Monday, August 6, 2012

2004 Guatemala CENTRAL AMERICA, part 1 August 15, 2004 

I arrived in Antigua early this morning after a one hour ride from the airport in Guatemala City. I’ve never stopped in GC….it looks so ugly from the air. A large, smoggy city, crowded and unappealing, more than one experienced traveler (as well as the tour books) have told me to head straight out of town.

Getting close to Antigua, the older capital of Guatemala, the air grows cleaner, the streets are lined with rows of bougainvillea cascading over stone walls, and, eventually, the tires clatter on cobbled streets as we reach the central city. I decided to treat myself to a night at the Casa de Santa Domingo before heading out to San Marcos. It’s an old monastery, ruined in one of the many earthquakes this city is prone to, and refurbished elegantly with heavy wooden beams, Spanish tile, gardens and lavishly planted courtyards attended to by several huge macaws. My room is large and comfortable with a little garden terrace outside. The bathroom is larger than some hotel bedrooms I have stay in, and I couldn’t resist the tiled tub with Jacuzzi!

After checking my baggage with the reception desk at 8:30 a.m., I had a cup of excellent coffee, freshly made cheese and tortillas (the waiter laughed a little maybe because I think I ordered a peasant breakfast) and then decided to walk around town. I wandered around all morning, visited my favorite haunts from last year, window-shopped and looked into some of the galleries that featured Guatemalan painters and craftspeople. I love returning to favorite foreign places, feeling the same pleasure I get from visiting an old friend. So much is familiar, and the comfort of the past slides into the present meeting, yet there is still the slight anticipation of strangeness, curiosity and excitement, knowing that something has transpired in the interval between the last meeting and the present.

 I remembered the cafés with large, messy bulletin boards full of news of rentals, movies being shown and Spanish lessons offered about town. Two or three are combination restaurant, internet café, used bookstore and general hang-outs to get away from the bustle on the street and perhaps get into a conversation or backgammon game with another tourist. I remembered the colorful marketplace, which I hadn’t fully explored last year. I remembered the cafes around the central square and the lovely fountain where tourists and locals alike could hang out and relax from the business of the city.

 Many of the old, practically ruined old buildings from the 16th century have been cleaned up and opened as combination parks and historical sites. They juxtapose newer, smooth-fronted buildings painted warm, deep red, yellow or bright turquoise as well as natural colors. No building is over three stories tall, and some are decorated with wrought iron doors and balconies. The narrow streets are cobbled with grey fieldstones which create a deafening sound of truck and car traffic during rush hour. The narrow streets are cobbled with grey stones, which cause a deafening sound when truck and car traffic passes during rush hour.

Overriding all, for me, are is the volcanoes.  Volcan Agua is the primary resident of Antigua. Rising close and dramatic on the south side, it stands as a benign dictator, reminding me of the power of the earth. Volcan Fuego, off in the distance and only visible from a second story window, sends up smoke occasionally. Its distance comforts me, yet it also stands as an observer of human frailty. I understand the ancient people worshiping the fire gods with the volcanoes in their midst.

On my second walk out of the hotel I went to a movie. “Cold Mountain”, a Civil War period piece was playing at the cine off the square. So odd to be transported to 19th century wartime United States and then sudden return to 21st century Guatemala. Not much difference, visually. Arriving at the hotel at 8:00 I was turned away from the hotel dining room because I didn’t have a reservation. There was nowhere else to eat in the hotel other than the formal restaurant. I thought about the testimonials from the Clintons and Madeline Albright, who had stayed here, and wondered what makes people want to rise to the top if they must conform to the hours posted.

Antigua is quaint, but there are so many foreigners living and or visiting that it's also interesting and cosmopolitan. Most of the Mayan women appear serene in their hand woven, colorful native clothing juxtaposed by the agitated Americans, Europeans and Asians in their shorts, t-shirts and tennis shoes. The upscale art galleries, venues for concerts, internet cafes, tour offices and little restaurants and shops are interspersed with lively and colorful street vendors. Women and children carry large, flat baskets, often on their heads, full of woven belts, hats, purses of all sizes and colors, beaded bracelets and shawls. Men carry bags of cashews, peanuts, macadamias and hazelnuts or they drape belts and other leather goods on their arms. The youngest child can balance a basket of textiles on her head, and the oldest woman can sit in the street surrounded by woven articles.

I am tempted to stay here for a few days to look at more of the art, but I need to get to San Marcos to secure my home for the next four weeks. Tomorrow I'll take a van-shuttle to Lake Atitlan. I should be able to get across the lake by noon and hopefully meet up with the woman who holds the key to my rented house. I'm excited about seeing the natural beauty of the lake, as well as meeting the people in San Marcos. I also am anxious to drop off the English books I brought with me (they're heavy) at the local school. I will offer to teach English if they will have me.


August 16 Woke this morning in Antigua to an unfamiliar dream. In my dream I heard a radio alarm. I tried to pull out a plug, then another—there were many wires connecting it to the wall. Then I tried to take out the battery. It still wouldn’t stop ringing. I was annoyed and considered smashing the thing but feel that’s too destructive. The radio disappeared and I woke up.

 On the ride to Panajachel this morning, I met a young man going to study International Law and Human Rights (what a great title) in Costa Rica. He told me that 51% of the top 100 economies in the world are now corporations, not governments. Shell Oil controls Kenya. The government there has no army—the corporation acts as the military.

Now I’m in San Marcos looking out the front door of this little house at the r ain. It’s a small, white cement block A-frame, with a bathroom and extra room on the back, and a stone floor. I’m sleeping on the second floor, bathing on the first. Small, electric oven with two burners, sink, stone shower and tub. No refrigeration, no comfortable chair. Dogs in the yard. Large, round, yellow, cement platform in the front under a very tall papaya tree. Two English neighbors, Ed and his brother, Kevin, helped me settle in, thank goodness. I felt inept at seeing the physical details, like the standing water in the shower. It took 30 minutes of Ed’s work to get the thing draining properly. I’m unplugging, but not totally smashing, the rules from my life before now.

I'd met a Canadian woman in Panajachel the last time I was in Guatemala who told me she had a house she was interested in selling.   I came to see it, and we corresponded over the next two years; I visited once more, and the following year (as she still owned it) I offered to rent it for a month or so.

August 17 I woke up to bird songs this morning, and roosters crowing. I’m not sure that crowing can be included in the category of birds singing, although there is a kind of rhythmic dialogue between the sweet, musical sounds and the rough, insistent crowing. I’ve slept deeper, these two nights in Guatemala, than I have, it seems, in years. Is it the quiet or the unplugging of the radio? Still, I wake up thinking of my life “back there.”  The man, the work, the money, the parents. All attached to something that feels like failure just now—or at least lack of success. And there’s a vague, somehow both wonderful and disquieting suspicion that what I do now is who I am.

 A dog came to the door to distract me. I threw it some food. I need to buy: soap, purified water, candles.   I suppose we are the work we do. The interactions and efforts we make both define us and limit us ... but we feel we exist. And yet most of human striving is to become free of those limitations and definitions—to reach a state of oneness with something infinite. Goals: to become more visually aware again, i.e., to see like an artist. To encounter others courageously and authentically. To stay healthy.

 Be like the bird Who
 Pausing in flight
On limb so slight
Hesitates ... Then sings
Knowing she has wings (Anon)

 August 18 Las Pyramides meditation, 5:00 p.m. A gray-haired woman in a long white dress, serious, bejeweled, intense.The Spanish girls out in front of the pyramid are courting two children, asking them to draw pictures for them. I'm here for a morning of meditation. First, a regression, she says, and asked for everyone’s age. Mostly the women are in their 20s and 30s. I squeaked out my age (58) and the woman next to me said she was 59! I thought she was perhaps 50 and so did everyone else. A gasp went around the room and the leaderess (who might be in her 60s) said in Spanish “You sure don’t look 59”. I immediately felt like I was 65. What ageists we are!

 Inside the pyramid is at least 20 degrees warmer than outside. Visually lovely, but I wouldn’t want to live here. I can see how it would be cozy in the rain. We sat on hard board platforms, placed on white mats. Am I too cynical for this? Very holy, feminine holiness, and the leader (no name) told us we were going to regress to age seven, which is the time when the spirit and mind come together in an individual human. The thoughts and feelings of age seven are what the rest of our life is led by. At seven my parents were moving our family away from the closeness of an extended family in the East to adventure in the West. Maybe I could use this turning point as reference.

 A couple of relaxation exercises later we were moving backwards in time in our minds. She had to start at 50 for us old folks and continue the backward journey by 5 years at a time. Thoughts, feelings came easily until I realized that I couldn’t remember thirty very well, or twenty-five, or puberty. What I did recall well were selected, memories scattering in time that have become part of my repertoire since then. I’m not sure that memories are good things, then, as we just replay them. They tend to fossilize the attitudes we have about ourselves, for good or bad. Our stories become our life, our expectations, our shadows, our fears, and shape the present. The meditation lasted about an hour, there was a blessing at the end and all was over. What a difference from Donald’s light-hearted, dimpled Buddhist teachings. Perhaps spirituality needs to be serious, but somehow I think we are missing the point if life can’t be laughed at. Especially for those of us who have the creature comforts taken care of to the extent that we do, life is a joy to experience.

After the meditation I took books I hadn't given away to the school. There I met two American English teachers, Magdelena and Kevin. Magdelena is an earnest and enthusiastic volunteer from Riverside, California who came at the behest of a previous volunteer to “set up an English program” at the Institute. From what I saw of her teaching (2 minutes only) I wonder. I hope she can use the books—she agreed that the newer books on the market are flashy, busy and difficult to use. Magdelena was highly enthusiastic, happy to be in San Marcos.  Kevin, maybe 25, ignored me after a quick greeting and seeming like an expat unsure of how to behave towards others from his country.

 And so I returned to my little house at sunset. I read, realized that I don’t have enough drinking water for breakfast, tried to sleep on the unbelievably hard bed and finally gave in to the foam mattress on the floor which is only marginally more comfortable.

A boy of 6, maybe 8, walks home from school with a backpack and a machete. For protection? Later I found out that perhaps it was for hacking his way home through the dense forest.

 A bird in the square hoping onto the door sill of a car to look at himself in the rear view mirror. Again and again, he hops from the mirror to the view point.   Narcissism in the bird kingdom.

 A shopkeeper gives me a flashlight, saying, pay me tomorrow because he has no change for my 50 quetzales.

 I buy veggies at the little grocery. As I’m leaving, pondering whether or not to buy eggs or not, the woman there puts 2 eggs in my bag.

August 19 San Marcos on Lake Atitlan. I am spending lots of time writing, reading, and, doing some art with the watercolor pencils I brought. I'm still looking at all of the green, wondering where one thing ends and another begins. Outside of my house are several papaya trees, guavas, bamboo in the back, loads of ferns and avocados.


It is beautiful here, rustic and simple. I don't have refrigeration in my little white casita (it's about 15 x 15, two stories, with a bathroom and small room on the back), but do have hot water, a flush toilet, a fairly comfortable bed, and a view of a volcano out of my upstairs bedroom window. It's a semi-A frame. The first construction is about 15 x 15 feet, two stories, with a small, winding staircase at the back of the room. The floor is made of the volcanic stone ubiquitous to this region (perhaps the whole country) and the walls are plaster covered cement blocks. The second story is the wooden A, dry and solid. A second area was added to the back, creating a bathroom and another small room. This is also stone and cinderblock, and the roof forms the deck outside of the bedroom. I will come to understand that the windows are too high, and there is no comfortable place to sit except on the bed upstairs.

I'm going to start doing yoga every morning for the next two weeks as I've committed all of $10 per week to the woman next door who teaches it. There are several yoga classes going on in San Marcos, which is known for its alternative lifestyles for both expatriates and tourists. Food is plain and simple; there are only a handful of restaurants, one which shows movies on a 19 inch TV, but no museums, few cars, and only two paved roads here in this village, one that comes into town, and the other that goes out (can you guess they’re the same road?). Most of the pathways between houses are dirt, or field stones set in cement. I’ve actually seen a couple of trucks delivering supplies to the three little stores on the central square and I managed to find a flashlight today. Because the shopkeeper didn't have change (a perennial problem in Guatemala for some reason), I was given credit until, as he said, “Whenever you can”.

 Next morning, the combination of heat, lack of breakfast, and a yoga routine far more rigorous than what I have been used to combine to cause a near faint after about 30 minutes of exercise. I am by far the oldest person in the group, and feel justified in dropping out of the routine for a few minutes. Yet I am determined and after three days of ninety-minute sessions, I am feeling better, stronger and eager to continue. My breathing has improved, as has my strength and balance. Dripping with sweat after each lesson, I walk back to my house. I consume a banana, a cup of coffee and bread with oleo.

I'e found three little grocery stores. I did not find a place to buy meat until the last week I was here, so contented myself with eggs, rice and beans for protein. Perhaps because of San Marcos’ reputation as the New Age center of the Lake the emphasis is on vegetarianism, at least among the foreigners. Or perhaps I was just hyper-sensitive to this because of my neighbors. Cristina did intimidate me a bit. I snuck off to San Pedro for a hamburger one day and felt much better for it.

I'm meeting the locals (both native and expatriates). The kids are charming and friendly; the women and girls are shy or noncommittal about me, and the men are busy. Females all wear the local costume, while the men wear simple Western clothes. They speak Spanish, but also Cachiquel, the Mayan dialect of this region. I brought a dozen English language books with me to give to the school. As I sat on the stone benches in the center of town with my pile of books the children were let out of school. Soon I had a group of about ten boys around me, ages six to eleven years old, all eyeing the books and eventually asking if they might look at them. Fascinated, they looked through the English picture books and started reading or asking questions. Eventually they started asking me questions about the books and English and I asked about their language, Cachiquel. Two little boys taught me how to say 'hello' and 'goodbye', but later I found out that they had reversed them. The girls told me the truth after the boys left laughing hysterically. Laughing with them is the best.

 Information from the Internet: In the Highlands of Guatemala are the Quichéan-Mamean Maya languages and dialects, including Quiché proper, Cachiquel, Kekchi, Tzutuhil, Pocomam, and Mam. In the western highlands around Huehuetenango, Jacaltec is spoken. There is lots of building going on in this little village: new homes, road expansion and multiple family/hotel dwellings. I expect that more and more tourism will come in, even though it's not currently very accessible.

 I took a walk around the lakefront today and on my way back, I found a se vende (for sale) sign. The caretaker told me that the house is owned by an Italian family. It’s 4 bedrooms, 3 baths, and they were asking $125,000. It's just across the road from the lake, hence has a great view, beautiful gardens...? I’d have to figure out what the Guatemalan view is of trash before I’d consider living here. They must think that plastic will return to the soil the same way that fallen fruit will. Wrappers, bottles and papers as well as banana peels are everywhere!! There is a huge recycling bin in the center of town, right in front of the secondary school, but no one is taking care of it, and what simply looks like a huge garbage dump is only slightly disguised by signs reading “metal,” “plastic,” “foods”.

  August 23 Life continues to be relaxed and green here. It's beginning to rain more, and I'm expecting September to be pretty wet. There are astounding dry lightening displays almost every night, over the mountains to the east. Last night the lightening started coming close enough so that I could hear thunder, but usually I just see the flashes, sometimes lighting up one entire side of the sky, every 30 seconds or so. In addition to the lightening, there are lightening bugs around the house. It’s hard to know what to look at, but I can’t look away.

I feel out of space and time. The town is small and there is only so much work available. The foreigners are, I believe, expected to be either tourists, who bring new money into the community, or long-term residents who offer a service that will bring in the tourists. My neighbor, Ed, does some construction work for a local vendor, but generally, the expats are not a drain on the economy--they create the economy.

San Marcos is known around the lake for its alternative lifestyles (aren’t all of these lifestyles “alternative”?) from yoga to Bach Flower Remedies to Reiki massage technique. The original and still predominant center for esoteric/healing studies is Los Pyramides, a group of habitable pyramids built near the lake, hosting meditation, yoga practice, living quarters, and restaurant.

I'm reluctant to even volunteer to teach English because it will take the opportunity away from the long term expatriate residents. The Mayan population seems settled, satisfied with the slow-growing foreign business, and eager to work to improve the infrastructure of the town if it will mean economic prosperity. Ostensibly, they listen to the advice and follow the models of the foreign residents. There is a Peace Corps volunteer here who is trying to launch a mushroom growing business. I know very little about him, and I wonder if he’s not the most intrusive of the foreigners, sent by a wealthy government and needing to ‘make work’ for himself, useful or not. The men carry bricks, dirt and cement, dig ditches and foundations, build, fish, run the launches, and run small businesses. The women generally run the stores, sell wonderful fresh bread, tamales, or whatever they can on the streets or out of their backyards, and keep their families clean and organized by washing, cooking, and sweeping all day. Almost all of the women and girls wear native dress, a hand woven, heavy colorful skirt gathered by an equally colorful belt and a blouse or huipile. Almost none of the men wear native dress...the boys wear t-shirts and the men wear long-sleeved shirts and jeans. Perhaps unfortunately, the Mayans also make money by selling their land to the foreigners who want to invest or live here. Much of the prime real estate on the lake is owned by absentee foreign owners or businesses. The valley is planted in coffee and many foreigners live there. The barrios (1, 2 and 3) with their mud huts and concrete block houses (Mayan) are up on the sides of the hills. Time will tell if the Mayans stay in the villages or move to the cities.

September 4 I haven't written for a while and the thoughts and impressions are piling up. I'm writing in my journal, but sitting at the internet seems like too much work somehow. You'll have to imagine more of the same as I've written before. Friday I took off to the 2nd largest city in the country, Xela, as the Mayans call it, or Quetzaltenango, as the maps call it. With its 110,000 people Xela is more political, more cosmopolitan, more…well, it is a city, and after seeing the 1,000 people of San Marcos exclusively for three weeks, it was great to be around people who were over 30 years old, hustling, bustling and looking productive and interesting. My own time there was dampened by adjusting to the 7,000 ft altitude with a big headache and limping around on perhaps the broken toe I gave myself by smashing it in the stone shower for the umpteenth time before I left.