Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Overnight Bus Ride

Brian and I watched as the double-decker Linea Dorada luxury bus pulled into the Zona 1 station at 8:30 pm. Its hulking yellow frame seemed to tip precariously as it strained over the slight incline into the parking lot. Instantly, a small crew of men in uniforms that resembled pilot outfits began hauling heavy boxes, bundles, and packages towards the lower level of the bus. Other men opened up the extensive storage unit and neatly piled the boxes into the vast space.

At precisely 8:40 the bus began to load its other, perhaps more priceless but less economically valuable, cargo: humans. The line began to shove its way slowly towards the bus where each personal bag was checked for weapons and everyone was patted down. I must have looked like an easy-go-lucky-no-danger-here white girl as I was waved through without the hassle. Brian, however, got the pat-down.

We walked up the steep stairs passed the tiny bathroom and down the long aisle towards our seats 44-45. It was nearly the back of the bus. I made a mental note not to look towards the front of the bus as we zoomed around tight curves in the highlands. By 8:53 everyone was on, all the luggage was loaded, and the groaning golden hulk began pulling out of the station and onto the narrow colonial street.

A neatly uniformed woman stood up and explained the bus rules to us. “Thank you very much, passengers, for obeying these rules. The bathroom is only for pee-pee no poo-poo. Be kind to your fellow passengers and respect the bus. Don’t poo-poo.” With that, the bus lurched around the Zona 1 corners and launched itself onto the road. The “stewardess” walked by with a large black plastic bag and handed each of us a Styrofoam container containing one suspicious sandwich with chopped meat, a packet of dry cookies best for dipping in coffee, and two blue mints. After distributing our meager meal she prowled the aisle holding a shopping basket full of canned juices for us to select. Brian and I both ended up with Pineapple Nectar, which we stored until later time.

An hour later we had finally left the city behind, were an hour into the movie “Wicker Man,” and had begun the long, arduous overnight journey to Peten. I attempted to close my eyes and rest, all the while remembering what a bad overnight bus rider I am. The bus moaned as it turned around sharp corners, rumbled over recent road construction sites, and used compression breaks to slow itself down steep hillsides. Eventually I must have dozed off, only to be wakened by the persistent dripping of condensed water from the air conditioners falling onto my exposed arms. The cold drips startled me out of my stupor and I tried in vain to prevent the drips for the rest of the night. Occasionally I would doze off again, just to be scared awake by the image of the bus tipping towards the nearby cliff like a vision of death. As always in Latin America, my tendency to cross myself returned and I fervently prayed that we would make it safely there (please let us get there safely, please let us get there safely…).

In every tiny provincial town the bus slowed itself groaningly and launched over the excessive quantities of speed bumps that characterize the crossing of towns and the main highway. Finally, six speed bumps later (after every town) the bus returned to its maximum speed of around 40 miles per hour and we continued huffing and puffing our way to Flores (the speed ranged between maybe 20 mph and 40 mph). After what seemed like a surprisingly little amount of town for an overnight bus, the mandatory detour near Poptun steered the bus into the control check for illegal fruits. There have been several pests introduced to Peten by various fruits and the problem is so severe they’ve altered traffic and check each bag and parcel for the illegal fruit. Apples are okay though. So are plantains. But the list of banned fruit is extensive.

Brian and I were surprised to see it was already 3:00 am. We were almost there! Where had the night gone? I couldn’t be bothered thinking about the road already traveled or yet to be traveled. I needed to find the bathroom. Eventually, after wandering around the cold, cement check point, which made me imagine strongly a military check point during Guatemala’s “little war” of 30 years, I noted the sanitario sign and followed it to the basic bathroom where water pressure does not remove waste products and tanks of water with empty containers of orange juice float for the purpose of flushing. There was no toilet paper. Of course, there was no toilet paper. But I asked at the concession stand and for 2Q (26 cents) I bought a role of brown toilet paper reminiscent of brown paper towels found in high school bathrooms. What a relief.

We all filed back onto the bus after the fruit search and the bus rolled into action again. Only 2.5 to 3 hours to go. Before long, the grey pre-dawn began to fill the tropical sky. I sleepily watched as dark figures grew more and more distinct until I recognized the octagonal INGUAT tourist center that marks the T-intersection between the road to Guatemala City and Flores-Tikal. The golden bus eased itself onto the Flores-bound road and chugged off the remaining 10 km to town. Finally, at 5:30 am, we arrived to the morning bustle and confusion of Flores.

We were bombarded by too-eager micro-bus owners looking for people to drive to Tikal. “Special offer! Special deal! Only 25Q for you to Tikal! Good deal,” they all shouted into the confused morning. Other big-bellied Peteneros called out, “Taxi! Taaaaaaaaxi! Tikal! Tikaaaaaal! Hostal? Necesitas hostal? You need hotel? I take you to good one then we go to Tikal! I leave at 6:30. Good price just for you!” We struggled out of the fray and stumbled in early-morning-little-sleep stupors over to greet my fellow Tikal workers waiting for the white and green Tikal bus to pick them up. What a surprise for them to see us there fresh off the Linea Dorada luxury express bus. As their bus drove up, we waved them goodbye and walked down the quiet back-street of Flores looking for a hotel.

At 6:00 am, we approached the Mirador del Lago, positioned strategically with a view of Lake Peten Itza. After listening for signs of life, I bravely knocked on the window and called, “Buenos días?” We heard distinct coughing and hacking followed by a, “Ya voy! I’m coming,” as the door to the yellow-green hostal opened up and a slightly disheveled, possibly hung-over hotel clerk let us in and showed us our room. I followed him downstairs where he accepted our Q120 and wrote out a little receipt for the payment.

When I returned upstairs, I briefly admired our room with a view, balcony and breeze from the lake, while thinking in Ecuador this $20.00 room would be a $5.00 value. Brian lay on the bed, passed out after only 2 minutes in the room. I could feel my eyelids droop as I fixed the fan to blow on us and lay down beside him. Three hours later, we awoke to hungry bellies, humidity, and the still air of mid-morning Flores. Still dazed from the bus ride, we wandered outside in search of breakfast before returning to sleep some more. Then, at 4:50 we re-immerged to explore the town – still in a daze.

Some say the whole concept of the overnight bus ride is so you sleep. That concept doesn’t work for me. The truth is, Linea Dorada's motto ("ON THE GROUND THE SAME COMFORT YOU HAVE IN THE AIR") is just not true. I think we would have been just as served to take the day-time bus as we spent the entire day in a hot, sick stupor. We both caught colds on the bus. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the Flores-Tikal ambiances and when it came time to leave, bought plane tickets to avoid the arduous overnight adventure in the Luxury Linea Dorada bus. Haleluja, 1.5 hours later we were back in the comfort of our homes. Cost analysis concludes that for 10 hours at $20.00 versus 45 minutes at $120.00 that it was worth that extra $100 to ensure our health, happiness, and humanity.

Sunday, October 21, 2007


I can’t help but wonder what my experience in Guatemala would be if I lived in Antigua. The original capital of Guatemala, this quaint town is full of energy, spirit, and internationalism. Brian and I went to explore the quiet air of the town last week. Its immediate charm, cobblestone streets, plaster-covered buildings, and Spanish tile roofs captured our attention. But more than everything, the mysteries and intrigues of this World Heritage Site attracted me.

Destroyed several times throughout its early history, Antigua still teems with relics of its governmental and religious centers. Walking down the narrow cobblestone streets ruin after ruin of ancient churches filled our eyes. The tall arched roofs now fallen in, these majestic buildings seem perfect for ghosts, haunted houses, and Halloween mysteries. We walked through the aching buildings, noting plants taking over the intricate structures. Into the crypt we walked to discover remains of priests, nuns, and monks, smoke-blackened crucifixes, and hollow empty rooms lit by singular windows overhead.

Santo Domingo stood out most for us both. This building belonged to the Dominican friars, who once belonged to the most opulent monastery in the town. Destroyed largely in the 1700’s, the crippled building was restored into Antigua’s most opulent hotel. The building has been transformed into hidden corridors filled with religious relics, balconies blessing hotel rooms, five-star restaurants ringed with flowering plants and all this incorporating the natural and cultural aspects of the ancient monastery.

We paid $6.00 each to explore the ruins on-site. Both of us imagined the religious finery that must have blessed these buildings. We pictured the arches towering over the chapel and soaked in the magnificent view of Volcan de Agua peaking out from behind the clouds. The ruins of the monastery remain a virtual maze of broken columns, dilapidated buildings, archaeological excavations, and museums featuring colonial and Mesoamerican art. We left awed by the time and space warp into this rich monastery and hotel. “Someday, if we ever want to return to Guatemala, we’ve got to stay here,” Brian told me. I agree completely.

The history and culture, the Guatemalan, Spanish, and international ambiance, and the beautiful mix of Spanish architecture blending nature with culture entranced me. I loved the interior patios that allow the occupant to live harmoniously with natural elements. We were fascinated by the rich, Antiguan coffee and chocolate available in various cafes. In the evening, after delicious meals of Guatemalan, Peruvian, and other global cuisines, we enjoyed listening to a local band pound out Andean rhythms. It sent me to Ecuador while reminding me of my location in Central America.

What would it be like to live in Antigua? To join in the ex-pat community. To constantly be surrounded by art, age, and beauty. Imagine what it would be like to walk everywhere and anywhere. To feel the ancient architecture soak into my bones. What would it be like to live in such a beautiful part of Guatemala? I can only imagine.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Joining of Sounds

Blessings and gifts emerge in Tikal in a myriad of ways. This morning, sitting quietly in the Great Plaza, what seemed like hundreds of birds began calling overheard. I watched as pairs of parrots swooped elegantly through the sky calling in their loud, melodramatic voices. The oropendula's voice, which sounds like a great bell or water dropping echoes from the trees. Behind me came the crackling call of the royal toucan while other toucans cackled in the trees. The air was still, cool, and completely engulfed by these sounds.

In the afternoon the howler monkeys began their gravelly whoops through the trees while spider monkeys sought hidden fruits above my head. I watched as a new family of howler monkeys taught the babies to swing madly from branch to branch. They encouraged the young ones to follow them with softer hoots and calls.

To add to the brilliance of the dynamic Plaza, groups of native Maya, the descendants of the ancient Maya who once ruled Tikal swarmed into the park. They examined the buildings, talking softly in their native languages, as they looked at their past.

Out of the woods came a group of men carrying a roughly formed harp, guitar, and violin. They had just returned from a ceremony in Mundo Perdido and sat next to me to play. We solemnly greeted each other and talked about the magnificence of Tikal. The older man, in a white cowboy hat began tuning his harp and the other string players joined in. Finally, as though the three were mentally attuned to each other, they began to play. First the harp would strike its cords, then the guitar would begin to play, the violin added the water-like joining of the three instruments. Finally, a man began to beat the base of the harp to create the deep rhythm of a drum.

The music drew everyone in the Plaza to the men. People stood entranced by the simple Mayan tunes that flowed from the men. I watched, fascinated at this cultural encounter. What joy fillied me. What awe I felt at the beautiful joining of sounds from the day. What peace to be in such a magnificent place, this tropical haven in Guatemala. How grateful I am to know Tikal.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Carlos Peña – Latin American Idol

On October 1, 2007, Guatemala City greeted home a hero. Carlos Peña, recently named this year’s Latin American singing Idol, returned to his motherland, Guatemala. Crowds of excited Guatemalans lined the streets, bouquets of white and blue balloons clutched in their hands. It was as if Peña had saved Guatemala from a terrible fate the way people were signing, cheering, and demonstrating such profound patriotism in the midst of their singing and dancing hero. Guatemala was back on the map! Carlos Peña had saved it from being just another Central American country with a violent past to being the Central American country with the best singer/dancer in all of Latin America.

I imagined the crowds lining the streets were all proud that they had sent text messages in to support Peña while he shook his booty and sang his songs for all of Latin America to see. Their hard work paid off as they stood anxiously waiting for the parade to start. Overhead small planes whizzed through the sky with banners stating, “BIENVENIDOS CARLOS PEÑA! Welcome Carlos Peña!” On the streets below traffic slowed to a halt as the frantic excitement to welcome home the new Guatemalan hero filled the air. The traffic became worse than when Bush shuts down cities in the United States for his visit. The need for release was incredible. When would he come by?! Finally, that familiar pyramid hairdo came into view as his car drove slowly through the crowd. Carlos Peña, a hero for his international singing fame, had come home.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Vista Hermosa Boulevard

Slowly the weather in Guatemala City has been changing. It’s not really like fall, per say, but the light is gone now by 6:30, rain comes every afternoon with heavy grey-black clouds, and some leaves on certain trees appear to be turning color. Even the light seems to take on the lower slant angle characteristic of autumn in the United States. Every morning I pull on a long sleeve shirt and take a coat with me as I head out into the day.

The cooler mornings mean indigenous women sit on street corners patiently ladling thick, sweet atol out of heavy plastic containers. On this day, I hand one lady Q2.50 and she fills a thin plastic cup with the starchy cinnamon flavored corn drink. It warms my chilled hands and body as I sip the hot liquid. Clusters of men and women, waiting for the bus or hurrying to work, stop to buy the atol, which has enough calories to fill one up until lunchtime. In the early morning the distant hills are covered with a persistent layer of clouds and mist. It will take several hours for the thick clouds and chilly air to be burned away by the tropical sun. But predictably, by around 11:00 the sun has pushed its cheery way through the clouds and begins to heat the city.

Early afternoon, the red number 2 bus drops me off at the corner and I make the half mile walk up to Pais, the grocery store. On the way, I note Señor Camaron (Mr. Shrimp) is out with his ceviche stand. My mouth waters as I imagine the taste of the acidic mixture of lime juice, tomato, onion, and seafood. I love the satisfying resistance of shrimp as I chew through the ceviche. Street smells of grilled sausage, tacos, charcoal, and plantains penetrate the air. I inhale the rich smells and watch the workers devouring their meager street cart lunches.

As I pass Vista Hermosa Bookstore, I notice the Mayan woman who sells overpriced strawberries is busily peeling and slicing mangos to sell to the passing people. One person stops for the treat and waits as the woman squeezes lime juice and sprinkles chili powder and ground pumpkin seeds on the mangos. The local snack shop is busily selling crunchy tacos spread this with unsweetened whipping cream while across the street walk several venders peddling chili-seasoned nuts on shoppers rushing into Pais.

I stop by the local tortilla woman, who sells four corn tortillas for Q1. While she stores them in a large towel-wrapped tub, they’re still warm from the pan she cooks them on. As I store the tortillas in my bag, I imagine I hear the practical slap, slap, slap of the experience hands forming tortillas out of the thick white corn flour. I picture the women shaping perfect circles then throwing them on the round hot plate to cook over an open fire. Expert hands flip the tortillas as the bottom side begins to brown. The mental image vanishes as the noisy number 1 terminal bus belches bye, spewing the street with thick, poisonous smoke. I thank the woman and hurry inside the super center to do my weekly grocery shopping.

Bags clutched in my hands, and sucking happily on a stick of chocofresas, or frozen chocolate-covered strawberries, I head back down my street, noting the tinges of colors on the leaves, newly erected fences protecting an empty lot, and the gardeners hurriedly chopping the neighbors’ lawns with finely sharpened machetes. We greet each other as I pass them on the street. I notice the big, billowing white clouds forming overhead and think of my Grandma Fellows. She loved those clouds. Here, it means that heavy sheets of rain would come in a few hours.

At the gate of my house, my landlady, Rosemarie, stood haggling with fruit venders over the price of mandarins, mangos, strawberries and bananas. I ask for a pound of strawberries and six bananas. Rosemarie successfully bartered the sellers down from the original price of Q21 to Q10 for the fruit. It was impressive. I exchange money for fruit with the venders, shut the gate, and return to my quiet apartment sanctuary.

It was time to work on transcriptions and research before my next trip to Tikal. My heart thudded as I thought of what October will bring: a Mayan ceremony in Tikal, Brian coming for three weeks, and adventuring around Guatemala. I knew instinctively that if I blinked my eyes, the month would end all too soon. But in the mean time, there was much to do and wait for before October 13 rolls around. It was time to get busy.