Thursday, May 8, 2008

Guatemala, North then East then West

Pictures to follow in the next few days, currently at a very bad internet connection. Again no spell check on this piece of @!#$ (junk)

I had heard that Guatemala was a very popular spot for young hopeful American families to come adopt little Guatemalan babies, but the reality didnt set in until I woke up and walked down to breakfast in my hotel in Guatemala city. As I entered the small covered courtyard of 15 or so tables, there sitting down were about 7 different white bread American couples mainly in their 30's each with their own little dark skinned Guatemalan baby. Every single couple, can you imagine? Amdist the baby crying I managed to get some decent yogurt and fruit, and while I ate, I read that over 4,500 babies get adopted every year from Guatemala (a country of only 13 million) with 95% going to the US. I still couldn't figure out why there were so many in my hotel until I went for a run after breakfast and ran smack dab into the middle of the US Embassy next door to our hotel, Duh... They were all there trying to get their papers cleared next door. The disproportionatly high Guatamalan adoptions were do to the fact that until last year they had virtually no adoption laws. See a kid and like it? Buy it from its mother and take it home! Now that’s one hell of a souvenir if you ask me! The laws have changed now somewhat and it takes up to 3 months to get a little baby of your own.

Time spent in Guatamala city was brief, arriving at 9 the night before, and leaving at 2:30 the next day, but I did get a chance to go out for a drink in the trendy Zona Rosa, and take a walking tour of the more dilapidated and dangerous downtown area.

The more I travel, the harder I find it is to pick out generalized cultural differences between countries and their people. The more you travel the more you have seen, and thus when you see something in a subsequent country you are more likely to have seen it before. It is also too easy to slip into the modus operandi of projecting your own presumptive opinions onto the chosen culture. However, in an attempt to describe Guatemala, I would say that that Guatemala city's downtown has yet to experience a downtown revival the way that much of other central American capital cities have undergone. The narrow allyways that seperate the 4 story tall dilapidated buildings are cluttered with powerlines, trash, street vendors, and people. This spreads out in all direction from the central plaza, with some directions being even more dangerous than others.

I was staying south of the city in a nicer neighborhood where all the embassies, nightlife, and international businesses tended to congregate. As I left my hotel to go downtown, the desk attendant warned me not to go more than one or two blocks away from the central square, take only what I was willing to loose, and wear my backpack in front of me! Granted I have always taken similar precautions and didn’t need her to tell me this, but it was the first time I have actually been told that by a local! So I set off around downtown and wrapped my camera securely around my wrist to prevent having it snatched out of my hands.

That afternoon I caught a shuttle to the city of Antigua, about 1 hour southwest of Guatemala City. The city means "Ancient" and was actually the Spanish capital of Guatemala from the late 1500's until the entire city was destroyed in a series of earthquakes, culminating with the grand Kahuna that leveled the city in 1776 (I think). The Spanish subsequently decided not to risk it all again and moved the capital about 60 km northeast. A few remained in Antigua, renovating and restoring the old colonial buildings, and creating a cultural tourism destination for weekending Guatamalan city buisnessmen and women. To accuratly quote a guidebook in an attempt to paraphrase the city, "In the discussion about what is real Guatemala, Antigua was never brought up; this is a city where powerlines run underground, trash doesnt stay on the street for more than an hour, stray dogs mysteriously dissapear in the middle of the night, and it's safe to walk around by yourself." The city center remains much as it was when originally built, with strict covenants about what can or cannot be done with the buildings. Small single story adjoining bulidings line huge blocks, each with their own courtyard and characteristic red clay tile roofs. The streets are all narrow and one way, and the cobblestone stretches for miles across the valley underneath the backdrop of volcanos. The city really does have a feel like no other in all of central America, with a historical character combined with an impressive size and economy. It is easy to tell that Antigua is not only the home to traditional tourists and weathly Guatemalans, but Europeans who can afford to spend several months a year in another town. This being said, there is actually an impressive glut of small cheap hostels and budget hotels. Finding a cheap bite to eat was another issue. The only place where I could find a lunch under 10 dollars was the open air local market, where a lady served small heaping tacos for a dollar a piece, while you sat on plastic stools on the sidewalk next to the bus station and breathed in piles of black smoke put out by 20 year old diesel school buses. I got my daily dose of carbon for sure!

The volcano backdrop to Antigua was hard to see due to the burning going on all around Guatemala associated the slash and burn agriculture. I spent the three days I was there mostly touring an impressive series of museums showing everything from contemporary modern art to ancient ruins.


-I paid a tour guide 3 dollars to show me around the ruins of the ancient cathedral, only to find out 1 minute into the tour that he was staggeringly drunk.

-I checked out the the ruins of the orginal fountain in the center of the town square; they depicted 4 mermaids, each postured up with one exposed breast and out of that bossum came a stream of water for people to drink...

-I watched a violent street fight and subsequent arrest.

-I saw latin americas largest (not working of course) water fountain.

-I got lost while running, and spent 2 hours finding my way back into the city from one of the suburbs.

-I ran into travelers I had met in Panama and Costa Rica, and ended up having a great time with them.

Overall Antigua was an incredible city if a little different from the rest of Guatemala.

After 3 days I caught a night bus headed north out of Guatemala City to the low lying jungle region of El Peten. It is the least densely populated region in all of Guatemala, and is also home to the world famous ruins of Tikal buried deep in the jungle. The bus that left Guatemala city at 9:00pm arrived into Flores, Guatemala 8 sleepless hours later at 5 in the morning. The bus put me out on the side of the road by myself in the early morning darkness in a city I knew nothing about in rural Guatemala... Fortunatly this was an often traveled tourist route, and a minibus driver was waiting there to take me to a hotel in Flores, or continue north for another hour in time to be at the ruins of Tikal when they opened! It was 40 dollars, and I was hesitant about paying all that money, but he explained that their was going to be a riot/strike in Flores in about 3 hours, and if I waited for the bus I would never get out of Flores. I didnt believe him, but I was half asleep and just wanted to get there, so I gave him the dough and we were off again. Sure enough the guy was right! I met two tourists later in the day, and the entire city had layed down in the street in front of the airport, preventing Tikal tourists and their busses from getting out. They were protesting the fact that none of the tourism dollars were coming back to the local economy and all sidelined for Guatemala City. Eventually the military came in that day with tanks and evicted the protestors.

The protest gave me a morning free to roam the grounds of the massive city of Tikal without a bevy of other tourists. First "discovered" in the middle of 19th century by British Anthropologists; they have been actively uncovering the Tikal ruins for over 100 years, and they still have a large portion of buildings that have yet to be uncovered. This includes a 66 meter high temple that you can only see the top of. The size and scale of city were unfathomable, it takes over an hour just to walk from one side of the ruins to the other, and there are countless small structures strecthing out for 10 miles all around the main city that are not part of the excavation. Tikal was part of the same civilization as the Copan ruins, but reached their prime a few hundred years later than the Copan city. Both Mayan cities collapsed with the region wide collapse of the Mayans in the late 10th century. The descendants moved north into Chiapas Mexico and closer to the coast, leaving the ruins subject to the forest that eventually grew out of a grassland to once again cover the city. Tikal boasts a rich and active history, occupied for over 1500 years, with large temples stecthing from to the 3rd century to the 10th century, and populations possibly reaching 100,000. They gained their military predominance using a technique where they flanked the enemy's troops and attacked them at a distance with large spears. There is evidence that they fought and occupied Caracol in Belize, and Palenque in Mexico. Tikal was no doubt the center of Mayan universe in this part of central America, and its size is just astounding.

Walking around the ruins, you climb the great temples, and then descend back into a dense jungle with a 30-40 meter tall canopy. It is a neat dichotomy pairing thousand year old stone with a living breathing forest, but believe it or not during the Classical Mayan period the entire region for miles and miles had been cleared for homes and agriculture. I couldn't help but think how fast our cities would return to jungle if we simply abandonded them and left them for the forest. Maybe we should think about doing this to some states, ahemm Texas, Ahemm.

The large pieces of stone that were used to build the great temples of Tikal stand as just the foundation of the superficial structure that has long rotted away. At one time these massive temples were covered with a dark red paint, and had elaborate murals and designs around their top, with wooden structures hanging off the sides. Remanants of this rich red paint still cling to portions of the temples and buildings.

The main temple at the center of the grand plaza of Tikal used to be climbable with a steel chain until many injuries and several deaths (tourists falling down the stairs) forced the park to close it. You can still climb several other of the large temples to get a view above the forest canopy.

The reality of how impressive and awe inspiring these structures are does not sink in at first; I was too busy running around looking for a new cool temple or uncovered buildings. But after a while when I slowed down and sat atop Temple IV, staring at the sunset behind these giants I felt the closeness to history. It is a harmoninzing experience, to be so close to such tangible pieces of history, to realize how time can become so compressed.

That night I stayed in the park gates at the "Jungle Lodge," suitibly overpriced since it was only one of 3 hotels in the park gates. The place was neat because it had some history, as it was originally built to house archeologists excavating the park. A simple small room with a fan, a bookshelf, glass blinded windows, shared bathrooms, and a shared roof were all I got, but it was neat to be staying in the same place as the famous archeologists who had once opend up Tikal to the world.

The next morning I left Tikal and got back out on the road, headed east this time to the ex-british colony of Belize, headed for a brief respite from Hispanic culture and a change of pace. I felt the difference the moment I crossed the Belize border, and the guy that stamped my passport starting talking the King's English! He also spoke a more common mix of criole, but must have figured I didn’t look too criolla... The customs building itself was a dramatic example of modern architecture and money, neither of which any central American country had much of. Belize was going to be the most expensive country that I had visited to date, the coastal regions being more expensive that US.

The last time I was in Belize was as a 11th grader at Indian Springs School with my biology teacher, Bob Pollard. He had shown me a wonderful country while we spent a week on Ranguana Caye and the town of Placencia. It was a place of cool reggae vibes, beautiful coasts, and even more impressive sea life. I was more than eager to get back to the country.

Having already been south to Placencia, and eager to get out to the beach, I got into Belize City and bee-lined it out to Caye Caulker, an island about 30 miles north-east of Belize City. The most famous caye out of all in Belize is perhaps Ambergris Caye and the town of San Pedro located on the very northern end of Belize next to Mexico. San Pedro town is a situated on a picturesque Carribean beach with access to all the same diving and snorkeling spots as Caye Caulker, but with fame comes money, and Ambergris Caye is also the most expensive city in all of Belize. I have heard Horror stories of not being able to find a room for under 70 dollars! Caye Caulker is Ambergris Caye's poor cousin, about 20 miles south and a good deal smaller, and so I chose this as my first and final spot to spend the weekend in Belize.


Coming into Belize City after a 6 hour bus ride from Tikal, I was reminded of how Belize city stands out as an urban jungle in contrast to the rest of Belize. The city is full of trash, run down housing, rastas rolling around the streets on small bikes, giant dredlocks, dirty canals, and general poverty. It is the biggest city in Belize, but since the capital was moved to Belmopan in the jungle, this city fails to get a lot of the government funds it needs. One of the most dramatic things about coming to Belize from being in latin America so long, apart from the english language, was huge african demographic making up more than half of the population of the country. It of course stems back to the fact that Belize was an English Colony until 1981 (they still have the queen on their money) and the slaves that land barons brought in to grow sugar cane. Alongside the african comes a good mix of obvious hispanics, and even a bit of chinese.

We got through Belize city directly to the water taxi that would take me and 50 of my soon to be closest friends out to the islands. As we roared out of the harbor onto the crystal clear blue and green waters I was instantly relaxed, a mere 7 hours out of the dark jungles of Guatemala.

Caye Caulker is an island about 3 miles long and anywhere from 1/4 to 1 mile wide. It was split by a hurricane in the mid 1990's into a north and south island. The north island remains almost entirely undeveloped, while the southern mile long portion is home to the 3,000 year round residents. The island has three roads called (not surprisingly) front, middle, and back road each running up and down the island to an airstrip at its base. There are no cars on the entire island, but a slurry of golf-cart taxis waiting to take you the 1/2 mile to your farthest destination. Bikes are also popular. All the streets are hard packed sand, and most people go barefoot, or if they have to sandals. It is totally legitimate to walk into the nicest restaurant in town for dinner wearing nothing more than a pair of ratty shorts (for guys); I myself didn't wear a shirt for three days straight.

I got together with two guys I had met on the water-taxi and a golf-cart taxi cab driver who found us the cheapest digs on the island at about 20 dollars a night. I had my own cabin with my own bed and a spot right on the ocean, but apart from that it was pretty basic. The desalinated water that was used for the sink and toilet emitted this foul odor which would have been unbearable were it not for the 24/7 constant 30 mph breeze coming off the ocean. I had a key to lock my room, but it was by and large pointless since the "windows" were fixed metal blinds that you could open from either side to reach in. The place was also a good mile from downtown Caye Caulker, throwing in an extra 4-5 miles of walking a day to the 4 that I ran every morning. And to run 4 miles every morning required running around the whole island, twice.

Through the 4 days I would spend at Caye Caulker, I ran down a trail that wrapped around the southern end of the island and then came back up to "civilization" on the three main roads. The trail posed many difficulties that I have yet to run across while living down here, the first of which was the tide. I found out the second morning that the most southern portion of the trail deep within the bushes is actually a tidal pool, so when the tide was in, I ended up running through 2 foot deep saltwater turning my running shoes into 5 pound bricks for the rest of the run. The second problem was that the trail uses the 4,000 foot asphalt runway as part of the only way to get back to the main portion of Caye Cauler. I figured: hey its an island, how much traffic could they possibly get? Turns out a lot... They have a Cessna Caravan fly in and out on the hour. I also said: I will just look in the left hand traffic pattern (because of the wind they only used one runway) for approaching planes and on the rare occasion that one does come I can dive out of the way. They used a right hand traffic pattern... The wind also made it so loud that it was impossible to hear the engines until they are right behind you. So the second day there I was, running down the runway in my 5 pound saltwater brick shoes, dutifully looking for traffic when I barely hear an engine and turn around to see a (relatively) giant Cessna Caravan on short final at the numbers! I dove into the muddy saltwater pond next to me just in time to get out of the way. By the time I finished running down to the FBO now covered in mud and saltwater, I found out that they are used to people running on the runway, and often have to buzz the iPOD wearing ones to get them off. I'd count myself as pretty lucky.

On the third day I went Scuba Diving for the first time in the two years since I got certified, and fortunately for me it was like driving a car. I really didn't know what I was going to do if I had forgotten everything... Belize is home to the second largest Coral reef in the world, second only to Australia, and getting down to see it at 70 feet was amazing. The visibility was pretty bad so we didn't see any big fish, but I didn't let that phase me. Every color you could imagine was covering the sponges, brain coral, fire coral, things that look like giant leaves (Amanda help me here), and the fish. Half the fun for me was still getting all the gear on and going diving regardless of where we were. I was still a relative rookie, and my inexperience showed after I had used up all my air in 30 minutes and had to go back up. It got a little better on the second and third dives; I even got to brush up against some Barracudas.

After some blog work and reading the next day I figured I needed to get off the island before I wasn't able to leave at all. With a little less than a week left before I had to be in Mexico City, I left Caye Caulker this past Tuesday. An hour long water-taxi ride at 8:30 am was followed by learning my bus north to Chetumal, Mexico at 10:30 am had been cancelled. Sweet. So I hitched it over to the local bus station and rode a local bus (read old school bus) north for 6 hours stopping every 30 feet in what should have taken 2 without stopping. Arriving into Chetumal, Mexico about 5:00 that evening, I bought a ticket on a 14 hour bus direct to San Cristobal de las Casas, leaving at 8:00 pm and getting in at 10:00 am the next morning (Yesterday, Wendsday) without incident, 23 1/2 hours after leaving Belize.

After a little rest and recuperation I have spent yesterday and today exploring San Cristobal de las Casas, a gorgeous colonial mounatin town set up at 7,000 feet, and capital of the Chiapas region. Chiapas was made famous in 1994 by the Zapatistas, who came in and seized the regional governement, the town of San Cristobal de las Casas, as well as several other cities in the Chiapas region. They were driven out by the Mexican army in the weeks that followed, but they drew international attention to the plight of this poor region and its indigenous farmers. EZLN is the name of the group, and they are still around and have a voice in local govnernment throughout the Chiapas region.

If you went to Sewanee, Chiapas has also been made famous by the stories of one Fort Bridgforth, as this is where he spent many of his formative years.

Despite it being May now, the town still gets down to 50-55 degrees every night due to the altitude, the thin air also makes it quite an endeavor to run my usual distances. The cold air, imcomplete combustion, and smoke from the farms all brought back vivid memories from living Quito, Ecuador for 4 months, and at times I have felt like I was there.

I head out this evening at 8:00 pm on another 14 hour bus ride for Mexico City to the north. After that I am heading west to Zamora-Jacona tomorrow evening, just in case you dont hear from me until the middle of next week.

Signing Off,
Merrill Stewart

Friday, May 2, 2008

Wow, where do I begin

I first just want to apologize for taking over a week to let you know what has been going on, but after I left the Island of Ometepe I began this marathon week and half long blazing trail through the rest of Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala. I will now try to retrace my steps over the last week and half and clue you in as to what has been going on in my life.

After the relaxing night's stay in the Finca Santo Domingo, I woke up early to catch the 7:00 am bus across the island to Moyogalpa, the big city on the island (pop. 3000) where I was going to catch a Lancha across the Lago de Nicaragua and then continue north from the mainland. The road to Moyogalpa wasn't more than 20 miles, and yet the trip took 1 1/2 hours, and yet again we have another anecdote about traveling by bus in Central America. From the signage on the side of the bus I was riding, I could tell that at one time (probably early 1970s) the bus had belonged to the Rochester District School System. This beast of a bus probably spent many years ferrying little American kids to and from school across icy salted roads in upstate New York. Then many years later, probably in the late 1980s, the school board decided that this bus was unfit for further service and unsafe to transport kids anymore. So what do they do? Sell the bus of course to the government of Nicaragua where they don't value their lives as much as we do and don't have "inconvenient" safety standards for public transportation. And here the bus has worked for the past 20 years, overtime gathering colorful ornamentation endemic to central America such as 6 foot tall 8" diameter chrome tail pipes, pink carpeted ceilings, lawn chair driver seating, bright purple tassells, and custom graffiti grills.

During the hard service in Nicaragua over the last 20 years, the bus had somehow lost all of its gears except 1st, and so I sat on the bus breathing in healthy exhaust in the hot Nicaraguan sun as we roared along at 7 mph. For 2 hours.

There were two options to get across the lake from Moyogalpa, a large comfortable ferry that crossed 3 times a day taking cars, people, and a full service bar for 5 dollars, or... The hourly infamous Lancha. I had heard stories, detailing the necessity to wrap you entire bag in plastic because it would surely get wet, and then a burlap bag around that to make it less enticing to steal by the hoards of people who crowded aboard this 50 year old 40 foot relic of a boat. I took my chances and did none of this as I got on, but I was able to put my bag on the deck and got a small seat up top where I could watch the bag the entire time. The trip began fine, but as we got away from the island the waves got choppier, and captain was choosing to take these 8 foot swells from his broad side. The boat rolled, ohh did it roll. I firmly clenched my seat not out of fear, but to avoid falling across the deck of the boat and into the water as we heaved back and forth 30 degrees at time. Smoothly but precipitously this boat rocked from side to side, each time bringing the top just a little closer to the water that was surely going to be our doom. My bag was fortunately strapped down or it would have met the same watery fate I foresaw the boat doing if we didn't turn into the waves. Not a moment too late, our captain turned into the waves to catch a 12 foot rogue and we made it safely to San Jorge, where I shared an hour long taxi to Granada with a 7th grade science teacher from New Hampshire taking her spring break.

Granada is the jem of Nicaragua, like a island of colonial peacefulness amidst a very poor and undeveloped country. Set on the northern shore of Lago de Nicaragua, Granada has been a cultural capital of Nicaragua since the first Hispanic invaders came in the 1500s. It is uniquely located in the western half of Nicaragua, and yet via the Lago de Nicaragua, and the river forming the border with Costa Rica, you can actually reach the Caribbean by boat. This strategic location made it a prime location for lucrative trading and a prime target for English pirates; the city was sacked several times during the 17th and 18 century. When central america won their Independence from Spain in the middle of the 19th century, there were two cultural centers in Nicaragua: one at Granada, and 2 hours to the north in Leon. These two cities both wanted a piece of the pie, and the situation ended up the way so many do in Central America, in a civil war. After much fighting and bloodletting, they gave up and picked a random small city about half way between the two to be the capital. That capital city today is the largest city in Nicaragua; Managua is an hour north of Granada, but not high up on the list of any body's travels, because a massive earthquake in 1976 leveled the city entirely.

Granada (pop. 80,000) retains a bunch of its colonial charm, along with a good schmattering of tourism and wealthy Nicaraguans. Poverty still abounds no less than 7 or 8 blocks away from the center of the city, but the 10 by 10 block section of the center is a beautiful pedestrian friendly gem of a town. Most of the small 200-300 year old buildings are one-two stories tall, and are all edged with vibrant red clay tile roofs. Each one of the original colonial structures has a beautiful courtyard of some sort, creating little havens of residence among dirtier and noisy streets. The town square is about 100 yards in each direction, and covered by tall leafy trees.

The instrument of war that killed tens of thousands in the civil war 20 years ago is now cutting prices!

For 8 bucks I found the nicest hostel I had ever stayed in, with giant Sandinista murals, decor resembling that in the movie Casablanca, a giant leafy courtyard, hand carved wooden columns, red clay tile roofs, and a custom tiled pool built into a rock wall. There I ran into two guys , Nathan and Dwight, whom I knew from the Finca Magdalena on the Isla de Ometepe. These two 30 year olds had both said to hell with life in LA, and were traveling around trying to find the right place to open a bar. They were both also over 6', which was great walking around so I didn't feel like so much of an awkward giant down here.

Here's one way to chill out...

I have really enjoyed running every morning for several reasons. One it keeps me in shape and provides some regularity to days spent in different cities. 2nd: I run with nothing on my but my shoes, shorts, and a shirt, i.e. nothing to steal. So through this I am able to run in some of the shady poorest neighborhoods and not worry about loosing anything of value besides the clothes on my back. These are places that everyone tells you not to go, but these are the places where the people of Nicaragua live and as such I think is a necessity of responsible traveling to see them. I don't have my camera so I cant capture the experience through this medium, but I can relay to you though writing the utterly basic the living conditions of many. Most of the"houses" in these shanty towns have a roof pieced together from various scraps of tin, and in the "richer" neighborhoods you find block concrete walls with metal bars for windows. In the poorer neighborhoods, you have nothing much more than a dirt floor and walls made from wooden scraps. In these shelters people live, hard working equally intelligent (usually less educated) individuals. Babies sit outside the houses in the dirt and stare at me as I run by, dogs bark from behind the barbwire that delineate the 20 foot square piece of dirt that is a yard. Each of the streets are lined with trash two or three pieces deep, blown off the road and there to remain for many years as the government doesn't care to take care of trash in the poor neighborhoods. If the families are lucky they will have a tree hanging over their piece of dirt that gives them some shade during the day, and an area to cook under. If not, then it is the hot sun and brown dust blown off the dirt road that coats everything they own.

Granada has its fair share of these shanty towns, and I keep my wits about me when I'm running through them. The other morning I was walking after a run and noticed a ratty looking guy about 25 who I had seen behind me three times during the walk at different locations, obviously following me maybe just out of curiosity. He had something in his had, but I couldn't figure out what it was. He would take the jar up to his nose and then bring it back down. Then I realized that it was jar of some kind of green glue or petroleum product, and he was sniffing it to get high. I went back to running.

Drunk old men... at 8:00 a.m.

I ran down to the beach on the giant lake of Nicaragua, and realized that I had never really seen a polluted beach up until that point. There was a giant park the city had built all along the water front, and families would come out there on the weekends to set up a picnic underneath the giant trees lining the sand. And here's the kicker: then they would all go swimming in the lake, but they took their sandals with them. Why? Because there was so much trash: metal, plastic, glass covering the beach and underneath the water that they would surely cut themselves if they didn't.

Where does it all come from? A day does not go by down here that I don't see someone their car (maybe even stopped at a light in the city), open their window and just drop whatever trash they have on the ground. Not small plastic wrappers, giant Styrofoam to-go boxes, bottles that break, plastic cups, everything. It approaches the point of ridiculousness, all out the window and onto the street where the government cant afford to pick it up.

I caught an early bus out of Granada to Managua about 1 1/2 hours away, and after a sinfully delicious and expensive ($8) breakfast at the Cowne Plaza of Managua, I was on a 8 hour bus to Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. While on the bus, we made a brief 1 hour excursion into part of El Salvador, so I can check that off the list of countries I have been to, right? The bus arrived at Tegucigalpa at 10 at night into a neighborhood that the US Embassy describes as only slightly safer than a dark alley in Baghdad. So I got a taxi driver to take me as far away as he could from there, and got a hotel room in a real hotel for one night because I was going to be out the next morning bright and early headed west across Honduras. I ended up getting a room in a hotel called Gateway to the Angels (translated from Spanish), haven forgotten how nice it was to have amenities like an ice machine, television, curtains, a desk, private bathroom, and a mirror!

Navigating my way through the narrow allies the next morning and trying not to look to conspicuous (get mugged) with a 30 pound backpack, I found my way to the bus company's terminal. If I have not said it before, most of these cities do not have a actual "bus terminal" like we would think of with a train station or airport in the states. Instead you have anywhere from 10-30 different companies each going to different routes, each with unpublished departure times, and each with their own terminal located in different parts of the city. Needless to say, acquiring a bus can be quite an ordeal. As luck would have it, I missed the direct bus by 30 minutes that was going to take me all the way to the other side of Honduras to the town of Copan Ruinas. This was the only company that went there, and they only had one bus a day! Not wanting to waste an entire day back in Tegucigalpa, I pulled out a map and picked the next biggest city, asked if they had a bus, and bought a ticket getting in at 10 that evening after a 9 hour bus ride.

I had chosen to skip much of Honduras due to the fact that I had overstayed my welcome in Panama, and get a head start on Guatemala then Belize. Traveling northwest through Honduras that afternoon, I got to catch a good glimpse of the countryside from the seat of my bus, in the place of actually visiting the different towns. We were just east of the major mountain range that runs through Honduras, in an area not unlike northern New Mexico with dry stubby shrubs, sporadic rain, and a overall dry cowboy climate. Small sheds that dotted the roadside served as ever present reminders to the oppressive poverty plaguing this country. Peace core volunteers served as sources of information instead of other travelers, as there is precious little tourism to support this country's struggling econonmy that was devastated by a hurricane several years ago.

I also saw something that I hadn't seen to date since I left Peru... Pine trees! I really was coming home! I did a little wikipedia research having never taken a forestry class at Sewanee, and this was no figment of my imagination; it turns out the furthest south pine trees grow natively is 12 degrees north in latitude, or just at the Nicaraguan Honduras border.

The town I wound up in that night was called Santa Rosa de Copan, and it was 2 hours away from my final destination of Copan Ruinas. Santa Rosa de Copan was a town of 30,000 people, at the western foothills of the Honduras mountain range, and with an altitude of 4-5 thousand feet, I was afforded another night of cool weather before I sank into the jungle the following day. It was a small colonial town, and it reminded me of how nice it was to visit cities off of the tourist radar, or for that matter off anyone's radar. Santa Rosa de Copan was a traditionally built colonial town with foot tall sidewalks, narrow single lane cobblestone streets, blind corners, and a large leafy central plaza. That night I discovered their main industry was cigar making, and here is where many refugee cigar rollers escaped when the communist took control of Cuba. The town exports nearly all of their product, but that night I got to grab one while sitting at a bar just outside the colorfully lit colonial square and white plaster church.

It was here in Western Honduras that I first began to notice a perpetual smoke that limited visibility and filled the air with the slight scent of a campfire. I would see it in several cities that followed, but it seemed to be constant across the entire country and into others as well. I have since come to find out that I was traveling just during the beginning of the burn portion of slash and burn agriculture. I had heard the term countless times during my environmental studies classes, known it to be a pervasive form of forest degradation, but now the reality of the problem no longer seemed so far away as it once had. This was not in a jungle in some far off South American country; the problem was right here, and I was literally breathing it in everyday.

I left Santa Rosa de Copan early the next morning after a jog and a little street breakfast (hot dogs with mayonnaise). Two changes and three rickety bus ridden hours later I was in the town of Copan Ruinas, in time to throw my stuff down at a hotel and walk the 1 km outside of town to the massive complex of Mayan ruins that dot the valley all around Copan. Begrudgingly paying the 20 dollar entrance fee, I was off into the middle of the jungle to explore the first Mayan ruins I had ever seen.

The Mayan empire was in fact not one empire in the traditional sense such as the Roman Empire, or Austro-Hungarian empire. It was actually a collection of different kingdoms each ruled by a different king, and they were often at war with one another towards the later half of the Classical Mayan period (200AD -900AD). They did share a common culture, scientific advancements, and similiar geographic location. They spead from what is now southern Mexico and the Yucatan Penninsiula, to Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras. The civilization first began to spring up and form rudmentary cities aroun 800 BC, slowly growing until around 200AD when there was an exponential growth in the sizes of the cities and their dominion. Then around 900AD there was a sharp decline in the sizes of all cities, and the people just dissapated with the great cities and temples becoming building material for new houses. Most archeologists point to several years of intense drought, and a unsustainable growth in population.

Copan was not the largest of any of the Mayan kingdoms, despite a huge fertile valley, relative isolation from other kingdoms, and few natural disasters. It also does not have the huge temples constructed at places like Tikal, Guatemala. What Copan does have is the most amazing collection of sculpture and intricate carvings out of any in the Mayan world.

I walked into the main plaza and you could tell that much of the 20 dollar entrance fee had gone into the upkeep of the grounds, because spread out before me was a giant green blanketed lawn of finely cut grass unlike any I had seen in all of central America. United Statesians tend to care more about their lawns and grass than just about any other country in the world. Set on this plaza of grass were 12-10 foot tall square statues called stellae, and each one depicted a story or a great king of the Copan Empire. It was late afternoon by this point, and most of the other tourists had left for the day, leaving me standing here alone staring at the shadows from these giant creatures cast across the ground. They were 1400 years old, mementos of a culture long ago destroyed and left abandoned, all writing burned by the spanish inquisition. The plaza speaded out south, featuring a 6 story stairway with each step comprised of 40 hyroglyphic pictures showing the story of the great kings that ruled Copan. Large portions of the entire structure were covered with trees, dirt, and vegitation. It was still a work in progress, and there were parts that were actively being excavated from the massive forest around the ruins. Despite the thick jungle that surrounds and encumbers the ruins and the entire valley, at the time of the Mayan empire there was not a single tree standing in many square miles. The size of the city demanded an intense amount of food production, and they had to farm many miles around the city to supply the needs of the population. Without cheap and reliable energy like we have today, there remained a limit as to how far out the city farm and still collect the crops. This is one of the suspected reasons for the dramtic decline in the 10th century; they had simply gotten too large.

Being so close to such tangible pieces of ancient history was a dramatic experience. With enough imagination you could close you eyes and picture what the city would have been like in its day. I knew I was standing exactly where the people of that generation stood, touching the exact same pieces of stone that they had painstakingly carved out thousands of years ago.

I spent one more day in the city of Copan Ruinas, a village of about 3,000 people, and a good mix of travelers and ex-pats that chose this little highland nook as their home. It was a comforting welcoming place, yet with a distinct foreign/tourist vibe much different than similar sized cities off the gringo trail. These things might have changed it from its traditional base, but it still very much retained significant character, along with good restaurants and museums.

Barbwire Laundry

After a day of rest, it was back on the road headed west this time towards Guatemala, Guatemala City, Antigua, and the Tikal ruins. Im hoping to get that entry up soon, so stay tuned!