Running in Central American cities is miserable. Sidewalks are like balance beams. There is rarely any traffic control. And the right-of-way hierarchy looks like this: 1. Buses, 2. Cars, 3. Pedestrians, and a two-way tie for 4th place between dogs and runners.
Fortunately, I don´t live in Guatemala City, or San Jose, or San Salvador. Instead, I live in Xela, and although 100,000 people make Xela the second largest city in Guatemala, it takes just ten minutes of car dodging and steep running to escape the madness. And it’s worth it.
Yesterday, I found a new running gem with endless trails through pastures and forested hills, an area called Monte Zinai. Just 20 minutes into my run, I thought about how lucky I was…the scenery, the soft terrain, a runner´s paradise…yet I was the sole runner out there. I jogged passed a small cluster of farm houses and I was greeted by three dogs. As one ran alongside me, my luck ran dry.
My left hand went numb as I felt its fangs dig into my upper arm. Luckily, she ran away as soon as she tasted my blood. Her owner watched horrified, as I sat myself down in shock. She ran to me, crying, “Esta bien? Esta vacunado. Esta vacunado!” Or in English, are you alright? It’s vaccinated! I nodded, too shocked to utter a word. It had been sixteen years since I had been attacked by anything, and all I wanted was my momma. I jogged back to my house, gripping my numb arm. I was upset, not longer because of the attack, but because of the logistics I was now forced into. Doctors appointments and vaccinations were not in my plans for my first week in Guatemala.
I went to a family doctor. After a shot in the butt of who knows what, she told me that a rabies vaccine in Guatemala was intense, and probably unnecessary. Instead, it would be best if I spent the following afternoon with the dog, watch for eccentric behavior, saliva in the mouth, and other indicators of rabies. I found my doctor’s advice quite bold. Go back to the farm with the crazy dog and risk another attack? What kind of treatment is that? Just give me the vaccination damnit!
I followed her advice. The next day, instead of taking Spanish classes, my teacher and I went for a walk into the hills. Not wanting any enemies in my first week in Guatemala, I hoped to make peace with this farm dog. Upon our arrival, I was relieved to find the dog chained up, yet eager to greet me once more. I waved, it growled back, and we called for the owner. The same lady came to greet us. She was dressed in indigenous clothing and a Yankees baseball hat, so I knew she had to be alright. She showed us documentation of the vaccinations, but having been signed in pencil with no official stamps, it was impossible to know if it was legitimate. I took pictures of the dog, who was simply unwilling make up with me, and we were off.
Frustrated with the untrustworthy documentation, I checked myself into the city health center. With just five shots in the arm over five weeks, the rabies vaccinations would be easier than I thought. Thus I spent the next five Monday mornings at the health center with mothers and their newborns. The best part was that it was completely free. In the United States, a rabies vaccination would cost a resident almost $1000. But here I was, a foreigner in one of the poorest countries in the Americas, and the state was footing the bill.
Wild dogs make running by far the most dangerous thing I do in low-income countries. This incident turned out to be just one of several scary encounters with rural dogs, not accustomed to runners. Now vaccinated, I feel a bit more secure, but having learned my lesson I now run with a rock in each hand, ready to fend off any more protective K-9s.
Holy Week (the week before Easter) is the real deal in Guatemala and most of Latin America. And no where is it more celebrated than in Antigua, Guatemala’s old capital and most beautiful colonial city. Being the strict and devout Christian that I am I took a week off from language school, packed my bible, and hopped on a chicken bus to see one of Catholicism’s greatest events.
Antigua is rich in history and colonial architecture, but now it feels more like Disneyland, polished and restored (and repriced) for foreign tourists. I had never seen a garbage can in Guatemala (why would you need a garbage can when you have the street?), but in Antigua they are on every block. In the city center power lines are buried underground to preserve the colonial feel. There’s nothing Guatemalan about this place and if it weren’t for Holy Week, I would have taken the next bus out. Fortunately, this was the party to end all parties.
Constructing an alfombra. The man on the right is an architect, and had spent thirty consecutive unpaid hours creating alfombras for various processions.
Alfombra by day
The big draw is the series of processions, parades of locals dressed in purple robes, carrying massive vaults depicting scenes leading up to the death of Jesus. The parades move slowly and some take ten hours to proceed through city. Thursday night before Good Friday is the peak of the show, with herds of Roman soldiers running through the city, all-night parades, and a multitude of artists constructing alfombras, street carpets made of sawdust, dyes, flowers, and grasses which become demolished by the parades moments after their completion. Couple this with a hundreds of thousands of Guatemalan tourists, alcohol, and enough incense to suffocate Jabba the Hut, and you’ve got quite a spectacle.
Thursday night procession
My Dutch friend Mischa and I passed the entire Thursday night in the street, like children chasing their favorite Disney characters, and we loved every second of it. Antigua had a Woodstock-type feel, with Guatemalans camping out in the city plazas and cooking in the streets. The next day, with little gas in the reserves, we hiked up Volcan Pacaya, the most active, lava-spewing volcano in Central America. We couldn’t summit though, as it was quite angry that day, emitting small but explosive eruptions most of the morning.
An angry Volcan de Pacaya