Speaking of my travels, I figure I can post a couple paragraphs country per country as I write about my visitors trips that way I can stay somewhat current with where the heck I am in the world and you all can see some pictures of what the rest of Central America (and México) looks like. I’ll start with the first leg of the trip, on which Kathy and I embarked together two days after we COS’d: México!
On the 4th of July, instead of barbecuing and setting off a bunch of fireworks, Kathy and I celebrated our American independence—feeling very proud of the service we had just completed in the name of patriotism to our own country, the United States of America—riding a handful of buses from Guatemala to San Cristóbal de Las Casas in the state of Chiapas, México, a small colonial town similar to Antigua, Guatemala where a ton of expatriates and other foreigners like to settle in or just hang out for a while. I was surprised by how progressive the town seemed: restaurants of every kind and live music around every corner, as well as streets lined with two trashcans on every block—one bin for organic trash and the other for inorganic. I was so impressed.
We got in a little late and stayed the night in top bunks at this awful, smelly, 12-person dorm room at a hostel suggested to us by some friends in Guatemala. (San Cristóbal is a popular hangout spot for Guatemalans in Xela or Huehuetenango as well since it is only a hop, skip, and a jump away from those places; they’ll go a couple times a year. It’s like me taking 2-3 trips to Southern California per year just to visit friends or have a road trip.) I told Kathy I was never doing that again and that I vote that we arrive early enough to find a selection of private double rooms to choose from. She was pretty much on the same page.
We only had one full day in San Cristóbal, and I like to say that we took advantage of every second of it, but that would only have been if we hadn’t gone out salsa dancing the night before…and then to a karaoke place…and then to the Central Park to be serenaded for 45 minutes by some new friends and local musicians. (Guatemala doesn’t exactly have the buzzing nightlife that other countries have, nor is it very safe, so we were appreciative of the cultural change.) Because bedtime didn’t happen until around 4:30 AM, the next day definitely had a late start. We spent the rest of the day getting a feel of the town, wandering around, and just being so excited to be in México.
We practically ran over to the street vendors to eat as many tacos as we could and to load them with spicy salsa! I said over and over again in Guatemala that I could go the rest of my life without eating another corn tortilla or fried plantain and be perfectly content; but Mexican corn tortillas are another story: they are thin, flavorful, and actually stay together when you are trying to eat tacos. Oh, and they smell delicious!!! That goes for salsas as well. Guatemalans use one basic tomato salsa, called chirmol, which is made from roasted tomatoes mashed up with some onion, cilantro, and a couple pinches of salt. And their signature hot sauce, Picamás, is also known as “pica-menos.” A pickled mix of jalapeño, carrot, and onion is sometimes offered if you want something slightly hotter, but it is nothing compared to what México has to offer. México is famous for the flavor, spiciness, and variety of salsas it produces. YUM! It was about time to add a little spice to my life…
As we were wandering around, Kathy and I spotted a woman we knew: Melissa, from San Francisco, served in the Peace Corps with us in Guatemala, left last year in October, and had been living in San Cristóbal de Las Casas for the past several months, making money by playing her guitar and singing in public venues. It was neat to run into her because she showed us around and took us to her favorite spots in town for the rest of the day. Right before she dropped us off at the bus station that night (because Kathy had scheduled an overnight bus to Oaxaca on our itinerary), she took us to a local spot to grab dinner. Then we were on our way! This was the first of two overnight buses we took during our time in México, and they actually aren’t so bad as long as you make sure you are warm enough and have earplugs. It saved us paying two nights of lodging and gave us more time to participate in daytime activities at our destinations.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Oaxaca, but as soon as I set foot in that town, I fell in love with it. I thought to myself, “Wow. I could see myself living here.” There is so much this city has to offer! It is clean, cultured, and classy and also known as the culinary capital of México. There is so much to do and see, or you can just sit around in a very safe public place and people-watch. I was particularly excited that we were going to stay in one place for a whole 2 nights (and 3 days) because that actually gave us the opportunity to relax and get to know the city some. Well, really, the popular thing to do in Oaxaca is eat your way through it and that is exactly what we did!
Oaxaca is famous for the variety of moles (“MOH-lay”), a typical “sauce” that is flavored with all different kinds of spices and usually served with meat or over enchiladas, rice, etc., it produces. It has something like eight different types of moles: green mole, yellow mole, black mole (that is made with chocolate/cacao), red mole with fruits, black mole with nuts, pepían mole, etc. Other countries prepare moles as well—for example, Guatemala makes a sweet black mole made with cacao served over boiled plantains, but they originated in Oaxaca, México, and we attempted to try as many of them as we could. The red mole with an almond base was my favorite!
In addition to the moles, Kathy and I tried to eat just about every kind of street food or “typical” dish we could get our hands on in those few days we had in Oaxaca. It is so interesting that all I wanted was street food in México because I generally avoided most street food in Guatemala so I didn’t get sick or because I usually cooked my own food (and mostly because the most common street food there is fried chicken and French fries…). We ate everything from carne asada, pork, and sausage grilled and served with giant tortillas and all the grilled veggie fixings and sauces to churros stuffed and drizzled with lechera (a sweet, milky cream sauce) and cajeta (goat milk caramel sauce, another Mexican specialty). In between, we consumed horchata, fresh fruit from roadside stands, traditional hot chocolate made from cacao, empanadas, the typical Oaxacan cheese that comes looking like a ball of thick white ribbon all wound up, chapulines (toasted grasshoppers seasoned with garlic, lime, and salt), and chocolate flan. Our taste buds were SO happy!!!
In Oaxaca, we did sign up for a full day tour of some of the highlights that sit just outside the city. It was an excellent deal for six stops and it took up our whole day from 10 AM until 6:30 PM. Our first stop was at the Tule tree that is over 2,000 years old and is famous in Maya history: supposedly Quetzalcoatl, the important Maya warrior and leader, struck his staff in the ground at this site, causing this giant tree to grow. The next spot we went was called Hierve El Agua, a spot overlooking lush canyons where used-to-be waterfalls, now petrified, are at a standstill over the cliffs. This is a great hiking spot, and there are pools that form from the natural vents that are still bubbling. Visitors are allowed to go for a dip here, and even though the water was cold, Kathy and I got in!
After swimming, we were taken to an amazing buffet lunch where we had the opportunity to taste a bunch of moles side by side, as well as many other typical dishes and desserts from the region. Then we went on a quick tour of the Mitla ruins, where the majority of what we saw was old tombs. Our next stop was at Teotitlán del Valle where a local family gave us a weaving demonstration that included some history, the traditional techniques, an explanation of how different colors and shades of dyes are obtained, and a glimpse of how the machinery works.
Their work was so unique and beautiful! I took interest in a small tapestry with vibrant shades of purple creating a neat design and asked how much it cost. The woman said its value was $175, and then she picked up a slightly larger weaving with the same colors and said the bigger one was only $300. I was thinking, “Darn. This is way out of my budget. I only took out $300 for the entire WEEK in México! I’ll have to come back some day when I can actually afford an authentic Mexican tapestry…” I told her that I didn’t have that kind of money right now and she replied, “We accept credit cards.” I got wide-eyed and sort of laughed in disbelief, and then I had to make myself wait outside. I remembered that I wasn’t an off-the-beaten-path PCV in Guatemala anymore, but an actual tourist in México; they are different worlds. It had been awhile since I was smacked upside the face by commercialism…
Our last stop on the tour was at a mezcal factory. Mezcal is a type of alcohol that comes from the agave plant and is processed in México; it is similar to tequila. At the factory, we were walked through the process of how mezcal is made and how old the agave plant has to be before it is ready for harvest (7-8 years!). Then we sat around a table munching on fried grasshoppers while sampling several forms of mezcal: three different liquor forms of various ages and a handful of creamy mezcal liqueurs with flavors such as coffee, mocha, and cherry almond. It was a fun way to end the tour right before our bus ride back into town, and every single person was worn out, happy, and extremely satisfied with our day.
The next day in Oaxaca was supposed to be a mellow day, but I had gotten my hands on a city map with 69 “points of interest” that we used to get to know the city some. Since we had already covered a portion of the city during just a couple hours on our first afternoon, I figured it wouldn’t be hard to do the rest on our last full day there. So Kathy willingly surrendered the map to me and we ended up at parks, markets, photo galleries, and museums, but really the “self-guided tour of Oaxaca,” led by me, turned into a scavenger hunt for all the Catholic churches in town. I was completely in awe of the strong Catholic influence in Oaxaca. Catholicism was something I thought I would be surrounded by in Guatemala and was shocked to learn that the religious population is increasingly becoming Evangelical, especially in many rural communities.
In Oaxaca alone, there are 23 Catholic churches, including a breathtaking Cathedral and an ornate Basilica. I felt a little bad dragging Kathy all through town trying to find all the churches, but she was actually super into it, asking questions and inquiring about different themes in Catholicism based on what she observed. A few of the churches were closed, but we were able to walk in, look around, and spend a few still moments in the ones that were open. We even got a personalized tour of one church by the keeper just as he was opening it up for the day. He took us up to the bell tower AND let us walk on the roof and climb up a dome! By the time we had to call an end to our tour and prepare for our next overnight bus journey back to San Cristóbal de Las Casas, we had successfully visited 21 Catholic churches in Oaxaca, missing only 2 on the outskirts of town that we’ll just have to get to next time…
Back in San Cristóbal, we arrived in the morning so we had plenty of time to seek out a suitable and very peaceful place to stay for our next night. We did some serious reading, writing, and relaxing that day, as well as book our next day’s tour. The only plans we had set for the day were to meet up with a woman named Ann at 6 PM. Through the Peace Corps network, we got into contact with Ann, who is a former PC Country Director of the country of Suriname (in South America). She first served as a PCV in the Philippines when she was in her late 40s, and when the Philippines program got shut down, she continued working with Peace Corps and ultimately spent 20 years with the organization. She is now living in San Cristóbal de Las Casas with her husband, John (who also used to work for PC as a host country national in the Philippines), and they are working toward opening a beautiful, small hotel there in the very near future.
When we arrived at their home, we figured that we would be having dinner with them, but what we didn’t expect was to be completely wined and dined by them. First we got a tour of their soon-to-be-opened hotel on the ground floor, then we spent some time at their residence on the second floor. They had prepared a selection of delectable appetizers and snacks that they served along with a glass of wine. And then we all sat around chatting for an hour or two before heading to dinner at a fancy little steakhouse that they treated us to as well.
They not only spoiled us, but they made us feel welcome and like part of the family as soon as they met us. It was an obvious example of how we, as RPCVs, are always going to be a part of the Peace Corps family. There is a special type of bond—built on trust, admiration, respect, and shared experiences—that PC people share. Before meeting Ann, Kathy and I were like, “Whoa. We hanging out with a former Country Director,” so there was a natural sense of awe and respect, but the really neat part was that Ann and John were so down-to-earth and seemed to admire us just as much as we did them. So we swapped PC stories, plans for the future, and big ideas all night long. There was no other place I would have rather been that night. We had such a wonderful time with them! And that was another example of how we are going to find PC connections all around the world.
We decided to spend our last full day in México on a full-day tour that covered a lot of ground and made three major stops along the way. The first stop was a place called Agua Azul, which was a series of clear, cascading pools and small waterfalls, often compared to Semuc Champey in Guatemala. We didn’t have much time so we only walked up 25 minutes to where the waterfalls begin, then turned around and walked straight back to the bus. (I did push for an extra 5 minutes to buy a pair of amber earrings along the way from a vendor, though!)
Our next stop was the famous, huge Misol-Ha waterfall, where visitors can actually walk behind it and over to the other side for a different perspective. Kathy and I did have the opportunity to jump in and swim for about 10 minutes here; the water was deliciously cool!
The last stop was the Palenque Ruins, a very important Maya city during the Classic period of their reign. A tour guide who shared stories with us of the ancient rituals and practices of the city’s inhabitants led us. It was great that we got to see all three places in one day, but unfortunately, because every stop we made seemed so rushed, it detracted from the overall experience. Nonetheless, each destination was a unique and beautiful place in México.
In total, we spent seven nights in México, two of which were on overnight buses. Our hostel dorm rooms were $12/night, and after that, we paid for a private double room everywhere we went, the price ranging from $13.50-$22/night per person. We ate a lot of street food and prepared some meals on our own when we had access to a kitchen at any of our hostels so that really kept our costs down. We paid for two complete tours during which we saw things we probably wouldn’t have seen on our own, but the rest of the time we explored independently, using travel books and locals’ advice as our guides.
Another thing to note is the variation that occurs in the Spanish language from country to country. For example, I went from being a gringa or “canchita” in Guatemala to being a guera (white girl) just by crossing the border into México. Also, México uses the “tú” form to indicate “you,” or the informal use of the second person. This is the grammar I grew up with and was taught in school. The majority of the time in Guatemala, the formal “Usted” form is used when talking directly to people—even people you know well—instead of just when addressing grandparents, “important” people, and strangers! It is meant to be respectful, however I hated using “Usted” all the time because I felt that it put distance between the person to whom I was speaking and me. To me, using “Usted” is like tiptoeing around instead of taking bold strides. I complied (most of the time) and used “Usted,” but I felt constrained so after living in a world of uptight semantics, finally being able to use the informal “tú” form was liberating to my tongue.
On a different note of liberation, I should comment on how I felt transitioning from México back to Guatemala. The day after our Palenque tour, we headed south to the border to get back in to Northern Guatemala on our way to Flores. In México, I didn’t get much harassment nor did I ever feel unsafe, but as soon as we crossed the river border, my guard went up immediately. I attribute that to association of the country in which I lived on the defensive for over two years and to the conditioning of PC safety and security officers warning us about dangers everywhere and how we always needed to be on alert.
I was driving Kathy crazy, looking around, refusing to let my bags leave my side, assuming every person I saw was in the drug business, and searching for quick hiding spots for my valuables in case our bus was assaulted. When I realized how my survival instincts kicked in as soon as I was in Guatemala, it made me sad on so many levels: First, I was sad to leave México behind us where everything had been so positive and light-hearted. Next, because we left the modern air-conditioned vans in México only to hop onto the rickety old buses that Guatemala offers. Lastly, because I noted a real, negative physical change in my body that rooted from fear and past experiences in Guatemala. The freeness I had felt as a tourist in México had vanished and all of a sudden I was agitated, distrusting, and tense—again.
I tried to work through those feelings and relax a little bit, which I found much easier to do once we settled into our next place, which was on Lake Petén Itzá in Flores, the capital of the northern (and biggest) department of Petén in Guatemala. We were preparing for our next adventure, a trip to Tikal, for the following day. It was also at this time that Kathy’s friend from college, Joeana, was flying down from California to join us for part of our big trip. Joeana was set to spend the next 13 days with us. Once she got in the next morning, we all had breakfast by the lake, and then prepared for our afternoon “sunset tour” at Tikal.
During PC service, the department of Petén was off-limits for all PCVs due to the high occurrence of drug activity and crime in the department. We were allowed to fly up to Tikal from Guatemala City, but not allowed to go by land (which is a fraction of the cost of flying). Tikal is one of the highlights of Guatemala as it is one of the most famous Maya ruins sites in all the area, boasting the tallest, most grandiose temples in the whole region of the ancient Maya empire. It is one of those places that we felt we had to see before leaving, after spending over two years here, so Kathy and I had been waiting patiently and were really excited to finally make it happen.
Once we got inside the park, I understood why everyone raves about it: Tikal is majestic. Supposedly only 10% of the empire has been excavated up to this point, but the park still seemed enormous and the uncovered temples, buildings, and altars were woven among an expansive jungle. They recommend that people don’t wander through the park without a guide because the risk of getting lost is extremely high. Our tour guide was Julio, a Guatemalan whose father was one of the original archaeologists of the site. He was so informative and passionate about the history of the Maya civilization, which made the tour very special. Also, the three of us girls had a great time meandering through the rainforest, taking fun photos, ascending some of the structures, and inching as close as we could get to jungle creatures. It was a perfect activity despite the heat and humidity of the jungle.
So a fun fact about Tikal is that several scenes from the original Star Wars movie were filmed from one of the structures overlooking the expansive vegetation dotted with random Maya temples. (But you’ll have to watch the movie yourself and look for jungle scenes to get a glimpse of Tikal! Or you could just Google it…) Another cool thing about Tikal is that we finally saw some wildlife apart from the usual chuchos and other animals from Old MacDonald’s Farm that we are used to seeing in Guatemala. Some of the animals we spotted included a toucan, a couple spider monkeys, and probably a hundred white-nosed coatis, a mammal that is related to the raccoon.
The day after our Tikal tour, we left Flores—Kathy and Joeana made a last-minute decision to spend a couple days in Semuc Champey and although I they encouraged me to go along with them, I stuck with my original plan to head back to Antigua. I figured it would be nice for the two of them to spend some one-on-one time together and nice for me to get a break and some much needed rest from our fun-filled adventure to recuperate and gear up for the next leg. (Plus, I had already been to Semuc Champey twice.) I actually ended up spending a week in Guatemala because I needed to do some stuff at the PC Office during that time, but Kathy and Joeana came in for exactly 22 hours during that week to run around doing errands like crazy chickens and then take off for Honduras, where I was set to meet up with them a few days later. But Honduras gets its own chapter so I will stop here for now.
On a final note, I want to say how much I appreciate the support I am receiving from friends and family during my travels. I know a lot of people expected me to come home as soon as I finished up my service, and it can be frustrating (especially for family) because I keep delaying my return. I miss my family and can’t wait to come home to see everyone. I am really looking forward to catching up with all my friends as well, but I need to finish my story first. Coming home plays a big role in motivating me to stay disciplined to write and, as I travel, I have been incorporating “writing days” into my agenda. The more I write, the sooner I come home. Pretty much all of my remaining chapters are already planned out, it is just a matter of execution.
This is my chance to do what I really love and am passionate about so thank you to all of my loved ones for understanding. I am free of all major deadlines hanging over my head right now (except my cousin’s wedding!), and I write the best without deadlines—pretty much all of you can attest to that! Plus, this is part of my processing of the last two years and preparation to return. I am not ready to come home yet, but I know I will be soon. I am going with my gut in regards to my travel pace, and I move on as I get the feeling that it is time to go. I am so grateful to have this opportunity to travel, write, and learn about the rest of the world, and I hope that you enjoy what I am able to share with you.