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.