“It sounds like a thousand souls being relieved of this world” – A morbidly obese comic book nerd and probable former goth commenting on the shrieks of the howler monkeys at Maya Biosphere Reserve near Flores, Guatemala.
Well, I’ve had my cold shower and I am currently sitting next to a creepy Christmas statue of an elf in a British guard’s uniform in the lobby of the Hotel Real Vista Hermosa in Nacaome, Honduras. The shower was cold, because this place has no hot water, just tanks on the roof slightly warmed by the sun and I’m now in the lobby writing this, because the in-room wifi doesn’t work. This is really the first chance I have had to write anything since we left New York on Christmas Eve and I wanted to get it all down while I have the chance and it is reasonably fresh in my memory, so the hotel lobby is where my butt will be planted for the bulk of the day. It is almost midday and the chances of me not eating until dinner tonight are exceptionally high as this hotel has no proper restaurants and it is considered extremely dangerous for foreigners to walk alone, but there are some shops across the road, so I may quickly wander over there if I get too hungry.
Still, I expected this. No, actually, I expected a lot worse from what is ranked the second-poorest country in Central America (and possibly the whole western hemisphere behind Haiti) and the nation with the highest murder rate in the world with 90.4 homicides per 100,000 people. That works out to quite a few when your population is around 8.2 million people.
Don’t let the pointless figures and statistics get in the way, though, Anna and myself are having a great time. The reason we came here was so Anna could do some volunteer eye surgery in a remote village in Honduras, but the next few posts will be about the week leading up to coming here, our holiday in Guatemala, not Honduras (that’ll come eventually, though), so let’s get into our arrival and first couple of days in Guatemala and prepare yourself for a lot of pictures…
Thursday, December 24th
Christmas Eve in New York City was definitely not what we expected. We had heard all the stories of the harsh winter last year, plus we’ve all seen those crappy American Christmas movies where the child’s Christmas wish comes true or the girl finally falls for the guy on Christmas Eve and it begins to snow on each occasion. Not this year. We were walking around the city in t-shirts on a beautiful 22°C (72°F) day. Why were we in the city? Because Anna had always wanted to see The Rockettes Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall. For those who have no idea who The Rockettes are, like me that day, this may provide a little help:
The Rockettes are a precision dance company. Founded in 1925 in St. Louis, Missouri, since 1932 they have performed at Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan, New York City. During the Christmas season, the Rockettes present five shows a day, seven days a week. Perhaps their best-known routine is an eye-high leg kick in perfect unison in a chorus line, which they include at the end of every performance. Their style of dance is a mixture of modern dance and classic ballet.
We attended the midday matinee and I must say it was a particularly impressive show, even I was entertained. The constant Santa Claus interludes, not entirely dissimilar to Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMA’s, really got on my nerves after a while, but the dancers, themselves, were incredible.
The next step was the part of the day I was dreading. I remember when I was in high school, the band Dave Graney and the Coral Snakes had an album called “You Wanna be There But You Don’t Wanna Travel.” At the time this seemed illogical to me, especially when you constantly hear clichés such as “Getting there is half the fun!” Now I realise that phrase just simply isn’t true and Dave Graney’s album title makes complete sense when you are my size and fly as often as we do, but especially when you are flying with United Airlines, probably tied with British Airways for the worst airline we have ever flown, from the awful Newark Airport in New Jersey with excess baggage that has not officially been pre-approved in post-9/11 USA. God, I hate airports, particularly in the USA, they are almost as painful as the flight, itself.
We made sure we arrived at the airport three hours early, because we simply knew we were going to run into problems checking in. And we did. We had a piece of carry-on luggage each, plus five check-in pieces; A suitcase containing our clothing for the next fortnight and four pieces that were medical equipment and supplies, two of which were over-sized. Anna is allowed an extra check-in piece, as she has Krisflyer gold status. That was all irrelevant and our check-in process went thusly:
- We asked a guy at the baggage counter where we should go for a special check-in. He guided us to the special assistance counter.
- We took the bags, boxes and cases to the special assistance counter, explained the reason why we were going, only to be told by the staff member that he had no authority and that we’d need to speak to a manager.
- The manager told us she had no authority to approve it, either, and that we should go back to the special assistance counter.
- We instead tried to use the automated check-in, but it wouldn’t allow us to check in the extra baggage, despite having a priority frequent flyer card, which allows an extra bag.
- When we asked for help we were taken back to the special assistance counter and were then directed to another manager.
- This time, the manager told us to use the priority counter, which was located two floors up.
- We waited several minutes for a lift that never came. When we finally caught another lift that worked to the fourth floor, the woman at the priority counter said we would need to speak to her manager.
- The manager came and was slightly more helpful, but informed us that there was an embargo in Guatemala and they wouldn’t allow a third bag per person, but he would check with his superior.
- In the meantime, since we had printed our baggage tags downstairs, we would have to check in our regular luggage at the special assistance counter.
- Once we were back downstairs we were told that two of the cases were 5lb (2.25kg) too heavy and couldn’t be checked in without excess baggage charges. We explained that they were medical microscopes and couldn’t be pulled apart, after which we were told for the fourth time that we would need to speak to yet another manager.
- This manager informed us that, since it was medical equipment, she would waive the fees.
- Next, we had to go to a special over-sized baggage area, drop off the two over-sized pieces and then proceed upstairs again for the additional piece of luggage.
- Once upstairs we were informed that our additional baggage had been approved.
Next was immigration and security. We’re used to the routine of airport security, but that doesn’t make it any less of a pain in the ass. The routine, itself, is quite simple; take everything out of your pockets, remove any laptops and electronics from your carry-on luggage, take out your belt, remove your shoes and put it all in the tubs provided. That part is simple. The pain in the ass part is that if I’m not wearing a belt, my pants fall down, plain and simple. As I was taking out my belt, the TSA officer on a power trip screamed at me to take off my shoes, too. I calmly, but firmly, explained to him that, despite my shoes being slip-ons, he still hadn’t given me sufficient time to do so. Once the routine was complete I hoisted up my pants and waddled over to the conveyor belt where my luggage would come out and delayed the line for a bit as I stood with one leg cocked out to the side, Elvis-style, trying to weave my belt through the loops as quickly and modestly as possible.
After I regained my dignity it was on to the next step, the full body scanner. I passed through this stage reasonably unscathed, got my little pat-down afterward, then it was onto the Gold Class Lounge for free booze and cheese-sticks.
We finally boarded a flight where we wouldn’t be fed and had to pay just to look at the in-flight map, à la our United Airlines flight to Las Vegas, for our five-and-half-hour trip to Guatemala City.
We were excited to be visiting Guatemala for several reasons, the first being that neither of us had ever been to Central or South America before, the other reasons can be found in this summation from Wikipedia:
The territory of modern Guatemala once formed the core of the Mayan civilization, which extended across Mesoamerica. Most of the country was conquered by the Spanish in the 16th century, becoming part of the viceroyalty of New Spain. Guatemala attained independence in 1821 as part of the Federal Republic of Central America, which dissolved in 1841.
Guatemala’s abundance of biologically significant and unique ecosystems, which includes a large number of endemic species, contributes to Mesoamerica’s designation as a biodiversity hotspot. The country is also known for its rich and distinct culture, which is characterized by a fusion of Spanish and Indigenous influences.
Sounds good to me. We eventually arrived at La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City and now we just had to get in a taxi and make the half-hour ride to the city of Antigua, a far nicer city and where we would be staying for the next four nights. However, there were two problems.
- Christmas Eve is a public holiday in Guatemala, hence there were almost no taxis, and…
- We had so much luggage it was almost impossible to fit it into the one or two cabs that were running.
After about half an hour, we found a taxi driver/tetris aficionado who managed to get us and the luggage in the cab, albeit with Anna and myself nursing miscellaneous boxes.
The ride to our resort was a terrifying, winding expedition on both sides of pot-holed roads with excessive speeding and overtaking cars on blind corners, all the while children shot fireworks directly at our car from cliffs and the roadside in celebration of Christmas, creating a thick blanket of smoke that the taxi’s headlights could barely permeate.
We eventually made it to our resort safely, but shaken, only to be told that there was nowhere to eat at that time of night and that it wasn’t safe to walk into town at night, anyway. We’d just have to wait until brunch the next day to eat (thanks, United!). Still, our room, which was larger than our New York and Singapore apartments combined, was an exceptionally comfortable place to listen to our stomachs gurgle and have a few beers:
Friday, December 25th
After 20+ hours of not eating, we were what I guess could be described as “famished”. We woke up just in time for our resort’s brunch and then we decided to hit the town, however, we completely forgot it was Christmas day and that almost nothing would be open. We managed to stumble upon ChocoMuseo, the chocolate museum, and it was open so we stopped off for an incredible hot chocolate and then managed to catch some interesting sights in Antigua:
Probably the most interesting place we went, however, was the Hotel Casa Santo Domingo, which:
…is a noted 5 star hotel and museum in Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala. It is located in the grounds of the Santo Domingo Monastery, which was once a stronghold of one of the most grand convents in the Americas. This monastery was partially destroyed in the 1773 Santa Marta earthquake. The hotel is notable in that it preserves the architecture from the baroque period of ancestral America and contains a number of treasures from this period on display.
Santo Domingo Church and Monastery is a ruined monastery in Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala. Its history can be traced back to 1538 when the Dominicans arrived in Guatemala. It had two towers with ten bells and the monastery was filled with treasures.
This is another situation where it is best to just let some pictures do the talking:
While walking around, Anna found a store that sold rings made of lavender jade. Jade is very common in Guatemala, but lavender jade, a light-purple variety of the stone, was only discovered there 17 years ago, when it was found after the devastation of Hurricane Mitch. She ordered a ring to be re-sized and we’d need to come back the next day to collect it.
We passed some amazing restaurants and some great bars, most of which were closed, but we still found some great places to eat and drink, all the while creating a mental list of the places we wanted to visit the next day, but that is a whole other post. Trust me, there is a lot more action to come!