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Saturday, January 21, 2012

Small kindnesses

Guatemalans, or at least the ones who have befriended me, are capable of extraordinary generosity. When I was in Xela, on the morning after the despedida (that is, last Saturday, January 14), I needed to buy brake pads for my car (I could tell that the brakes were beginning to sound a little crunchy and thought it would be prudent, even if I were only going to be driving it for another few days; the last thing I would need was to have the brakes "go" on the way to the airport). It's always cheaper to buy replacement parts in a large town; in the town where I live, population 2,000, it is not always possible to get replacement parts for a Mazda, and they would have to be ordered from elsewhere and then installed. So I asked Humberto, at whose house I was staying, where I could get them; I had seen signs for one of the big auto parts stores, Hermanos Copher, and thought that would be a likely place. He suggested that there was a auto repair shop nearby and that they could get the brake pads and install them, and then wanted to know if I had time to go to the top of the Cerro de Baúl, which has a view of the entire city of Xela. I had been planning to leave, but it seemed as though he and Ana wanted to make sure I saw some of the beautiful places nearby, so I said that I needed to be back in Quiché in the afternoon but that was fine.  We then drove to the auto repair shop, talked to the mechanic and arranged for him to do the repair. He said it would take an hour and half and so we walked back, got into Humberto's car, and went to the Cerro. It was a bright and warm (for this time of year, and for Xela) day, and it was a pleasant drive up, and the view was spectacular.

We got back, and went to retrieve my car. I had also asked them to look for the driver's side mirror as that had been a casualty (luckily just about the only one) when the surly bus driver had deliberately side-swiped my car earlier in the week, forcing me into a roadside ditch. The mechanic had found one but hadn't bought it as it cost 450Q and he wasn't sure I'd want to spend that much money. I wanted the mirror so we asked where to find it and then Humberto accompanied me and we set off. We went to three different auto parts stores and none had the mirror; the point, however, is that Humberto eagerly took off half of his Saturday to run around Xela with me from auto parts store to auto parts store. He could easily have just given me directions to the various stores and let me try to handle the transaction on my own (and in this case, there was nothing that required special cultural or mechanical knowledge. I just went into the stores, told them the model of my car and asked if they had a driver's side mirror).

Likewise, I would never have been able to have packed and moved without help from several friends who, between them, helped clean my house, pack suitcases, and haul suitcases and furniture from the house I was renting to the place where I am storing my things. Catarino and Sandra, who had offered some time back to store my furniture and go to the airport with me, came over in the afternoon and stayed with me until late at night (I spent the night in their house so we could all leave together in the morning).

The original plan was that we were going to have a nice dinner together. The day before, Catarino had told me that Sandra had already gotten the chicken and was preparing to cook it. However, it became clear by mid-evening that we were not going to have a leisurely meal. As much as I thought I had gotten a good start on packing my suitcases, I soon realized that I had more than I had thought, and that i had not really taken into account the "moving" part -- I had furniture, dishes, utensils, appliances (fridge, blender, coffee grinder), toiletries, staple food items, linens. All of these were things that needed to be packed and stored. So we packed and sorted and threw out and cleaned, and around 8 I suggested that we take a break, go back to their house and eat (we had brought 2-3 truckloads already) and then do the last load. So we ate a pretty hurried dinner, not doing justice to the soup that Sandra had prepared some hours earlier. I had put aside some rum and the last bit of the expensive tequila I had bought in Mexico, but we were too tired (and I was too anxious) to look through the boxes to see where they were, so we just ate relatively quickly and almost in silence, and then returned to my house.

At 11:00 at night, as we brought the last truckload of stuff prior to our 7 a.m. departure the next morning, I shuddered to think of what I would have done had I not had several extra pairs of hands. Not only did Catarino and Sandra help, but Catarino's brothers had helped unload furniture from the truck (at one point earlier in the day Catarino had driven a truck load to his home and Sandra and I had stayed continuing to pack and clean). The kids -- Catarino's children plus assorted nieces, nephews, siblings, cousins -- had also done their share, scrambling in their eagerness each time we brought a load of things.

I should mention that getting to their house means maneuvering the car, or oneself carrying boxes and chairs, along a narrow, rocky dirt drive that slopes down past two other houses and goes in and out of at least one ditch.  The ground is uneven except for right around their house, and so getting the boxes and furniture transported by hand involves both strength and balance, especially at night. Because of the difficulty in turning the car around in these narrow spaces I didn't bring the car all the way down to Catarino and Sandra's house (the last of the three houses on that drive) but to Catarino's parents' home, which meant easier turning but more carrying. All of which was done quickly, skillfully and cheerfully, even 3-year old Brandon eagerly grabbing a bag or a pillow to contribute his share.

Just one more example of the many gifts I had received from my Maya friends in Quiché and elsewhere...


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

No escaping race and gender codes

Racism and racial attitudes in Guatemala are inescapable facts of life. Being on the privileged side of the racial divide means that I experience these in a different way than my Maya friends, but I experience it nonetheless. Two small scenes from the past week brought this home.

Sunday morning I went grocery shopping in the open-air market in Santa Cruz del Quiché with my friend Jeanet. We both had plastic-woven baskets and walked together, discussing our purchases -- we were buying food for a barbecue that we were organizing later in the day; this was one of several going-away parties. We stopped at one vendor and purchased some avocados, and as we had a lot of purchases to make I turned away and started to look at other produce. The vendor, also a Maya K'iche' woman like Jeanet, asked her (in K'iche') if I was her patrona (boss or employer). Clearly, the only time most people see a white woman and a Maya woman together in the market is if the former is the employer of the latter; there are not very many inter-ethnic friendships, or relationships among equals. So the woman automatically put us into what were for her familiar categories: patrona and servant. I turned back and said, "No, she's my patrona," and Jeanet and I laughed. I didn't get a chance to talk to her a lot about this exchange but I know that this sort of thing - and worse -- happens all the time.

On Monday two young Maya male friends of mine showed up in my town and wanted to go out to some of the dances that were going on for the patron saint feast. We wandered around from one open-air concert to another, together with a Ladina friend of mine and her son. I wanted to dance, so at each sarabanda (a generic term for an open-air party with live music and dancing), I danced with both of my friends. I could feel people's eyes on us - -both Maya and Ladino (most of the people at all three sarabandas were Maya but there were Ladinos/as present). At one of the sarabandas a man turned his video camera on us for a while; I'm not sure whether it was just the oddity of a gringa, or an older woman dancing with a much younger man, or a white woman dancing with a young Maya man, that caught his eye. At the last sarabanda, in the headquarters of the town's one cofradía, I had no sooner walked out onto the dance floor with Lucelio when a slightly drunk Ladino man, also pretty young, came over and tried to cut in. I said, no, I was going to dance with my friend, and he tried again, and I said no again. He stood for a moment and looked at us, and for a second I was worried that he might do or say something unpleasant, but then he took off and rejoined his friends and didn't ask me again.

Packing and moving

Finally all of my things and I are in the house of my friends Catarino and Sandra, who generously offered to house whatever I wasn't going to take back (including the car) until I return. I foolishly didn't calculate enough time for this... although I am here, it's just a bit after midnight, and I can get some sleep before we leave at 7 for the trip to the airport. Partly this was due to resistance on my part -- I really didn't want to deal with leaving and so I didn't. I just kept putting it off until the last moment. And in part, it didn't quite sink in until yesterday that I was moving as well as packing to travel. I've gotten so accustomed to traveling frequently that packing has turned into a routine, and I forgot about the moving part -- or forgot how much energy that takes.

Fortunately I had the help of several friends -- and truly, if it were not for them, I would be on the verge of missing my plane, having a nervous breakdown, or both.  Four friends devoted a lot of time to helping me, along with some auxiliary family members of Catarino and Sandra, who pitched in to carry some furniture and boxes once we were in the driveway of their home.  "Driveway" should be taken with a grain of caution. We are not talking about a level or paved path. This is a rocky, narrow, uneven, dirt path that slopes down from the road, past the homes of Catarino's brother and father.  Moving heavy pieces of furniture in the dark was not easy or fun, but Catarino and Sandra just smiled and lugged and hauled and schlepped until everything was in (we made at least 4 trips by car).

I am so honored and humbled by my friends' generosity; I don't know that I am quite as capable as they are of devoting this much time and effort to other people. By the end of the evening I was barely capable of conversation, and we ended up not really having much of a dinner together. We stopped for dinner before everything was done -- that meant driving from my house in town to their house on the outskirts, working our way into the driveway, eating quickly, and then going back. But I needed to eat, I needed a break, and I was very sorry because I know the time and effort that went into making the meal and we did not do it justice.

I am thoroughly exhausted right now; the last two nights I went out dancing at the fiesta, and am paying the price. Part of the price was not really having enough time to pack. And the other part is being very, very tired.

This is a kind of "eh" blog entry, but writing something more interesting would take more energy than I have right now.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Starting to say goodbye, part 1: Xela

The last few days I have found myself in a strange kind of limbo, still fully engaged in what I am doing here, deeply connected to my friends, still making new friendships, and at the same time pulling up stakes. Although I have not been doing a very good of the latter, at least not on the physical side of things. I am leaving in three days and I have yet to pack a box. The most I have done is to get rid of my glass and most of the plastic bottles, and figure out prices for some household items I am selling (at steeply reduced prices) to my friends Caterino and Sandra (I am giving them some things outright.  About two days ago I realized I hadn't done anything about my books -- Fulbright shipped my boxes here, so I mentioned to the folks at the Embassy that I was trying to find a way to send them back. They offered to send them if I paid for the postage and got USPS labels, so I spent a fruitless half-hour trying to get information from the post office. Actually I spent 15 minutes on hold and then about 15-20 minutes talking to people (with time on hold in between while they tried to get information). At the end of it all, they told me that they could not do what I wanted (arrange for me to pay postage for parcel post); the only service they could offer me was global express mail, which would have cost between 300 and 400 dollars.  One friend suggested DHL, another suggested a package service used by a lot of Guatemalans, Maya Express. I think it will end up being about the same or less to just pay for an extra suitcase.
Friends have been wanting to organize going-away parties, or have me over for dinner, or in some other way mark my departure. And so Friday afternoon, January 13, found me on the highway to Xela again. My circle of close friends there wanted to have a despedida (going away party) and so we agreed upon Friday; three of them live there full time, and one works in Guatemala City; however, he comes back to Xela most (but not all) weekends. More phone calls and emails to arrange food (being guys, they said they would make churrasco -- grilled meat). I arrived around 6:30 and found three of them playing around with the grill and the meat (well, two were actually working on that and the third just observing). I had brought lentil salad and the ingredients to make a radish salad; rummaged around in Humberto and Ana's kitchen (Ana was not around) and found some tortillas and started to reheat them. Bottles went on the table, meat went on the grill, some Flor de Caña (rum from Nicaragua) went in the glasses (very very little in mine; I brought some wine and there was a bottle on the table -- the guys have figured out that I drink mostly wine, and B. also drinks wine). After everything was cooked and we sat down, they started a round of not exactly toasts, but comments and reflections. Not all were actually so much about me: these are men who have long standing friendships and political relationships and so occasionally their commentaries went pretty far afield (B. at one point, when Roberto, whom I know least well of all of them, was talking about the sexual diversity movement in Guatemala, intervened in a somewhat joking tone and said, "And how does this have to do with Lisa?"). But it was wonderful to be in the warm embrace of a circle of friends. Humberto's wife and children were there -- which was one of the reasons we wanted to do it at their home, so that they could participate. His daughter, who has Downs, is very fond of me, and she sat next to me and we made some silly poses for photos.
Ice Cube and
Easy Motherfucking E
There was a lot of eating and drinking and talking ... only some of which I participated in. Humberto's daughter and wife went to bed fairly early, leaving me with the guys. And to a degree, I have become one of the guys. These are political activists and intellectuals, not men in rural highland communities, but they still do gather in male-only settings (their wives are mostly all professionals and Roberto and Javier's wives seem to have fairly independent lives).

On this night, Javier's wife was in Guatemala (she spends several days a week in the capital for work); Roberto's wife was working. We'd invited J-L's daughter Eunice (but she was in Antigua) and also Javier and Roberto's daughters (but they apparently had better things to do than hang out with us; I did run into Roberto's daughter on the street the next morning).

But as a foreigner, I get to skirt local gender codes a little bit. I am sure that I am not outside them entirely.  I know that my going out and having a drink with a male acquaintance in Chinique last year during the fiesta was duly noted; I pulled back from a closer friendship when I learned that he was with the Partido Patriota, and since last year's feast I have just greeted  him politely when we encounter each other. However, a few days ago when I was talking with some female friends about not having someone with whom I could dance at the various events during the feast, they mentioned his name. So obviously, even though none of them was present when we went out for churrascos last January (another all male-gathering, except for me and the women who were serving the food), word gets around.

After a certain point the conversation turned to local politics and some very heated discussions. I found myself on the outside of it, but I didn't really mind. After all, the point wasn't that the entire evening be "about" me, but that we were together. I knew (or think I know) that they were there for me, even if they very readily slipped into familiar and well-trodden territory. They had all had a fair amount to drink  (they were well ahead of me; my challenge is to prevent them from refilling my glass every time one of them refills his; my strategy this time was to take on the role of "chief of protocol" for a while and go about refilling other people's glasses and tipping a drop of wine into my own), and eventually I just lost the track of the conversation entirely and crawled off to bed. I decided not to break up the conversation (a vigorous discussion about politics in Olintepeque, a town near Xela, where two of my friend live), in part because I thought if I started to literally say goodbyes I might lose it. And I had told them I would be back in March and over the summer, so it is not a "good bye" strictly speaking in any case.

In the morning I went off to take a walk, as I usually do, and I followed the route that I have taken ever since I accompanied Humberto and Ana one morning as they took a walk. They don't live in a beautiful neighborhood; the streets are unpaved in their little community wedged between two major roads (the Periférico and the highway that goes to San Marcos). But even though the immediate surroundings are not lovely (Burger King, a bunch of chain drugstores) the city is more or less level and ringed by mountains and the sky was spectacularly luminous this morning, and I went about a block and turned around to get my camera.  I haven't taken any photos of Xela, except inside people's homes and at the sexual diversity event, and although it is not my city, I feel very connected there, and so wanted to have a few images to accompany me after I return back to gringolandia.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Step by step: packing to go home

There. I wrote it out in a sentence: packing to go home. I have, however, been resisting the actual actions associated with that phrase for as long as humanly possible and now I am down to the last two days (not including today or my departure date) and it is time to stop worrying and learn to love packing. So, we are doing a form of triage here. Well, maybe triage is not the right word. We are practicing advanced sorting, and also putting off the inevitable. That is, I made a decision a while back that Guatemala is a long term commitment for me and although I will probably not be able to find another year anytime soon that I can spend here, I will be coming back for whatever time I can for the foreseeable future.

So this means that I am not selling my car. I am not selling most of my furniture. I had to buy a car (well, I had to buy two because one was stolen) and I had to furnish a house (a small one, but a house nonetheless). A friend has offered to take care of the care and store most of my furniture. I am giving away two tables; I sold my living room "suite" to the friends who are storing the car and the furniture, along with some appliances. I am leaving all of the bed linens, towels and blankets here (there's not that much, but it would fill a small suitcase). I will also leave some appliances, utensils and dishes. When I come back in March I won't be renting a place, but I hope to come back in the summer for two months and so I don't want to have to go through finding furnishings again. And I will need to cook and eat, so I don't want to have to buy kitchen items again. And there is still the long-term plan of buying some land and setting up a co-op, which would also mean having a place where we could stay when we needed to, or possibly live at some point in the future. So keeping the furniture and furnishings seemed a good idea.

But now I have been faced with deciding what I really need to keep. I accumulated several ceramic cooking pot of different sizes. They were all quite inexpensive, ranging from Q6 (under a dollar) to about Q18 (about $2.50) for the largest one.  I have given them all to friends. The enameled cookware I will keep, along with the blender and rice cooker ("keep" means that Caterino and Sandra are welcome to use them). I gave Jeanet and Nazario some plates, bowls and cups. I have been giving away dry food that I will not use (rice, oil, cornstarch, spices).

That leaves books and clothing. Oh yes, and papers. I haven't even gotten to those yet. I tried to figure out if there was an inexpensive way to ship books and there isn't. I don't trust the Guatemalan post office. So let me amend that: there is not an inexpensive SAFE way to ship books. When  I was at the embassy earlier this week, I said that I was looking for a way (I didn't exactly ask them but hinted). The cultural attaché said they would ship them if I paid the postage and got USPS labels to print out and affix. I spent over 15 minutes on hold and then about 20 minutes talking to different people at the post office customer service line to discover that they could not help me; the only international service they offer is an express service, not book rate, and therefore it would cost me nearly $400. The airline, Continental, charges $100 or more for the third checked bag (I will be checking two already). That is about the same price as the package services here in Guatemala that are used to send items to the U.S. (but I don't know how large a box I can ship for $100 from here). The advantage of the airline is that I can pay with a credit card, since I have very little money and no way of getting more (as my debit card was hacked and had to be canceled).

So, I am going to cram as many books into my carry on as I can, and then I have sorted out some to leave here for the time being. So far I've sorted out one box. Then I am trying to sort out clothing. Since I will be back in March, I only need to take back things that I am likely to use before March. So it is possible that I can get away with two checked bags and one carry on and still manage to get most of the books with me. It actually looks like they will mostly fit in my carry on.

So, I have packed one suitcase and one box -- both of these are items that are staying here in Guatemala. I think once I get one of the large suitcases packed I will feel more accomplished. And probably will start to feel some of the sadness I have been dreading.


Antidote to fear

Xibalbal is a word in K'iche' that means "place of fear". It is associated with the underworld, a place of darkness. Not really the equivalent of hell in the Christian cosmovision, but definitely not a place one would voluntarily want to spend a lot of time. Yesterday night as I was with my beloved friends in Xela, at a going-away party, we were joking about my return to gringolandia, and one of my friends said, "You're going to Xibalbal." Today, after listening to the first speech by newly-inaugurated president Otto Pérez Molina, the same friend posted something on FB about being in Xibalbal.  And it is a very discouraging and scary moment in Guatemala, although I have a few friends, perhaps less political, or not as clearly on the left, who seem to hold out some hope for the new government. I cannot say I share it.

But I discovered a good, if temporary, antidote to listening to the general: going to the cofradia and eating a bowl of steaming hot home-made soup accompanied by tamales and chile. And then going out in the procession with the cofradia, to the sounds of live marimba and nearly constant fireworks. I sat in the kitchen of the cofradia and let Doña Adela and the other women feed me, along with about 50 other people, while they continued to prepare food for tomorrow. Just watching the women roast tomatoes over the fire (to make chirmol, a mildish chile sauce made with roasted tomatoes and some roasted chiles), scoop out coffee from an enormous ceramic urn, dole out dishes of steaming soup, and trundle back and forth to refill baskets with steamed tamales, was comforting and also a sign that life goes on.

I don't mean to suggest that Otto Pérez Molina's discourse can be undone, or the potential impact of policies he might implement, can be undone simply by falling back into the patterns of daily life in the highlands -- the cycle of planting and harvesting, the cycle of festivals.  But slipping into what has become a comfort zone -- a warm kitchen with an open fire, a community of people with whom I am somewhat familiar, the strains of live marimba with saxophone and other brass pumping out what have now become familiar melodies (and yes, I have a very soft spot in my heart for "El Rey Kiche" and "Chinique Querido"), a procession through the town by candlelight -- proved to be a good counterweight to the heaviness of heart I felt after hearing the speech and pondering the implications.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Be scared, be very scared? Reflections on safety and loneliness

A friend recently asked me if I had concerns about my personal safety. This was after some revelation or whining about my recent string of highway and automotive misadventures (but before the bus driver pushed my vehicle into a ditch). I replied no, I really didn't have concerns.  And then I started  to reflect more seriously about security and safety, and why I am not more fearful.

Many people I know here, both Guatemalans and foreigners, express concern about my constant movements about the country in a car by myself. This is, in part, the nature of fieldwork -- ideally, at least in the classic model, one is on one's own. Malinowski writes about the mythic fieldworker (white, male, privileged), arguing that it is important for him to be on his own, with the "natives" and to have as little contact as possible with other white people. His point, as I recall it, is that if you are surrounded by your own kind you slip into a comfort zone and won't push out into another culture.

My solo travels are also due to the fact that I came here on my own, without a partner or child to accompany me.  This has given me a great deal of flexibility and freedom. I can eat yogurt and Grape-Nuts for dinner if I want to (a freedom I have exercised precisely one time; I actually cook real food for myself all the time, but that is because I like to cook and I like to eat real home-cooked food -- no cans and very few convenience foods for this girl). I can eat dinner whenever it pleases me. At a moment's notice, I can decide I want to attend a conference or talk in Guatemala City, or go to a movie in Xela.

The downside of all this freedom is that I am alone a lot. Like nearly all the time. So traveling alone is part of the regime.  Although I sometimes, in the U.S., get very tired and even drowsy at the wheel, I do enjoy the feeling of liberty when I drive alone. When I got my license at 16, I was unhappily living in suburbia and not having the ability to drive meant I was either stuck or bound by the whims and schedules of others, so being able to drive gave me a degree of independence.  I hitch-hiked a bit around Europe on visits in the 1970s, and while I had one mildly unpleasant experience, I mostly had very good luck. Although I enjoy having traveling companions, especially ones who are adaptable and easy-going, I've gotten used to traveling alone.

Guatemala, to be sure, is a country where most people do not enjoy security and safety. The wealthy have bodyguards and gated community; the poor have their wits and their immediate circle of family and friends. But even that is not a failsafe buffer. One result of the armed conflict has been the deterioration of trust and mutuality. During the war, people were forced to (or chose to) inform on their friends and relatives. No one knew who could be trusted. One brother might have joined, or been forcibly recruited into, the military or the civilian patrols, while another was in the guerrilla. The after-effects can still be seen. A few weeks ago we were talking about the kinds of productive projects that Ixmukané could start and someone suggested community gardens. No, someone else said. Community gardens don't work. Family plots do, but community gardens don't. I asked a friend about this and she said, "No one trusts anyone any more. The social fabric has been ripped and I don't think it is going to be fully repaired ever."

So, back to what might seem to some as my somewhat reckless attitude. I do not think I am immune, that I walk around with an invisible shield, that my whiteness or my gringa-ness or middle-class-ness some how protects me.  I know this is one of the characteristics of the "ugly American" syndrome -- that we think that certain things just don't touch us.  I don't subscribe to that. On the other hand, I won't be paralyzed by fear. I am not quite sure why I have only very infrequently felt something approaching actual fear. The two times I drove on the very lonely highway between Santa Cruz and Totonicapán at night I experienced about 10 minutes of anxiety. But even when sitting (lying?) sideways in my car in a ditch, I mostly felt annoyance, not fear or panic. I think Guatemala has refined my ability to go with the flow and to not waste energy fretting or getting upset about things over which I have no control.


change of command

Today is the day power was handed over to a military leader who entered the presidential palace through the ballot box - at least in theory. I ended up listening to much of the ceremony, which was quite long, on the radio as I was driving from Xela back to Quiché.  I wasn't going to listen, the entire thing made me feel upset, frustrated, discouraged, sad, but then I realized that I should. There were several parts of the ceremony -- first the outgoing president gave an update to Congress, there were some new leaders installed in the congress, various people charged with responsibilities for the events, and then everyone left the congress and went to a place called El Domo in a different part of the city, out by the airport in Zona 13.

I am listening to the acceptance speech on live stream. I had listened to everything up to the actual inauguration in the car, and then got home and started to heat up something for lunch, and then friends started to post about the speech online, so I realized I should find a way to listen. He has been talking about moving beyond the past, reconciliation, justice, the state of law... A lot of empty rhetoric. It is hard to listen to a war criminal talking about the state of law; to listen to a genocider and retired military man talk about reconciliation.  On what basis? To hear someone who denies that there was a genocide talk about moving beyond the past.

I have been writing some of this on Facebook as it has been going on.  Now he is talking about natural riches, saving the environment as part of the national patrimony.  Guatemala needs the strength of all of its children, to make a commitment to the country, so that together we can confront the obstacles, including corruption.  That is an on-the-spot translation.

It's hard to describe my feelings right now. It is an awful moment in so many ways. It represents a step backward. It is hard to imagine what will happen to poor, rural Maya communities.  He is talking about having development and peace.. if we all work together. That there can be economic development if people just work hard.  People work incredibly hard... doesn't mean that there is any kind of progress.

Thankfully, it has ended....

Thursday, January 12, 2012

So much blogging to do, so little time; or ethnographic triage

As the clock winds down, I realize how much I have not written up in any form, field notes or blog. And of course there is no magic to writing things while I am here. That is, there is no guarantee that what I write while I am on the ground in Guatemala will be better because I was here when I wrote it. Still, I am feeling some urgency. So much to process. Conversations that I will forget if I don't write them down, and here is as good a place as any.

And so... in the last few days that remain of this stay, what will get formulated and put into a textual form and what will not? There are many "follow ups" to blogs I wrote earlier. I wanted to write about the fiesta in Chichicastenango, which continues my discussion of my relationship with the alcaldía indígena in Chichi. Doña Matilde's family invited me to the ceremony that is held 40 days after the death of a loved one -- a follow up to "sending off the spirits". I made some visits to community radio stations.  I went to a punk concert. I have been doing some training sessions with the Red de Jóvenes. There are all kinds of random encounters and conversations, observations about everyday life, reflections about what I have and have not accomplished.

So I start to think, what will interest you, my readers? What will serve my needs? What will be possibly useful to me some months or years down the road?  All good questions...and I'm not sure I have the answers, or if I did, if I would be able to make good. So we'll see...

Always look on the bright side

I am not a Pollyanna-ish person. However, I find it hard to stay annoyed or frustrated too long. Guatemala has taught me a lot about patience and just adapting to circumstances, even if they include sitting sideways in a ditch or stalled out on a dangerous curve on a dark highway at night. So, this morning has brought its own small pleasures... as I stood on my roof hanging out laundry, I heard the strains of live marimba (accompanied by saxophones) coming from the next block, and when I got downstairs, they were walking in front of my house -- a gaggle of young kids outfitted in the "baile de la conquista" outfits, resplendant with plumes and sequins, accompanied by a Maya priest wielding a tin can full of incense, and the marimba bringing up the rear.  I will post photos and maybe some video later. But, as Monty Python reminds us, even though life is shit, one can always find pleasurable moments.

Killer buses, or life at an angle

So, there I was in a ditch, looking at the world all atilt. That is the angle to which the title refers: it was about a 60 degree angle -- the angle of the chassis of my car, which had been pushed into a steep concrete drainage ditch at about KM 90, near Tecpán, Guatemala.  To cut to the chase, I was not hurt, and my car was not seriously damaged. Still, it was not fun getting run off the road by a bus driver and his assistant (the assistant seemed to be positively gleeful as the bus sped by, after having succeeded in forcing me off the road and into the drainage ditch).

It wasn't the best day I've had.

It started with the woman who owns the guesthouse where I have been staying throwing me out. My sin: yesterday I had washed out some clothes since I had not planned to stay in Antigua for 3 nights and did not have clean clothes. I had hung the garments on plastic hangers, and in transferring the garments into my room to hang up and dry, I inadvertently left one garment out in the common area. At 7:00 this morning, as I was making my breakfast, she angrily told me "I don't want you leaving your clothes all over the place. I think you'd better go today. So please give the key right now and pay me." She had been a bit testy as I had originally said I was staying one night (Sunday), and handed back her key on Monday morning when I left. However, later on Monday, when it turned out the offices of the Superintendencia de Telecomunicaciones were closed, I called her  to ask if I could stay again and we worked out a time for me to arrive (I did call her when my car broke down on the highway to make sure I could still arrive at her home). Tuesday morning when I left, I handed back the key. I thought that the repair wouldn't take that long. The repair didn't take that long; but the parts had to be ordered in Guatemala City. So when I got to the garage, and found out that the parts couldn't be procured before the afternoon, I realized that I would have to stay another night. I called her immediately; she seemed put out because she had changed the sheets already and had done so the day before. I apologized for inconveniencing her, and raced back to get the key as she was leaving the house soon.

So, I don't say that I was totally blameless, but I do think that kicking me out at 7 a.m. because I had one item of clothing on a hanger in a common area (I think I left it on the doorknob of my room, actually) is a bit extreme -- and I had also sent some friends to stay at this guesthouse.

This put a wrinkle in my plans -- I had thought that I could walk to the garage much more easily if I were not carrying all of my stuff, and then I would drive back with the car to get everything. I had gone shopping for presents on Tuesday night, and I had also purchased food since I didn't want to eat at a restaurant again on Tuesday.

But I sucked it up, packed everything and walked out the door, making sure I cleaned everything I had touched in the kitchen; for a spiteful moment I thought about leaving a few dirty dishes -- after all, how much more pissed off could she get? -- but couldn't bring myself to do that. On the more benevolent side I considered leaving some food that I probably won't eat for other visitors in the house, but then decided I would give it to friends here in Chinique -- my friends here are much more in need of extra food than foreigners who can afford 85Q a night at a guest house.

I got the phone number of the garage from my friend Marcos, the person who had referred me to the garage (he owns a shuttle service and while I have rarely needed to use his services as I have my own car -- that is, when it is running -- I often refer to him for car-related matters; he has been a life saver on more than one occasion) and called so I didn't schlep all the way across town for nothing. The car was ready so I found a tuk-tuk and got to the garage, only to find that they hadn't calculated the bill yet. I decided I was going to treat myself to a yoga class (I paid for a series of classes but haven't been in Antigua much so it wasn't literally a treat in terms of an additional expense, but in terms of using my time), so I fretted and then paid and then raced (as best one can on Antigua's very bumpy cobblestones) to the upscale hotel where the yogis give classes.  I thought I especially needed the good karma after all the unpleasantness.

Then to Guatemala City where I had to get more money from the Embassy as the car repair had used up nearly all my cash (the hydraulic pump had to be replaced) and my ATM card had been compromised a few weeks ago (someone rigged at ATM in Santa Cruz del Quiché, apparently, and transferred my number to an ATM in Bogotá, Colombia, where several hundred dollars was withdrawn), and had to be canceled, so I have no other way of getting money (the Embassy cashes checks for Fulbrights and even though my Fulbright is technically over, they are still very accommodating for me, and they have agreed to continue providing me this service as a Fulbright alumna when I come back later this year).

Then off on my original mission: trying to get information about radio frequencies from the Superintendencia de Telecomunicaciones. The woman at the reception was very pleasant, but it turns out that one has to put the request in writing and deliver it in person. I had made plans to have lunch with a colleague, and I wanted to get back to Chinique because January 11 was the selection of the "reina indígena", and thus an important research opportunity, and I couldn't find a computer place nearby, so I wasn't able to do it on the spot. Everything in Guatemala City involves calculating how to get from one place to another, and if one has a car, then one has to factor in finding parking. You either walk a lot, or take buses which are unsafe, or taxis which are expensive and also potentially unsafe, or drive your own car which means finding parking.

A lovely lunch with a wonderful colleague, at Sophos, the bookstore/café (terrific sandwiches, with really good whole-grain bread as an option, accompanied with a nice little salad), and then I was off on the road again.

Things were going pretty smoothly (the engine is still racing a bit in neutral, but otherwise handled fine) until I came around Tecpán, and found myself being menaced by the driver (and his assistant, who was hanging out of the door) of a Marquensita bus. I had passed him on an uphill stretch, and then the road briefly narrowed down to one lane, and then widened out again to 2 lanes. I was in the right hand lane and he was in the left hand lane and there was a pretty long stretch ahead of us where there are two lanes in each direction. So, if he wanted to pull ahead of me, he could easily have done so. However, he decided that he wanted to run me off the road apparently, and pulled very close to my car. I gestured to the assistant, trying to convey, "What's up?" But before I had a chance to slow down (I didn't want to go into a skid, so I just let up on the gas a little), the driver swerved very deliberately into my lane, smashing into the side of my car and knocking me into a fairly deep section of the concrete-lined drainage ditch that runs along much of the highway. The assistant, still hanging out the door, waved his arms gleefully, expressing his satisfaction with my predicament, and they sped off down the road, leaving me sideways in my car.

Miraculously I was not hurt at all, the car was not seriously damaged. At first I couldn't lift the driver's side door, and thought it was damaged but it was just the weight -- the car was nearly on its side. I crawled out and assessed the situation. A man on a bicycle, on his way home from work, stopped, and then another man walked over, while a few women just watched (I have yet to have a woman help me out on the road). The two of them tried pushing -- I climbed back into, started the engine, and put the car into reverse. The ditch was much shallower behind me and if we got it back far enough I could get back on the road.  Two men were not enough, but a third materialized (people are always materializing in the most unexpected places here) on the other side of the road, with his wife on the back of a motorcycle. He left her and the cycle and came across to help, and between them, they pushed the car and guided me since it was hard to figure out how to steer it in a sideways position in a ditch. The other challenge was the traffic: cars and trucks and buses whiz along the Panamerican highway at breakneck speeds and I was at a slight curve in the road. One of the men, the first one who stopped, produced a bright orange vest from his backpack (apparently he works on one of the many road crews out along the road) and used it to signal cars to go into the left hand lane. So, I cautiously edged my way backwards and into a more vertical position and then was finally able to push it into first gear and move forward. I pulled over and checked the damage: scratches and dents and a scrape on driver's side, but nothing worse that I could see. Opened the hood: nothing visibly wrong there. I only had a few small bills with me which I gave to the first man who had stopped.

However, my pleasure at having my car up (literally) and running was short-lived. Apparently the crash into the ditch had damaged my front passenger's side tire (which received the brunt of the impact) and about 10 km down the road, I felt that awful wobble which means a flat. I didn't see a pinchazo nearby but pulled into the nearest place I could find, a little roadside store. A man who was driving an Isuzu jeep had also pulled in. I called out to see if anyone had a jack (yes, I know, I should have bought one long ago, but I would still need someone else to help me jack up the pick up). He rummaged around and found one, and we both had four-handled lug wrenches (here called "una cruz" - a cross), so between us, we got the car jacked up and loosened the lug nuts and put on my spare. There were several men sitting drinking soft drinks at the store, and they all watched in amusement (not very expressive, but they were definitely watching and talking about us) as I maneuvered the lug wrench and stepped on it, using my body weight to loosen the lug nuts. Very few women drive here, and I would bet dollars to donuts that even fewer get their hands dirty helping change a tire.  The man stripped off his shirt (he was neatly dressed, and obviously a professional of some sort; he was heading to Chichicastenango, I found out, as we talked a little bit while working on the car). I asked him what he would like to drink and purchased a soda for him. I wasn't sure whether it would be correct or offensive to give him a little money (he owns a nice car and was well-dressed, but he did go well out of his way to help me out). Getting a flat fixed at a shop costs about 15Q (that includes jacking the car, removing the tire, patching and reinstalling) so I gave him 5Q (in addition to purchasing the soft drink).  He told me there was a pinchazo a few kilometers ahead,  so I stopped and had the man there tighten the lug nuts some more and check the air on the tire...

So I finally made it home, just in time to see the coronation of the reina indígena... but that's a story for another blog.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Roads not taken

Hmm.  On the one year anniversary of my arrival, it seems appropriate to make a list of
"Stuff that I didn't do".  There are obviously dozens of places that I didn't visit, ecological sites and tourist places, but only a relatively small number that I was actually interested in visiting.
1)    Visit Tikal. Or any of the large archaeological sites. I wanted to go to Tikal but not enough to sacrifice what I was doing. I did actually intend to go and even made reservations when my family was here but we decided it was too much driving in too little time and went to Todos Santos instead.
2)    Climb a volcano. At one point, a few weeks ago, I thought I would actually be able to accomplish this. I didn't want to do it alone, and in general it is not recommended to make these climbs alone, as much for issues of personal safety as anything. There have been some assaults on tourists on Volcán de Agua, the dormant volcano that looms over the town of Antigua.  A Guatemalan friend insisted that I couldn't leave Guatemala without climbing a volcano, and so I responded, "Well, do you want to be my bodyguard?"  My friend suggested it was best to climb up, spend the night, and climb down, and we got as far as discussing dates... and then said friend dropped out of touch.  So, that one stays on the list. I haven't had any other offers to make the trip and I have exactly a week left.
3)   Go to the beach. I didn't really take a vacation while I was here. I am not a big beach person. I like the ocean, but like it best when there are mountains and places to walk and bike nearby. I do not have a high tolerance for sitting in the sun near the water, and while I love to swim, ocean water stings my eyes so I cannot do a lot of swimming in the ocean.  If I were to go on vacation, it would have to be with friends, as I would not want to be in a beach area on my own. I am not a timid person; however, something like a day or two at the beach would be more enjoyable with company. No one I knew planned a beach vacation to which they invited me, and I was not in a position to "invite" a group of friends. "Invitar" in Spanish has a double meaning. It can mean to invite someone to join you, or it can mean that you, the inviter, will pay the costs of the invitee. So I was not in the position to pay the costs of a group of friends to accompany me at the beach.
4)   Visit the Ixil region of el Quiché.  The towns of Nebaj, Chajul and Cotzal comprise what is called the Ixil triangle. People in these towns speak Ixil, not K'iche'. They were among the areas hardest hit during the conflicto armado interno (big massacres in Nebaj and Chajul), and this is supposed to be a spectacularly beautiful area. Of course, nearly every place I visit seems spectacularly beautiful; it is hard to imagine a place with more natural beauty. I met women from Nebaj on various occasions; some came to participate in the activities of Ixmukané. The güipiles from Nebaj and Chajul are very impressive, with animal and geometric designs in vivid colors. I have one of each, but didn't get to purchase them in situ.
That's what I can think of for now. Perhaps there will be other abscesses and missed opportunities as I think through this year.

Small escapist pleasures

As my time winds down, I am taking stock... realizing that there are projects that sounded promising but have not yet come to fruition, and perhaps never will. People with whom I wanted to spend more time and didn't. Opportunities that presented themselves and which I did not explore... one endless chorus, perhaps, of "The Road Not Taken." Sometimes these were conscious decisions, at other times the time just slipped by, I was focusing on other things, and then woke up one morning with a shock and realized that I had X number of weeks, and now days, left and I had never followed through on something.
One case in point is Father Ricardo Falla, for example, a very courageous Jesuit priest who worked in El Quiché starting in the 1960s, and went into exile with the communities that were attacked fled to the jungle and to Mexico. Also an anthropologist, he was the first to record testimonies of the atrocities, collected in his book Masacres en la Selva (Massacres in the Jungle).  More recently he has been writing about migration and return migration. A friend worked as his research assistant and people always asked me if I knew him, since I worked in Quiché and also worked on issues of migration.  In August I heard him speak at the Mayan Studies conference and waited until the end of the panel at which he spoke -- a panel on genocide -- and introduced myself. He was warm and cordial and gave me his email and perhaps his phone number (both of which I have lost) and invited me to come visit him sometime. At the time I didn't quite recognize the name of the place where he told me he was living, Santa Maria Chiquimula. This is one of the confusing things about place-names in Guatemala. A lot of times a town will have a name that ends in a word like Chiquimula that is also the name of a department. So one would hear "Santa Maria Chiquimula" and assume (or at least I would) that the town is named Santa Maria and it is in the department of Chiquimula, which is not especially near me. However, I much later discovered that there is a town called Santa Maria Chiquimula that is in the department of Totonicapán. which borders El Quiché -- when I go along the highway that connects Santa Cruz del Quiché with the city of Totonicapán, I pass the road that leads to Santa Maria Chiquimula.

In any case, I had not followed through on the invitation from Father Falla, and lost his information, although now I know how close his town is, maybe I can find out how to get in touch with him and stop for a visit before I leave the country.

There are other instances -- all of the excitement I felt about being invited to participate in the various projects that my friends in Xela had proposed has dissipated a bit as it seems that nothing is going to happen very quickly, and perhaps some or all of those projects about which I was so ecstatically excited a few months ago will be stillborn and never see the light of day.  I made a conscious decision in those cases to just let everything happen at its own pace. I am not the key actor in any of these. I made a few efforts to get folks to meet and talk and make some concrete plans, but I cannot do any more than that, nor should I. Stuff has to happen organically, and I hope my friends know that I am here for them when they are ready.
So, I am trying to take it a bit easy these last two weeks, and not try to crunch everything in that I wasn't able to accomplish in the preceding 50.  Which brings me to small pleasures.

Sunday, January 8, I drove to Guatemala City, which I rarely visit, to take a friend who had been visiting from the states to the airport. I wouldn't normally drive 3-1/2 hours to take someone (except someone very very close like my daughter or a lover) to the airport. But I needed to do some things in Guatemala City, which I could take care of on Monday. I need to get some information on radio frequencies, and I need to meet with people from the U.S. Embassy, as a "debriefing" at the end of my Fulbright (well, my Fulbright ended months ago, officially, but I am still here).

I had a wild thought to try and see a friend as long as I was in Guatemala City. I don't know a lot of people here, but only a few. A few weeks ago a friend of a friend had accompanied me to a punk concert in Zona 1, and we hadn't been able to meet up again (well, we'd made plans but they didn't come to fruition), so I thought I'd give a call, and we made plans to meet after I'd dropped my friend at the airport.  Repeated phone calls from the airport produced no answer, so I tried another friend, who was around but busy until 3. Since I only have a little time left, and the next time I plan to come to Guatemala City is the day of my departure, January 18, I was willing to stick around.  Which meant, however, finding something to do for 3-1/2 hours.

One thing I did was to stop along the road that leads from the airport back to Boulevard Liberación (which turns into Calzada Roosevelt). Every time I have left the airport, I have noticed crowds of people standing outside the fence, at a point where the road is wide enough to leave cars -- and one has a long enough view of the runway. Here, you can see the flights take off... and arrive. So, in a country where very few people have the means to travel legally outside of the country, and very few can afford airfares, and very few of those who have migrant relatives can expect to have regular visits from those same migrants, airplane departures and arrivals are big deals.

I pulled over as best I could and found a spot for my car... sort of. Then I walked over to where people were standing staring at the planes, some of them hanging onto the wire fence with anticipation,  resignation, hope, fear.. hard to read emotions from body language. Maybe some were just tired, as the sun was beating down.

Then I checked to see which museums were open. The best option seemed the Museo de Arte Moderno (Modern Art Museum) which is right by the airport.  I lost myself for about an hour in the museum (where you are not supposed to take pictures) before they closed for the lunch break. The permanent exhibit highlights Guatemalan artists of the late 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. The museum is not large and I had it largely to myself.  I did violate the no-photos rule for a very interesting piece about history and memory. There is a text laid out horizontally, on a series of panels, and then some flowers in one corner, and a sort of table on top. The text, which I could not copy or photograph entirely, is a reference to the war, and the recurrent refrain is "no pasa nada" (nothing happens, or nothing happened). I wandered outside and looked at the sculpture exhibit in the garden, and then took myself to Fontabella, an upscale shopping mall (guards and gate) where there are stores selling high-end kitchen ware and hand-made gelato. It also houses Sophos, one of the best book stores in Guatemala. It looks like an old-fashioned book store -- dark wood shelves, display tables where you can pore over open volumes. And in addition to having a good selection (for Guatemala) they will order just about anything for you. They also have places where you can sit, and they have a café, which has some wonderful licuados (smoothies), and good sandwiches (they have a full menu but I've only had latte, licuados and sandwiches).  I ordered myself two of my favorites: grilled vegetables and cheese on pan integral, and a licuado made of passionfruit with a touch of white wine (and some other fruit that I now can't remember).
So I savored my lunch, started this blog entry, and then met up with my friend for a drink. It turned out to be my friend's birthday, which I hadn't know until I raised my glass of wine for a toast.  So, serendipity wins once again. I am sure that if we had tried to make plans to meet up for a birthday celebration something would have interfered, but because we had not made advance plans and I just called when other plans fell through, it worked out perfectly.

The escapism worked to a degree (the degree being mitigated by car problems: as I wrote in another blog entry, the car started to get tetchy again and I had to get assistance and then take it to a shop on Monday morning).... I rarely spend time in Guatemala City, looking at art museums has not been high on my agenda (although I enjoy it), but I just decided to enjoy these moments as they presented themselves ... and as I will write in some subsequent blogs, there have been enough moments of this sort (times when plans change without your having any control) that I have had to exercise a lot of zen and improvisation, and just "cógelo suave" (take it easy -- the phrase really belongs to Cuban and not Guatemalan Spanish).

To every thing there is a season, or, stuck here down in Antigua with the Quiché blues again

Another title for this entry might be "Zen and the art of automobile maintenance"

So, the car, which had been running more or less smoothly up until a week or two ago, has had a series of problems, some minor, some not so. Which has meant that I have spent more time than I would like to recount on the side of the road with the hood up trying to figure out what is going on, finding a garage in a place where I don't usually get my car serviced, and dealing with auto service places. And waiting. A lot of waiting. Waiting two hours in Totonicapán for part of the radiator to be repaired (Friday of last week). Waiting outside San Pedro Jocopilas (also Friday). I did take my car in to my local mechanic, Willy, whose shop is across the street, on Saturday, and asked him to look it over before venturing to Guatemala on Sunday to take Babette to the airport. He checked over the repairs that had been done, pronounced them sound. The hydraulic pump had been sounding strained and steering had been hard because of that, and we had talked about ordering a replacement, but when he looked at it, he said it just needed some oil and produced a quart, filled it up and gave me the remainder (well, I purchased the quart). Car was fine, in a manner of speaking, for the trip to Guate and the airport. I spent part of Sunday unexpectedly celebrating a friend's birthday (unexpected because I hadn't known it was his birthday), and he commented that the car motor seemed to be running a bit fast (especially it neutral, it sounded as though it were racing).  We opened the hood and saw that one of the tubes of the radiator had come loose. With a swiss army knife borrowed from a security guard nearby, he adjusted the clamp. Which held until I had gotten down to Roosevelt (we did the little adjustment in the Zona 1, and then I jumped onto the Periférico which connects back to Roosevelt, which turns into the main highway). I give these highway indications for anyone who might be reading this blog who knows Guatemala at all -- if you know Guatemala then "el Periférico" and "Calzada Roosevelt" are pretty clear geographical markers. If you don't, well, they are among the major roads around Guatemala City. Roosevelt is a big, busy road (4 lanes in each direction) lined with malls and auto supply places and Burger King and Wal-Mart and McDonald's, and it is the main road out of the city going west. It basically turns into the Panamerican Highway.

So I got as far as the exit ramp from the Periféerico onto Roosevelt. And the car was not happy so I stopped it.  Popped the hood, the gasket had slipped again, someone came by (I've been very, very lucky) and we repaired it again.  This time made it as far as the streets of Antigua, about 3 blocks from the guest house, and again the car was not happy, and again someone helped me get it so it would make it to the house. All of I spent the first bit of yesterday at the service station (taller de autos) getting the errant tube properly attached. And then took off for Guatemala.

More car trouble on the highway on the way home: got as far as el mirador (the lookout) at kilometer 24, and then the car just stopped. I managed to get it onto the shoulder and thought about what to do. I immediately assumed the radiator again. Someone else was having car trouble; he pulled up behind me. He got out and popped his hood and got a gallon jug out and added water to his radiator. I walked over to talk to him (yes, I probably should not go talking to strange men on the highway in the dark but it seemed no less safe than just staying in my car with no water, no nothing, a cell phone that was rapidly running out of batteries).  He came over and took a look at my car, and offered me a little bit of water. We poured it in the coolant tank, and then unscrewed the radiator cap. Liquid spurted out, and then we peered in with  the help of a flashlight, but it was hard to see.

We had no water; I had a little bit left in a bottle from which I had been drinking, but not very much. Feeling somewhat foolish I poured in about 4 ounces of water and then we thought about what to do.

We could also call this blog "just plain dumb luck" or "relying upon the kindness of strangers" - because as violent as this country is, I have had very, very good luck when it comes to getting help. People whom I have never met stop on the highway and help me out; this has not been the only time. So there are some extraordinarily evil people in Guatemala -- some of whom are about to assume governmental positions -- and then there are a lot of very decent, kind, and considerate people who will go to extremes, it appears, to help persons completely unknown to them, who will (sometimes literally) give you their last tortilla or last drop of water.

Unlike in the U.S., police cars drive by stranded motorists on the highway and do not automatically stop to see what is going on but just flash by. So with some difficulty (cars whizzing by in both directions at breakneck speeds) I managed to flag down a police vehicle on the other side of the road, and with even more difficulty (and a lot of trepidation) ran across the road (this is NOT a fun thing to do as one has to be very careful about timing as cars speed up rather than slow down going up the hill and around curves) so I could talk to the officer. He did not have water but explained to us where we could get some, so we grabbed our bottles (he had a gallon jug and I had two 2-liter bottles) and I grabbed my backpack with my computer and camera and set off. There did not seem to a be a good choice here regarding my valuables: I didn't like the idea of walking around in the dark carrying everything I had that was valuable (wallet, Macbook, camera, external hard drive), but it seemed equally risky to leave the backpack in the car (even though no one had yet stopped to offer help).  So we walked about half a kilometer or more, but the house where the policeman had told us we might knock had a secure gate with no bell. We saw a light in the house but no one replied to our knocks on the gate (with our keys). We had seen some trucks stopped on the other side of the road, so we carefully judged where we could cross, waited and then ran -- remember that we had to cross 3 or 4 lanes in each direction.  The drivers were sleeping or resting, way up in their cabs and it wasn't easy to attract their attention, but we found two drivers, each of whom gave us about a gallon of water, and then made our way back to our vehicles which we had left with the flashers on. We poured some water into my radiator but it only took about half a gallon. I tried to start it; no luck. The battery seemed to not "ignite" properly (sorry, I'm losing the English equivalents here, as all my conversations about cars and car troubles have been in Spanish).  So he suggested to take the battery of out of his car and see if we could get my car started on his battery (and then replace the battery in his car). We couldn't get my battery out, but we unhooked the cables and did what we could to connect his battery. The car wouldn't start at all.

He had to leave; I overheard him talking to his wife on the phone as we were trudging around getting water that he was getting water for his car. Probably best not to tell her he was spending half an hour wandering around in the dark helping a strange female.  So, I understood that he needed to leave -- and also, there was nothing else he or I could do.

In desperation, I had called my friend Marcos - another one of these incredibly generous people I have been privileged to meet. Marcos runs a shuttle service in Antigua (and if you ever travel to Guatemala, please ask me for his number). I have only used his shuttle personally twice (as I have my own car and usually drive myself to the airport and park the car there). But he has been extremely helpful on all car-related matters. He helped me go car shopping in Chimaltenango (I did pay him for gas and time) when my car was stolen. He told me where I could park my car near the airport (and I have used that lot ever since). I try to repay him by recommending his shuttle service and when I have had visitors, I have arranged for his service to pick them up at the airport. He is unfailingly warm and responsive every time I call him, whether to arrange a pick up at the airport or to ask for a referral for a mechanic in Antigua, which I did yesterday morning. So, stranded on the highway about 15 kilometers from Antigua, I called  him to see if he knew someone who could help out. He had a friend who lived a few kilometers from where I was stranded, but it turned out his friend didn't respond.

However, a tow-truck drove by and stopped. The driver was with his wife and son, and they had just been to church, and were on their way home, and he offered to take me to Antigua. He also took a look and saw that one of the belts (I think it was the alternator belt) had snapped. So we hooked up the car, I squeezed into the cab of his, alongside his wife, leaving his son in my car, and set off. Marcos suggested leaving the car at the taller where I had been in the morning (it is attached to a gas station that is open nearly 24 hours, so there would be someone with whom I could talk), and that is what we did.

So, back this morning to the taller. Turns out that it is not just the belt but one wheel on the hydraulic pump that is not turning properly. All of the parts are in Guatemala, so the taller will send for them and do the repair late today, which means the car should be ready tomorrow.

So here I am in Antigua, a beautiful place to be stranded, but stranded nonetheless. There is little that I can do to tie up loose ends in terms of research. I am trying to take care of some details having to do with my life back in the U.S., a life I hae left hanging, in many ways for a year.  Figuring out my car insurance and registration back in the U.S.  Making sure my cats are being fed. Thinking about my syllabus for the classes I have to start teaching. Making sure books have been ordered for said classes. That sort of thing....

And meanwhile, I will run out to the market to find a few gifts for some of the wonderful people, both here and in the U.S., who have helped make this possible.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Cosas de la vida

[This was started on January 6, Friday, in the evening, but I didn't finish it until the 9th].  So, through a series of circumstances, I have ended up with two friends, one visiting from the U.S. and the other one of the young men from the Red de Jóvenes de Iximuleuw con Conciencia Social, in an upscale restaurant on the third floor of a five-story shopping center in Totonicapán ... one that has wifi, of course, which is how I  am managing to write this. We are sitting amid flashing Christmas lights, with a beautiful view of the cathedral and the newly refurbished and landscaped park in Toto, watching the Maya middle class enjoy themselves for a night out. This is a white tablecloth restaurant, with waiters wearing crisp button-down shirts and ties.
We are here because my car has been acting up, more precisely the radiator, and we had to leave it in an auto service place outside Toto and find a way to entertain ourselves for 2 hours while the repair was completed.

This morning as we left for Momostenango -- the object of today's trip was to visit the community radio station in Momostenango, Estereo Maya La Abuela Ixmukané -- we got as far as the approach to San Pedro Jocopilas when the car stopped running. It stalled once on the wide sweeping turn leading to the town, and I managed to get it started again, but it just died out about 50 yards from the first street. I popped the hood and a rush of steam and smoke poured out. Obviously something with the radiator.  I'd had a leak in the radiator a few weeks back and had paid for a patch job.

My friend Babette has been visiting from the states this week and I have been trying to find things that both serve what I need to accomplish in the small amount of time remaining to me and be interesting to someone else.  So I decided to visit a few community radio stations where I could do some interviews and participant observation. I've been to the radio in Momos twice before, but wanted to go again (although actually I didn't see a whole different this time), and I also though Babette might enjoy the countryside on the trip out and back.  Yesterday I was doing a training session for the young people, whom I am trying to get involved in the radio project and mentioned that I would be visiting a radio station in Momostenango and that if any of them wanted to join me, I would happily take them - as long as they were able to get to Santa Cruz del Quiché.

Mario, who is the president of the Red de Jóvenes and very chispudo (alert, eager to get things done, on the ball), sounded interested and said that he would call me later. It wasn't until the morning as we were getting ready to leave the house that he called and said that he would be able to get to Santa Cruz by 8:30 (it turned out that we were not able to get there until 8:45; preparation time seems to expand when there is more than one person involved). A few phone calls back and forth got us to find a convenient meeting point (the gas station at the entrance to town; I was trying to explain to him how to find Café Blintz, which is closer to the park where he was when he called, but he seemed resistant so I let it drop). We stopped for coffee and then headed north on the highway that goes to San Pedro Jocopilas... and then the car started to drag on one of the uphills and stalled out. Not a good sign. I restarted it carefully, and then we made it up another curve or two -- I was hoping we could get as far as San Pedro and then see what was going on.

 He wasn't sure they would have a replacement part as my car is a Mazda and not a Toyota. He went back to the shop and we stayed on the side of the road near the car and waited. And waited.  We went back to find out what was up. He said that he was looking for the part, that he thought he had something that would work but he would have to test it out. He made a few trips to the car, we tried to pass the time calmly. I've learned that getting upset about things like this doesn't resolve the problem and so while I was not pleased that something had gone awry with the car, I tried to just let it slip. Luckily Mario is very typical of Guatemalans, or at least the Guatemalans I know in the altiplano and just took this all in stride as did Babette, a seasoned traveler and not someone who freaks out easily. And a good thing, as this was not the only catastrophe to befall us this say.

Eventually the mechanic improvised something; he found a part and jiggled and fiddled until it was inserted into the radiator apparatus and seemed to work.  Then off again to Santa Lucia de la Reforma and from there to Momostenango.

The first time I had gone to Momos I had been told to go to Santa Lucia and from there find the highway to Momos. I didn't realize there were two highways to Santa Lucia so I took the first one I saw just before San Pedro Jocopilas, only to find out that it was entirely dirt and that there were several points at which one had to make a decision about which way to turn that were not marked at all. And it was isolated, barely a human being in sight. Beautiful, strikingly beautiful, but very isolated. I had had to call Julian a couple of times (thankfully there was cell phone reception) and ask for directions along the way. When I got to Santa Lucia, finally (the longest 11 kilometers I ever drove, it seemed) I saw another highway, this one paved, entering the town.  Hmmm, I thought. Then one day I was on the highway that passes through San Pedro Jocopilas and Sacapulas, and several kilometers beyond where I had seen the sign for Santa Lucia la Reforma, there was another highway to Santa Lucia, and this one looked paved. So I filed that information away for another occasion. Which turned out to be this past Friday.
We got most of the way to Momostenango before the car  started to act up again. I had forgotten how rugged the part of the road between Santa Lucia and Momos was -- nothing paved, and dramatic curves and slopes and very sparsely settled. On a slope a few kilometers outside of Momostenango the car stalled; it was overheated again, and we poured in whatever water we had for drinking and managed to get into town, where I found a store that gave us a bucket of water so I could add more, and then we headed to the radio.

I will leave discussion of the radio for another entry: we talked with Julian, he interviewed both Mario and myself, and wanted me to interview him as well. I think it was an important experience for Mario, to actually see a radio station functioning, and one that worked with so few resources and so few people (they have a total of 5 people who handle most of the programming.

After we had spent time at the radio station, we set off back for Quiché. I decided not to take the same route back as I didn't want to subject the car and us to the drive over dirt roads with steep curves. I figured we could go to Cuatro Caminos (where the Panamerican Highway crosses the highway that goes to Xela in one direction and Totonicapan in the other) and go to Totonicapán and thence to Quiché. I stopped at a gas station outside of San Francisco el Alto to check the car and I could see that there was a small leak in the radiator (actually one of the tubes that connects to it) and so I thought we should stop and find a repair place heading toward Toto, so we could get the car repaired and meanwhile eat dinner (since it seemed we would not get back to Quiché in time necessarily).

I pass through Totonicapán relatively frequently, that is, every time I go to Xela. But I never stop. I just squeeze my car through the narrow streets and make my way from one end of town to the other and get back on the highway.  One day a few weeks ago, however, the town was crowded and the normal route I take through was blocked so I went a different way, and ended up at the town plaza. It was a sunny day and as you approach the plaza from the south, the church looms in front of you. The plaza itself had been recently landscaped and refurbished, and so it was lush with flowers. I parked my car for a moment and stood in front of the church to admire it and snapped some photos of the plaza -- a few close ups of the flowers, for a friend who had written something about "le kotzij rech Chiumekena" (the flowers of Totonicapán").

So, I thought we could walk around the plaza a bit and maybe go inside the church and then eat dinner.  The tree was still up and an almost full moon in the sky, making for a kind of Dali-esque scene (the photo is farther up in the blog).

 Mass was just ending and so we waited for the crowds to clear a bit and then walked up into the church, where we saw one of the larger and more elaborate Nativity scenes I have seen.  What was so interesting to me about this one was that there were dozens of small female figures dressed in traje típico that were all blond dolls. Since there are hardly any blond women in the entire country of Guatemala who wear traje típico, I wasn't sure why the person who had designed this had used blond dolls. And the few "blond" (white) women who wear traje certainly do not carry bundles on their heads like some of these dolls did (and like most Maya women in rural areas adn small towns do). The few "blond" women I have seen in traje are professionals (some women in NGOs wear güipiles over pants or skirts) and the only ones I have ever seen wearing complete traje are anthropologists.  Was it because that was what he or she had found available? Or did it represent an internalized racism -- the idea that blond hair and white skin are always more beautiful, more elegant, more special, more desirable?

So what had been just an activity designed to kill time provoked some interesting reflections about representation of Maya women.  We walked back out onto the square and asked around for recommendations about restaurants. We were eventually directed to a 5-story "centro comercial" (shopping center) and a restaurant on the third floor. Babette and I were clearly the only foreigners, the only non-Maya, and probably the only ones in the entire town. Here was the prosperous middle class of Totonicapán, enjoying a Friday night meal at an upscale restaurant (it even had wi-fi).

So we ordered, observed the families, checked our email, looked at Facebook, and I started to write this blog entry, which I am only now finishing.  Both my friends took it all in stride, didn't get upset or whiny or freaked out. In Guatemala, stuff just happens and you deal with it. Cars break down; buses don't arrive; and you figure out alternatives, or you just wait. We called the garage; the car was nearly ready, so we set off for the garage, which was 2-1/2 kilometers outside of town (we had come in on a mini-van). We ended up finding a taxi that already had two customers, but there were almost none that passed, so we took it and squeezed in. Mario and I joked about the fact that cars in Guatemala seem to always be capable of squeezing in a few more people. It was a subcompact, and there were six of us, but I pointed back to the very small trunk and said, "We could fit at least two more in there."

The car was repaired (at least for the moment) and so we took off on the isolated and winding (but not very steep, and certainly well-paved) road to Quiché.  Mario had to stay with us as there were no buses from Santa Cruz to Chichicastenango at that hour, so I called my friend Caterino to borrow a few extra blankets (it had gotten very cold, and I did not have enough blankets for all of us in this weather). I am grateful that I have friends I can call at odd hours with strange requests.  And so we took ourselves off to bed.



Monday, January 2, 2012

After the morning after

New Year's was a fairly subdued affair in my immediate circle of friends. I was invited to a ceremony (more of that later) and then had several invitations at friends' homes, so I ate some tamales and watched people explode firecrackers. From my friend Caterino's home just outside of the town, we could see into Chinique and watch some of the more elaborate explosions. A day and a half later, festivities continue after a fashion... and also the effects of several weeks of festivities. After posting about how downright dull town was on New Year's Day, I drove down to Antigua on January 1 (i.e. yesterday). Santa Cruz del Quiché was shut up pretty tight; the café where I sometimes buy lattes was not open, and the streets were fairly empty. Chichicastenango had a bit more life, but not much. The highway was pretty empty, which was a blessing, as there were fewer suicidal/homicidal idiots to deal with, and especially fewer buses, so the air was nearly breathable.
In the towns people seemed to be moving at a slower pace, and not just those who were showing the unpleasant aftermath of too much consumption of alcohol. The latter were evident, sadly, in all of the towns.  Overconsumption of alcohol is an unfortunate fact of life. Bleary-eyed people sat on the curbs. As I drove out of town at around 11:30 in the morning, a young couple, the woman with a baby strapped to her back, staggered and swayed on the nearly-empty street. The woman lurched and almost fell into my path, but luckily the man grabbed her arm and pulled her out of harm's way, at least momentarily.
I was heading down to Antigua, as a friend from the U.S. was arriving yesterday, and while I didn't go to the airport to pick her up (I arranged a shuttle driver for her), I wanted to "receive" her, although I no longer keep a room or apartment in Antigua, but I have found a wonderful guest house run by an expatriate American who has lived in Guatemala for 22 years and uses the income from the guest house to support a scholarship fund for Maya students pursuing higher education.

So, I arrived in Antigua, making very good time as there were almost no vehicles on the highway. I breezed through Chimaltenango; there is one intersection where there is always a back up as buses are stopping to discharge and pick up passengers and vehicles are entering the highway from the town... but I hardly even noticed that intersection until I was past it as there were no buses and no turning vehicles.

After Babette had arrived and stowed her things and we had shared a glass of wine with some other friendly folks who were at the guest house, we headed out into the town. I rarely go to Antigua anymore, and there are numerous "attractions" that I have never seen. The last time I was there, a few days after Christmas, on the way out of town, I passed a ruina  (ruin) that I had never noticed before -- Antigua was largely destroyed in an earthquake in the 18th century, and there are many churches and other buildings that predate the earthquake that were not ever rebuilt. I have never systematically looked at a guidebook or gone on a tour of Antigua, but appreciate the architectural details as I walk past these buildings as I go about my fairly limited and now quite intermittent routines in Antigua.

These particular ruins were on the westernmost street, behind the bus terminal north of the cemetery... sort of in the northwest corner of town. And there is another ruina, San Jerónimo, on the Alameda that I had also never entered. I thought it might be an opportune moment to finally look at these ruins so we set off. The streets around the guesthouse were nearly completely empty of parked cars and there was very little foot or human traffic. To my disappointment, both ruins were closed, along with most of the businesses along the Alameda.

We peered as best as we could around the fences, and did our best to avoid some kids who were exploding firecrackers on the street in front of their home.


But we had an unexpected surprise. Walking westward toward this unnamed ruin, I saw a woman looking out of a window in a single story house, and since she had a pleasant face I asked her if she knew if the ruin were open. Instead of answering, she asked, "Would you like to see a nacimiento (literally, a birth). I wasn't quite sure what she was asking so I asked her what kind of nacimiento. She didn't seem to hear but repeated the invitation and gestured to beckon us inside. She came to the door and we walked into a lovely, beautifully arranged patio and then followed her around to a formal dining room at the back of the house where there was an elaborate Nativity scene taking up nearly all of one wall. 

We oohed and ah-ed and looked at some of the details. She explained that her brother and nephew were the ones who had built it and that the ceramic figures were all of local manufacture.  She told us she was partially deaf (which made conversation somewhat hard) and had gone to the window to wait for them to arrive since she wasn't sure she would hear anyone knocking at the door and that was when she had seen us walking down the street and had invited us in.

Later we went to the Parque Central where just around 6, there was a procession starting from the church, going around the square and then back to the church. Complete with marching band and all. Fireworks too. We had been sitting quietly trying to have a cup of coffee at the corner Café Barista when we heard the music outside. At first I just stood and looked from the table where we were sitting and then I felt as though I wanted to see it up close, so we went outside and joined the throngs in the street and then on the steps of the church.

We briefly entered the church but it was very crowded and I didn't want to stay standing so we looked for a few moments and then left to try and find some place to eat. Every one of the places I had wanted to go was closed, so we ended up at the Ocelot/Pangea/Lava -- a place that has three or four different establishments under one roof.  It was noisy but it was one of the few places open. As we entered we were nearly assaulted --in a friendly way -- by a couple of very drunk foreigners. A boozy woozy man came up to us and started to try and talk with us but we waved him away. Then a young blond woman very much under the influence also approached us and we tried to politely move away.  We decided to eat outside in the patio, as when I peeped into the bar, everyone there seemed to be in a high state of inebriation. Every so often someone came into the patio to use one of the rest rooms; some could barely walk straight and others at least gave off the appearance of being able to get from point A to point B without damage to themselves or us..

The streets were fairly quite when we returned, although faint noises of firecrackers percolated through the night intermittently.


Sunday, January 1, 2012

The morning after....

Sunday morning is usually the liveliest time in this very small town, which consists of about 6 streets running roughly east to west, intersected by about 8 streets running north to south.  It is market day (there is a small market on Friday) and usually the streets are relatively bustling with people arriving for the market -- vans and pick-ups stuffed with people coming down from hilltop aldeas and cantones. Markets go on regardless of holidays and feasts -- in some towns, the market is on the main plaza in front of the church, or in front of the municipal building (in some places this is the same square, in other towns, like Chinique, it is not) and is also where most of the activities for the patron saint feast are staged. In Chichicastenango, the market is a series of covered stalls in the center of the main plaza that is bordered by the church, the museum, the municipal building (which also houses the alcaldía indígena), and it goes on all week. However, on market days it expands to several surrounding streets, almost entirely with handicrafts sales and not produce. But when the fiesta comes to town everything goes on around the market.  In neighboring Chiché (neighboring my town, not neighboring Chichi), which just had its fiesta titular, a space in the center of the market square is kind of hollowed out and some arcades and the ferris wheel (here mostly just called "la rueda" -- the wheel) were installed in the center and the regular market vendors pushed out into more of the surrounding streets.

Today, however, the first day of the New Year, I was surprised when I stepped out a little after 7 in the morning to get some milk for my morning coffee (ever since the news broke about 4 cups a day helping prevent endometrial cancer, I feel it is my health-conscious duty to make sure I get my daily dose) and found that the corner store was not open. Usually the small stores that sell a variety of packaged and some fresh foods (there are at least 5 within 3 blocks of my home) are open at around 6 or 6:30 in the morning. People rise early in the country, and there are always a few people on the street at that hour. But the nearest store (I don't usually buy milk there as it is a quetzal more expensive than at my landlord's store which is 3 blocks away) was closed. I had gone there because it was closest; I thought I'd pop out and get milk and make my coffee and then take a walk. So I walked up to my landlord's store and they, too, were closed. Highly unusual. The small store across the street, owned by Doña Adela and Don Juan, grandparents of some friends in New Bedford and the parents of Doña Centa, was open, but they only had powdered milk.

The streets were unusually quiet... scraps of paper, refuse from a few thousand fireworks, strewn across the pavement, and a few people out sweeping it up, including two small girls on the street where my landlord lives, both of whom were a lot shorter than the broom that one was wielding. There is no street cleaning here, or rather, no street cleaning sponsored by the municipality, so one of the daily morning rituals is for people to sweep the street in front of their homes or businesses, or in the case of wealthier families, to have someone sweep the street for them.

On my way back, I looked up the street toward the market and it seemed less full than normal for a Sunday -- fewer vendors, fewer purchasers -- and since I have been back home, fewer people passing in front of my home, and I have not yet heard one of the large, belching, rumbling buses that normally pass by my house en route to Joyabaj or perhaps even Pachalum.

Last Sunday, Christmas Day, was a little bit quieter than usual, but today is dramatically more so.  Maybe it's the weather -- soft gray skies, a light mist in the air, streets somewhat damp, and everyone and everything a bit droopy and subdued.