December 16, 2008
Last thursday I said some sad goodbyes and set sail for Xela. Since then I’ve been hanging around Guatemala’s second-biggest city trying not to be too much of a travel-hipster. I climbed the country’s second-highest volcano by moonlight and went for a soak in some geothermal hot springs.
I had a feeling Mike and his girlfriend wouldn’t make it out here like he said, so it came as no surprise when I got a phone call confirming this and inviting me to San Pedro. Although I found that town to be somewhat of a mixed bag, I decided I’ll go since I won’t have another opportunity to say goodbye and it’s on my way. This time I’m booking shuttles, though because I can’t stand another chicken bus ride to save my life. The last one had me puking.
After that it’s one more night in the capital the next night and my first flight early the next morning. It’s certainly been a long, strange trip, but one I wouldn’t change. All in all time well spent. Presently it all too recent to wrap my head around. I’m sure I will come here in my mind many times in the years to come and wonder what it was like to live in these moments. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll return.
November 25, 2008
On Saturday I had the privilege to a watch a match of chajchai, the much-celebrated Mayan Ballgame of pre-Columbian times. It all began when I was hanging around Enlace and I happened across Matias on his way out the door. He said that if I was interested I should join him at the site of the new Popol Ja K’iche’ (K’iche’ Cultural Center) that was under construction outside town on the way to Xatinap for a sort of inaugural event they were holding there in an hour.
An hour later I found myself seated among K’iche’ folks from various communities who had gathered share in a ceremony held honor of the unfinished Center. I watched as Matias, the MC called for shows of hands from the perhaps ten communities that were represented. Several important community members gave speeches and a group of youths performed a familiar routine of interpretive dance (estampa foklorico with play-acted scenes of traditional Mayan life). The mayor and governor were sadly not present when invited to speak.
Next, Matias invited us out to a nearby cement basketball court to observe a chajchai match. Somebody had strung a rope from one basketball hoop to the other, from which were suspended two smallish rings. Matias announced that if a member of either team were to knock the ball through one of the rings, they would win the game. The ball they played with was made from solid rubber (not hollow in the middle) and weighed more than three pounds. It was made in Peten and supposedly cost more than 1,500 Q (about $200).
If I understood correctly, the players had come all the way from Chimaltenengo to demonstrate their sport. They were shirtless and wore colorful war paint. There were three on each team. The ends of the court with the hoops served as end zones. The object of the game was to get the ball through the other team’s end zone. Each player could only hit the ball once before a player from the opposite team got a hit. They could only use their hips and knees. The game would be won, we were told, by scoring eight points. In order to get a point, a team had to start with possession of the ball which was obtained by getting it past the other team’s end zone. I didn’t quite catch how, but there was a way of losing points. Matias explained that matches could take days.
It was really interesting watching them play. At one point there was a side-out in my direction and I put out my foot to stop the ball. It really is a hefty chunk of rubber. Nothing like I’ve ever played with.
November 25, 2008
Yes, it’s been a while since Día de Los Muertos, but I thought I’d share with you my experience of this interesting Latin American holiday. During Día de Los Muertos the people of Santa Cruz Del Quiché celebrated the lives of those who have died. I believe the tradition behind the celebration comes from the pagan belief that on the night of October 31st the spirits of the dead walk the earth. Festivities are a held that night in the town cemetery as well as the following night after All Saints Day. In the weeks leading up to the celebration, people paint the tombs of their families and adorn them with fresh flowers.
The evening of the 31st I went and played soccer with some coworkers. It was a popular night and the field was booked back to back. Afterwards I went to Estaban’s mother’s house and joined him and his wife for tomales. The cemetery was next. Several blocks of the road leading up to the cemetary were lined with vendors selling pizza and sweets. Families milled in and out in ambiance resembling the market.
The cemetary itself glowed with the light of many candles. It looked like a city in miniature with all the little mausolea. The “main street” went from the cemetery gates to a chapel where a people prayed and vigil was held. On one side of the path, a band played cheery traditional music and a hum of warm chatter hung in the air. We followed pathways through the maze of many small structures the place that held Esteban’s family’s remains. All along the way people lit candles and put fresh flowers on tombs. In some places there were nothing more than mounds of earth marking graves that were partially covered in what looked to me like plaster.
At one point a loud, jovial chanting drew me to a particular patch of earth where about thirty youths and number of bystanders stood scattered amidst burial mounds. Older boys and girls took turns leading call-and-response songs and chants. I asked Esteban who they were and he responded that they were scouts! Sure enough, I was able to pick out the familar “boom chicka rocka chicka rocka chicka boom” familiar from many a camping trip with Steven and Kathy!
There’s something deeply reflective about missing one of your own holiday and experiencing one in it’s place that belongs to another culture. You can know in a technical way that it is done differently elsewhere, but until you’re right there in it, there’s isn’t much else that can bring home so deeply.
November 4, 2008
In case I haven’t mentioned it before, dogs here are ubiquitous. One sees them everywhere; in yards, on rooftops, and of course roaming the streets, fighting, mating and picking through garbage.
One day I was in the park with Pablo when I noticed a dog sprawled out on its side on a major pathway through one of the parks. “It looks dead”, I remarked to Pablo. “It is dead,” he replied.
Pablo explained that every so often somebody goes around town poisoning dogs. I didn’t quite catch whether this was a deliberate, sanctioned activity or if it was done by “volunteers”, but it didn’t appear to be all that controversial to anyone to whom I mentioned it.
I really feel sorry whoever has the job of disposing of all the dog carcasses. I seem to have found the place where they are all put, though. there is a place with standing water behind the school near our house that always seems to have a handful of dead dogs. Ew!
November 3, 2008
I had Chomo over to look at the mold growing on our furniture and he unfortunately insisted on killing the lizard I’ve been keeping as a pet all these months. It was so unnecessary.
He told me that it was snake. I pointed out that it had legs he said that they were baby and that the snake would lose them. He said it would sneak into my bed at night and that it would bite and I would die. I tried to tell him that that the last snake with legs died 95 million years ago and that the only kind of poisonous lizard is the Gila Monster but he was persistent in his superstitions and killed it anyway.
October 29, 2008
The next morning we caught another lancha up the river to Rio Dulce, a yacht-encrusted and rather dingy place situated around a major river crossing. We made our way up to the Litegua station and had just enough time to hit up a Dispensa for sustenance before our on-time (yep, you read right) departure!
We made it back to the behemoth Guatemala City just in time for rush hour. While mom used the bathroom, I found us a cab driver that looked like he meant business. The next half hour is a jumble in my memory of drivers blaring their horns and sprinting around one-another through red lights and passing on sidewalks. Our driver was no exception, even taking us through a Burger King parking lot to cut a corner at a busy intersection.
We checked into my usual airport-area digs for one last night before Mom was whisked away to the land where I long to be.
October 28, 2008
Finca Tatin, up the river where we went turned out to be a little piece of paradise. I was reachable only by river and forest trail and for about 150Q a night (roughly twenty bucks) we could stay in a room with a shower and electricity for three hours a night. The place consisted of a main “lodge” area set near the water line and raised above a riparian area teeming with tiny crabs, turtles, and even jymungous banana spiders!
That morning we rented a kayak and paddled up some gorgeous waterfront to Ak’tenamit, an impressive little live-in school nestled into an alcove along a fork off the main river. At the dock we were greeted by a guide who showed us all throughout the place and described it to us in relative detail. I kept hearing and observing some impressive aspects that reflected what I consider very progressive and egalitarian views (students are required to provide support to their community before graduating, students are allowed to work in if unable to pay tuition in money) mixed in with what I have begun to interpret as rather conservative traditional Mayan philosophy (girls housed in separate village from boys, men most often in positions of authority. The tour was as much a cultural experience as it was a lesson in Mayan autonomy.
After a nap back at the finca, we tried in vain to work our way up to a hot springs near the water on the main river. We did however manage to amble our way up a quite hidden stream that leads to a community a few scant yards back from the main water front. Finding it not to be the hot springs, we doubled back and paddle the arduous kayak journey back to the Finca where dinner and jovial conversation awaited us before bed.
October 27, 2008
After another hectic travel vignette involving a familiar microbus and a relatively luxurious four-hour Pullman we found ourselves in dirty, bustling Puerto Barrios. After bearing a barrage of taxi drivers and getting some cash we hauled our stuff to the local dock to wait for a lancha. After enough people had arrived to fill one, we took off across the bay to Livingston.
While we waited in Livingston for a lancha down a river, we met a girl and her mother who was visiting her. It turned out the girl, Melissa, was working on her thesis conducting a study on the effects of fair trade on a nearby co-op that produces women’s handicrafts. Her mother was quite well-traveled and had sent both Melissa and her sister on foreign exchange in high school. She was very involved with the Rotary Club and regaled us with interesting information about the organization; a thing I will be certain to check into when I get home.
After a rather shy group dinner, sleep was a welcome repose from buses and boats.
October 26, 2008
It was intoxicating for me returning to Copan after so many years. Watching the place unfold before me as watery memories crept from the structures and from the very earth. Honduras has proven easy to forget but difficult to put completely out of my mind. I feel that when I went there I perhaps took the course of my life into my own hands in a way that I seldom had before or have since. It fills me with curiosity to think of going back to La Esperanza although time isn’t very forgiving; we can never truly go back. Only to the same place in a different time.
Our tour guide, it seemed to me, was very listo; he had taught himself English apparently by simply guiding tours. He stumbled along in English about his visit to Denmark and his anthropologist brother but did little to bring the ruins to life the way I have seen a good guide do. After our ruins tour we wandered off onto a free nature trail at the ruins’ edge that took us through a shady glade with raised trail and standing water breeding mosquitoes and all other kinds of diverse rain forest life.
Copan isn’t quite the sequestered, wild place Tikal has become through the efforts of the Guatemalan government. While signs of wilderness are everywhere, especially in many birds and butterflies and the variety of trees at the park, one doesn’t sense that the only thing keeping the jungle at bay is the light of day.