Sunday, May 17, 2009

A sense of Guatemala

What does it feel like to live in Xela, Guatemala? What is the sense of the city, the region, and the country? When trying to communicate about our life and experiences abroad, these are extremely important questions, but the answers are difficult to describe in words, even to myself.

And yet I want to try. To try to give a little bit of insight into the experience, and what it is like to live here in this place, so different from where we came and yet still so human and recognizable. And so I will try; please let me know if it manages to communicate.

The People

We are giants.
During a lecture explaining the ancient Mayan view of the world, describing opposites, my teacher said 'If there is good, there is also evil. If there are tall people, there are also Guatemalans'. My wife T, a diminutive 5'2", is taller than almost all of the women and half of the men. I, a foot taller, am a lumbering giant. In the school, I have to duck my head when walking through a door by the stairs. In the markets, I am constantly brushing my head against the roofs of the tents. Through some combination of genetics and widespread malnutrition, Guatemalans are among the smallest people in the world.

Welcoming, patient, and honest.
Some places in the world, travelers who are struggling with the language are dealt with impatiently, quickly precipitating a search for an interpreter. Here, I have yet to meet someone who is impatient. Everyone we have interacted with has been happy to talk to us, patient with our struggles with the language, and willing to speak slowly with us, help us, and try their best to answer whatever questions we have. In addition, while we have heard warnings about some parts of Latin America, everyone we have met here has been scrupulously honest. I've carefully counted all change I've received, but not a single person has attempted to short change me. When we awkwardly tried to tip at the same time as paying in a restaurant the first night, the cashier was confused at our attempt to overpay and returned the extra money (it turns out, as far as we can tell, tipping is done only at the table). And as far as we can tell, in Guatemala the 'Gringo Tax' only exists in our poorer ability to bargain; starting prices for us are roughly the same as for the natives.

Curious, friendly, and polite.
When traveling on the bus, it is extremely common for a native to strike up a conversation with one or more of us or the other students, especially asking 'where are you from?', and 'where are you headed?'. While walking in the country, where we stand out even more than in the city, we receive stares, followed quickly by smiles, friendly waves, and a cheerful 'buenos dias' or 'buenos tardes'. In restaurants, it is the custom when leaving to walk around wishing everyone still eating 'buen provecho', or good appetite. In the house where we are staying, the inverse occurs: upon completing eating one rises with a polite 'gracias', answered by chorus of 'buen provecho'.

The City

Breathing is difficult.
The first thing you notice when arriving in the city is the air. It is dirty, thick with exhaust and smoke. There are few pollution laws here, and those that exist are generally not enforced. Many of the cars, and especially the buses and vans, belch great clouds of filthy exhaust as they struggle upon their way. It is extremely profitable for a young man willing to brave the journey to travel to the United States (generally illegally), purchase a car that cannot pass smog testing or safety validation for peanuts, and drive it down through Mexico to Guatemala to resell.

The streets.
Narrow, winding streets and even narrower sidewalks. With the exception of the main thoroughfares, the streets are one way, barely wide enough for that, and paved with cobblestones. The sidewalks, where they exist, are barely wide enough for two people to pass one another. They are often in poor repair, and also of random heights varying from barely off of the street to more than two feet in the air. However, street names and addresses are extremely well organized. Every city is arranged on a two dimensional grid of streets and avenues, each numbered. An address tells you not only which street it is on, but what the cross street is and which side of the street it is on. Once we've started to get to know the system, we barely need a map even for unfamiliar areas.

The buildings.
The city is dominated by low, brightly painted buildings made of concrete blocks. Many are topped with tin roofs, and those that are not often appear unfinished, with rods of metal sticking out from them, as if they were intended to be two stories but were never finished for lack of money. As you walk the streets, signs painted directly upon the walls of buildings scream out at you in often jarring color combinations, "Exclusive!", "Lowest Prices!", "Spanish Language School", "Internet Cafe", "House of God". Often the stores are smaller than a closet, filled with so many random types of things my wife T has dubbed them "random-ish-eterias". Contrasting with these low, generally dirty, and simple buildings are enormous, beautiful churches and cathedrals, several examples of old greek-style architecture (such as the Municipal Theatre, and the Temple Minerva), and a pair of modern malls.

The people.
In the city, there is an amazing mix of people, wearing everything from jeans and t-shirts, to well dressed gentlement with sombreros, to women wearing beautifully embroidered and colorful traditional Mayan garb. There are 21 different indigenous groups in Guatemala, each with their own versions of traditional garments, and while most of the 'better' (more official) jobs require modern clothing, it is extremely common to see women who are working as street vendors or just walking along wearing the traditional clothing.

The markets.
Complementing the malls and the store sprinkled everywhere are tremendous outdoor markets. The largest one in Xela, la Democracia, spans some 6ish blocks. One we visited in San Francisco el Alto, a nearby town, on Fridays takes over the entire city. Vendors sell food, clothing, electronics, shoes (for some reason, shoe shops and outdoor shoe vendors are EVERYWHERE in Xela), accessories, backpacks, rugs, and even (at least in S.F. el Alto) a variety of animals. You have to be a little careful what you buy; a lot of the stuff is really poor quality, but there are definitely some gems, and while the prepared street food is a little sketchy, the markets are a good place to buy ingredients for home prepared meals.


Omnipresent Public Transit.
We read before coming that Guatemala has little public transit. If you only include government run transportation in public transit, this might be correct, but if you expand it to include individual entrepeneurs driving others, it is everywhere in Guatemala. By far the most common way to get from place to place is to pay someone else to take you there, usually along with dozens of other people. In a country where a car can cost many years worth of wages, driving others for a living is extremely common, with tens of thousands providing transit within and between the cities. Those who can afford it buy an old schoolbus from the US, rework it with a new and more powerful engine, bigger tires, racks inside and on top of the bus for carrying stuff, and of course colorful decorations. These buses then run routes all around the country, picking up passengers in every town. Those who cannot afford such an investment but want to do the same buy vans or pickups, and do the same. Within the city, transport is between .5 and 1.5 Quetzales, or between 6 and 18 cents. Getting to nearby towns usually costs between 3 and 8 Quetzales, or $0.35 to $1.00.

We have not yet ridden in a pickup, but the buses and vans tend to operate in relatively the same manner. Each has a driver and an assistant. The assistant jumps out at every stop, shouting the destination of the bus and trying to recruit passengers. Once the vehicle is on its way, the assistant works his or her (though I've only seen one woman in this role so far) way through all of the passengers, collecting money. These buses can get packed! In the US, I've occasionally heard the description 'Mexican Style' for cars that are overfilled, but whoever coined that phrase must have never been further south than Mexico, because it seems to dominate this country as well. The other day I saw 26 people in a bus designed for 16, with people crammed in the seats, sitting and standing on the floor, and the assistant leaning out the side door holding it closed. Luckily, it's impossible to drive very rapidly here, given the quality of the roads.

The Countryside

All around.
One doesn't have to look far to get out of the city and into the countryside. Last weekend we hiked from the central park to a local attraction called 'Los Vahos' (The Steam). The attraction consists of natural steam vents, which someone has constructed a series of bathhouses on top of and now charges for the use of the resulting saunas. While a number of our friends went for the saunas, my wife and I just went to the walk. Within 20 minutes we were above the city looking down on it, and for the remainder of the hour and a half walk were transiting through fields, past sheep and cows, and through some beautiful mountain landscape.

Guatemala is in one of the most seismologically active areas in the world. We can see several dormant volcanos (one particularly striking) from the city itself, and there are vantage points not far from Xela that allow you to see the smoke and activity of more active volcanoes. This weekend we hiked up one nearby dormant volcano whose crater is filled with a lagoon considered sacred by the Mayan people, Laguna Chicabal. In case the existence of the crater wasn't enough to remind us of the volcanic nature of the mountain, the ground was covered with small pieces of pumice.

Green and varied.
We have seen fields of a myriad of different types of crops, though the largest have been corn and potatoes. We've also seen a variety of different types of forest, ranging from more temperate-seeming forests similar to the deciduous trees you might find in Northern California, to the mossy, cool rainforest we encountered on the slopes of Chicabal. We have yet to descend to the hotlands and jungle along the coast or to the northeast, but I anticipate them being different again and fascinating.


Planning around water.
The tap water in Guatemala is not as well sanitized as in the US, and unless you want to meet with the scourge of travelers (traveler's diarrhea), it is advised to drink only boiled or purified water as much as possible. Purified water (agua pura) is available in stores everywhere, and you can get it delivered in bulk as well, but the cost is not inconsequential for most families. Hence, living as guests, we try to drink water from the family only at mealtimes and the rest of the time buy bottles or fill our bottles at the school (which has explicitly approved of this practice). While the time and money are not great for us, needing to plan for having pure water around means that especially early on it was always in our consciousness, where and when we were next going to get water.

The toilets.
Public restrooms almost don't exist in Guatemala, and where you can find a restroom while out and about (restaurants, etc) they are unlikely to have toilet paper available. Carrying your own paper is a quickly learned survival skill. At large affairs like the market in San Francisco el Alto, there were toilets, but they cost 1 quetzal to use and they would hand you a strip of toilet paper going in. In addition, the sewer system in Guatemala cannot handle paper products or other such things going down the toilet. What this means is that every restroom has a trash can, where you throw the toilet paper after using it. I'll leave you to conclude what this does for the smell of the restrooms... luckily it's not quite as bad as you'd expect. Not quite, but almost.

My first shower in Guatemala was in the hotel we stayed at our first night in Xela. The hostess had proudly pointed out that the shower had 'agua caliente', hot water. However, when I tried to shower the next morning, it was freezing cold. I barely managed to stay in it long enough to rinse off and do a bad job of shaving, before toweling off as quickly as possible. It was only later that I learned the magic of hot water in Guatemala. Guatemalan showers, when heated, use electric heaters that flash-heat the water as it passes through them. If you can look up in the shower, you can see them, usually haphazardly installed with wires coming into them from above. This has two consequences: One, if you try fiddling around with the showerhead while taking shower you can get shocked. And two, if you want hot water you need to limit the amount of water flowing through the heater to an amount it can heat. Being trained in the US, I had assumed that if the water wasn't hot I needed to run more water (it's how hot water works in the US!), but by doing so I was sacrificing any chance that the water would be even luke warm. Now I have learned, and by limiting the flow to a moderate dribble, can achieve even steaming hot showers.


I've only just brushed the surface of what it has been like living in Guatemala for the past two weeks. I'm sure I've left out many details, some of which are important, but I hope that this post helps communicate a little bit about what life has been like for us here. Please let me know in the comments if you enjoyed this post, or if you have any questions.

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