Our van driver chatted animatedly on his cellphone as he drove us up the precipitous roads through the mountains, evoking much nervous laughter. Five hours of road stood between Xela and the village of Nebaj in a region primarily inhabited by indigenous peoples; 40-60% of Guatemalans are indigenous and there are approximately 26 native languages (The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 2011). Along the way, we took note of political logos painted onto the sides of mountains and houses. There was an election last year and this party won:
My understanding is that Guatemala is a developing democracy featuring fairly free elections and opposition parties, but 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. But we did not focus on the role of the state so much in our studies.
Around lunch, we took a pit stop at the colourful town of Chichicastenango.
My memory of Chichicastenango consists of a seemingly never-ending street of textile shops overflowing with hand-woven bags and blankets, beaded keychains, and painted wooden masks. There were plenty of Guatemalans browsing the shops, but the foreigners stood out. They bargained with children and mothers in short Spanish phrases, while young boys, like magnets, ran up to them offering shoe-shining services. Rebecca, in one of her reflection pieces on Marx, wrote about “the commodification of pity”; of how a disabled boy was put in a position where had to flaunt his disability to evoke pity in the tourist (and to subsequently spend money). We spent an hour or so draining our fannypacks of Quetzals, the Guatemalan currency. I am certain that a common theme all of us encountered on our trip was ambivalence towards our consumerism. Many of us would second-guess our consumption of local products (for potentially fueling our “false needs” and/or making use of North American purchasing power and influence), but we also recognized that we were putting money into local economies.
After feasting at a buffet for lunch, we climbed back into the van and eventually rolled into the village of Nebaj.
Nebaj is a village with pot-holed streets and crumbling sidewalks, with overcast skies and occasional afternoon bursts of sun, with women in traditional long red skirts and embroidered tops selling food in the market, with children who frequent video arcades if they can earn a few coins from shoe-shining, with blue-painted convenience stores selling Pepsi products, with smiling faces greeting you at every moment–we had to say “buenos dias,” “buenas tardes,” or buenas noches” to everyone we passed on the street. It is surrounded by mountains 360 degrees around, and it stretches out from the central town square to the rural fields. Despite the pollution of diesel affecting our heads and the fleas in my bed, I have an inexplicable love for that village that outdoes any other place we visited in Guatemala.
Yet, it is in the most civil war-torn region of Guatemala. The civil war lasted from 1960, originating in a dispute with the American owned United Fruit Company, until 1996, ending with a peace treaty. The indigenous people here were particularly caught up in the bloodshed because they were perceived by the government, for reasons most likely imbued with racism, to be natural allies of the leftist rebels.
As Rachyl 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 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. 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 nap sessions. I was not initiated into friendship, however, without an interrogation into my character one night because I was apparently “vague” and “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.
Our classes were located in a beloved cafe where the banana bread was divine and the owners spoke English to us. (I will save my thoughts on coursework until the next post.) 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:
My first week in Nebaj was not without a hike in the countryside, where 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, cascading waterfall (OK, now I have taken the descriptive writing too far–pray tell me, where can you find a waterfall that is not cascading?), we encountered pollution. Understandably, recycling is not exactly a priority when so many other issues exist. But as a green at heart, I can think of exciting ways in which protecting the environment goes hand in hand with these other issues–for instance, indigenous land rights.
To end on a happy note, I did end up forgiving the children at our hotel. 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.
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