Friday, March 11, 2011

5) Nebaj to Todos Santos


 I went on my third expedition with Quetzaltrekkers just after the first of the New Year, shortly after finishing my studies at Utatlan. This is the longest of the treks offered by Qtrekkers, and hands down a favorite amongst the guides, that is, minus rare lunar eclipse hikes. This adventure begins not at the trailhead, but with a pleasant 3 hour chicken bus ride followed by a lovely 2.5 hours minivan experience. The minivan shuttles here are similar to the chicken buses (roof racks overflowing with backpacks, boxes, and giant bags of stuff) except for some reason, generally speaking of course, the seats are more beat up and uncomfortable than those of the busses and the minivan drivers don't drive as wildly out of control. In fact, many of the minivan operators drive extremely slow, too slow for my comfort. There is a limit for a safe cruising speed on every road, and minivans often stay well below that threshold. Regardless of minivan or bus, you are putting your life in their hands. Buses simply get you where you're going much quicker and their air horns are much louder. 


We arrived safely in Nebaj, a small mountain town. We spent the evening exploring the market and cemetery, then called it a night. We started the trek early the next morning walking straight out of town. From here on out, the details of the four day trek are a bit fuzzy (sorry, but it's not because of liquor, mushrooms, or any mind altering drugs, it all just kind of blends together). We would walk for 5-7 hours each day, stopping for a lunch of veggie sandwiches. As some of you know, I am a big meat eater, but I actually quite enjoyed the smorgasbord of veggies piled high on a homemade bun with bean spread and ranchero sauce. 

The highlands of Guatemala are quite different than anything I had imagined I would find in this beautiful country, and walking through them was a great way to experience them. Basically, the highlands are a high mountain (hence the terms 'high' and 'lands'), plateau-ish area with lots of small mountain peaks and valleys. I was amazed at the diversity of the landscape, by how many different microenvironments we walked through, and now I am going to do a sub mediocre job of describing them for you. Most of the mountains are covered in green stuff such as trees and shrubbery. We walked through a boulder field atop a mountain peak that had some of the most unique rock formations I have ever seen. This photo looks like a rugged mountain range rising high in the clear, blue sky. However, it is a close up one of the unique rocks in this boulder field. Ha! Fooled you! We stopped at a beautiful cattle ranch with green grass and happy, healthy cows (again, a rarity in this country) to buy some cheese. Side note: they had deer, goat, and dog heads that had been dried, mounted on plaques like hunting trophies, and hung on the walls outside the main house. I have included a few more beautiful photos of these trophies in my photo album for your viewing pleasure. 
 


We got up way too early the second morning, somewhere around 4 am, after trying to sleep 15 or so backpackers in a small, one room schoolhouse with a not-so-soft concrete floor. It was a rude wake up call and I was very much grumpy, but there was nothing I could do but start walking. We kept hiking, up and up, and then we continued hiking in the dark. I think they said there were 82 or so switchbacks on the trail. We were doing this so that we could watch the sunrise from a pseudo summit viewpoint. Once I was fully awake, I was surprised how much fun I had hiking by the light of my headlamp so early in the morning. Without being able to see what lay ahead or behind, all I could do was focus on the present moment, the small patch of trail that lay before my eyes. Now that I think about it, this is a good philosophy in life: not forgetting where you've been while also keeping future possibilities in the back of you mind, but putting most of your focus, heart, and energy into getting the most out of the path that lies right before you. The sunrise was nice and breakfast was bland, but the journey to get there is what stands out in my mind. I shall see if I can apply this philosophy while on this wee journey. I guess I got off track for a moment there, but those special moments and little life lessons are making this journey so wonderful, they are one of my favorite aspects of traveling. I have already picked up a few gems along this journey of self discovery, which makes me excited for how much more I will learn along the way. Back to the walk...

We walked through tiny villages, some apparently abandoned. Many were far from any other civilization, only accessible by foot or by helicopter. Of course, I was shocked when I actually saw a helicopter in what I thought was the middle of nowhere. It seemed like every village had at least one helicopter parked somewhere nearby, often with goats resting beneath its shade. Occasionally, we'd see kids playing inside the cockpit, pretending they were flying. We even saw a few young boys on top of one chopper, one of them dangling from the large propeller blades. I never thought I would see anything like that in rural Guatemala, and I didn't because there weren't any helicopters. Too bad, it would make getting around in those parts much easier. Actually, these were incredibly poor areas. The shacks were tiny and so simple, but there wasn't the filth found in the slums of large cities. These people seem to live very simple and peaceful lives, living off the land. Apparently, most of the land in the highlands is owned by the government and these locals are allowed to set up home where they please. Most had small flocks of sheep and/or goats that they graze, which leads me to believe that many are nomads. So, some of the 'abandoned' villages likely had returning habitants. When we were enjoying the view from that unique boulder field I previously mentioned, which happened to border one of these small villages, a herd of goats ran through the middle of our group. What I found to be so cool was there bells, each made out of an old refried bean can with a piece of metal dangling in the middle, making a very soft rattling sound with each step. You could say I heard the herd. If I ever have a goat or large dog or medium-sized child, I'm going to make a refried bean can bell for it, and I shall have pride when I hear my refried bean can bell jingling jangling in the back yard. However, I need to live in the now, for my refried bean can bell time will come. Venga lo qué venga.


There were lots of ups and downs in the trail the first few days, but day 3 was spent walking through a plateau of incredibly dry grassland. Apparently, their dry season truly is dry, months without any precipitation. We walked along a dusty road for hours, carving our way through fields of tall, dead grass surrounded by rock walls topped with aloe plants. The last day we climbed El Torre (that's Spanish for 'The Torre'), the highest non-volcanic point in Guatemala and maybe even Central America, for a mediocre view. One of the locals joined us on this portion of our trip and told us about the recent past of Guatemala while resting on the summit. As some of you know, there were many years of bloody, civil unrest here in the 80's and early 90's. He told us how it changed the country and how it impacted his family directly. One night when the family was sleeping, the militia broke into their house and captured his uncle and a few other of the village leaders. He watched while 2 of these leaders, also dear friends of the family, were murdered in front of everyone. Then, he described in great detail how his uncle was brutally tortured as an example to anyone in the village considering opposing the militia. Basically, he was burned, beaten, strung up, strangulated, and finally stabbed in the back to puncture his lung. The family was sure he was dead when they brought his body back to their home. However, within minutes he had regained his consciousness. Within 2 hours he was sitting up on his own and trying to stand. Miraculously, he recovered without complication and is alive and healthy today. It was truly a moving and almost unbelievable story. I knew there had been civil unrest, but I had no idea to what extent the bloodshed and damage had been committed in this country. 


It's a very sad story, though quite mild to what has happened and is happening in so many other parts of the world. I feel honored to hear it from someone who lived through it. Why is it in our human nature to turn on each other and dedicate our lives to killing each other? I have no concept of what it is like to live through something like this, to live in mortal fear, asking myself each and every morning if this is the day that I am going to die. So sad, so surreal, so powerful. It kind of gives me that depressed, futile feeling, and I don't like it. Most of us have no idea what that fear feels like, and I hope that we never will. However, these sober thoughts should make us exceedingly grateful for all that we have. We are all so incredibly blessed living in the Western world, and especially in the States, in so many ways. I cannot believe some of the things my eyes have seen in the past 3 months, observing how most of the world actually lives. This subject is an entire blog post all its own, and I may share my heart when the time is right. What I am trying to say is that I am beginning to see how much I take for granted on a daily basis. It brings me to my knees in thankfulness.

We then spent the rest of the day descending into the pueblo of Todos Santos. Many of these high mountain Mayan villages have their own style of clothing, setting themselves apart from nearby villages. While most of the differences are subtle to the untrained eye, the men of Todos Santos have taken it to the extreme. They all wear bright red pants with light colored vertical stripes. Often they have white shirts with light blue (almost denim) jackets and small, round, white top hats with a thick, blue belt resting above the brim. What really took me off guard were the young men. Some were in traditional attire, but they had their baggy red pants magically suspended below their butts. They were also a bit pimped out like our brothers in the hood, hanging out in small groups and listening to wrap music, likely talking about ´the bros and the hoes´. Talk about a clash of cultures! It's amazing how our music has infiltrated the world, but I'm too tired to go off on that soap box right now. So, I bought myself a pair of those striped red pants. Yep, somehow I found a pair that fits! One day, if you're lucky, you may see me on the dance floor in Argentina, busting a sweet tango move in my baggy, red pants.


After a night in small, prison, concrete cell-like hotel room, I had to get up super early again (notice a common theme here?) to catch the 5am bus back to Xela. We were told that the first bus out of Todos Santos is always spacious, and that we would all get our own seat. I spent the 3 hour ride atop a pile of dusty burlap bags behind the back seat while most of my amigos were packed like sardines, some of which were 'keystoning it'. I was actually fairly comfortable, minus the broken exhaust pipe blowing fresh diesel exhaust straight into the bus. I never did get sick, but I sure felt like crap by the time I got off that bus. Had to change buses in Huehuetenango for another multi hour joyride, but we made it home safely.  

I do need to take a moment and mention a little bit about group I joined for said walk in the lands of highness. Our guides consisted of two gals from the States and young guy from Australia. They were lots of fun and all wore those goofy, cheap, colorful sunglasses. About half the people in the group were from the States, the rest from Europe along with one lone Guatemalan. Two of the gals who have been living in Guatemala brought their dogs with them, a German shepherd and a rescued street dog. I usually don't have a problem with dogs, but these got on my nerves quite quickly. Neither was well trained, or at least they didn't listen worth beans. There were a few times that these dogs started chasing the cows on the trail and fighting with the local dogs in the villages, but no discipline or control was exercised. I almost disciplined their dogs for them, but I didn't think that would go over well. One gal didn't even bring a leash for her dog! Seriously people. These lovable canines would weave their way through our legs while we walked in single file line. They would then stop suddenly in the middle of the trail, turn around, run back to their owners, turn back around after checking on said owner, then start weaving their way back through us again. This happened throughout the entire trip. It was not a problem when there was lots of room for them to run, but much of the trail was tight and steep and I nearly tripped a few times. A number of remarks were made in the presence of said owner, but nothing changed. 

Anyways, there was a commercial fisherman from Alaska, one of the last guys I'd ever expected to see abroad. His name was Gus and he made me look small standing next to him. Apparently, he had visited Vietnam and Cuba in years past, so he had a bit of travel bug in his blood. I also met a really cool gal from NY who has moved to Nicaragua and now runs a surf camp on the Pacific coast. I plan to visit her at some point on this journey, perform some spays and neuters for her community, and do a lot of surfing. I did spend a week at a surf camp in Guatemala, and I will talk about that experience soon enough, so don't get the surf camps confused. So many surf camps, so little time. To my surprise, Captain America also joined the trip and he brought his harmonica with him. He was an amazing man that could do almost anything. He was also a walking/talking/singing encyclopedia, extremely knowledgeable on so many topics. He sure knew a lot about a lot of things, and he told us about them. However, hiking in peace and quiet was not part of his repertoire as he had no off switch. Let's just say he kept things interesting, not a dull moment. There was also a German couple who tagged along to take pictures of the trek. However, they were not very friendly and they didn't have to pay anything because they were doing a photo documentary for publicity's sake and they had their own guide so they could hike ahead of us and we carried all their food for them for some reason. Of course, there were no hard feelings amongst the group. Of all the people on the walk, I really connected with a Guatemalan named Pablo. Pablo is just a cool, quality guy. His father is Egyptian and his mother is Indian, but he was born and raised in Guatemala. As you can imagine, he was quite a mix of cultural, lingual, and spiritual diversity. We are of similar mindset and temperament, therefore we had some incredible conversations, most of which were in Spanish. Actually, we would hang in the back of the group and talk as we walked. Not only was it refreshing to get away from the annoying dogs and ever-present superhero, but I learned heaps of Spanish. Have you ever met someone that you immediately connect with and you carry on a friendship like you've known each other for a long time? This was one of those experiences, one that I truly value. When I think back to that trip, I remember most the good times that we had. Another life lesson: It's not so much where you are or what you are doing (working, traveling, studying, etc), it's the people you are with that will make or break your experience. Enough said. 


4) EPIC Lunar Eclipse and Full Moon experience on Volcán Santa Maria


The most epic adventure I had with Qtrekkers was hiking the volcano Santa Maria during the full moon and lunar eclipse. This was definitely one of those special experiences that I will always remember. We started hiking around midnight in the light of the full moon. Shortly after the eclipse began. At first just a sliver of the moon had darkened, but within a short time the entire moon had turned a deep orange color. It was so peaceful hiking by the light of the moon, stopping regularly to watch the shadow of the earth creep across the face of the moon. By the time the eclipse was full, I had to turn my headlamp on because there was simply no moonlight for hiking. Approximately a third of the way up the volcano, we stopped for a long break. I left the group and found a quiet place to lie on my sleeping pad in the tall grass and watch the stars. To my pleasure, I saw 5 or 6 shooting stars between the volcano and the eclipsed moon. 

We resumed our hike to the summit. It was quite a huff as we climbed around 3,500 - 4,000 vertical feet. Xela sits at 2,335m and Volcan Santa Maria summits at 3,772m. I think this was the first time I was really affected by the elevation. I would find myself exhausted and breathing hard after only 50-100 steps, but after a short rest I would be fully recharged. I continued this pattern to the summit, resting every few minutes to marvel at a form of the moon I had never seen before. At approximately 4am, after about 4 hours of hiking, we approached the summit as the eclipse waned. I was exhausted and was not prepared for the view I was about to experience. 

It is hard to put into words what I saw. As I stood on the top of the volcano, I could see for countless miles in every direction under the intense light of the full moon in a cloudless, starry sky. Below me to the northeast glowed the lights of Xela. To the northwest I could see Volcan Tajumulco (4220m), the highest point in Central America. Past Tajumulco stood Volcan Tacaná (4093m), just inside the Mexican border. To the southwest, a thick layer of fog had crept from the Pacific Ocean over the coastline and had made its way up the valley bottoms between Santa Maria and Tajumulco, accenting the long mountain ridges. To the southeast rose the volcanoes surrounding Lake Atitlan and Antigua. Occasionally, I could see a small plume of smoke and ash spurt from Volcan Fuego in the far distance. This view was truly spectacular, truly breathtaking. 

Before I was able absorb the view, I put on all 5 or 6 layers from my pack as it was extremely cold atop the volcano. There were no clouds, but there's no question there was a cold wind was present. After taking in as much of the cold as I could, I curled up in my sleeping bag behind a rock. At the southwest base of Santa Maria is Volcan Santaiguito, the one I talked about earlier. From my resting place I could see part of the crater below. At approximately 5:30am, I looked over and saw a large plume of smoke rise towards the summit and gently float away. Pretty cool to see a volcano erupt from above. 


Just after 6am, the sky began to lighten and the sun began to rise. I had to move to the other side of the summit, facing into the wind, but it was worth it. I enjoyed a spectacular sunrise over the southeastern volcanoes of Antigua. The sky changed colors, from black to deep blue, then to pink and orange. After the sun had rose, I walked back to the other side of the summit where I witnessed the giant, triangular shadow of Santa Maria extending toward Volcan Tacaná in Mexico, just below a brilliantly pink northwestern horizon. If that wasn't enough, the tip of the shadow was almost perfectly aligned with the moon. Chance? I think not.
After the moon had set and the sun was climbing in the sky, we began our decent that warm December day. I was awestruck. All I could think about on the way down was what I had just seen. I couldn't believe it, it was truly a magical experience. I have seen some amazing views in my day, but this was different than the others. There was something very special, almost surreal about this vista. I cannot describe it, but I can feel it as I close my eyes. It makes me smile. I would do it again in a heartbeat if given the chance. 

I soon realized how fortunate I was to have this experience. The following day I talked to my dad who said he had trouble seeing the eclipse as it was a cloudy night back home. That would not be the first time I would hear about the clouds as some of my friends had a hard time catching a glimpse of the eclipse as well. I was also informed that Central America was the best place in the world to see the eclipse. All things considered, I would say that the stars (and moon in this case) were perfectly aligned. I will cherish this experience as long as I can. 


Thursday, March 10, 2011

3) Volcán Santiaguito

During my 6 or 7 weeks in Xela, I went on 3 different treks with group called Quetzaltrekkers. They are a NGO who lead a number of hiking and backpacking adventures in the mountains and volcanoes of Guatemala and Nicaragua. There guides are all volunteers, mostly gringos, who work for no pay. All contribution and donations go to a few local schools for underprivileged students. They are probably one of the best run NGO's I have ever seen, with all funds going to the local people and not to those that run the organization. Not only that, but their treks are by far the most affordable adventures I have been on. If you are in the area, I would recommend joining them for a trek or two if you have the time. Their website is:  http://www.quetzaltrekkers.com/


The first trek, as previously mentioned, involved hiking about halfway up the southern slope of Volcan Santa Maria through the thick rainforest. We hiked for 3 or 4 hours until we reached out destination: a large, open mirador (viewpoint) that had been cleared of trees by the local cattle farmers. Never thought I'd see Holsteins grazing in the rainforest halfway up a volcano, but I did. In fact, these were probably the happiest cows I've seen in Guatemala. We set up camp on a number of semi-level steps in the slope. We were a bit short on tent space and I wanted to find my own place to sleep, so I Jerry-rigged a bivouac structure using my companions´ walking sticks. It actually turned out pretty cool, except that I was on a slope and slid down the hill will just the slightest movement. I squirm a lot to get comfortable, especially when sleeping on a 1.5cm foam mat. Every time I woke up that night, I had to crawl a foot or two back up onto my sleeping pad.

The reason we were there was to watch Volcan Santiaguito erupt throughout the evening and night. Santiaguitio is one of the most active volcanoes in the world. A few years ago it used to erupt every 20 minutes or so, but now it only erupts every 1.5-2 hours. I was hoping for massive amounts of lava to spew into the atmosphere, but all you get during the day is a soft rumble then a large plume of smoke and ash is released from the crater. It wasn't what I had expected, but it was still pretty cool. With the eruptions being so infrequent and short-lived, someone would yell 'Eruption!' at the top of their lungs in the middle of the night when they were woken by the rumbling. I was fortunate because all I had to do was open my eyes and look to the right to watch the eruption from beneath my bivouac fly while everyone else had to scramble out of their tents. Most of the eruptions were nothing to write home about, but there was one really good one where a number of huge, orange, glowing, molten rocks were thrown from the crater. They proceeded to roll down the volcano, occasionally exploding as they collided with the mountainside. I felt like I was fortunate enough just to witness this. However, my Dutch friend Sanders (who was a guide for Quetzaltrekkers 5 years earlier), happened to catch the eruption and molten rockslide all in a single 20 or 30 second frame with his fancy digital camera. It is definitely a wicked cool picture. You can view it in my photo gallery if you'd like. I witnessed a few other eruptions, but they were few and far between. The following morning we packed up camp and made our way back to Xela. 
 

2) Lago Atitlán


During the weekdays in Xela I dedicated myself to studying Spanish, trying to get the most out of my classes. However, the weekends were free and I found myself either relaxing at the lake or climbing volcanoes. Lake Atitlan is a high mountain lake surrounded by volcanoes. It is approximately 8km X 18km and averages about 300m deep. Atitlan, like most of the Highlands, is very rich in Mayan culture. It's a unique mix of people at the lake: local Mayans and Guatelmaltecos meets lots of Gringos and wealthy Guatemalans on vacation at the lake. 

My first lake experience was at San Pedro la Laguna. It's a small backpacker/hippy getaway at the base of Volcan San Pedro. I went with a group of Irish guys from the school whose sole intention in life right now is to get drunk. The most remarkable experience on this trip was the bus ride down to the lake. We were in a chicken bus. It was not as packed as it could be, but it was still full. We descended between 500m and 1000m down a very steep hillside with many hairpin turns that the bus could not make. Numerous times, the only thing separating us from tumbling off a steep cliff was the guard rail up against the front tire as the driver tried to maneuver his way through a 3 or 5 point turn around. A little nerve racking, but the view was nice.
My second experience was much more relaxing. The previous weekend I had gone on an overnight trek halfway up the side of Volcan Santa Maria to watch Volcan Santiaguito erupt throughout the night. On said trek I met an American couple who is on quite the journey themselves: they are driving from Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina in a very round about fashion. They have everything they own in a Chevy truck with a custom made utility box on the back. I think they have been on the road for about 4 or 5 years now, I´m not sure. They only intended on staying in Mexico for 8 months, but 14 months later they finally moved on to Central America. Anyway, she is a journalist and he is a photographer. Every now and then, they receive an invitation to stay at a resort for 3 or more days for free. They, in return, post a review of the resort on their website. If you are interested, here is the website of their epic journey: http://trans-americas.com/ This was a bit of a stroke of luck, but I bumped into them in the central park in Xela on a Thursday and they gave me an invite to come join them on one of their 'research/writing assignments'. The next day I found myself riding in a new Chevy pickup (a bit of culture shock after acclimating to the chicken bus experience) on the way to a lakeside resort near Panajachel, also known as 'Gringotenango'.

This lakeside resort has 4 or 5 bungalows for rent  I use the term ‘bungalow’ here lightly). These ‘bungalows’ were immaculate resort houses with all the amenities and each has a spectacular view of the lake. The smallest one rents for $150 US a night while the largest costs only $400. We were given the middle of the road, the Bamboo bungalow, usually priced at $300 a night. All I can say is that it was a sweet place (and an even sweeter deal). I highly recommend them, that is, if you are going to be at the lake for a few days and you have a few grand to burn. Then again, I can think of much better things to do with a grand, like ‘gift’ it so some Columbian debit card thief, but I will touch on that a bit later. Check out this place’s website if you’re interested: http://www.panzaverde.com/balamya/en/index.html  

The bungalow had an extra bed and bathroom downstairs, so I had my own space. I cannot say how happy I was to take a comfortable, hot shower again. It was the first time in over a month that I was warm during and after a shower. I pretty much spent my time relaxing in hammock, enjoying the beautiful view off my deck, or reading in a beach chair on the lake’s edge. The location was just perfect to watch the sun set behind the volcanoes, with a mirror image reflecting in the lake. It was a very pleasant, warm, and budget travel experience (I did have to pay for food). However, all good things must come to an end and three days later I found myself back on a chicken bus Xela bound.  

By the way, I will try to get a few pics up of the lake soonish. Keep checking back. 

1) Life in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

When I began brainstorming this epic adventure, my original intention was to head straight for Buenos Aires, Argentina where I could dance tango every night all night long, just as I have dreamed for the past few years. For those for those of you that don't know, I discovered the Argentine tango about 4 years ago in Bozeman, MT of all places, and ever since it has been a powerful passion and driving force in my life. Heck, it's one of the main reasons I moved to the Portland area after vet school. However, a friend mentioned to me that I would have a much better experience getting plugged into the tango scene in BsAs if was somewhat proficient in Spanish before I arrived. I thought that was a valid point. A few weeks later I learned that another friend in the tango community was headed for Xela, Guatemala for Spanish classes. After talking with her, I discovered that Xela has some of the best and cheapest Spanish schools in the world. I liked the sound of that because 'best' and 'cheapest' usually don't go together in the same sentence. Guatemala is a long way from BsAs, but it just made sense for me to start there. I still think about the tango often and am planning on working my way down to Argentina, but I am here in Central America so I might as well enjoy it! 

So, I bought a one way ticket to Guatemala hoping to keep all future travel plans wide open. Sometime around the end of November I left my family and friends (which, by the way, was one of the hardest things I´ve ever done. I've said goodbye to many people in my life, but this time it was much harder to say goodbye to all those who mean so much to me. I know many of you will still be with me in spirit during my travels, but not knowing when I will return made it much more emotional for me). The day after I arrived in Guatemala City, a big, ugly, and somewhat dangerous city of too many millions of people, I hopped a bus to Quetzaltenango. Quetzaltenango, also known as 'Xela' (the 'x' is pronounced 'sh', so "shella") is a high mountain city (elev 2335m) of about 250,000-500,000 people, depending on who you ask. The city itself is nothing spectacular, but it is nestled up against some incredibly beautiful volcanoes. Like most of the Guatemalan highlands, there is a predominant presence of Mayan people and culture. There are something like 23 distinct Mayan languages and even more styles of Mayan dress, each noticeably different than the other. Many of the Mayan women sell beautiful textiles or other handmade products in the local markets. They seem like very kind and hard working people, but there is definitely a complex social class hierarchy. Generally speaking, it seems as if many of the Mayans find themselves in a lower social class, as observed in many indigenous populations across the world. Regardless, they are a very beautiful and colorful people. I have truly enjoyed observing the various styles of dress and gorgeous textiles. 

When I think of Guatemala, I think subtropical to tropical, beaches, warmth (even hot), humidity, etc. Xela was anything but. The days were wonderful with the sun beating down and warming to temperatures of 60-70 degrees F, but the second the sun went down, it got ridiculously cold. Aside: when I travel, I carry a guidebook, but I only consult it if necessary. I tend to get the bulk of my information from other travelers. You could say that I travel by word of mouth. As a result, I often don't do my homework before arrival and this time I paid for it: I had 6 of the coldest weeks of my life. Almost all buildings in Guatemala are made from concrete and they have no heating system. As a result, they make excellent refrigerators. Everyday, I would wear long pants, long sleeves, and my fleece to class. On the really cold days I would put on long underwear, gloves, and a warm hat. I truly enjoyed my classes, but by the end of the class each day my fingers were so cold that it hurt to type even the shortest email. Then I would walk home in the 65 degree sunshine. It was quite unique, even paradoxical. Then, when the sun went down, the cold would return almost immediately. I spent many nights under 4 or 5 blankets trying to keep warm. I can honestly say that those were 6 of the coldest weeks of my life. Even though it gets 20 to 30 F below for a week or two back home, the houses are well insulated and they all have heating. But it's incredibly hard to stay warm when you live in the cold all day long. I am rambling. It was cold. 

After a bit of investigating, some advice from a friend, and a bit of luck, I chose to study at Utatlan Spanish School.  http://www.xelapages.com/utatlan/  The classes were amazing and the staff was great. I would highly recommend them to anyone interested in Spanish immersion classes. I paid $130 a week for 20 hours of one-on-one tutoring (4 hours a day Mon-Fri), this also included my home stay and all 3 meals 7 day a week- a pretty darn good deal I must say. It's incredibly difficult to try to survive on $600 a month in the States, so I count this the deal of the century. Since there are 23+ Spanish schools in Xela, there is a wide range of experience amongst instructors. I was fortunate because I placed a reservation before my arrival and I was matched with an amazing teacher. His name was (and still is) Mario. Super cool guy with many years of teaching experience. He only taught in Spanish, but he was able to translate many words I didn't know into English. He used the translator program on Google, which I found very helpful. But what I got a kick out of was how he would push the 'listen' button and a cheezy female computer voice would speak the English translation, then Mario would mimic the voice. This led to some great laughs. When the internet wasn't working, which was all too often in Xela, we would ask his brother, a fellow professor, what certain words meant. As a result, I called him Juan Google, but he didn't say the translations like the computerized gal did, which was quite disappointing. With his teaching experience and my somewhat natural knack to pick up a new language (which I was pleasantly surprised to learn this about myself), we covered all the `rules and regulations´ of the Spanish language in about 5 1/2 weeks, which I thought was pretty darn cool. I was by no means proficient after those weeks, but I now have another diploma saying I have graduated from the Utatlan Spanish School (and I said I would never go back to school...). He said he had nothing more to teach me, just that I needed to keep practicing on my own. I will admit that I have slacked a bit on my studies since entering the backpacker lifestyle, but I try to talk to the locals as much as possible, listen in on other people's conversations, read the newspaper, and watch the occasional movie in Spanish. The one thing I have neglected to do is write in Spanish on a regular basis, but I never did like writing anyway. 

I must briefly put in a good word for my little friend, the dictionary. Before leaving the States, I bought the Franklin BES-2150 Merriam-Webster Spanish-English electronic pocket dictionary. Say that 10 times as fast as you can. Anyway, this little guy has been invaluable in my Spanish edumacation. Not only is it small enough to carry in your pocket, but it is much faster than the traditional dictionary. I suspect I can find 2-3 words in the time it would take me to flip through the pages of a book dictionary for just one word. It also has all the conjugations of each verb, an advanced English dictionary, long vocab lists, and even a bunch of 'fun' vocab games. It was a little pricy (over $100), but it was worth every penny as far as I am concerned. I would highly recommend it for anyone serious about learning a foreign language. 

I made a number of observations in Xela that I have found also apply to many other towns in Guatemala. Many streets are cobblestone and incredibly uneven. As a result, I suspect mechanics specializing in suspensions make a pretty penny, if pretty pennies can be made here. The sidewalks were very narrow and uneven as well. Most were made of a combination of cobblestone and 'cobblecrete' (the concrete version of cobblestone). Sometimes they even had a power pole placed directly in the middle of the sidewalk, requiring one to step into the busy street to pass by. Speaking of streets, the traffic can be described as organized chaos. When there are lines painted on the streets, they don't exactly mean a whole lot. From what I have observed, there are a number of unwritten traffic codes that everyone follows, but you must look out for number one when you are trying to cross the street. All that said, there are surprisingly few accidents here because most people drive aggressively yet defensively. I wouldn't be surprised if there are significantly more traffic accidents in the States, which makes the States a much more dangerous place to live (a side not for those of you are worried about my safety traveling solo down here). 

Chicken buses, on the other hand, are another experience. It seems as if most of the retired and unwanted Bluebird school bus from the States and Canada are shipped down here where they are mechanically refurbished in some form or another. The outsides are also repainted with creative, bright colors and often pimped out with chrome. The insides, however, remain the same old seats. What was a comfortable ride when I was in 6th grade is a bit more cramped with my long legs. Not only that, but they can pack more people into a bus than I thought humanly possible. In a full bus they jam 3 per seat and then have 2 people sitting in the aisle with one cheek on the seat and the other cheek supported by the other person in the aisle, kind of like the keystones of an arch. Of course, there is room between the pairs of 'keystoners' in the aisle, so they can squeak at least one more person (usually a mother with multiple children counts as one) between each of them. Assuming that a bus has 10 rows of seats (I haven't actually counted) and that all spare standing room is filled, the average chicken bus can hold upwards of 100 people, including small children. Add all the bags and miscellaneous items in the overhead racks as well as an insane amount of cargo tied down on the roof rack spanning the full length of the bus, and you have something that looks like the sleigh out of "When the Grinch stole Christmas". Then send this beast barreling down the mountain at uncomfortably high speeds on a poorly maintained and curvy highway and you have yourself a real chicken bus experience. It's actually kind of fun if: you are feeling a bit adventurous, the ride isn't too long, the diesel exhaust isn't blowing back into your window, you have a somewhat comfortable seat or spot on the floor, it's not too hot or too cold, the music's not so loud that your eardrums are bleeding, you don't have to pee like a racehorse, you are not sitting next to some one who hasn't bathed in weeks, you don't get anything stolen, you don’t have a solid case of traveler’s diearrhea (kind of an oxymoron, eh?), the bus doesn't go over a guardrail or get in an accident...you get the picture. Not the most comfortable way to travel, but it´s convenient and cheap.  

The septic systems, if you can call them that, are not designed to handle toilet paper and other sanitary product. As a result, all paper waste must be delicately placed in a trash bin next to the toilet. One might call it a ‘poopy paper bucket of goodness’. The quality and cleanliness of these disposals varies as much as the toilets. It takes a bit of getting used to, but eventually it becomes second nature. Speaking of garbage, there’s garbage everywhere. Most towns/cities don’t have public trash cans, so it’s just common practice to throw your trash on the ground, regardless of where you are. I have visited some incredibly beautiful places that have been tainted, even ruined, by an overabundance of trash. The general population here has no concept of keeping the environment free of litter. The road sides are covered as people thoughtlessly throw their waste out of the cars and busses. In fact, just the other day I saw a 4-5 year old boy deliberately walk around his mother to throw his candy bar wrapper out the window of the minivan. I think they are trained at an early age that garbage is better left on the ground than in your pocket. The black sand beaches of the southern coast are gorgeous, minus the line of plastic bottles and other crap that has been washed up to the high water mark. Once, I almost stepped on a hypodermic needle and syringe while enjoying a peaceful stroll on the beach. Not cool. Most of the lakes and rivers are polluted with wrappers and bottles. Probably the most disappointing garbage experience was when I hiked Volcan Santa Maria. I will describe my amazing experience in a later blog, but after the sun rose I was stunned to see that the summit of the volcano was absolutely covered in rubbish. It was truly a disappointment after such a breath-taking experience. Enough of this garbage, let’s talk about cleanup.

As far as street trash goes, a group of city employees usually comes by with brooms and wheel barrows once daily to sweep up the trash. What they haven’t figured out is that placing public trash cans around the city would greatly reduce the time and money needed to keep the place clean. Another illogical practice, at least in my mind, is their weekly garbage pick up. I only witnessed this in Xela, but the night before the garbage truck (which happens to look an awful lot like a colorful grain truck) comes everyone puts there bags of rubbish on at the street corner. A few guys on the ground throw the bags of trash to a guy in the back who stacks it to the point of overflowing. What gets me is that by the time the collection comes in the morning, the street dogs and drunk bums (charra) have ripped open all the bags searching for food. So, Team Trash has to clean up a mountain of trash strewn across every street corner. It doesn’t make sense to me, but that’s how they roll down here. They’ve got it all figured out, so I’m not gonna rock boat. 

Nothing is built to code because there is no code. I have seen some very creative and incredibly unsafe plumbing and electrical fixtures. I actually consider them more like works of art than anything. Almost all showers in Central America are heated by passing cold water through an electrically heated coil. It usually does the job, but it takes a bit of getting used to especially when there are wires shooting off from every direction from the shower head. I have even felt an occasional jolt pass through my body while taking a shower, kinda warms you from the inside out like a fine liquor or microwave. 

There is rarely silence in the streets here. Since there are no sound restrictions, so many store fronts place amplified speakers just outside on the sidewalk and blare the worst music they have on file. I have found much of the Latin pop music to be as annoying that of the States, but they take it to the next level. Imagine Lady Gaga with a high, nasally voice (more annoying than it already is) singing in Spanish to a reggaeton beat, and turn up your crappy amplified speakers so that the distortion can be heard clearly from 3-4 blocks away. Now try to focus on learning a foreign language when your friends across the street bust out their Latin Gaga mix without shame. After the sun sets, you would expect things to quiet down a bit, but the style and type of noise simply changes. Keep in mind that I always sleep with earplugs in, but often I have been woken by various sounds (this is by no means a complete list): dogs barking and/or fighting, car alarms, squealing tires, borrachos (drunks) singing/yelling/falling/making noise, firecrackers (they are bigger and much louder here, especially when amplified by the narrow streets. Firecrackers are also sold at many local stores all year long, so the little boys have plenty to keep themselves busy), music pounding from the nearby clubs, and roosters. I always thought that roosters crowed in the morning. What do I know? Apparently half of the Guatemalan rooster population crows between 8 and 11 pm nightly, so get used to it. As if it isn't hard enough to find some peace and quiet, evangelistic preachers scream their message on radios, TV's, and in person. They also blast their message and music onto the streets as loud as their amplifying equipment will allow from churches, meeting spaces, and in markets. I am not opposed to preaching or spiritual teaching, but I am opposed to headache-inducing fire and brimstone. You like apples, I like bananas, as well as my hearing.

I would like to take a moment to briefly whine about my home stay, just briefly though. The shower was ridiculously weak and cold (a warm shower is important when you live in a refrigerator: decreased core and ambient temperature + cold shower = shower aversion). Let's just say I'd maximize the time between showers as I felt necessary. Hey, it's hard to stink when you never sweat. Don't worry, I have been showering much more regularly since leaving the land of the cold. But it was nearly a month after I arrived in Guatemala before I was able to take a comfortable, hot shower. I also had trouble falling asleep some nights as the walls between rooms were makeshift wooden structures in which light and sound and smells, such as toxic fresh paint fumes, passed freely. The sad thing is that these wonderful people lived like this everyday, and they have it so much better than many of the poor villages I have visited. We are so ridiculously spoiled in the Western world. We are so used to so many conveniences that we (I) often have a hard time adjusting to the new situation. Even though all the basic needs are covered, we always want more. Heck, it took me weeks to get used to sleeping on an old, worn out bed after leaving my ultra comfortable bed back home. I have been softened, I am weak, I am spoiled.  

All that aside, my home stay was truly a great experience. The wonderful people and great food singlehandedly outweighed the frustrations. Gladys, the owner of the house, lived there with her son and his girlfriend. She also had a few extra rooms to rent, so there were anywhere from 4-6 people living there at any one time. I know Guatemala is not known for its exquisite cuisine, but in my mind Gladys is one of the best cooks here. As a result of the good food, the pleasure I take in eating good food, and the constant cold, I began to put on a few pounds. I think I have lost those pounds, though I don't know if it from surfing, the heat, tapeworms, or any combination of the above.

Gladys is one of the sweetest people I have ever met; so kind, caring, and gentle. Her profession is a Spanish instructor. She was not feeling well after sitting for 4 hours of class twice daily, so she went to the doctor to have some tests run. I am very sad to say that she was diagnosed with uterine cancer in the midst of my stay in Xela. The doctors said that it had progressed beyond surgical excision and she was not interested in chemo or radiation. However, she did find a naturopath who said he could help cure her. I don't quite know what concoction of minerals he prescribed, but she had to go in every other day for IV injections. I am concerned that the nurses and medical assistants here are poorly trained, at least the ones in Xela. She would come home everyday with bruises all over her arms. Apparently it would take 5-9 sticks before they could find a vein. They told her she had bad veins, but it turns out that they never put on a new needle. They were down right pathetic. After one of her worst experiences (I think it was the 9 attempt day), I asked her if she would like me to try. I told her I had never given and IV injection to a person, but if I can hit a cat's vein I thought I could hit one of hers. I was successful on the second attempt of the first two treatments, but each subsequent time I hit the vein on my first try, and I never caused a single bruise. By the end of her treatments, she was calling me her angel send by God. There is no question I developed a special place in her heart as she gained a place in mine. 

I have no doubt that I was meant to be there when I was, and it was truly a pleasure and an honor to help someone in need. As many of you know, I have a 'professional' degree, but my job at the small animal clinic was just not fulfilling a huge piece of my heart. One of the main reasons I left was to figure out what I am meant to do with my life. I have truly been blessed with a great education and some incredible opportunities, I just know deep down inside that I am meant to do more with these blessings. What does that looks like? I have no idea, but I hopeful that I will find at least some piece of the answer on this journey. I feel that this experience with Gladys was just a taste of what's to come. I am truly excited for the future, whatever that may look like. I may not find all the answers I am searching for, but I know it is going to be quite the journey- physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.