Today I was up before sunrise to go to the famous market in Chichicastanango. I rode in the back of a pickup truck watching the sun slowly rise on the volcanoes of Lake Atitlan as the truck zigzagged up the steep cliff to Solala. The air was crisp and clear. Two hours and a couple of buses later, I arrived in Chichicastango.
I followed the crowds to the main square that is the centre of the market and is also where the Church of San Tomas is. Although ostensibly a Catholic church, much of the activity at this church involves rituals dating back to the Mayas. On the stone steps leading up to the church a number of Indian women sold flowers. A fire burned incense filling the air with fragrant smoke, and men swung tins containing burning more incense. Groups of men dressed in costume and belonging to cofradias paraded from the church and performed rituals in the street.
I spent a number of hours photographing the action before browsing through the market. There were many colourful cloths, clothing, bags, masks, fruit, vegetables and other items. I bought a mask, and was tempted to buy more if not for the problem of having to carry things for the rest of my trip.
Friday was my last day at the school in Nebaj. Unlike recent previous days, the sun was brilliant and I took my camera to get pictures of the view from the rooftop where the school is located, as well as of my teacher, Pedro.
Several recent days it’s actually been quite chilly even to the point where you can see your breath in the morning, and of course the houses have no heating, so it can be quite cool. That’s because Nebaj is located high up in the mountains.
Once again, the class was a mix of activities – reading, writing, conversation on many topics, and drills of verbs – one to one with Pedro. The added bonus to the experience is that Pedro often talks about local culture, the experience of living through the civil war, and about life in Guatemala in general.
In the afternoon I arranged to take a hike with a guide to a couple of Ixil villages outside of Nebaj. My school package includes a couple of hikes, and because of New Year’s and the bad weather, I hadn’t been able to take advantage of this.
I ended up having two guides, a quiet older man, Jacinto, and a younger and somewhat obnoxious man, Mario, who kept trying to show that he knew words in English and boasting that he had been to the United States.
Nebaj sits in a valley surrounded by mountains, so almost any hike involves a great amount of climbing at first. This hike was no exception, and I was very winded and had to take it slowly, and repeatedly stopped to catch my breath. After a couple hours steady climbing, we at last crested a hill, and descended into the village of Cocop.
This, I learned, was the village Jacinto is from. He led me through the village to a small cemetery. This is, he explained, contained entirely the graves of victims of a 1981 massacre of villagers by the Army. They threw the bodies down a well, and only later were they recovered and given a proper burial. Many of the bodies couldn’t be identified and those graves are marked only with letters and numbers. I asked Jacinto if he knew some of the people buried there, and he indicated that the first two graves were his mother and father. He also lost a number of other family members and relatives in the massacre.
I asked him if he was in the village when it occurred, and he said that he was, and was 13 at the time, and one of the survivors. I can’t imagine the horror of that day. As Pedro had earlier explained to me, many of the Ixil villagers were caught between the army and guerrillas, not wanting to get involved with either. But at that time, during the Cold War, many Ixil were suspected of being communists, and the army massacred entire villages.
Then Jacinto took me to his house, where his wife was cooking on a fire place. Here is where I would get to try boxboles, a local food made of corn flour wrapped in leaves. Often the leaves are guisquil, a kind of squash, but in this case they were leaves of a kind of pepper. It was actually reasonably good, although I tend not to have much of an appetite after exerting myself on the climb. I didn’t like a corn drink they gave me as much.
Afterwards, Jacinto led us out of town on the trail for Rio Azul, the next village, and he returned home leaving me with Mario to continue on to Rio Azul and on to Nebaj. It was downhill all the way, and much easier, through corn fields and pastures, and past houses where calla lilies grew. When the village came into sight, I commented that it wasn’t far. I spoke too soon. Now the trail turned to thick mud, and it was all I could do to avoid slipping on the descents. My shoes and pants were covered in mud.
At last, in Rio Azul, we reached the road and in less than a minute flagged down a pickup truck that let us ride in the back to Nebaj. I always enjoy riding in the back of pickup trucks and watching the world go by and feeling the fresh breeze – one of the pleasures in life which Canadians are denied for safety reasons, but which everyone does in Latin America.
Back in Nebaj, I had my last dinner with the family, and afterwards took pictures of them, and said goodbye to those I wouldn’t see in the morning.
Today, Saturday, I traveled by buses to Panajachel, a town popular with Gringos on the shores of Lake Atitlan, one of the most beautiful places in the world. I’ll write more about that later.
New Year’s Eve is celebrated differently in many countries of the world, and Guatemala has its own traditions. I observed to my Guatemalan friends that in North America, New Years is often celebrated with friends rather than family, whereas in Guatemala it’s very much a family occasion.
It also has more of a religious significance here, and of course this being Guatemala, it’s also an excuse for lots of firecrackers and mortars and bombs.
I ate supper with the family at the normal time of 7:30 p.m., and then at 9:30 p.m. we left for Adelhaida’s mother’s house a short way away. As we walked though the streets, the children kicked around a ball, in the usual confusion of motorcycles, trucks and cars forcing us off the road, where we normally walk.
The grandmother’s place was a short distance away, and already a number of relatives had gathered, and more arrived throughout the evening, until there must have been close to 30 brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews, uncles, aunts, etc. We had a glass of very sweet wine, but no other alcohol – this was not the drunkfest so often associated with New Year’s Eve in North America.
I found it difficult to be part of any conversation when so many people were speaking Spanish back and forth quickly with each other. In fact I understood very little. Sometimes people tried to include me by asking me questions about Canada and my life there, but it was hard to participate actively. Nonetheless, my presence seemed to be perfectly accepted and I felt welcome.
So when a few of the kids and the father of the family I’m staying with, suggested a game of street soccer, I grabbed at the opportunity to get outside. It reminded me of playing street hockey as a kid – someone would shout “carro” and we’d all suspend the game and move to the side of the road as the car passed, though the rock goalposts remained.
When it got close to midnight, the grandmother brought some blazing logs from the kitchen fire and placed them on the road outside the house, and we piled on more wood and built a bonfire in the street. It was at least five minutes before midnight when fireworks started blazing across the sky, and the kids began setting off firecrackers, fireworks, and running around with sparklers. No countdown here – the actual moment of midnight came and went with no one giving it special attention. But it wasn’t just us setting off firecrackers and fireworks – it seemed that on every block of the town there were several groups doing the same, so that the noise was overwhelming, and soon it became hard to breathe for all the smoke in the air. The skyrockets themselves weren’t as grand or impressive as those in North America, but the scale of all the different explosions everywhere was something I’d never seen before. A few terrified stray dogs could be seen running at top speed to try to escape the madness.
Then we went inside and all gathered in a room, and one of Adelhaida’s brothers began a long prayer of thanks to God for the year past and wishes for the year ahead. Everyone else began praying as well so that there was a loud chatter of different prayers all being said simultaneously. I just bowed my head and tried not to stand out as a heathen.
Finally, the brother called for us all to embrace each other, and everyone went around the room hugging everyone else, or patting them on the back as appropriate. Most people came to me and hugged or patted me or shook hands, wishing each other “buen año nuevo” or some variation of this.
Then, everyone took seats on stools, chairs or whatever there was throughout the house while some of the women brought around tamales to everyone, as well as a choice of Pepsi or a punch made with spices, and pineapple, bananas, and other fruit.
It was close to 2 a.m. when we finally headed home, and I went quickly to sleep, despite continuing bombs, knowing that I had a class in the morning – mercifully moved back to 9:30 a.m.
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.