Learning Spanish, and leaving Antigua

I’ve spent the last two weeks picking up a bit of Spanish in Antigua, and living with a lovely Guatemalan family. I went into the lessons with the minimum expectation of coming out fluent, but have sadly come out merely brilliant. Well, I’ve picked up enough to get by, and have indeed had many (three) conversations with locals since and held my own in them.

Living with the family was brilliant; they’d been taking students for 18 years, so were well practised with living with complete no-hopers in their language. Indeed, there were 6 of us at one time there, all with varying levels of competence.

During my time there, it was of course the start of lent (se llama ‘cuaresma’ aqui), and it was then that I think I realised why Guatemala is not the economic tour de force it could so easily be. Talking to my Bible-bashing teacher, it emerged that during the 5 weeks of lent, there is a pilgramage every Friday to a different church around Antigua to look at the alfombras, which are pretty little pictures made on the floor of the church out of different coloured sawdust, surrounded by fruit donated by locals and standard candles and quotations from the Bible. Think Neil Buchanan and his Big Art Attacks.

So every Friday at some point during the day, everyone religiously (boom boom) goes to each of these different churches to look at the alfombra, which are exactly the same as the previous weeks’ ones, just a slighly different picture. And also, to kick it all off there’s an extra-special big one in the same church in San Felipe on Ash Wednesday, so everyone goes there too.

Además, every Sunday there’s a big procession round the town between all the churches just to remind each other it’s still cuaresma.

And in the week before Easter, it seems that no one goes to work at all, as there’s all week parties and processions where people make their own alfombras in the street in front of their house, for the mammoth procession on Good Friday. My teacher told me that that’s a sad procession, as it’s when Jesus (pron [/]haysoos) died, and everyone wears black. And then another big one on Easter Sunday when the big man’s back again and everyone’s happy again.

My teacher said there was in fact a procession on average every 8 days here. So about once a week, they have a morning or afternoon off. Groovy baby.

Also, Valentine’s day is absolutely massive here! Back in England, we should be grateful the fuss extends to just one evening. Here, yep, a full 5 days. Kimberly and Brayan, the adorable little kids of the family, started making cards and cool little party eggs at school I think on the Thursday, and they said they continued celebrating it until the Monday or Tuesday.

On the day itself, the whole extended family came round to visit (bearing in mind 2 grandparents, 2 parents and 2 kids live in the house anyway, with 5 or 6 students) during the afternoon, so the students made themselves scarce. In the evening, when most had gone, the family had another fiesta with us and had a barbecue in the middle of the house. It was then that the cool little party eggs came out, and according to tradition got smashed on everyone’s heads. They’re eggs with the tops cut off, and filled with little bits of sparkly paper called pica pica (nope, I couldnt resist going pikachuuuuuuuuu when I found out either) and then covered with coloured paper, and they make an almighty mess around the house.

I have however now sadly departed Antigua, and am in Coban about halfway up the country. Having a lazy day today, chilling in the sun reading my book on a hammock. Que bueno. Busy few days ahead though – off to see some nice pools (I think like Agua Azul again) and caves tomorrow, before more travel up to Flores the next day to see some more ruins (these are meant to be the best) at Tikal the day after that. And then after that, I’m off to Belize for a bit more chillaxing and snorkelling or scuba diving by the Caribbean!



Over the Border: Guatemala

I’m now in Antigua, Guatemala, where I plan to stay for a couple of weeks or so as I’m taking some Spanish lessons. I had my first one yesterday, and absolutely loved it. In about an hour or so, I move in with a Guate family and will stay with them for the next couple of weeks, which is all very exciting!

Guatemala is absolutely brilliant. There are vistas everywhere you look; even in the cities the views are awesome. Antigua is surrounded by 3 volcanoes which tower over the town, makes it very atmospheric! I selected Antigua as the main blog picture (at the top), so you can see what I’m talking about!

My first stop in Guatemala was the town of Panajachel by Lago de Atitlán, a lake that Aldous Huxley once described as “one of the most beautiful lakes in the world” (thank you guide book). And I can only agree, it is absolutely breathaking! Sunk in a crater between moutains and volcanoes, it really is a sight to behold! Photos barely do it justice (but I’ve not yet found an internet cafe in Antigua that’ll let me plug my memory card in, so photos may have to wait for a while, sorry).

I only spent two nights in Pana as there’s not really very much to do there besides the lake; if anything, it was pretty touristy, more so even than the last few places in Mexico, as I think all the Americans come here cos it’s cheap. I went on a boat tour of the lake, and stopped off at some of the tiny little villages around it.

From Pana I’ve come here to Antigua, and a couple of days ago I climbed an active volcano! It was easily one of the most incredible things I’ve ever done! Our guide (a mixture of Manuel from Fawlty Towers and Dr Nick from the Simpsons) led us to 300m from the summit, where we were right next to molten lava, and where the ground was so hot we had to keep moving lest our shoes started to melt! I have some stunning photos that’ll make you all jealous.

Not really much planned now for a while, as I’ll be concentrating on my espanol, but I’ll try and get some photos up asap. Adios!

A Bumpy Ride Towards Guatemala

One thing that particularly struck me about Mexico, was the efficiency and capability of the flush on their toilets. Not once was I disappointed, indeed not once even having to resort to the dreaded second flush, despite the best I could throw at it. Instead of the simple plunge technique in operation in England, Mexican toilets seem to employ a swirl technique which is quite superb. I think we really have a lot to learn from them.

For I have crocs!now passed (if you’ll excuse the phrase) on from Mexico and into the breathtakingly beautiful Guatemala! And starting every entry as I do at the end, I shall return to San Cristobal where I was headed when I last left you.

San Cristobal was a great town! Very high up (about the same as Mexico City, roughly 2300m), and when I got off the bus – shock, horror – RAIN. And it was actually bloody freezing too. Well, typical English weather at least, but a shock when acclimatised to sweltering heat as I was in Puerto.

Mexican roads are sadly nothing like their toilets, and are possibly the least conducive roads to sleeping I have ever encountered. They could have learnt a thing or two from the Romans, as barely 100m seems to pass without a sheer bend or adverse change in gradient; as such, you are flung from side to side and up and down in a relentless barrage. And then, if you’re lucky enough to hit a stretch or straight road, you think “ooh some shut-eye awaits”, but no. You face the dreaded topes, or speed bumps. As the roads pass through a lot of little villages (though that’s being generous, it’s more like a couple of buildings by the road), to slow the traffic down there’s 2km blocks of topes every 200m, and they are HUGE.Misol-ha

I digress. I mention the roads to say that on my 13 hour trip from Puerto I got next to no sleep, and so spent a lot of the first day in San Cristobal in bed.

The next day, however, was very exciting! I went down the Sumidero Canyon, and saw crocodiles! ‘Twas very exciting, although they mostly just sat there soaking up the sun. They were indeed so motionless that I wondered at one point whether they were models put out for the tourists, but no! they did indeed move and slunk away into the river.

Our guide was being very helpful and explaining everything (I am sure) in español, so I understood little of it. There were also some vultures. Due to the conditions in San Cristobal, and general cloudiness of the day, my face took a right battering from the sun, and I looked a fool afterwards.

The next day was aAgua Azuln early rise. A 6 o’clock start and we went to see some breathtaking water cascades at Agua Azul, a breathtaking waterfall at Misol-ha, and some ruins in the middle of the jungle at Palenque.

It was on the way back from Palenque that I encountered the first bad experience of the trip. Bearing in mind it was a 4hr return from Palenque to San Cristo, some locals had blockaded the road some 20km from home and weren’t letting any tourist vehicles through. So all the tour minibuses and coaches were in a backlog, and were held up for over an hour.

Thinking the road was clear again, we headed off, but alas turned down what would it would be optimistic to call a dirt track. The sight of a 20-or-so-long convoy heading down this farmers lane was quite hilarious. And it didn’t end there! Having struggled down this track for nigh on 20 minutes, the people at the froPalenquent encountered a problem (apparently they’d gone the wrong way somewhere), and everyone had to turn around and go back the way we’d just come! Picture minibuses (but thankfully not the coaches for some reason, don’t know what happened to them) and trucks trying to do a 3 point turn down a dust track in the dark and you have the scene.

After a lot of stop-start and driver arguments (and having to push our minibus up a hill it had stalled upon) we did finally make it back to some kind of road, and returned back to San Cristo about 2 and a half hours late (half 11).

Jumping straight into bed, I was awoken at 7 the next morning by the manager of the hostel saying there was another minibus waiting to take me to Guatemala. “No there bloody well isn’t” would have been my reply if I knew the Spanish, but indeed there was. It seems that when I was out the day before, I’d received an email saying I’d been booked onto this bus, and that it was waiting for me. I thought “not bloody likely”, shouted mañana, mañana! (tomorrow, tomorrow!) and it went off without me.

And so I had a Agua Azulrelaxing final day in San Cristo, and headed off for Guatemala the next morning. I shall tell more about that later, save that it is astonishingly beautiful wherever you look. I am in Panajachel on the side of Lago de Atitlan, a lake surrounded by mountains and volcanoes on all sides.