4 March 2024

Guatemala Trip

  1. Off to country #58: Guatemala Feb 29, 2024

    Sharmila is in India. I got recused from jury duty.

    Did not know what to do with the free time. So country #57 it is!! Guatemala!

    This would make North America the first continent that I have covered at least half the countries (12 out of 23).

    This is not a beach trip. Just a few days of getting to know the people, local culture and their lives.

  2. Airport #164 Feb 29, 2024

    Guatemala city airport

    For 83 degrees it is surprisingly cool. Checked Google – we are at a very high altitude. Nearly a mile high!

  3. Free entertainment Feb 29, 2024

    I was in my car going from the airport to the hotel. We had stopped at a traffic light. From nowhere two guys came up to the middle of the road – with full shirt, jeans and jacket in 83 degrees and proceeded to do all sorts of acrobatic dances. And then just as the traffic signal turned green, they withdrew from the road.

    Not sure what they were trying to achieve. But they were very entertaining.

  4. Some initial observations Feb 29, 2024

    Immigration in Guatemala city was remarkably fast. Unlike other Central American countries, I was in and out under one minute. There was no paperwork involved at all.

    My flight was 30 minutes early. Consequently, my ride had not showed up. I just hung around outside the airport observing the people. The Mayan look on every face and physical structure was difficult to not notice. The coolest part was the the dress the womenfolk were wearing – very bright and flowery.

    Somewhat apprehensive of the security situation here, I had arranged for a private car instead of taking taxis. Sure enough, I was being mobbed by a bunch of taxi drivers trying to help me. When my car finally showed up, imagine my surprise when a lady driver stepped out! I do not think I have seen that in any other developing country. Even in India.

    Once on the road, you could see two wheelers all over. Funny thing is every rider had a helmet on (that is the law) but no pillion rider was wearing one (not required by law)! I just do not understand laws.

    The volcanoes in the background were impressive in size – and I mean really impressive in size!!

  5. First thing first Feb 29, 2024

    Dropped my suitcase and bag. Familiarized myself from the hotel staff which are the safe zones and which are not the safe zones for me to walk around. Once I got the perimeter memorized from Google maps, hit the road looking for some Guatemalan coffee.

    For a country that makes so much coffee, finding a cafe was a bit of a chore. Finally, found a nice one. Made friends with the barista – Olanda who showed me her style of making cappuccino and then took a picture of me as I drank it sitting by the roadside.

    Interestingly enough, you enjoy your coffee and then you pay – not the other way around that I am used to. BTW, I found Guatemalan coffee to be much sweeter and almost floral than I had expected.

  6. Almost comical Feb 29, 2024

    In a nod to the high violence and crime rate in the country, even in the very safe zones in the city, you will see all sorts of cops and security folks. That particular security person standing a few yards from where I was having my coffee was carrying a double barrel gun. He can’t possibly have enough energy to hold it up. His wiry legs were thinner than the gun barrels. But he dragged it with him with the mouth of the barrel always pointing down in a very self righteous way.

    By the way, if you have been following my blogs – check out that two wheeler. The driver has a helmet on? Yes. The pillion rider? Not so much!! What did I tell you? I do not understand laws!!

  7. That was reassuring Feb 29, 2024

    Always good to realize that you can rely on some things without fail in most developing countries. That vehicle you see was standing at a traffic light. The signal turned green. Everybody started moving. Excepting this vehicle. His engine stalled.

    There was a brief few seconds of honking and then everybody went around him. The driver simply stuck his head out and yelled something in Spanish. From nowhere a few good Samaritans showed up and started pushing the vehicle. Into the parking lot.

    I watched while sipping my coffee from the other side of the road. (there is not point being a good Samaritan while enjoying some Guatemalan coffee, I argued with myself; plus that security guy with a double barrel gun was still hanging around 🙂 ).

    Getting it out of the road was not enough. The driver yelled something else. Everybody moved to the front and started pushing it back cleanly into a parking spot. One of those guys did not even bother taking his heavy backpack off his back.

    The good deed done, they nonchalantly vanished into the crowd like they were born to do this every single day.

    The driver, meanwhile seemed to be surprisingly unperturbed by his situation. I now suspect he might have been simply trying to save gas!

  8. This, I am a bit ashamed of Feb 29, 2024

    Finished my coffee and crowd watching and hit the road again. I must have been walking for over an hour when I started feeling hungry. Started glancing at restaurants as I kept walking. Suddenly saw a small Indian restaurant. I glanced no further.

    Yes, ladies and gentlemen – I came all the way to Guatemala from Atlanta to have an Indian vegetarian thali!!

    And if you think your disdain is going to deter me, you have another thing coming at you. I have slyly noticed that their Desayunos (breakfast) menu sported a Chole Batura among other savories!!

  9. View from my room window Feb 29, 2024

    Finally came back to my room, a bit tired. Drew the curtains and that dusk view you see hit me. To give you an idea, that volcano – Volcan De Agua, I believe – whose peak is sticking out thru the clouds is almost half the size of Mount Everest. Technically, it is a stratovolcano – which means it has gained its height by many, many eruptions causing many layers of lava and ash to build upon themselves.

    The last eruption happened before written history. There was a relatively newer mudslide eruption that wiped out the then capital of Guatemala.

  10. Morning view of the volcano Mar 1, 2024

    Check out the plane and the cloud layer

  11. Put in a run this morning Mar 1, 2024

    The height of the city drained me pretty fast. Had to take a couple of breaks.

  12. Morning walk Mar 2, 2024

    On this Saturday morning, I went out for a walk in downtown Guatemala city. Most of the city was still sleeping. Interestingly enough, virtually every street corner was occupied by a makeshift street food stall! Reminded me of India a lot!

  13. We are off to Antigua! Mar 2, 2024

    If not for anything else but for my favorite cotton shirts that are made there.

    For most of the portion, we stayed on the Pan American Highway. This would be the 6th country that I have been on the Highway – Chile, Peru, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and the USA. There are 8 more countries left to cover this massive highway that connects the south of South America all the way to Alaska!

  14. Those US school buses are here too!! Mar 2, 2024

    Remember my experience in El Salvador where I found out that old school buses from the USA are sold to El Salvador and used for transport there? Well, they are all over Guatemala too! In fact, they are called “chicken” buses. Because they often carry livestock on their roof!

    There are two types of these “chicken” buses. The green ones are the public buses. The other colorful ones are owned privately. They share one common thing. And that is being incredibly reckless on the roads!!

    Found out that now there is a manufacturing facility in Guatemala that is making these buses too!

  15. We reached Antigua! Mar 2, 2024

    Check out the cobblestone roads

  16. A typical street in Antigua Mar 2, 2024

    If you walk around in Antigua, this is pretty much what you will see. Long, straight cobblestone streets that are narrow enough that every one of them is one way. The houses are almost always single floored. They are colorfully painted but not as bright as in Curacao, Burano, Valladolid or the Azores for example. They mostly all look similar. The major differentiation is the door. The size and level of ornateness of the door signifies the owner’s richness and standing in the social order.

  17. This is my hotel Mar 2, 2024

    Looked decidedly different from my regular ones. But looks can be deceptive. Once you enter thru the door and walk a few steps, you reach the inside garden and open atrium. It is teeming with birds – and a particularly friendly parrot – and flowers. This is actually an old Spanish hacienda style house converted into a hotel. Steeped in history.

  18. Enjoying the garden before hitting the streets of Antigua Mar 2, 2024
  19. The womenfolk wear some really colorful clothes Mar 2, 2024

    What I learnt from my friend William (my local friend and tour guide) is that by looking at the design of the blouse (colors may differ), one can identify which region she is from, what Mayan language she speaks and what their food habits are!!

    I loved the colors and the design!

  20. First stop: Casa del Jade Mar 2, 2024

    Landed up in the House of Jade a few steps from my hotel. Learnt a few things about jades – their importance in Mayan culture, how Guatemala is one of the few places you can find jade in this world and a place to potentially avoid when I bring Sharmila to Antigua 🙂

  21. Marimba! Mar 2, 2024

    First time in my life I saw a marimba. For one thing, I did not realize it is so big. I had assumed that it would be the size of a xylophone or something. For sure, I did not know that four people play simultaneously on it!!

    Does anybody know the name of the instrument that young kid is playing? It think it was making the noise of a maracas but I could not isolate the noise from it in the middle of the medley.

    Mesmerizing music. Stood there listening to them for about ten minutes.

  22. Purple is the color this time of the year Mar 2, 2024

    Lent is celebrated forty days before Easter the world over. In Antigua, this period is marked by the color purple. Every house has some purple flag or clothing out. And you will find jacaranda trees in full purple bloom all over Antigua. This is in the Central Park. That flag on the church? Purple in color (although it does not come across that way on this cloudy day in the picture)

  23. See something familiar? Mar 2, 2024
  24. Inside that Starbucks Mar 2, 2024

    Curiosity got the better of me and I walked into the Starbucks to see what it looks like. Sure enough, they had enough Mayan touch in their decor. Check out the huge wall painting. That bird on the top, middle part of the picture with a long tail is Guatemala’s national bird called quetzal (same as their currency) and you can find it on the national flag!

  25. The famous Santa Catalina arch Mar 2, 2024
  26. Honey, I shrunk the schoolbus! Mar 2, 2024

    After seeing all those school buses plying passengers for transport, get this… ice creams are sold all over Antigua out of containers that look like small school buses. The details are interesting – check out how the side view mirrors have been meticulously put in! I think Guatemala is fascinated by school buses!

  27. Time to relax, have some coffee and watch the local people go about their ways Mar 2, 2024
  28. Suddenly, parade! Mar 2, 2024

    There I was drinking my cappuccino and watching what the local people are up to, when a procession came thru! It was the kids’ parade (for Easter). The elderly ones were mostly cleaning up after them. No surprises there!!

  29. This changes my mind Mar 2, 2024

    I have never been a big rum drinker. Maybe the occasional mojito or so but never took to it. I had a big surprise today.

    Visited the Case del Ron (House of Ron – for Ron Zacapa Rum) in Antigua to try out their aged rums. Some of the rums have been aged for 23+ years! Their claim to fame is that the ageing is done at altitudes higher than anybody else (mile and a half above sea level) – I am not sure how much effect that has.

    But sipping 23+ years aged rum was very different than having your standard rums (like Bacardi that I use to make cocktails). It has a much better and longer nose (oaky) to it and bit more sweeter.

    Got myself a bottle to have it neat at home. We might have a convert at hand.

  30. Tried out Indian food in Antigua too! Mar 2, 2024

    Walked up to Indian Accents to try out some local Indian food. I had a great time – not only with the baingan bhartha I had but also getting to know the chef and owner. Sumit Kumar used to work in Taj Palace in Delhi many many years back. Turns out the couple of times I had stayed there – he was there too. He then moved to Frankfurt as a chef of a restaurant and eventually came to Guatemala. Met his wife Maria Leonardo here and started the restaurant Indian Accents in Antigua!

    He is clearly very passionate about his work. I was the last customer left. He took me inside the kitchen to show how he hand built the tandoor himself!!

    If any of you ever come to Antigua, do try out Indian Accents here. Great food! Great owners!!

  31. Festivities in the park Mar 2, 2024

    It was nearly 10 pm. I was walking back from the restaurant. The central park was teeming with people on this Saturday night. Tired kids were still playing, adults were still buys street side food and enjoying it with others.

    As I was cutting thru the park, I noticed a bunch of folks waving sparklers (like we use in Diwali). Figuring there was some kind of Easter activities going on, took a detour to check in.

    Turns out there was a wedding going on! Or at least celebrations of somebody getting married!!

  32. The size of the volcanoes are awe inspiring Mar 3, 2024

    It is Sunday morning! Today we will go to Lake Atitlan! Woke up very early morning. Unfortunately too early for my hotel to have hot coffee. So, went out to the street side cafes. Those coffee shops open up very early.

    As I stepped out, this sight hit me. Yesterday, I could not discern Volcan de Agua much due to low lying clouds. Overnight, the clouds have started moving out.

    That is an impressive volcano seemingly at the end of the street!!

  33. Back on to Pan American Highway Mar 3, 2024

    We hit the Pan American Highway again. Today’s goal is to hit the beautiful Lago Atitlan. The lake is surrounded by mountains and three volcanoes. The clouds will make it a hit or miss though.

  34. The road less traveled Mar 3, 2024

    We came up to this point where the traffic cop was directing some traffic. And there was a huge cowboy boot statue there. I asked William what it was all about. Learnt that the village that the road to the left leads to a village that is famous for its leatherworks.

    In fact, we decided to take that smaller road and go thru a bunch of villages with different artisans and meet back with Pan American Highway later somewhere!

  35. The village of Pastores Mar 3, 2024

    Famous for it leather works

  36. The village of Paramos Mar 3, 2024

    Known to be the black bean capital of Guatemala

  37. The village of Chimaltenango Mar 3, 2024

    Saw quite a few bicyclists like the one you see here

  38. The village of Patzicia Mar 3, 2024

    This village was completely destroyed during the eruption of 1976. It has slowly built itself back up again.

  39. Long line of displays of ceramic work on either side of the highway Mar 3, 2024

    We are back on Pan American Highway. And this display is on either side of the highway. All the folks live in a village nearby – El Quiche

  40. This is a crazy barter market Mar 3, 2024

    On Sundays all the villagers from villages far and near come and occupy the highway illegally. They block off one lane on either side and set up their wares. They are there mostly with food stuff.

    Most of the transactions are between villagers and almost all the transactions are on a barter basis and does not involve money.

    Traffic snarls can slow you down really bad.

    It is called the Mercado de Chopulo. (Chopulo Market)

  41. Highway stop Mar 3, 2024

    Stretched our legs. The lake is on the left top corner but we cannot see it due to the clouds. From now on, we will just keep going down till we reach the lake. We can see a cabbage farm right below us.

  42. Entering our destination – Panajachel Mar 3, 2024

    Will be by the lake soon!

  43. Lago Atitlan! Mar 3, 2024

    The water is clean and blue. You can see Volcan San Pedro in front with the clouds on the top. On the left side is part of Volcan Atitlan.

  44. Let’s get a boat Mar 3, 2024

    Instead of sitting by the lake, we decided to get in the lake. In fact, the ever resourceful William called his friend over to take us to San Juan. It would have taken us over two hours by road. We just cut across the water in 25 minutes. A distance of about 15 km. I am told the towns around Lake Atitlan are all named after the 12 Apostles. Our target is San Juan.

    We had the boat all to ourselves!!

  45. The view on the north side of the lake Mar 3, 2024
  46. The view on the south side of the lake Mar 3, 2024

    You can see Volcan San Pedro and Volcan Atitlan

  47. A closer view of Volcan San Pedro Mar 3, 2024
  48. We reached San Juan Mar 3, 2024
  49. Learnt a local custom Mar 3, 2024

    There were a few places where I saw green pine leaves strewn on the streets. I asked William about it. And I learnt that it is a local culture to say “Welcome!” No wonder I saw them right as we stepped off the jetty and also in front of the church!

  50. My ride is here!! Mar 3, 2024

    William arranged for a “tuk tuk” to take me around San Juan! A “bahajh” as he called it. The driver – Gabriel – could not have finished high school. I asked him which grade he is in. He said he is 19 years old. I told him I don’t buy a word of it. So, he showed me his license. This April 1st is his 20th birthday!!

    Also, found out what this “bahajh” is all about. It is a Bajaj auto rickshaw from India! The town is filled with bright red Bajaj auto rickshaws all over. Later, I found out that many of the motorbikes here are Bajaj Pulsars. In fact, William told me how Mahindra and Mahindra has started taking market share away from Toyota in truck segment.

    Indian automobile industry seems to be doing very well here.

  51. When was the last time I was in a tuk-tuk? Mar 3, 2024

    Bombay, circa 1993?

  52. To Bee or Not To Bee – where is the Buzz? Mar 3, 2024

    So, that wrinkly old arm on the upper part of the picture – that be yours truly. That small spot you see on my hand – that be a bee. In fact, at one point there were a few of them. The shocker is that I am not jumping up and down.

    You know why? I had just learnt from my new friend (lower part of the picture) at the apiary in San Juan that Mayan bees do not have stings. Woo hoo!!

    I did ask him about his indigenous lineage at first to make sure he knew what he is talking about.

    That said, I certainly learnt a thing or two from this gentleman! As my old friend Dev Ghoshal would say – completely inconsequential data – it is not like the next time I see a bee I am going to establish its MAyan heritage thru 23andBee or something like that – but still, it feels good to learn new things!

  53. A colorful city this is – San Juan! Mar 3, 2024

    Everything about Mayan culture is very colorful. And all these colors have meanings and significance. More about it later.

    This is how an average street in San Juan looked today!

  54. Speaking of colorful city … check out the hats in another street… Mar 3, 2024
  55. Or umbrellas for that matter… Mar 3, 2024

    … this street goes straight down to the lake

  56. The one that was least bothered by the burst of colors around him Mar 3, 2024
  57. The Mayan flag Mar 3, 2024

    The Mayans have their own colors in their flag. And they are derived from the four colors of corn that they grow!!

  58. Was curious about what this place was… Mar 3, 2024

    … turns out it is a second hand clothes place!

  59. I found this fascinating Mar 3, 2024

    For a person sworn to minimalism, I have an unhealthy attraction towards cotton shirts made with some sorts of Mayan design. I first discovered it in a small village called Valladolid in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Next, I saw those shirts in Cabo San Lucas.

    Last year in Feb, I saw those in El Salvador. And in Nov, I saw them in the markets in Cancun.

    Of course, whenever I say “saw”, I mean “bought”. You will almost always see me with one of those shirts on unless it is winter.

    What makes the shopping difficult is that I do not like Guyavera style pocket (bolsillos) and I want a full neck collar. Whenever, I see those, I pick up a few.

    I have also learnt that I should be buying one size bigger since after a couple of machine washes the cotton shirts always shrink in size.

    Last year, Leo in El Salvador had told me to buy them from Antigua. In fact, many of those shirts I bought in different Central American countries said “Made in Guatemala”.

    That is the real reason why I came to Antigua. Or at least the main reason.

    Tried out a few markets in Antigua. It was William who said that I should buy from the artisans directly. So, where are those artisans, I had asked him. All around the lake, he said.

    And thus, here I am… in San Juan by Atitlan at a weaver’s place. And she is showing me how she does the weaving. The loom part, I understand. I asked her how does she make those bright colors. You can see all those cotton hanging on the wall.

    This was the stunning part. All those colors are made using some plant or plant based parts!! Since it is Easter season, she volunteered to show how to make purple cotton. We started with pure white thread and then she showed how she makes the purple color from local plants. And then to bind the color, she used the juices that ooze from plantain trees. I tried to wash off the color after the treatment with water – to no avail.

    One thing I forgot to mention – the starting points are either white cotton or brown cotton. Never knew that cotton can be brown in color too.

    Now, I am a bit worried that I might have gone overboard. Sharmila might have a thing or two to say once she sees all the shirts I have bought. I do think all the comparisons she is bound to make about me ridiculing her for her trips to Sephora, Black Market White House and all that is not going to be fair. It is not like I can go back to Antigua every weekend like she goes to her places.

    That said, I think I could have bought a few less.

  60. The mannequins in San Juan Mar 3, 2024

    They all look the same – like this! Remember how my friend William had told me how the design of the clothes will tell you where the wearer is from? Well, this is the particular design for men and women in San Juan. The colors might differ. For example, look at the design around the neck for the woman. And the 24 boxes with X below that. This means she is from San Juan. Look at the guy’s shirt and go back to the picture of the huge awning in the street a few posts back. Exactly the same.

    In fact, there is a way these things are worn that can tell you whether the woman is married or not. I was so fascinated counting the lines that I did not listen to the explanation William gave. The reason I was counting the lines is that all that design is derived from Mayan calendar. I think they have 19 months – 18 times 20 plus 5 days. Somehow that is where the 24 boxes come. I will have to figure out. And right around the collar you can count 7 days in each design. I think there are 365 of them in all.

    Love the history and culture of the Mayans.

  61. A little learning is a dangerous thing Mar 3, 2024

    Most of the times I can get by with my broken Spanish. At the height of my career, I argued with the cab driver in Mira Flores in Peru negotiating the price for a cab ride. And won!

    Well, from those days, I certainly have fallen a rung or two.

    The menu boasted of a sea bass with a helping of vegetables or mashed potatoes.

    I asked the lady in my Spanish that I want both vegetables AND mashed potatoes. And that I wanted big helpings of those. The sea bass part was okay – grilled would be good.

    The good news is that I got both the vegetables and mashed potatoes. They were not big helpings. What was instead was the fish.

    Forget a piece of sea bass. I got a whole red snapper!!

    Me and my Spanish!!

  62. Meet my new friend – William Lopez Mar 4, 2024

    Most countries I go to, I tend to make at least one everlasting relationship. It is usually the person who takes me around – unless I choose to drive or rely entirely on public transport. I have about 30 such life long friends from all over the world.

    Please meet my new friend – William Lopez from Guatemala. He was my friend, philosopher and guide during my entire stay here. A person with an amazing personal journey.

    He lived in Italy and married this most beautiful woman he met there. Except, she died at childbirth. To let him put it … “It was difficult to raise my child by myself at first”. But he did. His son is growing up in Italy as an aerospace engineer.

    Life dealt the next unkind deal with his mom contracting cancer. He left his son to his in-laws and better education there to take care of his mom (and dad) in Antigua. His two brothers also leave abroad. Thankfully, his mom is a survivor today!!

    He said he had never worked this hard before to get out of debt. And then Covid came!! Had to sell all his cars that he used for touring business. But he is building it up again. His parents and he support an orphanage and run a Spanish-learning school. They are finishing up his house to be a four room bed-and-breakfast for foreign students to come and learn Spanish and stay at their place and eat meals cooked by his mom. The current students have to live by strict rules – no smoking inside the property and you cannot bring your boyfriend or girlfriend in unless they are students too.

    For all that hard work, I never saw him not smiling. In fact, the remotest of the villages we went to – everybody seemed to know him. The parking lot guy in Panajachel came running to him, every shopkeeper in San Juan gave them updates on their family (from the barebones Spanish I could understand).

    It is like he has touched so many lives!!

    The kind of guy I want to be some day when I grow up!

    In the meanwhile, if you or your friends every want to visit Guatemala – and I can vouch for you that all you hear about insecurity in this country in Western media is just a minuscule representation of this country – I personally felt safer in all places in Cd. Guatemala than I feel even around my office in Atlanta. No homeless person screamed at me here – and I really encourage you to do so, please feel free to reach out to this young gentleman. He really knows a thing or two about how to deal with people.

  63. Goodbye Guatemala! Mar 4, 2024

    I had no expectations other than going back home with a few shirts. All my fears of safety were misplaced. The people are great. The country is beautiful. I wish I had come here earlier with my family.

    As I watched that guy wave us off, I could not help promising myself that I will be back with Sharmila to show her the country.