Wednesday, 20 September 2023

1987 Travel Journal: Panajachel

    Climbing toward Solola, we passed through some beautiful countryside.  Vertical fields of barley (I think) clinging to the steep volcanic slopes among the pines.  Out of the windows of the bus, everything was tan and green, accented with golden piles of straw along the road, all accented by the pinks, scarlets, and purples of the ethnic Mayan women’s clothing.  

    The Guatemalan countryside seems cleaner than that of Mexico; not as much litter along the roadside, at least in this area.  The people graze their sheep along edge of the road, so the the grass is short and neat, with no weeds sticking up.

    The Mexican towns seemed funny.  Everyone was always out washing and sweeping the sidewalks, but at the same time, everyone was always throwing trash on the sidewalks.  You could never find a litter barrel, or a trash receptacle.

    I got off of the bus at the turnoff to Panajachel (Pan-a-ha-CHEL), my next destination.  It is a small town in the Guatemalan highlands, nestled beside Lake Atitlan.  An Italian couple also got off the bus, and together we began walking down the road.  The exercise was quite pleasant and welcome, after being so uncomfortably confined for hours on the bus seat.  It was good to be able to work the cramps out of my legs while slowly taking in the landscape and occasional Indian peasant we passed on the road.  There was a pleasant  breeze and warm sunshine.

    Soon my straps from my bags started cutting into my shoulders and the easy walk down the road became a hot climb up a slope, but onward we trekked, until fortunately, a French guy in a van came by and picked us up.  He drove us all the way to Panajachel and Lake Atitlan.

    I was quickly disappointed in Panajachel, I hadn’t expected it to be so touristy.  The layout of the town seemed rather disjointed and convoluted.  There seemed to be a lot of Mercedes and other expensive cars driving around, so it didn’t seem like the quaint Mayan-oriented town I had envisioned.  Sadly, the two dramatic volcanos on the far side of Lake Atitlan, were partially obscured by smoke.  Again, not exactly the pristine environment I had imagined.

    I thought it would be nice to take a swim, but I could see no one else doing it, so I wondered about the water.  Later I learned that swimming in Lake Atitlan included the risk of getting Hepatitus B—No Thank You.

    After a long search, I did manage to find a very cheap hotel room ($3.30 US, a night).  The bed was terribly soft and saggy, and the toilet had no plastic or wooden seat to sit on, so it is always a cold shock to your bare skin when it settled down on the cold porcelain rim of the bowl.  I had to fix the flush on the toilet shortly after entering the room.  Plumbing never seems to work in this part of the world.

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Tuesday, 19 September 2023

1987 Travel Journal: Guatemalan Bus Ride Continues

    The bus was snaking back and forth through the hills at a good clip, when suddenly at the bottom of a valley the bus slowed and pulled over to the side of the road and stopped.  No passengers were waiting there to get on and I couldn’t figure out why we had stopped.  

    Bus Helper #1 started yelling at the passengers standing on the bus steps beside the driver, telling them to get out of the way.  Once the area was cleared of people, the helper began rooting around through the pile of the packages, bags, and machetes, stored by the gearshift.  From the bottom of the pile, he pulled out a blue plastic bucket.

    Bucket in hand, he scrambled down the steps, and side of the road where a creek was flowing.  He dipped the bucket into the water, turned, and carried it back up to the bus.  While this was going on, Helper #2 was raising the hood of the bus, and although I couldn’t see what was happening behind the bus hood, I realized that they were filling the radiator with water.  Once filled and the radiator cap back on, the two  slammed down the hood of the bus and one after the other, the two helpers jogged along the already rolling bus, grabbed the side mirror, and swung themselves back into the open door of the moving bus.   

    The scenery outside during this whole circus was interesting.  Beginning at the Guatemalan border the landscape looked volcanic, with steep slopes, knobs, and mountains.  On these ridiculously steep slopes were corn fields.   I don’t know how the corn plants managed to hang on, let alone, anyone that was trying to pick the corn.  

    Periodically, I would spot a small scale logging operation.  At one, a lone pine tree had been cut down and was being hand-hewn into a beam, right where it lay, propped, so it wouldn’t roll down the hill.  Seeing that pine was the main tree species in the forests was a surprise to me.  I always pictured Guatemala as being jungly.

    Most of the trees had been limbed quite high, say 20 feet.  I assume the cut-off branches were used as firewood.  Having the trees limbed allowed sunlight onto the forest floor where the Mayans grew their crops, between and beneath the tall pines.

    The area around the city of Huehuetenango was very dry and reminiscent of Kamloops, BC.  Surprisingly, the area exports a lot of coffee.  As we passed through the town, I saw a funeral parlor whose name was something like:  “El Ultimo Adios”  which seemed pretty appropriate.  Our bus pulled into the bus depot for a 30 minute stop.

    I was hesitant to get off of the bus, fearing I would lose my good seat in the very front row that enabled me to look out of the bus’s windshield, but when I saw the bus helpers make a frail old Indian lady who didn’t want to leave, get off, I knew everyone had to.

    I found a much needed bathroom in the depot, had a Coke, and looked up stuff in my guide book.  When I glanced outside, I noticed that our bus had disappeared, but I figured it would be back.  When it did return, there was a mad rush out of the depot toward the bus.  Bus Helper #1 who was standing in the door of the bus, yelled and tried to get the teeming millions back onto the sidewalk.

    He then pointed to me and motioned me back onto the bus, while he threatening the mob with the police, if they didn’t stay back on the sidewalk.  The other Gringos were also allowed back on the bus, as they filtered their way through the anxious crowd.

    A bus employee escorted his young wife and child, as well as a black and white portable television set, onto the bus and sat her, the child, and TV, beside me in the front row.  I watched through the window as an official from the Condor Bus Company walked out of the depot with a paper full of names.  He stood blocking the bus doorway, reading names from the list and those passengers were then allowed to board.

    When he got to the end of the list of names, he just picked among the pleading faces, those privileged, to board the bus.  Once the chosen had boarded, the bus was once again tightly packed with passengers. 

    The bus employee who had brought his young wife, who was sitting beside me, reentered the bus and instructed his wife, the kid, and myself, to stand up and move away from our seat.  He then unhooked the seat cushion from its frame, pulled the window end of the seat cushion (my end) forward, toward the barrier, where it was put in place in that new, angled position, and he then motioned for us to sit back down on it.

    I guess this tweaking of the seat position was meant to free-up room (maybe 10 inches) allowing another passenger to sit at the aisle end of the seat with their legs jutting into the crowded aisle.  This new arrangement certainly didn’t do anything to make my life more comfortable.

    When I then sat down, I realized I was now squeezed against the window.  Beside me was the wife holding the portable television.  Beside her sat her two and a half year old son, and next to him at the end of the seat, perched another guy.  This is how we spent the next four hours.

    As the bus hit the road, I could feel my knees began getting more and more tender as they chafed against the barrier which they now touched.  The muscles in my buttocks began to complain about being confined in a constricted position from which they could not escape.  I shifted my weight as much as I could, but the relief was only temporary.

    When the bus made another stop at a creek for more radiator water, I took the opportunity to stand in place for three minutes, but the three minutes were fleeting, and I unenthusiastically returned to my cramped sitting position.

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Monday, 18 September 2023

1987 Travel Diary: Things Get Crazy on the Chicken Bus

The old school bus was now totally solidly packed with passengers, three squeezed into each bench seat and the rest standing shoulder to shoulder all the way down the aisle, but more passengers kept jamming themselves through the doorway, under the encouragement of the bus helpers.  With the seats overflowing, they were forced to squeeze those already standing in the aisle, into an even tighter mass.

One of the last to board, an old thin-mustached Mayan man wearing a fancy old pair of winged female glasses, found his place standing directly in front of me on the steps down to the bus door.  He clung tightly to the horizontal metal bar atop the barrier that separated the passenger seats from the stairs, trying to keep his balance, as The Condor darted back onto the highway.    

The bus was barreling down the mountain road with its door open.  One of the bus helpers was riding mostly outside the bus, with one foot secured on the lower step of the bus, steadying himself by hanging on to the rearview mirror mounted on the side of the bus.   I don’t know what the other helper was standing on, but he was totally outside the bus as it streaked down the highway, hanging on with both hands to the edge of an open window.

Inside the bus, all of humanity; those in stuffed into the seats and those standing tightly-packed like vertical sardines, all swayed in unison with the turns and gyrations of the bus.

Sitting beside me in the front seat was a farmer and beside him, a peasant man with a little girl on his lap.  The young girl was holding a woven plastic bag that squawked, whenever those standing in the aisle squashed against the bag, as they shifted their balance on the curves.  

Things then got even more bizarre when one of the helpers, who had been riding outside the bus, worked himself inside and up the steps.  Gripping the vertical pole at the aisle end of the low barrier beside the stairs, he put one foot on the top of the barrier in front of me and swung himself over me so that he had one foot on top of the barrier, and the other foot on the horizontal bar that ran atop the back of our seat.

He had straddled the top of the barrier and the back of our seat with his rear end directly above me, solidly propped against the rounded curve of the school bus wall.  Once secure in this three-point position, he leaned down and commenced hitting up the passengers for the bus ride ticket money.  Having collected the fare from everyone in our seat, he spider-walked himself using the tops of the seat backs, to collect from the people in the seat behind us.  In this fashion he worked himself all the way to the rear of the bus and then forward on seats on the opposite side of the aisle.  Along the way, he also collected the fare from the solidly-packed upright sardines standing in the aisle.

About this time, I noticed the head of a chicken poke out of the little girl’s bag.  Once it saw how ridiculous and chaotic the surrounding situation was outside the bag, it ducked its head back down in the bag, and I never saw its head poke out again.

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Sunday, 17 September 2023

1987 Travel Journal: Entering Guatemala

      An early start; again I beat the alarm which I had set for 5:45, and again I woke up with rumblings in my lower digestive tract, and again the Lomotil seems to be holding things together.

It was a cold misty walk through the streets of San Cristobal, empty except for a lone guy on a bicycle and an elderly Indian woman scampering across the street toward the lit facade of the old cathedral.

    I patiently waited in the bus station, happy that I had finished reading the awful “Artifact” novel, so I no longer had to tolerate its stupidity.  I left it behind for some other sucker to read.   After a twenty minute wait I was able to board the bus to Cuauhtemoc, which is located on the Guatemalan boarder.  The ride just outside of San Cristobal was picturesque, with the dawning sky illuminating the low lying morning smoke coming from the thatched Indian huts, that dotted the land beside the limestone hills.

    It was another madman driver who raced us down the narrow highway, dodging everything in sight:  horses, trucks, and old ladies with their grandchildren, honking his horn, and de-accelerating each time the 95 MPH warning on the bus dashboard started buzzing.  When we reached Cuauhtemoc bus station, a group of us Gringos shared a cab to the Guatemalan border.

    I didn’t know what to expect when we reached the Mexican/Guatemalan border, but once there, a Mexican Official came up to me and took my Mexican Tourist card, then indicated to me that I should walk across the border.  I slowly did that, not sure about what would happen next.  I was somewhat reassured to see that the other Gringo taxi passengers followed me.

    Once on the Guatemalan side, an official gave me a Guatemalan Tourist Card and asked me the expected questions (How long was I going to stay?  What was I going to do?)  I had to pay him 2,000 Mexican Pesos, and then he was finished with me, so I walked outside.  A Guatemalan solder who was standing just outside the door, motioned me over toward another official who wanted to examine my passport, after which he gave me another card of some kind.  He asked me if I wanted to exchange some money, which I did, so I handed him a US $5.00 bill and a 2,000 Mexican Peso bill.  In return I was given 14 Guatemalan Quetzals.

    Once all that official stuff was done, I wandered out onto the street, pondering my next move.  I noticed a white and gray school bus, with the name, “The Condor” parked nearby, so I thought maybe the school bus-type vehicle took us to a town where I could catch a regular more modern passenger bus, so I walked over to ask the man standing by the bus door, and he just motioned me into the bus. 

    The bus driver, a small man with glasses, wavy hair, and a thin, sparse, long beard, took my green suitcase and stuck it out of the way, by the gearshift.  I am always sort of hesitant about parting with my luggage when I travel, but since I took a seat on the front row on the passenger side of the bus, my green suitcase was sitting practically in front of me, so I didn’t put up a fuss.

    When the other 4 Gringo passengers got onto the bus, some of their luggage went outside, on top of the bus.  The old school bus was practically empty of passengers as we started on our way,  it was only us and the three Condor employees; they just hung around the front of the bus talking to the driver.  As our  near empty “Chicken Bus” proceeded down the narrow highway, it picked up about twenty peasant-looking Indians.  As they boarded, a bus helper took their machetes and piled them by the door.

    The old Condor school bus sped down the empty highway, until we were forced to stop at a military roadblock.  (The Guatemalan government was engaged in a fight against a rebel Mayan group at the time.)  A soldier in a green polyester uniform boarded the bus and one of the bus helpers motioned that I and the other Gringos should get off the bus.  He grabbed my green suitcase and put it on my seat, near the door, and beside the window.  

    I was bewildered again, as I obeyed the military man’s instructions, I got off of the bus, and walked up to the porch of the building.  There I was confronted with an official who carefully examined my passport and cards.  As he was dealing with my documents, I watched a huge crowd of peasants enter the Condor bus, and with some concern, saw my green suitcase come out of the bus’s door, carried by one of the bus helpers, who threw it up to another helper who was on the bus roof, and there it was deposited.

    When I returned to the Condor bus I could hardly get through the door, because the bus was so packed with passengers, but to my great surprise, I found that my seat had been saved for me.

    The old Condor school bus again started on its way, honking at vehicles, and small groups of Mayan Indians walking along the roadway.  As I was jostled back and forth in my seat I wondered how far we would have to go before we came to the next town, and maybe get a regular big bus to Guatemala City, but my thoughts were interrupted when the bus slowed and an unbelievable thing happened—it stopped and picked up more passengers.

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Saturday, 16 September 2023

Tired, Weepy, Eyes

    Yes, for the umptieth time this year, the mountains have disappeared behind a blanket of thick smoke, and everything else is in a haze.  There are still more than 400 active forest fires burning away in British Columbia.  

    Yesterday was very clear and windy, and I should have suspected smoke was coming when I noticed the gray-orange clouds as the sun set behind the mountains last night.  Around 1:30 when I woke up for my trip the bathroom, I did smell the smoke in the house, so I closed all of the windows that were open.  Then this morning, here we go again, my eyes very tired and weepy, a periodic cough, and the feeling that another, otherwise beautiful day will go to waste as I spend most of it inside.

    It did feel a bit strange with morning when I first walked outside.  There was a bit of cold bite to the air.  The temperature was 4°C (39°F) and normally when we have been getting smoke it has been with accompanying warm temperatures.  We still have a couple of months before the snow will hopefully start dampening down the forest fires, and all of this smoke will cease to plague us.


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Friday, 15 September 2023

1987 Travel Journal: San Cristobal de la Casas


I woke up way too early this morning, due to the repetitive clamor of loud church bells.  I don’t understand the persistence of them, they loudly clanged more than one hundred times.  As tired as I was, for some reason my brain couldn’t help but count them.  I made a futile attempt to go back to sleep, but my room was cold, and then my stomach began having some unwelcome rumblings that soon drove me to the bathroom.

Luckily, I had taken the precaution of buying some Lomotil tablets in Mexico City, in case I got “Tourista” during my travels, and it seemed as if that was what I had.  After a dose of Lomotil, I reenforced the  treatment with toast and Camomile tea for breakfast.  It all seemed to work because I made it through the day without any further desperate sprints to the bathroom.  

My morning preparations weren’t helped when I tried to take a shower.  Hotel Fray Bartholome de Casas only has hot water between 7:00 and 11:00 AM, but when I got under my shower, I got an ever changing mixture of the extremes.  First, very hot, which was then followed by very cold.  I expended a great deal of energy, by quickly manhandling the taps back and forth, trying to moderate the temperatures and having to jump out from under the water flowing from the shower head when the extremes suddenly appeared.

Once out of the hotel, my first chore of the day was to walk down to the bus station to buy a ticket for tomorrow’s 6:30 bus to the Guatemalan border.  While there, I ran into Anni, the Finnish girl, who was getting a ticket for the Mayan ruins of Palenque, a site which Joan and I had visited during 1981 trip to Mexico.

Anni, and I then went to explore the famous market in San Cristobal, which was full of the very colorful fiber crafts of the local Mayan Indians.  For someone like me, who loves color, the weavings on display were mind-blowing.  I had a lot of souvenirs to buy (mostly for Joan) and I bought a shawl for $6, a woven belt for $1, a woman’s “blousa” for $23, a finely woven net bag for $19,  a purse for $2, and for me; a pair of sandals in hopes that they would relieve my Athlete’s Foot that has been thriving, due to the daylong moist, warm, confinement of my feet in runners.) $9.25.  (All prices converted to Canadian dollars).

Visiting the San Cristobal food market was also a unique experience.  I was surprised at the range of the local produce that was being sold.  There were chickens, pineapples, chili peppers, bananas, and pigs.  The squalor of the place was frightening.  I saw a little kid being given a tortilla that had dropped on the filthy concrete floor.  Venders handed live chickens to customers, brushing them up against cut-up pieces of chicken that lay on top of the counter.

While at the market, Anni, got out her camera and took a photo of a little Mayan girl, and a man displeased at seeing her take the photo, threw a watermelon rind at her.  Anni had travelled all over the world, but this had been the first time something like that had happened to her. 

I met Anni again at 4:00 and we walked around town just looking at things.  One day in San Cristobal de la Casas was enough for me.  By 7:00, it was getting pretty familiar, so I bid Anni good luck in her travels to Palenque, and headed back to my hotel room.  I had to get up at 5:45 AM the next day for my bus ride to Guatemala, and I knew I probably wouldn’t sleep very well.

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Thursday, 14 September 2023

First Frost

    Last Wednesday, Sept. 6th, I blogged about seeing new snow on our mountaintops, and mentioned how important the seasons are up here in the Interior of BC.  I wrote that seeing signs of those changing seasons are very noteworthy to me.  That being the case, I am going to pause; leaving 1987 David in San Cristobal for a day to tell you that another sign of seasonal change happened overnight--we got our first frost.

    This was not a killing frost, so little damage was done to most of the plants.  In fact this morning when I got up our thermometer read 2°C (35°F) outside, not even freezing, but it was those areas, like my pasture, which is out in the open that got touched by the frost.

    The photo shows the small rounded ice crystals on the leaves of a lupine plant.  Lupines are tough plants and can stand a bit of frost, so no harm done.

    Hopefully tomorrow, 1987 David continue his romp through Mexico and on to Guatemala.

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