Day 116 – Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Xela (Quetzaltenango), Guatemala
I recently read an article about long term travel. In this article, the author vividly portrayed some of his most memorable travel experiences. Of course by memorable, I mean he recalled those days where everything seemed to go against him. In this article, he wrote something that is likely to stick with me for a long time. These days, he said, “Are the ones when you wish you had two ruby slippers to click together and say, there is no place like home.” August 14th turned out to be one of those days, oh and it also was Shawn Reece’s birthday.
Most children get a birthday party at the park or a pizza joint, with clowns or super heroes, with a lot family and friends, but Shawn Reece got a ride on a chicken bus through Guatemala in the pouring rain. In other words, Shawn Reece got a birthday that he will never forget. I know he will certainly never stop telling us how little he enjoyed his birthday. We did make it up to him later, but that is a story for another time.
We woke up quite early on the 14th in order to start our journey north towards Xela (Quetzaltenango). Before heading for the bus, we walked about 1.5km out of town to the ancient Mayan ceremonial ground of Pascual Abaj. Pascual Abaj lies at the top of a steep hill overlooking Chichicastenango. When we reached the top, the first thing we noticed was the spectacular view of Chichicastenango and the surrounding valley. Unfortunately, the ceremonial grounds themselves have been taken over by stray dogs and there was not much else to see. After five minutes or so, satisfied that at least it had a nice view, we walked back down from Pascual Abaj and ate a typical Guatemalan breakfast (Q8 or $1.13) at the market. Following breakfast, we picked up our bags from the hotel and headed for the bus.
For the first leg of our journey, we took a thirty minute ride on a minibus from Chichi to Los Encuentros. Los Encuentros is a typical small Guatemalan town, only important because it sits at the crossroads of two of Guatemala’s main highways. We were quite pleased with this first part of the trip, since it had not yet started raining and the minibus provided superior comfort to a camioneta. Our arrival in Los Encuentros also marked the arrival of our bad luck. Shortly after exiting the minibus into the scruffy dirty street, rain started coming down in droves. At this point, we still had a twenty or thirty minute wait until our bus to Xela came, so we quickly sought shelter in one of the makeshift food stalls that line the road. After a minute or two of looking, we were allowed to wait under a tarp next to a roadside fruit stand. This tarp, while not a hundred percent effective, kept us dry for the most part.
When the rain started to pour, we looked up and felt proud of ourselves, as we had already equipped all of our backpacks with rain covers. A rain cover is made of a water proof material and it covers the top of the pack, leaving the back open, so that it can still be worn. Using a rain cover on your pack is a must here, since on the camionetas, all luggage is stored on the roof, without any protection from the elements. After about a twenty minute wait under the tarp, our bus arrived and our luggage was loaded onto the roof. Before we knew it, we were finally on our way to Xela!
The trip from Los Encuentros to Xela took around two hours. The road travels over several switchbacks as it crosses through the mountains. Outside, the scenery is stunning as not an inch of this land is underutilized. For the most part, all the land is used for farming. Of course, the main crop here is corn and the amount of corn here rivals Iowa and Nebraska. Every bit of the land is a bright, almost tropical green and for the entire two hours, when I could see through the heavy rain, my eyes were fixated on the beautiful countryside.
When we finally arrived in Xela, the driver’s assistant very abruptly threw our forty pound backpacks at us from the top of the bus. It almost seemed that the bus never stopped, as the driver was in such a hurry to stay on schedule that he drove off before we even had time to blink, engulfing us in a black cloud of diesel exhaust. After gagging a bit from the exhaust we looked down at our packs and quickly became enraged. It turns out, that the man who tied our packs down to the roof, tied them face down, leaving the uncovered back sides exposed to the rain. In other words, our packs were soaking wet. This would have been ok if it wasn’t still pouring, if we didn’t have to wear them and if we didn’t have to catch still another minibus to the center of town.
It was about a three or four minute walk to the bus stop, where we caught a minibus to the Historical Center of Xela. In Guatemala, it is not normally necessary to have an advanced reservation for a hotel, so we didn’t have a place to go immediately when we arrived. The minibus dropped us off about two blocks from the Central Park in the still pouring rain. Very quickly, we hatched out a plan to find a hotel and I was elected to run around the city in order to get prices and narrow down our options. Jasmine and Shawn Reece stayed with the backpacks inside a Spanish school that very nicely gave them shelter.
After narrowing it down to a couple of hotels, I went and got Jasmine to make the final decision. We chose an old run down place called the Hotel Shalom. By this time in the day we were exhausted and beat up by the rain, so we probably weren’t thinking very clearly. In our desperation to get a room and to throw our packs down, I think we overlooked quite a few small details about this place.
After tying our packs down in the room, we headed out to eat dinner and explore a little. Shawn Reece had the choice of where to eat, and he chose McDonalds for his birthday dinner. After a day like this, he certainly deserved it. McDonalds is right off of the central plaza in Xela, so it was easy enough to find and we enjoyed our taste of Americana.
After dinner we walked around a bit and then headed back to the hotel to get some rest. As I opened the door to our room, I quickly noticed that there was a huge puddle of water covering most of the floor. It turned out, that the ground outside our hotel room door was slanted inwards, forcing all of the rain water into our room, creating a flood. You must have guessed by now, that our bags were tied down on that exact floor, so now both the backs and bottoms of our packs were sopping wet. Most of the stuff inside the packs was also moist and quite smelly by this point. The one bit of luck that we did have, was that all of our electronics were elevated, leaving them out of the flood path.
After getting the hotel manager to mop up the enormous puddle of water, we finally decided to settle in for the night. While lying in our beds, we started to notice that our room had stained walls and more than a few insects crawling around. After a few minutes of saying “Ewwwwwwww”, we finally accepted that we only had to be there for one night and started to fall asleep. Just as I was getting sleepy, something happened that I will never forget. Out of nowhere, came the worst case of diaherria I have ever seen. I quickly ran to the bathroom and made yet another startling discovery about this wonderful room of ours. Yes, you are right, there wasn’t a toilet seat! Without getting very graphic, I didn’t have anywhere to sit and my squatting skills are not very highly refined, so I made a bit of a mess. Over the next hour I made three more trips to the bathroom, before, in desperation, I decided to take an immodium. I simply couldn’t go on like that all night.
The next day, we woke up very early and got the hell out of Hotel Shalom. I have described August 14th as a horrible day. While I certainly felt that way at the time, I now look back on it a bit differently. These types of days are somehow worth it in the scheme of things, for if they didn’t exist, then I wouldn’t be traveling in a foreign country. With this type of travel, comes the good and the bad, for which I am truly grateful to be able to experience. These types of stories are also the funniest to recount, as everyone gets a good laugh. Shawn Reece’s birthday sure proved to be one of the most memorable days of our trip so far.
More from Xela soon………………….
We want to thank everyone for the comments and emails. Your support is truly appreciated and keeps us going.
The Coomer Family