It’s official: the road trip has ended and the international portion of our trip has started! We left the US on September 30 with only one carry-on roller bag and small daypack each (even if they were overstuffed). The previous few days were extremely hectic as we tried to finish up all outstanding business that needed to be taken care of before we left the country (thanks Equifax for adding a number of extra tasks to our list – argh!) and shrinking our 3 bags each that we left Charlotte and New Hampshire with. Navigating airports and Amtrak stations with that many bags is a feat we don’t want to repeat anytime soon. A shout out to Ann’s sister-in-law, Robin, for helping expedite some important paperwork and Robin’s daughter, Lea, for providing personalized chauffeur service, as we ran a few last minute errands, one of which was the all-important lunch visit to a favorite pizza joint in NJ..
This was our first time traveling internationally with a one-way ticket. We’d read lots of horror stories of people being denied boarding a plane because they couldn’t show either a return or onward ticket. So the night before we left, Ian “rented” two tickets that showed up on Bestonwardticket.com for $12 each (a rented ticket is a valid ticket issued in your name that is automatically canceled in 48 hours). If an airline allows someone to board a flight and that person isn’t allowed entry into the destination country, the airline needs to return them to their point of origin on the airline’s dime. The result is that now airlines are more vigilant than immigration – go figure. Since we didn’t get challenged at check-in, turns out we would have been okay without the rented ticket. Well, maybe $24 is worth a little piece of mind.
Arriving at the gate at Newark Airport for our United Airlines flight to Guatemala, we experienced our first “We’re not in Kansas” moment. We were definitely in the minority and about three-fourths of the announcements were in Spanish only. We had a few tense moments as the gate agent and manager at the entrance to the plane gave Ian’s roller bag extra scrutiny because the depth looked oversize even though it wasn’t – his laptop just made it look that way. No, Ian didn’t bring more clothes than Ann, he just was carrying all the electronic gear.
Arriving in Guatemala, the airport looked newer and in a lot better shape than some US airports that we’d been in recently. That all came to a screeching halt as we approached the immigration lounge and ran into a disorganized sea of people. Perhaps the Guatemala airport authority bunch could contact Disney for a few lessons on line management. Once we reached the front of the line, we were through in about 5 seconds. Leaving the airport, we experienced our second sea of humanity as everyone meeting passengers was cordoned off behind a rope. Having experienced a similar scene at the airport in Istanbul a few years ago, we didn’t panic. We simply waited patiently on the airport side of the line until we spotted a young man holding up a sign with our names on it, which took about 10 minutes. Our one splurge on this leg of the trip was that we had arranged for a driver from our language school to meet us at the airport and transport us to San Pedro La Laguna, where we will be spending the next four weeks in our Spanish immersion program.
Upon meeting our driver, Clemente, getting underway began the highly entertaining challenge of communicating with our limited Spanish to the driver with his even more limited English. We discovered that to avoid causing a problem during weekday rush hour most road construction is carried out on Saturday. Add to that the fact that Saturday is typically a half-day workday, turning a normal 2-3 hour trip into 4-5 hours. We were very glad that we had gone for the splurge and arranged for the driver especially given our lack of sleep the previous night (staying up late packing and last minute gitters). At a couple of points, the driver took detours down side streets to avoid traffic. On one of these detours, we went past a procession celebrating the birthday of a saint, with a float being carried by indigenous women, accompanied by incense and flower petals on the street (we couldn’t understand the name of the celebration and Google doesn’t seem to have any references to it). We also stopped for el almuerzo (lunch) and to give the driver a break. Then onwards to San Pedro La Laguna, the last 45 minutes down to the lake of which was hairpin turns barely wide enough for one car and so full of potholes that Clemete was swerving every few minutes and even then only missing the largest ones. Not to mention that it was dark and raining. Ian had to close his eyes after a while because with the bone jarring impacts, his headache that had been lingering all day was getting worse.
Mercifully the drive ended and we arrived at our homestay to meet our host family (Teodora and her son, Darwin, we met her husband Matias the next day) who spoke very little English. We were shown to our room and while a little small, Ann’s fear of a room with no window didn’t come to pass. Our room, including our own bathroom, has five windows and looks out onto Lake Atilian. We are on the top floor of a 4-story house with our own deck complete with hammock, 2 chairs and a desk (for doing homework which we hadn’t realized was part of the deal). Upon hearing from another student regarding other host family accommodations, we think that we lucked out! La cena (dinner) was to be in 20 minutes – we had only eaten a couple of hours ago but we couldn’t politely turn it down. Dinner was wonderful: scrambled eggs with tomatoes, mushy black beans, pan fried plantains, and freshly made corn tortillas! At dinner, we met another student, Katie from Australia, who had been here studying Spanish for four weeks, who sang the praises of the school and who was able to bridge the English to Spanish divide. Nice to have training wheels the first night.
Waking up the next day, we set out to explore our new home town and luckily the rain that was supposed to be all day didn’t start until about 5 pm. When we booked the school for October, we knew that it was at the end of the rainy season but decided to take a gamble. Given the weather forecast for the next two weeks, we may have lost that bet. We discovered the daily market that we quite enjoyed walking through, found the requisite number of stray dogs wandering the street, paid for our first week of school, and found what might be our Sunday morning breakfast place. Most of the streets (sans sidewalks) in town are very narrow, so cars barely fit. As a solution, the town uses tuk tuks (just like Asia) as taxis, which adds a certain charm. But these brightly decorated modes of transportation do make walking down the street a challenge as they come whipping around corners and we have to scramble out of the way. We don’t think that they would actually hit us but no sense in testing fate.
Prices so far
- Lunch at the fancy place on the highway, $31 for two steak and one chicken tortilla meals, one coffee, one purified water, two beers, and tip.
- Breakfast $8.94 for two vegetable omelets with fruit and tortillas, two coffees, one purified water and tip.
- Toothpaste and Shampoo $2.46.
- Dinner $10.53 for Grande Qquesadilla (cheese, chicken, black beans, grilled peppers + guacamole), Guatemalan Style Chicken Soup, (chicken broth, carrots, broccoli, zucchini, guisquil, chicken), complementary rum and coke and fresh limeade.
Before coming to Guatemala, we had heard that it was a poor country with friendly people. Our first impression seems to confirm what we had heard. San Pedro is also quite noisy: between the tuk tuks, music from the neighbors, barking dogs at all hours, the confused rooster that crows at 10 pm and 1 am and various other times throughout the day, we are glad that we brought earplugs.
Next time: the lowdown on our language school and how our first week of lessons went.
Ian & Ann