Monday, 25 February 2013

Being a tourist: Semuc Champey to Antigua

It kind of feels like I left the real Guatemala behind when Dave and I rode off at the crack of dawn Friday morning. And I guess I did really, since then I have surrounded by fellow travellers and tourists in some of the most visited places in Guatemala.
Definitely a different pace of life. More creature comforts and money involved... and English!

It all started when I squeezed onto the back of Dave's motorbike somewhere between our two backpacks and day bags. It was a tight fit, and we had had to do a dummy run the day before to see how feasible the idea was since Dave's bike is for one person and has saddle bags not a second seat. But Dave said yes so I was in! Way more exciting than taking a bus.
It took us about 10 hours from San Pedro to Lanquin total, leaving at 6am and stopping regularly to regain normal  circulation and movement in our legs. But we made it! It was only 275km or something like that, but nearly 75km of that was dirt roads winding through mountainous jungle and tiny remote villages. So beautiful. 
The last 50km was absolutely stunning and a few extra photo stops proved necessary :) :)   100%  worth the bruises on my bum and general terrible mood by the time we arrived for that. 

Semuc Champey is another 11km of rough dirt roads from Lanquin but most people stay in one of the 2 awesome hostels in Lanquin and head into Semuc for day trips. The hostels there have the best locations, atmosphere, food, general vibe etc. and are full of awesome people! It's a really young crowd in Semuc. Love it. 
Dave, Spencer and I actually managed to make it onto the same Semuc tour in the end but it was VERY difficult to try and organise... and I was super surprised when, after Dave jumped out the truck to chase Spencer and then rejoin the group, they actually both slipped into the tour group as we were heading into the water caves with our candles!
The caves were awesome (you get to climb a waterfall with a rope and slide through a natural water Shute thing into another chamber!), as was the giant rope swing, jungle hike to the lookout and swimming in the cascade of natural pools after. Semuc Champey is where a river runs underground that some how leads to all these amazing natural formations - it was fully explained to me in spanish but that's all I got. Haha
It is made especially awesome because occupational health and safety hasn't come in and spoiled it yet ;) 
...but I'm glad Anna recently sorted out my travel insurance. don't worry mum I'm fine!! 

Then I said goodbye to Dave and was off to Antigua with Spencer for a week of Spanish classes and cultural activities! (tourist jam-packed itinerary: check) 

Spencer and I went to the same language school in town, but got there separately and stayed in different places; I opted for a home-stay whereas he chose to stay in hostels. So we actually didn't end up seeing each other that much! Pretty sure we both had amazing time though. He stayed one night with a couch surfer guy who owned an amazing organic farm and nature reserve kind of thing during the week!

My home-stay was more like a hostel that provided 3 meals a day. Originally I was pretty disappointed because this meant no spanish immersion which would have been great... But I got to meet heaps of awesome travellers who were also taking Spanish lessons or volunteering somehow in Antigua! There were usually about 8 people in the house I guess, from all over the world but mostly America and Canada. So not much Spanish, but lots of interesting conversation. And a lot of us were there for lessons so we whipped out the Spanish on the odd occasion ;) 

Classes consisted of 3 1/2 hours a day, one on one with your teacher running from 8-12 noon. Pretty intense. But really good! I could have really made the most of the experience academically by staying in after lunch and studying up what I learnt each morning every afternoon. But I opted for the touristy option and went on the daily afternoon activities run by the school as well as throwing in a free salsa class, hanging out with new amigos and a 2 hour chocolate making lesson :) so fun!!  Plus most of it was included in the school cost so I was just getting my money's worth the other way. 
To sum up my afternoons; I saw churches, ruins, museums, a hall of miracles and a saints underwear, toured a macadamia farm, hiked a volcano and toasted marshmallows on hot rocks heated by lava, found out my Mayan animal is the Tz'ikin, had a security guard escort me through the house of jade, got lost in the giant maze of colours, smells and yelling that is the local market and just generally wandered around the picturesque cobblestone streets of Antigua as well as the aforementioned activities. That's why I didn't have time for homework. 
I picked picked up invaluable travel advice over red wine and Gallo at the rainbow cafe as well as during the many family style meals where we just sat chilling in the courtyard/dining area :)

So that's a pretty good recap of my week in Antigua. I have decided that this general increase in pace is efficient, and I had heaps of amazing experiences... But I prefer the more laid back and real life aspect of San Pedro for sure. 
I've decided that after my week in Utila (Honduras) getting my PADI open water diving certificate and partying with a bunch of other backpackers (woooo!! haha) I'll head to Nicaragua and find an organic farm that I can work on for my board. Much more my style. I've even emailed a couple of places already. 
Partying at hostel after hostel and barely making it to the local must-see isn't very sustainable and completely out of my budget! So that will have to be saved for short snippets here and there depending on how ridiculously poor I am. Not too bothered either actually, you don't exactly learn Spanish doing that.

Fun fact: right now I am on a bus in Honduras (country number 4 for 2013) about to catch a ferry over to Utila which is the cheapest place in the world to do your diving certificate! (so I have been told by many different people from many different places) and we just stopped randomly for 20 minutes to change a tire. Hopefully we make the ferry...

And we is Spencer and I if you're lost, btw. 

Hasta leugo amigos!!!

Sunday, 24 February 2013

A month is really not a very long time.

...Well this is what I am learning! That and Spanish. 

Since there were so many different aspects of my month in San Pedro I reckon the best way to explain it is to break it down. So that's how this post works :) 

First the volunteering. 
I was so lucky to find a mix of teaching and helping at the health center! And i must have made some impact because the kids all say phrases from the 'good morning' song I sang at the beginning of every lesson when I see them in the street or at the lake. super cute! At least they learnt something. They are pretty good with numbers, the alphabet, animals, colours and a few odd greetings. I think. haha Their favourite thing was definitely parts of the body though. It involved songs with actions for example heads, shoulders, knees and toes and the hokey pokey!!  Music and games are the best.

I got to see some amazing things at the health center too. I think the amount that I made an impact and helped was pretty minimal unfortunately... but it was an absolutely amazing experience for me! that makes it worthwhile right? I witnessed a catheter being put in, saw a broken wrist, helped weigh local kids and distribute vitamins, helped send blood samples to test for malaria and dengue fever, witnessed a lot of immunisations (didn't do any, don't worry!) and so many other things. One consultation was completely in qu'etchi which is a local Mayan language! Yep. I didn't understand anything. I felt a lot better when they said later that it wasn't Spanish.  :)
The doctor there is incredibly nice too and it was amazing to get to know his family- all the people who helped at the center were his kids or their spouses. They are the most welcoming and patient people. They were always impressed whenever I attempted to tell them a story or ask them a question in my terrible Spanish! 

Second is the language exchange.
This didn't go quite as I expected it to. But I guess I didn't really know what to expect anyway! It involved a lot of me being very frustrated as Olga points to a word in the dictionary and explains it to me in Spanish when I could just read the English translation and forgo the confusion. Yeah..... 
And learning a language is hard. There's no way of avoiding that fact.
But it did get better as my Spanish got better and I got other materials to work with. Now I have a grammar book photographed into an album on my iPad, a phrase book, my notes and 6hours of audio lessons (thanks mum!). Bastante! 
So I studied by myself as well as with Olga, just asking questions and helping her with her pronunciation (of the few phrases she wanted to know in english). We didn't end up doing Spanish practise every day but we did quite a lot :) most of the time i showed her photos and got her to explain things like her very complicated family tree and traditions. :) 

Third can be living in the home stay. 
Such an eye-opening experience...
I had a curfew of 9pm because the house is in the process of renovations which means the doors are corrugated iron sheets that have to be tied into place when we are all inside/at about 9pm
I used an outside toilet across the street for a month, and probably had 3 or 4 real showers in that time too.  None of which were with hot water.
There was one power line into my room which I charged things on by unplugging the light. There were no glass windows, not tiled or carpeted floors. 
But nothing was missing. There was a bit of a problem when we missed the truck with drinking water and we almost ran out of water before the next truck came a couple of days later. But other than that. I didn't even notice missing all the extras. 
Each night Olga would come into my room to see how I was going and ask how my day was, and I would often show her the photos I took that day. She loved looking at the pictures. I will send her a couple of nice prints when I get the chance later in the year, she will love it :) 
Her whole family's amazing. Just about everyone is there at lunch and dinner every day. Not eating at exactly the same time but around which is awesome. They spend so much time together, unlike so many families in Australia.
My favourite family member would probably be Jaime their youngest son. He spent the most time hanging out with us at meal times and teaching us the rules to Guatemalan checkers and poker. He is just a lot of fun really! And he moved out of his room and slept in the dining room/living room so that I would have a bed! For a whole month! 

Next has got to be the other volunteers. :) 
It is amazing being able to share the experience with others, and as much as my Spanish suffered because of the continued English I think I needed the break with more than just my own company. Plus I have met some really interesting people and had some amazing discussions. A lot of the time about nothing in particular but other times I learn a lot of really interesting stuff. Joe, Spencer and Dave were there during my month in San Pedro but they all lived in the volunteer center at the bottom of the hill. It was our little gringo sanctuary with a giant green mango tree, green oranges, mandarins, limes and coconuts. The others worked in preparing the house to get chickens and setting up an organic  garden that will help teach local women the bet ways to cultivate vegetables etc. and provide food for the volunteers too. But a lot of the time was spent lounging in the hammock, swimming in the lake and climbing trees to get said fruit and eat it! We shared a lot with the local kids. There was a whole bunch of boys mostly who would come round every afternoon and play with us/pester us until they got a mango or two. They were so cute!! Whenever I got the camera out they would go crazy and run around doing handstands and breakdancing moves. 

Finally there are all the random experiences...
I can't possibly explain them all and a photo says a thousand words so it is probably best to check out my Facebook page and stalk my iOS album instead - that's where all photos from my iPad go. I've been adding to it as I pretty regularly, but I'll just describe a few here too :)

Easter and the evangelical churches of Guatemala.
So we are in lent now and the only reason I know this is because Guatemala is a really religious country and there is an evangelical church blasting Christian karaoke out into the night on just about every corner, every night. Gospel style in Spanish. It is pretty crazy. definitely took a while to get my head around the idea that the pumping music in town is for the church and not the local pubs (which are called cantinas here and filled with smelly old men - no dancing. ) 
One afternoon in my Spanish exchange with Olga one of the local parishioners (I think) came past with his wife and baby daughter and the next minute we were all standing and they were chanting a prayer that got louder and louder for Olga's granddaughter who wasn't well. 
So anyway, shrove Tuesday was a big deal. Monday night Dave and I helped Olga make Casquettas in preparation for the parade and fiesta the next morning. This involved filling empty egg shells that had been decorated with blue and purple dyes with confetti then gluing red/orange tissue paper over the holes to seal them off. Olga sold them to the kids, 3 for 5Q during the parade and then the kids smashed them on each others heads. :) oh and my head, lots of times!! The parade was with all the kids from the local school (no class so I tagged along instead of teaching) and their parents in some cases. We all wore decorated paper cone hats and crazy masquerade-esque masks then they walked the streets around town to the beat of three leading drums! 
It ended in the town hall and there was delicious street food and a kind of beauty pagent thing for the rest of the morning. Pretty awesome that I got to experience that! 

Another really exciting one was Olgas birthday :) 
It actually fell on the day that I left with Dave for Semuc Champey at 6am not to return again... So Dave and I decided to celebrate early to try and make up for the fact that we were leaving then. It was so fun. We bought a massive cake from the best bakery in Santa Elena, as recommend by a friendly tuk-tuk driver who stopped off there one time in a previous trip. I had to balance it over my head/off to alternate sides/squashed against my belly between Dave and I for an hour on the motorbike back to San Pedro - 20mins of which was dirt road!! Haha so much more than a cake. We also got her a present of a shirt each from the market that we wrapped at a newsagency on the way back. It all worked out perfectly! Then almost the entire family was there for dinner and cake :D I counted 15 people! And we all sang happy birthday in spanish and english, and a song that goes "we all like cake" in spanish and is sung at birthdays apparently. all we were missing was a piƱata! 
It was the perfect send off dinner for us and birthday celebration for Olga. 

And one last one. Cooking lessons! 
Just thought I would mention that I can make tortillas from scratch, epinadas, Angelicas famous salsa picante and pico de gallo salsa now. Oh and flour tortillas! And I can pick out the best coconuts to eat versus best ones to drink, and hack into them with a machete. These are pretty important life skills in my opinion. Yet to learn how to scale the coconut palms but I'm not sure if that will ever be a possibility... Haha 
Eaten an awful lot of beans, plantains, tortillas, rice and chilli salsa. And I really mean a lot. Lucky I like it all! It does get a little repetitive though. But hey, it's pretty much free! ;) 

Alright. I know I have missed out heaps but that's a pretty good look at what my month in volunteering with Buenas Cosas in San Pedro was like. 
Pretty good start I reckon. 

Check out the photos on Facebook!
Next instalment about Semuc Champey and Antigua coming really soon, trying to keep on top before I start diving in Utilla Tuesday. Yep, you read correctly. So excited!

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Already 3 weeks in San Pedro!

Sorry this has been a long time coming, but Internet is pretty difficult to come by.
Just letting you all know that I am still alive and everything is great!  :D 

I am on the way back from a day trip to the Mayan ruins in Tikal, amazing!! Dave took us both in on his bike and we found a shack with a few computers on the way through El Remonte (? Bad with names... Haha) so this is only going to be short. 

I'm trying to make the most of every day even more now because this is going to be my last week with Buenas Cosas. Then it is on to Semuc Champei (?) with Dave and Spencer (volunteer from Canada who is totally awesome ;P) before PROBABLY language lessons and home stay in Antigua, and scuba diving course in Utilla after that. Yay! 

Then I have to find a farm or orphanage to work on for cheap again :) super excited! 

It will be sad to leave San Pedro though, I am finally getting the hang of Spanish and starting to really feel like part of the family.
I have even done a few swimming lessons with one of the local kids because he was interested which has been really fun, it's cool to think I a, helping out! And the kids all yell 'good morning' and 'Revecca!' When I walk past and say Buenas Dias now :) :) 

Okay, that will do for now. 

I would love to Skype you all too but that's not really possible at the moment!