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.

Sexy post!

October 10, 2008

OK, not really. But you do get a picture of me in my bathing suit, which isn´t exactly the kind of image of myself I normally like to post on the world wide web. The sacrifices I make in the name of literary art! I had a slightly stressful school day, with student/teacher personality clashes (we have a new teacher each week, thankfully) and I decided to write about my indulgences of yesterday, rather than the communist politics of the school I´m attending, which I will get to in another post. The beautiful natural pool you see before you is the volcanic pond of las Fuentes Georginas. These thermal pools are pretty well known for their beauty and calming effect, and you can smell them halfway down the mountain. Mmm, sulphur . . .

Guatemala is a very volcanic country, and Xela is hedged into its natural bowl by 10 surrounding volcanos, one of which, Santa Maria, exploded in 1902 and killed a lot of people. Apparently, the diplomatic tendencies of the time led the President to send a town cryer into the parque central to announce that nothing was happening. This is amid a rain of ashes, massive clouds of smoke, and lava flowing down the hills. Hmmm. International politics. Stupid, much? (Well, not all of them, but certainly the ass-licking, holocaust-denying kind.) The highest point until Mexico, the Santa Maria is is the volcano I will be climbing at 5 in the morning this Sunday without fitness training. Again, I ask, stupid much? I´m hoping that my survival stamina will kick in and I will make it to the top for the sunrise. Apparently you can see Mexico and as far as Nicaragua from the top. Beautiful. As an impressive triangular and very steep peak, my first view of this mountain yesterday did instill some doubts in my mind. Well, so long as it doesn´t explode again. . .

Anyway, the volcano I scaled in a minivan yesterday was active as well, as the 50 degrees centigrade pool I´m sitting in proves. Eek! Apparently, apart from the odd spurts of lava and steam, it´s harmless. I didn´t get to see any lava unfortunately, as we just went to the pools. I guess I´ll save that for another post too! I don´t think these pictures do much justice to the beauty of the pools, especially as this one was taken from a shelter. The main pool, as seen above, is at the bottom of a wooded cliff, from which water falls into the pond below. It is truly magnificent. The water is then channelled into two following pools, getting cooler as it moves downwards into each. My opinion is that you start off in the coolest one at the bottom and work your way up to the fifty fucking degrees at the top. For some strange reason, no one else agreed with me. Huh! As beautiful as this last, naturally formed pool is, you can´t stay in it very long. At least not with my British intolerance of heat. Yet the mingling of monsoon rain with the hot water is really refreshing. To get the most out of the experience, I developed a pattern of dip, sit up, dip, sit up.

I really wish I had taken a picture of the surrounding countryside. The way up the mountain we passed patchwork fields and stunning sharp drops into misty valleys and the view of clouds ringing the surrounding mountains below us. Of course, this stunning landscape is accompanied by the extreme poverty of its inhabitants. The tiny steep fields probably don´t yield an easy harvest for their farmers, and the trading conditions here suck. The city at the bottom of this valley is flooded and industrial. It stinks of smoke and is full of shanty towns. It makes the house I´m living in seem an impossible dream, which I guess it is for many.

As always, the tourists (that´s me and my friends) paid a week´s factory wages to enter the natural spa and we spent the afternoon soaking away in the steam. It was truly luxurious. Unfortunately, I felt sick the whole afternoon, owing to the driving of the school´s lovely but slightly safety-challenged driver. Driving at hair-raising speed around breakneck bends up (and down) a mountain doesn´t exactly make for a peaceful ride. Most of us were getting ready to puke in both directions. By the way (please don´t read this Mum), to get a driving licence here you don´t have to actually take any driving lessons. You pay the driving school, who then gives you a certificate, which you then exchange for a licence. The illiteracy of many of the professional drivers here also contributes to accidents. They can´t read the road signs. So, the car sickness combined with extreme heat left me feeling a little dizzy, and after nearly puking on the way home I had to lie down for the evening. The sick-feeling also contributed to the not-taking-of-photos. Still, the fuentes were worth it. Here is a picture of the hills surrounding Xela, to give you a very small idea of the up-and-down nature of the countryside here. You can see the city´s market coming off the parque central.

Oh yes, that mountain top you see in the distance is the Santa Maria. Ha. Ha. Ha.

. . . in Guatemala

October 5, 2008

So, first of all, an apology. For the 90% of you who have no idea where I am or my general health, I apologize. Please don’t take it personally, I truly am this crap with everybody. And, before I even start blogging, please note that the keyboards in Guatemala are both foreign and a bit crappy. My posts will be full of bizarre typos. As for the style of this blog, I intend it to be my own record of my adventures and a way to keep in contact with all my friends. You and I can both read this and enjoy the pretty pictures. That is, given that I know how to upload them.

Oh, there you go! For those who recognize these three, they are three quarters of the foursome who stayed up with me on my last night in Montreal before I caught my flight to Guatemala at stupid o’ clock in the manana. Chandra, on the right with the bowl, got out of bed to return my camera to me. I only thought it fair to take a picture of her in return.

I would really appreciate comments on my posts and the opportunity to communicate with my friends while I am travelling. So feel free to interact with this blog. It’s kinda one of the most appealing features for me. Finally, my blogs may be a bit sporadic but I will create them,so come and check here our of curiosity once in a while. I will try to be witty and entertaining.

So, onto the now. I am spending the next few months on a circuitous route back to the UK via Central and South America. My first stop is Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, where I am studying Spanish for about a month. In true Laura style, I have been here a week but this is the first time I have found to sit down and write a blog. Apologies! I will be back soon with some interesting tales. But, for now, please enjoy this view of Quetzaltenango’s streets.