Friday, April 30, 2010

Chichicastenango - Land of the Chichicas (a plant with nettles)

Chichicastenango is THE market city in Guatemala. It has been an important trading town since the 15th century, so it makes sense that it has become the market hot spot for the country. Thursday and Friday are the big market days. I plan to return...and if you get a gift from Guatemala, chances are, I got it in Chichicastenango.
Our first stop was to visit the nicest hotel in town full of bubbling fountains, eating parrots and blossoming plants around every corner. Welcome to Hotel Santo Tomas, where rooms go for about $90 a night.
They have a pool, jacuzzi, bar, restaurant and plenty of noocks to take a breather and enjoy the day.
At the south end of the market stands proudly and honorably the pure white Eglesia de Santo Tomas. The marble steps fill up with flower vendors from different pueblos. On Sundays Mayan prayer leaders from Chichi and abound swing their cans of incense of Copal resin as they chant prayers on the steps and entrance of Santo Tomas.
The streets fill up quickly by dawn with vendors from the surrounding areas. You can buy pretty much anything in, when I say anything, I don't mean anything like in Bangkok or Phnom Pen where drugs and women and everything in between could be bought.
It's a market with handicrafts, art, clothing, spices, food, fruit, machine parts, bathroom products,...but mostly it's for tourists, because we are the ones with the money.
If you feel brave enough, you can compare prices for hours until you bargain for the best one. Or buy some hanging meat.
You'll find brightly colored stalls with wool blankets, colorful animal masks, hand-embroidered clothes, and scarves of every color and weave in pretty much every stall. If you have requests, please send them soon:) The market starts breaking down between 2 and 3pm, which is when you can get the cheapest goods. Would you want to carry all that stuff back home with you? Exactly.
Chichicastenango is also a great place for people watching. Local interactions, and just relaxing on the church steps watching the bustle of the market.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Sacred Laguna Chicabal

Only a short truck/bus ride away lies the worshipped Laguna Chicabal. It is a pond in the crater of the old Volcano Chicabal, and is a very spiritual place for the surrounding Maya.
To reach Chicabal you take a bus to San Martin Sacatepquez, then hike about two hours to the entrance of the protected park, then another half hour to reach the pond. Because there were only three students of this Saturday morning excursion, we were lucky enough to hop in the back of the Director's red pickup truck and drive all the way up to the park entrance. Hence, a one day outing turned into a morning experience. To tell you the truth, I was looking forward to the hike...and I was also happy to have half of my Saturday to myself.
When you finally reach Chicabal there is a long path of 615 stairs down to the laguna and two overlooks -
one on each side of the main path. From one overlook you can see the cherished laguna.
From the other overlook, you can see three volcanoes: the towering Santa Maria, Tajamulco, and the active Santiaguito.
Every half hour or so, Santiaguito gives a little show with a shake, rumble and puff. If the wind is just right, the ash and sulfuric dust from the mini explosion will waft over to hikers. Luckily the wind was not blowing our way! Santiaguito's show as entertaining enough as we munched on pears, plantain chips and talked about earthquakes and medical services in Guatemala.
The laguna itself is quite small. Also very sulfuric, containing only a handful of adventurous fish. It is forbidden to swim in the lake due to its sacred importance. And if you try to visit in early May, expect to be turned away, as important ceremonials are practiced throughout the first week. But on any given day, you will most likely see a ceremony or worship of some sort.
The path around Laguna Chicabal contains little offshoots to official and unofficial "Maya Alters." We counted five official ones, where a wooden sign reads "Maya Alter," and probably 5-7 more with obvious remnants of candles, burnt ground from incense, and flower remains that were given as offerings in a ceremony.
On our early visit to Chicabal there was one group of Maya-Evangelicals practicing in song, prayer, and chant. And another two small groups conducting ceremonies and preparing food.
As always, it felt great to get into the country, see the small farms growing up mountain sides and see another side of life in this part of the world. Hello from the back of a red truck!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Home? What IS Home?

Home? Casa Jaguar?

Maybe it's me. My excitement for my own place and cooking my own food quickly transformed when the landlady, a hippie type named Sandra, raised the price of the room. I also got a much better look at the shower. Holy Moly! It's quite gross. And, although Sandra said I could get wi-fi through the travel agency below, after their response to me this afternoon was "no es possible," I felt frustrated. I had been had!
Trying to straighten out my "comforts" and what I want to balance my five hours of Spanish lessons a day has been tough. I really like blogging. I really like taking photos and discovering new places. I am on a budget. Going to a cafe everyday for a cup of coffee (real coffee, not instant) gets pricey. And generally after an hour sitting and sipping, the cafe's get antsy. Please order more they say in a subtle phrase every 15 minutes of: "algo mas?" "Something more?" they ask. It's just uncomfortable generally.
Yes, I suppose this is a blog-bitch session. I don't want to move again. There is a hostel that is REALLY nice where I would speak Spanish to the owners and get free wi-fi. And free coffee and tea all day. Maybe that's where I'm headed on Friday...ughhh. It's not right down-town, but none of the students are. And as most of you know, I am not a huge partier, so if I go dancing once every two weeks, I don't mind paying the cab fare of $2 back to the hostel.
I'm open to advice. I'm open to suggestion. I'm open to support.
On that note, there are always positive points to every experience. Casa Jaguar, my current residence, is right downtown. I live on the second floor of the building above. If you were any more downtown you would be a bum sleeping in the park. Or the guy that was sleeping in the street most of Saturday after a rough night and brawl the night before. Note: I was amazed at my willingness to walk past him without a concern. And yes, I did question: Is that guy dead?"

Second positive: my room is right next to the kitchen. After experiencing the Sunday market where I got a heaping bagful of fresh fruits and vegetables (mangoes, papayas, bananas, cucumbers, green beans, tomatoes, onions, garlic, melon, pineapple, potatoes, peanuts, fresh bread, etc. etc. etc), the ability to eat healthy and cheaply is going to be easy. And I have LOVED cooking and eating on my own with the kitchen right next door.
Lastly, the colors are bright and funky, which I always love. Plants sit waiting around every corner that light is available. And they live in any vessel available, from old 5 gallon jugs to plastic bags. The below photo is a personal favorite of mine.
Maybe I'm getting old. Maybe I'm picky. Maybe I just want a cheap, nice, downtown location that where people keep things clean...and it would be nice to be a block or two off the park because every time a large truck or a pumping bass goes by I think we're having another tremor. Do I get out after a week? Or do I stay two weeks and then move to a nicer hostel? This is traveling after all. Oh, there's a T.V. with cable too. Little and cute. It keeps me company while I do my homework. And although I could watch T.V. in English, generally National Geographic or Discovery is on in Spanish. And generally the programs are about huge volcanic eruptions or earthquakes that, if occurred, could wipe out the entire East coast of the United States. Maybe that's why I haven't been sleeping well...

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Clean and Comfortable = Functionability

OK, this is a plug to how feeling comfortable in a place can make all the difference. Leaving Xela after one week with my host family came with an explosion of giddiness as I walked into our hostel in Panajachel. It was inexpensive, but beautiful, clean, had hot water, was dripping with flowers and I could sleep without the worry of what might be crawling around in my bed. When I find a good place to stay I want to tell the world about it! I felt as if I was on a dream vacation!!!!
I have already established the tourist hot spot that is Panajachel. We arrived and it was early...perhaps nine in the morning. Not that early, but early enough for most tourists to still be recovering from their previous night.
First stop: Our hostel. I don't remember the name. Perhaps something along the lines of Hospendejo Viejo. It was yellow with tons of colorful flowers AND SO CLEAN!
Then the rain started. First a sun rain. Then a gray, cold rain.
And inside was just as lovely. With cable T.V., plants, little cute decorations, towels, soap, a super clean, bright it obvious that my host family wasn't all that clean? And that people call Xela Dirty Xela for a reason. Is it obvious that I am not a big city person? If it's not, than just trust me when I say I'm not a big city person!
La tortuga is my friend! So cute. It's the little touches that make such a big difference.
Window metal work.
The gorgeous peach flower on the cactus above soaked up the mid-day rain.
A dripping-bigger-than-my-hand flower.
Little, fuzzy white flowers popping out of a large yellow flower base.
Our last stop before hopping on the boat was a tiny little cafe for a small breakfast and some coffee. It was nice to be in a place where people cared about making things look nice and clean. Maybe it's completely a cultural thing. But I don't think so...I'll keep thinking about this one. Cheers!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Las Minas-The Mines

There is a Canadian/US company that called Minerva Mines that is here to do big business in gold and silver. There is also a ton of controversy over the issue.
The peace accords that were created and signed after the 36 year long war included a law stating that if a community came together and took a legal vote, they could democratically change decisions. Well, all the indigenous communities that are on the land around and near the mines did this. It was a landslide vote against the mines. The communities took their votes to the government, who promptly ignored the legal proceedings that had taken place and signed a HUGE multi-year contract with Minerva Mines.
We were lucky enough to hear both sides of the story...kind of. I didn't understand every word of it, as it was all presented to us in Spanish, but I got the gist. Going deep underground with a group of students coming for a tour would never happen in the US. That's why I love traveling. On the flip side, living in an old building that doesn't have the same building code standards in the US also scares the *&%$#* out of me every time there is a tremor. As it scares the guys in the mines.
This is a photo to show you how hot I looked. Hot and hot. You got it! We got a three minute brief about how to use the emergency gas masks in case of emergency. I understood that one. Basically your lungs will feel like they are burning, but just keep biting on and breathing with the mast. It's supposed to feel like you are burning from the inside out. And then you have an hour to get out or you die.

And away we go...
Down, down, down into the tunnel. Down, down, down into the inferno. Down, down, down into interior gutting of the earth. First stop: Checking out "core sampling station. Basically they take out core samples every couple of feet to find where a vein of gold or silver is. If they find one or a large quantity of the precious metals...they go in and get 'em!
Here's a sample of a sample. The silver and gold specs guessed it, silver and gold!
I felt as if we were in a movie. We looked as if we were in a movie. Dress and all. In complete darkness of a hundred or so feet underground, we were completely reliant upon the lights of our bus, or lead truck, the warrior machines chopping up the rocks below.
Every corner we turned was bandaged and pricked. The square shapes with holes in the center are were cored were taken. The metal gating is to keep the tunnel a tunnel rather than a rubble of rocks.
Big gun = find gold and silver fast. This is a rideable-machine-gun.
Minerva Mines has two types of mining: tunnel and strip. In the dry season they explode two strips of land a day. The photo above is just after an explosion, which they use cyanide as an explosive. You can make out some dust in the center of the photo. The strip is then scooped away to a complex system of huge water canisters where they use chemicals and water to find the expensive metals.
And lastly, they try to evaporate the supposedly uncontaminated water from their man-made lake. Did I mention that this is an extremely dry area in Guatemala?
So, there you have it. Our day at the mines. Time will only tell. It's inevitable, right? There are not little kids with no masks working in the mines. There are no collapsed tunnels. They have above average pay scales and only work eight hours a day. There are two sides to every story.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Lago Atitlan

Hello all, in the hunt to try to find a place to live, I haven't had much time to blog. I also went to check out some gold and silver mines...which for the half hour we were in the mines were "cool" and also very disturbing. I'll post photos of that tomorrow.

For now, here is a sneak peak at Lago Atitlan, where I plan to go to study for a week or two after leaving Xela. It's beautiful, to say the least.
Lake Atitlan is a highland lake surrounded by volcanoes. Panajachel is the largest town on the lake, which is also known as Gringolandia. The small shops and brightly colored buildings...along with a hostel with beautiful flowers, a comfy bed and a bright, clean bathroom, the experience in Panajachel wasn't bad. But, the aggressive vendors and insane cat calls were tough to take.
The reason to go to Lago Atitlan is not for Panajachel, obviously. It is for the lake and the volcanoes. The soft tranquility and fresh air could make any persons shoulders relax. For me, it was nature's way of giving me a shoulder rub!
Lago Atitlan sustains a dozen different pueblos, all of which survived around the lake speaking different languages and trading with each other. The locals are used to their neighbors across the lake and on either side of them spoke different languages, wore different clothes, and even looked a little different.
For all purposes, they are all different kinds of Maya, but here is Guatemala natives don't consider themselves a collective "Maya." They are either (predominantly) Tz'utujil, Kaqchikel, or Quiche.
Unfortunately, we were on the lake right around noon, so everything is washed out...and I haven't figured out how to change colors using Paint. The best part of the trip for me was being on the boat and seeing the insane Volcanoes rise out of the huge lake. None are active. They like to sleep, just like my boyfriend:) Love you Dave!
We made three rather short stops around the lake. The tell you the truth, I'm not even sure of the name. We didn't actually go to the pueblo. We docked the boat and jumped in the water, which was hot as it seeped out of the rocks from the volcanic activity underground. It was so hot, my hand could only handle a mini-second finger dip. Hence, the water surrounding it was warm to cool. It was perfect to move my body and partake in the volcano's gift.
The above photo is a better look at our swimming area. Yes, I did question how healthy it was to swim in the most parts of the country has crazy kinds of parasites waiting for you to jump in. Everything I read said Lake Atitlan is a "go," ... with it being iffy in the rainy season because of all the runoff from farms. Luckily, we still have a month until the rainy season.
Our second stop was to check out the while church in the upper left side of the photo and to visit some weaving cooperatives. I believe this was San Antonio. It's been a slow season, so some women selling their goods were quite aggressive. They wouldn't take no for an answer and would follow you for blocks. Blocks. And blocks. Hence, I bought a beautiful green woven scarf for $1.25. Who will get it as a gift?
Weaving is both a job for women and men. Locals crank some of these scarves out in an hour. Some of the hand embroidered blankets take months to make. Silk and cotton in any color you want are available. Each pueblo has their own specific weave, so you can find different patterns in different places.
If you want to take a class and make your own, that's an option. If you want to request a certain patter with certain colors and return in a day or week or month, that's possible too.
And if you want to dress up like a local, you can do that too. No need to promise to pay either. It's just for fun. No, no, that's not me. It's a girl from Germany that also attends my Spanish School - Helena.
Or you might see an albino women and think it is a gringo gone local, but then after doing a double take, it's actually a local. Note that all the women are wearing the exact same thing. That's the way it goes! Those are the weave and colors of San Antonio.
Taken from the white church, this photo exemplifies the interesting fuse of Maya and Catholic (or Evangelical) culture and religion around the lake.

Saturday, I'll post our stop off at Santiago de Atitlan, which hosts the second oldest church in Guatemala that played a crucial role in the civil war, as it was a refuge for fleeing Mayans.