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Brandon and I came back Sunday from a weekend traveling to see what the Peruanos consider the eighth wonder of the world — Machu Picchu. And, did we get to see it? Yeah. Did we like it? Yeah. A lot? Yeah. But instead of telling about Machu Picchu, I’m going to tell of our trip back – a trip so fun and freaky that the Machu Picchu wonder, even for me, is now only as bright as our flickr photos.

We found a bus at the hydroelectric dam that would take us directly back to Urubamba, en route Cusco. We considered ourselves in luck since the dam is only the fourth-to-last stop on the route home from Machu Picchu (note: the budget trip to and from Machu is a two day long affair – it’s much easier if you can spend the cash) and we had been travel weary all day. Brandon and I take a seat in the front where we can see the entire road through the wide bus windows. Other tourists slowly trickle on, filling the bus only a quarter full. We set off for the six-hour journey home, along the narrow dirt streets that wind along the mountain sides, high above a river valley, between the tiny towns Santa Teresa and Santa Maria.

We pass through Santa Teresa and come to a small village. A middle-aged man, standing in a doorway, catches sight of our bus. He grins excitedly, waving us down. Our driver slows and the man gestures behind him to the passenger, his daughter, a young woman about my age. The man and his wife rush their daughter to the bus, moving fast as though the driver will change his mind and leave if they don’t make haste. The parents, in their eagerness and pride in having hailed down such a rare ride (all the way to Cuzco!), they press toward the automatic bus door – eliciting a reprimand from our driver (Passe! Passe!). They move aside and the driver releases the slow-opening door. They tug at the unweilding door – urging it to open quickly – and push their laughing daughter into the bus, tossing a brightly colored and tightly bundled care package in after her. The daughter is wearing city-bought jeans and an urban haircut, and a cell phone charger dangles from her silvery leather purse. She must attend college in Cuzco, the urban center of the Andes. The mother scurries away to wave from the side of the road, avoiding the dust and exhaust. The father stands near the bus window, his dark wrinkled face accenting his brightly shining eyes – grinning, grinning – so proud of his daughter, and so happy she came to visit. The bus pulls away, the family waving together until the dust from the road covers the parents’ figures at the roadside.

We finally leave the dusty dirt paths and arrive on the main route, passing over the Sacred Valley mountains which guard the way between Machu Picchu and Urubamba. We stop at a small fruit stand where other buses have pulled up. I realize it is something of a rest stop as I see a line of men standing along the road, urinating. I get out, too, looking for a bathroom a bit more concealed. There is a small house next to the fruit stand, and I see a handmade cardboard sign, “BAŇO.” I walk over and am greeted by a small girl, who pushes me into line behind two other waiting passengers to use her family’s outdoor bathroom. I am informed I must pay 50 centimos, and I give 1 sol, not asking for change. The little girl has placed a trillion shiny KungFu Panda stickers, collected from Oreo cookie packages, outside along the walkway. She tells me the names of each as she hands out sheets of paper to squirming customers. She’s very charming. I wish her well, silently, as I tell her thanks and goodbye.

Another hour on the road. On almost every pass has stood a recent mini-landslide, piles of gray rocks covering half the road. I wonder what would happen to our bus if we were to pass by as rocks began to fall. We pass a turn where the road has collapsed, the thick black tar jagged, sticking out into the air as the cliff drops off sharply beneath it. We feel insecure in our bus seats. Across the valley we see evidence of a huge landslide, the earth beneath the narrow road steeply dropping and smooth. We see the remains of a broken vehicle amidst the rocks – a window, a door, a fender – it is not recent but not old. As we approach the site of the slide we see a neat row of black wooden crosses, names hand-painted in white, of those who were in the vehicle as the road collapsed. I am saddened and frightened, imagining the vehicle falling from the road. We have at least another 4 hours to go.

It is almost dark and we are high up – the world is an obscured white as we drive through low-hanging clouds hugging the mountain top. I am looking out the side window, straining to see something. A giant black figure quickly approaches the side of the bus along the road – a cow. Its flanks nearly brush the side of the bus as we pass. On the left now, a bright blue edifice emerges from the thick white. Our driver slows, making a sign of the cross across his chest. It’s a church. I wonder what our driver is thinking.

We are in the middle of nowhere – there are no settlements, no lights, nothing to see past the sheet of white in the dim light. Our bus passes a family of four with their dogs loping beside small kids. They are ragged and weary, the father raises his hand slightly, a friendly gesture in the bus lights. The driver stops quickly, reaches behind him to the big black bag of yellow bananas he has stashed there, purchased from a market near Machu. He opens his window and starts pushing the big bag out. The mother is passing and stops, tugging at the bag, helping it out the small window. I can see her smile in the lights, the driver says nothing, just nods as the bag falls into the mother’s arms, and pulls away from the family.

It is now pitch black and the lights cut through fog and haze, crackling from a loose wire. We approach another shadow, tiny and crouching in the shallow ditch, avoiding the vehicle. It’s a child, a boy, dragging a large sack. The driver stops, opens the door and gestures the boy in. The boy clambers up the steps, tripping in his haste and as he struggles with his heavy load. He hesitates as he catches sight of our foreign faces in the front seat. I smile and motion to him to take a seat, and he slowly sits across from us, leaning forward to look out onto the road.

Several more minutes down the road we encounter another boy, a bundle thrown over his thin shoulders. He waves at the bus and the driver stops, again. Where are these children going? – I wonder. The boy grins widely, laughs as he hops up the stairs. Gleefully, the new boy squeezes into the same seat as the other boy, too polite to choose his own from the many empty seats on our tourist coach. Both hunch forward in the dark behind the driver, too excited to relax. I am so touched and exhausted.

Finally we begin our descent into Urubamba. We pass through a bigger town, Ollataytambo, and I am relieved to see bright lights and bustling life. Another twenty minutes finds us in Urubamba. It feels like home as we drag ourselves off the bus, thanking, thanking, thanking our driver as we gratefully leave the dark bus behind and walk toward our street.

Our last week in Guatemala was a blur — B and I were mighty active and, in between bouts of activity, were, unfortunately, mighty sick. However, I can say that we wrapped up our trip well and were sorry to leave on the plane heading home.

We celebrated the New Year in and around Xela’s Central Park, where all sorts of activities normally occur. And, while the New Year festivities in Xela are not nearly comparable in magnitude to those of Christmas, we were not disappointed. There was a massive firework display on the eve and, on the night of the first, we got caught up in a massive parade, in which the paraders wore deer-resembling costumes and danced to a brass band.

As for school, we finished our classes and can now proudly speak Spanish as well as any Guatemalan toddler. Our last activities as students of Pop-Wuj’s health program were touring Xela’s gigantic, free-of-charge, public hospital as well as a crowded tuberculosis clinic. We were impressed by the public hospital’s ability to see a fantastically high volume of patients, all free-of-charge as well as their ability to not only house their own patients but their patients’ entire visiting villages who crowd around the bedsides of their distant friends and relatives at all hours of the day and night.

We left Xela behind on Friday, regretfully bidding it farewell as we set off to spend the weekend in Antigua, Guatemala. Antigua is a bright city where modern, cosmopolitan delights mingle charmingly with ancient colonial ruins. The remains of several earthquake-destructed churches and other old establishments remain untouched just off the winding streets, peeking out from between the one-story tall, brightly painted buildings housing boutiques, restaurants and residing families. We spent our energy in Antigua touring the city, drinking good, fresh Guatemalan coffee (finally!), eating out at a wide range of shi-shi restaurants, watching the sun set behind the resident volcanoes from our inexpensive hotel’s rooftop terrace and enjoying a break from our working vacation.

We spent Monday night in Guatemala City at a five-star hotel my sis picked out — a treat from her for our last night in Guatemala (and, I also think my family was a bit unnerved by our story of the first night we spent in the city and didn’t trust us to pick a moderately safe place to stay ourselves — which is a reasonable concern knowing B’s and my budget sacrifices). We enjoyed our stay despite the haughty airs we endured from the front desk staff who eyed our huge backpacks and greasy hair, along with the rest of the staff whom, judging by the number of times my bright green sneakers were indignantly eyeballed, had never seen anyone walk into their hotel wearing jeans and tennis shoes before. The hotel was situated in Guatemala City’s Zona Viva (Zone of Life) which turned out to consist of hotel upon hotel upon costly restaurant upon hotel with a couple costly lobby restaurants — an area of the city catering to the wealthy business traveler. So B and I sucked it up and spent some money at the French restaurant in our own hotel lobby and rested for the trip home we had to take the next morning.

And so, we are finally back in East Lansing, after spending the night at Karen and Erik’s in Chicago and wrestling our crazy kitty back from their cat-sitting clutches. Thankfully, the weather has been fairly mild so far and I’m hoping for no snow for the rest of the winter — which, of course, would be ludicrous in Michigan even considering global warming. Anyway, Brandon started work today and is hoping for a raise in pay just for returning to work and I am back at school and have my first exam in a week. It’s amazing how easy it is to fall back into routine — which is good, I suppose, but I am already missing the errant nature of the Guatemalan highlands.

Since nothing was going on in Xela this weekend (and because we certainly didn’t want to study) Brandon and I took off to spend the weekend at Lake Atitlan. We rode in another dreaded chicken-bus — which, I should clarify, are decked out, old American school buses which only rarely carry chickens but are always stuffed with twice their capacity in passengers and make a rule of traveling at vomit-worthy speeds — which we were promised would take us directly en route to Lake Atitlan’s main city, Panajachel. We changed buses three times — Guatemalan style. Anyway, all forced inconveniences were forgiven as we caught site of the lake on our last descent from the mountainside. Lake Atitlan is indescribably beautiful — it literally took our breath away. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this Gautemalen jewel, it’s a gigantic lake with three towering volcanoes kissing its shores. Encircling the entire lake are mountains covered with dense foliage, spotted with occasional patterns of maize fields. Several small communities are found along the lake, accessible only by boat. It was to one of these little cities that Brandon and I were planning to stay for the short duration of our trip.

So, as soon as we landed in Panajachel early Saturday morning we called to reserve a place to stay. A quaint little hotel with a sauna and private hot tub for 20 bucks, quoted as the best in our trusty guidebook — a real treat after a long week. Ah, too bad. It was full. So was the next place. And the next. After two hours of calls and seven small, fully-booked lake communities later (we guessed it was some sort of hidden high season), we admitted defeat and resorted to finding a place to stay in Panajachel. Panajachel is not that bad, it just reminded me of what I imagine Cancun is like. A million international tourists stomping around, buying crappy trinkets for too much money and taking photos of the locals without asking while at the same time the undignified locals try to cheat the tourists for all they’re worth and there’s not an ounce of the traditional culture to be found — that sort of thing. So we settled for a room in a bright, empty hotel with a rooftop view of the lake. Which was perfect until the 25-strong American high school marching band came to stay there, too. Anyway, we made the best of it and did some of our own shopping, ate a yummy non-Guatemalan meal and drank some wine to the sunset over the lake on our rooftop deck in the evening. We even watched some British TV and then vowed to go in the morning to what was promised to be the most traditional city across the lake — Santiago.

The boat ride was definitely a highlight of the weekend. It took an hour to cross, enough time to enjoy the beauty of the perfectly aquamarine lake water and snap lots of bad photos of the looming volcanoes. Santiago is a benign appearing little village, nestled into the mountainside between three volcanoes. However, when we docked in Santiago, we were immediately accosted by tons of little boys who jumped into the boat and asked if we needed guides … or taxis … or keychains … not even a pen? We squeezed by without buying anything and proceeded up the main thoroughfare into the town. What we found were shops and shops and shops and shops and shops, mirroring those we thought we had left behind in Panahachel, and people yelling at us to buy things and small children who held out there chubby paws, opened their cherub mouths and said “Quetzale” (the Guatemalan currency). When we didn’t give them money, they spanked their butts at us, muttered swear words and ran to find another unsuspecting tourist. Tourism had trashed this town as it had trashed Panajachel — and we felt guilty and disillusioned. We were also feeling hungry so we had a nice cafe lunch of Wonderbread and American processed cheese, with leering children hanging over our plates as we ate. We got on the next boat back to Panajachel and then took the next available bus to Xela.

As we ascended the mountain on our way back, we hardly even glanced at the beautiful mountain lake as we washed our hands of Atitlan and its serene little villages. In any case, it was an experience that we wouldn’t not recommend to someone else.

OK, folks — Brandon and I have been in Guate for over four days now, getting to know the city a lot and getting to know the language a little. We have been meaning to update the blog for a couple of days, but the internet has been down at the school, so … here’s a back-ordered entry — a bit long, admittedly — fresh from my travel diary, written on the bus ride on Monday (which is another story altogether). Enjoy!

B and I arrived in Guatemala City — a city with a bad rep for mistreating tourists after the sun goes down — at midnight Sunday. We rubbed our beary bleary eyes as we stepped out from the baggage claim to a small crowd of people waiting for our flight arrival. We were almost the last ones from our flight to leave the gate due to the delinquincy of our bags, ours being almost the last to wind down the baggage carousel, making us think for 45 minutes they had been lost. As we scanned the crowd, glancing over groups of people hugging and drivers with hotel shuttle signs, we looked for the host family that we had carefully arranged pick us up and to stay with for the night. Gradually our hearts sank. No one greeted us. We stood around the gate, hoping they would show, until we were locked out of the airport as the last unclaimed passengers. We decided to accept the offer from an overzealous cab driver to take us to a hotel near the bus terminal where we were supposed to catch a bus to Xela, our final destination, in the morning. We were apprehensive about getting in the cab, reluctant to finally admit that the school´s representatives had left us alone, to the mercy of the Gautemala City night. However, as we glanced around at the empty terminal, and at our only company — two somber strangers sprawled on the sidewalk under the dim street lamps — we relented and got in the backseat of the taxi.

The taxi wound through the empty city, the driver named buildings and squares for us as we passed. We began to leave the wide, main streets and to enter streets as narrow as alleyways, crisscrossing haphazardly through the city. Brandon and I started to squirm a bit in agitation as our route legthened. I am sneaking glances at our driver in the rearview mirror, trying to guess his intentions. Finally, as if sensing our agitation, he pointed to the Galgos bus terminal – the place where Brandon and I were to take the bus to Xela in the morning — and pulled up to an immense wooden door, unmarked except for an adress, half a block away. The street is deserted save for a couple of questionable characters — a one-armed man and his female companion — who eyed the cab as we stopped. Our driver gets out of the cab, telling us to stay put, and proceeded to bang loudly on the silent door. After an interminable wait, the door was opened a crack by a middle aged woman who pokes her head out. The driver gestures wildy at us, signaling us out of the cab as the woman looks at us, then scans up and down the street, frowning. We are ushered to the door, our bags shoved in our arms. The woman told us in English to move quickly and pointed to the man and his accomplice who had looped up the street toward us. Brandon pressed a wad of money in the driver’s hand and we called out our thanks as the woman slammed the door at our heels, shutting out the night.

Not until we were standing in the tiled, mahogany paneled lobby, with the steel gate locked for behind us, does our new host turn to us with a warm smile. She handed us towels and small bars of soap and invited us to follow her to our room. We were led to a square room with high ceilings, stark yellow walls lit by a single, dangling bulb. Our host closed the door behind us, saying, “Don’t worry, what’s outside can’t get in.” An oddly comforting statement. We immediately fell into bed, exhausted, one facing the door, the other the steel-gated window, our backs to each other — safe and sound. And so began our Guatemalan adventure.

… when you have a sister who’s a Harvard-graduated, Chicagoan lawyer. B and I celebrated my quarter-century birthday this weekend with Karen and Erik in Chicago. We ate and drank and talked and laughed and walked and looked for 24 straight hours. Our visit went a bit like this:

5:30 pm ~ B and I arrive after a quick trip. At least I thought it was quick – I had my nose in my school books, oblivious to B’s battle with traffic. Karen and Erik immediately introduce us to their new video game, Guitar Hero. I played once, was booed from the stage by my virtual fans and wouldn’t pick the guitar up again. B played once and wouldn’t put the guitar back down until it was time to leave the apartment.

7:00 pm ~ We proceed from Karen and Erik’s place to a shi-shi, windowless cocktail lounge, the Violet Hour, which is so pretentious it doesn’t even bother to put any signs outside, figuring its clientele will seek IT out. Which they do … as we did. It was superb, of course.

8:15 pm ~ After slurping down our drinky-drinks with the utmost snobbery, we headed over to our chosen dinner spot … the Café Absinthe. Yum. French cuisine. I believe B and I ate more fat in those two hours than we normally do in a month’s time. We decided to skip dessert and to exercise our swollen bellies and foggy wine-brains by heading down the street for … dessert and more drinks.

10:30 pm ~ Hot Chocolate is a haven for both chocoholics and alcoholics – as well as the rest of us residing along the spectrum. After a two-hour wait that turned into a two-minute wait (what luck!), we gorged on chocolate- embellished-chocolate, armed with snifters of cognac and sherry. AND, somehow my dessert came with a little extra “happy birthday” decoration …. Remarkably, after all we had consumed, we could still talk and laugh and walk, which we proceeded to do and headed back to Karen and Erik’s place to sleep it off.

10:00 am ~ In the morning, Karen made us all eat gourmet-style, home-cooked Eggs Benedict. After such an awesome breakfast – and lots of Erik’s strong black coffee – we were refreshed and primed to venture out again.

11:00 am ~ We made a beeline for the Museum of Contemporary Art’s exhibit, Sympathy for the Devil – Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967, which was an intense two hours’ worth of brain and eye candy for us art and music lovers. And, we had to play with all the cool Alessi gadgets in the museum shop on our way out.

1:30 pm ~ We next jumped in a cab for our last trip across the city, back to Bucktown, to peek into shop windows and grab some coffee. The decision to window shop was finalized only as I promised not to buy anything. Which was a weak attempt at protecting me – super-broke and vulnerable to temptation – from the trendy shops I love and can’t afford. After a harrowing taxi ride we narrowly escaped, we arrived in Bucktown near Karen and Erik’s neighborhood. I managed to weasel my way into a hip little boutique at the first opportunity and picked up a pair of arm-warmers for $20. So stealthy.

3:00 pm ~ Our very last stop was a spontaneous visit to my new favorite Chicago ‘anytime’ restaurant – Earwax. Mmm, num … right? Anyway, tons and tons of veggie-friendly (and delicious, duh!) stuff on the menu and even Lapsang Souchong tea – my favorite.

4:30 pm ~ So, after eating our last meal, we all trudged back to Karen and Erik’s place, B and I dragging our feet with tears streaming down our faces because we didn’t want to leave Chicago. But, I did have an exam on Monday, so it was necessary to hit the road, straight back to the junkyard we reluctantly call home.

All-in-all, a most fabulous 25th birthday. I suggest that if you want one like I had, you’ll have to get a sister like mine first – and good luck on that one.

 

 

Welcome to the new addition to the world wide web — anecdotes from the dynamic life of Brandon and Amanda, the Bramanda Band duo. We want to share our fascinating adventures in this Midwestern college town with the world. We think it’ll be worth your time. Usually.  Sometimes.  Anyway … tune in for more Bramanda Band stories, coming up soon on your new favorite blog.