Friday, August 28, 2009

Moving Forward ... and South


Jose was right on time, picking us up at La Lancha at the ungodly hour of 4:30 a.m. Indeed, we were up before the howler monkeys, a real feat. This is especially true given that a group of Mexican tourists had arrived the evening before, and their arrival spoiled the quiet nights that we had come to enjoy. I wondered if that’s what the Aussies thought when we arrived.

We arrived at the bus station in Santa Elena at 5:45, perfect timing for our bus to Coban, in the center of the country. Except it wasn’t a bus, it was a minibus. With our bags on top, the van could seat 14 and the driver in modest comfort. And we started with a mere 12, consisting of the driver, the driver’s assistant, six Guatemalans, a dashing Italian couple, and Ellery and I. But the difference between a bus and a minibus is that a minibus will stop to take on passengers every time it is waved down (that’s where the driver’s assistant comes in), and will drop off people along the way. Except there are usually more getting on than getting off, such that there were generally about 20 or 24 people in the van, and sometimes the driver’s assistant would sit on top with the bags. Did I mention that the van didn’t have air conditioning?

The people getting on and off were a wonderful assortment of Guatemalan peasants. Early in the morning there were ranch hands heading to cattle farms and women bringing big baskets of goods to where ever the next town was; by late morning it was parents picking their children up from school and men with machetes on their way to the coffee fields (at least, I hope that’s what they were planning on using the knives for).

And where the roads crossed, a unique form of “musical minibus” would take place, with people getting off of one bus and getting onto another, in different combinations.

As we drove south, the cultural and geographic changes were evident. We started seeing women wearing traditional clothing,
long dark skirts and loose, poncho-like tops and men wearing jeans, rubber boots and cowboy hats. And the open ranch land cleared from the jungle gave way to dramatic mountains covered in both natural vegetation and man-made corn fields … except these weren’t flat fields; rather, corn was planted up and down the sides of the mountains. And the closer we got to Coban, the more winding the road became, as it wove it’s way through the mountains. The villages and towns we passed were varied. Some were like those near La Lancha, little more than a few buildings and food stalls along the side of the road. But two stood out from the rest.

The first was Sayaxche, a town on the banks of the Rio de la Pasion. To cross, people ride on brightly colored boats while cars and buses are loaded onto a wooden ferry that looks like it would sink under the weight of a feather. And yet, it makes it across the river with ease. Like the boats, the buildings of Sayaxche are a variety of colors and only upon closer inspection would one notice that they aren’t really charming, just dilapidated. Still, it was a unique place.

The other town of note was Chisec, which was one big outdoor market. Here we stopped for a while, everyone piling out of the van to get something to eat, to use the restroom, or to smoke. “Getting something to eat” meant choosing a food stall and asking for tortillas filled with grilled meat, chicken, or sausage – and from the looks of the market, all meat had most likely been running around enjoying life just a few hours earlier. They were delicious. (And yes, traveling and vegetarianism do not go hand in hand).

We finally reached the outskirts of Coban around 11:30, which is as far as the van took us. Although it could have been walked, the Italian couple, Ellery and I took a cab to the center of town. Ellery and I quickly found a suitable place to stay, something between a hotel and a guest house right in the middle of town, with a certain colonial charm – dark Spanish-style furniture in musty-smelling rooms surrounding an overgrown courtyard. Begin in the center of town, it isn’t very quiet, but it is very convenient.

After a brief respite, Els and I toured this little town, taking in the center plaza and, more importantly, the market a few blocks away. Like most markets in small towns, it was a mix of hard goods like shoes, fabrics, and electronics and fresh vegetables, fruits, and breads. And every so often, an old woman selling tortillas out of a large basket lined with brightly woven fabric. A real treat. As usual, the rains came about 4 p.m., and Ellery and I have settled into a quiet afternoon of reading and journaling, and will soon be headed to dinner, most likely in the elegant looking dining room attached to the hotel.