Monday, March 28, 2016

Semana Santa Part 2: Semuc Champey

The first time I went to Semuc Champey, it was with a group of 11 co-workers.  The weather was cold and cloudy our first day, and we stayed in a hostel where rats crawled through the thatch roof above my bunk bed each night.  I mean, it was a great trip and all, and I actually really enjoyed it (check out this post if you don’t believe me!), but when Liz came for Semana Santa this year and wanted to see Semuc, I decided we’d do it right. 

We researched our hotel and booked a private room for the three of us (Kenra joined in on the sister trip too) at the Utopia Eco Hotel, just a few kilometers from the Semuc Champey park.  The location, accommodations, and service did not disappoint.  No rats this time—but plenty of cacao trees, hammocks, and the view of the turquoise river flowing past our front porch. 

 The weather also helped on this trip, of course.  Each day was around 95F, which made the crystalline pools of Semuc Champey feel ultimately refreshing. 

On our first full day in Semuc, Kenra and Liz and I signed up for the tour offered through our hostel.  Just like the last time I was there, the tour started in the back of a pickup truck.  Then we went to the river caves.  We were given our candles, and we set off for the tour.  We swam through the chilly waters, climbed up ladders, and watched as our group’s daredevils climbed up the rock face and jumped 15 ft into a deep pool below. 

The rock jump is the last stop in the cave before turning around.  Our group waited while every male in the group proved himself by scaling the rock face and jumping off.  Our guide, who had climbed up to help each member of the group make the jump, was the last to catapult himself into the water.  He entered…and then he didn’t surface.  We weren’t really worried; we figured it was a trick of his (earlier on the tour, he’d hid himself behind a rock face and jumped out at us as we swam by).  But time went on and on, and we began to wonder just how long he could hold his breath when suddenly one of the girls squealed.  Our guide had jumped into the water, swam through a hidden hole beneath our feet and come up behind the girls, spooking them as he emerged from the water!  I definitely hadn’t seen that before. 

After that, the tour included jumping off a rope swing into the river (no belly flop this year; instead, I landed on my chest…and somehow also bruised my calf), followed by a short walk to the water fall (it amazed me how calm the waters were emerging from the cliff this year; much different than my last visit), then to the yellow bridge, where only three people made the jump.  Next it was time for a lunch break.  Our guide took us to a buffet and said it was “all you can eat,” but one of the guys in our group got yelled at for going up for thirds.  Haha.  

Random dude on the rope swing.

Calm waters at the waterfall

Jumping off the yellow bridge

And then, finally, it was time to hike up to the mirador and then down to the pools of Semuc Champey.  The entire place was thoroughly crowded, it being Semana Santa (Holy Week), so we only had moments at the mirador before being hustled down the hill.  But making it to the pools made up for the hot, sweaty walk.  We spent almost an hour relaxing in the water (I could have spent much longer), and then rounded up our group and met back at the yellow bridge. 

Since our hotel was so close to Semuc Champey, they offered an option to ride inner tubes down the river back to the park, rather than take the truck back.  That sounded lovely to us, and to most of the 17 people on our tour that day. 

Two years ago, I had a rather traumatic tubing experience (see the post here), so I was a little nervous about traversing small rapids in a tube again.  But thankfully, this trip went very smoothly.  The water was much calmer at this time of year than it was when we first went (to the point where some parts of the trip were just agonizingly slow), and when we did encounter rough water, our three guides were great about guiding us—to the left of this rock, to the right of that one, making sure everyone got through and stayed together.  The only downfall of the tubing trip was that by this time it was late afternoon, the sun was starting to set, and by the time we got to the hotel, I was shaking from the cold.  (Quite a difference from the heat of the day!) 


Friday morning, Liz and I signed up for a 3 hour hike of the surrounding highlands, while Kenra decided to do the chocolate tour offered by the hotel.  We were informed, though, that the chocolate tour needed at least 2 people to run, so Liz and I decided to do both the hike and chocolate. 

We left for the hike at around 10:30am—just as the sun was reaching its highest and hottest point of the day.  Our walk took us to two suspension bridges over the river and up a cliff for a mirador of the valley.  Along the way, our guide, Enrique, chatted with me in Spanish about the different plants and products grown in the area and about how the aldea (village) has changed in the past few years with the influx of tourists.  It was a great hike, although we were both a bit overheated by the time it finished.

Back at the hotel, we took a walk down to the river to soak our feet and cool off.  Neither Liz nor I felt hungry for lunch, despite having hiked in the heat, so we each ordered smoothies.  (Probably a sign that we were overheated and a bit dehydrated).  We took a quick nap before the cocoa tour, and then we felt ready.

The chocolate tour was actually a really neat experience.  The entire property of the hotel is littered with cacao trees, so the tour started there, in the shade, where our guide, Daniela, explained to us the properties of the tree and some of the history of cacao.  She broke open a ripe cocoa pod, and we sucked the slime from around the bean (quite delicious, actually).  After standing there for about an hour, though, Liz turned to me, informed me she wasn’t feeling well and needed to go lie down, and vomited up her smoothie, and headed off to our cabin. From there, Kenra and I continued the tour (with me assuring them both that Liz would be fine and it was probably just the heat).  We moved into a kitchen where Daniela roasted a batch of cocoa beans that had been dried already.  While they cooked, we took a seat and sipped ice water, wishing for a breeze, and Liz rejoined us, feeling much better. 

Daniela roasting cocoa beans

When the cocoa was roasted, we let it cool for a bit, then shucked off the husks.  (This process gave both Liz and I blisters on our thumbs; we must not have the technique mastered quite yet). 

Peeling the cocoa beans

From there, the peeled cocoa beans went into a food processor, along with some sugar, and were blended until they became smooth, melted chocolate.  (Normally, this blending process takes hours, and chocolate companies have special mixers that heat the chocolate slightly as they mix.  We took the quick process). 

When our chocolate was deemed smooth enough, we poured it into molds along with some fillings (coconut, peanut butter, cinnamon, etc) and let it cool, to be picked up and consumed a few hours later.

Ready to mold

The cocoa tour was really great because no step was skipped over.  We actually made the same chocolate that we took home.  The tour was almost 4 hours long in its entirety, and it was completely worth it. 

That night was our last at the Utopia Eco Hotel.  We enjoyed a delicious meal and were in bed early in order to feel well rested for the 8 hour drive ahead of us the next day. 

Utopia Eco Hotel

Our trip to Semuc Champey was a definite success.  

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Semana Santa Part 3: Easter Morning

Liz only had a short time here in Guatemala City on Easter Sunday.  Her flight left around 12:30pm, which meant we only had until about 10am to do…anything.  Liz really wanted to see the Easter festivities in Guatemala, since she was well aware it would probably be her only time in Guatemala for Holy Week.  So I did a little research, and we set of for Zone 1 to try and catch a procession in the morning.

Each year during Holy Week in Guatemala, elaborate alfombras (carpets) are designed on the streets, made of colored sawdust and plants and flowers.  Then a procession of people holding up floats bearing images of the Lenten story moves slowly down the street, walking over the alfombra.  The processions happen the entire 40 days of Lent, but are most impressive in Antigua and during Semana Santa. 

Going to Antigua was out of the question, but we knew that Guatemala City would have its own processions.  I found that one procession would leave at 8am arrive at the Catedral Metropolitana at noon.  While we wouldn’t be at the cathedral to see its arrival and enjoy the festivities, I figured we could meet it along the route and see it at least. 

So Liz and I left my house at 8am, stopping to pick up Christy on the way.  When we arrived in Zone 1, preparations for a huge party were already half set up in the main plaza.  Food vendors and artisans were in the process of opening their booths, and purple fabric cordoning off the streets marked the reason for the celebration. 

After consulting a map of the procession’s route, we set off down a street hoping to run into it.  By 9:30am, we’d seen no sign of the procession, so we stopped to ask several municipal police officers about the route and where we might run into it.  We followed the officer’s directions to the letter, but saw no sign of a procession advancing towards us.  We did, however, see one alfombra in its beginning stages of creation (just a background of pine needles, no design or anything), and we thought we heard a procession at one point and ran to catch it—but it turned out to be just a church group singing and handing out balloons. 

Disappointed, we headed back to the central plaza where we snapped a few photos and wandered a bit before realizing it was 9:50 and we should probably head for the car and towards the airport.

We plugged in Waze to get the fastest route from zone 1 to the airport, and we were on our way.  Soon, we turned a corner, though, and found cars stopped up ahead.  We’d run right into—the procession.  I pulled over, and we all hopped out and walked up to the intersection, just in time to witness the whole thing. 

So in the end, Liz saw alfombras, the towering floats of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Resurrected, and the multitudes of people following the procession.  She smelled the incense and heard the fire crackers thrown down to announce the risen lord’s arrival. 

And the timing was perfect—the procession passed, the street opened, and we arrived at the airport exactly 2 hours before her flight was scheduled to leave.  Couldn’t have asked for a better Easter morning.  

Monday, March 21, 2016

Semana Santa Part 1: Begin Again

Semana Santa started on Saturday, with a quiet weekend in the city and a short trip to Lake Atitlan.  But on Saturday morning, it seemed to me it started in exactly the wrong way.  It started not with an epic adventure worthy of my last months in Central America, and not with my “best friend,” and not with the person I once convinced myself that my world revolved around. 

But as it turns out, this Semana Santa is not about showing off my travels or adding another country to my list.  And it’s not about spending it with anyone in particular. 
This Semana Santa is about me.  About finding myself again, the person I once was.  
And the first three days have been perfect

With the help of two very good friends (whom I think I had sort of forgotten were such very good friends; we’ve seen so little of each other this year), we filled Saturday, Sunday, and Monday to the brim with goodness.  Kenra and Becky and I went out to brunch, we munched popcorn at the movies, we adventured to an adorable part of the city and found new places to fall in love with.  We sampled craft beer and watched the moon come out, we ate wood-fired pizza amidst giggles, and we finished the night wrapped in the dusky lights of my favorite cafĂ©/bar in the city—a place which is full of old memories, but in a good way, not a painful way.  Then Becky and I traveled to the lake, and even under hazy skies, we marveled at the view across the water, found a patch of sunshine to laze about in, ate more delicious food, and embraced being single and all the possibilities that holds. 

And then, upon returning home, Kenra and I watched the most perfect movie.  If you’ve never seen Begin Again, I highly recommend it.  Beautiful music highlights this incredibly poignant story about staying true to yourself, finding yourself again after life throws a curve ball (or more accurately, when the people in your life change their minds), and loving what you do.  And the final shot—the final smile—that’s what is leaving me most happy tonight. 

My sister arrives tomorrow night.  And though our time together will be much too short, I know that it will be filled with much laughter, much beauty, and many many memories to be made. 
to Semana Santa
to staying true to yourself
to the good life
to you

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Making Everest Come Alive

A little less than a year ago, Richard and I were at Lake Atitlan, and I read the news that there had been an earthquake in Nepal which had caused an avalanche at Base Camp of Mt. Everest.  At the time, I was teaching a book all about a boy who climbs Everest, so I read the article and was excited to tell my students of this current event, bridging fiction and real life.  I looked forward to hypothesizing with them what this avalanche would mean for the climbing season, which takes place during a short weather window each year.

But when I told Richard about the article, his eyes got big and worried, and he gasped, “My friend is there!  She’s at Base Camp right now!”   

For the next day or two, Richard checked facebook maniacally, waiting for an update from his friend.  Thankfully, she checked in, reporting only minor injuries and announcing that she would be evacuated in the next few days.  

But that was the first time I heard about Barbara Padilla, a Guatemalan woman who has so far made three attempts to conquer Everest, all of them so far unsuccessful due to no fault of her own.   The seed was already planted in my mind then.   Wouldn’t it be awesome if she could come and talk to my kids?

Fastforward nine months, and Richard and I are still friends, and one January day, I mentioned that I’d begin teaching Peak (the book about Everest) soon.  Richard asked whether I would be interested in having him send Barbara a message to see if she’d be willing to come in and speak at my school.  I practically squealed in delight.  Yes, yes I would be very interested!  

So he put her in contact with me, and wonderfully, she said she’d be more than happy to come and speak at school.  She even had a presentation prepared already; she’d given public talks before.  

Just one glitch.  As Barbara is headed back to Everest for attempt #4 at the end of March, she’s currently fundraising like mad.  (A trip to Everest costs around $60,000).  And because she’s fundraising, she charges for her talks.  And because her trip costs so much, she charges WAY more for a 1 hour talk than our school normally pays speakers.  

I checked with my administrators to see if we had any money in the budget for a speaker.  I was told she was simply too expensive.  But by that point, my heart was set on having someone who had been at least part way up the mountain come and talk to my kids.

So I struck a deal with my principal.  If I could raise half the money, the school would pay the other half.  

I launched into the fundraising, getting the entire 7th grade involved in running bake sales and pizza sales for a week.  It didn’t start off very well.  One day all we had to sell at morning recess were one pan of brownies (that I brought) and juice boxes left over from another student sale.  As one would expect, in a country as poverty-ridden as Guatemala, I had a few students complain, “Why should I donate to a girl just so she can go to Everest for the FOURTH time? Why aren’t we raising money for a charity--an orphanage or something?”  Perhaps they have a point.  But I think there’s something to be said for following one’s dreams and persisting in the face of resistance, and I think Barbara’s message was worth it.  Thankfully, there were a few others who agreed with me and who bought in completely and rallied their classmates around them.  In the end, we actually ended up passing our fundraising goal by quite a bit, reducing the amount the school had to put in.

So it all worked out.
Today, Barbara Padilla finally came to our school.  She spoke in the auditorium, in front of the entire middle school.  And she was a success.  At the end of the day, I still had students commenting to me, “Ala, can you believe her oxygen tank broke?  This time, she should bring 2 hoses with her, just in case.”  “So, did she really break her teeth when she fell running from the avalanche?  Her teeth looked fine today…”  “Did she raise enough money?  Is she going again this year?  Will she leave a Guatemalan flag at the top?”  

I am content.

And in the next month, as Barbara begins her journey, you can be sure my 7th graders and I will be tracking her progress day by day, and the process of climbing Mount Everest will be just a little bit more real to us all.