By the time this post appears, it will probably have been several weeks since I went to Huehue and Todos Santos, thanks to a great dearth of Internet. But luckily, even without the Internet, one can still write, just as the great writers did hundreds of years ago. They just had to make sure to save their work regularly in case of a hard-drive crash.
A few weeks ago I made my first big escape to Xela (pronounced “SHAY-luh,” the Mayan-language name for Quetzaltenango, the second largest city in Guatemala) with Fernando and Angela. Despite the total of 14+ hours in a bus, the trip was much needed, and the relaxation and festivation were much enjoyed. Unfortunately, my camera’s battery conveniently decided to die during minute three of the trip, so the only pictures from that trip with which I can supply you, my faithful readers, are the first two pictures, both of our luxurious hotel’s luxurious coffin/shower [see link below].
Also contained in this post’s picture installment are a series of pictures of the “sea of clouds,” as I like to call it—sometimes when the clouds come into San Mateo at night it just looks cool. But sometimes, if you happen to look out over the valley during the crucial 10-minute period when there are enough clouds to cover all of the land below, but they haven’t yet crept up to where you’re standing, you get a really cool sight. Check it out.
Anyway, Xela was great, but the stresses of Foundation life and of my continuing difficulties with managing tercero continued to brew…thus, another trip was born.
The first stop was Huehue, which, as Angela, Fernando, and I discovered on our way to Xela, is a fun town…but only sort of. Consequently, my vaguely eventful 18-hour stay involved a stop at the Mansión de Tacos for an excellent evening refection, about 10 hours of sleep in Henry and María’s rented room (where they stay on their frequent trips to the city—Henry just started a computer-network-management class in Huehue), and a trip to the ruins of Zaculeu, the remnants of the main hub of the long-gone Mam empire.
According to ye auld guidebooke, the Mam empire (perhaps empire should be in quotes?) did well for a while, but eventually was taken over by the nearby Quiché around the time of the Spaniards’ arrival. Apparently all the information we have about the heyday of the Mam people comes indirectly from Quiché records, which correctly suggests whom the balance of power favored, and explains the prevalence of Quiché, which is, I believe, the most-spoken Mayan language, with Kaqchikel and Mam trailing slightly.
The ruins were cool (see the pictures at the link below); but, as my guidebook correctly noted, the 1950’s “renovation”—or rather, “plasterfication”—of the ruins is enough to bum-out anyone who’s seen natural ruins before. Indeed, the plaster will keep the original design intact for another few hundred years; however, it’s slightly harder to believe that Zaculeu really was an ancient power center when you can barely see any of the original rocks! Alas.
After some more futzing around with Henry and María, I boarded a bus heading back into the Cuchumatanes (the mountain range at the foot of which is situated Huehue, and inside which are situated all of the northwestern towns like San Mateo). My destination this time: the appropriately named Todos Santos Cuchumatán.
Some of the most frequently images of Guatemala’s Mayan culture are pictures of the people from Todos Santos, where everyone—not just the women—wear the town’s traditional garb: finely-stitched huipiles and dark-blue cortes for the women; and for the men, red-striped pants, wool britches, small sombreros, and blue-and-white-striped shirts with amazing, elaborately embroidered collars. Needless to say, I succumbed to touristification and snagged myself an excellent pair of the aforementioned pants. I couldn’t bring myself to get the whole costume, but chances are that if I ever go back, there will be a shirt waiting for me. In the meantime, I’m going to focus on getting myself a capixay, the slightly-less-loud (brown or black) traditional male sweater/jacket, which, accompanied by the Todos Santos pants, will surely get a rise out of the students, who already think it’s great that I can “conjugate” my name in Chuj: hinch’at (my bed), hach’at (your bed), sch’at (his/her bed), koch’at (our bed), hech’at (“y’all’s” bed), sch’at heb’ (their bed)…
Despite being small—probably smaller than San Mateo—the dusty, colorful town of Todos Santos was still refreshing. Probably because of its popularity with tourists, there was less trash, the vendors were more tourist-friendly, and the people were clearly used to seeing gringos, so they didn’t gawk at me with alien eyes the way many people in San Mateo do.
Interestingly enough, however, the family I stayed with for the night had a much lower level of Spanish than the average San Mateo family. Maybe it had something to do with the linguistic structure of Mam—the language of Todos Santos and a large part of the surrounding area—but the mistakes all of the family members made were extremely interesting: tomata (tomate), dominga (domingo), mañano (mañana)… But the Spanish errors were more endearing than anything else, and made it easier for me to enter into discussions with them about the differences between Mam and Chuj, which were vast. Some of the words were similar—especially the numbers—but the sounds were completely different. The sounds in Chuj are almost exactly the same as Spanish sounds; however, Mam reminded me of very, very guttural French—the j’s and k’s were all so far back in the throat that I would literally feel like I was choking when I tried to pronounce some of the words. The wonders of linguistic isolation!
Not much happened there besides sleeping, strolling, relaxing, touristy shopping, and hanging out with the family—Don Juan, Doña Susana (the parents), Carmelina (a daughter-in-law), Christian, Marcelino (her children), and others. See pictures of them here (finally, the link…):
[http://uva.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2088797&l=e0545&id=1522023] [Xela, Clouds, Huehue, Todos Santos]
Staying over night brought back memories of Tiactac: despite the inner peace brought by sleeping in such tranquil locations, waking up with your legs frozen from the knee down is not particularly pleasant—it makes me realize how spoiled I am to have my tiny heater in San Mateo! But everything else was great: the loving company of the family, the girls who let me watch them weave a huipil (a three-month process), the little boys who let me hang out with them while they played marbles, the karaoke-esque rowdiness of the evangelical church services, the coffee, the food, the tiny blob of ruins up the hill, the colors, and the silence, which was only very occasionally broken by the exploding of a firework, whose remnants then continued to thunder raucously back and forth between the sheer valley walls for what seemed like another five minutes.
An excellent experience—one I’d like to bottle up for future enjoyment, but really one that can only be enjoyed in the moment. Perhaps another visit to Don Juan & co. is on the horizon.