Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Montericco

The weekend after the fair one of the travel agencies in town was offering a trip to the Pacific coast of Guatemala to a small beach town called Montericco and what is called the "best beach in Guatemala." This was before I understood my nota bene at the first of this account, i.e. that sometimes Guatemala “over-represents” itself. What we found was what is called a “black sand beach,” one formed from volcanic activity. It’s not really black, more of a gray, actually but I think they call it that so you won’t be shocked when you see it. It’s like every other sandy beach in every respect. In fact, it really is beautiful and I have to say more beautiful than the beaches of the Texas Gulf Coast. The sand is immaculate and loose, not compacted into something resembling concrete like a lot of the Texas beaches. There's no seaweed or driftwood littering the beach, no plastic trash, no dead fish, no shells even. Nothing but sand and rip currents.

The dangerous undertow was publicized in the gringo travel books well enough that nobody ventured into the water except locals. I know the part about the undertow is true because I saw the video; one of my fellow students was just standing at the water’s edge with the ocean to her back while having her picture taken when a huge wave came ashore, knocked her down and sucked her out to sea. It took five lifeguards to save her from drowning. (OK, she is a very good-looking chick and maybe all five weren’t necessary but she really was drowning and she barfed up a stomach full of saltwater to prove it.)

But the thing I noticed about this beach is that there was nothing in the ocean as far as you could see from the left horizon to the right horizon until the sea met the sky. Nothing. No oil derricks. No oil refineries. No ships. Not even a small fishing boat. Nada.Only water and sky as far as you could see. I sifted back through my memories and can’t remember ever in my life seeing a beach without something in the water off in the distance. Never a beach without lights in the distance after dark. A beach left just the way God had made it. There’s something to be said for undeveloped countries. They are, well, undeveloped. Chalk one up for God.

But before I was able to appreciate the beauty of nature Beaven and I had to face a couple of nasty little problems. It was hot as hell and even though the travel agency included the cost of the hotel room in our price, they neglected to mention that air-conditioning was an extra you had to pay for yourself. The weather in Xela was similar to San Francisco and other high-altitude cities: cool during the day and extra cool at night. The most we ever needed was a light jacket for the cool. But the minute we got off the bus at Montericco it was just like every other beach: hot and humid. Sweaty, stiffling hot.

And Beaven and I were also still learning that if you had 200 Quetzals in your billfold you were not rich. At the exchange rate that translated to a little over twenty dollars, the cost to add air-conditioning to the room. And that was when we discovered the only ATM in town was broken. Right after that, we remembered the one and only time we had tried to use our credit card, the card was denied. We assumed at the time it was because the card was being used in Guatemala and the credit card people were protecting us from a possible theft. We chastised ourselves for a bit until it sunk in that we had no way to get money. We counted our funds and came up with the conclusion that we could afford either to have AC added to our room or eat our next three meals at restaurants, but not both.

It was a very sobering choice and a first for us. We may have been fairly broke early in our marriage but we never were overwhelmed, hot, hungry and broke all at the same time. We thought about it for a while and, of course, the longer we thought, the hotter it got so we chose the air-conditioning. We ate as cheap as we could for dinner and then some kind of miracle happened. Every time we counted our money there was more than the last time. We ended up with money left over when the weekend was done.

Sunday morning we went for a walk and found the place full of military guys. With guns. In fatigues. Standing guard everywhere in town. I had long ago gotten used to seeing armed guards in stores, fast food franchises and in front of banks. But this was something far more than anything I’d ever seen. We decided to tell ourselves that this was some kind of military training exercise as opposed to the idea that the Russians had landed. And we had absolutely no access to the outside world; as far as we knew they could have. We sat outside in a cute little restaurant that overlooked the beach enjoying our inexpensive little breakfast and saw more army guys appear. Then somebody told us the President of Guatemala was visiting today. Sure enough, here came a small group of men with one gray haired dude in the middle. They mingled with the life guards and talked to everyone, then left and gradually the military presence disappeared. Go figure. Nobody seemed to know what he was doing there.

But the best part of the weekend was Saturday night and I missed the whole thing. The travel agency offered a trip to watch the Ridley sea turtles swim ashore at nightfall and lay their eggs. This was the same travel agency that booked us into a hotel where air-conditioning was an additional option. Once the guide cautioned us that he couldn’t “promise” that we would actually see a turtle I counted myself out. I had figured out to read between the lines. I was ready for some peace and quiet (especially now that the room had cooled off) and thought reading a book would be more interesting than wandering around on the beach in the dark looking for turtles that most likely would not show up.

Well, boy, was I wrong. Beaven came back a couple of hours later and told me they had seen one swim ashore. She wasn’t very far from the water when she started digging a hole and immediately started laying eggs—just like you see on TV.

The part that wasn’t much like TV was the local guy who snatched the eggs out of the nest as soon as she laid them. And here is the delicate part of the story, the tradeoff with the ecotourism industry in poor countries. In some ways the locals who take the eggs help keep the eggs safe, they don't wash out to sea; they incubate the eggs and insure every egg hatches into a healthy turtle. Then they sell the baby turtles to tourists to release back to the sea. Everybody is happy: the local economy gets a boost and the tourist feels good. Except that it can take up to a week between hatching and release, during which time the baby turtles swim in a circle in a tub of sea water. They are exhausted by the time they get released, not the best condition to swim into the ocean when you're just a baby.

Beaven said the mother laid about 20 eggs, all of which were taken away. She covered up what she thought was a clutch of eggs then turned around and walked back to the water and swam off.

That’s about the last story of our trip. We’ll see what the next week brings. We had the grandkids over for the weekend and I am now a Monopoly expert even though I get bored quickly with board games. I finally got out a calculator to figure the Return on Investment for the various properties. I always knew the closer you get to Boardwalk and Park Place, the pricier the property and the higher the rent. But what I never realized is that the cheap properties like Baltic Ave. have only a 3% ROI where Boardwalk’s is closer to 9%. I have got to get a life.

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