Taking the chicken bus to a Mayan festival

After the morning fog on Saturday burned off (see our art film on mornings in Xela here), we met up with four friends to spend the day at the indigenous village San Andres Xecul (shea-kool) for its annual festival.

After meeting Ben, Krista, Kelsey and Tom outside our Spanish language school ICA in Quetzaltenango, we walked north to find a ‘chicken bus’ that could take us to Xecul. It turns out that old school buses don’t die, they just get shipped to Guatemala and converted for use as public transportation. The conversion process includes a custom paint job, a booming sound system and pimped out accessories such as an air horn and a Mercedes logo mounted on the grill.

Bus drivers work in tandem with an ayudante, or helper. The ayudante seems to magically float on, around, and on top of the chicken bus. At one moment he is collecting our 3 Quetzales (0.40 USD) fare, the next he is weaving his way through the throngs of people to hang out the front door and shout out the bus destination. As the bus slowly winds through small towns, the ayudante will jump out and ply the streets for more customers, then run and jump back onto the moving bus a few blocks later to squeeze people into the seats and aisle to maximize the amount of passengers the bus can carry. If you get on the bus with more chickens than can fit on your lap, the ayudante will lug your package to the top of the bus, then swing into the bus through the back emergency exit door as the bus rolls down the road.

Walking several dusty blocks to the chaotic central bus station of Xela, buses sped past us honking as the ayudante hung precariously from the open door shouting the bus destination. As our group of six tall, fair foreigners arrived in the central bus terminal, we were immediately swarmed with people offering rides. Every bus is named, usually after the driver’s daughter or mother, and the bus we boarded for the trip was named Graciella. Men and children selling sweets, ice cream, and what looked like jello shots made their way through the bus shouting their wares and prices. The bus was packed full, with three people to a seat and standing room only in the aisle, but as usual the ayudante somehow made his way through to collect the fares. After a bumpy 20 minute ride we arrived at the dusty crossroads of Morales, and the ayudante waved us off the bus toward a waiting bus for San Andres Xecul. This bus sped up through fields and farms to the deforested hills surrounding Xecul, blaring its horn at every passing vehicle.

We arrived in Xecul as the marimba orchestra was testing the decibal limits of the band’s wall of speakers. Vendors crowded the narrow streets selling baskets, sugar cane, sweet bread, handmade candies, and the typical assortment of cheap trinkets found at many county fairs in the US. We headed uphill to the hallucinogenic church dome that poked above the surrounding cement buildling. Painted circus red, yellow, and blue and adorned with grinning cherubs, dancing tigers, and climbing vines, this church faced the central plaza and ground zero for the fair.

Rickety faded amusement park rides that I imagine had their heyday in the US in the 1940s were set up in the central square, and filled with shouting children wearing multicolored traditional clothing of the local indigenous people. This was a green fair: all of these rides were hand powered by men heaving levers or simply pushing the rides to keep them moving. After losing a couple of quetzales trying to land a coin on plates floating in a kiddie pool to win a soda, we headed to the church to see if the décor inside matched the outside. Neon lights illuminated the central altar, and hundreds of candles were burning as women prayed and children sat quietly. While we could still feel the pumping bass of the marimba band coming from outside, the relatively quiet church was a welcome break.

Back in the central plaza, following a speech of mixed Spanish and K’iche (the local Mayan language) and some earsplitting fireworks, a crowd gathered around a roped-off area. Three men adorned in sparkling costumes and wearing freaky masks (we think they represented Spanish conquistadors) began to dance haltingly back and forth as the crowd watched. Larger groups of dancers dressed in black and white bedazzled monkey costumes, or yellow and black spotted tiger costumes made their way into the roped-off area and danced as a group. They jumped forwards and backwards, hoping from one foot to the other, facing each of the 4 cardinal directions, before bowing to the crowd. Over and over, individual dancers faced the crowd, shook their rattle and beat their whip on the ground, then stood still while cupping their hand to their ear. After watching for about an hour, we headed back down the hill to catch another chaotic yet entertaining bus back to Xela (click here for a video of our day in Xecul). While we enjoyed the chicken bus experience, it made us appreciate having a our own car for transportation. We couldn’t imagine riding for 6 hours packed into the back of cramped school bus on the way to Tikal.

Saturday evening Shirly and Sergio dropped the kids off with their parents so the four of us could explore Xela’s nightlife. This is our last weekend in Xela, and we are very sad to be leaving our Guatemalan family. We shared two pitchers of cerveza mixta, another Guatemalan specialty made from a combination of the light lager of Gallo and a darker porter called Moza, at Cantina Tecun. This bar is the oldest in Guatemala, and serves up some mean pizza. Sergio and Shirly wished us luck on our travels, and told us that whenever we returned to Xela we would have a home with them. They also gave us a bottle of an indigenous alcohol called Quetzalteca and a tablecloth. In our halting Spanish we thanked them for welcoming us into their home and family. As the night continued and the litros of Cabro disappeared, we listened to live music in a small bar as all of the locals shouted the words along with the singer. We leave the Castillos on Monday for two weeks of travel through Guatemala to visit Lago Atitlan, Chichicastenango, Antigua, and Tikal.

(Shirly and Sergio with cereza mixta, Chris and Kristin much later in the night with a litro of Cabro)

Just another weekend sitting in hot springs and working on the farm

It was bone-chilling cold in Quetzaltenango (Xela) this week, so on Friday afternoon we headed to the Fuentes Georginas, a natural hot spring high in the mountains.  A bumpy ride on a retired American school bus took us through the outskirts of Xela and into the surrounding farms and countryside.  We passed small produce markets of brilliant fruits and vegetables, women in brightly colored dresses tending the fields, and people carrying unbelievably heavy loads of wood on their backs.  The road narrowed to one lane as we climbed higher into the mountains, and when we smelled sulfur we knew we were close.  The hot springs are nestled in a narrow green valley shrouded in fog.  The hot water, naturally heated by the surrounding volcanic activity, pours out of cracks in the rocks into three pools of varying temperature.  The hottest pool became unbearable after about 10 minutes of soaking, so we retreated downstream to a pool that soaked away the cold that had permeated our bones from our unheated bedroom and icebox classes (see video of our trip and the hot springs here).  In addition to relaxing in the hot springs with our friends Tom and Kelsy (joydrive.ca), we also brought our friend Ron Botran.  Chris picked him up at the local liquor store during our morning break from classes.

(Relaxing in the hot springs; Chris getting our friend Ron ready for the trip)

Saturday morning we woke up early to join a volunteer project hosted by ICA, our language school.  For the last 15 years, the school has sponsored a reforestation effort in the surrounding mountains.  This project’s mission is to raise a hundred thousand trees of local species such as alder, cypress, pine, and eucalyptus every year.  Deforestation in Guatemala is a problem as 60% of Guatemalans still use wood for heating and cooking.  We walked about 2 miles to a nursery on the outskirts of Xela with great views of the erupting volcano.  It felt strange to walk in a city past internet cafes and clothing stores, while goats are herded down the street. On the tree farm working with friendly Laura, her son Julio, and another farmer named Carlos, we hoed, weeded, and raked until our hands blistered and our backs ached.  Chris was especially brave and helped me pick the transparent finger-sized worms out of the freshly turned dirt.  We felt totally beat after only working 4 hours, but we were quickly reminded of how lucky we are when we passed city block sized gravel pits where all work was done by hand with wheelbarrows and shovels.  I think another trip to the Fuentes Georginas with Ron may be in our near future.  

Xela, not to be confused with the Warrior Princess

Through the ICA language school, we arranged to take three weeks of intensive Spanish language classes and stay with a local family in Xelaju. We met our new ‘family’ last Sunday night, and got to know them better over a dinner of steaming mugs of hot chocolate and sweet Guatemalan bread. Shirly and Sergio Castillo have been hosting students from ICA for several months, and they know to speak slowly and clearly so we can understand them. Their two very sweet children, Oscar and Alfonso, are 5 and 6 years old and enjoy practicing their English with us. After talking with the Castillos for several hours, our brains were overloaded with Spanish so we went to bed early.

(views from our bedroom window)

ICA places its students with typical middle-class families, and it has been interesting to see the similarities and differences from life in the US. While they have cable and cell phones, the Castillo home is quite small and simply constructed around a small central courtyard. The family shares one bedroom, and spends much of its time in the adjacent living/dining room area. The bathrooms and sinks are located outside in the courtyard, and both clothes and dishes are washed in a cement sink. Our room is upstairs over our bathroom, and is a large simple room furnished only with a bed and dresser. The water and electricity is somewhat unreliable, and taking showers in the chilly morning has made for some chattering teeth. Sometimes in the middle of the night we are awakened by cats walking noisily on the tin roof, and in the mornings by a wobbly recording of music blasted from a nearby church.

(views from our bedroom door)

Since that first Sunday night, we fell into a nice routine, and I feel like our Spanish has improved dramatically. We share a large two-course breakfast of a milky porridge and tea, followed by eggs, tortillas, and bread with Shirly and Sergio, and then head to ICA for 5 hours of one-on-one Spanish lessons. Heads spinning from irregular verb conjugations and loads of new vocabulary, we eat a hearty lunch with the Castillos around 2 pm. Shirly is a great cook, and we really enjoy the Guatemalan foods she prepares for us. Thick corn tortillas or crusty bread is typically served with a meal of meat, beans, vegetables, and juice. Some days we especially enjoyed delicious tamales, chilaquiles, or soup as well. We have been surprised by some unusual food combinations though. One morning I was excited when Shirly set down bowls of cornflakes instead of porridge for breakfast, as I do miss some simple things from our previous life in the US. I poured milk out of the pitcher and happily started to eat, but was quite surprised by the first spoonful as the milk was hot. In Guatemala apparently all cereals are eaten this way. Another morning we were served pan-fried plantains with a pungent Guatemalan cheese, which was an unusual flavor combination to say the least. We spend most afternoons drinking liquados, tasty milk and fruit shakes, or coffee in a local café with wireless internet access, while doing homework, reviewing flashcards, and copying notes. One afternoon we slacked off and took a trip up into the verdant mountains surrounding Xelaju to relax in beautiful fog-shrouded natural hot springs. After returning home at 7 pm, we share a smaller dinner with the family, usually consisting of tea, bread and tortillas. I think watching Spanish Nickelodeon with Oscar and Alfonso has also helped our Spanish a bit.

(colonial architecture in the parque central, Xela)

One of the things we enjoy the most about our time in Xelaju is learning more about how life in Guatemala has changed so much over the last 30 or 40 years. During the colonial period from the 1500-1800s, the Spanish enslaved Guatemala’s indigenous people to work the land. After witnessing the genocide of indigenous peoples in the Caribbean and other Latin American areas, the Catholic church approached conversion of the local Mayan people with slightly more respect and pacifism, and the Christianity practiced today in much of Guatemala is a mix of Mayan animism and ceremony with Catholicism. Society in Guatemala became quite stratified, with European born Spaniards holding most of the land and wealth; criollos, or people born in Guatemala of Spanish blood slightly below the Spanish; mestizos, or people of mixed Spanish and Mayan blood in the middle; and Maya and black slaves at the bottom. In 1821, the criollos successful revolted against Spanish colonial rule and achieved independence from Spain. This did little to improve the lives of the mestizos and actually diminished quality of life for Mayas and slaves in Guatemala. From the 1870s until 1945, a series of brutal, greedy dictators did modernize Guatemala somewhat in order to stimulate coffee production. However, this mainly served to increase the socio-economic, class, and race inequalities already in place.  Between 1945 and 1952, democracy was beginning to take hold in Guatemala.  Much of these reforms were undone as the Guatemalan government was overthrown by a CIA-orchestrated invasion from Honduras in 1954, after Guatemala attempted to expropriate vast lands that were being held fallow by the United Fruit Company. As a reaction to the violent military dictatorships that followed this coup during the 50s and 60s, left-wing guerrilla groups began to form. By 1979, Amnesty International estimated that 50,000-60,000 people had been killed during the political violence of the 1970s. The 1970s, 80s, and 90s were marked by military coups, dictators, and starting in 1982, a civil war between the ruling military junta and the URNG, a coalition of four powerful guerrilla groups. Atrocities were committed by both sides of this civil war, which ended in 1996, after an estimated 200,000 people had died, millions were homeless, and countless others had disappeared. While life in Guatemala has dramatically improved since then, human rights abuses, corrupt government officials, drugs, and poverty still plague the country.

(typical streets in Xela)

All this aside, the people here are incredibly friendly. It is considered impolite to begin a conversation or enter a store without first greeting people with ‘buen dia’ (good day), people smile as you pass them on the sidewalk, and Sergio greets us a with a hug and a handshake every time we see him. Tourists in Guatemala are generally unaffected by the problems that plague Guatemalan citizens, but we are glad to be living with a family so we can better understand their lives. Sergio and Shirly grew up during the civil war, and have shared stories about hearing gunfire around their homes, and seeing neighbors and their children pulled from their homes, never to be seen again. Despite that, Sergio smiles as he talks with pride about Guatemala, and says ‘gracias a Dios’ (thanks to God) when he discusses how his children’s lives will be so different from his childhood.

(view of our family’s street)