Thursday, April 30, 2015


I had a lot to celebrate last weekend.  First of all, there was the 11km trail race that I won a little over a week ago.  (Yes, won.  At least the women’s category.  It’s the first time I’ve ever come in first place in a race, and I did not expect it in the least).  Second was the fact that as of Friday, April 24th, 100% of my requirements are complete for my master’s degree in International Education. 

Approaching the finish line

Celebrating my masters degree with a
massive turkey leg.
Both of those things are worth a celebration.

So, to celebrate (and to relax after an intensive 2 week master’s course), Richard and I took off for a weekend at Lake Atitlan. 

The weekend was exactly what I was hoping for: a perfect balance between adventure and total relaxation. 

On Saturday, we took our time packing (because if you know me at all, you know I always leave packing for the last minute) and leaving the city, arriving at our hotel in Lake Atitlan around 3:30pm.  The day was overcast, so we had no view of the volcanoes across the lake, but the room was bright and the hotel grounds filled with lush gardens. 

View from the room

That evening, we enjoyed a delicious BBQ dinner at our hotel, then called it an early night. 

Sunday morning we woke up to sunshine, but again, fog shrouded the other lake’s volcanoes from view.  Our plan for the day was to go on a hike, and while it was disappointing that we probably wouldn’t have a view, we were still excited about it, and we had a quick breakfast at the hotel before catching a lancha across the lake to begin our hike from the property that used to be Richard’s grandfather’s coffee finca. 

Beginning the hike

The hike took us up a ridge to what would have been a stunning view of the lake and all three volcanoes surrounding it.  Instead we saw mostly blue, but it was still quite enjoyable. 

From the ridge, we hiked into the village of Peña Blanca.  (If you have seen the documentary Living on One, it was filmed there.  If you have not…I recommend watching it).  

Peña Blanca
From the village we followed a quiet road all the way to Solalá, then down the main highway back into Panajachel.  All together the hike was 14.5km (about 9 miles), and I think it was the perfect way to spend a Sunday morning.

A quick stop at the waterfall on the way to Pana

We had lunch at a place called Circus Bar in Pana.  It had great ambiance and great pizza!  However, as I went to photograph it, Richard kindly suggested that perhaps I should just enjoy the moments of my life rather than photographing all of them.  Fair enough. 

After another quiet evening relaxing at the hotel and having dinner there, it was once again an early night followed by a sunny morning.  We checked out early and ferried back to Pana for a delicious breakfast (which I did not photograph) and then a walk along the water.  We finally could see the hazy volcanoes in the distance, so we found a shady spot to just sit and enjoy the view for a while.

Relaxation, celebration, and good company…it was a wonderful weekend!  

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Nebaj to Todos Santos: A spring break trek in Guatemala

Some adventures are easier to write about than others.  Some have their own stories, and rather than telling about what we did on the adventure, I tell the story.  Some posts practially write themselves.

And then sometimes, you just have an absolutely amazing experience...and it's just too much and too many stories to fit into one post.  This year's spring break was like that.  For six days, I lived in the moment and had the best time of my life.  And now I'm left with too many memories, too many stories, too many breathtaking snapshots, and I'm having a hard time deciding how to get it into a blog post.  

I decided (or maybe, my inability to write decided for me)  to wait a few days (or a week or two) before beginning to write about spring break.  My hope is that what I'll be left with in my memory is simply the best stories, simply the things worth telling about.  That is my hope.  

Amy, Rachel, and I had dreamed about this trek for a really long time.  6 days in the highlands of Guatemala, walking a total of 58K over four days (the other 2 days were spent in transit from Xela to our destinations)  And it definitely did not disappoint.  We spent our time under beautiful, bright blue skies (not event a hint of rain!), in good company, and passing through some of the most beautiful and varied scenery that Guatemala has to offer.  Each night, we stopped in a tiny village and stayed with families who spoke only a little Spanish, lapsing more comfortably into their indigenous languages when not speaking with us.  

The first night we spent in the medium-sized town of Nebaj.  Because we were traveling during the week of Semana Santa (Holy Week) before Easter, many towns and people were celebrating, and Nebaj was no exception.  We explored their town feria (carnival), and decided with trepidation not to ride the Ferris wheel once we saw how much speed it gathered in its rotation.  

We stayed at a hostel in Nebaj, and after dinner, a local children's choir came to serenade us with a few songs.  They sang in English, Spanish, and their native language Ixil...and aside from being cute, they were really good vocalists!  It was an amazingly memorable experience. 

Leaving Nebaj
The first day of actual hiking, we left Nebaj and hiked over a ridge and down into the village of Acul, then on to a cheese farm where we purchased amazing cheese that we'd eat for lunch for the next three days.  We didn't know what type of cheese it was, so we made up a description, claiming it was "Aged, salt-brined hard cheese with a rind."  (Upon returning to Guatemala City, I showed a friend a picture of the cheese and he immediately said, "Oh, that's queso chancol--from Acul, right?  It's so good!")  
Acul in the distance

Ben shares a story of the horrors of the Civil War with us
outside the church in Acul

Queso Chancol outside of Acul

Right after the cheese farm, we stopped for lunch along a small stream.  While we enjoyed the amazing Quetzaltrekkers trademark lunch of veggie sandwiches and nachos, one of our guides remarked wistfully that he wished he could have brought along avocados for more than just the first day.  As someone wondered aloud that it seemed we should be able to find some along the trek, we looked up to see tons of avocados hanging from a tree high above our stream.  And so the challenge of getting us avocados began.  Between Alex and Ben's ingenuity, many thrown rocks, and one long board from the makeshift bridge over the stream, we secured five avocados.  Unfortunately, they were hard as rocks, but the boys put them into their packs with the hope that they'd ripen by the end of the trip.

On the second day of actual hiking, we arose at 3:30am, flipped on our headlamps in the village with no electricity, packed up our sleeping bags, and climbed 87 switchbacks in order to catch a magnificent sunrise from the top at our breakfast spot.  We were supremely lucky to be rewarded with a view of the sun rising above a sea of low-hanging clouds which only the tallest hills stood above.  

The sunrise was only the start to the reasons that day was my ultimate favorite on the trek.  

In the golden light of early morning, warm breakfast filling our bodies, our next adventure of the day was administering Amy's rabies shot (see previous post).  This included much laughter, consternation, and photographs.  It was the highlight of several trekkers’ trips.

Right after that, we hiked a few more switchbacks and found ourselves on the altiplano--a plateau-like ridge peppered with small farms and lots of jutting rocks.  On a rock field at the top of the hill, we posed for pictures, snacked, and relaxed for an hour or more.  I could have stayed the entire day. 

After lunch that day (a relaxed affair in a field of juniper), we set off in the direction of music that drifted to us over the hills, seeming out of place in the middle of nowhere as we were.  We rounded a bend, and suddenly saw far in the distance a field of hundreds of people involved in a soccer tournament.  As we came closer, a few of the children noticed us and cautiously approached.  After some hemming and hawing by both parties, eventually a soccer game between the trekkers and the Guatemalan kids began.  This spontaneous interaction was definitely another highlight of the trip.  

A huge group of people playing soccer in the distance

Dividing into teams (US vs Guate)

high fives

After about a half hour of playing, we tore ourselves away, and it was but a short walk to Don Roberto's house where we spent that night.  Staying there was my favorite place of the trip.  We had a wooden building, complete with five beds and Christmas wallpaper, to ourselves, as well as a front lawn with a great view of the valley to relax in before dinner.  The water filter became clogged that night, and we took bets on how long it would take to fill a 2 liter water bottle with the filter moving at a slow drip.  (The answer was 13 minutes per bottle).  

Our accomodations for night 2 of hiking.

That night, Don Roberto and his wife, Isabel, provided our dinner--a delicious meal of flavorful rice, pasta in a chicken gravy, and roasted chicken, with warm, sweet avena to drink.  As we were leaving--stuffed--Alex thanked our host and introduced himself.  Not five minutes after we returned to our separate sleeping building and began getting ready for bed, we were approached with a message--Don Roberto and his family wished for us to come back over for a special semana santa treat.  None of us could imagine eating or drinking another bite, but you don't turn down hospitality or a chance to learn about culture.  

Back at the long family table, an individual loaf of bread coated in a sugary glaze awaited each of us along with a mug of weak, sugary coffee.  The bread was dense and would have been filling enough to be a meal on its own.  We each ate some, enjoying ourselves, and then finally decided to ask whether the bread was a special tradition for semana santa. I was elected to do the honors.  

Turning around in my seat, I asked, "Este es una comida especial para la Semana Santa?"  Is this a special food for Holy Week?
"Si," Isabel told me.
"Ahh, y como se llama?"  Oh, and what is it called?
"Pan."  Bread.  
All of us at the table had basic Spanish knowledge, and we couldn't help it...we cracked up.  Of course it was bread.  But she didn't know whether we knew the word for it in Spanish or not.  Pulling myself together, I turned again and asked, "Es un tipo de pan especial para Semana Santa?"  Is it a special type for bread for Holy Week?  
"Pan de harina," she answered.  Made from flour.  
So we sort of deduced that perhaps bread is a treat for once a year, as most families in rural Guatemala generally subsist on tortillas, beans, and rice, and not much else.

Pan de harina for Semana Santa

After this interaction, we were able to chat a bit more with Roberto and Isabel.  Both of them used to live in the US, but without proper paperwork.  They returned to Guatemala, they say, to be closer to family again and to support them.  Their eldest son was born in the States, though, and therefore has the papers needed to return there by airplane.  They plan to send him back next year so that he may work for papers for his parents to come and join him.  Our guide, Ben, offered to create a book of English phrases for the boy to help him before he embarks on his journey.  The story breaks my heart, and I worry for this boy.  I do not know what or who waits for him when he will step off that plane, but I hope for the entire family's sake that they have planned that far ahead.  

The next morning, our 3rd day of hiking, we paused shortly after breakfast at a pristine river of cascading emerald pools.  The water was bone-chillingly cold, but after a few minutes, my feet stopped aching quite so badly from the water temperature, and I was able to explore upriver with Amy and Alex.  When another trekker and Ben realized what we were up to, they quickly followed.  Soon it was Ben leading the way.  I was amazed by Ben as a guide along the trek, because he seemed continually awestruck by everything we saw, even though he's led this trek six times now.  He would point out how beautiful the clouds were, or how amazing it was to talk to locals, or how beautiful the view was when the weather was clear (like it was for us).  That morning at the river, a childlike sense of wonder seemed to overtake him.  Around each bend in the river, he would remark with positive glee that he couldn't believe the little waterfalls and crystal clear pools kept going.  After a while, we began to wonder if maybe we should return to the group.  However...we were following the guide, so what could our exploration hurt?  
It only got prettier as we moved upstream...
Finally, after glancing at a watch and realizing we'd been gone for nearly 45 minutes, we made a pact that whatever was around the next bend, we would turn back once we saw it.  Ben got around first, and he turned towards me and said, "Oh yeah.  This is the end."  We found ourselves inside the walls of a canyon.  A 15 foot waterfall emptied into a deep sapphire pool.  Sandwiched between the walls of the canyon, a wide log hovered just a few inches above the waterline, wide enough for us to easily stand on to view the cascade (and do flips off of into the pool, as Alex did).  It was beyond picturesque.  And of course none of us had a camera along.  

The next few days, we hiked through farmland, met more locals, traversed "Terror Hill," shared more Semana Santa specialties, hiked to the highest non-volcanic peak in Central America, La Torre, and finally arrived, just a little bit tired of walking, in Todos Santos.

Reaching the top of "Terror Hill"

Leaving the trail of Todos Santos

With us for the last leg of the journey were 3 dogs that’d made the 5 hour walk over the mountain with us from the house we'd stayed at the night before.  Blanco was spritely and apparently has accompanied the trekkers various times before.  Then there was a little one with scoliosis (or which had perhaps been hit by a car and had its back and tail broken in several spots) who I nicknamed Scruffy and who Ben joked had ADD.  And finally there was an old black/brown dog who trudged along.  Each time our group paused, the old dog would find a patch of shade and lay down, staying there as long as he possibly could without risk of losing us.  I don't know how they made the long walk back to their home in La Ventosa alone, but Ben says they always do.  

Blanco and Scruffy, our four-legged companions

That last night in Todos Santos was a celebration--of our efforts, of the beauty of the Guatemalan countryside, of new friendships.  The next day, nothing could bring us down, not even the uncomfortable chicken bus ride to Xela, or the child who vomited into Alex's lap during it.  We were happy and content with ourselves and our vacation.  It was a trip I will never forget.  

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Rabies Shot

Sometimes the most unfortunate events make for the most entertaining stories. 
As Amy and I went for a trail run last Monday morning, enjoying our first true day off of semana santa, we were passing by the farm, and as usual the family and their animals were out.  All of a sudden two dogs turned towards us, barking and growling.  I jumped away from them and kept walking, which is not much in the way of defense, but is always my instinct with mean dogs.  I looked over at the owner who was standing nearby, and thought maybe we were in the clear, but they had focused their attention on Amy instead.   Behind me, I heard her swear and say, “It bit me!  Ow—again!” 

Finally the farmer stepped in, throwing a broom in the direction of the dogs and sending them scattering.  Amy and I took off running up the trail and didn’t stop to check her wounds until we were out of sight. 

The bite on her leg had broken skin, so on the advice of four different people, we went to the ER later in the afternoon to get her checked out. 

Two white girls in a Guatemalan hospital is always going to be an adventure. 

Parking was full at the front of the hospital near Emergency, so we followed the signs to a ramp in the back.  Then, we followed signs to Reception (which was just a tiny desk towards the back of the hospital, and we missed it).  We passed it, realized we had no idea where we were going in the hospital, and were approached by a security person.  She directed us to reception, and that woman gave us instructions on how to get to Emergency.  Of course, we soon screwed up those instructions and found ourselves wandering unmarked hallways.  The security woman must have decided to check on us, and she found us and then escorted us to the Emergency room like the lost little puppies we were. 

From there we were shown to a cubicle and attended to by a nurse and a doctor.  I took over as Amy’s translator when she needed it, and proved that my Spanish skills are good enough—just barely—to get us through an ER visit. 

The doctor cleaned the wounds, then decided to give Amy a rabies vaccine, Tetanus shot, and antibiotics in case any infections had been spread from the dog’s teeth/saliva. 

After the shots, the doctor came back with prescriptions for the antibiotic and the remaining doses of the rabies vaccine.  She explained to me that Amy would need to come back after 3 days and again after 7 and 14 days to get the remaining three doses.  I nodded my understanding—and then divulged that we would be on a trek from Nebaj to Todos Santos and not near any big towns in the next three days.  I asked what we should do about the 3 day dose.  She said any clinic or medical center would be able to help us out.  So I asked,  “Y… si no?”  (Aaaand…if not?)  Her response: “Buena pregunta.”  (Good question). 

On the way out, we once again got lost, but figured it out without needing an escort by following two other women towards the parking lot.  I swear that hospital is a maze… 

After lots of giggles and not too much pain, we made it home, and we figured Amy should be safe from all the potential diseases an outdoor dog could carry.   

About 8:30pm that evening, Amy called me.  Based on multiple opinions, she was freaking out about the possibility of missing the 3 day dose of the rabies vaccine and not sure whether she could even go on the trek anymore.  I think we both shed a tear or two about that possibility.  But we immediately got to work to figure out a solution.

The first step was to call the guides at Quetzaltrekkers, the organization we’d be hiking with, to ask whether it would be possible to go to a clinic and get her the vaccine on the 2nd hiking day of the trek.

The answer was a resounding “no,” unfortunately.  We would be in the middle of nowhere, and the towns we’d be hiking through would probably not even have electricity, much less a medical clinic with rabies vaccines in stock. 

So our second thought was to call the hospital and see if we could take the vaccine with us and administer it ourselves while on the trek.  Thankfully, the answer this time was “yes.”  So Amy hopped in her car and picked me up, and it was off to the hospital once again.

This time, we were on a time crunch, as Amy’s friend was flying in that night in order to trek with us, and Amy needed to pick him up at the airport.  We figured if it was a quick stop to pick up the vaccine, we should be able to make it to the airport on time.

Of course it wasn’t that simple.  At first at the emergency room, they told us they didn’t have the vaccine on hand.  When we complained that we had just called 15 minutes ago and received a different answer, they looked harder and magically found what we needed. 
But the next issue: the vaccine needed to be kept cold.  They wouldn’t give it to us without a cooler or some ice to keep it viable until we got home.  Just as we were about to head to a convenience store to buy something (because of course we hadn’t known about that requirement and hadn’t brought a cooler with us), the receptionist came running up and told us she’d located some ice and could put the vaccine on that. 

We were late to pick up Amy’s friend Alex from the airport, but he’d been waiting patiently, so there was no harm there.  Once we had him in the car, we set out on our next adventure: devising a way to keep the medicine cold while we were hiking for two days. 

We hoped we could find some dry ice, but at 9:30pm on a Monday night in Guatemala City, we had no luck with that.  What we did find was a small cooler which we planned to pack with ice on Tuesday morning, refill on Wednesday morning with new ice in Nebaj (the last town we’d be in before starting to hike), and cross our fingers that if we kept the cooler insulated at the bottom of Alex’s pack and in the shade as much as possible, the vaccine would stay cool until Thursday morning. 

Purchasing ice in Nebaj proved to be more of a challenge than we’d anticipated, but after some searching on Tuesday afternoon, we found a place that sold a few frozen bags of water, and vowed to return Wednesday morning to pick up as many as would fit in the cooler. 

Nebaj, Guatemala 

Our plan worked, and on Thursday morning, we pulled out the cooler to find the ice still frozen and the rabies vaccine quite cool.  With a magnificent sunrise above lofty clouds as the perfect backdrop, we managed to give Amy her second dose of the vaccine and keep her safe from the potential of a deadly disease. 

Opening the cooler

Our inexperience and uncertainty made the whole ordeal pretty comical and entertaining for everyone on the trek (except for Amy).  One of the trekkers was a medical student, so she was deemed the most experience and therefore the one to actually give the shot.  Rachel held her hand, Alex offered moral support, and I captured the whole process in photos.  

How does this work, exactly?

You can tell by her face she's just not comfortable with
the whole process.

Moral support and onlookers.