Friday, November 28, 2008



For the third tour of our third country in three days, I joined my group for another long bus ride across the countryside, three hours each way. Rebecca and her parents -- again opting out of the long bouncy ride on rough roads -- chose to tour a Mayan museum and an active sugar mill. Rebecca and I have been to many Mayan archaeological sites in the Yucatan, so she had seen similar items to those featured in the museum, but she and her parents were very interested in the sugar mill, watching the entire process from raw harvested cane to mounds of refined sugar (as well as molasses and rum).

On my drive into the Guatemalan highlands, we passed extensive sugar cane fields, where controlled burns were sweeping across the acreage to burn off the leaves for easier harvesting (and to get rid of all the snakes). The air had a smoky pall. From the ship in port, we could see two large, perfect cones of nearby volcanoes; and Guatemala has plenty of volcanoes. As we drove toward our destination -- Lake Arenal -- we passed one of Guatemala's largest active volcanoes, which was erupting that morning, so we watched billowing plumes of gray smoke and ash spewing out of the cone. Fascinating.

Guatemala, like Nicaragua, was noticeably poorer than Costa Rica. People lived in shacks with corrugated sheet-metal roofs and open wooden frameworks. They tended small fields of corn and worked in the cane fields or on pineapple plantations; they harvested fruit from the jungle, cutting coconuts from palm trees and sitting in front of their homes with machetes, cutting away the outer shell of the coconuts. Many families had small fruit stands in front of their homes, displaying fruits they had harvested themselves. In the towns on street corners, juice vendors used hand-cranked juice presses to make a cup of fresh juice for customers, or add fresh juice to paper cones filled with shaved ice.

Though they were as poor as Nicaragua, the attitude of the Guatemalan people was entirely different. I was truly struck by the power of a smile and a wave. As the tour bus drove through the small towns or past cornfields, everyone would smile and wave at us. Children ran out of their homes to wave at the bus; men in the fields would stand up and wave. In the towns, the vendors, shop owners, even people standing in the streets would grin and wave at us -- not because they wanted us to stop and buy something (the tour bus has a set route and passes through every day), but we really felt they were showing their welcome. It is hard to describe the difference -- soon all of us aboard the bus were waving back at every opportunity, and the people loved it. I had never seen so many smiles in a single day.

I tried to imagine what these people must think, seeing busloads of rich foreigners shuttling by every day. In Nicaragua the people would look up and stare as we rumbled by -- did they resent us? -- but in Guatemala we felt an energy and a positive attitude that made us very happy. In a small village, we stopped at an intersection, and I saw an old woman sitting by her little stand with a juice press. I waved at her, and she looked up, saw me, and her whole face lit up with the biggest smile I ever saw. She got to her feet and started waving back, grinning.

The bus labored up to a high viewpoint above Lake Arenal, billed as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world -- and it wasn't just hyperbole: perfect blue water ringed by spectacular volcanoes. At the overlook, many local craftsmen offered their wares, jewelry, rugs, carvings, and I bought Rebecca a necklace. Then the bus took us down to the lake for another buffet lunch before our boat tour of the lake.

When the bus stopped, we were mobbed by young craftsmen offering colorful rugs, beadwork, jewelry, carvings, keychains. Unlike the aggressive and pesky vendors we had struggled with in Cartagena last week, these people were so charming and friendly that I didn't mind. They were laughing, treating us as if we were participants in a game and we were all having a good time. They made a point of introducing themselves, "My name is Anna. I'll remember you. Come back and I'll give you a good price."

After lunch (which was accompanied by Guatemalan rhythm music), our group left the hotel and walked down to the docks for our boat tour. Again, the vendors followed us, showing off their wares. A woman came up to me and introduced herself, struck up a conversation, showed me her blankets and talked about her family, described how they make the crafts . . . and even though I am definitely not a shopper, she convinced me to buy a blanket for $10. Going toward the boats, a boy insisted on trying to sell me bead Christmas ornaments. He showed them off, telling me how he made this one, and that one . . . but I really had no interest in a bead ornament. As we got to the boat, he told me his name was Juan and wanted to know my name. I told him, and he promised he would remember me.

We boarded the boat which spent an hour cruising around the breathtaking lake, and then we had to get back to the dock and the buses; we still had a three-hour drive to return to the ship. When the boat docked at the lakeshore and more than a hundred of us disembarked, the vendors came forward again for their last chance -- and Juan found me in the group, ran toward me, "Mister Kevin! Mister Kevin!" Now I had to buy an ornament, he said (preferably several). He spoke English quite well and told me how he gets good grades in school, knows how to read and do math. How could I not spend a dollar for one of his ornaments? So, I came back from Guatemala with several gifts that I never intended to have.

On the long bus-ride back, I listened to my I-pod to the always-excellent Scott Brick reading FATAL REVENANT by Stephen R. Donaldson; his voice kept me company all the way back. The four of us met for dinner in the dining room again and compared notes -- Rebecca and her parents were as delighted with the people of Guatemala as I was; they had also bought necklaces and t-shirts from local craftsmen, and they were just as impressed with the good-natured, friendly people. We all agreed that Guatemala was our favorite stop so far.

-- KJA


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