Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Vive Xela! Or, that time we saved Q20 on pickups

A post I meant to write in Xela, during the slower paced Sunday and Monday following these day trips. Instead I started making plans for South America, figured out how to make beaded flower bracelets, wandered through the cemetery, and watched a parade that I thought might be endless...

Two days: a day trip each to San Francisco and Fuentes Georginas. Somehow that doesn't capture how much we laughed in those two days. Friday is market day in San Francisco, so two friends and I made our way to the Xela market to catch a bus. More impressively, we made our way across the Xela market, a seemingly endless corridor of stalls selling fruits, veggies, chicken feet, shoes, clothes, and odd assortments of electronics. The narrow pathway wending its way between vendors is filled beyond capacity by people shopping, and is trodden to a lengthy mud pit to be navigated with care. Emerging from the market is possibly more startling - the shouts get louder and are combined with the movement of chicken busses as we try to find one headed in the right direction. An hour later, of driving quickly (and frequently on the wrong side of the road) up into the hills with nine people in our row of seats, we hop off our neon painted school bus in San Francisco.

The guidebook claims this is the largest market in Guatemala, although the one in Chichi is more famous. It did not disappoint. Extending up the road in front of us were vendors, and they continued around the corner out of sight. In fact, after a few hours of exploring I was convinced that the entire town had been turned into a market, and I'm not sure there were more than two streets open for cars. And for the first time, we were the only tourists in sight. Instead of the stalls close to the lake where you walk followed by shouts of "what are you looking for! Good price for you!", we walked along snapping photos to the bemusement of the locals. And indeed, they didn't seem to expect tourists, because the stalls were nearly all useful items instead of the mix of purses, scarves, hackysacks and masks that dominate in popular destinations. Instead, there were piles of shoes and used clothing. Lassos and animal feed. Textile work, but towels, huipiles, cortes, and blankets. The huipiles were covered with rhinestones, targeting the local girls rather than broadcasting "traditional design" at visitors. It was incredibly refreshing to wander through. Also refreshing was the lack of price inflation. Instead of receiving quotes that were three times the final agreement, the vendors generally started low and only bargained briefly. We found a pile of blankets with pom-poms on each end (apparently pom-pom is a universal word), and pulled about a third of them out of the stack to admire before walking away with one apiece.

After lunch, we headed back towards Xela. Once more, we threaded our way across the market. This time, though, we walked slowly and searched for our favorite vegetables for dinner. We also found a strange green fruit that the woman told us needed to be cracked against a table (the next morning I had a lot of fun smashing it, but we decided it was a rather odd flavor). Cramming back into a minibus, really an overcrowded minivan, we wound up back in downtown. That night was one of the free concerts as part of the Xela jazz festival. Walking to the theatre in the evening I felt something I hadn't in several months: conspicuously underdressed. Girls walked in in black dresses and heels, accompanied by men in ties. I sat in my jeans and hoodie, admiring the theatre, a building that could've been found on Broadway. It was something of a shock, after weeks alternating between pop music and marimbas, to hear live jazz. Beautiful. And an interesting combination of English songs I didn't know and spanish songs I did. To my swing friends, I didn't charleston in the aisle but I think the guy sitting in front of me got tired of my kicking his chair when I couldn't quite sit still.

And day two: not wanting to climb a volcano just to find a cloud blocking the view, we decided to visit Zunil and the hot springs. We caught another chicken bus and headed up into the hills on the opposite side of town. A few towns later we hop off the bus in Zunil. We wander up into the plaza and admire the church, and then start trying to find a pickup driver to take us the 8km up to Fuentes Georginas. A brief bit of bargaining later and I'm hanging onto the side of the pickup truck, snapping photos over the edge of the road of the view of the valley. We bump up and up towards the clouds. Fuentes Georginas reminds me of the hot springs in Idaho. There are a few pools, and some beautiful cabins to have picnics in, and a changing room, and you arrive feeling like you're in the middle of nowhere to find more people than you can imagine wanting to take the effort to get there. It was perfect for a cloudy day. We swam and talked and soaked up the warmth for hours. At the far end of the upper pool was the incoming water, and sitting on the rocks with the hot water running over my shoulders was my favorite place, to the chagrin of my friends who are both far more warm-blooded than I am. 

 Happily drying off, very relaxed, we congratulated ourselves on a great adventure. Sitting at the cafe we ate lunch and contemplated walking back down into Zunil, despite the cloudburst that poured rain for a few minutes. The walk started as relaxing as the hot springs. We took photos of the clouds caught in the trees. We talked about our respective travels. And then it started to rain again. We had rain coats. It didn't last long. Smiles remained. Then it rained again. At this point we started discussing catching a ride in the next car to pass us. But the next few came during a lull and we persevered in our walk, happy to be outside. The next time it rained, it didn't stop. This time it continued to pour. And the road started to run with little rivers. Our laughter switched from "this is fun" to "this is funny..."  And then it hailed. The hail didn't last long, but the road rivers were getting larger. We picked our way through the bushes on the edge of the road. I gave up and waded through the ankle deep muddy swirls (it took two days for my shoes to dry out). Eventually, after we were thoroughly soaked, a car passed us and stopped. I opened the door, already thanking the driver profusely, to realize that the three of us, all dripping water, needed to fit in the one remaining seat in the back. I crowded in, trying not to soak the man next to me, and the other two followed, the three of us all sitting on top of each other. The family who had picked us up laughed heartily at our story and at the sight of us, two girls and a 6'5" boy crammed into the car looking like drowned rats and trying to take a selfie to remember the moment but struggling to use our phones with our cold wet fingers.

   The family dropped us in Zunil, laughing one last time as we struggled to untangle ourselves enough to open the door. We ran across the street and started trying to figure out where to catch a bus. While asking the boys on the corner about busses to Xela, we saw a family waving to us from a pickup waiting in traffic. We step into the street and they offer us a ride. In retrospect, the bus would've cost Q5, roughly $0.65, and had a roof. In retrospect, it might have been more comfortable. But where is the adventure in that? Instead, we climb into the back of the pick up truck, standing in a puddle that swished whenever the car bounced, and hold on to the sides to stay on our feet. It starts raining  harder. In the bus behind us the driver can be seen laughing at us. My hands go numb as I cling to the metal railing. The wind drives the rain into our faces like ice shards. We look at each other and laugh. How did we end up here? 40 minutes later we get to the edge of the city and realize we don't know where they're going to drop us off. Finally, we recognize a corner close to the town center, and shortly thereafter the driver stops and we jump down shouting thank you. Cold. Shivering. Soaked to the skin. Still laughing at the absurdity. It would've been a good moment for another dip in the hot springs. Instead we settle for lukewarm showers and hot chocolate and wrap up in our new blankets.

Two days, two adventures, two friends.

To the fish and the tallest: Thanks for a beautiful few days of fun. I hope there is less hail but just as much laughter in the rest of your travels. Thanks for reminding me that if you just start walking it'll all work out in the end. Buen viaje! Love from the weaver.

Nighttime in the Market

My favorite time of day is just after sunset. I finish scooping up the last few beans onto my tortillas, and slowly drink the end of my coffee. I read a last few pages in my book. Then I stand up, pay the women bustling around the steaming pots, smile and thank them, and promise to return tomorrow. Then I wander through the empty market stalls towards the road. There's still a corridor through the market, but it isn't important at night. There are a few stalls still open, mostly food, but most just stand as wooden frames. Outlining the corridors, but possible to walk through unhindered. Stacked benches mark the daytime comedors. Emerging onto the road, ducking between two frames, a single light and a patch of warmth at the corner marking a tortilla cart. And lining both sides of the road the empty frames. They stand as both a memory and a promise.

When I arrived Saturday there were not as many. Saturday night I sat in the park, drawing curious glances from the locals as the only pale blue-eyed face in town, and watched as pairs of young men arrived with loads of wooden poles and deftly erected the frameworks for each market stall. They surprised me - with a forked stick and a few pieces of rope, stalls emerged rapidly from each pile. Blending into one another at night, but separated each day by tarps and with their own stack of wares and a shouting vendor.

I like the market better at night.

I like it when it's nearly empty and I can pick my way right through the stalls, just short enough not to hit my head on the cross pieces. When I can glance at the stacked benches and tables and remember the crowds at lunchtime and the smell of beans and tamales and the heat from the tortilla plate. The noise and the motion and the laughter. The promise that it will happen again tomorrow. When it's quiet enough to actually make out the words in the music playing from the giant speakers on the stairs to the church. When no one promises a "good price for you" and instead ask curiously why I choose to travel alone.

The memories of one visit and the promise of the next.

The empty stalls remind me of setting the table for a party. Of spilling jelly beans on the table for a birthday, and eating the last few while cleaning later, tired and content. Knowing that something exciting is coming, but not being quite sure what, exactly, it is. Of my moments in Scotland when I walked around the islands right after the ferry left, leaving me alone on the dock. Of being in McCall in June when the beaches and coffee shops are still empty. Of the science building at Middlebury in the middle of the night when I walked alone past half-filled chalkboards.

I have always liked this feeling, the quietness and reality after a crowd passes. Of seeing something that most people don't move slowly enough to notice.

In just a few more days, I will catch a plane out of Guatemala. At over a year of travel, I have started to question what exactly it is that I view as my goal. The uncertainty isn't helped by what I viewed as an abrupt change in my plans when I bought a ticket to Chile instead of Bolivia (yes, I do realize they border each other, have mountains, and both speak Spanish). Wandering through the market this evening, I realized that right now I too feel like both a memory and a promise. The pause between busy days. The accumulation of stories, yet the uncertainty of what the next one will bring.

Several times in the last few weeks I have paused and noticed that I feel different. Something has changed. The realization that the girl who no longer stumbles when a little girl asks her why she isn't married at 24, but instead jokingly replies that she can't even commit to her next plane ticket, isn't the same girl who gleefully jumped up and down when she learned she was going to travel for the next year and a half last March. She certainly isn't the girl who fearfully tried to read the Paris metro map for the first time. But she is still scared of making phone calls to people she doesn't know.

The world paused for me for a year. That's what I thought originally. That I could travel and wander and wonder and then come back a year later to pick up the same pieces again. But even if the world paused, I didn't.

Instead, I've accumulated stories and skills and smiles. I've built and rebuilt my framework. Enough times to wonder how it will mesh with the pieces I left behind. It's full of memories, and holds the promise of another new adventure.