Yesterday, Mike showed me an article on “54 Things Everyone Should Know.” On first glance I saw: you should know how to build a fire without matches, and you should know basic first aid. I was immediately stressed because my first aid card is out of date. And I’m not very good at building a fire with matches. Not even with those lighter-fluid soaked briquettes. Maybe if I wrap a stick of dynamite with kerosene-soaked tissue paper and take a blow-torch to it. Maybe.
I also worry because printing out articles like this could mean Mike is either on the brink of a mid-life crisis or worrying about whether we’re teaching the boys anything worthwhile – either one could mean a busy winter coming up.
Tonight we’re going to brave the torrential rain in order for one last dinner out in Pana. Last night we weren’t so brave, and stayed inside with deli sandwiches from a market pointed out to a few of our party by their Tuk Tuk driver. With expectations of about 10 feet of rain per year, Guatemalan storms don’t waste time with little drizzles, but get down to business. Gutters and streets fill within minutes, and the little gardens outside our room looks like it will fill up like a swimming pool. The rainy season is supposed to be over by now, so this weather is a little odd.
The weather for the most part has been great up until about 3 or 4 pm every day. Today, we ventured out first thing and found our new friend Mario down near the ferries to the western half of the lake. We had negotiated a price with him yesterday to take us to see several of the pueblos of interest: San Marco, San Juan and San Pedro de Atitlan, and a cruise near the shoreline to see several other smaller communities.
Since Colin was sick yesterday, we didn’t venture out as a family. I did take a little trip into the local grocery store, where I had intended to buy papayas, bread and cheese for our lunch. Instead, I got ramen noodles, cookies, juice, eggs, cheese, bread, marmalade and beer. I stayed away from the black cloud of fruit flies that hovered over the produce department and stuck with packaged foods.
Our first instinct was to engage in polite conversation, agreeing that the merchandise is lovely, the highest quality, yes, but we’re not interested now. Maybe later.
Unless you’re moving, the mob doesn’t actually disburse. On our trip to Santiago at one point, we were sitting in the shade, enjoying drinks when about ten women and children descended upon us, with “best price, highest quality for you,” draping scarves and jewelry across our arms. After insisting vehemently that we weren’t interested for about ten minutes, we were able to get them to leave. Three minutes passed before they all came back and we went through the same routine again. Then another person joined our party and the game was on again: the mob descended, we insisted we didn’t want anything, the mob left, then gathered around us again.
In Guatemala, families celebrate birthdays be setting off a barrage of firecrackers and firing something that sounds like a cannon. Either they try to do this as early in the morning as possible, to get a jump on everyone else, or they set them off to correspond with the exact time of birth of the celebrant. In either case, at least 5 people had started celebrating birthdays in Panajachel by 5am this morning. My initial reaction was to wonder if some sort of revolution was starting, and ponder where one could find the American consulate.
All was well, as it turned out, and when the rest of the family was up, we set out to meet up again with Semilla Nueva staff members Anne Barkett and Lauren Brown who planned on joining us on a trip to the village of Santiago Atitlan across the lake from Pana.
Atitlan is about 16 km wide surrounded and surrounded by volcanoes and little towns named after saints or apostles. Panajachel is the largest, apparently named for neither any saint nor apostle that I can think of. Today happened to be October 28, the day of Maximon (Mah-she-mon), who is celebrated mostly in Santiago Atitlan, which is why we decided to go there.
Bright and early Saturday morning, Colin and Jack met Curt in the lobby of our hotel to go machete shopping. You heard me: machetes. I’m told there will be no special requirements to get them through customs in our checked bags, but I have to do a little research to be sure.
From Reu, we set out for the campos again, this time to visit the fields of Gerardo and Carolina in Las Pilas. Last spring they planted two acres of test crops of two different varieties of corn, and today we were going to divide into two teams, harvest specific plots of corn, and compare the samples to see which produced the bigger yield. The results were interesting: a test hybrid that Semilla Nueva introduced last year produced less than the variety this community had been cultivating.
Friday morning we woke up bright and early in Xela to a street scene reminiscent of early mornings in the French Quarter in New Orleans. Xelanians partied quite robustly until about 5 am this morning after their soccer team won in a match against Guadalajara. Our hotel room overlooked the Central Park area, so we made good use of our earplugs – except Colin, who passed out around 8:30 pm and didn’t move all night.
Our hotel breakfast was slow in coming, so we set out on our own to find breakfast and coffee. We found a cafe that advertised a traditional Mayan breakfast for 20 quetzals (about 3 bucks). Mike and I had juevos revueltos (scrambled eggs) with black beans, roasted plantains and sausage. The breakfast was preceded by a milky drink that tasted faintly of tapioca and cinnamon. We found out later it was a corn-based drink called pinol. The boys didn’t care for it, but I thought it was yummy.
Today we drove about 3 and a half hours through the countryside to Quetzaltenango, or Xela (Shay-la) as the locals know it. At a population of about 250,000, Xela is the second-most populous city in Guatemala. We’re at about 7,000 feet above sea level and surrounded by mountains.
Curt tells us that Xela is the only city of any size in Guatemala that retained its native name after the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors.
After touching down in Guatemala City, we met up with the rest of our group and headed out of town to Antiqua. There was not much countryside on the hour-long ride, but here and there the jungle seemed to be reestablishing a foothold.
Antigua is the most popular tourist destination in Guatemala. It was the country’s third capital, founded by Spanish Conquistadors in 1543. It was the seat of the governor of the Spanish Colony of Guatemala for almost 200 years (an area which covered most of Central America and part of Mexico), until an earthquake destroyed much of the city in 1717. Much the the architecture is Spanish Colonial. The streets are treacherously uneven cobblestone.
It’s true. The rule of thumb in Guatemala, if the guidebooks have it right, is: Ask a price, offer something at half that amount, wait to hear what they offer in return, go from there, and be gracious, always realizing that the goods in the markets are often those the merchant or her family has made, and from which they make their livelihood.
It also assumes one has basic math skills. And can figure out the exchange rate of Quetzals to dollars (about 8:1, or 6:1 after you get ripped off by the airport currency exchange), AND isn’t trying to think through all this while translating the conversation from Spanish to English for the benefit of her ten year old.
Tonight the kids are happily gathering their electronic devices and books, extra batteries, packs of gum, and knicknacks they think will keep them entertained on the airplane. Earlier this month, though, they were expressing some anxiety about our upcoming trip.
We’re traveling to Guatemala for a tour of Rotary projects produced by Semilla Nueva, a nonprofit founded by Boise native Curt Bowen, that helps rural communities gain economic independence and rejuvenate their land through hands-on education and collaborative sustainable agriculture projects. We’ll have about four days to explore rural communities and talk to farmers, then a few days on Lake Atitlan, exploring the Guatemalan rain forest and Mayan villages.