A weekend trip

Last weekend I took a trip with some other gringos from San Andrés. We rented a minibus for the weekend and drove south to Semuc Champey. It is an area with lots of limestone and lots of water. Predictably, there are caves there, and other interesting things to see.

We caught the bus at 5 AM from the shack with no walls that serves as the bus station in San Andrés. We drove south for a couple of hours over fair roads, then headed up into the mountains. The driver knew a “short cut” that would make the trip take less… something. We weren’t clear what, but he seemed to know where he was going. 6 hours later, after 70 kilometers of dirt road, we got there. It turned out that the short cut was meant to save diesel, and as we had neogotiated a fixed price for the trip out and back, it was to his advantage to try to save gas. I’m personally highly skeptical that a mountain road traveled at less than 20 km per hour saved any diesel over the slightly longer trip over pavement, but who am I to argue with a Guatemalan bus driver?

Though we were wiped out after the long trip there, everyone agreed that the chance to see backcountry scenery and Guatemalan mountain life was well worth the trip. We also agreed that we’d rather stage a riot where we overturned the bus and lit it on fire then return by any road other than the paved one. We bought the bus driver a tank full of gas to end his protests to the contrary.

Speaking of burning vehicles, it turns out that last week there were some protests (or, as they call them here, manifestacións) around Guatemala. The people think that the government is going to screw them over by signing a free trade agreement with the USA. They noticed that Mexican farmers lost their farms and had to move to the cities to work in factories after NAFTA was signed. Those same workers are now losing their factory jobs, as those factories move to China in search of ever cheaper labor. The Guatemalans suspect the same thing is about to happen to them here. There was a protest in Santa Elena, nearby, but it was mostly peaceful. In little San Andrés the pigs seemed to be blocking my way to school one day, but it turned out there was just some corn spilled in the street. The protests in Guatemala City resulted in several deaths, which the government has promised to fully investigate. My teacher rolled his eyes when he translated that for me out of the newspaper.

Anyway…. at Semuc Champey, we saw a place where an entire river flowed into a hole in the ground, and then emerged later. Really impressive. It looked a little like Oregon’s rushing rapids, except that the rock was limestone instead of basalt, and the river was under the rock instead of on top of it. We swam in pools nearby (away from the tunnel of death-by-drowning, that is).

That night, I slept in a hammock outdoors. It was a good thing the hammock was under cover, because a huge storm with lightening and everything came through that night. It was cool to sleep out in it, but I was a bit cold, as I was only in shorts and a shirt.

The next day, we took a cave tour. It was pretty extreme, by American commercial cave tourism standards. We were each given candles, then the guide led us into the cave. After only 10 meters or so, we had to start swimming! We held the candles up and swum with the remaining three appendages. It was pretty dificult and a bit tiring. But each swim, with the exception of the final one, was less than 10 meters. Between swims, we walked in the cave and sometimes crawled over rocks. The final swim was really long, and it tired me out enough I dowsed my candle and did the backstroke instead. Swimming on my back watching the cave go by above me, illuminated by my companion’s candlelight, was really cool. We had to climb up and down several waterfalls inside the cave, and there was one place where you could jump from about 5 meters into a pool. I decided against that, but I did pass through an optional underwater tube, which was really, really creepy. At the end of the tour, we went through a tiny passage with water flowing through it too. It was really crazy!

At Semuc Champey, I met a really cool family (a mom, a dad, and a kid named Max). The mom is an epidemiologist for the American CDC working in a field station in Antigua. The dad does computer work. Right now he is telecommuting to do programming jobs for his wife’s colleages from her last job – in Tanzania. So he’s telecommuting from “home” in Guatemala to “work” in Tanzania. Top that, Silicon Valley types! She told me that she had heard that MSF might be getting ready to pull out of Guatemala. They had to do this after several aid workers were killed in Afganistan, but in Guatemala, it’s a happier situation. She and I guessed that they probably have seen the local government make enough progress that they are willing to leave the operation of the clinics to the locals.

This is an important part of why I like MSF: they understand the importance of closing as well as promptly opening programs. Having a track record of closing successful programs when the locals are able to take over shows other governments who they are dealing with that there’s an alternative to putting up with meddling foreigners: provide quality service on your own. It is, alas, human nature to resent the meddling of outsiders. Fine. So MSF seems to use it as an incentive to help people make good decisions on their own! (This is just my observation, not based on anything I have read about MSF.)

I’ve written to MSF asking if it will be possible to visit a clinic when I am in Guatemala City. We’ll see if anything turns up.

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