The Israeli Virgin Sacrifice at Volcán Pacaya

PacayaAlthough I’d really had nothing but time on my hands when I was at Lago de Atitlan, and although I had a spare break pad somewhere in my luggage, I never quite did manage to get around to changing my decimated rear break pads before heading for Antigua Guatemala.  And so, thats how I found myself squealing along down the last few slaloms into the little old Colonial tourist hotbed of a village.  But the suspense didn’t last for long, and before I knew it, I had landed smack in the flat valley bottom and was riding through the rather inconspicuous outskirts of town.  Aside from the fact that I no longer had my Swiss Miss, Seri, and that I had no host here in Antigua with whom to discover the city (a luxury which I had become all too accustomed to after the incredible energy and hospitality of the friends I’d made in Mexico), everything appeared to be going relatively smoothly as I arrived in town.  Until I got to the cobblestones, that is.  It was like Xéla, only worse.

Ok, so I must admit that I love the charm and aesthetics of cobblestones, but when you’re riding a bicycle, it’s bad – when you’re riding a bike with another 60 pounds stacked on the back, its a real nightmare.  I rolled as slowly as I could down one of the main streets, not knowing yet what street it was, hoping that my naughty panniers wouldn’t go hopping off the bike during a big bump and go rolling dramatically in front of a car tire.  However, I happened to be feeling lucky that day, and as luck would have it, when I pedaled through the next intersection I spotted the street-sign indicating that I happened to be on exactly the same street as the hostel that I was searching for.  And, moments later, thar she was, The Black Cat Hostel (now, why the hell everything in expat & backpacker-land has to be called the Black Cat or the Black Sheep, I have no idea), so I sidled up to the curb and slowly (and very awkwardly) tried to maneuver my mount onto the not so bicycle friendly sidewalk.

Shortly after I had checked in, strategically placed my cycle in a side storage room and lugged all of my heavy packs up to the third floor of the hostel, I encountered my new roommates for the next several days.  Ziv Kivity (to infinity and beyond!) and Yael Mazuz had just been cleared from the Israeli military, had just began their journey through Central America and they were ready to do some serious traveling.  Although at first glance I had been sure that they’d known one another for years, I later discovered that they’d actually met through an Israeli site for post-service traveling buddies, and had just happened to be remarkably compatible backpackers together.  Although I had barely spoken English since leaving the United States several months earlier (and Even Seri, my Swiss Miss, and I spoke Spanish with one another, lol), I found that it came as quite a welcome relief, as miraculously I was once again witty and charming – as opposed to bumbling, awkward, and over-thinking.

As it were, in between my bouts of illness (which I suspected to be a remnant of some obstinate intestinal amigo who had followed me from Mexico), Yael, Ziv and I managed to explore the city and surrounding areas quite happily together.  Ziv was the quieter, dark-haired party girl with the endearing smile and a sweet, pensive manner, while Yael was the talkative intellectual blond with the heart of gold.  Although over the course of the next few days we did do a little bar hopping, heading to touristy hot-spots like the Mono Loco, the Casbah, and an Irish Pub (and yes, every tourist town apparently also has to have an English or Irish pub as well, otherwise the poor lads from the islands go through withdrawals… oh, and yes, in fact, all of the bars in Antigua are touristy), we shared a wonderful pasta dinner at the home of a new Italian friend of mine in Antigua and climbed a volcano.

Alex was an opinionated and political Italian who had come to Antigua to work with a student travel agency owned by an American friend.  We had met through CouchSurfing, and although he couldn’t host me, he did suggest that we get together and head out on the town.  So, the first time we met, we did just that, heading out for a few drinks with the girls.  But one of the following evenings Alex also invited us all to dinner at his home, to which we readily accepted.  So around sevenish, the girls and I made our way across town (which basically means about 5 blocks away) and towards Alex’s place.  We didn’t quite know what was in store for us until we arrived at the massive stone gates to the walled in complex.  It was primarily a rich expat community, most likely the types who owned the majority of the successful businesses and tour groups around town.  But nevertheless, an impressive place.  Alex met us at the gate and led us in towards the house.  The house itself was essentially a palace for one (Alex was just staying there temporarily until getting his own apartment), owned by his friend and boss, Mark.

Well, the dinner certainly turned out to be a memorable experience in a number of ways.  Alex’s home-style Italian pasta recipe was a sumptuous feast (especially when you’ve been traveling through the gastronomically-challenged Guatemala) and we all happily made quick work of it, while sipping on glasses of red wine (wine, yes wine!  hah, I don’t usually get to drink THAT on a trip like this – well, at least not until Argentina).  But then things got really interesting… or at least, mundane and controversial.  Before we knew what was happening, the conversation had erupted into a subtly polite spitfire of politics.  And wouldn’t ya know it, the rich American had all the right opinions and insisted that everyone else open their eyes to the way things really are.  Ok, so lets just say I’d had about enough of this dinner, and after holding my peace for the next fifteen minutes I could barely stand to hear any more, and politely began to insinuate as to how late it was and that we should surely be going now.

With a little luck and a lot of tact, we were thankfully soon out of the house and Ziv, Yael, Alex, his friend, and I, were on our way to a sedate albeit charming little candelit, old-wooden bar on yet the other side of Antigua.  As it was a weekday, and early in the week at that, there were only a few other patrons in the bar, so we had a sweet, romantic ambience all to ourselves.  We chatted for the next few hours until the languid tones of our voices suggested it was time to retire, and took the pleasant stroll back to our residences along the dimly lit cobble-stone streets.

Our other adventure, which I believe turned out to be quite the highlight of our days in Antigua Guatemala, was basking in the heat of the glowing molten lava at the summit of Volcán Pacaya.  Of course, when we left Antigua early in the afternoon it was a splendidly sunny and cheerful day, but as we made our way out of the valley by bus and along the almost two hour journey to the volcano, it didn’t take long for the floods to let loose.  Of course, this type of climate was no stranger to me, as I had spent many a day pedaling along in the melancholy downpours of Guatemala, but I could certainly see that the girls’ moods had taken a quick downturn, and suggested dismally that perhaps it would clear up before we reached the hike.  Well, by the time we were nearing the mountain, the rain did let up, but not for long.

As we were making the final ascent to the park entrance in our van from Antigua, we were only somewhat surprised (but nonetheless in uproar) that they happened to have decided to dig up the road and put in new huge concrete tubes today, of all the days.  And of course, as is the fashion in these sorts of regions of the world, there was no fore-warning and our driver was caught completely unaware.  Nevertheless, there wasn’t much that we could do, and Yael and Ziv were quite accustomed to this, after having tried to make their way to Belize the week prior and been met my road blocks, the devastation of hurricane damage, and public transportation protests – thereby sitting in several locales along the highway in the jungle for many, many hours over the course of two days and ultimately never reaching Belize but instead turning back to return to Guatemala.  Anyway, so back to the Volcano!

About an hour later the road was patched up, we passed through, and were no sooner arriving at the trail-head.  Now, throughout Latin America, and many third world nations, you’ll frequently be accosted by some sort of persuasive “vendors” as you disembark from transport or arrive at a point of touristic interest, but what awaited us at Pacaya was quite an new and unusual experience for even me.  As the van pulled in towards the small welcome center, throngs of children began to emerge from all corners of the clearing with five foot long sticks in their hands, the children swirling about our trajectory.  As we pulled to a halt and the sliding door of the van was thrown open they crowded in towards us, almost completely blocking our way, and brandishing their sticks menacingly.  They chanted “steeck, steeck… is necessary, vaary vaary necessary,” in awkward foreign accents somewhat reminiscent of the little asian boy from Indiana Jones, and pressed in against us as we pushed through, one by one.

Although I had grown to be quite tactful at dealing with such insistent behavior from similar past encounters, Yael and Ziv weren’t quite as weathered in that department and only a few short moments after we had exited, I had shaken off my Guatemalan niños, but as I turned to look back, Yael was cornered.  They had her with her back pressed up against the van, a fearful look upon her face, unsure of what to do as the hordes of midgets pressed ever forward around her waist.  Finally she succumbed to their insistence and proclaimed herself the proud new owner of a stick.  Now, at this point we didn’t even know what the heck the damn things were for, but we soon learned that they were to be used as a hiking aid.  And on that note, it wasn’t long before the gray clouds began to let loose yet another torrent of merciless rainfall, and the children were going for round two with their foul weather aid.  “Poncho, poncho!,” ok, well this time it was hardly worth fighting it, and anyway, it was really bucketing down now and most of us were really in the mood to schlep up the mountain like a wet rag.

As we marched up the muddy trail, the proud new owners of bright orange ponchos and sticks, the rain-water spilled along our path in muddy, brown riverlets.  But we made out way on intrepidly – well, at least Yael and I did, but the grueling hike had taken its toll on poor Ziv, but fortunately, the natives were right there at our heels with a ridin’ horse to alight her to the summit.  So we bid farewell to Ziv (as the horse route was different from the pedestrian route) and watched he disappear into the mist on her shimmering white steed, led by a small Guatemalan fellow.  Yael and I trudged onward, sloshing through the mud and stopping frequently to catch our breath, and I only once being insulted on my poor Spanish accent (by another Central American girl who happened to be walking past and felt it pertinent to inform me).  Unfortunately Ziv had brought her own raincoat and was quickly discovering that it was not in fact “water-proof” but instead “water-resistant,” as she revealed to me that she was completely soaked underneath.  I offered to exchange tops with her, but she politely declined, as is best since I’m not sure what kind of impression I would have given those poor Guatemalan people by walking around in a wet bra and belly-T.

About an hour and a half and a few hundred meters later we were finally emerging from the tree cover and what lay before us was quite an awesome sight.  The gray rain clouds had cleared away from the volcano summit and only green ribbon of velvety grass skirted along a massive, inky black crater below a ominously coal colored cone which jutted up into the sky, a plume of pale, puffy smoke swirling about its peak.  This was it, this is what we had come up here for – well, almost… where was the hot lava???  But our guide assured us that we were not far now and as we made our way along that last strip of fertile green towards the crater we weren’t quite sure just what exactly to expect.  The descent into the crater atop the jagged, craggy volcanic rock which had been artistically frozen in time as it had once cooled, was certainly no easy task.  As we had met Ziv near the crater-head, I offered to help assist her as we made our way out into the black unknown, and we made our way along hand in hand.

Sizzling and low-pitched whistling noises seeped out from the delicately flaky ground beneath us.  Occasionally, as we picked our way precariously over the awkward formations, we could see the distantly glowing red hot embers through tiny gaps or hollows below our feet.  Although it was a somewhat unsettling experience, it was also quite exhilarating, and I just kept reminding myself that the tour groups probably wouldn’t have brought us here if it wasn’t at least reasonably secure.

Then finally, as we crested a gnarled ridge of volcanic rock, there it was in the distance.  Fiery tie-die patterns of red, gold, and orange lazily churning and threatening to spill towards us, but dying off steadily at its own periphery.  Yay!  We had made it, no where the dickens were those marshmallows??  Fortunately, they were in Yael’s satchel (which somehow I had ended up lugging up the mountain) and we didn’t waste any time whipping the little fellas out and roasting us up a party.  Sadly, due to the earlier road-block, the impedance of the rainstorm, and any other confounding variables, I didn’t have long to lean in and melt a warm, gooey marshmallow for each of us (yeah, of course somehow I ended up roasting ’em all).  So there I was, a too-short, wispy stick in hand, hovering precipitously over molten lava, the smell of burnt marshmallow wafting in the air… no wait, thats leg hair – youch!

Once I had reached my high-temperature tolerance threshold – and received my free depilatory treatment on both my right leg and the right side of my face – I stumbled backwards, away from the wavering super-heated air.  We still had ample marshmallows left to burn, so that was exactly what I planned to do.  I tossed a couple onto the searing lava and they burst into little balls of flames!  Although at first I worried about the ecological impact of such an action, I quickly eased my conscience after thinking through the fact that the marshmallows would instantly be incinerated anyway, and that the amount of fume emitted was surely negligible in the great environmental scheme of things.  Nevertheless, I knew that restraint was the better virtue in this circumstance and that there were starving niños who probably love marshmallows somewhere down below.

About two hours later we were emerging from the infinitely pattering canopy of the forest at the trail-head in the pitch black darkness.  Night had fallen as we were descending from the volcano, and as all of us had heard unpleasant rumors about bandits in the area, we were quite relieved to have arrived.  We returned our sticks to the children of the village in our attempt to recycle and save the earth, and then piled into the van for the somber ride back to Antigua.

A few days later it was time to head on, as I had plans to meet my good buddies from New York in the not too distant Costa Rica soon, and therefore it was thus that I found myself battling by panniers and finally performing some much needed maintenance and changing the break pads of old faithful (the bike!).  Once I had magically stuffed all of my possessions into my packs and my mechanic shop was closed up, I turned to the girls, who had been watching the whole, wretched affair (complete with cursing and tool throwing) and bid them a greasy black handed, teary farewell, promising each other that we would meet again soon, but knowing that it would really probably be years before we saw one another’s smiling faces again, if ever.

Yet, as I bumped and inched out of town, my panniers popping off of my bike and onto the cobblestones as often as they saw fit, I could never have imagined that we would in fact be reunited in the not too distant future – but in an entirely different world, somewhere between the end of their marvelous journey and before the next chapter of mine.


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