Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Supply and Demand

Other than the multitude of armed guards outside, shopping for food in the tony Zone 14 neighborhood where most embassy employees live is not so terribly different from the United States. In fact, a large stake in the local grocer was recently acquired by those champions of local color, Wal-Mart. As such, reader requests for a report on what grocery shopping is like have gone unfulfilled; partly because the editors are not quite sure if there are enough differences to make it worth writing (or reading) about.

But yesterday, unbelievably, shockingly, disconcertingly, the grocery store was not carrying bananas. Not that there was a big empty spot on the shelf where some early bird had already grabbed the last of the day's banana shipment. There just weren't any that day. This is the second such occurrence -- once was a fluke, but now we're on to something. Not being able to get bananas in the store in Guatemala is like going Wisconsin and finding out that they're out of cheese. It's like going to France and hearing there's no wine for sale that day. It's like going to Baltimore and not being able to find heroin.

Your correspondent has personally been in Guatemalan locales where all one could see for miles in every direction was bananas. Among the ubiquitous ambulatory shopping alternatives at any traffic jam in the city is a guy carrying around a bunch of bananas, hoping someone stopped at a light will buy a snack. Not five miles away there's a whole store dedicated solely to bananas! How can the same logistical machine that somehow makes it possible to get shrimp every day in the middle of the mountains be incapable of driving a few blocks to pick up some bananas? Something is afoot. This publication will not rest until the conspiracy is fully uncovered.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Photo department extravaganza

With a little help from Scott and Michelle, the photo departement (fairly) recently had the long-dormant film from the ancient 35mm camera developed. This camera has a lens far superior to that of the pocket digital camera, and as a result is called into action for more artsy pictures. The photo editor has scanned a selection of the better pictures in order to do some cropping and tweaking and, of course, to share them with the reading public. If you've got a few minutes, take a look.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Dry Season

Another long weekend, another far-flung corner of Guatemala conquered by your intrepid correspondent. We've been all over the South of the country and even into Honduras and El Salvador. Aside from the tourist center of Tikal, we had yet to see much of the North -- the rugged highlands and deepest jungles, the places where nature still rules and the indiginous culture is as alive today as it was 500 years ago. Unfortunately, the North is far away and dangerous, so we settled for the Middle.

We went to Cobán, henceforth known as "Coban" because I'm more than happy to sacrifice accuracy to save keystrokes. (Also note that Coban is not the same as Copan, or even Copán, which longtime readers may recall from some months ago, and even those of us here have a hard time not saying the wrong one when asked where we're going for the weekend.) The center of the country draws visitors for its natural wonders, and while Coban is not much of a town, it is the best base for exploration of the surrounding states of Alta Verapaz and Baja Verapaz. The names Upper True Peace and Lower True Peace were coined after the local contingent of Maya proved a little more than the Spanish conquistadores bargained for, not having a city to beseige while waiting for Smallpox to work its magic. So eventually the Spaniards got angry and brought out the real heavy artillery; i.e., they put down the guns and sent in the missionaries. The locals were eventually converted, and then all the short histories skip forward to the inexorably result of the local Mayans living under colonial rule all the same. However that worked out, the Spanish could not take away the region's nice rivers and caves and what-have-you.

Eventually we did make it, after some effort which will be recounted in due course, to Lanquin, a tiny town in the misty hills billed as having the cleanest bathroom in the region. While some availed themselves of that attraction, I briefly wandered around and took a few pictures and got the standard "what the hell are you taking a picture of?" looks from the locals. The circus was in town, but a boy informed me that the show only happens at night. I didn't mind, because Guatemalan clowns are a fixture at every stoplight in the city, juggling for spare change. More importantly, they are even creepier than American clowns.

From there we plunged into the Lanquin caves, which open from a small entryway into vast chambers, at times a hundred feet high, filled with stalactites and stalagmites and various formations named after animals. Some of them were aptly named, some required a little more imagination on the part of the viewer.

On Sunday we tried to go to what is supposedly an amazing orchid nursery. It was closed. That kind of thing just happens without too much explanation here. Maybe they were at the church, or outside at one of the many altars that are also the site of your occasional Mayan chicken sacrifice. We wound up spending a little more time in Coban, which was validated when we found one of the better pieces of signage we've seen in Guatemala. Not clear if the chickens you can buy come with little bindle-sticks or not.

Our final day of the long weekend, we went to the Ram Tzul lodge in the Biotopo El Quetzal, a nature reserve that is supposedly one of the last places in the country where you can see a quetzal, the national bird for which Guatemala's currency is named, and which appears on the Guatemalan flag, passport, manhole covers, parking tickets, &c. &c. &c. It rained the whole time we were there, leaving us generally cooped up in our room staring out the window or wandering up to the lodge to warm up by the fire. We were limited to only a short 40-minute hike, where I'm fairly certain I saw a quetzal, although my companion, showing her lack of connection with nature or perhaps just a lack of imagination, insists it was just a clump of dead leaves.

Our first night in town we had contented ourselves with admiring the many relics and antiques and flora of the courtyard at our hotel, and hit the sack early in anticipation of our tour to the aforementioned Natural Wonders. Normally we are not inclined to join guided tours, especially in that one of the primary joys of living here is that we can explore the country at our own pace and under our own steam. However, we had been warned that the road to Semuc Champey was nearly impassable for a small car such as ours, even though the Sentra has bumped its way over terrain ten times worse than anything 95% of all Hummers have ever seen. So we decided to take a tour and ride in a better-suited vehicle, or at least one on which we wouldn't have to pay to replace anything that fell off along the way.

The tour started with light fluffy pancakes. Then we were packed into a small van and taken three hours away over admittedly terrible roads to Semuc Champey, a series of brilliant green pools and mini-waterfalls in a deep river valley. In fact, the limestone pools are all a natural bridge, and most of the river passes under it. One of our fellow travelers asked the park guide if we could go under the bridge, as some guidebooks suggest is possible. The guide said we could not; it was too dangerous. Knowing that no activity in Guatemala is ever disallowed because it is "too dangerous," I breifly contemplated interrogating the guide to find the real answer, but decided my Q'ekchi was not up to the task. As it began to rain, we took a brief dip in the suprisingly non-bone-chilling pools, then took shelter from the rain as we enjoyed cookies with centers of "pineapple jelly" and boarded the van to head to the Lanquin Caves.

The Toyota Hi-Ace that was saving our little Nissan from the admittedly terrible and now rain-slickened roads was not, in fact, designed for off-road activity. In fact, its surprising that it made it over some of the more aggressive home-made speed bumps in town. At the first steep stretch of road coming back from the river, the Hi-Ace made a valiant charge but faltered, fishtailing on the slippery rocks. The natural Guatemalan solution was to slowly back down the hill and make another charge, to similar results. People got out of the van, ready for a long wait. "No tenga pena," (roughly, "don't worry") said the driver. Then to try with the presumably heavier gentlemen sitting over the rear wheels, each time fishtailing toward the slope dropping off to the left of the road, the view notably unencumbered by any kind of guard rail. Eventually, the ballast became unhappy with the situation, and began to express concern. "No tenga pena," replied the driver. He paid one of the local onlookers who had gathered for what must have been one of the more impressive spectacles to hit their curve in the road in some time to go get some cal (quicklime) to sprinkle on the road. I guess trucks struggling up the grade is not so rare, as the tiendacita at the bottom of the hill had plastic bags of quicklime ready to go. It is entirely unclear whether the quicklime had any effect. We made a few more runs up the hill, always fishtailing at the same spot, where I would lean a few inches in toward the center of the van, as if while rolling down the side of a hill in a van without a seatbelt on, being a few inches farther from the window was going to save my life.

Not to worry, because soon Don Alfonso, the driver, had a new plan: We would simply wait for a four-wheel drive vehicle to come by and tow us up the hill. Should we try to contact the tour office back in Coban? "No tenga pena." We would call them after we tried getting a tow from a passing car. Should we maybe try to actively find someone nearby with a truck? "No tenga pena." He drives the road often and he knows that a red pickup will be coming by at some point nd that they probably have a chain they can use to tow us. After saying "No tenga pena" for what must have been the thousandth time, we convinced him that waiting was not really an effective plan for getting home any time today, which we felt was something of a priority. He relented and told us to get in the van, we would go back down the hill to find someone who could tow us. Once we were in, of course, he couldn't resist trying one more aw-what-the-hell run up the hill. And, surprisingly, we made it farther than we had before. Now he was enlisting locals to buy more quicklime and to run out and push the van when it foundered. He wanted us to push, too, and though we were reluctant to push a van that seemed likely to start sliding back down the hill onto us, I calculated that this risk was actually smaller than the risk of crashing when going back down the hill and making another run up. So we pushed, and, miracle of miracles, got the bus up the last few yards to the top of the hill. As their reward, the local boys who had helped push all climbed on top of the van as we barreled over bumpy terrain at maximum speed in hopes of not stalling out on the next hill. Lucky them. For our part, we spent the rest of the trip contemplating whether our trusty Nissan was actually any less well equipped for the roads than the Toyota Hi-Ace.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Staffing Changes

Dear reader:

We know there are a lot of blogs out there. Really too many, actually. We here at the Guatemala Holla appreciate your readership, and strive to provide you with a certain standard of quality in whatever exactly it is we do here. It is with that in mind that we have sacked our copy editor. We hope to find one soon who knows the difference between "its" and "it's," one can spell "correspondent," and, if we're lucky, one who could walk us through the whole "who" versus "whom" thing one more time. Please bear with us through this difficult time.


The Editors

Thursday, February 16, 2006

State Department as Contraceptive

Far harder than adjusting to living in a foreign culture and the constant violence and the different language is the true challenge of the Foreign Service for your correspondant: Dealing with the fact that there are only so many Americans with whom to socialize and that most of them have toddlers. Apparently Guatemala has an excellent International School, and so many of those burdened by children are eager to come here. We try to adjust by doing adult-style entertaining -- dinner parties and the like -- and we have people cancel on us because the sitter didn't show up. Why go abroad if you're going to be stuck staying at home with the rugrats every night? You could do that in Poughkeepsie! Perhaps our next maneuver will be accompanying some toddler-laden colleagues on a trip to Guatemala's version of Disneyland, which the kids will enjoy, and we will find hilarious once appropriately liquored up.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Tropics, After All

It has been unusually cold of late. While your correspondant cannot actually report what February in Guatemala is supposed to be like, having not lived one before, we are in the tropics after all, and some members of the embassy community are a bit bummed by the non-tropical temperatures. The Guatemalans are taking it particularly hard, as they wander the streets wearing fur-lined parkas and stocking caps (really), perhaps slightly under-dressed for an expedition to the North Pole, but definitely ready for another day where the overnight low dips dangerously near 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

The cold weather is hardest of all on those who can least protect themselves, and those interested in escaping the chill seek the warm indoors. Your correspondant was awakened from the warmth of his down comforter last night at 2:00 in the morning by an unusual pinch on his wrist. His harrowing story may not be appropriate for readers under 13 or the otherwise faint of heart:

It was a small but firm pinch on my wrist, sending a sharp pain up my arm. Even as I awoke I was shaking my wrist to wrench it out of the grip of the assailant. I looked down and could make out in the darkness a writhing form which I instinctively took a swipe at, knocking the intruder onto the floor. I turned on the light and saw my adversary, a creature who may have simply been trying to get away from the cold of the outdoors, but nonetheless was one of the creepier looking bugs I have had the misfortune to see. While the staff photographer was not available, this composite sketch presents one artist's rendering of the horrible, black, fuzzy beast. I warned my wife to avert her gaze, lest the creature upset her delicate temperament. (Once I donned my glasses and could be certain it was not a spider, I allowed her a brief glimpse of the spectacle of such a cursed being.) Leaping into action while my adversary remained stunned, I grabbed a shoe and prepared to pounce. My wife, as so often does the fairer sex in their ignorance of combat, begged me to spare the life of the wretched thing, at least insofar as it would cause a great mess on our much-admired hardwood floors. Estimating there to be at least a pint of cold blood in the beast, I admitted that discretion is the better part of valor, and instead presented the now-ambulatory beast with a magazine. Being vicious but none-too-bright, the creature fell for the ruse. He charged straight at me and directly onto the Year-in-Review issue of Blender. The game was clearly won, and I grabbed the magazine and held it out the window. I admit that in a moment of masochism, I savored the victory for a moment and bid the invader to contemplate his defeat before inverting the magazine and allowing the foul wretch to plummet to the street, six stories below.

The next morning, no remains of the creature were found on the sidwalk or street, which only confirms the fact that this was some variety of other-worldly opponent -- an undead caterpillar who may yet return to haunt our bedchamber when next the temperature drops to 51 degrees.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Home again

After a glorious two weeks back "home" in the States, your correspondent is now back "home" in Guatemala and ready as ever to share all variety of wisdom with the reading public. It's a bit funny to think of Guatemala as home, but I suppose home is wherever the government puts your bed. Maybe if we were stuck somewhere sleeping on a government bed for two years, it would never feel like home; it would just feel like two years in a hotel.

The District of Columbia and its nearby Virginia neighbors was not a bad place to be for a couple weeks. Although many good friends there are scattering like the place was going out of style [point of information: DC never was in style - ed], it was great to see everyone who was still around. Among the other delights of our nation's capital:
  • Thai food, Ethiopian food, Japanese food, &c. &c., up to the Indian food I had the night before my departure, which I ate despite the waiter's warning that it was "extremely spicy." Unlike most restaurant spiciness warnings, which are like the proverbial boy crying wolf, this one was accurate.
  • Beer with actual hops.
  • Almost Guatemala-like temperatures in the 50's for the whole week.
  • Two indie-rock shows at the Black Cat, including Oakland stalwarts Deerhoof, who were preceded by a Laurie-Anderson-meets-Fame performance art/dance ensemble and a bunch of crummy experimental animation films, which were a pleasant surprise even if I wouldn't have gone to see them by choice; and the best band to start making records in the last few years, the Hold Steady.
  • Finding renewed amusement in Americans walking around with cell-phone earpieces in and thinking they're talking to themselves, which you just don't see down here.
  • Having to come up with a list like this of "things that I miss about the U.S." for everyone who asked about it. Not to say that I don't find the U.S. my most favorite country in the world, but there's just not that much stuff that I feel homesick for. Which you wouldn't be able to tell from the extra 50 pounds of crap I brought back to Guate, but really, it's true. I suppose I ought to have a list of "little things" about the US that I missed, but nothing ever sprung to mind. It's nice to be able to reasonably expect that a restaurant will have almost everything on their menu at any given moment. It's nice to be able to take public transportation and not fear for one's life. That's pretty good. It's nice to feel like I'll realize if I'm saying something stupid or committing some social blunder, which I'm always on the precipice of in Guatemala, and never sure that I'll notice when I fall off.
  • The deliberate pace of life one can enjoy while "in training." Despite being obliged to pay attention and not do crosswords during class, there is only so much burden of responsibility one can suffer in a classroom environment.
Now I'm back in Guatemala, where the responsibility level at work is slightly higher. I managed to not completely forget Spanish while I was in Washington, so at least I can say with certainty that the training didn't make me any worse off.