Wednesday, May 9, 2012

I'm Not Leaving Until I See That Damn Volcano

Volcano Santiaguito is one of the most active volcanoes in the world, burping out smoke and farting out gas every 20-40 minutes since 1922.

(Considering the state of my stomach in Guatemala, let's just say that I can empathize with Mother Earth's indigestion.)

Santiaguito is stuck to the southwest flank of Volcano Santa María, less than 10 km from Quetzaltenango/ Xela.  With a real, live volcano practically in our backyards, how could we leave town without seeing it?

There are two ways to see Santiaguito:  hike to an overlook/ mirador on the side of Santa María, or hike all the way to the top of Santa Maria.  Dave and I did both.

Hiking (Independently) to the Santiaguito Mirador

I put the (independently) in parentheses because you will probably get lost and might get robbed on this hike.  If that's intimidating, never fear--you can always hike with Quetzaltrekkers!

Dave and I did this hike with a few people we met through QT.  We did get lost, a bunch of times, though we didn't get robbed.  Along the way, Dave was smart enough to take some photos for trail notes to share with other independent hikers.

First, take a bus from the Iglesia El Calvario near the cementerio to the village of Llanos del Pinal, at the end of the line.  You might have to get on a bus headed into the city of Xela, toward Minerva terminal, because it seems like sometimes the buses take different routes into and out of the city.

When you get off the bus, continue up the main road in the village, toward Santa María.  At the end of the village, the road will appear to turn right--you want to continue straight, up a drainage, through agricultural fields.
go straight here, into the fields
Follow the drainage as it gently ascends, always aiming for the cone of Santa María.  After a while, you'll pass some "spiky trees."  There will be a few paths branching off to the left--these go to Santa María.  Stay straight.
spiky trees: go straight on
Within a few minutes after the spiky trees, as you pass a wooden fence on the right, the path will split.  Take the right junction.  Based on the contours of the land, it almost feels like you're going straight.  This is the only real junction on the entire hike.
wooden fence: go right, which sort of feels like going straight
From this point, you are no longer traveling directly toward the cone of Santa María, but rather traversing across her flank, always gaining altitude slowly.  Continue on the path, which will become a dirt road for a while.  When the dirt road opens into a grassy area, again continue straight through.
dirt road to grassy area: continue straight through
After this section, the trail gets overgrown and messy.  If it gets too crazy, though, consider whether you're still on the main trail.  You shouldn't feel like you're bushwhacking into a jungle.  Always follow the major herd paths.  At a few points, you'll need to cross makeshift fences of sticks.  Please don't disturb the fences, as they keep livestock in place.  We had to cross two makeshift fences, and I get the impression these fences are put up and taken down regularly.

By the time we got to the mirador (after several wrong turns and some crazy bushwhacking--remember, if it seems like you've taken a wrong turn, you have), the clouds had rolled in and there was no volcano to be seen.  We did hear it, though, rumbling like distant thunder.
no views. wahh.
Try again next time.

Climbing Volcano Santa María

In order to beat the clouds that roll in most mornings during the rainy season, we had to be up, literally and figuratively, early in the morning.  And what better way to be up and up than to climb Volcano Santa María under the light of the full moon and greeting the dawn from her summit!  We signed up for our hat-trick third hike with Quetzaltrekkers, the Santa María Full Moon hike.

The hike itself wasn't that hard.  We piled into the back of a delivery truck for the drive to the Llanos del Pinal trailhead and started hiking at 11:58 p.m.  The only less-than-agreeable part of the hike was a 45 minute break after only an hour of hiking to wait for a lone straggler, way behind the pack.  I wish the whole group didn't have to wait, because she ended up turning around at this point and we were all super cold and tired by the time we started hiking again.  Nonetheless, we had a pretty strong group and the first of us reached the summit by 3:40 a.m.  By 4:00 I was fast asleep in my sleeping bag.
Dawn brought us a decent but not spectacular sunrise.  It's always hazy and cloudy here, definitely not a great place for views.
snuggled in the sleeping bag--it's cold at 12,375 feet
But fortunately, we were able to look down directly over Santiaguito!  And we got to see two fantastic, loud, dramatic eruptions!
KA-BOOM!!! grumble rumble smash
As we turned our backs on the summit and started our descent, Dave commented that every step we took would bring us closer to home.  I liked that thought.  It reminded me of the moment during the roadtrip out West in 2011 when I turned around in California and, for the first time in a long time, started traveling east instead of west.  That time, I knew I wasn't ready to be home.

This time, I think I am.
from this point forward, every step brings us closer to home :-)

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

It's Just As Tiring as Climbing: Weaving on a Backstrap Loom

In Guatemala, textiles are everywhere. Especially in the highlands, where I've spent nearly all my time, the majority of women still dress in traje (traditional clothing). Men generally dress in western clothing.  It's definitely common to see a woman dressed like a photo in National Geographic walking around with a guy wearing Levis, a tee-shirt, and a baseball cap.  I guess it's because there has been more pressure on men to assimilate into western culture in order to work, whereas the Guatemalan woman's domain has remained at home.
women in traje selling flowers on the stairs of san tomas church in chichicastenango
Anyway, each place has its own style of corte (skirt) and huipile (blouse). Many (most?) of these pieces are still woven and decorated by hand, and they're beautiful, intricate, and colorful. It's mesmerizing, especially for me, because I enjoy dabbling in fiber arts and have a wardrobe of mostly earth-tone, solid color, boring clothing (no blingy flourescent pink or sequins).

I love traveling because I love learning/ experiencing/ appreciating things that I can't really learn/ experience/ appreciate at home. One of the things I wanted to do in Guatemala was learn how women make these beautiful textiles. I hooked up with Trama Textiles, a cooperative of women tejedores (weavers) in Xela for a 10-hour crash course in using a backstrap loom for weaving.

It took about three hours of prep work before I could even start weaving, then about six hours to weave a simple six-foot scarf. And let me tell you, I am so glad that I have well-developed shoulder and back muscles from climbing big rocks, because my arms were tired by the end!

Here's how the entire process of weaving a scarf, from start to finish.  If the text and pictures don't make any sense, just skip to the video at the end!

Step 1: Select your colors, one main color (green) and two contrasting colors (white and gold).

Step 2: Put the skeins of thread onto two rotating arms (known as a devanadera) and wind two threads together into a ball (devanar, to wind).

Step 3: Make your design. In my case, I had 180 threads to divide into a pattern of stripes.

Step 4: Wind the threads around a warp board (urdidor). Looking down at the urdidor, start at the upper right, cross down the inside, wrap around the bottom, and cross up the outside to the upper left. From the upper left, cross down the inside, wrap around the bottom, and cross up the outside. This is warping, or urdir.

The number of threads of each color in your design corresponds to the number of wraps you make. You'll end up with a stack of threads crossed over each other at the top pegs of the urdidor, like this:

Step 5: Set up (armar) the loom (telar de cintura). Apparently this takes a while, and can be a bit difficult, so my teacher did it for me while I went to lunch.

The top loops of the thread are wrapped around two dowels. There is another dowel, called a pulito, that holds up half of the threads. Beneath the pulito there's another dowel called a laviadura, whose threads hold up the other half of the threads.

Step 6: Strap yourself into the loom by putting the belt (cintura, though I think there's another name for it) around your waist and wrapping its threads around the bottom of the loom.

Step 7: Weave! ¡Teja! Weaving is divided into two processes, proceso uno and proceso dos.

Proceso uno:
Lift the laviadura, raising one half of the threads.

Insert the torpidor, an oblong piece of wood, under this half of the threads.

Pack down the threads already woven.

Rotate the torpidor, raising this half of the threads.

Pass the trama, a baton with thread wrapped around it, under this half of the threads. The thread on the baton becomes the weave threads (in contrast to the warp threads, which go lengthwise along the scarf).

Remove the torpidor.

Proceso dos
Slide together the laviadura and the pulito. This raises up the other half of the threads! Neat!

Insert the torpidor under the other half of the threads.

With the torpidor, pack down the thread that you just placed with the trama in proceso uno.

Rotate the torpidor to lift the other half of the threads.

Pass the trama under the other half of the threads.

Remove the torpidor. Start from the beginning of proceso uno again, using the laviadura to lift the first half of the threads!

If that didn't make any sense, here's what the sequence looks like when you put it all together:

Step 8: When you reach the end of the warp threads, cut the piece from the dowels and tie the lose ends in decorative knots.

All done!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Well, There Goes Dinner: From Xela to Xela Again

My thoughts at 3:00 a.m. as I tried not to get vomit on my pant cuffs.

I'm not sure why I always have *ahem* "tummy problems" on the road. Probably because I eat whatever I can find that's cheap and looks weird. In this case, though, I lost a delicious and perfectly safe pesto pasta dinner prepared by my guides.
So that was the worst part of the "Lago Trek" from Quetzaltenango (Xela) to Atitlan. Now the good stuff!

Dave and I wanted to check out Lake Atitlan, and we figured walking would be a good way to cover the +/-50 km. Coincidentally, this happens to be Quetzaltrekkers's most popular trek. We'd hung out with the QT guides, friends, and clients at Casa Argentina, where we were staying and where QT is headquartered. It's nice to find a little community when you're away from home.

The trek started with a chicken bus ride to Xecam, a small village near Xela. From there, we spent most of the day walking through forests, meadows, and rural agricultural fields to the village of Santa Catarina, where we spent the night in the municipal hall (and where I lost my pesto pasta).
the grassland, nicknamed "alaska"
I awoke the next day feeling pretty rough—dehydrated, sick, and way over-tired. Sounds like good form for hiking! I (foolishly?) decided I would stick with the group and would hike the 12ish miles to Santa Clara. I did okay until the final hour, when I could barely stand up straight due to the pain and nausea. I collapsed as soon as we arrived at the home of Don Pedro, our host. After a few spoonfuls of rice for dinner, I fell asleep to the distant sounds of Don Pedro playing the guitar and his grandson singing in a Mayan language.
Wake-up call on the third day was 3:45 a.m. When you go to sleep at 8:00 p.m. that's not too bad! We hiked less than an hour up to a mirador overlooking Lake Atitlan. We were treated to the beginnings of a beautiful sunrise... and then the clouds rolled in. Oh well! I was feeling much better, so the hike down to the lake went quickly. From there, all 17 of us, plus backpacks and driver, piled into a pick-up truck to drive the 10 minutes between San Juan La Laguna and San Pedro La Laguna (apparently this small stretch of road is prone to robberies).
watching the sunrise over lake atitlan
Compared to the Nebaj trek, the hiking was easier (less uphill, warmer weather, sleeping inside, half the length). The group was much bigger and the trek was shorter, so I didn't get to know everyone as well. The region where we hiked was much less remote, local residents were friendlier, so it didn't feel like I'd fallen off the map. Minus the sickness part, it was a great hike.
the cross, the virgin, and the volcano
So we're at Lake Atitlan. Now what?
lake views
We spent one night in San Marcos, which has a bizarre hippy New Age feel to it, and one night in San Pedro, which has a bizarre generic tropical backpacker hub feel to it. To me, Lake Atitlan felt just as overrun with tourists as Antigua. Tourism can do a lot of great things for a place, and a lot of people love the villages of Lake Atitlan, but I just couldn't get into it. We kayaked one morning, which was nice, but it was time to move on.
With only a week left in Guatemala, we decided to head back to Xela, where I could take a weaving course (more on that later) and for a third QT hike. On the way, we stopped off in Chichicastenango for its famous Sunday market, a crazy mix of chickens, dish soap, traditional weavings, tourist souvenirs, jewelry, cell phones, beans, and fruit.
moment of rest on the church stairs
At the moment, we're in Xela. I'm finishing my weaving tomorrow, and tomorrow night we'll be hiking Volcano Santa Maria under the light of the full moon. Then a bus ride to Guatemala City... and back to the USA.