San Pedro La Laguna

San Pedro La Laguna on the Shore of Lago de Atitlán

When I visit Lago de Atitlán in Guatemala, I plan to stay at San Pedro La Laguna rather than Santiago Atitlán. There is more to see and do in San Pedro, and I can always take a lancha (covered motorboat) across an inlet of the lake to Santiago Atitlán. It would make a nice day trip from San Pedro. While there, I can visit the Maya god Maximón and make an offering to him for a safe trip, and I could visit the weaving cooperative.

Why San Pedro? It seems there are more places to stay. The town has something of a reputation as a party town for backpackers—and that aspect of the town is one I wish to avoid at all cost. When I travel, I like to sit down and read my Kindle—not listen to an international crowd of juveniles who have had too much aguardiente to drink. In fact, I generally prefer to avoid places where backpackers congregate. I guess this is all part of the “will you rotten kids get off my lawn” aspect of aging.

 

 

Old Man …

… Who Doesn’t Realize He’s Getting Old

Unless one has children of one’s own, and if one is in reasonable health, one doesn’t really know one is getting old. Yesterday, my friend Bill Korn told me his own interpretation of my posting from a couple days ago, I Don’t Feel at Home Here, Either. The young, when they acknowledge my existence at all, seem surprised to see such a spry oldster doing approved things. Several weeks ago, I was about to enter a Trader Joe’s market when a younger woman flashed a delighted look at me, as if here was a decrepit old man doing the right thing. What was my reaction? I gave her the stink-eye, at maximum volume. She looked infuriated, as if I had stomped on her Yorkie or slipped her smart phone into a sewer grating.

What my reaction was saying was: “Don’t patronize me, you stupid beeyotch! I do not require your approval.”

But then, that’s me all over. I don’t cotton to strangers. When I am traveling in a foreign country and am approached by American tourists, I answer back in Hungarian. I think I’m taking after my Great Grandmother Lidia Toth (born in 1876), who could make a longshoreman blush with her swearing. She was one of those, “Who’re you looking at, Punk?” type of people, except her language was ever so much more colorful.

As a result, I am not likely to initiate contacts with strangers—with several exceptions. When I travel, I try hard to communicate with the locals and generally get good responses. I do not … ever … make … friends …. with …. American … tourists. Does that mean that I am anti-American? Not really, I just find it’s a waste of time. I even go out of my way to help foreign tourists who are obviously stuck in Los Angeles, which is not the easiest place in the world to get around in.

 

Five Epiphanies

Ushuaia from the Air

It was James Joyce who, in Stephen Hero and The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, coined the term epiphanies to refer to moments of clarity and sudden recognition of another perspective. There were several points in my life in which I had a shock of recognition and that I looked back on as pivotal points in my development as a person. In this post, I recognize five such epiphanies that occurred in my life:

Dartmouth College 1962

It was a bad year. It looked as if my parents were headed for divorce, and rare was the day when there were no mutual recriminations. I was delighted that I was accepted at Dartmouth. When, during the summer, my future roommate’s parents drove me up to the campus, I fell in love with the place, deciding that here was a place I could heal.

Cleveland 1966

I was released from Fairview General Hospital after brain surgery to remove a pituitary tumor. As I was sitting as a passenger in our family automobile, I saw the people in the street almost as angelic beings. It was only after the operation that I was told how serious the operation was; and that my life was despaired of. I thought momentarily of Miranda’s lines in Shakespeare’s The Tempest:

Oh, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in ’t!
Uxmal 1975
On my first trip outside the United States, I arranged with Turistica Yucateca to have a driver take me to the Maya ruins at Uxmal in the Puuc Hills. As his car pulled up to the magnificent Templo del Adivino, he made a sign of the cross. I felt that I was on holy ground.
Death Valley 1979
It was my first camping trip and my first real introduction to the desert. We were at Furnace Creek, with desolation all around us. Just after sunrise, birds of every variety flocked to the campground and woke us up.
Ushuaia 2006
It was my first trip to South America. As our plane descended to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, only 600 miles from Antarctica, I felt a shiver of excitement. Never mind that I was to break my shoulder in a blizzard within a few days, Ushuaia has always stood for a kind of subarctic wilderness. I returned in 2011 with Martine and would gladly return again.

 

The Travel Cure

Nariz del Diablo Train in Sibambe, Ecuador

I have a simple plan to cure the ignorance of most Americans who think themselves to be proud because they have lived in the same shithole all their lives. The idea came to me from reading Mark Twain, who wrote in The Innocents Abroad (1868):

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness and many of our people need it sorely on those accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.

Lest we all become too place-proud, we need to send our people to travel in the so-called Third World. And I don’t mean First Class seating on jet aircraft and staying at luxury hotels and ordering room service. I mean forcing them to take buses and trains, struggle with the language, and eat what the ordinary people eat. In every way, such an experience will open their eyes and, when they return to East Jesus, Arkansas, they will be better people for it.

And no, it isn’t an ordeal—not by a long shot! When I first started to travel, I had experience of only four places: Cleveland, Ohio (most of my life to that point); Hanover, New Hampshire (my 4 years at Dartmouth); Los Angeles (eight years at UCLA and after); and Lake Worth Florida (just a few weeks, not counting my infancy). Growing up in the Midwest, we never went anywhere for any length of time. My first whiff of Yucatán not only opened my eyes, my nasal passages, and my taste buds, but I felt I was at the beginning of a more wondrous existence.

Work kept me from traveling as much as I wanted to, but I traveled enough to have many happy memories.

 

 

Antigua Guatemala

Arco de Santa Catalina and Agua Volcano in Background

If asked what is the capital of Guatemala, it is best to turn your answer into another question: At what point in history? Today, Guatemala City is the capital of Guatemala. In 1524, Pedro de Alvarado founded the Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemalon [sic], near the present town of Iximche. After a Kaqchikel Maya uprising in 1527, the capital was moved to Ciudad Vieja and retained the same name as the original. In 1541, that city was destroyed by a gigantic mudflow from the Volcano de Agua (illustrated above). Two years later, the capital was moved five miles to the Panchoy Valley to the present city of Antigua Guatemala.

In the 18th century, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions caused one final move, to the capital’s present location. That does not mean that the city of Antigua Guatemala, despite all the ruined churches, is not one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. In fact, when I go to Guatemala for my vacation, I will take a shuttle directly from the airport to Antigua, about 45 minutes away.

Guatemala City has a reputation of being a big, ugly city with a couple of good museums, but otherwise devoid of major tourist attractions. So, I will base myself in Antigua.

Intact Façade of Nuestra Señora de Merced, Otherwise in Ruins

With Antigua serving as a kind of tourist ghetto, there are a multitude of private shuttles to major tourist destinations—all originating in Antigua. One can treat the town as if it were the capital except for one thing: The airport is in Guatemala City. As Guate, as it is called, is the largest city in Central America, I think it would be more restful to base myself in a well-connected town with a population of only about 50,000.

 

A Great Travel Resource

In Australia, Travelers Posted Notes on the Thorns

A few years ago, I was an active member of Bootsnall.Com, which had great postings on travel to every corner of the Earth. Of late, Bootsnall has yielded pride of place to Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree (though I have hopes they’ll make a comeback). According to Lonely Planet:

Lonely Planet’s travel forum (Thorn Tree) has been a leading online destination for travel enthusiasts and thrill seekers since 1996. It was created as a place for travelers to exchange travel advice, hints, hacks, and tips in order to help them get to the heart of a destination.

Thorn Tree is by travelers, for travelers, and covers every place on the planet including places we don’t have guidebooks for (yet). More than 2 million members have joined the community since its inception and have engaged in conversation with others, while making countless connections, over the past 20+ years.

To get there, click here.

You may recall that, a few days ago, I wrote a post entitled “You Can’t Get There from Here … Not Easily, Anyhow.” I was researching how to visit the Mayan ruins of Tikal, Copán, and Quiriguá, which are not too far from one another as the crow flies—but, alas, I have to take the roads, not crows, to get there. I checked out Thorn Tree, and found out how to get to Copán and Quiriguá easily enough . (Tikal will have to be a separate trip.) This is what the poster wrote:

If you are coming back to Antigua, there are tourist shuttles that stop by Quirigua, another Maya site with the largest stelae in the Maya world. It is small compared to Copan, but if you are already in the area, it is worth the stop. There are no shuttles that stop there on the way to Copan, only on the return.

Thank you, CraigAdkins! I found a number of helpful posts. If you are interested in solving any knotty travel problems, I suggest you give the Thorn Tree a look. And check out Bootsnall.Com as well.

Serendipity: The Name of God

Lithograph by Frederick Catherwood of the Mayan Ruins at Copán, Honduras

It is with the greatest pleasure that I am re-reading a book I first read in June 1975 in preparation for the first of my travels, to the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. The book was Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán by John Lloyd Stephens. The book was published in 1841 in two volumes with illustrations by Frederick Catherwood, who accompanied Stephens on his journeys. At one point, Stephens and Catherwood visit a school in Zacapa in Guatemala, where they set about making a usable dictionary of Mayan Indian words. As Stephens recounts:

We were rather at a loss what to do with ourselves, but in the afternoon our host called in an Indian for the purpose of enabling us to make a vocabulary of Indian words. The first question I asked him was the name of God, to which he answered, Santissima Trinidad. Through our host I explained to him that I did not wish the Spanish, but the Indian name, and he answered as before, Santissima Trinidad or Dios. I shaped my question in a variety of ways, but could get no other answer. He was a tribe called Chinaute, and the inference was, either that they had never known any Great Spirit who governed and directed the universe, or that they had undergone such an entire change in matters of religion, that they had lost their own appellation for the Deity.

The two volumes are still in print from Dover Publications.