Monday, December 27, 2010

Welcome to Guatemala!

After many days of ensuing debate, we were all set to cross the border this morning to explore beautiful Guatemala. Time to say goodbye to Chaa Creek. And to Belize. Rare are so many great consecutive vacation days, each one better than the last, each one a new wonderful surprise. We left every location in Belize with a doubt that this much fun or beauty could be replicated elsewhere. Inspired by our ride the previous evening, the kids and I decided to drive with our luggage in the back of the pick up truck. We were super thrilled to sit on top of the luggage, feel the wind on our face, and kiss Belize goodbye.Welcome to Guatemala! From Chaa Creek, our very courteous chauffeur drove us to the immigration station at the border in about 30 minutes. He made sure that our experience here was smooth and hassle-free. Then he saw us safely into our Gutemalan transport waiting to take us to our hotel near Tikal. Again, very unlike Kerala, the mini bus mostly comfortably fit all. Our strategy for Guatemala was laid out straight - if anyone asked, we were from India, not the USA. Silly silly! All we had to do was to look at our luggage, backpacks, phones, and the luggage tags announcing our American addresses. How many traces could we remove?These random pictures are some of the first impressions we captured upon crossing into Guatemala. Many parts of both Belize and Guatemala are reminiscent of rural India. Women and children bathing and washing clothes by the river, cattle running wild in the middle of the highway (except here they were being herded by a female "cowgirl"), and modest huts dotted along the countryside. The kids were comfortable snacking and drawing while the adults brushed up on their Spanish in conversations with the driver. As we neared Lake Peten Itza, our driver slowed up for us to watch a local horse racing festival by the lakeside.Fresh fruit punches and exotic birds welcomed us at the Camino Real Tikal hotel a couple of hours later. Situated on Lake Peten Itza, we were happy to discover our new lake view rooms. Belizean Lighthouse beer allegiance was promptly ceded for the Guatemala Gallo beer as we enjoyed light snacks and drinks after check-in.
That afternoon, we explored the nearby Ramate village. Our driver promised to pick us up in a few hours. While strolling around the ramshackle village area, we chanced upon a vintage fair in the park. Vintage is a euphimism for discarded props from the sixties. The "carousel" and other entertainment gear at the fair had probably been recycled from another era. They had certainly seen better days. But who cares? The adults got as much of a kick gambling at the local stalls as they would elsewhere. The kids found the old world games equally entertaining. If you look at the picture where Talinn is trying to roll marbles into the slots to score, you'll see a pink haired doll hanging from the choice of prizes. No matter how much his dad tried to tempt him with other items, that was the only prize he would settle for. Does it remind you of the ugly plastic dolls available at the local markets in India? Yes, she is exactly one of those. I cannot tell you what extreme fun all three kids had with that doll. Over the course of the afternoon, they disrobed and dismembered her and changed her hairdo a million times. Yes, the doll also came back with us to Foster City. Another game the boys tried was to kick a tennis ball in an attempt to knock off the beverage cans. Looks like a simple game but is very tough to accomplish. Not a bad way to spend a chill afternoon really.Now comes the story of our experience at an authentic Guatemalan dhaba. What's the next thing that a bunch of people looking to kill time can think of? Food of course. Along the way, we chanced upon a streetside "restaurant" with a local woman cooking tortillas on this large pan sitting on a firepit. The dhaba and tortillas conjured up dreams of anda-paranthas in our head. Surely the quintessential Indian roadside snack could be adapted into a Guatemalan anda-tortilla? So what if this wasn't a typical menu item, now was the time to put our Spanish to good use. It only took us only about a half hour to explain what we wanted and even then we were unsure about the final outcome of our order.
Our chef only took about an hour to cook us two ultra large omelettes. We were on a rolling laugh fest the entire time. She broke the eggs first, tossing the shells across the fence without a care. Then she took her time to dice the onions, garlic, and jalapenos. Then she must have disappeared for another half hour to fetch yellow cheese from somewhere. All this while, Chinna atta and I felt free to supervise the products cooking on the pan, flipping the tortillas and the omlette. We even taught her how to make cheese tortillas from our vast experience with paranthas. Actions can speak so much louder than words, right? The final outcome was delicious and was gobbled up in a fraction of time it took to accomplish the explaining and cooking. In the meanwhile, Nana went around the village several times, returning each time with a new drink or snack. It was probably the biggest impromptu entertainment afternoon of our trip.
The kids in the meantime had a field day with the pink haired doll from the fair. There's no atrocity they did not commit on her. Obviously they were on a roll as well. Talinn also got to taste his first soda - a Fanta Orange - and the reactions are documented above. Yes, he's quite the king of drama. A stray puppy dog who kept coming around begging for food also became a topic of interest for the kids that afternoon. Tanvi was keeping a count of all the stray dogs she spotted on this trip. I think her tally was mind-boggling already.
In the evening, we took a sunset cruise around Lake Peten Itza organized by our hotel. Before we headed out, the crew threw bread crumbs in the water to attract turtles and fishes. During the cruise, Nana played a game with the kids promising them one Quetzal each for spotting a bird or animal. We also met some folks from California who owned a house in Antigua, our next destination. If we had any fears about general safety or the political situation, these families immediately reassured us. They also got us terribly excited about visiting Antigua. We couldn't wait!

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