Archive for the 'Guatemala' Category

Pig Bug and Motivation

Well, I am currently sitting in the restaurant of my hotel in Huehuetenango, enjoying a second cup of hot chocolate. Yep. Second.

Two nights ago, when I arrived, I was curled up in my bed watching English-language movies while oscillating between feeling way to hot and feeling freezing cold, and wondering if my backache might indicate that I had something terrible like meningitis.  Feeling supremely sorry for myself, I thought, “It would really suck to die of swine flu after how much I’ve laughed at all this ‘pandemic’ media hype.”

Don’t worry, I’m pretty sure I don’t have swine flu now.  I woke up the next morning with my nose having turned into a faucet, but otherwise feeling a whole lot better than the night before.  Damned rainy season cold.

However, I am now using this as my excuse for dawdling on getting my butt to my fieldsite, where I promise you there is no English-language TV, very likely no hot water, and certainly no free internet access. All of which my classy (that’s the word the guide book uses) hotel in Huehue has in abundance.

You see, swine flu (or “gripe A” as it’s called here) has been on the front pages of both major national papers for the past week and a half, as well as on the radios.  The health department is warning everyone to stay away from anyone with a runny nose or cough (however, they do not explain what to do if you happen to have a runny nose or cough. how helpful.). The hotel staff is already looking at me sideways, so I’d rather not repel potential contacts at my fieldsite with my plauge.

I’m hoping, in the meantime, that I will find the motivation to walk through the rain to the bus terminal to inquire about the schedule of buses to Sipakapa in this second cup of chocolate con leche.  If not, then maybe in the third.


La Muela

Oh, did I mention that I am pretty sure I have tendinitis in one of my right hip flexors? Yeah, it’s great. I think it was a combination of having my saddle poorly adjusted during the bike race, and then doing lots of shoveling in the garden. And then walking everywhere wearing poorly-supportive shoes. Going on three weeks, and I still can’t lift my knee to anywhere near 90 degrees  (as in.. when I’m walking).

Good gawd, I sound like a wreck.

So the other day Doc and I were getting cabin fever, having been sitting out the unusually sunny days inside reading and writing IRB applications and replying to emails from potential contacts.  So I popped a couple of ibuprofen, diminishing the pain in my hip/ quad to a bearable twinge (yes, I know that was a stupid move. blah blah blah, rest- shmest.)  Doc went to the market to stock up on picnic food, and we set out to climb “la muela”, a small peak above town to the southeast.

The road out of town eventually turned to dirt.

The road out of town eventually turned to dirt.

The road steadily tilted upwards, starting right at the south end of the plaza.  We stopped a few times for “granola” bars (in fact, rice crispy treats marketed as granola bars), but saved our lunch for the cumbre.

We passed fields of broccoli and onions outside of Almolonga.

We passed fields of broccoli and onions outside of Almolonga.

The route turned off the road and onto a dirt and gravel track  shortly before the town of Almolonga, the bread basket of Central America.  From there, it became progressively rockier until we went from walking to scrambling over boulders.



It got pretty steep. Like, tumbling head over heels if you slip- steep. Or… falling a long way straight down- steep.  Did I mention that I get a little bit of vertigo? It was funny, usually I’m the one looking at something stupid and saying “ooh, let’s climb that!” Or “Let’s just keep walking and see where this road goes.” But on this climb I was actually the cautious one.

Don't slip...

Don't slip...

Still having fun, despite the vertigo. :)

Still having fun, despite the vertigo. 🙂

Doc was much more adventurous than I.

Doc was much more adventurous than I.

When we neared the top, a group of kids came running up behind us.  There’s a reason Xela’s soccer team gets the name “super chivos” (super goats). The chivitos hung around on the cumbre with us.  As Doc was climbing up the other side (there are acutally two cumbres), I heard one guy tell his girlfriend, “That’s a really difficult climb, there’s a lot of risk in it.”  Looking at it, I tended to agree; but Doc came back and rolled his eyes, saying that the chivito was just trying to impress the ladies.  Apparently it was easier than it looked from a distance, but my hip was getting stiff so I continued to play cautious.

Doc climbing the other cumbre, which I thought looked stupid-dangerous.

Doc climbing the other cumbre, which I thought looked stupid-dangerous.

View from the cumbre: Almolonga down to the left, Xela down to the right.

View from the cumbre: Almolonga down to the left, Xela to the right (behind the ridge).

When Doc got back from his mini-side- adventure, we settled down to lunch: panches de papa (potato pouches, like tamales but with potato), tamalitos, two very buttery avocados, and a fresh mango.

Seriously the best meal we've had yet.

Seriously the best meal we've had yet.

The mango was mostly soft, but even the firm (less-ripe) parts were sweeter than any mango you could get in the States. YUM.

Most delicious mango ever.

Most delicious mango ever.

The best part of the meal? All of the waste was biodegradable.

Hojas (leaves) from the panches, mango peel, and avocado peel. Not exactly LNT, but not plastic, either.

Hojas (leaves) from the panches, mango peel, and avocado peel. Not exactly LNT, but not plastic, either.

The chivitos asked us to take some pictures for them, and then they headed down. We hung around a bit longer enjoying the view, and then scrambled down before the rain.  In all, about a 3-hour hike.

Digan, "Wikeeeeeeeeey!"

Digan, "Wiskeeeeeeeeey!"

RIP Macytosh.

Okay, okay, ONE more feeling-sorry-for-myself thing.

My computer died. Officially. It’s gone. The machine turns on, but it just sticks at the Apple logo. I probably need to reinstall the system software, but no one in this city uses Macintosh.  And, obvio, I left my discs at home.

(Amusing note: searching for a place that worked on Macs, we passed several stores with the Apple logo on their signs. Upon entering and asking if they could repair my computer, they looked at me like I was completely loca. No, of course they don’t work on Macs.)

I’m waiting on some less-than-legal discs from a place called “Discolandia” that may or may not be a temporary fix. Otherwise, I now have a 4 lb. paperweight in my bag.

I think I’m going to buy a PC when I get home. Apple has disappointed me.  Someone talk me out of that.

Now I’m over it. For realz.

Xe lajuj no’j

The second largest city in Guatemala is officially named “Quetzaltenango”, but that’s a mouthfull for fast-talking bus driver ayudantes to shout to their potential passengers, especially when there are three other destinations to say, too. By the time they would have gotten that single name out, weary travelers would certainly have moved on.

So, drivers shout “Xela” (usually three times fast), which is the city’s official nickname.  In fact, if you want to get technical about it (and, um, alternative left-wing solidarity-y about it) “Xela” is a more accurate name for the city, anyway. The K’iche’ name for the city, back when it was the capital of the K’iche’ kingdom pre-conquest (which, by the way, was after the K’iche’s conquered the Mams), was Xe lajuj n’oj, or “Under the ten wise ones”.  The ten might refer to the peaks of varying size surrounding the city, or it might refer to the leadership of ten cofrades, or elders.

Xela is for short.  And trust me, everyone calls it Xela. Don’t call it Quetzaltenango. And definitely don’t ever, ever call it “Quetz”.  FYI: in most Mayan languages, the ‘x’ is pronounced like the English “sh”.

Not to make it any more confusing, but the department is also called Quetzaltenango (“place of the quetzal birds”, probably from a combination of a Mayan language and the Nahuatl “-tenango”, which is “place of”), and never abbreviated to “Xela.”

So, Doc and I arrived in Xela a little more than a week ago, eager to settle in to a semi-permanent (at least, permanent-feeling) residence and start reviewing K’iche’.

We got off to kind of a rough start.

The bus ride wasn’t bad– one flat tire, very little traffic, only moderate nausea and not even one close-call with a truck or other vehicle larger that us.

After five hours on the bus, though, we were ready to settle in. No such luck. First, the residence that Doc had reserved quoted us a higher price than they had promised in their emails, and the communal kitchen was a bio-hazard. Seriously. A literal bio-hazard. Contrary to popular belief, I can (and do) put up with crumbs and untidy roommates in the kitchen. But this was just beyond anything I’d ever seen before… beyond even the kitchen at NerdHouse the summer after my freshman year (where we observed the “no-second” rule, because if a piece of food falls on the floor at NerdHouse, it was guaranteed to have pubic hair on it. Yes, I just typed that.).

So, we got some food at the taquería on the corner and talked over our options. I voted for a move to the hotel I was fond of, with a private bathroom, TV, and clean shared kitchen.  I called, and they promised a room with a private bathroom for the coming week.

When we got there, they claimed to not remember my calling. And there were no rooms with private bathrooms available.  However, two anthro-friends of ours were staying there, so we decided to stay anyway.  The dueña promised a room with a private bathroom would be available the next day.

That never happened. I have asked every day about the room change, and I am still in the crappy TV-less shared-bathroom room. I am fairly certain they are lying about the room, because there doesn’t seem to be anyone else in the hotel right now. It doesn’t make sense.  And the dueña got worried that I was going to leave without paying, and made me pay several days in advance. Yes, I should have just moved. I’ve paid through tomorrow, and then I’m off to Huehue. It makes me sad, though because I ‘ve recommended this place to several travelers.  Not anymore.

To calm some nerves that were starting to frazzle, we met Doc’s friend/ research assistant/ our K’iche’ tutor, Jaime, at el Cuartito, the local super-hipster coffee hangout for drinks. Yes, Xela has a hipster scene. Or maybe its a cross between “hipster” and “hippie”.  El Cuartito also happens to have excellent mojitos.

Alas, they had changed the mojito recipe.  Whereas before your rum, tonic, and simple syurp came steeped with whole mint/ yerba buena leaves, now they appeared to be ground/ blended to a pulp. So… when you took a sip out of your straw, you got a not-so-nice dose of green mush stuck in the straw rather than a refreshing trago. Nevertheless, we drank the entire pitcher. One must not waste rum, especially when one is nearing the end of one’s rope.

We consoled ourselves about the bad luck with the hotels and the mojito recipe with the thought of a delicious meal at the best Italian restaurant outside of Italy, where Doc is friends with the chef.

When we got there, the chef (Alfredo) was not in.  We asked the server, and he said that Alfredo had left (for good) before he had started working there. He had no iea where Alfredo had gone.  Doc wasn’t surprised… he pointed out that Alfredo was both something of a rolling stone and a dirty old man, and thus changed venues with some frequency.  We again consoled ourselves with the hope that the sous-chefs were the same, and so the food would be reasonably similar in quality.

Quality, almost. Quantity, not at all. The portions had been cut roughly in half, and we both left feeling still-hungry.  We set out to find some dessert, which is surprisingly challenging in this city.

Honestly, I can’t remember what we had for dessert. We went to Casa Babylon, but that’s all I remember. Oh, well.

One more sad thing before I drop the woe-is-me shtick: our second-favorite restaurant, makers of amazing homemade veggie burgers (with lentils and REAL vegetables! and a fried egg on top! and a homemade bun!!) and even more amazing sangria (a blend of wine, rum, gran marnier, and vodka, apparently, along with the requisite fruit), that had a beautiful courtyard seating area with flowering trees and twinkly lights… had closed. Now that space is home to a gringo bar.

Things began to look up, however. We spent quality time with our friends (a prof at WashU and his wife, who is a student at Harvard… who also happen to be collaborators/ good friends with my advisor. Small discipline.) getting Indian food for dinner the next night (the quality of which fortunately remained unchanged from last year). We arranged our K’iche’ schedule with Jaime, did some hiking, watched a movie, drank lots of mediocre coffee and excellent hot chocolate, had a small adventure, and went to Bake Shop whenever it was open.

When we arrived, the weather was unusually, and disconcertingly,  warm and sunny.  Now it has changed to a reassuringly steady, cool  rain.

More, in detail and illustrated, to come.

Guate, por fin

Well, it was certainly a whirlwind leading up to June 7… that is, the day I took off for Guatemala for the summer. What with final exams in April, traveling, visiting folks, and a bike race in May, and trying to get the house clean and the garden to a point where my summer renters just have to water and pull weeds… I can’t believe I actually got it all done. Of course, I had serious help for the garden and house cleaning (pictures and description of that later). But whew.

So, June 7, like it or not (and chores done or not… but mostly done) Doc and I arrived in Guatemala City.  My summer plans are to study Sipakapense (a K’iche’an language… specifically the language spoken to a greater or lesser extent at my field site), to take lots of pictures of environmental and cultural significance, and to rewrite a paper on advertising by the mining industry in Guatemala… lucky for me, I was greeted by this image as we left the airport.

"We invest in a country in development. The valuable thing is to develop."

"We invest in the dreams of a country in development. The valuable thing is to develop."

Right next to the English-language Visa billboards.  Oh, Goldcorp (Montana Exploradora) is the company that has a mine at my field site. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Ostensibly, I wanted to be in the capital to talk to a couple of environmental NGOs based there.  In reality, I hadn’t been able to set up meetings before leaving the US, and so my out-of-the-blue emails to them were met with friendly suggestions to meet at a later date.  Doc wanted to be in the capital to meet with various bilingual publishing houses, but ran into the same problem as I did. So, we ended up spending three days being tourists, which was fine by me as it was my first time in the capital.

We stayed at a small guest house in Zona 13, right next to the airport. Relatively low crime, and walking-distance from the Museo de Archaeología y Etnología, which was our first visit.  We were greeted by a familiar name on the banners at the entrance to the museum.

Citado: C. Kottak 1994.

Citado: C. Kottak 1994.

That would be a citation of Dr. Kottak’s (former chair of my department) textbook Anthropology, used in several 101 classes, on the banner explaining “Anthropology.”  Oddly, they list five subfields. Huh.

The collection of Pre-Colombian artifacts was really impressive, although somewhat poorly organized and displayed.  There was a group of elementary school kids running around while we were there, and some of them would freeze and stare at us when they heard us speaking English. Then, giggling, they’d imitate us in Spanish along the lines of “Hee hee, we’re speaking English.”

Among my favorite objects were the ceramics. I really love the designs on some of the ceramic pots; they were surprisingly simple black and red geometric designs that were really striking.  On the other end of the ceramic design spectrum was this stamp– so intricate! I want to reproduce it on a mug when I get home, either with vibrant colors or with the same earth tones, or maybe one of each. I can’t decide which would be cooler.

Precolombian stamp, made of clay (I think it's a late Pre-classic for you archaeo geeks).

Precolombian stamp, made of clay (I think it's a late Pre-classic for you archaeo geeks).

Their “ethnology” section was quite a bit smaller than the archaeo part, but it was still interesting.  It didn’t hold a candle to the Museo Ixchel, though, located accross town in Zona 10.  I mean, check out their gorgeous website, for starters.

The Museo Ixchel is located on the campus of Universidad Francisco Marroquín (UFM) on the far north end of Zona 10, in the building adjacent to the Museo Popol Vuh.  The Ixchel focuses on textiles and indigenous culture, while the Popol Vuh focuses on archaeology. Neither museum allowed photography, so definitely check out their beautifully designed and incredibly informational websites (available in English, too).

Zona 10, I should mention, is the swanky part of the city with absolutely the lowest crime rates.  I always wonder why thugs haven’t clued in to the profitability of that neighborhood. I think the answer has something to do with the fact that their bosses live there… don’t quote me on that one, though.  Doc and I spent some time wandering around on our second day trying to find a bookstore/ cafe mentioned in my guide book, but found it closed.  We ended up sitting on the patio of the Guatemalan equivalent of Panera (called “San Martín”) for a solid chunk of an afternoon, enjoying the free wireless and sandwiches.  We eventually discovered that the bookstore, Sophos, had just moved to an even swankier plaza/ mall in the Zona Viva (lively zone) of Zona 10. Never fear, we bought both books and refreshments in their cafe (coffee and chocolate mousse for me… did I mention that our first three days here were vacation? 😉 )

We headed over to the UFM campus on our third (and last) day.  I was shocked by how gorgeous the campus was– I mean, wow. They must sink some serious quetzales into landscaping.  There were little paved, covered paths that went between buildings, winding through lush ferns, flowers, and other foliage accented by the occasional imitation Maya stelae. I took a picture of this crazy flower on a tree… it looked like it had pink hair!

Fuzzy Pink Flower

Fuzzy Pink Flower-- 10 points if you can identify it!

Unsurprisingly, UFM has a particularly strong business program, and has inspirational quotes from Milton Friedman printed on their cafeteria tables.  Doc and I enjoyed a very economical lunch in said cafeteria– I had a chicken and avocado pannini, sugary coffee shake, and bottle of water for around $3 from the Guatemalan coffee chain “Gitane.”

The sugar and coffee concoction was delicious. Note the lush landscaping in the background.

The sugar and coffee concoction was delicious. Note the lush landscaping in the background.

The Museo Ixchel takes you through the Guatemalan textile tradition from Precolombian origins, to Spanish influence, to present day techniques, materials, and designs.  The exhibts are really nicely organized and designed, and include English translations of the descriptions (I admit: I defaulted to the English placards. I wanted to absorb more information.).  I searched in vain for a huipile from San Mateo Ixtatán in their gift shop, and settled on a funky “Creaciones Indígenas” t-shirt instead. I think “Creaciones Indígenas” is, in fact, a t-shirt company. But the design riffs on Maya glyphs, the money supported the museum, and I thought it was cool (side note: I’m wearing it today, and one of the travelin’ gringos in our hostel asked if I bought it at a store called “Urban Renewal” in Antigua [aka: Gringotenango]. She noted the “robot-guy design” on it. I just smiled and told her where I bought it, but she had never heard of the museum.).

The Popol Vuh museum is considerably smaller than the National Museum, but they make up for it with info-packed descriptions and a beautiful layout and design.  I learned a lot at both of these museums, and had a lot of geeky fun, too.

On Thursday morning we got up and grabbed a first-class (i.e. fan-CY!) bus to Xela (or, more properly, Quetzaltenango) the former K’iche’ capital of the Western Highlands, and the city that feels most like home in Guatemala.

Statue of Tecun Uman, colonial K'iche' hero, in the capital.

Statue of Tecun Uman, colonial K'iche' hero, in the capital.

UTZ Certified

I’ve developed a nice little morning routine of getting up, making coffee (doing chores while coffee is doing its thing), and plunking down in front of my compu to digest the daily news. Now that the election is over, there are so many more interesting things going on!

I was reading a series of articles on about environmentally-friendly ways to make coffee, environmentally-friendly cups from which to drink your coffee, and environmentally-friendly sources for coffee beans, when something caught my eye.

The Fair Trade vs. Organic article listed a handful of fair trade alternatives, including one called UTZ Certified. Now, it looks like some random acronym, right? You wonder what U-T-Z stands for, right? Well, “utz” also happens to mean “good” in a couple of Mayan languages. Could just be (probably is) a coincidence, right?


I went to their website and poked around a little.  Indeed, they mention the etymology of their name: “UTZ means ‘good’ in a Mayan language…” Uh, yep. A couple of Mayan langauge, in fact. At least they didn’t say “Utz means ‘good’ in ‘Mayan.'” As if there were only one Mayan language, or something 😛

Apparently this certification is only in Europe, and their customers are a little questionable (Wal-Mart?!).

Kinda random, kinda interesting.

News in Brief

Weather: Beautiful blue skies last week, followed by the aftermath of a new Carribbean hurricane.

Health: Intermittent nausea over the past two weeks, sharply increasing in intensity throughout today. You know something’s wrong when I don’t feel like eating. I am convinced it will dissipate.

Cats: Manchas and Mix are thriving: Manchas thanks to the attention of Maribel, and Mix thanks to the attention of the gringos. Both act like crazy kitens. Hooray!

K’iche’: Verb forms up the wa-zoo.  Xkos nujolom.

Books: Have discovered a renewed love of reading.  Hooray, it was not entirely quashed by the first year of grad school!  Oh, English, how I love thee. How easily understood and entertaining your sentences are, how vivid the pictures painted through your prose… how much my brain thanks you after 5 hours of non-indoeuropean language learning every day.

Family-stay: Pretty good… my 18-year-old host sister sold me a corte (skirt)  this morning, which I then found out was extremely over-priced. I know I shouldn’t begrudge the budding entreprenure in my host family, but I can’t help but feel that I was a bit taken advantage of… At least she helped me to put it on!

Sanity: Ebbing… making lists of things to do once I get home.  I miss my cats and my friends.  And vegetables.