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Ryan's Great Adventures
Volume 8: Sat Jun 1, 2002
I last left you with me about to board the bus to Antigua, Guatemala. The only good thing I have to say about the bus is that it was heading in the direction I wanted to go. It had been sitting in the sun for several hours, closed tight, and was probably 150 degrees when we were finally allowed to board. There was an air-conditioner, if you call a feeble stream of 90°F air "air-conditioned". I think I lost about ten pounds through sweating. They also had a CD player where they could pipe music through the bus, and for some bizarre reason they chose an annoying Latino-sounding song that they would repeat every five minutes or so. At least for the first hour or so. Then they changed the CD to CCR, which I appreciated much more, although that began to sound like it was repeating every five minutes too. Very strange. It was like being in the Twilight Zone where no CD was allowed to play for more than five minutes before repeating.
So we started our six hour journey to Antigua. We made a quick stop at the border where I exchanged $20 for quetzals ($1 = 7.8 quetzals) for whatever miscellaneous things I needed before being able to get to a bank. The border crossing was surprisingly hassle free to boot. No silly forms to sign out about what I'm bringing into the country (Guatemala) or taking from the country (Honduras). Heck, I was expecting to pay a $25 departure fee like my guidebook says, but they didn't take ANY money. However, I did have to pay 10 quetzals to get into Guatemala which I didn't expect. (Still, paying 10 quetzals is a much better deal than $25.)
I didn't realize it at the time, but upon further examination of my guidebook, I learned it's illegal to bring more than twelve rolls of film into the country. I had about 20-30 rolls of film (who keeps track of that sort of stuff?), so it seems I've unwittingly turned into an international smuggler of film. Don't tell the local authorities, though. I'm pretty sure they don't speak English! For those planning to visit this fine country, my guidebook also says it's illegal to bring more than one camera into the country as well. You've been warned. =)
A couple of hours into the bus ride, we stopped for gas—both for the bus and certain passengers I'll refrain from mentioning. =) The scenery along the route was breathtaking. Very mountainous. Very green. At least until we made it to the outskirts of Guatemala City. That city makes my skin crawl. I've never hated a city so much without ever actually getting out to check it out. Maybe it was the time of day—or evening, rather, since it was getting quite dark by then—but the city had a bad aurora to it, and it was a huge relief to me when the city was behind us.
And at last, I arrived in Antigua. Antigua is a town of about 30,000 people widely known for its tourists. At an altitude of 4,000 feet, it's also MUCH cooler than anywhere else I've been. While in Honduras I wore ONLY shorts (shocking to most of my friends in the Pacific Northwest, I know), in Guatemala I've worn ONLY pants and even cracked out a jacket for the first time. The streets are cobblestone. Ruins are as common as stray dogs—which are very numerous all over Central America, I might add. Huge volcanic mountains (one is actually active!) surround the city. It's a tourist paradise.
And maybe that's the reason I don't like it. Maybe it's because I had my hopes set so high. Maybe Copan ruined it for me. Who knows? But it's definitely not lived up to my expectations. The cobblestone streets aren't as bright and colorful like the ones in Copan. Most of the buildings are EXACTLY the same with a different color of paint slapped into place. I can't walk in the middle of the street because there's too many cars. And the sidewalks are so thin you have to jump in the street to pass a single person on the sidewalk. The beautiful, volcanic mountains have been shrouded in clouds most of the time, unable to be seen except with VERY brief glances.
The one good thing I can say about Antigua is that the cathedrals and ruins are not only abundant, but absolutely gorgeous. The ruins littering this place are of a more modern variety built by Spaniards hundreds of years ago. Antigua was founded in 1543, and served as the colonial capital for 233 years, but where there are volcanos there are also earthquakes. Antigua was leveled by earthquakes several times before someone had the brilliant idea to move the capital to Guatemala City in 1776. When I say "brilliant", I mean that tongue-in-cheek, because earthquakes have plagued it as well. But I digress.... The ruins that litter the area date mostly from the big quake of 1773 when the capital was moved and they stopped putting money into repairing all the cathedrals damaged by the quake. I call these "modern ruins," which is not to give them any disrespect, but to separate them from the Mayan ruins all over Central America.
Another aspect of Antigua I really like is that there are REAL, honest-to-goodness bookstores here! Honduras was filled with places claiming to be bookstores, then you'd walk in to admire their amazing collection of 23 books. Here there are HUNDREDS of books! All in Spanish! Well, many of them, anyway. These are very small places by United States standards, but they are the megamarts of bookstores in Central America as far as I'm concerned. I promptly went out and bought three books: Treasure Island, Robinson Caruso, and The Neverending Story. (All in Spanish, of course.) I'm reading The Neverending Story now and it's great! That's the only one of the three I haven't read in English before, but I did see the movie. That movie is highly recommended, I might add. =)
It seems certain areas around Antigua aren't safe for the average tourist to go alone, and as a result they've developed what's called "Tourist Police" to escort you to the areas that would otherwise be unsafe to visit on your own. These are armed guards who escort visitors to places of interest—for free!
Despite this strange precaution, guns are far less common than they were in La Ceiba. The banks are guarded, but I'm now allowed to bring in large, "suspicious-looking" backpacks. I haven't walked through any metal detectors to get in. When I exchanged traveler checks, they didn't even ask to see my passport! What a country! But other than banks, I haven't really seen any guns or guards.
In totally unrelated matters, that helicopter crash on Mount Hood this past week made the news out here! Imagine my surprise seeing Portland-area sights featured in the news out here. I also have sources in South Africa that say it made the news there too. It's great to see all you folks back home making international incidents just so I can see pictures of home on television, but really, it's not necessary. I've already seen Kindergarten Cop and Maverick on television to get my fix in for the Pacific Northwest.
Actually, what's REALLY dominating the news out here is the World Cup. Who would have thought? *rolling eyes* In the Latino world, 99 out of 100 folks prefer soccer, and you can't watch television for more than ten seconds without hearing a reference to the World Cup. These people take their soccer seriously, and they make Superbowl fans look like the cheering section for Dr. Ruth.
The folks of Antigua have found an additional way to get on one's nerve: firecrackers. They typically start at around 4:00 in the morning, so alarm clocks are totally unnecessary. One student I met at the Spanish language school said he bought earplugs, but now he can't hear it when his alarm goes off. And randomly throughout the day, you'll hear them fired off. These aren't your normal firecrackers you'd find in the United States. These were specially designed by the CIA for maximum loudness, perhaps to give Fidel Castro a heartattack. Okay, maybe they weren't really designed by the CIA, but I would not be surprised to learn they gave Castro a heart attack all the way in Cuba. I've had a couple of close calls myself.
As for the Spanish language school, Antigua is quite a shock. This seems to be the premiere place in Central America to learn Spanish, and the town sports over a hundred different schools to choose from according to my guidebook. I haven't counted all of them myself, but you'd have to be blind not to stumble upon them everywhere. And not only are there a LOT of schools, but they're far bigger than anything I've experienced in Honduras. At the school I'm attending, there's no less than TWENTY other students. The most I ever saw in a school in a given week in Honduras as a whopping 5, and in Copan I was the ONLY student. One student I talked to (from Portland, Oregon, as it turns out!) said that two weeks ago, there were only seven students, but now that lots of college students are entering summer vacation, the number of students here is growing rapidly. I think I like that "small school" feeling better, though, where I actually knew everyone's name, which is another reason I'm inclined to move on to other pastures.
Anyhow, that's it for this installment of Ryan's Great Adventures. Farewell!
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