Xela and highlands
Trip Start Mar 22, 2005
26Trip End Sep 09, 2005
This entry below about a weekend excursion seems very random and unorganized and I`d like to spend more time editing it, but if I do it will never get posted, so apologies for any excessive ramblings. Enjoy the photos!
Hope everyone is doing well
Took off Saturday morning (May 7th) about 6:30am to the bus station with Illyssa, a fellow Northern-Cal gal, and Liza, a German, both fellow spanish students. We were hoping to find our way to Chimaltenango, via a chicken bus, then find another bus to get to Xela. A chicken bus is your junior high school school bus, all jazzed up with a new paint job, a few new speakers and some reconfigured seats (so more people fit, definitely not for comfort or any safety measures). And, I mean literally YOUR old school bus -- every old bluebird bus that long ago was kicked off US roads for lack of seat belts, proper steering, or failure to come close to meeting emissions standards, is now here in Guatemala (or somewhere else in Central America), toting around everything, including chickens. Hence, "chicken bus." The paint jobs resemble race cars and every bus has a name along with its route painted up front. Lots say "en Dios, yo confido" or "Jesus cristo es mi dio." Each bus has its set route and, from what I understand, works more or less independently, although there are some groups that own lots of buses and rent them to the drivers. (This is a big problem for guatemalans who rely on these buses for transportation -- if they have to take 3 buses, they pay three times. This is a hardship when you`re only making 20Q a day, but there`s not much incentive for the drivers and owners to organize and create some kind of infrastructure.) So, on the bus, there`s a driver who is skilled at taking turns far faster than recommended for any vehicle over 15 feet long, passing on blind corners and blatantly ignoring any sane driving techniques and a helper guy who`s job seems to include collecting cash, hoisting bags and boxes and baskets up top and securing them so they don`t roll off the bus and onto the road during the aforementioned curves and making sure all the people are on the bus before (or while) the driver takes off for the next stop and of course, yelling the destination whenver the bus is moving slowly enough for people to throw themselves on board in order to make sure people near and far know they should be going to "Guate, Guate, Guate, Guate" or "Xela, Xela, Xela, Xela....." Helper guy spends part of his time inside the bus, part on top of the bus, part holding onto the side of the bus, and part climbing around the outside of the bus, whether the bus is moving or not
This sounds insane, and it is, but surprisingly, it is also a very efficient and easy-to-navigate system. As soon as you get to the "bus station" (which is really just an empty parking lot) it is easy to know which buses are going where and hop on the next one leaving.
So, we easily find our bus to Chimaltenango, and crowd on for the 45 minute or so ride, which drops us off at a busy intersection on an insane street. Picture a standard size highway intersection in the US, but only two lanes, no stop lights, no merge signs, and a zillion pedestrians. A helpful newspaper salesman directs us to the other side of the street and we wait for about 5 minutes, before he runs across the street and rushes us onto a pullman bus that has just seen him waving. A pullman is a serious step up from a chicken bus, with reclining cushioned seats and actual leg room. We jump on board and are shocked and delighted to have real seats for the next 4 hours.
The drive to Xela is gorgeous, and super scary when I decide to pay attention to the road (the pullman doesn`t have much less crazy driving techniques than the chicken bus)
That afternoon, we haggle with a cab driver over a decent fare to go to Zunil, a little town about 15 km outside of Xela that has a simply magical description in the Lonely Planet. Zunil is supposedly home to a quaint little city set inside a beautiful valley. It is one of many towns near Xela that has recently become "weathy" (relatively) by growing and exporting vegetables. And, it is home to Maximon, or San Simon, a bizarre saint who is revered by many people in Guatemala. I`m not going to try to explain, because I don`t really get it. But, if you`re curious when you see the pictures, you can find out more here:
(Sorry that site is apparently selling random votives, but it was the best and quickest explanation I could find in English)
I have read a lot about the connections between environmental devastation (pollution, deforestation) and poverty in Guatemala
Ok.... enough on that. We eventually find Maximon and perhaps our impression of Zunil has already been tainted by the river, but seeing this odd saint and people bringing him cigarettes and alcohol and kissing him and us paying 5Q to walk in and another 10Q for a photo just left me with an all-over wierd feeling, not in a good way. Was happy to get back on the bus to Xela. (And, my former faith in Lonely Planet has been replaced with healthy skepticsm -- their description made Zunil sound like heaven).
Its fascinating to see these towns, but sometimes I feel like we´re intruding into someone else´s life. We´re very careful to be respectful taking photos (or discreet, as the case sometimes is) but the people are the most interesting -- especially the women with their intricate clothing, amazing balance (I´ve seen women balance baskets on their head that are so heavy as to require three women to get it up on her head).... you know there are volumes of stories behind their wrinkles and smiles and I wish we could talk to them more
Just as we were all comiserating about this, a family gets on the bus and sits next to us. The women are in traditional dress and a girl maybe age 7 or 8 sits next to Liza and starts talking to her. Her mom and the other adult women don´t mind at all -- we exchange lots of smiles as the little girl asks Liza her name, where she´s from, etc, etc. A man hops on the bus selling ice cream, and the mom buys her little girl an icecream cone, wrapped in a celophane-like plastic bag. Lots of people have emptied the bus, leaving more vacant seats ahead, and the family moves up front to have more room. But, before leaving Liza, the little girl grabs the tip of her icecream cone in the plastic wrap and hands it to Liza -- a gesture of affection and friendship that crosses any cultural boundaries
Next day: find a cab to Totonicapan, another peublo a short distance the other direction from Xela. We reunited with Jens, another Antigua spanish-school friend, the night before and now there are four of us. We are intrigued because there`s a festival going on and we want to see what its all about. We arrive in the middle of a Semana-Santa-style processional, complete with religious figures hoisted on shoulders, incense, crowded streets and too-close firecrackers. (And I really mean too close, they were right behind us -- Guatemalans love their firecrackers.) We wander our way towards the main plazas to find hundreds of people gathered to watch the processionals and enjoy the food being cooked up by dozens and dozens of state-fair-style street vendors. People are circled around watching dancing. Almost all of the women are wearing traditional dress, which is just gorgeous and makes the clothes we wear look just so unimaginative. We get some odd looks but for the most part, people are friendly and a bit curious about us because we are the ONLY gringos in the whole town. (By the way, "gringo" and "gringa" do not have negative connotations here as they do in Mexico, and as a result, in the US. It is simply a descriptive lable.) We wander around, buy books from street vendors, and enjoy the insight into a totally different culture. Eventually, it starts to rain and we get cold and hungry and need to find somewhere to eat, which can be a challenge in a town that doesn`t cater to tourists at all. We find a few places that have verbal-only menus and questionable sanitation so we keep looking. Eventually find someplace that has a real menu (still questionable santitation, to be honest). After a meal of must-be-well-cooked-so-hopefully-germ-free food, we make our way back towards the main road and catch one of the last buses back to Xela. The bus ride back is almost as much fun as the whole day -- misty fog dances around the hills and distant volcanos as we pass patchwork-quilt fields and small roadside towns
When we get back to Xela, Jens takes us to a cafe that has the best hot chocolate ever tasted. Cafe La Luna. Yum. (My other Xela restaurant pick: Cafe Bavaria -- great food, great coffee.)
Monday morning, we find our trusty cab driver Jose again and this time head to San Adres Xecul, home of a crazy big church, a small little yellow church and a ton of kids -- there seem to be no adults in the whole town. But, this town is gorgeous -- what we were expecting in Zunil. And, Jose takes us the long way there, on dirt roads, through the crops and tiny little towns. Brilliant.
We manage to find our buses again back toward Antigua. Illyssa and I head in one direction and back to class, Liza up north toward Huehuetenango.