28th December 2003
Overland to Quetzaltenango (Xela)
Sometimes All the Fun is in Getting There

Flying into Belize City to begin my Guatemalan language adventure is certainly one of the more questionable decisions I've ever made. Sure, financially it made sense-I saved nearly US$800. But arriving in a strange city at dusk with an address of a place to stay and only a rough plan of how to cross 500 miles of damp, malaria-infested, bandito- riddled jungle is admittedly probably not one of my better choices.

Belize City is all it's made down to be, and even less. As the taxi driver wound through narrow streets often substituting his horn for the turn signal and brakes, he slowed only to shout at passing women. He didn't get a tip, not because he was a bad driver or I didn't like him or I was peeved that the coordinator at the airport wouldn't let me share a cab, but simply because all I had was two twenties, and damned if I was going to break the second one.

Belize City
The guesthouse was nice-maybe not as nice as the places I usually stay, but certainly adequate for my purposes. Have I mentioned the humidity yet? None of that "but it's a dry heat" crap here; it makes a sauna suddenly feel less stifling. In any case, the guesthouse owner was helpful, there was food nearby, and the bed was really uncomfortable. What more could I ask for? I spent most of the evening sitting on the back porch being attacked by potentially malarial mosquitoes and talking to the other guests, mostly a Canadian named Carrie who had a funny story of her own: she had arrived the day before on the same TACA flight as me (note that TACA is an acronym in Spanish, which when loosely translated means "not as cheap as Greyhound, and not quite as good either"), but they had left her bag in Houston. In fact, only 2 passengers from her flight got their bags. You'd think someone would notice that there were only 4 suitcases going on a full flight.

I had planned on heading west overland from there, enter Guatemala and pass through Flores and on to Guatemala City. I didn't really know how I was going to do this, fortunately Carrie was heading that way as well and had had most of the afternoon to figure this out while she was waiting for her luggage to arrive. She didn't mind the company, so I decided to go along with her.

Now, me being me, I couldn't just plod ahead with the first version of a plan. Oh, no. I decided that it might be as much as two hours shorter if I were to travel by bus to the south of Belize, then by boat to Guatemala, then by bus again through Guatemala City and on to Xela, and by golly, that's what I was going to do. Again, I had no idea how.

The bus terminal
Fortunately Belize has a fairly organized system of chicken buses, which seem now to prohibit chickens. A mere eight hours later I had traveled a whopping 210 miles, seen Belmopan (the capital city), survived a rainstorm in the rain forest, and talked to a missionary that was very interested in news of the sniper trials in DC. I was amazed that it was only about 7:30pm when the bus deposited me on a dark street in Punta Gorda, or PG, in the Toledo district (pronounced less like the one in Ohio and more like the one in Spain) where I had shown the conductor on the map.

They were nice enough to deposit a nice young blonde target, er, woman with me. Turns out she was planning to stay at the same establishment, the Nature's Way Guesthouse, "a gathering point for intrepid travelers" the guidebook said. As it turns out, "intrepid travelers" means "enjoyers of cold showers". After walking past the reasonably large sign just twice, we found it. We ended up in the same room (two bunks, mom) after the proprietress mistakenly assumed that since we arrived together, we were together. That saved a whopping $5 American each. This is how I met Laura, a 21 year-old gapper who hails from the Lake District.

Punta Gorda
Aside from the cold showers and the bird nested in the ceiling above my head, the Nature's Way was quite nice and conveniently located to everything there is to do in PG, which is more than you'd expect. I went out for dinner and to find the pier where my boat would depart the next day. PG has a nice feel to it, a bit resort combined with a bit hometown-business mullet by day, party mullet by night. It was a nice walk.

My boat was to leave at 9am, but I wasn't certain that I'd be content with just two hours to explore PG in the daylight before moving on. As luck again would have it, Laura was also headed out on the same ferry on her way to Honduras, and had the same dilemma. We discovered that there was also an afternoon ferry, and decided to take that one.

In the morning we walked to the tourist information center with another intrepid traveller, Nancy, whom Laura had met in Placencia a few nights before. We listened to the pitch for their ecotourism program, which sets travelers up with stays in nearby Mayan villages. Nancy signed on right away. Although it seemed interesting and I was already kicking myself for not taking the missionary on the bus up on his offer to come to his village for a couple days, I really wanted to get where I was going and didn't feel as though I had the time. After a bit of thought over breakfast I decided that I needed to be a bit more spontaneous and decided to go. Laura was relieved, as she didn't want to ask to go with Nancy, but didn't want to go alone either. I was happy she didn't think I was leeching on to her. And thus it was decided we'd be traveling together for a while.

Guesthouses in San Miguel
We took the bus that afternoon to San Miguel, a Mayan village of about 525 people, 526 if you believe the sign. The guesthouse is a two-bedroom thatched-roof hut, complete with hammocks on the porch. Two bathrooms and showers are in a building to the rear, Laura agreed with my assessment that they are "spartan, yet adequate." Pablo, the program's coordinator and local contact, settled us in and drew us a map to some nearby ruins and we were off.

The ruins are known as Lubantuum, or "place of fallen stones." It is not a large site, but an impressive one nonetheless (of course, these being my first Mayan ruins, I had little basis for comparison). We spent an hour or so poking around them, then decided to walk a bit further to the neighboring village, San Pedro Columbia. San Pedro has more western-looking homes that were built after Hurricane Mitch, with block walls and tin roofs, but still maintain the one-room, sparsely furnished tradition of the local people.

One of the buildings appeared to be a pub; since the door was open we wandered in. There were two beer choices-Belikin, a Belizean beer, and.can you guess it.I bet you can't.you'll never get this one.Guinness!! So it's obvious what I had, although I regretted it later not having realized it was the "foreign extra stout" version with the 7.5% alcohol content. I wandered out with a bit of a buzz, and momentarily felt sorry for calling my friend Sarah a lightweight just a few weeks earlier.

A Mayan family served our meals. We sat on two benches flanking a low table, and were served by the wife. We had been forewarned that it was not their tradition to eat with their guests and that they likely would not talk much, but the reality of it still caught us off-guard. Dinner was scrambled eggs with some peppers and freshly made flour tortillas. Many readers are familiar with my dislike of eggs on bread, as it turns out it must only be eggs on leavened bread, so this was ok. Laura had a near constant stream of questions for the family that had gathered to watch us, but that still did not manage to generate much conversation. Their only question for us: "Are you two married?", a thought that probably terrified us equally, but for different reasons. This question came up over and over during our stay. Eeek.

After dinner we went for a walk and discovered JB's Cool Place, a small bar under a stilted house that boasted San Miguel's only pool table. As is apparently the local custom, it also served Belikin and Guinness. I opted for the Belikin this time. After a few rounds of pool where Laura demonstrated England's superiority in the game we began to chat with the bartender, a Kekchi Maya. He was much more talkative than our dinner hosts and detailed his daily routine for us-up at 4:30am, 5 hours on the bus, in bed by 10pm. Feeling guilty that we were keeping him from his family and his sleep, we retired early to rest for our jungle tour the next morning.

Laura playing with the machete
The knock at the door came at 7am, a full hour before our arranged departure time of 8. We managed to negotiate another hour of sleep, but the Maya are nothing if not persistent and there was another knock at 7:30. We rolled out and met our guide Alejandro, who with his machete led us into the heart of the jungle. Our destination was a large cave whose name he either didn't mention or I don't recall. We passed though several maize and bean fields and watched the campesinos at work. The cave entrance was HUGE, like something out of Romancing the Stone. It looks to be a series of large pits open to the sky above, connected with equally large passage, with a river audible beneath the floor. The trip home was by dugout canoe, very tippy with three people in it. A large fallen tree attacked me, but you'll be relieved to know I fought back valiantly.

Pablo's mother making tortillas
Back in the village, we lounged around in the hammocks until it was time for lunch, this time with a different, more talkative family that served us bean soup and fresh flour tortillas. The mother, a mother of 8, told me all about delivering babies (by the husband generally, midwife available if needed) and health care in general in the villages. Our afternoon was filled with more lounging, and then we talked each other into going for a walk and a swim (brrr.). Dinner was with Pablo, the coordinator, and his arranged wife. His mother made the tortillas that were served with bean soup..AGAIN! I'm not sure which was better, although the first one was definitely spicier.

JB's Cool Place had a few other clients the second night (a Friday), but a different bartender. The sky was clear so we looked at stars for a little while before turning in early, in anticipation of the 5:30am bus we'd have to catch back to Punta Gorda.

Back in Punta Gorda, the Saturday market was less than cracked up to be. We got our passports stamped and waited for the next ferry to Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, an old United Fruit Company port city. It took forever to find where to get our entry stamps since the map was wrong and everyone we asked seemed to think it was in a different place. Laura had already studied Spanish in Antigua for 3 weeks, so it was handy to have her along, as surprisingly the Guatemaltecos don't speak Spanglish.

Entry stamps in hand we headed for the bus station, which promised to be a bit easier to find. Laura found a minibus headed for Honduras. The price was right, only 8 quetzals (about 1 US dollar). A quick goodbye and we headed our separate ways.

I was left to muddle through a little Spanish and sign language on my own, but managed to find the bus station and book a ticket on the next bus (only a 15 minute wait) to Guatemala City. This was quite possibly the most uncomfortable bus ride of my entire life. Not real big on padding on those seats. I had to spend the night in Guatemala City, which I wouldn't recommend to anyone's worst enemy--especially at the Pension Meza where, if you're lucky, your roommate will close the door and make a room-bong for you. At least I slept well.

Four hours later, I got the grand tour of Xela from the ground level. There are apparently several bus terminals, and naturally I got off at the wrong one. It is a very nice town, quiet (except for the constant fireworks), well laid out, and clean. I found the school and my host family just fine, and perhaps those will be the subjects of my next note from the road.

Feliz Navidad-

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