Friday, October 30, 2009

If Alice had bags...

I had a several hours with my bags to wander the city before I met my hosts. Sometimes I talk to things in my head. It's healthy as long as they're not talking back, right?


Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?

Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.

Alice: I'd like someplace to sit down, someplace to rest a bit.

Cheshire Cat: Oh, you're sure to do that, if you only walk long enough.

>>1 Hour Later<<

Alice: You again? Have I been walking in circles this whole time?

Cheshire Cat: Yes.

Alice: Why, you sassy cat, I ought to skin you...

Cheshire Cat: They say it isn't wise to kill the messenger...

Alice: Some message! You told me I'd find someplace to rest!

Cheshire Cat: Eventually, you will.

Alice: What kind of message is that?

Cheshire Cat: One that can be headed or ignored.

Alice: I just want someplace to sit down! Maybe a Caribou or a Starbucks...

Cheshire Cat: In Wonderland?

Alice: Oh yes, a talking cat is fine, but heaven forbid there be a Starbucks!

Cheshire Cat: I'm not even sure I know what that is.

Alice: Well how about a locker? Someplace I can put my bags for a bit so no odd creature comes and steals them.

Cheshire Cat: Now that you might find.

Alice: A locker or an odd creature?

Cheshire Cat: What do you think?

Alice: Oh, you're no help at all.

Cheshire Cat: Wonderland is full of fantastic places to hide things. One might hide all sorts of treasures...

Alice: Then where can I find a good hiding place? Which direction should I walk?

Cheshire Cat: It doesn't really matter where, if you only walk long enough.

Alice: I do wonder why I even talk to you at all...

The Quest for an Immigration Stamp

Let me tell you the story of a man. He was a fool who did not decide to get an immigration stamp because he wanted to save five minutes and didn't think it was necessary.

The man is me, in case you didn't catch that.

So in San Cristóbal, a city about three hours from the border, there is a migration center. I set out to find it one morning, probably about a two-three mile walk. It wasn't bad. San Cristóbal is a really neat city, and I found it with relatively no difficulty. But it was closed. I'd have to come back on Monday. So, I canceled my trip to the Palenque ruins, which is really too bad because I've heard they are awesome. But... I really just wanted to get legal and not worry about it.


A nice little creek on the way to the Migration Center. It looks sort of like Asia, huh?

Monday morning I started walking to the migration center for a second time. It was probably a bit after 7AM. Here's the odd thing. I made friends on the way, and I have no idea why.

I noticed, when I first started walking, that there were two dogs roaming the streets. One of them walked not far from me, peeing on everything to mark his territory. The other one was bigger and would smell the other dog's pee and try to pee on top of it (sometimes), but he followed the other dog the whole time and it seemed they were friends. I really was intrigued.

So this continues, for a long time. They took several turns away from me and many times I thought that was the end, but come one more block they'd find me. Yet the strangest thing about it was that they never looked at me directly and usually walked about twenty feet away. Finally, after about two miles, one looked up at me occasionally and walked close by. This happened right after we encountered another dog and they chased him away. I'm not sure if I was finally accepted into their dog gang or what, but there was a whole lot of unspoken communication going on that I wasn't aware of.

Nevertheless, eventually I reached the migration center and we had to part ways. But did they leave? No... It turned out I'd have to wait another hour for the place to open, so I sat down and the dogs took a nap right next to me. Really, it's so funny how quick dogs are to take possession of things.


My two loyal companions.

So, waiting in the migration center, the doors finally open and I'm allowed inside. It opened at 9AM, however the head-lady finally decides to stroll in at 9:30, as if nothing was the matter. Seriously? Well, I didn't even talk to her. The secretary tells me that they don't have immigration stamps at this migration center. I sort of want to scream, "Why not?!" But, instead I am nice and she helps me write a note I can give to anyone if they give me trouble on my way back to the border. Yes, I had to take a bus three hours back to the border to do something that literally did not take five minutes. I don't even think I filled out the whole form. The old man didn't notice.

And then to just sprinkle sugar on a lovely day, they didn't even check my passport at the first checkpoint! The guy poked his head in the taxi I was taking and did not even notice me. Was I hiding? No, I was not. Fortunately for my sanity, I learned that there are checkpoints all over, between every big city and I was checked later. I learned that they check people randomly, and it really depends a great deal about your expression and stance as they search the bus. That's a great system right there.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Aliens

So... here's something interesting.

Right now I'm technically an illegal immigrant in Mexico. Actually there's no "technically."

It was mostly an accident... kind of. I went into the Migration office, which I thought was the Mexican migration office. Through gestures, he asked me if I wanted a stamp. "Do I want I stamp?" Honestly, my passport is full of them and I'm still not really sure what they do. He stamped it anyway and typed something in the computer for a long while, finishing a chocolate-covered banana as he did so. Later, I discovered that he was actually checking me out of Guatemala, not into Mexico. So I entered Mexico without approval. In my defense, I did see the Mexican migration center by the bus station before I left, but no one was going in or out of the building. How important could the stamps be?

Are you still reading? Well done. Anyway, so we drive a half an hour into Mexico and stop at a second migration center. A guy comes in and inspects all our passports, stopping me because I had no stamp. I helplessly show him my Guatemalan stamp and will earn an Oscar later for my stellar performance when he told me that the stamp was the wrong one. Through gestures and my awful, awful Spanish, he tells me that I need to get off the bus and go back to the border. Of course I ask if I can get stamped at the migration center right outside the bus, but he tells me I can't. Really? Why was I allowed to ride a bus thirty minutes beyond the immigration point? I was very upset, but really was in no place to argue because I can't speak the language.

Fortunately, by the time I gathered my bags and almost got off the bus, he'd explained the situation to his supervisor, who told me I could just get stamped when I got to San Cristobal. That was wonderful.

But here's the kicker. We stopped at another migration center more than an hour later. I had no idea what to expect. It's so limiting, not being able to communicate with people. But he didn't even ask to see my passport and harassed some other guy. I'm so very confused, but grateful that things are working in my favor.

And let's throw in a picture that has nothing to do with this entry, just for fun.

Now I'm in San Cristóbal. Believe it or not, this was the better of two pictures.

Mexico, First Impression

Do you remember that time I wrote about first impressions and how you can never really remember all of them? Again... such is Mexico.

The differences between Mexico and Guatemala are so very evident, within miles of the border. Example... In Guatemala I was riding ridiculously crowded buses where seat belts are laughable and every turn you seriously fear for your life (no joke). Often, I'd be sitting partly on the lap of the person next to me, if I was sitting at all. Strange smells, torn seats and stuffy mini-vans are common place in Guatemala, for better or for worse (it makes for very cheap bus rides).

My bus ride in from the Mexico border was three hours and I paid roughly US$7-8. It was a charter bus. Full out, there was no one around me. The air was conditioned. The seats reclined. There was plenty of leg-room. There were bathrooms! They played two movies during my trip. I missed the first bus and waited a full 10 minutes for the next one. I still can't get over it.

So how does America compare? This is my response to a trip I took with Greyhound in November. If you don't feel like reading that, basically summed up: Every greyhound bus I take makes me lose faith in humanity for a short period of time. The worst part is, my overnight from Utah to Denver was $70-80, literally ten times as much. Yes, it was longer, but it was not ten times longer and about an hour of that was standing in the freezing cold outside at about 2AM listening to some drunk idiot yell racial slurs at the bus driver. Oh, America. I do love you, but let's get our act together with public transportation.

Wow, I ramble. I'll be honest... I am exhausted.

So I don't finish on a bad note, Mexico looks great. I'm seeing a lot of similarities Korea, which is oddly understandable. These two countries have very similar economies and a similar juxtaposition of city and rural life. If you know me at all, you know I love almost everything about Korea so this is a very good thing.

One big difference: The Food! I've had two meals tonight. Yes, two... within a few hours of each other. I'm not ashamed. Mexican food is delicious. We all know this. I am so very excited that I'm going to be eating the genuine deal for the next two months.

And I know you're all jealous.

Goodbye Guatemala

Today was a long day. You know those days where you're put into a situation that can potentially go very wrong, but you've handled these types of things before and you know you can pull through alright? That was today, only for some reason it seemed more... difficult than in the past. My Spanish is horrible. And really, no one here speaks English. I have talked to so many people today, and only one of those conversations was mostly in English. I taught myself the "past tense" today really quick on a bus because I realized when... actually it's not really worth explaining the whole story, but basically:

When you're put into tough situations, you'd be amazed how well you can adapt and learn.


Two men, waiting for a bus near the border.

I had a great time in Guatemala. Seriously, it was an awesome. I had some extra pictures I didn't post, so I wanted to put them up here.


Kyle's house. This is where I spent most of my time. It's too bad you can't see the hammocks in the back.


The view from the bathroom, which was separate from the house. You can listen to birds and smell fresh air when you poo!


The street in front of his house. Are those kids smiling? They sort of ran into the street right as I was taking the picture. I decided to take it anyway.


For the record, Kyle is an amazing host. Really, he had a lot of work going on these two weeks, but he made sure I was enjoying myself, more than I was expecting and then some.

Thanks, Kyle! I had a great time.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Trek to Mexico

Up until this afternoon, I really had no idea how I was getting to Mexico City. I think I've got it all figured out, though. Here's the plan:

Hmm... I don't really want to type it all out. Four blog entries is too many to type. Basically, I know roughly where I'm going now. I think I might even book a hostel in advance one night! I think it would be awesome to go to a hostel and be like, "Hi. My name's Jake Akemann. I have a bed booked tonight." And they'd be like, "Oh. Of course we have room. Right this way." No hostel shopping. No begging. No taking what I can get. I take what I want.

The Mexican Flag

Either way, I'm going to be in Mexico City on Tuesday. Somehow... I'll be there. It looks like I'm going to be staying with some locals, too. I used couchsurfing.org to find friendly people who like to travel and who are willing to house people for a few nights. I'm very excited.

A note to the nay-sayers:
Every person I've talked to who has been to Mexico city in the last 5 years has given it rave reviews. I'm not exaggerating. I know the media is scary and everyone knows someone who knows someone who had something horrific happen to them. But please... unless you've been there recently yourself and had a miserable time... I've heard the precautions. And I've heard them again. And again and again. It's a bit... overwhelming. But thank you for your concern. I'll be careful. Moving on...

That's my email. I bought some postcards today and realized I don't know any home addresses. This ranges from friends, to cousins, to my very own sister. I wanted to surprise people, but for some reason no one puts their mailing address on facebook... Anyway, drop me an email with your address attached. Don't be shy. It's fun to pick them out and send them to people. And then I feel popular.

Wish me luck in Mexico!

First Ruins

I've been anticipating seeing ruins this whole time. I finally got the chance yesterday. I went with Kyle to some ruins that aren't usually visited by American tourists. They're a bit out-of-the-way, especially if you don't have a car.

I was a little unimpressed, at least visually. I was expecting the high towers of Tikal. What we saw was mostly mounds and rocks. See, the thing about ruins is... the further you go back, the less technologically advanced the civilization was. It sounds simple, but one doesn't think of stone buildings as being technologically advanced. Pre-300BC Mayan culture would create mortar out of mud, and two and a half thousand years in a volcano-based jungle is a bit rough on mud. It's a wonder anything is left at all.


This fertility altar had been used by Mayans earlier that day.
I thought that was neat.


I like Mayan art. It has a... "happy cartoon" feel to it. This is a frog.


An unexpected but welcome surprise was the little zoo they had in the back.
This monkey really wanted Kyle's notebook for some reason.


Summer Nights

Monday and Tuesday it didn't rain.

That is a big deal in the rain forest climate of El Palmar. It always rains. Every afternoon, and usually for a little bit in the morning or night. This weekend it rained so hard the power went out for several hours. Rare, cloudless nights are social events.

Kids that might as well have been playing "Ghost in the Graveyard" or "Kick the Can"

I noticed the other day how "white-picket-fence" this little village is. The culture is very different, but the set-up is not that different than 1950's America. Bare with me on this. The lots are all little. Everyone knows all their neighbors. There's a little shop at the end of the street where you can buy snacks and eggs. If you work on a project, men come to watch and chat. The ice-cream truck (or bike) drives by every week. Women (or unmarried men like me) hang their laundry, smiling and waving as people walk by. And on warm nights, kids play under the streetlights and parents sit on their front porches and chat.

It's relieving, somehow. Maybe I'm a little pessimistic from growing up at the brunt end of a Chicagoland area expansion and living by the remnants of what used to be small-town Elgin. Either way, it was nice to see. I tried capturing the moment, taking the picture above, but was swarmed by children. Suddenly I needed a reason why I was taking pictures of them in the dark.

I did the "one two three jump" game. It tried it in Korea with the first graders. You tell the kids to jump on three and take a picture when they're in the air. They usually understand after the first try and freak out. It's great. They're all having the time of their life. All smiles and fun.

One of the first tries. I love that girl's smile on the right.


And they multiply.


Kyle got in on it, too. Cute kids.


Wendy's

We went to Wendy's today. It was majestic. Yes, we took three buses up a mountain for about an hour and a half to get there, but it was worth it.

Wendy's in Xela

Seriously, this was the nicest Wendy's I've ever been to. They had free WiFi, that was the main reason we were going. I needed a fast connection to figure out how I'm getting up to Mexico City (still haven't quite figured everything out), but the atmosphere was fun, too. Everyone was clean, smiling and laughing. There were laptops everywhere, three at the table next to us. Think... college library.... or an urban coffee shop, only it was Wendy's.

You think you know a country...

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Hot Springs!

I'm not sure why I have a tendency to run into hot springs wherever I go. They must be more abundant than I realized, either that or I'm just freakishly lucky. Seriously, though, these hot springs are the coolest I've been to.


The trek up the mountain.

To reach Fuentes Georginas, one must travel up a clouded mountain on a small road. The temperature drops sharply as you ascend. Thick fog comes and goes, sometimes covering the road entirely. The smell of sulfur is scattered in the air, a lingering reminder of the inferno that warms the waters.


The morning haze

Though clouds come and go, the entire grounds are often covered in a fog, very reminiscent of steam off of the hot springs. It's a very relaxing place, very unlike anything I was expecting to find in Guatemala.


The main spring

Finally, the springs are guarded by a high canopy of rocks and trees. The hot steam is funneled up the cliff side. There's fresh moss at the base that can be used as a skin exfoliate. I thought that last bit was a bit odd, but all too well it added to the ambiance around us.


A hot tub pool. Just don't open your eyes. It burns. I tried it twice.

Kyle was organizing a big Peace Corps gathering. There were upwards of twenty of us there. We rented all seven of the bungalows and spent the night. It was a good time. Who wouldn't want to spend a night up on a cold mountain with a bunch of crazy culture-lovers and a mountain hot spring just around the corner?


Waiting for a truck to take us back down the mountain

Some Polaroids That Aren't

How many gringos can you fit in the back of a pickup truck? I'm glad one person is looking at the camera. And the answer is 10.


I fed this dog some chicken bones in San Felipe.
I also imagined ways I could bring it back to the States.


A girl sitting in front of me was wearing a blue bandana. The Peace Corps volunteers I was with thought it was crazy that a guatemalan would be wearing that. I thought it was crazy that I had that same bandana in my backpack. I put it on to make a friend. She didn't notice... or care... or both.


People will look at this picture and say, "That guy's been places"


Nice fog/clouds settling on the mountains.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Beyond the Plantations...

Awesome hike up the mountains, past the plantations.

This morning we woke up at 4:45 and got up and ready to go up the mountain. We had to get up at that ungodly hour because there is one free truck-ride up to the plantations, and if we missed it we'd have to walk.

I wasn't entirely sure what to expect... but... at this point I've learned to expect the unexpected.

The truck ride was interesting. Picture a big truck... one that is spacious enough to have about fifty Guatemalans plantation workers in the back. Then put them in the back. Then put two gringos in, just for kicks. Really, I was a bit unimpressed with the results. Sure, I was standing literally body-to-body with those around me and I elbowed a few people in the head and every bump made me a bit fearful I'd fall off, but how is that any different than riding on the Seoul subway system during rush hour? Well, I guess the difference is if you lose your balance on a subway you don't fall out of the subway train.

There were great views going up.

So one of Kyle's jobs in Guatemala is to take measurements of the volcano emissions. He's the guy that says, "Hey, that volcano's acting as if it's going to explode. I'm going to warn people so it doesn't kill us all."

Volcan Santa Maria y Santiguito

After the truck dropped us off. We hiked up the mountain about a half hour, maneuvering off path at the last moment. I was a bit skeptical when we trekked down a thickly vegetated slope, but it opened up into a high, rocky waterfall. We were at the top.

A little scary, but very cool.

Kyle then spoke of another waterfall, one that required a small trek up through the jungle. The "small" trek turned out to be... a bit rougher than planned. Several times, we tried to climb down through the foliage, only to realize that it would be a vertical drop off a few feet in. Nevertheless, it was fun.

I filmed some of it, if you care to watch. It's eight minutes long and might give you a headache, just to warn you. I sound weird, sort of like I'm doing a really bad impression of Ray Romano. Is that what I sound like all the time? Anyway, I watched this and was a bit unimpressed. It's just not the same as feeling the thorns digging into your legs or wondering if the next branch you grab is going to tear out and you'll slide down into the mud or fall into an ant hill or... well, you get the idea. But seriously, this was one of the few times in my life I sincerely wished I had a machete, not because it'd be awesome, but because it would be oddly and sincerely practical.

video
The first falls you see is what I described above.
The second is the more... adventurous of the two.


Anyway, when we finally made it though, it opened up into a beautiful, tall waterfall... it was eerily awesome.

I can't believe I didn't get a wide-angle shot of the whole thing. I guess pictures never really do these types of things justice, anyway.

Good times.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Birthday

Tomorrow's my birthday. I usually get really depressed around birthday time, but I think I'll be alright this year. Thanks for the cards, Mom, Dad, Mr. and Mrs. Brill. And thanks for the guidebook, Sarah. What do you do on your birthday when your host has to work and you're alone in a little jungle-village in Guatemala? I think I'll sing a happy little song to myself.

First Solo Excursion

I went to the beach today by myself. There and back, I took a total of 6 buses and 1 rickshaw. Most of those weren't at bus stops. You sort of have to wander around town and ask people where the bus is... or just run up to it if you happen to see the right one drive by. It is so satisfactory to be able to get around in a country using no English, though. You just feel good about yourself, very competent. Of everywhere I've gone, there's definitely been the least amount of English here. Nothing's written in English. No one speaks it... well. I'm sure there are places in Guatemala where it is used a lot, but I have yet to see that place.


The beach at Champerico. It was actually really nice while I was there.


It rained later.


Welcome to the Tropics.

It's a jungle out there...

I am thoroughly enjoying this little village. There's weird bugs and giant plants. It rains all the time. A massive blanket of foliage is always hovering, ready to take back any man-made creation. It sounds a bit melodramatic, but you get that feeling while walking around.

Then Kyle told me about the original village of El Palmar, abandoned and destroyed by floods in the nineteen eighties. I'm not kidding. The entire village I'm staying in is where the inhabitants fled to when a river suddenly changed course and ripped their little village in two. When Kyle told me this, I imagined a small ravine, maybe five or six feet wide. This is what he meant...


If you look closely, you can see half of the church on the left and a buried market on the right. It's crazy to think this small canyon was created in just 30 years. I said that aloud, then Kyle told me that most of it was created in under 10.

So we continued to explore the recent ruins, which was very interesting to say the least. After seeing some of the excavated ruins in Greece and Italy, I understand so much better how bustling centers of trade (like Olympia and Ostia Antica) can suddenly disappear because a river changes direction. As of 1982, nothing in this village was wrong.

We crawled into the "market," a dark hole in the grass with about four feet of standing room left inside. Silt had piled up when the river was higher. I couldn't see anything, but with a flash you can see writing on the walls. Neat, huh?


The graveyard was especially creepy. I'm not sure if grave robbers ransacked the place before or after the vines took over.


An old church on top of a hill. People who went to this church are still alive.


An old grave. This is where the jungle ends and the weird, wet safari begins.


The canyon was definitely my favorite. That bridge is so stereotypical jungle-adventure movie. There was even a gap in the wood where your foot can conveniently fall through if you're that guy in the movie.


Here's Kyle. I've decided that he's a bit more jungle-photogenic than me.

It could be the hat...

So... this village is awesome. The people are very friendly and starting to recognize me. I'm starting to learn Spanish better and can actually have small conversations with people. Overall, I'm having a good time.


Oh yeah, there's also a small waterfall we can swim in, about a five minute walk away.
Yeah, I'm serious. Yes, It's nice.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Dogs

Dogs are very interesting here. If a dog bites someone in America they are put down. If I dog bites someone here, the person is laughed at because they let a mutt bite them. But at least in the day time, dogs are scared of people. It's perfectly acceptable to kick dogs or throw rocks at them. In fact, if a dog is picking on you, you just crouch low to the ground and they run away because they think you're going to throw rocks at them. I saw this in practice and it's crazy how well it works.


Of course, with this abuse comes an odd compromise. There's a dog that lives outside one of the Peace Corps volunteer's house. This dog has realized that gringos don't usually kick her for no reason. In fact, they actually pet her and give her left over food occasionally. She followed us all the way down a mountain yesterday. When we got to the bottom, we had to use a rickshaw to get to the beach. The poor thing happily ran after us for a long way, at least a mile, before it finally gave up.



We rode a bus back up the mountain and found the dog waiting for us back at the house. Seriously? This is the most loyal dog in the world. I think they gave it a treat, but the very act of not-beating it was enough.

Guatemala, Day One

Every time I go someplace, the first day is always full of first impressions that are great for blogs. Guatemala is no exception. By the time I get someplace where I can sit and write something, I'm never quite sure where to start. There's no way you can record everything. But... let me try.

For those of you who don't know where Guatemala is, it's just below Mexico. (I'll admit, I didn't know exactly where it was until I realized I might be visiting and I looked it up) It's not big, but it is geographically very diverse. There are jungles, mountains, fresh water lakes, volcanoes, and beaches. This morning I was riding a bus through a cold mountainous area, wishing I had a sweater. Now I'm resting on a hammock in a hot, humid, jungle-type area.


Just off the highway by Kyle's house. He said there's better stuff around the corner.

Guatemala is a center of Mayan culture. I don't know much about it, yet, but it seems very interesting. The women wear traditional clothing, mostly everywhere. They put a lot of effort into their appearances, even if they're just going to the market or something (which makes shabby bus rides a colorful experience). We've stayed mostly out big cities, but everything I've seen so far has been very clean. The air is fresh, trash is minimal. I've only had one person come up to me and ask for money. If you've traveled at all before, you know how crazy that is. Of course, perhaps I've just been in a nice part of the country...



Kyle, looking over Lake Atitlán.

Yesterday morning I arrived in Guatemala City and Kyle (a friend I've known forever from Elgin) picked me up at the airport. We took several buses to go up the mountains to meet some of his Peace Corps friends. They've all been here almost two years, so they know what to do and how to have a good time. We went hiking, swam in a beautiful freshwater lake, ate pizza in a hippy town, went back to a house that looks over a mountain valley, cooked fresh tortillas and apple pie. Very cool. Very fun.


Public transportation by the lake


Me and Kyle at Lake Atitlán


Kyle, jumping off a cliff

This morning we started the bus trek to Kyle's place, which is at the base of the mountains. I suddenly feel like I'm in rainforest... well, for good reason. It's so nice to travel to place where I can leave my stuff and settle for a bit. Now we're just chilling. I'll be here for at least two weeks, so I'm in no rush.