Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Alright, I've had another request for more Central America information, well two in fact so I'm going to try and slap together a couple posts on that. Plus the wee compu has been down and out for a couple days (seems I picked up a virus) so I've got a lot of words to put down. First things first we'll tackle GUATE.
Right. So you will more than likely have to experience Guatemala city unless you are lucky enough to be arriving overland via some other fabulous place. Get in and get out is my approach. Everyone is going to tell you it is dangerous and I think it is, but then again I spent very little time there. Anyhow the airport has NOTHING, some mayan ladies selling galletas chicky and that is about it, no joke. To get from there grab a shuttle ($7-10) or a cab if there are a few of you ($30). People are very helpful, but will rip you off if you act all super gringo (and then you deserve it). From there probably easiest to head to...
Most people just call it Antigua and it probably deserves its own post. Where even to start????
To sleep there are hundreds of hotels, good hostel is the Yellow House, they make some mean oatmeal and spaghetti (!!!) for brekkie. Check out the parque central, on the side opposite the cathedral, behind a bookstore is lovely (though pricey) cafe condessa. Have a very North American moment at the Bagel Barn (off parque central) If you want to do a trek use O.X. Sky bar is awesome on 1 avenida, and there are some cool shops around there. I still love Fernandos (7 avenida) for coffee and early morning wifi.
I will admit that Antigua is Guatemala at its most organized and cleaned up. It is a pleasure to wander the streets, but is lacking the hard edge of the highlands or the funky soul of Peten. For me it was always all about indulgences: breakfast of fruit at the ceviche place, sammies from epicure, hair cuts on la septima avenida, pupusas at la rana y sapo, hanging with friends, and of course it is beautiful. If you can find your way to Santiago Zamorra to visit the weaving cooperative or out to Vahalla to the Macadamia nut farm, do it.
From Antigua most people head to the Lake usually via...
Market days are thursday and sunday, though I prefer sunday as there are often processions which can be a lot of fun to see. Bargain, but be kind, these highlanders work hard for their money. Check the back of textiles to see if they have been hand embroidered or are machine made. Great woodcarvings and some unique jewlery, otherwise everything is same same but different and you are better off buying from a weaving cooperative on Lake Atitlan.
Most people end up here first and a lot of people don't like pana, but it is one of my favorite places as it is just a crazy weird part of guate. There is a fantastic little deli/restaurant on the main road with a tree growing in the middle of it, somehow i can never remember the name of it (algo de fuego or somethin'), but they have banana curry soup and it is SO good. Also there is fantastic Asian food at Chinitas (also on Santander) she makes some amazing blue corn pancakes and there is crazy live music every night. Oh and on your way out of town grab brekkie to go at Panapan bakery. The market right in town is fab, and they sell the wool clothes from Solola. Also if you don't want to go all the way to Chichi for a market you can check out the market just up the hill in Solola (grab a chicken bus). I'm not positive, but I think market days are sunday???
From Pana take the launchas out to other parts of the lake, they are going to rip you off on the launcha ride, but there isn't a lot you can do about it.
Nested at the foot of a volcan, cruise over to Santiago and get a little kid to take you to see Maximon, a local diety. very cool. You can buy the local traje there, all the fabrics with purple stripes and embroidered birds are from this small village. The church is also fantastic, a great example of traditional Catholicism. The main alter is carved wood and dedicated to Jesus and corn. All the Saints are represented by wooden sculptures that are dressed every year in cotton outfits. Pretty awesome. From herre you could grab a launcha over to Santa Catarina del Popolo to check out weaving cooperatives.
Back packer ghetto, drugs, beer, good pizza and angry juice ladies who will shake their shredded plasitic bag fly swatters at you. If you want to hang out with stoned back packers or have ridiculously good pizza (up the hill, first right) then it is your place. Otherwise it is hilly and often smells funny during coffee harvest (they dry the beans out, so it stinks of fermenting coffee berries). You can also rent kayaks here and cruise around in the protected bay.
I lived here in this place of hobbity paths through the coffee bushes. It isn't a utopia as some hippies may have you believe, but it is great. Xamanik up on the hill has great parties but is a loud place to stay. You can check out La Paz for accommodation, yoga, and good but very slow food. Explore, try and get lost (you can't really) and get a massage (Flower house or the San Marco Holistic Center). More kayaks if you want and adventure, or hike out to the rocks to jump in the water or to Russel's dock for some nice sun bathing. I think San Marcos has some of the best swimming on the lake.
Casa del mundo or Vulcanos Lodge are both very special amazing places to stay if you get a chance.
La iguana perdida is a good place to loose yourself for a couple do nothing type days. They do great family style dinners and Belle might still be around doing morning yoga (nothing like downward dog in front of gray blue volcanos).

When you finally peel your self from the gorgeous waters of the lake head up the mountians to...
For me Guatemala is the highlands and Xela is the heart of the highlands. Most people who head this way go to language school (1 on 1 classes, 5 hrs/day, room and board should cost between $130-180) cruise around a choose one that feels good to you (my heart lies with Miguel Angel Asturias). The opportunity to live with a Guatemalan family will enrich your travels and understandings of this incredible country.
I like el cuartito for cute drinks and wifi, exploring mecardo Minerva for those plastic market baskets, and discovering all the hidden bars and restaurants. Oh and La Luna for hot chocolate, Blue Angel for vegan cookies, and the famous chocolate place near Mercado Flores (Doña Pancha), la fonda del che for peruvian flute music. There are always things going on at the gorgeous cathedral and lots of cool NGOs to support.
Confession: I never made it out here. L-A-M-E. I know. But I will get there ok???
Anyhow everyone says it is amazing and very worth the long travel time to get there. So just go.
Grilled cheese and the bungalows at Tijax. Nuffsed. From here take a boat ride to...
Tapado at Bugga Mamma's. Chat with some Garifunas then grab a boat on to Honduras or Belize or back to Rio Dulce.
I love Flores. Cool places to drink right on the water, a gorgeous lake, could you ask for more??
Amigos is a cool hostel, but tons of the hotels are very affordable, just make sure you get a fan and a place with a pool is always nice. Grab a launcha to take you to the mirador at sunset, bring beers and hike up to the lookout. Very cool. Lots of nice places to eat: Villa del Chef (killer mojitos which are 2 por 1 during happy hour 4-7), Cool beans for pancakes with fruit, and Las Puertas (near amigos) does nice veggie food plus the owner's husband plays classical guitar every night.
I think Tikal is done best if you head out there about 11, do a picknick at the grand plaza and then cruise around. By about 2 all the tour groups have left and you have the place practically to yourself. Pretty awesome. Sometimes you can catch sight of a toucan in the afternoon.

Obviously this is not an exhaustive guide, nor is this all that detailed, but it gives you a bit of a sense of Guate.
As far as getting around, the tourist shuttles are more comfortable but the chicken buses are far more entertaining and often a bit faster, if you can believe it. Spanish skills help out a lot but you will learn as you go.
Enjoy. Drink as much Zacapa on the rocks as you can, eat some pepian and make sure to give the Chapines lots of love.

Monday, June 8, 2009

On the other side of the glass

I am on the road between Saigon and Phnom Penh. My belly is full of Khmer noodle soup and my head full of thoughts that loop around into questions creating a mess not unlike the rice noodles that I've got swimming in my stomach.

I remember Michael telling me about these very buses which careened in front of her ,Cambodian home, kicking up dust. A blur of white faces protected by glass from the hot dusty existence of rural Cambodia as they raced between HCMC and Phnom Penh. This was back when I was still in C.A. I must have been in Guatemala at the time, because I remember telling her stories of seeing similar buses cramming themselves into the twisty streets of Solola, and it all caused me to think about what it means to have experienced a country and the insulated nature of tourism. My passengers are always talking about “doing” countries or even whole regions after spending a few days in them, “Oh yea, I did Laos, it was fantastic.” Maybe the very act of claiming to 'know' a place we admit to not knowing it at all. Or maybe we only know our very unique personal experience.

I can't claim to know every twist and bump of this highway, and yet I feel attached to this stretch of pavement, for I feel like it might lead me back to Micaheal, someone I miss very much. Or maybe I feel it leads me to a type of authenticity that I feel is so often lacking on the traveler's path. Regardless I find my eyes scanning each hamlet for that familiar ordering of mobile phone shops, market, soy bean juice ladies, and sugar can juice vendors which add up to Svay Chrum. I search to place the memories I have from those days that I spent with Mikee, suffering from the heat, from sleeping on tile floors, from being so far from the comforts of air con, of regular electricity, western food, and western comforts.

I remember our arrival back in Phnom Penh after just 5 days in Svay Chrum, the moment we walked into our $12 a night hotel room with air-con and private bathroom and thinking, money or wealth means you are able to afford comfort. You can insulate yourself from the pains and discomforts of poverty: from rocks in your rice and beans, from mosquitoes, from heat, from cold, from the sun, from physical labor. But the thing those uncomfortable 5 days also taught me was that in all our insulation we have lost contact with some of the things that make humans human. Westerners have a disposable outlook on life, something breaks, you buy a new one, something is lost, you can always replace it. Teeth, marriages, hips, ipods, rain coats. We are so wealthy that we have replaced food which is meant to provide calories with calorie free counterparts, we don't have to move to produce wealth so now we pay exorbitant funds to burn off all our material wealth which lays itself down in the form of a protective layer of adipose tissue, insulating us further and further from our environment. We have shaped parts of our environment so extremely that in places it is unrecognizable. And this is a spreading phenomena, driving into Saigon yesterday I awoke from a cat nap and was lost as to where I was. The suburban sprawl that covers the United States has reached its hand around the globe and has begun to sculpt parts of southern Vietnam. Do we want to live in a world where it is hard to discern between Michigan and Saigon? Is that the goal?

And this all leads me back to my initial thought about these air conditioned bubbles shuffling 'intrepid' travelers who have dared set out to such a wild untamed country.

Svay Chrum slides by as a smear of buildings, how can so many memories be linked to just another collection of same same corrugated tin buildings? Isn't that the strange thing about life? There is beauty, magic, and treasures beyond all belief, the trick is opening your eyes to see them as they are often hidden in strange places: in soy bean juice bought at a muddy market, in the laughing eyes of a vietnamese bus driver, in the unexpected views of the grenadine red sun rising over the gaggle of ducks as your scifo Vietnamese government train rolls past. And I am starting to believe the key to hapiness is being able to see these treasures, to be appreciate all the tiny minutiae that will eventually add up into a joyful existence.

I'm not sure this entry leads anywhere, but maybe that is a good thing, the nectar ,after all, is in the journey.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

la amistad

I have been mulling over a concept for the last months, in all honestly it was a thought that came to me back in September. I was sick in bed in Cambodia, and I remember thinking, all it takes is one person." One person can make the freshi lady room home, pumpkin soup into a feast, and long bus rides into adventures. One person can chase out the ghosts of lonliness, doubt, and fear. One person, whether they are only in your life for 2 weeks, 2 hours, or a lifetime can cast the light of a thousand candles.
I spend a lot of time on my own, a lot of time surrounded by strangers, and I am always missing someone, some place, something. I guess that could mean I could spend a lot of time sad, weepy, and down, but that seems like telling the universe that I don't believe it is going to come through for me: That I don't believe in the potential for magic, for new friends, for new adventures with old friends, for coincidence, serendipidity, for joy (even if it has to be bought in 1.5L bottles).
Friendship comes to those who trust, friendship comes to those that give and give and give, for those that find laughter in the dusty cockroach ridden happy house stops. Friendship is what will save us, it is what drives us, and what makes life so damn sweet.
French fries are never as good as when you have someone to steal them from your plate with a plastic pair of chopsticks.
Think that over.