The Witch’s Hand

February 4, 2009

I´ve just had my fortune told by a professional witch. And it was unsettling. Diriombo´s witches date back to precolonial times, having surprisingly survived and remained a tradition of which the town is proud. I came to this part of Nicaragua specifically to seek them out, curious about what a practitioner with such a history behind her could offer. It´s not every day such an opportunity presents itself.

Although I don´t exactly believe in witchcraft, I knew that whatever she said would affect me. I have always wanted to believe in the occult, while I remain sceptical of it, out of fear. Now I have had my fortune told, I feel even more confused.

Volcan Masaya, which billows toxic gases near Diriombo

Volcan Masaya, which billows toxic gases near Diriombo

I found Andrea Peña through a woman whose name I have already forgotten. I went deliberately up to her as she stood at her house door so I could find my destination quickly and escape the pricking midday heat. She let me, a complete and weird stranger, into her cool house as we followed a haltig conversation which ended with her leading me to the bruja´s home. She was curious to know what problem I wanted solving and guessed it was something to do with love. I myself didn´t realise what I wanted the bent of my fortune prediction to be until after this conversation and I was sitting in the witch´s chair. It made sense that I should have a romantic prediction then, as sex and love are things I think about constantly: they, along with gender, form my lifelong obsessions. And I am always wondering whether I will, one day, fall in love (Yet, on reflection, only I can know the answer to these questions). Of course, Andrea Peña´s training didn´t include the possibility that one of her clients be lesbian, and her prediction in that area was a bit dodgy. She told me that a tall, handsome mam with long, smooth hair is already in love with me. Even stretching this description to include female friends I can´t think of anyone I´ve noticed pining after me. If you´re reading this post and this describes you, please let me know. After all, you are my true love.

Volcano Masaya is, for locals, also the mouth of Hell

Volcano Masaya is, for locals, also the mouth of Hell

For the card reading, the woman who brought me there waited outside (another example of the kindness of strangers). I followed the witch into a little, dark room behind a red curtain. I would have thought that the dimness was for atmosphere, conviction, but she explained that there had just been a power cut. She asked what the nature of our investigation would be and I said, I didn´t really know. When she seemed unsatisfied, that she wouldn´t continue without a better effort from me, I said love.

She took out a set of browned red and white cards from a drawer and asked me to cut them three thrice. She then laid them in four rows, seven near me, then six, five, four face down cards next to her. We had already agreed that this matter would be a game of cards. As I turned them over I relished the opportunity to touch them, to take part in my own fortune. The content of the cards was impossible for me to decipher. I looked for ones I had heard of, such as The Tower, The Skeleton, The Lovers, but I only recognised The Scales and was intrigued by a rainbow-coloured instrument, rounded at the bottom and tapering up to a hole. Rather banally, the witch told me that everything was good in the House, in Money, Career and Love. I imagine that I got the tourist reading. Or maybe my cards happened to fall that way. Throughout the reading she didn’t smile, which made me take her more seriously as she no doubt intended. I wonder what she thinks of wandering gringos who pay for her services? I imagine her local clients are far more believing. She offered me a perfume or a herbal bath to attract a specific lover, or a powder to sprinkle on my hand for an unknown new lover. But, having no one in mind, no house, and most of all not being willing to invest in something so occult, to rely on and have it as an excuse to explain away so many things, I declined. Towards the end there was an embarrassing exchange where Doña Andrea misunderstood one of responses – my Spanish isn’t good enough for this kind of thing – and in general I didn’t grasp the nuances of what she said. Perhaps her general message that everything is well resulted from her giving up on telling my real fortune in the face of my imcomprehension.


My vague dappling in something I don’t understand has left me feeling odd, a feeling accentuated by my knowledge that I am in the home of Nicaraguan witches, in the scorching heat, under the gaze of locals and a gothic church which very much suits this witchy place. All I need now is some chicha bruja, that home brewed liquor.


Last weekend I went out with my new friends Kristina and Josh to, delight of delights, a gay bar. Although Kristina and I accepted that there probably wouldnt be any lesbians there, and we really going out so Josh could get laid, I was still pretty darn excited about my only expedition into the land of the gays for about 4 months. A long time to be travelling away from the herd.

Since being in Central America I have been curious about the existence of queers, especially women here. The investment of Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua in machoism makes male sexuality very obvious, and although all homosexuality is, according to some doctors and taxi drivers my friends have met, ¨bad¨, I can imagine that men get laid here a lot more often than women (I love that the machosim which only pisses me off, and fascinates me a little here, is for Josh amazingly hot). Like our own countries, men are allowed an exuberant sexuality while women´s is sketchily linked to things like emotions, and procreative desire, instead of lust (I´ve recently come to believe my ability to lust after a woman I know is a complete jerk and will not satisfy any of my emotional needs disproves this theory). The lack of visible female queers here caused me to be so excited to see a Salvadorean butchfemme couple before Christmas that, if I hadnt been on the bus, I might have run up to them and demanded to be their friend (Which, knowing the people here, probably would have worked). As it was I just tracked them along the window pane as though I were five (or, um, 25) and they a delectable pair of lollies until they passed.

Queers on a boat

Queers on a boat

It is such an overwhelmingly heteronormative culture that it is easy to believe that queers just dont exist. Or that they live trembling inside their parents undersized closet (Unmarried people here live with their parents, no matter their age or economic situation). However, in a few places such as Matagalpa and the capital Managua, where we were, a queer community and culture does exist. It´s just that you need to be very industrious to find it. So, following Kristina and Josh´s internet research we headed to Tabu, an appropriately named dive. When we got there we encountered one crappy aspect of being a gringo in C.A.: the scam. We were told that there we strippers and we had to pay 5 bucks, an exorbitant price. We later realised that both the price and the strippers were a load of bullshit. So, we decided to go upstairs and participate in that other cultural phenomenon, karaoke. And not only karaoke. Gay Karaoke. I challenge Tokyo to produce a similar spectacle of queer men screaming along to latinamerican (or Japanese) songs of forbidden love and crappy lovers. In this over-airconditoned room we ordered a servicio of Flor de Cana rum and started to check out our fellow clientele. A room full of gay men, four lesbians, one woman about whom we were undecided, a group of annoyingly affectionate straights (perhaps trying to prove just how open-minded they were for being there whicle actually preventing any contact with the nasty queers by being as sleazy as possible with each other), and one old straight man who, typically, came onto me. I think we went on the wrong night.

Nicaraguan and, according to Kristina and Josh, Central American lesbian culture in general seems to be based on a strong butch-femme dynamic. A common question is whether you are activo or passivo, with the butches being active and the femmes passive. The top/bottom relation obviously exists elsewhere, and the butch top and femme bottom dynamic is one that I greatly enjoy, but activo here seems to mean more stone butch than anything else (For those who aren´t familiar with the term, stone in this sense means someone who won´t allow herself to be fucked). Although I (unfortunately) haven´t tested it out that much, the only (kinda butch)ladino lover I´ve had here really wanted to be the doer and wouldn´t let me touch her much. These identities seem similar to the lesbian scenes of the fifties and sixties that I have read about (mostly in the U.S. although I am sure they existed in other countries such as Canada and the UK). I find them completely valid, yet I am always inclined to question any rigid definition of how a queer sh0uld be, whether imposed by that community or by the big bad straight world. I´m sure this dynamic suits some just fine – and I sure have had my fun with it – but there must be those who feel forced into one way of being just to have the pleasure of joining the scene.

the lonely monkey I fell in love with and wanted to rescue from negligent hell

Monkey love: the lonely monkey I fell in love with and wanted to rescue from negligent hell. N.B. This is NOT a comment on homosexuality and d/evolution.

I don´t really have any concrete conclusion to draw from my observations. Although I am welcomed into the lesbian scene as a queer myself, I am not ladino, not from this country, and there must be so much I don´t understand. I assume that the amount of queers forming a community must be a newish phenomenon however, and following this idea, I look forward to a time when more lesbian identities are explored here.

Back to nature . . .

January 12, 2009

I am about to have my most expensive meal in 3 months – the famous Rio San Juan shrimp – and I hope it´s damned good. It seems ridiculous that the locals who fish the shrimp can´t afford to eat it, but that´s economics (poverty and tourism) for you. The lack of available shrimp in the shrimping village of Boca de Sabalos, Nicaragua, means that I have to go to a super fancy hotel to eat some. At least I get a stunning river view to go with my meal. I guess for a once-in-a-lifetime culinary opportunity it´s worth it.


Sitting on the restaurant balcony watching the river twist past me, I have found the tranquillity I was looking for. Despite the fact that I have been travelling by myself for 3 months, I haven´t had much time on my own (a both good and bad fact) and after a hectic festive season in Costa Rica I felt the need to be alone with my thoughts. (By the way, having just heard my neighbour ask for turtle´s eggs, which the restaurant thankfully doesn´t have, I think I should stand up and yell at them for wanting to eat an endangered animal´s eggs and to point out that to collect, and eat, turtle´s eggs in in fact illegal. But I won´t. Because I´m scared to lose my temper with two middle-aged rich men. I hope I don´t find any, but it seems that there are some to be had in San Carlos. Grrrr.) I travelled up from Los Chiles, Costa Rica to the river-and-lake town of San Carlos in Nicaragua in what was the most calming border crossing of my life. Instead of immediately heading north as I had planned, I decided to explore the Rio San Juan, an isolated border river that runs alongside a nature reserve which covers 14% of Nicaragua´s land mass. Of course, its reputation for inaccessibility, nearly extinct man-eating bull sharks – the world´s only freshwater shark – alligators and jaguars made me even more determined to go. (Hilariously the guide book of a friend of mine went into a kind of hysterics over the area, suggesting that you pack both a first aid and a snake kit. Do the locals have snake kits? I think not.) So far, I haven´t seen any sharks, and I don´t really expect to, but I have seen a huge fish (tarpon?) and several turtles (so cute, who could want to eat them?) which swam up to me, maybe because they´re used to being fed by tourists. I´m sure that sandwiches and crisps aren´t the most healthy things for a turtle to eat. I have seen so many new river birds that I wish I had a bird book with me. I think my Mum would be ecstatic about the number of herons here.


The view from my hostel in EL Castillo

The view from my hostel in EL Castillo

Yes the shrimp (or is that crayfish?) were worth it . Almost the size of my wrist to my elbow – that is, my foot – they are like magnified normal shrimp so you can see the horrible detail of what you are eating. Kind of like the ant in Honey I Shrunk the Kids. Add on their unique thorned claws and they are even bigger. Apparently they can reach the weight of one kilogram! I wish I had my camera with me to take a photo.


To get to El Castillo last Sunday I took an all-too-quick two hour boat ride from San Carlos. Although it was too fast for me to appreciate the beauty, the river has since satisfied all my soul-filling requirements. I spent many hours (in fact, about two days) reading and writing on the balcony of the hostel I stayed in watching the rapids and birds. El Castillo is an old town, with fairly new wood buildings, but a Spanish fortress from the 16th century which was built to fight the British pirates and individuals over who got to colonize Nicaragua first. The river reaches all the way to the Caribbean sea and nearly across to the Pacific coast, making it an ideal trading-and-colonizing route. Apparently, the pirates were so slowed down by the surprising rapids next to the town that they would make easy targets for the cannons at the castle. Terrifyingly, local kids jump into the river and float down these rapids daily. I wanted to join them, but I thought I might die.

´I´m so cute, who´d want to eat me?´

´I´m so cute, who´d want to eat me?´


I did do something else which seemed to me risky, although it turned out to be fairly safe, which was take a boat out at night to look for alligators, or more accurately, caimans which are in the same species family. All the eight-footers slipped away as they could see us in the moonlight, but we got close to some babies, terrifying one by catching it and touching it. Drifting downstream in the dove-grey light was my only time on the river, and we heard the loud staccato of frogs who sound more like monkeys crossed with woodpeckers echoing across the water. They sing after rain, which, in this rainforest, is often. We also approached a large cluster of lilies, which then flew away having transformed into nesting egrets when we got closer.





I wanted to follow the river, past shipwrecks hundreds of years old, all the way to the sea. But with no ATM in the whole region, I need to hightail it on a 15 hour ferry to the nearest bank. WIsh me luck!



Reading my birthday messages last week, I saw an email from my Aunt Cherry, whose message can be summarized as, ´Happy Birthday, Laura. Don´t got to Columbia!´

´Don´t go there, there´s lots of robbers,´´Take a  taxi, it´s dangerous,´Ýou´ve been there (subtext – and you didn´t die?)?´´Ís is safe?´ are some of the refrains I hear on my travels. It seems that every place I go to is known for some danger or other, while, for many, capital cities are no-go areas (despite the fact that usually millions of people live in them). The fact that I feel safe walking around downtown San Salvador leaves some locals astounded. This climate of fear comes from two sources; Western or, perhaps more accurately, developed countries, and the local people and media. The first, I find both powerful and laughable. Looking at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office´s tourist information for every country in the world (, which is replicated inn various European countries, it seems that as someone who has recently visited Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, I should by all reasonable expectations be dead. Or at least severely mutilated in a chicken bus crash, robbed at gun point and sexually assaulted in the dark alley of some busy city. The fact that nothing bad has happened to me must, according the FCO, qualify me for some statistic-defying prize. Before leaving for Guatemala, I was horrified by the website´s description, which covers current political situations, natural disasters and dangers to tourist, I desperately needed one good friend´s assurance that I was not going to be in any extreme danger in the face of the FCO´s message, which seemed to be ´Don´t go there, you´re gonna die!´A few weeks later I arrived in Guatemala and was immediately whisked out of the city for fear of being robbed, mutilated or otherwise attacked and on my way in a very beat-up coach to Xela. 

Guatemala has a reputation among some for being dangerous, and with a crime-ridden Capital, institutionalized racism, a huge drug-trafficking problem, and, like the rest of Central America (apart from Costa Rica), a death-defying (or not) public transport system, people have good reason to be worried. However, I can´t help but feel that the extreme fear most richies like me feel originates in a form of cultural racism rather than being based on hard fact. After all, the West has every reason to fear those countries it has systematically fucked over in the name of democracy or whatever, and doesn´t it itself face many of the same problems? Whoever advised anyone against going to England because it´s dangerous? Faced with people who live so differently to us, our impulse to scream and run away must be linked to our collective guilt. There is no way we could live in the luxurious and unnatural way that we do if it weren´t for the price these countries have to pay. This is part of what I think must be the source of fear. I haven´t encountered any problem here that I haven´t also experienced in the rich countries I have lived in (apart from the earthquake, and doesn´t California have plenty of those?). The collective fear that makes some refuse point blank to visit any country blacklisted by the FCO seems to me totally ridiculous. It only serves to bolster the superiority complex of developed countries at the expense of others. El Salvador and Nicaragua are two of the most avoided countries in Central America, yet I have nothing but love for El Salvador and have great expectations of Nicaragua, according to what others have told me. My first day here has gone fine. And one of the countries with the worst reputation for danger in the world, Columbia, is the place travellers I have met have loved the most. The hype surrounding this country has led to some hilarious dialogue in my family. Telling my parents that I planned to go to Columbia if I could (I no longer can, for various reasons), they went into what can only be called a mild form of hysterics. There was no yelling, but every time I spoke to my parents for a few weeks they would tell me they didn´t want me to go, and every time I checked my email I found another message listing another reason why I shouldn´t. The situation has become so hilarious that, ´Laura, don´t go to Columbia!´ has become a running joke among my travelling friends. Of course I realise that my parents are concerned because they love me, but the fact remains that, according to other experienced travellers, Columbia is one of the safest, friendliest and most beautiful countries in Central and South America. The locals are so anxious about their terrible image, and so happy to see visitors in their troubled country, that they go out of their way to welcome you. Measuring my own experiences with the stories I have heard about Columbia, it appears that Guatemala is a far more dangerous country (and one which I survived), yet its reputation is much more benign. I can´t help but think the government and Western media´s description of other countries serves its own political and economic purposes more than we might ever suspect. The fact that my parents seem to have transmitted their Columbian hysteria to other members of the family demonstrates the strength of our collective cultural prejudices against countries poorer and with different problems to our own much more than it does their living situation.

The other, local fear I am obviously less familiar with, and understand less. As each country does have its own problems (such as the theft of babies for adoption in the U.S – outrageous, I know! – in Guatemala, and gangs in El Salvador), some areas are seen as more dangerous than others, while cities are seen as the dens of vice they always have been in our cultural imaginations. However, I feel unqualified to discuss this type of fear.

None of this tirade is meant to deny the fact that there are dangers to tourists, rather to question the extent of our fear and its foundations, to ask whose interest it serves to imply that one country is bad while another must be good, which then means that those people are dangerous and bad, while we Westerners can be assured that we are trustworthy and blameless.

I realise I have been a bit useless at posting recently. It´s quite hard to have access to internet (cheaply, anyway) while travelling and I keep on getting caught up in silly things like sight-seeing. But speaking of silly things, how does competing in a horse race while blind drunk and whipping with a now-alive-now-dead chicken sound? Because that cultural phenonemon comprises the Todos Santos Day of the Dead tradition that I witnessed last weekend.


After my last week of studying Spanish at the Escuela de la Montana I left immediately to travel with another student to Todos Santos, a tiny, isolated village in the Western highlands famous for the above traditions. We knew that it would all be booked up months in advance for the festival, but, we thought, we could always get a bus back to the nearest big town of Huehuetenango if we couldn´t find anywhere to stay. Little did we know that we would be stranded once we got there, with no buses running the whole weekend.

Stephanie and I turned up on the big tourist shuttle at 11am with a small backpack each and feeling slightly nervous about not having anywhere to stay, but feeling comfortable as a twosome and kind of exhilarated at being such brave travellers, adventureresses into the unknown, etc, etc. At least that´s how I felt. It´s a self-congratulatory colonial impression I get sometimes. After a breakfast of pollo fritos with more fried papas (my vegetarianism being on hold for curiosity and ease´s sake – perhaps something that merits a separate post), we bumped into a friend of a friend who thought he could sort us something out accommodation wise. Deciding to risk it, we ventured forth towards the drunken horse races.


And boy were they drunken. The point of this Maya tradition is basically to see who can stay the longest on their horse while doing a shot of rum at every turn of the lap. It´s something that Paul Froes might be able to accomplish better than most, although I´m not sure about the riding aspect. Having heard about the famous chicken-whipping, we were kind of disappointed to not see any chickens. I thought maybe some international animal activists had put a stop to the ritual abuse of fowl in the name of a good time, and the dead. But, no. Later in the afternoon there was a loud squawking as a huge cream hen was pulled along by her feet by a rider. Several hilarious laps later, the squawking had stopped as the rider´s hands had moved to her throat and either suffocated her to death or broken her neck. As she was swung in circles by her neck in a way that no animal could survive she seemed to me to be a symbol of extreme deadness. Live chicken. Dead chicken. It felt like a very clear lesson in life. The same death met a Bantam. I doubt they appreciated the extraordinary manner of their death. Although sad, I found this chicken display really funny. But my friends, when I told them later, were not impressed. I guess animal cruelty just isn´t that funny to some people.

We later followed friends of the friend of a friend who had said they could find us somewhere to sleep to the attic of a local Senor who must occassionally rent out this room in his barn. We slept huddled up together with 3 sheets, 4 blankets, a sleeping bag and all out clothes and were still a little chilly in the Highland mist. I was greatly amused by the path I memorised to reach our huge room after the party. Turn right at the golden door onto the mud path, go past the donkey, past the drunkily abandoned shoes, round the back of the hut and under the washing to the house. The donkey was my favourite bit, and I felt compelled to greet her every time we passed.

In the evening, after all the shuttle buses had departed and we were two of the only extranjeras (foreigners) left, we ate another chickeny meal in a comedor, a very basic type of restaurant that your average Guatemalan actually eats at, rather than the fancy Gringo places, and wandered around the village. I have never seen so many blind drunk people in my life. It was enough to rival Fresher´s week at Leeds University or Frosh at McGill. Unconscious men were lying in pools of their own blood, many were staggering around unable to speak, some were fighting, some were being aggressively sleazy (not great for the only blonde foreigner) and even some women were in a similar state, although they have much less liberty to drink and party than the men do. For a people who apparently drink very little during the rest of the year, the aftermath of this party was a little like a massacre-by-rum. I think at least one person died this year, although I didn´t hear the final report. 5 died last year.


That night we joined in the local party in the town hall, kind of like a Guatemalan barn dance. I found it really hard to reconcile myself to the fact that women were expected to dance with any man who asked them, and only to only dance when asked by a male partner. I basically ignored this tradition, as it´s sexist, not my culture and pisses me off. But the incredulity of the men who I declined to dance with astounded me. Unable to believe they had been refused they hung around me, and kept asking again and again. Some became aggressive and kept casually tapping me, which of course made me really angry and, when I was on the verge of getting in a physical fight, Steph suggested we transfer to the Gringo group where we were seen to belong to ´our´ men and were left alone more. I have observed this gender dynamic in a salsa club before and it really pisses me off. Women seem to have no choice in who they dance with, and are expected to partner up with any guy who asks them. The only way out of this predicament is to dance with a guy you trust and pretend you´re married to him. I have taken this route before as it allows me a lot of peace, while it does nothing to challenge the rules. I know there are many handsome lovely Guatemalan men out there, but I would be unlikely to dance with a guy in a Canadian or British club, being queer and all, and, duh, the sexual dynamic does nothing for me.

The best part of the dance for me was the band. Think eighties boy band with matching white jumpsuits, coordinated dancing, and a signature hand-in-crotch-thrust-leg-wiggle that, despite the description, does not look anything like Elvis. The leg wiggle can only be described as such, and I am baffled by how much these highland boys reminded me of jellyfish.

Early the next morning we briefly visited the next part of the festival which celebrated death in a way that contains very little grief, and much joy. We walked to the graveyard at 8 in the morning which was decorated with plastic flowers, fresh ones being impossible to grow in and transport to this remote area, and in which a marimba band and a priest were performing simultaneously (the marimba is a traditional instrument that, to my unknowledgable eye, looks like a great big xylophone and is played by three men). Like the Todos Santos people´s traditional dress of stripey white and red trousers, blue checkshirt and straw hat which reminds me of nothing so much as an ice-cream seller at the British seaside, which the teenagers wear over heavy metal t-shirts, the celebration in general melds together both Pagan and Christian a traditions. It is probably this mixture that has made them so famous. Both Stephanie and I were a little uncomfortable at witnessing a celebration which seems so intimate, because it concerns the dead, but I think we didn´t intrude too much. I am sure that some of the locals resented us, however, and this weird unequal exchange of experience often makes me uncomfortable when I am not connected to the event. At other times I am more involved, and participate as a guest, rather than stare as a foreigner.


Having found out, that, as the day before, there were no buses on this holiday, Stephanie and I walked to the edge of the town and sat on the road to await a pick-up, a lift, a minivan, our fate. Luckily a minivan pulled up after about 20 minutes and we didn´t need to contemplate getting into a car with an unknown stranger. This freezing, colourful, manic weekend was my first experience as a bona fide traveller in Guatemala and it set a really high standard. I think it´s something that I will remember for its uniqueness for a long time. I hope other experiences live up to it.

Countryside experiences

November 7, 2008

First of all, apologies for having abandoned this website for so long. I have several very good reasons for my failure to update, as you will see. Over the next few days I will do my best to catch up with the several posts I have planned, but, as I will also be travelling during this time don´t be mad if I am still a little slow.

Last week (it feels like a month ago) I studied Spanish (for the last time) at PLQ´s sister school, La Escuela de la Montana. Surprisingly enough, this school is located in the mountains. It offers the same tuition as PLQ and is similary structured as a not-for-profit which splits its income three ways: the upkeep of the school including payment to teachers, payment to the families who feed the students, creation and support of organisations to aid the local communities. A little different to PLQ, the school only has a capacity of 14, and all the students sleep in dorm-like rooms in the house where the lessons also take place (in the garden). It´s beautiful complex. It has a chuc (Maya sauna), a hut with a view, teaching huts, a herb garden which the gardener Jorge uses to cook up herbal remedies for the locals and students (he cured my toothache – thanks Jorge!), a composting toilet and is a generally wild and beautiful place to study. My favourite hangout during the stay was the hammocks on the front porch where I would doze my afternoons away.

My time here was wonderful and I really really didn´t want to leave. But, in a way, my favourite aspect of it, its situation, was also the most hard. The school was started about 11 years ago and is based in an old farmhouse next to two small communities (think one dirt track each), Fatima and Nueva San Jose. These communities resettled there about 8 years ago having fled starvation and terrible working conditions in two different coffee farms, or fincas. The workers decided to move together, and thus the two, highly competitive, communities were born. Similar to PLQ, each student is assigned a family, although we only eat with these families, not sleep. Unlike the fairly middle-class family I stayed with in Xela, these communities are literally fighting against starvation. They live in concrete huts, without water and electricity until recently (the two are vicarious anyway and tend to cut out) and cannot house any posh traveller.


Making tortillas, very ineptly, in my family´s house on the wood fire.

On my first full day at the school my mother, Lesvia, said that her husband had left the house at 3am to look for work the day before and hadn´t found any. All the teenage boys (about 15 or over) and men leave at 3.30 every morning to look for contruction work in a nearby town, or coffee picking at plantations and often don´t return until 10pm. They generally find one or two days work a week. On top of this situation is the amount of money they get paid. The minimum pay for the countryside is 45 quetzals a day ($6 or 4 pounds) but owing to the excess of workers they often only get paid 15-30Q. A maximum of 60Q a week does not feed a whole family. I got the impression that they often couldn´t afford to eat and many of the children have malnutrition, their stomachs bloated in the way that has been portrayed at the symbol of starvation in Western media. I particularly noticed the malnutrition of one of the girls in my family. I think the girls are often given less to eat than the boys, and unlike her cousins she look very underfed. She was also the sweetest, shyest girl and so easy to please. She always had something in her mouth, a sweet or a marble, just as I did when little. I just don´t think the adults have the time to spend with the children when they are fighting to feed them. The money that having a student for a week every month (the families are on rotation, and students are scarce now, owing to the economic crisis in the US) makes a huge difference.

mountain-school-2008-2-10Reading with one of Lesvia´s grandchildren. Embarrassingly I couldn´t remember any of their names. She was excited about having her picture taken and so ran home to put it up. She´s very beautiful.

Some of my favourite moments were reading (in Spanish) with the children. They don´t have any books so when I went to eat in the village the children would yell out ´Ella tiene un libro! Libro!´and the girls would hold my hand and walk with me. They would study the book intensively while I was eating and then I would read to them, sometimes avoiding death by wavy candle which a girl would hold near my hair and the book during a power cut. I think they understood my Spanish.

mountain-school-2008-2-8Three lovely people. The boy graduated from primary school that week.

Having a photo taken was also a big deal to them, and I felt a little awkward about not being able to give them a copy. As the nearest phone and town was a half hour ride away, I didn´t get the opportunity to print them.

Other major cultural differences were the closeness of families, several generations living together and next door to each other, and how young everyone gets married. It makes sense for economic reasons and you have to be an adult and work very young here (girls start helping in the house around age 10 and therefore are not often allowed to attend play events such as the ´Noche Cultural´ at my school. (Basically, we´re the culture in this night, and the kids get to throw water at us, run around and laugh at our Spanish.)

mountain-school-2008-4My first volcanic eruption, as seen from the finca. The view I should have had from Santa Maria.

I also visited a coffee finca during this week and learnt how coffee is made (far more complicated than I thought). Most striking is the amount the workers have to pick to earn a day´s (crap) pay – 100lbs! Ridiculous.

mountain-school-2008-13Dried, best quality coffee beans. Apparently they´re this colour before they´re roasted.

Freshly armed with my fair trade coffee, I learnt a lot this week and I got to see a side of Guatemalan life that many tourists are blind to, and don´t have the opportunity to explore. Witnessing the depth of their poverty and how hard they have to work on the fincas, I felt shocked and determined to never buy non-fair trade coffee again. I feel more uncomfortable with my wealth now than ever, as I know it is based on the subjugation of people such as these. But I also know that I contributed a little and can also educate others so that we can start to change.

Oh, gender

November 7, 2008

I´m in two minds whether to post this, because I wrote it when I was very angry, but my opinions haven´t changed. However, the content is a bit sensitive:

I´m writing this sitting at ´El Mirador´ (the viewpoint) at the Escuela de la Montana, which I will write about in my next post. I am studying here for a week. I´m really full from a lunch of rice, beans and tortillas (which I participated in cooking!) and the view is, in my imagination, suposed to inspire me to write marvellous things. At the moment, however, it´s distracting me with its view of banana trees, jungle, butterflies, houses and the occassional hummingbird. Not to mention the three inch hornet that decided to investigate my ear. Te subject of this post is not easy to write, because I feel uneasy thinking about it. It concerns the gender dynamics in Guatemala and some of my experiences as a blonde, white, tall, rich female traveller in a country of small people of colour where I stick out like a sore thumb. Since being here I have learnt that if I want to walk down the street peacefully I can´t wear my dress; that I am a target for harrassment and gender-based violence, including groping and rape. Before I write further, I should mention that nothing really bad has happened to me. I have been catcalled, propositioned and harrassed. Groped and followed without my knowledge, the latter experience being the most scary as I don´t know what the intentions were of the boy who followed me; whether they were to rape me or merely grope me (as he did). He may have been opportunistic. I hope that this remains the worst of my experiences while travelling. I also hope that I will fight if I need to.

Which brings me to my net point. For sometime now I have been wary of education aimed at women which tells them how to protect themselves against potential (presumably male) attackers they might encounter, say on the street. The emphasis that is placed on kicks, and screams, and pepper spray, does nothing to combat the root of the problem. The depth of misoyny – which I define as the lower valuation of women – and the consequent legitimation of violence towards us in ´our,´ (that is, broadly speaking Western) society and societies worldwide. The acceptability of catcallingis just one less violent form of disrespect for women which culminates inopen hatred, rape,mutilation and murder.

But, having been assaulted, and knowing that I will continue to be a target for specific reasons which travelling, I want to protect myself. My encounters with public violence here confirm the stereotypes that men are the aggressors and that rape is public. Ina way, I am angry to have felt the type of aggression that so many medias have warned me about, because I know it is only the tip of the iceberg. I do believe that misogyny is worldwide, that violence on the part of men towards women is endemic, but public rape in only one aspect of misogyny, and only one part of the sexual violence that people of all genders, sexualities and colours experience, for different reasons. The fact is that I am a target now because I am a foreign blonde female, because Western women are seen as more promiscuous, and that, owing to all of these reasons, I am one of the most visible females, that is, targets, around. I now want to carry mace, a weapon, something I would never consider, or agree with carrying in Canada or Britain. I want to smash my jam jar (which I was carrying at the time as a present for my Guatemalan family) against that stupid boy´s head. The fac that he was so normal just makes me want to sream. I believe that violence incites violence, but the desire to make my aggressors hurt too is sometimes overwhelming. I want to make them feel a portion of the pain the I experience, although that´s impossible, because the two have entirely different qualities. The sexual being, I believe, the most psychologically damaging. I will continue to take precautions, and I will be even more careful in the future. I will take taxis, will absolutely not walk alone outside at night, will travel in groups when I can, and may carry something in my hand (although not my knife, as the potential for harm is too great). And all of this makes me so angry. Rob me, take my money, but do not attack or rape me. The psychological harm would be too much, as it is for every survivor. It is much more that we should have to bear.

I realise that the misogyny I have felt is only a small part of what happens behind closed doors here in Guatemala. In a country with a history of such violence (a violence that is still tangible) racism and sexism on a scale more visible that in my countries there are so many women being raped, mutilated and killed, as well as queers and indigenous people. All of these prejudices exist in all countries but Guatemala is a dangerous country. In fact, my friend Kathryn has informed me since writing this post that a thousand indigenous women were brutally raped, mutilated and murdered over the past two years in the capital alone. These attacks seem to be gang initiation rites. Indigenous women are easy targets because who is going to miss them? Certainly no one with power. As my teacher was telling me, in the countryside women and children don´t walk alone (neither do us tourists) and the indigenous people here are fighting to be able to eat. As for the queers, those who can emigrate to the Unites States, others remain in the closet, are attacked and sometimes killed, and live in communities whose sense of self-worth is seriously diminished. Some must have happy lives, but internalized homophobia follows homophobia in all countries and here I am scared to some out to most (but not all) Guatemalans. At least those I don´t know and trust. The fact that (as my guidebook observed of Chile) it´s not illegal anymore just isn´t enough. I have been struck, while being here, by the difficulty of the lives of the majority of Guatemalans, in a country that is so stunningly beautiful rich and beautiful. Guatemala has a very varied climate and can farm fruit, cocoa, beans, maize and coffee, yet the majority of its citizens are categorised under the UN´s definitions as living in destitue poverty. The acceptability of gender-based violence on the part of men who have seen death, murder and genocide within their lifetimes, the systematic rape and murder of the women they know, astounds me. I cannot comprehend how they don´t see the connection. I will write about my experiences eating witha family in a rural area, as well as many positive other things, later, but I felt that the violence is a part of my time here, and needed to be written about.

This past week I had the honour of experiencing two major forces of nature; an earthquake and Lake Atitlan. Both were overwhelming experiences, and both are associated with huge problems for human development. In order to see my opinion about tourist resorts at the lake, see my previous post.

The first, the earthquake, was of course awesome, in the sense of awe-inspiring, and scary. At first a strange shifting, I thought I was about to experience a particularly strong bout of food poisoning. As the tremor increased, I realised it wasn´t my stomach that was upset, but the whole earth. As the house began to sway dramatically, Jose-Miguel ran to stand under the corner of the roof and Laura grabbed onto her chair and looked at me with worried eyes. Generally, if the locals are worried, it´s not a good thing. The quake turned out to be 6.6 on the Richter scale and the media didn´t mention whether anyone died. According to the classification system, it was a tremor with the epicentre in the sea off the Pacific coast. But I choose to call it an earthquake, because, seeing the house wobble like that was damned impressive for me. Of course, earthquakes are extremely dangerous things, especially in the mountains where the combination of water and loose earth buries many people. A few years ago the whole village of Santiago died when a mountain collapsed on top of them in the middle of the night.

The potential for landslides following an earthquake crossed my mind when I travelled to Lake Atitlan for the weekend. Cramped in an extremely sick-inducing ´Chicken bus,´we had to cross several mountains to reach the lake. On the way we had to wait several times on mountain passes for roadworkers to clear the road. I don´t know whether these mud paths were worse after the earthquake, but I was pretty scared when all I could see ahead was a tiny mud path alongside a drop with rocks falling constantly on it. So, when we crossed this path, my reaction was to shut my eyes and think I´m gonna die, I´m gonna die. Not very profound, but it was the best I could manage. In fact, the path was wider than I thought and our journey was incident free, but the impression was heavy.

Not very impressive picture of the lancha from Pana to San Pedro la Laguna

The Chicken buses are amazingly suped-up old American school buses whose seats for children have been moved even further to accomodate more people and which emit opaque clouds of black smoke as they pass by. And I mean really opaque and black. The sides are painted with a variety of bright themes, such as the generic speed flame, and are named either women´s names such as Linda Katy (Pretty Katy) or Regalito de Dios (Gift from God). Gift from a right-wing American government more like. I don´t know whether these donations demonstrate a sick sense of humour on America´s side, but they are one of the most dangerous and uncomfortable methods of transport I have ever encountered. If I am lucky enough to choose my seat it´s a toss up between travel sickness in the aisle and squished knees by nthe window (I don´t know how other taller travellers manage, but the locals fit comfortably). On the way back yesterday I was the third on a seat for two, and would fall off my seat (remaining airborne by holding onto the metal bar with my hands) when we went around sharp corners. Of course, the Guatemaltecos somehow manage to sit across this gap and squeeze into the most improbable ´seats.´They sure are hardcore.

Once I arrived in Panajachel on Friday night I crossed the lake in a lancha (speedboat) to San Pedro la Laguna, the hippie, druggy, travellers´paradise, and lodged in a hostel on the side of the lake. My room was ugly but clean with a private bathroom, but the hostel and surroundings were beautiful.

View of the small Maya village of San Juan, which is amazingly untouched by development, unlike the tourist haven just 2km down the road

San Pedro was my first stop as a lone traveller and the experience was very positive. Owing to lack of seats, I soon found interesting company in a restaurant and for the rest of the weekend. I felt a little naive when it comes to money and travelling but I think I will soon harden up. In fact, faced with a bus cancellation on Sunday I managed to make my own way back to Xela without hassle and with the company of a hardened ex-pat American student who had a ton of interesting opinions.

My decision to travel by local transport was bolstered not only by the relative cheapness and desire to integrate myself more with the local way of life but also by the experience several of my friends had recently travelling from the capital to Xela. Four armed masked men entered their first class bus and robbed them at gunpoint, taking everything they could find, including hidden money belts. A couple of these were robbed to next week of their borrowed (their own money having previously been taken) money in different circumstances. Of course, while armed robbery is scary and I hope I never experience it, as the only objective is capital you are unlikely to be hurt. But still, eek! I am reminded of the Foreign and Commonwealth website´s general advice to British tourists to not go to Guatemala. But really, I have rarely felt unsafe. In fact the only time I felt uncomfortable was when I was forced into ´participating´in a political monologue by a drunken local in a tourist resort. While I am happy to learn about the history of Guatemala and engage in conversations with the locals (such learning experiences being one of the reasons I am here), I resent both that he assumed I was totally ignorant of the general structure of recent Guatemalan history and the fact that he used me as a political sounding board without making any attempt to actively engage me in conversation. Added to his compulsion to touch me with his insistence that he wasn´t trying to touch me or hit on me and his insistence that he ´didn´t have weapons´ once I made it clear I wanted him to leave me alone left me far more furious and frustrated than scared. Conversely, I have always felt safe in non-touristy areas.

Drinking on a stoop after being enraged at resort beer prices on Saturday – I look a lot like my brother

Having spent the weekend wandering and relaxing, I returned to Xela amazingly exhausted and happy with what I had accomplished. Although the mist and rain had prevented me from seeing the stunning vistas of summertime, I now feel a lot more equipped to continue my travels alone.

This post is long overdue. I should have written it the first week I was here, but, in true traveller style, everything takes longer than it´s meant to. The reason I first came to Guatemala was on the recommendation of a couple of acquaintances. Shamefully, I wasn´t aware of the country at all. The name was familiar, but I couldn´t have placed it on a map, or have told you anything about it. I only thought of Guatemala as a possible travel destination once I had been told about the Projecto Linguistico Quetzaltenango. The Projecto, or PLQ, was started in the Eighties in response to the ´disappearance´of two students from Xela. Their friends started the school for foreigners in order to raise money for their case.

In Guatemala, ser disapaereciendo, to be disappeared, is the word given to the political murders committed during the civil war here (1960-1996). Villagers, mostly indigenous people who were accused of being involved with the guerrillas, went missing. Sometimes their mutilated bodies were intentionally left where they could be found, sometimes they were never found. The two student activists, René Leiva Cayax and Danilo Alvarado, disappeared in 1987 for organising against the genocidal government. Only one of the two bodies was found.

The courtyard of PLQ. The students either study under the canopy or inside.

PLQ obviously has very political beginnings and it is now established as a bona-fide left-wing, but very well run (the lefties manage to organize themselves well here) organisation. As a non-hierarchy, decisions are made by the collective, a group of self-nominated teachers and a couple of permanent administrative positions, who nevertheless have an equal amount of power. Decisions are proposed to the rest of the teachers and the two groups go back and forth until they come to a decision. Ah, I love functional non-hierarchy! The students, too, are generally socially conscious, with a fair smattering of activists from North America (I´m the only Brit). We all live in homestays with Guatemalan familys with whom we eat three meals a day and have 5 hours one-on-one tuition a day with a different teacher each week.

Especially educative are the conferences we have each week on a variety of themes, such as children workers, contemporary Guatemalan politics, recent history, and the political importance of the Dia de la Revolucion, which, as I update this, was yesterday (20 October). Tomorrow is one of the celebrations for the 20th anniversary of the school. Expect pictures of revolutionary teachers with guitars!

The pretty window in my bedroom at Laura´s casa; the dark and moody version

The main reason I love PLQ is because it feels like we, the students, are involved to some degree in Guatemalan society, not just freeloading off the currency exchange rate. Obviously we´re big, rich Gringos (even when we´re not American) and there are undeniable economic and cultural differences. But most of us are very kind people, and we´re not too gross with our privilege. One of the reasons I am slightly uneasy travelling in less rich countries is that it feels like a form of neocolonialism. I come here with all my money and if your country is pretty enough and you perform your ethnicity well enough then I will deign to give it to you. This hugely unequal exchange is disgusting. At the moment I´m staying in a Westernized resort at Lake Atitlan where the market women cook chocolate cakes and cookies to cater to the tourists´ tastes (the price of gas is such here that even well-off Guatemalans can´t afford to use the oven). It´s a backpackers´ paradise, with more-expensive-than-Guatemalan-but cheaper-than-our-own-countries´ Gringo food, freely available drugs, an amazing natural setting, and plenty of other people to get drunk and hook up with. Of course, I have chosen to be here because of all these reasons. It is amazingly relaxing to be able to chat with people freely in your own language, afford a room with a balcony (which most of us middle-class young ones can´t in our own countries) and eat good, familiar food while exploring the nature around us. But the economic disparity is still hugely wrong, as is our colonization of the Maya´s space.

This simultaneous enjoyment and guilt will definitely abate when I return to Xela for my last week. Living with Laura and Jose-Miguel I feel part of a community to some extent and I know I am contributing in a wholly positive way to Guatemala, rather than destroying and taking-over Guatemalan space. The money I pay to PLQ goes three ways. A third goes to the family for my board, a third to community organizations and a third to paying the teachers. The second third is my favourite. Xela has the only Women´s shelter in Guatemala to give a place to women and children who are fleeing from domestic violence. Organizations such as these (where you can also volunteer if you´re here for a month or more) wouldn´t exist without the PLQ.

Travelling back self-righteously on the chicken bus tomorrrow (Guatemalan rather than Gringo transport) my conscience will be appeased and I will recover from my weekend of gluttony here once I´m back with Laura and Jose-Miguel. However, I wonder how I will feel on the rest of my trip. This will be my last week at PLQ, and after another week studying at the rural mountain sister school, I´ll be off on a journey of no-holds-barred tourism. I do think it´s possible to be a ´good´ tourist, and I will do my best, but I will always know that the fact of my ability to travel here while no Guatemalan has the chance of doing the same in the UK is fundamentally wrong.

Two friends and a view

October 14, 2008

So this is the mountain I got up at 4.30am yesterday to climb. At 3772m, the Santa Maria is rumoured to be the hardest mountain to climb in Central America. Perhaps not such a good idea for an unfit person with an aversion to practically all forms of exercise to attempt. This was also opinion of the host father of my friend Sarah, Edwin. After seeing my performance on Saturday morning, he was worried enough about me to ask me not to climb the volcano for the sake of my health. I got up at the moderate time of 5.30am that day to run (yes, Mum, I said run) up the hill behind Xela which is about half the size of the Santa Maria. By the time we got to the base of the hill, I was too tired to run anymore. In fact, I was so puffed out, I felt sick and dizzy. The climb to the top of this hill was a struggle and, owing to the clouds, I wasn´t rewarded by much of a view.

The view from the top of the hill in Xela

Obviously the idea that I couldn´t so something only made me more determined to climb the Santa Maria just to prove how wrong he was. So, the next morning, armed with two ankle supports, 1.5 litres of water, chocolate, avocado, coke and bananas, I was at the bottom of the volcano, ready for the 8 hour hike up and down the mountain. Although it is unlikely to erupt, the Santa Maria erupted fairly recently in volcano time about 100 years ago causing devastation in the Western highlands. Two vents continually spurt clouds of volcanic gas and lava just below its peak. About 20 minutes into the hike, with the pink dawn spreading to my left, I was seriously out of breath and in doubt of my ability to climb up this steep peak. After about 40 minutes we split into two groups with me and my friend Lulu left behind the slow group with two Australians and a French woman while the rest of our school friends went ahead. We were given the choice to walk a much easier peak nearby, as the last hour in particular was meant to be a hard climb. I imagined a cliff, not too good for a girl with vertigo. But everyone decided to walk the Santa Maria, which was after all the reason we were there. Once we started, there was no option of turning back. I was extremely discouraged when our guide went ahead of us instead of walking at our slow pace. I had visions of being left behind alone on a strange mountain with my very limited sense of direction. About an hour into the climb, we were less than a third of the way up.

This is the view from about a third of the way up, while I was struggling. At least it´s sunny!

Of course, we didn´t start from sea level, so I actually climbed about 1300m, which is still more than three times the height of the Empire State Building, on a track of mud and loose volcanic rocks. However, after a very disconcerting beginning, my energy reserves kicked in and suddenly I was leading the group. I was still breathing heavily, but my chest and legs felt fine. I led for about an hour. I think I have the slow and steady skill, rather than the speed. Endurance is more my thing, and I enjoy it a lot more. My friends and I had wanted to climb Tajumulco, another Guatemalan volcano, which at 4220m is the highest point in Central America. However, there is a land dispute at the moment over which community gets the gringos´ tourism money and it´s closed. I plan to hike it when I return here to study more in a few years. So Santa Maria was second choice, but still damned impressive. Unfortunately, after this point I didn´t take any good photos of the view. Mostly because I was concentrating on the walk.

About 45 minutes from the top I began to feel really sick and dizzy. I don´t know whether it was unfitness, the altitude, or both. My hands swelled up to twice their normal size, like my feet do when I´m in an aeroplane and I could only walk at a snail´s pace otherwise I thought I would faint or throw up. This crippling feeling meant that I was fourth to last to complete the climb, when I think I could have been about 15 minutes faster. Anyway, whatever the reason, by the time my group reached the top, the mountain was shrouded in cloud and we couldn´t see a thing. On a clear day you can see to the Mexican border, as well as the daily lava and steam spurts from the adjacent volcano Santiaguito. As you can see from my photo of the starting point, taken at the end, the volcano has a a beautiful hat of cloud on the top. However, the first few minutes I was there, I was so proud at myself for completing the climb that it´s only now that I´m upset about the view. On the way up, the sun burnt the clouds away (as well as my neck) and gave us a view of other mountains beneath us and rolling valleys which made me feel like a character from the Lord of the Rings. It was truly amazing. On the last part, the view was stunning, but I couldn´t appreciate it as looking down such a steep slope with vertigo and dizziness was not a good idea. Anyway, I still climbed the hardest mountain in Central America in a measly three and a half hours! Next time, I´m camping halfway up and walking in the dark to see the dawn. View guaranteed. I´m sure I will climb another mountain on this trip. I hope to travel to Honduras, Peru, Bolivia and Chile after Guatemala and there´s some damn high country in those countries.

Hardcore at the peak of Santa Maria, with friends from my Spanish school: On the way up (and down) we were accompanied by two friendly dogs from the Maya village at the base. You can see one of them collapsed at the bottom of this photo. For some reason, we all look like gangstas.

For some reason, it took as long to descend as it did to climb the mountain, although we only took two, instead of about 5 breaks, and I ran at points. However, by the time we reached the bottom, having walked along paths I have no recollection of climbing (perhaps some survival instinct for endurance) my ankle, which I had twisted the day before running down Xela´s hill, was too painful to put weight on. I hobbled down the last few hundred metres by leading with my left foot until I felt that I couldn´t physically walk any further. Today, I still have an inability to walk up and down stairs without some serious effort. For my Guatemalan family, the most amusing sight of the British girl they have yet is of me hauling myself up the house stairs fully supported by my grip on the banisters. Sadly last night I also said goodbye to my hiking companions from Denmark, Anita and Lulu (the blonde chick and the girl in the grey hoodie). I may see them again in Chile, if we´re lucky enough to cross paths (with some organisation of course)- Today I am unable to move very much and have consoled myself for the loss of two friends and a view with a 70p purple wool skirt so I can look a little pretty occasionally. Goodbye North Face.

P.S: For those of you who wanted a picture of our guide, Eduardo. He´s singing.