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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
In one day we made the 400 Km. trip from Quetzeltenango, Guatemala to Antigua and then on to Copan, Honduras by way of a shuttle bus. The ride was boring – sometimes the roads were good. That means not bumpy or full of pot holes and not riding on steep winding roads. I guess the roads were bumpy enough, as my bag and one other continued to fall off the roof of the minivan. Finally one of the other travelers offered up a piece of rope so the driver had enough to adequately secure all of the bags.
One of our general rules is to not get into a town after dark but on this trip we weren´t able to accomplish this as we thought/were told the second leg of the trip was 4 or 5 hours and it was 7+. The good news is that the trip through the border couldn´t have been easier.
Upon arrival in Copan or Copan Ruinas, a town of about 6,000, the bus driver kindly dropped us off in front of a hotel (likely a friend or connection?) which just happened to have rooms and they had a restaurant of sorts. As soon as our minibus slowed down, about 5 members of the hotel family were offering us a room and boasting the wonderful accomodations, hot showers, hammocks, etc. Tired from a day of travel and not being familiar with the town, we were pleased for the offer, and at a price of $15.00. That is until Kevin was sound asleep and I couldn´t sleep because it sounded like street traffic was coming right through our room. Exhausted from not sleeping, by morning I couldn´t wait to hop into the shower. It was warm for about 5 seconds and then turned ice-cold. We found a new hotel.
Not having heard much from fellow travelers about these Mayan Ruins, we weren´t expecting to be awed. Most of this Mayan city has not been excavated but what is there is spectacular. The beautiful hieroglyphics and estrellas are amazing. Here are a few photos to whet your appetite for this ancient site.
The rest of our short visit to Honduras was quite an adventure and is worthy of a separate post. Stay tuned.
Kevin and I just completed 3 weeks of Spanish School. We´re here to tell you about it however during these weeks there was no need to exercise our brains with Suduko, Scrabble or crossword puzzles as our brains were already on overtime.
In general, we have been told that Guatemala is an excellent place to study Spanish, I’m not sure why but if it’s a cost based opinion, there’s no question about it. Based on American dollars, it is dirt cheap to study Spanish in Guatemala. In the larger cities or tourist areas, Spanish schools are abundant and they are significant contributor to the national economy. A by-product is the thousands of volunteer hours provided by persons who are enrolled in school. Students, volunteers, retirees (like us) or others interested in advancing their Spanish allocution use Guatemalan schools to do so. Most schools include a homestay, which means you live with and have meals with a family and thus learn even more about the culture in general and how a specific family lives. This also forces the student to practice Spanish as most families cannot hold a conversation in English.
Week one: Antigua
Academia Colonial is in a beautiful old convent (there are so many of these beautiful old religious buildings which are being used for office or retail space). For our 4 hour per day 1:1 class, we sat at small tables on the patio. Since this was the first Spanish for either of us, we started right at the beginning with verbs and a small vocabulary. Both of our teachers spoke some English, and honestly I can’t imagine a first week class without a maestro who speaks English. In a nutshell, the week was tough – I had no idea that it would be so difficult.
Our homestay was with a woman and her 3 teenage children. It was really a boarding house with about 15 students. We ate in 2 shifts. At meals we were required to speak Spanish, which meant we understood and said almost nothing. Whew, I’m glad that week is over.
Cost: For 2 persons and four hours of lessons per day, 7 nights and 3 delicious, almost gourmet meals per day and a huge serving of humble pie we paid $460.
Week two: San Pedro, Lake Atitlan
For our second week Kevin and I chose beautiful San Pedro which is on Lake Atitlan. Some say this mountain lake, which is surrounded by volcanos, is the most beautiful lake in the world. San Pedro is one of a handful of indigenous communities around the lake. This town is also heavily populated by people from the US and Europe, but that doesn’t stop the natives from retaining their way of life. It’s rather heartwarming to see natives and foreigners so well-integrated.
We ignored the warnings of those who said learning Spanish is more difficult “around the lake” because Spanish is the second language for many of the teachers. OK , so we didn’t heed the advice. My teacher’s primary language is T’zutujil, which is a Mayan language, and which made it more difficult to understand her Spanish – or maybe that’s just an excuse. Nevertheless we both learned a lot at San Pedro Spanish School and we thoroughly enjoyed the setting; our 1:1 classes were held outside in small cabanas with a lake view. What a spectacular setting.
Our homestay was immediately across from the school, with a woman and her 13 year old daughter. We ate huge amounts of well prepared authentic food – fruit, vegetables, chicken, beans and of course, fresh tortillas. T’zutujil was also this family’s primary language, Spanish second and nada English.$
Cost: for the same services as in Antigua, $300.
Week three: Quetzaltenango or Xela for short.
You know when you’ve walked uphill in this city in the western highlands as the elevation is 6600 ft. It’s the second largest city in Guatemala and has a language school on nearly every corner. We attended ICA for 5 hours a day and again it was very difficult though lots of fun. My maestro spoke very clearly and I still couldn’t understand him (not really surprising as I now have a vocabulary of about 500 words)but he was great at showing me the word and translation in a dictionary.
Our homestay was with 3 ladies in their 50’s or 60’s and again we had great food and accommodations and no conversations in English.
Q. What did we learn?
A. It seems that we learned a lot and yet it seems like nothing – if being fluent was the goal. We can both struggle to create a sentence probably with words out-of-order and which isn’t usually understood by the intended on the first try. Understanding someone who is fluent is out of the question but I can pick out a few words. Oh, so far to go. On the other hand, reading billboards and signs goes pretty well. In addition, I have a notebook which I am quite proud of.
Equal to the language accomplishment, big or small, was the knowledge of and appreciation for Guatemalan history, culture and current events. This is a stated goal of most of the schools and is a great privilege to learn about another culture in such an intimate way.
Would I do it again? Absolutely, and maybe I will.