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January 11, 2004

Men in dresses wielding explosives

After my pleasant little vacation-within-a-vacation (warm showers, nice meals my parents paid for, cable TV etc.), I decided to really hoof it back to Guatemala so that I could be on Lago Atitlan for New Year's. The idea was that since I couldn't be with friends for New Year's, I might as well be somewhere pretty. I had imagined going somewhere quiet and spending the turn of the New Year quietly sitting by the lake and reflecting on the year that had passed. I would go to bed early and sober, and actually have a non-hungover beginning to the year 2004.

Um, right...

I did indeed make it to the lake for New Year's, though it wasn't easy. I had to put in two and a half days of solid traveling on boats, chicken buses, and a few tourist shuttles. I finally got to Panahajel, the biggest town on the lake, at 10 in the morning on the 31st. I knew exactly where I wanted to go: the Iguana Perdida, in the village of Santa Cruz. So i hopped in a lancha (small motorized wooden boats which are the primary means of transport on the lake) and headed to the Iguana Perdida in Santa Cruz.

This place had been recommended for its beautiful, quiet location, delicious family-style dinners and friendly atmosphere. When I got there I was shown to the dorm by a Dutch girl who told me she had only been on the lake for three days. Many of the people who worked there were people who had come to stay for a few days and liked it so much that they decided to work there in exchange for room and board.

I could immediately see the appeal - the location was indeed serene and beautiful and the atmosphere was, as the author Douglas Fine wrote of the Iguana, " nearly communal."

However, the serenity was not to last long on the last day of the year. As soon as I got there, I saw that there was an enormous party in the works. A delegation had gone to Pana the day before to buy $100 worth of fireworks (a necessity in any Central American celebration) and there was a box of dresses for the men to wear. Just what you need for a good party: alcohol, explosives and men in dresses.

I volunteered to help make decorations. I was sitting at a table on the veranda, blowing up balloons and making some new friends, when I saw a girl walk up that looked familiar to me. We both did a couble take and then she said "Sarah?!"
It turned out to be an Irish girl named Brenda with whom I'd worked years before. We had become friends that summer, but lost touch when she went home to Ireland. And now, of all the places in the world, we ran into each other on New Year's Eve on Lake Atitlan! It's a strange world.

The party that night was indeed great. I didn't have a quiet, pensive New Year's, but I sang, drank, made friends, ogled the nighttime beauty of the lake, and lit my very first firecracker. It was a good, and fitting, way to spend the New Year.

Posted by sarahr at 03:12 PM
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December 30, 2003

Christmas on the Carribean

After Rio Dulce, I pretty much made a beeline for Honduras. My destination was the Carribean island of Roatan, where I was meeting my family (parents and brother) for Christmas.
I spent a week there with them and it was great. It rained quite a bit, but it was sunny quite a bit as well.
However, pleasant Carribean vacations don't really make for interesting blog entries, so this will be the shortest entry yet...

Posted by sarahr at 02:34 PM
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Hothothot, coldcoldcold

I left Livingston on the 18th. Jonathan and Richard were the only people left from our group, and they came to see me off, which was very nice.
I was tempted to stay longer in Livingston, but I stil wanted to see this waterfall I´d heard so much about, and, for the first time on this trip, I was operating on a bit of a tight schedule - I had to be on Roatan, which is on the Carribean coast of Honduras, to meet my family on the 22nd.
So I headed back to Rio Dulce town. This time I checked into a different hotel. Rio Dulce is the sort of yacht capital of northern Central America, and Bruno´s, where I stayed, is their hangout. It was pretty quiet, since it as still the rainy season, but there were a few people hunkered down, waiting out the cold front that had overtaken this part of the Carribean.
All the yachties were as you´d imagine them - retired American men (and a few women) who would spend all day in the bar/restaurant on the dock, watching DirecTV. However, they were amiable guys and were actually fairly interesting to talk to for an afternoon.
The next day I went to the waterfall. I took a falling-apart bus and got there late morning. At first I took the wrong trail, and wound up walking into someone´s cornfield. I went back and found the right path (only then did I see the big sign and arrow - whoops).
The waterfall was truly amazing. When you come upon it, it just seems like any other waterfall - powerful streams of water cascading into a beautifully clear swimming hole, ringed by boulders and caves. Sounds pretty good, but this waterfall did one better than the cliche, by being fed by a hot spring above the cascade. What this means is that the pool, which is fed by a normal stream, is cool, but the water coming down in the cascades is about 110 F (43ish C). Quite an amazing sensation, especially in a country where it´s difficult to find a good hot shower. I actually brought shampoo and conditioner, and got my hair truly clean for the first time in about a month!

Posted by sarahr at 11:42 AM
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December 21, 2003

Livingston, mon...

The next morning we all pulled ourselves out of bed. I was feeling pretty awful. I'd gone to bed relatively early (midnight, which is late here), but got repeatedly woken up by an obnoxious girl screaming into her cell phone. Ah, dorm life.
Everybody was planning to go in different directions that day. I was planning to stay in Rio Dulce and see the "hot springs waterfall," the local wonder. The others had seen it the day before. Some were going back to Antigua, some were headed south. Johann (from Germany) and Richard (from the UK) were the only ones planning to go to Livingston, an Afro-Carribean town on the Carribean, reachable only by boat. They had talked to a lancha driver, who was going to pick them up at 9 (the hostel was on the water and had its own dock). The more they talked about the 4-hour boat ride, the more people from our group decided to go.
Finally, I was the only one still planning to stay in Rio Dulce another day. But ten minutes before the lancha was to leave, I succumbed to peer pressure and decided to go as well. I had wanted to go to Livingston anyways, and I figured I might as well go with a good group of people that I was already having a lot of fun with. So I hurriedly stuffed my posessions into my backpack. As it was, I was the last person to leave the dorm. As I was putting my backpack on, I heard a roaring "SARAH!!!!" from the dock - everyone else was on board and ready to go.
The trip was really stunning. The Rio Dulce is a very historically important body of water- for a long time it was the only accessible way to reach most of Guatemala from the Carribean. This also made it vulnerable to pirates, who would sail up the river to ransack Guatemalan towns. So the Spanish built a fort on an island in the middle of the river, which we, like good little tourists, got off to see.
The river itself is hemmed in by mountains on either side, which, as we got closer to the Carribean, got closer and closer until we were traveling down an impressive gorge, towering, jungle-clad cliffs on either side.
Finally we turned a corner and there was the Carribean, sparkling blue and wide open.
We got off the lancha and were immediately besieged by five young, dreadlocked hustler guys ("Jamaica by way of New York" was how Jonathan quite aptly summed up their look and demeanor). They whisked us off to a dumpy but serviceable and friendly little hotel, where each only paid about $2.50 for our beds in rooms with a private bathrooms. The things that seem amazingly luxurious when you´re on the road. A bathroom i only have to share with two other people? Yippee!
A few of us went for a walk around the town, which was small, friendly and had a great feeling. We had all heard horrible things about the town (dirty, dangerous, nothing to do...) and were universally pleasantly surprised by how great it was. True, it´s no Carribean paradise (it doesn´t even have a beach, really), but there was something just really nice about it. People were genuinely friendly and laid-back, the culture was different, and the seafood was amazing. That night we had a seafood feast - fried fish, enormous grilled fish, fish soup, and more shrimp than we knew what to do with.
I spent a few very pleasant days in Livingston. After the first day of sun, it rained the next couple of days, so we just spent most of the time sitting around and shooting the shit and meeting some of the strange characters that populate Livingston. For instance, there was the tall, 40-ish rasta guy who kept trying to hustle us. His most distinguishing characteristic was that he would randomly insert the word "Africa" into every sentence (i.e., "you want any - Africa! - ganja, just let me know, Africa!"). After that, whenever we ran into him, he would call out "Africa!"
The first day we were there, we had stumbled upon this Mexican-Indian restaurant. Actually, the owner, a very gregarious Mexican woman, practically chased us down the street with her menu. She told us that she was from Mexico but had lived in India for years and could cook real Indian food. We decided to have a cup of chai and were very impressed - it could have been from a chai stall in India.
Anyways, nothing very eventful happened in Livingston, but it was a nice few days, and I was glad I went.

Posted by sarahr at 06:37 PM
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So, THIS is that Gringo Trail They're Always Talking About!

For most of this trip I've been traveling alone. "Well, duh," you might say. "We know that." But this has actually been a bit of a surprise. In Asia, I was always traveling from place to place with other people. However, here in Central America, my route seems to be different from most other travelers. So I'll usually find people to hang out with while I'm in a place, but then separate when I or they leave.
But after I left Flores, I realized that this was no longer the case. When I got to the Finca, I ran into some people I'd seen in Flores or at Tikal. And once I left the Finca, it was as if I was traveling in a big international caravan.
I actually left the Finca alone. My plan was to go to Rio Dulce, the next town south. A group of people I'd been hanging out with had left the day before for Rio Dulce, and there was another group leaving that afternoon after me, but I was craving a bit of independence.
I got it for about four hours, at which point I ran into all the people who had left the Finca the day before. They were staying at the same hostel in Rio Dulce, of course. It was a really good group of people - two Dutch guys named Jeroun (of course!), one Jeroun's girlfriend, Milen, an Austrian girl named Astrid (who works for Greenpeace at home! Small world!), an American guy named Jonathan (who's from DC, where I lived while working for Greenpeace), and a Swedish girl named Katrine. They had been joined that day by a Brit named Richard and a German named Johann. Um, small group. Needless to say, we kept the bar open very late.
As if that weren't enough, two other groups had left the Finca that day and ended up at the same hostel. It was the only hostel in Rio Dulce. But really, still. The whole thing was pretty funny.
And I'm not even using the Lonely Planet!

Posted by sarahr at 06:33 PM
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December 16, 2003

Paradise Ain't Cheap

After Tikal, I headed for the Finca Ixobel, a legendary traveler's spot. Everybody who'd been there insisted I had to go. I heard about the amazing food, congenial atmosphere, comfortable acommodations and beautiful surroundings and decided I'd check it out for a night or two.
I got there around 4 in the afternoon the next day. I have to say, I was duly impressed. I'd expected a primitive grouping of huts and treehouses in the jungle. Instead, it was a well-organized, low-budget resort.
It was started 20 years ago by an American couple, on a farm. They turned the farm organic and opened a lodge. In 1990, the husband was killed by government paramilitaries as part of the Civil War. This, incidently, was what finally convinced the American government to suspend (temporarily) military aid to Guatemala.
However, his wife has kept the place going and built quite an institution. I wound up spending 3 days there, hanging out with other travelers, eating healthy food and spending too much money. The clever thing about the Finca is that you don't pay for anything as you go - you write everything down and pay at the end. Sounds nice, but it's dangerous!
Anyway, the three days there were very nice. The Finca attracts some great people, and it was nice to just relax and speak English for a few days.
If you're in Guatemala, I would suggest stopping off there. Here's the website -

Posted by sarahr at 02:12 PM
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December 14, 2003

Pyramids in the Mist

After I recovered from the bad chicken (what a great opening line!), I headed to Flores, in the north of Guatemala. It's a relatively long journey, but the road is probably the best in Guatemala, and I took an express bus, so it only took 8 hours.
I passed the time reading, listening to music, looking out the window, and desperately trying to avoid watching the C-movies they showed on-board. I had never heard of any of them, but they were all of the big-explosion variety. One seemed to be about an elite group of paramedics that served to take care of the emergency needs of the NYPD and no one else. No wonder people in Central America have such a warped perception of American life.
Anyway, my primary reason for going to Flores was to visit Tikal, the largest and, apparently, most impressive of the Mayan ruins. To get there, I got on a 5 AM tourist bus. I was hoping to get there in time to see sunrise from the top of Pyramid 4 (imaginatively named, huh?).
I got there at six thirty. Incidentally, if you're wondering why I wrote that in longhand, it's because this computer seems to have no colon or semi-colon key. Ah, the vagueries of Central American keyboards. To get the symbol @, I have to type ALT+46.
But I digress. When I got there, the sun had definitely come up, but Tikal was still magical. Mist hung low over the trees, and many of the strange animals that inhabit the jungle around Tikal were out, eating or just making a racket. The strangest-sounding must be the howler monkey, which sounds exactly like the way I imagine a jaguar would sound right before it pounces and rips you to pieces. But it's just a skinny little monkey.
The amazing thing about Tikal is that it's still very much in the middle of the jungle. To get from one ruin to another, you have to walk along these little paths through the forest. You're in the middle of the jungle, and then you get to a clearing and, hey, there are some pyramids!
Probably the best moment I had all day was almost by accident. I was walking along one of the little paths when I saw a sign that said "Punta de Interese," with an arrow pointing towards a small path. Which seemed a bit odd, since, well, isn't it all a point of interest? But I was curious and decided to check it out.
I followed the path to the end, only about 100 feet away. It ended at a ravine, and when I looked across the ravine, I saw that there was a tall, thin obelisk rising out of the jungle on the other side. Something about this sight took my breath away. It sounds silly, but I felt like I was discovering something no one else had ever seen. Never mind that it was marked like a lookout point on an interstate highway, there was something special about the place. Standing there, I understood the importance of Tikal. It was as if that one moment made me realize the historical weight of this site.
And then I went to the Mundo Perdido and played with funny-looking raccoons.
I don't know what these animals are called, but they're sort of the unofficial mascots of Tikal. They look like raccoons but they have long tails that stick straight up, and they're cute as hell. They're also not shy - I think a lot of people feed them.
At the end of the day, I was exhausted. I played a few rounds of cards with some other people in my hostel, and went to bed early.

Posted by sarahr at 06:24 PM
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December 12, 2003

Finding a place to rest my weary head

After I left Xela, I went back to Antigua and discovered that it is actually kinda boring. The only interesting thing is that I never seem to be able to find a decent hotel quickly. The first time I wandered around for an hour and a half at night before I stumbled upon a very nice hostel called, amusingly enough, Jungle Party.
This time, I headed straight there. One of my main reasons for stopping off in Antigua was that I wanted to unload some of the handicrafts I had bought in Xela and Momo. I already had stuff at the hostel there, so I figured I'd just add more.
However, when I got there, the door was locked, and no one answered when I knocked. I must have banged on the door for at least five minutes when a neighbor funally came out and told me that it was closed and I should come back the next day. I'd wanted to leave the next morning, but apparently that wouldn't be possible. And I would have to find another place to stay! I went to three other places in the neighborhood, but they were all full. Finally a guy came along and asked if I was looking for a place to stay (maybe it was the pack on my back, the guidebook in my hand and the look of desperation on my face that tipped him off?). Usually I brush thse gus off, but I was getting desperate, so I followed him. Three more places that were full or filthy, and then finally he found me a place. And with a kitchen!
When I went back to Jungle Party the next day, it was indeed open, and the woman looked really embarassed that there had been no one there to greet me. But I decided to postpone my departure by a day, because I was having some stomach problems from my dinner the night before. A word of advice: if you're in Guatemala and your chicken tastes funny, don't eat it!

Posted by sarahr at 06:24 PM
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December 10, 2003

Xela - Spanish fun

I started Spanish lessons the next afternoon. Again, I was struck by how fortunate I was yo be the buyer in a buyers' market, able to waltz into town and start lessons the next day. The only concession I had to make was that for the first two days I had to take afternoon classes, from 2 to 7, which are my worst hours. I was promised, however, that the next week I could take classes in the morning.
When I walked into the school on Thursday at 2 and met my teacher, I have to say I was a bit taken aback. He was 22, and totally GQed out (complete with earring, and hip-bound cell phone), in the manner of Centroamericanos who have spent some time in Florida or New York. This stereotype was confirmed when he later told me he had visited friends and family living in Miami several times. By the way, his favorite part of Florida was Disney World.
But beyond the hair gel and Disney fixation, he turned out to be a really good teacher. I found myself learning really quickly, much more quickly than the last time, probably because I had 3 weeks of speaking Spanish under my belt. He was good at mixing boring (but alas necessary) grammar with more interesting conversation.
And once again, the family really made my week memorable. It was a really small family this time - the mom, Rosario, 28, dad, Rudi, 33, and two adorable little kids - Pablo, 5 and Tuti (yes, like the character from "Facts of Life"), 16 months. They were all sweet, and helped me a lot with my Spanish. Except Tuti, whose only word is YUMYUM, preferably yelled at top volume right outside my bedroom at 6 in the morning. Pablo's obsession is Sponge Bob Square Pants. Or as they say here, "Bob Spongha Pantalones."
Like many families here, they are exceptionally entrepreneurial. Not only do they rent two of their rooms to students, but their front room is a cafetin and their other front room is about to be rented to be a photo shop.
My time in Xela was pretty uneventful. On the Sunday I took the bus to Momostenango, to a weekly market there. It was enormous, and I wandered around for hours, fascinated. I didn't see another gringo all afternoon.
Another day, the school had an ex-Guerrilla fighter from the civil war come talk to us. It was obviously very interesting. He had joined the guerrillas when he was only 10 years old, along with his brothers, and spent his entire youth in the mountains. Guatemala's civil war lasted 36 years and was the bloodiest in Central America, a real distinction. Literally hundreds of Mayan communities were completely wiped out. Very sad. The Peace Accords were signed in 1996 and Guatemalans are still recovering. One of the hardest things for everyone is just getting back to normal - people lived with war for so long.
Once again, I really got to like the family and it was sad to leave. I was also really sad to leave Xela. It's a really great city, ful of interesting people and projects. I would really like to come back someday and really devote some time here.

Posted by sarahr at 11:15 AM
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November 29, 2003

Xela - getting there...

I just finished my second week-long, living-with-a-family Spanish language experience of my trip. Originally, I had planned on just settling with my week in Esteli , but I realized that I needed to study more Spanish.
Luckily, Guatemala is widely recognized to be one of the best (if not the best) places in the world to study Spanish. I thought about studying in Antigua, since it was so pretty and pleasant, but I realized that, despite (or maybe because of) the town's pleasant nature, the coffeeshops, trinket stores and tourist restaurants were baking my brain into mush. Not ideal for studying the conditional tense and prepositions.
So I took a bus to Xela, which is somewhat of a Spanish School industry town. Um, actually I took 3 buses to Xela. One sort of inconvenient thing about Antigua is that there are no direct chicken buses from Antigua to anywhere. I had to get a bus to a crossroads town called Chimaltenango half an hour away, then wait by the side of the road for a while. Finally a bus came along that said Xela in big letters on the front. Also, the driver's ayudante (helper) was yelling "Xela, Xela, Xela" at top volume. So call me naive, but I figured the bus was going to Xela and got on.
Since the bus had come from the capital, about 2 hours away, it was already packed with people, produce, baggage and, I'm pretty sure, a cat. I literally shoved my way through and managed to identify a patch of seat near the back after wedging my backpack into one of the overhead racks.
After about a half an hour, though, the bus cleared out a little and I only had one seatmate. His name, unsurprisingly, was Pedro, but surprisingly he had just returned from 5 years living in Queens, New York. I don't think he left willingly and spent most of the ride telling me all the ways that the US was better than Guatemala, with me protesting weakly that Guatemala was beautiful, culturally rich, etc. Kind of a strange argument...
He got off in a small village where he was visiting his aunt for the weekend. Twenty minutes later, the ayudante looked at me and said "Xela, Xela, " indicating that I should get off. I was a bit skeptical and said "terminal?"
"si, si," he nodded vigourously and said something that I, of course, could not understand (hence the going to Xela to study more Spanish).
In retrospect, he might have been saying something like "Silly gringa, you're actually in a town an hour past Xela. Better catch a bus here!" because when I got off, that turned out to be the case. Apparently, the Xela painted on the bus only meant that it went relatively near Xela.
However, it only took ten minutes for another ludicrously overstuffed bus to come along and within an hour I had a bed in a 20-bed dorm in the Casa Argentina, an institution in Xela. Most of the people there seemed to be a part of Xela's significant foreign volunteer community (who rent comfy rooms for $100/month) or backpackers (who are relegated to the dorm). It's an enormous, rambling place with an amazing view of the city an surrounding mountains.
I headed straight into town with the intention of finding a Spanish school. I went first to Sakribal, which had been recommended to me. I liked it, the price was right, and they told me I could start the next day, so I signed up without even looking at any other schools. Lazy? Probably. But the thing is, all the schools use the same teachers, cost about the same amount of money and espouse the same principals of social involvement. It's pretty hard to tell them apart, so I figured that since I liked Sakribal and it had been recommended to me, I might as well go with it.
That night, there was a benefit dinner at my hostel for a group that works with street children. It was a hell of a lot of fun. I ended sitting next to a guy from Cohasset - about 20 minutes from where I grew up.
Then, the next day, I moved out of my hostel and started classes again...

Posted by sarahr at 09:19 PM
View/Add Comments (3) | Category: Guatemala
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