Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Mayan Tour... and beyond

Palenque is both the name of a town in Chiapas and the name of the Mayan archaeological site nearby. Being a major tourist destination, Palenque offers many options for accommodation, in every price range. We chose to stay at Mayabell, which is in the bioreserve and just a short walk (maybe a kilometre and a bit) to the archaeological site. Mayabell is beautiful, offering palapas for hanging hammocks as well as cabanas. There’s a swimming pool and a restaurant with very good food for low prices. We splurged and spent our three nights there in a cabana, which was much more expensive than anywhere else we’ve stayed, but very comfortable and dry – there was a huge thunder and lightning storm one night.

Sam has been to Palenque many times, so he entertained himself while I explored the archaeological site on my own. It’s an incredible place, well worth visiting (and I recommend Mayabell for its convenience and comfort too!). It’s set in the jungle, and although the actual uncovered site isn’t huge, the original Mayan city site, almost entirely still buried, is larger than modern-day Paris. A large part of what has been uncovered and is available to view is pyramid temples, which are absolutely incredible.

The Mayan civilization was very advanced and is fascinating to learn about (but too involved for me to get into here, so you’ll have to do your own research!). Although many people blamed the Spanish conquerors for the destruction of the Mayan empire, it’s actually believed by archaeologists that deforestation was the cause of its ultimate demise. The Mayans loved and were inspired by nature, but apparently cut down so many trees that they affected their natural environment, causing food and water shortages, intense social unrest, and the eventual end of the empire. There are still Mayan people living throughout the original empire, however, from Mexico down to Honduras.

My favourite part of Palenque was actually a giant ceiba tree, which the Mayans considered the tree of life, or at least a living symbol of the tree of life. I spent a few hours just sitting at the tree, which is enormous and incredibly beautiful. Also the Queen’s Bath, pools of water in a beautiful river (large stream, maybe) with a waterfall. Unfortunately, the river is now closed for swimming but apparently it used to be open to the public.

Sam and I also took a hike through the jungle in Palenque. I am clearly not the outdoorsy person I have pretended to be, but I sure learned a lot about walking through the wild on that hike. For example, when stung by a swarm of invisible beings, don’t stand still gaping at the part that hurts – get the hell out of there before they attack again. Sam is full of useful tips like that, which is lucky for me, since I seem to have lived far too long in the city and have lost all common sense. Apparently, Katie, you can not only take the girl out of Fernie but in fact, you can also take the Fernie out of the girl. Now we know.

After we left Palenque we headed to Flores, Guatemala, the lovely but touristy town near Tikal, another archaeological site. I really enjoyed Flores. It’s an interesting town to wander around in, with all the tourist amenities but also a lot of character.

Tikal, like Palenque, is an incredible site to visit. The archaeological site is larger than Palenque, since more has been uncovered. Some of the temples are just huge and climbing to the top made me dizzy. Tikal also is the home of a lot of birds and animals. Apparently the spider monkeys like to defecate and throw their feces on the heads of unsuspecting passers-by. I’m thankful that I was not given the opportunity to experience that.

One of the interesting features of the pyramids at both Palenque and Tikal – aside from the carvings of glyphs, which are fascinating – is that if you look closely you can see faces made from the stones. They’re different from the glyphs and not at all obvious to most people. You have to open yourself to receiving what the temples want to show you. If you just go to look at a pile of rocks, that’s all you’ll see. If you open up to seeing the spirit of the place, you’ll see a whole lot more.

One of my challenges in writing this blog is finding the words to describe what I have seen and experienced. It seems to me that places like Palenque and Tikal have to be experienced to be truly understood. You could google them and learn all about the archaeological and anthropological history in far more detail and with more accuracy than I could ever provide here, but you have to stand in those temples yourself to really appreciate the spirit of the places. It is truly remarkable to stand on stones laid centuries ago and sense the vibrant civilization that exists in another time, another reality.

To continue this tour of Mayan civilization, let us now proceed with the next leg of our journey… we left Flores and took a Pullman bus (more expensive but more comfortable than the Latin American chicken buses) to Guatemala City. It was a long ride, 9 hours or so, and by the time we got there, we were tired enough to crash for the night. Guatemala City is not a place I have much interest in spending time. It is hectic and felt a lot less safe than other places we’ve been. We stayed in a sketchy, not-quite-clean but very cheap motel and hit the road first thing in the morning, arriving in Antigua about 45 minutes later.

Antigua is beautiful. It’s another tourist destination, so lots of foreigners, and a great market where all the artisans sell their wares. Sam assured me that it was more expensive than the really big (but apparently crazy) market in Chichicastenango (just break it down syllable by syllable, it’s exactly as it appears) so we didn’t do any shopping. I did, however, by a wooden flute, hand-carved, from a street vendor. I am not yet performance-ready but I can make sounds. They’re not beautiful sounds, but they are sounds. I’m sure by the time I get home, orchestras will be beating down my door.

While in Antigua, we found a little pub with a pool table and a dart board, and it was during a game of darts (round-the-world) that I finally learned (at the ripe old age of 35) the meaning of the adage, “it’s not if you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” I know this is something that every 5-year-old is taught, but I don’t think I ever understood it until that dart game. We had just been playing without scoring, throwing the darts at the board to practice technique, etc, and then Sam suggested we play round-the-world. This game involves throwing the darts at each number on the board, which go from 1 to 20. You have to hit the one before moving to the two, etc. Sam was on number 4 and I had yet to hit the one, and needless to say, I was getting a little irritated (despite my attempts at denial over the years, I really AM as competitive as the rest of my family). It was then that Sam told me that people who are good at games or who consistently win high-stakes bets are those who focus not on winning, but on achieving their goal, whatever that goal may be. A subtle distinction, perhaps, but oh-so-important! And a distinction that had never occurred to me before. With that advice, I stopped worrying about where Sam was on the board, and put all my focus on achieving my own target – and success! My game improved dramatically.

We never actually finished the game, because we were interrupted by a nice young woman who wanted to practice speaking English, so I can’t tell you who won. But still, I feel like I learned an important lesson, and if it is somewhat late in life, better than never, etc etc. I also think that (note to all you parents out there) adages like that are so often-repeated that not a lot of thought is put into the meaning of them – it’s assumed that, being oft-repeated adages, the meaning is obvious and understood. And maybe for 99% of people that’s true, but I am a bit thick-headed at times. It seems to me that it would be better for the children to whom such adages are told to also receive a real explanation so that they can learn the lesson at 5 instead of 35, thus saving them a few decades of frustration. Just a thought.

Where was I? Oh yes, Antigua. We just spent the one night in Antigua and then headed up to San Pedro La Laguna on Lago Atitlan (lago means lake). We took a shuttle to Panajachel and then a water taxi across the lake. We stayed in a lovely, family-run hotel that Sam had stayed in before, the name of which I never really knew. I signed up for 12 hours of Spanish lessons, which I enjoyed thoroughly. I emerged from those lessons with lists of verbs, manna for my grammar-loving spirit, which I fully intend to study. Really. Honestly, I don’t know how much I can say I really remember from those lessons off the top of my head (some, for sure, but not everything) but I came out with a big confidence boost, which is really what I needed. I also met some other travellers, which was fun. One woman, just a couple years younger than I am, had been struggling with the decision of whether or not to sell her house and go travel for a year. I believe since our conversations, she has decided to sell. I’m not sure her mother will approve, but I think she knew she wanted to do that and I was able to provide a positive affirmation that it really is a good thing to do!

San Pedro is a pretty popular destination in Guatemala. It’s in the Central Highlands, high up in the mountains, on a beautiful lake which is a giant crater, and surrounded by three volcanoes. The local population is indigenous Mayan, speaking both Spanish and Tzutujil. The women wear traditional dress and there are lots of traditional clothes and jewelry for sale.

I loved the people there. They are, for the most part, soft-spoken and gentle, and I found it far easier to understand their Spanish than people anywhere else we’ve been. I’m not sure if it’s just their way of speaking or if it’s because San Pedro has about a million language schools and they’re so used to non-Spanish speakers trying to muddle their way through conversation, but either way, I sure appreciated it. I was able to have actual conversations.
My teacher at the school was (is) a 25 years old Mayan woman, professionally trained as a school teacher for children. She has very little English, which was perfect, because it meant that all our conversations had to be in Spanish. She’s an excellent teacher, in my opinion. She spoke clearly and slowly, was very patient, and taught me a lot in just a few days. She also taught me how to say “thank you” in Tzutujil so that I could thank our landlady from the hotel when we left. I was thrilled to be able to do that.

We spent 4 nights in San Pedro and then headed out. We caught a bus to Antigua, which took the mountain road, instead of crossing the lake and taking a bus out of Panajachel. This bus trip taught me more important life lessons. Being of slightly less than superhuman intelligence at times, I had myself a lovely, large CafĂ© Americano an hour or so before we left. Of course, it was just about the time that we got on the bus and departed that the coffee made its way to that place of “uh oh”, and it was, by then, too late for me to jump out to find a bathroom. Since it wasn’t yet too urgent, and because who hasn’t had to hold their pee from time to time, I figured I could suck it up until the bus stopped. Well, the universe must have been trying to teach me these lessons, because I have never experienced such intense bladder discomfort in my entire life and hope never to again! The mountain pass is steep, windy, and very slow going. There is no place to stop, which means that when you have to go, you can’t, plain and simple. Not fully realizing what the road was like and how long it would be before we could stop, I asked the people in front of me (after reaching a point of total desperation), to please pass up the line to ask the driver to stop when he had an opportunity. It was possibly an hour later (or maybe 15 minutes, but it felt like eternity and I don’t have a watch so who knows) that we finally did stop and I was finally able to relieve myself – a phrase that I understand better than ever.

I learned a couple of valuable lessons from that experience: one, the slightly more profound lesson – sometimes when you reach out for help in a time of need, it creates a bond, a unity in the human experience. Rather than being annoyed with me for needing to stop the bus on an already-delayed trip, the other passengers on the shuttle were sympathetic, even empathetic, because everyone could relate. I suddenly felt a wonderful sense of unity and it’s comforting to know that at very basic levels, all humans can relate to one another, no matter what language or culture or background they come from. The second, rather more practical lesson: don’t drink large cups of coffee before getting on a bus, dumbass.

We reached Antigua approximately 5 minutes before our connecting bus to Copan, Honduras was due to depart. The shuttle out of San Pedro took nearly 2 hours longer than it should have, due to construction, a giant rock needing to be moved off the road, a parade, (ahem) bathroom breaks, and such things. We got dropped off at the bus company office, which was closed, and waited…and waited… and saw our bus drive by without stopping (though we weren’t entirely sure it was our bus). About a half-hour after we were supposed to be picked up, a woman returned to the office, seemed confused about why we were there, and explained that the bus had already left. But after a phone call or two, we were told the bus would be coming back for us, which it did – fortunately with enough time to spare for a trip to the bank machine (and the bathroom, natch). I felt a little badly for the other passengers on the shuttle, but since it wasn’t our fault that we had been overlooked, I didn’t waste too much time feeling guilty.

A word or two about buses – most people have heard the stories of the Central American chicken buses – crowded old school buses (they seem to buy Canadian Blue Bird school buses that have reached their 80,000 km limit for use by public schools) filled with people, their assorted bundles, and their chickens. These buses are cheap, but not comfortable. Although we are travelling on a budget, we’re not completely poor, and so have opted for slightly more up-scale bus travel. When I refer to the shuttles, I mean 12-passenger mini-vans with no air conditioning and no leg room. Also no chickens, so are slightly more comfortable (probably a lot more, actually) and with a lot less character.

Anyway, we headed out of Antigua aboard our mini-van, luggage safely stowed on the roof rack, and spent I-don’t-know-how-long sitting in inhuman traffic in Guatemala City. It was stifling. Since we were the last people aboard the bus, we got the bench with the window taped up with black plastic – so no air flow and no view. Eventually, we stopped for a quick break and the driver kindly closed up the windows and turned on the air conditioner for most of the rest of the trip. A great relief for all, I can tell you.

We arrived at the Honduran border after dark. One of our fellow travellers held things up by arguing vociferously with the immigration officer about whether or not he was, in fact, required to pay $3 USD to enter the country. There was a sign that plainly said there was a fee for foreigners, but apparently there’s some law or other that says once you pay it in one Central American country, you don’t have to pay it again. He was trying to argue the point, but needless to say, he lost. I figure for $3, who the heck cares? Not worth the argument, especially after a 6 hour bus ride in the hot, hot heat.

After he ceased arguing, everyone else lined up to pay their fee, get their passports stamped, and we carried on the last 10 kms to Copan. We checked into a hotel and found the restaurant/bar that is home to all the backpackers, where we enjoyed bacon cheeseburgers and cold beer. The next morning, we were up early and at the archaeological site of Copan by 7:10am. It opened at 8am, but we did the nature walk while we waited for it to open, which was lovely. I got bitten by an ant on my big toe and thought that my foot would fall off. So much for being an outdoorsy person. My self-illusions are crumbling rapidly. Sam got stung by a who-knows-what in the ocean the other day and barely blinked an eye.

Copan, in addition to being a site of Mayan ruins, is the home to a large number of Macau parrots. They are big, red and beautiful! They are also not at all shy. While the other forest creatures and birds take off at the sight or sound of humans, the Macaus just fly right around people’s heads. They’re quite a sight.

Copan concluded our tour of ancient Mayan civilization. We caught a first-class bus (oh, the luxury!) out that afternoon and headed to La Ceiba, on the coast. (Not to dwell on buses, but seriously, this bus was great! It was like being on an airplane, but with more leg room! There were even attendants!)

We spent one night in La Ceiba and then caught a ferry to Utila in the morning. Utila is one of the Bay Islands of Honduras, and is a popular destination for scuba divers. It’s a lovely, small town filled with foreigners here to dive. The local population is very different from other parts of Latin America we’ve been to. We’re now on the Afro-Caribbean coast, so the locals are a mix of Afro- and Hispanic peoples, speaking Spanish, English, and Patois (Patwa). Not the best environment for my Spanish practice, but it’s a lovely spot with friendly people.

We are staying in a hotel right on the water, with a dock to swim from. We spent part of yesterday diving off the dock – or I should say, Sam was diving, and I was attempting to dive. The bruises on my thighs would indicate some lack of success, though I seem pretty good at flopping. The only thing for it is to keep practicing… or to return to my previous method of jumping in feet first. On the bright side, I at least (mostly) overcame my fear of diving in head first from a height greater than 5 centimetres.

The plan today is to track down snorkelling gear so I can continue my fascinated gazing at all the sea life here. I’ve never snorkelled before, but Sam assures me it’s not that difficult. I have a glorious gift of turning simple things into major obstacles, but I really want to get a better view! We also hope to travel over to Roatan, a larger island nearby, on a sailboat, possibly tomorrow, so I need to go look into that too.

Which means, dear friends, that it’s time for me to call this an update and get moving. You’re now thoroughly up-to-date on my doings and happenings, so until next time… adios!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Leah. Thanks for keeping us updated! I bought my Folk Festival pass today and I was thinking about that time we went together. I am doing really well but I miss you! Love and hugs and I hope your travels continue to treat you well :)