Wednesday, February 7, 2007

February. Escape.

La gripa.
The flu--a legitimate excuse to sit at home in one's pyjamas... update one's blog (January was a ONE-entry month?)...
...and an opportunity to daydream about escaping...
...about escaping winter's darkness...(see poem at the bottom)
And so my wife and I are going to be visiting friends in California later on this month...

A year ago, though--
we were thinking of escaping the dusty heat of Nicaragua's November-to-May 'verano.' Forgive the medical details here, but last year I suffered from several weeks of sleeplessness--insomnia due to a rash! I began thinking that we would have to leave Leon prematurely, it was so bad...

So I went to a local dermatologist.
The doctor's office was blessedly air-conditioned, and after examining me, la doctora said,
"Ah--this is normal this time of year. You're simply allergic to the air."

he 'air' meaning the 'dust'--the insecticide, fertilizer, burnt-garbage particulate that settles on EVERYthing in León before the rains return in May...Months of hazy skies and constant mopping: "Oh, is that all?" I remember thinking...Allergic to the air! Hmm...How does one avoid exposure to the air?

A bit of panic ensued, but then an injection, some ointment and travel plans calmed things down.

We were going to head north to Guatemala--
the cool and lush volcanic highlands of Guatemala, two countries to the north of us, and relatively dust-free...(well, at least the part where we were going.)
An old family-friend lives near Guatemala City, not too far from the Pacaya volcano (steaming above, seen from her neighborhood) and so we thought we'd go visit her for a week or so...

After having lived for half a year in León, Nicaragua, going up to Guatemala was like 'country-mouse' going on his first trip to town--despite persistent poverty and massive social ills, Guatemala is years ahead of Nicaragua, economically speaking. The shopping centers in the posh suburbs to the south of the capital are the equal of anything in Gringolandia. In one of those cool malls, I got my digital camera, which I learned how to use in our friend's neighborhood, taking advantage of sunsets behind volcanoes:
Just on the other side of the 13,000-ft.-high 'Agua' volcano lies the city of Antigua--the original Spanish capital of the country, founded in the 1500's. After several centuries of earthquakes, the authorities decided to move the government to present-day Guatemala City in the 1700's (which is still earthquake-prone, but further away from the volcanoes). After the administrative switch, Antigua sort of languished in undeveloped bliss, thereby avoiding the urban sprawl that characterizes most other Central American cities. It is a pastel-toned Baroque jewel tucked amidst three 13,000-ft volcanoes, surrounded by coffee and avocado plantations...Forgive the 'tourist-brochur-ese' here, but the place is seriously, absurdly picturesque.
Along the streets, Maya women still wear their traditional clothing, which they weave themselves, while they try to sell things to tourists.
At times, their selling borders on harrassment...but it's difficult to get annoyed when you realize how limited their livelihood really is...

And as beautiful as Antigua is, it's hard not to get annoyed at the 'Californication' of the central part of the city: art galleries, cappuccino-cafés, hotels and jewelry boutiques--all owned by foreigners--have crowded out and priced the local people out of their own city. The businesses and the customers would belong just as well in Santa Barbara or Sedona...Here's a cynical point of view: Antigua is almost a Central America-theme park: Come look at architecture and landscape, without having to be 'bothered' by the local poverty! And yet, what is there for such a place to do, aside from tourism?

Not wanting to be cynical, seriously...I'm not anti-tourism or anything...I mean you know I like cappuccino...
Just trying to have a balanced perspective at the pros and cons of the tourist industry in the third-world...

So. Go. It's one of the most beautiful places on the continent. Go and enjoy, and let your conscience be your tour-guide...

While we were living in Central America, my wife and I wanted to make sure to visit the Mayan ruins at Tikal. So after a few days near Guatemala City and Antigua, we caught a quick flight (45 minutes, as opposed to an 8 or 9-hour drive over bumpy roads) to the jungle of the Yucatán.

(double-click on the photo for a large-panoramic view)

It's a shame that Mel Gibson's recent hyper-violent depiction of the region may well be many people's only image of the Maya world... But I think back to my simplistic middle-school 'geography' education: In the brief mention that Meso-american cilivization warranted, it boiled down to this: Aztecs--BAD; Maya--GOOD!
Not so simple. But very impressive. And to get up early and hear parrots, toucans, and howler-monkeys in the trees around the millenia-old stone structures: unforgettable.

I had expected to be dripping with sweat while clambering around the ruins, but a freak-cold-front had pushed through, and the Yucatán peninsula was having its coolest temperatures in decades, so my wife and I had the 'cheater-experience' of exploring Tikal in temperate comfort, not even having to swat at mosquitoes...

A day and a night and a morning, and then the following afternoon we were back on the plane to Guatemala City. As much as that capital city is an armpit, the flight approach to its airport is postcard perfect:
Yes, yes, I know--I'm obsessed with photos of volcanoes.
But this is all about escapism. Escaping the dust by fleeing north to volcanoes and Mayan jungle...escaping the flu-blahs by sitting here and browsing through old photos and writing this blog...escaping Seattle's grey-darkness by going down to San Diego in a couple of weeks...

Before signing off, though... of my favorite poems about this time of year, by a writer from Canada,
where they know how to do winter:

by Margaret Atwood

Winter. Time to eat fat
and watch hockey. In the pewter mornings, the cat,
a black fur sausage with yellow
Houdini eyes, jumps up on the bed and tries
to get onto my head. It’s his
way of telling whether or not I’m dead.
If I’m not, he wants to be scratched; if I am
He’ll think of something. He settles
on my chest, breathing his breath
of burped-up meat and musty sofas,
purring like a washboard. Some other tomcat,
not yet a capon, has been spraying our front door,
declaring war. It’s all about sex and territory,
which are what will finish us off
in the long run. Some cat owners around here
should snip a few testicles. If we wise
hominids were sensible, we’d do that too,
or eat our young, like sharks.
But it’s love that does us in. Over and over
again, He shoots, he scores! and famine
crouches in the bedsheets, ambushing the pulsing
eiderdown, and the windchill factor hits
thirty below, and pollution pours
out of our chimneys to keep us warm.
February, month of despair,
with a skewered heart in the centre.
I think dire thoughts, and lust for French fries
with a splash of vinegar.
Cat, enough of your greedy whining
and your small pink bumhole.
Off my face! You’re the life principle,
more or less, so get going
on a little optimism around here.
Get rid of death. Celebrate increase. Make it be spring.

( from )

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