Thursday, May 5, 2011


     The Easter season has come and gone, and with it the last big experience of my stay here.  Easter is generally a big holiday for pilgrims in Esquipulas and as such the carnival, street vendors, and street performers all made their ways back to Esquipulas.  While I was expecting another street party similar to January 15th, the last time the pilgrims came in such force, I soon found out that Easter has a very different feel to it.  Among the obvious differences of religious importance (one is a celebration of an artist carving Jesus on the cross and the other is a celebration of the actual Jesus on the cross) was another big difference:  January 15th is right at the beginning of the "summer" or dry season and Easter is right at the end of it.  That means that in January the skies were clear and the sun was hot, but the water reserves were still full.  When the pilgrims came this time is was mid April, near the end of the dry season, in a desert.  Added to that is the fact that this dry season was especially dry, so right when the pilgrims started arriving Esquipulas ran out of water.  Literally.  People started showing up Sunday, by Monday the town's water supply was dry, and by Tuesday the Monastery's supply ran out.  The abbot asked us not to shower, the orchard went without water, and the fish (lovingly named Adam) had to live in his own filth as changing the water was deemed unnecessary.
      Cristo Negro, the statue for which Esquipulas is famous, is known for being a miracle maker and some Esquipultecan must have put an especially fervent petition to him at the beginning of the drought because right as the pilgrims hit their peak numbers the skies clouded over for the first time in months.  Not 24 hours after the Abbot asked us to save water and people began worrying about the accumulating pilgrim filth and no water to clean it up the skies opened with the first substantial rain of 2011.  A whole month before the rains typically fall!  The streets got cleaned and the tanks got full, but Cristo Negro wasn't done giving.  It rained for the entire Holy Week!  Between drizzle (Chipi Chipi) and full on thunderstorms, the earth got the water it desperately needed, and the sun didn't come out until the Monday after Easter.
     While the rain was a blessing for the people of Esquipulas who rely largely on water to stay alive, it was pretty unfortunate for the pilgrims.  These pilrgims generally come to Esquipulas expecting to buy all their drinking water, not to bathe and, given that it is usually pretty dry here, not to get rained on.  Therefore, when the water tanks ran dry they didn’t particularly notice, but when it started raining they definitely did.  The rain put a damper on the spirits of the pilgrims, and the grey skies took a bit of a toll on me.  Added to the fact that I had gotten into an argument the on Tuesday with a table full of monks, some of whom were not to happy with me even a few days afterward, I was in a pretty somber mood for most of Holy Week  (the topic was whether we can have free will and God can be omniscient).  However, Holy week waits for no man and, somber mood or not, I wasn't going to miss the activities.
     The week started with Palm Sunday, which brought a nice ceremony to open the week.  The thing that really stuck out to me was the difference between the palms they use here and the ones we have back in the United States.  While we generally opt for the plain palms, at most braided or folded into a cross shape, down here the tradition is a little more glitzy. 

     Palm Sunday also brought the first wave of pilgrims, a very prayerful and orderly group.  Definitely the most organized of the groups of pilgrims we've had.

This is generally complete chaos
    These tranquil and prayerful pilgrims didn’t do much to build the spirit of fiesta I expected, and the beginning of Holy Week that followed Palm Sunday was pretty quiet as well.  A somber moment did come on Wednesday as a dominant Barcelona soccer team lost the "Copa del Rey" to Real Madrid (followed by a hilarious moment as Sergio Ramos dropped the cup under a bus during the post game celebrations).  
     The Easter celebrations and traditions really kicked off Thursday for the mass of the last supper.  By this time the falling rain was beginning to put a damper on the carnival activities, but the shops were able to throw up tarps and there was an expectant and excited air for the beginning the Easter triduum.  The Basilica filled with people, the line for Cristo Negro swelled, and I was introduced to a new Guatemalan tradition: the procession.  Processions are a popular tradition around Easter time consisting of people hoisting large shrines related to the day (Christ alive, crucified, dead, and risen) and marching them around town to a following chorus of songs and prayers.  It was a very unique experience for me, and a fresh take on prayers that is very special for the people here.  Over the Easter season these procession quickly became one of my favorite of Guatemala’s traditions.
     The Holy Thursday procession was probably the smallest of the Easter processions as everyone was looking forward to the bigger celebrations of the death and resurrection of Jesus.  
     Good Friday was the biggest day for pilgrims in the Basilica but due to the weather and the somber remembrances of the day,the feeling of festival that I remembered from January 15th was still missing. Realizing that the party was not to be had at the Basilica I made my way to the Parish to partake in the procession.  This was the biggest one I saw and it was really a beautiful ceremony.  It started with Liturgy of the Word and a mock crucifixion of a statue of Jesus at 3:00pm.  At 4:00 they removed Jesus from the cross and put him on the processional shrine.  A little while later (things rarely start on time here) the procession started moving.  It was really beautiful to see the devotion of these people as they carried this heavy shrine on their shoulders. 

     About 5 minutes after the procession started, so did the rain and, although the rain did not deter the processing people, it definitely deterred my electronic camera and me, and we quickly beat our retreat back to the Basilica.
     The rain continued on and off through the night and into Saturday when it let up a little towards evening.  By this point I had become a bit of a procession fanatic and the word on the street was that the biggest procession was to start Saturday night at midnight and continue until sunrise on Easter Sunday.  With the rain letting up I had high hopes that I would be able to attend the all night procession.  However, due to the rain most of the pilgrims had left early leaving the basilica and the park empty, cutting off my ability to return home if rain started.  I was still considering risking it when I went to the carnival with a friend and we got poured on.  With my hopes dashed I decided to play it safe, stay in, and make do with the 4:30 am Easter Vigil service at the Basilica.  As we started the (3 hour) vigil, the procession passed by the Basilica, still going strong, still singing and celebrating, completely dry.
     The Easter holiday went out with a whimper with the street vendors and pilgrims who were brave enough to stick around through Sunday packing up and heading home.  The drizzle and rain continued throughout Sunday, which made for great napping weather as I stayed out late then got up at 4:00 for a 3 hour mass.  As the last of the vendors hit the road the sun came finally came out, making for a beautiful end to the Easter Sunday.
     The wonderfully cool and cloudy weather that we had for Easter went with the pilgrims and the next week returned to the hot and sunny weather normal for this time of year.  However the rain left me with a present that I spent all week dealing with: Amoebas.  Here they call it the “mal de mayo,” and what it is is a resurgence of bacteria that come with the first rains after the long dry season.  With the amoebas and the heat the week was a long and lazy one lacking Easter spirit.  However, by the weekend I was feeling good again and so were the people of Esquipulas who finally got into a fiesta mood for the beatification of pope John Paul II.  On Sunday most of Esquipulas made their way to valle de maria which is where JPII held mass when he came here in 1996.  We all bought the white t-shirts with his face on them, and celebrated a mass in his honor.  After a nice service the skies clouded over once more.  As the final blessing of the mass was given the rain came.  Because there is only one road into the valley, a massive, soaking wet traffic jam started. With most people on motorcycles, and everybody wearing the white t-shirts, the Pope John Paul II memorial mass quickly turned into the Pope John Paul II wet t-shirt contest.  I have a feeling that someone made a pretty fervent prayer for this rain as well.

Monday, April 11, 2011


     While the The Catholic Healthcare East crew was here we worked hard, but everybody needs a break once in a while.  After a week of hard work, we got ours.  Most of the crew took the day to lay low, escape the heat, and recharge after a hard working and emotional week.  I, however, took advantage of our time off by hopping in a car with two other volunteers and heading across the border of Honduras to see the Mayan ruins of Copán.  It was truly incredible to see the ruins, learn the history, and imagine how this site looked at the height of its empire, 1400 years ago when it was inhabited by thousands of people with a vibrant culture of farming, sports, and art.  What made this trip even more impressive was the guide we had.  He has spent most of his life studying the ancient Maya, participating in archeological digs, and now, sharing his information about the Mayan culture with others.  On our tour I learned a lot about the site of Copán from its glory days all the way its present, as a partially uncovered treasure trove of information for archeologists and historians and photo op for tourists from all corners of the world.  It is in this spirit of good information and great stories that I present you with my history of Copán.  Although I have already forgotten the majority of what I learned on my tour, I will present you with what I remember.  However, I would like to warn you now that I'm not even kind of a historian, so I can't vouch for every piece of information, but I'll do whatever I can to make it a good story.  If you are really into the juicy details, you are more than welcome to find them here.

     The story of Copán begins thousands of years ago with a salty and waterlogged group of Polynesians finding the new world (note, this is not proven, but is the version of the story the tour guide went with).  They landed and, as per their modus operandi, began developing cultures, building buildings and, most importantly, making statues.  Although we have no idea what they called themselves, we call them Olmecs, and know them for their giant stone head statues (sounds familiar).  They inhabited the light green area on the map below.  
     Time passed and civilizations fell.  When the Olmec's day had passed,  the people moved west and, once again began developing civilizations, building buildings, and making statues.  It is during this period that Copán flourished as a city and became the art center of the Mayan world.  This is the dark green area on the map.  During this period the Mayan people developed very advanced architecture and art as well as trade systems and science.
     However, as all civilizations eventually do, this Mayan period also came to an end and, once again, the people moved west and began the last great period of the Maya, denoted by the lightest section on the map in the Yucatan peninsula.  

     Copán began its time as a great city around 400 A.D., flourished for 400 years and collapsed around 800 A.D.  It then spend roughly the next 800 years being forgotten until a European explorer whose name I don't remember discovered some funny looking rocks in the middle of the tropical forest now known as Central America. 

     As most old timey explorers did, he started digging and subsequently robbing all the cool stones he could carry.  While the Kings and Queens of whatever nation he was from were probably amused by his funny stone statues, they weren't made of gold so Copán was once again forgotten for over 200 years.  The next group of people who found Copán were of the "uncover everything as fast as you can" mindset, and began to dig.  They were rewarded by finding some absolutely incredible temples and stone architecture. 

     However, these people began to dig at the beginning of the industrial revolution when rain was still made primarily out of water, an element that generally gets along pretty well with stone temples.  Right about this time humans began our love affair with burning stuff: oil, natural gas, coal, trees, corn, and the rain changed into something a little more sinister: a compound which goes by the terrifying moniker "acid rain."  Archeologists now realize that uncovering things, while fun and interesting, exposes them to all of the elements, including this, the great villain of 20th century archeology.  The compromise that was struck in an attempt to balance preservation and discovery was that they would stop wholesale uncovering immediately and do their archeological exploration using tunnels.  The result of this digging ban can be seen in the picture below where half of the temple is uncovered and half is still a mound of dirt.

     In the hundreds of years that Copán was uninhabited the river that once sustained this great city changed its course to flow right over the ruins.  While I stated earlier that water generally gets along well with rocks, this is one of the instances in which is definitely does not.  To save the ruins, the scientists changed the course of the river.  While it did a decent amount to hurt the ruins, it also did an amazing job of uncovering them, and with the river out of the way the scientists began asking questions about the people that once inhabited this area.  Once the waters receded, the archeologists found human remains all over the area pictured below and dubbed it "the cemetery."  After some excavating they discovered that it wasn't a cemetery at all, but the upper class housing area.  The dead bodies were there because of the tradition of burying someone beneath their house after their death.  When the river began to flow over this area it washed out all of the "graves" and uncovered the bodies.

     As the archeologists dug, they discovered more and more about this very intricate civilization and its hierarchy.  The king and royal family were on top, with the king viewed as the link between heaven and earth.  As the artwork in this shrine at the top of the sacred temple suggests, the king was thought to maintain the space between heaven and hell.  He would enter the door, with giant snake statues on either side, angels above him, and skulls below him, to offer burnt offerings to the gods and to communicate with them.

     He would then exit to relay the gods' message to the people of the upper and royal class who were gathered below. 

If Copán was located in the United States me standing there would probably be a federal offense.

     Only the upper and royal classes, consisting of artists, scientists, merchants, and politicians, were allowed in the upper area of temples and stone houses.  When the king spoke to the general population he used a different temple.  At the top of this giant staircase stood the king, with an altar in his honor below for the people to make offerings.  

     His speaking place overlooked the main courtyard where the people gathered for everything from market days to pok-a-tok games.  The acoustics are so good in this courtyard that someone snapping their fingers at the top of the temple can be heard at the far end of the area below!

     The king would also stand at the top of his temple to watch the pok-a-tok games, which were played on courts like the one below.  The players would be in the middle, and would have to launch a ball made of pure rubber against one of these three figures.  The game often took on such a deep spiritual significance that on certain occasions the captain of the winning team might be sacrificed!  It was considered an honor to him and his family.

     Said sacrifices happened on the altar just in front of this one shown below, and the king would then remove the players heart and place it in the divot on top of the round altar, causing the blood to flow down the channeled grooves.

     I'm told it was just like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

     Over its 400 year history, the city of Copán had 16 different rulers but due to the tradition of literally building an entirely new royal area on top of their father's when the new kings inherited power, most of the story revolves around the last king to whom all the exposed temples and statues are dedicated.  That's means that every 25 years they would demolish (or sometimes not) the entire royal area - temples, shrines, royal houses, statues - and rebuild the entire thing. 

     That means that underneath these temples are more temples, like in the above picture.  However, these temples have been completely protected from the elements and maintain their true colors and brilliance.  As far as archeology is concerned, that's pretty awesome.

     Towards the end of the Copán empire, the population outnumbered the land's ability to support it.  For any community, especially one based on agriculture, this is bad news.  To reunite the falling empire the king began building and art projects with the aim of drawing connections between himself and the past kings of Copán.  As his empire was crumbling and the peoples' faith in the king/god was failing, he tried to reinvigorate that faith by showing that he was from the same bloodline as the past kings and therefore had the same power.  This plan failed in reuniting the empire, but succeeded in creating some really cool art, so it wasn't all bad...

     This altar, in front of the death temple, shows all 16 kings of Copán in a circle around its body.  The first king is handing power over to the last king. 

     This is perhaps the most famous thing in Copán; the hieroglyphic stairs.  The entire staircase tells the story of every king of Copán through pictures on the steps.
     Though Copán ultimately fell, much as every great empire has, through the efforts of the architects, artists, and builders, we still have pieces of the civilization to help us put together the story of what life was like 1400 years ago in this corner of Central America.  Though the people are gone, the now deserted central courtyard almost seems ready for market and the rebuilt temples still have an aura of mythological power.  With a little imagination you can almost feel yourself there during the height of this great empire.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Catholic Healthcare East

     I've been in Guatemala 7 months now and I have come to realize that the old adage about time being a thief is just as true here as it is everywhere else.  I can think back to myself sitting in prayer the day after the Catholic Healthcare West crew left feeling less than confident about the upcoming months.  I felt alone, realizing that I was possibly the only gringo under the age of 60 in all of Esquipulas, I was unsure of my Spanish and lost in a culture that I didn't understand.  Sitting there in vespers I prayed that the time would pass quickly and bring me back home sooner rather than later.  In the 6 months since I said that prayer my situation has changed drastically.  I now have good friends here in Esquipulas, fulfilling, albeit often frustrating, work, and I am mostly comfortable with both the language and the culture.  While I'm now happier and more comfortable here, I realize that the prayer was answered, and time has definitely flown.  As I heard that another Catholic Healthcare group was coming to Esquipulas I couldn't help but draw comparisons to what my life was like when the first crew came, but more than anything I was aware that working with this group would signal the beginning of the end for me in Guatemala.  Just as the first group of doctors, who came right on the heels of Kenan leaving, represented the end of the beginning for me and my last taste of home before diving headfirst into the Esquipulas and the Monastery of Jesus Christ Crucified, this second group of doctors would start the countdown to my leaving Guatemala.  As that approaches my mind has begun to wander to the United States.  To the good things like spring time, baseball season, friends, and family, but also to the bad things like politics, a prolonged invasion in Libya, and, of course, MTV.  I find myself often wondering what it will be like to go back after so long in Central America.  How have I changed?  How has the USA changed?  Half my friends have jobs now, the other half are back in school.... In the midst of all this inner turmoil the doctors from Catholic Healthcare East found their way into my quiet little life in Esquipulas and gave me a great big shove towards the end of my 9 months in Esquipulas.

     The last time I worked with a medical mission I served as a pharmacy assistant; a fun job, but more for the people I was working with than the work I was doing.  This time around I was hoping for something a little more hands on.  Luckily, this new group had different plans for me: They asked me to translate for the eye doctor and dentist!  While I took the job placement as a compliment on my improving Spanish skills, it soon became evident that translating was going to be quite a bit more work than I imagined. Translating itself is a tough job; even after mastering the context specific words (dental floss, cavity, etc.) it is still a task of listening to a phrase in English, saying it in Spanish, then listening to something else in Spanish and saying it in English.  It was more than a little tough on the brain.  To make matters worse, not only was I doing translation for both the dentist and the eye doctor, but I was doing intake questioning for the dentist and crowd control because I was the only one there who spoke Spanish well enough.  Needless to say, at the end of each day I was exhausted.  With so much work to do I was nearly constantly busy and the week flew by, but even with the hectic schedule I was able to enjoy some time with my fellow "Estadounidenses" and make some new friends. 

I also got to do some teaching!

     By the end of the week the exhaustion and emotions started to add up.  I found that translating is an strange job.  By virtue of being the one communicating with the patients I got to share in all of the happy moments; everything from old ladies baking us cookies to mothers hugging us in thanks for helping their children.  However, I was also forced to partake in the bad moments; from "There's nothing we can do for your eyes, you'll probably be blind within months" to "your teeth are far to decayed, we have to remove them all."  The emotions of these experiences combined with the exhaustion of so much work began to catch up with me.

      My work also put me in contact with a part of Guatemala that I've had very little contact with as I've been living inside a gorgeous monastery; the poor campesinos.  The goal of the doctors was to serve people who have no access to other health care, which brought us to some of the outlying villages.  Spending so much time with this group of people who are so numerous in Guatemala yet still so "invisible" was an eye opening experience for me, and made me think a lot about what What we were doing here.  While I understand and appreciate the idea behind medical missions and other volunteer groups, it always has seemed a little shortsighted to me to give someone vitamins but put no thought into the systemic problems that caused them to be malnourished in the first place. 
     Throughout the week this problem kept bothering me.  Everyday, with every group of people, I saw problems that couldn't be solved simply by giving some pills to a few people.  After an especially emotional day in which we saw particularly marginalized people from a very isolated and poor village I had a conversation with one of the doctors who also has a very deep interest in the deeper problems behind this poverty.  That particular day I was having trouble communicating all day long.  When I spoke to many of the people they would either just stare blankly back or lose interest and walk away mid-sentence.  Even when I did get some of them to talk with me, they were not really formulating coherent thoughts.  At first this frustrated me a lot, but after talking it over with some doctors who experienced the same thing I realized that this was not them being rude, but could be a result of serious malnourishment.  For me this was a tough idea to grasp.  I had always thought that people have at least some control over their lives, but for some people, their lives are mostly decided for them before they are born.  The poor farmers can't afford adequate nutrition, so pregnant mothers go hungry.  Due to malnourishment, the child's brain and body don't develop completely.  This problem is compounded by the lack of nutrition during the developing years after birth.  Without proper development they are doomed to be poor farmers who will once again not be able to provide proper nutrition for their future children.  I realized the depth of the problem when the dentist had to pull out every tooth that a 40 something woman had left because they were so rotted.  He asked her if she could afford dentures.  She thought for a little while and said "Maybe.  If the coffee harvest is good this year."

     Seeing this deep cyclical nature of this poverty was troubling, and kept bothering me for the rest of the week.  However, there was lots of work to do and I was able to get caught up in it so the week just slipped away.  It really felt nice to have actual work and be needed after being here so long without any serious job.

     At the end of the week the dentist and eye doctor headed home I began to work with the rest of the doctors who stayed behind.  After such a long week we had Sunday off.  A couple of the doctors and I took advantage of our day of rest and took a trip to Copán, the Mayan ruins just across the border in Honduras.  The ruins were gorgeous and it was a nice segue from one week into the next.  Thankfully, the second week of the doctor's stay here was much more relaxed for me.  For starters, it was only 3 days long, and I was only working on discharge, a job which basically consists of repeating "take these pills twice a day and drink lots of water" over and over again.  On Monday we went to work in one of the villages.  It's always nice to get out of the monastery for awhile, and the people there were so nice to work with.  It was really a great time.
     We worked hard that last week, and the people I was with were great, but the week had a very different feel to it.  As their time here neared its end, the doctors began to tire in the work they were doing and get homesick for the places they left behind.  I think any project or experience that has a set limit of time begins to feel tedious as it nears the end, and the doctors definitely fell prey to this effect.  It's been interesting for me to see the different groups of volunteers or pilgrims all go through the same things.  I've even found that as I get closer and closer to my end date I'm finding it harder to do any real work and connect with people.  Because of this, the last week had a slower pace and I had more time to hang out with the doctors.  Even though the dentist had left, I was still bothered by the poverty we'd witnessed and discussed and I took the free time I had this week to discuss that with the other doctors.  Eventually, after talking it over with some of the doctors, I came to the conclusion that the "big picture" problems are there because they are hard to fix.  If there was an easy solution, somebody would have already found it.  That being said, because it is difficult is no reason not to try to do something.  If you look only at the big picture (something I do far to often) it's easy to get discouraged and lose hope, but if you chose one aspect of the problem and work to fix it you can rejoice in the little victories while still working towards bettering the big picture.  I suppose that's really what the doctors are doing here, trying to help people in the only way they know how.  It might not be changing the world today, but it's working towards a better future.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


     Welcome, dear friends, to the season of Lent.  The forty day period of fasting and praying that leads us to the culmination of the Catholic year; Easter.  Lent will also probably be noteworthy in that it will provide me with very little to write about because, as my Grandma always said, prayer and fasting make for boring blogs (I'm not actually sure my grandma knows what a blog is, but if she did, I'm sure she would adhere to that school of thought).  However, the beginning of the Lenten season did give me fodder for at least one more blog in the form of Carnaval (fat tuesday) and the other celebration of the Señor de Esquipulas which falls on March 9th every year; which this year, just so happened to be Ash Wednesday.
     Over my life I have experienced various traditional ways celebrations of Fat Tuesday.  From grade school, where they would serve us an extra dessert at lunch, to high school, where we probably got to go without uniforms for a day, to college, where overindulging on alcohol and greasy foods was the norm, and finally to Guatemala, where they smash eggs filled with confetti over each others' heads and dress up like Disney characters.  At least that seems to be the going tradition at the grade school I visited on the morning of Ash Tuesday.  It's always fun to see kids here in Guatemala, they make me feel at home because kids are the same everywhere, even when smashing eggs on your head.  The tradition at the library was a bit different, and seemed to be "work like it is a normal day," while the tradition at the high school was to paint sawdust.  Maybe that one deserves a little explanation.  Every year for the 9th of March, the people of Esquipulas take to the streets to make "alfombras" which literally translates to rug or carpet.  These alfombras are made in the streets from sawdust and other organic materials.  The tradition goes back to the times of the conquistadores, and is loosely based on the Palm Sunday teaching of laying palm branches on the ground.  While most of the alfombras are made around Easter, Esquipulas has carried the tradition over to March 9th as well.  However, no one wants a sawdust colored carpet, so the first step in the process must be painting the sawdust. 


     To this end, the entire school had no classes in the afternoon and all of the students spent their time dyeing the sawdust.  It was quite the impressive operation.  As you can see in the picture above, the entire soccer field was full of students getting down and dirty with the dye.  They even talked me into helping, though I was very picky on the colors I wanted to use.

 (Go Vikings!)

     With all of the sawdust dyed and properly stored for the night, the activities of fat Tuesday came to an end and I said goodbye to the all the things I gave up for Lent.  The next day, although technically a day of fasting, was more of a day of feasting in Esquipulas, where the people were not really willing to give up the feast of their Black Christ just for Ash Wednesday.  I spent the morning helping the students of San Benito's High School make their alfombras or, more accurately, I took pictures and learned how alfombras are made while they worked.  
     As you can see in the picture below, the first step in making an alfombra is a base.  Plain, colorless sawdust is used to fill in the cracks in the road and smooth out the bumps, and then other colors are generally laid down to form a colorful background. 

     The next stage is making the designs on the alfombras.  These are generally made using a template that they have cut out of cardboard, but a decent amount were also made free hand.  At this stage they talked me in to helping, and I took the moment for an awesome photo op.  


     I also got drafted for some other duties.  Below:  "ahh... Miss Karin, what is this alfombra supposed to say?"
     "Where's there love, there's peace"
"... hmm... I think we may want to fix that"
And just like that, a Black Eyed Peas allfombra was averted.  

 This was one of my favorite alfombra.  The entire thing was done free hand!


As you can tell, there were quite a few alfombras.  The ones pictured here are only those made by the Colegio San Benito!


     I had originally intended on including all sorts of pictures about the other alfombras throughout town, but apparently I have limited picture storing space on this blogger account and I don't want to use up all my space for the next 2.5 months on one blog about sawdust, so this will have to do.  I'll upload the rest to Facebook if you are interested in seeing them. 
     However, just because the pictures have ended doesn't mean the story has!  I took the afternoon off from work as well to wander around the town and check out the rest of the alfombras.  Don't feel to bad for my coworkers for having to work without me though, because all the high schools had the day off, and hardly anybody came to the library.  The alfombras from the town were pretty varied.  Some were incredibly detailed works of art, and others were... not so detailed.  But even so, it was really cool to see a town come together and work on something as unique and beautiful as decorating the streets they walk and drive on.  
     In the evening, also as per tradition, was the "quema del castillo."  This was basically an incredibly dangerous fireworks display in honor of the Cristo Negro.  I say dangerous because the entire time ash from the fireworks was falling on the crowd and multiple times embers, large burning pieces of fireworks, and even rockets were launched into the crowd which was so big that a stampede was a serious worry of the event organizers.  However, nothing bad happened, and hardly anybody was hurt.  In addition, I got to witness yet another great part of Esquipulan culture and tradition.
     Thus ended the Second celebration of the Señor de Esquipulas, in a blaze of fire.  And, unfortunately, it rained the next day, turning all of the dyed sawdust in the streets into horrible mess all over Esquipulas.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Pura Vida

     This last week I celebrated my 6 month Guatemalan birthday, and I celebrated the calendar turning over to March, and to the last third of my Central American adventure, in Costa Rica with one of my best friends and study abroad partner, Dave Harrison.  Similar to my last vacation (Belize), this break came at a very opportune time as I was very ready to get out of the monastery for a little while, and found a beach vacation to be the perfect escape.  This trip was unique, however, in that instead of using the time away to experience how other volunteers are living, I was able to share it with someone who was fresh from the USA, and was able to get the news on the motherland as well as get an interesting new perspective on Central America from someone who hasn't just spent the last 6 months here.
     My trip started with a night in Antigua Guatemala, which was a nice warm up for Costa Rica because both Costa Rica and Antigua are crawling with gringos.  It is one of the only places in Guatemala where not only can I blend in, but I'm probably in the majority.  I stayed at a hostel where I met some awesome people (seriously, if you ever travel, stay at hostels) and then set out to meet another friend of mine from Chile, Amanda, who was to be my guide to the nightlife of Antigua.  You heard me right, nightlife!  I probably wouldn't have believed it either if I hadn't seen it myself.  It turns out that Antigua is unique not only for the amount of tourists but also because it is one of 5 places in Guatemala with a nightlife:  Antigua, Zone 9 and 10 of Guatemala City, Xela, and Flores.  Antigua is really different from Esquipulas, and I really enjoyed the experience of a Guatemalan Disco. 
     The next day I woke up to a game of soccer, and then hit the road for the second leg of the trip.  The plane ride from Guatemala City to San Jose was absolutely gorgeous.  The route took us south right along the coast and because it was a short flight we never got high enough that I couldn't see the landscape.  To top it off, our pilot must have been a tour guide in a past life, because over the flight he would come on the intercom just to tell us of some volcano or river or other important feature that we could see just outside our windows.  Although it was a great flight, there's only so much time that one can spend comfortably on a plane, and my limit is about 15 minutes, so I was more than happy to land. 
     I landed at 5:30, and I thought that Dave was coming in around 6:30, which would leave me with only an hour wait outside of an airport, not bad.  Then the 6:30 plane from Miami came in, and I waited.  And all the people on that flight came out, and I waited.  And I figured that maybe he had problems with his checked luggage, so I waited some more.  And then I thought that maybe I got the flight number wrong and he was on the 7:10 flight from Dallas.  So I waited.  And the people came out from that one, and I waited for Dave.  And he didn't come.  I ended up waiting until 8:45, and which point I figured he had missed his plane, so I caught a cab from the friend of a taxi driver I had been talking to all night, and he promised that if he found Dave he would send him on to the hostel.  He gave me his card and I told him, "remember, he is a really tall guy who answers to David."  10 minutes down the road my taxi driver got a phone call from the guy I left at the airport, who had found Dave.  It turns out he was on a flight that came in at 8:30, and I left literally minutes before he came out of the airport.  Oops.
     I met Dave at the hostel, which was an interesting place, and we discussed at length whether or not we wanted to taste some of the San Jose nightlife.  Our hostel seemed like a fun place to party and everyone was headed to a bar later, but after so much travel in one day, Dave and I were only able to handle two beers before falling asleep.  The next day we decided to check out the day life in San Jose, a place which every tourist and tourist website says to avoid like the plague.  Not because it is bad, but because it is not a volcano, beach, or nature reserve, therefore making it just a rest stop on the way to other cool places in Costa Rica.  Because of that, we had little hope for the city.  However, it turns out San Jose is a really cool place.  It was Sunday, so the people of San Jose had taken to the streets to play, watch makeshift parades, and exercise.

 In this picture alone there is a soccer game (left), a volleyball game (center), and a small child canopying over the street (top left).  

     The entire main street was filled with people dancing, playing, skateboarding, and just hanging out.  The only thing missing was cars. Our entire time in San Jose we found the lack of smog and traffic jams incredible.  It turns out that the City of San Jose has driving bans: Only cars whose license plates end in certain numbers can drive on any given day.  It seemed to me like kind of a heavy handed way of dealing with the problem, but in a city of millions, most we saw were taking public transportation, so I guess it worked.

     San Jose is also home to some pretty cool sculptures and architecture, which we saw during our solo walking tour, but we found that one day in the city was enough, and after one day, headed for the beach.
     To get there, however, we had to take a bus.

     They don't make buses in Costa Rica to fit a 6'8" David (to be fair, I don't think they do in the USA either), and to make matters worse, the bus broke down twice.  While this was very frustrating, I'd like to point out that in Guate, if a bus breaks down only twice and each break down costs less than 15 minutes, that's a great bus ride. 
     After about 5 hours on bus, we found ourselves in the town of Quepos on the south west coast of Costa Rica, near the national park of Manuel Antonio.  Once again, after traveling in buses all day, we were far to tired to go out on the town (also, it was Monday), so we hit the sack pretty early.  After a less than comfortable night's sleep (read, horribly hot and humid without air conditioning) we decided to pack up and head for the rain forest.  We got a very nice room right with air conditioning next to Manuel Antonio for decently cheap due to the fact that huge resorts had all moved in up the hill and destroyed these hotels' business, and headed for the park.  Although the guides were decently expensive ($20 a person) we decided to get one because, after all, this was one of the reasons I wanted to go to Costa Rica.  The guide turned out to be a great decision.  He had all sorts of information on the different species of the rain forest,  and was incredibly good at finding sloths hiding in the trees.  For example, can you spot the sloth hiding in the trees in this picture?

He did. 

    We were able to find some sloths on the trails though...

Another example of the guide's vision.  This crab was seen through a telescope and zoomed in on the camera.

I really liked the sloths.


     We then made it to one of the two beaches in this national park and found it crawling with monkeys.  The monkeys were bold enough to come right up and steal people's lunches as they went for a swim!  I didn't think places like this existed, but here it was.  It was truly an awesome place.

     After the park, we went to the beach to relax, but, being a couple of landlocked Minnesota boys, we found the prospect of playing in the surf much more entertaining than sleeping on the beach.  The sun set and we hiked up a mountain side to find a restaurant where we had some of the best seafood we've ever had.  After dinner we headed back down the mountain side only to find that all the good bars and places to hang out were back at the top of the mountain.  After much discussion, we decided that we were too tired from all of the activity of the day to hike back up, so once again we called it an early night.
     We got up decently early (early to bed, early to rise) and made our way towards Jacó, a surfer town just north up the coast from us.  Based on some advice we got the first day, we headed to a hostel called "papas and burgers."  It was lucky that we found it too, because the first hotel we checked out turned out to be where all of the prostitutes take their clients, so I doubt that we'd have had a very peaceful night's sleep.  Now, on our first day in the country we were also told that Wednesday night at a bar called "the backyard" was the best night of parties in the entire area, but this recommendation came with a warning.  Apparently, because it was ladies night, the bar would be full with "mad bitches."  We wondered all week why there would be dogs in the bar, and even more pressing, why they would be so angry.  Every time we discussed this troubling warning we became more and more intrigued, and our desire to actually make it to a bar one night of the trip grew.  To this end, we limited beach time and activities, so as to conserve energy (also, it rained most of the day).  
     Finally the night came and we made our way to the backyard.  Much to our relief there was not one dog in the entire establishment.  What's more, the majority of the people there seemed to be in good spirits, not one looked mad!  That being said, after the rave review, we found The Backyard to be nothing really special.  I commented to Dave that it is just like Sal's bar except in Costa Rica and with far more prostitutes.  Some people from South Africa heard us say that and commented that it is just like a bar in their home town too, but with far less prostitutes.  A gentleman from England said the same, as did an Aussie.  It turns out that bars and parties are the same just about everywhere, and it has more to do with the people you're with than the inherent "fun" of a bar, "mad bitches" or not.  We did have a fun night though, and we are now able to say that we experienced the nightlife of Costa Rica, if only for one night.
    The next day, our last full day in Costa Rica, we were able to experience another almost unavoidable Costa Rican happening: horrible horrible sunburn.  I guess that's what happens when you forget your sunscreen and spend multiple hours on the beach.  The only thing I have going for me is that the parts not covered by my shirt already had a good base, so the blistering and peeling was limited to the concealed parts of my body, reducing the embarrassment a little.  I can only imagine what Dave's virgin Minnesota skin is going through...
     Having experienced all that we had hoped for in Costa Rica, we caught a bus back to San Jose for the last night.  The next morning, we got up bright and early to fly back to our respective countries, and I bid farewell to Dave and Costa Rica.  It was really a vacation to remember.

The plane ride to Guatemala went as expected, and my bus ride was far better than I had hoped for: It only broke down twice!