Wednesday, 19 June 2013

The monotony of day to day life.......but in Guatemala

Hola chicos y chicas

How goes it back home, wherever that may be?
In what feels like my home of Xela it goes well but we are more than ready to get back on the road. By the time we depart we will have been in this one city for about 1 month and that is far too long for itchy footed backpackers such as ourselves.
I can prove that we have been here too long because each morning on our walk to school we pass by the same medical student going the other way and say 'Hello', on the walk home from school we say hello to Oscar the tailor and I get a 'Hola Adam' in return. I know Jose in the local gym, we know the guys who work in the coffee house and all of this is without our various school mates milling about.

Don't get me wrong, Xela has served its purpose in being a great base to learn and study Spanish, it is a beautiful setting and once we leave there will be lots of fond memories from our time in Guatemala's second largest city, but time to leave it is. We still have many thousands of miles to travel and the lure of South America is now getting too strong for me to rest - we need to get going.

A view of Xela
Xela's Parque Central

However, we do still have a few days of study left which we need to savour because I know what we have learnt will be invaluable for the coming year and we have a couple of adventures ahead of us before we exit the country for good.

Today it appears that for once I have a break amongst the endless study and homework so I thought I would take this opportunity to update you on the previous couple of weeks. Amongst the monotony of the Spanish classes, Monday to Friday, 8am - 1pm there has been a wealth of daily activities on offer but before we talk about those I should spend a little time talking about the Spanish; after all, it is why I am here!!

So; school. As you will know from my previous post we had begun our schooling in earnest and were relishing the challenge of trying to master as much of the language as we could in a mere 3.5 weeks of study - frankly an impossible task.
I don't know exactly who reads this blog but I am sure there are a few bi-lingual / multi-lingual readers amongst you and I take my hat off to you.
Learning a language so that you are comfortable using it in any given day to day situation to hold a conversation on any topic and to be able to convey your thoughts in a grammatically correct and coherent manner is how the language is taught here and it is hard. The sheer amount of rules and exceptions to these said rules plus the numerous conjugations of the verbs; the verbs of which can be regular, irregular or reflexive and must be said correctly depending on who the subject of the sentence is and in what time period / tense you are talking in makes for a very challenging time.
In 3.5 weeks with very little base knowledge what can you honestly hope to achieve?

Well given what I have listed above it would not be unreasonable to throw your toys out the pram, throttle the teacher and go to the pub, and there have been times amongst most of us students when we have been very close to doing just that but the full-on immersion of 5 hours Spanish per day plus living in a Guatemalan homestay has seen us learn quite a lot. Currently we are suffering from information overload, each day is a review of the previous day via our homework and then it is onto a new element of the language that is inherently linked to what we have already learnt. It is really tough but I know that once we move on, get our notes in order and practice as much as we can with each other and with the locals that we encounter I think we will be surprised with how much we can actually say, read and write and no longer just rely on our tourist / survival Spanish.

Myself and Maestro Jorge
As for my actual maestro (teacher), his name is Jorge and I like him a lot. Even though he has only ventured out of his country once to visit Mexico (which is a privilege) he is very worldly and has a wealth of information to share, especially about the Middle East which he is fascinated with.
Over a coffee we have had many chats (in Spanish because he refuses to speak English with me) about all sorts of topics from prostitution to drugs. It has been fun!!

To prove that my money has not been wasted here are my favourite Spanish words etc:
  • Favourite fish is Monkfish - 'Rape' (Pronounced rap-eh, but who cares?)
  • 'To bother' is 'Molestor' - makes sense 
  • 'I order' is 'Pido' (Pronounced pee-do)
  • 'I put on' is 'Me puse' (Pronounced me-pus-eh)
  • Plus there are the actual bad words such as 'Puta' (bitch) and Hueco (homo) and I have already put these to public use but more on that later
Like I said, once we leave and look back on what we have done I think we will be happy with our month spent here!!

In the previous post I also talked about our crap homestay and how we were moving to a new one. Well I am pleased to report that our new homestay turned out much for the better and will have ensured by the time we depart our time will have been comfortable, really funny at times and not at all famine like!
Our Guatemalan mother is Leslie, father is Luis and sister is Luna but they aren't really our mum and dad as Arancha is older than both of them (I'm not) and Luna isn't really our sister because she is a dog; but the craziest and most pampered dog that I have ever met.
Leslie and Luis are great and have a good sense of humour plus there is the added bonus that they can speak some English so can help us out when we really are at a loss as to what is being said.

We also share the house with 2 other students - Kyle and Jenna from Melbourne, Aus; its not like one Aussie was enough for company!
Immediately the 4 of us got on well and it wasn't long before the situation of living in a house in a foreign speaking country resulted in a number of 'in-house' jokes, mainly about the dog and its treatment.
To summarise:
  1. She is fed from the table by hand
  2. When the owners are out the TV in the bedroom is left on so that she can lie on the bed and watch cartoons - she actually does this
  3. She is 1.5 years old and has yet to be neutered meaning that when she was recently on heat and being a good sized Husky she about took me out as she attempted to hump me
  4. Still on the 'heat' topic - her vagina was swollen to the max and she dripped blood all over the house. Yuk; but I do have a photo for those who wish to see it. Ha ha. Remember, she allowed on the owners bed to watch TV and wipe herself clean on the pillows!
All of this provided much entertainment and disgust in equal measure but it has been funny, even when I walked in the house and to avoid the shit on the floor found myself stood in yellow wee in my flip-flops.

So with all of the Spanish, both at school and home, plus the crazy dog, the daily activities provided by the school have been a blessing, and even better they were all complimentary apart from the cost of getting there. Here is a run down of the good stuff that we have been up to amongst the tears and frustration of being a Spanish mute:

Luckily for us during our time here a lot of the same people have remained at the school so each trip / activity has been like an outing with mates. In the group there is:
Me - Hello!
AJ - G'day
Kyle - AKA Clark Kent because he once went to the bar in his hostel and was questioned by the owners about who he was and what he was doing there. He wasn't wearing his glasses when checked in and now was - what an amazing disguise!
Jenna - AKA Wordsworth because she knows every Spanish word - jealous!
Angela & Dan - a Canadian / Kiwi couple who are studying and working here for a few months
Bob - AKA Pastor Bob, a great gringo (Latin nickname for Yanks), an actual pastor and here to learn Spanish for the sake of his students back in Indiana
Daryl - fellow Englishman on the same path south
Shane - 21 year old Irish lad who for some reason has decided to do a 3 month Spanish study stint whilst on summer break from uni
Christie - doesn't have a nickname but should have because although she is a very nice Yank she is as intense as driving along death road in Bolivia. Limiting conversations to 5 minutes is a must
Rachel - another Brit who upped her kudos by obtaining a mis-matching shellsuit from a Xela clothing outlet when it had 80% off. The discount meant that it cost about 20p
Shun - a Japanese language master who at the mere age of 21 yrs is now proficient in Japanese, English, Spanish and French. What's more annoying is that he is really nice.
Leo - Leo, another Ingles (English) who isn't actually a student but is worth a mention. He is teaching English at the school and literally lives each day as it comes mainly because he has no dosh left. He claims he entered Guatemala with 20Q to his name, the equivalent of about £1.70 and has been getting by ever since. He is a top bloke and certainly encaptures the adventurous spirit needed to enjoy these parts of the world.

I think that is the core element listed. There are others of course but it has been these people that are around us the most.

To the activities:

Every Monday night is Salsa class at a local salsa school:
Given that we will be in Latin America for the next year it is imperative that I learn the to salsa:
A) I don't want to look like a nob on the dance floor.
B) I am not having Arancha twirled away from me by some tall, dark Latino stranger - she will have to accept she's with me.
Salsa is great fun but I didn't realise how difficult and intricate the moves would be (if you want to do it properly). The teachers are brilliant and it is not often that a woman of shorter stature than me can take the lead and literally chuck me about the floor to demonstrate how I should be leading AJ! We will only have had 4 lessons by the time that we leave but will have the basics together for 10 separate moves.
I think that Salsa classes are an investment of time and money all of their own, so this is something we will need to continue to do as we travel.

San Andres Xecul:
One of the resident teachers come guide Mario took us on our first afternoon activity to the hillside town of San Adres Xecul. Getting there was another test of how many people can you possibly squeeze into one form of public transport.
This time it was a minibus. I counted 26 people on a vehicle that seats 12 and this included a number of old ladies hanging out of the open sliding door and a woman with her boob out breastfeeding - I was sat opposite her and smiled politely; meeting her eyes!
Next was a short trip on a chicken bus before 12 of us students jumped into the back of a pick-up truck to take the winding 5km road up to the town. As always seems to be the way on these trips, Mario took his comfy seat in the front of the vehicle.
San Andres Xecul is worth a visit for a number of reasons:
1) It is home to a famous red and yellow multi-coloured church that lies in its centre and is featured on the front cover of this year's Lonely Planet Guide to Guatemala.
2) Higher up the slopes there is a mini version of the same church with burning alters alongside that reminded us of the cremation Ghats in India and Nepal.
There was a sheep tethered close to this area but Arancha having performed a Pet Rescue, Rolf Harris stylee by untangling the sheep's legs refused to believe that it was an offering to the gods.
3) The views out across the valleys and fields with the high cliffs of the surrounding mountains were worth the trip alone.
4) San Andres is the home of San Simon.
As you might expect Guatemala is a very religious country. Of course there are a high percentage devoted to the Catholic faith and surprisingly there are quite a high number of devotees of the Evangelical persuasion and the bands and singing that emanate from the surrounding churches into our bedroom testifies to this; but in San Andres the residents pray to San Simon - the Saint of Smoking and Drinking!
Yep, that's right. If you want your prayers answered here you had better come with offerings of fags and beer.
We were warned beforehand that we must show respect ie. do not laugh at the model of the Saint.
Walking into the chapel (in some geezer's back garden) we all stifled a laugh as we lay eyes upon the 'man' himself - a mannequin sat on a candle lit throne dressed in a sombrero, leather jacket and sunglasses with a fag hanging out of his mouth.
How could we not show anything but respect??
After taking a few snaps and listening to a follower make his daily devotions we left via the shop where you could by various potions, some for love and some to dominate women!

After AJ fed a starving dog we all got into the back of another pick-up truck and made our way back to the highway which was just as much fun as before but with the added elements of the back end swinging out as we rounded a corner too fast as well as being chucked about as we took a short cut through a field.

The infamous church
The one, the only San Simon

Xelaju FC vs Guatemala City:
I had heard that the Super Chivos (Super Rams) were due to play and I was planning to go the match on my own but I was well chuffed when the school announced that the Wednesday activity would be to attend the game.
The match itself was an important one as Xela had reached the end of season play-offs and were one of 8 teams vying for the championship.
This match was the first leg and they were up against the Man Utd of Guatemalan football.

We all met up at the school and took the 15 minute walk up to stadium. At that point we could've been on our way to any stadium in 1980's England. It was dark, it was pissing it down with rain and once we had queued for our tickets and entered through an old school turnstile we took our places behind the goal on the standing terraces.
The stadium was very basic and we were in the Kop style stand that housed the 'real' supporters and the resident band.
Under the stand itself were numerous food and drink stalls and general rule of thumb was that the blokes could take a piss wherever they wanted - which I did with some other Guatemalans on a grass bank.
Apparently it is a legal right in Guatemala that a man can take a leek wherever he so wishes!

We were in the stadium 90 minutes before the start of the game but with the aid of a little beer, a lot of different people to look at and some very handy ponchos to deflect the teeming rain the time soon passed and the game began.
In Guatemala there isn't such a thing as spectator respect for the opposition players and I had to laugh as each time a substitute would try to warm up a fan would run up to the fence and throw his beer over him.
Foul language is also common, as it is at every sporting event around the world and this was my chance to put what I had learnt into practice.
Of course it is wrong but you have to laugh when an opposition player comes close and the crowd goes wild shouting "Puta" (Bitch!) or "Su madre" (Your mum!).
However, the best of all was when the opposition goalkeeper took the goal kicks. At Leicester City matches (my home town) there is an age old tradition of building up an "oooooooooohhhhhh" before shouting "you're shit aaaggghhhhh" as the keeper kicks it, hopefully slicing the ball. Well it was similar here but as he kicked it everybody shouted out "Huecooooooooo" (Homo!). Brilliant.

As mentioned we were in the 'fans' section and we were treated to a feast of music, song and colour. If English fans could take one lesson from here it would that these fans carry on supporting the team no matter what. When the opposition opened the scoring you wouldn't have known it as the song being sung continued on and on until it reached its natural conclusion and not because the team has just conceded.

At half time a number of guys walked through the crowd to disperse sparklers and at the right time we all had to light them and then throw them as far as we could over the fences and onto the pitch at the journalists. I just couldn't bring myself to throw it knowing that I could mess it up and hit someone so I kept mine and wrote my name with it.

As the second half began the first of many fireworks and flares were lit in the stands, right next to us. It is the first time I have had the pleasure of being stood directly behind a lit flare but I am not complaining. Ok it didn't taste good but the fireworks combined with endless songs that we could all dance to mixed in with the glowing red and blue smoke was a fiesta that I long to repeat.
As for the actual game, Xela lost 2-1 but at least I saw a goal and joined in with the manic celebrations. AJ didn't because she was in the queue for the loo - why is it that girls always miss the best bits of the footy?
Even though it was a loss I left more than contented with my first football experience in the loco Latin America and can't wait to get to games in Argentina and Brazil if the chance arises.

One more note on the match - when we left the away team were still in the centre circle waiting for the fans to leave so that they could get to the changing rooms safely. That didn't happen as the fans all decided to run onto the pitch and kick the shit out of the team.
Don't say they don't take the game seriously here!!

Perhaps it is time for a haircut?

Fuentes Georginas:
This was an afternoon trip to the local volcanic hot springs - seriously such pampering is required and justified after hour upon hour of studying a foreign language. For once we had the luxury of private transportation and about 12 of us made our way through the surrounding countryside, passing little villages and up into the foothills that make up the base of the many local volcanos.
The actual springs themselves consisted of a number of interlinking pools that varied in heat as the water descended. To give you an idea of the heat in the main pool I had to change pools after only a few minutes as I was sweating profusely and became dizzy - it was steaming hot. (for me)
After more than an hour in the mineral packed waters we were suitably prune like so we felt it best to dry ourselves off and enjoy a cool beer whilst watching the mists descend into our own little crevice in the mountains.
The pools were a worthwhile trip but for me it was the state of the land that we drove through that captured my attention. Of course the imposing perfect cone shaped Santa Maria Volcano will always draw the eye as it continuously disappears and then reappears from behind the dispersing clouds but it is because of these volcanos and the nutrients and minerals that they have spewed all over the land that it is so rich and fertile. Never before have I seen fields so abundant with food and crops. Every inch of usable land is farmed, even patches at near 60 degree angles (which would clearly be too difficult for our farmers to work with - we like our land flat) and the result is row upon row of cabbages, corn, grain, beetroot etc. It seems like a basic thing but to look out over rolling valleys that are green, yellow and purple is quite a sight, especially when we only have to pop into the supermarket to get our fruit and veg.
The food here some of the best organic and fresh food I have ever seen. It really is a gem of a country.
The steaming volcanic hot springs
Lush surroundings with the ominous Santa Maria

Every Friday night at the school we are all invited along to eat and drink together. Fortnightly the programme changes between a 'Hotpot' where the students all bring a different dish or a complementary dinner courtesy of one of the school coordinator's mother.
On this particular Friday it was the latter of the two and we had been promised great things until we found out that the mother was also the mother of the owner of our first homestay, ie. remember when I told you that the dog's dinner looked better than ours!!
As expected the food was shit but it didn't matter as we got well and truly hammered. The dinner was followed up with a night out with everybody in the local 'gringo' bar and a good night was had by all, especially Arancha and her free pour gin and tonics.

The post dinner night out meant that the Saturday was a bit of a write off. All we managed to do with our day was to go out for fried chicken with Kyle and Jenna, which Arancha subsequently chucked straight back up.
You can imagine how thrilled we were that evening to then have to head out with our Guatemalan parents for pizza and drinks in the town.

Laguna de Chicobal:
Bright and early on the Sunday morning we dragged ourselves from our slumber to meet with some of the other students and Mario at 7am to make the climb up and into the mystical Laguna de Chicobal.
The Laguna itself is a naturally formed lake that sits within the crater of a dormant volcano and is accessed via a 5km walk straight up before a very slippery and risky kilometre descent into the bowl of the caldera.
The Laguna is also of huge cultural significance for the indigenous population and is revered as a holy place that combines both the old (Mayan) and new (catholic) faiths.
Sitting on the banks of the lake you could purely understand its reverence as the mists continued to flow up and over the lip of the crater to encompass us all in its dense grip, sometimes leaving us with nothing to look at.
To give you an idea of how large this volcano once was it took us about 40 minutes to circumnavigate the lake - that is a big exit hole for an eruption of lava!

Combining the Mayan and catholic faiths

This school trip to the nearby town of Salcaja was important for 2 reasons:
1) We got to visit the first church to be built in the whole of Central America - the second being in Xela itself. Erm, it was ok but nothing special.
2) Salcaja is famous for the production of its own alcohol which is made from fermented fruit and can only be legally produced and sold in this town.
We walked up to some random house, rang the door bell and then sat in a bloke's entrance room tasting the actual fruits and sampling some of the finished product.
The fruits were really potent so we thought it only right to buy a bag for dessert for that evenings dinner. A large bag was the equivalent of 30p.

The first church in Central America

Salcaja 'whiskey' and fruits
On a separate note, 2 days after we had visited Salcaja there was a massacre in its quiet suburban centre. Apparently the cocaine trade is picking up in these parts and the recent arrest of a drug baron resulted in some serious payback. The local cartel took it upon itself to break into the police station, murder 8 police officers and bust the baron out as well as take the police chief hostage.
Needless to say that there has been a lot of shock and concern here because although there is a lot of drug violence in the capital and nearby Mexico, this part of Guatemala usually remains peaceful and devoid of such troubles.

Cementario General:
Now you wouldn't think that a trip to the city cemetery would be that interesting but with regards to Xela's you would be wrong. The first thing you notice is the sheer size of place and the next thing is how elaborate some of the tombs and mausoleums are, followed by the array of colours decorating the mass of graves, some of which are in the earth and some in vertical 'apartment blocks' as Arancha so eloquently put it. Inherently, as is in actual life here, segregation also shows its ugly face in death and there are clear areas set aside for the rich, those of certain ethnic backgrounds and those with particular beliefs. The 'poor' section is a huge plot of land but the quantity of the 'poor' that have died over the years means that that these graves are literally on top of one another - but not quite like the apartment blocks!

Make you wishes for love
By its very nature the cemetery has an interesting history and many stories to be told. A former president of Guatemala is buried here and his mausoleum is suitably grand, there is a German and Italian section and there is also the grave of Vanushka. This is a story of lost love and a broken heart. Vanushka was a Russian gypsy who fell in love with the son of a Guatemalan politician. For a time they were happy until the father found out and forbade his son to see her again (they don't agree with the mixing of races here). He was sent away to Spain to study and later came back to Guatemala with his new bride. Upon hearing this Vanushka starved herself and the legend goes that she died of a broken heart, but she didn't, she starved to death!
Anyway, the grave is now an attraction for teenagers looking for love and they will come here, especially on a Friday night to leave a rose and write their wishes to meet that somebody special all over the tomb.
Buried in the shadow of the volcano
Post death 'apartment blocks'

The latter half of our second full week in Xela was a bit of a write off as first Arancha, then myself followed by Jenna all came down with a 24 hour bug within 4 hours of each other.
That Wednesday night / Thursday morning saw the girls vomiting whilst I was walking about like some sort of decrepit Michael J Fox due to my uncontrollable shivers.
On top of this our stomachs were destroyed and I am not sure how we all avoided each other on the way to the bathroom.
Eventually the majority of our ailments disappeared and we could get back to our daily routines but we still need to be careful when it comes to venturing too far without a loo close by. It should be a laugh when we head off next week for a 3 day trek.

Enjoying a spot of dinner

Apart from the above we have been milling about, hanging out in the various arty cafes that adorn the streets whilst completing our piles of homework and going out for dinner and drinks with friends.
The day to day school effort is hard and I am well and truly ready for the off but this town really is a desirable place to live and I think the Guatemalans who live here realise how lucky they are.

The volcano that still eludes us

We still haven't set foot on an actual volcano but that WILL be put right this weekend as we finally make our long awaited trek minus the temptations of a night out or illness.

My next blog will definitely come to you from another country but it remains to be seen whether that country will be Honduras or Nicaragua?
Who knows!

Hasta luego.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Back at school, Guat the f*ck?

It feels odd writing this post knowing that my next one could very well come from the same location. It doesn't sit well with me that we will be stationary for so long on our travels as it doesn't take much for the cabin fever to creep on but I think we will be kept busy enough here in Guatemala's second city of Quetzaltenango, or Xela (pronounced Shay-la) for short. After all, we are here for 2 key things:
1.      To attend Spanish school
2.      To spend our free weekends trekking and climbing volcanoes

Crossing from Belize into Guatemala was probably the most simple and straightforward border crossing that I am ever likely to have - England into Scotland et al do not count!
From our bed in San Ignacio to the border it was a quick and easy 30 minute bus ride followed by taxi for the remaining 2 kilometres. In the front of the main building that would see us leave one great country and enter another new exciting location were a large number of currency traders all carrying bundles of notes in their very trendy bum-bags circa 1990. Once again proving that I really must do some research I was about to commit a serious schoolboy error by refusing to trade my remaining Belizean dollars for Guatemalan Quetzals at what was clearly a dodgy exchange rate with the intention of changing them in Guatemala. Funny that I was well chuffed with their exchange rate when they rightly informed me that I could not exchange Belizean dollars over the border! Phew, because we would have been stuck with a couple of hundred useless dollars!!

Just for information - the Quetzal is the national bird of Guatemala but we have yet to see one. Based on the pictures that we have seen we need to catch a glimpse of one though.

We passed through the doorway into an empty room and paid our exit fees. From this room we walked into the next and over an imaginary line into Guatemalan territory and what that meant was that a number of taxi drivers could approach unwary travellers with lies that you must take a taxi to the next town as there were no buses for miles around. Knowing that this was crazy talk - central America would not function without a bus or collectivo (shared minibus) we laughed in their faces and walked up to the immigration desk to be stamped into country number 5 of the tour. To officially enter the country as such we then left the office and walked over a bridge away from drums of the Garifuna and back into silky salsa beats of Latino America.

The first thing that I registered about Guatemala were the guns - everybody is carrying and the weapon of choice appears to be the shotgun. I asked my Spanish teacher about this and she said that it was for security, however I can't see the justification for armed security for a stationary shop or the unloading of a lorry carrying sugar! Apparently everybody carries a gun from the supermarket security guy, the petrol attendant to the man or girl on the street. Today we saw a female traffic warden with a machine gun - it doesn't matter that it was a female but it certainly makes you look twice.
Maybe there is a link with this and the extraordinary number of coffin and headstone shops here in Xela? 

From the non descriptive border town of Melchor de Mencos we conveniently hopped into a imminently departing collectivo with a few but not too many Guatemalans ie. we had a seat each; and set off for the 2 hour to Isla De Flores.
Isla De Flores, translated Island of Flowers is definitely as beautiful as the name suggests, although there were a serious lack of said flowers.
Situated in the north of Guatemala, Flores, connected via a causeway from the mainland is surrounded by the Peten Itza Lake, Guatemala's second largest lake, a huge body of water that is 32km long and 5km wide.
The town itself can be circumnavigated in about 15 minutes and is a collection of restaurants and cafes along the lake's edge with the hostels, hotels, tour agencies, language schools and general housing all jumbled together in the interior making their way upwards to the central square sitting proudly on the top of the hill.

We stayed in a relatively expensive room overlooking the lake (it cost us about £5.50 each a night) and in terms of day to day activities in the town it really is a case of sink or swim. There is nothing to do except to eat or jump off the pier into the lake to cool down and escape the humidity and heat of the day that encompasses this part of the Guatemala.
The reason that a huge amount backpackers pass through this lovely part of the world is to visit the Mayan ruins of Tikal; yes we went to visit another site.
As the premier attraction of the region there were no shortage of offers for trips to Tikal but we still felt the need to shop about. (I say we, but it really was me because there is always a deal to be had and I only wanted to get a general idea from 3 vendors - what sort of financial analyst would I be if I didn't?)
All in all it paid off and we saved ourselves 40% - although mostly by luck rather than by design.

To get the most out of a visit to Tikal (and not to melt) you need to be there for sunrise which means getting up at 4am to catch your 4:30am ride - frankly a crazy time to get up to check out your 8th ruins.
We caught our lift along with Franz and Carolina, a Dutch / Venezuelan couple who we would travel with over the next few days.

There were 2 options for the tour of Tikal, pay for the all inclusive return trip and guided tour of the ruins or just pay for the transport. We didn't feel the need to have a guide for 2 reasons:
1.      What new stuff were we going to learn at site number 8?
2.      Tikal is famous for its wildlife sightings and we didn't think that a large, noisy group would be conducive to this

We arrived at Tikal for 6:30am and were promptly ushered into a café with about 20 other people to wait for our guided tour - no one was allowed to walk off on their own for fear of getting themselves lost amongst the untamed jungle that surrounded us. Our plan was to set off with the tour and then just walk off once we were on the trail and follow the very clear map that we had bought but after 5 minutes of walking along with the very informative guide we both looked at each other and decided to stay on for what would turn out to be a really interesting morning. We were trying to do the honourable thing and walk off as we hadn't paid for the tour but that soon changed when we realised the worth of having trained wildlife spotting eyes with us. At one point the guide sat beside us and asked for confirmation that we had paid for the tour? "Yes" I replied before he went on to say that he wasn't fussed anyway as he got paid no matter what.

So Tikal was a great trip for a number of reasons:
  • As mentioned, the guide had a very keen pair of eyes and we got to see toucans, paca's (a large rodent), coatimundi (similar to racoons) that would go about their business and pay no mind to us, as well as spider monkeys
  • We got close up and personal with a tarantula that the guide had coaxed out of its den and gave anybody who wanted to a chance to hold it - AJ bravely did but I just couldn't do it (weak)
  • Whilst at the main plaza we were able to go off for 20 minutes and stand under the jungle canopy awe struck as we looked up at and listened to the infamous howler monkeys calling to each other. The call of the howler monkey is indescribable and if you didn't know what it was you would be scared sh*tless that there were real monsters on the loose. The call is so loud that it can carry for 3 miles through the dense jungle! Fact.
  • We got to look around some very impressive buildings and plazas as well as climb the tallest structure in the Mayan world
  • Climbing the tallest temple was not only just that, it also enabled me to get a geek fix - standing at the top of this temple looking out over the jungle in all directions with the peaks of 3 other Mayan temples poking up above in the sunlight I stood in the exact position as a rebel fighter in Star Wars: A New Hope as he watched the Millennium Falcon come in to land at the rebel base - now that is cool!
By 10:30am we were done and were very happy to be 2 of the first 11 people from the group who could catch the earlier bus back to Flores and not have to wait around until the second bus at 12:30pm. 4 hours is enough but 6 hours is overkill.
The rest of that day passed me by as I had a nana nap and then took a moonlight dip in the lake in my pants because I was hot after dinner and couldn't be bothered to go back to the room to change and because I could!

With Tikal ticked off the list it was time to move on and early the next day we set off to Lanquin and the natural wonders Samuc Champey. The only way to reach Lanquin in one day and with as little pain as possible was to take a tourist minibus with 26 other backpackers. Having brought our ticket from the same agent as the Tikal tour we knew we had gotten it cheaper than most so didn't expect to be travelling in style but there were some on the bus who had clearly been fed a few porky pies about how they would be travelling and they had paid at least 50% more than us. I did feel for them (a little) but that was until the driver had negotiated through a particularly tight space and the majority broke out into a round of applause and a few whoops. You know what nationality they were.

The reason that travel in Guatemala takes so long is not because some of the roads are unmade, which can be uncomfortable if you are sitting above the wheel rim, it is because there are speed humps on every road, even the 'motorways'. Guatemalans do love a bit of speed but is it not more dangerous for them to slam the brakes on and then speed up as much as possible in between each hump, let alone the impact this has on the environment?
Anyway; 8 hours later we rolled up to the edge of what can only be described as a canyon, left the man made roads for good and began our journey down a mini version of Bolivia's death road. Everybody was transfixed as we slowly made our way over 11kms of rough and very thin trails overlooking the misty jungle covered canyon and cliff faces. Not a bad view at all.

This part of the journey came to an end just outside of the isolated mountain town of Lanquin where a number of very enthusiastic hostel owners cajoled us into their 4x4 vehicles with promises of good WIFI, food and beer.
We had left it all to chance so decided to tag along with the very organised Franz and Carolina. We did chuckle to ourselves when we set off standing on the back of the 4x4 truck and viewed who from the minibus was going where. The twenty-something youngsters were all heading to one of two places, those in their thirties and forties were all in our 4x4! However, given where we found ourselves marooned for 4 days I have no qualms at all about possibly missing out on the real parties.

Having just completed 9 hours of travel I wasn't expecting another hour of proper off road driving to our hostel but as we were in the jungle surrounded by 400 metre tall vine covered cliffs with the sound of the roosting birds hovering above the rumble of the truck I wasn't complaining.
We had made the trip here so that we could visit Samuc Champey as well as take a tour of the Lanquin Caves and by the pure luck of following an informed backpacker we found ourselves within walking distance of both attractions, making life very easy indeed.

How to describe where we stayed?
The El Portal Hostel was anything but a hostel. Set on the side of one of the canyon wall above the gently moving Cahabon river that divided the land we could sit in the open sided dining area with the jungle and nature all around, as well as above and below us.
Away from the central dining area the accommodations were spread out amongst the maintained 'gardens' and ranged from dorms to luxury bungalows. Given that we are bang in the middle of the backpacker budget range ie. we don't do dorms if we can help it (plus I don't need the hateful looks for my snoring) and we are not on holiday so we can't really justify the luxury we opted for the private room with shared bathroom. Our room was in the thatched attic of the luxury semi-detached rooms and we got into it by climbing a ladder and sliding the door open horizontally - quite a challenge in the dark with your hands full. The room itself was spacious, but not spacious enough for me not to bang my head everyday on the timber beams that supported the roof and we had a four-poster bed complete with the all important mosquito net, all the more essential because one part of one wall was completely open to the world outside. For some this may be an issue but how can it be when you are looking out over the river and the canopy alive with hummingbirds, butterflies and lizards of all kinds?

We stayed here for 3 nights and could have easily stayed for longer, which apparently does happen to a lot of travellers. We had everything we needed to survive; great food, interesting company and plenty of beer. The WIFI was intermittent but who really cares and the electricity was only on from 6pm to 10pm whilst people ate and drank. Other than that it was just the people and the elements - ideal.
Getting to and from the hostel was also always interesting to watch as the odd vehicles coming would need to cross a steel framed bridge which had horizontally laid planks that were not screwed into place for a road.
This bridge also served as a halfway stop for the multiple tour groups that tubed down the river everyday as part of their day tour of Samuc and the caves. There was only one reason for the groups to stop at the bridge - to jump off it.
The drop itself was probably only about 5 metres into the river below but the reason that we didn't do the jump (and I honestly wanted to do it) was that there was only a metre wide part of the bridge to make the jump from and if you didn't get the exact point you would land on the submerged rocks! Don't get me wrong quite a few people made the jump but every single one of them complained about either touching the bottom of the river or coming into contact with a rock, plus they had the security of a guide. We have a year left of travel, I need my legs.
For our first night at El Portal we got to know our fellow travellers a little better as well as celebrate Carolina's 31st birthday.

As mentioned, there was a full day tour to take in all of the surrounding sights and activities but given that Samuc Champey was literally around the corner and we weren't in any rush we decided to visit it ourselves and spend the entire afternoon there.
Samuc Champey really is a natural beauty, a 300 metre long limestone bridge set within the heart of the canyon under which the Cabahon river gushes down from the mountains via a number of waterfalls and through the caverns underneath. The draw for the backpackers is the limestone bridge itself that is made up of a number of stepped turquoise pools which are interconnected via smooth and very slippery rocks that double up as slides.
Before succumbing to the temptation to jump right into the water we made the midday hike a few hundred metres up to the lookout point, which was well worth the effort.
Once that was out of the way we rushed back down and spent a good 2 hours frolicking in the pools. A very nice local guy took it upon himself to be our unofficial tour guide and took us from the top to the bottom showing us the best slides to take. He also took us to the more adventurous parts that involved us swimming under the water into hidden caverns where there was literally just enough room to get your head out of the water to take a breath. We are both strong swimmers but I can't say that I plan to get into any sort of cave diving - it is quite disconcerting to know that your only way out was to follow the correct path or else you are stuck under a submerged rock ceiling.

Another bonus of the pools were the many fish that were only too happy to nibble away at your dead skin akin to the fish foot scrub I had in northern Thailand. It was quite funny to watch Arancha jump and shriek when a couple of the larger fish popped up for a go on her leg.

The next day we joined up with a tour group for the afternoon part of their day trip - a tour of the Lanquin Caves. Now this was a brilliant trip and one of those 'backpacker' things you get to do in far flung places with no health and safety to close it down.
The tour consisted of a group of us following a guide for 2 hours into a cave network with just a candle each for light. Sounds ok so far, but when parts of the caves are submerged and you have to swim and tread water with one arm aloft to keep your candle alight it gets a little more challenging. I don't think there was one person who succeeded in keeping their candle alight for the entire time.

This wasn't the only challenge - we also had to scale subterranean waterfalls via a rope with the candle in our mouths as well as drop down into the inky black through holes that were just wide enough for the average sized person.
I heard that a number of backpackers do not know what to fully expect when they sign up for the tour and quite a few people have embarked upon the trail who can't swim. Granted they are given life vests but it must be terrifying for them as it is not easy.
When we reached the end point before heading back there was the opportunity to climb up a rock face and leap into the pitch black oblivion. As I hadn't done the bridge I was determined to risk myself at least once in this part of the world and was one of five that gave it a go. Erm, it was dangerous.
It wasn't so much the leap of faith, it was the climb to the ledge. It was very slippery, I had to balance on jagged rocks to make the jump (one slip and something would've been ripped open) and you had to sort of crouch to make the jump because the ceiling was right above you.
Arancha wouldn't watch me and turned away but it was all good. My heart took quite a while to stop hammering in my chest.
Apparently a couple of people have died in those caves - we didn't know that until afterwards!

After the thrill of the caves we were able to relax as we tubed for 1.5 kms down the river. It wasn't really relaxing for me as I became the entertainment for the group because for some reason I just couldn't balance on my tube. More often than not I ended up turning myself over into the river before unsuccessfully trying to get back on.
Overall it was quite boring and slow and we were keen to get out once the loudest thunder clap and fork of lightning flashed overhead.

That evening we sat within the open sided dining area as the storm of all storms hit. Rainy season is on its way in Guatemala and this was the first real downpour that they had had in 4 months.
Whilst admiring the chaos of the tropical storm Franz told me about another of his travel adventures and in a way I am a little annoyed that he told me because this bad boy is now on my to do list.
I was telling him about the various travel-cyclists that we have met during our travels and how I would really like to give it a go and he just dropped in that he undertook a similar thing when he cycled 12,000kms from Cairo, Egypt to Cape Town, South Africa.
I have yet to do Africa (I have only been to Morocco but that isn't really Africa) so he gave me the website of the tour company that he travelled with.
I don't know when it will be (probably once we have kicked the kids out) but one day there will be blog posts here regarding our 4 month epic ride from the north to the south of Africa!!

We awoke the next day to see that the rain had stopped during the night but it had left its mark. The river was swollen and the current looked dangerous so no idea whether Samuc or the caves would be accessible to the continuous flow of tourists arriving. All I do know is that the tubing would be a damn sight more interesting.

Today was the day that we would be moving on from this little oasis and along with Franz and Carolina we jumped into the back of a 4x4 at 5am to make our way to the connecting minibus in Lanquin. Within 10 minutes of our journey we could see that the rains had also caused a lot of issues with the tracks. We sat stationary for 15 minutes as the occupants of one of the local buses got off and tried to push and pull it up the loose scree as the driver revved the engine to the max and wheel-spinned the sh*t out of it.
As well as being an interesting spectacle we also enjoyed the chance to take a moment to watch the mists that enveloped the mountains rise and disperse in the breaking dawn.
Eventually the bus gave up and rolled back down the slope so that we could pass. For the rest of the journey into town we then became the unofficial public bus.

This day was also another of those long travel days but as we had started at 5am we were happy to arrive in the town of Antigua by 2pm. What should your priorities be when you arrive into a new town with your bags and nowhere to sleep?
Go straight to the pub to watch the 2nd half of the Champions League Final? Correct answer.

Once the game was finished I left Arancha with the other 2 as I went in search of a suitable hostel – much easier to do without a big bag on your back.
It was here that I ran into Paulo who would be somewhat of a shadow during our stay here. He was only a young lad working as an agent on the street for a tour company and a Spanish school and I let him find me a hostel in return for agreeing to view his school.
That was agreeable with me as although we knew that we definitely wanted to study Spanish we still hadn’t decided in which of our 3 choice locations it would be, but Antigua was one of them.

If you have never been to central America and need a soft entrance then Antigua is the place. Think Diet Coke as opposed to full fat Coke. No doubt that it is a beautiful colonial town with its cobbled streets and many shops and markets selling all manner of textile and carved goods that the tourists go crazy for but for me it was a little too touristic and just felt a little too Disneyland, with as many white faces on the streets as there were tanned.
Don’t get me wrong, if it had stopped raining for at least 5 minutes and cleared so that I could see the 3 huge volcanoes that loom over the town, Antigua being the centre of this fiery triangle then it is quite possible that I would have fallen in love with the place and I would now be writing to you from there instead of Xela.
For the reasons listed above Antigua is a very popular destination when it comes to the many people who wish to study the Spanish language so on our second day we met up with Paulo and went to visit the school.

In order to maximise our learning capability our plan was also to partake in a homestay with a Guatemalan family so that we would be forced to speak Spanish both day and night. This particular place doubled as both the homestay and the school which did not bode well. You wouldn’t want to sleep at the office would you?
We sat through the hour long sales pitch and we were definitely excited by what we heard, it was just that this wasn’t the school for us. We left with a lot of things to think about and we went back to our hostel to do some more research.

Having already done some reading a few weeks before we had always been leaning towards our current location of Xela purely because being a city it would be a little more ‘real and gritty’ than the UNESCO town of Antigua, plus it was more off the beaten track where tourists were concerned. We had read that one of the major disadvantages of learning in Antigua was that after class you just revert to speaking English because there are so many backpackers and tourists to interact with. There was also the temptation to spend many an evening in one of any number of bars geared towards us travellers. No good when you are literally out on a school night!
But what made my decision final was seeing Arancha walking wide eyed around the streets and markets; granted the fair trade ones had both some good stuff as well as being ethical with regards to the local indigenous folk but 3 weeks of studying here with hours to spare in the afternoons would be lethal for my little shopper – she loves it!

We were in Antigua for 3 nights and apart from dodging the ever present Paulo hassling us about the school we didn’t really do a lot. It constantly rained for our entire stay so there really wasn’t a lot to do.
It goes without saying that on the day we headed to the bus terminal the skies were clear blue and we got our first glimpse of the Volcan De Agua that dominates your view from every angle. I couldn’t believe how low the clouds must have been to hide such a beast of a volcano from our view for a full 3 days, it was enormous.
Another reason to get out of Antigua was that being a tourist town everything was inflated price wise. The cost of the 4 hour tourist minibus to Xela was £30 each and by the time we had gotten ourselves to Xela via the pubic route it had cost us a total of £3 each!! Still, Arancha has told me that next time we ARE taking the tourist bus and after this journey I hatefully am inclined to agree.

We boarded the chicken bus in Antigua, internally they were similar to those in Belize except Latin melodies had now replaced Bob Marley, but externally they were works of art and all painted in a variety of colours and styles. The first leg of the trip was a straight forward 45 minute ride to the town of Chimaltenango where we would change buses for another that would take us directly into the heart of Xela.
At Chimaltenango we were dropped at the side of the road and a very helpful lady kindly pointed us in the right direction to catch our connecting ride. Our timing seemed perfect as the bus ‘conductor’ ran up to us, confirmed that we were heading to Xela and chucked our bags up on the roof – which always makes me a little uneasy in backwater towns such as these. However, we had no choice but to go with it and quickly headed around to the front of the bus to board.

I was first on to the bus and just looked ahead of me in dismay. Essentially what I saw was the shell of the bus packed with humans like some sort of hellhole cattle truck. We have both been on packed buses in Asia but there always seems to at least be a seat. The driver then ushered us towards the interior of the bus, something that looked quite impossible from where we were stood, but like the polite tourists we are we began our assault course of clambering over the mass of human limbs and squeezing through a throng of bodies as the bus headed off and threw us all over the place.
We eventually got towards the back and luckily there was enough space of one seat for me to perch on one bum cheek. As I was first I couldn’t offer it to AJ, there simply was no room for manoeuvre so for the first 20 mins she had to stand and brace herself – the drivers here are Formula 1.
This particular bus trip lasted for 2 hours as we headed up to 3,500 metres, around a volcano and back down to 2,200 metres to Xela. The mountain roads that we took were very windy (as in a lot of corners) but you would’ve thought that we were on a straight given how fast we were going. I am not joking, as we went around the corners the driver had one hand on the wheel and the other holding onto his window for support as he leaned with the bus.

The good thing about being on these buses with 3 people on each seat and one standing in between is that on these corners you can’t slide anywhere because there literally is no room. It also serves as a decent work out as you hang onto the seat trying not to crush your fellow passengers with what minimal movement you are afforded.
So this all sounds like a bitch of a journey doesn’t it?
Well it was and it wasn’t, but one thing that I did not like was being aware of something a little sticky on my big toe. I looked down to my flip-flopped foot to see a blackened lump of chewing gum stuck between my toe and the said flip-flop. I tried as hard as I could to get a hand down to my foot but only succeeded in removing the main body of the gum, the rest had to wait until we got to Xela.
Well at least my right flip-flop was going nowhere without me.

I have no idea how this was achieved but at various stops an assortment of food vendors still managed to board the bus and make their way through the crowds to sell their goods which we were only too happy to buy as we were starving. This is one thing that will always be superior to our western countries – the amazingly tasty street food that you get your hands on whether it be on a bus, on a train or on the side of the road.
I understand that some travellers are wary and just see a week of stomach troubles sitting in front of them but seriously you don’t know what you are missing out on.

Amongst all of this we had one of the happiest people in the world on our bus. He sat there singing and playing his imaginary bongos along to the pretty catchy tunes that filled the bus and told us that the band was their version of the Rolling Stones.
During the trip he befriended us and it was a good job too because unbeknown to us we would need to catch another bus and a separate collectivo before we would reach the centre of town.
He was a really interesting guy to get to know. In Xela he was a bit of a face for being a famous boxer back in his youth, he then moved to America where he worked in construction for 26 years before he fell from a building and smashed his elbows to pieces (he showed us the scars). From the insurance pay out he then returned home where he was able to buy 9 houses and now lives off of the rental income.
As he escorted us from one bus to the next and then walked us to the collectivo via a brief meet and greet with his wife he epitomised everything that I have loved about the people of Guatemala so far; he was happy, he had a huge smile, he was so helpful and he was just a bloody nice bloke; like everybody else we have encountered.

The journey from Antigua to the centre of Xela felt like it had taken a day but in fact had only been a mere 4.5 hours and so we found ourselves in our new and temporary home by early afternoon.
Being Guatemala’s second largest city we expected a mass of traffic, busy and noisy streets and I guess some dirt; a tourist we had met had told us as much, but she have been a country bumpkin because what we found and are discovering more every day is a very pleasant provincial town with its European style edifices that sits within a valley surrounded by green countryside with the peak of the Volcan Santa Maria visible in the distance to the south. The town itself has a character all of its own largely due to the remnants of recent earthquakes, it has a café culture (we have found a great organic café that serves multiple flavours of hot chocolate made from locally produced Guatemalan cocoa) and it also has the best bakery in the world.
There are a number of Spanish schools here but walking around you rarely see a white face so apart from meeting people at the school it is a full immersion experience for us which is just what we wanted.
We didn’t waste any time once we had arrived. We found a brilliant hostel which served the best complimentary breakfast so far on my travels and doubt it will ever be beaten and it was a shame to leave after 2 nights and by the end of our first afternoon we had enrolled into the Utatlan Spanish School and would begin the next day.
We had done some research with regards to schools and Utatlan stood out from the beginning – the location is perfect, its reputation was solid and outside of classes there are daily activities on offer such as salsa classes, movie nights and cultural trips such as local cocoa producers and a fair trade cooperative of Mayan women who make and sell their goods.
As mentioned we also wanted to stay with a Guatemalan family and this was also something that the school arranged for us on very short notice.

So; back to school!!
So far we have had 3 classes. We are studying for 5 hours a day, 5 days a week and learn with a tutor one on one, which is perfect as you can move at your own pace as you try to grasp and understand the concepts of another language.
To date we have thoroughly enjoyed our classes even though it is hard (I am so glad we had a few private lessons in London before we left as it is a great base to build upon) and I can’t believe how much I have retained in only 3 days. Don’t get me wrong, I am sh*t but I am confident that in 3 weeks we will both be talking with a good level of fluidity and not just to ask how we can get somewhere or what we would like to eat. Every day we are encouraged to practice via chatting about current affairs or the general news so our vocabulary is increasing all of the time and my aim is to be able to sit down in a bar and at least try to have a chat with a local if the chance arises.
Last night at the homestay I was able to hold a broken conversation about football and my self and Arancha told them about our travel for over 30 minutes – but I guess it is easy when it is a subject that you love.
Ok it wasn’t anywhere near being perfect and we were slow to respond but there is no way we could have gotten across what we did only 3 days ago.
The only negative about school is the daily homework, but it isn’t too bad!

It’s also funny how quickly you can slip into that Friday feeling and after only our 3rd lesson we headed straight to the pub to celebrate the end of the school week!!

Yesterday was Saturday and our first full day with nothing to do. There are plenty of things to do around Xela and over the next couple of weeks we will be busy but for yesterday we were content to walk around the weekend markets, visit a couple of cafes and spend the day eating good food and drinking tasty drinks.
At one point we did stand there and watch a young girl with a baby on her back (far too young to be a mother) dig around in a fountain, pull out a piece of chewing gum, squeeze out the excess water, test it with a little nibble and then put it in her pocket for later. Yum yum.

As for our homestay experience we have actually complained and will move families today. The whole idea of a homestay is to sit down with a family at meal times and interact with them What we found ourselves in was a family home that doubled up as a hostel of sorts which hosted another language student and a couple of young Guatemalan students – so our meal times are spent with them and no family in sight.
And then there is the food, or lack of it. The first night we were served huevos y frijoles (eggs and refried beans – a typical food in these parts) on a side plate and I rubbed my hands with glee that we were getting starter and main course. I couldn’t believe it when the other student gulped his down, said his thanks and then disappeared back into his room – that measly serving was it!
No lie, we looked at the family dogs’ dinner bowls and we were jealous of what they had to eat!

Over the following days the food hasn’t improved and I can't tell you how difficult it is to eat spaghetti bolognaise (still on a side plate) because a) it is cold and b) the spaghetti were like straws so trying to suck it up resulted in a mouth full of air and a messy face.
Also, how much does porridge cost? So much that you should get a bowl full of milk with 5 teaspoons worth hidden underneath? It was tasty though.
All in all the food is crap but that isn't the issue, we are just not getting the contact time that we want, expect or need – so hopefully this move will turn out for the best. Oh we are also both not fans of fleas, AJ is covered in bites and flushing our own toilet via lifting the cistern lid to pull the lever that is at the bottom of the full tank because there is no handle.

So that’s it for now. 2 weeks of Spanish school will follow plus a volcano climb and a 6 day trek into the north-western highlands – so tune in next time!

Hasta luego