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Latin Adventure’s Travel Diary

Tuesday, 01 Mar 2005

Location: Guatemala

MapWhat up peeps?

I have just arrived in the Huehuetenango, a small self contained town at the foot of the Cuchumatán mountains. This is my second visit to this rather under rated town in only a few days. There is not a lot to see here, in fact there is absolutely nothing here of any note whatsoever. Its charm lies in its rather unpopular appeal with the traveling gringos. Hence, a lack of English speakers to pollute my pure Spanish thoughts. I have arrived here on the back of another eight hour bus ride. Which could have been avoided if I hadn’t left my passport in one of the hotels I have stayed in along the way. I know this was a rather thoughtless and silly thing to have done, and those that may remember it’s not the first time it has happened whilst I have been abroad. I am not traveling in a blame culture, so I have immediately forgiven myself for such a foolish action. I like to think that fate was handing me an opportunity, that somewhere there was a reason and a reward for enduring yet another grueling eight hour chicken bus ride along dust track and hairpin mountain bends sitting only on a small white plastic stool. In truth fate sucks and the only thing I think I am likely to get from such an experience is a rather large hernia and a bill from the local chiropractor. I think I have rushed into the story a little, so let me explain how I come to be in Huehuetenango.

After finally getting out of the US and experiencing a rather novel customer service approach by the infamous US customs officials I arrived in Guatemala City . The city had everything that SF did not. The choking smell of diesel fumes bellowing out the exhausts of the unserviced vehicles, the fatty smell of deep fired chicken being sold from the street vendors stalls, and general noise galore. I was back in the developing world and it was like heroin in the veins of a smack head. Guate, as its known, is one of the poorest and most dangerous cities in Central America. It has little to keep you there, and no charm whatsoever. It is city that has grown to be the largest in Central America and is there to facilitate jobs and industry. There is a huge divide, like in many Capital cities between the have's and the have not’s. The central malls frequented by the wealthly Guate women are guarded by armed security and those marginalized by poverty are pushed into the peripheries of the city. Since the 70’s there has been a huge migration by the rural communities into the capital. With a lack of jobs and increase in drug use, there has been a he increase in gang related crime manly by the two opposing gangs- 18 and MS. One even has its own web site www.xv3gang.com. By following the Guate papers for a week I estimate the there are between 15 to 20 gang related shooting s per week. This based on a population in the capital of around 3 million. Gang crime is one of the biggest issues in Central America and it has been suggested that some governments has instigated a policy of shooting anyone seen with a gang tattoo as a deterrent for people thinking of joining.

After one night in the capital I packed up and headed to Antigua. I had decided that in order to actually eat in Guatemala, Spanish lessons would be essential. I had wasted almost an hour walking the streets of Zone 1 in Guate that morning trying find a shop with a sign for breakfast. I had made repeated attempts to engage the café owners in conversation. However, my hybrid Spanish / French and absolute nonsense seemed to have no effect. I think my first question was “Tiene Mange?” Followed by several understanding “Vale, Vale.” After which embarrassment on my part and sheer confusion of the café owner forced me to walk off. I have later found out the no one in Central America uses or really understands the Spanish okay (Vale). On the bus out of the city I met the larger than life Marco Vinitcia. Spanish School owner, business man and absolute bull shitter. Marco owned a rather small Spanish school in the north of town called Escula de Barcelona. Encouraged by the fact the school was named after my favorite European City, (obviously, fate dealing me a winning hand at the start) I signed up enthusiastically for a two week program with a home stay. I would be studying one to one with a trained Maestro for five hours in the morning, followed by two to three “fun” activities a week. With hindsight and if I had have read the school literature before I had paid, which I think was written by a problem child with ADD, I would probably have said thanks, but no thanks. I am not the worlds greatest speller, but this had more spelling mistakes than a Thai menu. Lets say that the school didn’t ooze professionalism.

On the upside I couldn’t have had a nicer family to stay with. They were warm, inviting, friendly, and laughed a lot at my Spanish. The home stay was advertised as an excellent experience to learn about the Guatemalan culture. I had expected a rather shabby but proud house. With maybe a few chicken and stray dogs wandering though from time to time. What I didn’t expect was a private room with TV and 100 cable channels, include CNN, ESPN and a wide selection of Movie channels. I never failed to miss the Saturday morning Premiership matches. You can take the boy out of England, but you can’t take football out of the boy! One of the most interesting features was the hot shower. From a young age I have learnt that water and electricity don’t mix and in some cases can be fatal. My shower was fitted at the nosel with an electric water heater with two wires protruding out of the top rapped only with green electrical tape. Underneath which, the live wires could be seen. It is suggested in the Lonely Planet that showers should be taken with rubber flip flops, just in case of electrocution. The food at the house was great. Although at first we did hit a rather long stage of only eating cauliflower and black beans. Great for the constitution, but a little bland after the forth meal. The arrival of another student – Chris from the US – bought a bounty of meat products. Fish, chicken and carne were definitely the order of the day. Towards the end of my stay and as a means of a big thank you, I offered to cook a traditional English dish. The Chicken Madras went down very well and all the ingredients were sourced from the market and lovingly prepared your truly. I even left the recipe, it was that popular.

Antigua is a very beautiful old Spanish colonial city nestled in a valley between three volcanoes, Agua, Acatenango and Fuego. Fuego is still very much active and in the evening from roof terrace of Café Sky your can often see small eruptions of lava taking place. The city is a popular stop off for students wanting to learn Spanish. There are over 100 schools in the town, and with this concentration of gringos comes a plentiful supply of entertainment to tempt even the most steadfast student from his books. Once again temptation became my downfall. Like Adam in the Garden of Eden I bit into the apple of alcohol fuelled, late night temptation and said goodbye to bright eyed enthusiasm and early morning concentration. In some ways I envied my old life, where I could hide behind a computer screen with a hangover all morning without saying word to anyone. Knowing that by lunch time all would be well and I could count down the last few hours of the afternoon. Unfortunately, by lunch time my lesson was over and only a handful of vocabulary could penetrate through the headache. I like to compare my Spanish to the English weather. On occasions, usually at night sitting outside a pub, it will be really hot. But, the majority of time it’s spent overcast, foggy and drizzling. It makes it very difficult to find your way.

What I have learned will help me get through Central America. I can talk in past, present and future tenses and with practice I am learning more everyday. Being in a town now with almost no gringos has definitely helped. In all fairness, I did have some interesting conversations with my Maestro. We managed to chew the fat on several important global issues, the spiraling US trade deficit, the 1970’s guerilla war in Guatemala, the current corrupt administration and the existence of God. One interesting issue that I raised was concerning the existence of free trade coffee farms in Guatemala. I showed him an article in the national paper talking about “commercio justo” and a French coffee company buying in Guatemala. Who knew the French could be so nice? After reading the article and a lengthy discussion about the topic for a hour. I explained that higher than market prices were being paid by fair trade companies and cooperative farming was being established by the small farm owners. He finally got it and announced that his Uncle had a farm and sold his beans to a fair trade beneficiary. This was a big result for me, as I would finally have someone to talk to about how fair, fair trade really is. I have my own suspicions on the subject which will take a separate email for me to explain. A meeting was arranged at his Uncle’s farm and we drove there in the afternoon. The afternoon would have been great success apart from the small fact that his Uncle didn’t actually have anything to do with coffee farming or fair trade. He was in fact a coffee seller, offering me 100 lbs of top quality Antiguan coffee at a knock down, once in a life time price for a friend of mine that my Maestro had said was opening a coffee shop in London. I don’t even know how to explain that part in Spanish, so I was obviously a little bewildered as to how on earth he had come to that ridiculous conclusion. The whole situation was like a cocaine deal in the movies. I was inspecting a table full of 1 lb coffee bags, each neatly laid next to each other. The water was boiled and the product sampled. It was good. The finest coffee I had tasted in a long time. I estimated its street value in the UK at around GBP150.00. He only wanted GBP70.00 for the lot. But, I didn’t know anyone big enough in the UK to shift that much coffee in such a short amount of time. I turned him down on his offer and he drove me back to the city . No more words were said.

After that I realized that maybe I wasn’t the reason my Spanish wasn’t coming on as quick as I had hoped. Maybe my Maestro was just a complete cock, who really didn’t know his arse from his elbow. He obviously didn’t even understand his own language. Luckily, that visit signaled the end of my time with Escula Barcelona.

When I wasn’t had studying or hard socializing I made good use of the two Volcanoes nearby. The first I climbed was Agua. Its crater sits at 3760 metres and the climb was hell. I presumed myself fairly fit and have climbed a few peaks in my time. Discounting Snowden, who lets be fair is more like a little hill the Welsh like to claim as a mountain. The first 3000 metres were okay, we had reached that point in only 2 ½ hours . I had managed to shake the hangover and didn’t at this point feel the effects of only four hours sleep and no breakfast. It wasn’t until after the 3200 metre mark that I started to really feel the effects of the altitude, lack of water, food, and sleep. The white patches in front of my eyes and constant dizziness were blatant giveaways. The final ascent took a little over 2 hours, with me having to stop every 50 meteres to catch my breath and get rid of those annoying white patches that were obscuring my vision from the vertical drops on my left hand side. After a huge struggle and some encouragement from my fellow climbers I made it to the top. What made it all the more embarrassing was that the guides ten year old son was having to guide me the last few kilometers and I was making him wait and become impatient with my girlish antics. After 4 ½ hours of hard graft and sweat the views I was graced with were worth every drop. The vistas were absolutely stunning. We had a panoramic view of the whole valley from all over Antigua to the distant volcano of Pacaya, which I would later bring myself to climb. Opposite Agua was the black volcanic rock of Fuego. Which to our added enjoyment and as if on cue decided to belch a few spurts of lava and ash into the air. This was truly a once in a life time opportunity to see up close such a marvel of Mother Nature. Or so I thought…

One week later and after only 2 hours of easy climbing, I was at the crater of Volcano Pacaya. With a reputation as one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world, having last erupted only 4 years previously causing most of Guate to be covered in 4 inches of ash, it was very much deserved. Having seen Fuego erupting from a distance we were able to get within 30 metres of Pacaya’s crater whilst it spewed clumps of lava into the air. If you can imagine me on a golf course try to swing a 9 iron in the rough watching huge sods of earth being catapulted into the air. Well, that is almost what it was like, apart from hotter and much more interesting. The noise the volcano made before erupting was amazing. With the pressure building up, you would hear a sudden thud, followed by a hiss, then the appearance of molten lava. As touristy as this was and there were around 40 people watching the same event. It still kept your absolute attention and became a very personal experience. There are not that many countries in the world that will either allow you to get that close or you would physically be able to get that close due to sculpture or heat. This goes down as one of the highlights of my life, it was that good. It actually goes before losing my virginity it was that damn exciting.

I have lots more to tell you but not enough time tonight. I hope you enjoy my new diary format. Be sure to book mark the homepage and keep checking as I will put some photos just as soon as I can.