. However, after all 2 and a half hours of public transport were behind us and we began the 2 hour slippery, muddy, uphill hike to his house, he loosened up a bit and started smiling, even talking on occasion. We determined that the city stressed him out, and once in his territory of cornfields interspersed with cloudforest he could relax. I knew the trip would be worthwhile after all when he heard a quetzal call, and excitedly pointed out the rare national bird up high in a tree. Upon arriving at the house, a wooden shack with dirt floors and chickens wandering freely in and out, we were immediately served weak sugary coffee and heaping plates of beans and rice with the all-important Guatemalan corn tortilla in a seperate room from where the family was hanging out around a smokey fire in the kitchen. After we ate as much of it as we possibly could, we poked our heads in to the kitchen to introduce ourselves, then stepped outside to take in the panoramic sunset view from the top of the hill. Ricardo pointed out a quetzal sitting in a tall tree right next to the house, which was soon joined by a female (who lacks the long tail but is otherwise colorful). I let everyone use my binoculars, but I am pretty sure they never found the birds through them despite my tutorial. The father, Jose Maria (Joseph Mary?) of the large family came home at dusk from helping his brother harvest corn that day, and was much more chatty and comfortable with us, likely because his Spanish was much more advanced that his wife's or Ricardo's wife who spoke primarily the Mayan dialect Quechi
. In the evening, we sat huddled around the ever-burning fire with the six young children squished together on one bench staring at us from across the room. At seven, Jose Maria suggested that we might be tired and want to go to bed, so we made plans for hiking the next day. We fortunately had our "own room" divided by some wooden boards with wide gaps and a burlap sack hung across the door, while the rest of the family all slept in the adjoining room on several beds. Matt and I cuddled in our sleeping bags and read for a while, but were indeed asleep by eight. Which was important, because we were up by 5:30 to eat breakfast (eggs mixed with broccoli and onions and tortillas), then headed out on a hike with Jose Maria through the cloud forest. He showed us medicinal plants as we walked and we heard the intimidating grunts of howler monkeys but could not see them. It was a rough muddy trail, so it was slow going and I slipped onto my butt a few times, but we eventually reached a Maya ceremonial limestone cave. Inside, Jose Maria lit two candles and quietly said a prayer to ask for a good corn harvest and also that we have a safe journey. Next we climbed up a steep hill to a overlook, but unfortunately the clouds had already acculumated for the day and we could not see all the distant volcanoes that can be seen when it is clear. We returned home just in time for lunch and you should have seen the look of horror on Matt's face when Adea served up a huge plate of stewed leafy greens and nothing else but tortillas
. With polite curiosity, I inquired as to what they were called and got the response "herbs from nature". I thought they were tasty although a bit fibrous so it took forever to chew and swallow. Matt amazingly ate a few tortilla-fuls then sat there while I chewed and chewed and chewed. After lunch, we followed Jose Maria to his cornfields which he was in the middle of harvesting and helped out by ripping the corn of the stock, ripping off the husk, and throwing it into a pile that would later be collected by one of his sons in a big sack. Some of the corn cobs had just a few kernels developed, others were half eaten or rotten, but they saved everyone of them. What would have surely been rejected by any farmer in the states would turn in to there year's supply of tortillas. The corn stocks produced mixed colors of corn, some were yellow, others yellow speckled with blue kernels, and my favorite were the pure red cobs. It was crazy to think about how much work went into this process, and the second craziest being what steep slopes they all farm on. We noticed several areas where a cornfield had a big landslide in the middle of it, or at the least serious erosion problems. We took a break from the manual labor, and I helped Juana (Ricardo's wife) shuck the corn with her thumbs filling up a big tub with kernels. She then put the kernels through a metal grinder to make cornmeal and used a "mano and matate" (a stone rolling pin and a slightly scooped stone cutting board) to prepare the dough for the hand pinching and shaping of the tortilla. The last step was baking them on a metal plate sitting on the logs of the fire. Later in the afternoon, we presented coloring books and markers to the kids, many of whom had never colored before, but they loved it! Dinner came as a relief to us, ramen noodle soup with a hard boiled egg in it, tortillas, and grilled corn on the cob. We again chatted with the family as we sat around the fire, and made plans to leave early the next morning due to the lack of buses later in the day
. Sleeping by eight, up by four. We packed our bags and headed to the kitchen for breakfast, which was probably intended as a goodbye treat, but we didn't see it that way. We were served a soup with broth and big chunk of beef skin/fat. Especially that early in the morning, we couldn't do it, so we just slurped the broth and left the hunk of nastiness in the bowl, rude but necessary. We said our goodbyes and I think both sides felt a sense of relief, a short but intense cultural experience for us, and the end of the pressure of hosting strange house guests for them. It was a thought-proking experience about how lives can be led so differently in such close proximity, contrasting the lifestyle just a couple hours drive away in Coban or other parts of Guatemala. Matt and I both came to the conclusion that while we felt fine for a short period time, we could never live a life like that and be happy after having the privileges we have had for our entire lives thus far, like access to clean water, mobility, and technology like writing this blog! On the walk back to the road, we caught glimpses of quetzal and a longer look at a toucanet (mini-toucan). A crowded truck ride and short bus trip later, we were back in Coban. We headed to my favorite coffee shop, where we ate our second breakfast of the day and I treated myself the a magnificently gringo bowl of yogurt, granola, and fresh fruit with strong non-sugared coffee. We decided to spend the rest of the day relaxing and doing chores (yes, even travelers have a boring to-do list) in Coban. We got a nice hotel room and spent the better part of the afternoon scrubbing mud from our clothes and dirt from our bodies. We caught up on email, made some phone calls, grocery shopped, and repacked our bags for getting out of town the next morning.
When we returned to Coban after our very early bus ride from Semuc Champey, we jumped straight into our next adventure organized by a non-profit called Proyecto EcoQuetzal. Our excursion was labeled ethno-tourism, and was essentially a homestay with a Guatemalan family at subsistence-level, with the goal of giving the family an alternative source of income to abate the rate at which the gorgeous old-growth cloud forest is turning firewood and then into steeply sloped cornfields. After dumping our excess junk in the storage room of the EcoQuetzal office, we met the family member that was to take us to the cluster of houses known as Chicacnab, definitely off the gringo trail save for participants like us. Ricardo, the oldest of six at 24, seemed way more nervous than us when we met him, but his lack of confidence was contagious and soon we were wondering what we got ourselves into. As we bounced along standing in the back of a work truck packed with about 30 other locals that were all wondering where the gringos took a wrong turn, Ricardo wouldn´t make eye contact with us, much less conversation