Tuesday, July 1, 2014

One Day. Many Events.

Thursday the 19th was…well, it was a day to write a travel blog about.  A day with a story to tell.

The day began at 3:30 in the morning, when our alarms went off in our hotel room at the Tikal Inn, located inside of Tikal National Park in Guatemala.  I turned off my cell alarm and headed into the bathroom for an early shower, per the schedule Liz and Amanda and I had agreed upon the night before.  It was only when I entered the bathroom that I remembered the power and hot water would remain turned off in the hotel until 6am.  (This seems like poor planning for a hotel that offers a free sunrise tour of Tikal to all its guests, in my personal opinion).  So, using my cellphone as a flashlight to illuminate the room, I took a brief, cool shower and readied myself for the day. 

Just after 4am, a group of approximately 15 guests set off with our two guides into the jungle surrounding the Maya ruins at Tikal.  Something in the forest smelled vaguely like pasta.  (It wasn’t pasta; I promise).  We stopped to note a bug with 2 bright green eyes that glowed in the dark, a tiny frog the size of a Puerto Rican coqui, and then later a bigger, older version of the same species.  As we emerged in the Grand Plaza, the sky was just lightening, and we hurried off to climb Temple IV before the sun rose. 

Sitting at the top of the tallest temple of Tikal, I remember not a spectacular, jaw-dropping sunrise over the ancient ruins (the day was cloudy, and the temples are but tiny blurbs on the horizon over the jungle from Temple IV), but the sounds and smells of the experience.  Bug spray from the person behind me.  As the sun rose, the raucous chorus of howler monkeys that began, and didn’t stop, off to the left of the temples somewhere.  The click of cameras and the quiet companionship shared. 

When the sun was fully up in the sky, we followed our guide throughout the site as he shared bits of information about each structure.  I confess—I don’t really remember much information from the tour.  I could say it was too early in the day for me to really pay attention, but I’m a morning person, and my short attention span when it comes to ruins is much more likely the culprit.  It’s not that I don’t find Aztec and Maya ruins interesting.  It’s just that every time I take a guided tour, I find myself largely unable to concentrate on what the guide is telling me. 

Temple V
At 8am, we happily returned to the hotel and ate a hearty breakfast, followed by a cooling dip in the pool.  (We were hot and tired, and our delusions of going back into the park to visit the museums were easily brushed off in favor of pool time).  Favoring my left shoulder, I flutter-kicked laps using a convenient red ball as a kickboard while Liz and Amanda swam.  I felt a little like a trained sea otter playing with my ball, but it seemed to work pretty well. 

We were told at the front desk that our options for transportation from Tikal to Flores, where we would be staying the night, left at either 11am or 3pm, so we opted for the 11am colectivo. 

Colectivos are large vans which work more or less like buses in Guatemala.  You hop on at a stop, or wait along the side of the road along the collectivo route, and one will stop, squeeze you inside (no matter how many passengers are already on board), and continue on its way.  They are, therefore, not the fastest or most comfortable way to get around, but often the cheapest. 

Our colectivo ride to Flores was pretty tame, as they go.  The van filled up, surely, but everyone had a seat and after shuffling, seemed to always have enough space.  Also, all of the passengers seemed friendly, and many of them seemed to know each other.  There was the young woman dressed in a pencil skirt and trim vest, the mother who held her small son in her lap, smoothing his recently washed and combed crew cut with her hand.  There was the little boy who fought and fought to keep his eyelids open, until eventually his older brother (still probably under the age of 10) reached over, put his arm around the younger boy, and pulled him close, cradling his small head and letting him sleep.  There was the well-muscled teenage boy who helped everyone get onto and off of the van after he’d gotten on, and helped the van worker stop and haul our bags in from off the roof when it started to rain along the way.  Altogether, it was a quite positive look into rural Guatemalan culture for the three of us.

In Flores, we checked into our hotel and stepped into our blissfully cool hotel room—ah, air conditioning, what a wonderful invention you are—and decided after settling in to follow the recommendation of our tuk tuk driver and explore the street food options along the boardwalk. 

When we went down to the street, though, there was no street food to be seen.  In fact, there was very little of anything to be seen.  Sure, we saw the cute restaurant storefronts, all of them advertising happy hour specials, but there seemed to be no tourists in any of them.  Of course, we knew we were traveling in the “off season,” but surely this was out of the ordinary.  So, we kept walking around the small island in the faint hope we’d find the stalls the driver had mentioned. 

Strangely empty lake-front street in Flores

We found ourselves on the opposite side of the tiny island of Flores within a matter of minutes, and we decided to start exploring restaurant menus.  By this point, all of us were hot (Flores was an overly humid sauna with an insufficient breeze at 1:30 in the afternoon) and hungry and tired.  There was a bit of contention over whether we should go back closer to the hotel or eat close to where we were, and as they tried to avoid a disagreement, we ended up at a less-than-legit restaurant called La Canoa.  It was by no means the grimiest place I have ever eaten, but in comparison to the other cute little restaurants in Flores, this one was definitely lacking.  Electrical wires were strung along the walls.  Angry Birds beach balls hung from the ceiling as decoration.  The waiter was perhaps the most awkward human being I have ever met.  After giving us our menus, he stood right next to our table and stared at us as we perused them.  We had to tell him we might need more than 5 seconds to give him the cue to leave for a bit and let us decide.  Amanda and I opted to share chips and guacamole and a chicken sandwich.  No one could mess up chips and guac, right?

The guacamole came sprinkled with parmesan cheese (who does that?), and the chicken had a sweet sauce that neither of us particularly enjoyed.  But it could have been worse, and none of us got sick after that day’s lunch adventure.

After lunch, we went back to one of the cute places on the other side of the island for a cool and refreshing margarita pick-me-up.  We noticed a couple who had been on our sunrise tour and whom we’d chatted with sitting alone inside, so we decided to go in and join our “friends.”  We said hi, and they were amiable enough, but they definitely did not invite us to join them, so eventually we took the hint and sat at a table with a view of the lake, feeling a bit like kindergarteners who didn’t get invited to play with the other neighborhood kids. 

A much nicer view from stop #2

It had been a long day, and we needed a reset button at this point.  We went back to our hotel room, cranked up the air conditioning, and spent an hour and a half relaxing, reading, cooling off, and napping.  At 5:30, the sun was at that golden point in the sky right before sundown, and Liz and I took off to go on a run while Amanda popped in her Insanity workout dvd. 

Exercise was our reset.  Liz and I twisted and turned through the cobble stone streets—it’s impossible to get lost on an island as small as Flores—and discovered almost every side street in the town, I think.  After 35 minutes, we paused and took a seat overlooking the water to watch the sun set.  We relaxed and were able to laugh about the day’s afternoon antics.  When we returned to the room, Amanda was stepping out of the shower, also refreshed and in a pleasant mood once again. 

Even better, outside on the street, Flores was finally coming alive.  The street vendors were out, the restaurants were filling up, and music drifted out of open doors.  Clean and fresh and ready once again to set out, we visited first a restaurant on the 2nd floor with a view of the moonlit Lake Peten Itza, where we shared a salad.  Then we moved to the street vendors, where we each tried a different sampling of their wares and split everything between us.  We finished with dessert—in part from the street vendor (a mollete—something we’d never heard of, which consisted of flan, wrapped in bread, then fried with egg batter)—and in part from the frozen yogurt shop down the street. 

So, after our reset, after exercise and air conditioning and finally a three course meal in a lively atmosphere, we fell into bed around 9pm, which we all agreed was impressive after being up so early in the day.  

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