loudly and pompously, imposing his words on those around him. Unfortunately I ended up in the van to Flores with these people and they presumptuously asked the men to take them to their hotels not in Flores. They were loud and obnoxious in the van and when they departed the Mayan guys said they were not supposed to drive them there and that they had taken advantage of them. These folks are not typical of the US folks I have seen here and I was appalled at their clueless behaviour.

US Folks
Generally speaking the US folks I see about can be grossly categorized in the following stereotypical ways:

Scrappy Students: Students who wear the same clothes every day....not flashy...wear a Guatemalan bag slung over a shoulder...or a backpack. Most seem to be on the road for awhile....or in Gt for some time studying.

Squeaky Clean Richies: these folks stay at the nicest hotels, for short periods of time, and are conspicuous as they dress for the day...they look squeaky clean and out of place...pot bellied men and shopping women.

Young Drunks: the very young kids from the US...they drink too much, talk too loud and stumble around like it is Greek week. They drip with clueless privilege.

Crunchy ExPats: these folks have soaked up some of Guatemala and seem at home. They are low-key and respectful, speak fluent Spanish and seem very chill...if sometimes cool and aloof.

And in Conclusion
Well this has been a rambling entry of everything and whatnot. Let me finish by saying that I love the jungle....and after talking to a few folks who have been, I am starting to think seriously about the Amazon. To be continued!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Feeling Better....

A couple Cipro, a long nap, a decent meal...and my stomach seems to be recovering. Miss my buds tho...and my music....and my fucking bed!! :-)

Antigua is Not a Comfortable Town

I mean physically comfortable. Besides the persistent nightly torture that is my bed, there are few surfaces that offer comfort to the physical self in this town. At first I thought I was a pansy-ass wimp, but others....younger than I, have confirmed that this town ain´t comfy. Most restaurants and bars boast straight back chairs made of unforgiving hard wood. On occasion one will find such chairs with a thin pad laid upon them....offering little relief from the hard surface.

Most Internet cafes are an ergonomic nightmare....with plastic (much more comfy) or wooden chairs at awkward heights relative to the keyboards...stations crammed tightly together. There is one exception, the Mono Loco bar has an Internet cafe that has cushy chairs and real desks and a logical mating of the two. I go there regularly to write on this blog and whatnot. While I write I consciously appreciate the comfort afforded me.....we are spoiled in the US....beyond comprehension!
The picture is what I dream about at night....

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Cipro is a Very Good Thing

It has happened, I am sick. They say it happens to everyone...just a matter of time. Tonight I will take Cipro...perhaps just a day or two. Thought it was the malaria meds upsetting my stomach....but too much time has passed. Gonna nip it asap this time....before Tikal and the jungle. Getting an intestinal something or other is so common there is an add in the local gringo rag soliciting folks with diarrhea. It asks if you have had diarrhea in the past 72 hours and if you will remain in the area for 3 days....if yes, they invite you to participate in a clinical trial for medicine to treat this ubiquitous condition among foreigners. One is tested and given medicine and $250 for participating. Luckily, mine is still just gurgling in my stomach....but one learns to always carry toilet paper....and be prepared for the worse. Just thought you should know....

Twisted Tanya, the Interminable Brit, and "You Know They Hate You"

In the evening at the Inn I swung in a hammock, reading, watching the sun set and then being entertained by the most incredible symphony of tropical birds. For my night in Copan my inn keepers suggested I eat at Twisted Tanyas, a cafe run by a hard drinking nut from Britain. I made my way there and was greeted by her Honduran husband...I think his name was Harold. Just after I sat I saw a British chap that I had seen at the ruins, he said hello and we started to chat. I invited him to join me and he accepted. He is a criminal attorney from London, Ashley, 58 years old, world travelled, well read....the conversation started quite well as he drank his Honduran beer and I my mojito made with a special blend of mint leaves. We talked literature and politics...I gave my usual apology for George Bush and he offered one for Tony Blair. Then dear Ashley preceded to talk at me for about an hour and a half. His questions were thinly disguised excuses for him to tell another story about some bit of travel. At last we walked home to the B&B (he was staying there too). I never got to meet Tanya...rumor has it she was too hungover to hang with the patrons that night. Choosing not to retire immediately I stayed up and talked to the inn keepers, Angela and her nephew Cyd, the sweetest young guy. Again we talked politics and travel and one point I noted that I found that in Antigua most Europeans were not very friendly (except the Scandinavians). Angela nodded knowingly and said, "well you know they hate you." Hmmm....did not know that so completely until visiting here. She added that those in Copan are in agreement that the best visitors...the best clients are those form the US. This was a nice thing to hear after being told that the bulk of Europe hates me!! Angela is from Honduras and runs the Inn with her husband Howard and their nephew Cyd. Cyd was so damn affable and kind. He was just a joy to talk with....22 years old and perpetually smiling. They explained that Copan is very safe...a woman could walk alone at all hours of the night and be perfectly safe. A nice change from the always present tension and caution I exercise in Gt. At last I retired into the sweetest, most wonderful bed ever....well only by contrast to the piece of shit that has been tormenting me for two weeks. The bed had clean, fresh smelling room was big, there was a reading lamp (at home I use my headlamp) and the toilet was right there, clean and close and indoors. I slept so well....when the morning came I was hesitant to leave...taking some time to soak in the wonderful bed and the clean room. At last I kicked my ass up and to breakfast....and who is there to join me? Dear Ashley with another round of "have you been to?...have you heard off?....reminds me of...." Eggs and fresh fruit and off to walk the streets of Copan. At last it was time to pack and head to the cafe where the van would pick me up for the return to Antigua. As I shuffled up to Via Via and sat down for lunch, who should I see? Yep, dear Ashley again, who headed straight into his storey staring him...myself and a sweet young woman from Sweden sat and sipped our drinks and smiled. At last, into the back of the van again where Eric, the young and slightly socially awkward Dutchman, proceeded to tell me about his diarrhea....a common topic in Gt. At the border he complained that the bathrooms cost money asserting, "I have to pay them because their food makes me sick." Poor boy. And take a shower once a week would ya? The vans are small. The ride home was extra long and the back window was broken open with taped tempered glass flapping in my ear the whole way home....then a car accident that backed up traffic to an imperceptible on the road. Great weekend tho...blabbing brit, sweet Hondurans, stinky was all good. Especially that damn bed. It was just yummy. Could have hugged it and cried when I left.....

Mi Amigos...

I now have friends here in this town that is a strange amalgamation of locals and transients from all over the globe. People come and go...sometimes they stay for weeks, months...years. But most leave at some point and the locals are use to it all. Friendships are formed quickly and intensely given these circumstances. I am greeted by friends on the street....Jose who owns Cafe Flor...he now offers a handshake and kiss to the cheek. We have talked movies and accents and music. There is Giovani, Mr. Gay, with whom I seem to have a magnetic attraction to as we see each other on the street, big gay hellos and hugs..."buenos noche, I love jew (you with accent)." There is Jon from Cafe No Si who keeps telling me to come by so we can talk more. There is Carlos from the bookstore who says, "you are famous now"...I think in part for buying him drinks all night and leaving a generous tip. The other night found me at the local Irish Pub where Steve, a retired merchant seaman from England, and I sat and drank and talked...and the sweetest guys behind the friendliest bar I have ever been in. Joe from Puerto Rico, and Aiden from Ireland and Mayrin from Gt, and Maria who is Guatemalan but speaks with a British accent. All really nice people.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Copan Ruins and my Guide Bill

Setting ones alarm for 3:30am is simply a depressing thing...even if it is to start a trip to Copan. But set it I did, after meticulously packing my backpack for the rushed trip to Honduras. The driver was late and I parked my ass in the back of the "bus" at about 4:30am. The bus was actually a tin-can of a van that has been battered by the bumpy roads of Guatemala for quite some time. I sat in the back on a thinly padded, stiff seat that bounced me about like a convulsing see-saw as the driver drove like a fucking maniac. Sleeping was not an option. For many I know, vomiting most likely would have commenced. (A quick note on transportation. There seems to be a 3 tier hierarchy when it comes to ground transportation. The cheapest and by far most uncomfortable is the chicken bus which costs very little...less than a dollar to get to Guate City, 45 minutes away. They are ubiquitous and are used by most of the people traveling in GT. Second is the torismo van, a comparatively more comfortable ride, but by US standards....well, it aint so fun to ride in for 5 hours...but to Copan, it is only $10...and more affluent Guatemalans use this option too. Lastly, is the Pullman bus...a large charter bus that is rumored to be more comfortable and to Copan would cost one about $30.) After a frightful speeding trip up the mountains and through the small towns and into the lower lands of eastern GT, we reached the border of Honduras. The landscape changed from the highland forests to lower-land jungle with the concomitant heat and humidity. We passed through the border with relative ease, paying a couple bucks to leave GT and a couple more to enter Honduras. Then into Copan, a quaint little town with the requisite cobblestone streets, modest tiendas, and friendly folks. The population is 5000, 80% Mayan and 20% Latino and is mostly an agriculture town. Although the ruins attract tourists and that has become chunk of the economy. After being dropped in the central park, I took a tuk-tuk to my B&B, Casa de Cafe where I quickly dumped my stuff into my modest but gorgeous room with a comfortable bed and clean sheets....a spotless tiled bathroom...fucking heaven!! I headed to the Mayan ruins and met my guide...he said his name in Mayan and then insisted I call him "Bill." Bill worked on the excavation of the ruins for 10 years and has been a guide for the last 11 years. He gave me a great tour of the ruins explaining the caste systems, the royalty lineage, the fact that each king would build basically a whole new temple on top of the old. We ventured into stuffy narrow tunnels to see excavations of previous temples long since buried. The park is very nice and has a spectacular museum. The archaeologists are slowly making replicas and putting the original statues indoors to protect them from the elements. There is also a full scale replica built of one of the temples so one can get a sense of the size and finish....the Mayans always painted their buildings, usually with bright colors found on the macaw parrot which was one of the most significant symbols in Mayan art. I bought Bill lunch at the surprisingly good cafe at the park and I drank a banana soda made in Honduras. We chatted about family and our lives. Bill is 38, single, and lives with his mother. He works almost everyday and spends his evenings reading about Mayan history. He boasted proudly that he has 18 books at home on the subject of indigenous peoples in the Americas. He is Mayan and his grandmother taught him the language (there are some 30+ distinct cultural Mayan groups and dialects) so Bill speaks three languages. Yearly he visits Tikal to see the progress of that excavation and to learn more. In one of the temples, there was a series of statues of the last several kings. One was missing, the most important, Smoke Jaguar I believe, and he explained that the statue sits in a museum in Boston, Ma, USA. Because the Hondurans are quite poor and historically the ruins in Central America have been excavated by (and exploited by) archaeologists from Europe and the US, the Hondurans were forced to "pay" the American archaeologist for their work with the statue. I am not sure, but I think this was some time ago...and Honduras now has some local archaeologists...and Bill was proud to say one of them is from Copan, George. George was educated in the states and returned to make many new discoveries at the site. After the ruins I visited a parrot park where injured, abandon, and abused birds are taken for rehabilitation, conservation and public education. The place was gorgeous, set next to a creek in the jungle that boasted some pretty ginormous spiders...they just hung on their webs and I swear I saw one flip me off. Our guide was Frito and he was so sweet and knowledgeable. He is a young guy and hails from Copan which he loves....he also loves his job because it is beautiful and quiet and he can read which is his favorite thing to do (science fiction). At one point there were birds we could hold....giant macaws and little ones that nibbled on our ears (I have pics). We also saw plenty banana trees and coffee plants. A tuk-tuk ride home to the B&B....

Friday, December 14, 2007

Plans...Copan and Tikal

Tomorrow at 4:00am I head for Copan, Honduras, where I will tour Mayan ruins and stay at a B&B run by a Honduran and American couple. The pics on the Internet make me think I will be sleeping in a comfortable bed for a night and I tell you I am looking forward to this with great anticipation...truly.

Next weekend I will fly to the petan, the northern lowland jungle, and stay in Tikal, the national park and one of the most significant Mayan ruins (see pic). The timing is significant because I will be there for the winter solstice. The Mayans were advanced astronomers and structures are built relative to the placement of the stars and sun...there will be special ceremonies and celebrations.

Both places I am going alone although my roommate (Judy) and I will overlap in Tikal for one night. I am staying in the jungle at a lodge and hope to see the much touted wildlife in the mornings and evenings.

I see many women traveling alone from all over the world. It is an inspiration. I will be traveling 5 hours by bus to Copan. Am going to eat, pack, and sleep as soon as possible. More soon.....

A Very Disturbing Story

I met a man who will remain anonymous out of respect for the innocent. This man is from north America, a modern west coast city. He told me the following story. His younger sister (in her late 20s) and a young male friend embarked on a journey to drive from the west cost of North America through Mexico and all the way south to Patagonia. In Guatemala City they checked into a hostel in a not-so-good part of town at the insistence of the young man. For some reason the young man left early in the morning the next day leaving the woman alone....15 minutes later two men broke into the room and raped and severely beat the young woman. This was one and half years ago. My companion was here to visit a family that helped his sister after the attack, bringing her to Antigua where her entire family flew to bring her home and aid her in the start of a long healing process. She is doing well under the circumstances....and on the plane she leaned into her brother and said. "I will be back to finish this trip." The truth is, Guatemala City is not a safe place...especially for westerners. I have heard from others that car jackings are a daily occurrence, kidnappings for ransom are common, and many middle class and affluent Guatemalans hire private armed guards for protection. Alejandra was headed towards Guate (the nick name for the capital city) to buy a dress for a wedding tomorrow. She was taking a chicken bus and said that going to only the central shopping area is safe and that she never goes into the surrounding zones as it is very dangerous. Again, all things are are relative....context is everything. I feel safe here in Antigua and have no plans to go to Guate except to fly home.

Alejandra...the Spanish Teaching Angel!

This is my teacher and the modest table at which we sit each day as I slowly learn Spanish and help Alejandra with her English...which is far better than my Spanish. She is a bright, kind, gentle soul and I am so very lucky to have her as my maestra!

A Climb up Volcan Pacaya

"Buy a stick, wear shoes that fit, and bring money for a horse"....this was the very good advice I got from a fellow student before heading up Pacaya, an active volcano near Antigua and overlooking Guatemala City. It is an often climbed Volcano in recent years after robberies and thefts plummeted in 2006 as a result of armed patrols.

When we arrived we were swarmed by little boys selling walking sticks made of thick, stripped branches. We all bought one for Q5...less than a $1. I indeed broke down and hired a horse after slugging half way up the steep, rock and root strewn trail. Sweet Juan walked behind me with his horse, smiling and saying "taxi, taxi." My group consisted of mostly folks in their early 20s who scampered ahead, not seemingly affected by the thin air thousands of feet up.

After a couple of hours we reached a plateau above the lava field and the view was spectacular. After soaking that in, taking pics, we all carefully picked our way across the brutal other-worldly surface. The black, igneous rocks were sharp as razors and only about a year and half old as this volcano continuously erupts, sometimes dramatically spewing ash over Guatemala City. The last big eruption was in 1965.

We walked precariously across the lava field and got right next to the oozing fire rock. I got about 3-4 feet from the lava and the heat was incredibly intense....a classmate said that her eyelashes singed a bit (Cindy, from Portland in pic). After a stunning sunset we quickly and carefully picked our way back across the lava field and back up to the plateau where we stayed until it was dark, waiting to see the amazing contrast of the lava against a moonless night. Stunning.

All of a sudden our guide, said we needed to go rapido rapido! He got serious and said we must stay together and go immediately...we all practically ran down the steep trail, headlamps and flashlights lighting the way through the highland forest. We at the end of the group (me second from the last..last hilrious guy from Vancouver) all got a little concerned as our guide seemed a bit frenetic, and save for one couple behind us, we were the last group off the mountain. At one point, lookiong back to make a comment to my fellow traveler, I ate shit on the trail, twisting my already sore ankle...but it is not serious and the men were all so concerned and attentive...the upside of this patriarchal culture. I am one of the oldest students and am treated with deference, especially by the young Guatemalan men/boys.

In recent years many people have been robbed and cars broken into in this area. Our guide, an activities director from our school, is kinda fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants and seeing him so serious about our rapid decent was a bit disconcerting. A few gringos noted that to take this trail and walk on the lava field and run down in the dark in the states would require a serious liability waiver. Not in Guatemala! Many have noted the assessment of risk is on a whole different scale given the reality of life in Guatemala.

Back at the trail head and park entrance, we were again besieged by little dirty boys, asking for our sticks back, and begging for money and food. I returned my stick to a small boy who labored under the weight of an armful of already returned sticks.....and I gave away a bag of chips. We were hungry, we stunk, we were very dirty, I had dirt in my underwear from my fall....but everyone was happy having seen an amazing expression of the power of mother nature.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

By the way...

...I am learning Spanish. Truly. I understand so much now and can communicate some key things. Alejandra still says I am learning very quickly...and others have said that the first two weeks are the worst. It is hard though, intense...3.5 hours of very focused study...and being confused and needing to really concentrate. I can´t cruise in this effort. It takes a lot of concentration....and I am a bit annoyed at the Spanish for the whole irregular verb thing...not cool! I have also noticed the differences between Guatemalan and Mexican Spanish (what I am used to)...certain words are not the same..the accents are different. When I return to the states I intend to hire a teacher and continue my studies...keep the momentum. And come back to Antigua, of course. Alejandra is a joy to work with...she is kind and patient and loves to laugh. She is 25 and lives with her family in Antigua...this includes her mother, father, brother and his wife and child. Her father is an artist/craftsman who makes custom iron work (gonna ask if we can visit him at work for a field-trip). Alejandra really loves her folks and today got teary-eyed talking about how hard her father works and how much gets along with him. I have shared about my family too...our Spanglish conversations are all part of the learning gestalt. But I am not out to her...think I will tell her close to when I leave. I pass not queer...except at Cafe No Se....there you can be anything you want to be......

Cafe No Se

Last night....wandering, fed, in the mood for some conversation with some broody philosophical types. Headed to Cafe No Se....a crusty, scrappy, tequila bar frequented by expats and free-spirits from all over the world. Next door sits a bookstore, "Dyslexia," run by Carlos, a 53 year old lawyer-turn-bookshop-attendant-and volunteer from Tennessee. The store focuses on classic lit and Carlos regularly plays chess with anyone who cares to hang in the store. Met him, bought a William S. Maugham novel, offered to buy him drinks for the night...and so we parked at the bar, where sweet young Kevin from Seattle served us vino in thick clear glasses.
We talked Emerson and 19th century American philosophy and politics and family and whatnot. Got slowly drunk and the bar filled and so I met Edwin from GT, and Steve from Australia, and John who owns the place and Mike from NYC, and Nora from Germany....all free-spirits who write and have left different places for different reasons that somewhere meet and surely become the same. It was a great, drunken, smokey, dimly lit night in a place that felt so very familiar....thousand of miles from home.....but today, my body has demanded I pay for my sins. Was late to class and my sweet teacher just laughs at me and makes fun. We laugh so much...she is a joy.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Please commnet...

...if you take the time to read a bit, please don´t be shy, leave me a comment. Hearing from home is a very appreciated treat. Muchas gracias!

Monday, December 10, 2007

I Walk Miles....

....everyday. Miles. It helps that I regularly get lost. But I don´t mind because every street brings something new...a little cafe, a gallery, a tienda, a park or a centuries old church. People are nice, they smile, bid you good day. Relative to the towns I visited over the weekend...and those we drove through, Antigua is well kept and peaceful....not frenetic, relatively speaking. :) Heard about another theft....a student on a bus to Tikal. She was sleeping and got violence. Got her passport tho. It is more dangerous in the the petan, the lowland jungles. I plan to fly to the nearby town and then bus to Tikal for an overnight stay in the jungle. This is reportedly one of the best places to see jungle wildlife in Central America. Might even see a jaguar (I wish!). Will be booking plans in the next day or two....


Antigua is course, bulky, thick walled, old, cracked, crumbling...unpainted and yet it feels refined. There is a certain elegance in the juxtaposition of the course architecture and the simple contemporary appointments....a small wooden table and chairs covered with a Mayan table clothe and a candle azul...soft lighting...vino in a squatty open window to the sidewalk. It is an aesthetic I appreciate more than the polished marble and flashy, sparkle of modern western buildings, the Trump Towers and Las Vegas....their excesses are eating too much chocolate and getting ill....when a square or two would have been perfect. In Antigua the simplest treasures, pleasures, luxuries set against centuries old stone walls...well, it is most beautiful to me.

Emissions Control and My Bed

The two things I really miss....and no, I do not mean emissions control in my bed! My bed is the most uncomfortable bed I have EVER slept on. It is poorly made and is as old as the tries to present as a mattress bed but plays as a spring loaded hammock. The first few days my body ached terribly from sleeping on this thing....even the Pooh Bear bedspread could not soften the hurt. It seems my body has adjusted somewhat and I don´t know if I should be happy or concerned. I was elated that in Pana at Lake Atitlan my hotel (pretty much a dump by US standards) had a slightly better shitty bed....a double that was a bit more horizontal, although it still had springs and sank when laid upon....and the pillows stunk. But there was only one spider, ginormous, and it came in the morning....and there was no towel...thank god for my travel towel which I use everyday. But I digress. My bed is an absolute piece of shit and it hurts my 43 year old body. Emissions control. I cannot fully explain with words how bad the air pollution is in every town. Every vehicle seems to pour out black smoke....the chicken buses being the worst offenders. There is often a haze hanging in busy streets and one is constantly breathing it all in as there is no escape in Antigua because of the architecture and the narrow walled streets. It is awful, but just a part of the harsher reality here.

A Look at Antigua

Above: Agua Volcan with lenticular cloud towering over the central park (city center) where I walk several times a day. The park is usually full of people, especially on Sunday nights. The building on the left is the cathedral.

Lower Left: Just ate lunch today at a restaurant right next to this lovely arch, a city landmark.
Lower Right: A typical Antigua Street.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

A Story of "Fuck You Lady"

After touring Lake Atitlan I had a late lunch with my travelling pals for the day, Janet and Tina, a white mother daughter travelling team from the states. A chunk of Pana´s economy is tourism and westerners are assaulted with Mayan folks peddling their wares and such was the case as we ate our pollo and tortillas. At least 15 times we had to assert "no gracias" to folks approaching our table as we ate. One of the last was a small boy who stood no taller than waist high to me. He approached our table and offered his wares speaking Spanish...we said our no thank yous. He lingered for quite some time and finally Tina asked him in Spanish (she is fluent) to move on. He then moved to the next table of westerners and spent quite sometime interacting with them....only leaving the table when the Canadian patrons left. He returned to our table and looked pleadingly at us, snot running down his face, leaning in over our food and sighing again and again....looking sad and pathetic. All three of us had spent a day saying "no gracias" (literally probably close to 100 times) we said it assertively again and again. At last Janet (an older woman still recovering from a stroke) got severely annoyed and summoned the waiter to shoo the boy away. The boy suddenly stiffened and stood tall and determined, he lost the pleading innocent face, and with the anger and force of someone ten years his senior he asserted in a strong, mature voice "fuck you lady"...and then he walked away. Travelling in this country means dealing with a very complex interface of culture, economics, politics, religion, history.....etc. In the Mayan dominated region we were visiting the Mayan people have for hundreds of years successfully resisted the decimation of their culture by the Spanish and subsequent Ladinos peoples. They retain many of their traditional ways even after surviving the worst of colonization, political upheaval, wars, racisim, and the recent 30 plus year civil war. But each person, each family has it´s own unique experience within this gross generalization.....and trying to remember, I think it was Mr. Rogers who said, "there is no one you would not love if you knew their story." So I can´t even begin to imagine the story this boy has lived. Living in poverty watching rich westerners come in and spend on lunch what is a small fortune while shooing him away. And who has taught him at such a young age how to solicit the westerners with feigned innocence? Who has taught him the anger and how to say "fuck you." And there I sit, a relative millionaire in this country...eating my pollo...listening to Janet get more and more pissed...feeling completely conflicted and uncomfortable...thinking about disease and this dirty kid breathing on my lunch...thinking about how I should give so much more in general....thinking about being exhausted and how relatively thinking this is a ridiculous can I be truly exhausted compared to the folks here who live such physically demanding lives. And then the boy hurls his insult and the complexities continue to unfold....and who am I decide anything. And who am I to feel it so bourgeois to do so...what stories and meanings and associations do I sort and piece together and why....and then I just want a shower and to sleep in a comfortable bed. And so I do....and where that little cussing boy spent the night...and on what surface he slept....I know not. I am a gringa from Oakland California with a US passport and a good US income and health insurance and a house and...and....and that night I dreamed of big fear, a giant harmless bug that I can squish at will. Nothing simple about any of it and I have no answers....only endless questions....again, I am privileged just in the being able to sit back and think versus having to hustle a gringo for sustenance. ------------------------------- This country is poor...very poor. I believe it is the poorest in Central America, if not Latin America. To give you some idea of the scale, the quetzal, the Guatemalan equivalent of a dollar, is at an exchange rate of Q7+ to $1. In other words you get more than 7Qs for every US dollar. Now consider that I had dinner last night at one of the finest restaurants in all of Antigua and I paid about Q200...that comes to about $28. Typically you can eat a great meal for $5 in this town. You can get a decent hotel for $25-35 a night.....gringos are relatively rich. And the English, well, given the strength of the Euro are mucho rich. This is the reality of my situation. Here are some stats I got off the web:
  • Guatemala ranked 117 out of a total of 174 countries in 1999
  • In 1997 the GDP per capita was US$1,690, in comparison with an average of US$4,127 for Latin America and the Caribbean
  • The average monthly income per family in the whole country was US$227 in 1999
  • In the urban areas the figure was US$423
  • Almost 70 per cent of the population lives on less than US$2 per day, and of these, almost 30 per cent of the population of the country, and 8 per cent of the urban population live on less than US$1 per day
  • Income distribution is extremely uneven, the difference in income of the richest and poorest 20 per cent of the population differing by a factor of 30, in contrast to 12.7 in Costa Rica and 15.1 in Honduras
  • There is a correlation between the high population growth rates in regions and departments with higher indices of rural and indigenous populations with higher indices of poverty
  • The marginalisation of the indigenous cultures has been inherited from the Spanish colonial period

...and my friends and I will spend a hundred dollars for dinner in San Francisco....."fuck you lady."

You can have it hot, or you can have it hard.....

...but you can´t have both at the same time. Talking about the shower of course.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan is a beautiful lake surrounded by volcanoes in the central highlands of Guatemala. It has been compared in it´s natural beauty with Lake Como in Italy. Getting there is a winding bus ride through rugged mountains, across valleys, and through cramped little towns with impossibly narrow streets.

The lake is stunning and has several towns along it´s shore. Mayans have lived in this area for thousands of years. After when the Spanish arrived they used the Lake as a sort of command post for the Catholic conversion of Mayans and exploitation of the natural resources for Spain. Despite this dramatic intervention in there way of life, Mayan culture has maintained a cohesion culturally, and religious traditions are now a blend of Mayan and Catholic traditions. The churches have iconography of both traditions and the ceremonies are a some churches the mass is said in both Spanish and the Mayan dialect.

The small towns around the lake are mostly Mayan with a smattering of expats and Ladinos (mixed race, Spanish and Mayan). The Mayans cultivate crops and makes and sell crafts and products using the rich colorful fabrics so distinctly Mayan. Gourmet coffee is also a specialty of the region.

The principle town on the lake is Panajachel (Pana) which is a crazy blend of hotels and restaurants and markets and taxi cabs that will run you over. I took a day long tour of the lake visiting three small towns. On the ferry I met a mother-daughter travel team from Illinois now living in Florida and Oakland respectively. We hung out for a chuck of the day.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Burn the Devil!

It is coming...slowly but surely I am learning Spanish. Tonight I was able to appropriately ask my madre what time we burn the devil....6pm was the answer. Oh, in case you are wondering the Guatemalans "fuego el diablo" a few weeks before Christmas. It´s to sorta clean things up a bit before Christ arrives. Many people came to the devil burning and there was food and venders and mucho personas. I fought my way through the crowd to see the burning devil and only caught the smoldering finish. But I feel good about it....the devil being burned.

Chicken Bus Virgin No More

A chicken bus is a rehabilitated US school bus (made for children...and they are very small people) decorated in flamboyant and colorful ways. They speed through the towns coughing up thick black smoke. They seem to serve the same purpose as a municipal bus system in the US. But the experience is quite distinct from a Muni bus in SF. The first thing a gringa comes to learn is definitions of personal space will be radically changed on a chicken bus...three to a seat (remember, seats made for children). There are drivers and assistants hanging out of open doors and windows working hard to fill the buses and people are crammed into every conceivable space. If folks could be levitated I am sure the space above our heads would be filled with floating bodies. Today a very large (horizontally, not vertically) older Mayan woman virtually sat on my lap, smiling at me broadly with her partially toothed mouth and grey chin hairs blowing in the wind. We bounced along the cobblestone street...then hit the paved road where the standard driving protocol seems to be: floor it and honk your horn at everything in the road....right side of the road or left side of the road...who cares!

Can You Say "Yeast Infection" in Spanish?

Well neither can I. Now understand that traveling in Latin America without a firm grip of the local language means resorting to creative use of pictures, gesticulations, charades, and fractured Spanish. Now imagine being in a conservative Catholic country and needing to explain to a 50-something, Spanish speaking Farmacia attendant that you have a yeast infection. Do I act out that I have an itchy vagina? Pretend to scratch myself and make a sad face? Como se dice "itchy twat.?" Sorry folks, maybe it is too much information but I couldn't´t help but share this one...laughing out loud as I type. Thank the cosmos there was a box of medicine I could point to and the woman confirmed the contents in Spanish I could discern. Feeling much better now. Thanks for reading this one...especially you guys.

La Sala and God Bless the Gays!

La Sala is the name of the club I spent way too much time at last night! And I found some of the gays! But let me explain in order. First, the nice young men who said hello to me at school when everyone else was ignoring me....yep, they were gay, of course. Sweet young guys from the south, David and Kevin, who have travelled around the world and are looking forward to settling for a bit in Chicago...they leave today....really bummed they are leaving. They have had little experience with any kind of robust queer community and are looking forward to the queer culture in Chicago. They were soooooo sweet. I begged them to come visit promising them a good time in San Francisco (hi David and Kevin...if you are reading, September is the best month to visit!). Next, I went to meet my new friend Mel at La Sala, the hip Latin dance club that has an amazing live band and attracts both Guatemalans and westerners. When I arrived I met a funky little dyke named Gin. She´s from Chicago, was recently in Grass Valley to harvest pot, and is going to Mexico to "farm sit" for someone. There are some very interesting folks here. Soon Mel and Palon arrived and the club suddenly filled with a ton of folks. I went to get some air and in the corner I saw thee gayest man in Antigua dancing by himself. He hails from El Salvador and is pure Latin camp with the swishing and the snapping of the fingers and whatnot. I immediately introduced myself and we danced all night long....and get this, I was complimented on my dancing by a couple of folks. Those salsa lessons and listening to Latin music has paid off. Now for the funny part, at the end of the evening I explicitly came out to Mr. Gay ( could not hear/understand his name after he told me five times) and he said he had no idea I was gay. It is amazing how being in a cultural melding pot like Antigua mutes so many social ques. I was laughing explaining that I am muy gay! We made a date to dance together again in two weeks. He was totally sweet and hilarious! I have pictures (don´t know where/how to download yet). I have been very cautious about coming out, especially with the westerners not being too friendly and Guatemala being conservative and Catholic. Because I live in the bubble of San Francisco and hang with people who really push the envelope in so many ways (especially with sexuality) I feel I need to check myself a little....see what is ok, safe. The upshot, I was a buzzed, sweaty, smokey, tired, super happy mess when I got home....and Antigua has suddenly become very friendly. Muchos gracias Mel and Mr. Gay.

It is Official, I am Not Retarded

In making this comment I mean no disrespect to those who are, it is just that I have been called retarded and told that I have a learning disability when last I tried to learn Spanish. Today my teacher told me that I learn very fast and that I am a good student. It was good has bolstered my confidence given my history. And I have achieved this with not much out of class study....but I do do some everyday. Much to my surprise, I am actually learning Spanish!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Robbery a Real Threat

Today I learned a woman from our school was robbed early this morning while she waited at a bus stop with her host family who were wishing her so long. Because she was leaving for home she had everything with her and four men took I am not sure what all. I heard this second hand from someone who heard it in broken English....but the fact is she was robbed in Antigua. It is the third robbery I have heard about. Another happened to my roommate who is 70 (god bless her brave travelling soul) and was approached by two young men with a gun. They took only her money and thanked her profusely. The second, a woman was watched by a beggar women at the bank as she put her money in her bra. When she stepped into the street the beggar women asked her for money, she declined to give. A few blocks away she was approached by the woman who was now accompanied by four men who insisted she give them the money in her bra. Now Marcy (concerened little sis), I know about now you are thinking about how nuts I am, living in the fifth dangerous city in the US (Oakland) and travelling down here. But rest assured there are many things one can do to lower the chance of getting hurt or losing something important in a crime. I am doing all that I know. I carry only money I need, leave credit cards and passport in le casa (I carry a photocopy), walk my big butch confident don´t-fuck-with-me gate, use my camera sparingly and discretely, be very discrete at the bank, and stay in parts of town that are safer. I feel very safe here. I don´t look the easy target (hope I don´t jinx myself with this assertion!). In no story have I heard of any violence. People here are poor, the majority of folks in Guatemala live in what we define as poverty. I feel privileged beyond words to be here and be treated so warmly by the local folks and my host family. Every single local I have greeted or encountered has been so very friendly....I am a very lucky woman. Adios.

Peacock Soup for Lunch

Yep, you read that right! I had peacock soup for lunch today. It was explained that this is a Mayan dish and the birds are raised in Coban, a town north of here. But let me start at the beginning. Last night we all (Angela, her daughter Rebeca, Judy the New Zealander, and me) went to dinner at Cafe Flor, a Thia food restaurant near the center of town (great food!). Angela seemed quite excited to go and dressed for the occasion. In fact we all took showers and put on clean clothes. I explained (via interpreter) that it was my gift to her to buy dinner in appreciation of all her hospitality and generosity. After reading the menu she ordered only an appetizer salad. With the help of a very sweet Guatemalan waitress who spoke excellent English, we encouraged Angela to order more and she did....and then agreed to desert! After fractured conversation it came to light that Angela hosts many students every year, too many to count. I inferred from the conversation and the bits and pieces I understood, that most students do not do things like take her to dinner. My suspicion is they are mostly younger students with little money. She said many times that it was a special night and gave me many hugs and sweet smiles. We drank sangria and made American, New Zealand, and Guatemalan toasts, glasses raised high and big laughs all around. And so it was that I came home for lunch today and Angela announced that we would have a very special lunch. Then came the peacock soup. Her husband, who is rarely around (and always greets me with two kisses and a big hug), handed me what I thought was a glass of coke. I sipped it and something was off....Cuba Libre! My coke came with a lime and a shot of rum in it! For sure Angela had explained that the loca gringa really liked the rum and cokes for lunch! Good lord. So I ate peacock soup and drank a Cuba Libre for lunch (I also toasted to Cuba´s freedom and that got a laugh and raised glasses). At Cafe Flor we met a young Canadian woman, Mel, and a Guatemalan man, Pelan, who were very friendly. They both work as guides for tourist trips all over Central America. I stayed after dinner and partied with these new amigos, drinking sangria and singing songs while the restaurant owner, Jose, played the piano and encouraged us enthusiastically. Pelan could not sing to save his life, but Mel and I held our own. We were alone in the bar and we both noted that it was best that way. They were very very nice, gave me a ride home and invited me to a club tonight.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Spell...I Don´t Do It Well

Please excuse any and all spelling and grammar errors. I am doing these posts quick and dirty and without a much needed editor. Thanks for your understanding....especially you writers and teachers (i.e Jill...hee hee).

A Quick Note on Food

My school package includes full room and board with my host family. Meals with my family means an enormous amount of carbs....something my body is not most fond of. For instance, last nights dinner was the following: iceberg salad, potatoes, cheese, fried plantains, and bread. If I were to actually eat with my host family every day I would come home 200 pounds heavier and ready for my first cardiac arrest. Last night I ate little, trying to be polite, then stole away to a local cafe for some chicken and vegetables. I excuse myself for lunch citing the need to study and wanting to be in the marketplace. My host madre is so kind and generous and so tonight we are going to a restaurant. Staying true to form (I can´t not invite people to is a compulsion!) I invited her family (she and her youngest daughter accepted) and my New Zealand roommate out to dinner. I get the feeling that Angela rarely if ever goes to restaurants and she lit up at the invitation. I am taking her to a fine cafe that serves great food. I am a very very rich woman in this country. It is astonishing, humbling, troubling, and comforting all in a moment....but tonight we shall eat good food and Angela will do no work, save for lifting her own glass and chewing her food.

My School Routine

Wake at 6:30am to the buzz of my travel alarm clock. Pull out earplugs and hear roosters and people and trucks. Stare at ceiling and try to remember where I am. Remember where I am. Blink and put on glasses. Take shower. Dress. Read flash cards for a few minutes....Spanish that is. Eat breakfast with my host madre...Angela, cornflakes and fruit. Collect books and bag and walk a few blocks to school. Sit with sweet, patient Alejandra from 8-10am while she tries to teach me Spanish. Take a break from 10-10:30am. Wander around courtyard being ignored by snotty young westerners. Check email. More studying with teacher. Done 12noon....exhausted from being clueless and concentrating so hard. Wander the streets of Antigua seeing the sights and smiling at the wonderfully friendly Guatemalans. Yesterday afternoon rode a horse through a neighboring town. Life in the highlands..... A strange thing is happening...I am starting to understand a little Spanish. God bless Alejandra! She has the patience of a saint and the laugh of an angel. Sorry folks, being in this town dripping with Catholicism, I can´t help but employ such religious allusions!

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Special Shout Out to Marcy and Jonald!

So sorry my little sis! Forgot to mention your sweet self and your generosity in carting my ass around SoCal for last minute preparations....and staying late to drive me home after an evening of partying with my crazy friends....listening to me prattle on about this and that...always joking and laughing. And lastly, for taking me to the airport and sharing my are the best. You too Jonald! Thanks for always giving me the yellow room and drinking wine and being so primed to laugh....and for never ever judging me for being such a freak! Every wild story I bring to you is greeted with your sweet grin and an irreverent joke. You are both food for the soul...HB/FV is truly my home away from home.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Guns, Cobblestone Streets, Volcanos, Chicken Busses & Cranky Westerners

This city is beautiful. Built on a grid, it is squaty, cement and plaster, and occasionally painted. The center is a park with trees and a fountain in the middle, benches and trees scattered about. Around the park are restaurants, cafes, small stores, language schools, and a grand cathedral, old, unpainted, guarded by small brown men with sweet round faces dressed in military fatigues.....they stand all day holding assault rifles, always responding when I bid them a good day or evening...sometimes smiling shyly. They are young and a reminder that this is a country that has endured decades of civil war and political and racial strife.

Here is not the only place where guns are seen. Visiting the bank one is accompanied by young men in municipal uniforms, ballistic vests, and the equivalent of a sawed-off 12 gauge shotgun, pistol-gripped. For those of you who know guns, you know that these are weapons designed for immediate and total close range "stopping power"...and the spread of a shotgun blast is not discriminating. Such short-barrelled pistol-gripped shotguns are illegal in the US. Rob a bank....get blown in half. Sobering.

The streets are cobblestone, a course type without sand-fill to smooth the surface like I have seen in the villages of Mexico. The streets are swept clean, but nothing grows is all cement and plaster. The plants are saved for the courtyards and gardens that live behind the heavy wooden doors leading to houses and businesses. Most places seem to be built around a courtyard in the traditional colonial air, a fountain, flowers and trees and ivy climbing the walls. And pardon my candor (those of you who have travelled in Latin America will appreciate this) the city does not smell bad.....(save for the vehicle exhaust) no sewage smell.

The dominant forms of transportation includes small cars, scooters, chicken buses (rehabilitated and wildly decorated school buses) and dirt bikes (motorcycles)...the latter making a lot of sense given the rough road. There seems to be absolutely no regulation of emissions. In the narrow wall-lined streets, a cluster of passing vehicles means a hefty dose of inhaled toxins.

The city sits in a valley, fronted and flanked by volcanoes, some large some less imposing. These are not quiet little buggers, no, many are active and moody. This morning I was attracted to "oohs" and "aaahs" in the courtyard at school where everyone looked up as the volcano Fuego (fire) erupted! White and grey smoke puffing up into the sky, mixing with the lenticular clouds. Apparently this is a regular occurrence...every few days or so. The rumor is that the volcanoes are more active in December, but this assertion seems apocryphal given my understanding of geology (but then volcanism is hardly my specialty!). I will hike a volcano soon. Guide books warn to inquire carefully as some hikes present the real danger of blasts of poisonous gasses or small burst of hot rocks. Hiker beware.

People are friendly, except the westerners. I am so surprised that when I try to engage westerners most literally avert their eyes before I can bid a greeting. Finally, this morning a young friendly guy from Chicago saw me desperately walking around on my morning "coffee" break looking to say hi to someone....he called "hola" across the garden and introduced himself. His group of young men were friendly and kind and I thanked him for saying hello. I could opine for some time on possible reasons for the cold shoulder....many of the young women are French and such behavior feeds the stereotype....but I will conclude for now that they just want to speak Spanish. I shan't take it personally for now....but starting Thursday I will (ha ha).

Oh, an exception to this was today in a cafe where a man wore a Missoula shirt and I asked if he was from Montana. He said no, Iowa. He asked where I was from and I said San Francisco. His reply, "oh we don´t even think that is part of the United States.....the coasts that is" he explained. Hmm. He continued to explain that folks in the middle of the country are a little more conservative. Wow, I never knew sir. Thanks so much for the clarification.