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.