11.09.2014 - 30.09.2014
Another week flew by with my Pachaj family, and despite living under a similar routine, it was quite a different experience. My Spanish improved enough to allow frequent stimulating conversation, and I grew to feel as a real part of the family (as opposed to a guest who is treated as part of the family). However, the Spanish classes did not continue past the first week, meaning there was more free time in the afternoon for activities with the family, which ranged from swimming in the local pool, sourced directly by mountain water and surrounded by tall jutting rock faces, to watching the Central American football (soccer) tournament on a TV the size of my face, almost incomprehensible with static fuzz. September 15th was el Día de la Independencia for Guatemala, which of course required appropriate celebration. For me and a few of my Pachaj friends, this consisted of going to the annual Feria (a strange combination where third-world street market meets Vancouver's Playland), as well as a free outdoor concert featuring four of Guatemala's top rock bands, such as.... well, you know them.
I experienced another change of pace during my last few days, when my volunteer work was shared with three French travellers who, of course, spoke no English. It was pretty fun, however, to have a conversation where both sides are struggling with frequent error and over-expressive hand gestures. Eventually the time came to bid farewell to my temporary family and move back to Xela, which is always easier said than done. I realize it was only two weeks, but they helped me in so many ways to understand the language, culture, and personality of Guatemala, and despite the difficulty of communication, I feel a close connection with my new friends and am extremely grateful how welcoming they were. On another note, I will also miss observing old men and women carry impossibly huge loads of wood down the mountainside. It never becomes less admirable or impressive.
The city of Xela is located in the middle of a large mountain range stretching through the middle of Guatemala. Some have recently likened my appearance to that of a mountain man, so I figured I might as well act the part. I decided to start big, and make my first venture a hike up Tajumulco, a dormant volcano near the town of San Marcos. This peak boasts the title of highest point in Central America, sitting at 4, 220 m above sea level, which to put in perspective, is approximately twice the elevation of the Whistler summit or the ancient village of Machu Picchu. After losing a hiker to altitude sickness early in the morning, the rest of us wheezed our way up to base camp over the course of the day, hiking through sun, fog, and the inevitable hail storm, and were unexpectedly greeted by two dogs who apparently live up on the volcano. The next morning, we finished the hike to the summit, but not before a 4:30 AM wake up to witness perhaps the most stunning sunrise I have ever seen (note the inclusion of photos on this entry). After a day's rest back in Xela, spent mostly trying to battle the effects of my food poisoning debut, it was time to start another, more remote, hike.
The trek started as most of them do - a multi-hour chicken bus ride, during which half of your lap is taken up by a surprisingly aggressive Guatemalan lady, and the other half is so fast asleep you don't know where it is. Our departure site was Nebaj, a somewhat unassuming town on the edge of an expanse of isolated mountain villages. This is where the trek would take us. Throughout the four days of hiking, we visited a number of villages, some accessible only by foot, some without electricity, but all filled with children who, despite being incredibly shy, will stare at you for hours if given the opportunity. If I felt like an alien before, this took me to a whole new level of cultural separation, unable to speak even a word of one of the dozens of native languages that dominate many of the villages. The histories of some of these villages are quite amazing as well, and it was certainly a humbling experience to be so close to people so recently and dramatically scarred by the Guatemalan civil war.
The variety of landscapes we passed through were equally as awe-inspiring as the people. At times, we found ourselves surrounded by what might as well be Swiss farmland, Irish countryside (not that I've been to either of those places, but one can only imagine), British Columbian rainforest, and of course classic Central American tropics, all filled with every farm animal imaginable. Some days were concluded with a much needed wash in a local family's Temascal (essentially a Mayan sauna that sits so low to the ground I have no hope of sitting up straight), whereas others ended quickly after sunset, sleeping in a schoolhouse that is lined not with wallpaper, but wrapping paper (this may perhaps be more economical or readily available, but it is certainly not more functional, for those who are considering home renovations in the near future).
Despite the remote nature of the hike, we were rather frequently passed by farmers riding their donkeys down impressively sloped mountainsides (they do this in pitch black before sunrise), or herders finding a grassy patch to graze their sheep and goats. Indeed, agriculture is the backbone of these villages, where the inhabitants do all they can to sustain themselves, including planting and harvesting maize fields that sit on at least a 30 degree incline (steeper than it sounds). In case you were unaware, maize is by far the most prevalent crop in Guatemala, and is so frequently utilized that there is even a maize drink, which isn't too far off a corn milkshake (not as bad as it sounds).
After a long mountain descent and a much faster entry back into modern Guatemalan civilization, we reached our final destination of Todos Santos, where the buildings are so blocky and brightly coloured that you would think they were made of giant lego pieces. This town is also unique in that the men (not just the women) all wear traditional Guatemalan outfits - a rarity in this day and age. However, unlike the women's traditional outfits, there only seems to be one outfit for men, resulting in a "Where's Waldo" scenario where every man in the town is wearing a matching suit.
The trekking ended as quickly as it started, and before I knew it, I was back in Guatemala City, finding a flight to Bogotá, Colombia. After a day in Antigua (a beautiful, but touristy town near Guatemala City), I found a flight and am now on my way to South America for the next leg of my trip. I can only hope it will go as well as the first.