PUT THE GUATEMALA IN PYROMANIAC

Trip Start Dec 15, 2002
1
4
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Trip End ??? ??, 2003


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Flag of Guatemala  ,
Friday, December 27, 2002

I'm in an internet cafe in Antigua, not the more familiar Caribbean island version where my dad broke his leg precisely seven years ago yesterday, but in the back room of a not so crowded bar where the proprietor is checking out the girls of cutegirlfriend.net. It's amazing how the internet can really let perverts from all over the world reach out and touch ... I'll not finish the joke. Antigua is just dying down from the celebration of that year-end, 12 day pagan ritual - and we're still trying to catch up on lost sleep.

I last left you while abusing the honour system at the Finca Ixobel, single handedly embezzling hundreds of thousands of Guatemalan quetzals. Of course, I exaggerate; our three day, two night adventure at the hacienda (including food, beverages, caving adventures and lodging) ended up costing us a grand total of $108US, or less than $25 per person per night. Life here is cheap. But it was time to move on, and so we said our tearful goodbyes to the resident psycho geese and caught the next bus north to the Mayan ruins of Tikal. We arrived at 3 in the afternoon, took the necessary time to check out the town's three hotels and six restaurants, and prepared ourselves for the entry into the gigantic complex. Luckily, most of the tourist traffic takes place around midday, and by this point in the afternoon, everyone had headed south to Flores, a slightly more substantial hub 45 minutes to the south. We were able to wander the grounds virtually unencumbered for a few hours, until we prepared for sundown by summiting the temple recommended by the trusty guidebook. Unfortunately, the sunset was not very spectacular due partially to an uninteresting sky overhead and partially to the gaggle of tourists (mostly Americans) who seem to read the same books we do.

However, the temples themselves were very impressive. Those who've seen some of the comparable Mayan temples in the Yucatan - for example, Chichen Itza and Tulum - have some idea of what we experienced. For those who haven't, the five or six major temples reached 40 or 50 meters into the sky, and are pyramidically shaped with slopes of steep steps. Say that five times fast. What makes Tikal so exceptional is both the sheer number of ruins - the place is littered with thousands of temples, most of which are left unexcavated and only resembled small hills that looked vastly out of place; over 100,000 people lived at one time - and its magnificent surroundings. Tikal is surrounded by lush, steaming hot jungle that, in addition to enveloping the ruins, play host to parrots, to macaws, to tucans, to spider and howler monkeys, to vicious and deadly snakes, and to some of the many cat species that inhabit the region, including jaguars, pumas, and panthers. Throw in the ever present banditos and the area surrounding Tikal can be a dangerous place, far removed from the luxuries of civilization.

Now the story continues - in the midst of the jungle, we sat atop the recommended temple, watching the setting sun, and surrounded by an unwelcome number of our (American) friends. We were afforded a bit of a respite when, soon after the sun set, the top of the temple was nearly cleared, while we stayed behind to enjoy a little bit of silence before closing time. Promptly at 6, a four and a half foot Mayan guard, toting a shotgun that closely resembled an air rifle, summitted the temple to escort us down. We had hoped to rise early the next morning to watch the sun rise from yet another recommended temple; however, we were unequivocally informed that the sun rose at 5.45, that the park itself opened at 6 am, and that under no circumstance were we to enter the park before that time. Dejectedly, we began a 3 km mope out of the park to our hotel. Enter Carlos and Oscar stage left.

Carlos and Oscar are members of Guatemala's (whatever the opposite is of corrupt) tourist police, who's mandate is to protect feeble tourists like us from some of those dangers listed above. They are honourable, dedicated, and decidely uncorrupt. Nevertheless, we discussed our ordeal with them - our desire to enter the park early and the complication set by the opening time - in an effort to reach some sort of an amicable solution. Carlos and Oscar informed us that yes, there was a special tax we could pay - $3US per person - to have the non-corrupt tourist police escort us in to watch the sun rise. We arranged to meet early and set off to bed.

Waking up at 5 am - yet another inconvenience to my circadian rhythms - we headed to the meeting spot, by chance passing the four and a half foot Mayan guard with the air rifle. This encounter seemed quite troubling to our escorts, who, as it turns out, were at risk of whatever is the equivalent of dishonourable discharge from the Guatemalan Tourist Police for the net gain of a paltry sum of $6US. After much inter-Spanish arguing, we were told to wait 50 meters away in the jungle (remember the jaguars and pumas?) where they would meet us in several minutes.

Sure enough, they showed up, and we headed on a back path into the jungle, with the orchestral chorus of Jurassic Park ringing in my head. I certainly remembered the jaguars and pumas, and was delightfully surprised to find a revolver on Carlos' belt buckle and an Uzi on Oscar's; in retrospect, this fact should have scared me silly - remember that we were all alone in the middle of the jungle with two people we had never met before who carried guns. But I'm still here now, so I digress. The four of us headed deeper into the jungle, under strict instruction to keep all light and sound to an absolute minimum. A brief flash of light ahead caused another heated inter-Spanish argument, a complete 180, and a choice of a backup plan of attack. Let me take this opportunity to remind you that we were running and hiding from a four and a half foot Mayan guard. What made this whole scenario even more bizarre was, like at sunset, there was the prescribed sunrise temple - in this case, Temple IV - which was precisely where we were headed. Capturing us at the foot of the temple would have been simplistic; this fact never dawned on our brave guides. After more changes of direction, we finally found ourselves at the foot of our chosen temple, where Carlos and Oscar waited expectantly for their due. It was also suggested - by our uncorrupt escorts - that the ticket price could be waived for the day. Instead we would simply pay a sum one half of that normally required, but directly into their coffers. We accepted without hesitation. More inter-Spanish discussion resulted in an alibi ("We entered the park at 6 am"; "Tickets? Gee, I must have lost them.") Brain surgery. Then, with a "you never saw us", Carlos and Oscar were gone, leaving us feeling like what we were infiltrating a POW camp instead of simply climbing stairs to the temple.

The four and a half foot Mayan guard was not at Temple IV and we were able to get to the top with life and limb intact, lingering completely alone for a full half an hour. The sunset was not as colourful as we imagined: bad weather had threatened the trip from its beginning and a fine mist had settled across the jungle's canopy. Instead, we were treated to the symphony of the jungle coming to life in the morning, punctuated by the cries of the howler monkey - a low guttural sound that initially resembles a door creaking open, before exploding into a deep, loud growl that echoes through the jungle, a noise that simply should not be emitted from a creature that can fit inside a school bag. The roars came from throughout the trees, as green parrots, macaws and tucans soared past our solitary vantage point. It was a spectacular, spiritual morning. The first legal entrant into the park arrived at Temple IV at 6.25, and needless to say, she didn't buy the above alibi.

During the interval we were atop the temple, our uncorrupt guides had returned home, showered, shaved, and dressed in their regal uniforms, and had set out to meet us for 7.30. Furthering our financing of Carlos' children's education, we paid a few more quetzals for a private tour of the complex - which turned out to be spectacular, while nowhere near as exciting as our morning break-in to Tikal. By midday, the gaggle of tourists had arrived and we had our fill. We collected our stuff from our hotel and headed to Flores, but not before bothering uncorrupt Oscar one last time for a quick shot with the Uzi. A photo, that is. From Flores, we caught a flight across the country to Guatemala City and transferred promptly to Antigua.

Antigua is amazing, and is unlike any other city I've ever visited in this region or in the Americas. The city has beautiful colonial architecture, ornate churches built and rebuilt over the centuries of earthquakes endemic in this region, and dressed in finely manicured cobblestone streets. The shops and hotels are all set within the complexes on the streets - by this I mean that, after entering a doorway, you're often presented with a courtyard surrounded by rooms or tables as the case may be, a complete surprise in comparison to the plain, albeit colourful, stucco exterior. The main hangout in town is the Parque Central, a great place to relax, read, and people watch. (By the way, I finally finished a 1200 page behemoth of a novel I've been toting around since this summer. It was fantastic: unbelievably well written, interesting, and really witty. It's called Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace and I recommend it to anyone who's got the time and effort to really enjoy a great novel - although the only person I can imagine putting in that time and effort is Brendan Brode.)

I learned something really interesting from another traveller yesterday: it turns out that Santa Claus is a creation of Coca-Cola. The notion of a Father Christmas has been around for ages, yes - however, it was C-C that gave him an image and, more specifically, a colour combination that exists to this day. Blame Coke for the ubiquitous department store Santas, and for the abomination that this end of year ritual has become.

Like Coke, Guatemalans have added their own special flare to Christmas: fireworks. We kind of got an inkling that something might be afoot over the past couple days - several markets that we wandered through stocked more firecrackers than a Nervous Charlies or any other retailer along the Utah I-80. Sure, firecrackers went off here and there, and sure the mega-tonnage increased towards Christmas, but there was no way to prepare ourselves for midnight on Christmas Eve when we were shocked awake by a multitude of explosions that sounded something like downtown Baghdad. You can not even start to comprehend the sheer volume of gunpowder that has been exploded over these past couple days. It is surely enough to wipe a small town right out of Bruce County.

And so it continued well into the night, as we crushed pillows on our heads and cursed fireworks alongside those crazy gooses of nights past. And then again at noon the next day. And then 6 pm. Wandering around Christmas Day night, in search of a restaurant, we happened upon a smallish parade just starting up. It was simply one float - of the J-dude - and a small marching band of 15 or 20 musicians. What made this parade so bizarre was the slow pace at which it moved; every fifteen or twenty meters it would be halted for firework exploding. Again, there was a ridiculous amount of firepower. Sometimes, rows of those connected, red-wrapped firecrackers would be laid out in front of the parade, stretching for at least 30 feet of gunfire-like explosion. Steel mortar type launchers would be stuffed with fireworks and would shoot hundreds of feet in the air - almost stratospheric - before emitting a tremendous thunderclap that could be heard echoing off the volcano walls that surround the city. The mortar would tip back and forth, flirting dangerously at a crowd standing far far too close.

Safety, of course, was never the number one concern. Fireworks were being lit by cigarettes, burning firewood, or by already exploding fireworks themselves. The narrow streets were lined by power lines an transformers just itching to burn down the city. And the crowd was no more than ten or twenty feet away, turning and running from the exploding gunfire.

But the most ridiculous - and hopefully this will help you understand this spectacle - was the Guatemalan combination of Hot Potato and the Running of the Bulls. You remember this game, you pass the potato around and if you're caught holidng it when the music stops, you lose. In the Guatemalan version, the potato is a person under what looks like the roof of a doghouse - two wooden planks. Wrapped around the planks are four rows of roman candles and other projectile shooting fireworks. Do you see where this is going? The kicker: a silouette of a bull head attached just above the person's head. As the person under the doghouse dances around and chases the crowd, the wicks burn slowly above him. Young children run up to this monstrosity to touch their forehead to the bull's head for good luck, trying to time it before the so-called music goes off. And when it does: roman candles shoot in all directions, sending the crowd diving for cover. Sheer stupidity. But pretty hilarious - there were literally hundreds of people following the parade for four or five hours, in an absolute orgy of gunpowder.

Today was a lot quieter, as the firecracker rations are obviously being conserved for New Year's Eve. We chose today to hike up Volcan Pacaya, 2500 meters above Antigua. The wind was howling - it was literally 70 or 80 km/h at top, as we struggled up through the pumice and dried lava to briefly glimpse into the cloudy crater, before running back down through fields of sliding rock. A final night in Antigua, and then off to Lake Atitlan tomorrow - a collapsed volcanic caldera and one of the nicest spots in the country.

...Jordan
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