Friday, June 27, 2014

Stuck in an Airport

When my parents flew home from Guatemala last week, my mom’s facebook status upon arriving home told a tale of long lines, delayed flights, near misses, and luggage that arrived home a day later than its owners.  When Liz and I left Wednesday  morning, I sincerely hoped our luck would be different.

Our taxi arrived (10 minutes early) at 4:12am.  I was determined to beat the lines that Mom and Dad had experienced being on the “first flight out” in the morning.  We were successful in that.  We sped through check-in, breezed our way through customs, were shuffled through security, and found ourselves with over an hour to wait at our gate before boarding. 

Sunrise over Guatemala, from our gate waiting to board.

In Miami, too, everything went smoothly.  Though the customs process seemed to take an eternity, it was effective in cutting our 90 minute layover down to less than half an hour to wait at the gate.  And then we were in the sky, soaring towards Chicago and our last layover of the day.

We arrived in Chicago twenty minutes early, lengthening our layover there to a full two hours. 

I always get annoyed with layovers in Chicago.  In part, it’s because it’s not one of my favorite airports.  There are a shortage of electrical outlets, no apparent free wifi, everything is spread out (with no moving sidewalks, even!), and the toilet seats have those annoying plastic covers that shuffle around to a fresh covering for each new buttox when you wave your hand over them.  But in part, I get annoyed with layovers in Chicago because I know I am so close to home.  Chicago is a 5 hour drive, but the flight takes only 65 minutes.  Flying American Airlines, I almost always connect to my small hometown airport through Chicago rather than another of the major airports in the tri-state area. 

A two hour layover, however, is not as maddening as it could be.  It still takes less time to wait two hours and then fly one hour than it would to rent a car and drive home (and it’s much less expensive). 

Today in Chicago, though, Liz and I hit our first delay.  The plane using our gate before our flight was late in coming, so our flight was delayed by 20 minutes, and then by an hour.  We sat obediently at the gate as they told us they were just bringing the new plane over, and that we would be boarding within a few minutes. 

Ten minutes later, the attendant came on the intercom, and we perked up, started gathering our things in preparation to board.

“Ladies and gentleman, the flight has been cancelled due to weather.  Please speak with an agent or call the number on our screen to rebook.”


Of course there was a mad rush to the desk trying to get on the one remaining flight to our small town that left a few hours later.  Then the announcement that the later flight was overbooked, and the request that we not get into line, but instead rebook for the next morning.

Liz and I did that, which left us with a fourteen hour layover in my least favorite of airports.  Of course, 14 hours is enough time to drive home.  Enough time to drive home almost three times, in fact.  We could have rented a car.  But why spend the extra money when we’d already paid for the flight?  We could have left the airport, explored the city, spent the night in a hotel, and returned to the airport in the morning.  But we’re unfamiliar with transportation systems in Chicago, and tired, and we just came home from spending money on vacation; a night in Chicago just looked like dollar signs to us.  Plus, the airline was willing to do nothing to help us out.  They handed us a voucher for discounted hotels in the area.  But when we went to the website given to us, the “discount” option was not all that cheap, and it was far from the airport.  No help at all, basically.

So we resigned ourselves to an extra 14 hours in Chicago.  It wouldn’t be the first time we’d spent an exorbitant amount of time in an airport.  At least O’Hare has more options to entertain than the tiny airport in Iceland where we spent 16 hours last summer.  At least O’Hare doesn’t kick its inhabitants out past security and forbid them to sleep overnight.  Instead they set up cots and hand out pillows and blankets.  Things could be worse.

Finally found an open outlet.  It was on the floor in front of the stares.
We had no shame.

Stumbled onto the cot city around 11pm!  

So, we focused on the positive side (sort of).  We indulged in an expensive airport meal, and we found electrical outlets in unlikely places to charge our electronics, and we have each other.  And the fourteen hours went relatively quickly.   

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Family Time in Guatemala

I dropped my parents off at the airport this morning.  With a quick, fierce hug and a slamming of the trunk, I pulled away and left them on the curb, scurrying to check in for their 7:30am flight.  It feels like they were here for so much less than five full days.  We had a great time while they were in Guatemala, of course, but the time flew by much too quickly.

Mom and Dad and my sister Liz arrived around 8pm on Thursday night.  On Friday, the accompanied me to school and were able to see where I work (and meet a few colleagues) as I rushed around cleaning my classroom, going to the last meetings of the year, and getting the signatures I needed in order to check out for the summer.  By 1:00pm, I was ready to go, and with my pack horses in tow (parents and sisters are always best when put to work—especially when one dislocated her shoulder a week previously and really shouldn’t have been carrying much with her left arm) we headed home briefly, then went to lunch in Cayala with Amanda.  The family was suitably impressed with the restaurant, food, and the white monstrosity that is Cayala.  

Walking around Cayala after lunch

We returned to my house and relaxed for the rest of the afternoon (Amanda and I met up with Carrie and went to purchase bus tickets for next week’s adventures), and in the evening met up with Annette and Joel for dinner at L’Osteria.  It was another beautiful restaurant with very good company, and we all came back home quite pleased, I think.

On Saturday, Liz and I got up early and went for a run on the trails.  When we returned home, Amanda had breakfast made for us: eggs with spinach and onions, ham, and toast.  I could really get used to having a full house—people to cook and eat with all the time.  After breakfast was put away, we set off for Antigua.  Of course we hit mid-day traffic and it took us nearly an hour and a half to arrive (when 45 minutes should have sufficed), but again, the company was good and I don’t think anyone minded too much. 

In Antigua, we checked into our hotel, ate a quick lunch, and then my family went to a chocolate-making workshop while Amanda set off on her own to explore Antigua for a few hours. 
The chocolate workshop was a great choice for us. They walked us through the entire process of making chocolate: from harvesting the beans all the way to molding.  It was a perfect mixture of information and hands-on action, and we all learned a lot and enjoyed doing it.  We also got to take home chocolates that we molded ourselves, which is always an added plus. 

That evening, we went to a restaurant called Fonda de la Calle Real, which was another win.  Each of us ordered a different typical Guatemalan dish, and no one was disappointed by their fare.  We all left stuffed and disappointed that we had no way to keep leftovers for the next day. 

Antigua wanderings

Sunday morning started, as every Sunday morning in Antigua should, with breakfast as Hotel Casa Santo Domingo.  After eating, we walked around exploring the grounds and the ruins of the convent which once was housed there.  The day was beautiful, as were the views, and it made for a perfect morning.

Around noon, we checked out of our hotel in Antigua and hit the road for Lake Atitlan.  By mid-afternoon, we had parked the car in Panajachel and were aboard a boat to take us across the lake to our hotel in Santiago.  The speed of the boat took Liz by surprise, and we laughed our way across the lake as we made our speedy way across.

Upon checking in at la Posada de Santiago, we were blown away by our rooms.  It turns out we had rented a small house, not just a cabin for the night.  We had three bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, and living room/dining room/kitchen area, and an expansive front lawn.  We were all blown away.  So we commenced to enjoy our paradise.  We used the hot tub, sat admiring the view of the lake and the volcano and the many flowers on the hotel property, we read books and took naps and enjoyed leisurely meals at the restaurant in the hotel.

La Hacienda--the "room" where we stayed

On Monday morning, Liz and Amanda and I, along with Carrie and her sister and brother-in-law, boarded another boat at sunrise and went to hike Volcan San Pedro.  San Pedro is the smallest of the three volcanoes at Lake Atitlan, but it’s still an impressive hike.  We made it up in about 3 hours, taking our time and pausing often to enjoy the view.  At the top we were blessed with clear skies and unobstructed views of the entire lake and the other two volcanoes.  

Sunrise on the lake.  Photo credit to Liz. 

After lunch, it was back down and across the lake to meet up with Mom and Dad for an afternoon of more relaxation—naps, reading, and watching the USA play Ghana in the World Cup (the US won). 

Tuesday morning after breakfast, Amanda and Liz and I took a canoe out on the lake for a short paddle.  (I sat in the middle and did no rowing, seeing as that would probably not make my recently dislocated shoulder very happy.  I had the best seat).  J  It was a great way to end our vacation.  But like I said, it ended too quickly, and suddenly mom and dad’s trip was over and we were driving back to the city and watching them pack before bed. 

Whole family in front of our hotel room in Santiago

It was a good time, though.  For their first trip to Guatemala, I’m pleased with the amount my family was able to see and do.  They experienced a slice of my life here, met some of my friends, and we able to see some of the most beautiful parts of this country.  Mission accomplished, eh? 

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Shoulder Dislocation of 2014

Looking back on it, I think there were signs something was going to happen.  Between Thursday night and Saturday afternoon, at least three people noticed and asked about the scar on my right shoulder which is the mark of the surgery I had seven years ago.  I should have known it was a sign.  After seven years, the scar has faded and few people notice it anymore.  (Case in point, one of the people who asked about it this weekend has known me since September and seen me in a bathing suit numerous times).  I should have been knocking on wood as I explained the surgery had been to tighten up the tendons around my shoulder and make sure I didn’t dislocate it again, and that I hadn’t had a problem since then.  But I didn’t.

Let’s back up a bit.  On Friday, Amanda (of “Amanda and Josh and adventures in Puerto Rico” fame) arrived in Guatemala to visit, volunteer, and take in Latin culture.  She’ll spend a full month here, with Josh coming down to meet her two weeks from now.  We had plans to go off on a rock climbing adventure this weekend, but those plans fell through.  So Amy and Kenra and I hatched a Plan B to go to the beach.  But the forecast for rain was so strong, we decided the 3 hour drive to arrive there just as the afternoon rains started probably wasn’t worth it.  So instead, we spent Saturday morning at the next best place—the pool on the 15th floor of Chris’s apartment building.

The morning brought us some sunshine, and we passed the hours quickly.   Soon it was lunch time, and we decided to order food at the pool rather than leaving.  As the afternoon progressed, the clouds moved in, and we actually hoped for rain—because what better place to experience rain than from a heated pool with a great view of the city?  Eventually, the rain started.  We stayed in the pool playing a game called Ships and Submarines, which is a form of water tag in which the Ship (the person who is “it”) can only move in straight lines across the pool.  Hilarity and childish antics ensued. 

And then, as I shot across the pool to escape being tagged, I felt my left arm twist behind me in an awkward way, and I knew as I stood up it wasn’t right.  I looked down.  I knew the feeling and the look of it.  I’d dislocated my left shoulder. 

I will say this—I’m glad it was the left, because if it had been the one I’d had surgery on, the one I’d spent a week in an immobilizer and attended three months of physical therapy after, I would have been pretty upset.

So, then the Guate adventure began. 
The bartender at the pool called the bomberos down the street for us to come and get me and take me to the nearest medical center.  Though they were supposedly only 2 blocks away, it took probably 20 minutes for them to get there.  (Note to self: if you’re having a heart attack in Guatemala City, maybe don’t bank on an ambulance saving your life.) 

Amanda and I hopped into the van ambulance, and Amy and Kenra followed us to the hospital.  At this point, my arm felt uncomfortable and the nerves were starting to get that tingly feeling, but I wasn’t in pain.  I really didn’t feel any pain until I went in for the X-Ray and had to stand without my pillow support to keep my arm away from my body.  But as I waited for the technician to hurry up and take the film, I felt my face starting to crumple.  Soon enough though, it was over and I was back on the wheely hospital bed with pillows propping my arm in its most comfortable position. 

The first nurse had told me they’d give me a sedation that would put me to sleep for about 30 minutes so they could put my shoulder back in.  I told them that had never been necessary before and I thought I could handle it without that, so we compromised with a shot of Demerol that made me feel pleasantly spinny for about 15 minutes.  The doctor came in, and in the smoothest motion I think I have ever experienced for a shoulder relocation, he gracefully eased my shoulder up and twisted it right back into place.  I’m not sure how much was the Demerol and how much was the Doctor Soto’s skill, but I didn’t feel a thing

After that, it was a simple matter of follow-up X-Rays (accompanied by a moment of nausea induced by the Demerol, which thankfully passed quickly), paying the bill, and then Amy and Kenra drove us back to pick up my car and take me home (driving a manual with your left arm in a sling might be possible, but it’s not convenient). 

It seems stupid things happen to me when I'm
wearing a bathing suit in Guatemala.  Thankfully
Kenra and Chris loaned me a cover-up that closed in front
and sweatpants fot the trip to the hospital.
Quite the fashion statement!  :) 

So.  Amanda and I have both experienced a Guatemalan hospital for the first time.  I have a pretty new sling for use in Guatemala.  My arm still feels pretty good, and I will be able to do everything I want to by the time my parents and sister get her at the end of this week, and I’m kind of looking forward to sympathy from my students tomorrow.  As always, I’m looking at the bright side in all this.  It really was a pretty good weekend.  

Good Life Choices: Hiking from Xela to Atitlan

I’ve kind of fallen off the blogging wagon over the past month.  The reason is simply that life has gotten in the way—lesson planning and grading and spending more hours than I would care to admit at school supervising DI (Destination Imagination—see what I’m talking about in separate post).  But that’s not to say that my life has stopped, or that I’ve had nothing to blog about. 

We had a four day weekend for Guatemalan Labor Day on May 1-4, and several of us took the opportunity to finally go on a 3 day trek I’ve been wanting to do all year.  The trek leaves from the city of Quetzaltenango (more commonly called Xela) and winds over ridges and through forests to emerge on the morning of day 3 over the shores of Lake Atitlan.  Friends who had done the trek had given it rave reviews, and the six people who decided to go on the hike are among my favorite to travel with here in Guatemala.  Going, quite simply, seemed like a good life choice.

We left the city early on Thursday morning, boarding a comfortable Linea Dorada bus at 7:00am and arriving (after a somewhat late start and a half hour stop along the way) in Xela before lunch time.  We spent the afternoon in Xela doing not very much; we got lunch, dessert at a coffee place, wandered around the plaza and a market, and tried to stay out of the rain that had started to fall.   Rainy season starts in May,  but whether it’s the beginning or end of the month can vary.  It seemed to all of us that May 1st had issued in the start of the afternoon/evening rains, which was not the greatest news for the hike.

We spent the night at the hostel attached to the trekking company’s offices.  The hostel wasn’t much, but it was a dry place to sleep, and very convenient for leaving the next morning.  And on Friday, we were up early, eating breakfast with our fellow trekkers and packing the supplies for the trip into each of our backpacks.

The first day of walking took us up a steep climb (I think it took us about an hour and a half, but apparently our group was fast as a whole) to a meadow area nicknamed “Alaska.”  The day was misty and cloudy, and we didn’t have the greatest visibility, but the walk itself and the immediate surroundings were still pretty.  

At one stop in the morning, our guide Ben pointed off and said, “there’s a pretty cool lookout point over there, where you’ll probably just see fog today.  But you can check it out.”  We scampered over, and sure enough…just fog.  And sheep.  The sheep we found on the path (who later passed right by where we sat to rest) were pretty entertaining.  

That afternoon, as we walked up the road along a sweeping valley, nearing our stop for the night, it started to rain.  I actually like walking in the rain.  It wasn’t a hard rain, and it wasn’t cold.  If I had been walking towards my house where dry, comfortable clothes and warm blankets awaited me, I would have been quite pleased with the weather.  But seeing as I imagined walking towards something more like camping conditions and all that I had for the next two days was on my back, I was less pleased.

My expectations were low for our sleeping accommodations on the trek.  Like I said—I was planning to camp.  So the place we stayed the first night completely blew me away.  It was a building constructed recently by an enterprising local woman from the village.  There are several “bedrooms,” which even had thick sleeping pads on the floor and a warm blanket for each of us.  We had a bathroom (oh the simple joys of indoor plumbing!), a common area where we sat and played Uno as a whole group for a while, and exposed rafters where we were able to hang our wet clothes.  Nearby, there was also a temescal—a traditional Maya sauna—which we each visited to clean off the day’s mud and sweat and get warm.  So after the sauna, changing into dry clothes, enjoying pasta dinner, and cuddling up in the blankets, I’d say my mood was pretty good. 

A wild game of Uno

Our bedroom for the night

The morning of day 2 was clear, and we could see the entire town and valley stretched out before us.  I fell in love with that little town.  Not because it was picturesque, especially, or because of any visible reason.  I think it just seemed real to me. 

View from the place we stayed Night 1

We spend the first few hours of our walk on day 2 on a road with sweeping views of the valley.  At the bottom of the valley, we came to Record Hill.  The steep single-track path is a challenge on the trek.  The record to reach the top is 9 minutes, but there is a reward if women can climb it in less than 15 minutes and men in less than 12.  Halfway up the hill, I decided to stop looking at my watch or trying to break the 15 minute mark.  I focused instead on keeping moving (but I even stopped twice—the first time for 10 seconds and the second for 4, just enough to catch my breath).  I surprised myself when I crossed the finish line at a time of 14:36! 

Relaxing at the top of Record Hill

After record hill, we came to another small town.  All of the local children came out asking us to take a photo so they could see it on the camera.  We felt like celebrities passing through.  After a stop for ice cream, we continued to our lunch spot.  Usually, the group would take a 1 hour nap after lunch, but because we wanted to beat the afternoon rain if it decided to come again, we left as soon as we had finished eating, putting us ahead of schedule. 

Shortly after lunch, we came to the river (stream) we would cross a total of 9 times, and so we switched to water shoes for that duration of the walk.  Crossing the cool, ankle-depth water felt amazing, so a group of us took it slowly every time we came to the river, savoring every moment.  We laughingly remarked that we couldn’t understand why everyone was crossing the river so quickly each time. 

Changing into water shoes...and soakinga  bit while the guide waited.

The last climb of the day was nicknamed the “Cornfield of Death,” but it looked more intense than it actually was.  In a matter of minutes, we were up the top, and we emerged onto a paved road which took us to yet another town and Don Pedro’s house, where we spent the night.  Don Pedro’s family cooked us a delicious dinner of chicken and rice, and after dinner there was a fire and marshmallows to roast. 

On Day 3, we all got up at 3:30am and trucked out of town in darkness.  We were met by 2 police officers (from the tourism department) who escorted us just to be safe.  After a pretty short walk, we reached a grassy hill overlooking Lake Atitlan. It was still fully dark when we arrived, and we could just make out the outlines of the volcanoes against the inky sky.  

Slowly, the sky turned from deep blue to purple, and then to pink as the sun rose over the mountains.  We enjoyed our perfect vantage point and a delicious breakfast from our spot, chilling there for close to three hours.  

When the sun was fully up and we had taken all the pictures we could, we started down the hill and into the city of San Juan.  There, we were supposed to visit a coffee expo, but since we arrived on Sunday and not on Monday (they’d changed the departure date of the trek for us), it was closed.  So we continued on to the weaving co-op where we would eat lunch, left our bags, and took tuk tuks to the neighboring town of San Pedro where we visited a hostel with a deck out over the lake.  After jumping in a few times and having a mid-morning snack, we headed back to San Juan, had lunch, and eventually were on our way back to the city. 

A street in San Juan, Guatemala

It was an amazing weekend.  This weekend had so many things I look for in an escape: great travel companions, good exercise, breathtaking landscapes, rural culture in tiny villages.  I was able to put all of the things that were stressing me from “real life” out of my mind for the weekend and really remember why I love Guatemala.  It’s a weekend that will be hard to top for some time.