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On the Road Again…

Postcards from Guatemala 2012

by Penny Diamanti  

The driver makes a quick right turn just before a roadblock guarded by a dozen men in uniform with semi-automatic weapons. Our van zips around the block and takes off on a different route out of Guatemala City. Were the driver’s papers not in order? Was he trying to spare us “gringas” trouble? My rusty Spanish is not up to discovering the reason, and he clearly doesn’t want to discuss it, but we soon relax again as we leave the chaos of the big city and begin the climb through shady suburbs. Trees drop purple blossoms on the road. The air clears. Ceviche joints and taco stands replace the Pizza Huts and McDonalds franchises. The countryside starts looking familiar. It’s been almost 25 years since I was last in Guatemala and I'm overjoyed to be back. I'm here for a yoga retreat, but I already know I'll be back to soon to start exporting jewelry and textiles.

Soon we roll into Antigua, a small gem of a city protected by UNESCO as a cultural World Heritage Site. Founded as their capital in the mid-1500s by Spanish conquistadors, Antigua nestles between picturesque volcanoes, which have, however, nearly obliterated the town more than once. Violent earthquakes in this tectonically active region shattered many examples of the original baroque Spanish architecture, but many also remain, lovingly preserved on the outside and stylishly updated on the inside.


What strikes me most is the abundance of color. Churches, homes, shops, the walls that enclose private courtyards, in fact all surfaces, positively radiate saturated hues of amber, ochre, rust, deep turquoise and aqua, pink, purple, burgundy and more. And every blooming plant, tropical as well as temperate, joins the riot of color. But that’s just the beginning. As our mini van circles the main plaza the Maya women come into view bedecked in their traditional embroidered blouses called “huipils”, hand-woven skirts, and colorful headwraps. They are laden down with piles of multi-colored textiles they hope to sell to the tourists.


My fellow travelers quickly disappear into their hotel rooms to rest, but all my long-dormant ex-pat importer instincts are wide awake. It’s already 4 pm, but before dark I’ve checked out the tourist market on the plaza, visited a few interesting shops and some alternate hotels along the cobbled streets, discovered a local weavers’ co-op and a consignment warehouse that carries crafts from all over the country, and found my way to the local vegetable market and adjacent craft market built by the Jesuits to house former itinerant street vendors. I’ve bought myself a local skirt and a huipil, some scarves and table runners, and a lovely embroidered belt that would retail for fifty times as much in the US. 

The Maya have a deep abiding love for the earth and all growing things – but especially colorful ones. As the sun sets behind the volcanoes I watch the market vendors pack up their stalls for the night. Two young fruit sellers present an astonishing, quintessentially Guatemalan, sight. Most women here still dress proudly in the traditional hand-woven wrapped skirts. But the intricate patterns of the cloth are not enough for the Maya, who feel compelled to embroider bands around them in as many bright colors as they can find. Their highly decorated huipils signal which village they come from through traditional designs and colors. Commercial dyes in rainbow colors are the best thing to hit the fashion scene here since the Quetzal feathers their ancestors made into fabulous cloaks (driving the birds nearly extinct in the process). Today it seems the "best dressed" market ladies, like the two I’m watching, need yet another layer: a patterned apron, embellished not just with gold or silver embroidery, but also with scalloped lace edges! The entire ensemble is topped off with a multi-colored belt and complex head wrap.  

The old mixes seamlessly with the new here. Next morning I’m up bright and early prowling the market two hours before the 9am bus leaves for Lake Atitlan. As I’m rushing back to the plaza I’m startled by the sound a of a cell phone coming from an ancient and tiny Maya lady in traditional dress. Can this be? Sure enough, she rummages around in the folds of her embellished belt, pulls out the phone, and starts chatting in Quiche, one of the many Maya languages. A tour guide I meet near the bus tells me that two decades ago just two land lines provided the only phone service to the entire city of Antigua. Today there are 14 million Guatemalans and 19 million cell phones! They totally bypassed landlines that required an ungly network of wires, leaping from the pre-industrial age right into wireless technology. Many households still don’t have electricity, but the cell phone companies cleverly overcame that hurdle by offering free charging stations through even the tiniest “tiendas” (shops) that dot the towns, villages, and country crossroads where buses stop.


Finally all the passengers' luggage is crammed into the bus, and we take off. About 4 hours later we arrive at Lake Atitlan. Boys and men step forward to help us with our luggage. I’m about to entrust my bag to an energetic young fellow about 12 years old when the bus driver chases him and the other kids away, barking “No childrens!” This seems to be an attempt to prevent complaints about “child labor”. My young friend, deprived of his tip, is now perched on a wall and meets my eyes over the heads of the bustling tourists heading for the boats. My face tells him I’m sorry it didn’t work out. He smiles and shrugs. He and I both know that as soon as the foreigners, with their total lack of comprehension of his society, have disappeared he will be welcomed back on the dock, collecting small tips for helping local ladies transfer their bundles into the boats.


When I come back alone the following week I make sure to let him carry my bag (now much heavier with beaded jewelry I bought for resale in the US) and tip him at many times the going rate. He returns the favor by picking out the best Tuc-tuc driver to give me a ride into town. Some enterprising genius recently began importing these motorized rickshaws form Thailand and they’ve caught on like wildfire. The three-wheeled, motorbike-powered vehicles sport a canvas top, and optional side flaps for bad weather. The passenger seat will hold two gringos, three market ladies with bundles, or a Maya family of 5 or 6 . Perfectly suited to the environment and local needs, the Tuc-tucs will buzz you around town for about 75 cents.


Like the local residents, these vehicles are small, but tough. I’ve seen them sputtering up 45 degree inclines, loaded with bales of laundry, on the way to the communal village washing area. Driven mostly by young men who seem to be practicing to be "chicken bus" drivers, the Tuc-tucs tear around blind corners of village streets built long before any wheels of any kind came to this region. Their bleating horns warn chickens, pigs, and children to get out of the way, but the signal clearly doesn’t deter other drivers. More than once I was involved in a near collision and subsequent head-to-head standoff between two drivers in an alley only inches wider than one vehicle. In both cases the other driver finally had to back up to get out of the way. As we roared off victoriously, I only hoped the sign painted onto the windscreen imploring Jesus to protect the driver and the occupants would keep working!  

The famous Guatemalan Chicken Buses are souped-up and tricked-out former North American school buses that roar around the country packed full of people and produce with feathers flying. Spectacular accidents happen almost weekly and the local tabloids exploit the gory details to the max. My guidebook speculates that the cause of most of these disasters is the excessive hormone levels and racing champion ambitions of the twenty-something drivers who play "chicken" with each other, passing on blind curves and conducting road races. I’ve been warned not to ride in them, but I can’t help but find their exuberant paint jobs attractive.  

Lake Atitlan fills the crater of an immense extinct volcano. It’s over 1000 feet deep and covers more than 50 square miles. The land rises so steeply from the edge of the lake that almost no roads reach it, so the best (and sometime only) way to get to and from the villages that ring the lake is by water “bus”. I meet all kinds of people on my travels around the lake: A young Guatemalan man who kindly corrects my mangled Spanish then tells me he wished people would have done the same for him when he was working for 10 years in a chicken processing plant in Florida. He came home to Guatemala because in Florida it was just “work, home, work, home, no life.” He tells me he’s an electrician, but is currently employed in a hotel. In addition he happily works a small farm with his wife where he’s surrounded by hundreds of years of his Maya culture, community support, and the amazing natural beauty of this place.


A German woman buys seed bead jewelry from local women, ships it to her mother in Germany to sell and imports easy-to-assemble high-efficiency wood burning stoves that can be installed with no special training or tools in local houses. By greatly reducing the amount of wood needed for cooking, these stoves help reduce deforestation, save time for women who gather the wood, and protect everyone from smoke inhalation and eye irritation, because unlike traditional cooking fires, they have stovepipes that vent the smoke out of the house.


An American woman single-handedly started an elementary school in a tiny village perched on the mountainside. After several years, as her students graduated she expanded her program and brought in craftsmen from town to teach the teenagers welding and carpentry. She also certifies them in the food-service skills and English they’ll need to work in nearby hotels. Now these kids can earn a living wage closer to home rather than running all the risks associated with emigrating to the big cities or “el norte.” I met several groups of doctors and medical professionals who use their two-week vacations annually to come to here for a week-long language immersion followed by a week of volunteering in local clinics. I’m inspired by all the goodness and am happy to contribute in small ways by bringing art supplies for the local schools and buying crafts from the local artists.

As the week ends I set out for Chicicastenango, site of the largest market in Central America. Chichi has become quiet a tourist attraction with sleek modern buses bringing package tours from Guatemala City and Antigua. They get to Chichi at about 11am on Sundays and leave again by 2pm. This was obviously not going to be enough time for a serious shopper like me so I was trying to get there on Saturday and leave on Monday. I declined an offer to hire a car and driver for me for $135 and instead found a little travel agent in Pana who sold me a one-way ticket for $15. The place I bought the ticket gives an idea of how hard the Guatemalans have to work to get by, especially now that depressed European and American economies have greatly reduced tourist traffic.  

In his 10 by 15 foot stall this man was operating four businesses. The “travel agency” consisted of the sandwich board on the street that had caught my attention listing “tours” to various sites around the country, a bare table, a chair and an antique phone. His “shoe store” lined one wall of his “office”. Racks displayed an assortment of leather and tire-tread sandals. He spent most of the afternoon swatting them with a rag to remove the ever-present dust. Between the top of the shoe racks and the ceiling hung some pretty garish “tipico” paintings of the lake. Maybe an art student needed a ticket to somewhere and traded the paintings? I doubted they'd sell.


The fourth business didn’t appear until late in the afternoon. Just before my bus arrived he folded up the board listing the tours and replaced it with a table I helped him carry from the back of the shop. This, he covered it with an oilcloth brightly decorated with pictures of fruit, and surrounded it with six plastic stools. Activity was picking up on the street and although I didn’t see her arrive I was pretty sure that his wife, daughter, or mother would soon appear with a big bowl on her head and he would then open his “restaurant” for the late afternoon shoppers in the marketplace. I hoped that this venture would net him more than the others, which as far as I could see only brought in my $15 for the bus ticket -- and since he turned out to be only a rep selling tickets for the driver I’m guessing he didn’t get to keep more than $2 or $3 of that.


Many vendors arrive in Chichi on Saturday night as I did. But instead of enjoying a warm hotel room, they sleep on their bundles in the street. In the morning, before the chilly mists have fully cleared from this highland town, the narrow lanes and alleys fill with vendors, leaving only a narrow walkway in the middle. Tiny people carry shockingly heavy loads on tump lines across their foreheads. The yoga teacher in me worries about the condition of their cervical vertebrae, but their posture actually looks better than most office workers I see commuting on DC’s Metro. The uneven cobbled streets make wheeled transport nearly impossible so getting goods to market here has changed little in 500 years.  

More than half the market is devoted to colorful clothing, bags, blankets, tablecloths, wall hangings, and other tourist oriented crafts, but this market also draws local buyers and sellers from villages for many miles around. The steps of the Santo Tomas Church, where ancient rituals mixing Maya and Catholic traditions play out, seem to be reserved for the flower sellers. The maze of stalls and tents radiates out from this hub in all directions. Fresh fruit and vegetables, dried corn, beans and grains give way to displays of plastic buckets and bowls, kitchen utensils, ropes and hoses. The used products division offers everything from charming antique sewing machines to second hand hoes and machetes along with bales of used clothes and shoes from the US. Chickens, eggs, piglets, pork, the list goes on and on….      

I wander the market for hours making notes on what I want to buy next time. I’ve reached the max that I can carry for this trip and it’s agonizing not to be able to buy more. I go back to the hotel at noon to repack, tossing most of my own clothing to make room for a few more woven textiles. The tourists (mostly Italian on this particular day) have rolled into town and the pace and volume pick up in the market. The vendors have spent the morning getting ready. The next few hours will determine their fate. It looks to me like there are far fewer buyers than sellers and my heart goes out to the many artisans who will carry heavy loads home with little cash in their pockets.


The market quickly starts breaking down after the tourist buses leave. It’s been a long day and many of these folks have a long road home ahead of them. I do too. My flight back to DC leaves Guatemala City on Tuesday. My guidebook promised group shuttles from Chichi on Mondays, but when I finally find the location, the young man in charge tells me that due to the decrease in tourists Monday shuttles have been canceled. Now my only means of getting back to the capital is going to be the infamous Chicken Buses. I am secretly delighted to have a reason to ignore the warnings and ride in some of these gloriously over-the-top vehicles, their wildly painted snouts facing into the wind. I think every school bus in America must secretly hope to be reincarnated as a Chicken Bus in Guatemala.  

On Monday, after the tourists and the vendors have all left town, I don’t have a lot of choices for the first leg of the journey, but on the upside, the bus is not overly crowded. I nab a seat in the front so I can see the road. Next to me a woman who speaks no Spanish holds a bag on her lap. Some of the infamous chickens perhaps? When we hit a big bump the bag starts wiggling wildly and squealing – piglets! I’m already feeling a little queasy from the diesel fumes as we grind our way up and down the mountains and around hairpin curves. I hope the pigs won’t get so distressed that they will add to the bad smells!  

At the Los Encuentros crossroads, where the Chichi and Pana roads meet the Pan American Highway I have many more choices. My trusty guidebook advanced the theory that the vehicles with the fanciest paint jobs and most chrome are also likely to have the best brakes and other safety features. An alternate scenario, in which all of the driver’s money was spent on chrome and nothing was left for the brakes, plays briefly in my mind, but I decide to discard it. I pick out a freshly painted yellow bus embellished with sinuous black lines that remind me of Maori tattoos, and yes, lots of chrome. The “bus boy” snatches up my bags and scurries up the ladder on the side of the vehicle, expertly lashing my suitcase and duffle bag to the many bundles, boxes and baskets already on the roof.


Cauliflower seems to be in season and immense wicker baskets full of it are racing all over the country on top of buses. The Pan American highway is being widened to four lanes here, but whoever engineered this “improvement” forgot about, or didn’t budget for, stabilizing the steep cuts through the mountains. As a result landslides have crashed down onto the new road turning it back into a single lane dirt track in several places. On the other hand, where the road is wide and open it offers opportunities for reckless speeds not possible before. We see one big box truck that has taken a curve too fast, tipped over and split open spilling canned goods all over the highway. Armed guards have already arrived to keep local villagers from benefiting from the windfall, while a crew picks up the food and packs it into a second waiting truck.


Our driver clicks his tongue and steps on the gas. I hold onto the seat in front of me. For the rest of the trip I listen in on the Dutch girl behind me spinning tales, some of which might even be true, for a naïve young Englishman. He’s a junior executive on vacation from a British Bank in Mexico City. They met in a bar the night before, and forsaking his pre-paid air-conditioned ride, he’s followed her onto this bus. She says she won a round the world trip from Dannon yogurt by inventing a new flavor: cranberry cheesecake with white chocolate. Dannon provided the airfare. She saved up 8000 Euros then quit her job to leave on this eight month long adventure. She’s currently in month two, working on perfecting the art of traveling cheap. She’s temporarily left her boyfriend who has more expensive tastes and greater needs for creature comforts in Costa Rica. When she’s finished exploring Guatemala they plan going to meet up to fly to Tahiti, then Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and Japan. The young Englishman is dreaming up ways to keep her away from the boyfriend.


In Antigua I have to change buses again. As I wait, sitting on my duffle bag in the sunny street, I realize that I am totally comfortable, happy, and stress-free. I’m 60 years old, traveling alone by somewhat crazy means around a country where (sadly) I barely speak the language and yet I feel completely joyful, fearless and at ease. The spiral arc of my life seems to make perfect sense, bringing me back around to doing what I truly love. While I’m catching the late afternoon rays a young boy about 8 years old approaches with a fist full of hand-woven sunglasses holders. Most of the peddlers just move on if you are not interested, but this adorable urchin plops down on the duffle bag next to me, smiles irresistibly, and suggests I give him 10 quetzals for my choice of his wares. I know this is several times the going rate but it’s the end of my trip and he’s just too cute to refuse so I agree, and am happy to see him run straight to the ice cream cart to spend his excess profits.



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