Wednesday, July 15, 2009


I had been looking forward to visiting Guatemala the entire voyage, not because it was the last country on our itinerary—I was actually rather unhappy about that part—but because I was scheduled to visit a real, live, functioning coffee plantation! And seeing as how Guatemala is one of the top coffee exporters in the world, I was also excited to get my hands on a fresh cup of locally-grown coffee. The plantation I visited is called the Roberto Dalton Coffee Plantation and it is located right outside of Antigua, the historic colonial tourist destination of Guatemala. After driving through Antigua (we didn’t get to stop there, all the more reason for me to return someday!) we reached the plantation and were taken on a walking tour to see the whole coffee growing, processing, and roasting operation. The coolest part, I think, is that they take the roots from one coffee species—Robusta, a lower quality species—and connect it with the top of another species—Arabica, a gourmet coffee—because worms eat Arabica roots, but not Robusta roots. That way, R. Dalton can grow the higher quality coffee without using pesticides. It’s a labor intensive but environmentally friendly process. We saw the fields where the coffee is grown, the machinery where the layers of the beans are removed, the large patios where the beans are dried, and finally where they are roasted. We even saw the tasting room where they have a professional taster come in every Saturday to taste their coffee, not unlike the tasters that visit the vineyard I visited in South Africa! I wouldn’t mind having that job. We were given a nice, steamy cup of coffee before heading back to the ship. It was heavenly.

The next morning I got up early to leave for Honduras. It was an eight hour bus ride across Guatemala to get there. While most of the people on the bus slept, I was too busy watching the landscape and listening to our guide, Jose, talk about Guatemala. Guatemala is mountainous and green, then barren and flat, then even more mountainous than before. There are volcanoes so tall I saw their bases, the middles shrouded by clouds, and the tips peeking over the top. Jose said that to the rest of the world Guatemala is coffee and pineapples and bananas and poverty, but that’s not the real Guatemala. “Poverty” to the rest of the world doesn’t mean what it means in Guatemala. In Guatemala, the “poor” don’t have flat screen TVs and brand new cars and air conditioning, but they eat. They don’t need all that stuff because they don’t care. They are more in tune with nature. I think he was mostly talking about the large population of Mayans still living in Guatemala. Someone asked a question about the drug trade in Guatemala and Jose defended his country by saying that very few people do drugs in Guatemala; they just grow and export them. He said that if there were no demand in the United States, there would be no “drug problem” in Guatemala. He said Guatemala is not about coffee, tropical fruits, and drugs. Guatemala is about its rich history and diverse population. It’s about its people.

When we crossed the border into Honduras it was a short half-hour drive to Copan and our hotel. There we ate dinner before going horseback riding. That night I got some pizza and wandered around Copan. It’s such a cute little town full of small shops and restaurants. The locals were all out at night too and everyone was friendly. It felt like daytime, actually. It was dark but the stars were out and the narrow cobblestone streets were lit with street lamps and by store fronts. There were a lot of tourists, though. Copan is quite a tourist destination because it is home to one of the greatest Mayan ruin sites.

The next day we visited the ruins. When I was in seventh grade I did a project on the Maya and the Aztecs and ever since then I’ve wanted to see the ruins of their cities and temples. I’ve always been fascinated by their complex civilization. It just seems impossible for such sophistication at that time. Jose called Copan the “Paris” of the Mayan world because Copan is known for its art rather than its size. Tikal, Mayan ruins located in Guatemala, would be considered the “New York” because of its giant temples and its reputation as the largest Mayan city. I can’t believe how much of the Copan ruins are still intact and how detailed some of the carvings and statues still are. It’s amazing to see how they incorporated astronomy into their architecture and lives. I really wish I could say more about the ruins, but I don’t know how. It’s another one of those places where I don’t think words can do it justice. I’m afraid to try. After we left the ruins we drove back to the ship to board the MV Explorer for the last time.

Soon after that the ship passed through the Panama Canal. I remember sitting on the back deck, watching the last locks of the canal close behind us and feeling like those doors were separating me from the rest of the world, from everything I had just experienced. I was not ready for it all to be over. I’m still not! I would do it all again in a heartbeat. While I was watching that last lock disappear behind the ship I wrote this in my journal: “This ‘world’ I’ve been living in, it has been the world. I’ve been viewing this whole experience as a bubble, a departure from my real, my normal life, but I’ve been wrong. My life back home is a bubble. I went about my daily business, blissfully unaware of the world going on outside of my own experience.” I feel like I’ve slipped back into that perspective a bit since I’ve returned, become less aware of the world and preoccupied with my own little corner of it. It’s been hard living in sleepy little Sioux Falls after all of that traveling. It’s hard to feel motivated to pay attention to places so far away and so seemingly irrelevant to my everyday life. But I have been changed in a great many ways and am still learning every day how I’ve been affected. I talk to the friends that I made on the ship nearly every day still and even flew to Boston earlier this summer to visit a few of them and the Explorer. They serve as a constant reminder of where I’ve been and what I’ve seen and what it all meant to me. I guess my next big challenge is learning how to take the rest of the world home with me, how to use my experiences to better my little corner. And, of course, I’ll have to figure out how I’m going to top sailing around the world…

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