On the trip down, we lucked out with both a non-stop flight AND first class seats, thanks to Michael's frequent flyer miles. Flying first class, we were able to easily bring down three very, very oversized pieces of luggage filled with donations!
Thank you so much to Carmen, Tricia, Kristine and Javi, and my Mom and Dad for helping to fill these suitcases.
Of course, we started the trip off on a heavy food note: we managed to have three breakfasts before 11am! One at home, one at the airport, and then one on the plane (for someone who always flies coach, how could I pass up a first class breakfast?!?).
What was interesting was that our flight was almost entirely filled with Guatemalan men in their 20s to 40s...I'm guessing workers flying home to see their families for the holidays. There as we waited to board in a sparkling wing of Newark Airport, I tried to imagine how it must be for them to live between two very different worlds.
Once on the plane, our 5 hour 20 minute flight to Guatemala City went by quickly. Maybe that's because I slept part of the way through. But I was awake for our descent, which showcased Guatemala's awesome natural beauty.
Aerial view of mountain passes
At the airport, we breezed through immigration (right before a huge plane full of other new arrivals descended) and picked up our bags without any problems.
When we exited the terminal, we were greeted by the sight we remembered so well from our first trip down: the masses of families waiting for their kin. You see a jumble of colors and textures -- different patterns and fabrics of traditional dress, as well as western clothes. Mothers carrying babies tied to their back with vibrant woven cloths, men wearing cowboy hats, young and old.
We saw a sign with my name on it and recognized the older gentleman who had accompanied the driver on our first trip to Guatemala. They brought the van over, and we loaded up. I was all ready to combat motion sickness this time, now that I had taken Bonine the past two days, and I was wearing my new accupressure bracelets.
Somehow, travel makes you hungry. So even though we had already eaten enough for an entire day, we felt compelled to grab some Pollo Campero on the road out of Guatemala City. We asked our driver and his co-pilot if they would like something, and they said yes. We kind of expected an order, but that was all we got from them. I realized we're so used to be picky Americans. So, Michael and I went in and decided to go for a Banquete Familiar of Pechugitas or fried chicken breast tenders.
They were so delicious! Pollo Campero has the McDonald's brand strategy down pat -- consistency of food and user experience wherever you go -- but yet retains a distinctive Latin American identity. Although it is a little bizarre, as Michael remarked the first time we went down, what other fast food chain has you EAT the mascot? Well, you only have enough time to think about that until you take a bite, and then you're just thinking mmm...juicy...crunchy...who cares what the mascot is!
If you're salivating thinking about Pollo Campero (like I am now), check this out. According to their website, the Guatemalan company has been aggressively expanding in the US market since 2002, and now there are over 38 locations in a number of states, including New York, Texas, and Virginia. Heck, now there's one 20 blocks up from our old apartment! We'll have to pay a visit.
Anyway, we shared our feast with our two compadres and headed off to Panajachel. Michael and I both recalled the journey very well, at least the first part. This time around, though, the weather was perfectly beautiful, not overcast. We journeyed through the country and made our way to a part of the road we had not traveled last time. This is the main road, but large rock faces next to it had been blasted away. You could see the residue of the dust and dirt on the surrounding trees.
The turns weren't as hairpin as the ones on our route in April, but we did come across a few accidents, including a truck that had turned over and spilled its load of oranges on the pavement. A group of people surrounded the truck, and I hoped the driver was ok.
As we got closer to Pana, we saw a number of roadside stands selling reindeers and other animals made of large sticks and twigs, as well as pointsettias, large oblong squash, and white calla lilies. We also saw roadside restaurants advertising Caldo de Gallina Criolla or Creole chicken stew. We looked forward to the signs of the holidays and the food we would taste on our trip.
After a while, we saw signs for Solola, the major city in the region, and we knew we were close. We recognized some of the streets and then the descent down the mountain, past San Jorge, which we visited last time, and Hotel Atitlan, where we stayed last time, and then found ourselves rolling onto Calle Santander just as it was starting to get dark (about 5:30pm).
The driver dropped us off at Hotel Dos Mundos, which is right in the middle of the action on the main tourist street. Michael and I got our room, settled in very briefly, and then headed out to the street to catch a tuk-tuk to la Casa de Sharon, otherwise known as Mayan Families headquarters.
The first driver we saw we hailed, and coincidently, it turned out it was Herman, someone who has a personal connection with Mayan Families. Herman drove us through town and across the bridge to Sharon's. When we got to the wall and gate of her home, I recognized it immediately. A boy came to the door and asked who we were. Once he relayed our names to inside, we were let in right away. And there we were, once again, at Mayan Families.
Sharon came and greeted us warmly, and we met her two daughters, Zoe and Aleeya, again. I saw the red and green cellophane wrapped tamale baskets sitting on the shelves, as well as the huge ziploc bags of toys, and all manner of supplies sitting on the ground. There was much work to be done! Sharon said she had a job for Michael and then disappeared. She brought back the tiniest little puppy for him to hold.
If you remember from our first trip, Michael had fallen in love with a tiny puppy named Pepa. That night, we got to see Pepa all grown up, and instead of being small (as we thought she would be), she was a medium sized dog, and almost unrecognizable from last time!
Then it was time for us to pile into a tuk-tuk and go back into town to meet everyone for dinner at Hotel Regis. Sharon had reserved the main room of the restaurant...and there were going to be a lot of us!
I was so nervous and excited to meet Tricia of Sisterly Shenanigans. We had been corresponding for most of the year, since we sponsor sisters in the same family, and I had become a die-hard fan of her blog. But we had never met in person! It was like waiting to meet a celebrity!
People started to flow in. I met so many from all over...a number of whom, unfortunately, I only really saw that first night, since they were working on other projects. But it was still so amazing to be in a community of like-minded volunteers.
And then Tricia's group came in! I got to meet her and Mary, Sarah, Morgan, Holly C., and Maureen. Such awesome ladies! I knew the week was going to be a lot of fun.
Tricia, Mary, and M.J.
So we had dinner and chatted and got to know people. Sharon made a speech thanking everyone for coming to help and introducing some of the Mayan Families staff.
Here I am with some of the group and my Gallo beer
Then it was off to (the very firm) bed at Hotel Dos Mundos. We made plans with Tricia's group to meet up in the morning for the orphanage party.
What a day! It was so wonderful to be back AND be with great people, new friends and old, AND be in a much warmer climate than New York in December.
Let the adventure begin, I thought as I started to fall asleep!