Wednesday, March 25, 2009

this is the end

well, after almost four years of salvadoran everything, it´s time to say goodbye. i´ve really liked writing in the blog and posting pictures for everyone to get a glimpse of what life´s been like for me down here in the savior.

saying goodbye, as you can imagine, is really sad. while i´m really looking forward to seeing all my friends and family in the states, i have somehow created a whole other life for myself down here. my life has become so different from what it was in the states back before i set foot in el salvador. and i´m used to this new life. so making the change back to the united states is going to be very difficult for me. i´ve been here for almost four years. FOUR YEARS!!! i never imagined i´d be here for that long. i never imagined i´d get married to a salvadoran. NEVER! but i did and i´m happy i did. but not only did i marry a salvadoran, i married el salvador...because i´ll definitely be back. so while i´m sad to leave, i´m also looking at it as simply an extended trip up north. sure i´m going to try and get a job and set up shop there, but i´ll still be able to come back to el salvador whenever i want to. and even though i´m sad about leaving the life i´ve created for myself down here, i´ll be doing the same up north with antonio all over again. it might seem overwhelming now, but it´s just another part of my life.

it´s been a trip, that´s for sure. but i´ve learned so much from my time in the peace corps, but mostly i´ve learned a lot from the salvadoran people. hopefully i´ve taught them some things too. even though that´s only a third of what the peace corps goal is, in my opinion, it´s the most important part of the peace corps goal. and i feel like i´ve really hit that part of the peace corps goal out of the park. when you can walk into any of the houses in your pueblo and be accepted as family, you know you´ve made an impact. so i´ll pat myself on the back for that. but mostly it´s the salvadorans who accepted me as one of their own who deserve a pat on the back.

even though i wouldn´t call myself a ¨world traveler,¨ i´ve done my fair share of traveling. and let me tell you, of all of the countries i´ve visited, including other central american ones, el salvador has the friendliest, most kind-hearted people and it´s been a joy working and chotearing with them. they are the greatest. i hope that my blog´s given a fair shake to salvadorans and el salvador, and i hope that for everyone out there who has read this blog, they feel like they´ve gotten to know el salvador a little bit.

anyway, that´s where i´m gonna leave it. so adios and que les vaya bien!

tortillas y pupusas

antonio´s mom and sister and i decided to have a pupusa-making day at their house the other weekend. it was super fun and even though our pupusas weren´t the most beautiful, they were still really good. hopefully i will be able to make them in the states, only i´ll have to use harina instead of corn masa. but, still they´ll be pupusas. anyway, here´s some photos.

firing up the stove

gloria shredding cabbage for the curtido

meanwhile, me and antonio´s mom made tortillas. it doesn´t matter that we´re making pupusas, every salvadoran household has to have tortillas in it at all times.

mixing up moras (kind of like spinach) with quesillo for the pupusas

gloria stirring the salsa de tomate

flattening out the masa to add the ingredients - i´m making pupusas with mora y queso and gloría´s making the frijol con queso pupusas

antonio´s mom waiting for the pupusas to cook

i don´t know how salvadorans do face got all red and my eyes were watering from being in that small space with the smoking stove. meanwhile, antonio´s mom and gloria didn´t shed one tear the whole time.....

the final product, pupusas, curtido and salsa de tomate

antonio, our first client!

Monday, March 23, 2009

molineros revisited

remember these kids?

i paid one last visit to my family in molineros a couple weeks ago. it was like i never left! except for the fact that dayana and sindy were both a lot taller! sindy´s now 4 1/2 years old and in pre-kindergarten and dayana´s 9 and in 4th grade! what? ana´s now playing softball with some other women from molineros. i went and played with her the day i visited and man, i haven´t run full speed around the bases in a long time!

dayana and sindy with mama rosa

sindy ready for school

sindy and her cousin hazel ready to go to school


nothing has changed in molineros. it was exactly like it was when i first showed up that rainy september in 2005. ana still has her tienda, mama rosa and papa ovidio still live across the street. mama viviana is still going strong. jaqueline still comes over with hazel all the time. the same chamacos still hang out above the tienda and yell ¨hey baby, hello¨ when i am walking to ana´s house. it´s still hot as hell during the day there. ana still makes the best food. everything´s the same!

anyway, it was really fun hanging with my first salvadoran family again and i was sooooo sad when i had to say goodbye. ana is really like a mom to me and sindy and dayana are truly like my little sisters! perhaps the feeling hit me that i was really leaving el salvador when dayana said ¨laura, no quiero que se vaya¨ and i realized i wouldn´t be able to come back whenever i wanted. ít´s only going to get worse over the last final week!!!

adios for now.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

what´s LEFT to say?

el pueblo salvadoreño has spoken and funes is its man. yay!!! let me tell you, it was a very exciting election to be a part of. i´ll take you through the process!

sunday morning i went with antonio to his voting place here in apaneca. voting stations in the municipalities aren´t set up by location (like in the states), but by last name. upon first entering the voting area there are lists of names and you find your name on the list to make sure you´re in the right place. then, next to your name is a number and when you enter the actual building or area where the voting takes place, you find your number and that´s where you vote. there is a big board with photos and names of each person who is allowed to vote at that actual voting stand and you have to make sure that all lines up. when you get to the front of the line, the voting workers match up your name to your DUI (which is an identification card which is a mix between a driver´s license and a social security card) photo and number. then you get your ballot: a single sheet of paper with an ARENA flag and a FMLN flag on it. the back the ballot must have a ¨sello¨ (seal/stamp) and a signature. if those aren´t there, the ballot is considered null and void. so once you get your ballot, you go to a cardboard voting stand that has a piece of fabric in front of it with two holes for your arms. it´s not like in the states where you vote behind a curtain or anything. you stick your arms in and that way nobody can see how you´re´s kind of weird. anyway, in choosing your party, you put a black ¨x¨ on whichever party you are voting for with a crayon they give you. you can´t mark outside the flag...if so, your ballot is no good. if you show anyone how you voted, your ballot is no good either. you then fold your ballot up, stick it in the box and then you have to return to the voting table to get your right thumb covered with this permanent black ink that doesn´t come off for a couple days so that you can´t try and vote again somewhere else. it was quite funny seeing all these salvadorans with black thumbs on television and walking around town the next day!

there were vigilantes from both political parties there making sure that there was no funny business going on and apparently there were UN vigilantes as well, although at antonio´s voting place i didn´t really see anyone ¨foreign.¨ all in all things were pretty tranquilo around town, although i did hear chambre that don rodolfo, who is an arenero, got in a fight with some young guys that are efemelenistas about who was going to win.

anyway, the rest of the day it was just a waiting game...waiting for the polls to close at 5:00 p.m. i didn´t want to watch the news because here´s what happens next: once the polls close, the voting places start counting the votes. channels 2, 4 and 6 send cameras and journalists around the country, mostly in san salvador, into various voting places to watch votes being counted. for example, the camera will sneak in and watch one table count its votes. it goes like this: the table is surrounded by various vigilantes from both ARENA and FMLN. then there is a person who is physically taking the ballots out of the box and reading them. then the person hands the ballot to a representative vigilante from whichever party the vote is for. then, once all the votes have been taken out and read from the ballot box, each person with the stack of ballots counts how many they have. whoever has the most is the winner of that table and all those in support of that party, at that table, erupt in a bunch of hoots and hollers. so, all night, up until about 7:00 p.m. the news was recording these vote counts and it was nervewracking. especially when they´d come to a table that had a lot of ARENA votes....the guy reading the votes would say ¨arena........arena......arena......fmln.......arena..
....arena.......fmln......arena....arena.....¨ and so on. it was difficult to watch and definitely kept me on the edge of my seat!

the vote quantities started coming in around 7:00 and funes was winning san salvador and we started hearing cheers and stuff coming from down the street. so we went over to our neighbors, the owners of one of the ciber cafés in apaneca, and big efemelenistas, and watched some of the news with them. but it was soooo close all night long. i think the biggest margin was funes - 53% and avila - 48%. the rest of the night, the margin kept becoming smaller and it was like ¨oh for the love of god!!!!!!!!¨

then, the election officials read their official statements....reporting on the results from the various 14 departments. during the first official statement most of the departments only had about 30% of the results so far. about 45 minutes later, there was another official statement and about 80% of the results were in and the margin was even smaller.....51% funes, 49% avila. but that´s where it stayed for the rest of the night. there was a huge celebration in the streets and all the FMLN supporters paraded around apaneca. in san salvador it was a huge party......funes gave his speech in a crowded, camera-filled room with people all wearing red t-shirts. avila finally gave his speech and talked about how arena was still strong despite losing the election.

the funniest thing was the fact that after the election, all these areneros kept saying how ¨funes needs to work with ARENA now that the FMLN has won the presidency.¨ i kept thinking - well, yes, that would be my suggestion as well. but ARENA was NEVER willing to ¨ work¨ with the FMLN when they were in power. NEVER. and now they want funes to do that. and i think funes will. in every speech he´s made so far since winning he´s talked about how he´s more interested in a unified country than one with such harsh political divisions. but it´s going to be an uphill battle....just yesterday, three ARENA diputados (kind of like our senators and representatives) quit. i asked the teachers in my school why they quit....they´re elected officials and just because the other party won the presidency, in my opinion, wouldn´t make it necessary to quit their service in the legislative assemply (kind of like our congress). and they said that they ¨had to, before the other guy takes over.¨ it doesn´t make any sense to me, but i´m guessing that nobody really knows what to do because this has never happened before. this is the first time the FMLN has won and what´s the protocol they have to go by? i guess we can only wait and see what happens.

what´s going to be interesting is to see how the ARENA party handles this defeat. i think they are scared. for twenty years, their campaign has been run on fear....telling the salvadoran population that if they vote for the FMLN there is going to be another war, that el salvador is going to be like venezuela and cuba, that all their family members are going to be deported from the united states and remesas will stop. and they have won all past elections with those campaign threats. but now that the FMLN has won and it´s more than likely that none of those threats will come to pass, my guess is that people are going to see that those were JUST THREATS. how is ARENA going to run their next presidential campaign in 5 years? i think it is a good thing for both parties. ARENA is going to have to have a more educated plan de trabajo....what´s THEIR plan to improve the country? so far they´ve never really come up with a work plan......their campaign has always been ¨you don´t want what the FMLN has to offer, so vote for ARENA¨ instead of saying what makes ARENA better in terms of improving the country. meanwhile, mauricio funes´s and the FMLN´s plan this time around was ¨here´s what i plan to do if i´m a women´s center in san salvador, work on programs for farmers, unify the country, etc., etc.¨ there was NOTHING like that from ARENA......just the same old ¨don´t vote for the FMLN because they´re guerrilleros.¨

so now funes has given the FMLN a chance to prove themselves. let´s just hope they hit a homerun!

here are a couple articles about the funes win...

miami herald article

la times article

the BBC

and CNN

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

the change they need

sunday is the big day. it´s time to vote for a new president in el salvador and i am very excited and nervous at the same time. i´ve only written a couple of times about politics here because it´s difficult to write about without getting preachy and revealing my particular bias. but since it´s election time, i´m going to write a bit about what´s been going on for the past year, and specifically, the last few months.

the current president, tony saca, is from the conservative ARENA (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista). ARENA has been in power since 1992 when the peace accords were finally signed, putting an end to the bloody civil war that plagued el salvador for decades. ARENA, in el salvador, equals money. practically every big business, mall, car dealership, bank, television station and newspaper is owned by ARENA...not the party itself, but by people who are ¨areneros.¨ this does not bode well for the FMLN and its candidate, who is vying for the spot as the next salvadoran president.

the FMLN (frente farabundo martí para la liberación nacional), on the other hand, started off as party of guerillas. farabundo martí was a salvadoran revolutionary in the 20´s and is THE face of revolution here in el salvador. in many salvadoran pueblos you will see murals painted with the likenesses of both farabundo martí and che guevara. in a nutshell, the civil war was started when people fighting for rights for the poor in el salvador (campesinos, etc.) decided to take action, rather than sit back and let the military-run government neglect their social situation. they fought and the national military (la guardia) fought back....fought back by mass killing innocent groups of women, children and old people (known as ¨matanzas¨) and punishing those that were trying to make the government listen to the plight of the country´s poor. many of the FMLN candidates in the past have been products of this war...former guerrilleros. however, the FMLN party, over the years, has tried to move away from its ¨guerrilla¨ reputation, and simply focused on creating a more benefits and help for the poor.

farabundo martí

there are many official political parties, not just the FMLN and ARENA. others are: PDC, PCN, FDR and CD.

the ARENA candidate is rodrigo ávila, a former police chief and college graduate. (tony saca, the current president, has only a high school diploma). ARENA´s campaign slogan is ¨vote with wisdom¨ (vota con sabiduría)...meaning, think before you vote because you might regret voting for the left (FMLN) el salvador might become a guerrillero state if FMLN is in power.

the FMLN candidate is mauricio funes, a former journalist and college graduate. FMLN´s main slogan is ¨hope is born, change is coming¨ (nace la esperanza, viene el cambio.) they´ve, however, somewhat changed to a new slogan that says ¨this time it´s different¨ (esta vez es diferente)

let me just tell you a little bit about how each slogan refers to the state of el salvador at the moment. ARENA is going with the fear factor, while FMLN is going for the hope factor. just about every commercial run by ARENA has hugo chavez in it....saying that voting for mauricio funes is voting for hugo chavez.?????? it reminds me somewhat of what obama went through when conservatives were saying that voting for obama was like voting for terrorists because of his ¨connection¨ with william ayers. these commercials have forced funes to run commercials saying ¨don´t believe the lies.¨

it´s particularly frustrating because every outlet of information (television channels - channels 2, 4, 6, 21 - and newspapers - el diario de hoy and la prensa gráfica) are owned by ARENA supporters. so, for example, you open the newspaper to read ¨ávila attends opening of community center for children¨ and there is a photo of him hugging children and giving them toys. then, on the next page, it reads ¨funes is accused of blocking streets in the zona rosa for his campaign tour.¨ it´s outrageous, not because this happens a few times....but because it happens every single day. i can´t even read the newspapers anymore because it´s pura propaganda. i understand that in the states it´s the same way....but at least there are other ways to get your news that are way less biased than your local newspaper. here, everywhere you turn, it´s the same thing. ávila good, funes bad.

ARENA even put out a commercial saying that if you sing the el salvador national anthem and you say the pledge of allegiance, then you shouldn´t vote for the FMLN and funes because that would make you unpatriotic and you don´t believe in el salvador. meanwhile funes is trying to defend all this, WHILE proposing his plan for a CHANGE.

i can´t believe ARENA has been in power for over almost 20 years....but then again, i can. why? because ARENA runs its campaigns based on fear and presents. i´m not kidding! the poverty rate here is unbelievable. but here´s what normally happens...right before an election, ARENA candidates go to poor villages and hand out things like key chains, t-shirts, hats, sometimes even food - like lunch, and essentially ¨buy¨ their votes. it doesn´t make any sense to me why people buy into this? they´re dirt poor and instead of voting for someone they might think could make it easier to get food EVERY DAY, they vote for the candidate that gave them a free lunch. before our mayoral elections in january (el tigre won again...), el tigre came to san jorge and handed out material for school uniforms. does he does this every year? no. just the years he needs the poor people´s votes. in apaneca (i don´t know how it is around the rest of the country) most of the FMLN supporters are professionals, people with educations beyond high school, those working as lawyers and teachers and doctors. el tigre wins every year by going to the poor villages and giving them key chains. ?????

these are just some of the problems facing el salvador right now. here is another from the ny times regarding the election and its candidates.

there was a recent ARENA-run ad on television where this nurse narrated a 5-minute long commercial on how ARENA has been nothing but butterflies and sunshine for el salvador since the peace accords were signed in 1992. she went down the list of presidents since the accords and how they built roads and buildings and how generally they made everyone´s life a living garden of eden throughout the years. it ended with tony saca´s presidency and how san salvador is this beautiful, modern city with upscale malls and high-rise condo buildings. this is true about the malls and such....there are malls here with polo, anne taylor, apple, l´occitane and nautica stores. they´ve been building like crazy in the zona rosa...upscale condos and apartment buildings. but my question is do any of these places deserve to exist when there are still people in this country WITHOUT WATER, or electricity or anything but plastic as walls to their homes? really! how is it possible that ARENA can call itself a party of voting with wisdom when it´s allowed people to go without water in favor of building ¨la gran vía¨ an upscale mall? the government of el salvador recently started building high walls in front of the shanty towns and ¨undesirable¨ parts of san salvador in order to hide the poverty. i have passed the squatter village mentioned in the above-linked NPR article. when passing it the first time, back in september of last year, i couldn´t believe what i was seeing. i see extreme poverty here every day, but i had never seen it like this, in such quantity. picture about three football fields of dirt, not a tree in sight. then fill it with shanty after plastic-wall shanty. it was only about a quarter full in september of last year. i just last week passed it again on my way to molineros and it is full to capacity. it´s extremely depressing. i didn´t see anything about this during that 5-minute infomercial narrated by that nurse.

on the other hand, the civil war was very recent (in historical terms), and some people are put off by the fact that the guerrilleros started it. they don´t look beyond WHY they started it. and funes, in a poor decision, selected a former guerrillero to run with as his vice president. i think this was a mistake....kind of like the palin factor in mccain´s bid for president. funes is very well-respected, and most of the negative ads run on television focus on his vice presidential running mate, salvador sanchez cerén. my family in molineros said as much to me when i visited them last week. they said ¨it´s not funes that we don´t want, it´s his running mate.¨

i was really mad one day because shortly after obama took the oath of office, ARENA ran an ad in the newspaper congratulating obama (even though, in my opinion, obama´s political ideologies couldn´t be further than those of ARENA´s). they did this in order to show salvadorans that they approve of obama, even though during the presidential campaign in the states they criticized obama for his campaign promises and ideals. the salvadoran government and tony saca were very close to bush. so after the results came in showing that many latinos in the states supported obama, ARENA did an about face and printed this huge ¨congratulations obama!¨ ad....a huge one-page portrait of obama with the ARENA logo at the bottom. if you are a poor person who can´t read or write, what do you think you see there? that obama is supporting the ARENA party.

shortly after this ad ran, the front page of el diario de hoy stated that ¨the u.s. embassy criticized the FMLN for using obama in it´s campaign ads!¨ i was like ¨WHAT???¨ antonio was fuming. apparantly, the guy who is in charge until a new ambassador is appointed here, made a statement saying that the u.s. is unbiased in opinion of either candidate and it doesn´t want either candidate using obama´s image to support its political campaign. funes did (and still does) use obama´s photo on television in an ad in which he shows both obama and lula (president of brazil) and says how he looks to them as examples of presidents of countries who are fair and just and that provide true democracies. i understand if el diario wants to accuse funes of using obama in his ads, but why omit the fact that ARENA is doing the same thing?

there is no ¨freedom of the press here,¨ unless you from the ARENA party. it´s one-sided and sadly, it´s the ONLY form of information most people have. all i want is for the press to be fair and give educational insight on both parties and candidates. yes, i want funes to win....but my complaints lie in the fact that if el salvador wants to claim that it´s a true democracy, it needs to change a few things. you can´t have a democracy when all of the people making the decisions have been from ONE PARTY for almost 20 years. salvadoran citizens don´t vote on anything except for diputados, mayors and the president. there is no vote for city council, or ordinances or anything. so, for example, el tigre wins in apaneca and he´s for ARENA. he appoints the city council, who, guess what? are all from ARENA. how are there ANY checks and balances in that?

antonio couldn´t believe the absentee ballot i received prior to the presidential election in the states....full of choices of judges, councilmen, ordinances as well as for president. the ballot in el salvador is this: a single page with the flags of each political party. that´s it. then the voters put a big black x on whichever party they want to vote for. so, it´s not a vote for the candidate themself, its a vote for the party. and in this election more than ever, mauricio funes has been trying to distance himself from the idea that he is the FMLN, because of the connotations it has to the civil war. there is a group here called ¨amigos de mauricio¨ - a group of people not so much supporting the FMLN as they are mauricio. but when it comes down to it, a voter is putting an x not on the name of mauricio funes, but on the FMLN flag.

i realize it could be worse. el salvador´s not zimbabwe or some other venezuela. people DO at least get to vote, however corrupt it might be. but i look at the state of this country and it´s obvious that what ARENA has done so far is not working to relieve the economic stress that this country jobs (i´m not talking no jobs like the no jobs in the states....there are REALLY no jobs here), education rates, hardly ANY family planning education, the fact that the income for most people comes in the form of remesas from the states. it´s crazy!

anyway, i know i´m bad about expressing my political opinion and if you want to read a more educated and researched blog go to tim´s el salvador blog. he´s been great about posting some of my blog entries on his site, so i´ll do the same. his blog is a lot more informative and you might get a better picture of things through his posts than mine.

so the election is sunday. i´ll probably stay inside all day because i don´t want deal with any of the negative campaigning anymore. hopefully by monday el salvador will have a clear winner......mauricio funes!!! ojala!

esta vez es diferente......

Sunday, March 01, 2009

el ultimo viaje

by far, this trip was probably the best i´ve taken since being here in central america. maybe because it was my last trip down here for a while. anyway, i´ll just get right to it since it´s gonna end up being a long blog entry. we were gone for something like 20 days, but it was well worth it!

so we started out from my place here in apaneca. our first destination was ANTIGUA, GUATEMALA, which as the name indicates, was the old capital of guatemala. i have to say that i really had avoided going to antigua because it is a tourist magnet. everyone and anyone who comes to central america goes to antigua. there is a small english magazine called ¨revue¨ that circulates around central america that is basically all about guatemala, but has a section about el salvador and honduras as well. anyway, i always seem to be able to have the latest copy of revue from wherever...a hotel, the old hostal, some office in san salvador. anyway, what scared me was the fact that this magazine is chock full of ads for businesses, hotels, restaurants...mostly in antigua. if you haven´t noticed by now, after all my blog entries about travel, i´m not a big fan of the whole ¨gringo central¨ thing. but it really would have been a shame to not at least visit antigua once.

so, since apaneca is fairly close to the guatemalan border, we were able to get to antigua in about 6 hours or so. first of all, when our bus pulled into the antigua city limits, i was completely amazed. antigua´s huge! i didn´t expect it to be that big. antigua´s a colonial town (like suchitoto in el salvador, only a gazillion times bigger!). our bus pulled into this weird terminal out in the middle of nowhere and that was it....we were there. we walked around trying to figure out how to get to the main plaza and finally ended up taking a mototaxi because we had no idea where we were and our packs were dragging us down. finally we were in the park, sitting there trying to figure out where to stay. we asked a couple locals where the cheap places were and this woman told us the name of a couple hotels. on the way, we stopped at a few places that were mentioned in our travel books and found them to be completely crazy in prices ($45!!!!! that´s nuts!!!). we finally found a hotel that had super cheap prices.....$6 a night for the both of us. perfecto.

after finding the hotel, i wanted nothing more than to take a siesta. i had a splitting headache and was super tired from getting on and off buses all day. later that night when i finally woke up, i was starving so i decided to go see if i could find some food. i walked down to the main street and was surprised to see a mcdonald´s directly across the street from the entrance to our hotel. i haven´t eaten at a mcdonald´s in years, but the ease of being able to go in, see the prices and order quickly was too tempting, so that´s what i did. when i came back to the hotel, courtney saw the mcdonald´s bag and just laughed.

antigua reminds me a bit of santa fe, new mexico. it´s a town that has things like mcdonald´s and burger king and kodak shops, but the stores blend in with the town. they don´t announce their existence with big billboards and neon signs. and alongside the mcdonald´s and bagel barn there are plenty of artesenias - you name it - jade, woodworking, cigar and clothes shops along with fine art galleries and restaurants. it was odd seeing all the stores and restaurants that i had seen advertised in revue - most of them looked nothing like i´d imagined they would.

consumerism aside, antigua´s best feature is its ruins. i don´t know what the final count is, but on a map courtney and i counted at least 23 catholic churches, most of them classified as ruins. i guess in any latin american city you´re going to finad a number of catholic churches, but for some reason in antigua it seemed to me that every street we turned down there was a catholic church or ruins of one.

like i said before, antigua was the old capital of guatemala, so this is probably the major reason for all the catholic churches and old colonial style. the great thing about antigua is the fact that it has retained its colonial look and feel. one of the things el salvador has failed to do is preserve any of its indigenous or colonial heritage, which is unfortunate both culturally and economically. many tourists come to guatemala because they want a glimpse into the past...they want to see a people who have kept their original dress, language and communities. (this always confuses me because then these same tourists after experiencing this want to know where the nearest dunkin´ donuts is!) guatemala is a place that takes pride in its indigenous traditions, whereas in el salvador, it is not celebrated at all. nobody wears traditional clothing in el salvador, there are maybe a handful of old women who can still speak nahuat and colonial structures are often torn down instead of restored. i think this is part of the reason el salvador has a hard time attracting tourists (well, that and the fact that people are still scared of the violence of the civil war and the notorious gangs). el salvador has other attributes - the surfing, volcano hiking, and above all, the people - but cultural tradition is one thing that´s missing here. back to wasn´t just the old capital of guatemala until 1773, it was also the old capital of basically all of central america at one point. the spanish set up shop in antigua much like they did in mexico city and lima, peru. however, the majority of the structures in antigua met their end in a couple of terrible earthquakes in 1773. this prompted establishment of guatemala city as the new capital.

the next morning we had a plan to go check out the old cemetery as well as the park and the main church in the park. i was not feeling too hot and i kept thinking it was because i ate gross mcdonald´s. it wasn´t until later in the day that i realized i was having that oh-so-familiar parasite feeling. gross! but we went ahead with our plan and first went to the old cemetery on the outside of the main town area. i am a big fan of cemeteries. they are such quiet, well-kept and, despite being filled with dead people´s remains, peaceful places. this old cemetery is huge and literally every tomb is a bright white that almost hurt my eyes to look at. there is a small church in the cemetery - st. lazarus - that was simple and at the time, people-free. outside the church, to the right, was what would have been an amazing view of volcán agua which looms over antigua. but at the time, the top half of the volcano was hidden by clouds.

iglesia de san lázaro

inside iglesia san lázaro

view of volcán agua, half-covered by clouds

after visiting the cemetery we made our way through town back to the main plaza. in the park there is a 250 year-old fountain called ¨la llamada de las sirenas¨ (mermaid´s call). the fountain is beautiful even though it´s kind of weird seeing water pouring out of the mermaids´ boobs. you know, it doesn´t matter where you are in the are always reminded of men´s fascination with women´s boobs. there are at least two volcanoes in el salvador whose nahuat names mean ¨breasts.¨ then you have the grand tetons in the rockies out west in the states. i could go on for days.....

immediately to the east of the park is antigua´s first catheral, catedrál san josé. it was first built way back in 1545, but that damned earthquake did it in in 1773 after being destroyed and rebuilt in-between 1545 and 1773. at one point it was huge - it had something like 18 chapels and a gigantic dome. only two of the chapels have been restored. buried under the alter of the old cathedral are a few people from Conquest times. the ruins are amazing. i can´t imagine what it was like back in the 1600´s when the church was at its biggest. i mean talk about making a statement. all those maya who were partially converted to catholocism probably thought there was no alternative with those huge catholic churches hovering over them. not to mention the fact that it was their labor that built them.

catedrál san josé

promenade of old government building that used to be the center of all of central america

view of old government building from the church plaza

inside catedrál san josé

view above in the ruins of the old catedrál san josé

tombs underneath the ruins

front doors of catedrál san josé, looking out on antigua´s main park and plaza

view of volcán agua from church plaza

anyway, we called it a day after all that religious archaeology. my parasites were attacking me and it ws time to find a cure.

the next day we started by walking down to the famous yellow arco de santa catalina, the site of a convent back in 1609. the iglesia de la merced is down the street and is also yellow - a really bright yellow. it was originally built in 1548, destroyed in 1717, reconstructed and destroyed again in - you guessed it - 1773. we didn´t go inside the church but we did visit the ruins on the other side. apparantly the fountain inside the courtyard is/was the biggest fountain in all of central america. i have no idea if that´s true but it IS really big, and, there wasn´t a breast to be seen anywhere on it. probably because there was a convent there back in the day. on the top of the cloister is a beautiful view of antigua and the volcanoes surrounding it: agua, fuego and acatenango.

arco de santa catalina

iglesia la merced

statue on fountain in la merced

wine casks

volcanes fuego and acatenango

after leaving la merced, we headed down across town in the hopes of going to casa popenhoe, which is a mansion restored to give an idea of what domestic life was back during antigua´s reign over central america. well, casa popenhoe was popen-closed so we headed further down the street and ran into the huge iglesia san francisco.

this church was built in 1579, but can you guess what happened? if you can´t, you haven´t been paying attention. yes, that blasted earthquake of 1773 destroyed it. this church is important because inside is the tomb of hermano pedro de betancourt, who was actually made central america´s first saint (and i think the ONLY saint) by pope john paul II. while the church itself is beautiful, the most fascinating parts of the place are the ruins and museum. even if you are not a religious person, the story of san hermano pedro is really interesting. hermano pedro was a franciscan who came originally from the canary islands and trujillo, honduras (a place i visited on my trip to honduras in july). anyway, he came to antigua and founded a hospital and did all these good deeds, including miracles of healing. the museum has tons of items dating from his time at the church, including his clothes, shoes, walking stick and furniture. probably the oddest things in the museum are hermano pedro´s deathbed sheets, clothes and get this - his underwear! these weren´t fruit-of-the-looms though. they were made of this strange mesh-like stitching and reminded me of chainmail. the tomb where hermano pedro´s remains are placed were originally in another tomb in the church. the church moved them to their present location and in the museum there are a series of photos showing the transfer of the bones as well as what the bones look like in skeleton form. pope john paul II came to give hermano pedro sainthood in 2002. i can only imagine the hoopla in antigua during the pope´s visit.

side entrance to iglesia san francisco

iglesia san francisco

inside iglesia san francisco

tomb of san hermano pedro bettancourt

paintings left on the ruins of iglesia san francisco

that night i had to decide if we were going to go on with our plan to leave for cobán the next day. i was not feeling well at all. the meds i had bought in the pharmacy were working somewhat, but i didn´t feel like getting in a bus and traveling for 6 hours. but i also didn´t want to screw up our plan so i just decided to wait until the morning to see how i felt.

iglesia san pedro, another catholic church in antigua

inside of iglesia san pedro

statues of maximón (san simón), the ¨evil saint,¨ for sale in a nearby artesania. we learned a lot about the maximón tradition when we visited santiago atitlán a couple years ago.

arco de santa catalina at night

more ruins

well, the next day, i didn´t feel any better, but i was on the last round of medicine so i just decided to chance it. we got on the bus and had to sit in back in the last available seat. i don´t know if any of you are familiar with sitting in the back of a bus but it´s the worst place to sit because you´re behind the rear wheels. so every time you go over a bump or are on less than smoothe streets you get shaken up like a martini. and since we were in the middle of colonial antigua with its cobblestone streets, by the time we got to the city limits and on the highway, i was was ready to lose it. my stomach felt like i had just swallowed a bunch of double-edged swords and they were slicing my insides open. it was horrible! when we finally arrived in guatemala city, i was on the verge of calling the trip quits. i saw no end in sight to the parasites and i imagined myself miserable and in pain and farther away from home. in guatemala city i could have easily made it back to apaneca by nightfall and that sounded more appealing to me than dealing with feeling gross for the next 2 1/2 weeks in hotel beds and on buses. but an amazing thing happened. when we got off the bus and got into a taxi, i started feeling a bit better. i think it was just that sitting in the back of the bus made things worse. or maybe the medicine finally was killing the parasites and they were all giving their final death cries. i don´t know. but by the time we got on the bus for cobán, i was feeling 100% better and ready to go. now i just had a 5-hour bus ride to make it through without the pain coming back!

so we were headed for COBÁN (not to be confused with copán ruinas in honduras which i visited back in 2006). cobán is located in the alta verapaz area of guatemala, high up in the pine forests. apparently, back during WWII times there were some germans who set up shop in the cobán region. bus since some of them were nazi sympathizers, the u.s. government urged the guatemalan government to oust them, so they were pressured to leave. however, they left a lot of their architecture and so cobán has quite a few buildings with chalet-type looks to them...which is odd amongst the lamina-roofed houses and central american style that makes up the rest of cobán.

when we finally got to cobán it was already around 5:00 so we had to find a place to stay. i hate this part of traveling - trying to find a place that´s cheap and wandering around like an idiot in search of that place. normally when we get into town we basically have to ask how to get to certain hotels that are listed in the travel book. often times we get to a particular hotel and find out that their prices are triple what the books says, so we end up wandering around until we find something reasonable. but we often run into people who tell us a hotel is one way when it´s in the opposite direction. or people lie and won´t tell you where someplace is because they want you to stay in their cousin´s hotel. however, in cobán, we ran into this nice guy who wanted us to stay in a hotel that he worked for. we told him we didn´t have that much money so he pointed us in the direction of hotel la paz which, he said, was 73 quetzales, less than his hotel. so we headed in that direction and, before we actually found it, we passed another hotel and this guy was going in and he said ¨you should stay here, the rooms are cheap.¨ so we checked out the room but realized it was a shared bathroom and it was 100 quetzales a night. then we found out that the guy we were talking to was only paying 50 quetzales a night because he was guatemalan and we didn´t think that was fair. so left and found hotel la paz and it was only 73 quetzales just like that first guy said, and we had our own bathroom. after all that was done it was like 2 hours later....that´s why i hate the whole ¨looking for a hotel¨´s so time-consuming! anyway, we settled in and were happy.

the next day we just decided to hang around cobán. i was outside our room, in the courtyard and there was an old woman sitting out in her pajamas on a bench. i started talking to her and found out she was the owner of the hotel, but i think she had short-term memory because she kept telling me how she´d traveled to egypt, spain, italy, mexico and the united states. i´d go ¨how did you like egypt?¨ and she´d say, ¨i´ve traveled to egypt, spain, italy, mexico and the united states.¨ it went this way for like 20 minutes. she was comical. then coronado, the hotel manager kept walking by and saying hi to us. he was so funny, but kind of a pervert, so we made sure we didn´t act toooo friendly towards him because we didn´t want him to get the wrong idea.

we walked around cobán and tried to find a woman courtney had met a tourism fair in san salvador. she was selling jewelry with orchids in them and had given courtney the information on the association in cobán. so we set out looking for her. first we went to the mayor´s office and got some information. they gave us two choices, neither of which led to the woman. we decided to go a clinic where supposedly a doctor there knew something about the association, but when we finally found it, the doctor wasn´t there. so we walked around some more and found an artesenia that coincidentally had the jewelry courtney was looking for.

chilis for sale in the cobán market

colorful tela in the cobán market

later we decided to walk up to a church called el calvario. el calvario sits way up above the city so to get there we had to climb up a series of steep stairs, passing by various shrines (and a passed out drunk) along the way. at the top, the smell of copal filled the air. copal is used in mayan religious ceremonies and i wasn´t sure why this man was burning it. while he was burning the copal, he was chatting with this woman while a little kid was hanging around gathering wood on the ground. there was a beautiful view of all of cobán from the church plaza on top. we walked into the church and found it empty. the thing that is interesting about latin american churches is that they all have something that sets them apart from the churches we saw the day before. in guatemala almost all the catholic churches have signs of both christian and pagan religions, whether it´s in the paintings (like the churches in antigua) or in the statues (like the church we saw in santiago atitlán on one of our previous trips to guatemala). i walked outside and started talking to the man and woman...i wanted to know what bird was making this crazy noise up in one of the tall trees. they told me its name was ¨ardilla¨ which is what squirrels are called as well. we talked some more and then courtney and i decided to make our way back down.

the first set of steps up to el calvario

iglesia el calvario

view of cobán

inside iglesia el calvario

at the bottom, we walked over to parque las victorias, the entrance of which was just about a kilometer away. when we got there we asked the guy at the entrance what time the park closed. he said 5:00 - it was about 3:00 so we asked if two hours was enough to hike the trails inside. he said ¨yeah¨ so we paid the entrance fee and went in. he gave us ¨walking sticks¨ which were just broom sticks. we headed down a trail and past a small laguna. the trail snaked through the forest where there were tons of tropical plants, trees and flowers. we climbed up for about 45 minutes until we ended up high above cobán and had a view of the other side of the city. we came to a sign that said ¨la montañosa trail, 4 km¨ to the right, and ¨el caracol trail, 8 km¨ to the left. we had taken the la montañosa trail to get up to the top and we had done that in 45 minutes. we thought well for sure we could go downhill on the caracol trail in 1 1/2 hours. so we decided on the caracol trail since we hadn´t seen that part of the forest. things were fine until we were about 45 minutes in to the hike and we were hiking uphill, then downhill, back uphill, and downhill again. we were also getting closer to the highway on the other side of the forest and further away from the entrance which was completely on the other side. it was getting really annoying. the trail kept going back and forth, up and down, and hugging the highway. we didn´t like being next to the highway because who knows what kind of people could just enter the forest from the highway. it´s not like in the u.s. where running into a highway is no big deal. here in central america, highways usually have a lot of foot traffic and delincuencia. anyway, so we just kept following the trail and the minutes kept ticking away. finally we ended up at the top of the mountain and a bit farther away from the highway and back into the middle of the forest. but we still didn´t know where we were in relation to the entrance of the park. it was now 5:00 and it was starting to get dark. finally we saw the roof of a building we thought was the visitor´s center which we had passed on the way into the park. but the trail we were on didn´t go past the building - just farther away . i was like ¨screw this.¨ i saw some lights, like along a road by the building through the trees and i told courtney we should just leave the trail, climb through the forest and get to the road by the building, especially because it was getting dark. so i led the way, trampling over the brush and thorny trees and we finally ended up on a trail by the building and the road that was in front of it. only the building wasn´t the visitor´s center, just a regular house and we were like ¨how the hell did we end up here?¨ we followed the road out of the park and ended up by cobán´s fútbol stadium. we followed the road back into town and realized we were really far away from the park entrance, on the other side of town! so we walked back to the entrance because we had to give back our broom stick walking sticks and when we came up to the entrance from the outside, the guard had this look on his face like ¨you guys are idiots.¨ we made our way back to the hotel feeling stupid, but relieved we had made it out of there before dark.

la montañosa trail

the next morning i woke up and courtney was gone. she had gone back to the park because she realized she had lost her camera case somewhere near the beginning of the la montañosa trail. she came back and said she didn´t have any luck finding it, but had run into a group of guatemalans who were hiking through the park for exercise. they told courtney she shouldn´t be walking through the park by herself because it is dangerous. they asked her, ¨haven´t you read the newspaper?¨ apparently gangs hang out there and rob people of everything - including their shoes! so i guess we were lucky that the only horrible thing that happened to us is that we got super lost!

anyway, that day our plan was to go to BIOTOPO DE QUETZAL. the biotopo is also known as biotopo mario dary rivera after a guy from san carlos university who was murdered in 1981 for battling timber companies in trying to establish protected areas for the quetzal. the quetzal is guatemala´s national bird and the name of its money, and its also a sacred symbol in the mayan world. problem is, it´s in serious danger of becoming extinct, mostly because its habitat is being destroyed. seeing one in the wild is rare, but it is possible, especially in the biotopo.

we took a 1 1/2 bus ride south to the biotopo and when we got there it felt like it was abandoned. nobody was at the front gate, so we walked up the trail and found the visitor´s center. we looked around a bit and then a man came down another trail and introduced himself as one of the park guards. he told us all about the park and about the trails and said the last time he saw a quetzal was a year ago. he explained that there were two trails and suggested we take the shorter one because the longer one was three hours long and it was threatening to rain. we agreed and set off by ourselves. the trail we were on was called el sendero de los helechos, which means the trail of ferns. and ferns there were on this trail. much like in parque las victorias, the trail led through the huge park amongst plants and flowers and even passing by a small waterfall. the biotopo de quetzal was a little wetter than parque las victorias because it´s at a higher altitude and most of the reserve is classified as cloudforest. we saw a bunch of pajuiles - a huge bird - and when we came back from the hike we were able to see some toucans in the trees at the entrance of the park. i really liked the biotopo and would have liked to have been there super early in the morning to catch a glimpse of more birds, but because it´s far away from cobán, it´s hard to get there really early unless you have a car. but i left happy at just being able to hike through the protected reserve.

quetzal in the visitor´s center at the biotopo....sadly, probably the closest i´ll ever get to a quetzal is this dead stuffed one....

on the los helechos trail

a pajuil through the trees

when we got back to cobán we decided to go check out the cost of a trip to SEMUC CHAMPAY - a series of limestone pools located in the lanquin area of guatemala. getting there by bus would have been difficult as there´s not much public transportation in or out of the area. we went next door to our hotel to another hospedaje that had a sign advertising trips to semuc. the price ended up being pretty reasonable, so we booked two seats for the microbus the next day.

the next morning the two drivers of the microbus got us at our hotel. when we climbed in the van, it was about full already. there were these three french-speaking girls, a german couple, and another couple in the back who didn´t talk so i didn´t know where they were from. nobody really talked that much the whole trip, except for one of the french girls who wouldn´t shut up. anyway, the van stopped about halfway to semuc and we got out and took in the beautiful view overlooking the mountains. it was really interesting because the mountains looked like thousands of small hills as far as you could see. we took some photos, then continued on our way.

when we got to the pueblo of lanquin, we turned off and continued down a dirt road until we came to a stop in a small parking lot. the driver said something about that these were the lanquin caves (grutas de lanquin) and we were going to stop here first and then continue on to semuc. well, we didn´t know we were coming here but figured since we were there, we´d pay and go check it out. i mean, we weren´t about to sit and wait in the van while the rest of the people went into the caves. so we paid and followed the three french girls and the driver into the caves. the driver was explaining about the caves and it was odd because he would only pay attention to the french girls. the old german couple was behind us and we were all trying to keep up with the driver and the french girls. then courtney said she though that the girls had paid for a guide to the caves and since we hadn´t that was probably why the guide/driver was ignoring us. that totally made sense, but then we were pissed because we didn´t even want to come there. we bought tickets for a ride to semuc, not the caves. and for us to have to sit in the van and wait for the french girls to have their guided tour was ridiculous. so we continued on with the german couple behind us. at one point the german woman turned around because i think it was difficult for her to climb up and down the slippery rocks. but her husband continued on with us. i didn´t really learn that much about the caves because the guide wouldn´t explain anything to us. but what i did catch is that is that the maya use the caves for religious ceremonies.

well, we continued on and i wanted to pass the french girls, so courtney and i did that, but then we came to what looked like a dead end. so we stood around and then the french group came up to where we were and the guide said to them in spanish ¨so here´s the end.¨ so courtney and the german guy started back and i followed and when i passed the guide, i heard him say to them ¨and now i have a little adventure for us, we´ll go down a little further on a different trail through the other part of the caves and come out on the other side.¨ like he was tricking us or something and we were missng out on something by not being able to go with them. we didn´t even want to go to the caves in the first place! we were really annoyed. we returned back where we came in and when we got back to the van, the german guy kept making comments to the other driver who had stayed with the van. i told courtney that i bet the german guy would go off on both of them at some point, because of the nature of germans. the german couldn´t speak spanish and his english was so-so, but he started getting really pìssed because it was getting later and we were still waiting for the french girls and their guide to get back. i kept telling courtney to get ready for a show from the german. sure enough when the french girls and the guide finally approached the van, the german blew up. the talkative french girl said ¨are we ready to go?¨ all smug and irritating and that was the last straw. the german guy yelled ¨hurry up! we´ve been waiting for you for over an hour!¨ then he started yelling at the guide/driver - in english - and he was saying he didn´t even want to go to the caves, that he and his wife are older and can´t climb around caves. why would they want to come there? then the french girl started arguing with him - in english - saying how they paid for a guide and the german said ¨we didn´t pay to come here!¨ it was hilarious! most of all because they were all arguing in english and it was all that stupid driver´s fault because he was trying to show us all up by taking those girls on that secret adventure. it was quite entertaining. we got on our way and the driver was trying to make up time so he was going way too fast on the road to semuc. it was crazy!

so we made it up to semuc in one piece and since we didn´t want to deal with any of the drama surrounding the french girls and their coveted guide, courtney and i tried to get a head start. we decided to climb the trail up overlooking the limestone pools first and then actually swim in them later. the trail up to the lookout was very steep and rocky, but our goal was to get up to the top before the french group caught up to us. i´d never climbed a trail like this before. there were parts where we actually had to climb up these ladders because it was so steep. finally, after about an hour we made it to the top and were rewarded with the amazing sight of the limestone pools below.

semuc champay from above

the cahabón river flows over (and under) the natural limestone bridge, which is why the water is a such a clear turquoise. we had a few minutes to enjoy the view when we heard the group coming. we took the last of our photos and went on our way. we followed the trail with miguel, who was supposed to be helping the other guide with the french girls. he said he didn´t feel like hiking with them because they weren´t very friendly, so asked if he could hike with us. we got down to the pools and miguel guided us around the bridge in order to view the river as it plowed underground. miguel told us that on time a tourist fell off the natural bridge and into the water and died, and when his body emerged downriver where the water hits daylight again, the only thing they found was a finger! he said the fish all at the rest! gross! later, we swam a bit and then it was time to go back to cobán.

the rio cahobón

when we finally got back the germans had had enough of the driver and at one point told us, in english, that he ws basically just stupid. i couldn´t have agreed more.

the next morning it was time to move on from cobán. we had another long trip ahead of us. we were heading north to flores in the petén district of guatemala. to get there we had to ride a microbus to sayaché, get on a boat across the river ¨la pasión¨ and then take another bus to santa elena/flores. so we begrudgingly walked over to the terminal and immediately hopped on a microbus packed with others on their way up north. it rained most of the way and we had to stop several times so the cobredor could cover everyone´s stuff that was on the top of the van. on the way, courtney made friends with this young guy who, when we got to sayaché, helped us with our stuff on the boat across the river. then, when we got to the other side, he ate with us at a comedor on the bank of the river. he told us he was in the military and works at the belize/guatemalan border putting data into a computer about other countries like the congo and haiti. we didn´t really understand, and he didn´t get into it any more than that, but it sounded like it was some kind of top secret government-type information. he was super nice and rode with us all the way to santa elena. he told us that when we passed through the belize/guatemalan border we should stop and say hi if he was there.

anyway, we took a mototaxi from santa elena to flores, an island full of hotels and restaurants which serves as a base for most people who are going to visit tikal which is about an hour and a half away. we were planning to go to tikal, but not until after we visited belize. so we found a cheap hotel and basically just crashed.

the next morning we were off to BELIZE. we took a bus to the border town of melchor de mencos. the road to melchor was not a paved one and the trip took a lot longer because of it. when we finally got there, we avoided the money changers, crossed the border and entered belize. our entry into belize was quite shocking. central american borders are very sketchy, dirty, filled with do-no-gooders and the migration offices are always kind of ramshackle. well, not so in belize. we entered the office and filled out a form (something we´ve never had to do crossing other borders in central america) and then when passing through inspection (again, never had to do that before), they confiscated my pears! all these sighs had warned about bringing in fruits and i guess i should have pitched them, but i only had four of them! anyway, we had known that belize was going to a bit more expensive than guatemala, honduras or el salvador, but we were in for a huge surprise.

when we got out of migration, taxi drivers bombarded us and we did need a taxi so we asked how much it was to go to benque, where we had to catch a bus to belize city. the price? $5!! ok, so that might not sound like a lot to people living in the u.s., but in el salvador, for example, you can get a taxi from one side of the city to the other for about $4 or $5. and the taxi to go to benque only had to go 3 km. we were starting to get nervous...we were thinking maybe we didn´t have enough money to actually do anything in belize.

we chatted with the cab driver, which was weird because it was in english. we were not used to speaking english, but since english is the official language in belize, we had to get accustomed to speaking it again. we started noticing all these chinese restaurants and tiendas and we asked the driver why and he said, ¨it´s the government. they let the chinese come here for free.¨ well, whatever the reason, there were a lot of chinese-owned establishments in belize. interestingly, belize seemed to be a mini-america melting pot of cultures and religions. we saw afro-carribbeans, latin americans, americans, chinese, and even saw a few mennonites, complete with horses and buggies.

we hopped on the bus to belize city and we even found the bus situation different from el salvador or guatemala. there were some kids standing up in the seats and the cobredor reprimanded them and made them sit down. in fact, he made everyone sit down and didn´t allow anyone to be standing in the aisle or anything. you would never see a cobredor doing that in el´s mayhem on the buses there! courtney and i were saying ¨we´re not in central america anymore!¨

the biggest thing i noticed about being in belize (aside from the high prices for everything) was the lack of people. it was nice to be somewhere where the buses weren´t overloaded with passengers, houses weren´t everywhere and people weren´t crowding the highways. just to be able to look out and see an uninhabited landscape was nice. the books say that there are about 300,000 people in belize. ok, so belize is about the same size as el salvador and el salvador has 7,000,000 people. big difference!

so on the bus ride we were just hanging out when this guy comes back and asked us where we´re from. we got to talking to him and he told us he´s a record producer from dallas, texas and he was down there in belize looking for the ¨next big rap/hip-hop artist.¨ his name was aaron and he was born in belize. he said that he´d been shooting a video in belmopan with the rapper sitting a few seats up, named mr. program. ??? he showed us this CD and it´s by mr. program. then aaron started telling us how in belize they charge tourists exhorbitant prices and if we needed a belizean to go around with us, we could call him and he´d prevent us from being overcharged on park entrance fees and things like that. courtney and i were both thinking, ¨is this conversation really happening?¨ when the bus got into belize city, aaron, courtney, me and mr. program got off the bus and we said thanks for the offer, but we were on our way to one of the islands. so they pointed us in the direction of the water taxi terminal and we were on our way. throughout the rest of our trip in belize we kept asking people if they knew mr. program and surprisingly, some people actually did! go figure.

we got to the terminal with a decision to make: which island to go to? caye caulker or ambergris caye (san pedro). our books said san pedro was more expensive, but it is supposed to have better beaches and be a prettier island overall. caye caulker would be more budget-friendly, but not as scenic. then we saw a billboard up in the terminal that advertised a place called ¨pedro´s inn¨ that stated that it was the cheapest hotel on san pedro and had rooms for 20 belizean dollars ($10 american). the ticket booth lady said san pedro was prettier, so we decided to go to SAN PEDRO (AMBERGRIS CAYE).

we hopped on the boat and since it was getting dark, we didn´t see anything on the 1 1/2 hour boat ride. there weren´t too many people on the boat and we were the only tourists. the boat stopped at caye caulker to pick up some boxes and then we were off again for san pedro. when we finally docked it was about 7:00 and we had no idea where to go. the boat guys told us we´d need a taxi to pedro´s inn so we walked down the main street and checked out the hotels there first. we kept hearing hollers and shouts every couple of minutes coming from the various establishments on the main street. we were like ¨what the hell is going on?¨ the places were filled with americans and then we put two and two together and realized it was super bowl sunday. i had no idea! when you´re traveling you kind of lose track of the dates and sometimes the actual days. courtney and i rolled our eyes and continued on our search for a hotel. we found a taxi and told him to take us to pedro´s inn which was on the opposite end of the island.

when we got out there, courtney went in and i waited in the taxi. she came out and said they had one room left and it was $30 (american). the taxi driver said, ¨that is the cheapest you´ll find on the island, believe me.¨ $30 was waaaay more than we had budgeted for but it was the cheapest so we had to take it. so we unloaded our stuff and went into the bar which was filled with older americans - mostly men. they were all drunk and there was a huge flatscreen television on the wall with the super bowl on and everybody was hootin´ and hollerin´. we paid for our room and the australian owner, peter, kept yelling wisecracks at us, joking around. everyone was was just strange being in there after being in central america so long, without that scene around us all the time like it is in the states. the bartender gave us the key and we walked up to the room which didn´t even have a door handle on it. the room we were faced with was, excuse my language, a piece of shit. the room measured probably about 6 feet x 6 feet, had two beds, a ceiling fan and a window. that´s it. the bathroom was shared with the rest of the rooms - all 40 of them - which were all on top of the bar below. we were pissed. not only did the room suck, but it was $30, not the $10 that they advertised. that was the whole reason we had come to san pedro! anyway, we sucked it up and decided to go down to the bar and eat something because we hadn´t eaten all day. that was another rip-off. we had no choice but to eat there because the hotel was out in the middle of nowhere. we got a pizza that cost $20 and had some beers. luckily, a few of the guys bought us some beers....which in belize are another rip-off. belikan, the belizean national beer, isn´t even a normal sized beer and it´s $2.50 a bottle. pilseners in el salvador are 70 cents and have more beer in them!

we met a bunch of characters in pedro´s. we first met wade, a pilot, who is basically living in san pedro because it is cheaper than living in the united states. and also, i suspect, to pick up women. i don´t think wade was the sharpest tool in the shed, but he was really nice. he just kept saying how he had all these different women coming to visit him in a couple of weeks. i looked around the bar and i came to the conclusion that it was kind of sad. all these retired american men, divorced, getting wasted, drinking jager shots, trying to re-live their college years. there were a few women who came in too - these older 45 plus year old women with leathery skin and dyed blond hair drinking shots and woohooing. it was definitely not my cup of tea, this whole scene. i mean, every once in a while it can be fun to go out and have a good time and act like an idiot at a bar, but after talking to those men, it was obvious that this is something that they do every single night. but you know, they are doing what they want to and i guess that´s what matters. in any event, it was interesting chatting with these people. i even played beer pong, which, jeez, i haven´t played since like 1993 or something. it´s been a while, but they (and courtney) forced me to play...i don´t know why! my partner was some guy who was on a show called ¨three sheets.¨ i won the game for us, surprisingly. maybe because i wasn´t crazy drunk. anyway, after a few hours in that place, we called it a night. it was ok, but all those people were just a reminder of how i don´t want to be when i´m in my 40´s or 50´s.

the next morning we got up and decided to walk down to the main street in town and see if we could find a different hotel. we asked at a few and they were all around $40-$60 and that wasn´t any better. then we came to a place called ¨thomas hotel¨ and there was an old man in the lobby. we asked him what his prices were and he pointed to a sign in the office that stated his rates were $35 a night. he said he could give us a discount on the tax so it´d only be $32.50. he kept telling us that the rooms were really nice, so we went up and checked one out. we were surprised because it had two huge beds, our own bathroom, a fridge and a television with cable. we told him immediately that we were staying there and that we´d be back after lunch. we were planning on staying on san pedro for two more days and if we were going to pay $30 a night we sure weren´t gonna keep staying in that dump pedro´s inn. the cool thing was, thomas (the hotel´s named after him, the owner) was born and raised on the island, so we felt better about staying in a local joint. and it was right on the beach! we were much happier because we were going to be getting what we were paying for. just because pedro´s is the cheapest (by a measly $5 at that) doesn´t mean it´s the better deal. we hiked back pedro´s, after eating some horrible mexican food, grabbed our backpacks and hiked it back out of there. as we were leaving, we ran into the bartender and she was like, ¨oh, where are you girls off to?¨ courtney, who was really mad about the whole thing, answered ¨another hotel.¨ the bartender was taken aback and asked why, didn´t we like our room? we said that first of all, they totally false advertised, and secondly, you don´t even get what you pay for. seriously, it wasn´t the room itself...i´ve stayed in more rustic conditions than was the fact that it was $30! a room like that should be no more than $3-$5. anyway, that bartended seemed miffed, but we didn´t care. we lugged our stuff down through town to thomas´s and we were happy.

i really don´t have much to say about san pedro. it was really beautiful and the reef is right there. but the influx of retired american folks, buzzing by on their golf carts and being loud kind of took away from san pedro´s beauty. it´s kind of how i imagine the bahamas to be. courtney ran into a local guy who said a developer who wants to build a huge resort is trying to get the local school torn down to make room for the resort. the local said that there´s nothing the local community can do about it because tourism rules in belize and the developer´s interests are more important to the government since tourism is the biggest industry belize has. it´s quite sad.

we did run into a couple salvadorans who were our waiters in the resturants where we ate. it was funny talking to them because they seemed excited to talk about el salvador. one guy was about my age and said his family had fled the war in el salvador in the 80´s and came to belize where the government gave them land because they were refugees.

you can´t go wrong with beaches like this (unless you stay at pedro´s inn....)

the rest of our time on san pedro was completely uneventful. i´m not sorry i went, but i was a little disappointed that i didn´t like it more. you win some, you lose some. we headed out of san pedro, back to belize city and on to a much better part of our trip.

our next destination was the COMMUNITY BABOON SANCTUARY which is located northwest of belize city, in a tiny village called bermudian landing. getting there was a bit challenging. we took a bus from belize city and had to get off at a desvio in burrell boom. we waited forever before some guy gave us a ride to the town of burrell boom. he said he would give us a ride to the baboon sanctuary for $20 and we said, ¨um, no.....¨ i mean, he had just given us a 20-minute ride for free and it was only another 1/2 hour to the sanctuary. we decided to just try our luck getting another ride. we waited where we were for a few minutes, then some guy told us there was a bus stop a kilometer down the road, so we started walking. a group of school kids caught up with us and walked with us, telling us what everything was....the schools, churches, etc. when we got to the bus stop, miraculously a ministry of agriculture pickup offered us a ride, so we hopped in the back and were delivered to the baboon sanctuary in no time.

there was nobody there, the visitor´s center was vacant except for one woman who was working there. she sid we could camp there for $5 a person and we could leave our backpacks in the center if we wanted. we paid the entrance fee and with that got a short guide into the sanctuary. the thing that is cool about the sanctuary is that it´s not a national park - it´s a community-run project. the monkeys, which are not baboons but howler monkeys (the howlers are called baboons in belize) are protected by a voluntary agreement signed by the members of bermudian landing and six other communities in the area. the members of the communities, who all own the land where the howler monkey habitat is, voluntarily signed an agreement vowing to not destroy the habitat of the monkeys. so far, every community has kept true to its word and over 1,600 monkeys are thriving in the forests of the sanctuary.

our guide, kim, took us across the road and pointed out some of the birds, plants and trees of the area before taking us through a clearing where we saw this huge iguana perched in a tree.

a cool iguana taking a nap

this flower is called ¨hot lips¨

then, out of nowhere, came a group of 7 howlers. they climbed down through the trees near to where we were standing. one of the howlers had a little baby howler that clung to her. the guide explained that these were all females. the males (who make all the noise) stayed deep in the forest. i was staring up at one of the monkeys when i felt something drip on me and i realized another monkey higher up was peeing on me! i moved out of the way, grossed out, but laughing because i´d never had that happen to me before and probably wouldn´t ever again. it was amazing watching them, just in the wild, not in a zoo or anything. we watched them a while, then moved on, checking out other stuff in the forest.

two female howlers

the same two howlers, but the baby decided to make an appearance as well

we returned to the visitor´s center and decided we wanted to eat. kim told us there was a little hut down the road that had good food. we headed down there and ordered food and waited at a rickety table outside. some guy came and started talking to us - his name was russell, and he had his son with him. he works as a guide for tourists and was telling us how it was hard for local guys like him to get business because of the monopoly some bigger outfits have giving guides throughout belize. see, cruise ships make a stop in belize city and the passengers have the opportunity to get off the ship and then go somewhere for the day. what happens is big companies get the first opportunity to sign up people on the cruise ship, so end up getting the bulk of the business. meanwhile, guides like russell have to stand out in front of the gate where the passengers get off the ship and try to catch a group of toursts that haven´t already signed up on the ship. so it´s just up to chance. so most guides have to buy their own van so they´re able to take small groups to the belize zoo or any other area of interest to tourists in belize. belize is so small that you can practically go anywhere and back in a car in a short amount of time.

anyway, russell was going on about how things aren´t fair in belize. the poor people never get any opportunities to make money. the more we were in belize, the more we got to see just how belize works. where is all the tourism money going? it isn´t going to the belizeans.

russell chatted with us for a while then said if we needed a ride the next morning to belize city, he could take us because he had to go meet the cruise ship and try to get a group. he said he´d stop by the visitor´s center around 7:00 if we wnated a ride. we thanked him and made our way back to the visitor´s center. on the way, we stopped at this tienda which was literally, out in the middle of nowhere, and it was guess what - chinese owned! we thought we´d be able to get some fruit or something, but the store didn´t have anything like that....just huge cans of stuff like pork-n-beans.

when we were going into the visitor´s center back at the sanctuary, an older man with a huge beard approached us and at first i thought he was a bolo. but then he introduced himself as fallet and we realized he was one of the founders of the sanctuary from what we had read in the center earlier. he asked us if we were interested in doing a night hike. we thought it´d be cool, so we signed up. like i said before, fallet, along with a dr. rob harwitch, founded the sanctuary in 1985. dr. harwitch had been doing biology studies in the are when he ran into fallet. fallet asked him what he was doing on private land and dr. harwitch said he was interested in the area and suggested the idea of the sanctuary. fallet said that dr. harwitch was lucky that it was he who ran into him because normally strangers found on private land usually found themselves on the wrong end of a 12-gauge shotgun. anyway, fallet gave us a discount because we had our own headlamps and told us to meet him at 7:00 and wear bug repellant.

in the meantime, we decided to hike down the road to the belize river. one of fallet´s dogs decided to come with us. when we got to the side road that led down to the river, a guy came down from a house above and cut us off. he introduced himself as shane and said he was trying to start an ecological education center here. another guy came down ahead of us and shane said he and his friends were all working together to try and get the center started. he said he had cut out some trails on his property through the forest and wanted to show us. we followed him and i didn´t think anything of it. shane was telling us the names of the trees and the history of the plants and stuff. the trail wove around the forest and the male howler monkeys began to start their 4:00 rituals. they were so unbelievably lions roaring or something. anyway, we walked through the forest with shane and his fried and shane asks if we thought we´d be able to find our way out of here if we needed to. i thought that was a weird thing to say and i started thinking - what if this whole things is a set-up, they´re just luring us somewhere where we can´t get out. at least fallet´s dog was with us. but then i started noticing things we had passed before and soon we emerged up by the road and shane´s house, where he lived with his grandmother.

all shane´s friends were out horsing around and listening to reggae. they brought out a couple of chairs for me and courtney and now we were hanging out with this group of guys who seemed like they were ready to party. shane told one of his friends to go get some rum at the ¨china shop¨ and i thought ¨they´re going to get rum at a place that sells dishes?¨ and then i realized they were talking about the tienda we had visited earlier. anyway, the next thing we knew we were drinking these really strong rum drinks. it was quite funny hanging out with them, but fallet´s dog seemed to be telling us it was time to go. he kept getting up and walking towards the road, looking back at us like ¨come on guys.¨ i did want to leave because it was getting late and we had to meet fallet at 7:00. we said goodbye and shane seemed sad to see us go. courtney told me on the way back to the visitor´s center that shane had mentioned to her that he couldn´t believe we let him and his friend take us into the forest like that. he said he thought it was cool that we trusted them, that we weren´t snobby. i said i didn´t even think twice about it until he mentioned our ability to find our way back!

fallet met us later and we set out for our night hike (after trying some cashew wine made by fallet´s son). we entered the forest with our headlamps on and immediately i saw all around us this reflection like the ground was wet with dew. after examining a leaf more closely, i realized it wasn´t moisture, but spiders! thousands and thousands of them....some of them were sooooo huge! it was so cool seeing how they were all around us, everywhere, in the trees and all over the ground. it made me more aware of the fact that even though we can´t always see them (or other insects) when we are walking through the forests, they are still there. so i tried to be extra careful with my steps so as not to step on them and kill them. we kept hearing all these crashes throughout the forest and we´d turn off our lights and just stand there and listen. it was creepy but soooo cool! three hours later when the hike was over, fallet apologized because he said we didn´t really see any animals except bats, but we were like ¨no! it was soooo cool!!¨

fallet gave us the key to the visitor´s center so we could get at our backpacks when we needed to. we said gracias and went about trying to get everything set up. it ws freezing cold and so we layered on the clothes. this was the first time sleeping in the tent since i bought it last year. it was really cheap and not that big, but we needed a small tent to be able to carry it in our backpacks. we couldn´t have a huge tent with a bunch of poles because it would´ve weighed us down too much. we were basically hillbilly campers because we didn´t have a raincover or anything. so courtney had bought a huge piece of plastic at the ferreteria in el salvador. we cut it in half and used half for the bottom of the tent and the other half fo rthe top to keep rain out. it was quite a spectacle. but, if anyone reading this knows me, this is how i operate most of the in point, my car back home with its ducktape repairs. haha.

it didn´t rain at all that night, but it was a tight fit in the tent. courtney kept waking me up throughout the night to tell me she thought there was somebody prowling around. i looked outside and all i saw was a cow wandering over by fallet´s car. courtney insisted she saw two people and i´m like ¨it´s a cow with horns eating grass!¨ i didn´t really sleep that much more after that.

we woke up super early the next day and took down the tent. around 6:30, russell pulled up into the sanctuary and asked if we wanted a ride. we said yeah and scrambled to get our stuff together. we hopped into his van and greeted russell and his wife, who turned out to be the same woman who cooked us food the day we were chatting with russell. the trip to belize city was fast and russel let us out at the bus terminal. we thanked him and wished him luck. we boarded the bus for belmopan because we were headed for THE BELIZE ZOO. the belize zoo is one of the few zoos where its animals are housed in huge enclosures that are exactly like their habitats. the zoo takes in animals that have been rescued and attempts to rehabilitate them so they can be released back into the wild.

the bus left us off at the zoo entrance. we had to walk down a dirt road for a bit before coming to the visitor´s center. the gift shop let us leave our backpacks in the office. we were pretty stinky since we had slept in our clothes in the tent the night before and had not showered. we changed in the bathroom, brushed our teeth and were then ready to see the zoo. we were greeted with a photo of harrison ford, outside the gift shop, from what looked like the 80´s. he looked super young and was wearing a belize zoo t-shirt and i was wondering what that was all about.

the zoo was great! i was excited to see the tapirs. we saw jaguars, more howler monkeys, the most horrible-smelling peccaries, ocelots, tigrillos, cool harpy eagles and so much more. everything about the zoo was great except the groups of cruise ship tourists that swarmed the place for about two hours. why are americans so loud??? when we were looking at the jaguar, this dumb woman kept going ¨here kitty kitty!¨ really loud. but, what are ya gonna do? they´re enjoying their vacation i suppose. but guess who we saw? russell! we were happy to see that he was successful in getting a group to take to the zoo.

a tapir!

spider monkeys being their awesome selves

a toucan....their colors are so amazing!

a smaller, different species of toucan...these toucans were really friendly too. i couldn´t get enough pictures of them!

i swear, if i am in a bad mood, all i have to do is look at this picture.

a puma hanging out. it´s sad to think that el salvador used to have all these animals and there are basically none left.

now for the male howlers. if i could get the video tool on this blog to work, i´d post a video of them howling....but it´s not working right now so you´ll just have to use your imagination. (well, what d´ya know...i got it to work! the video´s below...)

a tigrillo who had just woken up from a nap

one of the jaguars....he wouldn´t stop pacing in front of us, so most of the photos i took of him are blurry.

one of the two harpy eagles. i had never seen a harpy eagle before.

a little blue bird

when we left the zoo it was raining and we had to wait for a while on the highway until a bus for the border passed. but once we hopped in we had a couple hours to rest. except for having to pay a steep $15 belizean departure tax, the trip back across the border into guatemala was uneventful. we made it to flores later that night and crashed at the same hotel we had stayed at before.

our plan was to camp at TIKAL for two nights, then take the one bus that goes through tikal and up to uaxactún, another mayan site. therefore, we didn´t need a roundtrip ticket on a microbus from flores, which is what most tourists need. there are a few hotels in tikal, but most people stay in flores, take a co-op microbus up to tikal and return the same day. even if you stay in tikal, you can use your roundtrip ticket to return when you want. but we didn´t need to do that because we´d be taking the local bus up to uaxactún as well as the local bus back from uaxactún to santa elena. however, everywhere we went in flores, nobody would sell us a one-way ticket. it was so annoying and when we asked about the local bus schedule (the buses that all the people who aren´t tourists take) from the terminal in santa elena, nobody in flores would tell us the truth. they all said there was no service up there. then someone said that maybe there was one bus, but it left at 6:00 a.m. whatever. we finally just chanced it and got a mototaxi to the terminal and found out there were local buses that went up to tikal all day. ugh! what liars people can be just to earn a buck. anyway, we got on the next bus up to tikal and when we got there i was relieved to set up camp and get tikal under way. despite all the other great places we´d been on the trip, tikal was the point of the whole thing. i´d been waiting to see tikal for forever and i was finally going to get the chance!

we set up our hillbilly tent which took forever because the ground, while a grassy field, was almost pure rock underneath. we had to use gallon jugs of water to hold the plastic down on top of the tent because it was a little bit windy. the campground caretaker, gonzalo, was super friendly, so we felt totally at ease leaving our stuff in the tent while we went to the visitor´s center and checked things out. if we entered the park after 3:00 p.m. we could use our ticket for the next day. we decided to get our tickets and then set up a guide for the next day at 6:00 a.m. so we could check out the place before all the tourist groups got there.

at 6:00 the next morning, we met juan, our guide, at the entrance and set off to finally see tikal, the best-known symbol of the mayan world. tikal´s original name was ¨musul¨ meaning ¨meeting place of pueblos,¨ and the more modern name of tikal means ¨place of voices.¨ tikal was powerful, but fell second behind that of el mirador to the north (on the border of guatemala and mexico, and site of the largest temples in the mayan world. i really want to go there, but it is an undertaking. two days of hiking, there and need about a week or so just to make the trip. maybe one day i´ll go!). this was around the time of christ, although construction at tikal began as early as 500 BC. because a huge volcano erupted in el salvador in 250-300 AD, which covered many parts of guatemala with ash, el mirador lost power which resulted in tikal and uaxactún (25 km to the north) battling for power. tikal eventually won out with help from other mayan cities like kaminalijuyú (modern day guatemala city). so tikal then controlled petén for about 300 centuries. at that time the population was between 50,000 and 100,000 people. but in the middle of the 6th century, tikal lost its dominance because of growing powers in other mayan cities like caracol, in belize, and catakmul in the north. tikal once again regained power in the 7th century and tikal continued to build temples up to 869 AD when it seems as if everything stopped. tikal was abandoned in the 10th century after the collapse of the mayan civilization in 900 AD.

the old sign of tikal when it was called ¨musul¨

juan led us first to the palacio de acanaladuras where the maya had found a way to capture the rain as a source of water for the civilization. because the whole area is limestone, there is no water source nearby, so finding a way to bring water to the people was a necessity. next we went to temple V, which is huge. it was just recently excavated and restored in 2003. juan told us we could climb up to the top if we wanted, he said he´d wait for us. so we did and it was nauseating! it had been raining a bit and so the wooden steps (which were vertical ladder-type steps) were kind of slippery. when i stepped on the top, i had serious vertigo. the landing was really narrow and there was no guardrail or anything. i had to sit down in front and just take in the view like that. but it was cool because in the distance were the tops of temples III and IV. it was a great view but i had to get down from there.

temple V

view from the top of temple V

another view from the top of temple V

after we both made it down, juan led us to the plaza de los siete templos and el mundo perdido. we then went to temple IV which has a claim to fame as being used for the star wars movie, return of the jedi...the scenes with the ewoks. anyway, we decided not to climb it just yet because we were planning on staying another day and figured we could do it later.

temple IV

another huge central american amate

juan led us to the great plaza where the most photographed temple of the mayan world, temple I or temple of the jaguar is located. also in the great plaza is temple II or temple of the masks. both are completely uncovered and juan told us that the excavation of these temples has caused the most environmental destruction in the park. the rest of the temples and structures in the park that have been excavated are only partially excavated - most only half uncovered - in order to leave the trees and plants that have grown in, around and over the temples, growing.

the plaza is beautiful and is flanked on both sides by the northern acropolis and the central acropolis. we didn´t climb temple II (climbing temple I isn´t allowed) just then, saving that for later.

temple I, temple of the jaguar

temple II, temple of the masks

by the time our tour ended, the throngs of tourists were beginning to arrive so we were glad to take a break back at the campground. while courtney was showering, i was talking to gonzalo and he asked me what i studied in school and i said history and anthropology. he immediately thought i was an archaeologist and i assured him that i wasn´t, that i had studied cultural anthropology and took only a few archaeology classes. he seemed to ignore this little fact and wanted to know what i thought of the reconstruction of temple IV. i told him i didn´t know, that we hadn´t seen to much of it yet. he said that it was a bad reconstruction because the guatemalan archaeologists doing the work were inexperienced. i told him i didn´t know one way or the other - i´ve never studied how to reconstruct a temple before!

anyway, we ate and then headed for the museo litico in the visitor´s center. the museum was really informative about the discovery and excavation of tikal. tikal was discovered in 1848 by an expedition of the guatemalan government led by modesto mendez. a swiss scientist came shortly after and removed parts of temples I and IV and took them back to switzerland where they are in a museum. in 1881, english archaeologist alfred maudslay came and photographed the place. this started a huge project to begin excavation and in 1956 that was started by the guatemalan institute of anthropology and the university of pennsylvania. most everything was finished by 1984, but there is ongoing work being done constantly.

juan made a good point though when he was walking with us earlier. we told him we lived in el salvador and he asked us if we´d ever been to joya de cerén, an archaeological site outside of san salvador. we said we had and he told us we were lucky to have ssen that because it´s the only preserved site in the central american mayan world that shows us what life was like for the normal, everyday maya. tikal, uaxactún, copán, etc. are all sites that while grand, only give us an idea of the lives of the elite. joya de cerén is a site that was preserved by ash from a volcanic eruption in san salvador and is sometimes referred to as ¨the pompeii of the americas.¨ most people think joya de cerén isn´t interesting, but what people don´t realize is that it´s not always the big temples that are the most important!

after we visited the museum, we went back to the grand plaza and climbed up temple II and just hung out there taking pictures until the sun went down and we got kicked out with the rest of the tourists because it was 6:00.

that night it rained a lot and the next day when we hiked up to temple IV it was still raining, so we didn´t get to see the great view...just fog. we waited it out, but it didn´t stop, so we climbed down and decided to hike down to temple VI or the temple of the inscriptions. it was a long hike out there, but we finally made it.

view from the top of temple IV, at least on the morning we were decided to climb it

back of temple VI, temple of the inscriptions

more spider monkeys!

complejo Q (that might not be right...usually the complejos are the unexcavated sites, but i looked on the map and that´s what it said...?)

top of complejo Q

my new favorite tree, the ¨palo jiote,¨ or ¨indio desnudo,¨ or in mayan, ¨chakaj¨

one of the colorful pavos that roam tikal

after temple VI we decided to go hike the trail on the other side of the park. there was supposed to be a tree lookout on the trail. we started out and found the mirador, but it was kind of rickety and it was super slippery because it was made of wood. courtney climbed up first and i followed, but when i got to the first landing, i said forget it. it was foggy and i knew i wouldn´t be able to see anything at the top and i seriously didn´t want to fall to my death climbing a stupid tree lookout. so i backed up and went down while courtney went up top.

courtney climbing down from the tree lookout

we continued down the trail and then it started raining horribly and we sludged through for what seemed like forever. finally after more than two hours, we came out of the forest and back to the campground. we had been on our feet for more than six hours that day!

our abode for two days in tikal (and at the baboon sanctuary)

comparing me with the tent, it´s hard to imagine both courtney and i fit in there. but we did!

we were waiting for the bus to pass through tikal for UAXACTÚN around 3:00 when courtney decided to ask the guys at the info booth about cerro cahui, which we were thinking about visiting on our way back from uaxactún in a couple of days. all of a sudden i heard courtney yelling my name and i look up to see the bus passing by. so we ran to catch the bus and just made it. on the ride up through the jungle, i really felt like i as in the middle of nowhere - probably because we WERE in the middle of nowhere. there was nothing but trees on either side of the one-lane dirt road for 25 km.

when we finally entered uaxactún, i felt like i was back in time. uaxactún is so far removed from any big town that the people have been able to retain most of the mayan traditions. there were no cars, except the pickups used to make trips into the mountains. anyway, so we got into uaxactún and the bus left some poeple off at the entrance. then the bus swung and came out in front of the disused airstrip. there the bus stopped and a kid came running up to greet the bus and told the cobredor to tell the gringas to get off the bus. there was all this commotion about whether we should get off or not and i looked out the window to see a familiar face.

see, back on our first day in tikal, we came across this woman selling these really cool dolls made out of corn husks and flowers and other things found in the forest. we thought they were really unique and wanted to buy some, so we asked the woman if she was going to be selling them on sunday because we didn´t want to have to store thme while we camped. she said she wasn´t going to be there the next day or the day after, unfortunately. we mentioned that we were going up to uaxactún on sunday and she said ¨i´m from uaxactún.¨ we asked her if it would possible to find her in uaxactún and buy some fo the dolls from her when we were there and she said, ¨sure, just ask for susie consuelo.¨ so we said we would and went on our way. on sunday, when we were walking through the park, we saw another girl selling those dolls in the same spot. we asked if she knew susie consuelo and she said ¨yeah¨ and so we told her how we were going up to uaxactún that afternoon. so when we got on the bus, that same girl was the bus too and she got off at the first entrance to uaxactún, ran down to susie´s house and told her that two gringas were looking for her. we didn´t know that, but when we saw susie standing outside our bus with her son, we put two and two together.

anyway, susie said we should stay at the place where the bus had stopped, so we got off the bus and followed susie. turns out, the tienda where we were going to stay is also the house where the owner of the bus lives. (that worked out for us when we had to leave a couple days later!) so we got settled in and susie led the way to a comedor where we scarfed down eggs and beans. later we went back to the tienda/hotel and susie said she could go with us to the ruins and show us around the next day. so we made a plan for the next morning.

there´s not much electricity in uaxactún - only about 3 hours a day. so it was lights out rather early. the next morning we got up and went down to the tienda and then decided to go find some pan dulce and café. we walked across the airstrip and to a panaderia and bought some pan and asked where we could get café. there was nobody in the place where we were directed to, so we just wandered around the dirt roads up the way. at one house an old woman was looking out the window and i asked if she knew where we could get some café and she said she could make us some. so she invited us in her house and chatted with us for a while. after sharing our pan dulce with her and drinking our cups of coffee, we said goodbye and went to find susie back at the tienda.

the old airstrip in uaxactún

uaxactún´s catholic church

little girl hanging out in the tienda in front of where we stayed in uaxactún

i think this old man thought i was a goofball, but he enjoyed seeing the picture i took of him

susie took us up a back trail to the first set of ruins, which were awesome. the thing that is really cool about uaxactún (and parts of tikal as well) is that there are huge hills amongst the forest that are all unexcavated temples and structures. i can´t imagine how much more there is to discover and how big these cities really were.

susie in front of the uaxactún ruinas sign

susie was great because she was all for climbing up to the tops of the ruins. she kept talking about how the kids in uaxactún are bad and do all this stuff to the ruins. it was kind of comical how she´d keep mentioning how back in the day such and such ruin was in better shape before those darned ¨niños traviesos¨ ruined everything.

the ruins in uaxactún seemed a lot more grand to me and i think it was just because we were the only ones there and everything was silent and eerie. susie explained how tikal workers came up and put in all these signs about uaxactún but that uaxactún doesn´t get any help financially from tikal. yet tikal charges people to get to uaxactún. and on all the signs, they have the tikal logo and don´t put anything about uaxactú tikal encompasses uaxactún. when in reality, they were two separate cities who fought for power in the past and are still two separate villages today.

the inside of a fruit called ¨huevos de caballo¨ is sticky, just like glue. susie said that when kids can´t afford glue for school they sometimes collect this gooey substance to do their schoolwork. also, parrots eat the fruit.

susie in front of some tombs

anyway, we went deep into the forest where susie showed us these holes in the ground that the maya used for cooling off in the heat of the summer (dry season). those were creepy! no way was i climbing down there!

a natural air conditioner....a hole in the ground in the forest

after seeing the ruins in group A we crossed through town to the ruins in group E, which are super impressive because these are the temples constructed to act as an observatory. there are four temples in all - one temple faces three smaller ones directly in front of it. on the shortest day of the year, december 21st (winter solstice), the sun rises behind the southernmost temple; on march 21st (the vernal equinox) and september 23 (the autumnal equinox) the sun rises behind the middle temple; and on the longest day of the year, june 21st (summer solstice), the sun rises behind the northernmost temple. below these temples is one of the oldest temples in petén. susie kept saying how the buildings in tikal are all so young compared to those in uaxactún and that some of the uaxactún structures date back thousands of years before christ.

the three temples behind which the sun rises

one of the temples used for the sun observations

view of the three temples used for the sun observations from the top of another temple

so we came upon this sign and asked susie ¨who is ´they´¨ and she answered ¨the monkeys!¨ apparently when monkeys see trash laying around this area, they put it in the trash cans!?!?!?!?! so the sign says ¨if they can, we can too.¨ i would´ve died to see a monkey putting a churro bag in a trash can.....

susie climbing down from the top of a temple

by the time we left the ruins in group E i was completely happy that we had come to uaxactún and i decided that it was my favorite part of the trip.

we ate a really late lunch - it was already about 3:00 - at the same comedor and when we asked what she had, we were told that ddeer was the choice that day. so we ordered that and invited susie to eat with us. we got to talking to the woman who owned the comedor, maria, and her husband. they thought it was cool that we lived in el salvador and that it was even cooler that i was married to a salvadoran. that deer meat was good, really good. at one point courtney said to me ¨looks like they have an AA (alcoholics anonymous) group here too.¨ and i said, ¨how do you know that?¨ she pointed to a sign above the door at maria´s house next door. i looked at the sign and said ¨that doesn´t say anything about AA!¨ the sign said ¨recuerdo de coban, c.a.¨ courtney thought it said ¨bienvenidos a grupo AA¨ hahaha. we laughed so hard at that and courtney said ¨i need to get my eyes checked.¨

susie´s son, guidman, hanging out at the comedor

maria with her two main dishes....deer and pavo meat

we left the comedor to go back and rest. susie was going to bring back her dolls. her son, guidman, who was so adorable, wanted to hang out with us while his mom went to get her stuff, so she let him stay. we hung out with guisman for a couple hours, then susie came back with her dolls for us to pick from. we bought a lot - as well as some chicle natural (natural gum). uaxactún is a chicle harvesting area, the chicle is harvested from the chico zapote tree and the farmers who do the harvesting are called chicleros. they also harvest xate, a decorative plant that is exported to other countries. i tried the chicle and it tastes just like a tree, but it´s surprisingly good.

susie with her dolls all set up to sell to us

guidman hanging in the hammock singing to us

after we bought our muñecas, we went back to the comedor again. we had to eat then because the electricity wouldn´t be on later. we were actually happy to go back and eat more deer meat. we chatted a really long time with everyone and when it was time to leave, i was sad. i was sad that we had to leave uaxactún the next day and i think susie was sad to see us go. she had been super nice to us and took us to those ruins and never asked us for one cent the whole time. when she came back to our hotel with us, we gave her some money and she seemed really shocked, but grateful. i knew she was super poor because when we bought those dolls, guisman said to her ¨now we can eat.¨ she couldn´t even sell her dolls on saturday or sunday in tikal because she had to go out and look for beans in the milpa. anyway, i felt bad for her, but you know, she´s trying by making those dolls. so i hope she has luck with that.

we gave susie and guisman a hug and i though susie was going to cry and i was sad. tehy went on their way and soon after, it was lights out.

a guy driving his horses up the road

a uaxactún road

at first when we passed this pig i thought it was a dog!

we had to be up super early to catch the only bus out at 6:00. we got on the bus and went around town picking everyone up, and then stopped again in front of the tienda and the bus owner got on and told everyone that if they had any pacaya (an edible plant) or turkeys or anything that they wouldn´t be able to take them through tikal because tikal bans taking those things out of the protected forest. which is understandable....they don´t want another el salvador on their hands up there.

so we got all the way down to the front entrance gates to tikal and the inspectors got on the bus and immediately seized a bag from this old woman, which seems to have had a dead turkey in it. they they seized this huge bag of pacaya from this other guy. the old woman was pissed. but so were the driver and the owner because then they had to straighten things out with the inspectors. our bus was detained for a least 45 minutes while they straightened it out! ugh.

finally we made it to el remate and courtney and i got off the bus and found somewhere to eat. we were going to take an 8:00 p.m. bus back to guatemala city, so we had all day to kill. we decided to hike out to CERRO CAHUI, a reserve in el remate. the lady at the restaurant where we ate said if we wanted we could leave our backpacks there and pick them up when we got back. we said thanks and were on our way.

we had to hike a ways down a road before we finally go to the entrance to the park. the guards told us it would take about three hours if we did the whole trail, so we set out, not knowing what to expect. the first part was pretty easygoing, but then we hit the uphill part and it seemed like all we did was climb up steep rocks for two hours. but once we got to the first lookout it was worth it for we had a beautiful view of lago petén itza. we hiked up even further and there was another lookout with the further lagunas in view as well. the rest of the trail was basically easy downhill after that amongst the amazing forest.

view of lago petén itza

the trail through cerro cahui

view of the lake from ground level

we made it back in roughly the three hours we were told it would take and made our way to the restaurant to get our stuff. from there, we hopped on a bus back to santa elena, stopping along the way at a new mall that was in the middle of construction, but whose pizza hut was open. we figured after all the hiking we had done over the past three weeks, we deserved some pizza.

back at the santa elena terminal, we were about three hours early. it was only 5:00 and our bus didn´t leave until 8:00 so we bought our tickets and then went in search of an internet place. we found one and wasted about an hour checking our email, then walked back to the terminal. we sat around waiting for 8:00 to roll around and at around 7:30 i watched all the people on the 7:30 bus get on and depart. at around 7:45 i went to buy some o.j. and cookies and i gave the kid a 100 quetzal bill and he had to go get change. i said ok and he left and then all of a sudden i hear courtney ask the guy announcing the buses if the bus that just left was the 8:00 one. he said yeah and told courtney to run out there and stop it. what happened in the next five minutes was complete insanity.

i forgot about my change and grabbed my big backpack and my recuerdos i had in another bag and ran out after courtney. courtney came running back and said she´d caught the bus and they were waiting. i gave the cobredor my backpack to put underneath the bus, then realized i´d forgotten my change and had to run back in. plus i had to go to the bathroom....we were on the verge of taking an 8-hour bus ride. i got my change from that kid, then went to go to the bathroom and that stupid guy hollered at me and told me i couldn´t go because the bus was waiting. i said ¨it´s your fault - the bus isn´t supposed to leave until 8:00.¨ he just shrugged his shoulders. so i went back to get on the bus and then i remembered my other backpack. i had asked courtney to hold it while i bought my o.j. and so when i got on the bus i asked her if she had it and she said no, so i had to run back in the terminal like and idiot. thank god there it was sitting on the bench. jeez! finally i got back on the bus and we took off and me and courtney were like ¨did that just happen?¨ it was so crazy!

the bus stopped a couple times so i was able to go to the bathroom thank god. i slept fitfully on the bus and finally we approached guatemala city. when we got to the drop-off point, we told a taxi driver we wanted to go to the terminal where the buses leave to go to the border las chinamas. he said ok and when we got to the terminal there were hardly any buses there. it was only 4:30 a.m. and another bus driver said that there weren´t any buses to the border until 6:30 a.m. but he said that his bus went to jutiapa and from there we could switch buses and go to the border. he said it was 30 quetzales and we said ¨we paid 30 quetzales to go from the border to guatemala city¨ and he said we´d only have to pay the 30 quetzales on his bus and on the next one in jutiapa we wouldn´t have to pay. we had no choice because we didn´t want to sit around the terminal for two hours. so we got on and about halfway into the three hour trip we picked up this guy who stood up front and chit-chatted with the driver all the way to jutiapa. right before we got off the bus, the driver said ¨don´t pay on the next bus because everything has been taken car of.¨ so we got on the next bus and i saw that the guy who had been on our bus chit-chatting with the driver was the cobredor on this bus. we got about 5 minutes into the trip when the cobredor came back and wanted five quetzales from each of us and we said ¨no, we paid on the previous bus. we paid to go to the border.¨ and he said ¨no, that driver lied to you, you have to pay us.¨ we argued with him and he was basically saying it was not his problem and that we had better pay up. so we gave him his 10 quetzales and i said ¨you know, i think it´s better to ask the police what they think.¨ he didn´t say anything and i told courtney that driver of the other bus probably gave him the money. or maybe he did stiff him. but the point was they think we´re idiots just because we´re tourists and they were robbing us. it pissed me wasn´t the money, it was the principle. and i looked up and the driver and cobredor are just laughing and that pissed me off more.

so when the bus stopped at the border, i got off and wrote down the license plate number so that the cobredor could see me. he had a nervous look on his face, but didn´t say anything. so we went through migration and i wasn´t sure if i wanted to say anything or not, but then i saw a police officer. courtney kept egging me on saying i was good at doing this kind of thing. so i was finally like, you know what...those jackasses shouldn´t be able to get away with that. so i went up to the police officer and i told him what happened. he was super helpful and told us to come with him while he asked them about it. so we appraoched them and i explained again what happened and that stupid cobredor was like ¨wait, wait...they are right, they got tricked by the other bus company, but that´s not our fault.¨ and i said ¨well then you need to talk it out with your friend, the driver of the other bus who you were so friendly with.¨ and he didn´t have any response to that. i said that they think they can just take advantage of us because we´re gringas and that it was bullshit. well, as it turned out, there was a bus from the same company as the bus that ripped us off at the border and so the police made the driver of that bus give 10 quetzales to the jutiapa bus. then he made the jutiapa bus give us our 10 quetzales back. then the police gave us a ride across the border and said that it´s a trap they probably do all the time. he said if we ever had problems again at the border to not be afraid to ask. what an ordeal! but i felt better having said something because that was wrong what they did.

anyway, back in el salvador, our trip was officially over and unlike some of my previous trips, i was sad it was over. i had a great time and i´m actually glad this was the trip we took at the end of my time here in central america. it was so rewarding and i truly will never forget all the places we saw and people we met along the way.

i´m glad i´m not a cruise-taking traveler. i feel like i would miss out on too much of the little stuff - meeting locals and seeing out of the way places that are just as great as the more well-known and photographically-ready places. i´m so glad that i took the opportunity to travel while i was in peace corps. who knows when i´ll have this many opportunities again. i know i didn´t get to see nicaragua, costa rica or panama, but i did get to know guatemala and honduras really well, and belize a little bit. not to mention awesome el salvador. backpacking is not for the lighthearted, i will admit that. and it´s not without its frustrations. but it´s manageable and definitely takes some creativity and a lot of humor. i know i´m getting older, but i somehow feel that my backpack and headlamp will still get used in the future. i just hope it´s sooner rather than later!