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Guatemala - Colorful, Friendly & Delicious!

Quetzaltenango (Xela)


After staying in San Cristobal quite a lot longer than we originally planned, we finally were able to get ourselves to Guatemala (Guate) – a month late, but who’s counting!? The trip from San Cristobal was a beautiful bumpy 8 hour drive ride through green mountains, active and dormant volcanoes covered by jungles and forest that intermingle on the slopes. We arrived in beautiful Quetzaltenango (otherwise known as Xela) in the western part of Guate around 4:00 pm on Sunday. The zocalo was filled with people, music, food, balloons – you name it. We quickly found out that it’s their patron saints, La Virgen del Rosario, celebration. What perfect timing!

We searched a bit for a place to stay we found a nice, quiet hotel with private rooms for 25 quetzales per person - which is a little over $3. We waited out the afternoon rains that often hit Xela around that time, and headed out into the zocalo. Walking into the crowd, I felt like a giant. Almost all of the people from Xela are of indigenous blood and are most adorably short, with skin the color of the earth. They have a deeper indigenous look about them and are friendlier than the people in southeastern Mexico.

The town is picturesque, with its Spanish and German style buildings that give an almost gothic and mysterious feel to the place. We fell in love with it immediately. The fair was a smorgasbord of colors, flavors and sounds. We ate, and ate, and ate some more as we stopped every so often to listen to a local marimba band and danced and digested, only to go and eat more. The food here is fabulous. We already love it here and don’t think we will be leaving after the originally planned overnight trip.

Xela at Night[/i]

The next day, we headed to a pretty hill town about 10 kilometers from Xela called Zunil. It was market day, so there was a ton of vendors in the market, but the rains kept the energy a little low. After, we hitched a ride to the hot springs of Las Georginas and spent a few hours relaxing in the thermal, sulfurous waters, set in the middle of the jungle in the gorgeous hills that overlooked Guatemala’s largest volcano, Volcan Santa Maria. The water was incredibly hot and we couldn’t stand being in there for more than 2 – 3 minutes at a time, but it was so relaxing and such a peaceful and calm spot, that we dunked ourselves in and out as often as we could stand it. Each time, coming out more relaxed than the last.

Natural Hot Springs (on an active volcano...)

I could barely stand the water...it was so hot...

After a couple of hours, we met our driver, Marcos, and headed back to Zunil, where we caught a chicken bus (wildly painted, old school buses used to transport anything including people, food, animals and yes, chickens, from one place to the next) to the next town. There, we hitched a ride on the back of a pick-up, froze with the cold wind, into Xela. We had worked up an appetite and headed to a Guatemalan restaurant where we tried everything the owner, Dona Lucia suggested. It was all fabulous, full of flavor and everything that came out was more delicious than the last. I didn’t think that after Mexico I would be so fulfilled with food, but I was wrong. Guatemalan food is beyond tempting!

I have a rough cold today after the hot-cold-hot-cold changes from yesterday and I’m laying in bed, in my brightly colored room, drinking fresh squeezed orange juice out of a plastic bag and resting to get better.

All is well in my world. I sincerely hope all is well in yours. Until next time! Adios 

Posted by luzygiovis 09:20 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

A Little Piece of Paradise on Lake Atitlan

Jaibalito Village, Guatemala


I’m sitting in my “office” at the house I’m renting in Jaibalito. My “office” consists of a simple, splintery, wood table and a plastic chair, placed strategically on my porch, facing the lake. I’m having a hard time focusing on the computer, when my views are of two majestic volcanoes, clear, calm waters, pine trees, palm trees and vegetation that looks like it’s out of Jurassic park – huge leaved plants that the locals use as umbrellas during the rainy season. I have never felt so at peace in a place, listening to nothing but the water flowing, birds chirping, dogs barking and children laughing. Being alone here is a therapy that I never imagined to touch me so deeply.

Mi little casa

My tiny home is straddled by a creek that lulls me to sleep every night and every time I lay on my hammock, and by a friendly, indigenous family who live in a tiny and simple typical Guatemalan adobe home. The kids are on a break from school, so every day they fill their hours by running up and down their lush land, coming over and curiously looking at me and run away giggling when I look at them, collecting avocados and leña (fire wood) for their kitchen stove and of course, flying kites. I can’t recall a passion for flying kites (other than India of course) by children. They make them themselves, out of bamboo sticks and used plastic bags. They are tiny and frail, but they fly. And oh, how they love them. An oh, how I love to watch them.

This is a rare purchased kite....unfortunetly, I didn't get a shot of the home-made ones!

To get to Jaibalito, there is only a path through the high cliffs behind the town (no thanks) or through a lancha (“speed” boat). The dock is close to my home and I can hear the lanchas starting early in the morning until about 7:30 at night. If you miss your lancha in or out of here, you are staying the night. Simple as that. This consistency of this schedule has turned out to be so good for me – I have to be home by a certain time or I don’t get home at all. Having been travelling for so many months now, without a schedule, without having to get back anywhere at any time, having to get back and walking into my quiet home brings an easiness to me that I didn’t know I was craving or missing. I love this place.

Lancha on the lake

The highlands of Guatemala (where Lago Atitlan sits) are filled by small towns, each with a different story, each with a different indigenous group, each with its own Mayan dialects. The traditional values and customs of Guatemala’s indigenous people are strongest here and I sometimes feel like I’m in a country in Southeast Asia, not in Central America as their dialects are the first language spoken and Spanish is a distant second. Lago Atitlan is a collapsed volcanic cone almost as deep as the Grand Canyon, filled with shimmering, cool water. The lake is majestic, surrounded by volcanoes (three of them active) and lime colored hills that get fed by the constant rainy season. But now that the rains are gone, the land is simply glorious.

If you click on this you can see that I'm screaming my head off...

I have visited numerous towns around the lake with my good friends who I travelled here with and on my own. Each town is so unique both in the style of their buildings and roads, to the distinctive clothing worn by the indigenous people living there, mostly the women who wear huipiles (oversized tops, intricately hand stitched and tucked into a corte or skirt held by a faja or cloth embroidered belt). Think of it this way, it would be like your neighborhood wears a hand woven and stitched outfit with blue and red vertical lines, and purple, red and indigo flowers, while the next neighborhood (only 2 kilometers away) speaks a different dialect, wears a red and green outfit with squares and pink, blue and yellow woven flowers. The women wrap their hair around their head with different thin woven fabrics, resembling a crown, to allow them to work without their hair getting in the way, but keeping their femininity by keeping their hair long.

Head wrap!

I’m starting to learn the different patterns and colors of the clothing and on the lanchas or on the streets I often stop them and ask if they are from the places I guess. I’m wrong most of the time, as there are so many villages around here. They almost gasp when I guess wrong and then slowly explain to me, with the patience of a kindergarten school teacher, how to tell the difference between them and the other hundred + villages’ designs. I smile, I nod, I say “ohhhh, si” and walk away thinking, huh?? The only difference sometimes is the shape of the neck of the huipil or the hand stitched flowers are on the back not the front. I think I will need several years here to begin to get it…and that’s okay, because I really think I could very easily spend several years trying.

Elena from Chichicastenango

I’ve been doing a lot of shopping around here. It’s almost impossible not to, with so much beauty in all the arts and crafts. I sit in yet another indigenous person’s home, on a tiny little chair, feeling so welcomed and have to pinch myself sometimes as a reminder that this is my job. My little company (Shkaa’la) is coming together. I’m here to help them (even if only little by little), buy their crafts, sell them and come back for more. A sale of one of their pieces to me means they will eat for a week. When I ask about selling me 10 of them it is almost shocking. The fact that I offer to pay them more than they ask is unbelievable. This is my job. I’m so thankful it’s hard to put into words…I am humbled beyond words. I walk out of each and every home filled with gratitude and love, knowing that I will come back, bearing fruit for the kids and money to buy more things from the parents. I’m deliriously happy doing this…

Three adorable kids, their mother weaves huipiles I purchase...

Posted by luzygiovis 09:21 Archived in Guatemala Tagged boating Comments (0)

Heading Home

Back to the States for a month

sunny 78 °F

I close my eyes and think of my journey ahead, from Lake Atitlan, to Guatemala City to Miami to DC to San Diego, then back to DC. It exhausts me to type it, let alone go through with it. As odd as it sounds, I am vaguely afraid to leave Guatemala, afraid that the magic I have found here won’t be here when I come back. Afraid the doors will snap shut and I will end up on the wrong side. I am afraid that I will not find my way back. It is irrational, I know. I can come back whenever I want. I even have a ticket for a month from now. Just get on a plane and be back, but still. I can’t imagine going home. I tell myself I have to go home someday, right? You can’t live here forever, right? I don’t see why not…

I feel like I’m in a time warp. I feel exhausted when I remember my last year in San Diego. Rushing to work, the grocery store, the bank, yoga, dinner, a meeting. The feeling of never catching up, fearing that I never would because there was so much to do and see and buy. But here, I have time in abundance. There is no one to catch up to, and I don’t have to be anywhere but here. I have no idea what is happening in the outside world, how political races are going, what wars or famines are being turned into ten-second news clips, what incredible new technologies are revolutionizing the way people communicate or shop. I haven’t worn a watch since February. I’m getting pretty good at telling time by the sun. I have fallen into this world effortlessly. I am in love with the landscape, the way the lake calmly moves in pretty waves, the way the volcanoes cough out white, puffy clouds of smoke. I love the quality of the light as the sun rises above the mountains in the morning, hitting the cool water and waking the rooster next door; and the dazzling display of orange hues as it falls on the other side a few hours later. I am in love with the simplicity of my life, my plain little house, the shelves empty of ornaments, the unadorned walls, the two pots I use to cook with, my hammock.

Everything about my life I left behind seems small and narrow in comparison with where I am now. Everything I imagine in that life is, for lack of a better word, a bit repulsive to me right now: a pretty house near the beach, a fancy car that I will hate because it guzzles gas, $8 drinks at happy hour filled with chatter and broken promises, “we should get together and catch up”. Sprinklers keeping the lawn green in the desert while we sit in air-conditioned offices, sealed off from the elements, safe and smug. Part of me knows this is unfair to my friends and family there, I get that, I was part of it for so long, but the rest of me doesn’t care. I can see only what I have now, right here, with Charlie, my pet rooster who feeds on my daily pile of scraps I leave for him daily and the local people surrounding me. I feel like I don’t want to go home yet. But I have to.

I’ll be back though…

Posted by luzygiovis 20:37 Archived in Guatemala Tagged air_travel Comments (0)

Back to Guatemala - 1st Stop - Antigua!

sunny 70 °F

So, I’m going back to Guatemala after a crazy and fun month in the states, so ready for my old, slow and steady but wobbly schedule. I’m ready to go find more families, more treasures, more artisans, sit with them, learn from them…

My first few days are spent in picturesque Antigua. A town so cute, it almost looks like a movie set. It is considered the prettiest city in Central America. I immediately love it here. Its narrow cobble stone streets, its churches in every corner, each more beautiful than the last, its zocalo, always filled with musicians and fresh fruit vendors. The backdrop is comprised of three active volcanoes that puff out smoke that make every picture seem like a postcard. This place looks like they had someone brought in just to make it picture perfect. They did a great job I might add.

Streets of Antigua

My stay at the Black Cat hostel is comfortable and fun. I am in a dorm with five guys who are all friendly, sarcastic and entertaining. I spend days with Dan from Canada, a super nice guy and a stud of a guy, walking around town, taking pictures, eating and talking. We get along fabulously.

One of the many churches in Antigua

Picturesque Zocalo in Antigua

After a few days in Antigua, I am dying to get back to Lake Atitlan. On my 3 hour bus ride there, I look at the pretty landscape and start getting all dreamy. Then, just like that, I come to a realization that I may have made Guatemala and specially Lake Atitlan, sound like la-la land. Although I understand that in my own little corner of it, it was. But for most indigenous people of Guatemala, life is hard, life is a struggle, life is figuring out where your next meal will come from. This is their reality.

“In Guatemala, indigenous Mayan people have been driven from their land due to years of civil war and are now struggling to secure their most basic needs and rights. Mayan women face even greater hurdles than men in satisfying basic survival needs for themselves and their children. These women are typically undernourished, uneducated, and occupied with the care of young children. In some cases, they are confronted with domestic violence or abandoned by husbands who leave to seek work or new lives elsewhere. Forty percent of Guatemalan women are illiterate, and this rate is even higher among indigenous women, 93% of whom live in poverty”. Let me repeat that, 93 % live in poverty. Take a moment to take that in.

So, just like that, I have come to realize that I need to deconstruct my love for the landscapes of Guatemala. I have been projecting things onto the place. Things that I feel my own culture is missing. The pre-industrialized world, the communion with nature, the simple life…but in that moment of dumb shock, I realized that these people are poor. Duh! Yes, they are content with what they have, but it’s because what they have is all they know. How deep do those values go? Their lifestyle is not a matter of choice but a function of their environment. If they could have cars and refrigerators, iPods and DVD players, they would. I want this place to keep all those consumer goods out just because they ruin my quaint notion of an untouched magical little world.

Next time I stop to watch a family carrying firewood on their heads up a steep slope, or planting vegetables on 45 degree angles on the base of a volcano, I feel some of my sentimental attachment has gone away. The family stands oddly downhill, backs bent as they pick corn, beans, potatoes, their hands fast and unerring. Down a ways from the sloped field, a girl of about three carries a baby wrapped on her back with a broad hand-woven cloth. Standing there with my Eagle Creek backpack I am aware of two possible versions: A postcard picture named Rural Farms, Guatemala, or I can see a family bent over the earth in aching, backbreaking labor, the ghost of two children dead of some easily preventable disease, and not enough money for all the surviving children to buy shoes. It is too easy to romanticize and get dreamy in this place. The landscape cannot answer back, cannot say, no you are wrong, life here is different but all of it added up it is not any better. You can love this landscape because your life does not depend on it. It is merely a pretty backdrop for the other life you can always return to, a life in which you will not be a farmer barely scraping a living out of difficult terrain. I realize, I love the view, but I would not want the life.

Sometimes when describing Guatemala or Laos or Thailand or Cambodia or Vietnam, people sigh and say oh how lovely. They want to believe in these places I used to believe in, a simple life, a Shangri-La, the fair-tale places I imagined for so many years. But fairy-tales don’t have villages filled with trash and without a clean water supply, or four-year-olds dying of dysentery or some other easily preventable and treatable disease. People don’t want to hear this, no, no, no. Nor do they want to hear my criticisms of life in America. Everyone wants cleaner, simpler, safer, saner world but no one wants to give up anything. No one wants to take the bus.

Posted by luzygiovis 22:00 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

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