Tuesday, October 03, 2006

day #1: pigs in a basket? whaaaat??? where am i????

so, after much ado, here is the story of my trip to guatemala…complete with photos of everything and anything. hope you don´t fall asleep! oh, and I have one disclaimer…courtney and i shared pics when we got back to el sal – so all of the pics you see in these entries about our trip that have dates at the bottom of them are photos that courtney took. just want to give credit where credit is due! so let´s get on with it…

like i said before, i felt like i was going on a regular vacation this time around. i guess when i’ve gone to other places before or visited other people’s sites and hiked the mountains, i felt more like i was getting away for a few days – not really going on an all out excursion. the great thing about going on vacation in central america is knowing that you’re not going to be spending tons of money. i think overall – not including things i bought for people/myself – i spent maybe $100 on everything. that’s including bus travel, food, hotels, drinks and things like boat rides, etc. this is for a vacation where i was gone a total of seven days. true, we spent two nights in monterico at bayron’s house. but even so, we spent one night in a hotel there and if we’d have stayed there again for two more nights, i’d have only spent $15 more on a hotel. i did end up buying things in the markets – gifts for people, as well as some birthday presents for myself....but even so, i still didn’t spent that much when you break it down. there are ways to avoid spending tons of money too, which i think we did a pretty good job of figuring out (direct tourist shuttle from panajachel to monterico for $45??? come on, give me a break. we took normal local chicken buses and spent less than $6.00. true, local buses can be nuts and can take longer but it ain’t worth no $45 to avoid a few packed buses.)

anyway, the above part about taking the local buses seems to be a good segue into the beginning of our trip. courtney and i planned to hit three places on our trip: lago atitlán, antigua and monterico. we also planned on making it back to el salvador, specifically lago coatepeque, on saturday to go to our group’s one-year in-country reunion party. but as we started our trip from el salvador, we decided we’d rather spend another day at the beach in guatemala than come back to el salvador, even for the one-year reunion. it was also just going to be too nuts trying to make it back.....we were supposed to bring sleeping bags and dishes and alcohol and all this stuff to the party, but since we’d have been coming back from guatemala, we’d not have any of that stuff with us, so we’d have had to stop in apaneca to get that stuff, THEN go to lago coatepeque. anyway, so as courtney and i left my site in apaneca, we had already pretty much decided that it was probably not gonna happen that we’d make it back.

so we needed to go to a different border crossing this time – las chinamas – which is about a half hour away from the city of ahuachapán. we didn’t run into too many problems because we left damn early in the a.m. when we crossed the border these assholes were really trying to screw us on the exchange of dollars to quetzales and i should have taken it as a prediction of how the people at the lake would try to screw us. it’s such a pain in the ass always trying to outsmart the scammers. anyway, i think one of the guys ended up giving courtney a .25 quetzal coin instead of one quetzal – but that was better than the 100 quetzales i almost got screwed out of. the guy was supposed to give me 592 quetzales and he only gave me 490. i was like “um, another hundred.” and he gave it to me and i was like “aaaannnnd the other two quetzales??” bastards!

so we needed to get to guatemala city first, then catch a bus to panajachel – which is a pueblo – well, i guess it’s a ciudad – on lago atitlán. we knew how to get to guatemala city because basically it involved riding a bus from the border to guatemala city. simple enough. so we did that. along the way in guatemala the bus stopped to let some people on and courtney and i looked out of the window to see five or six huge baskets filled with pigs! we were like “what?” so this is how i’ll explain the whole chicken bus thing. chicken buses are what people here call the normal, local buses. the buses that everyday citizens of central america ride. they are called chicken buses because it’s not out of the ordinary to be seated next to a woman who has a live chicken (or two, or three) in her bag with its head poking out. it’s not out of the ordinary to be on a bus with baskets filled with tiny little baby chicks, all chirping away. and while the pigs in baskets was a first for me, i suppose it’s not that odd either. so getting back to the pigs on our bus...the guys with the pigs loaded the baskets onto the top of the bus and while doing so the pigs are going nuts, squealing and moving around. i felt so super bad for the pigs because, seriously, can you imagine? one day they’re hanging out looking for food or laying in the mud or whatever and the next they’re being loaded onto the top of a bus that’s cruising down the highway at 50 mph? what? in any event, it took a while to get the pigs loaded and i’m looking out the window saying “pobrecitos!” every five seconds while the guatemalan behind me is laughing his head off because i’m feeling sorry for the pigs.

then our bus turns around into this rickety gas station to fill ‘er up. honestly, this is what makes riding the local buses fun. a lot of the time while on buses here i’m like “what? where am i?” because the most random things happen and to every other person on the bus, it’s totally normal. anyway, so we rode that bus for quite some time. then at one point we started coming into this really bizarre area. there were all these american stores and car dealerships and restaurants – it was like being in an american suburb i tell you. a volkswagon dealership, taco bell, curves (yes, curves...you know that workout place....geez, they’re not messing around. i thought it was odd when they put a curves in oak harbor, like they must really have been looking to get a franchise started in every nook and cranny of the u.s. if they put one in dinky oak harbor. but guatemala??). anyway, we were going through the wealthy outskirts of guatemala city and it was just weird. then, all of a sudden we are cruising along and guatemala city is laid out below us – like this huge panoramic view and it looked absolutely enormous. courtney was like “whaaaat?” i even started to get a little nervous because guatemala city’s supposed to be really, really dangerous and i’d never been there before and we really didn’t know what we had to do to get the next bus to panajachel. but we figured it couldn’t be too hard. it was the middle of the day and a sunday so we figured it couldn’t be that bad. finally we entered the city and the terminal and just started walking around. there is a huge market there right next to the terminal and we had to find a bathroom (if you would have asked me a year ago if i’d willingly seek out a bathroom in a bus terminal in central america i’d have told you i’d probably just try and hold it until i got home or to my destination or whatever. but i’ve used the skankiest, grossest bathrooms you’ve ever seen this past year and now it’s nothing to say “oh i’ll just use the bathroom in the terminal.”) so there outside the bathroom behind a bunch of buses these guys start talking to us about where are we from and what-not. these conversations get old, at least for me. i get so tired of hearing guys like these tell me they’ve lived in the states or ask me if i am from los angeles. i get tired of trying to explain that i live in el salvador. i don’t mind it when it’s with normal everyday folks in my town or whatever, but these random idiot guys who think they’re impressing you because they know somebody who lives in the states is just so boring! courtney likes having these conversations and whenever we are hanging out together, guys inevitably read her willingness to have this conversation and start up. i think i give off the bitch vibe when it comes to these guys, so most of the time they only talk to courtney while i stand there and look totally annoyed.

anyway, i took advantage of the situation to ask where the bus was to panajachel and got some random directions about “go up two blocks and take the bus ‘that way.’” huh? we decided to just walk through the market and see if we could figure it out when we both spotted some good lookin’ food at this woman’s stand. she was grilling red peppers and cooking meat on this other part of the grill. she also had chirmol in this big bowl sitting on the table and so we decided to sit down at her stand and eat. this probably wasn’t the safest thing to do – first of all, eating food from the bus terminal and secondly, spending additional time in the bus terminal which is probably one of the most dangerous parts of any central american city. but that food looked great. i didn’t care that she didn’t have a cover on the bowl of chirmol or that there was no lid on the horchata. we bought an avocado from the vendor across the road and ate like pigs. we also used this opportunity to ask this woman where we needed to go to catch the bus for panajachel. she didn’t know, but went around asking other people for us. the rule of three is a must here – you need to ask a minimum of three people how to get somewhere or what bus you need because it’s likely that at least one person won’t have the slightest idea, but will tell you some fake directions anyway. so we got a bunch of other random answers and finally, some woman and her daughter came to get food from the stand and she asked the woman what in god’s name we were doing there. because i’m sure it’s not a normal sight to see two white girls sitting at a food stand in the bus terminal in guatemala city. oh, and the woman that owned the stand said she thought we were canadians because we were really nice as opposed to americans. ha. anyway, that other woman who came up said she was going on the bus that would take us to where we needed to go to catch the bus for panajachel, so we could go with her. so we followed her through the market, hopped on a bus through the city and to our next stop to catch the bus to this other desvio (bus stop) near the lake.

when we got there, we asked a bunch of people where the bus for los encuentros was and after about five people we finally were pointed in the right direction, caught the bus and were on our way. this bus was interesting. there were only a few people on it, and courtney and i were discussing how to get to panajachel. los encuentros is basically a big desvio where people change buses, but it’s north of where we needed to go. we thought possibly we could get off at this other town, chimaltenango, and hop on another bus that went directly to panajachel – rather than go all the way to los encuentros and then get on a bus and have to go south. so we’re talking about this and this guy comes up and is like “pasajes.” he wanted us to pay for the bus. so i asked him if we got off in chimaltenango would there be a bus that would go to panajachel. he looked at me like i had three heads, like with this confused, dumbstruck look. so i kind of changed the wording and he still was like “duh? what?” the guy in front of us was nodding like “yeah, there is.” and the other guy who wanted us to pay him just looked so out of it. and i was thinking – why wouldn’t he know, if he’s the cobredor, then he’d know if there was a bus, right? and then i thought – maybe he’s not the cobredor. i mean, he had a little book with receipts to give the passengers after they pay, but i was thinking anyone could get a book of receipts made, right? he could be some guy that got on the bus and asked for money pretending to be the cobredor when he really wasn’t. that’s been known to happen. plus, he came up to us from the back of the bus, not from the front like normal cobredors do. plus he was so damned out of it. so i was like “are you the cobredor?” and he just gave me this far-out look like “huh?” then he moved on to the guy in front of us without taking our money. and courtney and i are dying laughing because i asked him if he was the cobredor. he turned out to really be the cobredor and he came back like he was giving us time to decide whether or not we wanted to pay. so we paid him and we gave up our idea of getting off in chimaltenango and just opted for los encuentros because it seemed much easier. but the whole exchange was just hilarious for some reason.

so we continued down this road and more people got on the bus. most of the women who got on wore traditional mayan clothing and it was really interesting to see. no men had traditional clothing, but more and more women did, and once we started climbing the mountains it seemed as if all the women on the bus wore the colorful skirts and dresses. even little girls and babies were wrapped in the traditional clothing. it was so cute when a woman would get on the bus and have her baby wrapped in a brightly colored shawl, and the baby’s head would be sticking out all rosy-cheeked. and as we got higher into the mountains, it got cold and i kept thinking it would be nice to be wrapped in one of those thick skirts. it wasn’t until we got to los encuentros that we saw men wearing traditional clothing as well. colorful pants (wide-legged and cut short, kind of like capris), shirts and then a thick, wide piece of material around their waist that hung about to their thighs. most wore cowboy hats or similar and at this point, every woman was dressed in traditional clothing. we passed through sololá, which is one of largest mayan towns in guatemala, changed buses and on the highway down to panajachel, could see the lake laid out in the valley below. it was beautiful.

we had both read up in our travel books about panajachel, and both of our books talked about how it had a high “gringo” population and it’s second name is “gringotenango.” while this made me cringe, panajachel is a logical place to stay if you want to visit the lake. apparently, panajachel was a big hippie hangout back in the 60’s and 70’s and there are a bunch of people who took up living there and are left over from that time back then. add that to the tourists that visit there (like us), and well, i don’t think i’ve seen that many north americans, europeans or australians since leaving the states. we got off the bus at the bus stop in panajachel and were like “ok, now where?” we decided to go into this restaurant that said they served pupusas. can’t get away from the almighty pupusa. pupusas are a salvadoran thing – you don’t see many pupuserias in neighboring countries, and well, like apple pie reminds me of my home in the states, pupusas remind me of my home in el salvador. we sat down and looked around and saw all these things about el salvador around the room – a poster of oscar romero, an el salvador flag, etc. i asked the people if they were from el salvador and the owner came over and said he was from there. so from there we called a couple hotels and then decided to just walk by the ones we called and see how they looked. luckily the first one we went to had a room available with two beds, was cheap enough ($10 a night total for two people), close to the lake and had hot water. that was a good enough deal for us.

basically we just crashed that night. it had been a long day of traveling and we were both down and out with headaches too....just from all the travel and bus fumes and lack of sleep the night before. it got cold too, but luckily our beds had these nice thick wool blankets that i grew to love.