Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Great Guatemalan Adventure II: Flying in and Antigua

Day 3 (31 March) Los Angeles to Guatemala via Mexico City:

Today was a bit more relaxed in that we were able to sleep in a bit before heading to the airport for our flight to Mexico City with a connector on to Guatemala City.

We made a collective decision that AeroMexico is our airline of choice. The seats are wider and give more leg room, for every seat they have wonderful entertainment consoles with new release movies (and a slew of other things) for every preference, and the windows have a push button system for tinting the glass. I had never seen anything like the windows. Instead of either getting blasted by the sun or shutting the plastic blind, you can choose the level of tint you want on the glass and they fade to what you dialed up. We were also fed a sandwich and sides, free of charge, on both flights, even our second connector to Guatemala City, which was quite short.

We had a wonderful layover in Mexico City, where we spent about four hours. We took in a museum in the airport that celebrated the contemporary art of Mexico’s indigenous people. Many art forms, including music, dance, painting, and sculpture were covered, but I donned my reading glasses to get a close-up look at all of the wonderfully diverse types of needle work represented: embroidery, weaving, crewel, etc.

As we wondered through the food area, we got our first taste of a third world hustler, trying to entice us with their various meats on tortillas. After checking out our other options, we went back to the enterprising gentleman, and he set us up with an amazing family meal of half a dozen shredded or cubed meats cooked in various ways. Included were glasses of rosa de Jamaica, a local drink made from brewing rose hips, creating a juice-type drink. He also brought us an assortment of hot sauces, the most aggressive of which literally made everything go numb from my lips to my esophagus. After polishing off all the delicious fare, we decided that getting hustled is not always a bad thing.

In typical third world style, our flight still did not have a gate listed 25 minutes before we were supposed to depart. But every board in the terminal still had our departure listed as “on time.” Even when our gate was finally announced and a departure time of half an hour after our scheduled departure was listed, they still had us listed as “on time.” A quick call to my brother to appraise him of our delayed status elicited a laugh and the comment that it was close enough for Central America.

My brother and his wife picked us up at the airport and brought us to our hotel, the Clarion Suites. We spent a bit of time chatting, getting some basic advice (such as do not even brush your teeth in the water, let alone drink it), and hashing out plans for tomorrow. It was decided that we would drive to Antigua, the former colonial capital of Guatemala and a city that is now a World Heritage Site.  

Day 4 (1 April) Antigua:

Today we didn’t get going until about 10:30, as we were all quite tired after our late night. Dave and Charm picked us up at our hotel and we headed out of town for Antigua. Our journey was uneventful, and soon we pulled into a wonderfully quaint town of small, colorful buildings and roughly cobbled streets.

We easily found street-side parking in the main part of town and began to stroll through this lovely town that just demands to be explored on foot. Initially, we began where every small town adventure should, in the main town square. The park was a combination social hall and mobile market, with craftswomen hawking their wares while their fellow countrymen and women relaxed and chatted together on benches and on the grass.

From the main square, we headed down one of the streets most often seen in pictures due to its imposing yellow arch which stands tall over the street. After the obligatory pictures, we stopped by one of Dave’s favorite spots, a traditional Guatemalan sweet shop, where we were able to view a huge selection of treats common to the area, all of which were displayed with pride in cases that would normally be used to showcase jewelry in the United States. Dave purchased us each one of his favorites: a jellied berry rolled in sugar. They were a bit of a fascination, as they still had the pits inside. Sweets sampled, we began our exploration of the many lovely things Antigua has to offer.

Over the course of the day we visited a number of churches, some just ruined shells and some still in use today. The main cathedral in Antigua is now on the main square and is a very fine representation of the local Catholic churches. Architecturally, its lines are a combination of arched doors and windows set in solid square buildings. However the buildings are by no means simple, as they are enhanced with sculptures and detail work that is very intricate, running down pillars, accenting doors and windows, and giving the otherwise solemn facades grace and artistic flair. 

Even in the ruins one can see the artistry that has typified these structures through the centuries. Antigua’s historical main cathedral, on another location from the current one, is now a still impressive ruin. Under the buttressing arches, which no longer support a roof, one can still see in the walls that remain, examples of sculpted column bases and heads, faded yet still lovely detailed painted themes, and sweeping lines that must have lent a feeling of grandeur in the cathedral’s 17th century heyday. Unfortunately, due to the country’s many severe earthquakes in the late 1600s and the early 1700s, the cathedral eventually reached a point where repairs could no longer stem the tide of the forces of nature upon a structure built far too grandly in an age of no rebar to reinforce its soaring heights. The historic structure was allowed to crumble and the new cathedral was built on the main square.

Like its ruined cathedral, a similar fate befell the town’s convent. It too must have been a very stunning complex in its day. However, it is still intact enough to allow visitors to see such things as the nuns’ personal cells, their baths, the kitchen, and the laundry fountain. Visitors can also walk along the upper level above the central courtyard. There is also a rather perplexing circular room, supported by a solid cylindrical central column and roofed in a lovely arching ceiling. None of us were sure what the purpose of the room was. It has a peace about it that made Dave and I surmise that perhaps it was a place for prayer and contemplation.

Even though its convent is gone, the town remains committed to its catholic foundations. Every year at Easter, townspeople participate in a parade of floats which they carry aloft for the considerable distance of more than 10 kilometers. On the floats are carvings of figures and places depicting the Passion of the Christ. During the night before the parade, townspeople cover the streets along the route in brightly colored sawdust. Atop the base layer intricate designs are laid down, with the help of wooden stencils, in a rainbow of other bright colors. These designs are a sort of offering, rather like the palm fronds laid down for the Savior to walk over. As those carrying the floats—a symbol of Christ carrying the cross—walk the parade route, the lovely sawdust designs scatter beneath their feet.

 As you explore through the town you have the opportunity to see many elements very typical to Guatemala. I loved the pila, or outdoor laundry area. If you picture a covered portico along one side of a fountain, as you see in many European cities, you get an idea of what these are like. Under the portico and along a flat side of the fountain are a number of basins that are flat on the outside and then extend out in an arching curve, giving dimensions of about a foot and a half by two feet. Along the flat side there is a sort of built in stone washing board. The ladies put a bit of water in their basins and then suds up and scrub their clothes. To rinse, they get pails full of water out of the fountain. The laundry basins here no longer appear to be in use. Dave and Charm said they are not sure why, as it was a bustling place twenty years ago when they had their first posting in Guatemala. It seems like it would be such a social activity that laundry could actually be fun.

People in general are very social. Their houses are even somewhat open to the street. They have a wrought iron gate into an entry area; after going through this small hall, you come into the home’s central courtyard, which is open to the sky and has the home wrapping around it. You can see people going about their day in their courtyards.

Transportation is also very open. The largest mode of transport in the smaller towns is via mopeds. Carter laughed and called one the Guatemalan mini van after he saw one of these tiny conveyances transporting a dad with one child perched in front of him while mom held another child in between her and dad’s back. On mom’s back was a baby slung in a wrapping of woven Guatemalan cloth. 

Cloth like the one used as a baby carrier is made by many local artisans who weave the fabric and then work magic on them with various embroidery techniques. There are also woodworkers, potters, and a number of other artists. Dave took us into an indoor market that was a sort of co-op of a wide variety of different artistic media. It was a great place to browse, but he recommended that we not buy, as the prices are aimed at high paying tourists and not open to negotiation. Negotiating prices is the accepted practice in most purchasing situations on the streets, but if a business has a fixed location, they are less likely to come down much. Since we are going to a local rural market tomorrow, he advised we wait to buy.

Our last stop of the day was a place where one definitely wants to buy. We went to the Choco Museo, a chocolate shop where they have a museum about all things chocolate and demonstrate how the cacao seeds become the basis for chocolate. They had excellent posters clearly illustrating the process of removing the outer shell, taking the white soft shell of the individual cacao seeds (traditionally done by sucking), and then separating away the seed’s skin. Once down to the bare seed, it is crushed to a pulpy powder which becomes the base ingredient for chocolate. Of course we had to wrap up our outing with the purchase of some of their product.

After concluding our time in Antigua, we went to Dave and Charm’s apartment for dinner and a sampling of peppers and sauces. I think all of the kids tried a bit, with Carter being the craziest and sticking a whole pepper in his mouth at one time. 

We all crashed at the hotel (Carter with his mouth still numb) and prepared for our busy two day trip to Lake Atitlan and its environs over the next couple of days.

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Adventure Begins...Universal Studios

The Burpee’s Guatemalan Adventure
29 March—9 April 2016

Day 1 (29 March):
Our day began very, very early, as we were up at 3:00 a.m.! Yipes! We had two very ordinary flights (if you discount Chlo Maren getting squirrelly and spilling her ginger ale down the side of my pants and into her open backpack, and Mike spilling his drink pretty much everywhere as he got up to let Chlo and I out to take her to the bathroom). After landing in Los Angeles, we gathered our bags and began our big city adventure. First up: finding the shuttle to our smaller brand car rental place, Sixt. Wow! Outside the LA airport was crazy! Reagan remarked that she could tell we were no longer in Alaska, as the entire walk outside was a fruitless attempt to dodge the cigarette smoke; home must just have a smaller percentage of smokers, as she was correct in her observation—we do not have that problem at home. After some people watching and a bit of a wait, we hopped in the van to the rental place.

Reagan managed to trip over one of those low concrete bumpers used to let drivers know when to stop pulling into a parking spot. She did it with grand style, virtually splaying herself out flat, water bottle, coat, and stuffy flying out in all directions. Another thing we noticed about California—they don’t paint those concrete thingies yellow here.

After some speedy and excellent service, we drove out of there in a Mercedes minivan, with which we are not all that impressed. We would take our Toyota Sienna any day. Mike quickly got into the swing of the aggressive LA driver mentality and we found our hotel, the Sheraton Gateway, without any mishaps.

After checking in at the hotel we decided to go looking for a restaurant in Mike’s old neighborhood (he grew up in Compton—yes, you read that right, Compton of the rapper movie fame). We never found that restaurant, but we did find one very similar, called Tom’s, where Quinn gave a thumbs up to his first ever pastrami sandwich. The rest of us went for Mexican fare; the burritos were the biggest I have ever seen and were excellent.

After eating, we headed back to the hotel to crash—given our very early start to the day, we were beyond ready.

Day 2 (30 March):
Mike began his day with an early run for water, as we all found the tap water undrinkable to the point of not even wanting to brush our teeth with it. Between last night and this morning, our initial impression of LA was not the best. It is very polluted in addition to the water quality. My feelings about the water situation were not improved by my shower experience. When you turn on the shower and it barely makes a whisper hitting the bottom of the tub, it is a pretty good sign that it isn’t going to shape up to be the best shower ever. Probably not even the top 100. After struggling to get my hair wet, I made the prudent choice to use as little soap and shampoo as possible to get the job done. Even so, I ended up abandoning the shower in favor of water coming out of the spout and was still unable to get all my bits and pieces rinsed, resulting in my filling the tub. If the goal for the dismal water pressure is to save water, I think my 25 minute shower followed by filling the tub is probably a pretty good sign that their objective is not being met.

Our day, and our impression of Los Angeles, improved greatly as we drove through the city heading for Universal Studios. We all loved the huge variety in the architectural styles found in both homes and businesses. There is also a huge variety in trees, shrubbery, and flowers here that we don’t come anywhere close to matching; everything was green and blooming where back home we still have bare winter branches. We drove a little way down Hollywood Boulevard, looking at the shops, the theaters, and the stars in the sidewalk. After this short detour we headed for Universal Studios, our reason for extending our layover in LA.

Parking at the park was very organized, even during this the spring break season, although, I cannot imagine what the park must be like in July. We were less than five minutes away from the front gate, where we breezed through the line with our pre-purchased tickets.

Our first encounter was none other than Dracula, who insisted on all four of the kids being drawn under his cape for a pre-snack picture. Chlo Maren was a bit dubious about the whole thing, but Reagan thought he was awesome.

Immediately after Dracula, we were excited to see the Waterworld show about to start. Feeling adventurous, we snagged some seats in the soak zone. Carter is one seriously prepared kiddo where ever he goes, so he put the rain fly for his pack in place as soon as we sat down. Taking the cue from him, I threw my gore-tex rain jacket over the rest of our packs, a precaution that would prove to be quite prudent.

Waterworld is a fun show, featuring a number of working actors and stunt people. It is a typical bad-guy-gets-the-girl-hero-comes-to-the-rescue kind of plot, although the girl in this case is a pretty self-sufficient chick who does a bit of rescuing of her own. The show was fast-paced and full of great stunts. We would highly recommend it. 

On our way to our next chosen activity, the Studio Tour, we were astonished to see the gates open to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter! Chloe was so disappointed when she heard that this new Universal wonderland was not going to open until 7 April. We approached the gates in disbelief, thinking surely this was too good to be true. True it was! The park had opened sporadically for a few hours on unannounced days, and wouldn’t you know, they chose our day at the park to be open all day for the first time, as their pre-opening full “dress rehearsal,” after which they will close again until 7 April’s grand opening. They were using the day to access things like traffic flow and which souvenirs where most popular. There were a couple of areas draped in black cloth, but we didn’t feel like we were missing anything. 

It was so realistic that it was almost surreal. Whereas the rest of the park, aside from the Simpson’s area, was basically a ride, a shop, and a photo area for each movie, Harry Potter is truly an experience. You begin your journey as you enter what is clearly a mix of Hogsmead and Diagon Alley. Among the shops you can visit are Honeydukes candy shop, Zonko’s Joke Shop, and Olivander’s Wand Emporium. In each shop, items are sold that match the items that would be sold in the shops in the books and movies. For instance, in Honeydukes, we bought Exploding Bonbons, Fizzing Whizbees, Chocolate Frogs (complete with trading cards), and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans. Out in the street there are in character staff members to point you towards where you want to go and help you cast spells.

Chloe knew immediately that she wanted to get a Ginny Weasley wand from Olivander’s, so we headed there first. They had replica wands for every character from the books and movies. The next thing on the agenda was trying Butterbeer from a vendor kiosk. They sell both regular cold Butterbeer and a slushie version. Most of us preferred the slushie. Be warned: whichever version you get, its combination of cream soda and butterscotch is very, very sweet. Another word of caution: Go on the rides BEFORE you get your Butterbeer. Quinn and Mike drank most of the two that we bought, and they were feeling pretty pukey after our first ride.

The main ride at World of Harry Potter is inside the castle. As you go through the line, it is as if you are getting a castle tour. Another piece of advice that we would give that holds true for the whole village is to look up in every building that you enter. This is especially true in the castle, as many elements, such as a gallery of moving pictures, would be missed if you only look ahead. The ride itself is a sort of roller coaster/3D/virtual experience kind of ride. We all loved it! You feel the wind as you ride your broomstick, reach out for the snitch, and duck away from the heat of the dragon’s fiery breath.

After that great experience, Mike, the girls, and Quinn were up to try the rollercoaster, but Carter and I took a break and watched a live show depicting the Goblet of Fire teams doing an introductory dance. Once the others got back from their rollercoaster ride, which Reagan said was just alright in comparison to the castle experience, we decided that it was time to leave Harry’s World and experience some of the other things the park had to offer.

I suggested the Studio Tour, which I remembered from when I was a kid—we came to Universal the summer I was nine, on our way moving from the Orient to Europe. It was as informative and fun as I remembered, with a nice mix of classic movie info and sites to more contemporary movie lore. The kids really enjoyed the experience of going into the sound stage where they film earthquakes and experiencing what it would be like. They drove the bus into the studio and stop on a special section of flooring. as pillars flex, flood waters rush, and trucks come sliding towards you, the ground beneath the tour trolley buckles and surges, giving the feeling of being in an earthquake. It was also very interesting to see what appear to be whole towns, only to go around a corner and realize they are just building facades. Another hit with the kids was a virtual reality experience developed by Peter Jackson involving King Kong and dinosaurs.

After that tour, the kids were all eager to head to the lower lot of the park to see what kind of ride was created for Jurassic Park. Getting to the lower lot is an experience in itself, as you journey down four incredibly long and steep escalators. The view is amazing. For the Jurassic Park ride, you are in boats. It begins peacefully, but you begin to see that things are not quite as they should be. The ride is one the park is very proud of, utilizing over 1.4 million gallons of water, and one of the steepest and furthest boat drops—84 feet. We all enjoyed it and admitted to jumping at least once.

The boys wanted to go on the ride for The Mummy, but the girls and I chickened out as none of us are into creepy scary. When I saw that it would cost us about $15 for lockers for the one ride ($5 each), I quickly pounced on that excuse for not going. The girls just straight up said they didn’t want to. We made a wise choice. The boys said it was pretty freaky, but a disappointment as far as the experience was concerned.

We all followed up with the Transformers ride, which was very similar in concept to the main Harry Potter ride: a sort of swooping, whirling 3D/virtual reality experience. We all loved that ride, rating it a toss-up with Harry Potter for our favorite.

One of the high points in Chloe’s day actually happened at the end. We went back to Harry Potter World to eat dinner at the Three Broomsticks, where, incidentally, the food is quite good. In the spirit of realism that the park does so well, even the plastic forks and plates have the look of pewter. Be sure to look up into the balconies, as house elves are known to lurk and scurry about up there. After our meal we had a bit of time, so we decided to do the Olivander’s wand experience. Everyone in the group is brought into a very dark room lined floor to ceiling in shelves full of wand boxes. This is the domain of Mr. Olivander himself.

Imagine Chlo Maren’s awe at being selected by him to come forward and be matched with her wand. It was very fun; after measuring her and asking her a number of questions, he gave Chlo a number of wands to try out. with each one, something went amiss with the spell she tried to cast. One is particularly memorable. Chloe was supposed to cast a spell to water a plant; instead, the plant wilted and drooped. Chloe looked at Mr. Olivander and in all seriousness said, “Well, that was a disaster!” Everyone laughed and Mr. Olivander agreed that that was most certainly not her wand. Finally, the wand chose the witch, and Chloe’s amazing day was capped off by trading the wand she purchased earlier for an interactive one. 

All around the village there are markers in the cobblestone streets that correlate with spots marked on a lovely vintage looking map that comes with the special wands. The map gives you the spells that need to be cast in that location (and shows how to do them and what to say). If you do the spell correctly, something will happen in the shop window, such as a mysterious box unlocking and folding out. We were a bit sad that we didn’t have time to try the wand in more locations, but the kids all had fun using both Chloe’s wand and the one that Quinn decided to purchase as well after seeing the spell map that came with Chloe’s.

To wrap up our amazing day, we caught the final showing of the Special Effects show, which we all would recommend highly. As with the studio tour, it is a great mix of old school simple tricks, such as smacking boxing gloves to give the sound needed for slapping during fights, and some of the newest technology used for motion capture animation. They recruit some audience members to participate, and it is a bit interactive. Overall, it was a great ending to our day.

On our way out of the park, we went into the gift store to get items for whoever hadn’t already purchased souvenirs in the park. We let everyone choose two items: a shirt and one other item. Carter chose a Jurassic Park t-shirt and a Gryffindor tie. Quinn got a Hufflepuff t-shirt and a Sirius Black interactive wand. Reagan chose two Hufflepuff items: a t-shirt and a mug. Chloe chose a Ginny Weasley interactive wand and a Ravenclaw t-shirt. Mike got a Universal Studios sweatshirt with the classic logo and a Ravenclaw lanyard for his work ID. Unlike the kids, I have never taken one of the tests online that tells you which Hogwarts house you would be in, so I chose a t-shirt with the Hogwarts crest and a Marauder’s Map mug. It was fun to see the items the kids chose and close out our day with tangible reminders of this fun experience.

On the way back to our hotel, Mike took a detour so that we could drive by the imposing Los Angeles Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. After that it was off to the hotel to crash after a long day in the park and the prospect of the long travel day to come.