Monday, October 13, 2008

Guatemala and Belize - Out of the comfort zone

This past summer I went on a vacation with Carlos. The timing was challenging as my daughter Mariel was preparing for college, I had little vacation time accumulated and would be using most of it up, and I was also emotionally in transition - soon to be an empty nester. This last year had been intense, full of creative projects, Mariel's senior year efforts, and a new relationship. I was not getting much communication, support, or payments from my ex towards caring for Mariel this summer and was uncertain about college. I did need and want a break and a chance to connect with Carlos and get some perspective. Yet this trip was to take me far out of my comfort zone, although providing much stimulation and rich experiences.

I shared some impressions with friends, but it has taken a while to put together and upoad the photographs to share (albums 1, 2, 3). Enjoy.

On July 11 we arrived in Guatemala City in the evening. This began a whirlwind of activity, sights, smells, and emotions. We had to catch a van to Antigua and were lucky enough to pick up a father and son traveling together and share the cost.

(Already prices prove to fluctuate with the necessity to negotiate everything). We managed to get settled quickly into a room with a view of one of the volcanoes surrounding Antigua and headed out for dinner and dancing to the music of a Cuban Salsa band. The place was very welcoming, had a community spirit, and the music was good. There was a party of young folk and several older couples, and one older woman shaking it with her half-her-age dance partner. Free and easy. I had really thought we'd be too exhausted to enjoy it, but enjoy (and dance) we did. The exhaustion hit the next day.

Saturday we had to figure out how to get to Panajachel about 2 1/2 hours away and had the choice of numerous tourist agencies arranging collectivos (mini-vans) It was overwhelming trying to decide between all the choices and fluctuating prices. Arranging to leave later in the day, we left our luggage and walked around the town trying to take it all in.

There really was SOOOO much to see and I immediately began to wish we had another day. There was certainly no time to take in a hike up an active volcano.

Antigua is a colonial city, and one sees similar architecture to Mexican, Argentinean and other Latin American cities that were influenced by the Spanish. It is very colorful and run down, with lots of ruins of old cathedrals and buildings. However there was some modern renovation and a lively restaurant and night life scene. One old convent, Casa Santo de Domingo has been turned into quite an upscale hotel and museum with lush gardens and patios to stroll around.

(Since its genesis, Casa Santo Domingo was the bastion of one of the most grand convents of America: the one that sheltered the followers of the order of Santo Domingo de Guzmán.)

The faces we see are mostly Mayan besides the tons of internationals wandering around.(Indians (60% of G's population) still wear their traditional dress, the huipil (a poncho-shaped blouse, very colorful, with embroidery) and corta (a sarong, only slightly less colorful). The colors and patterns identify the tribe (ethnic group) of the wearer- or locale.)

There are numerous language schools in and around Antigua, where folks spend 2 weeks to a month living with families and a few other students, They are fed 3 meals a day, and then study Spanish for around 4 hours a day. There were young students, older (post 55-60) women, and families who participated. They traveled on weekends. I began to feel that this was a great option as I had to depend on Carlos to translate or speak for us, and became frustrated quickly with the language and culture gap. I could understand some but the wall was up when I tried to think and communicate, especially in the markets where negotiation was fierce and fast. French still flowed more readily for me, and I was glad to meet up with some internationals who spoke it.

We found some schools of dance, especially salsa, probably mostly geared to training the internationals. In one section of town there was a huge market, a fair and parade, and a collection of chicken buses coming and going (old school busses painted decoratively in lively colors with luggage and animals thrown on top or taken on board as natives crammed in). The traditional dress and manner of the people walking the streets contrasted with the cell phones they used and the signs for cell phone service (Tioga) all over the town. In the market strawberries, ice cream, beans, nuts sold as well chips and soda. There were lots of coca cola and fanta signs as well in markets and on the walls of homes. Life seems to be lived out on the streets not in homes (not isolated like in rural burbia back in New England)

The colors and action was at times overwhelming and I also felt I had to be on guard for safety and against theft. We had a nice break at a roof top cafe, with fries and fruit shakes where we could watch the light and clouds dramatically shift around the volcanoes and famous cathedrals and catch a young girl being led on a horse about the cobblestone streets.

Back down on the streets, we again were hit upon by many trying to sell goods, bags, huipils, jade necklaces, skirts, etc. Though I wanted to look and maybe buy, it was hard to focus and browse under the sales pressure. We were not really on top of the exchange or knowing what a good price should be or even what we really wanted yet. (Rate exchange was at times $7.5 quetzals for a dollar and at other times down to $7.15. For some reason I had a hard time accessing my ability to do math quickly.

This is a good guide to Antigua besides my photos.

We walked up the hill past numerous language schools to an old famous old church with more ruins in a museum there. The church had been effected by an earthquake that resulted in the movement of it's walls.

When I wanted to take a picture of an old woman selling beads made from colorful seeds in front of this structure, I could feel such a strong energy that I did not want to cross her. I thought buying some beads might ease her , make a connection, and allow for the photo - but even after we bought 4 for 5 quetzals she wanted more for a photo. Tired of being hustled for everything, not really feeling her willingness, and not wanting to feel the strength of her negative energy I let it go and focused on a family happily posing for a portrait.

Although the town is small and walkable in a few hours, there really is a lot packed in, some wonderful boutiques and coffee and jade 'factories' that could have been explored, and many cafe's to hang in and meet all sorts of people. And although the layout of Antigua is not really complicated, somehow it could be a bit confusing to orient oneself to direction, unless back at the central square, Plaza Major.

By afternoon my fatigue caught up along with a headache and we had to rush around to make it back to the bus for the long ride into the higher lands towards Lake Atitlan and Panajachel.

Packing into a mini-van with about 8 -10 other folk, we began a long ride out of town to the north and west of and the ascent into higher lands and the Lake. We encountered and chatted with a doctor and her family. She was doing volunteer work in clinics through either her church or some Christian organization. She also had worked in Rwanda. One daughter was heading to Smith or Mount Holyoke, and this led me to think of Mariel who would soon be heading away from the valley and was not traveling with me.

There was also a woman who had finished 3 years working for an NGO in Haiti with her French ‘man friend’ and his son. They were also studying in Spanish school and taking a weekend to travel to the lake and Chichi market. Both groups told us of their hikes to the active volcano Pacaya, and walking on the glassy and somewhat still molten lava rocks. Some American kids had to ride donkeys as they were too out of shape to manage the several hour hike led by a guide, yet these older travelers had made it. I wondered if I would have the energy, but certainly I had the interest - just not the time.

Riding out of town we had to pass a long strip of homes and storefronts, colorful, many poorly constructed with tin roofs. Some were being constructed now with cement that showed increasing prosperity. There were lots of signs and messages written like graffiti on the walls, lots of commerce. Gas stations, auto parts shops, traditional goods and food, and newer international popular fashion items and fast food, bikes, cell phones and many people waiting on line for buses - many motorcycles and mopeds. The strip seemed to go on for a long while, an endless extension of the outskirts of the city, not so quaint, very intense and layered life. The modern was colliding and being built over (squeezing out?) the traditional. I tried to take some photos from the window, especially of the unique site of a common clothes washing area, a cement bound square or rectangular shaped basin where the women gathered together to wash, beat, and wring out the clothes before they'd take them to dry. This was a ritual that has gone on for centuries perhaps.

Finally we made it out into the countryside, where homes and shacks were more spread out and one could see the terracing of agriculture, corn and other vegetables, in the hills. Also we'd pass interesting colors and shapes of the limestone being excavated for building materials, or just exposed along the curving road. The drive became more thrilling as many buses and cars wizzed along or tried to pass, with lots of honking. Whether these were hellos or warnings, I was often not sure. Soon I had to turn to face forward and lean to the window and halt the engaging conversation with the other travelers as nausea threatened to take over. I was not the only one concentrating. Part of the problem may have been the roller coaster like ride, and another may have been fumes from the exhaust from passing vehicles.

Finally we got to see the volcanoes and Lake Atitlan appear as we made our descent to Panajachel. Arriving at our hotel we also had volcano views and a chance to see the sunset, and then sunrise again, around them. Had a view of both modern and 'luxury' homes with fancy cars in walled in courtyards, and ramshackle roofs, caving in or layered with construction, colorful wash hanging on clotheslines among tin roofs right next door.

Back on the streets to find a place to eat and take in the town, we again found streets filled with markets and goods, some quite nice, but difficult to browse in so short a time. The restaurants along the park and by the water provided lively music and a party like atmosphere for some, though we chose a quieter place to rest and digest in with some wonderful Guatemalan hot chocolate. Panajachel has a chocolate factory we hoped to visit at some point, but never really made it as it was closed the next day (Sunday).

Waking early on Sunday we headed to Chichi market even further north.

Carlos really wanted to go here, a more authentic Mayan town and famed market where tradition and tourists meet. I was partly ready for a retreat to the lake hotel and leisure, but did find the ride and town fascinating, and began to prepare myself for negotiation and purchasing of handicrafts, especially as we needed a bag to carry some in, and bags were plentiful.

We approached the main church set high on top of steps where Mayans situated themselves to burn copal incense, sell and layout flowers for offerings, take a break from the bustle, or gather around the base to display more goods and try to catch the eye and attention of tourists.

The church of Santo Tomás is where the manuscript of the Popul Vuh was found in 1702.The church was built on the site of a Maya altar, and it is reputed that the steps are made from stones of that altar. Mayan- cofrades perform ceremonies on an altar outside the church, but they are not permitted to do those rituals within the church itself

I loved the layering of faces and postures and started to take some photos when I recognized the silhouette of tango friends Ethan and Jen on the top steps. I zoomed in and called to them. Jen was working for Save the Children in a town a few hours away, but they were here to meet up with Ethan's parents whom I also knew from the swing community. Fortuitous timing. A few moments later we would have missed them. We got a portrait and exchanged quick hugs and hellos and then Carlos and I headed around to explore the rows of stalls and bargain. It was hard not to want (and buy) so many of the blankets, masks, bags, hangings, huipils as so much was beautiful, and Carlos was so eager. Yet thinking of carrying all this around helped me put a hold (as well as the fact that we had not exchanged or taken so much money with us).

We made our way to the other smaller church at the end of the market and then headed back and this time ran into another set of Shutesbury/Amherst friends. Annette Cycon was with her daughter Sarah and other young girls and friends of Mariel! The girls were doing volunteer work around Lake Atitlan (San Pedro) Noting their bags I felt reassured that buying some for our daughters was a good idea and also got an idea of what the pricing should be. We did not have a long time to chat so I did not find out more details of their work, and am still very curious. The girls seemed to be having a great time however.

We photographed the graveyard with it's colorful 'houses' over tombs from afar, and then after Carlos bought yet another hanging, we headed back to our bus. Luckily we had time for a quick meal bought from a local Mayan cooking for locals. The fried chicken was tender along with tasty beans and coleslaw (which was unexpected and wonderful) We added in some peeled fruit, peaches, bananas, mango and happily headed back to Pana, to catch a boat to the Hotel Casa del Mundo- which would be a welcome retreat and rest for a few days.

Heading to the dock we were approached by captains who attempted to direct us away from the public boat and overcharge us. Finally we boarded the small motor boat - lancha (launch) and still paid a different rate than the locals (which upset my sense of fairness-and left me feeling taken advantage of) Later we found out this was standard business and it had a certain logic- locals were poorer and regular commuterst.

While waiting to leave, in another unexpected meeting, I caught a candid moment of Annette boarding the other boat to San Pedro with the girls. Her hair was wonderfully backlit by the western afternoon sun.

Ah- being on the water felt great. I could not wait to get in and wash the grit and intensity of all the people, sounds, smells colors away. The sun was setting and the day and I became more mellow.

Casa del Mundo near Jabailito, terraced and built into the hills, was the romantic get away Carlos hoped it would be. Beautifully designed and decorated with local handicrafts, yet simple, with magnificent views of the volcanoes Atitlan and San Pedro. Our rooms were perfectly situated to take this all in.

We made it there for a welcome full 3 course meal which we accompanied with wine. They served guests at a common table and so conversation was lively exchanging personal history and travel information with teachers, newly weds, couples celebrating anniversaries, and families from the US and Europe mainly. This was a bit upscale and very white, although the hosts were Guatemalan (the owner an American had married a Guatemalan woman and they built this place and raised their sons here. Both were going to prestigious colleges in the states like Harvard and Amherst, one with a hotel and tourism emphasis, not surprisingly.

As night fell the sky remained dramatic with clouds gathering over the volcanoes as they did daily, often bringing rain around 2-4 o'clock . The full moon darted in and out. We went to bed pretty early, buzzed by the wine, satiated by the food, and exhausted already from the full 2 days we had just finished.

Lake Atitlan, is considered one of the most beautiful lakes in the world and it did feel quite special. It is a crater and the water is clear, cool and without much plant or fish life. With the wind blowing it could get quite wavy and Carlos enjoyed a daily early morning swim crossing to other nearby shores. Several kayakers enjoyed the boating, although we never managed to make time for this. I would have loved to have had more time to just sunbathe, swim, boat and read on the many hammocks and lounge chairs on various terraces over the water. But we also wanted to explore some of the other lakeside towns.

Monday morning, after a great breakfast with juice, coffee eggs, plantains, tortillas or toast, and beans (traditional) we headed out to San Marcos de Laguna nearby, the hippie new age town coexisting with traditional Mayan. We had to boat as we were warned that hiking in that direction was dangerous. This town housed many expatriots and yes hippies, and workshops of all sort were conducted there for 1 to 2 week visitors, such as a memoir writing workshop led by the famed Joyce Maynard. The first site that greets one is the hotel Schuman, which is comparatively upscale.

A description of the town and experience is here.

Later winding through narrow paths covered with hanging vines and palm leaves we passed many spas, massage, healing/meditation centers, and lodgings with a new age bent (and hearing that many are questionable in terms of credentials and quality). We found our way uphill to the more Mayan center of town. There was a lively basketball game going on, cheered by village onlookers and children were playing in the playground nearby. Further up hill one passed the houses of the local people who spoke mainly Kakchiquel or kakchikel which is the name of local indigenous group and also its language.

People were hanging in front of the church and busy with daily life activities and leisure. We passed by a child care center built of recycled bottles and tried to find the home of a German woman, Susana Heisse, who built her own home out of 'garbage' and began a project of having kids and locals collect and stuff bottles with plastic bags and wrappers and use them to build walls.

After a wonderful small healthy lunch (a soup) and conversationwith a writing workshop participant, a teacher from NY, we attempted to find the Heisse home back up the hills

We never did find it, though were given numerous directions up and down various 'streets'.

After doing some research- It seems there are a number of projects in San Marcos to help locals- One writing workshop participant wrote of them here.

Anyway, as there really was not much in this town, and wanting to enjoy some down time at Casa, we headed back for a swim and brief nap before dinner again. Again the food was fantastic, and there was a dramatic scene with lightening and thunder storms resulting in power outages and dinner by candlelight.

The only thing that clouded our enjoyment was a call from home saying that Largo, Carlos's dog, had taken a turn for the worse and had been diagnosed with cancer. It was uncertain what could be done, perhaps an operation, but as he was old he also might not survive. It was decided he would visit the vet the next day and we would check in.

The next day, torn by wanting to just do 'nothing' and hang, we decided to explore the other side of the lake later in the day after a morning swim and reading time. We figured a boat ride around would be fun and we were curious to see the more 'authentic' and larger town of Santiago de Atitlan, also known for it's crafts. We took the long way around with a boat to San Pedro and watched with a bit of trepidation as dark clouds moved in quickly over the volcanoes. It did seem to rain more frequently there and earlier in the day. Luckily we did have some raingear. As we neared the port to San Pedro we found out we had to get a connecting boat on the other side of the town- at another dock , and so finally took a taxi or 'tuk tuk' over the cobblestone roads and hills of the town in a rush ride to the boat. It was a quick tour of San Pedro, with the feeling of being in some Indian Jones like chase. San Pedro which also seemed like another backpacker hang, was sort of funky and dirty. We had heard it was lively and noisy at night, but we were glad to be staying at the peaceful and beautiful Casa del Mundo.

We made it onto the boat and as we approached Santiago were caught in a downpour and thunder. Still it was fascinating and moody and I tried to capture some of this in photos. The rain cleared some of the action off the streets which in a way was welcome and we darted from stall to stall up the hill to the famed church in the square where there had been a massacre during the long war to independence. The Mayan resistance here was strong and there were memorials to this event. There was also a school in session and signs of a fair - the frame of a very old ferris wheel.

It would have been interesting to wander around more, but we had to catch an early boat back across the lake to make it back in time for dinner. We bought some wonderful wooden puzzle sculptures with hidden drawers and just made it onto a speed boat as the boat was leaving, Carlos negotiated with the captain and practically pushed me on which was upsetting but ultimately a good move, as the public ferry which was originally suggested and cheaper would have taken much longer.

Our last meal at Casa was a bit of Thai cousine, Unfortunately Carlos also was greeted by a message from home. His dog Largo had died. It was quite sad as he could not be there. Still we enjoyed a hot tub staring at the full moon and stars before retiring. We thought of Largo's spirit and imagined him joining the energy and light of the night sky above us and over the Lake - a return to the elements.

In the morning we then had one last quick swim and I was truly sorry to have to leave but we decided to stick to our plan and head to Antigua/Guatemala City and an overnight bus up to Flores/Tikal to see the ruins.

We had to make a connection in Pana to the collectivo and luckily was able to leave our bags at the hotel we had stayed at while we got more money and tried to shop one last time. A bit pressured, I bought some more jade jewelry at a higher price than I would have liked, and Carlos bought a necklace for Jen and mask and we dashed back to meet the bus. Carlos reminded me that when home I would only appreciate having the jewelry and not remember the price. That was true and I am already wearing it and appreciating the beauty, as are others. Yet with concern for paying for college and the rising price of oil, I was already torn about the price of the vacation and feeling a bit guilty spending on myself.

The ride down to Antigua was luckily not as wild as the ride up, and Carlos was able to sleep some, but my stomach had started to bother me and so when we arrived and went to eat I was not quite as able to enjoy a meal or feel as rested. I also had a bit of diarrhea.

Back in Antigua, I again wished we could stay a while and relax in the square, people watch, talk to travelers, or explore more of the restaurants and hear music, but we only had a few hours and needed to get food and drink for the overnight trip.

Feeling rushed, we managed to do our shopping get some coffee for gifts and sit briefly by the central square Plaza Mayor fountain.

This was a weekday and there was a lot more hustle and bustle in town. I again could take in the many internationals resting after their day of language study, or tourists also taking a break as well as the energy and effort of those selling goods or offering shoe shines and …yes young boys would eagerly approach to polish even one's open toed sandals. One person has to say this about all the children working. It seems they should be in school, yet many are not.

Needing to take a bathroom break, we rushed back to the tourist agency only to be told we had to get on the bus. It was earlier than we had hoped, and then we had a long ride through town picking up various other travelers, some of whom we had met already in other locations. Finally heading in the rain to Guatemala City we also got stuck in traffic jams where buses blocked intersections, ignoring lights to try to push ahead of each other hopelessly and with macho attitude (and stupidity).

We had to hang in the terminal because it was too dangerous to leave and go through intense airport like security checks before boarding. Finally on board, we were also bombarded by country-western like latin music on Overhead TV"s which would have been fun (funny) and enjoyable if we weren't so tired-Finally they were turned off and we luckily could stretch out over two seats each to try to sleep. Other than the early morning police checkpoint, where we had to get off while they went through the bus, we went straight through to Flores.

Arriving early morning, I was already beat and exhausted. We had thought we might head to the terminal and leave bags so we could visit the nearby nature preserve, but in a daze I thought we should disembark with all the others in Flores (across the causeway), maybe have breakfast, and then find our way. Looking unsure of our plans, we immediately got approached by another private van driver who wanted lots of money to take us to the park and later our hotel in Remate which was 30 km away. Exhausted and feeling bound by luggage I still did not want to use up so much of our money and wanted Carlos to call the Park as they were supposed to pick folks up for free. Unfortunately we could not get through (a travel agent supposedly tried to call for us on his cell).

We were about to walk with our luggage up the street and then just decided to sit a bit and get coffee in a place right there and finally agreed to let the driver take us. He would stay while we visited the park, watch our luggage, and then drive us to El Remate. I am sure we overpaid (it cost as much as was the ride from Guatemala city) to go a very short distance, but we did not have to walk across the causeway or later go back to Flores and find a collectivo with all our luggage. We got a quick tour of the little town on the lake, which did seem colorful- pastel and quaint, a good spot to stay on the way to Tikal.

Note: by now you may have a sense of the pace and all that we were trying to take in and adjust to . For me it was a challenge to try to relax and enjoy while negotiating and planning. (so it was challenging for Carlos too to be with me). I found myself out of my comfort zone, and actually missing home or wishing we had planned a less ambitious trip, a few days on a beach somewhere with more time just to laze and connect. I was also beginning to be sick. However we pressed on with our 'activities'.

As no guests were at the Park so early, we actually had a quiet self-guided walk across hanging bridges over the canopy, listening to the howler monkeys with some information on the tropical trees and their uses, and time to chill. This was welcome. We then went on a series of 6 ziplines for our 'adventure' part of our trip. Being challenged by heights, this was an achievement and a thrill for me. It was just too bad we did not get good pictures. Our guides were very supportive however and did try to snap some, and pointed out some monkeys. Finally we had an easy horseback ride around and our knowledgeable guides showed us the huge ant hills (or termite like hills) and we passed the resident spider monkeys,

My intestines still off balance, I was then glad to head to El Remate and swim in the blue/green caribbean like Lake PetenItza. Surprisingly however the access was a beach of limestone like sand that became mud and one sank in almost up to the knees. There was lots of bird and goat poop to avoid and lake grasses with a sulphur-like smell. Floating felt fine, but later I decided to take medicine as the diarrhea did not subside and I wanted insurance against all the possible bacteria we were exposed to.

Up in the hotel we had a tourist picture view of the lake and pier/palapa from our window and swing seat . Outside on the grounds the tropical plants were wonderful to walk around, We found an iguana darting into a rocky ledge by the pool. After cooling off with AC and napping cozily together we then enjoyed a spectacular sunset and a lakeside meal which I unfortunately could not stomach as it was bit too peppery .

Sleep was welcome- as we had to get up early for a 5:30 collectivo to Tikal.


This was the turning point of our vacation, about half way through, and our last day and night in Guatemala.

Luckily we arrived early as it was cloudy and threatening rain on and off. We did not attempt a morning sunrise tour as we had heard that there rarely was a view as it was mostly overcast. Indeed it had rained this morning too.

Anway - there is not much I wish to say although lots one can research and read. The site is huge and impressive and probably more interesting with a guide. We managed with our general guidebooks. For the price of the entrance fee (3 X what the book had indicated and 6 X what locals pay 150 vs 25 quetzals) they should have included a map/guide--but that was extra.

Regardless, we read and walked and climbed. The pyramids being so steep that you had to use a wooden constructed stairway to ascend as the real steps were roped off. They certainly would have been precarious, steep, wet, and slippery.

I was proud that I pushed my fear of heights and made it up temples 4 and 5. Carlos was kind enough to watch (and protect me from behind)

At the top of these pyramids we did try to take in the expanse of the jungle and reflect on what it might have been in the Mayan days when it was a busy metropolis, yet I did not feel the same spiritual and mysterious connection I had had in 1983 at Palenque and Uxmal.

Later as it started to rain, and we were tiring, we headed back to the entrance to checkout the museum and meet our collectivo. We passed by one more sculpted stone altar for offerings and there was guide talking to two young men. We listened in as he explained a bit of the Mayan symbology and beliefs. And this became more interesting as he touched on the year 2012, the end of the Mayan calendar and spoke with Carlos a bit, letting us in that there were shamanic gatherings (even just 2 days before) at Tikal and other sites throughout Central America. Shamans and medicine folk as far away as Israel were gathering regularly to 'help' with the transition. We gathered that there were rituals and praying, but perhaps also thinking and planning for the future of our earth. It seems the Mayan traditions are being mixed in with other orientations and maybe newer age philosophies.

Though it seemed we were far removed from the daily news and concerns of war, oil prices, and environmental damage, we were reminded that these concerns and issues were still far reaching and spiritual minds were joining to address them. I can only hope prayers and change of focus and attitude may help.

Information on Tikal.

Again after a local a meal of chicken and slaw, while watching a soccer match , we headed on the collectivo to the hotel , had a meal, admired some more Mayan crafts, and bought some last minute gifts .The next day we went onto the Belize.

Now trying to reconstruct this trip after about 3 weeks back, so much is fading. I was glad we paid for more expensive bus that took us across the border, straight towards Belize City. We had to pay the full fare though we stopped in St Ignacio, but we managed to keep our tickets to try to use it from St Ignazio to Belize City a few days later (Which we did)

We were definitely tired but determined to enjoy. We made it to Clarissa Falls a ranch in Belize finally had some laid back time. Expecting a beautiful room with a view of an exotic jungle river the Mopan, we actually had a bare room with fans, shutters to keep bugs out, and a bathroom facing the river, also shuttered. We were about to leave, when we met a group from a wedding party who was staying there who seemed to be having so much fun we decided to just stay, and give it a chance. Be with each other and process. Chaina - the owner made very refreshing shakes. We got to witness a cattle crossing and as it was very hot and humid, we decided to tube down the rapids, encouraged by another couple coming out of the water. Joined by two of the young ladies, studying OT, we set off down 7 sets of rapids, with lots of brown water in between to paddle. We were told to stay center, and that was good advice as we heard later that snakes and iguanas sometimes hung on low branches and might drop on you. and there was TONS of garbage, unfortunately, collecting among the roots of trees along the shore. This was something that made me again miss home- the cleaner Deerfield River, and left me a bit concerned about the water I got in my mouth when dumping over after a hitting some rocks. Yes I dumped, yet the water was cool. The only thing was that I also hit a huge rock on my sacrum and bum- which then was quite sore and had a major black and blue mark for weeks.

Concern over the water and my already upset stomach, I did continue with antibiotics and drank chamomile and lemon tea, though a garlic/cumin and salt drink was suggested.

Besides the fun of the rapids and joy of the water, we also had some added adventure as there was a sudden rain storm and thunder burst. Luckily it did not get so heavy that it flooded the river immediately threatening us with way too fast and high water, But later that day the river did rise from all the rain upstream the past few days and we were not able to go caving at Actun Mun or Bartons Cove as we hoped.

We could not go to another recommended set of ruins either as the local ferry would not pass. This was all a disappointment, however by now it seemed one could only just give in and go with the flow. So we hung out reading and just being and enjoying the food and conversation with the woman who ran the ranch. Her cousin took us on a horseback ride instead. He was knowledgeable and educated and verified that the limestone rocks, which I noticed and were fascinated by, were from an inland sea (ancient) . That is why there are lots of caves in the area.

After two days, we thought we'd head to the coast, but didn't because of the threat of a hurricane (which went up towards Mexico). Yet as the roads to the Pine forest, gorges, and waterfalls were muddy, and not advised to travel on, we instead went to St Ignacio (not so interesting of pretty town but we tried the internet) and more local ruins at Cahal Pech. These ruins were some of the oldest Mayan and proved to be a peaceful place with a good museum to actually learn about the archeology and culture. In town we also talked with a man from Ireland we had seen the night before with a Mayan woman. We though they were maybe having an affair as she set him up with a room. But it turned out she was guide teaching him about archeology and healing, and again focused on the 2012 transition.

Finally at the end of a long day we just enjoyed the Ranch- the plants, butterflies, birds, and the Toucans that sat on our shoulders, geese, turkeys, chickens wandering around, and dogs that followed us. On our trek back up the long road, we scouted out some interesting stones and I found an arrowhead or ancient flintstone tool which just fit in my palm. Chaina was concerned I might be picked up by Belizian authorities at the airport. She also kept ones that were found on her property, noting that it was an site of ancient settlements. I was about to leave it with her, yet it felt like it was meant for me, so I decided to pack it.

Again we talked about healing with Chaina, and the next day she drove us to get the bus to the Caye. She left me with words something like 'Now Alison- Remember, you have to accept your gift, because with your gift, the more you can give to other people, and the more you will get yourself." And something about having a gift is great blessing and should not be ignored.

The way she thought about her gifts and Mayan background, is that she brought healing and goodness to other people and in turn they would bring goodness and healing to others, in an expanding reverberation. The stone ‘tool’ reminds me of this, as I wonder what to do in my life.

Finally we made it to Caye Caulker, 45 minutes on a ferry from Belize City and stayed at place run by expats from the Keys, facing the water with welcome white sand, blue water and cool breezes. This was the vacation I probably needed (and more of), and Carlos was more in his element. Sand, sun, water, music, food, a laid back Jamaican reggae-like feel. Lots of internationals, (and young women in bikinis :) We got to snorkel and see manatees, sea turtles, barracudas, groupers, moray eels, nurse sharks, identify and enjoy lots of tropical fish and even pet stingrays!

There was only one scary moment when I saw Carlos dive down after a stingray and stroke it, even along it's tail! Luckily it did not attack and he did not get caught on it!

We danced a bit of salsa on the sand and tango in a local restaurant and deepened our connection.

All in all it was a very intense and full vacation, but Carlos and I managed to draw closer and share thoughts, dreams, and discoveries.

I found that I missed home and dicovered myself appreciating the beauty of the states, the Valley, the comforts and closeness of family, friends community. Although it seems there are many from States and Europe who have left to settle in Belize and in Guatemala I felt less interested in making that choice and was ready to return.

There was so much transition ahead as Mariel prepared to go to school and Ian was entering his senior year. Carlos was proceeding with his divorce. I faced my work and home again and now have more time to reflect and define my life.

Some links:
A video and information on both Lake Atitlan and Chichi.

Language school on the Lake Atitlan

Geology of Guatemala by some students

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