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.

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