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Just about every day at 1pm I ran out of school like a seven year old when the bell rings to meet Jasmine and Shawn Reece. Usually, we would eat lunch in a comedor, (small Guatemalan restaurant) before finding a small activity to participate in for the rest of the day. I will admit that on a few occasions, this activity turned out to be little more than watching television or working (playing) on the internet. Often times, without much to do, we would simply walk around, exploring different parts of the city. The strangest thing we saw on one of these adventures was a collection of animals and human fetuses stored in jars in the Natural History Museum, located just off the plaza. To say the least, we were disturbed by the sight.
Since our apartment had a kitchen, we ended up cooking our own dinner most every night. With the added expense of my schooling, this enabled us to stay on budget. Usually twice a week, we made a trip to the supermarket to pick up enough food for a couple of meals. This turned out to be a great way for us to bring a little taste of home here to Guatemala. Of course, we didn’t cook every night, as we had to leave time to eat some of Guatemala´s wonderful street food.
The most popular street foods in Guatemala are tamales, garnachas and pupusas. While most people have heard of tamales, it is the garnachas and pupusas that have earned a place in my heart. Garnachas are little more than small fried tortillas with a bit of meat and salsa on top, but they are so very good. While garnachas and tamales are great, Guatemala’s (and my) favorite street food is pupusas. A pupusa is very similar to a quesadilla. First, the “pupusa lady” mixes cheese with corn tortilla dough, flattens it into a round shape and throws it on the grill. About two minutes later, you have what amounts to a corn tortilla with cheese already cooked right in! Throw a little salad (cleaned with purified water), salsa and a couple of jalapenos on top and OH MY GOD! Pupusas are a traditional food of El Salvador, but have migrated north to Guatemala and can be found most everywhere in the country now.
Getting to the street food was very convenient, as our apartment was located in the heart of the city. We were only two blocks from the central park, making it not only convenient, but very safe. The other benefit of being so close to the park was that we were only about two minutes away from most of the activities. If there was a concert or show in the park, we would hear it from our apartment and two minutes later, we were there to see what all of the fuss was about. Of course, on the down side, our apartment was a bit on the noisy side. After two weeks, we talked to the landlord and moved to another apartment in the same building, that was farther away from the street and much quieter.
On our second weekend in Xela, we made a day trip to Salcaja, a medium sized town about 10km away, for their annual fiesta. In our guidebook the fiesta was listed, but when I asked a few people about it, they didn’t know what was planned. So without any information, we embarked on a twenty minute bus ride followed by a five minute ride in the back of a pickup to reach the plaza in Salcajah. While the fiesta proved to be pretty disappointing as not much was going on, we saw another very beautiful Guatemalan church. The most notable thing about this particular church is that it is supposedly the oldest Catholic church in Central America. Other than the cathedral, we found a lively market and some closed amusement rides. Apparently the fiesta was going to be more active when the sun went down, but we didn’t have the time to stick around.
The two most popular activities in the area surrounding Xela are volcano hiking and visiting hot springs.There is a company called Quetzaltrekkers in Xela that organizes hikes in and around the area. They are a non profit group, as they donate all of their profits to a local school for poor Mayan children. Most of the people who guide the treks are westerners, who volunteer their time. A minimum commitment to Quetzaltrekkers is three months and four students at my school had just made the commitment.
One of the most difficult hikes in Guatemala is up the Volcan Santa Maria. Volcan Santa Maria is the second tallest Volcano in Guatemala and the ascent is very steep. While we didn’t attempt this hike ourselves, our physically fit twenty seven year old roommate hiked the volcano with Quetzaltrekkers. When he returned the next day, all he could say was that it was one of the hardest things he had ever done.
While we didn’t hike any volcanoes here, we did visit the famous Fuentes Georginas Hot Springs. The process of getting to Fuentes Georginas from Xela is a bit dramatic, but well worth it. To get there, we first took a thirty minute bus ride from Xela to the neighboring town of Zunil, where we caught a pickup for another thirty minutes straight up into the mountains. While driving up, we passed three or four very small isolated Mayan farming communities, where the smell of green onions was incredible! (I love that smell!)
For most of our drive up, the visibility was low due to fog, so our driver proceeded with caution. Fuentes Georginas is at an elevation of over 10,000 feet and we were definitely amongst the clouds. Just as we arrived and said goodbye to our slightly smelly driver, the rain started to come down. We decided not to let this get in the way and ate the small picnic lunch that we had packed and got into the pool. The water was a perfect temperature, perhaps a little cooler than normal because of the rain. This allowed us to stay for around an hour and a half before rejoining our driver for the return trip to Zunil. Fuentes Georginas is a charming secluded place, high in the mountains, surrounded by a tropical forest. It is no wonder so many people say this is one of the most beautiful places in Guatemala.
On September 4th Jasmine followed Shawn Reece by celebrating her birthday in Xela. While we didn’t do much to celebrate, Jasmine insisted on a trip to the movies and a birthday cake. She loves birthday cake! After our night out, we cut the cake and sang happy birthday. I have to admit that I felt a little left out, as I am the only one who will not celebrate a birthday in Guatemala. My birthday is not until March!
Ever since we landed in Guatemala City on August 1st, we have been bombarded with posters and catchy commercials for Guatemala’s presidential election. (At least it doesn’t start two years before, like in the U.S.) The big story here and around the globe, was the amount of election related violence this year compared to the 2003 campaign. Over fifty people related to the elections, many of them candidates, have been murdered since April, when the campaigns officially began. The drug lords seem to have a strong grip on the country and anyone who stands up to them ends up in the ground.
Since politics intrigue me, I did get a bit involved in following the elections on the internet and in the local papers. One day, while sitting in school, one of the fourteen candidates, Fritz Garcia walked in to introduce himself and we talked for about ten minutes. While Fritz didn’t win, he automatically became my favorite candidate as he was the only one who had I had met! As we walked around the city, I would always point out his campaign posters to Jasmine, saying, “You know I met Fritzy right?” Yes, I call him Fritzy. Another candidate, Alejandro Giametti was running third in the polls on his “Total Security” slogan. While I don’t know what that means exactly, perhaps his campaign signs give us a clue. Just in case we didn’t draw the parallel ourselves, someone was nice enough to do it for us.
Two days before the election, Oscar Berger, Guatemala’s president ordered the military deployed into possible trouble areas and the entire country took a deep breath, hoping for a peaceful day. When Election Day came, alcohol was prohibited from being sold and the Guatemalans voted peacefully for the most part. Since Election Day was also the same day as opening day for my beloved Green Bay Packers, I spent most of the morning listening to football over the internet in my apartment. When we left the apartment early in the afternoon, the streets seemed abandoned. After walking around a bit, we stumbled upon a child voting booth set up in the supermarket. They apparently let the children vote just as the adults do, only it does not count. I think it is a great idea, as it allows the children to practice and get used to the idea of voting. In the end, no presidential candidate got 50% of the vote, so the top two candidates move on to a run off in November.
As our final week in Xela came, I started to get excited about the fiesta. While this was all well and good, I still had to complete another week of Spanish school. On Tuesday of my last week, Carlos, my teacher became ill. Since he was not able to return, I was forced to finish with a different teacher. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but my new teacher, while different, was excellent. Overall, I feel that attending Spanish school was a very rewarding experience and I ended up learning a lot about the language. Of course, if I ever want to become truly fluent, then I must PRACTICE!!! I do have the perfect person to practice with, if she only had the patience! =)
The best part of attending four weeks of school was the graduation. After I received my certificate, it was time to celebrate at Xela’s infamous fiesta! As each day of the week progressed, the city came more and more to life. Just about every morning school children from all over the city would run through the streets with torches in hand and whistles in their mouths. In the afternoon, high school bands marched through the central plaza and most days were capped off with salsa and mariachi concerts followed by fireworks when the sun went down. Before we knew it, Friday had arrived, meaning that we had finally made it to the main night of the fiesta!
To celebrate Friday’s arrival, Jasmine, Shawn Reece and I hung out in the park after I got out of school. All of the cool kids were wearing headbands with the Guatemalan colors, so we bought one for Shawn Reece and he wore it proudly. A few minutes later, a man walked by with face paint, so we let him paint the Guatemalan flag on one of Shawn Reece’s cheeks. After all of this, Shawn Reece was now ready to celebrate Guatemala’s Independence Day like all of the other children. (No we didn’t let him run down the street blowing a whistle while holding a torch!)
As the sun went down, more and more people descended upon the park. In reality, the party has grown so big over the past few years that the city has split the celebration up amongst two locations. In the park, an almost endless ensemble of high school marching bands entertained the crowd, while at the rotunda, an area about 1km away, a collection of popular Guatemalan bands rocked out! After watching the marching bands for thirty minutes or so, we headed for the party (cool bands) over at the rotunda.
At the rotunda, a plethora of alcohol was available for sale on the street. While this would certainly make for a rowdy crowd in the states, the Guatemalan youngsters stayed quite calm and the night was fun. I was a little worried that Shawn Reece would be out of place, but other kids were there and the atmosphere was safe and fun. The Guatemalans came ready for a party and the bands that were playing gave one. I really loved the music being played and quickly got into the spirit of the evening. The three of us stayed at the rotunda until about 12:30pm when the thirty minute firework show marking Independence Day was over.
We awoke late in the morning on Saturday, excited to get over to the feria located on the outskirts of town. The feria in Xela, is part of the fiesta and like all other areas of this party is the largest in Guatemala. All of the rides, food stalls and games were there, but on a much bigger scale than we had seen at the fiestas in Quiche, Joyabaj and Salcaja. After arriving, we had to walk about thirty minutes through a sea of people to reach the rides. In the end, we only stayed for about two hours because of the crowds. The fairgrounds are huge, but there was no escape from the wall to wall people and each minute the crowd grew more and more, as few people were leaving.
The one thing worth mentioning about the fair was the ferris wheel. I have mentioned my fear of ferris wheels here before and on this particular day I decided to challenge myself once again. (See the Riverfront Park post) The “Ferris Wheel of Death”, as I called it, was one of the tallest I have seen at a carnival and moved incredibly fast. I almost cried, as I was sure we were going to fly off the thing, but at last, it stopped and we had made it! Other than the ferris wheel, the only other ride that we took the time to experience was the small kiddie roller coaster. (Of course!)
After leaving the feria, it was time to head back to our apartment and pack up our things. We had been in Xela for 33 days and it was time to move on. Our next stop on the journey was Huehuetenango, another large city about two hours north. While we will miss Xela, our time there allowed us to recharge a bit and get ready for life on the road again. Over the month, I really fell in love with Guatemala’s second city and hope to be able to revisit it sometime in the future!
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The Coomer Family
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