Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Time to go

And so tomorrow morning I will leave Guatemala after being here for about six weeks (minus a day in Mexico). It's hard to pick memories out of so many, but the above photos, in my opinion, do a good job of representing a few of the key experiences I have had here.

I will miss this country. The people here are amazing - they seem to simply refuse to allow the problems in their lives to darken their smiles, and I have never encountered such hospitality and grace. Guatemala - from it's low tangled jungles, to it's Volcano tops so high above the earth you feel like heaven is just out of reach, will always have a special place in my heart, and I hope to come back soon - as there is still so much I haven't seen.

So it's back to Belize for a couple days, and then on home to Canada.

Thanks for reading along, and God bless.

All my best,

Volcan Pacaya

There's almost definately an accent or two in the name, but it sounds how it's spelled.

I came back to La Antigua specifically to visit/climb this volcano. Guatemala has three active volcanoes - I have now been up close to two, and this morning I watched the third erupt as I went for a morning stroll.

I should correct myself actually - what I have seen are technically not classified as eruptions, they are called explosions. An eruption is what you walk accross on the way up Pacaya. The volcano's last major eruption was in 2004, when it went off in an eruption that was visible from the capital city. It has been active for almost two years (if memory serves me correctly) which means there has been continuous explosions and lava flows.

To get to the lava flow, or one of them, you walk over the now cooled remains of the 2004 eruption, which is like walking on the moon, or at least what I imagine walking on the moon would be like - only it's hotter here.

The first couple pictures are of the cooled lava flow - and the peak in the distance is the actual crater of Pacaya - it doesn't sound the same as Santiaguito though - Santiaguito had a deep rumbling sound, while Pacaya had more of a quick bang-whoosh sound to it. But looking up at the sound we could see lava and rocks firing up out of the little peak - which was especially cool once it got dark.

Eventually we rounded the corner and were greeted with a gust of hot wind as we neared the flow. There are no restrictions here - and so I was able to stand about two feet away from a lava flow, and poke around in it with a stick - lava is suprisingly heavy. The heat, of course, is extreme - and under your feet you can see more lava below through cracks in the cooled top crust - it is over these cracks that you can cook marshmellows. Lava cooks'em great too. Luckily it's so hot they cook almost instantly, because standing in one place for too long would result in melted shoes.

All in all, it's an amazing experience - and hiking back down in the dark with the volcano going off in the background is excellent. I would like to thank Pacaya for being nice while we were there, since running away from an eruption - over the last eruption - would have been impossible.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Atitlan Nature Reservation/Butterfly Garden

A couple days ago I went to this site, as it is only a short walk from where I have been staying in Panajachel. The reserve is tucked into a little corner of a small valley, and you have the option of walking the trail, or paying more and walking to the top and Ziplining back and forth the whole way down.

Personally, I was there to see the wildlife and the jungle, so I walked. The reservation was created by a couple who originally set it up as a coffee plantation, and the coffee plants are still there - some of them well over 15 feet tall (really more like coffee trees at that point) and they are growing amongst a little jungle. The path consitsts of a series of very short walks connected by suspension bridges, which make our Vancouver suspension bridges seem like concrete walkways. The signs say only six people on at a time - I was glad to be alone, and wouldn't want to watch six average sized adults try to cross.

But the park itself (the bridges really are part of the experience) is beautiful - tall trees overhang the valley with vines falling down all around as you cross from side to side over a streem below, before coming to a little observation deck, where you can watch a family of resident monkeys hanging out (literally) as well as watching the zipliners criss crossing back and forth overhead.
A couple bridges later, you cross in front of a narrow waterfall falling about 60 feet from a cliff above, and then the trail loops back around.

The walk takes about 45 minutes if you walk slowly, and I was glad to be there midmorning on a weekday, therefor not having to deal with many groups of tourists from Pana or the other Lake towns.

Next is the little butterfly garden, which is just a piece of the jungle with a net over it and a small building where several glass cages contain caterpillars and coccoons of various types at various stages of - whatever that process is called.

The only real difference in the butterfly garden, aside from the butterflys (how do you make that plural?) is that it has many different flowers growing in it, for obvious reasons, so it is a little extra pretty. The butterflys aren't exactly swarming, but there are a few cool ones, and I have noticed that in general there's lots of butterflys in the wild here, so it was interesting to get a little closer.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Getting around

I have been asked on various occasions what transportation is like here - specifically, what is a chicken bus, and what is a Tuk Tuk. So, I took a few pictures to help explain.

Chicken busses are the tune pumping, tooth rattling, God praising public transport of Guatemala. Sure, you can get second and first class busses, but they're not nearly as fun. The drivers and ticket takers of the chicken busses are characters of their own breed - kind of like the Guatemalan equivalent to Newfoundland or West Coast fishermen, only crazier. The drivers navigate steep roads at top speeds, passing everything in sight at any time. Literally. One bus I was on, the driver passed about five different vehicles, on a narrow mountain road - no guardrails - while going up-hill towards a blind curve as fast as he could go. Not that the curve matters to them, they will pass in the middle of one if they feel like it. They do all of this while their counterpart hangs out of the open door yelling destinations to anyone who is on the side of the road. Sometimes, when they pick someone up on the fly, the bus will head off with the back door hanging open and the door guy up on the roof securing the new passengers load, he then climbs back down from the roof and back into the bus through the rear. I have to admit - it looks like it would be a lot of fun, and you can probably cross the whole country for just over the equivalent of ten American dollars, so the price really can't be beat.

You can also get things while you're riding the bus - need some fruit? Chicken? A new car battery? How about a change of religion, or maybe a permanent marker from a one legged man? Makes our own public transit look about as exciting as watching paint dry. I think the sermon was my favorite, but every bus is a different trip - so who knows what I'll see next.

Tuk Tuks, are these cute little three wheeled things that are the main mode of Taxi in smaller towns - Mr. Bean would have a field day knocking them all over if he ever visited.
They look like fun, and are cheap, but Guatemala's roads in the towns are all cobblestone - not even ones - and Tuk Tuks don't have any suspension, so while they seem like a good idea, you're more likely to keep your teeth if you hoof it.

So there it is, that's how you get around.

Another Sunset

Hello from. . . Mexico?

Two days after Santa Maria, I jumped on a chicken bus and headed for Mexico - I left Xela at 5AM and shortly after noon was sitting on the beach in Puerto Chiapas (fomerly Madero) Mexico. Why sis I go to Mexico, you might ask. Well, having seen the sunrise on the Carribbean Sea in Belize on the west coast of Central America, I thought it would be cool to see it set on the Pacific East coast.

Not a bad idea, but an interesting experience. I do not have a guide of this part of Mexico, and couldn't find any information on the internet - so I was basically flying blind as soon as I crossed the border. Chiapas is Mexico's poorest state - which is definately saying something, but when you cross the border the difference between Mexico and Guatemala is immediately visible, well paved roads connect even these far flung port towns, and huge plantations stretch as far as the eye can see. Bananas, Plantains, Mangoes and Tobacco were the most prevalent, and the tropical landscape is dotted with huge trees, the shade of which would cover the entirety of most properties in Canada.

I got to Puerto Chiapas fairly easily, but was led off to eat quite a way out of town (everybody wants to lead you smewhere) but hailed a pickup back after walking for only a short distance - which was good, because it was crazy hot and I had EVRYTHING to carry. So I got back to town and encountered a bit of a snag - Puerto Chiapas doesn't have a bank, so everybody uses the ABM at the corner store, unfortunately the machine had been broken for a while. So that left me with two options - say "okay, I saw the ocean at least" and head back to Guatemala, or go to Tapachula in a taxi and try my luck there. I went for option number two.

I have never been so happy to see an HSBC in my life. I got more pesos and jumped back in the cab, returned to Puero Chiapas and booked into a hotel for the night. I went out later and sat and watched the sun go down as the waves crashed against the shore, and felt a sense of accomplishment at having accomplished my goal.

Puerto Chiapas, I must say, was not as happy to have me as I was to be there - the town serves cruise ships on their way south, and I guess one person was not what they were used to. The entire time I never saw another traveller, and the locals in town (with a couple exceptions) were less than welcoming. So, the next morning I rose early and went by to Guatemala by a different border crossing, and nine hours later was in Panajachel, Lago Atitlan - which is where I have stayed.

So, a fun little adventure - in total I was in Mexico for less than 24 hours (which suprisingly did not seem strange to immigration) and was very happy to get back into Guatemala.

For Gwen, if you look into the left corner of the photo above you will see a couple stray dogs who were also enjoying the sunset and the surf.

Santa Maria - Santiguito

While we were on top of Santa Maria, Santiguito erupted several times. Having now seen the two Volcanoes from the other side on the ground, I now know that Santiaguito is actually kind of on the side of Santa Maria - when you're on top, you look straight down into Santiaguito, which is one of Guatemalas most active Volcanoes.

The sound of a Volcano erupting, when you're that close, is somewhat like a violent earthquake - it's a low rumble, which if I had to describe it (which I guess I do) sounds like raw power. Possible comaparable to the roar of Niagra Falls.

Several times we heard it erupting but were unable to see because of the clouds, and with the sound, I kept waiting for the earth to start shaking - it sounds violently powerful, and when we finally got to see it in the morning, still dazed from lack of sleep and an incredible sunrise, it was an amazing experience.

I gotta say, I'm glad to have finally finished writing about Santa Maria - I can't think of any more strong, descriptive words - and really, words arent enough.

SAnta Maria - Sunrise/Sunset


Photo 1 is the Sunrise, photo 2 is the Sunset

The Sunrise and Sunset from above the clouds is breathtaking, to say the least. To the West there was nothing but clouds, and so the sun sets into a field of white, and does so quite quickly. Whereas to the East you can see the Volcanoes around Lago Atitlan (which is where I am as I write this) and a little farther away are the three Volcanoes that surround La Antigua. The Sunrise, I must say, is in my opinion the more beautiful of the two - though saying that sounds stupidly picky. When the sun rises though, at about 5:45AM, the whole world seems to change - however, with the sunset you get more of a sense of watching the world turn, which is a cool feeling.

Santa Maria Video

This took a long time to load, and so the order is slightly off - but better late than never.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Santa Maria - The top

There is no way to accurately describe the feeling of standing on top of Santa Maria. The first picture is Trooper, the second is me. All around the other volcanoes are like islands in the clouds, and you truly feel like you're on top of the world.

I shot a short video, since I had a feeling I would not be able to find words to describe being there. . .

But, unfortunately it is taking forever to load. So if I get a chance I will load it, and write the rest of the story at a later date.

Santa Maria - The Idea and the Climb

This is probably easier if I split it into sections, since I took so many photos and the trip consisted of different experiences.
The Idea and the Climb.
The idea came to climb a volcano comes about as soon as you arrive in Guatemala since they are everywhere and you can climb pretty much all of them - the original plan had been to climb Tacamulco, which is the highest point in Central America, but since there were no trips up last weekend, me and Simon (a friend from Spanish school) looked into Santa Maria, which although about 400 meters lower than Tacalmulco, is considered to have a much better view since it is much closer to Lake Atitlan and Antigua. It is also literally right beside (they're almost touching) Santiaguito - which is very active - erupting about once an hour.
We left Xela at around 10:30AM and arrived at the base of the volcano (I keep starting to type mountain. . .) at just after 11, and started hiking up. The trip we did was an overnight - camp on top - so we each had our large backpacks stuffed with warm clothes and camping gear. Our group consisted of me and Simon, three girls from America, Australia, and Austria and our guide. Santa Maria, although not as high, is considered to be much more challenging than Tacamulco since there the trail winds around the volcano, while on Santa Maria, you just go straight up.
And that's what we did. We climbed for just short of five hours (with a break for lunch) straight up, by the time you get close to the top where the air is thinner the trail is so steep that I was literally climbing - pulling myself up by my hands. But the view is amazing the whole way, the forest is thin most of the time and there are viewpoints everywhere where you can look straight back down to where you started.
We also had a little added company - at the bottom we ran into a stray dog who padded along with us for a short while - then after a short break the dog stayed lying in the shade while we moved on. About an hour later, the dog showed up again - and at this point, beeing thoroughly impressed, I named her Trooper, and we continued on and eventually left her behind. As I mentioned, near the top the climb becomes extreme - with Simon a little up ahead and the girls a ways behind with the guide, I was bent over catching my breath when Trooper, with a quick glance back, trotted past me on up the path. To say I was amazed would be an understatement - the volcano is at 3,772 meters up, Xela and the surrounding area is around 2,300 roughly, so that means about 1500 meters of climbing - and this little dog (did I mention she was a little pregnant) went the whole damn way. It was incredible.

The HOT Springs - they really are.

Fuentes Georginas

A short distance from Xela by chicken bus is the relatively small town of Zunil, and roughly eight kilometers from Zunil - up the mountain - is a tropical valley which is home to one of Guatemalas most famous hot spring sites - Fuentas Georginas.

Having heard that it was an easy thing to do on your own, I headed out from Xela in a chicken bus at shortly after 10AM last Friday, and ariived in Zunil at about 11.
My intention was to hike up, since I had been told it was fairly easy, and thanks to my new vocabulary I am able to get communicate well enough in Spanish to make travelling around relatively simple. So after getting directions at a couple points in town I found myself on the road up and up towards the hot springs. The way is lined with farms, growing a wide variety of vegetables, I noted Broccoli, Cauliflower, Carrots, Radishes, Beets, Potatoes, Green Onions, Lettuce, and possibly cabbage. The hill is very steep, and the farms are planted along the side of the road at angles that would probably blow the minds of our Canadian prairy farmers - but those working them do so in jackets and sweaters, which I found pretty amazing since it was easily in the high 20's and getting hotter as I went.

So, that continued until I got about a third of the way up - at which point a Guatemalan Family in a pickup (three in front and one in the back) pulled over and asked if I'd like a ride with them, so I jumped in the back and chatted as best I could with the mother as we rode along munching on radishes that they stopped to pick up along the way. The family turned out to be from the coast of Guatemala, and were on their way to Fuentes Georginas for the day.

We arrived at the top, and thanks to the family I didn't have to pay the tourist price, which saved me 30Q. I helped to carry some of their stuff for their lunch to a picknick spot, and around that time I started to realize that they wanted me to stick with them - and so I ended up spending the rest of the day with them, and although I was an extra person, they insisted that I have lunch with them and served me an equal portion.

From talking with other travellers, I have found that that kind of hospitality is quite normal here. Check on the internet and it may tell you that Guatemala is a dangerous country filled with poverty, bandits, and theives - my experience has been that like any country there are dangers here, but the people are warm and welcoming in a way I have never experienced before and given the chance will treat you like family.

So I spent the day at the hotsprings with my adopted family - there are several pools of varying temperature - and if you get into the hottest one (picture 2) and swim over to the rocks, you can see where the water trickles out - it is heated volcanicly (is that a word?) and practically burned me when I tried to collect some in my hand. After we'd bathed, had lunch, and bathed again, we got back into the pickup and they drove me back down to Zunil, where I jumped back on a chicken bus and returned to Xela.
note- Three internet cafe´s and two power outages to get this written and posted. Never a dull moment here :)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Xela (again)

Okay, so maybe I'll try and summarize as best I can the time since I left the group.

I caught a bus back to Xela - first class- which means they only stop, well, everywhere. The bus stops, the guy jumps out and runs around yelling xelaxelaxela at everyone in sight - then a few vendors will jump on, hand out snacks, give speeches about the snacks from the front of the bus - then come back around and take them away from anyone who doesn't want to buy them. This happens about every 10 - 30 minutes the entire 5 hours. Soon I will experience a regular bus, and I can't even imagine what they must be like.

So I returned to Xela, and spent a few days staying back at the now familiar Casa Dona Mercedes and wandering the town exploring and checking out the different Spanish schools - of which there are many.

As it turned out, my timing couldn't have been better - a couple of days after I got back was the 68th anniversary of the local soccer team Xelaju, and so they gave the team a new bus, and had a HUGE event in the Parque (note I have spelled Parque wrong every time until now - thanks Spanish school) Central. It is hard to think of a comparison to this event, soccer here is a religion of it's own, and so this was like another Christmas for the locals.

The team drove around in their new bus, then had cake on a stage built for them while a (I believe) rather famous Guatemalan group sang. The mayor was there, and a bunch of other important looking people - I of course couldn't understand a word that was said, but it was still fun. After cake the real concert started, which was more of the first group, then a group of three women which are very famous here (the crowd went crazy for them, and the reaction was the same when a DJ played their hit song at a club here last Friday) so it was cool to be right in the middle of the crowd for the whole event.

Celebrations here also involve lots of fireworks - but unlike in Canada where we fire them off above a lake or the ocean, far from the crowd and high in the air - here they fire them from the middle of the crowd and only about 4 or 5 stories up - I actually got hit in the forehead with a piece of one - of course I'm fine, and it was awesome.

Many other events have occurred - most having something to do with the lead up to easter - the weekend before last I followed the procession of Jesus with the cross right into the main Cathedral and made offerings along with the locals, it was a very special thing to be a part of.
The procession, by the way, is much like the one I spoke of witnessing in La Antigua, but obviously on a smaller scale - though the crowd was about equal.

There have been 4 or 5 concerts - I haven't actually been counting so I'm not sure. And processions every week, I saw two or three of them - but at the moment I am busy doing other things like. . .

Learning Spanish. For some reason I had the idea that I would just go to school, learn new words (they of course would be easy since they were so similar to French) and then go off and speak Spanish.

I was wrong.

The idea of conjugation never occurred to me. Why? Probably because I can't stand grammar. Fortunately for me the conjugation is very similar to French, and so I picked it up very quickly - the problem with conjugation, it that you then have to learn all the new verbs to conjugate (I only learned present and a bit of future) and there are many verbs. In fact, the more I learn of Spanish the more sympathy I have for anyone trying to learn English - everything in our language is an exception, the poor souls! - and so the whole thing has been an excellent exercise in humility.

I am attending Celas Maya Spanish school, and staying with a very nice host family - so with 5 hours at school per day + the total immersion thing, I've come along fairly quickly and I think that when this week is finished and I hit the open road (so to speak) I will be able to get by. I find that I do quite well "in context" but general conversations are much more difficult.

So there it is in very short form. I would like to say a quick WAY TO GO CANADA from afar. I was able to catch some Olympic reruns (unfortunately on a slightly biased NBC) and also watched the Gold medal hockey game live with a few other Canucks - and I have to say, it was pretty easy to be extremely proud of our country throughout the entire time, and I'm sure the Special Olympics will be the same.

ps- watching hockey here is pretty funny, the locals think we're all completely insane.

pss - why no pictures? Too many pictures.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Mission accomplished (haha)

After the coffee plantation we returned to Guate, and the next day went our seperate ways as I went back to Xela, Denise returned to La Fraternidad (also in Xela) Dania went back to CEDEPCA, and the rest of the group went back home to life in Ontario.

So, the group from left to right - Aileen, Lee, Dania, Denise, Steve, Heather, Deana, Jeff, and Wendy. (this picture is actually from a cool little coffee shop in Xela)

So, although as I write this it is March 5th, we actually said our goodbyes on February 23rd and as I write this I am back in Xela, a week into my Spanish classes and hopelessly confused. But I would like to take this moment to thank all the members of what was an incredible group, and a special thanks to Dania and Denise for guiding us through our mission in Guatemala. It was an incredible experience that I don't think any of us will ever forget.

So there it is, obviously many things have happened between then and now - I may skip to the present now, as playing catch up is hard to do - but I may not, who knows.


welcome to La Azotea, which is a coffee plantation (as you may have guessed) just outside of La Antigua.

As a former coffee lover ( I actually still like it, but my stomach doesn't - and my stomach's the boss) I found it quite interesting to see the process that coffee goes through before it gets into a cup in a living room, or a Starbucks etc. The pictures are unfortunately in a mixed up order (blogspot has a backwards order of doing things, which I have yet to remember) but the first is of the coffee beans st out in a huge courtyard to dry, the second is a nursery of new coffee plants, and the third is the mature plants.

It is a long, labor intensive process, and I can't help but be completely amazed that someone figured it out. I mean, who looks at a berry and says to themselves "hey, I bet if I pick that, pull the seed out of it, dry that seed out, stick it in an oven for half an hour, grind it up, and run boiling water through it - I could make some money." But obviously, that's what happened, maybe not all at once, but the result was the same - coffee, espresso, Café Latte, Tim Hortons and Starbucks - a multi Billion dollar worldwide industry - how many things in history have been thought up, decided upon, worked out, ended and begun - all over a cup of coffee.

So, whatever nut thought up the process - it turned out pretty well.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

La Antigua

Another fountain picture for mom. There is a fountain in (so far) every Park Central I've seen in Guatemala, as well as in the smaller parks throughout cities, at roadside stops, in courtyards of restaurants and hotels - the list goes on. This one though is in the Park Central of La Antuigua -which before being flattened (for the second time) in 1773 was the capital of Spain's Guatemala.

The city is literally full of churches - the main ones have been partially restored, but many have been left the way they were, giving one the feeling of walking through history. It is possible to take tours of the non-restored ruins of at least a couple of the churches, as well as a monastery that we visited which was somehow built to be earthquake proof, and therefor remains in it's original state (for the most part).

We had some time to wander in the afternoon/early evening before dinner, and Jeff (another group member) and I were fortunate to catch a religious procession done in the weeks leading up to easter - I can't explain it, so here's a short video I shot.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Parque do la paiz/Santiago

Peace park.

The peace park was created after, towards the end of the thirty-odd years of civil war in Guatemala, the villagers of this little area had had enough of the army's misconduct towards them - I won't go into detail about what the army did, (or rather was accused of doing, since they'd probably deny most of it) but things had, after quite some time, finally reached a boiling point.

Confronting the army in the aquare accross from their base, the villagers were demanding that two soldiers that they had proof against and had tried to take as prosoners be returned to them when someone of other gave the order to fire.

The villagers fled of course, but many were killed - thirteen I believe - before the shooting was done.

At the time of this incident, the eyes of the world were on Guatemala because of the growing reports of terrible crimes being committed by the military against the indigenous Mayan population, and so this event caused such an uproar that the army, for the first and only time, was forced to leave the town and sign documents stating that they would never return - which to this day, they have not.

This, sadly, is only one story os probably thousands of saimilar incidents - the difference? People noticed this one, whereas the rest are tales generally only known by those who lived through them - and about half the population of Guatemala was either too young at the time to remember the war, or wasn't born yet.

We heard the story from an eyewitness to the event, who happened to be on his way home from cutting sugarcane when he saw us in the park. It was a tragic event of course, yet so often it takes a tragedy before anyone really sits up and takes notice, much less does anything. The graves in the park are a sad reminder of that, most of those killed were very young, almost all too young to have ever seen their country in any state of what we would call peace.


After the peace park we drove into Santiago and visited the main Cathedral there. Here we heard the story of the priest, Stanley Rother, who in 1981, although he was from Oklahoma and had been warned by the authorities in Guatemala to be quiet or stay away, returned to Santiago to his congregation and at one time said - quite famously "the pastor shouldn't flee" - and so he stuck by those words, until one night two gunmen came to the church and murdered him in the rectory where he lived.

This again was a common occurence during the war, in the rural areas many priests dissappeared, while in the cities it was dangerous for professors at the colleges and universities - both (priests and professors) were often warned to be quiet, and if they did not comply (and probably best to leave town too) they would be kidnapped and either never seen again, or found dead.

For villagers the war was a time of constant peril - gatherings of more than just a few people were suspect, and so many were too scared even to attend religous services. At the same time, many churches opened their doors at night to let villagers come and sleep in their relative safety, rather than risk a night time visit from the military, who in many areas were bored most of the time and had a tendency to drink and cause trouble.

That's the best I can try to explain it - there's probably a lot more that could be said, but I would hate to give the impression that everyone in the military was evil or corrupt, what happened in Guatemala continues to happen all over the world, every day - people are people, and it is situations (in my opinion) bring out the best and the worst of humanity. Both the stories I related, while in one way being horrible, are also stories of people doing incredibly brave things, and it is that part of the story that is important to remember. In North America it is easy to look at other places and judge them, forgetting that our own history is also filled with stories both of persecution and honor - so it's important to remember, when we think of a place like Guatemala, that the country is still in the early stages of climbing back up from a difficult time, and so it's not our job (or our place) to try and fix the country, that's something they can figure out for themselves.

Lake Atitlan

Wow, enough with the pictures eh? It's too hard to pick just one of two of Lake Atitlan as it's a very beautiful and picturesque place. Most of these are from the dock of the hotel we stayed at called Hotel Bambú, while one is from the road while we drove. Lake Atitlan, it is worth noting, is completely surrounded by volcanoes - in fact the Lake itself was created long, long ago by a massice volcanic eruption, and is a rediculous depth of something like 1000 feet.

So, Lake Atitlan. We left Xela in the early morning (the date was Feb 20th - a Saturday) and drove south and west out of the mountains towards the lower coast - the climate of which was very much like that of Belize, though less of a jungle (I don't think we ever got that close to sea level). The we turned back east and drove in to Santiago on the lake, where we dropped off our gear and had lunch before heading out to the peace park a short distance away.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Construction at La Fraternidad

My account of our time in Xela has been fragmented (as you may have guessed) because we did a variety of different things on each day - our day consisted of, in a general sense, construction, lunch at La Fraternidad, and visits to the womans groups and churches.

The above pictures are of a couple stages of the construction that we helped with. La Fratenidad is currently building a new addition in the yard of their lot so that they can hold their larger classes on the premises and save the money they would otherwise have to spend renting a place out. W assisted in digging the trenches within which the foundations of this new building would be placed, and so over the two mornings and one midday we spent our time digging and hauling dirt out to the pile in front of the building - which by the time we left was very impressive, and is probably much more so by now.

The trenches had to be about one meter five inches for the walls and at stages along the way a little deeper for the pillars, so with picks, shovels and buckets we all got to work. But the time we left it looked like the foundation digging was almost completed, and if I do say so myself (which I do) we made a great little construction team, and I think the real team appreciated our work- even if they may have been a little skeptical to start.

But we left La Fraternidad feeling good about our contribution, larger in spirit than works, and knowing that it was for an excellent cause.

The Home-stay

As previously mentioned, we split up after the church service and went home with our adoptive families. We went in pairs, so after the service was over me and Steve jumped into the back of a pickup and headed to our home for the night.

The above photo, you may have guessed, is me with the family - from right to left in the photo: Maria Helena Hernandez de Cifuentez, Mario Cifuentez holding little Kendrick, 5 year old Diana, me, and Mario's mother who arrived in the morning right as we were about to take the pictures - she may not look happy, but she was smiling and friendly most of the time.

The family (whose names I hope I spelled right) were great, we arrived and all sat together on the bed and talked, quite successfully, seeing as me and Steve (Steve and I?) did not really speak any Spanish and Mario barely spoke any English. But we were able to communicate very well regardless, and we showed pictures and explained where we were from (with the help of a map of Canada) and generally had a great little chat, all sitting together on the bed.

We rose early the next morning and were given a fast paced tour of the house by Diana (who does everything at super-speed) which included the chicken coop they have in their backyard. We ate a traditional Guatemalan breakfast of Beans, cheese (really good cheese) and a fried Plantain rolled in sugar with thick cream - the latter may not be a usual addition, and I doubt little Diana's teachers appreciated the extra sugar when she got to school, but it was a very good breakfast. After eating I showed Diana a little hand puppet thing I learned who-knows-where and then we proceeded to play games until it was time to leave.

We returned to the church and dropped Diana off at school across the street, then Mario went to work when the rest of our group began to arrive and we toured the pre-school next to the church, where the 3 year old sang us some songs and we did our best at 'head and shoulders knees and toes' for them. We then had a quick look in the main school for the older kids (all 800 of them), this was quick out of necessity, since our presence created a greater disturbance the longer we were there, and so we had to leave before all sense of order had completely dissolved.

We then returned to La Fraternidad to do our last bit of construction and say our goodbyes.

Churches - Filadelfia

The other church we visited while in Xela was the Templo Evangelico Presbiteriano Filadelfia. Some of the funds for this church were raised by four presbyterian churches in the Hamilton are of Ontario, which is where several of our group members were from - Specifically Wendy, Heather and Deanna, whose church had been the main force behind the fundraising.

We joined some of the elders and the members of the building committee for a little sitdown/introduction before taking a tour of the church - I have to say, it is one of the most beautiful churches I have seen, it is of course not a grand cathedral, but the floors are marble tile, the pews hand made from cedar and stained a deep mahogany,and the doors are also hand made.

After our little tour we sat down to a great dinner in the old hall, and then moved over into the church for a service, after which we were introduced to our home-stay families with whom we would be spending the night. The evening was again an emotional affair for those who, for the first time, were able to see the fruits of their labor. And the church presented decorated plaques to each church involved in the fundraising. They sang songs they had prepared for us, and we sang a couple we had prepared for them, then we all split off with our home-stay families for the night.

Churches - Mont Sinai Nimasac

The above photo is of the wonderful people who welcomed us to the (here we go) Iglesia Evangelica Presbiteriana Monte Sinai Nimisac. Thant's the full name, obviously.

This church was especially dear to Lee and Eileen from our group, as they had been here five years ago when their church in Thunder Bay donated money (and workers) to help build the foundations of the church. They had not seen it since that initial beginning stage and so seeing the completed church, along with the many friends they had made on their previous trip was a special experience for them both - and for the rest of us as well.

The church continues to expand, and they have several projects on the go - we sat down to a snack of a hot rice and milk drink (which is very common in Guatemala - and tasty too, it's like rice pudding that you drink) - they told us all about the ongoing progress of the church and their struggles (no running water etc.) and we all mingles and took lots of pictures.

I should note - pictures are like candy to the children here, everywhere we go. I don't really know why, they've seen pictures of themselves before, but for some reason if you snap a shot and then show it to them they will crowd around and giggle and point, then in greater numbers line up for the next shot.

Our welcome was so warn at Mont Sinai that Denise and Dania literally had to corral us into the van to leave, since otherwise we probably would have spent the night.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

La Fraternidad

The first photo is of some of the women who work at La Fraternidad and the second is of the view out over Xela from their offices.

La Fraternidad is a group of women and one man who work with groups of ladies from the local Mayan and Mam groups - I will not go into too much detail as to how they work with, but they are basically in the business of educating and empowering women in communities where men typically run the show - many of these women deal with abuse in one form or another and many of these communities have strayed from their traditional medicines and farming practices. La Fraternidad works with groups, giving them small loans to start their own businesses - they also educate the women about traditional medicines and have an agronomist who visits them and teaches them important, natural ways farming. Women from the groups can also attend classes at La Fraternidad for specialized training.

Over our three days in Xela we visited with several of these groups, all at various stages in development and were able to see the vast changes that were being made in their lives.

One group was fairly new, and there was still a sense of caution and shyness about them, but they were determined, and had used their loan for potatoes, weaving, and a cow (which still had to grow a bit) and they were learning more about how and where to market and distribute their potatoes as well as how many to set aside for the different uses that they had for them - feeding livestock, sale at market, and seeding for their next crop. It was important that they learn to handle their new business well, since they would be presenting La Fraternidad with an detailed account of how they were using their loan to profit and grow, and therefor be eligible for another. With this the women also learned math and the skills necessary to continue running a successful business of their own - for the first time.

Another group had been around longer and was working at the time of our visit with the agronomist, learning how to make natural fertilizer for their crops so that they would no longer have to use chemicals that would harm the soil and the water - something we should all be doing.

On another day we visited a group that had been active for 5 years and had 37 chickens and were learning how to use a worm composter - it was very interesting to hear the questions they were asking, and it really highlighted the complexities of introducing modern techniques to traditional farming methods. With the chickens, for instance, they had initially wondered why they should keep them in a pen, and not let them roam free and feed themselves as they'd been doing for probably as long as any of them could remember. Keeping them in a pen meant that the women had to feed the chickens themselves, and they wondered at the diseases that they thought would take over if they kept them all together - so they had to have it explained that although yes, they would be responsible for feeding all the chickens themselves, the chickens would not get diseased as long as none of them were allowed to roam free and catch the diseases that they would normally pick up in the course of feeding themselves. Practical questions, in my opinion, from women that were being asked to look away from everything they had previously been taught.

Also were the stories of the women themselves - they told us about how they had been given independence by their new knowledge, about how they had new hope and were no longer completely dependent on their husbands - most of these women now had their own source of income for the first time in their lives. It was very touching to see the light in their eyes as they spoke. One woman told of how her mother was also involved in LA Fraternidad and no longer spoke of herself as useless - in this case her father was also involved, and so a whole families future was being changed. Another woman spoke of how, when her husband had been wrongfully imprisoned 11 years ago (in Guatemala you're guilty until you can afford to prove you're innocent) and she had been left, with her children, at the mercy of the other villagers - now thanks to La Fraternidad she was able to support her family. Each woman had a story, and each group was different in their way of working - but they were all determined, all excited to learn and make a change to their lives for the better.

I was truly amazed (once again) by the work being done here - and not by a huge corporation or major non-profit organization, but by a small group of dedicated people, from a simple little house-turned-office, where everyday they found new ways to change lives.

The Road to Xela

We left Guate early and loaded everything up, then started the 4-5 hour drive to Xela where we would be spending the next three days. The picture above is a shot of Lake Atitlan as seen from the road. There is no such thing as a straight road on the highway, since these mountains are volcanic and so any valleys are winding affairs.

I had previously looked at maps of Guatemala that showed the different provinces and where the cities were, and so in my mind I had formed a picture of cities seperated by wilderness - as we have in Canada. Anyone who has driven through the mountains of British Columbia has memories of the great untouched wilderness that dominates most of the landscape - Guatemala is nothing like that.

Everywhere you look in Guatemala there are people - the road is lined with shops, shacks and quarries the whole way, and each valley and mountainside is filled with people and farms. Which makes sense, I suppose, when you consider that this country, at about the equivalent size of Newfoundland, has almost half the entire population of Canada - most of whom do not live in urban areas. There are, no doubt, places in Guatemala where nature has been left untouched - I'm sure in the North East jungles of Petan there are areas of undisturbed wilderness, as well as in the lowlands to the east - but the road to Xela is like one unending village.

We arrived in Xela in the early afternoon and dropped our bags at Casa Dona Mercedes where we would be staying, then headed out to meet the ladies (and man) of La Fraternidad where Denise works as a nutritionist.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Fransisco Coll School cont.

This is where those workers live. In fact, this is not the worst part of the slum as a new group of squatters have recently moved in closer to the dump. For our visit to this area we had only one person taking photos, so I can only show you this one - but this community stretches on and on, no running water, the fortunate have corrugated metal shacks to live in, others build with whatever they can find.
All of this is built on filled in dump, the city dump has been gradually moving over the years and as it does it gets filled in and the poor build on top. Many of these people come from the rural areas of Guatemala in search of work, but having arrived in the city with nothing they find there are no jobs to be had, and so many end up in communities like this one scraping by in whatever way they can.
Amidst this poverty is one of the gratest beacons of hope I have ever seen - built on filled in dump and surrounded by some of the poorest living conditions imaginable is a beatiful little scool called Fransisco Coll.
The school, with it's light green walls and beautiful murals is where many of the children of this community are being given their only chance at a better life. We were welcomed into the classrooms where we were presented with crafts made for us by the kids - it was the most touching experiencew I have ever had, these kids were, after all, just kids. They were so happy and filled with love, and each day they are able to leave the squallor of their lives and enter this beautiful school where they recieve the greatest gift possible - hope.
Before Fransisco Coll was built, children were born here and worked in the dumpo their entire lives (as some still do), now they have a chance for something better. Education is the only logical starting point when you look at a situation like this, because the question is always "where do you start?" so the answer is with school, with children - give them an opportunity to create something better for themselves and we may someday break the cycle that allows living conditions like these to be considered acceptable.
We left the school and toured the area around it, then headed to the CEDEPCA offices where we had our lunch and got an explanation of the work CEDEPCA does not only with Fransisco Coll, but in trying to stop the cycle of violence towards weomen in Guatemala which has become so bad it now has it's own name "femicide" and thanks to a system of impunity continues to get worse. We also recieved an overview of the social/political state of the country and an explanation of the full contact politics that talke place here.
The next day we left for Xela, and I will stop here for now, since I am obviously having a hard time doing anything in short form (although this has been quite condensed).
***Please excuse the numerous spelling errors that are probably in what I have written, and what I will write in the future - the computer thinks in spanish, so when I hit spell check it's poor little brain can't figure out why every word is wrong.***

Fransisco Coll School

The next day we visited the city cemetary, which overlooks the city dump. The first picture is a good example of the contrast between the rich and poor of the city - the huge tomb belongs to one of the rich families of Guate, and they built it next to the apartment, stacked style graves of the poorer people to show that they are "part of the people" of Guatemala. I think they may have missed the mark. In fact, the poor of Guate City wouldn't be able to affort anything in this cemetary.

The second picture is of the city dump (you ,ay have already guessed that) which is where many of the poorest of Guate work - thay scavenge the garbage for recycling material, which they trade in as a way of supporting themselves, they also scavenge food and clothes and building materials for their homes.

The mission begins

Welcome back sports fans.

You may be wondering why I didn't post a picture of Guatemala City above. The reason for that is that I never really got an overview type photo of the city - I have many many pictures of Guatemala City (or Guate, as it's called here and as I will refer to it from now on) but it's hard to find one picture that shows the many different sides of Guate, and so I chose this picture of the fountain in the central park on market day because: a- I like it, and b- my mom will like it. So there you go.

As most of you know I spent the last 10 days with a mission group consisiting of myself and seven folks from Hamilton and ThunderBay Ontario, respectively.

I will not go into great detail on the mission trip because there would simply be far too much to write, and theoretically, you all have lives too. But I will give a short overview as best I can to try to explain what I've been up to.

I arrived in Guate City after a couple of flights between Belize, San Salvador and Guatemala and after a short wait met up with the rest of the group in the airport, we then left and went out front where we met one of our guides Dania, who works for CEDEPCA, which is an organization that is in a partnership of sorts with the presbyterian church.

Okay, lets try this again. I was starting to write a point for point explanation of the trip and I will have to keep remembering not to, lest I end up sleeping in this internet café (hey look, I used an accent. Hope it's the right one)

Okay, so short form. We met up the next day with our other guide Denise, who works with another organization called La Fraternidad in Xela (or Quetzaltenango if you have lots of time)

fun fact: Tenango means "Place of" hence Antigua is sometimes called Gringotenango, or "place of Gringos"

Right. So we met with Denise. In Guate we visited the relief map which is a huge model of the country of Guatemala layed out in a park - it's to scale and showes the vast differences in elevation between the volcanic mountains and the lowlands to either side of them. We also visited the central square and saw the church there and the vast, crowded market there.

We attended church on Sunday at San Juan Apostle where we were recieved like family and did our best to sing the hymns in spanish, although for the most part we recognized them from their english equivalents. It was refreshing experience to be in such a warm and welcoming place despite our differences.

We stopped on our way back from the church and looked out into one of the valleys of the city where the houses of the poor had been built right down the steep sides. I was struck by the poverty I saw before me - I had seen it on television and in movies but it was never really hit me until I stood and saw it for myself. It's hard to describe the feeling, but it was like a deep sadness, it hurt to see that people live in such conditions - many for their whole lives without a chance at a better life. I will never forget that feeling, and I have felt it again and again during my time here in Guatemala.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Off again

In a few hours (okay more like 6) I will be leaving Belize for Guatemala, with a short stop in San Salvador in between.

I have enjoyed my time here, even if it's much more touristy than I had originally thought - there are many beautiful parts of Belize, and also of this little island. I have had an opportunity to get to know some of the locals, and for the most part they are wonderful people - though as with any place geared towards tourism there is also a healthy supply of hustlers here, but they are mostly harmless.

So off I go again, back on the boat, through Belize city and then into the air on the part of this trip that was one of the main reasons for the whole thing - the mission trip.

Over the next ten days I will have an opportunity to learn all about the work the church is doing in several areas of Guatemala, as well as a few chances to get my hands dirty and help out. As many of you know I started this whole thing to try and find a way to reset my own values, and now I look forward to meeting people who's lives, although materialistically poor - are rich in family and values.

So thanks for reading - I hope you've enjoyed the Belizean part of this adventure, and in ten or twelve days I will get back to blogging on the adventures I have with the mission group,

Thanks for reading, and thanks for the feedback.

Love and Prayers,


Thursday, February 11, 2010

South of San Pedro

South of the town the houses stop pretty quickly, and only the occasional grouping of beach side condos or a house dot the landscape. Mainly it's an empty road bordered by water on both sides - to the east is the open sea, and to the left is a mangrove forest with alleys of water winding in and out of it.

If you look at the first picture you will notice the half finished concrete wall running alongside the road - these are all over the place, and I suppose they are in place to provide boundaries for lots - but they also have a secondary (probably unintentional) function. The alternating cinder blocks are hollow, and therefor create a maze of holes and tunnels, which the local Iguana population has decided is their version of a modern apartment building, and so they have taken up residence - in force.
Iguanas are everywhere in this part of the island - the are constantly popping out of the holes in the fence or running around either in the trees or on the ground beside the road.
They are not so easy to get a picture of though, the juveniles are more likely to sit still when you get a little close, but the larger adults (the biggest I saw was about 3 feet) are very wary of people and will literally disappear in the blink of an eye down into the holes in the wall.
Why are they wary? Well apparently the locals have a tendency to eat them - they say the Iguana tail tastes just like chicken, really you can't tell the difference. But that's not entirely true, because I eat chicken, I don't eat Iguana. That's the difference.
Out in the far end south of the island is where San Pedro's dump is located - it's not a very nice place, so I won't go into details about it. It's a dump.
A few more miles and you come to the end of the road where there is a little barbecue pit/bar and nothing else at all.
It's a nice ride, and the day I did it was perfect - not too hot (around 30, but cloudy) and with a nice breeze. So, now I have seen both ends of the island and gone the the farthest southern point of the Yucatan Peninsula.