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.