Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Skipping ahead: on to the Boca Costa

I was in a bit of a quandary, when I finished up my wild weekend in the highlands, about where I would go next. I know I haven't finished writing about it, but the basic outlines were: Momostenango, Xela, a meeting outside of Xela with the Mam and K'iche' leaders from the area of Quetzaltenango, up to San Miguel Ixtahuacán (SMI) in San Marcos... and then, what? I had a few days this week and how to use them productively? I wanted to go back to Radio Ixmukané but knew that Ixchel was going to be away some days and wanted to make sure that whatever time I spent there would be productive. I had been invited back to Xela for Saturday, September 1, a meeting convened by the Consejo de Pueblos de Occidente (The Council of Western Peoples, a regional Maya organization) inviting community radio people.   I was finally able to reach Ixchel when I was in SMI and we agreed that Thursday afternoon and Friday would be best. So that left Tuesday, Wednesday and perhaps the early part of Thursday. I could always go up to Todos Santos Cuchumatán, where I had previously visited the radio station Xob'il Yol Qman Txum. One of the key announcers there, Nicolasa, is a dear friend and I know she really wanted me to come and visit. The other option was to try and visit a radio station I hadn't yet visited. 

Danielle, my friend from Cultural Survival, had mentioned a radio station in Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán in Sololá, Nojibal, that she thought would be interesting for me to visit. I didn't know much about the station other than the very little that they have on their Facebook page, and I had tried to contact them before leaving for Guatemala. Danielle said they responded to Facebook and so I managed to make contact with someone from the radio station on Facebook; she later told me her name was Manuela. A lot of radio stations have Facebook pages that bear the station's names, but are used by whatever person happens to be behind the microphone at that moment. So when I see Estereo Ixchel Sumpango in chat, I don't always know who it is (since I don't have their programming schedule memorized, although I know bits and pieces of it; if I see them online early in the morning, I know my friend Valentín does the show from 6 to 8 a.m.)

She told me they would be glad to have me visit, but couldn't exactly explain where the station was. She told me in the aldea of La Ceiba, but that meant nothing to me. I had seen the signs for Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán, the municipality (township) to which La Ceiba belongs, along the Panamerican Highway not far from Xela, and so naively thought it was pretty close to Xela (it actually isn't that far if one knows where one is going and the traffic isn't bad, but it wasn't where I would have assumed). She gave me the phone number of the president, Idelfonso, and I did try to call several times the first day I arrived, and also called the number(s) that appeared on their Facebook page, but never got a response. I tried intermittently during the first week, and we were able to communicate very briefly on Facebook, but I wasn't able to get clear where they were and how to get there. Finally the day I was in SMI, I tried again and we were finally able to communicate. Someone finally answered the station's telephone number,  a man named Cristobal (who turns out to be one of the founders of the station, and Manuela's father to boot).  He then messaged me to give me directions about how to drive. I dillied and dallied over the decision, especially when he told me it would take 3-1/2 hours from Xela. I knew that I would have to return to Xela by bus from SMI, about 4-5 hours including stops, and then hopefully my friends would bring the car to Xela. But I realized I would have to return to Quiché with them since I couldn't very well leave them on the side of the highway waiting for a bus in the evening since there aren't any along that route at night. So that would be another two hours. And then in the morning, 2 hours back to Xela and then 3-1/2 hours to La Ceiba. But I thought it would be better to go somewhere I hadn't visited, and especially as there are few community radio stations on the south coast; most are in the highlands. So my initial message to Cristobal was that I wasn't sure, but then I wrote back to say, yes, I would come.

And I am very glad that I did. The drive was not as arduous as I thought, and I made it to the outskirts of Xela in good time.

However, this would not be Guatemala if there were not a road blockage. The students at a secondary school in Salcajá had blocked the roads - the conflict was over the authorities adding two more years onto the teacher training program and the students objected to that. All well and good but I had to get to Xela in order to get the road to the south coast. I walked up, took some photos, talked to the students, tried to talk my way through as a journalist but they said the road was blocked until 3 pm.  As my friends in the Maya movement say, if you don't block highways, no one listens to you. And so the students were demanding to be heard. I thought I would have to cancel the visit, and I called the radio (they had called me to check on my progress) to tell them I wasn't sure what I would do.

However,salvation appeared in the person of another driver, a young man dressed in professional attire, who asked me if  I was going to Xela. I said yes, I had to get to Xela and then to the highway to Mazatenango and from there to Samayac in Suchitepéquez. He said he knew a back route and so I carefully made a U-turn (not that easy in a line of cars stopped along the highway) and we went back up to the crossroads at Cuatro Caminos. However, we were told that the other highway, a few miles to the east, was blocked (I actually knew that, but I thought he was talking about a back road and not the other highway exit). He thought a moment and said he was going to try to go through some of the small towns and avoid the highways altogether. And so we set off through the community of San Andrés Xecul, which belongs to Totonicapán, and over rutted and muddy and rocky roads, we wound our way into the town, where the main streets were under construction, but managed, after about 15-20 minutes, to get back onto road that ran parallel to the road that connects Salcajá and Xela. Yes, dear readers, I am the kind of girl who will drive off into the dawn's early light (well, it was actually around 9 a.m., and the sun was quite bright, but I can take poetic license, can't I?) following a complete stranger over back roads in an unknown area, in hopes of reaching the promised land. This is not the first and surely will not be the last time that I have gamely set off following a complete stranger driving off into the wild. 

 It was pleasant to see another side of the sprawling metropolitan area and be closer to trees and grass and animals and houses, and eventually we spilled out onto one of the main roads that leads to the roundabout known as "La Marimba" (because there is a big monument in the center with a marimba on top). He pulled over, got out and explained which of the spokes of the roundabout would take me to the south coast (he said it would indicate Retalhuleu, one of the departments along the coast, and it would take me to the city of Mazatenango, here usually abbreviated as Mazate). And so, I called the folks in La Ceiba, told them I had found a way to get around the road block and was headed their way.

The sun was strong, and the terrain very different from the rocky slopes of Quiché and the altiplano. There were mountains and volcanos but larger stretches of green. The first 20 kilometers or so took me past areas with natural hot springs, many of which have been developed into resorts; there was one lovely place (at least from the outside) along the highway called La Cumbre, advertising itself as an ecotourist center. It was situated so that it faced the fields, valley and slopes, and advertised hot springs, swimming pool, walking paths, and I made a mental note to try and return sometime on a future trip that hopefully will be longer than two weeks (climbing a volcano and visiting Tikal are also on the list).

Soon I had moved out of the tierra fria (cold country) and into the tropical coastal area -- the vegetation changed, and instead of small family plots large fincas. The highway's edge was dotted with signs for various fincas, and I immediately thought of my friends from Quiché, many of whom made the seasonal trip to the coast throughout their childhoods, to cut cane, pick coffee or pick cotton. Not for them the hot springs and luxury resorts, but hours of numbing and poorly paid physical labor. To this day, families in Quiché, as soon as school lets out or even earlier. pack up and head to the coast for a few months, returning to tend their fields and harvest their corn. My friend Sandra, according to her husband Catarino, passed much of her childhood traveling to and from the coast to pick cotton and coffee.  So it was hard to look at the beauty with neutral eyes.  According to Diane Nelson, who writes about Joyabaj, in that town many campesinos (peasants) are indebted to local landowners who also have plantations on the coast, and are basically obliged to provide agricultural labor on the coastal plantations. The gates and entrances are, in some cases, imposing, grand, elaborately manicured.. but I can only imagine what horrors lurk inside. 

Roadside signs advertised hotels that rented by the 8-hour block of time Iwhich obviously have one purpose and that is not to get a good night's sleep), resorts, and then some sprawling areas of cheap cantinas and comedores, undoubtedly  for the workers and not the elites. Large stretches of cultivated area on both sides of the road, and then a few large businesses like a Coca Cola plant. Mazatenango was loud, bustling, filled with foreign brands and flashy stores and lines of shiny motorcycles along the main strip. I just asked around for the highway to Samayác, and it turned out to be very close. I wound up a road paved with cement bricks and soon found myself in front of the church in Samayác -- the only gringa in sight, not too surprisingly. I called the station, Nojibal, to tell them I had arrived, and set out to wait. I attracted a little attention when I popped open the hood of my car to do minor maintenance -- check water, brake fluid, hydraulic flluid, and oil (all of which I keep in the car at most times). I was aware that people would look, but I could smell the heat from the radiator from inside the car and knew that I needed to cool it off. So I splashed some water, checked the reserve, replenished hydraulic (sorry, transmission; hydraúlico is what it is called in Spanish) and brake fluid.

Soon I saw a plump, smiling, middle aged woman headed towards me and I greeted her and told her that I was the person who came to visit the radio station, and we set off. The first part of the road was unpaved and deeply rutted, but after about a kilometer or two we reached a paved area (marking the boundary between Suchitepequez, the department where Samayác was located, and Sololá, where La Ceiba is located). Another kilometer or less took us to the radio station, where I have been since yesterday (Monday) afternoon.

To say I have been welcomed warmly is a dramatic understatement. I will leave that for another blog, as I am only staying for another few hours and I still need to interview Cristobal, who was one of the founders of the station 12 years ago.

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