Okay, time for some confessions. I have taken my coffee obsession to new heights or depths, depending upon how you look at it. I really like having good coffee. Especially when I travel. It's not just the caffeine kick but the thick, rich taste. Or rather, it's mostly not about the caffeine but the pure sensual pleasure. Which is why I won't drink coffee in most places. I'd rather go without than drink something that doesn't give me pleasure. When people in Guatemala offer me coffee at their homes, or at a public event, I will sometimes take a cup if it's very cold and the coffee is very hot (which isn't very often), or at someone's home I will take a sip or two to be polite but it doesn't satisfy me. When I lived here in 2011 one of hte things I brought with me was a burr coffee grinder (if you're a coffee maven then you know what a burr grinder is, and know that it is supposed to be much better in terms of extracting the full flavor of coffee and not overheating the beans -- one of the keys to good coffee is grinding the beans just before brewing, and with a burr grinder, the beans pass through the grinding mechanism just once, as opposed to the other grinders where the coffee beans stay in a small enclosed space and the blades whirl round and round). I bought a small stovetop espresso pot and also an electric cappuccino maker so that I could have good fresh coffee in the morning. Since I don't live here any longer, when I come here for two weeks or a month, I have to plan out how I will get some decent coffee while I am here. I know that I can count on getting good coffee in Antigua (except that I don't usually spend a lot of time there) and in Santa Cruz del Quiché of all places. I keep my coffee grinder and coffee pots at the home of my friends in Chinique where I stay when I am in that part of Guatemala -- but that's generally only a few days out of a longer stay. And there are some places in Xela -- except that the places that have good coffee aren't anywhere near where my friends live. But for the most part when I stay with people, there isn't really any way to get good coffee. I usually buy some coffee in Antigua or someplace and carry it around with me and try to figure out some way to make passable coffee (usually improvising a filter or using a strainer).
But this trip I have gone over the line. This trip started out with 4 days in Antigua, where I can indulge my passion at Fernando's, a small cafe on 7ma Avenida Norte, which has the best coffee I've drunk in Guatemala. Or rather the best lattes (I think part of the secret is in the milk, very rich and creamy). I was looking at their merchandise (they also sell chocolates and some artisanal cosmetics and toiletries) and noticed that they had a coffee maker called an AeroPress. It is similar to a french press -- well, not exactly. The coffee maker is a cylindrical tube with a sieve-like plastic cap at one end that you can twist off and on. You insert a small round coffee filter into the cap and twist it onto the end of the cylinder and place this all on top of a cup. You measure ground coffee into the cylinder, and then pour boiling water over and stir. There is then another cylindrical tube that is a plunger -- you insert this into the first tube and then press down gently to push all the water through the coffee and into the cup. It actually makes a very respectable cup of espresso (and you can use more water or a different kind of coffee bean to get something that tastes more like French press). Because of the paper filter, there are almost no grounds in the finished coffee.
In any case, I was looking at it, and at first was taken aback by the price (Q230). But then I checked online and Fernando's was only charging $5 more than Amazon would, so I decided that it maybe wasn't that unreasonable and I purchased it, so that I could have a reliable supply of good coffee anywhere -- as long as I could boil water and purchase decent ground coffee somewhere. Fernando, the owner, told me that when he travels he not only brings his own coffee maker but he also travels with a grinder -- since according to the experts, coffee loses some of its flavor within 15 minutes of being ground. I wasn't quite ready to be that obsessive -- and my grinder is in Chinique, where I am was not planning to go until about 3 weeks into my trip. So I stocked up on some coffee (Fernando's, in keeping with this idea, doesn't even sell ground coffee, only whole bean) and have been enjoying delicious coffee every day.
Back to the "on the road thing". As anyone who has read this blog knows, my work in Guatemala involves a lot of travel. As do the lives of people who are involved in their communities, I should add. Most of my close friends in Guatemala travel at least once a week from their home towns to Guatemala City or someplace else for a training workshop, or some other activity. This weekend, on my way to San Miguel Ixtahuacán (up in the mountains) for the second time this trip, I stopped in Olintepeque at home of my friends J.L. and Sholy (not sure how one actually writes out his wife's nickname). All three of their grown daughters were away for the weekend -- one, a musician, was somewhere with her band; one was at a judo competition in Guatemala City; and the oldest, Eunice, who is one of my closest friends in Guatemala, was off somewhere at a workshop (the latter travels so much that her parents weren't quite even sure where exactly she was THIS time). Eunice and I have only crossed paths for one 24-hour stretch of time spanning two days during this trip, and it's not clear we'll get to see each other again, since our travels often take us in different or opposite directions. When I was in San Pedro la Laguna, I briefly visited my friend Brenda, who is the director of the community radio station there. I stopped by her family's home the first day, and then I was planning to drop by again on what would be my last full day, Friday. However, on Thursday I decided to walk into town (my hotel is 2 km from the center) and spend a little while at a local café, Cristalinas, that I like a lot, and since I would have to pass Brenda's house I stopped in to say hello again. It turned out to be a fortuitous decision as she told me that she was going to Guatemala City on Friday so I wouldn't have seen her again if I'd waited.
As might be expected, my car has not been without its share of problems. The battery was never really the right fit, and so even though various mechanics and friends have jerry-rigged wires to hold it in place, with the rocky, rutted and twisting roads here, it nearly always gets jiggled out of place. And the terminals get dirty. So it's been punking out on me, sometimes in very inopportune places.
The road down to San Pedro la Laguna is one of the most breathtaking (for the views) and heartbreaking and gut-wrenching (for the steepness, curves and innumerable potholes) stretches of road. Luckily (or not) a large part of it is downhill. Or, looking at it from the perspective of starting out down at the lake, it is mostly uphill. When I traveled this stretch of road in January, leaving my friends at the lake and heading to Guatemala City, I started out at around 4:30 a.m., in complete darkness, and because I was stuck behind some slow moving buses and trucks on the curves, I couldn't get enough momentum to make it up all of them and had to go down backwards in the dark until I got to an area where I could work up enough speed to make it up the curve (giving myself enough room behind the slow-moving obstacle). This time I left in broad daylight, around 9, and I found out that the buses go once an hour. So I ended up leaving around the same time as the bus but was able to easily pass it on the road out of town so I knew that I wouldn't be stuck behind it on a curve. It was, of course, much easier to navigate the steep curves and ruts in daylight -- but also more terrifying, in a way, since I could see just how steep some of the curves were, and how sharply they were banked. This allowed me to figure out how to attack each curve, but it also caused me to think back to January -- and I realized that maybe it was a good thing that I made the ascent in the dark because if I'd seen what I was up against I might have given up. In the few days between the ascent (when my car had punked out) and the ascent I'd gone to see my mechanic in San Juan (yes, a girl needs a mechanic in every port -- I have two in the area around Xela, one in Chinique and one by the lake) and he'd fixed the battery, more or less, and told me what else he thought I needed. It was mostly smooth sailing (although I find that I have to do my own version of "The Little Engine That Could", sending positive vibes to my motor and to myself).
The road to San Miguel Ixtahuacán is another story -- there was one curve that I miscalculated and the car stalled out in an awkward position on the curve. It was steeply banked on the right hand lane -- i.e. my lane -- and I hadn't known if there were another vehicle so I tried to stay pretty close to my lane which was a mistake. Eventually, I managed to rouse a few people from nearby houses (it took 10 minutes before another vehicle came along, and that was a bus that didn't appear to want to help) to help me out. They ended up just standing behind and guiding me as I backed the car carefully (guard rail? What guard rail?) so as not to plunge into a ravine going backwards, and then was able to attack the curve at a different angle and get up that slope and on. I was supposed to have had a friend with me but he didn't answer phone calls so I had ended up making the trip alone... finally making it down the very steep and winding road into SMI and safely (more or less) to the parish, where I am now housed.