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Antigua Guatemala (see on map)
Antigua is probably one of the best towns in America, probably the prettiest visited so far. So much so, that Alexandra did not want to move from there, for six days, when I was beginning to feel like visiting some other towns in the area. While Antigua was founded by Spanish in a zone of frequent earthquakes, the city prospered as the capital of Guatemala during the Century 17 and 18, until the year 1773 when an earthquake destroyed it. The town was evacuated and founded a new capital where it is now the city of Guatemala, but by the mid-19th century the old city began to be rebuilt to maintain the colonial character of the beginning, which is preserved until today, when most of its buildings, churches and cathedrals have been rebuilt following the original plans. Normally, most resort towns maintain a beautiful and historic central plaza arranged but on the outside, they have imposing modern buildings. In contrast, in Antigua, all the town retained the colonial atmosphere, with cobbled streets, houses with a single level with robust walls painted in bright colours, numerous stone buildings with arches and wooden portals covering sidewalks or patios and churches within which the natives worship the saints offering beautiful mosaics made with vegetables or coloured powder. At the end of the village, the lofty volcano ´Water´ will be visible most of the time, putting the final touches to this wonderful town.
One day while we were in Antigua, I visited with a group, the Pacaya volcano, which exploded a little over a year ago, in May 27, 2010, so that I could not climb to the summit, although the vast expanse of solidified lava, in some places still smouldering, it was still impressive. Anyway, what amazed us most in Antigua was the fourth Sunday of Lent, a school procession of Holy Week, which is impressive in Antigua. There were only two or three guilds, but one of them carried a huge platform to represent the torment of Jesus, about 20 meters long, which was transported by 30 people per side plus a few more in the center. With a solemn atmosphere, the procession moved to the rhythm of drums and trumpets, on the side of many Roman guards dressed in between the thick smoke of incense and over carpets of flowers and herbs that people had created earlier. I have not been in Seville during Semana Santa, but this experience in Antigua made me want to go once the trip ends.
It was difficult to drag Alexandra out of Antigua, but in the end I managed to convince her to go to Quetzaltenango, a city that Guatemalans called Xela, where a man from couch surfing had offered to host us. Philip is an American (U.S.) that has been living for two years in Guatemala, a country he loved and where he planned to live the rest of his life, perhaps opening a business. The day after arriving, Felipe took us to walk in Xela, but even if it is a city visited by foreigners (mainly to learn Spanish), the centre did not have any appeal. Or maybe it had, but we were too enchanted by Antigua and now nothing could compare with it. Only slightly fascinated me the cemetery near the house of Felipe, with rectangular niches painted with different colours each, which were repainted on the day of all saints.
In any case, our stay in Xela was interesting because of the conversations with Philip and some of his friends, with whom we made a good dinner the second night. During dinner I talked to a Guatemalan who said the government was very popular, for example delivering food and money to the poor for nothing, without active policies to generate employment, and that was bad for the country´s future, but Opposition parties do not want to propose changes to these policies because they would not be voted. Then he complained that there is enough violence in Guatemala caused by the groups of Salvatrucha and Mara 18, which make their living by extorting businesses in the capital, but they have now started to blackmail neighbours also, sending thugs to collect money regularly. He said that the police cannot do anything and that the problem was out of control. He later expressed a saying ´the devil comes in the details´ and added that violence was normal in the country, because kids play fighting and insulting ... and he put another example, describing a tradition at the universities of Guatemala, the Huelga de Dolores ( The strike of Pains), during which students have their faces masked to extort money from businesses and make money to celebrate, and if they do not pay them they throw them oil painting on the facade. So no wonder the extortion, violence and deaths suffered by the society, being believed that more people die now than during the civil war that lasted 36 years. But this should not be entirely accurate, because during the civil war, a cruel government fought against leftist groups, more than 200,000 people died, a genocide that was denounced by Rigoberta Menchu, who won the Nobel prize for peace. I asked what had happened to Guatemalan Rigoberta and he said she had submitted to the last election but got very few votes, mainly because the Indians did not consider her as a representative, she also received much criticism, perhaps because she is indigenous and a women and because, many believe she has become rich as a businesswoman and has forgotten the homeless.
One of the friends of Philip who was at dinner, an American, offered to take us by car to our next destination, Lake Atitlan. Along the way he explained a few tricks to avoid being attacked in the city buses of Guatemala, for example, one should not sit at the window, because someone can sit at your side with a pistol and quietly ask all the money. He also explained that we should not take the red line buses, because the Mara gang demanded money from drivers to pass through the sector 18, but they did not have even money to live and it was not too long ago that they had killed 300 drivers in one year. Then he told us two stories, one that had happened to a friend who was forced to take all the money of his visa card and then, with a good vibe was invited to dine at McDonalds with his money. The second case was more sad, he told us that a worker in his company was killed six years ago, perhaps out of revenge or maybe it was just a random killing, which young people have to execute if they want to enter a gang.
Lake Atitlan is one of the main attractions of Guatemala but we were told, that lately it was not as visited because its waters were contaminated with bacteria and not recommended to swim in it. We stayed in Panajachel, the main town on the shore of the lake, a town without any interest if not for the dozens of stores selling souvenirs on the main street, adding a little colour to the foggy days we had. It was a shame, because the lake is famous for its views of the three volcanoes on the other side of the water and we could not see the silhouettes until the last day. It was much more interesting my visit on Sunday when I went to Chichicastenango changing bus 3 times. Chichicastenango is famous for its Sunday market and really was very flamboyant, like Cuetzalan market in Mexico, with many indigenous selling crafts plus coloured vegetables and many other products for the home.
Apart from Sunday, we stayed 4 days more in Panajachel without any extraordinary activity and basically I stayed at the hotel working on my third book, a far more ambitious one than the other two and that, instead of talking about the travel , will explaining how you can be happy without free will. In fact, I had no plans to begin writing this new book until I got home after one year, after visiting the rest of America. But after pondering well I thought this was the best option. On one hand I find it more economical to start writing while travelling, because in Catalonia I spend a lot more money paying the mortgage on the flat (now I have it rented) and the food, which is much more expensive. Moreover, recently both Alexandra and I feel more comfortable travelling less intensely and spend more days in each place, so I can take much longer to write. On the other hand, before I could hardly concentrate in different situations, hotel and activities changing every few days, but now I find it easy to sit anywhere, even a bus, and concentrate on writing.
Well, in Guatemala I have infrequently opened the computer in buses, not only because they are often too crowded and we have been warned of security problems, but mainly because it is still virtually impossible to keep the laptop on your lap, because the roads are too wavy and the drivers drive too fast and sudden. In fact, Alexandra wanted to stay an extra day in Panajachel because she had panic of the buses, and when we take a bus she holds my hand very strong all the time, and if at some point she could relaxed then it was just to say that the buses were like a roller coaster, but instead of having a closed circuit it was passing through an open circuit, with higher speeds, tight corners and most vertiginous cliffs.
We spent four days more in Antigua, relaxing before heading to the following countries. We ate frozen fruit with chocolate(pineapple, strawberries, mango ,banana...) a very inexpensive treat. I walked a little more through the wonderful town. We are excited by watching the first match Barça - Madrid, and were surprised by the passions aroused in Guatemala by the Spanish league with Barcelona fans balanced with the number of Real Madrid, unlike Mexico, where Barcelona fans were clearly more numerous. And we returned to enjoy another procession before Easter, which will be the next week. On the streets there were many more people than the previous two Sundays, and seeing that in the following processions there will be too many people, we are happy to have made the decision to march on Monday.
In the hotel there were more people and we had the opportunity to talk with some of them about our journeys. Responding to questions, I had to admit that, while wanting to continue finishing the tour, I had 50% of my mind anchored at home. This allowed me to concentrate on other projects not related to travel, like how to write the book of philosophy. But as a negative point, I realized that we were taking the trip much more quietly and inevitably the diary I write is affected, resulting in being less exciting, less adventures to tell. It was the need to risk less, which made us decide not to visit Salvador and Honduras, two countries which, as we had been warned, ´do not receive too many tourists for being still quite insecure´. So we bought a bus ticket directly to Nicaragua, hoping that nothing would happen to us across the two countries.
Leon (see on map)
We left Antigua in the morning with a minibus, heading towards the city of Guatemala, where he boarded an old bus towards Nicaragua. There were more passengers on the account and a few had to sit on plastic chairs placed between the other seats. Luckily we sat on regular seats, but have done a good scandal, because we were those who had paid the most for the ticket, $ 50 in Antigua agency, unlike the $ 25 that the rest paid. In any case, the bus stop in Guatemala City, that was so small and isolated than we would have never found it and we would have risked being attacked in the same time. At dusk we reached the border with El Salvador, where we had to pull out all the luggage on the bus on both sides of the border, to be inspected slightly by the police, and the same procedure we had to do four more times, to reach Honduras border at two in the morning and that of Nicaragua at 5. We were surprised that El Salvador seemed well and clean, where everything is bought with dollars. Perhaps it would have been nice if we had visited it. Honduras Instead it seemed much dirtier and remembering the stories of violence that we have heard, we reaffirm our conviction that we did well not to visit.
During the trip I spoke with a guy from Guatemala, who since age 12 had been part of the Mara 18, explaining that to qualify on had to kill someone in order to get tattooed the number 18 on any body part. Eventually, his gang partners said there was a boy from another gang in a nightclub, and he had to attack without exchanging a word. First he broke a bottle on the head and then buried it in the stomach three or four times. Luckily, ¨said the boy did not die, but still earned the right to be tattooed with the number 18. But after a month, when it came time to tattoo, he met a group of guys who went to church and decided to change his habits, leaving the Mara and become a preacher. He said the Mara did not cause too much trouble to leave, they saw that he had no intention of joining a rival gang. But he did had problems with rival gang at a later time when 7 thugs, friends and family of the boy who was attacked with a bottle and nearly killed a beat him badly and left several scars on his face. Another man from Nicaragua present in the conversation, told me he used to drink quite a lot and took drugs. As he recounted his story reminded me that 20 years ago when I had been in Nicaragua, I had met many men who got drunk with alcohol they drank from clear plastic bags to fall unconscious to the ground. Then the man explained that he had stopped drinking because of his faith in God that helped him change his life. There were two interesting conversations that made me conclude, despite my atheism and rejection of religion, faith in God and belonging to a religious group can greatly help people to lose some bad habits. Finally, I wondered how could these people escape their vicious cycle if in the future disappear all religions and people stopped believing in God.
It was twenty years ago since I had been in Leon, the city where we spent the first few days. The city had a most interesting colonial architecture like other cities and towns visited Nicaragua , however, no comparison with Antigua. Maybe that´s why we do not enjoy too much the city, also because it was very hot, but mostly because we still do not know or talk to local people (except for bus talks). Twenty years ago I worked in some agricultural cooperatives and NGOs, but now, few people respond to us through Couchsurfing, so we were obliged to stay in hostels full of tourists who were only interested in fun, but also kept some interesting conversations with some foreigners.
Surely, the most interesting of Leon was Easter, but by no means was as spectacular as the Sunday prior in Antigua. On Good Friday there was a small procession through all the streets of the city, with people sheltering from the vertical sun with umbrellas. But the appealing part was in the evening, when residents of a neighborhood in León adorned the streets with some of the biggest religious carpets made from sawdust, flour and other natural dyes. One of them was created by a local artist who for the first time decided to put a real person in the middle of the carpet depicting Jesus crucified and became the major attraction, especially when the procession had to walking on the works of art.
In Granada was much warmer than in Leon, however, but Granada was a much more beautiful city, perhaps because it is one of the oldest colonial cities in America, founded in 1524. Despite its appeal, Granada could not compare to the city of Antigua in Guatemala. The buildings were not as well maintained and well-as Alexandra noted, there was no indigenous in Nicaragua, lacking the cultural appeal that Guatemala had. Nevertheless, we spent a good morning in Granada, walking through its streets and squares with the cameras in our hands, without taking the same precautions as in Guatemala, because almost everyone had confirmed that there were very few cases of violence in Nicaragua. Whenever we went we had to leave the hostel at four in the afternoon when the sun stopped being vertical and heating the brain. People told us that the heat was normal, because we were at the end of the dry season or summer, as they called it, but this season coincides with winter in Europe. Luckily the last days clouded over and rained one night, cooling the air slightly, at least compared to the previous days.
In Granada we fond again the French couple Fabianne and Arno, with whom we had met in San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico. We shared a couple of evenings with them and they convinced me the second day to do a tour with them, to a viewpoint of the volcanic on Lake Apoyo. They decided to walk down and swim, going down on a dusty road that cost us much more to do than we thought. Prevented by the guards of the viewpoint, we also took some stick if we were attacked by thieves who wanted to steal the cameras, but nothing happened and finally got to the lake where we swam a bit. It was a good trip, it was worth, but I was so exhausted that it convinced me never to make another trip until the temperature goes down a little bit more.
In Grenada we also did not meet any locals, although the people we met on the street were always nice. Surely, Nicaragua was getting too much tourism, compared to 20 years ago, and people were less interested in interacting with foreigners. In any case, we had some nice conversations with a few expatriates who were in the hostel, some of whom were planning to stay and live in Nicaragua, because life was very cheap. One was a guy from Taiwan who worked as a translator from Chinese and Japanese, in spite of everything he wanted to study Spanish, because the Japanese language was too closed because, for example, Japanese do not use the verb ¨I love you¨ and instead they use phrases like ¨I like you to cook for my entire life.¨ I asked him which the most difficult language to learn was and he replied the Spanish, because he did not understand the gender of the words, nor the future, present and past tense ... linguistic rules very different from Chinese. It was also interesting talking to an American, who was wanted by the American courts to testify in a case of arms trafficking, but he would not testify and was planning to live forever in Nicaragua, despite the U.S. government was freezing all his bank accounts.