“Would you mind if I took off like a Thursday, Friday, and Monday to skip out to Guatemala for a few days and see my friend Alayna?” I asked my boss after work one day. “She was supposed to go for a 9 month artist residency, but she fell in love with a Mayan Shaman and has been there for like 2 years now. I keep telling her I’m going to come see her, but still haven’t made it.”
“That’s interesting,” Ramin said with a odd look. “If you want to do that it’s fine, but I don’t think that is enough time.” “What if I left on Wednesday afternoon straight from work?” I asked. “Like I said,” he responded “if you want to do it, more power to you, but I still don’t think it’s enough time. You don’t know what things are like over there, how long it will take you to get from one place to the next.” “True,” I say, “but she’s been there for a while, so she does.” And that was it, I booked the tickets.
When I told her I booked it, she began to list off things she wanted to do/see with me. “I have to figure this out,” she said, “because I don’t know if you want to ride in a chicken truck.” This actually made me curious. When I mentioned the chicken truck to Ramin he laughed and said, “I told you so.” Her final plan was to pick me up at the airport in Guatemala City, go to Antigua for the first night, spend the day there at the market, then take the night bus to Flores where we would pick up a rental car to go to Tikal and drive down to Rabinal in. After that we would spend the last night in Guatemala City before dropping the rental car at the airport. It sounded like a lot, and everyone told us we were crazy, but it didn’t seem so bad. My boss told me not to take the night bus because we would probably get robbed, but I trusted Alayna’s judgement. We braved Baltimore together in college (and enjoyed it), I thought, we’ll be fine. I was ready for another adventure with her, it had been too long.
I borrowed a backpack from a friend, as I was aware that a rolley suitcase might be a really stupid choice for my destination, and off I went. When I got off the plane I was pleased to see a slew of ladies in traditional garb, not jeans and western attire. I was definitely going to like this place.
While I waited at the airport for Alayna, who was stuck in traffic (because that’s how it is in Guatemala City), I spoke to a man who had been living in the states for a while but was from Guatemala. He told me not to eat the fruits and vegetables because I would get sick. “What,” I exclaimed, “you can’t be serious?” He explained that it was really the water they were washed in, which made me feel a bit better. I was definitely going to eat me some fruits and veggies.
We went directly from the airport to Antigua, to stay at the AMAZING “Casa de Cappuchinas” where we had a beautiful room with a fireplace, as well as a balcony with a view of the volcano (that had recently erupted) and overlooking some ruins below. When we arrived, we put our stuff in the room and walked around Antigua, taking pictures of the amazing old Spanish architecture lit up at night.
All of the rooms here are very cool and special. We explored all the ones that were open. Breakfast was included, and AMAZING!!! I love the typical Guatemalan breakfast! Eggs with bread, sweet plantains, and bean paste with tortilla chips. Yum! I don’t even usually like beans, but this bean paste was awesome!
The next day we went to the market, and the artists market where I found some very fun pillows for Rare Beautiful Things, as well as a beautiful blanket for myself made of old huipil (handwoven womens shirts) patched together. We got some lunch at the “Urkish” restaurant with a friend of Alayna’s from Art Corps, went to the main square, had some awesome (and cheap) massages, and visited another friend of Alayna’s who worked at a nearby bar.
Our cabbie picked us up in front of the hotel he had left us at the night before, and brought us straight to the bus station in Guatemala City for our night bus to Flores. In less than 10 minutes we were on a bus and moving.
The bus was actually pretty nice, with really comfortable seats that reclined decently, and lots of leg room. The movie that was playing, however, started off the first half hour with almost no volume, then suddenly went up to an uncomfortable level. Thankfully there was no additional movie after that. I slept the rest of the 8 hour trip to Flores. Our rental car pickup was on the road that the bus was using to get to his final destination, so (surprisingly, to my American self) the driver let us off right in front of the rental office. We got the car, checked into the hotel in Flores, showered, ate our typical Guatemalan breakfast, and were on our way to Tikal.
Before we walked the trail up to the temples, we grabbed a coco-ice in a bag. It was so hot out, I was thankful for the boy there selling them. Truthfully, I can’t explain the wonder and amazement I felt when I walked up to the first temples. To think that these were built over 4,000 years ago by a peoples on a corn diet. While I have yet to visit the pyramids in Egypt, I imagine the feeling is the same. We climbed the slightly scary wooden stairs to the top of the first temple, where a group of people were already, when the sky opened up and dumped buckets on us. Everyone besides Alayna and I darted down to the bottom. We opened up our umbrella and tried to cover ourselves before ducking into a nook beyond the do not cross line. It was totally amazing being at the top of this temple alone. This might have been the first time in my life that I have experienced ruins with so few tourists. I have numbers of photos that would make you think we had the entire park to ourselves. Once the rain stopped we headed back down…going down the stairs was far more nerve wracking than going up.
We wandered through the park, climbing all the temples, looking for monkeys, seeing peacocks, bats, and toucans. When we climbed the temple with the ladder-esque staircase (I believe this is the temple that acts as a calendar/clock) we were completely over the tree canopy and could see the other temples from here. I couldn’t imagine that anything could be more beautiful.
Upon coming down from this temple, we met Antonio, one of the park workers. He told us that there was a higher temple, and offered to bring us there. On the way, Alayna asked where all the monkeys were. Antonio said that they spent more time near a water hole which was past some kind of Mayan sculpture. He led us through a trail in the woods to a sculpture of a fertility goddess. Some of the Mayan peoples know about this, and come in the night to pray, dance, and make love before the goddess in the hopes of bearing child. On these trails we also passed some holes in the ground covered with corrugated tin. These, Antonio told us, were tunnels with Mayan heiroglyphs. He told us to come back with a flashlight next time, and he would show us. These trails and sights are not on the tourist map, and would be a rare find for your average tourist. Who wants to take their chances on trails that aren’t on the map? It was really something special for Antonio to show us.
The tallest temple, ironically, had the most logical (and least scary) staircase to the top. From the top, two of the other temples are visible, and the tops of the trees seem extremely low. Again, I can’t explain the wonder and amazement that rushes through me in places like this. How did they build these things??
After our day at Tikal, we walked around Flores a bit, and had some dinner while watching an amazing sunset. The food was satisfactory, but nothing to write home about.
From Flores we drove down to Rabinal. For our typical Guatemalan breakfast that I love so much, we stopped at some hotel run by a French man on a beautiful property that he is trying to have saved as a nature preserve (with possibly bad intentions).
For lunch we stopped in Coban to meet another of Alayna’s friends. I had a very yummy turkey soup…but the appetizer soup (cream of carrot supposedly) was one of the best soups I’ve ever had. I don’t even like cooked carrots, but this was good…really good. We passed through numerous small towns, with thriving markets, where we had to slowly push trough the streets crammed with people. These towns were full of women in their traditional colorful garb, and vendors with all kinds of brightly woven goods. I noticed that the women in the north wore their skirts differently than those in the south, and I liked that within their culture I could notice distinct characteristics of different regions.
We got into Rabinal just before dusk, which was a good thing, as the mountain roads had both sharp curves, and chunks missing from mudslides caused by a recent hurricane. The hotel that I stayed in, Hotel Posada San Pablo, is perfectly situated in the middle of town. Our room cost only $7 for the night. It was small, but had 2 twin beds, a TV, ceiling fan, and private bath with hot running water 24/7. What more could you ask for at $7?
After finally meeting Romeo, we went pretty much directly to the market where we ate a bunch of yummy street foods, including a gringa, and a granizada at Delfina’s juice stand. Delfina is a friend of Alayna’s and has the best juices and ices in the market.
In the morning we went back into the market to for some shopping, visited with Delfina (and had another wonderful icee while we were there), then saw some of the projects that Alayna had worked on in her time here, including a tile floor at a community center, and 2 composting outhouses. It made me really proud of her to see the work she’s been doing with and for the people of Guatemala. From there we drove up the dirt road that led towards the house that Romeo had built for them. We parked on the side of the road, and walked about 10 minutes up a trail to her house, passing some free frolicking chickens and a cow on the way. This is way too cool, I thought.
I was the first visitor to the newly built house. Romeo built it right next to his mothers house, out of all natural materials from the area. The house is beautiful! There is electricity, but no running water. They have chickens running around freely, a garden, and a cornfield. I learned that a corn, a bean, and a squash were considered one complete food unit, and are grown together, supporting each other. Romeo’s mother and grandmother had cooked up a chicken soup for me, which was so delicious that I could taste the love cooked into it.
Once we were done visiting Romeo’s family, we headed back to the market and asked Delfina to come with us so that I could choose a beautiful skirt fabric. Buying a new skirt is a very big thing here. When we left the store, Delfina asked to carry my bag, I said she didn’t have to, but did take note of how she held her head high and proud carrying the bag out of the store. Everyone oohed over the fabric, and they taught me how it should be properly worn.
We also visited the cemetery in Rabinal, which is the site of Alayna’s newest project, Vivenda Historia (Living History, A Community Project to Comprehend Reality). Her photomontage will cover the wall of this colorful cemetery, hopefully bringing closure to the people who were affected by the genocides here in the 1980s.
My time in Rabinal was short, but very sweet, and I knew I would miss this small gem as we headed back to Guatemala City, where we were to spend our last night together. When we first got into the City, we drove around for 2 hours looking for the supposedly charming hotel Alayna had looked up. There were bags of volcano ash, from the recent volcano eruption, still sitting on most of the curbs here waiting to be picked up. When we finally found the hotel, a number of prostitutes seemed all to comfortable in front, so we kept on going until we found a hotel which seemed a better choice. As it was kind of late, and Guatemala City isn’t the safest place to be, all we did here was go out to dinner and hit the hay.
In the morning I had my last typical Guatemalan breakfast, and we were off to the airport. Upon dropping the rental car we were told that the total amount would actually be like half of the initial price given. I liked this about Guatemala…it seemed that everybody spoke in circles. Everything was either not possible or pretty expensive, then something would magically happen, and a change would be made (always for the better).
As I flew out of Guatemala City, I thought of how much I had seen and done in the past 5 days, how many people I had met, and how perfectly everything just fell into place. I thought of the work that Alayna had been doing there, and I thought of how Romeo’s mother had asked what time I would fly out so that she could watch for my plane passing above and wave goodbye. It got me a bit sentimental. Such a beautiful country, with beautiful people, living amazingly simple yet happy lives. It’s no wonder Alayna has made this her home.