When pressed with the question ‘Where to?’ for RoadsWellTraveled’s first exploratory trip, I had to take into account the vast distance between our then base of San Francisco and the comfort & familiarity of our homes in Germany and India. While I have always been the intrepid, solo traveler, there had been 4 years since I had last traveled by myself. A certain fear had gripped me and I felt I’d feel relaxed only when this trip would be to somewhat familiar terrain. Having decided that India or Germany would prove too far (and expensive) for an exploratory trip, I had to look in the (somewhat) proximity of the United States. Since Sebastian and I had called Costa Rica home for almost a year, I felt a semblance of comfort imagining myself in Central America again. The prospect of reunions with old friends fueled the excitement, just as the score I had to settle with Guatemala came back to my thoughts (an unsuccessful attempt at entering Guatemala during a holiday in Honduras)! I call it a semblance of comfort because I absolutely disregarded the fact that it had been 4 years since I’d spoken a word of Spanish, and that Guatemala, Nicaragua and Panama aren’t quite the models of safety that Costa Rica is! Regardless, I was excited about the wealth that was to greet me in each of these countries- Guatemala’s famous tapestries, Nicaragua’s ceramics and Panama’s tribal art!
The trip started on the wrong foot. Thanks to a hurricane that battered Dallas, I was rerouted through Chicago, resulting in a 13 hour delay in my arrival in Guatemala City. That meant I would miss my next connection to Chichicastenengo, as well as the possibility of seeing Chichi in all its glory on the occasion of the Semana Santa. They had told me the weekly market came alive around this time, but the frequency was decided- once a week. But I got by with a little help from my friends. After accepting a very generous offer from a German/Guatemalan gentleman who I sat next to on my flight from Chicago to drive me to Chichi (let’s assume my rusty German proved a little useful for once), and borrowing toothpaste from the hotel receptionist’s personal stash (did I forget to tell you that my suitcase did not arrive with me, but 3 days later?), I was on my way to Chichicastenango!
3 hours later, as I drove into Chichi, I was blown away by the vivid colours that greeted me at the market. And since I wasn’t all out of luck, I found out that because it was Semana Santa, the market would return the next day too. The Mayan Goddess Ixchel (the revered figure for all things woven) must have taken a liking to me!
My time in Chichi afforded me innumerable experiences. From making friends with the local Mayan women in the house that sheltered me during those two days, buying my first huipil and being dressed in it by my new friends, to hearing each of their tragic tales- my experiences there were magical and heart-wrenching at the same time. Before flying to Guatemala, I was offered to stay at the house of a friend of mine who I went to graduate school with in Costa Rica. This friend in question had recently given up his well-paying corporate job and had moved to Chichi for his new gig- building homes for Chichicastenango’s widows and impoverished women. As is the case in many countries around the world, women in Guatemala do not enjoy the position in society that they deserve. Many find themselves abandoned by their husbands or boyfriends once a child is on its way. Also, as a direct result of the violence in the country, many women are widowed, left without support or safety. Pray America, through their Guatemala-specific programme addresses one of Guatemala’s many problems by providing safe and sustainable shelter and homes to the women that find little help or support in their society. Please do look into the work of Manos de Jesus (http://www.prayamerica.org/index.php/manos-de-jesus).
Another day in Chichi saw me follow two little girls, Nancy and her best friend Tomasa through the market in search of Nancy’s mother, who I had just heard had started weaving a new huipil. The day was marked by riding a pick-up truck with them for half an hour to a neighboring village (and walking another 15 minutes) just to get a glimpse of Nancy’s mother diligently toiling away on her loom to produce the brightest and most beautiful weaves I have laid my eyes on. What a treat!
The following days were spent living more exhilarating moments, getting the most effective crash course in Spanish and learning so much about the Mayan world, in the best possible way- outside of the classroom, on the ground! True joy came from realizing my aim of learning about Guatemala’s textiles and tapestries. During my time in Guatemala, I had the chance to interact with various Mayan subcultures (specifically the K’iche’, Tz’utujil, Mam and Kaqchikel) and learn from them.
In addition to Chichicastenango, I traveled to Antigua, Quetzaltenango, Panajachel, Santiago Atitlan, San Antonio Palopo and Santa Catarina Palopo. In each of these places, we were welcomed by the fantastic Guatemalan hospitality, dotted with stories to last a lifetime- be it getting dressed in a traditional Kaqchikel outfit complete with the headdress, or making acquaintances with various mythical Mayan-Catholic figures during Almolonga’s Semana Santa or even the fabled Maximón in Santiago Atitlan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maxim%C3%B3n) (read our post about Maximón here!)
By the end of my time in Guatemala, I was equipped with adequate Spanish skills to take on the next two countries- Nicaragua and Panama. Not only that, having been touched by the colours and skills that we saw in Guatemala, I was stepping closer to the realization of the RoadsWellTraveled dream that had been germinating since 2008.