Tag Archives: Mayan

Part One: Meet the Parents

6 Mar

PD, Monterrico, Guatemala

It’s been a month since we last blogged. We’re still in Guatemala, and mum and dad left last week after spending three weeks here with us. It was wonderful to see them. But one week into their visit we received some very bad family news, which knocked us for six. The trip took on a totally different hue, as our thoughts and worries were constantly turning to home.

We decided then not to write anything for a while, and so, to catch up a bit, this next post will be in two parts within a few days.

Once it was clear we were going to continue with the holiday as planned, we did everything we could to make the most of our time together, and of mum and dad’s first visit to Guatemala. We’re pretty sure they liked it! Although we stayed in hotels and rented houses while they were here, they got a bit of a taste of our life on the road as we drove around the country from place to place.

Brian and Christine on the boat across Lake Atitlan

Mum and dad on a trip to the supermarket, Lago de Atitlan


One thing’s for sure – it was sometimes a bit weird to see our daily life through their eyes. Now, we are well aware that the roads are fraught with hazards like dogs in the road, kamikaze bus and truck drivers, interesting over-taking manoeuvres, and car-wrecking elements like unfeasibly large potholes and vicious speedbumps. But somehow it looks even worse when you’ve got your mum and dad bouncing around in the back, occasionally covering their eyes and not infrequently mouthing exclamations.

I think I mentioned that my dad is a bit fastidious about cars – he likes them to be looked after. With that in mind, he actually showed remarkable restraint by not swearing at every speed bump we encountered. Likewise, it took him a whole week to finally crack and wash the windows. He’s so zen these days.

We demonstrated that the van can cope with tight spots, by inching through packed marketplaces in Coban, Santa Elena and Rio Dulce. And we showed our navigational skills to the full by, er, deliberately getting lost in Guatemala City – twice – and then rescuing the situation just when things looked hopeless. Well done us.

We were extremely keen to make sure the trip passed off without incident. There’s no denying that Guatemala has its share of road accidents and crime. And most visitors come a cropper at some stage with the food or water. Knowing they would be returning to a stressful situation at home seemed to make this all the more important.

But we didn’t want it to be safe in a dull way. So we got on the ancient-looking canoe and let the 14-year-old ‘captain’ row us down a canyon. We walked round the un-visited part of Livingstone with a bloke we’d just met on the street. We spent an afternoon on a yacht in the nautical hands of an American bloke who’d clearly had more beers than was healthy. Worse still, we sank a few cervezas ourselves and then he let us steer.

The sublime view from our balcony, Lago de Atitlan

And we took the long way round to the far north of Guatemala so we could see a different part of life from the touristy spots, at one point driving the van onto a rusty car ‘ferry’ to cross a river en route to Coban.

And after that two-day journey we made it to the Mayan ruins at Tikal in the northern Peten jungle. Wandering the ruins and the area around our hotel we saw spider monkeys, coatis, toucans, oscellated turkeys, and many other birds I cannot name but which were captured on film by dad, a keen photographer, particularly of wildlife. The howler monkeys were more elusive but made enough noise to confirm they were there.

Because we like to make life challenging, both houses we rented, at Rio Dulce and at Lake Atitlan, were only accessible by boat. So we dumped the van on dry land and hauled our stuff – including most of the contents of our little kitchen – onto little lanchas to get there. Every time we had to go shopping it meant a river or lake trip to town. But for any hassle involved we were rewarded with yet more abundant wildlife and great scenery. And some bloody enormous insects. There was one flying beetle so terrifying large, it made the same lumbering movement and sound as a Chinook helicopter on take-off.

In hot and steamy Rio Dulce we had a rustic wooden house on stilts, with a boardwalk leading to a little bar and restaurant. The ‘hotel’ was really near the town, but a boat was still needed to get there. After our shopping we had to wave or shout in order to get a lift back. Our reserved calling wasn’t enough though, so we employed the talents of a local boatmen who hollered like Tarzan to get the attention of our place’s boat driver and fixer-of-everything, Luis.

Luis was just one of many great people we met. We were glad mum and dad found the Guatemalan people to be among the most friendly they’d encountered. It was nice they could see for themselves that we’re in a great part of the world.

In Atitlan, for our final week, we found absolute tranquillity. Even the scorpion on the ceiling wasn’t enough to put us off the place, an amazing villa high above the lake near Santa Cruz La Laguna. Our balcony looked directly onto two perfect cone-shaped volcanos on the other side of Atitlan, set against a blue sky with the occasional cotton-wool puff of cloud clinging to the tops.

Mum at Rio Dulce

Mum on one of the decks at our Rio Dulce river house


In both places mum revelled in the plants and flowers, while dad – for the most part – resembled a jack-in-the-box. He’d try to sit and relax, and then a hummingbird or bright blue butterfly would flutter by and off he’d trot with the camera.

While there they, and we, also got the chance to meet some other Latin America road-trippers. Via the website Drive the Americas we’d discovered others who were doing a similar trip to us were all studying Spanish at a school in another village in Atitlan. We met for beers and swapped a few stories, and hope to meet again along the road.

Saying goodbye to mum and dad at the airport was even more difficult than it would have been under normal circumstances. But we’ll be home in September for my 40th birthday. A good friend, Sally, whose sister lives in Australia, once told me that because it’s really hard being apart from your loved ones, what’s really important is that every time you say goodbye you should already have plans for the next time you’ll see each other. It was great advice.

More pics soon, but in case you missed this batch from Chiapas, here they are again – Flickr set: Chiapas (Mexico)

Days: 155
Miles: 7148.2
Things we now know to be true: Everything can change.

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Mood swings and roundabouts

25 Jan

PD, Xela, Guatemala

I’m not saying learning a new language is frustrating. All I can say is that yesterday the front cover of our Spanish-English dictionary was mysteriously ripped off its hinges in a freak incident. These things can happen.

School days: Jeremy grapples with possessive pronouns... or something

The last two and a half weeks at school have seen the full spectrum of emotions. We have lurched between total jubilation and utter despair, excitement and frustration, sickness and health, drunkenness and sobriety. I think research on language immersion has proved that learning this way can feel like swings and roundabouts. There have been days where by the end of lessons one or both of us has felt like lying across the lunch table and weeping uncontrollably. How many verb conjugations can a person take?

A few things are certain though.

First, we lucked out by being placed with a lovely couple, whose home we are living in for the whole month. They cook great food for us, are keen to converse, and are willing put up with our mangled toddler-style Spanish at mealtimes. Boris and Guisela are of similar age to us, with three dogs, one parrot and no kids. Bueno. They are kind and welcoming, and when we fell sick Guisela – our ‘madre Guatemalteca’ – nurtured us back to normal with a dietary solution for every stage of our ailments.

Second, we love the city and the school. And even if some days it doesn’t feel like it, we have learned a lot. After two weeks our confidence in speaking has grown markedly. We understand an ever-increasing proportion of the conversations around us. And we are mostly keeping up with the theory – of which there is plenty – even though all the explanations of grammar and structure are given in Spanish.

Despite all of the above we mostly still feel that when we open our mouths, what emerges resemble a dog’s dinner. We live in hope that one day our brains will begin to more efficiently connect with the tongue part.

Que?: Even the dogs at our house can't understand a word we're saying.


Our five-hour one-to-one lessons can be pretty intense. As well as the more formal teaching part, there is a good chunk of conversation each day. We choose the school partly for its left-wing political slant, which is obvious when I look at some of the vocabulary I noted down on my first day. I knew how to say ‘the missing’, ‘the displaced’, ‘dictatorship’ and ‘poverty’ before I was told how to say ‘my name is Paula’. And so it should be.

School activities include sight-seeing trips as well as screenings of political films and documentaries, conferences on social issues and testimonies from friends of the school such as ex-guerillas and political campaigners. Last week we heard from a former member of one of the armed resistance groups in Guatemala. She spent much of the 36-year civil war retrieving injured compadres from the mountains and treating their gruesome wounds at a secret safe-house, despite having no medical experience.

Each week ends with a graduation night for those who have finished their course. The catering alternates between students doing ‘pot luck’ international food one week, and the school providing a typical Guatemalan meal the next. Let me just add that we have met many excellent fellow students at the school, and I don’t wish to point the finger at anyone in particular. But following all the dire warnings about water and food hygiene in Central America, I find it ironic that my first bout of sickness almost certainly resulted from the food cooked by the foreigners!

This led to a pretty disastrous first weekend off school for us. We’d decided to take a little trip away in the van, and soldiered on with the plan even though I awoke on Saturday feeling awful, mistaking my symptoms for a hangover.

I’ll probably spare you the full details. Let’s just say the last thing you want is to be driving down a winding mountain road while suffering from a stomach bug, and having nothing to vomit into but your vegetable storage box. Upon arrival the last thing you want is to camp in a place with no toilets or running water. And having suffered all that the worst thing you could imagine happening would be a spillage incident involving the portable toilet. Wouldn’t it?

On the upside, we got to see the beach. And it was deliciously warm on the coast compared with Xela, which has shockingly cold mornings and chilly evenings.

Happily, weekend number two’s excursion was a total contrast. We travelled to nearby Laguna Chicabal – a volcanic crater lake – with two friends from school, Rob and Amy. En route to our destination we failed to notice an earthquake that registered 6.2 on the Richter scale. Oops!

Guisela

Guisela whips up another delicious batch of tamalitos.

The road to the laguna’s trailhead was hairy to say the least, and was really only suitable for 4x4s. We pushed the van to its absolute limit, and at several points Rob, Amy and I had to exit the vehicle to lighten the load, while Jeremy went slip-sliding up the steepest dustiest trail we’ve yet attempted. We made it! And celebrated with some improvised satay noodles, wine and tequila, and a few games of cards in the van.

Next morning we got up early to walk to the laguna before the daily mist and clouds descended. After a freezing night we climbed out the van to a magical scene of low mist and sparkling frost, which soon disappeared as the sun warmed the slopes. A steep climb was followed by a sharp 600-step descent to the lake, which was ringed with flower-laden Mayan altars.

It’s hard to find the words to describe it. But then words are not really our friends at the moment.

Days: 105
Miles: 5789.2
Things we now know to be true: Banging your head on the table doesn’t improve your language skills.

Even bees wear balaclavas in Chiapas

2 Jan

PD, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

We’re not used to big nights out any more. These days it’s usually a couple of beers as darkness falls at 6ish, dinner and early to bed. But for new year we made an exception, of course. We started off as usual at 6pm, to toast the UK new year, and carried on right through to the Mexican one.

The latter part of the evening was spent watching a fantastically energetic Chiapan band at the Cafe Bar Revolucion in San Cristobal – we’re nothing if not predictable. The night finished off with a spectacularly ill-advised tequila when we got back to the van. Ouch. What I would have given for a greasy sausage sandwich with HP sauce on new year’s day morning.

Wedding ceremony, San Cristobal de las Casas, 31 Dec 2011

A Mayan wedding ceremony was taking place in front of the cathedral on New Year's Eve, San Cristobal de las Casas

Here we are at the centre of Zapatista territory, in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas. We loved the sprit of the place when we came 10 years ago and it hasn’t disappointed this time. New Year is the anniversary of a 1994 uprising that grabbed the attention of the world, so what better place to see in 2012? 

This town has everything – the revolutionary vibe, a thriving music scene, great locally-grown coffee, and an amazing mountain setting with colourful buildings that glow in the evening sun. And it’s gone all trendy since we last visited, with oh-so-cool wine bars, cafes and restaurants and shops selling EZLN paraphernalia to people like us. We’ve even bought some honey made by a Zapatista co-operative. The bee on the label is wearing a tiny balaclava.

All-in-all it’s been not a bad little haven for a few days after several weeks of being on the move. Even the chilly evenings and mornings haven’t been enough to drive us away, although getting into the erratic hot-cold shower has required something of a superhuman effort.

And after a few quiet weeks we have been glad to meet some fantastic like-minded people here. First we had a night out with some UK friends who coincided with us for one day on their way home from a three-month trip in Guatemala. And on our lovely wooded campsite we’ve had great chats with two other road-tripping couples from Arkansas and British Columbia, and spent New Year’s day evening chewing the fat around a fire, accompanied by hair of the dog.

To add to all that San Cristobal has, there are also some fascinating indigenous villages in the surrounding hills. We returned to one, San Juan Chamula, this week. It’s known for its central church, at which people of the indigenous Tzotzil group practice a curious blend of Catholicism and traditional pre-Hispanic ceremonies. Inside, small groups of worshippers were huddled on the floor, which is carpeted with fresh pine branches and lined with hundreds of little candles, creating a heady aroma.

In one group a man chanted and rubbed eggs and herbs over a little girl’s head. They each swigged from a bottle of Coke, to induce burping which they believe cleanses their bodies. As they rose to leave we heard a cluck-cluck-squawk and noticed the grandmother was carrying a live chicken, which had stayed inexplicably quiet during the whole ritual.
But, for us, the most bizarre part of the ceremonies at this church is the relationship between the group’s religion and Coca Cola. Crate upon crate of the stuff is drunk every day in the church, truck loads of it are present around the town square and people sit around the little cafes supping on it. It’s hard not to let the cynic in us wonder if some marketing man at Coke really has done the unthinkable and convinced this population the drink has health-giving and spiritual properties.

Band playing at Cafe Bar Revolucion, San Cristobal de las Casas, 31 Dec 2011

The band played out 2011 at Cafe Bar Revolucion

New year is traditionally a time for both reflection and looking forward. We’ve been three months on the road in Mexico now, and are preparing to cross into Guatemala next week to start a month of Spanish school in the highland city of Quetzaltenango. More of that later.

What a three months it has been. We’ve had so much to learn about living in the van and all that entails – keeping the vehicle happy, mastering the quirks of the ‘house’ appliances and working out how to fix the things that have broken – or, to be more specific, that Jeremy has broken! As well as all the sight-seeing and galavanting most days involve waking up somewhere unfamiliar and having to find one or all of the following – food, water to drink, water to wash in, toilets, petrol, propane, and – most importantly – a safe place to bed down for the night and the right road to get there.

Those accommodations have ranged from the blissful sunny beaches of Baja and Yucatan, to gorgeous mountain towns with freezing mornings that make it hard to part with the duvet, to sleeping at a noisy petrol station/truck stop in the pissing rain and wondering where that leak is coming from… and many things in between.

Do we feel unbelievably lucky to be able to do this trip? Yes. There have been so many amazing highs, incredible sights and lots of laughs, and we’ve barely really begun. By the end of 2012 we should have reached the northern part of South America, and it’s hard to imagine all the adventures ahead.
Are there frustrations, little tantrums and scary bits? Sometimes. Is loud swearing sometimes heard in the van? Yes. Do we miss our lovely families and friends, and cat? Absolutely.

Do we have any regrets about taking this leap? Nope.

Happy new year everyone

And here are some more pics for your perusal:

Flickr: Patzcuaro to Mexico City

Days: 91
Miles: 5,152.2
Things we now know to be true: Socialist honey tastes much sweeter.

Is a snowman made of sand still a snowman?

21 Dec

JD, Chelem, nr Puerto Progreso, Mexico

We had calculated that driving a white VW van would help us blend in – but we never counted on this. We do blend in. The collectivos which run between and around every town, village and city are all white, many are VWs.

So on an almost daily basis someone tries to flag us down to help them home with their shopping. Once or twice we’ve even stopped, explained we’re not a collectivo but that if they are going the same way as us they are welcome to jump in.

Snowman made of sand

Not so much frosty the snowman, as sweaty the sandman

Being mistaken for a Mexican bus is just one of the strange happenings we’ve had to contend with over the past couple of weeks. Dogs that enjoy chasing cars, or napping on the road, are a hazard we could do without.

How to avoid crashing in to thousands of people – young and old, many barefoot – pounding the narrow city streets, running over mountain passes and cycling along the motorway with huge statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe tied to their backs and flaming torches in their hands was not something that was in my driving test.

But all that’s as nothing compared to the coconut which plummeted to earth inches from my head and smashed on the ground seconds after Paula uttered the immortal words – “apart from the obviously bad things about having to tell people you were dead, imagine how embarrassing it would be if I had to say you’d been killed by a falling coconut”.

That, and her whacking me with a book whilst I was driving – on the flimsy pretext of killing a mosquito – has got me worried.

In between dodging falling fruit and unwelcome rain storms we’ve hit the heart of the Mayan world on the Yucatan peninsula. Suddenly there are tour buses and package holidays and lots of touts and whilst none of that is welcome the amazing white sand beaches and incredible ruins more than make up for it.

The jungle-shrouded ruined cities at Balamku and Calakmul were amazing. Forty-metre high temples with incredible views across forests that echoed to the sounds of monkeys and woodpeckers in the upper reaches of the canopy. And best of all they were almost deserted.

Not so at Tulum – one of the major Mayan sites – which is spectacularly located on a cliff above a white sand beach and turquoise sea. Later that day we swam and snorkelled in a picture-postcard cenote – basically a large sinkhole with amazing colours and caverns so deep you are sure some mythical creature MUST live down there.

At Coba – described by our guide book as like being in Raiders of the Lost Ark – we climbed Nochol-Mul, at 42m high the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan. Regular readers of the blog will realise when I say we, I mean P. She climbs, takes the picture and that way I get to see the incredible view without the vertigo.

At Chichen Itza we again rose early to beat the tour buses and took in the full splendour of the most perfect 25-metre high pyramid and temple virtually alone. The site, unlike many others, has been extensively restored, but it is spectacular and you can see what all the fuss is about.

Mayan ruins at Tulum

The Mayan ruins at Tulum have got a pretty spectacular location

In between lapping up Mayan culture we’ve had a few days basking in the sun at lovely beaches – Xpu-Ha and El Pescadero – and stopping off to sample a bit of life in smaller off-the-beaten-track towns such as Izamal, Isla Aguarda and Laguna Bacalar.

At the latter we were lost in the dark, again, looking for a ‘campsite’ of which we had read – a un-signposted field in which a Mexican family lived, next to the laguna. Cynics that we are, we don’t believe in guardian angels as such. But as we circled the area despondently a car came up close, weaving slightly, and started flashing its lights behind us. We pulled over reluctantly. Wasn’t this kind of thing in the book of ‘things not to do in Mexico?’.

We waited. A white-haired man got out and approached us, then started singing ‘California here I come’ – in reference to our licence plates – as he bounded up to the window. It was Tony, a very drunk Liverpudlian-Canadian who lived in the area and had seen us cruising around looking lost. He knew what we were looking for, he said, got back into his car and guided us there to a friendly welcome from the owners.

We offered him a tequila to say thanks. Appreciating he was already well imbibed, he politely refused and slunk off into the night as suddenly as he had appeared. Earthly angels do exist then, and they are Liverpudlian apparently.

And as John Lennon once said… and so this is Christmas. Well, not quite but you get the laboured journalistic link there. And, in keeping with recent events, for us this will be a strange one… thousands of miles from home.

It seems somewhat incongruous to see a ‘snowman’ made from sand on a blisteringly sunny beach or a light-up Santa adorning the edge of the swimming pool at our current camp site in Puerto Progreso. But don’t worry, in keeping with tradition we intend to eat too much, drink too much and fall asleep in front of a film.

Days: 79
Miles: 4,494.2 [We have put in a bumper crop of miles since last blogging. We’d like to show you that on a map, but ours is currently broken and awaiting repair.]
Things we think might be true: Just because your wife puts your chair under a coconut tree, it doesn’t necessarily mean she’s trying to kill you.