Friday, May 13, 2011

5/10 Tuesday night at Yaxha Mayan Ruins

Today, after class, I got to go on a guided tour of the Mayan ruins known as Yaxha (pronounced Yash-ha) with Deiter, the owner of Dos Mundos school who is also an archeologist, and 5 other Spanish students or travelers. Yaxha is most famous for its role in Survivor Guatemala. Today, we saw no one else there except some friends of Deiter's. It was amazing!

Several people on my bus ride to Flores recommended Yasha and told me I really must go there if I could, so I was really happy to find out the school offered this activity. Since Deiter has worked at the site, he gave us a terrific tour with behind the scenes knowledge and access. I saw spider monkeys jumping through the trees for the first time ever. We heard the eerie high volume howler monkeys. Deiter swore profusely when ants attacked his foot while he was standing trying to take a picture. The number of bird calls could not be counted. And those were our animal encounters. Mostly, we did a lot of stair climbing. Up and down one temple and then another. This site is older than its more famous counterpart, Tikal. And the location couldn’t be more beautiful than near a long river/lake in the jungle. The pyramids are often intentionally set in groups of 3 or 7, often 2 or 5 smaller ones flanking 2 taller ones. Deiter explained that the sacred roads were cleared of trees during Mayan occupancy to help keep the canal water clean. The roads sloped slightly to one side to allow water to collect and flow. The noble people lived in the tallest pyramids of stone, which still stand to some extent. All the servants lived in adobe-type houses, which can only be imagined. Old pillers of pictures stand, but the actual images are only recreations now. The one we saw depicted a king with a huge pile of hair atop his head filled with animals, birds, serpants and plants. He held a septor. A dwarf stood at his feet. There are two main big pyramid structures in Yaxha, and like in other mayan sites, they were built with intricate planning and knowledge of the sun. At the shortest and longest days of the year, the sun rays from the set and rise fall directly on the steps leading to the entrance.

We concluded our tour with our own spectacular sunset view from the largest pyramid overlooking the jungle in all directions and the lake toward the west. We talked on top with a toast of Guatemalan rum, which Deiter brought and shared. Can I say, I’ve found one of the coolest schools to study at?


6/9 Monday, first few days in Flores

I arrived at Yaxha Café Arqueologico in Flores at 6pm last night. That was a long day of traveling from Livingston back up the river to Rio Dulce and then by bus on to Flores. The owner of the school and some students and travelers greeted me. We sat talking and listening to live Spanish music by an Argentinean couple. The food at the café is excellent, consisting of vegetables, fruits and whole-grain goodness with a Mayan twist. I met a young married couple from Washington state who are traveling and volunteering. Hopefully, I’ll get to visit them when I’m in WA this August. The 21 year-old, Michelle, is finding herself spiritually after being admittedly brain-washed by an organized religion group. She radiates giving and loving energy and I enjoyed finding someone to talk to about spiritual things, empaths and emotional stability. She said that being far away in Guatemala has given her the distance and new insight necessary to tap into her own beliefs. Traveling is so good for people. I wish more could and would be able to.

My family was not able to host me that first night, so I stayed in a comfortable room at the school. The next afternoon, I took a 2 minute boat ride, from the island of Flores, where Dos Mundos school is located, to the tranquil and happy little town of San Miguel. The house sits right near the water! This is the nicest place I’ve stayed yet and the family is the best. Marta and Oscar are the grand-parents and house owners. Marta’s 32 year-old daughter (I can’t believe she is only 4 years older than me as we look ages apart) and her two sons, Andre and Oscar – ages 10 and 11, live here too. Andre and Oscar are fantastic and easy to talk to. An albino rabbit named Melanie can be found in the kitchen. A beagle mix dog lives in the other part of the large hotel-like house (which actually does include a few rooms Marta rents out to tourists). 

San Miguel, is a quiet and community oriented place. No tourism here; its all locals. Their loose ponies, pigs and goats wander about the island. Oscar or Andre happily drive me across to Flores when I head to the docks. I can swim right in front of their house, walk around on dirt roads at night and see a game of futbol happening at the school.

My room is upstairs in its own enclave with my own bath room and pretty much my own den looking out to the water and the island of Flores. Magical! Apricot walls and lavender ceilings. A very necessary fan. A comfortable bed. Cold water shower, but who needs a hot one here? This is the hottest, most humid location I’ve lived in Guatemala. Its very different from Mountainous Xela where I wore hat, legwarmers and scarf in the morning chill.

My first day of class went great. I have my first maestra after 4 maestros! (I would say the same thing if I’d had 4 female teachers and was finally having a male one). Irma is an excellent teacher. She’s probably in her late 30’s/early 40’s, fashionable, motherly, and interested in life. I find her accent the most difficult to understand of all my teachers so far. She pronounces the double LL’s in Spanish very J-like, while my other teachers pronounced them very Y-like.

I’m tired. Some birds are talking outside the pitch blackness of my window. The fan is going. All is quiet. The family sleeps at 10pm. No loud thumping music here. No crying babies. This is a relaxed and happy family that has enough to live on. I notice these changes and am grateful for them since I haven’t had such a serene living arrangement in Guatemalan family stays until now.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

5/7 Livingston and the Caribbean

The boat ride from Rio Dulce to Livingston lasted 2.5 hours since the boat driver kept stopping for tour-guide duty and to pick up passengers. Along the way, we saw an island of birds, hot springs, a mayan women’s handicraft collaborative, and a special lagoon full of floating white lilies. In the water lilly field, I was surprised when a young girl in a canoe intentionally bumped her boat into ours. Then I realized she had filled her boat with trinkets and shells to sell to passerbys. Clever. And then, finally, we arrived in Livingston. This town is very different from any other in Guatemala as the cultural majority here are the Garifuna people, originally from Africa. Livingston possesses a strong community feel, evident right away. Jamaincan, Bob Marely influence, dance drum and rhythm sounds in the street. Good cooking and seafood. Brightly colored homes. Many small children running about. It can’t be that dangerous with such a family resident importance. That evening, the school seemed to be the life of the island community and many locals gathered around to watch an outdoor talent/music show of sorts.

I stayed in Hotel Tropical on the main street because it was only $7/night for my own room and the place was quiet with a hammock-strewn courtyard. That afternoon I walked along the beech for 3 hours and soaked up the sun and swam in bathtub temperature water. On the way to the beach, I stumbled upon a cool establishment. A young Mother from Maryland with her Garifuna husband had started an off-the-beaten-path restaurant/cooking school/guide agency/jewelry store/volunteer-opportunities place called Rasta Mesa two years ago. If you go or return to Livingston, I would recommend stopping in: They called me in to their porch and, hungrily, I went. I sat down to the local dish – topado – a fish stew in coconut milk with plantains and potatoes. I talked with the couple for a while, learning that they met in Belize and started this establishment in the husband’s hometown to give something back to the community. They told me Livingston is quite safe and they love it here.

That evening, I splurged a little for dinner at Casa Rosada, a beautiful restaurant/hotel right on the water. For $11, I had a 3 course meal. Salad and coconut bread first. Then a heaping plate of vegetables, rice and 8 giant shrimp. I cound not eat the rice and had to take it home so I had room for the plate of fruit and the ginger/coconut bar following as desert.

I could have stayed here longer, but two days turned out to be sufficient time to get the feel of the place and sample tasty local food. I returned by a 2.5 hour boat ride to Rio Dulce, where I caught the next bus to Flores.

5/6 Rio Dulce at the Tortugal Marina

After what seemed like a very long time on twisting roads, I made it from Coban to Rio Dulce. We passed through lush mountain jungle and dry, cactus plains on the way only to reemerge again into jungle tangle. The town of Rio Dulce lies on the Rio Dulce River, which connects Guatemala’s largest lake, Lago Isabel, to the Caribean sea. The main street, where the buses pull up, is downright ugly, full of noise, traffic and trash. Luckily an old Spanish man with blue eyes led me to the dock where I caught a lancha, small boat, to Tortugal Marina hotel on another side of the bay. I had booked a reservation here for one night for only $13. This is one of the most beautiful places I have ever stayed and that is of course due to the atmosphere and the wonderful people I met.

My bed was one of four in an open-air thatched roof cabana dormitory, which perched on posts above the river water. Only one other traveler shared the dorm with me, a 16 year old boy who had grown up homeschooled on a sailboat and had already been to 64 countries and counting. Needless to say, he hung out with adults and was extremely sophisticated himself. Most of the people at Tortugal own boats and keep them there because the Rio Dulce offers a less expensive and hurricane free dock.

Tortugal provides free kayaks to guests, so guess what I did right away? Yup, kayaked around the bay for over an hour. Kayaked out to a peninsula where a Spanish castle was built in the 1700’s to try and keep foreigners from entering via the sea. Hot and sticky after the wrestle with wind and current paddling back, I went for a refreshing swim at sunset. Coming out of the water, a table of 3 middle-aged yacht owners greeted me warmly. They told me to come join them for dinner and the free movie night on the dock after I dried off. So I did. A couple from Oklahoma and a lady from Austin. We all ordered the special at the restaurant consisting of two slices of any kind of pizza, a salad, and a beer for $7. Then we settled into deck chairs to watch “My Sister’s Keeper” on a slide projector in front of the water. Bliss.

I am so grateful I ended up at Tortugal that night. I really needed it and I felt extremely spoiled after the homestay and in a totally different world. What a life! I decidedly like the boat people, their stories and their wanderlust.

The next morning the 3 new amigos showed me their boat, invited me to visit them in Austin next time I’m there, and helped me get my bags to the warf for take-off. I wandered about for a beautiful walk behind the marina, collected my thoughts and things, and departed on a little lancha for Livingston, the town at the other end of the Rio where the river says hello to the open sea.