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Every now and then we enjoy getting off the road for a few days. Renting an AirBandB house is a great way to take a break from the road and explore a city. This time we decided to rent a house in Guatemala City during Dia de Los Muertos since we weren’t sure how chaotic the holiday might be (and we wanted to enjoy it). The house had a small front and back yard for the dogs. It also had a gated access to keep the camper secure. Those features plus wifi, and a washer/dryer made it a real score for us. In addition to exploring the city and watching Netflix, we laundered nearly everything in the camper! Our rolling home is refreshed and so are we!
The house is located in Zona 14, which is a nice area of Guatemala City. Our neighborhood was a little rough on some streets. But it felt safe to walk the dogs and buy groceries. There were many small tiendas and vendors selling tortillas and food. I think the chicken in this photo met her fate later that night at the BBQ stall on the corner. Now that is some fresh food! (notice the string?) There were also several fruit and vegetable vendors. There we located these enormous carrots for sale. But there was much to see and do in the biggest city in Central America. Museums, tourist attractions, a national holiday, doctors appointments and new friends awaited us!
We visited the textile museum first. It is called Museo Ixchel del Traje Indigena (Museum of Indigenous Textiles and Clothing) and is housed on a beautiful, university campus. This is not our first textile museum, but we learned new information and enjoyed the visit.
The museum next door to this one is called Museo Popol Vuh. We had hoped to read about the Popol Vuh (the Mayan creation story) and the history it recorded. But instead the museum offered just a few poorly displayed artifacts in dusty cases. So we wandered across the pretty campus and located a salad bar at the dining hall for yummy lunch. Then back to the rental house by Uber. Yes, Guatemala City offers an effective and cheap Uber service!
Back at the house we walked the dogs around the neighborhood and discovered an interesting place. This walled area offers concrete washing sinks for doing laundry and concrete stalls with toilets and showers. Services such as this were installed into neighborhoods before indoor plumbing was common. A few still survive and are used regularly. This one had people inside EVERY TIME we passed by and was always filled with hanging laundry!
The next day we visited the Municipal Palace and the National Cathedral which are located on the Plaza Mayor (a large open space similar to a parade ground or park). These structures are built of beautiful greenish marble stone and amazing architectural detail. The plaza was filled with visitors and vendors and music and pigeons! Outside the National Cathedral there were several families taking wedding photos. Once we went inside we realized that they perform group weddings in the church. At the altar were at least four different couples in various styles of wedding attire with a priest offering vows. The pews were filled with blended families of these couples. And the couples outside were waiting their turn to be married in the same manner. (sorry for the blurry photo, I felt very conspicuous photographing this moment)
After wandering around the plaza, we meandered down a closed, pedestrian-only avenue and found a myriad of shops and cafe’s. This street offered everything for sale; from cell phones to Nike’s and from pizza to Dunkin’ Donuts. The American influence is strong in Guatemala City!
Our next day was reserved for medical appointments. Visiting a doctor in a foreign country is full of surprises. This was no exception. The building was huge and shiny and fancy. The 11th floor office was clean and quiet, with musak playing on the speakers. We were taken into the doctors personal office and sat with him, chatting across his desk. After the conversation, Geneva was taken to the adjoining space for her annual exam. When we were finished the doctor ordered the routine blood tests and mammogram and assured us we would have the results the next day. We proceeded to another floor to have the technical work done. The mammogram included an ultrasound and the numerous blood tests would be run with just one vial of blood drawn. Everything was sterile, clean, efficient and gentle. Quite impressive, really. The building was packed with contrasts that are typical in Guatemala. Shiny floors, modern, western-style dress and Mayans in traditional attire.
The results weren’t available the next day, as promised. But they came quickly and all is well. Annual-medical-day was done and we were ready to explore some more highlights of Guatemala City. The next stop was the famous Relief Map. This is a giant, concrete replica of the country of Guatemala, supposedly created in accurate topographic relief. It shows mountains, volcanoes, valleys, lakes and oceans. It covers a large area in a public park. We climbed on the overlook towers and took the requisite selfie. But besides locating our route, there wasn’t much to do there. You cannot walk on it or touch it at all – so you look and then……
A visit to a large city like this is not complete without some awareness of the dangers and security issues. I mentioned that our rental was located inside a gated, fenced area. Most homes have walls and gates and many have high tension electrical fences. We did not wander around the streets after dark, and when we were in crowds we tried to be aware of our belongings. But sometimes crime happens even in the middle of the day. We met some new friends through Facebook and spent a few hours wandering a park with them. When we returned to their car we found a smashed passenger window. The bad-guys had opened the hood and stolen the battery. (the radio had been stolen a few years earlier) It was a sad ending to a pleasant day and we felt terrible for them. But it was great feeling like we knew people in this big city, and they helped us navigate a few other language barriers that came up while we were there. Say hello to M & C who are from Croatia and Guatemala and speak at least 4 languages between the two of them. Completely wonderful and amazing! Thanks for befriending us, and we are so sorry about your car!
This city has some great museums. The next three we visited are located in three beautiful buildings that face each other. The Museum of Natural History was a little bit dusty and outdated. But it had an amazingly huge python on display. This snake was probably 10 inches in diameter and maybe 20 feet long! But most of the animals there are stuffed and hanging on the wall. These two made me laugh, as the gnu appears to be whispering in the ear of the rhinoceros. (HAHAHAHAHA) The nearby Museum of Modern Art is housed in a stunning building and offers a nice collection of art including paintings, mixed media and sculpture. This metal man was quite imposing, and his car parts caught my eye. And this interesting sculpture made me think of the La Brea Tar Pits in LA. Maybe you see the similarities? But the highlight of this threesome of repositories was the Museum of Archeology and Ethnology. This one had a nice blend of high quality Mayan artifacts along with national culture and history artifacts and information. This jade mask is the nicest, most detailed one we have seen (and we have seen quite a few in our museum and ruin visits). And the assortment of stone stellae is exquisite, as they seem to have amassed the most well-preserved, detailed ones ever unearthed. This collection is displayed in a beautiful courtyard that is well lit, yet protected from the weather and further decay/damage. It was truly a stunning site to see this extensive stockpile housed here. And so well cared for.
That evening we took an Uber to an English-language, Christian church offering a Chili Cook-Off and Talent Show event. How in the world do we find these things, you ask? Well, we search “events near you” on Facebook! We paid about $5 for bowls of chili and watched a few people get up and perform. The brave seven year old doing magic tricks was great, and so was the woman from Germany showing us her dog tricks! The best thing about events like this is that you never know what you will see! It was a fun way to spend the evening, and the food was pretty good, too.
As if all of this wasn’t wonderful and entertaining enough, I am about to hit you with the true highlight of our week. For Dia de los Muertos we booked a chicken-bus ride to Sumpango to see the famous Barriletes Gigantes or giant kite festival. At 7am we climbed aboard this beautiful bus with 35 strangers and headed for the hills of Guatemala. We arrived at the festival and lost ourselves among a crowd of over ten thousand others. We bumped and jostled our way up the hill from the highway to the soccer field where the festival was taking place. The traffic was heavy and the crowd was thick. (there is a video here)
The festival is an incredible blend of historical beliefs, modern tourism and deep traditions. The practice began by families making small barriletes (kites) to fly over the cemeteries on Dia de los Muertos. Each kite included thoughts and wishes for the deceased, which were then flown to the heavens to be delivered as messages. In the evening the kites were burned as the family shared a picnic dinner at graveside. The modern festival has grown to huge proportions, with some kites as large as 50 or 75 feet tall! Many are too large to fly safely, but we saw many of them take to the skies on that day!
Small, handmade kites can still be purchased. Hundreds of these could be seen bobbing and weaving over the crowd and throughout the city in all directions. They were also tangled in the power lines, laying on the ground, trampled by the crowds and falling from the sky hitting the unawares in the head periodically.
But the real stars of the day were the huge, tissue paper kites made by villages, church groups, neighborhoods and clubs. These carried messages about their faith, their history and their concerns for the future health of Planet Earth and Mother Nature. They were bright, brilliant and chaotic. They waved and flapped and fluttered in the dusty wind as they tried to break free from their bamboo tie-downs and their human wranglers.
To illustrate the project of displaying a kite, I tracked one from arrival, to unfurling.
1- In the first photo, the kite is folded up and laying on the ground. It is made of tape, glue, tissue paper and a plastic backing. It has blankets folded with it to protect it during transport.
2- In the second photo you see the tail of a kite; made of rope and scraps of fabric, each bearing significance to the message or the creators of the kite. Also the ball of black twine that will be used to fly the kite. (this is a smaller kite than the final cowboy)
3 & 4- In the next two photos you see the criss-crossed bamboo poles which make the frame of the kite. The plastic is wired to this frame while it is laid out on the ground.
5- In the final photo of this series you see the cowboy kite being hefted into position. This is the same kite that you see folded in photo 1.
This was an amazing day for us. The weather was great, although we each got sunburned and filthy. The dry, dirt soccer field became dusty as the crowds gathered and shuffled around. But the opportunity to see these beautiful works of art was priceless. Here are a few more images from the day. (there is a video below)
But the real meaning of this day is steeped in deep family traditions. And in small clusters, throughout the event we observed families that were gathered to remember their departed loved ones and fly their little kites with messages to the heavens. It was a beautiful experience that will stick in our minds forever. And a great opportunity for us to remember our loved ones who are departed from our lives, but forever in our memory.
We had a great time in Guatemala City. But the dogs and the humans of “slowcarfasthouse” are ready to hit the road. So we packed up all our clean laundry and hit the highways again.