Pojom and Xela – Two Faraway Places

A month or so ago Fernando and I were tapped by a secret society: the Universidad de San Carlos, San Mateo Ixtatán.   

The Universidad de San Carlos is the general name of Guatemala’s state-run university system, and just recently, thanks to the work of a couple of folks associated with the Foundation, a San Mateo branch was successfully founded.  The purpose: to give further opportunities for pedagogical study to, among others, those who have graduated from our school’s magisterio program. 

Understandably, the search for teachers in places like San Mateo is hard, expensive, and always ends up covering a wide swath of territory, reaching sometimes as far as Barillas (2 hours) or Huehue (5 hours).  So, to help out, Fernando and I decided to fill in, for modest remuneration, and teach two pre-university classes: one in basic math (yours truly), and a Spanish writing workshop (el argentino). 

The one catch: a significant percentage of the students enrolled in the university reside in Pojom, a village that pertains to the municipality of San Mateo, but is a hard three-hour drive (or roller-coaster ride) away from the city.  And as a gesture of support, we’ve decided to go there for two of the four monthly class meetings. 

The first excursion occurred last month.  And what an excursion it was.  We—Fernando, Chico (the school’s ex-director, now director of the university), and I—left at five in the morning in the truck, books and snacks in hand.  Most of the terrain was familiar, as it was the same road we’d taken back from Tiactac oh so long ago.  However, that didn’t make the potholes any more inviting.   

After getting past Tiactac the truck took less of a beating because apparently the local communities out that way take better care of the road (the mayor has yet to repave it, due I think to the fact that most of the people who opposed his election live out toward Tiactac and Pojom).  However, the last hour of the trip can’t even be considered a “road” trip…more like a long slide down a muddy mountain.  Never in my life have I seen a worse road.  And let me tell you, I’ve seen many grim roads in my three months here… 

Anyway, after arriving, we met the group of cool, calm, collected, and appreciative students, and proceeded on with our teaching.  I’m basically teaching them half a year of basic arithmetic and algebra in the course of four class meetings.  Not the best idea, especially with math…but when you can only take classes on the weekends, that’s what has to be done.  We’ll see how they do on their homework, and how much (if anything) they retain when I see them again after an almost two-month hiatus. 

The town was cool—a little strange, because there seemed to be electrical appliances everywhere, but they all ended up being powered by car batteries.  Probably not so good for the environment when they run out…  I think they’re working on getting electricity out there, but judging from the mayor’s treatment of the road, I don’t think they should hold their breath. 

Another neat thing about the area is something that I’ve come to think of as very Guatemalan, but surely happens in other places with variegated indigenous groups: the language borders are very firm!  The people of Pojom, who do in fact live in the municipality of San Mateo, don’t speak Chuj; they speak Q’anjob’al.  However, if you walk ten minutes to the neighboring aldea of Nuevo San Mateo, they speak Chuj.  A ten-minute walk between two communities who frequently can’t understand each other.  Incredible! 

One thing that was a little disconcerting about the place, however, was the fact that I was truly looked at as if I were an alien.  In San Mateo sometimes small children will give me wide-eyed stares.  In Todos Santos, where gringos are commonplace, everyone just smiled.  However in Pojom—where, as far as I know, a gringo may never even have set foot—I was truly an extraterrestrial.  Several times I spied entire families gawking at me: grandmothers, mothers, uncles, aunts, daughters with kids, the daughter’s kids…  Rarely can one feel so different. 

Anyway, we left at three and, after saying a little prayer, began the upward journey toward San Mateo.  One of the only reasons we made it to Pojom through the quagmire was the fact that gravity pulled us there.  Going up was going to be an entirely different story. 

In short: we never made it.  After getting stuck in the mud several times and spinning out at high RPM’s and low speeds up both muddy and heavily graveled roads, the smoke started to come from underneath the hood, and the car finally gave up. 

The situation is grim: broken connections caused the radiator to get too close to the fan; the fan cut holes in the radiator; those holes let all the water drain out; lack of water caused the engine to overheat; and the engine gasket and the starter may be dead as well from the high temperatures, we’re just not sure because we haven’t been able to fix enough things to try them out yet.  And to make matters worse, much of this probably happened because the 4WD wasn’t connected (i.e. only two wheels were pushing the car).  Not good. 

After leaving the car and walking 15 minutes to Matazano, the nearest aldea, we spent part of the night with some friends of Chico’s (weren’t we lucky?) before catching a 1 a.m. (gag) car back to San Mateo.  Not exactly my idea of a good time, but certainly an adventure.  And what was even more adventurous was my trip back out on Henry’s motorcycle/dirt bike when we tried to fix the car the first time.  The trip was in vain, of course—I ended up wearing the perforated radiator as a backpack all the way from Matazano to San Mateo. All is relatively well these days: the truck is back thanks to a tow truck and a pile of money, though it still doesn’t work…we may sell it, we may fix it.  We shall see. 

But now let us continue on to a slightly shorter but more urban adventure: trip number two to Xela.  See below for the pictures of Pojom, San Francisco el Alto (where I stopped on the way to Xela), and Xela itself: 

[http://uva.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2090364&l=eb43b&id=1522023] [Pojom, San Francisco El Alto, Xela] 

On the way to Xela I stopped at San Francisco el Alto, a San Mateo-esque town perched, as SMI is, on the side of a mountain (hence “El Alto,” “The High”).  It was vaguely interesting, and had good view of Xela from above, but it was rather deserted, as the residents were resting after an intense market day the day before. 

And in Xela, the usual occurred: lots of consumption of non-corn-based food, coffee, chocolate, dancing late into the night, walking around amidst cars belching smoke, relaxing in the populated Parque Central…  Unfortunately, Xela is so far away that there isn’t time to do very much, but the relaxing and different stimulation are a nice break not only from the 16 hours of camioneta that it takes to get there and back, but also from the very different life of San Mateo. 

Here endeth the last installment of adventures before Semana Santa begins this weekend.  I’m off to Querétaro, an hour north of Mexico City (“el DF”), to visit some friends I haven’t seen since my sophomore year at Woodberry—if I can successfully get there (and back), it should be great!  I think the trip will be just as much of an adventure as Querétaro and the DF will be.  I’m off Saturday at 3 a.m. for the border.  More to come…


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