Central America | Guatemala – Travel Advice
Tips for Travelers
When taking cold showers, pretend to be under a waterfall- it actually helps
Name the cockroaches in your room- somehow it makes the prospect of them crawling on you at night less frightening
If there´s a spider in the shower that´s too big to wash down the drain, change rooms
Say goodbye to normal bowel movements
Central American directions amount to ambiguous pointing and incoherent strings of Spanish, if lost- take a cab, pay him half of what he demands, and walk away pretending not to hear his objections
Learn to argue in Spanish
Argue with the border police when they ask for a bribe, if you have the energy
Make fun of ¨dumb Americans¨ to get in with the European travelers.
If you don´t know what language they speak in Holland, never admit it
Whatever the rash is, don´t scratch
Above all- have a sense of humor
Rule 1: Never Make Plans
The city was beautiful- nestled in a cubby hold, surrounded by clouds and green volcanoes, filled with people nodding Buenos dias to each other, crisscrossed by antique streets in which the daily rains left warm puddles between the cobblestones. I spent my evenings in Antigua, Guatemala chatting with travelers from all over the world. Freethinking folks who lived, instead of paycheck to paycheck, from trip to trip. In exchange for an ear, they told of all the places they had been, bragged about how they can get by on 5 bucks a day, laughed about their own misadventures. It wasnt long before a fire was lit. I had to see more of Central America.
The hotel lights had gone off in the night storm. Rain pattered the concrete courtyard- where I sat hugging my knees. A voice started chatting with me. The lights flickered on, and there sat my travel buddy to-be, a 20 year old Canadian hitchhiker, running awkward hands through a messy mop of hair. After a few days of climbing trees, jumping off rocks, and poking lizards out of hiding with twigs, he decided to show me the finer points of hitchhiking. Propping our backpacks against our knees, we stood on a curb, stuck up our thumbs, and thus began our six hour, butt-bruising trip to the Honduran border.
The finer points of hitchhiking included: smile, people are more apt to pick you up if you look like your having a good time, always sit in the bed of the pickup-unless you really feel like making conversation in Spanish for the next 2 hours, and never never lean against the tailgate.
Disclaimer: hitchhiking is, in Central America, an acceptable form of transportation, so common, in fact, that the first pickup driver handed us back two cushions.
Dont try this at home!
Five pickup trucks later, and we were at the border- fast, efficiently, windblown, exhilarated, and without paying a penny. Instead of viewing the scenery from behind glass, we were part of it- smelling and feeling the pockets of hot and cold.
It was in a hotel in Honduras that we met a mystical New Age duo. A man (I call him Mystic) and his student were camped out on hammocks reading healing books. Mystic had shaved legs, funny toes, a huge belly button, and sat perched on a rocking chair wearing a sarong. They read our crystals, and invited us to travel with them to the coast of Honduras the next day. My travel mate started excitedly to pack, I did not. (Later, I got word from him that he was forced to stand in front of the aura-reading class).
I was without plan. A foreign voice spoke. It was a girl. I´m going to Livingston tomorrow at 7am, if you´d like to come. I did not know Livingston, where it was, or who this girl was, but I shrugged and agreed to an unknown adventure. Twelve hours and one speed boat ride later, we were in Livingston. I learned some things on the way. First that Livingston had jungles and beaches and the people were descended from slaves. Secondly that the girl was very nice, 19 years old and from the Netherlands. I learned later that Livingston was hot- very hot. And later on I learned that flip-flops are not only the most expedient from of footwear, but also great roach smackers. I offed Gonzales, but Speedy was safely out of reach.
I never actually made it to the beach or jungles- or anywhere, actually, instead of my hotel. I was sick. Being hot and sick was doubly awful. After a few days of utter discomfort, I was lying in my hammock staring at the stars, and pondering my own misery, and decided to surrender (this was more of a mind state than a physical act). Suddenly something popped into my mind. It was an inaudible message. It said, you will be used of God. I didn´t know what this message meant. I thought about it for a second, then thought about something else.
Again, I stress. Never make plans. Be open to change- you never know who you might meet, what adventures will be had, or what you might discover as a result.
Rule 2: Be out of your comfort zone
Walking through Guatemala´s markets, it is likely you will feel oddly as though you were at a church rummage sale. Chipped pots are polished and sold, boxes are taped back up and sold. Simply put, the leftovers of America´s middle class are exported to Central America for sale. I am always intrigued to see a native Guatemalan sporting an American college t-shirt. I saw a man once with a shirt that read, rehab is for quitters. I giggled, then wondered if he could even read his own shirt.
Another example of this leftover phenomenon is the chicken bus. The chicken bus is not only a way to get from point a to point b, it is an institution in Guatemala-and they are everywhere! Chugging out huge diesel clouds of blackness that envelop groups of pedestrians before fading into the cosmos.
Remember your old schoolbus, with the windows that you push in the two sides and click click up and never seem to stay up? It is probably lurching about Guatemala- repainted with wild colors, blasting Latin music and carrying a mass of bodies so dense it is difficult to tell where yours stops and another begins.
I had been in the bus since 5am, it was now the hottest part of the day- 100F- I guessed. Sweat drizzled and pooled thickly in the crevice above my lip. The air stood still- just out of reach of my lungs. I thought I might die here. I could smell and taste the heat. A lady´s arm pressed flatly against mine, a woman across the aisle held a sleeping child, curls plastered to his forehead. I wondered why nobody got up and shouted at the insanity. I knew if Americans were there, they might. It was all I could do not to. I looked to the rear- loose heads bouncing in unison- unconscious glassy eyes staring foreward. That must be the trick, I thought- surrender. Surrender to discomfort as I did that night in the hammock. I faced forward- closed my eyes- and let the heat penetrate my thoughts.
It was in a bus similar to this that I gained a new appreciation for the culture of Guatemala. I was the last to squeeze in. We were fit like Legos- stacked atop one another. Amazingly, just enough space grew to accommodate me and my pack. Suddenly 30 pairs of grinning eyes were upon me, curious about this blonde foreigner in their midst. The men were firing questions at me, the women smiled, shaking their heads at me in sympathy.
Despite feeling desperately on the spot, I grinned back and answered their questions, covering my face in mock frustration when the Spanish was too fast to understand. They laughed. To one particularly obnoxious teenage boy, I made circles around my ear and proclaimed, su es loco causing an eruption of laughter from the back of the bus. It was here that I realized that the culture here is very lighthearted. They are not making fun, but are simply teasing to see if you will come to their level. I was amazed at the strength of the people, who endure such poverty and incovenience, and are still able to maintain such humor. I was glad to have taken the opportunity to connect instead of ignore, as I had felt like, after a full day of exhaustion. A little boy next to me smiled up at me shyly, then fell asleep limply on my knee.
If I would have chosen to travel in an air conditioned plane with other tourists, I would have never had these experiences. I chose experience over comfort, and as a result, learned something new.
Rule 3: Learn to breathe underwater
It is said that when traveling alone, you are never alone. This is true. There is what I call a travel community. Travelers meet in bars or hostels, pair up, group up and travel together. Groups morph and change as new travelers join and others split off. Word spreads like melted margarine in the travel community, the best places to go, what cities have the most crooked cab drivers, where to get the cheapest beer. On the very top of my to do before age 25 (in ten days!) list is no 1. learn to scuba dive. Word was buzzing that there existed a small island in the bay islands of Honduras that had the cheapest scuba diving in all the world.
An hour after my ferry docked in Utila, I was in a classroom, snoozing to a lullabye of cheesy training videos. A couple of hours later I was under Carribean saltwater, kneeling on a sandbar, reminding myself of the first rule of scuba diving, breathe slowly and continuously.
My first thoughts on scuba diving- I hated it. I swallowed so much salt on my first day of diving, I swore I would retain water for a year. My stake was in the ground- I wanted to quit the class, sunbathe for a few days and get off the island asap- in the same way that some days I just wanted to go home and quit traveling forever. It just feels so unnatural. I explained to my instructor. Of course it feels unnatural she said, It is not natural to breathe underwater. I decided to face my fears and a week later, received my diploma from diving school and went on for a deep diving certificate, 100 ft down to a wrecked ship.
As a result of overcoming initial fear and discomfort, I got to see stingray, barracuda, and sea urchin, hold conch shells, and drift through caves and next to coral reef walls. Some days it feels as though traveling is like breathing underwater- getting by in an environment unnatural to you, without ability to come up for air. You just have to keep swimming and breathing- slowly and continuously- and cherishing each pearl you might find in the brown sand.
Stay tuned for juice bar employee becomes garbage dump volunteer and labor right activist .