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

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.

Nicaragua Border: Helped or Hustled?

In my last post I mentioned that we unexpectedly stayed an extra night in Honduras because we couldn’t make it to the border in time to pass through during daylight hours. We had heard and read that the Nicaraguan border is difficult to navigate and since we weren’t on a tour bus or an international bus, passing through the border in the light of day seemed like a sensible decision even though the Guasale entry point is open 24 hours. In retrospect, our decision was absolutely the right one.

Given our dislike of early morning for anything, we were pretty pleased to be walking to the bus by 7am. This bus was an old 20 seat shuttle (of course this meant there were about 30 people on board) with torn and broken seats but it got us to our destination without incident. On the way to the bus station we didn’t pass any restaurants or bakeries, so we trusted the locals to supply food for our ride, and they did. Soon after we boarded a young woman was one of many who came on the bus. A bag of 10 of yesterday’s bananas for 25 cents was just right for the trip with a few left over – we left them on a park bench.

The early morning air was pleasant, possibly even cool, for the one hour ride to “La Frontera” or the border. Before the bus came to a stop at it’s endpoint, a guy pushed open my bus window, popped his head in and scared the $x!t out of me. He and about 5 or 6 other “guides” were poking their heads in the window telling me how well they speak English and how they could help Kevin and me cross the border without problems. They each showed their picture ID so we would know they were legitimate – whatever that means. We kindly told them we would walk through with our backpacks. “Oh no, señor. It is 3 km.” Before we were off the bus one of the guys had already spotted Kevin’s backpack, taken it from the bus and tucked it under the seat of his pedicab. He was sealing the deal to be our personal guide and he wasn’t taking “no” for an answer. After all we were the only “Gringos” on this bus and there were dozens of other guides in the waiting. “There is no charge for the guide service, we just work for a tip.” We had signed on by nature of the fact that by now both of our backpacks were in the pedicab. We hopped in for the ride, not really knowing what had just occurred. And by now our guide’s buddy had joined him so we each had our own pedicab.

I need to divert for a minute to comment on the 3 km border. Having gone through a good number of immigration points in my life, it seemed illogical, maybe not true. Usually one needs to stop at the patrol for the departing country and then go to another building within eyesight to gain approval to be allowed admission to the arrival country.

Honduras Departure:

The pedicab trip began by riding past dozens and dozens of semi trucks and some cars in a very long line, waiting to pass through the border, while being approached by men with huge wads of money who wanted to “help” us by exchanging money for us. The claim was that their rate was “better” than the money changers on the Nicaraguan side. Refuting their claims, our guides said they would tell us when we met up with the money changers who were legitimate (i.e. their buddies) and would give us a good rate.

There were no directional signs to tell us where to go. Our guides wove in, out and around the semi’s and finally got us to the Honduras departure line where dozens of locals were completing paperwork. The guides watched our luggage while we were approved for departure. The process took only a few minutes.

Arrival in Nicaragua:

We hopped back into our pedicabs and rode about another km, again there were no signs or directions. On the way our guides said that the entry fee would be $12 US. This was good to know since our tour book said $7 and there was no posting as in most countries. The posting of entry fees may not be necessary but it certainly makes one feel like the assessment is legitimate. We will never know if $12 was the real number or if the money just lined the pockets of the border patrol. In recent days we talked to two guys who paid $15, so maybe we got the blue light special.

When we got to the Nicaragua border patrol, one of the guides again watched our bags and the other took us in through what seemed to be a back door. He stayed right with us and seemed to keep an eye on how much cash we had. Since we hadn’t been using US currency we had to dig to get it and we had a side discussion before pooling our remaining dollars to come up with $24 for the border tax. What we didn’t know is that our guide watched carefully to see how much money we had – interestingly that in about 10 minutes, that was the amount he would strongly suggest for a tip.

We again got into the pedicabs for the third leg of the journey, passing through one more checkpoint, Our guides smiled at and greeted the patrol who waved us through. Finally we were in Nicaragua. The guides waved down a bus to Leon. As we were trying to get on the bus the guides were continuing to negotiate for a larger tip, even specifying that I had eight more dollars in my change purse.

We got in the bus rode away, reflecting on this surreal experience. It was 9:30 am and we were exhausted from being helped and hustled; and more than ready to move on.

From School Bus to Chicken Bus

On the last post I wrote about our visit to Cuidad Viejo and the Nuestro Futuro school. Another fascinating though less humanistic part of the visit to the “old city” was a visit to one of the city’s many “Chicken Bus” garages – I’m not sure what you call a place that converts tired school buses from the US into brightly colored Guatemalan Chicken Buses.
This staple of the Central American economy is well know by anyone who has traveled here. The drivers regularly speed through the country-side and the city streets, stopping for seconds less than it takes to get the last rider on board. Music of the driver’s choice blares so you can’t hear anyone speak. The buses are packed with local people as well as the baskets, sacks of corn or packs of goods they have purchased; the roof is also packed, sometimes with crates of chickens or with baskets of food or household items purchased in town. On market days the buses and rooftops are particularly packed because a Chicken Bus maybe the only means of transporting items to be sold at the market.

 

Chicken buses in the making

In Cuidad Viejo there are a large number of garages or old warehouses where old yellow school buses are refurbished into the colorful and highly functional buses. The one we visited had 4 buses in varying degrees of conversion. The 4 skilled workers remove the bench seats and replace them with seats that seat 3 instead of two people. That means the aisle is about 18″ wide – not nearly wide enough for us fat Americans.

 

Painting the bus

In addition, roof supports are added for the heavy roof load, strong internal shelves are added, and doors are switched to fold inward, probably so the bus doesn’t clip some innocent person as it speeds through the streets. A major change is to shorten the bus by cutting off the rear; the drive-shaft is then shortened so the buses can turn on the narrow streets. Oh, and a ladder is added so the driver’s helper can quickly climb on top to stack or remove items.
After all of the functional changes have been made the bus is “pimped up” with a colorful paint job of the owner’s choice, chrome trim is added and the bus name is painted on the front and rear. If engine work was needed, the engine is replaced and the bus is ready for the only means of transportation available to thousands of people, whether they live in the cities or the rural areas.