Inspiration from the Highlands

Published: June 23rd 2005
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Mmmm...Guatemala. At this moment I feel that I might be beginning to have a love affair with this country. "Third time´s a charm," right? Even though I am blasting through here at lightning speed and visiting cities I´ve already seen, I am totally captivated. Not that Guatemala is an idyllic paradise...its flaws are perhaps even more glaring because of the extreme beauty that it contrasts...but it is impossible not to be won over by this country. Both Antigua and Xela are colonial cities with all the European charm of cobblestoned streets, Baroque facades, lively plazas, and flowering gardens artistically adorned with sculptures and fountains. The central plazas at night, with the uplighting on the grandiose cathedrals, columned walkways, and pillared municipal buildings, hold a certain romanticism -- enhanced by the occasional horse-drawn buggy strolling by and lovers of all ages taking up temporary residence on the park benches to steal a kiss or two.

On Wednesday morning, after a hard night of deliberating where to go next, I was walking around Antigua to shoot some pictures and get some medications for my self-diagnosed infection (lovely thing that pharmacies down here will just give you what you need) when I happened
Vendors break for conversationVendors break for conversationVendors break for conversation

by the Xela Cathedral
upon a lovely bookstore on the main plaza. Those of you well-acquainted with me know that a good bookstore is like my Mecca. The beauty of this one, however, was that it was stocked with all kinds of books on the Guatemalan and Central American political, cultural, economic, and historical situations; more than your average travelers' English language novel shop. Out of the 20 some titles that grabbed my eye, I carefully selected two to add to the weight of my pack before heading back for yet another wonderful breakfast at the hotel. Well, the food was wonderful (they put almond extract in their pancakes -- genius!), the company of the gruff middle-aged Spaniard who never once cracked a smile or actually an emotion of any sort in the two days I shared a room with him was somewhat less than wonderful, albeit amusing.

I opted for the connecting chicken bus method of reaching my next destination, Quetzaltenango (or, as it is more commonly known, Xela -- Shay-La) rather than the direct bus. I've been utilizing this method whenever possible and it is most rewarding. For one thing, I am almost always the only foreigner on the bus, which helps to counteract the feeling that the country is a tourist magnet. Second, it gives an insight into daily life of the locals, and, since I have been doing it this way in all the countries, it also gives a good vantage point for comparison of the various places. I was lucky enough to catch a bus to Chimaltenango as soon as I walked out my hotel door and when I arrived at the bus terminal, everyone was extremely helpful. I asked a girl for directions to catch a Xela-bound bus and she walked the 6 blocks with me, and other friendly locals hailed the bus down for me and helped get my pack on the bus.

But I was in for a surprise once I got on; I entered through the back emergency exit door and wondered if they seriously expected me to fit. Though they fill the buses past capacity in most of Central America, this was in a league of its own. Every seat had 3 people on it and the entire 8 inch wide walkway between the seats was jammed with standing passengers from front to back. So I stood for the first 45 minutes to an hour until the first major stop. However, I'm not sure what's worse: standing, or sitting with half your ass in the aisle leaning up to someone across the aisle in the same position, jockeying for a foothold since you have no real support for your constantly shifting weight on the curvy mountain roads. Basically those US school buses that have signs posted saying "Max Capacity: 62" are made to accommodate 100 passengers easily in Guatemala. Oh, and when you drive by police vehicles on the side of the road, the driver makes everyone duck down so that it looks like the bus is operating under a more reasonable capacity. On a more optimistic note, the proximity of total strangers became more and more welcome the further we got into the ride, as we continued to climb higher and higher up the mountains until we were totally enveloped in the clouds and the COLD. Although Xela is quite hot and the incredibly strong sun will burn you during the day, the mornings and evenings have me yearning for my wool coat and scarf. And to think, just 3 days prior I was still taking 3 cold showers a day just to be cool enough to relax and sleep!

The hospitality of the people continued as we drew closer to Xela; the bus helper practically fell off the back of the bus assisting me on with my backpack and a family offered to let me tag along with them on the intercity bus to get to the center of town and then personally walked me to my hotel.

I had a gloriously fun night out -- I tried, to no avail, to get a hold of my former Spanish teacher, Will, so after what could be called no less than a feast at this Arabian restaurant, I headed to La Fratta, the local salsa venue on Wednesday nights. It was a bit of a blast from the past, as I ran into Will there, as well as another local salsero, Werner, that I met last year. The dancing went on til 2 and I had a terrific time with some amazing dancers; it made me quite anxious for the all-night salsa club action of Mexico City.

After a low key morning people-watching and eating mangoes in the Central Park, I met up to chat with Will for a bit and check my email before heading to Mexico. I nearly fell off my chair when I looked to see where that familiar voice was coming from -- this 19 year old guy named Alex who stayed at the same host family as me last year was sitting in the same internet cafe, speaking much better Spanish than the last time we talked. Turns out he never left....he's been here for 14 months now.

So why am I not in Mexico now? Well, as someone dear to me always said, "Coincidences don't exist." After a delay at the internet cafe catching up with Alex, I had to wait at the hotel while checking out because they didn't have any change. Moments before the gal returned with my change, two girls arrived with their backpacks and told me that they just returned from Tecun Uman (where I was heading) because there is a protest and the border is blocked. So another night in Xela it was.

Not that I really minded; Xela fascinates me. The thing is, I've always been more of a city lover than a solitude-of-nature fan. I love the cultural offerings, nightlife, diversity, people-watching, and pulsating vibe of cities. The beauty here is that there is more than just the European-style appeal of cities, and Cafe La Luna is a wonderful microcosm of the city at large in showing why that is. At first, I thought, "Ah! Que bien! European cafe culture found its way to Central America." But now that I look more closely, I realize that it would more accurately be stated as, "European cafe culture intertwines with Central America." For, as much as the cozy details, the relaxed atmosphere, the ornate dishes, decadent cakes, and superb coffees are reminiscent of the finest Viennese or Roman establishment, the flavor is distinctly Guatemalan. The tabletops are covered with old laminated Xela newspaper articles and political cartoons, the walls decorated with old black and white photos of important Guatemalans, the cafe owner's ancestors, and 1920's Xela landmarks; an antique bookcase displays Mayan masks and sculptures; and clay pots sit atop handcarved wood and wrought iron tables. Evidence of the long history of this particular cafe and its Mexican influence lie in photos, stories, and mementos on the walls and the menu. The classical Latin sounds emanating from the three-piece band and the menu's contribution to the primary Central American literary addiction in the way of listing juices and drinks in the beloved form of the poem reinforce the feeling that you are partaking in the most unique blending of cultures.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Exiting the cafe, I re-enter the Parque Central and consider how extraordinary a history it has; how, just like old buildings, plazas, and cities in the Old World, each stone seems to have a story to tell in the development of the nation into what it is today. If only stones could talk....

For some reason, the aesthetical appeal of Xela seems to have eluded me last year, and I was thinking upon arrival here that the draw to Xela was only in the feeling of it. Although I now have a newfound respect for the beauty of the city, I still feel that Xela is less a city to walk around and sighteee in and more a place to soak up the ambience and energy of a city where the pre-colonial, colonial, and the modern all come together and co-exist. The sheer existence of the Mayan people today and the continuation of their customs, right down to their dress and traditional medicine practices, in the face of colonial conquest, fratricidal war, and modern racism is downright amazing. And, with such a large indigenous population and the tourism dollars that foreign curiosity brings with it, it is encouraging to notice a shift in attitudes, from shame to pride, regarding being Mayan.

It's difficult not to want to get involved and be a part of the community in Xela, for the city is awash with social movements, grassroots political groups, educational institutions, cultural seminars, and any number of non-governmental organizations supporting projects to further the social evolution of Guatemala. It seems like such a large percentage of the people about town are involved in some worthy cause, towards progress, equity, justice. And, while many of these areas lag far behind standards in developed countries, there is inspiration in the participation level and public interest in human rights and development issues. I suppose it is this lack of apathy that makes the city feel so alive.

My mind and intellectual interests have finally come out of hibernation here in Xela. In addition to being inspired by the volunteer possibilities here and planning a return to Central America, the stories in the local EntreMundos magazine (along with observation and my new books) have started the wheels turning once again. It's great to wake up in the morning and just THINK. I believe that, in addition to a giant sleep deficit, the last two and a half years left me with an enormous thinking deficit. You go to college to learn how to learn, and then you get a job and have no time to continue that education outside of the workplace.

WARNING: I'm about to get very political and philosophical here. Read on at your own risk. I've been considering why I love the feeling I have in this city, and why I have been waking up everyday with an inexplicable exuberance and joy, a feeling I last remember having during my last longer-term jaunt abroad in Austria. There's a terrific European flair to the rich but homey decoration of so many restaurants and cafes here, coupled with a calm and leisurely ambience, but the real attraction lies deeper. For example, at Cafe La Luna, live music plays while waiters in pressed white shirts and bowties deliver hot chocolates and artistically arranged salads to tables decorated with hand-carved and painted moon-shaped napkin holders, lit by candles propped up in empty vintage wine bottles. The inviting atmosphere is in marked contrast to the relatively sterile nature of the great American cafe, Starbucks, where harried patrons rush in and out with latte in one hand and sandwich in the other, begrudging themselves for the 5 minutes wasted in line for "lunch" as they hurry back to work. The Starbucks employees themselves dole out one customized coffee order after the other, getting customers in and out of the cookie-cutter cafe as fast as possible, so that both patron and server can go back to doing what they were apparently born to do -- serve the god of money-making and the pursuit of the almighty dollar.

When, and how, did we allow society to force these ideals on us; the idea that work is so important that it can override the humanity of living? That it is okay to come in early, stay late, work through lunch breaks, eat meals in your car to make it to the next meeting, deprive ourselves of a full night´s sleep, miss funerals or family surgeries because they don´t fit into the definition of officially excused absences, accept company propaganda that 12 weeks is enough time to spend with your newborn child, allow ourselves to have a work pager or phone permanently connected to our hip, and jump to the rescue no matter what time of day or night they need you....all out of loyalty to a company in exchange for a paycheck and a mere 2 weeks vacation each year to actually just live. When did that become okay? What about loyalty to ourselves, to our loved ones, to our communities, to our world? When did I sign on the dotted line to show my approval of the placement of money and the economic machine before people and relationships on the priority list of life? As I recall, I was never even shown the ballot; never really given a choice. For 25 years I followed the rules and well-designed paths to reap the most benefit possible from the system and land a job that would propel me to great financial heights, and -- so the myth goes -- to great happiness. And, although from age 16 on I didn´t completely buy into this idea that my society preached, I obviously wasn´t skeptical enough to stray off course and relegate the economic needs in life to a lesser rung on the ladder.

Well, lucky for me, I let my curiosity flirt with skepticism, let it be seduced by cynicism, until I had a full-blown marriage to hatred of the option with which mainstream U.S. society presented me. And I woke up one day, took the mask off, and declared that I DO have a choice. As they say in Spanish, Ya basta!! I choose life. And I choose to live it in such a way that I can wake up and thank God for each new day and see the world with a child-like sense of wonder. Not that I, particularly writing from a country where poverty is so pronounced, dare pretend that money is unimportant in life; it is necessary for living in the modern world, and not all companies compromise their employees' happiness for the sake of profit. The bad taste I have in my mouth from eating of the fruits of the U.S. working world, however, is a reflection of my own experiences with it. Neither am I averse to working to earn my keep, but I will never delude myself into believing that the aforementioned work intrusions on the respect of my life as a human being, rather than a machine, are appropriate sacrifices to make, not least of all for the sake of a Land Rover or a plasma TV.

Since the ushering in of capitalism on a global scale, the fate of people's standard of living has hung largely in the balance of the struggle between labor and the capital owners. In times of low labor supply, workers have it rather good, as companies fall all over themselves courting potential employees with attractive benefits and perks and acquiesce to their requests. However, more often than not, it seems, it is the other way around. I remember, as a district manager conducting interviews, I heard countless applicants trying to sell themselves for the position, quite literally -- offering their time 7 days a week, 24 hour a day availability, guaranteed readiness for overtime, and to be ready at the drop of a hat to come running when we called them to come in early, stay late, or fill in at another location. And I remember feeling pangs of guilt as these people promised to prostitute their personal and family time for the company, wondering if there hadn't been a typo in the ad, replacing "Wanted: Cashier" with "Wanted: Corporate Servant."

Never again! There has to be a balance, a happy medium, a sense of fairness and respect. And this, my friends, is the beauty and appeal of places like Europe -- where life is about living and enjoying and taking time to hear the music and sip your coffee: working to live, not living to work. And this is how I choose to proceed with life and how I will embark on all future employment: as the owner of my choices, my time, and my humanity. And if that means that I have to settle outside of the United States to find that kind of balance, you won't hear me complaining at all as I research where to land. :0)


11th January 2006

Brava! from another [older] willing exile refugee!
Oh My! Just wanted to say it was delightful to stumble across your blog and the wonderful job you did keeping up with this through CA! I'm in love with Ometepe Island and also volunteered with the Esperanza Granada crowd. Back in 2003...I found a small finca 0n Ometepe and my husband is down there right now waiting for our water drilling equipment to arrive so that we can dig some water wells for folks and for our own little finca. I will keep your blog pages in my favorites and I would love to hear from you sometime! BTW I'm an old wench dive instructor and have a rep in the US as a notable shipwreck researcher and diver! Congratualtions on your "immersing" into the last known unexplored frontier on earth! [the Oceans] Take care mi amiga! Brava! Ya Basta indeed! ;^) Mermaid michele [currently in Colorado Springs awaiting parole and release /escape from the urban jungle to las isla de Paz!

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