My host Cheyo disappeared every Saturday morning to work at the milpa. I imagined him working with his neighbours to pour corn into chutes, walk a wheel in circles to move the mill, and shovel the cornflour into sacks for everyone to take home. In fact, I must never have looked up the meaning of this false friend. On a whim, I decided to join him on my last day in San Pedro, assuming it would be a short trip to the top of the town, making for an easy walk to wherever I decided to go for the rest of the day. As soon as we were out of the house, Cheyo told me we'd need to get a taxi to reach the milpa, which I still thought was a mill. The taxi took us out of the Atitlan crater and along the adjacent cornfield-covered plateau for about ten kilometres before we got out and walked through the cornfields. Cheyo explained where each corn field started and ended and who owned each one until we arrived at his. The corn stood tall - about his height - but fruitless. Surprisingly, there were large piles of rocks throughout the fields, and Cheyo explained that the corn loved rocks for some reason, always growing stronger where the rocks were. I assume the volcanic rocks contain minerals that wash into the soil, but he couldn't confirm this. There was no work to be done on the corn itself. Instead, he took me to where he'd hidden his tools and we began to walk up the hill, beyond the corn to the tree line. Here, he showed me where he'd planted pine trees, still just bristly twigs,
Every week, my Spanish school in San Pedro La Laguna ran a number of activities to share the local culture and to give the students more chances to practise what they've learnt. This typically included a movie every Tuesday, a game of basketball every second Thursday and dinner on Friday evening to celebrate the week and to farewell students who are moving on. Over my three weeks, we made potato tamales, tostadas and maize tamalitas (small tamales). On my first Friday, the students cut everything up and clean the leaves for wrapping under the watchful eyes of the teachers. I thought I knew how to cook tamales after cooking rice tamales with my hosts, but I was reprimanded for not properly cleaning the dirt out of the stem of the leaf. These look like banana leaves, but actually grow straight out of the ground like fern fronds. The school is set in the grounds of the owners' house, so we actually cook and eat as the family does. The 'house' runs down one side of the property, and while each bedroom has a door, the main areas only have three walls. We prepared the food in one of these, but the potatoes were taken to a tiny kitchen to be boiled while we clean the leaves. They were brought back for us to peel by hand as our teachers demonstrate, sliding the skin off. When we try, it's more of a hot potato juggling act. By the time that was done, the potatoes were cool enough to mash by hand, in the way I remember making meatballs as a kid. We then added the flavourings - chicken, chillies, raisins, olives and capsicum - wrap
Ixchel, the daughter of one of the family who run Corazon Maya turned six during the week and all the students were invited to her party. Two of the students provided entertainment as a clown and a magician before the real entertainment began - the piñata. It was modelled on a Frozen character, as is to be expected at a six-year-old girl's party. While the children chanted and laughed in delight at the inability of their blind-folded classmates to reliably hit the piñata, the adults were entertained by the early deskirting of the doll and the gynaecological search for any remaining lollies when it finally burst. Lunch was traditional chicken, rice, beans with not too much chilli, and the party finished with a large birthday cake and songs. I didn't follow the whole song, but it sounded like the second verse was a demand for cake - even a small piece. We thought that was good enough to take up in our home countries, but we were yet to be surprised. When Ixchel had blown the candle out, rather than cutting the cake, her friends pushed her face into it. This explains the need for such a big cake and is apparently traditional at birthday parties of all ages. Cake anyone?
In ancient history, Mayans had kings. At some stage, possibly under Spanish rule, this changed and Mayans now have queens. The queen must represent her town at a gathering of all Mayan queens, which means she must have a good grasp of local issues, national politics, Mayan culture, and be able to communicate well in both her local dialect and Spanish - the former to demonstrate knowledge of Mayan culture and the latter so she can communicate with the other queens. I was lucky enough to be in San Pedro at the time of the election of this year's queen. Until about ten years ago, the village council would choose a suitable girl and approach her father to ask if he would allow her to be queen for the year. The problem was finding a girl who spoke Spanish. If the father refused, the council would go to their second choice. Once a father accepted, the family would throw a huge party for all their family, friends and neighbours. My teacher recalls the many parties thrown for her older sister, who was queen for years. Times have changed, and now the problem is finding a girl who speaks Tz'utujil, the local dialect, fluently. All children can understand it, but most don't bother to learn the glottal stop required to properly pronounce the apostrophe, and interest in speaking Tz'utujil is flagging. With the ubiquity of television and social media, the selection of the queen has been handed to the people. Eligible girls compete for the right to be queen in a manner somewhat like a beauty pageant - without the bikinis. In turn, the girls demonstrate their knowledge of culture by dancing their way from
When I lived in Bhutan, I wore the local outfit whenever I went out in public, which was almost every day. Since the locals had to wear them most of the time, it seemed respectful and a good way to experience the culture directly. While some locals made fun of me, thinking I was a tourist, I felt that everyone who knew me appreciated the effort. I remember buying comfortable cotton pants in Cusco to match the clothes the Incans wore, and would have been happy to do the same in Guatemala. In fact, I came with few clothes because I planned to buy everything here, but it wasn't to be. The men here wear jeans and t-shirts. I've been told twice that the Mayan men's clothes are too expensive for them to wear, so I believe that's an important consideration, but the women wear more ornate hand-woven outfits, so there has to be more to it. Our cooking instructor had another theory. She told us that during the civil war, which ran from 1960 to 1996, men and boys were taken to be trained as soldiers for both sides. And the fighting had a tit-for-tat mentality that meant men of certain villages would be killed in retaliation for something another villager did. The risk of being drafted or targeted was higher for those wearing clothes that identified which village they came from, so men stopped wearing their traditional clothes. When the war ended, the art of making men's clothes had been lost and the men were used to wearing western clothes anyway. My Spanish teacher believes it's because the traditional clothes are inappropriate for the lifestyle. In San Pedro La Laguna, the trousers
When I arrived in Japan on my first exchange with four other students, our host families took us to a café on the way home from the airport. When the waitress went around collecting everyone's order, I asked for water. All conversation stopped as people jumped to tell me all the different kinds of coffee I could choose from - white, black, cappuccino etc, but I've got what the Japanese call a 'cat's tongue' which means that my mouth burns really easily and I don't like hot drinks. When I reasserted that I wanted water, I was offered tea - Japanese green tea, Chinese tea, English tea, herbal tea... Again, I said I preferred water. All the parents looked at each other and began sympathising with my hosts who would have to feed such a fussy person. Fast forward to 2018, and I had much the same experience when I moved in with a family in San Pedro. I was offered coffee on the first morning and refused, saying I preferred water. I was then offered tea with such enthusiasm that I accepted, but only sipped it. When asked, I told them it was nice, but I preferred water. The next day they gave me a mug of something hot and milky which was supposed to contain lots of vitamins. When I explained that my mouth burns easily, they seemed to accept it, but the next morning, my kind hostess spent a few minutes cooling my tea by pouring it from one mug to another and back. I'm still not sure why it's so important to them that I drink a hot drink. The only reason I could think of is that they wouldn't
San Pedro is the backpacker's choice for accommodation on Lake Atitlan because it's cheap, beautiful and provides easy access to the other towns around. Aside from two perpendicular main streets, which meet at the top of the hill, most streets are only just wide enough for a tuktuk. A third wide street runs parallel to the shore, heading out to where all the expats have bought land. On Sunday a parade which appeared to be composed of multiple church groups took up the entire street as it proceeded along this road and into the town centre. We stayed in a B&B near the end of that road for the first week, lounging in hammocks and exploring the lake. After investigating a number of schools, we chose Corazon Maya because it was outside town, away from 'gringolandia' where the backpackers hang out, and was the cheapest. All schools offer lessons in beautiful gardens in pagolas to shelter from any rain, and this one is near the water. Some schools offer certified teachers, but at my level, I just wanted someone I could talk to, and I prefer to help the poorer members of the community. I don't regret the decision, deciding to stay a second and now potentially a third week. While my friend decided to stay in a bungalow on the school grounds, I opted again to stay with a local family so I could practice outside of school more easily and to better understand the local culture. My hosts are a very friendly older couple who seem to enjoy our conversations at mealtimes, which now extend to a couple of hours, and they have endless patience while I struggle through finding the right words.
A friend from my school in Antigua and I travelled from Antigua to Panajachel by shuttle bus, then across Lake Atitlan to San Pedro La Laguna on a launch, where I spent the next week swinging in a hammock in a B&B as far out of town as we could find. Not quite true. I also practiced my Spanish with locals working near the B&B and around town, checked out Spanish schools, and attended a cooking class because we realised that we didn't really know how to cook with the products we found at the market. Sure, there were carrots, onions and a number of other vegetables we recognised, but the chickens were just sitting whole on the counter, and we would still need a sauce of some kind. Mayan Kitchen has a perfect rating on TripAdvisor, so while the cost was somewhere near a week's worth of food, we decided that was a worthwhile investment. Not surprisingly, the 'simple' dishes we chose were still normally reserved for festivals and celebrations, so they might be a bit much for us to cook on a daily basis, but the experience left us more confident. Our instructor, Anita, met us near the wharf and introduced herself as we walked up the steep hill to the market. She was a local girl who took every opportunity life threw at her, including learning to speak English from tourists, becoming a guide, then being mentored by the Americans who owned the tour company she worked for. In the process, she has created a cooperative for single women across the many towns around Atitlan to make and sell textiles, she has set up the cooking school, and gives back by
I don't think Antigua is the new home I'm searching for, but it grew on me during the month I stayed there. If you can get past the nuisance of walking on cobblestones and the (relatively) inflated prices, the people are friendly, the town pretty and the climate quite comfortable. The real appeal remains hidden, though, behind the painted walls. The school garden was only the first glimpse I had of this. Half way through my stay, I ventured into a hostel and found an oasis of palm trees, fountains and a bungalow bar. I thought it was a special location until I discovered a few more such places. One Sunday morning, we discovered an open door only 100m from our homestay. Upon peeking in, we discovered a guard standing in an ornate entrance hall. He gave us a grin and beckoned us inside. Beyond the entrance hall was a vast site of uncovered ruins, gradually being restored to its former beauty, but somehow more impressive for its semi-ruinous state. The sound of playful splashes of a large fountain were drowned out by the amplified oration being given by a priest to an audience of local churchgoers. I recalled my teacher telling me of this place which was dug up by savvy businessman who found some artefacts when digging up his back yard, and then bought up all the adjacent land until he owned the whole site. It's now a museum, but the entrance through the church provides free access on Sunday mornings. It's also apparently a hotel, and likely the source of the music which has kept me awake on weekends. Then there is the gathering place where, in ancient times, women washed
North of Antigua a coffee plantation covers about as much land as the town itself. Within the plantation is a museum that explains the history of coffee, its origin in Ethiopia, introduction into Latin America, and why Guatemala is considered one of the best coffee-making countries of the world (they believe it's the organic techniques and hand picking). For a non-coffee drinker, this holds only minor interest, but the same museum also has a section on the history of music in Mayan culture over the centuries, which really struck a chord with me. Pre-Spanish conquest, music was only used for ceremony in Mayan culture, and there was no need for tune or rhythm to get the attention of the gods. All the instruments were designed to make as much noise as possible. The earliest instrument was the conch shell, but these were reproduced in clay as whistles. Over time, ocarinas were shaped into various animal forms, then into representations of people. To these were added shakers and drums. Some drums looked like clay jugs, but my favourite was a turtle shell. Turned upside down, the belly-shell made three different tones depending where it was hit. With Spanish influence, and the idea of music for entertainment, these were replicated in wood and eventually guitars, marimbas and other more familiar instruments were added, but you can still buy the wooden drums on the streets of Antigua today.