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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The magic of Chichicastenango


After a full on six day week at Spanish language school – four hours of lessons and about the same studying – we needed a break.  The amazing market at Chichicastenango provided that, as well as a chance to try out our new language skills.  First up, a reasonable , if basic, conversation with the bus driver, who even seemed to understand us – great. 


Chichicastenango, in the western Guatemalan highlands, is an amazing place to visit.  The market is one of the biggest and most fascinating  in central America  and is held every Thursday and Sunday.  Hundreds of Mayan traders from outlying pueblos (villages) head for Chichicastenango to sell textiles, jewellery, leatherware and produce.  The market deservedly attracts hordes of tourists - oh well, nothing to do but join them!  And yes it is a mad crush but lots of fun.


Stalls overflow with some of the most intricate and amazing textiles we’ve ever seen - all done by hand and a single piece can take months.  With Guatemala being such a poor country, prices are incredibly low and sometimes it feels wrong to bargain….but that’s how it’s done here.


We simply couldn’t resist the amazing woven and hand embroidered goods whether cushion covers, coasters, bags or table runners. 


Many are made from women’s huipiles, the stunning blouses Guatemalan women make in colours and designs unique to their pueblo.  Some huipiles are made on a basic loom, others embroidered by hand.


The colourful huipiles are truly eye catching and worn proudly by women of all ages, even small girls. 


We did a day trip to Chichicastenango, which is about 150km northwest of Antigua.   We endured yet another hair raising bus ride.  On one particularly winding and narrow stretch of road a chicken bus pulled out to pass a stream of traffic (including us) forcing oncoming traffic to brake and swerve violently.  A few minutes later a ute carrying stacked up coffins passed….divine intervention perhaps?


Iglesia de Santo is the landmark in the market and dozens of indigenous women sell flowers here while prayer leaders swing containers with incense.  It’s colourful and ethereal.


Unfortunately the church itself was closed with hunks of rather unattractive corrugated iron barring the front door.  From the church we headed into the middle of the market where all sorts of creations were being chopped, boiled, grilled, steamed and barbecued.  It smelt incredibly good regardless of the non existent hygiene standards.

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Everywhere we looked there were colourfully dressed women, smiling faces and those amazing textiles.  It was wonderful to see these people holding so strongly to their traditions and customs.

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After another week of language school in Antigua, we decided our frazzled brains had had enough.  There are only so many verb tenses you can retain.  We were fine in the present, but delving into the past and future tenses has confused us - we now need to get out there and put into practice what we’ve learnt.  And keep studying of course.

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We spent our final few days in Antigua soaking up the sights – it really is a fantastic place to just wander and absorb.  Despite being here for three weeks we still hadn’t seen everything.


We had planned to do a trip to the volcano Pacaya but unfortunately it was cloaked in mist and cloud.  And, unlike Fuego, it’s not active at the moment so not such a spectacular sight as it may have perhaps been.DSC_1371 DSC_1223

Now we’re heading to Guatemala City to get our American visas for next year before heading down to Bandit for a few days – mainly to unload all the textiles we’ve bought!  Then it’s Honduras and Nicaragua.


Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Guatemalan highlands

After six days of intense total immersion Espanol, our heads were spinning.  Time to head out of Antigua to the hills for a break and to try out our new vocabulary on some unsuspecting locals. 


We headed to the picturesque Lago Atitlan area, about three hours from Antigua by (dodgy) bus.  The lake is surrounded by stunning rugged and lush mountains.  The villages dotted around the shore range from remote and quiet to bustling and touristy.


The lake level is slowly rising and with no natural drainage many of the lakeside properties are under threat.  Many jetties we saw were underwater and others obviously hastily built to replace them.

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First surprise was when we managed to find and book a room in San Pedro de Laguna using only Spanish!!  Feeling chuffed we then went out for dinner and once again used only Spanish and managed to order, happily discovering the food and drink was exactly what we anticipated!  Same at breakfast the next day.  No nasty surprises.

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That was a thrill after a week in which David managed to tell our teacher he farmed bees in NZ (the words for sheep and bee are similar) while I said we lived in a baca (cow) instead of barco (boat).  I have also asked several children how many bottoms they have instead of how old are they (anos is years….ano the other!).  Muy embarazo!!


The lakeside settlement at San Pedro was quite busy with alternative types, read hippies, but a steep climb to the town left the tourists behind.  We spent several hours at the local market watching the locals going about their business.  Not a tourist in sight.

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First surprise was to see nearly all the women wearing traditional dress.  It consists of a long wrap around skirt in a patterned material, fastened by an embroidered tie belt.  The huipiles (blouses) are multi coloured and hand embroidered with a design unique to each village.


Many also wear an apron over the top which doubles as a bag to carry money in.  They usually carry heavy things on their heads.


Santiago Atitlan women wear distinctive striped huipiles heavily hand embroidered with colourful flowers and birds while in the other pueblos (villages) the huipiles are distinctive by their colour.


Women with babies carry them in a large wrap on their back and you know what – we never once heard one crying.  And - you don’t have to dodge those oversized strollers western women insist on using. 


Friday is traditionally market day in many Guatemalan highland villages so we decided to head to what is considered a very local market in the hilltop village of Solola. 


It involved an early morning boat ride across the lake to Panajachel and then a chicken bus nine kilometres up a winding and steep mountain road.  Chicken buses are garishly painted, fume belching and exceedingly uncomfortable ex American schoolbuses.  They’re dirt cheap to use and probably highly suspect mechanically but when in Guatemala do as the locals do.  And yes you do see chickens on board.


The ride up wasn’t as hair raising as we expected…..but we did avert our eyes from the precipitous drop on one side. Solola sits at an altitude of 2136m and the busride from Panajachel ascends vertically 500m….so it’s a hell of a climb!  The bus felt safer than the utes used.


We were the only westerners in town so the market was a true dip into local Guatemalan culture.    Thousands of village people were going about their business….buying, selling, looking and most of all, bustling!  They may be short but these people know how to push their way through a crowd.  Despite towering above them in size we spent the entire time being (nicely) pushed and shoved.  It was exhausting.


Every imaginable item was on sale – from live hens to fresh flowers, furniture to clothing and every type of fresh and dried food you could think of.  It was a wonderful experience and we wandered for ages just soaking up the atmosphere and trying out the odd bit of Spanish.

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It was at Solola we first saw men in traditional dress….and they looked fantastic in their patterned trousers and colourful shirts.  The shirts have a Mayan symbol embroidered on the back.  Many also wear a woollen piece of material around their waist like an apron and they top it all off with a great hat.  Very stylish.


After an absorbing morning we caught the bus back down to Panajachel which was full of wonderful textile and clothing stalls.  Far more touristy than Solola it was interesting nonetheless.  One thing we have noticed about all these villages and indeed the whole of Guatemala is that noone smokes.  One local woman told us that it is not in their culture and the majority can’t afford it.  It’s great to not be assailed by cigarette smoke……but the belching buses make up for it.


We also visited Santiago Atitlan, one of the bigger towns on the lake with a unique traditional dress.  The men wear intricately hand embroidered striped pants featuring flowers and birds, tied at the waist with a thick band.  Absolutely gorgeous.  The women wear very distinctive striped huipiles with fantastic embroidery around the neck.


We were so taken by the pants we just had to have a pair and spent several hours having fun bargaining.  We later realised we’d paid less than half what we’d pay for a pair of jeans at home.  And these are far more classy….but just where will David wear them?


We finished our time in Lago Atitlan with a day and night at Santa Cruz where we stayed in a laidback waterfront hotel.  Dinner was a lively communal style affair with heaps of delicious food on offer.  As usual when we stay at such places, the highlight is always the people we meet and it was no exception here – some fascinating folk including a great bunch of American university students doing some field work in Guatemala before embarking on med school.  Inspiring people.


Feeling relaxed and having done a bit of Spanish language homework – both written and oral - we headed to Panajachel by boat to catch the bus back to Antigua.  We spent an intriguing hour sitting at a local cafe watching locals and taking photographs of those who would let us…most were more than happy, especially when we tried out our Spanish on them.  It was guaranteed to raise a laugh. 


We will never forget the happy faces of the Guatemalan people we met.  It always seems that those with the least, have the most to give.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Back in steamy Guatemala


Our three months in New Zealand whizzed by and is now a happy memory of wonderful times spent with family and good friends.  We caught up with three of our five children and spent precious time with the gorgeous grandchildren….Harry and Edie……wonderful. 


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We had 10 days in Marlborough tidying up the gardens at home and doing all those zillions of jobs that never go away. We also saw lots of our friends….which was just fantastic. From Auckland we drove up to Russell and had a magical weekend with sailing friends Ross and Jo Blackman who we met in Turkey.  All too soon we were flying to Los Angeles where we had two nights before our early morning flight to Guatemala City where Maria was waiting. 


Maria, a Guatemalan, was once married to David’s cousin and lived in New Zealand for six years.  She now lives in the foothills above Guatemala City in an amazing house.  Thanks to her exquisite taste the house is beautifully furnished with some NZ kauri and rimu furniture to make us feel right at home. 


After a few days enjoying Maria’s wonderful home and hospitality, she drove us to Antigua for us to start language school. 

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Antigua is about an hour west of Guatemala City and surrounded by three volcanoes – one of which, El Fuego, has been in the news lately.  It’s still erupting but just blowing a bit of smoke and ash, no lava.


The volcanoes make an impressive sight towering over the city and make getting around easy – they are great landmarks.


Antigua is beautiful…..cobbled streets, pastel coloured buildings, women in traditional dress and intriguing shops.


Total immersion is what this experience is all about so we opted to have Spanish lessons for four hours each day and live with a local family.  We didn’t last long at the homestay – there simply wasn’t the interaction we hoped for but more importantly there was no hot water!!   We’re now at a great hostal with heaps of solar heated water, free wifi and a great breakfast.  It’s fantastic meeting loads of other travellers and Spanish students….although most are half our age!


Classes start at 8am each day and are held in a garden on the outskirts of Antigua or in the classroom.  Our teacher Gabby is fantastic….she only speaks to us in Spanish although will throw us a bone if we’re really stuck…..which happens quite a lot. 

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We walk to and from the garden with Gabby and speak solely in Spanish.  It is a massive learning curve and at times we feel like we are really floundering….but it is fun….and good for the brain.


We are heading for the hills on Wednesday – a chance to put into practice some of what we have learned and explore the gorgeous villages around Lago Atitlan.  We can’t wait!