Thursday, September 13, 2012

So as not to bore—Final Footnotes on Guatemala

Dancers in traditional Mayan costumes.
Today I officially close the book on my Guatemalan adventure. This morning I swallowed my last preventive malaria pill. Alas, goodbye Guatemala

Before the trip I visited a travel doctor and received a tetanus shot, typhoid pills, and hepatitis A vaccine. The hep A is good for five years. I suppose I should travel to another place requiring the shot within the next five years; that way I will maximize my cost.

I also took along pills in case of diarrhea, a not uncommon occurrence because of the less-than-pristine water, and unique and varied bacteria lurking on fruits and vegetables foreign to my digestive system. As a precaution we did not eat raw fruits unless thick skinned (bananas, pineapples and watermelon passed the test), and no salads or raw vegetables. Luckily, the precautionary pills were unnecessary.

Some interesting odds and ends about the country and our trip

Most of the population is Catholic, with a strong dose of Mayan religion overlaying traditional Catholicism. Our tour guide took us to visit the idol of an important Mayan god/saint, Maximon (pronounced mashimon), housed in Santiago, Lake Atitlan. He is considered a bad saint (sounds like an oxymoron to me, but…). The idol is protected by a select group of men (shamans) and every year resides in a different home. The idol lies in a glass-encased casket decorated with garlands and lights. The room is adorned with colorful wall and ceiling hangings, and lots of candles. People come and pray, offering gifts of scarfs and ties, cigars, liquor, candles, and money. Max is the god of business, among other things, and people pray for business success. We learned later that Max is also responsible for male sexual fertility. Our (male) tour guide was probably too embarrassed to furnish this information. Max is also a link to the underworld.

Stone walls surround many of the homes, businesses and large plantations throughout the country. The walls in many areas are topped with barbed wire – testament to the country’s difficulty controlling lawless citizens.

The national symbol of Guatemala is a bird called the quetzal. Quetzal is also the name of their currency. The quetzal is a beautiful, multi-colored bird, but unfortunately we did not see any. Quetzals are rare and in danger of extinction. The bird was sacred to the Mayans, symbolizing freedom and wealth. 

Jade is a natural resource and considered amongst the best quality in the world. We toured a jade factory and bought small pieces of jade jewelry. The Mayans believed jade was the most precious stone on earth, and their royalty was buried with several pounds of jade ornaments.
Workers in the jade factory.
I am sure readers are wondering about rest room facilities. Our hotel bathrooms were modern and clean. Antiqua had public toilets. Patrons paid a small fee for the privilege of using the bathrooms, and attendants maintained the facilities. Public places visited – museums, tourist sites and restaurants – had modern, clean bathrooms. When we got to the rainforest, however, we encountered a rather unique (to us) practice. Signs in the bathrooms stated something like, “please do not throw bathroom tissue in the toilet.” Convenient wastebaskets were available…I know, I can see everyone’s nose wrinkle and shoulders shutter. Modern sewage facilities have not yet been built in the rainforest region...

A note of warning when considering an outdoor activity such as a bike ride in an unfamiliar area. Carefully research the type of terrain and roads you will be traveling. We were assured the bike ride we were taking was rated “beginner”.  In fact, our tour coordinator sent us the following e-mail after we voiced concern about the nature of the ride:

Don't worry about the biking tour since the route we are offering you is a route for beginners, and the guide will take care of you, all the time.

I cannot describe how difficult the ride was (for us). We did not have a clue what was in store. We envisioned a nice, leisurely ride on a fairly flat road around the lake.

We picked up our guide and mountain bikes (clue #1) at the tour office. We then enjoyed a boat ride across the lake to our starting point. As we approached the town I looked at my sister and said, “Do you see any flat areas?” There were none. (clue #2)

We walked the bikes off the boat, turned a corner and our guide said,”OK, get on your bikes and let’s go!” (not really - he spoke Spanish and minimal English, but we got the message.)

Facing us was a poorly paved, steep, windy road. We stared at the road, traversing more than a hill, and not much less than a mountain. Our guide hops on his bike and rides up. A few minutes later he stops and looks back. The three of us were attempting to get on our bikes, adjust the gears and ride uphill. We were all over the place, on and off the bikes – and had made zero progress.

The bike ride turned into a hike and bike. We walked the bikes up one mountain after another. They were long and too steep (for us) to ride. We rode our brakes downhill so we did not go too fast. We did not want to fall, tumble over the handlebars and land in the nearest medical clinic.

The towns and countryside we rode through were supposed to be picturesque and beautiful. We were too focused on surviving and too tired to notice.

A note about flying Spirit Air. Their motto should be, “you get what you pay for.” We got cheap flights to Guatemala, and our pocketbooks are grateful. The planes were packed and seats close-fitting. I cannot imagine a tall person fitting into a seat (unless paying additional for exit row seats) without their legs hitting the back of the seat in front, or an obese person fitting into the seat at all. The planes are the equivalent of riding city buses during rush hour. The only difference is that everyone must be seated on take off and landing.

On our plane home we were in row 36 of 37 rows. Behind us were three children ages 4, 5, and 6. Their mother was in the seat directly across the aisle. The kids’ high-pitched screeches and constant kicking drove us crazy. I asked the stewardess if we could move, and she kindly allowed us to change seats (there were only three or four empty seats in the entire plane). I wondered why Mom did not sit between the kids, putting a damper on their lively goings-on, but I guess I am getting old and crotchety…Anyway, thank you Spirit Air stewardess!

A couple more of my way-less-than-professional pictures -
A Mayan woman - note traditional skirt - weaving another beautiful item.
Notice the woman carrying items on her head - a common means of transporting products.

Salud and Adios, Guatemala - "place of many trees"

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