Tag Archives: travel


We love our friends, George and Nirava; he the skillful driver; she the marvelous gourmet chef. They are spoiling us with great food, wine, and excellent company. The weather here in the fading weeks of September continues to be a succulent feast of its own: Warm, soft days and with the kind of sunlight that beckons painters, poets, and professional lollygaggers such as myself to come out and play.


Journey To Chichicastenango

134_2648-005“She is speaking Quiche, the Mayan language,” said Pascual, our excellent guide.

“Why is she trying to give me money?” Virginia said, as the old woman kept offering coins from a leather pouch.

“A little hard to understand, I’m afraid,” he apologized. “Her accent.”

The old woman kept eyeing me as she continued to push coins on Virginia .

“She wants to buy your husband,” said Pascual, finally, with a tortured look half-way between a smile and a grimace.

“For what?”

“I can’t be sure. The word she’s using is either for ‘boyfriend’ or ‘blood sacrifice.’ ”

“Whichever one’s the case,” Virginia held up the money, “she’s giving me way too many coins.” 134_2654 We had traveled three hours from our cozy cliff-side retreat on Lake Atitlan to Chichicastenango, the largest and longest running market in Central America. I approached Pascual as we got off the bus and secured him as our guide. Why? Because that’s what you do in a country where you don’t speak the language. Plus, he was wearing an official-looking guide vest with his name on it and he looked honest. Oh, you mean that’s not how you’re supposed to do it? I understand it’s possible, with technology and travel forums, to do a reference check. Even here. But sometimes you just have to go with your gut.

“Hungry?” he asked.


He walked us through the thrall of the market as peddlers called, cajoled, waved and whistled after us to buy their wares. Pascual led us up a set of stairs to a second-story restaurant overlooking the marketplace. I was sold on Pascual. The breakfast was great (fresh brewed Guatemalan coffee? Sí, I will have another cup, gracias!) and it was a wonderful first move. From our table on the long veranda above the busy market, we got our bearings; the two controversial cathedrals that faced each other in the square, and in the distance the sacred hill still used daily for Mayan ceremonies. 134_2646 The Medicine Man (squatting, and not a Mayan priest as I mistakenly blurt out in the video) working the crowd. He is making a pitch for the healing powers of the of the plants and herbs he has collected and laid out from the jungle. In the video you can see a venomous snake wrapped around his neck as proof of his power over nature. (Retraction: Okay,Virginia says I have to take it back.  I admit it; the snake is probably not poisonous. But, really, wouldn’t that be the coolest?)

http://youtu.be/qJcRL1OeB6w 134_2647-001

Yes, there is poverty. Yes, there is (some) malnutrition. Yes, they are sending children to our borders so they can find and be with their parents again and escape the crushing conditions the poor are exposed to – don’t get me started. This is not the forum. The situation is too complex to make simplistic judgments from media reports – of any flavor, be it mainstream or fair and balanced. If you think you know or have heard the ‘real’ story, you simply don’t. As is the case with every major event or condition, social or political, very few people on the planet actually know what is going on. And it is not me or you. That’s the only ‘fact’ you can count on and that’s all I’ll say about it. For now. In an indoor portion of the marketplace, fruit and vegetable sellers display the full bounty of Guatemala’s verdant land.

http://youtu.be/VnDtNtbz8Z8 134_2647 http://youtu.be/OI64uProG14 134_2648-003After we barely escaped me being sold, Pascual wanted to know if we would like to see a Mayan ceremony.  We were on our way, walking out of town and up the side of a mountain faster than you can say, “human sacrifice.”

See, yet another reason you need a skilled guide. To get you to the places many tourists haven’t bothered to tread, and to give you the inside scoop. For example, there hasn’t been a human sacrifice in about four hundred years. They switched to poultry in the late 15th century and, apparently, it works for them. Still, we were not disappointed, human sacrifice notwithstanding. 134_2650-001We climbed Turcaj hill (the Sacred Place) through a corn field (the god of corn: very important).  Everybody carries a machete in Guatemala. But this gentleman had two. I did not ask why. 134_2651-004We reached the hilltop and looked down on the…Mayan cemetery. We looked around. We were in an open space. There was a cement gazebo with several fire pits within. But the focal point was the outdoor altar. The entire area around it was charred and blackened from hundreds of years of fires for ritual and prayer. The altar itself was a carved block of stone called the Cofradia of Pascual Abaj.

Pascual our guide (the most popular male name in the region) told us the story of how this altar came to be. 134_2652 You can read the official version here.  And yes I know the stone looks rather, um, phallic. And yes, of course I have my own theory, thanks for asking! 134_2651-006Because the Spanish, who had already dug in and ravaged the country by the mid-16th century, were such incredible dicks on every conceivable level, I see the Pascual Abaj as a kind of subversive salute from the Maya to those who would try to own them body and soul. 134_2651-005We saw this kind of not-so-subtle message everywhere at this important Maya city. The Maya may have long ago submitted to their Spanish overlords, but they never surrendered who they are at heart. 134_2651-002Mayan priest burning candles and the traditional incense, copal, while performing prayers.

As we were the only people at the site, obviously tourists, I kept noticing the priest casting agitated glances our way. So did Pascual. So did Virginia.

“You should stop filming,” Pascual said. I did, but the agitated priest picked up the pace and volume of his prayers to the fire, but with direct hand gestures toward us.

“That doesn’t seem like a good thing he’s doing,” said Virginia.

I suddenly felt a force take hold and hurl me to the ground. Gasping for breath, I could feel the power from the words of the priest as they –

“Stop it,” said Virginia, standing over me. “Get up. Stop fooling around and let’s go.”

We moved quickly but in an orderly fashion away from the ceremonial site and onto the trail leading back to the marketplace.

Apparently, Virginia informs me, it was not a spell or whatever from the priest. I had slipped on the waxy ground from all the burnt candles and simply tripped and fell. Though I would have preferred a more, shall we say, dramatic telling of the incident.

“No incident,” she would later say . “You fell down, period.”

On the way back down the hill I asked Pascual point blank if he was Maya or Catholic. I had a bit of a clue since he sported a small and tasteful tattoo on his hand of a Mayan deity, between his thumb and index finger. But his answer surprised me. 134_2649-001Catholic (he pronounced it: cat-TALL-ick). Married with two daughters of his own, he said his mother and father and grandparents are all Maya, but that it is too tough a religion for many younger people to practice. Too strict in its tenets. For example, they make Catholics look like liberal atheists when it comes to birth control. Don’t even think about it. It was made for a people who could withstand anything thrown at it. And needed all the followers they could get to help them survive whatever came at them. get-attachment.aspx The one mask we bought.

17th century replica of a mask featuring the corn god on the headdress.

We also bought two stone images that ‘looked’ ancient. Then we said good-bye to Pascual, tipped him generously, as that was his only pay, and got back on the bus to Lake Atitlan. When you’re traveling, despite all the precautions and research, in the end you need a guide and you have to trust your gut in picking one. We had a great time with Pascual. Can’t tell you all the other people on the bus with us who didn’t and fumbled and floundered with guide books and were constantly hassled by aggressive vendors. They were miserable and complained all the way back.

On the bus ride back to Lake Atitlan, I caught Virginia looking wistfully at the leather bag she’d purchased from the old woman who tried to purchase me. She held up the pouch, jingled the coins inside.

“You owe me one,” she smiled.

Back at Lake Atitlan we geared up for the third and final leg of our trip. One we were not going to do. I cut it out of our original plan. It was just too hard, too reckless, too dangerous and expensive. All of the criteria you use to determine whether something is worth your time and money and safety was laid against it. But we were told time and time again while we were in Guatemala, you must do this. It didn’t seem feasible, it was hundreds of miles out of the way. We decided we just couldn’t let this opportunity go by. What if we were never able to return? We would kick ourselves if we passed up this one chance.

So this chance we took.  And I ask you to take this chance with me. Come with us. Come to one of the most important — forget important. One of the most amazing places we have ever visited. Come with us as we go back in time. Come with us to a civilization that rose, flourished as one of the most enlightened, intellectual and spiritual civilizations ever to exist…and then vanished, almost over night, more than a millennia ago. To this day no one knows why.134_2683-EFFECTS Come with us to the ancient city of Tikal. Where written language, astronomy, and mathematics were developed to an astonishingly complex degree. Experts are still trying to work out their systems. It’s where the search for the ultimate meaning in the universe came within in striking distance…before simply disappearing off the face of the earth. Gone without a note as to why. Ah, but what they left behind for us…

Shall we, then?
Oh. Bring water. And insect repellent. You won’t survive without either one.

Guatemala: 3 Worlds In 1 Visit

A Central American gem in the rough, Guatemala has fascinated travelers and travel writers for centuries. The beauty. The history. The people.

Of course, none of them ever got it right.

And in a three week visit, I won’t either. I came away enchanted, but just as clueless as when I got there. Like sipping an amazing cocktail, its flavors awash in your mouth, but with no idea of the ingredients it took to make it. I’ll tell you what we saw, what we did, and how we felt. That’s about the best I can do in one snapshot of time.

My hope is that the commentary and photos will give you a glimpse into a world so foreign and tropical and exotic, yet is closer to my home here in Phoenix, Arizona than it is to where my daughter lives in New York City (by 150 miles, no less).

This is not the forum for political statements, however, I have strong feelings regarding the following. I will be brief.

Recently, several thousand children, in an attempt to find their parents, have made the long and dangerous trek from Guatemala to our borders. By bus, train, car, on foot. Many were exploited, violated, robbed, beaten and worse. But they got here. With fierce determination, self-discipline and the naive courage of children, they made it. And to those who would gnash their teeth about illegals I say: these are exactly the kind of citizens we want as Americans. They have the kind of ‘can do’ spirit that those whose only gesture of fortitude is to rail again their entry to this country don’t have. It took real guts for those children to make that journey. I support them.

But, I digress… First stop: Antigua
Yes, that’s a volcano. Go ahead, click on it. It will give you a better sense of proportion. There are three of these conical giants within view of the city. This one is Volcán de Agua or “Volcano of Water”. The other two come as a pair; Acatenango and Volcán de Fuego or “Volcano of Fire” can be seen with just a turn of your head to the north.

We arrived late. A driver brought us from Guatemala City to our hotel. It was a rough night. On our first morning, standing out on the veranda, I felt a surge of giddy adrenaline at the sight of three volcanoes as I panned across the skyline. It’s both thrilling and not a little off-putting to see the first thing when you wake up. Though Virginia and I did our research before hand, we were, needless to say, unprepared for almost everything we saw. Which, of course, makes the taste of every new sight, sound and touch that much sweeter.

http://youtu.be/-vkuuSlnUvM http://youtu.be/OZGo6mcEths


Two of the three volcanoes just outside Antigua
Two of the three volcanoes just outside Antigua.


There are marvelous iron door knockers throughout the ancient walled city of Antigua. Image
Virginia demonstrates the height of many door knockers. Why so high? From the 16th century until recently, they were reached on horseback.

After a few days of aimlessly wandering the city, we hired a guide to give us a different perspective of life for local Guatemalans. More on my general philosophy on hiring guides later. The first place Celestino, a native Mayan, took us was a tour of eight Mayan villages that ringed the ancient city.

http://youtu.be/mOW7COIPoEY 7 - Old school shaved ice at Mayan village

At the same festival, making shaved ice treats old school.

This cathedral was in the first Mayan village we visited. It was built, as they all were, right over sacred Mayan temples. Don’t get me started. This one was built in 1546. The brutal Spanish colonization of South America had been in full swing since 1519, a mere 27 years after Christopher Columbus ran back to Spain and proclaimed, “Hey, everybody! There’s a New World over there and it’s free for the taking!” And, yes, that’s a direct quote (with a sprinkling of snark for flavor). IMG_0116

In the Parque Central, young Mayan girls huddle before setting out to sell their trinkets.   IMG_0134
The central part of Antigua is like a box, with nine major streets (calles) that criss-cross north to south. It initially appears to be the easiest city in the world to navigate. You follow the box north, south, east and west, no meandering curves and winding roads to make you lose your sense of direction, right? No.

The problem (for me, anyway) is that you stand on one street corner and look down it, fine. Go to the next and do the same. They look eerily similar. But, hey, you’ll remember landmarks, cathedrals, the crumbling ancient walls, yes? You get to the next corner and…it’s the same thing! Again and again I found myself  spun around, lost in a city that only has nine streets! They appeared to be the same, but were in fact completely different. For someone who prides themselves on becoming quickly oriented, getting a grasp on the local territory, it was often frustrating and occasionally maddening.

Then, just when we start to get our footing, the layout is finally starting to make a bizarre, colonial kind of sense, it’s time to leave for the next portion of our adventure. We were in for another shock. We are taken from a world where our First World sensibilities worked just fine, into a world where everything we knew was challenged. Onto Lake Atitlan; one of the deepest, and most astoundingly beautiful lakes on earth. It’s coming up next; follow me there, won’t you? I can guarantee your safe return, but will you remain unchanged? That I cannot.

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All the fabrics made on those looms. Note Virginia in traditional Guatemalan attire (she still wears it around the house...not)

All the fabrics made on those looms. Note Virginia in traditional Guatemalan attire (she still wears it around the house…not)

Waistband Loom: Ancient yet still used today

Waistband Loom: Ancient yet still used today

Wine made from lowquats, nespiro in Spanish. Sounded great. Was awful to drink.

Wine made from loquats, nispero in Spanish. Sounded great, I love loquats!  It was awful.

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