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And Now For Something Completely Different

When I am not in Guatemala documenting amazing people and their lives and culture, I am a member of a writing group in Tucson.  This awesome group of people contacted me online today as they met, and I was able to participate in the day’s exercise.  The first line that follows was my prompt.  I turned it into something just a bit creepy.

“There’s a surprise for you in the garage,” she said.

Something about the look on her face made me think that it wasn’t going to be a surprise of the good sort.  She was smiling broadly, but her eyes didn’t match.  I played along anyway.

“A surprise?   My birthday isn’t until August.”

“Just go look.”

“OK,” I stared at her.  She didn’t look away and kept smiling, but it still felt wrong.  She was definitely hiding something, and I didn’t think it was good.  I hung my coat on the hook in the hall and headed through the kitchen to the garage door.  Nothing looked out of place, the afternoon paper was open on the table where she had been reading it (I presumed) when I came home.  The dishes were done and still dripping in the dish drain.  She never did them until the last minute.  I turned and almost jumped out of my skin.  She was right behind me, having silently followed me into the kitchen.  I laughed nervously, and she joined in with a chuckle that felt as wrong as her smile. “Am I going to regret this?,” I asked.

“Maybe,” she said, and her face went serious.  “I don’t know, really.”

“What the fuck?  What is going on with you?  What aren’t you telling me?”  I tried to push past her back into the hall, but she was like a brick wall, standing there impassive, even the smile gone.

“Go. Into. The. Garage.”  She sounded downright evil now.  All pretense of normalcy discarded.

I snatched a knife from the magnetic holder on the wall, thinking what?  That I was going to stab the love of my life?  But was this actually her?  I hesitated, and in that fleeting moment, she snatched the knife from my hand and stuck it through the cabinet door.  Not just into it, through it, all the way to the hilt.

Holy shit.  Not her.  Definitely not her.  Not knowing what else to do, I turned and opened the door.  The garage was pitch black.  Not even the light from the kitchen passed the threshold.  I squinted, but couldn’t see anything.  Taking a deep breath and holding it, I stepped through the door.

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La Nariz

“TOUR IN THE INDIAN NOSE” says the unappetizing sign in the center of the tourist district.  I instead took a tour to the Indian Nose, or Nariz d’el Indio, so known because the hill resembles the regal profile of either a Mayan or Incan man.  You can get an idea of it from this photo, although it was somewhat cloudy when I took it.

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I got up at 3 AM this morning, had coffee and an avocado with lime and then went downstairs to meet Samuel, our guide.  We then walked from the base of the building where I took the above photo, up and over the hill where the communications towers are to the neighboring town of San Juan.  We walked through San Juan to the base of the Nariz.  From there it was ridiculously steep.  About a third of the way up, I decided I wasn’t going to make it.  I was panting and wheezing, and knew that I was just slowing everyone else down, so Samuel found me a comfortable rock to sit on and they took off.  It was probably 4:30 at that point.  I sat and watched the sky brighten and listened to the birds come alive around me, as well as to the tiny landslides created by critters stirring above me.  A squirrel climbed up the bank onto a tree directly in front of me, eyed me curiously, and then continued upwards.  I think I took this photo a little after 5, long before the actual sunrise, but the colors were nice.

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At exactly 5:14, I heard a low rumbling sound and felt a vibration in the ground at my feet.  The sun rose at about 5:45, and I decided to head on up the hill.  It was even steeper than before.  A few minutes later, Samuel met me on his way down.  Since I wasn’t clear on the route and was determined to make it to the top, he turned around again and joined me.  On one of my many stops to catch my breath, I asked him about what I thought had been an earthquake earlier.  He told me it was the sea calling out for rain.  I didn’t argue much.  Eventually I made my painful way to the top, although I did not go the extra bit to the viewpoints on the profile of the Indio.  We went directly to Santa Clara, which is the town nearby, and caught a pickup back down the terrifying road to the lake.  I was jammed into the back of the pickup, standing with a dozen local folks.  Samuel was hanging off the back.  I had my camera bag dangling over the railing to make room for everyone else.  All I could think of as we canted around the hairpin turns was the horrible condition of all the tires I have seen here.  One blowout at the wrong time and we would have gone tumbling down.  We finally made it down to San Pablo and took a tuk-tuk from there to San Pedro, where I had a cup of coffee and looked on the internet to find that at exactly 5:14 there had been a 4.4 magnitude quake in Casillas near the coast.

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A Little Respect Goes A Long Way

Tzutujil, the local Mayan dialect, is a difficult language to learn.  It is full of glottal clicks and percussive vowels.  At some point I will have the time to sit myself down with a teacher for four hours a day and train my brain to accept it.  For now, I content myself with the few phrases I need to respectfully greet and thank the people I am meeting and documenting daily.  I sit while Juan asks them questions in Tzutujil and they answer at length in the same language.  Occasionally words stand out, lifted from Spanish.  “Respeto,” “Dios,” “Iglesia.”  The three predominant themes.  I sit quietly and listen.  These people obviously have so much to say.  I wonder how often someone just sits and listens to them, as we do, for a half hour, or an hour.  I wonder if there is any other repository of their words akin to the videos I am collecting.  Rene tells me there is someone here who could take all the videos and extract the salient bits from each and put them together in to a cohesive documentary.  This would be amazing.  I don’t think I can afford his services, though.  So the daily ritual continues.  Two interviews a day, translations at night, soon building pages for the book.

Don Francisco Chavajay is 98 years old and sharp as a tack.  He had memorized all the questions and dove right in to his responses with a clarity and energy I haven’t always seen from people in their 70s and 80s.  He spoke for almost 20 minutes without stopping.  Juan tells me he is a sacerdote Maya, or Mayan priest.  I am not completely clear what that means at this point.  His altar was very Catholic, unlike the shaman I interviewed on my last visit here, but he does lead ceremonies of some sort.  I’m still waiting for the translation of his interview, and I will explore this more later.

Now I need to practice saying “good afternoon” in Tzutujil.

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La Clave

One of the questions we ask is “What is the key to a long life?”  I couldn’t understand Rosa Chipir Sac’s answer, and I have yet to translate it, but I am sure that this delightful lady was helped to the age of 86 by her sense of humor.

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Laugh often and laugh together.

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This Photo Is Black And White, But Issues Usually Aren’t

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A shot from the hill above town.  The man on the left is taking his kids to church.  After church today, there is a vote on a referendum to take a bunch of land from Belize.  Or to take a bunch of land back from Belize, or to start the process of negotiating the status of a bunch of land claimed by both countries.  One of the promises the current president and former TV personality Jimmy Morales made during his campaign two years ago was to make Belize part of Guatemala again.  The dispute dates to the 18th century, and really has more to do with Spain and Britain than it does with the indigenous people.  I read an article in La Prensa yesterday about families living astride the border with no conflict at all, even having a football field symbolically straddling the imaginary line.  I also heard a story about people being killed on the border when their animals strayed across and grazed in the wrong country.  I don’t think anyone really knows what will happen if the referendum passes.  The thing is, if less than 50% show up for any vote in Guatemala, the results are invalidated.  That is likely to be the case today.  From what I hear, there isn’t much interest.  This may be a good thing.  Just let it ride until more thought has been put into resolving it.  Coming from a country where most primaries are decided by 25% of voters, and most local elections even less, I like the idea of requiring a 50% turnout a whole lot better than, for instance, allowing 12% of the population to choose who draws district lines.  The less people participate, the more black and white it becomes, with only the extremes fighting for control.

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Soldier Philosopher

I just finished my translation of our interview with Don Luis Raymundo Batz Solis.  When we asked about changes he had witnessed and formative events in his life, he spoke of the 1944 overthrow of the US backed dictatorship by leftist populists who were subsequently overthrown in a US backed military coup because United Fruit didn’t like paying a fair price for land or bananas.  We pretty much did this all over Latin America under the guise of fighting Communism.  It is a shameful part of US history.  It is worth noting that the middle initials of George H. W. Bush stand for Herbert Walker, who, as United Fruit’s representative, overthrew the government of Honduras and declared himself King.  To learn more about this period in Guatemala’s history, I recommend reading the Wikipedia pages about Jorge Ubico, Jacobo Arbenz, and Castillo Armas.

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When asked for advice to the youth of today, he quoted a South American Poet (unnamed), who said “Juventud divino tesoro te vas para nunca volver,” or “Youth, divine treasure, you leave, never to return.”

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One Week In

We finished the week with two abuelas, dos amas de casa (housewives).  It is interesting to see how consistent some of the answers to our questions are.  The prevalence of religion and the gratitude to God for all their good fortune were not surprising.  When we ask what changes there have been during their lives, however, almost every person cites the lack of respect that young people now have for their elders as the most significant change.  We are going to try to adjust and expand on this by asking what they think are the causes.  So much has happened in the world during the last 80 years, it is fascinating to see this brought up over and over as the most significant change.

Here is Doña Elena Coché Gonzalez, talking with her daughter off camera when we asked her to expand on her answer. Her daughter said she always had a lot to say, but that she was really nervous in front of the camera.  I wish I could speak Tzutujil and put her at ease.

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La Doña Y Su Altar

San Pedro La Laguna is an extremely religious community, especially among the elders.  Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t ascribe to any dogma, and am skeptical of all claims of things supernatural. The irony here is that the religion embraced by these people is not a Mayan religion, but one which was brutally imposed upon their ancestors by Spanish invaders.  I am neither a psychologist nor an anthropologist, so I will not try analyze the causes, but it is challenging when you ask someone what their secret to happiness or advanced age is, and “Dios” is the immediate response.  We try to nudge them towards more down-to-earth responses, but results are mixed.  I’m sure God and religion will be omnipresent in the book, because they are omnipresent in the people I am documenting.  I have yet to see the translation of Doña Elena Quiacain Tuch de Gonzalez’s interview, but she specifically asked to be photographed with her gorgeous altar.

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A Work In Progress

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My guess is that this piece of public art will never be finished, but you can still see it for what it is, a face.

Our work here is also in progress.  We refined the questions a bit, combining two that felt redundant, and we have reordered the transcription and translation process to work more efficiently.  Like the image in this photo, the picture we paint with these interviews and photographs won’t be complete, but I believe that, as with this drawing, you will be able to see the face of San Pedro’s oldest generation.  Only one interview today, as the first woman we visited felt that her hearing was so bad that she couldn’t participate.  Hopefully two tomorrow.

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Now The Real Work Begins

Two more interviews today, and today I begin the real work of translation from Spanish to English.  Don Luis Raymundo Batz Solis, who is a writer, was born here in San Pedro, but his parents were from a region which speaks a different Mayan dialect.  Spanish is therefore easier for him.  This was nice for me, because I could actually listen in on him talking about the revolution and the transition from dictatorship to Democracy. Our second interview was with Doña Petrona Cox Morales, a tejedora, who was working on a traditional fabric for men’s clothing.

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Each person we interview, I wish I could get to know.  I wish my Spanish were better (it will be), or that I could speak Tzutujil (that will be much harder and is a long way off).  I am privileged to be able to do what I am doing, honored to document their words for future generations.