Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Cross-country Guatemala: Rio Dulce to La Antigua

It is difficult to leave Guatemala. Just as difficult as keeping yourself from falling in love with Guatemala. This little piece of tierra firma contains all that is life on planet earth. Among the most beautiful scenery and landscape, some of the most pristine rainforest and jungle, rivers, streams and water bodies, cultures and colours, foods and smells, breathtaking Maya sites, moments of tranquil silence and spiritual contemplation - there are also many, many problems, blemishes and imperfections.

Where there is natural beauty there is also destruction. With wealth comes poverty. Happiness and grief. Health and sickness. Abundance and waste. Kindness and cruelty. Equality and discrimination. Pride and shame.
Lonely parrot in Livingston, Guatemala

The fishing boats prepare for tomorrow´s catch, Livingston
Our beautiful room in Livingston at the Garden Gatehouse
Just like the human spirit, Guatemala contains chaos as much as it contains serenity. To truly fall in love, one must become aware of flaws as well as beauty, because without the flaws, it just doesn´t function and it isn´t living. You cannot love something that is perfect, nor someone who reflects perfection because perfection represents death, death of the human spirit and of nature itself. Each day you must decide whether today is the day you love it, or the day you hate it. Either way you stick by it because the ups make the downs possible, and the downs make you appreciate the ups.

Entonces, todavia estamos aqui. [So, we are still here]

We caught a ride on the back of a tractor to get to Finca Paraiso near El Estor
The miraculous hot waterfalls of Finca Paraiso, hot water pours upstream of the waterfall from a spring in the mountain and this waterfall meets a cold water river from the rain catchment

Just amazing, the top is the hot water and the bottom is cold water

A natural wonder visited by many tourists coming from Rio Dulce which is around one hour away by bus, we took a boat through Lago Izabal courtesy of our dear Afghani friends

We ended our week of study in Rio Dulce, our heads hurting from an uptake of enormous amounts of information. Ileana is a wonderful teacher, disgustingly knowledgable in both Spanish and English, she pushed us hard. And good on her, in that one week we progressed a huge deal, learning a whole second half of the Spanish language which is used for ideas and intentions - subjuntivo. A perfect example of this would be to say "I hope that you call me tomorrow when you return home". "Call me" and "you return" would be conjugated as subjuntivos because they only exist in the mind, you cannot be certain that either is or will be taking place. Hence we have a whole second set of conjugated verbs which makes up roughly half of the Spanish language. We resisted at first claiming that we wouldn´t need it yet, however being the clever and competent teacher that she is, she pointed to the fact that not knowing subjuntivo was causing 50% of all our lingual errors. She was correct.

Peering over the rooftops of Antigua, the volcano Pacaya looms over the stone town
Waiting to catch the 8am bus from Rio Dulce to Antigua, shortly after a sad farewell to the gang at Xalaja, we treated ourselves to a warm breakfast of bean panini from a street vendor. As we happily munched our breakfast treats, I noticed a guy pushing a tall wooden cart filled with freshly baked goods. I shot across the street and purchased two sweet buns and a small tear-apart number they call francesa. Now we had our munchies for the five hour bus ride. The only stop before the bus change in Guatemala city was at a little roadside service place. Hordes of locals here were selling all kinds of fresh fruits and even some small chocolate muffins. We really slept poorly the night before following our farewell night with the Afghani´s (Basir and his cousing Ali from Toronto) where we played poker and drank shots of tequila, a great combination no doubt. A few hours before the gambling and shooting started, I re-designed Basir´s vacation home in Rio Dulce in just two hours, he was more than happy about this. The tequila was quite pure and clean leaving little headache, but we only caught three hours sleep, leading us to the deicion that eating a bag-full of already skinned mandarins at the rest stop might just give us the vitamin boost we so badly needed.

The courtyard of the Spanish embassy in Antigua, there´s a lovely cafe here too

The town´s poor gather in a protest walk, many of these people survive on what little they manage to sell at Antigua´s market (one of the neatest in the world maybe) - the municipality aims to reduce the area of the market to free up more commercial space

A horse drawn cart for romantic rides through Antigua rides through our view of Parque Central, don´t they have these in Venice and Rome too?
The ride through this line of Guatemala takes you from a very tropical and wet carribean coast, through a dry and hilly desert region, to climb up toward Guatemala city with magnificent views over the ever changing landscape. The weather was changing too, the air quickly becoming crisp and cool. We experienced all this through sleepy eyelids, finding it near impossible to stay away on the reasonably comfortable ride. Colette woke me just in time to see Guatemala city as we dove further and further into the civic chaos. Zona 6 was when I first become aware that we were indeed entering something which we hadn´t experienced in nearly 5 months, a real metropolitan city. Zona 1 in the centre of Guatemala city is the oldest and most beautiful part we saw, the bus station where we changed buses was right smack bang in the middle of all of this. Despite only spending and hour or so on buses zipping and crawling through Guatemala city, I was very happy to have seen it and we spent this part of the ride very wide eyed at all the civic existence which radiated around us.

The Burger King was here, even big corporations play by the civic aesthetic rules in Antigua

McHappy? Ronald enjoys the sunshine in one of the town´s nicest courtyards with views to Pacaya, the courtyard is only a part of the MacDonald´s that exists is ridiculously fancy for what it is, and people sure go here for some reason

Once you exit Guatemala city heading toward Antigua, the bus ends up hurling down an extremely steep and windy, albeit well surfaced, road. Every second turns boasts a safety stopping ramp which, take my word for it, look extremely used. Lucky, I thought. We entered Antigua, a small, short and wonderfully mosaic collection of stone buildings. After insisting to be dropped off at the "bus station" instead of the Parque Central, we ended up walking the 12 or so blocks West to the part of town we planned on staying in. Great thing too as we got to see a big part of Antigua and what was even better, we ran into our friend Hila from Isreal whom we met in Rio Dulce, just two blocks before we hit the park. Impossible had we been dropped off at the centre, since neither of us seemed to remember her saying she would be in Antigua this week.

Notice the motorbike parking sign? It´s a little tile forming part of the sidewalk in Antigua

What about the Universal Access signs? Yes, in Antigua you can get just about anywhere in a your face first world!
It was her last day in Guatemala, and it was Valentine´s Day after all, so we insisted on her joining us for a lovely dinner at an Argentine restaurant. The place was gorgeous, full of colour and life as you might expect, and the tapas were tounge melting treats of Argentine/Italian origins. The hosts were really joyful and spoke quick fire spanish to us, really testing our newly acquired knowledge. We got lucky with our decision to draw the night out with little bites and plenty of good Argentinian Malbec because sometime during the night a really talented fellow got up with his guitar and sang some really lovely tunes. We called it a night when we ran out of money and kissed and hugged Hila farewell, promising to visit Isreal sometime in the future. Look out bank account, here we come!

Our rooftop, we did yoga with views of three volcanos this morning

Pretty things come in threes, Colette´s wonderful photo on top of our lodging

Learning how to jugle, in a nice office
Antigua is a like a good rash. You scratch it because it feels good and the more you scratch the deeper you get, but you just can´t stop thinking about it and hence scratching some more. The town has it all, in swats and heaps. Delicious restaurants, wickedly good coffee, bakeries, street vendors, handicrafts, markets, scenery, weather, art, history, gardens gardens gardens, courtyards which make you feel like you are living a poem - and all beautifully arranged on a canvas of colonial antiquity brigthened with flashes of indigenous character. No other city or town in the world has played the civic design card as well, even the street signs are part of the beautifully arranged tiled sidewalks and building facades. World Heritage foundation would surely be proud of this little number and they truly belong on the top of that list for Heritage towns.

This lovely stone courtyard resides inside one of Antigua´s oldest cathedrals dating back to the 16th century...and I swear I have seen this in a computer game, Marko?

It pays to be pious, these guys are remembered by being carved into this amazing wooden door

Jumping from sheer grace, we take a stroll through one of the strictest ex-nunneries ever...apparently it was so isolated even the food had to go through a steel turnstyle similar to a prison cell´s
Ofcourse there are also hoards, and hoards of tourists, Yankee missionaries and other such ignorant folk...including us two dazed mongrels, who at times truly look like we belong back in the bush with our extensive wardrobe of putrid greown (grey and brown) one choice pants, nasty ass cracker backpacker sandals that have seen better days and not many tops to choose from. I feel somewhere between homeless and tourist. We dine well and speak to people with some sense of dignity, but man do we look poorly dressed. We were clever when we first arrived in finding two heavier sweater like garments for the cold weather just within hours of arriving, because it really gets chilly here right now.

Wonderful colour, captured in paint...Colette really wants the middle one

One of the many merchants of the region´s handicrafts, these amazing goods are handmade in the many villages near and far of the country´s capital

In stark contrast to his dress, we were surprised to find this gentleman quite cold and unresponsive
Our touristic non-existence was gratefully broken yesterday when we walked into the only surf-shop in town (Global Surf Guatemala). Yes there really is one. They sell surf stuff and take people on learn-to-surf tours into El Salvador. Turns out that one of the owners is a rather warm and interesting Isreali fellow named Ori (why are there so many Isreali´s here?), within minutes of meeting him he invited us to coffee, to which we happily obliged. After a few hours of excellent conversation with Ori, he decided to treat us to a non-tourist experience for a dinner at his house that evening. Great! We bought some banana bread for desert and two bottles of cheap and good Chilean red, and off we were to his place just South outside of Antigua in what you might call the suburbs. We made a great and simple home-style red sauce pasta and were joined for dinner by his good friend from England named Jessica. We had a great evening with all kinds of engaging conversation topped off with some excellent inspiring videos on You Tube...and if you haven´t yet seen these then you must (list at the end).

One of many stunning courtyards that abound in Antigua
All in all, we still hope to make it to San Marco on the side of Lago Atitlan for another week of Spanish lessons...but with so many indulgences and the general waft of delicious Guatemala-ness, one just cannot be certain of their future.

You Tube must watch list:
+ Flute and human beatbox which transcends human limitations, Nathan Lee and Beardyman
+ The world´s most ingenious busker from the UK, DubFX (don´t miss "Love Someone")
+ Bass playing which just isn´t possible from Victor Wooten and (don´t miss part 2!)
+ Voice soloist Bobby Mcferrin most famous for "being happy" (he does a Bach celo solo too)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Off Yer Bike, Lo Estamos Haciendo

Well, well...its been a while since we wrote about our travels, so I guess I have some catching up to do!

We left our bikes in Flores and continued southward into the Guatemalan heartland. Here is a snapshot of our last days in and around Peten:

Bollos de Peten, a local delicasy in San Andres
Our host family in San Andres, Rosa and Carmen Chabin
Our two biking companions in Flores, Anna from Australia and Paul from the US
This place sells guns, for Santa Ellena
The water vine, saves lives in the Jungle - Reserva Bio Itza
Going on a tour of the Reserva Bio Itza, a community project of San Jose
Little forest friends in Bio Itza
Colette likes mushrooms at Bio Itza

Our next stop was Lanquin and Semuc Champey, one of the most beautiful places in Guatemala, if not on earth! We had a little stomach trouble during our days here, but the scenery more than made up for it. On our last day at Lanquin and a new funky hostel named Zephyr, we decided to walk the three hours from Lanquin to the magical place that is Semuc Champey.

Our loft room at Zephyr in Lanqiun
Crazy wood sculpture at Zephyr in Lanquin
The view of Zephyr and the Lanquin valley

This we bought agreed was some of the steepest roads that may exist anywhere, so much so that once we returned to Zephyr to pick up my forgotten passport after hanging out in Semuc, we ran into Anna again here with whom I made a bet that the road to Semuc was simply unridable, even for her! I haven´t heard the results yet, but I suffer in anticipation to hear whether the little Aussie engine could...

Very near the protected park area of Semuc Champey we stayed at El Portal, a nice little hostel and bungalow hangout. This place is right on the river and we used that privilige to the fullest, the only regret is that I hesitated jumping off the bridge that crosses it after many urging pleads from my dearest - only to later run into a whole group of wacky Ozzies who were more than keen to jump off it, and jump they did. Nevertheless, I did jump and crawl on pretty much everything else down at the river, a little like Golum I guess.

I like jumping off things
The paradise that is Semuch Champey, the best swimming pool on the planet
The mighty Cahabon river gushing into the underworld below the serene pools of Semuc Champey
Just upstream of the cave like passage for the river
Me sitting just next to the mouth of the river cave (if you were to venture down there you would be gone for 47 days and then wash up very dead on the other side)
Colette looking stunning in a well framed shot at the rivers edge
So much beauty exists here, layers upon layers of it
This place is walled on both sides by a thick magnificent jungle
The exiting end of the river makes a lovely waterfall, this is after the crystal clear water pools
Power of nature, stupidity of tourists - just about all these guys smashed their back end into the rocks hidden in the white water simply because they didn´t think to see what happened to the person before them...figures,  Darwin where are you!?!
We left this amazing area in a whirlwind, and deciding to keep some of the rough flavor of bike travel, we wanted to get to Rio Dulce only on the back of pick up trucks and the such by hitchhiking. We think that this was a wonderful decision in hindsight, albeit risky. We saw and experienced some of the most amazing scenery in the Alta Verapaz, and rode on the back of a chicken manure truck through some very remote little Mayan villages. The rural road between Lanquin and Lago Izabal (through Cahabon) is just stunning, it follows the river and boasts some of the most untouched scenery in this part of the country.

Once we reached Lago Izabal, just before dunking down into the valley we were treated to the most stunning view one could have of the lowlands leading out to Rio Dulce, nothing short of breathtaking. Once we reached the lake side we decided to stop over in El Estor for two nights, Colette still feeling a hundred percent and me wanting to fix my shoes...well we just stayed, and had some nice market food aswell.

Skipping past Finca Paraiso, we pressed on to Rio Dulce (the town) in a regular collective bus (really a van) where we planned on taking another week of intensive Spanish classes. Rio Dulce is a little like Florida, or at least the everglades. It even has the old american marine-loving tourist population which really gives it the Florida authenticity, either way we don´t know whether it was the chicken or the egg, but apart from the lush forest greenery all over it really does seem like Florida.

Never had a single thing at the Sundog Cafe, but Colette is pretty (apparently this place is a famous Gringo hangout in Rio Dulce, but the first night we were here we ran into a couple of drunk ones and they said it sucked?)

It turns out that this is the place where thousands of yachting folk pull in as a well liked spot, and later many head on to the Bay Islands of Honduras...some seeking crew. We might have to consider this delicious option. We also spent a few nights in Livingston prior to starting classes in Rio Dulce. Livingston is Guatemala´s version of the Carribean and it has that Garifuna, rasta flavour to boot. We enjoyed some good food, some heavy drinking of cocktails and even some hot dance hall action! The town is quaint and charming, but has a very heavy air of social and infrastructural decay, the town´s street dogs are by far in the worst condition we have seen anywhere (Cambodia´s Phnom Penh and Mexico´s Punta Allen included).

Hold production at Ford Motor Company, what is this in Livingston!?!
One of two public laundry cistern things, this one is decomissioned and the other is still heavily in use (people use these to manually wash their clothes, like a communal washing machine) - Livingston, Guatemala

We are really getting up to speed on Spanish, at least we feel so, but it seems that there are just layers upon layers of hidden tables of grammatical irregularity in this crazy language. Thank God we are not learning French - I think I would have given up long ago! The place we are staying Xalaja is very beautiful and right on the town´s edge. There are some lovely people staying here, the spanish teacher (also a pediatrician) is very good and both the restaurant staff and food is world class...makes it very hard to want to cook for yourself. An interesting and funny story, the other night we had dinner with two Afghani´s, an Israeli lighting designer,and us two vagabonds (a South African and a Croatian) - eating chow mein and chop suey at a Chinese pizza restaurant in Guatemala´s Carribean region. How´s that for a joke!?!

The Rio Bravo Chinese Pizza Seafood in Rio Dulce, yes here too!

Where will we go next? Will we head out sailing to the Bay Island of Honduras for a week, or will we head to Atitlan for more classes?! Who knows!?! Not even we do...but come back later on for our next instalment of RoundTheBendProject to find out what happens next!