Category Archives: Guatemalan Travels

Accounts of my 2007 life and travels in and around San Mateo Ixtatán, Guatemala.

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!

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A “PASEO” IN THE MAYAN MOUNTAINS

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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The Last Days

Dearest readers:

Well, I’m obviously not cut out for the blog world–leaving a month between posts when I was in Guatemala was one thing, but five and a half?! Man…

Anyway, as many of the minute details of my September and October experiences have faded over the almost half a year since they occurred, this post will be brief.

But, before I say anything more, everyone MUST check out the San Mateo promotional video (narrated by Julian Bond, of UVa History Dept. fame)…enjoy!

[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h6HD7jpNlaE] [San Mateo promo video]

Now, around the beginning of September, and just after the arrival of Paul Hiatt, school ground to a halt as everyone prepared for feria, the town’s annual carnival-esque celebration. San Mateo’s feria also falls right after Guatemala’s September 15 independence day, so needless to say there were over 10 days of festivities.

The pictures of the parades and revelry, along with the usual descriptions, can be seen here:

[http://uva.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2163398&l=b6cb2&id=1522023] [Feria]

Feria got into full swing after the big parade with all of the schools; however, Angie, Jessica, Pablo, and I needed to escape for a while, so we headed to Xela for a few days, which, while it was disastrous for our rice-and-beans-tempered constitutions, was a great trip. Much chocolate was purchased.

After our trip the school year started winding down–the last few weeks of classes, the last few projects, final exams, and that was it! Then the truly spectacular part: graduation.

Keep in mind that the graduation of the sexto students was the first high-school graduation the town had witnessed in its entire multi-thousand-year history. The occasion was all that we could have hoped for–it didn’t rain (too hard), hundreds of Mateanos came to witness it, and townspeople, students, and teachers alike were acutely aware of what a great thing they were experiencing. For photographic evidence of the powerful, joyous, and tearful event, see here:

[http://uva.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2163401&l=f076f&id=1522023] [Graduation]

 I left San Mateo two days after the graduation, so needless to say the days surrounding the event are a blur of partying, packing, and running all over town saying goodbye to all of the wonderful people I had come to know and love. For photos from those last days, as well as our trip to Xela and my and Pablo’s quick spin around Guatemala City before I left on November 4, see here:

 

[http://uva.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2163403&l=52bca&id=1522023] [Last days, Xela]

 Pablo and I left San Mateo on October 31st. We spent two nights in Huehue studying for our respective physics and psychology GRE’s, and then made our way to Guatemala City to take the blasted things on November 4th. Once that was over, we toured around bit and molested our insides further with Italian food. And then Pablo went to Antigua. And I went to the airport. And then I went home.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the story of my time in Guatemala. Incredible.

 

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¡Lleva la Antorcha!

Just a short addition to the recently posted big-time update. 

See below for some pictures from an event that took place last weekend with the youth group of San Mateo’s big evangelical church, whose services I attend every now and then with my wonderful and very evangelical family: 

[http://uva.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2128168&l=ac549&id=1522023] [Día de la Biblia] 

All of the services are in Chuj, of course, so I understand very little; however, I understand enough at points to know that I take issue with much of the church’s doctrine, just as I take issue with certain parts of the doctrines of any other organized religion. 

However, despite any misgivings I might have, I can safely say that the people in San Mateo’s evangelical church are some of the most wonderful, welcoming people I’ve met here. 

The activity consisted of mostly teenagers, a few adults, and a few little kids.  We all headed to Barillas (an hour by car) in the back of about eight cars and trucks, and after a nice lunch and some time to hang out, the kids got ready to run back to San Mateo from Barillas. 

That’s right, they ran back.  As it was the DÍA DE LA BIBLIA (Bible Day), they ran the whole way toting the Christian flag, the Guatemalan flag, and burning torches (symbolizing the Word of God). 

Of course, no one actually ran for the whole time, so my job ended up being the “big strong gringo” who hauled exhausted runners back up into the back of the truck (while it was moving, of course—not an easy task!).   

And as is typical here in Guatemala, no one was even remotely injured despite the fact that diesel ended up being spilled all over the back of the truck as they refilled the torches; and the fact that many of the tired runners missed the ledge on the back of the truck as they attempted to jump up, and thus ended up smashing into the back of the moving vehicle before being dragged along the ground (with maybe only my hand holding them up) until they had the energy to try again.  Intense! 

But in the end, all was good.  After about four hours of the above, we finally arrived in San Mateo, torches in hand.  Civic activity and church services ensued, and at the Sunday afternoon service the church folks gave me, along with some of the other kids, a “diploma” recognizing me for my participation.  Talk about feeling welcome and loved!  It was fantastic. 

And when I went up to accept the certificate, I said a few words of thanks, as is customary here, the first few of which were in Chuj, and the audience erupted!  As people have always told me, and as I’ve confirmed a hundred times over here in San Mateo, there truly is no better way to connect with people and their culture than by learning their language.  Chuj is this year’s specialty.  What’s next?

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Fourth Quarter Milestone

Dearest readers— 

Truthfully, I can’t say that I would have written any sooner had my computer not been taken over for a month by nefarious and nearly inextricable spyware, but you must admit that it’s a good excuse this time!   

I apologize for the long delay, and must recommend to anyone who ever suffers from the same problem to invest the $50 in the most robust version of Trend Micro’s PC-cillin Internet Security.  It’s well worth the price, and has successfully lifted my already catatonic 5-year-old computer out of what really should have been its final resting place. 

It doesn’t seem that long ago since the vacation to Lívingston ended (see the 2 July post, “Vacation to the Tierras Calientes”), but more than two months have gone by, with a seeming lull in productivity.  I recently turned in my third-quarter grades, and a few of my classes (most notably the physics classes, which the kids have a hard time with) hadn’t even had a quiz or a test! 

This may be typical for this fourth-quarter point in the year, although I’m not sure, since this is the first full school year I’ve weathered.  I’ve found myself simply trying to get to the end of the year with some classes; but on the other hand, I’ve begun to really fall into a good, productive groove with the others.  I’m enjoying some semblance of balance, as always, even if it’s a strange one.

August was month of trial and chaos.  In addition to slogging through what has turned out to be a slow chunk of the year, the sheer number of exits and entries into and out of the Foundation would boggle even the mind of a seasoned actor. 

It began first with the departure of Jim, the well-traveled engineer, who very successfully taught computer and statistics classes for three weeks before being moved suddenly by his company to another project in the Dominican Republic. 

A few days after followed the departure of our belovèd Fernando, who left at the beginning of August to begin a Master’s program in Educational Administration at NYU. 

Simultaneously as Fernando left, Beth Neville (the Foundation director) and a barrage of water-filter-project people descended upon the Foundation.  They stayed mostly in the few “hotels” in San Mateo, but their presence, for better or for worse, shook up what had been several months of relative calm in the Foundation. 

Their work, however, is always much appreciated by all: the water filter project is loosely associated with the school, but is really a project of the Ixtatán Foundation itself.  The people who came included several helpers and one scientist, who will be conducting a year-long study comparing the health of the children and the economic well-being of families with and without the clay-and-sawdust water filters we’ve used for several years here in the Foundation.

The study will almost inevitably prove that people with filters spend less money on wood (which they frequently use to boil—and thus disinfect—their water), and may also show that the family’s children turn out to be healthier as well.  Because, as successfully as boiling the water may disinfect it, many people continue to get sick from the water because the containers in which they store the boiled water have been infected previously.  The day when all Mateanos have access to water filters is greatly anticipated by all!

August’s intensity continued with a fantastic project undertaken by a group of students from the international “Round Square” association of boarding schools.  The diverse, bubbly group of 30 or so high-school students from around the world arrived soon after Beth Neville and the filter folks, and headed directly to the aldea of Tiactac (about an hour by car from San Mateo; see the 16 February posts about my weekend there) to install running water in the homes of all of the several hundred families who live there.

Tiactac still has no electricity, but that hasn’t caused nearly the problems that the lack of running water has.  Rainwater collection systems abound, but in the dry season, when the tanks dry up, many women frequently find themselves walking two hours in each direction to the nearest river, with at least 100 pounds of water on their backs on the return trip. 

On the whole, the project was a great success, and, needless to say, the entire community of Tiactac is ecstatic.

And of course, as Guatemalans do, the whole aldea of Tiactac celebrated the project with a two-day-long fiesta, the second day of which much of our school attended.  Food, sports, dancing, and marimba music (provided by our school’s excellent marimba band) were plentiful and enjoyed by all.

The only negative thing that can possibly be associated with the Tiactac project is that the funding came solely from an international organization, and may not have been done for another decade or more had they relied on the funds of the municipality of San Mateo.

I’ve traveled through the villages to the northwest of San Mateo, including Bulej, the hometown of the current mayor.  The roads are fantastic (relatively speaking), and everyone has reliable electricity and running water.

The roads to the villages “on the other side of town,” however (toward Tiactac and Pojom, aldeas to the northeast), are either horrifically bad, or simply nonexistent, and as far as I know electricity isn’t even planned in the area.  (To get an idea of what it’s like to live in the part of the municipality whose residents didn’t vote for the mayor, see my 27 March post for the description of the mudslides down to the aldea of Pojom.)

Elections are coming on September 9 (a long-awaited date for us here in the Foundation, which will mark the end of the tinny, ear-piercing recordings of marimba music that are blasted daily from the “Alianza Nueva Nación” party’s headquarters next door), so the ruling regime in San Mateo may change. 

But it may not, and Tiactac and the other aldeas out that way may continue to be the less favored. 

But then again, if a mayor from out that way is elected, the roles might be reversed.  And if a person from San Mateo proper is elected, all of the aldeas might be neglected and money might only be spent inside the town borders.  Such is politics, I suppose.

To see pictures of the Tiactac water party, and of a recent political rally sponsored by UNE, the leading party in the upcoming elections (that will probably continue to lead if Álvaro Colom, the party candidate, doesn’t get assassinated along with the other 61 people who have been killed so far this election season in Guatemala), click here:

[http://uva.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2128167&l=70447&id=1522023] [UNE rally, Tiactac water party]

The final installment of the August insanity was the arrival of the both famous and infamous Paul Hiatt, of First Year Players and New Dominions fame (i.e. he’s my dramatically and musically inclined friend from UVa).  He’s taking over a combination of the classes left open by Jim, Fernando, and now Fermín, one of the San Mateo teachers who just left to do his University practicum in Xela.

Obviously, change is rife around here, and while I’m getting used to it, it’s not something I particularly enjoy getting used to.  I know myself well enough to realize that, at least at this stage in my life, I wouldn’t be happy working the same job for 40 years, so change is good…but really, there’s a limit to how much change one can take!

On the bright side of things, the wealth of scholastic lethargy and Foundation-based insanity have been tempered recently by the arrival of three most excellent people: first, my very own madre toward the end of July, and later by los padres Butler, a few weeks ago.  Both of their visits were wonderfully pleasant and parental, and as far as we here in the Foundation can tell, a good time was had by all.  A few pictures from my Mom’s visit can be seen at the link just down the page.

The only downside of parental visits is that one must go to Guatemala City to pick them up. 

Guatemala City is a lawless wasteland of death, sin, and otherwise vast quantities of unpleasantness, and should be avoided at all costs.

I confirmed this when, on the way back from dropping my Mom off at the airport, I was sneakily robbed of all of my music-listening equipment when I left my bag sitting alone on my seat for [literally] a grand total of 45 seconds.

That incident was the third time I had been robbed in three months, the first being when my wallet was stolen at the feria in Barillas in May, and the second when I was forcibly robbed of my cash at a disco in Lívingston in June.  Hopefully I’m not seeming more “rob-worthy” to the Fates by talking about the incidents here, but the three-for-three streak seems like something worth commenting on.

Really all that’s come out of my being thieved several times, aside from a bit of current and future financial annoyance, is a loss of faith in people. 

In the first 22 years of my life I was only robbed once, and that was because I left my car window cracked.  When I traveled, I was so careful with my wallet and belongings at times that it bordered on paranoia.  And since I never got robbed, I always thought I might be guilty of having too little faith in people who were, perhaps, better people than I gave them credit for.

That lovely notion has been riddled with bullets down here in Guatemala.  Now I feel as if I could still somehow get robbed even if I were traveling in my most paranoid state, and that’s very sad, because it causes one to expend all kinds of energy and suffer from large amounts of anxiety during the sometimes full-day of bus rides that are the norm here.

A few good things have come of the unfortunate events, though.  First, I have virtually nothing anyone would want to steal anyway!  But more important, I’ve learned to live successfully and happily without so many fancy technological things. 

Sure, I’ll probably replace them when I get home, but especially during the last month, when my computer was out of commission, it helped me to escape at least momentarily from my technological American haze and to see and appreciate much more all of the wonderful things around me here in San Mateo: a great family, wonderful people, cool students, unbelievable landscape, and generally a healthy, tranquil lifestyle led by people who have no need whatsoever for iPods and fancy headphones. 

In fact, if the people here had iPods and walked around the streets with their little white earphones stuck in their ears, this place wouldn’t be nearly as great as it is.

Jumping to more recent events, during the height of the early-August humanity deluge, I took another trip to Chaculá, the funky aldea near the Mexican border where I had been forced to spend the night on my way back from Mexico City on the fateful, bus-less Semana Santa weekend. 

It was just as tranquil as I had hoped.  Reading material and hobo-esque sheet full of food slung over my shoulder, I waited for hours for the sparse transport out to the aldea; I relaxed by the laguna just outside of the town; I lounged and read in a higher-up field after the mosquitoes (unheard of in San Mateo) started biting me at the laguna; I chatted with the locals about their post-war resettlement experiences; and I waited for hours for a ride back.  And all was good.

And of course, I confirmed yet again how progressive Chaculá really is.  I explained my impressions at length in my 12 April Mexico epic, and saw even more things to back up my first impressions. 

Most interesting were the “NO TO THE MINING COMPANIES!” signs that the elementary school children had drawn and plastered all over town.  It turned out that the meeting about whether or not to let the mining companies in was happening that very Saturday in Nentón, the other Chuj-speaking municipality to which Chaculá belongs.  With all of the new, progressive aldeas in the area, it seems highly unlikely that the mining companies will be allowed in.

However, I heard from José Díaz, the cool nurse and community leader from Chaculá whom I met the last time I was there, that in September the municipality of San Mateo is going to have the same sort of meeting, and no one here has heard anything about it! 

Historically, the people from this area have been vehemently anti-mining, so I don’t expect minds to change so rapidly, but the lack of community action on the subject—and on many other important subjects—is distressing. 

For pictures of my Mom’s visit, my pleasant visit to Chaculá, and a few pictures from the recent graduation (Associate’s degree, more or less) of Alberto, one of the other teachers, see here:

[http://uva.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2128164&l=6297e&id=1522023] [Mom, Chaculá, Alberto’s Graduation]

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is it for now.  Elections will be here in one week; the town feria is coming up in two (expect another post around that time); the graduating sexto students finish classes at the end of September, the week after the feria; graduation is a month after that, at the end of October; and then in early November I make my grand re-entrance into the glorious U.S. and A.  Tempus fugit!  

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Fashion and Fiestas

Parties and looking good are pretty big here in San Mateo.  First of all, check out the pictures from Doña Ana’s birthday party (the Mom of the family I live with upstairs), and the pictures from Teacher’s Day, both of which were very exciting:

[http://uva.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2112992&l=1ff12&id=1522023] [Doña Ana’s Birthday, Teacher’s Day]

And finally, the fashion show: 

[http://uva.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2112993&l=7844c&id=1522023] [Family Fashion]

This is surely the first of many runway exhibitions, considering that Fernando and I got our traditional San Mateo capixayes only yesterday.  More to come when you least expect it… 

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Vacation to the Tierras Calientes

Before beginning to recount the tales from our most recent vacation, I must mention that we came very, very close to not even having the vacation.  “How is this possible?” you might ask.  Or perhaps you would inquire, more specifically, “How could any self-respecting school expect their students and teachers to teach straight through from one semester to the next without any semblance of a rest?!”  

The answer, as you, my faithful readers, have heard enough times by now, is the same: it’s Guatemala!

The public schools went on strike for three weeks late in the first semester in protest of the government’s unconstitutional plan to privatize all the public schools, which would not only take away all the funding from the country’s public schools, but would also kill all of the employees’ government benefits.  

Once the strike ended—without any conclusive decisions on the privatization—the government said it wouldn’t fire the hordes of offending teachers if they went back to school immediately, and if they worked for the rest of the year without vacation.

Somehow, however, the no-vacation rule was generalized to all schools—public and private—even though during the entire strike, our establishment diligently crammed classes down its students’ throats from 7:30 a.m. until 5:20 p.m., as per usual.  

After appealing to Ministry of Education officials in both San Mateo and in Huehue, we eventually convinced them that all of us foreigners had to go renew our papers, and they let us go, advising us an impressive 36 hours before the vacation was originally set to begin.  

I don’t think any of us except Angela (who went to the States) actually ended up renewing our visas, but the official excuse left all of us—American, Argentine, and Guatemalan—with a much needed, week-long, and, in my, Fernando and Jessica’s case, vaguely Caribbean break.

Also, I know this news is extremely late, but the roughly 7-point earthquake that hit Guatemala on Wednesday, 6/13 (I believe) didn’t shake a leaf where we were, way out on the squishy, beachy, easternmost point of Guatemala.  The people in San Mateo felt it, but even here it did little more than rattle the pictures on the wall, since the epicenter was many hours south of San Mateo, off the Pacific coast of Escuintla.  For more information on the shakeup, see:

 http://earthquake.usgs.gov/eqcenter/recenteqsww/Quakes/us2007dnbi.php  

While the rest of my compañeros headed east to the natural wonder of Semuc Champé in Alta Verapaz, I began the vacation solo by heading toward Honduras via Huehue, the wasteland of Guatemala City, and the strange, lowland Ladino stronghold of Chiquimula (where, incidentally, 5 people were murdered just days after I left—wonderful place!).

My first destination, which I finally reached early Sunday morning, were the Mayan ruins at Copán—one-upped only by Tikal in Guatemala, so I hear—just 15 or so kilometers from Honduras’s western border.  

After so much traveling, I was too beat to do too much, and there wasn’t really that much to do in the little town of Copán Ruinas.  However, I certainly had the energy to make it out to the ruins and take in the sights.  Led through the ruins by an overpriced Honduran guide who spoke patronizingly slow Spanish, I don’t think I learned all I could have, since it took forever for him to answer my barrage of questions (and sometimes he just avoided answering them), but the experience was still quite impressive.  To see the pictures from Copán (beginning with a few pictures from my pre-vacation trip to Antigua), see here:

[http://uva.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2112531&l=b5201&id=1522023] [Copán]

Truthfully, the ruins were smaller than I had expected them to be (maybe Tikal is that way, too?), but they were certainly still impressive, and the ball court, the monolithic stelæ, the famous Hieroglyphic Staircase, many of the old temples, and several other buildings had been extremely well restored and preserved.  

Another interesting thing that I saw in Copán, and which I had never seen at any other ruins, were unrestored ruins.  Before renovation, the huge temples just look like glorified piles of rubble—stones, moss, dirt, leaves, roots, and the more-than-occasional carving.  

One of the few things my guide did tell me helped to answer my question of why all those disorderly piles were just sitting around the site: according to the guide, at Copán in particular the archaeologists do their best to be 100% sure of a building’s design before restoring it; and if they ever encounter any doubts, they immediately halt construction, return to their libraries and computers, and figure out the mystery before they continue construction.

Another thing that made Copán unique was the fact that the Copán River, whose course changed due to an earthquake hundreds of years ago, had eaten through two or three temples on the eastern edge of the complex, thus exposing the various strata of the ancient city’s existence.  

Several decades ago, the river was diverted by a Washington, D.C. outfit to prevent further damage to the temples, but the resulting cross section of Mayan history, which you can see in the pictures, is quite impressive.

Apparently Mayan cities were rebuilt—directly on top of the previous version—every [Mayan] century, which lasts 52 years.  So effectively, the poor folks from the surrounding mountains were perpetually kept in check because they were constantly building!  

The various strata, one per 52-year century, of the particular temple that was partially consumed by the river can easily be distinguished.  The erosion also made it much easier for archaeologists to study the various stages of Copán, since, at least in that particular location, they didn’t have to dig long, tortuous tunnels to study the previous versions of the city.

One of the most exciting finds the archaeologists at Copán have recently made was the Rosalila Temple, a temple found completely in tact (albeit buried) beneath several of its successors.  It appears that the architects of the temple thought it was so glorious that they couldn’t bring themselves to pour plaster and stone all over it when the time came to build the new century’s city, so they put some sort of protective covering over the temple before they rebuilt.  

Good for today’s archaeologists, certainly, but really, if that particular temple was so great, couldn’t the Mayans just have left that one temple in the open air instead of burying it?!  Curious.

And for those interested in the strange topic of Mayan and Aztec pelota (ball game played with a hard, softball-sized ball that the players could move around the field with everything except their forearms and hands), I think I may have learned a bit more:  

First of all, in Aztec pelota, the players had to shoot the ball through an impossibly small hole in a doughnut-shaped stone.  In Mayan pelota, however, the ball just had to touch one of the six stone creatures near the top of the ball court (see pictures).  Easier?  Perhaps…but I’m not so sure.

Also, as for sacrifices, it appears that the sacrificial traditions varied by the city.  For example, in Copán, the members of the winning team were all sacrificed at the end of the game, so both teams would try as hard as they could to win so as to be freed of their mortal coil, which they (at least the Copán players) had been brought up to think was much grimmer and more unpleasant than the bevy of virgins they would meet in the afterlife.

However, in other Mayan cities, such as Palenque in southern Mexico, the losing team was sacrificed, so the visiting team—regardless of their home tradition—would try to win to bring home the glory instead of losing and dying in shame.  

Good to die sometimes, bad to die sometimes…  It makes me wonder, Was the afterlife of the Palenque people really shameful, whereas the Copán afterlife was really dame-filled?  

Interesting how beliefs could change over such [relatively] short distances.  But then again, here in Guatemala the language seems to change every 50 km, so I suppose it’s not that strange…

And speaking of death and sacrifice, check out the hamburger-shaped sacrificial altar in the pictures.  Nice.

Overall, an excellent and highly educational beginning to my vacation.  

After making some cheap international phone calls, taking in “Trainspotting” at a café, and having some good food, I hit the sack.  The final destination after setting out early the next morning: Lívingston. 

Lívingston, also known as “La Buga,” is situated right where the Río Dulce, which begins at the eastern tip of the huge Lago Izabal, meets the Caribbean.  “La Buga” means “The Mouth” in Garífuna, the local Carib-based language of the Garífuna people, the only black people in virtually all of Central America—and no, they don’t like being called African Central American!

There are many, many interesting things about Lívingston, and many more about the Río Dulce area in general.  First of all, Lívingston is only accessible by boat, either from the sticky coastal town of Puerto Barrios, or from all the way down the Río Dulce from the appropriately named Río Dulce town.  

On my way to Lívingston I chose the river route, which turned out to be absolutely spectacular—I only wish my camera could have adequately captured the glory of the gorge I passed through in the lancha (long motorboat) just before I reached Lívingston!  A truly spectacular sight.

And second, Lívingston is a curious mixture of Garífuna, Ladino, and Q’eqchi Maya, none of whom ever seem to understand what the deal is with the other two groups.  Of course, that leads to political and social tensions, but on the whole, as a result of the beastly hot weather and the copious amounts of marijuana, Lívingston is a pretty tranquil place.

For pictures in and around Lívingston and the Río Dulce area, click here:

[http://uva.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2112533&l=aab1b&id=1522023] [Lívingston, Río Dulce]

While I was walking around in the sticky sea air during my first day there, I happened to run into a nice Israeli named Liron.  Although I have to say, it wasn’t that surprising to run into an Israeli, considering that they’re virtually the only tourists who have made it to San Mateo (we’ve seen two of them already, and no Americans!).  

Once he and I tore ourselves away from a loquacious Mexican woman who claimed to make “the best food you’ll eat in your entire life, or whatever,” (she was listed in 11 guidebooks, and told us same at least 11 times) we wandered into the traditional, beachfront, Garífuna area of Lívingston, which is very cleverly separated from the touristy part of town.  And indeed, none of the tourist maps even show a piece of that section of town.

Right after we set foot in the new territory, we were greeted by a Garífuna man by the name of Polo Martínez, who spoke very slowly, walked very slowly, and did everything else very slowly, but spoke perfect English.

Polo is a musician, schoolteacher, and as we would find out later, also a seasoned crack smoker, according to a Spanish woman who owned a kayak rental business down the beach.  However, despite his occasionally curious behavior, which could probably be explained by his addiction, he still had some very interesting things to say about Garífuna culture and their general inability to fit in with anything typically Guatemalan.  

He also said that his perfect English was a result of having been schooled in environmental science and music theory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, free of charge thanks to Jerry García.

My first reaction to that statement was utter disbelief, since I’m used to being fed bald-faced lies constantly (sometimes jokingly, sometimes not) by the people here in San Mateo.  

However, considering the music connection—Polo is a member of an impressive Garífuna Punta rock band, and his 94-year-old grandfather (whom Liron and I saw the following day) is a maker of traditional Garífuna drums—and considering the fact that in our first five minutes of interaction he used the term “modus operandi” correctly, I had a hard time not believing that part of his past.  

That first night, Liron and I just hung out and talked with him at a local Garífuna restaurant (not listed in the guidebooks, of course).  

One of the darker—but not surprising—stories he told involved the Guatemalan-government-funded tourist police, who for the last decade or so have patrolled the streets of Lívingston.

Apparently in the early- to mid-nineties, there had been several attacks on tourists who were walking down the beach toward Siete Altares, a series of picturesque waterfalls and swimming holes that Fernando, Maggie, and I would hit a couple of days later.  In the guidebooks, all they say is that the attacks happened, but now the situation is better.

Not according to Polo.  He admitted that all of the attacks had been perpetrated by Garífunas living along the beach on the way to the falls.  However, he said that the situation had gotten “better” as a result of the aforementioned tourist police coming on the scene and, over the course of a few years, shooting any accused Garífuna locals.   

“They shot Manuel right over there, they shot Juan over there in the cemetery, they shot José down on the beach right over there…I’ve got photo evidence of each incident,” he told us.  

And so the story went.  Not at all surprising considering the Guatemalan government’s horrific record of human rights abuses, but still a grim story, and one that he topped off nicely by mentioning that he had been thrown in jail for three months by the tourist police for picketing during one of the many rounds of killings.  

Again, one must take all of this with several grains of sea salt, considering that the story is completely one-sided and the issues at hand are so sensitive.  But the grains of truth that surely lie within are not particularly appetizing.

Polo also took issue with our guidebooks (which Liron and I admittedly referred to far too much in our discussions), and especially their descriptions of Garífuna roots.  

Liron’s more concise Hebrew guidebook said simply that they came from Africa.  Mine, on the other had, said that the Garífunas trace their origins to the Honduran Bay Islands, where two African slave ships apparently crashed many centuries ago, the African slave-cargo of which interbred with the islands’ indigenous Carib inhabitants.

Polo’s version of the story, however, has nothing to do with Africa.  “We’re not African!” he said over and over.  

His claim was that the Garífunas in Lívingston and on the Honduran coast are directly descended from the Carib people, whose ancestors allegedly came out to the islands from Venezuela.

I, however, find this very hard to believe.  While I agree that the Garífunas aren’t African—just as any nth-generation black American born in the States isn’t African—many Garífuna people look very, very African.  

And while I’m not sure what Carib people look like, if their ancestors actually did come from Venezuela, it would make sense that the ancestors of the Caribs would look at least vaguely similar to the Mayans of San Mateo.  And the Mayans of San Mateo most certainly do not look African!  In fact, many of them look rather Asian…

This issue is as of yet unresolved, although according to Polo I’ll never be able to find the truth anywhere in any library or any Internet source, because various governments are out to pull the wool over my eyes regarding the true origins of the Garífunas.  Hmmm…

On the lighter side of things, away from topics such as police brutality and lack of government support for the tiny, Maya-overshadowed Garífuna community, Polo proffered the answer to a very important question: 

“Do you know why you don’t see any black people in the rest of Guatemala?” he asked.

“Why?” we responded, looking at him over our huge plates of fried fish and green bananas.

“Because all the Indians eat are those God-damned corn tortillas.  Corn tortillas!  We hate that shit!”

Nice.

After that intense dinner and cultural discussion, I was ready to sack out.  After politely refusing Liron’s kind and slightly incorrect offer to “sit on a beer” with him, I called it a night. 

The following day, Tuesday, Liron and I met up with Polo one more time for a “tour” of the Garífuna section of town, which was even more expansive than I had imagined.  Without a guide, one could very easily get lost in the Garífuna area and not have any prayer of getting back to one’s touristy hotel due to the lack of streets that connect the two neighboring (but virtually completely segregated) areas.

The tour was slow, relaxed, and really just yielded some nice photos, since Polo talked very little during the excursion.  We did, however, see an abandoned, traditional Garífuna temple, and we saw his ancient grandfather, hard at work in his house as we sat outside and snacked on freshly picked coconuts.  

Incidentally, I also saw an incredibly colorful cashew fruit, complete with the uncooked, poisonous nut-growth hanging off the end.  Check out the picture.  Very cool, if I do say so myself.

After the tour was over, Liron and I went back to the center of town to meet up with Fernando and Maggie, who had just arrived via lancha from Puerto Barrios.  After some lunch, some Internet, some hanging out, and some excellent mojitos, we decided to patronize the Mexican woman by whom Liron and I had been talked at for so long the previous day.  Yeah, her food was good, but she’d really shot her self in the foot by saying that it was the best food we’d ever eat in our lives.  Whatever, indeed.

Wednesday involved much kayaking.  After walking about half way to the waterfalls at Siete Altares, we came upon a beachfront, kayak-and-restaurant establishment run by a friendly Spanish woman.  However, before hopping aboard the kayaks we would use to make it the rest of the way to the falls, we saw Polo walk by in a daze.

After seeing me talk to him briefly, the woman gave us all a general warning to be careful of people in and around Lívingston who appear thusly spaced out.  

The reason?  Crack. 

Apparently, around 1994 a small plane landed in Lívingston in need of gas, or so the pilots said.  Except that they never came back for the plane after they supposedly went off in search of same.  So of course, the townspeople eventually looted the plane, found the piles of cocaine, and have been addicted ever since.  

Was it really just a fluke, or did the powerful (virtually police-sanctioned) Guatemalan drug cartels that have gigantic bases in eastern Guatemala purposely leave the plane there to hook thousands of new customers?  Very shady.

After our chat, we boarded our kayaks and paddled through blazing sun and boiling Caribbean water to Siete Altares, where we had an excellent time jumping off rocks, enjoying the shade, and examining courageous river crabs.

Once we’d had our fill of fresh water, we returned, barely making it back through the choppy evening water in our waterlogged kayaks.  After a wonderfully Spanish dinner of tortilla española, bread, and salad, we went back to meet Jessica, who had also just arrived via Puerto Barrios.  Now four strong, we were ready for anything.

And we sure did a whole lot of anything the next day: around nine on Thursday morning, Fernando, Maggie, Jessica, and I boarded a lancha heading up the Río Dulce toward Ak’ Tenamit, a large non-profit organization just 15 minutes from Lívingston.

Ak’ Tenamit was very cool, and extremely advanced for a 15-year-old organization based in the electricity-free river territory of Guatemala’s eastern lowlands.  

The organization sported a middle and high school, the latter of which had two concentrations: cultural development and tourism.  Many of the students choose the tourism track, appropriate for their beautiful and frequently visited area in Guatemala, and end up doing a significant part of their practicum in Lívingston at Buga Mama, a restaurant owned by Ak’ Tenamit and operated by its students.

Just as our Foundation does, Ak’ Tenamit has its problems, as we discovered by talking to one of the few Americans currently volunteering there.  However, the unfortunate realization we came away with was that really, money makes a huge difference.  We have no money.  Ak’ Tenamit has vast quantities of money.

Granted, its location in a tourist-rich part of Guatemala certainly helps, but the vast international network of funding the founder has set up through the years is surely what gives the most thrust to the organization: plenty of money for all the gas they need to fuel their generators; plenty of money for teachers (two per classroom!); plenty of money for up-to-date Internet equipment that can effectively serve all their computers and more; plenty of money for land; plenty of money for books; plenty of money for materials to build beautiful, traditional huts for classrooms…  The list goes on.  We’ve got a way to go here, but it’s good to know that it can be done!

After our visit to Ak’ Tenamit, we headed over to Finca Tatín, a hotel-esque establishment owned by a lovely Argentine family, set in dense jungle on the banks of the Río Tatín, a tributary that feeds the Río Dulce.  

In kayaks once again, we enjoyed the last few daylight hours by paddling up the Río Dulce to a small, sulfurous hot spring.  The spring was indeed hot, and unfortunately the stream of hot water doesn’t mix with the cold water beneath it nearly as much as I would have liked, but it was still quite pleasant, as was the brief “spelunk” we enjoyed in a cave randomly located just above the springs.

After returning to the Finca, we relaxed and dined on a sumptuous meal of shrimp, potato soup, and other excellent fare prepared by one of Ak’ Tenamit’s students who was a senior in the tourism track.  The whole experience was most pleasant, and would have been nearly perfect had it not been for Liam.

Liam, one of our fellow guests during our stay at Finca Tatín is, in fact, Irish.  However, when Fernando politely asked him where he was from, he said, in mediocre Spanish, “Here.”  

I chimed in, trying to be funny, and said, “The jungle?”  

“Yes,” he replied.  

That was all he said during the entire meal, except for the few insults he threw around when the waiter tried to serve him a vegetarian meal (which he had requested), claiming, still in mediocre Spanish (especially mediocre for someone from the jungle), “I eat shrimp, because shrimp isn’t meat!”

The unfortunate interactions with Liam continued until he left the next day, the worst of which occurred in the evening (around 10 p.m.), when he wanted to go to bed, and our talking and two downstairs fluorescent lights were bothering him too much.  

As any polite human being would do, he stomped down the stairs and said very calmly and in perfect English (strangely perfect for someone from the jungle), “Do you see anyone else up?!  Do you?!  I didn’t think so!  So turn off these lights, stop talking, and go to bed!”

The next hour or so made Liam even happier (more furious), when Fernando and Maggie realized they couldn’t find their jungle hut, because none of us had thought to bring a flashlight.  

After a half an hour of searching (lights still on, still talking softly), they gave up.  

During that time Liam had come downstairs twice to ask very politely (rudely) when the hell we’d be turning off the lights.

So I turned off the lights.  

Then I couldn’t find the stairs.

After fumbling around for about ten minutes, I finally asked Fernando to help me find the stairs to the bunk loft where everyone was sleeping.  

This did not make Liam happy, either.

“Are you ever going to go to bed?!” he growled furiously.

“Chill out, chieftain, I’m going to bed right now!” I shot back, sick of dealing with such a vile human being, but eminently glad that I hadn’t fallen into the jungle muck and been consumed whole by wild Guatemalan tarantulas.

After several more expletives on Liam’s part, and a brief fear that I was about to have my face caved in by a wild Irishman, all fell silent.

The next morning, thankful that I had survived the night not only in the presence of Liam, but also in the company man-eating mosquitoes (and no mosquito net—they were all occupied by other guests), I rose with the others, had a good breakfast, and headed back to Lívingston, more or less well rested, and slightly comforted knowing that Liam was, in fact, on steroids, which Maggie had seen on the table next to his things.  

Sure, he was still God-awful, but at least we could blame his rage on the ‘roids, and keep hoping optimistically that we would never meet a real, drug-free person as terrible as Liam.  

Ahh, Liam.

We all spent the afternoon of our last day hanging out at Cocolí beach, a small, sandy crescent about 20 minutes from Lívingston by lancha.  It was quite pleasant—coconuts, clear water, no other company—and aside from the fact that I was stung twice by jellyfish, a good time was had by all.

The following morning, Fernando, Maggie, Jessica, and I hopped on a lancha headed to Puerto Barrios, where we caught the first bus back toward home. 

32 hours later, after spending Saturday night in Huehue, our favorite cabecera, we arrived in San Mateo, thus marking the end of an excellent vacation.     

We were tired.  We were tanned.  But most of all, we were thankful that Liam hadn’t hidden in any of our suitcases.  

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There’s No Birthday like a School’s Birthday

For three days during the week of May 21st our beloved school, the Centro Comunitario de Educación Yinhatil Nab’en (“Seeds of Knowledge” Education Center), celebrated its second birthday.   

Curious that it should have its birthday in the middle of the school year, which clearly means that the first five months of the school’s existence were “illegal”…but hey, we’ve gotten used to that sort of thing around these parts in Guatemala! 

The first day’s sole activity was the inauguration, and what an inauguration it was: it started Wednesday at 1 p.m. in the blazing afternoon sun, and the clean-up had to be hastened due to the fact that the sun was quickly setting…at 6:30!   

The majority of my anniversary pictures are pictures I took during the inauguration, and can be seen here: 

[http://uva.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2112530&l=c8b99&id=1522023] [Anniversary] 

Also, the week prior we went on a nice waterfall-hike excursion.  See here for that album: 

[http://uva.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2112529&l=a8162&id=1522023] [Waterfall Hike] 

But back to the anniversary—not only did the inauguration include opening formalities such as the national anthem and words from the mayor (who said our school’s name a different way every time, not once correctly), and closing formalities such as speeches from the new Reina Yinhatil Nab’en (queen of the school) and the two runners-up; but the audience also enjoyed (we hope) an impressive gamut of comedy sketches, poorly choreographed dances, and what seemed like hundreds of lip-synced songs. 

As mediocre and poorly rehearsed as some of the acts were, it was still fun to see our students up there singing, dancing, and acting in outrageous costumes.  (In the case of our generally conservative, corte-wearing girls, many of their costumes consisted of revealing, Ladina-type schoolgirl outfits.  That certainly says something about what Mayan girls think it means to be “sexy,” if not about the general Mayan view of Ladino culture.)   

The acts were also a nice counterpoint to the very formal “exchange of power” between the new and old queens and runners-up, all of whom were decked out in the most traditional of garb, and escorted to and from the stage by their male counterparts, who looked just as excellent in their capixays and white pants as the ladies did in their cortes, huipiles, and headdresses.   

However, as humorous as some of skits were, I had trouble paying much attention to them on account of how preoccupied I was with my own impending bi-and-a-half-lingual appearance!   

Yes indeed, Profe Chat did in fact grace the stage during one of the aforementioned poorly rehearsed comedy sketches as a gringo from “Okay, Arizona,” who met up with several Chuj-speaking illegals on the other side of the border.  However, this was no normal gringo: while Profe Chat couldn’t speak much Spanish (and spoke lots of patronizing English), he just happened to be able to speak…Chuj? 

“Speak” is, of course, all relative to my language abilities in, say, Czech, Japanese, Swahili, and Basque…  Although, I did manage to spit out a few coherent sentences in Chuj including, “You want work?!”, “Your arms are too small!”, “Your butt is too big!”, and a few others that got a good laugh out of the agèd, Chuj-speaking dames in the crowd.  Silly, yes.  But fun, and a good—albeit very strange—bonding experience with some of my trouble-maker tercero kids. 

Overall, an excellent first day: the kids looked great, the weather was perfect, the venue was packed, and we all successfully spent nearly 25% of a 24-hour period in the town basketball court.  Impressive!  The only thing that cast a bit of a shadow on the whole thing for me was how the queen and her two runners-up had been chosen: money. 

Apparently our 2007 Queen Competition was typical of San Mateo, but it seemed strange to me how in an area as poor as San Mateo Ixtatán, people could think it’s fair to crown the girl who receives the largest amount of money in her name!   

The way the “voting” worked was simple: students filed into the voting room one by one, flashed whatever bill they were going to deposit in their chosen candidate’s box, and then dropped the money in as the teachers wrote down all of the contributions.  Any given student could “vote” as many times and he or she liked, and deposit as much money during the “voting” period as he or she desired. 

And the total of all three together?  More than one thousand U.S. dollars!  I can’t even imagine that the high-rolling Woodberry kids I taught last fall would come close to that absurd amount if they had an election like that.   

And to make things even more incredible, Maribel, the new queen from cuarto, won over 75% of the quetzal-votes.  The third-place candidate, in contrast, won barely 5% of the money, and had, at least theoretically, more support from the 50-some primero kids in her class than the other two candidates combined! 

Of course, the money was used to fund the anniversary’s various expenses, which was good, but the whole idea behind the money-based competition may forever remain a mystery to me.  Perhaps I’m missing how similar the whole competition was to actual politics?  Hmmm… 

Day number two involved an endless number of soccer and basketball games between our kids and teams from Monte Horeb (the evangelical school in the center of town) and Mayalán, a town northeast of San Mateo in the hot-and-spicy lowlands.  The whole day was highly enjoyable, whether the other team creamed us, we creamed the other team, or both sides were evenly matched—although the latter were the best.   

Day number three included a variety of unrelated activities: a marathon, a cycling race, a spelling bee, and last but most certainly not least, the requisite social dance!   

Not only have I learned to enjoy the marimba music and the only-vaguely-rhythmic dancing of the San Mateo folks, but I also think the social tension (read: sexual tension—just don’t say those words in San Mateo!) between all of our students is hilarious, so I had a great time, dancing virtually every dance with ladies from ages 5 to 75, and watching my poor visiting UVa friend Eunice get swung around the dance floor by and endless number of our students and teachers. 

There ended the anniversary, after much planning, much fund-raising (!), much paying, much playing, and much festivating.  After that, just two more weeks of exams were in store before all of us Foundation dwellers blew our popsicle stand for a second time in search of far-away vacationary adventure…

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The Sixth Week of Ordinary Time

Greetings, ladies and gentlemen!  Truthfully, very few out-of-the-ordinary things have happened since Semana Santa, and in the six weeks since, I’ve only taken one weekend trip!  This all probably means both that I’m [finally!] completely settled into the life of San Mateo, and also that out-of-the-ordinary things now seem completely normal.  Both of these life developments are most excellent. 

Regardless, I still have photos!  First, we have photographic evidence of our excursion to the feria in Barillas, where much fun was had, and many wallets were stolen (including mine)—alas!  Herewith: 

[http://uva.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2100957&l=101a5&id=1522023] [The Feria in Barillas] 

And finally, more pictures of our wonderful students being their normal, wonderful selves: 

[http://uva.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2100959&l=59571&id=1522023]  [People] 

And there we have it.  Things should get shaken up a little in the next few weeks: a steady trickle of visitors just began yesterday with the arrival of Jessica’s sister, the school’s three-day anniversary festivities are planned for next week, and finals are in a month!  And considering how the kids fare when I ask them to solve problems using material they learned four months ago, I think a good portion of the next month’s classes will include some nice, intense review…

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Family, Legends, and Salt

As one might imagine, I was quite happy to be home after the epic journey.  And as a consequence, I’ve spent the past two weeks (and weekends) happily and tranquilly here in San Mateo.  So I haven’t had any incredible stories of travel far and wide; however, I have discovered that every now and then, even things in San Mateo can be as interesting as dusty camioneta travel. 

The second half of the semester began with a bang on April 9, the birthday of yours truly.  It was great—rarely have I felt so loved by so many people I’ve known for such a short time.  The teachers arranged a dinner; the Foundation folks got me little presents and cards; and my cuarto kids even made me leave class early so that they could go out and get me a cake!  [And of course, there were many excellent emails from my States-bound family & friends!]  And then to top it all off was an evening of hookah and, most appropriately, Aladdin.  Nice. 

For a few pictures of the birthday, the kids upstairs, and other things, see here: 

[http://uva.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2095286&l=abbd1&id=1522023] [Family, Legends, and Salt] 

After several more birthday parties for our strangely April-heavy group (9 April – Chat; 17 April – Fernando; 19 April – Jessica), the next out-of-the-ordinary event was this weekend’s seven-service bash at the evangelical church of the family I live with.   

The two services I went to—one with Jessica, one with just the family—were both experiences: great music from a Totonicapán band (“Ecos Celestiales”), who were hired to bring rhythmic and in-tune music (!) to the “youth conferences” the church hosted this weekend; lots of hymns; and of course, the requisite, energy-filled, extensive, high-volume sermon.  Quite a change from the relatively “normal” Mexican Catholicism! 

And today, after catching up on two months’ worth of Nature science articles, I went on a stroll to the salt mines with Angela and Juana, the school’s Chuj teacher and a San Mateo native. 

The stroll itself was nice: sun, warm air, and the usual beautiful vistas.  But one thing I realized—and not for the first time—was the importance of legend here in San Mateo, and probably in other indigenous places in Guatemala.  After hearing Juana recount several legends in her rough, lilting Spanish, I asked her how long ago some of the legendary stories had occurred.  And her response?  “I don’t know…a thousand years?” 

I think that’s a really neat thing about being in a culture that has been around for so much longer than the few hundred years we Americans have trotted around our nascent country—much of history becomes legend (and much non-history does, too) because the things happened so long ago.  It seems to me that in the case of the U.S., we don’t have much of a story telling culture, because all of our history started long after Gutenberg and long after people decided that taking down historical events was a good idea.  But our Native Americans?  Those are the Americans with the stories. 

In my four months here I’ve heard bits and pieces of countless legends: The valley San Mateo dips into used to be the bed of Lake Atitlán; at noon flocks of pearly white chickens appear at the ruins; occasionally the ruins transforms into a bustling market; huge serpents and tigers guard the small ruins of K’axepanh on the other side of the valley; when construction equipment tried to widen the soccer field at the bottom of the big ruins, they broke down so many times that the workers eventually gave up; strange, bright-eyed weasel creatures stalk people at night; people see bright lights traveling overhead from one mountain crest to another…the list goes on. 

But the best, most complete story I’ve heard—several times now, but most clearly this afternoon with Juana—is the story of San Mateo’s salt: 

Once upon a time there were three children, one brother and two sisters.  One sister was named Ácida (sour) and the other was named Salada (salty). 

The three lived together in a house near San Mateo, and as was the custom of the time, the two sisters cooked all of their brother’s meals.   

But the brother wasn’t happy. 

“Why is it that Salada’s meals always turn out so good and salty,” the brother asked Ácida, “while yours are so bland and tasteless?” 

Well, Ácida didn’t know, and she wasn’t happy that her brother liked Salada’s meals better than hers, so she decided to go find Salada and ask her what her secret was.   

“Salada,” asked Ácida, “why is it that our brother always says your meals are so deliciously salty?  How do you do it?” 

“Well,” Salada replied, “all I do is take some of my mucus and put it in his food every time I cook him a meal.” 

Intrigued, Ácida went to tell her brother: “Brother, Salada says that the only reason her food tastes better than mine is because she blows her nose into the food before she serves it to you!” 

The brother was furious, and ran to find Salada. 

“How could you treat me so poorly, Salada, blowing your nose into my food?!” 

When Salada didn’t answer, the brother got so mad that he came up to her and hit her in the nose. 

“Get out of here!” her brother yelled. 

Blood and tears streaming down her face, Salada cried, “but where can I go?” 

“Just get out!” he said. 

So Salada started to walk, looking for a new place to live.  The first place she went was Ch’ichjoj, just up the river.  She sat down and cried and cried, but soon found that there was too much water, so she had to leave. 

She kept wandering, this time to Payjelnha, where she sat and wept.  But there was too much water there, too. 

She tried one last time, wandering all the way to Ch’ilon, where she stayed for a little while, but it was too wet there, too.   

Finally, she came back to where she’d started, a place called Titz’am, on the side of the hill near San Mateo that’s close to the river, but just high enough that she wouldn’t get washed away by the water.  

And there she stayed, weeping and sanguine, her salty tears and blood dripping slowly into the mountainside. 

Thus is the story of San Mateo’s seemingly never-ending salt mines at Titz’am (literally “salt here,” as far as I can tell with my rudimentary Chuj), and of the much smaller—but not nearly as impressive—salt deposits in Ch’ichjoj, Payjelnha, and Ch’ilon, all areas near the center of San Mateo. 

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a picture with a story behind it is even better.

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Mexican Girls Wear Pants

Mexican Girls Wear Pants 

The idea for a Guatemala-to-Mexico, Semana Santa jaunt began around Christmas of 2005, which is more or less when I decided I wanted to work in San Mateo.  Because surely, traveling up through southern Mexico to Mexico City and Querétaro would definitely be significantly cheaper—and significantly more tubular in general—than flying from the U.S.  And indeed it was. 

But of course, I didn’t want to take the 20-hour bus ride through the tropics of southern Mexico just to check out a couple of Mexican metropoli.  Rather, the main impetus of the whole trip was to see my friends from Querétaro whom I hadn’t seen since my sophomore year at Woodberry when they came up to Virginia for a month-long exchange.  I’d been [semi-] religiously emailing Pamela and Maru for the last seven years, and it was time to break the streak.   

So, in December of 2005, I called up Maru and discovered that they would indeed be around during the Semana Santa (Holy Week) of 2007.  No more planning occurred until approximately one week before Semana Santa this year.  But even so, the trip unraveled organically and most excellently. 

Jessica, Fernando, Angela, and I struck out two Fridays ago on the 2:00 bus.  After replacing a fuel hose and slowly making it down the side of the Cuchumatanes with a popped and flapping tire (and long after being passed by the 3:00 bus), we arrived safely—and dust-encrusted—in Huehue.  Greasy food was consumed.  Hotdogs were ingested.  And sleep was had.   

Around 6:30 the next morning, Angela and I bid adieu to the groggy Jessica and the groggier Fernando and headed to the bus terminal, where we caught a bus for La Mesilla, a vile little border town full of dust, heat, touristy trinkets, and shady money-changers.  After re-hydrating and ice-creaming, we braved the gauntlet of rip-off clothes and fake jewelry as we walked down the hill to the border.   

Newly stamped passports in hand, we “jumped the border” with the help of a 10-peso taxi that shuttled us to Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, an even smaller outpost on the Mexican side, whence our first bus excursion departed.   

For the pictures ranging from La Mesilla to the end of my Querétaro jaunt, follow ye auld linke: 

[http://uva.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2093029&l=601d1&id=1522023] [Querétaro] 

After a hasty and semi-illegal trip back to La Mesilla to get cash out of my bank account (apparently they don’t have credit card machines in Ciudad Cuauhtémoc), I joined Angela on a super-luxury bus [relative to the recycled U.S. school buses used in Guatemala] from the aforementioned outpost to San Cristobal de las Casas, a cute, touristy location I would visit for a day on my way back.   

Let me tell you, getting on that quiet, huge, new, cushy-seated, A/C-ed bus was the first taste of what it’s going to be like getting reverse culture shock when I go back to the U.S.  Whoever says Mexico is a “third-world country” must be comparing it with some fancy, shiny place like New York City or Chicago, because compared with our beautiful little dirt-road, limited-electricity, dogs-everywhere, no-emission-standards town here in northwestern Guatemala…Mexico—development-wise—is the United States.  Appropriate, perhaps, that the official name of Mexico is “The United States of Mexico”… 

After a three-hour trip northward, we dismounted, had a bite to eat in San Cristobal, and then said our goodbyes for the week as Angela stayed to hang out in Chiapas, and I caught a 15-hour overnight bus from San Cristobal to Mexico City. 

The bus ride was uneventful, and, thanks to Dramamine (and to a change of seats), I was able to escape the roof-rattling snores of the ample Mexican man next to me and zonk out for several hours.  Arrival in Mexico City: 6:30 a.m. on Sunday.  Departure for Querétaro: 7:15 a.m.  Arrival in Querétaro: 10:15 a.m.  First sighting in seven years of the lovely Maru Avendaño: 11:00 a.m. 

My stay in Querétaro lasted from Sunday morning to Wednesday afternoon, and was fun, relaxed, and filled with just enough events.  Maru kindly offered me her guestroom, where I spent quite a bit of time catching up on sleep and utilizing truly high-speed Internet (hadn’t seen that in a while!).   

But when not reclining in her house, I did a good many non-Guatemalan things: went to a mall; bought Lindt chocolate in a Wal-Mart; toured the safe, pristine plazas [and aqueduct!] of Querétaro with Maru’s cousins; sat and drank Starbuck’s-esque coffee after consuming excellent “enchiladas queretanas”; and partied amply at Maru’s house with both the Latin-American version of Cranium and some 100%-agave tequila.  Glorious. 

After a short but fantastic Tuesday-night visit with the lovely Pamela (one of my faithful Querétaro correspondents) and Diego (another dude who came on the Woodberry exchange), we all hit the sack, and on Wednesday morning Maru and I headed to the bus terminal.  She left for her family vacation in Tuxtla Gutiérrez (the capital of Chiapas), and I struck out for Mexico City, also fondly known by the locals as el “DF” (“Distríto Federal”). 

I had 36 hours in Mexico City, and I was determined to do everything.  And I failed.  Of course I did—even if I’d had a decent guidebook (which I couldn’t find anywhere), I wouldn’t have been able to cover even half of the sights the sprawling, 20-million-person metropolis has to offer.   

I did, however—with the economical help of the city’s surprisingly Parisian metro system—see many excellent and famous attractions such as the Zócalo (the DF’s main plaza); the Cathedral; the Palacio de Bellas Artes; the Torre Latinoamericana and its beautiful urban panoramæ; the Parque de Chapultepec (“the city’s overworked lungs,” as my guidebook called it); and the Avenida de la Reforma (the “Champs Elysées of Mexico City”—nice, I suppose, but doesn’t compare in my book!), among other things. 

My day in the city was really mostly a walking tour, which didn’t allow me to take in such gems as the Museo de Antropología, a one-of-a-kind museum housing the famous Aztec calendar wheel.  However, my favorite way to get to know a city is to first soak up its vibe by talking to the people, wandering streets both known and unknown, stopping in the hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and otherwise “experiencing” the place.  And indeed, the aura of the DF—especially in the relatively pollution-free time of the Semana Santa vacation—is most excellent.  Surely further visits are in order. 

But I didn’t just walk around…I experienced two things that can certainly be classified as once-in-a-very-long-while experiences.  First: Holy Thursday afternoon mass at the gigantic, sinking Catedral Metropolitana, presided over by none other than his Höliness the Cardinal/Archbishop of Mexico.   

Now that was a show not to be missed.  There was music.  There were clickity-clackity Semana Santa noisemakers.  There was tradition.  There was dogma.  And there was incense…oh man, was there incense.  And then, to roust me from my incense high, there were agèd dames digging their elbows into my sides as they tried desperately to receive their host before the tall gringo in front of them.  Isn’t it true that only the first 50 people who get the host go to Heaven? 

Now, rewind about four hours to my truly epic—and 100% gastronomic—DF experience, which, while it may have been chronologically the first of the two experiences, it surpasses even the Cardinal’s mass in magnitude. 

The restaurant?  El Centro Castellano.  The venue?  The fancy-dancy Camino Real hotel, one of Mexico City’s best.  The reason?  Because el padre had told me that Mexico City has some of the best food in the world, and because my original two-restaurant dinner plan had been foiled because [almost] all good restaurants are closed during Semana Santa!  The Centro Castellano, however, was open for lunch.  And I just happened to walk in. 

After beginning with a tasty, fuzzy lemonade that went quite nicely with my crusty Spanish bread, I began with an appetizer for the ages: an entire plate of jamón serrano (typical, dried, highly-cured Spanish ham)—but not just any jamón serrano.   

This jamón serrano came from pigs that had, for their entire lives, been fed only with water and acorns.  This curious diet resulted in a slightly fattier, much darker, and very nutty tasting meat.  And man, was it good.  At one point—after watching me eat the ham for about an hour—the waiter came up to me and said that I should let him know when I wanted my next course… 

I thought that was going to be the pinnacle of the experience; however, the main course—fresh, herbed, coal-broiled red snapper—did a fine job of living up to the exquisite ham appetizer, in addition to nicely accompanying my intense, 2003 Marqués de Riscal Spanish white from Rueda, Valladolid (I know, I know…I was supposed to get a red—but hey, it was still great).  Never in my life have I had a fish that had so much mouth-watering taste. 

And finally, the dessert: flan-esque pudding with black cherries, strawberry sauce, and chocolate flakes, accompanied by a nice, strong coffee, and an exceptionally tasty glass of patxarán, a typical, northern-Spanish, licorice-flavored liqueur.   

A lunch for the ages. 

For pictures of my whirlwind tour of Mexico City and for the few pictures I took in San Cristobal after my DF jaunt, check out this page: 

[http://uva.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2093030&l=d135d&id=1522023] [México DF, San Cristobal de las Casas] 

My DF visit ended at 10:30 a.m. on Friday when I caught a flight from Mexico City down to Tuxtla, which was the furthest-south point to which Mexico’s budget airlines would fly.  After failing to contact Maru (who, as I mentioned before, was there on vacation with her family), I took a taxi from the airport to the bus station, with the final destination of San Cristobal de las Casas, about two hours further south.   

During the cab ride I heard the driver’s perspective on the conflicts that occurred about ten years ago between the people of Chiapas and the federal government: he even told me that he believed the rebellion—which, he said, only “appeared” to be an indigenous uprising—had been funded by outside entities who wanted the Mexican government to stabilize Chiapas so that its abundant natural resources could be exploited more easily.  Sounds strangely like the rumors about the allegation that Canadian mining companies had a hand in the 1996 Peace Accords in Guatemala… 

Anyway, after catching a micro-bus from Tuxtla to San Cristobal, I began the last official day of my vacation—little did I know that so many more unplanned visits were yet to come… 

I arrived in San Cristobal just a bit too late for the Semana Santa dramatization of the Passion, which was too bad.  However, I had an nice, sunny afternoon to walk around the city; slip on the antiseptic cobbled streets; check out the fuzzy, shag-carpet-esque cortes of the Tzutzil-speaking indigenous women; and go to a Good Friday mass at the Cathedral which, although the priest was less than enthusiastic, was still quite good, all the way from the three-person Stations-of-the-Cross reading (the guys had great voices) to the way-Catholic Adoration of the Cross.  I wonder what it will be like going to church (evangelical and/or Catholic) in San Mateo? 

After some excellent tacos and a brief stop at a salsa club (live salsa music is a good thing), I sacked out at the hostel, got up at 5:30 a.m., and headed to the bus station for a 6:45 bus to the border. 

Back in Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, I paid the disgruntled border guard the $30.00 tax because I’d overstayed my 7-day welcome (he said I’d stayed 8 days, even though I’d actually only stayed 6 days and 22 hours…I counted very carefully), and headed in the taxi to La Mesilla.  Passport stamped, I walked up the hill.  To the bus terminal.  And… 

There were no buses. 

The lesson of the week: THERE IS NO TRANSPORTATION IN GUATEMALA DURING SEMANA SANTA!   

Apparently there hadn’t been buses since Thursday, and they weren’t going to start running until Sunday afternoon.  What is this, vacation or something?!  Of course, I could have just stayed in La Mesilla, but it was such a dump—and I secretly wanted what I knew was going to be a ridiculous transportation adventure—that I decided to strike out in the direction of San Mateo in the spite of the lack of pimped-out camionetas. 

The first leg was the worst: still in dumb-American-in-Mexico mode, I thought the only way to get out of Mesilla was to take the micro owned by the shady looking guy who told me that his micro was the only way to get out of there.  I could have waited up the road for a pickup to take me somewhere, but instead I ended up paying him Q250 ($35.00) to take me what turned out to be one measly hour to Nentón, the second-biggest Chuj-speaking municipality, northwest of San Mateo. 

Once I got to Nentón, I lucked out and found a micro that was headed toward Gracias a Dios, a tiny, Ladino frontier town in the very corner of the country, and the hometown of the two girls who run the furniture store down the street from the Foundation.  However, I never actually got to Gracias, because the driver dropped me off in a tiny aldea next to the rocky road I needed to take to get to San Mateo.  The photo of the fork in the road is the first picture in the album containing evidence of my homeward-bound adventures: 

[http://uva.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2093031&l=c748d&id=1522023] [The Epic Journey Home from Mexico] 

After getting dropped off at the crossroads, and with only Q45 ($5.00) to get me from there to San Mateo, the journey continued.   

A journey that included a lot of waiting.   

After about an hour of sitting in the blazing sun, I decided to walk with a couple of other hardy travelers to the next aldea, Las Palmas.  Luckily, after about ten minutes of trudging through the dust, a pickup came by and took us the rest of the way to the aldea. 

I then sat in the center of the town under a shed-like structure for a while, talked to some folks about how the people of the town had been influenced by Mexican styles of dress, taught a drunk guy the same English phrases 70 times…  Then after a while I decided to take the advice of the nice guy who had been in the pickup with me: “you’re probably not going to get a car to San Mateo today,” he said, “so you might as well walk to Chaculá and stay the night there.” 

So I started trudging with my Mexican tourist paraphernalia—all nicely wrapped in a trash bag I’d picked up at a 7-Eleven in Mexico City—toward Chaculá, an aldea of 1,000 people about 30 minutes down the road on foot.   

Once I was about ¾ of the way there, another truck came by, full of folks from the village.  They said they could drop me off at the “hospedaje” (“inn,” if you will) at the intersection of the main road and Chaculá’s access road, but they decided it might be a good idea to take me into the center of town instead, since very few people were around.  Apparently it’s something of a Guatemalan tradition for everyone to go and hang out and have picnics on the day before Easter, so all of the folks from this aldea were down eating fried chicken and swimming in their murky lagoon. 

Nueva Esperanza de Chaculá (New Hope of Chaculá), as the aldea is officially called, was one of the funkiest places I’ve ever been.  Being a town of only 1,000 people in the middle of nowhere, one would think that it would be fairly conservative.  And indeed, most of the towns in the area that can be compared with Chaculá are conservative and traditional, save the more modern dresses the women wear, which comes from the Mexican influences on the Guatemalan border towns. 

Chaculá, on the other hand, was not conservative in the least.  As Brian later noted, after I described to him some of the aldea’s oddities, “that place sounds like a socialist commune.”  And indeed, there’s some truth in that. 

The aldea was founded only 14 years ago by a group of indigenous Guatemalans who had fled to Mexico in the 1980’s to escape the long, drawn-out war in Guatemala (1966 – 1996).  What made the entire project so interesting was that there hadn’t been a town in the spot before; all of the people had a very firm common purpose; and they were a multicultural group of people, come from all different indigenous communities in Guatemala.   

Although most of the people there speak Chuj (since their land is in Chuj territory) there are a whole bunch of other languages present in the aldea: Q’anjob’al, Mam, Kiche’, etc.  And everyone speaks perfect Spanish, since they lived in Mexico for more than a decade.  Now that’s not something you find every day around these parts… 

The intense sense of purpose that the founders had has also led to a level of development over the course of 14 years that places like San Mateo still haven’t reached after centuries (millennia?) of existence.  The community-funded health center is better than San Mateo’s government-funded one; every single one of the elementary-school-aged kids in the aldea goes to school; nutrition and health education are so good there that the residents look, health-wise, virtually like Americans (and indeed, some are even a little chunky—gasp!); and over the fourteen years that the aldea has existed, over 20 of their residents have gone on to become teachers, 3 have become professional nurses, 1 has become a doctor, and 1 lawyer is on the way.  And keep in mind that all of this is happening in an aldea with a mere 1,000 people. 

And all of the women wear pants. 

Now that, my friends, is not your everyday Chuj village. 

I think one could certainly consider Chaculá as a prime example of human potential, and of the power of common purpose.  The people of San Mateo are, little by little, getting more government support; however, they don’t develop as fast, even with the support, partially because the purpose of the people in the town isn’t the same: some want to “westernize,” some want to maintain the culture they currently have, and some even want to go back to the way things were 20 years ago.  So it is in the land of Ixtatán.   

However, the people of Chaculá have hardly had any government support at all, as they’ve been viewed from the beginning as a group of socialist guerrillas who waltzed back into the country after hiding in Mexico for a decade.  Yet look at what they’ve done with such incredible odds against them.  Very impressive. 

Anyway, back to the trek.  The family’s decision was apparently to drop me off at the health center, where they said I could surely get a room.  Unfortunately, as they’d already said, virtually everyone in the town was down at the laguna.  So, after waiting in vain for about an hour for the Keeper of the Key to arrive, I dragged all of my stuff down to where I thought the laguna might be. 

After a few wrong turns, I managed to follow the steady trickle of pants-wearing residents up the hill toward the field above the laguna.  I descended through the woods a few hundred yards, and finally arrived at the watering hole that had been the day’s entertainment center.  And I have to say, it was pretty nice.   

The festive atmosphere was welcome, and the fried chicken and fries I bought with Q10 of my remaining Q45 were even more so.  As I sat atop a grassy knoll observing the people, some of the above realizations began to take shape, especially the realizations about the health of the people.   

When I finally met José Díaz—one of the health center’s nurses and the Keeper of the Key—about an hour later, he informed me that the vast majority of the people in Chaculá are indigenous.  However, when I first saw the women in their tight, American- and Mexican-type clothes, I was convinced that they were ladinos, because not only did they look so westernized, but they looked so healthy (and dare I say…sexy), that I could barely believe they could have the same ancestors as the tiny people from San Mateo.  

(Incidentally, I later learned that the municipality of San Mateo Ixtatán is not only the worst municipality in Guatemala in terms of malnutrition, but the worst in all of Central America!  That the difference between SMI and Chaculá was so stark no longer seems very strange.) 

After the festivities began to die down, I caught a pickup back to the health center, where I only had to wait 15 minutes for José Díaz to show up.  He unlocked the health center and let me stay (free of charge!) on one of the cots for the night.  A much-needed gesture of goodwill for a traveler who was low on cash.   

Speaking of being low on cash, it was too bad that I was so strapped, because that very night there was a dance (Q50 to get in), complete with booming “norteña” music and flashing lights—a far cry from the marimba dances of San Mateo!  (Although the latter are pretty cool…!)  I think the dance was Chaculá’s versions of Easter festivities—I asked José Díaz if there was any sort of intense Easter vigil going on, and his reply was, “It’s all pretty chilled out around here—we don’t do much in the way of extremely religious activities.”  I think that may be what happens when war refugees found a town… 

Anyway, after being shown around the impressive health center and talking more about the town and its goings-on, we said goodnight, and I crashed immediately for a glorious 11 hours of sleep. 

Around 7 a.m. the next morning I gave the key back to José Díaz after promising that I would visit again, and headed to the road… 

…where I waited for another hour. 

Finally a Bulej-bound pickup came by and hauled me and a bunch of mischievous children (and their sleeping parents) up into the mountains, passing through the aldeas of Aguacate, Yalambojoch, and finally to Bulej, the first village in the municipality of San Mateo. 

The ride was uneventful, except for a slightly disturbing conversation I had with a guy standing next to me.  He seemed to be about 35, and had been in the Guatemalan army during the war.  He said that he was in charge of a small group of soldiers, and that—as most soldiers were—he was charged with fighting the guerrillas.  And at one point, when I asked him, more or less, “what were you fighting for?”, he said, “for my pension.” 

He then went onto say, regarding killing guerrillas under the orders of the government: 

“Aunque sea su padre o su hermano, hay que [matarlos], porque es la ley del gobierno.”   

“Even if it’s your father or your brother, you have to kill them, because it’s the law.” 
It got a little colder in the back of the creaking pickup when I heard that.
 

Once we got to Bulej, I dismounted, walked to the center of town, and proceeded to hang out for about two hours.  On the brink of starvation because I wanted to spend as little as possible of my remaining Q35, I sat around and slowly shelled peanuts, talked to some guys who’d been to the U.S., talked to some drunk guys, snoozed on my backpack, and flagged down car after car, none of which were going to San Mateo. 

Eventually I moved further down the road past the fork, so that the only cars that passed would surely be going to SMI.   

There I snoozed on the road for another two hours.   

And then finally, after seeing a hundred different reactions from the townspeople as they walked by the gringo reclining by the side of the road with his tag-laden L.L. Bean backpack…the truck came. 

I don’t know what kind of truck it was—it could have been a watermelon hauler, for all I know—but the driver let me hop in the back, and off we went, burning the daylights out of my ears and face for three hours on the victorious and strikingly beautiful trip back to good old San Mateo Ixtatán. 

Here endeth the epic. 

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