Sexy post!

October 10, 2008

OK, not really. But you do get a picture of me in my bathing suit, which isn´t exactly the kind of image of myself I normally like to post on the world wide web. The sacrifices I make in the name of literary art! I had a slightly stressful school day, with student/teacher personality clashes (we have a new teacher each week, thankfully) and I decided to write about my indulgences of yesterday, rather than the communist politics of the school I´m attending, which I will get to in another post. The beautiful natural pool you see before you is the volcanic pond of las Fuentes Georginas. These thermal pools are pretty well known for their beauty and calming effect, and you can smell them halfway down the mountain. Mmm, sulphur . . .

Guatemala is a very volcanic country, and Xela is hedged into its natural bowl by 10 surrounding volcanos, one of which, Santa Maria, exploded in 1902 and killed a lot of people. Apparently, the diplomatic tendencies of the time led the President to send a town cryer into the parque central to announce that nothing was happening. This is amid a rain of ashes, massive clouds of smoke, and lava flowing down the hills. Hmmm. International politics. Stupid, much? (Well, not all of them, but certainly the ass-licking, holocaust-denying kind.) The highest point until Mexico, the Santa Maria is is the volcano I will be climbing at 5 in the morning this Sunday without fitness training. Again, I ask, stupid much? I´m hoping that my survival stamina will kick in and I will make it to the top for the sunrise. Apparently you can see Mexico and as far as Nicaragua from the top. Beautiful. As an impressive triangular and very steep peak, my first view of this mountain yesterday did instill some doubts in my mind. Well, so long as it doesn´t explode again. . .

Anyway, the volcano I scaled in a minivan yesterday was active as well, as the 50 degrees centigrade pool I´m sitting in proves. Eek! Apparently, apart from the odd spurts of lava and steam, it´s harmless. I didn´t get to see any lava unfortunately, as we just went to the pools. I guess I´ll save that for another post too! I don´t think these pictures do much justice to the beauty of the pools, especially as this one was taken from a shelter. The main pool, as seen above, is at the bottom of a wooded cliff, from which water falls into the pond below. It is truly magnificent. The water is then channelled into two following pools, getting cooler as it moves downwards into each. My opinion is that you start off in the coolest one at the bottom and work your way up to the fifty fucking degrees at the top. For some strange reason, no one else agreed with me. Huh! As beautiful as this last, naturally formed pool is, you can´t stay in it very long. At least not with my British intolerance of heat. Yet the mingling of monsoon rain with the hot water is really refreshing. To get the most out of the experience, I developed a pattern of dip, sit up, dip, sit up.

I really wish I had taken a picture of the surrounding countryside. The way up the mountain we passed patchwork fields and stunning sharp drops into misty valleys and the view of clouds ringing the surrounding mountains below us. Of course, this stunning landscape is accompanied by the extreme poverty of its inhabitants. The tiny steep fields probably don´t yield an easy harvest for their farmers, and the trading conditions here suck. The city at the bottom of this valley is flooded and industrial. It stinks of smoke and is full of shanty towns. It makes the house I´m living in seem an impossible dream, which I guess it is for many.

As always, the tourists (that´s me and my friends) paid a week´s factory wages to enter the natural spa and we spent the afternoon soaking away in the steam. It was truly luxurious. Unfortunately, I felt sick the whole afternoon, owing to the driving of the school´s lovely but slightly safety-challenged driver. Driving at hair-raising speed around breakneck bends up (and down) a mountain doesn´t exactly make for a peaceful ride. Most of us were getting ready to puke in both directions. By the way (please don´t read this Mum), to get a driving licence here you don´t have to actually take any driving lessons. You pay the driving school, who then gives you a certificate, which you then exchange for a licence. The illiteracy of many of the professional drivers here also contributes to accidents. They can´t read the road signs. So, the car sickness combined with extreme heat left me feeling a little dizzy, and after nearly puking on the way home I had to lie down for the evening. The sick-feeling also contributed to the not-taking-of-photos. Still, the fuentes were worth it. Here is a picture of the hills surrounding Xela, to give you a very small idea of the up-and-down nature of the countryside here. You can see the city´s market coming off the parque central.

Oh yes, that mountain top you see in the distance is the Santa Maria. Ha. Ha. Ha.

That is, for those of you who don´t know Spanish, the midwives of Concepcion Chiquirichapa, a small municipality of Xela, the city where I am now living for a while. I visited their fantastic organisation this Saturday and was inspired to write a post there and then. Of course, it actually took me until now to create it. The reason I fell in love with them is that they are an indigenous group organised at the grassroots level, without the help of the government or other agencies, both national and international, who don´t have the lives of these women and their communities at heart. In fact, the government and the ruling classes have a history of trying to eliminate these people, and officially committed genocide for about 20 years. In reality, the lives of Guatemala´s indigenous population have been considered worthless since the colonization of Guatemala by the Spanish in the 1500s.

In this post, I will try to replicate some of the information I was taught at this conference and organise my thoughts as well, if possible. As I didn´t take notes, I hope this is going to work. The comadrones collectively run a house which provides birthing support to all women in their four surrounding towns. There are 40 women in the organisation and they all take one 24 hour shift each week. They own a house in Concepcion of which they are very proud, not surprising since they have little financial help and they laid the foundations themselves. In fact, all the town got together to build this house! If that´s not grassroots, I don´t know what is! Their house comprises of several birthing rooms, a kitchen, a pharmacy and an education area. One of its most beautiful aspects is the herb garden. These women have no formal training and have learnt from their own and each others experiences. One of the comadrones educating us attended her first birth at 19. The other is on her second generation of midwiving a family. As I understand it, they offer the Maya women the opportunity to give birth in a homelike setting, with the aid of traditional medicinal herbs. In this house they have the privacy and respect they certainly wouldn´t at the hospital, where they are often made to wait in corridors (NHS anyone?), spoken to in Spanish, which many do not understand, and treated by a male doctor, which goes against their traditions. Moreover, to give birth in a hospital costs 3000 quetzales, more than they would earn in a year. The comadrones´ house cost about 300Q and provides a kitchen, a birthing and a private room for the family to wait in. For those interested, I will add the name of this organization when Fedelma gives it to me.

Here is a beautiful picture of my friend Melanie translating. Happily, I understood a lot of what they presenters said, but for the talk to be translated into English helped a hell of a lot as well.

One of the main treatments they offer the women is medicinal herbs, in drinks, salads, and baths in order to cure their ills. The ability of these plants ranges from vitamin replacement to diarrhea and pain cure. In fact, one of the plants the women swear by is the humble dandelion. If you want more iron, make a dandelion leaf salad now (be sure to wash the leaves first)! Unfortunately I can´t remember the Spanish name of the super duper cure-all plant. Although our guide used to be a guerrilla in the Guatemalan civil was and lived off it in the mountains! He´s a pretty hardcore man. More about him in another post . . . In fact, Chiquirichapa is located in the Western highlands, right next to one of the pivotal mountains in the war, where much of the fighting took place. This ´combat´took the form of the army napalming the forests where the guerrillas lived, as well as the local Maya population, in order to attempt to surpress their demand for human rights. Phew. More about that in another post too.

Among these traditional methods used is the quiche (a word I don´t know how to spell, pronouced ki-shay in Maya). Basically, this is a Mayan sauna! This photo doesn´t exactly do justice to the scale of the sauna, as it comes up to my chest and to enter it I would need to get onto my knees. One of the most amazing facts about this sauna, is that if the baby is breached and the mother is not yet in labour, the comadrones can take the women into this steam room and massage the baby into the right position! It seems that the comadrones are nearly wholly self-sufficient, apart from emergency situations. As I was saying, the group receives no help from any other bodies. One of the scams the current government pulls is to advertise its involvement in an organisation and then donate very little, such as a chair or a book. Other organisations also promise to help and then fall through, or attempt to impose their own ideas onto this group. As a collective run from personal and cultural experiences, such help really makes matters worse. As the rich visitors, our donations are one source of the collective´s income.

 The medicine cupboard (accompaniment to a more Western pharmacy)

One of the most forceful aspects of this group is that it is, of course, comprised of, founded and run by a collective of indigenous Maya women, a group doubly oppressed. These women have found a means to express and support their culture, in a society where such expression is extremely rare. As most of the companeros do not speak Spanish, read, or write, I find their power and success even more fantastic, in the good sense. One question which we, the tourists, asked is if there are any male midwives. The facilitators replied that there are a few in the country, yet their job is very difficult. As their culture does not allow them to see a woman naked or to touch her, male midwives can only catch the baby as it comes out. One for gender equality in all circumstances, this situation made me appreciate the necessity of having female midwives against my own general politics. The gender of the midwives is a requirement in such a culture for the health and safety of the women. Such an acknowledgement is difficult for me to make, and an example of the specificity of cultural knowledge. It´s not necessarily a realisation I would have come to myself. One of the best aspects of the school where I study is that they give their students the opportunity to have such experiences, and are very involved in outreach.

I´ll leave you with a final picture of our two presenters. They are wearing traditional Mayan dress, with cardigans over the top, and are two very compassionate and wonderful women.

. . . in Guatemala

October 5, 2008

So, first of all, an apology. For the 90% of you who have no idea where I am or my general health, I apologize. Please don’t take it personally, I truly am this crap with everybody. And, before I even start blogging, please note that the keyboards in Guatemala are both foreign and a bit crappy. My posts will be full of bizarre typos. As for the style of this blog, I intend it to be my own record of my adventures and a way to keep in contact with all my friends. You and I can both read this and enjoy the pretty pictures. That is, given that I know how to upload them.

Oh, there you go! For those who recognize these three, they are three quarters of the foursome who stayed up with me on my last night in Montreal before I caught my flight to Guatemala at stupid o’ clock in the manana. Chandra, on the right with the bowl, got out of bed to return my camera to me. I only thought it fair to take a picture of her in return.

I would really appreciate comments on my posts and the opportunity to communicate with my friends while I am travelling. So feel free to interact with this blog. It’s kinda one of the most appealing features for me. Finally, my blogs may be a bit sporadic but I will create them,so come and check here our of curiosity once in a while. I will try to be witty and entertaining.

So, onto the now. I am spending the next few months on a circuitous route back to the UK via Central and South America. My first stop is Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, where I am studying Spanish for about a month. In true Laura style, I have been here a week but this is the first time I have found to sit down and write a blog. Apologies! I will be back soon with some interesting tales. But, for now, please enjoy this view of Quetzaltenango’s streets.