One of the least pleasant aspects of Guatemalan culture is the tendency to throw trash everywhere except in waste bins, which are almost non-existent.
This was especially troublesome when I took one of the hyped hikes to a huge waterfall just outside Nebaj. Athough the falls were very nice, you had to walk through a trail of garbage to get to them. There were signs warning of a fine for throwing garbage, but these were obviously completely ignored.
The river feeding the waterfall runs through the town and is more of an open sewer.
Nonetheless, once past the garbage, the walk was pleasant and the falls were nice.
Just too bad that environmental consciousness is slow to catch on.
I’ve had conversations with my teachers and host family about the treatment of animals in Guatemala. Here attitudes are very different, especially from urban North America.
Many people have dogs, but these are seen more as a tool to protect their houses. The dogs run at large during the day, picking through garbage for food, and only come in the house at night. Often they have skin conditions or other diseases. Guatemalans are shocked by the way North Americans treat dogs as members of their family, and the example of this excess that Guatemalans often cite is North Americans who sleep with their dogs. To Guatemalans this is insane.
As one teacher, Hugo, said, the concept of a dog as a pet is very strange in Guatemala. He has a dog, however, that he seems to treat as a bit more of a pet, bringing it to work with him and keeping it tied up. This is not the norm.
The family I’m staying with have a dog called “Skip”, pronounced “Es-KEEP”. They admit that he’s mainly a guard dog, although the woman, Adelhaida, concedes that they also love him.
So an article in today’s newspaper Prensa Libre was particularly interesting. It surveyed 1,200 Guatemalans from urban and rural areas about their attitudes towards animals.
It wasn’t a big surprise that when asked what animal they prefer, 73.6% said dogs, followed by chickens and roosters at 8.8%. Perhaps those people misinterpreted the question as preferring to eat. Cats came in at a lowly 4.5%.
Most shocking were the results when people were asked which animals they most hate. Not so surprising was that rats and mice were the most hated (by 27.4%). What was particularly shocking though was that cats were a not-too-distant second most hated (19.7%). Indeed such animals as snakes (13.1%), pigs (4.5%) and even cockroaches (4.1%) are far less hated that cats. I wonder what it is about cats and Guatemalans. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen many cats at large here.
A surprising 81.5% said they thought Guatemalans have a relationship of love with animals compared to 18.4% who thought the relationship is simply toward an object. Nonetheless, only 1% see pets as members of the family. There was wide recognition of cruelty towards animals– 79.7% believe there is violence towards animals in Guatemala, and a huge 96.4% thought there should be laws to protect animals.
I’m not sure how accurate this poll is. I tend to think animals are pretty badly treated here, but perhaps no worse than in many other third world countries. The other day, while hiking, I noticed a little boy leading a horse, which was heavily loaded, down a mountain trail. The horse probably couldn’t go any faster, but the boy kept beating it with a stick.
Yesterday, one of the many street dogs ran out into traffic and a tuk tuk (small motorbike driven taxi) struck it at full force and ran over it with a rear wheel. Not surprisingly, the driver kept going without even slowing down. The dog, however, rolled around and whimpered for a few seconds, and then picked himself up and ran off. To be an animal in Guatemala, you have to be very tough.
Today was my third day studying Spanish here in Nebaj. The “school” is a little crude wooden structure on the roof of a cheap hotel. Currently I am the only student, even though this is supposedly the Christmas season when one would expect more. This is certainly very different from Antigua where dozens of schools teach Spanish to hundreds and hundreds of Gringos.
Though the school is a little rough around the edges, I am using Spanish all the time, and am totally immersed. My classes are four hours a day, one-to-one with a teacher.
My first teacher, Hugo, was a young man who apparently also teaches English to local students, though he used almost no English with me, except to translate one or two unfamiliar words. He mysteriously didn’t show up the second morning, so in the afternoon another class was arranged with Pedro, an older man who is very pleasant, although maybe not as skilled as a teacher as Hugo. I’ll have Pedro teaching me the rest of the week.
The family I’m staying with are among the Ladino minority here – they speak Spanish at home and know very little Ixil, the local Mayan language. They are not well off, but aren’t among the poorest either. They have a television and for Christmas the kids got a video game system, but many other luxuries or essentials are missing – the bathroom shower is very crude and unreliable, and all laundry is done by hand, and the springs on the living room couch are broken. Food is basic, and black beans are the main staple, with eggs and a little meat or crude cheese being luxuries consumed in smaller quantities. Over the Christmas season they’ve been eating a lot of tamales, which are rice or corn with a small amount of meat cooked in banana leaves.
The woman is a teacher and the man drives a truck for road construction, and they have three young girls.
Several streets were taken over with stalls and stands of sellers of fruits and vegetables, household appliances, and pirated CDs and DVDs.
Markets are great places for people watching, especially the indigenous people who come in from the surrounding villages. Again I took some pictures of the market in action, both candid and posed.
Sunday is also a busy day for the churches, both the main Catholic cathedral and the many Evangelical churches that are scattered throughout the town. Guatemala has a very significant and growing proportion of Evangelicals, in part due to promotion from the United States, and in part because of support from some of the previous dictatorships that were ruyn by Evangelicals.
Towards the end of the market in the afternoon, swarms of stray dogs pick through the garbage feeding themselves. Apparently many of these dogs are actually owned, but people have a different concept of dog ownership here, and the dog is only to guard the house at night — it’s not considered a pet or a member of the family as such. Many of the dogs are, however, strays and the municipality ‘cleans them up’ every now and then by poisoning them.
On Friday, when I was signing up for the courses, I met a French family who were planning to go with a guide on a trek, and they offered to let me come along. So I joined them Saturday morning on a trek to the nearby village of Acul.
Although Acul is only about 5 km away, and the return by road somewhat longer, it was an exhausting trek, and I was sore all over when we finished. The first few kilometres were a very steep ascent up a mountain trail, and we had to stop frequently to catch our breaths. I haven’t done this kind of climbing in a while, and it’s always hard at first until you get accustomed to it again.
The family I went with is originally from France, but they are living near San Francisco in Silicon Valley as the man is involved in the semiconductor industry. I communicated with them in French, and with the guide, Gaspar, in Spanish. They spoke some Spanish, and the guide communicated with people along the way in Ixil, so it was a mish-mash of languages.
The scenery was stunning. Very green and mountainous, with frequent fields of dried corn growing on the slopes and being harvested. We passed people working in the fields, or leading horses or burros along the trail, all loaded up.
Acul is a village created by the army during the civil war as a ¨polo de desarrollo¨ or pole of development, a euphemism for relocating peasants to where the army could watch them. Today it looks like a village like many others.
The two boys in the French family were very hungry, so we stopped for lunch at a local house that serves as a guesthouse. The woman there prepared a soup of beef, vegetables (squash) and rice for them. I wasn’t hungry, so I entertained myself taking pictures of the little boys there who played with a litter of puppies and the mother who was nursing them. The woman has worked in Las Vegas in the 1980s and still spoke a little English, even though she looked very Ixil.
The return trip by road was very long and dusty with trucks going by and stirring up the dust. It was quite enjoyable at first, but by the time we arrived back, we were all exhausted and glad to be back.
I met the family I’m staying with, and a young Dutchman, Juri. The house is fairly basic, but I have my own room. They heat water for bathing by running electric wires in a crude system through a bucket of water.
After dinner, I met various cousins and nephews and we watched a Mexican version of a show like American Idol.
Part of the way the road was very bad, and there were regular warnings of landslides, and parts of the road had fallen away, or had huge boulders we needed to skirt around. There were warnings not to take this route after dark.
The scenery — what I could see of it anyway — was amazing, with green mountains and deep valleys. After Uspantan, and on another minibus, the road was greatly improved and has recently been built with a hard top, but even still there were parts of the road covered with debris from landslides.
I was exhausted from the bus ordeal when I arrived in Nebaj, and checked into a good hotel that had excellent hot water and clean sheets. I found the organization that runs the Spanish language courses I intend to take next week and signed up. The package I took includes room and two meals a day in the home of a local family.
Nebaj is a town in the Ixil Triangle, a heavily indigenous area that was especially targeted by the military governments in the civil war of the 1980s. Ixil is one of the many local Mayan languages. Many people here speak it as their first language, though the family I’m staying with are Ladinos, a term that tends to describe people of mixed race who have been totally assimilated into Hispanic culture and speak Spanish as their first language.
I had hoped to make a few phone calls home, and the Internet cafe at my hotel actually has Skype installed, but their microphones don’t work properly so it would have been a one-way conversation with me doing all the listening.
I took the pictures here last night on Christmas Eve in Coban’s central square. After that, thousands of firecrackers burst all into the night. I was awakened by a series of bangs around 1 a.m. I tried to get into the Christmas spirit by watching It’s a Wonderful Life dubbed into Spanish, but somehow Jimmy Stewart speaking with a different voice and in Spanish just wasn’t the same.
If I can get tours tomorrow to a couple places in this area that I’d like to visit, I’ll stay another day. Otherwise, I’m off tomorrow by chicken bus to Nebaj, a Mayan town where I hope to spend a bit of time and hopefully study some Spanish and do some hiking.
There are sellers of toys for children, of flowers, clothes, and tables with mountains of firecrackers. The firecrackers here are huge and no doubt would be banned in Canada — there’s enough of them to start a small regional war, and I hear them banging quite often.
I took a number of pictures — some surreptiously of the general action, and some posed, like the one of the lady selling flowers, who took off her jacket for the picture. At one bookstore where I tried to find a map, the young sales women asked me to take a picture of them, so I did, as did several other people in the street. I then went to a place that does instant digital pictures and got some 4 X 6 prints to give to the people who posed. They were thrilled, and one little girl (about 10) gave me a hug, and “Gracias. Feliz Navidad.”
Speaking of which, the song Feliz Navidad plays everywhere, as do a number of other Christmas songs. It’s been strange hearing them sung or played in different styles in different places — the reggae Christmas carols in Belize, and now various Latin styles here.
I decided that rather than face another day on the dreaded chicken buses, I would spend a couple more nights, including Christmas, in Coban. My hotel here is very interesting. It´s one of the oldest buildings in Coban and was a former nunnery. Like many old Guatemalan buildings, it has a simple wall on the front that comes right to the street, but inside everything is built around a courtyard with trees and flowers.
Around the courtyard and outside the rooms are all kinds of historic artifacts. My hotel is like a museum.
The room is pretty basic, but it does have hottish water, which is nice, as it gets quite cool here in the mountains. Like a spring or fall day at home.
Guatemala is one of the hardest countries in the Americas to travel any great distance. It’s very cheap, but the level of comfort is abysmal. For most trips, if the choice exists, it’s between a rundown chicken bus that used to be a Bluebird school bus absolutely crammed with people, or a minibus that is absolutely crammed too. Both stop everywhere to pick up and discharge passengers. The main difference is that the chicken bus is bigger and the minibus goes slightly faster. Guatemalans are very small people, and travel spaces are designed accordingly.
I spent yesterday and today experiencing Guatemala’s transportation system close-up, and will do the same tomorrow. Yesterday I got up at around 5:30 a.m. hoping to catch the sunrise at Tikal. Unfortunately, it had been raining and was still cloudy so there was no sunrise. I did visit the ruin site when it opened at 6 a.m., and it was a great time to see and hear birds and other animals, and to see the temples before the crowds arrived. I was quite exhausted from walking a great distance and climbing up and down temples on an empty stomach with no coffee when I decided to finish up.
My timing was good — as I was leaving it started to rain, and it rained the rest of the day. This was the first significant rain of my trip — there had only been a few small bursts of rain in Belize to cool things off between periods of hot sun.
I got a minibus with a group of young tourists who were going to Flores, the main tourist town near Tikal, but I got out at Santa Elena and caught another minibus going to Sayaxche, a small town to the south. My goal was to shorten today’s trip by getting as far as I could yesterday.
Sayaxche is an interesting little town on the banks of a river where there is no bridge for the main highway. At the river, there are narrow wooden passenger boats and a car ferry across. I got a hotel with a large shared balcony overlooking the river and the boats crossing back and forth. It was interesting watching the action as I relaxed at the hotel and the sun went down, but the noise from boats wakened me during the night. Sometimes the boats were jammed with passengers standing and with no evidence of life preservers. It appears Guatemala has no safety standards for boats.
On the hotel balcony was a cage with my favorite kind of bird, a scarlet macaw. He looked so confined I was tempted to release him, but the hotel people might not have been too happy if I’d done that.
Today I was also up at 5:15 a.m. to catch a chicken bus headed for Coban. I expected the ride to be about four hours as it was under 100 km, but partway through I learned it would actually take eight hours. I was holding my bags as I didn’t want to let them out of my sight in all the madness of people getting on and off, and the bus got fuller and fuller and fuller. About 4 1/2 hours into the trip my cramped legs were killing me and I couldn’t take it anymore so I got off in a town in the middle of nowhere to recover for a while.
Continuing on, I rode a minibus the rest of the way. It was also extremely crowded and uncomfortable, but at least I was able to secure my bag on the roof. They stopped everywhere to let people on and off, constantly trying to squeeze in more people so that there were close to 30 people at one time and it was hard to breathe. Despite the constant stopping and starting, they actually drove quickly on the narrow mountain roads. Suddenly, a cow ran out in front of the bus, and the driver momentarily lost control as he tried to avoid hitting the cow. The cow slammed into the side right next to where I was sitting. It was a hard bang. The driver regained control and drove on without stopping. I don’t know if the cow was fatally hit or not, but sometime later the driver inspected the vehicle and noticed only minor dents.
At last I arrived exhausted in Coban, where I am staying in a fascinating hotel that used to be a centuries old nunnery. It is built around a courtyard with trees and flowers, and there are all kinds of historic artifacts and masks from the area.
I’m not sure if I’ll stay here another day, or continue on to my destination of Nebaj. It depends, I guess, on whether I feel ready tomorrow to endure another day of Guatemalan transportation.