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First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, December 12, 1976

POSTMARK: Guatemala

By COLLEEN McGUIRE

Contrary to my preconceived ideas, Guatemala is definitely not a minature version of Mexico.  The country has its own distinct culture of which the native Indians are an integral aspect, and although it is only about the size of Ohio, at least 33 different dialects exist.  Toursts have difficulty pronouncing the names of Indian villages like Chichicastenango or Huehuetenango, so foreigners tend to simplify the names to Chichi and Huehue.

Brillian colors of red, blue, orange and yellow found int he INdians’ clothign immediately strikes the tourist’s eye and embroidered on many blouses are ancient Mayan symbols.  In Central America, Guatemala is THE place to buy clothes.

I first traveled to the Lake Atitlan region.  Verdant mountains surround the pure crystal blue waters.  Panajachel is the most “civilized” town in the area and thus it serves a base for outgoing trips.  From Panajachel I took a 30-cent boat ride to San Pedro, a very poor Indian village on the toher side of the lake.  My desire to go there lay in the 9,000 foot volcano.

The climb itself is 4,000 feet and ten of us tackled the steep, steep volcano.  The path got wetter the higher we climbed.  Vines à la Tarzan style became more frequent.  Every now and then we encountered peasants descening.  On their backs were at least 30 pounds of firewood they had chopped to sell in the village.  Some of them were really old, old men.  Their endurance was amazing.

One ancient Indian stopped to speak to us in broken Spanish.  We were all impressed when he told us that he makes the arduous three-hour hike every day.  “Es mi trabajo.”  — it’s my work, he said grinning.  His daily firewood trek earns him the ridiculous pay of $1.

At the top of the dormant volcano, the view stretches for miles.  And i’m told that from the other side you can see as far away as the Pacific Ocean.  It’s dynamically beautiful.  A little before noon the clouds set in.  We were enclosed in a cool blanket of white air and were no longer sweating.  It was time to descend. 

After such a strenuous hike a hearty meal sounded divine.  There are only three “comedores” (cafes) n town and they all have the same menu: rice, beans, bread and chicken or eggs.  Not exactly tempting.  There generally is a 45 minute wait for the food after ordering.  I sincerely doubt if any of the lethargic waitresses could get a job in a U.S. restaurant.  Byt he second morning i got wise.  Instead of ordering coffee and waiting 20 minutes, I just went to the kitchen and poured it myself.

My boldness didn’t disturb the Indian waitress.  Her sincere smile revealed that she was as aware as I that our conceptions of time are vastly different.  The Indian time element is the hardest adjustment to make in Latin America.  Time means absolutely nothing to them.  San Pedro was just too, too slow for me and leaving my 29 cent a night “hotel,” I caught a boat to Panajachel. 

Panajachel is a unique town.  Tourists are startled to find such Western culinary delights as granola and yogurt.  Progress can be smelled in the air.  Hilton has plans not only for a hotel here but as casino as well.

However, I found it really sad that very few Indians are now living in this town where they once lived for centuried.  The Hilton crowd will most certainly change the placid ambiance of Atitlan.

From Panjachel I took the hour walk to the nearby village of Santa Catarina.  The gravel road is only two years old, but the native Indians of Santa Catarina still resent is construction.  The road brings tourists.  Tourists bring hotels.  Hotels bring the permanent intrusion of Western man to their quiet pueblo.

One old Indian who knew he was more than 50 years old but didn’t know his precise age, complained to me in poor Spanish that Lake Atitlan was much, much bigger when he was a child.  Panajachel’s existing hotels seep their sewage into the lake.  The word ecology is no doubt absent in the Indian dialects, yet they understand the concept well.

One of the biggest holidays of Guatemala is All Saints Day on November 1.  One associated custom is to congregate in the cemetery and drink to the dead lest they haunt you until the following year. 

All over the country housewives spend several days preparing the special All Saints Day dish known as fiambre.  Over and over talk is of fiambre, fiambre, fiambre and the amount of work needed to prepare it and of its tasty nature.  But personally, fiambre, a dish of beets and a variety of meats and vegetables served cold, was a disappointment.

The Guatemalan culture is rich due to the Mayan heritage. The single biggest tourist attraction is the ruins in northern Tikal.  A plane trip there from the capital costs $29 and takes 45 minutes.  My budget compelled me to take the $7 bu ride.  Physically, I regret my decision.

The bus ride generally lasts about 11 hours.  However, this is the region’s rainy season and since the road is unpaved and has more holes than a chunk of Swiss chees, this onerous trip lasted 17 hours.

In places the rain water was so high on the road that it was seeping into the bus.  The bus holds 40 people but the driver, greedily desiring more money, kept accepting passengers until there were 60 of us copeting for comfort.  At 4 a.m. the bus broke down, whereupon we cattle had to file out into the muddy ditch to await repairs.  I tried to imagine any Greyhound bus passengers ever experiencing a similar nightmare. 

Tikal is situated deep in dense tropical jungle land.  One wonders not only how the ruins were ever discovered but also how the Mayan culture commenced in such rough terrain. 

The pyramids are stupendous, moreso than those in Egypt.  They’re built extremely steep, makng for a treacherous ascent.  The stone drawings depict ancient gods carrying machetes and wearing elaborately plumed headdresses and some of the imprints can only be seen when the sun is brightly shining.  One creeps in and out of the chambers with visions of loin-clothed Mayans performing mystical rituals.

The pyramids at Egypt are located in the desert.  All one sees for miles is sand.  At Tikal the foliage is as enticing as the ruins.  Spider monkeys swing high in the trees screeching mating calls to one another.  Parrots sit on branches gossiping in their native tongue.  Their feathers are so rich in color they look as if they were painted by French Impressionists.  Birds that look like a cross between a turkey and a peacock calmly stroll the grounds.  Their tall plumes gleam metallically.Small anteaters feast on the abundance of ants.

A brief rain shower broke the oppressive humidity.  Then lo and behold a pastel rainbow radiated the sky forming an arch over one of the pyramids.

I do believe I have found the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow — it surely is this magical land of Guatemala.

 

 

 

 

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