Sunday, July 29, 2012

Semuc Champey

On Friday the 13th of July, a group of seven of us studied during our regular morning session of Spanish, had lunch at our homes, and just after 2:00 we were each picked up by a minibus that would take us to Semuc Champey, a state park tucked away in a lush valley. We were told that the trip would take about 8 hours, which turned out to be a very optimistic estimation. We had no problems initially, except heavy traffic in Guatemala City, which was expected. (When we had to stop at traffic lights, children would run out between the cars, one would stand on the other’s shoulders and they would juggle pieces of fruit for a few seconds before running between the cars offering the fruit for sale).

A couple hours outside of the city we got stuck in a huge traffic jam. We initially waited, hoping that we would start moving at any second. When it was clear that that wasn’t going to happen, we got out of the van and stretched for a while. We finally began moving again after an hour.

Long after it was dark, our driver (Marvin) got lost in a pueblo and kept stopping to ask for directions. He finally found the right “road,” which turned out to be more of a dirt path. It felt almost like driving through Luangwa, only we were in an enclosed vehicle and the roads were steeper. After more than an hour of bouncing along, we finally came to a stop, relieved that we had made it after 9 hours on the road. However, when we escaped the van we were directed to a pick-up truck and we all crammed into the bed with our things. There were metal poles that formed a frame which allowed us to stand up in the back. (The roads were so rough I found it easier to stand.) We endured another cruel hour in the back of the pick-up truck (which felt even more like Luangwa) before we finally made it to El Portal at midnight. The hostal is powered by a generator only during certain hours, so it was pitch black when we stumbled in and had to wake up the staff to give us our keys. Will, Morgan and I shared a room, Danielle and Ali were in another, and Kayla and Michael were in a third. I feel asleep easily, with the sound of distant rushing water in my ears.

I was woken up pretty early, though I had no way of knowing what time it was. Other guests of the hostal were packing up and getting ready to leave. They were being pretty loud, but I suspect it was because Will and Morgan had been pretty rowdy the night before and they felt justified in returning the favor. I got up after things had calmed down a little, only to discover it wasn’t yet 7:00 in the morning. I explored the grounds a little and took pictures. El Portal is just outside of Semuc Champey, and just farther down the river; I could hear the waterfalls in the distance. Michael, Kayla and I encountered a type of plant that I remember having in our yard in Africa, which closes its leaves when touched.

The seven of us had breakfast around 7:30, though we attracted some scary-looking flies that would not leave us alone, so we practically had to inhale it. We were told that our tour of Semuc Champey would begin at 10:00, so a couple people in our group went back to bed, while the rest of us hung out listening to music on the veranda of the cabin. At 9:15 the guide came over and told us that the tour would begin at 9:30, so we quickly got changed into suits and got ready.

A little after 9:30 the seven of us and several other guests of the hostal walked the few hundred meters to the entrance of the park. Our guide told us that we would summit the valley we were in, half an hour up and half an hour down. I foolishly didn’t bring my tennis shoes on the trip, and my flip flops were falling apart, so Will lent me his.

The trek was quite a hike! We had to move very slowly and carefully to prevent injury. A lot of places would have been impassable had it not been for the steep wooden steps. It was so hot and humid that we were all sweating bullets. It took the full half hour that the guide had said it would, but the hike was definitely worth it! Valió la pena que nosotros subiéramos la montaña. ¡La vista era espectacular! (It was worthwhile that we went up the mountain. The view was spectacular!) From our vantage point we could see the various natural pools in the river, complete with waterfalls big and small. It truly was incredible!

It seemed to take a lot less time to descend the mountain on our way to the pools. On our way down we could hear howler monkeys screaming in the treetops. They were so loud it sounded almost like lions!

When we made it to the pools our guide took us to a place just up the river where we stood on a shelf of rock overlooking some powerful rapids. He explained that at Semuc Champey, two water sources intersect and then join together. The river farther upstream rushes into an underground chamber underneath the pools, and it merges 300 meters downstream. The water from the pools is supplied by natural springs which originate from the valley.

After viewing the place where the river enters the underground chamber, our guide took us to a place to deposit our belongings so that we could swim. He led us through the pools, showing where we could slide down waterfalls, jump in safely to lower pools, and swim in crystal clear water. He even took us through a cove under one of the rock shelves, where we had just enough space to breathe. (It wouldn’t have been the most pleasant for a person with claustrophobia).

After our guide had taken us through all of the pools, he gave us some free time to enjoy them at our leisure. We mostly relaxed in the bigger ones, where the minnows would try to nibble at our toes. At one point we were able to catch a glimpse of the howler monkeys in the treetops!

We enjoyed the pools for an hour or so before our guide told us it was time to go back to El Portal for lunch. We thankfully didn’t have to climb all the way up the valley to get back to camp; we took a separate trail along the river and discovered the pools were only a 10 minute walk away via the second route.

We had a good lunch and a little time to relax before our guide told us it was time to get ready to go again. For this excursion he told us that we couldn’t bring anything with us except our flip flops; we were just to wear our swimsuits.

For some reason our post-lunch group had expanded to over 30 people, and our guide led us over the bridge that crosses the river and towards a beautiful waterfall that we were able to hear from the camp. We came to a building that advertised water activities, and several men began handing out candles to the group. We then proceeded to walk up a trail to the mouth of the waterfall, which begins in a cave carved out of the mountain! We took off our shoes, lit our candles, and ventured into the dark cavern in single-file.

The water was definitely chilly, but the experience was worth it. At times we were wading in knee-deep water, other times we were swimming or treading water with one hand holding the candle out of the water. We climbed up a ladder into a larger cave, where we saw some bats hanging from the stalagmites. It was pretty slow going with such a large group, so at times we had to wait for the line to move ahead. The sound of rushing water kept getting louder all the time, and finally we came to a fairly large waterfall deep within the cave. A guide helped us hold onto a rope and walk through the falls. It was exhilarating to feel the power of the water falling on my shoulders!

After everyone had made it through, we started making it back the way we had come. I had thought that we would climb up a ladder we had come down, but the guides had another idea. They took us one by one around a corner where the water was rushing through an impossibly small tunnel and cascading into the unknown. At first I had thought it would be a natural slide carved out of the rock, but after I had rounded the bend I could tell that it was another waterfall, though not as big as the other one. Then the guide was showing me where to place my hands and feet and he motioned for me to jump. It was a little terrifying to have to plunge into the darkness, having no idea how far down the bottom was, but I took a leap of faith and did it!

I surfaced with barely inches to spare for my head. I spotted light coming from the left, and I swam towards it to join up with those who had gone before me. Ali told me that she hit her head when she came up. Apparently the guide had been telling us to swim to the left before breaking the surface, but most of us had been too shocked at the prospect of jumping into the abyss to have heard him.

We had to wait a long time for the rest of the group to make it through the passage. I managed to climb out of the water and sit on a rock ledge so I didn’t have to keep treading water. After what felt like forever (I was practically dry) we made our way through the easier initial caverns and to the mouth of the cave. I wish I would have been able to bring my camera with me to capture the experience, but it would have been impossible to keep it dry. Thankfully, someone did have a waterproof camera and took a picture of our group when we were in the deepest part of the cave.

We walked the short way back to El Portal to relax and put in our supper order for later. The last activity for the day was tubing down the river, though there weren’t enough tubes for everybody. Our guide from the morning hike split our large group into two smaller parties. My friends and I were in the second group because we were staying the night at the hostal.

By the time it was our turn, it was dusk. The water was brisk, to say the least, but it didn’t take long to get used to it. There were no rapids where we were tubing, so it was a rather lazy ride down the river. We didn’t go much more than 500 meters before we “docked” where a few local women were washing clothes. The oldest lady was completely naked from the waist up, which was just another reminder of how remote we were.

We hiked the relatively short distance to the bridge, where we stopped and put down our tubes. Our guide told us we could jump off the bridge, and then proceeded to demonstrate by flinging himself from the side. I decided to go for it! The hardest part was the moment immediately before the jump, when my nerves and better judgment tried to hold me back, but I did it! I was nervous about slapping my feet too hard on the water, so I pointed my toes before going in. Because of that, I went deeper than most of the other jumpers. I actually touched the riverbed before coming back up!

We didn’t have to wait long for supper after we made it back to the hostal. The evening would have been more pleasant if the guide (who thought he was being funny) didn’t constantly try to freak out the girls by holding cicadas in front of their faces. It also would have been nice if the hostal had the cocktails listed on the menu. I would have loved a piña colada, but they only had cheap beer and rum. I ended up going to bed fairly early since I was pretty tired from the day.

The next morning we got up after 7:00, had breakfast, and made our way back to the pools of Semuc Champey. There weren’t as many people there since it was still mid-morning, and I managed to get some fantastic pictures. Unfortunately, the howler monkeys didn’t make an appearance because I had wanted to get a video clip of them screaming.

We stayed for just over an hour before we had to go back to El Portal to check out and get ready to catch our truck back to the village. I quickly ran back to the falls where the cave was to get some pictures, though I wasn’t able to go up to the top. By this point my flip-flops were practically non-functional, so the trek to and from the falls was rather frustrating due to all the rocks. I definitely wasn’t thinking when I forgot to pack my tennis shoes!

The truck came and we loaded up, not really wanting to leave. I could have sat in the cab, but I chose to stand in the back for a better view. Just outside of the hostal, we picked up a couple backpackers to take to a nearby lodge. After we dropped them off, we picked up a few locals going to the village. Pretty soon we were crammed in the back with a bunch of other people. One was a Mayan lady who had her little daughter with her. I managed to sneak a photo of her after she had fallen asleep (which remains a mystery to me how she did).

I wasn’t disappointed in my choice to stay in the back. The views were incredible! The Guatemalan landscape was alive and green and seemingly untouched in some places. It was something like I would have imagined the Garden of Eden to have been like.

At one point we made a stop at the edge of a valley. The driver got out and retrieved a large barrel that had been in the back with us. He walked to the edge and emptied the contents onto the pre-existing pile of garbage: a third-world country’s idea of a landfill.

We made it successfully back to the village, where we exchanged vehicles and continued bouncing along on the dirt road in our blue van for another hour before finally hitting the tarmac. We all cheered.

The drive back was uneventful. Mid-afternoon we stopped at a mall for some “lupper.” I still feel terribly guilty about this, but I will admit I got a Subway sandwich. It wasn’t exactly like the US version, but close enough. It was strange being in a mall with nice shops and a food court. For dessert I got some excellent sorbet.

Thankfully we didn’t hit any major traffic dilemmas on the way back to Antigua, cutting our drive down to only 9 hours instead of 10. Woo.

All in all, the trip was definitely one of my best experiences in Guatemala. Semuc Champey isn’t as well known a tourist destination as other places in Guatemala, which kept the cost considerably lower than what I’m sure it will be in the future! I would love to go back there one day … with a waterproof camera!

“He makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains. He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work.”
Psalm 104: 10 & 13

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

“Una Zancuda”

My teacher last week was named Mónica. She was another young lady a few years older than I am and she really enjoyed disregarding grammar lessons in order to chat. She told me that I really need to start talking more because I understand enough Spanish; I just need to gain confidence in conversation. We also started the subjunctive form, which is very difficult because it deals with the possibility of an action, rather than the certainty of it. Before having Mónica I hadn’t been aware that people who speak other languages have “pet phrases” also. Every few minutes or so, Mónica would burst out in “¡En serio!” (Seriously!) if I would tell her something the least bit interesting.

I must say that we did have some good chats—when we weren’t being interrupted by the rats scurrying around the crevices in the stone wall. She told me a few of the traditional stories of Guatemala, including some really superstitious ones from Antigua. Apparently there is a spirit lady in a white robe that has a very beautiful figure and floats around the fountain in el parque central at night, waiting to tempt drunken men. When the men pull her hair back to give her a kiss, they discover that she has the face of a horse. There is another story about a different phantom woman who is looking for her two children that drowned in a river not far from Antigua. If you can hear her crying very close by it means that she is far away; if you can hear her crying far away it means that she is very close by.

Mónica also told me a traditional story about Lake Atitlan. Around 3:00 in the afternoon every day, the waves become choppier and it is harder for the smaller boats to cross. The story goes that a long, long time ago there were different pueblos around the lake—like there are now—though at that time there was a lot of rivalry and confrontation between the different civilizations. One of the pueblos had a prince, and one had a princess. Somehow they met, fell in love, and ran off together to live on the other side of the lake. Unfortunately, they were discovered by the princess’ civilization and they were taken back to her pueblo. The prince should have been executed for such a crime, but the princess begged for his life to be spared, as did the other pueblo. The king agreed not to kill the prince but to keep him detained in prison. After a number of years the prince escaped from his jail cell and took off with the princess once more. This time they were not prepared for the harsh conditions of the wild, so the prince suggested that he sneak into a pueblo to get food and sufficient clothing. He told the princess to wait for him in a certain location, but the prince took so long that the princess got up to search for him. When the prince did come back and discovered that the princess was gone, he dropped everything and began searching for her. They both died of hunger and cold in the wild, clinging to the hope of finding each other. The Guatemaltecos say that when the waves of Lake Atitlan become choppier around 3:00 in the afternoon it is because the prince and princess are playing in the water.

Mónica and I also talked about the differences in our beliefs. It was uplifting to be able to share my faith in a different language, especially when Mónica would say, “¡Ah! Yo entiendo” (“Oh! I understand”) after I finished explaining something specific. Mónica is very open that she is a “Catholic” who doesn’t practice Catholicism because she disagrees with some practices of the church. Unfortunately, it’s not because she has a higher understanding of the gospel, but more that she doesn’t like the hypocrisy. She tells me that she believes there is no hell; that earth is the inferno and we will all go to heaven. I listened to her reasoning, but explained that La Biblia clearly identifies hell as an eternal destination for people who don’t believe in Jesus as Savior. She did admit that she hasn’t read the Bible for herself. I now leave my testimony in God’s hands, hoping that the seed I planted will take root!

On Monday of last week Ali and I were served a traditional Guatemalan meal called, El Caldo de Mariscos (Seafood Soup). It consisted of a whole fish, a crab, and prawns in a vegetable broth. It was pretty tricky to eat, especially because of the lack of visual appeal, but the meat was fresh and tender and thankfully didn’t taste too fishy. I did manage to take a couple pictures.

For much of the week Ali and I suffered from some extremely itchy bites we received when horseback riding. Jim had told us that they were from a coffee fly and that if we left them alone they would go away pretty quickly. This turned out to be incorrect, because all of our bites swelled up. Mónica was convinced that I was allergic to mosquitos, and Betty and Wilma were concerned that I had been bitten by a horse fly. Betty picked a lemon from the tree in the garden, cut it in half, and applied it to my bites to relieve the itching. As she was doing so she asked me if I had bitten by “un zancudo” or “una zancuda” (a mosquito or “a mosquito”). It took me a while to figure out the joke…

We tried a couple new restaurants last week. One is called the Sunshine Grill and it is run by a man originally from Guatemala who moved to Canada and obtained Canadian citizenship. Now he is back in Guatemala operating a restaurant that serves mostly Italian dishes: pizzas, spaghettis, lasagnas, calzones. (Go figure?) Ali and I went with two new friends that are from Belize, one of the neighboring countries of Guatemala. Although I didn’t know this before, Belize used to be a colony of Britain and the official language is English. Patrick and Analisa are cousins and they are studying Spanish at PLFM for three weeks. We split a delicious pizza between the four of us.

Kayla and Michael introduced us to a little juice café on the other side of the park called La Pataya. (Pataya is a bright purple fruit that we have been served only once at breakfast. It is the fruit of a cactus plant, and surprisingly sweet!) Unfortunately the café didn’t actually sell any juices that use the pataya fruit. I got a licuado de piña, fresa, y mora (pineapple, strawberry and blackberry smoothie) that was absolutely unbelievable.

On Thursday we played another game of football. This time there were a lot more students and we were much more evenly matched. It was a good game, but my team lost again. It seems that we are starting a habit of playing every Thursday afternoon, so maybe next time I’ll be on the winning team.

Yo sé que mi escrito ha sido un poco tarde. ¡Lo siento! Mucho ha ocurrido, pero no es posible que yo escriba cada día a causa de yo tengo mucha tarea cada noche.

(I know that my writing has been a little late. I’m sorry. A lot has happened, but I am not able to write every day because I have a lot of homework every night.)

¡Ojalá que toda mi familia esté sana! (I hope that all of my family is healthy!)

¡Hasta luego!

“The word of the LORD is right and true; he is faithful in all he does. The LORD loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love.”

Psalm 33:4 – 5

Thursday, July 12, 2012

El Lago de Atitlan

Early last week we had planned to take a trip to el Lago de Atitlan. On Saturday, Ali and I got up around the same time we usually do for school so that we could catch an 8:00 shuttle with Morgan, Kayla, and Michael. While I was in the middle of my shower, the power went out. Fun fact: many showerheads in Guatemala are powered by electricity. They have earned the nickname “suicide” shower heads, because if you happen to touch one on accident during your shower, you will receive an electric shock. Of course, when the power went out, my hot water source did too. The shower quickly changed to ice-cold and I had to hustle to get out of there! This was made all the more difficult because the bathroom does not receive a lot of natural light. I fumbled around in the dim and freezing conditions until I was able to successfully make my escape.

Just after 8:00, while Ali and I were still waiting for our shuttle, a dog came over and provided us with some entertainment. He was very friendly and apparently liked to sing, because he started howling at nothing in particular. A little later he was let into a nearby gate. We were glad to see he had a home, because so many of the dogs here are strays.

Ali and I were picked up last. Morgan, Kayla, and Michael were the only other people on the minibus, which was a definite plus. The trip to Lake Atitlan is just over 2 ½ hours long. The farther into the trip we got, the cloudier it became. We were all hoping that it would be a little clearer by the lake, but it didn’t look promising. We traveled through the highlands on winding roads. Almost not surprisingly, we were being passed by chicken busses, though we would catch up to them when they would make stops.

As we got within 30 miles, the clouds thinned and the lake came into view, almost as if a curtain had been pulled back. It was stunning! The driver was kind enough to pull over and let us get a few pictures from a vantage point before we continued the descent. Not far from the pueblo Panajachel there is a tall waterfall right next to the road. It wasn’t quite as impressive as Victoria Falls, but pretty nonetheless.

When we arrived in Panajachel we stopped in at a little café near the lake. It specializes in making very delicious fruit smoothies! After our late-morning snack we wandered toward the lake, browsing through the merchandise of the vendors and taking pictures like there would be no tomorrow. To get to our hotel we needed to cross the lake by boat to another pueblo called Santiago. We knew that because we looked very touristy we would be ripped off, but even after circling around we were not able to catch a break. We ended up going on a private shuttle boat with a guy that we had originally turned down.

Even though we could clearly see the other side of the lake, it took over half an hour to cross it, and not because the boat was going slowly. The ride was fun! I don’t remember the last time I’ve been in a speedboat.

Santiago is in a bay off of the main part of the lake. As we passed through the mouth of the bay, we noticed a lot of trees growing right out of the water. There were also local people fishing using canoes and nets, which made me a little nostalgic. Santiago itself wasn’t that impressive, but our hotel was around a little peninsula on the outskirts of the pueblo. We docked successfully and disembarked to check in at Posada De Santiago ( Morgan gave the boat driver a down-payment for a return trip Sunday afternoon, though he was clearly concerned that the driver wouldn’t come back.

The hotel was gorgeous! The pool was very close to the lake, with an elevated hot tub looking out over the water. Up from the pool was an open-air chalet (complete with a bar) for hanging out and taking in the view. To get to the main restaurant/lobby you need to walk up stone pathway and cross the street. We checked in without a problem and made it to our chalets. The hotel consisted of multiple 3-person chalets. They were fully booked at the time, so we had had to reserve one of the suites. Ali, Kayla, and Michael took the suite, while Morgan and I took the “Casa del Sol” (The Sun House). The accommodations weren’t exceptionally fancy, but the space was clean and comfortable. Outside each chalet there were hammocks strung between two trees, giving the entire hotel a Caribbean feel.

After settling in, we changed into suits and went back to the pool, where we relaxed in the sun and had a drink. We lazed around poolside for much of the afternoon, with a gorgeous view of the San Pedro Volcano across the water. Morgan and Michael took a canoe and explored the bay.

Around 5:00 we started heading up to our respective chalets to shower and get ready for supper. When Ali studied in Guatemala two years ago she came with a friend to the very same hotel. Her friend somehow knew an older American couple named Jim and Nancy. They have been living in Guatemala ever since Jim lost a multi-million dollar lawsuit in the States. They offer hikes and horseback riding and a 5 to 7 course meal to people visiting Santiago. Ali promised us that the food was exceptional and worth the cost, so we decided to take her word and try it ourselves.

At 6:30 Jim arrived in his battered-up Jeep to take us to his place, which was about 15 minutes away. There weren’t enough seats in the car, so I ended up sitting on a pillow in the back. I think I might have got the better end of the deal with that one…

Jim and Nancy’s house is amazing. Jim designed it himself and built it out of stone that he quarried nearby. Nancy is 100% American Indian, though I unfortunately cannot remember which tribe she is. There is a lot of interesting art splashed on the walls, and the living room boasts floor-to-ceiling windows that face towards the garden. Jim is constantly re-designing and adding to their house. In very Swiss-Family-Robinson-style, they have covered skylights in their bedroom that open up to reveal the stars. At one time they also had a butterfly garden attached to their bedroom. Because they moved to Guatemala during the civil war, Jim also installed a “safe room” in the basement. At one time there was a passageway from the bedroom to the basement, which is reinforced with thick stone walls. Currently they have 14 or so dogs, but back in the day they had more than 50, most of which were attack-trained.

The evening started out lighthearted. We had a drink and talked about Lake Atitlan. Jim said that the lake lies on seven fault lines, making it one of the most unique lakes in the world. The depth of Lake Atitlan is constantly changing. At the moment it is in a rising trend. It has been reported that the lake can fluctuate as much as 6 meters (about 20 ft.) in a year, which is astounding considering how large it is. Jim explained how this is possible, but much of it went over my head. It has to do with rain drainage and different depths turning over and faults shifting to release pressure.     
Jim is one of those very intelligent people who seem to know everything about everything. Many visitors find his conversations insightful and intellectually stimulating. He admitted freely to us that he is an anarchist and loves debate. Unfortunately, I only lost respect for him the more he talked; his logic is too advanced for his own good. Though he has studied Hebrew and Greek in order to read the Bible in its original languages, he doesn’t believe the Bible is the Word of God. Sadly, he is firm evolutionist. More than once he referred to people as animals. I did correct him when he said that the New Testament was written 300 years after Jesus ascended. He also—correctly—pointed out that the New Testament word for “virgin” simply means “maiden.” (He was implying that Jesus has a human father). I countered that in the original Greek, it also states that Mary “did not know a man,” which is a lingual euphemism for “did not know a man sexually.” Thankfully, he didn’t press it.

Despite the heavy atmosphere, the food was delicious. We had five courses! The first was a salad with calamari. That was a new experience for me. My first bite was of a small, but fully intact squid. Surprisingly, it tasted good! The challenge was to ignore the texture. Our second course was a deliciously spicy red soup; our third was a regular leafy salad with homemade bread. The main entre was peppercorn steak with broccoli purée and pasta. I won’t even begin to try and explain how good it tasted because I know I won’t do it justice. For desert we had a raspberry soufflé, though the oven had malfunctioned so it wasn’t fluffy. However, it was still incredible.

By the time Jim drove us back to the hotel I was feeling very depressed. Though I could have debated with him until I was blue in the face, I knew he wouldn’t budge. He is a hardened unbeliever. It made me terribly sad to know I will most likely not see him in heaven. The evening was definitely a test of my faith.

The hotel bed was very comfortable and I slept very well Saturday night. Sunday morning we got up just after 7:00 and Nancy picked us up at 7:30. When we arrived at their house again there was a delicious coffeecake ready for us, with fresh juice! We had a much more casual breakfast before heading down to the horse stables. (Jim offered me a hat to wear, but when he told me its previous owner was a man who had shot himself over his wife’s grave I politely declined.)

Jim’s staff had the horses all ready for us. I was assigned the shortest and oldest of the bunch, a 24-year-old white mare named Esperanza (Hope). I had no trouble mounting her. She was a good, strong horse, though I would have enjoyed a little more of a challenge. When everyone was mounted and ready we set off. We traveled along the road for a little while before going onto a trail that led through a coffee finca (farm).

The scenery was stunning. It was unbelievable how green everything was! Jim pointed out things along the way, but as I was often in the very back I didn’t hear him most of the time. In one grassy area we saw an old stone pier that used to dock lanchas (boats), but now it is stranded seemingly in the middle of nowhere because the water is lower than it had been at that time.

Near the same area we encountered a cow that was making a lot of racket. Jim’s horse got spooked and started acting up, which set the other horses on edge. Esperanza was probably the calmest of the bunch. Jim lost his hat as he was trying to calm his horse, so I dismounted and retrieved it. Not wanting to be left behind, Esperanza started following the line of horses and I had to make a quick walking mount.

After that we had no major problems. We followed the trail through the coffee fincas, passed through maize fields and forests, and started climbing in elevation. Some parts of the trail were very narrow and rocky and steep; I was surprised how well the horses were able to handle the conditions! After a good hour of riding uphill, we joined a dirt road that led to a lookout. We dismounted to give the horses a chance to graze while we enjoyed the view. I just managed to capture a few good pictures when the clouds started rolling in. The edge of the mountain is a cloud forest. It generates its own clouds because of the effect of the ocean, sun, and altitude. On the rare days when it is clear, it would be possible to see the Pacific Ocean in the distance.

We enjoyed the scenery for some time, and then mounted our horses for the descent. It seemed to go much faster on the way down, and the weather was quickly changing from sunny to overcast. We just managed to get back when it started raining. Jim gave us a tour of their house and told us his plans for expansion and re-design. He really is innovative!

By the time Jim dropped us off at the hotel we were late for checkout, but thankfully the hotel didn’t charge us extra. We had a big lunch at the restaurant, with the most amazing brownie, ice-cream, banana, and chocolate sauce for dessert (named something like The Cholesterol Special).

After lunch we didn’t have to wait too long by the pool when we saw the shuttle boat returning. Morgan had been really nervous that the driver would just pocket the down payment and not come back, but he did—and on time!
We crossed the lake without incident and I explored some of the local tiendas before going back to the juice café we had snacked at the day before. I got a fresh mango smoothie, which was even better than the strawberry one I had had on Saturday.

Our shuttle arrived at 4:00, and this time it was full of other tourists. On the way to the lake we were the only ones in the van, so it was definitely not as comfortable on the way back. There was some confusion over some of the passengers, and two people were asked to get out and take a different shuttle so we could fit two others. I was starting to get nervous that we were on the wrong van. We finally left Panajachel and made it up to the waterfall when unexpectedly the driver turned around and headed back to the pueblo. He told us that we needed to pick up two more people (most likely the ones he had asked to get off the van) but all of us were wondering where they were going to sit because we were practically packed in like sardines. However, when we made it to an outlying gas station he turned around again and we drove right back up without the additional passengers. As you can imagine, we were all pretty annoyed.

The trip back seemed to take longer because of the uncomfortable conditions, but I met a young 3rd Grade teacher named Katherine who is attending a different school in Antigua to brush up on her Spanish so that she can teach it at her school next year. She was really friendly and we had good conversation much of the way back. She’ll be in Antigua for another week yet.

When we finally made it back to Antigua, Ali and I were able to get out a few blocks away from home. We were both very tired, but glad to have made it back safely. All in all, it was a really enjoyable weekend!

“Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth. Worship the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs. Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.”
Psalm 100:1 – 3

Thursday, July 5, 2012

La Tierra de la Eterna Primavera

Sunday, July 1 was Ali’s birthday. It also happened to be the finals of the Euro Cup between Spain and Italy, so we made an event out of it. After sleeping in, Ali, Morgan and I went to the juice café for a late brunch. They forgot my order and I waited 45 minutes for my eggs, fruit, and toast. However, when the meal finally arrived it was sans toast. I then got up and spent the next couple minutes trying to get the server to understand “toast.” By the time it came I was practically done with my eggs. It was a rather frustrating brunch.

After our meal we went over to Red’s (a bar really close to La Merced that is generally a good hang-out spot) and we found it packed with people waiting for the game to start. We thankfully found some decent seats, and the game started not long after. Every TV in the bar was showing the game. We were sitting next to this one guy that was too obnoxiously rooting for Spain as he downed beers, swore loudly, clapped thunderously, and booed at another patron wearing an Italy jersey. Almost unfortunately, Spain won 4 – 0. I wish that Italy had scored at least once!

When the game had ended and the bar cleared out some, we left for Quesos y Vino for an early birthday supper for Ali. It had started raining sometime during the game, and it hadn’t stopped. (Lisa – I took your advice and tried the hot chocolate. It was like drinking a liquid Hershey’s bar! So delicious!) I knew better this time, and I stuck with a small pizza. It looked unimpressive, but they stuffed it so full of cheese and other goodness that I was well satisfied when I finished.

Since it was still raining, Ali and I took a tuk-tuk home. It was a thrilling and bone-jarring ride over the cobblestones of Antigua … and definitely not for the faint of heart.

I spent the rest of Sunday evening brushing up on Spanish vocab. Now that I have internet at the house, I’ve been utilizing a website called, where I’m able to import vocab words and it creates flashcards for me. I wish I would have thought of doing that in college!

My teacher this week is named María. I was nervous to have her because she seems like one of the best teachers in the school—and usually “best” means “strict” as well. She taught at the school soon after it opened in 1969 up to the early 1990s, some 20 odd years. She then left to work with children for a few years, but now she’s back at PLFM teaching Spanish again. She isn’t nearly as strict as I had imagined, and I really enjoy her teaching style. Every day she reads me a story from a book, and then has me retell what I remember using the past tenses. It is such a brain workout! I also like that she asks me questions and genuinely seems interested in what I (try to) say. We often slip into unplanned conversations, which I feel are just as useful as studying grammatical structure.

Doña (Señora) María told me in one of our conversations that she has a sister who lives in Philadelphia. She moved there long before 9/11, so it was much easier to obtain residency. Though I’m not sure how long ago, a man who was a friend of one of her friends asked if he could marry her so that he could stay in the country. At first she said no, but when he said he would pay her she agreed. So she has a “husband” though they don’t live together. Scandal!

Ali has been jumping around different classrooms this week because she seems to be attracting forest creatures like Snow White. First there was a rat that perched on a stone ledge behind her. That was clearly not okay. After she and her teacher changed locations, a baby bird fell out of a nearby tree. Ali returned the bird to its nest and later saw the mother feeding it, but it fell out again later. Since then, different people have been rescuing the bird because it seems to have developed an appetite for “tree” falling. Ali has named the bird Pablo.

Over time I have developed camaraderie with two of the ladies that work at PLFM. They wash dishes, clean the bathrooms, and set up the conference room for events, among other things. One day they were sitting near the conference room listening to a song and I started mock-dancing for their entertainment. They laughed and called me over to ask me if I knew the song. When I told them I didn’t they said, “¡Es una canción de amor!” (It’s a love song). They laughed again as I waltzed away. Ever since then we’ve been pretty chummy. When I later found out that their names are Wilma and Betty I took to calling them “Las Flinstonias.” They are the kind of ladies that make your day that much better when you see them.

Our Cuarto was pretty low-key here. There were no firework displays or flags or parades, but I still wore a T-shirt emblazoned with an American flag and many of the teachers wished me “¡Feliz el día de la independencia!” Olga served us spaghetti and two beef patties for lunch, which I suspect was to remind me of home in a way. I appreciated it, but it was a little hard to think about all of the famous desserts I was missing out on at home. That is something we don’t get with meals.

Sometime during the afternoon session, the neighboring Spanish school set of bombs and started blasting “American” music. María told me that they don’t have an afternoon session, so the students probably returned just to have a celebration. At first some of the PLFM students thought it was a parade and rushed to find out what the fuss was about, but it became clear that all the hullabaloo was coming from next door. It was a little hard to concentrate on Spanish at that point…

After supper a bunch of us went out to a couple bars, both of which were fairly empty, which made it more enjoyable. I was surprised not to see more expats around because during the day they seem to be everywhere. It was odd to be out on a school night, but I felt justified in doing something a little celebratory on America’s big day.

¡Hasta luego!

P.S. While the Midwest has been suffering in 90° range, the temps in Guatemala have been in the 70°s. It’s hard for me to imagine such a strong heat, because when I left it was still spring and everything was so green. One of the nicknames for Guatemala is “La tierra de la eterna primavera” (The land of eternal spring).

“But let all who take refuge in you be glad; let them ever sing for joy. Spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may rejoice in you. For surely, O LORD, you bless the righteous; you surround them with your favor as with a shield.”
Psalm 5:11 – 12

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Un Partido de Fútbol

Early in the week, Ali stirred up some interest in having a game of football among the students on Thursday afternoon. I was glad to have a chance to do something different for a change, so I signed up and paid my Q20 (to use the field). When Thursday rolled around, however, it started raining around noon and we were supposed to play at 2:00. When we returned to school after lunch we had assumed that nobody would want to play because it was still raining, but surprisingly it was the teachers that were more intent on us playing. (Teachers need to be with their students if they leave the school during class time. Some students even take their teachers with them to run errands and such.)

We set out in the rain, which slowly changed to a drizzle, and arrived at the Luteranos campus. I had walked past it a couple weeks ago but there is a gate and a guard so I wasn’t able to look around. Inside the wall I saw a sign for Sunday worship, but I have no idea if it’s affiliated with a church in the States. The campus is pretty big, with flower gardens and a large building that doesn’t resemble a church in any way. I still don’t know exactly what its purpose is.

The fútbol field was a little rough, with more dirt than grass—which was growing in haphazard patches. But there were two goals with nets, which was a plus. We divvied up into teams and played for the better part of an hour until the rain stopped. The sun came out and it got quite hot again. We played for almost 2 hours before heading back to school. I scored 2 goals, but we weren’t really keeping track. ¡Mis pobres zapatos! (My poor shoes!) They will never be as clean as they used to be.

I’m now considered a “beginning intermediate” student instead of a “beginner” because I have learned the conditional tense. I’ve also been starting the perfect tense, but for me Spanish is still easier to translate on paper than to understand in speech. When I can understand, it’s then even harder to respond correctly. I usually mix up an ending or use the wrong tense. Poco a poco entenderé español mejor. (Little by little I will understand Spanish better.)

When I was studying the perfect tense on Friday, Marta wrote out several sentences for me to translate. I burst out laughing when I got to this one: “Juan dijo, ‘¡Finalmente mi suegra ha muerto!’” (Juan said, ‘Finally my mother-in-law has died!’)

I gave in and got internet on Friday. It’s a little on the slow side, but I still like the convenience of having it right in my room. I’m excited to be able to listen to online music!

I slept in on Saturday, got up to have breakfast at 9:00, and went back to bed for a couple hours after that. Después del almuerzo, estuvo lloviendo a cantaros. (After lunch, it was raining by pitchers.) A few of us had been planning on visiting a hotel and spending the afternoon by the pool, but the rain quickly put a hold on that. This weekend is going to be a lazy one.


“Praise the LORD, O my soul. O LORD my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendor and majesty.”
Psalm 104:1

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Un Temblor!

It was a little tough to get out of bed Monday morning and swing back into routine, especially after such an early start the day before. My sunburn already felt much better by the morning, but Ali was still suffering miserably. I don’t know what we would have done without the aloe vera I brought.

My teacher’s name this week is Marta. Like Mercedes, she is fairly young; only a few years older than I am. Marta is very straightforward and logical. She progresses from one topic to the next in a very orderly sequence. I like her style, but I’m trying to get her to loosen up a little. I managed to get her to laugh at the end of the day, though it was at my expense. Monday was teacher appreciation day in Guatemala. People were really jovial and the phrase “¡Feliz el día del maestro!” was constantly being said somewhere in the school. As I was packing up I tried my hand at it, but ended up saying “¡Feliz el día del pad—” I caught myself, but Marta started laughing because she knew I had been about to wish her a Happy Father’s Day.

At the noon break on Monday I quickly walked to the Juice Café to see if I could look for my camera. Thankfully, Bob and Megan were both there and they told me they were going to be leaving for Guatemala City in the early afternoon. I got there just in time! I walked with Megan to where they kept the car parked. It was in a gated-type community with lush gardens and an underground parking garage. When I climbed into the car I almost panicked because I didn’t see the camera and Megan said they had done a sweep the night before. But then I did find it wedged down on the side of the seat. Thank goodness! I thanked Megan profusely and she gave me a ride back to the shop, which lessened my walk home by a few blocks.

There are some things that may never cease to amaze me here. There are mopeds and motorcycles everywhere you look. Even Juan Carlos has one. However, it is also very common to see three people on a motorcycle: the driver, an adult passenger, and a child sandwiched between them. I’ve seen a three-year-old girl sitting on her dad’s lap while he drove the moped. I’ve seen a mother holding a toddler on the back of a motorcycle. My heart skips a beat whenever I see things like that.Another interesting bit of news about transportation in Antigua: Marta said that the mayor of Antigua wants to eliminate the use of tuk-tuks in the streets because it’s “bad for tourism.” I somehow can’t picture Antigua without them…

Tuesday night I went to bed just after 10:00. At 12:30 I woke up disoriented and thinking I was in the back of a truck on a bumpy road. It took me a moment to realize that Antigua was experiencing an earthquake! I was only awake for the last few seconds before it stopped. Wednesday morning it was all anyone could talk about. “¡Anoche hubo un temblor a las doce y media!” Marta said the earthquake lasted just under a minute and was rather strong. I was a little sad I missed most of it, but some people (including Ali) slept right through it. Mercedes said it registered 5.4 on the Richter Scale, but Marta said 5.1. There were also reports of aftershocks throughout the night, but I didn't feel any of those.

After morning classes on Wednesday I returned home to find two guys working over by the computer with Juan Carlos. They were installing internet! There is now Wi-Fi at the house, but I would need to cough up Q50 a week to use it. That translates to $25 for the rest of my stay here in Antigua. Ali and I are trying to decide if it’s worth it, because we do have internet at the school for free. However, the connection there has been very temperamental as of late. On Monday I wasn’t able to connect all day, and on Wednesday I only managed to get a slow connection in the afternoon. It would be really convenient to be able to access internet at the house because I wouldn’t need to lug my computer to school every day. It would also help me in my studies because I could create online flashcards to memorize vocab and such. On the flipside I would need to have the self-control to not to check facebook constantly. However, I would be able to Skype on weekends! Then again, I think Q50 a week is a little steep compared to what other students pay their host families to use their internet. I’m kind of on the line. Any advice?

I learned that the Spanish equivalent for “it’s raining cats and dogs” is “Está lloviendo a cantaros” which means, “It’s raining by pitchers.”


“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. Selah”
Psalm 46:1 – 3

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Divertido a la Playa

So I found out that Bob is really the one who owns the juice shop, and sometime after Jimmy met Bob, Jimmy offered to advertise the beach trip for Bob. So even though Jimmy was the one we thought we first had to contact, it ended up that Bob and his girlfriend Megan were the ones who took us to the beach today.

Now that that’s as clear as muddy pothole…

Our day was definitely early! My first alarm rang at 5:15, but I couldn’t force myself out of bed until about 5:35. Ali and I walked to the Juice Café through mostly deserted streets (which was almost eerie) and we found Morgan already there. We had some awesome french toast and freshly-squeezed orange juice for breakfast. We were expecting another guy named Glenn to come, but we already knew that Will had decided not to go the night before. We waited half an hour for Glenn, and Ali tried calling him a few times, but he didn’t answer. It ended up being the five of us: Bob, Megan, Morgan, Ali, and myself.

The day started out a little hazy, and we were all curious what the weather was going to be like at the beach. Bob was optimistic it would be a nice day, but I had my doubts since the past week has been so overcast. The drive to the beach was 2 ½ hours away, but I really didn’t mind because it gave me a chance to soak up the Guatemalan countryside. Again it reminded me of Africa in ways I wasn’t expecting. There were vast fields of sugar cane, patches of road littered with speed bumps, animals wandering everywhere, and people utilizing leafy-green branches to indicate a broken down vehicle just ahead.

The main highways were actually very well maintained, but as we got closer to the beach and turned off the highway we were on a very narrow tarmac road that eventually turned to dirt. There were potholes (more accurately, dirty ponds) everywhere. On two separate occasions, Bob attempted to pass another vehicle while simultaneously going through a pothole. Both times the occupants of the other vehicles were drenched in murky water. One vehicle was a pick-up truck with a load of people riding in the back. I felt so terrible for them!

We finally arrived at this very beautiful lodge called Pelicanos Surf Place. The owner of the lodge was pretty evident, and he came over from the bar/restaurant to welcome us. Bob had told us on the way there that the beach we were going to was a lot cleaner than the more touristy one in Monterrico, and I didn’t doubt him. It was spectacular! The temp was in the mid-80’s and there were high thin clouds in the sky, preventing it from getting too hot. The sand really was black, and the waves were huge! The best part was that the water was the warmest I have ever felt for the ocean; my guess is around 82°. Looking away from the ocean, you could see the volcanoes robed in a subtle shade of blue in the distance.

The lodge had a beautiful pool, but you had to pay Q100 ($12.50) for it, so we all admired it and swam in the ocean instead, which was far more exciting anyway. One second you would be standing ankle-deep, and the next the water would crash around you up to your shoulders. There were a number of surfers catching waves, and Bob himself brought his board. (Again, there was an option to rent one for Q100.) Bob is from California, so he makes it look as easy as breathing, but he let us each have a turn and I failed miserably. Morgan and Ali were able to get up, even if it was only briefly. He consoled me by saying he has a really advanced short board, and he was surprised that Ali and Morgan even got up at all. I really didn’t feel that bummed, though it’s nice to say that I have “surfed” in the Pacific twice in my life. (The other time was in San Diego on Project Timothy, where I also failed miserably. I guess growing up in Africa really doesn’t prepare you for surfing very well.)

I would have loved to stay in water and catch the waves all day, but the saltwater forced me to take breaks. I have forgotten how much it stings your eyes! It’s also exhausting to be battered around for more than a half hour, so we alternated between going in the water and relaxing on chairs near the pool.

Around 11:00, Morgan and Ali got a “snack,” though I decided to wait until later. Like everything else (it seemed), the food was rather pricey. As we were hanging out under the palm-leaf-thatched veranda/restaurant, I noticed that there were two beautiful scarlet macaws over in a large cage nearby. Everything about this place was tropical. It felt like we were in a different country!

Sometime later, Ali and I played volleyball on the black sand. They did have a net up by the lodge, but the court was not well maintained and the sand would have been too hot anyway. (Any sand not dampened by the ocean was blisteringly hot. I wonder if it had anything to do with it being so dark.) Pelicanos was kind enough to let us use a volleyball without charging us for it. We drew up a makeshift mini-court in the sand and made rough guestimates about where the net would be. It was a good time! However, after just a couple games we had to cool off in the ocean. We were definitely not used to the heat and humidity.

The whole experience was so relaxing. As much as I enjoy Antigua, it was great to just get away and do something a little more touristy for the day.
Around 3:00 Bob suggested we start packing up because he wanted to show us something on the way back. We were trekking over to the car when the owner of the lodge (the same guy who had so warmly welcomed us) called over to Bob because he wanted to talk to him. Apparently he felt that we hadn’t spent enough money at the lodge to merit us visiting it for the day. (Perhaps if they didn’t charge Q130 for a massage I would have considered one.) I didn’t really witness the conversation, though Bob must have handled it well, and we left without incident. I don’t know if the owner realized that we had to pay Bob a pretty sum to simply get there and back.

We left the beach mid-afternoon. When we were just half an hour out of Antigua, Bob had Megan pull the car over to what he called “The Sacred Cliffs.” He made up the name himself because they don’t really have one. There are natural coves and outcroppings where local people leave candles and hold ceremonies (involving chicken sacrifice) for loved ones. It sounded a little superstitious to me, so I didn’t press for details. It cost only Q5 for each person, which is just over 60¢ , but the natural beauty of the place was priceless!

We crossed a log-and-plank bridge over a swift-running stream, and walked towards the coves. Unfortunately, there was basura (trash) everywhere; the Parks & Recreation Department would be appalled. We briefly stopped at a ceremony site, and I was glad we didn’t linger. The coolest part was when we climbed up and through this giant split in the cliff. Water was pouring down the vertical rock face, and plants and mosses grew sideways from it. I was so happy I had my camera with me! It would be impossible to describe the natural beauty of what I saw without pictures to help me.

We explored for a good 20 minutes or more, and then hit the road for the final stretch to Antigua. Less than 20 minutes away from Antigua, Bob pointed out a huge shantytown to our right that I hadn’t noticed on the way out. It felt like I was looking at a live snapshot directly from the movie Slumdog Millionaire. Bob said that we were looking at the most dangerous part of Guatemala. Antigua is considered the safest city in Guatemala. It is strange to me that they are in such close proximity, but I suppose it could be compared to El Paso and Ciudad Juarez.

We stopped at a burger place on the outskirts of Antigua. The place prides itself on making their burgers just like you might find in the States, and I must say I was surprised. It definitely added it to my list of top-ten-favorite-burgers-of-all-time, which seems to now include two places in Antigua…

Before they dropped us off, Bob and Megan told us that we had been such a fun group. Apparently the last time they took a group of people they just ended up sitting at the pool playing on their iPods. What’s the point of going to the beach if you’re not going to even look at the water let alone get in it? We were dropped off near La Merced and walked the few blocks home.

I had a bad feeling the entire time we were walking back, and I checked through my bags as soon as I got back to my room. Sure enough, my camera was missing. I knew the last place I had it was in the car after we got back in from the cliffs. I really hoped it had just fallen out of my pocket in the car, but I had no way of finding out at the time.

Ali and I were both pretty sunburned. I even used lotion! Thankfully I brought a mini-pharmacy with me to Guatemala, so we have both been applying aloe vera liberally. Ali is definitely worse-off than I am.

All in all, the trip was fantastic! Even though it ended up being pricier than I had anticipated, I still think it was worth it. We went to a clean beach without many tourists, the day was gorgeous, we saw some awesome natural cliffs, and I had a great burger. What more could I ask for? ¡Mi taza esta llena! (My cup is full!)

“The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD thunders over the mighty waters. The voice of the LORD is powerful.”
Psalm 29:3 – 4