Sunday, August 17, 2014

Antigua de Guatemala and Lake Atitlan

On a crowded chicken bus – a former US school bus painted like it's going to star in a monster truck show now used to facilitate intercity travel in Guatemala – I found myself chatting with a local that grew up in Los Angeles. A wizened minstrel in a Mayan tunic hopped onboard and played some Latin pop songs on his guitar while I watched a blur of trees in volcanic soil creep past through the window. I smelled of tequila from a bottle that did not survive my flight from Havana, leaving all my books and clothes baptized in agave and broken glass. This route, so I was told, from the capital to the city of Antigua occasionally sees its bus drivers beheaded for failing to pay their dues to the cartel.

Up until my first hours in Guatemala, I don't think I've ever put a step in a country where I've felt less safe than in my own. Though truly, if it weren't for the reports I've read of robbery, kidnappings, raids, and hijackings, little about Guatemala's appearance suggests any additional measure of peril than anywhere else – save for maybe the abundance of well armed security guards posted by jewelers, bodegas, and bus stations brandishing scowls and rusty looking shotguns.

More surprising to my eyes, in my fleeting hours in Guatemala City and then repeatedly afterward, was the diminutive stature of our neighbors to the south. Whereas I was pleased to see in Mexico a thriving incorporation of native culture, Guatemala seemed to be inversely a country of natives with incorporation of European culture. Tiny Mayan women in lovely knit dresses were on every corner hawking Mayan this's and thats's. Prior to this particularly trip, I suppose I had naively assumed that the U.S.'s near total domination and diminishment of its native peoples – particularly in its big cities – was also reflective of the condition in the rest of the Americas, and I was happy to find I was wrong.

I hopped off the bus in Antigua's outskirts and ambled toward where I was hoping I'd find the city center. I was shortly intercepted by a a Canadian family that warned me I was in a part of town I ought not to be alone in with all of my belongings.

I followed them until I had made my bearings and then I checked into a hostel where I would find my friend Henry, a bartender I had once worked with whom was in town for a wedding. Together, we took the to the city’s old streets.

When the clouds permit it, an ominous volcano watches over colorful Antigua, a colonial town split tidily along a cobblestone grid dotted with grand old cathedrals of every degree of upkeep – many struck down to stony skeletons by earthquakes in the passing of centuries. Sometimes broken things can be so beautiful. Blue sky might shine through what was once a painted dome, and the reeds and bushes that mark their paths and creep up the walls celebrate their advances in the endless drama of man vs. nature.

The Antigua of today seemed a town for outsiders. Receptionists and bartenders seemed more likely to be wandering Brits, Aussies, and Yanks that wanted temporary roots in exotic soil.

Guatemalan cuisine seemed harder to find than sushi, and there was even a Staples for me to pay a visit to when the last of my pens had run dry or missing. I got the sense that Guatemala's tourists are corralled into more specific geographic locations than in most countries – perhaps for safety reasons.

Days earlier, sharing rum in Havana with an Australian flight controller and a loud young Englishman wearing a shit that read, “Guat-ever!” I was told I shouldn't miss a visit to lake Atitlan, a great lake not too far from Antigua with a huge expat community and dramatically set before two great volcanoes (volcanoes are really what's up in Guatemala). So I talked Henry in joining me for a day trip a little to the northwest. At dawn we crammed into a van that wound for hours through piney hills, smoke scented farms, and bustling towns full of knit Mayan dresses and ceramic pottery stalls.

After passing a final hilltop we began a descent into the valley that holds the beautiful lake Atitlan and our van was suddenly full of gawking rubberneckers swiveling their heads left and right in opposition to our vans orientation as we slid steeply down a ridgeback road into a dockside village.
Like in Antigua, the volcanoes in Atitlan were shy, and spent most of their time hiding their immensities behind curtains of mist.

The perimeter of the lake is dotted with communities of dramatically different qualities. There were populous towns like Panajachel where we were dropped off, great mansions perched on cliffs (one supposedly belonging to Sylvester Stallone), idyllic hippy expat yoga communities that were highly recommended to us, and then grey Mayan shanty towns where Spanish was truly a secondary language. Of the lot, it was the very last that interested us the most and we haggled a boat driver down to a reasonable fraction of the grossly inflated asking prices to show us around for the afternoon.

We enjoyed an overdue bite in Santa Catarina Polopo's one hotel/restaurant, a typical Guatemalan meal of plantains, rice, and beans. Stalls of beads and fabric lined the way to the town square where buildings were draped in purple banners in anticipation of Easter.

School children on break were sprinting each way and one with a giant smile even wrapped his arms around my leg in a very sweet unsolicited hug. I'm already reluctant enough about taking photos of people in my home country or otherwise, and the matter is even more complicated here. I was advised against taking photos of children in Guatemala – or at least to exercise more caution and consideration – thanks to high rates of kidnappings and the true villains who might use their cameras to shop around for their clients or however that might work. I did exercise extra restraint, but as I had in each of the last eight countries I've visited taken a portrait of a local kid wearing the fedora I take with me on the road, I let the friendliness of the kids there and the approving smiles of some nearby adults embolden me enough to take at least a couple shots (I've always found some justification in the fact that I've been snapped by foreigners with and without permission plenty of times back home and perhaps more so by the locals who snap pictures of me while I'm the stranger in their countries).

Further along the lake, following the rim clockwise, we found ourselves strolling up and down the steep alleyways of San Antonio Palopo, an even larger Mayan village. We caught some shade and our breath in a ruddy little cathedral with a sweeping view of the lake and this diagonally set village tumbling down the hills into the water.
It shouldn't be surprising to overhear the locals speaking only in Mayan, but I found its staunch disparity from Spanish and my lack of expectation to give their intonations a fascinating beauty.

Henry said his prayers in the cathedral and then we were back under the sun and took to the paths that weaved around the town. Back by the water, we enjoyed some beer. The big national brand is called Gallo and comes in a few different varieties all printed with the outline of a rooster. My favorite was their dark beer.
Henry was in Guatemala for a wedding, and back in Antigua we joined the wedding party for dinner and dancing. I tried to demonstrate what a couple hundred dollars in Salsa lessons in Cuba might accomplish, first with a gringa then with a a tall Guatemalan with deep set eyeshadow. It turns out I'm still worthless at doing the Salsa and after I parted with my second dance partner, Henry grabbed my arm and asked, “Matthew, you know that's a tranny don't you?” I chuckled as that fact became clear to me and I realized that better justified the fact that she approached me at the bar.

A few drinks later, the bartender, a strapping young white dude with dreadlocks, leaped up on the bar to dance a bit before running around the dance floor pouring free shots into people's mouths. His was a level of showmanship I couldn't hope to match in my cocktail bars back home.
For maybe half an hour I was drunk and in love with a tiny Guatemalan girl I was dancing with. She had curly hair, wore only black, and seemed not to know a word of English. When she left, I decided the party was over for me and moseyed back to wherever my bunk was waiting for me.
The morning after, the wedding party had booked a tour of the nearby Pacaya Volcano and saved me a spot, but I must have mentally logged the wrong meeting spot and they had to leave without me while I was running around the town square just hoping to bump into them along their way. Undeterred, as I'd never been up close to a volcano, I got on the next bus I could find heading to Pacaya.
By law, visitors to the volcano are required to have a guide, thanks to the previously high rates of armed robbery along the volcano's trails. Two guards with shotguns stood watch by the trail head. The gradient on the trails was considerable. The hills were green at first and yielded both fertile farmland and energy for the nearby geothermal plant. The greens and browns as we climbed higher slowly faded into greyscale as the mist in the background wrapped denser and closer, and the trees stopped growing for the inhabitability of the crumbly basalt we stepped on. When we reached the first peak nearby figures became mere silhouettes in the shroud.

Further along, the grains of basalt became pebbles, then rocks and small boulders of porous and angular stones that crunched under your feet and were warm to the touch. It was all very ominous and alien, and I felt like I could have been beamed down from a spaceship, sent down to explore a distant planet. Just before our final destination, we reached a wooden shack where we found two young men and a dog, the tenants of the highest shop in Guatemala. They were selling wares on behalf of a nonprofit, jewelry made by locals whose homes were burned down by the last eruption. I bought a silver pennant shaped like a leaf with lines etched from lava rock.

I was hoping to see a brilliant stream of bright red lava, or the kind of sulfurous pit befitting the sacrifice of young virgins to appease sadistic deities, but was rather disappointed when we converged on a little red hole in the ground. Even without this little red hole, the atmosphere of the hike along was well worth the price of admission, and my companions took marshmallows from our guide to roast upon this tiny tear in the earth. Not a fan of eating sweetened goo made out the tendons and skin of cows and pigs but still wanting to partake in the novelty, I brought along one of my last Cuban cigar, which I stabbed with a stick and smoked there on top of the volcano.

I intended to have left Antigua earlier than I did, but I really hit it off with the wedding party and the couple to be wed invited me to join the wedding at an eco-lodge deep in the hills above the city.

She was an American and he was a Guatemalan. The wedding procession was led by four adorable Guatemalan kids in traditional outfits in white and red. Henry, as a friend of the bride's, came down with the procession with the bridesmaids, his tie matching their dresses. The ceremony went down mostly en Espanol, and for what I assume are entirely legal reasons, the officiant had to go over the bride's legal information in great detail, and I believe he read aloud her passport number not once, but twice.

Later, after tapping into rum punch and cervezas, everyone was cutting looser to the tunes of a hip young guitarist that could vocalize the rhythmic sound of a cuica (that instrument popular in Brazilian pop that sounds like the squeak of rubbing a window with a rag and glass cleaner). It was a beautiful time and I was grateful to be there, but had to scoot before the party was done. There was an overnight bus waiting for me in Guatemala City, and I was warned repeatedly against taking a chicken bus after dark. I got back to my hostel in time to collect my things and get in the last tourist van bound for Guatemala City.

Friday, May 2, 2014


As much as I love being on the road, it can become so mentally and emotionally taxing that you can lose sight of why you were there in the first place. The thrilling highs of travel can be followed by plummets in turn, and by the end of my time in Trinidad, I felt pretty burned out. Dreading a long bus ride, I decided to chop up the commute back to Havana by spending a day in Cienfuegos – a city of note for being France's only colony on the island, resulting in architecture and urban design markedly different than elsewhere in Cuba.

I was tired of the way I was going through my dwindling dollars, tired of the sores I walked into the soles of my feet, and tired of saying no, no, no. No to people trying to get me to stay in their casas, no to optimistic tour guides, and no to persistent panhandlers (apparently a newer thing in Cuba). The noes hung on me heavily.

Time is your greatest commodity when traveling, and as briefly bitter as I was, I still didn't intend on wasting any of my precious time and made myself hit the town.

Cienfuegos is really a lovely city – and surprisingly devoid of tourists considering what it offers and its geographic position between Trinidad and Havana.

The neighborhoods emanating around the main square best showcase the elements that make the city distinct: gentle pastels, elegant wrought iron, and repetitive colonnades.

Being on the water, a long malecon teems with traffic and leisurely locals – at the first end of it I found a boxing camp for young boys. It stretches southward from the city center to an unlikely seeming cluster of pre-revolution mansions and luxury hotels, decadent relics from a much different world. There were yacht clubs and tennis courts full of affluent Cubans, driving me wild with curiosity about how such class divides can exist in a communist society (I recall Brian and I seeing a yellow Audi convertible blazing through Havana without tourist plates).

I was getting shaggy so I ducked into a warehouse sized barbershop with a doodle of what I'd like my haircut to look like. I had dinner in a place that served sugar alongside its juice – in case the juice wasn't sweet enough. I went to bed early enough tot catch a shared ride in a colectivo in the morning.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Trinidad de Cuba

Uncertain we were in the right place, we waited underneath a highway overpass where a Trinidad bound bus would hopefully be making a stop. We weren't alone there. There are more people in need of rides in Cuba than there are seats to accommodate them, thanks to an overburdened transit system and a scarcity of working vehicles. This leaves Cubans relying a great deal on hitchhiking for their commutes. Any driver with a seat is supposed to be obligated to lend a spot to a hitcher, but those hopeful to score a ride will often wave cash around for better assurance. In some areas denser with hitchhikers, government officials in yellow uniforms referred to as Amarillos organize the hitching process, giving higher priority to women, children, doctors, and nurses.

Photo by Brian Linzmeier

Brian and I enjoyed the idea of hitching as an experience and way to save money, but didn't want to rob a needier local of a seat. Eventually our blue Chinese tourist bus stopped by for us and we were on our way to Trinidad de Cuba.

...until our bus broke down. But not before the entire coach was filled with fumes. After a sweaty while and the driver's fiddling about the engine, a mechanic dropped by and replaced the broken part and we were on our way again.

We stopped for lunch at a tourist oriented rest stop with a mini-zoo featuring a tree full of sleeping jutia, giant tree rats that are eaten in some parts of Cuba.

Trinidad, once we were finally there, proved to be a gorgeous town as dense with music as it is color. Spiraling away from the grand Casa de la Musica next to the town square is a great variety of excellent venues in which to enjoy live salsa music and cocktails. Every night, I believe, ended with cigars, mojitos, and bar hopping based on what our ears caught wafting out of various clubs as we strolled around. We carefully resolved that the specific combination of rum, tobacco, and salsa music was a formidable one, and that we could never tire of it. If a spot was particularly bumping, the sparse amount of space in front of the band would fill with whirling salsa dancers. We made friends with a shrunkenly old black salsa genius with a permanent smile that would grab a the hand of a different young lady each song, and regardless of her skill level, make her look marvelous on the floor. He'd even take ladies right out of the arms of their partners, and he was so charming there was clearly no point in resisting him.

During the day, every ninth corner and doorstep or so was ornamented with a dapper as heck old Cubano merely minding his cigar and looking awesome. I think I want to become a Cuban when I reach my senior years.

We found ourselves frequenting a brand new creperie that served the best piña coladas in town – right out of the pineapple. I rarely stick around in one place when I'm traveling to be recognized by locals, but our piña colada chica quickly recognized us as good tippers and would cheer “papi!” when she saw me coming. I threw in an extra buck on my last night and in turn she ran kisses up my arm. We met the proprietor and were shocked to discover he was an Italian immigrant. Cuba is definitely transitioning into a more open version of itself, even if only incrementally; with great regularity we found the information we would digest on line to be outdated, even when published recently.

I told the owner of the creperie that we wanted to become the kings of salsa dancing and he gave us the number of a friend that took us back to her place for private lessons. I realized our aspirations weren't going to be realized in a mere couple of hours and resolved to take lessons each day after Brian left and I would be then doing Cuba solo.

At the bottom of the great steps that led to the Casa de la Musica, we bumped into a couple of Dutch girls we gave a lift to in Las Terrazas, and then took them on an impromptu tour of Trinidad's night life – because we are such experts. The night ended in a cave on the hill behind the city that hosted a nightclub popular with the younger locals. We danced ourselves sweaty to Latin top 40 hits until the lights were turned on at three in the morning.

Trinidad, we read, has access to the finest beaches you can find outside of a resort in Cuba. The four of us rented bikes and spent a great afternoon of snorkeling and beach side mojitos. Brian had a nervous encounter with a sea snake.

We stayed with a Jorge that was pretty charming but very aggressive about pushing his tours. We let him talk us into scuba diving when we found out it would only be $25 a dive.

The dive instructor has no hair save for a mustache and a manicured tuft at the tip of his forehead, a concave chest, and would consider it criminally neglectful to drive by a young woman without giving her an attentive honk from the car horn. After a brief fitting and briefer tutorial on how one scubas, we were off and then under the turquoise blue water.

The deceptive curtain of reflective blue on the water's surface hides a different world entirely. Right away I felt like I was exploring a world more exotic and interesting than the surface of Mars. The white sand that flows from the coast becomes incrementally taken over by coral – first in pocketed islands but eventually becomes all encompassing. Multicolored fingers, fans, tentacles, tubes, lilies, and large bulbous brains define the landscape and are further populated by darting fish that are even more colorful still.

The complex textures and dazzling colors fill each part of your mask and create a powerful contrast when you feel inspired to turn your head up and look at the glassy pane that separates the worlds of water and air, and is so familiar from the other side. Looking up, the mask is filled only with blue save for the distorted rays and ripples of sunlight or maybe a jelly fish pulsing gently, riding the rhythms of the ocean, delicate and dangerous at the same time. Farther yet, the contours of the ocean floor grow more complex with great rocks and then deep crevasses, creating underwater canyons that eventually yield to sheer cliff faces overlooking a place where the water becomes somehow purple and then black. Every inch of the canyons is covered in coral and on our second dive we descended into one of these great cracks in the Earth.

It was thrilling to be entirely encompassed in this very organic and alien feeling world. The experience is simultaneous serene in the utmost way and, even still, full of danger. Every meter of depth amplifies the potential for harm and Brian and there were without experience, navigating narrow passes that tugged at our gear and housed deadly lion fish close enough to grasp. It felt like perhaps something we shouldn't be doing in a country where we don't even have an embassy, and yet it felt precisely like the kind of thing we should have been doing.

Brian had his flight to catch nearly a week before my own, but I had to return to this beautiful place. I was taken back to that cliff's edge and this time we descended into it. By the time we were 25 meters deep, fish could no longer be seen. It was just a wall of coral on one side, an iridescent wall of purple on the other, and us in between. In this colorful space devoid of sound and fish I lost all sense of proportion and felt rather more like a single cell organism floating around a microscope slide than a novice diver in foreign waters.

On the return, passing long trumpet fish and leering moray eels, the landscape gradually transformed back to the familiar forms that seem actually plausible, and there were crabs dancing on the rocks above the water break to celebrate our return. The instructor pressed me against the rocks with a degree of alarm and explained, “uno momento; there are cops on the beach,” and then I realized why those dives were so affordable. Back on the sand, I left my unlicensed dive instructor a tip, enjoyed a cocktail with a girl in the London music biz, and then headed back to Trinidad in a sky blue Chevy.