03
May 2012
POSTED BY Sheena
DISCUSSION 6 Comments

Nacho’s Kitchen: Back Street Guatemalan Treats

As we walked through the weekend market in Nebaj, Guatemala, I continuously glanced over my shoulder, searching for my honey.  These types of markets aren’t made for large people.  The rule of survival of the fittest has alienated any shopper of non-Mayan descent.  Watching Brad attempt to maneuver through the crowds was painful, his sheer height at 6’3″ made it necessary for him to walk with a bend at the waist and in a low crouch.  Even still, his head skimmed the tarps strung above the stalls and walkways.  Women continuously side shuffled around him, sucking him into a black hole that he couldn’t release himself from.  Every other shopper walked effortlessly, head held high, baskets atop, and holding live chickens under their arms.

The Nebaj market was mesmerizing, not only for its people but for its food selection.  Large plastic rice bags sat plump on the floor and tables, sides rolled down, level with the dried goods inside.  Grains, dried chilis, spices, flour, beans, green coffee beans, cocoa beans, cocoa nibs!  Every stand had a different selection of fruits and vegetables piled high; heirloom tomatoes, juicy beets, yucca, carrots.

I hand selected my tomatoes and piled them into a bowl.  Methodically, the bowl was placed on one end of a weighing scale by the vendor.  Holding the scale up high from the middle, the small-framed lady eyed it with concentration, throwing a few more tomatoes in until level with the one kilogram weight (a bag of rice) on the other end.  On the way out, a group of women worked a tortilla stand.   I watched as they broke off a ball of dough, smashed it between their palms, pinched the edges to perfection and threw the patties on the skillet.  They looked a little different than the standard corn tortilla.

“Hola, que es este?”

One of the women looked at me strangely, unable to understand why I couldn’t identify what she was making and said “Tortillas dulces.  Platano.”

Ah, sweet tortillas made of plantain.  That was a new one.  We bought a dozen and off we went.  Brad breathed a sigh of relief as he stretched out his back.

Much of the Guatemalan food came as no surprise, with masa continuing to be the staple, served with meat, rice and beans.  We did, however, run across some delightfully new dishes.

While in Antigua, we often went to the local market for lunch.  While there were plenty of restaurants and cafes targeting the tourist crowds, the local market was where it was at.  As we walked down a row of food stands, people leapt out from every corner, blocking the walkway for as long as we would permit them, all the while shouting out the meals of the day.  One young lady spoke so rapidly that I quickly became hypnotized, my eyes locked on her bulging neck vein, ready to rupture from the physical endurance of nonstop announcing.   Her voice however did not lure us in as much as the visible popularity of the restaurant.  Two long benches stretched parallel to each other, packed with local families and workers.  As a Mexican once told us, if you don’t know which local joints are good, just look for the locals and go there; you are guaranteed good food and affordability.  Here we had the pollo en pipian, chicken in a tomato-pumpkin seed sauce, a local Antiguan dish for $1.50.

In the same market on a different afternoon we had chile rellenos.  These were much different than the spicy Mexican chili rellenos we’ve experienced, usually composed solely of cheese inside.  Guatemalan chile rellenos were on the lighter side, without cheese and stuffed full of finely minced meat, carrots, green beans, and spices. They were then covered in egg batter, fried, and served with a tomato sauce on top.

During the craziness of Semana Santa, we came across a church with hundreds of people pouring through the arched entrance.  Inside was a hidden comedor area with dozens of food vendors. I presumed, based upon the organized groups of purple robed men, that it was one of the staging areas for the processions.  Here is where I discovered platanos en mole.  Heaven!

The last gastronomical wonder of Guatemala were the licuados, a frothy blend of fruit, ice, and water or milk.  While it may sound just like a smoothie, it most definitely is not.  Licuados are lighter and thinner in consistency.  Only a little bit of ice is added to make them cold and a little thicker, all the while creating a frothy top with flavorful liquid at the bottom.

 

POLLO EN PIPIAN VERDE (CHICKEN IN PUMPKIN-SEED SAUCE)

   Serves 32 TACOS
Ingredients
  • 1 whole 3 1/2-pound chicken plus 1 whole chicken breast
  • 1 head garlic, unpeeled
  • 1/2 large white onion
  • 6 long sprigs fresh coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 6 black peppercorns
  • 3 allspice berries
  • For pumpkin-seed sauce
  • 1 1/2 cups hulled green pumpkin seeds (about 7 ounces)
  • 2 tablespoons sesame seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 4 allspice berries
  • 3 cloves
  • 6 black peppercorns
  • 1 pound fresh tomatillos or a 28-ounce can tomatillos
  • 6 fresh serrano chilies
  • 1/2 large white onion
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 1/2 cup packed coarsely chopped fresh coriander
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/4 cup lard or vegetable oil
  • 3 cups stock from cooking chicken
  • 1 fresh poblano chili
  • Garnish: Chopped toasted hulled pumpkin seeds and chopped fresh coriander
  • Accompaniment: Warm Tortillas
Directions
  • Rinse chicken and cut garlic head in half crosswise. In a 6-quart kettle cover chicken, garlic halves, onion, coriander, salt, peppercorns, and allspice with water and simmer, covered, 1 hour, or until chicken is tender. Transfer chicken to a bowl to cool and reserve stock.
  • Shred chicken, discarding skin and bones. Pour reserved stock through a fine sieve into a bowl, pressing garlic pulp through sieve. Measure 3 cups stock for sauce and reserve remainder for another use. Chicken and stock may be made 1 day ahead and cooled completely, uncovered, before being chilled separately, covered. (Stock keeps, frozen, 1 month.)
  • MAKING THE SAUCE
  • Heat a large heavy skillet over moderate heat until hot and toast pumpkin seeds, stirring constantly, until they have expanded and begin to pop, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer seeds to a plate to cool.
  • In skillet heat sesame and cumin seeds, allspice, cloves, and peppercorns, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute, and transfer to plate. When seeds and spices are cool, in an electric spice/coffee grinder grind mixture in 4 batches to a powder.
  • If using fresh tomatillos, discard husks and rinse with warm water to remove stickiness. Stem serrano chilies.
  • In a saucepan simmer fresh tomatillos and serranos in salted water to cover 10 minutes. If using canned tomatillos, drain them and leave serranos uncooked. Transfer tomatillos and serranos (use a slotted spoon if simmered) to a blender and purée with onion, garlic, 1/4 cup coriander, and salt until completely smooth.
  • In a 5-quart heavy kettle simmer tomatillo purée in lard or oil, stirring frequently, 10 minutes.
  • Add 2 1/2 cups stock and stir in powdered pumpkin-seed mixture.
  • Simmer sauce, stirring occasionally, 15 minutes, or until slightly thickened. Sauce may be prepared up to this point 1 day ahead and cooled completely, uncovered, before being chilled, covered.
  • Roast and peel poblano chili.
  • In blender purée poblano with remaining 1/2 cup stock and remaining 1/4 cup coriander until completely smooth.
  • Stir poblano purée and chicken into sauce and heat on top of stove or in a 350° F. oven until chicken is heated through.
  • Garnish chicken with pumpkin seeds and coriander and serve with tortillas.

 

CHILE RELLENOS

   Serves 10
Ingredients
  • 10 Jalapeno chillies
  • 500gms beef or pork mince
  • 2 carrots peeled
  • 1 white onion
  • few sprigs of thyme
  • 3 potatoes peeled
  • 200gms green beans
  • half cup stock
  • 8 eggs
  • salt
  • pepper
  • oil for frying
Directions
  • Roast the chllies on a hot place or under a grill the skin burns a little, place them in cold water and peel the skin off, cut down the middle and set aside.
  • Place the carrots, beans and potatoes into a food processor and pulse until a rough paste.
  • Place in boiling water for 10 mins or until just soft.
  • In a large pan heat some oil with a finely chopped onion and add the mince, stir for a few minutes till brown with the thyme.
  • Once browned add in the strained vegie mix and cooking for 45 minutes with the stock and salt.
  • When the mixture has a consistency good enough to roll into balls, it is ready.
  • Set aside and let cool down.
  • Press the mixture in your hands to make long football shaped balls to go over the chili pieces.
  • Separate the egg whites and whisk until soft peaks form then fold in the egg yolks, dip the chillie balls into the batter and shallow fry in some hot oil.
  • They should only need about 30seconds each side. Serve with some fresh tomato sauce.

 

PLATANOS EN MOLE (PLANTAINS IN MOLE SAUCE)

Side
Cooks in    Serves 4
Ingredients
  • 1 pasilla chile or 1/4 tsp. chile powder
  • 2 tbsp. pumpkin or squash seeds
  • 3 tsp. sesame seeds
  • 2 oz. grated Mexican chocolate or 1 oz. grated unsweetened chocolate
  • 2/3 cup hot water
  • 1 cup coarsely chopped tomato
  • 3 fresh tomatillos, husked and coarsely chopped
  • 1 to 2 cinnamon sticks, broken into pieces, or 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 2 tbsp. sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 3 to 4 ripe plantains, cut into 1/2-inch diagonal slices
  • 2 tbsp. breadcrumbs
Directions
  • If using pasilla chile, soak in water 15 minutes, remove seeds, finely chop, and set aside.
  • In a nonstick or dry skillet, combine pumpkin seeds and 2 teaspoons of the sesame seeds. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until lightly toasted, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and to cool completely.
  • In a separate bowl, combine chocolate and hot water and stir.
  • In a blender or food processor, combine chopped pasilla (or chile powder), toasted seeds, chocolate mixture, tomato, tomatillos, cinnamon sticks (or ground cinnamon), sugar, and salt. Process several seconds until well blended. Set mole mixture aside.
  • In a large skillet, heat oil. In batches if necessary, cook plantain slices on both sides until golden brown. Drain on paper towels.
  • Pour out all but 1/4 cup oil from skillet.
  • Stir in mole mixture.
  • Cook, stirring constantly, over medium-high heat for 8 to 10 minutes.
  • Add breadcrumbs and stir until mole has thickened, 1 to 2 minutes. Top plantain slices with mole and sprinkle with remaining 1 teaspoon sesame seeds.

 

PINA LICUADO

Drink
   Serves 2
Ingredients
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 cup frozen pineapple pulp
  • Juice of 5 Mexican limes OR 1 regular-size lime
  • 1 tablespoon sugar OR to taste
Directions
  • Place all ingredients in a blender or food processor container.
  • Blend 1 to 2 minutes, until smooth.
  • Serve immediately.

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26
Apr 2012
POSTED BY Brad
POSTED IN

Blog, Central America

DISCUSSION 10 Comments

The Antigua Creeper

“Who’s that old creeper hanging out with all of those high school girls?”  Those who passed the open window of the chocolate making school in Antigua were all certainly wondering the same thing.  Sure, Sheena and the girls’ chaperone were both my age, but they blended into the sea of adolescent femininity like snakes in grass, leaving me the odd man out.  The 28 year old creeper.

The class was riveting, and our high school classmates were a vivacious bunch.  They hailed from Georgia, I believe, and were in Guatemala for some kind of weeklong church trip to a Mayan village.  With the help of our instructor, Pablo, we roasted cocoa beans and turned them into all sorts of goodness.  After having shelled, and pulverized the beans in a mortar, we made Mayan hot chocolate.  As I sipped on my tiny ramekin of hot cocoa I spied something that nearly caused the spicy concoction to squirt out of my nose: one of the high school girls tilted her head in such a way that she looked almost exactly like our friend Shawn Kramer.  It was uncanny! Who’s that old creeper staring at that high school girl?  Creeee-pyyyyyy!

We arrived in Antigua, in the southwestern corner of Guatemala, after having crawled across the country over the course of two weeks at a mere 15 miles per hour, give or take, due to heinous roads.  At long last, we had reached the final major outpost before the Salvadorian border.  While Antigua was a well cared for colonial town, we had unexpectedly found the country to be, by and large, economically ravaged.  I suppose it’s only natural given their turbulent recent history.

In 1954, the CIA sponsored a military coup to overthrow the government of Guatemala.  It’s well documented, not conspiracy theory.  The goal was to create an authoritarian government in place of Guatemala’s functioning democracy for the sole purpose of protecting US corporate interests (primarily a banana company that supplied fruit to the USA). Between 1954 and 1990, about 300,000 civilians were murdered and the country’s economic development  remained at a standstill.  And that’s what I mean by turbulent recent history.

When we arrived in Antigua we made our way to the office of the tourist police, the Asistur, where we had heard we could camp for free.  Lo and behold, just outside of downtown we found a walled compound filled with abandoned cars, bombed out buildings, and a small office containing the tourist police.  It had a nice view to the southwest of a live volcano, only a couple of miles away, which erupted every day.  We drove in and found a place between the Australian couple we’d met in Tikal, and the French family we’d camped next to in Lago de Atitlan.

Running into the same group of overlanders has become a regular and welcome occurrence.  At any one time there are a number of groups making the trip down the Pan-American Highway on similar schedules.  The result is that every week or so we come across someone we know.  There’s Thomas, the Swedish guy we met Palenque, Mexico, who takes public transit, and whose good looks have made him irresistible to even the most macho of male Guatemalan hotel employees.  There’s the French family driving in an RV and homeschooling their two children along the way.  The Austrlians Chris and Wendy, as well as the Americans James and Lauren from Home on the Highway are both driving Toyota 4Runners and making us jealous with the speed at which they can drive over topes.  Toughest of all are Barbara and Achim, the German couple, riding their bikes from America to Argentina.  They’re on flat pedals with hiking shoes, always seem to be in a good mood, and are keeping pace with us in our van.

As we settled into our place at Asistur, chewing the fat with the French and the Aussies, who should come strolling into our camp but Barbara and Achim.  Wendy and Chris, having planned to leave that day, decided to stick around for another day just for the hell of it.  We had catching up to do.  We would spend the next four days hanging out with Barbara and Achim.  Friends, just like back home, except that we’re all homeless and unemployed.

It just so happened that we arrived in Antigua just in time for the pre-Semana Santa religious processions.  In this display, families stake their claim on a patch of the procession route; a daylong circuit winding through the streets of Antigua.  The families spend immense amounts of time creating beautiful “carpets” In the street.  The carpets are actually artistic scenes made of colored sawdust, flowers, vegetables, and other objects, and are created by the devotees on the day of the parade.  They’re an obsessive-compulsive person’s dream: sawdust grains ordered in such a way, and on such a grand scale, that it blows the very minds of any and every observer.

As the procession passes through the streets, the carpets are destroyed by the trampling of men and women wearing pointed caps, brandishing instruments, and carrying heavy wooden floats adorned with fake Jesus puppets spewing pump-driven fake blood.  One million people packed into Antigua’s streets like sardines to watch the carnage.  It was like a religious Disneyland!

Sitting at the German microbrewery in Antigua with our Bavarian friends, we reflected on Guatemala.  It was tough.  I do realize that we plan to drive our van through China, India, and the Middle-East, and that those will undoubtedly be tougher.  But we’re just getting started, and Guatemala was tough for us.  We’re still in the shake down period, figuring out what works and what doesn’t.  This country was a test.  We ordered new car parts and had them sent to Costa Rica.  We compiled lists of lessons learned.  We hit many lows and not very many highs.  But we made it through.  And after all of that, we took our pent up frustration out on a bunch of cocoa beans, yielding a mediocre ramekin of sugary chocolate milk, and the everlasting impression burned upon the minds of those who passed by us, of the Antigua Creeper and his cohort of Georgian high school girls.

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18
Apr 2012
POSTED BY Brad
POSTED IN

Blog, Central America

DISCUSSION 22 Comments

Guatemala at 15 Miles Per Hour

When we left on this trip, I knew next to nothing about Guatemala.  I take that back.  When we left on this trip I knew absolutely nothing about Guatemala.  It should thus come as no surprise that we found ourselves in this predicament.

You may recall that our original plan was to drive from Tikal to Semuc Champey in one day.  We ended up camping out in the schoolyard of a Mayan village in the middle of nowhere after the main highway on our map turned out to be a really rough, really long dirt road.  We spent the evening surrounded by dozens of Mayan children staring at us while we sat in Nacho, staring back.

The next day, you will recall, we barely managed to get off of the terrible dirt road before our wheel bearing failed, leaving us stuck in a podunk town for five days.  A demoralizing affair, you will recall.

By the time Nacho was ready to go, we had talked ourselves out of going to Semuc Champey, as we were told that the road to get there was 3-4 hours of hellish, rocky, Nacho-killing steep dirt roads.  It sounded like a surefire way to destroy more wheel bearings, so we opted to scoot on a mere 155 miles to the mountain town of Nebaj.  Only three and a half hours away, Google Maps said.

What we didn’t expect was to drive from Fray Bartolome to Coban, a distance of 80 miles, in first and second gear.  But mostly first gear.  The road was never flat; it oscillated between straight up and straight down.  While climbing, Nacho insisted on being in first gear.  While descending, Nacho’s brakes insisted in being in first gear too.  After our early morning departure, we arrived in Coban, the halfway point, in time for a late lunch.  We would have been faster, of course, had we not taken the time to stop for breakfast next to a river, and to give a firewood-carrying old man a ride. We’re supposed to be enjoying ourselves, right? And doing charitable things for the elderly?

At Coban, the capital of the department of Alta Verapaz, we were sure our luck would change.  We were turning onto a new highway, the CA14, followed shortly by Highway 7W.  They were big thick red lines on our map, ensuring fast-moving smooth travels.  Minutes later we realized that we were wrong again.  We reminded ourselves how little we knew about Guatemala.  Mountains?  All of it?

When we hit the 7W it didn’t take long to turn to dirt.  We had traveled 95 miles by this point and had not managed to move beyond 2nd gear.  When the road turned to dirt we slowly crawled over a few off-camber deep ruts studded by sharp rocks before we stopped and looked at each other.

“Are you kidding me?  Is there some other way we can go?” I asked.

It didn’t look promising.  The next place of interest for us was Lago de Atitlan, which would put us nearly out of the country after a really long detour.  We couldn’t keep skipping sites because of the roads.  We reluctantly drove on.

After a couple of hours of slow, first gear crawling, we came to a split in the road.  Straight ahead the path was full of tall weeds and it seemed to head straight for a cliff.  To the left the road pitched straight down at what seemed to be a 35 degree slope, at least.  If we drove down, there was no way we’d get back up.  The road clung to the side of a steep vein of rock jutting off of the mountain before plunging off the end and around a corner at an even steeper pitch.  A man had parked his bicycle and was urinating in the middle of the weed-patch road.  We felt uneasy.  I tapped the gas and sent Nacho sliding down the loose, dusty incline straight down the side of the mountain.

By the time we reached the second or third corner, maybe three hundred yards down the road, I pulled onto the embankment to let the brakes cool down.  If I didn’t keep it at a walking pace, then our tires would slip under braking.  As we sat on the roadside the urinating bicycle man slowly rode past us, his rear wheel locked, skidding.  Sheena got out and walked the next corner.  Safety first.

We alternated between driving and letting the brakes cool for what seemed like an eternity.  The road kept switching back, diving lower and lower down the side of the mountain.  Suddenly, as we came around another vein of rock jutting out of the mountain, our jaws dropped.  The entire face of the mountain in front of us had peeled off and slid down into the valley below.  All that was left was an enormous scar where a mountain used to be.  The road wound its way right through the middle of the landslide, weaving through rocks the size of buildings, clinging precariously to the side of the rubble-strewn slide path.  Where the road had split, before the steep downhill, we had turned onto a makeshift road where the old road had apparently been wiped off the side of the mountain.

We slowly creeped along through the rubble, crossing a stream that continued to erode away the mountainside.  As soon as we made it across the landslide, the road pitched straight up.  We would have to climb all the way back up to where we started, but on the other side of the slide.

Due to the steepness of the road, there were times that we would bog down in first gear and it didn’t seem like we’d make it.  Nacho is big boned and doesn’t like hefting his 5,800 pound body up really steep stuff.  In these cases, just as it seemed we’d stall, I would push in the clutch, rev the engine, and release.  It’s a great way to destroy a clutch, but given the alternative, it seemed right.  It was that or face the wrath of a raging wife.  What do you mean we’re STUCK? And in DANGER?!  In the end, we made it to the top, albeit just barely.

A couple of hours later, as we continued to slog through landslide after landslide (although much smaller than the first), Sheena read the following in our Lonely Planet:

_______________________________________________________

Renowned for its incredible views, highway 7W was until recently the most direct route from Huehuetenango to Coban.  But in late 2008, disaster struck when a mountain collapsed atop the road, leaving its east end in shambles.

There’s been no official attempt at rebuilding, but locals have carved out a hastily constructed detour that’s generally considered unsafe.  Buses from Uspantan to Coban regularly plow through the debris anyway, despite the dangers.  By all accounts, it’s a hair-raising journey and things worsen when it rains and drivers refuse to risk the gap, making passengers hike through the mud for 2km to continue the journey.

The saner alternative is backtracking via Guatemala City, a loss of about 4 hours, but an infinite gain in peace of mind.
________________________________________________________

Well crap.

After a couple more hours we finally reached pavement again.  For the first time, after eight hours of driving, I put Nacho in third gear.  A few seconds later we came across another landslide covering the pavement, so we put it back in first and felt our way through it.  First, second, third, landslide, repeat.

As we approached the high mountain town of Nebaj, night had closed in on us.  We wound our way up into the mountains in first gear, 15 miles per hour, ever higher into the night sky.  As we traversed one switchback after another, we looked out the window at the twinkling lights overhead.  In the deep black of the night we couldn’t tell if we were looking at stars, or at the lights from homes clinging to the mountainsides above us.

By nine o’clock we pulled into the small Mayan town of Nebaj; headquarters of the rebel army during the country’s recent civil war, chosen for its natural defenses against enemy attack.  The trip of 155 miles took us 11 hours.  An average speed of 14mph.  Screw you, Google Maps.

In Nebaj we admired the traditional dress of the local Mayans, shopped in the local market, and hiked through a mountain pass to the even smaller and more remote town of Acul.  In the mountains we took pity on the hordes of children emerging from the dense forest with loads of firewood on their backs.  We awoke each morning to the smell of pine burning in wood stoves and admired the blue skies and vast mountainscapes.

On the morning of our third day we pointed Nacho skyward, climbing the mountain rim surrounding Nebaj.  Once at the rim we pointed Nacho downward, into the switchbacks.  From Nebaj to Lago de Atitlan we continued our slow progress across Guatemala, in first and second gear, at somewhere around 15 miles per hour.

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31
Mar 2012
POSTED BY Brad
POSTED IN

Blog, Central America

DISCUSSION 24 Comments

Doing Time in Guatemala – 1,989 Words to Freedom

On our map, the road to Sibol looked like a highway.  In reality it was a potholed, muddy dirt track that threaded itself like a needle through dramatic mountain spires jutting up through dense rainforest.  We put Nacho in first gear and slowly clambered through the mud and rocks.  Once in Sebol, we planned to head south to the town of Semuc Champay where we would bask in clear pools and explore a network of caves.

After two hours of slow dirt road crawling, we arrived at pavement.  We put Nacho in third gear and sailed through the torrential rain into the tiny pueblo of Fray Bartolomé.  Moments later, a metal-on-metal whooshing sound erupted from Nacho’s left rear wheel.  As we came to a stop in a mud puddle the wheel let out a groan.  Our hearts sank; for the second time in a month the driver’s side rear wheel bearing had failed.

We were hosed.  I had used up all of my spare bearings in Mexico, so we would have to rely on locals to find new bearings for us.  I looked across the street: the sign in front of a simple cinderblock building read Hotel Fontana H.  Two buildings away was a mecanico filled with broken down chicken buses and beat up trucks.  It could have been worse; we could have broken down in a Mayan shantytown, or worse, in the middle of nowhere.  Mari, the caretaker of the hotel, would later tell us that Dios had sent us to break down in front of her hotel.  I made a mental note to write a harshly worded letter to this Dios of whom she spoke.

We started the engine and slowly crept across the street to the mechanic.  He took the hub apart and verified again that indeed the rear wheel bearing was destroyed.

“Can you get parts?” I asked.

“I’m not sure, but I’ll try.  It could be three, four days.” he said.  This was not a good sign.  Four days in Latin-American time could be six weeks!  He let us plug the van into their electrical outlet in the shop since we wouldn’t get any solar energy there, and then we gathered our things and sulked over to the hotel where we fell heavily onto our dingy mattresses.  My mood sunk to an all time low for the trip.  Sheena entered the beginning stages of a near-nervous breakdown.  The stained shower curtain separating the toilet from our room hung limply in the dank air, oblivious to our mood.

We collected our wits and headed out to a run down comedor next to the mechanic called Restaurante Manatí for a late lunch.  I ordered the standard Central American lunch staple of grilled chicken with rice and beans, while Sheena ordered a bowl of soup.  We tried to find the bright side.  Everything was going to be fine.  We would get Nacho fixed…some day.  We would be done with mechanical issues…until next month.  Our hotel was cheap, so we were saving money.  Nothing really seemed to elevate our mood.  We asked for the bill.

“Señor, how much do we owe?”

“It is 320 Quetzales.” He said.

“320 Quetzales!?” I said, startled.  That’s $42.  The typical daily wage for a Guatemalan worker is between 35 and 73 Quetzales.  Our hotel was 85Q per night, and a typical lunch in a restaurant will set you back 15Q.  “That’s a lot of money for lunch!”

“The chicken is 50 and the soup is 200.  Your drinks were 70, so it’s 320 total.”

We hadn’t inquired about the unlisted prices before ordering, and quickly realized that he was robbing us.  There was nothing we could do once we exhausted our bewildered inquiries.  We had to pay him.  In writing this post well after the fact, I wish I could report that this was an isolated incident, but it was not.  In Guatemala, and in no other country we’ve been to thus far, merchants repeatedly tried to take advantage of us.  After having more experience with dishonest Guatemalan vendors I would have certainly handled this situation differently if I were able to do it again.

We returned to our hotel exhausted, infuriated, and overwhelmed.  Overland travel has its highs and its lows.  This was a very low low.

The next morning I went to the mechanic for news on our bearings.  He had put in a request with his suppliers in Guatemala City and was waiting to hear back.  When I arrived I noticed that Nacho had been unplugged from the electrical outlet.  I went to ask why when I noticed that the outlet where it had been plugged in was blackened and melted.  I looked at our extension cord and saw that it too was melted, and had welded itself to Nacho’s electrical hookup.

“Last night there was an electrical storm.”  It was the mechanic, approaching from behind a building.  “The security guard called me and I came over.  There was smoke coming out of the wall so I unplugged your cord.”

I quickly went inside of Nacho and checked the electrical panel.  The 110V breaker hadn’t tripped for some inexplicable reason, meaning that the wiring inside of the van had probably been destroyed as well.  I found the multimeter and checked.  Sure enough, there was continuity between all three leads.  Like us, our wiring was hosed.  By some stroke of luck Nacho hadn’t gone up in flames.  I made a note-to-self to try to find a surge protector if we ever became free from this hell.

I found a screwdriver and removed the hookup from the outside of the van, allowing me to peer behind the cabinets.  I could see a melted mess of wires leading behind the water tanks.  I could also see that the scorching hot wires had melted through one of our drinking water lines.

I decided not to go back and report this news to Sheena for fear that I’d trip her over the edge into a raging nervous breakdown.  Instead I took a tuk-tuk to the gas station and bought a new extension cord and some 110V wiring.  I spent the rest of the day dissecting Nacho’s interior, rewiring the 110VAC electrical system, and patching our severed water line.  By the end of the day it was back to normal.  I returned to the hotel with all of our food so that we wouldn’t have to run the refrigerator.  There was still no sign of wheel bearings anywhere in the country.

As the days passed we made friends with the family that ran the hotel.  It started with high fives and knuckle bumps with Debora and Jordi, the children, when we would pass them in the reception area.  Soon we were having conversations with Rodolfo and Mari, the parents, while the kids watched cartoons.  After a while congregating in the reception area became our daily ritual.

Mari was happy to show Sheena how to make tortillas in the hotel’s makeshift outdoor kitchen, and told us why they had come to Fray.  In her home town she tried to sell tortillas on the street, but was unable to sell the 30 tortillas per day required to make ends meet.  The people there were too poor to buy them.  She was equally dismayed to find out that the Manití had charged us ten times her daily wage for lunch.

On our third night we decided to make the family a nice dinner.  We walked down to the Dispensa Familiar and bought supplies for shrimp risotto and one of Sheena’s killer salads.  In Guatemala we’d been having a hard time finding ample vegetables to eat, or really much of anything besides the typical meat and beans staples, so we really splurged.  For the shrimp risotto we bought broccoli, peas and Argentine wine.  For the salad toppings: walnuts, strawberries, avocado, apples, broccoli, tomatoes, cheese, raisins, and almonds.  On the side we would have some of the fresh tortillas that Sheena and Mari made.

While we cooked the children stood on boxes so they could watch.  They periodically snatched strawberries and broccoli, stuffing them into their mouths.  It was clear that they too were craving some fresh fruits and vegetables.  While the risotto simmered they showed us their favorite dances.  First, a rudimentary version of the tango.

Next, as Jordi put it, “I’m dancing with my legs!”  This basically entailed holding his upper body straight while stepping around with spaghetti legs.  Debora loved it as much as we did.

Dinner delivered much needed nourishment and reminded us of how fortunate we are to have good food available to us so ubiquitously back home.  Mari and Rodolfo had never tried walnuts or broccoli before.  They each had seconds and thirds, and then asked to keep some of the leftovers.  The next day Rodolfo asked if we could make the salad again.  For the next few days every time we heard them on the phone they spent considerable time recounting the meal.  “The gringos…shrimp in the rice…Argentine wine…salad with nuts…”

On the third day I returned to the mechanic to see about the progress.  “They have found some bearings.  They will arrive tomorrow at the gas station on a bus from Guatemala City.”  It seemed too good to be true.  That night we celebrated over a dinner of fried chicken with rice and beans that Rodolfo and Mari cooked for us.

On the final day I walked in the shop just as the mechanic was reassembling Nacho’s hub.  I had ordered an extra set of bearings so that we would have a spare on hand, but there was bad news.  When the new bearings arrived at the gas station, the gas station attendant had taken the initiative to help us out by pressing the bearings into the hub using his hammer press.  When the mechanic picked them up he found that the use of a hammer had completely destroyed the bearings.  He had to remove them and use the spare set instead.  In the end we were really lucky to have ordered two sets; if we hadn’t we would have been stuck in Fray Bartolomé for even longer.  On the downside, we still don’t have a backup set of bearings.

As the mechanic put the finishing touches on the hub, I took some time to do an oil change and a tire rotation.  The mechanic asked a young boy who had been watching us to help me rotate my tires.  It turned out that he actually worked there.

“How old are you”, I asked.

“Thirteen”, he replied.

“Do you go to school too, or do you just work?”

He looked at me as he jacked up the front of the car, his eyes giving away a hint of melancholy.  “I only work.”

That night we thought a lot about the privileges afforded to us simply by being born in the United States.  We had enjoyed carefree childhoods.  The worst part of each summer was the act of back to school shopping, marking the momentary end to fort building, sleepovers, and back yard baseball games.  We had grown up taking family vacations to the beach and to amusement parks.  Neither Rodolfo nor Mari had ever been out of the small region in Guatemala where they were born.  I went on a school trip to Peru when I was twelve.

The next morning we said goodbye to our new friends.  Mari told us that the kids would probably cry for a long time once we left.  Rodolfo jokingly offered to give us one of them as a gift.  At that, Mari asked us to wait and went into her room.  She came back with a ceramic angel with a broken wing.

“I wanted to give you this gift so that you will never forget us.”

Driving away from the Hotel Fintana H. filled us with relief to finally be free.  But then again, we’ve been free all along.  Sometimes we just take it for granted.

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28
Mar 2012
POSTED BY Brad
POSTED IN

Blog, Central America

DISCUSSION 5 Comments

The Guatemalan Adventures of Indiana Van Orden

Up until a couple of years ago, I spent my days as a medical products design engineer.  The best days were spent in the lab testing design iterations and new materials.  Most days, however, were spent parked in front of a computer designing the products, writing test plans, communicating with vendors, writing reports, or analyzing test results.  On the odd day when the computer system would go down in a storm, operations would come to a screeching halt.  When we arrived at the Guatemalan border that old feeling returned.  The computer system had crashed and we would have to wait indefinitely.

For the next couple of hours we sat with a fellow stranded traveler, a Mennonite farmer.  His family farmed rice in Belize, but export taxes imposed by Belize, combined with America’s subsidies for imported Asian rice, had made it impossible for him to make a living farming rice in Belize.  He was thus relocating his family to Guatemala where labor and export taxes were cheaper, which would allow them to continue farming.  As rough as we may think we have it sometimes, at least we don’t have to relocate our families to a developing country just to stay above water.

We finally made our way through customs as the sun went down, and then found a camp spot in the yard of a hotel a few yards from the border.  By morning we were on our way to Tikal.

The first hour the following morning was on a road that remained largely unpaved, so we put Nacho in first gear and sat back for the long haul.  This exercise has become far too common these days; slowly creeping along for hours on end in first gear.  Soon enough we arrived at the gates for Tikal, one of the most elaborate and extensive Mayan ruins in existence.

Since we had arrived at the peak of the afternoon heat, we figured we’d set up camp in the grassy camping area and rest until evening.  When the afternoon heat passed, we headed out for a hike, having decided that we’d hit the ruins first thing in the morning before it got hot.  It wouldn’t be so.  As we passed the guard shack we were stopped and asked for our tickets to see the ruins.

“We’re just going for a hike in the jungle.  We’re going to use our tickets to see the ruins in the morning.”

“Oh no, you have to use the tickets today.  They’re only good for one day.”

“But we will use them for only one day.  We’ll use them for tomorrow.”

“I can sell you more tickets for tomorrow, but you will have to pay full price.  These tickets will be no good.”

After having been put in a bad mood by the “foreigner” price, which was over five times the “local” price, things were only getting worse.  “So you’d like for us to pay the full foreigner price again, meaning that we will have paid the price of twelve local person tickets, just to see the ruins one time?  Why can’t you can just reissue us some tickets for tomorrow?”

The guards conferred, and then the one of them approached me as if he had a good idea.  “Tell you what.  You can just pay him the price for two more full price tickets, and you’ll be able to enter the park at 4:00 AM and spend all day looking at the ruins.”

We had no choice but to spend the last two and a half hours of the day looking at the ruins.  We didn’t have much time, so we hurried through as much as we could before the sun went down and the park closed.  The area contained a vast collection of pyramids and buildings, which used to support a community of over 100,000 inhabitants.

The following day we woke up early so we could do our hike in the jungle.  We had heard that there were some hiking trails but weren’t sure where to find them.  As we walked along a path leading toward the ruins we saw a small trail ducking under some vines and disappearing into the jungle.  It looked like a hiking trail to us, so we took it.

After a few minutes we came across a long concrete building in a clearing.  As we scoped it out we saw two men come out of the jungle carrying machetes.  They seemed to be guides for the park.  One of them called out to us.

“Are you looking for the ruins?  You should be careful, it’s very dangerous in the jungle.”

“What do you mean?  Are there dangerous animals?”

“Not really, but it’s very easy to get lost.”

We thanked him for the advice and found another trail that disappeared into the dense vines and walked on.  Heeding the guard’s warning, we devised a nearly fool proof method of not getting lost in the jungle; every time we came to a junction, we made a wooden arrow showing us how to get back the way we came.  As long as there weren’t any malicious people or monkeys behind us, we ought to be in good shape.

Our trek took us down several trails before dropping us onto a rough dirt road.  We followed the road for a while until we saw a place where two faint tire tracks could be made out heading off into the jungle in a different direction.  We took these, but they petered out after about a half an hour of walking.  It looked like two or three Jeeps had ever made it to where we were.

Finally, as we began to consider turning back, the outline of blocks in the undergrowth caught our eye.  In some places it looked like someone had shoveled away a few inches of topsoil to uncover the outlines of some buried structures.  We walked into the undergrowth, away from the tire tracks, and found more blocks forming the outlines of rooms; in all we found ten or twelve rooms.  It appeared to be a residential area where there must have been many homes.  We had stumbled into an unexcavated Mayan ruin.

On the way back we thought about how many ruins must be hidden in the jungle around Tikal.  For a site with so many enormous temples and gathering places, there must have been extensive residential areas sprawling out beyond the excavated center.  As we discussed this, Sheena froze in the path.  Her eyes grew into cue balls, her lungs filled, and her breathing stopped.  Her mouth formed into the ecstatic smile of a crazy person.  I looked ahead in the path and saw the object of her elation: a miniature deer.  It was like a normal deer, but it was the size of a whippet.  When it saw Sheena’s crazy eyes it turned and walked into the jungle on its pencil-thin legs.

For the next few minutes the conversation shifted to Sheena’s new favorite animal.

“You know, I’ve always wanted to see a miniature deer”, she said, matter-of-factly.

“I didn’t even know they existed.  How long could you have possibly wanted to see one?”

“Oh, many years.”

In the end, despite the negative impressions on our first day, we enjoyed our time at Tikal.  Our jungle excursion gave us an opportunity that most Tikal visitors don’t get to experience.  It was like going to Disneyland and finding a ride that nobody else had ever seen before, except that there weren’t any pedophiles dressed up as cartoon animals lurking about.  And best of all, Sheena got to fulfill her many years long dream of spotting a mini deer.

We’re trying to keep in mind that things won’t always go our way.  But just because things aren’t going our way, it doesn’t mean that they won’t turn out to be better in the end.

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