The Great Migration: Where I've been

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Rundown

Close your eyes. Ok, actually don´t close your eyes, because then you won´t be able to read my blog entry. You´ll just be sitting in front of your computer with your eyes closed. Freak.

Anyway, what I´m trying to do is get you to imagine where I am. I´m having trouble finding a way to describe it, so you need to try to live it a little with me here.

Saturday morning, 5:15 am. Most of my crap (and good god, what a load of crap I brought with me here. I am the fucking queen of overpacking. You live and learn I suppose...and in this case, I have learned how little I can really live on.) has been packed away and given to my Spanish teacher Lucky. I have a backpack of clothes and pepto-bismol, and three empty water bottles. At just shy of 6:00 I head down the now familiar streets of Xela, quite and empty at this hour, but just as cobble-stoned and uneven. I am going to meet two friends and a guide to begin our three day trek through the jungle to Lago Atitlan, some 43 kilometers away.

I have never gone backpacking before. I have talked about it endless times, especially with Hannah and Erin (hi folks) but I´ve never gone over night, miles and miles with the overstuffed bag. Shit.

Let me introduce you to the characters. We have Sophie, 20-year-old German-born self-proclaimed "world citizen" who has lived in more countries than I´ve been to and loves to talk about her year in a Dutch refugee camp. Tiny, tough, fun, and just a little self-important for my taste, she kind of spear-headed this whole adventure. We also have Laura, a 19-year-old Danish girl still in high school with absolutely no hiking experience. She´s very fond of saying ¨there´s no mountains in Denmark.¨It seems her entire country of five million has decided to come to Guatemala for the summer...of my school of 20, 10 were from Denmark. Then we have David, our Guatemalan guide. 21, relatively experienced, funny, and just a little irresponsible and unprofessional. We made an interesting group.

After a breakfast of pancakes and instant coffee (why we are subject to such crappy coffee when the country is littered with coffee farms is beyond me. Well, no its not, actually...its because its the cheapest shit and everyone is gets screwed by the system and is fucking poor, but still its unfortunate for all involved) we were taken by car up this dirt gultch (possible at one time a road but now really just a stretch of dirt). In the middle of nowhere, the car stops, we take our overstuffed giant backpacker backpacks and continue on by foot. It has begun.

I won´t go through ever kilometer but you need to try to understand what I was feeling. Kilometer after kilometer of rainforest. Just green and lush and so utterly isolated. The clouds here are different...they kind of hang on the mountain tops, seeping through the trees. At one point we were walking on the edge of this mountain, and all I could see below me was cloud. Completely white, like I could fall off into nowhere. We stopped every once in a while to examine an exoctic insect, spectacular flower, or grand vista. Most of the time, however, it was just one foot in front of the other, solitary in my trek across the jungle backlands.

It was certainly a challenge. We would stop for water, and I´d sit there, looking down or up at what we had just done, and be so utterly relieved this was only a one-way trek. But it certainly wasn´t impossible. Laura did incredibly well, despite her lack of experience, but I still maintained a certain sense of pride. I could do this. Not only could I do, but I wasn´t dying or falling behind or wishing it to be over. I was exactly where I wanted to the middle of the rainforest, boots so wet I had to squeeze out my socks, clutching a tarp to my shoulders to cover my grimy backpack from the torrential jungle storms.

When I began this blog entry, I thought this would be the height of my adventure. I expected this thrilling tail to overshadow the two weeks to follow...what I thought would be me, my backpack, and some ruins. Ha. Fear not, fair reader--I am the queen of adventure. But I am also running out of time. Thus I will break down past 1.5 weeks into easily digestable tidbits. (Props to Ryan Cole for introducing me to this fantastic information-passing system.)

Saturday-Monday: Trek days. An incredible experience, ending at Lago Atitlan. I even played with children.

Monday afternoon: As we walked along the lake between the end of the hike and a meeting spot in San Pedro, a man walked up to us and started yelling that he wanted my backpack. He grabed for it, missed and grabed my chest instead. This is when we see the rock and crazed, drugged-out look in his eyes. Our faithful guide David gets in a fist-fight, and gets the would-be robber (a rather pathetic excuse for one if you ask me...I mean a rock? Really?) to move along. The three girls hurry on down the road and jump in a little tuk-tuk to take us the rest of the way. Poor Laura just about had a heart attack. All in a day's climb.

Monday evening: A friend of mine from my language school, Emily, did the same trek but with a different group. She and I decided to meet up in San Pedro and spend a couple of days at the lake. Emily, however, got massively ill and stayed in bed. I just hung out with her trekking group (a group quite a bit larger than my group) and made a mess of new friends. I got especially close to an awesome Aussie named Sally, and we ended up spending the next week together. I had far more Long Island Ice Tea than was really wise.

Tuesday: Sally and I took a lancha across the lake and took a rather overstuffed pickup ride to the market in Solola--a market for locals, not for tourists, as the Bible (aka Lonely Planet) so helpfully pointed out. The nastiest smelling dried fish, screaming chickens, beautifully woven cloth, and unrecognizable fruit stretched on forever. Sally and I made friends with a family of textile producers. We spent about an hour with them, eventually meeting all seven children scattered through the market. I got quite a kick out it when Maria pulled a video phone out of her traditional top (known as a guipil) to show us a video of how the cloth was made.

Tuesday night and Wednesday: These days are filled with various illicit activities that I would do best not to share with such a sorted audience. (Now if that didn't peak your interest...)

One of the most interesting things about travel is all of the people you meet. I have had so many conversations, and so many new perspectives. I have a huge collection of emails. But I also had a mess of changed plans. I was going to leave the lake Wednesday morning, but ended up tagging along with Sally. Sometimes its more about the people you meet than where you are...

Thursday: After an excessively late night out, and about two hours of sleep, Sally and I woke up to catch the 5:00 am bus to Coban...a beautiful but rather rugged trek of about nine hours. I was quite pleased to not have to figure this trip out alone. I think the worst part of travel is travel. And its not even that bad. But after hour three of the road-less road and the same granola I'd been eating for a four days, I was ready to arrive. Though the Bible has little to say about Coban, I thought it was a pretty fascinating city. There was a festival going on to honor the daughters of the Mayan Sun King (or something along those lines) and something of a Miss America Pagent, but for the traditional Mayan population. Quite a party.

And here I have a beautiful example of the randomness of travel. Before she was in Guatemala, Sally had actually been traveling through California of all places. She was at a Rotary conference in Los Angeles when she met a woman named Joanne, who was taking a group of kids through a program called Jacob's Ladder (a program for really smart, at risk kids to help them stay on the right path, so to speak) to Guatemala. And you guessed it, she was going to be there the same time as Sally. So Sally promised to catch up with this group in Coban, and I decided to tag along. We spent Thursday night meeting everyone, and showed up Friday to spend the day with them. We were welcomed with so much enthusiasm, it was overwhelming.

Friday: Sally and I jumped on a bus with twelve 9th and 10th graders and their chaperones to play with some kids in a rural school that had been founded and supported by Rotary International. The Coban chapter is headed by an 80-year-old half-deaf priest named Father Bernie who's second greatest joy in life (after the Good Lord of course) was a good bottle of scotch (can priests do that?). He's been in Guatemala for 13 years but barely has working Spanish (except for the prayers...he's got beautiful Spanish when it comes to talking to Jesus). This was particularly interesting for me as this is a well-known and relatively well-funded organization, but I have to say I was not altogether OK with how "development" was playing out here. This felt like so many of the things I've talked about in my classes and Engaging Development (hi En-devers) that are WRONG with development. But it was absolutely fascinating to talk to these kids (some of which only spoke Kekchi, an indigenous there wasn't so much talking going on there), the teachers, and all of the folks from Jacob's Ladder. One of the chaperone's had finished three years in the Peace Corps last year so I spent a good long time talking to her about that. Once again, that's on my list. But who knows. Either way, I love talking to Peace Corps folks. (And Teach for America folks, though that's NOT on my list...but there sure are a lot of them wandering around.) Anyway, Friday night we were invited back to Father Bernie's monastery. (The Jacob's Ladder kids were all looking forward to seeing monks, as, I must admit, was I, but they were all doing their monkly duties and didn't join us for "30 pounds of chicken" as Father Bernie repeatedly told us, and ice cream.) An absolutely fascinating day, and one of those situations that you just need to fall into.

Saturday: I jumped on the tourist bandwagon and went to Semuc Champey and Lanquin with a bunch of foreigners. Sometimes I need to remind myself that often these places are tourist stops because they are just so damn cool. As was the case here. Long story short, lots of hiking through the rainforest and swimming in idyllic blue pools and jumping off waterfalls in a jungle river. I felt like absolute shit that day (I'm pretty sure I had a fever) but insisted on doing the difficult climb to the mirador (lookout). I'm not sure why I always do that to myself, but it was worth it. Lanquin has some interesting caves that are used for sacred Mayan rituals, but I fell twice on the muddy path, once almost sliding off the edge into a pointy, scary abyss, so me and my very dirty clothes had a bit more affection for the pools than the caves. We didn't even get to see any bats and strange crab-scorpion-spiders as promised. The day was pleasant, however, and yet more friends were made.

Sunday: I finally had to say goodbye to Sally. If I ever wanted to make it to Tikal (see Monday) I had to get going, and Sally had to fly out Monday morning. She had been an absolutely fantastic travel companion. It struck me as funny though, because even eleven days into my solo travel, I have yet to spend one night alone. I always end up meeting up with someone, and our plans just merge. I thought I would be eating through books, spending hours relaxing. But that's just not me, I guess. That's just not how people travel. I jumped into a packed little van and headed north to Flores, the jumping off point for Tikal, the most spectacular Mayan ruins in the area. On the bus, I ended up sitting with a French Canadian couple I had met the day before and a Belgian guy named Olmo. We had quite an interesting language fuck situation because the French Canadian couple wasn't so great in English, but Olmo spoke perfect French, English, and Dutch. He would switch between translating miscommunications between the couple and I, chatting with the Dutch folks up front, and speaking to me in English. I always though it was funny when he would try to speak French to me, and I'd have to say "English please!" I was going to go on to a smaller town, but ended up grabbing a bunk in the same hostel as my new friends. Again...that's how these things go.

Monday: Ah, Monday. Monday was Tikal. My friends and I woke up at 2:45 am to catch the bus to take us to Tikal, a gigantic ancient Mayan city, so we could watch the sunrise from the tallest ruin, a couple hundred feet up, and some 1000 years old. The view, and the day, were rather incredible. Olmo and I spent from about 4:45 am when we arrived to 3:00 in the afternoon exploring this absolutely incredible site, climbing pyramids, watching monkeys, pointing out flaming red centipeds, and watching for Tucans (Olmo was obsessed with finding one). The rest of the day was spent chatting with folks and walking around yet another gorgeous Guatemalan lake. I got to bear witness to a debate about the European Union between a super liberal Irish girl and soft-spoken Olmo while enjoying a lemonade and the cool breeze off the lake that allowed me to breath in this deathly humid place. It reminded me that not all politics are US-centered politics and just how ignorant I am about most of the happenings in the world. (Though it has shocked me how many non-US folks have a such strong opinions about our upcoming election. A Canadian was reading The Audacity of Hope. I can't even name the Canadian Prime Minister.)

Tuesday: Which brings me to today. I spent quite a while agonizing over the remainder of my trip. I really wanted to get to Belize, or at least the Caribbean coast of Guatemala, but as usual, I tried to pack far too much into far too short a time. I always think I can do everything. Alas, I am catching an overnight bus back to where I started, ready to catch an early flight out on Friday. I think I have a few more adventures in me, and there are always more conversations to be had (in English and Spanish), but my trip is definitely winding down. I woke up today deathly ill anyway, so its been Gatorade and Pepto-Bismal since about 6 this morning. I'm so used to my changing health status I barely noticed. What I keep needing to remind myself is that its OK to relax. Its OK to sleep on a hammuk overlooking the lake. Its OK to spend a couple of hours writing about my trip. Its OK to do nothing. Because even doing nothing is part of the experience, part of my time here.

I absolutely love traveling. I love to meet people and compare notes on our lives, our cultures, our taxes, our governments, our interests, our plans, our choices. I love to see things from the pages of National Geographic. I love this different pace of life, this mad scramble around a foreign yet friendly place. I love sleeping in a dorm room of 15 other travelers. I love trying to live out of a daypack. I love trying to speak a new language. I have absolutely loved this entire summer. I was so worried I wouldn't be able to fill my two weeks, that I wouldn't be able to travel on my own, but I could do this for months (perhaps with a slightly larger packpack and a much larger wallet). But I am also looking forward to going home. I have to bore some of you with yet more pictures and stories (and hear your stories), help my sister find a college, and get ready for my next great adventure--my year abroad. Its nice to know that I have such a nice situation to come home to. As great as its been here, I wouldn't want to live with latrines and sketchy electricy, unreliable bus schedules and never quite fitting in forever. But that's my greatest luxury--my ability to come home.

I have barely a second when I come home--I have lots of errands and packing and visa-getting to do, and a week from tomorrow I'm off again with my family to the East Coast and Colorado, but if you are free in the LA area (and somewhat flexible and patient) from August second to August fifth, and August 18th to August 24th (when my plane for Ecuador takes off) I'd love to see you. I'm just now starting to appreciate just how long a year is. Let's grab coffee, dinner, snack, a pot cookie, something--and catch up in person.

Until I have another couple of hours to bore you with my musings....hasta luego.


erin said...

That made my heart hurt a little. None of it seems like it could be real, but I want to be there with you. Instead, you will be home in about three days - which is almost as good.

hannah said...

i second what erin said..hayley, sunday morning erin and i will make a feast for you that will blow your mind and make you never want to leave us again

isaac said...

You are awesome, Intrepid Explorer! But I miss you, and I'm looking forward to seeing you again, back with us car-dependent, escalator-walking urbanites :P