Antigua

I got to Antigual yesterday afternoon after a long bus ride most of the way aross Guatemala. From Puerto Barrios to Guatemala City it was pretty comfortable. We were on a Mercedes bus which dated to the 80’s, judging by the decor.

I invented another of my somewhat random travel tips. (You might remember the last one: when out of ideas on how to solve a problem, sit down and wait for something good to happen.) This tip is simpler: always sit on the side of the bus where a thief will pick up your luggage from. Here in Guatemala it is the right side, because they only load and unload it from that side. Then you can watch whenever bags come and go and see if any look a little too familiar. As it turns out, I need not have worried because they issued actual bag tags, and the guy actually checked the number before giving me my pack! That doesn’t even happen in Amerian airports!

I arrived in Guatemala and pulled a Karl. (Sorry Karl, but you earned this.) I decided one way to be less of a mark in Guatemala City was to not use my map. The streets are in a simple grid, so it should not have been difficult to get to 18th calle and 4th avenida. The problem was that I confused avenues and streets and went to 18th avenida and 4th calle. As though sent from heaven, a taxi cab where there when I figured out my mistake. Now would be another good time for a Jeff Travel Tip: when you’ve screwed up walking to someplace in a big city, don’t fix it by walking more (no matter how sure you think you are now about the right direction), just bite the bullet and pay for the damn taxi. I paid, and arrived at the Chicken Bus Coop.

(Why is getting lost due to stubbornly refusing to look at a map called Pulling a Karl? Because in Fez, Morocco, Karl managed to explore and enjoy the wrong old city. Only in Morocco can you find the wrong old city. I think Fez has 3!)

The Chicken Bus Coop is my name for the place in Zona 1 where all the transport to various cities leaves from. It is absolute chaos. It was not made any better by the fact that there was an Antigua bus leaving right as I got there. I decided to try to make it and a guy helpfully took my pack preparing to throw it up top. I followed him, not wanting to be separated from my pack. Lucky thing too, because he was the conductor from the next bus back, and had stolen me from the departing bus’ conductor. Luckily, no words were exchanged over this minor foul, perhaps because the other bus was already roaring away. (In Senegal we got put on the second bus in line once and it caused a huge mess while the conductors argued and the policeman who had been sitting under a tree nearby had to come straighten things out. Turns out the first bus has dibs on the tubobs.)

The bus ride to Antigua, being my first Chicken Bus ride was interesting. It’s an experience best simply experienced, so you all should just come on down and give it a try instead of having me explain it. I recorded some of the patter of the conductor as he tried to drum up business. I think it would make a great sample for a techno song. If any of you want to try making a “Chicken Bus Remix”, feel free to ask for the recording. The one detail of the experience that fell short of what I’d heard before was that there were no chickens. At least in Senegal I actually got to have a chicken under my seat.

I arrived in Antigua and refined another Jeff Travel Tip: when you are in a bus station and people are pestering you (want a bus to someplace? want spanish school? are you american? want some beads?), just walk. Walk a block from the station and get your thoughts in order and your map aligned, etc. Normally you can do this on the bus in peace and quiet on your way in, but on a Chicken Bus, peace and quiet (let alone room to move your elbows to open the book) are hard to come by. I headed off in search of a hotel.

I got lead around by the owner of the (full) hotel I came to first. I figured this was a replay of Livingston, but I’d at least humor the guy while he attempted to rip me off. But the hotel he took me to was fine, and even took my passport number and everything. I asked about locking my valuables in the safe, and the guy said, “You and the Canadian in your room are the only ones with keys. And he’s Canadian.” Good enough reasoning for me!

My big reason for being in Antigua is to hike up Volcán Pacaya, which is active. So I immediately arranged a tour for the next morning at 6 am, then I went out for dinner early because lunch on the bus had been just enough to survive. (Jeff’s Travel Tip for buses: Never get on a bus without food and water. I think I got this one from Karl actually.)

I ambled aross town to the restaurant the both the Canadian (who is probably stealing my passport right now) and the Lonely Planet recommended, Cafe Sky. It was a total Gringo spot, but the food and beers hit the spot. Nice conversation too. But really expensive… $9 for two beers and dinner. That’s highway robbery by Guatemalan standards.

This morning I got up and did the volcano tour. It was awesome! It made up for the stupid tour in Livingston to a waterfall with no water. (I guess I forgot to mention that in my last update, intent as I was on talking about defrauding the fine hotel operator there.)

There were about 13 gringos on the tour. The closest to an American was a guy who carefully introduced himself as half Swedish and half (mumbling…) American. I didn’t have time to find out if he had a legitimate reason for introducing himself that way (i.e. never lived a day in the US in his life or something) or if he was just being a spineless prick. I suspect it was the latter. That drives me crazy… American travelers are the ambassadors for the part of the US that thinks about the state of the rest of the world. If you aren’t brave enough to stand up and say, “Yes, I am an American and I’m trying to fix things, so shut up” when some snippy Germans start picking on you, you should just stay the hell home.

Ahem. Pardon me while I stop frothing at the mouth. But it really pisses me off, and I’ve seen it a couple of times to varying degrees.

Anyway, we hiked about 2 hours up to the top of the volcano and could see the vents throwing out lava in little and big explosions. It was really incredible, and awe inspiring. It was also, of course, a little bit dangerous. I stayed near the guide, figuring he knew best. He only let us stay near the vent for 5 or 10 minutes. Just enough to rest and get photos, then we headed down again. He clearly had instructions to watch the time and stay within the danger zone for under 60 minutes or something. When we got back to the place where grass was growing he looked visibly happier. I brought back a rock, probably one of the newest million rocks on the planet. How cool is that? You can see intricate details of how it pulled apart like taffy as the gas in it expanded as it was cooling.

I got back to the hotel for a much needed shower. I plan to explore Antigua more this afternoon. I’ll leave for Xela tomorrow around 8am, unless I wake up early, which seems likely… I woke up 4 minutes before my alarm clock went off this morning at 5:30. It is official, Guatemala has turned me into a morning person.

The weather here in Antigua is way more to my liking. It is Redwood City weather, low humidity agreeable temperature, cool in the evenings, etc. Hopefully Xela will be nice too.

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