First night in San Marcos, San Marcos.
We finally manage to break loose from Mexico which has been so good to us over these past 7 months; and these last relaxed days on the southern Chiapas Pacific beaches in the sun, with ceviche and Sol beer, completely illustrate our privileged and lucky lives. And we better get moving, it's late in the year, it's the 17th of November, we have a long and winding way to drive.
We enter Guatemala, all is new, learn the rules before you break some, business as usual...
It is some 60kms from the beach to the highest mountains, not far and the van struggles, slowly in first gear we climb ever higher. San Marcos we reach at night, 2,300m, its streets go steeply sloped up and down still, and narrow. 'Park central' is the rule, 'watch the environment', all is dark and busy still, firecrackers go off, a drunk pees on my back tire; 'relax and drink beer' the 3rd and most important rule. Beer is called Gallo, expensive for 2USD, a can from a shop, or much cheaper, Brahva. The currency is Quetzal, all is confusing, roughly 7.5GTQ for 1USD, they didn't even cheat at the border.
After a cold night we get up with the sun, a bright Sunday morning, the market stalls opposite have just opened, pots and pans on charcoal grills, thin sugar coffee and freshly made eggs and tortilla give energy, a little girl cannot hide her curiosity about us, everybody has a grand smile, sun warms our cramped limps.
We can dare a walk round town, up and down a few blocks to inhale some bright morning colors of closed shop fronts; a church, the only one we find is closed on this Sunday, some guy on a mobile phone explains just that, 'our' finding to 'his' spouse, the only church is closed, the Freemasons Temple is just opposite and closed too, but what is a Freemasons temple good for anyway?
From a central concrete failure, an elevated plaza, with retired concrete fountains and concrete lions I watch a huge yellow ex-US school bus work his way up the steep alley, the tin-sheeted rusty roofs skirt its path, and it all reminds me of a similar picture I have taken more than ten years ago, in Costa Rica (pic). Costa Rica here we come... I think while Christina speaks to a man, and he warns of the 'dangers' in Guate.
We drive away, somewhere we take a friendly lady, Isabelle, for a short trip, she has 3 sons in the US, all cladestinos, her youngest daughter is 16, is with her, has diabetes, she also raises her sons 5 year old, his son's spouse left for the US too, left the boy with her. Her own old man is in the US too but stopped sending money since he is with a new woman, a brasileña, .... Some of the stories we get to hear will be harsher ....
Quetzaltenango, parade of unholy alliance.
We pull into Quetzaltenango, park near a hotel, central; should be safe. A nice blue sky day and I long for a beer, but something is cooking up on the central cathedral square. So my beer plans are being shoved to the back and we wait with hundreds, till we witness a parade, an unholy get-together of marching riot police and traffic police and military in black camouflage painted faces, trucks with Coca-Cola and shopping mall advertising, marching bands and half-naked fat-bottomed dancing girls, in tights and short skirts and hot-pants, swinging white flags advertise for yet another brand, the sweets are being tossed around, somewhere another carrier with smurfs, another one with clowns, one with elves, easy riders and long hair are part of it too, and then surprise somewhere a nativity scene on a truck and the crowd falls over the sweets that are thrown out by the windows. The message is clear and simple, forget church and forget your TVs for a moment 'cause it is this time again, Christmas is near and the new religion calls on you! BUY U IDIOT!
In Quetzaltenango, the next morning the message reaches us that Silas, C.'s nephew is in San Pedro, so near on Lago de Atitlán. We decide to head out and look for him immediately. So via the high altitude pass and town of Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan in the cold clouds, where friendly Maya indigenas, their cold feet in plastic slippers stop to visit the church and burn a candle, then on from Catarina via steep winding roads we drop down to the huge magic crater lake and reach well past night fall San Pedro de Laguna.
Lake Atitlan, volcan San Pedro, Panajachel.
But where look for the big bearded American graffiti artist? We drive down to the lake, stop and park, shut the windows, head for where the music plays, crash a private party, and there he is! So damn simple. ;-)
Joy is great ... just for one night, he leaves us the next morning, big bearded man is on the run, ... when/where will we see him again?
A bit of time in San Pedro is not so bad, I have so much work to do, all the Mexico pages of the travels with my boys this summer. San Pedro la Laguna offers the infrastructure we need, free WiFi in cafes.
There are two San Pedros: One is the Maya village, and it is pretty much left to itself. The other is the hippy/tourist strip of land closer to the waters of hotels, cafes, discos; the good, the bad, the ugly and you want to add the idiots. It is this segregation that weighs on the place. The land close to the lake was bought up by foreigners who prohibited locals from using 'their' beaches for washing and laundry. Also the boom did not result so much in jobs and benefits to the local Maya, rather in a severe drug and prostitution problems. Eventually the Maya took to drastic measures, their faces masked they abducted the drugged out hippy folk, deported them away from San Pedro. The drugs community has since moved elsewhere, they say, though there is still enough New Agers in town, Maya calender and yoga workers and they all are ignorant to the fact that 'Mayan' as a demonym does not exist, only Maya.
One day we get up at 5.30, start walking at 6.20 before sunrise, up, past coffee plantations and corn fields, to reach 3 hours and 20 minutes later the top at 3,000m of altitude, this is San Pedro volcano, el volcan, with the most stunning look-out over blue Lago de Atitlán, so deep below.
A group of Maya make it up too, women, men, children, for a ceremony of meditation and chanting, close to the heavens and the Gods. For more than an hour they perform their sacred vibrating, hysterical cries and outcries, their prayers are being carried over while we warm in the sun on the rocks looking down on the majestic and mysterious lake.
Lake Atitlan is mysterious indeed. Its water level is said to fluctuate in a 50 year cycle; so tell the old. And the newcomers, the foreigners don't understand that! Looking down from the summit one can see all around the shoreline the present and recent inundations. Levels of the big pond which has no drainage have risen again in past years due to above average rainfalls. It has taken the land of the newly arrived, the greedy won't understand the 50 year cycle. It is a bit of payback time when you see the sea spilling into the new swimming pools, I hear a guy say.
But with rising levels also the water quality has deteriorated markedly, flooded sewage from all around now runs uncontrolled into Atitlan. We never attempt to swim...
After a few days of healing our sore muscles and more work we relocate to the other side of lago magico, to Panajachel, largest town on the lake and segregation has been less of a problem here. We hang with Guatemalan Sofia, she knows her country well, she inspires, we'd love to run out and see Guate just food poisoning hits hard one night after eating out, grounded in pain we wait, but can't wait to hit the road.
Chichicastenago, El Quiché.
Mystic Chichicastenago (wiki) is all about incense burning and sprinkling of cheap alcohol and colorful flowers, the ritual of candle lightening to commemorate dead, seek blessing for living, cast a special outcome to events; Maya priests have taken over the 400-year old catholic churches, the cross and Christ are as much subject of worship as ancient Maya Gods, the blackening fumes are countered by constant white washing of the sacred temples' walls.
A central market crowds out any other space and activity, delicious eateries sprawl in its dark center, ten huge pots on a charcoal grill, watery coffee or watery chocolate, you choose your sugar and how to shake off the cold of the night, tacos come in white or blue, beans, eggs and rice.
The candle stalls are close, a different color for different days and offerings, all according to Maya beliefs and calendar, my sign is 'Kame' in Quiche Maya – meaning death, but hey so many of us have to bear this... The masks are sold near-by; we find Maximon's. Maximon (wiki) is the most important pagan saint (the old San Simon), he likes to drink and smoke (this where the alcohol sprinkling/offering comes in). Maximon is also good for a lover's revenge, but obscurely it works also against multinational companies, one went bankrupt, we are told...
We sit in a lone bar, back leaned against a cold concrete wall, the lights are out. What is the clear spirit made of, the one in the small blue bottles that sit on the shelf, the same they use in the church, we ask. Who, or God, knows what... is the reply; intoxicating, maybe blinding, only Maximon must like it.
Todos Santos, Cuchumatán.
This road leads higher then any other before in Guatemala's Western Highlands, 3,400m (they call it El Mirador), then we drop down in the valley, into the haze, into night, to Todos Santos (at 2,400m still so really cold). We arrive and the dark, the evenings clouds and the smoke engulf us and visibility drops to a few meters, smoke from everywhere from under the tin sheeted roofs evaporates, breathing becomes a burden.
Security is total, the sixth sense decides. We walk the darkness where men in red pants and straw hats appear and vanish behind the foggy curtain, a traffic jam takes a while to unfold when some huge old diesel buses fight their way through the town's dirt and smog.
We find the only bar in town, a half of a room, the other half is a living room and kitchen with TV and soap; we are separated by a curtain, their small boy comes running outside.
2 other guests drink beers, after a while they start talking to us, their English is good, what we do? We explain, talk about our Mexico trip. What they do? They plant all kinds of plants around here, potatoes, corn, tomatoes... Later out of their own driver they tell us the incredible story of their monthly bus trips over many days all the way up the Pacific coast of Mexico, they know every town from Tapachula to Tijuana, sometimes they cross into California. Into Mexico they always walk, without papers, they know the old foot paths over the mountains, ... So what do you take and sell? "Tomatoes... And back we sometimes talk a plane". We puzzle...
Morning and the blue skies are immaculate, I feel a bit itchy after 3 weeks and no shower, we look scruffy at best. On the cathedral plaza a panaderia has a first floor and it is open almost like a terrace, we beef up the watery sugar brews with nescafe that we bring along while the sun warms these frozen limps quickly.
On the municipal plaza, by coincidence we meet brunette American Carolina, long time peace-core worker in Todos Santos. On the all concrete elevated plaza we talk for some hours while being burnt by the strong sun. All around us men have gathered to discuss some issues, it feels like an outdoor assembly meeting, they're many and all wear sticks; a sign of some deputy status in the community, all wear the sturdy red pants; the cloth is of such superior quality, they also wear a straw hat with a blue band wrapped around, a pouch in blue and lila dark patterns which they, the men, weave themselves, a distinct white or blue striped shirt with woven collars, almost the same style as the pouch, but it is the women that weave the mens' shirts.
Horse Race Day, Todos Santos.
Todos Santos is famous for the horse race day on 1st of Nov, somebody called it fiesta del gallo, for the Gallo Guatemalan beer, riders, spectators and tourists drink, but really villagers and riders get their main kick from locally burnt spirits, the blinding types.
Yeah, the Spanish brought the horse and warned the Maya that they were cursed and could not ride a horse; but one night this drunk Maya waits for the Spanish to fall asleep till he mounts and rides a horse all night, in defiance. He could do so because he killed a cock before, hence breaking the curse. This, some legend has it, is how the races started, and for many years it involved grabbing and killing a hung up rooster while riding at full speed. To overcome the fear of men that are not used to riding, and the town doesn't have any horses, such stunt can only be done in fully drunk conditions; wisdom has it, especially when it is more about participating and less about winning. It goes without saying that somebody is being killed every other year, but less from falling from a horse, rather in a knife fight or freezing to death after passing out.
The killed Japanese tourist story.
In April 2000 happened a sad day when tourists died in Todos Santos, killed in cold blood by a mob of Maya market people. This story is told in a great many versions. The doomed innocent tourist tried to hold up a baby that she/he thought was about to fall from her mother's sling, reaching out for it was a grave mistake amidst hundreds of Maya that are caught in ancient beliefs and myths and false rumors about pale and strange looking foreigners. At the same time and for many years rumors of satan worshippers that were said to live in the mountains made the rounds. The satanists stole and killed babies and children. Fact is that adoption agencies have long done good business in Guatemala. Till today a woman can sell a baby after birth for up to 3,000USD. Also added to the pie were statements by several presidencies and governments over the years labeling foreigners, especially journalists satanic, evil, enemies of the state, the country's civil war only had ended in 1996.
So it comes on market day, that a Japanese and a Guatemalan bus driver fall victim to the machetes. You cannot explain to an exited mob of machete yielding men.
Evangelicals, missionaries, in for the money.
Another freezing evening when the clouds move in from the coastal planes below, mix with the smoke and darkness. This is the time the evangelicals start their singing and preaching, they have the biggest speakers system and most colorful garland lightening, the catholic cathedral on the main plaza remains quiet, dark and empty. This US imported and funded missionary religion phenomenon of exported happiness for money, we would encounter almost everywhere in Guatemala.
Another amazing bright blue morning follows and a few warming sugary coffees on the 'terrace'. When we set out a smiling friendly looking guy, in a nice jacket from a big 4x4 emerges, greets us in perfect English, he is the head of the region of all the Evangelical churches, he is here for a reunion, he is white, represents money and success.
The steep road back up to 3,400m takes a while, in first gear all the time. I distrust missionaries, as slippery as an eel ... I think. They dislike the Maya beliefs, traditions, culture, dress, I heard the other day, they are against the people, they work hand in hand with the government, they want the people to shut up, no complaints, no revolts, no alcohol, apart they are in for cash, they take from the poor, they have taken over in Todos Santos completely.
Sierra de los Cuchaniantes, Western Highlands, potato farming at 3,600m.
Up on the plateau of the Sierra de los Cuchaniantes, we turn north and on such a fine day there is no need for rushing. Somewhere soon I turn right onto a gravel road that leads me even higher to 3,600m. Somewhere we leave the car and walk a bit, Maya farmers of Mam ethnicity harvest their fields, potatoes it seems from far. We wave, approach slowly, we are out in nowhere, want to show that we come peacefully, show that we don't carry sticks or weapons, the Japanese tourists story teaches a lesson. Children here are very afraid of foreigners, they hardly ever see one, they never make it down to Todos Santos.
We start talking and slowly the young girls relax and their father confirms, "I told my children to stay calm, not to run away, because there is no reason". When after some 30 minutes we walk back we are very happy that we could bring something new to these children that live a rather harsh life up here in the Sierra, we brought them the belief that tourists don't want their harm, that tourists are a pretty innocent and stupid lot even when they carry big cameras.