On the road
For those that don't know, I have been away from site and not working for about 3 weeks now because my dear ol' dad came and visited me. We've been planning this for quite awhile. To get ready, I tied up my loose threads of work as best I could and on the 2nd of August, I left for Tegucigalpa to spend the night and head out to the airport the next morning and pick Dad and Daya up. There was some anxious moments at the airport because I was mistaken about he flight time (and, erm, airlines as well) but Dad and Daya rolled in just about an hour and a half later than I expected and there was a joyful reunion (man, I knew I missed my family, but actually I didn't realize how much until I saw some of them).
We went straight from the airport to a hotel in Tegucigalpa (the one near the peace corps office that myself and other volunteers always stay at) to decompress and leave some of the heavy bags that Dad and Daya were carrying. We wandered around the city a little bit that afternoon, checking into the office to say hi to Luis Estrada (but he wasn’t there) and later heading downtown, through the central park to see some of the churches and introduce my family to Juana María Ponce, the president of COCAGUAL who I have mentioned on here so many times. We had a nice visit with Juanita and her husband Humberto, and then headed out as it was getting on towards evening to check out a Spanish restaurant Dad and Daya had spotted right across the street from the peace corps office. It turned out to be a pretty fancy place, not somewhere I would ever go on my peace corps budget…haha…. but the food was really good and it was fun to eat at a nice restaurant for once.
The next day we got going as quickly as could be managed with Dad and Daya being as worn out as they were from the long journey, and grabbed a bus heading south to Choluteca. We actually managed to stumble upon the ¨directo¨ line bus right as it was leaving (I didn’t even know this bus existed) and the journey took about an hour less than I planned since we weren’t stopping every 2 kilometers to pick someone up or drop someone off like usual.
In Choluteca, we got some necessities taken care of (going to the bank, checking email at an internet café, buying food) and then hopped on the ¨chicken bus¨ to get up to my house. Dad and Daya were both relieved to get out of the unholy Choluteca heat and were sufficiently impressed by the steepness of the road that goes up to Agua Fría (that a full sized school bus goes up this hill has to be seen to be believed). That day, and during the rest of their time in Agua Fría was unfortunately some of the most uncomfortable weather I’ve seen here…. as hot as frickin´ April it seemed like, but humid as well… but we got some instant relief from the 2 km slog to my house when a thunderstorm blew in just as we arrived, cooling everything off.
We spent a very relaxing three days around Agua Fría; visiting with Isaí, Elsy, and the girls, hiking a little bit around the area to the top of Cerro Guanacaure one day and down through the village of Los Cocos another, birdwatching, visiting with folks in Agua Fría, or just chilling out on my front porch. The last day there, we sat out on Isaí’s porch with all of his family and visited for quite awhile, neutralizing a couple dangerously full beers in the process. It was a nice finish to this slow-paced portion of the trip in my site.
From Agua Fría, we left in the morning to check out the town of El Corpus, basically just doing a little sightseeing detour since it is a pretty scenic, sleepy colonial town (although I think Dad or Daya would tell you that it would be a lot more scenic with some garbage control). That same day we headed back down through Choluteca and out along the Pan-Am highway towards Nicaragua to San Marcos de Colon, near the protected area La Botija which supposedly has some cloud forest. The bus suddenly blew out two tires on the way, and since they only had one spare it looked like we would be stranded for awhile, but the driver made a call on his cell phone and they sent another bus along in an amazingly short amount of time.
In San Marcos, we wanted to hike around one day in the protected area, say hi to my volunteer friends that live there, and maybe just wander around town a bit since it is a very clean, pretty little pueblo. Unfortunately, the volunteer friends were all at a conference up on the north coast and since I was also counting on them for information on how to get to the interesting parts of La Botija, we had to do some random questioning of the locals to get the dope on what places would be interesting to check out. We got a couple different suggestions and ended up settling on one that sounded like a shorter hike to a waterfall with surer transportation out to it. This bus also ended up blowing a tire, surprisingly bad luck considering I had only experienced two flat-tire incidents during my entire year in Honduras before someone came to visit me. The jerks also had no spare or a wrench to change it this time, so we waited a little over an hour while the driver and his ayudante (helper) hitched a ride back to San Marcos to bring a tire out.
I was worried this would tank our plans to hike out to the waterfall, but we ended up still having enough time, although it was a bit farther than I had anticipated (at least 5 kilometers one way I think, maybe 6) so we didn’t have much time to hang out at the falls. On the other hand, the waterfall itself was quite a bit more impressive than I expected and the walk was nice too, even though a lot of the countryside there was kind of sad-looking thin pine forest that had obviously seen some logging in its days.
The rest of the ¨Daya¨ portion of the trip was mostly business and went through without incident. We took a bus back to Tegucigalpa the day after our hike out to the waterfall, I went to the peace corps office and the bank, and Dad and Daya took another walk through Tegucigalpa to check out an art museum that their guidebook mentioned. That night, we ate at the Spanish place again (look at me, the big spender!) and the next morning we dropped Daya off at the airport and got on a bus that same afternoon out towards Guatemala.
Daya told me that it had been a really interesting experience and she was glad that to have had the chance to come down here and see what my life and work is like in Honduras. I think she and Dad would say different things than myself about their impressions of the experience, since everything about this place was new and interesting to them, whereas for me everything is stuff that has long ago blended into the background, besides the fact of having my family to visit with. I certainly made sure to extract a lot of hugs from them since they are a scarce commodity around here.
Leaving Daya at the airport was sad, but on the whole I like the way the trip worked out, having a portion with just Dad and myself, because it gave us more father-son time and made traveling in unfamiliar territory a bit less stressful, since we are both capable Spanish speakers (Daya can speak and understand some Spanish, but not all the time). We started out on the two-day trip to Guatemala City the same afternoon after dropping Daya off at the airport in a Costa Rican bus line, ¨Tica Bus¨, which actually had air conditioning in the bus and professional service that would easily put Greyhound to shame. Well actually, now that I think about it, that isn’t so hard to do. Anyways, they guided us through the border crossings without incident, and the only low point was that we had to spend the night in a LOUSY and overpriced hotel in San Salvador at the Tica Bus terminal. We arrived in Guatemala City at about 11 am on the second day, took a taxi across town to the terminal for another bus line, Halcones (¨Falcons¨), and by 2 pm we were on our way for the final leg, up northwest through the Guatemalan high country to Huehuetenango.
This was the most interesting part of the trip for me, because we were suddenly traveling through country that was unlike anything I’ve seen before in Central America. This part of Guatemala sits on a very high plateau, much of it above 6,000 feet elevation, and all the plants are different. There was still lots of corn of course, but a lot less beans than my area and the corn was a different variety; more like what we have in the states. Also we began to see a lot of vegetables, such as carrots, cabbage, lettuce, green beans, tomatoes, and more. In the REALLY high parts we drove through, up to like 9,000 feet I think, people were growing apples, apricots, and even some minimal amounts of wheat (Dad said there used to be more, but probably the loosening of import tariffs for U.S. wheat forced the farmers here to grow other things).
It was night by the time we got to Huehuetenango, and in the center of town we encountered a surprisingly huge crowd of people, with obnoxiously loud music, tons of street vendors, banners, and other telltale signs that some kind of fiesta was in the works. We had to try about five hotels before we found one with a vacancy, and over the course of this exploration we learned that a big running event was to take place the next day, from the center of Huehue, which sits in a big valley, up to the top of the very high mountain range that runs alongside the valley. These mountains, the Cuchumatanes, contain the highest non-volcanic peaks in Guatemala, reaching well over 12,000 feet. Apparently the race was to start at about 6,000 feet (that’s where Huehue sits, approximately) and go for 20 kilometers up to about 11,000 feet, but not down again. Whoever invented this race needs to get his or her head examined.
We milled around in the festivities for awhile before losing interesting and retiring to our hotel room, and the next day we got going early without waiting to see the start of the race. At this point, Dad was really feeling anxious to get out to San Sebastian, his old peace corps site, and I was excited to see it too.
We rolled into San Sebastian on a local bus line a bit before 9 a.m. I think, right in the middle of the Sunday market. It was crazy! This town, which in terms of acreage must be significantly smaller than El Corpus, was so packed with people that it was literally difficult to walk in many places. Dad taught me that the local slang term for this kind of activity was alegre (Spanish for ¨happy¨). The crowd was a swirl of colorful traditional dress, and as we wandered past stalls looking for the eatery of one of Dad’s old friends, Doña Marta, I had the sensation of suddenly being in a completely different country, because nobody was speaking Spanish! The language in San Sebastian, and all the surrounding countryside, is ¨mam¨, one of the native Mayan dialects spoken in Guatemala. We also towered over the populace, which on average seemed to be a bit shorter than the people that live in my part of Honduras.
Despite the unbelievable crowd, we found our way without too much trouble and plunked down in Doña Marta´s comedor with a brief but warm greeting (she was too busy with business for much else) and ordered pipian, Dad’s favorite local dish. It was chicken and rice doused with this really great red sauce (ask Dad about what-all is in the sauce… I just remember something about three different kinds of tomatoes and a bunch of peppers and some other stuff). Incidentally, Doña Marta is the sister (younger, I think) of the guy in San Sebastian whom I am apparently named after. This Gabriel unfortunately died at a somewhat young age quite awhile ago, so I never had the chance to meet him.
After breakfast, which Doña Marta refused to charge us for, we thanked her and lugged our crap through more market madness to the house of a family that was also old friends of Dad’s. The old heads of the family had died fairly recently (although I think Dad saw them both when he visited in 1999) but we were greeted warmly by their daughter (this is embarrassing, I can’t remember her name), and her two young-adult sons, Carlos and Francisco. The place also contained her brother Miguel and his wife, but it was quite a large house and they invited us to stay there during our time in San Sebastian. We gratefully accepted.
We spent the rest of that first day in San Sebastian checking out the market and visiting with other old friends of Dad’s, especially the family of Lacho (another brother of Doña Marta’s) and Santiago, Dad’s old work counterpart and very good friend who ran the government reforestation program by himself for sixteen years after the peace corps was no longer sending volunteers to help out. That day Lacho was on-call with his job in the electric company and out repairing power lines, but we talked a lot with his wife, daughters, and grandkids, all extremely bright, warm, and friendly people. Later in the afternoon Santiago came in his pickup, which he uses for business carrying people and stuff from the remote villages into town and/or back out. We went out to his place, saw his little finca, and visited there for awhile as well.
During the next two days, we went out in Santiago’s pickup truck to the more remote villages up in the Cuchumatanes where he and my Dad had worked together 27 years ago, handing out seedlings to be planted and giving talks on the benefits and necessity of reforestation. We got to see some of the larger parcels of land that had been reforested through the program, and also the small areas and trees scattered throughout the villages that people had planted voluntarily. We also made an attempt on the first day to climb to the summit of the Cuchumatanes, but were thwarted by some clouds that rolled in and got us worrying about getting lost. Of course, the clouds cleared almost as soon as we got down out of the mountains.
It was interesting to see the lasting effect that the forestry program was able to have around San Sebastian, and to contrast the situation with what I face in my community and the kind of effect that I hope my work will have. One thing I noted is that the people seemed to need less convincing about the need for planting trees and protecting the soil, which is something that can really be kind of frustrating for me. I have moved away from direct extensionist work and more towards helping out this organization, the organic coffee cooperative, precisely because I don’t see that much serious interest in reforestation. It has been tried before, and in some cases failed spectacularly, because people do not like to give up any of their corn/sugarcane/pasture–growing sun to tree cover. On the other hand, where there are coffee fincas in my area, people are more than happy to leave trees to grow and even plant them because the relatively low elevation in my site makes shade trees (and lots of them) an absolute necessity for success with coffee.
The institutions have also tried to get people to adopt more soil conservation techniques, such as live barriers, terraces, retention walls, live fences, etc, but with the exception of live fences, the only places where you actually see these things is where the institutions have basically paid people to construct them, and in their own land! Despite the wide public acknowledgement I hear about the need to protect the environment, there are very few people around Agua Fría taking an active role in doing this. Contrast this with the area around San Sebastian, where nearly everyone had some kind of soil conservation technique in their corn plantations, including things that are an awful lot of work to construct like big terraces with certain types of grass cultivated carefully on the edge for retention, or full-blown rock wall terraces. I began to speculate that this must have something to do with the underlying social history of the place. The people farming that land around San Sebastian have not only been doing so since recorded history in the area, but LONG before that. It is their native land that they have been working since basically forever, and they have a much stronger tie to it.
On the other hand, most of the people in Agua Fría and the surrounding villages are from immigrant worker families that were brought in to farm the coffee and sugarcane plantations as recently as a couple generations ago, and who have never owned their own land, or own very, very little of it. They don’t have the same ancient tie to the place, most of them don’t have the same motivation for protecting it because the land they work doesn’t even belong to them, and they are not what you would call farmers – they don’t control resources or manage their crops or concern themselves with improving a plot – they only work it with their machete or planter for the cruel joke that passes as a daily wage around here. This is kind of a depressing thought for me, because, as Dad pointed out in referring to the extremely bigoted way the indigenous Guatemalans are treated by the authorities, it is hard for someone in our position to change this system that is fundamentally unjust. However, we both do agree that education will always be a genuine benefit for the people, and if it’s the only lasting thing we can do, it might also be the most important.
This post is getting unbelievably long, and so I am going to try and be a little more concise for the rest of it. We spent lots more time in the evenings in San Sebastian visiting with Lacho (who showed up on the third day) and his family, and also with Miguel and his sister and her boys. They were all really wonderful people and it was great to get to know them. They insisted that we come back again and visit as soon as possible, and we tried to express our desire to do so without being too specific as to a time frame. ;)
The fourth morning in San Sebastian we had to leave. Instead of taking the bus all the way back to the capital on the way out of Guatemala, we talked to Santiago and offered to pay him gas money and the daily earnings he would be missing if he’d accompany us for a couple more days in Quetzaltenango (also known as Xela) and Lake Atitlán. Having a vehicle would make us more flexible, and Dad also wanted more time to hang out with Santiago. He agreed, and it worked out well. I was also glad to get the chance to know Santiago better.
We spent one afternoon and the next morning in Xela, which is a very picturesque old colonial city. We had some good food, saw the market and its beautiful central park, and checked out its natural history museum which contained some hilarious examples of taxonomy gone wrong (I especially liked the pelican whose head was attached with packing tape). We should take Aunt Nancy there some day.
After leaving Xela, we continued to the town of Panajachel alongside Lake Atitlán, a very touristy locale bustling with foreigners and Guatemalans who employed many ingenious ways to part these foreigners of their money. To be fair, much of the crafts, fabrics, jewelry, art, etc on sale there were nice pieces of work. But at the end of the two days we were around Lake Atitlán I was ready to get the hell out of there. Some of the people who were on foot peddling fabrics and knickknacks were so insistent that it was hard to enjoy the place for more than a couple minutes before you were being pestered again. I resisted my best, but ended up buying a couple things for Maya and Mom, and a hackey sack for myself. It was worth it, I guess.
We did manage to extricate ourselves from the vendors once in awhile for long enough to enjoy the scenery, which, honestly, was breathtaking. Lake Atitlán is an outrageous shade of deep blue, an enormous crater ringed by a steep emerald green rim. Three huge volcanoes sprout up on the opposite side of the lake from Panajachel. You can tell just by looking closely, especially from a boat in the middle of the lake, that it is one gigantic caldera (like Crater Lake but much bigger and more ancient) and that the three volcanoes, which themselves are huge, have sprouted up near the side of it after some kind of unimaginable catastrophic eruption which created the caldera, long before human beings ever arrived in the New World.
After two nights in Panajachel, our trip came to an end. Santiago left in the afternoon before the second night and Dad and I got going the next morning before the crack of dawn in one of Guatemala’s garishly painted school buses towards the capital city. From there, everything was a reverse of our trip in, including the night in San Salvador (but we stayed in a better hotel this time) and went off without a hitch. Back in Tegucigalpa, I called Juanita to let her know I was officially back in business and on the spur of the moment she asked Dad and I if we’d like to be driven to the town of Valle de Angeles in the mountains near Tegucigalpa that afternoon to check out the nice scenery and the arts and crafts. We said hell yes, and they shortly picked us up at a nearby corner. Valle de Angeles, which I’d heard about but never visited, was a really nice place and had some amazingly cheap, well-made carvings, hats, paintings, and all manner of craftsmanship. We sat down next to the central park and had some great street meat and a beer, but had to bail out sort of hastily and head home because a storm descended. However it was a great side journey and I was delighted to get to know that area. I will definitely head back up there some other time.
The next morning before going to the airport, Dad finally got to meet my project manager Luis Estrada, and we had a visit about the program Dad had worked on in Guatemala and his old project manager, Basilio Estrada, who Luis is a friend of. After that we took a taxi to the airport and I saw Dad off, both of us making valiant efforts not to cry and expressing how glad we were for having had the chance to take this trip. Besides finally getting to see some people from my family after more than a year, it gave me some very interesting new perspectives on my peace corps work, and I think Dad probably feels the same way.
There’s one more item of news that bears reporting before I close up this behemoth of a post. The day I saw Dad off at the airport, I didn’t go anywhere myself because I had my mid-term medical exam with the peace corps the following day. With the rest of the afternoon free, I mainly lounged in my hotel room and watched TV because I was feeling quite under the weather with a cold. That evening some of the volunteers from my training group that I haven’t seen since like, freakin’ January showed up and we had a great evening making rum and pizza disappear and catching up on everyone. Medicals the next day were a breeze; I found out I don’t have any parasites (woohoo!) and even got my teeth cleaned. That evening we went and saw Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Curse of the Ludicrous Plot (or something like that) and I went back to my site the next day, where I am now typing up this post in advance for the next time I go to Choluteca since it’s really too much work to accomplish there.
Dad and Daya, if you feel I left lots of things out and/or would like to add your own perspective or comments on the trip, I am pretty sure I can set this blog up for more than one contributor – i.e. you could write something and post it here as well if you’d like. Send me an email or leave a comment if you do.