Sunday, October 30, 2005


Yesterday we climbed one of Guatemala's three active volcanoes. Volcan Pacaya is an easy drive from Antigua, where we stayed overnight. We got up at sunrise (more or less) and hopped on a crummy micro-bus that stalled out twice on the road up to San Francisco, the tiny town halfway up the mountain that is home to the National Park entrance. We were lucky to have a small group that was able to get prepared quickly and keep up a decent pace -- you never know with tour groups if you're going to have the whiner that slows down the whole group.

The climb was only two hours or so: The first hour is through the forest at the base of the mountain. Then you emerge onto the barren fields of volcanic rock, which is cool at first, but eventually turns into slogging up a field of pulverized lava rock. It was not unlike walking up a beach that happens to be at a 30-degree slant for half an hour or so.

The reward was the opportunity to choke on toxic sulphuric gas in gale-force winds and near-zero visibility at the summit. Despite those conditions, it was very cool to look down into the crater and see the glow of molten lava at the bottom, and to see the fields of twisted knots that are actaully hardened lava from the last eruption. I'd love to share them with you, but our staff photographer was having some technical difficulties, so all extant pictures are on old-fashioned 35mm-wide strips of color negative film, and are thus not yet available for viewing. At least they weren't deguerrotypes.

The whole thing was one of those things you could never do in America, as the guide allowed us to peer right over the edge of the crater where you could feel the heat of the lava fifty feet down and suck in the fumes as if you were sticking your head in the oven. As if that level of safety-obliviousness weren't enough, the guide helped some of our fellow hikers frame a better shot for their "us on top of a volcano" photo by kicking in several feet worth of the crust at the very rim of the crater. This not only demonstrated a certain devil-may-care attitude toward preserving the attraction that is his bread and butter, but also a certain devil-may-care attitude toward the lives of the people standing on the lip of the crater a few feet away as he chipped away large chunks of the wall holding them up. I guess he's not responsible for paying the National Park liability premiums.

Also part of the reward for the slog up was the trip back down those same ash-covered slopes, which was not unlike skiing or walking on the moon. We ran down the mountain at full speed, taking giant leaps with each landing cushioned by the fluffiest rocks you can imagine. I imagine this is what skiing was like back in the days before rope-tow lifts -- an hour of hiking up for three minutes of racing down, but still worth it.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Of The Damned Guatemala City Luxury Housing Boom

Some weeks ago, we were torturing ourselves over some decisions about apartment living in the glitzy apartment towers of Guatemala's star-studded Zones 10 and 14. It came down to two options: The one that was closer to work, restaurants, shopping, etc, but had a big construction site next to it (The Tiffany, with the Tiffany II going up next door); or the one that was a bit farther away, but would be quiet on Saturday mornings. In the end, we chose the farther away one, as nothing is really that far away in Guatemala City. Readers with a keen sense of irony, or perhaps just a healthy appreciation for Murphy's Law, can probably already guess what's happening right next door, as of last week.

The number of high-rise apartment towers going up in this city is absolutely bonkers. I have no idea who lives in them. I mean, we're getting a ridiculous housing stiped from Uncle Sugar to pay for our full-floor flat. There is a sizeable elite in Guatemala, but I think they all live in palatial mansions in the hills we can see from our balcony. Of course, we can also see several huge apartment towers that almost never seem to have any lights on in 90% of the units at, say, 7:30 on a Tuesday night. Maybe they're all empty because the owners are summering at their cottages on the Cape, but it seems more likely that they're just un-rentable given what they ask and what 99% of Guatemalans can pay. Yet we can see new buildings going up in every direction. Shortly, we'll be able to see one more, a mere twenty feet away.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Of Copán, Honduras

We're back from a swell four-day weekend in Copán, Honduras (henceforth known as "Copan" because it's easier to just type it than inserting the technically necessary accent on the "a" each time). We were worried Wilma would make Copan a soggy mess, but fortunately nature decided to cut us a break this time and focus on kicking Mexico's ass this time. And besides, how could we resist our first big chance to flash around our Diplomatic Passports at some dusty border post?

Anyway, Copan is one of the four or so most important known Mayan cities. As we heard multiple times while there, Tikal was the New York of the Mayans, with tall buildings and impressive scale, but Copan was the Paris of the Mayans, a center of art and poetry. Unfortunately, all their amazingly precise astronomy and mathematics didn't help them figure out that in a millenium or so, acid rain would come and eat away all their limestone masterpieces. So now the originals are all under tin roofs, giant tarps, or in the case of most of the truly impressive pieces, they're in a museum to be preserved for future generations. Perhaps due to ironic intervention of the death-obsessed Mayan gods, it turns out the museum roof leaks and isn't doing such a swell job of protecting the art. So, the museum is closed, and apparently has been for some time.

Luckily, they have replicas in all the original locations, so you can still get some sense of how the city was set up back in 700 AD. Of course, the jungle has had its way with Copan for a thousand years or so now, and most everything is a reconstruction of what modern scientists guess it looked like back when. The outlying residential area still mostly looks like grassy mounds, which have the jumbled blocks of former middle-class Mayans' homes underneath.

Also in Copan, we enjoyed some well-maintained "nature." There's the home of the "Butterfly Guy," who apparently is just really into butterflies and has built a giant butterfly-arium on his land. It was educational and had a charmingly home-spun vibe to it, like the guy was out personally mending holes in his butterfly shelter and collecting cocoons from the jungle with all his spare time.

Presenting an interesting but not unpleasant contrast was "Macaw Mountain,"(FULL DISCLOSURE: The linked picture was not taken at Macaw Mountain (TM) but it is a legitimate Macaw resident elsewhere in Copan) which has fliers in every gringo watering hole and hotel in town, and is the kind of place that makes sure you have time to stop by the snack bar during your guided tour and leaves you at the gift shop when you finish. Much slicker than the Butterfly Guy, but they also had a lot of really cool birds in aviaries, all of them rescued from various states of avian servitude or malady. I never was exactly clear where these birds were being "rescued" from, but it made the whole thing sound very noble. (NOTE: On further reflection, they probably rescue the Macaws from whatever agency keeps the above-pictured Macaw at the entrance to the ruins. I personally witnessed some giant-tailless-rat-looking rodent making off with the Copan Ruinas macaws' food!) And if rescuing injured Toucans wasn't enough, Macaw Mountain takes advantage of all their leafy acerage to produce shade-grown coffee. Take that, Starbucks!

In all, we give Copan two big thumbs up. Cool stuff to do on the whole range from touristy to "authentic," good restaurants, relatively safe, and perhaps most importantly, they have THREE different beers. Capitalism at work!

Thursday, October 20, 2005


Damn hurricanes won't give us a break. Today we're supposed to be heading to Honduras for a four day weekend. Thursday is "Revolution Day," which celebrates the downfall of a right-wing strongman in 1944 and the return of a democratically-elected center-left regime, which the CIA subsequently bumped off and replaced with another right-wing dictator.

In any case, we get a day off, and then taking Friday off makes a four-day weekend, as Guatemalans haven't yet developed the technology to move all their holidays to Mondays.

But then there's another stupid hurricane beating up Honduras! We're getting it from the left and now from the right. We might head that way anyway and just hope we're far enough inland to avoid danger, which CNN seems to indicate we might be. The level of local coverage on this stuff is pretty abysmal.

Saturday, October 15, 2005


OFOTO is too much of a pain -- as far as I can tell I have to send an email to everyone each time I want to share some pictures. So, I'm migrating over to Flickr. Head on over and check out the latest pictures from Guate, some pics of the fabulous apartment, and the olden days pictures from the big wedding in San Frantastico and our days in Our Nation's Capital:

Yes, I'm bored enough to go look at Matt's pictures.

I also added a link to "Matt's Photos" to the right so you can always have easy access only a click away. You're welcome.

Visits, Haircuts, Gardening

It's been a busy week, and I'll tomorrow I'll usher in my second weekend of overtime-collection in a row. The theoretical good news is that doing urgent work on the weekends earns either overtime pay or comp time for those of us who are still "Junior Officers." I'm a huge fan of comp time, and as such the bad news is that in reality I might not get administrative clearance to use all my vacation time as it is, let alone extra comp time.

Anyway, the hurricane caused all sorts of havok on the Pacific side of the country, and there are still people stranded and without water. Given our role as the American Embassy, we're relieved that no Americans were injured or killed (to our knowledge), but in my estimation that's sort of a hollow distinction. That's about all I can say about that on a website that Diplomatic Security is probably reading right now. Hi, DS guys!

The rest of the overload on work at the moment comes from numerous VIP visits. I got the glamorous 5:00 AM to 10:00 AM shift in the "control room" for the recent deputy secretary's visit. I think I can mention without a DS reprimand that my role in the "control room" was sitting around and waiting for something interesting/terrible/unplanned to happen. I also translated some of the Guatemalan papers' stories about the visit so the Deputy Secretary could see what they were saying about him. It was kinda cool, but kinda boring.

In more quotidian events, some readers may be familiar with my M.O. of waiting anywhere from eight weeks to eight months between haircuts. I recently reached the "unbearably shaggy" point, and called a recommended barber who, bizarre as it sounds, does house calls. He cut my hair right there in our kitchen, including the always-thrilling straight razor to shave the back of my neck, and the completely unexpected nostril-hair trim. That is the kind of service you just don't get at Great Clips back home.

Last item of minor import, we're getting our balcony all set up as a little slice of paradise. We bought some snazzy teak furniture and a bunch of plants. We went to a nursery in Antigua and could not resist buying all the cool plants that had either cool names or would theoretically produce useful consumables. So now we have an orange tree, a coffee plant, a papyrus, and a plant called "pepperonia" on our balcony. Plus more. We'll give them a little time to develop before we start promising visitors home-grown oranges, coffee, paper, or pepperonis.

Saturday, October 08, 2005


Guatemala City proper isn't experiencing too much trouble from Hurricane Stan -- the biggest issue for us is that our Columbus Day weekend plans have been ruined because almost none of the roads out of town are passable, and along those that are, there are gas shortages becuase of trouble at the ports and whatnot. Oh, and I have to work. It's noon on Saturday and I'm heading in to the office to help American citizens who were in harms way toward the Pacific coast. I was hoping I might get to fly around on one of the Blackhawks that is delivering aid, but they're pretty much grounded due to the continuing crappy weather. It's not clear exactly what good I might have done on a Blackhawk, other than being better looking than your average army guy, of course. Oh, well, I guess all I can do is hope for another devastating storm to wipe out all the bridges and highways in the country and then clear out a little faster next time. (Special note for the Diplomatic Security guy reading this in Arlington or wherever: This statement is intended as humorous or even "ironic" and is in no way a reflection of U.S. policy in Guatemala.)

Monday, October 03, 2005

Morning view

This is the view from our balcony. The volcano only comes out when it's clear, it would be just to the right of this photo. More pictures soon.

Of the car window

About a month ago, I went up to visit the friendly guys who work in Customs and Shipping for the embassy. I ask how our furniture and car are coming along.

So he says, "Your car window was broken when we picked up the car, right?" To which I replied with a stare of silent disbelief.

A couple weeks later, he says "Sorry I thought your car window was broken. It isn't. But was there some sort of problem with the power windows?" So I reply that yes, the rear window on the passenger side doesn't work, you have to use the button up near the driver to get it to go up the last inch. So we agree that all is well.

On Thursday, they tell me my car is here. So I go up to their office just before I leave and they're all gone arleady and my key is sitting out with a tag with my name on it. I happily head out to the parking lot where they said it would be parked, and there it is -- with the space where one would put a front passenger window covered in strapping tape and some weird police-tape stuff that says "Bancafe" on it -- which I assume would be hard to get in the US. You might say I was not thrilled. I manage to drive it home, basically unable to see cross traffic coming from the right, which given the scarcity of stop signs in Guatemala City is something of a challenge. The next morning I talk with the customs guys and they say that the window is not broken, it simply must have fallen off the guide that holds it in place, because you can see the window trapped down in the door. In any case, that's how it came off the boat. So I start the process of getting someone else to pay for a new window.

At lunch time Katherine calls and tells me that she has miraculously fixed the problem. How? By pressing the power window button, which made the window go up. Apparently, someone had seen the window down, and just decided that something must be wrong, and covered it with strapping tape as if it were broken. I suppose all's well that ends well.


This is what our apartment looked like until we got our furniture. I guess if we really want to "fill the room" someone is going to need to send us a giant screen TV.