Thursday, August 13, 2009

I've Got Nothing To Do Today But Smile

Due to my glasses debacle, I came back to Antigua a day early and had absolutely nothing to do. I decided that there was so much of Antigua I still hadn’t seen. So, even though I had been living in Antigua for seven weeks, I decided to put on my tourist cap for the day and explore.

My first stop was the absolutely beautiful Casa Santa Domingo Hotel. It was an old convent and in 1989, it was turned into a hotel. It is built among the ruins of this place that was destroyed in one of the many earthquakes. The entire hotel was hidden behind just a little door. Without the tiny sign, I never would have known this enormous hotel existed. Still one of my favorite things about Antigua is that you never know what lies behind the doors. It’s always a mystery. I walked around the hotel with a guide and went to the museum there as well. You would just never see anything like this anywhere in the US. Of course I couldn’t leave without taking a million pictures.

My next stop was the Jade Factory and museum. Guatemala is one of the world’s major sources of jade and it is everywhere in the country. I have bought several little pieces at the market, but this place had the genuine real stuff. After the quick tour, I bought a beautiful necklace in the store that I can’t wait to wear on a special occasion.

I couldn’t spend too long at the Jade Factory because more ruins were awaiting me. Next, it was off to Capuchinas, another old convent that housed about 70 nuns before being destroyed by an earthquake and relocated in Guatemala City. With no guide this time, I wondered around the gorgeous ruins for quite a while. I think these ruins were the winner in mind in terms of beauty.

After stopping in a hospital that I thought was a church I could explore, I went to the final ruins of the day, Santa Clara. With a guide that spoke very little English, I explored these HUGE ruins of yet another old convent. And of course, took more pictures.

For having nothing planned for the day, it turned into a wonderful day of exploration and beauty right in Antigua.

"The Only Living Boy In New York" -Simon and Garfunkel

Friday, August 7, 2009

Everywhere I Turn All The Beauty Just Keeps Shaking Me

After a four hour trip back from El Salvador, I went to a nice dinner with the other volunteers, went to sleep, and got up to get on a seven hour bus ride to Lanquin, a small town in the part of Guatemala called Alta Verapaz. Since all the other volunteers were going back to school on Monday, and I had taken the week off for travel, I went by myself, but confident I would meet some people on my way.

After the long journey, I arrived at the hostel called El Retiro. My guidebook describes this as a backpackers dream place and it was right. Every person there was traveling through Guatemala or other surrounding countries. Everyone was really friendly and eager to share their travel adventures. It made for a fun atmosphere. Plus, the place was gorgeous! It was a bunch of cabins and small buildings surrounded by green mountains and the Rio (river) Cahabon.

I splurged and got my own huge room with private bath for a whopping $20. The best part was the hammocks which I spent a lot of time in. They win for most comfortable hammocks I’ve been in on this trip. There were also some other visitors on the property keeping me company.

The first night I had the delicious buffet dinner at the hostel restaurant and chatted with some other travelers. Dining there is a communal experience for sure. Then it was to bed to get up for my tour of Semuc Champey the next morning.

I woke up to pouring rain and was disappointed, thinking the trip might be canceled. But by the time we left the sun was doing its best to show its face and we traveled on a crazy scary, but beautiful, road to Semuc Champy. There were about 20 people on the tour.

The first part of the tour was exploring the caves of K’anba. These caves are in water so swimming is required. It is also pitch black in there. To light the way, each of us was given a candle. Holding a candle while swimming makes for a difficult task, but also a fun one. In the caves we were required to climb a series of ladders made of medal and rope. When you are in a wet underground cave and have water from mini waterfalls flowing in your face while trying to climb a steep ladder in addition to holding a candle and not running into rocks, it is just a tad scary. This cave most definitely falls under the category of things that would never be legal in the US. Not to mention we had one tour guide and 20 people. People were scared, one girl lost her shoes, and everyone banged into a few unseen rocks, but we all made it out alive.

Next adventure was jumping off a huge bridge and tubing. About half the group, me included, decided to skip the jumping part. I was worried my glasses would fall off, but mostly, it just looked terrifying! The people who didn’t jump walked down toward the river on very slippery rocks to get in their tubes. At the bottom, one girl slipped and fell. I tried to go over to her to see if she was okay, but before I could get there, I tripped and fell too…right on my face. My glasses broke my fall, and one of the lenses popped right out. Luckily, I was not hurt at all, but I could not say the same for my glasses and the one lense I assumed was in the bottom of the river. I would have been better jumping off the bridge!

With one eye open, I went tubing anyways and by this point the sun was shining brightly. It was a short ride down the river, but definitely fun. I could have done that all day.

When walking our tubes back to the place they had come from, two friends I had met on the shuttle went looking for my lense and actually found it laying on a rock! The guy tried to fix my glasses and put the lense back in place, but unfortunately he ended up popping out a screw and my chances were hopeless. I was to be a Cyclops for the rest of the trip.

I didn’t let it get to me, and instead trekked on to the pools of Semuc Champey. Semuc Champey is a 300 meter limestone bridge with turquoise pools and small waterfalls flowing over it. It’s not so easy to describe, except to say that it was absolutely stunning, so here are a few pictures.

Many people chose to do a really difficult hike up to a lookout point to see the pools from above, but do to my glasses incident, I chose to just relax and swim in the pools. The pools were really cool because you could swim a little, then relax on the limestone in the middle. It was wonderful. We spent a few more hours relaxing there and exploring the pools before heading back to El Retiro. The tour, despite my broken glasses, was amazing.

A few people I had met and I then decided to head to the Lanquin Caves to see the infamous exodus of the bats. At around dusk each night, thousands of bats fly out of the caves right above the people’s heads. Look out Gotham City, the bats have relocated to Guatemala.

The four other people and I jumped on the back of a pickup truck and were taken to the caves. I have never seen anything like it in my life. There were literally thousands of bats flying out of the caves and they were so close to us! I thought some of them would hit us for sure, but they just went along and flew right over our heads. I did my best to capture the experience in photos.

Next, it was back on the pickup to the hostel for a traditional Guatemalan dinner and drinks with some friends I had made, before I turned in for the night. Here I am with my new friend Maitae from Spain.

I was planning on staying in Lanquin for one more day and night to explore further, but I didn’t think I could go much longer only seeing with one eye. The next morning, I was back on the 7 hour shuttle, with one guy who had literally not showered in months (I did say this was a true backpacker crowd), and back to Antigua I went to spend my last few days in Guatemala. Luckily, I had an extra pair of glasses waiting for me there in my luggage.

This was the last big excursion of my time here, but it was a great one and yet another beautiful place I am privileged to have seen.



"Word Falls" -Indigo Girls

What If A Great Wave Should Wash Us All Away?

Bright and early on Saturday morning, four other volunteers and I headed to sunny Tunco Beach in El Salvador for a relaxing weekend. We went in style, having air conditioning in the shuttle for the first time since arriving in Guatemala.

We got to our hotel, which was a very cute little place on the beach with a pool, hammocks, and a great view. After some lunch, we went for a dip in the ocean. In the ocean there is this huge black unusually shaped rock, which was visible from anywhere on the beach. It seemed to give this beach its character.

El Salvador is known for its surfers and there was no shortage on Tunco Beach. One of the most entertaining parts of the weekend was watching the surfers catching the waves.

After some time in the ocean and in the pool, I lazily slept in a hammock for a few hours while soaking up the sunlight; the definition of relaxation.

Unfortunately, my relaxation time ended when I woke up and saw Stan, one of the volunteers I went with, being carried up the stairs leading to our hotel. He looked absolutely horrible.

Apparently, he had swum out too far and the tides kept pulling him farther and farther away from shore. He yelled for help, and another volunteer who happened to be down by the beach, was able to get the attention of a man who swam out to help. This man was an oyster fisher and had flippers on to help him swim. Luckily, he was able to rescue Stan and bring him back to shore. He was freaked out, but he was okay. He was a trooper and even made it out to dinner that night. Here we all are after a delicious dinner.

While at dinner, it rained like crazy, but we got to see another amazing lightning storm. It seems each time I am by the water a lightning storm has happened. They are seriously amazing to watch.

My favorite part of the weekend was the new people I met. While in the pool I started playing with some kids and we became fast friends. They were here on vacation from Mexico City visiting their grandparents who live in El Salvador. The little girl who was five, Carla Rebecca, and I bonded over the fact that we had the same middle name. The boy, eight year old David, and I practiced headbutting balls in the pool together. Here are my new friends Carla and David.

I also talked to their parents and grandparents. Their grandfather comes to the states often for work and wanted to practice his English with me, which was very good. I wanted to practice my Spanish with him. We were having a conversation back and forth while he spoke to me in English and I answered in Spanish. It was quite amusing.

I also made another friend this weekend. We found him in our room...

The weekend ended with more time in the ocean, hammock, and pool. Out of the two beaches I visited, I far prefer El Salvador to Monterrico. The beach was prettier and much easier to swim in, the town and hotel were nicer, and there wasn’t even a comparison on the food. The seafood at El Salvador was incredible! Two days there was not nearly enough.



“Pig” –Dave Matthews Band

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Because I Knew You I Have Been Changed For Good

I apologize for my absence, but I have had very limited time in the land of computers for several days on. I have so many entries to write!

Last Friday, almost a week ago already, was mi ultimo dia (my last day) at the school in Itzapa. The time with my kids flew by so quickly and it’s hard to believe it’s already over.

Although frustrating at times, especially my afternoon class whose favorite word to say was “No”, Clase Fuego was a blast to teach. All my students were such unique characters and had so much personality.

On the last day, I received an absolutely beautiful bouquet of flowers from my student Yaimee, along with a very heartfelt card written by her mother expressing her appreciation. It was so thoughtful. I also got cards made by my kids that were so sweet. Some of them are great artists.

I took over 100 pictures this day. I wanted to be sure to capture every moment I could on my last day. It was very hard to narrow down just a few to share here.

Each Friday, the volunteers who are leaving sit in a chair near the entrance to the school. As the kids leave for the day, every kid gives a big hug and cards to those volunteers. It’s a really nice tradition. Each week I’ve gotten a little choked up seeing the other volunteers say goodbye to the kids, so it wasn’t surprising that I shed a few tears when I had to say my goodbyes.

This day I also said goodbye to the Elena’s family, who have been so nice and welcoming of all the volunteers into their house. We were served more shots of whiskey poured out of a coke bottle at lunch to celebrate the last day of so many volunteers. The volunteers who were leaving were also given a beautiful tablecloth that had been used to hold the tortillas we ate everyday. Here is me with Elena and one of her daughters, Yaimee.

I have had to say goodbye to kids every year as a camp counselor and a teacher. It was different on this day though, because those kids I almost always saw again, and I know, unless I go back to volunteer again, these kids I won’t. Teaching at this school and spending time with these children will definitely be an experience I will never forget and one I will consider one of the most unique of my life. Being around these kids, even just for a short time, has absolutely changed me for the better.



“For Good” –Idina Menzel and Kristen Chenowith (Wicked Soundtrack)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

I'm Easy Like Sunday Morning

After the Pecaya climb on Saturday I was in much need of a day of relaxation. Two other volunteers, Diane and Michelle, and I headed to the right place for this on Sunday morning…the macadamia nut farm, Valhalla.

To get to the farm, we rode the chicken bus. After being in Guatemala for five weeks and almost getting ran over by several, I could not believe that I was finally taking my first chicken bus ride. It was not all that different from riding any American school bus except they were ridiculously decorated and came straight out of the 1970s. Despite our tackily designed aging bus, we made it to the farm.

This farm was just what we all needed. It was a small little paradise ran by a crazy old man and his wife. Once we entered, I was immediately taken in by the beauty. We were offered macadamia nuts and chocolates with the nuts in them. Then we got a very short tour by the owner who used to live in the US. He pretty much just babbled on about all the US’s conspiracy theories against him, but I was too amazed by the surroundings to care. He also quickly showed us how the nuts are harvested, and then went on his way.

Next, we were all given a short free facial massage using Macadamia nut oils. It felt incredible.

We headed towards the restaurant, which were pretty much just some tables outside surrounded by the macadamia nut trees. Apparently they cook in this old trailer that looked like it was a thousand years old.

Without having to think about it, all three of us ordered the pancakes with macadamia nut butter and didn’t regret it for a second. They were delicious!

After our scrumptious brunch, we explored the surroundings a little bit more, having fun on the swings and in the hammocks. We all agreed this place was one of the most beautiful we’ve seen thus far in our travels.

It was hard to pull ourselves away from the peacefulness of the farm, but we managed to hop on another chicken bus and made our way to the small pueblo of San Antonio. One of the interns, Moli, had recommended I stop here at some point but warned me it would be hard to walk away from the artesian market empty handed.

Moli was most certainly right. As soon as I walked in to the indoor market, I instantly saw woman working at the looms to weave beautiful bags, scarves, tablecloths, etc for their shops. I started talking with one of the women while she was weaving.
Next thing I know, I’m dressed head to toe in traditional Mayan clothing. Don’t laugh when you look at this picture. Okay, maybe you can laugh a little bit. Here’s how I look dressed as a traditional Mayan.

Next I headed upstairs and struck up a conversation with a woman named Anna. We spoke for about 30 minutes, all in Spanish, which definitely made me feel more confident in my conversational abilities in another language. All the woman here was nice and friendly, but Anna was especially welcoming. Here is a picture of the two of us.

Upstairs, next to all the vendors, there was this small one room museum. It had typical clothing that Mayan women where in all different parts of Guatemala. It was small but quite interesting and worth a look.

I did not walk away empty handed, but instead ended up buying a small purse, a table runner, a worry doll, and a scarf.

I then went to their adorable Parque Central to capture a few more shots of this small town.

Then is was back on the chicken bus to Antigua where we all sat three to a seat with no windows down because it was pouring rain by this point. I had a woman practically sitting on my lap and a child sitting on her lap. Again, Guatemala is not so up to date on those safety laws. The bus ride back was uncomfortable to say the least, but most definitely worth it.

These days in Guatemala have been amazing. I can’t believe I have such a short time left!



“Easy Like Sunday Morning” -Commadores

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

So High, Elevation

This weekend was incredible. So much so that there is no way I can fit it all into one blog. I’ll just start with Saturday’s mission: climb an active volcano, Volcan Pecaya.

Saturday morning at 8am I went to the travel agency to meet up with my group for the day. I was pleasantly surprised to see my French buddy, Guillermo, the guide from my Lake Atitlan trip, there. I was happy to hear he would be my guide on this trip. There were three other GVI volunteers, an army man named Jimmy, and two parents and their daughter who is around my age, who were all in the group as well.

We took the 1 hr 15 min scenic drive to the volcano. Once we arrived in the park, kids were there instantly trying to sell us walking sticks and marshmallows. There were about three kids who jumped on the van as it was still in motion, just to get our business. I remember my friend Debra telling me that I most definitely want to have a walking stick for this hike. I let a little boy named Brian sell me one for 5 quetzals. Let me tell you now…these were the 5 best quetzals I’ve ever spent in my life.

We started going up and I found it instantly challenging. I was told the last hour was very intense and we should all try to save our energy for that. So after a little while of hiking, I jumped on a horse to take me to the more difficult part of the hike. I don’t regret this choice a single bit. At first I felt like I was wimping out, but this allowed me to relax a little and enjoy the scenery before the real hiking began.

Here I am on my horse Campion, which means Champion in English.

After a short relaxing journey on Campion, we arrived at the part where the hike stops being a pretty trail through some trees and becomes a steep climb up razor sharp volcanic rocks that refuses to stay under your feet. This is where the walking stick came in. Thank god for that thing! I never would have made it through without it.

As I watched the people walk up the volcano I seriously thought there is no way in hell I will make it all the way up there. The people near the top looked like tiny little dots from where we were. Guillermo told us that just a few weeks before the place where lava was flowing was not nearly as high, but since Pecaya is an active volcano it is constantly changing formation. If you look at the picture below and focus on those tiny people on the right side, you can kind of get an idea what I’m talking about.

So up and up we went. I took it one step at a time. At one point I looked down and got to see how far I had come which was an amazing feeling. Eventually we all made it to the top. And I wasn’t even the last one up!

The group was told that there was no way to know when there would be lava flowing, so we may see it or we may not. If I had hiked my ass all the way up there, and risked death about a thousand times, I was not going to be happy if there was no lava to be seen.

Luckily, the volcano rewarded me for my efforts and I got to have one of the most unique experiences of my life. As soon as I arrived at the top I instantly felt intense heat and knew that there must be lava doing its thing. Sure enough, there were two huge streams of it making its way down the volcano. It was seriously amazing.

I’ve never been one who was big into geology, but after seeing this it might just be a new interest. Since we were all pretty exhausted from the climb up, we hung out at the top for a long time, enjoying the view and roasting marshmallows on the lava. The whole thing was seriously incredible. Here is a narrated video of the lava flow. I apologize for the shakiness, but my hands were tired from gripping to that walking stick for dear life.

So after spending our time at the top, I was thinking the hard part was over. All we have to do now is go back down. Wrong. Going down was quite possibly twice as hard as going up. Again, the rocks did not stay below your feet, and we all pretty much slid our way down. That 5 quetzals walking stick really came in handy going down. It didn’t stop me from falling about a thousand times, but after a while I actually got pretty good at falling. I always landed on my butt instead of on my face. With the rocks I was dealing with, this was pretty much life saving.

After climbing down the volcanic rock, we stopped for a delicious lunch prepared by Guillermo. Right as we started to eat the clouds rolled in and we got completely soaked. Jimmy, the army guy and the only one who forgot to bring a raincoat, said they have a saying in the army, “Embrace the suck”. This basically means that when things suck, which they often do, just go with it and don’t fight it. You’ll be better off in the end. So we all “Embraced the suck” and made it the rest of the way down the volcano. We were soaking wet, but we all definitely had a blast.

I have seen many things in Guatemala that would for sure never be allowed in the US, and letting people climb this volcano would most definitely be one of them. However, I’m so glad that I’m in Guatemala and not the US, and had a chance to experience this amazing hike. I’m not really sure I’ll ever again be able to say, “I hiked a volcano and roasted some marshmallows on lava today.”

Love, Julie

"Elevation" -U2