Tikal and Yaxha- Wonders of the World?

As we left Antigua in the minivan headed for Guatemala City, I was worried that the bus station for the bus to Northern Guatemala would be in a sketchy seedy area. Unfortunately I was right. In general, going to Guatemala City is nerve wracking. It is known to be muy peligroso (very dangerous). Some but not all of the locals say that only certain areas or zones are bad. Don’t believe them. I’ve heard too many horrific stories from credible Guatemalans to keep my nerves on edge. The lives of others mean nothing to los ladrones y asesinatos (the robbers and murderers). As we pulled up to the bus station, the streets were dimly lit with unsavory looking human silhouettes milling about.

The waiting area of the dilapidated bus station was packed with Guatemalans and other Central Americans, their luggage, packages and bright yellow bags or boxes oozing the pungent greasy odor of fried Pollo Campero which filled the room dimly lit by humming florescent bulbs. Broken cracked floor tiles were worn and exhausted. The torn unholstered seats were stained and filthy. Our 9:00 p.m. overnight bus would be leaving shortly. It would take nine or ten hours for the 200 mile trip to get to the Isla of Flores, a lovely island community in the middle of El Lago (lake) Petén Itzá on our way to Tikal, the ancient Mayan archeological site about two hours further north than Flores. 

The modern yet dated bus had two levels. We sat in the lower level which we had reserved for its reclining seats which in reality only seemed to reline a few inches. As we left, I opened the curtains slightly to catch a glimpse of where we were going. Typical of Guatemala City, we were stuck in heavy traffic trying to get out of the city. It didn’t take long before I started feeling a little motion sickness from all the stopping and starting, the many turns and frequent lane changing. I closed my eyes and fortunately was able to get some sleep, although fitful, through the night as the bus laboriously made its way into the Petén Department (Guatemala is divided into departments rather than states) in Northern Guatemala.

At around 6:00 a.m., we arrived at the tiny bus station located just outside of Flores and somehow our designated taxi driver figured out who we were for the ride to our hotel which was less than 10 minutes away. The heavily dented taxi with worn paint which had lost its shine years ago looked unlikely to be able to take us anywhere. The trunk crunched rudely as the driver opened it to put in our luggage. The rusty doors loudly groaned when we opened them and inside the seats were ripped, the dashboard had a hole where the radio had been and of course, there were no seatbelts. While I had questioned the taxis’ ability to even make it to our hotel, I quickly remembered that Guatemalans seem to find ways to somehow make everything work and they fix it when it doesn’t. Nothing seems to go to waste, everything possible is reused or re-purposed. So off we went along the bumpy dusty road as the cobalt blue sky was beginning to lighten.

As we entered Flores, it was illuminated by the dawn’s lovely pinkish pastel light of the beautiful sunrise. I was quickly struck by how quaint and charming it was. Flores or La Isla de Flores is an island in the middle of Lago (lake) de Petén Itzá that is connected to the mainland by a short

Isla de Flores and. el Lago Petén Itzá. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Isla de Flores, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

causeway. It is small enough to walk completely around in about 30 minutes although the lakefront promenade is submerged in the northern section from rising lake water. This area has turned out to be prime real estate for thousands of small black polliwogs swimming in every direction like sperm in search of a promising ovum. 

Pollywogs, Lago Petén Itzá. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Our relatively new hotel, the Isla de Flores Hotel, with its trendy whimsical paint job gave it a fresh tropical feel. Inside we found beautiful stone and dark hardwood floors along with thick ceiling beams framing the white washed walls decorated with colorful floral and leafy motifs adding to its

Hotel Isla de Flores, Isla de Flores, Lago Petén Itzá. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

charm. The friendly broken-English speaking and nice looking staff welcomed us. Our pleasant room was warmly decorated with a beautiful view of Flores and the lake, although the window was smaller than we would have wanted given our love for great views and lots of light in the room. The only downside to the room was its location on the third floor which was actually four flights up because they do not count the first floor– and there was no elevator. This made for a challenging return to our hotel room each afternoon or evening after a long day of walking.

Isla de Flores, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

After a delicious traditional breakfast in the hotel’s inviting restaurant, we were met by a tour guide who led us on a rapid 10 minute winding walk through the dusty streets to the bus that would take us to Tikal. After about a two hour picturesque bus ride, we arrived at the huge dramatic gated entrance where we were met by our private tour guide, a slender middle-aged pleasant Guatemalan gentleman whose impressive knowledge helped make this ancient Mayan city come alive. We found ourselves deep in the heart of a tropical rainforest jungle and the day was already starting to get quite warm.

Entrance to Tikal, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

After about a 20 minute walk along a rocky dirt path, we came upon our first structures that were immediately impressive. One of the structures was a pyramid-like temple that I carefully and slowly climbed up the very narrow steps to the top. In the distance, I was able to see the tops of other pyramids rising high above the canopy of this immense dense jungle.

Temple, Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Pyramid Above The Canopy, Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Tikal contains the ruins of an ancient Mayan city that was actually the capital of one of the most powerful kingdoms in the Mayan civilization. The Mayans settled here in around 800 BC and it became an important religious, cultural and commercial city. It was constructed over a period of at least 800 years and it is filled with hundreds of temples, pyramids and other structures. 

Mayan Buildings, Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Interestingly, only about 20 percent of Tikal is visible. The remainder is still hidden under the thick tropical plants and trees of the hot steamy jungle. As we walked along, we frequently saw huge mounds of what were obviously temples, pyramids and other types of buildings and structures covered with thick lush vegetation, strangling vines and enormous trees with their roots grabbling hold of these ancient structures like the tentacles of a giant octopus crushing its prey. Using special equipment, scientists have been able to actually “see” and determine what is underneath the dense overgrowth. Tikal had been partially restored by the University of Pennsylvania and the Guatemalan government although it is extremely expensive to continue the excavation. Nonetheless, what is visible is extensive and absolutely amazing!

Tropical plants and trees cover ancient Mayan structure, probably a temple. Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

Tikal’s impressive architecture was built mostly from limestone. Some of the pyramids are over 200 feet high and it’s hard to even imagine how these possibly could have been constructed given how old they are. Most of Tikal’s huge temples were constructed during the eighth century A.D. It grew to a population estimated to be anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 people. However, Tikal fell into decline at the end of the ninth century and was virtually abandoned. There are no clear answers as to the cause of the Mayan empire’s collapse, but theories include war, famine, overpopulation and resource depletion. Once the city was abandoned, it was taken over and devoured by the quickly growing tropical jungle which covered its structures unchecked for years.

Mayan pyramid. Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Tikal was discovered in 1848 during an expedition sent out by the Guatemalan government. Swiss, German and British archaeologists followed shortly after its discovery to start to clear the debris and begin studying this site. The museum of the University of Pennsylvania and the Guatemalan Institute of Anthropology and History restored Tikal’s structures to its current condition during the 1950s and 1960s. UNESCO designated the ruins as a World Heritage Site in 1979.

Mayan structures. Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

We happen to be fans of Atlas Obscura and thanks to them, we were able to find (which wasn’t easy) and explore the remains of a camp used by the University of Pennsylvania archeologists between 1956 and 1969 during the exploration of Tikal. The 13 year project resulted in a topographical map of the 16 square kilometer site. According to Atlas Obscura, the camp included a settlement for archeologists and single workers, a separate area for married workers and included a sawmill, a school and a dispensary. Old rusted cars, machinery and other artifacts are still in this small ghost town some 50 years later that looks straight out of an Indiana Jones movie.

University of Pennsylvania Archeological Camp, Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

We continued to walk through the main plazas, touring and crawling around many buildings and homes where people lived, climbing huge pyramids and temples and viewing ball courts for spectator sports.

Tikal Plaza, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Some of the largest pyramids fortunately had multi-tiered staircases that had been built next to them which allowed us to see the breathtaking views of the area from the observation decks at the top. The weather continued to get hot and humid. As we walked through the dark shadows of the jungle with the occasional streaks of sunlight beaming through like spotlights, we heard the loud screeches, squawks, calls and songs of hundreds of tropical birds including lots of anxious parrots. We also spotted an unusual yet quasi-cute animal known as a coatimundi that looked like a cross between a cat and a fox.

Coatimundi, Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Lattice Tailed Trogon, Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Exploring Yaxha

The following day, we visited Yaxha, another Mesoamerican archaeological site in Northern Guatemala about 90 minutes from Tikal but smaller in size. Yaxha was a ceremonial center and the third largest city in the region as part of the Mayan Civilization. Yaxha’s existence was first reported in 1904. The area was mapped and excavations began in the 1970s.

Temple, Yaxha, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

As we walked through this amazing site of ancient ruins, we were able to see ancient causeways actually linking a number of areas and groups of buildings. There were numerous pyramids and temples as well as ball courts for recreation and competition. We also saw were stone monuments, some of which had sculpted faces or designs. Yaxha was the capital of an extensive territory that dominated the northeastern part of Petén, although it had very strong links with the city of Tikal.

Stone Monument, Yaxha, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Like Tikal, not all of Yaxha has been excavated so as we walked along, we saw more huge mounds of jungle overgrowth that were obviously covering buildings, temples and pyramids as evidenced by their unique shapes. However, the buildings that we were able to see were very impressive. As we made our way through the hot jungle, we saw spider monkeys rustling and swinging high up in the canopy of the rainforest. As we continued on our journey along the heavily shadowed peat covered path, we began to hear the deafening and ominous growls of large black howler monkeys that seemed to be hovering directly over our heads.

Howler Monkey, Yaxha, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

The enormous eerie sounds were more reminiscent of angry bears or agitated lions. In fact, we were told that some sound engineers who worked on the Jurassic Park movies apparently came to Yaxha to record these thunderous roars, some of which supposedly were used as the dinosaurs growl sound effects in the movies. Whether this was true or not, it certainly seemed plausable. 

As our wide-eyed expedition continued, we saw many types of tropical birds of many colors that disclosed their existence by their amplified chorus of squawks, screeches, chirps and songs. On the ground we viewed wild turkeys unperturbed as they walked around the area.

Wild Turkeys, Yaxha, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Towards the end of the day, we carefully climbed one of the tallest pyramids. At the top, we sat in silence as we watched the sun lower itself ever so gently through the jungle’s thick steamy mist hovering over Yaxha Lake. The water shimmered like a pool of liquid silver and reflected the lovely pink and orange hues of the spectacular sunset. We could hear the leaves rustling loudly like a musty wind chime in the gentle breeze, along with a symphony of thousands of birds, monkeys and other tropical animals which populated the trees and canopy as we sat high above them. Mesmerized by the sight, we could practically here the sizzle of the sun as it touched the earth and continued below the horizon to bring a new dawn to a distant land. 

Sunset over Lago Yaxha, Yaxha, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

We spent the following day in and around Flores. We took a small motor boat across the lake to the ARCAS wildlife rescue center just across the lake from Flores. They had a variety of different types of animals including baby jaguars, ocelots, leopards, playful spider moneys and many different types of tropical birds. Most of the animals had  been confiscated from illegal traffickers. The animals there are kept for rehabilitation where they are assessed for their ability to survive in the wild. Those animals that are capable of surviving are released whereas the others that are determined to be unable to survive in the wild are cared for and protected.

Ocelot, ARCAS Center, Flores, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Just west of Flores, we visited a tiny island that had just a few buildings along with a tall radio tower. The trees were filled with iguanas sitting majestically sunning themselves on the yellowish-green sunburnt palm fronds. Apparently the island does not have an official name but it hosts a radio station known as Radio Petén that has been broadcasting since 1968 still using its antiquated radio equipment. We also visited the small museum next-door which consisted of a single room containing some Mayan artifacts, old radio and music equipment, telephones, a few guns and a variety of other knickknacks.

Radio Petén Station, Flores, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

We then climbed up to a mirador or lookout point with a breathtaking view of the island. Our boat ride continued around the lake until we eventually found our way back at which time we walked completely around the island

Lake, Flores, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

to Flores. One evening, we ran into some Hasidic Jews at the local Chabad who invited us to celebrate Hanukkah with them which we actually did. I declined the jelly donuts – a bit greasy looking and not my favorite.

Lago Petén Itzá, Flores, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

That evening, we headed to the tiny airport in Flores to take our small jet back to Guatemala City which took roughly an hour. My seat was directly behind the cockpit so I could see through the windshield the entire time as if I was sitting directly in the cockpit. Off in the distance, I could see the red lava spewing out of the smoldering Volcán Fuego (volcano of fire) and saw the lights of Guatemala City as we approached.

Our Plane to Guatemala City, Tag Airlines. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

I watched carefully as the pilots targeted the plane in the middle of parallel lights marking the runway and felt the small bump as we landed on the pothole filled runway.

View of Cockpit From My Seat, Tag Airlines, Flores, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

It is hard to believe that Tikal and the surrounding areas have not actually been named on any list of world wonders given what exists there. But it truly was incredible to experience it as it clearly was one of the highlights of being here in Guatemala.

At Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year), Tashlich Offers New Possibilities

Tashlich is a Jewish ceremony that takes place during the days between Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) and Kom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). It is traditionally observed alongside a body of running water where crumbs of bread are thrown into the water symbolizing the casting away of one’s sins from the previous year.

This year, besides the introspective process of identifying your own sins, it is important to look at the sins of our society; the divisiveness, the prejudices, bigotry and judgment, the shootings, the hatred, the lack of tolerance and acceptance especially towards immigrants, and more. We need to cast those sins down the river as well in a symbolic gesture of our collective commitment to bring us all together in peace, harmony and love and to fight against those things that continue to plague our society.

The following is a poem about Tashlich in observance of this important tradition. Shana Tova, Happy New Year, Feliz Año Nuevo – to a sweet new year, a un dulce año nuevo.

Los Angeles River, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

FAR INTO THE SKY

Sin, who me?

Nah, those weren’t sins.

Or were they?

What’s a sin anyway?

Something I did wrong?

Was I wrong? 

Did I judge?

Did I hurt someone?

Or myself?

Well maybe a little.

Or maybe a lot.

Just forget about it.

Who cares anyway?

But it’s bothering me.

A little.

A lot.

So now what?

Tashlich.

A weird word.

I’ve heard about it.

Casting crumbs down the river.

Representing my sins.

Or something like that.

Maybe I should.

But who’s got time.

I’ve got some bread.

In the freezer.

That’ll work.

Off to the river.

Here I am

Standing by the river.

The water is rushing.

There’s a lots of crumbs

More than my sins.

I hope.

I throw a few in.

Some ducks swim over

And eat my crumbs.  

They fly away.

Far into the sky.

With my crumbs

In their bellies

With my sins.

Far away from me.

Reflections on Xela- A Retrospective

Quetzaltenango (commonly referred to by the shortened version of its Mayan name, Xela) is a tough place to describe, at least in just a few words. Xela is hard core Guatemala, authentic, the real deal and rough around the edges. You rarely hear a word of English spoken in Xela and

Santa María Volcano, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

tourists don’t seem to find their way there except for stragglers of Spanish students like me or those who come volunteering for one of the NGOs (non-governmental organizations), Guatemala’s version of a non-profit organization.

To me, Xela is the neglected envious step-sister of Antigua which is the crown jewel of Guatemala. Unlike Xela, Antigua clearly acts spoiled by its good looks and lots of attention. Antigua is flooded with intrusive tourists, mostly European and a few North Americans and Asians, who seemingly taint the Guatemalan culture by piercing it with their foreign languages of English, French, German, Japanese or Korean, and polluting the air with cigarette smoke and throwing their cigarette butts into the streets. Some are disheveled backpackers who often look desperate for a shower or a bed in one of the many eco-trendy hostels in Antigua. All of these alien invaders impose their own values on the remarkably resourceful Guatemalans.

North-Americanized restaurants and shops shout their entitled existence, thrusting themselves to the front of the line as if superior and getting in the way of an authentic Guatemalan experience. Antigua is full of ex-patriots, most of whom seem or pretend to be contemporary earthy hippies or wannabes (okay, so I’ve grown this bushy beard which doesn’t count). And there are numerous bars and pubs whose live bands further taint the atmosphere in Antigua by playing American and British rock and roll and even bluegrass. And thanks to all the tourists in Antigua, you can expect to receive the highly inflated “gringo price” from the street vendors and others who believe that tourists, especially North Americans, have lots of dinero. It can be quite laborious to try and haggle the price back down to something more reasonable, if it’s even possible.

Antigua is heavily protected and guarded by huge numbers of police and patrolling fierce looking armed soldiers with “don’t fuck with me” expressions (as only a Guatemalan soldier can have). The Guatemalan government certainly does not want anything to happen to its prized favorite daughter so as not to jeopardize Antigua’s strong tourist trade and all the money it brings into this struggling developing country. (Much of this money then apparently and sadly gets funneled into the coffers of the government officials for allegedly corrupt purposes rather than the places and people that actually need it. Or at least that’s what I’ve been told my the locals here).

Xela is not shy about being exactly what it is: raw, urgent, dirty, frenetic and seemingly in survival mode. The pollution is nasty. I found myself coughing frequently as disgusting black sooty exhaust would spew from dilapidated cars and broken groaning chicken buses or camionetas. Impatient swirls of wind gusts would kick up filth, garbage, volcanic ash and the powdered remains of desiccated dog shit that litters the streets from scores of homeless dogs that continuously roam in search of scraps of anything remotely edible when they are not sleeping anywhere they can find including under cars.

When I first mentioned to people here in Guatemala that I was going to live in Xela, the first thing that everyone told me was how cold it would be. In Guatemala, Xela is synonymous with the word “cold.” And they were right. Xela sits above 7,600 feet and the nights and mornings were in the low 40s or upper 30s. There is no calefacción (heating) in the houses so my bedroom would also get down to the low 40s at night and in the mornings which was definitely a challenge. I tried to adapt, sometimes unsuccessfully, with gloves and multiple layers of clothing including a down jacket with a hood over my head, and three or four blankets on my bed. Sometimes it was so cold, I would get under the covers early in the evening with all my clothing layers still on and watch a Spanish language movie on Netflix. It was too cold to shower in the mornings so I waited until the afternoons when the air was a bit warmer. Given the hassle of showering during the day, I admit that sometimes it was every other day.

I had to look closely to find Xela’s redeeming qualities. And there are some but they can be well-hidden since there really isn’t really much to do in Xela itself. I had to be highly vigilant, keenly alert and annoyingly curious,

Courtyard Garden, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

peeking in buildings, open doors and always keeping my eyes wide open.

Being in Xela was the immersive experience that I was hoping for but the danger there kept me on edge. I was deep in the heart and belly of Guatemala. There was an intimacy with the country and people that I felt by living there. I could feel their anxiety and their urgency. There is no pretension in Xela. The city sits exposed as it is, vulnerable, with nothing to hide in the shadow of the perfectly cone-shaped specimen of a volcano, Santa Maria, and it’s highly active offspring, Santiaguito which I was fortunate enough to see erupting in full splendor!

Xela has no problem showing its dirty laundry and its skeletons for all to see. The city simply looks the other way or doesn’t care what outsiders see or think. The tension to survive there is palpable. The city shivers in the cold. The water breaks down and whole sections of the city lack water for hours or days. The electricity fails and the city darkens like an approaching turbulent storm. Some businesses are prepared with noisy inefficient electric generators that gag and stink from unburned noxious gasoline.

And Xela can be dangerous. I was told by the family I was living with to never walk alone in a nearby hilly park, El Baúl, because it was a haven for ladrónes or robbers. The family and even the Spanish school that I

Lovely Textile Shop, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

attended also told me never to walk anywhere alone after dark which for

the most part I complied. On the very rare occasions that I was out later, I took a taxi for the five minute ride home which was better than walking through the dimly lit, street-dog infested dusty streets. A few times, I had to walk very early (around 4:30 or 5:00 a.m.) to school for an early departure weekend day trip while it was still dark. The eerie silence was deafening as I walked through the empty streets in a shroud of misty fog illuminated by yellowish halos around the street

Early Morning Mist, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

lamps. Suddenly, the silence would be broken by the stereotypic crow of a

nearby anxious rooster or the threatening nasty growls of aggressive street dogs that would flood my body with nerve-shocking adrenalin as I yelled and waved my arms to keep them away, my heart pounding.

Many of the buildings are heavily in disrepair. Or they are falling down. Others look partially constructed and suspended in time. Many buildings

Waiting for a Second Floor? Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

have steel rebar sticking up above their roofs probably in anticipation of

building a second story some day. Many things are jury rigged, as the clever and highly resourceful Guatemalans in Xela somehow find ways to keep things working and functioning. Electrical wires drape over the utility poles and streets like tangles of messy hair. Angry barbed wire twists around many buildings in hopes of deterring throngs of

Wires Everywhere, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

vexatious thieves. Or pieces of razor sharp broken glass are glued to the edges of buildings screaming “keep the hell out or risk massive hemorrhaging!” There are bars on almost every window in Xela and strong metal doors are heavily padlocked. And lots of graffiti hurls epithets in opposition to the political corruption, among other communications and cartoonish “artwork.”

Cars speed through the streets ignoring or sometimes seemingly targeting pedestrians. Some cars would actually speed up as I was crossing forcing me to run across to the other side. Some drivers even blast their horn as if to say “don’t even dare to cross in front of me!“ The sidewalks are narrow and irregular making it easy to trip (which is true of Antigua as well). Each evening, a local barber would take down his traditional electric motorized barber sign so it doesn’t get stolen. By the way, a standard haircut is just 15 Quetzales or just $1.95!

As I walked home after school for lunch, the streets became progressively quieter as I got further away from the central historic area. However, in the neighborhoods, I loved running into the bustle of school children nicely dressed in their uniforms of smart looking sweaters, skirts or slacks and neatly combed and gelled hair walking home or meeting their parents. The kids in Xela and all through Guatemala are bright-eyed, alert, curious, friendly, clever, affectionate, intelligent and beautiful.

The shops everywhere in Guatemala, and notably in Xela, have enormous inventories, packed shelves and items stacked to the ceiling as if things

So Much Inventory! Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

will be flying off the shelves. The amount of food in the mercado, including

fruits and vegetables, chickens and meat is staggering. They can’t possibly sell it all and then where does it go? And nothing is refrigerated. Beef, pork and who knows what else hangs in the open air feeding the persistent flies until if and when a buyer comes by. Naked slaughtered chickens are displayed split open, some of which contain gifts of golden yolks that would have been inside eggshells in the next few days or weeks. Bowls of expressionless chicken heads, necks and feet sit nearby.

But there are a few treasures that I was able to find with lots of detective work and a few hints from insiders. A charming coffee roaster sits

Coffee Roaster, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

unassumingly on a side street where I enjoyed possibly the best cup of coffee that

I’ve ever had. A hippieish restaurant has filled its walls with tons of items worthy of an antique shop. A lovely tiny private library has traditional school desks for anyone to sit, read a book, check one out and have a cup of local coffee or a bakery snack. A locally famous bakery chain, Xela Pan, provides a wonderful assortment of very inexpensive delicious baked

Xela Pan, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

goodies such as a chocolate cupcake for just 32 cents. In fact, food in Xela

is very inexpensive. For example, I could get a Guatemalan tipico (typical or traditional) breakfast of two eggs, plantains, frijoles, cheese, cream, bread or tortillas, orange juice and coffee for just around $6.50!

An unassuming Mediterranean restaurant serves juicy and tender chicken kabobs in a former run down mansion that has its own uniquely dramatic history. A Mennonite bakery sells fresh pies and doughnuts filled with fresh fruit. A sparking new mall rivals the finest found in the United States. A hillside restaurant, aptly named “Panorama,” provides breath-taking

Municipal Theater, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

views of Xela and many of the surrounding pueblos. A lovely municipal

theater has a novel-worthy history of wealth and poverty, peace and war, life and death and of course, comedy and tragedy. And a sign outside of the bar, “El Shamrock” says ” No Guns, No Drugs, No Minors and No Bad Vibes.”

“No Guns, No Drugs, No Minors, No Bad Vibes” at El Shamrock, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

A clownish talented juggler entertains the Sunday crowd in the Parque

Juggler in Parque Central, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

Central in the historic district. Lovely murals and street art are an

unexpected pleasant surprise. Beautiful courtyard gardens and even art galleries can be found by looking in doorways. I had a chance to witness a spiritually lovely Mayan fire ceremony. A street vendor sells tulips freshly sprouted from bulbs. A couple of elderly street janitors hold onto each other in the chilly damp morning. A Mayan woman enjoys having her photo taken as

Mayan Woman Making Cascarones (Eggshells filled with confetti), Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

she makes cascarones, which are colorful eggshells filled with confetti

which the kids throw at each other during Carnival. And a chaotic cemetery of unexpected colorful and sometimes temporary graves and crypts is full of history, legends and possibly even ghosts. (See my story about Vanushka, a hauntingly charming Guatemalan Romeo and Juliet legend).

Short anecdote: On one of my day trips outside of Xela, while riding in the chicken bus, I happened to notice a small store named “Kike’s” which I read to myself with the same pronunciation as the highly derogatory word for “Jew” which some consider to be the equivalent of the N-word. Of course, I quickly concluded that the shop’s owner surely could not have known about the disparaging meaning of his store’s name. I happened to mention it to a local person here in Guatemala who quickly pointed out that I had read the sign in English whereas in Spanish, it was actually pronounced, Kee-kays, which is a shortened version of the name, “Enrique.” Reminder to self: when in a Spanish speaking country, read signs in Spanish, not English.

So I’m still struggling to figure out Xela. I keep asking myself whether I liked it. Mas o menos (more or less). Like anything, it had its good things and those not so good. Overall, I was glad that I lived there and had the chance to live with a wonderful family, the wife of which had a European background from many generations ago and the husband was a handsome indigenous Mayan gentleman (which caused a lot of conflict in their families when they decided to get married almost thirty years ago). I liked being immersed in the culture and rarely if ever hearing a word of English. Admittedly, we all have our dark sides and so did Xela. We had a challenging and maybe even a dysfunctional relationship but we both managed to get through it.

Mayan Fire Ceremony, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Tulips for Sale, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Mural, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Barber Getting Ready for Business, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Mural, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Pelotas! (Balls) , Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
So Much Inventory! Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Mural, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Street Dogs, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Street Art?, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Courtyard Garden, Municipal Building, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Early Morning Stroll, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Mural, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Mercado, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Mural, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Restaurant Decor, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Mercado, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

Candelaria

Faces glow in the mystical incandescence of hundreds of candles along with a roaring bonfire illuminating the beauty of La Festividad de la Virgen de Candelaria. I was fortunate to witness this stunningly beautiful celebration at the church, Iglesia San Bartolomé, next door to where I was living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.

In the chilly night air, a bonfire was lit in the church’s front courtyard and hundreds of candles were passed out to the many parishioners bundled up and surrounding the bonfire. The flames from the bonfire were used to light the initial candles which were then shared with others until all the candles were lit. The priest offered prayers and songs, and sprinkled the crowd, including me, with holy water. Then everyone entered the church for mass. The hundreds of candles literally brought a comfort of warmth into otherwise drafty cold church.

According to Catholic tradition, the light of the candles represents purity and gave rise to the name “Candelaria.” The festival celebrates, among other things, the presentation of the child Jesus in the temple and the purification of the Virgin.

The following series of photos commemorates this lovely festival.

Festival of the Virgin of the Candelaria, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbenig, all rights reserved.
Festival of the Virgin of the Candelaria, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbenig, all rights reserved.
Festival of the Virgin of the Candelaria, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbenig, all rights reserved.
Festival of the Virgin of the Candelaria, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbenig, all rights reserved.
Festival of the Virgin of the Candelaria, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbenig, all rights reserved.
Festival of the Virgin of the Candelaria, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbenig, all rights reserved.
Festival of the Virgin of the Candelaria, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbenig, all rights reserved.
Festival of the Virgin of the Candelaria, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbenig, all rights reserved.
Festival of the Virgin of the Candelaria, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbenig, all rights reserved.
Festival of the Virgin of the Candelaria, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbenig, all rights reserved.
Festival of the Virgin of the Candelaria, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbenig, all rights reserved.

Explorations Beyond Xela

While it can be a bit challenging to find things to do in Quetzaltenango (also called by its Mayan name, Xela), there are lots of things to see in the surrounding areas. The Spanish school that I attended in Xela, Celas Maya, offered lots of activities including classes in making tortillas and chocolate, and day trips to nearby pueblos, volcanoes and even natural saunas fed by volcanic heat, all of which are the subject of this article.

The first day trip was to Salcaja, a municipality in the Quetzaltenango Department (departments are like states) of Guatemala. Of course, we went by chicken bus which is always an adventure. The buses go way too fast forcing you to hang on tight! Salcaja is about 30 minutes from Xela and is the site of the Church of San Jacinto, which was the first church built in Central America, founded in 1524 by the Spaniards. Salcaja was one of the first places invaded by the Spanish during their conquest of Guatemala which explains why the first Central American church is located there.

Church of San Jacinto, Salcajá, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

The church itself is beautiful with its eaves very decorative and whimsical. The church was fairly small but the inside was ornate and beautifully detailed. As a pueblo, Salcaja is very nice and actually had some newer buildings making it seem a bit upscale in comparison to the neighboring pueblos or even Xela.

Church of San Jacinto, Salcajá, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Salcaja is also known for its production of a homemade liquor called called Caldo de Frutas or fruit broth. It’s actually a very sweet fruit wine. After visiting the church, we went to the home of the family that makes this type of fruit wine and of course, we had a chance to sample it. It was very sweet and had an interesting fruity fermented flavor. It has a higher alcohol content than wine made from grapes. It would be great to have on a warm summer afternoon or as a dessert wine with cheese or dark chocolate.

The next day, we visited Chiquilaja, another pueblo not far from Xela, again using the chicken bus. We had gone to attend the Feria en honor al Cristo Negro de Esquipulas, which was a large fair and fiesta in celebration of the Black Christ, a continuation of the celebration that had started a few days earlier. (There is more about this in my previous article, “Xela Who?”)

Feria en honor al Cristo Negro de Esquipulas, Chiquilaja, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

The fair was colorful and festive. First we watched a special type of group dance called a Combite, where the dancers wear interesting costumes and masks apparently representative of different aspects of Mayan

Combite, Feria en honor al Cristo Negro de Esquipulas, Chiquilaja, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Combite, Feria en honor al Cristo Negro de Esquipulas, Chiquilaja, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

culture. The dancing went on for quite a while accompanied by a large band and singers. We then visited the nearby church adjacent to the fair where people waited in long lines to have a chance to touch the imagen (religious

Iglesia Catolica del Señor De Esquipulas, Cristo Negro de Esquipulas, Chiquilaja, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

statute) of the Cristo Negro. The people crawled up through a narrow passageway to the top of the altar just to have a chance to touch the feet and ankle of the imagen which was the only part they could reach by a sizable stretch as the people maneuvered themselves through the tight space.

We then walked through an extensive carnival filled with lots of games and rides including a huge Ferris wheel. I enjoyed the fact that our small group of students seemed to be the only non-Guatemalans there. It was wonderful being immersed into the culture, surrounded by hundreds of indigenous people in their beautiful and colorful traditional woven

Feria en honor al Cristo Negro de Esquipulas, Chiquilaja, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

clothing. We also walked through the food area with numerous vendors

selling lots of traditional fried everything along with thousands of rings of sesame seed coveredpan dulce (sweet bread). As the sun was setting, we headed by back to Xela by, of course, chicken bus.When I arrived home, I found that the church next-door to our house was also having a Combite in celebration of Cristo

Combite, Feria en honor al Cristo Negro de Esquipulas, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Negro. I watched the dancers who were dressed in similar costumes as the ones that I had seen earlier in Chiquilaja.

Our next trip was an early morning hike to el Mirador del Volcán Santiaguito, one of three active volcanoes in Guatemala. (I have been lucky enough to see all three, two of which were actively erupting!) Santiaguito is very active and is next to Volcán Santa Maria, a nearly perfect cone shaped specimen of a classic volcano that is currently inactive. However, in 1902, Santa Maria’s enormous eruption ranked in the top 10 of the worlds biggest eruptions of the century and caused extensive damage and loss of life in and around Xela.

We were on the trail by around 5:30 a.m. since we wanted to view the volcano before the cloud formation that starts building up early in the day. It was still pitch black requiring us to hike by flashlight at the beginning of the hike. It was a fairly difficult strenuous hike, and very steep in parts. However, as the sun began to rise, it was beautiful as we walked through a densely forested area filled with beautiful plants, trees and wildflowers. It was very cold with frost on the ground and on some of the plants.

The hike eventually leveled out somewhat which made it a little easier but still fairly challenging. It was also difficult because the altitude was above 8,000 feet so I had a little trouble catching my breath at times.

On the way up, we passed a lot of indigenous people who were climbing the volcano to work on farms where the volcanic soil is very rich and

Guatemalan Farmer, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

fertile. Heavily burdened men, women and even children dressed in their

traditional clothing were climbing the steep volcano with seemingly little effort. Apparently this is a daily commute for these hard-working Guatemaltecos. Some of the men were caring huge loads of wood or other items on their backs which clearly weighed more than they did!

It took two and a half hours to reach the lookout with a direct view of Volcán Santiaguito which was spewing white smoke when we got there.

Volcán Santiaguito, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

Apparently it has fairly sizable eruptions every five hours or so. We

watched the volcano for about 45 minutes as we ate some breakfast and waited for the sun to rise further which fortunately gave us some badly needed warmth. A friendly dog met us near the lookout and hung around hoping for tidbits of food from the weary hikers. Some of us complied.

We watched the smoldering volcano for a while and of course took lots of photos. We then decided to start our descent but just five minutes later,

Volcán Santiaguito, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

we heard a hissing noise from the volcano and realized that it had started erupting. We quickly detoured our path to get a good view of the huge eruption that was amazing to see and experience. I have now been to all three of Guatemala’s active volcanoes, Fuego, Santiaguito and Pacaya.

We made our way back down the volcano which was also fairly challenging given the rocky terrain and the steepness of the trail. On our way down, we passed a number of indigenous men and boys with sheep,

Returning from Volcán Santiaguito, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

cows and horses going up into the area where we had just been. Our five hour hike had been well worth it having had a chance to see the amazing eruption, the beautiful scenery and of course, the wonderful people.

The next day, we went to Refugio del Quetzal which is a refuge and breeding area for Guatemala’s national bird, the Quetzal, a stunningly beautiful green and red bird known and treasured for its very long tail feathers. The Guatemalan currency, the Quetzal, is obviously named for its beloved bird.

Quetzal, National Bird of Guatemala

For this adventure, we left at 5 a.m. on a private bus for the two and a half hour ride. We drove into the tropical lowland areas of Guatemala that became very lush and green typical of many Central American countries. It was also much warmer because it was lower and closer to the ocean. We arrived at the beautiful refuge, heavily forested, steep and filled with the sounds of lots of birds, waterfalls and rushing water from a nearby stream. We started hiking up the steep trail and around 10 minutes later, we spotted our first Quetzal! These gorgeous birds are certainly more impressive in the wild than any photo could possibly convey.

We had been told that there was no guarantee that we would even see one since they tend to be well hidden, they stay high up in the trees and they are fairly rare and endangered so it was exciting to actually see one. In fact, we were fortunate to see about six Quetzales as we continued our

Quetzal, Refugio del Quetzal, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved. (the poor quality of the photo is due to the enlargement necessary to see the Quetzal)

hike. They were stunningly beautiful especially in flight with their long tail

feathers being carried delicately behind them. We continued up the trail which was quite steep through this tropical cloud forest which was gorgeous, past the cascading waterfalls and rushing streams. We eventually made it up the hill above the canopy and tree line where the area cleared into a grassy area with

Refugio del Quetzal, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

views of several volcanoes in the distance. We stayed there for a little while catching our breath before returning back down the hill. At the bottom, we had a chance to walk on a swaying suspension bridge stretched over a fast rushing stream being fed by a very large beautiful waterfall nearby. By that time, it was starting to get quite warm so we headed to the bus and back to Xela.

One day, we went to Zunil, a nearby pueblo that has a lot of underground volcanic and geothermal activity. We went to Las Cumbres, a natural spa with saunas that were fed by natural damp volcanically heated air. It was really amazing that they could capture and use the heat this way. The airflow in each sauna was controlled by covering an opening in the floor with a concrete lid.

Another adventure was going to the pueblo, Totonicapan, referred to as “Toto” for its very colorful and bustling Saturday mercado where they seem to sell everything imaginable! Before heading into the mercado, I had a delicious traditional Guatemalan breakfast (desayuno tipico) of scrambled eggs, plantains, cheese, cream, black frijoles and bread. The mercado was wonderful. They are also known for their colorful pottery. Of course, I had to buy a few pieces. One of the best parts of the mercado was that there were no tourists so we

Colorful Pottery, Totonicapan Mercado, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

had a chance to have an authentic experience of being intimately immersed into the local culture. The colorful sights, resonant sounds and fried sweet smells were indescribably and incredibly memorable.

I also had a chance to visit El Asinta, an archeological site of Mayan ruins located in the tropical lowlands of Guatemala a couple of hours from Xela.

El Asinta Archeological Site, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

We saw interesting ruins and artifacts among the beautiful tropical trees and lovely flowers. This was the site of the Mesoamerican city of Takalik Abaj. In this area, there was a convergence of the Olmecs from Mexico and the beginnings of the Mayan culture which became huge over time especially in Tikal in the northern part of Guatemala which we visited last December, 2018.

Takalik Abajwas a sizable city and the site is filled with lots of ruins including sculptures and petroglyphs. We had an interesting and

El Asinta Archeological Site, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

somewhat quirky tour guide who seemed almost mechanical at times. He was very pleasant, professional and took his job, and maybe himself, very seriously and was comically theatrical. There was a small zoo on the property with lots of common animals including coyotes, raccoons, spider monkeys and several types of birds.

We next visited the nearby pueblo of San Andrés Xecul which is known for its famously colorful church, La Iglesia de San Andrés de Xecul.

La Iglesia de San Andrés Xecul, San Andrés Xecul, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Interestingly, the church is somewhat plain and simple on the inside. But the outside is gorgeous. Not only is it colorfully painted, the exterior walls

La Iglesia de San Andrés Xecul, San Andrés Xecul, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

are done in three dimensional relief. I had seen numerous photos of this stunning church and I was determined to find it. I was excited to learn that it was just about 30 minutes from Xela by chicken bus and tuk tuk. The pueblo itself is built up the side of a very steep hill, part of which we climbed and enjoyed a great view of the entire area.

I fortunately packed a lot in during the month that I was living in Xela. While there was not a lot to do in the Xela itself, there is so much to see and experience in the surrounding areas filled with lots of culture, color and wonderful people. There are more photos that capture some of these travels.

Totonicapan Mercado, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Totonicapan Mercado, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Totonicapan, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Totonicapan, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Totonicapan, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Totonicapan Mercado, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Totonicapan Mercado, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Totonicapan Mercado, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Totonicapan Mercado, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Totonicapan Mercado, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Totonicapan Mercado, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Totonicapan Mercado, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Totonicapan Mercado, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Feria en honor al Cristo Negro de Esquipulas, Chiquilaja, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Feria en honor al Cristo Negro de Esquipulas, Chiquilaja, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Feria en honor al Cristo Negro de Esquipulas, Chiquilaja, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Combite, Feria en honor al Cristo Negro de Esquipulas, Chiquilaja, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Combite, Feria en honor al Cristo Negro de Esquipulas, Chiquilaja, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Photo of the Week- Just Another Day at the Antigua Mercado

Antigua Mercado, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

Another bustling Saturday at the Mercado in Antigua, Guatemala. Colorful umbrellas work hard to shield mothers and babies from the hot mid-day sun. Everything imaginable is for sale from four-inch thick zanahorias (carrots), to fresh in-season mangos, to freshly made black-corn tortillas, fish and shrimp, chicken, meat of all kinds, dried iguanas, and all types of clothing, shoes, CD’s and more. The million-photo sights along with the pungent smells and the loud voices of the vendedores (sellers) make this an E-ticket ride.

Everyone is focused on either selling or buying something so I seem to be the only one that has noticed that Volcán Fuego (Volcano of Fire) has just started violently erupting spewing lava and smoke high into the air. It settled down after a few minutes only to roar again within the next half hour as it seems to do. Just another day at the Mercado.

Photo of the Week- Wedding Surprise!

Two smartly dressed little niños with perfectly gelled and styled hair (at the left) have decided that this wedding procession is way too somber and boring for them so they are secretly scheming to pop a few balloons to liven things up. The bride in her beautiful traditional clothing certainly doesn’t look happy and she is keeping her distance from the groom who is gazing down at the ground. The seemingly sad guests look as if they’ve just attended a funeral. So here they go… POP! POP! POP! (which happened just moments after I took this photo).

Wedding Procession, San Antonio Aguas Calientes, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

Remembering Vanushka on Valentine’s Day

This article includes the very romantic legend of Vanushka. The legend is a wonderful story to share with your loved one on Valentine’s Day. You may want to keep the tradition going by reading it to the one you love! (This article is dedicated to my wonderful partner on Valentine’s Day!)

As you walk into the many tomb filled cemeteries in Guatemala, you can almost feel the air thicken and cool slightly as you walk in. I have visited a number of graveyards in Guatemala – some are nicer than others- but they all leave a similar other-worldly impression filled with tombs with above and below the ground graves. And they all seem to have a slight creepiness to them, notwithstanding the fact that I’ve been repeatedly

Quetzaltenango Cemetery. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

warned never to go to a Guatemalan cemetery alone, especially in the larger cites like Quetzaltenango (“Xela”) or even Antigua since they tend to be stomping grounds for robbers and muggers. Of course, that adds a little adrenaline and more creepiness to the experience of going there.

Nonetheless, the cemeteries here are still very interesting to visit because they are filled with local and national history and of course, lots of local stories and legends. I visited the somewhat delapidated cemetery in Xela and it was no exception. It was more worn down than other cemeteries here

Quetzaltenango Cemetery, Private Section. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

that I’ve seen. Like many cemeteries in Guatemala, Xela’s cemetery has its wealthy private section filled with very large and often extravagant tombs. Some are made of marble or granite, although it is not unusual to find pieces of marble statutes or other items to be missing from tombs from robbers who steal the semi-precious materials and sell it elsewhere.

Then there is the public area that is more modest, sometimes with as little as a mound of dirt with a few dying flowers and marked with a homemade

Quetzaltenango Cemetery, Public Section. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

wooden cross showing the grave of a loved one. The family has to pay a fee every year to keep their family member in the cemetery – but this is only for seven years. Cemetery space is in short supply in Xela so after seven years – you guessed it – the human remains need to be removed and taken somewhere else or discarded. And if the family fails to pay the yearly fee, the government comes along and removes the remains even sooner. Then, it’s anyone’s guess where the remains end up after that. Some families cover the grave with large slabs of concrete in hopes that the government will leave them alone since it’s such a hassle to remove the concrete to get to the remains. But many families are unable to pay for the slab so they are faced with the awful decision of what to do with whatever is left of whoever it was.

Xela’s cemetery is very unique since it features the very popular tomb of their beloved Vanushka- which brings me to the main point of this

Tomb of Vanushka. Quetzaltenango Cemetery. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

romantic blog in honor of Valentine’s Day. Truth be told, just like most guys, I am not a big fan of Valentine’s Day. But I have a romantic side to me and somehow I found myself enamored with the lovely legend of Vanushka, Guatemala’s version of Romeo y Julieta. There are apparently several versions of the story, but they are all a variation of the same theme. And the following is the one I like the best.

Vanushka Cárdenas Baraja was the daughter of a Gypsy family who migrated from Hungary to Guatemala in the early twentieth century. Vanushka and her family performed in a traveling circus that moved around Guatemala for a while before settling in Xela for several months to perform its daring feats. The shows were very popular and attracted lots of people from miles around, and as such, it also got the attention of a number of high profile guests. One of those guests was the son of a very wealthy family from Spain, possibly the son of the Spanish Ambassador at that time. The son saw one of the shows and was completely taken and enamored by Vanushka’s dazzling performance. After the show was over, the young dashingly handsome Spanish man caught a glimpse of the breathtakingly beautiful Vanushka and rushed to where she was to meet her. They were both extremely attracted to each other and the two spent the rest of the evening together and fell head over tails deeply in love.

Knowing that the Spanish son’s family would never approve of him being with Vanushka given her Gypsy background, the young couple embarked on a secret steamy relationship which was unknown to their families, during which time their love for each other deepened and intensified. But of course, their relationship didn’t stay a secret for very long. Somehow, the son’s father found out and was infuriated that his son, who was from such a wealthy and noble family could end up in a loving relationship with a young Gypsy woman from a traveling circus!

Their parents forbade their continued relationship, and separated them by forcing the son to return to Spain, against his wishes, to attend the university there. Of course, Vanushka was devastated, distraught and inconsolable. Sadly, she fell into a deep depression, failed to eat, slowly wasted away and died of a broken heart at such a tender young age.

Vanushka’s Spanish lover did not know what had become of her until he returned to Xela a few years later looking for her. Searching all over, he was eventually told about his beloved’s untimely death. He ran to the cemetery and found her simple tomb. He stayed there for a while, weeping, and he put a single flower on her grave. Each year thereafter, the handsome Spaniard returned to Xela solely to visit his lover’s tomb and to place a single flower on her tomb. He lived well into his eighties but never married since he could never imagine being with anyone other than his cherished Vanushka.

As sad as this story is, this is not how it ends. Soon after Vanushka’s tragic death, a woman who had suffered a similar separation from her own love heard of Vanushka’s story and went to the cemetery to weep at her grave in empathy. Soon thereafter, this women ended up being reunited with her lover which gave rise to the legend of Vanushka. Now, Vanushka’s tomb is

Tomb of Vanushka. Quetzaltenango Cemetery. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

believed to have the power to bring love to those who ask for it of her. As a result, the tomb has been embellished with a statue of the lovesick Vanushka grasping a photo of her treasured lover. The heavily cream painted statue is always covered head to toe with notes and flowers from lovelorn visitors asking Vanushka for help in finding true love, or to be reunited with

Tomb of Vanushka. Quetzaltenango Cemetery. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

estranged partners. Her tomb is the most visited in the entire cemetery. In fact, it receives so many notes, it is regularly painted over and the statue even had to be replaced in 2011.

When we were there, a police car was parked nearby. I suspected there might have been a problem or the officer was there trying to keep the area safe. But sure enough, the police officer was paying Vanushka a visit in hopes of finding true love.

Happy Valentine’s Day from Vanushka and me.

Xela Who?

This article is a continuation of my previous article entitled Quetzaltenango-Rough Around the Edges; And Some Personal Reflections on Coming Back to Guatemala.”

I can’t remember exactly what I was doing when I heard the gunshot. I had been dreaming. My brain was foggy. I opened my eyes. The room was pitch black except for a tiny bit of light peeking under my door. It was cold. The clock on my cell phone showed 4:32 a.m. It took a minute or two for me to remember where I was. I was at the family’s house in Quetzaltanango (or more commonly called “Xela” (shayla) which is the most abrieviated version of its Mayan name, Xelajú noj (sheyla-who-noh), which was shortened to Xelajú (sheyla-who) and then to Xela). It was my first morning here in Xela.

I suddenly remembered that there were supposed to be firecrackers at the neighboring church at 4:30 a.m. to signify the beginning of the celebration of Cristo Negro or Black Christ. Of course. It then occurred to me that the “gunshot” in my dream had actually been the sound of the firecracker from the church. I pushed my earplugs deeper into my ear canals in hopes that any further thundering booms would be muffled. However, anticipating that there would be more, I had difficulty falling back to sleep. I hate firecrackers.

Then, at 5:30 AM, the church bells started ringing. Many of them, in different tones. Why in the world were they doing this so early on Sunday morning?! And mariachi music was blasting from the church’s loud speakers which had been placed just outside the church. More ringing. Ear plugs can only muffle so much. I put the pillow over my head. It helped slightly. The room was freezing. I pulled the covers up higher almost covering my head. After what seemed like a long time, the ringing started to slow down, softened a bit and then finally stopped. But the music continued. I tried to fall asleep but that simply was not going to happen. Maybe I dozed a bit.

By around 6:00 a.m., my ears were assaulted by the sudden loud snapping of hundreds of firecrackers going off at the same time like haphazard machine guns. They popped and cracked incessantly with the music still blaring. This went on for quite a while as well. The firecrackers finally stopped. I tried to doze but I’m not sure if I succeeded. I tossed a little. I still didn’t feel well from the bug I’d been fighting. And I was tired.

I layed in bed for a while until breakfast was almost ready. I had trouble getting out of bed because it was so damn cold. I put on my jeans, the cold denim chilling my legs like bags of ice. I continued to get dressed with more cold refrigerated clothes. Even my shoes seemed frosty as was my sweatshirt. I considered putting on my down jacket but then decided against it since I was only going across the house’s courtyard to get to the kitchen for breakfast. The rectangular colonial house surrounds the courtyard so there are no internal hallways connecting my bedroom to the other part of the house. I eventually made it to breakfast and chatted with the mom in Spanish. We both commiserated about the cold (“hay mucho frio“)and how early it was when the firecrackers went off, the bells started ringing and the loco mariachi music. The pancakes she made me were tasty, thin and light. She offered me instant coffee which I politely declined and asked for tea instead. We continued talking although my fatigue made it a struggle for me to find the correct Spanish words to converse with her. Somehow I managed okay. And fortunately my suitcases were still partially packed.

After breakfast, I was still feeling like crap but I decided to take a walk in the city to explore as I love to do. Maybe that would help me feel better. I was still disenchanted by yesterday’s initial meeting with Xela, an unfriendly stranger. The cliché kept playing in my head: don’t judge a book by its cover. I walked past the church next door to our house, Iglesia San Bartolomé, and watched people creating alfombras or street carpets made of colored sawdust with pretty stenciled designs in preparation for the procession later that afternoon in celebration of Cristo Negro.

Alfrombras in Preparation for the Procession of Cristo Negro, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

Next, I wanted to find my way to the Spanish school, Celas Maya, since I would be walking there the following day, Monday, for my first day. The lessons are five hours a day, one-on-one instruction in which we sit at small tables in a lovely open garden area of a converted old colonial house. I made it there in about 15 minutes, about a mile. Then I proceeded to explore the immediate area of Xela but my negative impressions didn’t change. At least not yet.

Metropolitan Cathedral, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

I walked around the Parque Centro América (the central park) that was fairly nice, somewhat pretty and it was fun to people watch. Lots of people were milling about, kids were playing as hundreds of pigeons were being fed, and vendors were selling colorful toys, junk food snacks, souvenirs and of course, bird food. I then went across the street to the remains of the Iglesia del Espíritu Santo, the beautifully detailed facade of the original

Facade of Iglesia del Espíritu Santo, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

cathedral that was built in 1532, but was later destroyed by earthquakes in 1853 and 1902. Xela’s newer Metropolitan Cathedral which sits next to the Iglesia was completed in the 1990s and is impressive and actually beautiful. Mass was underway and the huge cathedral was packed inside with parishioners with more people overflowing outside. I watched for a little while and then decided to continue with my walk.

I came to a large stately building with columns which peaked my interest. There were statues of poets outside and someone told me it was a municipal building. I later found out it was actually a theater for live performances. Unfortunately, nothing is playing this time of year. I continued my walk but found lots of shops closed. I happened to notice a makeshift train traveling through the streets filled with kids and probably their parents. The locomotive had been created by covering a tractor with painted metal panels to make it look like a locomotive along with a passenger car that was actually a converted bus to make it look like a train. The weak horn sounded hoarse and fatigued and the whole contraption was spewing heavy smoke from the smokestack as it drove around the area.

Street Train, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

My impression of Xela was beginning to improve slightly but I still found it dirty, in disrepair and it seemed to lack charm. Apparently, once the Spaniards moved out of the city, the Germans moved in which explains why some of the architecture in the central historic district has a somber feel, with the buildings looking dreary, gray, worn and old. My Lonely Planet travel book said that Xela is the “perfect Guatemalan town, not too big not too small.“ The book also promised that “by Guatemala standards, it is an orderly, clean and safe city.” Actually, it’s not. Sadly, there is lots of trash around, tons of roaming street dogs and their droppings, pollution from the vehicles, volcanic ash in the air, and drivers speed dangerously through the streets with little regard to pedestrians making it very risky to try and cross the streets. And even the family I’m staying with and the school warned me not to be out at night, to be extra careful in crowded areas, not to hike alone in the Cerro El Baul, a forested lava dome near the house and to never take a chicken bus alone.

Iglesia San Bartolomé next door to my house with Cerro El Baúl behind, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

As it was after lunchtime, I wasn’t really hungry but I felt I needed to eat something so I ended up at Pollo Campero where at least I could get a piece of chicken. Since many restaurants seemed to be closed on Sunday, the other options seemed to be McDonald’s or Taco Bell which I quickly ruled out. After lunch, I walked around through different streets in the direction of the house since I wanted to get back for the Cristo Negro church festivities including a procession that was supposed to begin around 3 p.m. along with a carnival of kiddie rides and lots of food vendors selling lots of fried everything.

Mass had already begun at neighboring church, Iglesia San Bartolomé which seemed fairly full. The mass was being amplified through loudspeakers outside of the church that could be heard throughout the neighborhood. Deafening firecrackers went off periodically throughout the service. Eventually, the procession started with a group of people exiting the church carrying a small platform or anda bearing an imagin or

Procession of Cristo Negro, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

religious statue of the Cristo Negro with a small band following behind playing somber music. Hundreds of people lined the nearby streets as the

Procession of Cristo Negro, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

procession left the church and entered the city’s streets with thousands of firecrackers going off. It was an impressive site. I ran into the family that I’m living with at the church. The mom was nicely dressed and the dad looked handsome and disguished in his gray suit.

I learned that this was the celebration of the Black Christ of Esquipulas which is a wooden image of Christ now housed in the Cathedral Basilica of Esquipulas in Esquipulas, Guatemala. It is one of the Cristos Negros of

Procession of Cristo Negro, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

Central America and Mexico. According to tradition, the imagin of Cristo Negro was apparently found in a cave and had healing power. The image had been sculpted by a Portuguese artist in 1594. It blackened over the

Procession of Cristo Negro, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

years due to soot from the candles and incense. There are many legends concerning the Cristo Negro involving answered prayers and miraculous cures of illnesses that have enhanced its reputation. Many people come and pray, and ask for help in front of this religious icon which has been credited with miraculous healing powers.

Procession of Cristo Negro, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

I continued to follow the procession for a while but then I decided to explore some more streets. After a while as I was heading back to the house, I intercepted the procession once again since it was still going so I had a chance to experience it a second time and of course, take some additional photos.

I got back to the house in time for cena (dinner) and we had a nice discussion about the festivities and the procession. By that time, I was feeling a little better. I realized that I was now living in the heart of Guatemala, in a hard-core intense non-English speaking city which was actually the type of immersive experience that I had been hoping for. Presented with this challenge, I committed to staying the month and then proceeded to completely unpack my suitcases. It was getting very cold in my bedroom, probably down into the lower 40s since the house has no heat. I got my things ready for school and went to bed on the early side under four blankets and fell asleep wondering what this new experience was going to be like.

Procession of Cristo Negro, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

Procession of Cristo Negro, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

Procession of Cristo Negro, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Procession of Cristo Negro, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Procession of Cristo Negro, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Procession of Cristo Negro, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Procession of Cristo Negro, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Procession of Cristo Negro, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Procession of Cristo Negro, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Procession of Cristo Negro, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Cristo Negro Carnival, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Cristo Negro Carnival, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Cristo Negro Carnival, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Quetzaltenango-Rough Around the Edges; And Some Personal Reflections on Coming Back to Guatemala

Strong pangs of doubt began to nag at me during my three week hiatus in Los Angeles and New York in December before I was due to return to Guatemala in January. Why was I going back? Why was I learning Spanish? What was I trying to prove? What was this really all about? I struggled to search for answers but none were easy. My friends, family and partner were scratching their heads. I tried to fight off these feelings but they persisted. Should I change my mind and not go? Somehow, I kept pushing forward towards returning. It was literally a tug of war.

I guess I didn’t want to admit that although the last three and a half months in Guatemala had been enriching, interesting and filled with great experiences, it had also been stressful, difficult and challenging. I was trying to adjust to living here at which I thought I was doing pretty well. But there were conveniences at home that I took for granted that certainly didn’t exist in Guatemala. And the chaotic environment, the need to be very careful while walking on the uneven sidewalks and streets, the danger of living in Guatemala and making sure I was not out late a night, not understanding the language and at times, the culture, the frequent firecrakers that kept me jumping and other things were a constant source of concern and stress. Of course, this was the experience that I signed up for. I’m not complaining, just reporting. Also, my Spanish lessons were very difficult and frustrating. There were times I just wanted to throw up my hands and say “I’ve had it,” but somehow I kept going. Fortunately, my teacher was very pleasant, thankfully patient and reassuring. It didn’t help that I put a lot of pressure on myself to excel at Spanish when things were not coming quickly enough for me. I literally had to tell myself to “lighten up!” which I did but sometimes it’s not easy being me. Again, I’m not complaining, just reporting.

Despite my resistance to come back to Guatemala, I felt compelled to return because I knew there were still lessons to be learned about why I had chosen this adventure to live in another country, experience a different culture for a prolonged period of time and to try to learn another language. Something apparently was going on and I felt that I needed to try and find out what it was. Also, I felt that I had gained some momentum in learning and speaking Spanish and three and a half months of being in Guatemala was simply not enough time. So I pushed myself to come back and somehow I found a way within me to do so.

Unfortunately, two days before returning, I began to feel sick as if I was coming down with some kind of bug. We had just returned from a whirlwind trip to New York City and I was exhausted. Either I had an actual virus or my body was rebelling because of all the junk I ate in New York along with our nonstop activities. I was wondering whether I should delay my trip briefly until I felt better, fearful that I would get worse and be In a country with questionable healthcare. But typical of my personality, I pushed myself anyway to get on that overnight flight as scheduled. Which is what I did. And if I got worse, I would figure it out.

I had a fitful sleep on the plane and woke up around sunrise about a half hour before landing in Guatemala City. The scenery coming into Guatemala is spectacular. Guatemala is full of volcanoes and their peaks rise high into the sky, sometimes through the clouds which is amazing to see. And usually, one or two are erupting. The site of all this as the sun was rising was clearly breathtaking. By now, I know to sit by the window seat on the right side of the plane, preferably in first class, to see the rows of volcanoes as we fly into Guatemala’s La Aurora airport.

Volcano Erupting as Seen from the Plane Coming Into La Aurora Airport, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

While I was busy photographing the gorgeous scenery, feelings of dread crept over me as the plane neared the airport. I was still feeling rundown and I was not sure if I was up for the challenge of living in Guatemala once again. I had no idea what Quezaltenango (it is more commonly called Xela- pronounced “shayla”) was like. And I would be living with a new family that I knew nothing about. The school had arranged the logistics of getting me to Xela which is not an easy trek and involves a four-hour bus ride from Guatemala City. Thoughts of turning around and coming home flooded my head. But then we landed and it was time to get off the plane so my thoughts turned to other things.

I hadn’t eaten much in the previous two days so I was a bit shaky getting off the plane. I was managing two heavy suitcases, a stuffed backpack and a travel guitar which all seemed a bit overwhelming at the time. I don’t know why I wrestled with the idea of having a porter help me with my luggage but I ultimately did and fortunately, we breezed through customs.

As I was exiting the airport, I was eagerly searching for the hand-held sign that was supposed to have my name on it being carried by the taxi driver who would be taking me to the bus station. I walked all around the airport’s exit looking for my name but found nothing. Fortunately, I had a contact phone number so we were able to find each other. We met and just about hugged. The driver only spoke Spanish and I thought he told me that the early bus to Xela was full and had already left so the next bus wouldn’t be until 10:30 a.m which meant a three and a half hour wait at the bus station which I dreaded.

As luck would have it, when we arrived at the bus station, the bus was still there and it was not yet full. I had just enough time to buy my ticket, go to the bathroom and find a seat. The bus was a Greyhound style bus and I seemed to be the only one on the bus that was not from Guatemala or Central America. I sat next to a woman from Xela who seemed annoyed that I chose the seat next to hers, especially when I confirmed with her that this was the correct bus going to Xela. She certainly did not seem annoyed however, when I helped her get her things down from the overhead rack when she needed it. I do not recall her thanking me not that I needed to be thanked. When another woman noticed I had helped the first woman, the second woman also asked me to take down her things as well for which she seemed appreciative.

We had a rest stop about half way to Xela. Fortunately I had some food with me since there was not enough time to eat at the restaurant. It was in a mountainous location with nice views of the farmland nearby. I spoke to some friendly people from the bus after one saw me standing alone and called me over. He was from Xela and another couple was from Costa Rica. We had a fun and friendly conversation – all in Spanish. After that, the bus sped along the very windy mountain roads as we all slid back and forth in our seats from the force of the turns. I’m sure that also annoyed the woman sitting next to me.

We arrived in Xela around 11:30 a.m. The guy from Xela that I met at the rest stop asked me if I wanted to meet for a beer later that day but I politely declined. I was still feeling lousy. The bus station was run down and in a sketchy area. I had arranged to be picked up. There were several taxi drivers there, one of whom was calling out the name of someone but it did not sound like mine. Nonetheless, I asked the taxi driver to see the name on the paper he was holding and fortunately it was me. He drove me in his dented and rusted taxi along the bumpy roads to the Spanish school that I would be attending, and someone there was supposed to take me to the home of the family that I would be living with. Unfortunately, the school was locked. I rang the bell and knocked a few times but there was no answer. The taxi driver and I then walked around the side of the building and found an entrance but no one seem to know what was going on. A woman inside the school made some calls and I was told that the mom of the family would be picking me up shortly. In the meantime, I was given a tour of the school which seemed a little worn but I thought it would work out fine.

View of Quetzaltenango (Xela). Photo of Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

Roughly 20 minutes later, the mom showed up and she seemed guardedly friendly. She is a heavyset woman and looked a bit disheveled. She drove me to their home where I was greeted by a couple of young women, a younger 11 year old boy and the dad, a friendly pleasant looking gray-haired gentleman who promptly introduced himself. Everyone seemed to rush to the car to help move me in. I was shown to my room which is fairly large, rustic looking and fortunately has its own bathroom (one of the few amenities I requested) which is also fairly large. The bedroom has an old but beautiful tile floor and an unpainted wood beam ceiling. There is some writing on the walls so it looks like kids or teens had used the room at some point. And fortunately, it has two windows that look into the garden.

Quetzaltenango (Xela). Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

The dad then wanted to show me around the house. The house itself is an old colonial style house, rustic, yet has great character and features, and a lovely garden which seems to be the passion of the dad. The dad told me that the house and property has been in his family for over 100 years! The house is built around a central pretty courtyard that has a traditional tiered fountain in the middle. I’m not sure if the fountain still works but it looks nice. The garden area is lovely with some mature trees and other plants and flowers that seem well taken care of. There is another huge rear yard that is also a beautiful garden which used to be the area where they kept horses and cattle. The stone troughs are still there and the dad uses them for planters as part of his garden. Also, he took an old metal bed and converted it into an interesting planter. The garden is adorned with some antique tools including an old hoe that would have been pulled by horses, and some old saddles which give the garden a lot of character and seemingly brings it back to an earlier time. It was obvious that the dad takes a lot of pride in his home and his garden areas and he works hard to maintain it.

Old Metal Bed Planter, Quetzaltenango (Xela). Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Unfortunately, I still was not feeling well so I found all of this fairly taxing. I went to unpack and I was told that lunch would be ready shortly. I still wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay as my hesitation started to creep back. Soon, it was lunchtime. Lunch was mostly vegetables. We ate at a large dining table inside the kitchen which is rustic with overflowing shelves and cabinets. There is a stove hooked up to a propane tank which sits next to the stove, a refrigerator and a toaster. Apparently, Xela does not have gas lines under the streets (neither did Antigua) thus the propane tank.

After lunch, the mom wanted to show me how my shower worked. The house does not have electric water heating showerheads as they have in many parts of Guatemala. Instead, there is a small corroding tankless water heater around the side of the house in the laundry area. In order to take a shower, I need go outside to light the pilot and then turn the lever all the way up to “maximo.” Apparently, when the water is running, the small heater kicks in and warms the water. However, the water needs to be running fairly slowly to get heated so there is very little water pressure when I take a shower. And if someone else is watering the lawn or using water, my shower becomes an unusable trickle. But I do get a fairly hot shower! When I’m done, after I get dressed, I need to remember to go outside to turn off the pilot so it does not waste gas. Again, the water heater is connected to another propane tank sitting nearby in the laundry area.

Tankless Water Heater, Quetzaltenango (Xela). Photo by Steve Karbenig, all rights reserved.

The nights and mornings here in Xela are very cold usually in the low 40s or high 30s. The house has no heating so my bedroom usually gets down into the low 40s at night. That means that I spend the evenings usually layered with a flannel shirt, a sweatshirt with the hood over my head, along with a down jacket. I sleep with four blankets. Since it is so cold in the mornings, I wait until the afternoons when it’s warmer to take a shower. Otherwise, I would need to get dressed, go outside in the cold to the side of the house, light the pilot, turn the lever to “maximo,” wait a few minutes, take my shower in the ice cold bathroom, dry off, get dressed and go back outside to shut off the pilot. Given the logistics involved in just trying to take a shower, in reality, I only manage to shower every other day. Yes, being here feels a bit like I’m camping.

Quetzaltenango (Xela). Photo by Steve Karbenig, all rights reserved.

After lunch, I unpacked a little more but I felt so unsettled, I was still questioning whether I was going to stay. I was still feeling poorly. I had no energy and very little appetite. And lunch was a bit disappointing making me wonder whether this was how the food was going to be. I decided to take a walk to find the Spanish school that I would be attending the following Monday. I went through el parque central (the central park) and walked in the central historic district of the city, about a 10 minute walk from the house. I saw the main cathedral which was very large, beautiful, imposing and impressive. But overall, I found the city fairly uninteresting and it seemed dirty. Lots of things were closed on the weekend. I couldn’t even find a nice bakery or restaurant to check out. I did have an ice cream at a local chain.

Catedral de Espíritu Santo de Quetzaltenango (Holy Spirit Cathedral), Quetzaltenango (Xela). Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

There were very few, if any tourists, walking around which I actually liked as I had wanted to feel immersed in the Guatemalan culture. I felt like I had finally reached hardcore Guatemala. Nonetheless, my first impression was not a good one. The city seemed harsh and unfriendly, certainly rough around the edges. There seemed to be no charm. In short, I just didn’t like it and I wondered how long I could actually last here. I was also out of breath a lot since Xela is over 7,600 feet in altitude but I figured I would get used to it.

But then I thought that maybe being here was actually a good challenge for me and maybe this was more of the type of experience that I was looking for. I was here for a reason. And I knew it was too early to decide what I was going to do and I figured my early perceptions were probably being tainted by how poorly I was feeling and how tired I was from my red-eye flight. I came back to the house and took it easy the rest of the day trying to settle in and figure out my routines. But I still didn’t completely unpack just in case.

Parque Central, Quetzaltenango (Xela). Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Dinner was a tasty vegetable soup which went down easily. I had a nice friendly conversation with the mom and dad, both of whom speak no English. It was getting very chilly as everyone had warned me. The house is next door to a church and the parents told me that the following day, Sunday, January 15th, was going to be a huge celebration and fiesta of the Cristo Negro (the Black Christ). I had no idea what that was. That explained the rusted dilapidated kiddie rides literally right outside the front door of the house. The parents then warned me that there would be firecrackers at 4:30 a.m. and church bells ringing by around 5:30 a.m.! This didn’t make me very happy not to mention my dislike of firecrackers. With earplugs deep in my ears, I went to bed on the early side with my suitcases still partially packed.

This story continues in my article entitled “Xela Who?”

Kiddie Rides Outside Our Front Door, Quetzaltenango (Xela). Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Quetzaltenango (Xela). Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Tulips for Sale, Quetzaltenango (Xela). Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Quetzaltenango (Xela). Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
View of the Cathedral, Quetzaltenango (Xela). Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.