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First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, December 12, 1976
By COLLEEN McGUIRE
Contrary to my preconceived ideas, Guatemala is definitely not a minature version of Mexico. The country has its own distinct culture of which the native Indians are an integral aspect, and although it is only about the size of Ohio, at least 33 different dialects exist. Toursts have difficulty pronouncing the names of Indian villages like Chichicastenango or Huehuetenango, so foreigners tend to simplify the names to Chichi and Huehue.
Brillian colors of red, blue, orange and yellow found int he INdians’ clothign immediately strikes the tourist’s eye and embroidered on many blouses are ancient Mayan symbols. In Central America, Guatemala is THE place to buy clothes.
I first traveled to the Lake Atitlan region. Verdant mountains surround the pure crystal blue waters. Panajachel is the most “civilized” town in the area and thus it serves a base for outgoing trips. From Panajachel I took a 30-cent boat ride to San Pedro, a very poor Indian village on the toher side of the lake. My desire to go there lay in the 9,000 foot volcano.
The climb itself is 4,000 feet and ten of us tackled the steep, steep volcano. The path got wetter the higher we climbed. Vines à la Tarzan style became more frequent. Every now and then we encountered peasants descening. On their backs were at least 30 pounds of firewood they had chopped to sell in the village. Some of them were really old, old men. Their endurance was amazing.
One ancient Indian stopped to speak to us in broken Spanish. We were all impressed when he told us that he makes the arduous three-hour hike every day. “Es mi trabajo.” — it’s my work, he said grinning. His daily firewood trek earns him the ridiculous pay of $1.
At the top of the dormant volcano, the view stretches for miles. And i’m told that from the other side you can see as far away as the Pacific Ocean. It’s dynamically beautiful. A little before noon the clouds set in. We were enclosed in a cool blanket of white air and were no longer sweating. It was time to descend.
After such a strenuous hike a hearty meal sounded divine. There are only three “comedores” (cafes) n town and they all have the same menu: rice, beans, bread and chicken or eggs. Not exactly tempting. There generally is a 45 minute wait for the food after ordering. I sincerely doubt if any of the lethargic waitresses could get a job in a U.S. restaurant. Byt he second morning i got wise. Instead of ordering coffee and waiting 20 minutes, I just went to the kitchen and poured it myself.
My boldness didn’t disturb the Indian waitress. Her sincere smile revealed that she was as aware as I that our conceptions of time are vastly different. The Indian time element is the hardest adjustment to make in Latin America. Time means absolutely nothing to them. San Pedro was just too, too slow for me and leaving my 29 cent a night “hotel,” I caught a boat to Panajachel.
Panajachel is a unique town. Tourists are startled to find such Western culinary delights as granola and yogurt. Progress can be smelled in the air. Hilton has plans not only for a hotel here but as casino as well.
However, I found it really sad that very few Indians are now living in this town where they once lived for centuried. The Hilton crowd will most certainly change the placid ambiance of Atitlan.
From Panjachel I took the hour walk to the nearby village of Santa Catarina. The gravel road is only two years old, but the native Indians of Santa Catarina still resent is construction. The road brings tourists. Tourists bring hotels. Hotels bring the permanent intrusion of Western man to their quiet pueblo.
One old Indian who knew he was more than 50 years old but didn’t know his precise age, complained to me in poor Spanish that Lake Atitlan was much, much bigger when he was a child. Panajachel’s existing hotels seep their sewage into the lake. The word ecology is no doubt absent in the Indian dialects, yet they understand the concept well.
One of the biggest holidays of Guatemala is All Saints Day on November 1. One associated custom is to congregate in the cemetery and drink to the dead lest they haunt you until the following year.
All over the country housewives spend several days preparing the special All Saints Day dish known as fiambre. Over and over talk is of fiambre, fiambre, fiambre and the amount of work needed to prepare it and of its tasty nature. But personally, fiambre, a dish of beets and a variety of meats and vegetables served cold, was a disappointment.
The Guatemalan culture is rich due to the Mayan heritage. The single biggest tourist attraction is the ruins in northern Tikal. A plane trip there from the capital costs $29 and takes 45 minutes. My budget compelled me to take the $7 bu ride. Physically, I regret my decision.
The bus ride generally lasts about 11 hours. However, this is the region’s rainy season and since the road is unpaved and has more holes than a chunk of Swiss chees, this onerous trip lasted 17 hours.
In places the rain water was so high on the road that it was seeping into the bus. The bus holds 40 people but the driver, greedily desiring more money, kept accepting passengers until there were 60 of us copeting for comfort. At 4 a.m. the bus broke down, whereupon we cattle had to file out into the muddy ditch to await repairs. I tried to imagine any Greyhound bus passengers ever experiencing a similar nightmare.
Tikal is situated deep in dense tropical jungle land. One wonders not only how the ruins were ever discovered but also how the Mayan culture commenced in such rough terrain.
The pyramids are stupendous, moreso than those in Egypt. They’re built extremely steep, makng for a treacherous ascent. The stone drawings depict ancient gods carrying machetes and wearing elaborately plumed headdresses and some of the imprints can only be seen when the sun is brightly shining. One creeps in and out of the chambers with visions of loin-clothed Mayans performing mystical rituals.
The pyramids at Egypt are located in the desert. All one sees for miles is sand. At Tikal the foliage is as enticing as the ruins. Spider monkeys swing high in the trees screeching mating calls to one another. Parrots sit on branches gossiping in their native tongue. Their feathers are so rich in color they look as if they were painted by French Impressionists. Birds that look like a cross between a turkey and a peacock calmly stroll the grounds. Their tall plumes gleam metallically.Small anteaters feast on the abundance of ants.
A brief rain shower broke the oppressive humidity. Then lo and behold a pastel rainbow radiated the sky forming an arch over one of the pyramids.
I do believe I have found the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow — it surely is this magical land of Guatemala.
First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, January 16, 1977
By COLLEEN McGUIRE
For my brother and me, Colombia was like a good Russian novel — difficult to get into, but very rewarding if you keep striving.
Our introduction to South America was Cartagena, the most beautiful Latin city we have visited on this trip. Its charismatic architecture — white buildings, Moorish arches and black wrought iron balconies —echoes the beauty of ancient Spain. Perhaps because it was the Christmas season, the narrow streets overflowed with people.
Cartagena once was one of the prime coastal cities where Spanish pirates returned from the high seas with their booty. A towering stone wall surrounds the old city where ancient gray cannons peek through the wall’s apertures. The majestic fortress of San Felipe stands as evidence that Cartagena was strongly fortified.
As if still under the influence of the glory days of their pirate ancestors, Cartagena’s people glory in the black market. Every other street vendor is selling cartons of Marlboros at cheaper prices than your local Kroger supermarket. A package of Marlboros sells for 33 cents. You can purchase one cigarette for 3 cents.
Near the market televisions, radios and other non-Columbian appliances are sold openly at drastically reduced price tags. There is just too much contraband for the police to arrest every single illegal vendor.
Cartagena’s warm evenings are conducive to outside eating and “dining” at the market is a unique experience. At a regular restaurant one doesn’t normally sit at the same table with strangers, but since there’s only one table here, everyone eats together under the open sky. Other people stand around waiting for a vacant seat.
The silverware was stacked in a glass on the table and you helped yourself. Out of the huge pots nestled on hot charcoals, a black woman scooped up bowls of beans, rice, fish, potatoes and soup. Everything was good and filling except the soup, in which cooked chicken claws floated morbidly in the broth. They may have no qualms about eating such things, but I couldn’t hack it.
One treat sold in the streets is freshly peeled and fried potato chips. These far surpass Lays or Pringles because the chips are hot as well as free of artificial ingredients. What a delight for potato chip fans!
Cartagena’s beauty makes it a big tourist town, which in turn means high prices. Both of these are extremely evident in Bocagrande – the new and also beautiful section of town. Despite the city’s charm, the tourists and high prices made it difficult for us to initially accept Colombia, so we trekked on into the countryside. Standing outside the northern industrial city of Medellin, we cursed the cars that swiftly passed us by. Finally we got a hitchhiker’s dream ride.
First of all the driver, a Colombian named Sigifredo, volunteered to take us all the way to Bogata, at least a 14-hour drive. And secondly Sig (his nickname) proved to be overly generous with his money (as computer specialist for the South American Chase Manhattan Banks, he could afford to be).
We took two days to drive to Bogata. Sig refused to let us spend our own money. His son is studying at Columbia University in New York and perhaps Sig wanted to take care of us in the same way he hopes Americans are being kind to his son.
We drove through high hills dotted with coconut trees. Sig pointed out that the coconuts on the trees were no bigger than moth balls. They’re called corozoas and despite their smaller size they have the same qualities as normal coconuts. Clusters of cana brava also decorate the hills. The plant is a variety of sugar cane with the stalk resembling huge green feather plumes.
At Rio Sucios, Sig offered to buy us a Coke. The waiter brought three bottles, one with a straw in it and two glasses. Tom and Sig got the glasses while I got the Coke with a straw.
We asked several young boys for the road to Pereiro, but their directions led us down a dead-end street. When we returned they were all laughing hysterically. No apologies were necessary though, after they reminded Sig that the day, Dec. 28, was Dia de Innocentes, literally meaning day of the innocents, Colombia’s version of our April Fool’s Day.
Later Sig treated us to a typical Colombian meal. Sancocho, the soup, was made from the yucca plant with potatoes added. Mazamola consisted of cold corn in a bowl of cold milk. Sig told us that the poor eat mazola in its own corn juice because milk is too expensive. Arepa was a white corn biscuit. Except for a sizeable chunk of meat, the native dishes were far too starchy for my personal diet.
We finished the meal over a cup of superb Colombian coffee. Black coffee called tinto was always excellent here and generally cost four cents in the small towns. The entire bill for our three meals totaled $1.80.
The region we traversed the next day gave rise to the great Andes Mountains. However, since it was
only their beginnings the mountains reached only a mere 7,500 feet. At the top the clouds created a white fog, making the curving road very dangerous, compounded by slow-moving cargo trucks that are forced to inch upwards at 10 or 20 m.p.h. Hence, we awoke very early to travel this stretch before the heavy traffic set in.
Before climbing upward, Sig made a pit stop for fuel and we were astounded to learn that gasoline is only 10 pesos (30 cents) a gallon. Apparently Colombia has enough oil to eliminate costly importation and maintain a low price for its people. Yet the people must pay $6,000 for the cheapest new car — Renaults — for which there’s an assembly plant in Colombia. The tax on foreign cars is 300 per cent, giving a Mercedes Benz, for example, a $50,000 price tag.
The stretch of the Andes we crossed was called La Linea. At the bottom of the road there was a Virgin Mary statue with about 15 sparkling candles glowing at her feet. Sig told us that before making the treacherous climb, many truckers light candles in exchange for the Holy Mother’s protection.
After crossing La Linea, we agreed that a candle isn’t a bad idea. It really was a difficult road. There were no gas stations in the mountains and it was not surprising to see overheated cars stalled and parked dangerously on the side of the small road. A bonfire near several trucks indicated the drivers had to spend the night in the cold mountains. Despite the difficulty of crossing La Linea, it was one of the most beautiful drives in terms of scenery.
In April or May each year, a bicycle race takes place on this road — reserved only for those with the stamina, endurance and energy to conquer La Linea by pedal.
After La Linea, we crossed a long flat valley, ascended another mountain range, and then crossed another prairie-like stretch. At last we came to the final mountain climb. At the top, the capital city of Bogota – one of the toughest cities south of the U.S. border awaits two wide-eyed kids from the Benton County cornfields.
Nineteen women writers tell of their love for this amazingly beautiful country in Greece, A Love Story (Seal Press, 2007) This is Colleen’s story:
I first touched Greek soil in April, 1975, when you could voyage from Haifa to Herakleion by ship (now defunct), camp out in the caves at Matala (now prohibited) and watch drunken Greeks dance and smash plates (now passé). After my flirtation with island life, Greece remained in my memories as a mythic place of sensual pleasure. Years later, one day in New York I fell in love with a Greek god. When he proposed relocation to his homeland, it was an easy decision to return to that pleasure center of my youth. My move to Greece was not official until I brought my bicycle over from the States. I switched gears, as it were, and eventually hauled, one at a time, three of my four bicycles across the Atlantic.
For someone who pledges allegiance to the bicycle, Greece is not the most logical of European destinations to take up residence. Greeks are insanely smitten with motor vehicles. More than a third of Greece’s citizens reside in the capital and all of them seem to covet a car. Continuously inhabited for more than 7,000 years, Athens is a city accustomed to movement. Yet, when Greeks left their rural domains in droves in the latter part of the twentieth century and flooded Athens, paltry provisions were made for mass transport. A bicycle culture never arose in Greece; it is as if the country went straight from the donkey to the car.
I insisted on living in Thissio, a neighborhood at the foot of the Acropolis, in large part because a pedestrian mall now circles the monument’s grounds. In this car-free zone I can move effortlessly on the extended stone walkway while marveling at the surrounding archaic ruins. When I venture outside my provincial precinct, I contend with a city locked in perpetual rush hour mode.
In Manhattan, I gamely wove in and out of traffic, but in Athens cycling is practically a contact sport. Motor vehicles bloat the narrow streets, struggling to occupy alleyways with all the tenacity of a plump matron determined to fit into a size 8 evening gown. Even my svelte Italian-made Colnago often finds no opening to maneuver around the stalled traffic, so tight is the space between car and corridor. Emboldened perhaps by their numbers, Athenian drivers brazenly discount non-motorized traffic, making the concept “right-of-way” a non sequitur.
In such a climate, Athenian cyclists are an uncommon breed, be they commuters, leisure riders or athletes —a strange phenomena, given that Greece is the home of the Olympics. So imagine my surprise when I discovered that in this urban behemoth of some four million residents, my apartment building shares the same block as the meeting space of a group called Friends of the Bicycle. The Friends organize self-contained rides where everyone carries their own gear and we camp out.
Fantasies of Greece usually conjure up beach scenes with blinding blue waters, but four-fifths of Greece is mountainous. I was a committed road cyclist until the Friends introduced me to the poignant treasures awaiting a mountain biker in remote terrain. In the Peloponnese mountains near Kalavrita we came upon a village whose prized feature is a hollow tree so huge that it holds a church inside it. I walked through the carved-out door and sighed when I saw an altar and eight chairs in a circle. Religious icons hung from the inside bark and you could light a candle as you would in any other chapel. I almost genuflected on the spot.
Biking near Mt. Parnassus, we stopped to gorge on wild strawberries clinging to a wall of earth. Sparkling from the morning dew and no bigger than a dime, they had a luscious sweetness out of proportion to their size. In the Greek mountains you’ll never go thirsty owing to bountiful sources of healthy, pure, cold fresh water springs that make store-bought water taste stale. Like Napa Valley connoisseurs hopping amongst wineries, the Friends sampled water from every spigot we passed even if we had just filled our water bottles several kilometers back.
To ride with Friends of the Bicycle is to experience siga siga in full force. Translated as “slowly,” my sense of the phrase is that it even connotes a disdain for all things fast. On a Friends outing, the goal of getting from Point A to the evening’s camp site at Point B is secondary to indulging in ceaseless distractions en route. We linger for twenty minutes to watch a fellow rider chase and catch a fat garter-type snake with his bare hands. Forty-five minutes are spent poking around a deep cave using our detachable bike lights for illumination. A good one to two hour afternoon nap is de rigueur.
Through the Friends I met Giorgos Altyparmakis, an iconoclastic cyclist and consummate bike mechanic whose family has operated a bicycle repair shop for over forty years. Giorgos is in his sixties, looks forty-five, and has the biking energy of a twenty-year-old. He has a peculiar fondness for cycling maniacal hours, starting early in the morning and pedaling until eleven or midnight with one or two twenty minute breaks. Few Friends cycle with him when he sets the itinerary, but I regularly ride with Giorgos. As if hypnotized, I somehow keep pace with him.
On my first outing with Giorgos before I knew his style, I grew concerned when we continued to cycle in the lykofos (translated as dusk, lykofos literally means “wolf light”). I became alarmed when darkness arrived. Soon enough, however, I recognized that with a full moon and no cars for miles on a navigable dirt road, this outrageous activity was not only do-able but wildly fun. Giorgos and most Friends are committed night riders and I readily joined their ranks. We take note when the moon is full and plan our rides around the panselinos (Greek for “full moon¨). What better place for lunar gazing than in the land where this practice was cultivated as a science millennia ago by our pagan ancestors?
About six months before the 17th annual Spartakiada in October, 2005, Giorgos described this bike event to me and I gasped, “You mean you guys cycle from Athens to Sparta in one day?”
“Yep,” he replied in his typical laconic manner.
“That’s about 200 kilometers!”
Gulp. I did a quick math conversion in my head and concluded that to bicycle 150 miles in one day across a succession of mountains, you’d have to be super fit or slightly foolhardy. I felt I didn’t fall into either category. Nonetheless, Giorgos commenced his campaign for me to register for the ride. “You’re out of your mind,” were my exact words to him. It sounded preposterous, but I secretly contemplated his suggestion. Giorgos had ample opportunity to assess my cycling abilities, and if he declared me Spartakiada material, how could I doubt the master? I let the thought simmer for several months.
Although I cherish excursions with Giorgos and my Greek friends, I also get itchy to cycle solo. Among a smorgasbord of more than 250 inhabited islands, each one an exceptional honeymoon choice, I have visited some thirty-five Greek islands, more than half by bicycle. In Lesvos, Greece’s third largest island, I paid homage to the oldest known female poet in history, Sappho, born in 628 BC in Erassos. There is no official plaque to honor her that I know of, but her legacy survives through the tidal influx to nearby Skala Erassos of female tourists, often lesbian, from all parts of the world. Skala Eressos has a sensibility unlike any place in Greece. Here you can find white tourists with dread locks, vegan food, women-only hotels, and aromatherapy reflexologists. Underneath the hip façade, however, a traditional Greek community thrives.
I became intimate with many other islands, too, some of them so tiny—like Pserimos with only forty inhabitants—they are unknown even to mainland Greeks. One of my early favorites was Kos, the Dodecanese homeland of Hippocrates, where I biked to thermal waters in the sea, assuredly frequented by the Father of Medicine. On Paros, after a half-hour climb from the sea I reached the Valley of the Butterflies, an enchanting little forest where hundreds of tiger moths the shape of arrowheads lie fairly camouflaged in the trees, forcing you to play “Where’s Waldo?”
Suddenly, they fluttered their wings and a splash of neon orange pinpointed their presence and put a silly smile on my face. Nearby is a monastery with peacocks perched on tree limbs. On Naxos, I was biking along and came upon a thirty-foot, 7th century B.C. male statue, known as kouros, lying not far from the road; it had been left unfinished in its marble quarry. I had admired many kouros at the National Archaeology Museum in Athens, but to see one in its “raw” state was startling. On Corfu, Kefalonia and Zakynthos in the Ionia Sea, I cycled to their highest paved points.
In August when the figs are ripe, an incomparable delight on any island is to set your bike by the side of the road and gorge on fresh figs right off the trees. You peel off the pastel green skin to get at the pastel pink meat which is juicy and delicious and tastes nothing like dried figs.
On Amorgos in the Cyclades, while resting in a village café and being the only patron resplendent in Lycra, a woman began chatting with me, offering that her brother from Athens bikes a lot, too. Yeah, right, I thought skeptically, Greek cyclists are as rare as drachmas after the euro took effect.
I interrogated her: “Where does he bike?”
“What kind of bike does he ride?”
“He made his own bike!”
Hmm. There’s only one person I know in Athens who builds bicycles. “What’s his name?” “Giorgos Altyparmakis!” What a hoot to run into my buddy’s sister who lives on the island of Milos and, like me, just happened to be visiting Amorgos. When she told me her brother has cycled from Athens to Sparta, I said to myself, “Yeah, and that crazy Greek wants me to do it, too!”
I am not and never have been an athlete. What I do possess is a pound of endurance and a dash of discipline. With those minor attributes, I resolved to tackle the Spartakiada.
The Spartakiada is not exactly a race, although those coming in first are recognized with an award and the event is organized under the aegis of the competitively-inclined Hellenic Cycling Federation. Male participants must be at least 30 years old, while females must be at least 25. Riders start at 7:00 a.m. from the Olympic Stadium built in 1896 and must reach the Sparta finish line by 6:30 p.m. or be disqualified.
It was still dark when I biked over to the Stadium starting point, arriving sharply at 6:45 a.m. Of 122 participants, I spotted three other females in the crowd each about twenty years younger than me, several elderly riders (the oldest was 69), and—courageously I’d say—a number of overweight guys. We were all riding thoroughbreds, which is to say, expensive bikes.
As this was Greece, we set off at 7:30 a.m., a respectable half-hour late. The noisy clanging and clacking of 122 riders clicking into their pedals was a cyclist’s version of “Gentlemen, start your engines.” Accompanied by a police escort, we thrillingly rode through downtown Athens without having to battle traffic. This segment of the Spartakiada felt like a fantasy for those of us who commute and cycle daily in “carmegeddon” Athens. Another memorable highlight was pedaling across the majestic Corinth Canal.
For the entire ride there was only one official rest stop: an obligatory ten minutes at the eightieth kilometer in ancient Korinthos where snacks were distributed. For the first 150 kilometers we were required to ride together as a pack and then you could break away and do the remaining 107 kilometers at your own pace. Since the first 150 K were practically all flat, I managed to keep up, but when we reached the mountains the guys left me in the dust. I didn’t mind; my goal was simply to finish.
The route went from sea level to 2,300 feet over a mountain affectionately nicknamed Kolosourtes (“drags your butt”) and then 2,600 more feet past Tripoli. I coasted the final 25 kilometers downhill to Sparta, finishing the ride in ten hours with no pit stops except for the required break in Korinthos. I was among the last to finish, but, cheerfully, not the last.
There was a ceremony that evening in the Sparta town square with awards given to everyone who completed the Spartakiada within the time limits, and I proudly stepped up to the stage to accept mine. A half dozen or so cyclists received a special award for completing ten Spartakiadas. Greeks have a knack for drollery, evident on this occasion by a hilarious award called Most Fertile Cyclist. “How many?” the emcee called out, and one biker yelled, “I have three kids,” while another screamed, “I have four.” I believe a father of five won out. The Fertility Award was presented by Sparta’s head priest, looking quintessentially Byzantine in a long black robe, tall oblong headgear and gray beard stretching to his chest.
Giorgos rode the 17th Spartakiada, too, and when we caught up with each other at the end we exchanged hearty high fives. I felt indebted to him for intuiting my cycling abilities when I myself could not. Some guys questioned my presence at this event, doubting my endurance, but in the end they congratulated me for finishing. I gave all credit to Giorgos, facetiously calling him my trainer. In truth, he trained me mentally more than anything by giving me the confidence to overcome my initial intimidation of the Spartakiada and bike 257 kilometers in one miraculous day across the Peloponnese peninsula.
My cycling adventures provide an unconventional lens through which to view the Greek people and culture. They also dramatize my love affair with this sacred land whose illustrious history and stupendous natural beauty humble me. Were it possible to designate an entire country a World Heritage Site, I hereby nominate Greece.
(Seal Press, San Francisco, 2007)