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"It is the journey which makes up your life."

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Head Over Heels

I´m in love. Guatemala with its high cloudy mountains and corn fields and colorful indigena women carrying giant baskets on their heads and babies tied to their backs, its old schoolbusses packed with people like sardines, its glittering city centers and its mud brick huts, its ancient carvings and temples littered about, yet still living... It has absolutely captivated me. Today I am in Quetzaltenango. Everyone here calls it Xela (shey-lah). It is somewhere between the pervasive filth of Guatemala city and the touristed, decaying colonial splendor of Antigua. A working city. Cooper and I came in last night on the infamous chicken busses, which is what they call the 2nd class busses that everyone uses. They are old schoolbusses, painted in bright colors with luggage racks installed above the seats and on the roof. Two people should fit in a seat on each side of the aisle... they squeeze three to a seat, hunching shoulders, and fill the aisles with standing people. At one point yesterday, I ended up standing in the aisle with my back pressed against the emergency exit back door. There was literally no place to move. I have it better than Cooper, though. His legs are so long, he doesn't fit into the seats, even if there are any. We found a great hostel, a multi-leveled, whimsical collection of rooms and courtyards and patios patched together from several different buildings. We got a bed, use of a kitchen and even hot water showers (oh glory... up in the highlands the water is COLD!) for $4 a night. Life is good. And there´s a Reedie staying there! What are the odds?? I domiss Reed.We ended up staying our first four days in Antigua. After burning the Mayan city of Iximiche, originally allies, and having his second capital burried by a volcano within two years of founding, the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado founded Antigua as his capital, and it became the seat of colonial government until the mid 1700s or so when it was leveled by an earthquake. They moved the capital to Guatemala city, and spared Antigua the capital´s grit and glory. Guate, as they call the capital, is a striking city. We bussed through it... while descending into the wide valey we got sweeping views of glittering highrises.On the main roads, there were nice restraunts, chain stores, wedding gowns and furniture in windows. Lots of new cars. But as soon as the bus pulled away from city center towards the bus stop, the utter filth of the city engulfed us. The streets seemed to be swimming in a brown haze. There was mud and rotting vegetables and who knows what else mounded up against the walls of the buildings that lined the street. People everywhere, sitting in the muck withbaskets of vegetables or pirated cds spread on blankets. We had to switch busses, and the taxi drove us past miles of these decrepit buildings and decrepit people. As Cooper said, it could have come straight out of Orwell...white towers rising above the great miserable mass of humanity. Antigua is nothing like this. It is a clean, friendly, beautiful little town of 10,000, with all the old spanish style houses, high ceilinged, tiled roofs and tiled floors, and internal courtyards with gardens and fountains. Definitely highly touristed, but I quickly found that the kind of tourists who would mob Guatemala are different from the ones in Costa Rica. They all speak spanish, and are there to learn about the country... not just to have a nice vacation ona tropical beach somewhere. I think its the off-season for Antigua, despite how many people were there, because the innumerable cafes and handicraft shops all seemed strangely empty. We got to enjoy all kinds of wonderful food and company, a movie and some live music thanks to the tourist scene. Wasn´t¨the Real Guatemala¨ I guess, but it was a good place to be. From Antigua, we went to the lago de Atitlan. We had another long winding busride along the Panamericana, through high, misty mountains with stands of pine and a patchwork of corn fields and houses. Off the highway, we descended a crazy switchbacking road, several thousand feet to the edge of lake Atitlan. It´s a big lake... surrounded by cliffs and volcanoes, and just heartstoppingly beautiful. We stayed one night in the town of Panajachel, where all the tourists go... again strangely empty, then bargained for boat passage across the lake to San Pablo de la Laguna. This was a smallish town. Cobblestone streets go straight up the hillside from the dock to a church strung with pastel colored flagging. Houses and hotels and little groceries and restraunts are all perched along the narrow streets in the center, or fan out by dirt paths and blend into cornfields which ran down to the lake shore on the other side of the hill. I heard more Quiche(kee-chee, the most common highland maya people)spoken than spanish. Even the men here wore traditional dress. Many grunted their way up the steep streets carying huge tubs on their backs, hung from a strap of cloth across their foreheads. Women carry equally enormous bundles balanced on their heads. I cant imagine how strong you have to be for that. I really can´t imagine much about what life must be like for this people. Guatemala by the numbers has some of the worst poverty in the Americas, despite a relatively strong economy. The Maya have always been at the bottom of this. And then you add to this crushing oppression the kind of genocide that was conducted against them during the Guatemalan civil war, which lasted thirtysix years and left more than 200,000 dead or disappeared by right wing death squads. Like in El Salvador, all this was done with US military aid (against the ¨communists¨). The CIA ousted the only president who ever tried to do anything to help this people in 1954. Jacobo Arbenz, expropriated uncultivated lands for redistribution. Since most of the country was owned by united fruit company, and the compensation offered for the land was based on the values UFCo stated for tax purposes, the company was unappeasable. Arbenz was obviously a terrible threat to national security and capitalism everywhere. Leftist guerillas fought periodically against the string of US-supported generals that came after this coup. Death squads targeted the Maya wholesale in response. The civil war didn't end until 1996. I can´t immagine how much courage it takes to still wear those beautiful skirts and embroidered sashes, after all that. I'm on my second history book about this country. Sorry for the lecture. It is a terrible, bitter, and fascinating history. I cant really begin to tell you what I've read. But you can see it written in the architecture of the buildings and the faces of old people, if you look.


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