Monday, January 31, 2011

Local news

So far I've refrained from commenting upon or reporting upon the local news. That's because it is mostly very grim. One day on our drive in from Antigua, Roselyn and I listened to the news together for about five minutes and then turned it off, as most of the news was about death: bodies found somewhere, bus drivers and their assistants killed by extortionists. 

Yesterday I was having my car washed (having once been charged extra by a rental company for returning a car with a lot of dust from mountain rounds, I decided to spring the Q30 to have my car cleaned) by some very pleasant guys on the next block in Chinique who have a car wash in the patio of their house, I happened to read one of the newspapers, and the first several pages were all about killings. A singer in a popular band was shot 14 times in the face. Bodies were discovered. And it went on.  Here's the front page from Sunday's paper, which I read at the car wash.


January 31

The first announcement came over the radio as I maneuvered my rental car over the winding roads around Chichicastenango. "On January 31, a group of indigenous and Ladinos, students and others, peacefully occupied the Spanish Embassy. The goverment, through the police, entered by force. Over 40 people died in the massacre, and others were killed extrajudicially." The announcement went on to say that this was the 79th event recorded by the CEH (the Comisión de Esclaramiento Histórico -- the historical clarification commission). The announcement, clearly a paid announcement, was repeated numerous times throughout the 4 hour drive from Quiché into the city.  I had known about the event  -- this was when Rigoberta Menchú's father was killed -- but hadn't known or paid attention to the date. 

It took an unusually long time to get in Guatemala City today, and once I was in the city, it was especially hard to get around the central part of town since there were commemorative/protest activities. Unfortunately I wasn't able to get to any of the events as I was trying to take are of all of the paperwork necessary to purchase my pick-up (or ´picop as my friend Patrick corrects me). 

The wounds of the war are still fresh. There was a story in one of the local papers, Prensa Libre, which noted that no one has been brought to justice for the massacres. The comments from readers were mixed; a few posited that we must put the past behind us; one went so far as to accuse Rigoberta for using this for her own personal gain. One reader wrote that the people in the embassy were innocent peasants just asking for justice; another responded that they were not so innocent and had set off Molotov cocktails.

Here is a link to that story:

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Maya Past and Present

How history(ies) is/are represented (or ignored, papered over, sanitized, fabricated) particularly in museums and historical sites, has been an interest of mine for at least the last two decades. So although my research in Guatemala does not specifically have to do with the museological representations of "Mayanness" or the Maya past, it is part of the overall context for my work. Part of what I'm trying to grapple with is the hyper-visibility of "the Maya" in the touristic imaginary -- and their utter marginalization and invisibility. How "the Maya" can be an icon for the country, and at the same time impoverished, disenfranchised, and viewed as backward, "folkloric" curiosities. Tourist brochures and websites tout "el mundo Maya" (the Maya world); placards, brochures and websites display images of indigenous women in hand-woven garments (or better yet, sitting at backstrap looms), costumed figures from patron-saint feasts, and spectacular photographs of ancient ruins. In tourist-saturated towns like Antigua, every five steps, it seems, a pedestrian stumbles over a placard advertising guided tours to Maya ruins.

There are also several museums devoted specifically to weaving (tejido in Spanish; kem in K'iche'), and I had wanted to visit those since part of my work here (and back home) involves a women's handicraft association and I thought it would be interesting to visit those museums together with the association members here in Guatemala. First, I thought they might be interested in looking at some of the historic patterns as well as weaving styles from other parts of Guatemala as weaving tends to be somewhat local (the "traditional" patterns in Chinique are different than those in Zacualpa, 20 km to the east, and from those in Santa Cruz del Quiché, about 20 km. to the west).  I also was curious about what their reaction might be to the way the exhibits are presented (I have no idea what that is, but I've been to enough ethnographic and "folkloric" museums to be familiar with the usual types of "folkloric" discourse on labels, catalogs and brochures).

I wrote to one of the museums asking if it might be possible to get a group rate, explaining that even the Q15 student admission was a bit high for women in an isolated rural community (I'll post some pictures of the road to Tapesquillo soon so you can see what I'm talking about - and the partially paved carretera is a major improvement over the paths that preceded it).  

But as I was poking about on the website of the Red  Centroamericano de Museos (Red CAMUS). 
I saw that there were some "regional" museums and found one in Santa Cruz del Quiché. I read the description of the CENTRO DE VISITANTES Y MUSEO DE SITIO DE K’UMARCAAJ (Visitors' Center and Museum of the K'umarcaaj Site). According to the guide it was open on Sundays from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and admission was Q10 for foreigners (someone needs to either tell the gatekeeper that, as I was charged Q30, or they need to update the website). I couldn't find any explicit instructions about how to get there, however.  I tried Googling the name and eventually came up with a page from the Lonely Planet guide to Guatemala that gave walking instructions: take 2da (segunda, or second) Avenida south from the Plaza, turn right on Calle 10 and walk for a couple of kilometers.  Seemed doable.

I had actually planned to drive as I was going to take a walk in the afternoon -- what I've usually done when I go to the part of Tapesquillo where I was heading this afternoon is to leave the car at a certain point and walk the last 20 minutes or so. But I decided to try and get directly to Calle 10 before I got to the Plaza, which turned out to be a mistake. I ran into the market, and Calle 10 doesn't run all the way through town, so rather than work my way around a bunch of one-way streets, I parked in front of a store (with the permission of the storekeeper) and set out on foot. I had never seen the south side of the market, or the southwest side of town. The only part I've seen is right around the central plaza. So my walk took me through residential neighborhoods, small stores and mostly residents on the streets, not shoppers, and less bustle. It was sunny and warm, and I worked my way onto Calle 10 and headed out of the more populated area onto a winding blacktop highway. The road dipped and rose and wound around past fields and a newly-built sporting arena, where some young men were playing soccer. A few vehicles passed me -- small gray mini-vans or camionetas emblazoned with Gumarkahaj/Ruinas/URL on the side or back.  URL stands for Universidad Rafael Landivar, one of the pre-eminent national universities that has a small campus in Sta  Cruz that I passed on the outskirts of town.  After the second van passed, I realized that Gumarkahaj was an alternate spelling of K'umarcaaj -- there is not really a single universally accepted Maya alphabet.  As might be obvious, the Maya had a hieroglyphic writing system but not a phonetic alphabet. In recent decades there have been efforts to develop a unified writing system for all 22 (or 23) Maya languages (don't ask me why there are different numbers; I think it probably has to do with whether certain languages that are very closely related are considered to be autonomous languages or dialects). Although there is a national academy of Maya languages and their spelling is pretty widely used, it is far from universal. And so, two spellings (at least) of the name of the site.

I passed few other people on the road. There were some people waiting outside their homes for the bus  to pass. A few trucks and motorcycles passed me, but I mostly had the road to myself. 

Finally I arrived at the entrance (photo on the left).  I walked up the road, passing one young couple embracing.  I would later find out that the ruins seem to be a popular spot for young couples who might not have private spaces in their homes (no photos of those; since they are seeking privacy, far be it from me to infringe upon that).

I walked up the now-gravel road and got to the gate. There were no signs directing visitors, although there seemed to be a fair amount of construction going on at the entrance (see next photo).

There was an older man who approached me as I walked up the path. I did not see him approach any other visitors, who walked on without checking in at what I assumed was the visitors' center (no signage anywhere other than that at the entrance).  He asked me what was my nationality; I said I was from the United States. He asked me to follow him and so I did. We walked into one of the buildings (not the one pictured here) and I found myself in a big, mostly empty room.  There were some random pieces of furniture and some office supplies on a desk or table. Nothing seemed very organized. The man scrambled around to find a packet of tickets and told me that the admission was Q30. Even though the website had said Q10 I didn't argue; it seems perfectly fine for foreigners to pay more and even the inflated admission was under $4. He fumbled around for a date stamp and fiddled with the wheel to get the right date (first he had it as January 36 but managed to hold the dial up to the light and change the 6 to 0.

He did not hand me a guide or a map, just my receipt, and there were no descriptive or explanatory materials whatsoever.  No signs, no labels, no map, nothing to indicate to visitors what they were seeing. 
There was a single painting depicting the "contact"/conquest on one wall of the office, but that was about as far as it went. I picked up my ticket and walked outside. There was a gravel path that meandered through towering pines that blocked out some of the sun.

I walked through the site, trying to remember the little that I had read in the Lonely Planet entry. The site was not supposed to be as majestic or well preserved as the better known ruins in the Petén or in the Yucatan.  It didn't seem to be that well known;  last night as I was thinking about making this excursion (prompted, in part, by the fact that there is very little to do in Chinique on a Sunday morning other than go to market, and since I am leaving for Guatemala City on Monday, I had no need to stock up on food; most people I know are either at market or church or working or all three), I was chatting with a Guatemalan Maya friend (who is from Quiché) on Facebook and mentioned this site. My friend said he had never been to the site; I'm not entirely certain he had heard of it. It's certainly not highlighted in any signage in the central part of Santa Cruz, but there seem to be very few foreign travelers who venture farther than Chichicastenango; the only other gringos I have seen during the past three week are some scarily blond and tall Mormons. 

There were about 15 or so other visitors to the site while I was there. One group of about 3-4 women and 4 children were sitting on a stretch of grass off the path. There were 3-4 couples wandering around embracing, and two men, one of whom had a camera. I was the only non-Guatemalan in the bunch.

A friend who saw the photos on Facebook asked me to give an narrative explanation, which prompted this blog post, but I really don't know what to say since I'm not an archaeologist and not an expert on the pre-conquest Maya.  There were some outcroppings that looked like they might have been walls of a large structure, or separate buildings overlooking a large court.                               

At the center was a large stone circle.  I don't know what it was used for. 

One of the few things I did recall reading was that although the site was a ruin, and archaeological excavations are still going on, the site is actively used by Maya priests and others for ceremonial purposes, and I certainly saw evidence of that. Even as I stood in the center of the "court', I could see that on

the rocks in front of a small alcove in the rocks, there were streaks of colored wax, from ceremonial candles that had been burned. Inside the alcove, there were more streaks of wax, some remnants of flowers, and also a 7-day candle in a tall glass.

Here is another alcove in the same cluster of rocks. 

And this is a cluster of what looked like chives or spring onions, with some melted wax on top.


After I left the central court I walked through the rest of the site. There was one other area with structures, and then the rest was woods with some paths. It was hard to know where the actual boundaries of the site were. I found a lot of evidence of human visitation: cigarette butts, wrappers from snacks and fast foods, and some offerings like the one to the left, that were simply left in the grass between the trees.

As I mentioned earlier, the site seems to be favored by young couples, who might be attracted by the relative isolation and the many wooded areas. As I was wandering along the wooded paths, I saw some suspicious movement a little bit ahead, partially obscured by the foliage -- a red baseball cap (obviously on someone's head) bobbing rhythmically against a tree trunk, and the vague shape of another human head. I realized that this must be one of the young couples having sex up against the tree trunk, so I turned and walked back. I was a bit frustrated because there was no way to move forward without intruding, but I was saved by a coughing fit. Since this is the dry season, the roads and streets are very dry and dusty; that plus the diesel fumes of trucks and buses along the roads mean that my nasal passages, throat and lungs have been a bit sensitive.  So I coughed for a bit (and drank some water), and then shortly thereafter the couple emerged and walked in a different direction and I was free to move forward.

Saturday, January 29, 2011


There has been a mini-explosion in internet usage here in Guatemala (here meaning the altiplano) over my several trips here. There used to be one internet place in Chinique; now there are several. Zacualpa has a couple. I haven't enumerated the ones in Sta. Cruz del Quiché but it's safe to say there are several in the blocks around the central plaza. A number of people in Chinique and environs whom I know have mobile internet, like I do. It's both comforting, in a way -- I can follow the street protests in Cairo from my living room in Chinique -- but I also have to confess I miss the old days of going to a public internet/computer locale. Perhaps I could compare this to the advent of home television or VCRs -- movie-going (which I still like to do) is a collective, social event, whereas watching at home is more individualistic, atomized. The computer/internet centers in these towns were usually populated with young kids, mostly boys between the ages of 10 and 14. Last year, most of them seemed to be busy with video games. One day last summer when I was at the internet place I patronized in Zacualpa -- run by the ebullient and helpful Don Chanino -- and was posting something on Facebook I looked up to find myself surrounded by 5 or 6 boys, looking on with fascination. I explained to them what I was doing (I was also reading the NY Times and checking email) and they then sat quietly and watched me.  Of course I was writing in English so no worries that they would understand much of what I wrote, although they did try their few words in English out on me.

This year, before I bought my USB modem. I went to Don Chanino's place -- there are, as I mentioned, a few internet places in Chinique but when I arrived they were all closed for the fiesta patronal (most regular grocery/convenience stores were open, and so was the ferreteria or hardware store, but for some reason all the internet places were closed). So I had to go to Zacualpa to read email and pay bills. This time, there were  both boys and girls, and they all seemed to be online; in fact, a few were chatting on Facebook and also engaging in a modest competition to see who could add more "friends".

It was one of Don Chanino's employees, a young man named Brian, a fairly unusual name up here, who told me where I could get the best price on a USB modem, and who also helped me work through the kinks in the installation -- especially necessary as the oh-so-helpful instruction booklet neglected to mention some very important things, like needing to purchase a minimum of Q5 of airtime to activate the modem (it comes with a month free airtime and then I have to choose a plan; the "basic" plan is about Q140 (or under $20 a month).  

So, once the modem was installed and activated, I was free to log on wherever, whenever ... which is both liberating and a bit scary (as it is possible to get caught up in the world online and forget about the world outside one's door).

Friday, January 28, 2011

From the Guatemalan news: deportations on the rise

Immigration from Guatemala to the U.S. continues, despite the costs and risks and the still-sluggish U.S. economy (as unhappy as many U.S. residents are about the economic picture, especially high unemployment, the economic prospects for Guatemalans in rural areas are so much worse that it's hard to describe).  One index, and a fairly grim one, of the continued "flow" of humans northward, is the sharp spike in deportations. Here's a news item from the Prensa Libre, one of the national newspapers...

For those who don't read Spanish, the article notes that deportations have tripled since 2005, and are up 7% since last year 

Living and traveling in Guatemala: Jeep or truck?

The nature of my work in Guatemala means that I have to have a vehicle. I teach once a week at a university in the capital, the Universidad del Valle, and my field work is in the southern part of the department of Quiché. It takes about 4 hours to get from Chinique to Guatemala City (I know that the bus drivers supposedly make it in three hours, but I try to exercise a modicum of caution when driving).  The buses wouldn't take me very close tot the university, which is Zona 15, so even if I wanted to chance life and limb and all my electronic equipment on a crowded, rickety bus, I'd have to get a cab from there to the university, and repeat the whole thing again. It's also not really feasible to do the round trip in one day -- well, it's feasible; Guatemalans I know travel to the capital for appointments of one sort or another, taking an early morning bus and returning late at night. To which I say, thanks but no thanks.

So, this has led to two important choices: having 2 residences, and having my own vehicle. Since I choose not to make the round trip from El Quiché in a single day (and a good thing, too, since my class is at 10:15 a.m., as it turns out, not in the afternoon),  I needed to find a place that was close enough to the university where I could stay the night before and the night after my class.  I originally considered Guatemala City, although someone (I do not now remember whom, but maltyox to whomever you are) suggested staying in Antigua. When I visited Guatemala last summer, together with my fellow Fulbrighter Roselyn Costantino (there are other Fulbright folks in Guatemala, but Roselyn and I are both teaching  at the UVG, and we both do work on gender, so I consider her to be my partner-in-crime in many of my undertakings here), we spent about one hour looking at apartments in Guatemala City and decided that we would follow the anonymous (only because I can't remember who this is) advice and stay in Antigua. 

Guatemala City is one of the most unpleasant and also violent and crime ridden places in the country. The city is large and sprawling, and there are at least two cities: the GC of the haves (gated communities, private armed security guards) and the GC of the have nots (from whence it will take you three hours by public transportation to reach the oases of the haves).  I didn't want to live in a gated community, and I also didn't want to have to be on guard every time I ventured a short distance from my door, so I decided upon Antigua. 

So that's the two-residence part of my experience here. I spend a relatively large sum of money (considering what I get in return) for a modest loft studio on the northern end of the historic center of Antigua, with little direct sunlight and not much of a view. Antigua itself is surrounded by spectacularly beautiful hills and a volcano, so I do not have to go very far to enjoy lovely vistas, but I cannot sit in the privacy of my little living room and look out on the hills.  My other residence is a modest (but much larger) house in Chinique, more or less in the center of town, about two blocks from the Catholic church and the Banrural branch. Don't worry about finding it; if you come to visit I will probably come pick you up.

Now, about the car. In addition to traversing the distance between Chinique and Antigua, Antigua and GC, and then all that in reverse, my work in Quiché takes me to a couple of different towns and rural villages -- and I am accustomed to having some independence and mobility. So I've always planned to have my own vehicle.  I know other people who come to Guate for periods of time and get around on public transportation. And a few people suggested a motorcycle. But that wouldn't be especially practical (I have to travel back to the U.S. for some meetings and conferences, and can't quite see balancing suitcases and digital cameras on a moto) and then there's the safety issue: I like to have a few layers of metal between me and those hypercharged bus drivers when I encounter them on the open road.

Which is why I am still trying to purchase a vehicle. Among the many things that I thought I had sorted out and taken care of before coming was a car -- a friend was going to sell me a Toyota Tercel 4X4 but ended up not doing no. I'm not entirely sure why, but that was that. So, looking for a car in a small town is not easy, especially as I was looking for an apartment at the same time. I decided to prioritize the apartment (I had and still have a rental car), and then once that was settled, concentrate on the car. Concentrate might be an overstatement: there were so many things up in the air. 

We started to ask around, and I asked everyone I knew to ask everyone they knew if anyone knew of a vehicle for sale. My options are basically a pick-up or a jeep -- something that will make it up rutted dirt roads, and preferably also in the rainy season.  

I thought I would do better if I had someone accompanying me -- preferably a male, and preferably someone who knew a little about cars. tThe former is because, well, there's a lot of machismo out there in the big bad world, especially in the world of cars. In my one previous car-purchasing experience in the U.S., I got treated differently -- i.e. better -- when I was accompanied by a man. Guatemala is probably a more macho and patriarchal society, in many ways, than the U.S.  But the only men I know up here who know about cars were all busy, and so I settled for a man who doesn't know a lot about cars, but who was up for the adventure (and who had some ideas about where we could find cars for sale).

So far I've seen a couple of Toyota pick-ups that seem like they might work, and one jeep that I'm not sure about. It's a Kia Sportage, automatic, although the owner says that he drove all over the Petén and on a lot of very sketchy -- that's not the word he used -- roads. I suppose I could go completely crazy -- drive over to Xela or down to Chimaltenango where there are literally dozens of vehicles parked along the highway with the letters S/V ("se vende" - for sale) painted on the glass -- but will probably settle for something a bit closer at hand. I'll keep you all posted. 

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Stores and sociality

Chinique, like most small towns, is full of small stores, most of which sell the same sorts of things. Stores can be found not only in the town centers but in more remote aldeas. I haven't done any kind of scientific study of stores in relationship to migration and remittances, but I think there are two sorts of connections. One is that there is more money around to be spent on the kinds of things you can buy in stores as a result of migrant remittances (the relationship between migration, remittances, consumption and modernity has been discussed by a number of anthropologists who have studied transnational migration and in particular who have looked at "sending communities") -- so more money, desire for store-bought commercially produced goods that signal modernity (from bouillon cubes to prepackaged rice to brand-name toiletries -- Crest is very big in Guatemala, as is Dove, L'Oreal and Garnier Fructis). Also, migrant remittances (or the money brought back by returned migrants) is probably one of the major sources of investment funds for small businesses. The two stores that I know of up in the far reaches of Tapesquillo (where I am headed tomorrow-- Jan 28 -- morning) are both owned by returned migrants. 

Many small general stores in small towns (but not all) are basically the street face of the family home -- that is, proprietors often live behind/above the store. My landlord's family has a store at the end of the block on which they live.  

I have started to try and patronize the stores near me, rotating my patronage so that I get to know all the store owners and don't create resentments unnecessarily. And, also, different stores have different specialties or better prices on certain things. Dona Teresa, for example, had the same plates that were being sold by market vendors for 2 quetzales less. The store at the corner of my block, closer to the exit leading to Chiché, was one of the few places that gallon jugs of bottled water (which seemed to be the right size until l decided to get the 5-gallon size and then, more recently, a little pump that goes on the top).  

Stores are also sites of socializing. In the evening, they are sites of male sociality. Women and girls do move around town on their own, especially in the early morning and day, and it is not that unusual to see pairs or small groups of girls out and about in the evening; I occasionally see women in the streets (although the streets are pretty empty as a rule after dark).  I don't go out much at night -- having internet at my fingers means I can keep myself occupied reading, catching up on news, blogging -- but I have chanced out a few times to make some purchases or "recharge" (purchase airtime) my cellphone. A few nights ago I went to the store owned by my landlord, to pick up the 5-gallon jug of water that I had purchased (but not carried home) earlier in the day. I hardly recognized the storefront. In the afternoon when I had made the purchase, Modesto's mother was behind the counter and there were perhaps 2 other customers. Now, at 8:30 or so in the evening, the store was tightly packed with men and teenaged boys; there were a few bicycles leaning on the curb outside. I was the only woman, and while I did not feel in any way menaced, I certainly felt extremely visible, and as though I were temporarily invading a male province.

This evening (Jan 27) I stopped at Dona Adela's store after I returned from Antigua, hoping to pick up a few tortillas to heat up with my dinner. She would not sell me the tortillas; she said she didn't have any for sale but went back to her living quarters and brought out a small bag  -- 5 blue corn tortillas, which would go for 1 quetzal in the market -- and refused payment (last week I stopped in just to say hello and she filled a small bag with some produce for me -- a few tomatoes, chilies, and lemons, along with a few tortillas -- this was where I got the idea that maybe she sold tortillas).  So I purchased a hand-carved wooden spoon (you can always use more wooden spoons) and some green mangoes, and then she also scooped out a bit of some hot chile relish (cabbage, chile and vinegar) into another small bag and gave it to me (as she knows I am very fond of spicy things).  I will go back in the morning to buy some flowers from her, and hopefully some kind of container for them.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Driving in Guate: not for the faint of heart

There are three major challenges to driving in Guatemala: the roads (and I mean here the physical condition), the lack of clear signage, and the drivers. The main highway, the Panamericana, is only a divided four-lane highway for part of its length. The road does not pass around cities and towns along its trajectory but goes right through them, for the most part.  The landscape, of course, is spectacular -- not that a driver gets to admire it much as she manuevers around hairpin turns, steep ascents and descents, and the frequent construction zones. Last year's rainy season was one of the worst in recent memory, by all accounts, and the evidence can be seen (still) alongside the highway. Not all of the landslides have been cleared, and between Tecpan and Chimaltenango there are frequent signs warning motorists of an upcoming desvio (detour) as crews are out trying to clean up the rubble. In some places it looks as though half the mountain came down on the road surface (I had the dubious pleasure of driving this same highway last August during the rainy season and early one morning came up a school bus half buried in dirt, rocks and mud). 

Much of the country, however, does not have what we (in the states) would consider "highways", although the word carretera seems to be used pretty loosely.  Outside of the town limits of Chinique, the roads are dirt, gravel, and rock. Heading up to Tapesquillo, where a lot of my acquaintances live, the road is terraceria (unpaved, gravel). For some of the steepest stretches, there are two cement tracks, each slightly wider than a car's tire. However, there is sometimes a big gap between the dirt/rock surface and where the "track" starts (or ends, if you are coming down hill), so you have to catch the track at just the right angle. Sometimes the space between the two tracks has rocks jutting up, or conversely, is a deep rut so that if one of your wheels goes off the track, it can be hard to get your car back on track. Also, did I mention that many stretches of hese roads are usually just a single lane? So if you encounter a vehicle coming in the opposite direction, someone has to back up to a point at which the road is wide enough for the other vehicle to pass. 

Then there is the lack of clear signage. In order to successfully get somewhere in Guatemala, one really needs to have gone there before. Entering Antigua, for example, from the north, the first exit to Antigua is more or less clearly marked from the highway at Chimaltenango. However, after that, you're pretty much on your own.  The road goes straight ahead for about half a kilometer and then comes to a T: no signage. If you have made the correct choice at this point (turn LEFT), then you continue for a while. You eventually come to a town called Pastores, and the road you are on runs along the right hand side of the central plaza. If you continue straight ahead (which I did the first time I came this way) the road goes through neighborhoods and kind of peters out. What you actually need to do is turn left when you first arrive at the square (although there is no sign saying "Antigua thataway").  Then you zip along for another little stretch, the road is relatively well paved and goes past lush fields and a few little shops and restaurants out in the middle of the countryside. There are very few vehicles, and a couple of guys on foot or bicycle in the late afternoon (so almost nowhere or no one to ask for directions). The road eventually comes to a pretty important-looking crossroads. One sign points you to Escuintla. Another sign directs you to Jocotenango. I think there is a third that directs you to Chimaltenango or maybe Guatemala. But nothing indicating which road you take for Antigua (which presumably was your intention when you turned off the highway). To save you all trouble: take the road for Jocotenango, which is the town just before Antigua, and just keep on following it.

When the route passes through towns such as Chichicastenango or Santa Cruz del Quiché, it stops being a highway. It does not go straight through the town. Instead, you have to work your way through city streets.  Chichi is all narrow cobblestoned streets, with many speed bumps (as though you could drive fast over the cobblestones and needed to be slowed down even further). The streets are usually thronged with red and white tuk-tuks ( moto-taxis that are the size of a pedicab), flamboyantly painted interurban buses, and pedestrians. To get through Chichi (say, if you are heading to Guatemala City from Quiché), the route makes frequent turns (almost none of which are marked). Once last summer I was driving through Chichi at about 4:30 a.m. and couldn't clearly see which streets to follow and ended up in the central market plaza (which is normally closed off to vehicular traffic but there were no barriers up at that hour of the morning), driving near the base of the church steps, past a few small bonfires that had been lit by people who were camping out on the steps or in the plaza.

Well, assuming you can figure out where you are going, then you need to take into consideration the other vehicles on the road and the people who are driving them. Most of my Guatemalan friends agree that Guatemala is full of exceedingly awful drivers. It's not that they are incompetent but many are extremely reckless and aggressive.  Especially noteworthy are the drivers of inter-urban buses and mini-buses (called camionetas). The drivers think nothing of passing on a hairpin turn with no guardrail and a steep drop over the side. These are 2-lane roads; no one pays the least attention to the road side signs saying "Disminuye su velocidad" (diminish your speed) or "Maneje con precaucion" (drive carefully).  Or the signs that indicate no passing. The occasional PMT (police) vehicles that traverse the highways pay little or no attention to the clear violations of not only traffic rules (if there indeed are any) but common sense. This morning I saw a police officer wave out his window at a bus driver who zipped around into the oncoming traffic lane and passed three vehicles, including that of the police officer.

Then, of course, there are the vehicles. One of the most favored vehicles, perhaps the archetypal vehicle in the altiplano, is a Toyota pick up. As my friend Patrick noted some time back, it should probably have Rhode Island or Massachusetts plates.  I personally know three people in Quiché with maroon Toyota pick-ups. There are other brands around: Isuzu, Mitsubishi, the occasional Ford. But Toyota seems to be the pick-up of choice. And they do seem to last forever: I saw several for sale that were models from the mid-to-late 1980s that all looked (and sounded) to be in decent condition.

Of course, I'm talking about everyday vehicles used by people in rural areas -- vehicles used to take goods to market, bring merchandise to small stores, or to carry animals, people, furniture. In the cities like Antigua and Guatemala City one sees more upscale vehicles  -- and there are certainly some of these also in Quiché (but they are outnumbered by the more modest, "working" vehicles). 

I've started this entry off in a lighthearted tone. However, in the last year or so there has been a rash of extortionists who have been attacking and killing bus drivers, primarily in Guatemala City. 

And many people don't have cars. If you live in a rural aldea, it might take over an hour of solid walking to get to the nearest town.  Getting a ride in a pick up truck, van or tuk-tuk can cost as much as Q50 each way. So getting to town is a time-consuming and/or costly proposition. 

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Hard work of everyday living: the tortilla

BMy own modest efforts have increased my appreciation for the hard work it takes to feed, clothe and care for oneself and one's family here in highland Guatemala. 

Let's start with food, the basic stuff of life. Corn, primarily in the form of handmade tortillas, is the staple food. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, people eat tortillas, accompanied by cheese or eggs or beans in the morning, soup (perhaps) and/or cheese and/or eggs and/or beans for lunch, and the same for dinner. Corn flakes and other processed breakfast cereals are widely available and children seem to eat them; oatmeal is also abundant at open-air markets and stores. But most meals involve tortillas (or sometimes plain steamed tamales: I don't entirely get the attraction of these although I eat them when they are served. I like the slightly crisp texture of tortillas right off the comal, and also the even crisper surface of tortillas that have been reheated so that they are slightly tostado or toasted). 

Maseca and other prepackaged brands of masa harina are available in the stores, but I have only twice been served tortillas in someone's home that were made with Maseca. From some reading I did a while back, the introduction and popularity of Maseca has made a dramatic shift in some parts of Mexico -- in terms of women's work in the household and also probably in terms of agricultural production (why spend time and energy cultivating your own fields when you can purchase imported pre-packaged masa?).  However, subsistence agriculture and hand-made tortillas do not seem to be in imminent danger from Maseca (unequal distribution of land, limited resources, and migration of young able bodied adults are probably more troublesome).

Making the day's tortillas starts, for many families, months ahead of time when they plant the fields. After the corn is harvested and the cobs spread outside to dry, many families still remove the dried kernels by hand. Two days ago on a trip to Dona V's household to take some photographs to send to her son in the U.S., two women (one very young and one very old) were preparing corn. The young woman wielded a large stick, and beat the corn cobs (under a burlap or other cloth sack), and then the older woman removed the loosened kernels by hand.  It is also possible to buy dried corn kernels by the sack or by the pound in markets and at some stores. 

But once one has obtained a supply of corn kernels, it still takes advance planning and effort to get the day's tortillas ready.  The kernels then have to be cooked with some lime added to remove the husks. This usually takes place the day before (although if one gets up very very early and doesn't want breakfast until later, or if one has leftover tortillas that can be heated for breakfast, I assume you could get away with cooking the corn on the same day). Then you rub the corn to remove the husks, and drain most of the liquid.

Early in the morning, usually starting around 6 a.m. but perhaps even earlier (6 is as early as I've hit the streets here, since it's still a bit dark), women and girls start taking the corn to one of the handful of places where someone has invested in a small electric mill, to grind their corn.  Those who live farther up from the center of town, out beyond where the pavement ends (that was an alternate name for this blog, by the way, "where the pavement ends"), probably have to set out at around 5:30 or 5:45 to get to the mill by 6.  

Like women in so many parts of the world, women here (and not only indigenous women) carry the corn (and many other things besides) on top of their heads, normally, in plastic basins or bowls that are sold in varying sizes and colors in the markets and at many stores. Often they cover the corn with a woven servilleta (literally napkin, but an all-purpose term that refers to any kind of woven cloth that is used around the house or kitchen, for grabbing hot pots, wiping things up, drying things off, and so forth). 

I have not been inside the mills here but the house where I stayed in a rural aldea on my first trip had a mill, and the women from neighboring homesteads would start lining up on the benches and chairs outside the small room where the mill was located by 6, sometimes chatting quietly while they waited.

After the corn is ground, then you take it back home where hopefully someone has already gotten the fire going. Usually women knead the dough a bit so that it is more pliant and evenly textured. Then you grab a handful, usually with moistened hands (a lot of people keep a small dish of water nearby) and slap and shape it out into an even round, and slap it directly onto the surface of the heated wood burning stove. The stove surface is a long rectangle, and there are several round disks, usually of different sizes, that can be removed so that you can put a pot closer to the flames to heat more rapidly. But to make tortillas you need much of the surface, although if you are cooking beans or a stew that takes a long time to prepare, you just slap the tortillas onto the remaining surface around the pots.

Most people just use their hands to press and rotate the tortillas a bit so that they cook evenly (as different parts of the stove surface heat unevenly), and to flip the tortillas. As they are ready, the cook takes them off the stove and usually wraps them in a clean servilleta. Many households have hand-embroidered square cloths (usually a store-bought cotton gingham or muslin) that they use for wrapping tortillas; others prefer patterned woven cloths that are somewhat thicker. Some households have baskets or bowls that are especially designed for keeping tortillas warm; when well wrapped in cloth they stay warm for a while. 

I have not seen pre-packaged (that is, commercially manufactured) tortillas for sale in stores here, Sta Cruz or Antigua. The one upper-middle class household I visited in Guatemala City had a live in domestic worker one of whose daily responsibilities was to make tortillas.  However, the markets are full of women standing over portable metal stoves making tortillas for sale (5 for a quetzal) and several of the local stores also sell fresh tortillas.  Most are made of yellow or white corn, but I am especially fond of the blue corn tortillas; they have a slightly earthier, nuttier taste (to my palate).

I have not mastered the art of tortilla-making. Mine are thicker and not as even or uniformly shaped and sized as those made by most 8-year old girls in rural households. I haven't made any here in the new home yet; I'd have to buy some masa (probably some of the vendors who make tortillas in the market might sell me some masa; in El Salvador, it was not unusual for women who were pressed for time to purchase masa from a vendor and at least cook their own tortillas and pupusas, but that doesn't seem to be the case here; I'll have to investigate).

People use tortillas as utensils, breaking off pieces and using them to scoop up beans or pieces of vegetable and meat from a stew. They also just sprinkle them with salt or dip them into home-made hot sauce and eat them on the side. One of my friend's daughters likes to reheat tortillas on a comal (a flat pan used for cooking tortillas over an open fire or a gas as opposed to wood-burning stove) with fresh cheese on top.

I am not the only female in highland Guatemala who cannot make a good tortilla. Some  girls in more middle-class families (or those with middle class aspirations), who have extended their education beyond primary school, do not know how to make tortillas (although I think most of their mothers, even if they have jobs outside the home and careers, do).

Monday, January 24, 2011

Love affair (not really) gone sour?

So, there I was feeling all smug and satisfied with my prowess on the estufa de lena (wood burning stove: sorry, I haven't figured out how to do the ~ over the n). Dinner last night: no problem. Breakfast today: smooth sailing (I made oatmeal on the stove instead of the rice cooker since once you've got the stove going, it makes sense to cook a couple of things). Lunch: piece of cake. I even bought the appropriate tools at yesterday's market: a handmade straw hand broom to whisk away the ashes (I think the Grimm brothers had Cinderella's origins wrong; my theory was that she was a Central American woman who got all ashy and sooty from dealing with one of these estufas), and a cute little handwoven straw fan to fan the flames (literally).

Today's main task was looking for a car. My friend Felipe had agreed to go around with me. I didn't find one that I was ready to buy, but in my rounds we happened upon a lumber yard and I decided to stock up on firewood (most houses here have a sizable stack outside under a tarp or shed).  I decided to get a 1/4 of a tarea  (not sure what the equivalent is, and since I don't buy firewood in the U.S. I wouldn't know how much it was anyhow, even if I knew what the unit was called).  Felipe was dubious about it all fitting in the trunk of the car but it did (the rental company may never want me as a customer again). I made lunch with wood I'd had from before, and then wrote and ran some errands in the afternoon.

As time to prepare dinner approached, I proudly lugged in an armload of wood, went to the nearest store and bought some more ocote (it didn't look and smell as resinous as the batch that Gorgonio had bought, but I figured it would do), and then set about starting the fire. I had a K'iche' lesson scheduled at 7 so I had THOUGHT what I would do was get the stove going, put on my lentils to cook, and then have dinner close to being ready when my lesson finished (it was to be a one-hour lesson). 

My teacher arrived a little early, and I was still fanning the flames. I had to leave off -- maybe that was the fatal error -- and then when the class was over and he had gone home I tried again. The ocote didn't seem to agarrar ("catch" or "hold") and neither did the wood. I juggled pieces of wood around, tried to figure out whether one of the split sides or the bark side of the split logs would be a better surface. Push, adjust, fan, fan some more, prod a little, fan some more, try adding some more ocote, try a different piece of wood, pull the pieces out and arrange them differently... 

I was getting desperate. It was getting later. I don't really know anyone who lives nearby well enough to call and say "Help! Come over and help me light my stove." The people who would probably gladly help out live at the outskirts of town or in the aldeas (rural villages). I had put the lentils to soak (and a good thing I did, as they took longer to cook than the lentils one gets in the states), and I had a WHOLE mess of what I think were turnip greens that I had had soaking in a basin of water (since I have no fridge, but have not been able to curb my vegetable-purchasing proclivities so that they are in sync with my eating capacity and storage ability, I've had to be inventive). And so I was trying to figure out what I could possibly do if I couldn't get the stove to light. I had black beans, and I could cook rice, so I would have food to eat. I could try sprouting the lentils, and I could probably give the greens to someone.

Fortunately, after about an hour or more of working assiduously (and using up an entire Q1.5 bundle of second-rate ocote), the fire seemed to have "caught" and I could turn my attention to cooking.  

The result was quite tasty: lentils and greens (more greens than lentils which was fine by me), over rice. I think in addition to K'iche' classes (and I've got to practice my possessive pronouns before bed), I might need estufa de lena lessons...

Setting up house, making coffee, cooking dinner

Note: I started this entry on Jan 20 (Friday) but kept editing it. So by the time I published it I'd made several meals.
Making coffee and cooking dinner are things I mostly took for granted. Since I moved into a house that currently has only a wood burning stove and no refrigerator, and in a town that does not have 24-hour green grocers or a something that we would recognize as a supermarket of any kind, I've had to change. Granted, I've cooked all of one meal and prepared one other that did not require cooking. 

My first trip to Guatemala a year and a half ago I stayed in a home that had only a wood burning stove and no refrigerator, but I was not the main person responsible for meals. I was often the first person up in the morning and learned to get the stove going so I could heat water for my bath, make coffee for myself (most of the Guatemalans I know in the highlands drink extremely weak coffee, so weak that I can't usually bring myself to drink it unless it is extremely cold and the coffee is very hot, but even then I mostly just use the cup to warm my hands), and make my oatmeal. I sometimes helped with meals but didn't ever cook one on my own. I am not cooking on this stove because of some romantic notion about authenticity or simplicity but for the moment, out of convenience. 

The house I rented was completely unfurnished and I had to spend a lot of time, effort and (relatively speaking) money to make it habitable. I could buy a gas stove, but that's not as simple as it seems. There are no gas lines. One has to buy a gas cylinder and attach it to the stove and then one has to refill it whenever it runs out. Gas stoves are also relatively expensive, although I am going to look aorund and see if I can get a used one. But given that there was already a wood burning stove and I had a lot of other things to purchase for the house, a gas stove was less of a prioirty than, say, a wardrobe to hold my clothes as there are no closets in the house (nor are there closets in most of the homes I've visited, including my Antigua apartment).

So, in order to make a meal I had to make sure I had enough firewood for cooking (the friends with whom I stayed before I found the apartment gave me a little; usually people buy it in bulk, but I didn't know that at the time). Then I had to shop for food. There are small stores scattered throughout Chinique. Some are quite small and specialized (children's toys, or electronics) but many carry a variety of items -- hand-made wooden spoons, packets of bouillon, some fresh produce and home-made cheese, toiletries, bottled water. They seem to cram a lot into a very small space.  Each town has its official market day - Chinique's happens to be Sunday -- but there is usually a small number of vendors in the market square most days. 

There are supermarkets in the major cities. Santa Cruz del Quiché, the departmental capital, is about 25 minutes away, and there are a couple of supermarkets. But mostly people shop at open air markets and small stores.  I had to go to Quiché (people in the small towns in the dept of Quiché usually refer to the departmental capital as Quiché, not by the complete name of Santa Cruz del Quiché) for some other errands -- I was hosting a meeting at my home and didn't have enough chairs, I needed a coffee pot so I could make coffee, and I also wanted to order a desk since the one I had seen was sold before I was able to purchase it. And my friend Felipe had promised a mutual friend, Father Marc Fallon, who was visiting from the U.S., to meet him in Quiché so I offered to give Felipe a ride. Oh yes, and I was invited to the 4th birthday party of Stefanie (again, I'll have to check spelling), the granddaughter of Dona Centa -- Stefanie's father has been in the U.S. since sometime last year, so I wanted to get her some presents. I was pretty loaded down so I only made a brief stop at a supermarket, and was pleased to find whole oats (oatmeal is widely available but it is mostly sold as "mosh" -- the equivalent of quick-cooking oats; I like something a bit firmer to the bite). I got coffee and powdered milk (both much cheaper than at local stores in Chinique and the latter a necessity since I don't have a fridge), oil and vinegar for salad, salt, honey.  A lot of the vinegar sold here is artificial: water plus acetic acid, so I've learned to read labels carefully.

I only had time and patience to pick up a few things at the market. The market extends over several passageways and side streets surrounding the main indoor market building and I often get turned around, and need to stop and reorient myself. Vendors call out as shoppers pass by, "Quetzal, a quetzal" (a quetzal is the basic unit of currency).  "Que está buscando, que le podemos mostrar?" (What are you looking for, what can we show you?). It is a little aggressive. If a vendor catches you even looking at his or her merchandise, even if you don't slow down or stop, he or she will call out to you and come over. This may be a cultural thing: I prefer to look at things on my own and will ask for help if I need it.  I wanted greens for cooking; I'd seen something that looked like a variety of broccoli rabe or turnip greens earlier that morning at a friend's house, although when I asked her what it was called she just said, "hiervas".

 I found greens, onions, carrots, and garlic, and I had some tomatoes and hot peppers that Dona A. had given me in the morning when I stopped by her store to say hello; she is the mother of Dona V. and the grandmother of M.J. (who lives in New Bedford). I had somewhat reluctantly accepted the gift; I had only stopped in to say hello and Dona A. started to put items in a bag for me -- a few tomatoes, hot peppers, two lemons, and a small plastic bag of blue-corn tortillas. She refused payment, so I bought some housewares from her (I needed more glasses anyway). I wanted to offer something for the people who were coming for the meeting: coffee and cookies seemed like a good idea. I found a discount store, a kind of Guatemalan version of Family Dollar or the 99-cent stores, on a corner near the market. There I found coffee cups costing a quetzal less than at other stores I'd seen; some spoons and forks; packets of cookies; plus some glitter pens, colored pencils, notebooks and stickers that I bought for the birthday party the following day. 

 Looking for a coffee pot took some more effort. There are enameled pots for sale all over Guatemala, casseroles, frying pans and smaller saucepans, along with coffee pots (with tops) and large enameled cups that are often used for heating water or making milk from powder. My friend F. was with me, and he also wanted to get some enamel ware for a niece's wedding. We looked at stores on the streets surrounding the market; we looked inside the market. Prices for the coffee pots ranged from Q75 to Q90; prices for the casseroles were around Q65. F. had his heart set on a particular shade of green that we never found in the size he wanted, and he tried unsuccessfully to get the price down to Q40. Eventually we found a vendor inside the market: she had the lowest price on the coffee pot (Q75) and I bought the coffee pot and a frying pan for Q110 (slight discount). I'm not sure what F ended up paying for his casserole; he asked my advice on colors (a dark blue and a light green; I told him the dark blue was prettier). 

 Back in Chinique, I had little time to prepare before the meeting. I made a salad of cabbage and carrots, and chopped up an overripe avocado I had with some tomatoes. I had gotten some firewood in the morning, and thought I would get the wood burning stove going to make coffee in my brand new coffee pot. I had some newspaper and other scraps of paper, some smaller pieces of wood, and I tried to use those as kindling but I couldn't get the larger piece of wood to catch fire and so I gave up. When the people came for the meeting I had nothing to offer them but biscuits and water.

However, one of the two men who had accompanied the 8 women (more about the group and the nature of the meeting in another post) took a look and pronounced that what I needed was some ocote to get the fire started. I asked what that was; he explained that it was pine wood saturated with resin; a small batch would cost Q3 and so I gave him the money and dispatched him to get it, and he came back and got the fire started and put the coffee pot on to heat.

The way people make coffee up here is to heat water, add coffee grounds, and then strain it through a small sieve (a French press without the press).  They make it significantly weaker than regular "American" coffee, and ever so much weaker than the espresso that I drink, so I struck what I hoped would be a happy medium (and no one complained).

Emboldened by my success with the coffee, I decided to make caldo de gallina -- chicken soup, a standby in most Guatemalan homes. To be fully authentic I would have had to have raised and killed the chicken myself but the hell with authenticity (we've gotten beyond that, I hope) and so I set off in search of some chicken. Not as easy as I would have thought at 4:30 in the afternoon; not every store sells chicken, and those that do might have sold out by afternoon.

My landlord and his family own a store a few blocks away from me, on the corner of the street where they live, and so I asked there. My landlord's mother, who was tending the register when I walked in, asked what I wanted the chicken for. She explained there were two kinds -- pollo blanco (white chicken) and pollo amarillo (yellow chicken). She couldn't exactly explain the difference but gave me to understand that pollo amarillo was superior and what was called for to make caldo de gallina. However, she had none. Graciously she walked me down the street to see if any of the other stores that normally sold chicken were open (this is something I have observed; if I am looking for something in particular, and a store doesn't have it, employees and even owners of stores will often tell me where I can get what I am seeking rather than just trying to sell me what they have and convince me it will suit my needs. When I was looking at stoves at Elektra, a houseware/furniture store in Sta Cruz, the salesman recommended that if I were to buy a stove, I'd do better to buy a gas cylinder "en la calle" since it would be cheaper than the one sold by the store). 

Alas, no pollo amarillo to be found. So, I said I'd make do with pollo blanco and we walked back up the street and she pulled some frozen chicken quarters out of the freezer; I took two (no use firing up the stove and cooking to just make one serving of soup), and went back home. Alas alas, I had not observed closely enough when Gorgonio was lighting the stove, or else it just takes practice, but it took about half an hour and a lot of soot and ashes to really get the fire going, but going it did get.

Into the pot went water, the chicken, some bay leaves, onions, carrots and a bit of oregano.  When it was mostly cooked I started the rice (I'd splurged on an electric rice cooker at a big housewares store in Guatemala City, Cemaco; I'd never owned one before but figured it might come in handy and it did; it also does a decent job on other cooked grains, including oatmeal).  Then I added some more vegetables to the soup (so I wouldn't have to cook another dish): a kind of soft-skinned squash called ayote  that looks like one of those round, green, Italian squashes, huge bunches of greens. 

While all that was going on, I used the stovetop to roast some chilies and tomatoes to make chirmol -- home-made hot sauce that accompanies many meals (I'll give a recipe in a separate post). I served it Guatemalan-style: a scoop of rice in the bowl, chicken, vegetables and broth on top, and the chirmol on the side (the chirmol is on the right, in a special ceramic bowl called a chirmolera; to the left are a few blue-corn tortillas that Dona A. had given me and that I reheated).

So, at last, my first dinner in the new home.  

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Nothing goes unnoticed (i.e. better watch it)

I am not a serious or heavy drinker. I do, however, like to have wine with dinner sometimes or a glass while I am reading. In Antigua, a tourist/expat haven, this is no big deal. I can go out for a drink with friends or buy wine at the supermarket and have a glass in the privacy of my apartment. Not quite so easy here in the highlands. First of all, no one sells wine (or at least not wine of the sort I would drink; I have been offered or told about some home-made brews that get labeled wine). I am not even sure that one can buy wine in Sta. Cruz del Quiché although I have not really investigated).  

Alcoholism and overindulgence in spirits are problems in highland Guatemala (as elsewhere in the world; I don't want to give the impression that this is somehow unique). During the fiesta patronal, one sees (and smells) a lot of people who overconsume alcohol; at one of the dances at the cofradia it seemed as though the only people dancing, at least at the beginning, were men, alone, in various stages of tipsiness (including the "passed out flat on your face in the middle of the dance floor" variety).  Although most of the people who were disturbingly inebriated were men (some becoming what Cubans would label "muy pesado" -- literally "very heavy" but more like "ugly and bad-tempered"), there were women who were clearly under the influence, including one or two older women who asked me to dance with them.

I am a bit circumspect or at least self-conscious of how people will scrutinize and evaluate my behavior. On the other hand, I don't want to give up all of my accustomed habits (news broadcasts, the New York Times, oatmeal, the occasional glass of wine). So I bought a couple of bottles in Antigua and brought them up and put them in the kitchen.  

However, as I do not have closed cabinets in the kitchen (I might have to invest in some!) the contents of my kitchen are open to public scrutiny. The other day I had 10 people over for a meeting and although the meeting was held in the living room, I went in and out of the kitchen trying to make coffee (in a separate post) and getting cups and glasses to serve water. People of course followed me into the kitchen, making comments about how big it was, how it was equipped, and then looking at and rifling through my supplies - most of which were open to public view. Two of the women fingered packets of Emergen-C and asked what it was ("A kind of vitamin supplement" I answered; there are a lot of vendors here and in the migrant communities in the U.S. selling various kinds of herbal potions so my interlocutors had a mental category ready for this). Then someone spotted the bottles of wine on the bottom shelf. A series of comments and jokes ensued, "Ah, que nos va a ofrecer un whisky?" (Oh, are you going to serve us whiskey?), to much laughter.

Then at the birthday party that I wrote about earlier, I decided to drink about half a bottle of beer. I don't really like beer that much but the options were soda and beer (I had brought a bottle of water with me but I had finished that up by the time I was less than halfway through my meal as the day got quite sunny and warm; there was too much commotion in the kitchen for me to go in and find the bottled water that the household surely had; nearly every household buys 5-gallon containers of agua pura). Oh, and I should mention the copious amount of hot sauce I consumed -- the steamed plain tamales are very plain (no seasoning at all, just corn-meal dough wrapped in a leaf) and so I broke mine into little pieces and dipped each in salt and then hot sauce (and received general approbation for consuming chilies ).  I had been observing whether any women were drinking beer and few did, so I got someone to open a bottle for me and poured half the contents into a clean glass and sipped as I cleared dishes off the table and ferried them to the sink.  No one made comments.

However, last night I went back to Dona V's house in the evening since when I left in the afternoon she insisted that I return to eat a tamal/chuchito. Her younger brother was there; he had been in Xela earlier in the day and had missed the earlier part of the festivities but had come to pay his respects. He was drinking a Gallo, and Dona V and Dona R (the latter an older woman who had been helping out all day), asked if I wanted one. I said no, water was fine, and I heard some comment about how I had drunk half a bottle at lunch. I remarked that yes, I had had some but I rarely drank beer except when it was hot and there was little else cold to drink.