Our visit into Guatemala City was quick, but not particularly easy or pleasant. It is a rather noisy, congested, dirty city and doesn't seem to have much to entice a traveller to stay any longer than absolutely necessary. After a frustrating visit to the Tourist Office we did manage to come away with a few useful maps and decided that the best strategy would be to head out of town. We made the mistake of stopping to stock up at a local supermarket, and by the time we got out it was dark and we managed to get totally lost on the CA-1 interchange. Luckily a friendly couple at a gas station guided us back on to our route, and we eventually spent the night camping in the yard of a very basic hotel in Santa Maria Cauqué.
Bright and early the next morning we made our way up into the highlands and were very soon surrounded by the sights and sounds of this strongly traditional Mayan area. It is almost three years since we were last here, and it felt really good to be back! We turned off the busy CA-1 at Patzicia and continued on through an area of thriving market garden enterprises, with fields full of cabbages, onions, tomatoes and peas. The only disconcerting aspect was the amount of spraying that was being carried out to protect the crops from the numerous pests and diseases that build up in this type of intensive mono-cropping production. We stopped in the small town of Patzún for bread, and found ourselves caught up in the jam-packed environment of the Tuesday market. This is definitely not a tourist destination, and the market is purely for local trading of all the commodities from the surrounding area. The market women were dressed in their colourful traje and guipils, and the whole town seemed to be lined with stalls and bubbling with activity. Nobody worried about a couple of foreigners quietly absorbing the atmosphere, observing the bewildering range of transactions, and discretely taking a few photos.
Our arrival back at the hacienda was heralded by a lot of excited shouts from the older kids when they saw the van coming down the steep driveway. We were soon surrounded by the whole family and were welcomed with open arms and a joyously noisy reception from everyone. We wrote a lot about Alberto, Juliana and their family of eight in our TP entries of March 2004, but the major news is that there are now ten children! The two older boys - Alfredo and Alvaro - have now left home and are working in a nearby village, and the oldest girl - Angélica - has finished school and is helping her mother with the chores at home. Eddy and Hebert are as mischievous as ever, and the younger girls - Otilia and Sylvia - have grown considerably.
The youngster Elmer is still somewhat shy, and Gilberto and Miria are the new additions to the family. Then there is Coyote the dog, a few other mongrels and a whole slew of puppies, a cat and several hens pecking around for scraps. Alberto receives a small monthly stipend for taking care of the hacienda, and the family all live in a small house on the property. They grow their maize and beans on the surrounding terraces, and a few vegetables to sell at the local market. With the little they have they not only manage to survive, but have a lot to teach us about making the most of life whatever the circumstances. We have never met such a nice bunch of polite and well-behaved kids!
By the first evening all the children were busy at the large table on the verandah, working on the colouring books, jigsaw puzzle, and play dough that we had brought along. Best of all, they loved checking out their photos on our laptop, and we all had a blast singing along with the animated "Doo-Wop Horses Quartet" that Nici had forwarded from Sydney. We chatted with Alberto and Juliana, and reminisced about Coen - the owner of the hacienda - who had sadly passed away a few months ago after a long and extremely productive life. We were so happy to be back at this supremely beautiful spot overlooking Lake Atitlán 1,500 ft below with its superb panoramic view across to the three majestic volcanoes standing guard beyond. We know that Coen's spirit will be surrounding us as we enjoy our days with the family and our friends in this little piece of heaven over the next few weeks.
Talking about friends, it was soon time for a quick trip back into Guatemala City to pick up Adi and Tanja who were arriving for a ten-day visit from Switzerland. It was so good to see them and it seems hardly any time at all since we were enjoying Winterlude on the canal in Ottawa last February. One of the 'perks' of Tanja's job as a Travel Agent is being able to get good deals on fancy hotels, so as they arrived rather late in the afternoon we all stayed overnight in the "Westin Camino Real" - quite an unusually luxurious accommodation for us! Now back at the hacienda, we are spending our time catching up on all the news from the hectic lives of our young Swiss friends and talking about what they have planned for the future. It'll be an arduous round of breakfasts on the patio in the warmth of the morning sun; special dinners around the fire in the sunken living room; trips out to some of the surrounding highland towns and villages and across the lake to traditional Mayan communities. It's a tough assignment, but somehow we'll manage!!
A couple of weeks ago we wrote about the trials and tribulations of border crossings. We were not particularly complimentary about customs and immigration procedures in Central America! So, in order to give credit where it is due, we must quickly mention our experience crossing from Honduras to Guatemala last week at the small border post at El Florido. We arrived quite early from Copán and found all the various offices grouped in a couple of buildings, between two security barriers. The atmosphere was quite tranquil and we were pleased to see that there were no touts hanging around. Checking out of Honduras took all of five minutes. On the Guatemala side we needed fifteen minutes - and that included ten minutes for the Customs Officer to finish his breakfast. All the paperwork was carried out quickly and efficiently - no photocopies were required, and there were no triplicate carbon copies as all the work was all done on the computer. There was one quick inspection and no quarantine spray. The total cost was $11 and we were happily on our way in less than half an hour. So, it is possible!!