November 20, 2008

Around Guatemala City

Press HERE to view a slide show of
Our Stay in Guatemala City

Bill on Pacaya
 Bill on Pacaya
Magma Glow and Steam
 Pacaya Magma Glow and Steam
Avenida de Las Americas
 Avenida de Las Americas
Walking on the Avenida
 Walking on the Avenida
Central Cathedral
 Guatemala City Central Cathedral
Morales Family with Bill and Betty
 Morales Family with Bill and Betty
Harold with Students
 Loida, Harold and Jovita
Sweet Hearts in Antigua
 Steph, Harold, Bill and Betty
The Flower of the Elephant’s Ear
 Flower of the Elephant’s Ear

After Rio Dulce we drove to Guatemala City to look up Harold, our couchsurfing host. He had to put up with us for ten days. Harold was an absolutely great host. His small business is an English academy. Harold is uniquely qualified to teach. While born in Guatemala some 31 years ago, he moved to New Jersey at the age of six and spent the next twenty years there. He moved back to Guatemala six years ago.

Off the Charts

Having traveled extensively in the Americas, I had found the stories of robberies and attacks on tourist fanciful at first. Then a family that was robbed and was on the bus where an Israeli tourist was raped passed us by at our place in Antigua. Suddenly, the stories seemed more real. Our drive to the north was uneventful, so the threats of danger abated in my mind. Then, the week-end before we left, two newspaper stories set the problem squarely before me.

An article in Nuestro Diario spilled the beans and Guatemala will never be the same to me again. Let me start by saying that Guatemala has roughly the same size and population as Illinois. In Illinois, there were 750 murders in 2007, which is down from the rates of the early 1990s when it was about 1300 per year. Compare that to the current rate of 290 per month, or more than 3500 people per year, who are murdered in Guatemala every year. What spurred the article in the newspaper was the 342 murders in October. Crazy! Outrageous! Unbelievable! The most common victims are bus drivers, taxi drivers and women. In an article the next day in Prensa Libre the message was reinforced. This article focused on bus robberies and murders, which are also spiraling upward. Large numbers armed robberies take place everyday. It seems that the root of the problem is the love of money and the willingness of a significant portion of the population to injure and kill to get it.

After questioning Harold, his students, Steph, Suli and others, I found that there is only one problem greater than the violence. That problem is indifference to the problem. This level of violence is so commonplace that folks cannot see the problem. They cannot imagine a solution. There is a small new political party that has identified the problem. Every political party has lied again and again to the people. People who can see the problem cannot trust that any politician will do anything about the problem.

I love the people and the mountains of Guatemala. I report this fact with great sadness: sadness for the people of Guatemala. I hope the information does not stop my readers from visiting this beautiful land. With caution and common sense travelers can safely pass from the Mayan ruins to beautiful Lake Atitlan to the town of Antigua and the city of Quetzaltenango.

Ten days is far too long to stay in Guatemala City, a city whose main sites can be seen in a few days. There are a few good museums, churches and public buildings. It has all the problems of a large capital city in an underdeveloped country: bad streets, heavy air pollution – mainly from very old buses – and nonpotable water. Another major problem in the city and as well as in the whole country is violent crime, especially murder and armed robberies. There will be more on this problem later on.

We arrived on a Friday. Harold does teach on the weekends, so he suggested that we and his girlfriend, Stephanie, and anther surfer, English Jack, climb the volcano Pacaya. Midday on Saturday, we drove up the mountain. Even driving most of the way up, it was a two-plus hour climb for us to the final stage of the climb where the earthen trail ends in a large pasture and the old lava bed winds its way to the crater. This is where we stopped. Betty’s shoes were too thin to cross a lava field, where the rocks are so sharp and rough that they shred ordinary shoes. The lava did not stop Harold, Steph and Jack – all made it to the crater to see the red glow of the magma. It was just after sundown when Betty and I got down to the village where we started. It was pitch black by the time Jack, Harold and Steph got down. We drove back into the city totally exhausted. But the severe soreness did not come until the next day and we could feel it until mid week.

The next day was Sunday. They close a major thoroughfare, Avenida de Las Americas, on Sundays. Hundreds come to walk and bicycle. There are fun things for kids to do, like ride ponies or goat carts, or like jumping on trampolines. Most families bring their dogs, what a collection! Others bring dogs to sell. It has a fair-like atmosphere. We walked on both our Sundays in the city.

During the week we did a number of things. First, we visited the downtown area. Unfortunately, we did not book enough time to visit its museums and public large public buildings. But we saw enough to satisfy our curiosities. We stuck our head in the beautiful police station where they tortured natives in the not so distant past. We visited the post office, which now doubles as a cultural center. There are two wonderful old churches. The cathedral has a fence around its plaza entrance. The fence posts stand some nine feet tall and are about a foot square. On all four sides of the posts are marble tiles, engraved with the names of tens of thousands of the disappeared (read murdered, no, read slaughtered) people, mostly indigenous, in the 1970s and 1980s. Another day we visited two great museums a short distance from Harold’s home. One was a textile museum; the other was an archeological museum. Both were great.

We also helped Harold with his classes. We had some great conversations with his students, all in the name of learning English. With so little to do in Guatemala City, we ended up teaching in many of his classes.

I have a distant cousin, Daniel Susott, who reads my BLOG. He wrote to us and suggested that we meet his friends, the Morales family. They live in the suburb of Mixco. We called them and were invited to dinner. It was a wonderful evening with wonderful people. We only wish that we could have spent more time with them.

On Saturday the 15th Harold, Steph, Betty and I drove to Antigua to spend the day shopping and enjoying the town. We went to the artisan markets, we drank beer in Riley’s Irish Pub, we sat in the main plaza, we saw a strange Mayan-Christian shrine, we dined at the best McDonalds in North America. What was that last thing? McDonalds has a huge courtyard with a fountain – really unbelievable! We headed back to the city after dark. As we entered the city, we found traffic backed up for miles – as the cars were head for a square with the 50-foot artificial Christmas tree. This is the largest of the trees erected throughout the country by the Guatemalan beer company, Gallo. As we sat in the traffic we could see the massive fireworks display exploding high in the night sky.

As out time wound down, the gigantic elephant ear plant in Harold’s yard began to bloom. You may ask what I mean by gigantic. The plant is not a tree or a bush, yet it stands more than 15 feet tall. Its leaves are three to four feet wide. The flower is a long thin shaft that is more than two feet tall. Just an amazing plant!

On our last day, one of Harold friends, Suli, from the states came to visit. We found her fun and witty. She runs a business that services the needs of Guatemalan immigrants in New Jersey. Betty and I had taught Harold and Seph to do a bit of cooking earlier in the week. Today we bought tenderloin and potatoes and made the best steak dinner I have had in ages. It sounds crazy but we showed them how to prepare and sauté the onions and mushrooms. They pan fried the meat and it was fantastic. We drank two great bottles of Chilean red wine.

Thus ends our trip to Guatemala. After the holidays with our family and the birth of Birgitta and Seth’s second child, we hope to head south again.

Posted by bill at 06:25 PM | Comments (0)

November 07, 2008

The Mayan Kingdom in Tikal

Press HERE to view a slide show from
Tikal and Rio Dulce

The Streets of Flores
 The Streets of Flores
Tikal's Structures
 Tikal Pyramid 1
 Tikal Pyramid 2
 Tikal Pyramid 3
Tikal's Animals
 Animals at Tikal

Blackbirds in Flores

We had heard awful stories of crime in Guatemala, especially stories about buses and vans being stopped by armed gangs that would rape and rob the passengers. We also heard stories about crazy bus and truck drivers that created danger on the highways. Finally we heard stories about terrible roads that could turn impassible with a light downpour. I am happy to report that on our journey to Tikal we saw none of it. There were enough police to stave off the robbers. There was only a moderate number of trucks and fewer buses. And except for a couple of rough spots, the two-lane road was better than most in poor countries.

We rented a car for a week at $30 per day. Both convenience and the cost of bus travel drove us to this transportation alternative. Gas is still over $3 per gallon here, but our rental gets about 35 miles to the gallon. We got the car and were off by 9:00 AM Saturday morning. We got to Flores just before dark some eight hours later.

Sunset in Flores
 Sunset in Flores

San Felipe
 San Felipe
Lago de Izabal
 Lago de Izabal
The Garden at Rio Dulce
 Garden at Rio Dulce

Flores is about an hour south of Tikal. It is a lovely tiny city that lays on a small island in Lago de Peten Itza. The town is loaded with little hotels and guesthouses, not to mention a good number of eateries. Many of these establishments are on the lake’s edge with great views. It appears that where ever tourist go food prices are a tad higher than you might expect in say Mexico. Hotel rates are by the person, so they are rarely an excellent bargain for two people – one yes, two no. For two the cost starts at $12 per night, with no breakfast, no clean drinking water and no wi-fi, but they usually have a TV and AC – although you do not need the AC now. Betty and I stayed at a nicer hotel for about $27 per night. Flores is very comfortable. We took it easy on Sunday. Betty was not in top form; something she ate did not agree with her.

On Monday we drove to Tikal. Tikal is a world heritage site. It is an archeology site that is equal in scope to the Incan Machu Picchu. Tikal is a Mayan ruin. It covers a large area with many buildings and at least five temples that rise 190 feet, 18 stories, and are totally incredible, given that they were built 1000 to 2000 years ago. Take your time viewing the photos and remember that they are only thumbnails. So, click on them and see a lot more than what is in the thumbnail. Besides the ruins, Tikal is an amazing jungle sanctuary. We saw exotic birds, a roe deer, coatimundi (Central American raccoons), and another odd looking giant rodent. We returned to Flores late in the afternoon, totally exhausted. For the second evening we went out to see the sun set in the hills beyond the western edge of the lake, a stunning view.

On Tuesday we traveled to the Rio Dulce, which is more of a lake than a river. The lake is called Lago de Izabal. We invited Peg, a fellow traveler, to join us on our trip south. She gladly accepted and we had a great conversation during the three hours to Rio Dulce. She is a lot like Betty and me. It was good to talk books, politics, travel and life. When we arrived in Rio Dulce, we decided to go upscale for a few days. Our plan was just to take it easy. Unlike the coolness of Antigua, the heat and sun in Rio Dulce was a lovely change. We just wanted to suck it all in. Our hotel, Vinas del Lago, had nice rooms, a good kitchen, beautiful grounds, a swimming pool and wi-fi. Wednesday and Thursday were all rest and relaxation. Oh, there is a great tourist site just 300 meters from our hotel. El Castillo de San Felipe is a old fort that protected the lake from pirates and allowed Spain to extract taxes from shippers. The fort was rebuilt and preserved some fifty years ago. The fort really gives you a good sense of a new world outpost. The grounds around the fort are lovely. Many families played on the shore and in the water and ate picnic lunches. Other than this short visit, we have just taken it easy – sunning, swimming, eating and drinking.

We are off to Guatemala City now. I will try to post something next week.

Tikal: Towers Rising from the Jungle Floor
 Sunset in Flores

Posted by bill at 08:23 AM | Comments (5)

November 05, 2008

Change in America

Congratulations Barack Obama

America made a small turn to the left yesterday with its election of Barack Obama. Neither Betty nor I are confident that he will move the ship of state very far to the left. However, we are sure that the next four years will be better for Americans and the rest of the world. For this we are so thankful. We thank all who voted for Barack.

The biggest part of the Democratic agenda this next year will be to get the economy back on track. We are afraid that the government will just continue to bail out the rich. McCain accused Barack of being a socialist, despite that he is not even close to having a social democratic perspective. That is why we expect conditions to get better but not to be a great victory for the American worker. The most we can hope for will be the development of some form of socialized medicine on the line of what exists in Canada or Europe. The reality is that the insurance companies and privately owned health industry will likely end up the beneficiary of any change – just as the drug companies did with the Medicare drug benefit for the elderly.

Yes, I am a bit cynical. Sixty years of American life have taught me that the rich have a strangle hold on minds and psyche of the American people. I will hope for a reasonable move to the left, but I do not expect much. Unless some deep systematic changes come in the next four years, there is a good chance that the changes will not stick. Why? You might ask. The answer is simple: 45% of the American people voted for John McCain, a man dedicated to deregulation of financial institutions and a war-hawk and some (including me) would say a war criminal for dropping bombs on civilians in the Vietnam War. No mater how you cut it, the American people have bought the lies and distortions of the right. Despite the richness of this land, and strength and industriousness of its people, they will continue to suffer, continue to experience falling wages and a miserable health system until they wake up to the realities of our system and vote in huge numbers for leftist candidates – who will finally change the system permanently.

Congratulations Barack Obama,
Please make this a better country!

Posted by bill at 04:51 PM | Comments (9)