Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Safe Arrival in Guatemala

Our grand adventure began simply. On Saturday we took an afternoon flight to the Houston airport. We traveled light, with only our backpacks, and skipped the long line for checking luggage to pass through security in no more than 15 minutes. The flight was fairly short (around 3 hours), and more or less uneventful.

We arrived in the Houston airport, bought dinner, and changed a little bit of money from dollars into Guatemalan Quetzales at exhorbitant rates (the official exchange rate is roughly 8 to 1, but in the airport they not only charged a large fee, but also only gave an exchange of around 6.5 to 1). Regardless, we thought it was important to have some native currency upon arrival, and changed $100.

We slept that night in a hotel just south of the Houston airport, and at 6:15 arose to catch our morning flight. I slept well for the first part of the night, but from roughly 4:00am onwards was tossing and turning from the excitement and anxiety of the prospects for the morning. We planned our trip so as to arrive in Guatemala in the morning, so that we could take a bus during the day to our final destination of Xela (Quetzaltenango), and not have to stay overnight in Guatemala City. While the city of Xela is reasonably safe, Guatemala City has seen rising violence in recent years, and it is recommended not to drive through the country at night.

Guatemala City

Our flight to Guatemala City was extremely empty; perhaps a quarter full, and only 2.5 hours long. Every announcement was made both in English and in Spanish. Upon arrival in Guatemala City, we transited quickly through customs and out to the open street. Unlike airports in the US or elsewhere I have visited, there were no shops to be seen, and while there was a small information desk it was not manned. On the street there were people awaiting the arrivals, and some men in uniforms were happy to escort us to where taxis were waiting.

I was happy that my Spanish, though very rusty, was good enough to both communicate that we wanted to get to the Galgos bus station (Galgos is a company similar to Greyhound), verify that the taxi driver knew where it was, and agree on a price ahead of time. We drove through the city, through twisting one way streets, past both broken down buildings and fancy architecture, new cars and old clunkers, and of course the many multicolored ´chicken buses´: repainted, reworked US school buses that are omnipresent in Guatemala.

While the Galgos buses are considered somewhat safer, and reserve a seat per person, the chicken buses (not what Guatemaltecos call them, but how foreigners seem to always describe them) are less expensive, take all comers no matter how packed they already are, and go pretty much anywhere. Within the cities, there are also ´microbuses´ (both smaller buses and minivans) which will provide a lift for a small fee, as well as pickups which will do the same.

Guatemala City is a microcosm of the contradiction and contrasts that are everywhere in this third world country. Intermingled with grand architecture and the occasional modern mall, there is extreme poverty and glimpses back into history. It is not uncommon to see large open markets filled with street vendors, and yet there are also shops and skyscrapers like you could find in any US city.

However, Guatemala City is also the most dangerous part of the country, and I was relieved when our bus arrived and we embarked.

The Bus Ride

Our bus was an extremely old, repainted Greyhound bus, with broken down seats. Just as we were getting on, we met another gringo, a woman from Oakland who was also traveling to Xela to study Spanish (though at a different school). Still being very uncomfortable with Spanish, it was nice to have someone else aboard who spoke English and with whom we could converse.

Before leaving town, the bus took a roundabout route throughout Guatemala City, stopping at what seemed like every bus stop in the city. At each stop, the driver´s assistant would jump off the bus, shouting out our destination and trying to herd as many people as possible who might be going even vaguely in that direction. After some time that seemed like forever but was probably closer to an hour or an hour and a half, we actually left the city.

Travel in Guatemala takes a while. While Xela is no more than 50 or 60 miles from Guatemala City, the route is winding, mountainous, and in many places under construction. There were portions of highway where both directions of traffic were routed throught the same side, and others that weren´t even paved. In addition, in each town along the way we stopped to drop off passengers and pick up new ones. It was extremely entertaining to watch the driver´s assistant courting new passengers, often trying to convince them to take our bus instead of a competing chicken bus, and helping them with their stuff.

At some stops, vendors came aboard to sell various types of food and drink. Their method of selling was simple: walk down the bus, calling out what they had to sell as loudly and rapidly as possible. Sometimes, they would ride along with us for a stop or two, sometimes even between towns, especially if there were many takers. At that point, they would disembark, presumably to get on another bus going the other way and sell more.

Arriving in Xela

All in all, it took roughly 5 hours on the bus to arrive at Xela. Our school, Asociación Pop Wuj is right around the corner from the Galgos bus station, though far from most of the other busses. We walked the short distance, only to discover the door closed and locked (They close at 7:00).

Kindly, they had left a note that not only apologized for no longer being there, but recommended a hotel two blocks down. We made our way there and despite our broken Spanish succeeded in renting a room for 95 Quetzales each (roughly $12 a person). We put our stuff down, and went out to find something to eat and drink. After 5 hours on the bus, we were not only hungry, we were extremely thirsty, and almost out of water! (Tap water in Guatemala is not safe for consumption, at least by us gringos whose bodies don´t yet know how to deal with the microbes).

We had noticed a ´Chinese´ food place across the street from where the school was, and after some deliberation, we decided to not try exploring a strange city at night, and instead to eat there. The place was so empty we were worried they weren´t open, but they happily accepted us, and served us purified bottled water (agua pura) and some fairly bland but edible Chinese food.

Having eaten, we returned to our hotel room and crashed before 9:00pm. Traveling is exhausting, and Xela has the thin air one would expect from a city located a stunning 7655 feet above sea level.

New Beginnings

The next morning, we gathered our stuff and walked to the school. We arrived in the middle of the beginning-of-week schedule explanation (given in Spanish, and translated by a student into English), which was then followed by a new student orientation for us and the other 6 new students. The teacher giving the orientation offered to give it in ´buen español, o mal inglés´ (good Spanish, or bad English). We opted for good Spanish, and he explained extremely slowly and clearly a number of things about the school, the country, and the families we would be staying with.

We are living with a middle-class family roughly two blocks from the school. Under the same roof are our hostess (Celeste), her daughter Rosa, and her daughter´s three children (aged 15, 13, and 10). Her son Alex lives nearby, and is at the house for almost all meals. Alex´s 5-year-old daughter seems to sleep roughly half the time at our house and half the time with her parents.

For our Spanish schooling, we spend 5 hours a day in one-on-one lessons with a teacher, as well as doing some homework, and of course speaking in Spanish both with our host family and anyone we interact with outside the school. Unlike the more touristy city of Antigua, almost no one in Xela speaks English, so we end up practicing a lot!

Future Writing

I feel like I have barely scratched the surface of things to talk about, and yet this post is already probably longer than any other I´ve written. It's proven harder than I expected to find the time to write every day, especially since getting computer or internet access requires either competing for one of the two at the school or going to one of the many internet cafes.

Adding to this difficulty have been adjusting to the altitude (The first week, we were asleep by 8:30 or 9:00 every day), the place (while Xela is a pretty chill city, things are extremely different than anywhere I´ve lived before), and the climate (it rains for several hours every day; HARD!).

I hope to write about life in Xela, but also the things I´m learning about the culture and history, not only of modern Guatemalans, but also of the Mayans from whom 65% of Xela residents are decended. Adding to this, there is the recent political scandal that everyone is talking about.

It's becoming easier to find time, but we´ll see how it goes. Hope to write again soon.

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