I was going to write something about Spanish school, but I though it was a bit dry for so early in this blog. Then I thought about Mayan clothing and doing a photo essay about the colorful huipiles (ladies blouses) and cortes (dresses) worn in the highlands of Guatemala. While looking through my horribly poorly archived photo sets I came across some photos that would merge both of these topics in a nice way. This is a short story about the day I went with my Spanish teacher Juan from Xela to a little town out in the mountains called Juitun. I had been asking a lot of questions about life for people in the countryside where services like health care and education were almost non-existent. Juan told me he had worked in a town called Juitun with a government project to bring schools to towns in the rural countryside and would be glad to bring me to this town, if I was up to it. Hmm, get to spend a day in a highland Maya pueblo with a guide known by the local community or spend the day conjugating verbs… adios past participle.
We had to meet at the chicken bus station behind the market near Templo Minerva at 5:30am to catch the bus for our trip. Chicken buses are worthy of an entire blog and I am sure will get one here soon enough. Basically a chicken bus is an old yellow, usually Blue Bird, school bus that has been colorfully painted then beefed up with a heavy duty transmission and suspension for use as a non regulated commercial bus. There is a saying that the more Jesus stickers, the shakier the condition. The logic being if a driver can’t afford to get the brake lines replaced he’ll just buy a Jesus something instead and faith will help keep the old ones going a few more trips. The horrendous safety record of these buses, unfortunately, indicates otherwise. The ride to Juitun was my first of what would be many riding experiences on a chicken bus. We were on paved roads for a short time, then spent another 2 hours on dirt roads that would challenge most newer 4 wheel drive SUV’s. We drove down the razor back of a twisting mountain ridge for the last hour of the ride. There were times on this part of the trip that, at best, only 3 wheels would actually be touching the road while the other one dangled precariously over a several hundred feet down sheer drop off. The driver knew these roads and had no fear, after all he had a nice new reflective Jesus sticker proudly displayed in the center of his drivers side window, these stickers also seem to eliminate the need to actually be able to see your rear view mirror. I must say the system worked because we arrived at the end of an even rougher road leading in to town where we were safely deposited. Where chicken buses don’t run in Guatemala, pickups do, unfortunately none passed us on the half hour walk in from the end of the road.
Just as we came into the outskirts of town Juan led me to a nice newer cement block house with electric lines and a television inside. This house belonged to a woman and her husband who were fortunate enough to have relatives working in the states and sending money home. The house was quite modest by U.S. standards, about 500 square feet with three rooms which housed a grandmother, the couple and their four children. I am embarrassed to admit that the woman had a Mam name I could not pronounce and after I made several terrible attempts she told me I could just call her Maria. At this time my Spanish was still extremely limited so Juan acted as translator. “Maria” was going to be our guide and translator in town. Very few of the adults in this town spoke any Spanish, this is typical all through the more out of the way regions of Guatemala and Mexico. These people spoke a Mam dialect of the Mayan language.
I had a small Kodak digital camera and wanted very much to be able to take some pictures. Back to photography etiquette and how very important it is in the Mayan world. This town was still far enough away from things for me to be the first Gringo many of the younger people and older women had ever seen. Without knowing someone who everyone in town knew, just walking around town and asking people if they minded me taking pictures could have been met with great hostility. As it was we had to walk to the houses of two other older women who were of high regard and get permission from them, which they granted. I promised to get copies of the photos back to them, which I did in both hard copies and digital disks.
There were very few men in the town this day. I was told that it was coffee harvest time and most all of the healthy men were at the coast picking coffee. They would be gone anywhere from a few weeks to a month or more, depending on the harvest and other factors. The people of Juitun work hard and have very few possessions. Most people there had no power or running water in their houses. They were mostly quite friendly, some very shy and looked generally happy. I have passed through towns where everyone looks miserable and the stress of poverty shows quite clearly and others that were apparently as poor, but the people seemed relatively content, happily this was one of the latter. All over Guatemala dysentery and poor drinking water are a big problem and Juitun was no different. I was told many of the people suffer from the effects of dirty and contaminated drinking water and few have the money for the medicine they need to relieve the various illnesses caused by this. A few years earlier an evangelical group from the states had built a small church and pastors house at many times the cost of a simple water purification system that could have provided this entire community with safe potable water, the church only gets used the one or two weeks a year when this group comes down on their holy holiday to do “gods work”, grrrr!
I have generally noticed that very young children are given the freedom to play and some time around the age of 6 or so they are gradually introduced to harder work. This often seems cruel or unfortunate to visitors here, but in this land there are no free rides and everyone in the family unit is expected to share the load. If you picture some terrible sort of sweat shop type toil then you are off the mark. From what I have seen the children are not given more than they can handle and there is still time for play. I am not trying to understate or make light of a very tough existence with days full of toil, but these people had great dignity, bright eyes and warm smiles.
This town had a very strong and seemingly progressive women’s council. They had petitioned the government for more teachers and school supplies and had even arranged for micro loans from a regional bank. The micro loans were used by one woman to open a tienda (small store) and another woman used hers to buy pigs for mating and selling. The day ended with Juan and myself being invited to a meeting of this womens council so they could explain some of the hardships and desires of the town. A good potable drinking water system was and I am sure still is their number one desire. Like many, many other small indigenous towns all over the countryside of Guatemala and Mexico the introduction of clean drinking water would eliminate one of the most pressing needs of the community. With clean water many of the persistent and chronic health problems caused by contaminated water wouldn’t exist and the people could proceed living an already difficult daily life without the fatigue of diarrhea and dysentery.