Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Of Washington

Our remote correspondent is checking in from Washington to apologize to any dedicated readers who have been ceaselessly looking for their regular Holla fix of late. After the epic posts on recent exploits, much of the staff has been enjoying some much deserved R-and-R in America. Were the editorial board around, they would surely have corrected that to read "much needed training in Washington, DC," but the skeleton crew currently available is letting it slide. Full details to follow on the joys of Thai food, beer with flavor, and the peculiar sensation of feeling like one can let one's guard down for a couple weeks by going to the murder capital of the United States.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Of our triumphant return to Lago Atitlan

Extra! Extra! Special mid-day edition of the Holla as I sit at home running through Kleenex like it was going out of style. The Sudafed I took was supposedly "non-drowsy," so I may even stay awake through the production of another epic missive. Readers are advised to find their own solution for staying awake while reading it.

Originally, we had planned to take our first visitors (of those who were not obliged by blood relation to visit) to Costa Rica, in search of cloud forests and resplendent quetzals. But for the cost of a ninety-minute flight in Central America, you could fly from DC to San Francisco back home. And why were we in such a hurry to get these people out of the Land of Eternal Spring, anyway? Through the highly recommended power of Skype, we agreed with our guests that Lake Atitlan would be a just fine destination for a few days of Guatemala-centric fun.

We stayed at the Casa del Mundo, or "House of the World," which might not live up to it's billing, but not for lack of effort. It was built by a guy from Alaska, of all places, and his Guatemalan wife. Accomodations are a series of cabins sprinkled through gardens and paths up the steep slopes surrounding the lake. Climbing to the towering heights of Cabin 12 was a serious workout a few times a day. Connecting back to the hippie burnout tradition of Lake Atitlan, dinners at Casa del Mundo are served family-style at one big table, and one of the primary attactions is a wood-fired hot tub that, much to our disappointment, does not actually feature a giant bonfire underneath a cauldron-shaped tub, but rather a little watertight, rectangular wood-burning stove in the center of a 12-person tub.

Other than hanging out by the lake, which is nothing to sniff at, and kayaking, which we forced upon our unwary guests, there's not a whole lot to do at Casa del Mundo, since it isn't attached to a town. On Sunday we took a series of lanchas (Spanish for "Dangerously overcrowded motorboats") to get to Santiago Atitlan. This gave us a chance to get to know some of the adoptive locals, a bunch of hippie characters who came to Atitlan to get in touch with the earth or something in 1972 and never left, and apparently have to shuttle back to the main town to get pot every once in a while. At least we weren't paddling home-made canoes, as the local fishermen do. Sunday is market day in Atitlan, which is not quite a Chichicastenango-style regional event, but still offered plenty of opportunities to buy veggies, plastic toys, native crafts, and, of course, ice cream. At one point, we contributed to the local economy by paying an opportunistic vendor more to take a picture of her goods than it would have cost to buy them outright, take them home, and then take pictures of them there. We quickly quit asking before snapping pictures of inanimate objects.

While several of its neighbors around the lake have been completely transformed by the change that lake-loving tourists bring, Santiago Atitlan has held on to some elements of tradition. While indigenous women all over continue to wear their traditional traje, in Santiago, one still spots many men wearing their traditional white, striped, and sometimes embroidered, pants.

The town suffered many tragedies during the civil war, and a memorial in the beautiful and simple church commemorates a massacre of locals (and of an American priest who had harbored them in his church) by the Guatemalan Army that some see as a turning point in public perceptions of the Army's activities. I don't have the details to write intelligently at length about the events there, but it was powerful to see such a forceful reminder of how the Church has actually been a force for good every now and again.

In a slightly different role for the Catholic Church in Guatemala, many places in the highlands have mixed Catholic and indigenous religious traditions with some level of impunity. I'm sure the Church is not thrilled to know that many highlanders still pray to Maximón, an idol representing a blend of Christian saints, Judas, and indigenous Mayan gods, depending on the source; many present conflicting stories on his origin. What is known with certainty is that Maximón loves cigars, and he loves liquor: A religious figure we can all aspire to emulate. After some agressive bargaining with the pre-pubescent touts who were merciless in their pestering when we arrived in Santiago, but who were more interested in playing soccer when we were actually looking for a guide, we paid a local boy Q5 to show us to Maximón's current home. The secret location is not listed in guidebooks because the honor of hosting him rotates annually between members of the Board of Directors of Maximón Industries, LLC, in what is assumed to be some sort of decades-old power-sharing agreement. The current home is decked out in streamers and the floor covered with candle wax. We walked in on two guys kneeling on woven mats before Maximón, praying in a mix of Spanish and Tzutujil, one of at least 23 Mayan languages still spoken in Guatemala. The other gringo in the room offered Maximón some cigars. Your correspondent felt bad that we had neglected to bring either smokes or rotgut, so he simply paid something like three times the suggested offering. Your correspondent felt a slightly less bad once he saw "Maximón" enjoying shots of the offerings of cheap rum through the body of his guards/priests/representatives in the room, who in some cases looked to have served as vessels for Maximón's vice-loving spirit for a good portion of the day.

On the way back to Guatemala City, we swung through Antigua, strolling the cobblestone streets and visiting the Church of San Francisco, where pilgrims ask for assistance from Hermano Pedro de Betancourt, lighting candles and leaving plaques in gratitude. Inside was another tribute to another slain Catholic Priest who had been a little too helpful with the poor people for the Guatemalan Army's taste back in the 1980's. Still feeling a little moved, we bought some candles outside and lit one on the table outside, which was technically Hermano Pedro's table, but being a Saint and all, I'm sure he'll share.

Monday, January 16, 2006

No Logo

The tension between the photo editor and the features editor here on the sixth floor of the Holla offices occasionally threatens to bring the whole enterprise crashing down. The photo department wants the staff writers to add sentences solely to link to favorite photos, to which the features editor points out that the text is bloated and filled with run-on sentences as it is. Rather than add a paragraph about gas stations in the previous post, the senior editor decided to add this tack-on entry.

The photo department thinks this is the best picture the staff photographer took in Nicaragua. Its masterful composition and evocative lighting aside, the subject matter is kind of mundane at first, until you realize that there is absolutely no advertising anywhere at this gas station. Or at least, that's what the photo editor claims. Maybe the petroleum-industry chemical engineers in the crowd are looking at which model of petrol-delivery technology they use on remote Nicaraguan islands.

A little country that starts with an "N" and ends with and "a" and in the middle is "icaragu"

Gazing back into the mists of time... it's been fully two weeks since we went to Nicaragua. But this newspaper feels a civic duty to document these final few steps as Katherine closes in on every traveler's goal of visiting as many countries as she has spent years on the planet. (If we collect all seven Central American countries by the time we leave, she'll have it with one to spare. Nicaragua is number four of the seven. Once she hits 30 countries during her 30th year, she wins a free liter of the local watery lager at the flea-ridden Hostel International of her choice (Offer not valid in CA).)

We wound up going to Nicaragua mostly because Copa Airlines was running a big fare sale for New Year's, but the flights to Costa Rica and Panama were booked. We went ahead and bought tickets first, then checked the guidebook to see if there is actually anything to do in Nicaragua. Thankfully, there is.

Throwing around our American dollars as time was the more precious resource, we took a taxi from the Managua airport all the way to Granada. Not to be confused with the tiny island we liberated in 1983, Granada is Nicaragua's take on the "charming colonial town near scenic volcanos" genre which Antigua Guatemala has perfected. No shame in second place for Granada, though: It's got beautiful old convents and churches, a great main plaza for strolling in, a local delicacy made of spiced cabbage and pork rinds served on a banana leaf, and if that wasn't enough, it adds a lake the size of El Salvador to the mix.

We had two main tasks there: First on the slate was kayaking around the small islands that resulted from some long-ago volcanic eruption. Lake Nicaragua is big enough to develop some serious waves (and to support freshwater sharks!), but in the still water of the many inlets, a swamp -- almost a charicature of a swamp -- has developed. The water is completely covered in small floating plant life; the sensation was of kayaking across a carpet rather than a lake. There were gnarled trees shooting off roots and branches in every direction, creatively formatted flowers, and tiny jumping fish that one could catch just by putting a hand at the surface of the water and waiting for one to jump on. On slightly less protected islands, we saw an agressive spider monkey who made your faithful correspondant wish his rabies shots were up-to-date, more birds, and a fort that was built back when French pirates would sail up the river, into the lake, and sack Granada. Avast, ye lubbers!

The second adventure took us to Ometepe, the volcanic island in the middle of the lake. After dutifully avoiding them in Guatemala for months due to safety concerns, we took the "chicken bus" to San Jorge, where we could catch the ferry to the island. "Chicken bus" is the term used for the school buses that American school districts have deemed unsafe, which are then auctioned off, driven to Central America, repainted in gaudy colors, and then put in service on inter-city routes at far beyond capacity, blaring latin pop songs, leaving a wake of detritus and debris as people throw the trash from snacks sold on board out the windows, packed to bursting with people, market goods, and every now and again, the namesake chickens. To complete the experience, we each had a bottle of soda served in a plastic sandwich bag with a straw. (The seller can't give away the bottle with the soda, or they would lose the deposit.) I admit it: taking a "When in Rome" attitude, I threw my plastic baggie out the window. I'm not proud of it. I just got swept up in the latin flavor. On behalf of America, I apologize.

After the bus and another taxi ride, we took the ferry to Moyogalpa, the town on Ometepe island, and with Jesus's help, arrived safely. New Year's Eve was deciedly low key, as we sat in a near-empty bar enjoying the floor show of five-year-olds enraptured by sparklers and the musical accompaniment of max-volume American music videos on DVD, which transitioned over the course of the evening from the gangsta rap of Jay-Z and 50 Cent to the epic rock of Guns 'n' Roses' "November Rain" to several songs of 80's pop like A-Ha and the Bangles, and eventually, inexplicably, to 110 decibels of easy-listening AM Gold, like that one song that goes "Loving you/Is easy 'cause you're beautiful / Doo do do do doooo, oooh AAAAAAAAHHHHHH!" We were in bed by ten.

While that may have been an adventure in itself, the Official Adventure was climbing Volcan Concepcion, which juts out of the middle of the lake and rises to 1610 meters (almost exactly one mile) in altitude. In a venerable tradition that those accustomed to hiking in US National Parks may find peculiar, the "trail" went basically straight up the side of the mountain, with no apparent course-setting -- it was a deer path that enough people had walked up, or enough rain had run down, to clear a line through the jungle. About halfway up, the jungle suddenly ended, and we scrambled up jagged volcanic rock and diabolically placed scree. Once we got out of the jungle, we experienced the climate zones of fog, mist, cloud, rain inside of misty cloud, and innumerable others. Our guide, a typically lean young Nicaraguan, and the other tourist climbers that day, two surfer dudes from California, more or less ran up the mountain, periodically waiting for us to huff along a few minutes behind them. After four hours of climbing with nary a switchback, the guide declared it too dangerous to go any further. We felt a little cheated, until the guide explained that the top was really only 20 meters away and that you couldn't see anything there anyway, because the prevailing climate zone there was "dense cloud with fog and mist," and that the muddy ash at the very top was truly too slippery to climb. We weren't going to tempt any kind of "Into Thin Air" situation; we declared victory, snapped a photo of us sopping wet at the summit (of which all copies have been destroyed at Katherine's request and the Holla photo editor's enthusiastic assent), and began to pick our way down the scree fields. All injuries sustained were minor.

Eventually, the clouds parted briefly, presenting some disorienting views. Being on the very evenly sloped side of the mountain, then suddenly seeing farmland straight ahead surrounded by lake water the same flat gray as the sky, making the shore line look like a horizon line, can make one's head spin for just a moment. [As can run-on sentences with too many commas, which we hope to limit in the future. -ed.] Much to our guide's frustration, we stopped and enjoyed the only good views of the day before descending the rest of the way.

In an unusual twist, one of the surfer dudes was wearing fashionably low-cut socks, and could barely walk by the time he got down to the bottom; the backs of his ankles were rubbed completely raw. At which point we were informed that the bus that would take us the three miles back to the village wouldn't be running that day. Yet surfer dude was resistant to pay a couple bucks to get a ride in the back of a pickup. Ah, the budget-savvy backpacking world! We laughed and laughed. By that evening, our quads were so sore that we couldn't walk for three days, and this correspondent had to shuffle his way around the office even slower than is normally dictated by his role as a government bureaucrat, while the guy with the anklet socks was probably already out Surfing Nicaragua with some band-aids on his ankles.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Lo Llevo Dentro (I carry it inside)

I am not so snobby that I'll claim I don't eat fast food. I am snobby enough to say I only eat at McDonald's or Burger King under unusual circumstances, but I don't pretend that take-out chinese is way better just because the local hole-in-the-wall isn't part of a big heartless multi-national corporation. But since going to fast-food restaurants is not part of our general routine, we have managed to miss out on one of the great success stories of Guatemalan capitalism.

This past week, though, our efforts to truly understand the spirit of the Guatemalan people, and to show our guests the heart of Guatemala, we made our first visit to Pollo Campero ("Country Chicken"). Much to the embarrassment of The Lovely Katherine, who prefers a more incognito form of sociological research, even in the most ridiculous of establisments, the staff photographer for the Holla went along to document the experience.

By lore, there are something like nine families that own 99% of Guatemala. Perhaps seven of these families accept this burden with some humility. For the other two, a little more self-promotion is in order. The Castillo family owns Gallo, the beer monopoly, and has rented ad space on every other flat surface in the country. The Gutierrez family owns Pollo Campero, which demands less advertising space because there is always an actual Campero restaurant in sight at any location in Guatemala. This chain of fried-chicken restaurants is a source of national pride in Guatemala, as it has conquered much of Central America, and is even making inroads in heavily Latino markets in the U.S. Stories abound of flights to America that smell like chicken because every Guatemalan in L.A. asks relatives to bring a bucket of Campero when they visit.

This is kind of baffling to an outsider and fried-chicken dilettante such as your correspondent, who could not tell Campero from KFC if his life depended on it. The verdict? Campero is tasty, as is any food that primarily consists of hot grease. (How tasty it might be after the five-hour flight from Guatemala to Los Angeles remains a topic for further research.) While the food may not transcend American standards, and the decor is decidedly utilitarian, the service is clearly be the selling point here. The restaurant we went to featured table service, including a waitress who was thoroughly baffled by our incompetence, as demonstrated by ordering a la carte even though the combo meals are much more economical. While McDonald's employees will always ask if you want to SuperSize your meal, I have never seen one who seemed concerned for the well-being of any customer who declined. Campero also kindly served our sodas free of parasite-laden ice without even being asked to, despite the common knowledge that the profit margin is much higher if you fill the cup with ice first. (It remains unclear if this is standard or if it was a special favor because they could tell we were influential gringos. We may have to ask the Holla restaurant reviewer to start dining in disguise.)

In all, it was certainly a worthwhile cultural experience, but at a price -- the digestive effort it demanded limited our further explorations for the day to a little stroll around the central park. We tried to get the health-food Yin to the fast-food Yang later that day by going to a place that bills itself (in English) as a "Ambia -- A New Age Restaurant." But it turns out they mostly serve paninis and tortilla soup, which won't be winning the Weight-Watchers seal of approval, either. Exactly what was "New Age" about a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich remains unknown, but it is clear that prospects of Ambia expanding into Houston and Chicago are dim for now.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

From Guatemala to Guatepeor

First and foremost, the editorial board would like to apologize for the lack of recent content. Other priorities have been getting in the way of our production schedule: Holidays, travel, guests, the usual suspects.

So this post has dual purposes. First, clear your schedule next week for updates on trips to Nicaragua, our return to Atitlan, and further delving into Guatemalan culture.

Second, mostly as a means to expand this beyond the scope of a mere promise of things to come, a work-related note... An applicant for a visa to visit the United States today told me that he really wanted to go to the US to visit Greeley, Colorado. That is not a typo. He had a brother that lives there, and wanted to visit him and get to know his nephews. I asked this poor, sad man who for some reason wanted to escape Guatemala only to show up in Greeley, if his brother had described Greeley for him. He declined to answer, which was probably wise, because an honest opinion would have only led to more questions about his motive for travel. I might have even approved the visa on sentimental grounds, if the guy hadn't been previously deported, by the Denver office of DHS, implying that maybe he already knew Greeley and actually wanted to go back, leading to questions about his sanity.

(Special note to the people of Greeley: Sorry. I kid because I care.)

Tuesday, January 03, 2006


Hello. Sorry, but I felt it wise to remove this post, which once featured short descriptions of one consular case that was a rewarding experience, and one case where the law was clear but not able to solve everyone's problems. My goal was never to participate in any kind of policy debate here. That toothpaste may be out of the tube already, but I guess it's a better move to take it down than to leave it in its original form for context's sake.