(Note: friends’ photos)
It was mid-summer. Our group’s van driver chatted animatedly on his cell phone as he drove us up the precipitous roads through the mountains, evoking much nervous laughter. Five hours of road stood between us and the indigenous village of Nebaj. Along the way, we took note of political logos painted onto the sides of mountains and houses, fresh from the recent election.
My understanding is that Guatemala is a “developing democracy” featuring relatively free elections as well as opposition parties, but with a worrying degree of centralized power in ex-military hands. Among other splotches. They have had both democratic and undemocratic rule at various points in their history, and like most countries, have often been beleaguered with Western involvement.
After lunch, we took a pit stop at the colourful town of Chichicastenango.
My memory of Chichicastenango consists of a never-ending street of textile shops overflowing with hand-woven bags and blankets, beaded key chains, and painted wooden masks. There were plenty of Guatemalans browsing the shops, but the white foreigners stood out. They bargained with mothers in brief and broken Spanish phrases, while young boys, like magnets, ran up to them offering their shoe-shining services. We were reading Marx at that point in our travels. Rebecca wrote about a boy with a disability she saw who essentially flaunted his disability to evoke pity in the tourist. A commodification of pity, she argued. The group spent an hour or so draining our fanny packs of Quetzals, the Guatemalan currency. The cloudy ambivalence towards our consumerism began to cast its shadow. Many of us second-guessed our consumption of these products, for legitimizing our “false needs” and expressing our North American purchasing power and influence, but we also recognized the way in which we could try to justify our lopsided tourism: by putting money into local economies.
After lunch, we climbed back into the van and eventually rolled into the village of Nebaj.
Nebaj is a village with overcast skies, pot-holed streets, and crumbling sidewalks, with children who frequent video arcades if they can earn a few coins shining shoes, with blue-painted convenience stores (Pepsi’s influence), and with smiling faces greeting you at every moment–we were to greet every single passerby with “buenos dias,” “buenas tardes,” or “buenas noches” depending on the time of day. It is surrounded by mountains 360 degrees around, and it stretches out from the central town square (a square every Guatemalan town has for political assembly purposes), to the rural fields. Despite the pollution of diesel affecting our heads and inevitably the fleas in my home stay bed, I came to develop an inexplicable love for that village and its people.
Yet, it is arguably the most civil war-torn region of Guatemala. The civil war lasted from 1960, originating in a C.I.A..-led coup after president Jacobo Arbenz planned to redistribute agrarian land from American-owned United Fruit Company, until a peace treaty was signed in 1996. An internal war of 36 years and 200,000 lives. The indigenous people of Nebaj were particularly caught up in the bloodshed because they were perceived by the government, as racists do, to be natural allies of the leftist rebels. As fellow traveller Rachel commented, we were hard-pressed to see the effects of the civil war as outsiders. I felt a definite gap between the smiling faces on the streets and the heartbreaking poems about massacres and brothers killing brothers I read in my books. I felt like we were only ever treading water at the surface of the community. Likewise, even though I knew that 50% of Guatemalans under the age of 5 are chronically malnourished (World Food Programme), this sort of poverty mostly evaded the observation of a passing traveler. The kids hanging around my home stay seemed active enough 6 a.m. in the morning. Pretty mountains, pretty fabrics, pretty faces.
We only really delved deeper when survivors of the civil war spoke out to us. One of these men, a rebel during the civil war, invited us to his home. We were first welcomed by his family: we fawned over his children, dressed up in traditional clothing, and learned how to, I suppose, spool wool….
…but he also told us of graver things. Of a decade of hiding in the mountains, and of fighting for villages against government “scorch and burn” policies. What he did not tell us is that many locals hold the rebels guilty for provoking more harm from the government. The war is much too complex for me to understand. He took us to a cemetery where villagers had been lain to rest in peace–rebels, neutrals, and army officers alike. I still cannot fathom how brothers, literally brothers, fought each other.
Anyhow, upon arriving, we divided into two groups and were welcomed into our hotels. I was told that my group’s hotel had a motto along the lines of “our home is your home.” I would soon come to realize that this did not only mean that they would accommodate us like loving family, but that we would be accommodating them: every evening, we were subject to a giggling band of children in the courtyard; we were met in the early morning (think 3 a.m.) with the screwed-up moaning of a defunct rooster; and my bedding was of course infested with fleas.
I am glad it was like that though, because it made for a hell of a hilarious time for me and my roommate, Sara. She never failed to make me laugh and I am so glad we became friends (although her intestinal amoeba named Victor tagged along unexpectedly). We would share our beds with six other soon-to-become friends for study sessions. In the case of Anna, it was more like napping sessions. I was not initiated into friendship, however, without an interrogation into my character one night because I was apparently “mysterious”. I think I can safely say that, after six weeks, they know me now…perhaps a little too well.
Three meals a day, we were fed delicious RESTAURANT FOOD here:
Each meal was accompanied by a wicked tropical fruit smoothie, hot chocolate, or various such configurations of parties in my mouth. We were served a variety of meals, from pizadillas (pizza quesadillas!) to traditional Guatemalan food. Namely: beautiful guacomole all day and everyday; breakfast of black beans, mushy plaintain, eggs, salsa, a slice of goat-tasting cheese, and those dreaded corn tortillas; and a sort of Guatemalan tamale, rather flavourless to me. We soon grew affectionate for the people we met in our hotel, the restaurant, the cafe, and all the places in between.
To complement my coursework, I took a brief class on Ixil, the native language in the area. It is a rather neat language. At some point, Sara and I started asking oh so very relevant questions, like how to translate “my lover.” The teacher miraculously managed, with my limited Spanish, to have a conversation with me about Guatemalan and American politics & religion. I could not expect such miracles of understanding from all Guatemalans though–at many other moments during the trip, I wished desperately to break the language barrier and just speak to them without a translator.
I believe this video demonstrates a dialect of, or a similar language to, Ixil:
During a hike in the countryside, I was privy to the experience of developing a sunburn for the first time in my life! It was not a pretty sight. The hike was, though:
Guatemala of course has its fair share of contradictions. At the foot of a beautiful waterfall, we encountered pollution. But before we are quick to point out the lack of recycling norms and facilities, we should take note (as we would learn in the following weeks) of the risks local environmental activists take in Guatemala by standing up to expose the human and indigenous rights violations made by Canadian mining companies and their affiliates.
To end on a happy note, I did end up forgiving the children at our hotel for inconveniencing grumpy old me with their laughter. They were just too adorable. They threw a paper airplane into our room one night. On it, “We play with you? Put an X. Yes or No.” You know we said yes.