Sunday, February 25, 2007
Of the Ixil Triangle
The Ixil Triangle is a great place name. While many Guatemalan place names are nice because they seem goofy to us, "The Ixil Triangle" sounds exotic and mysterious. And to a certain extent, it is. Your correspondent will not be so brash as to claim that we were charting new territory unspoiled by tourism, but Ixil is definitely a fair stretch off the main Guatemalan tourist trail. The steep hills and plunging valleys that make the region so beautiful are also the reason it is so hard to get to, and you have to spend several hours driving off the main highway to arrive. It is developing a reputation for that beauty, and for hiking in the nearby hills, and as with many places Guatemalan, as a spot to (perhaps rudely) gawk at the unique clothes worn by the many steadfastly traditional denizens. But it is most famous as the area where many of the very worst attrocities of the long, brutal internal conflict occurred.
In fact, as soon as we got into town on Saturday, we went hiking up and over a mountain ridge and down to the town in the next valley. Acul was founded at the height of the war as a "pole of development," which was the euphamism for a resettlement camp for the people whose entire villages were destroyed by the Army out of suspicion that they may have provided some support to the guerrilla groups that mostly lived out in the hills. Of course, the guerrillas were busy with their own ways of making life hard for the subsistence farmers of the region, too.
On our way up the ridge, we met a guy coming down with his granddaughter. He was dragging behind him a long pole -- a tree limb he had just cut down for firewood or fenceposts or who knows what. It was at least 25 feet long, and five inches in diameter at the wide end. His granddaughter was doing her part, dragging her own pole, which was only half as long and half as wide, but a lot more than I would have been willing to haul down a mountain at age five. As we approached, we asked the guy if we were on the correct path to reach Acul, and he turned off his transistor radio and sat down to chat for a spell. I would guess he mostly wanted an excuse to rest for a bit, but we nevertheless enjoyed chatting with him about how much we liked Guatemala, and then about how hard things were when the Army was bombing the area during the civil war, and then about his son (and the little girl's father) who was in the U.S. working illegally, having paid Q35,000 (about $4,500) for a coyote to smuggle him up there. The gentleman, like others your correspondent talked with over the course of the weekend, was very interested in how we came to Guatemala, and how long does a plane ride to the US last, and how much would it cost? And a bus ride through Mexico, how long is that?
Once we arrived in Acul, we were greeted by many people with at least a polite "Buenas Tardes," and even the occasional "Bienvenidos! (Welcome!)" It was a bit odd, given that Guatemalans are almost all extremely polite in a formal sense, but almost never very warm in an outgoing way. There isn't much to Acul, but getting there is a nice hike and is described in a popular guidebook, so it was nice to see that the flow of tourists wandering through their town hadn't worn them down yet.
For the following day, we planned to continue to take advantage of the lovely setting and the unusual chance to go hiking without fearing for one's life, as one must in some of the hills nearer to the capital. Unfortunately, the weather did not accommodate us. A thick fog descended over the region, bringing drizzle and cold. Those reading this from the wintry climes of United States may scoff -- surely it couldn't be that cold in the tropics! That is precisely the mistake we made. We packed as if we were visiting a tropical locale in the dry season. Of course, we were at 7,000 feet of elevation, so it can rain any time. And yet, being remote and desperately poor, heating for the cinder-block buildings of Nebaj was a luxury not many had invested in. For the portion of the afternoon that we spent in a cafe, hands wrapped around mugs of hot chocolate, we were each wearing every scrap of clothing we had packed -- a couple shirts, a sweater, a fleece vest -- and were still shivering with cold. We could see our breath indoors. Your correspondent calculated that it could not have been more than 40 degrees Fahrenheit. It got even worse when we your correspondent, perhaps suffering from the judgement-impairing effects of frostbite, decided he could not stand hot chocolate any more and switched to cold beer.
Prior to settling in to wallow in the cold, we took a trip from our base camp in Nebaj, largest town of the Triangle, to San Juan Cotzal and Chajul, the Triangle's other two points. The pom-poms in the women's hair were slightly different, and it was pleasant to see the charming towns and to imagine what the views might have been like on a different day. But there was still the fog. And the cold. And after driving for 45 minutes and rarely seeing another car on the road, we managed to get stuck in the closest there may ever have been to a traffic jam in Chajul, as one of the political parties brought in a dozen trucks and buses loaded with "supporters" for a rally in town. It is possible that these were all true devotees of the Partido de Acción Nacional. But it would not be unheard of in Guatemala if they had all been given the equivalent of two or three dollars to spend their Sunday visiting a couple small towns and cheering for the PAN on command.
The final day of our trip was sunny again. We wished for more time to go for another hike, but the long road back called our names anyway. The staff photographer spent the morning trying to catch pictures of Ixil life at the market from a respectful and unobtrusive distance, with middling success on the unobtrusiveness. While standing around snapping photos, a young guy with a handtruck stopped by to chat with the staff photographer. After a friendly talk about, among other things, how much a plane ticket to the US costs, and how long it would take to get there, they parted ways, only to meet again a couple blocks away. At this point, the Ixil interlocutor (named Geronimo) asked if the staff photographer (henceforth "SP") would take his picture. The SP explained that he would be delighted to take Geronimo's photo, but that he could not possibly print a copy until he returned to Guatemala City, and that the odds of his return to Nebaj were very small. Geronimo was undeterred, as any number of his church friends would be coming to Guatemala City over the next few weeks. The SP said he wasn't sure that would work, but agreed to take Geronimo's picture and trust the Guatemalan mail system to deliver it appropriately -- a fair but still shaky proposition. Geronimo found it satisfactory, and asked the SP to follow him to his preferred portrait location, which turned out to be the evangelical church where he works and lives. (One of many, many, evangelical churches in Nebaj, by the way, from which issue all manner of hymns and generally unpleasant music at all hours of the day.)
Geronimo lives in a small cinder block room, sleeps on a wooden pallet, and had, as decoration, only a single 8"x11" frame, bearing four items: A postcard with a picture of Jesus; a scrap of paper with some names on it; a commercial photo of three cute babies (unclear why this was selected for inclusion); and a picture of Geronimo himself, withe his handtruck, wearing a giant blue sequined sombrero, as one might wear when being photographed after too many margaritas in Tijuana. Geronimo went on to explain his vision, to one day acquire enough photos (apparently of himself) to cover all the walls of his room. This story was far too sympathetic to deny.
Your correspondent realizes now that it may appear that he is making sport of Geronimo, but please accept assurances that I only do so in order to maximize reader interest. Well, and also the whole room-full-of-self-portraits thing was weird. But Geronimo was embarrasingly kind, painfully sincere, and while his vision struck me as odd, who am I to tell a guy who clearly works hard and yet still sleeps on bare wooden pallet what kind of simple dreams he should be reaching for? So Geronimo took off his work shirt, put on his best coat, grabbed his framed pictures, and stepped into the sunny courtyard. Here is the result. I can only assume that he wanted to be pictured with his own framed picture, not out of some post-modern vision of one day having a picture of himself holding a picture of himself holding a picture of himself (etc), but because it was perhaps his proudest possession. Or maybe there wasn't a giant blue sombrero available. In any case, your correspondent is ordering a print of the picture for Geronimo, and hoping the Guatemalan mail system can get speed it to its destination. But if any reader is planning a trip to Nebaj anytime soon, please speak up and I'll get you a copy and directions to the church where he lives.