Guatemala was my first stint (a very short one at that) of travelling on my own. Me & Nik parted ways at the Cuban airport & I headed off to Guatemala City. The flight was fairly painless, only about 8 hours & I arrived in Guatemala at 9.30 at night. This was a bit of a worry, considering the safety factors involved in landing in such a city so late. Luckily I had arranged for a friend of a friend to meet me at the airport, & he had kindly offered his couch to me for a few nights. This was great, & made me feel a whole lot safer & less by myself, THANK YOU CHRISTIAN! You're a champ.
So there was a little hick-up when I arrived at the airport & Christian wasn't there. This was soon fixed when the lovely lady at the taxi counter let me use her mobile phone to give him & call. This was my first introduction to the generosity & kindness of the Guatemalan people.
Christian is a member of the Hospitality club, a great organisation that travellers use to meet people in new cities & have the possibility to have somewhere to stay. So when he picked me up, we went off to his girlfriend Cynthia's house. She too is a member & had a number of people staying with her. Unfortunately, everyone spoke great Spanish, which sadly I do not, so I felt like I was putting everyone out a little when things had to be explained to me again in English. It was however great to have a group of people to hang out with & watch classic movies with such as Happy Gilmore. You always have a common ground when a terrible teenage comedy is involved. I think that is one thing that I have learned during my short travels, a movie quote goes a long, long way.
I only really had a couple of days where I was going to be by myself, so I decided to do a bit of the touristy stuff & get that out of the way. Christian works smack bang in the middle of the city, just on the edge of the main square, so I headed in with him in the morning. The view from his office was great & luckily his office was the tallest building in the city, so even I, with my terrible sense of direction, could not miss it.
I started at the Palace, unfortunately you can only go through the palace with a guide & I definitely did not have enough time to see all the awesome artwork that was hanging there while he was hurrying me through. It was very beautiful & elaborate. Then I did a couple of churches, starting to get a little sick of these already, and then I went off to a museum called Casa M.I.M.A. It is an old house set up with some great old furniture from the 1800's. It was all really ornate & decorative. I also stopped by the major market in the city, which was massive & luckily under shelter, because it started to rain & it gave me an excuse to shop for a couple of hours.
After that I had been invited back to Christian's office for a party for an employee who was leaving. It was very funny, there was a lot of rum & a lovely lady name Carla decided that this was the best time for my first Spanish lesson. She was hilarious & kept me entertained for quite a while.
It was also Halloween so Christian & his friends were heading one hour out of town to Antigua for the celebrations. There was a large group of us, so we all piled ourselves into 2 cars. Now this wouldn't be legal in Australia & when I asked Christian what the cops would do if they saw us, he said that we would just give them money & they would go away. An interesting system I thought. The roads in Guatemala are interesting also, they have lane markings & speed limits, but it seems that no one takes any notice of either of them. I think that one of the French guys we were with summed it up perfectly when he said very enthusiastically: ¨Yeh, I love being in the front, it feels like I'm in a video game¨. I, on the other hand, have learnt to focus on some thing inside the car & think of happy, happy things.
When we got to Antigua (luckily with no money passing hands) we headed to Mono Loco a bar that had great Nachos, then off to another bar for some more beer & dancing. It was kind of strange to see full grown adults dressed in costume, but after a few beers it became more & more normal. In Guatemala all the clubs & pubs close at 1am, which clearly is not very late, so a lot of the cafes & houses around town host after parties to any insignificant event. This is a great idea, but they all charge large entry fees & are often closed down soon after starting by the aforementioned dodgy cops. So we passed on that & headed back to our hostel for some well earned sleep.
The next day Alison & Rose were arriving in Guatemala City & one of Christian's friends was going to pick them up & bring them down to Antigua to join us for The Day of the Dead celebrations. Unfortunately due to some fairly massive communication issues, the pick up didn't quite happen & we had to head off without them, hoping that they were safe & sound somewhere in the city. I had my doubts about this & spent most of the day worrying that they were dead & laying in a gutter somewhere. While waiting to hear from Rose and Alison, we headed a little out of Antigua and up the mountains (the names of which I can not recall) to see a kite festival. On the Day of the Dead in Guatemala everyone flies kites to help the souls reach heaven - it was quite a sight. There was also a big kite competition of some kind & there were people building these really amazing, very intricate, kites that were 50 feet high! They were really beautiful, obviously they didn't fly however. We spoke to a couple of the people who were doing this & they said that they had started planing & building their kites 6 months ago. They were all made out of crepe paper, that seemingly useless stuff you may remember from primary school & PVA glue. It was truly amazing.
After we had had our fill of kite flying we headed back to Antigua for lunch. Antigua was beautiful, it is full of great stores & lovely cobble stoned streets. In a couple of days I was due to head back to Antigua again, to live for a week & try to pick up some Spanish.
As soon as we got back into town, I headed to an internet cafe in the hope that the girls would have contacted me. Luckily they had & they were safe & sound in a slightly fancy hotel that had cable TV. They had had trouble contacting me also, as it was a public holiday and so not much was open.
Once lunch had been had, we headed back to the city & reunited with the girls, making me extremely happy. This was where I said good bye to Christian after a coffee & some desert, which was very sad, he definitely was my saviour in the country & I hope that he will make it to Australia soon so that I can return the favour.
The hotel that we checked into was in Zona 1 in Guatemala City. Every time we mentioned this to anyone from here on in, we got ¨Zona 1? Are you sure? That's not really the safest of places...¨, but we had no problems, until we were back on our way to Antigua & Rose's bag was stolen.
The bus system in Guatemala is interesting to say the least. All the buses are old US school buses, which guzzle diesel, pollute the air & cause havoc on the already crazy roads. So we headed to the bus station to board one of these death on wheels contraptions & found out that the craziness starts well before you get anywhere near a bus. As soon as we got out of our taxi we were bombarded with men yelling ¨ANTIGUA, ANTIGUA, ANTIGUA!!!!!¨ & trying to grab our bags straight from the taxi boot. This is where Roses bag went missing, luckily it was only her small bag that only had a camera & a guide book in it, but unfortunately there was half a film in the camera that is now lost. So after we had managed to fight the rest of our bags back from the screaming men & re-grouped our thoughts we finally braved getting onto one of these buses. The bus driver didn't think we were in quite enough of a hurry however & he chased me screaming onto the bus, much to the amusement of all the other passengers, especially Al & Rose.
Once we were safely (now that's a joke) on the bus, we quickly started to re-think our decision. The buses fly at a million miles an hour, using only the horn to warn people & other vehicles of their presence. They go so fast that there is no way that they could stop for anything in time, so all the other traffic pretty much has to get the hell out of the way, or suffer the consequences. All the while there is a man hanging out the door, still yelling at the top of his lungs ¨ANTIGUA, ANTIGUA, ANTIGUA!!!!!¨ I have never been so happy to get off a bus as when we finally got to Antigua (This obviously didn't take too long at this speed, but it definitely didn't go quick enough for me).
In Antigua, we confirmed our Spanish courses that were to start in 4 days, and then left Antigua and headed to Lake Atitilan.
This was the most relaxing holiday destination so far. We headed to San Pedro from Panejel the first lake town, which required a 30 minute boat ride, not my favourite activity, but it was definitely worth it. San Pedro is just a little village & it was the first destination where we found Asian food & restaurants that served large plates of vegetables. It was great. It's amazing how important food becomes when meals are really the only pressing appointment for the next 8 months.
After some great food we headed to a spot called ¨Thermal Waters¨, a Swedish style bath with a great view of the lake. It felt very indulgent & I felt like I was on a two week holiday, not an 8 month adventure.
The next day we continued with the holiday activities & rented a Kayak. It was a 3 seater & was one of the funniest things we have done so far. I don't think any of us are made for water sports & Rose really needs to work on her right & lefts if she wants to pursue a career in Kayak captaining.
On our final day at the lake we headed back to Panejel to go to Reserva Natural Atitilan. It was pretty cool, we saw lots of spider monkeys & a massive eagle, but this was also the first time that we had seen evidence of the recent mud slides close up (The mountains looked like sections had been razored, with entire strips bare of trees). Parts of the reserve had been damaged & we passed a hotel that was no longer, the mud was up to the door handles. It was only a hint of the damage that had been done, I had met many travellers who had been there during the mud slides & had helped to try & dig out whole communities, many of which now no longer exist.
It started to pour with rain just before we got onto our bus back to Antigua. Our driver was supposed to drop all the passengers off at their respective hostels etc, but our bastard driver refused to do so & dropped all of us off in the main plaza, in the pouring rain, in the middle of a church anniversary celebration (Jesus is huge in this part of town). It was horrible. I was supposed to be starting my home-stay with a Guatemalan family that night & no taxi drivers would take me there because they said it was too close. They didn't quite understand that I was carrying my entire existence on my soggy back & had no idea where I was going. Rose & Al had picked a hostel out of the guide book that apparently now did not exist & we were all stuck wandering in the rain with all our belongings on our backs. These are the moments when you start to question what the hell you are doing. Finally I found my new home for the week & the girls headed off to find a new hostel.
The family that I was staying with for the week were very nice, Ruby was about 45, she had been hosting students for 15 years, so knew exactly what she was doing. I think however it was more of a money making experience for her, rather than one of sharing her culture, which was a little disappointing. She had two daughters that also lived there, one of whom had a couple of kids. They were very cute & extremely hyperactive. There were also 2 dogs that were very vocal, especially when Ruby left the house. I was stoked however to have my own room with a double bed & regular meals, cooked by some one else! There was also 3 other students staying in the same home, all of which spoke English, making the whole Spanish thing a little harder.
My Spanish teacher was really great (The photo gives her no justice - I promise we spent most of the time giggling). Her name was Connie & she didn't speak any English & with my very limited Spanish, my lessons turned into a very funny game of charades. This was fun for most of the time, until on my final lesson she began telling me about the reasons she was divorced (She's only my age & has a 5 year old daughter). She said that in Guatemala it is very common for men to have at least 3 girlfriends / wives, & that they are often either verbally or physically violent. She made it quite clear that her ex-husband had been physical with her & that she was much happier now, living in a group with other women & their children. It was very hard to respond to such a conversation, when your Spanish only extends to ¨where is the bathroom?¨ & "I have 2 sisters".
While in Antigua, I also had my first Salsa lesson. It was hilarious. I was paired with a fairly funny older American man, who was even more uncoordinated than me, which was great, because he made me look slightly better. My teacher was constantly telling me that I was too shy & that I needed to work it a little more. I'm still struggling with this concept, but plan on having a few more lessons before I leave the continent, so watch out when I get home, I might be an over confident bastard.
On our last weekend in Guatemala we thought it was appropriate to go & climb an active volcano. I have no idea why we though that this was a good idea, but it seemed like it at the time. Volcan Pacaya was a big feat for my very unfit body. It was so hard, I can not quite explain just how hard. The walk was only 2 hours up, but I have never been in so much pain in my life. The altitude was the first hurdle, the second was the sulphur fumes, the third the very loose sand & rock that covered the upper half of the volcano. For about the final 40 minutes of the walk it felt like it was straight up & was made harder by the fact that you were knee deep in volcanic sand. One step forward equalled two steps back & there was certainly not enough oxygen filling the lungs. I was seriously taking 3 steps then having a 3 minute break. I didn't think I would ever make it up, but my stubbornness got me up in the end, I wasn't getting that far & not making it to the top. At the top it was freezing & stinky, we saw the boiling red lava from a distance. The top of the volcano was very hot & a crazy dog followed us all the way up the top in the hope of some food scraps. It was definitely an experience.
Going down was a lot more fun. The only way to do it without falling on your ass was to ski down. It was a lot quicker and our shoes were full of sand by the bottom. It was great & majorly painful for the next couple of days. I don't think my legs will ever forgive me.
So that was Guatemala, I definitely did not have enough time to see everything that I wanted & I have made myself a promise to return in the not too distant future.