Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Yellow Slime and Phosphorescent Sand

All in all, the beach weekend for Steph’s birthday was pretty standard as beach weekends go.  Plenty of sun, relaxation, good conversation, and waves.  But there were a few things that made this weekend worth telling about. 

The first was my introduction to the yellow slime phenomenon of Guatemala/the Paredon Surf House (where we stayed).  We’re not sure what this yellow slime on the water is, exactly—some sort of pollution surely—but every now and then a patch of it would show up on the ocean water and we’d exit the waves to wait for it to wash down the shore.  I don’t know how to explain it—other than icky yellow foam and bubbles floating on the water. 

Thankfully, it was not always present, and for the most part we were able to enjoy the water and the waves.  The beach at Paredon is great because unlike at places like Monterrico, the current is controlled enough that you can usually go into the ocean without fearing for your life.  I spent more time in the water this weekend than I have any other weekend in Guatemala thus far. 

Paredon Surf House

Paredon also offers surf lessons, and before we left I was determined to take one once and for all.  However, as Saturday morning dawned, I began to feel a ball of something close to fear in the pit of my stomach.  When I think of learning to surf, it’s hard to get over the images of the board slipping out from under me, me tumbling in the waves, water filling my nose, and me coming up sputtering and trying to orient myself before the next wave hits.  I am sure that actually catching a wave would be worth it.  But let’s face it; I’m not very coordinated.  So when Amy told me she’d opted out of renting a surf board because the waves looked too strong and that it probably wasn’t great conditions to learn to surf for the first time, I semi-gratefully gave up the notion of surf lessons this weekend.  One day I’ll do it, though.

Walking down towards the beach

The afternoon on Saturday slipped by quickly, and soon it was evening and night had fallen.  After dark, we ventured out onto the sand to gaze at the stars.  We sat in contentment for a while, and then someone piped up, “ooh!  You have to see the glow in the dark sand!  Have you seen it yet?” and we tramped up closer to the water, where the sand was packed down with moisture.  Sure enough, when you disrupt the sand—stomp on it, dig your fingers through it, tiny pin-pricks of light appear.  They have to be the same type of dinoflagellates that make the bio-luminescent bays of Puerto Rico glimmer in the darkness.  I’ve never heard of them living in sand rather than water, but what else could it be?  I did a quick “phosphorescent sand dance” (picture a crude rain dance of sorts—arms extended, head looking at the ground, slightly bent over, stomp feet quickly while turning in a slow circle) and truly delighted in the phenomenon.

Sunday morning we woke with the sun, brushed away our mosquito netting, and went down to a hearty breakfast made by the establishment’s kitchen.  While we were eating, someone brought up the “dorm cat,” and asked if anyone had seen it. 
“Dorm cat?” I asked.
They explained that apparently there’s a mouser that lurks around the Surf House and often sleeps on one of the beds in the dormitory (where we had stayed).
No one had seen it, and we decided the cat hadn’t come in the night before.

And then we went up to our beds to grab sunscreen, and the guy who’d slept in the bed closest to mine saw me and said, “Oh, you had that bed?  Did you know you shared with the cat for part of the night?”
Um, no, I did not know!  And it’s a good thing I didn’t wake up while it was still claiming part of my mattress, because as I didn’t know there WAS a dorm cat, I probably would have freaked out to see a rather large, warm, living body on my bed with me!  (I mean, had I known before going to bed there was a dorm cat and then had woken up to see it, I wouldn’t have minded…but the shock in the middle of the night would probably have driven me to forcibly shove it off the bed and cause a commotion.)

The rest of the morning passed uneventfully.  We took a walk down the beach, jumped in the waves, and relaxed in the sunshine.  On the way home, Danielle and Carla introduced me to a delicious gelato place that is much too close to my house to keep me from frequenting it far too often for my waistline’s good.  All in all, a most excellent weekend, and a great way to celebrate Steph’s birthday.  

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Valentine's Day

Yesterday was a change for me, coming from a school where Valentine’s Day is (for some undisclosed reason) a taboo holiday, to a school where it is celebrated in force. 

At my old school, students would bring in valentines and presents for each other, but after homeroom in the morning, the chocolates and teddy bears and flowers had to disappear into lockers…or they’d be confiscated.  It was a covert celebration each year. 

At my new school, students are encouraged to come out of uniform—wearing red or pink.  Student government sells roses all day (since they grow all year round here, they’re cheaper—students could buy a dozen for $7.)  Kids brought in goodies for each other (and their teachers!) At morning recess, there was a special tiendita (snack counter) where the APM (PTA equivalent) moms sold Valentines snacks.  At lunch, there was pizza and sushi for sale, as well as cheesecake. 

The pile of goodies I had amassed
before 1st period 

AND we had a shortened schedule of classes so that for the last hour and a half, we could celebrate with a Valentine’s Day carnival (put on as a service learning fundraiser by the 8th grade).  There was an ice cream sundae station, a blindfolded make-up artist station, a photo booth, a cake walk, a spot where you could pay to duct tape the principal to the wall, and many more.  I spent my time on the small soccer field where students could pay to throw wet sponges or water balloons at their teachers…or dump entire buckets of water over their heads.

Hyung and I were up for the 2nd half hour shift, and before we started, we stood watching Carrie and Aaron take their turn.  Carrie stayed mostly dry.  She kept shrugging at us and saying, “See?  I told you.  They don’t really throw at the female teachers.” 

Ha.  Yeah right.

Within minutes of taking my seat, I’d had several buckets poured over my head, and plenty of sponges and water balloons lobbed at me.  (My personal favorite was an eighth grader who sat in detention while I was on duty last week that came up and yelled, “This is for the detention!” haha).  I had 2 boys who came up with 2 buckets of water asking, “Will you give me an automatic 100?  No?  Are you sure?  Okay, then this is for you!”  I got a lot of water, but Hyung got even more.  He started catching the water balloons and lobbing them back.  Some of the kids ended up almost as drenched as we were.  Almost—but not quite. 

Hyung getting doused while I looked on
Photo credit to Carrie

Annette enjoying a nice cool bucket of water
Photo credit to Carrie

As I changed into dry clothes, I left a puddle on the bathroom floor.  I couldn’t have been more wet had I jumped into a swimming pool with my clothes on.  But what fun!  And hopefully the fact that I got so drenched means we raised a lot of money for a good cause. 

So that was Valentine’s Day at school.  I ended the school with a pile of chocolates, 5 roses, 3 cupcakes, and a big smile on my face.  Those kiddos definitely showed a lot of love.  

My roses

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Volcan Acatenango Hike

This past weekend’s hike up Acatenango, the third tallest volcano in Central America, was vastly different from the excursion two weeks ago to Volcan Atitlan.  For a start, the group was larger, with 13 people in our group.  Also, we went with a tour company—Old Town Outfitters—and therefore had 4 other people in our group, 3 bilingual guides, and 6 local men to carry extra gear (bringing our group’s total number to 26 people).  And, it was an overnight trip, which meant we didn’t hike the entire distance on Saturday, nor did we have to start before dawn.  It also meant we were wearing backpacks and carrying more weight than at Atitlan. 

Still, and I may be crazy, but I think Acatenango was a little easier than climbing Atitlan.  Maybe it’s just that the first hike did its job as a training run and strengthened my uphill climbing muscles.  Maybe it was my mindset.  Or maybe it was the fact that we were in a large group and the guide paced us, stopping periodically to wait for the rest of the group to catch up. 

By the time we drove to Antigua to pay at the outfitters’ shop, then took a group van to the trailhead and divvied up sleeping bags and pads, we were finally starting on the trail at around 10:30am.  The hike is divided into four sections.  It starts with a steep uphill climb through farmland, then enters a cloud forest where it switchbacks up to the lunch spot.  From there, the path levels out and enters a sparse pine forest.  We walked around the mountain to get to our campsite for the night.  The next morning, we tackled the final stage, a steep uphill climb through volcanic rock and sand to reach the summit at the volcano’s crater. 

We made good time on the hike up—at least according to our guides.  We reached the lunch spot at about 12:30pm, approximately 1-2 hours ahead of schedule.  There, we relaxed (and donned extra layers as the clouds and elevations were combining to create a chill) while the guides prepared a lunch of tacos: tortillas, black beans, guacamole, tomatoes, peppers, onions, and chips.  We topped off the meal with Chiky cookies and butter toffee candies. 

Group huddle after lunch to keep warm.

Then we continued onward for just under 2 hours, reaching the campsite at 3:30pm.  Amy, Carrie, and I unpacked our tent and added more layers as the temperature kept dropping (we were at about 11,500ft at this point) and snuggled into our sleeping bags for a quick nap before dinner.  The clouds outside were still thick, and we couldn’t see anything beyond our own campsite. 

After about half an hour of dozing, I went outside and joined a group of people around a fire that did a great job of keeping us warm.  After a while, some of the clouds blew away, and we were rewarded with great views of Volcan Fuego, one of the most active volcanoes in Guatemala, only 4km away.  As darkness fell, we hoped the clouds would stay away and Fuego would give us a pyrotechnics show with bright red lava, but no such luck for us.

fuego y Volcan Fuego.  :) 

"sunset" over Fuego

At 7:30, dinner (pasta with vegetables) was ready, and after that, everyone decided it was time for bed.  Now, in my particular tent, the zippers on the door were not functional.  Not just like they stuck when closing.  Like, they didn’t zip closed at all, so we had to strategically decide where to position the 2 zippers to sort of hold the tent door closed.  Amy and Carrie and I were pretty worried we’d be facing a frigid night.  We rigged up a wind-blocking system of sorts by placing my pack in front of the door and hanging Carrie’s raincoat from the ceiling.  And remarkably, between my layers (3 shirts, a sweatshirt, leggings and pants, and 2 pairs of socks) and my rented sleeping bag, I stayed plenty warm throughout the night. 

defunct zipper 

After going to bed at 7:30pm, though, I almost welcomed our 4am wake-up time.  There’s only so much time a person can sleep in a tent. 

Sadly, as we woke with the plan of summiting for the sunrise, we found we were still clouded in.  Still, since we’d packed up our tents and going back to bed wasn’t an option anymore, we decided to go for it.  We took off in the darkness at around 5am.

I’m actually really glad we underwent this part of the trail in complete blackness.  It kept me from stopping to look around and realize how steep the trail was, how little there was to hold onto if I were to fall backwards.  Instead I concentrated on the ground in front of me—trying to place my feet where the person before me had stepped, because the sliding rock/sand was more stable there and less likely to slip under me. 

When we reached the top, we were still in the middle of a white cloud.  Off in the distance, we caught a faint yellow glow of a sunrise, but we could see no details.  At the highest point, the wind whipped icy air at us making it difficult even to stand.  We were soaked with condensation, cold, and we couldn’t see more than the black rock and each other.  We were offered the option of walking around the crater—perhaps a 10 minute walk—but unanimously decided to go back down to camp instead.

Amy and Fabian at the top 

At the highest point of the climb.  Zero view.
Photo credit to Lucas Rank

I’m glad we made the trek to the highest point—an impressive 13,045ft (3976m).  I do wish we’d been able to enjoy a nice view.  But the fulfillment of having done it is enough.

The way back down to the campsite was much less scary than I had anticipated—and much, much easier than going down the part that’s above the treeline at Atitlan.  Because the sand/rock was so loose, we could run down it, our feet sliding a bit with each step, but keeping totally in control.  What had taken us over an hour felt like it took about 15 minutes to come down. 

Down the slope...into the cloud.
Photo credit to Lucas Rank 

From there, we had breakfast, dried out a bit around the fire, then headed back down the mountain.  We took a slightly different route down—a bit steeper, but easy enough on the downhill—and made it back to the trailhead by 10:00am (just over 2 hours down! Wow!).  From there, we made a beeline first for Antigua to recover our cars, and then home for a hot shower.  I feel like I may be finding black sand in my ears and nose for days yet, despite the scrubbing I’ve done.

But it was worth it.  What a trek!  

The whole group at the bottom
Photo credit to Lucas Rank

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Great Guatemalan Car Title Transfer

On Monday, we had a day off of school.  However, I was still out the door and in the school parking lot by 5:30am, along with several other teachers.  Why?  We had a mission that we’d been told would probably take all day: transferring the titles of our cars from their previous owners to our names. 

Four of us left the school parking lot and arrived at the offices where we needed to be by 6:30am.  The doors to the mall opened at 7am, and then we could get in line for the SAT (Guatemalan DMV) and get our paperwork in order.

Transferring a title in Guatemala is no easy process.

While Brett held our place in line for SAT, Geoff and I went with Don Ruben (our driver from the school) to the notary/copy office to get the paperwork started.  There, we found out that none of us had brought enough cash.  The school representative working with us had told us to bring about half as much as we would actually need.  So, we had to go find an ATM in the bank.  (Thankfully, there was one).  Then, we had to go to the bank (also in the mall) and pay a tax while Don Ruben took some paperwork and more money and went to get us some more paperwork that we’d need.  At the bank they told us their system was down and they couldn’t take our payment for 2 charges we needed to pay.  So it was back to the notary where they were able to write up a receipt we could take to the bank so they could take care of the payment.  Then, we waited for the paperwork to be notarized in that office again.  Once we had that, we went into the SAT office.  There I found out I hadn’t yet paid a registration fee for 2014 for my car, so it was trip #3 to the bank for me.  Then back in line, finally getting to talk to a person at an SAT desk.  There was another small fee I needed to pay, so it was back to the bank (trip #4!).  Back to SAT where they finalized the paperwork, took my picture, and gave me my new circulation card and title. 

Does that sound complicated?  Because it WAS.  Thank goodness my Spanish is good enough for me to be able to understand and relay to everyone else what was going on.  We also really lucked out in 2 ways.  First of all, we’d heard we would have to do all the paperwork at SAT, then take our cars to the other side of town and have them inspected by a police officer to make sure they weren’t stolen and weren’t hiding drugs or weapons, then come back to SAT to receive the card.  It turned out none of us needed the inspection.  Second, today there was really NO line anywhere.  Perhaps it was because it was a cold, drizzly, Monday morning, or perhaps just because we were there at the right time…but for whatever reason, there were no lines.  Had there been, all that running back and forth would have taken easily twice as long. 

I can tell you one thing, I was one happy girl returning to school at 10:30am with my car title in hand.  

Monday, February 10, 2014

Volcan Atitlan Hike

Originally, the weekend before last was meant to be a relaxing escape in San Pedro at Lake Atitlan.  But then we met Will and Fabian, two US engineers working on a project in Guatemala, and when they posed the idea of coming along with us and hiking Volcan Atitlan on Saturday, Amy and I jumped at the opportunity to use the 5 hour hike as training for our trek up Acatenango the next weekend.  

The plan was that on Friday afternoon, Amy and I would take my car and meet the guys at their hotel at 5pm (the earliest they could be ready to leave) and head for San Lucas Toliman where we would stay the night and depart for the hike early Saturday morning.

Due to intense traffic (and okay, a few wrong turns) what should have been a 15 minute drive for Amy and I turned into an hour and a half crawling through cars that weren’t moving.  When we arrived at the hotel at 6:30pm, we made the joint decision that the best course of action would be to get dinner, then leave the city around 8 or 9pm when traffic would have died down.  (This appealed to Amy and I, as both of us were hungry and at one point in the car, Amy had turned to me as if the idea had just come to her and exclaimed, “I brought an orange.  Maybe they’ll let us sit together in the back and we can share an orange!”  Hunger brings out the silly in people.)  

So it was 9:00pm when we loaded into the guys’ company SUV and made our way to the lake.  I promptly fell asleep, but Will and Fabian kept up steady conversation among themselves for the entire 3 hour drive.  

It was nearly midnight when we pulled into the sleepy town of San Lucas Toliman and found our hotel.  Fabian called ahead to wake the security guard to open the parking lot for us and coordinated with our guide for the next morning (as the fluent Spanish speaker in our group, a lot of the work fell on Fabian’s shoulders last weekend).  We found our rooms and fell into bed, alarms set to depart on the hike at 5:30am.  

Our guide, Juan Carlos, met us at the hotel gate the next morning, and from there we walked towards the giant volcano hulking in the distance.  As we began walking, we realized our hotel, nearly on the lake, was situated about as far from the base of the volcano as you could get in the town.  The first 20 minutes or so of our walk consisted of cobblestone streets as we progressed through town.  Finally, though, we left the streets and began making our way through coffee fields at the base of the mountain.  

Sunrise over Acatenango and Fuego from the base of the our hike

The hike was projected to take about 5 hours up and 3 down, with an elevation gain of 6400 feet.  The hike the next weekend, which Amy, Fabian, and I will all be completing, will include an elevation gain of about 8000 feet and we’ll be wearing packs to stay overnight, so we figured this trip would be a good training exercise.

And I think it was.  It definitely gave me more confidence for the Acatenango hike.  

On the way up, the trail got really steep about 2 hours in.  And it never leveled out after that.  At points we almost had to go on all fours to scramble up the huge rocks or tree roots that comprised the path.  The five of us fell into a rhythm.  Amy and Will set out ahead of us--somehow keeping up a steady stream of conversation (I didn’t have the breath for that), while Fabian and I held back, Juan Carlos bringing up the rear.  

After walking for 15-20 minutes, Fabian and I would meet up with Will and Amy who had stopped to rest, and we’d all sit for a few minutes, maybe pulling out a granola bar or a Snickers (except for Fabian, who won’t eat peanuts).  Spirits stayed high.  We joked about stopping where we were and chopping down trees to build shelter--we’d call our new community “New US,” and it would become an organized country eventually.  We wished for a zipline from the top back down to the lake.  Or a water slide.  Or a helicopter.  And then, after a laugh, we’d continue again.

It had been a little under four hours when we emerged from the trees to the rock-strewn peak of the volcano.  Will and Amy, thinking they were maybe ten minutes from the top, took off on the most direct route: straight up.  Fabian and I started more slowly, each picking our own route.  The going was difficult.  It was steep, and the rocks were loose and kept slipping under my feet.  I was filled with a general fear that I would lose my footing and slide all the way down to the trees--which got farther and farther away as I climbed higher.  

Juan Carlos hadn’t been much of a guide up until this point--mainly just following us up the mountain.  But now, as we scrambled up the peak, I looked to my left, and every time I saw him, he seemed to be nimbly walking--not climbing--up the steep incline.  Every so often, he would stop, take a seat, and look down on me like a wise old mountain man.  Finally I had had enough of trying to find my own way, and I made my way over to him and followed his path up to the top from there.  It was still steep, but my footing felt more sure, and we could go more easily--sometimes even in a little crevasse that gave the illusion of a bit of protection from falling.  

Fabian making his way up the final stretch of the climb

We beat the clouds to the top, completing the hike in about 4 ½ hours.  The view of the lake and the surrounding mountains was spectacular.  

Juan Carlos looking over at Acatenango and Fuego

After a few moments of taking in the view, Fabian (who had joined Juan Carlos and I) and the two of us went off to find Amy and Will, who had summited at a different spot.  They were happy to see us and enthusiastically showed us what they’d found--several fumaroles (hot steam vents) on the top of the volcano.  We sat near the warm, moist air for a long time, enjoying one another’s company--and the view--while the clouds rolled in well below us, eventually covering the landscape except for the tallest peaks and making us feel like we were truly on top of the world.  

Enjoying our fumarole on the top of the world
Photo credit to Fabian Sanchez

Juan Carlos told us we should leave by noon at the latest, so after an hour and a half of relaxing at the peak, we grudgingly started our journey downhill.  

Will exploring a bit on his own

For two hours, we trudged down the steepest part of the path, staying together and moving slowly to avoid injury.  As the path became less treacherous, we started moving a little faster.  From the back, Amy called out, “why are we moving so fast now?”  Looking at Fabian hop down ahead of me, I replied, “Because Fabian turned into a billy goat!”  The closer we got to the bottom, the faster Fabian was moving, and then at some point it leveled just enough to not be suicidal, and Fabian was running, me close at his heels.  He bounced off the sides of the trail--positively frolicking.  After a little bit, he’d stop, we’d wait for the others to get closer, and then we’d take off again--me in the lead that time.  After a stop at which Amy, Will, and Juan Carlos caught up, Will took off in the lead to avoid getting other people’s dust in his eyes.  Again, I took chase.  Will didn’t stop, and we kept running, through a meadow, a corn field, back into the forest, and eventually to a dry stream bed where we stopped.  It was gratifying to find that, even after such a taxing hike, I could still jog downhill for a long time without tiring.  

As Will and I waited here for the others to catch up, locals carrying huge
loads of wood and other goods passed us going down the mountain.

Will and I waited for the others to catch up, and shortly after they did, we emerged dusty and grimy from the forest and onto the road.  Rather than walk all the way through town again, Juan Carlos flagged down a tuk tuk and we piled in, cutting our return time drastically.  Hot showers and good food awaited at the hotel, and we relaxed for the rest of the night.  That evening, we lay on a rooftop patio stargazing and talking for hours.  The entire experience is one I’ll always remember fondly.  

Dinner with a view at our hotel

Photo credit to Fabian Sanchez