Stories of Guatemala

Seeing out over corn-fields, through fog and mist, listening to a cow moo out in back and the sweetest children I’ve met playing downstairs. Through fear and irritation, elation and love, there is an underlying murmur saying this too shall pass.

Tonight is my last night in Guatemala. It´s been a little less than two weeks, though truly it seems a lifetime has passed. The learning curve is steep when you are dropped into a different culture. I originally thought it would be a lot like Mexico, but other than the language it is not. There is far greater proportion of indigenous people here, completely different history including a terrible civil war that ended not many years ago and left hundreds of thousands dead, more mountainous, less developed, smaller, and an infinite number of other differences both great and small. No use enumerating really.

I´ve moved almost every day, rarely staying in one place more than a night or two in a row. I went to some of the touristy places, but spent more time in the country. Though I enjoyed the vast dramatic beauty of the lake of Atitlan, and the colonial architecture of Antigua, my favorite moment was sitting atop Aliyya´s house, drinking a cup of tea, watching the breeze rustle the drying cornstalks 20 feet high, the small white butterflies amongst the small rows of vegetables in the back yard, and the bluish purple of the mountains and volcanos all around, shadowed by the dark rain clouds gathering around them and obscuring their peaks. I sat in my pajamas on the roof, drying in the sun, and I heard a piano playing. Aliyya worked downstairs. It wasn´t simply a moment of relaxation, thoughts of past and future drifted through. Something died inside of me, something old, something that needed to be let go of. The air was still and the walls of earth around this fertile valley held peace through timeless moments. Silence, silence silence. A textured silence that is etched somewhere low on my spine.

There is an edge that life walks here that is literally closer to death than what I have known, and perhaps even more so than other ¨third world¨countries. I´m uncomfortable with that name, considering the traditions that still survive here are those of a culture that certainly predates our own. Nonetheless, buses spill off cliffs, people die of very treatable illnesses, malnutrition, the wear and tear on a body that carries heavy loads, women die during childbirth, etc.

Today on a bus back from Volcan Tajumulco, a story I’ll tell further down, I climbed up the ladder on to the back of the bus (a school bus) last and the bus began to drive with the back door open. I felt myself lurching backwards and realized that the man who typically closes that door was not there and hadn’t. I steadied myself on the back seat, found the latch and secured it. Moments later the bus passed through a busy market town high atop a hill. A quilt of brightly colored umbrellas shielded sellers and the food from the sun, there were stalls filled with plastic tubs of vegetables, dried goods, various other edibles, and a yard filled with livestock for sale. In the yard men in cowboy hats stood in the mud and animal excrement looking at hooves, lifting ears, stepping backwards to get a sense of girth. Sheep, lambs, goats, and cows all stood around with ropes around their necks and the chickens squirmed inside of plastic tubs with blankets over their bodies. Our bus slowed and a young boy, maybe 7 years old, vending something in a small cooler climbed aboard through the same back door. Perhaps also assuming someone behind him would close the door he fell back with his cooler in his hands as the bus lurched forward. I jumped forward and grabbed his side and pulled him in and someone else shut the latch. He went on through the bus, selling, tugging at people’s clothes, as though he had not nearly tumbled 6 feet down from a moving bus into the street perhaps under the wheels of the following vehicle. It is not uncommon to see people jumping on and off buses while they are literally merely slowing down. Electrical wires hanging low by my head as I descend stairs on a bridge across a busy road, people weld in the street, and on it goes.

Travel requires more care here, not just to avoid falling off the back of a bus or avoid being hit by one of the many arrogant drivers who speed with all of their windows tinted through the streets, but of course also where you travel to, what time of day, who sits next to you, etc. Aliyya for example has a map that is updates from the Peace Corp office on a quarterly basis. There are red dots placed where crimes against tourists and Peace Corp Volunteers occur. Many tourists, most I daresay, travel tp Antigua, and Panajachel, a small town on the lake. On Aliyya´s crime map the road between these places is solid red with dots representing robberies and assaults.

I am always a little on my guard when someone sits next to me, which is always on public buses, which is all I take. I keep my pack on my lap and an awareness of movement around me or against me. A man sat down and kept looking over at me. That is pretty typical. I said “Hace frio, no?” It’s cold isn’t it! He laughed and said yes, and then we started talking. He asked me where I was from, how much time I had, what I was doing, and all the questions most Guatemalans want to know when they see a gringa on a chicken bus or in their town. Then he told me his brother had lived in Ohio, but was blinded in an accident where he worked after two years, and was deported back to Guatemala. Though the story was sad, and we lamented the state of immigration between the US and Latin-America in general. Though the story was sad, his happiness and goodness was more noticeable. When he asked me how old I was I mentioned that my birthday was in a week and then this sweet man sang me happy birthday while our bus zipped around steep corners through the fog, cornstalks and green vines hanging from the trees. We talked about love and relationship and right before he got off he told me the only things that really matter are that both people want love, that they love each other, and that there is chemistry. He hugged me, kissed my cheek, and wished me well in Guatemala and safe travels home. Like that he and many others walked off towards smaller buses headed towards their villages, businesses there at the crossroads, or trails leading them into the patchwork landscape.

Transportation in Guatemala is pretty incredible. I can catch a bus from Guatemala city, Antigua, Xela, Huehue, or wherever for what amounts to $1.30 to $3.10. Everyone here rides buses. They call them chicken buses for the simple reason that locals use them to go everywhere and do everything, going to markets to sell what they have. They are school buses primarily and are painted with lots of thank to god, the cities they travel between, and sometimes sexy silhouettes of women grace their windows. They travel between cities and major centers. Within cities and towns there are micros which are vans with sliding doors. Guatemala is a mountainous country with 20 something volcanos and high altitudes. Driven fast and recklessly it is not entirely uncommon for one of these buses to tumble over the side of a ravine or off the road.

The reality is that every part of this country is worked hard. The buses, the drivers, the roads, the men who jump off as the bus is still moving to round-up riders on the side of the road, get their belongings on, and collect fares. The children are worked, the land is worked. So when my bus stalled as it neared the top of the mountain switch-backs as I left San Pedro del Lago de Atitlan, I knew that it was not far-fetched to want to get the hell off the bus. In my head I heard a voice say “Get the hell off the bus!”. The driver started it up again and the bus began to roll backwards. Everyone was up in a minute dashing towards the front exit of the bus. He stopped the bus. We all got off on to the green jungled shoulder as the men opened the lid of the grungy school bus and we all looked back down the steep hill to where the road turned to the right and the bus would tumble perhaps thousands of feet down steep cliffs towards the canyons that lead to the lake. It was a beautiful view, the blue lake, the green dense jungle, the distant clusters of towns on mesas. The beauty was intensified by the thought of the bus and those inside joining into it unintentionally in a fiery plummetous fall.

The bus was out of diesel. One man took a 15 gallon bucket, jumped in the back of a passing truck, and off he went. They continued to work, with wooden blocks beneath the tires to prevent anymore loss of ground. We sat perched on the shoulder, perhaps entertaining questions of whether it would be wise to ever get back on this bus. He returned with a full bucket and two lengths of plastic hose, I cringed in anticipation. With one end of the hose in the bucket held high by another man, and the other end in his mouth he started the syphon, spit the diesel from his mouth on to the ground and placed the now flowing hose into the gas tank. Moments later the bus zipped up the hill to a safe place, we ran with our bags and baskets and briefcases to catch it, and we were on the road again.

The rain is falling outside and the children downstairs are squealing. When I first met them they embraced me and kissed me with the smiles of angels. I cannot explain, all children are beautiful, but even this small boy of four had no reticence to give me hug filled with love that I could feel. It touched my heart, and still does every time he runs up to me to greet me or say goodbye. He delights in giving love, as does his sister.

I arrived in Aliyya’s town at 5:30 on Monday night and she was not home yet. Her phone has been dead so I had no way to know where she was, and I had no money to go anywhere, and nowhere to go. The town is a dirt road with a bread store, a room with two computers that are online, and a families kitchen that sells tortillas. The woman at the bread store did not know Aliyya so I went to the internet “cafe” (not actually serving anything but internet). They knew her and said I was indeed in the right place. But when I asked where I could eat, they took me out front and pointed me into what appeared to be a kitchen with a family in it. There were no tables, no menus, no nothing to indicate that it was anything other than a family´s kitchen. But I was beaten, hungry, and ready to throw myself on the mercy of anyone so I shyly entered and asked about Aliyya, and if there was somewhere I could buy some food. This sweet woman told me she was already about to mill some corn and make some tortillas, so she set off to the miller. I spoke with her husband, a kind looking man and his daughter. Everyone older than 16, and many younger, have gold around the outside of their teeth. I am told by some of the peace corp volunteers that many only brush their teeth on sunday before church.

The room was bare except for a television, but the daughter was dressed well in a black suit jacket, pink camisa, and jeans. We talked about school, how Aliyya and I know each other, and other small talk. I was still a little hesitant about feeling like I was in their kitchen, but as I time passed teenage boys, grown men, and others entered seeking tortillas. She returned and made me a meal I will never forget. Coffee in Guatemala is always pretty weak and served with lots of sugar. This was no exception, but it was hot, god bless her. And four small, thick, fresh, moist tortillas with an egg or two fried with onions and tomatoes, and something else that tasted so good I can’t describe it.

Her brother had arrived and in a very animated tone was asking me everything about myself, the US, and what I thought about certain things. He told me he had been imprisoned in the US and brought back in handcuffs and ankle-cuffs after having worked there for three years. He told me he had been in prison for six months, but he was home now, and the people were nice, and the food was good, and the land was beautiful. I felt full of shame for our country. Others came and stared at me, and some would talk to me, and ask me how to say things in english, everyone was kind, generous of heart, and helpful in every way they could be. Eventually Aliyya’s duena, who she rents her house from, arrived to collect me and I was on my way. The tortilla maker, who I can’t remember her name, asked for 5 quetzales for the delicious meal. I gave her six, not much, less than a dollar, but all my cash left in the world. I thanked them and bowed in gratitude and appreciation.

More stories from this trip to come, D.

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