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."