Monday, September 19, 2005

“La Casa de Don David”, El Remate, Guatemala

David Kuhn, proprietor of "Casa de Don David" in El Remate, Guatemala with one of his garden tenants.

11:40 p.m.

Just happened onto this place that apparently is well-covered in the travel guides. It advertises "clean rooms at good prices."

I took a room at $23 plus $4 for air conditioning. Included is a complimentary meal, either the dinner special or breakfast. The room, the least expensive here, is underneath the kitchen, but reasonably quiet and clean.

It was getting dark and I was beginning to stumble around looking for a place, driving 10 miles out toward Tikal, then turning around after finding only small villages with no accommodations. Wandered down a dirt road in El Ramate that apparently had some hotels along it; I found a young a couple walking along and stopped to ask them. From Belgium, they appeared to have done their homework and gave me a synopsis of the room situation in town. They mentioned this hotel, which I was already considering, having passed it by several times.

I was ready for some dinner, and went upstairs to the open-air dining patio. The menu states all vegetables are disinfected with “sanavida”. Started off with the national beer, “Gallo” ("guy-yo"). Dinner, a local chicken dish was very good. An amazing chocolate cheesecake for dessert, light and only mildly sweet. David Kuhn came over and joined me. "Everyone says I talk too much," he said. But I was ready to listen. David told of coming here from Florida (where he ran a small zoo) 31 years ago, starting a hotel business (first in another location he called "Gringo Perdido", the nickname given him by the locals,) and raising a family. With the violence in Central America destroying tourist business, he was forced to sell that hotel, but once things calmed, he started fresh. His wife Rosita creates the menu, and prepares the desserts.

At 9:00 p.m., David gathers guests together. There has been a request to see the tarantulas in his garden. Apparently, this is a long-standing tradition. Grabbing a couple of flashlights and a long pair of tweezers, he leads us out into the garden. Throughout the yard, there are rock walls with little niches, which make perfect burrows for the tarantulas. He knows where they are (he has done this countless times.)

The grass is wet from earlier rains and because of this, he said, they don't seem to be emerging from their burrows tonight. You can see some dark hairy legs protruding from a few, but his effort to draw them out with a long stem of grass, generally provokes little response. He's apologetic, but persists. Finally, he got one to attack the grass, and he lured it further and further from its burrow, until he could quickly block the spider's retreat with his other hand. He grabbed it by the back and lifted it up to show us its fangs. They clamped down on his tweezers. He remarked that she was biting pretty hard. "It's like a bad bee sting, if you get bit." But away from the burrow, they don't seem to bite.

This was a rather small tarantula that our host coaxed out of its burrow.

He then asked who wanted to hold it, and everyone who had been so enthusiastic a short while ago, now fell silent. It was the youngest in our group who was first to volunteer.

Do I look slightly uncomfortable?

After the spiders, and for those interested, David showed us some other features of the garden: coffee trees, tropical fruit, an allspice tree, lemongrass. Fireflies danced above the lawn, and mosquitoes hovered all around. I suddenly started feeling sharp fiery stings or bites on my feet and ankles (I was wearing sandals). In the dark, I couldn't see anything, but David casually remarked "probably fire ants..." Amazing, each bite is like a minor jellyfish sting.


"Caesar's Place", just east of San Ignacio, Belize. After a great evening conversation about esoteric teachings, I spent a rainy night in my tent.

Looking back on the day, which began at "Caesar's", I awoke to a very wet environment this morning. Everything outside soaked. Pools of water collected in the tall grass around my tent, and areas inside were saturated as well. It was so humid, clearly nothing would be drying very soon. I had slept poorly, in stifling conditions; at times I felt I couldn’t breath, it was so hot and humid inside the tent. Under such conditions a “lean-to” would probably be much better. Even though the rain stopped during the night, I didn’t dare remove the rain fly. Tried opening it up somewhat for ventilation, but the air was still.

At 7:00, the wood shop equipment started up. I crawled out and went to shower in the small brick outhouse (last night, Julian had some workers clean it out. “There are some large lizards that live in the bricks, and they make a mess.”) Cold water only, but it was fine.

A very good breakfast: eggs, sausage, homemade mango jam and fresh bread, coffee. I met a young Japanese woman working with the Japanese “Frontier Project” (like Peace Corps), teaching music in Belize City for two years. This is a land of missionaries.

A view north from the "Castillo" at Xunantunich.

From the "Castillo", looking west over the jungle canopy to the Belize-Guatemala frontier.

The "Castillo" at Xunantunich. The Mayan archeological site was remarkably quiet. Only two small tour groups passed through while I was there. The people who worked the few concessions below lazed about, napping, or quietly chatting.

At Xunantunich, my first encounter with a cable ferry, crossing the river to the archaeological site. The ruins were very quiet. A couple of tour groups came through while I was there. Virtually no one else. Just up river from the ferry crossing, I noticed women down on the river bank doing laundry.

A cable ferry, powered by muscle, crosses the river to the Mayan ruins at Xunantunich.

The boatman said, "look, there's a big iguana" pointing to a tree 100 yards away. I took this with a telephoto lens. Can you see him?

Now can you?

The Belize-Guatemala border crossing was simple: clean, well-organized. A nice big parking lot. No big deal. Then I learned this is still the Belize side! Had to pay a "departure fee" at Belizean immigration. Got some free advice as well: don’t travel at night in Guatemala. There are roadblocks thrown up by bandits and there have been rapes. The money changers are on you as soon as you stop. I held them off.

Before crossing, there is a "fumigation" of my vehicle: a fellow sprays something on the tires, then charges a few dollar fee. Next to Guatemala Immigration. It was hot, but I took it all at my own pace. No rush. I focused on the one officer operating the lift gate. He seemed to be the one to go to with any questions.

At customs, I had to pay a permit fee of 40 Quetzales. No other currency accepted. The changers are right there to assist, with what I thought was a pretty lousy rate, 7.25Q per dollar. (I later found this was a pretty typical rate.) Some young Aussies and a Kiwi, also going through the ordeal are not happy. Once through, I crossed a bridge, where an officer stopped me and asked for a toll of 10Q. Was it a scam? I wasn't sure.

Across the border, the roads are about the worst I’ve seen. I check with gas station attendants. They assure me I'm going in the right direction and say it will get better in twenty kilometers. It gets worse. Big pot holes and I take some hard hits. The taillight went out according to my warning lights. A storm to my left closing in and I'm crawling along picking my line! About twenty miles (not kilometers) later, finally some smooth pavement and I can pick up the pace.

The homes are colorful, brightly painted, tucked into the jungle and surrounded by tropical gardens. Horses tied up along the road trim the shoulders. I start to see women carrying baskets full of grain on their heads. Everywhere there are the roadside entrepreneurs, little stands in front of homes selling everything you need.

Turned off the highway at Macanché (I think), looking for an “eco-resort” that was advertised along the road. The muddy street was lined with shacks, no cars, and only one truck in the village. Many people were on horseback. Animals ran freely: chickens, pigs, dogs, cattle. Further on, I came upon some young men on horseback, two with old rifles, one with a machete. I was clearly lost and stopped to ask directions to the eco-resort. The men pointed back the way I had come. Reaching the lakeside, I was getting close. Women washed laundry at the water's edge, while men bathed nearby. "This is a little bit too much immersion for me! I don't think I'm quite ready for this." I turned for the highway. I didn't feel particularly welcome. Driving back through the village, a young man is wearing a t-shirt that reads “teach your children to worship Satan”. (What’s that about?)

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