A trip to Guatemala

I was not thinking that I needed to reconnect with my Latina roots, but the minute I felt myself to be in a place where people are naturally both respectful and kind, it was like unsquishing the marshmallow of myself, back into who I really am! I was so glad to hear Spanish spoken, and be able to carry on conversations, and also hear the natural politeness, and feel the unhurried pace of the people around us. By being in the Peace Corps in Paraguay after college, and then in Mexico for Medical School, I have a big chunk of my own life experience and myself as a young person in the milieu of latin culture. Remembering words delighted me, remembering whole sentences, and how to say something more gracefully delighted me even more. I was truly nourished in the soul by this trip!

Waking up to breakfast in a place where women are making hand-made fresh tortillas is like being in heaven. Throw in bougainvillea in full bloom, a beautiful volcano with a halo of a lenticular cloud just below the peak, and old heavy wooden carved doors and ceilings, tile roofs, and 20 inch-thick stone walls, put me in my happiest frame of mind. I loved the city of Antigua, but also the area around Lake Atitlan, the small villages with women weaving on backstrap looms, in a time-honored tradition. I love the bright colors, the happy feeling of the textiles they are weaving!

When we got to Chichicastenango, I wanted only to try on some old huipiles (the serape-type blouses, made of hand-woven and sometimes over-embroidered with more bright colors). I was not intending to buy anything the first day we were there. But when I saw these gorgeous cloths, I could not help buying several; both two old ones, and two new ones. I also bought a beautiful shawl, of navy embroidery on royal blue woven cloth. By the end of the market day, I owed everyone on our small tour money, as I had not brought enough cash for all this gorgeous stuff! I was a tiny bit concerned that the rest of the week I would rue the purchases, and wish I had waited, but as the exposure to more weaving and huipiles in various markets went on, I was very happy with what I got the first day.

I continued to see wonderful bargains, with new and interesting designs, in each market we went to. In Antigua, just up from the arch over the main street, there is a wonderful indoor market which gave lots of access to viewing and considering the different designs of cloths and huipiles, and good prices, although fixed. The last day, we went to the market in Guatemala City, and I found a wonderful cloth purse-bag, with hummingbirds embroidered on it. I had not seen this design before.

We went to the wonderful museum Ixel, in Guatemala City, and saw more about the weaving, and the videos for education were wonderful. We watched a procession from one of the Holy Week processions, in a small town, with all the musicians, and all the people wearing “traje”– the traditional clothing. We learned about pre-Columbian culture of the different Maya people. We saw one of the latest ruin sites of the Ki ché people. The ones we were most exposed to were the Ki ché people, who are in the region around Lake Atitlan.

We loved the weavings at the town of San Juan de la Laguna, on the other side of the lake from Panajachel. This town has a women’s weaving cooperative. They take turns doing the whole task of picking the cotton, taking out the seeds, then beating the cotton to make the fibers line up more linearly, and then spinning them on a spindle. Once they have a good amount of yarn, they dye batches, in colors from different plants. Some cotton is naturally white, and a different kind is naturally a beige-brown color. In some of the weavers’ towns, new thread is now being imported and used, both silk and mercerized, and polyester, from different places, in order to give the brilliant colors play. In San Juan, they are trying to stick to the traditional cloth process. The backstrap looms are held in front, and strapped around the back, and many women are seated with their knees bent and their lower legs folded under them. I can not maintain that position, and cannot imagine doing it for hours, to be able to weave! My thighs would be screaming in pain! In these towns, the women weave their own bridal wear, and they also need to weave a fabulous piece for the mother-in-law, which takes about a year. They can’t get married until all this weaving is done!

The roads through the mountains are a feat of engineering, very similar to the Hwy 17 road we have here, to Santa Cruz, in Ca. There are trucks full of rebar and bricks, busily moving to new construction places. The small farms all the way up the mountainsides are terraced, and look very healthy. The vegetables in the markets look very healthy and tempting! We got a fabulous meal in Guatemala City, at the “Cocina de Señora Pu”— a Mayan woman who cooks with the old dishes and very fresh ingredients, wonderful and interesting spices, and she has an advanced degree in both cooking, nutrition and Mayan anthropology around cooking. The food was so good that we came back for another meal the next day! She is tiny, lovely, and humble; and lets you watch how she makes miracles of meals from a 4 burner stove and an old pressure cooker. Most of her food was steamed or roasted-cooked on a thick iron “plancha”.

We got to watch how cocoa is harvested and readied for market, and learned to drink cocoa tea made with water instead of milk. We learned also about coffee, which is another product of Guatemala. And we went to see how they carve the Guatemalan jade, which is different than the Chinese jade, and there is a lavender variety which is quite lovely.

We had a van in which we travelled, driven by a very attentive and kindly man. We had a wonderful tour guide who grew up in Guatemala, then came to America, and is now trying to introduce people to her beautiful homeland. And we had great talks by a tour guide who explained a lot of things about the culture and the language, and answered endless questions we had about plants and customs of the people.

I cannot recommend highly enough that you take a trip to see this amazing country. There are Swiss-German influences in the mountains, where pine and cypress are also around tropical plants and orchids. Some immigrants from 100 years ago have left their mark on the area in the way wood is carved, and how cheese is made. They also have some wonderful beer!

I got a book about the Maya and weavings, from a woman who lived there, named Carmen Petersen. She did some great paintings of the women wearing their traditional clothes. Her work was the baseline for the Museum of Ixchel. I fear that the traditional weaving will not go on forever, as more women get other opportunities, but for now, it is great to see them sharing in the cooperatives of weavers, to help make ends meet for their families.

I liked the bed in the hotel we stayed in in Guatemala City, the Barcelø. Soft pillows and help for arthritic hip. Also, there is a pool.

All in all– a great learning experience, beautiful, healthy and fun!