Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Cars and buses (part 2)

I am, I confess, much more attached to my pick-up here in Guatemala than I am to my car back in the States. It has been an interesting if not entirely pleasant experience getting around without it. 

I had ambitious plans when I arrived, to visit several radio stations as well as spend some time with the radio station where I worked last year. So my itinerary included criss-crossing the highlands and visiting some of the more remote areas, and being able to schedule several meetings in quick succession. My car had other plans and I had to take it back into the shop shortly after I had retrieved it. I had had it towed on last Sunday, and then ran around and got the spark plugs so they could be installed. We got through the installation but the car still wouldn't run (this was Monday afternoon), and so I left the car in the hands of my friend Catarino and the mechanic and took off for Chichicastenango,where I spent the night in a hotel, since I needed to be in Sumpango, which is close to the capital, for a meeting of the leadership of the community radio movement. I took a very early morning bus to Sumpango (a little bit before 5) and got there by 7:30 (only because I was reading and missed the stop for Sumpango; I had to go nearly into Guatemala City where there was a place I could cross over to the other side of the highway and get a bus in the other direction, but I still managed to get there by 7:30.  

The meeting was a strategy session about the direction for the radio movement in light of the current political situation in Guatemala - which is pretty grim. In the course of it we wrote up a denunciation of a proposed law introduced by the LIDER party, that would impose criminal penalties on people who broadcast without authorization. I am writing a separate blog post, "Freedom of Expression" about this, so I won't go into much detail here. Here is a link to the online letter-writing campaign that Cultural Survival created at our request: please sign onto it and send the link to your friends (there is a Spanish version as well):
Email campaign to stop criminalization of community radio

When the meeting was over I went to the radio station. I unfortunately didn't listen to my friend Anselmo when he told me that the last bus for Quiché probably left around 5. I was sure he had to be mistaken and so I set out at around 6 for the highway. I couldn't find a mini-bus so I walked and got to the highway overpass where buses stop, and waited. And waited. Buses whizzed by, some stopped, but none seemed to be going farther than Tecpan, which is only 90 kilometers north of the capital. I talked to some other people waiting; one person told me to take a bus to Chimaltenango and there the buses for Quiché would surely stop (there were some that had zoomed by without stopping). But that seemed a bit risky and Chimaltenango has always seemed to be one of the more sleazy, unpleasant places; it is the center of human trafficking in Guatemala, according to colleagues who study that. Finally someone recommended that I go to Antigua, since there would be buses until about 9. There are two ways to get to Antigua from the Panamerican highway, but he recommended that I head south to San Lucas since the buses from there would run until 9, but at the other transit point, a bit farther north from Sumpango, there wouldn't be any transport. So I set off. Getting to San Lucas was easy; however, the first six buses bound for Antigua that stopped were so crowded when they got to the stop that I couldn't imagine squeezing on with my backpack full of clothing and a computer and camera.  But I was able to get on the 7th bus and easily made it to Antigua.

I had no particular notion of where to stay. I had stayed in Antigua a few nights a week for most of my year in Guatemala, but I had first rented a studio apartment, then a room in a group house, and then finally had found a rooming house run by a woman who uses the income to support a scholarship fund for Maya students seeking higher education. However, she was a very quirky and kind of neurotic person, and basically kicked me out in January because I had (a) extended my stay twice (a day each time) because my car broke down and the repairs took longer than I had planned, and (b) I had accidentally left an item of clothing on a hanger in one of the common areas (since I hadn't brought enough clothing I had to wash stuff in the sink and put the hanger down when I sat down to eat and forgot about it until the morning, when she told me I had to leave.  It wasn't that she didn't have room for me, or that I was occupying space that had been designated for other guests; the house was mostly empty those two additional days. But she was annoyed because on both mornings I had said that I THOUGHT I was not going to be staying for the night, and by the time I called her to tell her that I would need to stay for another day, she had had the linens changed. I know that was extra work for the person who helps around her house, but it also meant additional income.  

In any case, as a result I didn't know much about hotels and rooming houses in Antigua because I had never had to worry about this much. I had always had a place. I had looked at a few places on line when I was in Chichi the previous day thinking maybe I would have to stay in Antigua at some point, and remembered the names (but hadn't noted the phone numbers). 

This was the first time I had ever entered Antigua on a bus, and so I got to see the city in the same way that local people who commute to jobs in Guatemala City and other points along the highway see it. The bus was filled with an assortment of people, probably a pretty good cross-section of the population, students and professionals, women in traje and men carrying briefcases, most of them whipping out their phones at one point or another to check on dinner preparations, reassure a worried child or spouse, find out what needed to be purchased. No one looking outside the bus to admire the lights, the architecture, the cobblestones, but focused on what they needed to do when they got home, before resting and then girding up for the same journey in the morning; with rush hour traffic, it can take three hours to get into Guatemala City. 

When I got off the bus and started to walk down the Sexta Avenida (Sixth Avenue) I passed a pleasant looking place near La Merced, a beautifully ornate church at the north end of town. I checked that they had room, and would be open late, and then wandered off to look for food. It's a guilty pleasure, eating in Antigua -- a shift from a steady diet based around corn -- tortillas or tamales -- with eggs, black beans, cheese and sometimes soup or chicken.  One can get sushi, panini, salads, excellent falafels, and so forth. I have my short list of favorite places (including one really good hole-in-the wall comedor right near La Merced, but they are not open in the evenings), and was pleasantly surprised to find that one of them, Luna de Miel (honeymoon), a creperie run by an expat Frenchman, had moved up to the north end of town. I had actually been thinking about going there, but wasn't sure I wanted to walk the four or five blocks with my backpack as it had already been a long day at that point (about 8:30), when I stumbled across a blackboard outside their new establishment.  So I allowed myself to sink into the momentary comfort of the tourist bubble (although about 1/3 of the patrons were Guatemalans, but mostly in the company of foreigners), and to sit on the soft cushions of a comfortable sofa up on the rooftop terrace, sipping some very reasonably priced (and generously poured) red wine, which accompanied a perfectly done crepe filled with spinach, cheese and tomatoes. 

Antigua is always a kind of oasis for me, with its ruins and trees, its very orderly grid, the park, the cathedral, although I know that its relative tranquility and charm are highly cultivated and are the result, in part, of policies and policing that do not benefit all sectors of the local population. And yet I can't just dismiss it as simply a tourist bubble. The physical beauty of the city and its surroundings, the majestic vistas of volcanos, are also quite real. One of my friends, a former guerrilla, told me that during the armed conflict, Antigua was always a haven, since it was never attacked directly by the military, and since there were a number of safe houses there. So it always represented peace, tranquility, and a respite from the immediate dangers of the war. It was possible to breathe, to relax for a moment. And I guess that perspective, or those associations, rubbed off on me.

So, although it wasn't part of the original plan, I slipped into a brief zone of pleasure.  I ate food that is not available in Quiché, and that my friends could not afford if it were. I leisurely sipped wine by starlight and moonlight, and slept in a tidy hotel with palazzo tiled floors, fresh sheets, a private bathroom, and hot running water (this was not a luxury hotel; my room cost less than $20, but I just lucked out).

In the morning I walked the rain-washed streets, admiring the way the irregular surface of the cobblestoned streets creates reflecting pools for the brightly painted stucco exteriors. The city wakes up in phases; the newspaper vendors and shoe shine boys and men in the park at work, already, by 7, but not vigorously, easing into the day. A few photographers out, taking advantage of the morning light. I treated myself to a strong latté at Café Barista, not my favorite coffee but they are open early and have comfortable seating so I could pull out my computer and work before heading for the series of buses that would deposit me in Chichicastenango. The tourist buses, which are more comfortable and less crowded and more expensive, called "pullmans" or "pullmancitos", only run from Antigua to Chichi on market days, so I couldn't splurge on one even if I had wanted to. 

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