Archive for August, 2008

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August 31

August 31, 2008

Be thankful for this epistle, because it comes to you only by virtue of the interruption of a thoroughly entertaining late night conversation, as the rain hisses down around us, under our cabana, sitting on logs and rocks with our tent pitched haphazardly on the concrete slab.

We attempted to wake late this morning, but our best intentions were laid waste by the restless noise of tourists departing for sunrise trips to the ruins of Tikal from half past three in the morning onwards. So by seven o’clock we were both tossing and turning, and by eight we were awake and pondering the day with bleary eyes. Max had clogged sinuses from the dusty bedclothes, and our somewhat airless room was heating up far faster than the world outside.

We showered in turns while the clips to “U Can’t Touch This” and “The Final Countdown” played on some nostalgic Spanish music video programme. Stop. Hammer time! With the obvious side note: God, that man had stupid pants. And god, Europe had really stupid hair. We’d decided to have a cheap breakfast at the cheapest most dependable-looking place we could find, but unfortunately instead of a hearty, reliable comedor frequented by locals, we found a lousy comedor frequented by very few tourists and zero locals. Our breakfasts were missing half their stated ingredients and overall the experience was tres whatever.

It was our good fortune not to need to really get moving for hours – we’d booked transport to Tikal at two thirty in the afternoon. So we were able to get back to the hotel and swap our stuff around at ease, shrinking the baggage we needed to carry out the door down to just the red FILA gym-bag and one of our daypacks. Our rucksacks we could store at Dona Goya’s reception until our projected return tomorrow.

On the television, the Guatemalan “El Clasico” of football was in full swing with Municipale taking on Comunidades in Guate City, and up and down the cobbled street hotel-boys were glued to their TVs. We returned to our hotel room and while Max went upstairs to the rooftop terrace to lounge in a hammock, I worked on a diary entry. On the TV, a terrible movie called “St Ralph” told the story of a Catholic schoolboy finishing second in the Boston Marathon in an attempt to cure his comatose mother.

I met Max upstairs shortly afterward, and we lounged while reading books we’d exchanged at the hotel, some Pratchett or other and a Sarah Walters (author of Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith), a historical novel set around WWII and like Walters’ other novels, featuring an all gay cast of characters.

Realising that we needed to check out of the room by one o’clock, we shifted our bags to reception, then popped out, and in walking up and down buying provisions for Tikal, we also had an icecream, and stopped at a net cafe to print some vital maps and information. By now it was practically time to go, so we ended up waiting in the front corridor of Dona Goya for our lift to arrive.

The minivan showed up forty-five minutes later than scheduled, just as I was beginning to consider walking to San Juan Travel to ask them what was going on. It was a creaky old thing with a gearbox that was shot to hell, and aside from the driver we shared it with only one other tourist, a Peruvian woman.

The trip to Tikal was mostly uneventful and uninteresting, although in light of recent events we were mildly amused when the driver and the Peruvian had a relaxed argument concerning her ticket en route, as he asked her intently whether she’d paid both to go and come back (she had, but it wasn’t written on the ticket). After an hour or so, we arrived at the park entrance, but it was a further twenty kilometres to the beginnings of the archaeological site itself.

A fair amount of conferring with the driver occurred post-arrival, as we established when we could run home tomorrow, how and when to pay the entry fee, whether or not we needed a guide to visit all or part of the ruins, and where to camp. In the end, we opted for the government-run main campsite, which was not only fairly cheap but came with decent cabanas for shelter and a nice clean toilet block.

Whenever Max and I camp, the location and disposition of our tent is always a hotly debated topic, and this time we spent perhaps twenty minutes deciding: whether it should be under the pavilion, out in the open on high ground, or on concrete under one of the cabanas, and whether or not we needed to pitch the flysheet.

As we searched for an appropriate site, a horde of well-kempt wild turkeys and peacocks wandered past on the sward of the campground, and overhead pizotes and some species of monkey cavorted in the canopy of the surrounding forest, whilst some striking orange-beaked, yellow-tailed birds flitted from branch to branch chased by a squirrel of some unknown species. There’s some impressive mojo in the local jungles.

Knowing that evening rain was practically guaranteed, we finally opted to set up under one of the thatched, open-sided, concrete-floored cabanas, anchoring the tent with a collection of medium-sized rocks instead of tent pegs. As I type, and the rain continues to fall, I’m quite certain it was the correct decision, and will neatly save us from the dilemma of a soaked, mold-vulnerable tent in the morning.

As soon as the tent was set up, we began to feel rather pleased with ourselves. Fulfilling the basic competencies that are requisite to camping can be a great boost to morale. We set off to pay the camp guardian Enrique, work out how to get our Tikal tickets, buy water and so forth. At the ticket control station, we found a guy who could give us enough change to pay Enrique, and also bought entrance tickets which will still be valid tomorrow. As I sorted through the details, a group of toucans, both male and female, came through the shrubs around the station, and Max pursued them with our camera.

We entered Tikal as the sun was setting, and made it as far as the so-called “Group F”, but thunder nearby, ominous-looking clouds, and the fading light led us to beat a hasty retreat to the campground, via a shop where we picked up much-needed water. As the light died for good, we struggled to put new batteries in our torch, unable to work out which terminals needed to be positive and negative for quite some time in the dark. Then we set ourselves up for a scrap dinner – nacho mini-tortillas dipped in cream cheese and “ranchero” tomato salsa. Not nutritious in the slightest, but both cheap and filling, and together with a bottle of dodgy red wine we’d picked up earlier in the day, highly conducive to a relaxed atmosphere.

As the rain picked up, lightning periodically lit the night sky almost as bright as daylight. Some form of firebug flitted in the trees around the campground, sparking with lights deceptively similar to those you might see on a passing Boeing jet. We talked for a couple of hours, and then, what with our plan to rise before dawn tomorrow, turned in, crawling into the tent pursued by a small cloud of light-seeking flying critters.

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August 30

August 30, 2008

We spent a brief night in a dorm in Casablanca, being woken at 4am by a group of people leaving, and waking everyone else at 6am as we left. After such a difficult day yeaterday, today was suprisingly straightforward. We walked straight to the bus terminal in the early morning, dropped our bags on the right bus and got some breakfast at the bus station comedor. Unfortunately, the carne we ordered turned out to be beef tongue (with the tastebuds still attached), and not much of it actually reached my stomach, so breakfast was a little light for me and extra big for Tom, who is far less squeamish than me.

Our morning bus to Sayaxche had lavender coloured seats, and was practically empty for most of the four and a half hour ride, so was an excellent opportunity to catch up on sleep from our early morning. We chanched buses once we arrived, to a much more beat-up minivan, then sat at a river crossing for half an hour waiting for the mysteriously immobile car ferry. While waiting we experimented with snocones, first ordering some rather icky lemon flavoured ones that were spiced with salt and some unknown brown muck, then a slightly more successful strawberry syrup. The heat was intense, so we were quite happy when the ferry finally budged and we jumped cue to drive on. The ride got a little packed, then thinned out dramatically, and by the time we reached Flores Tom and I were both fast asleep and had to be woken by the bus guy.

I was expecting Flores to be the typical sort of town near a major tourist draw- dirty and mismanaged from having been built too quickly- but it’s actually a beautiful little spot. The town takes up the whole of a very small island in the middle of a lake, which is connected to the mainland by a four hundred metre causeway. The streets are clean and neatly cobbled, and the buildings are painted a handful of colours that remind me of the sea. The island is effectively one hill, and in the middle, built on the highground, is the central parque and church.

Tom sat on a street corner and minded the bags while I went hotel shopping, eventually deciding on a funky three-storey place with a roof terrace. We spent a bit of time catching some sitcoms in our spacious double room, before heading out to have a look around. Our look didn’t get us very far, however, as we noticed the “happy hour 4-7pm” sign attached to a promising-looking roof top bar across the road and, at three minutes to four, decided we might have a liquid lunch. The place was very nice, with raw pine tables, some high stools and some ludicrously coloured and funkily shaped armless vinyl couches. We chose a tangerine-coloured couch looking out over the water, and settled on a cheescake and panacotta to accompany our margaritas. After a couple of rounds of mushack (me for 18, then Tom for 14, though he’ll tell you it’s fourteen thousand and objects to the publication of mushack scores in blog posts) we ordered a mojito each, and watched a marching band pass noisily but nonchalantly by on the street. Random street-based entertainment seems to be happening a lot in this part of the world. After our last drink I destroyed Tom at another round of mushack, taking the game for 27, or something equally ridiculous.

Though delayed on our looking, we did eventually complete our mission, making a circuit of the island shortly after our drinks. The southern shore has been nicely developed into a boardwalk and was very pleasant to stroll along. We popped in to a tour agency and bought bus tickets to Tikal (which apparently it’s not possible to get to by public transport) and have decided to camp the night there tomorrow, which should be awesome. We finished the night off with some hanging about in the town square, which was pumping on a Saturday night with a speaker system, dance floor and scattering of comedors selling cheap burritos. Kids were letting off very loud firecrackers on the front porch of the church while we bought and ate two such burritos, then caught the end of a local four-on-four soccer game played on a basketball court.

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August 29

August 29, 2008

The bony German guy with hair like Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ just came into the dormitory and asked me if I needed the light, and I said “no”, so now I’m quietly typing in blackness illuminated only by the little LCD of this notebook.

The title of the story of this day could well be: “Screw You, Obnoxious Circumstance. In Your Face!” At one point this morning a siege mentality was beginning to creep in, as your heroes (i.e. us) were beleaguered by a seemingly limitless range of petty obstructions that looked set to completely derail our plans, even to render pointless the whole fact of being in Lanquin at all, but we eventually rose up and trounced them, and felt good about it.

My eyes snapped open at twenty to seven this morning, well before the alarm was set, and I lay awake in bed for nearly an hour before we got moving. Yesterday there had been some “confusion” regarding our travel arrangements to and from Lanquin. We’d been quite clearly and neatly sold a ticket to and fro for a certain price by a company called Maya’ch Expeditions, and on the ticket it said “to and from Lanquin, X amount paid for two people”. But our tour operators decided to insist that we’d only paid for one direction, and needed to double our contribution, despite our polite, but somewhat strained suggestions that they look at their own ticket.

This morning, we needed to find some way of booking in for the trip home this afternoon, so after taking breakfast a few metres up the road at a friendly cafe-cum-bakery with Neil Young playing on a laptop in the front room, we walked back down to wait for the Maya’ch minivan to make its morning pass, scheduled for somewhere around nine o’clock. As we waited, several local trucks made off for Semuc Champey, our destination for the day: we were being thwarted and delayed.

At nine fifteen, Maya’ch still weren’t around, so I decided to call. The shop across the road that hires out its telephone didn’t have a working telephone, so I walked up into town to find another place. I ended up making the local call at the slightly outrageous price of Q2 / minute, and paying the equivalent of about $3. The call itself was excruciating, as in my battered Spanish I tried to make a reservation for the afternoon whilst the unsympathetic office lady on the other end repeated, again and again, that we had only paid one direction, whilst I said things like “it’s not fair!” and “but we’ve paid – your reseller told us himself, quite clearly, what the price was, and wrote it on the ticket!”. All I could extract from her in the end was a time for the return trip in the afternoon: three o’clock.

As I walked back to find Max, who I’d left waiting for Maya’ch near the hotel Rabin Itzam, I saw yet another vanload of tourists and locals setting off for Semuc Champey – another missed opportunity. I then saw the Maya’ch van coming up the road and jogged down to meet it, as Max rose up from her perch on the side of the road to do likewise. The story was still the same – they claimed we would have to pay again – but they agreed to let us “talk it out” with Gonzalo at Posada Don Pedro who’d sold us the ticket, and to take us back to Coban at five o’clock.

Armed with a time and some sort of assurance we’d be able to get away in the afternoon, we could head off to Champey. Cue further inconvenience! The trucks to Semuc Champey, of which we’d seen four or so just in the last hour, had dried up for the time being and supposedly – according to a spruiker for Eco Hotel by the road – there wasn’t another scheduled until one o’clock. We might have to walk the ten kilometres to get there. Passing up beyond the cafe-cum-bakery again, the handy owner advised us not to walk: “it’s very steep, and takes three to four hours in the heat”, and that we should continue to wait, but in a different place as “they will always give you wrong information” concerning local transport. Following his instructions, we walked up through town to a fork in the road, and then a little further, and began a stakeout for trucks heading towards Champey.

After sitting ourselves down by the side of the road, two local boys who looked about ten or eleven, came up and introduced themselves. They were obviously used to deriving entertainment from hassling gringos passing through, and began to crack jokes about our Spanish and ask us for English translations of key phrases such as “Que chica uapa!” (“What a hot girl!”) and “Es un ladron sucio” (“He’s a dirty thief”). One of them had a replica Magnum revolver, complete with functional-looking safety and loading action, that could fire from a magazine of little pebbles he was picking up off the road. The type of toy that would definitely be illegal in Australia, and Max didn’t like it much when we waved it at us!

It was bizarre – beneath the veneer of amusement there was some kind of edge to proceedings. Listening to them try to pronounce the word “thief” (“sheef”, “feef”, “zheef”) was amusing, but it also seemed thoroughly plausible that they were thieves, and so I kept a weather eye on our possessions. Meanwhile, Max used a black pen to inscribe the word “THIEF” on both their arms, partly so they’d remember it, and partly to entertain herself.

The kids’ names were Julio (Iglesias, naturally) and Che (Guevara, of course). Che complained he hadn’t eaten for too long and I suggested he should stick up the tienda over the road with his replica pistol.

No trucks were appearing, and Julio and Che started trying to convince us we should walk to Champey, claiming that it only took an hour and a half to get there. Frankly, it takes a fair pace to walk ten kilometres in an hour and a half on the flat, so I didn’t believe them. But we were at a loss so we began to entertain the idea. Perhaps we could walk there. We began to walk up the trail, but as we passed a group of older guys in T-shirts and baseball hats, one called out with a smile “Con cuidad! Los dos son ladrones!” (“Take care, they’re both thieves”) and suddenly we had second thoughts. It seemed plausible, just then, that we might be being set up to be robbed, if not by the diminutive Julio and Che, then perhaps by some guy they would tip off. Our book said that tourists have been robbed at gunpoint on the road to Champey before, so perhaps the whole notion wasn’t ridiculous.

It was all a bit creepy. Since morning, the hotel staff had been standoffish and unfriendly, the tour operators had been rude on the phone and uncooperative in person, the spruiker on the street had lied to us about transport, the phone rental guy had scammed us for at least twice the usual price of a call, and now we were being plagued by a couple of Puckish wannabe thugs who might, or might not, be trying to steal all our stuff. We were projecting all sorts of evil conspiracy theories on the locals by this stage, and were thoroughly dispirited by the thought we might never get to Semuc Champey at all, nullifying the whole two day stay in Lanquin.

We tried to shake the kids off and walked back up the road to the fork, where we grabbed a couple of drinks from a little shelter with plastic tables and chairs. We asked a chap sitting there whether there were trucks to Champey, and he said there should be one in about half an hour, and that he was waiting for it. So we sat, and waited. Across the road were a line of obsolescent arcade machines (King of Fighters was the most popular title) behind a throng of the local kids, and we could see Julio and Che standing there, periodically looking over our shoulders to see if we were still around. Were we being trailed?

Fifteen minutes later, a Coban—Lanquin signed minibus pulled up, and we stood up to ask the driver if he was heading on to Champey. But before we could negotiate a price, Julio and Che ran to the driver’s side window and whispered in his ear. He turned to us with a smile and said “dos cientos cincuenta” — about $40 for a ten kilometre lift – so we left it alone. Over the road, we could see those two kids giggling mercilessly at our frustration.

But then, the real collectivo arrived, and despite more price interference from Julio and Che, we were on it with ten or so of the locals, and had only been set up to pay a little more than the regular price. We were going to damn well get there! We could taste the relief as we realised that we hadn’t been wasting our time, and I turned and said to Max “you know, if we get there this afternoon, and we get back to Coban tonight without having to pay double for the bus, it’ll be pretty sweet.” She agreed.

The trip to Champey took half an hour in the minivan, winding up and down a series of gruelling forested hills in low gear on a rough, unsealed road, with the usual regular stops to take on and drop off passengers: farmer’s wives with staple foods wrapped in woven blankets balanced on their heads and bright-eyed, quiet kids in tow, and hard-looking men with machetes and cowboy hats. There was no way we could’ve walked it in an hour and a half.

On arrival, we coughed up our entry fees, and were directed by the guardian of the ticket booth to take the lower trail past “las pozas”, which I think means “the ponds”. There had been money spent here, and the park area at Champey had good signage and well-constructed boardwalks on the trails. A sign thanked the US government for its generous aid.

It was a short walk before we began to see the terraced pools and waterfalls that make the place famous. A series of clear, green ellipsoid reservoirs staggered down the deep valley lined with thick forests, interspersed with gentle, low curtains of falling water. Tourists of all shapes and sizes could be seen at points up and down the way, swimming in the pools and sunning themselves on the rocky outcrops. Beneath the calcified rock formations, the thunder of an underground river could be heard, and its waters re-emerged at the base of it all.

We spent the next hour or two swimming and walking around the pools, taking little dips in a few different places. I threw myself off one of the smaller waterfalls a few times, as the pools were quite deep – most drew over two metres. Higher up, local kids, including our nemeses Julio and Che, were climbing a muddy hillside, then out onto an overhanging branch from which they would dangle four metres above the water before dropping in. They were also hanging around the bags of all the tourists quite a bit, but we were comforted in that regard by the presence of a largish contingent of black-suited “tourist police” (with mandatory semi-automatic rifles). These guys seemed to know what they were about, and were keeping a careful eye on all of the kids.

We dried ourselves off and went to explore further. At the top of the pool formations was the real waterfall, a massive torrent of water falling from the precipitous forest wall above, and shooting at a hundred kilometres an hour into an underground channel about three or four metres across. I don’t think anyone could’ve taken a kayak in there and survived, and the noise of the churning white water was intense.

We then found a sign saying “MIRADOR” pointing up the hillside, and climbed for twenty minutes up a steep, difficult path to try to get a view, before we realised we would be in danger of missing our return bus if we continued. Turning back, we walked briskly down and to the park entrance, and on our way passed a wooden map showing the route to the lookout and stating “Time: 1.5 hours, Difficulty: difficult” — so it was a good thing we hadn’t persisted.

With great good fortune, we arrived at the entrance just as the publico was taking off, and were able to get back to Lanquin for the real price, a mere half of what we’d paid to get to Champey on the way. By now, it finally felt as if the cards were falling for us. Back in town, we snacked and had a couple of awesome “chocomilk” licuados, and then decided that it would be a good idea to wait for the tour company bus a little early, because if they happened to head back to Coban ahead of time they wouldn’t scruple to abandon us in Lanquin. We were both slightly dreading “talking it out” with Gonzalo at Posada Don Pedro, as we suspected he wouldn’t be keen to admit that he’d made a mistake, let alone deliberately misled us.

As we sat outside the busted-up Maya’ch tourist office with our bags, a public service to Coban passed by, and the bus-boy offered us a return trip for Q30 each – half what Maya’ch were claiming to be their going rate. It would’ve been a convenient ride, but we decided to stick to our guns, and turned them down.

A couple of lads came by and opened up the Maya’ch office, and after inspecting our ticket (and humourously, finding nothing wanting) one of them drove us up to Las Grutas de Lanquin to meet the tour bus, which was waiting there while the one-day tour group visited the caves. We reacquainted ourselves with the drivers, who loaded our bags, then abandoned us for a few minutes in the van, leaving us feeling slightly uneasy, but I think they’d only gone to get fuel.

After a half an hour wait, the other tourists emerged, and we were on our way back to Coban. Max and I had a vigorous conversation with a German guy (who naturally had excellent English – are there any Germans who don’t, I wonder?) about world travel, and with an American girl who was keen to mouth off about how terrible the US government is.

One by one, the other tourists were dropped at their hotels, and now it was our turn to deal with matters at Posada Don Pedro. Unfortunately, the whole thing turned into a bit of a farce. Senor Gonzalo flatly refused to admit he’d sold us a ticket at half price “by accident”, even though I had the carbon copy and could show him the words “two people to go and come back, all paid” in his own handwriting. After I’d said “but it’s true” and he said “are you accusing me of lying?” two or three times, he said I was an empty-headed idiot, and I decided we might as well just bugger off. So we picked up our bags, apologised in roundabout way to the Maya’ch driver (who claimed he’d have “problems with his records back at the office”, although given the minivan was half-empty anyway, I can’t see how we were causing them to make a loss), and walked up the road shaking our heads. We were both a little upset that instead of trying to negotiate some kind of halfway deal in good faith, Gonzalo had just gone for the difficulty three arse-covering exercise.

But in any case, a full five minutes later, we had dorm beds at Casablanca, a reputable-looking place on the main plaza of Coban which had been recommended to us on the trip back by another of the Maya’ch tour group. To put the whole tedious ticket scenario out of our minds, we went straight out for dinner. On the plaza, the locals were spectating as a serious looking long distance footrace wove in and out of the town. We explored our food options at some length, and eventually selected boring but dependable-looking Don Pepe’s, and had a very comforting Hawaiian pizza between us, and recalled how awesomely beautiful it had been at Champey. At the end of the day, it felt like victory.

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August 28

August 29, 2008

We booked a tourist bus for this morning, in a weak moment, and had to get up extra early to catch it. It was quite nice though, really, having a small, well-maintained and un- overcrowded minivan pick us up from our hotel take us somewhere. The drive (to Lanquin, incidently) was particularly scenic, and most of the other people on the bus had booked a tour, whereas we just opted for the transport. At a photo spot on top of a mountain, we asked about our return trip and where we’d take it from, only to be told we hadn’t paid for one. Luckily we’d asked the guy who sold it to us to write down the return date on the booking slip, and said if we’d underpaid for it it was much more their problem than ours. They look like they’re going to honor the sales slip, though, which is a good thing from our point of view, as we never would have bought it at twice the price.

Lanquin is a small place, mainly visited for a series of caves and Semuc Champey, a natural bridge formation ten kilometres away, which is supposed to be one of the most scenic spots in the country. The town itself has three cobblestoned streets arranged in an elongated triangle and is mostly on the flat but drops steeply on all sides as you walk out of town. We took a frustrating walk down one such drop to check out a hotel that got an amazingly positive review in the Lonely Planet, only to find it massively overpriced on the one hand and smelling of pee on the other. So we dragged our asses back up the hill, backpacks strapped on and flung about, to a decent place in town serviced by a grumpy collection of staff. Gunshots kept ringing out overhead, an ominous cracking in the skies.

Spent the majority of the day lazing in a hammock after deciding that spelunking, whilst a great word, was not quite so enjoyable as an activity. Well, not today, anyway. Around midday we took a walk through town, which was hosting some sort of fair in the market place with foozeball tables and dart contests under big open roofs. We soon were caught up in a loud racket as some heavily costumed dancers wove their way up the street toward us and the big white church, the doorway of which had been decorated with dried leaves thatched together to resemble a hut. The source of the gunfire now revealed itself in the form of a cannon, shooting balls of confetti-type stuff into the air.

The dancers congregated in the courtyard, and behind them eight men guided two statues of saints on shoulder plinths into the building. The saints disappeared through the doorway, but the dancers remained, decked out in red, yellow, blue, orange and green and each donning a mask. Most were masked as goats with bells tied between their horns, but a few resembled other animals, leopards, cows and the like, and a decent handful wore the masks of men under giant sombrero hats. They danced in formation, one tall, thin goat having a particularly hard time of things, having to bow and greet each animal in turn as they pulled into the centre of the circle. His face was heavy with sweat and he looked like he was about to faint with heatstroke under his heavy costume in the burning midday sun. We, meanwhile, stopped a fresco seller and practically inhaled his one quetzal limonadas.

The afternoon brought a wicked dry lightning storm with thunder that rocked the very foundations of the town, as observed from my hammock. Later, the rains started, falling heavily but briefly and stopping when we decided we’d like to get dinner, which was a serve of the best nachos I’ve ever eaten- fresh fried tortillas covered in refried beans, diced tomato, lettuce and lemon juice, and topped with some guacamol and light lashings of the salty local cheese. Yum!

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August 27

August 29, 2008

“If it was me, I’d be fleeing to fiction”: Max, when asked how best to make today seem interesting.

It wasn’t. We woke up, showered, partly packed, and took in breakfast at the same place as yesterday. We ate the same food as yesterday as well, the only difference being that the pig and potatoes were separated from the scrambled eggs.

The plan had been to go to Quetzaltenango today, but owing to a last minute change of heart we decided that Coban, smack in the middle of the country, would be a better destination. After a leisurely pace at breakfast, it was now ten o’clock and the best of our information unfortunately indicated Coban to be a long, and cumbersome series of bus rides away. As usual!

Direct shuttles to Coban were disproportionately expensive, and direct ordinarios to Guate City, the major change on our route, were few and far between, so we were forced onto a series of ordinarios first to Solola, then to Los Encuentros, and then to Guate. The road we followed was high, cold and misty, and the bus on the third leg was painfully crowded, leaving both of us choking for breath and decidedly grumpy upon arrival in Guate City. Not a good time to be informed that to change for Coban we’d need to traipse halfway across town to a different terminal.

Max was ready to throw in the towel and shell out for an “especial” bus, and I was quite keen to agree to this plan, so after wringing our hands for a while and caving into an insistent taxi driver’s pleas to give us a ride to the other terminal, we booked tickets on a bus that, while in no particular way “especial”, at least had numbered seats and went straight to Coban without faffing around. Here we also soothed our troubled breasts with some shortbreads and cheesy popcorn.

I’d bought Pat Conroy’s novel “The Prince of Tides” — NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE STARRING NICK NOLTE AND BARBARA STREISAND — for a budget, budget price in the morning, and spent most of the afternoon reading it. I’m afraid it’s overblown rubbish compared to Max’s pick, “House of Sand and Fog” by Andred Dubus III, which I read a couple of days ago. But at least it’s long – these distended bus voyages chew through brief books like a plague of locusts.

Mountains, mountains, mountains in the afternoon, green and rural. The roads are of a generally high standard here, but the bus driving is manic and it’s rare to feel anything less than slightly in fear of your life as the driver yet again overtakes into an oncoming road train or fishtails slightly around a hairpin bend overlooking a fifty foot drop. It was fully five hours before, after traversing a motley collection of highland towns named after the same saints as always and differentiated only by their suffices, we finally reached the centre of Coban.

We visited three hostels before finding one that met our needs – or in fact the second place we went to seemed simply to have been deleted without trace – and then came the indubitable highlight of the day, an excellent and cheap meal of “churrascos” on the plaza, tortillas with grilled beef, onion, coleslaw and a jalopeno mix.

It was late enough that most places of business were shutting their doors by the time dinner was eaten, so our firm plan to visit a net cafe and sort a few things out – like uploading our backlog of blog entries – was set aside. Fortunately, however, we were able to book an early morning departure for Lanquin in the morning through our hotel. It’s reasonably priced, or so I believe, but it took Gonzalo, the oldish guardian of the place, a ridiculous age to fill out the booking sheet, perhaps fifteen minutes or so to write about three lines of information.

Anyway, there’s little or no fiction in the above. No soap operatic plotlines, no torrid love affairs with taxi drivers or muggings by churrasco vendors, no buses pitching off cliffs or roadside coffees laced with strychnine or terrorist plots concerning Catholic churches. It was a frustrating day really, and I’m going to call it as such. At least we made it to Coban, which turned out to be a lot harder than we’d expected.

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August 26

August 28, 2008

This afternoon I ran off a cliff, dropped about fifty metres then rose soaring into the clouds on a wing as light as air, all with a man named Christian strapped to my back. And man, was it awesome.

We got up early and packed in readiness for my morning’s hang-gliding, finding ourselves at the tourist office at ten. The sky was threatening some rain, as none had come last night, and as the incredibly enthusiastic Christian, who looked uncannily like Bailie, rocked up on his bicycle he confirmed my doubts about the weather, and suggested we waited a little to see what would happen. We organised to meet up at the tourist office again at twelve, at which point Tom and I set off, idly wandering down the main street.

After changing some money and paying the hotel bill at Villa Lupita, we hit upon a bit of souvenir success in the form of a shoulder bag for carrying a one litre bottle of water, which I’d been coveting since I’d decided not to buy one in Mongolia.

I still wasn’t hopeful about the weather when we showed up again at the tourist office, but when Christian arrived, he decided we should take a drive up to the mountain and see if we could take off. He’d read that the weather would clear and the wind would come in a bit later in the day. So we piled into Christian’s car, a very used-looking 4WD, and set off through the streets, Christian steering mainly with his knees as he gesticulated wildly throughout his sentences. We talked mainly about paragliding, obviously, me not knowing very much about it up to this point.

After a while we turned off on a sharp right onto a dirt road that led up the hill into a locally owned farm. Christian told us about a great launching spot he’d being using for the past four years around the hilltop a little. He’d shown up one day with a group of other gliders and their clients and been refused access, as the farm had been bought the day before by an American who didn’t take a shine to the local paragliding industry. The rate at which land is being bought up by foreigners in Guatemala seems to be putting his career in a tenuous position.

We pulled up to a clearing in the cornfields and parked, and as we got out of the car we couldn’t help but notice the absolutely astounding view of the lake and surrounding volcanoes. The red dirt clearing dropped off sharply through a forested mountainside and peering over the edge we could see a number of the settlements dotting the lakeside. The water itself was a brilliant azure, and clouds were continuously forming between the volcanos on the far side and rolling toward us. The wind had changed to a southerly, which was excellent for our purposes, but remained a little slack, so we hung around for a bit, watching it blowing over the opposite side of the water and waiting for it to reach us. Tom and I helped unfurl the wing and unpack the harnesses while we waited.

The wing was quite an insubstantial thing, and though I’d been pretty damn calm about the whole situation until then, my adrenaline stepped up to notch one as I realised it was no thicker than our tent’s fly sheet. In fact, it seemed to be made of the same stuff, save the fancy vents around the outer edge. The wing had three sets of coloured strings attached at various points and running through to a set of handles, which the primary harness attaches to. The secondary harness, mine, which I’d been packed into a little earlier, attached to the primary one, and a little lower. The harness looked and felt awfully like a baby’s car seat. When standing, the edge of the seat rested in the crook of my knee, and it strapped on around each leg and through the middle in an X-shaped series of belts. It was cumbersome and awkward, and somehow I was going to have to run in it.

After a good priming and being attached to everything, a dark cloud rolled overhead and the view cleared over the lake. Christian said “how are you feeling?”, quickly followed by “okay, run” (this is where the adrenaline rose to two) and we lasted about two steps before the angles swivelled me straight to the left and I fell on my ass, dragging Christian down with me. I apologised embarrassedly and we got set up again, the second try working a little better in that when I swivelled I managed not to fall down.

Running not being my forte, I couldn’t quite get up the speed required without Christian overtaking me, so for the third go he decided to let me drag him off the cliff, and just to keep up. This was a winning strategy, and as I ran blindly towards the abyss, Christian still yelling “Run! Run!” behind me when my feet had nothing to touch, we dove over the edge and caught the wind just in time to give our feet a bit of clearance and climb back up over the mountain. My adrenaline skipped three and went straight up to four, but before I fully realised what was happening I was sitting comfortably in the harness, somehow floating in mid air.

It was quite an amazing feeling. When we were still, it was calm and serene, but when Christian pulled one of the handles to turn left or right, my tummy did a little tumble, and when we rose into the middle of a cloud, the wing went dead for a second before being barrelled upwards providing quite a thrill. We hovered around the takeoff point, slipping down the mountain and catching a thermal back up it, being sucked in and spat out by the clouds for a while, before gliding off over the lake, and around San Catarina towards Panajachel.

The conditions weren’t fantastic, and we were losing altitude gradually. At this point Christian said it would probably be a short flight, but that he could add some interest with “some nice, safe aeronautics” if I felt up for it. I said “Ok, but only because you started that sentence with the words nice and safe” and he explained that we were going to do a loop and that he’d need my help by banking my weight when he instructed. So we got ready, and he said “Ok … left” — I tipped myself to the left side of the harness and we got a bit of momentum going in that direction. Then he said “Right!” and I banked back in the other direction, as he pulled the handles suddenly. We repeated this motion a few times, veering dizzyingly sideways as it became more and more difficult to move from one side of the harness to the other. After a few repeats it was “RightRIghtRight!” and I found myself looking down at the beautiful blue water, past the bright yellow of the wing, which was directly below me – we were looping and my adrenaline had gone through the roof! Woose that I am, I gave a little squeal and exclaimed “Straight now please!” and we came out of the loop and returned to a steadier flight pattern. I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face.

We neared the empty riverbed that passes beside Panajachel and was to serve as our landing site shortly thereafter. We came down to the stony bed at quite a speed, and my legs were running long before they hit the ground. For such an inelegant takeoff, the landing was somewhat more professional, and five steps later, we were on the ground with no injuries and my head spinning.

While all this was happening, Tom was making the hazardous drive back down the mountain, on the wrong side of the road (for an Australian), in Christian’s car. While we waited for him to arrive, I helped pack up the wing, which involved some intricate origamiesque folding, to make sure the lines didn’t tangle. Tom arrived shortly after, looking a bit flustered, explaining that he’d missed a turnoff and become a little lost before asking directions back to town.

I thanked Christian profusely, and we said goodbye shortly afterwards, as we were dropped back at the tourist office. We made a short trip to pick up Tom’s hiking boots, which were being repaired by a street-side cobbler, and debated whether we’d still try to catch the bus to Quetzaltenango, given it was now four o’clock. We eventually decided against, and returned to the hotel, where we took a short break before having an excellent meal of lasagna at an Italian restaurant on the main drag.

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August 25

August 28, 2008

Without wanting to paint too broad a brush over sensitive topics, over the past few months (and over our history of travel) we’ve visited a lot of places with a colonial history, not to mention Australia itself. I say history – actual colonial relationships in the political sense (as opposed to the economic sense) between geographically disparate regions seem to have ironed themselves out in a global shift towards some variety of self-determination, and the global realisation on the part of the developed world that it can be just as easy to exploit remote territories without actually bothering to administer them.

In some of the places we’ve visited, it’s as if the colonised country has rejected the parasite organism rather convincingly, and survives with the many of the practices of the indigenous culture entirely intact, or at least modified in line with the overall course of history rather than in response to the trauma of occupation. Think Nepal. In others, there have been huge cultural losses as a result of forcible* assimilation by the colonists / invaders – for example, Australia.

(* Here by “forcible” I’m not trying to refer to any specific violence. I’m referring to the sort of force you experience when a really fat man sits next to you at the cinema and eats popcorn loudly through the crucial scenes. A sort of witless, uncomprehending thing that eats away at the finer parts of life without ever realising it.)

Here in Guatemala, however, there is a rarer thing, a fusion of two competing cultures into something somewhat unlike either. Although in most respects Guatemala is like all of the countries we have been to – the common factors of mass culture are here: TV, mobile phones, bad pop music, fashion victims, beer – in others, it is rather peculiar. It is a place where they seem to have their own very distinct version of a lot of things, from cowboy hats to Christianity.

Today, Max and I saw a great personification of this at Santiago Atitlan, in the unlikely effigy of Maximon, syncretic deity of the local Maya.

We haven’t really done much today to be honest. We allowed ourselves a bit of a late start, and after getting ourselves together and walking to the cheap restaurant down the street, it took a veritable age to get breakfast, perhaps over an hour. Around ten thirty, we were down at the Panajachel dock boarding a boat to Santiago Atitlan. The ferries here are the small “lancha” variety that we’ve also seen around Bocas del Toro near Panama – they seat about fifteen with an outboard motor at the back, and they’re weighted towards the back presumably to improve the lines of the ship, while the bow slaps freely up and down over any waves that disturb the traversed surface of water. Max doesn’t like them much!

I arrived in Santiago without much clear idea of what to do, as our guidebook info was locked up in an unprinted PDF on our notebook. I shook off the attentions of several torito (tuk-tuk) touts offering me rides in lieu of the “thirty minute” walk to Maximon, though as they pursued me up the street I did get a bit frustrated. Perhaps being touted gives me an idea of what it must be like being sexually harrassed or bullied, but after a little while some boundary of personal liberty is violated and you start to feel genuinely put upon.

After wandering up the hill into town aimlessly for about ten minutes, then after reaching the far side beginning to quiz people about the location of the Catholic church, we found ourselves in a broad quadrangle with a large stone cross set into the middle of it, educational institutions on three sides and a whitewashed church on the fourth. Children accosted us as we crossed the quad, offering to guide us to Maximon, but we told them to wait until later.

Inside the church, a couple of plaques made reference, in Spanish and English, to the several hundred locals martyred during Guatemala’s own thirty year civil war, which lasted from the sixties to the nineties. In the late eighties, the military occupied Santiago and killed or “disappeared” scores of conscientious objectors, and outside the church a monument had been built to these people, who after years of nonviolent pressure eventually forced a withdrawal in 1990. Once again we were reminded of the proximity of wartime horror in these countries, where the prolonged peace that we’ve become used to in our own comfortable backyards just doesn’t exist. Occasionally you stop to wonder what the “cynicism about government” so widely reported in all of Centroamerica actually means in countries where the government might kill your relatives instead of just enacting tax laws you don’t like.

Another plaque mentioned the history of the area: how the local Maya people had resided around Lago de Atitlan since 900 BCE, and in refusing to make alliances with their neighbours had eventually been conquered by a coalition of Spanish forces and other Mayans in 1547.

The Catholic church was architecturally unexceptional – little more than a big white barn – but along the walls there were some fascinating religious mannequins. One was Christ on the cross, but in a locally styled multi-coloured gown, and with two spears stuck through him emerging from his shoulder blades in a starlike formation. To either side, twisted effigies of the two thieves. There was also a tableau of the twelve apostles, similarly garbed in patterned brown robes, and with spooky expressions, mouths open wide, Mary Magdalen in the centre suckling two babes at once. The Three Kings were represented in another panel, looking black and emaciated.

Emerging from the church one of the children who’d jumped all over us before was still waiting, and we agreed to let him guide us to the house of Maximon. His name was Miguel, he was nine, and not due in school until one o’clock in the afternoon according to him, and patient enough to wait for us to break a Q100 note (the local currency is the quetzal, after the bird) at the nearest tuckshop. Just a hundred metres away down a backstreet we’d probably have had trouble finding without help lay Maximon’s lair, the front room of a blue-painted family home. According to the guidebook, the shrine of Maximon moves each year to a new house.

As we entered, three tourists who’d preceded us were on their way out. A local was breastfeeding her baby next to the front door, and inside, a young girl stood to one side, two older men conversed in a doorway, and one middle-aged man sat next to a table. In the centre of the room on a plastic chair sat the wooden effigy of the god, pupil-less eyes staring creepily out, cigar planted in his lips, multi-coloured jacket draped over him.

We placed a few quetzales on the offering dish in front of Maximon, and Miguel guided us around the other exhibits – a carnivalesque lifesize tomb of Santa Cruz, and two exuberant half-sized painted wooden mannequins of San Antonio (with donkey) and San Martin on horseback, with tongue extended and sword in hand. Finally, unsure what else to do, we purchased a cigarillo from the young girl for a few centavos, and Maximon smoked it for us. The fag burnt down to ash at a creepy rate in the mannequin’s circular mouth, and never even looked like going out.

Leaving the house, an amusing conversation with Miguel followed, in which he asked us for an outrageous price for the service he’d offered (all of five minutes’ work!) and we gradually beat him down to something reasonable. Kids in business are all business. He was amused afterward when I said it was “a pleasure doing business together” in Spanish, and shook my hand.

Walking back to the port, we were ushered onto a launch for San Pedro, and arrived a few minutes later. The town has a reputation as a hangout for New Agers and hippies, and is home to a yogic retreat called “Las Piramides”. For the first few minutes as we walked about we could see little evidence of this, the centre of town utterly mundane, just cobbled streets, the usual range of stores, and some bored looking locals. But after a tasty icecream at a Sarita’s outlet, we walked down to the dock for boats heading towards Panajachel, and San Pedro’s crystal-gazing side began to reveal itself. On the promenade, stunning lake views could be observed alongside signage for Spanish schools, “Libreria Shalom” and “Restaurante School of the Sages”. Not paying it much mind, we walked around the lakeshore, stepping down a narrow sandy path through a cornfield to the edge, then photographing a tiny, aggressive woolly dog that accosted us as we returned, ludicrously defiant as its amused owner swept it up with a laugh.

We’d thought about hiring a kayak, but it all seemed like a bit too much effort, so we just jumped on a return boat to Panajachel, which had a slightly unnerving series of cracks in the inner lining of its fibreglass hull. Once back in town, Max went her own way back to the hotel, while I posted some mail and jumped on the net. Dinner was a snifter of Gallo cerveza and an order of chicken and sausage tacos from a place downtown.