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Travel Stories: Guatemala

Posted by in Travel Journals


(I traveled to Guatemala in the Summer of 2015, this is what I saw.)

2:59 MCO, Airport Security 5/6

A middle aged woman walking with her middle aged husband asked whether silicone breasts count as a gel or liquid. This is a surprisingly profound question, one that I have no answer to.

I mean, common sense would dictate they do not, mostly because it would be difficult to remove them to place in the available plastic baggies, and reinserting them would be a distracting nuisance at best for an already harrying experience.

Still, I’m not entirely sure this is fair, why should someone’s breasts take precedence over someone else’s toothpaste. This is a questionable double standard.

Security is always a little strange though, Today they seem particularly adamant about the fact that we are walking through a metal detector and that these detectors do detect metal. Apparently enough people have had difficulty with this idea that it’s become worthy of by the minute repetition.

3:19 PM MCO 5/6/2015

An afternoon flight to Guatemala City. The plan is to seeing a volcano, then a pyramid, then do some writing without being brutally murdered. The first stop is Miami international, where the plan is to charge my phone, send some emails, and avoid being brutally murdered.

In general, wherever I travel, remaining unmurdered is a very high priority.

3:35pm MCO, food court 5/6

A larger gentlemen wears a Mickey Mouse hat two sizes too small, in another life he could be Kevin Smith, and I could be sitting in the middle of a treatment for a clever romantic comedy about missed connections.

4:26PM 3000 Ft and Rising 5/6

The flight to Miami is empty, creepily so. Entire blocks of seats are abandoned, grave markers to cups of orange juice and cheap wine that will never be.

On my left is a tattooed man reading a book on digital marketing, he’s currently on a section about Facebook Ads. There is some tiny part of my brain that wants to engage him, but it’s quickly overruled by the much more substantial parts of my brain that would prefer to enjoy Regina Spektor in relative, beautiful peace.

5:33 PM MIA 5/6

There is a small child in small shoes crying and spitting and kicking his much older sister. He’s dressed in red and blue and carrying a spider man dressed all in red and blue.

His mother feeds him Greek yogurt and he quiets, meanwhile his younger brother sits silently, peacefully, eating lavender licorice whips.

6:45PM MIA Runway 5/6

Protip: Just because your seat is 25D, doesn’t mean you are leaving from Gate 25D. Often, it means you are actually leaving from 41D, on the other side of the terminal.

After a semi-slightly-mad-capped dash across the airport, I find myself sitting on another surprisingly empty plane. A plane where I am fairly certain I am one of less than ten people not from Guatemala.

Apparently, Guatemala City during the rainy season is a less happening tourist destination than I imagined.

7:31 PM (subj) GC Airport 5/6

The people to my left are spectacularly drunk.

In other news, it looks like Central American countries all use the same customs form. Go figure.

Finally, the airport is either spectacularly closed or spectacularly empty or both. This is starting to look like a pattern.

8:19PM (subj) Villa Toscana 5/6

At the airport I see a sign with my name on it. A man with much better English than my Spanish leads me to an unmarked car with deeply tinted windows. I hop inside. I assume the tinting and the lack of markings helps to throw the bandits off the scent.

It’s only about two tenths of a mile to my hotel, but I am extraordinarily happy that I sprung for the car. Everyone else I run into seems happy of the same.

The first thing you’d notice about my hotel if you drove up to it, is that it’s behind a giant gate complete with armed guards. The second thing you’d notice is that it is actually behind two gates, the second one, while unguarded, does sport razor wire for effect.

The third thing you’d notice is that beside the security, everything is quite lovely, and the owners clearly care. The room itself is nice, though it does take more than a few notes from the Japanese school of interior design — which is to say, build everything to be about the size of a postage stamp and hope that the charm makes up for it.

So far, it does.

P.S, there doesn’t seem to be any air conditioning to speak of.

P.P.S. The streets of GC are empty, save for a few random children, a handful of yipping dogs, and some motorcycles on their way to anywhere else. Apparently, around here, the ghosts come out at night, and everyone knows it.

8:42 PM (subj) Villa Toscana 5/6

I’ve heard a nearly endless stream if 80-90s American pop music since I got here.

Elton John, Savage Garden, Jesse’s Girl…Sweet dreams are, in fact, made of these.

Villa Toscana is kind of like inverse Istanbul. Whereas most of my time in that city was spent trying to avoid being turned into a mark, every interaction with the desk clerk here devolves into a battle where he attempts to prove that he isn’t running a scam.

When I checked in, he showed me the math he used to generate the invoice. When I ordered food, he brought out a calculator. He’s asked me if I understood charges on no less than three occasions. He is intensely interested in making sure I don’t feel robbed, and as strange as it might sound, I find his persistence in the face of my ambivalence deeply comforting.

9:07 PM (subj) Villa Toscana 5/6

Around here you don’t go out to eat at night, you order in, even from
McDonalds. The gate might have something to do with it, but honestly I thinks it’s just that ordering in after sundown is the sanest of all available option.

7:41am (subj) villa Toscana 5/7

Orange juice and then a 2 and a half hour hike up the side of a volcanoe.

Daylight does this place good.

7:57am car to Pacaya 5/7

Two Fun facts

Most of downtown GC was farm lands until the 1950s.

GC is broken into zones.

One observation.

There are few pedestrians, lots an lots of cars, and a surprising amount of razor wire.

8:02 am road to Pacaya 5/7

Browns and greens and golds, faded pastels and red bricks; rusty whites and pale blues, these are the colors of downtown GC.

This is not a pedestrian city, it’s a city of goal-focused motion. Those people who are on the streets are going somewhere, and each is in a rush to get there as quickly as their legs will carry them.

8:09 am road to Pacaya 5/7

Walls and cameras and razor wire. Walls and cameras and razor wire. Walls and cameras and razor wire, punctuated by armored guards with high powered rifles.

Downtown GC has a sort of commercial beauty born of colors and contrast. It’s a portrait rough painted, where light

8:24 Am road to Pacaya 5/7

Me: “Is the volcano active.”
Guide: “It’s one of the most active in Guatemala.”
Me: “Oh? Wow, when was the last time it erupted”
Guide: “Earlier this year…”

Apparently when it erupted the airport was shutdown for three days, 5cm of ash will do that, I suppose.

Guatemala is broken into regions – the Pacific on the west, then the volcanoes, then the highlands and then the lowlands. The Mayan civilization moved from highlands to lowlands for 1000 years.

Then They collapsed

48% of GC population is of Mayan descent. The Mayan civilization didn’t collapse, they just moved back to the highlands.

8:36 am road to Pacaya 5/7

What happens if your god-king tells you it’s going to rain and it doesn’t? (Theory one of Mayan collapse)

What happens if you need to burn limestone, but you have no more trees due to lack of rain. (Theory two of collapse).

8:56am road to Pacaya 5/7

Quick facts

Lots of corruption
There are 28 languages spoken in Guatemala, 32 (27?) total Mayan languages.
While the Mayans are 48% of the population, they have limited government representation.
This is changing as the government moves to provide education and stipends to native populations.

9:23 am Pacaya national park 5/7

Pacaya is a veggie, pacaya is one of the three most active volcanoes in Guatemala. Pacaya is weird. 2 km to go.

They’re building geothermal plants to tap the volcanoes, and hydroelectric to tap the rivers. Unfortunately native populations can’t afford the power (which is exported) but can afford the pollution.

10:18am Pacaya trail 5/7

Dogs on the trail, trails on the dog, delicious halved oranges topped with crushed pumpkin – courtesy of a young Mayan woman beneath a shady oak.

10:35am Pacaya 5/7

Volcanoes are amazing. I thought the path to one would be like walking on the moon, but most of it is like bushwacking through a forest.

Giant birds, rocks made of knives, an enormous, burning maw. It’s Mordor in the day time.

Mordor in the day if Mordor let you roast marshmallows in it’s heat vents.

11:30 am the trail down 5/7

I judge a place by how they choose to sell you things, by that measure Guatemala had been amazing. Everyone here is incredibly friendly, even when not a soul would notice if they weren’t.

The lava store near pacaya was created after the 2010 eruption to help the people who were displaced by the tons of molten death that slid down the mountain that day. Coconut and silver inlaid with volcanic stone, there is a beautiful sort of synergy there.

12:12pm road to villa toscano 5/7

Off the mountain, back to the razor wire.

12:23 PM road to villa toscano 5/7

Lanes are for people without giant cars.

Guatemala City proper is a very functional city. Purpose (albeit a gaudy kind of purpose) without flourish. Cars and doors and a smattering of dusty ground.

12:45 PM traffic jam to villa toscano 5/7

There are 30,000 police officers in Guatemala, there are 100,000 private police officers in Guatemala.

A child stands in an intersection juggling knives and spinning a soccer ball with a pencil in his teeth.

Just yesterday a pile of children in a public square were held by bandits for random.

37 years of civil unrest.

This is a complicated place.

6:35pm Villa Toscana 5/7

The sun sets; dogs bark; night falls over the city.

5:06 AM Tag Lobby 5/8

Flying to Flores from GC via Tag, all in service of making it to Tikal.

Tag’s waiting area has about 30 seats total, which leads me to believe that their planes have about 30 seats total.

There is a Russian couple, a small contingent of Guatemalans and a single, skittering beetle making small, deliberate circles on the heavily waxed floor.

As they call for us to check in, the beetle meets his end.

6:13 am TAG waiting area 5/8

Prop planes and helicopters and two-engines oh my.

7:25 am Flores Runway 5/8

Landing in Flores is a little like landing on a tropical island, which is to say it’s very pretty and very empty — a couple of air stripes in the midst of a vast sea of green.

Also, when you call boxed Apple Juice “nectar” it adds an indescribable air of class to it.

7:58 PM road to Tikal 5/8

From Erdu,

For the morning tours in Tikal (not sunrise tours because the sun fails to show as often as not), you have to take guide because, “There are a lot of Jaguars, and they will eat you.”

8:27 PM road to Tikal 5/8

A lake shaped like a crocodile in a village not shaped like a crocodile, the road through Flores has that beautiful rural charm that is all the more charming when you’re only visiting it.

I step inside a gift shop where along with overpriced jade, and properly priced nick knacks, are several books on Apocalypse that never was, still wrapped neatly in manufacturers plastic. Three years later, just outside of a Mayan stronghold, that is probably the best thing I’ve seen today.

8:54 am road to Tikal 5/8

Horses and dogs, acres and acres of green, food cooked in the open air on stoves of stone, colors deep and rich — everything with the unshakeable air of bucolic niceness — utterly divorced from the grime of the city. if Guatemala wanted to show it’s best face, it would start with Flores.

9:08 AM Tikal 5/8

Turkey crossing… Jaguar crossing… Turkey crossing… Deer crossing… Snake crossing … More Jaguars crossing… Opossum crossing… No passing…Tikal.

9:59 PM Tikal 5/8

A jungle different than the last and even more beautiful.

It’s jaguars season.

10:17 am Tikal 5/8

9 monuments. 9 months to birth. Mayan calendar year. Birth. Death. Cycles.

From the east monument every 40 days you will be able to see the sun rise over a different monument in the west. Great way to keep a calendar.

Different temple sets at different elevations.

Stella are both for astronomical purposes and for worship.

Leaf cutter ants make highways through the brush.

11:20am temple 4 5/8

I’m on top of the sky.

Trees like grass.

A place of worship looking out over an endless wash of green and blue . It’s no wonder that a man, standing at these heights, nearly tasting the clouds, would consider himself at the doorway to his god, its more of a wonder that same man, knowing what it took to build this, would not consider themselves gods in their own right. .

11:41 am Tikal pyramid 4 5/9

Protip: when sitting on top of the world, bring sunscreen.

1:10pm Tikal pyramid 2 5/8

A plaza cut from time and wrought in stone. Majesty cast in grey and palm. A handful of children play games at the pyramids base, probably not dissimilar to the ones played centuries ago.

Orange and yellow leaves carpet the ground, Stella’s like tombstones keep their silent watch.

Here, power and beauty ride in the same handcart.

Also, apparently these temples took generations to build.

1:20 PM grand plaza 5/8

Random thoughts

The sun as weapon of worship.
It’s easier to carry a priest than a limestone block.

10:10 PM Jungle Lodge, Flores 5/8

Horseflies or their meso-american cousins are the weapon of choice in a Tikal bungalow.

4:15 am jungle lodge 5/9

I woke up under a mosquito net I probably didn’t need, but probably would in three weeks time, in the bathroom is a bug the size of my fist, outside is what I can only describe as the sound a herd of velociraptor would make if they were being consumed by a much more dangerous herd of velociraptor.

I’m off to have breakfast with a Mayan priest, and then watch the sunrise over the pyramids.

Howler monkies. It was howler monkies.

5:51 am Tikal pyramid 4 5/9

Step into the sacred.

Dozens of people sit silently on the top of the world, no sound.

No, there are sounds, but only the monkies and the birds and the sky.

Fog rolls across the blue.

The spires of the three temples cut through the canopy.

9:07 am jungle lodge 5/9

“Make sure your yes is yes and your no is no.” –Carlos

“Never spit against the wind, never pee into the sky.” — Carlos

The priest we were going to eat breakfast with hasn’t arrived and may not arrive, which is a shame, how often do you get to break bread with a Mayan shaman.

But, as is the case with most things, an opportunity lost opens the path to another. In this case, I had an opportunity to have a fascinating conversation with Carlos, who owns and operates the jungle lodge.

Carlos who loves nothing more than drink and woman and life and his French-Guatemalan Mayan Shaman… friend Colette (Isapop) who is, if I were to make a guess, at least a small handful of decades his junior.

A relationship I find at once beautiful and fascinating and a touch bizarre.

The conversation itself was brilliant.

As it turns out, in the 70s Carlos was an electronic engineering at the University of Florida, where he stayed until the early 80s. He was there during Apollo 13, living with a host family.

He has an archeologists mind and an open heart and is generally one of the more fascinating characters I’ve run into in my travels.

2:20 PM Tikal, Jaguar Inn 5/9

We met a man named who I will call Caesar in the restaurant at the Jaguar Inn.

A nice guy who has spent about 25 years here and another 20 or so living in New York.

He listens intently when my traveling partner Bruce explains his cosmology – feathers and fire and a little bit of magic.

He seems excited. Really excited about it all, and tells Bruce there is a great place in park to do the fire ceremony he had recently picked up in the Guatemalan highlands. The only problem is that normally you can’t get access to it, and the only time to do it is when the park is closed.

In the end, he tells us to meet him in the park at 5:30, when he’s finishing up a tour he’s running. He wants us to bring a “tip”for the guard and oddly enough a flute.

All he asks for in return is sage, he says it reminds him of his time in the southwest and his mother – which makes a certain amount of sense…actually no, it doesn’t.

Because if it did, that would mean we just setup an chance to raid a ruin after dark in exchange for a bundle incense.

I can’t believe I just typed that.

There is something amiss here.

6:05 PM temple plaza 5/9

Now I understand.

The sun is falling over Tikal, and my traveling partner Bruce is playing his flute for a group of tourists in the ruins of the grand plaza. Our new co-conspirator, Caesar watches on with a not so trivial amount of satisfaction.

You see Caesar had followed through on his promise to get us into park to put on a fire ceremony, what he didn’t tell us is that the actual cost was that Bruce would have to play for his porridge. This we concluded just about the time we saw his entire tour group looking down from temple 2 (?), ready for something to happen, and it became obvious that the something was us.

The rest of the plan came into focus when I saw Caesar videotaping the scene, a video I have a good feeling will end up as promotional material on YouTube.

The best part of all of this is that the whole scheme combines the finest parts of bribery with the finest parts of good marketing. Caesar gets musical accompaniment for his tour, a free lesson in Native American world craft for his guests, and a few extra bucks in his pockets from the tips, and I get to wander around the the park after closed – enjoying the majesty of the temples at night, and Bruce gets to do his ritual in the place where these things are actually done.

Bruce also gets to become an international musical sensation, but that’s a story that is still playing put.

A fantastically weird way to cap off a day in Tikal.

9:30 PM Jungle Inn 5/9

The night truly ends over dinner with a couple from Colorado who are on the second leg of a three part trip between Belize and Guatemala.

We share war stories, travel stories, over chicken and steak.

Early this morning Carlos told me to enjoy myself, that this was paradise. All evidence points to the fact that he was right.

5:58 am Leaving Tikal 5/10

Tikal is magnificent, in just about every day a place can be magnificent, including the shotgun toting guard who greets you at the front gate.

Heading towards Flores all I can think about is how this place managed to take all the best parts of Guatemala and stir them all together into a melange of pure meaning.

It’s what all tourist destination should hope to do, and I am going to miss.