Friday, June 29, 2012

The real story in behind the pretty pictures

Basilica at Esquipulas as a storm brews
 Photos can be deceptive. They're like a little slice of the good life, with the unpleasant bits that surrounded the moment unrepresented. You take the shot of the beautiful basilica glowing white against a storm-darkened sky, for instance, not the one of you looking slightly green after being jammed into a truck for hours and hours questioning why you even came on this crazy outing. 
Earlier today I posted several cheery photos on Facebook of my day trip to Guatemala yesterday with my workmates. The photos elicited the usual "Wow!"s and "Lucky you!"s that travel photos inspire, and of course I do acknowledge that living and working somewhere that allows me to take a free day trip to Guatemala is pretty damn lucky. And that basilica did look amazing.
But now I want to give you the rest of the story - not to elicit sympathy, but just so you know how the day actually played out.
My workmates do something fun together every three months or so, and the plan this time was to go to Chiquimula - a Guatemalan city about two hours away from here that everyone in Copan frequents regularly. I went to bed Wednesday night with many misgivings about saying I'd go, as I'd had a lingering case of Honduran Belly for a couple of days and knew from past experience that any foray with my workmates always involves at least four hours in the car. But I really wanted to go to Guatemala, so I hauled myself out of bed the next morning, gulped down a Gastro-Lyte and an Advil, and headed to the town square for my 7 a.m. pickup.
Off we went, seven of us in a five-seater truck. I was in the back with two of my colleagues and the nine-year-old son of my boss, who sat between the legs of one of the guys. The border process went smoothly, and we arrived in the first town, Jocotan, just in time for breakfast. That put us in good shape to be arriving in Chiquimula by 10 a.m.
Traffic jam from the teachers' strike
Alas, there was a teachers' strike right at the point where the road turns toward Chiquimula. The teachers had put rocks and tree branches across the road and were having what we would have called a "sit-in" back in the day. Traffic was backed up for miles. Word was that nobody was going anywhere until later in the afternoon, if at all.
In a land like Canada, the intrepid travellers would have turned back in disappointment, perhaps cursing the teachers softly (but not too much, because they work for peanuts down here and often go months without pay) and arguing over where to go instead. Here, my workmates decided to take a back road to Esquipulas instead, and never mind that it meant two slow, twisting and turning hours along a dirt road through the mountains.
So that's what we did. I kept my eyes closed for much of it to keep down the waves of nausea  from the motion sickness, which I didn't know I was prone to until I started travelling in Honduras. We got into Esquipulas at noon, but my heart leaped as my workmates pointed out the glorious basilica outside the truck window and I thought about how I'd soon be wandering those pretty little streets.
Unfortunately, I had missed the part about how we were going to a water park. I didn't even have my bathing suit. We shot right past that basilica and headed straight for Chatun Water Park, which looks exactly like every water park you've ever been to. I staggered from the car and trailed the gang as they headed into the park and ordered up big, greasy lunches of deep-fried shrimp and chicken nuggets. Nothing for me, thanks, I said politely.
How can you resist these happy faces?
As out of sorts as I felt at that point, my workmates were so happy to be playing in the water that I couldn't help but cheer up. They got into this crazy pyramid/circus act kind of thing, standing on each other's shoulders and soliciting the help of other pool-goers to build the pyramid higher. I swam in my clothes and then climbed out to dry off and take photos, chatting with the curious Guatemalans who swam up wanting to know what was up with the gringa at the pool's edge. At any rate, I just can't stay unhappy when the sun's shining on me.
We stayed for four hours or so, then bundled back into the car for a quick pass through Esquipulas and maybe something to eat (they are BIG on eating here). We drove past the basilica and I whined to be let out to take a photo; we pulled over for five minutes and I got the shot. Then the storm that had been threatening for an hour or so unleashed with full fury - pounding rain, crazy winds, hail, and what must have been a 20-degree drop in the temperature. I was freezing in my damp clothes and had goosebumps for the first time since we got here in January.
Happily, the teachers' sit-in had ended and we were able to take the regular highway back toward the border. The road was almost invisible in the downpour, but at least the road was paved and relatively straight. The rain stopped and somebody up front finally killed the air conditioning, and I warmed up.
The border process didn't go quite as smoothly as it had on the way down. The customs guy was baffled by the script in my passport that says I've got a one-year residency permit and kept telling me that I could only stay in Honduras for 90 days. My workmates looked worried but helpless. You don't want to mess with anyone in authority in Honduras, because you just don't know where things might end up. I finally just agreed that I'd leave after 90 days and paid him the $3 he wanted me to pay.
Then we were back in Copan, 12 hours after we'd left. The power went out about 10 minutes after I got home, because that kind of thing happens all the time here in the rainy season, but then it came back on in time for me to have a hot shower (no hot water tank, so you're toast if the power's out). Another Gastro-Lyte, another Advil, and then to bed with the sounds of a storm much like the one in Esquipulas pounding down outside.
And now you know the rest of the story. Sure, a picture says a thousand words, but it leaves another thousand out.

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