The Disaster Saga, Part 2: The Journey

In the last post, we left our heros and heroines outside Black Cat Hostel in downtown Quetzaltenango (aka Xela) waiting for their van to pick them up and whisk them away to their far away homes. (no pictures for this part of the story I'm afraid. I'm also sorry because I lied when I said this part was shorter...) Sometime around 6pm, a large van drove up the cobblestone street and we began loading our luggage and various packs on top of the van. One by one we piled into the van that probably comfortably seated 14, there were 16 of us including the driver and his friend. It was...cozy...to say the least. It should be noted that most of us hadn't really showered much in a few days so that added to the closeness. Guatemala does not observe daylight savings so 6pm was looking more like 7pm and we were loosing light quickly.

Leaving Xela took longer than we would have liked because of all of the twisting roads and evening traffic. Overall the start of the journey was chill, we tried to get some sleep in the van since there was nothing else to do. We were all very startled when we heard something fall from the top of the van, a few somethings actually. Not only did some of the luggage get damaged when it fell from the van (thank goodness for the duct tape I brought!), but we had to sit on the side of a dark road for what felt like forever while they re-secured everything. I've seen waaaay too many scary movies for this to be kosher. Of course nothing happened, my imagination is too vivid for my own good and we were on our way again.

After about 6 hours of off and on sleepingand watching people walk about their villages late at night as we passed, we arrived at the Guatemala-Mexico boarder. Tired, sick and a very uncertain of what we were supposed to do, we got out of the van and got in line to show border control our passports. Men offering to exchange our Quetzales for Pesos crowded in and ignored us when we said "No, Gracias". Other men hovered around our van at a distance. Nothing about this situation was fun, all of my family's words of warning about this trip came flooding back to me and I just wanted to teleport home. Thinking we were done after we got stamped out of Guatemala, we quickly hopped back in the van....only to stop a 30 seconds later at the Mexican side of the border to get stamped in.

This time we all had to get out and walk into a building where many of us were hoping to find a restroom of some kind after so many hours in a van. It's hard for me to describe the state of the women's bathroom... to say that it was dirty doesn't cover it. I would go so far as to say that it qualified as sexual harassment. Broken toilets, no running water, no TP, doors that didn't lock and unmentionable filth everywhere. I call this sexual harassment because the men's room looked perfectly fine and operable when I walked past the open door. I could be wrong, I was very tired and sick, but either way I was seriously irritated by this.

On this side of the border, we had to fill out forms saying who we were, where we were from and other pretty standard stuff. What didn't feel standard was when they told us we had to pay $25 US (or $261 Pesos). I don't think I've ever had to do that before and none of us were very prepared for that. (when we got our passports stamped out of Guatemala we had to pay 10Q or just over $1US, *nothing* in comparison!) All of our readily available money was in Quetzales and they didn't take Visa at the border. Some people, including myself, had kept some American money in case of an emergency so we went back out to the van to dig into our bags. The other fishy catch about this extra expenditure was that they didn't give change. So we had to group together in whatever ways we could to ensure that our money did the most good. We got our passports stamped in groups of four and handed over the last of our cash.

The next phase was to go through customs so we got our bags off the top of the van, trying not to look nervous while more people took note of us. A man in a red t-shirt started to "make himself useful" by trying to grab our bags from the driver as he lowered them down to us. I made sure to grab my things quickly as I saw them and told him thanks but no thanks. Taking my suitcase, backpack and handbag to the customs side of the building, I pushed the magical button that decided if a passed or failed and saw the bright green light pierce the misty darkness. They barely looked at my bag and didn't even ask me what I had. Of our group of 14, at least 2 of us failed the random button-O-customs.

The first group to get through customs waited in the van and kept an eye on belongings as they were placed back on the roof. Vicky listened as our driver and one of the border guards argued in Spanish. When the guard walked away, she told us that he was demanding 100Q (about $12 US) because of "all the weak women in our group that needed help loading their luggage back onto the van". I witnessed all 9 of those "weak" women hoist their bags up over their heads to the driver myself...the guard didn't do squat. Unfortunately, this man could slow us down if not stop us entirely if we didn't give him the money. Since our trip was at its end, most of us didn't have large Qs anymore. But Hanna found a 100Q bill and gave it to the driver to get us on our way.

After another half hour, we got to the gates of the Tapachula airport...the closed gates... It was nearly 1am and the driver told us the airport wouldn't open until at least 5am. The gate guard made a few calls for us though and let us in to the parking lot where we could unload the van and wait in the lobby. The lobby was covered with huge twitching wasp like bugs, some that were still crawling, others that had been squished in the comings and goings of airport life. Grateful for the opportunity to wash our hands and clean up a bit, we dodged the little buggy landmines to get to the lobby bathrooms.

With 4 hours before the airport would officially open for us, we set up a mini-shanty town on the far side of the lobby where the bugs were fewer and the wall plugs could be found to charge our fading phones. Some of our souvenirs proved to be useful as hand woven rugs were used as beds on the cold tile. It was at this time that Bern decided to start throwing the mangled bug bodies at the unsuspecting and shrieking residents of GuatGang-Shantytown. The Bug Wars lasted only a few minutes and everyone calmed down a bit. After the stressful border crossing, I was able to get a few hours of sleep.

When I woke up it was about 4:30am and I saw that we had been joined by more people for the morning flights. After getting through security we got in line to check in and get our tickets for our flight to Mexico City. But San Simon's curse (more on that later) was not done with us yet! One of the groups going to Minneapolis (my group to be exact) was told that our tickets had been canceled when the online ticket company tried and failed to get ahold of us to verify the credit card information. All of the other groups were okay, but now Megan was scrambling to make sure we could still catch the 6:40am flight to Mexico city with everyone else. The man at the check in desk was extremely helpful, getting Megan a phone and wifi access, not pushing us aside at all.

Once inside the airport, we feasted on cup-o-noodles and bottled water for breakfast while megan continued to book the rest of our flights home and update the blog. The flight out of Tapachula was very comfortable (especially for Bern and Charles who somehow managed to get first class) and we arrived around 9am.

Besides some tearful goodbyes as the group split off for their respective flights and a delayed flight that would have caused Charles and Bern to miss their flight in NC therefore getting them a free night at the airport hotel and an upgrade to first class (once again!!! those lucky dogs!), the rest of the journey home was uneventful. The Guat Gang Girls in my group (Megan, Hanna, Courtney, Kate, Amy and myself) reminisced about the trip over lunch at Chili's Too in Charlotte, NC.

After landing in Minneapolis we were met with warm hugs and tears of joy at the baggage claim. My aunt picked me up outside and met me with fresh, homemade, chocolate chip cookies and a large, cold glass of milk. The only thing that could top it was the welcome I received from our dog Jett as he danced around my feet when I walked in the door and the warm, fuzzy kitty cuddles I got that night in my own bed. After 12 hours of solid sleep, I woke up very glad to be home safe and sound.

Now that the scary part of the trip is out of the way...I can talk about all the fantastic things we did in Guatemala! Stay tuned for The Miguel Angel Asturias Academy, Jorge's Story, The Mural, Traditional Mayan Weaving Techniques, the Lake Atitlan Excursion, San Simon and the Hot Springs and a photo gallery of the best pictures taken on the trip.