Thursday, September 15, 2011

Sympathy for the Devil/Once In A Lifetime -- or, who the hell is this woman and what is she doing in Guatemala? (1)

Some time back one of my friends asked about where I was living, and others have asked what I am doing. Much of this information is probably scattered throughout this blog, but I will try to summarize here, in case any of you are reading this for the first time or never had the energy to sift back through the entries. Or if you got bored, or forgot.

We might call this the Mick Jagger ("Please allow me to introduce myself.../and what's puzzling you is the nature of my game") and the David Byrne ("And you may find yourself living in another part of the world...") segment of this blog.

Some years back there was an immigration (ICE) raid on a factory in New Bedford, MA, near the university where I teach; 361 people, mostly Maya K'iche' women from the department of El Quiché in Guatemala, were taken into immigration detention. I started to work with the community and also started to do research on the history of the Maya and other Central Americans in New Bedford, which led me to visit Guatemala in 2009 and 2010 (I actually visited El Salvador first, in January of 2009, then visited Guatemala in August of that year, and again in January and August of 2010). I was following the "tracks" of the migrants who had wound up in New Bedford, so I spent time in the south/central part of Quiché, as most of the New Bedford Maya came from Zacualpa, San Andrés Sajcabajá, Chinique and Joyabaj.

When I originally applied for a Fulbright in Guatemala, I thought I'd follow up on my interest in migration, and so I decided to live in a town from which there had been a substantial migration to southeastern New England, and where I had contacts.  The municipality where I live (in Guatemala, a municipio is more like a township in the U.S.; it includes a central town and the surrounding rural areas, which include small settlements known as aldeas, cantones and caserios) is one of the smallest ones in the entire department. I think the entire population of the municipio (i.e. the town plus all the surrounding areas) is about 11,000 and the town proper has just over 2,000 inhabitants. In other words, East Podunk.

I live in the "center" of the town, along the route that the intercity buses travel between Guatemala City and Joyabaj (a town about 35 kilometers to the east of us).  However, don't be fooled by that description. Here on the left is a photo taken at the corner: the roof of my house is visible on the right half of the frame.  That little cement-block tower is where the staircase emerges onto the roof (which is where I hang out my laundry). There are usually two bulls grazing in the grassy lot, but they were not there when I took this photo on September 15 (independence day).  Maybe their owners pastured them somewhere else today.  Occasionally there are some goats there as well. I'm not sure if the goats belong to the same people or if they are just allowed to graze there.

On the other side of the street is an auto repair shop: "Servi Auto VL". However, people usually call it "Willy" since that is the owner's name (the Spanish pronunciation of the letters VL is Vey El-lay, which sort of sounds like "Willy").  Willy, his brother and his cousin, along with the several young men who work there, are often the first people I see when I go out the door in the morning (they usually open up at around 7)  and depending upon what time I arrive back if I've gone out for the day, they and/or some of their patrons are usually sitting on the curb on my side of the street, in front of my house, shooting the breeze, listening to music on their cell phones, or just chilling.  I am, of course, one of their patrons. The good thing about having an auto repair shop across the street is convenience; I also feel fairly confident that they will do a reasonably good job on any repairs  because they have to deal with me on a daily basis and if they fuck up I will be in their faces. When I had a problem with my rear axle about a month and a half ago, on a dark stretch of highway between Santa Cruz del Quiché, the departmental capital, and Chiché (the town that lies between Santa Cruz and Chinique), Willy's brother pulled over since he recognized my car (here in Guatemala, anything smaller than a commercial trailer is called a "carro", although sometimes people will specify a "picop" or "minibus"), and stayed around until the tow truck came about half an hour later. 

I usually stop and say hello.  They are my neighbors as well (they live in the back of and above the shop). Last night as I returned from a late walk, I found Willy, his brother, one of their wives and some of the kids out on the curb. Willy asked whether my daughter had gone back to the U.S. (she left a week and a half ago) and wanted to know how she liked Guatemala. We talked a little about the excitement in town the other night; I mentioned that I had slept through the entire thing. Willy told me that the mob had gone to the mayor's house and put his things out on the sidewalk ("sacó todo pa'fuera"), but that they hadn't burned anything.

The downside of living in a small town is that there is absolutely nothing to do, other than say hello to friends. There are a few restaurants that I think stay open until about 8 or 9, but I prefer to do my own cooking. And the only people who seem to patronize them at night -- at least the best one, the Comedor de las Flores -- are grizzled-looking men who do not look to be the best conversationalists (I've gone there a few times in the evening to buy tortillas, or to buy cheese -- I discovered some months back that the Comedor de las Flores always has a good supply of fresh cheese). So not a place to go to socialize. About two weeks ago, my landlord's father opened up a bar on the same street as their store and their home, but (a) I haven't really seen anyone in there (it might be more of a liquor store than a bar, although there is a wooden counter; that is, people might come in to purchase and consume at home rather than consume there), and (b) it wouldn't be proper for a woman of my age and situation to go to a bar alone in a small town. I'm all into challenging boundaries and all that, but I also  have to be cognizant of my status as an outsider in a small town that, while not completely a "closed corporate community" as one of the earlier U.S. anthropologists labeled highland Maya communities, is very much of a fishbowl in some ways. I am under no illusion that I can seamlessly "fit in", but I also do not want to attract undue attention to myself.  Going out for a drink in a bar (usually an all-male space, at least in small towns) would do just that.

Another factor that makes this a fairly lonely existence is that many of my acquaintances in the immediate area live in aldeas outside of town, which limits my ability or desire to visit with them, especially during the rainy season. The road up to Tapesquillo, where many of my acquaintances live, is a narrow, winding, very steep road that is mostly dirt and gravel, and much of that surface is deeply rutted, especially at this time of year. There are a few places where cement "tracks" have been laid down, but it is a challenge to keep one's wheels on them. It is a challenging road to drive on during the day when the sky is clear, and a hair-raising experience when it is dark and/or raining, so that limits my socializing with folks up that way. 

View from my roof, looking east (behind my house)
And being alone -- living alone -- means that I am a bit of an oddball here (on top of being one of the few gringas around). 

The people with whom I have developed friendships through my work with Ixmukané, the Maya women's association, live either in Chichicastenango (an hour away) or Santa Cruz. The highway between Chichi and Santa Cruz is fully paved, but it contains several stretches of hairpin turns up and down canyons, and the road between Santa Cruz and Chinique, while straighter and flatter, has been gouged by the seasonal rains so that it is full of potholes, and so any kind of socializing outside of work means driving back home at night over roads that are not fun.  

The people with whom I feel the strongest affinity are my circle of ex-insurgent friends in Xela, and some of the people who are active in the community radio movement.  The latter are scattered throughout the country. We stay in touch via Facebook, email or phone, or text messages, or some combinations thereof.  

The same with my Xela friends; there doesn't seem to be one single mode of communication that always works with any particular individual.  Even though I don't see them much, I always feel "at home" when I am with any of them or any assortment. But Xela is a 2-1/2 hour drive, so it's not a trip I'd undertake on the spur of the moment. For a couple of weeks I've been wanting to go to the movies, and there is a theater in Xela (there is no movie theater in the entire department of Quiché, as far as I know).  However, this wasn't possible before the elections, and now I've got an article deadline, so maybe in another week or so.  So I am mostly on my own here.
The neighbors' corn is tall enough that I could
reach out and pick some when I hang my laundry
Since my research is not any longer focused on migration, there is no particular connection between what I am doing and where I am living. I need to be in Quiché (the department) as that is where Ixmukané works and where the radio station is located. I need to be relatively close to the station (which is in Santa Cruz). But I am not really researching my town. So while I have been here for eight months, I don't have a very clear sense of the skeleton of social relations here, beyond the obvious markers of social status (house size; architecture; model and age of car).  I have nodding acquaintances with a lot of people, but I am not profoundly involved in town affairs. I suppose I could have tried to take a more active role, somehow, and maybe I will before I leave here.

For the first half of my stay here, I was teaching one class a week at the Universidad del Valle in Guatemala City, along with another Fulbright scholar. We were both teaching in the anthropology department there, and had arranged so that our classes were on the same day (but not at the same time, so that students could take both, and so that we could, if we wanted, visit each other's classes -- we never actually did). Neither of us wanted to live in Guatemala City, so we both found places in Antigua -- 40-some kilometers away, and a prettier and much more manageable place to live. Guatemala City  is very sprawling, and mostly pretty ugly. Lots of traffic, diesel fumes, yucky strip malls. Most of the residential areas are either slums or gated communities; there is little middle ground. It is also one of the most dangerous parts of the country; a high proportion of the armed assaults, murders and other violent crimes that one hears or reads about occur in Guatemala City. Although Antigua is not crime-free, it is nothing like Guatemala City. Although it is overrun with foreigners (educational tourists, voluntourists, regular old tourists, and long-term volunteers or staff of NGOs), it is still a very beautiful and pleasant place, and offers some of the amenities that are more scarce up here in the altiplano.  Such as places to hear a variety of live music (jazz and Cuban music, for example), yoga studios, bookstores that actually sell books (here stores labeled "librerias" mostly sell stationery and school supplies), more upscale restaurants and cafés that serve espresso drinks. 

My usual routine was to drive down to Antigua on Tuesday, drive into Guate on Wednesday morning with Roselyn, come back and spend Wednesday night in Antigua, and head back to Quiché on Thursday, sometimes squeezing in a yoga class. This probably seems like a lot of moving around to you, but people here are quite used to spending a lot of time moving around. The driving doesn't bother me. It's 3-1/2 hours from Chinique to Antigua; 3 hours if I start out from Santa Cruz del Quiché, and 2-1/2 if I am in Chichicastenango. My friends up here in Quiché think very little of taking a 5 am. bus to Guatemala City, spending the day at meetings or a conference or running errands, and then returning on an afternoon bus. Or of going to Xela and back by bus on a Saturday, just to have a change of scenery. And I can assure you that my pick-up is much more comfortable than any regular inter-city transportation that average Guatemalans ride.

I was set to do the same for the second semester, which started in early July. But the university canceled my class with very little warning. However, I've had reason to travel to Guatemala City fairly regularly for meetings, conferences, meeting visitors at the airport, and so I've kept a room in Antigua for the time being. 

In terms of my living situation in Chinique, sure, I complain all the time about how boring the town is.  I can't easily invite local friends over for dinner; there's no regular transportation up to Tapesquillo in the evenings, for example. There are some people with pick-ups who give rides, but they are not usually making the trip much after 6 p.m.  If I were to drive them, then I have to drive back down again.  But once I had found and furnished the house, it seemed to make little sense to start looking again, and then to uproot myself and have to settle in somewhere else all over again, so I've stayed put.

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