Monday, March 11, 2013

A Little Corner of Honduras

Copan Ruinas, the town next to the ruins, is in the western corner of Honduras. There's not a whole lot to the town except for an over abundance of accommodations. But Honduras has a different feel from Guatemala. It's more cowboy country. Meaning more cattle, meaning more beef. (Guatemala is chicken land.) Street vendors grill yummy smelling beef slices. Milk, so expensive in Guatemala, is much cheaper here. Cowboy hats, cowboy boots are also back and the locals look less Mayan than typically Latino/Latina. But they are just as easy going and just as friendly as the Guatemalans.

The ruins are more chilled out -- this is not Chichen Itza or even Palenque. Even with the tour groups, it does not feel crowded or overrun. Copan has more carvings and carved stellae than other sites, with lots of glyphs as well as representations of rulers, monkeys, turtles, alligators and serpents, but the coolest thing about it is the surrounding area with its cotton silk tree, ceiba, gumbo-limbo, cedar, ear pod trees as well as macaw feeding station. There are several bright red, blue and yellow macaws, all as gaudy as Bozo the Clown. And oh, my, when they fly!! What a sight. Giant wing spans, long colorful tails. No wonder the Mayans thought they were representatives of the Sun God.

The adjoining site, Las Sepulturas, was the residential area for lesser muck-a-mucks. The chief, royalty and priests probably lived near the temple, while Las Sepulturas housed the shaman, shamana, scribes and other important people. The lower classes had wooden houses which disintegrated over time, but these higher ups had solid stone foundations that remain today. Did the same dynasty live there the entire time? Was the place conquered by outsiders and taken over? Or abandoned until new squatters came in? The temple was definitely reworked, succeeding generations building on what already existed. I suppose it might have been the same for the houses. Today, there is no one to rework any of it. There are only ghosts sharing the space with lizards and birds.

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Sunday, March 10, 2013

We Don’t Need No Stinking Passports

Driving in Guatemala is not for the timid. Driving in Guatemala City is only for the insane. However, Big Dog does not fare well on long bus rides so the only way we were going to see more of Guatemala was to rent a car, insane or not.

Good thing we had honed our driving and navigating chops in Mexico. After getting our car at the rental agency near the airport, we got out of Guate (how the locals call Guatemala City) without a hitch, managed to make the turn towards San Jose Pinula and found a sign pointing us towards Mataquescuintla. The road led us past a lush country club, then eventually came to...a dead end. Hmmm. Were we supposed to follow the arrow sign way back when? We turned around, followed that road even though it was a dirt road and hoped for pavement soon.

It did not come. But a fork did and so we stopped until a car came out of one of the roads. We asked the group of women in the car how to get to the Atlantico Highway and they pointed and rattled away in Spanish. I couldn't understand much, but it becomes obvious that they are going to lead us to the main road. We go back the way we came, beyond the sign for Mataquescuintla. Maybe the road is blocked, or under repair and we need to make a detour.

They stop, point ahead in the direction of Palencia and zoom off to their destination. I think there might be another turn somewhere, but now we have driven through Palencia and all I see is a sign for Guatemala City.

"Maybe they're making us go all the way back to Guate," I wonder. What if we become tourists trapped in this town, unable to go anywhere else, just around and around Guatemala City forever. It would make a good movie. We'd get involved in all sorts of local drama...

I have lots of time for my imagination to run away like this because we have to drive quite a bit before we hit the Big Highway.

The Atlantico Highway descends into a low valley and the landscape changes into a more tropical one. There are palms, bananas, lush farms. We follow a river valley, with mountains on either side. The highlands were dry and scruffy but it is green and pretty here.

With our detours, we will not make it into Honduras before sundown so we look for a place to spend the night. There are several "auto hotels" -- what we would call love hotels in Japan. They are designed for privacy: you drive into a garage attached to your room, then use a telephone there to speak to the proprietor. The rooms have no windows. We opt for Motel America instead. It's your basic road stop motel -- a concrete room with fan, two beds, a toilet and shower with no hot water. The sounds of people, dogs, cars on the gravel outside and trucks on the highway lull you to sleep (or not.)

It's not a place to hang out. We're headed for Copan in Honduras anyway and the border is a short distance away.

That's our car, next to the big truck.
This is the El Florido border crossing. We're not sure what we're supposed to do, so we just follow the giant rig in front of us as it gets waved through the first check point. At the next one there is a man spraying vehicles with what I assumed was disinfectant. He tells us we need to do our paperwork for the vehicle so Big Dog goes to the Yellow Office, pays 31 quetzales and gets some sort of permit. We get waved through the second checkpoint. No stamps, no fees, no nothing. No one looks at either of our passports. Is this the easiest border crossing in the world?

It wasn't.

The same crossing on the way back was THE easiest border crossing in the world. After descending past a long line of parked big rigs, we get to the border but no one wants to look at anything. We just get waved through. 
Mountains of something heading to Guatemala.

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Sunday, March 03, 2013

Market Day in Chichicastenango or How to Live Without Wheels

There are markets and then there is Chichicastenango. A small town in the highlands of Guatemala, their biweekly market puts all other markets -- indoors or outdoors -- to shame.

For hundreds of years, this market town has served the villages of the highlands. Different tribes would gather here to exchange, barter, do transactions of all sorts. And pick up supplies for the week. As you know, the Mayans for all their technological advances, did not have the wheel, so everything was transported on someone's back...or head.

When we arrived in the town, the center was already a confused mess of stalls and the place was a-buzz with vendors getting ready for the Big Day -- which comes every week, on Sunday. Huge trucks squeeze past each other on the Main Thoroughfare (no bigger than the others, but definitely more congested). A giant tanker comes down, making a smaller truck loaded with cows and bulls back up and turn. Meanwhile, another truck struggles to get up the steep road, its tires slipping on the smooth cobblestones. In the highlands, all towns are incredibly steep, like condensed and amplified San Franciscos.

People are hauling poles and tables and lugging stacks of cartons. Boys carry huge wooden tables up impossibly steep inclines. A giant table on a tiny back. From afar, you see only a floating table making its way up the hill. Like magic. Women with piles of shawls or skirts stacked high on their heads march along resolutely, expertly weaving through the crowds. Multihued fabric, intricate needlework, brightly colored produce, painted masks and other crafts... I am tripping out on the colors.

We get a plate dinner at one of the market comedors (open air eateries.) In Japan, we have the "teishoku" -- a set meal that comes with rice, miso soup, a vegetable dish of some sort, a small appetizer-sized something, pickles and the main dish. The Guatemalan plate is sort of like a simplified version of that -- with rice, soft pureed beans, tortillas and a meat of some sort. Sometimes it will have a fried plantain, or a small salad, too. I got a plate with BBQ'd ribs -- tiny but tasty with a fantastic fresh tomato sauce that exploded with sweet, savory and tart flavors. Big Dog went for his usual carne de res (beef slices marinated and grilled.) When we were done, it was after 8pm but people were still busy setting up.

Market day is a sensory assault. Sort of like a Hong Kong market. On steroids. There is madness, crowds, noise. Vendors are calling out to customers, there is music blaring from the church, singing, too. Incense collides with grilled meat, car exhaust fumes, dust. All the ladies are in outrageously embroidered tops and even the skirts have bands of colorful embroidery. Old ladies with grey hair pulled back and tied with colorful ribbons walk on their knees on the cobblestoned entrance to the church, swinging coffee cans of smoking incense.

The market is definitely a tourist destination. Some arrive the day before but many come for the day, on giant tour buses from Guatemala or Antigua. So as not to disappoint these throngs of foreign shoppers, locals have set up numerous stalls selling goods only a non-Mayan could want -- beautifully embroidered vests, bags of all sorts made of handwoven fabric, handicrafts and souvenirs. Even the non-vendors get into the mercantile swing of things. An old lady came up to us in the smaller church, holding out a little terracotta figurine. She wanted 250 quetzales for the thing. Do we look like bozos with too much money?

We may not think we look as goofy as some of the tourists, but I doubt the locals make such distinctions. We ALL look like dumb tourists with too much money.

Thankfully, the whole thing is not a tourist market. There is a very real element to it. One street was Poultry Alley, with villagers buying and selling live poultry -- chicks, chickens, turkeys. The birds are amazingly tame and seem happy to be tucked under the arm of a big mamma or just sit around their owner. There's a cattle market on the edge of town, and probably pigs and goats somewhere, too.

Another street was Used Goods Road, with all sorts of used clothing, appliances, utensils, tools. We wondered who was going to buy the shoes that were not part of a pair. "Oh, look, a left sneaker to replace mine with the hole!" There are men repairing shoes, women selling flowers, more comedors inside the awning area as well as outside. Roving vendors make their way through the packed stalls selling donuts and soup and tortillas to the vendors tending stalls.

The market streets are closed to traffic -- you can hardly pass through with all the people -- and the other streets are filled with parked and moving vans, trucks, buses, tuk-tuks. One van was completely packed inside, with more men on the roof and hanging on the back. Everyone's got a big bundle of something: merchandise, empty bottles, babies...

In the late afternoon, the shops catering to the tourists start packing up. The tour buses have taken away the majority of non-Guatemalans. Aisles between stalls are less congested and things are tranquilo for a moment, but then a few hours later, it is madness again when it is wrap-up time for everyone. Vendors start closing shop, hauling their wares back to their vehicles. The ones who have finished packing up early start eating and drinking. Men carry three times their size and weight -- giant bags, stacks of boxes. Some loads are so big they need help getting them strapped onto their backs. I have never seen so many people in one place carrying so much. In fact, I have never seen anyone carrying so much. And up such steep hills. Little boys, old ladies, old men...everyone is a human pack mule in the Land Without Wheels.

Of course, today, there ARE wheels and there are many rickety old (and overloaded) carts being pushed up hills so steep I have to lean forward to walk. It almost looks like carrying the loads would be easier. It looks pretty incredible so I can understand why tourists would want to take photos, but Big Dog is different. He can never stand by and watch. (I love this about BD.) Jumping in, he begins pushing the overloaded cart. He's much bigger than the tiny man pushing the cart and so it suddenly lurches forward, making the guy in front who is pulling the cart turn around to see what was going on. He is shocked to see a gringo helping out and his eyes go all big. (Maybe he is shocked to see anyone helping out.) The other vendors laugh, we smile...and then the cart makes a turn onto another street.

"Adios, hard workers! Adios, Chichi!"

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