Guatemala- A wrap up

What do supermarkets tell us about Guatemala? Not an awful lot, except that they are a bit untidy and have unusual product advertisements……….

Big hanging advertisements for horses and knights. We didn't purchase any knights.

Big hanging advertisements for horses and knights. We didn’t purchase any knights.

Another large hanging and curious advertisement for avocadoes

Another large hanging and curious advertisement for avocados

When there is a motor accident the accidentees pull their distressed cars to the side of the road which is a potential hazard to other road users and the vehicle itself. To provide warning of impending obstruction the drivers cut narrowish branches from trees and shrubs and place them on the road in advance of the vehicle. At first I was confused, I thought the vehicle had mowed down the nature strip before it came to a halt. But after seeing consistent similar situations it was clear it was a considered act ….a cheap plentiful substitute for reflective warning triangles.

There is a Bell Motorbike helmet advert that says…..” If you have a ten dollar head , buy a ten dollar helmet.” My personal take. If you have a four dollar head, get a four dollar haircut, and here it is:

It was a very cheap haircut. A very good haircut

A very cheap haircut is a very good haircut

There are many billboards alongside the highway, they are large as well as numerous. Billboards are available for a particular period of time. When that period of time expires the billboard company sends out Vincent Van Gogh and he ensures that no one is able to read the original advertisement. He overpaints with fabulous bold swirled brushstrokes that create many starry starry night variations along the highway.

Highway art? I liked it.

Highway art? I liked it.

 

Guatemala is a land of volcanoes. This one obligingly erupted as we watched it

Guatemala is a land of volcanoes. This one obligingly erupted as we watched it.

 

And this one we climbed. Its Pacaya a 60 minute drive from Antigua. The ash here came from an eruption in March.

And this one we climbed. Its Pacaya a 60 minute drive from Antigua. The ash here came from an eruption in March.

 

 

 

 

Very tasty marshmallows

Very tasty marshmallows

Very tasty marshmallows

Very tasty marshmallows

Tasty marshmallows? Very

Tasty marshmallows? Very

The crater at the top was filled by an eruption in 2010. The ash is still hot. Hot enough to toast marshmallows

The crater at the top was filled by an eruption in 2010. The ash is heated by the lava below. Its hot enough to toast marshmallows (and any digits foolishly left lingering!)

The highways of Mexico and Belize and Guatemala have many many many warning signs, mostly yellow, with words printed upon them which read “Topes” or ” Tumulos” or “Reducidores de Velocidad” . They warn of the imminent location of a speed hump. We have negotiated, perhaps, thousands of these. All credit to our drivers who have hit only two at pace. When they do strike them at speed it certainly wakes up a minibus of travellers. But back to the prevalence. Speed humps are the Central American equivalent of the Cane Toad. Brought in with good intention they are now breeding out of control. Enterprising individuals of each of these nations now construct their own speed humps without reference to Vic Roads or equivalent. The fresh humps are positioned where people collect money by the highway, or sell goods, or have a shop or have invested in an impressive and freshly painted billboard. The main task of the VicRoads equivalents is now to reduce the number of those unofficially constructed. I admire the ingenuity and enterprising nature of the freelancing road safety citizens. But the speed humps now exist in plague proportions and they are a bit of a nuisance.

 

 

 

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Guatemala- Antigua

Antigua, is an old Colonial town which was once the capital of Guatemala and is now a treasure. There were plans to tarmac its streets but the cobblestones remain. The cobblestones make for a vibrating ride in tyred transport and unsteady terrain for those on foot, but are visually fabulous. The houses and shops and restaurants are also visually fabulous, each painted in pastel colours and the palate jealously guarded by the city and understood by all of Antigua’s home renovators. It has bars and restaurants and hotels and a town square and trees. And all of these demand photographs:

Cathedral with flower

Cathedral with flower. The cathedral mostly fell down around 100 years ago as a consequence of an earthquake

Tiled stop and one way signs

Tiled signs indicating “Stop” and “One Way”

Take a tuc tuc and have your fillings shaken loose over the cobbles

Take a tuc tuc and have your fillings shaken loose over the cobbles

Tiles sunk into the pavement let you know where to park your motorbike

Tiles sunk into the pavement let you know where to park your motorbike

Responsible service of alcohol

Responsible service of alcohol?

Jewellery shop follows the tiled method of advertising

Jewellery shop follows the tiled tradition of signage

McDonalds obliged to conform with acceptable and consistent colour schemes

McDonalds obliged to conform with acceptable and consistent colour schemes

Enough of the cobblestones and attractive wall colours

Enough of the cobblestones and attractive wall colours

 

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Guatemala- Religion Muralised

We went for a boat ride around Lago Atitlan calling at San Pedro, San Juan and San Marcos. If you sense a religious theme in the naming convention, there was no doubting it at San Pedro. These are a sample of many that were painted upon shop walls and homes and any other available surfaces……….

House painting. Only Jesus can change your life

Only Jesus can change your life

Opticians. Sponsored by the Jehova's or at least a reflecting a keen interest in that direction

Opticians. Sponsored by the Jehova’s or at least reflecting a keen interest in that direction

If you die today where will you spend eternity? Another house wall.

If you die today where will you spend eternity?

The big guy in San Pedro. Not doubt about that

The big guy in San Pedro. No doubt about that

Jesus gave his blood for love of you

Jesus spilled his blood for love of you. Accept him

Tuc tuc head to head. Jesus covering this guy

Tuc tuc head to head. Jesus covering this guy

And on our right we have Red Bull

And on our right we have Red Bull sponsorship

 

 

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Guatemala- San Jorge

Finding San Jorge may be tricky. It isn’t very large and is located on Lago de Atitlan. The people are descendants of the Mayans and the town has few natural advantages, except for a lovely view of the lake. The objective of the visit was a homestay with a family. This village of 3000 is mostly self governing and has had the initiative to open itself up to this type of tourist experience and the money that accompanies it. This type of tourist experience is voyeuristic but it is equally educational. It injects cash directly into the community which the community needs, as do many of the families in the scheme. I come away very pleased that I have my life and not theirs.

Rosa cooks breakfast for us in the homestay kitchen

Rosa cooks breakfast for us in the homestay kitchen

Our home stay. 3 bedrooms to the right. Kitchen under the tin roof at left and toilet behind the camera. Lake glimpses possibly not sufficient to make it hot Real Estate

Our home stay. 3 bedrooms to the right. Kitchen under the tin roof at left and toilet behind the camera. Lake glimpses possibly not sufficient to make it hot Real Estate

Our room. Basic , we were given a cardboard box to keep our clothes off the floor.

Our room was basic but was clean. we were given a cardboard box to keep our clothes off the floor.

 

I stayed with Lucas and our family was ten people. Joaquin 56 worked as a cleaner in a hotel and Rosa 50 kept house. Two boys 20 and 15 and two girls 17 and 11 lived at home, two married sisters lived in bordering homes and two married sisters lived in nearby villages. The boys both worked building houses, the older girl kept a small shop at the top of the block and the younger girl spent 8-00am until 1-00pm at school.

The village is self governing in that a council decides most matters locally. The same council has the power to lock up ne’er-do-wells for 24 hours and there is a small prison for this purpose. No police here, no conventional rule of law deals with most matters.

People live, on average, until 65.

Work is not plentiful and not well paid. Education drives basic literacy into the children with most leaving at 13 and “1 percent” getting to University.

One of the local leaders gave us a chat on the village from which I source my information. He indicated a very strong catholic adherance in the village which he credited as the sole source of solace/hope that the villagers had in their lives. In a discussion on birth defects he spoke of homosexuality as one of the disabilities that the community had not suffered. It was more than a surprise to hear the comment, and it provided an unexpected insight into the views that I assumed are widely held.

We attended a communal dinner for the eight homes our group occupied. That was great fun, the children came for the pinata and the adults ate a pumpkin soup with chicken and a local doughy bread. The local doughy bread was an awful bland stodge steamed in a banana leaf (a culinary assessment I kept to myself, until now!). The meal was priced as a city based evening meal. The guide said that they use the profit to contribute to secondary education places. I hope that its true, but even if not, there are many needs in the village for which surplus funds can be welcomingly applied.

Breakfast at the home was beans and eggs for us and the lady of the house cooked herself beans. Our guide felt it unlikely eggs would have been on the menu if we had not been in attendance. All children and husband had left for school and work before we departed at 8:15am. Discussion was difficult as our spanish is poor, but so too was that of our host. Spanish is spoken at school but at home its Kaqchiqel, the local language. We had no morning shower, there is only water to the house every second day, and we awoke on the day that the water did not pump. Toilet facilities were at the top of the block…………nocturnal bladder relief was an intimidating negotiation of steps and a path illuminated by my iphone …………but worth it………..and a mental note to drink less beer on homestay evenings.

The girls were given traditional dress for the communal dinner.

The girls were given traditional dress for the communal dinner.

Communal dinner. One pan has the pumpkin soup and the other with the towels contains the doughy banana leaf clad bread.

Communal dinner. One pan has the pumpkin soup and the other with the towels contains the doughy bread steamed in banana leaf.

 

 

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Guatemala- Tikal

Tikal is a Mayan ruin. It is distinctive because of its size. The site was occupied from about 700 BC (by precursors to the Mayans) and abandoned around 900 AD, with its glory years at the back end of that period. It is a monster. A monster in both acreage and height. At 56 square kilometres of Mayan City we walked for four hours and saw the most important sites and missed masses. It is/was home to Templo IV, the highest Mayan pyramid of the empire, at 70 metres.

Spanish Colonial texts refer to the existence of the city. As is fitting for Spanish Colonial texts, these were ignored. The city was lost to the jungle and rediscovered in the mid 1800’s. The jungle has been trimmed back ever since and sits on the sidelines waiting to pounce once more. The temperature was about 31 degrees but the humidity is such that the very thought of walking causes the emergence of sweaty staining. The actual act of walking is a very dampening experience.

Our photo from Templo IV shows the proximity of the jungle. Compare and contrast with a  similar photo from George Lucas’s collection, George being a close personal friend of mine.

The jungle as seen from the top of Templo IV. The tallest Mayan pyramid yet discovered

The jungle as seen from the top of Templo IV. The tallest Mayan pyramid yet discovered

This image was captured for a popular film some 37 years previous. No extraterrestial arrivals the day we visited.

This image was captured for a popular film some 37 years previous. No extraterrestial arrivals the day we visited.

 

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Guatemala- An introduction

A country with a troubled past featuring dictators, coups, inequality of wealth, poverty and human rights abuses. It currently has an elected government, is poor and that poverty is most dearly felt by the majority of the 11 million population who are the indigenous descendants of the Mayans.

As we left Guatemala our guide farewelled the country and encouraged to tell our friends that it is not the violent country Guatemalans feel is portrayed overseas. In a sense he was correct, I had no first hand encounters that were negative and the people I met were friendly and easy going. We visited Flores/Tikal, Rio Dulce, Antigua, San Jorge village and Panajachel and felt safe at all times. Yet there were hints that life for all may not be as we were experiencing it and I provide 4 examples:

1. I read only one newspaper while awaiting my $4 haircut and its focus was violent crimes and traffic accidents.

2. Our first tour guide lived in Guatemala and made a strange comment at one of the briefing meetings. He said he had promised his wife he would not ride on chicken buses (the converted american school buses, pictures already and more will follow). Later I asked him why. He said that if riding them everyday, a Guatemalan would expect that on one occasion in the year, the bus would be halted by armed individuals demanding money from the passengers. Travelling with tourists makes the probability of that happening slightly higher, but not high. The reason for this is that there are sometimes individuals on buses who, if they spot “wealthy” targets, will phone ahead with this information.

3. As we drove through Guatemala City one passenger commented that there were not many motorbikes. The guide, different guide , said this was because pillions had been prohibited. The reason for the prohibition of pillions was the increasingly popular crime of motorbikes pulling up next to cars and the pillions producing a firearm to demand valuables.

4. We saw quite a large number of security men holding shotguns. Next to security vans collecting or delivering cash there were usually two or more and they pointedly had their fingers alongside the trigger and guard. We expected to see them where cash was being transported, but their heightened state of readiness was unexpected. We also saw them in many other places, such as, protecting a takeaway chicken shop (quite a successful one, but nevertheless think of a small KFC, and this is what it was). A beer truck delivering crates to a retail outlet, had a man with a shotgun to dissuade potential thieves. As we drove through Belize City we passed a number of vans transporting goods and in the passenger seat…….yep, a man with a shotgun.

So I think the guide is sort of correct and sort of providing a partial perspective. All the towns we visited were tourist towns. Walking around those towns at night I felt safe and, in fact, major elements of those towns were in bed by ten pm. We travelled by private bus. We did not stop at Guatemala City and it is my impression from what I saw that the risks are higher in Guatemala City. We did drive around and through Guatemala City, twice, and a very ugly city it is, so visitors are unlikely to visit. Following my fulsome explanation, I state that Guatemala is a very strong recommend to all.

The country has 37 volcanoes and 17 of those are alive and smoking, according to the guide who took us up Pacaya. This volcano is the easiest to climb and last erupted in March this year. Wikipedia argues with our guide and considers there are 28 volcanoes and that 14 are live, and the other 14 have not erupted within the last thousand years. Either way, its a lot of volcanoes for a country a little bigger than England. Coffee and tourism seemed to be the major industries with maize supplying a lot of the calories. Jaguars still live in the wild. There are estimated to be 800 jaguars and the size of the  colony is increasing rather than the expected direction.

After eight or nine days here the takeaway impressions are of volcanic countryside, rivers, lakes, colonial towns, Mayan ruins and quality coffee. Time for some pictures.

First stop Flores. An island that is perfect one moment

First stop Flores. An island that is perfect one moment

And tropical downpour the next. Wait an hour and normal sunny service resumed

And tropical downpour the next. Wait an hour and normal sunny service resumed

Textiles and colourful buildings

Textiles and colourful buildings

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And the day concludes and we are ready for a Gallo beer. Which is a very acceptable brew

And the day concludes and we are ready for a Gallo beer. Not only a very acceptable brew but la cerveza mas fina que others from Mexico and Belize

 

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Belize- Better not to blink, you may miss it

Belize is sandwiched between Mexico and Guatemala, it is about the size of; Wales.  A poor country, the main industries are agriculture and tourism, there is a lingering resentment concerning the english colonial past. The official language is english but a local language survives, apart from a musical tradition the people are as bleak as the weather. But enough about Wales……….. lets talk about Belize.

In Belize the main industries are agriculture and tourism. The independent nation of Belize came into being in 1981 and the previous title of British Honduras disappeared into the most recent iteration of a colonial past. The official language is english but also spoken are Garifuna , Creole and Spanish. The musical tradition here is thankfully not one of male voice choirs, but when music is played, and loudly so,  it tends to be reggae. The country is very poor, but the people are very relaxed about life. The Lonely Planet describes Belizeans as “laid back”. The tour guide uses the term “lazy”, both are understandable adjectives intended to capture the same traits. Pursuit of material gain does not seem to be a driving factor for many people. Sitting around in hammocks, or on the street, with a, rum based, drink in hand is a worthy goal for many. The weather is the humid/hot end of warm.

When travelling through Wales the prevalent advice is to blink in order to miss it, in  fact, blink hard until Bristol. Belize is better observed. Arriving from Mexico, Belize reminds you that in Mexico there were no black people, in Belize there are many. I was reminded of my six months working the night shift at a Manchester based, sausage factory. There existed a similarly strong Afro Caribbean influence from a workforce sourced from Moss Side, similar language, but dominoes not played in Belize.

Modes of transport. A chicken bus, a repainted US school bus where comfort is secondary to economy. To be fair, the 150 minutes we spent on it was just fine.

Modes of transport. A chicken bus, a repainted US school bus where comfort is secondary to economy. To be fair, the 150 minutes we spent on it to get to San Ignacio were just fine.

Modes of transport. From Belize City to Caye Caulker  (population 800) the ferry boat.

Modes of transport. From Belize City to Caye Caulker (population 800) the ferry boat.

Modes of transport - The kayaks at Caye Caulker didn't seem to have found the energy to move for a number of months if not years.

Modes of transport – The kayaks at Caye Caulker didn’t seem to have found the energy to move for a number of months if not years.

Modes of transport- We paddled these canoes through limestone caves where Mayans left child sacrifices and cooking pots.

Modes of transport- We paddled these canoes through limestone caves where Mayans left child sacrifices and cooking pots.

Mode of transport- Proof that paddling was performed

Mode of transport- Proof that paddling was performed

Modes of transport- The preferred transport, although movement tends to be restricted to a sideways motion.

Modes of transport- The preferred transport. Movement tends to be restricted to a sideways motion and distance covered is limited.

 

Caye Caulker is memorable for things that are not captured by my camera:

1. The lobster, cooked on the BBQ. So good we had to have a repeat lobster dish the next evening…..the second time around we chose the biggest lobster available.

2. Snorkelling. A three stop snorkel and sail that had us amongst scores of black sharks and manta rays. They follow the boats anticipating food, and then quickly show their disappointment, if not fed, by leaving. Which is better than demonstrating disappointment by eating snorkellers.

3. Conch shells. The sea floor was littered with them. Mostly corpses but also some live ones. I’ve always considered them to be rare, but not here.

Back to my theme of supermarkets and their locational insights.

Chen's supermarket. The chinese are numerically few but the locals seem to have ceded to them the energy required to engage in retail commerce (and any profits that flow therefrom) .

Chen’s supermarket. The chinese are numerically few but the locals seem to have ceded to them the energy required to engage in retail commerce (and the profits that flow therefrom) .

Another run by Chinese. The lights were on low, no aircon, no technology and cash based.

Another supermarket run by Chinese. The lights were on low, no aircon, no technology and cash based.

 

San Ignacio, a small town with a very short street of hotels and restaurants and tour operators. The key sights are a) the limestone caves which the Mayans used for religious ceremonies and b)the Mayan ruins a kilometre up the hill.

The Mayan ruins, Cahal Pech, were great. We arrived at around lunchtime and  wandered without seeing anyone else. The trees had grown through the pyramids and been trimmed back to reveal the initial structure.

Cahal Pech

Cahal Pech

Cahal Pech. The typical Mayan arch

Cahal Pech. The typical Mayan arch

And finally. A chicken sign painted on the side of a van. If this had been Wales the enticement would have contianed two Y's  an improbable volume of consonants and have been pronounced ina  funereal manner. Dis Da Fi Wi Chiken , is joyful and salivating. Which is one reason I currently prefer Belize to Wales.

And finally. A chicken sign painted on the side of a van. If this had been Wales the enticement would have contianed two Y’s an improbable volume of consonants and have been pronounced in a funereal tone. Dis Da Fi Wi Chiken, is joyful and salivating. Which is one reason I currently prefer Belize to Wales.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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