Dos Hermanos in Guatemala: From the Underwater River of Semuc Champey to the Slopes of the Angry Volcán Fuego

Antigua, Guatemala

Over the last ten days, my meanders through Guatemala were enhanced with the addition of my younger brother and regular partner-in-adventure, John Wesley Andrews. He arrived in Guatemala City from the States known as “Wes,” but since “w” does not really exist in Spanish (it’s true!), he would take on a number of different names that were more pronounceable for Guatemaltecos, including “Huest,” “Huas,” and “Uees.” Unfortunately, given his relatively short stint in the Guate, the inevitable Hispanic alter-egos corresponding to each of Wes’s new names lacked the incubation period necessary to develop into full-blown personalities. (On the other hand, “Ricardo,” the Hispanic version of yours truly, has come into his own as a native Guatemalteco over his two and a half months here. Ricardo is best known for his new, interpretative form of salsa that prioritizes sensual hip-shaking over proper step-taking and his unnecessarily long and deep rolls of the letter “r”, which occur irrespective of the language he is speaking.)

Wes and I’s first destination in Guatemala was Semuc Champey (“Where the river hides under the earth” in the Mayan dialect of Q’eqchi’), a natural limestone bridge over the Cahabòn River in central Guatemala. A number of natural infinity pools filled with turquoise water sit atop this bridge, making it both friendly for swimming and snapping breathtaking photos. The distance between Antigua (our starting point) and Semuc was a relatively modest 200 miles. However, our trip between the two locations, via a tourist shuttle, was a tortuously long 11 hours. If you are doing the math at home, yes, your division is correct: this is an average of a laughably slow 18 miles/hour. And yes, we took a bus with a gasoline-powered engine, not a horse carriage. A combination of winding mountain roads, speed bumps as we passed through countless villages, massive potholes, unpaved roads, a local funeral procession, and road construction contributed to this snail’s pace (in fact, we may have seen some actual snails scoot by us during our journey). However, after experiencing the beauty of the area, Wes and I would agree that this trip was “vale la pena” (English: “worth the trouble”).

For our two full days and three nights in the area, we stayed at Utopia Hostel, located on the Cahabón River, a walkable three kilometers from the turquoise pools of Semuc. The hostel has the added benefit of being downstream from the pools, meaning it is possible to finish your day at the pools by tubing down the river back to the hostel. We spent the majority of both days swimming in the pools and exploring the area surrounding the pools, which happens to include a massive cave network that we spelunked through with a local guide (ours was named Manuel who enthusiastically led us through the caves with occasional high-pitched yelps of “aiaiaiai!”). The area around Semuc Champey is also surrounded by dozens of local children selling chocolate and beer (yes, children sell beer here) at cut-rate prices. In fact, as we were tubing down the river back to Utopia on our second day, a Guatemalan boy of roughly thirteen years old floated by holding out a Brahva (the cheapest of the Guatemalan national beers) saying, “You want beer? You get now. You pay at hostel.” I, of course, could not turn down this entrepreneurial spirit and accepted his kind offer.

From Semuc, Wes (“Huest”) and I made our to what has become my home base of sorts in Guatemala — the banks of Lake Atitlán. The initial plan was to conquer various lakeside volcanoes, embark on kayak journeys of ambitious lengths, and to delve deep into the local cultures of a number of different lakeside villages. Alas, the germs and bacteria of Guatemala had other plans as Wes went down with stomach “trouble” (a euphemism), and I went down with a vicious cold. Therefore, we spent most of our two and a half days at the lake convalescing at and around our hostel in Santa Cruz (La Iguana Perdida). The highlight was the massive Thanksgiving dinner put on by the hostel where I had the honor of introducing this venerable American tradition to two Irish, four Aussies, and an Englishman. The Irishman was especially surprised to learn that Thanksgiving was not actually the day Columbus discovered America. (Wes sadly missed this event due to stomach “trouble.”)

After our relaxing few days at the lake, my brother and I headed to Antigua to take on the most talked-about single attraction in Guatemala among backpackers: climbing Volcán Acatenango and observing the neighboring active volcano (Fuego). Having heard multiple people describe this as potentially the “best thing they had ever done,” I was somewhat skeptical going in that any tourist attraction could be that good. However, our experience would back up this enthusiasm.

Volcán Acatenango is the third highest volcano in Central America at 3,976 meters (13,045 ft) and is the sister volcano to Volcán Fuego, one of Guatemala’s three active volcanoes (the others are Pacaya and Santiaguito). It is possible to hike up and down the volcano in a day, but the more popular option is to stay on the slopes of the volcano overnight in order to watch the spectacular eruptions of Fuego from one of the various campsites on the slopes of Acatenango. A number of different tourist agencies in nearby Antigua provide gear and a guide for an overnight trip for reasonable prices (most run for 350 quetzals or a little less than $50), so, for simplicity’s sake, my brother and I chose this option.

Our trip up the volcano began inauspiciously. After our guiding company had loaded all the clients into a bus, they drove us to their headquarters to pass out the food we would need for the trek. After this food was passed out, one of the clients, a vegetarian, startled everyone by angrily screaming towards the front of the bus, “ONLY rice? ONLY pasta? ONLY lettuce? No sauce! This is not three meals! This is three ONE-HALF meals!” Looking around to see who else was ready take up arms against the oppressive guiding company, he found his cause was generating little support from the masses. In fact, even after the meat eaters noticed that their ration only included an additional cold chicken leg on top of the “only rice, only pasta, and only lettuce” allowance of the vegetarians, no one else could seem to muster the indignation necessary to protest this company that was providing two guides, three (“half”) meals, transportation to and from the volcano, tents, sleeping bags, and a prime campsite from which to view an erupting volcano for roughly $50/person. Making little headway, the indignant customer stormed off the bus and back to Antigua, the land of three full meals per day. Fortunately, this dramatic exit occurred before the angry protester learned that sauce for the pasta was provided at the campsite. And we were all more than happy that he did not receive this information as it may have tempted him to continue on with the trek and discover additional injustices that the guiding company may be waging against his personhood. (“No car to the top? ONLY my feet? ONLY my lungs? ONLY this stick? This is not a tour, this is a ONE-HALF tour!”)

Having dispensed of the deadweight, the still-sizable group, now of eighteen customers and two guides, continued onto the trailhead where our main guide, Fernando, began steadily leading us up the steep trail. The trail would rise roughly 1500 meters (5000 feet) over 8 km (5 miles) and end at our campsite situated several hundred meters below the summit, providing a clear view of the neighboring Volcán Fuego. (At 3,763 meters/12,364 feet, its peak is slightly lower than that of Acatenango’s.) Fernando was on his way up Acatenango for the 598th time, which was probably the reason for the random, unprovoked fits of hysterical laughter that he would issue from the front of the group from time-to-time (his only explanation for the laughing — “I am a very happy man!” — which was always followed by a few more peals of manic laughter or his token phrase “Bery good, bery good, bery gooood!”). Despite having potentially ceded some sanity to the thin air of Acatenango, Fernando did lead us up in exactly five hours, the ascent time he quoted at the outset of our climb. Once at base camp, he also informed us that if four souls were brave enough, he could lead them off of Acatenango and onto Fuego for an even closer view of the eruptions after dark. I glanced at my brother after learning this and his eyes told me all I needed to know: we were going up Fuego.

We found two others to provide Fernando with the requisite four (Cameron from Canada and Fabian from Germany), and then, after scarfing down some pasta, we headed towards Fuego with headlamps and flashlights guiding our way. After a roughly 25 minute descent to the saddle and a 45 minute ascent up the slopes of Fuego, we found ourselves at the foot of the exposed ridge that climbs up to Fuego’s peak, staring through thick ash falling like snow and breathing in Fuego’s sulfurous odors. We were only four hundred meters below the summit but well beyond where we saw the most powerful eruptions throwing lava. We were entranced as every few minutes, bright orange chunks of lava would spray out from the top of the cone into the night sky — a natural fireworks display — and thick smoke would billow up and then ascend above the specks of lava into a dark, mushroom-shaped cloud. After the spraying lava reached its zenith, it would fall down onto the sides of the mountain and begin rapidly sliding down its slopes. The more powerful the eruption, the further we would see the lava cascade down. Each eruption was accompanied by a thunderous boom, the volume of the boom corresponding to the intensity of the eruption. (Early the next morning, one boom was so loud it would wake-up the campsite, causing many of us to unzip our tents and witness lava flows sliding well over halfway down the slopes of the mountain.) After nearly an hour on the ridge of Fuego, the five of us turned around and worked our way back to the campsite to catch some shuteye before our predawn wake-up call.

At approximately 4:15 am the next morning, Fernando announced to the bleary-eyed group that we were headed to the top, which was followed by a few of his characteristic manic peals of laughter. The trudge to the summit took an hour and, there, we were greeted with a spectacular, slowly brightening 360 degree view of Guatemala: to the east were Antigua and Volcán Agua, with the smoking cone of Volcán Pacaya (the second of Guatemala’s three active volcanoes) peaking out behind it; a bit further to the north were the sprawling lights of Guatemala City; to the northwest was Volcan Atitlán with the blue waters of Lake Atitlán spilling out below it; even further northwest were the peaks of Santa María and then, barely visible, Volcán Tajumulco the highest peak in Guatemala and all of Central America; and, finally, to the south, was the erupting Fuego with the Pacific coast and ocean beyond. We snapped as many photos as our frozen fingers could bear, whooped as the sun rose, then made record time back to camp by sliding down the volcanic sand that comprises much of the surface of Acatenango’s summit cone. After a quick breakfast and much-needed cups of coffee, we descended the volcano quickly enough to be back at our Antiguan hostel before noon.

Wes and I spent the rest of the day in Antigua doing our best not to fall asleep for the night debilitatingly early and rehashing some of the highlights of our ten days together. And then, sadly, yesterday morning, we parted ways as his flight back to D.C. left Guatemala City airport in the afternoon. It is bizarre to think that this morning, he sat down for his desk job at a software company in suburban northern Virginia, less than 48 hours after having stared a highly active Central American volcano in the face.

Reflecting on the Acatenango experience, it certainly met the ridiculously high expectations set by the multiple backpackers I met who told me that this may have been the best thing they have ever done. Having now lived on the planet over thirty years, it is rare where I experience anything that feels new, unique, and fresh enough to inspire genuine wonder within me. It is a feeling I experienced quite often in my childhood, such as the first time I felt the weightlessness airplane wheels just leaving the runway give you or the first time I saw how green the outfield grass of a Major League Baseball stadium looks as you emerge out of the concessions area into the stands. However, as I stood and watched with fascination as lava sprayed out of Fuego and spilled down its slopes while the roar of the eruption’s seismic blast thundered out across the valley, I realized I had forgotten what true wonder feels like because, in that moment, I experienced it again. I felt just like a kid, simply amazed at the magnificence of the world around me. And quite fittingly, the guy with whom I shared most of my childhood, stood beside me.

 

A Dock in El Remate and Mid-Trip Reflections

El Remate, Guatemala

I may have found the most beautiful spot in all of Guatemala: a dock on Lago Petén Itzá across from the Hotel Mon Ami in El Remate. The dock juts roughly 15 meters into the depths of the eastern end of Lago Petén Itza and clears the water by only a few inches, giving someone standing near the end of the dock the sensation of standing on top of the lake as they peer across its glassy surface. From this perch, I observed several sunsets, a couple torrential tropical downpours (the end of the dock is sheltered from the rain by a tin roof), and one awe-inspiring rainbow this past week. Amidst the beauty of this spot and the general sublimity of El Remate, including the Cerro Cahuí Nature Preserve, I had some time alone this past week to reflect on my 2+ months in Guatemala so far. For much of this time, I found my thoughts drifting over moments I have shared with other travelers and a few stick out.

Back in September in San Pedro, my friend Ryan from Manchester, England, declared to me from behind kind eyes, “One really ought to offer complements like this more often, but we rarely do this for one another.” This was after he expressed his desire to tell Nadine before they parted ways ways that she is one of the genuinely funniest people he has ever met. Which is true — both that we ought to complement each more often and that our friend Nadine is hilarious. I never knew whether Ryan delivered this complement, but I know how Nadine would have responded: by insisting that her jokes really are much funnier in her native Swiss German. Despite this oft-expressed sentiment of hers, it did not stop her from providing my friends from the San Pedro School and I a near constant stream of wise cracks, witticisms, and playful jabs. Nadine speaks clear English with a bit of a Swiss German accent, which would cause me, from time-to-time, to interrupt her in order to clarify a word or two. After one of these interjections of mine, Nadine responded in playful frustration, “Reechard, what I said was very close. You really must use your imagination with me! Otherwise this will not work.”

Imagination is certainly something that my host family in San Pedro had to employ when learning how to interact with my other friend named Ryan in San Pedro. This Ryan, from Australia, moved in with my host family during our third week of Spanish classes. Ryan had spent a year and a half in Mexico as a dive instructor, and, between this time and his several weeks of class so far, had managed, against all odds, to learn absolutely no Spanish. However, he did insist with the host family that he was fluent in several Mayan dialects and would declare after every meal, almost as if to make fun of the very existence of the Spanish language, “muy deliciososososoooo!” Not knowing what exactly to do with this thirty-one year old man that seemed to mock the fact that the language of the household was Spanish, my host family took to calling him “el niño pequeño” (the little boy). (From what I understand now, el niño pequeno has progressed quite a bit in his Spanish.)

I have always been a bit skeptical of the idea that you can fundamentally change who you are or come to huge life revelations simply by traveling the world. However, there have been a few moments here where an interaction with another human has shifted my perspective in a real way. For instance, I was chatting with Dieske, a Dutch woman I met during my hectic first week in Guatemala, and she was describing how she would have to decide whether or not to go back to teaching full-time when she returned to Amsterdam. I asked her if she liked teaching, and she responded, “Well, yes, in fact, I do. When I was teaching back in Amsterdam, every afternoon after I finished teaching a class, I felt a little bit in love.” This description was striking, as I had never heard someone compare their day-to-day work so directly to the feelings of romantic love. I rather liked this description, as a person’s relationship with his or her day-to-day work is one of the most significant relationships in life, and one ought to feel at least “a little bit” of love in it. I was encouraged that Dieske’s sentiment was not just the idealistic dream of an eager university student but reflective of a reality that she has experienced. This moment caused me to pause as I recognized that my hopes for my day-to-day work when I returned to the States fell short of what Dieske expressed, and although not exactly life-altering, this interaction has nudged my thinking on the topic away from cynicism and towards hope.

It is interesting that the snapshots of genuine human interaction are the moments that already seem to stick out to me the most in my memory, but they are the most difficult to recapture in photographs or my daily travel journal that records the events of the day. And I think I like it this way — it’s almost as if my mind knows that these are moments that it alone is responsible for capturing, storing, and keeping sacred in memory.

U.S. Graduate Students (and American Competitiveness) at Risk with House Tax Bill

The below was sent to Congressman Dave Brat (VA-7th) regarding the U.S. House of Representatives tax reform bill that passed this week: 

Congressman Brat,

I am writing to you with respect to the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Bill” that just passed that House of Representatives that you voted in favor of. While I commend you and your colleagues’ attempt to reform and restructure the tax code, which is badly needed, I am deeply concerned with the removal of Section 117(d) of the US tax code which classifies tuition reductions for graduate students as non-taxable. Removing this effectively converts tuition wavers — which universities generally grant to graduate students based on teacher assistant (TA) work that they do — into taxable income. This will increase the tax burden on individual graduate students by, in many cases, over $10,000/year, and effectively disincentives Americans from pursuing graduate degrees. At a time when America must double-down on encouraging citizens to pursue advanced degrees in order to remain globally competitive — especially in STEM — I am baffled that we would change the tax code to actively discourage Americans from receiving this highly-skilled training. This change could have long-term, damaging consequences for our workforce and our economy. And for what? For roughly $1-$2 billion tax dollars (based on the reasonable assumption that 145,000 affected students would owe, on average, $10,000 more in taxes per year). This represents four-hundredths of one percent of our entire federal budget in 2017. We could raise the same amount of money just by adjusting the corporate tax cut found in this bill by a mere rounding era. (In order to raise ~$1 billion more from the $2.1 trillion in U.S. corporate profits in 2016, we would need to raise corporate taxes by less than a hundredth of a percent!)

In addition to hurting graduate students by increasing their individual tax burden and putting longterm American competitiveness at risk by pushing folks away from graduate degrees, this provision of the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Bill” creates a more difficult operating environment for United States corporations. From 2010 to 2012, I worked in Microsoft’s U.S. Government Affairs office in Washington, D.C. and a primary concern that the company dealt with then — and now— was the lack of U.S. Ph.D. graduates coming from STEM fields. In fact, in a given year, Microsoft Corporation would hire more computer science Ph.D.’s than the total number of U.S. citizens graduating with a Ph.D. in computer science in that year. Given this, and the United States’ inadequate H1-B visa program, Microsoft opened up a research lab in Vancouver, Canada, in order to hire Ph.D.’s from around the globe and bring them to Canada, which had (and still does have) friendlier immigration policies than the United States. Given that there is already this shortage of graduates with advanced degrees to work American jobs, why make it harder on our companies by including this provision?

As a final appeal, I imagine that you, a Ph.D. yourself, know personally how helpful tuition waivers are for students pursuing graduate studies. In fact, these waivers, and the assumption that they were non-taxable, may have been the difference that made your decision to pursue an Economics Ph.D financially viable.

Thank you for your time, and I strongly urge you to advocate for removing tuition waivers from taxable income when the bill comes back to the House.

Best,

Richard Andrews

Dos Guapos Dos: Guatemala Edition

Flores, Guatemala

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…”

 

 

Goodbye, Xelajú

Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

I ended my third and final week of Spanish class at PLQ on Friday (seventh overall including my time at San Pedro School), and for a moment on my last day of class, I believed that I had reached a true Spanish language breakthrough. The moment came during the weekly “Que Pasó in Guatemala” roundtable where students and teachers meet for an hour to discuss Guatemalan current events — in Spanish, of course. Amaro, a school coordinator who was leading the conference, kicked things off by asking if students had anything they would like to discuss. The several seconds of painful silence that ensued proved too difficult for my extroversion to handle, so I piped up and said “La economía de Guatemala.” Amaro turned his gaze towards me and asked, “What about the economy?” I mentioned that I had read an article about the state of the Guatemalan economy earlier that week in the Prensa Libre and thought we could, maybe, discuss that. Amaro replied that he had not read that article, so it would be great if I could explain in detail what I knew about the current state of the Guatemalan economy. At this point, considering the entire exchange was occurring in Spanish, I realized I was probably in over my head. However, I could not think of a better way out of the situation other than to dive headfirst into these murky, Spanish language waters. I began speaking and was surprised by how quickly and easily the words tumbled out of my mouth. Over the course of two, maybe three minutes, I summarized the general state of the Guatemalan economy, rattled off several factors that were barriers to Guatemalan economic growth, and offered commentary on each factor. At the end of this impromptu speech, I let out a long breath of self-satisfaction and thought to myself, “Wow. Just wow! I am great at Spanish, basically fluent. Everyone here just must be so impressed!” However, it was only then that I noticed the silence. And then the confused look on Amaro’s face. And then the blank expressions on the faces of the other students and teachers in the room. I then asked Amaro, hopefully, “Do you understand?” Amaro’s confused look then changed into one of amusement, and he replied with a chuckle, “Umm…a little bit,” indicating that his incomprehension was due more to the ridiculous version of Spanish I had just spoken rather than my superior technical knowledge of Guatemalan economics. Amaro’s in-depth, follow-up spiel on Guatemalan economics — accompanied by head bobs of comprehension all around the room — confirmed that my “breakthrough” was not in Spanish, but, rather, in my own, unique language that sits somewhere in the great abyss between English and Spanish.

Despite this somewhat humiliating experience, PLQ still allowed me to graduate Friday evening at the weekly graduation dinner. Every Friday evening, PLQ hosts this graduation dinner for all students and teachers. The dinner has been one of the highlights of each week here as it includes piles of food (students and teachers alternate weeks that they bring food), an authentic Guatemalan mariachi band — made up of PLQ teachers and friends — to lead us in rousing communist anthems, and plenty of Gallo and Cabro (the Guatemalan national beers). All departing students are invited to give a speech or sing a song, so, given it was my last dinner, I once again risked public humiliation and stood up in front of forty of my new best friends to deliver a short speech that was, thankfully for the listeners, prepared beforehand as to align more closely with the actual Spanish language than the speech I had given earlier in the day. Two other students who have become my compañeras in adventure, Marije and Jasmine, also delivered well-prepared speeches. However, another speech stole the show. It was delivered by Ron, a Catholic missionary in his 60’s or 70’s from New Jersey, who quickly had become a fan favorite among the students given his cheerful, grandfatherly demeanor and his enthusiastic participation in all student activities (including soccer, post-soccer beers, volcanic baths, and chicken bus rides). In his speech, Ron described his misadventure this past Wednesday during a school trip to Zunil, a local pueblo built into a mountainside near Xela. During the trip, Ron got separated from the group on the way back from the cemetery, which is located at the highest point in town. Ron walked all the way down the mountain alone, and when he did not find the rest of the group at the bottom, took a tuc-tuc back up the mountain. However, during this ride, he missed seeing the group coming back down the mountain and then, seeing that the rest of the group was not at the top either, in a panic, ran back down the mountain into the arms of a worried group of students that immediately began cheering his return. Ron could barely contain his delight in recounting this story in his first-year Spanish at dinner, and as peals of laughter rolled through the students and teachers, Ron went off script to describe the current size of his corazón.

In addition to the graduation dinner and Spanish language speeches, my final week in Xela also included a trip to Volcano Chicabal — a nearby volcano that features a lake on top and a drunk, blabbering local at the bottom — and Zunil — the local pueblo mentioned above whose cemetery was a colorful, spirited site to behold on Día de Los Muertos on November 1st. Finally, I played hooky from class for a few hours on Monday to take to the streets to to witness Stage 8 of the Vuelta de Guatemala and root on Manuel Rodas, Some of the pictures below capture these last few days in the Guatemalan Highlands.

As my time in Xela (Xelajú in full Mayan form) has come to a close, I am looking forward to transitioning from a “dedicated” student to a wandering, Central American traveler, doing my best to convince locals that, despite physical evidence to the contrary, I know a bit of Spanish and would prefer the Spanish as opposed to English version of the menu, please.

Next up, New York City comes to Guatemala for a nine days in the form of one of my best friends and travel companions, Newman Granger.

 

 

 

 

Bumping My Head on the Roof of Central America: Volcán Tajumulco, Saúl, and Saúl

Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

Another week of Spanish school here at PLQ in Quetzaltenango is in the books, and I can now add a new teacher to the list: Saúl. Saúl, a single Guatemalan man in his mid-50’s, brings a unique, freewheeling style to teaching, which, at the very least, must keep himself entertained throughout the 20+ hours per week he spends having conversations with people who have anywhere from a two to eight-year-old’s grasp of his native language. To break-up the five hour sessions, Saúl included numerous spontaneous walks to wi-fi friendly areas of the school in order to look-up historical facts about Guatemala, comb through images of paintings (Saúl is a big Andy Warhol fan after I introduced him to this great American), listen to songs in Spanish (highlighted by “De Que Sirve Querer by Malacates Trebol Shop — the Maroon 5 of Guatemala), and poke around on Facebook. In addition to our Internet browsing sessions, Saúl also provided a bevy of unsolicited advice on how to win the hearts of my female classmates, a personal guitar solo and serenade (he gave me the lyric sheet so I could sing along with him — to which I am only slightly embarrassed to say that I did), a slow clap after I finished each grammar exercise, and a laundry list of ridiculous personal stories and anecdotes that blurred the lines between fact and fiction. Some stories, as they grew in absurdity, clearly were completely made-up. For example, one morning as I walked into class, Saúl was standing with his backed turned to the classroom, gazing out the door into the courtyard. When I asked him how he was doing, he remained with his back turned and dramatically responded that that he felt particularly “alive,” more “alive” than he had ever him. Then, spinning around, he explained that this deep feeling of vitality was because of strong connections he made with spirits in the cemetery the night before. When I pressed him on some more details, he explained that he had encountered the spirit of Marilyn Monroe, who had given him a 45 second kiss. This kiss was the best he had ever had. However, Saúl’s voice took on a somber tone as he described how he became suspicious of Marilyn after she told him he was preferable to John F. Kennedy, who was too in love with Jackie to give Marilyn his full attention. With such a beautiful woman throwing herself at him, Saúl wisely became suspicious and consulted the spirit of Dracula, who tipped him off to the fact that she was likely a vampire and wanted him for his blood. I could see traces of what looked like genuine fear in Saúl’s eyes right before his head kicked back as a deep laugh rolled out of him; after a few bellowing guffaws, his head dropped back to eye-level, and he leaned over to offer a high five and a fist pound which I took, laughing. This story, of course, was completely made up. However, this was just one of many stories, and others left more questions than answers. Is he really a clown every Sunday at church? Has he really had relationships with three different women in the United States that all ended because he could not bring himself to leave his beloved Guatemala? Did he really serenade his New Zealand girlfriend over his flip phone for her birthday this past Monday morning? For these stories, the truth remains, and will forever remain to me, a mystery.

After my week with Saúl, the teacher, I would bizarrely spent the rest of the weekend with another Guatemalan man named Saùl, my guide up Volcán Tajumulco. Volcán Tajumulco, standing at 4,220 meters (13,845 feet), is the tallest peak in Central America and has been on my “to do” list since I got to Guatemala nearly two months ago. With only one weekend left in the Xela area (the typical launching off point for Tajumulco treks), I made a point to book a trip with the Guatemalan guiding outfit, Adrenalina Tours, for an overnight ascent. Three other brave students — Marije from the Netherlands, Anna from Montana, and Jasmine from Colorado — enthusiastically signed on as well (teacher Saúl, of course, offered me several high fives across his teaching table after I revealed the male – female ratio of my upcoming trek).

The trek up Tajumulco began on Saturday morning in a quite, private shuttle ride from our school in Xela that was interrupted rudely by the chaos of Minerva Bus Stop, a crowded, hectic chicken bus stop across town. As soon as we stopped, Saúl (the guide) dumped sleeping bags, tents, food, and other supplies in the middle of the street, barking orders in Spanish about who should pack what while simultaneously negotiating our travel arrangements with the ayudantes that had swarmed our shuttle, lobbying us for our business. (Ayundantes are assistant chicken bus pilots that frenetically herd people and supplies on and off of these buses.) In a matter of minutes, our backpacks and supplies were on top of a chicken bus headed to the town of San Marcos, with us improbably inside. This chicken bus was particularly crowded — each seat was packed with three people that were spilling into an aisle that itself was full of standing riders. (As chicken buses are just former American school buses, I recalled that three to a seat is bus-packing arrangement that I grew out of sometime around 3rd grade.) This nearly two hour journey could not have been over soon enough, and the next chicken bus, which took us on a winding, mountain road for a little less than an hour before reaching the trailhead, mercifully was not packed to the brim.

The 9 kilometer (~6 mile) hike up Tajumulco started at an altitude of roughly 3000 meters (~9,900 feet) in the pueblo named, appropriately enough, Tajumulco. After spending a few minutes adjusting our packs, our five person party began ascending a cobble-stoned road through the beautiful, green countryside of San Marcos (the Guatemalan state in which Tajumulco lies). As we ascended, the road turned into a dirt trail, sweeping vistas opened behind us, and thick, grey clouds ominously obscured the higher reaches of the trail in front of us. Saúl set a slow, plodding steady pace up front (“despacio”,”despacio”). After about an hour, he paused as a light rain was beginning to fall. Saúl has mastered how to configure two large sheets of plastic over his pack and head, respectively, to keep the rain off, and he used this brief pause to school us in this art. Saúl’s lesson was well-timed as only moments after the plastic was in place, the light rain turned hard and steady, which would keep our heads fixed down on the trail immediately in front of us for the remainder of the climb. We arrived at the campground, 200 meters below the summit, a little after 2 pm, registering a little over three and a half hours for the hike up. The campsite itself was half-flooded and surprisingly busy — by nightfall, there would be a dozen or more tents crowded together in the dry spots of the campground. The clientele was primarily Guatemaltecan, so the campsite buzzed with Spanish. One exception was the English couple camping beside us that was led by Saúl’s friend, Carlos. Carlos, a friendly Guatemalteco that knew quite a bit more English than Saúl, paid us a visit during dinner in Saùl’s tent (the menu: heaps and heaps of spaghetti) and suggested that we mix our cheap, horrendous-tasting Guatemalan rum, known as Quetzalteca (approximate price per liter: $3), with hot tea. Against all odds, this mix actually tasted worse than Quetzalteca on its own; as Anna and Marije did their best not to spit the hideous concoction all over the tent, I offered Saúl a cup. He declined on the grounds that he is an Evangelical Pastor, his wide grin belying this claim. Laughing, I then handed Carlos cup. He took a sip, smiled, and proclaimed, “¡Es perfecto!”

Anna, Marije, Jasmine, and I were hunkered down in our tent for the night by 7:30 pm, hoping to catch a full-night’s rest before our 4 am wake-up call and summit push. The cold air (temperatures approached freezing overnight) and hard ground prevented this, and most of us had already been awake for hours when Saúl chirped an “¡Hola!” from his neighboring tent promptly at 4 am. We dressed quickly and made it to the frigid, windy summit a little after 5 am, with little more than a dull glow on the eastern horizon. For the next hour, Saúl huddled under his NYC Post-Marathon warming blanket (purchased at a secondhand store in Xela) while the four of us tried a variety of warming tactics to stave off the cold wind. As sunrise approached, clouds and mist obscured the horizon and views of the valleys below, and we braced ourselves for disappointment. However, just after 6 am, the mist and clouds lifted enough to expose the summit — an incredibly interesting martian-like landscape — and the stunning views of the surrounding volcanoes, mountains, and countryside. From the top of Central America, howls and whoops lifted into the air as the now relatively crowded summit of Tajumulco came alive. Over the next few hours, the five of us would explore the summit, the volcanic crater behind the summit, and the peak of Tajumulco’s sister volcano, Concepción, snapping one incredible photo after another. The ample dose of cloud cover added to the beauty, providing spectacular cloud formations that billowed up from the lower elevations and cascaded between mountain ridges.

By 8:30 am, we were headed back down the volcano, racing to beat a rain that would never come. Instead, the race was for the 10:30 am chicken bus which arrived at the trailhead just as were sprinting down the last few meters of the trail, waving and yelling “¡Espera! ¡Espera!” Unfortunately, this would not be the last race we would encounter on our journey home. Shortly after boarding the connection in San Marcos back to Xela, we found the road home blocked off for Guatemala’s premier cycling event, the Tour of Guatemala. For the next 45 minutes, our chicken bus took a meandering detour throughout the surroundings of San Marcos like a chicken with its proverbial head cut off, picking up Guatemaltecos from the side of the road until the bus was, like the previous morning, bursting at the seams. Once the bus finally found its way, we had a bumpy, two hour ride across 30 miles of road before the four of us arrived back in Xela, exhausted but satisfied with having reached the roof of Central America.

 

 

Xela: A New School, A New Home, and A New Accent

Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

This week, I settled into my new temporary home here in southwest Guatemala, Quetzaltenango (literally the “the place of the quetzal bird” but better known by its Mayan name of “Xela”). My plan is to remain here for at least two weeks studying some more Spanish, checking out Guatemalan city life (Xela is the second-largest city in Guatemala), and hiking the several volcanoes that surround this highland city, situated at 2,330 meters (7,640 feet).

On Monday, I enrolled in the local Spanish school Proyecto Linguistico Quetzaltenengo (“PLQ”) — a school run by a number of local human rights’ activists and former left-wing guerrillas that, in addition to teaching students Spanish, educate students on the politics, history, and economics of Guatemala. Given this mission, it was not too surprising to find a more serious breed of student here than in San Pedro. Of the students I have chatted with, it is common to hear people talking about their length of time studying Spanish on the order of months rather than weeks. Also, whereas most students in San Pedro School were learning Spanish primarily to jumpstart their travels throughout Latin America, students here generally seem to have some more concrete practical application in mind with their Spanish, such as social work on the U.S.-Mexico border, the fulfillment of a graduate school requirement, or public health work in Latin America. Therefore, on my first day of orientation, when I told the group of new students my reason for studying Spanish was to “not sound like a complete gringo when traveling through Latin America,” a slight tug of self-consciousness urged me to add, “and possibly volunteer with Hispanic-speaking communities back in the US.” Although this is not a complete lie (this has been a potential use for my Spanish that has been in the back of my mind), this has hardly been an outspoken desire of mine until this group of socially-conscious lefties motivated me to speak to the more selfless side of motivations. Also of note is the fact over half the students in the school are Americans. After seeing only a half dozen Americans in my first six weeks in Guatemala, this was actually a bit of a shock. It definitely feels nice to be around some more of my fellow countrymen, but, at the same time, I miss the variety of perspectives that a more international group provides.

One feature of PLQ that I appreciate is the fact that teachers rotate every week, a pretty good idea as the number of conversation topics one can cover in broken Spanish with a single human are admittedly limited. My teacher this week was Heber, a 36-year-old Quetzaltecan who spent the first twelve years of his life on a farm in the highlands, which provided the backdrop for a number of the stories he told me throughout the week. These stories usually involved some near-death experience related to climbing trees, dueling with child-weaponized tree branches, or racing on top of goats. This week, Heber was on a mission: shake the gringo out of Ricardo’s Spanish accent. Every few words I spoke, Heber would with interrupt with a playful smile and the words, “No…repite, por favor.” I would then “repite,” trying extra hard to roll my r’s, not pronounce my “h’s”, and lean into my tilde’s with a Don Quixotian flourish. I was rewarded by this effort when the father of my host family announced after my response to one of his questions this morning, “¡Tú Español es mejor después de tus clases esta semana!”

This brings me to my new host family in Quetzaltenango, the Riveras. Lorena and Edwin head the household, which also consists of a daughter in her mid-twenties, a son in his early 20’s, and a grandson of four (embarrassingly enough, I have yet been able to understand how to say their names — I am hoping I can get by for the next week or so without this fact slipping!). The Riveras are not quite as religious as my host family in San Pedro which was in the habit of attending church four times a week. When I asked Lorena and Edwin if they go with their family to church every week, Edwin vigorously responded “Si, si, si!” while Lorena’s mouth dropped open and her head began shaking in playful agitation at this blatant lie. After some more explanation, I discovered that Edwin is Catholic and Lorena is a Protestant, leading me to chalk up Edwin’s response to the universal phenomenon of Catholic guilt. Throughout my stilted Spanish conversations over meals with the Riveras, I have also learned that Edwin worked in Los Angeles for several years as a car mechanic (also his current profession in Xela), which has armed him with several phrases in English. His favorite phrase is, “No pay-en, no gay-en!” which he has never failed to recite to me over breakfast after the morning weightlifting routine in his bedroom. At one point, a weightlifting discussion with Edwin led to a discussion about which foods have protein — something my humble level of Spanish could handle as I quickly rattled off “huevos (eggs), frijoles (beans), and bistec (steak).” After my list, Edwin, grinning from ear-to-ear, responded in English, “Thang gew, my teachurr.” When I initially did not respond, Edwin followed up with some more English, “It’s a yoke, mang!” Since this conversation, Edwin has referred to me (in English) as “my teachurr” and has continued to hit me with “yokes.”

One of my primary motivations for studying in Xela, beyond a desire to explore how far left the socialist winds may blow me, is the fact that there a number of volcanoes to explore nearby. I conquered the first of these — Santa Maria — on Saturday with a group of four other students. Santa Maria peaks out at 3,770 meters (12,375 ft) and was the site one of the largest eruptions in the 20th century in 1902. The climb itself is pretty tough (3,000+ feet) and took us nearly five hours as two of my compañeros struggled with the altitude, slowing the pace to a crawl as we approached the top (quite literally in some points, as the pitch kicked up aggressively enough to require a scramble). Throughout the climb, we were treated to brilliant views of Xela and the plateau below but were disappointed to have a blanket of clouds obscuring the view once we reached the top — on a clear day, apparently you can see eruptions of the neighboring volcano known as Santiaguito. On the peak we also had company in the form of charismatic Christians scattered across the peak. The yelps and wails coming from this group provided an odd bit of background noise as we munched on the lunch that would fuel our descent. After this several hour descent, we returned to Xela in a chicken bus, bouncing our way back to civilization and hot meals with our host families.

Next week, I will be back to my studies with a new teacher and, hopefully, a crisper Spanish accent. Over the weekend, I’ll be looking to tackle another volcano —Tajumulco — the highest point in Central America. Until next time!