Guatemala

This is the End - Or is it Just the Beginning?

This is the End - Or is it Just the Beginning?

This is the end. In the words of the somewhat famous and totally unpredictable Jim Morrison of The Doors, this is the end, my only friend, the end.

My family and I just completed a year-long overland adventure through Mexico and Central America. We left Virginia on August 1, 2015 and drove our 1985 Volkswagen Westfalia camper van - which we named Wesley - through Mexico and Central America. We’ve now landed softly at the family lake house in New York’s Catskill Mountains where we will take contemplative walks in the woods and frolic in the clear lake water before launching back at the end of the month into the hard work of being middle class Americans.

The Hardest Part of Overland Travel – Going Home

The Hardest Part of Overland Travel – Going Home

When we first conceived this year-long fairy tale of an overland adventure, we anticipated arriving in Patagonia in Argentina after eleven months and 29 days of driving, hopping in a plane to D.C., and shipping Wesley back to Baltimore.  The trip would have a clearly defined beginning – when we left Alexandria – and ending – when we got on a plane to go home.

The Hardest Part II - Homeschooling

The Hardest Part II - Homeschooling

In advance of our year on the road, we presented the Alexandria City Public School (ACPS) system with a thoughtful home school curriculum covering everything from animal migratory patterns to car mechanics that any self-motivated student would be thrilled and excited to study. ACPS stamped its approval and we went merrily on our way. What we didn’t consider was that we would not be bringing any self-motivated students along with us.

One Week and One Thousand Miles

One Week and One Thousand Miles

Since we left El Salvador on June 9 we have driven Wesely over 1,000 miles across Guatemala and Mexico and I’ve got the driver’s tan to prove it - my left forearm is as red as tomato soup. It’s not our style to blow through places so quickly, but at this point in our year long trip we are focused on getting back to Alexandria for better or for worse. Despite our accelerated pace, we’ve managed to squeeze some fun in between our long driving days.

The Hardest Part

The Hardest Part

We thought leaving behind our responsibilities and driving overland through the Americas in a 1985 VW Westfalia camper van would be endless servings of strawberries and cream. But it has turned out to be a lot harder than we expected. I often find myself thinking of what our new friend Claude said to me one night as we washed our dishes in San Cristobal, Mexico. Claude is Swiss and has been driving around the world with his wife for almost fifteen years. He said, “Everyone at home thinks we’re on vacation. But this is hard work.”

Now, to be sure, this is not work in the sense that my shift starts at 9 a.m. and the boss is going to be pissed if I’m late. One of the liberating things about this lifestyle is that we have the complete ability to do whatever we want. If we want to go to the waterfall to swim today we can. Or we can do it tomorrow. If we want to go to Mexico, or stay in Guatemala, the choice is ours.

Iguana - It's What's for Dinner

Iguana - It's What's for Dinner

As we drove through Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, we often saw people standing along the side of the road holding large, spine-backed reptiles bound to a stick. The peoplewould wave these things at us as we drove past as if they were performing some sort of ceremonial blessing. We realized that the people wanted us to buy one or more, but we were not sure what we were supposed to do with the thing once we got it home. One afternoon while I lounged outside Wesley while R and the kids shopped for fruit in the market, I noticed two teen boys with slingshots in their hands gazing intently up into the tree tops.

The Battle for Guatemala

My wife, two kids, and I spent the last week squinting into the sun glistening off the waters of Lago de Atitlan, a caldera lake set in the central highlands of Guatemala. Before that we were a week around Lago de Izabel, a vast lake connected by river to the Caribbean Sea and encompassing wetlands, rainforest, and beach, and the week prior to that we spent at Lago Peten de Itza, near Tikal, that mystical jungle nirvana of crumbling stone temples and mosquitoes. No one is more qualified than we are to rate, in two thousand or more words, Guatemala’s major bodies of water as a family vacation destination so that you can know best how to spend your hard earned Quetzales. Based on our own customer satisfaction surveys, we have assessed each of the three lakes for whether they are swimmable, campable, drinkable, and on intangibles.

Swimmable is just what it seems - you see a large body of water on a sweltering hot day in the jungle and you want to know, “Am I going to be eaten by crocodiles, or worse, if I jump in?”

You don't need to speak Spanish to understand that you should not swim in these waters.

Campable relates to the point that we are travelling in a VW camper van and we want to be able to sleep in our van, or in tents around it, so we don't have to lug all of our important stuff, like scissors, loose change, and soda crackers, to a hotel room. Despite the rules being somewhat more relaxed in Guatemala, it still seems awkward walking through the hotel dining room with your fishing tackle. Then again, how many hotels do you know where the back porch to your room overlooks a swamp?

Drinkable. Lake swimming involves horseplay, which involves laughter, which involves open mouths and swallowed lake water. How sick can you expect to get?

Intangibles includes random thoughts about life on the lakes from a slightly twisted but mostly rational mind.

LAGO DE PETEN ITZA

Lago de Peten Itza is in the northern lowlands of Guatemala, surrounded by mostly dense, tropical rainforest. We spent ten days bouncing between El Remate, a hamlet on the eastern shore of the lake, Flores, a small island in the lake which is a popular gringo base camp for visiting Tikal and which is connected to the mainland by a causeway, and Tikal, the vast Mayan ruins which are not actually on the lake but are close enough that we consider it to be a part. Everyone from Hernan Cortes to Charles Lindbergh has visited this lake, you can read their reviews on TripAdvisor, so it is not a secret destination, but that just means you have more options of hotels, restaurants, and places to buy chachkeys.

We found a lot of things to do for families in this area - you can take boat rides around the lake, visit a zoo and wildlife rehab center, or hike through protected wildlife reserves and through minor Mayan ruins. And then of course, there is the grand daddy of all Mayan sites in Guatemala - Tikal.

Swim. Yes! There are lots of nice spots in El Remate where you can see the lake bottom and the water temperature is warm enough so that even R took a dip. The lake water around Flores is less clean, but people swim there and we could easily have joined them on one of the hot afternoons if we had been wearing our bathing suits. One afternoon we took a lancha to the middle of the lake and jumped in and swam around.

The view over the clear waters of Lago de Peten Itza from the Mon Ami restaurant/hotel, where we spent most of our time when in El Remate.

Camp. If you turn off the main road in El Remate onto the other road, keeping the lake on your left, there are several options for camping, including in the Biotopo Cerro Cahui, a wildlife conservation area where I didn’t actually see any wildlife, but I did take in some nice lake views from the mountaintop miradors. The owners of the hotel and restaurant Mon Ami - which was the focal point for most of what we did when in El Remate (eat, swim, and WiFi) - let us camp in their parking lot one night for free and use their toilets.

Flores is a concrete jungle and has no formal campgrounds. However, there are plenty of hotels and every night we rented a room either R or I slept in Wesley in the street. If it was just R and I and we didn’t have to pop the top for the four of us to sleep in the van we probably could have slept for free every night. As far as food, there are plenty of restaurants that have good grub for cheaper than you would pay in the States so you don’t have to get the camp stove out and cook in the streets as well, even if you decide to sleep there. Plus, each night comedores set up along the waterfront sell cheap, cold tacos, and crunchy tostados with a variety of toppings to choose from, including beet salad.

You can camp in the large, grass parking lot at Tikal, or stay in one of the two overpriced hotels on site. You can not bribe the guard to sleep at the top of Temples I through IX.

Wesley in the parking lot/campground in Tikal.

Drink. I peed in the lake a few times, but I would still have a glass. We did see a cow jaw bone at waters’ edge near San Andres, but chances are you won't visit this town on the northern edge of the lake so won’t have to wrestle with this uncomfortable fact of life.

Intangibles. We heard this area is one of the more expensive places in Guatemala, but we have been hemorraghing money every place we’ve been so we didn’t really notice much difference. Nobody drowned when we rented paddle boards on Christmas Day so it was memorable in a good way.

R hamming it up on Lago de Peten Itza. Most of the boats we rented were sturdier than this piece of log.

LAGO DE IZABEL

This lake is enormous, requiring more than 3 hours and a hundred dollars to hire a boat to take you from the wetland habitat of the Reserva Bocas del Polochic at the western edge, through the river gorge around the town of Rio Dulce in the east, and to the town of Livingston, which lies at the mouth of the waterway, where the river meets the Caribbean coast.

Because we were not impressed with Rio Dulce, we visited the town of El Estor, at the western edge, and hired a boat to take us to see manatees, monkeys, and the Russian nickel mining operation which is dumping toxic chemicals into the lake and pumping colorful smoke into the sky. This was a highlight of our visit.

We also stayed at a jungle lodge at the mouth of the river gorge which had a rope swing, a ping pong table, and bed bugs. It was also a jumping off point to visit Livingston, which is supposedly a cultural experience unique in all Guatemala because the residents are more similar in appearance and custom to their Caribbean island neighbors, but it didn’t feel all that different than walking around by the city courthouse near 7th and Pennsylvania, N.W., in Washington D.C.

Swim. No one likes gas trails in their lake water but rope swings are cool even if you come out of the water feeling like an oil slick. We did not swim at the Livingston beaches and although the word was that swimming at the opposite end of the lake near the wildlife reserve was good, the water there was dirty as well because villages along the rivers that feed into the lake use the rivers for things like trash disposal.

Camp. The only place we found to camp in our van was a muddy, noisy marina parking lot in Rio Dulce. We skipped it. There are lots of neat sounding jungle lodges tucked here and there around the lake but most are only accessible by boat. For us, this meant finding secure parking and the hassle of packing all the stuff we might need into overnight bags. The other annoyance about this arrangement is that you are subject to the monopoly of the hotel over food, drink, and what not.

Drink. You would have to pay me a lot of money to drink eight ounces of this stuff.

Intangibles. If I ever die, I want to come back as a boat operator on this lake, as it gives meaning to the phrase - nothing in life is free. Even the jungle lodge hotel where we stayed charged us a boatload of money to shuttle us to and from Rio Dulce. I was afraid to mention to the management that I got attacked by bed bugs for fear they might charge me per bite. El Estor was one of the dirtiest towns I’ve seen in Guatemala, with trash lining either side of the street, dogs with open wounds roaming the fields, and lots of plastic bottles and diapers washed up on the shore. The waterfall at Finca El Paraiso, near El Estor, had natural hot springs feeding into the falls and we got to jump off the waterfall, which was fun, but the beauty of the place was underwhelming.

LAGO DE ATITLAN

This lake may or may not have been formed 85,000 years ago due to volcanic activity and tectonic plate shifting. What is known though, is that the lake is filled with water, and that population growth, the proclivity of the people to enjoy unhealthy snack foods like barbecued, pig-flavored, Tortrix, the introduction of non-native species into the caldera to promote sport fishing, and wastewater runoff from agricultural and tourist endeavors, have caused the lake waters to become susceptible to increased production of algae spores which require the formation of NGO’s to raise awareness among the many rich Americans that visit the area.

Based on my experience, I’ve been here a week, the villages around the lake are inhabited by traditional Mayan peoples who continue to practice the trades of deforestation and subsistence farming, while the fancy houses that dot the hills are owned by rich people who rent them on AirBnB for hundreds of dollars a night. We stayed in one of those places.

The water was cold, but the view from the dock was hot!

Swim. Yes, but only because we’ve spent hundreds of dollars a night on a lake front villa and there is nothing else to do. The lake is deep, averaging over 600 feet, and the water temperature ranges from “freezing”, to “quite a bit colder than freezing”, to “I can’t believe I’m swimming in this”, to “Hey, do I still have a face because I can’t feel it anymore?” There is one spot in San Marcos, one of the lake villages that is accessible by a long strenuous hike or by a short expensive boat ride, where you can pay to jump off of a wooden dock into the lake thirty feet below. Of course, we paid to do this, but only J and I jumped.

Camp. Many of the villages are built on the side of the mountain and are only accessible by boat so we had to leave Wesley parked in a field in Panajachel, which is the nearest big town that has a road going to it. There is tent camping at the Reserva Natural Atitlan in Panajachel, but since we were staying at a fancy AirBnB place, we only did the zip lines. You can catch boats to all other parts of the lake from Pana and the villages each have their own identity - drug town, meditationville, old, rich, white people place, etc..

Drink. There are certain areas of the lake where it is not recommended that you allow your body to touch the water, but in other areas, swimming is okay. I take this to mean, drink the water at your own risk.

Guess which one of us got bitten by a scorpion while she slept in our rented house on Lake Atitlan?

Intangibles. If I die and I can’t come back as a boat operator on Lago de Izabel, I want to come back as a boat operator on Lago de Atitlan. The lake is beautiful, hemmed in by three volcanoes and countless other less threatening peaks, and hikes around the mountains offer some truly spectacular views that make you think about whether your life has amounted to anything more than a hill of beans. Kayaking is a water activity, but around midday the heat rises from the Pacific Coastal plain and creates a westerly wind that blows white caps across the lake making boating not much fun, and probably dangerous. If you are not into hiking or freezing your ass off in the lake, there isn’t much else to do after noon except laundry and check your bed for scorpions.

And the winner is . . . Lago de Peten Itza! In our view, this lake has it all and is  the best spot to visit if you've only got a week in Guatemala. You can swim in it, drink it, camp around it, and completely ignore it to visit Tikal. And the nice thing is that it will still be there waiting for you to come back from wherever you've wandered off too - just like the scorpions we found in Coconut's bed.

The sick times of our lives

Coconut started coming down with what ails us before New Years’. She was running a high fever, and had muscle aches and a hacking cough. We were camping at the time at a tranquil place on the Rio Chiyo owned by a guy from Philadelphia and his Japanese wife. While we were all having fun swimming in waterfalls, fishing, and jumping off of bridges, poor Coconut was curled up in Wesley’s top bunk. IMG_2241

IMG_2252[1]We were worried that she had chikungunya, a relatively new-to-the-Americas mosquito transmitted virus which may or may not cause those infected to scratch in the dirt looking for insects, or Dengue Fever, which is just as horrible. We met a guy from Canada who had both viruses within a few weeks of each other and he didn’t prefer either – said they both made him feel worse than a turd stapled to a garbage can lid.

We got out of the campground after two nights and headed towards Rio Dulce, a crossroads town on Lago Izabel, so that we could get Coconut to a doctor and checked into a hotel so she could be more comfortable. We never found a doctor, but we did find a pharmacy with a nurse on duty who was able to quickly rule out our worst fears - though, we don’t know how - and prescribe some medications for inflammation and congestion - though, we don’t know why.

We had planned to visit the lake anyway because our research indicated it was centrally located for water activities, to visit the Caribbean coast town of Livingston, which is home to the Garifuna people who are descended from African slaves, and to visit some other unique natural sites around the lake. We also heard Bruno’s Marina would be a great place to camp.

Whoever wrote that research needs a good talking too - Rio Dulce is horribly hot, congested, noisy, and dirty and Bruno’s Marina was a muddy wreck – there was no chance we could camp there, even if Coconut felt up to it. The more interesting places to stay in the area are situated around the lake and are only accessible by lancha, so to do any water activity on the lake requires paying enormous sums of money to people with boats. We had to pay nearly $60 USD to get to one jungle lodge where we stayed for two days so that, with no other eating or drinking options, we could pay to drink their bottled water and eat food prepared in their kitchen. Plus, even though J and some boys from the Czech Republic didn’t seem to mind, you came out of the water feeling like an oil slick.

The rope swing at our jungle lodge hotel saw a lot of action.

IMG_2488[1]Livingston turned out to be a ramshackle town providing ample living quarters for pelicans but not much else of obvious cultural significance. The Garifuna culture, at least, has been Westernized enough to give the white oppressors who enslaved its ancestors its comeuppance in the form of overpriced, mediocre soup.

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The most interesting thing about the signature seafood soup of Livingston was that it came with an entire fish and crab, and they had a battle to the death. They both lost.

The natural beauty of the Finca El Paraiso, a hot spring waterfall, was underwhelming, and the Reserva Bocas del Polochic, one of the richest wetland habitats in the country, is being threatened by a Russian nickel mining operation that pollutes without sanction by the Guatemalan government.

To top off our week, at one of the hotels where we stayed, bed bugs had me for breakfast, lunch and dinner, J beat me at ping pong, and R started coming down with the same symptoms that Coconut was finally shaking loose.

Needless to say, we were happy to leave the area, and were intent on getting R someplace where she could rest comfortably. Our next attempt at nirvana was to head to an abandoned eco-resort set on a waterfall that a motorcycle overlander we met shortly after we left Oaxaca described as paradise on earth. Unfortunately, to get to Eden, you first have to drive through Puerto Barrios, which is the port town where the major U.S. fruit companies ship pineapples to the rest of the world, but apparently fail to give back to support the city’s infrastructure – the two-lane country road in use by the heavy duty and high volume of truck traffic, when not covered in dirt, is like driving on a trampoline it’s so cracked and uneven.

After getting through Puerto Barrios, the road to Eden becomes an extremely steep and rocky ascent and all I needed to hear from R was let’s find another place to stay, but she was fading fast – she failed to even comment on my exceptional conduction of our vehicle as I bounced it over boulders and through mud pits or on my witty opinions of our motorcycle-driving friend. Plus, since we had already committed more than an hours’ worth of driving in the wrong direction from where we planned to spend the rest of our time in Guatemala in order to get as far as we had - there was no turning back. When we finally arrived nobody liked the place. R immediately went to sleep, Coconut proclaimed the water too cold for swimming, J wouldn’t sit on the toilets, and the camping turned out to be expensive, not free like I expected. We spent one night.

IMG_2520[1]We planned to spend the next few nights at a Japanese guesthouse so that R could rest in clean white-sheeted bliss, Coconut and J could catch up on homework, and I could visit some nearby ruins, but after we found the place on a street so narrow we had to move to the side just to let ourselves pass, we learned the guesthouse was full so we changed our plans to push on to Guatemala City. I was the most disappointed with this turn of events as my sole experience with Japanese guesthouses is gleaned from the novel “Shogun” - the protagonist of the story is visited repeatedly in the night by unsolicited women - and I was curious to know if this protagonist could expect the same treatment. Alas, fate can be cruel.

Fate can also decide that we aren’t going to make it to Guatemala City on a particular day, and along about the time the town of Santa Cruz rolled around, we were all hot, cranky, and tired of being in the van. Santa Cruz wasn’t on any map that we had or in any guidebook, but it turned out to be an okay place because it had a waterpark, and the hotel, though not much from the street, was like a small neighborhood – but like one of those weird, spooky dreams, there was nobody home but us.

IMG_2536[1]IMG_2540[2]We decided to hang around for a few days anyway so that R could get back on her feet, and like an exorcism, the demon bacteria could worm their way into me. Sure enough, by Sunday, after two-days’ worth of chlorine-soaked thrills, I was beginning to feel achy, feverish, and after taking the medications prescribed for Coconut that we didn’t give her, just well enough to drive to Antigua and crash into a hotel bed for the week. And that’s what I did. R and the kids might be able to speak of Antigua, but they didn’t do much different. So, we leave after a week in Antigua without knowing much about it other than it has big, wide cobblestone streets and the workers doing construction next door thoughtfully don’t start work every day until 7 a.m., on the dot.

IMG_2571[1]So far, the month fits into the category of misery loves company and is similar to those first days with a newborn when you tell everyone how wonderful and rewarding it is. You are tired and cranky because the kid keeps waking up at night crying, you’re not having sex with your wife, and you can’t hang out with your friends because of the guilt of leaving your wife on her own with the cute, little monster. In this case, I’m tired and cranky from tossing and turning all night with worry and sickness, I’m not having sex with my wife, and I feel guilty because we’re dropping serious coin on fancy hotels and laying around like sloths. Overall, it’s been a wonderful and rewarding experience. You should try it.

Things to Know about Life on the Road

We left Alexandria, Virginia on August 1, 2015, in our 1985 VW Westphalia and spent nights in North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas before finding ourselves at the U.S.-Mexican border in Laredo, Texas. When we crossed into Mexico on August 26, we expected to spend a month making our way to Belize and to be in Panama by Christmas. Happily, that plan didn’t work out and we spent the next 3 ½ months experiencing Mexico, which is now one of our favorite places. We even settled down in Oaxaca for a month when we rented a house, giving our “life on the road” some semblance of stability.

Nevertheless, our goal was to overland to South America in a year, and however dim that prospect looks at the moment – as I type this on January 11, 2016, we are more than five months into our twelve month trip but have only been in Mexico and Guatemala (we planned to have been through those two countries, as well as El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica by now, and waiting in Panama to ship our van to Colombia) - we plan to push southward until we have to come back north.

Since we left Oaxaca on November 29, we have been living out of the van more or less on a day-to-day basis. This has reminded us that overlanding is not the party that it may seem to be. As a fellow overlander said to me as we bellied up to the tiny bathroom sink to wash our dinner dishes, “People think we’re on vacation, but this is hard work.”

It’s not the 9 to 5 type of job, and we don’t get paid, but for all the fun it is to discover new places, it does involve some hard thought. With that in mind, we thought it would be fun to share how we go about our “daily work” – which consists of finding a place to go, finding a place to sleep, and figuring out what to eat.

"What are we doing today?"

Coconut and J ask us this all the time. Their second most frequent question is, “How long are we staying here?” Sometimes we have an answer, and sometimes not.

When planning a route into and through a country, we come up with an overall country plan. How do we get from our entry point, visit the places in the country that are must do, that we have always dreamed of seeing, or that we never heard of before but that have been recommended to us by other overlanders, and get to our exit point using an efficient route on paved roads? Our country plan for Mexico got blown to pieces, as we ended up in places we had no intention of going and stayed much longer than we planned, but that turned out for the better. We’ve stuck to the plan so far for Guatemala.

In making our overall country plan, I am low tech. We have a few guide books – Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide – and I read them. There are a lot cooler 21st century ways to do this, but I like to curl up with a good book at night and what could be better than the Rough Guide to Central America on a Budget?

When I come up with a place or an area that sounds fun for all, or that has something educational to do that I think the kids won’t complain too much about, I look at our paper map to see if we can get there in a reasonable way considering all the other things in the country that are on the list of things to do. One thing we learned in Mexico is that not all roads are flat and that Wesley, our van, is capable of climbing mountains, but that it takes time. We double the time that our guidebooks or Google Maps estimate that it will take to get anyplace.

Once I’ve mapped out an overall country plan, I discuss it with R, our resident techie, and she uses the few apps that we have and poses queries to the overlanding forums she is part of to see if things have changed in the few years since our books were written or for places to camp, since the books are written with backpackers, not overlanders, in mind.

When we are in country, we plan our day-to-day activities like we would plan our weekends at home – we see what comes up. As I mentioned, we go to an area of the country because there are cool things to do there, but we don’t really have a plan to do them. We roll with the mood that strikes us, or the weather, or the circumstances. For example, we anticipated that Flores, Guatemala, had a full week of activities - a lake for swimming, boats to cruise the lake, a zoo, hiking, a wild animal rehabilitation center, and Tikal. Also, R had studied Spanish in nearby San Andres and we wanted to visit her places of interest. We ended up underestimating the time needed and spending ten days there, and still didn’t do some of the things I thought we might do. Other places, like Rio Dulce on Lago Izabel, are hot, bustling, dusty junctions, and we get out of dodge sooner than we think we might.

Other times we don’t get to a planned location and have to come up with a new plan on the fly. Semuc Champey, the most beautiful waterfalls in Guatemala, was recommended to us by several other travelers, but it will have to exist without us because we couldn’t drive there from where we were. Instead, we drove to some other waterfalls that were maybe not as beautiful, but we learned how to use a machete to cut a coconut and jumped off a bridge with some local boys into the Rio Chiyo.

Victor lived across the street from the place we camped for New Years. He showed J how to cut a coconut with a machete, showed us the best swimming spots on the river, and basically stuck with us the two days we were there.

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The house Victor lives in with his parents and two younger brothers.

J shows some of the local boys how to do it. He was soon joined by Victor and his brothers.

Earlier this week we planned to stay at a Japanese guest house in Quirigua, a small town near some off-the-beaten track Mayan ruins, so that R could rest from her recent infirmities, the kids could catch up on homework, and I could visit the ruins. However, after finding the guest house – which was no easy task – we learned there were no rooms available. So it was back in the car for another 200 kilometers to Guatemala City. After a few hours of driving, we were all hot and cranky and R was fading, so we ended up at a hotel with a pool and water slide in Santa Rosa where we stayed for two nights.

"Where are we going to sleep?"

When Coconut was three, we flew to the Bahamas to meet some friends who were cruising in their 44-foot sailboat, Belisana, for the year. We told Coconut beforehand that we would be staying on the boat with our friends, so when they came to pick us up in the dinghy from wherever it was the puddle jumper dropped us off, Coconut was a little confused. She whispered to R, “Where are we all going to sleep?”

Having Wesley solves that problem – we can all sleep comfortably inside the van. My preference is to camp because it’s cheaper, and also, like a younger sibling, Wesley has become part of the family and it’s a little sad when we roll the slider door shut and walk away for the night. One couple we met in Oaxaca told us that when they have guests to their home, they offer the guests their own bedroom and sleep in their van in the garage. We understand that sentiment. There have been a few times when we’ve rented a hotel room and R or I have slept in the van on the street. It’s nice and cozy.

Sometimes it is too hot to sleep in the van, or sometimes we have slept in the van a few days in a row and we need a shower, or the kids will request a room with WiFi. For example, Coconut asked if we could get a room for Christmas because she didn’t want to drive on that day. That was a reasonable request – how else would Santa have found us – so we got a room.  If we get a hotel room, it is usually a place suggested by our guidebook or that R has found online. If we plan to be around a while, we will look for an AirBnB place.

In most cities there are no convenient places to camp and we end up in a room because we would have to camp too far out of the city to visit the places in the city that we want to visit. Once camp is set up, it’s an involved process to break it down to drive around town, so we don’t usually do that. Guanajuato and San Cristobal de las Casas, both in Mexico, were two exceptions where campgrounds were within walking distance of the city center – though, in Guanajuato, we called the campground a “yonke” (junkyard) because there were several rusted out autos on the grounds.

The view from our campsite in Guanajuato was interesting.

"What’s for dinner?"

Wesley comes equipped with a two-burner propane stove, and we brought along our camp stove, so we can cook our meals at home. If we aren’t camping, we look for rooms that have a private kitchen or access to a communal kitchen. R has become expert at baking a pizza on the bottom of a cast iron frying pan.

Of course, part of the fun of traveling is that you get to eat all the tasty foods native to the place that you are visiting. One of our favorite things to do in Oaxaca was to visit the Friday street vendor food market in Llano park to get the pork rib tacos for 5 pesos each. Overall, we prefer the food in Mexico. It was cheaper than in Guatemala, and tastier – we eat these things in Guatemala that they call tortillas but the Chicago Black Sox may have used them in 1919 for baseball gloves.

We also loved the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables in Mexico. And the fresh squeezed juices. Consistently, the vegetables on offer in Guatemala are yellowed broccoli, wrinkled string beans, and sad-looking cauliflower. The fruits are just as pathetic - waxy apples and believe it or not, it’s hard to find a decent banana. Guatemala does have seedless watermelons, which is the only kind the kids will eat, and the pineapples are outstanding. We drove through Puerto Barrios the other day, which is a city on the Caribbean coast where Dole, Del Monte, and Chiquita have shipping facilities, and stopped at a few roadside stands for some of the sweetest pineapples ever. They cut it in quarters, with the hard center intact, so it’s like you are eating pineapple on a stick.

The only other food that stands out in Guatemala is the fried chicken from Pollo Campero – but this is basically fast food and you can now get it in the states, including in Alexandria. So, we’ve done a lot of eating at “home” – eggs and rice, roasted potatoes, salads, pasta.

So, that's it. That's how we've taken the two greatest obligations a parent has to his or her children and turned them into our only responsibilities. It's a pretty low-stress lifestyle - no worrying about schedules or who needs to be where at what time - and for all the benefit that Coconut and J will get out of it, the more immediate benefit seems to have accrued to R and I. In fact, while reading "Life of Pi" yesterday, I came across this thought penned by Yann Martel, the author. He writes, "I have nothing to say of my working life, only that a tie is a noose, and inverted though it is, it will hang a man nonetheless if he's not careful.

It's a New Year in Guatemala

We spent a low key New Years Eve - four Gallo beers and a rum with coconut water - relaxing in the quiet beauty of the Oasis Chiyo in Las Conchas, Guatemala. We brought the noise: J finally got to shoot off the last of the fireworks we purchased in Mexico and those that he received from Santa, in a soccer field that doubles as a cow pasture. Even though we aimed the rockets away from them to avoid a stampede, the cows were not pleased with the noise and smoke and we could see their eyes reflected red in the flashlight beam move deeper into the corner of the goal where they took their repose. We have been in country for two weeks now and I think I’ve seen enough of Guatemala to suggest some New Years resolutions:

Put up road signs.  Not the kind that tell me the road is going to curve to the left, but the kind that tell me where the hell I am and where the right fork of the road goes. All too often the road splits and there is nothing to indicate which way leads to heaven and which way leads to hell.

We wanted to get to Raxruja after we drove off the ferry in Sayache. The road going up took two directions - one paved and one not - but had no sign indicting what lay in either direction. The GPS apps we are using are wrong often enough where we can't blindly trust them and - see paragraph two below - the fact that a road is not paved doesn't mean it is the road less traveled.  Remember, we got to the Mexican-Guatemalan border by driving through a muddy cornfield.

When there is a sign indicating what city lies on either fork, the city named is often hundreds of kilometers away and not the next city en route. This happened in Mexico as well and requires us to memorize the map of the country for city locations way beyond our hoped for destination. It's like coming into New Jersey from New York across the George Washington Bridge and following signs for Las Vegas to get to Paterson.

Finish paving your roads. We can be cruising steady at 45 m.p.h. on this beautifully smooth and flat road and I will have to hit the brakes hard because the pavement ends and is replaced by a muddy, bumpy mess of a path. And you can never be sure that the muddy trail called a road is the wrong way. The infrastructure of the place puts it firmly in the category of developing countries - while waiting 30 minutes for the ferry to take us fifty meters across the Rio La Pasion in Sayache, J asked, “Why don't they build a bridge?” Good question.

We had a plan to drive to Semuc Champey, a blue waterfall described to us as one of the most beautiful places in the world, but there is no really good way for us to get there. Option one was to drive a paved road about 200 kilometers west to Coban so that we could then drive 150 kilometers east on a mostly paved road to Lanquin to park Wesley and take a 4WD to the waterfall. Option two was to drive a shorter but unpaved, rough rocky road that may or may not be in the process of being improved straight south for 50 kilometers to Lanquin  Option three was to drive north, then east to Rio Dulce and catch a 4WD that drives 5 hours on another rough, unpaved road through Cahabon to Lanquin.

We went to bed planning on option two but in the morning we read some things that dissuaded us from that notion, so planned to skip Semuc Champey all together and go to another waterfall in Las Conchas. Then the hotel owner went off about how beautiful Semuc is compared to Las Conchas so we were back to option two even though the owner suggested option one, saying it would take the same amount of time. We picked up a campesino hitchhiker and he was of the same opinion, but against all available local information, I thought we should try option two because you never know how bad it really is until you see for yourself. “This is the shortest route to a top five tourist destination in the country.” I thought, “Why wouldn't they have paved the road by now?”

Option two was like trying to ride a unicycle over an avalanche. Picture what a group of ten year old boys would do with some hammers and a pile of boulders. This is the road. After twenty minutes, ten of which I spent out of the car figuring out how I was going to get Wesley turned around (solution: get Coconut and J out of the van and safely to the side; put R behind the wheel, and push) we decided to skip Semuc for the time being and go to Las Conchas and then Rio Dulce where we may try option three. I was initially relieved by that decision and all the tense driving and abuse of Wesley that would be avoided, but felt like a real loser when I saw a low-riding pick-up truck with five or six campesinos standing in the bed rolling steadily up towards where we had just turned around. Sigh. Maybe I’ll be a man tomorrow.

Teach your people to smile, and to say no once in a while. We had read the people in Guatemala were more reserved and it is true. We are often met with silence when greeting people. Wesley is no longer met with smiles due to his/her headlight eyelashes. When walking along the road, I miss being greeted by all eight people in the taxi as it drives by. On the other hand, people are very helpful and accommodating when we do strike up conversations. When we were jumping off of waterfalls the other day, I asked whether it was safe to jump in a particular spot. “Si,” the boy said. “You jump here? It's deep enough?” I asked. “Si.” “Right here?” I asked, pointing at the spot just to be sure. “Si.” So I got ready to jump only to be stopped and told that it was safer to jump in a different spot. We don’t know if they are saying yes to be polite or because it is true.

Kill all the mosquitoes. We all know mosquitoes are useless except as food for bats, so why are there so many of them? When we were sitting at restaurants in Flores, we could tell who had been to Tikal by the condition of their legs. Red and scabby meant they had been to the jungle. Now we are those people. I have a bite on my neck that is so big you could hang a picture on it. And they itch like crazy; I have bites from last year that still itch this year. Plus, they carry diseases with cool names like Dengue Fever and Chikungunya, but that you don't want to come down with.

Coconut has been under the weather lately with a fever as high as 40 Celsius (about 103 F) and we worried it was one of those mosquito-borne diseases with a cool name like Dengue Fever or Chikungunya, but which we certainly don't want her to come down with. We took her to a doctor who quickly looked her over and decided Coconut has a throat infection from the weather changes and general climate. He prescribed a number of medications which seem to have helped so we are hopeful that he was right in his diagnosis. Otherwise, I will have something else about Guatemala to complain about.

San Andres - 20 years later

In the summer of 1995 I took what I consider my first real solo adventure and came to Guatemala to go to Spanish school in a little village called San Andres, on the Lago Peten Itza. We've spent over a week on this lake and hadn't yet been to San Andres. The area has changed a bit - 20 years ago the only real way to get to San Andres was via little public lanchas, large motorboats that shuttled between the two sides of the lake. I fully expected to be able to hop on a lancha and visit my former host family and see the school where I first studied Spanish.

On one of our first days in Flores, we were shocked at the quoted price of 200Q ($24) for the ride across the lake. Apparently in the past 20 years there have been road improvements, making it possible for buses to get to San Andres, making the public lanchas obsolete. So it took us a week to finally agree to pay $24 for a 30-minute boat ride to see where I had spent 3 weeks.

The village itself has changed as well with improvements to the waterside: a nice public square and promenade area. After some confusion I managed to find the street where I had lived with Nidia Fion and her 3 children, Siomara, Romero, and Teresa. There was a group of women sitting on the corner and I asked them if they knew where we could find the family. They exchanged strange glances with each other that said something was off. I asked if she'd died and they said yes, 9 months ago, in a terrible incident. The group we had asked was Nidia's family. I didn't quite catch what Nidia's sister was telling me about what happened but maybe her husband killed her. This wasn't quite the reunion I was envisioning. The sister graciously let us walk around the outside of the house and I took pictures of the rooftops of where I had lived. The house had been improved since I was there, though I could still see the roofs of the little outhouse and my stand-alone room where I had slept. We didn't go inside the compound so I couldn't check out the interior.

R standing in front of the house where she lived with the sister of the matriarch. The matriarch recently passed away.

View of the back of the house where R lived for 3 weeks in 1995. Her room, complete with fan and mossie net, was to the right.

We then walked to where I remembered the school being and found a burned out shell. I'd heard that it was burned but I just assumed it had been rebuilt. Not so - it was just walls, no roofs, and the beautiful airy classroom with the fantastic view over the lake was an empty space overgrown with weeds.

The scarred and crumbling remains of the school where R studied Spanish in San Andres, Guatemala.

This used to be a classroom.

It was kind of a sad visit, not at all what I imagined, where I would sit down with Nidia and chat with her fluently, then head over to the school and make them proud that I was now speaking fluently, thanks to their teaching 20 years ago.

To top it all off, we're quite certain that the pig who lived in the house next door to Nidia's has also been eaten.

Not Dead Yet

We are always the last to leave the party, sometimes even tucking the hosts into bed before turning off the lights and locking the door behind us, and our planned four to five day stay in Flores, Guatemala, proved no different.  We stayed ten nights. This is why it was hard to leave.

Technically, the ten nights we spent in Flores included a night in Tikal and four in Remate, but all these places are in the same few square kilometer area of the country so its semantics. Maybe it is more accurate to say we spent ten nights around Lago Peten Itza because Flores and Remate are on opposite sides of the lake, but however we frame it, they were happy days.

When planning our visit to this area of Guatemala I thought we could stay a week because there seemed to be enough fun things to do, I factor in days were we don’t do anything, and of course, anytime you stay someplace for a few days you learn about other things to do there, so if we actually wanted to do everything possible in the area, we should probably just move here.

The island of Flores as seen from a mirador in the jungle around the town of San Miguel. San Miguel is on a peninsula across the lake from Flores.

R also studied Spanish in San Andres, which is a small village on another side of Lago Peten Itza, for three weeks back in the summer of ‘95, so we all wanted to go visit her old haunts - the one room shack were she slept and the one room school were she studied - which have been so impactful on her life, and thus, on ours.

In 1995, before the wheel was invented, lanchas (small motor boats) were the way to get from place to place on the lake. Nowadays you can drive to San Andres, but to make it feel like old times for R, we hired a boat to take us.

It was a bittersweet return; we learned the matriarch of R’s host family recently passed away, the language school burned down, and the pig she used as a landmark was made into carnitas. Talk about hitting the trifecta. R has written about our visit in a post entitled - "San Andres - 20 years later" - which will be posted shortly.

R standing in front of the house where she lived with the sister of the matriarch. The matriarch recently passed away.

The streets were as steep and the temperatures as hot as R remembered, though, and since the kids weren’t going for swimming from the boat pier - there was a piece of a cow jawbone at waters edge - we had the lancha stop in the middle of the lake so we could splash and play around.

Coconut enjoying the lancha ride and swim in the lake. She may be smiling because she just pushed J off the boat and into the lake.

The island of Flores as we approached by boat on our return from San Andres.

Some of the houses along the more remote parts of the lake where dreamy. This one was built right on the water.

That was the thing to do in Remate as well - it was the first time we ever rented paddleboards on Christmas day. We met a family from New Zealand in Remate and Coconut and J had fun swimming with Hugo and Tooey each afternoon from the dock in front of the hotel\restaurant Mon Ami. We camped in the parking lot of the restaurant one night for the cost of a meal. We also got to eat the food that came with the meal, so it was like camping for free.

J and I heading out for a late afternoon swim in Lago Peten Itza near our Remate camp.

The level of the lake has risen so that it has encroached on shelters built on the public beach.

Wesley parked outside the Mon Ami while we play in the water

The swimming area outside the Mon Ami in Remate. We spent most afternoons here playing off the dock and under the shelter built in the water.

There was less to do in Flores besides sweat, but it was our base for wifi, groceries, and to play the Guatemalan version of Monopoly at the Hospedaje Yaxha, where I also had a few beers with the guys that work there, Scott and Ben.

View of Wesley on the blistering streets of Flores from our hotel room. R slept in the van one night because our hotel room beds were small. Notice the inviting blue water of the lake?

Enjoying the late afternoon shadows on the streets of Flores

In between visits to Tikal and Remate we kept ending up in Flores. It's a pretty town, on an island small enough to easily walk around, with plenty of restaurants, hostels, and street parking. There are also many young gringo travelers to make R and I nostalgic for the opportunities of youth. Not that we feel we squandered ours in any way - well, I do - but when all that youth is right there in your face you recognize that certain opportunities are now pipe dreams and that you have to take advantage of your middle aged chances. After all, we're not dead yet.

Tikal with kids

(Ed. Note - I wrote this in a rush on Tuesday morning before we left Flores for the last time and did not get a chance to complete many of the thoughts, or even, the article. Please do not judge my writing on this piece, and please check back in a few days when I have a chance to complete. We are heading to Lanquin and underground caves today so do not expect to have Wifi for a few days. Maybe not until the weekend when we are in Rio Dulce.) When we arrived in the Gran Plaza, the 1,300 year old social and administrative center of the vast Mayan archeological site of Tikal, moments before the sun did its turn on the other side of the globe, we were tired and sweaty but still managed to get a smile out of Coconut and J for the family photo album. This is because R, applying knowledge gleaned from our visit to Palenque a week earlier, had brilliantly thought to advance purchase the "no complaints and unlimited photo" package for the low cost of a soda and Iron Man 3, to be screened upon return to the van.

Vanamos family is all smiles for a photo in front of the Jaguar Temple, despite a long trek to the Gran Plaza at Tikal through a mosquito and heat laden jungle.

From the entrance to Tikal, where we purchased our entry tickets, to the parking lot for the ruins is a twenty minute drive through thick, turkey-infested jungle. From the field where we camped, along with fifteen million mosquitoes with teeth like Jaws and an appetite to match, to the Gran Plaza is another thirty minute walk. This place is in the middle of nowhere.

Wild jungle turkeys? Really? Yes! We saw many roaming the parking lot - a fancy version of a turkey though - sort of peacock looking.

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If anyone not from Guatemala ever thinks about Guatemala, I am making these numbers up, there is a five percent chance they will think about the scene from Return of the Jedi where the X-Wing fighters buzz the stone temple comb poking through the tree canopy - that's Tikal - and a ninety-five percent chance they will draw a complete blank because, and I am not making this up, who ever thinks about Guatemala anyway?

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A ticket purchased after 4 p.m. on Day 1 allows entry to the site on Day 2 and R and I took advantage of this by waking early and walking most of the marked paths to some of the ruins Coconut and J would be less likely to want to see. This worked out perfectly. When we got back to our camp at nine, the kids were awake (and boiling inside the van) and by ten we were back on our way to the Gran Plaza and some of the major sites.

Temple VI. It helps to understand Roman numerals at historic places like Tikal.

Many of the ruined structures are off limits for climbing. Not this one, which is in a part of the complex called the Mundo Perdido - Lost World.

Eventually, we went back and got Coconut and J and brought them back to Temple IV for some awesome views over the jungle canopy. Most of the temples tops can be seen poking through the trees.

Twenty odd years ago, R visited Tikal and bribed a guard (she won't tell me how) to let her sleep on top of one of the temples. She couldn't remember which one, but with the help of one of the current guides, we decided it was Temple IV.

R explaining to a guide where she thinks she slept one night in 1995.

The guide explaining to R where she actually slept one night in 1995.

Welcome to Guatemala

We woke on Christmas eve morning to clear blue skies over Lago Peten Itza in El Remate, Guatemala. We’ve rented a studio apartment for the Christmas holiday. It has fabulously high ceilings and floor to top windows, and with its setting on the hillside and sun glistening off the lake, it reminds me of a Swiss chalet; though with the high humidity and the sun baking us like chickens in an oven, we are all thinking about swimming rather than skiing. Fortunately, the lake is great for swimming. View of Wesley on the blistering streets of Flores from our hotel room. R slept in the van one night because our hotel room beds were small. Notice the inviting blue water of the lake?

We crossed the border from Mexico to Guatemala on Saturday, December 19, at the Guatemalan town of El Ceibo. At the start, we were driving on a mud track through a cornfield and if we weren’t being passed by dozens of other cars, we might have turned around. We figured the road must lead somewhere that people wanted to go – why else would they be driving so fast through muddy farmland?

Eventually we ended up on a nice paved road and arrived at the border at 9:30am (it opened at 9.) I don’t have a lot of experience doing land border crossings, but I think this one was fairly smooth other than the 4 hours of waiting caused by your typical bureaucratic hassles. When we entered Mexico, we needed to leave a $200 USD deposit to dissuade us from selling our van Wesley, or otherwise keeping it in the country.

In order to retrieve our deposit, we needed to have our exit paperwork processed within the 180 days we were allowed to legally be in the country and show that we were exiting with the van. Because there was only one guy working this window at the border, and he didn’t give us any confidence that he knew what he was doing, we thought about just walking away. But we can theoretically live for 2 days on $200, so in the end we waited him out – three hours – and got our money back. Though, we are still waiting for it to show up as a credit on our credit card account. While we were waiting for him, we went to a food stand 300 meters inside Mexico, which we had just been stamped out of, and got a grilled chicken to eat.

The Guatemalan side was a little better; we only waited for an hour to be processed. Most of this time was spent standing on the sidewalk where we were supposed to pay our nonreturnable vehicle import fee of 160 Quetzales (8 Q equals about 1 USD) while the computer rebooted. The room where we got a Guatemalan entry stamp in our passport had six floor fans – giving the impression that it gets really, really hot in there - a stove, and enough tables and chairs so that it looked like the place might double as a restaurant when the border was closed. The office where we processed Wesley’s paperwork was a mobile trailer and we had to walk 200 meters into the country we weren’t legally allowed to enter yet, to get a photo copy of the passport page we just had stamped. Welcome to Guatemala.

Things got a little crazy at the Mexican-Guatemalan border crossing at El Ceibo. But people were friendly.

Right away Guatemala gave us the impression of a much poorer country than Mexico. It has been raining a lot and the mud went right up to the doors of the wood and tin shacks where the people live – there are no such things as front lawns. There are a lot more pigs wandering around, and turkeys. I saw a chicken nibbling bugs by the side of the road get spooked by something and run into the road and under a pick-up truck; the first time I saw any animal get hit on this trip, even though chickens, dogs, cows, donkeys, goats, and now pigs and turkeys, are wandering around like kids after the last school bell. This really has nothing to do with the economics of a country – the chicken getting run over, I mean – but it was the most interesting thing I can remember from our drive to Flores, and now El Remate, where we have been for the last week.

Enjoying the late afternoon shadows on the streets of Flores

Flores is a small town on an island in Lago Peten Itza. R spent some time many moons ago on the lake when she studied Spanish at a small village – San Andres – on the other side from Flores. San Andres is too small for an ATM so she and her fellow students had to get a lancha (small boat) to Flores to withdraw cash. Most of the lanchas are gone now since they’ve built a road all the way around, but you can still get a boat ride to San Miguel – directly across from Flores – to walk around and see some jungle covered Mayan ruins, which settlement was apparently visited by Hernan Cortes in the 1500’s. I’m not sure how they know this; maybe he signed the register at the hotel.

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Most of our time in Flores was spent preparing for Christmas – we learned how to sew stockings, and the kids wanted a tree and presents – and trying to find the cheapest place to eat. We’ve determined in our few days here that things in Guatemala cost twice what they would cost in Mexico – a beer costs about Q 12 (around $1.50 USD) and a box of milk about Q 20 (around $2.50 USD). It’s still a bit cheaper than U.S. prices, but not as affordable as we expected. We also have to relearn the art of haggling over prices in the market; we lost our touch in Mexico because, for the most part, it isn’t part of the culture.

Wearing our christmas stockings that we sewed. We got the material in San Cristobal and spent a few hours sewing our socks. Coconut came up with the idea to top them off with fur so we picked up that material in Guatemala.

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Christmas morning.

Of course, all of this may be because we are near Tikal, one of the top tourist destinations in the country - we’ve seen a lot more white (i.e., U.S., European, and Australian) travelers than we are accustomed to seeing. Things may be different as we put some distance between us and this place – which we plan to do after our visit to Tikal on Saturday and Sunday.

Migrant Story

With all the free time R and I have had each day after sending the kids to school, I’ve been able to read a lot of books. In addition to Scott O’Dell, Trenton Lee Stewart, and books by someone named J.K.Rowling, that were recommended to me by Coconut and J, I was also able to finish a book titled “Enrique’s Journey” which has particular relevance to us as we make our way south through Mexico and Central America. The book is an account of a Honduran boy’s life and the reasons that compel him to undertake a dangerous journey north through Mexico on top of freight trains and running from gangsters and authorities to find his mother in North Carolina. Enrique’s mother had left him and his sister in the care of family members when Enrique was five and departed for “El Norte” with the hope of making money to feed and support them. After ten years of mostly downs in his life, and overwhelming feelings of loss, abandonment, anger, and despair, and with his own economic prospects dim, Enrique sets off on his own journey north to find his mother. The book is compelling to us for a number of reasons.

First, the story is unfathomable. R and I can’t imagine, and I daresay you can’t either, the despair a mother must feel to leave her children behind to travel thousands of miles with the hope that she can land a job that will allow her to save enough money to, first of all, send money home to feed them, and second of all, either bring the children illegally to the U.S., or return home in a few years with enough money to buy land, build a house, and start a business. It is serendipity that I was born a U.S. citizen and my biggest problem is often whether to order one pizza or two, and what toppings.

In describing Enrique’s journey, the book goes into detail about the many dangers faced by him, and migrants generally, as they travel through Mexico. There is no means for them to immigrate legally so they are reduced to jumping on and off moving trains, losing limbs or their lives when they miss a step or handhold, getting robbed and beaten by gangsters in Chiapas, Mexico, getting robbed and killed by Mexican authorities throughout the country, starving, freezing, and being caught and sent back south (usually to Guatemala) to try again. Enrique was caught by Mexican immigration and sent back to the Mexican-Guatemalan border town seven times.

As we all have no doubt heard from Donald Trump, it’s not a unique thing for people living in Central America, particularly Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, to immigrate to the U.S. to look for work. What is often missing from the sound bites, however, is any information on the reasons why people are compelled to leave family and friends behind to travel to a foreign country where they are often discriminated against, taken advantage of, and looked at suspiciously. I mean, let’s get serious, these people are not coming here so they can clean fast food joints’ toilets for minimum wage and then go out and get drunk and rape people and commit other crimes. I’m not an expert on this issue so this blog is not going to get into the many social and economic reasons why people might put their lives and families at risk to get to the U.S.; I encourage you to read the book instead because Sonia Nazario, the author of “Enrique’s Journey”, is a journalist and she does offer explanations. And let’s just say that the U.S. is not innocent - its historical Latin American policies are at least somewhat responsible for the lack of current economic opportunities within the countries. But let’s not go there, or dwell on the fact that our Congress still hasn’t come up with a sensible immigration reform proposal; instead focusing on partisan issues like trying to impeach the Commissioner of the IRS and restrict the sale of oranges at government cafeterias. In somewhat related current events - R and I recently read a NY Times article about how the U.S. has outsourced its border patrol.

A second reason why the book was so compelling to us was that when we leave Oaxaca in a few weeks, we will be heading directly into the belly of the beast - Chiapas state in Mexico - where Central American migrants face the most risk, including at the hands of Mexican immigration officials, who are just as likely to shake a migrant down as a bandit or gangster. Actually, we are more heading into the calf and ankles of the beast because we aren’t going to the places where migrants cross the border and hide in cemeteries and marshes to avoid detection from bandits who rob and beat them and from Mexican authorities who rob and beat and deport them, and we certainly won’t be riding on top of any freight trains, but to see this stuff first hand would be pretty fascinating. This is a pretty good overall summary of the dangers migrants face. There are also heart-warming stories - check this out.

Finally, a few weeks ago when we were driving back from Hierve el Agua, the frozen waterfall, we reached the top of a mountain and there was a guy walking alongside the highway, so we stopped to ask if he needed a ride. I may have stopped because I was still feeling the good will from getting a ride myself that morning after I had walked up from the campground to a store in town to buy some milk for our cereal and someone heading back down the hill stopped and told me to climb in. It turned out the guy at the top of the mountain was heading to Oaxaca city, which was where we were going - an hour’s drive away, so it was good for him that we did stop because even Wesley could get him there a lot faster than it would have taken him to walk there.

This guy had left a wife and two sons in Guatemala a few weeks before and was heading to the U.S. to make enough money to buy land. Two years, he thought. He had just been robbed of his last 400 pesos by a taxi driver who promised to take him to Oaxaca, only to kick him out after driving for a short while, and he hadn’t eaten since the day before. We gave him a few oranges and a can of beans - good hobo grub - and dropped him at the migrant shelter in Oaxaca where he would be able to stay and eat for a few days. Then he would be back on the road, just like we will be in a few weeks. Though, we are each writing very different stories.