Friday, April 1, 2011

Random observations about Guatemala to wrap up the trip

Just reserved a minibus ride back to the airport tomorrow. But I have lots of pictures and observations I haven´t shared yet, so I should be putting up some more Guatemala stuff for the next week or so. Maybe I´ll do a Flickr or Picasa slideshow or something.

I have mostly been writing today. I can write anywhere, of course, but today´s the last day I can write on the shores of Lake Atitlan!

To wrap things up, here´s some random observations about Guatemala:

Guatemalans love fried chicken, and you can get some of the best fried chicken I´ve ever had here. There´s a Guatemalan chain called Pollo Campero which has become the KFC of Central America, but way better.

In a country that grows some of the best coffee in the world, everyone drinks instant! It is pretty much impossible to get a decent cup of coffee in this country except in tourist towns like Panajachel or Antigua. If you can persuade a Guatemalan to brew a cup of coffee in most places it will be so weak you can see through it to the bottom of the cup. In Pana you can get espresso, and you can also buy Guatemalan beans to take home. But it´s kind of ridiculous to do so. There are five or more places within 15 minutes walk of my house where I can get several varieties of Guatemalan coffee, either by the cup or in beans, more easily than I can get it here. Of course this is partially about economic inequality, but not entirely. I spoke to a woman whose father works on an international award-winning coffee plantation who could get the beans free but still prefers to drink instant coffee.

Guatemalan picante sauce is made with pickled cauliflowers, cabbage, peppers, onions and other vegetables in a sort of greenish sauce.

In a nod to Guatemala´s German influence, Mayan food will often have a side of something kind of like cole slaw. But this slaw usually will be made with potatoes and carrots instead of cabbages, which is weird because the Mayans eat lots of cabbage otherwise.

Corn tortillas here are about half the diameter of the kind you get in the US, but about twenty times as good, especially straight off the grill. In Mayan meals especially, you always get way more tortillas than you can possibly eat. But it´s hard to get tortillas packaged to take home, I guess because people assume that everyone knows how to make them.

In Mayan villages, people just tie their pigs up anywhere. The piglets just run through the town, along with the chickens and turkeys and of course the dogs.

Speaking of dogs, in Mayan villages they almost never go inside and rarely get pet except maybe by kids when they´re puppies. Even the most neglected dog in the US would be ridiculously spoiled by the standards of Mayan dogs, who mostly hang around outside with visible ribs waiting for any scrap anyone throws them. To give you an idea how how hungry a Mayan dog is, when I was cleaning dishes outside before I left Santiago de Atitlan I scraped off a large chunk of plain dried rice left over in a pot, and a dog that had been hanging around the house ate every bite of it. Find me a dog in the US that will eat dried rice!

Houses, especially in Mayan villages, are painted in brilliant pastel oranges, blues and yellow over stucco or adobe. Doors are painted with geometric multicolored arcs, stars and crescents reminiscent of Moorish Spain.

The country of Guatemala has a schizophrenic relationship to Mayan culture. On the one hand Mayan history is the center of the country´s identity. There are pictures of pyramids and Mayan glyphs everywhere. The Mayan sacred bird the quetzal is both the national animal and also the namesake of the currency. And a one-quetzal bill has a watermark of the Quiche prince who died resisting Pedro de Alvarado. On the other hand, Mayans themselves remain the lowest social class. In fact nearly everyone here is part Indian. But Ladinos, who are more Spanish than Mayan, run nearly everything and have most of the money.

In Panajachel you will see Mayan men wearing traditional Mayan clothes of brightly colored striped pants and shirts. But in most places Mayan men wear the kind of clothes that from the waist up wouldn´t seem out of place at the State Fair in New Mexico: western shirts and cowboy hats. For pants they tend to wear slacks instead of jeans and on their feet they wear a sort of tough outdoor wingtip shoes instead of cowboy boots. Boys, when they can get away with it, prefer jeans and hoodies pretty much like American kids.

On the other hand Mayan women and girls nearly always wear traditional Mayan skirts and blouses. The popular headgear in the Highlands is a striped scarf tied around the head with a double knot covered with another scarf, usually in a paisley or flower pattern, wrapped over the knots. The whole arrangement looks like a sort of bulbous hat that projects over their foreheads, and also conveniently keeps the sun off.

Mayan women can effortlessly balance enormous bundles wrapped in Mayan blankets on their heads, and walk for miles with them. If they have to carry something especially heavy, like a load of firewood, both men and women use a sort of rope net-pack that hangs down their back from a strap that goes over their foreheads.

The longest, most arduous hike you´ve ever been on would probably be a routine stroll to most Highlands Mayans. It happened all the time that while riding in a bus through a mountain forest with no habitations of any sort in sight a Mayan man, woman or family would whistle to the bus driver then jump out in the middle of nowhere so they could walk several miles up some nearly vertical little dirt path to a house or two at the top of the mountain. And this would be their daily commute.

I´m sure I´ll think of some more. Thanks to everyone who has been reading. Now that I´ve got my blog going again I´m going to try to keep it active, though I´m not entirely sure what I´ll be writing about. In any case, I´ll try to keep it interesting.