Monday, November 28, 2011

Catching up on last week... Volcán Pacaya, Thanksgiving, leavng Antigua

Well, I've finally made it to a place with decent internet connection, and I have some catching up to do.

First of all, some pics of Volcán Pacaya, which I visited over a week ago but never got time to write about:
View of Volcán Agua from Pacaya
Like a completely different planet

Vents that expel hot air. I was only in that thing for about 10 seconds and when I got out I was drenched with sweat.

So last Thursday, Thanksgiving, was my last day in Antigua. Antigua is a great place, but I was ready to move on. I didn't have any turkey, but did get some pumpkin pie at the apartment of some of the other volunteers. I'm slowly but surely getting used to meeting really neat people and then leaving-whether its people I meet while traveling around or talk to on long bus rides or other volunteers that I've gotten to know. For example, I met this German guy who studies in Mexico on a bus ride back from Copán. We talked for the entirety of the 6-hour bus ride about... well, pretty much everything. Then he got out of the shuttle at the airport to catch a flight back to Mexico city, and that was that - never even knew his name. It's a weird phenomenon thats happened countless times now and that I just have to get accustomed to. Anyways, below are a couple photos from my last few days in Antigua:

Walked up to Parque Cerro La Cruz, which sits on a hillside that overlooks the entire city of Antigua. A really great view and a nice place to lay on a bench and doze for a bit.

One of the other volunteers and I coordinated the kids' painting of a mural, which turned out great and resulted in a lot of my clothes being paint-stained.
On friday morning I jumped on a chicken bus bound for Panajachel, Guatemala on Lago Atitlán, the deepest lake in Central America. Apparently, the crater that holds the lake was formed some 11 million years ago by a huge volcanic eruption whose ash has been found as far away as Florida and Ecuador. I'm staying in a really small town called Santa Cruz la Laguna, since Panajachel itself isn't the most relaxing place. Most of the inhabitants of this area are native Maya, who speak Kaqchikel to each other and Spanish to everyone else. This lake is pretty amazing. The entire lake is surrounded by deep escarpments and three volcanoes located to the south.  I've spent most of the past three days taking a SCUBA diving certification course. Not a whole lot to see underwater here, but it's super cheap to get certified here in comparison to Belize, where I'm headed in about a week. The idea is to be already certified when I get to Belize so that I can dive the coral reef there as well as the Great Blue Hole. Here are some pics of the lake I took the other day:

On Wednesday I'll leave here and head to Tikal, one of the most impressive ancient mayan sites discovered so far. And "heading to Tikal" entails a bus from here to Guat city and then a really long overnight bus ride from Guat city to Flores, the closest town to Tikal. This afternoon I plan to visit the natural reserve in Panajachel. Pics of that coming soon.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A quick update

Howdy, folks. The past few days have been totally crazy so I haven't gotten a chance to post until now. I'm currently in Santa Cruz La Laguna on Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. I'll be here until Wednesday, spending the mornings getting certified to SCUBA dive and spending the afternoons laying in a hammock. I've got some photos from this past week I want to upload, but the internet here is so slow that nobody is allowed to upload pictures because it would crash the system. So I might try to make it to one of the larger towns on the lake tomorrow afternoon to upload the pics. Until then, may all the raisins in your raisin bran not be raisins.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Copán Ruins #3

I'll wrap up these posts on Copán with a few random tidbits I learned that I think are just plain cool. Walking around the site, one really does get the feeling of stepping into a world one thousand years old. It was fun visualizing what the city would have looked like full of people carrying out their daily lives - drawing water from the river, buying and selling food and clothes in the market, going to the temples, working on the almost constant construction projects, and gathering to watch that ancient mayan ball game whose name escapes me (to be explained later...) or listen to one of the intellectuals speaking in the auditorium.

First things first- I meant to include the above pic in yesterday's post. On the south side of this huge temple is the Hieroglyphic Stairway, which holds the longest pre-Columbian hieroglyphic inscription in America and is one of the most remarkable monuments built by the maya during the Classic Period. Most inscriptions at Copán are very short, relating specific ritual and dedicatory information on the monuments. The exception is the Hieroglyphic Stairway. In over two thousand hieroglyphs on 63 steps, the text recounts much of the dynastic history of Copán, beginning with references to its founder, K'uk' Mo'.

As with the temple I mentioned in yesterday's post, the Hieroglyphic Stairway was built on top of a series of previously existing structures, some built almost 300 years before the Heiroglyphic stairway was built. In the photo above, a huge tarp stretches over the entire structure in order to prevent rain from flooding the many tunnels that archeologists have dug to explore the buried temples.

Okay, so I mentioned a ball game. Mayans all across mesoamerica played a variation of this ball game that involved a solid rubber ball that weighed about 10 pounds, which had to be struck with the knees, chest, head, and elbows towards a post that was a sculpture of a scarlet macaw.

I don't remember everything the guide said about the game, but I remember him saying that each team had around 6 players - 3 goalies and 3 attackers. The three goalies would stand in front of the macaw sculptures and try to prevent the other team from striking the it with the ball. The three attackers would have to advance up the slanted stone incline and try to hit the ball at the macaw sculptures. The game was pretty physical, so the largest members of the town were the ones that played. The games drew a huge number of spectators, and were actually about 70% acting. One team was to represent good and the other evil- the game was a microcosm for war, with each side representing the respective territory of each team and the macaws representing the cities they had to defend (or attack).

Yin/Yan, perhaps?
In the above picture is the complex where the richest members of the city lived. An interesting fact about Copán is that no cemeteries have ever been found. Rather, the remains of family members would be buried in the walls of their house. Evidence has been found that these super wealthy mayans would carve jade pieces into their teeth, implying that the mayans had also developed some sort of anesthetic (or they just had a huge tolerance for pain). Part of the reason for the burials in the houses is because of the mayans' strong belief in, or more like obsession with, the afterlife. They felt that the spirit of the deceased would be more comfortable in it's own home. Speaking of religion and afterlife, I couldn't help but notice a very strong connection between mayan religion and many eastern religions. According to my guide, there was a huge emphasis on meditation. There is also a theory that ancient civilizations from east Asia at one point made their way across the pacific and brought their intellectualism and spiritual practices to mesoamerica.
Looks kinda like lotus pose.

This picture represents a huge part of mayan spiritual beliefs. It portrays a man being swallowed by a snake and then emerging, purified, on the other side. This reveals the mayan emphasis on purification and reincarnation through death.
I still have tons of pictures from Copán, but I think I've pretty much covered all the highlights in these posts. Overall, an awesome experience that I would definitely recommend to anyone traveling through Central America.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Copán Ruins #2

Okay, now time for some history. Little is known about prehistoric mesoamerica, and although there are references to Copán dating back to the preclassic period, a guy named K'uk' Mo' is thought to have been the one to conquer and re-found copan and grow it into a more advanced and important city. Historians suggest that K'uk' Mo was sent by the rulers in Tikal, the great Mayan metropolis (which I plan to visit in a couple of weeks) to stage a coup in Copán. Writings from Tikal referencing K'uk' Mo' date back as far as 406 AD. According to text discovered at Copán, he was installed as ruler in 426 AD and legitimized his rule by marrying a member of the former ruling family. In these texts, K'uk' Mo' is described as a Teotihuacan warrior, which explains why the architecture at Copan resembles both Tikal and Teotihuacan and also suggests that K'uk' Mo' has roots in two of the most important classic mesoamerican civilizations. His legacy in Copán was so great that almost every ruler built some sort of tribute to him. The first two pictures below are part of a sacrificial platform built in Kuk' Mo's honor. This platform would be at the top of a large flight of stairs where the statue of Kuk' Mo' could look over the entire city and preside over sacrificial ceremonies.

In the photo above is part of the side of an altar around which is carved every single ruler of Kuk' Mo's dynasty. The  scene sculpted here shows Kuk' Mo' handing the torch of rulership over to his son. They both sit on glyphs of their names and the glyphs between their heads marks the date on which Kuk' Mo's son took over.
K'uk Mo's reinvigoration of the city started a dynasty that lasted 16 generations. His son succeeded him and instituted major construction projects, including a huge tomb for his father, which he then buried under another structure, which was again replaced in a rapid (and rather strange) pattern of building structures one on top of the other, which was a common practice in classic mesoamerica. Archeologists, upon excavating a number of the structures, were amazed to discover layers of buildings dating back to different periods, some almost perfectly preserved, paint and all, due to their lack of exposure to the sun and erosion.

This is a replica of the Rosalia exactly as archeologists found it, paint and all, when the dug tunnels underneath the temple that now is in plain view (see the photo below). This was built on top of another temple, which had been built on top of the tomb and temple that had been built for Kuk' Mo'.
This is the temple under which the Rosalia was buried. That is Mario, my new mexican friend, standing in the picture.
This gives a bit of an idea of how the temples were built on top of each other
This is a drawing of what the site would look like if the layers could be peeled back to reveal what lay underneath.
The names of successors after that point have been lost and are only referred to as ruler 3, ruler 4, etc. until the 7th ruler, who took the trouble to record his place in history in various engravings. As an example of the wide influence that Copán had in mesoamerica, carvings with the name of this 7th ruler have been found as far away as Belize. It was under the 13th ruler that Copán reached its zenith with a population of over 20,000 people and saw the evolution of its sculptural style into what is seen at the site today. The sculptures made under his rule, due to their high level of detail, are considered the pinnacle of Maya artistic achievement.
At its apogee, the city would have spread out all the way across these hills.

This is one of the many stelae that are located all over the site. Each one carries the image of a ruler and is intricately carved on all sides. Usually on the other three sides are carved glyphs that describe the history and accomplishments of that particular ruler.

I've still got some more pics and a few more things to write about- I'll post that stuff tomorrow. Right now I'm late for dinner at Sandra's. Oops.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A trip to Copán Ruins

I'm going to do a series of posts about Copán, since there is just so much to write about that I could never put it all into one post. Well, I could but it would be really long and someone with my attention span would never be able to read it all in one sitting...

The shuttle left Antigua at 4:30 AM. As usual, there were about 12 of us crammed into a shuttle that was only designed to fit 10. I popped in some earphones and cranked up my ipod in an attempt to power through the entire six hours without falling asleep on such a crowded seat, but that plan didn't last very long and soon  enough I was snoring away on the shoulder of the middle-aged moustached man who I later learned to be from Mexico sitting next to me. This man had a particularly strange shuttle ride considering that after I stopped drooling on his shoulder and woke up and pretended that nothing had happened, the gringo sitting next to him opposite me began to sleep-cuddle with him. What he was dreaming nobody knows, but suddenly his arm jerked up and settled down over the shoulder of our moustached mexican friend (who introduced himself later as Mario). Before Mario had any time to react, this gringo began pulling him closer into a strange sleep-hug. Mario shook the arm off and this poor gringo woke up with half the shuttle giggling about what had just happened. He was so embarrassed that he decided to stay in a hotel different from the one that comes in a package with the shuttle. 
When we finally arrived in Copán, we checked into our hotel and were notified that our tour had to be delayed until 2 PM because all the guides were... busy (whatever that was supposed to mean). By now I'm pretty used to things never going as planned, so I took the opportunity to get out and explore Copán a bit. It's a really nice little town - quaint, even. I ate lunch at a local comedor - some pupusas with a beet and cabbage salsa, garnachas (fried tortillas with beans, avocado, cheese, and lime), some flan de nance (nance is a bitter fruit with a big pit in the middle  that is really common in Costa Rica and that I had tried a number of times but never used in flan), and a really bold cup of Honduran coffee. Can you tell by how detailed that description is that I'm really hungry right now?

Anyways, after a quick nap in the hotel Mario and I and two women from Germany who looked very uncomfortable about everything piled into the car of one of the hotel workers and drove a quick 1 km to the ruins. Mario and I shared a guide, and aside from having to spend a few minutes mentally translating some of the architectural terms that the guide was using, the tour was great - and the site is absolutely fascinating. 
My guide informed me that this particular sculpture is called "Cabeza del ansiano" -- "old man's head." Really? Couldn't come up with a more creative name?
I'll go into detail about the site's history and stuff like that in the next post, so right now I'll point out some stuff that I thought was just plain cool.
According to my guide, the above courtyard would be plugged up and allowed to fill with water during the rainy season so that, during the dry season, the wealthiest members of the city would have easy access to water. The fact that the mayans were able to do that is impressive in itself, but no mayan structure is built just for function. The mayans designed the buildings to mimic the natural world. The courtyard, when filled with water, was supposed to resemble the ocean, while the pyramid-like temple seen in the above picture represented a volcano. Also, the water would be kept at at a certain depth so that it came up to a certain spot on the structure to the left of the above picture and looked like a beach.

In the above left picture is the level to which the courtyard would be filled. Those sculptures resemble conch shells. The sculpture in the above right picture would have been located at the top of a column and would be just above the level of the water in the middle of the courtyard to look like monsters swimming around in the water. The sculpture of the dragon below would be arranged in a similar way.

The drainage system in the above right picture was used to maintain the water at the correct level. 
This is a view from below of the "beach" where the surface of the water would be. It would come right up to the neck of this dude, which is supposedly some sort of water god. When this courtyard wasn't filled with water, it served as an auditorium that still has excellent acoustics. A clap from one side could be heard very clearly at the other.

This is turning into a pretty long post, so I'm going to cut it short here and continue it tomorrow, going a bit more into the history of the site and the significance of the sculptures. But before I go, here are some pics of the scarlet macaws that were flying all over the place. This is possibly one of the coolest animals ever.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Checking in from Copán, Honduras

I've taken a quick little weekend trip across the border into Honduras, where I have just finished a tour of the Ruins of Copán, which were absolutely amazing. I wanted to write this quick update since I have posted in a few days -- pics of Copán and info on the ruins coming tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Salsa-ing, pickpocketers, and lots of tea

Last night some physical therapy students that are staying with my host family took me out to teach me to salsa. Wow. I am really, really bad at it. And I was the only gringo in the entire place. To my fellow gringos, I apologize for so poorly representing you (even though that representation was probably accurate).

Okay a bit more interesting of a story- today I was walking to the school from the bus stop in Ciudad Vieja and a guy comes up smiling and apparently wanting to chat. Usually people are pretty friendly towards me and we exchange hellos and how are you doings as I pass, but this guy was being a bit too friendly. When he acted like he was going to hug me is when I knew something was definitely up. As I tried to avoid him I saw out of the corner of my eye that his hand was reaching for the pocket that held my wallet. I spun around, mustered up the meanest look I could make (thanks, Dad for the training...), gave him a nice little shove (okay, maybe it wasn't so nice or little and perhaps it was a bit more than a shove, but it's not like i'm about to politely shove someone who just tried to rob me - as a matter of fact I don't think its possible to politely shove someone) towards the sidewalk, and walked away. Note to self- carry my knife from now on in Ciudad Vieja.

Well I put "lots of tea" in the title thinking I had something to write about but I completely forgot what I was going to say. There's really no story behind it. I've just been drinking a lot of tea. That is an incredibly boring thing to write in a blog post. I apologize.

And just to make this post even more random than it already is, here are a few photos:
Looking through the arches of the Palace of the Captains-General, built in 1558 and refurbished a number of times since after earthquakes. Today it holds a few government offices and a museum.

The view from where I work everyday.
Well, that is all for now.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Semuc Champey for the Weekend

After spending last week sick, I decided I needed to take a weekend to travel somewhere else and then come back to Antigua refreshed and ready to more or less start over. Semuc Champey seemed like the perfect place -- and it was. Dense jungle, cascading pools of incredibly blue water, and cave-swimming were all a part of a perfect short trip.

The pools are so blue due to limestone that forms a bridge over the actual river, which flows underneath the pools and comes out at the other end. 
Where the river goes underground. It comes out on the other side of the pools.
This week I think I might start a nutrition program for the remainder of the school's summer program. It looks like the summer program is going to end earlier than was thought, which is going to open up some extra time for travel. Maybe a trip up to Belize...? We'll see.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Parasitic Amoebas... ewwww. Oh, and some history stuff too

Well i've spent the past four days lying in a lumpy bed with a pretty bad bacterial stomach infection and parasitic amoebas. So, I guess I don't really have much to write about at this point considering I haven't really done anything since the last time I posted. It's a little frustrating that I haven't yet been able to establish any normalcy in my daily routine, mostly because my routine has changed so many times -- the first day I had to get to Antigua on my own, the next day I wandered around until I found the volunteer office and was set up with my host family, then there was the field day at the school and next was the first  day of real classes then the weekend came then I got sick. Each day has been completely different from the day before and that can be... exhausting. At least I've had time to rest.

I've started reading a pretty good book about cold-war Guatemala called Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala. This vid sums up some of what I've read so far:

So Arbenz was the only the second democratically elected president in the history of the country. He, along with Fransisco Arana, led the "October Revolution" that overthrew the quasi-totalitarian regime that suppressed the working class and kept the majority of the country's wealth in the hands of some 2% of the population. After the overthrow succeeded, the revolutionaries had to deal with a completely broken country, which proved to be no easy task. The first president, Juan José Arévalo, entered with a romantic fire and a genuine desire to democratize the country, saying in his inaugural address:
"[W]e are going to begin a period of sympathy for the man who works in the fields, in the shops, on the military bases, in small businesses. We are going to make men equal to men. We are going to add justice and humanity to order...We are going to give civic and legal value to all people who live in this republic"
Despite some success in democratization, the country as a whole saw little improvement, and the once passionate Arévalo appeared a disillusioned man during his speech at Arbenz's inauguration, ending his speech with the words "It is my personal opinion that the contemporary world is moved by the ideas that served as the foundation on which Hitler rose to power." Yeah, he was pretty bummed.

So Arbenz took over and instituted sweeping agrarian reform that radically increased minimum wages and brought peasants from the brink of starvation. Even though Arbenz had no connection to communism and was himself not particularly fond of marxism, fear of communism was so strong in the USA that, well, you watched the video. It's also interesting to note the John Cabot Lodge, ambassador to the U.N. who blatantly lied about the CIA intervention in Guatemala, was a big stockholder in the United Fruit Company, as were a number of congressmen and CIA officials.

If you've got the time, there's a five-part documentary on youtube that goes into more detail about the CIA intervention.

I though this would be a short post but I guess I got carried away. Oh well.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Another video

I wish I had made this video a bit longer. I took it the first day I got here while I was wandering around the park munching on some tacos.

Friday, November 4, 2011

My host mom's place and my growing hatred of puzzles

Before I start complaining about my experience with competitive puzzle-assembling, here are some pics of Sandra's apartment. Quaint, huh? I actually might end up finding an apartment or something because Sandra doesn't make near enough food and charges more than twice what it would cost to get a cheap apartment for a month.
Dinner table, living room
My bedroom

Okay, now to the puzzles. I've only been working at this school for two days, so I probably shouldn't be complaining, but the only thing I've done so far is supervise competitive puzzle-assembling. The kids race each other to compete puzzles that have the same number of pieces. And it would actually be fun if it weren't the only thing I was doing. Well, actually it's not the only thing I've been doing. This morning I sat in a first grade class to "help" the teacher, meaning I sat in a chair and handed her markers when she needed them. Ugh. I need to find something to do that involves actively teaching the kids.

It's supposed to rain this weekend for the first time here in like... a really long time since it's the dry season. As if I need anything else to add to my Eeyore-ish attitude. For those of you that don't recognize that reference, I'm sorry your childhood was so deprived.

Okay, I need to end on a positive note. Hmm lemme see... Oh I found this really cool hole-in-the-wall gym in Ciudad Vieja that only costs around 12 bucks per month to attend. It's like something you would see in a boxing movie where the guy is really poor and training to... do something. I dont really know where I was going with that.