Dispatches from Guatemala
Written by Bwog Staff
Blue and White Managing Editor Katie Reedy spent her winter break in Guatemala with a nascent NGO called DreamWeavers. Here, her dispatches from Nebaj, Guatemala City, and San Pedro. (Ed. note: All images from Google, since there are no camera cords in San Pedro.)
Nine days ago, we ended up in Nebaj.
Up blind curves with no guard rails, swerving to avoid the ‘chicken buses,’ the 1970’s-era American school buses festooned with colorful paint and religious slogans that are used for common transportation in Guatemala, our van climbed higher into the altiplano. Windows open, bachata and salsa blasting, duffle bags rolling around on the roof, the van ascended the mountains at an alarming speed, stopping only to let girls vomit and shit in the woods to rid themselves of the queso they ate on the streets of San Pedro the night before.
Nebaj, one of most remote villages in Guatemala, is so high up that there are clouds in the streets. The people rarely speak Spanish (Mayan Ixil and Quiche, instead), old ex-guerrilla guides sadly point out hills where their fellows fought and hid during the decades-long civil war, and maintaining standards of sanitation is a distant priority after hauling enough wood for fires and reaping maize from steep mountainsides. The whole place was dark and corroded, faces more taut than in the warm lake towns– probably due to the fact that more than 100,000 people in the area were killed in a genocide that ended just 13 years ago. The plan was to arrive in Nebaj, stay at a Peace Corps-built hostel, hike for two days to visit even more remote settlements in the mountains, and then book it back to the warm recesses of San Pedro La Laguna, our home base.
Our optimistic 24-girl group set off up the trail mountain. We had come to Guatemala for various reasons– some for the volunteer work, some to document local cooperatives and fair trade movements, some for vacation– but all under the auspices of DreamWeavers, an NGO put together by Kai Zhang, BC ’09. We had bonded after a week of hanging out with schoolchildren and exploring Lake Atitlan, and it was time to test our bonds by hiking the Cuchumatanes.
Our bus dropped us off on the side of a desolate hill road when its gas ran out, and seven children appeared out of what seemed to be a boarded-up stall nearby. We left the children and soon the path itself. After an hour of scrambling on our hands and knees up a mule trail, our 50 lbs backpacks seeming heavier with every foot of altitude we gained, four of us threw in the Mayan artesan-crafted towel. Remarked one traveller, “I’ve been smoking Marlboro reds for six years, I don’t think I can do this.” Remarked another, “What the fuck were we thinking?” Disgusted, the rest of the hikers abandoned us to find our way back to Nebaj proper.
And so we waited for a van. Villagers came out to stare and sheep bleated as they passed. We met an 11-year-old shepherd named Diego who carried a machete larger than his body and gave him a granola bar and some colored pencils. A 15-seat public van rattled around the bend and we piled in, though there were already 12 occupants, including a Marxist rural female doctor who asked us, sternly, “Proyectos o vacaciones?” to which we replied, correctly, “Proyectos?” A small old man eyed us warily and a very small boy fell asleep on one girl’s lap.
Two days ago, we ended up in Guatemala City.
The Dominican SIPA student in our group had befriended a group of tour guides who offered to take us to see the presidential inauguration. Cut off from the internet and newspapers, none of us had realized the mortars and bottlerockets sounding all day marked the election of new political heads across the country. We found a daily broadsheet with the details of the festivities: Every leftist Latin American leader worth his weight in tamales was going to be there– Chavez, Lula, Ortega, Morales— and the whole day trip was going to cost us twelve dollars.
At 4 a.m., six of us hopped in a van. By 8, we were in the city, full of soldiers with machine guns, police with dogs and rifles, colonial palacios, futurist art and parks, and revelers of every stripe. Our tour guides, chuckling together in Tzutujil the whole time, myteriously attempted to pull into a blocked driveway at the national airport. “Que pasa?” we asked. “Chavez esta aqui,” they replied, yelling out to an annoyed and armed police officer, “Donde esta Chavez?” He shook his head and we pulled out of the driveway.
In the national central plaza, the people were waving banners, climbing structures, playing marimbas, selling ice cream for American prices. We waited for the ceremony; it was happening inside instead, we heard. The officials would be coming outside to do their addresses to the crowd. We waited more. A Barnard Spanish professor showed up to meet her student in our group. At 6 p.m. we left. The roads around the lake are pitch-dark after nightfall, which makes hijacking vans a fairly common pastime, and neither we nor our guides wanted to take the risk of returning too late at night.
On the way back, we listened to the president’s speech. He addressed the indigent and the indigenous (65% of the population), to much fanfare. After, a reporter out in the streets spoke of the excitement in the city that night. The crowds behind him started shouting something about “la vida,” and he was drowned out. The radio station went to static, then cut out altogether.
Last night, we stayed in San Pedro.
One NYU girl in the group had gotten a gig singing opera at a local bar called The Buddha, and we all went to in support. She wore gold face-paint, a pink boa, and a red chemise. At 1 a.m., five of us walked up the hill into the actual town, where the people were still celebrating the new mayor and president.
The usual marketplace had been emptied out, leaving bare the Mara Salvatrucha graffiti on the walls and providing ample space for two stages and a mass of dancing villagers. A color-coordinated salsa-bachata-merengue band performed at the main stage, and we did our best to keep up with the the music. Our male escort fended off a dozen drunk and mentally challenged men who exposed themselves and pawed at us. The band leader pointed us out immediately, asked us where we were from, and demanded that we all jump on stage with him. Four of us were inclined to do so, and we soon had nicknames– La chinita, La morenita, La orita, La alta, La mas alta (yo).
And so we danced with the band, even if we felt we were not inclined. They called out commands– A bajo, arriba, vuelve la cintura– and La chinita, La morenita, and La orita obeyed, laughing and avoiding the angry stares of the poor, worn women on the side of the stage holding babies wrapped in hand-made blankets.