Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Befuddled at Lake Atitlan, Guatemala


Sunset at Posada de Santiago
Some experiences pull you in two different directions, leaving you befuddled as to whether you should sign up for another round or cross it off the list with a fat, black marker.

Two days in Guatemala left me in that befuddled state. There is something magically colorful and compelling about Guatemala, especially Lake Atitlan which rightfully deserves it’s billing as one of the world’s most beautiful lakes and best climates. 

A young boy starts his day.
The land around the lake is a national park and other than the transportation launchas and the paddled skiffs of fishermen, there are few boats. The lake should be pristine, however, in the late 1950s, a well-meaning person stocked the lake with black bass in order to create more angler interest. The newcomers promptly wiped out most of the local fish and at least one rare bird. The lake is still beautiful but it is questionable as to whether it is safe to swim there … a challenge for me because that wonderfully warm and clear water called to me.
Cloud draped volcano

Three spectacular volcanoes dominate the southern lake landscape and the highlight of our trip was canoeing on the glassy lake just before and during sunrise. The lake was quiet, blanketed with a mist, and empty save for a few fishermen paddling their skiffs around the lake, tossing their nets, checking their lines.


Kath on the dock before canoeing.

Kath on the early morning canoe.
Early morning fisherman.

Sunset from the hot tub.
Sunset from the hot tub.

One of the cabins at Posada de Santiago.

Flowers at Posada de Santiago
Lake view
Several Mayan villages dot the rim of the lake … each with its own culture and style, ranging from serious art and textiles on San Juan, to yoga, meditation and all things Eastern on San Marcos, to Santiago, home of the         most aggressive of the tourist markets and Maximom, perhaps the most unique of all the “saints."





Healing ceremony in front of Maximom

Maximom
Visiting Maximom The tuk tuk driver stops in front of a cement block building with a narrow open doorway and indicates that we are “here” … at Maximom, the smoking saint’s, house. We weave our way through a bevy of young children and old dogs, broken toys and scattered food. Hesitantly we step into a dim room where we see candles burning on the floor and hear chanting. Trying to make sense of what’s going on, we see three men sitting on chairs on one side of the candles and two men and a woman kneeling on the floor on the other side of the candles. One of the kneeling men is chanting and the woman is obviously praying while the third man sits with his head bowed and a colorful piece of cloth or plastic attached to his hat.
One of the men indicates that we should pass behind the kneeling people and that we can take photos. As we adjust our position, we notice Maximom, who appears to be a statue with a cigarette in his mouth. We learn later that Maximom is too powerful to see his face so he wears a mask. Apparently two of the seated men are there to attend to Maximom’s comfort, keeping his cigarette lit and the ashes caught, and one is a shaman. We are also told that the man in the cowboy hat is sick and so this is a healing ceremony.
We watch for a few minutes and then begin to feel out of place and intrusive so we pay our tribute and wind our way back out, through the kids and dogs and back into our tuk tuk. 
Colorful Tuk Tuks
There are so many charming things about this part of Guatemala … the tuk tuks (small, 3-wheel taxis), the launchas that provide the main form of transportation between the villages, the Chicken buses, refugees from the American school bus system, wholly transformed into a visual and chaotic world of their own, the colorful textiles, the women balancing huge baskets on their heads, the men in their own stylized dress.
Yes, we actually did take a lancha named
"Titanic" ... and no, it did not have life preservers.



















We didn't get a chance to take a Chicken bus
but we did watch the rush hour chaos of people and
stuff loading and unloading.
However, this is also a distressed land, not only by the poverty that comes with centuries of oppression of the Mayan people but also the stress of volcanic activity, earthquakes, hurricanes, mud slides and the tidal wave of tourism that brings needed capital but also the demands of foreign visitors who want to see strange new sites while also having their daily lattes and pizzas. Cokes are no problem since the marketing arm of Coke seems to have embraced all of Latin America. I even saw women pouring Coke on graves during the Day of the Dead celebrations.

There is great beauty here and deep seated poverty. Everyone we met was friendly, eager to talk and many of them were fluent or passably fluent in English. One morning I went out early and caught many signs of how hard people work, reconstructing their shops and moveable businesses every single day.
Morning begins.

Getting ready to set up shop.

Well stuffed  tuk tuk.


Lake Atitlan. Guatemala, is a fascinating and beautiful place but also a hard place to witness from my perspective as someone lucky enough to be born into an affluent and comfortable world, someone lucky enough to have a choice of which world to visit and which world to live in.
 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

¡Qué Día Estupendo!


Toniná
 Take away the sound of a weed wacker in the background ...
Take away the tin roofs shining white in the sun ...
Take away the Mexican flag flying over the distant military base built to control the Zapatistas in the 1990s ...

And suddenly you could be over a thousand years back in time, standing on the steps of Toniná scanning the horizon for a possible war party from Palenque. 

This lesser known Mayan ruin has many unique archeological features but what made it truly special was the silence and solitude and the spectacularly beautiful and peaceful setting. For more details: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toniná.

Kath Hockey at the top.
The tour started this morning when my new neighbor Kath (English artist living in Spain) and I met Julian (New Zealand, avid traveler) and Fernando (traveling Tijuana coffee shop owner) and set off through the Chiapas highlands for Toniná. The day was glorious and the winding, mountainous, speed- bump-laden road was the responsibility of Homero who did quite a fine job of weaving us through the dozens of Mayan villages that line the road for the two-and-a-half hour trip to Toniná.
Fernando Fortis is young enough
to scale the last little bit of the
pyramid that the rest of us
wisely decided not to do.



The rainy season has just passed here and the pine forested mountains are a shimmering green with flowering trees sparking the hills.  The trip was filled with language ... new words and phrases and Spanish at all levels from my barely basic Spanish to Homero's excellent Spanish as well as a Mayan language and some Italian and English. 

My favorite idiom came from the Brits ... or actually ex-Brits ... "splash out!" Basically you "splash out" when you buy something a bit expensive or something that stretches your budget.

At the top ... starting to wonder how to get down.
Toniná is built in a series of levels and each one offers something new to look at and spectacular views of the surrounding valley and mountains. Before you know it, you are several levels up and the top level calls to you. The steps here are much are shorter than other pyramids I've visited ... but there are a LOT of them and, seemingly, always more.

Finally we reached the top and after reveling in the view, I begin to wonder what it would take to get a helicopter to rescue us ... it is a LONG way down ... and, somehow, never as much fun as going up.
Julian Haworth at the top ...
fortunately he did not take one
more step backward.

But down we went and then headed off to La Cascada "El Corralito"... a beautiful river cascading down a rocky channel into a pool large enough to swim in. The water was clear and bracing ... refreshing after a hot day of climbing the pyramid. 

After a nappy ride back to San Cristóbal, Kath and I decided to explore the local beverage ... posh or pox. I expected the burn of strong alcohol but the flavored posh which is infused with fruits or herbs was delicious and served in a ceremonial fashion in tiny cups surrounded by slices of orange sprinkled with coffee and two small pieces of incredible chocolate.

I'm not sure if it was the posh or the company since we had joined Mirella, a Mexican-American woman from San Diego ... but we wound up trying the un-infused white version and it burned but suddenly we were all laughing a bit more than normal.

All in all a truly stupendous day.




Sunday, November 2, 2014

Dia de los Muertos: Zinacantán & Chamula


Zinacantán
Today was a completely different day … more like what I expected … beautiful, quiet and serene. Zinacantán is a picturesque valley of flower fields and greenhouses surrounded by lush green hills. Their incredible textiles echo the flowers of their valley.

Zinacantán










We found traditional dancers
at the center in Zinacantán















Click here for a short video of the dance.















Chamula Church
We also went to Chamula, a large village which enjoys a unique autonomous status within Mexico. No outside police or military are allowed in the village and Chamulas have their own police force. One thing they are very particular about is photography. Absolutely no photography is allowed within the church but we were allowed to enter after buying a ticket for a modest fee.



What we saw corresponded with the Wikipedia description although we did not see any curanderos or chickens:  
There are no pews in the church, and the floor area is completely covered in a carpet of green pine boughs and soda bottles (mostly Coca Cola). Curanderos (medicine men) diagnose medical, psychological or ‘evil-eye’ afflictions and prescribe remedies such as candles of specific colors and sizes, specific flower petals or feathers, or - in a dire situation - a live chicken. The specified remedies are brought to a healing ceremony. Chamula families kneel on the floor of the church with sacrificial items, stick candles to the floor with melted wax, drink ceremonial cups of Posh, artisanal sugar-cane-based liquor, and chant prayers in an archaic dialect of Tzotzil.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Día de los Muertos: Romerillo

Beauty, color, family ...
How do you describe the indescribable? 

Beautiful … touching … colorful … raucous … reverent ... creative … disturbing … overwhelming … chaotic … charming. 

Maybe all you have to say is ... Day of the Dead in Mexico.

Outside of the village of Tenehapa in the Chiapas highlands, about 40 minutes by taxi from San Cristóbal, is Romerillo, a cemetery that was the center of activity for several thousand mainly Mayan celebrants of el Día de los Muertos today ... the day when the spirits of the ancestors are honored, wined and dined, and welcomed back to this world if only for a brief period.

Here are just a few word and picture glimpses into this most amazing day which was also shrouded in a cold cloud of mist  ...
Part wake, part carnival, part fiesta.







Glimpse: a woman pouring Coke onto the
grave of a loved one and
another one pouring “posh."




Incense burning on top of a pine-needle
and bright marigold-covered graves.







Glimpse: Heavy black wool skirts and tunics
that are very labor intensive and stiff as well as beautiful, colorful hand sewn textiles.

Glimpse: 5-gallon containers, hundreds of used liter bottles and it seemed like thousands of single-serving soft drink bottles all filled with posh, the locally brewed rot gut.

Blue and green crosses
rising out of the mist at the top of the hill.





Well-worn wooden boards on top of graves
provide a “threshold” for the spirits
to come and go.













Ingenuity.
Click here for a musical moment.










Colorful roving musicians.
Click here fora musical moment.
Glimpse: a borracho (drunk) handing out peanuts to strangers.

Glimpse: Food … sold and shared … hundreds of vendors of peanuts, fruit, sugar cane, roasted potatoes, cake, tamales, pizza, and, of course, cerveza.

Back pocket "posh" bottle.
Glimpse: Being looked at in wonder and fear by children as if I were another color … but, of course, I am. I was one of the very few gringas in the crowd.

Glimpse: what happens when an event of several thousand people involving a lot of drinking does not provide porta-potties.

Glimpse: a hawker of bedding who sounded like an auctioneer and
went non-stop for over 30-minutes while my taxi-driver looked for one more passenger to round out his fare back to the city. Unfortunately, it was a young man who had obviously been participating in the celebration and wanted to smoke (I said "por favor ... no"). He also had to stop on the way back to town to relieve himself.

I wonder what the spirits
think of all this beauty and festivity?
A seven-year-old child drinking
“Sol” (cerveza) and offering it
to his playmates while adults stood about.
 

This morning when I contemplated not going to Romerillo today, I thought I knew what to expect. I didn’t … and I’m so glad I went. 

I also added my 70th "-ería" word to my list today. When I snapped the photo from inside the taxi on the way to Romerillo, I didn't know how appropriate it would be.





Sweet Spot ... Me and My Shadow

From these colors,
a thousand flowers bloom.
Somewhere between that huge, dark, scary thing that you think perhaps you should do and that 7th episode in a row of “How I Met Your Mother,” there is a sweet spot. It seems that I often only find it after a long conversation with my other self … here’s the way it goes ...

This morning I am leaning toward that 7th episode. It’s dreary and chilly this morning. I’ve got Leonard Cohen singing love songs to me and some hot tea would be nice. There is soup in the fridge and ideas for more Spanish study cards aborning in my brain. I could stay in today.

After all, tomorrow I’m going out to Day of the Dead with some friends … friends who speak Spanish which will make my day easier. It’s a long walk to the taxi stand for Tenehapa … and I’m not completely sure I know exactly where it is. Plus, they’ll fill the taxi with other Spanish speakers and I’ll be lost in the fog … again. And, I don’t know what’s going to happen when I get there. And, I don’t know for sure how to get back once the day is done. And, I don’t really belong there … … … 

Same song, 732nd verse. What will you think tonight after you’ve spent all day futzing about? Will you wish you had gone? Of course you will … so get up and go! You've got a map, you can find the taxi and who knows whom you might meet or what you might see if you go. Perhaps nothing much … perhaps a wow! You’ll never know unless you go.

But … but … but ...

(Stern silence.)

All right, already … I’m putting my shoes on.

Sugar vs Fat - Which "Won?"

Identical Twin doctors on dueling diets.

Last night I watched a Netflix movie, “Sugar vs. Fat.” The question addressed is which one is the real culprit in obesity and diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. (Detailed article … click here.)

The concept was unique and interesting … two, mid-30s, identical twin doctors (Xand & Chris) chose to go on different diets for a month and to be thoroughly monitored before, during and after the process. One doctor went on a very low carb diet and the other went on a very low fat diet. The results were surprising … although they probably should not have been. One thing I love about this movie is that a doctor actually admits how little he knew about how all of this nutritional stuff works.

Basically … both lost weight … 2 pounds for Chris, the brother on the low fat diet, 9 pounds for Xand, the brother on the low carb diet (although he had a bit more body fat at the beginning.) Neither were overweight nor athletically lean.

Chris on the low fat (high carb) diet seemed to have more available energy for mental and physical tasks during the diet. Both brothers thought their diets were miserable and unsustainable and Xand (low carb) was constipated and felt sluggish. However, Xand (low carb) was convinced that he would wind up thinner and healthier by avoiding insulin-stimulating sugar and carbs. Chris thought he would wind up healthier because he was avoiding fats.

Both were wrong. Xand (low carb) lost more weight but his blood glucose level approached pre-diabetic levels and a significant portion of his weight loss was muscle mass (never good). Chris’s results (low fat) were not detailed in the movie but it was said that in the long run this probably was not a good diet either.

Bring in the rats!

So, the non-scientific test of identical twins on different diets did not really answer the question of which is better, although it did find the low-carb diet particularly bad for Xand. It took rats to highlight a third possibility.

The movie documents rat studies where rats were given unlimited amounts of pure sugar. They would eat for awhile and then stop. No significant weight gain. Then they were given unlimited amounts of fat. Again, they would eat for awhile and then stop with no significant weight gain.

It was only when the two were put together in the right ratio that the rats started eating uncontrollably and became obese. It is called the “cheesecake” diet because cheesecake just happens to have the magic ratio of 50% sugar and 50% fat and the rats loved it (smart rats!). Apparently that ratio triggers the pleasure response and eating no longer becomes nourishment, it becomes an addictive drug. This is a ratio that is not found in nature according to the movie, although one commenter countered with “milk” and “coconut."

In case you’re wondering what other foods fall into that cheesecake ratio, it probably will not be surprising … glazed donuts, milk chocolate, ice cream, cookies, cakes, puddings … and whether they know it or not, it’s probably the holy grail that most fast food processors are striving for.

And the bottom-line? We’ve heard this over and over … avoid processed foods, eat a balanced diet in moderation and exercise.



Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Glimpses of San Cristóbal

It's starting to look like Los Dias de la Muerte around here:




Apparently the path for the
spirits must be clearly marked.


























Here's what we do here in San Cristóbal after a solid week of rain:







Another day at the market ...

Always the colors!
I don't know why these guys amuse me so.



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