And just like that, my three month stay in Guatemala, bookended by two weeks in Chiapas, Mexico is over. Moments after returning to the United States, I found myself in the Atlanta airport, munching on a Chik-fil-A Chicken Sandwich (they are in short supply in Guatemala) and converting US dollars to Guatemalan quetzals in my head (“Really? I just spent nearly 40 quetzals on this?”). Contemplating the deliciousness of my chicken sandwich despite its high quetzalian price, my thoughts drifted back to Lake Atitlán and the tastiest food I experienced there: a bag of popcorn bought off of a roving street vendor, known fondly to my friends and I as “The Popcorn Lady.” This local Guatemalan would boldly venture into the bars of San Pedro late at night, capitalizing on the inebriated gringos and their lowered inhibitions with a laundry hamper full of popcorn bags for sales at an impossibly low price of 5Q a bag (a little less than $1 USD). Night-after-night, I marveled at this enterprising Guatemalteca as she exploited this golden market opportunity, and my view of her began to shift from that of friendly street vendor to plucky entrepreneur, providing a top-notch product to a segment of the San Pedro community rife with spare cash and a willingness to spend it (specifically: drunk Americans, Europeans, and Australians). This experience with “The Popcorn Lady” led me to begin taking note of other entrepreneurs in Guatemala who were making the most of the limited opportunities offered in a country with a national poverty rate around 60% and a per capita GDP of less than $8,000. As my observations of these go-getters accumulated, I began nominating “Entrepreneurs of the Week” for particularly exemplary examples of business ingenuity. And now, looking back on the nearly three months I spent in the country, these individuals flood back into my memory, and so, while they are still fresh in my mind, I would like to highlight a few of my favorite Guatemalan entrepreneurs that, at one time another, were recipients of the esteemed “Entrepreneur of the Week” award.
Jorge and His Rope Swing
Roughly a 30 minute canoe ride from the island town of Flores in El Lago Peten Itzá lives Jorge, his family, and his famous lakeside rope swing. Jorge charges visitors 10Q (~$1.50 USD) for access to his twenty-foot high rope swing and his accompanying lakeside hangout that includes hammocks and a diving platform (about 15-20 feet high). Further demonstrating his enterprising spirit, Jorge, having noticed that his steady stream of visitors are often hungry and thirsty after their boat ride across the water, also sells modestly-priced hot food and drinks (a delicious plate of his nachos for 25Q goes great with a cold Gallo for 15Q). This humble tourist attraction has improbably climbed up to TripAdvisor’s #2 spot on “Things to Do in Flores,” a popping tourist destination given its proximity to the world-renowned Mayan ruins of Tikal, roughly a 1 hour drive away. Quite refreshingly, Jorge fully embraces the tropical island vibes of the Flores area by waiting on customers without the unnecessary encumbrances of a shirt or shoes.
Miguel, Coffee Plantation Owner and Lakeside Sunrise View Facilitator
Miguel is the owner of a coffee plantation situated on the ridge of Indian Nose, a popular hike for tourists looking for a brilliant view of Lake Atitlán, particularly at sunrise. Miguel is in a fierce competition for customers with the owners of the viewpoint from the top of Indian Nose (Miguel’s property does not quite reach the top but offers views from the summit ridge). However, Miguel is holding his own in a number of ways. First, he undercuts the competition on price by charging about 50Q less than what it would cost to reach the top for only a marginally better view of the lake. Second, at his highest viewpoint, Miguel provides his customers some luxury via a few hand-crafted benches and cups of freshly-brewed coffee from his plantation. Finally, Miguel effectively employs the disinformation strategy in sales know as FUD (“fear, uncertainty, and doubt”) by labeling the owners of the top of the ridge as “bandidos” that will “steal your money.” Given some TripAdvisor reviews that suggest robberies have occurred in the area, I find this strategy of Miguel’s especially compelling. Fight on, Miguel, fight on!
Keith, the Chocolate Shaman
Keith may be the most controversial member of this list, given he is originally from Pennsylvania and one of the goals of the “The Entrepreneur of the Week Award” is to elevate the locally-run enterprises. However, given Keith’s incredibly unique entrepreneurial play — that of chocolate shaman — I must give the man his due. Keith and his cacao ceremonies have attracted a devoted following in the Lake Atitlán village of San Marcos La Laguna, and although I admittedly never attended one of these ceremonies, I heard quite a bit about his business proposition from some of his customers and I found it be utterly brilliant. Keith charges each attendee of his biweekly cacao ceremony 200Q (~$30 USD), which comes with a cup of hot cocoa and a 4-6 hour service, replete with spiritual revelations conjured up through the cacao (at Keith’s urging) and Keith’s long meandering monologues about whatever he chooses to expound on that day (one of the more exciting monologues I heard about focused on aliens and how they influence our daily lives). Keith works on Wednesdays and Sundays (the days on which he holds ceremonies,) and, thus, has five days off to brew cacao and enjoy his sizable profits. It really is a wonder that more kids don’t want to be chocolate shamans when they grow-up!
The Popcorn Lady of San Pedro La Laguna
And of course, we must end with “The Popcorn Lady” of San Pedro La Laguna. She produces some of the most delicious popcorn you will ever taste. A perfect balance of salty and sweet, her popcorn is best washed down by the Cuba Libre, Gallo, or shot of mezcal that is sure to be in your hand as you are frequenting one of the bars on the “The Popcorn Lady’s” route. Throughout my time in San Pedro, I was never able to down her irresistible calls of “¡Poporopos! ¡Poporopos!” (Guatemalan for popcorn) and, at a price of 5Q/bag, who could?!
And with this homage to some of the most interesting and enterprising individuals I met throughout my time in Guatemala, I am closing out my tales from Central America as the holidays have blown me back to States. However, the travel bug has not been quite cleared from my system as I will be flying down to Colombia for the month of January and I’m sure some tales from there will find there way to the pages of this blog.
This past week, my daily routine of Spanish classes came to an abrupt and welcome end as Newman Granger, a lifelong friend and proven Central American traveler (resume: three previous trips to Costa Rica) joined me for a veritable Tour de Guatemala. (This is the second trip we have taken together in Latin America, the first being in Costa Rica, thus “Dos Guapos Dos.”) I met Newman at Aurora International Airport on Saturday morning, and — as I have found is often true when reuniting with old friends — his arrival felt oddly ordinary despite the unique, foreign location. From the airport, we shuttled into Antigua to embark on 36 hours of meandering through the beautiful colonial streets, sampling a half dozen cafes for their various preparations of Guatemalan coffee, and munching through the eclectic restaurant scene. After sleeping and eating for three weeks with a working-class family in Quetzaltenango, the Western-friendly food and accommodations in Antigua felt downright luxurious. The highlight was likely our first night’s dinner at Angie Angie, which featured delicious pasta, live music, a well-stoked fire in the open-air back patio, and a gooey chocolate brownie with ice cream for dessert. The only real downside to this dinner was the fact that I am not interested in a romantic relationship with Newman; otherwise, I am sure that the the amorous setting and Coldplay covers would would have sealed the deal.
In Antigua, Newman and I wasted little time delving into conversation topics that we would discuss throughout our nine days together, including politics (the current political situation and state of political dialogue in the United States is something that we can discuss ad nauseam), history (Virginians really can never get enough of this topic), travel stories and future travel plans (it was great to hear more details about Newman’s trip to Kilimanjaro this past summer, and then even greater still to hear this trip described to Daytona, then to Hannah, then to Maud, then again to Anna, then to Tory, then to a German woman I forgot the name of, then to a local shopkeeper, then to a cleaning lady, then to a rabbit wandering around our hostel*), funny stories from our shared past (having known each other for 25 years, there is plenty of material to draw on), religion and spirituality (Newman kicked off one of these discussions by asking a question with the appropriate amount of subtly — 0% — owed to one of your best friends: “Wait, so what exactly are your religious beliefs?”), the craft of writing (a Mark Twain quote recited by Newman captures a main takeaway that may even apply to this blog post: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”), business (maybe we should start one, sell it, then travel?), family, past relationships, and ideas about each of our futures. It would have been interesting to chart the exact correlation between conversation topic and caffeine consumption, but, if I had to guess, “business” and the “future” were likely the topics most positively correlated to our blood-caffeine (is that called “BCC”?) levels.
From Antigua, Newman and I made our way to beautiful Lake Atitlán for three nights, starting Monday. The first night we stayed in Santa Cruz at the hip, low-key La Iguana Perdida Hostel, nestled against the banks of the lake. In the course of our twenty-four hours there, we swam, enjoyed a family style dinner with other guests of the hostel, sweated through a three-hour hike to the top of a mirador overlooking Santa Cruz and the lake, and relaxed while reading on the porch of the hostel. We continued on from Santa Cruz to the relative hustle-and-bustle of San Pedro La Laguna, my September home, to find, unsurprisingly, nothing had really changed. Our hotel, Mikaso, provided adequate accommodations, but, more importantly, an outdoor hot tub that gave us a delicious shvitz under the stars both of our nights there. I showed Newman around my San Pedro haunts (Café Idea Connection, Sublime, Sababa, Hostel Fé, and Clover Restaurant) which were largely empty, as they had been back in September. However, the month prior, with my San Pedro School compañeros, scheduled classes, and meals with my host family, I had found the low-season vibes to be charming; however, this time around, with Newman and I looking for some social life, the place, missing many of the faces that had become familiar, struck me as more of a ghost town. Therefore, we spent the duration of our third day at Lake Atitlán in the nearby town of San Marcos, exploring the nature preserve, perfecting our jumping form into the lake off of the 8-meter high dock in the preserve, and venturing to the secluded Yoga Forest, a 25-minute hike above town, for a scenic yoga session.
Thursday marked the halfway point for Newman’s trip, and as we traveled from San Pedro to Antigua and then on to Guatemala City airport, we marveled at the amount of ground we had covered together in just four days. Also, we noted how Newman’s devoted watching of Narcos had given him a few choice Spanish phrases that allowed him to more effectively communicate in the language. For example, while ordering from a waiter or waitress, Newman’s exclamations of “muyyy, muyyyy import-TANT-tay” would reassure our server that, yes, their job was indeed important. However, Newman’s frequent quoting of Pablo Escobar — “¿Plata o plomo?”– was largely unhelpful, as we never really had to confront the gut-wrenching choice between silver or lead.
From Guatemala City airport, we took a flight into Flores, our launching off point for our exploration of Tikal, the ruins site of a famous ancient Mayan city, and, possibly more important to two Star Wars buffs like Newman and I, the filming location for the Rebel base on Yavin IV from the original Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope. Thursday night we arrived in Flores, a beautiful island town in Lago Petén Itza that features Spanish colonial architecture and a hopping bar and restaurant scene for tourists. Exhausted from a full-day of travel, all we could muster for the evening was dinner at our hostel (Los Amigos) before crashing for the evening. We had the entire next day to explore the Flores area, so we decided to rent a canoe from the hostel, which came complete with straw hats, wooden paddles, and a small plastic bucket for bailing out water in case we started to sink (this must have been in lieu of the lifejackets we were never offered). The highlight of our lake expedition was our stop at Jorge’s Rope Swing, where a local guy has set-up a row swing on his lakeside property, charges admission for its use, and then sells nachos, beers, and soda to visitors. This enterprising Guatemalan’s swing has climbed to the #2 position on “Things to Do In Flores” on TripAdvisor, which speaks both to the quality of the experience he has created and to the lack of actual things to do in Flores. (I can say this with authority after swinging on Jorge’s rope, eating his nachos, drinking his beers, and then trying to find actual other things to do in Flores.)
On Saturday, we headed for Tikal and our accommodations for the evening — the Jungle Lodge. After finding the Jungle Lodge to be mostly empty and realizing that our initial plan to watch the sunrise from the park would likely be disappointing given the heavy cloud cover we had experienced in the area each morning , we decided to coordinate a sunset tour of the park instead. Our guide for this tour was Samuel, a Guatemalan from Flores that spoke slow and clear English, largely for dramatic effect, as he described the rich history of Tikal and the Mayan people. (Quick summary of Tikal history: Tikal was located in the geographical center of the Mayan civilization and was one of the most powerful Mayan city-states during the height of Mayan civilization, known as the “Classic Period,” which lasted from roughly 250-950 AD. Sometime in the 900’s, Tikal was abandoned due to drought and famine and was never repopulated. Thus, when the Spanish arrived in the 1500’s, the site was empty, and was not “rediscovered” until the mid-19th century when a Guatemalan-led expedition mapped the site for future exploration and excavation.) Samuel led us up to the top of Temple IV, the tallest building in Tikal (70 meters/230 feet) for sunset, and, after a few minutes on the relatively crowded east-facing side of the temple, told us to quietly follow him as he led us, with a few acrobatic moves, around some scaffolding to reach the “off-limits” west side of the temple to get a glimpse of the sinking sun. Once there, he said we would stick around until well after dark to listen to the growing “jungle sounds,” but as the dusk fell and darkness began to envelope us on top of Temple IV, Samuel embarked on a monologue about his Mayan heritage and his own aspirations to be a Mayan shaman which would “probably happen in two or three years.” This monologue drowned out most of the growing “jungle sounds” filtering up to us. When the stars began to emerge above us and all other visitors had left, Samuel led us down the stairs off the temple, mentioning that “it would be better that we not hold the railing” which prompted an obvious “Why?” from one of the members of the group, as we all struggled to maintain our balances without the help of the railing. “Scorpions,” replied Samuel.
The walk out of the park took roughly 15-20 minutes and, at the exit, were greeted by a tarantula (not a scorpion). An excited Samuel scooped up the tarantula, turned it belly-side up to show us its fangs, then asked which of us would like to hold it. Unsurprisingly, none of us accepted despite Samuel’s insistence that it was “safe” while holding out the tarantula toward us in anticipation that one of us would offer our arm for the giant spider. After Samuel dropped the tarantula, Newman and I said goodbye to the quirky yet endearing Samuel and proceeded to have a leisurely dinner of mediocre food at the Jungle Lodge before bed.
Sunday, we arose to a steady rain (decision to do the sunset tour vindicated!), so we took our time at breakfast before heading out to explore the park for the morning. The rain had mostly cleared by the time we entered, but it left a picturesque mist that clung to many of the ruins. We spent the next several hours exploring the temples, palaces, residences, and religious monuments of the Ancient Maya before heading back to Flores mid-day, satisfied at the impressive additions to our iPhone camera rolls. As we pulled out of the park and headed home, I let my imagination wander to a galaxy far, far away, where Newman and I bumped into Luke Skywalker and some of his Rebel friends on the route home, who insisted that we turn the shuttle around and head for the Rebel base as X-wings, prepped for the impending assault on the Death Star, awaited us.
Our last afternoon together, Newman and I jumped into the steam room at Los Amigos for our fifth and final shvitz together before he headed off (some quick shvitz accounting: two hot tub sessions in San Pedro and three steam room sessions in Flores insured that we stayed properly shvitzed during our time together). The delicious Masala chai served by the hostel’s wait staff into the rest area outside of the steam room topped off this high quality steam experience, which proved to be the highlight of our stay in Los Amigos Hostel. We finished our time in Guatemala together by chatting for a few hours with two other travelers in the common area of Los Amigos, Anna and Sarah, who were about to embark on a tortuous twelve-hour, overnight bus ride to Antigua, and then dining at the lakeside restaurant of Raices, where our attention was occasionally distracted from our rehash of the prior week’s events by the magic tricks an elderly Belgian tourist was performing for a Guatemalan boy at the neighboring table.
As Newman heads back to the States and I have a few days to catch my breath before my brother arrives in Guatemala for 10 days (Dos Guapos to Dos Hermanos), I will have some time to do reflect and be introspective. In my time here, I actually have had less time alone than I had initially thought as I have been surprisingly quite busy with school and generally surrounded by people. This has been overwhelmingly positive, but I am looking forward to a few days to be mostly alone, enjoy the beauty of this part of the world, allow my mind to wander, and finish a book or two. When I left the States over two months ago, I did not have any expectations that I would have a specific revelation or develop a concrete next life step while here. I figured this adventure would, quite simply, be an interesting life experience and offer a bit more perspective before I take my next life step. When I left New York, there was this sense that my life was not completely in touch with what I care about most and conflicting, strong desires were making the decision of what to do next a bit confusing. (For example, I wanted to have more career momentum but I wanted “career momentum” to have less of a pull on my life. Also, I wanted more time time to spend with people I care about but I wanted other people’s opinion of me and what I do next to have less influence over me.) New York, in a lot of ways, turned up the volume on these internal conflicts that, I acknowledge, I may spend my entire life working on without ever completely resolving. However, some time away certainly has allowed me to turn the volume down and free my mind up. The point of this rambling conclusion is that a visit from an old friend with a thoughtful soul has helped to nudge me in the direction of taking some time for productive introspective while I am down here. Although this will largely take place off the pages of this blog (God invented journals for a reason), I will, from time-to-time, share with readers any insights or feelings that bubble up that I think may be worth sharing.
* = In reference to Newman’s Kili story, in all fairness, he patiently listed countless times to my rendition of the “what are you doing and what have you been doing with your life for the last 2+ months” spiel that I explained to each of the characters mentioned above. I.e. “I was living in NYC, wanted to move and find a different job, figured traveling would be cool before getting a job, now I’m in Guatemala, no specific future plans, but have general life goals, yes, blahblahlbahbleedeeblahblah…”
My time at San Pedro Spanish School and in San Pedro La Laguna came to an end this weekend. The farewells began with a speech I gave to all the other students and teachers on Friday morning in Spanish. Each graduating student is “required” to give such a speech on their last day. I say “required” because you could technically say, “No, given my basic knowledge of Spanish, my speech will probably be boring, definitely useless, and most certainly embarrassing. I refuse to subject myself to this right of passage, especially considering this passage is leading me to nowhere in particular.” (Not that this in anyway reflects my own viewpoint. I am just using my imagination to I think about what other students may think about this bonafide honor.) In order to prepare for this speech, I spent the better part of an hour on Thursday evening writing down my experiences in San Pedro in Spanish, relying heavily on my newfound expertise with the Spanish language, my Spanish dictionary, and Google Translate (only used for Spanish language emergencies, promise!). After a final review by my teacher Chusita on Friday morning, I delivered the below masterpiece to the people of San Pedro School — which I have, for your convenience, translated into English via Google Translate:
My time in San Pedro studying at the San Pedro school has been a good experience. I met many interesting people, both students and teachers. I think I’ve made a lot of new friends.
I have lived with a local family. My parents were Elsa and Bartolo and my brothers and sisters were Elsita, Bartolito, and Juanita. I enjoyed eating and spending time with my family, especially after being with them my Spanish improved. My family is very friendly and hospitable.
My teacher is Chusita; she is a good teacher and I am envious of her next student. I learned a lot of Spanish with Chusita and discussed many interesting topics, such as Guatemala’s politics, United States policies, and my previous girlfriends.
During my free time in San Pedro, I enjoyed many activities. I climbed the volcano San Pedro, I took the salsa lessons, I traveled to Xela, and saw the sunrise on the Nose of Indio. Finally, for the past two weeks, I taught the children of the lake. This experience was difficult but it was also gratifying.
I will miss this place because I have loved my time here. Thank you all!
The highlight/lowlight of the speech was most certainly when I struggled to pronounce “improved” in Spanish when saying “my Spanish improved.” Unfortunately, in the split second after this mishap, I was not able to think of the Spanish word for “ironic”, and, instead, just blurted out in the King’s English, “That’s ironic!” I think one of the Spanish teachers chuckled at this comment. I think.
The goodbyes continued the next day, as I said farewell to my “friendly and hospitable” family. They offered to host me again whenever, citing that fifty to seventy-year-olds especially enjoyed their homestay — helpful information in case I start dating an older woman during my time here in Latin America that would like to swing through San Pedro. Despite the fact that our parting was a bit sad, a part of me lives on in my Guatemalan family’s household as Elsita — the four year-old daughter who spent most of her time at meals singing songs she had made up (I confirmed with her mother that the songs she sung were brand new to the Hispanic tradition), dancing (technically not allowed by the Conservative Christian sect of which they are a part but, seriously, God would have frowned if anyone shut down such undeniable acts of cuteness), and making faces at me — is now the proud owner of a teddy bear named “Richardito.” Before he was owned by this budding Latin pop star, “Little Richard” was a prize at a fair in Quetzaltenango that “Big Richard” won last weekend and then gifted to Elsita in exchange for the hours of dining table entertainment she provided.
Finally, I scattered goodbyes to my classmates and friends I met in San Pedro, who have provided excellent English-speaking companionship throughout my month here. These friends hail from all over the globe, except, oddly enough, the United States (I am doing my best to represent the homeland!). However, I hesitated to say true goodbyes to most of them as I imagine many of our travels will overlap over the next few months, and as stated in my farewell discurso, “I think I’ve made a lot of new friends” and friends, well, they stay in touch.
Some of the Highlights of My Time in San Pedro La Laguna:
Today marks the end of my third week here in San Pedro La Laguna, and I am happy to report that I am in a relationship with a local Guatemalan woman. Recently, Chusita and I have been spending as many as 4 to 5 hours together every day, struggling through the language barrier together (she only speaks Spanish). My conversations with Chusita have been quite interesting, as we have covered such wide-ranging topics as technology’s effect on society, a trip I took to Peru 7 years ago, Guatemalan politics, American politics, my sports career, gossip about other students and teachers in San Pedro School, bacteria found in Guatemalan strawberries that can give you seizures (don’t worry, you usually get better!), the local football championship match last Sunday (it was a barn-burner), the existence of God, where I can find a sturdy notebook in town, how to pronounce Spanish words, how not to pronounce Spanish words (which usually sound suspiciously like the sounds that have just come out of my mouth), the Guatemalan Civil War, the American Civil War, San Pedro’s history, chicken bus schedules, natural disasters (i.e. earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, chicken bus schedules), and countless other topics. This woman, of course, is my teacher at San Pedro School, and, as the click-baity title to this post gave away, our relationship is platonic (she is happily married and I am happily seeing where the wind will carry me in Central America over the next few months). However, we have forged quite a bond through our daily conversations these past 3 weeks.
In general, we start our daily four-hour class with a 2.5 – 3 hour discussion of various topics in Spanish, punctuated by roughly 10-12 coffee, bathroom, and Facebook breaks (Chusita is a huge Facebook fan). The last hour or so, she checks my homework, and then she teaches me a bit of grammar. In our discussions, we speak for roughly the same amount of time. It is important to note, however, that Chusita’s experience with the Spanish language allows her to express a bit more during her time speaking. To give you a feel for this, I recorded one of our recent conversations — which was about healthcare — and translated it into English below:
Chusita: “The healthcare system in Guatemala is a complex web of interconnected interests, needs, and responsibilities between the people, publicly-funded providers, private providers, and the government. Although Guatemalans are technically guaranteed free healthcare, persistent government underfunding (only $97 per person annually) and rampant government corruption have severely limited the capacity of publicly-funded providers to provide even some of the most basic aspects of healthcare to citizens. Therefore, Guatemalans are often forced to find care from private providers (which is generally unaffordable for the average Guatemalan) or go without proper healthcare. Adding to this complexity is the fact that 80% of the doctors work in one location (Guatemala City) while nearly 20% of the population only speaks in their indigenous tongue (some dialect of Mayan), which often makes it difficult for doctors to communicate properly with patients. In summary, the healthcare system in Guatemala is close to a disaster and in severe need of reforms and repairs. How would you describe the healthcare system in the United States, Richard?”
[15 second pause as Richard stares at ground, thinking.]
Richard: “Chusita, my great teacher, the people of the Unites States like the health. They need the health of the body. But, it is very difficult for many people.”
[15 second pause as Richard stares at ground, thinking]
Richard: “The health is difficult in my country. The government wants health. The people wants health. The government creates law of the health. But many people do not like the law of the health.”
[15 second pause as Richard stares at ground, thinking]
Richard: “The reading of health is popular for some people, is not popular for others.”
Richard: “Law. Forgive me, Chusita.”
Chusita: “Everything is good. Continue.”
Richard: “Trump does not want the law of the health.”
Chusita: “Trump! He is very, very crazy, the people of Guatemala do not understand him. I have many friends in the United States that are nervous about this new DACA legislation…” [END OF DISCUSSION ON HEALTHCARE]
As you can see from above, there are a few great things about Chusita. One, she is incredibly patient and willing to listen to my rambling, incomprehensible monologues across a vast array of topics (I imagine conversations with her 5-year-old son have given her some great experience in this department). Also, she has some well thought-out, informed opinions on a vast array of topics which has made the experience of learning how to speak Spanish with her quite interesting as I have learned quite a bit outside of just Spanish. Finally, she’s absolutely on-board for the whole taking breaks thing, an essential aspect of any daily, four-hour one-on-one teaching marathon.
Sadly, I will only be spending one more week with Chusita as my travels will be carrying me up into the highlands of Guatemala. Until then, I look forward to learning a bit more from the most significant woman in my life down here in Guatemala.
Friday evening at dinner with my host family, as they asked me their normal battery of questions in slow, gringo-friendly Spanish, I mentioned that I was interested in climbing the volcano neighboring our pueblo (Volcan San Pedro) over the weekend. After uttering these words, mi padre Bartolo enthusiastically jumped in and asked me if I needed a guide up the volcano as he “knows a guy.” I nodded and said “Si,” primarily due to my enthusiasm that Bartolo actually understood what I said (proving that my unique version of Spanish makes sense to somebody, somewhere on God’s green earth). Given my assent, Bartolo replied with more Spanish at an increased velocity that left me on my heels and saying “Si! Si! Si! Gracias!” Immediately after this flustered replied, I realized I had agreed to pay the guide at a rate a full 50% above the going price unless I could muster four more (cuatro más!) gringos to come with me on this arduous, 6+ hour hike. Where could I find so many gringos on such short notice?
Luckily, my fellow students at San Pedro School are proving to be excellent compadres in my adventures beyond “Gringolandia” (the literal name given by the locals to the touristy street of bars and restaurants beside the lake in San Pedro). A motley crew of seven from the school agreed to tackle this Guatemalan volcanic peak with me at dawn on Sunday morning. With a group of this size, we were able to fetch a much more reasonable price from the guide (125 quetzals/person) and would present a formidable force against any potential bandidos on the slopes of the volcano. (For the record, Volcan San Pedro is relatively safe these days as the Guatemalan government has marked it an official protected wilderness area. But, still, bring it on, bandidos!)
Our guide, named Luismeijia (pronounced: “Mark-que-oh”, please don’t ask me why), met me at my host family’s house bright and early at 5:45 am. Full of smiles, handshakes, and Spanish words I didn’t understand, we confirmed the price, met one of my schoolmates, and then hopped into a “tuc-tuc” to fetch the other gringos. (Quick note on tuc-tucs: These are infinitely maneuverable, three-wheeled taxis that swarm the streets of San Pedro, regularly bleeping the sounds “tooc! tooc!” to clear the road ahead of pedestrians and other, slower tuc-tuc’s. These guys all have names, are tricked out, and provide a wonderful, built-in alarm clock for the residents of the pueblo as the sounds “tooc-tooc” begin to fill the streets of San Pedro starting in pre-dawn hours.)
Our tuc-tuc caravan climbed roughly 10 minutes outside of the city, bringing us to the entrance to Volcan San Pedro Park around 6:15 am. Our guide, “Que-oh” as he asked us to call him, began quizzing us on our names and countries of origin. After we had informed him that we hailed from the U.S., Germany, Australia, England, and Switzerland, he happily exclaimed, “Americans! Australians! Germans! VERY GOOD. Very generous. Very friendly. BUT, Israelis, French, and Spanish…VERY BAD. Bad people from those countries. Not friendly. Not generous.” Unsure of how to deal with this curiously Trumpian response to our countries of origin, the seven of us chose to ignore it and follow the guide up the slopes of the volcano.
The hike soon presented a couple of fantastic views of the lake, the village of San Pedro, and the surrounding mountains, as well as, surprisingly, a tire swing. We all gave the swing a go, although Antien, my schoolmate from Germany, certainly had the most fun on this mountainside surprise, exclaiming “una más vez!” (one more time) roughly 8-10 times in a row before shoving off for her actual “one last” swing. As we climbed beyond the swing, we ascended into a fog of clouds that, unfortunately, covered the top half of the mountain and prevented us from getting much of a view at the top. It took us roughly 3 hours to slug through the 3.5 mile (6 km) hike that ascended an aggressive 4,000 feet, peaking out at 9,908 feet (3,020 meters). The trail itself was well-maintained, switchback-heavy, and muddy towards the top. After an extended snack break at the top, where we stared into the whiteness of the clouds beyond, we descended.
During the descent, the spirit of our group certainly lifted, as evidenced by the impromptu, trail karaoke in which we indulged (my personal highlight was the “Bare Necessities”…in German). Roughly 2 hours after we departed from the top, we were at the entrance to the park, where Que-oh called us a few tuc-tuc’s and said his goodbyes (as his house was very close nto the entrance of the park and he would not be riding into San Pedro with us). In general, Que-oh proved to be a reliable, friendly guide, who was quick to help us with both our Spanish (“lodo” = mud, “resbaladizo” = slippery) and our Mayan (he really pushed hard for group adoption of “let’s go!” or “hohoho!” in Mayan). Another feature (or bug?) of Que-oh’s guide service is that he is a ladies man. He asked for a number of pictures with “solo las chicas!” (only the ladies!) and pointed out several times with a grin that there were “cuatro chicos, cuatro chicas, muy bien!” (four guys – of which Que-oh was included – and four girls, very good!). Oh, Que-oh…you dog!
The seven of us re-united for hamburgers and omelettes at El Barrio, a restaurant back in the comfort of “Gringolandia” in San Pedro. The driving rain that soon began to pound the tin roof of El Barrio reassured us that we had made a good decision with such an early departure for the peak of the volcano and lulled us into a drowsiness that would carry us back to our host families for well-earned afternoon siestas.
As luck would have it (or not have it…), the beginning of my studies last week at the San Pedro School began just as a political crisis in the country was beginning to unfold. On my first day of class (September 11th), the Guatemalan Congress voted to grant the President, Jimmy Morales, immunity from an ongoing United Nations investigation into his campaign finances. (The investigation is looking into, among other over-the-top forms of corruption, allegations that the Morales’ campaign received money from international drug traffickers.) Then two days later (September 13th), the Guatemalan Congress officially institutionalized corruption by passing two comically self-serving laws: one that shields politicians from prosecution in cases of illegal campaign financing and another that effectively allows anyone with a prison sentence of under 10 years to buy their way out of prison (the clever idea here is that politicians not yet in prison are looking for a way to get their buddies already in prison out of the can). Social media exploded with the hashtag #MiercolesNegro (“#BlackWednesday”) the day these laws were passed. (Seems to me that hashtag would have come in handy in the U.S. on Wednesday, December 9th, 2016.)
One silver lining in all this turmoil is the fact that there is strong protection for freedom of speech. The Prensa Libre is the primary Guatemalan paper, and their coverage of politics essentially reads like the NY Times if you just substitute “Donald Trump” for “every politician in the country.” In order to up my Guatemalan political activism game (as well as my Spanish), I’ve subscribed to the daily edition of the Libre, which has allowed me to spend roughly 40% of my Spanish classes talking to my teacher about the political situation (which certainly beats mulling over the details of Antonio Banderas’s life, an actual exercise I completed last week).
Also positive is that fact that there seems to be strong protection for the right to peacefully protest (e.g. in 2015, Guatemalans protested for 20 straight weekends in the capital until their previous president, Otto Molina resigned amidst scandal). As such, a “National Strike” was declared yesterday in order to allow citizens a day off of work to protest. As an act of solidarity, I refused go to class (i.e. my teacher cancelled class in order to travel to Guatemala City to take to the streets in protest), and I attended my local antigovernment protest here in San Pedro. Given the raucous scene of antigovernment vitriol that I witnessed, I only lasted a few minutes as I was fearful the situation might spiral out of control:
Although the scene in Guatemala City yesterday did seem to take the cake for “most raucous”:
Late last week, the Constitutional Court did in fact suspend the new laws for further review late last week. However, today their Congress voted to maintain the President’s immunity, so it remains to be seen what happens next in this blossoming political crisis. No matter the situation, I’ll be following the situation closely with my trusty Libre and a 4-year-old’s grasp of the situation (given my current level of Spanish comprehension).
My second weekend here in Guatemala got off to an instructive start on Friday afternoon as I was wandering around San Pedro, looking for legitimate wifi connections (a new favorite pastime of mine in this wifi starved town). Spotting a cafe that boldly advertised their wifi, I entered, ordered an espresso for 10 quetzals, and then rooted into my wallet for some cash. All I had was a 100 quetzal bill (the exchange rate is roughly 7 quetzals to the dollar, so a 100 represents approximately 14 dollars), which I handed to the barista and then waited for change. After an oddly long period of digging through the cash register, the barista handed me a nearly complete set of Guatemalan currency denominations: 2 one-half quetzal coins, 10 one quetzal coins, 4 one quetzal bills, 9 five quetzal bills, and 3 ten quetzal bills. (Just a 20 quetzal bill short of Bingo!) As I moved from the bar to a table to sort through my cornucopia of cash, I asked the barista for the wifi password. “No esta trabajando. No hoy,” she said with a smile on her face. Both the Spanish (“Wifi does not work, not today”) and the smile (the barista’s personal amusement at denying wifi to this Internet-addicted gringo with 28 new pieces of Guatemalan currency) were easy to interpret. I took my expresso to go and headed into the weekend, having learned a few key lessons to apply in Guatemala moving forward: ask if the wifi works before you order and avoid large discrepancies in cash payed versus cashed owed.
This past Friday evening began with dinner at my host family’s place, where they asked me questions about my plans for the weekend in extremely slow, “present-tense and simple words-only” Spanish (“QUE…HAC…ES…ES…TA…NO…CHE…REEEEEE…CHARD?”). After dealing with this now familiar mix of discomfort and amusement I experience when interacting with my host family, I headed over to Hostel Fe’s bar for the weekly trivia game. This game, hyped up by the Spanish schools and hostels in town, seems to be what kicks off the weekend nightlife in San Pedro. And we fell right into proper form: San Pedro Spanish School students were split between two teams, the La Coopertiva Spanish school students comprised another team, and the guests of various hostels throughout town formed 5 or 6 more teams. The game itself, however, did not quite live up to the hype. The 40-question, 2.5 hour death march was conducted by a drunk Australian making angry jokes of scant comedic value. My new Australian friend Bill even apologized to me after the game for this poor showing by his fellow countryman, affirming that the humor was not lost in some cultural translation (“No mate, not even funny for an Australian!”) The highlight was mostly certainly the guy who jumped out of the bar into the lake in response to a 50-quetzal challenge issued by the honorable master of ceremonies (as the bar is situated on Lake Atitlan, this is actually possible if you can hurdle the barrier that keeps sane, rational humans inside the bar and out of the lake).
The evening improved as I stopped into San Pedro’s premier dance club Sublime for a few hours where I got to witness the “who’s who” of San Pedro nightlife, which includes the hard partying Israelis (who notoriously make their way through Central and South America after they complete their time in the IDF), the Spanish school students, the local Guatemalans who party with (or creep on, depending on who you ask) the tourists, the mish-mash of international travelers (mostly from Europe), this local frat star guy named Sergio who seems to know everyone in town, and, of course, your smattering of drunk Australians (for the record, there are absolutely respectable, not drunk Australians; I’ve met two real, live examples of them in this town that buck the stereotype). The night ended at a hostel pool party, which I left on the “early” side to make it safe and sound into my homestay a little before 2 am.
I awoke Saturday morning at 9 am (painfully early after a late night) in order to eat breakfast with my host family, where it quickly became clear that they were aware of my late arrival home last night. “Muchas fiestas anoche, Reeechard?” my madre said with a grin. “Solo una fiesta pequeña,” I fudged with questionable grammar and pronunciation. My padre then chimed in with a grin “Trabajas las chicas?” (Translation: “You are working the ladies?”). I smiled, shook my head, and dove into the bowl of cornflakes in front of me, deflecting further lines of questioning by these newfound comedians.
Refusing to let a late night derail my Saturday, I linked up with Will — an American from Atlanta I met on the hike up Volcan Pacaya the week before last — and three friends of his that he had met while hostel-hopping through Central America. Our goal for the day was to climb up Indian Nose, a mountain ridge near San Pedro whose outline is shaped like a man’s face with the peak being the “nose.” (See pictures below). This ridge offers stunning views of Lake Atitlan and is one of the most popular hikes in the area. To get there, the five of us took a local “chicken bus” out of San Pedro to the trailhead for the ~30 minute hike up to the ridge (Quick note on chicken buses: These are hilariously tricked-out old school buses from the United States that bus operators in Central America buy via auction, tow down to Central America, and repaint with outrageous color schemes that include the newly christened names for the bus. The one we took on Saturday was named “Melissa”.) The bus dropped us off in the local village of Santa Clara where we struck out on a trail through a cornfield. After only a few minutes of hiking, we got to a fork in the trail. Looking up the trail to the right, we could see a local Guatemalan man ~100 yards away, waving at us with a machete, encouraging us to follow him. To the left, we could see another Guatemalan man also ~100 yards up the road, waving us down his path. We choose the path on the left given this man was not waving with a machete.
After following the man on the left for about a quarter mile, we arrived at a makeshift gate in the trail that the man opened and ushered us through. The little man (who topped out at approximately 5’5”) introduced himself as Miguel, the owner of the property that includes the trail to top of the ridge. Miguel seemed very happy to see us, as evidenced by the hugs he gave each of us as he introduced himself. Miguel seemed especially happy to see the three girls with Will and I, as evidenced by the kisses he snuck in while hugging them. Miguel’s friendliness made quite a bit more sense once he asked us for a fee, which we negotiated down to 20 quetzals/person. After paying, he guided us up the ridge, stopping us at prime lookout points to gaze down to the lake below and take pictures. The views were absolute stunning of Lake Atitlan and its surrounding volcanoes. (Check out the pics below!) When we arrived at the top of his property, we realized we had not yet made it to the very top of the ridge, which we could see further above along with a few more Guatemalan men waving us up towards them. Miguel called these men “bandidos” and told us to stay away. (The likelier story is that these “bandidos” owned the property further up the ridge and were just some old fashioned competition for Miguel.) After a few minutes at the “top”, Miguel led us back down the ridge and, at his property line, pointed us the right direction down. We said goodbye to Miguel and headed down, but not before some more hugs…and kisses for the girls.
After a relatively relaxed rest of Saturday, I woke early on Sunday to meet some of my schoolmates to make the trek over to San Marcos, the hippie town across the lake from San Pedro that features classic hippie activities like meditation, yoga, crystal healing, flower healing, drum-making, mushroom growing classes, and tarot card readings. I am at least 4 to 5 months of unemployment away from feeling the sense of desperation that would motivate me to engage in most of these activities, but I figured a yoga class on the lake with some of my schoolmates would be cool.
The yoga class was in a beautiful location in a dock by the lake with a clear view of several volcanoes across the water. The class itself was a relatively normal sequence of hatha yoga poses; however, our instructor informed us that she was on a bit of a tight schedule as she needed to consult a local shaman over a mug of cacao promptly 25 mins after the class was scheduled to end. This, understandably, elicited some questions from our end, and we learned that this consultation would last 5 hours, the requisite amount of time for both the chocolate and the shaman to do the work needed to take clients to a spiritual plane. Curious about the identity of this “chocolate shaman”, my classmates and I did a bit of research found out this guy’s name is Keith. Keith is from the well-known spiritual homeland for authentic shamans (Pennsylvania), and charges tourists up to 200Q to attend his biweekly cacao ceremonies. The Internet has quite a bit to say about this chocolate shaman which you can find if you search “cacao shaman san marcos.” I do think I trust this TripAdvisor review the most.
I spent the rest of the afternoon swimming off of a San Marcos dock with my hiking friends from Saturday before taking one of the last boats back to San Pedro last night to get a good night’s sleep in before classes this week. I switched my classes to the afternoon this week in order to get some free-time in the relatively drier mornings. And Keith, the chocolate shaman, has a ceremony on Wednesday — if the chocolate spirit calls, I will answer and report back!
“Much gusto, Richard! Bienvenido a mi familia!” said a smiling Elsa, the matriarch of my new Guatemalan family, as she showed me my new, personal veranda overlooking Lake Atitlan here in San Pedro La Laguna. Struggling to grasp the Spanish word for “view,” I resorted to, well, the English word for “view.” “Esta…uhhh…view…es muy bonita!” Elsa smiled knowingly, looked out towards the lake, and proclaimed “la vista!” And so my Spanish immersion attempt begins, one conversation in broken Spanish at a time.
My arrival at San Pedro La Laguna this afternoon was preceded by an action-packed last 24 hours in Antigua which began with a rousing cultural and historical tour led by the resident historian, Elizabeth Bell. Bell is no amateur historian — she’s published multiple books on the history and culture of Antigua which are for sale all over town (this includes at least two coloring books of major Antigua sites which demonstrates the depth of the woman’s passion for this former Guatemalan capital). The tour began strong, as Bell showed us around the major sites off the Parque Central and pummeled us with her knowledge of all things Antigua (history, politics, religion, current events, and fun facts, i.e. the 1938 Tarzan movie was filmed in none other than Antigua). However, this momentum came to a screeching halt about an hour and half into the tour as Bell ushered us into the Jade Museum. For those of you who don’t know, jade is a precious mineral found in Guatemala that is popular in jewelry. Then there is a lot of other boring stuff about jade that the Jade Museum covers in detail. After about 45 minutes of that yawnfest of a museum, Bell did capture a bit of the momentum back at our final stop on the tour, the Casa Santo Domingo. The highlight of this stop was a crypt that includes exhumed human skeletons from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Pretty cool stuff.
After the tour, I meandered around some parts of Antigua I had yet to explore. This was going swimmingly until I met Oleg, a Ukrainian now living in New York City. Oleg asked me to take his picture in front of Iglesia San Francisco. Then his picture from a different angle in front of the church. Then his picture in the church’s garden. Then his picture in the middle of a park down the street. Then his picture from the end of the park down the street. Then his picture in the Parque Central. Then his picture in front of the church by the Parque Central. Then his picture in a picturesque street on the way to my hostel (I was now heading there for “a nap”). Then his picture in front a church next to my hostel. Then his picture in front of my hostel. Then his picture from inside my hostel. Then…OK, so the last two pictures did not happen! But literally all of the other pictures are true pictures that did happen. And when Oleg finally agreed to part ways, I was disappointed I did not receive a tip from him given my instrumental role in the creation of his masterful photo album entitled “Oleg Standing in Front of Places in Antigua, Guatemala”.
As evening approached last night, I debated whether to have a quiet dinner and call it an early night or head back to Cafe No Sé to see if my new bartender friends had anything going on. I opted for the latter given that the first option felt like defeat. Sure enough, Cafe No Sé did not let this wandering soul down. Marissa, an American teaching at a local school that works at the No Sé on the weekends, invited me and my other new friends from the bar (a gay couple from San Francisco down for a long weekend) to a local salsa event. Given that “I know how to do salsa” (said the mezcal in my body at that moment), I agreed and found myself in a school gym with several hundred Guatemalans that were absolutely ripping up some salsa. There wasn’t too much for a gringo like me to do other than watch in awe at the scene, which was highlighted by a legitimate salsa performance by locals in costume. I did make a brief foray onto the dance floor which ended with a small, personal victory in the form of a “compliment” from Marissa. (“I thought you would be terrible at salsa and you actually weren’t terrible!”). After a few hours of this otherworldly salsa scene, my new friends and I ended the night back at the No Sé in a scene much more familiar to me — in a crowded bar, singing along at the top of our lungs to “Proud Mary” by Ike and Tina Turner.
I pulled out of Antigua in my shuttle this morning around 8:30 am, feeling satisfied about my three days there and properly launched into this adventure. The four-hour journey from Antigua to San Pedro La Laguna only helped to build my excitement for what lies ahead as I listened to the wealth of travel stories being recounted by my shuttlemates. And as I now find myself living with Elsa, Bartolo, Juanita, Elsita, and Bartolito, I am interested to see how the next chapter of my own story unfolds.