Thursday, February 28, 2013

El Caminoneta

The jeepneys of the Philippines are pretty cool, but on this side of the Pacific, we have the camionetas, commonly called Chicken Buses by non-Guatemalans.

Retired American school buses – many transformed into gaudy circus-like vehicles, others, still bright yellow and with US school districts still prominently marked – are the public transport of choice for the masses. You see them chugging through the snarled messes of urban traffic belching black exhaust; you see them barreling down rural highways; you see them in the newspapers with lurid healines describing another hold up.

Loved, reviled, targeted.

It was not my introduction into public transport, Guate Style. That would be the “collectivo,” a pickup truck with benches put into the bed and, often, a metal frame overhead.

In all modes of public transport, it seems that seat capacity and REAL capacity are 2 different things. Here in Guate, real capacity means “how many can you possibly squeeze in?” Every collectivo, combi (van) and camioneta is like a college/high school challenge. If only these people knew about the phone booth or VW Beetle challenge – they’d win every time.
Pack 'em in!

My first collectivo ride was the short distance between Santa Catarina and Panajachel. We’d walked the 5 kms or so in the blazing heat, so I was happy for the ride.

All you need to do is stick your arm out. The next public vehicle to come by will stop and let you on.

Our collectivo was already full. The benches were all taken and people were standing in the bed, holding onto “the cage.” Meaning, it was nowhere near full. We’ve seen collectivos where in order to pack more people, everyone stands. And, although it’s a bit more dangerous, there’s always the bumper to stand on, which was what we did on our way back to Pana.

The other mode of quick local transport is the rather boring tuktuk, a motorcycle taxi. These that are sometimes called “motos”ought to be more colorful!

When it comes to thrills, though, nothing can beat El Caminoneta. 

First, it's super local. 99% of the passengers will be regular, ordinary Guatemalans. Getting on one is easy -- there are attendants who will find YOU, find out where YOU want to go and either pull you onto their vehicle or point you in the right direction. Getting off is a bit more of a challenge. Oftentimes, you'll find yourself on a bus going in your direction but it's up to you to figure out where to get off to change buses.
Inside a typical camioneta.

We've missed our stop as often as not, but everyone is very helpful, so when in doubt, ask another passenger. Study a map before venturing onto a camioneta, check out the crossroads and major towns along the way, then double check with the attendant before boarding.

The attendants are amazing. They are spotters for the drivers, ticket collectors, baggage handlers. They can maneuver their way through a packed bus, collecting fares from new passengers. I've never seen them miss any, nor have I seen them go back to passengers from whom they've already collected.

Vendors also board the bus at major stops to sell ice cream, drinks, snacks (despite the sign in English above the window saying "No Food or Drink",) mini Bibles, newspapers... And on nearly every ride, something crazy happens. For example:

Between Los Encuentros and Chichicastenango, we were giggling and singing along to the loud, sappy music -- a song with the refrain "tu y yo" where some singers sang "yo" while others sang "jo" -- when suddenly the music stops. A guy standing near the front who was playing with the dead squirrel (placed on the rack above, like some sort of morbidly disgusting trophy) gets up and begins a very animated presentation a la snake oil vendor. 

At first, I thought he was an Evangelist -- he kept mentioning Dios -- but then his product came out. A small cylindrical vial which he opens to dump out some translucent jelly, "Super Jaguar Balm." "It works for everything -- headache, arthritis, any kind of dolor. Are you a housewife? Then you know how all that work makes you sore, give you stiff shoulders. Just rub Super Jaguar Balm and it all goes away. But wait! It's not just for muscle pain! Got indigestion? A stomachache? This Miracle Balm works on EVERYTHING. And it's safe for children, too. OK now, everyone wants one, right? It's just 10 little quetzales. Just diez quetzalitos..." 

He started handing the vials out and I was amazed at how many people bought the stuff. Guess it helps to have a very Captive Audience. The whole thing was so entertaining we missed our stop -- it wasn't until we saw a town way behind us and nothing up ahead that we realized what had happened and we had to hop off and onto another bus going back to Chichi.

From Chichi back to Los Encuentros (is this the Crazy Ride segment?) we get on a very packed bus. The seats for 2 school kids are meant for 3 Guatemalans and my butt is perched on the edge of one of the seats near the front (always crowded because Guatemalans want to be the first to disembark, and after one of these Crazy Rides, you understand why.) Big Dog's pack is near the door which remains open for the attendant to peer out, looking out for traffic. And the driver is absolutely insane. He takes curves too fast, passes EVERY SINGLE VEHICLE on this small 2 lane road (with a sheer drop on one side,) honking at oncoming vehicles. And the road is super curvy so everyone is being flung right and left. Trying not to get mashed into the person next to me, I keep a firm eye on Big Dog's pack. I have no idea what I'll do once it does get flung out of the bus. Maybe the attendant will jump out to retrieve it?

And all during this Crazy Ride, there is this Crazy Music playing, like some kind of demented Chaplin-esque soundtrack. It's a fast-tempoed marimba number -- like something you would hear at Disneyland. Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, indeed!

Squirrels are scurrying up ahead as the driver guns it some more. The squirrels are too fast. Drats. The driver and attendant exchange glances. I am starting to think the dead squirrel on the other bus really was a trophy!

Plinky-plinky-plinky-plinky... the crazy music continued and we continued to get flung, far right and far left. What a movie that would have made, except we were too busy holding onto the seat in front (and our lives!) to even think of bringing out the camera. I am trying to forget how many times we nearly crashed into oncoming traffic, but we all made it to Los Encuentros without a scratch.

Every time we find a local newspaper, we go through it and I am amazed at how much these buses are targeted by criminals. I guess it's because there is always cash on the buses and this is a country where people go to all lengths just to get a quetzal. Apparently a bus driver is THE most dangerous occupation in Guatemala. That must be why it attracts psychopathic risk takers. The Chichi-Los Encuentros guy definitely fit that bill!

But wait. It's really not just the drivers. The passengers must be a little fond of risk taking, too.

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Friday, February 22, 2013

The Odiferous and the Unshod

What gets into some people? I think one of the most important rules to follow when traveling is RESPECT. Respect for your host country, its people, culture, traditions and even societal norms.

People don’t wander the beaches naked, or even topless, in countries where modesty is valued. Please don’t wear shorts and T-shirts around a city where people dress formally. 

A foreign country is NOT your frat house.

We see a few unbelievably obnoxious types, and for me, that includes these kids who somehow think it’s cool to be stinky, unwashed, unkempt and unshod.

First of all, it’s dangerous to be without footwear in a developing country.

“Serves them right to get tetanus,” I think as another ragtag bunch of blonde dreadlock nomads shuffles by.

And then I have to laugh a bit at myself for being so conservatively Japanese -- we think it's rude to go to someone’s house in grubby clothes.

Who knows. Maybe they gave their shoes to some poor barefooted villagers.

I decide to forgive them their shoelessness, if not their cluelessness.

But the stench? When even the poorest local can bathe in the lake? Now, that’s unforgivable.

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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Too Much of A Good Thing

…that’s what Aldous Huxley called Lake Atitlan, about 50 km west of La Antigua.

I don’t know when Aldous Huxley was here, but millions of visitors have been here since, many who’ve written equally memorable, if less quoted, observations about the volcano-rimmed lake. There’s not much more I can add – except that the place sucked us in enough we spent more time here than anywhere else in Guatemala.

“Miss Tel Aviv is going with this guy she met -- In his own car!” Big Dog said excitedly. Miss Tel Aviv was our nickname for an Israeli woman we had befriended at our hostel. We weren’t going to go anywhere in the tourist shuttle vans and were reluctantly toying with the idea of the chicken bus, but now, we could insinuate ourselves into their ride. Or, Big Dog could. He can be a charmer when he wants.

It was hazy and overcast when we arrived at the lake so I wasn’t sure what the big deal was. Panajachel, the main town on Atitlan’s shores, is lined with vendor stalls and shops selling the famous Guatemalan textiles and goods made from them, along with silly souvenir T-shirts (“Du yus pik inglish?” and “Viva La Evolucion” with a Planet of the Apes commandant in a Che Guevara beret) and other knickknacks. Restaurants catering to the gringo palate were plentiful.

After a lunch at a lovely garden café jam packed with non-Guatemalans, we hopped on a boat taking us to San Pedro de La Laguna, Hippie Backpacker Central.

We normally try to avoid Gringo Ghettos when traveling, but maybe because of that, the novelty of being around all these young travelers was appealing.

Big Dog soon found out how much cred he had as someone who had done the long overland trek through Central and South America in the 70’s. Kids were listening, rapt with attention, to all his stories from the past. The awe and respect must have been intoxicating, especially when you consider the yawning disinterest from younger members of his own extended family.

 The Chill Out Lounge at Zoola

Is this Kuta West?

San Pedro is a good launch pad for exploring the nearby villages of Santiago Atitlan and San Juan, but every time we tried to get out of San Pedro, we’d get engaged in a conversation with someone. It took us days to walk the few miles to San Juan with its many weaving coops (all women) and never managed to make it to Santiago, though we did take a boat to San Marco one day. (It’s the New Age Center – and you know how I feel about the marketing of spirituality. As for BD, “Pay to stay in a tiny, rudimentary pyramid-shaped structure when I slept inside the Great Pyramid? Ha ha ha!”)

It wasn’t until we left that side of the lake, one windy morning that my poor bashed butt will never forget, bouncing over choppy waters back to Pana, that I saw what everyone was talking about.

When it’s clear, the lake is STUNNING. Absolutely, mind-alteringly incredible. And it’s from the Pana side that you get the full effect.

Perfect, green, miniature Mt. Fujis ringing this lake especially appeals to the Japanese me, but I guess it wasn’t just me because there were a handful of Japanese travelers, too, in a part of the world NOT overrun by them.

As for too much of a good thing, Huxley may have understood too well. I saw so many people who really looked like they had lost their minds. From the drugged out wacko at our hostel in San Pedro, to the dead drunk men on the outskirts of San Marco (the locals must be immune to all that “spiritual cleansing”) to the gringo in Pana staring down the very mellow local cops and harassing young female travelers to that man sitting on the side of the road whacking his head with his fists and wailing (perfectly normal behavior if he had just lost a close family member but otherwise Very Nutty)… I had nothing but sympathy for them.

Lake Atitlan, as Huxley warned, was too much of a good thing.

“I left my miiiiiind~~~in Lake Atitlaaaaaaan~~~”

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Thursday, February 14, 2013

El Corazon del Mundo Maya

Some people exchange gifts. Some have a fancy night out on the town. Some go through elaborate mating rituals.

Not us Roving Dogs.

Big Dog is disgusted with "made up" holidays, hyped up by marketing, so even when I assure him St. Valentine's Day is no more "made up" than Easter, he always ignores it. And while most Japanese embrace other people's Holy Days, I remain largely uninvolved with Judeo-Christian-Islamic celebrations.

The IDEA of a Universal Love Day appeals to me greatly, though, and I have sort of co-opted the 14th of February as my holiday. Big Dog still ignores it, but am I detecting a celebratory pattern of our own? Seems we find ourselves in a new and different place every February 14th. Tokyo - Boracay - Waikiki - Puerto Escondido - Barra de Navidad - Zihuatanejo - Los Angeles - Campeche... and now, Antigua, Guatemala. Hearts on Holiday in El Corazon del Mundo Maya.

We Dogs are at our best On The Road. I've written about this before, but when I am traveling, I can completely let go. Nothing has to be a certain way. Nothing upsets me much -- snags, misunderstandings, even more sinister things just become part of the fun of being on the move. It's much the same for Big Dog. When he has to be in charge (i.e., in control) he can be a pain in the ass. Especially when he begins feeling that control slipping away one way or another.

On the road, we both just laugh. So what better way to spend our Heart Holiday: on the road and in some new place every year.

Love Day 2013 found us in the heart of the Mayan World, as so many travel posters reminded us.

We left LAX on Tuesday, after a cold, rainy weekend and a chilly but clear Monday. Loads of friends and former colleagues from Tokyo were in town for the Grammys during its coldest.

"At least you got a bit of our famous sunshine on your last day," I said to a small group of close friends, mostly former and current radio personalities. Some had relocated to LA while others were here from Tokyo and London.

The cold front must have been moving south because when we arrived in Guatemala, it was grayer and chillier than I had expected.

For Big Dog, it was a long-awaited return. Close to 40 years had gone by since his first visit. For me, it was a first and initially, it was a bit of a let down. Big Dog had really built it up and I'm not sure what I had expected, but the outskirts of Guatemala City just seemed like a more polluted, conjested, chaotic version of the outskirts of Guadalajara (or any other giant Mexican city.)

Antigua looked a lot like a smaller version of San Cristobal de Las Casas in many ways, except for the myriad of hostels, posadas, hospetajes, B&Bs, boutique hotels and luxury accoms. Like San Cristobal, there were no high rises and most of the architecture felt authentic.

"Jesus, it's become Katmandu!" sighed Big Dog. "The Gringo Trail is well paved now."

Every other place was either lodging, a travel agency or a Spanish school. In between were restaurants catering to visitors who HAD to have a non-Guatemalan meal. You would think that a touristy place like this would have more restaurants featuring Guatemalan cuisine, but I'm starting to think Guatemalan cuisine is like Swiss cuisine -- they both nervously glance towards their neighbors.

"They didn't used to allow cars in here," Big Dog complained again.
"Wish they hadn't. The exhaust fumes are horrid on these narrow streets."
Another van belching black exhaust that you can TASTE drove by, punctuating my statement.

With the cloud cover, haze and (most likely) smog, I had not been able to see that famous sight of the quaint streets of Antigua with the volcano is the background.

Yet, I was liking Guatemala and its people more and more.

I've been wondering about this and have come to the conclusion that it's LOVE. There is love in the air. Not so much a ROMANTIC kind of love, but a sort of UNIVERSAL love.

These people have seen the worst sort of violence, human rights violations, all sorts of atrocities -- it's hard to believe that we're only a little over a decade removed from all of this -- and yet they are the sweetest, kindest people. If smiles were currency, Guatemala might be the wealthiest country in the world.

While other couples have champagne and roses and candlelight tonight, it seemed perfect for us to be sharing pupusas and a Gallo beer in a hold-in-the-wall eatery festooned with glittery red paper and plastic hearts and surrounded by smiley people. Guatemala is the ♥ of El Mundo Maya if not the ♥ of the whole darn Mundo.
 Pretty flowers in our hostel garden.

 Wedding photo shoot in Antigua.

 Like so many Latin American countries, Number One Priority is Family.

 Sexy fountain in the middle of town.

Street food is always good.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2013

A Hill of (Bad?) Beans

I must say, I've been feeling amazingly healthy since I became much stricter about eliminating GMOs from my diet. Everyone seems to be worried about flu season but me.

"So you make your own mayonnaise?" asked Big Dog's sister, incredulously.

Well, why not? First of all, I don't use much mayo since I was never a big fan of the taste or texture, preferring to mix in a little yogurt into things that would normally use mayo. But it's so fast and simple to make your own, you can chose between lemon juice, different vinegars, etc. to suit your taste and most of all, when you do, you KNOW it has no GM soy oil in it. (Check out the ingredient list on Best Foods or Hellman's mayo. Top of the list: soybean oil. From GM soy.) Just make sure you pick the right oil.

I had no idea how bad the stuff is for you, but this article makes it sound horrific. 

If you read the entire article, you'll find out that Dr. Mercola isn't much into soybeans, period. Sad, because it's an important ingredient for me and I know that Japanese people who eat a lot of it have the highest longevity rate in the world. Someone once told me it had to do with all the other ingredients we take with soy. Like sea vegetables. And, as with anything, you shouldn't make one ingredient more prominent than others in your diet.

Variety is also key to healthy eating, so I will continue to have my soy...and carrots and kale and onions and seaweed and grains and........