I changed a bit of money* and then headed to the taxis. Guatemala City is divided into 27 zonas, with the airport in Zona 3 and my destination – and most of the stuff worth seeing – in Zona 10. At the taxi queue I asked a Guatemalan passenger what he thought a fair taxi price was to Zona 10 – the taxi drivers within earshot were unhappy with him for quoting a price when he wasn’t giving rides – and then I was putting my bags in a car, climbing in, buckling up, and locking the doors.
Travel – and the stories that come from it – only makes sense in context. New York City would be tame to someone from Beijing, but to a city boy it’s a brilliant cacophony. I tried to imagine what it would have felt like to experience Guatemala City if I’d never traveled. And it’s impossible – everything is comparison:
Good major roads. Well, not good, but better than a lot of places. Fast drivers. A bit crazy. Well, not that crazy. Dull buildings – kind of like Athens, but not that dull. Hilly too, and surrounded my mountains – also kind of like Athens. But green, green everywhere, like Accra. Maybe a bit like Los Angeles, if a map of LA were wadded up so that all the empty spaces in between were filled in with city, and then drenched with ten times as much rain for half the year.
My first stay was a hostel called Quetzalroo, a hostel started by a Guatemalan, Manuel, and an Australian, Jodi, just three months ago. I found them through CouchSurfing.com (more on that later). Quetzalroo is named for the quetzal – the national bird of Guatemala, and the kangaroo, the national whatever of Australia. The hostel was comfy, with dorm rooms – mostly empty the night I was there – a kitchen, a small, sunny eating room, and a computer on which I could email a sure-to-be-worried madre (love you, Mom!).
When I arrived Jodi was about to leave to meet Manuel for his lunch break – he works at the Canadian embassy, doing something regarding Guatemalans who want to move to Canada – so I tagged along. We got Spanish food at a small restaurant (where, like with 90% of the other businesses I’ve patronized in Guatemala, had a TV playing the World Cup) and Manuel introduced me to Guatemala by drawing a map on a napkin, outlining the regions of the country and the must-see attractions. The flip side of the napkin produced a mini-map of Zona 10, also known as a Zona Viva – the “lively zone” and soon – within three hours of landing – I was on my own, walking up a street in the city. A bus belched black smoke on me. Horns blared. Rain clouds threatened. And yet, I couldn’t help but feel great sense of freedom.
I stopped into the massive, immaculate Oakland Mall, which I’m told is one of the largest malls in Central America. Four levels, hundreds of stores, dozens of restaurants, fountains – including one with a constant laser light show – and brands from around the world, but mostly from the US, and to a lesser extent, Europe. Then it was up the road past the hostel towards a few museums inside the grounds of the libertarian university Manuel attended [in our first hour he asked if I’d read Atlas Shrugged]. On the way the threatening clouds starting delivering on their promises and I ducked into a fast food joint to sit out the rain and pour over my Lonely Planet Guatemala section on Zona Viva. Lesson: you brought an umbrella, keep it with you; they don’t call it the rainy season for nothing.
After the rain I hiked down a steep hill to the Museum Ixchel, which presents traditional textiles from throughout Guatemala. I’m not much of a fabric guy, but this was pretty cool. Guatemalan indigenous (ie, Mayan) culture is known for its brightly colored fabrics, which vary from region to region, sometimes with such specificity that Maya can recognize what town someone is from by their clothing. To the outside eye there’s less information to it, and more dazzle.
I didn’t have enough quetzales on me (oops!) to get into Museo Popol Vuh – with archaeological finds from throughout Guatemala, so that one will have to wait until I’m back in the City.
Back at Quetzalroo, I discovered that they had an acoustic guitar, which is (along with alcohol) an important social catalyst at hostels the world over. Turns out Jodi can sing, so we went down the list of 90s classics. The night ended with Manuel and I watching City of God, an incredibly violent and compelling Brazilian film (with subtitles) about the cocaine trade in an impoverished slum of Rio de Janeiro.
What a long day. En manana, necesito tomar un camioneta (“chicken bus”) a Lago de Antitlan.
*A note on money: The current exchange rate is about 8 queztales to the US dollar, which means a 20q bill is about $2.50, and the wad of 100q bills I had were worth $12.50 each. Like the rest of the world, Guatemala is now plastered with ATMs, so getting money isn’t a problem, as long as you have it.