¡No eres gringa!

Parque el Calvario, Xela, Guatemala

Assimilation is not that difficult. Proficiency in Spanish helps indescribably, but more than that it’s the people around. I’ve been constantly impressed by their willingness to teach, learn, exchange, and have fun with us foreigners. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in the city of Xela for a week or three months – they will treat you like a great friend after a mere introduction and make sure your impressions of Guatemala stay positive as you leave. They sneakily plant in you a craving to come back, too. I’ve barely arrived, but am already falling for Guatemala and Xela itself, and am seriously wondering… “when will I come back here?”
Now, from someone who wants to visit a new country each time she leaves her home – wherever it might be at the time – it’s a huge compliment. A huge mystery, too. The vibe here seems clinging and drawing you in, the community appears so small and so available, but at the same time so diverse and dynamic. No wonder people genuinely want to be a part of it.

I arrived on Wednesday, and within a few hours I was enjoying the stories from other students sharing their much-longer-term impressions of the city with me over a cup of hot chocolate. During a salsa class I met a guy who had a Polish friend, and of course I insisted he introduces us, so my Saturday night was set. On a Friday, a few of my fellow students were sharing home-made pizza, so I joined eagerly only to make a lot of friends from all over Guatemala studying in Xela, who showed me both the local cantinas (small, local sort of “bars’), and hidden art galleries and museums. One of my self-proclaimed guides went as far as to say I’m not even a gringa.
“Your Spanish is good, and you’re not from the States!”
As weird as that statement was, and as much as I disagreed with it, his words still made me feel a little proud of myself. I will never be taken for a local, but if someone who gets to know me can at least see past my tourist self, I’ll take it.

As soon as I’m satisfied with my situation and network development, I have to leave. That experience, however, definitely makes me much less anxious about being in San Pedro for 6 weeks. I know that I will find other ‘vagabonds’, and soon enough my dear Brazilian friend will join me in the effort of gaining job experience and having a successfully relaxing and fun summer.

After seeing the loveliness of the Guatemalan life (especially on a Sunday, where all businesses besides those selling ice-cream and street snacks close, and whole families stay on playgrounds with their overtly energetic, smiley children) I can’t wait for more!
With a single kiss on a cheek for both a hello and a goodbye, I’m leaving Xela.

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The mysteries of merging cultures

Once upon a time the Mayans lived in peace. They led their lives uninterrupted planting corn, weaving beautiful fabrics, and following their rituals without the slightest awareness of Christianity or the Spaniards. As we all know, it changed substantially, and right now, what you can see in Guatemala is an amusing mixture of the ancient with the modern.

Yesterday, as the only student at my Spanish school signed up for an afternoon activity (oh, I would), I went with my teacher to the village named Zunil, in the mountains of Guatemala. It’s small, busy, colorful, very agricultural, and for a reason I don’t know full of vulture birds. It struck me, as in between the sights of traditionally dressed women caring baskets full of produce on their heads, I faced big, black birds with ugly faces covered in what reminded me of gray Halloween masks. It wasn’t the main attraction, though. Zunil is famous for its image of San Simon.

I was told beforehand that it’s some sort of a statue of a powerful saint who can solve your problems after an appropriate prayer or “sacrifice” like a lit candle and 5 Quetzales (half a dollar).  Oh how surprised I was when I laid my eyes on a wooden, dressed-up doll.

Let me start from the beginning. The image is in one of the local houses, just a bare, gray, concrete room. Inside, there were a few indigenous women sitting on chairs by the left wall, busy with what I assume were some domestic tasks. Seeing me, one of them jumped to collect the entrance fee, and with a valuable piece of paper in her hand went back to whatever she was doing. I looked at the saint. He was on a pedestal, situated in a chair faced by a chorus of tall, lit candles and some flowers. His face was covered half by a cowboy hat, and half by modern-looking sunglasses. He was wearing a mouth covering black bandana too. I turned to my teacher trying to voicelessly ask… something, when I smelled a cigarette. It was stuck in San Simon’s face. Then I noticed there’s a liquor bottle on the floor, too. Well, I guess a man wearing a suit jacket, ironed black pants, and shiny shoes (not mentioning the shininess of whatever was visible of his face) needs to have some fun. What was even more interesting, was the towel in the colors of the American flag wrapped around his shoulders, black winter gloves covering his palms, and the silver chain with several rings on it hanging down his chest. Oh, I almost forgot about the donation basket in his lap.

Can’t picture it yet? Let me help you with that:

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(photo credit goes to: http://blog.travelpod.com/travel-blog-entries/ang_kenny/1/1268697726/tpod.html#pbrowser/ang_kenny/1/1268697726/filename=san-simon-effigy-in-zunil.jpg)

I was astonished. As someone who was raised catholic, I am used to praising shrines and statues, but this one was so different, it took me a while to wrap my head around it. He’s considered powerful. The young ask him for love. The brave for a successful journey to the US (I guess that’s why the towel-flag). The sick for health. The helpless for inspiration and confidence. I must say it was an experience. An experience with a lot of religious perspective.

Droplets of chocolate

Guatemalan hot chocolate

I can’t just simply walk by a place that has something to do with chocolate.

There are many, many reasons why I keep coming back to Latin America, but I just realized that there always is a chocolateria or a chocolate museum in the big city. I never fail to have a look, and most of the time a taste too. This past Wednesday, I reached an epiphany through following my language school’s effort of gringo enculturation: a trip to a chocolateria.

Before my mouth starts watering at the thought of it, I’ll get you started on your chocolate education:
Basics, essentials, and everything that’s good for you:
– Chocolate makes you feel better – its natural antidepressant (tryptophan) helps your body create serotonin
– Chocolate is an aphrodisiac – chemicals found in cacao (like theobromine) act as mild sexual stimulants
– Chocolate is good for your heart – it contains high quality anti-oxidants that have anticanceric properties and can protect you from heart diseases
Fun facts:
– 875,000 chocolate chips would provide you with enough energy to walk… around the world!
– Having chocolate melt in your mouth increases your brain activity and heart rate more intensely than passionate kissing. And guess what – it lasts four times longer
– Chocolate causing acne is a popular belief, but… it’s a myth.
Cultural bits and pieces:
– For every chocolate bar consumed by the Chinese, the British eat 1,000. Yes, a 1,000!
– 1 in every 200 workers in Belgium is involved in the chocolate industry
– ~61% of cocoa beans used for world’s chocolate production come from Africa
(all of these facts were reproduced from Choco Museo’s exhibition boards in Granada, Nicaragua)

And while Guatemala produces barely 1% of chocolate out there, it really is worth trying. During our relatively short visit in the museum/shop, we watched a documentary about cocoa’s history, and ate three desserts each. Before we calmed down from the excitement brought by chocolate dipped fruit, a chocolate-infused yoghurt was served, then as a break each of us got a block of cocoa paste to play with (a.k.a. ‘design your own chocolate bar’), and to top it off, everyone drank a glass of delicious, genuine, organic hot chocolate. All of it for under $3.

As the chocolateria owner Doña Pancha told us, 50g of chocolate a day in any form (maybe besides the added fat and sugar) can lead you through a healthy, strong, and delicious life. So treat yourself, you have all the excuses you’ll ever need.

A no-longer-blonde adventure

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Guatemala City Central Park

Every now and then I have an urge to do something to my hair. Whether it’s going bald (almost for a cause) or an amateur asymmetrical cut, it never seems to surprise my friends. So I went ginger for a change, and with that, I went to Guatemala.

As a lonely, vulnerable woman, I pulled each and every single string I could to connect with friends, and friends of friends, and their friends, so my loneliness wouldn’t last longer than my flight.  And it worked! Upon my arrival to Guatemala City a smile (familiar only from facebook), greeted me from across the little gate. My enthusiasm confused several taxi drivers who almost got a client – or so they thought – and I rushed with two backpacks (one front, one back) to meet my temporary host.

The capital was only a short stop for me, however nice, because I ambitiously decided to do more studying just after finishing the semester at college. Spanish School, here I come! After all, that’s one of the things gringos believe Guatemala is famous for. So after two full days of relaxing, I got escorted to a bus stop at 5.30am and… left alone. Predicted, prepared for, and not so new to me. But it always strikes.

I had a lot of time to observe. And as much as I am used to vendors entering the bus at every stop and pitching their product in extremely fast Spanish, I never realized how invisible I could be. It’s always the foreigners who get the most (oftentimes unwanted) attention, but for these salesmen we’re good only to be overlooked. Soon enough, I realized that without me expressing active interest, they will assume I know no Spanish, have no idea about their ways, and am no potential customer. I might have been slightly hungry by then, but being ignored never felt as comfortable.

So I reached my destination, chit-chatted with a rather bored, customer-less taxi driver, decided I shall use no English from now on, and knocked heavily on the school’s door. Barely a formality.

Now, with my own room in a Guatemalan house, an actual local phone number, improved Spanish, and no-longer-blonde hair, I almost feel like a native. Maybe I can cross “sign up for couchsurfing!” off of my TO-DO list.

Volcanoes’ strong winds.

The deck was filled with deliciously swirling breeze, the boat rocked from one side to the other like a baby’s cradle, and the view of what was in front stunned each and every one of us. We were on our way to Isla de Ometepe, curious and beautiful destination with two spiky (and active!) volcanoes reaching up, and dense greenery strechng all the way to the island’s very shore. Since we managed to meet up with three friends from Brandeis (oh the powerful randomness and charm of social networks!), the dynamics of the newly formed group changed dramatically and all the new excitement and planning came into the picture. We all climbed on the second, not really passenger-friendly floor of the lancha and getting comfrotable amongst all the backpacks and unidentified metal pipes, we started to visualise ourselves climbing up one of those steep slopes. It wasn’t long before everything started rolling around, almost off the unguarded edges, and the peaceful atmosphere changed into ‘hold onto whatever you can!’ circus. It was an angry lake we had to pass through, but we had a lovely companionship along the way.

‘Ha! Didn’t exptect to see you guys again!’ I heard Matt say and saw that the next two tourists climbing up the ladder were the Québécois (?) couple that we had already met in Esteli, and twice in Leon. There’s nothing like making friends so we all joined our efforts and along with another two sisters from NYC, we all got ripped off by monopolized taxis in the darkness of the shore’s scary hour. 6pm to be precise. And the hostels we had in mind were all overbooked, so we had to stick with the drivers and let them take us SOMEWHERE where there’ll be 9 beds.  No worries though, the island is so small and business-oriented that they knew exactly who to contact and where to drop us off. Of course, before we even looked at the rooms, a mountain guide made us an offer and pointed to a nice dinner place. Ometepe all inclusive, I swear.

After all we decided to stay together and try this guy’s skills. It was a date, and voluntarily I was to be the one pain in the ass who wakes everyone up by 5.40am. By the dawn, we lost two potential hikers to sickness and nightmares, but if you wake up that early, nothing can stop you from whatever you’ve commited to. We met out guide, Miguel, bought some calorie rich snacks for the trip and tightened up the laces in our hiking shoes. I was determined not to slow anyone down, so I ended up following Miguel’s steps just behind his back, resembling a trek nerd. Honestly, we didn’t see as many animals as we had hoped (besides sleeping monkeys just at the bottom, and a funky ant trail that was streching for as far as we could see), and the route wasn’t as wild as we were warned. Yes, the hike was an effort, with steep trails and strong winds; and yes it took a loaf of bread, 2 litres of water and quite a few stops to reach 1200m, but we all did it, still arriving before midday.

The problem with volcano Concepcion, is that it’s a… volcano. Its top is bare, treeless, and on the day we hiked, it had one of the strongest winds I have ever experienced. I couldn’t walk in a straight line without being forced more and more to the right until I dropped to my knees just in case I might roll down the edge. We lacked 400m to the crater, but no one seemed too excited about reaching the very top. Everyone did their best, sweat enough and saw the island from another perspective. I felt no need to struggle with my eyes half closed, tilting my body one way throughout the rest of the climb. Lazy or not, we all run down and decided to spend the rest of the day on the beach. Isn’t that always the best option anyway?

Fiona

Isla de Ometepe (Nicaragua), 7th Jan 2012

A little white house with a waterfront.

I didn´t think there are many beaches out there that are as tourist-friendly and enchanting as Las Peñitas on a weekday. To take a break from León, the rather small university town full of gringos, we hopped on a bus that took 4 times as much time but cost 20 times less than a taxi and ended up on an empty, rocky and beautiful waterfront. We haven´t had that much good luck recently, so escaping the hassle and getting lazy on the beach seemed like a good energizer. Our little B&B was a little paradise – everything needed to relax, tan, swim, eat fresh and get comfy after all that effort was in place. Upon the entrance you could see through the whole house into the cute porch with laid back chairs and waves splashing through the shiny sand, the walls had little shells here and there, and the place with amazing smoothies was a short walk along the shoreline away.

Thinking of staying only that one night, we both unpacked our luggage in a rush, straight onto the floor, just to reach for the almost-fotgoteen swim suites hidden at the bottom, under sweatshirts, long pats and hiking shoes. It took as long as turning the key, and we were both floating in salty water. Correction: I, as a woman, was floating just fine (or maybe even too much considering the force of the waves and currents), while Matt was supposedly struggling, using up way more muscle power than me. Honestly, I don´t mind such gender differences – being carried up and away by the water made me feel like a children TV show heroine that jumps up in the air in slow motion to transform her powers and land back gracefully, but fierceful. Beat that. Also, after all, if you´re too lazy to struggle through the beating waves back to the shore, you might just let them carry you with. You´ll end up with sand on your face, but it will definitely be a faster way. Whether it´s the body fat, boobs or butt, I still really don´t mind.

In such a remote place, where you can count all the tourist on one hand and feel like you own that patch of sand and water, the beauty of your surroundings enhances on its own. I couldn´t get tired of walking ankle-deep in the ocean, getting my hair all tangled up and swimming above thousands of pretty shells and smooth stones. Not only can you  see nothing but the shore for kilometers ahead, but also you get to admire all (and I mean ALL) the stars in the clear nightsky in the most cheesily romatic manner.

We stayed there another night, of course. We probably would have stayed longer if not for the fact that we wanted to spend New Years partying with other travellers in the city. And thank whatever powers out there that we left on Friday with this paradise-like image and feeling in our heads – apparently Las Peñitas turns into the most annoyingly toursity destination for locals on the weekends.

Fiona

León (Nicaragua), 1st Jan 2012

Christmas on the border.

Our bags arrived exactly 2 days later than we did, so we forcefully stayed in the capital of Honduras for almost 3 days, worrying about our belongings and avoiding numerous American fast-food chains. Luckily though, we got  out as soon as our squished backpacks appeared at the aiport. First bus and we are far from the city that imposed such anxious feelings, headed straight for El Paraìso. Far from a paradise, but this is still a better option, even with the stench of old sheets and not enough water  for both of us to shower. I`m just not a dusty city person.

El Paraìso is a short stop anyway. We decided to see Nicaragua first (apparently one of the safest Latin American countries accoring to Lonely Planet), and crossed the border at Las Manos first thing in the morning. So we`re spending Christmas in Estelì, a small town just outside a Nature Reserve, with a proper backpacker vibe and numerous hostels. Too bad we get slightly freaked out by the first tourists we see since we landed (what are these white poeple doing here?), and all the hostels are closed for Christmas day. It`s the 24th, which for the Poles is the biggest night of the year, with huge Christmas Eve (wigilia) family feasts, and I`m in the middle of some town having trouble finding a place to sleep. Perfect.

By a word of mouth, we find this little family run hospedaje with two rooms open to travelers and settle down there for the holidays. At least the place has a warm atmoshpere, and we get all excited seeing kids getting presents from under the little Christmas tree while every radio station is playing Felìz Navidad. We don´t even have a big dinner that night, too weary of the bus journeys. We already  splurged for lunch, ordering an immense pancake dessert in this tiny restaurant that had the biggest, fattest, tackiest tree in the whole of Latin America (OK, maybe there are many other contestants, but… you know…). It looked like a chubby balerina with its thick ribbons and overtly shiny decorations. But I must admit, people around are quite creative. One of the cities we passed had a very nicely constructed `Christmas Tree`in the central square. Since you cannot spot a needle-bearing tree amongst all those banana ones, they put up a  tall, upside-down turned cone covered in dry leaves with a few pastel colored lights and an artsy feel to it. Now I know, Christmas feel doesn`t always have to be so forced. Actually, one can bring winter-imposed Christmas customs to a hot country like this in a pleasant, no-hitsch manner.

So late Merry Christmas to you all, wherever it is celebrated!

Fiona

 Leòn (Nicaragua), 28 Dec. 2011