Saturday, March 25, 2006

And the Living Is Easy

It's March, which for many loyal readers is the beginning of the end of a long winter of shoveling snow and itchy mittens. But in the tropical-but-not-really weather pattern of Guatemala, we're in the dog days of summer. The streets are plastered with ads for Gallo beer, as ever, but now the girls in bikinis enjoying a cool barley pop are given the ostensible excuse of cooling down from the summer heat. It seems it was just weeks ago that the locals were bundling up in their arctic expedition gear to face the sub-balmy temperatures of January. It is not clear to me exactly when we crossed the line into verano, but the average temperatures have creeped back up from the 60s to the high 70s; and apparently for the finely-tuned Guatemalan constitution, that makes all the difference.

Soaking in the indolent estival spirit, your correspondent has been less-than-intrepid in seeking out new corners of Guatemala of late. In a fit of pique, the editorial staff demanded something of interest, and dispatched the correspondent with a native guide to see some local sights.

Iximche is a minor ruin a couple hours from Guatemala City; it will not be mistaken for Tikal, nor featured on the tourism board's advertisements, the national currency, or beer cans any time soon. However, it did fit the summer mood perfectly. Iximche is on a broad flat area, with large plazas that have been restored with now-yellowing grass, and is only a couple miles off the Pan-American Highway. Given the near-zero entry charge for locals and the absence of grassy parks in most cities (concrete-planter-and park-bench plazas being the standard urban open space), the ruins were used less for contemplating the ancient culture of the Maya and more for picnicking and playing catch.

That emphasis changed when your correspondent and his local guide wandered back to the far end of the ruins, where a group was gathered around a ceremonial fire burning in the center of a compass star with each point made of a different color of flower petals. A group of "spiritual guides" were leading the ceremony (they were quite explicit in admonishing all listeners not to call them "priests"), alternating between Spanish and Cakchiquel (an indigenous language). It was quite a scene; regretably, the staff photographer was warned that he would not be allowed to ply his trade during the ceremony.

The guides wore a mix of modern clothing and traditional woven items, swung censers of incense and randomly splashed alcohol on the fire. They blessed participants by touching a flower to their knees, wrists, shoulders and foreheads, and then the participants would throw a bundle of candles in the fire. Following this, there was a baptism of sorts, where the guides, of fairly advanced age, would pass babies over the fire -- which included some unitiated kids of up to ten years of age and significant weight, which seemed like a recipe for disaster as but in the end only resulted in stifled guffaws from the crowd. The guides then danced around the fire in a not-particularly-elaborate dance until their compact disc player crapped out on them. They asked if anyone in the crowd had a discman that they could borrow in order to continue the centuries-old ceremony in the mannner of their forefathers, but no volunteer emerged. While the speechifying surely continued for hours more, your correspondent was unable to stay to hear it all, having a busy schedule of summer lollygagging to get back to.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Of Quetzaltenango

One of the Holla's favorite blogs, written by the spouse of a Foreign Service Officer named Matt, has been discontinued. While my lovely spouse is at best an infrequent contributor to the world of on-line literature, there is -- by some uncanny coincidence -- another FSO named Matt and he's married. His "trailing spouse" was writing an amusing blog that has suddenly disappeared after a lengthy post concerning some matters of recent import in the world of State Department policy.

The normally indomitable journalistic spirit of the Holla editorial staff sees the fingerprints of State Department officialdom on the untimely demise of the "Diplomat's Wife" blog. While we are not normally prone to backing down from a fight, we do think it prudent to give a somewhat more skeletal than normal report on our correspondent's recent trip to Xela.

Quetzaltenango is Guatemala's "Second City," of sorts. Commonly known as "Xela" based on an old Mayan placename, Quetzaltenango actually has fewer Guatemalans in it than Los Angeles, New York, Washington, and probably several other U.S. metro areas. Xela is in the highlands of the country, a place where many indigenous groups remain particularly strong -- the previous mayor was indigenous, which is a rare feat given the continuing racism towards the indios from the ruling ladinos.

Your faithful correspondent was dispatched to Xela with the Ambassador, who was there mostly to make contact with "the interior" of the country. Your correspondent was along to report on economic conditions in Xela and on the perceptions of the impending free trade agreement there. The meetings were all fascinating, and the insight of the local leaders was impressive. For example, [REDACTED]. Of course, there were some cultural misunderstandings -- the funniest part of the whole thing was [REDACTED]. The Ambassador himself was of course [REDACTED], often [REDACTED] before he [REDACTED]. [REDACTED]. [REDACTED]. [REDACTED].


There were some brief moments where the schedule allowed your correspondent to visit the heart of Xela outside of his official capacity. Clearly the most amazing part of the trip was arriving to find Xela's central square packed with an estimated 3,000 campesinos forming a sea of straw cowboy hats (the photo was taken hours later, after the sea diminished by about 80%). After brief concerns that a political protest was imminent, further inspection made it clear they were waiting in line. During some or all of the 36-year civil war that ended in 1996, campesinos were "recruited" by the army, often under threat of death, to participate in "civilian patrols," known as PACs. The participants in these paramilitary groups claim they were never compensated for their time, and that the government now owes them back wages. Without getting too far into the details (lest further redactions become necessary), a deal was eventually brokered, and now the thousands of campesinos from the surrounding area were waiting at the one bank that was handing out checks. By the time the staff photographer was finished with his more pressing duties for the day, the crowd had dwindled significantly but still remained impressive. It was really one of the most stunning sights this correspondent has seen in Guatemala, and the staff photographer apologizes profusely for the blurriness of many of the dusk-dampened photos (while still encouraging readers to take a look).

On a slightly funnier note, that can sadly not be illustrated by photos as they were banned by the institution in question, the museum on the main square is a sight one cannot miss. Among the featured exhibits were some creepy and highly bedraggled stuffed specimens of Guatemalan fauna, including the elusive Quetzal, spotted ocelots, and, for some reason, a lion; a human brain in a jar; the chair that a former Quetzaltenango mayor was assassinated in (I think this was just after the era of Xela's brief independence from Guatemala in 1848-50, but the informative text accompanying the displays left much to the visitor's imagination); a marimba played by one of the great Guatemalan marimbistas of all time (or maybe constructed by one of the great marimberos of all time, again with the labels); and, right as one enters, the masterstroke of the "local history" wing of the museum, an actual computer from way back in 1980. Never forget!

Monday, March 06, 2006

Las Lisas

It was another dismal rainy weekend in the Guatemalan capital. Or so we hear, as your correspondent had decamped to the sunny beaches of the Pacific Coast. We stayed at a place called "Isleta la Gaia" which sounds new-agey, but it turns out is actually just run by a French guy. I practiced my best bon jours and mercis over lunch, but they were willing to describe the "salade exotique" in Spanish, so I didn't need to dip into the deeper well of savoir faire fran├žaise that I'm sure rests within, untapped.

The Isleta of the name is actually a long skinny island separated from the mainland by a canal whose primary functions are first to provide a living for the many motor-boat owners of the tiny village of Las Lisas who charge to cross it, and second to collect deisel runoff from said motor-boats. The beach is famously hot. Its sand is made of black crushed volcanic rock, and is thus quite good at absorbing the sun's energy. Rumors of its unpleasant warmness had reached the Holla offices, but we scoffed. After suffering what I contend were second-degree burns on the soles of my feet, this correspondent scoffs no more. The staff photographer was afraid to venture out too much, and returned with only a meager collection of less-than-photojournalistic shots of wood.

Other than that, the weekend was a fairly typical beach-bungalow affair. We lazed, we read, we drank, we boogie-boarded. The Pacific surf in Guatemala is known to be unfriendly to swimmers, but with free French planches du boogie, we gave it a go, despite our antipathy to the term "boogie board." I suggested that we cast off the term, with its 1980's connotations, and rechristen the activity with a somewhat less embarrassing name, like "weenie surfing." We'll see if it catches on.