Monday, August 25, 2014

Pedaleando por El Lago Amatitlan - Bike Ride to Amatitlan!

In Guatemala City there are sooooooo many wonderfully encouraging things happening that make me think, "yes, there is hope in Guatemala!" And by that I mean grassroots organizing, creative entrepreneurs, people trying to make Guatemala a better place despite the horrible crime-murder-unaccompanied minors-rap it gets in the media.

One of these wonderful things is the bicycle community here in the city called Biciudad. These bike loving folks organize group rides monthly that bring together all walks of life on bikes to go for a safe, fun, easy ride around a different part of the city each time. Sometimes they are day rides that end in a park with a little festival, sometimes they are night rides with traffic police escort, and there is even a Halloween ride in costume. Participants include speedsters in spandex, couples in matching outfits on matching bikes, hipsters, foreigners (as in us and our friends), and families with little ones on bikes with training wheels. It's great.

This weekend the event was Pedaleando por el lago, which has a little bit of a double meaning: both Pedaling to the Lake and Pedaling for the Lake. It is a big group ride that starts in Guatemala City and goes 25 km (mostly downhill) to Lake Amatitlan, picking up more riders in each community we pass through. Ending at the Lake with a little festival and a raffle for a dozen bikes. Raising awareness for bikes and for the horribly polluted state of Lake Amatitlan.

On Sunday morning Hubby and I got up early at 6am. After eggs, coffee, and protein shakes we rode our bikes, freshly tuned up and washed from the night before, about 15 minutes through the quiet Sunday morning streets of Zone 10 up to lovely G-22 in Zona 4 and met up with 50 like-minded Guatemalans and a few friends of ours. The plan? Ride our bikes 25km out to Lake Amatitlan. In true Guatemalan style we left about an hour later than advertised but the bike leaders were organized and kept us en route south through the city through Zone 12, Zone 21, and Villa Nueva. Hubby commented happily that "embassy security would shit a brick if they knew we were in Villa Nueva!" one of the most violent areas outside the city. But as we have found before on long bike tours, the world looks very different from the saddle than it does on TV or through a tinted armored car window with the doors locked. Today Villa Nueva had a lovely little street fair going on with a marimba band jamming out doing Santana covers. For the most part this was a family ride rather than a critical mass ride so we stopped at most stoplights. Some intersections we rode through if the traffic police had it stopped for us, and we took a couple very short breaks at gas stations where some riders frantically topped off flat tires or bought energy drinks.

Along the way we picked up more and more riders until our little group of 50 turned into a couple thousand. It was amazing! We were going at an easy, leisurely pace with several loudspeaker vans blasting electronic music following us. There were big bikes, little bikes, nice road bikes, cheap rusty mountain bikes, bikes with squeaky brakes and bikes with no brakes. The road from Villa Nueva to the lake was all downhill with gorgeous views and was closed to traffic, so it was truly a day in the park for cyclists.

Once at the bottom we got to see Lake Amatitlan up close and in person, and oh the horror, it was technicolor green with algae and pollution. The water didn't smell too bad thank goodness since there was a strong cool breeze blowing right off it but even after a hot sunny morning on a bike there was absolutely no temptation to jump in and rinse off.

The festival had a few booths encouraging environmental awareness, showing how a new water sewage treatment plant was planned and handing out pamphlets and plastic bottles and bags of water that would eventually blow right into the lake. Mayor Perez was handing out more plastic bottles of water with his face on them. Here's some water, save the lake. Um thanks, you're doing it wrong. Oh well, at least it was a really nice bike ride. And a ride I wouldn't really enjoy if we weren't in a big group that insulated us from the danger and noise and pollution of all the traffic.

After pupusas on styrofoam trays in the park for lunch, our hard core buddies mounted their bikes with the intention of riding back to the city. Hubster and I boarded one of 2 chartered chicken buses with bikes piled high on top for a bus ride back up the hill to the city. The bus driver somehow didn't get the message to drop us off in Zone 4 where we had started and was headed to Zone 6 for some unknown reason, so we yelled and protested until he let us off in Zone 1 at the Parque Central. The adventure was far from over! A small group of us rode back to Zone 4 a few miles away and Hubby and I continued on home for showers and icy drinks.

What an amazing day.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

El Palo Volador en Joyabaj - The Flying Pole Dance!

There are so many little Mayan ceremonies and traditions here that we will never see, not necessarily because they are secret and hidden away but because there are just so many of them and the villages where they can be found are widespread, we just won't get the chance to see it all in the two years we are here. But we can try.

Now we can check off El Palo Volador, we just saw it today and it was pretty darn cool. An early Friday morning start got us on the road at 6am and after a 6 hour drive northwest into the mountains above Chichicastenango (the famous market town) we arrived in Joyabaj, a small normal town in full swing for the flying pole festival.

We drove slowly through the congested streets looking for a parking spot for little Wasuby (our green Subaru) and found a nice quiet spot in front of a pharmacy. Just around the corner we each paid Q2 (about 50 cents) to use the bathroom in a dirt parking lot which were two makeshift outhouses with water-bucket-dump toilets. Refreshed and ready, we headed into the center of town where all the noise was coming from and all the people were walking towards. We only saw 2 other foreigners on our way in who we recognized as USAID folks. This is truly a local festival, not just a show for tourists.

The noise got louder and louder and as we rounded a corner we found out why, there in the central plaza was the 30m tall pole with 3 stages surrounding it all blasting competing and clashing music. Not very organized, or maybe it was...

Around the pole were a couple circles of dancers in costumes and masks dancing and acting out different scenes. One was a bull that was super mischievous and wanted to steal the stuffed animals and baby dolls the other dancers were holding, the bull also liked poking the other dancers in the butts with sticks. Another group was a mischievous cheetah chasing the other dancers around. Also dancing in a rhythmic circle were about a dozen little hand carried floats spinning in circles and moving around the circle followed by groups of men and groups of young women holding poles with streamers on the ends shaking and dancing around the circle. All live marimba bands and latin top 40. But hard to tell who was dancing to what sound system.

The Flying Pole Dance was of course the coolest part. Five guys in matching costumes climbed up this huge tree trunk that had been recently cut down, de-limbed and erected in the town plaza. Three guys stayed up top and the other two hooked one leg through a loop of rope and hung upside down while the rope unwound from where it was wrapped around the top of the pole, spinning the two guys slowly down to the ground where they eventually got close enough to sit up, unhook their legs and then touch down and run it out. Pretty brave and amazing.

This pole ceremony is still performed in several Mayan towns in Mexico and Guatemala. What it symbolizes varies, from a dance to make the Gods happy and bring them rain, to birdmen recreating the world.

We saw several different groups of Voladors have a go while we munched on little Guatemalan enchiladas (crispy fried tortillas with carrot salad, ketchup and mayonnaise on top), lychee fruits and water melon slices. The music and the random firecrackers finally just got too overwhelming for us to take any more so we followed a slow parade around town for a few blocks, shopped for a cowboy hat for Hubby, and watched the groups of dancers do their thing.

A few hours at the festival chaos was more than enough for us so we headed back down the road we came in on to a bigger town named Santa Cruz del Quiche where we got a room for the night and wandered around the main plaza enjoying some street food and people watching.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Roasting Marshmallows on Volcán de Pacaya

Another sunny weekend during the canicula, another chance to do a great day hike near the city, so we did a lovely hike up Pacaya Volcano with some friends from the embassy. The canicula is supposed to last around 10 days in July, it's like an Indian-summer-slash-dry-spell during the rainy season, but it hasn't really rained for a month and the farmers are freaking out now that it's looking more like a mini drought. 

We left town around 9am to drive out west to the little town of San Vicente and up the flanks of Pacaya. The mountain was out of the clouds all day long for us. The hike uphill took us about an hour, the littlest one of our group was two and he did so great, maybe because Muñeca the caballa was helping to entertain him. The trail was dusty and dry and we stopped at all the requisite rest stops: looking at the lake, talking about the geothermal power plant, looking at Volcan de Agua, talking about the plant named "oja de queso" which also makes great TP, stopping for bananas, feeding the peels to the horse, buying cookies for the marshmallow roast, and hearing the spiel at the Lava Store at the top of the trail. And then it was time to roast marshmallows!

In the crater below Cerro Chino are a few vents that radiate heat from the lava waaaaaaaaay down below. It's been deemed safe to walk on and isn't so hot that you feel like your face is melting while you're watching your marshmallow toast. ALL the stores along the road in town and all the little snack vendors on the way up the mountain sold marshmallows so our guide bought us a bag and carried it up. We bought some Chiky cookies (little butter wafers with chocolate on one side) to go with them and they made some of the best S'mores ever. The rocky vent was small but it was the perfect hot little oven to give the marshmallows a golden brown toast. We cooked them 6 at a time on our multi-pronged stick while trying to keep the little one at a safe distance. A couple stray dogs hung around eating the dropped crumbs and licking off the stick as soon as we set it down.

The hike down the mountain was dusty but quick and painless. It was about 2pm by then and we were hungry so we stopped at Lai Lai for Chinese lunch on our way back to the city. They sold their hot sauce for Q25 ($3.50) per bottle and we couldn't get enough of it - delicious smokey hotness that it was. Back in town by 5pm for a relaxed Saturday evening in our cozy apartamento and maybe even a soak in the hot tub on the roof. Yep, I think we might miss Guate when we leave.