Friday, December 17

Headed home

We're at the airport!  Our two months in Guatemala are almost over.  Together Hannah and I have enough leftover quetzales to buy a little chicken sandwich for lunch.  We're just happy we made it after our shuttle was a half hour late and we got stuck in a classic Guatemalan traffic jam.

Now that we're finished with our trip (with no serious incidents!) I'm looking forward to blogging about our overall experience and how we found Guatemala in terms of safety.  I've also got lots of new photos!  The next week is going to be hectic; I'm taking the GRE on Monday, Dave's arriving on Tuesday, and I have family to see and last minute presents to buy.  But I hope to do a couple of updates every week until after the New Year.   As I've mentioned before, I'm going to continue developing this blog and I'm excited to see what 2011 has in store!

Adios Guatemala!

Sunday, December 12

Sunny Antigua

Today was lovely.  It was warm and sunny and we spent hours walking around Antigua, taking photos, eating fruit and pastries, and buying more Christmas presents  (for ourselves, mostly).  I found a beautiful rug/bed spread and after a bit of bargaining managed to purchase it for less than 20USD.  It'll be difficult to manage in airports but worth the trouble!  

These two photos were taken at the community pila two blocks from our hostel.  Each morning a dozen women or more wash their clothes (sometimes their babies!) here.  Loving the bright yellow.

Saturday, December 11

To cave or not to cave?

A month ago, I wrote a post about fear and how it's important to effectively deal with it and not let it ruin your experiences.  

I'm currently having a "face your fear" moment.  Soon we're heading to Lanquín in central Guatemala.  It's supposed to be beautiful and jungly and I've found a new little known hostel that I'm excited about.  The area's main attractions are a natural limestone bridge above a great swimming river and a series of bat caves.  Travelers go on day-long tours of these caves - swimming, walking, climbing, squeezing through holes, being pushed through holes by large amounts of gushing water... and there are heaps of bats.  And heaps of spiders.  Tarantulas, even.  

I'm reading about this experience on travel forums and in our guidebook, and I'm slowly, instinctively shaking my head side to side.  No.  No no no.  No thank you.  

Yes, that's a cool photo of a girl walking (or swimming?) through a cave with a candle.  It's a nice idea.  But no.  Can you imagine if that were me, in a swim suit up to my collar bone in water, only a candle lighting my way, and I saw a tarantula on the cave wall?  I would freak OUT.  Canyoning in New Zealand was challenging enough.  And that was in a relatively open space dappled in sunlight.  I'm just not my bravest when there's water involved.

Me being pushed down a canyon outside Wanaka, New Zealand.  This is an example of me freaking out in a mild "I'm sort of enjoying this" way... not to be mistaken for how I would react in a tarantula cave water scenario.

But I'm going to do it.  Not because I enjoy the stomach lurching, skin tingling sensation that accompanies the thought of me being submerged in pitch black cave water with tarantulas, but because I know I'll feel accomplished when it's over.  I didn't want to bike down the world's most dangerous road at first, and I ended up wiping out, destroying my knee, and being miserable most of the way down the mountain.  But I'm glad I did it.  I have a cool scar and at the very bottom of the mountain I got to play with baby monkeys.

If I knew there were baby animals (or some form of cake) at the end of the cave tour, I'd definitely do it.  As it is, I'm publishing this post in case I find out there aren't puppies or desserts included in the tour and in case I'm tempted to spend my day reading in a hammock instead.  Man up, Brown.  Go down the caves.  


Spider and cave photos taken from a guy's recent blog about Semuc Champey.

Thursday, December 9

San Pedro & Lake Atitlán

San Pedro, one of the many towns on Lake Atitlán, and where we stayed for several days.
Amy, James, and I walking towards the cathedral on Sunday.  There was a big Christmas festival that evening, including a parade, marching band, and basketball game.
There were lots of beautiful flowers along San Pedro's streets.
Behind Hannah and Amy you can see a sign for one of San Pedro's many Spanish language schools.
It's true.  Lots of good (cheap) food here!  If you're ever in San Pedro, definitely visit Clover's.  
I love this photo.  We were on the dock at San Marcos waiting to catch a boat back to San Pedro.
Not the cutest photo of me - I was concentrating!
But a great shot of Volcán San Pedro, which we climbed the next day.  
Amy at the top of the volcano.

Yesterday was a Catholic feast day - the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.  Last night everyone was on the streets to celebrate the virgin Mary.  There were bands, food stalls, a parade, and tons of fireworks.  The day before, December 7, was the Burning of the Devil, which didn't seem to be a huge deal in San Pedro. 

Hannah and I are back in Antigua for a few days.   We were thrilled to discover that in our absence this hostel somehow acquired a copy of the newest Harry Potter movie.  That's how we're spending our evening... we even have microwave popcorn!  

Tuesday, December 7

Crumpled maps

Look at these! I love them! They're city maps that don't fold but crumple up.

Photos taken from designer's website
I first saw the maps on a favorite design blog of mine, A Cup of Jo

I am so ungifted when it comes to physical space, patterns, and remembering how things fit together. I never can refold a paper map. I stopped trying years ago. These maps are perfect for me. He should contract out to all the map makers.

Today Amy, Hannah, and I got up at 5am and climbed the San Pedro volcano. It was hard. My butt and calves are aching. But mid-afternoon tacos, coffee, and hot fudge brownie were extra satisfying.

Monday, December 6

So touristy

Hannah and I started out in a rural mountain community, moved to a less rural beach community, and are now backpackers on the gringo trail. Without a doubt, Nueva Alianza and Reu were "real" Guatemala. There were no other tourists, hardly any spoken or written English, and most people farmed for a living. In Monterrico and Hawaii, there were more Guatemalan and western tourists, but outside of the volunteer center we still needed Spanish to survive.

Many people say Antigua isn't "real" Guatemala. The streets are clean, stray dogs and cats aren't common, there are English bookshops, locals seem wealthier, and western tourists abound. So yes, it's not dirty poor indigenous culture Guatemala. But the city definitely has history. The streets and parks and crumbling cathedrals have been there for centuries. And Guatemalans still possess the city. I see more Guatemalans on the streets than I see tourists, and locals patronize some of the nicer restaurants.

We're currently in San Pedro, a community on Lake Atitlán. In my opinion, this is the most touristy place we've been so far. An entire section of town consists of brightly painted signs advertising yoga classes and barbecue chicken pizza and "American portions for Guatemalan prices," and all the bracelet and cloth vendors speak broken English - good price, only ten quetzal. And I see way more westerners than Guatemalans. Up the hill is "real" San Pedro, which is nothing special except it's the legit Guatemalan section of town.

Talking about which parts of a country are most authentic and which parts are - wrinkle your nose in dislike - so touristy is pretty pointless and tiresome. Everyone has a different opinion. I prefer Antigua to San Pedro (the latter's beautiful lake and volcano scenery aside). But I think most people travel for a combination of authenticity and comfortable tourism. For example, San Pedro is making me miss Nueva Alianza and Reu's "real" factor. We had to speak Spanish there and I felt like I was truly in the middle of a different culture. On the other hand, when we were in Reu, we lived for Friday morning breakfasts at McDonald's because our food choices in the community were so limited. Here in San Pedro, the food is delightful. Last night we had the best garlic bread, barbecue chicken pizza, and hot fudge brownie I've ever tasted. Was it authentic Guatemalan food? I don't think so. Was it an memorable traveling experience in an atmospheric restaurant? Yes.

Today I did have some delicious real Guatemalan food. For 10Q, or about 1.25USD, I bought three chicken tacos from a food stall... the most flavorful chicken I've had so far in Guatemala. I added a bit too much spicy green salsa and luckily walked past a woman selling arroz con leche, basically sweet hot milk with rice. Very satisfying. Tonight I'll revert back to non-Guatemalan food. Maybe mango curry or satay chicken.

Eating will always be one of my favorite things about traveling.

Saturday, December 4

Boat, truck, bus bus bus

Last night I had a prolonged bad moment during which I wanted to be anywhere but Guatemala. Lots of disillusionment and self-doubt.

But I vowed to wake up this morning with a positive attitude and renewed determination to make the next two weeks super memorable and fun. It wasn't easy as we had to get up at six am, I was still grumpy, and there was no coffee involved. After arriving in Panajachel and having an okay breakfast, we discovered a shuttle to Chichicastanango would be fifteen American dollars - a ridiculous price for the distance. I inquired about a chicken bus to Chichi and was told to take a boat to somewhere I couldn't pronounce, then a pick-up truck to St. something, and then a bus to Solalá and then a bus to somewhere else, and then a bus to Chichi. Are you kidding me? But I was determined to make it to Chichi by Saturday night so we could go to mass at the local cathedral. Down to the boat docks we trekked. A half dozen jewelry vendors and boatsmen followed, trying to sell their craft. By the time we arrived at the docks, I couldn't remember the name of our first destination. We dumbly stared at all the boats.

Amy: If it's gonna be too hard, why don't we just spent the night here and catch a shuttle in the morning?

The voice in my head: AGHHHH. I give up. I have no more energy to fight my disillusionment and bad attitude.

Two boatsmen continued to pester us about our boating needs until finally an exasperated Amy said, "WE'RE TRYING TO GO TO CHICHI," and one of the men said the name of our first destination - the one I'd forgotten and have forgotten again - and led us to the appropriate dock. Thank you, persistent boatsmen.

The ensuing journey was delightful because it was physical, dirty, with-the-locals travel and got us to our destination for less than two American dollars. We didn't end up going to mass tonight, but I don't care. I fought the bad attitude and came out on the other side. In the morning we'll spend a few hours at the market, searching for Christmas presents and honing our bargaining skills. And tomorrow we'll head back to Lake Atitlán where Amy's boyfriend James is studying Spanish.

Congratulations to Auburn (again)! I've been planning a potential trip to St. Louis for New Year's, and now I have a national championship road trip to consider as well. The traveling never stops!

You might notice I've changed the title of my blog and my name from Mary Elizabeth to Mary Beth. I intend to keep this blog for awhile and will be experimenting with different titles, layouts, and content during the next two months. Thanks for understanding.

(I don't know what I was thinking with the whole Mary Elizabeth thing, either.)

Friday, December 3

Guatemala time

One of the biggest cultural adjustments I've had to make in Guatemala is slowing... down...

By western standards, I'm a very easy going girl. I haven't been a fast paced overachiever in a long time. I'm usually 2-3 minutes late for everything. I'm flexible and prefer spontaneous adventures to well-planned outings.

But by Guatemala standards, I am so Type A. I found Nueva Alianza frustrating because there was nothing to do. Or rather, doing anything took 50 to 100 times longer than it would in a western country. Buses never left on time. No one seemed to care if the building was ever painted or if we paid for our stay.

Hawaii was a tiny bit busier, a tiny bit more structured, but that was only because it was full of western volunteers. The turtle festival was a strange experience as it was organized and led by Swiss and American expats armed with schedules and sign up sheets, but nothing went according to plan because it's Guatemala. Even after six weeks in the country, I found myself exhaling with anger because it's 2:30pm! The parade was supposed to start at one! There's nobody here! What's the point of this?!

But today I realized that Guatemala's sense of time and lack of urgency has rubbed off on me. I spent all day applying for grad schools, emailing professors, and researching internships. And I was overwhelmed by all the details and information. I had to take frequent breaks to munch on cheese and dried plums in order to stay calm. Maybe one day I will find a balance between Guatemala time and crazy American stress time.

Yesterday I ordered a scone and what I got was a cross between a floury British scone and southern cornbread. It was weird at first, but after three bites I was hooked.

Today, when I wasn't doing administrative things, I enjoyed basking in the sun on our hostel's rooftop terrace and listening to old church bells. I could happily relocate to Antigua. It's charming and quiet in an old colonial way. Walking to parque central for coffee, I saw a tour group of retired Americans, and I'm happy to report to my retired readers that Guatemala isn't just for the young and restless! Visit for all your airfare needs!

Tomorrow we're heading north to Panajachel and Chichicastanango, but I'll continue to update every day this week.

Thursday, December 2

My favorite people

I wondered how much it costs to be rich in friends and how many years and stories and scenes it takes to make a rich life happen.
- Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

My Australian friend Amy is here!

Earlier this year when Hannah and I decided to spend two months in Guatemala, I immediately sent word to Australia and within a month Amy and her boyfriend James began planning a Central America backpacking trip. Amy and I had casually discussed a potential South America trip when I was studying in Canberra, and I'm happy we made it happen so quickly.

I don't want to gush, but seriously - I have the greatest friends in the world. I've moved around a lot, written a lot of good-bye letters, grown up and apart from a lot of people. But a handful of friendships haven't changed at all - actually, they've deepened over time and across continents. My family and this handful of friendships are my real roots. I could morph into a full time homeless free lancing world nomad and still feel secure and at home with these people.

And my friends are cool. They are passionate and witty, well-read and sensible, and they take risks and live big. It's fun being jealous of their jobs, their degrees, their houses, their travels. It's fun getting excited about things, getting inspired, together.

You become like the people you interact with. And if your friends are living boring stories, you probably will too.

One of my favorite things is traveling with these friends. Strange lands, foods, and languages create great stories for us to live and retell. During high school Hannah and I got lost in a sketchy London suburb and paid over a hundred pounds for a taxi home so my parents wouldn't know where we'd gone; we jumped fences to escape angry cows in Yorkshire.

2005: London's West Inn

Four years later we were on Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia listening to Lebanese tour guide Karim lecture about the local counsel's opinion on feral cats and the breeding habits of koalas.

2009: riding camels at Sydney's Aroma Festival

2010: Grand Teton National Park

My friend Shelley introduced herself to me at a sorority rush party (!) and drove me around Auburn for a year before I got my driver's license; three years later she was driving us around New Zealand's south island where we played with wallabies and climbed glaciers.

2007: on the Gulf of Mexico

2009: the Franz Josef glacier

This past spring break she returned to London with me on an expensive but delightful whim.

2010: Tower Bridge, my favorite bridge of all time

During my year in Canberra, Amy and I bonded over our love of teapots and local markets, got terribly lost in Melbourne at 2am, and consumed large amounts of her hometown's sun dried tomato cheese.

2009: Melbourne

2009: Floriade in Canberra

Now we're drinking Guatemalan tea, eating Guatemalan cheese (not as good as Tilba cheese - go to Australia and try Tilba cheese), wandering through Guatemalan markets, and of course, planning our future adventures. (Organic farms in Eastern Europe or a road trip up Australia's west coast?)

2009: autumn photo shoot on The Australian National University campus

And then there's Dave...

2007: Argentina

... who convinced me to bike down the world's most dangerous road in Bolivia, who got terribly sick after instigating and winning a llama eating contest, and who discovered and consumed the world's best chicken sandwich with me after we spent the morning in funky Peruvian jewelry and musical instrument shops. Two years later in Bristol there was an amazing Album Leaf concert in an old wooden boat.

And this summer in Wyoming there was cliff jumping into a freezing lake.

And in three weeks Dave will be in Alabama for Christmas! (I may or may not have been looking forward to this particular act of international travel for years.)

2007: hiking to the waterfall outside Cafayette, Argentina

In short, traveling enriches my relationships, and my favorite people - including many individuals I've not mentioned in this post - add extra meaning and fun to my travels. I love it. Consider this a belated second Thanksgiving post. (And thanks for putting up with the cheesy!)

'And today, may you hold those in your house close to your body and feel them breathe and take in their remarkable scent and give them your love.'

Wednesday, December 1

Peanut butter tortillas

Yesterday I discovered Lesley Téllez's Mexican food blog, The Mija Chronicles. It's fantastic - makes me want to become a real cook. If you like Mexican food, fresh food, colorful photos of food, or really, anything related to food, check it out. Her and her husband live and work in Mexico City, so the blog has a vibrant travel expat feel to it as well.

One recent post that caught my eye: "Peanut butter tacos, and other secret tortilla behavior." The first three days we were in Nueva Alianza the hotel manager and cook, Sara, cooked all our meals for us. It was legit Guatemalan food - simple and delicious. The tortillas were handmade with freshly ground corn! But for some reason I quickly burned out on them. They started tasting and feeling like chewed up cardboard. So one evening I broke into our emergency peanut butter stash and spread a thin layer on a hot tortilla. Mmmmmm. Good to know a Mexico City residing, Latin American food expert does the same thing.