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.

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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.