June 16, 2006

San Francisco El Alto
Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

Regarded as the country's biggest, most authentic market, a quick jaunt to San Francisco el Alto was an entertaining experience.

About an hour's bus ride out of town (only 15km), San Francisco is perched atop a hill in the mountains surrounding Xela. The morning weather, and the view from the ride up, where both amazing.

I jumped off the bus into a horde of indigenously dressed Guatemalans. It's Friday—market day—and nearly every street in the city has been closed to allow merchants to setup and hock their wares.

Looking down at a small piece of the madness

Thousands of people were buying and selling pretty much everything you can think of—except your typical gringo handicrafts, those have no place here. Everything from pigs to plants; salted fish to Singer sewing machines; radios to roosters… I could go on. Clothing was everywhere, as this is said to be Guatemala's garment district.

The place is a pickpocket's fantasy come true. Personal space is completely non-existent, and I was expending tremendous amounts of energy making sure my pockets weren't getting pilfered.

Every street—every nook and cranny—was packed with people and product. Tarps were everywhere to keep the sun/rain out, and being taller than most everyone, I was hunched over often as I shuffled up and down the living streets.

I tried to take more photographs, but my camera is nearly dead, and would only turn on and actually function about 5% of the time. People also really don't want their picture or an image of their product taken, and tell me no (as I typically have to ask nicely, since my camera no longer allows me to take hit-and-run snapshots). Well, the response was either no or a new vocab word I learned today: propina, meaning "tip" or "gratuity."

The place was totally worth the trip.

Somewhat Entertaining

It would seem that there's a very limited about of hot water available here at Casa Concordia. The water heater is apparently on some type of timer, and only operates in the morning hours. That's OK though—hot water only in the morning's I can deal with. The problem is, the heater does an atrocious job of warming water that hasn't been cooking in its tank for some time, and once the small supply has been depleted, it might as well not be there at all.

I figured all of this out after my second cold morning shower in a chilly, poorly insulated, concrete home. My solution, which worked pretty well this morning, is to wake up before the sunrise (and everyone else in the place—05:45 seemed about right), rejoice in the wonderfully warm water, and then shiver my way back into bed for more sleep.

Annoying? Sure—but it sure beats the hell out of the alternative.

Not So Entertaining

With no curfew to worry about at Casa Concordia, I finally decided to venture out after dark to see what a Thursday night looked like in Xela. I think the rain was keeping a lot of people inside, but there are actually some surprisingly hip places here in town.

I called it an early night (seeing how I had to get up for my shower and all…) and made my way home just before 11:00 or so.

My guesthouse isn't exactly on a main drag, and the surrounding area is sort of a spider web of narrow, poorly lit cobblestone streets (that run next to the predictable grid that a respectable chunk of the city was constructed under). Now I don't spook that easily, but only 50 yards from home I honestly got the best scare I've had in months.

I'm close to home—just down this street/alley, around the diagonal corner, and through the locked opening built into the solid wooden gate. In the distance I see a guy at the corner—crap, I should have taken the other street… not much light here.

It was cold, the rain had subsided, and I was walking aggressively now, my sock hat drawn low. Then, out of nowhere, a shrill referee's whistle cuts through the air. What the hell was that? It was chilling.

Worse yet, two other whistles slice through the silence moments later, one seemingly several hundred yards away, the other, one street over. He whistles again, and again, his friends answer back instantly—getting closer now—like hunters communicating with each other…

I'm nearing the corner—game face on, right hand poised to withdraw and wield my knife. Another whistle—there's two of them across the street now—I blow past and turn the corner. Another whistle—the third isn't far away. I reach the gate. Why won't this door unlock?! It's to the left, right?

Waiting to get tackled, I successfully push through the door and close it behind me. The gate is solid, I can't see into the street—silence. No more whistles. I calm down and make some tea before going to bed—I have an early morning shower to wake up for.

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