Monday, November 28, 2005

Thanksgiving on the Rio Dulce

We've been all over the place over the last ten days. KO's parents were in town for Turkey Day, and I guess we felt obliged to show them the whole country in that span. After returning from Tikal, they headed up to Antigua, where we joined them on Wednesday. We stayed at the fabulous Meson Panza Verde, which just may be the nicest hotel I've ever been to. I think the sink there was bigger than our bathtub. I'm not sure whether having a really big sink is actually recognized as a mark of opulence, but the Panza Verde did it with such panache that I'm guessing that anything they did, they were doing it right.

From there, we headed off to join a bunch of embassy types having Thanksgiving dinner in Livingston, on the Carribean coast. Which is the opposite direction from Antigua. I managed to show off how well we know Guatemala City by taking a wrong turn on the way back through town and practically driving us into the heart of the Gallito neighborhood, where the local constabulary is afraid to set foot. Fate smiled on us and we popped back out onto the main square, no worse for the wear, ready to haul ass down the mountains to the sweaty Caribbean, to the extent that any ass-hauling is possible down a windy mountain road following trucks in low gear.

We made a brief stop in Livingston where the kind folks at the Posada El Delfin cooked us a Thanksgiving dinner complete with turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce (jellied, if you're curious) and green pumpkin pie. The owners are a Guatemalan couple who lived in New York for thirty years, and therefore were steeped in the necessity of thick turkey gravy, but still Guatemalan enough to serve fiambre and Caribbean enough to have hired a Garifuna guy to play reggae-tinged Sinatra on a giant casio keyboard throughout the meal.

On Friday, the Onoratos made their way up the Rio Dulce in a swift boat, while I returned to the lovely town of Puerto Barrios to pick up our car and shuttle it up to the town of Rio Dulce, where the river meets Lago Izabal. If you ask nicely, KO may be willing to share some of the exotic tales of their Conradian journey upriver. I, on the other hand, killed a little time taking pictures of colorful buses and umbrellas and such.

At Rio Dulce town, we got our first taste of that panacea of Central American sustainable development, Ecotourism. We did a kayak trip at dawn to see Howler Monkeys, did one of those nature walks where they've built bridges through the jungle canopy, and abused the long-suffering Nissan with an hour-long drive over crumbling dirt roads to a thermal waterfall/swimming hole. In a more Mr. Rogers vein, we saw where bananas and rubber come from.

Lastly, on the way back to Guatemala City, we stopped at Quirigua, last of the major Mayan sites in the area -- now that we've seen them all, I guess we'll have to start looking at stuff from contemporary Guatemala or something. Quirigua is not much on the pyramids and architecture, but has the biggest and best-preserved stelae of the area, showing ancient kings and with glyphs on the sides reporting of their top 10 beheadings and such.

I think a good time was had by all, although KO's parents might generally prefer the dining options that were available when they visited us in San Francisco to the culinary delights of Cheesy Bread and refried frijoles available in the jungle.

Monday, November 21, 2005

No Time for Love, Doctor Jones

Well, it's been just over three months now, and we've officially exhuasted the tourist potential of Guatemala: We saw the crown jewel of Guatemalan tourism, Tikal.

The fun started at 0-dark-hundred on Saturday, when we headed off to the fabulous Aurora airport to jet to the jungle. The line to check in was painfully slow, as is standard here, as they apparently filled out our boarding passes by hand. The security procedures were not up to international standards -- they just open up each carry-on bag and look in. If you happened to put a gun right on the top of your bag, you'd be totally busted. The flight was well worth it though, as it lasted about 30 minutes, whereas driving would take at least 8 hours through jungle roads reportedly infested with highwaymen and brigands.

The Flores/Tikal "Mundo Maya International Airport" is basically a big corrugated tin warehouse, with a little kiosk for every hotel and tour guide in the area crammed in. We hopped a shuttle with a friendly guide named Noel (prone to jokes about how monkeys like to throw poo at blonde tourists) and headed out to the hotels near the park. The Jungle Lodge was originally the housing for the archaeologists digging the temples out of the overgrown jungle. It is now the premier lodging option in Tikal, which isn't saying too much, but it is right next to the ruins.

Tikal itself is surprisingly different from Copán, which you may recall from a post on this very journal a month ago. I was really surprised at how much the "Tikal is New York, Copán is Paris" analogy seemed to fit, as clunky as it is. Tikal has truly towering pyramids -- up to 200 feet tall, and quite a climb. But for some reason the rain and jungle have been less kind to the art there, and the limestone stela and altars are almost entirely worn away. The coolest thing about Tikal is the I'm-in-an-Indiana Jones-movie feeling you get with the jungle still covering the majority of the temples, with only their straight vertical tops peeking out of the greenery (or maybe the Yavin Base feeling you get, if you're a real dork); and the wildlife that comes with being basically in the middle of nowhere. The highlight for me was seeing a couple big green loros fly by at about twenty yards away when I was all alone on top of one of the pyramids. There are also spider and howler monkeys all over, "ocellated turkeys," and a bunch of weird rat-rabbit-hamster rodents. Hearing all the weird bird calls and hearing that KO's dad saw a couple toucans almost makes me understand the hobby of birdwatching. Almost.

Unfortunately, my lens-work is more apt to photography of mushrooms and other fungi, which move a bit slower than the loros do. I couldn't even take a focused picture of a caterpillar, and they only barely move at all.

We made a quick swing through Flores on the way back, which is a charming little town of gringo bars, travel agents, and tchotchke shops. And one weird bridal shop, I guess. Someone should do the regression analysis on whether towns in Guatemala that are charming attract tourism or if the presence of tourism in a town inspires efforts to increase the charmingness of a town.

Friday, November 18, 2005

I've got the face for it

Well I'm now a bona fide media celebrity here.

Earlier this week the public affairs office found themselves stretched too thin and asked for a volunteer to do a radio interview about Thanksgiving, so Guatemalans could get to know a bit more about our traditions. I volunteered, and got a little more than I bargained for. It turned out to be a live, hour-long show that allowed calls or e-mails from the audience. In Spanish. (In case you've missed some of the key background info from previous posts). You could say I was a little nervous.

I spent a good long while last night learning how to say "Pilgrims" (peregrinos), "jellied cranberry sauce" (salsa de arándano en gelatina), and "biggest shopping day of the year" (el dia de compras mas atareado del año!). The interview was at nine, and when I got to work at eight and found an email waiting for me saying that one of the themes of the show would be "Thanksgiving recipes." It turns out it was a show called "Estilo y Hogar" (Style and Home). I scrambled to find a recipe for stuffing on the internet, which I would have no hope of being able to explain in Spanish anyway, before heading off to the glamorous downtown high-rise that houses the studios of Radio Punto FM 90.5 Guatemala.

The host was a very friendly guy, one of the more metrosexual guys I've met in Guatemala, which I guess shouldn't be a surprise for the host of a show called "Style and Home." It turned out that the first twenty minutes of the show were all him, in this case discussing three important topics:

1. The meaning of the names "Miguel" and "Marcel" (Fun fact: Marcel supposedly comes from a combination of the words "sea" (mar) and "sky" (cielo) in Spanish or Latin or something. Or so claimed our host.)

2. Some things you can do around the house to save money, like not leaving the refrigerator door standing open for too long. He also claimed that the fuller your fridge is, the healthier it is. I either missed the reasoning behind this entirely due to language difficulties or because I was mentally practicing translations of "add a tablespoon of thyme and stir" into Spanish.

3. Freckles: what causes them; their relative merits in the attractiveness of a person; creams, salves, and tonics you might use to avoid/cover them up; etc.

After 20 minutes of that, we got to the special guest: me. He kept saying that we were going to talk about the "gastronomia" of the US, but he did manage to ask me a few of the questions I had been expecting, allowing me to let loose soliloquies that would sound like this, if translated directly:

"There was one the first thanksgiving. In the year 1620 one group of these colonies that some call themselves the Pilgrims would to come from England. They had arrived at a month of December and had arrived to Massachusetts, where snow is. The winter there very bad. The Pilgrims are not knowing how they growed the foods, and there are some indians that are nice. The Indians given the Pilgrims a food. Many the pilgrims died, but some did not. The next summer, and autumn, there is a harvest of good harvest, and so the pilgrims would be happy because this would mean that the pilgrims to survive the winter, which is in Massachusetts very bad. So they had a party for three days, and that was the first thanksgiving. And they invited the indians."

The Guatemalans I talked to afterwards, including the host, were very complimentary about my Spanish, possibly out of charity and/or pity.

He asked me for my favorite recipes for Thanksgiving, but not being up to the quick translation of a recipe that I didn't really know anyway, I just said that my Grandma was the master chef of the family, and I just knew that the Turkey went in the oven for something like six hours. I completely forgot that I had prepared ahead of time a clever answer about "Papallo: Un Pollo dentro de un Pato dentro de un Pavo," which was my own translation of "Turducken: A chicken stuffed in a duck stuffed in a turkey." A moment for cultural exchange lost!

The Guatemalans I work with were most amused by my response to the question "What foods have you tried here in Guatemala that you like?" which caught me totally off guard, so I said the steak was really good here, which was not a lie. I just couldn't call up the names of any of the more elaborate/typical dishes I'd tried. So then the host said, "Well what about beans?" I said that of course the beans here are very tasty, but the tortillas are not as big as the ones in the US. He agreed that the tortillas here are too small to wrap anything in. Other questions that kind of took me aback included: What is the traditional food to eat on New Year's Eve? and What is a real American hamburger like?

The call-in portion of the show was the part I was most nervous about, as telephone communication is always more difficult than face-to-face, and who knows what kind of crazy questions callers might ask? It turns out that I was boring enough that the phones were not ringing off the hook. The only question came in via e-mail, and referred back to the important topic of what kind of creams you might use to cover up freckles. The host kindly did not ask for my input.

Anyway, the woman in the public affairs office seemed happy with my performance, said my Spanish was fine and that I came off as having a friendly rapport with the host, which was a good message for Guatemalan-US relations. If only we could spend less time arresting the head of their drug enforcement agency for smuggling drugs into the US, and more time discussing cranberry sauce.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Sorry, Charlie

You haven't lived until you've eaten a spicy tuna roll made with Chicken of the Sea.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Sound advice, indeed.

Heard this advice on the radio today while dropping KO off at work, since her Guatemalan employer has the audacity to make her work on Veteran's Day:

"A soccer game is 90 minutes. Even the best soccer games, the ones that will be remembered as classics, are 90 minutes. Once those 90 minutes are over, the game is finished. Beating up the fans of the other team doesn't change what happened in that 90 minutes. It doesn't give your team any more time to change the result."

The commentator stopped short of coming right out and stating that it was actually a bad idea to beat up the opposing team's fans. Then they went to a commercial, and when they came back they were playing music. No idea if there was some sort of soccer riot that precipitated this commentary, or if it was just general advice.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Postal Service

Apparently Hurricane Wilma focused its destructive force with laser-like precision and eliminated the Army Post Office facility in Miami with extreme prejudice. Our incoming mail has been disrupted, our outgoing mail collection has been suspended until further notice, and we have been encouraged to find other means of sending mail. Like, I guess, the Guatemalan postal system? Anyway, don't let this stop you from sending us letters, packages, etc. (but as always, checks or money orders only; no cash). Normal mail service should resume far sooner than the Guatemalan mail system could probably get us anything.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Of Football, American Style

One of the small pleasures of being posted to Guatemala is that I don't have to entirely miss out on the football season. The cable system here included WSEE, the CBS affiliate from Erie Pennsylvania. Not only does that mean seeing every Cleveland Brows game and often a Sunday double-header, it also means I don't completely lose touch with such critical American cultural signifiers as Coors Light ads. As a bonus, I am thoroughly up-to-date on any important storm systems coming through the Lake Erie region. As an extra bonus, for some reason, WSEE of Erie, Pennsylvania bills itself as "your vacation station," and also provides a vicarious nightly weather forecast for St. Croix and Jamaica (not so many hurricanes now, if you were curious).

There is also a "Fox Sports Latin America" channel, and "ESPN Deportes," which broadcast NFL games, with the Fox and ESPN video, but with Mexican announcers. Whenever they cut to the sideline reporter, the announcers in the booth vaguely translate. More amusingly, whenever they show an on-screen ad for an upcoming show, the Mexican producers put a bigger promo of their own over the top. Occasionally John Madden or whoever uses the magic pen to draw some diagrams on the screen, and the Mexican guys don't really know what he's getting at until it's too late, so they just talk about something else while some magic yellow circles and arrows appear on the screen. The sad part of both of these channels: The ads in the US might seem repetitive, but there are literally only three or four ads on Mexican sports television: Whatever the next soccer game is; the one for the soccer highlight show; and the one for the show where they debate the "most polemic" events from the last weeks soccer games. It's almost enough to make me quit spending all day Sunday watching football. Almost.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

The National Palace

Took a work-sponsored trip to the National Palace yesterday. It's a fairly interesting building, with murals in the main entryways depicting the blending of Mayan and Spanish cultures. There are two "main entrances," each with a big mural. One of them shows a Mayan princess marrying a guy in a conquistador get-up, and below them a mestizo or ladino guy working with a motor -- symbolizing technology and progress and such. Just so you don't go away thinking that the Mayan people are all convinced their relations with the Spanish were all sunshine and lollipops, the other mural shows the Spanish army kicking buts and taking names in battle with the Mayans. It's also pretty cool to see gold-leafed ceilings and chandeliers in the national palace of a country with about a 75% poverty rate.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

In which we hang out in a graveyard for six hours

Once again, today was a Guatemalan holiday. Somehow the Guatemalan and United Statesian calendars have been coordinated so that both have a bunch of holidays this time of year and a long dry spell in March and April. Thus it's imperative that we take advantage while we can.

Many Americans (or at least Americans who took Spanish in high school) are familiar with some elements of the Day of the Dead as it celebrated in Mexico. Basically they make lots of crazy little crafts of skeletons playing in jug bands and what not. Here in Guatemala, many celebrate Day of the Dead by spending the day at the cemetary with their departed loved ones, having a picnic around the flower-strewn graves. In a few towns, the traditions are a bit more elaborate.

We went to the daringly-named town of Santiago Sacatepéquez, where they go to the graveyard and fly giant kites as a symbolic way of reaching out to the spirits of the deceased. We essentially left at dawn, in order to get there while parking wasn't impossible. Fortuitously, this meant we got to see the tidying-up of the gravesites, which mostly involves making the dirt piles orderly and then covering them with a bed of pine needles, stripes of marigolds and a few aloe-like plants. Great care is taken to pay appropriate respect by making each grave very pretty a couple hours before hordes of ten-year olds trample them in frenetic attempts to get their not-exactly ultra-light kites aloft.

The main road leading to the cemetary was lined with market stalls selling food or small kites (or kite supplies). It was almost like watching a parade seeing the bamboo rods, colored papers, and giant balls of rope heading up the hill; along with many of the women carrying flowers for the graves on their heads, which just doesn't get old no matter how many times you see it.

Later in the morning, they started flying the kites, which seemed to get progressively larger and more elaborately decorated. While there were many small kites, there were always a few of the really big ones -- I'd guess most around 10 or 12 feet across -- ready to launch. All the kites are circles of tissue or newsprint on a frame of bamboo spokes. Some of the kids would hold the kite up on top of one of the cement tombs or on a pile of hay, then a team of five or ten other kids would try to run fast enough to pull the kite up to where the serious wind would take hold. More often than not, the flights were brief, and the kite would come crashing down into the crowd causing roller-coaster-style screams. But after a few tries, many of the kites got up, and eventually a few of them disappeared into the clouds, at least until one of the subsequent kites crashed into the high-fliers' ropes and brought them down, too.

The grand finale was the raising of the five-story kites along one side of the cemetary. They (perhaps obviously) didn't fly (although it didn't seem like the 12-footers would fly, either). Mostly they just showed scenes of Mayan history or current life, including messages about pride in tradition and the importance of education.

In all, this was one of the coolest things we've seen in Guatemala. Too often, these kinds of traditions seem to be continued as a shell of their former selves, mostly to suck money out of tourists. Not that we weren't accompanied by a healthy contingent of fellow camera-toting gringos, but the kite-flying did seem in some way genuine -- it was still a community event, not a show for the interlopers, at least for now.