The photo above is one of my all time favorites. Clicking on any photo will open a nice large gallery viewer.
Terraced Fields on the edge of town.
The kids have almost nothing...except bright smiles and pleasant dispositions.
Mother pig was purchased with a micro loan. The baby pigs will be sold to pay the loan and generate income.
A small Mam Maya village in the highlands of Guatemala, Juitun, about 3 hours outside of Quetzaltenango.
Mam Maya mother and child working in the field. I think mostly mom was working here.
I spoke in my last blog about the problems with obtaining potable water. I finish these photos with a picture of the creek that is used for water. There is running city water to parts of the town but it is unfiltered and not healthy for domestic use. When I was there taking these photos in 2004 I told the people I would try and see if I could get interest going in a water treatment facility. At that time I had a very poor website and had little success in generating interest.
The two girls in back wanted no part of the stranger, but the one in front was fearless.
The little girl and woman had babies on their backs, in traditional Mayan fashion.
This man was very happy to have his photo taken with his mule, a real friendly guy.
This is an opportunity for me to try again. If there is an “Angel” out there I will gladly donate several weeks of my time coming to help you get something started. Anyone seriously interested contact me and we can talk. Everyone else, I hope you enjoy these photos. This day was very special to me.
This is the creek where the towns less fortunate residents have to draw water for washing and I was told drinking as well.
Many of the people in town still carry water from the creek for home use.
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.
The road into town.
A Mam Maya mother and her three children.
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.
A family working in their field in front of their house.
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.
A path between houses and fields.
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.
After corn is dried it is husked to be stored and ground for tortillas.
The women have been husking corn to grind for tortillas.
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!
Generations of families often live all together in very small houses.
Children start working the fields at an early age.
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.
A proud Mayan womans small tienda opened with a micro loan.
The Council of the ladies in town with Juan, my teacher, and Maria our guide on the left.
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.
The author proudly photographed with the womens council.
The reason I first came to Guatemala was to learn Spanish in the least expensive place I could find. I was familiar with Mexico but the Spanish schools in Guatemala were even less expensive. I had heard it was a bit dangerous and remembered something about a “civil war” not too long ago. I was 43 and ready for a break after several tough years involving Alzheimer’s and my mother. My wife was key in helping me to go, and I was excited about a new adventure. I signed up for 3 weeks immersion at a school in Quetzaltenango, a town known to everyone in Guatemala as Xela (shay-la), its Quiche Maya name.
I arrived at the Aurora International airport in Guatemala late on a September night in 2003. The school arranged for me to stay at a private house in the city that night then get delivered to a bus station for the 6 hour ride to Xela at 6 the next morning. As you come out of the airport terminal you are greeted by a crowd of people waiting for their loved ones arriving on a flight. This will be your first taste of the stunning colors and intricate patterns in traditional Mayan dress. There will be professional people in business suits and people dressed the same as people from their villages have dressed for centuries. If nothing else Guatemala is a high contrast country, in the colors of its clothing, diversity of Mayan languages intermixed with Spanish and income levels or lack thereof.
Along with limo and shuttle drivers holding name cards was Luise my host for the night, holding a sign with my name not quite spelled right. We got in an old Datsun B210 and drove 15 minutes to his house, past McDonalds, Pizza Hut and Pollo Campero, fast food was as big here as any city in the states. Guatemala City is a large impoverished city with a high violent crime rate, tin shanty slums and exclusive wine shops. The house was in what I suspected was a “middle class” neighborhood, heavy bars on all the windows of not only their house but all of them. If the bars weren’t unsettling enough, I could also hear gunshots!! It seems funny to me now, but I was really a little freaked out. I didn’t know then that fireworks, the louder the better, are something which the Guatemalans love dearly. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone new to the country asking “are those gunshots?”, usually they are not.
Luise and his wife Rosa spoke no English and my Spanish at that point was limited to social greetings, directions and maybe a dozen food words. It was all quite friendly with a lot of gesturing. I’ve discovered that people can talk in separate languages, none understanding the words of the other, yet with some facial expressions and gesturing almost anything can be reasonably effectively conveyed, unless it all goes horribly wrong, which it didn’t. I was shown the bathroom and with some matter of fact visual instruction shown all toilet paper must be thrown in the little waste basket next to the toilet. Next, in gesture, he explained that if I threw paper in the toilet bowl apparently a volcano of water would suddenly erupt and flood the whole house under a sea of sewage. Then I was shown the shower with two poorly taped wires coming out of the shower head powering a little heater in it, these are lovingly referred to as suicide showers. Trying to adjust the shower head, or even accidentally touching it, can have some real shocking results. They come on with water pressure when you turn on the water. The trick is to keep the shower water volume turned as low as you can, without having the pressure so low the heater turns off. A luke warm drizzle is often the best result you can hope for in cold weather. It was at this house that I also first discovered the miracle of milk that doesn’t need refrigeration and has a shelf life of several hundred years. It tasted fine on my breakfast of Corn Flakes, instant coffee and really sweet simulated orange like beverage. Lying in the bed that was about 6 inches too short trying to go to sleep to the sound of what I thought were gunshots that night, I had no idea I was on the beginning of a voyage of renewed discovery that would last until this day.
Here’s some tips for flying into Guatemala;
Have a most recent copy of a good guidebook, Lonely Planet and Moon are my favorites.
Try and arrive before it’s very late, the earlier the better.
If you can be on the road before 8pm, figuring about an hour and a half for baggage and migration, book a hotel in Antigua. It’s a beautiful Colonial City and is a much nicer destination than Guatemala City, only an hour away in good traffic.
If you are arriving later at night stay in the city, all of the better hotels have free shuttle services, once again book this in advance.
Don’t walk out of the airport or around Guatemala City at night, use a shuttle to get wherever your hotel is.