May 17th, 2009

Mobbed in the Market

Chichicastenango, Guatemala

We all ended up getting up early despite our tiredness and intention to sleep as late as possible. We’re all on different times still. Gerry and I were awakened by our neighbor shouting into his cell phone at 4:41 am. I tried to be serene just lying in the dark and thinking about the day ahead, so we actually didn’t get up until almost 6:00.

By 6:45 am, we were all (everyone except John) gathered outside the breakfast room, awake and anxious to get the day and our tour underway. (Anxious for coffee is more accurate!). At 8:00 we were checked out and in the lobby with our guide, Vinicio, and our driver, Antonio.

We started a long but interesting drive to Chichicastenango. Vinicio was quite garrulous so we had an entertaining monologue for most of the trip. Lots of information about his life, about Guatemala, about the towns we pass through. Gerry informed him that we are “ardent feminists” who want to know everything about the lives of the women of the country – perhaps an exaggeration (the ardent part) but nevertheless we get the desired result:  Lots of info about the lives of women in Guatemala.

The drive is long. We make a rest stop to use the “happy rooms” and wander around looking at crafts on sale and a whole group of motorcyclists who were there. There were also obnoxious American tourists, but what can you do! Maybe we seem like obnoxious American tourists to them!

Twice along the way we were stopped for construction. The road that was being built is going to be very nice – right now you have to get on and off gravel and cement – pretty dangerous with the chicken buses coming full tilt in both directions.

We finally arrive in Chichicastenango about 11 (and it seems like 2 in the afternoon!) Vinicio takes us out and around the market showing us different places in it. The produce market (which is inside a rather ugly pink gymnasium); the crafts market (of course) and the prepared food market – cautioning us not to eat anything! It was not particularly crowded by my market crowd rating system but others in the group were overwhelmed by all the people. At one point we were caught right in the middle of a huge human traffic jam, resolved only by a lot of little old ladies pushing (not us).

After our overview, we went back to the San Tomás Aquino Hotel for lunch. Lunch was fine – the parrots in the lobby garden were squawking like there was no tomorrow. Apparently it was close to feeding time and they wanted to make sure no one forgot about them.

There was also a marimba playing – and at times it almost sounded as the parrots were giving their opinions about the music. Once we finished lunch, we each hooked ourselves a local guide to take us through the market. Gerry and I never did get the name of our guide, but he was very good. I would tell him what I wanted to look at and he would take me to his favorite vendors. We bargained and purchased, bargained and walked away – but altogether came back with a lot of nice stuff, most of which I will take to the “farm”.

Our guide also took us to see another very old hotel in the town, the Maya Inn, which looks out over the cemetery. The hotel was very nice! It had a down to earth, native and simple feel to it. The Tomas Aquinas seems almost Mediterranean. We enjoyed the view of the cemetery: The tombs are above ground and painted in wild, bright colors. It is very lively.

After a while, even veteran shoppers can’t take any more of the vendors that hound you to death, so we raced back to the relative sanctuary of the hotel and waited for Vinicio. We all showed each other our purchases and just tried to wind down after the stress of the market. (I was sipping Ron Zacapá Centenario.) When it was time to leave, we steeled ourselves for the attack at the door that, sure enough, began the minute we appeared in the entrance and followed us all the way on to the bus! Poor Marshall was wading through hawking Guatemalans, old and young, with his hands in the air trying to get into the bus. It was comical for those of us watching – but no one offered to exchange places with him.

Prices were really going down as we got closer to leaving, and I was fortunate enough to snag a huipil I had admired for 100 quetzales or about $12.50 right before we closed the doors. It is a beautiful turquoise. What I’ll do with it, I don’t know, but I never pass up a bargain.

The drive to Panajachel was pretty uneventful, if you don’t count the chicken buses, and we arrived close to 4:30. One descends from very high mountains down into the caldera where Lago de Atitlán sits at the bottom. It had started to rain as we left the market, and as we began our descent to the lake we were above the clouds. Once below we could see the water but there were too many clouds to see the volcanoes.

Gerry and I got settled in our room (which looks like and feels like the exact same room Jill and I shared two years ago!) and then waited until we thought it was close to sunset to see what pictures we could get of the lake…in short – none. There were too many clouds (and it was thundering). The view was still quite nice – storms are interesting to watch in their own way. Everyone appeared early for dinner – we were all hungry? Hard to believe we can eat so much at every meal and still look forward to the next one! It was early to bed right after dinner (a recurring theme on this trip).

May 18th, 2009

With our Panas in Pana

Panajachel, Guatemala

(“Panas” means “buddies” in Puerto Rico … and Pana is the nickname for the town we’re staying in – Panajachel).

Gerry and I got up at about 5:15 this morning (we are really having trouble sleeping in) but fighting it just doesn’t seem worth it once it starts to get light outside. We went outside to a beautiful morning to take pictures of the lake. Everything was so serene…the lake was calm, no wind at all. We got some really lovely pictures once we left the hotel and went down along the beach. The sky was mostly clear and only as the sun came up did we realize that there was a haze that was hovering around the volcanoes. I wish I could describe what it is like to sit and contemplate three volcanos in the same panorama – without even moving your head!

About 6:20 am we went to the dining room for breakfast – Our view? The three volcanoes! Joanne joined us at breakfast – she too had been up for a while and just as we finished Juanita and Marshall came in. Breakfast is included with our hotel rooms. After breakfast and after getting cleaned up and ready for the day, I went out to the patio near the lake and checked my email, uploaded the journal and some pictures to Facebook. As I was sitting on the patio, a tiny hummingbird came right to the red flowers in a planter next to the table. He was less than three feet away. I didn’t dare move to get my camera for fear of frightening him away. He returned again about 10 minutes later and this time I had my camera ready-almost! As soon as I shifted to lift it to my eye, he was on to me and off like a shot!

Before starting on our boat tour of the lake we walked up the main street of Panajachel to the ATM. The town was just starting to wake up – people were on their way to work and the shops just opening. It was a very pleasant time to be out people watching. Once back at the hotel and reunited with the errant Marshall who had gone off in search of an ATM that would work with his Banco Popular ATH card…we headed to the beach with Vinicio – ready for our adventure aboard “Nancy” with our boat driver Benjamin.

Our first destination was San Juan la Laguna, a “pueblo” of about 20,000 people on the southwest side of the lake just west of the San Pedro volcano. The boat ride was quite scenic – and just a little cold (not really enough to put on my sweater – but refreshing!). San Juan is a beautiful town and well worth a visit. It is very tranquil, welcoming and clean. There are no urchins in the street selling wares – in fact there is no one on the streets selling wares! The streets are paved in bricks – everything very well taken care of. This town is known as the “town of the associations” for there are a number of cooperatives and associations working to create a sustainable tourism model for the towns around the lake. We were very impressed.

We visited an art gallery run by a group of artists; a cooperative of women who are midwives (comadres) and curanderas (healers) where we walked through a garden of plants grown for their medicinal properties; a yarn dyeing cooperative that works with organic dyes only (and what beautiful pastel colors!); a weaving cooperative that shares quarters with a school for what look like middle schoolers; a cooperative that works to restore the manual traditions of growing, preparing, spinning and weaving textiles of locally grown cotton.

In each place, a very confident young woman explained the origins of each association and the work they do. We got to see every one of them in action except the “curanderas” where, instead, we had the tour of the garden. It was a wonderful day – meeting many beautiful, accomplished young women trying to maintain their Mayan traditions and history.

That was a full morning! We had to skip the trip to see the recycling co-op. In addition to these tours, the town also supports a cooperative that takes tourists out fishing on the lake and one that takes them on kayak trips through the reeds to see all the water birds and animals in the area. Before I leave the subject of San Juan la Laguna, I don’t want to forget to mention that we were accompanied all morning by a local guide, Raul, who was obviously very proud of his town and the townspeople. It was well-deserved pride. He was an excellent guide.

From San Juan la Laguna, we boarded Nancy again and headed to our lunch spot (I didn’t get the name) but it was in a hotel in the bay behind the town of Santiago de Atitlán. Wonderful lunch, but the service a bit too slow for me and as such made for a long afternoon – relaxed as it was. After lunch, we hopped aboard three tuk-tuks for a ride into the center of the town. Joanne, Juanita and I were squished into a space big enough for just 2 Guatemalans…but we enjoyed our ride immensely! Fortunately the trip to the center was less than five minutes and there were only two major bumps!

We were dropped off in the central plaza near the cathedral (I guess it is a cathedral because it is the only Catholic church in a town of 45,000). There are 23 evangelical churches in the town, too. The outside was curious – It didn’t really look like any church I have ever seen and it had a huge set of stairs rising to the entrance.

Inside it was also quite curious and the story Vinicio told us about it was fascinating: It seems that the evangelicals, in their religious zeal, liked to destroy the figures of the saints that the Mayan people would keep on altars in their homes. To protect them from being destroyed, the major families moved their saints into the church…so in the side arches around the church (they’re really just niches in the walls – large but not deep) are sets of family saints. Though they look like Christian saints, they are locally made, baroque statues that also represent Mayan religious figures. They are dressed – in real cloth robes and shirts – with headdresses when they represent spiritual leaders. Many wear scarves around their necks. This we have seen elsewhere and is a thank you gift from someone who that saint interceded for. Some have many, many scarves.

Vinicio had told us about the Mayan princess who gave birth to the Baby Jesus, and his twin brother, and we saw a representation of her among the saints. We also saw a crucified Christ – wearing the scarves and a headdress of flowers, typical of a Maya chieftan. He also wore a loincloth made of the fabric used for the traditional garb of the local men and an apron embroidered with flowers (like some of the men have on their pants). The huge retablo behind the altar was also a mix of Mayan figures with Christian over- (or maybe under-) tones, including various carvings of corn and Maximon, the local “saint”.

Just to the right of the altar sits a version of the trinity – with God the father wearing the red head covering of the most senior shaman. The syncretism is extremely interesting but, according to Vinicio, the current priest is very conservative and has been dismantling and downplaying the Mayan side of Christianity and as a result the residents are not happy or comfortable with him.

From the central plaza we headed to the boat docks, walking through the town, in the rain. We visited a cooperative embroidery shop – where Juanita was looking to (and did) buy a “corte”, the skirt of the traditional dress here in Guatemala. (The rest of us found things we liked too – the embroidery was exquisite).

By now, we are all in our rain ponchos and under umbrellas, and we return to Nancy for a wet and cold ride home. It sounds awful but it was really pretty fun – we laughed and joked the entire trip and before we knew it we were back in the Posada de Don Rodrigo here in Panajachel, tired and wet and happy.

A brief break and everyone but me went to the museum that is here in the hotel. I had already seen it and was so pooped I was hoping to take a nap. Apparently I have been wise to avoid coffee after meals for the last 20 years. I couldn’t even get to the sleepy stage (Like now. It’s already 11:20pm and I am still typing away.)

Finally I just got up and started doing things to keep me busy until Joanne came to pick us up for dinner. We met up with Fran and John in the lobby and the 5 of us walked all the way up Main Street to a restaurant called “La Casa Blanca”. Vinicio met us for dinner but he arrived late, as we were ordering. Still for some reason, he was served first…go figure. We all managed to eat despite our late lunch and we enjoyed our Gallos and each other’s company. We couldn’t exactly enjoy each other’s conversation, as Vinicio gave us another of his monologues during dinner. It was an interesting story about how he had to cast 150 Mayan natives for a movie and take them to Canada for a month, but I realized on the walk home that we had not been able to talk to each other at all during the meal, and that was a bit tiresome. We’ll probably limit meals with him to those in our schedule from here out.

Once again, as soon as we got to the hotel, everyone was off to bed. We checked on our kids via email first. They’re fine and our cat (who was injured right before we left) seems to be getting better though she has another appointment at the vet for Thursday. The boys leave Friday for Wisconsin and we won’t get home until the following Wednesday, so I am a little worried about her.

The Road Back to Antigua

This morning we got up early again, though not as early as other mornings, and went out to watch the sun rise. We had breakfast on the upper terrace, outside, just enjoying the volcanoes in the sunshine. We checked out of our hotel in Panajachel at about 9:00 am and began a slow trip back to Antigua. Just near the summit of the mountains surrounding the lake, we were able to get out of our little bus and take some pictures. It is so beautiful! It is impossible to tire of looking at it. The trip into Sololá took less than a half hour. It was when we got there that I discovered that Marshall is ill. What he has and what to do about it will be the speculation of the day – everyone has an opinion! For certain, he feels rotten. He had to stay with the bus, and Vinicio took us into the central plaza of the town. The market is all around the central plaza and into the side streets. It is very, very colorful! The day is beautiful, so after a short history lesson and explanation from Vinicio, we’re off on our own through the market. I am not really shopping today. Not really. I am trying to take pictures of the natives. Even the men here are in native dress and it is fascinating to look at all the varieties of cloth and colors.

I am “shooting from the hip” as we say. My camera is around my neck and I rest my folded arms over it. Set on automatic, I just turn to face whatever I want to photograph and push the button. Sometimes I get feet and sometimes the tops of heads, but quite often I can get people just doing what they do in the market and they are not aware that I am photographing them. When I do buy something, I ask the seller to pose for me, and this way I get some of the biggest smiles. I always tell them I like to remember the people I buy from and whenever I can I show them the picture I take. It is really fun. The people in Guatemala are very friendly and open when you show them the same friendliness and openness. It is so hard not to fall in love with this country.

After the market, we made another shortish hop to the ruins at Iximché, a post-classical Mayan site (Tikal is pre-classical). The site is relatively small – 4 plazas and not huge ones – but there are also two ball courts and the site is preserved in such a way that you can almost feel as if you had stumbled on it – just like this – when it was discovered. Interestingly, there were Mayan families at the site performing rituals at the last altar area – what historically had been an area of spiritual retreat and ceremonies for the spiritual leaders themselves. When we arrived, two families were preparing alters for offerings, and evidence of earlier ceremonies conducted today were marked by still smoking altars and charred chicken bones. The place was quite special, and for me, worth a side-trip to see.

After Iximché, we stopped at the same rest stop we visited on the way to Panajachel, but this time for lunch. The food was good and filling, and after that we were on our way back to Antigua in the longest part of the trip which might have been an hour. I think I was sleeping. I know I was relaxed and happy and before I knew it we were back at the hotel. Marshall is really under the weather and we are all concerned about him. He’s worried he’s being a burden, which he isn’t at all. We just wish he could feel better. Joanne, Gerry, Fran, Juanita, John and I went out looking for a light dinner at a pizza place I went to with the Wayland kids. We went out with just a vague idea of where it might be (and my sense of direction is notoriously bad!). We did stop and ask someone on the street – and so got the name “Queso y Vino” but alas it was closed for “descanso” . Instead we went to a place across the street called “Tapas y Vinos” (close enough?) and had beer and tapas. The name was a bit misleading, but there were a couple of tapas on the menu – so those are the ones we ate. No one was very hungry and it turned out to be a perfect, light dinner.

Keep reading about the last part of our trip to Tikal.

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