The Entire Cover


The Cover

This is the design I am currently favoring for the cover of the book.  It features Doña Elena Coché Gonzalez.  The back will list the names of myself and the others who have worked so hard to make this happen.  I will post the whole thing when I have it done.


The Power Of Belief


Doña Jesus Rocché de González is holding a smooth, rust-colored stone in her left hand. Using this, and others she has collected over the years, she can mend a broken bone in three days.

This is what I was told during our interview, when she brought out the stone and did a quick demonstration of her technique on the backs of my hands. Now, anyone who knows me knows that I am a skeptic of the first order.  If something isn’t borne out by science or my own empirical knowledge, I doubt.

The people of San Pedro swear by this woman’s abilities.  Absolutely everyone I spoke with confirmed her claim, either from personal experience, or second hand from a relative or friend.  Thousands of people from around the lake have visited her, both to cure bone injuries and for her services as comadrona (midwife).

I, of course, want proof.  Has anyone had an x-ray before her treatment?  Of course not, I am told.  If you get an x-ray, they won’t let you leave the doctor without the bone set and a cast.  Still, the consensus that she can do this is overwhelming, and we are not talking about uneducated, superstitious people here,  these are intelligent, educated, worldly people who Believe.  And because they Believe, it Works.

Belief is a powerful force.  It is perhaps the most influential force in humanity’s path to its present state. It can be belief in God or Gods, which has motivated and been used to manipulate for millennia, or it can be the belief that there is an answer to a mystery which can be divined without the Divine, simply by methodical exploration and calculation.

When a Monarch butterfly lays its eggs, it dies soon after.  The eggs grow into caterpillars.  The caterpillars feast on milkweed and then morph into hard shells filled with undifferentiated mush.  Over time, that mush coalesces into a new Monarch.  After several generations of this, the resulting butterfly knows how to reach the exact same breeding ground as the original one.  How?

I posed this question on Facebook.  I was given links to several scientific articles on advances in understanding Monarch migration.  None successfully addresses how the memory is transferred from monarch to egg to caterpillar to mush and then back to monarch.  Then a friend said God is in everything, and that explains it.

I can’t go there.  The response is too easy, too pat for me.  If you don’t understand something, attribute it to the supernatural.  That is why, before we understood the rain and the movement of the planets, they each had their own God.  It makes things so much simpler if you don’t have to work to understand the mechanism behind the miracle.

I’m sure Doña Jesus would attribute her healing abilities to God.  She is, after all, a devout Catholic in a culture steeped in both mysticism and Christianity.  Again, I can’t go there.  I can’t discount her abilities in the face of so much corroboration, but I also can’t bring myself to attribute them to an invisible supernatural entity.  That’s just too easy.

The downside to my skepticism is that if I break a bone, I will have to spent weeks in a cast instead of just three treatments from Doña Jesus.  One thing I am certain of is that without the undifferentiated mush of Belief, her method will not work for me.

Happy Mother’s Day


Doña Rosa Chavajay Chac, 6 Agosto, 1936

Thursday was Mother’s Day here in Guatemala.  Rosa didn’t make our appointment that day because her family, like most families here, threw a party for her.  I’ve been interviewing a lot of mothers (and fathers) here, who are around the same age as my parents.  As I listen to them tell the stories of their lives, I realize how little I know of the details of my own parent’s lives, what school was like for them, how national and global events shaped their lives, what their first job was, what their parents were like when they were middle aged.  I’m sure bits and pieces of this have been shared with me over the years, but I have a feeling that the rebellion and emotional separation of adolescence and early adulthood closes this font of knowledge for most of us.  Who wants to tell stories to a kid who doesn’t want to listen?  If there is one thing this project has taught me, it is the value of just listening.  Look out, Mom and Dad, I might set up a camera and try to interview you.

What Is Work, Anyway?


Don Bartolo Quiacaín González

He started out as a kid with 10 Quetzales, about $1.25.  With that he bought a few onions to resell in the market.  Gradually he built his business, adding avocados to his wares along the way.  Eventually, he was growing his own to sell.  Then he bought a few boats.  Long story short, he now owns two fleets of repurposed US school buses which run to Guatemala City and to Xela.  He still goes every morning to tend to his onion field.

I have a friend who says “Work is when you’d rather be doing something else.”  It’s a clever turn of phrase, and I have repeated it often.  Recently, however, I have taken a second look.  I think maybe work is living.  It is everything which is difficult, even those things we love doing.  Many people who retire are miserable afterwards, even if they had a job they hated.  This is because their job, with all its challenges, was their life.  Without it, they are lost.  If all you do is go to your job every day and come home and vegetate in front of a TV with a beer, that is what your retirement will be; vegetating in front of a TV only with more beers.  So, you either keep tending the onion field, or you develop other interests which require work, keeping brain and body active.


Interrupted Rhythm

The local bacteria aren’t nearly as friendly as the local people here in San Pedro.  Somewhere along the way, I was careless with my hygiene and managed to invite them into my digestive system.  A battle of wills ensued.  I won, but only with the help of quite a bit of raw garlic and a virtual two day fast.  Fortunately for the schedule of the project, this exciting episode occurred over the weekend.  Today we will be back at it, with three interviews, and on track to finish this phase in two weeks.  At that point interviews will end, and we will wrap up translations and reviews thereof, design a cover, write an introduction, and off it goes to the printer at the end of the month.  I should have a couple sample pages to show you later this week.  Meanwhile, here is a handsome gentleman from last week.


Don Francisco Toc Chavajay is a drummer.  I had hoped to photograph him with his drum, but it was elsewhere waiting for him to perform in a festival.  The festival wasn’t far from my house, but being sick, I didn’t go out.  It was impossible, however, not to hear.  I’m pretty sure he drummed non-stop for about four hours.

Rock Star


Don Pedro Chavajay Quiacain (85)

In the initial interviews, as I mentioned in an earlier post, a consensus appeared that there had been a loss of respect among young people for their elders and for the tradition of greeting them in the street.  So we modified the question to acknowledge this and ask what the causes were.  A surprising (to me) number of people have brought up education as a cause.  They say that students think they are better than their less educated parents and grandparents, so they don’t respect them or their advice.

We worship rock stars because they are there in our adolescence, speaking to our fears, understanding our angst and pain, whether it be that first breakup, our political awakening, or just the need to throw our cares to the winds and dance.  Whichever rock star is there in our moment of need is imprinted on us in such a way that decades later, we can still go back and visit that feeling.

Our parents and grandparents are rock stars on an entirely different level.  They are there throughout our entire lives, also understanding our angst and pain, because they felt it too.  They may not communicate to us through the escapism of popular music, but what they have to offer is much more substantive, and what they give us through the course of our lives is much more profound.  Take the time to listen respectfully.  You may not take their advice or agree with their perspective, but they have decades of knowledge and experience that you can learn from.

Point Of View

I just moved the modem that serves my room so that it no longer has to pass through seven meters of adobe to reach my computer.  Voila!  everything works better now.  Line of sight, perspective and point of view are powerful things.

I’ve been walking up the hill most days for exercise.  The first day, I made it as far as the main road above town, stopping three times to catch my breath.  The streets here are steep, and I am about 1000 meters higher in elevation than I am used to.  The second day, I made it a bit farther, to the lavadora,  the public washing space for clothing.  That became my regular for a while.  After a week or so, I was able to make it there without resting.  This photo is taken on the only flat part of that walk.


A couple of days ago, Daniela, (my adopted Guatemalan nieta) and I actually ran up the last and steepest part, which comes not long after this.  We have also extended the regular hike to the football (soccer) field about twice as far up the hill.  Today, we went even farther, to the Mirador, which is the starting point if you plan to hike the volcano, and at least that distance again.  You can see the football field below in this next photo, and a good but of San Pedro as well.  Our starting point is by the lake.


A little elevation gives one a broader perspective.  One can see the towns of San Pablo and San Marcos on the other side of the lake, and while one can see most of San Pedro, it feels smaller and less significant compared to everything around it.

It is easy when all one knows is one’s own immediate vicinity, to see it as the center of everything.  It is only when one ventures outside of one’s comfort zone that one can come to appreciate the breadth and diversity of the world, as well as the interconnected nature of it.  The internet was supposed to make the world smaller, by connecting us all, and, to some extent, it did, for a time.  What we are finding now, though, is that the algorithms of social media are separating us into comfort zones again.  The buzzword is “polarization,” although that implies only two viewpoints.  I would say “balkanization” would be more accurate.  We are being divided into as many focus groups as possible, to facilitate the marketing of both products and politicians.

I was 45 when I traveled more than 100 miles from the US border for the first time as an adult.  Even so, I had traveled more than the majority of Americans who don’t even have passports, and the large percentage who never leave their home state or even town.  It was an eye opening experience for me.  Suddenly, I was immersed in another culture, where people spoke another language, where the climate, the flora, and fauna were all alien and beautiful.  I was 100% tourist, but still it changed my point of view about many things.  It also made me thirst to explore and experience still more of our fascinating planet and its people.

So I did.  Aided in part by a nice gig with McGraw Hill Education, I visited almost 20 countries, from Southeast Asia to the Middle East, to South America.  Now I am here in Guatemala for the sixth time, and I am discovering that narrowing ones perspective can be equally eye opening and mind blowing.  I have gone from the broad brush of a three week photographic whirlwind through a country to a months long experience in a country whose language I speak, visiting the homes of people with decades of experience completely different from my own, hearing their stories, even though they speak yet another language I do not understand, making physical and emotional contact with them, learning from them.

It is another view of the breadth and diversity of the world, but also of the similarity in many ways of its people.  The only thing I lack now is the ability to speak yet another language.  It is so often that which divides us.  So, after the book is finished and at the printer, I will be taking a month of immersion classes in Tzutujil, the predominant Mayan dialect.  I anticipate that it will be much harder than Spanish, but maybe I’ll get to the proficiency of a child.


Don Domingo Cruz Puac, 79

Dressing Up


Gertrudis Chavajay Chac makes her living selling her home made tamales, which are quite different from the Mexican tamales we in Arizona are accustomed to.  For one, the wrapper is different.  In lieu of a corn husk she uses the leaf of a banana tree.  The ingredients are similar, but prepared differently.  The exact differences aren’t important, but the fact that they exist is.

Most people who visit Guatemala as tourists don’t see past the wrapper.  The colorful clothing, painstakingly hand made in a distinct design for every town, becomes a photo op.  Tourists swarm the Chichicastenango market with their powerful telephoto lenses, angling for “candid” shots of colorful locals.  I am not innocent of this.  Been there, done that, in many parts of the world.  It wasn’t until my third or fourth time here that I really noticed the objectification happening.  I was at the Chichicastenango market and decided to go around taking photos of the tourists who were taking telephoto shots of the locals without permission.  (One reason I often don’t get as many people shots as other photogs is that I try to ask permission first.)  I was taking pictures of one tourist and a man came up to me and asked, “So, you like my wife?”  My response was “Well, I figured if she could take pictures of people without permission, she wouldn’t mind someone doing it to her.”  He didn’t respond.

Doña Gertrudis assumed, when I suggested a photo with her wares, that I wanted the stereotypical photo of her with the tamales perched on her head.  I was thinking more of a shot of her with the tub in front of her displaying her product, but she had that thing on her head as fast as you could say quaint postcard.  I like the shot.

Mostly what I’m getting at here is the metamorphosis this project has gone through, from a product designed for tourists with the side effect of being a financial boon to the community, to a product which will still be sold to tourists, but which is more aimed at the children and grandchildren of the people represented, preserving and honoring who they are, in context of their culture and their lives.

When I first started two years ago, my maestra Celeste and I interviewed and photographed three people.  We asked that they wear their traditional clothing, which everyone has.  We asked that to make them visually appealing to tourists.  I’m no longer making such requests of people, so some of those represented in the book will be wearing more modern clothing, or some combination.  While this might not be “authentic” Mayan garb, I believe the people are being authentic to themselves and not just dressing up for the tourists.


Don Clemente Juarez Perez

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.