When my late-evening flight from the US landed at La Aurora Airport in Guatemala City, taxis and shuttle buses congregated outside of the airport's exit, jockeying for position, all vying for the privilege to take me not into the city but away from it, an hour or so east to the former colonial capital and current tourist capital of Antigua. Picturesquely located in a verdant valley ringed by volcanoes -- one actively smoking -- Antigua boasts of the best tourist facilities in the country -- fine dining, elegant accommodations, luxurious spas, and upscale shopping -- in an upbeat but slightly bohemian atmosphere. Upon arrival in Guatemala, most tourists make a bee-line for Antigua and remain there, drinking coffee and hanging out at its bars, for a few days, months, or even years.
I eschewed the waiting taxis and shuttles and chose a different route to Antigua, one that took me from the jungles of Ixcan where I explored the birthplace of a river as turquoise as the Caribbean to the cloud forests of the Sierra de las Minas, the home of the elusive quetzal bird, a bird whose resplendent feathers adorned gods and kings, a bird unable to survive in captivity. In my three weeks in Guatemala, I had spoken only Spanish and whatever Q'echi -- the local Mayan dialect -- that I'd been able to pick up. I'd slept in hostels, homes, posadas. I'd blistered my palms de-kernelling corn cobs, and my fingertips flipping tortillas on a comal. I'd developed a taste for kak'ic, a local stew made of chumpipi -- turkey -- cacao and tomatoes. I'd bathed in ice-cold streams beside women with their long skirts tucked into their belts as they beat their laundry against boulders smoothed by decades of washing, or I'd gone dirty. I hadn't seen a white face in Guatemala until I'd boarded the shuttle for the six hour ride that would take me from the hinterlands to civilization and Antigua.
At first the novelty of hearing English spoken among the twelve passengers in the van -- unlike the local buses the van only accepted as many customers as there were seats -- enchanted me: I was able to follow the conversations that swirled around me effortless, without taxing my travel-numbed brain. But after half an hour, either the quality of the dialogue deteriorated or my patience with it did. When you throw a bunch of strangers together in a foreign country, conversations invariably explore the superficial, an exchange of whistle-stop experiences as each tries to one-up the other and gain the position of bull-goose international traveler.
"This is the first paved road I've been on since I got to Guatemala."
"I was in Finland a month ago. The flight from there was the best I've ever made. They really know how to treat tourists at the airport in Espoo."
"I haven't been back to the US in three years now: I've been all over Latin America this year after doing Asia last year."
I remained silent, mute: perhaps my tongue would be unable to carry the ponderous English words. Spanish is a much lighter language, breathless and nimble. Q'echi, buzzy with consonants and textured with glottal stops, sounded like no speaking I'd ever heard before. A week before, in the road-battered van that switch-backed down from the highlands to the jungle, I was also silent: the only one of the twenty-four passengers (and one driver) who didn't understand Q'echi. The woman whose hips were crammed against mine (six of us breathlessly filled the back bench seat) spoke to me in gestures, then handed me her infant. I held the sleeping, moist child to the open window and the cooling breeze. The jungle seethed on either side of the van, barely held in check by the narrow, limestone-white ribbon of rocky road. In the midday heat, I dozed, only to waken when the van jerked to an abrupt halt. I opened my eyes just in time to see a body plummet past my window like a suicide from a high rise: the most recent passenger had elected to ride on the roof instead of the crowded interior and must have lost his balance at the stop.
We all piled out of the van, the snake of rubber sealer around the side door following us in the process, and surveyed the damage. The driver apparently had taken the last curve in the road a little too nonchalantly: the van had come to rest three feet off the road, mired in jungle vegetation. Non-plussed, the man now armed himself with a machete and hacked at a tree fern that had put yet another dent in the front fender. Once he'd felled the tree, he returned to the van and extracted a thick, sturdy hemp rope from under the back bench, patted the sealer back into the door frame, slammed the sliding door closed, and shooed the eight women (and one infant) a safe distance up the road. The rest of the passengers, even the guy who'd taken a header off the roof, lined up behind the rope that someone had securely knotted to the rear axle of the van. The driver, obviously accustomed to this contingency, climbed behind the steering wheel, and gunned the engine.
At all of the subsequent stops, the driver proudly displayed the sequence of events leading to the freeing of the van, as recorded by my camera, to a wide-eyed, captivated audience.
The tourist shuttle pulls into Antigua at midday on a Saturday: the town is packed with weekending Guatemaltecos from the city, along with thousands of tourists and twice that many indigenos who probably see all of these rich people as dollar signs with legs. There's some kind of political summit going on, and half of the cobblestone streets are blockaded, while others are impassable due to the black limos stuffed along the curbs like cholesterol clogging the town's arteries. Cab fare for the six-block ride to my friend's house is twice what I paid for the six hour shuttle to get here, and ten times more than the van ride that carried me even farther, away from the world of self-sufficiency, blisters, and non-electrified nights crowned with a million stars.
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources