Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2015: A Year of Celebrations

I don’t set a New Year’s Resolution each year, but when I do set one, I try and make sure it is something simple, worthwhile and something I can truly invest myself in. 

In 2015, I resolved to find something to celebrate in every single day.  Similar to some people’s 365 day photo challenge, I took a moment each day to record something.  Rather than take a photo, though, I wrote a brief description of what I chose to celebrate that day.  I challenged myself to think, not just what I was grateful for each day, not just what was good about the day, but what was really worth a celebration. 

A year later, I now have an 18 page word document which catalogues the high points of my last year. 
Looking back through the document brings back a flood of memories, reminding me both of happy and sad times.  I can track a relationship’s arc, from start:
3/13/15: A fun first date.
3/22/15: Watching a movie at home with a guy who makes me feel relaxed and cared for.

to the high points:
4/18/15: He calls me beautiful. 
5/7/15: A shared meal, escargot, The Avengers…perfect date night!

all the way through its rockiness, the end, and the transition into friendship:
8/10/15: An end.  I have to celebrate it.  If I don’t, I’ll break. 
11/20/15: Spending time with him as good friends, and nothing more. 

I can also look back on the little things that make life special:
1/3/15: Bright blue skies and sunshine.  An 11 mile run.  A day with my best friend.  Real laughter. 

2/21/15: Watching a little girl in a cheerleader’s outfit dancing, all alone, beside a marching band (at CAG Sports Morning). 

3/11/15: Watching Amy play soccer.

5/2/15: Playing in the ocean with the rain pounding down on us while we laughed like children.

7/15/15: Hearing snippets of Spanish at the Shedd Aquarium. 

11/5/15: The hummingbird survived its window crash!

I can remember the days where everything seemed to go perfectly and I couldn’t choose just one thing to celebrate:
1/11/15: Everything.  Slept in, French toast and coffee/cocoa mix for breakfast, skype with Liz, Ultimate Frisbee, finished Framingham work, tea and sunshine in Cayala with Becky, dinner and Dr. Who and Into the Woods (Bernadette Peters version) with Kenra.   New earring holder in my bedroom closet.

4/2/15: Great memories.  Sunrise over the mountains, administering Amy’s shot in the woods, playing on the rock field on the Altiplano, impromptu soccer game with local kids, a semana santa gift of bread from a local family and chatting with them about their lives, homemade Mad Libs with Alex

8/15/15: Everything.  The perfect day!  A breathtaking drive, fun with Chris.  Ruins with a view, Quiche city feria, good food, a market, carnival games, winning at Rummy.  

8/20/15: Best day ever!  Random chocolates from a student, free post-its in the office (who knew?), great lesson plan, a 2nd morning to swim opened up each week! 

11/25/15: The perfect day.  (Hike to San Pancho, delicious breakfast, beach chairs and an umbrella and rum punch and nachos and sunshine and perfect ocean waves and swimming and EVERYTHING). 

And then there are days which I needed only one word to sum up my celebration:
10/8/15: Annette.


8/11/15: Perspective

9/10/15: Richard. 

3/19/15: Life.

And I can even track current events and a few life-changing experiences over the year:
8/27/15: Peaceful protests.  A country united and set on justice.  (Schools cancelled, businesses closed, thousands gathering in the central square to make their voices heard). 

3/20/15: UNOP—a children’s cancer hospital in Guatemala that is providing free care and focusing on all aspects of curing cancer in a society of poverty.  (The entire family eats well while the child is receiving treatment; family bus fare is paid for to get to and from the hospital, etc).  An amazing, heartwarming, heart wrenching tour of the facility. 

Looking back on all of the posts, it’s easy to see themes—things that keep coming up over and over again:  friends, sunshine, food, my health, good memories.
3/17/15: Eating raw cake batter.  And loving it. 

10/6/15: Supportive friends who go out of their way to make my bad day better.  Have I ever had a support system like this?  Also, Spanish class.

9/9/15: Sunshine at 3pm.

7/11/15: Giggle fits on the couch with Rachel. 

4/7/15: Health.  Energy. 

More than anything, as I look back on my year of celebrations, I am reminded just how lucky I am, and just how full of joy life can be.  I have so much to celebrate every single day, so much to be grateful for.  Sometimes it’s easy to get lost in life’s drama, but the important thing to remember is that there’s always something worth living for. 

So happy New Year.  I hope you celebrate each and every day.  

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Musings on Sayulita, Mexico

Last week, I spent my Thanksgiving vacation in Mexico.  I met my friend Amy in Puerto Vallarta, and from there we took a bus to the small coastal town of Sayulita, where we stayed for our first three nights.  Our first night in Sayulita, Amy and I were in a restaurant where live music played and the dance floor was filled with locals and tourists whirling about in an impressive salsa dancing display.  We sat back and watched the dancers, and as we did, a woman came up to Amy and asked if she had a pen that she could borrow, “maybe forever.”  She explained that she was a travel journalist, and her own pen had broken (she held up an ink-stained palm) and told Amy she needed the pen to be able to do her job.  

Amy gave the girl her pen, and we watched her move across the room, post up along the opposite wall, and begin to take notes on what she saw there.  

Amy and I began chatting about what an amazing job travel journalism must be.
And that chance meeting inspired me to write this, a few days later:

Sayulita is at once familiar and unlike any place I have been before.   Multiple times, I have begun the sentence, “this town reminds me of…” and then been unable to finish it.  Sayulita is a combination of all my experiences.  It is Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Guatemala all rolled into one little beach town.   

The guide books all seem to say that Sayulita does a perfect job of mixing local culture and tourism, but to me, the place still feels overrun with tourists.  Not that that's a bad thing.  But when every waiter in every café sees me and speaks to me in US-accented English, I don't feel I'm really picking up any local culture.  I do, however, enjoy the emphasis and effort at hospitality which is evident at every establishment.   

The cobble-stoned streets of this town are lined with restaurants,  boutique shops,  and convenience stores.   Half of the streets end in the sand of the beach,  and the eateries in that locale inevitably set out beach chairs,  rent surfboards,  offer fruity drinks to the tourists here to escape their chilly late-autumn realities.

The number of families here has surprised me, for some reason.   Amy and I find ourselves cooing over dads holding naked babies in the waves,  parents teaching their kids to boogie board,  fathers running down the beach with a kid and a dog on each side.   I find myself hoping that one day,  I'll have a family who vacations in a beach town like this, that my own kids will drive a rented golf cart and practice their Spanish and build sand castles and think those things are the most amazing part of their year.

The beautiful thing about this area is that there are so many things to do.   A family vacation would make perfect sense.  There's the beach,  of course.   But there are also beach sports,  hiking,  biking,  small nearby towns to visit,  and the tourist mecca of Puerto Vallarta is only a short drive away.  It’s a place of adventure, but not too much.  Just the right amount for a family vacation.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Racing on Pacaya

Last Sunday morning, I woke up to the sound of soft rain on the roof.  A never-ending drizzle had started the afternoon before and never really stopped in Guatemala City.  My thoughts toward the rain were not pleasant.

It was the morning of the Pacaya 10km race, which is one of my favorites each year.  The trail is difficult, but not impossible, and the views the entire race are breathtaking.  I had run it the past two years, with a slightly better time my second year than my first.  Though I hadn’t explicitly trained for this year’s 10K, I knew I was in pretty good shape and thought I had a chance at finishing well.  

But… rain.  

There was already a facebook message thread between some of the people going with me to the race.  Two had decided not to chance the rain and mud, and a few of the others were waffling.  Resolutely, I added that unless I heard the race was cancelled or postponed, I planned to drive there and make a game-time decision about whether it was worth running or not.  

Thankfully, as we maneuvered the dirt road leading to the starting line, the rain held off, and the road didn’t appear too terribly muddy.  The eight of us who’d made the trek unanimously decided the run would be worth it.  

The 8 ladies who ran the race!  (post-run)
We were blessed as we ran; no rain, and the skies cleared enough to allow the usual sweeping views across the hills and lakes.  Parts of the trail were muddy, yes, and I felt like I walked more this year than I did last year for that reason.  

It also seemed like there were less people running the 10K this year than in years previous.  The group of us at the starting line seemed discouragingly small, and along the route, except in the first kilometer, I rarely saw anyone ahead of me or behind me.  Thankfully, workers had been well placed at each turn to make sure runners stayed on the correct route, and I didn’t get lost.

When I crossed the finish line, the woman who handed me my finisher’s medal told me the award ceremony would be in a few minutes and asked me to stay for it.  She also informed me I was the first woman to cross the finish line.  

Chatting to the first place overall finisher, a man from El Salvador who had finished thirteen minutes before me, I discovered that I was in third place overall.

Without a doubt, this is the best I’ve ever finished in a race.  

A woman came sprinting across the finish line a few minutes behind me, and shortly behind her came three of my friends, right in a row.  

Two hours later, the podium was cleared and they were calling our names.  I took my spot in first, and then there was a moment of confusion as they called Lindsey and Janae in second and third place, not woman who’d come in right behind me and Holly.  Glancing at their list, I realized that the two of them were placed in the “Masters” age category.  This was comical, because Holly had taken the number of a friend whose knees hadn’t allowed her to compete, and definitely does not fall into the older age bracket.  We congratulated her after she took her place on the podium, telling her how young she looked.  

It was a day of celebration for us at Volcan de Pacaya.  I’m so glad we braved the weather and ran the race!  Standing with my friends on that podium is a feeling I won’t soon forget.  

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Moving On

October has been a difficult month for me this year, and it’s not even over yet (though nearly).  But I sincerely hope the hardest things I will encounter this month are now behind me. 

October began with some rockiness in my personal life.  Now, three weeks later, I can look back with clarity and see that what happened was for the best.  But at the time—well, I was a mess for a little bit there.

And then, one week after my personal life had been turned upside down, the school called the foreign hire teachers into a meeting and informed us that they wanted our decisions about whether we wanted to renew our contracts at the end of this year or not soon.  Like within the next week, soon.

Last Christmas, I had decided this would be my third and final year living in Guatemala.  I felt the time was right and I would be ready to return to Wisconsin after this school year. 

But then eight months later, I came back here after summer vacation, and I was reminded about everything that I love about my life here.  I am happy in almost every single aspect of my life.  So I began to question my decision.  Maybe a fourth year in Guatemala wouldn’t be such a poor decision, after all.

My gut kept pulling me home, though.  I had thought I had another month to decide for sure, to make sure of my feelings, and to let my school know my plans for the following year.  When they asked us to inform them by October 21st, I suddenly felt less sure than ever before.  (My indecision also may have been influenced by my mostly-stable-but-recently-damaged mental state at the time of the meeting).    

I spent the next five days agonizing over my decision.  Crying.  Trying to reason with myself.  The thing was, something inside me told me moving home was the right thing to do.  But when my friends here asked me why I would leave, I didn’t have a good answer.  I love everything about my life here, and there are many things about moving back to Wisconsin that scare me, that I worry about, that I fear will make me less happy than I am here. 

But by Day 6, when I imagined how it would feel to tell my principal I was staying, it felt…wrong.  So, I told him I wouldn’t be returning.

I really think it was the right decision, though I still can’t define, exactly, my reasons why.  They have something to do with my future goals and where I want to end up years from now, however.  I feel it was the right move.  So now, the decision is off my shoulders, and I have the next seven months to enjoy my life—every single minute of it—and also mentally prepare myself to return to Wisconsin winters and public school teaching (but also to family, fall, the Mississippi, and safety on the streets).     

I lead a lovely life.  

Monday, October 26, 2015

When a 3 hour drive takes almost 9...

I hate Friday traffic in Guatemala.  Hate it.  With a passion.  From 3pm until about 8pm, trying to leave the city is horrendous and takes twice or three times as long as it would with no traffic.

On Friday afternoon, a group of us left right after school to go to the beach for the weekend.  I was one of the drivers, and I was adamant that we would leave the school parking lot at 3:02pm and we would make no stops until we were out of the city. 

We did leave the parking lot by about 3:05, but after that my master plan to arrive at the beach early in the evening started falling apart. 

First of all, we didn’t make it fifteen minutes before we had to pull over because my car was making odd grating sounds with every turn of the wheel or bump in the road.  We deduced that there was too much weight in the trunk, and we were able to transfer some of our load to one of the other cars.  Back on the road again.

Traffic was unusually slow leaving the city, but we finally were picking up speed, had left the capital behind us, and at about 5:30pm, we were looking forward to being at the beach by maybe 7pm.

And then, out of nowhere, we came to a standstill. 

And when I say standstill, I am not exaggerating.  I turned off my car and we spent an hour or more in the exact same spot.  Up and down the road, people were out of their cars, stretching their legs and getting a bit of air. 

Still early on; before people turned off their cars AND their lights, to
conserve their batteries.

At 8pm, we were still at Kilometer 36.  It had taken us five hours to go just over 20 miles.  We were beginning to go a little insane.  

It turns out there’d been a major accident, killing at least one person, and severely messing up traffic. 
(Quote of the night, after we'd been parked in the road for hours:
Jared: "There was this huge accident.  So, that's why traffic is slow."  
Jestina: "Um...this is not 'slow'.")   

It was about 9pm before we really started moving. 
After the traffic jam, we had to deal with a town feria (festival) blocking traffic, a street that more closely resembled a lake, and 79 speed bumps.  
It was 11:40pm by the time we reached our beach house.  

That, my friends, is a new record.   But being there, and waking up to the ocean at our doorstep, made it all worth it.  

Monday, October 5, 2015

Hiking Maderas: Volcanoes in Nicaragua

How could a volcano hike on which we saw only clouds from the summit rank in my top 5 hikes of all time?  I'll tell you how.   It's all about the journey,  people.

We started our hike from our hotel,  Finca Montaña Sagrada, on the Nicaraguan island of Ometepe,  a little after 8am.  The day was cloudy,  but we left with hopes that the skies would clear.   

Right from the start,  the hike was a whole different world from what Rachel and I have gotten used to in Guatemala.   The heat and humidity had us dripping sweat in short order.   Thankfully,  the route was shaded and we were more or less comfortable,  even sweaty as we were.

Farmland and petroglyphs at the base of the volcano
The air was filled with the sounds of howler monkeys,  and soon enough,  we actually saw a couple.   Our guide also pointed out a mean looking venomous land crab (a different species than the kind that live in Lago Nicaragua).  Right next to the path,  we saw a huge black and yellow spider (the size of my palm) that our guide assured us was harmless.   He also pointed out a giant frog (the size of my foot) and told us bigger ones exist.   Next,  we saw small capuchin monkeys with furry white faces leaping through the trees.

It's hard to get good photos of monkeys.
Through all this,  we were passing through dense rainforest foliage and climbing up and over and under huge tree roots slippery from last night's rain.   

When we reached the summit, just under 4 hours after we had started walking,  the sun was out.   On one side,  we looked down into the volcano's crater,  which is now a lake.   On the other side,  clouds blocked our view of Volcan Concepción and the rest of the Isla de a Ometepe.   We decided to take a break and see if the clouds cleared.   The temperature was comfortable,  the sun shone, and a breeze kept the air moving.  At one point,  a flock of bright green birds took off and circled right over us before winging off into the distance.   It was idyllic,  even without a view.  

Our way back down was slippery,  and I kept falling (sometimes more gracefully than others).  I lost count of how many times I ended up on my backside,  cushioned by the mud of the path.   Sadly,  our guide didn't seem to find my falls entertaining (not that I meant them to be,  but they're easier to deal with when someone is laughing with you).  I tried to keep it under control,  really.

The highlight of our trip down the mountain came when we rounded a corner and stopped in our tracks because a boa constrictor was blocking the path.   A boa!!  I'd never seen one outside of a zoo before. Thankfully,  she slithered off back into the underbrush and didn't cause us any problems.   How cool!

It's a little blurry, but there's the front half of our 5ft boa! 
We saw more monkeys and crabs on our way down.

But the reason this hike will be one of my top 5 is a culmination of everything about it.  The hike itself was fun and interesting, which is not always the case with volcano hikes in Guate.   A lot of them begin to look the same.   And you never see wildlife there.   This hike was clean,  secluded,  and full of new treasures around each corner.

Customary celebratory Snickers
on the summit

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Missed the Last Bus... Again

The six of us scampered down Volcan Tacana on Monday with not many cares in the world.  We’d made it to the summit of the 2nd highest peak in Central America without any serious rain, had enjoyed a sunrise stretching out over Mexico and Guatemala, and now we were heading back to civilization with lighter packs and fuller hearts.  

Sunrise from the summit of Tacana

We enjoyed the sunshine and the views of the valley stretching out below us.  We passed purple, white, and red flowers tucked into the undergrowth.  We remarked on how green everything was, and we loved the way the mist made everything seem more mysterious.  We took our time, taking multiple breaks and walking at a leisurely pace.  

At 12:45, we stopped for a snack break and ate trail mix and gummy candies.  While we were relaxing, I mentioned something about how I’d overheard our guide, Cesar, say that the last bus from the town we were headed for left at 1:00pm.  Suddenly everyone in the group became more alert.   “Really?  Ben, does it really leave at 1:00?  That’s in ten minutes!”  Cesar shrugged and nodded confirmation that he thought our last bus was at 1:00.  “Pero vamos lentos.  Yo puedo caminar más rápido,” he told Ben, as if that explained everything.

Needless to say, even though we started walking faster, we did not make it all the way into town in less than ten minutes. We arrived in Sibinal at 1:07pm and were told by a local that the last bus for the day had left at 1:00.  Cesar went of to speak with a friend of his to find us a pickup truck to give us a ride to the next bus stop.  Ben, meanwhile, began negotiating with a local taxi driver named Walter.  

After a bit of debating, we loaded our 6 packs into the back of a 1980 Station Wagon (1 pack went on the roof), crammed 4 people into the backseat and 3 in the front, and let Walter take us out of the town and to the next bus stop.  

Walter was excited at the commission to drive us.  He immediately engaged Russell, who was sitting next to him in front, in conversation.  It turns out Walter lived in the US for a few years, until he was caught by immigration and deported.  Here in Guate, he is proud of his Station Wagon, which is running remarkably well for a car 33 years old (Although his car is a 1980 model...which would actually make it 35 years old...Math is apparently not Walter’s strong suit).  

As we climbed the winding hill in Walter’s taxi, he swerved from side to side to avoid potholes, and spent more time looking at Russell that at the road it seemed.  He kept up a steady stream of interesting, awkward, and sometimes strange conversation while he drove.  As he did so, the mist and fog closed in, bringing visibility down to almost nothing.  It seemed evident to all of us in the car that our taxi driver had already spent a good portion of the morning celebrating Independence Day with quite a bit of alcohol, and with the swerving, the potholes, the lack of visibility, and the weighed-down ancient car, all of us felt nervous and were extremely relieved to disembark the taxi and wait for the chicken bus that would take us on the next portion of our journey.  

While our first chicken bus ride was uneventful and remarkably uncrowded (Rachel and I had a seat all to ourselves for the entire ride), our second proved more exciting.  

Chicken bus buddies!
September 14th in Guatemala is the day before Independence Day, and it is the day of the antorcha tradition.  Groups of runners carrying torches run from city to city, celebrating freedom and clogging up traffic.  The tradition started in 1959 and is a nod to someone who supposedly ran from one city to the capital to bring news of independence back in 1821.  

At any rate, on the 2nd chicken bus of the day, we encountered antorcha after antorcha, all going in the opposite direction of us.  Because the runners took up an entire lane (and were sometimes accompanied by slow-moving vehicles, parade-style), traffic backed up for miles in the oncoming traffic lane.  Inevitably, people tried to pass the line of cars and found themselves in our lane without a way to merge back into theirs, preventing our bus from moving forward.  It was quite the experience as the passengers on our bus stood, shouting encouragements to our driver and yelling insults out the windows when we passed each offending driver (“Estupido!”  “Learn how to drive!”)  followed by laughter all around.  

We kept wishing we'd have a Tacana bus for our Tacana trip.

Eventually, we made it to San Marcos.  It was about 6:15pm by this time, and we’d been traveling by taxi and bus for the last 5 hours.  We promptly boarded a shared van to take us through town to the area where our next chicken bus would be waiting.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t there.  It seemed we’d missed the last bus.  Again.

Cesar spoke with a shuttle driver who agreed to take us to Xela, but only if we could find more people, as 6 passengers was not worth his time.  A comical conversation ensued between Ben and Cesar.  Cesar’s plan was to wait at the gas station to see if more people showed up to board the shuttle.  Ben proclaimed that this was silly, and anyone wanting to go to Xela would either have taken the last bus or would already have gotten a taxi; no one would wander into the gas station and ask the shuttle driver if he’d be willing to go.  To prove his point, Ben shouted to no one in particular, “Quien quiere ir a Xela?  O, nadie?”  (Who wants to go to Xela?  Oh, no one?”)

His outburst did succeed in getting us some information, however.  A man working at the gas station came over, asked if we were headed to Xela, and told us the last bus was leaving at 6:30 and to go see if we could still catch it.  So we backtracked up the road in time to see the chicken bus, packed to the gills with people hanging out the front door, pulling out bound for Xela.  About 15 of us stood behind, unable to board, as the bus attendant told us the last bus would be leaving at 7:00pm, and another man contradicted him saying that that bus was not running that night.

Soon though, a micro van pulled in, and we all piled inside.  Though the capacity of the van should have been around 15, we packed in around 30 people.  We managed to close the doors, and we were off on our way to Xela, finally.  I lucked out on the ride with an actual seat and even a headrest.  Russell was not so lucky, perched on the wheel well beside our seat, two teenage boys practically in his lap.  

At 9:00pm, after 8 hours of travelling, we entered our hotel in Xela and dropped our things with a sigh of relief.  After missing the “last bus” more than once, we’d finally arrived.  

Back in Xela once more

Friday, September 11, 2015

The State of Things

It’s an exciting time to live in Guatemala.  Though I don’t usually follow current events or even attempt to stay up to date on the political scene here in Guate, over the past few months, it’s been impossible not to.  And what has been happening has been simply remarkable. 

Alfombra at our school to celebrate Independence Day

I am still by no means an expert, but I think almost everyone here in the city now has at least a basic understanding of what’s been going on.  I’ll attempt to keep this update accurate and concise. 

To begin, we have to go back a few months, to the spring.  It was at that time that the then-vice president of Guatemala, Roxanna Baldetti, was linked to a corruption scandal.  This news sparked a campaign called RenunciaYa (“Resign Already”) which called for the resignations of both the vice president and the president (who people assumed was involved, though no formal accusations were made).  Baldetti resigned in May, but President Perez Molina did not step down. 

All summer, peaceful protests were held on Saturday afternoons in Zone 1 of Guatemala City, people with signs and chants demanding the president resign.  He did not. 

Things began to come to a head in August.  As the presidential elections grew nearer, evidence came to light implicating the president and the first formal accusation against Perez Molina was made.  Just two weeks before the election, the president gave a speech.  Many thought he would finally announce his resignation, but instead, he proclaimed his innocence and lashed out at the UN group that has been spearheading the corruption investigations. 

The speech sparked a massive uprising.  A protest was planned for August 27th that would shut down the city.  Schools (including mine) cancelled classes for the day, businesses closed, and thousands of citizens took to the streets.  The university students started marching from their campuses, picking up more and more people until they reached the Parque Central in zone 1.  Over 100,000 people gathered that day to demand the president’s resignation.  And remarkably, the entire event remained peaceful.  In this violent country, that fact alone is amazing and wonderful. 

The beginning of the march, in Zone 15

Unfortunately, the protest achieved no visible results—at least not right away.  If the president were to resign, he would lose his immunity and be subject to investigation for corruption charges.  By remaining president, he prolonged his freedom. 

So the government took matters into their own hands.  First the supreme court, and then the congress, voted to strip the president of his immunity.  The final vote in congress was 132 to 0 in favor of renouncing his immunity. 

As soon as Perez Molina was stripped of his immunity, a warrant was put out for his arrest, and he resigned the presidency a few hours later.  And the people of Guatemala rejoiced.

Yet the future of this small country is not yet clear.  Things are moving in a positive direction, but in September 6th’s presidential election, no one on the ballot seemed to be a good choice; most of the candidates are known or suspected to be just as corrupt, if not more so, than the previous administration. 

One candidate in particular, Manuel Baldizon, is known to be bad news.  In the days before the election, lawmakers lobbied to have his party removed from the ballot due to charges of bribery and corruption during his campaign.  The motion was not successful, and Baldizon remained on the ballot.  Yet another civilian campaign was in motion called “No Te Toca Baldizon”  (“It’s not your turn, Baldizon”). 

The fight to keep Baldizon from getting elected was just as fierce as the fight to get Perez Molina to step down.  While everyone I spoke to or heard from in the city was anti-Baldizon, the problem was conveying the message of the candidate’s corruption to the poorer citizens of Guatemala (which is sadly a huge percentage of the country).  It’s hard to convince someone that a person is a poor choice for president when all they know about him is “He gave me a bag of food and necessities,” or, as is rumored (but perhaps not confirmed to be true), “He said he’d give me a job if I voted for him,” or “He said he’d pay us if we voted for him.”    

The morning of September 7th, the day after the vote, Guatemalans were disappointed, but not without hope.  The leader in the presidential race (which will go to a second round of voting between the top two candidates from the first vote) was Jimmy Morales, a comedian who apparently has acknowledged he knows very little about politics but had the charisma and the team to be elected.  Manuel Baldizon and Sandra Torres were (are) neck and neck for 2nd and 3rd place.  Currently, Torres leads by 1.2% (less than 6,000 votes), and Baldizon is claiming the elections were fraudulent and is pushing for a re-vote between him and Torres.  For now, though, it appears that #NoTeToca was successful.  But in the effort to keep Baldizon from the presidency, no one pushed hard enough for the right candidate. 

Guatemala is moving forward, but there is still a long way to go.  

Viva Guate! 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

"How's the View on Your Side?"

“So what do you think?  Mini or full adventure?” Chris asked me via messenger on Thursday afternoon.  Before I knew Chris would be in town this weekend, I had already made plans with my co-workers for Saturday evening.  But an adventure with Chris is something no one should pass up when given the chance.

Full adventure was the obvious choice. 
I backed out of my Saturday plans, and Chris and I left that morning bound for Mixco Viejo to be followed by a surprise which I only knew entailed a road/village that Chris had never been to. 

We left the city and wound up the hills, through an area Chris calls the furniture capital of Guatemala, towards San Juan Sacatepequez.    The views were simply stunning.  The skies were clear, and we pulled over to take a few photos of Guatemala City spread out in the distance. 

As our road curved over ridges, the view on either side of the truck kept changing.  With sweeping valleys spread out on both sides, Chris would ask me, “How’s the view on your side?”  “Pretty fantastic,” I would reply, “How about yours?”  “Eh, it’s all right.” 

Around mid-morning, we arrived at Mixco Viejo.  We paid our entrance fees and then entered the Maya ruins.  We had no guide or any information about the ruins, so we made it up, imagining what the temples and houses must have looked like hundreds of years ago.

Ball court or swimming pool?  The debate rages on.

Eventually, we found a spot in the shade to sit and enjoy the view, talk about our life goals, and identify farm animals by the noises drifting across the valley.  After splitting a granola bar for “lunch,” we gathered our things and took the road again, the real adventure beginning.

Just minutes after leaving the ruins, the road went from paved to rutted dirt.  I was thankful we were in Chris’s truck and not my little Volkswagen.  We made our way down the valley, Chris checking his gps now and again.  At one point we spotted a river.  “Oh, that river’s on the map.  That’s a good sign.  I’m not sure whether there’s a bridge, though.  That’s not on the map.” 

The river
Thankfully, the bridge existed.  A one-lane wooden bridge with no guard rails.  Jolly good. 

The bridge!  Just wide enough for us.

Just when we were beginning to wonder whether the dirt road would continue all the way to our destination (still a secret surprise to me), we reached the town of Joyabaj, and from there, the road was paved and less winding.  We made good time and arrived in Santa Cruz del Quiché (our destination) by mid-afternoon. 

We checked into our hotel (and little place that looked questionable from the outside, but was actually quite bright and airy on the interior), then set off to explore the town.

By lucky coincidence, Quiché’s town feria (festival) was this weekend.  We wandered to the town square where a presentation was taking place.  We couldn’t understand enough of what was going on to make complete sense of it, but we got the impression it was a re-enactment of the Spaniards meeting Tecún Umán, one of the last rulers of the k´iche´ people for which the area is named. 

A little more wandering found us an empty 2nd floor restaurant overlooking a crowd of people waiting for a concert to begin.  The food was good and the location superb for people watching and for listening to the music. 

Our view of the concert

After our “lupper,” it was about 5pm, and unsure what to do with ourselves for the rest of the evening, Chris asked our waiter for a recommendation.  He told him about a place called El Terminal where he said there would be food and games.  Off we went to explore. 

El Terminal turned out to be the bus terminal (shocking title for it).  There were indeed lines of market stalls, restaurants, carnival games, and rides.   I loved walking through the stalls and looking at all of the sweets, toys, and other items.  It was a market unlike any tourist market I’ve been to in Guatemala; it felt more authentic, and it was filled with people out having a good time on Saturday evening. 

We played a few carnival games (Chris played more than I did).  He won a prize which he gave to me—a pink poster claiming me as his best friend forever.  I agreed to put it on the wall in my home, except the next day we FORGOT IT IN QUICHÉ. 

Mejor amigo por siempre?!  How sweet! 

From an engineering standpoint, Chris deemed the ferris wheels whipping around at high speeds to be unsafe, not to mention slightly terrifying, so we passed on any rides and we went back to the hotel to recharge for the night. 

Sunday morning, our plan was to walk to a café for breakfast, then return to the hotel and take the truck out.  However, when we emerged onto the street at around 8:20am, people were setting up their market stalls up and down the street (without leaving an area for cars to pass through).  We decided we’d better get the truck out right then, before leaving became completely impossible.

Navigating was still tricky.  At one point, a car had to back up to make room for us (he had to back up for at least a block), and Chris had to get out and pick up a motorcycle and move it over to make room for us.  We squeezed through with inches to spare. 

Yup, it was as tight as it looks in the picture. 

With that stress, Chris decided to get out of town straight away and leave breakfast for later.  First, we stopped at the last surprise of the trip—one more set of ruins. 

These ruins were less excavated, but the site had a nicely done museum detailing the people who once lived there and the history of the area.  The grounds were also absolutely stunning, and I enjoyed the short walk immensely.  

Just as we were about to turn around, I saw a sign to the caves and insisted they would be worth seeing.  Chris indulged me, even though I think he really would have preferred to be in the truck or finding coffee instead. 

Cave entrance

The caves turned out to be a long man-made tunnel with several fingers branching off at the end.  I turned on my phone's flashlight to light our way.  After a few steps in the darkness, Chris asked me to shine my light at the ceiling.  I obliged.
“How’s it look?”  I asked.  “We okay?”
“Yeah, looks good for now,” he answered.  Having a mining engineer friend whose job description includes making sure tunnels are safe can come in handy when exploring shady tunnels in rural Guatemala. 

After the caves, we took to the road again.  Having bypassed the town, we searched out a roadside comedor that looked legit.  A place that had wooden tables inside, a tortilla grill outside, and a sign advertising breakfast, lunch, and coffee seemed to fit the bill.  $5 fed both of us eggs, rice, beans, chorizo, tortillas, and coffee.  Absolutely no complaints. 

The rest of the drive home was beautiful, but being on main highways, seemed decidedly less adventurous than the previous day’s journey.  We popped in our new reggaeton cds (purchased at El Terminal the night before) and passed the time by making the sign of each political advertisement we passed (the presidential election is coming up soon, and it’s amazing how many campaign logos involve hands in various positions—thumbs up, fingers straight, a fist, 2 hands gripping wrists, 2 hands with the thumbs overlapping). 

The weekend ended much too quickly, but we have the memories and photos to tide us over until the next adventure.  

We pulled over one last time for one last snapshot of the view on "my side."

Sunday, August 9, 2015

When Old Friends Come to Visit...

I’ve been back in Guate for two weeks now, but both weeks seemed to pass in the flash of an eye, leaving me today, for the first time, with a chance to catch my breath and reflect on them.

There’s a reason I felt so occupied the first two weeks; I had a lot going on.  Two days after returning to Guatemala, my dear friend G-Money (of college marching band and Peru adventure fame) arrived to visit.  Unfortunately, her arrival coincided perfectly with my return to work.  While I scrambled to get my classroom ready for the arrival of my new students, G-Money spent her first two days in the country relaxing and exploring the area around my neighborhood.  She mastered ordering coffee in Spanish, visited the grocery store 3 days running (with different people each time), and explored Cayalá. 

On Saturday morning, my first day off, our adventure really began.  We set off before dawn to make it to Lake Atitlan as early as possible. 

The trip was perfect from the start.  We flew through Guatemala City with almost zero traffic to slow us down.  We made good time, passing through Chimaltenango (everyone’s least favorite town because of the bottleneck in traffic that it creates) just 45 minutes after leaving my house.  Just as we were starting to crave breakfast, we arrived in Tecpan to the wonderful surprise that one of my favorite restaurants was open and serving up fresh coffee and hot tortillas. 

Breakfast at Kappe Paulino's

As we snaked down through Solalá and saw our first glimpses of the lake, it was clear we had been gifted with a gorgeous day.  A bright blue sky illuminated the volcanoes beautifully with not a rain cloud in sight. 

At the dock, a boat worker told us his public lancha was leaving in three minutes, and he was true to his word.  Even though there were only 4 of us on the boat (which could have held 20 people easily), we pushed off in three minutes and were in Santa Cruz in no time. 

We enjoyed a leisurely, beautiful walk to our hotel, where we dropped off our bags (we were much too early to check in) and then decided on a stroll to explore the town of Santa Cruz proper, up the hill. 
View on the walk to the hotel

The trek turned out to be a serious uphill climb in nearly full sun, and while we enjoyed it with no complaints, upon returning, we both agreed that a cold smoothie sounded like the perfect reward.  My strawberry banana smoothie, coupled with a shaded chair and a view of the lake, hit the spot, and refreshed, we returned to our hotel.

The view from Santa Cruz

There, we discovered that the board game Ticket to Ride was available for our use, so we spent an hour before lunch playing the game with, again, a great view of the lake.  (I love Ticket to Ride, and G-Money and I used to play it in college.  Finding it in Guatemala was an unexpected treat). 

Lunch was delicious, and after it, we were shown to our room—a cabin high on the hill overlook the lake.  Now, we’d been warned that our room was pretty far up the hill, but I didn’t really know what that meant.  181 steps later, I was breathing a bit heavily and working to keep up with Carlos, who was showing us the way.  Still, the view was worth it, and a little bun-burning workout never hurt anyone. 

About the halfway point on the climb up/down

Next on the agenda was some time relaxing on the hotel patio.  I promptly took a nap in a hammock enjoying the cool breeze, the shade, and the view (until my eyes closed). 

The perfect spot for some serious relaxation

After that, we decided to see a bit more of the lake villages.  We took a public boat over to the village of San Juan, which has become a town of trade cooperatives.  We learned about the existence of the women’s weaving co-op, the coffee co-op, the artesan’s co-op.  We stopped at a few stalls, and the women were eager to tell us about their use of natural dies or to demonstrate how they craft the patterns on their looms.  After buying a pair of earrings made with flower petals, we strolled through town enjoying some of the murals.  Then, we took a tuk tuk to the neighboring town of San Pedro.

One of the murals in San Juan

San Pedro is a tourist’s town, and we walked the strip with me pointing out all of the restaurants I’ve been to.  (I’ve only been to San Pedro once, for a three day weekend, but apparently I ate my way through the town). 

Then it was back to Santa Cruz for the evening.  We dined family style at Iguana Perdida, a hostel nearby our hotel.  Dinner conversation was interesting and the food was delicious.  We fell into bed early and slept soundly. 

Sunday morning, we enjoyed a yoga class (again, like all things over the weekend, with a great view of the lake), followed by a leisurely breakfast.  Full and happy, we showered (again, leisurely), and checked out around noon.  We made our way back to Antigua, where we dropped G-Money off at her hotel, took a walk around, ate a mid-afternoon meal (lupper, if you will), and then I took to my car and braved traffic back into the city. 

G-Money spent the next day and a half in Antigua on her own while I went back to work, welcoming my new students and beginning a new school year.  While I wish she could have stayed much longer and that I could have taken time off to spend more time with her, I’m so grateful for the time we did have.  It was amazing to see an old friend (and it had been so long since we’d traveled together, I had forgotten what an AWESOME travel companion she is!  Can you believe that?!).  I’m really lucky to have her for a friend, and that she was able to make a visit to Guate work.  Next up: my visit to her in Asia!  Next summer.