Sunday, April 23, 2017

Spring Events in the Northeast



Purple Dead Nettles (Lamium purpureum) - a member of the Mint Family that prefers our lawns and  often goes overlooked. Delicious when pureed into a pesto, tossed in a green salad, or baked atop pizza. One of the first greens to appear in early Spring.

It's really truly here!! Spring, that is! You know I didn't realize until it suddenly returned that I had kind of resigned myself to a full year of winter. What a relief when on the Milford Cliff trail I spied the white blossoms of the Cherry trees along the rocky cliff and the tiny star-shaped flowers of Early Saxifrage lining the grassy trail amidst slender still young Dandelion leaves, the tiniest hearts of Violet leaves, and the fragrant green spikes of Wild Onion. If you haven't already, it is time to hit the trail and see just what Spring has in store for us!

Below is a list of Upcoming Events to help you do just that. New events are still being added so please do check back for updates. And don't miss what is at the end of this post ... a special announcement about mine and Scott's customized hikes!

Crystal Springs Resort and Spa
Vernon, NJ
May 6th and 7th
The Botanical Hiker: Artist in Residence
A Presentation on Spring Foraging: Easy to Find Edible and Medicinal Plants
5/6 4:30 - 5:45 pm
Wild Edible and Medicinal Plant Walk
Cost: $20
5/7 9:30 - 11:30 am
 Visit http://www.crystalgolfresort.com/play/events-entertainment/may-activities/ for more information

Medicine Wheel Festival
Lusscroft Farm, Wantage NJ 
May 20th and 21st
Edible and Medicinal Plant Walk both days on the grounds of Lusscroft Farm
1:00 - 2:00 pm
Cost: Walk is free, entry to festival is $7/person
Enjoy plant walks from a number of herbalists and naturalists, peruse vendor's handmade goods, purchase starter plants for your herb garden, and walk the Medicine Wheel. I will be on site with my book for sale and eager to talk all things plants!
 Visit http://lusscroftfarm.org/index.html for more information

Milford Edible and Medicinal Plant Walk

Departing from and returning to Holy Crepes, 224 Broad Street, Milford PA
May 27th 
Join both myself and Scott for a wild edible and medicinal plant walk through the streets of Milford. Together we will see just what useful plants can be identified along our sidewalks, alleyways, parks, and thickets. This will be an easy stroll with many stops along the way. Enjoy a crepe for lunch upon returning!
11:00 - 12:30 pm
Cost: $15 per person
Children welcome and (under 13 yrs of age) free
Visit Holy Crepes to pre-register or email Heather and Scott at HikeLocal@gmail.com

Plant Walk with the Sierra Club

Stokes State Forest, NJ
May 28th 
Walk a wooded trail through Stokes State Forest, learning how to identify and utilize the edible and medicinal plants we see along the way. This roughly 2 mile hike along the Appalachian Trail to Kittatinny Ridge will be moderate in nature, but with many stops along the way.
10:00 - 12:30 pm
Cost: $20 per person
Contact Dave Alcock at dwhoob@gmail.com to register

Nature Walk with the Botanical Hiker

Angry Erik Brewing, Lafeyette, NJ
June 4th 1:00 - 4:00 pm
Take a walk along the Paulinskill Trail located across the street from the Brewery and learn about some of the edible and medicinal plants that can be found in your own backyard. Finish up with a pint of refreshing Angry Erik brew back at the brewer upon return!
Cost: $25 per person (includes 1 pint of beer)
http://www.angryerik.com/home.html
Call Angry Erik to register: (862) 432-9003

 I would like to announce that in addition to my seasonal plant walks and botanical presentations, Scott and I will be teaming up to offer specially tailored hikes just for you throughout the region. Read below for more information and to learn how to schedule a hike!

Scott and Heather ready to take you on a hike!
Hike Local: Customized Hikes in the Poconos
  • Wish to find out about more trails that weave through your nearby woods?
  • Visiting the area for the first time and want to see the area's rushing waterfalls, little-known coves, epic vistas, or that stand of Old Growth Hemlock?
  • Have family or friends coming to the area and want to offer them a unique activity?
  • Yearning to learn more about your local flora? 
We are available to customize a hike just for you or your group depending upon your desired focus. Hikes can range from easy with lots of stops to see the plants along the way or a vigorous hike along one of our nearby long distance trails such as the Appalachian Trail, Finger Lakes Trail, Long Path, or Shawangunk Ridge Trail
Group rates available
Check us out on www.Facebook.com/HikeLocal 
and
email us at Hikelocal@gmail.com

















Monday, April 17, 2017

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala - Our Journey

View of San Pedro Volcano on Lake Atitlan from the site of the Mayan ruins
Lake Atitlan, Guatemala...you leave me struggling for the words to describe my experience. This is why it has taken me over a month to even begin crafting a post about our mere week spent in this little place, a hidden oasis from the complexities of our present-day modern life as we experience it. But to keep it all to ourselves would be a crime, so I will do my best to share.

Crumbling side streets en route to Lake Atitlan from Guatemala City
Although the flight to Lake Atitlan was five hours long with one layover in Atlanta and the fact that we were running on 1 hour and 45 minutes of sleep, given that it left at 7:00 am in the morning and we hadn't arrived at our hotel by the Newark Airport until nearly 1:30 due to work commitments...the flight would prove to be the easiest part of our travel. On our flight we also had the luck of sitting next to a man, Henry, who lived part-time at the lake and part-time in Naples, New York. For those of you who know the Finger Lakes Trail, this place will be familiar,as it is a tiny town located along its route and which I blogged about while hiking. He and I talked moutains before talking Lake Atitlan. Small world. 

Chicken bus - primary mode of transportation throughout the country of Guatemala

Henry, myself, and Scott on a launcha
Henry became our impromptu navigator for what laid ahead. You see, after the plane ride, came the shuttle ride...three hours driving windy mountain passes on the Pan American Highway, shortcuts down broken cobblestone, gravel, and dirt roads. We wove in and out between chicken buses - the main mode of transport throughout the country -  and which we had purposely avoided taking by hiring this shuttle. Henry reiterated that the shuttle was a smoother ride than the chicken buses. However, these colorfully painted buses are the cheapest route, and hey I guess sometimes free if you don't mind stowing away on the top of one as I spotted a man doing when we came dangerously close to a passing one. Besides the chicken buses, we squealed past dilapidated pick up trucks, many a VW bus and various other holler-backs to the 1970's, and tuk-tuks - three wheeled taxis that travel within cities and towns. However...amidst all this...we remained surprisingly calm and with the window open for some welcome air, we gasped in awe at the rolling hills of farmfields, the rough and tumble cities that laid side by side with them, and the many man, woman, child, pig, mule, and dog walking the roadsides. Our shuttle driver could not have been more friendly and fresh-faced but he drove like a taxi driver and spoke not a drop of English and well, we spoke not a scant of Spanish. Henry proved most helpful not only in communicating with the driver when we needed a pitstop but also in pointing out what cities through which we traveled and the passing landscape, and even gifting us a few quetzal when we realized we had no currency with which to even buy ourselves a cup of real true Guatemalan coffee at our first stop.

View from a vegetable stand above Lake Atitlan
Our rollercoaster finally led us to the top of a steep winding road where we caught our first glimpse of the lake shrouded in late afternoon clouds. The shuttle driver took it upon himself here to stop beside a small vegetable stand so that we could get a good view from above. We stood wobbling on the edge of a cliff in splendid speechless awe of this deep crater below us. Then clenching the seats in front us the whole way down, we bumped and bounced our way through the city of Panajachel, passing the blurred rainbow that is Santander Street, the main market street and finally landing us on the edge of town, close to the dock. Panajachel is the largest city that sits on the Lake and the main hub for reaching the other smaller villages surrounding it. Upon exiting the shuttle, just as Henry had warned, we were greeted by many a small child offering to help us with our roll-away suitcases (we were asking for it with those!) for a small tip of course. After hitting an ATM - few to none in each village - we hustled for the dock where we would hop our next mode of transportation, a small boat called a launcha. The launcha, which seats about 25 passengers, would carry us 45 minutes across the lake to our village of San Marcos.

Launcha facing San Marcos - launchas are the only transportation between villages surrounding the Lake
On the launcha we were accompanied by mostly Mayans - dark-skinned men with leathery skin donning brown round brimmed hats and worn work clothes and soft-bodied women adorned in the most colorful dresses and tops I have ever seen, their tiny children close by their side. As we motored from village to village, the setting sun cast the soft pink hues against the green mountainsides that make up the bowl of the lake. Henry explained that the Army Corps of Engineers had tried in vain to build roads into the villages but that the soft volcanic soil would not support them. Hence why there are only two roads that provide entrance to the lake - the one that we took into Panajachel and another that did indeed lead into our village but that our shuttle driver advised us against taking due to its poor condition. Henry departed at Santa Cruz, and by the time we reached our village, two stops, later, the sun had set.

Walking up the main street at night after departing launcha
Let me remind you...still on 1 hour and 45 minutes of sleep...we headed up the lantern-lit corridor of the main street, still rolling our suitcases, and headed for the basketball court where we would meet Moises, the caretaker for the Air B n B home we had rented for the duration of our time there. Amazing that you can now arrange to stay in someone's home that is 3,000 miles away via a few emails but even more amazing if you are able to find it without a contact phone number and with directions no better than to follow this unnamed road to that unnamed road and to walk up the dirt path following the rocks with the flowers on them. We made a stop for some important staples - coffee, sugar, and whiskey - and were again reminded of how little Spanish we spoke when the Mayan girl behind the counter giggled at us and punched in the total in a calculator screen for us to read. How strange it was for me to experience this for the first time in my life - I had no way to communicate. I thanked the girl in english, with a correction of "Gracias!" 

We then stood at the basketball court, with rollaway suitcases in hand and asked every Mayan male we saw, "Moisies?" receiving only a headshake that said no. Although about 20 minutes late, Moises did arrive as planned, cruising up on his motorcycle and spotting us immediately. From here, with a smile, he led us to the dirt path that we never would have found on our own. By the light of our smartphones, we hoofed it up the rocky trail, passing many a bamboo fence, rock wall, and cement encampment, large vegetation weaving alongside and overhead the whole way. Moisies was a gentleman and carried my bag at least, atop his head.

The wooded pathway to our home

Our Air B n B home, Casa de Bambu, with Bill, one of the resident dogs
Boule in his favorite spot beside the front door
Reaching a tall bamboo enclosure, we were greeted by the barking of the home's two resident dogs, Bill and Boule. Moisies fumbled with the padlock on the bamboo door and led us onto a artfully laid stone walkway that lead to the bamboo front door of our beautiful and beautifully simple home here in San Marcos. The house is aptly named Casa de Bambu, given that it was crafted entirely by bamboo poles, rock, and some cement to fill in the gaps. The roof was corrugated tin lined with sheets of plastic and placed atop a woven bamboo ceiling. There was no heat nor air-conditioning, although there was a rounded wood-burning stove in the main room. The windows, plentiful and large, bathed the space in sunlight during the day. The bathroom consisted of a large stand-up shower that was hot...sometimes...and a composting toilet made up of a wooden box, five-gallon bucket that could be retrieved from the outside, and a large trashcan of woodchips to help break down your poo. The kitchen had all that we needed, with a four-burner stove, oven, open shelves with a mish-mash of dining ware and utensils, and sink with running water with one side providing purified water (no drinking the water here in Guatemala). And of course no kitchen is complete without....a pair of scorpion tongs. Moisies was keen to point this out with a smile and a full demonstration of how one would pinch the scurrying scorpian with the tongs and toss it out the window. Happily, we never did see one. 

Scorpion tongs in their respective Scorpion Tong bucket
Once left alone to ourselves in our abode after over 12 hours of travel, you would think we would be delirious with exhaustion, but we felt quite the opposite. In fact, from the moment that we had stepped into our launcha it was as if time had slowed. We were energized by our mysterious new surroundings and its people and just as we had hoped unavoidably present. However we did need some food. After a couple granola bars that we had packed along for the ride and a shower, we donned our headlamps and headed back into town.

Il Gardino - our favorite restaurant
That night we had our first of many incredibly delicious vegetarian meals there in San Marcos, but this restaurant, Il Gardino, remained our favorite. As you can see from the picture above, the restaurant was largely open air and low-lit. In fact, we would come to find that most all the restaurants in San Marcos consisted of only seating outdoors or partial indoor/outdoor seating. Of the kitchens we saw, most all had a brick oven for baking and rather than noisy hoods for ventilation there were large windows where smoke and steam would freely billow out. The restaurants seemed to be owned largely by ex-pats with foreigners and Mayans working alike and we quickly became friends with Mark from Scotland who owned this establishment. On this night we had curried empanadas with a side salad of avocado, shredded beets and carrots with sliced cucumber as well a veggie burger with pickled veggies atop and pressed between two pieces of homemade whole grain bread slathered with beetroot hummus. I would like to take a moment to stress just how fresh all of our meals were around the Lake. Because it is so difficult to get supplies into the region, most everything is made from scratch using vegetables and grains that are grown here. I don't believe we had a single morsel of processed bread while we were here and the vegetables were imbued with flavor. There appeared to be little cold storage and there is no need for it, when the merchants buy fresh produce daily. The one morning that we enjoyed breakfast here, we watched a Mayan man walk into the dining area carrying a wooden crate of tomatoes on his back with the assistance of a headstrap. Mark bought a few handfuls and the man went on his way. Doesn't get more local than that. As an added bonus...the eating was cheap...most all of our dinners were between $15-25 dollars, including drinks and appetizers.

Drinks at Casa de Bambu
That first night, once home, we enjoyed a couple of cocktails -  ginger ale and Jack Daniels sans ice - and soon collapsed into bed. However, our eyes had no sooner closed than the cacophony of dog barking, yipping, and howling began. We had read in various sources that there was quite the stray dog population around the lake and that it was not safe to wander outside of the villages at night because of the packs that lived in the hills. Had I been at home in the wilds of Lackawaxen I would have thought them coyotes...but these calls were different. I heard them calling in yips and howls to each other on the mountainside behind the house and also barking and howling down in the village. Bill and Boule were putting on their best guard dog act as well, barking and growling in response. It seemed once the villagers turned in for the night, San Marcos became the dogs' domain. The crickets chirped away steadily despite the raucousness and we reveled in hearing them for the first time since last Fall as we dropped off to sleep.


View of mountain behind house from our bedroom window
Above is the view that we awoke to the next morning and every morning while at the Lake. What a way to start the day...and we did...early. Neither of us are early risers but here, without any electronic devices streaming images before our eyes at night and little artificial light, we easily got to sleep before midnight and awoke naturally around 7:00 am. This schedule of course worked out beautifully for all that we had to do while we were there. And there was so much to do! 

Scott in one of the many alleyways throughout the village of San Marcos, along with one of the many stray dogs (notice the snoozing pooch to the left)
On our first day, we explored our village which was largely made up of one main street, some lesser side roads, and a spiderweb of interconnecting alleyways that were home to businesses, hostels, and residences alike. Mayan women and children sold fruits and vegetables and homemade bread and foreigners displayed their handmade jewelery street-side. Also, we quickly learned that here in San Marcos the hippies are alive and well, and so all that is spiritual abounds from yoga and massage to cacao rituals to crystal meditations to pyrimadal consciousness to root-flute musical immersion. You name the chakra imbalance...San Marcos had the healing art to realign you. All this striving toward harmony did make for a warm and welcoming vibe of ex-pats and an entire village of indigenous Mayans who seemed just fine sharing their space with them. However, it did seem that the indigenous people largely lived in the modest homes that climbed halfway up the hillside.

Street in San Pedro
In the afternoon we visited the larger village of San Pedro, that possessed many more paved roads and therefore more tuk-tuk, motorcycle, and pick-up truck traffic. This village seemed more home to the backpacker (in the European sense) than the hippie. Hostels, bars, and coffeeshops lined the streets but so did the shops selling indigenous wares. Here I purchased a beautiful scarf dyed with all-natural plant teas and made by a Guatemalan woman and mother of two from a non-profit that benefitted the education and skill building of the indigenous people. We sipped on  espresso at La Terreza, an open air cafe, which had the best view from any coffee shop I have ever visited.

View from Cafe La Terraza - we sat on the second story, looking down upon the tin roof of first story, no railings or barriers to keep you from sliding off into the lake - far less safety regulations here!
On our second day we hit another delicious open air cafe for brunch, Shambhala, where we sat on cushions on the floor and enjoyed fresh brewed coffee from china teacups while surrounded by lush greenery and the periodic dust from passing feet in the alleyway. Here we also found ourselves in a group discussion of just what one can safely eat before a cacao ritual. As far as we understood, after a google search, a cacao ritual was nothing more than ingesting hot chocolate with coconut milk. The most popular site in town for such an experience was led by a Canadian man named Keith. Somehow his cacao inspired deep emotional release that led to life-changing epiphanies. How could all this come from cacao? But we did our best to remain open, given that the ritual was supposedly based upon ancient Mayan rituals.

Dining at Shambhala
We then then hopped another launcha heading for the Nature Preserve a couple miles outside the village Panajachel. Once in the village, we took a tuk-tuk up a windy mountain road, through what appeared to be a traffic jam, and then down the crumbling roads to the preserve. Here we finally had the time to really spend some time with the native plants and...monkeys! If you can identify any of these plants - please comment below!

Unknown Guatemalan plant

Scott walking one of the many swinging bridges in the Reserve - anyone else here reminded of that movie Romancing the Stone?
Unknown Guatemalan plant


Spider Monkey at the Reserve

Waterfall inside the Reserve
We hadn't really considered how me might get back to town after we had finished hiking the Preserve...so we hiked the two miles back into Panajachel...passing through what we now realized was not a mere traffic jam but a protest. Warily, we walked hand and hand through the crowd of men shouting, some baring machetes and other tools commonly used by the Mayan people. Making it through unscathed, we then took a stroll down Santander Street - the largest market street of all the villages and practiced our haggling skills. This is the street that we had passed by speedily in the shuttle. Now we had a chance to take it all in and there was so much - handcrafted shoes that used recycled tires for the soles, handwoven tapestries galore, gypsy style hand-stitched clothing, and intricate beadwork that took the shape of bracelets, necklaces, and tiny dolls. After purchasing three tapestries for $20 each we hoofed it across town to the home of Guatemala's award winning Best Cup of Coffee, Crossroads Cafe, owned by Michael only to find him closing up shop early for the day. He informed us that last year when a similar protest had happened he'd inadvertantly gotten teargassed and he wasn't sticking around to see what happened this time. He explained that the Mayan people were protesting a hike in electricity costs and indigenous rights. However, because Mike must be the most excited person on the planet when it comes to coffee, he still took the time to give us a tour of the roasting facility and talk about the zen of coffee roasting with Scott.

Scott and Michael of Crossroads Coffee - Voted Best Cup of Coffee in Guatemala
On our third day, we visited the tiny village of Jaibalito, home largely to indigenous Mayans. Here we saw for the first time, the truly tiny and simple homes of these people and were brought face to face with the luxury that we Americans take for granted. Homes were simple, many made of cement and cinder block with side tiny yards for chickens, pigs or vegetable gardens. We had come here seeking Hans, a single business that we had heard of that catered to tourists here. Most fortuitously, as soon as we docked, a boy no older than five ran up to us and asked where we wanted to go. We simply said, "Hans" and he showed us there with a smile. We happily passed along two quetzal to him.

Hans - the only business catering to tourists and ex-pats in Jaibalito
Hans was a coffee roasters and cafe, hostel, and home to a community computer that could be rented by the hour. We enjoying a hot cup of fresh roasted and pressed coffee and chatted with an older couple from Canada that was staying in an Air B n B home there in the village. They had come to the lake only to visit with another couple that had wanted to explore the area. The other couple had already gone home and these two were ready to hit the road. Turns out they had rented the most lush accommodations that we had heard of on the Lake. They had air conditioning and satellite television, flushing toilets, and hot showers. However none of this is worth much when the power goes off regularly and stays off or when the water shuts off at random times in the evening and doesn't return until the morning. We did not have this issue with power in San Marcos, however we did notice that most nights at about 10pm, there was no more water to be had. We could understand how these people would be ready to leave. With all these amenities, it would be hard to ever truly unplug and immerse yourself in the tech-free lifestyle that is Lake Atitlan. To paint a better picture...we did not see a single television the entire time that we were there. Therefore whether at home or out on the town, you were forced to be present and interact. Additionally, unless we were at home where we had wifi (a luxury for sure!) we did not have cell signal so there was no getting lost in the smartphone. In fact we remarked repeatedly on how few cell phones we saw even amongst the ex-pats and foreigners. People talked to each other.  One further... I don't think residents even had landlines as we saw no evidence of them. We didn't hear a phone ring for an entire week. It was a gift...but it surely would have been harder to adjust if we stayed in an American style home and then walked outside to this simple land.

Moutainside trail traveling between Jaibalito and Santa Cruz
Following the directions of the Canadian couple, we meandered down some alleys, shooing clucking chickens as we walked, and hit the mountainside trail that led from Jaibalito to Santa Cruz. This roughly 2 mile trail is used both by locals to travel in between villages and tourists for its incredible views 


View along mountainside trail

View of Jaibalito from mountainside trail

View of launcha and volcano in distance from mountainside trail
After climbing many a stone step and rocky path both up and down and passing a stray dog or two, we arrived in Santa Cruz and walked the long steep road to the top of the village. This village is home to CeCap, a non-profit that works to educate indigenous people, a schoolyard that was busy with afterschool activities, and a smattering of many a tin-roofed home and business. It seemed to be a busy place on this sunny afternoon.

The many tin-roofed shacks in Santa Cruz - tell me....can you spot all the animals here? Hint: a black cat, chicken, and dog

Scott in village of Santa Cruz
We climbed Volcan San Pedro on our fourth day. Even for this thru-hiker, this ascent was no joke. The village of San Pedro at its base is at 5,000 feet. The summit of San Pedro Volcano is at nearly 10,000. Yes, that's right...5,000 feet difference. Now, mind you, you start your hike at 6,000, after a tuk-tuk ride to the visitor center, but the hiker must then climb nearly 4,000 feet in 3 miles. This is White Mountains, New Hamsphire standards. When we hailed our tuk-tuk in town and told the driver where we were going, a Mayan man named Nick hopped in along with us. He would be our guide...and he was the first English speaking Mayan we had met. Besides having him as our guide for the first leg of volcano trail which was at times poorly marked at intersections, we had an opportunity to ask him all the questions we had been dying to ask the entire trip...including just what is the deal with the cacao? As we climbed through the groves of coffee plants where Mayans were gathering ripe coffee berries and the tall avocado trees laden with fruit and between the tall drying stalks of corn fields and up wooden step after wooden step...we learned about Nick and his people. He told us about how he had gone to work with his father when he was younger to harvest avocados and firewood from the mountainsides. They would rise at 4 am and walk for 3 hours to their destination, then work until late afternoon, climbing the trees as high as they could go, gathering what they could to sell at market and then walk home another 3 hours, only to do it again the next day. When he told his father he didn't want to have such an occupation, his father had told him he was a lazy man. Nevermind the fact that Nick now climbs this mountain most days of the week, guiding tourists. He also shared with us how his grandfather had passed down the stories and traditions of the Mayans to him, but that his parents who had converted to Catholicism - like a number of the Mayans - had told him that his grandfather was crazy.  Given his knowledge of the Mayans as well as his candor, Scott went ahead and asked about the Mayan ritual of cacao and its mysticism. Nick paused and then turned to reply, "Come on, Scott...it's chocolate...not magic! Don't be silly!" As we told him about ourselves and about our lives back home, he repeatedly responded with "You are strange." We eventually learned that this meant "different", and was actually a compliment. Through our sharing we had fostered a mutual admiration for the other. What a gift to have had Nick's company on this trek...he even knew a few of the edible native plants!

Scott and I with our guide, Nick

View while ascending San Pedro Volcano


Scott climbing just a few of the many stairs leading up San Pedro Volcano, headed for mountainside cornfields

Myself hiking up yet more stairs, this time through the forest

A fresh coffee fruit - almost ripe (ripe when red) and containing two coffee seeds

Izote (Yucca guatemalensis) - it is a common practice for the Mayans to harvest the edible flowers for various dishes. We can do the same with our Yucca here in the States!
We parted ways with Nick somewhere around 6,000 feet but nonetheless made it to about 8,500 feet before the elevation got the better of us. In addition, we had gotten a late start and were moving slowly...if we didn't turn back we would miss the last boat back to our village and would be spending the night in San Pedro. It was an amazing hike no matter...and we will be back for you San Pedro Volcano! 

We're hiked that volcano!!
That evening back in the comforts of our own village...we hit the town to see how Guatemala does Blues Night. We visited what was probably the largest restaurant in the village, Blind Lemon's, named after the Blues legend himself. The music was pleasant and we couldn't help but be reminded of the atmosphere where Scott plays in Milford, PA. However, it was a certain person in the crowd that was most interesting. Scott noticed a tall slender African American man bouncing his head to the music and playing air guitar with his fingers. This man was diggin' it and Scott knew he must be a musician. They ended up striking up a conversation outside and it turned out that both had heard of the other and had played with the same people. Once again...small world. His name was Deforest Whittaker and he would be playing at a venue in the village the following night.

Inside Blind Lemon's Cafe
On our final full day at Lake Atitlan, we remained in our own village and visited the Reserva Cerro T'zankujil. Here we ascended 1,000 feet nearly effortlessly to the scraggly tree mountaintop where the ancient Mayans had performed rituals, including human sacrifice, to the God No'j, the God of clairvoyance. Just a couple large stones remain, however the most noted was one engraved with Mayan symbols overlooking the lake. Without fences or ropes protecting it, the sacred space felt timeless. 

Mayan altar stone to the God No'j - God of Clairvoyance

Walking down stone steps to the Lake's rocky shore
At the base of the mountain, we visited the shores of the Lake. Although we had been there all these days, we had had yet to dip our feet in its waters. We considered going for a leap off of the 30 foot platform that was mobbed with young people and hostel goers but decided against it, opting for a wade instead. Although the lake is shimmering and blue with beauty...it is used for everything...from bathing to washing to a catch-all for waste...better to play it safe. Here we sat on the edge of the rocks and felt overwhelmed with the bittersweet knowledge that the following day we would be taking our long shuttle back to Guatemala City where we would spend the night in a hotel and hop a plane the next morning. It was hard to believe that we had done so much in such a short period of time. The lake felt strangely like home. 

Bathing our feet in Lake Atitlan
That evening we returned to Il Gardino the first restaurant at which we had dined, for a dinner under the stars and a couple of Guatemalan beers called Moza. We chatted about how hard it would be to return home. We did have two weeks in Asheville on the horizon which certainly helped matters, but we imagined that even that special city would seem busy and overwhelming given the peace and simplicity that we had experienced here. While finishing up dinner to the music of a wandering foreigner who had come to play his guitar and pan flute for a meal, Mark the owner of the establishment, came over and invited us out to a concert at a venue called Del Lago. He would be leaving in a few minutes. This was the very same place that Deforest Whittaker had said he would be playing at, but we hadn't known where it was. Perfect. 

DeForest Wittaker's band playing at Del Lago
 With full bellies, we joined Mark, his friend an opera singer from New York and a German girl who was visiting the Lake for the weekend and headed over, following a road we hadn't even noticed during our time here. When we arrived we found the largest gathering of people in one place that we had seen since the protest in Panajachel. However... these folks were happy and excited. Once inside, we found that Del Lago was indeed the most accommodating business in the village. It was a not only a concert venue with a large second-story balcony where we posted up, but a hostel, restaurant, bar, and sauna...the sauna we were clued into when the naked folks started wandering out  beside us. The venue was open-air, and so on two sides, just feet beyond the stage, were the sparkling waters of the Lake with a golden sliver of a moon hanging above. Magic. And in this short span of time, we had already made friends. The show opened with a young woman with a big voice alongside a young man playing guitar and Deforest playing the bass. Entrancing. However, the main act, Dr. Nativa, was enlivening! With just acoustic guitars and hand-drums, they got the whole place hopping. The best I can describe their style is a rapping Santana meets reggae. Below us young people threw their bodies to and fro, letting their bodies create their own interpretation...and there from our balcony we danced by the light of the moon, both of us completely present, doing our best to imprint the magic of not only the moment but this land up our memories.

Signage for one of the many volcanos in the region
Needless to say, we made it to home safely, even if all the flights had been grounded the day before due to Volcano Fuego...ahem...burping. We had learned this from the woman with which we shared our shuttle back to Guatemala City the next day who had been due to leave sooner. Actually, this was the only way that we learned of current events while we were there...by word of mouth. We had been too immersed in this beautiful land to even think of clicking that little newspaper icon on our smartphones and we hadn't seen a real newspaper in any of our travels. 

Sunset in the churchyard in San Marcos - notice dog and woman carrying large basket atop head (a wee difficult to see in this tiny pic!)
This presence of mind and more greatly, this presence of self that we noticed even in the smallest of actions is what we keep coming back to about our time spent at Lake Atitlan. The natural landscape was stunning, being a 10 mile lake surrounded by 3 volcanoes and quaint villages largely isolated from the rest of the country. The people were warm and friendly, always passing you with a "Buenos!" and a small smile. The food was fresh and nutritious and abundant. The pleasures were largely simple but fulfilling. However, despite all this beauty from all sides, we do not harbor the romantic notion that life at the Lake is without its flaws and its hardships. The indigenous people live hard lives with little means to change that which they are born into. Most who are born at the Lake will never leave the Lake. This is not a life I can begin to grasp as I have had opportunity and the luxury of choice from the time I was a child. I have never had to walk 3 hours to harvest avocadoes nor as a little girl sell loaves of bread on the street for 10 quetzal (about $1.50) to feed my family. But...this place did speak to a simpler life lived and in our opinion, one lived authentically, valuing those things that deeply matter and finding happiness everyday in the smallest gifts such as food to eat, water to drink, time spent with loved ones, or the feeling of the sun on your skin and damp soil beneath your feet. In our standards, these people had nothing yet they largely bore happy expressions in passing...a sharp contrast from the scowling or blank faces I see when I sit in traffic or go shopping for the day. I think the difference is this...for good or bad...the indigenous people are forced to be present. Those who visit, if you allow yourself to be, are forced to do the same. 
Mayan young women walking with fruit baskets to sell
And this is just what we wanted...so desperately I hoped that we would find ourselves irrevocably present. That removed from our comfort zone, expectations, and pre-conceived notions, and in awe of our new surroundings and how to exist in them, we would be present, with a host of new feelings, sensations, ideas about how it is to live and what it is to live. And we were. The trick now is holding onto that presence. I can liken it to returning from a long distance hike and have told Scott numerous times since our return that I feel like I went on a 3 month long trek...but we were only there 1 week. Lake Atitlan, I think we have only begun to understand what your magic is all about...like a good trail...we are sure to return.   

View of Lake Atitlan from Mayan ruins in San Marcos

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Guatemala...Here We Come!

Lake Atitlan (photo courtesy of PeterKtravels.blogspot.com)
In less than a week, my love and I will be boarding a plane at 7:00am in frosty Newark, New Jersey and traveling over 3,000 miles to Lake Atitlan located in the sunny but rugged mountains of Guatemala. It is difficult to even summon the words to express my feelings about taking such a venture. I have traveled outside the country once - count 'em...once. In 2004, during my junior year of college, I traveled to Ballyvaughn, Ireland on a school trip for 3 weeks. Although, we were allowed to roam the village and countryside largely unchaperoned, I was almost always accompanied by fellow students and knew that we were under the care of our professors. I have hiked thousands of miles on trail and road throughout the United States, largely solo, but have always felt uncertain to travel alone internationally. Now I have a partner who has traveled to more countries than I can name....so what are we waiting for... time to expand my U.S. tramping to international tramping!

The volcanos of Lake Atitlan as viewed from San Marcos la Laguna (photo courtesy of Neverendingvoyage.com)

Lake Atitlan is steeped in lore, a supposed vortex of energy that influenced its first Mayan inhabitants. Ruins of the Mayan culture have been found not only beneath the waters of the lake but scattered throughout its mountainsides that now serve as land for it coffee plantations and avocado groves. Here, native plants abound, about which I know very little, and monkeys swing from the treetops. The lake is surrounded by 3 volcanoes with roughly seven small villages (not counting the even smaller ones in between) that are inhabited largely by indigenous people as well as large handfuls of hippies that have sought this locale out as a refuge from the norm.

Tuk-Tuk - these act as taxis through the villages of Lake Atitlan (photo courtesy of PeterKtravels.com)

There is no main road that encircles the lake, but rather a smattering of roads scattered throughout the more populous villages. The primary modes of transporation are tuk-tuks - three-wheeled motorized carts that act as taxis, motorboats that ferry tourists and locals between villages surrounding the lake, and of course foot travel. Some villages are connected only by water transport and dirt trails. Colorful school buses, termed chicken buses, carry folks from larger cities in Guatemala such as Guatemala City, which we will be flying into, 80 miles but mind you a 3 hour ride, to the lake.

Chicken bus - these serve as city buses that travel from hubs of travel to the lake
(photo courtesy of MayotoMaya.wordpress)

We will be staying in the village of San Marcos in an Air B&B rental dubbed Casa de Bambu. It is costing us a mere $140 for the entire week given that the exchange rate is seven quetzals to one american dollar. Sharing our home with us will be two resident pit bulls that are reportedly sweet as pie and will be tended to by the gardener. This will be our jumping off point for visiting the surrounding villages and of course some hiking while we are here. 

Casa de Bambu (photo courtesy of Air B&B)
San Pedro Volcano is reportedly one hell of a climb, reaching nearly 10,000 feet in elevation with a beginning elevation of 6,000. This elevation is reached over the course of a few miles. This kind of elevation rivals the climb to Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Eep. But how many opportunities will we have to climb a volcano in Guatemala? Needless to say, we will not be doing this on our first day there. A guide to lead you to the top is suggested and from what we have read the procedure is to go into the village and ask for Pedro. Hmm...Pedro must be a well-known guy. I am hoping Pedro can also introduce me to the native flora here as well. There may not be any spring green beings growing here in Northeastern PA but in Guatemala they are sure to be plentiful with 70 degree temps and longer daylight hours!

San Pedro Volcano (photo courtesy of Google images)

But for me this trip represents more than just a flight to a temperate and exotic land...

When I was a child, the countries that I saw on maps were largely just different colored shapes on a projector with names that I could not pronounce. As I got older, I would wonder at the pictures of people in National Geographic adorned in far more colorful clothes than we Americans ever dare to wear. In college I met other young people who had gone to Europe for a semester or to Africa for Peace Corps or perhaps practiced massage in the Carribean - how did they manage to take such a leap? Moving from Pennsylvania to North Carolina seemed mighty tremendous to me. I had friends from Uzbekistan and Kenya and Ethiopia whose stories of their homeland I now don't even remember because I don't think there was anywhere in my brain for them to stick, no relative experiences.

I remember the very first time I was faced with such sudden awareness of the present...it was alarming. The first night that I was in Ireland, I stepped outside the little cottage that we were renting into the blackness of the night - the village had a population of only 300 and we were on the edge of town - and looked up at the stars. I didn't recognize a single constellation. It was then that I realized just how far I was from home. Here I was, after what had only been 5 hours on an airplane, but an entire ocean away, on another continent, looking at a sky that no one I loved back home was seeing. I sat down on the damp grass in an effort to simply ground myself. It terrifying, breath-taking, and tremendously freeing.

Perhaps my inexperience in traveling coupled with the brief but raw sensation of what it felt like to be somewhere completely unknown is one of the reasons I began long-distance hiking. Before I hiked the Appalachian Trail, besides the Tristate area and North Carolina in which I lived, I had been to Illinois, Florida, and South Carolina, not counting the states we had driven through on the interstate to get there. Once I delved into the world of hiking...I listened to tales from international hikers of trails in far away lands that traversed mountain ranges in countries that I didn't even know had mountains. At home, I would research the next trail to hike and inevitably come across long distance treks in Europe, New Zealand, China...and although my eyes had never laid eyes on such beauty...almost immediately discount them because I didn't know how to deal with the airports, the customs, the transportation, the money exchange, all the signs in languages I didn't understand. But I had learned this most important fact through hiking the Appalachian Trail - there was nothing that compared to suddenly finding one's self completely out of one's element...in a town where I knew no one and no one knew me...coming upon a vista that until that moment I had never even knew existed but that from that moment forward would be forever imprinted upon my mind...the experience of not knowing where I might find myself at the end of the day or even what I might see, feel, hear, from moment to moment. The wonder of the unknown, that although I wandered, firmly planted me in the present moment.

This is the same feeling that I have now been struck with on many a long distance trek or travel - from my moonlit tent on Springer Mountain on the AT in Georgia, to the thick of a forest on the MST in North Carolina's Nanatahala National Forest where the insects and frogs were nearly deafening, to the arid red rock cliffs of Utah after driving 3 hours out on a dirt road past nothing but mesas and tough grass, to gazing down the length of Nevada's Route 50 (aka the Loneliest Road in the Country) where the road was ever shaped like an acute triangle but we never seemed to reach its tiny point, to the beaches of Northern California where I tread over smooth stones of every color and looked out an ocean I had never in my life seen, to the rock-strewn green mountains of the FLT where I had no service for weeks. This is the presence of mind, the wonder, the freedom, that I have fallen in love with and continue to structure my life around. To me, this is living and I have now been graced with a partner who values living as much as I do.

And so I look forward to finding my love and I smacked in the face with the present, with the beauty as well as discomfort, in the middle of the mountains in a land I had not even googled until a couple of months ago but of which we now dream.

Guatemala....here we come!

.....and after that....just one day after we arrive home...onwards to Asheville for two weeks! So begins the adventuring...