Saturday, June 25, 2016

Mellow Life in Antigua Guatemala

25 June 2016

This is our third week in Antigua Guatemala - not our third week in a row, though.  First we were here, then spent a week in Panajachel, near Lake Atitlán.  Then back to Antigua.  Then almost a week up north near Tikal.  And back to Antigua.

No, this town isn't boring.  Seems as if there's always something to see and do.  The weather is mild, not too hot nor too cold.  If it rains, it's usually in the late afternoon or evening.  There are bands that play in the Parque Central, interesting finds in the market, ever more souvenirs to shop for, and of course good food to eat.

I spent one afternoon walking to all the churches I could find in one region of the city, I think to the south of the street we usually walk along to head to town.  First was the church of San Francisco, with the tomb of Santo Hermano Pedro (Saint Brother Peter).  I had no idea who he was or when he lived, but he actually has a pretty interesting history.  He was born on the island of Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, in 1626.  Was indentured to some moneylender to pay off his family's debt.  Was freed in 1649, when he was 23, and sailed to Guatemala - except he ran out of money before he arrived, so he stopped in Cuba and worked for a while.  When he finally made it to Guatemala, he was totally broke, and had to go to the bread line provided by the Franciscan friars.  Pedro eventually met up with his uncle who was in Guatemala, and then enrolled at the Jesuit college to join the priest- hood.  Brother Pedro visited the sick and poor, and eventually helped establish a hospital.  His work drew the attention of various benefactors, so he was able to expand the hospital to provide more services for the poor, indigent, and homeless.  He also worked for prisoners, begging for food and services for them.  When Pedro died in 1667 at the age of 41, he was buried here in Antigua Guatemala.  He was recognized for his devotion to those in need, and was beatified (or canonized?) by Pope John Paul in 2002.  

Anyway, the church dates back to the 1600s or before, and people visit his tomb to pray.  There was a statue of him outside the church, but a coffin or sepulcher inside the building.  This was surrounded by people deep in prayer.  I'm not sure if that's the actual tomb or not.  A little creepy and macabre, but the whole thing with relics tends to seem that way to me.  

But it was a lovely old building.  It also seemed to be almost at the base of Volcan de Agua, which loomed up above.  (It isn't really, the volcano is 20 or 30 miles or km or so away.)  I also had great views of Volcan de Fuego, and it's conjoined twin volcano, off to the west.  A bit further away, so not quite looming overhead.

I walked down another side street and found another old church.  Turns out this is the church of Hermano Pedro, that's the official name.  Not the church where he's interred, though.  This particular church provides care for those in need, including care for children, seniors, and the poor.  In fact, our hotel staff sent me there when I explained that I'd like to donate my used shoes.  So the church carries on Hermano Pedro's tradition of caring for people in need.  I'm not sure if this particular building is the church where Hermano Pedro began his work and turned it into a hospital, or what.  But it's a really pretty little church, with the pale yellow exterior and statues of saints all over the façade.

The Iglesia (church) de Hermano Pedro faces onto a little park, and is generally a lovely peaceful setting.  I enjoyed watching people walking through, meeting friends, entering the church.

Then I passed the Convent of Santa Clara.  There were a few interesting entrances along the exterior wall, and wanted to go inside.  But they charge a fee and I didn't really want to spend that much time there.  The church had an interesting front, not enough to see from the outside.  Oh well, by that time I was ready for lunch and really didn't want to explore too much more.  So that was about it for my church exploration.

I also spent a day or two at the market, first looking at everything and then a day of shopping for small items that fit in my luggage.  

The weaving and embroidery are still just so amazing!  I love watching the women working on their textiles, while they call to tourists and try to sell their items.  One woman showed me how she weaves a few rows of solid color, then uses a tiny embroidery hook to weave through small sections of color that eventually makes the pattern.  And the pattern, whether pictorial or just a geometric design, progresses along as she weaves.  I really am a little baffled by how someone keeps the pattern in their head and is able to continue, without error.  But the weavings are gorgeous!

I bought a few pouches made from old huipils - the embroidered or ornately woven section is upcycled once the body of the huipil is worn beyond saving.  There are belts, bags, luggage tags, wallets, shoes, etc. all made from recycled or upcycled huipils.  Since I keep everything in pouches or bags in my luggage, I thought these would be great for keeping all those small items organized.  (When you pack and repack every week or so, it's easy to lose things like camera or computer cables, or hair barrettes and elastics.  This is when different sized pouches come in handy.)

Having PRETTY pouches, rather than only utilitarian pouches, just makes me happier when I open my luggage.  Or repack.

The woman who sold these to me showed me the different styles - the tapestry-style woven pictorial designs come from one town.  The rainbow-colored woven geometric designs come from Chichicastanango.  (I may have spelled that wrong, but that's how the town is pronounced.)  The somewhat abstract animal patterns come from somewhere else.  She showed me all the various styles, and it really is amazing how many variations there are!

Of course, I always explain to the vendors that everything is beautiful and that I want everything.  But that my luggage is full, so I can only buy small things.  (And that we don't have a house, so I don't need anything for the house.)  The most difficult part really is making a decision!  But I finally picked out a few that sort of coordinated - birds and flowers, then just flowers, and then flowers and maybe a butterfly. 

And then, today.  We've been trying to figure out how to get to the beach.  Antigua isn't far from the Pacific coast, but that isn't the most beautiful region for beaches.  The Caribbean coast has prettier beaches, but is farther away.  So, instead of making a decision as to which beach to go to, we're just going to Guatemala City for a week.  We'll do the museum thing, and hopefully find a travel agent who can help us figure out how to get to a beach for a few weeks.

So today I went to my favorite couple of places to say goodbye.  We're not sure if we'll be back to Antigua.  First I had lunch at my favorite little café bistro place, and said goodbye over my melted brie and fig sandwich.  Then I ran into a few vendors who know me by name or at least by sight, and said my goodbyes.  Ran into our friendly taxi driver and son, and he re-confirmed for tomorrow.  (I know, it seems as if half the town recognizes me at this point!)

And then, I went in to say goodbye to all my buddies at the Choco Museo.  They all seem to know me by name!  Well, one guy said that there was another truffle workshop starting in half an hour.  So what could I do, I signed up for another workshop, LOL!  It was great fun, I made my signature dark chocolate truffles topped with just a few bits of nuts, and I had my usual wonderful time.  Served as Orlando's assistant, and said our friendly farewells.

The photos here, though, are from earlier in the week.  I stopped by one afternoon for the single portion chocolate fondue.  Yes, maybe half a banana, quarter of an apple, and two strawberries, with possibly a quarter cup of melted dark chocolate in a little pot over a candle.  All for 22 quetzales, roughly $3 US.  An absolutely wonderful treat for about 150 calories.  Several women came over to see what this amazing looking dish was, and one woman even took photos of my snack!  (Of course, I was photographing it as well.)  Turned out they were a youth group from Pennsylvania, doing volunteer work in the region.

I enjoyed by snack, smothering the fruit with chocolate.  As hard as I tried, I couldn't finish all that chocolate with the fruit.  So I pulled my spoon out of my purse (doesn't everyone carry a spoon?), and scooped up the chocolate.  And then offered the spoon to a little Guatemalan boy who was sitting with his grandmother, next to my table.  Oh his face lit up, and he scooped the chocolate up with his finger and popped it in his mouth.  I gathered more chocolate and offered it to his older sister, who also gave me a big smile and swiped the chocolate off with her finger.  One more scooping of the dish, and there was just enough for one more little boy sitting nearby - but I had to explain that he needed to put the spoon in his mouth to get all the chocolate, his finger wasn't enough.  Yes, some charades and some "en su boca, limpia, limpia!"  ("In your mouth, clean, clean."  Yeah, my Spanish is understandable but hardly poetic.)

Anyway, it was fun, sharing my dessert with these kids.  I had read that people in villages are suspicious of foreigners who spend too much time taking photos of the children, or talking to them; apparently this is leftover from the time when missionaries or whomever would try to get children to leave the villages to go to the mission schools, or even get the children adopted outside the country.  So I've been very careful about interacting with the children.  But, well, kids are cute and Guatemalan kids are extra cute with their big dark eyes, wearing miniature versions of the traditional clothing.  

Okay, off to the big city tomorrow.  We'll be staying in the more tourist-oriented areas, because Guatemala City has a bit of a reputation for petty crime.  We'll be our usual travel-savvy selves, carrying little cash and taking taxis around to the museums and such.

And trying to get to the beach!


Sunday, June 19, 2016

Visiting the Animal Rescue Center at Lake Petén

18-19 June 2016

A friend sent me a link for a television program, the PBS show “Nature.”  This particular episode featured an animal rescue center and sanctuary in Guatemala.  Turned out that the center, ARCAS (in Spanish, Asociación de Rescate y Conservación de Vida Silvestre – or, in English, something like the Association of Wildlife Rescue and Conservation), is right here by Lake Petén! 

I checked with our hotel people, and they said just go to Flores and catch a boat across the lake, not a problem.  Here’s a map to show how where everything is located:
The red dot with the H is where our hotel is, in the town of Santa Elena.  The green bubble B is the island of Flores, in Lake Petén.  Pretty, quaint, and where most of the tourists stay when they come up north.  Isla Flores is connected to the mainland by a causeway, so people can walk or drive back and forth.  It’s a really short walk, less than a kilometer, less than half a mile.  And on the map, the purple circle with the A is ARCAS, the rescue center.

So I walked down our street, crossed most of the causeway, and just before arriving on the island of Flores I found a guy with a boat looking for customers.  We had a nice little conversation, all in Spanish, about how I wanted to go to ARCAS, he knew where it was, he asked if I wanted to go and come back, yes I did, he thought an hour would be enough time there, and we negotiated a price.  I clambered into the wooden boat, a friend of his came by and she said she’d go for the ride and keep him company, and we headed off across the small arm of the lake. 

We chatted a bit as we motored the couple of miles or km to ARCAS – where was I from, was I married, did I have children, how big is my family.  I’m able to explain that I was a teacher, I’m married but no children, my students are my children, we’re retired, we sold everything and we’re travelling, that I have brothers and a sister and some of them have children so I have nieces and nephews.  Sometimes I feel like I’m speaking textbook Spanish, these are the sorts of conversations one tends to practice in language class when in school.  But it made for conversation, I understood our captain’s questions and could put together answers, and it passed the time.
We arrived at the ARCAS dock, which really was just a couple of narrow boards that made the structure of the dock, not even the crossboards were there.  Mr. Capitan helped me off, since I explained my balance isn’t very good.  He pointed out the path up to the animal sanctuary, we agreed I’d be back in about an hour, and off I went, hiking up the hill and heading toward the animal sounds.

I first met the parrots, tons of rescued parrots, in a couple of huge cages.  I said hello and took a few photos, mostly being ignored by the birds.  Parrots are stolen from their nests as babies, and often never learn to live in the wild.  So these parrots will be in these giant cages for the rest of their lives.
Then I saw the monkeys, crazy spider monkeys, with extra long arms and legs and a long long tail, all helping them scurry along the cage walls or swing from the branches and ropes in their cage.  They came over to see me (or see if I had food, most likely), and continued to swing their way around their enclosure.  I tried taking photos but spider monkeys seem to be in perpetual motion, and most of the photos are a bit blurred.  Or totally blurred.  There was one little baby monkey who seemed to be the only little one in there.  And I have no idea how many monkeys were there, it was hard to keep track of counting with all of them moving around nonstop.

And oh, the ocelots!  First I saw the bigger ocelot, a young male, lying under a series of ramps in their large enclosure.  I talked to him, and he seemed to look at me, and then started limping around the enclosure.  Oh, poor baby, he was missing a front leg!!!  I guessed that maybe he got caught in a trap, so I talked to him and apologized on behalf of the human species for injuring him so badly.

As I was talking, I heard someone behind me calling, “Hola!  Hola!”  I turned around, and no one was there.  Just the cage of parrots.  Uh, so the parrots were saying hello now that I was no longer there?

I went back to chatting with Mr Ocelot, standing at the corner of his enclosure.  He went back and lay down in the shade.  And then suddenly a blur of spotted fur jumped down from over my head somewhere, landing on the part of the ramp right in front of my face!  I was totally startled, and it took a moment to realize that this was another ocelot, smaller, and in constant motion like the monkeys. 

At this point, a man showed up and introduced himself.  He spoke no English, so we ended up with Spanish.  He explained that this whole section of the sanctuary had the animals that, for one reason or another, couldn’t be retrained and set free.  Yes, Mr Ocelot lost his leg in a trap.  So he can’t climb trees, or run, or hunt.  He’ll be in the enclosure forever.  The other one was Ms Ocelot, and she was a pet for a long time, growing up with a family and being treated like a house cat.  She’s too used to people, has no fear of them, and so they don’t think she can be taught to fear humans enough to be reintroduced to the wild.

I asked if there was a chance that these two ocelots might have a baby.  (I really speak Spanish like a child, with rather limited vocabulary.)  He said the female had been there for seven months, no baby yet, but they hope they’ll get together and mate.  All they can do is hope this happens.

He let me in the gate so I could get closer, and take some photos through the fencing.  It was funny, I put the camera lens between the metal and the female came over and stood up, as if she wanted to be pet, or fed, or maybe lick my fingers.  I wasn’t sure how friendly she was, so I moved my hands.  My guide guy said that she’s pretty friendly, but you never know.  So no, I didn’t pet Ms Ocelot, I just talked to both of them.  (And we talked about their toys, old coconuts with feathers stuck in them!)

Mr Guide explained that there was a baby spider monkey who was born in the enclosure.  The adults won’t be able to be reintroduced to the wild, but they hope the baby will once he’s old enough to be taken from his mother.  We talked about how sad it is that people take wild animals and try to make them pets.  I mean, the ocelots are gorgeous and they look like they’d be very sweet.  But a male grows to about the size of a medium dog – and suddenly that cute little ocelot isn’t as cute or as sweet.  Those teeth and claws are designed for hunting and killing, and that ocelot isn’t going to be happy living in a house and not having room to run and climb.  How can someone think they can have that animal living in their house forever?  Especially if they have children too?

And the monkeys!  Monkeys are cute, but, well, I told Mr Guide that monkeys just aren’t clean – which made him laugh.  Seriously, though, walking by the monkey cage you can smell how, well, unclean monkeys are about their personal hygiene and sanitary habits.  Neither one of us could imagine having a monkey in the house.

We walked by a pool, and I asked if these were crocodiles.  Turns out that there were two caimans, which can’t be released because they don’t have caimans in Guatemala.  These were smuggled in from further south.  So rather than introducing a foreign species into this environment, the caimans will just live in the pool.  (Again, who wants to have a four foot caiman or alligator or crocodile as a pet????  How unsafe is that???)

As we walked over to the large bird enclosures, more and more parrots started calling, “Hola!  Hola!”  I’d reply with “hola!” and they’d respond, and we’d go back and forth for a while.  There were several beautiful scarlet macaws; the center has a program where they breed scarlet macaws and release them into the wild because the population in Guatemala is dwindling.  There were also several green macaws, and a single blue macaw.  But these can’t be released, because again these would be foreign species.  Neither the blue nor green macaws are native to Guatemala.  So these victims of the illicit exotic animal trade are rescued, only to live the rest of their lives in large enclosures.  More space than in a small cage in someone’s house, but still an enclosure rather than living in the jungle, where they truly belong.

Many of the birds had areas of feathers that were either missing or fuzzy as if the birds were moulting.  I asked if they were moulting (“changing the feathers” in my Spanish), and Mr Guide said no, the birds get very stressed and over preen, pulling out their feathers.  Some are stolen as babies, others live with families that don’t really know how to take care of them, and of course others have their tails or wings clipped so they can no longer fly normal distances.  Again, these birds can’t be released and freed – they just aren’t able to fly away from predators, or find their own food, or avoid humans again.  Especially since they now call “Hola!  Hola!” to any people they see.

I also spoke with a young woman from Germany who is a volunteer here, working at ARCAS.  She was on her way to chop up fruit for the birds’ lunch, and they were all excited to see her.  But she held off for a bit to talk to me about her three weeks of volunteer work.  She spoke English, and explained that all the animals up in the front area were the ones that will never return to the jungle because either they’re foreign species, injured to the point of being unable to fend for themselves, or too acclimated to humans and thus in danger of being re-caught or killed easily.  In the back, they have a separate area for animals that are being cared for but allowed to live in a more natural environment, in the hopes that they will re-adapt to living in the jungle once again.  This is where the baby monkey will go, with the other spider monkeys who will eventually be released.  This is also where the scarlet macaws are bred.  She said that the program tries to minimize human contact for these animals – they’re fed, and occasionally observed, but the volunteers and staff don’t talk to them, or pet them, or interact with the animals other than providing food and water, and cleaning the cages if needed.  (I can see why visitors aren’t allowed back there.  My natural inclination is to talk to the animals, tell the cats how beautiful they are, or the monkeys how funny they are, and to generally apologize on behalf of the human species for interfering with their lives.  Yeah, don’t want to do that with animals in the wild.  Although, well, I do that too.)

So while it was really interesting to see these animals up close, and talk to (or with) them, well, it also is really sad.  More so because these animals are destined to live in cages because they can no longer live in the wild, all due to people wanting either to make money at the animals’ expense, or because someone wants an “exotic” pet.

Me, I’ll stick with cats or dogs, thank you.

My hour was up, and I had my friendly Mr Guide point out the path back to the “dock.”  I told him in Spanish that I’m always a little lost, and he laughed.  Though it is true! 

For more info, the ARCAS Petén website is:

El Capitan of the boat was waiting for me, and we headed back to his mooring spot along the causeway.  The sky was dark up ahead and the wind was kicking up waves, and we could see that a storm was headed our way.  We made it back to the rocks, and he went to give me change for my big bills.  (Most of the Guatemalan money is in bills, with only small change in coins.)  Well, the wind blew a bill or two out of his hands and into the lake, so all we could do is laugh.  The bills are plastic, the bill was floating away, and he apologized that he had to short me ten quetzales (about $1.25 US).  Yeah, I didn’t really care, what could we do.  I headed off for lunch, he headed back to the boat to pick up his runaway money.

There’s a restaurant on Isla Flores, right overlooking the lake, called Raise’s.  They have frozen hibiscus tea, which has some lime and sugar and is absolutely wonderfully refreshing after a hot walk through the jungle.  It also is the most amazing ruby red drink, topped with the icy pink frozen part.  So delicious!  They also have wonderful tacos – not the crunchy had corn tortillas of the US, but sweet white maize soft tortillas, filled with grilled chicken and peppers (or pork, sausage, or steak if you prefer).  Served with fresh pico de gallo, it’s an inexpensive and fast lunch (with about two servings of veg wrapped up in those tacos).  We’ve eaten here before, so when the staff saw me by myself they came over to see what happened to “mi sposo.”  I explained he was at the hotel, and that I visited ARCAS, which everyone seemed to know.  I said that I like animals and archaeology, but my husband likes cities more.  They laughed and understood.

Oh, I also found some concrete statues of the Mayan jaguar sculpture along the road.  Absolutely had to take their photos, they probably are the only jaguars I’ll see while in Guatemala.  (There’s also a zoo near ARCAS, where they have some rescued jaguars who can’t be returned to the wild.  I thought that might be even more depressing, so I skipped that and just visited the rescue center itself.)

And I'm adding a few photos of the lake on a sunny day, because it really is a beautiful place.

It’s Sunday now – the wifi went out last night and I couldn’t finish this blog.  We’re now back in Antigua after an early morning flight, back at our favorite Hotel Monasterio, where the staff greeted us like family.  We had arranged with our friendly taxi driver to pick us up at the airport, but he’s in a run today so sent his son.  Our taxi friend’s name is Santos.  Guess what his son is named?  Angelo!  I love it!  (Makes me wonder what Angelo’s son is named, though.)

Happy Father’s Day to all!