A Paseo in the Mayan Mountains

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Herewith, a feature-length account of my Guatemala experience, which was published in mid-November in Penn Yan’s local rag, the Chronicle Express. Enjoy!




Chat Hull and Jessica Butler return after a year of teaching in San Mateo Ixtatán, Guatemala

by Chat Hull

The time is 3 p.m. We board the rickety, garishly painted, diesel fume-belching former U.S. school bus in Huehuetenango, or “Huehue,” the capital of the northwestern Guatemalan state of the same name, in the furthest reaches of which lies our destination: San Mateo Ixtatán.

Distance to go: 137 kilometers (85 miles).

Estimated duration of trip: five hours.

3:10 p.m.: The trip begins. After grabbing some take-out beef and beans and some grilled corn on the cob from the barbeque directly behind the bus, we hop on and watch as the ayudante (bus attendant, ticket taker, master of luggage, etc.) leads the bus through the masses of people and produce that line the edges of the pungent bus terminal, screaming “¡Dale, dale, dale!” (“Go, go, go!”) as the hulking vehicle weaves its way out of the terminal and into the skinny streets in the center of Huehue.

3:25 p.m.: We stop at a nondescript intersection just before leaving Huehue. Vendors immediately board with an infinite variety of comestibles and other goods: ice cream, sweet peanuts, fried chicken, stuffed chilies, tamales, newspapers, watches, etc. They all board simultaneously, somehow making their way through the aisles of a bus now packed to the gills with people, three in each seat, and then somehow they simultaneously disappear as the bus begins lurching up the hill.

3:56 p.m.: Free of the urban center, we begin climbing the sheer face of the Cuchumatanes, the mountain chain that sweeps across most of western Guatemala. The drop-off is so steep that when we look out our window, all we can see is the section of the road we climbed ten minutes ago, now hundreds of feet below.

4:45 p.m.: We’ve finally made it all the way to the “cumbre,” the spine of the mountains, which, in the highest places, surpasses 11,000 feet in altitude. We break out our sweaters and jackets because, while it was a pleasant 70º in Huehue, it’s a chilly 50º just 90 minutes up the mountain.

5:43 p.m.: We hit a gigantic pothole in the otherwise reasonably well-paved road and it sounds like a bomb going off under the bus. The bus stops, the ayudante hops off, checks the damage, whips out his Swiss army knife, cuts off the loose parts of the dead tire, and we continue, hoping that the second of the pair of tires won’t blow out as well.

6:12 p.m.: After passing through San Juan Ixcoy, the first of the string of mostly Mayan pueblos on the road toward San Mateo, the smell of diesel and brake fumes suddenly rises to nearly unbearable levels. Nauseated, we look around the bus to find that no one else is perturbed. The bus stops again. The ayudante dives underneath the bus and examines the vehicle’s innards. He gets back on saying, “¿Alguien tiene manguera?” (“Does anyone have a hose?”) Of course, someone does. He uses his magical ayudante powers to connect the hose underneath the bus. The vile odors diminish. We continue.

6:30 p.m.: Just before entering Soloma, the next town, the bus stops in another nondescript place, where a small Mayan man stands, surrounded by six gigantic bags of leaden produce. Over the course of 90 seconds, the ayudante throws them on top of the bus, ties them down, and, without getting down, beats on the bus’s roof to let the driver know he’s ready. The bus starts to move. Two minutes later, as it rounds one of the many deadly hairpin turns, the ayudante coolly climbs off the roof and swings into the open door, unfazed.

7:36 p.m.: Most of our stoic fellow travelers have finally gotten off. The only people left for the last, bumpy, unpaved stretch of the journey are the few of us going to San Mateo and the few passengers heading to Barillas, the low-lying frontier outpost at the end of the road, about an hour past San Mateo.

8:16 p.m.: “¡Los de San Mateo, que vayan saliendo!” (“People staying in San Mateo, get ready!”) It started raining ten minutes ago, and it’s pouring in San Mateo. We get off, avoiding the strongest streams flowing down the steep, dark streets, and trudge through the muck the five minutes to our house. A fine journey. We made it!

Travel in Guatemala can be intense. But worry not: once you survive the bus ride to San Mateo, you’re in for a treat.

San Mateo Ixtatán is unique among the rural Mayan towns that dot the northwestern highlands of Guatemala, in that the only obvious reason that it was built where it was is…the salt. In Nahuatl, an indigenous Mexican language, “Ixtatan” means “the place where salt abounds.” A fifteen minute walk down the precipitous eastern slope of the mountain where San Mateo is perched will get you to the salt mines. For Q0.50 (7¢), you can buy a five-gallon jug of the saltiest water you’ve ever tasted. That is, if you can make it back up the mountain!

All over town, you hear women chattering in Chuj, the local Mayan dialect, as they slowly walk back from the market, carrying food and babies on their backs. Our conversations in rudimentary Chuj with the passers-by keep the locals smiling at our efforts. Passing buses and trucks maneuver past each other on the narrow, unpaved streets in the center of town. Not far away, surrounded by unbelievable mountain views, are the 1,000-year-old Mayan ruins of “Wajxaklajunh,” named after an ancient Mayan ruler.

Sadly, the town’s natural beauty doesn’t erase the memory of its ugly past. As Guatemala tries to recover from its 30-year civil war, San Mateo Ixtatán is still lagging behind the rest of the country in its development. Partly due to the cold and to its far-removed location, the mountain village has developed the reputation as one of the indigenous towns that progress has left behind.

The Guatemalan civil war ended in 1996, and throughout its duration resulted in the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans to Mexico and the United States looking for safety for their families. This trend of emigration continues today, but for a different reason: the search for work to support their families and better their quality of life.

Despite the millions of dollars in remittances that flow annually into San Mateo, the population of about 40,000 has some of the highest rates of malnutrition, infant mortality, alcoholism and illiteracy not just in Guatemala, but in all of Central America. Yet regardless of the dismal statistics, the people are cheerful in this colorful mountainous setting, and things are getting better slowly, one step at a time.

One organization helping San Mateo is the Ixtatán Foundation. Founded in 2001 by Charlottesville, Virginia resident Beth Neville Evans, the Foundation’s mission is to work with the people of San Mateo to help find solutions to the area’s ongoing problems and to help create a viable, sustainable society. The Ixtatán Foundation has undertaken a number of projects such as the production of bricks made from locally available mud and clay, the manufacture of clay-and-sawdust water filters, and its most important and ambitious project, the creation of our beloved Yinhatil Nab’en school (“Seeds of Knowledge” in Chuj) where we have taught since January.

Finishing up its third year as the town’s first high school, the school offers an exceptional mixture of Guatemalan and international teaching staff as well as computer classes, which are unique among San Mateo’s educational institutions. Within three years, the enrollment has increased from 32 to 131 students. And it’s not going to stop there: the reputation about Yinhatil Nab’en has gotten out; the “Seed of Knowledge” is growing.

The school is feeling the growing pains that accompany any budding institution, and these are amplified by the ever-changing, last minute mandates from the Guatemalan Ministry of Education. With mountains of paperwork to do, the school director has little time for enforcing discipline, and the ubiquitous “hora chapina” (fashionably late “Guatemalan time”) reigns supreme.

Despite the challenges, there are several positive side effects of the school’s controlled chaos, such as having complete freedom to invent curricula that highlight our areas of expertise, and the opportunity for “alternative educational experiences,” such as the San Mateo version of school field trips.

A typical San Mateo field trip, or “paseo,” involves no chartered buses, guided tours, or down-to-the-minute agendas. Take, for example, our Valentine’s Day paseo.

We were scheduled to leave at 7 a.m. But as the hora chapina would have it, the students showed up around 8:00, with their perfectly gelled hair-dos, backpacks, and fashion-statement Capri pants. After about a half an hour of socializing, the students, love-song-blasting boom boxes in hand and altitude-weary American teachers in tow, set out for Yitjob’, our destination, which consisted of…a field.

After two hours of walking up the sheer side of a mountain, crossing a huge field dotted with colossal cow pies, and descending through a partially deforested woodland, we arrived.

The only props were a soccer ball, a couple of frisbees, and a rope. With those few items, the sticks and rocks that dotted the field, and the kids’ boundless creativity, much fun was had, and in Guatemalan Valentine’s Day tradition, students and teachers attacked each other with confetti and glitter. As lunch drew near, each grade started their own campfire and cooked their lunch. And after hours of flirting, food, and fun, everyone gathered in a circle and presented Valentine’s Day gifts to one another. Following this raucous and heartfelt exchange, we cleaned up and headed back.

The paseo experience is just one example of how wonderfully thoughtful and resourceful the San Mateo kids are, and it also illustrates life’s simple pleasures. Things here aren’t so overcomplicated with choices—you can’t just drop into P&C and pick up a jar of peanut butter, some freshly ground coffee, or a succulent sour cream doughnut at the slightest whim. These things—as well as honey, chocolate, newspapers, books, and other things we used to take for granted—simply cannot be found, and have become items to be treasured when brought to us from afar by the Foundation’s frequent visitors.

And when we’re not preoccupied by pleasing our taste buds with culinary rarities, teaching our specialties, or going on paseos, we are enjoying the rhythm of daily life— quiet, but remarkable—a skill we’ve honed to perfection over the last ten months.

Chat Hull and Jessica Butler are Penn Yan natives who graduated from the University of Virginia and Nazareth College, respectively, in 2006. Home again, in November Chat will begin teaching physics at Woodberry Forest School in central Virginia. Jessica will return to San Mateo Ixtatán in January to continue teaching for another year at Yinhatil Nab’en.

The author appreciates the contributions Jessica Butler and Angela Kirkish made to the report above. To learn more about the Ixtatán Foundation and how to support its endeavors, visit http://www.ixtatan.org. And to see Chat’s and Jessica’s more personalized views of San Mateo, along with links to copious numbers of pictures from their adventures, visit their blogs: https://chathull.wordpress.com [Chat], and http://jessbutl.wordpress.com [Jessica].

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