Guatemala

Trip Start Sep 16, 2002
1
7
19
Trip End May 31, 2004


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Flag of Guatemala  ,
Monday, February 17, 2003

After arriving in Havana on a packed flight from Cancun, Shajar (Israeli architect student studying in Mexico City) and I made our way into the legendary city passing symbols of Communism and the Revolution, namely Revolucion square with the huge mural of Ernesto Che Guevarra. I have always been fascinated by Castros singleminded determination to keep the American Imperialist machine at bay for over 40 years. And of course there are the cigars and mojitos to enjoy.....and the music.

La Habana is a city literally right on the sea front. The impressive Malecon (seafront wall) holds back the Caribbean waves, although walking down it normally means you get drenched by the waves crashing against the wall. Its like the Malecon is holding back the sea of imperialism which will eventually break down the wall of communism. There are signs of the wall cracking though. Firstly Castro is pretty old and there are others itching to get hold of the reigns to start dismantling the Communist regime. And the people want change. Walk down a street in Havana and its common to see kids playing baseball, wearing clothes with American brand names and flags and of course the great yank tanks that they drive are everywhere. So it probably wont be long before Cuba too becomes another market playground for the American corporate giants.

On the downside of visiting Cuba, I did find it was hard to meet and talk to people without them trying to relieve you of your money. After a while you get a little tired of the 'hello amigo' and the attempts to lure you into bars and friends houses to buy cigars and rum. However one surreal conversation I had in Cuba was like a scene out of a movie. In a bar speaking about Castro and the state of Cuba and suddenly people get very edgy. At one point I was asked if I was wearing a wire (and I was asked to open my shirt!). Reminds me of 1984 - very Big Brother. But despite the oppression the people still know how to express themselves and enjoy their life - mainly through Salsa music. And it is completely safe to walk around the city at night. There is a policeman on nearly every 2nd block. Which is good if you are a tourist but not if you want to rob one.

Havana was also the home of a famous literary figure, Ernest Hemingway. He spent alot of time there and was particualrly fond of the Mojito drink. In one of the bars he frequented he has written on the wall "My Mojito in La Bodeguita" which is the name of the bar. Not a very thought provoking statement considering his previous works. One night while sipping our Mojitos a couple sat next to us and asked the waiter what there was drink. He replied "Mojito, mojito or if you want.....mojito".


After 5 days in Havana and celebrating New Years it was back to Mexico. From here I took a bus from the Mexican border through Belize into Guatemala. After illegally entering Guatemala, because border control were closed therefore i could not get my passport stamped, i made it to Flores. An island village in the middle of a lake. From here I went to visit probably the most famous Mayan temples, Tikal. This is a huge site with temples spread out in lush jungle. When you arrive at sunrise you are greeted with this incredible sea of sound created by toucans, macaws and roaring howler monkys. It almost makes the hairs on the nape of your neck stand on edge, the atmosphere is amazing as the temples poke their heads out of the jungle canopy. You can definitely feel some sort of energy in this place. Also while in Flores I saw my first Jaguar. The Jaguar used to be highly regarded in the Mayan world and is often depicted on inscriptions on temples. So it was good to finally see one in the flesh.

Next stop after Flores was the well preserved colonial city Antigua. This is a very colourful city with cobbled streets which lies at the base of an inactive volcano called Volcan Agua (Water volcano). In fact Guatemala has around 35 volcanos (4 of them being active). Not far from Antigua is the active volcano - Volcan Fuego (Fire volcano). My plan here was to enroll in a Spanish school and live with a family for a couple weeks. The idea being to totally immerse myself in the language and culture. During my 2 weeks I also managed to climb 2 volcanos, 1 active and 1 inactive. The toughest of these 2 was volcano Agua standing at around 3,600 metres above sea level. Leaving at 5am in the morning a group of us decided to scale this volcano. We were told by the tour company that once you reached the top there was a beautiful church inside the crater. We were driven to a small village on the volcano about 2,500 metres above sea level. This means we only had just over 1000 metres to hike. However this took us around 5 hours. The altitude and gradient prooving tough opponents. When we finally staggered to the top our pre-vision of a beautiful church (i imagined it to be yellow for some reason) was shattered by a shack inside a not very deep litter strewn crater. Obviously something was lost in the translation with the company. In fact this very normal in latin america. You are told what you want to hear, normally this is quite far from the truth. Its like asking for directions. You must always be very skeptical because one person will say one thing and another will give you directions in an opposite direction. For some reason the phrase "Sorry I dont know where that is" does not exist. Despite this little disappointment it was an amazing view. And we got to see Volcan Fuego erupt at a safe distance.

Of course it wasn˘Ąt all fun while in Antigua. Each day from 8am to 1pm I had Spanish lessons with my teacher Gerardo. We would sit in a small room inside the school and have a one to one lesson. This proved a great way to learn the lingo and also living with a Gautemalan family helped improve my Spanish after 2 weeks. During the course Gerardo took me to a small village to observe a religious ritual involving chickens. This was very surreal. The village reveres a Saint called Simeon and they make offerings to him in hope of good fortune (or bad fortune for your enemies!). One of the rituals is the cleansing of the soul. If you require this service the Shaman will proceed to gently hit you with some leafy branches. He or she will then take a bottle of some spirit and take a big swig but not swallow. Suddenly this spirit is being spat over you by the Shaman. And this happens several times. After which you are cleansed. Interesting to see also families putting candles and cigars into circular piles before burning the offerings for Simeon. The Shaman then sacrificed a chicken and poured its blood into the fire before completely ripping it to pieces. Not a pleasant sight. And then a very supernatural thing occured. I am skeptical when it comes to this sort of thing, but when I saw the three fires which were burning suddenly swirl up into the air like mini tornados I did get the feeling that I might have witnessed my first supernatural event. Because the fires were burning in a courtyard and therefore were isolated from any intruding winds. Gerardo told me that was a sign that the bad spirits were leaving.

After 2 weeks of Spanish school it was off to Lake Atitlan and more volcanos. This lake is in fact a collapsed volcano cone filled with green water surrounded by 3 inactive volcanos. Scattered around the lake are various villages where the Mayans wear the traditional dress which is bright and colourful. Another volcano was climbed this time with an 11 year old guide. About half way up Julio our guide started to ask a few questions like "Do you have alot of money?" and "Do you have a camera?". It was at this point that Eddie and myself became a little concerned. We were expecting banditos to jump out any second with machetes and demand our valuables. Julio would also suddenly stop and pretend he had heard something. Then he would laugh and we would realise he has winding us up. So we decided on the way down to tie him to a tree and leave him for the wolves.

Next I headed down into Honduras for my final leg of Central America. Unfortunately I had spent too long in Mexico and Guatemala so had to miss out the rest of Central and make it to Rio for Carnaval. But first I visited my last Mayan site in Copan. Again impressive but more for the well preserved inscriptions and statues. While in Copan I also visited some natural hot springs. A stream of steaming hot water running into a cold water river. Then it was off to the Caribbean Bay Islands off Honduras for 2 weeks of Scuba diving. This was a fantastic experience. During my stay I completed around 10 dives including a wreck dive and a night dive. I completed the advanced diver course at a Germans dive shop called Reef Divers. The owner makes the best fried breakfast by the way. Also these islands (Roatan and Utila) are probably the cheapest places to do your open water course with stunning reef scenery and colours.

So now I am back in Antigua. In a few days I will be flying to Brazil to head to Rio for Carnaval where I plan to meet a mad South African cyclist who has just cycled 5000km across parts of China, Australia and now South America.......Luke are you still out there?
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