Panajachel (Lago de Atitla), Guatemala
So Dennis, the owner of Le Gite del Sol (our hostel in San Cristobal), said “When you two are ready to leave for Guatemala I can arrange a shuttle for you.” Cool. That makes it easy. Sure enough, when we were ready, he arranged a shuttle for us that actually picked us up at the hostel. The cost was 300 pesos pp ($22 USD pp). “So, Dennis, how long a trip is it?” “Four hours” Dennis replied, and I’ll even pack you a small box lunch. Sweet.
If you are going to travel the world, here is a suggestion for you: suspend all expectations, and just take it as it comes. Because it rarely comes as you would expect it. We showed up at 6:30 a.m. gringo time just to be safe. Sure enough the shuttle picked us up (from our hostel as promised) at precisely 7:30 a.m. Mexican time (the usual 30 minutes late—not unexpected). After picking up some additional passengers from their various hostels and hotels we had a total of 7 souls onboard, and finally got underway at about 8:00 a.m.
Ten minutes outside of San Cristobal the road was blockaded, and a half dozen wooden structures were burning furiously (homes?). A group of about 45 to 50 men were stopping traffic, and our driver executed a very quick U-turn. We ran into this situation last year passing by Agua Azul near Palenque, back then it was Zapatistas extorting money from vehicles passing through. I thought this was a repeat performance, but it wasn’t. Our driver pulled over and discussed the situation with some of the other non-mob villagers—they weren’t extorting money, and they weren’t stopping anyone not fitting the target criteria. So we were free to proceed. The driver turned back around and entered the dramatic situation once again. By that time a mob had surrounded a small red car with two indigenous (Maya) women inside, and they were shaking it violently. It appeared as if they were trying to overturn it with the women inside, as it was up on its side on only two wheels—the women looked terrified. I felt helpless, as I was unable to do anything to help. Fifty to one is terrible odds, I don’t speak Spanish, and I couldn’t have gotten out of the bus even if I had tried. So what in the hell was going on?
It was a case of religious intolerance. I personally have a problem with most kinds of intolerance, and especially bullying and mob violence. I have no historical context on this situation however, therefore I can’t really offer up an intelligent opinion, I can only report what I saw and what I’ve been told. In brief this is what I know: There is a war going on between the local Catholics and what they refer to as Western Christians. Catholicism in the rural mountains of Chiapas is a hybrid-Catholicism (a mix of Maya traditional ways and beliefs juxtaposed with Spanish Catholicism). It can be very different from we’ve come to accept as Catholicism, and it can be harsh. Most churches don’t have priests anymore, and they’ve burned the confessionals and pews—no confessionals, no pews and no priests means no Mass. When they talk about Western Christians they are speaking to the Jehovah’s Witness, the Latter Day Saints and Evangelical Christians (mostly from the United States) who have come into their villages proselytize. In short, right or wrong, they resent it—strongly and often violently. In recent years they have kicked all the missionaries out of their villages, and any Maya converting to one of these religions is given 48 hours to leave their village (to never come back, or even to visit), or they are physically removed, often forcibly and violently. So that’s what we had driven into—we had driven into a war between the indigenous hybrid-Catholics and the Western Christians. The women in the car were Maya who had allegedly converted to a form of Western Christianity, and been targeted for rough treatment. Supposedly it was meant as intimidation and scare tactics, and no real harm was going to be committed, but I remember those half dozen homes being burned to the ground. And mob violence pisses me off. But most times, as a traveler, you’re put in the same position as a photojournalist: you are reduced to simply observing as a bystander, and not allowed to act.
Back to our trip, it turns out that the four hours Dennis was talking about only got us to the border. Surprise! It would be another four hours to our destination—but it wasn’t. Arriving at the border we checked out of Mexico, a fairly quick and easy process. Because we both have Mexico Resident Visas we did not have to pay any exit fee. Four kilometers farther down the road we stopped at another border checkpoint, which we (wrongly) assumed was the entry point into Guatemala (which it was, but wasn’t). It gets a little confusing here: you travelers out there know that when you exit one country they usually stamp your passport, then you enter the new country and they stamp your passport, and then issue you a temporary (tourist) visa (typically for 30, 60 or 90 days). Not at this border. The first checkpoint they stamped our passport with a Mexican exit stamp. At the second checkpoint they also stamped our passport with a Mexican exit stamp. At no point did Guatemala stamp our passport, or issue us any kind of visa. When we inquired about this we were told: it is assumed that everyone knows that you can enter Guatemala for 90 days without a visa, and that immigration goes by the last exit stamp from the Mexican immigration people. We didn’t know. So now our passports show two Mexican exit stamps, no Guatemala entry stamp and no visa. I know, we’re still confused.
So, now we’re at the border waiting to switch buses. Departing our Mexican bus for a Guatemalan bus (for the rest of the trip—the additional four hours we had not anticipated). It never arrived. One hour, two hours going on three hours. No explanation, just no bus. Then we learn that sometimes the border is closed for 3 to 5 days at a time (are you f _ _ _ ing kidding me?). Finally it arrived (thank God) and we boarded. Turns out it was late arriving, because of continuous road construction from the border to Panajachel. Oh my Lord. Long story short, our four trip turned into a twelve hour trip. We finally arrived in Panajachel after dark, at 7:00 p.m. at night: tired, hungry, sore, a bit grumpy—and in my case sick. I had come down with the bane of all world travelers: the shits. It wasn’t the first time, and it certainly won’t be the last time. The next morning I sent Joel out to the pharmacy for some magic. Down here diarrhea can be caused by different things: bacteria, parasites, other germs and sometimes just the stress of travel. When leaving the USA to travel abroad your doctor will usually prescribe you with CIPRO (an antibiotic). Down here you can buy magic over the counter: it goes by many names (DAXON, TAXANID, etc), but the active ingredient is NITAZOXANIDA 500mg tablets. It treats everything: it’s an anti-parasitic, an antibiotic and an anti-motility all rolled into one. Their theory (and I subscribe to it) is you can’t know for sure what’s causing your diarrhea unless you have lab tests performed, and trust me you don’t want to wait for that. You want relief fast, and by treating all causes at the same time you’re bound to kill it (whatever it is). Many people down here use it prophylactically every 6 months or so, I don’t like to overuse antibiotics so I don’t (only as symptoms present themselves). The last and only time I’ve used it before was a year and a half ago. But it really works. Remember the name NITAZOXANIDA 500 mg if you anticipate traveling abroad. I don’t think it’s available in the USA, but check it out once you arrive at your destination—it can be a real life saver.
This post isn’t meant to be negative at all, it’s just a glimpse of some of the realities of international travel. Please, please don’t let any of these situations dissuade you from travel. The pluses far outweigh the minuses—trust me. I’ve mentioned this before: when plans go awry is when the adventure (and stories) begin. You will be much happier when you just learn to suspend expectations, and accept what is—in fact, that’s pretty good advice for life in general. I feel much better, put down a good breakfast, and took a few snaps this morning of our new location (see photos below). We are in Panajachel on Lago de Atitla for at least the next week (maybe two), and then moving out to one of the smaller villages (probably San Marcos) for an additional 1 to 2 months. This is truly paradise folks, NO JOKE. Many more photos and posts to follow. Hopefully my next posts won’t be so lengthy—more photos, fewer words.
Lago de Atitla viewed from the village of Panajachel
(two of the three volcanoes on the lake)
Lago de Atitla viewed from the village of Panajachel
(2 of the 3 volcanoes on the lake)