Chicken Bus

6 Nov

The soundtrack of chickens provided a balance to the rancourous bus engine.  I was on one of the famous chicken buses in guatemala, and yes, there were chickens on the bus.

There were also dogs on the roof.  As well as forty or so people packed into a small bus with seats for made for fifeteen.

There was only one afternoon bus from rural Carmelita to the city and the bus stopped every few minutes to load in more people.  Most of the passengers had to stand.  It was a tight fit.

Then just when there wasn’t room for anyone else, five men wielding machetes and cowboy hats stood waiting on the side of the road.

The driver promptly pulled over and collected the machetes before allowing the passengers to board.  I wasn’t sure if it was a safety precaution or just his attempt at saving space.

The cramped quarters led to curious questions from the locals. The men with machetes were on their way home from working the fields.  They liked tourists, they tell me.  Tourists bring money and work to the region.

There was something of a communal spirit on the bus.  An old man with just one tooth left was given a seat by a young woman.  Only the young children got short shrift.  They weren’t allowed to have their own seats.  When one little girl didn’t budge, a heavy set lady with indigenous garb sat right on top of her until she wriggled herself free from the giant confines of her bossum.

I tried to make her feel better by teaching her rock, paper, scissor.  I’m not sure if she actually understood the rules or whether she just got lucky three times in a row.

I had an opportunity to entertain another little kid on the trip as well.  A woman bearing two very young children stood waiting to board the bus well into the route.  She realized she wouldn’t fit with her children so she passed one of them through an open window into the hands of a stranger.  The second one came to me.

I spent the next several hours of the trip with a sleepy four year old on my lap.  It wasn’t until he peed on me that I was forced to pass him up the bus till he was reunited with his mom.

In the end, I never did find out why someone brought dogs and put them on the roof.  I did learn that the woman with chickens in her sack was off to the market to make a few coins.

And that was my chicken bus experience.


Hike to El Mirador

5 Nov

Middle of October, 2010

I´m in a misquito tent full of misquiots as well as one mean tarantualla.  I´ve just witnessed an argument between my fellow italian traveler and our tour guide over the best way to cook pasta.  Pio´s hands pleaded his case and exasperated, he vowed to never talk to Maria, the tour guide again.  It started two nights ago when Maria mixed ketchup with mayonaise in an unforgetatable combination that upset the italiean so –  that he wouldnt touch his plate, even after an entire day of trekking.

It is our last night together and we are on the way back from the lost Mayan city of El Mirador.  Covered by dense sub-tropical jungle, El Mirador has only recently been discovered and most of it still sits below a vengenful jungle canopy on the border of Mexico and Guatemala.

To get there is an adventure.

Four days ago, an ill-fated van with hopelessly thin tires and no suspension to speak of picked up myself and six other sleepy tourists from our hostel in the middle of the night.  It would wobble along Guatemala´s rocky backroads for the next four hours, the scenery wavering from busy forest to african like havannas.

We arrived in Carmalita, a relaxed frontier town with small wooden huts surrounding a soccer field.  It’s a warm, small community.  Maria invited us into her home and offered us chicken for breakfast.  I was happy when I learned the rest of my group was not very thrilled with the idea either.  Seeing our reactions, Maria whipped up scrambled eggs with homemade corn tortillas, avocados, and beans, and we readied ouselves for the hike of a life time.

The trail was long and ardous and although there were never any steep ascents, it was thoroughly covered with mud and painful brush.  We hiked with dizzying speed and no breaks were permitted.

Then after six grueling hours,  a blue tent became visible through the trees and two rangers greeted us with warm eyes and glowing smiles.  They were stationed there in thirty day rotations and any company was good company, even if we didn´t speak the same language.

After seeing the sunset on top of an old mayan pyramid, the rangers entertained us with stories of jaguars and mexican drug cartels and conjured up living nightmares by showing us scorpians and tarantulas.  Thrilled and shaken, we called it a night in our respective hammocks.

Hiking the next day was suprisingly easier and our group glided over the drier terrain.  The sceneray stayed much the same though and soon I was surrounded by one giant green blurr.  We played games and got to know each other to keep things interesting while we trekked.

I was amazed at Pio´s ability to spot out details in the otherwise mundane scenery.  Were I saw rocks and dirt, Pio would stop mid stride to avoid stepping on a dieing butterfly.  Out of the corner of his eye, Pio would stop me to point out a tree he recognized, a bird nestled in a tree, or a posinous insect to avoid.  He worked in a steel mill back home in southern italy, but he loved nature, and he appeciated it with all his heart.

We played soccer against the locals when we arrived at the camp grounds later that day and Pio showed us again why he was from Italy.  With every play, near foul, and missed goal, his hands flew up in protest and cries.  He accused our opponents of cheating and dropped to the ground when a defenders foot came near.

I loved every moment of it.

We spent the next day touring the vast city state of El Mirador.  At times, it took 45 minutes to walk from one ruin to the next.  This was one of the largest Mayan settlements and it was truly special when we stumbled upon El Dante, a fully excavated temple.

The heart of an empire once stood where we had lunch.  Men were killed and sacrificed and there we were, on blood stained steps, enjoying the day, humbled by the enormity of what lay before us.

Onwards we went, treading in and around archeological digs still in progress.  Shovels,and water bottles still visible from the labor that ended a few months prior.  Only 10 percent of the ruins have been explored and rumor has it that millions of dollars in ancient treasure still remains buried through out the jungle.

As we trekked from the ruins back to Carmelita on the fourth day, I kept my eyes out for any old artifacts that might still be abound.  I couldn’t believe it when I saw a ceramic hidden in the leaves.  It was a small piece.  Broken.

Back in my hammock on the last night, I examine my discovery.  It might have been an old plate or vase but it didn’t matter to me.  I was happy to have claimed my own little prize for the arduous undertaking I had done.

The next morning Pio and I would wake in the middle of the night to climb the heights of an old temple to see the sunrise. Suddenly the jungle which had almost appeared friendly by day was an eerie, unforgiving place.

The thunder of birds in the night startled us as the unkown intruders awoke them.   Territorial monkeys rustled the tree branches at the sight of two incoming men.

At the top of the temple, the jungle seemed haunted.  Like a magnificent optical illusion, mountain tops enshrouded by a thick layer of fog were belittled to little islands.

Then, beat by beat, the jungle awoke with every ray of the sun.  The earth groaned, like an animal unkown, and we could here a hungry tremor emanating from the center of it all.  Birds and insects became filled with life and a cacophonous song started the day.

Pio and I sat on top, waiting for the glow of the sun to warm us.  He was still sore from the previous night’s altercation.  Halfway around the world, in the middle of a dense jungle, cultural differences still played their role just like the struggle over who would have the rights to study the temples.  But underneath it all, the Mayan lay silent.  And next to us, a spear-like plant pertrudeding straight into the air, stood nature’s flag in the end.

Top of Mayan Temple

5 Nov

The lake of monet’s eye

Behind temples where people die

Time passes and shines

The jungle of the hidden mayans

It all comes back

The beat of the sun

Awakens what has already been done

Enshrouded by fog

Listen to the thunderous clap of the log

It groans and it sings

Animal unknown, like a hungry tremor it rings




Leaving the US behind (again)

25 Oct

This post will have to be updated…

20 man plane (including the pilots)

26 Sep

about to board a tiny airplane that’ll take me over some of south americas highest mountains and if all goes well, land on a grassy landing strip in the amazonas. scared to death but bought lucky charms at the local witches market so hopefully the journey will be alright. if not, 40 percent of my business goes to my sister and the rest to kaitlyn lucia.  want everyone to know that i love them and that i could have done great things.  its weird, because just a few weeks ago, when i was hiking alone with my machete and fantasizing fighting bears and wolves along my walk, i told myself that i was ready to go, but only as long as i went fighting.   thinking back on it now, i am definetly not ready to go falling.  but such is life – and tons of others have taken the same planes. so why today right? why me? i should be back in town on friday. talk to everyone then. and ps, no worries from anybody please. ill be doing all of the worrying myself.

Arriving in Cusco, Peru

17 Sep

arrived in cusco after a comical border crossing, complete with a marching band, kids, ice cream, and 3 wheeled moto taxis, and was never so glad to be off of a bus.

30 some hours were spent on an assortment of buses, the last of which included a family of evangelicals to my right.  it’s leader with fiercly firey eyes, who every briefly tried to convert me had a son whose favorite bands included marilyn manson and michael jackson, role models to be embraced.  an obnoxious woman behind me who wouldn’t stop puttinger her hand on my head, and a handful of corrupt drivers who kept stopping on the side of the road to pick up more passengers even though all of the seats were full completed the package.

Oh, there was also the worst music I have ever heard, music that was so bad I just had to buy it to show everyone just how bad it really was, and a sorry game of twenty questions with Steve, which showcased our differences and revealed we might have been spending too much time together.  For the record steve, thailand is not one of the Asian tigers – tawiain is.

at the end of the day, steve was a good guy and a good friend. and as an intellectual (and boy was he ever one) with his head in the sky, he said and did things to offend.  Looking back on it now, none of it was intentional and I hope I run into him again soon.

That night, despite my reluctance, we checked into a dingy motel offered up by an old lady in the bus terminal. i usually dont follow strangers to motels, but the price was right and nothing in the guide book sounded attractive otherwise. Plus it was me and Steve, and I’, sure we could have taken the old woman if she tried anything shifty.


I was wide eye on my first morning’s walk through Cusco. The streets and buildings were fozen in time, still made out of the same incan and colonial stonework of 500 years past.  The main plaza was a grandious illustration of towering old churches and spanish style buildings with tiny balconies and courtyards lined the streets.

I had heard cusco would be a flush with tourists. steve called it disney world peru, and there were even rumours of a mcdonalds on the central plaza. it was perhaps that my expectations were so low that i was so amazed by the city.

My first few moments oddly enough were spent in a library. i was up early, and most cafes still seemed to be closed. but i had promised alex some work and i was already a few days a slacker so i set up shop in the only placew i could find open, a quiet, cherry wood library full of peruvian university students.

That whole day would be all about business.  After the library and a pleasant meal to Peruvian music (think South Park), I roamed around, looking for cheap accomodation.  Afterward, it was time to handle the all important business of organizing a Machu Pichhu tour.

Cusco had so many tour agencies though that it was actually impossible (and quiet comical) to choose one out of the hundrerds.  Literally every single storefront was either an eater or a tour operator.  ocassionally there would be an internet cade or an artisan shop too.

i checked out the monely planet recommendations and there prices wereupsurd. the whoel process was boring, and rsoon ran out of the little patience that i have, ao i went with the recommendation of a family friend. the price was less than two hundrerd, there were bikes involved. i was sold.

the rest of the day was spent scrambling for odds n ends for the hike through the jungle as well as a few cocktails to see steve off.  cheers, man.

a look at the quechua of peru

9 Sep

i don’t claim to be an anthropologist, or know anything about the subject really, but i did spend a week in the andes through some unchartered terrority, far away from other tourists, and i did see a way of life that seemed relaitvely unchanged throughout the last milenia.  i’ve come a long way in spanish and can hold my own but there is still a long way to go.  for the locals of the ausangante mountain area, spanish is too a second language and though my guide spoke well, I did not think he was fluent.  And he didn’t always understand what I was saying.  But that all being said, here are some observations:

on religion: wasn’t sure if my guide believed in one god but he clearly believed in the idea of gods.  on the eve of our most dangerous night, the night when he had met a stranger on the road and slept with eyes open and alarmed, Jose told me everything was going to be alright – that god didn’t plan on him dieing just yet.  When I asked him a few days later if he believed in god, he repeated the same idea, this time using it as proof.  see, we’re alive. god does exist.

when we heard the howling wind of the mountains, jose told me the spirit of the mountains were making themselves heard.  i gathered that everything had a spirit, from mother eart to the mountains to the sky.

on the way to mountain picchu the week before, at an ancient incan site used for sacrifices, my guide took out a bag of coca leaves and held them in the air, gently blowing on them and offering sacrifice to the four corners of the earth. it was cute, gimmicky, and wasn’t the first time our guide attempted to explain an old tradition to us.  it was just that everytime he did, it seemed so fake and tourist ready.  apparently however, at least this tradition was quiet real, and still prevalent in today’s age.  Jose, my new guide for the Ausangante trek did just that each time he opened his bag of coca leaves.  And it don’t think he did it for my viewing pleasure.  He did it during the trek’s most dangerous overpasses as if it pay respect to the spirits in charge.

on women: women seemed to do a lot more work than the men.  in fact, i didn’t see many men at all.  when I pressed Jose on the issue, he explained that a lot of the men went off during the dry season to seek work in other cities.  Other he said were busy working the irrigation canals which were a ways off from where we off.  truthfully though, i didn’t buy it, not fully anyway.  meanwhile, women could be seen everywhere, hunched over with heavy loads, tending to anmials, working the land, and collecting small tariffs from us camping on their land.  many women never said a thing to me, and not only did Vacillio’s daugher avoid eye contact byt Jose’s wife did as well.

the landscape: Jose only got electricity a few years ago.  Before then it was candles that provided the necessary light for his daughter to finish her homework. He lives in an adove house.  He built it himself, starting with the bricks that were molded and dried with his own hands as well.  He has a seperate building for his kitchen, which keeps the smoke from filling his bedroom and a small out-house lies a little ways off as well.  In general, houses in the area have gotten much bigger.  Jose says he can still remember living in a tiny house along with an internal kitchen and his entire family.

Some might say Jose is one of the luckier ones now, he has fresh water as well.  A channel of above ground pipes that lie exposed to nature make their way around the houses of his village.  His village actually consists of no more than a dozen or so houses but he considers it his community.

Once on our walk, I asked him what town he were seeing before our eyes. He laughed and said it wasn’t a town but a family that kept on expandind. It’s normal in the area to have a half dozen or more children though Jose only has three daughters and joked that it even that was more than plently.  I suspect he might have wanted more but a few might not have made it.

I wasn’t sure where my guide made his earnings.  I didn’t think it could have just come from tourism.  His wife makes clothes and accessories and sells them at the local sunday market.  I surmised it was a bit of a risky business because she had to buy the materials to make her crafts first.  If couldn’t sell them, she’d be in the red.

My guide and his family had livestock just a few meters from home.  They tended to cows and lamas but it wasn’t for sale.  One animal could hold the entire family over for a month and it seemed mostly for consumption than anything else.  Crops they had as well, but it was only in the good years that they had enough surplus potatos to bring to the market.  Otherwise, it was mainly just to consume as well.

The sunday market is where the bulk of the trading and selling would occur.  During good years, the area’s surplus vegetable and meats would be sold to middlemen who would take them to Cusco.

Alpacagas: Just as I would miticolously avoid stepping in anything that resembled poop, my guide, wearing sandals no less, didn’t seem to have a care in the world when it came to walking on poop.  in fact, poop in the area is actually a lifeline of sorts as the locals use it for gas.  that’s right, huge mounds of tiny balls of alpaca waste are somehow used for gas in the kitchen.  Trees are far and between in this part of the world and when he met two little kids who were collecting firewood, they told us they had been hiking for three some hours to fill their bags with enough twigs.

Marriage: People are marrying younger these days according to my guide.  16, 17, 18 years og age.  As for himself, he married when he was at the old age of 25 and seems happy with this decision.  Jose couldn’t understand me when I tried to ask who pays for the wedding – and I couldn’t understand him when he tried to explain where the newlyweds live.  From what I gathered, a newly married couple gets a lot of land, but I wasn’t sure whose side of the family it would come from.  Jose insisted that his daughters could marry whomever and whenever they wanted and that he didn’t care if they chose to move to the bigger cities or stay near his land.

Global Warming: I doubt my guide knew what global warming was, and even if he did, I doubt that we would have a strong opinion or an agenda in promuglating its views.  So it came as a suprise to me when he described situations that came dangerously close to sounding like campaign talk.  The mountains have changed he informed me, that just forty years ago they were blindlgly white.  Some of them, especially a few in a particularly dry valley barely had an inch of snow left at all.  The land had been drier and warmer in recent years, conditions that are bad for farming, Jose said.  Indeed, we passed by lakes that had been completly evaporated in just the last few years.

Private Party: Jose and I walked through what seemed like wild abaonded country.  But just the opposite was really true.  The locals somehow knew exactly how the land was carved up though I never saw a fence to prove it.  Each morning, a woman and her dogs would show up near our tents to ask for a tariff, a fee for staying the night.  Sometimes Jose just gave them a few slices of bread.  I wasn’t sure if sometimes they just came down to chat or whether it was soley for the money.  I asked my guide one day what he thought about gringos.  Then I thought better of it and asked him what most people in town, not necessarily just him, though of the tourists.  Jose put his hands together, palms facing up and put them behind his back while making a farting noise.  Gringos shit money he told me with a grin.  This sentence unfortunately sums up my experience in Peru – though with a few notable exceptions.  The locals have bcome so acustomed to seeing foreigners with mounds of cash that they can only dream of that its created a sort of rat race to see who can get the most cash out of the most amount of gringos.  It wasn’t uncommon to walk past a woman on the hike and have her ask for some money or candy.

Jose: My guide didn’t have any blood brothers, but he called every friend he had a brother.  He group up goofy, probably having to entertain the guys in order to win their favor.  Indeed, one of his best qualities was that you can still see the kid in him – making funny noises and running around like mad when trying to multi-task.  Cooking was a spectacle to be watched.  So was cleaning.  The good news for Jose is that this gringo didn’t really care about cleaning standards.  In fact, sometimes he used the same techqniues I used in college.  No soap? no problem. Just run a bit of water and scrape what you can.  Nevermind that you’re using a dirty fork to scrape a dirty plate.  As long as it doesn’t smell and looks somewhat clean, we would be in good shape.

Jose was faster than me.  Even though he wore sandals and boasted over 50 long years, he beat me to the sumits each and everytime.  But when it came to stamina and walking long distances, and walking them fast, I’d say I had him beat.  50 was still somewhat young for the area.  Most people live until well into the 90s he told me and living past 100 was not uncommon.

Finally, my dear guide had a radio slung over his shoulder at all times.  Most other locals on the trail had simillar radios as well.  With no batteries and no antenta, I had absolutly no idea how they had any service at all.  But they did, even at the highest passes, and at decent quality too.  Aside from music, the radios served up-to-date news information as well as the time.  If I understood Jose correctly, they also alert locals of packages they’ve recieved through the mail.

Dreams: I asked Jose on our last day if there was anything in this world that he wanted, that he didnt have right now.  He didn’t understand.  I aksed if there was a thing that he wanted to buy, like a computer or a car or motorcycle.  He said he would love a computer, and a car, and a motorcycle,  A computer he wanted for his children, so that they could learn how to use one.  I got the impression these weren’t things Jose could ever afford to think about.  He doesn’t drink much because even beer runs a bit too expensive for him and his money seems tied up between electricity bills and school fees.  Not only do the locals have to buy uniforms and materials, but I got the impression they have to leave tips for the teachers as well.  As for his daughers, I believe Jose sees them as a sort of investment.  He doesn’t have any sons and says he won’t try for any more kids.  His explanation was financial, he simply doesn’t have the money for any more.  This was the first such explanation in the countryside that I had come across.  Food prices in Peru were some of the cheapest that I had ever seen in my life.  But even here I’ve been told that they’ve been rising steadily for sometime.  Jose told me he was worried that eventually he won’t be able to afford some of the basics like bread and that if his daughters decide to move to the city, he’ll have no choice but to go along with them.  It’s a possibility that he’s not necessarily in favor of, but one hes willing to entertain. it’s not up to him to decide what his daughers want. it’s for them. and with english taught along with spanish in their schools these days, they will probably have more opportunities than ever.

is jose a special case? are his views more modern than others. i think so. probably a bi-product of being an only child in a tighly knit culture and being the occasional tour guide with exposure to some western values.