Category Archives: Guatemala – Climbing the Agua -2010

On Lake Ohrid, Macedonia

There are swans on the deepest, oldest lake in Europe.  Three million years old and 300 meter deep I am told.  White doves coo on the burnished tile roofs of the little medieval town and its gardens overflow with roses.

Swans on Lake Ohrid

A 10thcentury fortress crowns its highest hill.  I can see its crenelated crest from my hotel room window.  Wild, piney paths lead down to golden stone churches perched above the lake.  In that dark forest, I stopped a moment thinking that I had actually found a trove of exceptionally fat and glistening blueberries.  But, squished between my fingers, they gave an acrid smell and stained my fingernails deep purple.

Monastery of Saint Naum

I arrived yesterday after a very long, very hot, four-hour bus ride with a very chatty companion.  Actually it was more like six hours since I managed to get to the station two hours in advance.  I’ll explain how.  I have been on Greek time since I crossed the border of Macedonia.  It never occurred to me that I might be in a different time zone until I noticed that the hotel’s clock was one hour late.  I didn’t let that dismount me: their clock was obviously slow (and so am I sometimes).

So, I was surprised to see how, at 8:30 in the morning (7:30 actually), everything in Skopje was still closed.

One opened bakery in Skopje

No traffic, no people, so very quiet.  It was a quest to find a coffee.  Except for an opened bakery with sumptuous looking – but bland-tasting – pastries, it was mopping up time and the coffee machines hadn’t started yet.

I had a taste of Macedonian pop culture before heading out this morning.  I turned on the TV and hit some music channel airing video clips.  First I was not quite sure what I was watching.  Was it a joke, a parody of some sort that bent over figure of a white suited singer with scrunched up face?  Perhaps was he assuming that posture in concentration for the song to come.  I’m afraid not.  He remained that way, crouched over as if he had bad cramps that wouldn’t give him a hint of a relief, throughout the  very sad (what am I saying? utterly tragic) Turkish sounding lament.  The middle-aged “artist” was suffering greatly, no doubt.  Once in a while, he’d wave a feeble arm, as if calling for help.  Who wouldn’t with such postural problems?  And what a cruel soul I am!  That man obviously has a serious impairment and still manages to make it upon a stage.  But my remorse was dissipated when the next clip (I couldn’t stop watching: the power of fascination of the very, very odd) shows him a few years later and some thirty pound heavier and sitting straight this time, if still as desolate as before…I guess you have to be born in that culture to understand.

My pretty Serbian (although she insisted on saying “Serbish”) travelling companion explained to me (with some disdain) that it was a gipsy singer.  She was extremely talkative, with quite a stock of convoluted stories for an 18 year old.  She had come from Belgrade to go to the funeral of a friend who had drowned in lake Ohrid; she was an opera and Goth singer with a tenor voice (I didn’t know girls could have tenor voices); she was part-owner of a night club in Belgrade; spoke perfect English learned in London; was about to enter medical school in the Fall and wanted me to meet her boyfriend in Ohrid whom she hadn’t seen in three months.  I’ll never understand these things: she looked a young version of Mila Mulroney while the boyfriend had bad teeth, a juvenile pot-belly and didn’t appear too swift.  Love is a mysterious thing indeed.

Here, in Ohrid, people come out at night.  Families stroll along the wide promenade along the lake, eat ice cream, walk their dogs, their kids, window-shop even though there isn’t much to buy .  It’s all unusually quiet, reserved and civilized.  Nobody ever seems to raise their voices.  Music from the sixties pipes down from equally quiet bars and cafes.

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Climbing the Agua

Antigua, April 2010

After thinking it over thoroughly, after interminable dithering, questioning and assessing the pros (there are many) and cons (there are even more), I have taken the firm and irrevocable decision not to become a mountain guide in Guatemala, or elsewhere for that matter.  Still, I cannot say that I had not been giving it serious thought.  The image of myself  wielding an ice pick, shod with mountain boots and leading troops of beatific tourists towards the region’s highest summits really stirred my imagination.  I even cultivated dreams of climbing all the way to the top of the Fuego and the Pacaya and to bivouac on the crater’s edge, defying lava flows and unexpected eruptions; of conquering unscathed the ill-reputed and ill-frequented AcatenangoBut I had to start somewhere and we chose the Agua, the greenest and least threatening of the three.  After all, its crater was once filled with water, rather than boiling magma and water somehow seems more reassuring than fire, well…perhaps not.  Anyhow, there is no more water in that crater since it poured itself down, along with a few rocky debris, upon the old capital of Ciudad Vieja in 1541.  The volcano seems to have retired since but, according to the experts, you shouldn’t be too sure. 

I would like to pretend that I alone had the courageous idea of that expedition up the 3,760 m. (12 333 ft.) of the Agua but it was my friend Catherine, the intrepid athlete who rows on her terrace facing the Fuego and swallows kilometers on her bike, who started it all.  “Monday, we are going to climb the Agua, we’re leaving at 6 am and Canche (her gardener and my gardener’s son) will be our guide, he’s already done it three times and he knows the way.  We’ll be ten, including the dogs.”  No problem!

And that’s how we found ourselves at dawn “on a sandy, uphill road, which naked in the sunshine glowed”.  Uphill, of course was to be expected.  What diverged somewhat from the Lafontaine fable’s setting were the narrow stony gorges in which the proportion of stones to horse droppings was at least mitad-mitad.

It was all fine at the beginning: the village of Santa María de Jesùs in the rising sun, the fields of snow-peas, the wild begonias along the path, the passion-flower bushes and the peasants leading their horses to the fields.  My rascal of a dog managed to get himself kicked in the shin for making faces at one of those noble beasts who didn’t take it well; he got his fair due for that one, whimpered, held its paw at half-mast for five or six seconds and we were back on our way.  I don’t think he’ll try that again.

I was the one who was not faring so well.  I felt like… as if… my arms were sore.  Of course, getting up at 5 am is not my idea of a good start.  But the more we ascended, the more my arms were bothering me, and perhaps did I also feel, maybe a pain in my chest?  Hypochondria was showing its ugly head somewhere on the horizon, still invisible behind the tall pines of the summit.  I must say that, lately, my sister-in-law has been sending me alarming emails going in great details over the symptoms of heart attacks in women and what to do in case of a stroke.  I read it all distractedly but I guess it did have its effect on me.  Of course it could be my back pack, let’s get rid of that one.  Phew, that feels better!  But that pressure in my chest?  Enough of that, I shall climb that volcano all the way up to the crater and that’s that!  I’m not quite sure at what altitude oxygen gets scarcer but it seemed to me that I was beginning to stumble, energy fading fast.  And to get back to that old Lafontaine, I must say that at that point his “six lusty horses” to draw me were exactly what I needed, and maybe the stinging fly too, although I must say that as a ‘fly’ my companion was doing an excellent job.  As I was dragging my feet behind everybody else, he was waiting for me, egging me on: “Come on, ten steps and we stop for ten seconds. » « No, only three and I sit down! », « Don’t do that, you’ll just get yourself stiff, would you like to go back?”  “No way! » This was getting humiliating, everybody was ahead of us except for him and Canche who was doing his duty (he was the guide after all) lurking behind rocks with his big Cheshire cat smile.  And there was the dog too, who periodically ran down to check if I was still there.  I really wanted to get rid of my two supporters: they should let me climb at my own rhythm and leave me alone with my dog.  And if I must have a heart attack on this mountain, well so be it!  I really would have preferred if they’d let me die quietly on the mountain, as the Japanese do.  But nothing doing!  Along with the oxygen, the vegetation also becomes scarcer: among dense clumps of tussock grasses, a few pine trees extend out compact bouquets of vigorous needles, while others stretch toward the sky one naked, calcinated arm.  The silence is total, except for the occasional buzzing of an insect (except for my flies of course).  We are now above the clouds and we might as well be looking down upon Santa María de Jesùs from an airplane.

Along with my three nagging flies, I made it to the edge of the crater 45 minutes after the others.  Poetical justice made me recuperate in no time and it’s at top speed that I came down the mountain (to be fair, I must say that it was pretty slippery), while those who had launched the most aggressive attack on the volcano were now beginning to drag behind: sore feet, sore knees, migraine, no more water.  Even the dogs were considerably less frisky, which shows that there are advantages to economize one’s energies.  The entire expedition lasted from 7:30 in the morning till 6:15 in the afternoon for a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes, counting the stops.  A bunch of slowpokes we were.  When we did refill our water bottles in Santa María de Jesùs, we realized that the dogs knew perfectly well what a plastic water bottle was and wanted them just as much as we did.  Not very ecological but sometimes you don’t have a choice.

We walked home with very measured little steps.  Frankly, we might have been able to use a walker.  The next day, we were still moving at reduced speed.  As for the dog, we still can’t quite make him out from the carpets.

Lesson learned : I’d much rather frequent the Antigua Venetian Ball than conquer volcanoes.

At the Antigua's Venetian Ball

Less tiring, you don’t get so dirty, it doesn’t last so long and in the end, I think I look better at the end of it.

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