Finally, greetings from Guatemala! Internet access has been a little difficult to get hold of as you might imagine in a 3rd world country.
But first, a summary of my last few days in Japan! I spent my time between Kyoto, Hiroshima and Tokyo. Kyoto had such a nice feel to it, I would definitely recommend it as a travel base for anyone heading to Japan as it's so central, with lots of lovely sights nearby as day trips. I saw the massive bronze buddha in the largest wooden building in the world, experienced the Hiroshima Peace Museum in all its g(l)ory and went through many beautiful shrines and temples. I enjoyed laughing at the Magic the Gathering players in Kyoto and dragged 13 of them out for a night on the town including Karaoke in a proper karaoke bar. Then I headed up to the mountains of Takayama, back to the snow, to a village which had been reconstructed from very old buildings around the place. It was just gorgeous, especially when the snow just started thumping down and I needed an umbrella to keep it out of my eyes. Magical! Finally I spent a couple of days in Tokyo to see the Cosplay people (unfortunately not may were out because it was RAINING... wusses), Ghibli Museum (OMG totoro, hannah!!) and the Tsukiji fish markets. The latter was an amazing experience - only recently reopened after bad behaviour from tourists - walking through a huge warehouse where most creatures from the sea are for sale. Of course the big attraction is the tuna auctions, I can't believe so many huge fish can be pulled out of the ocean every day in a sustainable fashion. I guess it's not.
Japan was lovely, I feel like I really need to go back and see some more of it. The Japanese have an uncanny ability of creating places of quiet serenity in a country of busy chaos and flashing lights. Despite seeing lots of wonderful places - amazing temples, Hiroshima peace museum, beautiful gardens and towns - I felt quite lonely travelling by myself (as those of you who recieved a tearful phone call from me already know). So I was very pleased to meet up with Natalia and her boyfriend Andrew at the Tokyo airport. I even shed a little tear when we saw each other (cue Chariots of Fire)... soppy, I know.
We had a jetlagged 11 hour changeover in LA (so I can officially say I've been to the US ;) which involved leaving our bags at the Hilton - not that we were staying there, just that we figured they had to be nice to us - and catching a bus to Manhattan Beach. We just vegged out at cafes, watched the sun set when we felt it should be rising, visited Victoria's Secret and bought some fancy new jocks (ohhh yeah). I was amazed at the sugary accents everyone had there... quite hilarious when you realise they are not putting it on. Ohh my Gawwwd, and I was like, ohh, and he was like... you know? :P Then finally on to Guatemala around midnight on a much smaller airline where everyone clapped when we touched down!
From Guatemala city we headed to Antigua which is a tourist hub, but much safer, cleaner and more pleasant than the city itself. The general rule seems to be to spend as little time in Guatemala city as possible, and I am happy to agree with that. Antigua is a world heritage listed town so has a lot of restrictions on new buildings, signposting and upkeep of old buildings. Consequently it's very picturesque, with cobbled streets, pieces of old churches, archways and a towering volcano to the south of the town. Even the McDonalds is tasteful (hard to believe I know) with a lovely back courtyard and view of the volcano... plus Ronald McDonald. We met up with Natalia's mum Mahiya and spent a night at one of the hostels. I'm pretty sure I could see the southern cross above the volcano that night. In the morning we checked out the colourful markets and walked to a lookout before catching a shuttle to Lake Atitlan, a few hours away. The roads are all very winding and slightly concerning coming around blind corners up and down super steep volcanic mountains with buses blowing black smoke, utes full of people, chickens, fabric, and overtaking slow tuk-tuks. Quite a change from leisurely rides in streamlined shinkansens...
Mahiya has built a house in San Juan, a small village at Lake Atitlan, about 10 minutes tuk-tuk ride from San Pedro, the most well known village on the lake. The villages around the lake seem to be a haven for gringos escaping from something in their lives. It is not uncommon to ask a bartender "how long have you lived here?" and have them reply "oh, 2 years I think? or maybe 3...". The pace of the town is very slow and relaxed for the gringos residing here, the locals are slightly richer then elsewhere due to tourism but they still struggle against considerable poverty. The lake has amazingly dramatic scenery, it's a huge 35km by 8km, surrounded by volcanoes. I struggled with the amount of rubbish all through the streets and floating on the edges of the lake, and the open sewerage flowing straight from the towns into the water. It's definitely not safe to drink, even for locals, and I'm hesitant to swim in it after hearing tales of people getting seriously ill from weird and wonderful parasites/bacteria. All the drinking water is trucked in, such a shame that a massive resource as unlimited fresh water is so polluted and only able to be used for washing and gardening.
The 3 of us enrolled in the spanish school for the week, one on one lessons each morning for 4 hours. After the first lesson my brain was just about fried as the teacher only spoke to me in spanish and had translations only for words in her photocopied lesson book. It was so exhausting trying to get my head around it at first but by the last day she was chatting away to me about a kidnapping that had happened recently, and how she wants to find an english speaking boyfriend. I couldn't respond intelligently but felt proud to understand what the flip was going on. I managed to communicate a few things to her, about my job in the desert in Australia, where we were travelling, and how Natalia had been driving the porcelain bus (vomiting) the previous day from eating something dodgy.
Natalia and I spent one day with Mahiya's old ladies' group from the very poor village of San Pablo. The social club is one of the projects Mahiya has set up to help the local community. We took the ladies on a boat across the lake for lunch and sightseeing at another village. For most of them it was the first time they had ever been on a bus, let alone a boat and they were pretty thrilled/terrified at the experience. They had all dressed to the nines for the occasion and looked amazing with their brightly coloured traditional garb and leathery old faces. Not to mention the fact that they were all only about 4 foot tall, even Natalia towered above them. It was a heartwarming day, despite the lack of verbal communication between us we managed to forge some kind of bond. I was their Photographer for the day and they got very posessive and cross with American tourists who tried to take their pictures instead of me. We took them out to lunch and every single one of them stored at least half of it in their aprons or handbags for later on. We gave them 10 Quetzales (about $2) to buy things at the food markets and they whizzed around like demons, collecting mangoes, peanuts, coconut etc at a very efficient rate. I had an emotional moment when they all gave money to a beggar despite having only the 10Q we had given them and being desperately poor themselves (with leftovers in their handbags for goodness sakes).
The following week I left Natalia and Andrew at the lake to have some "alone time" (unfortunately they spent most of it with gastro which is perhaps not as romantic as they had hoped). I headed up to Tikal, which on the map is about 250km, by road it's 500km and on a bus takes ELEVEN HOURS. Unbelievable. It required a changeover in Guatemala City which I was not pleased about (not helped by the zombie movie they were playing on the bus) but I emerged at Flores (the town close to Tikal) with all my posessions at 10pm. Here I met up with Jo and Pete - girls I know through the Grad recruit progam back home. It was lovely to see familiar faces and catch up with their travels of the last few months. They were part of a tour group so headed off in the morning but we will catch them again next week back at the lake.
The following day I visited Tikal, the large Mayan ruins of a city inhabited for about 1000 years, mysteriously abandoned ~900AD and rediscovered in the 1800s. The ruins were quite impressive and the history is very mysterious and worth further reading. I was very excited to see some proper jungle (it's within a national park) complete with coatis, spider monkeys, capibara-esque critters, toucans and vultures perched artistically atop stone ruins....! The other excitement of the day was a large american lady falling off one of the stone walls and breaking both her legs. Fortunately there was a doctor present, he turned out to be the aussie guy staying at the same hostel as me and travelling with his daughter. I got to know them both in the following few days as we shared bus trips, beers and vegemite! From Flores we headed south, stopping at Lanquin which is a town in a limestone valley, famous for caves and the waterfalls of Semuc Champey. I went with a group to the water caves near Semuc Champey where everyone goes in in bathers carrying a candle. It was very cool to swim and clamber through a cave by candlelight although i did cringe at the wax we dripped everywhere and used my (much less romantic) headtorch instead! I enjoyed clambering up the big waterfall in the cave by rope, with my candle between my teeth, Indiana Jones style. All the other girls went up the ladder... pshhh. In the afternoon we all chilled out at the pools of Semuc Champey. The water is so blue from the limestone, in a jungle filled valley. Very majestic. I toughed out the clamber up to the lookout and choose to blame my shortness of breath on altitude.
I'm back at the lake again now with Natalia, Andrew and Mahiya. We spent the weekend at a "festival of consciousness" at a nearby village, a hardcore hippy gathering. It was pretty hilarious, with workshops of varying quality and punctuality! Some of the workshops we attended were Capoira dancing (just like Tekken, Paul!!), macrame, shiatsu massage, henna body art, meditation, yoga etc etc. Unfortunately I couldnt attend all the events as they were run simultaneously and missed Lucid Dreaming : Entering Parallel Dimensions of Ourselves and Spiritual Meditation for Planetary Ascention. Damn. We have a couple more days here at the lake until Andrew flies out and Natalia and I head out into the real world without the western comforts of Mum's house! It will be entertaining for sure.
phew! consider yourselves updated!
Well I miss you all and a few of the comforts of home! Like drinking from a tap. Touch wood I haven't been sick yet but both Natalia and Andrew have had swift evacuations from both ends going on. I have to give some credit to Mum for allowing me to eat dirt for the first few (I wont say how many) years of my life.
I hope you are all doing well :) Send me emailz! I love it!