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Ahh… the taste of home, it’s been a few years. No doubt there’s probably some completely justified North American trade agreements protecting their dairy industry, but when it comes to the fat of the land I’m obliged to get my own flag out.

I was extolling the virtues of butter before it was unfashionable and a devoted supporter through the tough times, the ‘marge’ years, so when studies fell in favour of butter fairly recently I felt somewhat vindicated.

Imagine my joy to find good old New Zealand butter sold in the smallest of shops in Guatemala. Good on ya Anchor! …’it tastes a lot better with a little [nz] butter’.

When we are not in class filling our brains with Spanish we have been happily hanging out with the students at ICA. There is a broad range of students from all over the world and it is a treat to get to meet all these really great people.

On American Thanksgiving one of the students offered up his apartment for a full-on Thanksgiving meal. Everyone seemed keen and before long the potluck list was full of traditional dishes. This was probably partly due to the fact that more than a few of the students are finding the Guatemalan meals a bit tiny! The dinner was amazing and everyone (about 25 or 30 people) happily stuffed themselves with real turkey (thanks Ben and Krista), mashed potatoes, veggies, gravy and stuffing among other tasty dishes. Pumpkin and apple pie finished off the evening.

This past weekend we set out to see the yearly festival of a local town called San Andres Xecul. The town boasts a technicolour church covered with saints, angels, animals and vines as the background complete with neon lights on the inside. A small fair is set up in front on the church where rides, like the ferris wheel, are hand-operated! Apparently at some point during the weekend there is a pole-climbing contest, which I would assume, is rather interesting judging by the amount of alcohol being consumed. During the afternoon, a long speech by a town leader was followed by (as with all festivals here) a ridiculous amount of fireworks. And then the real party started…dozens of people dressed as conquistadors and animals came out to dance for the crowd. The theme of the Mayas being conquered by the Spanish is a recurring theme in most of the festivals. It seems they have not forgotten.

Getting to and from San Andres Xecul was taken care of the by the local buses fondly known as the, “Chicken Buses”. Take your regular old cheese-wagon from elementary school, pimp it out with chrome details and religious iconography and cram as many humans onto it as possible and then throw in a few more for good measure. Add in your host for the ride, the ayudante, who will scream out the bus destination 20 times in under a minute and call it a day. Welcome to transport Guatemalan style.

All the chicken buses have female names — rumour has it that the buses are usually named after the driver’s mother or daughter. Though they have prayers for safe passage pasted to the windshield they are actually a rather unsafe form of transport due to the umm…driving style and it is not unheard of for backpacks to be swiped when you aren’t paying attention. I have to admit traveling by car beats the chicken bus hands down. But they do look really cool.

We have been in Xela for a little over two weeks now and it has been rather interesting to meet and chat with the Guatemalans. They are a polite, friendly and hard-working people who are more than ready to explain their history or discuss politics if you ask. One thing that I have noticed in particular is that they have time for you, in fact, they will make time for you, and we found that they really do want to help you … no strings attached. If you need directions, a recommendation or anything else they are more than willing to help you out (which really helps since the highways don’t have signs).

We arrived late last Sunday night to our Spanish school and were dropped off at our homestay house. It would be a bit of an understatement to say we were a bit surprised at our new surroundings. It has made me appreciate how lucky we are at home and I suppose that as you get older (Ack!) your standards change a bit. What we were able to handle at 21 has changed a little bit. Things that seem to be completely standard in Xela are a lack of hot water and power outages at all times of the week. Somehow (we really cannot figure it out) water is heated in the shower in this crazy contraption:

All things considered I do think Guatemala is on its way to becoming a stable nation. After a horrible civil war from 1960 – 1996, where over 200, 000 Guatemalans were killed, a million left homeless and thousands just disappeared, Guatemalans are trying very hard to change the world’s view about themselves and their nation. They are making the effort to move away from the violence, which swallowed up the country for much too long. My Spanish teacher told me yesterday that at the age of 10 he had watched two televised executions, one by firing squad and the other by lethal injection. Stunned I asked him if he thought that seeing this type of violence as a child had any long term affects, he shrugged and replied, “Yes, but everyone would tune in to see them.” This only solidified that fact that those of us in the western world cannot really understand the atrocities these people, and many others, have been exposed to in the past century.

All of this aside, things do seem to be looking up here. Education and literacy are extremely important and many young people are expecting to attend university to find work. The indigenous people are much more integrated into society that those of Mexico and there are serious discrimination laws in effect. Should you ask anyone in Guatemala what group they belong to the only response you will get is,” Soy Guatemalteco.” (I am Guatemalan).

Of course, there are still lots of violent activities and child kidnapping seems to be huge issue here (we watched an anti violence and kidnapping protest in the main square). And everyone, both tourist, ex-pat and national alike will tell you to avoid Guatemala City. From what we have heard it sounds extremely dangerous.
On the lighter side we visited Fuentes Georginas, beautiful hot springs, about 35 minutes outside of Xela. After a very cold week both inside the classroom and at our home stay we were overjoyed to jump into the scalding waters and warm up. Interestingly enough most of the visitors to the springs were cold-looking tourists.

Tasty rum and cheap!

We have a couple more weeks of one-on-one Spanish at ICA for 5 hours a day. And when we are not conjugating verbs we are planning to hunt down San Simon, a famous Mayan hero, check out a finca (coffee plantation) and take a trip to the beautiful Lago Atitlan.

We crossed into Guatemala at the Melchor de Mencos border. To our surprise things went pretty smoothly as most of the information out there about crossing the Guatemalan border implied that it would be absolutely insane. We canceled both our tourist and car permit at the Belizean border and drove through a fumigation tunnel into Guatemala.

We paid the $3 for the delightful fumigation and headed over to immigration… no problems; Canadians and New Zealanders are eligible for a 90 days tourist permit, so we handed over our passports and asked for the full 90 days, our books were stamped and we paid the 20 quetzales to enter the country. We shifted counters to obtain our car permit — again a very simple process, we had arrived prepared and produced photocopies of our licenses, car registration and passports. The official filled out a document, gave us a sticker and then we paid a small importation fee. With all that done in less than half an hour we left the border not, of course, without paying a random town fee for “various” items.

We had a lot of ground to cover so we got moving right away, border zones are rumoured to be unsafe areas so we bee-lined it straight to the highway without stopping. The funny thing is there aren’t any highway signs so you really have no idea where you are or if you’re headed the right way. Our Spanish is good enough to ask for directions and we were pleased to find out that Guatemalans are extremely friendly and have a great knowledge of their country. Everyone we asked for directions happily pointed us to the right road. So, other than the fact that the roads weren’t signed and our map didn’t include a lot of the back roads, it wasn’t too bad. After 6 hours of driving, on a newly yet numberless paved highway, and a rather interesting boat/ferry (check out the video below) we made it to Coban.

Guatemalan Ferry from Kels M on Vimeo.

The following morning we got up early because we needed to make it to Quetzaltenango (or Xela, pronounced Shay-la, by the locals) by the end of the day. After some discussion with the hotel manager we found a route, which bypassed Guatemala City, the notoriously dangerous capital that we won’t be visiting. We took a beautiful, though long, route through the highlands which did have us on the edge of our seats looking out for crazy drivers, trucks overflowing with passengers and potholes the size of Marlin while trying to check out the amazing scenery. The road went from slippery mud to perfectly paved and back again. We are proud to report that our little VW handled the journey in fine form!

Driving in Guatemala from Kels M on Vimeo.

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