:: Coban, Guatemala ::
Jan 3 – 6
Antigua - Lake Amatitlan
We spent two hectic nights in Antigua – Elephante is quite big for those quaint cobblestone avenues and those decorative hotel parking archways. MANY, many gringos strolled in the plazas lined with fancy cafes and bagels shops – we felt like we were back in Monterey, California .
Next stop was Lake Amatitlan where we climbed with a fabulous view overlooking the Lake . That night we parked in front of a large, nice house on the lake hoping for a safe night sleep. When we cued up our whisper-lite to boil water for tea the owner of the house arrived and invited us in to use his plush 4 burner stove! During the invitation he waved a pistol saying that if anyone bugged us while we slept us to call him for help. Our gun toting host was Cesar, one-time second in command of the Guatemalan guerilla army! He showed pictures of him sitting in a bunker surrounded by fire arms, and another with Rigaberta Menchu, who also fought for the rights of indigenous Mayans. When asking for his thoughts on the recent elections in Guatemala he sat stiffer in his chair. While scanning our faces he cocked his head to one side and asked us who we worked for. He appeared satisfied with our timid responses and allowed the conversations to move on to his grandchildren.
Jan 7 - 14
Coban and Chisec
Coban, a small mountain town, is nestled between green, lush, wet jungle mountains and valleys. Misty fog dances between tree tops like spirits. Before the German immigrants arrived in the 19 th Century and founded vast coffee and cardamom fincas, Coban was the Rabinal Maya's stronghold in the Alta Verapaz region.
Coban was the place to enroll in a language program partly because it had an amazing special education school, EDICRI, and partly because we wanted to experience some of the many Mayan sacred caves, waterfalls and lagoons in the area. Coincidentally, as part of the language school we were placed with a family of two physical therapists, one of which worked at EDICRI. For a week we studied Spanish and visited EDICRI offering any assistance they needed.
While in the area, we heard about a Peace Corp volunteer, Mike, who was developing the eco-tourism in the Quechi Mayan villages around Chisec, north of Coban. For many years Europeans and Americans have been catching on to the natural beauty and adventure opportunities. And now with the newly paved road bringing tourists, the extranjeros are capitalizing on that beauty. So this progressively thinking Peace Corp volunteer began teaching the Mayans how to preserve their land while developing businesses and earn an income. Mike set out to teach them how to build eco-tourism adventure co-ops but soon realized that he needed to back up. ‘Tourism' was a concept quite foreign to the Mayans; why would anyone want to leave their home to visit another person's village?
Mike suggested the lagoon to camp for the night. As it turns out, we were this co-op's first over night customers! The entire town watched: purchasing our entry ticket, receiving change, opening the van door for the guide to take us to our camp site. Our guide stayed up all night protecting us. We offered blankets and a hammock but he insisted that he had a job to do. Looking nervously around, he eventually perched himself on a bench 10 feet away from our tent. Throughout the night when a sound emerged from the jungle, and sounds from the jungle are a plentiful as ones and zeros on a computer hard-drive, he waved the flashlight at the darkness. He then approached our tent with his blinding flashlight, urging us to not worry. In the morning our guide left as soon as we woke up so we happily guided ourselves around the lagoon. Simply beautiful. Majestically calm. As the water mirrored the shaggy trees celestial Rorschach ink blots danced.
We then toured two limestone cave systems. In Bombilpek we poured ourselves in and out of holes until we came to the room with Mayan cave paintings. Each room offered different formations of stalactites and stalagmites.
|"Most stalactites form when ground water rich in carbon dioxide dissolves the mineral calcite (calcium carbonate) from limestone directly above the cave. As the water drips into the cave, it loses carbon dioxide to the cave atmosphere and leaves behind minute quantities of calcite. The calcite accumulates very slowly, forming stalactites. In many cases, this process occurs over thousands of years. Stalagmites form when water, dripping on the floor from the walls and roofs of the cave, carries with it deposits of calcium carbonate, or calcite. Again as the water enters the cave's atmosphere, it loses carbon dioxide and produces calcite. The calcite builds up into colorful stone formations that look like icicles upside down." – World Book Encyclopedia 2003
the second caves system we toured, was just as amazing as Bombilpek. The river that swims through the caves enters and leaves 7 times. It is believed that these ethereal caves were used for sacred Mayan rituals.. including human sacrifices. To arrive at the caves we hiked in and out of jungle valleys until we found a precious Quechi village. The entire town seemed to stir as we arrived. Again, arranging to be guided was a town event- except that due to the more remote location, there was even more of language barrier. At one point we thought we had offended them somehow when three villagers retreated into their houses. We began thanking them with smiles and gestured toward the trail. The young guide motioned for us to wait. The three people returned, each giving us a couple of coins… our change. Uh, how do you say “keep the change” in Quechi?
One of our major destinations during our trip was to deliver a wheelchair to Jonathan, a young man with cerebral palsy. We had been carrying the chair on top of our van along with our kayak, lock box, and crutches – needless to say we experienced a lot of jaw dropped, pointing fingers. When we arrived in Zacapa, we happily alleviated Elephante of some of his load. We were, however, much happier to meet Jonathan and Jonathan's smile. His smile really was an entity of it's own- engaging and gregarious. With eyes tinkling and a sincere stare his smile reached across space and time and tickled my soul into fits of smiles. ‘Til this day, I feel my insides giggle when I remember Jonathan's smile.
The following day, Josh and I work early and gathered supplies from the local hardware stores. With the help of Jonathan's mother, Janet, we customized the chair to give Jonathan better head control and circulation. We left with warm hearts, hoping that we had bringhted their difficult situation a little.
Jan 17 – 22
Guate, La Capital
“Detener?”, “Si, Detener.” “Detained?” “Si, su microbus esta detainiendo. Turns out Elephante only had a 30 day visa in Guatemala (we had 90 days) and we mistakenly stayed 30+2 days so they ARRESTED our Elephante!! We rode a public bus from the border to the capital and stayed for 4 days as the extension paperwork was processed by some highly inefficient government agency. Granted, it was our fault, but we wished we could have paid a fee (or bribe!) at the border instead of having to stay in Guate, a dirty, congested, metropolis. We really aren't smoggy-cementish-city folks. However, we didn't mind gorging our eyes on ‘Return of the King' with an awesome surround sound system and heaps of buttery movie popcorn.