Monday, 30 March 2009

Alone in Nebaj

High up in the mountains, Nebaj is a nice contrast with Chichicastenango. From a tourist presence point of view, I mean. You rarely see one. At least at this time of the year, it seems. I’m all alone in the hostel. And have only seen a handful of other foreigners thus far.

Today was time to kill time. I plan to go for a few days of trekking, starting tomorrow. Nebaj is surrounded by green mountains, and there doesn’t seem to be much else to do around here than trekking, so that’s just what I’ll do.

So, time to kill time, I was saying. A couple of hours' walk to some waterfalls near by. A random chat with a country side man, his son and his mule (no, that one didn't talk) – on their way to a 5-hour walk to their village, so that they can save the 10Qz of the tuc-tuc ride. A short ride on a gentle soul’s motorbike, back to Nebaj. Lazy reading. Lazy lunch.

And that’s it…


(Weekend, 28-29 March 2009)

Chichicastenango is a relatively small market village. It gets plenty of tourists in tour from Antigua and Panajachel on Sunday mornings, the market day. But it’s ok if you come the day before and choose to visit the market really early.

The central plaza is actually quite beautiful, with a nice little church. It’s the heart of the market, and where most of the food stalls are. Cheap and good eatery. I had all my meals there. And don’t regret it.

Despite many of its stalls which handicrafts are clearly targeted at tourists, the market comes across as rather genuine. Food (alive and not), fabrics, electronic gadgets (first and second handed) – everything is for sale here. Good that my hand pack is small: I’ve an excuse to not buy anything to bring home. (I do, right?)

Met a Brazilian in the chicken bus to here – he thought I was Brazilian too, from the Portuguese on my t-shirt. Later, an European couple, who have just left their jobs in London (last December), after 6 years living there, and decided to travel in LatAm. The night before was an ex-consultant sharing a room in Antigua, also embarking on a few months trip to forget it all about the long working hours.

Interesting how some of the stories you meet on the road can at surface resemble yours – one way or the other...

_ _
Chicken with rice for breakfast at the market – good stuff


“Procession of the youth” – warm up for Semana Santa...

Friday, 27 March 2009

Hasta luego, UPAVIM

Day to say farewell to UPAVIM: I’m leaving tomorrow morning.

I’m tired - it was a long day, most of it spent tying the last few loose ends. And emotionally drying too – it was difficult to say goodbye.

It’s incredible how closely attached I quickly became to these women and children. All the work I’ve done in the last 2 months, which has been so little at my eyes all the time, felt today as huge as I could ever imagine it.

I head tears in my eyes when I said farewell to the children at Reforzamiento. I had to promise to a few of them I’d try to bring Cristiano Ronaldo next time around…

I also had tears in my eyes when I said farewell to some of the women I’ve been working with – at the bakery, at the library.

And then there was a big surprise gathering of most of the women at the roof at 5pm. They brought food and drinks, and we sat outside for a while, eating, drinking and talking. They wanted to say thank you for my and El.’s help (El. is another volunteer also leaving tomorrow).

I had prepared a few lines for the women, thanking them for my experience. I had thought of just leaving them behind me tomorrow, only on paper, as I’m not too good at these emotional things of saying goodbye.

But there they were. So many. So I read what I had written, and the tears that I had held for most of the day finally came out.

It was a great day… These were two incredible months… Laughter and tears. Excitement and frustration.

As in life, right?

****** ****** ******

Queridas amigas y amigos de UPAVIM,

Dos meses es poco tiempo. Pero en dos meses se puede vivir y aprender mucho también. Y los últimos dos meses han sido así – llenos de experiencias que guardaré en un lugar especial de mí corazón. Gracias.

Decía yo en mi aplicación que deseaba salir de UPAVIM más rico cómo ser humano. Conociendo nuevas personas – mujeres y hombres muy grandes por lo que hicieran y van a hacer. Conociendo esas personas cómo ellas ahora me conocerán un poco a mí. Dejando aquí un poco di mi amor, mis experiencias y ganas de hacer del mundo un lugar un poco mejor. Y llevando mucho más qué lo dejé. Encontré todo eso. Gracias.

Les deseo que sigan haciendo de UPAVIM el lugar excepcional que es hoy. Un oasis de amistad, de oportunidades, de esperanza. Un oasis qué crece todos los días. Con vuestro labor y amor. Increíblemente.

Les deseo una panadería con mucho suceso, haciendo llegar el pan a muchos lugares de Guatemala, porqué la ciudad es grande, pero mayores son vuestra voluntad y capacidad.

Les deseo un proyecto de soya que produzca mucha leche para hacer los niños fuertes y saludables, y mucho yogurt que haga dulces muchas bocas. Dulces cómo el lugar donde eses productos vienen.

Les deseo una biblioteca rica. Un espacio especial donde muchos niños descubran y fomenten el gusto de la lectura. Y qué eso contribuya para hacerlos los grandes mujeres y hombres qué ciertamente serán.

Les deseo un Reforzamiento lleno de risas y aprendizaje. Un programa que siga apoyando los niños en su escolaridad, qué es tan importante, y también el amor y atención, qué son tan necesarios para serse un niño feliz.

Les deseo lo mejor en todos los otros vuestros proyectos y actividades. Los de hoy, qué no conocí tan bien pero qué tanto hacen por UPAVIM y la comunidad, y también los del futuro. Sean lo que sean.

No me olvidaré de UPAVIM.

Qué sigan adelante. Siempre.

Vuestro amigo portugués qué estará a un correo de distancia,

Surprise gathering in the roof

Portuguese classes...


The bakery. Obviously...

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Don’t fight the giant – focus on his toe

(Wednesday, 25 March 2009)

The children library project has been keeping me happy.

An enthusiastic woman, passionate about books, has taken the challenge. More or less alone. Or at least without too much support from the organisation thus far. Due to other women’s lack of enthusiasm. Some jealously too, I think. Like everywhere else, there’s quite of it around here too. After all it’s the human nature, right?

It has been refreshing to work with someone who’s so eager to pull it off and make it happen.

Books have been collected from 3 or 4 different places in UPAVIM. A new space is being set up – small, dark, with very few equipment, but a space. You need to clean up the books. Classify them. Order them.

It’s occupational therapy like work (it hasn’t been too bad for my Spanish tough, as I’ve to skim through the children books to get an idea of the topic and classify them – and you do learn by doing that). You’ve to create a small database in Excel for an inventory of the books – and coach the woman on how to use it. You’ve to print, cut and stick identification labels on the books so that they can be borrowed around the community later on. Repetitive work, but still refreshingly rewarding. Just because of that woman’s enthusiasm.

We’ve been working together in the mornings for the last 3 weeks or so. Yesterday she asked me if I used sleeveless t-shirts. Puzzled, I said yes. Why not, right? I’ve the beard already, so I can well get the full traveller look.

She brought me 2 sleeveless t-shirts in the afternoon. To thank me for my help. She was happy they fitted me (she was afraid they wouldn’t). And I didn’t know how to thank her.

Today I taught my last Portuguese class. One of the last requests from the girls led us to discuss how to say “you’re a moron” in Portuguese. Yep - I did enjoy myself in these sessions in the last month…

These experiences have been left me thinking how much some of my frustrations during my stay here – from wanting to do so much more but feeling impotent to accomplish it – come from me aiming too high to start with.

How can I aspire to enact structural change at UPAVIM in just a few months? At UPAVIM’s bakery and soya production. At Reforzamiento? Everywhere?

Why do I pick to fight the giant? Why don’t I feel happy for just tackling his toe? Or perhaps even only his toe nail?

Many small things can make you so much happier than a single great objective. They don’t let you get easily tired from tilting at windmills all the time, like Quixote. Just print some labels! Stick them in the books!. Put the books in the shelves! Teach the random Portuguese here and there!

That attitude right from the beginning could have made my experience very different, probably… That’s a lesson learnt. One I keep failing at. So one I hope I’m smart enough not to forget later.

Will I? Again?

Lucky traveller

(Sunday, 22 March 2009)

I’ve seen more of Guatemala than most of the women at UPAVIM. Than any of them, I’d risk to say.

The other day I was on my laptop when one of the women I’ve been working with the most asked me to see some of my travel pictures. She found the places beautiful. She knew very very few of them.

People do live very locally here. They know La Esperanza – born and raised; it’s where they spend their lives, day in day out. They go to the city centre. They’ve been perhaps to Antígua, once or twice. They may make the occasional trip to the village where their families come from. And, most of the times, that’s it.

Even primary school teachers have a very partial knowledge of the world. Europe can be a somehow unknown quantity – even in a map. That Portugal shares a boarder with Spain doesn’t help me explain where I come from.

The random Guatemalan man I spoke tonight on my way to Guatemala City was right.

We were coming from Monterrico to Antígua. The trip should have taken 2h30 – just in time to get the last bus to Guatemala City, at 19h00. It took 3h30, with a painfully slow driver, and we miss the bus. Plenty of locals – majority women – are still waiting at the bus stop, looking for a driver to give them a paid-for lift. A 7-seat car drops by and takes in everyone – 24 people in total, me included. The fact that there are no seats left in the back helps accommodate everyone. The private car is converted into a public bus – a common thing around here. It stinks of gasoline, and it's crowded in there. But most faces are smiley, so there we go.

One of the riders is a young talkative man. Education above average, from what I could tell. He talks proudly of Guatemala to me. He wants me to get to know it well, and mentions several places I should not miss. He reflects on how little Guatemalans know of the beauty of their own land. Of how people don’t travel, don’t read about it. Of how people would make a stronger effort not to emigrate if they did. That’s the reason that keeps him around, he argued.

Yes, he’s right on one thing. I’m lucky: I can travel. And I can always leave. Going back to something, instead of running away from.

Yes. We – volunteers, tourists, foreigners – can always leave…

Tuesday, 24 March 2009


(Weekend, 21-22 March 2009)

Monterrico is called as such because it’s “una tierra rica”.

While most of the rest of the country is mountainous and at high altitude, the land in the Pacific shoreline is completely flat. So, the scenery is different: tropical flora; really hot weather, closer to what I was expecting of Guatemala before I came here. If the sky is clean, you can see the profile of the several volcanoes that surround Guatemala City, Antigua and Lake Atitlán. The hot and humid weather, combined with the fertile land, make crops grow fast and well here. “Una tierra rica”.

Many Guatemalans would move here, wouldn’t be the mosquitoes, it's said. Not too bad right now – far worse in the rainy season, in a couple of months’ time.

The sea water is warm; the sand is dark – and therefore too hot during day time. Don’t walk with your bare feet here…

The mosquitoes find a perfect habitat in Monterrico’s natural park. A swamp with a mix of sea and fresh water spreads out for miles. But the mosquitoes are not alone. This is also a protected area for many bird species. And it’s beautiful.

This type of fish moves around mostly at the surface. It’s not good to eat, and it doesn’t have many natural predators, so there are plenty of them…

Yep - a bit further down, to fully capture the reflection in the water, and it would have been a decent photo...


5.45 am: sun-rise in Monterrico’s natural park

I had been playing football. As goalkeeper...

What are you thinking of, looking so deeply into the Pacific?

A la playa, en Monterrico

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Taking different turns at crossroads

(Sunday, 15 March 2009)

One of the NGOs I investigated before coming here – La Cambalacha ( – is based in San Marcos de la Laguna. I walked by the place yesterday. Checked it out. Almost no-one was around, as they were performing at the festival taking place in the opposite shore of the lake, in Santiago Atitlán.

It’s based a bit further up in the mountains, where you are half-way outside San Marcos already. I walked the path that leads to the centre of the village looking at some random details. A tree. A few stones painted by the kids to signal the way. The view of the village from there.

I was thinking how, if I had decided differently – and joined La Cambalacha, instead of UPAVIM, all those random details would be by now so familiar to me. They would be the walk I’d walk everyday, the same way it happens in La Esperanza zone 12, Guatemala City, now that I’m at UPAVIM.

It was nothing more than that. No reflection on how things could have been better or worse otherwise. I’m preparing to leave UPAVIM end of this month (yes - to go and travel south the continent!), but I’m in fact fully thankful for the experience thus far and what I’ve learnt with it. I’m pleased by my decisions and where they’ve taken me. So it was just more like a purely philosophical thought, without checks and balances attached.

It was a thought that everything you’ve experienced, everything you are today is result of an infinity of decisions you’ve taken every single day of your life. And that those around you have taken and that have affected you. And that those before you have taken, and that have affected you. Or that have affected others that have affected you… Yep – just like the butterfly wings’ effect, which is so often used to illustrate chaos theory.

It was a thought of how your life could be so different if at some points you had turned left instead of right.

That makes of where you are and who you are now so much more precious, I think.

Random pictures from some lake villages

(Sunday, 15 March 2009)
While waiting for the bus, in San Pedro. Sorry for the quality, but you've to be discrete. People can be... camera shy - let's call it that way

A football match by locals, in San Marcos de la Laguna. I didn't manage to see a goal on this end of the pitch. This goalkeeper's team was far better...

Just the sound of the water...

(Saturday, 14 March 2009)

... and nothing else. That's what I like the most about these videos.

They don't really capture the beauty of the place that well, and the following day was brighter and better for pictures anyway. But the sound is good enough to transport me back to the lake.

Hope you too.

Lake Atitlán

(Weekend, 14-16 March 2009)

Lake Atitlán is damn beautiful. I only wish I had known it a good few decades ago. Before negligent concrete constructions started expanding the little villages by the lake. Before tourist invasion started creating “ghettos” of expats and travellers, where people can spend weeks – or years – living somehow alienated from the local community. Sleeping in the youth hostels, having drinks at the bars, contracting the travel agencies, watching Premiership football matches and Hollywood movies at the restaurants. All of those businesses a mile apart from the local community; all of them run by expats or ladinos (Guatemalans of Spanish/European origin).

It reminded me of some of the things P. and I saw while travelling in South East Asia – namely in Laos. What kind of travelling experience is that? Well, not the one of my choice, at least.

OK, it’s not that bad. Really. It depends on the village you pick. And while at the lake, you’re far enough from it all.

San Pedro didn’t do it for me. It’s from there I take the description above. It’s a land where some still fight to live in the year of 1968. Yep, Flower Power, aged hippies and all that good stuff. It’s just that in 2009, in an expat bubble built disorderly, in an ugly manner, it doesn’t result as poetic as you see it in the history books.

San Marcos is a bit different. It’s much smaller to start with, which helps. You also find the random 1968 refugee here and there, but the place has just a different feel. The tourist area is a bit more integrated with the rest of the community. The hostels have been designed and built with some more taste. Their atmosphere is good, relaxing. They’re better integrated with the surrounding nature too. The shore here is flat, green and beautiful. No wonder it’s the meditation Meca around here…

I really enjoyed my time in San Marcos. To come back, I think. And the 3 hours of kayaking around the lake were worth the energy I put into it. Even if my back hurt for 2 days and I had to catch up with much sleeping on Monday.

I managed OK the fact I was kayaking and swimming in a lake grown on a huge volcano crater, and surrounded by more volcanoes. And with its occasional earthquakes, one of which recently enough caused a “subsurface drainage from the lake, allowing the water level to drop two meters within one month”. You can check that out, and more about Atitlán, in

Yes, Mike. My thoughts exactly: tsunamis; deep water resting on unstable land. Our favourite nightmare…

But yes, I managed OK. Forgot about it after 5 minutes on the kayak. I tried to be a bit grown up for a change…