One year after the adventure of a lifetime…
One year after the adventure of a lifetime…
Reflecting back on my trip, I have much to be thankful for. Returning sans body bag, for example. One thing I can say for sure, is that I truly lived. I had goals and dreams, and I saw them come true. I had a few lazy days, but for the most part, I lived an adventure. Here is a list of some of my experiences (Click the links for pictures and details)
But best of all, I established friendships with many people, locals and travellers alike, and now there are many homes around the world where I am welcome. These same people are also welcome in my home, as they already reside in my heart. (Save your jokes about my “home” for now. lol)
Although my trip ended a little sooner than I planned, I can still call it a success. I had the time of my life, and I am SO glad I took the risk and lived my dream. Now I can honestly sing along with OneRepublic in their song, “I lived”:
I owned every second that this world could give
I saw many places, the things that I did
With every broken bone, I swear I lived
bzzzzz… bzzzzz… bzzzzz…
I felt my phone shaking in the bed beside me. “What time is it?”, I thought as my mind slurred from slumber to life.
I opened my red eyes and looked at my phone. 4AM!?! Four-letter words slipped out from between my lips as I jumped down from my top bunk in a dormitory of 14 people. I had set my alarm for 3:30, but I had only gone to bed at 2, and so was in “Limbo” (inception reference) when my alarm went off.
My bus was scheduled to leave Playa del carmen for the airport at 4:30, and I could not afford to miss that bus! I had been pick-pocketed, and had already used up all of my savings on my trip, and if I missed that bus, there was no way I could afford a cab to get myself to the airport.
I hurriedly finished my packing, checked out, and ran down the street with my backpack and front pack jostling with every step. I realized, as I ran, that I had left my $25 travel towel (you really must buy one, it’s awesome!) hanging on my bed, but there was no going back for it now.
I reached the terminal as the bus was boarding. I threw my big bag below and jumped on. The bus driver was having a heated argument with a passenger.
The hour-long bus ride went smoothly, but I was worried. As I sat there, doing math in my head, I figured I could just barely afford to pay Mexico’s exit tax.
Once we arrived, we had a frightening experience, as one traveler had passed out on the bus, and no amount of shouting and shaking could wake her. Eventually, one of her friends picked her up and carried her out into the parking lot, where she later revived.
It turned out I didn’t have to pay the exit tax, so I had 300 extra pesos to my name, but that didn’t help me at checkin time. In order to check luggage, one has to pay by credit card. I had nothing left in the bank account behind my Visa debit card. No checked luggage for me! I found an American Airlines staff member, and asked her what to do. She suggested I throw out all of my liquids and gels, and take my big backpack as a carry on.
So I went to the bathroom, brushed my teeth, then threw my toothpaste in the garbage. I rubbed my beard softener into my facial fuzz, and threw that out too. Next, I applied Voltaren Emulgel to my aching back and threw that out too. My wallet shed a tear.
Tales of airports are not that exciting, so I will simply say I landed at JFK without incident.
There, my flight to Toronto was delayed. I was starving, and needed to notify my mom that I would be running late.
The WiFi didn’t work. Of course. Not at all. Not even one kilobyte of information could get through. So, I went on the market for a calling card. 10 USD. I had 5 USD.
I went to the currency exchange place, and started digging through Pesos, Quetzales and Belizean dollars, looking for anything I could convert to USD. I had $10 CDN, but I would need that for the GO bus, so my little portrait of Sir John A. had to stay as it was.
I managed to convert enough money to buy a calling card, sandwich, and a bottle of water, and I was much relieved.
On arrival in Toronto, I had just missed a bus and would have to wait for an hour, but that gave me time to reactivate my Canadian cell phone number and start getting my life organized. I sent a few texts, and made my presence in Canada known to a couple of trusted friends.
Finally, two hours late, I arrived at Kelsey’s in Richmond Hill. It’s the same Kelsey’s where mom and I used to meet in the years when I used to live nearby.
I was the first off the bus, and walked with speed over to Kelsey’s. As I opened the door, a staff member came out, and said, “Are you Matt? Your mom is so excited to see you!”
The next staff member looked at my bags and said, “Did you just arrive from Guatemala? Your mom has been talking about you!”, as she took me to a booth where my mother was waiting for me. After a hug, we sat down and ordered the balsamic chicken, just like old times.
The waiter, coincidentally, was a waiter who served us back in those years when mom and I used to go often, so we caught up, and I shared stories of my trip. Every once in a while, I would say things in Spanish, because speaking English-only still felt pretty foreign, but despite the travel chaos, the cold, and a little bit of reverse culture shock, my heart was happy to be back in my home and native land again.
By the end of February, I knew I would have to draw my trip to an early close. Between the expense of my Guatemalan hospital experience, and my injury attained shortly thereafter, I knew doing an extra two months of volunteer work was not viable, and it was time to head home.
Flights home from Guatemala City were badly priced, so I searched for other options, and found I could fly home for a song from Cancun, so, to Cancun I went!
After my adventure in Semuc-Champey, in central Guatemala, I headed back up to Flores, across the border into Belize, where I visited my friend Epy one last time, then I bussed it up to Playa del Carmen.
My experience there was a mixed bag. On one hand, it’s beautiful there. The sand is white, the sun shines hot, and every tourist amenity you could imagine is there.
But Playa is not for everyone. It’s a great place to go for a week with friends and party, but it’s a lousy place to try to get to mix with the locals.
When you’re on 5th avenue, you are seen as a wallet on two legs, and people care about only your money. Also, every drug dealer seemed to think I would be a prime client. Even after declining weed or blo with a “no gracias”, they would keep trying to push their drugs on me. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I met 50 drug dealers.
The above left me a little down, as when I travel, I travel for people. I want to get to know the locals, develop relationships etc. And I certainly didn’t have enough money left to go on any wild excursions.
However, I did have enough money left for some sushi, beer, fro yo and a massage on the beach, so I decided not to wallow in self-pity over being stuck in a tourist trap. I pampered myself a little.
I also met some cool people. I stayed two nights in Playa and one night on the island of Cozumel. I ended up finding friends at the hostel, and even meeting a couple of locals. One invited me back with her other friends to her apartment, and then we went back out on the town together, and another dude took me out on his motorcycle for a tour of his city, which was pretty frickin’ awesome.
In all, it was a good experience, and I definitely would recommend the Quintana Roo (Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, Cancun etc.) to those who are looking for a one week getaway, but overall, it’s really not my thing, so I am not sure when/if I’ll be back.
Soooooo, in my next and final post, I will tell the story of my return to the great, white north!
There is so much that I appreciate and admire about Guatemalan culture. I love how warm and friendly the people are. I love the laid back atmosphere. I really enjoy the food, except the tomales! Have mercy! Please don’t make me eat anymore tamales or chuchitos!
But there are also things I saw that hurt my heart, and I wish would change.
It hurts me to see children working to support their families, instead of going to school. I saw young boys working on farms, climbing up the mountain to go to work in the morning. I saw little 6 and 7 year old children used as sales people for the food and trinkets their parents were selling. What does the future hold for the kids who never make it to school?
It hurts me to see people with university degrees working for 2 USD per hour. That happens here. In fact, a lot of Spanish teachers are paid roughly that amount. Yes, things are cheaper in Guate, but $2 is still not much to live on, and not an accurate reflection of the value they have to offer.
It breaks my heart to hear of people who struggle with alcoholism having been excommunicated from their churches. These are people who need love, not to be tossed out when they mess up. Jesus was known as a “friend of sinners”, and was even accused of being, “a glutton and a drunkard”, because of his association with people who have real problems. It pains me to see the hammer of empty religion come down on people who need to be lifted up by love.
It bothers me to see how out of whack supply and demand are in Guate. There are too many people selling the same stuff. There is such a glut of certain goods that prices are low, and people don’t get a fair return for their labour. And yet there are shortages of other things. I see people working SO HARD for their money, when it should in fact be a bit easier. Balancing all of this out is easier said than done.
It bothers me to know how expensive healthcare is, and see people suffer from inadequate care. There are public hospitals, which have almost no resources and thus cannot provide good care, and then there are private hospitals, which are beyond what most people can afford, but at least provide good care. Fortunately I had a couple of grand to pay the doctor and the hospital when I get sick. Most Guatemalans don’t have that luxury.
It disturbs me to know how much corruption exists. This has not affected me directly. I managed to spend 4 months in Guatemala without paying a single bribe, but I have done enough reading to get a glimpse of the problems that result from this. One local person who I will not name stated that, “we need a revolution!”, but the problem in my mind is that with so many people implicated, even if there were a revolution, most of the corruption would remain, because most of the same people would remain. Not only are government officials implicated, many others are as well. What is needed is a change of hearts and values, and that isn’t brought about through legislation or protests. That comes through spiritual awakening. Hopefully what happened in Almolonga will happen over a wider area, one day.
But despite these issues, Guatemala has won over my heart. It is my home away from home. I am in love with this land, and the people who live here also reside in my heart.
You may have noticed that I have made reference to “chicken buses” occasionally throughout my blog. This is the main mode of transportation in southern Guatemala. Riding a chicken bus can be quite an adventure, so I will describe the experience in more detail for you here.
Chicken buses (Camionetas, en español) are retired, north american school buses. They are transported south, then pimped out for Guatemalan use. Here are some of the changes they make.
So here is the process for riding a chicken bus.
I have mixed feelings about chicken buses. They’re fun to ride. Fun in that uncomfortable, I’m-having-an-adventure kind of way. On one hand, I admire the bus drivers and ayudantes for how they manage to move people so quickly and efficiently. On the other hand, I know that riding these buses is a gamble that some people lose. Some of the risks are obvious- the occasional accident or pick pocketing does happen, but there’s a whole other murky, chicken bus underworld that not every traveler knows about.
You see, the government subsidizes transportation in Guatemala, but they have effectively no oversight into how the money is spent. There is a lot of corruption. The buses are not properly maintained. Sometimes the owners of the bus companies are embezzling money. Sometimes other people are extorting money from the company. Sometimes the chicken bus drivers themselves are extorting money from the company.
The end result is this. About once a day, sometimes more often, a chicken bus driver and/or ayudante gets murdered. Armed robberies do happen. Every time I travelled, I got on the bus hoping that it’s not my bus driver who gets today’s bullet. Or me.
But there is no cheaper or faster means of transportation in Guate, and it’s a great way to experience the country as the locals do, so I did my research, considered the risks, and took those chicken buses. And I have no regrets.
For a song another traveling wrote about chicken buses, click here.
After saying goodbye the the students at OK English one last time, I took the long bus ride to Lanquin. Now, I have to tell you that getting to central Guatemala, where Lanquin is found, is no small task. It’s a 9 hour bus ride from anything or anywhere else in the country, and in some places the roads are less than perfect, to be generous, so some strangers and I began the long, dusty bus ride together. By the time we arrived, we were no longer strangers.
Once we arrived at the small town of Lanquin, we went our separate ways to our various hotels. Some of us were herded into the backs of trucks, where we stood, crammed in like caddle, as we took the 10 km treacherously hilly dirt road to El Portal, a lovely hostel nestled into the park of Semuc-Champey.
The adventures of the following day:
We climbed many stairs, mostly made of rocks, to reach the lookout over Semuc-Champey. The sun was shining on the many pools of water, showing shades of blue and green. We could see little waterfalls between the pools, and people swimming and playing in the water below.
We descended, changed, then entered the pools ourselves.
Oh, what deliciously warm water it was! (We all thought so, except for the shivering Brazilian, who found it much colder than his native Rio de Janeiro)
We jumped into the warm water of the first pool and swam and dove, then jumped down to the second pool and swam some more, diving down to examine formations under water.
We slid on our bottoms carefully down to the next level where our guide showed us tiny caves behind the waterfall. We had to swim under the waterfall to get in, and inside there was just enough room for us to show keep our heads above water. The blue light filtered by the water was lovely.
We explored further pools, jumped from level to level, slid down smooth sections like water slides, and laughed at each other as we dove and jumped and made fun of each other. It was glorious.
A brazilian, a japanese guy and I climbed up to shower ourselves under the most delightful waterfall.
Our guide told us it was time to change and go to lunch, as the caves would be our next stop after lunch!
(This is one waterfall we didn’t swim in)
We walked (I was barefoot, as I had no water shoes) to the entrance to the caves. a beautiful waterfall came down the side or the gorge. We were handed candles, and climbed the staircase beside the waterfall and found the entrance to the cave. A guide lit out candles, and we walked slowly into the darkness.
At first we saw nothing, but as we stuck together and our eyes adjusted, we started to see, just faintly, the formations of the cave walls around us. We had to learn to hold the candle above or behind our heads so we could see, without the point of the flame causing our pupils to contract.
A gal named Sara took the lead, and one step at a time, we began to explore.
Things got interesting quickly. The water soon became so deep that we had to swim, holding our candles above our heads.
In places there were ropes to guide us. In places we stubbed our toes on jagged rocks as we swam.
We climbed up slippery ladders, down precarious slopes, crawled, swam, walked, and made Gollum-like sounds in the darkness (LOST! MY PRECIOUS IS LOST!). We laughed; we helped each other; we bonded.
We finally climbed to a point where it was possible to jump off a narrow cliff into a pool of water 6 metres below, while candles burned, anchored into the walls of rock. Adventurous women and men took turns leaping off into the darkness.
The women in our group really impressed me. Leading, assisting, looking out for everyone’s wellbeing. Most of the guys were either drunk or just otherwise laughing so hard as to be of little use to the group as a whole.
After the jumps, we started our journey back towards the light. It was long, but shorter now that we knew the terrain.
After I climbed down the most treacherous ladder into the water below, I heard a big splash coming from the waterfall that comes through a hole in the limestone. Then I saw the head of one of my acquaintances pop out of the water. Then again, I heard the splash and this time my eyes caught the sight of another girl coming down through the waterfall. The guide had placed them in the water Rapids, told them to keep their head down, and pushed them into the hole where the water goes through. It was amazing to see, but I was not going to climb back to experience the slide myself.
Finally, we emerged from the water, then saw the sunlight, and I saw one tiny plant, pale green, almost white, trying to make a life just a little too far into the cave.
We emerged, blew out our candles, and descended the stairs back to the river bed.
Once we had all exited the caves and everyone was accounted for, we prepared for our tubing trip down the river. Our guide gave us a demo of how to float down the river in the tube, because, apparently some people can’t figure this out on their own.
One by one we all loaded into our tiny tubes, and once most of us were in the water, we pushed off into the current for the trip downstream, chattering and laughing like truly happy tourists.
Some enterprising young people put their business model into action, floating in tubes among us, carrying coolers of beer in their laps.
“Want a beer? Ten Quetzales. You can pay later. My name is Mario.” This was the first time in my life I had ever seen float-through service. McDonalds has nothing on Semuc-Champey. Float-through is the life.
More laughter, conversation, and tossing of beer cans to each other ensued. It was a beautiful day and a wonderful adventure.
So, where the heck are ya? Get thee to Guatemala! You’re missing out on such beauty and adventures. Dig up that bucket list and add this to it, if you dare. You can’t do this in North America.