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: 

[] [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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Filed under Guatemalan Travels

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: 

[] [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: 

[] [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. 


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: 

[] [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. 


Filed under Guatemalan Travels

Pojom and Xela – Two Faraway Places

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[] [Pojom, San Francisco El Alto, Xela] 

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

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

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


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White Men Can’t Walk

I already knew that after nearly biting the dust several times last month as we motored around the hills surrounding Tiactac.  But I really discovered the truth of that statement after our trip a couple of weeks ago to Cerro Bobí: the tallest mountain around San Mateo, and the location of the area’s cell towers.  Suffice it to say that with size-12 feet, a weight of 180 lbs., and a not-so-great right knee, flying down the side of a mountain at Guatemalan speed is simply not possible.   

Aside from the intense descent, however, the trip was absolutely fantastic.  After a lazy, Q4-per-person truck ride up to the top of the ridge and an hour’s lateral walk to the peak of the mountain, we were greeted by some of the most magnificent vistas I’ve ever seen.  Even though San Mateo is situated high up on the side of a mountain, the mountains surrounding it are taller.  However, once you surmount those heights, it’s infinite views all around: Santa Eulalia, the jagged mountains heading toward Huehue, and even the sudden flatland to the northwest across the Mexican border.  Feast your eyes on the views, which I tried extremely hard to capture with my good old point-and-shoot: 

[] [Cell Tower Hike] 

After a slightly nerve-wracking—but even more breathtaking—climb to the top of the cell tower (can’t do that in the States!), we enjoyed a scrumptious lunch of grilled beef, beans, salsa, and tortillas, all graciously prepared for us by a great group of various Mateanos—Xap Aná (brother of ex-school-director Chico), Gaspar (brother of profe Diego Ricardo and secretary Gloria), Gaspar (sexto student), and others.  All in all, a highly satisfying, exceptionally tiring, and very photo-worthy journey.  What will next weekend bring?


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Patriarchal—and other—changes

These kids…they’ll do anything to get out of class!  Of course, this time it really was a big deal.  I’m not sure of the specifics, but as I understand it, the Catholic priests in Guatemala get shuffled around every six or eight years—similar to how Catholic personnel changes work on the U.S., yes?  Anyway, the time came a couple of weeks ago, and in came Padre Fredy, who had been working for most of the last decade only an hour away in Santa Eulalia. 

See below for the pictures of the celebration: huipiles, blouses, headdresses, capixayes, and incense galore, it was truly a mass en masse.  In the basketball court.  Nice.  The pictures can get repetitive, but all should be equally enjoyable, if only for the incredible bursts of color that even a mostly-colorblind guy like me can enjoy: 

[] [Catholic Priest Shuffle] 

That evening we also enjoyed quite a spectacle—a very exclusive dance, to which we gringos were invited only because la Licenciada Eulalia is an important pedagogical member of the Catholic church here in San Mateo.  Quite a sight: a bunch of white folk who, at the beginning of every song (all of which were in tune, thanks to the excellent, Santa-Eulalia-based marimba band), were flooded by strangers and small children asking us to dance.  Makes one feel welcome! 

Other changes have also been in the works around here: critical mass was reached when Beth Neville and Chip (a videographer from NYC) arrived last month (they’ve since left).  This Packing of the Supreme Foundation, FDR-style (right?), was the last straw for me, and the final incident that finally made me realize that I need a whole lot more personal space than I thought.  I guess there really is a difference between living with one roommate, and living with seven… 

The upshot of all this was that I began a search for another place to live, which lasted a grand total of about 10 minutes.  It turns out that the family upstairs—Don Mateo (our landlord), Doña Ana, Andrés (the oldest child, in our primero class), María, and Eulalia—had an extra room available, which I immediately snatched up.  I may only be here for a while…but then again, if it works out well, I may stay for the rest of the year.  We’ll see.  But so far it’s been great—it’s tranquil at night, I can occasionally get a wireless signal through the floor in the kitchen (what a hard life!), the breakfast and lunch are ample, and the Chuj learning curve is significantly steeper!  The kids can be intense sometimes, but it’s an intensity that’s fundamentally different from the intensity of the tightly packed mini-America that has been giving my nerves problems for a while. 

As usual, the change in San Mateo continues at a breakneck pace—it’s something I’m not at all used to after eight years of incredibly stable and predictable school.  However, the experience will surely develop my heretofore limited ability to cope with quick (and sometimes major) adjustment.  Growing pains, man.


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Poverty, motion…it’s all relative.

Jump back in time to our weekend hike with Izabela to the tiny aldea of Tiactac.

I’ve been meaning to mention for some time how blown away I was by a fairly simple, poverty-related realization. In short, as Brian put it while we were loitering in the middle of the road after lunch, “Poverty is relative.”

When I used to sit in front of my TV in my relatively fancy, American house, I felt as if there must be a vast difference between my life and the lives of the “poor people” who live in tiny villages in the middle of nowhere in third-world countries. I felt that these other places must be so different that really, the only way for me to understand them would be to watch digested, Discovery-Channel documentaries of the people’s lives. Otherwise, without Americanized translation of what was going on, how could I ever hope to understand a place so alien?

But then there I was, in the middle of a 600-person town in the wilds of Guatemala where people live with the rising and setting of the sun—no electricity, no running water, adobe huts, wood-fired stoves, no oil-powered farm equipment…and yet, it didn’t feel the least bit strange. Life was surely different: the people were more relaxed, it was darker inside, and our usual electronic forms of entertainment were lacking. But I wasn’t bowled over by the weirdness that I was expecting. Nonplussed was I.

Was it not true that I was in one of the “poorest” areas of the world? Was it not true that really, I would be hard-pressed to find many other places in the world where life was more “basic”? As far as I can tell, those were true. So why wasn’t it strange being there?!

I suppose it was partially because I’d already gotten used to many of the non-American characteristics of the area: the language, bathing in the Chuj, going with the flow of life more… But I think most important was the fact that I wasn’t evaluating the lifestyle of the people of Tiactac right alongside my own American lifestyle. Surely, if you dropped Izabela’s mother along with her dark, smoky hut on Main St. in Penn Yan, she would look poor as dirt. But then again, if you dropped the house of a “poor” upstate-New-Yorker in the middle of Tiactac, it would look like some “rich” San Matean had just moved out there: electricity?! Running water?! And probably even…a CAR?! Whoa…slow down…

Surely one conclusion to draw from all of this is that, as Brian suggested, one really measures one’s level of poverty relative to what one’s neighbors have. People from NYC can be poor even if they make $70,000; people who live in Orange, Va. can be rich with a $25,000 salary; and people in San Mateo can be rich if the illegal-immigrant pater familius sends back even a small part of his sub-minimum-wage, meat-packer salary.

But what other deep conclusions about life and human nature can I draw? I’m not sure. But one thing I’ve noticed is that, looking beyond the specific traditions of each particular place in the world, people are pretty dang similar. Some have more stuff than others…relatively. Some have less stuff than others…relatively. But everyone lives. Everyone is happy sometimes. Everyone is sad sometimes. Everyone works sometimes. Everyone plays sometimes. And everyone—and I mean everyone in the world—drinks Coke.

Those observations are fairly general and rather trite, and thus are currently unsatisfying to my truth-and-specificity-seeking, rational side. But hopefully, as this curious Guatemalan experience continues, I’ll come closer to realizing what important life truths I can draw from my time in this actually-not-so-different area of the world. Because really, the only way to live is without pretensions: if we shed the false and hurtful ideas impressed upon us by our parallel-universe, first-world society; if we understand the reality of the world; and if we live lives and make decisions that are in line with that reality, then life truly will be good.

And now, to close, I give you the obligatory Heather reference. Herewith, her eloquent observations on the subject of really, Who among us is poor? —

Really, who among us is poor? One volunteer once said, “It makes me really sad to see these kids playing with empty plastic soda bottles.” In my view, it warms my heart to know that there are still people on this earth who do not need a $35 fancy-super-ball in order to play and have a good time. Who, really, is the poor one? Who is poor? The rested, centered, bright-eyed, intuitive, smart 17-year-old who is able to prioritize his family and be okay with his decisions, or the over-committed, stressed, sick, depressed, award-winning 17-year-old who’s early-decision into an over-priced private school? Who is poor? The family and friends coming together to build a cement or adobe home eating a hot meal together on break, or the lonely, anxious, dieting mother trying to decorate her home like a pro? Who is poor? The barefooted, weathered grandmother with ripped, bow-legged legs whizzing up the mountain-side or the sickly, thin-skinned grandmother crying herself to sleep at night in a retirement home in between mandatory medications? Who is poor? The strong family in a dirt floor adobe house or the chemically sensitive, allergy-ridden kids and neurotic parents in a housing development?

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The Town of the Red Pants

By the time this post appears, it will probably have been several weeks since I went to Huehue and Todos Santos, thanks to a great dearth of Internet.  But luckily, even without the Internet, one can still write, just as the great writers did hundreds of years ago.  They just had to make sure to save their work regularly in case of a hard-drive crash. 

A few weeks ago I made my first big escape to Xela (pronounced “SHAY-luh,” the Mayan-language name for Quetzaltenango, the second largest city in Guatemala) with Fernando and Angela.  Despite the total of 14+ hours in a bus, the trip was much needed, and the relaxation and festivation were much enjoyed.  Unfortunately, my camera’s battery conveniently decided to die during minute three of the trip, so the only pictures from that trip with which I can supply you, my faithful readers, are the first two pictures, both of our luxurious hotel’s luxurious coffin/shower [see link below]. 

Also contained in this post’s picture installment are a series of pictures of the “sea of clouds,” as I like to call it—sometimes when the clouds come into San Mateo at night it just looks cool.  But sometimes, if you happen to look out over the valley during the crucial 10-minute period when there are enough clouds to cover all of the land below, but they haven’t yet crept up to where you’re standing, you get a really cool sight.  Check it out. 

Anyway, Xela was great, but the stresses of Foundation life and of my continuing difficulties with managing tercero continued to brew…thus, another trip was born.   

The first stop was Huehue, which, as Angela, Fernando, and I discovered on our way to Xela, is a fun town…but only sort of.  Consequently, my vaguely eventful 18-hour stay involved a stop at the Mansión de Tacos for an excellent evening refection, about 10 hours of sleep in Henry and María’s rented room (where they stay on their frequent trips to the city—Henry just started a computer-network-management class in Huehue), and a trip to the ruins of Zaculeu, the remnants of the main hub of the long-gone Mam empire.   

According to ye auld guidebooke, the Mam empire (perhaps empire should be in quotes?) did well for a while, but eventually was taken over by the nearby Quiché around the time of the Spaniards’ arrival.  Apparently all the information we have about the heyday of the Mam people comes indirectly from Quiché records, which correctly suggests whom the balance of power favored, and explains the prevalence of Quiché, which is, I believe, the most-spoken Mayan language, with Kaqchikel and Mam trailing slightly. 

The ruins were cool (see the pictures at the link below); but, as my guidebook correctly noted, the 1950’s “renovation”—or rather, “plasterfication”—of the ruins is enough to bum-out anyone who’s seen natural ruins before.  Indeed, the plaster will keep the original design intact for another few hundred years; however, it’s slightly harder to believe that Zaculeu really was an ancient power center when you can barely see any of the original rocks!  Alas. 

After some more futzing around with Henry and María, I boarded a bus heading back into the Cuchumatanes (the mountain range at the foot of which is situated Huehue, and inside which are situated all of the northwestern towns like San Mateo).  My destination this time: the appropriately named Todos Santos Cuchumatán. 

Some of the most frequently images of Guatemala’s Mayan culture are pictures of the people from Todos Santos, where everyone—not just the women—wear the town’s traditional garb: finely-stitched huipiles and dark-blue cortes for the women; and for the men, red-striped pants, wool britches, small sombreros, and blue-and-white-striped shirts with amazing, elaborately embroidered collars.  Needless to say, I succumbed to touristification and snagged myself an excellent pair of the aforementioned pants.  I couldn’t bring myself to get the whole costume, but chances are that if I ever go back, there will be a shirt waiting for me.  In the meantime, I’m going to focus on getting myself a capixay, the slightly-less-loud (brown or black) traditional male sweater/jacket, which, accompanied by the Todos Santos pants, will surely get a rise out of the students, who already think it’s great that I can “conjugate” my name in Chuj: hinch’at (my bed), hach’at (your bed), sch’at (his/her bed), koch’at (our bed), hech’at (“y’all’s” bed), sch’at heb’ (their bed)… 

Despite being small—probably smaller than San Mateo—the dusty, colorful town of Todos Santos was still refreshing.  Probably because of its popularity with tourists, there was less trash, the vendors were more tourist-friendly, and the people were clearly used to seeing gringos, so they didn’t gawk at me with alien eyes the way many people in San Mateo do. 

Interestingly enough, however, the family I stayed with for the night had a much lower level of Spanish than the average San Mateo family.  Maybe it had something to do with the linguistic structure of Mam—the language of Todos Santos and a large part of the surrounding area—but the mistakes all of the family members made were extremely interesting: tomata (tomate), dominga (domingo), mañano (mañana)…  But the Spanish errors were more endearing than anything else, and made it easier for me to enter into discussions with them about the differences between Mam and Chuj, which were vast.  Some of the words were similar—especially the numbers—but the sounds were completely different.  The sounds in Chuj are almost exactly the same as Spanish sounds; however, Mam reminded me of very, very guttural French—the j’s and k’s were all so far back in the throat that I would literally feel like I was choking when I tried to pronounce some of the words.  The wonders of linguistic isolation! 

Not much happened there besides sleeping, strolling, relaxing, touristy shopping, and hanging out with the family—Don Juan, Doña Susana (the parents), Carmelina (a daughter-in-law), Christian, Marcelino (her children), and others.  See pictures of them here (finally, the link…): 

[] [Xela, Clouds, Huehue, Todos Santos] 

Staying over night brought back memories of Tiactac: despite the inner peace brought by sleeping in such tranquil locations, waking up with your legs frozen from the knee down is not particularly pleasant—it makes me realize how spoiled I am to have my tiny heater in San Mateo!  But everything else was great: the loving company of the family, the girls who let me watch them weave a huipil (a three-month process), the little boys who let me hang out with them while they played marbles, the karaoke-esque rowdiness of the evangelical church services, the coffee, the food, the tiny blob of ruins up the hill, the colors, and the silence, which was only very occasionally broken by the exploding of a firework, whose remnants then continued to thunder raucously back and forth between the sheer valley walls for what seemed like another five minutes. 

An excellent experience—one I’d like to bottle up for future enjoyment, but really one that can only be enjoyed in the moment.  Perhaps another visit to Don Juan & co. is on the horizon.


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Valentine’s Day. A Big Deal.

Coming from the U.S., I never had any idea that Valentine’s Day could be so important.  But when all of your students love each other so much [even if they do punch each other in the face regularly], you really have no choice but to treat the day like a national holiday. 

Acting thusly, we cancelled classes (a not-uncommon thing in our school), and took a long walk to Yit Job’, a beautiful, flat piece of terrain about two hours on foot from the school.  Upon arriving, disorganized—but quite enjoyable—games were played by all for several hours.  Food was cooked.  Presents were exchanged.  All of this with relatively little order, mind you, which we’re going to have to fix in the future, along with the trash problem: after a grand day, all of the students—and all of the Guatemalan teachers—left after only cleaning up about 10% of the vast amount of trash that never found its way to any sort of receptacle.  True, it is a cultural thing, but it’s one that everyone I’ve talked to here agrees needs to be changed.  We’ll see what we can do in the short time we’re here. 

After cleaning up some more trash after everyone else had left, I headed back, but not before getting lost for at least 15 minutes trying to find the trail.  A bit scary, but a bit exhilarating at the same time.  Although I can’t say that I had much trouble once I found the path: the constant trail of orange peels, mango debris, trash, and pica pica—glitter and confetti that we all threw on each other as rather aggressive signs of affection—showed the way remarkably well. [Día del Cariño] 

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Tiactac, Heather-Style

Below is a digest of Heather’s 13 March 2006 email about, among other things, her trip to Tiactac.  Upon re-reading it, I discovered the amazing similarity of our experiences: the chicks following their mothers; the Cup-o-Noodles; the chilacoyote; Izabela’s “¡Hay que comer!”; the sun shining through the smoke and onto Izabela’s wrinkled, content mother; the silence… 


Saturday, my biggest accomplishment was sleeping.  Dear Lord, how sweet sleep can be.  At 4 a.m. I boarded the bed of a pickup truck with one of my two female quinto students, Izabela Jacinto Lucas, to visit her and her family in an aldea–village–about an hour outside of town by car, 2-3 hours by foot.  I have never seen so many stars…the Milky Way, when you’re in the mountains like we are, wraps around the sky, hugging all us small ones.  My Yankee ability to withstand the cold helped me feel a bit more like I was worthy of this hardy company who travel to and from their aldea, Tiactac, to make a living.   

At 5:15 a.m. we arrive at two adobe huts in complete darkness, and by candlelight Doña María sticks a few wood splits in the fuego, warms up some sweet, weak coffee, and after washing my hands over the earthen floor, I eat two almost-stale, sweet muffins. If this is breakfast, I’m going to eat BOTH.  Slowly but surely, through the cracks in the adobe hut’s wood-plank walls, I see the sky start to lighten. Huddled around the fire, her smiling and sun-wrinkled father attempts to engage me in polite conversation with broken Spanish, but I was hard pressed to know what to say.  How cool to be sitting in the middle of nowhere enjoying this ritual, quiet awakening of life! 

But then comes the first, “¡Hay que comer, Seño!”, and I’m handed a plateful of hot pasta seasoned with cup ‘o noodles flavoring, and a never-ending stack of warmed tortillas from their cupboard.  An affectionate gray cat joins us, flopping from side to side with failed back legs.  An eager young dog scours the floor for crumbs.  All give them both a kick now and then to keep them out of the way.  Then comes the da Vinci moment when the sun surmounts the mountains, casting its glow through the adobe-hut gaps, capturing the swirling pine-log smoke, creating six shifting walls of light and smoke. Dona Maria sat perched next to the wall and fire, veiled and decorated by her own protective smoke-light wall.  I sat transfixed by the pleasure of experiencing this age-old, simple sight, and managed to murmur at one point in response to inquisitive looks about my well-being, “I’ve never seen light like this before.”  Umm, ok, Seño.  Way to engage in conversation.  

Izabela then dressed me up in a corte, a big piece of fabric that you tie to yourself by wrapping around a cloth belt tied tight enough that it’s hard to breathe…or that after you eat you might be eating it all again if you bend over too quickly.  Side note: my girls play basketball in these things!  And little tiny rubber shoes. 

Adorned with an oversized, gray-and-purple cardigan and sandals that are 2 sizes too small for me, I receive a glowing, “¡Seño! ¡Que guapa es!” — “Teacher, how lovely you are!”  Beauty IS in the eye of the beholder.  We stroll through the street to their unpaved b-ball court, wander a few yards into the woods and sit to enjoy the sounds of the birds and chainsaws.  

Deforestation is a major issue here.  More often than not, I have walked through the memories of robust flora and fauna, heated by the sun more often than cooled by protective, loving shade.  I really have seen about no wild animals here: a rabbit this weekend, some birds chirping, but hardly any in San Mateo central.  A few lizards.  Starving cows and black sheep that keep the forest floor at an enchantingly low carpet-like length.  It’s a little creepy when you stop to think about it.  According to Izabela, through whom just this weekend I gained an appreciation for the real language barrier that exists for mostly Chuj-speaking people, a tree lasts 2 weeks to a month.  It is used to heat the fire stove that is burning all day long, the Chuj, and I’m not sure what else.  Forests here are also recovering from the government’s active deforestation during the war to reduce guerilla warfare. 

What you do no see here, despite this human needs driven forest depletion, is ruthless, soulless, self-important clear-cutting the likes of which our country is suffering immensely and indescribably.  

For every felled tree here blocking a walking path, every passing person can appreciate the need for this tree.  As my mind tries on lifestyles for size, imagining a life of making tortillas and sitting the majority of my life in a carcinogenic kitchen hut breathed full of life, death, and lovely smells, I cannot help but marvel at these incredibly strong people.  Who reading this could or would walk one hour for water, at a river that might dry up, to carry the 40 lbs or more back on your head…in tiny rubber shoes?  Those feet slide so adeptly over rocks, up inclines, through pine needles as I clump along behind them in my sturdy, high-quality, ankle-supporting, Gortex-and-leather boots…which I totally cannot wear with a corte.  Duh!  Tiactac suffers mainly—and perhaps only—for its water situation.  I wonder how the body adapts to low water availability, because Izabela seemed nonplussed by my adamant three liters or more a day!  Mantra of agua pura.  With all this scarcity screaming at us humans from all directions, I have to ask myself, “Should I procreate?” Will it be MY children who change the world?  

But back to the sleep.  I proceeded to sleep the morning away after our short paseo in a bed about a foot too short for me.  The sweet mountain air kept me put for three hours.  I awoke to another “¡Hay que comer, Seño!” and a plateful of their huge, sweet, winter squash, chilacoyote.  Full and pressing against my corte belt, I was whisked into the kitchen for my next “¡Hay que comer, Seño!”: another plateful of unending tortillas, eggs, refried beans, and a strangely artificial strawberry-syrup-flavored version of yesterday’s coffee. 

The rest of the afternoon consisted of ogling at baby chicks trailing their mother, entering the forest to machete off leaves in which her mother would wrap tamales, hacking off leaves of a plant that everyone uses to smack themselves clean here in the Chuj—no ocean…fewer natural sponge options!  Washing soaked corn in clay colanders; washing my hair standing up; watching Izabela chop wood; trying my hand at crushing corn into dough to the laughs of the women of the house; being trumped by her sister’s show-off ability to tortillar a perfect tortilla better than the flattening device they’ve taken to using and in less time than me and my clumsy uninitiated hands; chujing; eating one more time; and sleeping at 7. 

I tell you, I am not sure I have ever enjoyed a sleep so much.  COMPLETE darkness, NO sound, sweet, clean air sneaking through the cracks in the bedroom adobe hut…I slept for 12 hours.  Which….allowed me to make the 2.5 hour trek through the forest and over worn, traveled rocks back to San Mateo by foot the next morning without stopping.  Izabela’s family encouraged the car, but secretly, I really wanted to walk.  Praise Jesus!  I still have muscles!!  To keep it in perspective, Tiactac only got a “highway”—which means winding dirt road—5 years ago.  Imagine the loads carried to Sunday and Thursday market days in San Mateo for generations.  One foot in front of another…that is one of the outstanding things for me here.  It doesn’t matter if you hurt, you put one foot in front of another and life goes on…and you’re better for your struggle. 

I think this kind of slowing that I tasted this weekend is what my body is craving.  I do not have this at the Foundation with a room full of computers, buses honking by at all hours of the night, drunks crying outside my window, dogs whining and talking, lots of things cluttering space, gas stoves, and hot water.  Those students from our Centro Comunitario, most of whom I did not realize live in Tiactac, have what I have now dubbed the “Tiactac Smile”…EACH of them smiles like they’ve just tasted the sweetest water in the world.  Maybe that’s it…water is so sweet for them and they know it.  Where I will find my slowing place?  I don’t know.


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Please, Have Some Tact. Some Tiactact?

Greetings, space travelers.  Much has occurred since the last entry, as is wont to happen when the last entry was many more than several days ago.  But before we begin, the link to the pictures from the aforementioned graduation of our contemporary, la Licenciada Eulalia, which took place in—where else?—Santa Eulalia.  The town officials clearly renamed their pueblo after her in honor of her licenciatura: [Eulalia’s Graduation] 

Last weekend was full of Tiactac.  Tiactactful.  An aldea (smaller than a pueblo) about 6 km outside of San Mateo—3 hours on foot, 1 hour in car—Tiactac is home to several of our students, ranging from, among others, Diego of segundo, to his brother Felipe of tercero, to Izabela, one of our sexto students.   

After a beautiful, relaxed, 3-hour trek through surprisingly rugged terrain, we arrived at a little cluster of wooden and adobe huts, the likes of which can still occasionally be seen in nooks and crannies around San Mateo, but not in nearly the numbers we encountered in the village.  From Saturday morning until Sunday afternoon we hung out in a complex of 1-room buildings, all of which belong to Izabela’s family.  Unlike in San Mateo, where bigger, multi-room houses are becoming the norm, the several hundred families of Tiactac make due very well with many small buildings: one for the kitchen, one for the shed, one or two for the bedrooms, and of course, one for the requisite tienda. 

The atmosphere was impressively relaxing.  In fact, aside from sleeping, eating, and walking around in the surrounding woods, there was nothing else to do.  No electricity.  No running water.  Strange for a little while, but truly liberating for the rest of the time.  As a result, I ended up with over 100 pictures of the 24-hour excursion, at least 50% of which were of…the chickens.  That’s right, the chickens.  They were everywhere, and man did they have personality!  And great hair dos.  I tried as hard as I could to capture the glory of some of the foul coifs on camera, but am still not convinced of my photographic prowess.  You may judge for yourselves: [Tiactac] 

The most interesting naturesque excursion we had took us to a couple of wells in a bowl-like valley at the bottom of a steep hill, about a 10-minute walk from Izabela’s house.  It wasn’t so much the curious, scum-covered wells (used only for animals) that made the scene surreal, but rather it was the entire vista: acres of huge, fallen, scorched trees.  And the echoes of the one little lamb screeching in what otherwise was dead silence.  [You’ll see my attempts to capture the primeval nature of the place, also at the above link.]  Apparently the huge forest fire that enveloped the area had taken place about 4 years ago…we tried to get further explanation of what exactly happened, but haven’t been successful so far.  We were assured, however, that the fire was unrelated to the war, which ended in 1996, and which Izabela said never made it out to the tiny enclave of Tiactac.     

As the sun began to set, we were ushered to yet another one-room building a hundred meters down the road, where the four of us shacked up for the night after taking the requisite and excellent Saturday-night Chuj.  The peacefulness in the place was astounding; however, I also discovered that, unfortunately, Buddhist monasteries in Thailand aren’t the only places that have unpadded boards for beds…  As the sleeping experience was slightly less than ideal, I must refer you to the amazingly Buddhist and inspired account written by Heather, the UVa grad who taught music and English here last year, when she returned from her trip to the aldea.  It will be posted immediately after this entry. 

We thought we were going to take it easy on the way back by paying Q10 to ride in the back of a truck.  But as it turns out, riding on the pot-holy roads through the [significantly deforested] Guatemalan wilderness is quite a bit harder on one’s body than the three-hour hike!  Regardless, we returned to San Mateo refreshed in many ways, even if our faces had been baked a little in the sun.

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