Central American Adventures!

Just another WordPress.com weblog

Pura Todosantera! June 12, 2009

Filed under: Guatemala,Mexico — goodbyekitty2007 @ 1:34 am

So, granny squares notwithstanding, I was waiting for the bus in the freezing cold at 4 a.m. It came about 45 minutes later, but hey. Such is Guatemalan time. Of course I was wearing full traje, hat and everything, so I am sitting on the bus, which isn’t going anywhere yet because the driver is getting coffee . . . a man gets on and asks me if it’s going to Concepcion. In Mam! Talk about going native. I was very pleased, although I have to admit that a) it was very dark, b) he was very old, c) I understood nothing except “Concepcion” and d) I couldn’t reply in Mam. We had a little chat in Spanish and finally we were on our way. Clara had promised me that I would be able to sleep because the roads were good, but she must have been taking some different roads. That was a joke. I live in a remote mountainous region – there *are* no other roads. To give you an idea, Todos Santos is about 50 km from La Mesilla, which is where the border crossing is, and it takes about five hours to get there. The road did get better eventually, but I’m too tall to sleep on chicken buses anyway. (More about chicken buses another time.)

The bus actually dropped us off at a petrol station a way before La Mesilla, who knows why, so we got another little bus to town from where I had to walk to the border post. It was considerably warmer there than in Todos Santos; we must have lost all altitude on the way. (In fact, at least two of the towns we passed – San Martín and Jacaltenango – are warm enough to be centres for coffee growing areas.) La Mesilla is unremarkable, it’s basically one very long main street lined with shops selling cheap merchandise, often in bulk. I looked at cowboy boots (mmmh, I still want some . . .) but didn’t but anything.

Crossing the border was a little irritating on the Guatemalan side – they weren’t too happy with my temporary passport, and once they’d come round to it their computer didn’t work – but eventually they let me go with the promise that I’d get my new passport soon. (The consulate in Cancún is sending it, hopefully.) The Mexican side of the border looked identical, except that the shops slowly became market stalls, and there were more people calling out to me in English. I had to catch another little bus to Ciudad Cuahtemoc, which is where Mexican immigration is – I’m not surprised that all those Guatemalans make it across illegally when there is a good five miles of countryside to disappear into before anyone checks your papers! The Mexican official was very nice and let me enter on a transit visa, which meant I didn’t have to pay the twenty-odd dollars or so.

Mexico is soooo different to Guatemala. In Guatemala you get on a bus which happens to be passing, someone comes round to collect money eventually and you get off wherever you need to. In Mexico you have to go to the terminal, someone sells you an actual ticket for an actual specific departure time (you get to choose your seat on a screen and everything!) and the bus then takes you to another terminal. It’s also air-conditioned, comfortable (leg room!) and shows movies (The Golden Compass today; I’d already seen it on another Mexican bus . . .). If you’re lucky, you even get to sit next to a guy from Colorado who’s been living in San Cristóbal for three years (and has just done a visa run in the other direction) so you can chat. (Thanks, Jason!)

We arrived in San Cristóbal (the stress is on the O, I’ve been trying to teach people that for months) about four o’clock in the afternoon and after checking back into El Corte Maltese (which is where I stayed last time, though sadly Marco and Vivian were in Italy to show off their brand-new daughter to the family, and my towel was no longer there either) I went straight to my favourite place in town – the falafel place on Maria Adelina Flores. Friday is 2 for 1 day! I’d been dreaming about it for days and it didn’t disappoint. The owner used to live in Israel and totally knows what he’s doing. I might be slightly in love with him, based entirely on his cooking skills. Mmmh. That was enough to keep me happy for the rest of the day! 🙂

 

Here’s some advice, kids June 11, 2009

Filed under: Guatemala — goodbyekitty2007 @ 1:33 am

There is absolutely no need to start learning how to make granny squares the night before you have to get up at 3 a.m. Really. On the other hand . . . it’s a good skill to have!

Oh, and the reason I have to get up at 3 a.m. tomorrow? The only direct bus to the border leaves at 4, and I am off to Mexico for a long weekend . . . err, to renew my visa. You’re only allowed to stay in what’s called CA4 (the combination of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua) for 90 days before either leaving or going through some hideous bureaucratic process in a capital city of your choice (all of them are horrid; San Salvador probably least so). If you’re leaving to get a new visa you have to stay outside CA4 for at least 72 hours, so I’m going to San Cristóbal in Mexico for a few days. It’s reasonably close to the border and a lovely town; I was there in January for a week or so.

 

Here we go again . . . June 7, 2009

Filed under: Guatemala — goodbyekitty2007 @ 5:56 pm

Jessie wanted to go hiking again before she left, so of course I said yes and we got on the 6.15 bus (along with the Quetzaltrekkers, who were going back to Xela) to La Maceta. (Maceta apparently means both “rock hammer” and “flower pot” – take your pick. It’s the name of a place where a tree grows out of a rock, so I’m inclined to go with the latter.) I’ve only been there once, and it’s a steep hike to get up to some caves that are still used for Mayan rituals, mostly to do with fire. In fact it was ridiculously steep, wet and covered with pine needles, with a disturbing lack of footholds in slightly too many places. Of course I fell again . . . luckily I braced myself with my left hand (yep, that’s the damaged one), otherwise I’d probably be without hands altogether now. In fact, we decided to turn round after not too long, because it was ridiculous and we knew that we had to come back the same way. The hike has now been designated “not recommended for the wet season”!

However, you can walk back from La Maceta to Todos Santos, and that’s exactly what we did. It’s quite a pleasant walk along the course of a river that snakes through a valley – in fact it was very pleasant in the dry season, when my feet weren’t getting wet all the time. (I only have my trusty hiking sandals, no walking boots (and I can’t afford any), so I have to wear socks with my sandals. I care surprisingly little about the socks part!) It was still early and cool, and we saw plenty of fields (mostly maize, which grows very quickly in the rainy season!) and huge agave plants. Some of the agaves here are used for fibre, or at least they were – I’m going to have to find out about that.

We were home before ten o’clock – at least that’s one advantage of getting up early! So I phoned for a chuj and we waited the hour or so it takes to prepare it, me under a duvet and with (another generous donation from Jessie – love ya, chica!)a mug of Lemsip 🙂 I’ve also discovered that while I can’t knit with just one hand I *can* quilt, so I’ve been working on my patchwork bag, which is taking a considerable time (well, it’s made up of 128 little squares . . . I wasn’t expecting it to be a weekend job). We then had a chuj (complete with Vick VapoRub, which was good although I might have to think of a better way of distributing it in the chuj – any ideas?) followed by lunch (left-overs from the Quetzaltrekkers – I usually get about two days worth of free food out of them) and then Jessie left for good 😦

I decided I was officially sick, which is rare enough, so I (drum roll please!) watched some movies. I have an interesting collection here; today’s choices were Sleeper (a late 1970s Woody Allen movie) and Adaptation, which I’d never heard of but which was surprisingly good. I also stitched together a large number of little pieces of fabric . . .

 

Invasion of the Quetzaltrekkers June 6, 2009

Filed under: Guatemala — goodbyekitty2007 @ 5:54 pm

My hangover proved the altitude to me the next morning (or maybe the fact that I’ve suddenly become a lightweight!), but I got up anyway and eventually we dragged ourselves to the market to shop for the Quetzaltrekkers. I might have mentioned them before – every other week they trek from Nebaj to Todos Santos, which takes them four days, then they invade my school where I give them food, beer and somewhere to sleep. I used to take them to Elena’s house to eat, but after we had a small argument about money (she wanted more, I (on behalf of the school) wasn’t prepared to pay it) I’ve been cooking for them myself. It’s easy enough – I make a large pot of rice and a chicken and vegetable based stew to go with it. (Other suggestions gratefully received!)

There were seven of them this time, so I reckon with each of them costing about 15Q for dinner (they pay 25Q, the rest is for the school). I take off the cost of rice and chicken, then I put the rest of the money in my pocket and buy vegetables until there is nothing left. It works well! For about 35Q (about £3) I got a pound of peas (very exciting – the first time I‘ve seen them here!), a pound of runner beans, two carrots, a guisquil (a kind of squash that seeps supersticky liquid when you peel it), a head of cabbage, a pound of onions and a watermelon for dessert. (Actually, the watermelon took up 15Q of that – that’s how cheap the vegetables are!)

They arrived in the afternoon, for the first time not in the pouring rain, so I could be less strict about them not wearing their walking boots inside. Usually I threaten to kill them. I spent most of the afternoon in the kitchen with Jessie, chopping vegetables and wondering if all the food would fit into the gigantic pots . . . It’s much harder to do all this with one hand – luckily I’d got Josefa to cut up the chicken when I bought it, but I also had to rearrange furniture and so on. Huge thanks to Jessie for helping with everything! Although I do blame her for my hangover, which during the course of the day merged seamlessly into a head cold. Boo.

After dinner we hung out some more. For some reason we had the Panama Canal discussion again – everyone knows that it’s there to move ships from higher ground to lower (or vice versa) but nobody seems to be entirely sure why there *is* higher and lower ground. One of the guys there insisted that the sea level in the Atlantic was higher than in the Pacific or vice versa and we had a huge argument about it. He’s supposed to e-mail me when he has investigated it properly. I’m not sure we talked about much else, actually!

 

That’s more like a Friday night! June 5, 2009

Filed under: Guatemala — goodbyekitty2007 @ 5:52 pm

I did a lot of catching up on my blog today – it would be quite nice to hear if anyone is actually reading it . . . especially given how hard it is to type with one hand. I’m doing this for you guys! I also have a whole lot of photos on facebook, so if you’re not on there let me know and I can send you the links for some albums.

So, the day was mostly uneventful, until Jessie came back in the evening. She only came because Todos Santos is the most happening place in Guatemala and because I’m the coolest person to hang out with . . . so she brought a bottle of rum and a carton of peach juice. Uh oh. We prepared ourselves with the best take away food that Todos Santos has to offer: chips (fries), chuchitos (which is what they call tamales here – corn dough filled with chicken or beans and steamed in a leaf which I always thought was a banana leaf but apparently isn’t) and “enchiladas” which aren’t anything like real (Mexican) enchiladas – rather they are tostadas (like flat round taco shells) topped with vegetables (often carrots or black beans), mayonnaise and hot sauce. About the only other take away foods round here are corn on the cob, fried chicken, hot dogs and chicken tacos, so we got a pretty good spread (especially for a vegetarian).

Suddenly it was twelve thirty (the middle of the night for Todos Santos standards!) and I was half asleep on the sofa . . . drunk. Disgraceful. I’m not sure it’s more or less disgraceful that it was the first time in over two months I’ve been properly drunk!

 

Gracias a Dios, no hay fractura. June 4, 2009

Filed under: Guatemala — goodbyekitty2007 @ 5:51 pm

That’s all I did today – tell people that I wasn’t broken, and that the Lord was probably to thank because apparently people had been praying for me. Probably including people I don’t even know, because it’s totally okay to approach someone on the street if they’re wearing a sling and ask them what happened . . .

 

I am a Case Study June 3, 2009

Filed under: Guatemala — goodbyekitty2007 @ 5:49 pm

So, I bit the bullet and took my still-swollen and still-painful wrist on the chicken bus to Huehue. My reluctance exemplified everything that Jessie is investigating over here, which is where the being a case study comes in – strictly speaking she’s dealing with indigenous women and maternity care, but in general it’s about access to health services in rural areas or rather the lack thereof. Barriers: distance – check. Cost – check. Lack of fast and/or comfortable transport – check. Time spent away from work – check. Worry about the state of public hospitals – check. It was going to take me five hours and over 50Q to get to the hospital and back in shaky buses on bad roads, I’d be away for the best part of the day and I was just relieved that it was extremely unlikely that they’d have to cut me open so I didn’t have to worry too much about hygiene. At least it wasn’t an emergency – many women in rural areas still die from complications in child birth because there just aren’t any medical facilities.

On the plus side, I met Ally on the bus (she used to be a Peace Corps volunteer in Chiabal and now works for a NGO in Huehue) so we could bitch about all these things (and more, not that I’m going to mention any names!) while I was wincing at all the potholes and sharp corners. Luckily I’d been given instructions on how to get to the hospital (if not exactly confidence-inspiring reports about conditions there) from Nora, so I could navigate through Huehue (a little confusing; and I am somewhat concerned by the fact that I think there are too many people, too much traffic and definitely too much noise in Huehue – the population of greater Huehue is just over a million . . . maybe somewhere rural in the West Country will yet be graced with my presence when I get back!). Jessie is working at Casa Materna, right next to the hospital, so that’s where we had agreed to meet. She wasn’t there and nobody knew where she was or when she’d be back, but in true Guatemalan fashion nobody worried too much about it. Instead they sat me on a plastic chair, gave me yesterday’s newspaper and I waited (and wished I could knit with one hand). Luckily I didn’t have to wait too long (the newspaper was Prensa Libre, which is much harder to read than Diario and doesn’t have as many pictures) and off we went to the hospital.

Maybe it was because it was still quite early on a Wednesday morning, but it was a lot quieter than I’d expected. People were nice if not effusively charming towards us and I was pointed to emergency straight away (the sling probably helped), were a nurse made me take off my bandage, asked where it hurt and then sent me to have it X-rayed. That was also quick and (more or less) painless; it was much more difficult not to have a go at their filing system there and then (seriously!). A few more minutes waiting around and I got told that nothing was broken, but there was bruising in three separate places which was what caused all the pain. I also got a prescription for something to make the swelling go down, so off we went to the pharmacy – and a massive shock, because that box of tablets was supposed to cost somewhere over 100Q (it was about a tenner). True to case study form, I couldn’t really afford to pay that so I decided to rely on what people in Todos Santos had told me instead – bathing in vinegar and lukewarm water with salt in it (I never actually got round to doing that; anyone know if it would have helped?). Overall the hospital experience was pretty positive though – probably faster than the average A&E in London and no worse than the NHS, apart from the price (for medicine; the hospital is free).

To celebrate my lack of fracture, we went to a nice little café (the one in Hotel Mary, which I can recommend if you’re ever in Huehue) for breakfast. Aaah, proper breakfast . . . I had a proper Guatemalan slap-up: scrambled eggs, refried black beans, fried bananas, cream (almost like sour cream, but not quite), cheese and tortillas. (It was also supposed to include mosh, which is like very thin porridge, but I was happy to do without that.)

Then, because it was still early and I was already in Huehue, we decided to go to Zaculeu. I hadn’t seen any ruins for a while and Jessie was feeling guilty for not having seen them yet, so off we went on yet another bus. (Admittedly only fifteen minutes, but remember that I didn’t buy those painkillers.) After arguing with the man at the gate about entrance fees (50Q for foreigners seems a bit steep if said foreigners are working for free for the welfare of Guatemalans)and discovering that the museum didn’t open for another hour and a half, we saw the ruins. There weren’t very many of them – a few classic step pyramids, a ball court and some tombs – but there were no people around and the views of the surrounding mountain ranges were great. We sat on top of a pyramid in the drizzling rain and finished the Guardian crossword – that is to say, I supplied the penultimate clue, we couldn’t get the last one; Jessie had already done the rest – but how exciting, for the first time in seven months! Eventually the museum re-opened and we looked at skulls, pottery and the ubiquitous bits of flint (I have never been to a local history museum anywhere in the world that doesn’t have bits of flint) as well as a pictorial history of Zaculeu which we failed to completely understand. Something about the Spaniards coming to attack and the Mam holding out for a while, but then being beaten by horses and superior firepower. Or maybe that’s just the story of indigenous people all over Central America.

We went back into town and said goodbye. I still had two of the most exciting elements of any visit to Hueue to look forward to – a lightning fast internet cafe and Paíz, the big supermarket. I do realise that this isn’t nearly as exciting for anyone else as it is for me . . . I got so carried away by chatting to Chris online that it was suddenly really late and once I’d done my essential shopping I’d almost certainly missed the last bus. I had. Thankfully I am ever optimistic and I also know the road well enough now, so I got a bus to Chiantla, the next big town outside Huehue, where I asked for the road to Todos Santos. People looked at me a bit funny – I wasn’t going to walk there? But I only had to wait a few minutes before a pick-up came past that I knew was going to Todos Santos. Bless the Todosanteros for wearing traditional clothes – of course a car full of people in stripy red trousers, shirts with big collars and straw hats was going to Todos Santos. (There is only one other village I know of, San Juan Atitán, where the men also still wear traditional dress. Usually it’s only the women.)

So I had a reasonably comfortable (if progressively colder) ride back home – and they didn’t even charge me anything! I did have to talk for virtually the whole time though – we did England 101 (It´s in Europe. It´s an island. They don’t have corn tortillas! Yes, I’m going to teach them about corn tortillas.) and Judaism 101 (They don’t believe in Jesus. Yes, Jesus was Jewish. They’re still waiting for a saviour. Yes, they’ve been waiting for a few thousand years.). Everyone laughed at the idea of gods with elephant heads or many arms (I tried to explain Hinduism) and agreed that the idea of the Channel Tunnel sounded very dodgy. I really feel like I have serious responsibility for what I tell people, because I am their only source of information.

As soon as I got home some tourists appeared to watch a movie . . . sometimes I really wish I could just close and didn’t have to make hot chocolate after such a long day! But I am responsible and I am a trooper, and luckily they left at 9.30.