Friday, May 29, 2015

Parting Thoughts

John and I were recently asked to sum up our thoughts on the last 2 years in Guatemala. Here's what we published in the Embassy Newsletter. We are still in denial that it is time to leave already...

Top 5 Countdown:

What surprised you the most about Guatemala?

1. How real and truly alive the indigenous culture is

2. Seeing palms and pines growing right next to each other

3. Internet service here is better than it was in Oregon

4. How few political parties there are (13+ and counting...)

5. Oh, so Guatemala is in CENTRAL America....

What was your favorite place to visit in Guatemala?

1. Volcán Tajamulco

2. Laguna Magdalena

3. San Juan la Laguna

4. Pasos y Pedales on Avenida La Reforma on a Sunday

5. Copán, Honduras (Yes, we know it is not really in Guatemala, but it might as well be.  Almost as good as Tikal but less crowded, way easier to get to, nice little town with amazing hot springs and a bird park)

Honorable mentions: Lake Aititlan, Tikal, Volcán Pacaya, Todos Santos, Volcán Ipala, Finca El Paraiso, Casa del los Gigantes, Earth Lodge, Pastores aka BootTown, Finca Tatín, Casa del Mundo, L'Osteria on a Friday, La Pista anytime

What will you miss the most about Guatemala?

1. Guatemalans

2. Ceiba trees

3. Being taller than everyone else in a crowd

4. 5Q Lustre + Q5 Mangos = Q10 Man Spa

5. Saying Sacatepequez

Honorable mentions: 1/2 Day Fridays, Easy weekend getaways to Anywheretenango, Speaking Spanish, Cheap avocados, Mango season, Chapín hand in traffic, Using "fíjese que" appropriately and unironically in a sentence, Cocos Fríos, Blackout Tint, Chicharrón con Pelos, Saying "damn, it's a nice day" everyday, Desayuno Típico, Buying produce at the stoplights

What advice do you have for newcomers?

1. Don't wait 6 months, file your travel locators and start traveling NOW!

2. Learn Spanish NOW!

3. Run the IVA card when you can, and don't sweat it when you get the "fíjese que"

4. Get to know a good tailor and visit them often

5. Do your Radio Check

Honorable mentions: Don't skip the 3 big parties (Marine Ball, British Ball, Sabores del Mundo)

Sunday, February 22, 2015

El Wayeb’ with Rigoberta

Like so many adventures in Guatemala, today started out beautifully, slowly morphed into a wild goose chase, and then suddenly we were exactly where we wanted to be having a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

The email Mushy sent us read, 
"Hey there, One of our indigenous interns sent this around today.   I don't really know what to expect, so it should be fun. Anyone interested in going on Saturday?"

It was an invitation from one of the interns at USAID to come join in on a Mayan ceremony to celebrate the Mayan New Year, called in K'Iche' "Ri Wayeb' ", in Spanish "El Wayeb' ". They celebrate the Lunar New Year just like the Chinese do, which is amazing because these cultures are on opposite sides of the world. But this also makes a lot of sense since everything in the real world truly revolves around the planets and the sun and the moon. How did we come up with our New Year again? 

Needless to say, Hubby and I were in! 

The directions on the invitation sounded pretty clear, the location was around 39km out on the highway around San Lucas and there would be signs. We were expecting a small fair of some kind with traditional dances, lots of color, flowers, corn, some ceremonial fires and maybe a food stall selling grilled mystery meat and hopefully some cut up fruit with lime juice in little plastic bags. 

Mushy was driving Miz M and Gummy Kid in the Mushy Mobile, we were driving with A-Zam in our green Wasubi so we had a nice, easy little caravan of 2. 

Right around 40km we pulled over, "Did you see anything?" "Nope, no signs, nothing that looked like any event, hardly any roads even..." "Ok let's go up the road to the gas station and ask there."

And so began our two hour search for El Wayeb'. 

Long story short, we did 3 laps including driving back down the other highway 1/2 way down the hill to Antigua. We stopped multiple times asking the locals if they knew anything about this event. I truly love Guatemala. Everyone we asked became earnestly invested in our search even though they knew nothing about the event, but they all were certain they were sending us to the right place. We had no idea and so of course we tried all their suggestions. Finally we had our emergency flashers on going slow looking for signs of a gathering and when we saw a grassy lot with a few extra cars and a tourist bus parked there we pulled into the driveway with our fingers crossed. We had decided that after this try we would bail on the adventure and go to Antigua for lunch. But we saw Mushy ask the dudes standing at the gate, and then victoriously thrust her thumb into the air, we had found it, hooray! 

Wild goose chase over! We parked in front and quietly crept through the gate to the back of the house where we could hear marimba, flutes, drums, and Mayan voices speaking K'Iche'. 

The back yard of the big, Guatemalan style 2-story house had a giant avocado tree in it providing an umbrella of leaves and creating a round room of shade. The tree had a presence that reminded me of Avatar, it was an old tree with really good energy. Under the tree was a circle of about 75 people, a few foreigners but mostly Mayans in beautiful colorful woven shirts, skirts and head wraps. They had a big floor of fresh pine needles laid down with happy displays of yellow dahlias, daisies and lilies in terra cotta vases, dried cobs of yellow corn, little native oranges and a tall altar with golden strands of ribbon connecting out to all the bouquets of flowers in front of it like a maypole. There were two fires burning in the middle, putting off thick black smoke but smelling delicious like pine resin and incense.

We sat and watched the religious leaders saying prayers in Spanish and K'Iche'. They were pairs of men and women, a husband and wife spiritual team, to keep it balanced. Offerings of orange resin-filled fatwood, cacao beans, flowers, sugar, and hundreds of little bees wax candles were thrown into the fire. Near the end of the ceremony we were given stems of purple statice flowers and sticks of fatwood and invited to walk a circle around the fires. We said goodbye to the old year when we laid our purple flowers at the base of the tree and asked for blessings for the new year before offering our fatwood to the fire while the music played and we half danced half stepped our way around the circle. It was beautiful. 

We aren't sure how long the ceremony lasted since we got there late but we watched it for about 90 minutes, sitting on the ground on the edge of the circle. Little Gummy Kid did really great, entertaining himself with a pine cone he picked up in the parking lot and an avocado that fell from the branches, landing with a scary thud nearby. 

The intern who had invited us glowed with pride as she introduced us to her husband and little 1-year-old daughter and her parents who had led the ceremony as one of the religious pairs. She and her husband were learning the ways and hoping to follow in her parents footsteps one day as spiritual leaders themselves. She explained what we had seen during the ceremony, each little action had significance. The color for this new year is yellow, hence all the yellow flowers, corn and fruit adorning the altar. Last year's color was purple. There were two fires, one to bid goodbye to last year and one to welcome in the new year. 

After the ceremony ended one of the older spiritual ladies dressed in bright yellow textiles welcomed us all and thanked us for coming and invited us to have lunch and stay a while longer. Our friend told that was Rigoberta Menchù making the announcement and this is her house. Wow. We had no idea we were ringing in the New Year with the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize recipient and one of the most respected human rights leaders in Guatemala and possibly the world. 

They had a big lunch prepared for us. Big pots of red soup, literally named Sopa Roja, with rice, squash and mutton. Tamalitos on the side and dishes of spicy chile cobanero sauce to mix into our soups. Rosa de jamaica juice to drink. It was delicious! I don't think I've ever had sopa de chivo before. Eight hours later as I write this story that sheep soup is still digesting and trying to crawl back up giving me the worst heartburn ever! Oh well, it was worth it... sheep soup with Rigoberta, never would have guessed we'd stumble into a day like today, but that's life in the Foreign Service. 

After lunch we lounged on the grass in the shade of the big aguacate tree, Gummy Kid ran laps around us and we watched as a big white and orange cat made the rounds begging for scraps and scowling at the kids as he dodged their eager advances. 

We wished our new friends a Happy New Year one more time and strolled out to our cars, inhaling the sweet smells of the smoldering fires and pine needles and thanking the musicians for playing. No photos were allowed at this special event but we'll keep those memories (and hopefully not this heartburn) forever. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Lake Atitlan, Volcan San Pedro, San Pedro La Laguna and San Juan La Laguna

Toliman and Atitlan

As Employees of the Government, all-caps, very important sounding, we get American holidays off while we're living in Guatemala. Which is awesome because we can take a 3 day weekend and never have to worry about long lines of holiday weekend traffic on the drive.

Our buddy Cashew, also being a Government Employee had President's Day off so he decided to hop a plane and come on down for a visit and we are so glad he did. He's been all over the world helping refugees but he's never been to Latin America, what?! Ice is now broken and what an honor to show him the beauty of Guatemala and help him practice his spring break Spanish. "Cafe con leche por favor. "

Yaneth wanted to check San Pedro off her list so she joined us on the adventure.

Cashew arrived late on Friday night after Chops and I had already celebrated an early Valentine's Day lunch at Cielito Lindo Taqueria in zone 14 (best Mexican food here, swear to God, you have to go).

Next morning Chops insisted we sleep in until 8:30 (gasp!) and then we spent the morning driving to the Lake, picking up Yaneth on our way out of town.

Bathroom and lunch break at Rincon Suizo, always mandatory. We showed Cashew the joys of Guatemalan roadside carnitas, thick corn tortillas and cheap guacamole. He was a fan. He tried the saddle-swivel-stool.

A smooth boat ride across the lake to San Pedro put us in the mood for a swim but after the Tuk Tuk ride out of town to our hotel and then check-in taking a while and then relaxing on our amazing deck, the sun was on its way down and there was a chill to the wind that wasn't there before. Chops and I were about to chicken out with the other 2 but rallied anyways and shrieked and lost our breath in the cold yet super refreshing clear water.

Hotel Chi-Ya is amazing! It's a 15 minute walk out of town or a Q10 Tuk Tuk ride but it is so worth it! Cute little private cabins are built into the hillside and the 2 resident dogs are super sweet. Amazing views across the water to Indian Nose. And only Q200.

Dinner that night at El Clover in San Pedro which sounds Irish but the only thing Irish there was the Irish stew on the specials board. No worries, we ate nachos and Asian curries that were dee-lish.

Early but not too extreme (7am start) into town for breakfast at Cafe Las Cristalinas (best coffee at the lake) and now they added a restaurant with some great breakfast food. Last time we were there was about a year ago pre-restaurant addition.

Tuk Tuk ride up to the trail head where we got Cashew a hiking stick and we got our guide. Damn! Always need to remember to bring our carnets with us, we missed out on the resident's discount and had to pay the tourist rate! Oh well. Hopefully it helps the Park.

About 3 hours later we reached the summit at 3,020 meters. San Pedro Volcano is the 4th highest in Guatemala. Nice work Cashew, he kept right up for coming from sea level!

We had an absolutely gorgeous day at the summit and took full advantage of it, lounging and snacking in the sun while our guide waited for us and entertained himself with a soccer game on his little radio.

Relatively easy hike down and a late lunch at 3:30 at Cafe Home in San Pedro. This is now my favorite place to eat at Lake Atitlan. Warning: it's only open from 9:30am - 4:30pm and closed Mon and Tues. But the fresh food is hippy-licious and soooooooo healthy. We all had salads with chard, beets, carrots, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, fresh herbs, goat cheese, tofu and vinaigrette. Cashew had his salad wrapped up in a burrito with a big side of watermelon. Chops ordered the homemade yogurt AND the homemade kefir (we learned to say it with the accent on the -IR). Kefir was bubbly and goaty, which meant Chops loved it.

Back to our hotel to pick up our bags and move to San Juan La Laguna since there was a big group of traveling doctors taking over the hotel.

Hotel Pa Muelle in San Juan is absolutely adorable. And for only Q100  you cannot beat it! The view is lovely and so is the flower garden. Rooms are small but cute. Showers are crappy electric and our drain was too slow but I was charmed anyways. Only 4 rooms so we had 3 of them and a random traveler from Portland had the 4th. He was scared of us when we told him we worked for the Government. Our colleagues do the busting, not us dude, so no worries.

Dinner at Fiesta En La Boca. Seriously, we were scared but we couldn't pass it up with a name like that. Yaneth and I had Lasagna Vegetariana with green beans and carrots in it. Ok, so it wasn't great but we thoroughly enjoyed the '90's flashback music videos on the TV. The other customers were entertained (or so we like to think) by our lip-synching skills.

Next morning, we toasted our Presidents over breakfast at Restaurante Rostro Maya and then went in search of real coffee with actual flavor and not just weak color. Which they charged us an extra Q8 for because we ordered milk. Oh Guate and your horrible customer service and un-enabled servers... we won't miss that part however much we like to talk about it.

Good coffee: found. In Cafe Xocomeel. It was great and our barista was super into her coffee so she explained the whole process from plant to roast to brew to us as she brewed up our little espressos on the stove top.

We toured a few art galleries, Cashew bought a little painting of the lake to bring home.

On our way drive back to the city we stopped in Pastores aka Boot Town for some shoe shopping and Cashew was lucky enough to find an awesome pair to bring home. Handmade leather shoes for Q375. Sweetness.

That evening after relaxing in the hot tub on the roof with some Brahvas we went out for a last meal at Luka, one of our favorite spots, and dined on raw tuna, kale salad and the best risotto quite possibly in the world. Seriously, Chef, Cashew said, "I've been to Italy and this risotto is way better than anything I ate there."

Fuego erupting into the setting sun

Can we just stay in Guatemala for another 2 years?

Three-day weekend, I love you.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Panama - Isla Boca Brava

Next stop: the Pacific Coast just a few hours bus ride away from Boquete. We heard about the coastal village of Boca Chica from the expats in town, they use it as their beach getaway spot when they need some sun and heat or want to go deep sea fishing. The said there's a great little island with a couple hotels and lots of monkeys just a quick boat ride out from Boca Chica.

We were only able to reserve one night at Hotel Boca Brava but it was a lovely night in a breezy room overlooking the water. The food was disappointing and the service was perhaps the slowest I've ever experienced so it was a good thing there was a nice view from the restaurant and an ocean breeze to keep us cool-ish.

Hiking along the trails on the island, we took our time that afternoon we arrived, stopping to swim at a couple of warm, sandy beaches and stalked the howler monkeys and the butterflies in the forest.

The next day we went on the snorkel trip to 2 islands out in the bay. The first stop had pretty good snorkeling, the water was super clear and there were a few colorful fish. The next island we stopped at had a gorgeous beach with ultra calm inviting water for swimming. We saw one sea turtle and a few dolphins on our way back to Boca Brava.

Night #2 we were lucky enough to stumble upon a new lodging establishment on the island that had no advertising or internet presence save for the homemade sign along the trail that said they rent tents. Well ok, for $30 per night they give you a round canvas tent like a little yurt, with a mattress, sheets, a fan and a little colorful light. It was really cute! Then there was the one honeymooners' suite which was a gorgeous wood cabin on stilts with floor-to-ceiling windows and an awesome view. Chops and I got that one and it was a good thing since the whole "you can drink the water in Panama" thing caught up with us. Actually it could have been the warm, soggy tuna sandwiches we ate for lunch that I didn't have a good feeling about....

After one last meal of excruciatingly slow service at Hotel Boca Brava we made travel plans and booked our seats on a shuttle (same Mamallena Hostel shuttle) to get to Santa Catalina the next day. It was $35 instead of $15 on slow, crowded, hot chicken buses with multiple transfers, but worth it for the comfort and the speed.

Final review of the island? Seeing lots of monkeys and butterflies and having a jungle trail for our morning trail run was awesome! Very few people but a few misbehaved dogs that terrorize the wildlife.