Scott says, “Yea we’re in Guatemala!”
Thursday, December 11, 2003

We crossed the border at night, which turned out to be relatively easy and painless except for a couple minor errors we made before leaving Mexico. Border crossings can be chaotic and exhausting requiring a lot of patience. To set the scene, when we arrived at the border the cruiser was swarmed by dozens of people running at the vehicle in the middle of the street with their hands in the air trying to flag us down. The would-be mob was a combination of Ayudantes (helpers) and moneychangers, looking for our business assisting us in crossing the border. The Ayudantes are mostly kids who, for a small fee or tip want to help with the process of crossing, guide us in the crossing process. The moneychangers battle to exchange our Mexican Pesos for Guatemalan Quetzals and haggle back and forth with us for the best exchange rate. The windows of the car are soon filled with faces, arms and hands of people in the group, clinging to the side of the vehicle as we pass, screaming “Misster Misster”. Through the swarming mass we see a sign directing people without their paperwork to turn right, so we turned right. This lead us down a side road where we were stopped by two shady looking sloppy dressed transitos (transit cops) who tell us that we have made a very bad mistake, that they can’t seem to explain to us and want to have my drivers license. After a futile debate about what it is that we have done wrong with no clear explanation from them and feeling that they aren’t legitimate “officers of the law,” we roll up the windows turn around and drive off as they traipse around blowing a whistle and calling out for assistance. The vibe at the border is very much like, take them for everything we can before they get away. When we finally found the actual border crossing we discovered that we had driven 20 kilometers past the Aduana, inside Mexico, where we needed to cancel the vehicle permit. We had our passports stamped at the border and then had to drive the 20 kilometers back into Mexico to cancel the permit so that Zack’s name would be removed from their computer system and he would be able to drive into Mexico in the future. Entry into Guatemala was simple, we had a kid help us out and direct us where to go although we didn’t need it. We had our passports stamped, got the permit for the car and were on our way. The whole thing took about an hour and a half and cost about $25.

As soon as we entered Guatemala there is a noticeable change in the people and the flavor of the country. Near the Guatemala /Mexican border the geography changes and mountains rise up on the Guatemala side. The air is cooler. The Guatemalans don’t cut as many trees or burn as much garbage so the air is cleaner. But in contrast there is more trash around on the ground. The Guatemalan culture is much less "mainstream" and more rooted in the Mayan culture than in Mexico, not as many baseball caps in Guatemala, more traditional hand made garments. The architecture and there use of color is different, lots of color in both countries but more earthy tones in Guatemala. They dry their laundry different, the Mexicans hang it and the Guatemalans lay it out in the grass. It’s hard to describe all the differences most of them are subtle, mannerisms, how people interact with you, the way they make eye contact, there accent and word choice are different. It’s just different there is just a different vibe.

We have been traveling in the mountains basically being sightseeing tourists. We spent a couple of nights in Malacapan a town just inside the Guatemala /Mexico border and noticed a popularity in the evangelical church here. There was an evangelical family musical group staying at our hotel, kind of the, for Christ version of the Partridge family. Their 19-year-old daughter practiced her English with us and invited us to see them perform in the street. She was the drummer. They sang about Jesus Christ and welcomed us to the crowed as their American friends. We were received with an ovation followed by hand waving and head shaking reminiscent of Tammy Fay Baker telecasts that were so popular in the 80s. Nice people but lots of Christ on the mind and down our throats. We also picked up a hitch hiker who was also coincidentally an evangelical. He told us that he had a premonition we were going to pick him up and blessed us both from the back seat with his hand on our heads shaking and shouting something that I didn’t really understand except for "Cristo" this and "Cristo" that. All in all I was a bit overdosed with religion and think I will try to take a break for a while.

The mountains of Guatemala are beautiful, and a nice break from the hot tropics. The land here is green and lush and covered with jungle intertwined with coffee fincas, corn fields and fruit tree farms. The best word I can think to describe it is deep. The jungle is deep the canyons are deep and the indigenous culture is deep. Lots of people dress in typical bright colored woven fabrics that have been captured in the frame of so many photographers. The Mayan language Quiché is spoken as much as Spanish and makes me feel as though I am not in Latin America at times. It is nice to see that that the native culture remains. The other day we bought blankets in the town of Momos and hung out with a boy from there named Jose Luis who guided us around and showed us a natural hot spring by his house that he kept referring to as los baĖos (the baths) He took us there and we found out why they were called the baths. We arrived, trunks in hand, expecting to find pristine hot springs in the mountains with maybe a few soul searching Mayan folk relaxing. Instead we came upon more of a rec center/public bathing area. A large roof maybe 75 meters long covering several concrete pools with around 100 or so men women and children scrubbing away with bars of soap in steaming hot pools. The overflowing hot soapy suds poured into an adjacent creek filled with plastic potato chip bags and cookie wrappers with a sign instructing people to keep the bathing area clean and throw the trash in the river. Not the idealic spiritual spot I had envisioned.

We have spent the last three days in La Antigua. The name Antigua means ancient and that’s just what it is. Architecturally it is one of the most beautiful and interesting cities I have ever seen. The city sits in the mountains surrounded by volcanoes. The streets are cobble and lined with buildings all with tall walls of varying colors that have large wooden entries that lead inside to fountain clad garden posada. The roofs are of terra cotta tile and the windows all have shutters and bars with big tile covered sills to place plants. Amongst the classic Spanish colonial buildings are 17th century ruins of old palaces in this once upon a time capitol that was destroyed by an earth quakes hundreds of years before. Antigua is The Worlds Café. It is a very cosmopolitan city packed with all sorts of people from wealthy Central Americans and foreigners alike who come to stay in nice hotels, have second homes or shop for high priced jewelry under armed guard to peasants cooking, selling goods and sleeping on the streets. The majority of people visiting seem to bee the young back packer crowd that come to Antigua on there world tour circuit to learn Spanish at one of the many Spanish schools that Antigua is famous for having so many of. The city is also packed with bookstores, coffee shops, movie houses, and restaurants. I like Antigua. The city feels comfortable with itself and no one looks out of place. It’s the kind of place you would want to be if you were writing a book or meditating or painting. It is a terrible place to learn Spanish but a nice place to have coffee and unwind.

While we have been in Guatemala we have noticed the exuberant style in which they paint their busses. Curious to find out more about why they put so much effort into their elaborate designs, Zack suggested we hunt down a shop that paints the busses and get the scoop. It took us half a day and we walked about 14 kilometers following numerous different directions that we got along the way but eventually we came across the Mario Sosa Taller where you too could have your recycled school bus from the states converted into a custom rolling palace. The busses are rebuilt completely, with every piece chromed customized or painted. They accessorize everything and make all the pieces there in house; no light is left without a little chrome visor over it or bumper without artistic detailing across the front. They even put whole bus bodies on Mercedes truck chassis and front ends to make a personalized looking vehicle. Usually they will finish it off by painting their religious faith or wives name on the side. This is all done at the expense of the owner who then picks a route they wish to drive and jumps into circulation. The busses definitely show Guatemalan’s appreciation for art in culture.

Welcome to Guatemala

Border crossings can be hellish, yet somewhat of an art form, which both Scott and myself feel we have mastered to a certain extent. Crossing into Mexico from the US is one thing, crossing from Mexico to Guatemala is another. As Scott puts it, at the border you are a victim in the eyes of all, even the police. Driving down the road towards the imaginary line between Mexico and Guatemala, we are literally chased by young men acting as “tramites”, or border officials who will help you cross the border for a “tip”, as well as try and take you for whatever they can. Its shady, and I am glad we have tinted windows. As we roll up to the entrance of the border in Hidalgo, just outside of Tapachula, we come to a split in the road, one for documented viajeros and one for undocumented travelers. Unsure of our status, we decide we are undocumented, and turn right. As we near the entrance of the border, we are approached by two shady looking guys dressed as “Transitos” or foot police. They stop us and demand to see Scott’s drivers license. Having fallen for that trick in the past, we resist and question what it is that we have done wrong. These two guys are not the brightest, and a little confused by our lack of fear. They tell us we have taken a wrong turn, and there for Scott must show his drivers license. The routine here is, you pull out your license and hand it to the cop, and he puts it in his pocket and refuses to give it back until you pay the fine that he has decided you need to pay. Don’t fall for this!! Both of these guys are about 19 or 20 years old, one with the face of a little boy who just can’t lie, and when I question exactly what it is that we have done, he smiles sheepishly and repeats what appears to be the only thing he knows how to say, “Licensia por favor” (Drivers license please!). The other guy tries to be the authority of the two with a militant look that at first is a bit fearsome, but quickly dissolves as he too is quite confused on how to justify to two angry gringos what it is they have done wrong. This conversation goes on for 10 minutes, them asking for the license and us questioning what it is that we have done wrong. Finally I tell the one with the face of a boy to get in the car and take us to the station. This really confuses them, and they back off, and we bust out of there, making a u turn and back towards the entrance for documented travelers. Stage one complete!

The border is relatively quiet aside from the lurkers with their forced help and the shady moneychangers who follow us until no end. As we park the car, we are quickly surrounded. Our routine is actually quite amusing, as we put up the window shade which combined with the tinted windows makes us invisible to those on the outside of the car. Its kinda fun to sit inside the car and look out knowing you can’t be seen. 10 minutes of this, and the lurkers lose interest, and walk away. The Aduana is easy, as we walk up to the border official in the office and present our passports and tourist papers, which he stamps and bids us farewell from Mexico and good luck. EASY!! Until I ask what to do about the car, wanting to make sure that Mexico doesn’t think the Landcruiser has emigrated. “Ohh….” Says the official.“Hay que volver a la ciudad Viva Mexico. No se puede entregar la calcomonia aqui… Lo siento.” Translation: You have to return to the city of Viva Mexico to turn in your sticker for the vehicle. You can’t do it here. Sorry. Ouch. “Viva Mexico was way back!” I tell Scott. So much for simplicity… We turn around and drive the 20 km. or so back to Viva Mexico where we deal with the sticker.

As night falls, we finally cross into Guatemala, Central America. The difference between the two places is in the air. Although we have only traveled 10 miles, cultural change is super evident. Mexico is such its own country traditionally, yet the influence from its northern neighbor The United States is undeniable. The clothes, the billboards, Eminem blasting from car stereos, Mexico is Mexico, but you can’t deny the US influence. Guatemala is its own country with its own traditions as well, but the cultural influence seems to come from inside, or from the south. I find that, in simple words, Mexico is influenced by the north, Central America by the south. I think that’s why Mexico is not considered Central America. Instead of the classic Mexican style Ranchera music, or Norteno, all of the sudden we are hearing the tropical sounds of merengue and cumbia. Instead of tacos de carne asada so popular in Mexico, we are eating pollo frito with tortillas that are thick like bread, accompanied by fried bananas and cream. You can even find the famous Salvadorian pupusas if you look hard enough. In Mexico “you” is “tú”, or “usted”. In Guatemala you may hear “Vos”, or “Sos” instead of “tú”. An example would be, “Do you want to go to the beach?” In Mexico you might hear, “Tú quieres ir a la playa?” But in Guatemala you would be more likely to hear, “Vos queres ir a la playa?” The most important thing I learn is that Topes are now called Tumulos. Regardless of what they are called they still are terrible to hit at 30 mph.

Not 20 minutes from the border, we drive right into a huge festival in the streets of Malacapan, Guatemala. We stop and pull over to check out a busy procession of people celebrating the coming of Christmas. My favorite float is a an old truck with fake snow piled in its bed and kids spraying foam from spray cans dressed in wool sweaters and beanies even though it’s a humid 80 degrees out. Behind the truck is a donkey dressed up like a reindeer and behind him is Santa Claus. Scott can’t believe the Coca Cola influence, and I can’t believe that these folks can bear to wear attire more suited for Alaska on this humid evening. After the parade there is a show of fireworks, and we end up spending a couple of hours just milling about. The town of Malacapan is beautiful with old style cobble streets and architecture, yet really dirty. It seems as though people just throw their trash where they please, which seems to be mostly in the street. I see one woman open her door and dump her garbage can into the gutter by the sidewalk. Scott sees this as more honest than the idea of packing up the garbage and taking it somewhere and burning it. He figures that garbage is garbage, burnt of hidden, and might as well live with it. I guess I kind of see his point. After a while one forgets its even there, yet I can’t bring myself to litter like the rest. I stuff wrappers into my pockets and try and find a garbage can even though I know that it will eventually end up in the street. The highlight of my Malacapan experience is a haircut and shave which is such a relief. This is the first time someone else has shaved my face, and it’s done with a straight razor, which is a bit intimidating. All goes well, and some of the people I had met the day before don’t recognize me after the facial cleansing.

To me, Guatemala is unique to Central America for its climate changes alone. One morning we wake up in Malacapan sweltering in the heat, and drive not more than an hour and find ourselves pulling out the sweatshirts as we climb into steep elevation. We are headed to Antigua, a beautiful city with cobblestone streets that sits at the base of three volcanoes, which one of is quite active, and burps smoke every now and then. Destroyed twice over by earthquakes, Antigua, the ancient capital of the country is now a Mecca for tourists from all over the world. The climate is moderate, cold enough that you need a jacket a night, but warm enough in the day to wear a tee shirt and shorts if you are so inclined. This is our destination, but we get side tracked in en route in the municipal of San Marcos, where we spend a day in Momostenango checking out a true Guatemalan mountain town. The Mayan influence that makes Guatemala famous is really evident here. Your are more apt to hear Quiché than Spanish in these parts, and I am told some elders in the community never learned to speak the language of their conquerors. We hook up with a young lad named Jose Luis who kindly takes us for a tour around his part of the world. Both Scott and I agree that it’s a little odd to be walking around and have literally everyone stare at you. Sometimes the children run upon site of two ugly gringos coming there way, which we hear is less likely to happen now as it was 5 years ago. Apparently in the past there were cases of abductions of Mayan children by foreigners, and the children have been taught to flee upon sight.

After Momostenango, we drive to Chichicastenago to spend the night, and find ourselves right into the mix of another huge celebration. This time we are celebrating the Day of the Diablo, or devil, in which they burn the devil to rid it of this world. The fireworks are amazing, as well as the drunks who fearlessly surround the burning devil as it spits out pounds and pounds of explosives. I wonder how they don’t lose eyes and limbs as they literally take M-80’s inches from the face. The next day we finally make it to Antigua, a place where we spent two weeks almost four years ago to the day. Antigua is a beautiful city, both architecturally and culturally, and quite international as you meet people from all parts of the world. Renown for its Spanish Schools and full immersion into the culture, I have to argue and say that I seem to speak more English here than anything, as it seems that all Europeans, as well as many Guatemaltecos speak Ingles. We find a nice hotel and spend a good chunk of time catching up on work to be done on the computer. The most excitement we find in Antigua, other than brownies, ice cream and coffee is a “Taller” or shop we visit where they restore old US school busses to modern things of beauty. The owner of the shop, Don Mario is quite gracious and lets us film at our leisure, even though some of the workers are not really into the idea of Gringos with 2000 dollar cameras running around telling them to turn just a bit, or explain to the camera what they are doing. Throughout the day though, friendships are made, and solidified as we buy the workers some cerveza at the end of the day to let them know we appreciated them being patient with “Los Gringos”. Turns Ronald the bus driver who had just picked up his new bus had left a bottle of homemade Tequila, so combined with the beer, things got a little sticky as all of the sudden some of our new friends are trying to convince us to send them Sony Playstations and promising to call us collect in April when we get back from our trip. Its all in good fun though, and it becomes once again difficult to say goodbye to our friends at the bus “taller” as well as Antigua, Guatemala.

Next stop, El Salvador and Border Crossing number five. Too be continued…