Saturday, December 16, 2006

Tactics for Tactic

Joe, one of my esteemed predecessors in the Consular Section, sent a seemingly cryptic e-mail a month or so ago. He had served in the Peace Corps in Guatemala many years prior to joining the Foreign Service and returning here as a Vice Consul and Third Secretary. He is now on his second tour, in Lithuania. He sent an e-mail to my boss in Guatemala, which she forwarded to the entire section, seeking a volunteer to go to the small town where he had lived in his Peace Corps days to drop off a Christmas present for the family he had stayed with. And he noted that if the volunteer should go on the right weekend, they might witness the "Bolas de Fuego, a celebration that involves the locals throwing fireballs at one another. " Many of my colleagues inexplicably shied away from this opportunity for cultural exploration, but your intrepid correspondent stepped up.

Tactic (pronounced "Tahk-teek," not "Tack-tick") is actually a decent-sized town as these things go in Guatemala. Nobody seems to know with any certainty how many people live there, but I would guess something like 12,000 or 15,000 (the only estimate I found on the web says 27,000, but that's got to include a healthy slice of the outlying area). We arrived on Friday afternoon and met our host, Naldo (short for Reginaldo), on the main square, and he directed us a few blocks to the family home. We were welcomed by Doña Rosa, the matriarch of the family who could understand spoken Spanish but could only speak Pokomchí herself (see #49 on this map). We sat in her kitchen, and she served us each a mug of coffee from the pot that seemed to have its own dedicated 50-gallon-drum-cum-cookstove, one of two in the kitchen. A variety of Naldo's brothers and sisters and children came and went, stopping by to chat and breath in the wood smoke and then filter back to the room with the TV (which we were never invited to watch).

The hospitality that the family showed us was literally embarrassing. Most readers are probably familiar with circumstances where one puts forth obligatory protestations over a host's generosity. But this was a case where we actually felt bad about the kindness of this family that probably earns in a month, with four brothers working, what I earn in a week. They emptied out a room with three beds in it so that we could have a room to ourselves -- we protested, but never found out for sure where all those displaced people slept. They served us a delicious chicken dinner, although I would guess that serving meat was a fairly expensive proposition for them. They served us spaghetti and tomato sauce for breakfast the next morning, which was an unusual but tasty. They tricked us into staying for lunch even though we said we were going to leave, serving soup with potatoes, veggies, and a big chunk o' meat. (As an aside, this was the only meal that involved us having to force ourselves to eat really undesirable food in order to avoid causing offense, as the meat was shoe-leather tough and generally not very appetizing. I ate one-and-a-half servings. It could have been a lot worse.) They helped us feel at home by digging out the CD of "English music" that Joe had left them, full of sixties girl-group classics, even though we said we were fine with marimba.

Sitting in the kitchen and chatting was a little odd, because what did we really have to talk about? But we muddled through. The kitchen was constantly filled with fumes from the two oil-drum cookstoves. There wasn't really a door on it -- just a hand-made wooden gate opening onto an open-air entryway where the two dogs ("Escooby" and "Seca" (also known as "Joe's daughter-in-law")), two cats (both apparently named "Negro" by default), chickens and ducks made their homes. The primary entertainment was the constant efforts of the ducklings to sneak through the gate into the kitchen to look for crumbs and enjoy the warmth for some indeterminate amount of time before Doña Rosa would decide "enough" and pick up her duck-chasing stick, shooing them out of the kitchen again while saying "Psssshhhhhhhhhhhhh!" Coffee was served at every moment anyone was sitting in the kitchen -- even the three-year-old girl had a breakfast of white bread dipped in hot coffee -- in part because it is quite often very chilly in Tactic, and also because you have to boil the water anyway so why not throw in some flavor?

We discussed the main event of the evening a bit, and many of our hosts were not really thrilled about going. "I don't usually go -- it scares me," said Naldo. But duty called and we went to see it, and he and young Eber felt equally duty-bound to accompany us. We stood on the main square in the drizzle for a bit. A small crowd was hanging around in little pockets on the square and around its periphery. Peppy live music blasted out of the evangelical church on one side of the square. We admired the mini-version of the Gallo Beer Christmas Tree in the square, and the Lovely Katherine chatted with Eber about school while I chatted with Naldo about his work repairing shoes. Eventually, a fiery glow emerged from one of the side streets, and a bunch of youngsters showed up with a coffee can full of flames. Other youngsters ran to the non-operational fountain in the square and soaked their jeans and gloves in the stagnant water to prepare for battle. One of the kids lit up a canteloupe-sized ball, made of rags wrapped in twine or wire or some such, and soaked in kerosene or similar. He threw it at another of the kids; it hit him and bounced to the ground, at which point a scrum developed around the ball and they all tried to kick it, but it soon flickered and went out in the damp conditions.

At that point I realized that I had somehow projected onto Joe's invitation the assumption that this annual tradition must entail some community pride, some pomp and circumstance, some official speech by the chairman of the planning committee that it was great to be able to celebrate the Bolas de Fuego for another year. Instead, it was more like the American "tradition" of young hooligans throwing eggs at cars on Halloween than it was like a sanctioned town fair. The entire event consisted of teenage boys throwing flaming rags at one another, and at bystanders who for some reason gathered nearby to make targets of themselves. In fact, it was exactly as Joe had described it, nothing more, nothing less.

I quit thinking about that when the young toughs decided that Mr. Gringo-with-an-expensive-camera looked like a particulary good target. We had a couple fireballs tossed in our direction, but then again, so did a lot of people, so maybe we were just paranoid. Whatever the reality of the situation, which the Lovely Katherine described to our other friends as "maybe the first time I have ever been literally weak-kneed with fear," we decided to decamp to Foto Lydia, the portrait studio near the square where one of Naldo's brothers works. This didn't remove us entirely from danger, as the young flamethrowers kept throwing fireballs wherever they saw people, to the point where they even threw a fireball into the door Foto Lydia, but the ubiquitous cinder-block construction provided fireproof cover. The drizzly conditions helped snuff out most of the fireballs before they could do to much damage, and somehow we didn't see anyone sustain any injuries -- which apparently is not the case every year.

The next morning we walked with Naldo and three-year-old (or so) Rubi up to the church on top of one of the hills in town, which afforded nice views for what one could see under the clouds; and then went with Naldo, Eber, and Rubi to the local park and zoo. It's sort of weird that such a small town has a zoo, but it did, with one row of various pheasants and peacocks and such, plus some spider monkeys, crocodiles, and rabbits. We rode the merry-go-round with Eber until we were sick. It was both a shame and a relief to bid an mid-day farewell to the family on Saturday and head on to see the orchid nursery in Cobáan. It was really exhausting making friends with people from a background so different from ours, but a fascinating and much appeciated weekend none-the-less.

Photos coming soon, but maybe not until after we get back from Xmas. And the photo department doesn't think any of the pictures of the bolas de fuego are worthy of publication, but we'll see

Friday, December 15, 2006

Beat the Devil

Being American or from Protestant stock or generally unbothered by religion, I had no idea that there actually is an official start of the Christmas Season. Apparently December 8 is the day of the Immaculate Conception, which leaves only 17 days until Christmas Day. I'm not sure if that's in the Bible or if it was just established by some papal bull or the Knights Templar or whoever makes such decisions, but it seems to imply less of an Immaculate Conception and more of an Immaculate Nearly-Full-Term-Baby-Jesus-Insertion. In any case, as in America, the Christmas trees and the carols playing in the grocery store and such have been going on for a while, but the religious celebrations just started last week. Apparently there are ceremonies of some sort where they cart around Joseph and Mary sculptures in a symbolic search for an inn every night for the next week.

Before all the Christmassing gets started, there's a final blowout, not unlike Mardi Gras, except that after the blowout, no fasting is required. In Guatemala, December 7th is the Quema del Diablo, or Burning of the Devil. The idea is sort of that one removes all the malign spirits from one's house through the symbolic ritual of dumping any trash or other unwanted possessions on the street and setting them ablaze. In many neighborhoods and towns, this tradition is pretty much unchanged, and the local news (immediately preceding my interview, in fact) had a lengthy story about how it really isn't good for anyone's lungs to burn unwanted tires, even if they do provide hours worth of incendiary entertainment.

In the posh neighborhood full of doctors and construction magnates and foreign diplomats, there aren't many tires being burned anymore. Making the holiday somewhat more literal and yet less practical, many now celebrate by purchasing a papier-mâché devil and burning that instead of a pile of garbage. The child labor force of Guatemala must be working serious overtime in November, because on December 7th, all variety of fireworks stands and mock devil outlets suddenly appear, offering diablos from the small and economical to larger-than-life-size. Ideally, the devil is stuffed with firecrackers, piñata-style. At dusk, the devils are burned, and fireworks are set off all over town. We could see fireworks in every direction, going up right behind our building, in the yards our balcony overlooks, and dangerously close to a building up the block. Any José with a few bucks in his pocket can buy the kind of fireworks in Guatemala City that Americans can only get in Wyoming. I'm not sure if the Fourth of July used to have the thrilling 360-degree spectacles of neighbors in every direction shooting off huge fireballs. But I assume we banned these things for a reason, and I hesitate to guess how many Guatemalans lost fingers last Thursday. Our whole neighborhood smelled of burnt gunpowder and whatever other toxic substance they use to make sparks green or orange.

If you've ever wondered what you're missing by not living in Guatemala, you should know that The Lovely Katherine declared Quema del Diablo the best holiday in the world. That might be putting it a little strongly, but it does have a freewheeling spirit that American holidays maybe once had, but no longer do.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Watch This Space

We were on a bit of a dry spell there in terms of events with any reader appeal in Guatemala. But the last week was full to bursting with newsworthy tidbits, often involving pyrotechnic derring-do and ridiculous risks to life and limb. So clear your calendar for some exciting posts to come as soon as the editorial staff gets time to get this edge-of-your-seat stuff ready for publication. Or, at least, as ready for publication as we bother to get anything.

In the meantime, trip out to this picture the staff photographer took of the lights on the balcony above ours.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

King of All Media

It was a little while in coming, but the media titans of Guatemala finally realized that my dashing good looks were being wasted on radio interviews. So I finally got my big break, interviewed for a television piece about how if you want a visa to go see Tia Marta in California for Christmas, you need to schedule an appointment now. (Or more accurately, two weeks ago.) It was short and to the point, and I managed to not sound like any more of an idiot in Spanish than I probably would have in English. I don't know what happened to my collar, it was straight when I looked in the mirror and checked my teeth for spinach just before the interview.

The night they said they were going to air the interview, they didn't, and I was a bit worried that they realized how boring talking about visas is. But they claimed that they wanted to maximize the audience for it so they showed it morning, noon and evening newscasts over the last day. Somehow, they managed to squeeze in three minutes of me into the other 57 minutes where they exclusively discuss murders, disappearances, grisly fires at illegal child-labor fireworks factories, and sports.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


Sorry we didn't do anything exciting this weekend other than dig ourselves out from under the mountain of Thanksgiving dishes. The photo department has been on a self-assessed hot streak though, so you can cruise over to Flickr for your Guatemala fix today.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Turkey Day

We hosted a whopping 26 people for Thanksgiving dinner in our apartment yesterday. It was a lot of work and the kitchen is still a disaster, but the event was definitely worthwhile.

Despite the fact that The Lovely Katherine was intensely uninterested in touching the turkeys, and that the only time I have ever been in the kitchen during turkey preparation was to grab another root beer from the fridge while Grandma did all the work, we cooked two delicious turkeys. I managed to carve them satisfactorily, although every source of instruction on the topic gives detailed direction on carving the breast and then assumes you know what to do with the rest, so all the dark meat was chopped into bitty pieces. Thanks to our twin-oven, twin-turkey plan, we had the perfect opportunity to do Grandma's two kinds of stuffing, sweet and sage. The sage dressing turned out to be "my" dressing because Katherine was unwilling to deal with sauteed turkey liver. I'm not sure I would have been such a fan of sage dressing had I realized as a child that it involved sauteed giblets. But now I know and it was no less delicious; even though there was no sage to be had in Guatemala, our slight variation was not too far off from the original. We even had leftover gravy.

A good time was had by all. We hope to never do it again.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Photo Department Wins International Acclaim; Cheif Correspondent Quits in a Huff

The snowball is beginning to roll downhill on the Holla photo department's inevitable domination of the world market for tourist photos of Guatemala. The staff photographer's photo of a guy who sells pony rides in Antigua has been chosen for inclusion in the web-based promotional materials for the Friends of World Heritage. The photo is reproduced in extra-tiny eye-strain-o-vision on a flyer about how to be a socially conscious traveller or some such, and also included in a handy .pdf version, in case you want to carry it with you on your travels. (If you want to see the photo in visible size, you'll have to check it out on Flickr or you can see it real big, too.)

This organization, Friends of World Heritage, contacted me after finding my picture on Flickr, with a message that said something to the effect of: "We like your picture and we reckon you're amateur enough to give your work away for free, and we don't really want to be paying actual pro photographers for their work." I looked at their website, which looks professional enough, and it's got an actual UNESCO logo on it, so it must be a legit and worthwhile organization. So I told them that they could use my picture for free as long as I was attributed as the photographer. Which they did, on a separate page (way at the bottom), that nobody would ever look at unless some browser malfunction took them there by accident. (Some Holla readers may recognize another name on the list, as well -- pure coincidence.)

Anyway, since the Holla's prose has never been published anywhere outside of this shabby forum, the photo department has had to receive several lectures reminding them that we are all one team and that they best not let it go to their heads, as 99% of the photo departments' masterpieces languish in obscurity on Flickr.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Of Glorious Workers' Paradise

There are not very many Guatemalan institutions that one would feel good putting a lot of faith in. Without veering into actual verboten editorializing about any particular government or political party or subcompartment of the bureaucracy, I think even those in the employ of the State Department could say that it is a matter of public record that Guatemala's public sector has some serious problems with corruption and inefficiency.

Which is what makes the Instute for Workers' Recreation such a surprise. The Instituto de Recreación de los Trabajadores de la Empresa Privada (IRTRA) is basically a public version of Six Flags. A payroll tax funds a small amusement park, water park, and complex of hotels and restaurants in Retalhuleu, a few hours toward the Mexican border from the capital. We figured that Veterans' Day would be a perfect time for a visit as we'd have the day off and the Guatemalans wouldn't so there would be no lines for the Guate version of Space Mountain. Many in our traveling party had heard that the parks were nice, but I was still shocked.

The hotel was of a quality that is seldom seen in Guatemala, the grounds of the parks were meticulously maintained, everything was clean, and the staff were all friendly and professional. There were no ferris wheels rotated by hand like the ones seen at small town fairs here -- all the rides appeared to involve actual safety equipment and one could ride them with only the fear they were designed to produce, not the fear that they were going to fall apart because they hadn't been oiled in years. At one point when we were trying to walk back to our hotel from the theme park, an employee ran out and yelled to us that we were going the wrong way -- we all agreed that it was perhaps the first pro-active, informative, and conscientious action we'd seen by a Guatemalan public employee in... well, perhaps ever.

We payed nearly extortionate rates at the hotel since we were not paid into the IRTRA tax system, and rates at the amusement park and water park that were high for Guatemala but certainly far less than we would pay for similar attractions in the U.S. The Guatemalans who pay the IRTRA tax get into the parks for free and pay next to nothing for the hotels.

Let's put aside for a moment whether or not building amusement parks is an appropriate public-sector activity or maybe something better left to private enterprise. If they want to tax everyone so that some people can ride a roller coaster until they puke, I guess it's only different from our National Park system in degree. More important was the demonstration that the Guatemalan public sector can actually put together an enormously succesful operation when they want to. If they put the guy who runs IRTRA in charge of the Public Ministry here, who knows what they could accomplish?

Monday, November 06, 2006

Except they didn't end it with "Stairway to Heaven"

Maybe your office has an annual uncomfortable christmas party, and a summer barbeque, but we have both of those, times two, plus one with a DJ and a sit-down dinner: The Marine Ball.

One may suppose that after some time as a diplomat, one grows accustomed to gala evenings of tuxedos (known locally as "smokings") and ballgowns. After enough National Day celebrations and balls and such, perhaps they stop feeling silly. Maybe there is, after all, a point where one can stop referring to such things from the only frame of reference your average young Foreign Service Officer can, i.e. "It's like the Prom. Except with an open bar."

Suspecting that my slight cynical streak may have taken root early, one of my colleagues asked me not too long ago if I had attended the prom in high school. I told her that I had indeed gone to the prom, stinking of irony, because it seemed like such a corny, funny thing to do. She replied: "That's so sad." I suppose she was right, and fourteen years later, we went totally irony-free to the Marine Corps Birthday Ball. I didn't manage to rent a smoking, but I did manage to wear a tie that didn't have any cartoon characters on it. The Lovely Katherine even went out with the girls and got her hair did. Maybe we're older and have learned to appreciate the rare moments that pass by without keeping them at arm's length. Or maybe it's just easier to get enthusiastic about a dance with an open bar.

The event itself is celebrated at every U.S. Embassy around the world (and probably other places that Marines gather) to honor the anniversary of the founding of the Marine Corps. It features a speech by the oldest Marine veteran in the country, the symbolic cutting of a birthday cake with one of those Marine swords, a DJ playing salsa and hip-hop, and (did I mention the open bar?) a couple Guatemalan bartenders who stare at customers blankly when you order complicated drinks like "whiskey en las rocas." It was a fabulous time. With luck, we still have plenty of time before we slide from sneering past enthusiastic and all the way into world-weariness.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Under the Sea

It has once again been some time since I last sent word of events in Central America. This time around, though, it was not pure sloth that prevented your coresspondent from writing, but the presence of family members in Guatemala, and then a week of what I would consider well-deserved vacation in Honduras.

Appetites whetted by this blog, your correspondent's parents came to see Guatemala firsthand, and within a couple days they were cavalierly hailing unmarked cabs off the street and chatting up the locals like long-time residents. Perhaps someday they will publish a report of their adventures here.

After they had a week of soaking in the local color, we decamped for Roatan, Honduras and Anthony's Key Resort, an entirely foreign experience for your correspondent. While accustomed to traversing washed-out dirt roads to visit remote hamlets and sleep in scorpion-infested flophouses, the experience of an all-inclusive resort was uncharted territory. My spirit of adventure undimmed, I bravely agreed to give it a try. Anthony's Key is primarily a scuba diving destination, and the "all-inclusive" tag means not just three squares a day, but three trips out to dive on the reef surrounding Roatan. The meals were all served by waiters who universally refered to the guests as "my friend" and the drinks served by bartenders who referred to the guests as "buddy." There isn't really a beach to speak of, so visitors who choose not to dive would be limited to sipping fruity cocktails by the swimming pool. I can't imagine why one would choose a tropical resort without a beach if diving weren't the goal, but there were some individuals who were fixtures at the pool, plowing through trashy paperbacks or cartons of cigarettes, demonstrating that people like to do all sorts of weird stuff on vacation. For your correspondent, other than a quick horesback ride along the beach, and a quick kayak trip around the little island, I spent the week doing two things: scuba diving and scratching bug bites.

Your correspondent learned to scuba dive three years ago in Vietnam, under the tuteledge of a French instructor, which had the advantage of being able to close one's eyes and imagine being taught to dive by Jacques Cousteau. I'm sure he was a good teacher, but not all his lessons found a permanent home in this pupil. Upon arrival at Anthoy's Key, your correspondent asked for a refresher lesson in diving, to which the dive shop replied that I ought to give it a try and see how it went first. This doesn't seem particularly safe, but we were in shallow enough water that it wasn't really life-threatening when I went under for the first and made it immediately clear that I had no recollection of what any of the tubes or buttons on the scuba gear were for. The divemaster now convinced, I took my refresher lesson and was ready for the week of diving ahead.

As a dive-centric resort, there were a whole fleet of boats equipped for dive trips. Each guest was assigned to a boat from which they would dive for the entirety of the week. So, not unlike joining an organized tour and rolling the dice with whatever other tourists sign up for the same tour, we spent a week diving with, and getting to know, an odd assortment of fellow travelers. Among them were a Catalonian couple who had wetsuits that looked thick enough for use in the North Sea, perhaps to compensate for the fact that each of them appeared to have about 0.5% body fat; a gregarious Georgian (as in Atlanta, not Tbilisi) who had been to Anthony's Key just a month ago and was already back and shared a seemingly endless supply of veteran pointers (e.g. "A lot of people don't realize that the guy at the pool bar brings his own boombox to play music at the pool, and if your camera says your batteries are too low for the camera, they can still power the boombox, so it's a good idea to give him your batteries instead of throwing them away"); a middle aged Sicilian from Detroit who seemed to always have what looked like a matchstick hanging out of his mouth who was probably not a mobster, but could play one on TV in a pinch; and a 57-year-old guy and his 10-year-old daughter from Vicksburg, Mississippi, which young girl was apparently missing school to go on a dive vacation, and seemed a bit young and reckless to be diving, but was mostly harmless, and which older guy was relentless in videotaping every second of his daughter's every dive, and was not shy about bumping fellow divers out of the way to get that Scorcese-esque camera angle he needed of her. They were all fine people, although we certainly spent more time chatting with some rather than others. But there is something a little odd about spending a substantial amount of money to go on a relaxing vacation and for an integral part of that vacation to involve long stretches on a small boat with randomly assigned strangers, not knowing for sure whether they're going to be tolerable or not until about halfway through the week. Maybe we were lucky, or maybe people are always going to be generally pleasant when they're on vacation; one way or another, we lived.

The diving was fantastic, as it would have to be to support a week of hanging out in one place with nothing else of note to do. For nature enthusiasts, diving is like going hiking, except that the wildlife doesn't scurry off and hide when it smells you five hundred yards away. As such we saw at close range sea turtles, moray eels, giant crabs, one seahorse, and an almost infinite variety of technicolor fish. The Holla regrets that we were unable to send the staff photographer along to snap colorful pictures of Blue Flathead Parrotfish and Juvenile Spotted Drums, although having seen the behavior of many underwater photographers, you're not missing that much. Your correspondent was trapped on one merciful brief water taxi ride with a fellow guest who insisted on showing off all the pictures of fish he had captured underwater, and while the staff photographer is certain that he could have given underwater shots a little more compositional interest than this gentleman, he still suspects that most such photos will more often than not just look like a bunch of fish. (Although the staff photographer would like to encourage you to click on the picture above of the fish that lived in the shallows near our bungalow to see a larger version of it.) Even so, we particularly regret not having visual record of the shark dive, when we went 80 feet down with a bucket full of chum, and spent ten minutes swimming within a few feet of 20 circling reef sharks bigger than we were. Your correspondent was still focused enough on not screwing up the whole breathing underwater thing to feel even a tinge of fear from the sharks, who, honestly, weren't going to put the effort into biting off anyone's leg when there was a whole bucket of already-dead fish waiting for them.

That may have been the most compelling story of the trip, but maybe the most amazing view was on the final day of the trip when we dove near the pointy end of the island, where the piscine superhighway passed by. One could look left and right along the reef and see thousnands if not tens of thousands of fish stretching as far as the eye could see in each direction, eventualy merging with the deep blue of the water.

Friday, October 13, 2006


So from what your correspondent can gather, there was much fuss this summer in the U.S. about the clever/fun/campy title of the movie Snakes on a Plane. Well, I think the Guatemalans have won another small cultural victory. Now playing at a theater near us: Serpientes a Bordo. No, you're not missing any subtlety of translation -- it means "Snakes On Board."

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Good Job, Chris

I may have mentioned before that one of the remnants of the pampered diplomat lifestyle is our enjoyment of both American and Guatemalan holidays. It couldn't be otherwise, as the Embassy is part of the Federal government, and thus American holidays are not optional, but would grind to a halt without its Guatemalan staff, who require their own little holidays, too. Well, we got another three day weekend this past weekend -- and those of you who live outside of Boston or DC may be surprised to know it was one of the American ones. Apparently government people, not just mailmen/letter carriers and bankers, still get Columbus Day off.

It may be a sign that we're exhausting the three-day weekend options around here that we didn't have a big plan set. We've got some things scheduled for a few months out, but this one was a blank space. It dawned on us that there were several volcanoes around Lake Atitlan that we had yet to climb. So we headed up to Santiago Atitlan, and started asking around about a guide to take us up Volcan San Pedro. The guide services seemed a bit more expensive than we had anticipated, given that being a guide for a Guatemalan volcano ascent basically has only one requirement: Machete ownership -- and not for chopping underbrush, but for scaring off brigands and thieves.

We dind't get everything firmly set the night before. We scurried from the restaurant to our room under umbrella and continued our plot to find a guide by the docks at sunrise the next morning. We contemplated the eight-hour climb as the sound of pounding rain beat on the roof of our bungalow. And then we realized that we hadn't planned our next volcano ascent for October because it's still as likely as not to rain cats and dogs on any given day. As we sipped beers by the sunny poolside and gazed up at the peak of San Pedro enveloped in cloud cover, we saluted our ability to come to our senses, better late than never.

We did manage to avoid a complete weekend of sloth by doing some canoeing. We've taken many opportunities to go kayaking on various Guatemalan bodies of water, but there were no kayaks to be had. So we did a spin around the inlet in a canoe, which had a kind of old-school charm. Which is very important in feeling more in touch the locals, who also use canoes, of sorts, such as the one pictured above. They didn't say it out loud, but you could tell by the look in their eyes, as we paddled by their wood-plank canoes and fishing nets floated with old milk jugs, that we were each celebrating Columbus's contributions to the Americas in our own way, and that they really felt the connection, too.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Banana Republic Indeed

So Chiquita apparently exports just a few bananas from Guatemala. If you don't have your glasses on, click the picture to see it a little bigger. This was docked in Puerto Barrios as we were shooting across the bay to Livingston. When we came back, there was an equally large boat called the "S.S. Dole" at the next pier over.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Time Waits for No Man

At the major crossroads in Guatemala City, where the main highway that takes you to Mexico or to El Salvador crosses the road that would get you pointed toward the main square or even the Caribbean, there is a monument known as the Obelisk. It's runty and more than a little disappointing, and in a few short weeks will be completely overwhelmed by the Gallo Beer Astroturf Christmas Tree. Also, as at major crossroads around the world, there's a big clock. Not surprisingly, when the rest of Guatemala gave up on its futile daliance with Daylight Savings Time, the clock failed to adjust accordingly. (Daylight Savings Time was last attempted five years ago, and when they implemented it this year, every gringo had a story about having to specify whether a meeting would happen at the "2:00, old time" or "2:00, new time," none of which matters, since all meetings start at the "hora chapin" aka "Guatemalan time" aka "20 minutes late," or "whenever we show up." Also common were tales of less sophisticated locals saying something to the effect of "I don't care what time they say it is, I'm still going to lunch at 12:30.")

Anyway, I can't say I changed every clock in our house right away. But then again, most of my clocks were correct at some point recently. The end of daylight savings time changed the giant display clock at the Obelisco from being 19 minutes fast to being 1:19 fast. Your correspondent cannot claim in this public space that this holds any significant insights into the Guatemalan national psyche, and if it did, whether it would mean that someone knows they're all 20 minutes late and is giving them a hand, or that someone just hasn't noticed or bothered to fix the inaccuracy.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Of sleepless cats, spectacles, and America's Most Wanted

It seems like weeks ago that we went to the Rio Dulce for one of those crazy made-up Guatemalan holiday weekends. And in fact, it was. Affairs of State have kept me away from reporting promptly. But go we did.

We were slightly worried about the traffic, as in a pre-election push, the Government of Guatemala has announced that they are widening the major highway heading to the Caribbean to an unheard of three lanes. Luckily, the project was on a predictably inactive.

We arrived without major incident in Puerto Barrios and zipped by ferry over to Livingston, Garifuna capital of Guatemala. We found a place that looked like a good place for some caribbean-style seafood. It turns out that the "Happy Fish" was out of fish, among many other things, but they did have plenty of warm beer, as well as whole crabs and under-ripe platanos for their tapado, and a 70-year-old guy who tried to get the Lovely Katherine to dance with him. After a bit of wandering and soaking in the sights, we hopped the boat for the trip upriver to our weekend destination, the Finca Tatin.

Tatin is a small lodge on a tributary of the Rio Dulce. It's run by a few gringo expats of exactly the type you would expect to drop out and go run a jungle lodge in the middle of nowhere, Guatemala. They had family-style dinners and a fridge full of cold beer for guests, which one could grab and will on the honor system. They also had a sign full of suggestions of things you might want to do to fill your days at Finca Tatin, such as "go for a hike," "swim off the dock," or "do nothing." Good to keep the list complete.

The laid-back attitude extended to the finances. The management apparently doesn't worry about filling up the lodge, telling your reporter, "If we cared about money, you think we'd be down here?" However, on the occasional holiday weekend, it does fill up, as it did on this weekend. The Lovely Katherine and I got the "Alacrán (Scorpion) Lodge," which hadn't been used in a while. You would think these two factors might add up to a lot of vicious scorpions, but rather, the room was occupied by a very friendly cat. The cat seemed delighted to have guests in the room with him, and was eager to cuddle. Very cute. At first. After a few beers from the honor fridge, we returned to our room, tucked in under the mosquito netting, and were promptly landed upon by a cat jumping off the rafters on top of the mosquito net, and onto our heads. We gently removed him from the bed (and from the room). Then we successively less gently removed him from the bed about five thousand more times that night, but he never got the lesson; he just kept kneading at our legs with his claws, through the mosquito net. The laid-back attitude was called into question the next morning, when the staff was surprisingly responsive (if not quick) in our requests that they cat-proof our room. We managed to recover with some time in a hammock the next day.

The first order of each day there was kayaking along the river. The canyon walls are carved from limestone and are impresively steep for a while, plied by fishermen in dugout canoes, and occasionally grafittied by other passers-by. The canyon then opens out into the flatlands, resulting in a big lake ringed with mangrove swamps and tiny tributaries and lagunas to explore. It was gorgeous, but I didn't bring my the staff photographer. I did bring him along the second day, when we paddled back to Livingston, and he got us in trouble by delaying to take pictures of rusted out boats and seabirds near the town. The karmic debt was swiftly repaid as at some point in the day's paddling, I lost my glasses to the briny deep, and looked like a tool wearing my prescription sunglasses the rest of the day, whether inside or several hours past sunset. A hopefully brief recount of adventures in replacing the spectacles will have to wait for the next entry.

In any case, we arrived back in Livingston, one pair of glasses lighter. We walked the length of the town, which somehow seemed much longer than it possibly could be, to arrive at what we had heard was a far superior restaurant, one that unlike the Happy Fish, actually had fish. This spot was a few blocks away from tourist-trap central, on Livingston's beach, such as it is. It's actually across the street from the beach, but the owner carried a table out to the beach for us, perhaps because she didn't want to use the electricity to run her fan. It was a great spot for watching the boats come in and go out again, and the pelicans skimming across the water, and chatting with the local characters. First and foremost among them was the owner of the dining establishment in question. The menu featured local dishes, mexican dishes, and Indian curries; because she was born in Mexico and married in India, she guaranteed at some length that all her food was 100% authentic (and to be honest, for Guatemala, it was pretty darn good). She listed for us, and apologized for not having copies handy, the 19 different guidebooks to Guatemala and/or Central America that mention her restaurant. Best of all, when she discovered that I work at the Embassy she brought out two framed articles describing how she had once had a local gentleman come to her restaurant looking for work, and how she had recognized something fishy and strung him along long enough to realize that she knew him from America's Most Wanted. So she had called the Embassy, which had dispatched a law enforcement agent to come get him; but she warned that he was super-dangerous, so the Embassy apparently sent 10 guys to get him. (Or was it 10 battallions? Or ten bombers and an Iowa-class Battleship? Memory fails me.) She sent her regards to the law enforcement staff at the Embassy, and assured us that she was cooking up some more traps to ensnare the swarms of felons that apparently come drifting through Livingston, stealing innocent kayakers' glasses and such.

Her lengthy tales delayed our departure a bit, and we didn't get to see the Guatemala Dinosaur Museum on the way back. But perhaps it's better to leave some things to be explored and faithfully reported on future holiday weekends.

The Spirit of Equestrian on ESPN brought to you by Rolex. This is, so far, the only ad during Monday Night Football that isn't just a promo for ESPN. Does that say something about the audience that watches American football in Guatemala, or does it just say something about the incompetence of the ESPN Latin America advertising department?

Monday, September 25, 2006

Third Place Is Just the Second Loser

By dint of not getting fired for 18 consecutive months, I've earned a major promotion. You should no longer address me as "Third Secretary and Vice-Consul." That's right, your humble servant is now a "Second Secretary and Vice-Consul." I'm a little hazy on the hierarchy, but I think next is "Ambassador Plenipotentiary" or maybe "Senator for Life."

More thorough updates on recent adventures coming soon.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

There is Water Underground

The editorial staff would first like to apologize for another extended break in the publication schedule. We know there is a lot of detritus on the internet you could be wasting your time with, and appreciate your dedication in coming back here from time to time.

Our most recent expedition in Guatemala took us to the Cuevas de Candelaria, which is Spanish for "Caves of Candelaria." The area north of Cobán is pure limestone, and it makes for some amazing landscapes. As reported earlier, there are some amazing cave formations in the region. Our deep inside sources reported that Candelaria, another ninety minutes past Cobán, was the best. Even though we're just barely past the halfway point in our two years in Guatemala, your correspondent is already counting up the three-day weekends we have left and prioritizing which unexplored corners of the region merit a valuable long weekend away. We decided the caves would be worth it, even though the agenda for Labor Day weekend wound up being: Saturday - drive; Sunday - see caves; Monday - drive back. Because your correspondent and his wife both have fully acclimated to the insane driving style of Guatemala, we arrived early and managed to have alittle extra time for relaxation on Saturday.

We stayed at a eco-tourism facility in what might as well be signposted "Middle of Nowhere, Guatemala." Instead, the actual sign read, "Candelaria Ecological and Touristic Complex -- Right 100 meters." There was no road to the right, only cow pasture and jungle. It turns out that the most accurate sign might have read, "Candelaria Ecological and Touristic Complex -- Park Your Car in the Rancher's Driveway, and Start Walking Into the Jungle Here." The walk surely seemed longer than it was, because we were prepared for the Middle of Nowhere, carrying food and wine to last for the long weekend, along with your standard clothes, toiletries, and Boggle. Of course, we arrived at the front gate to find that no outside food or drink would be allowed on the premises. In perhaps not our finest diplomatic hour, we stuffed the wine and other provisions in our packs, choosing to violate their rules rather than walk all the way back to the car. This turned out to be wise, because the food was unsurprisingly expensive and of modest quality, and more crucially, they wouldn't serve you at all outside of the appointed breakfast, lunch and dinner hours. And they had apparently purloined all their silverware (at least they stole it from state sponsors of terrorism).

In any case, we had a fine time relaxing in the gardens surrounding the surprisingly nice accomodations, although to avoid being reprimanded for drinking contraband wine we had to spend a little more time inside than might have been ideal. The clean air was fantastic, and the peace and quite interrupted only by bird calls and the rattling dice preceding each time I crushed Katherine at Boggle. (To be fair, she crushed me at card games, but those are a lot quieter, other than my whimpering.)

So all that is prelude to the actual caves. Unlike the caves in Lanquin, there was no electric lighting and no boardwalks interupting the beauty of the caverns. There were a number of natural "windows," letting in light filtered through the foliage outside. While impressive, your correspondent wasn't sure they were that much cooler than the caves at Lanquin -- but in the afternoon we hiked in to another "ecological and touristic complex" where they offered tours tubing through about a mile-long stretch of river running through the caves. For reasons that I though were obvious, I did not bring the camera on the river-tubing portion of the trip. Apparently not everyone feels this way about taking their camera near water, since our pre-teen local guides asked us why we didn't have a camera along. So, again, you'll have to excuse this writer's lack of flair for capturing the breathtaking, uh, awesomeness of the sights deep inside an underground river where the light would slip in through a small opening far above. You would think that after having a week to think about it, I could do better than that.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Return to Pacaya

Among the very small disappointments regarding our apartment (yes, this is the apartment that is too big for us to clean ourselves, and basically has two entire rooms dedicated to storage of a few scattered items) is the view. We have a lovely view of the hills to the east, but we have only obstructed views of the three volcanoes visible from Guatemala City. However, from our balcony one can see the top of Pacaya, and of late that has included a plume of smoke rising off its peak and even a red glow faintly visible some nights. Having climbed Pacaya and other volcanoes before and having been denied any views of bubbling hot lava, your correspondent knew that the time was right for another trip -- and unlike our recently wed friends Paul and Lisa, we would not be defeated by a pile of dirt.

The climb up Pacaya is actually quite easy, but that doesn't stop enterprising local horse owners from offering rides up the top by trotting up to you on the trail and asking, "Taxi?" It's only an hour or ninety minutes of hiking to the bottom of the recent lava flow, where cows graze near a river of black rock that is a month old but still steaming in places. Another half hour gets you up to where you can see the rocks cracking and tumbling due to the lava flowing underneath. Here and there bright red spots of oozing lava would spill out of the rock, and quickly cool and turn grey. In the center of the river of rock, one could still spot a stream of constantly flowing lava running down the mountain. The staff photographer found it difficult to capture how amazing the sight was, since without the sound of rocks creaking under the stress of heat and pressure, and the motion of the lava breaking through the stones, the volcano looks a lot like a bunch of rocks. Your correspondent's attempt to translate the experience may not be much more artful, but that makes it no less true: Seeing hot lava is awesome.

For many a lava-loving tourist, this was the end of the road, but being the superbly fit and adventurous souls that we are, we continued up the sandy cone to the summit, where views were often completely obscured by the steam pouring out of various cracks in the mountaintop. But the crazy colors and rock formations resulting from sulphur deposits were also noted as "awesome."

The trip back down was much more crowded, as large groups of climbers were gathered near the lava flows. Many American tourists clambered out on the still-cooling lava, often just a few feet away from fresh flows, apparently unaware that in a Guatemalan National Park, unlike Yellowstone, there may not be a sign saying "CAUTION: DO NOT TOUCH BURNING LAVA," or even a fence to protect people from their own curiosity. The Americans were not unique in their foolishness. The majority of the crowd was Guatemalan, and they were doing the same stuff. But your correspondant, who moonlights as an ever-vigilant Vice Consul and Third Secretary, couldn't help but distinguish the two: none of the Guatemalans were going to require Embassy emergency assistance when their five-year-old fell in a stream of burning lava.

A lot of the Guatemalans seemed to be making a day of the short hike, which was a pleasure to see. There really aren't very many safe outdoor spaces in this country, so it appeared that many families were enjoying the safety of the crowds to get outdoors for a day. On the way down, we passed people carrying all manner of things up the mountain. In addition to a couple women wearing flip-flops and carrying babes-in-arms, we saw people hauling up picnic items like plastic grocery bags full of supplies, two-liter bottles of pepsi, and a boom-box blasting out some unidentified soft-rock tune from the '80s in the vein of Jefferson Starship. Those were topped by vendors carrying up baskets of tortillas, pre-made platters with chicken and rice, and one entrepreneur carrying fifty or so bags of cotton candy for sale. Just when we thought we had seen it all, we saw two women carrying between them a platter of souvenir plates reading "Volcan Pacaya" and each bearing what was presumably an actual rock from the mountain. I didn't have the heart to tell them that there were already plenty of rocks on top of the mountain, but I assume they already knew that because they had clearly been up before to carry these very rocks down in order to glue them to the little plates. Even if the letigiousness that would lead to more warning signage isn't present yet, the Guatemalans are surprisigly ahead of us in presenting National Park visitors with convenient consumer opportunities.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


Yesterday was Guatemala City's Saint Day holiday. I don't know who the patron saint is. There didn't seem to be much revelry in the streets -- it was a pretty relaxed holiday. The important factor in yesterday's observance is that it was on a Tuesday, which is the one day a week that Sylvia comes by. She didn't come this week. This place is a disaster. I have totally forgotten how to operate a broom, let alone the dishwasher. The kitchen floor has a noticeable level of grime. The laundry is piling up -- I had no choice but to wear my 8th most favorite pair of underwear today, which I had totally forgotten existed after going to a steady seven-day rotation. My world is falling apart around me. Why does everything have to be so difficult? Why does fate mock me so?

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Your job may suck...

But at least you don't have to carry a table around on your head.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

My Day in Court

Your correspondent's current daytime assignment is supporting American citizens who run into trouble here in the Land of Eternal Spring. Mostly, that means replacing passports for long-term residents or those who are pickpocketed or careless. Sometimes it involves more serious trouble, like those who wind up in jail, or worse.

I was recently sent in the role of moral support for an American who was testifying in a murder trial. He had been here once before, but the Guatemalan court wouldn't let him testify because his passport only had one last name on it. Now he was back to suffer through more legalistic wrangling and questioning in what was clearly not his primary language. Because I was there in an official capacity, I probably shouldn't comment on any more details of the case, or present any opinions on the fairness or efficiency of the Guatemalan legal system that could be in variance with the official opinion of the United States. Ahem.

Stating the pure objective facts, it was interesting to see the less-than-imposing courtroom they used, which was your basic plaster-and-flourescent-light office space, with a panel of theree judges, and two lawyers each for the prosecution and the defense each sitting at what looked like 1970's-era standard issue government desks. The lawyers sat on opposite sides of the judges, facing their opponents. The really stylish touch was the sign behind each team of lawyers -- one reading "defensa" and the other reading "Ministerio Publico" (the Guatemalan version of the attorney general's office) -- printed by dot-matrix printer on 8 1/2" x 11" inkjet paper, held to the wall with strapping tape with the glue leeching a yellow cast into the paper, and each bearing it's own Powerpoint-style clip art of a group of men in suits (presumably lawyers). On the Clip-art for the Defense, some long-gone grafitti artist had darkened in the glasses of one of the lawyers, giving their team a certain bad-ass flair.

The event was extremely well documented, with a photographer and reporter there from every newspaper and TV station. They took a few pictures of the accused, and a lot more of the young witness, striking a blow for accurate reporting by thrusting their cameras within a couple feet of the subject's face, in case any of his pores or blackheads becomes a critical detail in the trial. Then they sat around, generally bored, while the judges debated points of procedure, and the prosecution asked a series of background questions. They sprung back into action in unison when the judges announced the decision on allowing the young man to testify even though his passport only had three of the required four names on it (they decided to provisionally allow him to testify for now, but if they could not provide further documentation of his identity soon, the testimony would be disregarded). And when the prosecution asked particularly pivotal questions, the cameras would start snapping, as if the picture of the witness responding to an important question would be substantially different than the hundred other pictures of him they already had.

Several of the key witnesses "could not be located," so the prosecution was given another date in two weeks to get them to turn up, so there was no resolution on this day. So the report will have to end there, possibly to be continued, but given the circumstances, probably not.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

We Are About to Begin Our Final Descent

If you thought that we could sink no lower after joining the ranks of SUV owners, think again.

There are certain hardships involved with living far away from one's family, in a strange culture, in a city with a crime rate so high that it makes Detroit look like Dekatur. But when one's cheif complaint about his living situation is that the apartment is so big he can't keep up with sweeping the floors, one can't help but start counting the days until he fully embodies the charicature of the pampered ex-patriate sipping cocktails and complaining about how hard it is to find good help.

To ease the terrible burden of sweeping our own gargantuan apartment (or more accurately, the burden of walking around with blackened feet because we haven't bothered to sweep the layer of settled diesel particulate and volcanic ash off our floor in a week (and further to avoid looking at the grime on our feet and thinking about how that stuff winds up on our floor because it's so prevalent in the air we breathe every day)), we hired a maid. Sylvia comes by once a week, and we pay her a ridiculously small amount to spend a whole day cleaning our kitchens and watering our plants, doing laundry and breathing the toxic fumes of the solvents used to clean a whole bottle of purple nail polish (not mine) off the bathroom floor. And yet if you told the Guatemalan families who live above and below us what we pay Sylvia, they would either pity us for getting suckered into such a terrible deal, or scorn us for driving up wages for the whole neighborhood. Or both. Not unlike the SUV, we wound up hiring Sylvia because one of our colleagues who had formerly employed her was departing. He recommended her highly and we almost felt responsible for what would happen to her without income every Tuesday, and there was that quarter inch of soot lining every flat surface in our apartment, so you can see we really had no choice.

I think we were the only couple in the entire Embassy that didn't have a maid yet. Some families with small children have a full-time nanny plus a maid and maybe a gardener, as well. In fact, fairly often someone either from the embassy or the outside world would want to come by to do some maintenance on the apartment, and ask when someone would be around to let them in. We would reply that we both work, and can't take time off to come hang out and wait for the cable guy, to which they would explain, "You don't have to be there, the maid can let us in." When we revealed that we didn't have a maid, we would get a look of confusion, and then the service provider would just give up, which is why we've been "borrowing" wireless internet from the neighbors for longer than I should probably admit in this public forum.

Now we've had a one-day-a-week maid for several weeks. It does feel like we're living someone else's life. At first, it grated on our American sense of rugged individualism and our distrust of snobbery and noblesse oblige and the Coastal Liberal Elites Who Are Tearing Our Country Away from the Heartland Values that Made Us Great. But it is effing awesome to come home on Tuesdays and have the house spotless and the laundry folded and the dishes done. And to spend all those hours that could have been wasted on sweeping instead on composing a thousand-word blog entry about not sweeping, or other such productive pursuits.

It is, at times, a little weird to find all of the pants, both male and female, mixed in one stack on the Lovely Katherine's side of the closet; or that rather than our fluffy neutral-colored bath towels, the bathroom has been restocked with ratty rainbow-colored beach towels and a golf towel that says "Fox Hill Country Club;" or that we're still not sure where she decided the measuring cups are stored, so your correspondent just figures a coffee mug must be about one cup and wings it at least until we hire a cook. But do not misconstrue such notes as greivances. At least in your correspondent's mind, he has not yet crossed the at-least-internally-important line between hiring help and complaining about it -- I figure we have to maintain some milestones for the second year of our descent.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Another boring church

The facade of the church in San Andres Xecul, a small town outside of Quetzaltenango. Fortunately there wasn't direct sunlight on it or our eyes might have been permanently damaged.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

A Superhero for Our Times

Enemies of fried food beware -- Super Pollo is packing a machete! Once he works out the opposable thumb, you're in real trouble!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

On the Road Again

We enjoyed a cleverly constructed almost-four-day weekend a few days ago. Friday, June 30 was Army Day or War Day or Tank Day or something. On Thursday, the American People needed me in Sololá, near Lake Atitlán, a couple hours away from Guatemala City. So, I went and conducted the business I had at the Sololá jail (which, like most modern prisons, is practically indistinguishable from a country club) on Thursday morning and then took the afternoon off.

Equipped, as we were, with our new and insufficiently tested mini-SUV, we declared, "Screw the rain and the mudslides." The Highlands were calling our names. We checked to make sure none of the roads we were planning to travel were closed at the particular moment, and after a stroll through Sololá, continued West to Quetzaltenango.

Quetzaltenango, also known as Xela, is Guatemala's second city. It's a fair sight nicer than Guatemala City, with an actual Indian restaurant and an attractive downtown. We enjoyed a quick meal and then headed for Zunil, a small town that's supposed to have a pretty church and their own version of the local idol Maximón. As we passed through Almolonga, another tiny town on the way, we spied ferris wheels over the rooftops, and screeched to a halt to check it out. It must have been the town's annual fair, as the streets were packed with midway games and amusement park rides. We saw a dance performance featuring costumed characters, a performance by Guatemala's most famous modern marimba band, and the candle- and neon-lit church. We also played a quick couple games of Lotería, a bingo game for players of all education levels that uses pictures instead of letters and numbers on the grid. The Lovely Katherine, being a master of all bingo-related games, promptly won the second game. She was awarded a prize of five drinking glasses decorated with a daffodil pattern. She denied that she had attempted to throw the game, and passed on her prize to a young volunteer who had aided her in avoiding some obvious strategic blunders when her victory drew near.

The next day we enjoyed a luxurious breakfast in an almost American-quality coffee shop, and then plotted a course through Huehuetenango for Todos Santos Cuchumatan. Todos Santos is on the far side of a precipitous climb up the mountainside from Huehue, and then a dirt road back down the other side. It is a tiny town in a gorgeous valley, and draws a modest but disproportionate number of tourists because the men as well as the women still dress in their traditional colorful garb. The place couldn't have been more picturesque, nor the residents more tired of having their picture taken. One highlight was a dinner in a tiny comedor, where we ate fried chicken and were joined at the dinner table by one of the main course's survivors.

The weekend had been a smashing success, and wasn't over yet. We went back south along the highway and then turned east to climb another pretty mountain ridge and arrive in Momostenango, which we selected because they supposedly make the finest blankets in Guatemala, and it's a funny place name, to boot. We pulled into Momostenango at about 3:00 on Saturday. At about 3:15, we decided to spend another evening in Xela, and then back to Guatemala the next day, figuring that having a fantastic time at two of our three intended destinations would have to be enough for one trip.

[Photo department note: Due to the new camera, the photo department is taking more pictures than ever, and spending more time than ever trying to edit them. These photos were grabbed for the purpose of illustration, actually carefully selected photos coming soon.]

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

In which we surrender

The Lovely Katherine and your correspondent have a long-running disagreement as to whether we live in "the suburbs" or not. In a political sense, we live well within the boundaries of Guatemala City. In an aesthetic sense, there's not much in terms of street-level retail, pedestrian infrastructure, or other markers of true urban living in our neighborhood. In a criminal sense, some not-too-distant neighbors were recently followed into their garage by armed goons and tied up while their jewelry and electronics were stolen, which seems pretty urban to me. (Note to worried relatives: we live in an apartment building with security features that would make such a robbery attempt much more difficult, and thus extraordinarily rare.) In the end, it doesn't matter whether we classify as "suburban" or not, and I keep up the semantic fight just because my inner urban hipster is screaming about the implications of living in the suburbs: that we're old and have had all our rough edges sanded off.

But it's impossible to fight the facts any more. Katherine works at a school a few miles north of the city proper (but decidedly not suburban), and the last bit of her daily commute is on a dirt road that gets pretty treacherous during the rainy season. We also do a fair amount of bumping around the precipitous, unmarked speed bumps and domestic-appliance-sized potholes of Guatemala's highways and small towns. Which is all rationalization, powerless to stop the pure cold facts of our yuppie-dom:

We bought an SUV.

It's a small SUV, but an SUV nonetheless. A departing embassy employee was trying to unload his Kia Sportage before moving back to DC. The car does not meet US emissions standards (and also has windows tinted well past what seems reasonable, but I'm not sure if they would be technically street-legal in the US or not), so keeping it wasn't an option for him, and he was in a mood to sell. I don't suffer any illusions that a Kia Sportage is a particularly manly SUV (especially if you pronounce it in the French manner - "sport-AAAHJ"), it just seemed like a smart purchase in terms of safety. Of course, I'm sure that's just what you would hear from my SUV owning brethren, cruising the highways of America in their Expeditions and Yukons and Hummers.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Trapped in Guate

Our normally frenetic pace of Central American exploration has ground to a halt of late. In part, we've seen everything that's easy to see on a two-day weekend trip. But return visits or slightly more ambitious expeditions have been stymied by harsh reminders that we are in the developing world. Most of the major roads out of town have suffered either derrumbes (landslides onto and blocking the road) or hundimientos (landslides out from under the road, often taking a good chunk of the road with it).

Tropical Storm Stan (also alternately known as Hurricane Stan, because it sounds better though it may or may not be technically accurate) caused many of these roads to wash out, and the Guatemalans responded with an aggressive chewing-gum-and-duct-tape campaign to patch the roads up. Being fair, there's just no money in the coffer to do much else. Be that as it may, it's not surprising that one month of the six-month-long rainy season has already washed away most of their jury-rigged repairs so much as it's surprising that the repairs lasted this long to begin with.

In any case, there is still plenty to be seen, we'll just have to refocus our efforts on the pleasures of the more immediate region.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Big ups to the family

About six weeks ago, I gave up on the visa interviewing bit. Or rather, I rotated into the American Citizen Services section. "What the hell does that mean?" I can hear you asking. Mostly it means that instead of doing interviews to see if Guatemalans qualify for visas, I do interviews to see if purported Americans qualify for passports. This breaks into three types of interviews:

1. Obvious gringos who got pickpocketed or robbed while on vacation, and need a new passport to get home. These interviews are easy and boring.
2. Ex-pats who may look like gringos or may be of mostly Guatemalan blood in for routine renewals. These interviews are easy and boring.
3. Kids ranging from age two to age eighteen claiming that they were born in the US when their parents were there illegally, and then they were sent off to live with Grandma in Guatemala when they were a few months old and now they want a US passport for the first time. These interviews are nearly impossible.

The other part of the job is being on call at all hours in case any American is arrested, hospitalized, victimized, or killed. The two big cases I've had to work on so far have been gentlemen with various forms of mental illness who have been living on the streets of Guatemala for an unknown period of time, and now need help getting back to the US.

(Little known fact for US Citizen readers: if you are destitute in a foreign country, your government will pay to send you home. Until doing the training for consular work, it never would have occurred to me if I completely ran out of money to go to the Embassy and ask for a ticket home. A lot of folks apparently have no such mental barriers, and come in asking for money until they realize that we're going to call their mommy first, then loan them money and cancel their passport for further adventures.)

These gentlemen were true hard-luck cases, and the worst part was that they had nobody in the world who would help them. We contacted each of their parents, none of whom were willing to provide any assistance in bringing their kids home. I guess I was hoping for a somewhat higher level of diplomacy then trying to get mom and son to patch things up when I signed up for this gig. Anyway, a big thanks to all the folks back home who would spot me airfare to get home if I fell and hit my head on the sidewalk in Guatemala, which is sadly not something everyone can count on.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Appropriate Force

Today I felt like a true diplomat. Or was it a cop? I represented our country in formally signing the papers to accept custody of a guy who was being extradited from Guatemala to the United States. The handover happened in a room probably no bigger than 12 feet on a side, which turned out to hold at least nine Guatemalan National Police carrying automatic weapons, wearing helmets, with faces covered, as if there might be a riot in the airport. These nine heavily armed guys, plus a couple of my fellow bureacrats, handed over the prisoner to the US, represented by me and two Deputy US Marshals who were dressed like they were going to the beach. I guess the beach attire made them inconspicuous on the airplane, to whatever extent you can blend in when you're leading around a guy in handcuffs.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

In Which We Are Stung by Plants, Accosted by Spiders, and Peed on by Monkeys

Your correspondent has, at various times, described visits to ancient ruins as having a certain "Indiana Jones" flair, whether because of daunting travels to get there or the overgrown remnants of long-lost cultures discovered in the jungle. Over the Memorial Day weekend, your correspodent and three trusted companions undertook an adventure, more Indiana-Jones-y than any previous: A three-day trek through the jungle from two less-known ruin sites to Tikal. Or, at least, the Yaxha and Nakum ruins were formerly in a logjam tie for last among the non-Tikal ruins of Guatemala's northern jungle. Then they were the setting for the Guatemala installment of the runaway CBS hit and bug-eating-for-fun-and-profit extravaganza that is "Survivor." The jungle trek was fantastic, but we did discover almost instantly that if you are scouting locations for appropriately large and disgusting bugs to make people eat, Guatemala's Peten region is not a bad spot.

On Friday evening we flew from Guatemala City to Flores, a charming town on an island in a lake and the base camp for many trips to Tikal, where we stayed the night. The next morning, as we searched for breakfast, we discovered many of the sidewalks to be covered with inch-and-a-half-long beetles that looked to have been washed off the rooves above by the night's rain, although the locals had not acheived concensus on where they had actually come from. Having already seen the required exotic creepy-crawlies and had not set out from civilization yet, but decided to soldier on anyway.

The guide service we had hired picked us up at 8:00, looked at our packs, and gently reminded us that we would have to carry our own packs on the third day because the packhorses could not take that part of the trail. Again we soldiered on, taking a mini-bus to the Yaxha ruins, an hour or so outside of Flores on the road to Belize. We were met by Joel (in Spanish, "HO-el") who would be leading us through the jungle for the next few days. Joel was about 5'6", totally ripped, with veins bulging out of his neck, home-made tattoos on his arms, and sporting a bandanna and a handlebar mustache. He looked more than a little like a pirate. Joel had previously been a xatero, i.e. he made a living hacking his way through the jungle collecting xate leaves, which are used in flower arranging. Currently, xateros make about $5 for a 12-hour day of work.

We took a brief tour of the Yaxha ruins, and took in the view of the lake from the restored temple. I really felt the spirit of "Survivor" in me at that moment. Like much of the Peten, Yaxha is home to howler monkeys (which don't howl so much as the growl like angry pack of dogs) and leaf-cutter ants (which cut huge (well, huge for ants) trails from their anthills to their latest victim).

That afternoon we hiked 10 miles or so -- mostly through thick jungle. Joel carried a machete, which people do here just as a matter of course, but Joel actually used his on many occasions to hack open the path through the jungle. He said the last time anyone used this trail was about two months ago, allowing plenty of time for re-growth and for trees to fall onto the path.

We slept at the ruins of Nakum, which was a more compact site than Yaxha, with lots of trees growing on the old temples, but enough restored or still-exposed sections to make it feel like ruins and not just funny-shaped hills. One of the highest buildings had a tall tree growing off the top with rickety ladders leading up to jury-rigged observation platforms that allowed great views of the jungle and a bunch of wild parrots. (We also saw a couple wild toucans later in the trip, but the staff photographer was a little slow with the camera.)

Hacking through the jungle that day, we were attacked by at least two families of spider monkeys. Upon hearing people approaching, the spider monkeys start jumping up and down and shaking tree limbs to try to scare away potential attackers. They pursue this tactic for about a minute before they mix in throwing sticks and branches and urinating on anyone in range. They are well known to throw their poo, as well, but nobody in the party could confirm any poo-related injuries. On that day's hike, we brushed by some plants that instantly started burning and left huge welts on our arms, and a bug that our guide said had urine that burned as well. Apparently burning and peeing are the jungle's two defense mechanisms, and this bug had combined them into a kind of super-jungle-attack. We were careful to provide him no reason to use it.

Speaking of burning, there was no organized campsite the second night, so Joel cleared out a spot that someone had used before and "sanitized" it by setting palm fronds on fire and then sweeping them over the dirt. We slept in hammocks with a thankfully unnecessary tarp slung over us.

The last day quickly changed from the first two when we ran into a flooded spot in the trail, requiring hiking for a while though standing, and quite smelly, water. The muddy conditions continued, which allowed for spotting a number of turtles and tons of jaguar tracks, but also allowed us to spend hours of the trip clinging to the less-flooded high ground along the sides where the trail met the jungle, or hopping from foot-sized island to island along the trail in a kind of long, tiring version of Frogger. It was all worth it though when we saw the coolest piece of wildlife of the trip (well maybe second to the acid-peeing bug), a huge tarantula. It's body was even bigger than the three-inch cockroach we had seen a day before. Actually, we saw two tarantulas, the larger of which was hanging out on the only passable piece of the flooded trail, a slippery log. Your correspondent's arachnophobic companion impressed all parties by calmly stepping over the tarantula, which our guide unconvincingly promised was "more scared of us than we were of it."

After a hike that took a couple hours longer than promised due to the slogging and the island-hopping and such, we finally made it to Tikal. We were almost too tired to actually go see any of it, but as we always do, we soldiered on. It was a gorgeous day, much sunnier than the previous trip, with great views of and from the temples.

Thoroughly exhausted, we took the shuttle back to the Flores airport, ready to leave the giant cockroaches and giant spiders and giant beetles and mushrooms and such behind us. In their wake, we managed to keep a piece of the Peten with us: your correspondent was still finding ticks on his person two days after our return. (If anyone knows more than Google about whether there's Lyme Disease in Guatemala, feel free to Holla Back.)

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Genuine draft flavor

Those of you still looking for a reason to come to Guatemala can stop your search. Our most recent visitor and jumped right in to the local culture by having a delicious Gallo beer -- "the pride and tradition of Guatemala," it says right there on the bottle. We recently learned about one link in the chain that the Gallo brand uses to maintain its stranglehold on the Guatemalan market. They hold the Guatemalan copyright the names of virtually every other beer. So if Guinness or Bud wants import their products while maintaining their quite substantial brand, they have to give the Gallo company an apparently prohibitive cut of the profits. So, by and large, Gallo it is here, but fret not: Rob Onorato, who has had a beer or two, declared that Gallo tastes like "Nat(ural) Light -- but Natty Light from a keg, not from a can." Get the ad wizards working on that one!

Sadly for those of you in America who are don't get to enjoy the taste of Natty Light on tap as often as you would like, don't be fooled. Another Gallo company -- the one run by brothers Ernest and Julio -- holds the copyright for "Gallo" brand alcoholic beverages in the US, and prevents you from getting a bottle of Gallo properly labeled in the States. Rather, it is sold under the name "Famoso," so keep your eyes peeled. I've actually seen it at one of the liquor stores on 14th St NW in DC, although the sign next door promising fast wire transfers to Guatemala may have had something to do with that. It's not clear whether the Gallo company here learned this copyright skulduggery from the Gallos in the US, or if it was what the Guatemalans call "karmic payback."

Sunday, May 21, 2006

In non-Guatemalan news

The editorial staff tries to keep this journal focused on items that have some Guatemalan angle, in an effort to keep the content interesting for US audiences and distinguish the publication from the millions of "what I did today" blogs out there. Thus, the occasional large gaps in the publication schedule when nothing of uniquely Guatemalan import happens. This entry is an exception.

I scored 131 points on a single word in Scrabble last night, crushing my opponent's will to continue playing. Now I know how the Redskins felt in Super Bowl XXII. Feel free to "Holla Back" if you can top that -- I know it's possible, as there were no Q's or Z's in my word.

Friday, May 19, 2006

In which I impart my knowledge of the lively arts to the benighted locals

The Guatemalan print media offer a broad array of journalistic styles, appealing to various segments of the reading public. Just like Americans can choose between the lunchpail directness of the New York Post or the bourgie semi-sophistication of the New York Times, Guatemalans can choose between the near-New York Post-level sophistication of the Prensa Libre, or the sub-literate-level sophistication of Nuestro Diario and many options in between. It is left as an exercise for the reader to decide where the Holla falls on this scale. While the Prensa Libre tends to feature pictures of congressmen staring off camera in important hearings, the Diario tends to feature young women staring directly at camera in as little as possible. The common ground that unites them all is the evergreen of Guatemalan photojournalism, the picture of someone recently murdered in the street with a family member kneeling nearby, their grief made public for the country by the valiant free press.

In an effort to inspire the Guatemalan photo corps to stretch a little, the Embassy has started an annual contest for the local photogs, awarding prizes in a variety of categories. As an American who the Press Officer has spotted holding a camera before, your correspondent was invited to serve as a judge. After wading through and eliminating all the pictures of murder victims on the street, there were some excellent, striking pictures (and a few not-so-striking pictures) left. Considering that the camera used by a staff photographer at the Greeley Tribune is probably worth what the Pensa Libre photographers make in a year, plenty of slack was allowed on certain technical dimensions. But even in categories with titles like "Extraordinary Citizens," "This is My Country," or, "Teamwork," half the pictures were of dead people and mourning relatives, some more artfully shot than the others. Despite the subject matter, it was a bit odd to think that your correspondent, who routinely takes pictures like this, was judging the work of these dedicated professionals.

At the end of the evening, they announced winners by name and sometimes by title of the picture. Unfortunately, they didn't announce them by descriptive phrases like "The picture of the helicopter dropping aid to disaster victims," or "The one with the sunset and the fluffy clouds over the volcano," or "The portrait of the President of Guatemala and Ronald McDonald" (all actual pictures -- the last of which was a finalist in the "Extraordinary Citizens" category, by default), so this judge left the competition having no idea whether his opinions corresponded with those of the expert celebrity judge (a University of Texas journalism professor). The winners and their friends all seemed delighted with their prizes, and thus the event seemed to be having its desired effect for both the Embassy and the invitees, so it seemed for the best that I not shatter their illusions of competence in the majority of the judging pool.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


Today was the Annual Embassy Awards Ceremony. It was long, and lacked any edge-of-the-seat suspense, but it was a nice day to be outside and it was unanimously declared to be better than working. Because we're the government, and because Congress keeps telling us to do more stuff while tightening the pursestrings, none of the Guatemalan employees got a raise this year. So, in a backdoor effort to keep morale high, they give just about everybody some sort of award, ranging from recognition for 25 years of service to one full year of driving embassy vehicles without an accident (actually the latter is probably more impressive, given Guatemala traffic and the levels of incompetence required to be fired by the government). It seemed that everyone in the embassy shook the Ambassador's hand at some point today. You might think that the Special Olympics everyone-gets-an-award approach might limit their value in the eyes of the recipients, but it seems like mostly everyone likes to be told they're great and they can quickly forget that everyone else was great, too. Of course, my award was different, as I fully deserved a little recognition for all my hard work saving lives back when Hurricane Stan breezed through the country.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Of Our Attractive Balcony

Today at 9:00 in the morning, the young gent who works the front desk at our apartement building called to see if the guys who are painting our balcony could come up. Seeing as it was the first we'd ever heard of it, we had some further questions about what exactly they would be painting (the exterior wall) and whether they needed to come through our apartment (yes) and whether they were sure they needed to come through our apartment (still yes).

Yesterday, while sitting on our couch, I had seen the bottom half of a ladder dangling from above. Maybe I've lost my sense of childlike wonder for ridiculous workplace risks; I didn't even get up to investigate. Just as well: Today we witnessed their strategy firsthand. Two workers arrived, one tied himself into a harness, then tied himself to the ladder. The other guy secured a second rope to the ladder, which they then swung over the side of the balcony. The ladder -- not the rope. Non-harness guy wrapped the rope attached to the ladder around his foot a couple times and then stood on it to keep the ladder from falling any further. Then the other guy climbed down the suspended ladder and painted the outside of the balcony. I'm sure they were making about 15 bucks a day to take these kind of risks in service of a building that didn't seem to really be in that desparate need of painting. We drank our french-press coffee and ate garlic-and-tomato omelettes and watched.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Of Rotten Mango and Soaring Concrete

While multitudes of Guatemalans (et al) took the day off in protest in the US on Monday, that was standard practice here. Guatemala, like most countries, observes Commie Labor Day on May 1 with a national holiday. It was a perfect opportunity for your correspondent to tag along with some long-term visitors one last time. In this case, we all headed to lovely El Salvador.

Said long-term visitor spent a significant portion of her time working in a medical clinic near Lake Atitlan. She is just finishing up Med School, and is suffering the attendant crippling debt. In keeping with the budget of this financially insolvent do-gooder and her beau, your correspondent was forced to abandon the swim-up bars and turndown service to which he has grown accustomed on his seaside retreats. Instead, we crashed with a guy named “Chito.” The young doctor’s surfer beau had shared some gnarly waves with a dude up in California who owns some vaguely sea-side property near Sunzal beach, perhaps the finest beach in El Salvador. His caretaker: Chito; which is really not that odd a Spanish name, other than that it is homonymous with a famous American snack treat, for which we cannot find it in our hearts to blame Chito himself.

In any case, the place, it turns out, was not a private residence, but open for public rental of rooms. The grounds were filled with piles of rotting mangos (at one point, one of our party asked at a little store to purchase mangos, which are actually not for sale because everyone has a mango tree in their yard that drops more mangos than any family could eat, so there’s no market for them. This was expressed by the shopkeeper casting a bewildered gaze up at the trees and making a motion that seemed to express “mangos everywhere!”) In any case, the mix of free-range chickens, rotting fruit, and less-than-enthusiastically cleaned/maintained bathroom facilities gave the place a distinctive aroma. The rooms were concrete cells with two single beds, a rotting wooden table, and a circa-1958 fan. Both Chito and his lovely companion Marta had promised a “four-minute” walk to the beach, while neglecting to mention the trash-strewn path one followed to get there. While the price for these accommodations was reasonable, it was not quite equal enough to zero to make your correspondent anticipate a return trip; once was enough to relive the kind of bargain-basement suffering that 19-year-old backpackers would honor as a badge of authenticity of experience.

This could not detract from the fact that Sunzal is a fine beach, with water of ideal temperature and waves that are big enough to be fun but not so big as to make you seriously think you’re going to die as the toss you about and then pull you under.

In a more exploratory vein on Sunday, your correspondent and his team ventured to the fish market in La Libertad, then on to San Salvador, the capitol of our neighbor to the south, which is generally, and accurately described as “like Guatemala City, but smaller.” They have a nice Cathedral, which the prior archbishop suspended construction of in order to spend the money on poverty alleviation; when he was assassinated, they honored his memory by resuming construction of the Cathedral. It’s nice enough, but the crowning irony is that it is far outdone by the 1964 concrete architecture of El Rosario, a church a mere two blocks away, built of two giant concrete arches with the space between filled almost entirely with stained glass. It is certainly the most interesting and perhaps the most beautiful church your correspondent is familiar with, in no small part because of it’s non-traditional construction.

Also in San Salvador, we cruised by the Official Statue of El Salvador: "El Salvador del Mundo", ate delicious pupusas and beer in the downtown market, bargained for hammocks, and bought a produce section worth of veggies including the mysterious mami (which is like a mix between an avocado and a sweet potato).

The remainder of the day was spent in power-failure darkness in a serious thunderstorm in a beachfront restaurant. The following day was spent in vain search of sea caves, which even if we found would have surely been occupied by young lovers seeking a little solitude from the labor day beach scene in Majahual, El Salvador.

In all, the weekend was a grand success, and has precluded the necessity of any further trips to San Salvador or further evenings in sub-backpacker-hostel level accomodations, at least until we meet a guy named "Dorito."