Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Big Trip stop 4 - Guatemalan chicken bus charm

A friend of mine once married the girl he hadn’t wanted, and that’s kinda how I feel about Guatemala.

He was in the pub and very attracted to a bubbly blonde who was capturing the party‘s attention with her jokes, so he had a good try at chatting her up. She wasn’t keen. But he did end up talking to her friend, a brunette, and he realised she was funny and pretty and sweet and intelligent. And he asked her out and in the fullness of time they ended up getting married. And - apart from a few awkward “how did you meet” questions the wedding - it all worked out just fine.

When I was anticipating my 30 day overland epic trip through Central America, I wasn’t really thinking about Guatemala. Sultry Caribbean Belize, with its huge reef and soft creole, was occupying most of my attention, with bouncy, beery Mexico running close second. But it turned out to be Guatemala that gave me a lot of my best memories of the trip, although not where I had expected to find them.

Antigua is an artificial Disneyland of a town. Its name is not the town‘s original moniker and translates as “the old Guatemala“. It is thoroughly preserved by UNESCO decree and the influx of tourists who like the stalled-around-1700-with the-earthquake effect (because the past is cute provided you aren't the poor bastard who has to put up with living in it) but it is very charming. Cafes with courtyards (and oh, how Guatemala is deservedly known for coffee and chocolate) and sprawling ruins and ornate and morbid churches. It is a bit twee, but if you really feel the urge to sample something authentically modern, you can head just down the road to Guatemala City where you be shot by the drug crazed criminal of their choice. It’s up to you.

I would instead recommend heading to green-mountain ringed Lake Atilan where the roads are lined with stalls selling crafts and water taxis skip you across the lake in the sun. You can hang out with hippies in San Pedro or see Maximon, the “evil saint” of Santiago, who is worshipped by the offering of vices - alcohol and cigarettes being the popular ones. He lives in a different house each year and devotees visit Maximón in his chosen residence, where his shrine is usually attended by two people who drink to the Saint and - very drunkenly - explain to visitors where to put their offerings. The paper mache figure of Maximon is festooned with ties, maybe a 100, and has a lit cigarette or cigar in its mouth, and a hole in its mouth to allow it to drink the spirits.

Not feeling sacrilegious? You can climb the Maya ruins at Tikal where whatever Gods were there have long since abandoned the temples to the jungle. The views from the top are amazing, although not the ideal place to get food poisoning. Take in the town’s ornate churches, and their decidedly macabre statues. (Zombie Jesus is big here.) Or swim in the sulphurous and warm hot springs of Rio Dulce. Or ride through the rubber plantations in the jungle and take in the amazing views that Guatemala seems to hide around every corner.

If you are wondering how to get around, you’ll be on the chicken bus. So called for the Guatemalan habit of occasionally transporting livestock on them, they are adapted school buses, painted brightly and festooned with as much religious paraphernalia can be fitted. The reason for the religion is probably the driving. Buses are stuffed to the limit with passengers (and, trust me, the Guatemalans always think there is space for a few more, even when there is four of you squeezed into a two-seat and the woman standing is balancing her baby on her back and her three year old on your head) and then hard-driven to their destinations at top speed along rough roads. At stops another 40 people climb on, all over-laden with various forms of food and drink, and clamber over you screaming at you to buy their stuff.

Guatemala does not have a “thing”. It has Mayan ruins, but so does everywhere in the region. It has lakes and mountains and jungle, but so does everywhere in Central America. Belize does beaches better, and even it’s wonderful coffee and chocolate is apparently surpassed from other country’s. It doesn’t have one “thing“. And perhaps that is it’s charm. Freed from being known for one thing, it does them all well with the trademark Guatemalan smile and sense of humour. It might not be the pretty girl from the party that first catches your eye instantly. But give it a chance and take the time to sample its charms and, I can assure you, it won't be long before you fall for Guatemala.

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This alarmingly late blog is brought to you courtesy of the Mexican Death Flu. It’s annoying. Everyone else is drinking margueritas and salsa dancing and generally enjoying the Mexican hell out of themselves, I am getting really familiar with the bathroom furniture. Everyone wants to see photos of the Mayan pyramids, no one wants to see Mexican bathrooms.

If you want to see them, I have plenty of info. Unfortunately I don’t have a shot of the one on the border between Oaxaca and Peublo, where there is an armed guard on the roof of the toilets. Clearly they take washing your hands very seriously here.

1 comment:

  1. Hi there,
    My name is Gabby and I work at Text Pacific - I would love to chat to you about a feature I'm writing on running asap - any chance you could flick me an email on gabby.mcmillan [at] asap? I love your story on c25k.
    I'll hopefully hear from you soon