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Designing Holidays Abroad

November 30th, 2012 No comments

And so the time came to leave the much vaunted Lake Atitlan, but not without a few more memorable experiences.

Just before Chaz’s departure we were reminded that Thanksgiving, which doesn’t get a lot of airtime in these here parts, was just two days away.  With our weak showing of spirit for Halloween (although I did carve a papaya back in Nicaragua), we started to come to terms with the stark reality that we stood to miss an entire year’s worth of holidays.  And unlike when you miss, like, one holiday, and hear sweetly reassuring sentiments from family to the tune of “Oh, we’re really going to miss you for this one!”, we’re starting to hear more like “Well, here’s what we’re doing”, which carries the subtext “…and you’ll not be here, and we’re used to it and we’re over it.”

It’s not an unkind sentiment at all, but rather quite understandably practical: who wants to spend a year getting even just a little bummed out every holiday over a pair of persistent & predictable no-shows?

Confronted with the reality that it’s up to us to make our own holiday fun if we were keen to having it (we were), I set about the apartment complex to arrange a proper Thanksgiving party in t-minus 48 hours.  My first stop was downstairs, for Garth had casually insinuated several times already that he makes a mean roast chicken whenever the topic of US Thanksgiving came up1.  Our Canadian friends had already celebrated their holiday of thanks in early October, but Garth was sporting enough to offer up his culinary participation for ours.  We hatched a plan that I would pick up a full chicken fit for roasting when I was dropping off Chaz in Pana the next day, and pick up some spices while I was at it.  Garth gave me directions to Sandra’s Grocery, a specialty shop catering to gringo tastes at which I could procure such items.

My second stop was up one flight and over to Barb and Fernando’s apartment.  Barb is from Canada and Fernando from Colombia.  We’d met around the property a few times earlier but only just that day had we had our first time real time spent together: during day 1 of the hypnotherapy course we were all taking.  I could barely speak out my invitation to US Thanksgiving before being ushered in, sat down, poured some rum, and served up a plate of super tasty cilantro-baked vegetables on a bed of fish with lobster tails on top (Fernando’s culinary prowess and sense for hospitality was keenly demonstrated in the space of about 45 seconds).  As you might imagine, they were immediately up on the idea of our forthcoming gathering, and eagerly volunteered to be a most worthy part of the potluck equation.

At 6 attendees I decided we had a good party for the upcoming holiday.

The next day in Pana, just after seeing Chaz off I found myself at the cozy and well appointed Sandra’s.  There I happened upon the opportunity to buy a 6 pound butter ball turkey, a rare find indeed.  I immediately phoned in to update mission control of the situation: “Hey Chef, how do you feel about me bringing back a turkey instead?”  “Bring it on,” my Canadian cook declared without hesitation, “and in that case then see if you can find a little jar of rosemary, eh?”

Roger that.  I picked up all the called for items plus as many boxes of bonus Vizios that my pocket full of 300Q would afford me without requiring an ATM visit, and was off2.

Thanksgiving was perfect.  Fernando made up a dish of top notch shrimp on a similar bed of tasty vegetables, plus a separate helping without shrimp for Tracy.  Garth did a bang up job of roasting the turkey, complete with a stuffing adapted for Guatemalan produce that included jalapeno peppers.  Tracy remarked of our (comparatively basic) contributions of mashed potatoes, baked yams and brownies for dessert that it was kinda nice for a change to be bringing the most boring entries to a potluck.

It was the best meal I’d had all month.  As we ate and drank wine we took turns declaring what it was we were thankful for.  Amid so many blessings on this night I found it fit to be thankful for our friends at the table, and how on such short notice we could all come together in the interest of allowing us United Statesians to get in a proper Thanksgiving while so far from our homeland.  You can see a shot of our troupe here.

After about 4 bottles of wine, a trio of great he said/she said stories of how the couples at the table met, and even a few inspiring tales of divorces gone past3, our 4 hour party laden with laughs gave way to triptophan-inspired sleepy time.  If we can do Christmas and New Year’s anywhere near this well we’ll be set.

During our last few days we got a bit of hiking under our belts: one day with a hike up to a waterfall in the neighboring town of Tzutzuna, and the next day up the same cliffs as the Mayan sun ceremony earlier but this time for an evening lunar ceremony, to mark the full moon and lunar eclipse.

Lest you suspect our time on the lake was all fun and games, let me assure you I made a rather lovely office space out of our 3-volcanoes-facing dining table, whereat I finished, among other things, a cheeky 29-page guide to using my brand of coaching software.  In a fine demonstration of collaborative working together during our travels, Tracy did a fantastic job of typesetting and laying out the whole thing.  I daresay it’s the most beautiful thing that we’re apt to make together until we start with the whole “making little people” thing in the next year or two.

Earlier today as we stood on the Pasajcap dock one last time awaiting our boat I stared good and long in all directions, savoring one last time the beauty of lake Atitlan and our now bygone residence.  And as always, what smoothed over the bitter pill of leaving behind a great living experience is the promise of the next one.

Notes:

  1. And to be clear: it’s not that our Canadian friends don’t know that turkey is the meat of tradition.  The chicken roast boast is an acknowledgement of how rare turkeys tend to be ’round these parts.
  2. Vizios are above-average delicious chocolate covered almonds which we were first turned onto in Peru.  We haven’t seen them anywhere since, so I jumped at the opportunity to stock up.  There’s something refreshingly fun about NOT having access to the same everything everywhere you go, even though that characteristic of modern living back home is a true marvel of supply chain management.  The hunt makes rare finds like Vizio’s in Pana a pleasant surprise, and has me appreciate, well, stuff much more.
  3. I have this quirk in that I can be impressed and inspired by how someone’s divorce went.  Against the baseline of my own parent’s splitting and subsequent fallout (which entailed literally decades of mudslinging and awkward holidays), I’m amazed when I hear of partings where affinity and workability are kept in tact.  As a result, I sometimes I literally compliment people on their divorces.  Almost in like a “well done, old chap” with a pat on the back sort of way, but with ample explanation.
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Doing Right by the Hosting Tradition

November 20th, 2012 No comments

One of the best things about hosting someone in a beautiful place is that you get to see that beautiful place newly once more, through the eyes of your guest.

By the time of Chaz’s arrival, Tracy and I had clocked right around a full month’s worth of time on Lake Atitlan, spread over our our past and present trips.  So to a certain extent we’d come to take some of the area’s charm as given, registering much less in our awareness under the category of “Holy crap this place is magical”.  In addition to his own many merits of personality, we loved Chaz’s visit for the reactions he had to our surroundings, which refreshed our own perceptions.

At around 8am from our dock I flagged down the passing boat bound for Panajachal (or Pana for short), a 40 minute ride which I shared in the company of a lovely woman named Dita.  Dita left her job as a partner of one of the largest executive search firms in all of Germany some 10 years ago, and with her husband came to live on the lake in a sprawling and beautiful looking house located two docks down from our place.  We’d just gotten to the topic of what it was like raising and home schooling their 7-year-old (who speaks 4 languages) here on the lake when our boat ride ended in Pana.  Though I invited her and her husband over for drinks at some point, I fear that perhaps the casual bond we’d forged in those 20 minutes of chatting might not be sufficient to entice an actual visit1.

From Pana I took a shuttle into Antigua, the appointed place for me to meet up with the incoming Chaz and escort him back to our place on the lake.  The fruits of Chaz’s high school Spanish study have largely withered on the vine, and so while the airport-to-Antigua shuttle is easy enough to sort out with English alone, the full trip to San Marcos take a bit more travel gumption the first time.  Thus as part of paying forward the fab hospitality from our friends back in Miami, I was happy to ensure his 8-day stay got off to a proper start with smooth transit to our accommodations.

We arranged to meet at Parque Centrale, as likely a drop off point as any for Chaz’s shuttle in from the airport.  When he arrived I was sitting on a bench, plying a native fellow to teach me how to eat a local fruit called hocote, and, in the process, sharing a bag thereof that I’d bought 10 minutes earlier.

Our first order of business was to get Chaz some proper lunch.  Appealing to his adventurous side we walked on into the Antigua market and sat down at one of those micro restaurants like those I described from Peru: a few stools and a counter at which you can get a big heaping plate of whatever someone’s mama is cooking up that day.  Today it was chicken, rice, mashed potatoes, and suitcase black beans2, all topped with this tomato puree red sauce that brings it all together and tastes so good.  All this for 20Q (about $1.30 US), so you may as well splurge 7Q more for a fresh blended, frothy pinapple/milk beverage called a licuado.

Chaz was already finding himself pretty sold on Guatemala, and generously vocalized as much.

After lunch we strolled on further through the market, picked up a few coconuts to snack on, marveled at how thoroughly boot-leggy some of the bootlegged merchandise was, and grabbed some produce to take on back to the house.  En route back to Parque Centrale for our 4pm shuttle I had one more order of business to tend to in town: buy a new pair of jeans.

If you see me walking among the native population anywhere in Guatemala, you’ll notice immediately that I, at 6’5″, stand out even more than I usually would in most any other country.  So by all counts the notion that the nation of Guatemala has any pair of jeans suitable for my stature within its borders ranks a little, well, perhaps naively optimistic.  But it turns out there’s a shop right off Antigua’s main square that carries my size, 34×34.  I know this because I bought a pair there back in ’09 to replace mine which had a bad rip up the left leg3.  On this occasion I had an ever growing worn patch around the crotch of my jeans and strict orders from the Mrs. to take care of the situation already.  With 5 minutes in my favorite jean shop in Guatemala (perhaps the world, I mean, I did wait several countries to finally do my jean shopping there) I was sorted, and we were on our way.

A few stops for beer marked our 2 and a half hour shuttle ride to the lake, and it was well past sunset when we got to the Pana dock.  We stepped aboard the half full boat (which comfortably seats about 20) at 7:07pm, and waited for it to fill until about 7:30 when we, aboard the last boat of the night, scuttled off into the darkness and across the water.  The boat dropped us off at the Pasajcap dock at around 8:10, and my what a welcome site was Tracy, waving down to us on the dock from our warmly lit apartment some 80 feet up.

“Honey, look what I picked up in Antigua!”  Tracy had done a lovely job of prepping for our arrival: after our long day of travel we settled in with beers, tostada chips with fresh made pico de gallo, and tasty tacos.  Chaz, pal that he was, brought us key items from the homeland, including zip-lock bags, some new credit cards that had arrived by mail and were lovingly forwarded along by my fab mother in law, and a dish wand, the hard-to-find luxury which so brilliantly prevents the unpleasant scent of sponge hand.

We had no firm plans for our visitor’s stay but had plenty of ideas to serve as building blocks for an itinerary.  Here are the broad strokes and highlights which aptly describe his visit:

  • Free* boat rides.  Free with an asterisk to denote that they weren’t strictly free, but close enough.  Jumping to San Marcos or San Pedro by water taxi was a 5 or 10Q affair, which Chaz deemed essentially a rounding error.  Compared to our $80 ferry ride to Cape Cod from Boston, I’d have to agree.  So we took the boat option for transport as often as possible.
  • Lakefront sauna.  Pierre’s property has a wood fire sauna in a stone edifice right at lake side, and for now it remains un-flooded by the rising lake.  So we partook one morning of the sit in the sauna/jump in the lake/repeat as necessary sauna ritual.  I was feeling the hint of a cold that morning, this cleared me right up.
  • Liters and liters of Gallo and Extra.  Gallo is Guatemala’s answer to like a Miller or Budweiser, and Extra is a common darker beer.  Chaz tells of having 3 or 4 beers while lunching in San Pedro, and an onlooking 8-year-old was stunned that he was still standing.  Apparently locals can’t hold their liquor quite at all like folks from the states; as a cultural norm they are just not as practiced.
  • Smokin’ Joes barbeque.  We were glad this fell on day 6 of Chaz’s visit, to give the man a chance to experience local cuisine long enough to have a gringo throw back be a welcome change of pace.
  • Breakfast party with neighbors.  Robin and Garth joined us as we pulled out all the stops to make pancakes and bacon, granting our party of 5 about 3 hours of top-notch entertainment.  It is all too easy to underestimate the simple joys of cooking for people.
  • Night out with live music.  I’d met a fellow on a boat ride who told me he and his buddy would be playing at Restaurant Fe on Saturday night.  In the sleepy town of San Marcos just coming off of low season, such a happening was remarkable indeed.  So we came out for beers, tunes, and a curry buffet.
  • Driving a tuk tuk4.  This one was all Chaz.  After our first ride in one he boldly declared “I wanna drive one of these things.”  To his immense credit, he managed to do just that during his solo field trip to San Pedro.  He missed the last boat back to San Marcos, so to get back he had to take a 100Q tuk tuk ride.  As coincidence would have it, he ended up sharing the ride with Pablo, the same Pablo who leads Mayan ceremonies high above cliffs (see what I mean about small town magic?).  They had already met, giving Chaz an in.  Pablo doesn’t speak too much English, but enough to broker Chaz’s request of the driver to drive a part of the way around the lake.  Sure enough, Chaz was allowed to drive through San Juan (another town along the lake), and his experience came complete with a mini lesson on, well, how to drive one.
  • General cultural immersion.  Walking the streets of town, visiting the markets, interacting with people.  Chaz put to words something I never thought to articulate but immediately recognized as true: the natives here consistently exude a way of being that is notably polite and respectful.  Well summarized.

We began the week with the stated intention that we ensure Chaz’s visit be a memorably positive one, bordering on (if not crashing into) “kick ass” territory.  Here at the end we all agreed this intention had been fulfilled.  This morning (the day before his flight) we took a boat back to Pana, and his confidence and comfort with moving about Guatemala was such that I needed only get him on a shuttle to Antigua and he would be good the rest of the way, including getting a place to stay the night and getting off to the airport.  This was quite nice as it saved me about 5 hours of riding in a minivan, but also delights me to know that he’s all set to have his own adventures traveling about this country.  Thanks for visiting, Chaz.  It has been a pleasure to show you around the settings of our current home5

Notes:

  1. Which is doubly a shame because in our conversation Dita was YET ANOTHER instance of a person insisting simultaneously about India that (A) they never got sicker than while there and (B) despite (A) you have to go, because it’s just simply amazing.  I really wanted a longer conversation to better sort out that apparent contradiction.
  2. This is the same black bean concoction as mentioned earlier: a refried black bean puree with onions and cilantro blended in.  The term “suitcase” derives from the cooked down consistency: a firmer texture that, when slid on out of a circular frying pan, can be folded over on to itself like a suitcase.
  3. Fun fact: one of my first blunders with Spanish immersion happened in the taxi ride that Tracy and I first took to Antigua at the start of our ’09 trip.  I, keen to practice my Spanish as I was, ventured to boldly ask our driver if I could eat more pants in Antigua.  Turns out the words “comere” and “comprar” (Spanish for “to eat” and “to buy”, respectively) are interchangeable for hilarious and/or awkward results.  Best part: since I figured this was an uncommon thing to ask about and because I had sufficient vocabulary to do so, I prefaced my question by asking “Do you mind if I ask you a weird question?”, making our driver all the more apt to take my question at face value rather than recognize a linguistic blunder.  Thank goodness Tracy was able to spot me and clear up the confusion before things got weirder.
  4. A tuk tuk is like a motorcycle fitted over with a rooftop enclosure containing the driver’s seat up front and a bench just barely wide enough for 3 in the back.  They are a minified version of cab-like transportation, and quite common here around the lake.  For example, 10Q per person will save you the 15 minute walk from San Marcos to Pasajcap.
  5. Editor’s note: Chaz’s ravings have already prompted some of his friends to make a trip down in December, and he himself plans to return for a month around March.
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Lovely Lake Living

November 12th, 2012 No comments

How quickly one can get into a rhythm of things.

On the way back from our first visit to town, we met another couple who happened also to be staying at Pasajcap as the four of us sat under an awning, trying in vain to wait out the rain.  Andrew and Lanie, about our age, were at the tail end of a most enviable 2-month long honeymoon spent in these parts.  In the limited time we had together they graciously passed on knowledge and expertise of lake living to us over wine, most notably the what, when and where of the once-a-week barbeque in San Pedro.

“Yeah, we’re heading back to Ohio on Monday, but stop by around noon tomorrow and we’ll take you over for it.”  It’s a good thing we made friends with them during our limited window, for the Smokin’ Joe’s Sunday ritual is a rather magical thing.  The native cuisine here is good and all, but the occasional infusion of gringo culinary sensibilities and know-how is a great way to keep things fresh.

There, for example, 60Q (under $8 US) gets you a huge piece of bacon-wrapped fillet mignon, which (as all menu options do) comes as a plate with garlic or corn bread plus 3 top notch sides (show up early before they run out of the mac-n-cheese).  Chicken, pork ribs, to die for cuts of tuna, and more make up their fab menu, all grilled to smoky perfection.  It’s held in the yard of an outdoor bar with a rooftop terrace and full swimming pool; no waiters, just walk up and pay, they’ll call your name.  In total, barring those brief moments of handing over a few Quetzales while ordering or getting drinks, it feels just like being at the house of a friend who REALLY knows how to do a barbeque.  This for us has become a weekly tradition, and mindfully made a habit of paying the knowledge forward.

One afternoon, in order to keep up with my proper regiment of meat consumption1, I took a boat across the lake to a nearby town so that I could get a few tacos for lunch and pick up some bacon and chicken from the (comparatively) well appointed store there.  On the return as I hopped from the boat onto the private dock of the property I call home this month, I giggled, literally giggled to myself that, on a Thursday afternoon, THIS is what my life looks like.

You can see the whole of what our living environment looks like from Tracy’s pictures of the property.  The little thatch-roofed nooks equipped with benches, chaise lounges, and hammocks are ideal places to make friends.  On about day 4 of our residence I crossed paths with Garth of Robin & Garth, our downstairs neighbors.  In place like this, it’s just natural and fitting to say to a person you just met “Hey, whaddaya say we and our mutual lady friends2 hang out in one of these tonight over wine?” and have it be met with a yes.

Garth and Robin are from Canada, and are a fine example of life lived with joy and laughter.  Both divorced, both early into retirement, they found they made fantastic travel companions to one another during a few months last winter and so are at it again this winter.

Robin’s a world class fisher woman, the kind of gal who catches fish bigger than she is3 and has a smoker at home big enough to accommodate her serious catch.  I’m told we should come by in the summer to partake of her smoked salmon.  If we can tie in shooting a pilot for the fishing show that she should totally star in (with me providing zany ad libbing of at least some of her lines), I’ll count that as a more than worthy visit just waiting to happen.

Garth is the very vision of a jovial retiree that I hope to grow into: genuinely funny, amiable and hospitable, and regularly singing the praises of our shared surroundings (e.g. “How’s it going, Garth?”  “Oh, I’m somehow managing to get along okay here in this paradise, eh?4“.  Garth’s career was in large scale drilling & mining operations, and he tells intriguing tales of months-long assignments in harsh Canadian environments chasing ore.  His background suggests that the solution to the problem of rising Lake Atitlan could be to drill a hole in the bottom that routes out to lower land, offering added benefits of generating hydroelectric power and irrigation, which to me is a fine way of looking at things from a creative problem solving stance indeed5.

One late afternoon I took to the quest of putting up flyers for Tracy’s private yoga instruction.  In the space of 20 minutes as I walked about the village I ran into (and was greeted by) about 9 familiar faces, which was not bad since we’d only been there a week and rather exemplary of why I love small town living.  There’s a feeling of connection and belonging you get that’s unlike anything you can experience while roaming a city as a largely anonymous figure among thousands of others.

Making acquaintances in this sort of environment seems proportionately easier as well, as evidenced by my meeting Pablo.  While winding my way through the pedestrian streets of town as my posting task drew to a close, a voice called to me from within the small, shack-like travel agency.  “Como se llama?”  I popped my head in to introduce myself, and got to chatting with the proprietor.  Before long I was told about a Mayan sun ceremony that was happening the next morning, and was invited to come.  I got the feeling I was being sold on something, so instinctively I asked what it cost.  “Solo donacion, amigo.”  Right on then, I’m here to have experiences, so let me throw caution into the wind and go for it.

The plan was to assemble at 5am the next morning at that very location in town, and then we would all walk halfway to San Pablo, the neighboring village to the west, and go to the ceremony site.  By the early rising of the sun here on the lake and the not-at-all bashful roosters on neighboring properties, waking up early enough for such an event would not be hard.  Rather instead, as I slipped through the big black gate of Pasajcap and onto the moonlit dirt road that leads into town, I found the early morning walk to be its own invigorating reward.

Just outside of town I saw two dudes walking along the same road in the same direction, wearing flowing clothes that looked super comfy.  It was one of those moments where at a glace we all knew “Yep, we’re all heading to the same place.”  With any lingering concerns that I’d been lured out for a pre-dawn mugging well put to rest, we continued on to the assembly point to meet about 7 others.  When Pablo arrived on the scene at about 5:05 our merry caravan of hippy-dippy types who go in for this sort of thing6 proceeded back up towards the main road and on out of town.

At a nondescript part of the lake-winding road Pablo stopped the group, and said in his very calm and easy-to-understand Spanish that here now we would begin to climb up the big bluff-like hill.  Now then, you know how sometimes we exaggerate to say things like “we thought they were joking when…”, like, say, when they announced Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate in ’08.  We know in these instances that they’re not really joking, it’s just a derisive way to editorialize the situation.  Well, in this instance I actually spent a good 5 seconds or so in earnest thinking Pablo was joking to say we would somehow climb up here.

Yet sure enough, Pablo and other members of the troupe began to ascend, making light and careful footfall on a trail barely visible and winding through cornstalks as they swiftly left the surety of the road below.  So climb I did, keeping up without too much difficulty on the crude path, and yet still impressed by the progress anytime I looked up or down.  The tops of the towering cliffs above looked insurmountable yet drew nearer and nearer with every minute as we made our way through brush, used the trunks of coffee plants for handles, and stepped up steps loosely etched in dirt.

Sun had broken above the tops of volcanoes across the lake, making every pause for breath a visually rewarding one.  Just the hike plus views of reflected orange in the lake so far below was already making this adventure worth the TBD donation price of admission.  About two thirds the way up we made a stop off into a shallow cave in the cliff which opens out to a view of the lake.  Pablo lit a candle and gave a blessing, and we continued on our way.

At the top I was surprised to see we had in fact scaled the cliffs that looked so imposing from below, putting us somewhere around 150 meters above the lake.  We’d climbed the equivalent of about 45 flights of stairs.  We circled a rock upon which Pablo made a fire from incense-like charcoals and an assortment of colored candles.  Pablo began the ceremony, in a mixture of Spanish and a dialect of the native Mayan tongue, with a note about the whole 2012/Mayan calendar/end of the world thing.  He explained that, no, the world is not ending, and rather instead Mayan tradition calls for a celebration for the completion of one era and the commencement of another.

I don’t know about you, but for me that settles it.  We’ll of course see next month, but hearing that all is well with the epoch-changing 12/21/12 from an actual Mayan dude at a sun ceremony upon high cliffs in this part of the world counts, for me, way more than any brand of sensationalist doomsday punditry arising from outside the Mayan culture.

The ceremony proceeded from there, largely comprised of blessings upon the earth, the sun and the moon, air, water, fire and light, and perhaps a few others.  I found it pleasing and calming to take time to appreciate these more simple things which comprise our elemental existence, it sort of puts the modern complexities of life into soothing perspective.

After the ceremony there was time to just relax and take in the scenery while sitting at the edge of the high cliffs.  Before long a kirtan broke out7: one fellow broke out a digery doo, another a flute.  Another girl had a small container filled with a little rice which subbed in for a proper maraca quite nicely.  There were a few other instruments floating about, and before long I was handed a kazoo.  For a half hour or more we were just playing.  The sounds built upon one another, interweaving complex melodies and rhythms.  For the record, I totally rocked the kazoo.  Seriously, I didn’t think there was much one could do with a kazoo, yet I found it easy dive in and add to the richness of the mix.

So I guess I loves me a good kirtan.

Life on the lake roles on in beautiful fashion, but tomorrow we’re in for a most welcome disruption: I pick up our friend Chaz, here to visit us for a week.

Notes:

  1. San Marcos on the whole is much better suited to satisfy vegetarian tastes, and experience has shown I get a bit punchy if I go more than a few days without meat.  I love me some vegetarian food, but my body ultimately calls this shot.
  2. Or “special ladies”, as the case may be.
  3. Even if she’s rockin’ about 5’5″ and 110 pounds, that’s still mighty impressive.
  4. Yep, real-life Canadians totally say the “eh?” thing, just like my childhood watchings of the McKenzie brothers taught me.  They are also, incidentally, quite good natured and good humored about insinuations lobbed from the US that they be miserable socialists, probably because they know the joke is on us.
  5. It turns out such a proposal was put before the Guatemalan government in 2010.  It was debated for about 30 minutes on the floor before being summarily rejected.  Apparently there is little sympathy for gringo lakefront property.
  6. Guilty as charged, your honor.
  7. “Kirtan” is a term that means, to a crude approximation, a bunch of hippies playing varied musical instruments in a loose, improvisational and jam-session like style.  I’m pretty sure drum circles fall under the concept umbrella.
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Underwater Lakefront

November 2nd, 2012 No comments

Our day of wandering through San Salvador was pleasant but a little tiring.  After a while Central American countries start to blend together, appearing to be as self-similar as, say, adjoining states in the US’s midwest1.  So we sought out the distinguishing traits as much as possible.  We found two.

The first was pupusas, the delightful and ubiquitous street food fare cooked up on hot grills by El Salvadorean ladies all over the place.  Pupusas are like corn tortillas but stuffed with thinks like beans and cheese or pork and potato, made delicious by pork fat and a spicy cabbage/pepper salsa served in a small plastic baggie tied off with an impossible knot.  Three for a buck, take your pick mix-and-match style.  I’ll have dos con puerco for myself and una vegetariano for the lady: a perfect snack for Tracy and I.

The salsa is so good for spicing up the hearty flavors, and it was only on the bus ride out of the country that I worked out that you have to just bite open a tip of the little baggie in which it comes, and suck out a little with each bite of the pupusa.  That might seem a little savage but, yum!  No regrets: my mama dun raised me right with table manners, but this is a matter of street food rules.

The second distinguishing trait we experienced in our brief 24 hours was cab fares.  Against the recent experience of Nicaragua, where 10 Cordobas ($0.40US) would get you anywhere in Granada, we thought for sure we were being taken for a ride when we were told $5 for a two mile ride.  My offer for $2 was met with snickering, and we decided to go without.  Later that night we sought a cab for a ride back from the grocery store, not even a mile up the street.  $4.  “How about $2?”  Turns out I was bargaining in vain with the very same cab driver as before, and he called us out on it.

It was a fun exchange: I felt a little like an ass playing the role of gringo expecting the world for cheap, but in my defense explained how cheap cabs were in Nicaragua, and how often we get told rates that are 2, 3, even 4x what they should be for locals.  He countered to explain that in Nicaragua cab drivers are subsidized (we’d heard as much), and that in El Salvador they weren’t allowed to do collectivo fares (i.e. pick up others as you go and collect multiple fares on the same trip–strictly forbidden here, as it is in the US2).  And THAT was why, yes, fares actually are that high.

Then the woman he was waiting for came out of the grocery store.  The cab driver wished us good luck (in only a slightly sardonic/dickish way) and was off.  The pendulum had swung hard from the opposite end of being a dumb gringo who blindly accepts being ripped off.  As penance we walked home, and were no worse for the walk and having gotten a dose of cab pricing reality.

The next morning we got up early to continue on our bus way to Guatemala.  From the station in Guatemala city we hopped right into a shuttle bound for Antigua, and after chatting with a few fellow travelers including the most angsty Australian I’d ever met3 we were back for the first time this trip to familiar territory.

Ah, Antigua.  This, plus San Marcos on Lake Atitlan (which we were soon bound for), was the site of our first trip together three and a half years earlier, a trip which cemented for both of us a lot of the mutual sentiment that “yep, you’re the one for me”.  So this part of the world holds for us a certain nostalgia, which, for want of not boring the reader, I shall herein thoroughly understate.

Nevertheless the cobblestone streets still hold a certain charm, and after checking into a place for the night and dropping our bags, my first order of business was to get a fully de-husked and ready to drink/eat coconut.  I procured this snack at the very stall in Antigua’s market that originally sparked my deep and quirky love for the hard-to-open fruit back in early ’09.

It was Halloween night that night, and though I would love to tell you we partied like 20-somethings at one of the many venues putting up festive decorations that afternoon, we were too knackered by days of bus travel to even get excited about such a thing.

Oh, that and we’re not 20-somethings4.

One of the restaurants we ducked into for dinner amid the evening drizzle attempted to card us to get in, which told our travel weary selves that this was not the place for us to dine.  We settled on the Casa de Sopa, which offered a much more varied and filling meal than you would expect from a house of soup.

The next day we were off, a two-and-a-half our shuttle would take us to Lake Atitlan, which we’ve been looking forward to returning to for some time.

Now then, let it be stated again for the record that expectations are indeed a curious and precarious thing.  Maintaining expectations (especially high ones) of anything which you can’t yourself control is an all-too-effective recipe for upset and disappointment.  And even if something/someone should live up to those expectations, well, you expected as much–which of course leaves precious little room for surprise and delight over the favorable outcome.

That all said, Tracy and I could scarcely help expecting that Lake Atitlan would be awesome.  With its temperate weather, cheap and delicious produce, views dotted by 3 volcanoes, fun little villages and much more we had ample reasons to expect a delightful return.

The result of our tempting expectation fate?  I’m happy to report that our presence on Lake Atitlan delivered and delighted once again, and was different enough for us to appreciate it every bit as much this time around.

So we overall got lucky, in the expectations department.

We began with a typical Guatemalan breakfast in Panajachel, featuring eggs, toast, sweet fried plantains, fresh farmer’s cheese, local coffee, and a sort of re-fried black beans infused with garlic and cilantro that is so very tasty.  From there we made our way to the dock to catch a boat to our place on the lake.

Dockside, our quoted rate of 25Q per person for the ride quickly dropped to the proper 20Q as we began to walk away, us knowing full well that 20Q (just under $3US) is the already-inflated price for outsiders.  I’ve no complaints about the inflated price, it’s just good to take a stand against even further distorted pricing.

Our 40-minute ride in the motorboat was a scenic purview of the lake and its many coastal villages, and before we knew it the driver announced “Pasaj Cap!” and it was our cue to gather up our heavy bags and step up on out onto the private dock.  From there we walked up the equivalent of some 6 flights of outdoor stone stairs, and were led by 3 rather large German shepherds to our host, Pierre.

Pierre is the owner and builder of the Pasajcap, a property of about 7 apartments just outside of San Marcos, and Tracy and I first made his acquaintance when we first researched Guatemala back in ’09.  We were gun shy back then about paying a $500 deposit to rent an apartment we’d found online in a country we’d never been to, but experience (past and now present!) revealed that the paradise property was in fact real.

We were quickly shown to our place, complete with a frontage of sliding windows measuring about 6 feet tall by 20 feet wide and with spectacular views just as advertised (here’s the shot Tracy took of it).  As much as we would have loved to savor the space, our first order of business was to walk into town and pick up some produce and other foodstuffs for our pantry and fridge.

San Marcos had changed only in a few ways, mostly trivial save one: the lakefront areas that we remembered from 3 years prior, down at the main dock and other places, were now quite thoroughly underwater.  It turns out that the water level has risen some 12 feet since our last visit.  The connecting lakefront path, where I several mornings did rounds of ninja training (my own label for a jog with intermittent breaks to do situps on reasonably flat patches of dirt), no longer exists.

Theories vary, but the general consensus seems to be that an earthquake a few years ago closed up a ravine at the bottom of the lake that had been serving as drainage to keep the level as it was.  Once closed, the equilibrium of rainfall and evaporation has been working to push it back towards the level it was at back in the 70’s.  Back then, it turns out, the lake was much higher BUT an earthquake then opened the ravine up in the first place, causing the level to drop as low as Tracy and I were used to.

The natives all know this history, which is why, it is suggested, their houses are nowhere near the lakefront–only the gringos are so enamored of lakefront/unaware of its precarious situation.

Our then and now familiarity with the lakefront essentially makes us privy to snapshots of geological history in the making.  Though the change breaks my heart a bit, how nice it is to be back!

Notes:

  1. To illustrate: if I showed you 100 photographs, 50 from Illinois, 50 from Indiana, do you think you could correctly label which was which better than 50/50 odds?
  2. Now that I’ve experienced the lively fun and fare-efficient joy that is collectivo-style cab driving, I wish it weren’t forbidden here or in the states.  Makes me wonder why someone saw it fit to actually pass a law forbidding it, rather than let cabs and/or the people that hire them dictate which style a given cab ride would be.
  3. In my total experience of world travel thus far Aussies have been remarkably consistent in their chill and above-average agreeable demeanor, so as a compliment to the whole of Australia let me just say that this fellow, well, rather stood out.
  4. I mean technically Tracy is for another 7 months, but mentally sometimes I think we rate and register around mid 40’s.  This means we suck at partying, but we do generally make good company for dinner parties.
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