Overcrowded Minibuses and First-Class Air Travel

New Year’s Eve in Flores was exciting. We went to Raices Bar And Grill, a View Restaurant (which later turned out to have a low rating on TripAdvisor but I thought it was fine) and purchased friendship bracelets from a child who came to the table selling fabrics. Support your local child abductor. Then, we got a notification from Facebook pointing to a terse message from Justin to all of his friends: “Hey guys! Do not park in the driveway at our house. It is cordoned off for a plumber to park there. Long story. Just step over or under the caution tape when you arrive.” Plumber. New Year’s Eve. Caution Tape. So not the keywords you want to read 4000 kilometers away, about your own house. And then he texted us: “Anyway, there’s nothing y’all can do from there so enjoy whatever you’re doing and don’t worry about us. Bye-eeee!”

The fireworks displays in Guatemala are individual, not municipal. We sat on the edge of the island and watched fireworks go off across the water all around Santa Elena. Several fireworks were set during the hours before midnight, and the display was pretty continuous for about 10 minutes on each side of midnight. They gradually tapered off, including some the next few nights. The next morning there were pieces of firework confetti everywhere.

On New Year’s Day in the afternoon, the whole island became a paseo where the cars drove one way and the pedestrians another. The boys send their photos by SMS to the girls when they pass the first time, and if the girl hasn’t friended him by the next pass, then he knows he has been rejected.

There was a little food market at the north end of the island where people served various things to spread on soft or fried tortillas, and lots of delicious desserts. Three people played tunes on a marimba, simultaneously.

Wednesday we continued our trip, taking a bus from Flores to Quiriguá, and a “tuk-tuk” (a little three-wheeler with a cab) to Posada de Quiriguá, a delightful little place run by a Japanese woman named Masaki. There wasn’t really any Internet or hot water to speak of, but she fixed delicious Japanese dinners and Guatemalan breakfasts made from ingredients from her property including vegetables and fruits, and honey from tiny Mayan stingless bees. These bees are not much cultivated any more among the Mayans, who can make more export dollars with the African-European hybrids, despite their ill temper. I found that the honey has a jelly-like feel, and a fruitier taste than that of the European bees. There were some cute birds which visited the trees in her Japanese garden, including a few motmots. The male motmots have very long tails which flare out at the end like an iced tea spoon. The females don’t have the long tail, but both have many patches of light blue.

We took a few hours on Thursday to explore the Quiriguá ruins. On our way there, we drove through a banana plantation. Our tuk-tuk had to stop for about 10 minutes while a procession of bunches of bananas hanging on rolling hooks crossed the road. The area which had been excavated was impeccably groomed as a large lawn (in the classic period it was paved), and featured very tall stelae which were in relatively good shape. There were no guides, printed or live, so we muddled along the best we could. We noticed that the carving was much more three-dimensional, with much deeper relief, than what we had seen in the Tikal area. At one point some Guatemalan tourists handed me my iPad charger and Thunderbolt Ethernet adapter which had fallen out of my pack. Gotta keep those zippers zipped up.

The town of Quiriguá doesn’t seem to get a lot of tourists. It all seemed very local. We walked all over town at 2pm and there was really no place to have a late lunch. This is the marker of civilization, isn’t it? There is a room full of typewriters in the town. Typewriters neatly on desks. No cobwebs or vines growing over them. I wonder what happens there.

Friday we moved on to Copán in Honduras, which involved a tuk-tuk from the hotel to the main road, a minibus in which there was standing room only (with bowed head because of the low ceiling) for the first half hour: two hours later we were delivered to Chiquimula after a change of equipment in Zacapa. We were approached by a taxi tout who said we could take the bus to the border, or we could take a taxi all the way to Copán for 300 quetzals. After the crowded minibus, we opted for the taxi. When we got to the border the driver said he couldn’t go across, so we stiffed him, paying only 200 ($25), which was still a little pricey.

The border informalities are muted at El Florido, Honduras. Apparently going to Copán is not the same as going to the real Honduras. You don’t get robbed or murdered, for one thing, and they don’t seem to make as big a fuss immigration-wise (There is supposed to be a Schengen-type agreement among the Central American nations, which would promise no border at all, but bureaucrats really need the work.) We got a “Copán only” slip on the Guatemala side, and a Copán stamp on the Honduras side, with small cash payments on both sides.

We took another minibus to the cute tourist town of Copán Ruinas. Our hotel Yat B’Alam was again very cute, and it had fully functional WiFi and a shower better than ours at home (not saying much). The little table in the room had once held up a sewing machine. The restaurant guides highlighted a hacienda across the river from the ruins, which had an office next door to the hotel: the owner made reservations for us there for the next night, and also arranged a good English-speaking guide for us for the next day. A guy on the street told us about a German brewpub, and we ended up having a progressive dinner, with good German beer and sausage at one place, and grilled steak at the next.

Saturday morning we took the short walk to the actual ruins, and met our guide. The excavated part of Copán is also much smaller than Tikal, but it has undergone extensive archeological research. The highlight is the Hieroglyphic Stairway, with about 100 wide steps each made from twenty or so blocks, each with a Mayan glyph. Unfortunately, the steps all fell down except the bottom few rows, so the people who have reconstructed it could not be sure which block went where — the overall message will probably never be deciphered. Like the other temples we’d seen, they built new temples on top of old ones. Copán featured tunnels that let you see features from some of the old temples. It is also famous for the deep three-dimensionality of its sculpture, and the guide supposed that Copán influenced Quiriguá in that way. After exploring the ruins, we proceeded to the site’s Sculpture Museum, which featured many original stelae and altars (castings of them at the original locations). It was a big place, with a reconstruction of an earlier version of one of the temples, painted as people imagine the original might have been. In general, wherever we saw stone, the Mayans would have seen red paint; where we saw grass covering a platform, they would have seen white stucco. Our guide told us to have lunch at Pupuseria Mary’s, which was nearby — the pupusas were delicious, as were the enormous passion fruit and mango licuados.

Sunday a comfortable uncrowded minivan picked us up and took us to Antigua. The first part of the drive was pretty similar to what we’d seen, but eventually we got into Guatemala City. The road stayed high atop the mountains, crossing over high bridges from one little ridge to the next, with the vast city splayed out in poverty beneath. When we arrived, the first view of our hotel was a wall with a door. We rang and went in, and found the most beautifully landscaped place ever. The hotel was built next to the ruins of an old church, and plants grew strategically all over the ruins. The higher altitude was reflected in the fact our room had a fireplace, not an air conditioner, though it wasn’t really cold. We asked the owner where to eat, and then walked into town. Antigua is unlike any place I’d ever seen, with cobblestone streets (in a Cartesian grid) lined with windowless walls (like the larger roads in Huntington Beach). Some blocks’ walls would contain no openings at all; others would have a few doors. We walked past the Cathedral facade and through the central park, then up along a main shopping street to the restaurant. Even that street, though it had many open doorways, had none of the glass walls you see on shopping streets anywhere else in the world (they have building codes that ensure that you can’t put up big windows or paint your wall an unusual color). The restaraunt for our thirtieth anniversary was Hector’s, a tiny bistro serving French-ish food. My favorite dish was the spice-grilled duck with roasted grapes. Hector, the young owner, arrived after awhile and chatted up all the guests.

Monday was unfortunately our only day to explore the town. We started at Casa Santo Domingo, a larger hotel complex also built alongside ruins of a church. This one had several small museums: silver metalwork, an old pharmacy like we’d seen in Cuba, handicrafts. My favorite was a museum whose exhibits showed Mayan sculptures of faces or animals alongside modern glassware showing the same thing. The style was radically different than what is at the ruined cities. Much more comprehensible. We visited the Convent of the Capuchins: we saw the ruins but the museum was undergoing restoration. Above, there was a panopticon with small cells that monks would pray and study in; beneath it was a large round room with very dynamic acoustics. The Cathedral facade you see on the square was the old entrance to a very large cathedral demolished by a series of earthquakes in the 18th century — eventually they gave up rebuilding it, especially since the capital had moved from Antigua Guatemala to Nueva Guatemala, known today as Guatemala City.

Dinner was at Panza Verde, a hotel at the south end of town owned by an expatriate from New York, who sat in the bar and chatted with whoever sat down there. He recommended his favorite wines, comped us some delicious Zacapa rum, and warned us there’d be New Orleans jazz. As it turned out, it was mellow piano music played by a guy from New Orleans, which in retrospect we wished we’d been closer to. We asked for a cab back to our hotel, and got in a long discussion about TripAdvisor, and the unreliability of the users who rate things. Ray has found that the ratings are often pretty good for hotels, though usually useless for restaurants. To use it most effectively, you have to make your own rating of each rater, and figure out how many grains of salt to take them with.

We flew back to Miami, from where I continued on to SFO and Ray visited Mike in Avon Park. Through some kind of Expedia fluke, I ended up in Business/First class on these flight segments, and it is interesting to see how the 1% flies. Lunch was pretty nice, a good grilled vegetable salad and some uninspired fajita beef wrapped in a flour tortilla. Poor Ray was stuck back in steerage, but always remarks on how flying economy is one of the highest-paying jobs one can have, saving hundreds of dollars an hour. When I got to the Miami airport, I visited the large “Admiral’s Club”, where the greeter asked me “Do you drink?” and handed me two free premium drink coupons, which of course I used. Oddly enough, the Miami airport also has a The Counter, one of a mostly California chain of upscale burger restaurants; I squeezed in a quick meal there. Probably the nicest thing about flying First Class is getting handled a bottle of water just after you sit down. And still being able to use your laptop after the seat in front of you fully reclines.