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    Volume 8 Issue 97 | December 11, 2009 |

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A Bangladeshi Woman takes on Guatemala...

Labiba Ali

Lake Atitlan

Who would've thought 50 years ago that these days young and 'unmarried' Bangladeshi women would be travelling all over the world by themselves. My great grandmother would have certainly been scandalised or secretly happy that at last Bangladeshi women were having some fun on their own. For a few months I was toying with the idea of travelling solo to one of the Latin American countries. Solo because travelling with a group of twenty different personalities and moods did not sound quite appealing. That part of the world was a big unknown for me but I was determined to rectify it at the first opportunity. So I bought a Lonely Planet guide, planned an itinerary, booked my flight/hotel and before I could dwell too much on the fact that Guatemala City has one of the highest rates of female kidnappings I was on my way to great adventure, courtesy of TACA airlines (which many jokingly call 'TAke CAution' airlines because of its not so great safety record).

Officially the first stop was supposed to be Panajachel but since there was no direct shuttle from the airport to Panajachel, I had to take a detour via Antigua. (In Guatemala, travel agencies operate tourist shuttles that take you to all the tourist main spots -- alternatively, one can take the local chicken bus although you must use extreme caution and your sixth sense because you might just get pick pocketed!) Getting back to Antigua, it was the governmental centre for all of Central America until 1773 when a major earthquake destroyed much of it. It is now a quaint town filled with bohemian imports from Canada/Europe and hospitable locals. The outdoor cafés, lounges, art galleries keep one occupied and you will strike up many random roadside conversations with fellow tourists or temporary residents of Antigua, the visiting Spanish students. (Antigua has the highest numbers of Spanish schools where students from far-away lands come to learn Español). The central point of Antigua is Volcan Agua that keeps guard over the town -- wherever you go in Antigua, Volcan Agua follows you.

After roaming around Antigua in the mid spring afternoon, it was time to catch another shuttle to Panajachel, a town next to Lake Atitlan in the Guatemalan Highlands. Leaving Antigua behind one takes the Interamericana Highway, which weaves through Guatemala going northwest into Mexico. We rode into the orange sunset with sleeping Guatemalan villages scattered on both sides of the highway.

Chichi, the famous Sunday market.

By the time the shuttle reached Panajachel, it was already dark and so I missed the scenic views on the descent from the mountains to the lake. Just before Panajachel there's the town of Solola, which reminded me so much of a typical Bangladeshi mufassil complete with mudi-dhokan, tubelight baatis, and baby taxis.

The next morning I rose early in my bungalow style hotel room, had a lazy breakfast of homemade crepes and fresh fruits, and headed off to the lake. The lake is truly magnificent with deep, deep blue water and three imposing volcanoes jutting out from the opposite side. The view is majestic and the blue of the water does something to your soul that makes you never want to leave. I hopped on a boat that took me to the villages across the lake. San Pedro is a small village at the base of Volcan San Pedro. It has cobbled streets and narrow alleyways: some going up to the mountains and some down to the lake. The women wore beautifully woven skirts and blouses. Each tribe in Guatemala wears a unique pattern so that the tribe members are easily recognised from other tribes. During my explorations in San Pedro I stumbled into a cute coffee shop that served freshly grounded Guatemalan coffee -- I stopped to savour the aromatic coffee and the peaceful, simple life around me (there's nothing like this shanti in New York!).

Santiago and San Antonio were the two other villages on my boat tour. Santiago is a shopper's paradise where you will find local Guatemalan handicrafts, weaving and art. I bought my much loved and much used multicolour Guatemalan hat from Santiago. Meanwhile, San Antonio's shops displayed exquisite blue porcelain and Technicolor textiles. The market square with a whitewashed church is central to all Guatemalan villages. This is where the villagers socialize, baptize the newborn and bury their dead. Life comes full circle at these village main squares.

Back in Panajachel I had dinner at Sunset Café, which is a thatch-roofed bungalow style open café right next to the lake, and watched the sun slowly disappear behind the majestic volcanoes. Soon the night sky was filled with brilliant fireworks. Every Saturday fireworks lit up the Panajachel lake shore and eventually you will see the villages across the lake also conducting their own fireworks. It was a synchronized orchestra as one village finished its round of fireworks, the next village started its display, and so on until all the major villages around the lake had taken their turns. The night air was festive and the live musician at the café started strumming his guitar. (Panajachel's main street is dotted with many restaurants, cafes, and bars. Circus Bar is famous for its live music while Socrates, the local nightclub, is popular with the young crowd. Not to be missed is Pana Rock Cafe where Carlos Santana does a mean rendition of 'Oye Como Va').

The next day I was in a very adventurous mood and decided to take the local chicken bus to Chichi, the famous Sunday market. Of course Guatemalan buses have no set schedule; they come and go as they please. I was surprised to find that although I was there before the stated departure time the bus had already left! So here I was stuck in a bus station without any knowledge of Spanish and not knowing how to find another bus to get to Chichi. The bus conductor did not understand me and I certainly did not understand him. Luckily a fellow tourist showed up who spoke both English and Spanish. She kindly guided me through three bus transfers to Chichi.

Anyways, after all the trouble it took to get to Chichi I wasn't all that impressed by the market. It was overcrowded and hot, very much like Gausia during Eid (although, I must mention that there were no pinching and shoving; the Guatemalans were quite bhodro). After spending the afternoon hiding from the intense sun inside a roadside café, it was finally time to get on the shuttle to Antigua, my last and final stop before heading back to New York.

Back to Antigua:
Antigua has a special charm that creeps up on you. It runs on a hidden energy similar to New York's but without the latter's intensity. Early mornings in Antigua are the best, before the offices and shops open and tourists crowd the streets. Antigua wakes up slowly -- this is the time to sit in Parque Central (yes, they have one too!), linger over coffee and watch the baker baking pastries, the schoolchildren walking to school, the people queuing up in front of the bank. I spent my last morning in Antigua wandering around the cobbled streets, popping into little boutiques and art galleries, and just inhaling the culture, colours, sights and sounds that are unique to Guatemala.

Antigua wakes up slowly.


It was difficult to leave Guatemala, especially, because of its picturesque countryside and laid back lifestyle that is so different from the fast paced New York that I now call home. I hope someday I might go back to Panajachel to sit by the lake and read my book drinking fresh grapefruit juice from the roadside vendor. Until that day, it's onto other destinations and unknown places that I have yet to discover and explore -- maybe Ecuador or Tanzania or even, Isle of Wight. I will keep you posted.

Don't let Guatemala's past conflicts (its civil war ended in 1996) deter you from travelling there. Like most places it has its share of dangers and as a woman you have to be extra cautious and not take unnecessary risks (that goes for anywhere in the world). I would strongly recommend doing your research well in advance hotel bookings, how to get from one place to another, contact information (phone # of government tourism boards). The Lonely Planet is an excellent guide and gives a wealth of useful information. Meanwhile, the Guatemalan government is pushing to increase tourism and has set up the Guatemalan tourism board (INGUAT), which has offices in all the major towns. Their services are free of charge and they can help you to get all information you need to make your stay in Guatemala safe and comfortable (they also offer free guided tours). There are many travel agencies as well that cater to the needs of tourists for a small fee. In general many foreign women travel alone in Guatemala and for the most part it is quite safe. Just remember not to walk alone in empty streets (night or day), stay close to the town centres and crowds, do not wander off on lonely mountain paths and, of course, always listen to your instincts (a woman's instincts are the best defence we have - so please use it!).

Labiba Ali is a Bangladeshi living in New York. On her days off and when she is not travelling, she edits creativeBangladesh, a monthly blog-zine on Bangladeshi art, design, and culture.



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