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a new year
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journey's end



Guatemala Journal



24 noviembre
The school sent me to attend an AASCA technology conference in Costa Rica, an association of American schools in Central America. I stayed at the home of one of the school technology coordinators, Paul, a fanatic Mac enthusiast with a long gray ponytail and his family (he is American, his wife Marta is Guatemalan, they have been in Costa Rica for 30 yrs), along with my elementary computer teacher, Tita, a Guatemalan. The houses in Paul’s neighborhood in San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital and largest city, are single storied and close together with brightly colored bars enclosing small front yards, little dogs barking their greetings. Scarce is the barbed wire and armed guards that are everywhere in Guatemala. Costa Rica has no army and is a peaceful nation, both internally and internationally.

Our host family arranged for a tour on Saturday after the final conference lunch. We piled into a minibus with Roy, our guide, a young man who was a friend of the family. Driving out of the bustle of San Jose traffic, we climbed the winding mountain roads. The landscape was covered with vivid green patchwork farms and occasional small villages with tin or red tiled roofs and narrow dirt roads. A little warmer and more tropical than Guatemala, there were palm trees and abundant flowers.

With some narrative from Roy along the route, we made our way to the top of the volcano Irazu, a national park about an hour and a half from San Jose. Irazu is an active volcano which rumbles from time to time, and has erupted in recent centuries at 70 year intervals. Roy slid open the van door and handed each of us an iced glass of creme de menthe as we stepped out into a cloud, black lava dirt under our feet. The misty rain prevented us from seeing down into the lake filled crater, but gave the walk around the top an air of mystery. At one point we were met by a fat, scavenging coatimundi, raiding the trash at the little visitor center, hoping for a handout. The plant life was beginning to take on the some of the characteristics of the rain forest, large trunked trees with snakelike roots above ground, gigantic leaves on umbrella plants. After a short hike, we came to an ornate curved low fence prohibiting further passage. The clouds swirled below us, smelling strongly of sulfur.

We drove on to visit other sights in the province of Cartago. Following the high mountain ridge, we stopped at the Mirador Valle de Orosi, a scenic lookout over the Orosi valley. The brown river below us snaked in wide loops, a forested area in the middle of planted fields hid the tiny distant ruin of an old church. We continued down the mountain in twists and turns, finally stopping at a green park with low wooden structures covered with cultivated plants. The boxes of fruit for sale were almost round with pale green, puckered looking skin. These were choyote farms, grown like wine vineyards on wooden railings holding the fruit off the ground. We stood on a makeshift wooden bridge with trees dangling spidery web greenery overhead. The walkway took us to the walls of the Spanish stone Orosi church of the 1600’s. Afterward, driving along the valley, Roy stopped in a coffee finca (farm) to pluck coffee beans, both green and ripe red, for us to inspect.

Two Catholic churches were our last stops in the town of Cartago. The first, in the rapidly approaching night, had simple whitewashed walls on the outside, but decorations were in progress inside, making ready for a wedding the next day. An arch of white balloons inside the door, white material draped along the aisles, and a profusion of white flowers and greenery covering the altar. A row of small rooms along the sides held life-sized tableaus of saints performing miracles.

The second church, the Basilica de Cartago is visited by foot travelers from far and wide. A huge and lovely gray building, it was brightly lit outside, highlighting the white curving trim and statues of saints. Its pews were full of singing worshippers on Saturday night. Tita and Marta walked hurriedly along the wall with a purpose, I had to follow quickly or I would lose them in the large church, Marta’s children followed close behind. Running down a staircase to a lower floor, we found a shrine to the "virgen de los angeles", where the virgin is said to have appeared long ago. The small room above contained shelves and shelves of charms representing body parts or other gift items - the virgin had granted the wishes of those who came to ask, and they returned to leave something for her in gratitude. Tita and Marta were glowing, happy to stop and pay their respects here. Outside near the church, down a well marked ramp, was a small spring, with many people crowded in to splash the holy water on themselves. My companions each took some back in a bottle.

A traditional dinner of chicken, beans and rice awaited us at Marta and Paul’s house. A friend of Tita’s, soccer coach of the acclaimed Costa Rican Cartagena team, picked us up after dinner and drove to a lookout high above the city, pointing out landmarks in the sea of lights below. One more stop for Margaritas, the strongest I’ve ever had, and back to the house at midnight for an early trip to the airport the next morning.


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