Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Guatemala, Guatebuena, Guatemaya 1

(Title stolen from an article by Edelberto Torres-Rivas you can find here.)

I've been meaning to post some details of my 10 day trip to Guatemala here, but the increasing stress from dissertation elements and long distance relationship, coupled with a sense that blogs are decreasingly useful mediums for communicating has delayed me significantly. 

Guatemala is a beautiful country with a systematically violent but also profoundly, richly political history. It is, by way of military, solidarity, and refugee discourses, a place think about somewhat in my dissertation. The motivations for going were therefore mixed. My boyfriend gets paid vacation time every year and he wanted a jaunt somewhere to help me at least "inhabit" the subject of my dissertation somewhat, even if that means I would be there having drinks and chilling by a giant, beautiful lake while reading about genocide. My friend B is also in Guatemala City (the capital) doing fieldwork for her anthropology PhD, so we had a potential person with who we could visit.

Because my bf doesn't have any free time in his job that demands he work 12 hour days, I did much of the planning on my own, consulting travel guides, friends, and also various internet review sites. Roughly sketched out the trip involved flying into Guatemala City, heading immediately out to Tikal, coming back to Guatemala City and shooting West toward Lago Atitlan for several days, hitting the Pacific Coast by way of Monterrico, spending a day and night in Antigua, back to Guate to see B. All compacted unrealistically into very little time.

Arrival in Guatemala City:

Pittsburgh is freezing during the Winter and it is also bleak, so banking off of clouds to see an overwhelmingly green landscape and warmth was a rather welcome sight. I had basically left us six hours to check out Anthropological Museums and eat in Guatemala City before catching a late night bus (on Linea Dorada) to Tikal. My plan was to get to a museum, stash our bags at the coat check, immerse ourselves in the anthropological material of the museum and then plan our next move, to hit a coffee or dinner, check el centro. We arrived the day after Christmas and I hadn't realized that the museums would be closed for a week for the holiday. We asked our cab driver to take us to another museum, which was also closed. Since we were near the center of town anyway we had him drop us off there so we could at least wander around and get some coffee or street food. I was at this point a little overtaken by panic, I foolishly internalize things like Guatemala's 200,000 genocide and the torture of thousands more as some sign that we too would be targeted and murdered, as obvious tourists. As irrational as I knew these feelings were, I couldn't quite keep my fear under control for the first hour or so in the city. 

We managed to find a decent coffee shop and we wandered around the plaza which was lovely, strung with lights, vendors selling elotes, etc., a cathedral with a few minor nondescript monuments to the genocide, and well kept flowers. Avenida 6a running down from the center of the plaza has been closed off to automobile traffic producing a very pleasant pedestrian avenue where we familiarized ourselves with the various iterations of the faux hawk popular amongst the nations young men. We managed to find a vegetarian restaurant at the end of the avenue where we munched on odd, but not altogether bad veggie variations of guatemalan traditional foods like tamales (in this nation wrapped in banana leaves rather than corn husks, as in Mexico). We split some overpriced beers and caught our overnight bus. (Incidentally Guatemalan beers aren't very good, as with other Latin American nations lagers are the preferred form, but the Gallos and Mozas were not particularly tasty.)

The bus was packed and the bus ticketing agent giggled at my gigantic internet print out tickets. Linea Dorada operates what seems comparable to Greyhound buses in the United States with semi-reclining seats and powerful aire acondicionado. I managed to not sleep very well and the bf snuck our arms around each other beneath our blanket (note to the homos: Guatemala is not a tolerant nation for homosexual peoples, it's best to travel on the DL if you can, although it is much more common for heterosexual men to touch other men and put their arms around friends or loved ones in public more than in the United States).


In order to visit Tikal National Park, an archeological treasure of an ancient Mayan city sitting at the edge of the jungle, you first fly or bus into Flores, a small island town where you either obtain a bus to the site or enjoin a tour company to get you to the site and guide you through was is a very confusing set of paths where tourists lose their way annually. After working on some miscommunication with our tour company we managed to get a bus over to the site, and checked around for guides who spoke English, so that my boyfriend (J from here on out) could also understand the tour. The tour lasted three hours and the site was beautiful, massive and impressive temples rising out of the jungle, ancient Maya stelae, and the odor of copal (a pine sap incense) which seemed to permeate much of Guatemala or at least infected my senses for the duration of the trip.

For the remaining evening hours in Flores, J and I snuck into an alley to throw on swim trunks and we hit the lake surrounding Flores during at sunset. The lake is pleasantly cool, but warm enough that one could spend some time there. Our dinner was fine, a little overpriced and not as good as breakfast. My favorite meal in Guatemala tended to be breakfast tipico, which consists of two eggs, black beans, toast, chirmol (a non-spicy tomato onion sauce), and fried plantains. This breakfast is to be found everywhere in Guatemala for cheap in even the smallest comedores

Toward Lago Atitlan:

We caught another overnight bus back to Guatemala City that night, arriving a half hour shy of 6am. Our guidebooks were fairly old, 2007 I believe was the most recent one we had between us, and we had plans to catch a camioneta to Panajachel, a city along Lago Atitlan, that morning from a particular site in Zone 1 Guatemala City. Our cab driver suggested that our books were wrong and the camionetas (or "chicken buses" as they are called by Anglos) picked up somewhere in Zone 8. Again I was confronted with a moment of First World panic (or maybe Mexican?--kidnapping is a national industry there) as I imagined another scenario in which we would again be robbed and murdered. We arrived and were told we need to catch a bus to a midpoint in Encuentros where we could catch a bus to Solola and onto Panajachel. Taking camionetas I think is a definitive experience for anyone visiting the country for the first time. These are former American school buses that are tricked out with bright colors, chrome plating, and have sound systems blasting reggeaton. Our driver looked like he was 19, his assistant 14, as they throttled up mountains at 90 mphs. 

As we travelled through the rainy landscape we were treated to another Guatemala's surprising features: a wandering evangelical Protestant Preacher. For the course of an hour we were force fed a stream-of-consciousness sermon about finding Jesus amidst family tragedy and several songs. One feature of the counterinsurgency wars in Central America has been the increasing presence and power of evangelical Christianity both as a corrective to Vatican 2s enabling of liberation theology (a significant element of revolutions in Guatemala and El Salvador) and to defuse political energies elsewhere than resistance to the mandates of the landed oligarchy and the army. After switching buses twice at a fairly efficient rate (both buses were waiting to pick up passengers and almost immediately left after we boarded) we arrived at a sunbaked Panajachel. After getting our bearings, consuming coffee and breakfast, we loaded onto a lancha headed for a hotel I had arranged for us in the small village of Jaibalito. Lanchas are the cheapest way to get around the lake towns as the lake is surrounded by forested volcanos. Typically you load onto a lancha with 15-20 other passangers making stops at villages and towns along the way. Atitlan has to be one of the most beautiful natural locations I have ever been so riding in the lancha was a rather amazing way to see the bright blue of the lake and the life surrounding the water.

Set in a beautifully manicured garden the hotel (called Vulcano Lodge) was a set of bungalows a bit off from the lake, and as soon as we arrived was the first time we had significant time to relax since the trip began. J and I snuck over to a neighboring hotel's patio/dock and spent the afternoon basking the beautiful surroundings, swimming, and reading, my recommended book of the trip El Presidente by Guatemalan novelist Miguel Angel-Asturias (which depicts the abjection and experience of living in the surveillance culture of a military dictatorship). As relaxing and restorative as the time at the lake was the way our hotel was set amidst a rather impoverished looking village with little in terms of public plumbing and not apparent school or medical services within reach (perhaps there is a hospital nearby)? It was a good reminder of the deeply inequitable and exploitative economic situation upon which the tourist economy sits in Guatemala (and also the degree to which the United States has been responsible for destroying its conduits for unrest about the inequality, as in overthrowing the first president to enforce a land reform). 

The hotel offered a family-style meal with other residents and seeing no other options for eating dinner we joined what appeared to be several incredibly boring MidWestern American and their Canadian equivalents for dinner. The food was relatively good, even for two vegetarians, and with the dull families we agreed to share a shuttle the next day to visit Chichicastenago, a mountain town famous for it's large markets vending "indigenous" textiles, pottery, and other goods as well as for a still very active syncretic Maya-Catholic culture. We arrived relatively early to Chichicastenago so the longer we paced the streets, the more narrow they became as vendors divided the streets with proliferating stalls. Many of the textiles, for which Guatemala is famous, were clearly made in factory contexts and not really the handicrafts one might expect, which is not surprising but it didn't stop the vendors from haggling with you complaining about the lack of value "mi trabajo" was receiving. We bought a few really nice pieces, but as the streets became more claustrophobic the process of haggling made me incredibly anxious; anxious because of an awareness of my position as someone coming from the core of the world economy and all the privileges it affords me arguing for a better price against someone with less prospects, in all probability a shorter lifespan, in a language I failed to maintain because it was easier to learn English than to try and maintain any semblance of my culture in the overwhelmingly homogenous MidWest of the US. More tension emerged later, J had suggested we try and find some decent street food which seemed in short supply in the streets we were exploring. On finding on stall we purchased some small tortillas and warm black beans, seeing not much else for vegetarians to consume. A potentially homeless man shoved himself next to us asking for money and a few tortillas, which spurred a fight between me and J over why I let said dude paw the food we had only just begun to eat. After a fight and a long session of lesbian-style processing we decided that despite the very cool tapestry we bought and getting a chance to see the interior of its Maya-Catholic church (reeking of copal incense) Chichi should have been a 3 hour trip, not one lasting the whole of a day.