Guatemala #11 Lago de Atitlan and Antigua

After spending a few days exploring Xela and the surrounding villages, I moved on to the scenic and famous Lago de Atitlan. My plan was to hike around the lake (or at least a part of it as it is a huge lake and would take 3-4 days to hike nonstop) and climb at least one of the volcanoes that borders the lakeshore. Unfortunately I was struck down by some sort of viral illness that for 2 days left me feverish, congested and running for the bathroom every 20 minutes. Needless to say I wasn’t exactly in any condition for gruelling physical activity. So instead I walked around a little bit, read a lot, people watched, and visited some of the villages that dot the lakeshore. This area of Guatemala is by far the most touristy I have experienced, but it was interesting to see that even amidst the tour groups and the hustlers there seemed to exist genuine culture. It was common to see men and women wearing their indigenous clothing and going about their days as if in ignorance of the boisterous groups of blonde haired tourists parading around.

I continued on from Lake Atitlan to Antigua, the other most touristy place in Guatemala. Antigua is very interesting as it was once THE place to be in Central America due to its status as the capital of the Spanish occupation. Several earthquakes later, with the city in ruin the capital was moved to the site of present day Guatemala City, however many of the old buildings, colonial structure and city layout are intact. To add further interest, Antigua is nestled in a valley surrounded by three humungous volcanoes that dominate the landscape and turn every glance into an epic photo opportunity.

I am glad that I saved the two most touristy destinations for last, as now I have something to compare these locations with. These locations are very different from the reality of life for the vast majority of Guatemalans and it would be a shame to think that every Guatemalan shares this high standard of living that is apparent here. These are the locations where the rich and famous come to play, shop and divert themselves from the rigors of capitalistic society. Having seen the real life of the majority first, I feel that I have a better perspective to view the current cultural microclimate.

Speaking of which, as my travels come to their inevitable conclusion, a theme that has dominated my thinking for the past days is the confounding degrees of contrasts of lifestyle I have witnessed here. For a country roughly the size of Tennessee, Guatemala has an entire continent worth of microclimates for cultural and traditional practices, languages, topographical features, weather climates and lifestyle modalities. Each location that I visited was totally unique. For example in El Peten it is hot, humid and tropical with flatland tropical forest dominating the landscape. There is very little indigenous influence, the people eat tortillas made with white corn and derive a lifestyle from the forest, harvesting wood, palm or herding cattle. Then, drive 2 hours south into the mountain highlands and it is surprisingly cold, with a gorgeous mountain landscape cloaked in pine and high altitude cloud forests. The language is completely different; the people eat tortillas with black or yellow corn and derive a living from agriculture and textile manufacturing. Drive another hour south into the coastal valleys and completely different….. you get the point. With this profound contrast of lifestyle and culture existing under the same generic name of “Guatemala”, it seems to me awfully pointless to even try to imagine where the “average Guatemalan” falls on the spectrum.

This point is really brought home when you consider that if two random Guatemalans were to meet on the street there is only a 3/5 chance that they could even communicate with each other, and a much lower chance if they were women or children (as there are vast numbers in the smaller communities do not speak Spanish). Facts like these lead me to question what does it mean to be of a nationality? Even in the US there are a tremendous variety of subcultures and microclimates that one could identify with much more so than the generic impression of “American”. Why do we put so much importance in a name and box ourselves into neat little categories? For pride? For convenience? When people ask me where I am from (which is always the first question I am asked) I usually say “planet Earth first, but the U.S. second.” Not many people really understand this and are relieved when I say the U.S. The sense I get is that people are comfortable when they can put you into a category, with the uncatagorizable being unrecognizable, possibly dangerous and unpredictable. All this is talk of Guatemalan cultural heterogeneity is fine when talking in conversation, but when it comes time for political organization the profound contrasts in this society manifest themselves in severe social problems. As is the case in Guatemala, with a push for a “unified” state where in reality there exists 22 different worlds.

I leave Guatemala tommorrow, after which I will have a month to rest, recover and reflect before embarking on a new African adventure.


Guatemala #10 Xela

Greetings from Xela. Two days ago I had the pleasure of climbing the local volcano Santa Maria. Through this arduous trek of 6 hours round trip I realized that climbing a mountain alone in extremely dense fog is the perfect metaphor for life.

To start out your full of energy, it is actually quite sunny at the base and you find yourself bounding up the trail as the climb has barely started and the grade is still shallow. You are full of expectations of a wonderful climb and the bounty of amazing vistas you shall be rewarded with as you proceed. You stop and sniff the flowers, admire the corn and beans growing alongside the trail and happily skip over the copious piles of cow shit littering the path. This is the childhood of your climb, and you bask in the innocent freshness of the world.

As the grade becomes steeper you begin to feel slightly uncomfortable, breathing heavier and breaking out in a slight sweat. The climate has changed as well, more humid and definitely colder than at the base. Due to the moisture the trail has become slightly muddy and you may slip and slide a bit, but of course you always continue upward. Some small vistas come into view and give you a preview of the awesome sights that surely await you, and as your expectations of the future build you feel confident, strong and determined.

Then BAM out of nowhere the clouds roll in and descend upon you as the innocent gaiety of your adolescence turns into the cold, damp, totally obscured reality of your adult ascent on the mountain. Suddenly you find yourself lost in a foreign world. You are trapped in the present moment of the climb with only a tiny bit of visibility behind you and in front of you. You are suspended in this present hazy moment, unable to see where you have come from and unable to see where you are going. Only one thing is certain, you’re still going up and it’s getting harder and harder. Suddenly you realize, “wait, there are no views if the mountain is shrouded in cloud!, why am I climbing this mountain if I won’t see the reward from the top?”. You begin to question your purpose on this mountain, your purpose in life, what is the point of it all? Climbing a mountain without the reward of a view is like the myth of Sisyphus, forever destined to toil in pointless and trying labor. But you toil on because that is the human condition, to toil. And so for 2 hours of the adult phase of your climb you’re stricken with self doubt, thoughts of quitting are as constant as the burning sensation in your legs and calves! And then just when the fog is at its thickest and the trail is at its steepest an angel appears out of the fog of your future. This angel carries a machete and herds goats down the mountain. He also tells you that the summit is close, only 30 minutes further on if you hurry. You feel elated, your heart pounds with excitement. However the fog remains and for all of your toil you have no sensational unforgettable panoramic photos stored on your memory card.

Now this is the point at which you find yourself at the midlife crisis of your climb. You have worked too hard and climbed too far to quit now, but with the mountain still shrouded in cloud there is little hope of the reward. You stop to rest in the mist and in your fatigued stupor slip in the mud and fall. Lying on your back in the mud, utterly alone, cold, damp and tired you begin to laugh hysterically thinking of the ridiculousness of the situation and completely surrendering to your suffering. In this moment you have the profoundest realization you’ve had the whole climb; that the reward is not the view, the reward is the climb itself! The thought flows into you like a fresh wind and you laugh even harder, even playing a bit in the mud like when you were a child. You pick yourself up off the ground, settle yourself and with a newfound determination continue up to the inevitability of the summit that awaits you as surely as death.

The climb steepens further, you must be close to the summit as you can feel your physical condition begin to deteriorate. Your breathing heavily with every step as the altitude begins to affect you. You’ve reached the elderly phase of the ascent and your body tells you this. And then in a brief moment of clarity as you ascend you glimpse a bit of something you haven’t seen in hours. Yes! Its true! Directly above you is a patch of blue sky! You are now essentially climbing straight up, and it is not just a figure of your imagination, the world is growing brighter! More sky, and you can actually make out cloud patterns moving above! Then suddenly as you ascend what appears to be the last boulder the world breaks open in white light as you are showered in sunshine and warmth! You have made it, and its sunny here at the top of the world. You gaze out in awe as you find yourself slightly higher than the cloud bank and peering out at the tops of a cloudy landscape. You collapse in gratitude for this amazing gift that has been given to you, even after your profound realization back on the ascent. You have transcended; Death. You conquered your worst enemy, yourself, who failed to realize the beauty in the climb and only sought the gratification of the reward.

The beautiful thing about mountains is that you get to descend them too, taking with you all that you learned on the ascent and spreading that wisdom into your future. Mountains are wonderful teachers.

Guatemala #9 The Ixil Triangle

I  have spent the past week hiking around between the western highland towns of Nebaj, Chajul and Chotzal. These towns are strongly indigenous communities with most women in traditional dress and very little Spanish spoken, especially amongst the seniors and children. The majority of men have patches of land where they grow their corn and beans, and eke out a subsistence farming existence. What is left over is taken to the weekly market to be sold or traded for things like salt and sugar. These weekly markets are incredible to see as they are just as much social opportunities for the villagers as commercial opportunities. Everyone is dressed in their traditional best clothing and haggling hard to buy that new pig or bucket of onions. I borrowed a guide book from the caretaker of my hotel that was filled with great information on hiking including routes, trails and historical information about each community. I did several day hikes where I returned to Nebaj in the evenings after visiting close by communities or a beautiful waterfall for example. I also did one extended 3 night backpacking trip staying in a different community each night. These communities are usually nestled in the mountains, only reachable by trail or dirt road and consist of between 50 and 100 families. Many were involved in the civil war here in the 1980’s and I saw many monuments and cemeteries dedicated to the memory of massacres of civilians that occurred. A local ecotourism project has established community lodges where for 3 dollars per night you can stay in a shack with a bed and a blanket. You just have to search out the community member who has the key when you arrive at the village. For food along the way it was as simple as soliciting the villagers for a plate of beans and tortillas, or the local specialty plate called boxbole which is the corn dough masa rolled up in kale or other leafy green vegetable and boiled. It is then served with 2 different types of salsas; one being tomato based and the other is made with toasted squash seeds. The things these people can do with corn have not ceased to amaze me.

I must say it was quite an experience for 3 days to only see campesinos and their families and walk around through some of the most beautiful mountains on Earth. The variation between the communities was incredibly interesting as well. Some spoke Ixil while others only spoke Kiche. Some were located so high up in the mountains that they could not raise crops, only herd goats and sheep, while others were so low in the valleys that they were growing bananas and other tropical fare. It was a blast to arrive in the villages and immediately become the center of attention as every child within 200 yards flocks to stare at the long haired gringo. Unfortunately no children speak Spanish so I just received giggles and blank stares. Everyone was so friendly and happy to receive me and I conversed with everyone I met along the trails. It was absolutely unforgettable.

One aspect of hiking here that is challenging and stimulating is that there is absolutely no infrastructure like there is in the US. There are no signs, trail blazes, markers or anything. I simply had a book and my sense of direction to guide me. The guide book I had was fun as well with directions (all in Spanish) such as “bear right at the third post past the old gate”, and other comically ambiguous directions. Comical now, but at the time rather unappreciated. It is difficult to explain, but I developed a sort of sense to read the paths, orient myself around the mountains and follow the correct trails. Additionally to augment the guide book I would stop every farmer in his field to make sure I was on the right path, which worked wonderfully as I only got lost once in over a week!

After seeing pretty much every village I could after a week it was time to leave and continue my explorations in other parts. I am now in Quetzaltenango (aka Xela), which is Guatemala’s second largest city. Coming from the bare bones countryside to the cosmopolitan city was quite a shock. There is money here and it is reflected in the appearance of the city. Nice cars, gyms, chic restaurants, tourists, theatre, culture, art and a university make Xela a very interesting place. I have realized that probably more than anywhere else I have experienced, Guatemala is a land of profound contrasts. Contrasts abound between classes, races, climates, topography, languages, etc. But I will leave this topic for further cogitation. My plan is to stay in Xela for a few days, absorb a little bit of the cosmopolitan, western educated aspect of the culture and take day trips to climb all the local volcanoes!

In my last post I spoke of the value systems of different cultures and their respective customs. The theme I was talking about is a favorite of mine and is called Cultural Relativity which basically says that no culture can adequately be judged or known from outside the context of that culture. Traditions and customs that are judged as barbaric by one culture are completely normal for another, with neither culture able to pass judgment or really understand the other. As culture is instilled into us from the moment of our births, this essentially means that we are always victims of our subjective cultural biases and can never objectively evaluate a different belief system or worldview. This concept of cultural relativity was in my mind while observing the daily trials and tribulations of the people living in the indigenous communities. From my totally admitted bias, and by our American standards, their lives are incredibly simple. They wake each day, prepare some adumbration of corn and go out into their fields to grow food for their families. Sprinkled into this routine are community events and festivals and a religious tradition that gives thanks to the Earth and various deities that bless their crops. These people are working directly with the Earth each day to support their lives through the food growing process. And they are very happy, fulfilled and proud to do so.

So contrast this with the American existence where practically nobody works directly to provide for their daily existence. We provide for our families through the distant process of earning economic power in order to buy our daily necessities. We are alienated and insulated from the Earth and her cycles of growth and decay, bounty and scarcity. We exist within a precariously balanced cultural matrix in which very few people actually work for their direct existence. And I believe we are actually suffering from this disconnection with the level of fulfillment that we feel with our lives. I wonder if there is an inverse relationship between the degrees of separation from directly providing the necessities of daily life and the fulfillment felt by that lifestyle. For example contrast the poor but fulfilled peasant farmer (whom I have met!) with the materially wealthy yet emotionally wrecked anti-depressant taking business man living in a consumer culture. I can think of no more fulfilling an existence than to provide for ourselves and our community the things needed to survive. I mean really, what else is there actually to do? I am coming to the conclusion that our western obsession with “progress” and technology is all wrong and is in the process of destroying the material resources of this planet. What is the goal here? What are we striving for as a culture? What is wrong with living simply and in balance with the Earth and other species coexisting with us? Why is bigger, better, faster the cultural model that we have been led to believe will fulfill the existential angst buried within each one of us? These are questions that I think everyone in the industrial world needs to think about, and quickly.

Guatemala #8 Nebaj

On my way back into Guatemala I stopped in Copan to see the Mayan ruins. These ruins are known for the well preserved stelae which are enormous carved stone monuments filled with glyphs marking the passage of kings and wars. It was nice to see and town outside the ruins was quant and pleasant. I was happy to return to Guatemala though; the tortillas in Honduras are made with white wheat flour, of which I abstained.

Now, after spending almost 5 weeks in Gautemala, I finally feel like I am seeing the real authentic culture in its unadultered form. I am in the modest town of Nebaj, pronounced Nehbak, in the western mountain highlands. This region is also known as the Ixil triangle for the local dialects of Mayan languages that are spoken here. Each village in this region has its own customary clothing that the women hand weave and wear proudly. The different villages are easy to identify simply by looking at the patterns and colors of the clothing. There are three main towns and many small villages of 50 families or less that are all connected by a few roads and many footpaths that wind, climb and descend in the mountains. The landscape here is incredible; densely forested mountains shrouded in cloud with rivers and waterfalls appearing at every turn in the trail. I have been exploring the villages within a days walking distance, talking with the people, eating their customary food and enjoying the amazing scenery. People here are amazingly friendly, everyone stops me on the trail to chat a bit and share information. I field many questions about life in the U.S. and in turn ask many questions about the lifestyle here. This region was the hardest hit during the civil war in the 1980s with many civilians killed. The people were caught between the armed guerilla resistance and the Guatemalan army, with both sides indiscriminately killing civilians suspected of aiding the other side. It was a very difficult and sad time for Guatemala and while things are much better now, this region still has scars and I am being very sensitive with the types of questions I ask the people here.

It is possible to walk to these remote villages and solicit the families living there for food and lodging for the night. My plan is to spend 3 days walking to the most remote villages in the area, through the most beautiful scenery to share culture and stories with the people.

While in Nebaj proper I have had the opportunity to meet and talk with several community development organizations who are working with local communities on various issues. A major problem that local villages are facing here are European owned hydroelectric companies that are trying to buy the villagers land to build energy production facilities. The organization FundaMaya that I met with is working to fortify and organize communities against the business interests that are dangling large sums of money in front of the villagers. Cultures are not simply enterprises of human design and execution existing in a vacuum, but as humans exist within the context of their environment, a culture must necessarily incorporate a connection with Nature. This connection to the Earth through the care and utilization of a regions resources helps form the culture and its customs. Within this definition of culture it is also important to recognize that cultures are really based on day to day life and habit. The culture here is connected to the earth through the cultivation of maize and other staple crops, with the entire village life dictated by the seasons of sowing and harvesting. Therefore with this in mind, when a business interest moves a community from their land they are in a sense destroying a culture, as the people are inextricably tied to their land. The work of these courageous organizations here in Nebaj is to make sure the villagers understand the gravity of the decisions they are facing; the lure of money on the one hand or a 5 thousand year old tradition and worldview on the other. When the villagers leave their communities to seek outside employment or money in a large part they are leaving behind their culture. If enough people leave so that the traditions and languages are forgotten, a culture goes extinct. This is a consequence of globalization and “development”.

In my previous post I had mentioned that I had met many people who had spent time working in the US. I even said that Guatemalans should try to go to the US if they had the opportunity. I realize now that in making that statement I was making a value judgment that US culture had more to offer poor Guatemalans than their own culture. After meeting amazingly friendly, aware and proud indigenous people I no longer feel this way. If a Guatemalan wants to make money and have a lot of material stuff then yes, they need to leave. However over the past few days I have met countless poor villagers who had practically nothing except for their homes and communities, yet obviously someone forget to tell these people that they were supposed to be unhappy, struggling to survive and miserably hoping for economic opportunities. I realized that economic incentive and “development” is what drives OUR culture, not necessarily any other culture. While there are some people here that see the glitz and wizardry of western industrial technologies and are ready to sell out at all costs, there are many people here who see value in different aspects of life such as family, community, cultural identity and tradition. I met a young man who had worked in the US for 2 years, but returned absolutely disgusted with the American obsession for work and money and lack of traditional values or customs. He much rather preferred to be poor and culturally proud in Guatemala than rich and isolated in America.

The aspect of the Mayan culture that enchants me so much is its authenticity and originality. All the traditional aspects of the culture are hand made with such care and originality passed down from generation to generation, from the clothing, to the food and the cosmology. There are very few large corporations operating here, only family run business in the towns and farmers selling their products in the markets. Although of course many mass produced goods have reached here and western cultural intrusion is well underway, I really hope the culture can absorb aspects of this intrusion without losing its proper identity. In contrast with indigenous culture, the thing that disgusts me about American culture is for the average person the complete lack of originality, creativity, attention to detail or autonomy in their lives. We live in a consumer culture. For the most part the average person is spoon fed their likes and dislikes dictated to them by profit driven corporations. No thought or awareness is given to the origins or consequences of consumption of any product, only the instant gratification. This is further reflected in our scientific cosmology that places human beings as unimportant flecks of particles winging around in space in a Universe totally devoid of meaning or purpose. Woah that was negative wasn’t it? Perhaps I am being too cynical. There are redeeming qualities to American culture of course, and I am appreciative of a lot. It is just that to see a culture so intact and original right in front of my eyes makes me feel badly when I am asked about my own culture and the only memory of America I can conjure up is of strip malls and wal mart.

I have several days of walking in the mountains to think about this…


Guatemala #7 Izabal and into Honduras

I left the quiet rolling hills of Alta Verapaz for the steamy hot Carribean coast of Guatemala. I spent two nights in Livingston, which was an interesting experience. Livingston is an isolated population of Garifuna peoples living in a small fishing community only reachable by boat. The Garifuna are black slave descendants that have colonized locations all over the Carribean. They speak a very interesting language that is a mix of English, Swahili, and various other African languages. The town was fairly seedy and there really wasn’t much going on, but I traded Spanish tutoring for a free nights stay in the house of a Gringo who wanted to learn Spanish in order court a local damsel.

I then proceeded into Honduras to the port town of La Ceiba, from where I took a ferry to the island of Utila in order to learn how to scuba dive. There are a plethora of dive shops that swamp you when you get off the ferry, shoving posters and flyers in your face and touting their schools reputations. The standard deal is you pay for a standard PADI dive class and get all free accommodations while you are training. Of course I chose the school that had a gym for guests to use and began my course.

Scuba diving is absolutely incredible. First off, I didn’t realize how technical it actually is. You really have to be careful and know what you’re doing to plan dives appropriately. There is substantial risk involved, which I didn’t realize until signing a mountain of waiver forms. Anyway I completed the course in 3 days, which consisted of 4 training dives, 5 hours of classroom study and a final exam. When the course was over I went for a “fun dive”, where you just tour the reefs. I cannot even begin to describe how beautiful these reefs are. Neon fish flashing everywhere, hundreds of different types of corals, crabs, lobsters, interesting rocks etc. Combined with the amazing sensation of weightlessness provided by the water, the steady meditative sound of your own breathing and the totally alien aquatic environment, the experience is totally unique and very pleasurable. I am hooked for sure! One of my instructors had lived in Mozambique and dove their frequently. She regaled me with stories of manta ray and dolphin encounters and amazing reefs. I am super excited to now have the opportunity to explore this when I have my own adventure in Africa. Now being officially certified to dive, the underwater world cannot hide from me any longer now that I am no longer limited by my mere human physiology.

My overall impression of Utila was not that favorable. It was very touristy, expensive, loud and polluted by scooter and moped traffic. The locals are white skinned and speak a very interesting dialect of creole English which unfortunately for them makes them sound quite unintelligent by our standards as the language is basically a mixture of simple words mixed with slang terminology all spoken with a strange long drawn out southern drawl. As soon as the diving was completed I split for Copan which is located very close to the border of Guatemala. I am here now in Copan to explore the amazing Mayan Ruins of Copan tomorrow before continuing back into Guatemala to climb some volcanoes and visit rural communities.

Due to the lack of any sort of authentic culture to observe, I have been having many interesting conversations with other travelers and tourists, including some individuals who had been on the road for up to 3 years! One interesting theme for conversation was the theme of travel itself. One of my favorite questions to ask other travelers is “why are you traveling”? Ive gotten many different answers, but honestly the vast majority of people did not know how to answer this question and would look sort of embarrassed, like I put them on the spot. I get the impression that many people travel simply because it is trendy. Being well traveled is a status symbol in our culture and in many European cultures as well, and I encountered many people who go places not out of self interest, but simply to check it off their list.

Another interesting theme was discussing the various types of travelers. I believe that there is a continuum that consists of various degrees of three types. First you have the vacationers. These types are content to lie on the beach for a week in their all inclusive resort which they will leave only when it is time to return to the airport at the end of their gluttonous stay. They are there simply to relax, not worry about logistics and basically escape from their lives at home with usually a fairly mind numbing daily routine of feedings and relaxation sessions. Next you have the tourist. These types usually travel in groups, are sure to frequent the most popular historical, cultural and ecological sights, and may or may not engage in tourist related activity such as constant taking of photos, loud behavior, taking of tours and overpaying for everything. This group does minimal planning on their part although at times they may have to engage in some planning and logistics when there is a brief gap between their tour activities. Finally you have the seasoned travelers. These are usually individuals or pairs who have been traveling for quite some time and are used to most of the antics the traveler will face on their journey. These types usually travel light, know how to find the cheapest places to eat and sleep and usually have pretty low standards of living. Daily diaries and all but the most important habits of personal hygiene have been long abandoned and these wandering souls tend to have a gleam of dreaminess in their eyes, as they have spent far too much time waiting for busses and being haggled over $.50 cent street food. Travel is a way of life for these people, a job, a hassle at times, an addiction most definitely, but the reward is the journey.

As I said before, I believe there exists a continuum with all these properties and everyone falling on this continuum in their own way at different times in their travels. I would like to say this however, traveling is difficult at times! The constant waiting for busses and connections, the constantly changing scenery, the constant haggling for prices, the necessity to remain ever vigil over your belongings and documents and self awareness can become burdensome over time. Not to mention the occasional nostalgia for a certain location or person at home. In my opinion, much of traveling is making sacrifices and giving up control. No, you cannot make the bus driver hurry up eating his meal after he stopped for a break with the entire bus waiting. No, you cannot tell the restaurant how to cook your food exactly the way you like it (well you can, but chances are your advice will not be heeded!). No, you cannot complain about the cockroaches and flies in your room, because all the rooms have them and besides you’re only paying $2.50 per night! Anyone who thinks traveling is all fun and games has never really done it. Vacationing is easy. Touring is a bit harder. Traveling can at times be so burdensome that one simply must ask themselves “why am I doing this”?

However, I write this with the full awareness and appreciation of the fact that in any form, travel is an enormous luxury. I have met many people who would love to travel the way I am right now, but cannot due to political and economic limitations. The ability to see the way of life of other cultures on our planet is a gift beyond full comprehension and has the potential to improve the lives of the travelers and the cultures visited. Through travel, one can gain the perspective needed to critique and appreciate aspects of their own culture and improve the way they live and interact with their home world. I hope everyone has the opportunity to make their pilgrimage at some point in their lives.