It’s a Beautiful Day for a New Year

When I think of New Year’s celebrations at home a lot of things come to mind: the countdown, drinking, Auld Lang Syne, noisemakers, drinking, toasts, hangovers…. Here, on the other hand, they’ve managed to boil it down to its very essence, the irrefutable king of celebratory activities – lighting fireworks. OK, getting hammered and lighting fireworks. It could take hours, it may take days, but they will not quit before having achieved an explosive nirvana, the ultimate “Boom” so to speak. The horror, the horror.

Besides sidestepping fireworks, we also spent some time drinking Gallo (THE Guatemalan beer) and Nicaraguan rum with an Austrian (Richard) who had, very loudly I might add, broken up with his girlfriend (some psycho from Quebec, a rarity I’m sure)in the room right next to us the night before, and an outspoken American (another shocker) named Thomas who was offering us places to stay in California with himself, his friends, and his relatives within twenty minutes of exchanging pleasantries.

By 8am the following morning we were cruising through the rainy mountains wondering why, exactly, we always insist on making plans for early New Year’s Day. While we were unable to come up with a satisfactory answer to that puzzler we did find ourselves in San Pedro La Laguna on famous Lago de Atitlan before 11am. On a day when a good percentage of San Pedro’s mainly backpacker population had either only recently rolled into bed or, like in the case of certain Irishman named Peter, were still passed out in the sun on the hill where last night’s rave had been held, we actually arrived too early for any hotel rooms to be ready yet. Yes, we understand that we are very sick and sorely in need of psychiatric treatment.

As for San Pedro, it turns out that the New Year’s Day party very closely resembles the New Year’s Eve party, except with live music and mainly Guatemalan participation. We weren’t in a very festive mood at that point and, although I don’t begrudge anyone their holiday celebrations, I must say that it was the loudest night I ever recall trying to sleep through. Laynni agrees, and that’s saying something considering the number of our parties she’s been an unwilling participant in. The drinking went on all day and most of the people on the floor above us were well gone long before dark. The music at the nearby bar shut down around 12:30, but Laynni just reminded me to mention that it wasn’t just bar music, but that for the occasion they had hooked up some concert speakers out on the street and were kind enough to point them directly at our hotel. Anyway, when that ended it only served as a signal to start the outdoor concert which also just happened to be on the street below our window. Ay Caramba. The band was actually drowned out at times by the crowd singing along and a few particularly enthusiastic fans capped off every song with either a long, wailing dog howl or, when they felt like mixing things up, a barrage of piercing monkey shrieks. Nothing like being lulled to sleep by the soothing sounds of nature. Sometime around 3am the music ended, although the party continued for a while after that. One of the guys from upstairs then started banging on the door next to our room looking for what sounded like a lady friend (who I’m sure was eagerly awaiting his lurching drunken advances). Unfortunately, even though every indication pointed to him having the wrong floor, the couple actually staying in that room had a tough time convincing him that they weren’t, in fact, hiding “Serena” under their bed or behind the curtains as part of a diabolical plan to ruin his sex life in 2003. And, of course, fireworks exploded continually throughout all of this, adding to the cacophony of the usual array of trucks, motorbikes, dogs and kids, not necessarily in that order.

Lake Atitlan itself is one of the most amazing places I’ve seen, surrounded by lush green hills and volcanoes rising sharply up from the clear blue water. A very cool place to relax. The views from our new hotel room’s balcony (we opted to move someplace a little less central) are stunning. In one direction we’ve got an incredible view across the lake where tiny villages are dwarfed by mountains whose peaks are lost in the clouds. In the other, dozens of local women and children seemingly spend the entire day doing laundry and bathing in most of their clothes on the rocks along the shore. And bizarrely, in a country where the women wear huge shapeless clothes and in general seem to be exceedingly modest, at least one woman in every group has no apparent problem going topless for all to see (could it be a Queen Bee type of thing?). We also weren’t able to figure out whether or not it’s acceptable for men to witness this or not but I can tell you that the workers in our hotel just happened to have an abnormally large number of jobs requiring them to skulk around in the bushes near the lake.

One oddity about our room is that it has no bathroom door, making it feel sort of like Torin’s place. It also smells kind of like vinegar from the coffee bean processing that goes on all around us. That, however, is very UNlike Torin’s place.

The shopping in this area is famous among Guatemalans and gringos alike so we allocated one day to indulge ourselves in this always exhausting activity. We made our way up to Solola, a town built at the top of the hills right before they plunge down to the lake. Another fascinating bus ride up a steep and winding road in what is known as a “Chicken Bus” brought us to a market equal to any we’ve seen in terms of quantity, variety, and sheer chaos. Every street in the vicinity of the central square was crammed with all manner of goods, produce, food, clothing, etc., etc. (the first “etc.” representing far too many things to name, the second – so many things I didn’t even recognize). And it was so crowded that we didn’t even pretend to make or own way but simply let the crowd drag us along helplessly. At one point one of the many, many Guatemalan women hovering near the 4-foot mark began shoving me from behind, using one of her children as a sort of battering ram. Of course, we were hemmed in from all sides and not moving anywhere. Eventually the kid grew tired of having his face mashed into my back and began bawling. This finally urged mommy dearest to change tactics and they somehow managed to wriggle their way around us.

The next leg of shoptastic Friday took place in Panajachel, a main tourist centre and gateway to Lake Atitlan. This was much different. Stands, stalls and stores selling strictly tourist-oriented souvenirs, t-shirts and handicrafts entirely concentrated along one really long street. You gotta keep it simple to reel in suckers like us.

Then, as if shopping for a whole day wasn’t enough, we decided to spend another morning hiking around our small corner of the lake to check out the views and see a few of the other villages. Saw some great scenery, worked up a good sweat, interrupted many a farmer working and woman laundering/bathing, and contracted a couple healthy doses of sunstroke for good measure. After reaching our limits we opted to truck it back, meaning, literally, jockeying for a place to stand with a couple dozen other people and their cargo in the back of a little foreign job where you then hang on to part of the framework (obviously installed for just that purpose) and hope for the best as the truck wobbles around each bend threatening to dump all its cargo, human and otherwise, down the side of the hill. Unfortunately for efficiency purposes, being 4 feet tall is of no help in fitting more people in, especially not when they are also toting several sacks of onions, a dozen wicker mats, and tend to be a little on the “squat” side.

On a tragic note, we returned to our hotel today to discover an unusually large crowd surrounding the swimming dock. It turns out that a male tourist went swimming in the morning and never returned. The divers have been searching for hours but things are looking pretty bleak at this point.

Well, we’ll be moving on to Coban and the central highlands soon and should be in touch from there. See ya then.

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