Trip Start Feb 11, 2008
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Guatemala  , Western Highlands,
Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Hola amigos!

See, we told the next one would follow shortly.

Where were we? Oh yes, Holy Week...

Semana Santa (Holy Week) was a great time to be in Guatemala, with Easter celebrations a major event for the overwhelmingly Catholic community. Not a single chocolate egg in sight, the town instead was awash with parades, creative costumes and colourful hand painted chicks (baby chickens, not girls).

On April 10, Good Friday, an eerie night parade around the streets surrounding the local church near our casa (house) took place.

Three huge, heavy wooden floats, featuring Mary, Jesus and the Cross, were lugged about by all the children of the town.

With the candles, incense, chanting in Tzotzil (the native Mayan language from the San Pedro region) and the slow, gentle swaying of the children carrying the floats, the entire scene was memerising.

The next day, Easter Saturday, there was a repeat of the parade from the night before, with the older men and women of the town carrying the floats - but the main event came on Sunday.

All throughout Saturday night, local families worked tirelessly on beautiful alfombras (carpets) for the Sunday morning parade.

The alfombras were made of flowers, fruit, vegetables, hand-dyed woodchips and even eggs, shaped into patterns on the cobbled streets for the entire path of the parade. Colourful and intricate, it really did look like spectacular carpets had been spread out especially for the event.

At 8am on Easter Sunday, the streets came alive. The families, having been awake all night, were putting the final touches to their alfombras in the morning sun, while children were running around with pump-action water packs hosing the carpets down so they wouldn’t blow away.

The three floats reappeared, this time carried by young men and veiled teenage girls. It took them a good four hours to shuffle slowly on the alfombras in the heat and cloud of incense around the entire block surrounding the church.

All the hard work of the night before was now just a mess of colour and vegetation, with the local kids running along behind salvaging flowers and vegetables that were still intact and pilfering them away in their pockets or bags, presumably a yearly tradition.

Here's some more photos from Semana Santa:

On April 27, Caroline celebrated a rather unique 31st birthday.
Chris had been to work during the night, filling the bedroom with balloons, and the morning was spent unwrapping presents, which included, among other things, a replica chicken bus and a pair of rainbow coloured hippy pants. 

At lunchtime, we headed to the thermal baths where Caroline had a massage before we spent the afternoon soaking in baths overlooking the lake and feasting on champagne and imported salamis, cheese and olives procured by Chris from Panajchel, the town across the lake.

Birthday dinner was seafood at D’Noz Restaurant followed by cake, then back home for more drinking, dancing and pi˝ata popping.

All in all an excellent day, coordinated beautifully by Chris (though the same couldnt be said for the next morning when we awoke, stunned, to the sound of a random brass band belting out tunes outside our front door. Soooo not something you want to deal with when you have a hangover, but a classic example of the randomness of San Pedro).

Two days after Caroline's birthday, the rainy season began. One minute the skies were an endless blue, the next, it was as if the heavens exploded like a burst dam. For about four hours every day, it poured and poured, turning the streets into white water rapids and sending the entire town's debris rushing down the hill to the lake.

It must have been Mother Nature's time for revenge, because on May 2, we lived through earthquake number five and, at 6.1 on the Richter Scale, probably our biggest for the trip at that point. We were woken in the late morning by our bed and room shaking and dashed out to the foyer area where our sheet metal roof began twisting and shuddering.

We briefly contemplated evacuating, considering the dilapidated nature of our casa - and the fact we were now perched on the side of a volcano - but we stood our ground, faced our fears and, once again, survived.

Like with any small town, gossip was a favourite pastime in San Pedro and you couldn’t sneeze without everyone else hearing about it within the hour. We began calling San Pedro 'The SP' as in the TV show 'The OC', and enjoyed daily catch ups on the latest dramas and ongoing storylines.

At one stage we even considered starting a weekly gossip rag featuring all the regular town 'celebs' - just because we could. Though, as with most great ideas one has in San Pedro, we never quite found the time to do anything about it – way to much 'doing nothing' to do.

News of the Swine Flu scare broke worldwide in April (though reports were considerably slow to arrive to San Pedro, just two hours from the Mexican border where the virus apparently originated). Stories kept flooding in from friends and family in other countries, particularly Australia which seems to have gone waaaaaay overboard in it’s preventative measures (Face masks? Stocking up on tinned goods? A week self-imposed quarantine after interstate holidays? Seriously?), but life continued in it’s slow, laid back manner in San Pedro.

As we watched the rest of the world implode on itself and rifled through email travel alerts from the Australian government to “be alert, not alarmed”, we barely spared a thought for the epidemic that had closed down all major tourist sites in Mexico and restricted many flights in and out of the region we were currently in.

And then, just a week before we were due to leave San Pedro, we got sick. And not just a sniffle or tickling cough, we got real sick. Sweats, chills, hallucinations, headaches, bone aches, muscles aches, nausea, vomiting. Good times.

Whether or not we had succumbed to the dreaded Swine Flu is still unclear, but during our last week in San Pedro, we shivered and sweated our way through four days in bed.

Leaving San Pedro is one of those things you have to plan well in advance and thoroughly commit to. That means buying the most expensive bus ticket possible so there is no way of 'accidentally' missing your ride, and it means ignoring everyone you have made friends with who will inevitably try and convince you to stay, “just for one more day”. We can’t even count the number of times we had farewell parties and drinks for new friends who then popped up the next day, having decided it wasn’t quite time to leave after all.

So, on Monday, May 18, we left San Pedro. We had our own farewell party, and a final roast, at The Alegre the night before, then the next morning, hungover as hell, we caught an early-morning shuttle, bound for Antigua, four hours away.

We spent three months living in San Pedro, Guatemala. It’s not at all what we expected to do, but it’s what happened. It was a strange, frozen moment in time, where we discovered that life can be that simple.


We had three reasons for this pit-stop.

1. To break up the journey to Utila, Honduras, where we were going to learn to scuba dive.

2. To climb Volcan Pacaya, an active volcano that actually spews lava and everything and,

3. To renew our now-expired three-month visa that covers Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

After, a hellish four-hour journey nursing hangovers, we arrived in Antigua, population 45,000, but a virtual metropolis after the tiny town of San Pedro.

(Now remember, we lost our camera - and all our photos from Antigua - somewhere on the overland trip between Honduras and Mexico, just after we left Guatemala, so you'll just have to make do with some leftover ones from San Pedro and a few we stole from the internet instead).

We checked into a private room at a posada (inn) for 30Q ($6) a night and the day after we arrived, made a 'visa run' to Guatemala City, an hour away by chicken bus.

After much faffing about and being sent on a wild goose chase from one government building to another, we finally found the Departamento de Extranjeria (Foreigners’ Office) where we managed to convince the government officials to express process our visas that day.

As we had overstayed our 90 day visa by three days, we had to pay a small fine, as well as a fee for another 90-days that would then allow us to proceed safely into Honduras. As we waited for our visas, we wandered around the city, spotting a random herd of goats at a major intersection and enjoying a fun afternoon of beers, free tapas and football in El Portal, a bar once frequented by Che Guevera.

Back in Antigua, we spent our remaining days checking out the town and the enormous local markets where Caroline was simultaneously both overwhelmed and delighted at the expansive second hard clothes markets that put San Pedro’s trucks to shame. Many a day was wasted trawling through the racks, munching on boiled corn coated in chilli and cheese, to the cries of “Ropa, ropa, ropa, cinco, cinco, cinco” ("clothes, clothes, clothes, five, five, five").

As we said, one of the main reasons for stopping in Antigua was to climb Volcan Pacaya, a one hour drive out of town and then a hefty two-hour trek up its side. Pacaya stands at an imposing 2,552 metres above sea level and has erupted almost continuously since 1965. It was a hot day, but we could really feel the heat from the lava bubbling away underground through the porous volcanic rock beneath our feet.

The first glimpse of a lava stream was quite surreal. It actually flows quite fast, like a thick, molten toffee, and is accompanied by a crackling noise, kind of like a campfire.

And it’s hot, really hot. Like 1077 degrees Celcius (1970 degrees Fahrenheit) hot. Standing a couple of metres away is enough to singe the hairs on your arms and feel your skin start to bake.

Of course, being Aussies, the situation required some reckless behaviour so, armed with salchichas (sausages), we used sticks to cook the most awesome BBQ ever over the molten lava.

It only took a few seconds before the meat combusted, which was lucky because holding the sticks so close to the lava almost gave us third degree burns. We had some great photos of the experience, but they’re gone, along with the camera. Yeah…

We are ashamed to admit it, but our first trip to McDonald's was perhaps one of the highlights of Antigua. Deprived of any sort of fast food for nearly five months, we hadn’t been in town long when we demolished our first large McChicken Meal. The experience only added to by the actual McDonald's building itself.

Like all buildings in Antigua, the fašade is largely colonial looking, but inside, it was the McDonalds of the future.

The biggest, most awesome looking McDonalds we have ever seen with super-chilled air con, free internet and a huge outdoor landscaped garden restaurant complete with ornate colonial paving, sculptures and fountain (yes, we know we're sad).

And of course, our pit stop in Antigua wouldn’t be complete without yet another earthquake. Our sixth one for the trip shook us in bed, but we barely even looked up, them having become something we thought we were now used to.

Then, on Wednesday, May 27, we made the horrendous 14-hour overland journey to La Ceiba, in Honduras, our jumping off point for the Bay Islands where we would learn to scuba dive and where we would discover that earthquakes are something you never really get used to after all.

Those stories, up next.

Until then,
Chris and Caroline xx

Sitting atop the 64m high, 1200-year-old Temple IV at Tikal, gazing over the canopy of trees and watching the sun sink low in the sky to the sound of unseen howler monkeys. Very special.

The quintessential San Pedro things we’ll never forget, like: the local ladies in their traditional dress, the welcoming “Hola” everywhere you went, the incessant call of “Pan de Banana?” ("banana bread?") from Rosaria, Tyranasaurus Rex and the other banana bread ladies...and...

...the terrifying tuk tuk rides, the 5Q ($1) clothes trucks, the constant smell of fermenting coffee, the magical fireflies at night, the rain, the 4Q (80c) Cuba Libres, litro bottles of Gallo and Bravha, vodka y naranja (vodka and orange) with freshly squeezed jugo de naranja (orange juice), the pirated movies...and...

...the chickens, the pigs, the dogs, 3 x 10 tacos, the “bolsos de agua” (bags of water), street stalls selling 8Q ($1.50) chicken dinners and mouth-watering tortas (with seven kinds of processed meat) cooked right there in front of you, Bob Marley on repeat over and over and over...and...

...cheap Termidor and Clos cask wine, the heady, scented markets, the old man who sat on the corner and shook everyone's hands as they walked past, the ATMs that never worked, Eliseo, the lake, the volcano, The Alegre…

Time spent with all our new San Pedro friends, especially Steve, Simon, Carmen, Martin, Amanda, Alex, the La Playa boys, Juan, Mandy, John, Smokin’ Joe and Rosaria – we miss you guys.

Climbing Volcan Pacaya and seeing real lava for the first time.

The random herd of goats we saw wandering through a major intersection in Guatemala City.

Casa Banana (aka 'The Shanty') – the fleas, the jungle kitchen with our little electric cooktop, the leaks, the roosters, the blackouts, the tacuasil. Living in Guatemala – what an experience!

Congratulations to Pam and Dwayne on the birth of little Griffin Neville and to Jen and Shane who recently welcomed baby Matilda Lena into the world. Well done guys!  And good luck to Julia and Kris and Jules and James who will soon have new additions to their families as well. Photos please!

Special hugs: Auntie Ange. Thinking about you and sending you lots of love from Canada. We hope you have a lovely birthday next week and are very spoiled.

Belated birthday wished to: Auntie Ki, Laura, Dad/John, Mum/Josey, Dad/Michael, Ben P, Christie, Soph, Bel, Maddie, Mitch, Hank, Larry, Nat, Julia, Ian, Johnny and anyone else who has celebrated their special day since we last wrote.

And a belated thanks to everyone for their well wishes for Chris' birthday recently and Caroline’s birthday back in April.

Sol: Wish I was there to be watching Carlton’s impressive season with you. Top six, wicked. Finals for sure. (Caroline)

Life doesn’t have to be serious - you just need to make space for little adventures and detours.


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