Tuesday, March 13, 2012

First impressions

Everything is both familiar and fresh. I arrived late last night and stayed in the Centro Histórico, or, as my friend Trudy Mercadal dubs it in her blog,  the centro histérico (I don't think that needs much translation). I have not spent much time there: a punk concert here, a documentary screening there, protesting in front of the Congress, that sort of thing. It's dense, with muted colors, and walls heavily marked with graffiti -- both tags, brightly painted murals, and then a lot of political graffiti, most of which seems to originate with a group called HIJOS Guatemala, a group that is trying to keep alive the historical memory of the genocide. They often plaster the walls with 8-1/2 x 11 flyers, each with a photograph, name and brief information about someone who was killed or disappeared in the war.

There are lots of bookstores, including some specializing in used volumes; a number of small shops that advertise "we buy gold" and that also sell jewelry. The streets are narrow and crowded, with narrow sidewalks and, like in the older parts of Havana, the houses are built right on the sidewalk, not set back at all (with a few exceptions) so it feels perhaps even denser than it is. The colors are all dim and grimy and faded. And at the same time it houses much of the underground, bohemian and alternative cultural scenes.

This morning I went down the street from the hotel to a lovely old café, Café Leon, with its high ceilings, large curved wooden counters, its doors perpetually open to the street. I watched the servers painstakingly decorating the cakes that would be sold throughout the day, and the other patrons, who seemed to be mostly middle-aged and upper-middle-class, at least at that hour. And then spent a frustrating 3/4 of an hour trying to turn dollars into quetzales. Last time I used my debit card mostly and had very little US currency with me, and occasionally went to the U.S. Embassy to cash checks (only when I needed a lot of cash, like to buy my cars, or when I happened to be in Guatemala anyway). But since my card was hacked, and I lost $600 in the process (my bank in the U.S. doesn't have very good fraud protection, and they didn't do anything for me), I decided I would use cash this trip. Travelers' checks take too long and especially in Quiché, not all banks changed them (at least not in the past). I did have occasion to change cash, a few times in Antigua and a few times in Chinique,  at the only bank in town, which was Banrural. So I assumed it would be fairly easy -- just a bit more bureaucratic than taking out money from an ATM, since you have to fill out a form.

I went to the first bank I found, Bantrab (banco de los trabajadores: workers' bank) and then told me that they only changed money for people who had accounts. They suggested I try the Banco Industrial around the corner. So I took off, and had the same experience. I went back to the hotel and the clerk said yes, the banks are like that now, they are very strict and they will only change money for people who have accounts. It seemed to me to go against the interest in attracting tourists: how are tourists supposed to change money? He told me there were money changers on the street but when I queried more, it seemed like their rates weren't that good. But then he suggested trying Banco GT, and finally I was able to get some cash (I'd had a few hundred quetzales with me, but I'd had to buy food, pay for a hotel and bus fare for Catarino, and with gas prices very high, it would cost me at least Q600 to fill up the gas tank of the car).

There were an unusual amount of police and soldiers on the streets, and so I had the sense of being surrounded by armed men at all times, as all banks have at least a few armed security guards. I later heard something on the news about a protest of some sort, so perhaps that was why all the police and soldiers.  There was a man walking a small herd of goats along Eighth Avenue in the Centro Histórico, moving them along the narrow sidewalk. I snapped a photo. No one else seemed to pay much mind.

Getting into my pickup was familiar and comforting; as sick as it might sound I missed the confusion, challenge, chaos and occasional outright terror of driving in Guatemala. But my hands and feet remembered what to do, my sense memory kicked in and I was off.

After getting enough money for several days I headed for Xela; I had hoped to meet up with the community radio folks in Guatemala but they weren't going to meet until the afternoon and I really didn't want to hang out in the capital, so I contacted Alex, a friend who founded the youth-run community radio station in San Mateo, just outside of Xela, and arranged to meet him at the station, and so I headed for the hills.

The same suicidal/homicidal drivers on the roads. Construction everywhere. Not in the same places as before, and overall the highway seems better. The road crews are now sporting orange t-shirts (orange is the color of the Partido Patriota).  Buses crammed with people, usually converted school buses painted with bright colors and sporting names like La Sanjuanera (the woman from San Juan). Buses are the main means of transport for many people, including vendors, and so the tops of the buses are usually piled with large bundles of clothing, of produce, parcels of all kinds.  One bus had a huge rope net stuffed with a few hundred cabbages balanced kind of precariously on the roof rack. Some are more modern, at least on the outside (that is, they actually seem to have been built for inter-city transport) and have slicker paint jobs, but I don't know how much more comfortable they are on the inside.

The weather was indeterminate; cloudy, but not rainy, and cooler than I remember it being last March. But then, in the altiplano, it was relatively cool for most of the year, with the occasional extremely sunny day when it got quite hot in the afternoon.

The strangest thing is not having a house. I got used to having a place of my own, and it made me feel somewhat rooted here. Now, I don't have a fixed location; I don't live anywhere here. In the same way that my research has become a bit unsettled and less geographically focused, since the radio station has not opened up again, and I am not sure it ever will, my overall presence here is somewhat rootless. And so I am not sure I will ever be somewhere long enough to take things out of my suitcase (although I hope I will stay somewhere long enough to at least wash out some clothes: I didn't think about that when I packed, and only took about 4 days' worth of clothing, assuming that I would be able to (a) retrieve stuff from Chinique, and (b) wash some clothing (since it is all hand wash and air dry, that means staying somewhere long enough so that the clothes dry).

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