Monday, August 27, 2007

Hurray for the Land of Solid Pooh

Imagine my surprise on Wednesday morning at breakfast when someone asked me the date and it was already the 22nd! After some basic math, I realized (thankfully not too late) that my flight home was on Friday rather than Saturday! So after a bit of a late start, (those 4 quetzal drinks at Ladies Night are dangerous I tell you!) I left Emily to continue work on her dissertation in Antigua while I set out solo on a whirlwind two-day trip to Lake Atilan and the market at Chichicastenango via local buses.

Allow me to take a moment to reflect on the local buses, charmingly refered to as "chicken buses" for quite literal reasons...

1) Question: Did you ever wonder where all those big yellow American school buses go to die?
Answer: Guatemala. And while some remain big yellow school buses dutifully carrying school children to and from their academic pursuits (with just the name of the former school district painted over along the side), a majority are converted to use for public transportation. Imagine, if you will, a big yellow school bus. Now gut it, repaint in in bright colors, add a few slogans praising Jesus or God, put luggage racks on the ceiling, a roof rack on top, squish in an extra 3 - 4 benches in each row, lengthen the benches and take off that space-wasting padding, and reduce the width of the aisle to about 8 in. and now you've got a chicken bus. For those of you who have not had the recent pleasure of riding in a school bus, I'll translate: It's freaking cramped! We're talking at least three adults to a bench, not to mention children on laps and people standing in the aisle, with people squashed shoulder to chest next to sleeping, chatting, or even breast-feeding neighbors!

2) Now if you are a foreigner, riding in these local buses is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, you are truly "experiencing" Guatemala in only the way that an old man drooling on your shoulder and a toddler pulling your hair can provide. You are also likely only paying slightly more than the actual cost, and after having asked three separate people to assure you are in fact on the correct bus, are feeling very accomplished at having actually made it onto a bus headed in the right direction! Also, as a foreigner, you've most likely been the last choice as a seat companion, and have therefore earned an extra few minutes worth of space on your bench. Ostracized yes, but also luxuriating in the extra bench room for a good moment or two. On the other hand however, as a foreigner, you likely have much longer legs than the average Guatemalan and in an attempt to squish yourself into your designated space, have lost feeling in one or both of your lower extremities, have pretty much resigned yourself to the fact that your life is in the hands of a bus driver who careens around corners and passes on single lane roads, and finally, if you manage to miraculously doze off, you're abruptly awoken with your head banging on the seat in front of you as the bus flies jauntily over bumps. (Happily though, you're too wedged in between your neighbors to worry about falling side to side.)

3) Other highlights of my bus adventure include meeting my doppelganger (a San Diegan teacher from the Northeast who's teaching at an international school), running into a Hollywood director/compulsive talker scouting shooting locations, purchasing unidentifiable snacks from the vendors who climb aboard the bus during traffic jams, witnessing the bus's tout/steward climb onto the roof of the moving bus to remove some luggage for the next stop, and most excitingly of all, jumping onto an already-moving bus (I AM the original Jason Bourne)!

Upon reaching my destinations the excitement continued! When I finally arrived in Panajachel, on Lake Atilan, and took a boat to the smaller lakeside "town" of San Pedro, I found myself in a maze of dirt paths amongst the fields of the big cash crops there: corn, coffee, and marijuana. (San Pedro is quite the hippie attractant!) Finally finding a hostel, aptly named "Trippy's" and complete with pan-and-spoon doorbell, I pay $2 for the top bunk of a thankfully-dark room. (I don't think I would have slept a wink had I actually been able to see the details of the room. Needless to say, I slept fully clothed that night and used my raincoat as a blanket rather than the one provided.)

My time in San Pedro consisted of more wandering around the maze of dirt paths, escaping the steady downpour of rain, (and the subsequent mud paths,) in a surprisingly modern coffee shop, and leaving the aforementioned coffee shop having completely forgotten to pay for my hot chocolate and snack. (And I didn't even partake of the "Space Cakes"!) After my less-than-fitful night of sleep back at Trippy's, I returned to the coffee shop to slide 200% of the bill under the door with an apologetic note in poor Spanish before catching the boat back to Panajachel (where I again almost forgot to pay in my attempts to escape the persistant tourist agent awaiting the boat's arrival). Let's just say that while Lake Atilan, even covered in clouds, was a gorgeous setting, it was not a relaxing trip overall.

I did manage to make it, via another successful attempt at the local bus system, to the huge market of Chichicastenango to wander around in the rain overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of tourist crafts for sale. I did "bargain" for a bag, which pretty much released the floodgates on my souvenir purchasing to be fulfilled at the market in Antigua before my flight back the next day. (Only later back in Antigua did I find out that I missed a majority of the market, the part the locals actually go to, having had their fill of brightly colored blankets, wooden masks, and hammocks. I take that into account as a further reason to return at some point in the future. The time I actually focus on SPANISH!)

Back in Antigua, I appreciated our immaculate room in the Yellow House where Emily and I were staying. And after a night out with some of our new friends, Emily decided to extend her stay by taking a weekend surf trip to El Salvador while I prepared to return to the land of no rainy season, warm showers, potable tap water, and flushable toilet paper. Nothing makes you appreciate home like a good trip abroad!!!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Back in Antigua, Home Sweet Home (kind of)!

Emily and I made it back to Antigua yesterday after another long trip from La Ceiba. While the river rafting didn't work out (even the tourist offices are closed on Sundays), we had an equally exciting adventure navigating the local buses for the trip back. At one point, we must have looked really confused, because a sympathetic Honduran woman had us follow her as we walked through a local market to take a "chicken bus" to then make a connecting bus. Thanks to her kindness, we made it back to Copan for another evening (mosquito-free!!!) before catching a shuttle back to Antigua the next morning.

I must admit, Antigua now feels very homey. The pure Spanish is a refreshing change from the melodious Spanish/English/Carribean mix that was spoken in Utila. And we continually run into people we've met from our week at the Spanish school here, as well as people from our other travels. On top of it all, I actually can claim I know where I'm going as I walk around the city now. (Not really the case for Em, who still manages to pretty much head the wrong direction about 80% of the time.) I even managed to find the post office this morning on the first try after asking, in Spanish no less, one of the armed guards who vigilantly watches the bank! We also found a very cozy, and immaculate (quite the rarity) hostel here for a pricey $15 a night. We're living it up now!

Sadly, Emily's plan for the week involves writing another draft of her thesis. I, however, after my glorious walk to the post office, am feeling very confident and am planning a two-day trip via local buses to some villages around Lake Atilan, and a sprawling market at Chichicastenango. At least I'll have a few days leeway in case I get stuck somewhere along the route before our flight out on Saturday.

As for the hurricane update, no signs of it here so far, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed. Emily's still in denial regardless of how many texts she gets per day from concerned friends and family. You gotta love her...

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Utila, Bay Islands, Honduras

Hello from Utila, renowned scuba diving island off the coast of Honduras! After a good 48 hours of transportation in everything from shuttle, to taxi, to bus, to ferry, we made it to the Bay Islands. We spent a night in Copan Ruinas along the way, to visit Mayan ruins with a multitude of intricately-carved stelea along the way, which broke up the trip nicely. (We have a lovely photographic documentation of the dozens of stelea, which we hope to bore you all with in the future.) It even made the 4 am shuttle worth it, despite me having the fold-out seat next to the door, which basically required me to extend an arm out to prop myself up with every left turn that we made, to prevent myself from falling into the pit in front of the door. Emily was highly entertained from her cushy seat behind mine.

As for Utila though, yes, Emily's in heaven. She's already decided that if she ever needed to leave San Diego, this would be the place she'd choose to come. Ever since we got here on Wednesday she's been scuba diving. She's finished her Advanced PADI course and had a thrilling night dive last evening during which all but one of her group's flashlights failed. Doesn't that sound like fun? (And to think it took us 2 hours of hiking around with our packs in 100 degree heat plus humidity to find this particularly safe dive shop!)

I, on the other hand, sucked it up and had my first (and last) Discovery Scuba adventure yesterday. Not to say that it wasn't fun, but I just found myself preoccupied with breathing and clearing my air passages the entire time. Kind of took away from the tranquil joys of a beautiful reef teaming with aquatic wildlife. (I have also just regained a full sense of hearing a good 24 hours later.) After my 30 min intro to scuba diving via flip-chart, it was all hands-on from there, jumping on in with my one-on-one instructor (to give Anke credit, she was very attentive) to practice the unnatural feat of breathing underwater. I will definitely admit to a lot of anxiety, but none the less, am glad I had the experience, if for no other reason than I can now definitively state that SCUBA diving is not for me.

Other than the joys of SCUBA diving Utilia offers, most of our time here has been spent swatting at mosquitoes. They are everywhere. And I haven't had this many itchy bites since... well... junior year of high school after my cousin's outdoor wedding reception. Let's just say it was memorable. I've decided that if I get one more itchy red lump on my right foot I'm just going to have it amputated. Not really, but I've actually given it some consideration. (As a side note, I´m sorry to any future three-headed babies I may have, the 100% DEET repellent was just too alluring.)

For one night, we tried to escape the mosquitoes by staying on a tiny remote key off Utilia, Jewel Cay. While Emily went SCUBA diving I declined the offer to watch one of the dive shop hotel's many pirated DVDs in favor of exploring the island. Well, a good 10 minutes later I found myself back at the hotel, having explored both Jewel Cay, and the neighboring cay. (No wonder the dive master seemed a bit surprised/hesitant when I told him my plans for the day.) I spent the rest of my day ouside in the shade, trying to capture the colorful dive-bombing pelicans on video. It never happened, I'm sad to say, but was quite a sight. Later, I dragged Emily onto a double kyack to explore the island again. Only this time, it took a bit longer cause we had to fight the current on the way back. And by "we", I mean mostly me. She prefers floating along underwater with an occasional kick of her flippered-feet and doesn't understand why anyone would actually enjoy the strenuous activity involved in rowing. To give her credit though, she did pick up her paddle again when we started to drift backwards, despite my efforts to head us in the opposite direction. Despite this difference in preferences, Emily and I have decided we make very good travelling companions. Her self-proclaimed "sloth" in the area of personal hygiene is balanced perfectly by my poor sense of smell! (I´ll get her to post an entry yet, even if it is just in retaliation!)

In the way of fine dining, Emily tasted (she swears) the best pizza she ever had yesterday. It kind of had a tortilla-like crust. I attribute her swooning over the pizza to the fact that she's been hesitant to eat anything since her 36 hour illness in Antigua, though it was pretty good. Meanwhile, I've been trying out the seafood, as we're on a fishing island, which has also been good. The nightlife here however, actually exists! We discovered an amazing mosaic-covered treehouse labrynith last night called Treetanic, which Emily and I both agreed, is hands-down the coolest bar we've ever been too. We're going back today to get photos.

As for our upcoming plans, despite Hurricane Dean off the coast of Puerto Rico and Emily´s denial about it´s existence (even after she rode on a boat of evacuees!), we plan on ferrying back to La Ceiba tomorrow morning to possibly do some white-water rafting there before heading back to Guatemala via the complicated system of buses that got us here. We'll keep y0u updated!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Too Busy to Blog!

Hi all! I´m kind of embarrassed that after my first blog and email to everyone that I´m only getting to my second post now, a whole week later, but that´s just a sign of how busy we´ve been! Also, at the time, I thought Emily would be contributing to the writing process, but it looks like I get to be the sole author of this one. I suppose that is a warning... but enough with the excuses, here it is:

Our first week of one-on-one Spanish was, to some degree, a success. Hablo un poco mas espanol que quando la semana comienzo. Well, you get the idea. My teacher, Gladys, really liked to chat (we´re talking 5 hours a day) about everything under the sun, from her 2 year old son discovering the anatomical difference between hombres and mujeres, to the upcoming political election next month and the use of the propaganda being slipped under her door as wonderful paper airplane material. (The other major forms of propaganda, trucks with huge posters of the candidates driving around blasting ranchero music with altered political lyrics, and everything from walls to rocks painted with different party´s symbols is also very entertaining.) I did my best to follow along and get the gist of what she was saying. I could definitely use another, oh... say 51 weeks of Spanish before I´m actually fluent though. I´m hoping to take some more classes next week, but we shall see. I´m being entinced from my initial priority of learning Spanish by all the amazing travel adventures possible from here!

My homestay was fun. While not quite the immersion experience I had hoped for, (another student staying with my same family in the tenth week of his classes proclaimed Day One that he was ¨over speaking Spanish¨,) it did give me a glimpse into Guatemalan food, culture, and family life. I ate three meals a day with varying members of the family, trying my best to communicate with my limited Spanish. They were all very patient listeners (even if seemingly-forced into it by their mother) and helped me out whenever they could. And for that, I am eternally thankful. Emily, on the other hand, ended up staying in the student housing after all, which proved to be a wonderful way to meet other student/travellers. Together we had the best of both worlds.

The one drawback of the homestay, however, was the issue of nighttime activities. Antigua, unlike most of the other cities I´ve travelled too, is not very safe. Stories of robberies and violence, as well as warnings about walking alone at night (note the suspicious red pool on the sidewalk this morning), made it inconvenient to really explore the nightlife here fully. Luckily for Emily though, she had a group of willing students at her house to get a taste of the night life here. For a week at least, I could live vicariously through her.

Our afternoons here have been busy for both of us. Activities included hiking an active volcano (we´re talking lava flowing inches away from you and melting the soles of your shoes), biking around the cobblestone streets of the pueblos surrounding Antigua, playing soccer against the teachers at our language school, learning to salsa, and for Emily, working on her thesis. Fun, fun, fun... except for that last one. We also had an opportunity to witness Volcan de Agua erupting, apparently a rare treat. It was pretty amazing. Unfortunately, my photos of a blur of red in a sea of black don´t do it much justice. We´ve also enjoyed exploring Antigua and the surrounding areas with some of our fellow travellers. Antigua is very much a tourist destination town with gringos galore. But if that means having access to tourist-friendly food preparation, movies in English, and Internet around every other corner, I´m fine with that. It also makes for some easy weekend adventures, compliments of the dozens of welcoming travel agencies with competing cheap travel options.

This weekend we took advantage of one of those options with a trip to Semuc Champey. It´s a tiny area east of Antigua where there are colorful pools of water spilling into each other and dark caves to explore. The trip was made all the more exciting because we really had only a very vague idea of what was going on the entire weekend. Hiking down steep paths of mud in flip flops, riding in the back of pick-up trucks winding down gravel paths to who knows where, ordering some definitely sketchy meals... It was pretty much like, ¨here, hold this rope and climb down this waterfall¨ and then, ¨take this candle, swim through this cave and then do a little jump down this dark hole of rushing water¨ only in Spanish, so you never really knew if you were translating this information correctly. Talk about motivation to be an attentive listener! Kind of scary, but definitely exhilerating in an I-could-probably-die-at-any-moment kind of way. And we didn´t even have to sign a single waiver. (Toto, I don´t think we´re in Kansas any more.) Luckily, we made it through the experience with no up-close encounters with the bats, and only some minor bruises, scrapes, and bites. Emily did manage to literally step in a big pile of BS though, and I have the early symptoms of tetnus and malaria in the back of my mind...

Tomorrow we set off for Copan, Honduras by shuttle bus, lured by the prospect of Mayan ruins and the beauty and fantastic scuba diving opportunities of the Bay Islands. Emily´s a bit under the weather today (she thinks it was lunch at the rest stop yesterday) but is determined to be fine by tomorrow after a full day´s rest. I´m trying to decide if I should take the plunge and get scuba certified. We shall see...

Sunday, August 5, 2007

San Diego to Antigua, Guatemala

Despite the flurry of last minute planning (Friday afternoon the day before our flight Emily suddenly decides that she´s no longer comfortable with the let´s-just-go-and-see-when-we-get-there attitude), we managed to arrive in Antigua this morning safely and, while sleep-deprived, soundly, with not only a ride to Antigua, but also a place to stay, and a week of Spanish instruction at a school here ( Thank you, thank you, cheers to last-minute planning in true Jucovics style. (I´m taking a bow as I type.)

And while we´d heard numerous stories of highway robbery and the likes in Guatemala, the largest challenge we´ve faced so far was getting to LAX from San Diego to catch the flight. Thanks to Eli´s debatedly-reckless driving, Milagros´s savy Internet skills, and the knowedgeable and efficient Greyhound employees (¨just go pick-up the red phone¨), we made it to LAX. (As a side note, all our fellow-passengers on the Greyhound HAD their noses completely intact and it was a very pleasant ride! Thank you very much for the scary stories and unnecessary anxiety though.)

Here in Antigua we´ve spent most of our time so far sleeping. (Emily´s actually an impressively sound sleeper, through a political rally/parade and all!) The family I´ll be doing my homestay with (and Emily will too, judging from our first impressions so far, the delightful smells emanating from the kitchen, and her lack of interest in being proactive with her planning) seems very friendly and even more importantly, very patient with my massacre of their language. We did manage to wander out long enough to get a feel for the town and find food, water, an ATM, and the Internet. Emily´s already been wooed by all the travel agencies here and if it were up to her, we´d be spending each day in a different country. True, the options are all amazing, and travel here seems like it will be fun and cheap. We´re looking foward to some volcano hikes, bike tours, surf beaches, white water rafting, Mayan ruins, exciting border crossings... and of course, Spanish 101.