I arrived safely in Thailand last Wednesday and am acclimating back to the traveler lifestyle. I managed to board the plane with a total of 39.9 pounds of belongings with me, plus the clothes I was wearing. (I probably could have gone with fewer things, but I like to have some food and re-stock items with me.) It has been just under 2 years since my last backpacking venture came to an end, but I feel much more prepared this time around. Of course, it will take a little while for my body to get used to carrying around the weight of my pack and I have bruises on my hip bones to show for that, but it is totally worth the feeling of freedom that comes with traveling in such a simple manner. For those of you who have not experienced this feeling, I wish you could. You get to be carefree, concerned only with the few things you have with you, which frees you up to see the beauty of the world around you. Everything I need I have with me now. And anything I will need along the way (food, shelter, shower, etc.) is easily accessible.
The time zone difference is drastic: Thailand is 14 hours AHEAD of California time (PST). While I couldn’t escape the effects of jet lag, it only took me about 3 days to acclimate. I am taking advantage of it in the sense that now it is easy for me to go to sleep early and wake up early, getting a head start on each day.
The temperature has been steady in the mid- to upper 80s with relatively high humidity and occasional downpours in the afternoons, evenings, or overnight. Sunscreen and face wash are the only two things I put on my face anymore. The only issue that arises with sunscreen is trying to get as much sweat off your face and body as possible before re-applying in order to ensure that the sunblock sticks. It’s a funny problem to have.
I have enjoyed many new experiences thus far and the food is just as good or better than everyone had been saying, but I will save the details of this one for my first Backpacking Bonus post that is coming in a day or two. For now, I will continue the Guatemala project as I need to keep it moving…
Mom visited me in Guatemala toward the tail end of my Peace Corps service. She was my last visitor and also the visitor that stayed the longest, arriving near the end of March and not flying home until the first week of April, totaling 15 days. Besides short visits to Mexico and Canada, Mom had never really traveled outside the USA, and certainly not to a developing country. I knew she wouldn’t really know what to expect and I figured she would WAY overpack so I tried my best to ensure she wouldn’t bring too much stuff because it would be difficult to haul everything around. My efforts were futile, but we managed nonetheless. As a first-time traveler, it seemed she wanted to be prepared for anything and everything. It was almost as if she were ready to move down to Guatemala permanently!
The itinerary I set up for Mom’s trip was pretty simple: 4 to 5 days at a time in three locations–Antigua, Lake Atitlán, and my site, San Andrés Sajcabajá. She had recently had a surgical procedure done on her back during which a nerve was nicked, leaving her partially without feeling in one of her upper legs, from the knee to the hip. Because of this, I didn’t know how she would manage in Guatemala where you have to walk everywhere! I chose only three locations to visit so she wouldn’t be pushed. Plus, taking into consideration that it usually takes my mom an entire day to unpack and settle in, and then another full day to re-pack, I figured it would be more time efficient if we didn’t have to move around a lot. As those of you who know my mom are already very well aware, she is significantly slow-moving.
When I met her at the airport, I was not surprised to count seven separate items trailing behind her, tended to by airport staff: two pieces of luggage, a duffel bag, a purse, a walker, an umbrella, and her big white hat. I had tried to convince her to leave her walker at home because it would not fare well with the cobblestone streets of Antigua or the dirt roads in my town, but she soon figured that out on her own and didn’t use the walker once the entire time as my arm was a much more adaptable stabilizer. She also quickly learned that bringing a big white hat to a dirty place wasn’t going to keep the hat white for very long! Sometimes people just have to learn things on their own; my job was to have patience with a first time traveler and observe in amusement. Luckily enough for her, the only casualty during the trip was the umbrella, forgotten on a chicken bus along the way.
Having a parent come to visit changes the dynamic of the adventure for sure. Instead of staying at hostels like I had done with all my friends and my brother, with Mom, I arranged for a nice, simple, classy hotel called Hotel D’Leyenda, sitting half a block from Antigua’s Central Park. It was the perfect location and for me, a total treat because it wasn’t often that I had a taste of luxury in Guatemala on my PC Volunteer budget (~$365/month as a living stipend). It was a peaceful place in the heart of a beautiful city, a warm welcome for any visitor.
Antigua offers so much to see and do so one of the first things I did was take Mom walking around the streets in the 7×7 grid tourist town. She was so excited to be there. Seriously, she was like a kid in a candy store, beaming from ear to ear, greeting everyone she passed, waving to people, etc. Wearing her big white hat to block the sun, she actually drew a lot of attention her way, especially from men. She interpreted it as everyone being so friendly, while I knew what was really going on and warned her that the catcalls and over-friendliness of the men were likely insincere. It was almost as if our mother-daughter roles were completely reversed during this trip: being that I had more experience, I was the mother figure, guiding her along and keeping my eye out for threats while she went about with a happy-go-lucky attitude, without a care or concern in the world, taking everything in with big, open eyes, in a similar way to how a child would. Her naïveté, however, tended to have a charming effect on those around her (see photo).
Most of the activities we did in Antigua were during the afternoons, one of the first being the famous chocolate-making workshop at the ChocoMuseo (where I had gone twice before with Jeffrey and then Christina & Aundrea). This is a wonderful activity for visitors! The workshop traces the origin and history of chocolate and how it has evolved over the centuries from a bitter drink, to a flavorful drink with spices, to chocolate bars, and even how, at one point in history, it was used as a form of currency. (Hence the expression “money that grows on trees.”) After the educational tour, we each had a chance to grind cacao beans, concoct and sample the different types of chocolate drinks, and even make our own chocolate pieces to take with us. I would recommend this workshop to any visitor passing through Antigua.
On a different afternoon, Mom and I took a trip out from Antigua to my training town, Alotenango, so she could meet my original host family (with whom I lived for 3 months when I first arrived in Guatemala) and so that they could meet her. To Guatemalans, it is an honor to meet your family. It would be offensive to them if my mom came out to visit and I did NOT introduce her to them. This was probably one of the most important things I could have done with her there. So we headed to the bus terminal where Mom got to experience her very first chicken bus ride. It was only a half an hour ride, so it was good practice for what was to come…
Upon arrival in Alotenango, my family greeted us warmly and invited us to share in a meal that Doña Amalia had prepared. All of my host sisters were there, at least briefly, which made it even more special. We spent several hours there, just chatting away and visiting. It made me so happy to share with my family, who had taken me into their home and helped me get through the initial phases of culture shock nearly two years prior. Doña Amalia, who constantly reassured me, “Poco a poco,” or little by little, whenever I would get frustrated with the language barrier, was just like a mom to me so the least I could do was bring my mom to spend some time with them. My mom was grateful to them as well for taking such good care of me, and she brought some small gifts for the family to show her appreciation.
Back in Antigua, the festivities continued. Mom arrived in Guatemala just as the Semana Santa, or Holy Week–Guatemala’s most important holiday, celebration was about to kick off. I posted an entire chapter on Semana Santa back in 2012 so I won’t go into full detail here (you can go read more about it on the “Special Edition: Semana Santa” post if you are interested), but I will say that it is one of the best times of the year to visit Guatemala because the processions and celebrations in preparation for Easter go on for about a week and a half and are like no other Holy Week festivities you have ever seen. The rituals, the symbolism, the honor–it is a majestic expression. While in Antigua, we were able to watch some of the processions. They can be absolutely haunting and so beautiful.
A pleasant surprise showed up to Antigua while we were there as well: my friends from California, twin sisters Jessica and Jocelyn, were on a short vacation traveling together in Belize and Guatemala. Jocelyn had served in the Peace Corps several years prior in Cape Verde (off the west coast of Africa) and Jessica and I used to work together at Forbes Mill Steakhouse and go rock climbing together before I started my PC service. It was such a treat to spend some time with them while they were passing through as I hadn’t seen them in nearly two years. They are fast-paced and energetic, always on the go and inevitably finding some kind of trouble or shenanigans along the way. It was wonderful to see them!
When it was time to leave Antigua, we arranged for a tourist shuttle to take us to our next destination, Lago de Atitlán, another big tourist spot in Guatemala. We stayed in a house in Panajachel that we rented for 5 days from an American lady who lived down there. This lake is a huge attraction for foreigners. There are so many expatriates living down there that I would say the area is less Guatemalan and more “foreignized” than ever. The year-round mild climate, closeness to nature, and considerably inexpensive real estate are all big draws. The sad part is that foreigners are essentially buying Guatemalans out of their own land. I didn’t realize this at the time, but the lady we rented the house from actually has two houses down there–one she lives in and the other she rents out to visitors. She had been down there for around 10 years already and hardly spoke a lick of Spanish. That is just evidence of what that area is turning into.
One of the reasons that the Lake Atitlán is so popular is that it is surrounded by three volcanoes and speckled with 15-20 lakeside villages, each with its own specialty and mood. One town, San Marcos, is known for yoga retreats and for attracting “hippie” types; San Juan is better known for the weaving co-ops where they make their own dyes, then hand-make bags, scarves, and other products to sell. (San Juan also has this amazing artisan cheese restaurant which was a favorite special treat for us PCVs!) San Pedro, which was off-limits to us as PC Volunteers, is a cheap backpacker draw where you can access Volcano San Pedro if you want to go for a challenging hike or just stick around town and access a whole lot of green stuff if you want to smoke instead. Santiago Atitlán is a bigger town where the legendary “Maximón,” who represents Judas, is moved from house to house in town where shrines are built around him and offerings (typically cigarettes, booze, money, or the occasional flower) are made so he can indulge his vices; those who arrive in Santiago Atitlán should seek out Maximón, if only to say hello, which is what we did. (We were a little far away to get a good photo, though!)
It was awesome that we had a small house in town because there were enough rooms for some of my other PC friends to stay a night or two with us as they were also gallivanting around Panajachel and the lake during the holiday. Kelly, George, and Kathy all stayed with us at some point so I was happy that my mom got to see some of my best friends from Peace Corps and vice versa. We volunteers definitely have a different way of life because Guatemala had conditioned us to go with the flow on a regular basis. I think my mom was in awe of how we all worked together and how flexible we had all become. One of the activities we all did together was take a boat trip across the lake to a town called Jaibalito where there is a public pool/hangout spot overlooking the lake. That was a fun afternoon!
Up until that point, safe transportation in tourist shuttles or private shuttles was easily accessible. However, following Panajachel, we were heading to my site–where tourist shuttles do NOT venture out to. There was no way around public transportation this time. Mom, plus ALL of her items, would have to face the trip that would have us on 3 separate chicken buses followed by a microbus ride on an unpaved road out to my site–the entire trip totaling three and a half to four hours. This made me very nervous. I would get anxious if I had to keep track of only TWO items during bus rides–but my two plus her SEVEN?!? Holy moly. There was no way…
And then I saw Eric, a PCV who lived in Canillá, the town half an hour past mine. I ended up bribing him with bus fare to stay with us for the whole trip. It was a good deal and having a third person, and a man at that, was so beneficial. He would have done it anyway without me paying his way home, but I really appreciated having an escort. It was worth being able to relax somewhat.
Once in my town, I felt like I could unwind because that was my home. Of course, it is a little different having a visitor who is “on vacation” because I still had work to do and I needed to jump right back into it. The priority switched from what Mom wanted to go see and do to preparation and implementation of my group activities, classes, workshops, and community visits. I went from being tour guide to full-fledged business owner. I made a commitment to my groups and it was “go” time. I was very happy to be back to work again after being away for a week and a half. This provided Mom with the opportunity to see what I really did on a regular basis as a volunteer in my town. I was in my element and Mom always had the choice to come with me or stay home, participate or just observe, rest at home or wander around town. She did all of the above depending on the day. There were a few activities that I insisted she be a part of, typically the ones in which I had very close relationships with the people involved. And there were some very special people in town who were eager to meet my mom so we incorporated those special visits into our week.
Some of the people we spent time with that week included my neighbors around the corner, Olga and Irma, who always insisted I pop in for quick random visits. I also took Mom across the street to meet Doña Gloria, my landlord and pseudo-mom; Mom had also brought some small gifts for her and her family, including Doña Gloria’s grandkids, Arli, Sarahy, and Alexandra, with whom I spent considerable amounts of time. One of Doña Gloria’s sons, Acisclo, was a very close friend of mine, I might even say he was the person I trusted the most and shared the most with in that town; he so generously spent over an hour visiting with my mom (and me) and discussing all sorts of things. He spoke a tiny bit of English and Mom spoke some Spanish so they managed to have a great, entertaining conversation. Lastly, we went over to Tayra’s house one evening to celebrate Tayra’s birthday. Tayra was my other very close friend and the wife of one of Doña Gloria’s other sons. She was like a sister to me and we used to cook together all the time, sharing various recipes and trying new things. She had recently had a baby boy that past February so her birthday was going to be low-key. It worked out perfectly that we could go over and spend that time with her, cooking together, sharing a meal, and then nibbling away at a giant homemade chocolate chip cookie “birthday cake” I somehow managed to bake. It was the perfect evening.
One of the activities Mom participated in that week was my kids group. Being that Easter had just passed, there was a great opportunity to fulfill the second of Peace Corps’ 3 goals: to promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served. By bringing with her an Easter egg dying kit, Mom pretty much determined the theme of my kids group that week. We taught them about how Americans celebrate Easter and how it is different from how they celebrate it in Guatemala. After they dyed the eggs, we explained how the Easter Bunny comes the night before Easter to hide the eggs and then in the morning, they get to do an Easter egg hunt before attending a church service (in many families) then having a great big meal with all the family together. We then had them stay in my room while we hid the eggs they had colored, then we released the kids to do their own Easter egg hunt. They LOVED it!!! It was so cute to watch them, and we made sure that they had learned enough that they could go home and teach their parents/families about our lesson that day.
One of the last activities we had on the schedule that week was a trek out to the other village I worked in, Pajquiej, for a nutrition lesson and cooking class. I normally would walk out to Pajquiej, which took about an hour, but I knew that was too far for Mom to go on a hot day so I arranged for a tuk-tuk to pick us up and take us there. Lo and behold, the tuk-tuk ended up breaking down on the side of the road so we were stuck in the heat and sun anyway! But at least Mom got the tuk-tuk experience…
When we finally arrived at the home of one of the ladies in the group, Sandra, I introduced Mom and then we got started with an icebreaker. Each person, kids included, had a type of food taped to their back (well, a colored paper cutout and drawing, not the actual food) and they could only ask yes or no questions to other people until they figured out what food it was. It had everyone laughing, that’s for sure! We then proceeded with the lesson and prepared some kind of colorful, healthy dish. (I think it was spaghetti with vegetables and a meat-substitute protein, but I can’t remember too well because it has been so long!) All in all, it was another nice day, and as with everyone else, the people in Pajquiej were honored that I would bring my mom to meet them and see where they live. While they didn’t have much, they were always very eager to share what little they had. One can learn a lot about humility and generosity from the people in that tiny village.
All in all, I’d say Mom had a wonderful time. Surprisingly, of all my visitors, she was probably one of the best Spanish speakers and was just chatting away with everyone she met. She seemed totally in her element with how she regards time and I joked that maybe she should be living in Latin America where people rarely show up on time; she would fit right in. Haha! But it is true: life in Guatemala is more about visiting and talking to people and less about watching the clock. Lastly, by the time she was heading home, she was pretty much able to stand and walk on her own. All the walking over the past two weeks had strengthened her leg and given her back the confidence she had lost. To me, this is a typical lesson from Guatemala: You will do whatever needs to be done when there are no other options…and in Guatemala, there aren’t usually many options. It is amazing what people are capable of.
For me, I was grateful as ever that another guest would take the time and make the effort to experience parts of the country where a little piece of my heart will always remain. I felt absolutely spoiled that seven people made their way down to Guatemala during my service! And on the flip side, I was also relieved that my tour guide and translator duties were all said and done and I could focus my energy and time strictly on the people of my community for the remaining 3 months of my service.
Ok. That’s it for a week or so on the Guatemala project, but a Backpacking Bonus is on the way soon!