Final Days

 Posted by May Wright at 12:03 pm  Uncategorized
Jul 262015

My last day working, Friday, a young Taiwanese woman came into Yellowhouse asking about what she could do over the weekend.  Lin is her name. I started suggesting various tours and then flipped to the pages with information on shuttles. “You can also just take a shuttle somewhere, and determine your own itinerary. In fact, that’s what I’m doing. I’m taking the shuttle to Panajachel.” She replied, “OK! That sounds great! I will do that!” to which I was a little dumbstuck. Not knowing this girl, I wasn’t sure about making a trip together, but I figured she’d only be with me for two days. If we don’t connect, at least I’ll be able to go along and enjoy the rest of my trip.

In the evening, I went out one last time to do a little more dancing. I ran into Frank, the Salsa instructor that I took a lesson with, and we danced 2 songs. He is just so amazing. His tiny stature does not hinder his dancing at all – even with a substantially taller woman like me.  I watched him dance with another girl who was also very good. During one song, he teamed up with another guy and they took turns dancing with the girl and every 20 seconds or so the other would cut in. So much fun to watch…

Saturday, our shuttle didn’t leave until 12:30, so I spent the time in the morning packing and taking a nice stroll around town with Joshua, my host brother. Central Park was abuzz with people. There was a group of teenagers with signs: “Abrazos gratis!” and “Hug Free!” They called out to me asking if I wanted a free hug. “It’s Free Hugs!” I said. The whole group called out in response “Aaahhh!” Joshua said I was being mean. I thought I was just being a teacher.

The shuttle ride was not pleasant. It took us a long time to get out of Antigua because the shuttle was full and there were a lot of people to pick up. I ended up in the very back corner of this large old van. This poor man who was probably 6 and a half feet tall ended up in the other corner. A few others were seated in these foldable temporary seats. We were all pretty uncomfortable. In Antigua, the cobblestone streets are super bumpy. Once we got on the road, it was better… until we hit a dead stop in Chimaltenango. Apparently this town in known for its traffic. The town closes the road from time to time for festivities and such. When we first got into town, we hit some kind of intersection where the gridlock was a mess. I can only describe this intersection by saying that there were cars everywhere, pointed in various directions, pushing their noses into tiny gaps trying to get through. It was nuts. We inched along for over an hour. In the back seat, when the van sat motionless, the heat and stuffiness was super uncomfortable. When we finally broke free from the traffic, a few miles later we stopped at a reststop and everyone basically burst out of the van.

Late afternoon, we arrived in Panajachel de Atitlan – one town of many that line the shores of this volcanic crater, now full of water and surrounded by hills and volcanoes. Lin and I took a Tuk-tuk to our hotel, Posada Los Encuentros. The hotel is in a spot that you would not expect to find a hotel – I think someone said it’s a quiet neighborhood. Inside, it has a neat little path through a garden that leads to each of the rooms. My favorite part about the place is that it had a hot tub with natural volcanically heated spring water. We took a soak both of the two nights that we stayed.

We immediately left in search of food and ended up eating at this place, El Chinito, “the little Chinese.” Here, Chino, or Chinito, seems to be somewhat of a common nickname among people, so it being the name of a restaurant wasn’t strange at all. The Chinese proprietor was there, helping serve at the tables, turning on laterns as it got dark. The ambience was really neat: covered but open air with lots of hanging plants making for a lush green outdoorsy feeling.  Between the plants were a bunch of unique glass lanterns. It was an enjoyable meal except for one thing: vendors! During the course of our dinner, at least 4 different vendors approached our table trying to sell us things – some of them more than once! I finally told one older woman that I did not like that she was trying to sell me things while I was trying to enjoy my dinner, and so I was not going to buy anything. She then burst into this story about how she needed money to return home and she also needed money for her son… I get the feeling that vendors are so pushy not from greed, but from desperation.

The barrage of vendors continued on Sunday on my trip to Chichicastenango. (Lin opted to take a boat ride on the lake instead since she would be leaving the next day.) This town is known for its huge markets every Thursday and Sunday. I ended up exploring the market with Kambria, a teacher from California who I met on the shuttle from Pana to Chichi. It turned out to be a really fun time visiting and just looking through all of the beautiful colorful textiles that the local people make. When it was time to head back, everyone waited in the shuttle for one person that was missing. Apparently he had gone to the ATM to take out money to buy a quilt. He ran out of time to go back and buy it, but the lady chased him down to the shuttle to sell it to him. Like I said, these venders are desperate.

It rained on the way back to Pana. By some miracle, I found Lin walking in the street and we again went off in search of food. We ended up at this place with a beautiful view of the lake. Lin got a hamburger and french fries (she’s a junk food and meat fanatic), and I got some enchiladas.

The next morning, I woke up early to go to a yoga class that I had seen advertised in town. Lin stayed in bed. When I got back, she was awake with a towel on her head, post-shower, and as I walked in the room she said, “May, I have a problem!” The night before, we had purchased her shuttle ticket to return to Antigua. We had requested the 12:00pm shuttle, but for some reason the agent wrote Lin’s Ticket for 9:30am. Neither of us had checked to make sure the time was right… After several attempts at talking to the agency, Lin finally had to buy another ticket. She had run out of money, so I left her with some money before heading out the door to catch a boat to Santiago. Lin still has some life learning to do…

I didn’t do a whole lot that day as some heavy rain set in in the afternoon. I walked the market and perused some of the stores. When the rain got really heavy I hung around at an art gallery and visited with the woman there. There is always culture to be shared! She and her husband provide for their 3 boys by painting. We talked about how 3 kids is really a maximum now adays compared to the previous generation who would have anywhere between 6 and 14 kids! I compared that to the US, saying that there was a time when more kids were more common too. Her husband does some travelling (including the US) to paint. I told her she needed to go with him. She said she’d like to go, but someone always has to be in town to open the shop. Plus, who knows if she could actually get a visa. Supposedly an American painter who liked this Guatemalan’s work, helped him to travel. There’s always a reason…

The next big thing was climbing the San Pedro volcano. The best words to describe it are “oh my God,” and that’s for all the pain of the hike and also for the spectacular view from the top. Antonio was my private guide. He came to my hotel at 5:00am while it was still dark and walked me down to the lakeshore where a small wooden boat with a paddle and a tiny chair (think toddler size) inside were waiting. Antonio welcomed me to take a seat. He hopped on the back, standing and paddling across the inlet for us to reach the bottom of the volcano. The way across was one of the most magical of the journey. The cacophony of birds singing with the view of a pink and purple sunrise  on the water was just stunning. I later learned that Santiago’s Mayan name was actually “City of Birds,” and rightly so!

As soon as we exited the boat, we started climbing. I thought this hike was going to be the perfect challenge for me. I had read that it was 3 hours up which didn’t seem so bad. Instead, it was grueling: So steep that I was having to stop to breath every few minutes. I stopped several times to sit and eat something in efforts to boost my energy. It didn’t help that I was also dealing with a sore throat, but I thought, “this is my one opportunity to do this, so I have to take it.” We walked through a variety of fields: tomato, coffee, corn, peach trees and lots of lush plant covered terrain. I was like the little kid asking “Are we there yet?” to Antonio except I just wanted to know I’d made it half way. I was seriously considering turning around. I asked Antonio if he’d had people turn around before and he said yes, only 2. Well I wasn’t going to be the 3rd! Si se puede! Yes you can!

I believe it was about 5 hours later that we finally arrived at the top. The view was absolutely stunning. You could see clouds whizzing by and the lake unbelievable far down below. I soaked in the gorgeous view, ate the remainder of my snacks (including some lychees!), and finally  laid down on a big boulder for a rest before the descent. I was so proud to have made it.

The descent started easy which you probably know if you’ve done any climbing. I had worried on the way up that the steepness would cause problems going back down. It didn’t though… until I had been descending about 45 minutes. My toes were hurting from bashing into the inside of my boots. My thighs were shaky. There were lots of fallen leaves on the path that made it slippery. Again, it was tough. Each time we stopped to take a rest on the way down, it was so tempting to just fall asleep.

Antonio and I got to talk a little more though having become more comfortable around one another and that definitely helped me keep my mind off of the discomfort. Antonio is 22 years old. He first climbed the volcano at age 18 and has climbed it over a hundred times since then. His work is being a tour guide for both volcano hikes and cultural tours around Lake Atitlan although he also does some work in Guatemala city as well. He says he’s happy with his life. When he was younger he wanted to live in the United States, but now, he’s content with his work in Santiago and happy to be near his family.

As we approached the shore of Santiago paddling back, it began to rain. I felt super lucky to have avoided it while we were hiking! It was chilling though on my utterly exhausted body. When I got back to the hotel, I slowly climbed the 4 flights of stairs to my room (it’s funny that I was excited that I got the top floor when I first arrived…), took a shower, and crashed into my bed. I had to pull myself back out of bed shortly after though to find food. I was starving. I descended the stairs (that was even more painful), hailed a tuk-tuk for a restaurant, and ate the perfect meal of chicken soup. Then it was finally time for bed!

I took a cultural tour the next morning which turned out to be not much to speak of. I did learn a little bit though: just the mix of Mayan culture with Hispanic and some of the traditions that local communities have kept up. I found it interesting that they still maintain the tradition of having a big celebration for Saint Santiago’s Day – the saint of Spain and this town’s namesake. Part of this celebration is adorning their church with banners of the Spanish flag’s colors.

I was ready to move on to my last destination: San Pedro, La Laguna. Before leaving though, I had a half hour to kill, so I took a seat at a streetside coffeeshop for a drink and snack. It looked nice and inviting, and the food and drink was great, but man, it’s just hard to enjoy when there are noisy, smoky, and smelly trucks, busses, and tuk tuks constantly racing by…

I got a breath of fresh air on the boat ride to San Pedro. I managed to find a spot to stay at a place called Pinocchio. San Pedro definitely has a different feel to it – at least in the part of town I got to see. It’s been more developed for tourists, so there are cute walkways and a variety of restaurants. My first two stops on the lake definitely had more of a dirty city kind of feel. I walked the town looking for something to do with my one afternoon there. I saw a sign for painting classes which sparked my interest, so I wandered on a tiny path, directed by signs to the Colibri, or “Hummingbird” bed, breakfast, and art. I finally arrived on a patio and saw a man sleeping on a chair. The dog spotted me though and barked, running up to greet me. When the man didn’t wake up, I turned to leave. I made it a few steps, and thought, no, I should try to ask him about classes. When I went back, he had his eyes open. Domingo, or “Mingo” as he goes by, invited me to sit and chat with him for a while, another Guatemalan, curious about another foreigner. He ended up giving me some recommendations on what to see and do that afternoon.

One recommendation was to walk to a swimming spot on the lake. While I was a bit frustrated trying to find the spot and having to walk on my extremely sore legs, it was worth it when I arrived – a beautiful place where a handful of locals were swimming, washing clothes, and literally bathing. Shortly after I got into the water, I noticed a little girl with her little brother and a woman. She was pointing at me saying, “look!” I greeted her with an “Hola!” and she said “Hola!” back. The little brother followed suit, and soon after, they were both by my side – the girl talking away. I probably spent an hour there talking with her and then her grandmother. They helped me find my way back toward my hotel on a tiny dirt path that wound through gardens and along the shore, even past a few abandoned houses in the water. There was a time when the lake was lower. When the water rose, some buildings had to be abandoned.

For dinner, I chose a place that turned out to duly function as a Spanish school. Since I was there at the right time, I was able to join in watching a documentary they were showing on camionetas, or  “chicken busses.” I’ve been very interested in exactly how these Chicken busses here come to be. Apparently, when American schools are ready to get rid of their busses, they auction them off and those busses go to Central America and Africa. This documentary followed one man whose job it was to go to the United States, purchase a bus, and drive it back to Guatemala to be reworked for public transportation. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen the busses here.

The next morning, I woke up early. Remembering how beautiful the sunrise was on the lake, I got out of bed at about 5:45 and climbed several flights of stairs up to top of Pinocchio to enjoy the sunrise once more. Again, the birds were singing beautifully. I marveled at the expansive view of the lake and the surrounding volcanoes. One other young woman was up there too. She had just finished her yoga instructor training course on the lake J One of the resident cats wondered up to join us and hopped up on my lap for some loving. It was a lovely morning.

My shuttle for Antigua left at 8:30am. This ride was much more pleasant than the other. No major hangups, I sat near the front, and I was able to find a visiting companion for the ride. She was a middle aged woman with her son and they had come together to volunteer at a school and to learn Spanish. I guess mom and kid travelling pairs are more common than I would have guessed.

The Yellowhouse girls greeted me when I entered, curious about how my trip went. I spent most of the afternoon trying to tie up loose ends, organizing stuff, saying last goodbyes, etc. But I did make a point to do one more thing with my day. Lin and I met up to have lunch at Cerro San Cristobal – another lovely overlook above Antigua with a nice restaurant. It was a delicious meal with a gorgeous view. I had to apologize to Lin though for having chosen a restaurant without meat on the menu… We parted ways for me to finish getting things together, but got together again at 7 as Lin invited me to her host home for dinner. I met her host dad, I believe his name was Chris, and one of her fellow housemates. Even though I wasn’t feeling well, I had a wonderful time visiting. Chris was a wonderful host serving us a lovely meal and visiting with us. He also complemented my Spanish capabilities which I always like J

My last day was pretty much just travel: Antigua to the Guatemala City Airport, Guate to Houston, Houston to Austin, and Austin to Round Rock.  The trip ran pretty smoothly, just I had a stomach bug… needless to say I am very glad to be back in the U.S. Guatemala was a good experience. I got what I needed out of my internship program: a taste of a career that I’m interested in and improved Spanish capabilities. I ultimately bonded with my host family. And I got to know a lot of beautiful places and people as well that I would never have known otherwise. People ask me if I’ll go back. Possibly. But as I always say, there are so many places in the world that I would like to see…


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