Adventures on Day 1 in Guatemala

Border crossing days are always exciting. My general plan after waking in my dorm room in San Ignacio was to cross the border from Belize into Guatemala, make my way to Flores, spend the day there, and then take the overnight bus to Guatemala City.

I paid 2.50 USD to take a Collectivo taxi to the border. The lineup to pay the exit tax of 20 USD was quite long, as was the subsequent wait to get through immigration. After a short walk across a compound separating the two countries, I entered a long queue to get through Guatemalan customs. There was a single agent, and he worked quite slowly. One American family was taken aside by their guide, who jumped the queue on their behalf. Locals waiting in line weren’t very happy about it. Another American family waiting in front of me was approached by an official who took their passports and helped them jump the queue. More grumbling.

The official came back and offered to get me through the line faster, but I refused. I might need a favour some time in the future, but today I was quite happy to wait and watch the people around me. My refusal gained me some respect from the people in line around me.

When I finally made it to the customs official, he stamped me into the country without even asking me where I was going or how long I intended to stay. That was a first.

Here’s how to fit 21 people into a 15-passenger taxi.

We were all pretty comfortable in the Collectivo, until it started to fill up beyond capacity.

To save money, instead of paying 40 USD to take a cab from the Guatemala border to Flores, which actually seemed a good price considering the distance, I paid 5 USD and took a Collectivo, which stops everywhere to pick up people along the way. It started out comfortably, but soon we were filled beyond capacity. Here’s how to pack 21 people into 15 seats:

1. All children go onto someone’s lap. The woman with four children handed me a little boy. I thought she wanted me to pass him to someone, but then I was made to understand that he would be sitting on my lap for the remainder of the trip. He was quiet and slept a lot. And when he was awake, we played peek-a-boo. I would hide my eyes with my hand, spread my fingers to look out, and say ‘peek-a-boo’. He laughed easily. When I tried to watch the scenery, he would pull on my shirt and say, ‘peek-a-boo, peek-a-boo’. Hehe, cute kid.

2. You squeeze four adults into three seats.

3. You take a narrow box from the roof of the van and jam it between the seats and the sliding side door. One adult fits there.

4. You add a fourth adult to the front seat. Tough on the driver, who still has to change gears.

5. You sit uncomfortably for a long time, but then you gain favour with your fellow passengers by passing around a bag of cookies you purchased from a baker in Belize.

And that, my friends, is how it is done.
No seatbelt to be seen anywhere. To hell with road safety.

On route to Flores, we stopped at a gas station. In the grass beside the road lay an unmoving dog, which was surrounded by four vultures. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen vultures outside of a zoo. They hadn’t started eating yet, so I assume the dog had still not taken its last breath. I wanted to take a photo, but I was jammed into a van with a child in my lap.

I arrived in Flores late morning and bought my overnight bus ticket to Guatemala City. And then I was desperate to use the ‘banos’ (washrooms).

In the stall at the men’s room – Flores, Guatemala bus station

So here’s how the toilets work at the bus station in Flores, Guatemala.

1. You pay a few quetzal to the doorman
2. Doorman gives you a wad of toilet paper
3. You enter a stall with a non-functioning toilet, like in the picture.
4. You do your business without trying to touch anything.
5. When you exit the stall, a worker rushes in after you with a bucket of water and throws it in the toilet.
6. You leave without washing your hands because it’s probably more hygienic that way.
Yep, people are being paid to flush human waste down a non-functioning toilet. Not my dream job, but I guess it’s a living.

With ten hours to explore, I wandered down to the edge of Lago Peten Itza, flipped off my sandals, and dangled my feet in the water. Spanish Christmas music poured out from the market square behind me. Armed policemen stood guard along the walkway.

Lago Peten Itza

From my seat by the water, I could see along the bridge leading out to the Isla de Flores. I saw that there was a park off the main road along this bridge, so I made my way there to escape the noise of the market and the street. I settled into a concrete bench in the shade, leaned back on my pack, watched some boys swim in the lake, and then pulled out my Kindle to enjoy the book I was reading about travellers in Greece.

The bridge to Isla de Flores

Soon after, a teenage boy stopped in front of me and hovered over me. At first, I ignored him, but he wouldn’t leave, so I gave him my attention. He seemed agitated. He asked me for money in Spanish, but I pretended I didn’t understand him.
“No comprende. English. No Español.”
This agitated him even more, and then he started screaming at me, “MONEY, MONEY, MONEY!”
“No money”, I said, then turned back to my book, and ignored him.
The teenager’s friend joined him and then both stood near me. It looked like this might escalate into violence, so although I pretended to be reading, I braced myself for action. But then they wandered off down the path and harassed another man who was minding his own business. Under the pressure, that man gave them some money. So when I saw the boys heading back toward me with a more determined look on their faces, I got up, picked up my pack and walked back to the safety of the road.

One of the things I love to do when I travel is just to walk around aimlessly and watch people carry on with their day-to-day activities.

Here’s what I noticed on my walk around Flores:

– There are stray dogs everywhere, and the dogs are cautious. They shy away from humans and tend to sift through the garbage for food.

– While walking along the market street, a small cat flew right past my face and landed on all fours in the gutter, no worse for wear. Seems it was caught inside the food store, and the proprietor would have none of it. I watched the cat for a couple of minutes and watched it sneak into the store next door.

– Tuk tuks are a cross between a three-wheeled motorcycle and a golf cart, with the driver in the front and room for two passengers in the back. They are used in lieu of taxis, which are more expensive. The tuk tuks in Flores are everywhere. I have never seen so many in such a small place. They are all numbered; the smallest number I saw was 006, and the largest was 736. Tuk tuks here come in red, yellow, or green.

– Many of the local men dress up as cowboys, wearing the whole familiar outfit – hat, shirt, belt, boots, jeans. The only difference is that they carry a sheathed machete.

– Most people drive motorcycles here. I didn’t see a single person wearing a helmet, although I did see one wearing a Storm Trooper helmet. On one motorcycle was a family of five. Wow.

– At the bus station, I enjoyed watching the shoeshine men stare at the shoes of everyone who passed by. I was also surprised at how busy these guys were. Seems that polished footwear is important to the men of Flores.

– For the first time in my travels, I had a hard time finding vegetarian-friendly food. Everywhere along the main street, vendors were cooking meat on barbecues. None were able to provide me with a meal ‘sin carne’ (no meat). I ended up buying sweets and bread from the baker.

Early evening, I wandered back to the station to wait for my bus.

Here’s how to communicate with a child with whom you do not share a common verbal language.

You use the language of soccer.

At the busy bus station in Flores, I saw an eight-year-old boy juggling a plastic soccer ball. I motioned to him to pass it to me. I flipped the ball up, juggled it on my feet, then my knees, then my head, back to my knees, and then unsuccessfully tried to catch it in the crook of my foot. Then I passed it back using a trick shot, whereby I stood on the ball with my front foot and then dragged my rear foot through the ball. It’s visually delightful because it looks like I’m pulling the ball back toward me and then it suddenly shoots forward. The boy was delighted.

We passed the ball back and forth, juggling the ball and doing tricks. Soon we had an audience around us and people were taking videos with their phones.

Just a crazy Canadian tourist and a small Guatemalan boy, both of whom seemed to have a talent for the world’s most popular sport.

Sadly, after 10 minutes, the boy had to catch his bus. But not before his father came to me to shake my hand.

My most beautiful moment on the road thus far.

Tuk tuks outside the bus station in Flores


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