Wow, I just realized how long it’s been since I’ve updated my blog. This is the problem with these things: they require time and attention (not to mention a good internet connection).
So quick update on the past four months. I spent Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala at the beginning of April, which was a beautiful experience. The pictures speak more than my words can, but suffice it to say that there is a reason that people come from all over to celebrate there.
After that I made my way to Nicaragua, through the colonial cities of Leon and Granada. It was April, which is the hottest month in these parts, so my stay in both those places was less than pleasant. I also wasn’t particularly impressed by the architecture or the beauty. I was thinking that maybe Nicaragua just wasn’t for me, but then I arrived on Isla de Ometepe, an insanely gorgeous island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, by far the biggest lake in Central America. The island is composed of two volcanoes, one water and one fire volcano, with a sandy beach area that joins the two together. There is something very mystical and special about it that I could feel immediately.
I stayed a hostel/ecological farm for about a week or so, and through them found out about a new project nearby. I went to check it out and fell in love with the place. It’s called InanItah, and it’s a spiritual and earth based community, with yoga, meditation and tantra classes, and ongoing work in the organic garden and on natural building projects. I felt immediately at home and have found such peace and clarity in this place. For me it’s been the perfect space to do a lot of inward looking and to dive in deep to the truth of who I really am. I’ve been doing a work-trade here for the past few months by helping with their website and doing lots of natural building with cob.
Will write more as my life adventure unfolds!!
After four weeks in Northern Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador, I am back in Antigua for Semana Santa, or Holy Week, which is the biggest holiday in Central America. Everyone gets off work, and the beaches are packed with families from the city. Antigua is probably the best place to be for Semana Santa in all of Central America, so I tried to plan my trip around it. Every day there are processions, and people work all day creating intricate fombras (designs made of saw dust and flowers) on the streets throughout the city. Antigua is packed with people, and most hotels are booked at least four months in advance, Luckily, I am able to stay with the same family I stayed with while I was studying, which is fantastic for two reason. First, because it is a lot less expensive (even a dorm room in a hostel can go for $45 a night during Semana Santa, and living with my family is $75 per week, including all my meals) and second, because I get to see how a real Guatemalan family celebrates this important holiday. My family has relatives coming from far away to stay with them during the week, and on Thursday we are going to make some of the postres tradicionales that they eat during Easter.
But I need to go back a bit and catch up on the last four weeks. After leaving Antigua the last time, I made my way up to Lanquin, which is located in Alta Verapaz, the region between Tikal in the north and Guatemala City in the south. This region is stunning, and boasts a rich Mayan culture and the gorgeous national park of Semuc Champey. I stayed at El Retiro Lodge in Lanquin, which is a short 45 minute ride away from the park. The hotel was situated next to a river, and had a sauna, quant little cabins, and an overall rustic feel about it. At El Retiro they did big family style dinners, each night changing the theme, whether it was Italian or International or Guatemalan, and we all would line up at the buffet, pile our plates high, and stuff ourselves silly.
On the second day I signed up for the tour of Semuc Champey. I’m not usually big on tours or tour groups, but this one was really nice. First we hiked up to a viewpoint to look down on the turquoise pools of Semuc Champey, and then went down to cliff jump between the pools, which cascade down the hillside. Afterwards we went tubing on the river and then toured the nearby Kan’ Ba Caves, which was one of the coolest things I have ever done. The only light you have to guide you through the caves is a stumpy candle in your hand, and at some points you have to tread in water up to your neck while trying not to get your candle wet.
After three nights in Lanquin, I took a shuttle to Rio Dulce, which was a windy, bumpy ride along an unpaved road that passed next to Lago de Izabel, the biggest Lake in Guatemala. The lake empties into Rio Dulce, from which I took a 2 hour boat ride down to Livingston on the Pacific Coast. During the boat ride I saw the Castillo de San Felipe, a Spanish fortress built to protect the Lake from English pirates.
Livingston is a small town on the Pacific coast which has a unique population of black Caribbean people, or Garifunas. There wasn’t a lot going on there, so one night was more than enough, and I hopped on a boat to Puerto Barrios, and then on to Belize. On the second boat ride I sat next to two really cool French Canadians named Rita and Marc, who I ended up traveling with to Placencia, a gorgeous beach town in the south of Belize. The plan was that I would meet my friend Susie (who I had studied with in Antigua) in Placencia because her birthday was the following day.
As a former British Colony, they speak English in Belize, as well as Criol (English with a heavy Caribbean accent, which is pretty much impossible to understand). Many people are of African descent, but there are also populations of Mayans, Chinese, and Mennonites. It’s also the most expensive country in Central America, so I wasn’t planning on staying too long.
I found Susie in Placencia, and we had a great time on her birthday with Rita and Marc at a local bar with live music. We met this raucous group of about 20 people from the UK who were all working on the private yacht of some incredibly wealthy Russian guy. They were responsible for running the boat and entertaining his guests, and had been all over the world with him on his HUGE boat (which I gawked at the next day when I saw it in the harbor). It made me wonder how they found such a job, and why I hadn’t thought of it before. See the world as crew member on gorgeous private yacht? Yes, please.
After a couple of days of soaking up sun in Placencia, Susie and I decided to check out Tobacco Key, one of the many little islands in the Belizean Barrier Reef, which is the second largest reef in the world, and stretches practically the whole length of Belize. Tobacco Key was incredible. If you stand in the center of it, it takes about a minute to walk to the water in any direction. There are no roads, no cars, no motorcycles. People don’t even ride bikes because it’s too small. It is surrounded on all sides by the reef, and we only had to walk out the door and jump in the water to go snorkeling. The locals were incredibly friendly and laid back, and you know them all within 15 minutes of arriving. In short, it was paradise.
After four supremely tranquil days in Tobacco Key, we pretty much got kicked out of the hotel we were at because it hadn’t rained in a while and they ran out of rain water (thus water for showers, cooking, etc.). So they closed up shop and Susie and I moved on to Flores, a pretty little town near the ruins of Tikal in Northern Guatemala. Susie left and went on to Mexico the next day, but I stayed to see the ruins.
At 4 a.m. I woke up to go to Tikal so I could be in the ruins as the jungle was waking up. In a stoke of luck, I met a guy on the bus who was a Mexican archaeologist and specialized in reading Mayan hieroglyphics. I hadn’t wanted to pay for a guide, and instead I got the best guide ever, for free! He knew all about Mayan history and culture, and could read the inscriptions and explain to me what each glyph meant. He pointed out the glyph that represented the Tikal royal family (hair tied in a knot) and suddenly I could recognize it everywhere. It was an incredible experience.
After leaving Tikal I made my way to Utila, an island off the coast of Honduras, where I was planning to learn how to scuba dive. After a nauseating hour-long boat ride during which many people were throwing up, I arrived in Utila and was greeted by people from several different dive schools trying to give me information about their dive programs. One of them was this very cool guy Alex, who at first glance looked Honduran (and he is) but spoke with a thick Boston accent. I decided to follow him to Paradise Dive shop, which turned out to be a fantastic decision.
A lot of backpackers come to Utila to learn how to dive, so there are about 10 different dive shops that offer comparable training and ammenities. Paradise was one of the cheapest, and I paid $238 for an open water diving certification, which included my accommodation for the 9 nights that I stayed there, and three free fun dives after I’d been certified. My diving instructor, Adrien, was a Dutch guy who had been coming to Utila for 15 years to teach diving and spoke fluently in five languages. My class consisted of me and only one other person.
Diving is definitely quite scary at first. It feels awkward putting on all this heavy gear and at first it feels unnatural breathing underwater. But after a few dives I felt comfortable and then, if anything, it was meditative. All you can hear is the sound of your own breathing, and you just float around and stare at all these beautiful fish and sea creatures. One of my fun dives was to the Black Hills, which is basically a huge mountain in the middle of the ocean, not on the reef like most of the dive sites. During the whole dive I was surrounded by giant, beautiful schools of fish. I also spotted a barracuda!
I was having such a nice time in Honduras, it was very hard for me to tear myself away. But I had made plans with Brenna (one of the girls I had lived with in Antigua) to meet her at the beach in El Salvador for the weekend. I passed through San Salvador (the capital of El Salvador) on the way to the beach. From hearing people talk about it, I thought it would be really scary and ugly. Granted, I only saw it from the bus window, but I what I saw was some pleasant-looking little parks and cute neighborhoods, and I was thinking to myself that I wouldn’t mind spending a couple of days there.
Playa El Tunco was quite packed, as people from Guatemala and El Salvador were already flocking for the beaches there for Semana Santa. There were a lot of gringos surfing, but it was really the locals who were doing most of the partying. I got caught up in the Millenium Trilogy, a crime thriller by Swedish author Stieg Larsson, and passed the days away laying on the beach or swinging in a hammock.
Now I’m back in Antigua, trying to get all of the little boring things I need to done (like writing my blog, haha) and celebrating Semana Santa. The day after Easter next week I’m leaving for Nicaragua. It will be sad to leave Guatemala. After seeing Belize, Honduras, and San Salvador, Guatemala is still my favorite.
Next blog update: Nicaragua!
I can’t believe it’s already been over a month since my last post!
After leaving Xela, I headed down to Monterrico, which is a quiet beach town on the Pacific Coast. Monterrico is not exactly what I expected. It is a popular place for rich Guatemalans to spend the weekend, but during the week the place is quite deserted. I had originally thought about maybe doing Spanish school there, but when I investigated schools, the only one in town boasted only one other student, and I thought I might die of boredom if I attempted to spend a week there.
I met a friendly couple from England while I was in Monterrico and we had a fantastic evening with some of the other travelers in our dorm playing Apples to Apples and dancing the night away under the full moon on the beach. Sarah and David were studying Spanish in Antigua and they highly recommended their Spanish school for both the quality of instruction and the price. I decided it was best to return to Antigua with them to study Spanish there, accompanied by this really bubbly Australian girl named Susie and a few other travelers.
My new homestay in Antigua was a lot better than my previous homestay in Xela. I felt very welcome in their home, and my room was spotless and decorated really nicely with paintings of Antigua. My old room was basically an uninsulated attic in the top of the house with bed bugs that ate my alive every night. The food at the new place was also fantastic, and included fresh fruit, avocado, beans, fried plantains, and tortillas at most meals. My host mom and I would sit and talk for hours during every meal, and she actually seemed to enjoy speaking to me in my broken Spanish.
My new teacher Rodrigo is the best teacher that I have had so far. He has 26 over years of experience teaching Spanish, and started teaching at my school during the 80s. He draws pictures to help me understand the relationships between the various verb tenses, which works well for me since I’m such a visual learner. He’s a smiley big guy who loves telling jokes and he makes the four hours of class pass by quickly.
This past weekend the students in my house were invited by my host family to come to Coban with them for a family vacation. The mom, Guadalupe, is from Antigua, but her husband Jose is from a small town near Coban, which is located about 5 hours north of here. They are a young family with three children under six. Demaris is five years old, and is one of the most extroverted, energetic kids I’ve ever met. They also have a 2 month old baby, and a one-year-old girl named Kimberly, who for reasons I still don’t quite understand lives with Jose’s family in Coban instead of her mother and father in Antigua.
Going up to Coban with the family meant that Susie and Brenna and I could experience Guatemala in a way that most tourists don’t get to. The small town that Jose is from never sees foreigners, and we were the first students that my host family has ever invited to stay with their family. I loved his whole family, but his younger sister in particular seemed thrilled to have other girls around (she has four brothers and no sisters), and was excited to dress us up in her traditional Mayan clothing.
On Saturday the family took us to their small plot of land nearby where they grow food for the family, dry corn for tortillas, and swim in the nearby river. On Sunday we dressed in the traditional huipile (embroidered top) and corte (skirt) and went to the Evangelical church next door with the family. It took a collective effort to understand what was being said during the service.
In the afternoon the family took us some nearby caves and a small (chilly) river that had spectacular waterfalls which you can climb up and up for days.
Now I’m back in Antigua, and am going to leave to go to Lanquin tomorrow to see the caves at Semuc Champey. Afterwards I will travel on to Livingston, which is a town on the Caribbean coast that is supposed to have a unique Garifuna culture. Then on to the Bay Islands in Honduras, Caye Caulker in Belize, over to Tikal in Northern Guatemala, and then back to Antigua for Semana Santa (holy week)!
You can see more photos at my flickr page.
I´ve been really procrastinating sitting down to write a serious update. Sitting in front of a computer to write just doesn´t sound like that much fun when there are so many cool things to explore outside!
Guatemala has been amazing so far. I landed in Guatemala City two weeks ago after an overnight flight in which I didn´t sleep at all. I decided to go straight to Antigua from there, which is an easy two hour taxi ride from the city. Antigua is quite possibly one of the most picturesque towns ever. It´s touristy, but touristy in the way that Florence or Venice is touristy, and you still can´t help but love it. Antigua is a colorful colonial city with cobblestone streets and a gorgeous central plaza that is the main gathering point for everyone in town. The Central Plaza is the best place for people watching, and I would go there a lot of days and pretend to read while peering over my book at the people walking by.
Antigua is also a great jumping off point for a lot of people that are traveling throughout Guatemala or Central America, so there is an air of excitement as people get ready to embark on incredible adventures. It´s definitely a party town, which I was totally into for that first six days.
From Antigua, most people do a trip to the Pacaya Volcano, which is one of three active volcanoes in Guatemala. I booked a day trip up to the volcano with two really awesome Austrian guys that I was hanging out with my first couple of days in Antigua. The hike has some of the most spectacular scenery ever, and when you get to the top you can literally touch the lava that is flowing down the side of the volcano.
Antigua is a super popular place to go to Spanish school, but since there are so many ex-pats and travelers who speak English there, I decided that doing Spanish somewhere where I would be forced to use it more would be a lot more beneficial. I decided to go to Quatzaltenango, the second biggest city in Guatemala, which is located in the Western Highlands, a mountainous region 4 or 5 hours to the west of Guatemala City. This region is where most of the Mayan people live, and in the small villages surrounding Quatzaltenango, many people wear the traditional dress and speak their own indigenous languages and very little or no Spanish.
Before heading to Quatzaltenango, I made a stop over for three nights at Lake Atitlan, a stunning lake between Antigua and Quatzaltenango that is surrounded by volcanoes. Among the numerous amazing people that I met in Antigua were two girls who were just finishing the exact reverse of my trip (they started in South America and worked their way north). We really hit it off, so we all traveled together to Lake Atitlan. One of the many villages that surround the island is a place called San Pedro, which is a laid back town with sort of a hippy vibe. We went kayaking, drank wine on the docks, played cards, and just generally had a really mellow great time.
After saying goodbye to Ashleigh and Jamie, I took a rickety chicken bus up to Quatzaltenango. Chicken buses are the standard cheap way to get around in Guatemala, and are old American school buses that are often painted with crazy murals or patterns. After an arduous journey on an extremely windy road in which I was pretty sure the little girl next to me was going to throw up on my lap, I arrived in Xela (the standard nickname for Quatzaltenango). The city has a distinctly different vibe from Antigua, with far fewer tourists and not many people who speak English. Most of the travelers who are here are either doing Spanish school or volunteer work.
Based on a recommendation from a girl I met on the Pacaya Volcano, I decided to enroll in Celas Maya Spanish school, and also to live with a family while I´m studying, so I get more of a true cultural immersion. The family is super nice, and they have three children, two girls, 6 and 12, and boy who is 15. It´s tough though, because between five hours of Spanish class, three or more hours of homework, and speaking Spanish all the time at home, I am speaking very little English.
Yesterday I took a nice break from studying and I took a day trip with two girls I met here in Xela to Los Fuentes Georginas, which are hot springs whose heat source is the Zunil Volcano near Xela. It was my first experience with hot water since arriving in Guatemala (every hostel says that they have hot water, but so far the closest it has been is lukewarm).
My original plan was to stay in Xela and study here for at least a few weeks, but it is so cold here at night that I think I´m going to bail this next weekend in favor of somewhere warmer. I haven´t decided where I am going yet, but there is a beach town on the Pacific Coast called Monterrico that sounds nice, and they have Spanish school, so I´m leaning towards doing that.
Will post pictures tomorrow or the next day. I have to go study and enjoy the rest of my day!
This is my last update before I take off to Guatemala tomorrow. I’m sad for the many faces and voices I won’t be seeing or hearing for a while, but thrilled for the adventure ahead. Below is a poem by Pablo Neruda, followed by the translation in English.
“Adioses” by Pablo Neruda
Oh adioses a una tierra y otra tierra,
a cada boca y a cada tristeza,
a la luna insolente, a las semanas
que enrollaron los días y desaparecieron,
adiós a esta y aquella voz teñida
de amaranto, y adiós
a la cama y al plato de costumbre,
al sitio vesperal de los adioses,
a la silla casada con el mismo crepúsculo,
al camino que hicieron mis zapatos.
Me defundí, no hay duda,
me cambié de existencias,
cambié de piel, de lámpara, de odios,
tuve que hacerlo
no por ley ni capricho,
sino que por cadena,
me encadenó cada nueva camino,le tomé gusto a tierra a toda tierra.
Y pronto dije adiós, ricién llegado,
con la ternura aún recién partida
como si el pan se abriera y de repente
huyera todo el mundo de la mesa.
Así me fui de todos los idiomas,
repetí los adioses como una puerta vieja,
cambié de cine de razón, de tumba,
me fui de todas partes a otra parte,
seguí siendo y siguiendo
medio desmantelado en la alegría,
nupcial en la tristeza,
ni saber nunca cómo ni cuándo
listo para volver, mas no se vuelve.
Se sabe que el que vuelve no se fue,
y así la vida anduve y desanduve
mudándome de traje y de planeta,
acostumbrándome a la compañía,
a la gran muchedumbre del destierro,
a la gran soledad de las campanas.
“Goodbyes” by Pablo Neruda
Goodbye, goodbye, to one place or another,
to every mouth, to every sorrow,
to the insolent moon, to weeks
which wound in the days and disappeared,
goodbye to this voice and that one stained
with amaranth, and goodbye
to the usual bed and plate,
to the twilit setting of all goddbyes,
to the chair that is part of the same twilight,
to the way made by my shoes.
I spread myself, no question;
I turned over whole lives,
changed skin, lamps, and hates,
it was something I had to do,
not by law or whim,
more of a chain reaction;
each new journey enchained me;
I took pleasure in places, in all places.
And, newly arrived, I promptly said goodbye
with still newborn tenderness
as if the bread were to open and suddnenly
flee from the world of the table.
So I left behind all languages,
repeated goodbyes like an old door,
changed cinemas, reasons, and tombs,
left everywhere for somewhere else;
I went on being, and being always
half undone with joy,
a bridegroom among sadnesses,
never knowing how or when,
ready to return, never returning.
It’s well known that he who returns never left,
so I traced and retraced my life,
changing clothes and planets,
growing used to the company,
to the great whirl of exile,
to the great solitude of bells tolling.
Now is this mysterious time in motion in which all things are possible. That which is yesterday is no longer changeable; that which is tomorrow is not yet available; but now is available, and in this nowness anything can be accomplished that we are willing to accomplish.
-Manly P. Hall
After giving up on trying to get to bed early tonight, I sit in front of the computer at my mother’s house in Colorado Springs thinking about the journey that I have ahead of me. I just spent an hour or so looking at my Central America guidebook, and thinking about all of the incredible things I am going to see over the next year or so.
I’ve pretty much settled on going to Antigua first, after flying into Guatemala City on the 12th of January. As it is the city where my parents met and fell in love almost exactly 30 years ago, I feel like it is the most appropriate place to begin my journey.
My thoughts drift from the excitement I feel about the actual trip to the reality of all that I need to get done before I leave. The biggest ongoing internal debate I’ve had so far is over what to bring. One skirt? Two skirts? Fleece? No fleece. I’m sure that no matter what, I will not pack as light as I should, and end up having to ditch unnecessary stuff along the way.
I’ve also made a list of books by Latin American authors that I am planning on reading over the next couple of weeks of downtime to psyche me up for my trip. Among them: The Way to Paradise, The Feast of the Goat, and The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa, World’s End by Pablo Neruda, and Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende. I also ordered A World for Julius by Alfredo Bryce Echenique, Chronicle of San Gabriel by Julio Ramon Ribeyro, and Conversation in the Cathedral by Mario Vargas Llosa from Amazon to bring with me. If anyone has any other author/book recommendations pass them on!
I’ve never managed to maintain a blog for any significant period of time, so if I fall off the updates and you want to hear what I am up to while I’m gone, please don’t hesitate to harass me!