Sunday, September 17, 2017

5 Slightly Shocking Things for New Expats in Guatemala

I struggled with a proper title for this blog.
"5 Things You'll Need to Adjust To As An Expat in Guatemala"
"5 Things You May Never Get Used To Living in Pana"
"5 Things That Shock Expats About Panajachel"

The point is I've made a list of five things that stuck out to me when I first arrived in Panajachel, Guatemala, and that many expats and tourists I've talked to have found to be a bit shocking or unusual as well. Do you agree?

1. Dogs
Dogs, dogs, dogs everywhere! If you've arrived here in Panajachel from a first world country where an off-leash dog means a call to the Humane Society, then you're in for a surprise. But don't fret! The street dogs are mostly doing just fine. A lot of them have owners who let them roam to look for food during the day. You may see an occasional collar or piece of rope tied around their necks. The rest of the "strays" are dogs that have grown up on the streets and are used to it. They go about their business with no concern for you. It's quite interesting to see them trotting down the street with places to go and things to do! They won't bother you ... unless, of course, you have a tasty treat to share. Then you may get a pair of sad eyes watching your every move. πŸ˜‹
street dogs strays Panajachel
Street dogs relaxing outside the library in Panajachel.
What do you do if you see a dog that needs help? A sick, mangy, starving, or injured dog?
You call AYUDA Para la Salud de Perros y Gatos.
For those who have been following my blog, you know I am a dedicated supporter of Selaine and her charity. The work they do for the dogs in Panajachel and the other towns around Lake Atitlan is just amazing. AYUDA monitors and cares for the street dogs in Pana, with permission from the municipal office. There are limits to what they can do, but if a dog needs help, that's who you contact.
AYUDA's webpage here.
AYUDA's Facebook here.
If you're planning on moving to Guatemala forever, you can also adopt a street dog. There are loads that need homes and would love to be spoiled by you. 😊

2. Drunks
The climate is so lovely in Panajachel that if you're feeling a bit intoxicated and just don't wanna walk anymore, you can simply lie down on the sidewalk and have a little nap! If you're in front of a business, the owner may come out and shoo you away, but most drunks are just left to lie where they fall.
One of these things is not like the other!
When I first arrived here, I was worried these people were dead! But I watched all the locals just stepping around the prone bodies without a second glance and figured it must be all right. Besides, with my limited Spanish, I could wake them up and ask if they're okay, (¿EstΓ‘s bien?) but then what?
My lovely friend, H., told me a story where she saw a drunk man passed out on the river road in the hot sun. She was concerned for his health, so she woke him up and asked if he was all right. The guy peered blearily up at her and then winked! My friend laughed and went on her way. πŸ˜„

3. Trash
Oh my, there is a lot of trash here in Guatemala. It's sad to see people with so little respect for their environment, especially when the environment here is so beautiful! Yes, you will see signs saying, "No tire basura," (don't throw trash) but a lot of folks just don't seem to care. There are street sweepers and municipal workers who clean up on a daily basis, but you'll still see piles of garbage on the side of the road and in empty lots. Do your part! Don't litter!

4. Noise
Those super loud BANGS you hear at all hours, even at 5 am? Those aren't gunfire. Okay, maybe they are, but more than likely it's just bombas, which are huge gunpowder "bombs" that are set off using a mortar. You'll also here snapping firecrackers at all times of the day and night. Guatemalans love to celebrate everything with explosions!
Check out this video I took last year. It shows an awesome traditional parade, plus in the end I found myself way too close to some firecrackers and bombas! Ouch, my ears! πŸ˜†


Guatemalans themselves are rather quiet people, in my opinion, but they do love a good parade. And they have an obsession with marching bands. That's all well and good, but you soon realize that marching bands have to practice...and practice and practice and practice. *sigh* My advice: don't live too close to a school. 
And those dogs I told you about? Yeah, they bark. A lot. Plus there are roosters crowing (yes, even in town) and church bells ringing very early in the morning. Panajachel certainly is a lively place. You get used to it, but I do recommend a good pair of earplugs for those nights you just need some sleep. 

5. Unsafety
Ha! I wanted to have a single word for this heading but there is no one word to fully describe the blatant disregard for human life that happens in Guatemala! I'm not talking about gang violence, forced marriages, and lynchings. (All of which occur here, sadly.) I'm talking about bicycles weaving in and out of oncoming traffic, four people on one motorcycle, no guard rails on curvy steep mountain roads, 40 people riding in the back of a pickup truck, electricians working while the power is on, and chicken buses going twice the speed limit downhill passing another bus in the fog while the driver talks on his cell phone. Yikes!
Most of these things are a "live and let live" sort of situation. You wanna ride your motorcycle without a helmet? Not my problem. But if you're driving my bus, please remember that you hold all your passengers' lives in your hands!
In spite of all this, I have very rarely felt unsafe in Panajachel. There isn't a lot of violent crime here, thankfully. Keep your wits about you and use common sense, just as you would in any city, and you'll be fine.

I hope you've enjoyed my post. I'm not trying to insult my adopted country or scare anybody off from coming to visit Panajachel and Guatemala. I've just seen so many posts on Facebook and other websites inquiring about these same five things. So now you know. Life in Guatemala is different, as it should be, and every day is a new adventure. I love it here! I hope you see you soon! 😊

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Adventures in Airports!

I'm gonna tell you all about my experience flying from Guatemala to Florida. This topic may not be of interest to everyone but you'd be surprised how many people enjoy knowing the minute details of traveling so they can be super prepared! I hope my story can help ease some traveling anxiety for someone. πŸ˜„

I bought my ticket thru Expedia. They rock. I have some dumb points account with them, but I don't care about that. I care about easy online searching, booking, paying, and follow-up. I love how I can check my itinerary and other things through their website. If I had a smartphone, I could have even used a virtual boarding pass. (I saw people actually scanning their phones at the boarding gate. Pretty cool.)

The plan: fly from Guate City to Orlando, Florida.
The actuality: the cheapest flight went from G.C. to Mexico City to Atlanta to Orlando. It took me all day. ALL DAY. Like 14 hours of travel. UGH. But the only other option was a flight on Spirit Airlines, which I've heard bad things about, and which cost more and had all sorts of add-on fees for baggage and such. Bleck. I prefer simplicity.
I paid $445.89 Canadian. Sweet!

My flight was partially with Aeromexico and partially with Delta. This is what caused all the confusion! I have enjoyed flying with Delta before, including my original flight from Canada to Guatemala. I was pleased to discover that Aeromexico was also a great airline. In fact, I dare to say they are better than Delta. The seats were more comfortable and the "snack" I got on my short flight was tastier than the "meal" I got on the longer flight with Delta. Two thumbs up!
La Aurora airport in Guatemala City. It's pretty nice, although there are shabby parts. They're working on it! 😊
Anyhoo, here's the rundown of the day I traveled out of Gaute to Florida.

Guatemala City to Mexico City
I left my airport hotel (Patricia's B&B) using their free shuttle at 4am. My flight wasn't until 6:50 so I had lots of time, but the hosts at the B&B suggested I leave at 4. *yawn*
At the Guatemala airport (La Aurora), they checked my passport five times. FIVE. There was a guard right at the entrance checking passports and boarding passes. Everyone else has to stand outside on the street.
I was through all customs by 4:30 am. Pretty quick and none of this "four hours before your flight" business that everyone had been worried about. I got my boarding pass but it was only printed for the first leg of my trip. The lady said that I had to pick up my checked bag at the Mexico City airport and gave me a sticker for it. Huh? This confused me. I think that other times I had flown, the checked luggage just went ahead to the final destination. Not true in this case.
This early, only McDonald's and a small cafΓ© were open. I sat and waited, boarded my Aeromexico flight around 6;30, and took off on time.

Mexico City to Atlanta, GA, United States
On the flight to Mexico City, the flight attendants came around and gave everyone immigration forms to fill out. It was the same form that I've gotten when doing visa runs to Mexico, so I was pretty experienced with filling it out. (Travel tip: always carry a pen!) I was a bit confused at the part where it asked where I was staying in Mexico, so I left it blank. Later, the guard filled it in with "in transit".
The Mexico City airport was crazy confusing, but I believe it was a combination of switching airlines and crossing country borders. The line for checking passports took about 40 minutes. Then I had to go get my luggage from the baggage claim and walk it over to another place for "baggage for connecting flights". There, a guy checked the tag and put it on a conveyor belt. Weird.
After that, I didn't have a boarding pass. (Remember the Guate airport desk only printed one?) Yeah, so I go up to the lady at the stairs to "connecting flights" and she tells me I can't go through because I don't have a pass. She says to go to L2 and waves me off. Okey dokey! So then I walk through some doors and down a hall and up some stairs and back down the stairs and I can't get back to the lady, so back up the stairs ... so lost! Ha ha!
I asked a different lady and figured out I had to go to a Delta desk at L2 and get another boarding pass for the next two portions of my trip, from Mexico City to Atlanta to Orlando. Delta printed me two boarding passes and reminded me to pick up my luggage AGAIN in Atlanta. At this point, I'm wondering if all the baggage handlers have been fired and they're just getting customers to do their work.
After the boarding pass, it was time for checking my carry-on bag and that new machine where you stand on the footprints and raise your arms and it scans you. Lucky me failed the scan and got a full pat-down and palm swab right then and there. (Palm swab, you ask? They wiped both my hands with a wet cloth and then put the cloth in a detection machine, which gave a green light, yay.) The security dudes opened my carry-on and went thru it thoroughly but were very nice and of course I wasn't carrying anything bad so they let me through.
This whole process pretty much ate up the entire 1 hour and 36-minute layover I had, so I hoofed it to my gate and boarded almost immediately. Whew!
Note: I was stamped into Mexico on my passport but not stamped out. The flight attendant at the boarding gate took my Mexican immigration form. Strange.

Atlanta, GA, to Orlando, FL
Arriving in Atlanta, I was feeling more relaxed as now I knew I could speak English! I had a nice long 2.5-hour layover in Atlanta, which was great because I know how busy it can be there. It was all easy-peasy though. I got off the plane, picked up my baggage and put it on another conveyor for connecting baggage. I think this was because I was transferring from an international flight to a domestic flight (within the U.S.). Who knows? I was just relieved to see my poor beat-up luggage on the carousel. (Don't you just hate waiting at those things? I'm always worried my luggage will never show, or it will appear as a mangled mess with my clothes all hanging out!)
Atlanta Airport is HUGE and super nice. I took my time exploring, with the goal of finding a place to buy stamps and mail a letter to my friend in California. Never did find the post office. I walked the length of the airport, from the international terminal at T to my boarding gate at A. It was nice to stretch my legs. There is a train that goes between terminals for those in a hurry but I'm so glad I walked cuz I found the art thing pictured below between A and B, underground.
Atlanta airport A B concourses art forest
Between A and B concourses, underground, in Atlanta airport.
The ceiling was covered with leaves while birds sang and frogs chirped and geese honked. There was even a part where raindrops fell on the ground (using light, not water!). It was so peaceful and beautiful and made me a bit homesick. I read the plaque about the artist and learned he was from Illinois, so I think most of the animal sounds were from the Northeast and very similar to animals from home in Canada. I hung out in this section for several minutes just absorbing the calm. If you're in Atlanta airport, be sure to check it out! There were other art things around the airport, but this was the coolest.

Boarded my Delta flight from Atlanta to Orlando, simple. Quick flight, barely time for a drink, then landed in Orlando airport.
At this point, I was so super excited to see my family that I was almost bouncing as I exited the plane. It'd been two years since I'd seen my sister and two and a half since seeing my parents and my nieces.
As I picked up my baggage -- whew, it made it! -- I realized that we hadn't really prepared properly for this. My sister had agreed to pick me up at the airport, but we never really clarified WHERE. Baggage claim? Arrivals? Short-term parking?
On a whim, I tried texting her from my Guatemalan cell phone. It worked! My phone was getting a signal from T-Mobile. Thank goodness! We sent a few texts back and forth before figuring out we were both at B section, but on different levels. I finally found her (and my Dad, who was strolling around the airport looking for me) and we laughed and hugged and got in the van to drive to our rental house in Kissimmee. Success!

TIP: Next time, I will be more specific about where to meet the person picking me up from the airport! Baggage claim is on a different level than short-term parking... or something. I don't know! Ha ha! Of course, you can always have a help desk person page whoever you're looking for. πŸ˜„

So a long day of travel and one that I repeated on the way back in reverse. Yes, more baggage switching and long lines and security checks. But I made it! I'm hoping the next time I fly will be back home to Canada next fall. I miss the changing leaves and the brisk October air and frost on the ground and all that Canadian stuff.

I hope this was helpful and/or amusing. To all my traveling friends out there, may all your lines be short and your seats spacious! Buen viaje!

Monday, September 4, 2017

Thoughts on a Visit to the First World

Hey, everyone. Sorry I've been absent from the blog for a while. I took a 12-day trip to Florida. And after that, I was kinda burnt out and needed a bit of time to recover. 😊
I love flying so much! It's terrifying and exhilarating.
I've been mulling over this blog post in my head since my trip began and I was noticing all the things that seem strange as an expat returning to the First World. I've been living in Guatemala for two years and five months. In that time, I have gone to Mexico on several occasions, and while Mexico is much more developed than where I live in Guate, I still wouldn't consider it First World. So this trip to Florida -- Kissimmee, Orlando, Disney World -- was my first venture back into "civilization" after being in a rather rural area of Guatemala.

Please don't take offense to anything I say here regarding my opinions. I'm just stating how I felt and how curious it was for me to feel that way! 

My first giggle was on the plane from Guate City to Mexico City. It was a smallish airplane with only two seats on either side of the aisle. As the plane filled up, I started chuckling to myself and thought, "Man, you could fit at least four more people in each of these rows! Plus, at least 50 people could stand in the aisle!" I think I've been on a few too many chicken buses! Ha ha!
On top of that, the lady sitting next to me was miffed that my leg was touching her leg. Oh, geez, lady. Your First World personal bubble wouldn't last long in Guatemala!

I'll maybe write more about the confusion that is flying from Guate to Mexico to the U.S., but for now I'm going to skip ahead to my Florida experiences.

First of all, everything in the First World is so BIG. Spacious. Excessive almost. And clean, so very clean! There are so smells of sewage or diesel or dog poop. Then again, there are no smells of sizzling street BBQ either!

We went into a Publix grocery store. OMG so huge. So much selection! I remember staring at an enormous wall of crackers and thinking, "There are like 50 types of crackers here. You could eat a different type of cracker every week for a year." Back in Guate, there are very few cracker types at the local grocery store (Despensa). I think maybe soda crackers and saltines, those whitish ones, and maybe one other kind. The import stores have a few more at quite high prices, but no Cheezits or Triscuits or Wheat Thins or all the other kinds! It was a shock to walk thru that grocery store in Florida and see just how many different kinds of things you could buy. It was neat too that the signs were in English and Spanish. Lots of Cuban immigrants in Florida.

The other surprising thing was the fruit. My lovely sister smuggled freshly-picked blueberries from Canada for me, and those were absolutely delicious! But I found the store-bought fruit in Florida to be kinda bland. It brought back the memories of my first tastes of market fruit in Guate. It just explodes with flavour! All the fruit and veg here in Guate is so fresh and ripe and loaded with yumminess. Those First Worlders have no idea what they're missing! Only the bananas were better in Florida. I'm not a fan of the overly mushy bananas I usually get in Guate.

Foods I enjoyed in Florida that I hardly ever eat in Guate:
1. Dill pickles
2. Cottage cheese
3. Any cheese really!
4. Cereal that isn't a variation of corn flakes or rice krispies
5. Dr. Pepper
6. English muffins with peanut butter!!!!!
7. Chinese takeout (yum yum yum)

I also realized that my taste buds have changed with it comes to processed food. My eyes (and stomach) were drawn to the fancy treats in the stores, but when I tried to eat them, I found them to be far too sugary and weird tasting. There was often a strange aftertaste in my mouth. I used to gorge myself on Oreos and snack cakes and chips. Now I just have a few and then feel a little "bleck". It's kinda disappointing! I was so looking forward to pigging out on junk food! I did enjoy some McDonald's a few times on my trip, including at the airport. Tastes the same no matter where in the world you are. It's actually kinda comforting, in a strange way.

Driving around Florida was interesting. It wasn't a busy time of year so the traffic wasn't too bad but it was still a bit wild to see the broad, smooth, paved lanes of the freeway. And all the cars seem to be brand spanking new. So clean and rust-free! So modern. No hanging bumpers or things held on with duct tape. And motorcycles with only one passenger. What??? Ha ha!

Weird things that I did when in Florida:
1. Kept having to remind myself NOT to put my toilet paper in the garbage bin. You can flush it!
2. I spit in the shower. I got water in my mouth, so I spit it out. Then laughed at myself. (Having clean water come out of the tap is awesome. Even awesomer? HOT water from the tap! It's like a miracle!)
3. Said, "PerdΓ³n" to someone I bumped into at the Walmart.
4. Converted all the prices into quetzales.

I think my overall impression of being back in the First World was that it was like staying at a fancy resort. Everything was super clean, super big, and super excessive. No one needs that much space, do they? And why have a TV in every room? It feels luxurious but wasteful. It made me sad for the poor people in Guate...except those people are probably more content with their lives than the "rat racers" of the U.S.
Florida also made me realize how much I miss some little things from "back home". I mean, just being able to have more variety in the types of foods I buy, and being able to buy things that are premade or just need to be heated up. Convenience foods are kinda lacking where I live in Guatemala. (And I'm a bad cook!) Plus I do miss rules and safety and sidewalks. Strange but true!

After a whirlwind 10 days, I had a HUGE smile on my face as my plane began descending into the Guatemala Airport on the return flight. I was so happy! And as I walked out of the airport onto the street, I saw all the weird and wonderful things that make Guatemala so fun and unique -- street dogs, grackles, shoeshine boys, vendors selling gum and souvenirs and textiles, flowering trees, clear blue skies, Mayans wearing tipico, chicken buses belching diesel fumes, and all of it with the background music of The Eurythmics!

It's good to be home. πŸ˜„