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.