28 September, 2008

Visiting a PCV in Guatemala

For those of you who may end up suffering from cabin fever this winter, I would like to offer you a cheap way to escape the cold by extending a general invitation to come visit me in Guatemala. I can promise warm weather, beautiful hikes, good coffee, diverse cultural experiences and of course some swimming in a beautiful volcanic lake, one of two oceans, or some hot springs depending on your fancy – all for dirt cheap.

When I say cheap, I mean you can spend as little as $135 per week plus the cost of airfare. What’s the catch? Well, what I’m offering isn’t so much a vacation as an experience. You will be sacrificing a whole lot of creature comforts, especially if you are above 5 feet 2 inches tall. Of course I am not limiting visitors to those who wish to rough it for a week; I would be more than happy to show anyone around the country I currently call home. However, going on my first experience with visitors this last month, I have come up with a set of “suggestions” that will make any visit run more smoothly.

Although Guatemala is roughly the size of Tennessee, the mountainous terrain and the generally poor road conditions make travel the largest obstacle in the country. For example, although my home is located only about 100 miles away from the capital, the journey takes me usually between 4 and 5 hours. Other trips that look close on a map can often be much longer due to unexpected construction or road blocks (both natural due to landslides and manmade because of minor protests).

There are only two ways to get around Guatemala: the cheap way, and the expensive way. The cheap way is the way I do it, on a camionetta a.k.a. chicken bus (think decked out school bus with luggage racks inside and out and ladders on the front and back for the helper to climb up and down while the bus is moving). These are slow and uncomfortable, but by far the most reliable means of transportation in the country. They leave sometimes in accordance with a schedule, but more often than not when they are full. By full I do not mean 57 person capacity, I mean three to every seat and two people standing back to back in the isle. It gets tight. If you chose this way to get around Guatemala, make sure you bring only one carryon bag, preferably nothing bigger than a 40 L hiking bag. If you cannot survive on what you can fit in one of these for the time you are here, you MUST choose the more expensive way. I just wouldn’t be able to handle the stress of more luggage than that on these busses.

The second way to get around is to rent a car or hire a driver. If you want to see half of the cool stuff in the country, you will absolutely need a 4 wheel drive vehicle with good clearance. The more beefy the shocks the more comfortable your ride will be. I hear going rates for a pick-up from Avis is around $60 a day, but I’m sure you can look online and find something cheaper. I am not sure how expensive it is or what the details are for hiring a driver, but I would be able to find out if you wanted to look at that route. I would be able to drive for you as well.

I should mention that there are also shuttles that one can hire to transport you around some of the country’s tourist hot spots for those of you who think you are all cool because you can read a guide book. Take heed of their warnings about these shuttles: they are often unreliable and many times the drivers will try and cheat you. I dislike these shuttles other than to and from the airport out of Antigua.

As far as food and lodging goes, the options are similar to those in the transportation category, but I trust the mid range a lot more. You can stay in hostels for as little as $3.50 a night. These will be clean and safe, but you will be sharing a bathroom and sometimes not have hot water. There are lots of hotels in the $35-$50 a night per person range, and I consider these to be absolutely luxurious – to most people they will probably be on par with a Holiday Inn Express in the states. Of course there are also more expensive places, and I can recommend some to you if you need me too, but I have no personal experience with them whatsoever.

A meal can be between $1.50 and $4.00, but with an American appetite you will probably not be full afterwards, it took me a while to adjust to the smaller portions, but I have also lost 15 lbs since I arrived and I haven’t been sick for more than a day, so maybe for a week it would be worth it. These meals are mostly sanitary, but may make you sick if you have bad luck. Gambling with food sanitation has become second nature to me, and I like to think that my belly is a little stronger than most. More expensive but %100 safe food will range between $4.00 and $8.00 (McDonalds and Wendy’s fall in this category), and of course there are nice restaurants with fancy food for more money (I occasionally treat myself to a $14 meal at Chile’s in the capital, and I hear there’s even better food that that in some restaurants!).

A quick note on drinks: the beer sucks and it is expensive, about what you would pay in the states. This is due to the fact that there is only one company that makes beer in the whole country, and they actually became a monopoly by buying the only bottle manufacturing outfit in the country and then refusing to sell bottles to anyone else. The mixed drinks are a bit better and may be a price break for those of you living life in the big cities of the U.S. of A., but for those of you used to frequenting small town family establishments, you are better off waiting to imbibe until you return home.

Admission to most of the places I would take you will be ridiculously cheap as compared to what you are most likely used to, and I am available to help anyone on any budget to plan your ideal trip to the Land of Eternal Spring. I unfortunately do have some restrictions I need to work around if you would like me to accompany you on part of or the entirety of your journey. These restrictions all basically branch out of the singular and inescapable fact that I am a Peace Corps volunteer. First off, if you want me to help show you around, give me all the notice you can. I need to manage vacation days, not to mention I actually have a job that I am doing down here, so the more notice the greater the chance that I can spend more time with you. Second, I am a “volunteer” and as such am given roughly $275 by the government of the United States of America to survive on every month. Remember when I said I occasionally eat at Chile’s? That $14 is 5% of my monthly wages. Out of this sum I pay rent, utilities, food costs, transportation costs, and any other incidental expenses that may come up, which is why I am thoroughly unversed in the high rolling side of Guatemala. That being said of course, I have also seen and done some amazing things so far on this budget, so it is by no means inadequate. It does mean though that I cannot afford to spend a whole week or two eating Wendy’s and paying for private bathrooms.

So there you have it, my personal travel warnings for Guatemala. One more thing I should mention, but this goes for almost any trip you might be planning: don’t bring anything you aren’t prepared to replace. I’ve had a string of bad luck recently with theft, and I would consider it irresponsible on my part not to say something. If you bring a camera or something, make sure you can carry it on your person at all times, and some kind of money belt or a special pocket for holding valuables (credit cards and passports) is advisable.

I love having visitors and I promise I will do everything I can to help make your trip amazing, but I don’t want to give anyone any false impressions. Tickets down here can occasionally be cheaper than domestic flights, so pick your favorite fare tracker and get down here! If nothing else gets you down here, I live next to an ACTIVE VOLCANO and I pass the coffee that you will be drinking at Starbucks next year on my morning walk to work! Peace.

Counting Blessings

September has been a very busy month. I have actually been doing a bit of traveling thanks to a lull in school activity and a visit from some friends from the U.S. of A.

I got a chance to visit the ocean for the first time since I have been in Guatemala, which seems strange since I can see it on clear days on my walk to work. I joined up with a group of friends traveling to the coast, and we met up in Antigua early one Saturday morning to head down to the beach town of Monterrico. After lounging around for the afternoon, we set out on a hike to find some Leatherback turtles that supposedly were leaving their ocean homes to lay their eggs on the beach. We had gotten sold on the hike by a local guide who promised detailed information and who seemed to be very knowledgeable about these marine turtles. However, when the time came to head out hunting, he ended up leaving us with two teenage kids who didn’t know a turtle from a log and ended up just asking other people on the beach who were collecting the eggs themselves. This was a bit shady, because although they all assured us that they were collecting the eggs to sell to a hatchery in town that was set up to combat egg poaching, no one was writing down any information or even seemed to be taking good care of the eggs (they carried them in plastic shopping bags). After a good 45 minute hike up the beach and passing two nests, we finally found one female who had just started laying. The guy who had found the turtle first had “dibs” on the eggs, but he let us watch and even catch the eggs as the female deposited them in the nest! This was an extremely weird feeling, and especially being uncertain of the fate of the little guys, I’m still not sure that I recommend the hike, but if the babies end up in the hatchery and not in some Capitaleño’s soup, it probably is a good thing that these people are doing.

The second week of September was my school’s week long celebration of Independence Day. We spent four days doing talent shows, a scholastic bowl, a beauty pageant, and a field day. I was privileged to take part in all the festivities, and it actually was pretty fun. On Friday we had a running of the Antorcha, which commemorates the arrival from Mexico of news that Guatemala had won her independence from Spain. To celebrate this, I got up at 3:30 in the morning to supposedly leave town at 4 AM. Well, what I had forgotten is that although the teachers at my school are usually very punctual, we were dealing with other Guatemalans. So the bus that we had chartered for 4 AM showed up at 5 AM. I boarded the bus with my teachers and a whole bunch of students and their families, and we set off for Panahachel, at town on Lake Atitlán. We arrived at about 9 and had until 2 to enjoy the lake and the tourist town. I ended up hanging out with my director and the other male teacher while all the female teachers bought tourist trinkets. We left of course an hour late at 3 PM and didn’t get back to our town until 9 PM. When we arrived, about a kilometer out of town I got off the bus with all the students and some of the parents. Several of the students had makeshift torches that were constructed of coffee or soup cans screwed onto branches or broom handles. Inside they placed cotton whetted with gasoline, which were then set ablaze and handed to the 8-12 year olds. The kids then set out running and blowing whistles or screaming at the top of their lungs. We ran through the whole town, about a 3 km run, as people stood by the side of the road cheering. This apparently served as a summons to the school, where the winners of the talent shows reenacted their performances and all other winners were recognized individually. Following that, we had a dance party in the school yard, and I finally went home and fell asleep with my clothes on at 11.

The next day I left site again, this time not until 5:30, and headed into the Capital to pick up my friends Jared and Jimmy (fellow Augustana Alumni). We headed back to my site for a few days, took a brief tour of Xela, and then we even took a day trip to Lake Atitlán and back to the town of Panahachel again. They came bearing gifts: a replacement camera!!! It was purchased by First Presbyterian in Elgin, and I really don’t know how to thank them enough. It’s amazing that the congregation could be so generous, and I am humbled by the interest that my home congregation has shown in my work down here. I’m incredibly blessed to be supported by so many people. To those of you from church that are keeping up with me via this blog, I really can’t thank you enough for such an incredible gift.

I think that Jimmy and Jared enjoyed their trip despite a lot of uncomfortable traveling, and I sure learned a lot about hosting people. I’ll be including a little list of things to consider if you want to visit Guatemala in a separate entry based mostly on our experiences. For my part, it was great to have people from home come visit and experience a bit of my life. I think the main thing that their visit did for me was verify exactly how crazy I have become in the last 9 months. I must be pretty well adjusted to life here, because things like jumping on a 5 hour bus ride where my knees are literally under my chin or walking for an hour and a half to get somewhere seem second nature to me. My sense of time has completely changed, as was evident by my absolute inability to give accurate times that a journey would take; most of my traveling involves leaving someplace at dawn and going until I get there, so trying to incorporate multiple destinations in a single day really taxed my logistic skills. I also realized that I have been getting very upset over very small amounts of money, like when a bus tried to change one Quetzal more per person on our ride up to Quetzaltenango. One Q is like 15 cents. I should probably let that stuff go, but when you live your life on $275 a month, and 2Q is one percent of your monthly income, 15 cents seems like a lot larger quantity of money.

After an early morning trip to drop off Jared and Jimmy in Antigua, I headed back north on the Panamerican Highway to Santa Clara La Laguna which is the site of a fellow Environmental Ed volunteer to celebrate Joey’s birthday. We had a cake and even a little spontaneous dance party in the kitchen. It was really nice, and I think Joey had a good time. The next day we headed up to Chicamán for a welcome party for some of the new volunteers in the department of El Quiché, and with hopes of a river tubing trip, but due to recent heavy rains that wasn’t in the cards. It was a nice weekend though, despite the heavy traveling, with the only down part being the robbery of my external hard drive which I had been carrying to send some data to the volunteer I replaced. It was in my backpack which I allowed to be put on the roof of a microbus because there wasn’t room inside. It would have been fine, but the driver kept stopping to allow people to climb on the top of the bus, and one of those passengers happened to have a razor blade they used to slash open my backpack and steal the hard drive and my USB pen drive as well. At least every time I get robbed I have less to lose; if someone wants to rob me next time they are going to have to bring a truck, because the only things I have left worth stealing are my bed and refrigerator!

This week is finally a return to normalcy for me, and a chance to rest my aching spine by staying off of busses for awhile. I returned yesterday to a celebration at the Basico (think Junior High) in my site. They were commemorating their 4th anniversary of being a school, which basically involved a beauty pageant, but with a twist as it also involved two male contestants competing for a separate title. The categories here were sportswear, talent (mostly dancing while lip-singing), evening wear, and speech. The moms in the crowd really went nuts for the two guys. Check out another upcoming entry devoted to the oddities of Guatemalan beauty pageants. Tuesday and Wednesday there were parties all over town, and fireworks going off every so often. Judging by the focus around the Catholic Church, I deduced that it was some kind of holiday, but asking around town no one knew what holiday it was, just that it was the 24th of September. At about 7 PM on Wednesday night I started hearing a lot of big fireworks, so I decided it would probably be a good idea to go for a walk. I got up to the church and saw a procession starting its walk, so I almost impulsively joined in. I’m not really sure where that instinct came from… maybe I’m adjusting even more than I thought I was. On that note, Peace.