Friday, December 28, 2012

Guatemala of the senses and sentiments

Not only have I tried to write about Guatemala but I have worked a lot with images, to try and capture what I can't put in words. But there is much that seems to escape me in either medium. No matter how I have tried, I have not been able to make satisfactory pictures that give an accurate sense of the sweep and scope of the landscape. Even with the lens of my camera at the widest aspect ratio, the volcanos and mountains and ravines seem flattened and squeezed. To get a full view of the landscape, for example, surrounding a volcano, the volcano itself seems too small when I look at the photo. 

So much of how I experience Guatemala is transmitted through other senses -- hearing, smell, and taste. Perhaps if I were a better writer I could more accurately capture the range of smells that constitute rural life: the dust of the roads, the damp earth in the morning, the chill in the air before the sun has climbed over the hills and burned off the fog and mist. There is a crisp dry smell of cornfields after the corn has been picked but before the dried-out stalks have been plowed back into the earth. The fresh, sweet-sharp scent of pine is almost omnipresent out of doors, along with the smoke of wood fires. Shards of the smoke from copal or pom (two frequently used forms of incense) waft through the air at odd moments and in unexpected places. The other day walking up the long path/drive from my friends' house to the road (there are two other houses, one belonging to my friend's parents and the other to an older brother, that are entered by the same drive), I caught the unmistakeable odor of incense smoke, which surprised me a little, since I associate incense with Maya ceremonies, and my friend and his family are Evangelicals -- Evangelicals frown on traditional Maya religious practices, while Catholics have been more tolerant (this is a gross oversimplification; Maya "costumbre" filters its way into people's daily lives in all kinds of ways, regardless of their formal religious affiliation). 

Markets are a riot of colors and sounds and smells. Ambulatory vendors chant somewhat monotonously. There is a special patter adopted by those who sell various kinds of cure-all compounds, some of which are marketed as vitamins or health elixirs, that I can't fully reproduce. Walking through the market one is assaulted, in a manner of speaking, by the vendors calling out, "Oranges, 3 for 5 quetzals" or "Hot tortillas", "Sweet strawberries". If you stop to look, "Taste them, no commitment, look at how sweet and red they are." The slap-slap sounds of women  and girls patting out tortillas, then slapped onto a hot grill, giving off the unmistakeable scent of toasted or even slightly charred corn dough.  

I could go on, with all the mixture of sweet and vegetal scents of all the fresh produce, mixed with the rotting leaves and husks lying underfoot at the end of the day. Or the bananas well past their prime, perhaps, or the bloody, sometimes slightly rancid, smells from the butcher stands.

Of course, I cannot forget the chokingly acrid diesel fumes along the highways, or on the streets of towns when trucks or buses pass.  Or the human scents: lightly sweaty skin, or bodies that carry the traces of wood-fire smoke, sometimes a sunny or soapy whiff of freshly-washed clothing, occasionally some very strong (or overly generously applied) perfume.... In any case, more than I can capture here. Even this blog entry seems kind of pallid and inadequate. But, the best I can do for now.

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