Hi, Everyone! Sorry for the delay in posts lately. It’s been a relatively hectic month. After two weeks in a temporary apartment, today I moved to a different apartment in Oaxaca, where I will remain until Erik arrives later this fall (we hope). This post is about my recent return to Guatemala, where our friend Chuck and I traversed and explored that wonderful country. To view some pictures of that trip, click here.
After leaving Mexico City on June 30, I began the journey to Guatemala City, which was expected to take about two days. It took three. And, in fact, I never made it to Guatemala City.
It was a two-hour bus ride from Mexico City to Puebla followed by a 12-hour bus ride from Puebla to San Cristóbal de las Casas (in the state of Chiapas). I arrived at the SCC bus terminal at 2:00 a.m. My plan was to wait there until the shuttle, which I had prearranged many days beforehand, arrived to take me on another 12-hour adventure to Guatemala City, complete with border crossing. My experience with the cross-country bus terminals had thus far always been very good: they are clean, large, comfortable, and safe. The terminal in SCC was none of those things. There was virtually no place to sit, it was small, and for whatever reason all the doors were wide open in the middle of the night; not only was it cold but anyone could (and did) just wander in at anytime. Needless to say, after not sleeping on the bus to SCC I did not sleep in the bus station either. That’s okay, I’d maybe catch a nap on the shuttle that day.
At 7:45 am I went outside to where all the taxis wait and all passengers get picked up and dropped off and waited for my shuttle, which was to arrive between 8:00 and 8:20. Cut to the chase: after patiently waiting, at 8:45 I called the number on the back of my ticket and tried to explain the situation to the voicemail. Of course, I was freezing, hadn’t slept all night, and was now trapped in a city I had no plans to be in since there is only one shuttle from SCC per day because the trip to Guatemala City is 12 hours long. I was not in a good place psychologically. Then I called Erik, my mind a complete blank with how to proceed. Under normal circumstances, there should have been no stress involved. However, I was to meet a (completely non-Spanish-speaking) friend from Minnesota in Antigua, Guatemala the next day. Because of this one shuttle mishap, I was now an entire day behind schedule.
By the time I made contact with the shuttle company, which included five international phone calls since the company is in Guatemala and my phone is from Mexico, I had no choice but to hang out in San Cristóbal de las Casas for the day, find a place to crash for the night, and hope that the next day’s shuttle would not forsake me. (According to the shuttle company, the driver said he was there but I wasn’t; it’s hard for me to understand how I possibly could have missed the shuttle – but no one will ever know what really happened.) SCC is a very popular tourist city, but it wasn’t really my favorite – although I happened to be there on Mexico’s presidential election day, which made it more interesting. There are certainly some interesting sights and old churches but far too many coffee shops and fancy restaurants catering to out-of-towners for my taste. I found a decent hotel, got a cheap room, did some sight-seeing, some eating, and some napping. Things could have been much worse, but I was concerned about the arrival of our friend Chuck at the Guatemala City airport with no one to meet him or help him get to Antigua. Chuck isn’t a frequent traveler and has never been out of the U.S. (except for a quick trip to a nearby Canadian city).
The next day the shuttle did arrive at my hotel and I was headed to Antigua now, not Guatemala City. There was no reason for me to go to Guate City because Chuck would already have arrived and headed to Antigua before I would get there. Around 7:00 p.m. that night I made it to the hotel. The shuttle trip was fairly uninteresting but I had another small world experience: shuttle buses and drivers cannot cross the border, so it is organized so that a shuttle coming from Guatemala and one coming from Mexico meet at the border, completely swap passengers and cargo, and then head back from whence they came. A passenger on the other shuttle (coming from Guatemala) happened to be a student at the same school in Xela that Erik and I attended. Imagine coming to the Mexico/Guatemala border crossing and, out of happenstance, running into someone you know. Small world!
Arriving at the hotel in Antigua I found Chuck safe and sound. Erik had armed him with a list of phrases to help get him from the airport in Guatemala City to the hotel in Antigua. (Even when he’s not there, Erik has a knack for saving the day.) Chuck and I spent three days in Antigua, touring the ruins and tasting some delicious foods – both humble and thoroughly Guatemalan, as well as some… well…. delicious cake. One night we even went to a Mexican restaurant and I taught the bartender how to make me a Negroni (I noticed that he had all the ingredients behind the bar). The Negroni is my favorite cocktail, and it was good to have one again. And the bartender and the waitstaff claimed that they all liked it, too, after trying it.
Chuck loved Antigua, especially its successful mix of old and new. It is a charming city that takes great pride in its ruins and is very tourist-friendly. But after three days we headed of to San Marcos La Laguna, which is on the same lake where Erik and I spent January and February learning Spanish. Our residence for a week was quite exceptional: we each had our own space, there was a full kitchen, hammocks, a view of the mountains, volcanoes, and lake, and the weather was nearly perfect.
Unfortunately, being near the lake in these months, one has to occasionally do battle with bugs. Flies, bees, and mosquitos were everywhere. Spiders were nearby, too, but they didn’t cause us any problem. However, in the first day or two I killed three scorpions inside the apartment. These were not terribly small: maybe three-to-four inches each. It’s not something I did every day back in Minnesota, but faithful readers (with good memories) will remember that I did find a scorpion on the wall behind my pillow one night while we were living in San Pedro.
On the penultimate night in San Marcos, a scorpion found me before I found him. I was sleeping, it was about midnight, and I felt something on my leg. Virtually asleep, I reflexively reached down to brush whatever it was away. That’s when I felt a sting and pain like I hadn’t known before. I was immediately awake and the bed was open. When I found the guy, he was maybe 3/4 of an inch long – a small one. But with a big bite. I took care of him first then realized how much of a jolt he gave me. My hand hurt like the dickens for a good 20-30 minutes; afterwards it tingled for a couple of hours. Needless to say, I didn’t go back to sleep before completely checking over the bed as well as underneath it, nor did I fall asleep with any ease for a few hours.
That situation notwithstanding, Chuck and I had a great time at Lago Atitlan. I showed him around San Pedro, taking him to the school that Erik and I attended and introducing him to our family there (who just got a new puppy!). I gave Rosario (our mamá) a gift that Erik and I had been traveling with months because they are impossible to purchase in Guatemala: a set of rubber scrapers/spatulas. We thought they were the perfect gift for her because they are so useful and she loves to cook. Not surprisingly, I had to explain to her what they were used for. But she and Pedro were as generous as always, reminding me over and over that their house is always my house. They even invited Chuck and me to spend the night since there was a marimba concert that night as a part of the San Pedro Festival, but they wouldn’t want us to return to San Marcos at the time the concert ended. Chuck and I passed on the concert, but the offer was so heart-warming.
We had a wonderful time in San Marcos, no question. But it was time to head back to “civilization” – to Xela (the full name being Quetzaltenango) for a week in the city! For me, Xela seems to be the best of both worlds. It’s a fair-sized city with restaurants of various international cuisines but also eateries specializing in Guatemalan food (which are also cheaper). There is culture and technology, but also look in any direction at any time anywhere in the city and you will see women wearing the typical, customary dress.
In Xela I was able to introduce Chuck to Erik’s and my favorite place – Moonkat, a lovely little café that has the BEST cake in Guatemala. And after sampling the German chocolate cake (my fave) Chuck had no choice but to concur. Our time in Xela was spent wandering the streets, hanging out in the parque central, and of course eating – including time spent at a great French restaurant, an amazing Mennonite bakery, a couple of decent Guatemalan hamburger joints, and of course Pollo Campero – Guatemala’s successful answer to KFC.
There were parades, programs, celebrations, and markets – lots to do and see. But also we were reminded how nice it also can be to just sit and be. The parque central was full of people who already knew how to do that and we did our best to find our way into that mindset.
After a two-week stay in a developing country, Chuck headed back to Guatemala City to catch his flight. A couple of days later, I left on a shuttle (which arrived perfectly), crossed the border (not without its hitches but nonetheless successful), and found a bus back to my new home for the foreseeable future, Oaxaca.
It was a wonderful privilege for myself to be able to return to Guatemala, but it was an added bonus to have the opportunity to not only present it to a friend but then to see my old haunts through the astonished eyes of someone who had never beheld anything quite like this: the culture, the poverty, the beauty of landscape, the holes in the roads, the cuisine, and especially the warmth of the native people. It was a great reminder to me of why I loved Guatemala in the first place. Thanks, Chuck.
Coming Up: Pepe attends the biggest party of the year in Oaxaca and lives to tell about it!