Sunday, February 24, 2008


So I don't have much to add about Guatemala. Work in Huehuetenango was busy but uneventful (though some weird little old man did kiss me in the middle of a pilot interview.) The only event of note was the trip back to Guatemala City through the mountains, which was stunning and heart-racing. Stunning because of the incredible vistas at sunset - which I didn't get any pictures of because we were whizzing by at Mach Two. Heart-racing because of the previously mentioned speed of the trip, and the drivers declaration as we flew down guardrail-less hairpin turns, what happened to the brakes?

In consolation though, I added pictures to the previous post. A million pictures. I am completely enamored with my new camera, and hopefully you notice an improvement in picture quality.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Wrath, Magma and Cake

Greetings from Huehuetenango, centrally located for your convenience in the mountains of northern Guatemala.

And affectionately called “Huehue” by the locals, which is pronounced “h-way-h-way” like a Hawaii floral arrangement.

Today is my first day of actual work here, though I have been floating around the country since Saturday. One of my Peace Corps friends, who for the sake of anonymity shall be known only as Adonis J, came down a few days early so that we could play tourist.

We met in the city of Antigua but my flight got in a few hours earlier than his, as I was lucky enough to be booked on the 2:45 am direct to Guatemala City from Dulles. As the hotel where we were meeting had a strict no check- in- until- the- maid- finishing- watching- her- Mexican- soap- operas- and- will- fetch- fresh- towels policy, I had the morning to explore the city.Antigua looks much like other 15th century Spanish colonial cities, with arches and columns and pastel painted buildings, but also has an overabundance of collapsed churches. (Hazard of 15th century building technology meeting a tectonic plate.) The largest of which used to be the biggest church in the hemisphere, with vaulted ceilings, a huge nave and 17 separate chapels. It is a testament to what can be done with solid faith in the Lord, the bounty of the New World, and 10,000 Mayan slaves. Unfortunately for the church, the lord does work in mysterious ways, as he sent earthquakes to severely damage it three times before just saying hell-with-it and knocking it (mostly) flat in the 18th century. (This was probably not the ideal set of events for the resident missionaries. If I were an indigenous person, I would take this as pretty solid evidence that these Catholic characters were backing the wrong horse in the whole higher power thing.) In any case, the ruined church makes for a fun place to work out the new camera.

Adonis J arrived later that afternoon and we walked around town a bit more. We did the ruined church circuit and hit the main town square. The distinctive feature of the plaza is a large water fountain featuring mermaids squirting water out of their nipples. The good lord has chosen to leave this standing without so much as a stress crack.

That night we went to an excellent restaurant. Seated next to a pool covered in rose petals and floating candles with low lighting and fireworks in the background, it would have made the perfect place to have a romantic dinner after renewing wedding vows. Adonis and I had to settle for just a good meal.

Next day we were up at 5:30 am to hike the Pacaya volcano – billed as currently one of the most active in the hemisphere. The hike up to the crater ridge was pretty, though nothing particularly spectacular. From the ridge, you could look down and the steaming and cracking rock, and that the lava flowing in a glowing stream down the side of the crater.

Here is where the fun begins. As I have said time and time again, I love countries that don’t have liability laws. They let us hike down and *play* with the lava. I shit you not, we walked across the hot rock to the point where the lava was flowing, and then poked at it with sticks. The heat next to the crack was intense, literally burning the exposed skin on your face and hands. My feet were sticking to the rock as the soles of my shoes melted. And lava doesn’t have the consistency I thought it would. Much thicker and heavier and prone to breaking up when you poke it. We took turns trying to lift bits of it out balanced on the end of the stick. The heat was too intense and the lava too heavy for me to be much good at it, but some people were able to do it. Including one memorable American teenage boy that was a little to quick to show off those high school football guns, and sent a flaming piece sailing through the air onto the rock where we were standing. Good times…

After hiking back out of the volcano, (having a celebratory beer) and catching a ride back to Antigua, we ambled around town eating street food and drinking beer until it was time for our minibus to Panajachel. Pana is on the shores of a large volcanic lake, and is supposed to be one of the most beautiful places in Central America. We arrived after dark so that would have to wait, but, man, the street food was outstanding. (You will notice the common theme here…) For dinner we had mini super-tacos, papusas, and a mixed grill beef and sausage thing (which was impressive for the amount of butter, meat, butter, cheese and butter involved in its preparation.) We were bursting at the seams when we decided to head home. Then we met the Cake Lady. The Cake Lady will go down in the lore as one of the most magical creatures I have yet encountered on my travels. First of all, in a country of rampant malnutrition, she was the size of a middle aged rhino. And she just set up her table on the side of the road, and sold individual slices of a fantastic assortment of meringue covered goodness. The banana pie I had was the best pie ever after my grandmother’s lemon meringue. And the slice of oozing chocolate cake she gave Adonis was the size of his head. I don’t know who she was, or why she was selling cakes on a Guatemalan street at 9 pm on a Sunday, but may the good cathedral-shattering lord preserve here size 58 self long into the future. To the Cake Lady!

The next morning, after a 9 hour food coma, Adonis and I set out on a boat tour of the lake, stopping at three picturesque lakeside tourist traps, er villages, over the course of the day. The second stop had a weird shine to a pagan god smoking a cigarette. Evidentially, if you want god to grant you something the Catholic Church might frown upon, you just had to pony up a bottle of rum and pack of smokes, and swing by the shrine. He also apparently has a soft spot for women of the night (as in granting them things rather than them being appropriate offerings.) As you can imagine, he is rather popular in town. And, you will note, untouched by earthquakes…

After leaving the shrine, Adonis and I had some time, so we decided to walk back to the boat. Anyone that knows Adonny and I knows that combined powers of navigation most closely resemble a drunken child playing pin the tail on the donkey. So we got completely lost. Not completely lost in the sense that we ended up on a street we didn’t recognize, completely lost as in we walked totally out of town and found ourselves standing on the lakeside in some poor Mayan woman’s yucca field. With 17 minutes until the boat left. (And this boat guy didn’t kid around, he left one couple running late and they had to chase us down in a motor boat.) I will save you the details of running across field and trail and street, we just barely made it.

Then play time was over. It was time to pack up and head down to a meeting point where my boss would pick me up on his way north to Huehue. You know you are in the right field when you boss tells you to jump on a chicken bus to meet him in the bar of a gas station at a truck stop on the Pan-American Highway. And now I am at work.

I will be heading out piloting in the mountainous indigenous communities for the rest of the week, so I will see what I can dig up as interesting blog-fodder, but, I’ll be honest, I don’t know if I can come up with anything on par with today’s wrathful- god, magma- poking, Cake- Lady, truck- stop- on- the- PanAmerican posting. Wish me luck…