Archive for April, 2007

Home again, home again

I’ve been back in Ann Arbor for 5 whole days already, and I don’t think it’s quite sunken in yet.

Given, it took me a full hour and a half to get through Trader Joe’s last week (holy SHNIKES do they have a wide variety of cheese!! finely shredded or thickly shredded? cheddar, mozzarella, colby, colby-jack, or mixed? four- cheese mixed or three-cheese mixed??).

Other than that, things are good-ish… perhaps I will write more when I’m in a more reflective mood…


The Unmistakable Odor of Burning Tomato-tops

After a Moka Cappuccino, very dry chocolate panqueque (muffin), (transfer to a different restaurant) another café Americano, tamales chiapaneros, and some pozo (corn and chocolate drink), I’m feeling stuffed and slightly more human. I also got some quality reading in, which I was not able to do on the buses.

I decided to venture in to the 24-hour hot shower offered by my hostel. It’s clean (good news) but the hot water runs out about 3 minutes after I get my hair wet. Nevertheless, being clean feels good! And the hostel thankfully had towels (the last place did not).

As I was drying off, I caught a whiff of the unmistakable sweet scent of burning tomato-tops. My mother will know what I’m referring to, because that’s what she compares this smell to.


I went from “This is a business of God” at the hotel last night in Todos Santos to marijuana. Great.

I am not a smoker of any product, legal or otherwise. I never have been, and unless something drastic about my personality changes I never will be. That said, I have absolutely no problem with people who do choose to smoke (I’ve dated a couple)—your brain cells are none of my concern– but frankly I try to avoid situations where I’m inhaling smoke of some sort.

First of all, I’m asthmatic. Me + smoke of any sort = bad. And the smell of weed makes me feel queasy.

In places like this, where I think I’ll find some camaraderie with fellow travelers, I end up feeling alienated. It’s at (lonely, homesick) points like this that I really, really wish I could find someone like-minded to travel with.

It’s really tough to find someone who doesn’t mind taking the chicken buses, eating in $1.50 comedores, avoiding pre-arranged tours, and staying at $10/night hostels, but will still want to go to bed early in favor of getting up to see the sunrise, forego the extra drugs-and-alcohol, and avoid the gringo-party places.

I feel like there are two main types of travelers that you always run in to (at least in Latin America): 1) Tour-groupies, seemingly always American, Canadian, Australian, or German, who travel everywhere in private shuttles to see the “historical” and “scenic” places in a country, stay in hotels that cost at least U$40 a night, and eat at gringo restaurants that serve sanitized, international food; and 2) Backpackers, of international breed (Americans tend to be around my age, or mid-twenties; Israelis just released from the army; Australians, Brits, and Germans on a gap-year) that take semi-local transportation (a mix of chicken and first-class buses, the occasional shuttle), hang out in budget hotels, go on hiking or other adventure tours, drink and smoke a lot, and party in the gringo bars. They also carry all their possessions in a backpack (and you can usually tell their nationalities by the brand of backpack they carry!)
→ I carry a backpack also, and you can tell I’m from the States because my pack has “REI” written all over it!

Traveling (in my opinion) shouldn’t be a constant party and bar-hop. I mean, c’mon. The gringo bars in these places are all the same. Same “tropical” décor, same drinks, same music, same people!!

Plus, if you stay up late to drink yourself silly, you won’t be able to get up for the 6 am market.

I’m fine with hanging out with the occasional group-o-gringos (and in this case, gringo refers to any foreigner). It’s fun to hear peoples’ stories, what brings them to a place, where they’ve been, etc etc etc.

But, take for example this German guy I met last night. I have no (well, little) problem with his style of travel. He seems like a “go your own way” sort of guy. He whipped out his stack of snapshots that he’s taken from a number of “exotic” places around the world (Ethiopia, Morocco, Ladakh) and told us how he would go in to hospitals and jails in Guatemala and Mexico to take pictures. He didn’t speak any Spanish. (there’s where I have a little bit of a problem)

But he started grilling me, like he refused to believe that I didn’t exactly match the stereotype of a traveling American college student.

I told him that I had been working in San Mateo (he assumed I was teaching English), and was going to Chiapas to see the Indigenous Photo Archive/Project. “No.” he said, “this is bad.”

Thinking he had maybe visited the archive before, I asked him why he said that.

“Well, how would you feel if busloads of people were driving by to take pictures of you all day long?”

Ummm, wow. Not quite what I was talking about buddy. I tried to explain to him that this was an organization that supported indigenous artists—with training, supplies, publishing, etc.

“It is always a project with you. Projects, projects.” He said. Oh really?! Since when does he know me that well?! He admonished, “Don’t you ever just want to visit a place and get to know it?”

Yes, in fact, that is my entire goal here! But I don’t think that I’d get to know this place by not speaking Spanish, going to see the tourist sites (ie: Palenque, Tikal, Lago Atitlan), and hanging out exclusively with other travelers in budget hostels or expat-owned gringo bars.

I really feel that you have to work to get to know a community, and not just over a week or two of vacation—and the best way for me, personally, to do that is to work with a local non-profit organization. Given my personality (kind of shy and timid at first) I’m not able to just walk in to a place and start “knowing” people. It helps if I have a purpose, and if that purpose comes with some built-in insta-friends.

I really prefer working with locally-based organizations, and I explained that to him. I don’t want some group in the USA or Europe (no offense) getting a cut of whatever “fee” I’m paying for them to arrange everything for me, when my time and money could be better spent helping people in a locally initiated and run project. That way, you get to know people in the place that you’re visiting beyond just the “where are you from” formalities. You can learn what their community means to them (through whatever work they’re doing) and you can contribute to a good cause. Better than supporting expat-owned gringo bars, in my opinion.

Wow. That whole tirade there stemmed from my smelling pot while I was in the shower. Scary what that stuff does to you!

And look at me, I’m in one of the most touristy places in Mexico (after Cancun and Puerto Vallarta) and I’m going to go sip coffee and read all day tomorrow. How…gringo.

I’ll read a local paper, I promise. Maybe I’ll even buy an EZLN t-shirt (oh the irony).

The Best Thing Since…

I took my time getting to the bus for Todos Santos. I ended up being the first person on the bus anyway, and sat there for a good 20 minutes waiting for other passengers.

While I was sitting there, the only person on the bus, a vendor poked his head through the door. “Chocos? Chocos con manilla?*” He asked, holding up a chocolate-covered banana adorned with a sprinkling of peanuts.

“Oooh!” I exclaimed, “Chocobananos!”

My students in San Mateo are pretty much addicted to chocobananos. Basically, the treat consists of a banana on a stick, dipped in chocolate and frozen. The ‘bananos in San Mateo are probably dipped in some sort of sugary goo colored brown to look like chocolate (because there is no real chocolate in San Mateo) and are a little freezer-burned, but are delicious nonetheless.

I asked the vendor how much his Chocos were going for. 2 Quetzales. Frantically digging in my pocket for what little sencillo (small coin) I had after visiting the ATM, I came up with 1 Quetzal and 10 centavos.

Holding up my pathetic offering, I gave the poor vendor my most sorry-gringa expression. “Solo tengo uno-diez,” I moaned, pouting slightly.

He stared at me for about 30 seconds, finally saying “Bueno, voy a dejar uno de estos aquí en la silla,” and took one of the Chocos out of his cooler and stuck it in a plastic baggie, leaving it on the seat in front of me.

“De veras?!” Really?! I asked, and held out my coins once more. With one last backwards look, the vendor took my coin and exited the bus, moving on to a more popular route on which he could offer his sweets.

This Chocobanano was amazing. I swear. It had a real chocolate coating that tasted like Dove compared to the Chocos in San Mateo. The peanuts were a nice touch that I had never seen before. And, the banana was slightly over-ripe, making it not quite tooth-breakingly hard when frozen. Dee-lish.

Eventually, only two or three passengers actually boarded the bus! I was slightly worried, having read blogs about people crammed three and four to a bluebird school bus seat on this route. Was this company ill-reputed? Would my bus go careening off a cliff, prompting the family members of my fellow passengers to post colorful crosses and flowers at the site, while the US Embassy blew the incident out of proportion and issued warnings in the American press about the dangers of public transport in foreign countries?


The driver was a friendly Todosantero that honked and waved to everyone he saw wearing the traje from Todos Santos (for men: red-striped pants, black chaps, and a blue pinstripe denim jacket with elaborately woven collar and cuffs).

One of my fellow passengers loaded crate after crate of yogurt into the overhead racks. He lived near La Mesilla, the border crossing to Chiapas, Mexico, and was selling yogurt in Todos Santos.

We stopped and picked up other random passengers along the way, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. We also dropped people off by the side of the road; as we pulled away they took off walking through a field or on a dirt path to their destinations. The bus was never completely full, though.

Strangely enough, the ayudante (assistant) on this bus was a guy that looked about 50 years old. Usually the ayudantes on chicken buses are around 15 or 16 and climb all over the bus to get luggage, check for oncoming traffic at intersections, and help little old ladies descend the stairs. All this—while the bus is in motion, careening around off-camber blind curves and passing trucks.

However, a note about the road to Todos Santos: before coming to Guate, I spent a solid chunk of time on Lonely Planet and Boots n’ All travel forums. I was originally considering doing some bike touring around Todos Santos and posted a few items asking for advice. Every reply I got was a horrified “you want to ride your bike WHERE?!” and “That’s the worst road in the WORLD!” and “You must have a death wish!”

Umm, right. If anyone from the Lonely Planet forums is reading: you clearly have never been off-pavement in the United States. I have driven (and ridden my bike) on worse roads than that in Michigan! Sure, it’s flatter (no mountains in Michigan), but even roads in rural Washington, Oregon, Montana, and North Dakota are worse than the road from Huehuetenango to Todos Santos! I will give everyone the benefit of the doubt and assume that the road was recently improved, because it was perfectly smooth (for a dirt road in a remote, rural area) and I feared the bus falling off a cliff only once.

Todos Santos Chuchumatán is renowned on the gringo-circuit for being an accessible, “authentic” indigenous town. It is situated in a valley in the Chuchumatán mountain range, just south-west of San Mateo Ixtatán. I wanted to check it out because many, many pictures have been taken here (mostly, I concluded, because both men and women wear the traditional traje). I also wanted to see what all of the fuss was about!

Tourists whisper about Todos Santos in ominous voices: “That’s where that Japanese guy was killed for taking a picture of a little kid.”

Oh really? That’s some intense reaction to a photograph.

*manilla = peanut (in Guatemala). Maní = peanut (in the Andes). Cacahuate = peanut (in Mexico, Spain, and Argentina). Confused? I keep saying “maní” instead of “manilla” here, because the words are so similar (and maní is what I learned in Chile) and I’m pretty sure people think I’m an idiot.

Weak, Sweet Coffee

In the 1870s, Guatemala experienced an economic boom owing largely (okay, entirely) to the production of coffee. Between 1870 and 1900, a series of (mainly) German immigrants set up fincas (plantations) in the highlands and tropical regions, stealing indigenous peoples’ land and employing forced labor (also indigenous). The government established banks, a railroad, and developed port towns for foreign trade. Exports, according to my guidebook, increased by 20 times with coffee accounting for more than half of all foreign trade.

Despite all of this (or perhaps, because of all of this) coffee as we in the US and Europe know it is few and far between in Guatemala. It’s the same reason why the “Guatemalan Cardamom” in the cupboard at the Foundation offices is from Whole Foods.

People always exclaim to me “oh! They have great coffee in Guatemala, don’t they?” and, knowing I’m an addict, “You’ll love it there!”

You see, Guatemalan coffee that we buy in the US… is just that. Bought in the US. Therefore, exported from Guatemala, and no longer available in Guatemala. Why? Because the finca-owners will make more money if they sell it in the United States.

Coffee in Guate is generally found in the form of water-soluable granules, which you boil with sugar or panela (a solid sweetener that comes from some sort of plant). The result is a translucent, vaguely coffee-esq liquid that is very, very sweet. I have to say, I like the taste better than Nescafé (ni-es-café, it’s not even coffee!), which is the higher-priced alternative.

Café is served with almost every meal, if you eat in a comedor (street-side restaurant) and is cheaper than soda-pop by about 2Q.

On the other hand, in places like Antigua and even Huehue, European-style coffee shops are springing up everywhere, in response mostly to increased tourism. Feeling slightly homesick from traveling alone (I really don’t like traveling alone and wish I could find someone like-minded to travel with!!) I stopped in “La Cabaña del Café” in Huehue and had a delicious Americano flavored with chocolate. They had quite the variety of coffee drinks! Whew.

I always feel a kind of moral dilemma in places like that. I mean, no one I know has worked on a coffee plantation… but does that really make it okay? (No.) In some places here (mostly in Antigua where there are lots of yuppie- gringos that ask for this sort of thing) coffee shops are catching on and offering fair-trade coffee (or at least locally and cooperatively grown coffee, which is usually fair-trade).

I made this comparison with smoking the other day, having encountered a group of gringos in Todos Santos who were all trying to quit smoking. Big tobacco vs. killing small children and other innocent people in Africa and Latin America. Which drug is worse?

A Question of Religion

Upon arriving in Huehuetenango (pronounced “way-way-ten-an-go”), I expected to take a microbus to the center of town and find a hotel from there.

Unfortunately, it was dark and the last micros stopped running at 5 pm. Poor planning on my part. So I let myself get herded into a taxi for a very reluctant 25 quetzales (about $3, the bus ride itself was 30Q) that ended up being 30Q because the taxista didn’t have any change. At least the price was pre-set, however, so there was no arguing over the meter.

As the taxista careened through town, he asked me in short Spanish phrases (as if you were speaking to a young child) all the vitals: where I’m from, what I’m doing in Guate, how long I’m staying, where I’m going next, my profession, and my religion.

Whew! Well, what do you say to that??

There are three main religions in Guatemala: some derivation of Mayan, Catholic, and Evangelical. I will never forget eating lunch with a girl at Michigan who is the daughter of Evangelical missionaries in Panama. Someone asked her if there were many people that went to her parents’ church, because isn’t Catholicism big in Latin America? Yes, she answered, but the Evangelicals were starting to win.


Quite a few of my students (especially in cuarto magisterio) went to the Evangelical school before coming to Yinhatil Nab’en. Don Mateo and Doña Ana upstairs are Evangelical, and Don Mateo hosts an Evangelical radio show on Radio Ixtateca. Every Sunday in San Mateo you can hear the highly repetitive, energetic strains of music blaring non-stop from the Evangelical church. So yes, Evangelicalism is starting to “win” in at least one part of Latin America.

In response to my taxi driver’s questions I said: 1) Estados Unidos, especificamente Michigan (he asked if that was near New York); 2)teaching (English? No, Social Science); 3)two more weeks, but I’ve been here for three months; 4)Todos Santos Chuchumatán; 5)student, and 6) what??

He repeated the question, and I tried to dodge it by saying, Well, my mom is Lutheran and my dad is Catholic. Hoping that that would be enough. Nope. He persisted. Well what about you? Are you Christian?

Umm, sure. I’m more or less Lutheran, I told him.

He seemed slightly relieved. It’s good to believe in God, he said. Yes it is, I agreed.

And it’s not that I don’t. I just feel uncomfortable having to explain to people that I think that pretty much all of the religions are heading in the right direction. I think their individual traditions are really interesting to learn about, and to talk to people about. But I just don’t practice any of them for a myriad of reasons.

One of my Guatemalan coworkers had to do a report on Judaism for one of his university classes, so he interviewed Brian.

How many gods do Jews believe in? He asked. Brian seemed a little surprised. Well, the same one that Catholics and Evangelicals believe in, was his reply. Our coworker was shocked.

Telling people that you’re something other than Catholic or Evangelical is tough enough without them jumping to the conclusion that you worship the devil. So explaining a slightly agnostic, inclusive-religious position? Errr, no thanks.

Maybe I should try—some people would argue that I should be trying to “open people’s minds” here. Maybe… I’m just not sure that religion is the appropriate venue to try and “open” right now (I’m thinking, open hostility if they think I’m a devil-worshiper).

I’ll start by being the gringa- in- a- corte, and see where that leads me.
PS. In Todos Santos I was asked, yet again, what religion I am (by one of the dueños of my hotel). I once again tried to evade the question, and he actually asked me if I practiced the religion or if I was just “culturally” that. He happened to be Evangelical.

The variable meanings of Chu’j

Actually, there’s only two meanings for “chu’j”—it refers to both a culture and a language (which, interestingly enough, my students and many people around here define as one and the same thing… culture and language, that is). It’s pronounced with a glottal stop after the “oo” sound, and the “j” is soft, almost silent. So it sounds like “choo-oo” or sometimes “chook” if you’re saying it wrong.

Which brings me to the next point. “Chuc” (chook) is a type of steam-sauna bath house that people around Guate (at least, around the highlands)use twice a week to bathe, the night before market day. It is actually a Mam word (a different Mayan language), that is now used in Spanish to refer to this sauna. There is a different word for it in Chu’j — the language.

I bring this up because chuc, the sauna, is an awesome tradition, and one that I did not take enough advantage of until the end of my stay in San Mateo. Personally, I could not feel clean enough after using the chuc, and therefore did not use it for bathing (though I kind of regret this—if I came back, I think I’d limit myself to only using the chuc to bathe, and not the shower… though showering is such a comfort thing!).

Angela and I took to using it for sauna-purposes only. Since we weren’t bathing, we felt comfortable enough going in there at the same time, and therefore were able to stay in for twice as long!

This is how the chuc works:

Don Mateo and Doña Ana (our landlords, they live upstairs) have a chuc on their level, right before the stairs to the roof and right next to their kitchen. On Wednesday and Saturday nights (market days are Thursday and Sunday) Doña Ana prepares the chuc.

The chuc is a 3.5 foot-high adobe structure with a 3 foot-high and 2 foot-wide door to get in and out. Inside, there is a bench on the left that stretches the length of the chuc (about 4.5 feet). On the right are three buckets: one for cold water, one for hot (HOT!) water, and one to mix the two to your preferred temperature. Next to the buckets, against the back-right corner, Doña Ana prepares a fire using charcoal and “leña”— basically, wood.

The family all uses the chuc first (the two parents, the three kids), and then one of the kids comes down to let us know that we can “subir al chuc”—climb to the chuc.

Then, one at a time (based on who is fastest at saying “I’ll go up!”, or who simply appears dressed in nothing but a towel) we take turns chuc-ing. You have to run through the court yard (avoiding the chickens and dog underfoot), climb the concrete steps, and wiggle your way through the door to the chuc without flashing the family at their dinner table.

The others generally bathe, which is quite a ritual. There are branches for smacking yourself clean first, then you mix the water (that hot water is really hot—it’s in a metal bucket right next to the fire), then you soap up, then you can dump a little water on the fire to make it steamy, and then you rinse off. If you’re one of the first to chuc, you have to be really careful about making steam. It makes a LOT of steam (the first time I chuc-ed I about scalded my windpipe!).

If you’re later on in the line, the fire has died down a bit and sometimes it’s not too warm anymore. The family is really nice about refilling the hot water bucket after each person though, so it’s always piping hot.

On Sunday night, with the others gone camping (I was not invited ☹)Angie and I sat up there for about 45 minutes—whew! We must have looked like lobsters afterwards. I wonder what the family thinks when two of us go in there at a time? Especially two girls… there have been couples in the Foundation (and currently there is one) and I don’t think that seems so weird to them because Don Mateo and Doña Ana sometimes chuc together. Hmmm….

After our marathon chuc- sauna session, we made up some hot cocoa and fished the rest of the “Ricanelas” (a play on the words “rica”—rich or tastey, and “canela”—cinnamon; it’s the name of a cookie that is “perfect to accompany your coffee!”) out of the cupboard, and popped “Monty Python: The Life of Brian” into Angie’s computer. A nice way to end my official stay in San Mateo…