Archive | February, 2008
February 28, 2008

Hauled in by La Policia! / Tikal

I was playing pool with the young men of San Andres. All of I sudden, I saw the barrels of 2 AK-47′s come in from the door to the bar, which was closest to our table. A third followed and I was relieved to see they were in the hands of policemen. Then they indicated that they wanted everyone against the wall. Being as brown as I am at this point, they didn’t consider that I might be a volunteer or tourist so I made my way with the rest of the guys to the wall. The others kept looking back at me and smiling because they knew I was an international volunteer. Anyway, the cops were very courteous and just did a quick pat down. It was obvious they were only interested in guns, of which there are a lot in Guatemala. Even if I had a knife, which I carry occasionally, they wouldn’t have found it and even if they did, I think they would have let it slip.

The next day I went to Flores and from there to Tikal. I watched the sunset from Temple II, looking towards Temple IV and it was very beautiful. That night I camped at Tikal on the grounds of the Jaguar Inn. There were huge spiders outside the tent the size of tarantulas but much faster so I made my entrances and exits of the tent very quickly. Luckily nothing got in and the mosquitoes weren’t that bad either. The howler monkeys however, were something else. These medium sized monkeys make a tremendous sound and until a guide told me the next morning what they were, I thought I was hearing a Jaguar outside my tent. The next morning, I got up at 4:30 and my group left for Temple IV to watch the sunrise just before 5:00. I found it to be the most contrived tourist trap I have ever seen. There were probably over a hundred tourists there and the sunrise really wasn’t that spectacular. However, there was a lot of fog that morning so perhaps it would have been better had there not been any. The wildlife coming to life was nice but again nothing that amazing. I explored the ruins for another 4-5 hours and have to say as a whole they were unimpressive.

The guides could have been better also. They didn’t seem to know much about the Mayans beyond their standard repertoire. Part of the reason for this is that to this day there is much about the Mayans that we don’t know despite their not being that ancient a civilization. By building with limestone in a high humidity climate, the Mayans didn’t do themselves any favors. Their ruins, sculptures and especially records (In the form of Hieroglyphs) are badly eroded and barely legible. Ruins in Egypt and Pakistan that are 3,000 years older are in better shape and indicate a more advanced civilization than whats at Tikal. Currently, there is construction of new “ruins” taking place in Tikal, the idea being to portray what the past may have looked like. However, the recreations are not clearly marked (same as in Copan), which I feel is misleading to tourists who think they are looking at original artifacts. Many tourist I spoke to felt the same way about Tikal. After seeing 2 of the most famous Mayan ruins, I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to visit any Mayan ruins for historical/archaeological reasons unless you have a fascination with the Mayans specifically. The one saving point of Tikal however was that the jungle and whatever wildlife we did see were fun walking through.

February 24, 2008

Circus is in town

A caravan of 5 dusty cars pulled by a old truck has pulled in to town and is all the excitement. The Red Top Circus is in town and I´m sure its old school all the way, really fat or majorly mustached women and all that fare I´d guess.

There was a big accident in town a few days back. A large truck ran backwards into a house when it lost traction on a steep gravel road. It took the whole house out. They had to put up supports for the roof before taking the truck out of the house because the truck and one wall were the only things holding up the roof. The streets around here are very steep. Much more than San Francisco. Luckily no one was hurt.

I´m trying to decide between leaving for Tikal tomorrow or the day after. They have zip lines running through the jungle which I think would be fun to do and I also really want to see a sunrise or sunset from Temple IV. Thats the update for now. Either way, will be in Antigua come Wednesday.

February 23, 2008

Working in the Ecological Park

Today, I found the School construction site empty so decided to join the Canadians in the Ecological Park. I spent around 4 hours today clearing a new walking path through the jungle with a machete and cutting bad branches off of banana trees. On the one hand, it was very peaceful and serene and I saw lots of butterflies, humming birds and colorful lizards. On the other hand, there were tons of other not so cuddly bugs all over the place and on me. Sometimes, I´d take a swing at a tree with my machete and a centipede would fall on my arm. I had already seen scorpions, tarantulas and massive iguanas around. Additionally, I was told rattlesnakes and at least one large alligator also lived near where we were working so I was very cautious given how much brush cover was available for them to hide behind and under. I have to say, slicing through the jungle with a machete feels very satisfying.

The cops in Livingston were freed with the government offering talks to the revolting farmers so that crisis is over. I was able to borrow one of the American highschooler´s camera for a few hours before they left and was able to snap pictures of the house where I live and the town of San Andres. I´m going to have a lot of young new Facebook friends once they get back to the States and start adding me. I have to say working with them and joking around with them all those days made me feel younger and I really enjoyed their company.

Last night, the father and eldest brother in my local family returned home for a few days. I spent a good hour talking to Oscar (the dad) over dinner. He told me about his work in Yaxha, digging out and restoring Mayan ruins and doing restoration of artifacts. I´m happy to say I can now conduct long conversations covering a broad subject base in Spanish, albeit with tons of grammatical mistakes and very basic and at times lacking vocabulary.

I saw Mormon missionaries in San Andres a few days back. They are one dedicated faith when it comes to spreading their word, to the point where its really quite ridiculous. I ran into one of them today. No surprise he was from Utah.

I have decided to leave San Andres Tuesday morning and spend the whole day in Tikal. After sunset, I will return to Flores for the night and will fly to Guatemala City Wednesday morning.

February 22, 2008

Livingston erupts

It seems I narrowly escaped bad times in Livingston by less than a week. Apparently 1,500 farmers there have taken 30 police officers hostage and are demanding an arrested leader be freed or thay will execute them. Given how unsafe the city looked before and how many crackheads were stumbling about, I take it that it is very dangerous now that the police are absorbed with trying to rescue their own.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7259659.stm

In other news, I played in a soccer game and a basketball game 2 nights back with the local San Andreans, went to a party last night that was thrown for the American kids where I saw children performing traditional Guatemalan dances. Today the CT highschoolers and MA teachers all left (seperately) which just leaves me and the Canadian couple currently volunteering. The schools has really come along. I think tomorrow the walls will be totally finished. I´ve decided to go to Tikal over a weekday and not a weekend so as to avoid a high tourist traffic day so I´ll work tomorrow.

Other than that, I´m continually dismayed with the manners of Guatemalan men towards foreign women. They make odd and somewhat obscene gestures and sounds when they pass by despite knowing that these women are volunteering time and money in their community. Since I am now very brown, they often think I am Guatemalan and when I walk by with western looking women, they congratulate me in advance on scoring with them and ask me to share the love with them.

I am almost out of money so will probably hit an ATM in Flores or Santa Elena real soon. Only 4 more days of volunteering to go. On the 27th, I´ll be sipping a mohito on my hotel rooftop in Antigua with Colleen.

February 20, 2008

Just a normal day

Today was very ordinary. Got up early and walked to the site. The clouds didn´t give cover as they had yesterday and so the sun had me sweating profusely in both directions. I feel that my Spanish is improving and am excited by the prospect of knowing a new language that is so widely spoken.

Last night, the American kids played the San Andres kids in a game of soccer. The Americans fielded a team of boys and girls with a median age of around 15. The Guatemalans were all big guys that looked around 20. There were younger kids ready to play but the older guys who rode in on motorcycles like they were the Hell´s Angels wouldn´t let them play. In the end, the Americans played a good game given their situation. They sub´d a lot and played hard the whole time they were on the field. Every time a tiny freshman or girl of any age stole the ball from a Guatemalan, the whole stadium (maybe 100-150 people) roared in laughter. It was obvious those guys were never going to hear the end of it and this happened a lot. In the end the game was abandoned due to a power outage across town that left everyone in total darkness. The score at that point was 3-1 for San Andres.

I am going to try borrowing a camera from one of the Connecticut highschoolers so I can get pictures of the lake around where I am staying and my host family and their house. Pictures of the construction site are going to be plenty becuse so many of the children and supervising adults have cameras and they will post their pictures online. The cameras that I´ve seen in shops in smaller Guatemalan towns have been very low quality and ridiculously overpriced so I´m going to have Colleen bring our backup camera when she joins me on the 27th and in the meantime I´ll make do with borrowing.

This weekend I plan to go to Tikal and am looking forward to that. I´ve spent a little more than I had intended to on this trip because I travelled to Honduras which was unplanned and I also ate out a lot. However, Mr. ATM card is with me so not a huge problem.

P.S. – I´m upset that Purdue lost to Indiana but then the Pakistan elections went by without any major hitch so on the whole I´m more than happy.

February 19, 2008

Nipples!

Central American women seem to be very open with their nipples. I’ve been seeing breasts everywhere. My neighbor showering outside her house, women on Lake Atitlan washing clothes and bathing babies while their boobs flop around, flinging from side to side as if attempting to escape in order to find a good bra for much needed support. On the bus from Rio Dulce to Santa Elena, a child was crying and his mom just flipped up her shirt and stuffed the really large brown nipple that came out into the child’s mouth to shut it up. I was standing right above her and looked away. The guy in front of me, ogled her as long as her nipple was out, I don’t think he even ever blinked. It was very sleazy given that the woman knew he was staring at her.

Anyway, today was back to work for me. We have now put up 7 layers of bricks on top of the foundation and the site now looks to contain a building. The Peten sun has turned me quite brown already. After 3 more days, I’ll be the color of poo! I told Colleen about it and she’s not happy. Hopefully though, I’ll also get some much desired tone with my undesired tan. A funny thing happened at the construction site today. The Guatemalan girls made a ranked-list of American boys they liked from the construction crew. The person they picked for 1st place was an obvious total nerd. Everyone was confused so we asked them why. They replied that he looked like Harry Potter! So there you have it. You want to pull ass in Guatemala, you better look like someone who goes to Hogwarts.

I think the family I’m staying with may be reading my blog. Perhaps they read that I felt the food was above expectation and so for lunch yesterday they served up super salted broccoli with a side of radish and rice. I hated it and when they asked “Te Gusta?”, I told them “Mas o menos, perro me gusta frejoles, huevos y avacado” so hopefully I’ll be getting more beans, eggs and avocado in the future.

I also just realized that the reaon I’d been hearing pigs all the time was that my family has a pig sty on the premises. They live just 20-30 feet from me! In San Andres, in addition to stray looking dogs and chickens, there are also tons of pigs and horses running around. The some of the horses are extremely emaciated and it hurts to look at their exposed ribs, hip bones and shoulder baldes. The pigs seem very well fed. Sometimes, walking to or from the school construction, I run into puppies, piglets and chickens all running around together. It’s an amusing scene to say the least. Tonight I’m going to a local soccer match. I met 3 American girls and their professor from MA who are teaching in the library that was finished in October. Now I need to run home and get all this cement off me so I can look decent for dinner and the soccer game tonight.

February 17, 2008

Awaken!

Today I had a moment where I was the most bewildered and disoriented I have ever been in 27 years. My eyelids fluttered open and I was ushered into another World. Intially, I thought this new World was a dreamworld because it certainly couldn’t be real. I was a caucasian American highschool student who was sitting up after having been knocked down while playing soccer. Almost a dozen fellow players and concerned students nearby were scrambling all over the place. There was indecipherable shouting and then it hit me…

This dream was like no dream I had ever had before. It wasn’t terribly bizzare but it was TOO different to be mine. What could that mean? Someone places a hand on my shoulder. I look up. It is the concerned mother of one of the other kids asking me if I’m all right. Was I awake before or am I awake now? I desperately try to remember what I was doing last time I was awake. I can’t remember. Panic quickly sets in, replacing confusion. Was I transitioning between dreamworlds or had I in this instant exchanged bodies and lives with some American high school kid? It certainly looked like the Earth I knew but could I be in another dimension?

Now multiple people are talking to me, including a dad of another kid. A boy who was probably on my team holds out an overfilled purple Nalgene bottle in front of my face, water falling out from all sides. “Don’t fall asleep” a tall, attractive 16 year old girl screams at me.

Then it all comes back. I look at my legs. The right one is slightly scuffed on the shin. Then I look to the left one and I grimace. The panic and confusion depart, replaced now with the instincts of crisis management. My left shin had a dent in it, now maybe 2 centimeters deep and 4 across. Good. It had been over an inch deep the first time I had seen it, the time before when I lost conciousness. Trying to make fewer trips back for cement, I had overfilled the cement bucket. When going back to where I was laying bricks, I had tripped on something and run into a partially finished wall. The entire forward force of me and the concrete filled bucket was absorbed primarily by my left shin making contact with the top edge of the partial wall. Moving away from the wall, I saw the dents in both shins. The one on the left was so fucked, it didn’t look real. I put down the bucket and told the other bricklayers where it was. Liam, one of the seniors on my team exclaimed “Oh shit!” when he saw my shins. He called Lois, one of the adults overseeing the Connecticut highschool volunteers for Builders Without Borders (also a 14 yr IBM veteran, now director of a labor NGO in NYC). While she came over and also took a look at my shins, I began to feel faint. It was 11:00 AM and the Peten Sun was beating down pretty hard. Maybe the heat had something to do with it or maybe it was me being squeamish having seen my semi mangled legs. Whatever it was, while I was getting ready to sit down, I fainted and fell backwards on my butt followed by my head. I had just regained conciousness and now finally understood what the hell was going on.

Two guys help to some shade where Rachel, a junior who is student nurse and who had earlier shouted “Don’t fall asleep!”, tells me to elevate my legs while she cleans and dresses the area around the wound. She also touches my feet in a few spots to make sure I haven’t lost sensation anywhere. Not only have I not lost sensation but there is no pain whatsoever. I feel a slight dull pain in my head where I came down but nothing serious. I try moving my feet about, no problem. Good thing. It’s Sunday and there are no open hospitals anywhere in the state. We decide I should go home and rest. A Guatemalan gives me a ride home where I apply tons of ice to the area for the next 2 hours.

Good news is I’ve been walking on both legs for the past few hours and have had no problems. Oddly, there ended up being no pain from the whole thing although it is bruising now. Initially I had thought the shock had kept me from feeling the pain but it never returned. Everyone at the site felt I should take a day or two off but given how good I feel, especially after talking to my father in law, a rheumatologist who assured me the student nurse was being overzealous in suggesting a bone bruise had occured, I think I’ll go back tomorrow if it feels decent in the morning. Schools don’t build themselves! Thankfully, the small misstep stayed a small misstep.

Last night, I had a few beers with a Canadian couple from Quebec also volunteering with the same organization. They are here for another two weeks. I’m here for another 9 days. Given how dead this town gets after dark, I’m sure we’ll be very well acquainted by the end of our time here.

Also an update on the family I’m staying with. The reason I never see the dad is because he is a park ranger in a national park North East of here. Also, I discovered Ingrid is a niece of Carmelina’s and not her daughter.

February 16, 2008

Walls coming up

Yesterday, I took the morning launch from Livingston to Rio Dulce, passing through the beautiful Rio Dulce canyon. From Rio Dulce, I took a bus to Santa Elena where someone from Volunteer Peten was able to pick me and bring me to the family in San Andres I am staying with. After meeting them and dropping my backpack in my room, I headed to the library that Volunteer Peten finished in October 2007. It seemed to be getting plenty of traffic from mostly 7-15 year old kids and I tried to help them out with locating material and answers to questions for one and a half hours in the library.

The Family is headed by Oscar (who I still haven’t met) and Carmelina. Their children are Kendall, Iraisa, Ingrid, Oscar and Isaura and they have a dog whose name I don’t recall although I expect he likes me by now given how much food I passed down to him during lunch. Not that the food is bad. The food at the house of the Mayan family I’m staying with is quite good. Actually, I was surprised when they served chicken at lunch. This along with a few other indicators has led me to believe they are not that poor nor is San Andres that poor a town, although not affluent by any means either. For one, almost everyone has electricity and my family even has a TV and VCR. Water does go out from time to time and the dining room is outside under a tin roof but living area and kitchen are in a one level concrete structure. There is one bathroom attached to the structure but it’s also on the outside. My room is very basic but I’m happy with it. The roads around here are pretty decent even though one doesn’t run up to this family’s house or any of their neighbors. This is mainly because they live right above Lake Peten Itza and the slope going down to the lake is extrmely steep. The views to the lake from their house are superb. Most people and many kids have cell phones, again not selling me on the being very poor thing.

This morning, I got a hands on education in construction, mixing concrete, mixing cement, carrying and laying bricks, filling the spaces with cement and filling in concrete around the rebar. The school we are constructing has 8 classrooms and a bathroom in an L shape. The foundation was done when I arrived this morning and I worked 4-5 hours alongside 40 9-12th grade volunteers from Conneticut before lunch. Working alongside kids and listening to their humor and teasing of one another got me feeling pretty young myself and I started acting the same and that didn’t wierd them out so I was happy. When I was diving in Utila, I had some 4 18 year olds in my Open Water diving class and for whatever reason, they were wierd about hanging out with us older folks who were 27-32. Anyway, it felt like we got a decent amount of building done and learned a ton so tomorrow I expect we will be far more efficient and accomplish much more.

After grabbing lunch with Carmelina’s family who live a 30 minutes walk away from the site, I started my Spanish lessons with Rember who is a surprisingly good Spanish teacher given how little English he knows. I took 3 hours of lessons which I hope to continue everyday over the time I’m here and feel very optimistic I will learn a lot.

I will try to borrow a camera so I can take some pictures. I’m still pretty bummed about my camera getting stolen in Puerto Barrios but I’m getting over it. Still sucks given how many great pictures I had taken and the effort that went into some of them. Will update again soon! Bye!

February 14, 2008

update

Yesterday was a day of heavy travel, involving catching 4 busses, one ferry and one launch, starting at 6:20 AM on the Utila Princess leaving Utila for La Ceiba and ending with the launch from Puerto Barrios to Livingston, Guatemala.

I went for the regular public bus transportation instead of a 1st class bus and actually enjoyed it more. I was really able to take in the incredibly lush scenery which just went on and on for miles. Quite a bit of it was on farms, coconut, banana and other fruits. However, there was a tremendous variety of plants and trees in other areas. It actually made me wish I knew more about horticulture so I could figure out what they all were and what fruits they were bearing. Sometimes, you would only see greenery for miles except for a couple of cows or horses grazing or bathing and then a small hut with a corrugated metal roof would pass by. Corrugated metal roofs were on every building 100 miles either side of the border area between Guatemala and Honduras. Even multistoried buildings used them but painted them red so they resembled more expensive shingles. Thankfully I saw most of them were latched fast to the walls. In poorer areas, they are often just weighted with bricks and can fly off in hurricanes, killing people as they tear through them.

I was very amused when a guy with a sack walked on to the bus at one stop and started selling these legitimate looking medicines. I couldn’t understand everything but he had many different drugs he was selling, good for any ailment. After his schpiel that went on for 10-15 minutes, he walked down the aisle selling to interested passengers. I saw one very professionally packaged medicine was named “Neurobion”. Wonder what he claimed that would do? Whats funny is I witnessed this same thing riding a bus in Quetta, Pakistan on the other side of the globe. I guess brown people everywhere are similar in some respects. At bus stops I was able to get coconut water with chunks of coconut floating in it which made for nice snacks.

Arriving in the dock area at Puerto Barrios, some smart pickpocket relieved me of my camera. I noticed it missing only minutes later but by then it was too late. This is a very shady city, known for lots of prostitution. Even the cop was trying to get me to pay him for what I don’t know. This blind woman wanted a dollar for letting me use the public bathroom. I ended up giving her 2 Quetzals (I’ve seen this paying 2Q for toilet use at bus stations too so it’s legit although a little wierd). Anyway, back to the camera. I suppose I am partly at fault for taking it out so much and then leaving the cord dangling out of my pocket, making it the easiest of snatches. I had used a little over a full GB on the 2GB SD card so hundreds of photos were lost, of new friends, all kinds of fun activities and parties and great scenery including the view from atop Volcan San Pedro which took me 8 hours to get up and down. I just hope some of my new Facebook friends from my travels send me their pictures so I have something.

Livingston, where I am now is an interesting place. I’ve run into a lot of travellers from other towns here again. It is a Garifuna town, which means the people are mainly of African descent. It is on the Atlantic coast and has more of a Carribean look and attitude. No roads go into it and it is only accessible by boat. Unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of obvious hard drug addicts roaming the streets, stumbling around or screaming at no one in particular. I’m told they are crackheads. One who greeted me at the dock upon arrival wore no shirt, had dozens of scars and both his nostrils were slit as if someone had filleted them with a knife inside out. He wanted to show me to a hotel on the main road which was actually quite decent so I took it. After that he begged me for money, showing me a scar on his leg that he said was from a dog bite the day before. I don’t know if his idea was to evoke pity but I gave him 5 Quetzals anyway. He came back later that night and I turned him away. Livingston did not strike me as the safest place to be but OK as long as you stick with lots of other people.

The second night in Livingston, I tried the Tapado for dinner. I understood it was a local dish that comprised of seafood in a coconut milk soup. When it was put before me, I realized I should have gone with the shrimp pasta. There were 3 sets of lifeless eyes from 3 different species staring back at me. A tailfin was sticking out at one end, pointed to the sky. Pushing it in caused the fish head to surface on the opposite end of the bowl. After removing the crab carcass and moving the soup around, I discovered a few additional unfortunate sea creatures as well. This was the most unappetizing dish I have ever tried. It truly was a chore going through it, the scales on the fish came off with the meat so I just ate it all until only the tailfin and head were left, just like in the trashcans in Tom & Jerry cartoons. Sopa del muerte is what it should have been called. Here is what I got for Tapado on Google: seafood soup with coconut milk, shrimp, prawns, conch, WHOLE crab, WHOLE fish, and little octopi hiding among Blogroll leaves.

Now I am leaving Livingston for Rio Dulce by taking a launch across the Rio Dulce river/lake. I hear its quite beautiful and in a canyon at points. After that, I travel by bus to Flores where the volunteer group with which I’ll be volunteering will pick me up. I hope to be put on either building the school there, which is under construction, or building ovens into homes there in San Andres, a poor mayan village of ~4000 on lake Peten Itza. I’ll also be taking Spanish lessons so hopefully I’ll be decent in Spanish by the time Colleen gets in to Antigua on Feb 27.

February 13, 2008

Certified!

I am now a PADI certified open water diver. Today I had great luck on my two dives, seeing trumpet fish, cow fish, box fish, a giant green eel, two large groupers, a large puffer fish and a truly massive snapper that was close to 5 feet in length. However, the coolest find of the day was a deadly looking barracuda that was completely still under a coral overhang that I was swimming under.

It was a great time in Utila. I may have been eaten alive by its many insects but Murray and Mike were great instructors along with Graham, Sabrina, Oliver and Becca. Tomorrow morning I leave for La Ceiba from where I have to figure out how to get to Flores so I can start my volunteering and Spanish lessons.