Guat Just Happened?

Trip Start Mar 11, 2011
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
Pension Meza

Flag of Guatemala  , Western Highlands,
Thursday, September 1, 2011

When we arrived at Pension Meza I was rather exhausted from exercising my underdeveloped Spanish muscle. That might explain why my knee-jerk opening line to the first fellow travellers we encountered was: "Habla Ingles?" (Do you speak English?). 
Remind me why we came to Guatemala again? That's right, to learn Spanish! And you don't do that by speaking English. Fortunately they didn't, forcing us to push on in Espanol. I managed to establish their names and that they were from El Salvador, Spain and Costa Rica. They were all "malabaristas" (street performers / jugglers). Later we met two dreadlocked Honduran brothers, Luis and Bryan, who were also malabaristas. Among others they included flame-throwing in their repertoire! 

It seems that it's quite a common method for Central Americans to fund their exploration of the region, as well as making small crafts like wristbands and necklaces to sell. They are very resourceful in the absence of rich parents, an advantage that many Western travellers have.
Our first night in Central America happened to coincide with Geoff & Emily Wolfe's last. They had just finished their 10 month exploration and were due to fly back to the States to resume "normal" life the following day. It was a great opportunity for them to reflect on all they hade experienced and to pass the torch (and Rough Guide) to us newbies. Some of the valuable lessons they shared were: 

(1) How not to get electrocuted in the shower - they use electric units here so it's essential that you check that no wires are hanging below the shower head. In fact, your life depends on it!
(2) When you hear loud bangs in the neighbourhood (day or night) it may sound like gunshots but rest assured that it's only fireworks. Guatemalans celebrate everything, and they do so with fireworks. More so with the presidential pre-elections looming.     
(3) If you're trying to say that you're feeling a little embarrassed, don't say "embarazado un poco". That will leave you REALLY embarrassed because you'd really be saying "I'm feeling a little pregnant"!

The Wolfes also helped us get our bearings around town. There was the impressive but dilapidated Palacio Royale, now a local tourist attraction mostly visited by school groups. It stands proudly on Parque Central alongside the Metropolitan Cathedral. Apparently just about every church in Guatemala has its own square / plaza. They were hoping to show us the underground tunnel that links the cathedral to another church but unfortunately it was closed.

Next we ventured into the extensive maze of an underground market with colourful textile clothes, hammocks and jewelery. The food sellers tried to lure us with samples. The street fruit sellers sold bags of sliced pineapple and mango  with freshly squeezed lime and sprinkled chilli powder. It was the same as we'd seen in LA but significantly cheaper and notably less hygienic. They also introduced us to "Buki's", the tiny and unpretentious restaurant next door where we ended up having most of our meals.  Geoff and Emily had picked up a travel companion in Nicaragua, had been travelling with him on "chicken buses" all the way to Guatemala and were taking him home to Colorado. His name was Doce, a stray dog with twelve toes (hence the name). 

It was a brief but memorable encounter with the Wolfes, and we hope to meet up with them again sometime, somewhere in the world!

There was only one other Westerner at Pension Meza although he'd been living in Guatemala for 40 years. I managed to glean this from one surprisingly sane conversation with him. We covered topics ranging from world politics, to social issues in the region and even football (he's a Tottenham fan, our nearest football team in London). He was an elderly American teaching English to locals. That sounds normal enough except he was the same guy who squeaks and whistles to himself all day long, starting promptly at 7am. Even earlier than that he'd been brushing his teeth and clearing their throat for what seemed an eternity. How much clearing does one throat need, I ask you with tears in my eyes??!! I guess that open air basins in the courtyard is not conducive to sleeping late, especially since all the bedrooms open onto the courtyard too.

For the rest of the week we slept loads for some unknown reason. One Guatemalan fellow traveller and ex-Peace Corps who had done time in the Congo offered an explanation. He thought we were adjusting to the height, our lungs were decompressing. Guatemala City is much higher above sea level than we're used to, standing at 1400m. London is 14m and Cape Town is 6m. But it's still not THAT high. So possibly... or perhaps constantly speaking Spanish was wearing us out! We diligently listened to our audio books to help us deal with typical daily encounters like getting to know new people, ordering food and negotiating prices.
We also explored the rest of zona 1, known as Centro Historico. We followed the locals advice and didn't venture out after dark. We didn't see any trouble but surly-looking security guards with oversized rifles were everywhere. They were present outside just about every store, including pharmacies and even tupperware stores! We were also amused by the photographers at the main square who offered to take your photo in front of the Palacio Royal, using old school cameras. One day we happened upon some malabaristas on the pedestrian street of 6th Avenida. But we knew those guys, they were OUR malabaristas! They were putting on a show and doing their thing - juggling, flame-throwing, prancing around on a unicycle with a young volunteer hanging from his neck, and getting the crowd all psyched up. That's how they roll! On a unicycle ;-p
All in all, Guatemala City gave us a very authentic Guatemalan city experience. It's way off the well-trodden gringo path of shuttles and tourist tat. The travel agencies and online forums say don't bother to stay over, so most people just fly into Guatemala city and take a shuttle straight to Antigua, the tourist mecca. That's probably why we were the only non-Latin Americans in town after the Wolfes left. We revelled in that knowledge and enjoyed it while it lasted.
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