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august 5, 2005 -> mayan heartland: Guatemala

Squat, brown women with unmistakable indigenous noses paraded through the bus, offering drinks and homemade snacks.  Apart from the Kuna of the San Blas Archipelago, we hadn't seen many indígenas since Ecuador.  But now we had entered the Maya heartland.  Like Bolivia in South America, Guatemala has Central America's most indigenous population.  Roughly 40% is of Maya-Quiche stock.  Across the river, the patchy mist revealed green hills covered with coffee trees.  The bus climbed up the valley, passing towns where men in jeans and cowboy hats waited with their more traditionally dressed women.  From Africa to Asia to South America it was always the same.  Was it that women valued their traditions more than men, or that men wanted ‘old-fashioned' women?  I guessed the latter.  Chauvinism is an ancient tradition.

In two bloody decades, Cortés conquered the Aztecs (1820s) and Pizarro the Incas (1830s.)  The Mayans had already “disappeared” long before, when their empire collapsed for unknown reasons.  For most high school students, the South and Central American history lesson – and assumedly, indigenous society – ends with the arrival of the Spanish.  We equate conquered with exterminated.  However, Spain's comparatively tiny band of conquistadors – despite carrying deadly diseases to which the natives had no immunity – lacked both the capacity and mandate for all-out genocide.  The colonies would need a labor force to extract precious metals and raise crops.  After five hundred years of subjugation, forced labor, disdain and neglect, the ancestors of the temple-building Maya survive, poor but proud.

Our bus to Guatemala City unloaded near a produce market, a jumble of ramshackle kiosks scattered with seeds, peels, stones and trash.  The Mayan vendors wore bright, embroidered huipiles (blouses), full-length skirts in contrasting patterns and long, black ponytails.  We rarely saw men selling fruit or vegetables.  The women chattered happily despite the seeping rain.  The whole scene reminded me of La Paz, Bolivia.  Hoping to hail a taxi, I waited in the rain for twenty minutes before noticing a cab parked nearby.  The driver was buying pirated DVDs: twenty quetzales each (about US$2.60) for new movies.  He drove us across town to the staging area for buses to Antigua.  Greeted with a chorus of shouts, we hurried aboard an idling bus that departed before we sat down.

A frightening livery of vivid colors had transformed the old American Blue Bird school bus from a benign bumblebee into a carnival carriage whose windshield decal read, “Voy Con Dios” – I Go With God.  Inside, an English sign commanded three per seat, though nobody complied.  There was scarcely room for Nori when I wedged between the classic green vinyl seats.  The locals, meanwhile, managed four to seven per seat: two or three seated adults, with three or four kids standing or squirming on their laps.  Nori scowled as a tiny woman with three tinier kids tried to squeeze onto our seat.  “Maybe if you didn't have eight kids each there might be more room on the bus!” she snapped in English, irritable from a day of uncomfortable transportation.  We stopped at a traffic light across from a shopping mall replete with American restaurant chains and high-end clothing stores.  Nearby, a host of Mayans waited at a bus stop.  None of them had shopping bags.

Antigua felt like a US university town sponsored by Taco Bell.  Young people rushed about with notebooks and binders, studying in groups and discussing lessons in restaurants and cafes.  But instead of a few foreign students, all the students were foreign.  With more than eighty language schools, the old Guatemalan capital had become the epicenter of español for extranjeros (foreigners.)  Many backpackers studied there before unleashing their sloppy vowels and ever-present tenses on battered Latino ears.  The place crawled with Americans.  Even if one missed the excited ‘likes' and ‘umms' of our high-pitched vernacular, the fanny packs gave us away.  (‘Fanny' is British slang for the female groin, suggesting an unorthodox storage solution whose mere mention leaves Brits in hysterics.)  Pale tourists with thick calves and sun visors walked around with gigantic take-out latte containers, past expatriate-run art and jewelry galleries, bagel shops with Wi-Fi and day spas offering “traditional Mayan treatments.”  Nori stopped me as we walked across the central plaza.  “Have you noticed how many white couples have Chinese babies?” she asked.  I had.  They appeared to be the latest must-have accessory. 

Many backpackers claimed to hate Antigua for its throngs of tourists, better-than-original buildings and unabashed commercialism.  It was certainly not an authentic Guatemalan town.  But Antigua had much that was beautiful.  Founded in 1543, its history is nearly as long as the Spanish shadow on Central America.  Cobblestone streets spread in an ankle-breaking lattice from the central plaza.  Many of the old homes and shops had been renovated: painted with pastel colors and contrasting dados, protected by carved wooden eaves and embellished with inset windows that looked out past iron screens and voluptuous white molding.  Even the McDonald's was hidden behind a mock colonial façade.

On a clear day, one could look down rainbow-fringed streets towards one of the two volcanoes – Fuego and Agua, Fire and Water – that tower above Antigua.  The golden ruins of 18th century churches and monasteries lay about the city, with scarred façades and shored-up arches leading to roofless, stone-littered naves.  These crumbling monuments to piety, juxtaposed with the joyful fronts of souvenir shops, made Antigua look like a city that had spurned God and paid the price.  In 1773, two earthquakes leveled much of the town, and the capital was moved to the site of modern Guatemala City.

On the morning of our departure for Lake Atitlán, I woke early and saw that the clouds had cleared.  It had rained intermittently for most of our three days in Antigua.  I grabbed our camera and ran through the waking town, under the Arch of Santa Catalina and towards the ornate yellow and white façade of La Merced cathedral.  When I turned around, I saw the view that I had hoped for: cobbled streets, vibrant walls, and the green cone of Volcán Agua framed in the lemon-yellow arch.  I rushed back to the hotel, where Nori had just finished packing.

We were unhappy to learn that the quarrelsome French family that had interrupted our sleep both mornings in Antigua was sharing our van, and even less so when we picked up three young French backpackers from the Spanish school ghetto.  Naturally, they were all overjoied to speak French with their compatriots.  I sulked in the front and noted that every fifth word seemed to be ‘frances.'  I don't speak French, but the conversation could only have been something like this:

“Ah! You speak French?  How wonderful!”

“Yes!  We are French.  Oh, it's so nice to speak French!”

“Yes.  There are not many French people in Guatemala.  And no one speaks French.  Even the French restaurant is not owned by a Frenchman.”

“I agree. Oh, how we miss France, and French food and French wine and speaking French with all those French-kissing French people!”

And the conversation became hilarious when they began discussing local transport.

“Je blah blah blah le ‘cheeckeen boos!'”

“Oui! Nous blah blah blah, le ‘cheeckeen boos' blah blah Antigua.”

Evidently, the English slang for the old school buses – chicken bus – had taken root in both French and Spanish.  This nickname derives not from the suicidal ‘chicken' playing bus drivers – which would be more accurate – but from the legendary transport of fowl in addition to human passengers.  Riding with chickens, apparently, is part of any ‘real' Guatemala experience.  (During countless bus rides in Central and South America, we rarely ran afoul of poultry.)  A few hours later, when I was discussing transport options with a travel agent, I asked if a certain bus was a “bus de gallinas.”  He looked at me like I was an idiot.  Es un servicio de gallos?” I tried again.  Quiere decir un ‘cheeckeen boos?''” he replied.  You mean a chicken bus?