Three months and I’ll be heading to all of these beautiful locations.
He was a seaman, but he was a wanderer, too, while most seamen lead, if one may so express it, a sedentary life. Their minds are of the stay-at-home order, and their home is always with them—the ship; and so is their country—the sea. One ship is very much like another, and the sea is always the same. In the immutability of their surroundings the foreign shores, the foreign faces, the changing immensity of life, glide past, veiled not by a sense of mystery but by a slightly disdainful ignorance; for there is nothing mysterious to a seaman unless it be the sea itself, which is the mistress of his existence and as inscrutable as Destiny. For the rest, after his hours of work, a casual stroll or a casual spree on shore suffices to unfold for him the secret of a whole continent, and generally he finds the secret not worth knowing. The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine
I returned to San Pedro about three days ago since I have decided that I am absolutely in love with this place. I wouldn’t live here, just because it is rather detatched from the real world, but for the rest of my travels I am more than happy to settle down on Lake Atitlan’s shore.
I started to do volunteer work with an organization called Rising Minds http://risingminds.org/, which attempts to spread out the wealth from tourists to towns that aren’t as fortunate as San Pedro. My two main jobs are to hold music workshops at an elderly center and to compile video footage or interviews of local artisans and workers for the organizations website. These tasks have already forced me to step into the depths of Guatemalan culture and have definitely added a productive essence to my travels.
But what I really want to talk about is a lecture I went to on Tuesday. I was beckoned into a language school by its director, Juan, who told me that they were having a group discussion and story telling session about the civil war and grim history of Guatemala. I’ve been researching the US intervention in Guate that occured in the 50s but never went further than that, so I was extremely interested to sit in on the meeting. First, they gave a brief history about the overthrowing of the first democratically elected president and how it lead to genocide and instability. I am truly lucky to have been born in a country like the USA because of all of the benefits I have; however, our foreign policy makes me cringe. The leaders we installed in this country were the ones who slaughtered and tortured thousands.
There were two guest speakers who actually lived this war. The first to talk was Juan’s own father who was recruited by the guerrillas of San Pedro to protect the people, all poor natives, from the ruthelessness of the military. He told stories about how the army would kidnap and murder anyone who attempted to thwart government operations or talk about the existing conflict, and would then dump all of the bodies into a 50 metre pit that now has an elementary school built ontop of it. He talked about how there was a young man running for mayor who showed too much innitiative and potential, so he was beheaded and displayed publically by the government. I could see him nearly break down in tears as he explained to us how he doesn’t understand why he survived, and in that moment I felt the weight of an entire country in pain come crashing down.
The next person who talked was Tops, a man in his 50s who was born into an extremely wealthy family in the capital. He recalled a moment when he was 16… He was rollerblading at a rink when a friend pulled him aside and told him that he was giving him his car. His friend said that he was giving him his car because he wanted him to drive to the outskirts of the capital the next day to join him at a party. This party, as it turned out, happened to be a session of torture, involving eye sockets and quarters, for an indiginous guerrilla that his buddy and other men had captured. Tops went home, told his mom, and was promptly sent to the US for private school, because if he didn’t show up at the “party” he would be killed as well.
All of this only ended 17 years ago, and still there are problems with repression. A man wrote a book called “Guatemala Nunca Mas”, which provided detailed accounts of the events during the civil war and handed copies of it out for free at schools. The CIA found out, as well as the Guatemalan government, and two days later he was dead. All of the copies given to the schools were revoked and burnt, and now it is nearly impossible to find any full version of it. I have it on a USB though, and I can’t tell whether that is totally safe.
It blows my mind to witness the strength of the people here. They have experienced so much pain and violence, yet they have recovered and display incredible amounts of kindness to everyone. They are even welcoming and warm to those of us from the USA, the country that single handedly tore their entire culture apart and ruined any chance of development. It is also alarming to me how I didn’t learn about this in school or how nobody in the States is actually aware of our role in latin america in general.
All I can say is that I walked away from the meeting feelign angry, sorrowful, and incredibly lucky that I have never experienced such atrocities.
The last week has been a rollercoaster. I have never experienced so many mixed emotions, diverse experiences, and varying levels of comfort in such a small period of seven days.
I arrived in Antigua with two friends from San Pedro on a Friday night as part of my journey to Semuc Champey, the rural jungle of Guatemala. We were walking down a street and found that San Fransisco, the largest and most beautiful church in Antigua, had a small side gate open for a wedding that was occuring inside. Even though it was clear that we weren’t invited, we decided to enter and found ourselves immersed in a romantic display of the most gorgeous Spanish ruins that I have seen. No one was there except for us, and we wandered through the moonlit rooms and antique gardens unbothered.
After we parted ways, I decided that it was time for me to make the eight-hour journey to my intended destination alone. Still sick with a horrible cold, I was shoved into a full shuttle bus and driven north on road conditions that make it impossible to sleep. I arrived in Lanquin, the town next to Semuc, at dusk with no money and a debit card [which proved useless as there is no ATM within two hours of the pueblo]. On top of my stupidity was the fact that the power had been out for a day and I had absolutely no way of contacting anyone. On top of that, I woke up to an artist from Honduras sleeping on the floor next to my bed with a beer in his hand. But the undying generosity of travellers and locals made up for the weirdness of my first night. I still can’t wrap my mind around the fact that a girl from Philly, who I had literally known for about three hours total, was able to trust me enough to lend me 100Qs until I was able to get money… I am still so grateful.
Anyways, the power finally returned and I managed to get mula wired from the States. It was time to do what I set out to do. I hitchhiked from Lanquin to the entrance of the Semuc Champey natural park with an Israeli man named Aiden who claimed to have four wives in four different countries. He ended up in this “hole”, as he described, because he and his friend decided to build a hotel. After being dropped off, I hiked ten minuted into the jungle and slowly approached the most beautiful thing I have seen in my life.
If you can envision paradise, that is what the pools of Semuc Champey are. They are crystal clear turqiouse pools, nestled in the lush jungle, that pour into eachother via waterfalls. The tours hadn’t arrived yet because it was so early, so there were only around five of us in total, which made it even more serene and remote. I think I actually laughed because of how surreal this place is. This is what travelling is. It is unbearably lonesome and frustrating sometimes, but these obstacles are simply sacrifices for that moment of pure bliss and awe you feel when you arrive at a place like Semuc Champey. I hitchhiked back on a pickup truck filled with drunk locals and moved out of my hostel to another one by the river. I found various travellers who I had met earlier in my trip and sat on the dock with them at twilight, watching thousands of bats fly down the current, consuming the last of the day’s light with their dark wings.
I was sitting around a fire outside with local musicians, when I felt like something was off. I had sung one song, and all of a sudden it felt like the glands in my neck had swelled into balloons. It took this quick, excruciating pain for me to feel my forehead, which I found to be hotter than the heat of the fire. No good. Everyone insisted that I go out to San Pedro’s only open mic with them, but for the first time in my journey I decided to “lay low.” No adventuras for me that night. I could tell that this was only the beginning of a long and intense illness and a late night out would not help me fight through this.
When I woke up in the morning I felt like hell. I could barely swallow and I felt a sickness in my stomach that I can only liken to all of my internal organs trying to get out through my mouth. Oh yeah, if you are sensitive to graphic descriptions DO NOT read this post! I stumbled out of the hostel room, trying not to wake the other tenants, and proceeded to throw up green fluid for at least a half an hour before I managed to get crawl to my bed. I was in so much pain that I could barely fall asleep again. Are you ok? Asked various people throughout the day. Nope. Two English girls who I had previously met in Antigua were kind enough to take care of me. They brought me tea and soft bread and honey, since I couldn’t eat anything else without barfing or feeling like I was consuming shards of glass. I decided that I would hold off from going to the doctors until the next day, wishfully thinking that my condition might improve.
Unfortunately, when I opened my eyes in the morning, I felt even more ill. When I looked inside my mouth to the back of my throat, I could see what looked like bacteria growing everywhere. It wasn’t strep; It looked like mold. You can probably imagine that to find fungi cultivating inside of your head is a very scary thing to realize. It’s even a scarier when you are in a developing country with no health insurance (yep, forgot to get travel insurance.) I dragged my pale, weak self to a doctors office at the top of a very large hill, leaning over to hack up UFOs from the depths of my lungs at intervals along the way. The small practitioner’s building was in an alleyway and as I attempted to speak, which was more like a grumble-whisper, the receptionist pointed me to a bench. I was half asleep when I was finally called.
The doctor, a do-good commuter from Guatemala City who travels here every other day, asked me a series of questions. He looked inside my throat, did a strep test, checked my vital signs, and ultimately concluded that I had “Farengitis.” Now, I am not entirely sure what this is. I was diagnosed with it at least two times when I lived in Ecuador and the medics attributed it to temperamental climates, but I have yet to understand what the English equivalent is- or if one even exists. He prescribed me antibiotics (100$ worth!) and sent me back to my hostel. The next three days were miserable as I attempted to cleanse my body of the awful infection that had floored me.
Worse than the physical discomfort of being sick as a dog, was the emotional toll it took on me. Even though the occasional friend would check on me and bring me water or food, I was alone. I was in a foreign land, completely disabled, and without anyone who unconditionally cared for me enough to hold my hair back. I spent hours, coping with the pain in my throat as I stared up at the baseboards of the bunk above me, spiraling into a isolated ditch of self pity and regret. You don’t know existential crisis until you’re puking your guts out in Guatemala.
I finally began to get better and emerged from my personal hell slowly. It seemed like the hostel had gone through a transition of people, for I didn’t recognize half of the backpackers crowding the bar. I sat out on the lawn that afternoon, basking in the cool breeze and bright sun for a couple of hours, relieved to be feeling like a human being again.
I haven’t been consistent with blogging due to the fact that I hate the keyboards at internet cafes, but I figured that I would sacrifice my selfish life of solo travel for 30 minutes to record some of my experiencias.
I left Antigua about a week ago via chicken bus. Chicken buses are essentially US school busses (the yellow ones) that wouldn’t pass inspection or meet standards in the states. They are personally decorated by their owners, the artwork on the side panels vary from jesus on a cross to strippers, and they are notorious for being overcrowded, loud, and a little terrifying. Bon Jovi blared from the speakers as we zipped down the winding mountain roads; every time we turned a sharp corner I thought we were going to run off the edge. The latest backpacker’s rumor is that a bus in Antigua lost its breaks and tumbled down a revine, so this was in the back of my head for the duration of the trip. These moments are really good for me though, because after clenching on to the seat infront of me for an hour I learned to just let go and accept the fact that I have no control over the situation.
Anyways, I have been in San Pedro la Laguna for a week now and I am finding it hard to leave. It is beautiful here. The lake is dark turquiose in the right light and when the sky is clear you can see the massive volcanos and mountains jutting up from the banks. I’ve been planning to do paragliding but as it is the rainy season the weather hasn’t been too perfect; around 3 PM each day I watch massive lighting storms roll over the water.
You can take these boats from dock to dock for less than two dollars and each town has its own flavor. I personally prefer San Pedro because it is the young backpacker’s town but there is also San Marcos, notorious for the new age hippies that inhabit it, and Panajachel, the more developed city of the lake. Yesterday I took a boat to a very remote pueblo with my friends. It was clear when we hiked up into the town from the dock that we were the first gringos to stroll into their territory in a long time. It was weird being viewed so strangely. The children were relentlessly excited and their parents weary of our motivations, most likely because mayan culture around these parts has been diluted by substantial amounts of tourism.
What else? Oh, I got deathly ill for two days and had to spend around 100$ on antibiotics and consultation. I had a raging fever and could barely swallow but luckily I had people who I barely knew bringing me bread and tea the entire time.
The hostel I am staying in is also the best place ever. Mr Mullets is really the only sociable hostel option for non-israeli travellers since they unofficially dominate two in San Pedro. The other night, Mullets hosted a prom pub crawl, which called for its participants to find ridiculously tacky outfits. It was strange for me because at each bar the owner would announce “welcome class of 2013 Prom kids!!” which actually happens to be my year of graduation. Even though it was a twisted, strange version of my 2013 prom, I have to say I enjoyed it A LOT more.
Today we are celebrating Nelson Mandela. I am about to go pick up trash on the streets for 67 minutes and then head over to a pool where the proceeds from the entrance tickets go to local charities. I am planning on leaving tomorrow for this national park Semuc Champey but I could easily stay here for another week.
Hasta luego chicos!
I have met an incredible group of people at Mr. Mullet’s, a hostel I eventually moved into, and I cannot get tired of watching dawn flood the misty skies above the lake in the morning. This place, the people, and the San Pedro lifestyle are amazing.
I took a day trip on a local boat to another small town called
No, I’m not referring to the classic middle school diss targeting your mother. Yo Mama is the place I ended up at after I unloaded my backpack from the top of the shuttle bus, after I found out the hostel I wanted to stay at was full. I entered its gates, expecting the relaxed, hopping common space that the Lonely Planet guide book gushed about but as I walked into the reception area I could tell that I had missed its golden days. Dusty, moldy, damp, vacant. All of these words describe the empty and expired state that Yo Mama was in. The women who checked me in seemed beside themselves that someone had actually decided to stay. It seems as though Yo Mama is so old that she has gone out of style.
There is a legend about Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. The fable suggests that the feeling of contentedness that travelers feel when they settle on the lake’s shores is because of a force much more sinister than cheap restaurants and comfortable hammocks…
Why Latin America
People often seem confused when I tell them I am going to backpack by myself around various Latin American countries. It seems like the go-to for young women is Europe, or even East Asia, but rarely do people consider the “drug cartel, poverty ridden” continents of Central and South America to be luxurious destinations. Their eyes widen as they warn me about the possibility of being assaulted, robbed, or even sold into sex slavery (yes, these are all scenerios that have been kindly presented to me.) Well, I am here to officially lay out the reasons why I have fallen in love with this place and why I am sure that if certain skeptical individuals gave it a chance, they would too.
It’s not such a bad place!
Many people do not realize that the violence covered in the media is actually less common than presented. Kidnappings and assaults committed against tourists