Monthly Archives: May 2008

The Sudden Illness

April 4, 2008
Day 919

I got a boat across Lago Atitlan today, and two guys immediately tried talking me into taking a shuttle once I got to the other side. In Guatemala, your only options are to take the chicken buses, which are old American school buses that the locals ride, or shuttles, which are small expensive buses that only tourists ride. Taking the shuttle would mean having to go all the way back to the capital and it would take two days to get to Coban, but looking at the map, I saw that there was a more direct route. The guys trying to sell me a ticket told me I'd have to go to the coast and back, but the map made it obvious they were lying. These guys will tell you the world is flat if it means getting your business.

Normally I don't mind the chicken buses and don't understand what the fuss is all about. However, today was one of those days I wished I had taken the shuttle. I ended up having to take six buses in all because each one only went to the next little town. For that reason, I think Guatemala has the worst public transportation infrastructure out of any country I've ever visited (other than the US). I ended up in a tiny town called Upsantan near dark on the last bus of the day. I got a room for the night and ate a delicious taco dinner, not knowing that it would be my last full meal for the next several days.

When I got back to my hotel, I came down with a sudden fever. I alternated between being extremely hot and cold and was shaking uncontrollably. My whole body ached, but my head was the worst as it felt like my eyeballs were popping out of my skull. I didn't have diarrhea or vomiting so I didn't think I had food poisoning. That was good because I didn't even have enough energy to make it to the bathroom in case of an emergency. I continued sleeplessly rolling around in my bed all night, alternating between shivering and sweating, and constantly waiting for the mercy of dawn so I could figure out what was wrong with me.

A Mixture Of Hippies and Indigenous People

April 1-3, 2008
Days 916-918

My next stop was Lago Atitlan, a large lake in southern Guatemala surrounded by volcanoes. I stopped in a little town called San Pedro la Laguna, which was a mixture of local indigenous people and hippies trying to sell me drugs wherever I walked. The volcanoes were nice and were begging to be climbed, but unfortunately, frequent robberies and even the occasional murder made me decide to give them a miss. I did end up walking to some of the tiny villages on the lake, and they were nice because the locals didn't see many tourists and were very curious about me. However, it was a little hard to communicate with them because so few of them spoke Spanish. Still, it was a great little town to hang out in for a few days.

The photo album for this entry is here.

More Colonialness

March 30-31, 2008
Days 914-915

Picture of arch.

The arch in Antigua.

I had another long ride into Guatemala today. It was my sixth country in Central America and my fifth in the month of March. I was getting worn down from moving too fast, but the Central American countries simply didn't impress me as much as anywhere in South America.

I went right through the capital of Guatemala City as it's yet another Central American capital to be avoided, and headed straight to Antigua. It was a colorful and nice colonial city in a great natural setting being flanked on all sides by volcanoes. The problems with Antigua were that it was full of tourists, it was very expensive for what is supposedly a poor country, most of the locals weren't indigenous as I had heard they were, and there wasn't much to do in the city but sit around all day and drink all night. One day was enough for me as I decided to keep on moving.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Copan Ruins and Town

March 28-29, 2008
Days 912-913

Picture of statue.

A Copan statue.

It was a long day of boring logistics getting to Copan Ruinas that included a ferry back to the mainland and a series of buses. The name of the town implied that it was the site of some ruins, but that wasn't strictly true. It was actually a pleasant, small place near the border with Guatemala with lots of actual living people.

The ruins after which the town was named were only a short walk away. People began inhabiting the site at least as far back as 1200 BC, and at the height of its existence, Copan supported about 20,000 people. Eventually, the population got out of control, cultural resources were strained, and people started starving. By 1200 AD the environment had been damaged so badly the last of the remaining farmers had to abandon the site and it was reclaimed by the jungle. It all sounded strangely familiar, but unfortunately our present day civilization can't simply get up and abandon the whole planet.

The ruins had a few pyramids and large buildings, but the most impressive part was the statues depicting Copan's past kings. They were scattered throughout the central courtyard, and some of them still even had the original paint. I was quite impressed by the hieroglyphic-like stories that were told by Copan's scholars. I had gotten ruined out in South America, but my first set of ruins in Central America have put me back on track.

Copan Ruinas Photos
Copan Photos

Grease Me Up And Wake Me When the Revolution Comes

March 22-27, 2008
Day 906-911

Picture of bay.

A bay on the Bay Islands.

Rumor had it the earliest ferry left to one of the Bay Islands at 9:00, but to which island was unclear. Truth be told, I was skeptical there even would be a ferry today because it was Easter weekend. But the only way to find out was to get up early and head over to the dock. Sonia and Ivan got their ticket to Roatan, which indeed did leave at 9:00, but I wanted to go to Utila, and nobody seemed to know what was going on with it. The ferry was sitting in the dock, and when Sonia talked to the captain, she found out that it had already dropped off a load of passengers from the island and was about to return empty to pick up another load. I ran over to it and jumped on board just as it was pulling away. They let me ride out to Utila as the only passenger on the whole ship, a strange situation indeed. The mass exodus from the island meant that I was able to find a place to sleep right away, so I guess the divine intervention of El Salvador worked out for the best.

The first thing I noticed when I got to the island was that the locals were speaking English to each other. It was a Caribbean dialect that was hard to understand (they say mon and riiight a lot), but delightful nonetheless. It had been over a year since I had been to an English-speaking place.

Picture of volleyball.

Volleyball time.

The Bay Islands are known for their cheap diving, to the point where many people end up staying for several months learning how to be a divemaster (a kind of an underwater tour guide) or an instructor. I signed up for some fun dives on Easter Sunday. A big group of us checked out the reef (the second largest in the world), including a wall that went thirty meters (100 feet) deep. Later, we went to a private beach for a barbecue, volleyball, and an underwater Easter egg hunt where the prize for each egg found was a bottle of beer. I didn't see anything life-changing on my dives, and I learned that overfishing had badly damaged the ecosystem around the island, but it was still fun getting back into the water.

Later I met a family from Alaska traveling together. Porsha did various things for a living, including playing in two bands and selling fruit smoothies at the farmer's market. One of the first things she was going to do when she got home was go caribou hunting with her brother Garrison and mother Katie. Porsha liked to tell me that if you didn't learn how to be self-sufficient by hunting and growing your own vegetables, you weren't going to survive in the future. She also told me that the US had more or less become a police state in the time I'd been gone. It all seemed far-fetched, but it also had an eerie ring of truth to it.

Another guy hanging out with us was Dave. Dave also sells fruit smoothies at the local farmer's market. He claimed that he only works four months per year, and only one day per week during those four months. That's been his only job for the last twenty years. I think I need to consider a career change when I get home.

The worst thing about the island was the sand flies. The first night I got bitten a lot, but then I learned that if you grease yourself up with baby oil, they can't piss directly onto your skin. The whole island looked like a big Mr. Universe pageant, what with all the athletic, deeply tanned people walking around in their swimming suits and covered with baby oil.

The other bad thing was the weather. Most days were cloudy with rough water, and the ferry service and even some of the dive boats became unreliable. A local rasta told me that around Easter it was always guaranteed to be hot and sunny, but the last few years have been totally unpredictable because of global climate change. So we've taken away the fish and the sunny weather, but at least there was still some coral. For a little while, anyway.

The photo album for this entry is here.

The Real Meaning Of Culture Shock

March 21, 2008
Day 905

The Bay Islands consist of three islands: Utila, Roatan, and some other island I can't remember, but that's not important. The backpackers generally stick with Utila, and those with a bit more money go to Roatan. Sonia had been living in Roatan for the last year, and Ivan was going with her. As for me, I didn't much care which island I went to as long as I got there. I was supposed to be there a week earlier, but didn't make it because all the buses were sold out for the pending Easter week holiday, remember.

It turned out my decision had already been made for me. Sonia called the ferry company this morning, but there were none because it was Good Friday. Same deal with flights. Yesterday the water had been too rough for the ferry to make it, so that made two days with nobody coming from or going to the islands. That meant we had to stick around town with nothing to do because nothing was open due to the aforementioned holiday. It also meant tomorrow would be a long and hectic day as we struggled to get on the ferry, if it even left at all.

I think I've found the true meaning of culture shock in the last few months. Most people say it's something that happens right when you get to a new culture, and it goes away shortly thereafter as you make lifestyle adjustments. I think culture shock is more like being in a relationship. The little character flaws your partner has don't bother you at first. Maybe they even make that person more attractive. But over a period of months or years of being with the same person, those flaws work their way into your head and won't come back out again until you either leave that person or blow up in their face. Then when you look back at the situation years later, you find that time has its way of only making you remember the positive stuff and you're not even sure why you got so mad in the first place.

Culture shock for me has come in the form of all these damned holidays. These people will find any excuse to throw a party, and it disrupts the entire transportation infrastructure. There are no boats, no flights, and the few buses that still run become a deathmatch to embark. Hotels are all full and restaurants are all closed. There's nothing to do but sit around with your thumb up your ass and wait for it all to end. It wouldn't be so bad if it were only a few days per year, but it's nearly the end of March and I swear there's only been a few weeks so far this year without any holidays. And so today I walked around with the Colombian and the Spaniard with a look of accepted defeat on my face, like an old man who suddenly gives in to his oncoming incontinence. I had found my happy place.

The Colombian, The Spaniard, And the Unreachable Island

March 20, 2008
Day 904

I tried to go to the Bay Islands a week ago but accidentally got dropped off in El Salvador. I had a decent time in Central America's smallest and least visited country, but the time had come for take two in Honduras.

I paid a premium for the luxurious direct bus into Honduras that would completely avoid the crime-ridden capital, but the glorious bus still managed to break down on the highway for most of the afternoon and I was forced to watch a string of movies starring Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson. The sun was already on its way out of the sky by the time I got to San Pedro Sula, the second biggest city in the country and only slightly less horrible of a place than the capital of Tegucigalpa.

I wanted to leave town right away but the bus company to go to La Ceiba was already closed. Worse still, transportation was due to shut down completely tomorrow because it was Good Friday, so it was looking like I would have to waste two days just to get to the islands. Suddenly I ran into a Colombian woman who lived on the islands named Sonia and a Spanish guy named Ivan who were traveling together and in the same predicament. A long time ago I learned to follow the locals in these situations, and these two were the closest thing to locals I was going to meet.

We took a taxi to another bus station, but it was closed. We had one last chance at another bus station across town and went for it. The last bus for the next two days was on its way out of the parking lot just as we pulled up, and Sonia and Ivan wasted no time in jumping aboard. I was right behind them, but the assistant told me I wouldn't fit. I had never heard of such a thing as not fitting onto a bus in Latin America, so I pushed the assistant out of the way and squeezed in next to him. Technically I did fit, even though I was unable to take full breaths and nearly needed a bottle of grease to get back out. We pulled into La Ceiba late at night and got “lucky” again as we scored what was surely one of the only rooms left in the city. It was the size of a jail cell with only one bed, and as a courtesy, the owner only charged us double the normal price because he knew we were desperate. We all were hoping to get the ferry to the islands today, but delays made that impossible. We'll try our luck tomorrow. Why does Easter week travel have to be so difficult?

A Beautiful Colonial Town

March 18-19, 2008
Day 902-903

Picture of lady.

My hostel's owner.

I had to take a series of four buses to get across the country to the town of Suchitoto, but I was able to do it all in one day. After being in the boring, bland flowery region, I was blown away by the beauty of Suchitoto as soon as I got there. The whitewashed colonial buildings had a common familiarity to me after visiting so many similar towns, but this town happened to be on Cerron Grande, a huge lake surrounded by forests. It reminded me of Villa de Leyva, Colombia without the tourists and with a stunning natural surrounding. It was the best town I had visited in I don't even know how long.

I found a hostel overlooking the lake owned by a nice local couple that even had a few other guests. I loved being there but could only stay one day. I didn't want to waste time again because of Semana Santa, so I bought my bus ticket out of El Salvador a few days in advance. Coming to El Salvador early actually seems to have worked out well because I got an email from a girl in the Bay Islands stating that they were completely full and would best be avoided for the remainder of the week. We'll find out how true that is tomorrow.

The photo album for this entry is here.

The Non-Flowery Route

March 16-17, 2008
Day 900-901

Picture of church.

The church in Juayua.

I avoided the roaming street gangs and got out of San Salvador as soon as I could figure out the local bus system. My destination was the Ruta de las Flores (Route of the flowers), which the employees at my hotel all enthusiastically recommended. Too bad they didn't tell me in advance that none of the flowers on the route were in bloom at the time.

It took several bus transfers to get to Juayua, the most exciting town in the region. A large food market was happening, with dozens of street vendors selling local Salvadoran fares. There was a lot of domestic tourism as the locals escaped the capital for the weekend, but not one foreign tourist was in sight. I did meet a couple of locals over a few beers, but they were regular working guys. No chance of hanging out during the day.

The other area attraction was Apaneca, the highest town in El Salvador at 1450 meters. The main thing to see there was (of course) the church, which was five hundred years old before an earthquake destroyed it in 2001. A replacement was being built, and by the looks of it, it might be complete in another five hundred years. The town drunks did a fair amount of preaching to me after taking a fountain bath, but everyone else was too busy going about their daily business to talk to me.

Even after one day of being in the area I started feeling lonely. I've always admired little towns in the highlands, but I never figured out how people could live there with so little to do. For some unknown reason, almost nobody visits El Salvador, and I started resenting the "divine intervention" that put me there. It would have been much better to take a few friends with me.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Divine Intervention

March 15, 2008
Day 899

The day started off easy enough with the early bus out of Managua. We had an easy border crossing into Honduras after a few hours. I found out that you don't even need to get your passport stamped for land crossings between Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, so my passport won't quite fill up so fast.

I was supposed to get off at a city near the border in Honduras and find another bus to take me north to Tegucigalpa, and I let the bus assistant know of my plans when he was loading my backpack in the storage compartment. The terrain outside appeared to be dry and barren with no human settlements in sight. Some Tom Hanks movie about the US secretly giving the Afghanis money during the cold war was playing, and before I knew it a couple hours had passed. All of a sudden we stopped, and I asked the assistant if we were in my city yet. He had an "oh shit" look of surprise on his face when he saw that I was still on the bus, and he broke the bad news to me that he had forgotten about me and we were, in fact, already crossing into El Salvador.

I thought briefly about getting off the bus and trying to make my way back through Honduras, but at that point I'd have to traverse the entire country to get to the Caribbean coast. I decided to continue to San Salvador instead. I was planning to go there eventually anyway, so I figured as long as I was in the country, I might as well stay a few days.

A few people had warned me not to go to El Salvador because of the extreme gang violence that was happening there. I met very few people who had actually been there, though, and that piqued my curiosity about the place. I started reading about the tiny, practically unknown country and discovered that like Nicaragua, there was a terrible civil war there that cost 75,000 lives, and of course the US government played a large role in prolonging it. Still, it ended in 1992, so the youngest generation wouldn't have any memories of it. Hopefully the country would be peaceful enough for the older generations to forgive and forget.

I found a place to sleep near the bus station in the capital of San Salvador, and when I looked around all I saw were a Wendy's, a Pizza Hut, and a street full of cars and devoid of people, much like I'd expect to see back home. Maybe the gangs were fighting on the other side of town. I told the desk worker at my hotel about how the bus didn't drop me off in Honduras, and she said it was divine intervention that I came to her country instead. Indeed, Holy Week had affected me deeply, whether I wanted it to or not.