Guatemala Gets It

November 30, 2019

For all its endearing qualities, Guatemala certainly has its share of some pretty weird shit going on.

There is no postal system in the whole country, for fuck sake.  Really?

Be that as it may, one thing can be said with absolute certainty:  Guatemalans recognise a shady and corrupt politician when they see one, and they have seen plenty.

That having been said…

Guatemala gets it… AND THEY DON’T EVEN GET MAIL!

Still On The Dirt

November 10 – 24, 2019

**PART TWO OF OUR OVERLAND ADVENTURE BETWEEN GUATEMALA AND MEXICO**

Mexico or BUST

We felt confident, as did most of the locals who WERE certain we’d been screwed by Enrique, that Tikal was probably not a concern.  It was getting to the Mexican border, and then onward to Palenque, that was seriously in doubt.  As for the Palenque to Playa del Carmen connection?  Ha… just getting as far as Palenque was highly unlikely.

A number of other tourist companies had indicated to other people that they had completely discontinued that run.

Ya… ya.  We now knew about Enrique.  Ya…ya.  We shouldn’t have given him money.  Ya… ya.  We had subsequently read all the posted shit.

That morning, as we waited to be picked up outside our hostel , yet another tour operator stopped and asked what we were waiting for.

A transfer to Playa through Palenque?  From the guy with a scar?  Why do you guys keep giving him money?  There’s not gonna be any bus…

Ya… ya.  We’ve heard.

A taxi rolled up and stopped.

That’s your ride.  Good luck.

We got in.  The taxi stopped at the shuttle drop off.  But instead of us getting out, two more passengers got in.  A high strung, nervous Filipino woman we had met the day before; and a backpacker from Spain, who (of course) spoke Spanish fluently.

They had paid to get to Palenque as well.  The high strung, nervous Filipino woman had given her money to a guy with a scar on his face.  People had told her she’d been screwed.  She spoke almost no Spanish and was already arguing with the taxi driver, who spoke almost no English.  The other woman didn’t seem too concerned.

There’s not gonna be any bus…

Apparently, there was no bus… but, there was a taxi.

Across the street, Enrique pulled a handful of bills from the stack in his fist, and handed them to the same taxi driver.

Four passengers paid instead of two… make sure they get to Palenque.  Easier to get them there than refund them all here.  

As we pulled away, the “thumbs up” Enrique gave us was downright creepy.

Eventually, thanks in large part to the Spanish woman, the taxi driver seemed to warm up.  It seemed less and less likely with each passing mile into the isolated countryside that the driver was going to pull over and shoot us.

Twice, the taxi had to stop for military road blocks.  Once, I’m pretty sure I saw a one hundred Quetzal note pass from the driver’s hand into the hand of the guy with the automatic weapon during a handshake.

 

Four passengers paid instead of two… make sure they get to Palenque.

As morning became afternoon, we arrived at the Mexican border.  The taxi couldn’t cross.  We had to walk across, get our stamps from both the Guatemalan and Mexican authorities, and then wait on the other side of the fence.

Someone will pick you up.  The taxi driver was waiting on the other side of the fence.  In Guatemala.

After an hour, no one had shown shown up.  One driver on the Mexican side of the fence had asked if we already paid for our transport.  When we said yes, he informed us someone else will come.

Still no one.

Eventually, we saw the original taxi driver on the Guatemalan side of the fence.   He was on the phone.

There’s not gonna be any bus…

A short time later, he was passing part of the stack of bills Enrique had given him to another driver on the Mexican side of the fence.

Someone will pick you up.

He signalled that this was the shuttle that would get us to Palenque.  Yes… it was paid for.

Four passengers paid instead of two… make sure they get to Palenque.

We piled into the car.  Four hours later, we were dropped off at the bus station in Palenque.   Inside, we stepped up to the ticket booth.  The woman didn’t speak English at all.

She looked at the “voucher” and smiled.  No… we definitely did not have tickets already reserved in the system.  Yes… it would cost us about one hundred US dollars to buy tickets from Palenque to Playa del Carmen.  No… she probably didn’t know Enrique.

Four passengers paid instead of two… make sure they get to Palenque.  Only two paid for the final connection… and they’ll be in Palenque when they find out the truth.

Paying too much for tickets, that was one thing.  But we had been sold tickets that didn’t actually exist… a whole different level of asshole.

But, hey as far as getting screwed, it could have been a lot more painful screwing.

Enrique is a weasely, dishonest, and unethical fat bag of shit.  Although returning to Flores to confront him could be potentially very satisfying, the Cartel connections (he more than likely has) make that prospect almost certainly a much more foolish venture.

Dumb mistake already made.  Best not to make an even dumber one.

Playa del Carmen

Some reunions can be orchestrated, some are the perfect fortune of unscheduled converging orbits, some are completely random and unforeseen.  Sometimes you get all of the above.

Such was the case for us in Mexico.

A planned reunion with Shannan and Vicki, our oldest and dearest friends from Pullman, who would be in Playa del Carmen for nearly two weeks.

Mostly eating and drinking, with an occasional wander around town or even out to Cozumel for the day.

It is when you get to see the people most dear to you that you can truly appreciate how special those moments really are.

Also, to our delight, three additional people would emerge from our Scuba Junkie past during that same time.

After almost three years, it was incredible to see Nic and Gavin again.  Not only catching up with them over food and lots of drinks; but also a day diving the two ridiculous cenotes, The Pit and Dreamgate.  It’s cool enough to go diving with SJ family, even better that we are returning to Dreamgate, a magical cenote we had the fortune of diving over fifteen years prior.  At that time, it had only been discovered a few months earlier and we were among the first two dozen people that had even been inside.  It was special to be able to share that with two old SJ friends from the other side of the world.

At The Pit, while we were changing over tanks, a woman in the pickup parked next to us recognised Gavin’s Scuba Junkie shirt.  An American who worked for another dive shop on Mabul nearly ten years ago remembered me from the MBR bar… fucking crazy.

And, at Dreamgate, our first tarantula in the wild.  Anyone who knows Kris, knows this was not a highlight of her day.

And later that day another SJ face from the past, a Canadian named Shane along with his girlfriend Sheena, caught up with us for the food and beverage part of the reunion.  The fact that he, too, was in the same location made the statistics seem impossible.

Sometimes the scale of everything seems vast and endless; impossibly unlikely in its particulars.  Other times, it seems like Jerry Falwell or Rod Serling are the only people who can offer plausible answers to impossible realities.

Fucking weird… must be the converging energy vortex.

Oh ya… and more random jams in bars.  This one with a smoking’ blues band one night while wandering in Playa del Carmen.

Have to go through Flores, eh?

Turns out, you pretty much have to pass through Flores in order to get back to the Rio Dulce, whether through Palenque (which we had no desire to pass back through), or Belize City (which might cost us just to cross the border).

Turns out, once you get back to back to Flores, it’s really hard not to walk past Enrique’s tourist office.  Just a matter of principle.  Just to have a chat.

Turns out once he screws you, you pretty much won’t see Enrique if you arrive at the office looking for Enrique.

Maybe… it’s for the better.

Maybe… one of those pivotal moments you never realise.  You don’t realise it because Enrique wasn’t actually there to make everything suddenly turn out potentially very differently… potentially very badly.

Survival… as a rule, a higher priority than revenge or justice.

Maybe… it’s for the better; part of that converging energy vortex.

Less than twenty four hours in Belize

If you’re in Belize for less than twenty four hours… you only pay US$32.50 instead of $40 to clear out… sweet?  Ok.  Fuck… really?  What’s it gonna take to get back to Exit?

At least we scored on two litres of coveted Belize One Barrel Rum during our stopover at the Belize City bus station… yes!

It was literally off the bus at the Mexico/Belize border, walk across the border after clearing past authorities on either side, then back on the bus.  Off the bus again at Belize City to purchase a ticket onward directly to Rio Dulce, wait four hours at the bus station (during which I had a wander into the nearby market and secured the two bottles of One Barrel), then back on a bus to the Belize/Guatemala border… less than twelve hours total inside Belize and a savings of fifteen dollars with Immigration.

Back to the Rio Dulce

A lot of shit needed to be done aboard Exit.  Nothing that required a haul-out;  but a handful of things that would certainly be easier with marina access.

Plus we definitely could use the free water.  We had filled tanks using the watermaker once since entering the Rio Dulce, but had heard mixed advice and were trying to avoid it, if possible.

So…

  • Re-galvanise Rocna anchor
  • Replace Perkins oil and filter
  • Replace Racor and Perkins fuel filters
  • Replace the fuel hoses we had made in Roatan
  • Clean and waterproof dodger cover
  • Clean and waterproof bimini
  • Clean and oil interior wood
  • Sort out dinghy chaps
  • Sort out deck sun shades
  • Sort out bimini side sun shades
  • Replace the propane hose we had made in Roatan
  • Refill the near empty propane tank
  • Add spray insulation around fridge and freezer shells
  • Update our Navionics software (and set up our new iPad)
  • Fill the water and fuel tanks

A serious list.  Certainly not everything.  But an admirable dent for one stop.  Everything but the Sunbrella work and the anchor re-galvanising we were able to do ourselves.

We were ecstatic with our dinghy chaps and deck sun shades (which included an outboard cover), made by a local canvas guy named Nery.  His work was top quality, and he had everything done by the time we had returned.

But we were ready to cast Exit’s lines off the dock pilings and get back at anchor, damnit!

Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving Day in a marina… ewww.

Yes.  The food was fabulous.

Yes.  Both the hospitality and kindness were limitless.

Yes.  The mean age of those in the marina had to be in the seventies.

Yes.  We were uber-thankful to be getting back at anchor in two days.

We had promised the marina managers we’d be out of the slip by the end of the month.  There were still a handful of things on the to-do short list, but they could wait days or weeks, and certainly didn’t require being tied up at a marina.

The three-country-road-trip was well worth all the effort.  However, neither of us could deny, we were both eagerly anticipating the chance to let Exit, once again, swing with the wind at the end of her anchor chain…

…where she belongs.  That, or underway.

Back On The Dirt

October 15 – November 10, 2019

Ten days in Fronteras gave us just enough time to acclimate to the area, get some logistics sorted for our land journey to Mexico, start the process on a couple of boat projects which would be undertaken while we were away (re-galvanising our Rocna anchor as well as having dinghy chaps and sun covers made).

The town of Fronteras, in many ways, reminded us of a much nicer smelling Semporna (from our Scuba Junkie days in Borneo).

The Shack, one of the bars on the waterfront, quickly became a favourite place to hang out.  Gin and Tonics for less than a dollar fifty were the initial draw.  The owner, Marvin, is a great guy who offers open mic night every week, which opened the door to meeting a really talented musician named Jerome.

Every now and then, our paths place us in an orbit with some really fascinating people… and Jerome is certainly one of those people.  Not only did he have some great stories as well as a lot of insight for us as sailors, but he was also an awesome front man on guitar, harmonica, and vocals for me to jam with during two different open mic nights and even a late night jam in the cockpit.

I couldn’t understand some of the scientific vocabulary used by the hyperbaric physicist, and some of the things I could understand just seemed downright bat-shit mental.  But, one thing for sure, I always enjoyed Jerome’s company.  And he has damn fine taste in guitars… long live Guild!

But now it was time to leave Exit tied to the dock at Monkey Bay Marina, and head further inland to do some land-based traveling by bus.

We had figured out a route through Guatemala and Mexico, that would get us to Playa del Carmen in time to see old friends while still making a number of stops along the way to see more friends and take in the sights.

On paper, our route roughly resembled what could have been a child’s drawing of a sailboat… ironic.  In actuality, there was no mistaking it… we were definitely back on the dirt.

… and back on the bus.  For Kris’ birthday, no less.

Antigua

Described in one guide book as:  a fantasyland that would never be included in a list of authentically Guatemalan experiences.  Building codes are adhered to, garbage in the streets is picked up, and stray dogs mysteriously disappear during the night… more like what a Guatemalan town would be if Scandinavians had taken over for a couple of years.

We liked it.

Less aggressive hawking.  Very chilled environment.  Amazingly vibrant colours covered the walls of century old buildings with the most striking and eclectic display of front doors we have ever encountered.  Timeless (and horribly difficult to navigate) stone streets remain untouched as part of the agreement securing Antigua’s UNESCO Heritage status.

A brief reunion with Craig’s daughter Zoe, who now lived in Antigua, put us on the inside track to a couple of memorable bars.

Cafe No Se, a bar opened by an American expat twenty years prior, had an incredible story behind it, as relayed to us by its fascinating owner John.  Dark and mood lit with surreal towering wax candle sculptures, it had all the vibe I would imagine of a Prohibition-Era Speak Easy.

Complete with a small book store hidden behind an antique refrigerator door attached to the wall — the location where illegal bootleg mescal had been sold in the early days of the bar — the now legal, but still fittingly named Illegal Mescal, had recently placed second in international tequila competitions.

The Irish bar Snug also turned out to be a great source of pub food and happy hour specials, with the exception of a near heart attack inducing hour when Kris thought she had lost her iPhone one night… eek!

The Earth Lodge

An eco-lodge on the side of the mountains with a perfect view of Antigua down in the valley surrounded by volcanos.  On a clear enough night, we could just see the red glow of actual lava spewing out of the active volcano Fuego.

We decided to move each day from one to another uniquely designed bungalow, just to have a different view of the valley.   Quiet and tranquil would be an understatement.  More than easy to do absolutely nothing for a few days.

Kite Festival of Sumpango – Day of the Dead

The Day of the Dead.  Though it sounds more like an episode from the Zombie Apocalypse series, it is actually more of a family oriented celebration tying the the living to the dead.  Families gather in cemeteries for picnics, offerings are made to the deceased, and attempts to communicate with the dead are initiated.

For nearly twenty years, the tiny town of Sumpango hosts thousands of people attending the Gigantic Kite Festival every November first, celebrating the Day of the Dead.  The elaborate kites, ranging in size from a couple of meters to six meters in diameter, are displayed on a football field.  Eventually, all but the largest will make an attempt at flight amongst a field of onlookers.

The kites, constructed and flown by families commemorating the deceased, are considered conduits through which communication between the living and dead can be enhanced.

It’s a county fair vibe, with the added flare of potential risk of injury or death from a gigantic flying toy.

Lake Atitilan

Apparently one of a handful of places on Earth located in the midst of an energy vortex of some cosmic significance well beyond my comprehension… which essentially seemed to mean a universal convergence point for a lot of pot smokers and yoga instructors.

Before taking a water taxi to the town of Santa Cruz, we stopped at a restaurant/bar at the edge of the lake for drinks, where I befriended one of the local musicians.  Later we learned that a man who owed the Cartel money was executed outside this very restaurant one morning, just a day or two after these photos were taken… fucking hell.

The area… picturesque, without a doubt.  A huge lake surrounded by dormant volcanoes covered in lush jungle.

Even better, another Scuba Junkie reunion.  This time with Ollie and Flo, two old SJ friends.  Ollie, one of our dive master trainees from ten years back, with Flo, now manage Isla Verde, a beautiful resort located right at the edge of the lake.

It was the first time we had the pleasure of meeting their 3 year old son, Henry — obviously a sailor in the making who, when shown a photo we took in Antarctica of a penguin which occupied eighty percent of the photo’s field of view, Henry managed to point out the tiny, out-of-focus boat in the background.  Good skills swab!

We can’t thank Ollie and Flo enough for all their hospitality, as well as thanks to Isla Verde’s owner Riley.  Its alway amazing to see Junkies in strange places.

And… traditional American blues guitar artists playing during the nightly happy hour on a REAL record player?  In the jungle of Guatemala?  Really? Holy shit!  Now that is righteous.

Though we didn’t quite achieve that performance level at open mic night, to be fair… everyone was pretty trashed.  Good times.

On a bit of a side note… I must admit that, once again, I was the individual responsible (or irresponsible should be the term) for the bar’s gin stock running dry.  One of the dangers of having Gin & Tonic specials!

Flores (Suckers making a rookie mistake)

We had just taken an overnight bus from Lake Atitlan, requiring a bus transfer in Guatemala City that ultimately dropped us off just outside the island town of Flores.

Buses, in Central and South America, are a remarkably comfortable and affordable travel option.  The “executive first class” option lands you in a seat comparable to a Lazy-Boy recliner in comfort, usually for well less than a hundred dollars.

However, the temperature inside the bus’ lower deck can be that of a meat freezer.  The only possible justification we could conjure up was an attempt at maximum air ventilation, without which could result in sleeping inhabitants fatally succumbing to either diesel or latrine fumes.

When we stumbled off the bus just after sunrise, our brains may have actually been mildly hypothermic.  We waded through the first wave of taxi drivers and asked a small old man toward the back of the group to take us to the hostel Kris had reserved before we left Isla Verde.

Over the course of the next hour we made a number of what can only be described as inexcusable rookie mistakes that left us scratching our heads at our own stupidity and complacency a short time later.

Inexplicably, by seven a.m., we had made and paid for reservations not only to the ruins of Tikal, but also for bus tickets to the Mexican border and onward to Playa del Carmen.

By nine a.m., we had realised there was a high probability we had been suckered.

The battery in Kris’ iPhone, which had died on the overnight bus trip twelve hours earlier, preventing any online research while we were underway, was now sufficiently charged.  Enough so for Kris to start finding all kinds of TripAdvisor and other online warnings regarding the dishonest and unethical business practices of Enrique – the same fucker who had just sold us the tickets.

If we had paid too much for tickets, that was one thing.  But if we had been sold tickets that didn’t actually exist… that would be a whole different level of asshole.

We decided a visit to the tourist police INGUAT was worth the time.  However, in a very broken conversation we were able to ascertain that, while yes, they were well familiar with the shady business practices of Enrique the scar-faced Cartel thug, they couldn’t do anything in this instance until after he had actually ripped us off… fuck.

They made copies of everything we had and sent us on our way, inviting us to contact  them if it all went to shit.

Tikal

Test question number one from the “Did Enrique really screw us?” inquiry was whether we would even be picked up for the day trip to the Tikal ruins.

We were… and to be fair with full disclosure, it was a great day trip.  The guide Ruben, a Mayan descendent who was living on part of the land converted to national park when Tikal gained UNESCO Heritage status, was incredibly knowledgable and had a personal stake in passing on the history as well as carrying on the legacy of Tikal.

The Maya were aware that the earth was round and orbited the Sun.  Maya hieroglyphic script is one of only five basic writing systems ever developed in the history of mankind. The Maya calendar, over five thousand years in its cycle, is more accurate than the Gregorian calendar currently in use.  They were the people from which the Aztec and Inca civilisations emerged.

For over a thousand years, Tikal represented the heart of the Maya civilisation.  The city’s structures, built between 600 B.C. and 900 A.D., pre-date both Machu Picchu and Chichen Itza.  And yet, ultimately, Tikal was mysteriously abandoned within one hundred years time.

The already excavated structures number only a fraction of the thousands of earthen mounds scattered throughout the area.  Mounds that hide additional currently undisturbed Mayan ruins, have remained swallowed by the thick Guatemalan jungle for over a millennium.

Wandering around the remnants of what had once been a gleaming central hub for tens of thousands of people was surreal. Massive limestone temples and structures silently emerged from their still partially buried states, peaking out above the upper canopy of the surrounding trees.  Even with their staggering scale, they struggle to remain free, as the jungle relentlessly seeks to reclaim them.

Later, it was amazing to learn that, fifty years before, my Mom’s sister had cooked breakfast on a Sterno stove atop one of the same Tikal ruins we were currently standing on… crazy.

To be continued…

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