No doubt you have been wondering what the hell has happened to us during the past six months since our last update? No?
Not even the tiniest bit curious? Had we been torn apart by vicious howler monkeys in the jungles of Guatemala? Perhaps an unfortunate drowning incident while scuba diving in Honduras? Or maybe we’d been kissing sniffling pigs in Mexico without wearing a face mask?
Actually, the truth is far less exciting. We were living in Guatemala for three months (more on that later) and in that time the power cord for the laptop (which holds all our photos) broke. We ordered a new one but thanks to the thieving bastards who work for the Guatemalan postal system, it never arrived. Nor did several of Caroline’s birthday presents. One parcel did make it through to us, though it had been opened, some of the contents stolen and then sent on it’s merry way. Joy. But enough of that.
Now that we have finally arrived in Canada, we have bought a new cord and now must fill you all in on what’s been going on in the past half year. Don’t worry, we’ve split it up into a few parts so as not to completely bore you silly. Oh, and we also lost our camera (the third for this trip) somewhere on our recent overland journey between Honduras and Mexico so some parts of this blog are distinctly lacking in picture evidence. You’ll just have to take our word for it.
And so begins part one of Guatemala.
When we last caught up, waaaaay back in February, we were just about to slip across the Mexican-Guatemalan border (if you need a refresher, check our last update out here
After one more night sleeping in a cabana in the jungle at El Panchan in Palenque, we took a dawn shuttle to Frontera Corozal where we were officially stamped out of Mexico.
From here, we hopped on a long boat up the Rio Usumacinta river to Bethel, where we took another shuttle bus to Guatemalan immigration. Then it was another few hours to Flores in the northern part of the country.
FLORES AND TIKAL
Flores is a small town on an island on the Lago de Peten Itza, connected to the lakeshore town of Santa Elena by a 500m long causeway. It was to be a whirlwind visit however, as our only reason for being there was to see the nearby ruins of Tikal – reputedly the granddaddy of all Mayan sites in Central America.
We stayed in a little hostel overlooking the lake and briefly inspected the busy town of Santa Elena – stocking up on fruit and vegetables at the local markets and munching on grilled corn with salt and orange from roadside stalls.
We also stopped by a little pet shop, where Caroline (who still hadn’t learned her lesson after the “Squirrel Incident in New York”), was entranced by a pen of baby chickens. Encouraged to hold one by the little Guatemalan man cleaning the cage, she was horrified when the chick did a poo on her hand. “Perhaps now,” said Chris, “you have learned your lesson with all these creatures,” Perhaps.
The next morning, we took another shuttle 1½ hours to the Parque Nacional Tikal. First settled in around 700 BC, Tikal had become one of the Mayan’s most important commercial and religious centres by about AD 250. It eventually collapsed (along with the rest of Mayan civilisation) in AD 900.
These days, the parque covers 500 sq km, but only 16 sq km – comprising the central area of the ancient city with more than 4000 structures – is open to the public.
It was a super hot day when we visited, but thanks to the protection of the dense jungle, we weren’t too uncomfortable as we explored the site.
It was very different to the Garden of Eden we found at Palenque in Mexico. For a start, it was much more spread out, and there were a lot more temples.
We began at the Acropolis del Norte (North Acropolis) for another unique picnic lunch overlooking the ruins.
Afterwards, we headed down to the Great Plaza and relaxed on the soft grass in between the almost symmetrical Templos I and II. You cannot climb Templo I (rising to 44m and built above the tomb of King Moon Double Comb) as several people have tumbled to the death from the steep stairs, but we were able to make the ascent up the 38m Templo II, via a series of wooden ladders.
The view from the top over the Great Plaza, the Acropolis del Norte and across to Templo I was awesome.
From here we headed through the jungle to Templo V, 58m high and built in AD 700, it has a small room at the very top that is less than a metre deep, yet it is surrounded by walls 4.5m thick.
The ascent to the top of Templo V was quite a terrifying experience – climbing an almost sheer vertical rickety wooden ladder (with no surrounding cage should we lean back too far and plummet to our deaths) to the very top ledge (which itself was only around 40cm wide with nothing preventing us from plummeting to our deaths).
But the view from the top was well worth it – a canopy of trees with just the tops of surrounding temples poking through. We stopped up here for a while, taking in the serenity before making the doubly scary descent back down the ladder.
Back on solid ground, we once again trekked through the jungle, making our way through the Plaza de las Siete Templos (Plaza of the Seven Temples) towards Temple IV.
Along the way we encountered beautiful ocellated turkeys (which resemble peacocks) and many yet-to-be-uncovered temples and ruins – their location given away by the telltale pyramid-shaped mound of plants and vines.
At 64m, Temple IV is Tikal’s highest building. Although steeper, the ascent was simplified by a series of ladders rather than just a single vertical ladder, yet the view was just as worth it.
Sitting atop the 1200-year-old ruin ranks as one of the most memorable experiences of our trip. A canopy of green as far as the eye could see, randomly pierced by the tips of other temples. It was so quiet, so peaceful up there, with the silence perforated only by the throaty growl of unseen howler monkeys. It was yet another magical memory we wished we could bottle and keep.
With the sun hanging low in the sky, we made the hour-long hike back to the parque entrance and caught a shuttle back to Flores, where we hopped on an overnight bus to Guatemala City.
Now, we have caught dozens of overnight buses in the past year. They have been freezing cold, boiling hot, smelly, stuffy, nauseating and – as with the bus from La Paz to Uyuni in Bolivia – spine-shattering. But possibly this bus took the cake. Flicking aside the cockroach that had taken up residence in our seats, we settled in for the 10-hour trip.
The bus took off – and then the music started. Not the tranquil symphonies you might expect on an overnight coach, but a mix of early 90s rock songs (think ‘All That She Wants’ by Ace of Base and ‘Sweat’ by Inner Circle) with early 90s disco hits (Vanilla Ice’s classic Ice Ice Baby and MC Hammer’s Can’t Touch This) – played at full volume. We didn’t know it at the time, but these ‘hits’ would make up the extent of all music we heard played in Guatemalan bars for the next three months.
Despite our protests at 1am, and then again at 2am and 3am, the music continued to blare, with the chubby bus driver explaining that without the music at full volume, he couldn’t concentrate on the road.
At 5.30am, we arrived – music still blaring – in bustling Guatemala City. It was still dark but the hawkers were in full force – accosting us before we’d even stepped from the bus, trying to sell everything from taxi rides and tours to last night’s batch of tamales
. We settled on a fare to a bus station on the other side of town, where we hoped to get a quick connection to Panajchel in the Guatemalan highlands.
We negotiated what we thought was a fare the entire four-hour journey to Panajchel, where we would catch a lancha
(boat) across Lago de Atilan to the lakeside town of San Pedro La Laguna – our base from where we would study Spanish.
We were squashed into a minivan with locals on their way to work, and all was going well until, about an hour into our trip, everyone was ordered out and dumped on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere.
Fortunately, we’d made friends with a lovely local named John who explained we needed to change to a chicken bus (former US school bus, pimped out and used for public transport, so named because passengers are often accompanied by their chickens) that would take us to a tiny town called Solala, where we would change again for a bus to Panajchel.
So after our fourth bus for the day, we arrived at Panajchel dock and negotiated a fare with a boat captain across the lake to San Pedro.SAN PEDRO
Our initial plan had be to enrol in Spanish school, stay for a week and then move on, but we immediately found ourselves wanting to stay forever.
San Pedro (population 10,000) is a little lakeside town with just a few roads, lined with cafes, great little restaurants and roadside stalls selling everything from handmade jewellery to cheap tacos. The lake itself is magnificent, crystal blue and ringed by mountains and volcanos.
As soon as we arrived, we set about finding accommodation – rushing from hotel to hotel trying to secure a room ahead of the other backpackers who had shared our boat. In the end, we stumbled upon Hotel Toliman, a ramshackle establishment that appeared deserted apart from it’s owner, a slightly-neurotic Guatemalan named Eliseo.
We were shown the 'penthouse', a room - with ensuite - on the roof of the tiny hotel, with it’s own huge rooftop balcony, little outdoor kitchen and what was undoubtedly the best view of the lake in town. There was even a private jetty from which we could swim.
Sure, it was a bit dusty and there was reinforced steel poking out in several dangerous locations. And yes, the place stunk thanks to the huge pile of fermenting coffee beans at the open-air processing plant next door and the electric shower had two temperatures – freezing or boiling – and only produced a trickle of water that spurted in every direction but down, but it was home.
We took it immediately and negotiated a weekly rate of 66 Quetzals ($13) a night. With every other place in town asking 150 Quetzals ($30) a night, we felt we were the luckiest people on earth.
We spent four nights relaxing before starting classes, enrolling in a Spanish school and doing a reconnaissance mission through town, We discovered a pub, The Alegre, just metres from our hotel that did Sunday roasts, 5 Quetzal ($1) vodka and oranges (with real, freshly squeezed orange juice), Cuba Libres for 4Q (80c) and a big English breakfast fry-up (with bacon and eggs, baked beans and tea – proper, English breakfast tea!).
Plus, just a few days after we arrived, they were screening the Oscars – in English.
Even more importantly, they showed all the English football games (as well as all other sports from around the world, though sadly, no AFL).
The Alegre, and at least half a dozen other pubs in town screened nightly new release movies for free, you could buy a litre of beer for 16 Quetzals ($3.20) and surrounding street food included BBQ chicken and steaks with beans and guacamole for 8 Quetzals ($1.50)...
...the most delicious Japanese-style veggie burgers 10 Quetzals ($2)...
...several taco stand options...
...and daily baked loaves of pan de banana
(banana bread), we bought for 3Q (60c) from the little ladies who carried their wares around in baskets on their heads. We had found paradise.
Waking up on the morning after our first night in San Pedro, was one of the most magnificent feelings ever.
Opening our eyes and looking straight out our full-length window to the picture-postcard view of the lake and mountains is something you usually only dream of.
We soon became well acquainted with Eliseo, our bumbling landlord who, despite owning prime real estate in San Pedro, had no idea about running a business. His property was a shambles – dirty and dangerous – and he never quite grasped the concept of negotiation. One morning, he decided to change the nightly rate, despite us already having made a deal.
He regularly breached the landlord/tenant boundary, often wandering into our room to recline on our bed or appearing out of nowhere on our way in our out to enquire about where we were going, or where we’d been, or who we’d been with and why. Sometimes he would knock on our door at 4am to tell us he needed to fix a pipe and to warn us he might wake us when he climbed on the roof.
We very quickly grew accustomed to his favourite phrase, “Si, my friend”, uttered at every given moment and in answer to every question. He also favoured "tarde"
as in “later” – the default response whenever we asked when the toilet paper/clean sheets/portable kitchen/change from our weekly rent payment would arrive. Perhaps a better answer would have been “nunca”
He also had a habit of never being around when you needed him and hanging around in awkward silence, long after the usual pleasantries had expired whenever you didn’t.
One night, during a rooftop sausage sizzle with some of new friends, he seemed to suddenly apparate from nowhere, the minute the sausages hit the grill. “Ah, si, you are cooking my friend,” he drooled as he hovered in the kitchen, oblivious to the private party that was in progress. “Si, Eliseo, tu quieres una salchicha en pan,”
we offered politely, expecting he would take one sausage in bread and leave. “Si, my friend,” he replied, leaping for the bread and tomato sauce, taking not one, but eight sausages in all and polishing off all the onion to boot. The rest of us, forced to be content with just three snags apiece, were flabbergasted.
We briefly contemplated moving and even inspected some considerably cheaper and better decked out digs. But in the end we couldn’t tear ourselves away from the magic view. We used a pin to prick some extra holes in the shower head to create a more even flow of water and we even grew used to the smell of fermenting coffee beans, though no doubt whenever we visit a Starbucks, we will forever be reminded of our lakeside penthouse in San Pedro.
For two weeks we studied at San Pedro Spanish School with our affable maestro Lucas. It was, to say the very least, a unique experience.
Walking to school down dusty dirt track, through vegetable gardens, passing farmers, horses, chickens and dogs along the way, the huge Volcán
San Pedro looming in one direction and the lake glistening in the morning sun in the other.
Then sitting down to our lesson in our 'classroom' – a little thatched roof palapa
(open-sided, thatched-roof hut) by the lake.
During this fortnight, our days consisted of waking up to the glorious vista, trotting off to Spanish school for four hours, coming home to do homework during the hottest part of the day, then either relaxing on our rooftop balcony with litro bottles of ice-cold Gallo cervezas taking in the view or heading to The Alegre for an afternoon of football and litro bottles of ice-cold Gallo cervezas.
Each morning the sunrise turned the mountains a stunning gold, while the stillness of the sparkling lake would be broken only by a lone fisherman in a wooden boat hoping to snare dinner for his family.
Throughout the day, to the soundtrack of water gently lapping the shore outside our window, we'd see kayakers glide past and lanchas
would pass regularly, delivering the next batch of unwitting gringos from nearby towns. “Don’t do it,” we’d shout, “if you get off that boat you will never leave”.
Our evenings would be spent cooking up something in our little outdoor kitchen or grabbing a quick bite from a street vendor before heading to one of the local pubs for a free flick.
In our first month in San Pedro, we pretty much caught up on every film we were either too poor to go and see while we were saving for this trip back home in Australia, or missed while we were in any of the non-English speaking countries we’d been to in the past 12 months.
The movies, all pirated would often have the backs of heads or chairs from the cinema they were illegally filmed in, or cut out 10 minutes before the end. We’re still yet to discover if Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson got a new dog in 'Marley & Me' and Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman and the little Aboriginal boy lived happily ever after in 'Australia'.
We settled in quickly in San Pedro, soon becoming regulars at our two locals – the bartenders knowing our names and our drinks of choice within days.
Within week of arriving in San Pedro, the owner of the local store was asking whether we wanted anything special bought back from his monthly trip to procure stock in Guatemala City and we’d been given the reservado
sign to put on the front row table for the nightly movie at The Alegre.
We soon formed a close friendship with Steve, a crazy Pom who now calls San Pedro home and the three of us became inseparable.
We couldn’t walk down the street without stopping to say hello to at least half a dozen people we’d become friends with – locals and travellers alike.
We even developed a social life – hosting BBQs on our rooftop balcony, trotting off to weekend BBQs at the homes of others or heading off with a big group and a crate full of beer to watch the local football grand final, played on a dusty pitch, with 5000 other screaming fans.
During this first month we lived through not one, but another two earthquakes, bringing our total to four for this trip (the first two being in Fethiye, Turkey and Lima, Peru).
There was also much excitement one night when one local shot another local dead just metres from where we were staying. It’s not a dangerous place per say, but the locals are Mayans, who are used to dealing with things the traditional way. Apparently the murder had something to do with drugs – someone thought someone else needed to be taught a lesson
We’re not sure what it is about San Pedro but we quickly became inflicted with the same condition suffered by many a traveller before us – we just couldn’t leave. Time and time again we spoke to expats from every nation who had intended on staying three days and ended up staying six months.
Many had returned several times for long stays after briefly going home to sort out their personal affairs. Others obtained low-paying jobs at the local bars and restaurants, just to stay as long as they could. And time and time again, no one could really explain why, they were drawn to San Pedro. In Spanish, it’s best summed up by porque si
- "just because".
Our one-week stay had turned into two, now four. We had already rearranged our travel plans to cater for extra time in San Pedro, deciding to skip our jaunt south all the way to Costa Rica and Panama and instead do a quick loop into Honduras to learn to scuba dive, then return to Mexico, via Belize, to fly to Canada. We’d be in Vancouver by early April, at the latest, for sure.
But by mid-April, a month-and-a-half into our stint in San Pedro, we realised that we had no intention of leaving San Pedro just yet and began thinking how we could stick around and stretch our holiday just that little bit longer.
And that is how we came to be temporary residents of Guatemala.
After some searching, we found a house to move into with a new friend, a girl from England called Sophia.
Perhaps it’s because our standards have dropped considerably since we left Australia, perhaps it’s because there isn’t a real estate agent to speak of in San Pedro and pickings were slim, or perhaps (and most likely) in San Pedro, things like how impressive you house is doesn’t seem to matter – but our new casa
(aka 'Casa Banana', aka 'The Shanty') was…unique.
It was a primitive home, so to give you a better image of the place:
Walking up the hill from the main dock where we had arrived in February, you hit the markets where locals are selling everything from chickens and cowboy hats to beans and blankets.
Just around the corner, you walk off a main street busy with tuk tuks and women in traditional Mayan dress, or traje
, of long skirts, blouses and aprons carrying huge baskets of corn on their heads, down a little alleyway to four little houses, all very ramshackle. Ours was one of them (another one was inhabited by Simon, the Scottish owner of The Alegre, his Guatemalan wife and their little girl Melody).
You walk in the front door and you are standing in a big foyer area. To the right is our makeshift kitchen and the loungeroom. Directly in front is our room on the right and Sophia’s room on the left.
To the left is the bathroom/toilet with flushing toilet (a luxury) and hot water electric shower which will electrocute you if you touch it.
Next to that is a concrete trough, common in all Guatemalan homes, where you wash your dishes and scrub your clothes. All in cold water. (Though we always used a local laundry to wash our clothes and boiled water whenever we wanted to wash up). Next to that are stairs leading up to a big balcony that is the roof of our bedrooms.
If you stand at the front door and look at the bedrooms, with the stairs to the left, you can actually see the balcony and sky as there was no wall in that part of the house.
It was a bit weird, but rain couldn’t get in and it was kind of nice having an indoor/outdoor feel to the place.
Most of the homes in San Pedro were like that and although anyone could have walked from next door, across our balcony and down the stairs into our house, they never did as we lived in the local area so everyone looked out for everyone else.
(Though we did often have cats come and make themselves comfortable during our stay, along with a few late-night visits from a Tacuasil, a nocturnal Guatemalan mammal that looks like a cross between a possum and a bilby, which would be kind of cute if it didn’t also screech like a rat).
Also, the 'wall' in our 'kitchen' (decorated in jungle theme) was just a few wooden beams with big gaps in them so you can see straight into the neighbour’s kitchen. It was ok though, they were a lovely Guatemalan family and it was sort of nice when the smell of their incense and the sound of them chanting prayers on a Sunday drifted into our house.
Like most homes in San Pedro, there was no fridge or even a kitchen to speak of so we bought a little electric stove and rented a fridge from one of the cafes in town, which we delivered to the house by negotiating a fair price with a local who owned a ute.
And that’s where we spent the next two months, the three of us paying just 300 Quetzals each ($60) a month for our own piece of paradise.
Sure, it was no luxury harbourside apartment, but with a bit of a tidy and lots of disinfecting and some creative decorating, we made it our home.
Each morning, we woke to the sound of roosters and the smell of wood smoke from locals cooking frijoles
(black beans) and tortillas
on outdoor fires was always in the air.
Every hour the church around the corner would fire two cannons and despite living there for three months, we never got used to the sound, jumping every time the loud booms rocked the house.
Once a week, another church in the street came alive with the most horrendous singing – a mix between yodeling, Guatemalan country and western and a cat being strangled.
We shopped at the local markets, picking up a bag of vegetables that would last a week, for 20Q ($4). We slept late, we read a lot and, of course, we spent a lot of time watching football and movies at The Alegre.
The place was infested with fleas, so we always looked like we had a severe case of chicken pox and when rainy season kicked off with a spectacular downpour at the end of April, the house would flood. Sometimes the water or electricity – or both – would be off for days. And the flies. Dear god, the flies.
On Saturdays, we would rummage through the 'trucks' at the markets, piles of second-hand clothes, often of the designer label variety, shipped from the US and sold to Guatemalans for 5Q ($1) each. To the cries of “Ropa, ropa, ropa, cinco, cinco, cinco”
(“Clothes, clothes, five, five, five”), we replenished out tattered travel duds three times over.
There was no such things as weekends. In San Pedro, every night is Saturday night and the usual course of events would take us from lunch beers by the lake in the beergarden at La Playa (The Beach) Bar, to afternoon beers at Zuula, to Happy Hour at Buddha Bar, to “lets get the party started 4Q (80c) Cuba Libres" at The Alegre, finishing up, always, at Freedom Bar – the closest thing the tiny lakeside town had to a dance/trance nightclub.
A hippy haven, evenings there would generally feature at least one fire-twirling show by some unwashed, dreadlocked gypsy. “This”, we thought, “is where all those Theatre Media students from Charles Sturt University ended up”.
Then, once everything had closed at 1am, we'd join the other revellers in an area fondly referred to as 'The Vortex' - the main intersection in town where everyone would meet to continue the party. We'd buy beer from a tiny tienda
(shop) that was closed but would sell you alcohol if you knocked on a little window and asked politely in Spanish for "un litro de Gallo frío por favor"
(one litre of cold Gallo beer, please), then we'd all sit and chat and some people would play music, often until dawn.
Actual weekends were reserved for BBQs courtesy of Smokin’ Joe (aka Nester), an all-America ex-marine (and one who still dressed the part) who took his meat as seriously as any action he saw in ‘Nam.
For 50Q ($10), you were give a humungous plate of five different salads and the best steak wrapped in bacon/half chicken/dinosaur ribs you have ever tasted.
Cooked to perfection and topped with one of Smokin’ Joes own home-made signature sauces, the regular Sunday events were usually held at La Piscina (The Pool).
St Pat's Day in March was spent in traditional fashion, drinking Irish Coffees in the the closest thing San Pedro had to an Irish pub and taking advantage of the cheap drink specials in town.
We only left San Pedro (which often felt like an island because we were so isolated) a few times, once to take a day trip to Quetzaltenango (locally known as 'Xela)', a terrifying four-hour chicken bus ride through the mountains and twice to Panajchel ('Pana'), a slightly bigger town across the lake, for shopping.
It was on one of these trips to Pana that we came up with the grand idea of starting a vodka jelly shot business. Because San Pedro is so relaxed, you can pretty much start any business you want, hence the number of hippies selling everything from jewellery to crystals to chakra realignments on the side of the road.
Wanting a piece of the action, we originally considered The Great Australian BBQ (a plan involving a BBQ, cold beers, snags in bread with tomato sauce and one of those aprons with plastic boobs on the front), but, not wanting to upset Smokin’ Joe, we then thought about a sushi business.
However, after some research, we discovered seaweed, sushi rice and, in fact, most of the ingredients needed for sushi were unavailable in Guatemala, we continued our brainstorming. This is when we came upon vodka jelly shots, a long time party favourite and Kelly family Christmas tradition.
Our grand opening coincided with Dodgy 80s night at The Alegre. We had earlier riffled through the trucks for the perfect costumes (Chris – a fluorescent blue and pink cactus t-shirt, teamed with blue jeans, white sneakers, a porn-star moustache, slicked back hair and a ponytail; Caroline – bright pink short shorts over black leggings paired with an 80s style jumper, sweat bands, a side ponytail and bright blue eyeshadow - a la Jane Fonda).
After preparing our first batch, we proceeded to sell them to punters as they danced to Starship’s 'The Final Countdown' and The Buggless classic 'Video Killed the Radio Star'.
We sold them for 5Q ($1) each and our on our debut night, we recouped all our costs. Four successive sales and we had covered our rent for the month. It was never going to be a long-term business plan, but we had found a way to keep the dream alive…for another few months at least.
TO BE CONTINUED...
(very soon, promise)