With growing curiosity and a healthy double-edged dose of excitement and apprehension, we set off recently for the next segment of our journey: a new region with its own story, unfamiliar cultures with their own features, and distinct cuisines with their own flavors.
We share ten impressions from our first ten days in Guatemala – from chuchitos to proselytizers to contradictions – as we begin to absorb and comprehend an entirely new cultural panorama.
1. El Autobús del Pollo
Ah, the chicken bus, Guatemala’s infamous public transport of choice. For American readers, imagine the yellow school buses of your childhood painted in every shade of the rainbow. Throw in a few Mary and/or Jesus stickers and some brightly-painted slogans on the windshield (e.g., “Siempre preciosa” – “Always precious” or “Cristo viene” – “Christ is coming”) and you begin to grasp the concept of the chicken bus. Oh, but instead of sitting two to a seat, you sit three adults and three (or more) children in the same space.
2. Speaking simply
After a few days of Spanish lessons, we know enough verbs, nouns and prepositions to cobble together some thoughts and engage in basic conversations about food, family, and whether or not we slept well last night. However, the demands on us moved up a notch at lunch the other day when one of the school coordinators inquired about our travels, our website and the goals of our journey. Limited language skills often encourage expression in simple yet profound terms. The upshot of our discussion, expressed as easily in Spanish as it is in English: “Cultures are different, but people are the same around the world.”
3. Street food
Concerned that our stomachs had lost their resilience from our stay in America, we backed off from gobbling Guatemalan street food for as long as we could…which is to say 24 hours. As avocado lovers, how could we resist rich lathered guacamole spread atop a crispy tostada at Parque Union in Antigua? Pair this with any of the following and your taste buds are headed south of the border:
- from a stand at Parque Union, chuchitos – the Guatemalan version of a tamale
- from the weekend market, cheese-stuffed pupusas – stuffed grilled rounds made from tortilla dough and topped with salsa, greens and cheese
- street-side ceviche – seafood (especially shrimp) turned in a sauce of tomatoes, lime, onions, chilis and earthy vinegar
- bus station chiles rellenos – fried sweet pepper stuffed with meat and diced vegetables, sometimes served between tortillas like a sandwich.
- market tacos – shredded meat cooked in a rich tomato sauce, topped with roasted onions, cilantro, fresh vegetables, and a squeeze of lime – all tucked between a healthy dose of tortillas.
Down it with some horchata (rice milk sweetened with sugar, cinnamon and vanilla) and finish yourself off with some papayas, mangoes and pineapples. In case you are wondering, our stomachs are fine. The good bacteria we collected in Asia are apparently still doing their thing.
Something about Guatemalan children’s dark eyes – curious, playful and shy at turns – coaxes a smile and a melted heart. All children here are pretty cute, but dress them up for school and they become off-the-charts adorable. Each morning on our way to Spanish class, girls dressed in a bright red sweaters and plaid skirts briskly make their way to elementary school with the aid of their older sisters or their more-traditionally dressed mothers. For us, a dose of color…and a dose of hope.
Guatemala is a heavily Catholic country, so perhaps this comes as little surprise. But the passion is startling. A woman preaches the Bible through a megaphone to the market throngs in Antigua; a believer belts out a 20-minute sermon without skipping a beat in the aisle of a chicken bus. Competition even ensues when two sermons converge in the middle of the Xela central market (Democracia). The blasé reaction of locals suggests this is an everyday affair.
Antigua is not known for its central market. Perhaps that’s because most tourists don’t venture past its first 100 yards. Should you venture further, you’ll enter a cascading series of other worlds and a labyrinth of stalls offering mounds of dried chilies, stacks of greens, and rainbows of tropical fruit. Step back from the mysterious light of the market’s inner sanctum and you realize this: one’s position in society is reflected in his position within (or outside of) the market. For some, away from the sun in a covered permanent stall; for others, outside on the ground in the midst of swirling clouds of dust.
A hand-written sign in Spanish “Selling Tortillas” jutted out from a doorway on a dusty street leading out of Antigua. So we poked our heads inside to find a narrow alley full of doors, and with the help of a neighbor, we found the tortilleria. As the woman bagged the palm-sized tortillas fresh off her stovetop, we engaged a group of neighborhood children. We understand that we’ll eventually tire of eating tortillas every day, but for now we enjoy their signature aroma…and the adventure of finding them on back streets.
Bright colors are by no means exclusive to Central America, but the aesthetic here is distinct and extraordinarily colorful. Embroidered necklines, bold stitched patterns, laced aprons and indigo skirts – often topped off with psychedelic woven head cloths – make the continuous flow of indigenous women in Guatemala a site to behold. Wide faces and long braids express something native and timeless, while some facial features are fascinatingly reminiscent of Asia (more specifically of places like Tibet and Cambodia). The balance with which women transport massive bundles on their heads would put most modeling school students to shame, particularly as it’s often accomplished with a baby strapped on back and in the crush of crowded markets.
9. Learning a language through humor
When you are unable to speak a language fluently, humor can help facilitate engagement and take up the slack. For example, Dan enjoys puns and wordplay in English. Give him a new language and the results can be, well, dangerous. One afternoon after class, our host mother inquired as to whether or not we were tired, and later, how long we’d been married — to which Dan later responded, “Yo estoy consado porque estoy casado.” (Although not quite as lyrical in English: “I am tired because I am married.”)
Despite the friendly smiles and general warmth we’ve experienced on Guatemala’s streets, personal security seems of greater concern now than it ever did during our travels in Asia. Whether it’s climbing Agua Volcano outside of Antigua (“take only limited cash and a disposable camera for the bandits”), visiting the cemetery in Xela/Queztaltenango (“travel in groups of four to deter thieves”) or planning a trip to the weekly market in San Francisco (“don’t carry anything in your pockets because they will be picked or cut”), locals continually express concern regarding our personal safety. Though taking care of our possessions and ourselves is nothing new to us, the apparent potential for violence is. Only time will tell.
Although we’ll always be gringos here in Guatemala, life has already begun to feel more familiar and less foreign to us. Conversations lengthen, signs become clearer, and some of the apprehension finds its way out. Day by day, we peel back the onion. And life reveals that there is still much more to learn.