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.

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