Thursday, September 29, 2005

Livingston, I presume

So in our ongoing efforts to make connections with Americans in Guatemala, the consular section does periodic road shows around the country to explain what we can do for our ex-pat friends. And since Americans inevitably have friends who want visas, or get questions from strangers who think that any American can get them a visa, I went on the most recent trip to explain the visa process. We went to the far East of Guatemala, to two towns that couldn't be more different from Guatemala City.

Rio Dulce (the town) is a small collection of buildings where Rio Dulce (the river) drains the biggest lake in Guatemala, heading toward the Caribbean. The American community there is mostly centered around boat owners who hole up there to avoid hurricanes, and decide to stay for anywhere from a few months to a few decades. I wore my suit, they mostly wore jams and muscle shirts. They were a friendly bunch, though. The hotel we stayed at was a bunch of little cottages on stilts over the edge of the river -- very pretty, and mostly empty since most of the guests there just tie up their boats and use the hotel for the bar.

We travelled by there from by boat down the river, vegetation-covered cliffs towering on each side. At the mouth of the Rio Dulce (the river) is the town of Livingston, which is like a whole different world. It's a town of about 6,000 inhabitants, mostly of African descent, but with a fair amount of more typical Guatemalan stock mixed in. Most speak Garifuna, a language that I guess is related to a lot of the Caribbean languages of escaped slaves. In general they spoke better Spanish than English, so I had to do an impromptu Spanish version of my English presentation, since I'll admit that my Garifuna is a little rusty. It was good practice to do honest-to-goodness public speaking in Spanish -- I don't think I said anything to spark any international incidents. The whole town felt very Caribbean, which I suppose shouldn't be too surprising, but it still kind of is. Just on the other side of the bay, Puerto Barrios looks and feels almost exactly like the rest of Guatemala, but Livingston could just as easily be part of Jamaica.

I also ate a stew that had one whole crab, one whole fish, three whole giant shrimps, and one banana in it. And coconut milk. Delicious, but I guess you were supposed to crack the slippery crab shells open with your bare hands -- perhaps this skill comes naturally to some people. Hopefully I'll be back at some point with more practice time on my hands.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Of apartment success, arrival of dry goods, and such

We finally are in the apartment that will be our home for the next two years. The apartment that was our first choice did indeed turn out to be too large. We actually went and re-measured the apartment ourselves, and I was still a little stumped that it was so big, but the teape measure don't lie.

So now we're in another unit in the building that had been Plan B. We're about four floors lower than the one we wanted, so the view is a little less spectacular, but still very nice. Pictures soon, I assure you.

Our air shipment arrived, as did the ground shipment from DC. The stuff from California is still in "tramite," which is a Spanish word that translates roughly as "administrative processing time," but also expresses the flavor of government workers who may or may not process anything on a given day if they don't really feel like it. Guatemalan government workers, of course, because America's public servants are diligent and ruthlessly efficient.

Anyway, we have an apartment with a huge living room, dining room, kitchen, three bedrooms, an office, and maid's quarters. Maid not included, technically, although we have already had one woman knock on our door and ask if we need a maid. Since our furniture from SF has not arrived yet, our living room has a small loveseat and a tv loaned to us from the embassy, each on opposite sides of the otherwise empty room, about 35 feet from one another. It's a little hard to see, but moving either item to the middle of the room makes the whole thing look even more ridiculous. But it's home nonetheless, and it's great to finally start settling in somewhere that we know we can stay for more than a few weeks. And we definitely won't miss the DHL plane that flies directly over the temporary apartments we were in at 4:30 every morning.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Of apartment hunting, Lake Atitlan, and visa interviews

Life continues apace in Guatemala. We have been hosed multiple times on the apartment front, but we soldier on, as best we can. First we tried to reach an agreement on Apartment A, but the landlord refused to spend the money on the additional security measures the embassy requires for its employees' homes, i.e. screwing an extra 1/2 inch thick piece of plywood on the door and adding stronger hinges. So, we went on to Apartment B, which the landlord had conveniently not told us had already been rented by another new embassy employee a week before we saw it. Then we pleaded with Apartment A to put on the stupid $50 piece of plywood because we would surely be paying about $1000 more each month for the apartment than any Guatemalan would. She relented, but then the embassy decided the apartment was too big to fit embassy regulations. So now we're trying to figure out plan C. It seems like between the Kafkaesque government and the Dickensian landlords, we can't catch a break. In any case, we'll either convince the embassy that the apartment is really just a fine size for us, or move on to another apartment soon, and hopefully, hopefully, be moved in within a couple weeks.

In more pleasant news, we went to Lake Atitlan for the long weekend. It's a deep, alpine lake, a lot like Lake Tahoe, ringed by a series of small towns. We stayed in San Marcos la Laguna, which we soon discovered to be the hippie-new-age-crystal-power center of Guatemala. We stayed in some very cool stone cottages right near the lake. Other than a spur from the highway circling the lake that heads into the main square, there are not many roads in San Marcos; all the other buildings are reached only by footpath. Across the footpath from the stone cottages was the "Las Pyramides," a spiritual retreat complete with a little skeletal Cheops that a paying guest could sit under and, I suppose, absorb pyramid-based spiritual power. Also nearby was a pizza place that served the best pizza we've had yet in Guatemala, which lured us in with an evening showing of "Mr. and Mrs. Smith." This isolated pizza shop had somehow acquired a DVD that had both the aforementioned feature and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" on a single disc, with distorted pictures and nearly unintelligible audio. For the sake of the Commercial Section of the embassy, and it's strong concern for protection of US copyright, I won't speculate on the legality of said DVD.

More interestingly, the pizzeria also had what I believe to be the World's Fattest Dog. This dog was apparently a mutt, but looked vaguely beagle-like, except it was buried under so much fat, you couldn't really tell. The dog sat curled up at the door, motionless, until the Italian-accented owner of the pizzeria started clearing away dishes as the credits rolled on the entirely legitimate DVD. Our friend Kate, who enjoyed the pizza and entertainment with us that night, is one of those people who doesn't eat the cheeseless crusts of her pizza. I personally saw that dog eat the entire circular crust of her 12" pizza in a matter of seconds, and can only imagine how many pizza-equivalents that dog eats in a day.

Oh, what made me think of the pizza place is that it had a sign near the door, amidst others advertising tours or hotels or whatnot, that read: "Land for sale in San Marcos. Great location, 1 acre, perfect for house or business. THIS LAND HAS HEALING ENERGY. Call 555-1212." I was about to buy, but The Economist said that the housing bubble is about to burst, so I decided to grab up some land with HEALING ENERGY in a couple years, when it's more reasonably valued.

Anyway, the lake was nice. We kayaked. Kayaking was great, and we wanted to do it the next day, so we asked the guy when his little kayak rental shack would open, and he said he'd be there at 8:00 AM. So we showed up at 8:30 and then again at 9:30, and he wasn't there. But kayaking on a lake surrounded by volcanos was pretty sweet.

My job interviewing visa applicants is actually pretty interesting. At least so far. Today, for example, I interviewed a guy who was going to the US only so he could get on a cruise ship to work as a waiter; a woman who claimed God had spoken to her through a prophet and told her to go to the US; a guy going to represent Guatemala in a Tae Kwon Do competition (a couple days ago I interviewed two girls competing in the 10- and 12-year-old brackets at an inline roller skating competition); and a woman suspected of alien smuggling while working for the US embassy. So far, only one person has told me to go to hell when I denied her visa application.

That's about it from here now. I'm sure that's about all you ever wanted to know about the dogs and DVDs of San Marcos. And yet, I will regale you with tales of adventure from Guatemala again soon.