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.
One of my new friends was held up at gunpoint on his way home a couple of weeks ago. He had moved just out of town to an airbnb where another friend had been staying for the past two weeks. Locals are shocked because this kind of crime hasn't happened in Antigua in fifteen years, especially in broad daylight. The theory is that some gang members from the capital were out cruising on the public holiday and had seen a gringo turn off the main road and begin walking down a quiet side street. They followed, pulled up beside him and pointed a gun at him through the window. He lost his bag with his phone, camera, and worst of all, his Spanish homework. Another student told me that there were five types of police working in Antigua. When I asked my teacher, he explained that these were municipal police, federal police, traffic police, tourist police and private guards. Each has a distinct uniform, but the only police worth going to when in trouble are the federal police in black, mainly because they won't run away, but also because they know how to fight both with weapons and unarmed. Unfortunately, none patrol outside of the town limits. Guatemalan people will also run away from a cry for help, he told me. The history of violence in the capital and of people being kidnapped outside of the towns has left them scared, though this is very rare now - once in fifteen years, apparently. According to my teacher, the best thing to do when in real trouble is to shout 'Fuego!' (fire) because Guatemalans are no different to the rest of us when it comes
As my Spanish has improved, I've discovered more about the family that is hosting me. Amanda has been fantastic, ensuring we're comfortable, ready to talk without being nosy, and runs a very efficient B&B. We asked why she doesn't actually register to AirBnB, and she said that people didn't want to stay so far out of town. My teacher suggested that Amanda puts in more effort than other host families used by the school for just this reason. It's further away, which I don't mind, but the large, clean rooms and diverse menu of very decent food make up for it. She doesn't manage the whole service on her own. Ilya, a Mayan woman, has a room on the ground floor where the family live, which she shares with her daughter, Fatima. Unlike other families I've seen with 'help', the relationship here is very positive. Ilya works very hard, cleaning the whole house each day and doing laundry in return for the room and food, but Amanda spends as much time in the kitchen as Ilya, helps with other chores as well as taking care of the church bookkeeping, and helps Fatima with her homework. After asking Ilya for guidance with my Spanish homework one day, I had the horrifying thought that she might not be literate, but I've also seen her helping Fatima learn her letters. They joke that Fatima has two mothers and two fathers. I haven't asked where Fatima's biological father is, and they haven't shared that information, but Amanda's husband Paco and her oldest son both act as father figures for her. Paco co-owns the metal workshop, which we walk through to get to the front door, with his brother
Yesterday was my last day of Spanish school in Antigua (for now), and I realised that I haven’t written much about how it works. Every morning for the last four weeks, after a quick breakfast, I walked along the cobblestone streets for a bit less than half an hour to reach the garden. My teacher was always there before me with the table set up. We had two hours of lessons before the break, but we could easily take up half of that chatting about poor service at banks, his views on feminism, cooking, music or Marvel films. It was usually listening practice for me, which was really useful, but I got some opportunities to discover how many words I don’t know how to say. The lessons were entirely on verb conjugation (present, future, past, imperfect, indirect, conditional), which was frustrating. I know from learning languages in the past that I can get my message across with a base vocabulary and that once I’m having real conversations, I pick up the correct conjugations by osmosis. Here, I felt I was spending far too much time on the conjugations and finding that I don’t know enough words to get my message across so knowing the conjugations didn’t get me far. I was going to give this feedback to the school, but then realised that I can learn vocabulary on my own, and really need a teacher to understand the conjugations, so I’m taking the next week off for self-learning while I explore the towns around Lake Atitlan. The students all gathered in groups during the break to eat cheap tostadas, prepared by a local family, and to give our minds a break. The second, shorter