The Traje in Guatemala

It’s now been months since we were in Guatemala, but as you can tell by my posts, I continue to be fascinated by the culture.  By no means am I an expert on the “traje”; that is the traditional clothing worn by Mayan women and girls in Guatemala however I’d like to share the little bit that I know. As a fabric lover, it is captivating to see the variety of beautiful fabrics and the proud manner in which women wear their traje.

With her Mother at a Craft Market (Antigua)
Coban: Traje Store

In a previous post I wrote that women of Guatemala literally wear their culture on their backs.  Unlike other countries where traditional clothing is a cultural marker and where the clothing is worn only for special occasions, in Guatemala there are large numbers of women or girls who wear traditional clothing for daily life.  Of course there are also women who also wear the traje only on special occasions.  From what I could see, the clothing for special occasions does not differ in style from what was worn for daily use.

Selling fruit at the Market
Typical dress in Coban

Even after seeing several photos of women in traditional clothing, you may notice the different skirt and top styles.  Each community has a style which is unique to that area.  For example, in the north (specifically Coban), women wear gathered skirts and lacy tops such as the preceding photo.  On the other hand, in a cooler area such as Santiago Atitlan, the blouses are made of fairly heavy cotton which is then embroidered with birds such as the following photo.

Santiago Atitlan: Typical Blouse

 In Antigua and the Lake Atitlan area, skirts are made from a large panel of fabric tied at the waist with a wide hand embroidered belt.  The fabric is made by women in their homes – densely woven Guatemalan cotton in a variety of plaid designs, which also vary by region.   Like backstrap weaving, fabric weaving is one of the ways in which women stay connected to their culture.

San Juan: Schoolgirls in the Traje
Weaving Loom for Skirt Fabric
Fabric for Traje skirts
Lace only fabric store: San Pedro

In the following photo, I love the hair ribbons woven into the braid.  In Quetzaltenango the skirts are full and have an embroidered band at the knee.  You can also see the hand-woven shawl resting on the woman’s shoulder.

Waiting for the Bride: Quetzaltenango

Not surprisingly in this craft-based economy, many of the garments are hand-sewed and embroidered by family members.  I’m not sure about the cost of blouse fabric but we were told that a skirt-length panel of woven fabric costs $40-$80, incredibly expensive in a very poor country.

What about men?

Unlike Mayan women, it is uncommon to see men wearing their traditional garments.  I was able to capture one example in San Pedro – wool pants with embroidery.  Like with the garments worn by females, the designs vary by community.

Traditional pants: San Pedro

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Guatemalan Handicrafts: Backstrap Weaving

Backstrap weaving while tending the store

There are a number of handcrafts which are familiar to anyone who has traveled to Guatemala; the  most common are weaving and embroidery.  Weaving takes a number of forms but for now I’ll just talk about my favorite.  Backstrap weaving is a craft and an art-form but more importantly for women of Mayan descent, it is an ancient tradition carried on from pre-Columbian times, a ritual and a means of maintaining cultural identity in a country where Mayan cultural traditions are devalued by the ruling minority.  

As a visitor to this country and a lover of “all things fiber”, it is enthralling to see so many people embrace their culture.  In fact, there is likely no other country in the world where people (mostly women) literally wear their culture on their back.  

Selling Guatemalan handicrafts: Chichicostonango Market Day

Backstrap Weaving

Sitting on the floor with a strap behind one’s back, the other end of the strap is tied to a post or tree, the weaver creates a design often from memory, by passing a shuttle from side to side.  The maximum width is 14-15″ and the length has no limits. With a 15″ width there is a huge amount of pressure on the back of the weaver.  One of my Spanish maestro’s told me that because of back pressure from the strap, it is common for backstrap weavers to have serious back problems in later life.  There is a Guatemalan cotton and dying market to keep weavers supplied with yarn – grown, processed and dyed in Guatemala.  On this visit we also saw some shiny yarn in markets, which I think is rayon.

Weaving yarn for sale in the local market

It is important to mention that backstrap weaving is not  unique to Guatemala.  What makes it important in this country is the cultural significance.  

In areas where tourism is well-developed, the markets are filled beautiful table runners, scarves, purses and other woven items.  For a 15×80″ table runner such as those in the following photo, weaving time is approximately one month.  In the markets or from street vendors where there isn’t a middleman, these weavings cost approximately $30 – I don’t want to know the hourly wage.

Close-up of 15x80" runner

Catarina

At the ICA Spanish School in Xela, Catarina visited several days each week to sell her crafts (and likely those made by other family members or friends) to the ~25 students at the school.  While this was a pretty small market, it was also an opportunity for Catarina to learn to speak English and to engage with English-speakers.  And engage she did.  She was incredibly proud of her work and she was one of the loveliest people we met during our one month in Guatemala.

Note:  Most people of Mayan descent speak their native Indian language and Spanish (national language).  English is usually limited to whatever is required to speak with or sell goods to tourists.

Of course, she was the person from whom I would purchase my weavings.  This deep blue table scarf is 14×24″ and is made with blue cotton and the white shiny yarn I mentioned above.  It’s really quite striking and it makes me think of lovely Catarina.

If you have the opportunity to see Guatemalan handicrafts, I’m hoping that this brief description will make you appreciate the incredible amount of work that goes into the finished product.

Eeks! Suicide Showers

One of the most fascinating parts of our recent trip to Central America was the daily shower.  We had been warned about cold showers which are OK in a tropical climate but certainly not in 60 or 70 degree weather.  Here’s a little information about our “shower” experience.  Before I complain too much, this was in large part an outcome of our decision to stay in hostels or small inexpensive hotels.

Cold Showers

As a person who loves a very warm shower, I never thought it was humanly possible to enjoy a cold shower.  When I say “cold”, I mean that the water is the temperature of the public water system or whatever type of storage or holding tank is the source for the water, but for me that’s still a “cold shower”.  In Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and Cartagena, there were no tears shed at shower time because it was 95 degrees outside – even I will admit that a cooler shower felt good.  To sum it up, we traveled for a full month without a warm shower.  I am still in disbelief that I survived it.

The Alternative Shower

We had so many experiences which are incredibly innovative – often out of need – I think there are quite a few lessons we N. Americans could learn if we could get over the thinking that environmentally conscious solutions would take us a step backward.  For example, when it comes to warm showers, there is an alternative to water heaters which run constantly and burn gas or electricity.  A “suicide shower” is a solution we could adopt.  In fact, here’s a photo of some of the options:

Intrigued and want to learn more?

 Often called “suicide showers” by travelers, these showers have a single cold water line coming into the device (in fact, most homes didnn’t have a hot water line, even in the kitchen).  As you can see, the “super ducha’s” are available in a variety of sizes and shapes – some have a wider shower head (but none of them have a Holiday Inn style smart spray!)  A small pea-can sized heater within the shower head warms the water immediately when the faucet is turned on.  There is one caveat – with a small stream of water, the temperature is nice and warm however a higher velocity resulted in cooler water.  On average, the water was warm.

So why the name?  The first time we encountered one of these strange-looking devices, I turned on the water and sparks flew.  It didn’t take an electrical engineer to figure out that I shouldn’t step in.  Instead, I notified the hotel staff and soon a workman came to rewire the shower, which looked something the one below but with more dangling wires.  As we met more travelers, we learned that my experience was quite common.

In one of our homestays, we showered under this modern beauty:

Last of all I want to mention that these showers are no reason to stay away from Central America as a travel destination, in fact it’s one of the dozens of experiences that make it a wonderful travel destination.

Panama City

A City of Contrast, Contradiction and Disparity

Many of us from the US have long-held a fascination with Panama, and especially the Panama Canal, which was managed by the US until 2000.  This engineering marvel has been operational for nearly 100 years.  When you see how expansive this 80 Km canal is – it stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, it is difficult to believe that it was constructed 100 years ago.  Today it continues to move 14,000 ships through this passageway every year.  The technology is modern and has an elaborate quality control system so it doesn´t fail.  In addition, the canal is currently being expanded so that in 2014, ships as wide as 55 meters (?160 feet) will be able to pass through the canal.  Currently the canal is run solely by the people of Panama.  As you can imagine, the impact on Panama City is enormous, it is a huge center for commerce and banking and there are mega shopping malls that rival those in any modern country. 

As we visited Panama City, an urban community of 3 or 4 million people and with an expansive skyline of modern buildings, the contrast with every day life for the majority of inhabitants of Panama City was at times disturbing.  As we stood near the well-known fish market on Balboa Avenue, a look to the right showed this, which is only a portion of the skyline for the commercial district.  Immediately behind several of these modern skyscrapers was a community of stilt houses right in the water.  With no electricity or other services, their cobbled together stilt houses and boardwalks were at times under water when the tide came in and they sat in mud when the tide went out.  For the very poor such as these people or those who live in tenement housing, there are no publicly supported services as in some countries.

Panama City skyline

 As we looked straight ahead of us and stepped around to look behind us there were dozens (probably really hundreds) of high-rise apartments that looked war-torn, sometimes with no doors or windows and non-functional plumbing.  In this intense 90 degree heat, one can only imagine the living conditions.  Some are occupied by squatters and some actually pay rent for these horrible dwellings.  I tried to photograph a few of these tenements but photos just don´t capture the desperate situation. 

Casco Viejo

Still standing from the same viewpoint, a look to the right shows the beautiful and historic old city or Casco Viejo which has been named a UNESCO world heritage site and which is now being restored to the beauty and regal of Colonial times. (This is also where we stayed while in Panama City).  This neighborhood was allowed to deteriorate to a state which one can´t imagine until you walk through the neighborhoods.  Now as foreign money is being infused in to the old quarter, it is being restored to its original beauty and will likely return to the state of glory of earlier times.

Casco Viejo

 

Only the shell remains from this boarded up 1700´s building in Casco Viejo

 

Restored building in Casco Viejo

Urban disparity is likely a ubiquitous problem, however in this city or possibly in the country (we only visited Panama City and Colon which is much worse than Panama City) the contrast between those who have and those who don´t is so obvious everywhere you go.  Simultaneously there is urban wealth.  For example, people with money take the air-conditioned new buses and poor people take Chicken Buses (they call them ¨Red Devils¨).  

It was very different in Panama, unlike the other Central American countries we visited, there is money in this country.

Where Central America Shops..

 …for Discarded American Clothing

Early on in our travel in Central America and other developing countries, one of my observations was the number of children and adults who wear clothing with American logos or slogans.  At first it wasn´t so striking however t-shirts from fun runs, athletic teams or corporate events are regularly seen on children and adults in Central America, especially Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.   As I began to observe the shops and markets, it became clear to me that discarded US clothing is a major source of clothing for people in the Central American countries.  What follows is what I´ve learned to date.

PACA Stores or Tiendas

Clothing from donation programs such as Goowwill Industries, packs clothing into large bales or ¨Pacas¨.   The bales are shipped and a wholesaler in the Central American country who in turn sells the bales to local people.  For example in Coban, Guatemala, bales could be purchased for 100, 500, 800 or 1000 Quetzales (7.7 Quetzales/dollar).  The purchaser may have a small storefront or tienda which then is essentially an American style ¨second-hand store¨ where clothing is sold for several dollars per garment.  In Coban, where this photo was taken, there were probably 20 or 30 stores within an area of 6-7 square blocks. 

PACA store in Coban, Guatemala

Public Markets

Another option for selling used clothing is in the public markets, which is where the majority of people shop anyway, whether for fruits and vegetables, household goods or new clothing.  You can always see when a new pack of clothing comes in because women are elbowing for a good spot from which to look through the clothing, just like an US ¨after-Christmas¨ sale.  As you can imagine, this is quite a feat as the clothing isn´t sorted by size or type.  Nevertheless, for people who don´t have the resources to purchase new clothing, getting an early look at a new shipment is probably a pretty good shopping day.

Public Market in Granada, Nicaragua

In several cities, and again in public markets, we saw pick up trucks of shoes only or as in the following photo, a large tarp was laid out with a huge pile of clothing dumped on the ground.  Any piece of clothing could be purchased for $0.50.

Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala: Shopping in the Hot Sun

 In the US, I´ve heard and read about the controversy –  if you donate to places to Goodwill or other similar donations services, the goods might be ¨sold overseas¨ and won´t get to the people who need the goods.   I can´t say that I understood why this is controversial, possibly I don´t understand the whole story. However after seeing that the vast majority of people in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua benefit directly from this phenomenon, it is apparent to me that the clothing that we discard is getting into the hands of people who appreciate and value what we eagerly discard as no longer useful.

If any of you have more information to help me understand this phenomenon from another viewpoint, I´d love to hear your thoughts.  Until then I stand firm – having discarded US clothing available for resale is working for the people.

Nicaragua: Leon, Granada and San Juan del Sur

 

In our short time in Nicaragua, we only had enough time to visit three cities; Leon, Granada and San Juan del Sur. Each one was very different, making it difficult to describe the country or to generalize about our experience but we got enough of a taste of the country to know we would like to return.

You’ve already heard about how difficult it was to get into the country but once through the border, we headed directly for Leon, which was an easy ride on relatively flat roads – a first for this trip.

Leon:

This city is one of the two remaining (and larger) of Nicaragua’s colonial jewels. This city of about 150k people is not only filled with colonial architecture and grand churches, but is also a market town.

 Every part of the city has a public market, big or small. These markets are accompanied by great street food often grilled in an old tire rim set on a stand of some type. In this area of the country, horse and cart is a major means of transportation; the city streets are willingly shared by cars, buses and horse and cart. The people of this region are friendly and kind; always willing to help a couple of confused N. American travelers.

While tourism is increasing in this area, aside from young backpackers, we really didn’t see a lot of English-speaking travelers. One of the notable characteristics of Leon is how well tourists are integrated with those who live there, how tourism hasn’t taken over daily life and the fact that there’s not a souvenir shop on every corner – or anywhere for that matter. My least favorite thing was the intense heat – daytime temps near 100 and it didn’t cool down at night.

Granada:

Named for it’s sister town in Spain, this colonial city is smaller and slightly more industrialized than Leon. It is suppose to be a haven for tourists. In reality it is a city where property and businesses are being purchased and run by expats from Europe and the US and thus driving up prices. Tourism is well developed – Parque Central and the surrounding restored colonial buildings are lovely however when you walk three or four blocks from the tourist areas, there is one of the poorest areas we have seen to date. Nearly all of businesses around Lake Nicaragua seem to have failed. It was difficult to see if this was an impact of declining tourism in the past several years or ??

Granada Restaurant: Nicaraguan owned?

 We were pleased to stay in a newly opened hotelaje and restaurant operated by two sisters and their two cousins. We’re hoping Saguan Joche, a family owned business, will be highly successful.

Street performers on La Calzada (kids)

La Calzada, the recently restored restaurant row (similar to Barcelona’s La Ramblas) is lively at night with street entertainers, music and of course great food and drink. My personal opinion is that Leon tops Granada although a visit to both is a necessity.

San Juan del Sur:

This lovely little beach town was a great place to hang out for a few days. Totally a tourist spot and beach town, we made this stop so we could hit the beaches before Semana Santa. The beach is long and wide, and a favorite swimming spot for locals and tourists. The town is filled with great seafood restaurants and other very inexpensive local eateries. We usually ate breakfast for $2.00 or $3.00 if we splurged on a smoothies made from fresh fruit. Overall a great place to veg out.

I heart Nicaragua and hope to return some day.

More Drama at the Nicaragua Border

(photos will be posted later)

OK, this one will be short – if you´re going to listen to me complain about the Nicaragua borders, I owe you some information about the beauty that lives between the borders.  Will save that one for the next time.

We dreaded the thought but the only way to leave Nicaragua is to go through the border patrol.  OK, there is another option.  A couple of people tried it and you have never seen border patrol agents run as fast as these guys.  It´s hard to believe that someone would try.

When we left the beautiful beach town of San Juan del Sur via Chicken Bus, we transferred buses and then headed for the border.  When we got to about 5 miles from the border, we passed hundreds of semi trucks who were lined up nose to tail, waiting to go through the border into Costa Rica.  I´m not sure if it´s always so busy but we did hear that the reason is that it was the start of Semana Santa or Holy Week.  This means a week of vacation for Central Americans, not a week of going to church as I did when I was a kid.  Many Costa Ricans head north to the Nicaragua beaches and vice versa.

So after our first experience with a ¨guide¨ as we navigated his crazy border, we were committed to making it through on our own.  After all if we can navigate Chicken Buses, we can make it through Immigration and Customs. Little did we know that the guy who sat behind us on the bus was our personal guide!  As soon as we got off the bus he walked us to the back door of the Immigration office but the guard wouldn´t allow him to get in.  He then told us we needed to get in line with everyone else.  Now this was a line about as long as a football field and 2 or 3 people wide;  in the 100 degree mid-day sun.

Soon our self-appointed guide found us in line.  For $10.00 per person, he could get us to the head of the line and we wouldn´t need to wait.  We declined several times until he gave up.

We were in line behind 2 gringos who are teaching in Costa Rica.  While it was nice to meet several fine young people, this also made us look like an American family.  Soon, 4 men aggressively (like just about knocked us over) butted into the line, right next to the 4 of us.  Immediately Kevin´s instincts took over as he recalled the pushing and shoving of pickpockets in Greece last year.  We moved away from the guys as others in the line tried to stop their line jumping.  The 4 guys stood their ground as we must have seemed like good targets.   We held our bags tight and watched every move but were sure they still wanted to try something.  About 15 minutes later, as we entered the actual immigration office, Kevin saw one of the 4 guys trying to put his hand in the pocket of the young teacher.  His action was quickly averted.  Isn´t this the classic pickpocket story?

While this was occurring, a bunch of people ran through our line, chasing down someone else who had her wallet stolen buy someone.  I guess if you are going to wait in the crazy lines, it´s a great place for petty thieves to prey on unsuspecting travelers.

After the immigration office there were about 3 or 4 more stops before we were legally in Costa Rica.  Still complicated but at least we did it alone this time!