This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The $5 Shopping Challenge in Xela

Some Guatemalan quetzals
The $5 Shopping Challenge
One of the best things about traveling and living in other countries has got to be the never-ending game of price comparison with where we are from and what we know. Whether it's oohing over the twenty-five dollar watermelons in Japan or aahing over the obscene amount of bananas one can get for $1 in Ecuador, I think everyone likes to play.

So with that in mind, what I have done for this blog post is to go out to a typical market on a typical shopping trip in my current hometown of Quetzaltenago (better known as Xela) and record what I can get for around five US dollars which equals about 39 Guatemalan quetzals. Admittedly, I am not the best bargainer, but most of the ladies here are honest enough, and they almost all offer the same prices anyway. Usually my shopping conversations go something  like this:

Me: "How much for a pound of tomatoes?"
Seller: "3.50, but for you 3."
Me: "2.50?"
Seller: "No."
Me: "Okay, give me a pound. How much for a cucumber?"
Seller: "2.50, but for you 2."
etc, etc

But before we get to the results of my shopping challenge let's look at some background info...

Welcome to the Market
There are four markets that I know of in Xela. One is small, easily managable, indoors, and near the Parque Central, another small one is Mercado Las Flores (Flowers Market) near the large municipal cemetery which could be how it got its name, the third is Minerva Market near the bus terminal which is huge, normally chaotic, and has a large section dedicated to secondhand clothing. The final market, La Democracia, sits right in the center of town and competes with Minerva for title of 'Xela's largest'. The indoor market part of La Demo encompasses an entire city block with everything sold here from pigs feet to push brooms and from pastries to hand-woven tapestries. The market than spills out onto the surrounding streets in every direction with specific blocks dedicated to clothes, food, and pirated CD/DVDs. La Demo also happens to be only four blocks from our house so the market of choice for our fruits and vegetables shopping.
A street outside La Demo market. Normally there is traffic access, but for the holiday season the street has been completely covered in temporary stalls selling even more stuff

Use the Sales Force
In most all Guatemalan markets there are three types of fruit and vegetable sellers (98.8% female):

The fixed stall sellers who use tables or stalls and carry either the widest selection of items or a mountain of one particular item.

The on-the-ground sellers who sit on tiny stools or the ground with their goods in baskets or on a blanket. They'll have anywhere from one item-one bucket to getting very ambitious with a lot on offer

The ambulatory sellers are the rarest type, who walk around selling just one item. This could be a good chance to see a guy selling something.
A very ambitious on-the-ground seller

The Results Are In
My shopping formula:
Quantity of Item = price in Guatemalan quetzals = price in US dollars

1lb of Tomatoes = Q3    =  $0.38
1lb of Onions     = Q3    =  $0.38
Half dz. Carrots = Q2.5 =  $0.32
3 Avocados       = Q7.5 =  $0.96
2 Cucumbers     = Q4    =  $0.51
bunch Spinach   = Q4    =  $0.51
bunch Radishes  = Q3    =  $0.38
Pineapple           = Q7   =  $0.90
3 head Garlic     = Q3    = $0.38
Today's Total     = Q37  = $4.72

The results coming in at $0.28 under $5

So how'd I do? Not bad, right. So now it's your turn to take the $5 challenge and let us know in the comments below what five bucks gets you at your favorite local (super)market.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Chicago Nobody

Having traveled for a while in South America and Asia I am used to uncomfortable travel. Long bus rides, delays and just waiting around is pretty normal to me which is probably why I booked a terrible (cheapest) flight ticket from Denver to Guatemala without even thinking about the consequences. However, as I soon discovered, this type of travel does not translate well in the USA. Airports are too big, everything is expensive and the ever-burning flourecent lights wreak havoc on my natural bio-clock (think casino without gambling or slot machines).

My flight from Denver to Chicago arrives at 11:15 PM and my connection to Guatemala is at 5:30 AM the next day. No big deal, I'll sleep in the airport, right? Usually my concern with sleeping in any public place is that someone will walk off with my stuff if I doze off, but in Chicago (the third largest city in the USA) this should not be a problem. I am sure plenty of fellow travel zombies will be out. Boy was I wrong, there was nobody.

According to statistics from 2010, Chicago's O'Hare airport is the third busiest in the world. Almost 67,000,000 passengers passed through in 2010. And from 1 - 4 AM, I saw maybe five of those 67 million plus a skeleton crew: cleaning toilets, hanging Christmas decorations, waiting for no one to pass through security and manning the open-24hrs Dunkin Donuts at the food court in terminal H.

Some photos from the world's third busiest airport:

Meanwhile at 4:30AM, when the airport begins to come alive again, my airline tells me that I have to stop in Houston for a plane change even though it is the same flight (I am confused also). Anyway, me and the other seven passengers headed to Guatemala from Chicago get screwed because we have to circle in the air for an extra hour waiting for clearance to land. Because the airline did not give us enough connection time we all miss our same flight (but not same airplane) connection and have to take the 7 PM flight to Guatemala which gives me 10 more hours of hanging around an airport.... and I thought bus travel in Bolivia was bad.

The International Rambler Travel Tip:

I do not want to get into a rant about how there isn't free wifi at US airports, so I will just say this: Guatemala's airport has free wifi throughout and free PS2 stations. Why can't major US airports do it too? Anyway, if you find yourself in Houston airport and not wanting to pay for some stupid internet provider feel free to loiter outside the United Airlines club in terminal E and use their signal.
My view of doors to United club

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Life Changing Fast But Still Rambling

Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
-- Ferris Bueller

If you have been following my travel blog you'll know that I haven't written in a while. I am not sure why, but I think it is writer's block. I have been stuck in the sand dunes in Huacachina, Peru which was already a long time ago, a lot of kilometers ago. Meanwhile, now I am sitting on my bed in a single room in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala about to start a six month minimum volunteer gig with Habitat for Humanity. I do promise to eventually finish writing about Peru. I think I owe it to myself and my dedicated readers (yes, all four of you) to complete the South American journey. I just think the final posts from Peru will have to be interspersed with new posts about Guatemala.

As you may figure life has changed quite dramatically - my South American sojourn ended a bit abruptly, I will not see Mika, my life/travel partner, until we meet again November 6th at the Fort Lauderdale airport of all places, and I am about to accept something which I have been very good at avoiding --- responsibility. How did I end up here?
Well, a few weeks ago we were in Lima, Peru and in one of those funks that will occur at times when traveling - especially for rolling stones like us who travel for so long and do not know when or what will be at the end. At that time we did not even know which country we would be in this December. Mika gets this more than I do, it is basically a creeping doubt of "what am (are) I (we) doing with my (our) lives?" It is in one of these moments that I decided to check to see what is out there. Something caught my eye. It is a volunteer opportunity in Guatemala that requires traveling around the country, writing and photography for Habitat for Humanity, a huge American NGO that builds homes all over the world. If I enjoy the work and the work enjoys me it could lead to something else. Furthermore, my travel expenses will be paid while I am out and about for the job which for me is like winning the lottery because usually I travel, write and take photos all at my own expense.

A quick email revealed that they are currently interviewing. I whipped up a resume and cover letter (for volunteer work, I know, right!), scored an interview via Skype and a few days later our lives changed completely. I had to do a lot of shuffling with our travel schedule. We have plans to go to the USA on Nov 6th from Bogota, Colombia. I changed my flight to leave from Guatemala. My wife, however, is not so lucky. First of all, tickets are expensive Lima - Guatemala one way is a whopping $850. I used frequent flier miles. Secondly, about ten months ago Mika, ignoring the wise advice of her husband, left a suitcase full of stuff in Bogota which she has to go pick up and which is hopefully still there.

So after two weeks more of traveling up the north coast of Peru we came back to Lima where I caught my flight to Guatemala while Mika headed off to a vegetarian yoga commune in Peru to kill some weeks before she must head north again to Bogota. As mentioned, we will meet in the USA to spend three weeks there visiting family then head back down to Guatemala to find an apartment and settle in for a while.

With life usually crawling at a snail's pace away from the rat race reality of the real world these changes seem like they have come at breakneck speed. As I turn a new chapter in my rambling life blogging will give me the chance to slow down and appreciate where I have been and to possibly see where I am headed. Thanks for reading!

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A) Lima, Peru
B) Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

Monday, September 19, 2011

Vamos A La Playa - Sort Of


In Bolivia I became quite lethargic with traveling, however, crossing the border into Peru completely rejuvenated me. I know it is just mental, but it's like the ink in the custom officer's stamp was mixed with magic fairy dust. I get back on the bus telling Mika that it feels like we are starting a new trip. It is a good thing to that I am reenergized because we are about to do some heavy duty traveling.

The first thing we have to do in Peru is backtrack. Nobody likes backtracking, but it is as good excuse as any for me to add links to my older blog posts. The first stop is Puno on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca. If you remember we were there during large protests (click the link to read about Puno). The central plaza was completely occupied by campesinos and the town was a mess. This time around the place seems to be pretty normal: the plaza is empty, stores are open and bank windows are not smashed. With no sight-seeing on the agenda we go to a Chinese restaurant that we went to before and go to bed early to catch our next bus to Arequipa.
Bring back the Classics: Watching Splash dubbed in Spanish on the bus
The ride to Arequipa passes through a national park with mountain views, alpaca herds and vicuna spotting. This is the third time we have passed through here by bus. We also know Arequipa (click the link) and have no sight-seeing agenda. The only thing we plan to do is to go to the central market to eat salteñas (a stuffed pastry) for 1 Soles (US $0.36) which are the best we have found in South America. But Arequipa is a beautiful, safe town and there could be worse places to have to backtrack to. By chance we run into some friends that we know from Sucre, Bolivia and meet them for dinner. Packing up to leave the next morning I learn that my suitcase zipper is broken which means one more day in Arequipa to go suitcase shopping.
Hello again alpacas in the national park near Arequipa

Our salteña lady

The tourist info said that we can't leave Arequipa without trying ricotta relleno (stuffed pepper), and we didn't.

To the Beach and off the Trail

From Arequipa we make the very conscious decision to get off the tourist trail. While in Bolivia we never left it, and that scene can get tiring. We are commodities and a human-to-human element is lost during interactions with locals. Most tourists don't seem to care because either they have limited time with a "must-see" list, or they like guide books, hostels and restaurants that simplify backpacking to a sterile English-speaking environment, or they are Israeli.

The first place we go is Camana. During the summer this beach town is full of Arequipeños, but now is Peruvian winter and we might just be the only tourists international or local. The people at manning the tourist info desk inside the central library seem surprised to see us. To say that nothing is going on in Camana during their low season might be a grave understatement. An example: Our first night coincides with a woman from Camana being a contestant on a nationally televised game show. What's the big deal, right? Well, absolutely every single street level television in town is tuned into this program while the government is showing it on a giant screen in the central plaza to an audience of about fifty people. This is a huge event for Camana.
Camana market
We settle in town not far from the plaza and take a long walk to the beach. Beeeeeaaaaaachchchchch! Ocean, waves, wind and sand rocks. Rocks. Camana does have one sandy beach a few kilometers away that we could reach by taxi, but it is too cold to swim anyway. I accept the rocks. We made it to the Pacific coast. Mission accomplished... sort of. Without much to do we just spend our time figuring out where to eat. Camana has a small, active market with people eating ceviches and chilcano (a fish soup) in the morning and at fried rice and noodle stalls at night. People in Camana are very nice to us. Tourists are rare but not totally uncommon. We are a mild curiosity not a commodity.
Chilcano: A typical breakfast in Camana

Lapas in the market.
We eat these several times without knowing what they are. One internet dictionary says 'lipset' a type of mollusk. Another said 'barnacle.'

The Pacific Ocean
Having our morning coffee in the market

It's All About the Shrimp
Serious about their crustaceans: Camana's shrimp statue in the middle of town
Mention to any Peruvian that you went to Camana and the first thing they'll say is "shrimp." This town is famous for its flourishing shrimp populations and this is the real reason we are here because we kind of new the beach would not be ideal. After three months of eating fish from Lake Titicaca in Bolivia we are ready for some proper seafood. Camana does not disappoint.
Popcorn shrimp sold on the street

Sudado de camarones: a creamed tomato-based soup with a mountain of shrimp
Cholesterol count? Chicharron of seafood and fish

Last Stop
View of Chala and the ocean from our hotel
From Camana we take one more short bus ride to Chala. As the bus comes into town on the coastal road immediately we are thinking of why are we getting off here -- this will happen sometimes when off the tourist trail. The idea is to go see some nature outside of town, but it seems a bit difficult without our own transportation. Chala is a dirty town, every side street or alley heading down to the ocean smells like urine, and the food situation is bleak and weather sucks. We make plans for a quick exit the next day without knowing that we are about to plow head-on into the tourist trail.

View Larger Map

A) Copacabana, Bolivia   B) Puno, Peru   C) Arequipa, Peru
D) Camana, Peru   E) Chala, Peru

Could somebody please tell me why the police officer in this cardboard cutout in front of Chala's police station is holding a lightsaber?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Copacabana - The Hottest Spot South of Havana

The Hottest Spot South of Havana

Ever since early June when we were freezing our tushes off in the Uyuni salt desert I have said that I want to go to the beach. It is now the end of August and we are still in Bolivia, a landlocked country. But the travel wheels have been set in motion and we are finally on the move. It is strange, I really liked Bolivia and I could even imagine living there doing volunteer work or something, but I just did not feel like traveling. I think it was the one month in Sucre, which was great, but killed my desire to backpack around the country. Anyway, you will never see everything and now we have a whole list of places to hit next time we are in Bolivia. But before getting to Peru we have one more stop at the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca.

Lake Titicaca at sunset from our hotel window

Singing Copacabana in Sucre

I am ready to zoom into Peru on horribly long bus rides, but Mika prefers to break up the trip so we make one last stop in Bolivia at Copacabana on Lake Titicaca. Which in itself is not so bad because Copacabana also happens to be the name of one of my top karaoke songs though I doubt that this town is the inspiration for the Barry Manilow hit.

From La Paz it is a nice ride that winds around around the lake and includes getting off the bus for a short ferry ride. For the Lonely Planet toting tourist a trip to Copacabana is avoidable without making the trip to the islands on the lake. Visiting Isla del Sol is just one of those tourist things that everyone does. At the moment, however, Mika and I are really not in the mood for sight-seeing. Chalk up these islands as something else we will need to see on our next visit to Bolivia.
Waiting for the passenger ferry while the buses get their own.
A detail from a monument at the ferry town. This really has nothing to do with our travel but I find the excessive gore quite amusing. 
Copacabana itself is not a bad place to be for a few nights if you find the right hotel, preferably one with a lake view. Because of the nearby islands the town has been a backpacker destination for a while and there is a main street lined with travel agencies, dingy hostels and English-menu carrying tourist restaurants to prove it. Yet it is starting to develop into a big destination for Bolivian tourists too. New hotels are sprouting up near the water offering views of Titicaca's deep dark blue waters while blocking the smaller, older hotels behind them. On the shoreline are a fleet of swan paddle boats for good family fun and a row of twenty-four tents housing trout restaurants all with the same menu. Criolla trout (one of the largest types) is farmed and famous here. I would not dream of visiting the lake without eating it. 
row of trout restaurants
and after
Pushing out our swan boat

Paddling our swan on Lake Titicaca

God Bless This Car

Copacabana has a beautiful old cathedral that for some reason has become the place to go to bless your car or truck. In front of the church are stalls selling flowers and assorted ornaments all for vehicular decorating. We are here in the last weekend in August which also happens to be a great time to get a blessing. Cars are lining up for several blocks to be able to park front of the cathedral, buy some decorations and spray the car with beer. And many of these people have come from Peru to do it. Many decorated vehicles can add a general feeling of merriment to any old drab city. Maybe the mayor of and car makers of Detroit should look into it.
In front of the cathedral

The next afternoon I eat delicious trout again by Lake Titicaca while Mika with a shaky stomach chooses a gringo restaurant for a safer option and ends getting the worst pizza on the continent. As we board the bus to Peru after lunch these meals serve as a wonderful metaphor for our entire experience of being travelers and tourists in Bolivia.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Cholitas Way

Hola Cholita

There is nothing that symbolizes La Paz, Bolivia more than the "cholita." Cholitas are the indigenous Aymara ladies who dress in the traditional style of big skirts called polleras, shawls, pigtails and the iconic bowler hat. The word "Cholo/chola" (cholita is diminutive) stems from a derogatory term used by the people with Spanish ancestry when referring to the Indians. Racism in the country still exists, but it is slowly changing. The Cholita has become an iconic image representing all of Bolivia.

Street art homages to the Cholita:

If you are wondering how the British male Bowler hat ended up perched atop Bolivia ladies' heads, the most common story told is that in the 1920's a shipment of the hats arrived to Bolivia for the European railroad workers. These hats were too small for the men's domes but one entrepreneur sold them to the locals and a tradition was born. Hats vary by height, brim widths and colors. Every year new styles dominate the Cholita fashion scene.
The Bowler hat

A help wanted sign. Usually in Spanish they will use a term like "senorita, young lady, waitress, etc." but in La Paz "cholita" works fine.
The hotel where we stay in La Paz sits next to a large market covering several blocks with Aymara ladies selling every type of food item available all wearing a similar type of apron. The Bowler hats are not for work. A few blocks from that is a street which I have named the "Cholita's market." Everything is sold here that one needs to get in full Cholita regalia from expensive, colorful skirts to simple hairbands worn between braids.

Wrestlemania - Cholita Style

Every Sunday locals and tourists head uphill to watch Cholitas Wrestling. They advertise this event as off the tourist trail, but the six busloads of gringos would say otherwise. Tour tickets sold by every agency in La Paz include entrance, snack, a little souvenir and two guide-escorted trips to the bathroom outside because the neighborhood around the arena is supposedly dangerous. It is possible to go to Cholita's Wrestling by yourself but you will not save that much money.

View of La Paz from El Alto
Outside the wrestling arena
I know that we will see women wrestle, but at first I think it would be competitive. I soon learn that we are going to a show - lucha libre- like wrestling on TV. We arrive at the arena and line up to go in - foreigners on the right and locals on the left. We are seated ringside in plastic chairs while the locals sit on bleachers a little further from the action but with better views.
The arena
We have several matches throughout the night. The first one is laughably amateurish with wrestling skills no better than that of any respectable ten year old WWF fan. With costumes that look homemade I am worried about what we have signed up for and wonder how soon we will bolt for the exits. But as the matches progress so does the talent of the athletes (actors?) and the built-in drama full of leading ladies, dastardly villains, crooked refs and a midget.
Really Catman? The first match
It is not until the third match that we get our first Cholita coming out wearing a full traditional outfit. She enters the ring to the cheers of the crowd, removes the Bowler hat and shawl and gets ready to rumble. Surprisingly she is fighting a man - a masked villain that might be able to beat her in strength but never in charisma nor on tonight's script. You can feel the crowd's involvement starting to pick up also. Rabid insults are slung at the bad guys who respond by screaming at everyone to "shut up!" Not just insults, popcorn and water are flying too. I wonder if some of the Bolivians in the audience are in on the joke.
Her grand entrance in tradional clothing
As the matches continue we get just one with two Cholitas squaring off. A darling starlet versus a true baddie who pulls pigtails, chokes with hair ribbons, verbally abuses the audience and conspires with the evil ref. The men's talents are also improving as the night goes on. It is not the steroid-induced wrestling of North America, but they do get tossed around quite a bit and take it like a man when losing to a lady.

The final bout features another star of the ring who has brought along her cholita friend - who happens to be a midget. The little lady does not fight but she seems quite adept and head-butting men in the groin. Of course the leading lady wins the bout taking out both her opponent and the evil ref.
Talking trash before the fight: Lady in yellow is the villain while the one is red is the darling

A masked luchador watching the entrance of his Cholita opponent

About to toss her male opponent into the crowd
and then beat him with an empty water bottle

The star of the main event dancing before the match

High flying act

Cholita wrestler in training
Overall, the night is fun. There is a raucous crowd and everyone falls head-over-heels for the charismatic Cholita wrestlers. If around La Paz the Cholita image is of a woman timid and stoic it is in El Alto where that stereotype gets literally smashed to pieces.

Cholitas fighting for their rights by marching on the streets of La Paz
To see my blog post about La Paz click here