Jan 18 2012

Body, Mind & Spirit

Published by at 8:30 pm under Travel,Video

Body: My large stomach and I are leaving Guatemala tomorrow. Mercedes came over and gave me a foot massage as a goodbye present. She also gave me candles and a little pouch with magic stuff in it. Then she did a little Maya-influenced ritual to ensure safe travels for Maria and me. Sadly for my pocketbook, she brought more pocketbooks to sell. I bought all but the one Maria bought. I’ll tell you right now: you’re either getting a scarf or a pocketbook. Sadly for me and luckily for you, everything I buy is truly handmade. I say truly because people usually claim their stuff is handmade, but most isn’t. All these pocketbooks were made out of traditional Maya fabric and pieces of embroidered huipiles.

Mind: I usually see the parts of Guatemala that other tourists see. I wanted to learn about a different side, so I went on a walking tour of Ciudad Vieja.

Let me tell you about Ciudad Vieja. In 1527, it became the second capital of Guatemala (after Tecpan). Its reign was brief. Fourteen years later El Volcán Agua unleashed massive amounts of water and rock that demolished the city except for one building. (Antigua was the next capital until it was destroyed by an earthquake as massive as the flood. Since then, the capital has sat still in Guatemala City.)

The tour was led by Niños de Guatemala, a nonprofit that runs a school for the poorest in the community. There were about six of us, and all but moi were fluent in Spanish. The guide asked if I’d like her to do an English version, but I said no because I didn’t want to be a pain. She proceeded to careen through sentences like a chicken bus through alleys, while my brain held on for dear life. Once I asked her to slow down but that didn’t last. Still, I understood this:

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Our tour began as we boarded a chicken bus bound for the cuidad. (This local route, like the one I rode yesterday, is safe.) It was a fitting start to our trip, since our first stop was to one of the two big businesses in town: chicken bus conversion.

When the U.S. gets tired of its big yellow school buses, they sell them down south. The buses arrive here with the school name still emblazoned on them, black on bright yellow.

It’s not easy to become a chicken bus. American school buses are too long for Guatemala’s narrow streets, so the workers take a slice out of the middle and splice the halves back together. All the two-person seats are stripped out and new seats fabricated that fit three across. These are placed much closer together than in the original configuration. So even though the bus has a smaller footprint, it holds more people. The aisle is literally eight to ten inches wide. You sidle down it. After that, the boring yellow paint is covered over in the typical blinding array of brilliant colors. The colors don’t represent anything. They’re just what the bus owners request.

You won’t be interested in this, not having watched thousands of the colorful things roar by spewing black smoke as their conductors lean out the open door and shout the destination to attract riders: Guate Guate Gaute! But I’m interested, and it’s my blog, not yours.

All the buses in Guatemala are owned by one of only about four people. It’s their wives’ names that are emblazoned on the front: Esperanza, Esmeralda, Etcetera. The owners rent the buses to drivers. Each day the drivers have to meet a minimum number of fares or they don’t break even. They also have to get places on schedule or they don’t get paid. That’s why the buses are so crowded and go so fast.

As you know, the murder rate has skyrocketed here, and bus robbery is a major contributor. Being a chauffeur is the most dangerous profession in the country. In the big cities like Guatemala, many districts are controlled by different gangs. If a bus goes through one route, that gang demands that the owner pay them a protection fee. If it goes through multiple districts, several gangs try to exact payment. If the owner pays, all is well. If the owner doesn’t pay, the bus driver often gets killed.

And that brings me to the other major industry in Cuidad Vieja: coffin-making. Guatemalans joke that it’s a good line of work these days because you have plenty of customers. It’s usually a family business, and there are jobs for everyone, from son to abuelita: sawing and gluing and sanding and polishing and painting and varnishing, and cutting fabric and sewing and button-tucking. We visited a busy workshop with coffins in all stages of development.

In the U.S., hilly neighborhoods are often the wealthy ones, while lower down may be more modest. As often, the opposite is true here. In Cuidad Vieja, just up the hill from the main part of town the houses change from concrete block and stucco to tin, rubber tire, bamboo and other lashed-together odds and ends. There’s a lot of trash because the people can’t afford the trash collection fees. Next to some houses are small, arable patches of land that people rent. When they get home from their day jobs, often in the fields, they tend to small crops of coffee or corn for a little extra cash. The soil and climate here produces outstanding coffee.

Enough background for the photos. Here they are. The first two are of a man who has a little ceramics shop half a block from me, yet I’ve never noticed him before today. I stopped in this afternoon and asked him to make me something in particular. He immediately set to it and will have it finished by tomorrow morning. Then I leave.

Spirit: Well, that kind of bombed. In this portentous year in the Mayan calendar, Maria and I were going to consult with a notable Mayan priest and member of the Guatemalan Elders Council, to see what might lie ahead for us. He called this morning to schedule for early this evening. An hour after he was due here, Maria called him to see qué pasó. His voice, amplified by speakerphone, had that distinctive tippling sound. I wish he could told us this morning what lay ahead for this evening so we could have made other plans.

I’m tired. I have to go pack. I’m leaving tomorrow. This is likely to be the last entry but time will tell, since prophecy won’t.

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “Body, Mind & Spirit”

  1. Molly says:

    Don’t be silly, you don’t have a large stomach.

    I am interested in the chicken buses and their history. Wow: the description you wrote was really cool and descriptive, and then there were pictures too, as a super-bonus. How fascinating!

    What did the man make for you? I must know.

  2. Airport Gal says:

    Thank you, kind and kind gal. I won’t tell you what the man made for me. Oh, wait. I already did.

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