(Un)natural experiences – insert gay pun here

October 21, 2008

This past week I had the honour of experiencing two major forces of nature; an earthquake and Lake Atitlan. Both were overwhelming experiences, and both are associated with huge problems for human development. In order to see my opinion about tourist resorts at the lake, see my previous post.

The first, the earthquake, was of course awesome, in the sense of awe-inspiring, and scary. At first a strange shifting, I thought I was about to experience a particularly strong bout of food poisoning. As the tremor increased, I realised it wasn´t my stomach that was upset, but the whole earth. As the house began to sway dramatically, Jose-Miguel ran to stand under the corner of the roof and Laura grabbed onto her chair and looked at me with worried eyes. Generally, if the locals are worried, it´s not a good thing. The quake turned out to be 6.6 on the Richter scale and the media didn´t mention whether anyone died. According to the classification system, it was a tremor with the epicentre in the sea off the Pacific coast. But I choose to call it an earthquake, because, seeing the house wobble like that was damned impressive for me. Of course, earthquakes are extremely dangerous things, especially in the mountains where the combination of water and loose earth buries many people. A few years ago the whole village of Santiago died when a mountain collapsed on top of them in the middle of the night.

The potential for landslides following an earthquake crossed my mind when I travelled to Lake Atitlan for the weekend. Cramped in an extremely sick-inducing ´Chicken bus,´we had to cross several mountains to reach the lake. On the way we had to wait several times on mountain passes for roadworkers to clear the road. I don´t know whether these mud paths were worse after the earthquake, but I was pretty scared when all I could see ahead was a tiny mud path alongside a drop with rocks falling constantly on it. So, when we crossed this path, my reaction was to shut my eyes and think I´m gonna die, I´m gonna die. Not very profound, but it was the best I could manage. In fact, the path was wider than I thought and our journey was incident free, but the impression was heavy.

Not very impressive picture of the lancha from Pana to San Pedro la Laguna

The Chicken buses are amazingly suped-up old American school buses whose seats for children have been moved even further to accomodate more people and which emit opaque clouds of black smoke as they pass by. And I mean really opaque and black. The sides are painted with a variety of bright themes, such as the generic speed flame, and are named either women´s names such as Linda Katy (Pretty Katy) or Regalito de Dios (Gift from God). Gift from a right-wing American government more like. I don´t know whether these donations demonstrate a sick sense of humour on America´s side, but they are one of the most dangerous and uncomfortable methods of transport I have ever encountered. If I am lucky enough to choose my seat it´s a toss up between travel sickness in the aisle and squished knees by nthe window (I don´t know how other taller travellers manage, but the locals fit comfortably). On the way back yesterday I was the third on a seat for two, and would fall off my seat (remaining airborne by holding onto the metal bar with my hands) when we went around sharp corners. Of course, the Guatemaltecos somehow manage to sit across this gap and squeeze into the most improbable ´seats.´They sure are hardcore.

Once I arrived in Panajachel on Friday night I crossed the lake in a lancha (speedboat) to San Pedro la Laguna, the hippie, druggy, travellers´paradise, and lodged in a hostel on the side of the lake. My room was ugly but clean with a private bathroom, but the hostel and surroundings were beautiful.

View of the small Maya village of San Juan, which is amazingly untouched by development, unlike the tourist haven just 2km down the road

San Pedro was my first stop as a lone traveller and the experience was very positive. Owing to lack of seats, I soon found interesting company in a restaurant and for the rest of the weekend. I felt a little naive when it comes to money and travelling but I think I will soon harden up. In fact, faced with a bus cancellation on Sunday I managed to make my own way back to Xela without hassle and with the company of a hardened ex-pat American student who had a ton of interesting opinions.

My decision to travel by local transport was bolstered not only by the relative cheapness and desire to integrate myself more with the local way of life but also by the experience several of my friends had recently travelling from the capital to Xela. Four armed masked men entered their first class bus and robbed them at gunpoint, taking everything they could find, including hidden money belts. A couple of these were robbed to next week of their borrowed (their own money having previously been taken) money in different circumstances. Of course, while armed robbery is scary and I hope I never experience it, as the only objective is capital you are unlikely to be hurt. But still, eek! I am reminded of the Foreign and Commonwealth website´s general advice to British tourists to not go to Guatemala. But really, I have rarely felt unsafe. In fact the only time I felt uncomfortable was when I was forced into ´participating´in a political monologue by a drunken local in a tourist resort. While I am happy to learn about the history of Guatemala and engage in conversations with the locals (such learning experiences being one of the reasons I am here), I resent both that he assumed I was totally ignorant of the general structure of recent Guatemalan history and the fact that he used me as a political sounding board without making any attempt to actively engage me in conversation. Added to his compulsion to touch me with his insistence that he wasn´t trying to touch me or hit on me and his insistence that he ´didn´t have weapons´ once I made it clear I wanted him to leave me alone left me far more furious and frustrated than scared. Conversely, I have always felt safe in non-touristy areas.

Drinking on a stoop after being enraged at resort beer prices on Saturday – I look a lot like my brother

Having spent the weekend wandering and relaxing, I returned to Xela amazingly exhausted and happy with what I had accomplished. Although the mist and rain had prevented me from seeing the stunning vistas of summertime, I now feel a lot more equipped to continue my travels alone.


One Response to “(Un)natural experiences – insert gay pun here”

  1. Marie K said

    … And you’re doing a fantastic job! Been meaning to pop in here for ages, and it’s wonderful. Keep up the writing, keep having fun and keep safe. x x

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