A new chapter is starting in my life... but I have no idea yet what it will be called, though perhaps this is always the case unless one is blessed with uncommon prescience or cursed with absolute predictability in life. I will be travelling to Latin America (via San Fran) and then back 'home' to Southeast Asia (via Dubai) over the course of 5-6 months. I hope to share (some of) my stories with you as they unfold.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Volví a San Pedro La Laguna hoy... a la escuela y a casa. Back in San Pedro in Atitlán just a few hours ago and have just had an amazing reunion with Chico & Paulina whom I surprised by just pitching up on their doorstep! It's really good to be back albeit not for long -- I am planning to have four more days of lessons (6 hrs/day this time!) before beginning the long road trip up to Pátzcuaro in México to get there in time for the Day of the Dead (1st Nov).

Things appear to be just fine in San Pedro except that there are hardly any tourists or students about, and this is really the last thing this place needs after a terrible disaster... so I intend to be out buying beer and pan and stuff, and spending money on school and homestay until I leave on Saturday. Even managed to divert two tourists to San Pedro today who were on the bus with me from Guate... though it wasn't really difficult as they were intending to travel to Santiago Atitlán (where the 1,400 people died in the mudslide and remain buried in the mud) which is still pretty much a quarantined disaster zone -- we are now pretty sure that there is a significant outbreak of hepatitis there.

But if anyone out there is thinking of coming to San Pedro or knows someone who might be, rest assured the lake is as stunningly beautiful as ever and San Pedro is very secure. It's not even raining (much) :-)

There will be more blog entries later this week... I have much to write about :-)

Monday, October 17, 2005

My 29th birthday party... in the bar of the El Retiro Lodge in Lanquin... with champagne and music courtesy of Karin, Inge (not in the photo for some reason), Maurice and [what's his name?], and excellent drinking assistance from Callum and Jill (on the right).

Second stage of the evacuation from Atitlan, in the back of a Guatemalan Army truck!

Just a few hours before this photo, a torrent of water had washed away part of this cobblestone path in San Marcos -- a relatively minor example of the damage done by the flood. We decided it would have been quite offensive to have taken pictures of the damage done to homes, churches and schools.

Elvira holds up one of my less presentable tortillas

Friday, October 14, 2005

Thanks to everyone who sent me birthday wishes. I turned 29 yesterday. Feeling old :-p

Pero qué cumpleaño tan estupendo... what an AMAZING birthday!! It started at midnight on Wednesday when Callum decided to tell the bar staff that it was my birthday... which was a BAD move! ;-) Then, incredibly hung-over yesterday morning, we went to Semuc Champey, an absolutely astounding natural formation... essentially a huge platform (they call it a "natural bridge" but that doesn't quite capture the size of this thing) of cascading pools with a crazy raging river flowing UNDER it... it's totally mad! We did this seemingly death-defying free climb down the waterfall and swung under the bridge into the underground cavern where the river flows, water crashing all around us... though the really scary bit for me was trying to get back up -- imagine this:

You are perched on a bit of rock with the river raging around you, tumbling out of the cavern and dropping below you quite a long way, and what you have to do is hop up onto the seemingly smooth rock face hanging above your head and climb back up using the few niches available in the rock, except all this time water is gushing down from above and smashing into your face... your guide is yelling "Mire! Mire!" / "Watch (me carefully and follow)!" as he demonstrates how to do all this but you can't see a thing for all the water in your eyes...

Needless to say, my adrenaline, endorphine, serotonin, dopamine -- EVERYTHING -- levels were just OFF THE SCALE!!!

Back at the hotel in the evening, the Dutch contingent I had kind of met the day before surprised me with a bottle of champagne and some local sweets as a birthday present, and sang 'Happy Birthday' to me in Dutch! They were intending to make me a little crown -- apparently that's what they do back home -- as well but they didn't quite managed that so this morning they just gave me the roll of card they were going to use to make it! Really sweet.

Unfortunately I am having trouble posting pictures to my blog so for now you can look at Callum's website to see some pictures of us at the house in San Pedro and more recently pictures from Semuc Champey:

If that site is too slow to load and/or you want more pictures of Semuc, see

I hope you guys enjoy this return to standard traveller blogging... though I think we are all still processing what's happened in recent weeks and I hope to write a little more about it soon. Also hoping to return to San Pedro for a few days before I go to Mexico as I feel I didn't get a chance to say my goodbyes properly at the time of the evacuation.

take care

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Español en primer lugar, and an English version below.

Hola a todos. Mis amigos y yo salimos de San Pedro / Atitlán anteayer despues de hablar con la oficial de INGUAT (el instituto turismo de Guatemala). Ella dijo que los extranjeros debió salir de Atitlán porque agua pura y comida y gasolina estuvieron escasas, y que los habitantes tuvieron que conservar estos recursos. Creí que tiene sentido entonces decidí a salir. Eso fue una decisión más difícil porque va a afectar la economía en Atitlán -- pero mi dinero no es util para los habitantes si no queda comida o agua en las tiendas. Deciendo "adiós" a nuestra familia y explicando por qué debemos salir fue increiblemente duro.

Gracias para las autoridades... no encontramos qualquier dificulta durante nuestro viaje ayer de Panajachel por Sololá hacia La Ciudad. Pero todavía hay muchos problemas en Atitlán -- supongo que más de un mil personas han muerto solamente en el pueblo de Santiago Atitlán y hay miedo de enfermedad cuando los cadáveres en el lodo descompuestan, y todavía es muy difícil traer agua pura, comida y gasolina hacia los pueblos afectados por el camino de montaña. Estamos en Cobán hoy donde hace buen tiempo y la gente está viviendo casí normalmente... pienso que es un poco extraño porque parece muy lejos de la situación en Atitlán.

Hello all. My friends and I left San Pedro / Atitlán day before yesterday after speaking to an official from INGUAT, the Guatemalan tourism agency. She tolds us that foreigners should leave Atitlán as water, food and fuel were scarce, and that the locals had to conserve these resources. I thought that made sense so I decided to leave. That was one of the hardest decisions I have had to make in a long while, as obviously this means that the local economy in Atitlán will suffer though it is also clear that our money will do the locals no good if there is no food or water left in the shops because we have consumed everything. Saying goodbye to our family and explaining why we had to leave was incredibly painful.

Thanks to the authorities we had no difficulty getting out of Panajachel, via Sololá, to Guatemala City. However there are still huge problems in Atitlán -- I reckon there are over a thousand dead in the town of Santiago Atitlán alone and there are fears that disease will spread as bodies buried in the mud decompose, and it is still extremely difficult to get potable water, food and fuel into the affected villages via the mountain access road. We are now in Cobán where the weather is fine and the people are living almost normally... it is all a bit strange as it seems so distant from the situation in Atitlán.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Another short post, this time from Panajachel, where part of the town has been wiped out and the main road bridge leading into town has collapsed. Fortunately though they have electricity and phones... and vehicular traffic with surrounding areas resumed yesterday evening. San Pedro is expected to be without electricity, water or phones for another week, which will be tough -- not least for the thousands of refugees from surrounding villages holed up by the Catholic church -- but Callum and I are just feeling incredibly lucky to be with the family we're with and to have been pretty successful at getting some cash out here today as everyone is now running out of money. Food supplies are low but still sufficient -- some things (e.g. eggs and meat) have just about run out but there should be enough beans and maize for a little while.

Yesterday we were in Santiago Atitlan where hundreds, possibly more than a thousand, are dead, buried under huge mudslides. We could barely see any houses in the affected neighbourhood as most of them were completely submerged or swept away. Bodies are being recovered. Slowly.

We are intending to go help in San Marcos tomorrow. This is the small and astonishingly beautiful village we were in when the storm hit earlier this week. On Tuesday morning at 3am, the villagers came round to our cabins crying "Vamos! Vamos!" and we were evacuated up to the church up the hill (an AoG church, for those of you who know what that is!) and we spent the night there with the rest of the villagers as the wind howled and torrential downpour continued. As day broke, we found new 'rivers' raging through the centre of the village, sweeping away houses and shops and schools. We helped move supplies from various shops up the hill, alongside locals who were moving wardrobes, tables, machines, books... everything they were able to save from the waters. By midday, the centre was a no-go zone -- the force of the water was such that anyone wading in would have been swept right down the hill and into the lake. The ground in many parts was so saturated with water that it seemed we were walking on a spring mattress.

We were fortunate enough to have been evacuated early up to the church on the hill, which appears to be in a secure position. We were also fortunate enough (and fortunately rich enough) to be able to check into a small hotel that evening, and incredibly fortunate to have caught a launch the next day to San Pedro. We now know that the main school and the main Catholic church in the centre of San Marcos have been severely damaged. The villages of Tzununa and Jaibalito have fared even worse, apparently, with most people from those places either 'missing' or seeking refuge in San Pedro.

We have been INCREDIBLY FORTUNATE. Although it's interesting how we're now worrying about how much longer the electricity in San Pedro will be out, from worrying about having enough money (yesterday)... worrying about whether there would be enough food and water for everyone (two days ago)... and wondering if we were about to be crushed in a mudslide (three days ago). Amazing how quickly we adapt to all the great things we have and start demanding more!!

Right... that's all for now. No idea when I'll be able to post again but please don't take radio silence for anything bad as San Pedro will just be a little bit cut-off from the rest of civilisation for another week or so.

You can see another view on the disaster at http://www.atitlan.com/ and of course you can get information from any decent news website / channel / feed.

PS - On a slightly more amusing note, I think the people of Santiago found it quite funny that a random Chinese man wearing a traditional sombrero turned up to help them yesterday but instead of being particularly helpful just kept walking into the mud-banks and sinking in, sometimes up to his hips before being pulled out by the locals! This happened about 4 or 5 times before I finally got the plot and started walking on the rocks! Oh well... at least I provided some light entertainment. Bumped into a local chap in San Pedro later who said something along the lines of "Working in Santiago again tomorrow yes?!" with an enthusiasm that could not have been purely about the work!

Friday, October 07, 2005

hola a todos. very short post to say things are bad in guatemala -- the tropical storm has flooded many parts of the country, power is out in most parts of the country, over a thousand people have died by my estimate, and communications are poor with most roads shut but thankfully there is power and phone connections here in some places. i am absolutely fine and am staying put in san pedro with the family until things get better, the roads open up etc. am in santiago atitlan where they appear to have power and phone lines up and running. not so lucky in san pedro just yet, but much better than in san marcos where we were evacuated from and where half the town has probably been ruined.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

ok... an English version... with a little more detail on the civil war.

I'm at the San Pedro Spanish School, right beside the lake of Atitlán in Guatemala. I've got classes every weekday afternoon with my teacher Lorenzo, who's not just a great teacher but also someone who's keen to improve himself and his English, so there's a lot of two-way learning/teaching going on! We are covering a LOT of ground VERY quickly... so there tends to be a fair bit of homework and revision to do even when I'm not at school.

I'm living with a family here and my local 'parents' are Francisco (or Chico) and Paulina, who are lovely. There are two other students in the house, Lars (from Sweden) and Callum (a Scouser!). We generally eat together at each meal. Paulina cooks really yummy food and it's pretty varied too -- excepting breakfast, we haven't had the same thing twice in over two weeks! Quite an achievement in these parts! She also makes the best tortillas we've come across and Callum thinks they're the best he's had since travelling in Central America. Our other school friends do think we're a bit odd in that we actually look forward to every meal at home as they generally hate the food in their homes.

I get loads of opportunities to practice my Spanish at home with my 'parents' and with Elvira, their daughter, who often eats with us. They are great at helping us with our Spanish and they've also taught us a few words in the local Maya language (it's called Tz'utujil) -- they sound VERY different from Spanish... more glottal stops and guttural sounds... quite interesting. We've also been learning to make tortillas and we've become quite good though I can always recognise mine as the small misshapen ones!!

We also discovered las week that Chico is a bit of a politician and is standing as a mayoral candidate for San Pedro! I'd been wondering why we had all those visitors in the evenings to his home office! The elections are in 2007... and the candid opinion of my teacher is that he will win... so Lars, Callum and I have been talking about coming back to celebrate when he gets in!

Every week the school tends to do some kind of talk or event about the civil war in Guatemala, which tragically scarred many communities here. This place is so beautiful that it's really hard to imagine that the war only ended 9 years ago. The 'disappearances' and the killings, and the extreme fear faced by people like Chico and Paulina every day and every night, especially as it was unsafe to sleep in your own home or anywhere else consistently as that would make it pretty straightforward for the security forces to come get you -- all that seems incredibly far removed from the idyllic present. The fact that almost all the trouble was caused by the security forces rather than the guerillas, at least in San Pedro and Santiago Atitlán, recalls the 'prisoner experiment' (of the 50s??) and is a reminder of how untramelled powers can corrupt and turn otherwise gentle folk into crazy murderers.

Anyway, it's much better now and things are looking good for the good people here, thankfully.
I'm realising every day how great it is to have a much more active lifestyle than the one I had in London... and a fun one too! As you can see from the photos, we've been out kayaking and swimming, and horse-riding, which is SO MUCH FUN, flying past the fields and through forests, with great views at every turn -- though I've learnt that it can be a bit painful after too! Callum had a bit of crazy horse that kept going off into the fields, which was hilarious! It happened twice and both times our guide, Salvador, had to go help him get back out onto the road!

Right... that's all for now... so look for more in about a week maybe!