Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A few observations on Guatemala

I have visited most countries in South America and a few in Central America, but a week in Guatemala gave us the chance to experience another Mesoamerican culture at first hand.
Arriving in Guatemala City airport was no problem. Getting from there to the nearby old colonial capital of Antigua was another matter entirely. What should have been a leisurely 50-minute drive actually took us two-and-a-half hours. Because there was no left turn from the airport road to the Antigua road, we had to turn right followed by a whole series of u-turns, some of which were being disallowed by traffic police seemingly at random. We only passed one traffic light, which was being overruled by traffic police, again seemingly at random, much to the consternation of the drivers, who leaned liberally on their horns in response. It took us an hour and a half to get back to the airport road where we should have turned left. And all for want of a simple system of traffic lights.
Once on faster roads, our taxi driver Manolo made up for lost time by driving like a maniac on the vertiginous winding roads up into the mountains, all in the dark and while talking on his cellphone. It was quite an experience.
Chatting to Manolo, we touched tentatively on the political situation, knowing full well how Guatemala has always been one of those countries, full of potential and natural beauty, but left to teeter perennially on the edge of ruin and collapse by corrupt and selfish politicians. However, Manolo gleefully related to us how the last president and vice-president had recently been arrested for corruption and graft, and face up to 10 years in jail. In their place,  a new president has just been elected who just happens to be Guatemala's most popular television comedian. It seems, though, that, despite his rather lewd and tasteless comedy routines, Jimmy Morales is actually quite a bright guy, affiliated to neither the left nor the right wings, and people have high hopes for a little bit of political stability from him. I was just amazed that I had missed a news story like that in the mainstream news. But then I guess that Guatemala is not exactly a major player in world affairs.
The little town of Antigua Guatemala is the perfect antidote to the big, brash, noisy new capital city. All cobbled streets and pastel-painted colonial buildings, it is a serene and mellow town, nestled amid forested mountains and volcanoes. At 1,530m above sea level, it has an almost perfect climate, with warm sunny days and pleasantly cool nights. Many of the houses and restaurants have adopted the lovely old Spanish tradition of building around a shady and leafy green courtyard or patio, often with a water feature taking centre stage.
Many of the very old colonial buildings, like churches, monasteries and priories, have been decimated by a series of devastating earthquakes over the centuries, particularly two or three really big ones in the 18th century. But the ruins have been preserved and are open to the public for exploration, and the replacement buildings are almost as grand and majestic as the originals. There are churches and/or ruins almost on every street corner in the centre of town.
Antigua boasts the biggest Holy Week and Easter celebrations in the Western hemisphere and, basically by coincidence, our visit coincided with some of it. There were huge religious processions pretty much every day, with various Catholic icons and statues being paraded around the streets from various churches on extremely heavy-looking plinths or floats, often for hours at a time, and accompanied by the ubiquitous untuneful brass bands and drums, playing their lugubrious dirges and hymns. Apparently, the biggest processions, like those on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, can involve 10,000-15,000 participants (and many more spectators), and floats weighing 3.5 tonnes are carried by up to 80 men at a time, changing personnel every city block. And we are not talking about one or two processions here: there were several each day, early in the morning, late at night, sometimes mores than one at a time, and at times we were almost tripping over them. It is certainly quite a spectacle, whatever you may think of the religion behind it.
The other thing Antigua is famous for is the tradition of constructing alfombras (carpets) out of flowers and brightly-dyed sawdust during Holy Week. These carpets, involving complex geometric shapes and designs as well as religious images are laid out on the cobbled streets, and can take many hours to create (some in the churches also incorporate fruits and vegetables). The Holy Week processions then trample all over these meticulously-designed crafts - ephemeral art in the service of religious symbolism.
There were much fewer tourists than I expected in Antigua, although the shady Parque Central is definitely ground zero for gringo tourists. Consequently, it is also ground zero for tour touts and the ubiquitous indigenous women selling their trinkets, weavings and bracelets. As in so many Latin American countries, the undeniably cute native children, most of whom should really be in school, are unabashedly used for commercial purposes, but what can you do?
About 40% of Guatemalans are indigenous, mostly descendents from various Mayan tribes (as we have been reminded many times on guided trips, the Maya did not actually die out, they just moved away from their ancestral lands, which they had.exhausted due to unsustainable farming practices, and scattered throughout the country). About an equal number are mestizos or ladinos (mixed blood), with only less than 20% being "white" or of European background. This is particularly apparent in the smaller market towns like Chichicastenango or Panajachel, and in the smaller and less touristy mountain villages nearby, but it can be seen even in cities like Antigua.
What else will I remember about Guatemala? A riot of bright colours, from the vegetable and artesan markets, to the dresses of the aboriginal women, to the many different kinds of flowering trees, and even the brightly-painted houses. Vertiginous roads winding through a rugged mountainous landscape. A severe garbage problem: most country roads are just lined with it, even if tourist towns like Antigua are kept meticulously clean. Excellent coffee and chocolate, although the good dark chocolate with candied ginger or almonds is quite expensive. Friendly, polite people, speaking probably the clearest, purest Spanish I have ever heard. Almost NO-ONE smoking, in restaurants, in bars, even in the streets and parks, except for a few gringos. Restaurant bills that automatically include a 10% tip, which takes all the stress and calculation out of the tipping process. Little mountain villages exhibiting grinding poverty, but full of happy kids and sleeping dogs.
Alll in all, for a supposed perennial basket-case of a country, it is really a very pleasant place to spend some time.

No comments: