Low Light is a Xela's Best Friend

Saturday, December 05, 2009

I felt like I was in China again – it was difficult to get a straight answer from anybody. One travel agent had told me there were three chicken buses (full of locals and whatever they might bring with them, including, perhaps, chickens) that went to Xela directly: 7 AM, 8 AM, and 1 PM. However, when I showed up in the town centre an 7:50 the bus drivers claimed that his bus was not direct and whatsmore, it would be 15 Q to take the bus just 20 km to a transfer point (by way of example, the bus from Antigua, 2.5 hours away, cost 30 Q). Phil was with me (his bus left at 8:30) and neither of us believed them for a second. The driver and ‘director’ essentially drive for themselves, so their insistence that there was no direct bus until “much later”, like 1:00 struck me as false even though it did somewhat jive with the travel agent. I asked some other locals, most of whom said there was a direct bus now, at 8, there it is, or at least told me to ask the seemingly corrupt driver. Phil had to go so we said goodbye and I eventually gave in and hopped on the indirect and expensive bus. As we were driving away I saw in the rearview another bus pull up and asked the man beside me where that bus was heading. “Xela,” he answered, and I threw open the back gate of the bus and jumped.

I hadn’t paid for this bus yet so there was no need to fight to get my money back from the crooks (or at least liars), I just went out the back door, the bus finally stopped (after ignoring my requests to that effect), told him I was taking the direct bus, and walked away. It turned out that the Xela bus left at 8:30, which gave me a little time to read in peace before the bus filled. Sitting ahead was an older Italian doctor who seemed like a pretty nice guy and we chatted for a while on the road to Xela before getting caught up in scenery and trying in vain to get a good photo of the distant volcano that was erupting. The bus continued filling up and I began to think about how differently the filling patterns were here than home. At home, everyone will fill every available seat before starting to sit with strangers. This is a product, I think, of our desire for comfort, our distaste for imposition, and our attitude towards strangers. Here, on the other hand, they’ll think nothing of sitting next to you when there are several vacant seats still available. Earlier in my travels, I’d been immediately suspicious of this activity but I’ve come to accept it as standard. For example, there were empty seats behind me and yet a woman with a child sat beside the Italian, choosing to crowd three in a seat rather than take an empty spot. Interestingly, and perhaps it was my new “until El Salvador” beard, my seat remained empty for a long time, even as others were piling three in a seat. Hmm.

The trip to Xela was uneventful and after arriving, we had to maneuver on foot and fully laden through a crowded and narrow market often brought to a standstill by food carts too wide to manuever past each other. From there, a local bus to the centre. The Italian guy knew a cheap hotel, Horiani, with private rooms (and shared bath) for 35 Q/night. I did want to check out the Black Cat hostel, but it was full and I ended up at Horiani as well. Then I set out to find a trek to either Tajulmulco, a two-day hike to the highest point in Central America, or to Santa Maria, which offers great views of Santiaguito, an active volcano, erupting below. VERY unfortunately, I was a couple days too late for the full moon hike overnight, which I hear was incredible (obviously the volcano was glowing red and lighting the clouds and skies with fire) but I managed to find a two day trek leaving the next morning up Tajulmulco with Quetzal Trekkers. The neat thing about this organization is it’s entirely volunteer run, so all proceeds go towards a school that they’ve financed in the poorest section of the city. So I get to climb a volcano, and for a little more money, feel a little bit better about myself.

It so happened that the Guatemalan National Symphony was playing Christmas songs in the town square tonight so after a meeting to discuss the hike and get gear, I went and watched the symphony play along with a couple thousand people. The city is growing on me, I felt like I was back in Spain more than somewhere new, and I felt lucky to see the square in this way, unmolested by cars and major highways, just a good old public gathering place. By day it’s kind of dull and quiet but by night, she’s a beauty. I met up with an Irish guy named Brian and a Dutch girl named Visha (or similar) whom I’d met earlier and they had invited me to go for dinner with them. We went and had some traditional Guatemalan cuisine which was pretty good though a bit of a splurge. Chicken in a molle sauce, and two other dishes, and we all shared. From there, the restaurant owners (who’d kept the restaurant open late for us) sent us to a place with live music, where they sung English songs with half-correct lyrics. Then off to a salsa club, where it was basically Brian and I leaning against the bar and lamenting our lack of salsa prowess while some local swept Vishna around the dancefloor. She came back and seemed a little annoyed, as though we’d pulled her off the dance floor, and I offered to try with her, knowing it would be terrible. I definitely wasn’t great, but it was fun. At some point, that same local came to switch partners with me and I wound up dancing with a Canadian girl that was only a bit better than me. Still, I hate not being good at things. Salsa classes are on the list for somewhere.

I said goodnight and goodbye to Visha and Brian, knowing I wouldn’t see them again as they were off to Mexico in the morning while I was heading south after a climb or two around Xela. Lots of water for altitude adjustment (and to balance the beer), I packed my things and settled for a few hours of sleep. I was supposed to wake up the next morning and be at Quetzal Trekkers by 4:45 AM. I say supposed to because when I woke up it was 5, I hurriedly put my stuff on, threw my packs on my back, and ran out the door, cursing myself the whole way. In a panic, I grabbed a taxi driver from the central park and he drove me to Quetzal Trekkers though I was sure I was too late. I buzzed the door and no answer. There was a truck with a man sleeping in it and I thought he might be waiting for them to leave but no answer and I was standing in the street with all my bags still in the idling taxi (which made me extra nervous) thinking I was going to have to walk back to my hotel, check back in, and bite the bullet. I had missed my trek. I buzzed again because somebody was supposed to come to the door (it was also a hostel) and maybe I could get in touch with them and meet up at the bus station. The door finally opened and there was Scott, one of the two guides, saying, “Dean! I’m glad you made it!”. I can sum up my response in one word: relief. I was off to climb the highest point in Central America.

Xela Photos

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