Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Climbing a volcano, at least

I haven't been very focused on doing vacation-ey, tourist-y things in Guatemala like going to the beach or visiting archaeological sites. But I have wanted to climb a volcano. Last year, a friend was supposed to take me to climb Volcán de Agua outside Antigua but he disappeared from sight, so to speak, and so we never did it (I was warned to not do it alone as there have been assaults on tourists).  It hasn't been a top priority but I have wanted to do this, so when two friends from the states told me in late November or early December that they were going to be in Guatemala in January on a volunteer project, we decided to coordinate schedules (they would arrive early, I would stay a few extra days) and try to do some hiking, including, we hoped, climbing a volcano.

They are more serious hikers than I am so we set our ambitions high. I suggested Tajumulco, the highest peak in Central America -- and also the volcano where the clandestine radio of the guerrilla forces, La Voz Popular, had hidden its broadcast apparatus. It wasn't possible for us to climb Tajumulco on the two full days that we would have together -- it's not recommended to go without a guide, and the only guided tours we could find started  on my last day in Guatemala. By this time, I had plans for the day prior to my departure -- the community radio movement has put together a small book, or perhaps booklet is the better term, about the struggle of the radio movement, and the book launch is set for tomorrow (January 16), the day prior to my departure, in Guatemala City. Also, they are coming from New York -- one from the city, which is at or below sea level (as Superstorm Sandy so vividly demonstrated, and one from upstate, but the elevation there isn't that high either. So they would have needed at least a day or two to adapt to the altitude before attempting to reach a peak that is about 14,000 feet above sea level. I wasn't as worried about the altitude for myself; I'm not as much of a hiker or climber as they, but I've been living for nearly a month in places where the altitude is at least 4,000 feet above sea level and often quite higher than that (I think Chinique is about 6 or 7,000 feet above sea level).

So, I found some alternate hikes for the days we would be together. One was to climb San Pedro, by the shores of Lake Atitlán. This would have the double benefit of allowing me to visit, at least briefly, my friend Brenda who is the coordinator of the community radio station here in San Pedro, Radio Sembrador, and allowing us to start more gradually, or so I thought, as the top of the volcano is only about 10,000 feet. 

I found us a hotel, with Brenda's advice, and then I asked the hotel if they could find us a guide. According to what we'd read, the path starts out winding its way through some coffee farms on the lower slopes of the volcano and it can be somewhat confusing to figure out where to go in places. Also, for safety -- although there have not been a lot of assaults on tourists here, San Pedro is a tourist town (of the blond-dreadlocked backpacker variety; there are about eight Spanish schools also, which is another attraction for rowdy young college-aged people) and so there is always the danger of someone wanting a camera or money.   

The drive here was hair-raising. My friends had been given advice by several people they knew who lived in Guatemala that they should never under any circumstances travel anywhere at night in any kind of vehicle with anyone whatsoever. In general that might not be bad advice, and I try to be somewhat careful of my own personal safety, but I do travel at night. I don't travel at night in public transportation -- and I don't take Guatemalan buses if I can help it, unless my car is in the shop and I need urgently to get somewhere, and I am going along a route I know well. But I have driven from Santa Cruz, for example, to Chinique (a distance of about 15 kilometers), sometimes quite late at night -- for example when I have been at a ceremony at Doña Matilde's mother's house. And I have driven the road from Chichicastenango to Chinique several times at around 7 or 8 - not late, but the roads are dark. There are not assaults along those stretches of road, as far as I have heard over the last few years, and I drive a car that does not look like it belongs to a wealthy person or a tourist -- a Mazda pick-up with a bunch of dents and a couple of smashed tail-lights. Except for the brand (Mazda instead of Toyota) it looks like the typical car that a slightly prosperous local would drive.  

I said I would pick them up or figure out how they could get somewhere we could meet -- their flight was to arrive at 2:30, and Xela is about 4 hours away and the lake also about 4, so they would have to travel after dark. I assured them that I thought it would be fine if we were together and they were willing. There were no convenient shuttles, so I decided to arrange my schedule so that I could pick them up (it meant driving to the airport, which is about 4 hours or more from most of the places in the highlands, but it seemed to be the only way that we could meet up on Sunday and get a full day's hiking in on Monday - unless we met in Antigua. But even to get to Antigua they would have had to pay for a private shuttle as there are no scheduled shuttles after 2:30 in the afternoon.

Saturday afternoon I visited a radio station near Los Encuentros - about 1-1/2 hours from Chinique and right along the Panamerican Highway -- and then traveled to spend the night in the Xela area (actually in Olintepeque on the outskirts of Xela) so I could get up before dawn and visit a radio station in Concepción Chiquirichapa, a radio station founded by ex-combatants of the URNG, and one that is run entirely by volunteers (some of the stations offer small "incentives" to those who volunteer). The car was acting up -- the steering had been incredibly stiff (i.e. I could barely move the wheel without tremendous effort) and I had supposedly had that fixed about two weeks ago. I did have it fixed -- it was working just fine and I was able to steer easily for the first time in over a year, but then as I was looking for a parking spot at around 6 a.m. in Concepción Chiquirichapa -- a small town about 15 km. north  and west of Xela -- the steering just "went" and became stiff as a board, and it took me about 10 minutes to grind the car into a parking spot, with a full crowd of local onlookers undoubtedly making comments in Mam about how this güera colocha (curly-headed white girl) couldn't drive or park. The car also hasn't been handling that well in first gear; it seems to sputter and threaten to stall out, so parking in front of a small crowd is not fun, although I have a pretty iron-clad ego.

After my visit to the radio station I went looking for transmission fluid, which sometimes helps the steering, but it didn't do anything in this case. It took a while to find a shop that was open -- a shop that sold auto supplies, that is. I went to an auto repair shop that looked open but the mechanic wasn't there. A young man who was cleaning his motorcycle directed me to a place around the corner but they were not open so I returned to the main road. Some men who called out to me in English offered another suggestion but the place they suggested was also not open. I asked where there was a gas station and they told me 15 minutes walk away. However, as luck would have it, a stationery supply store that I passed, oddly enough, had some automotive supplies gathering dust on their shelves alongside rolls of tape and pens, and among them, two plastic bottles of transmission fluid. And it was about half the price that I've paid at gas stations. So I took a bottle, went back to my car after saying my goodbyes at the station, and then poured some in. It didn't seem to have any effect, so I had the unpleasant task of turning my car around in the middle of the main street on market day at 10-something in the morning, again in front of spectators, and then headed off to Guatemala, hoping that the car would hold up.

There was, of course, an impediment to my smooth egress from Xela -- a bicycle event which had blocked off the main exit road. I followed the instructions of the police to go on a dirt road around the aerodrome (I have never seen a plane there; mostly it seems to be used for sporting events and people doing exercise and playing soccer) and eventually made it to the highway (I had to stop and ask some local residents because it wasn't clear where the road led to) and got back to the highway and headed off south and east. Even with a stop for pupusas at a new roadside stand between Tecpan and Chimaltenango I got to the airport early, only to find that their flight was delayed until 3:30. This meant that we would definitely be driving after dark, since the turn off to San Pedro is at least 2-1/2 hours from Guatemala City, and we would need to stop for gas and coffee and bathroom, and the road from the highway down to the lake is very steep and windy and pocked, and parts of it are dirt, and as I recalled it, we would have to pass through a couple of towns along the way and the exit to continue on was not always well marked.

The car stalled out a number of times, which was alarming, but as we were mostly going downhill I just coasted in neutral (thankfully the brakes were in good order) and we made it to San Pedro in a bit under 4 hours, and the folks from the hotel came out to find us as their instructions (just take the main street down to the embankment) weren't all that useful -- everyone here knows what "the calle principal" is, but it's not quite so evident to an outsider.

I decided that we would not drive up to the trailhead but asked the hotel to arrange a tuc-tuc along with the guide, and both were waiting for us at 6.

It took a while to get sorted out and finally start out, and when we got to the ecological park, which is staffed by 22 families, it turned out that the guide who had come to the hotel to get us was not the one who was going to take us up the mountain as they went by turns -- and there was another guide ahead of him. We saw him later on, up at the top of the mountain, with the next person who had come after us -- a young Guatemalan man from La Mesilla at the Mexican border, and were relieved that he had gotten some work.

I won't bother writing about the entire trail as there are many blogs about climbing San Pedro. My friends are more experienced hikers than I am, but they had trouble with the altitude, more than they had expected, and it was slow going. I walked ahead with the guide, Juan, a local man who confided that he was illiterate since his father hadn't put much importance on education but had wanted him to work at an early age, but had made sure that his children had more education than he did. I will devote a separate entry to Juan, as we had a lot of time to talk as we spent 4 hours walking up the mountain (I went ahead alone on the descent and he brought up the rear, to make sure we were all okay, so I didn't get to talk to him much then). We passed through coffee plantations, and learned a lot about coffee and the coffee market, as Juan is a coffee farmer as well as a guide. We stopped frequently -- I got really hungry about an hour after we set out and so we broke into our supplies of nuts and dried fruits, and then snacked again a few times. Juan walked easily; he said this was slow for him and he didn't take a drink of water until we had passed the halfway point. When we got to what he said was the halfway point we waited for my friends, and we were all a bit dismayed to learn that we had been hiking for two hours and were still only halfway up.  They had both been reading up about the hike and apparently according to the books we were supposed to start feeling the altitude at the halfway point, but they had been feeling it earlier. I didn't feel much in terms of the altitude, although the hike was hard work. I walk a lot and bike, but I don't do much hiking, although I'd tried while I was here to find places where I could at least walk uphill a bit while taking an early morning walk. 

Finally at a bit before 11 I reached the summit and then waited for my friends. There were some people who had gotten there before us who passed us coming down, and a group of about 4 Americans and Europeans at the summit when I got there. I chatted some with the other guide -- the guides all know each other -- whose name was Domingo and who was impressed by the few words of K'iche' that I know. The language of most of the guides is Tzutujil, but because the department of Sololá has three language groups (K'iche', Kaqchikel and Tzutujil), and Kaqchikel and K'iche' are much more widely used on a national level (that is, they are among the largest language groups in terms of native speakers), most Tzutujil speakers know a little K'iche', and there are some borrowed or common or imposed words. That is, "maltyox" (mal-ti-osh), which means thank you in K'iche', also means thank you in Tzutujil.

The view was spectacular -- hard to find words to describe the vista of the lake, ringed by mountains and volcanos. We had a view of Santiago, San Lucas, Pacaya and Volcan de Agua and Fuego in the distance. A small plane flew by at least a thousand feet below us. It was giddy to be on top, amid the clouds or above them, looking down at the vividly blue waters of the lake, picking out the lakeshore towns, breathing in the thin but clean air.

The morning is getting on, and I should get back to figure out the day's activities. The original plan was to climb San Pedro yesterday and then set out for Xela in the evening and leave at 4 to climb Santa Maria. On the way down, as our thighs were all burning, we realized that we were not up to climbing a second, higher volcano, with a longer hike, the next day.  We could have staggered our way part way up, but there was no way we would have reached the summit and gotten back in time for my friends to meet up with the people who were going to take them up Tajumulco -- they were supposed to be back in Xela at 5 to get outfitted for the overnight hike to Tajumulco, and since it took us from 7 a.m. to nearly 3 p.m. to get up and down San Pedro -- and we were told that the hike up Santa Maria was much longer, we decided to spend the night instead in San Pedro and decide this morning what we would do here.  I also had wanted to make sure I visited my friend from the community radio station here and see her family -- and that would have meant leaving the lake pretty late in the day and driving at night again, to say nothing of arising very early for the hike.

So we took off our shoes and dirty clothes, I called the guide I'd contacted to take us up Santa Maria and told him we'd discovered we were not capable of two volcanoes in two days, and then my friend Brenda came from the radio station to pick us up and we spent the rest of the evening (as much as we had energy for) first visiting the radio and her family, and then leisurely having coffee and then dinner in her company.