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Detour

The shuttle was almost an hour late picking us up from the hotel this morning.  It was to be expected, as shuttles usually go to the fancier hotels first, and we, although we weren’t slumming it, were budgeting.

After a three and a half hour trip which included a stop for a tasty buffet breakfast, we arrived at the border with an hour to spare before the Guatemala shuttle was supposed to arrive. We got our passports stamped, and all sat around to wait.  Rene and I shared some street food, and the smokers furiously cremated cilia as fast as they were able, trying to build up their nicotine levels for the smoke free journey ahead.

Considerably more than an hour passed, and we began to wonder if something was wrong.  Rene and I had heard about some sort of road collapse near Huehuetenago, and had seen an overflowing waterfall blocking a road near Panajachel. He called our travel agency here in San Pedro, and they assured him that the roads were passable and that the shuttle would be there by 1:30 or 2:00.  Meanwhile, more shuttles arrived from Mexico, and the group grew.  Finally, I looked at Rene and said “debemos tomar carro privado.” He agreed, and located someone willing to drive us to Panajachel for $150.  Not cheap, but it didn’t look like shuttles were going to arrive any time soon.

As it happened, the shuttles arrived just as our car did.  I’m glad we didn’t wait, however, because I doubt they made it to Panajachel before midnight, long after the final lancha leaves for San Pedro. As we drove off, they were still unloading passengers and baggage from Antigua and Panajachel, after which they had to cram too many people into too few seats.  We, on the other hand, zoomed off, comfortable in our own car, with music blasting from the stereo.

Maybe an hour and a half later, we came to a stop behind a line of trucks, buses, and cars. Our intrepid driver jockeyed his way forward quite illegally, but in tandem with numerous others, to get us near the front of the line.  Cars trickled through from the other direction.  We noticed that none of the trucks alongside the road had drivers.  They were off having a beer or a meal, most likely.  After about a half hour, we crept forward, past a half dozen soldiers who were standing around drinking coffee and ignoring the traffic problem, and finally arrived at this point:

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This is where we left the road, after being charged 5 pesos by a kid who just happened to be there to take advantage of the situation.  Based on the number of cars, he did quite well.  If you look between the backhoe and the bulldozer, you can see where the road used to be.

Our driver crossed himself, and we slogged down a muddy slope and across an equally muddy bridge made of I know not what. Logs and dirt?

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That is where the road was.

A few nailbiting fishtails later, we were up and out the other side.

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None of those trucks and buses are going anywhere except back the way they came.  On the other side, we saw the passengers of the buses toting all their belongings across to meet other buses lined up there.

I doubt anything as heavy as a fully loaded shuttle was allowed across, and not long after we heard on the radio that the road was completely closed.  I’d say the $150 was well spent.

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Luck Of The Draw

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All across Latin America, cities have zonas peatonales, where vehicles are not allowed, with a few exceptions in the early morning for deliveries.  They make for wonderful gathering centers, for both tourists and locals alike.  It’s nice to sit at a table streetside and watch everyone go by.

But… there is a constant stream of people selling things, usually women and young children.  You can be sure that as soon as this little girl is old enough to walk and talk, she will not be going to school.  She will be selling friendship bracelets or little toys on the street.  I told her mother that I wasn’t buying anything, but that I would pay for a photo.  I think I gave her 50 pesos, or about $2.50, half the minimum wage for a day in Mexico.

Immediately, every other woman and child selling on the street surrounded me, offering their wares.  I suppose I could have bought a photo from each of them, but it was our first day, and I wanted to relax.  So I didn’t.  I shook my head and said “No, gracias” for several minutes until the last of them finally drifted away.

This is a constant struggle when I travel in the third world.  It feels wrong to eat a meal that for me is cheap, but which is unaffordable for the kid selling chicles, but I have to eat.  Rene bought a bunch of blouses for his wife and daughters while we were here.  Today he got a couple hand embroidered ones for 60 pesos each.  That is $3 for two days of work plus materials. I don’t know if he bargained.  Probably not.  Bargaining is another thing I am uncomfortable with.  I know it is a cultural thing, but if an item is already inexpensive for me, why would I haggle over an amount which is negligible from my point of view and the cost of a meal from theirs?

I got lucky.  I was born male and white in the United States.  That’s about as privileged as it gets.  I’ve never been rich, but I am to these kids.  They would seem rich to some kids I encountered in India, and both are lucky not to have been born into a war zone such as Syria or Rwanda. Luck of the draw.

So, what do you do?  I could give every beggar some money until I ran out.  I could buy something from every person selling on the street until I was broke.  I don’t think either would do much good.  It hurts to sit at my meal shaking my head at everyone approaches, gradually numbing to the desperate faces of kids.  They are kids.  They should be playing, laughing, running, not toting bales of cheaply woven crap around trying to sell to tourists who live a life they can never have.

I could sit inside.  Hide from them.  Or I could stay in the US, and really hide from them, as my government kidnaps them and locks them up to keep them out. That’s what most Americans do.

Maybe I should just buy a photo from everyone who approaches me.  That doesn’t feel quite right either, but I like it better than just handing out money or buying stuff I don’t need.  Of course that leaves the old woman who has twice asked me for money as I walked down the street.  She asked for one peso.  I offered 20 for a photo.  She dismissed me scornfully both times and walked off.

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Last Day in San Cristobal de las Casas

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Tomorrow we head back to San Pedro La Laguna on beautiful Lago Atitlan after two weeks of exploring this fascinating city, along with a couple side trips.  We walked almost every inch of this place, ate at dozens of restaurants, and watched torrential rain fall almost every afternoon. This photo is of the top of one of the domes of the main cathedral, which, like most of the churches here, is closed for extensive repairs.  I’m guessing it will be years before many of them are opened. I shot this on my way back from the local market, which is a couple blocks beyond the equally huge tourist market.  The local one is full of mostly food and cheap clothing.  Many times I wanted to snap photos of endless displays of chickens or piles of fruit, but for some reason I just walked through aisle after aisle, taking it all in.  I didn’t feel like asking for permission, and I hate taking intimate photographs without doing so.

I’m looking forward to getting back to the warmer climate of the lake, and to finalizing arrangements with the printer in Guatemala City. Maybe the biggest thing on the agenda is tackling another language.  I hope to get at least some Tz’utujil under my belt in the next few weeks.

I’ll post again when the printing is finalized.  Hopefully Friday.

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Ask.

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This door was new once.  From the look of the old lock which is no longer in use, it was new a long time ago.  Maybe some trace of the original paint remains in a crack somewhere on its weathered surface.  Maybe it wasn’t painted at all, but lovingly oiled and polished regularly to protect it from the elements. Was the arch always there?  It sits in front of the door, which is evidently rectangular. Maybe it was added later, butted up against the original header to cover a gap that let the wind in?

The door has seen many iterations over time.  The remnants of several coats of paint cling to it, along with the fading marks of what may or may not have been graffiti, although it looks to have been applied with a brush.  The padlock that now holds it closed indicates either that the door is still in use or that the space behind it is, and the owner wishes to prevent entry through this portal.

There are no windows in the adjoining walls, so it seems unlikely that it was a home, with children slamming in and out as they chased one another in the afternoon.  Maybe, however, it is one of those colonial homes built around a courtyard facing in upon itself with a central garden and maybe fountain. It could be that around the corner is a more formal entrance, framed by tall windows, and that this door was used by the people who worked for whatever aristocrat resided with his family inside.  Deliveries came and went, hustled through back hallways to storage rooms or the kitchen, only to be brought out when the master or mistress called.

Maybe young men knocked quietly at an arranged time to meet with the young women who worked in the house, stealing a few moments of conversation and maybe a quick kiss while the owners were otherwise occupied.  Maybe, occasionally, leftover food was handed out to someone in need, whose plight would never cross the mind of the aristocratic family, but who might have been a friend of a maid or cook.

Maybe at some point, the money left, whether squandered by a careless heir, plundered in a revolution, or simply as a result of bad luck.  No-one oiled or painted the door any more.  The servants who once passed in and out through it found jobs elsewhere. The key was lost.  The arch began to fall apart and nobody repaired it.  The walls, built of adobe half a meter thick, stood strong, holding the door between them.

What is behind the door now?  What ghosts or memories? What stories could it tell, having watched generations grow up and leave, having watched workers come and go? If you open it will dust spill out from an empty space, or will you step through into history? Is the space beyond full of furniture, dusty and moldy, never to be sat on or eaten off of again?  If you open it, will you find the opening blocked by a new wall? We will never know, because we can’t ask the door, we don’t know the owner of the building, or any of the previous owners.  All we can do is wonder.

Now look around you.  Do you see that octogenarian sitting on the park bench, or walking down the street, very slowly, with a cane?  Or maybe the octogenarian is your parent or grandparent.  They are like the door.  You can see on their surface that they have weathered over time.  They no longer look fresh and new.  Maybe their lock is broken, or their arch starting to crumble.  They have watched generations come and go, seen history pass.  The difference is, you can ask them to tell you about it.  Why don’t you?

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Great News!

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Doña Clara González Mendez

Thanks to the gracious assistance of my favorite maestra and former Rabin Ajaaw, Celeste Morales, we have a printer!  She located one in Guatemala City who can give us high quality books at a price that will allow a much more effective gift to the people of San Pedro and leave me enough to make a donation to the survivors of the recent volcanic eruption. After returning from Mexico, I will travel to the capital on Friday to finalize everything with the printer, and hope to be able to deliver the books at most a couple of weeks afterwards.