Sunday, 02-17-02

Hello again from Guatemala.  It is the middle of February already; how time flies.

I left you in Phoenix, Arizona at Christmas time.  We had a good time in Arizona, but the first week we were there I wanted to go back to Guatemala, because it was colder in Phoenix than here.  I had one long-sleeved flannel shirt, and wore it for a week straight until it warmed up a bit.  Also, it was a bit strange being back in the U. S. but still encountering Spanish being spoken.  But the thing was, it didn't sound right, and the people didn't look "right". It wasn't until we got back to the Houston airport waiting to board the plane for Guatemala that the sounds and sights were "right".

Rhinos in the Sun
Different Shapes
Faster, Mom!
Ooh, That Looks Tasty!
Hello, There!
While in Arizona we visited the Reid Park Zoo in Tucson, and also the Sonoran Desert Museum and Biosphere II, both near there.  Reid Park is smaller than the Oregon Zoo, and no bats, but they did have some nice animals.  They had an Asian and and African elephant together, as well as a mom and juvenile anteater which were interesting.  They also had giant tortoises like the Oregon Zoo wants to get.

At the Sonoran Desert museum we got to see the Raptor Free-flight with Harris hawks.  There are four that have been raised there, and know where and when to find food, so at the appropriate time they just "show up" one at a time, looking for handouts from the keepers, and put on quite a show, including one that was coming straight at my wife, and passed about six inches in front of her face.  Christmas was a good time to visit, as it gets very hot in the summer.

Biosphere II was an attempt to create a totally self-contained environment that could sustain human life, but the volunteers were always hungry and ran low on oxygen.  One big problem is that the building is supported by a tubular "exoskeleton" that blocks too much light, reducing photosynthesis (and therefore oxygen and food production).  They finally had to abandon the attempt after a couple of years, and now a university has taken it over as a huge ecology research lab where they are studying, among other things, the possible effects of global warming and an increase in atmospheric CO2.

We also got to visit with family, including our daughter and her husband and his parents, Debby's parents in Yuma, plus our son and two of Debby's sisters, a husband, and niece Sophie who all came down from Oregon.  And last but not least, our granddaughter Katrina and her adoptive parents.  We had a great time passing out all the Guatemalan souvenirs we had purchased here and in Antigua.  Katrina figured out a new way to play with her Guatemalan ball.

Oh, while in Yuma we visited the territorial prison and museum; not a pleasant place to "live", but then it wasn't intended to be.  Do I look like a hardened criminal?

Back in Guatemala, school resumed for Debby, and in addition to starting an after-school beginning band, she is the music director for the middle-school musical which is to be this next weekend.  They are doing a reduced version of "Guys and Dolls", and she has been coming home exhausted at 5:45 every night (after leaving at 6:20 and teaching all day).

I started Level 1 of Spanish, with the same teacher I had for Basico, and the two Russian ladies.  Then we added two sisters from Syria (married to two brothers), then a Philipina married to a Finnish guy, and lastly a Californian married to a Guatemalteco.  She is also taking Basico the previous two hours, and started with no Spanish (a glutton for punishment)!  We have some interesting conversations!  I am the "thorn among the roses," or as they say in Guatemala, "a blessing among the women" (I'm not making this up; my teacher told us that when I referred to myself as "una espina entre las rosas").  I'm not tutoring any more; due to a drop in attendance at Maya, the Reading Specialist needed more work so is helping Fernando.

Saturday the 26th of January I had a choice of climbing Volcan Agua near Antigua with the church youth group or going somewhere with my wife for the weekend.  As it was also her birthday, you KNOW which I chose!  This was our "big adventure" for this episode.  I'm going to let her tell you about it in her own words, with a few of mine in [brackets].

How I Spent My Birthday.  (Does this sound like "How I Spent My Summer Vacation"?)

Never in a million years would I have imagined spending my birthday (end of January, dead of winter, cold, wet, gloomy) like this:  in my swim suit(!), lying in a hammock, at a Pacific Ocean beach.

We went to Monterrico, which is a town in a large nature preserve on the southern coast of Guatemala [east of San Jose].  It's almost to the border with El Salvador but you can't get there from here.

We took a shuttle from Guate [abbreviation for Guatemala City] to Antigua at 6:00 am.  [This is the hub for a lot of tours.]  Then caught the shuttle going to Monterrico.  [We drove around Antigua for a half hour, picking up people.]  13 people going for the day, weekend or longer.  Canadians, French, Swiss, Germans, and us of course.  Quite an international mix.

Coming down off the highlands the temperature starts warming up a little.  We travel between 3 volcanoes, one of which (Fuego - which means fire - the most active) had a lava flow the night before which was seen from Antigua.  The bridge is washed out so we have to take a 2 mile detour to ford the river between fields of sugar cane.  Then back onto the main highway.  We can also see the volcano Pacaya which smokes almost all the time.  The wind is blowing the plume of smoke right down the side of the mountain into the valley toward us as we pass.  It's pretty smoky.

We arrive in a little village [La Avellana] which is the end of the road.  That doesn't mean it's the end of the trip, however.  The driver tells us he will pick up the afternoon run back to town from here, but to get to Monterrico we have to take the "lancha", a rather rickety-looking flat-bottomed boat with a black tarp for a roof to keep the sun off us.  We can either pay Q5 and go right away or we can wait for 40 minutes and pay only Q3 for the regularly scheduled boat.  (They have a regular schedule???!!!  No one in Guatemala has a regular schedule!)  So, of course, we all pay the Q5 and take this boat.  25 cents is just not enough to wait for.

We take a 4-km boat ride through the mangrove swamp[/river/estuary].  There are gray and white herons, kingfishers, and gulls.  Water lilies (that's the closest thing I can think of) with beautiful purple flowers that stand up on a stem are blooming [water hyacinths?].  The MANGROVE TREES are thick along the shore line, at least I assume that's the shore.  They send roots down from the branches so they look like fingers stretching down to the water.  You can tell the water level is low.  During the rainy season the high water marks are at least 2 to 3 feet higher.

This river is the highway.  A couple of intersections along the way have sticks stuck in a row out into the river so you can tell where the river branches.  Of course, our driver wants to go faster than the boat beside us.  HE's carrying the all important cargo of a large truck full of Coke and going a little slower.  That's a big load.  I'm sure if we'd had a horn we'd have honked.  Going the other way we see flat boats with a couple of cars full of people.  We wave at them.

We also pass a couple of fishermen standing up poling their boat, dragging a round net on a string and pulling up something edible.  We're too far away to tell what it is.

When we reach Monterrico, the end of the line, we get off and head for the beach.  The street has sidewalks but it's a very sleepy place.  As we're walking various people call out "Hotel?"  But no one stops.  We're all heading for the beach.  The road runs right into the beach.  Black volcanic sand - it's HOT!

We turn left and stop at the first hotel we come to, Johnny's Place.  It's a little tricky making reservations ahead of time since there are no phone lines.  There are cell phones now but not every place has one.  Some places have a Guatemala City number you can call to make reservations.  The first two places we tried to call were full, the the second one said to just come on down, the beach isn't full.  Johnny's just has bungalows with 2 rooms for 4 or so and tells us to try farther down the beach.  The next place, Kaiman, has a room with 2 [single] beds for $15 a night.  We take it.  It's too hot to walk any farther.  We ask if the mosquito netting over the beds is really necessary and are told there are lots of mosquitoes at night.

After paying we jump into the shower.  The water is hot at first but then cools down to a more comfortable temperature; there's only one faucet.  The water is stored in a large black plastic barrel up on the roof.  There is a generator that we can hear running off and on throughout the day.  We finally figure out it must run a pump to get the water up to the water tanks.

After our shower we put on swim suits and sun screen and head for the ocean.  The water is a delightful temperature.  No blue lips here.  But the current is very strong.  It's hard to stand in one place.  There are probably 20 or 30 people swimming, body surfing all along the beach.  There is a life guard who could fill in on Baywatch any day.  The waves come in from the left and wash out to the right so you keep moving down the beach even if you're trying not to.  I'm not really a strong swimmer so I don't get in very far.  This ocean scares me.

We head back up to the hotels and decide on Johnny's place for lunch.  I love watermelon licuados, like a smoothy.  We have chips made from Guatemalan tortillas (those will fill you up), guacamol, black beans, chirmol (salsa without the peppers) and shrimp ceviche.  Then it's nap time.

Most of the rest of the weekend is spent just lying around and relaxing.

Go, Little Fellow...
Monterrico is the nesting grounds of the big sea turtles.  There is a "tortuguero" where they keep the nests of eggs protected, and raise the baby turtles until they're big enough to have a chance of surviving.  Then in the evening they have TURTLE RACES to get the babies on their way.  You can sponsor a turtle for Q10.  [They draw two lines in the sand about 6 feet apart, and set the turtles down].  Everyone cheers them on their way to [the finish line and] the sea.  Some turtles take right off, other just kind of sit there and need to be prodded.  The idea is that the crowd of people will keep predators at bay for a while and the large numbers sent out all at once will increase the survival odds of at least some.  [Got there late, so don't know if there is a prize for the "winner"; they are all winners.]
...Gone into the Wave!

As you go down the path that leads away from the beach and the tortuguero, we pass by a man making fishing nets by hand.  They're for sale.  He must have a hundred stacked up.  We then come to iguanas in enclosures sunning themselves [these are also being raised for release], and a very small museum with specimen jars labeled and some weathered posters telling about the endangered species in the area.  [Due to a mishap involving my camera and a wave, I didn't get any pictures of these animals.]

Farther along the path is another enclosure with caimans (think alligator).  The first space has maybe a hundred babies about a foot long.  The next has larger ones, maybe three feet in length.  They are so still they look like stone statues except that you can see their tongues move as they breathe.  The next tank has really big guys.  Six feet long, piled one on top of the other.  When they are still, they don't look real.  Then one decides he needs to cool off and heads for the pond.  After he's in, he looks like a submerged log with just a little of his head showing.  The color difference is interesting, gray stone when they're dry, and muddy-log brown when wet.

At night the breeze dies down and the temperature is quite warm but we need to wear more clothes because of the mosquitoes.  We each got only one bite.  Night life is pretty laid back and I'm in bed by shortly after 8:00 pm.  I'm still recovering from the increased schedule at school with starting both Beginning Band and the Middle School musical last week.

The guy next door has his headphones on and is "singing" along with a CD.  Pretty bad.  [He apologized when he found out there was anybody listening.]  The walls only go up to about seven feet.  The windows are lattice-style concrete blocks.  The ceiling is just chain link fencing.  The roof is thatched with palm branches.  Air flow is real important around here.

When it's time for the shuttle home we wander around town looking for the language school which is the meeting place.  The streets are all black sand.  Pretty hard to walk in but a little easier than the beach.  After wandering around in circles for a while (missed the sign, it was facing the other way) we make it to the pickup point and are told it will be another hour.  So we sack out in the hammocks.  Every house has at least one hammock out in front.

After only half an hour a van stops by with two empty seats.  We take them.  Remember that 4K boat ride?  This time we stay on this side of the river and go back to across from the original drop-off point and just take a ferry across.

Most of the group are French Canadians.  There are a couple of Swiss.  They're all talking in French.  But after listening to them for a while I'm starting to understand some of what they say.  They're all studying Spanish in Antigua for a month or so.  I can answer some of their questions.  Is gas sold by the gallon or liter?  (Gallon.)  Which volcano is that?  (Pacaya.)  What is that plant?  (Sugar cane.)  They think I speak French!  Nope, There are just a lot of cognates between Spanish and French [and English].

As birthdays go, number 45 will by pretty memorable.
Well, that's about it for this time; stay tuned for the next exciting episode of Ron's Guatemala Adventures when we hear Sam ask Gloria...  Oh, sorry, wrong program.



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