I am cycling to raise money for the fantastic UK based chaity Macmillan Cancer Support. Big thanks to everyone who has sponsored me so far! Justgiving is a quick, easy and secure way to donate online. See my other fundraising page, specific to the Macmillan organized part of the trip

Monday, 5 July 2010

Xela and El Nahual

Full-to-the-brim, stuffed full, fully saturated... all good descriptions of my last two and a bit weeks in so many ways: firstly in the most literal way stuffed full of good food; secondly mentally stuffed with new Spanish grammar; thirdly full-to-the-brim of local knowledge and Guatemalan history; fourthly (is that a word?) saturated in salsa and general malaky antics; fifthly (is that?) saturated in paint -my clothes the kid´s hair and the Nahula strawberry patch, after a weeks painting a mural with the kids; and sixthly (?) and finally, saturated in water. Not only was I soaked to the cycling-pad the day I turned up in Xela ( it`s rained so much since being there I gave in and bought an umbrella... I have never bought an umbrella, not even in Scotland... my respect for Central America rainy season is evidently continuing to grow.

The culinary stuffing was mainly thanks to the amazing recipes of my `Guate-mama´ as the El Nahual school likes to call the host-mums, and partly thanks to the big Friday communal lunches at the school where all us Spanish students would cook ...and would you believe it bothe weeks the dishes I was involved with were actually praised, maybe I have a streak of cooking ability after all! Nothing to rival Alejandra´s creations though, one of her most impressive traditional-foods-with-a-twist dishes was sweet peppers stuffed with mince and wrapped in omlette served with tortilla dyed black and frijoles. Another day the garlicy goodness of her guacomale really got the taste buds watering. I also get frosties with hot milk and frozen strawberries everymorning... so good, and a daily reminder of my best street-vendored food so far, the cereal stall I stopped at on my way out of Patzún where I sat on a stool at the curb by the stall eating a bowl of Kellogs cornflakes with hot milk for just 5 quetzales (about 41p UK) My meal-times in Xela were often accompanied by the entertainment of Alejandra and Estuardo´s little 2 year old son Davíd´s antics with his ball or tricycle or calculator-cum-mobile-phone.

Davíd is in the process of learning to speak, Alejandra and Estuardo spend a lot of time with him cutting out pictures to make flash cards, so they´re well prepared patience-wise for the muddled up speech of us Spanish students. So yes, 3 and a half solid hours of one-to-one Spanish classes Monday to Friday and hours of homework each evening have left me mentally stuffed.. in a positive way. My teacher Francés was a real pleasure to work with (even though she was often trying to wind me up, about novios amongst other things!) and an invaluable source of knowledge about the history of Guatemala, as well as incredibly fantastic teacher, on a par with Carlos back in London! She shared a lot of personal history with me too, and gave me an insight into the still-prevalent role of machismo in Guatemala. Francés has three young daughters and when she isn´t teaching at El Nahual is incredibly busy with them and their home, and yet still she found time on my last Saturday to fit in an extra lesson for me, and to take me to the local market after the class for my first taste of chuchitos, a local food similar to tamales, a maíz, pork and spices rectangle cooked in a bannana leaf, and the drink that is essential hot pureed sweetcorn.
When we were talking about about my travel plans Francés very honestly, but without resentment, said that although she knows of all the beautiful spots in her country but it has been impossible for her to go and visit them, because it is just too expensive. It is an uncomfortable feeling to be faced with that fact when I am travelling so freely, and yet it is true of the majority of local people that I have met in every country. Even if they are working and relatively well off they are not earning any where near enough to risk taking the time off work and go galavanting around getting to know new places within their own country, let alone abroad. Yet again I was reminded of how incredibly lucky I am, especially in the job and bosses that I have who played such a huge part in making this trip possible for me.

And I´ve certainly been doing more than my share on the galavanting front - hence the salsa saturation. Thursdays at El Nahual are marked out by the free hour long sasla class at lunch time, where we were taught sleek and slick moves to put into practise not so-sleekly-or-slickly at Bar Rumba on Friday night. Once I got over the trying to concentrate on the steps while trying not to bump into whichever partner was daft enough to humour me I was able to relax, take it less seriously and enjoy it a lot more. Think I do better at the silly approach to dancing in all forms, and at the 80´s night found comrades on the sily-dancing-front in Ollie with his delightful 80´s pigtails and Dan with his putting-on-a-diving-suit move that actually rivalled Hannah´s pushing-the-trolley classic that of course I shared with them! We had a leaving-cum-fake-birthday party for me the night before I left (I was doing a good job of not remembering the birthday til the lights dimmed, singing began and a candle flame appeared atop a choclate bannana bread slice..mmmm!). We ended up in a random bar playing pool badly, dancing slightly better, shotting tequila and swapping ceilidh Scottish counrty dance steps with bar man Henry for traditional local dance steps... a suitably grimy end to the night!

Another bit of galavanting we students did as a group was climbing Volcan Santa Maria. We set off cheerfully united and chattering away at around 8am one Sunday. Between four and four and half hours later we arrived at the 3772 metres above sea level peak, spread out in very breathless and very quiet groups. As we climbed the clouds settled so at the top the potentially amazing views were completely obscured behind solid white clouds, a stark backdrop for the photos we took.

As well as our group there were a number of other groups hiking, one of which we relied on heavily for directions at the beginning, though you think it´d be obvious with a volcano...up! Interestingly when we arrived at the top there was also a group of maybe thirty or so traditionally dressed Guatemalans. At first I assumed they must be practising an old traditional religion, but I heard them praying to Padre, and when I asked Francés about it she said they would have been Catholics. She also guessed that they might have climbed the mountain on empty stomachs as a religious fast. That to me is a real demonstration of their dedication to their religion, I´d had breakfast and snacks on the way up and still felt famished from the effort!
This was one of the water saturated days, since the densely gathered cluods started to drop their load on us. Between three and four hours later we arrived at the base, spread out in wet & straggly, muddy-from-slipping and fingers-can´t-get change-out-a-purse-numb from cold. All I could think about on the way down was dry clothes and a blanket in from of a film so a few of us went to the Blue Angel café´s sofa filled tv room to watch Chocolat, where we had a ´little bit of sumat sumat´ (alcohol in Kamillah´s words) to warm the inside and blankets to warm the outside, and where I swooned over Johnny Depp as the long haired guitar playing water gypsy...! (: I don´t think my toes warmed up for at least a day or two though.

To move on to the saturation-in-local-knowlege poiont, another of the group trips we took was up into the mountains to Momestenango. A local woman Thelma and her husband and 12 children run a weaving workshop from their home there and every Friday bring samples of their work to El Nahual to sell. They invited us to see the weaving process so we took a ´school trip´on the old US school bus ´chicken bus. Theior home was in a very rural setting, wood and lamina houses nestled into the steep slopes of the mountain, lovely smell of smoke from the open wood fires and plenty of chickens scratching around. One of Themla´s sons gave us a clear presentation of the process of weaving. The wool comes from sheep, and once it is collected they wash it in the river then brush it soft. It is spun into thread on a hand rotated spinning wheel (images of fairytales and wiocked step-mother curses came into my head seing a real spinning wheel though there was no needle on this one). The thread is then either left its natural colour (black, white or grey) or dyed one of the colours from the vibrant range available: blues, reds, orange, yellow, browns. The dyes are all natural, created from tree bark, plant roots, berries, one red and pink are made from an insect imported from Mexico. The process of dying depends on the colour, some need to be cooked in boiling water and left to soak for a few days to a week, othere only need cold water, but all use ´cal´ (lime/chalk) to fix the dyes so that the products can be washed without the colour running.

The threads are then woven by hand on huge wooden contraptions, made by the father of the family, into incredibly complicated patterns. The young lads working on rugs while we were there allowed us all to have a go, reassuring us that we wouldn´t ruin their hours of work with our inexperience, and watching closely as we gave it a go.

Thelma fed us all delicious tortillas, with avocado cheese and salsa and natural tea before we had a look through the products in their shop, bags, scarves, rugs, blankets, hats. A lot of shopping seemed to get done, so we were a very woolly bunch on the ride back to town.

Thelma wears the traditional dress of here region, as do many Guatemalan women, the outfits are beautiful, incredibly bright and colourful, with lace and weavings distinct to each costume. The colours of the threads indicate which area the wearer is from, reminding me of Scottish kilts, the threads and weaving indicating which clan your family belong to. The patterns are also significant, often depicting the quetzal, the national bird which the currency is named after, but which is apparently sadly nearly extinct. That in many areas the women have retained their traditional dress is one of the things that Guatemala is famous for, any tourist guidebook or advertisment will desribe Guatemala as ´colourful´with a ´rich ethnic mix´where over 20 languages are spoken. It is also a point of controversy, because the governmenthas been guilty of suppressing the same communities they use as a selling point for their country´s diversity. Indigenous Guatemalans have for years suffered discrimination, repression and poor living and working conditions, being seen by many as ignorant second class citizens. It is only in very recent years that the Mayan languages have begun to be taught in schools alongside Spanish. This takes me onto the saturation-in-history and back to El Muro bar in Antigua where I met a fascinating man who teaches his native Mayan language in a College dedicated to the study and preservation of the Indian languages in Guatemala city. He emphasised that indigenous Guatemalans are not a ´living fairy tale´something sweet and old fashioned to photograph and put on postcards. He spoke passionately about how the Mayans are a strong and resistant culture, who survived the Spanish conquest, unlike the indigenous populations of Mexico, the US or the Carribean, and are an intelligent, sophiticated people, resonsible for many scientific and technological advances, and with a calander more accurate than the one we use today in the Western world (the name of the school ´El Nahual´is taken form the signs of this calander in which my sign, or Nahual is QÁnil, which apparently means I am very fertile on the positive side, but a destroyer of houses on the negative side... uh oh... as Kat put it, I´ll have a nice garden even if my house is rubble!). He talked about how until recent years all Indians had to learn Spanish as this was the only language school classes were taught in. He also explained how of the 24 languages descended from the different tribes that existed at the time of the conquest, there are 4 main languages: Quiche, Cakchiquel, Mam and Kekchi. All Indians speak their own native language plus one of these four main languages, plus Spanish, and often some English as well if they live in tourist areas. Impressive... I am still struggling to pick up my second language, Spanish!
At the time of the conquest the majority of Indians were concentrated in Guatemala and yet the country was conquered by a ridiculously small group of Spaniards, apparently about 20. The reason for their success was apparently that they had horses, plus an army of Mexian indians who had been captured in an earlier conquest, the Nahualth tribe. By looking at place names in Guatemala you can see the influences of the different languages: ´Antigua´ meaning old in Spanish preceeding many names, and Xela itself is interesting. The official name Queztaltenango is a Nahualth name, but ´Xelahú´is the Quiche name and most people refer to the town as Xela (pronounced Shela).

As a result of the conquest there is a real mix of Indian and Spanish blood too. A little less than half the population are Indian while the majority are ´ladinos´ of mixed Indian and Spanish descent or Indians whose dress and lifestyle choices mean they are no longer identified with Indian culture. An interesting fact that my Spanish teacher in Antigua, José, pointed out, is that names are not a reliable indication of ancestry. There was a period in history where groups of Indian workers were essentially enslaved to a Spanish `owner` who would give them his surnmane, so that today it is possible to meet someone with pure Indian blood but a Spanish surname.
One of the conflicts in Guatemala has been a result of conflict between the Indian and ladino communities. The discrimination of the indigenous population dates back to the days of slavery to the conquistadores, who forced the Spanish language and the Catholic church on native Guatemalans, and has continued to recent years. Although things may still not be perfect, the introduction of human rights laws in the 1990´s and changes in thinking mean that today all Guatemalans are seen as equal citizens, at least in theory. In practice many of the poorest citizens are still the Indians, many of whom live in remote rural areas with a daily income from agriculture less than the recommended minimum.
Guatemla is primarily an agricultural land, and many of the country´s problems stem from the fact that land ownership has always been concentrated in the hands of a very small number of parties, including foreign companies. This continues today. This inequality was the root cause of the 36 years of war in Guatemala, which ended with the signing of the Peace Agreement in 1996.
Since Guatemlan independence from Spain in 1821 the governments had all been military until the civilian presidenceies of 1944-54. One of the infamous dictators, Jorge Ubico, who was in power just before this period, is being `honoured´in the capital right now with the construction of an underpass. José and I read an article about it during one of my Spanish classes in Antigua... it is causing outrage because Ubico was responsible for some terrible laws. One was called the `Ley de Vialitad´which required everyone to carry a card of permission from the army if there were moving around, which cost Q2000 and was not affordable for the majority of peasant farm workers, whose mountain land was often not producing the minimum to survive on. The second was the Ley de Vagrancia, which meant that anyone seen not working, or anyone not carrying the correct card, could be forcibly taken by the army and made to work, without pay for 20 days in the ´Boca Costa´faming regions of the coast. The motivation behind these laws was to have enough workers farming these fertile lands where traditionally very few people lived, the majority being based futher north in the mountains, owned by big, often foreign companies.

This combination of laws caused a catch 22 for peasant workers where it was very difficult for them to leave the coastal farms. The workers would migrate on foot to the coast with their whole families, often walking 10 days, a period which cost many children their lives. They then had to live in very poor cramped conditions, receiving food from the farm owners which they then had to pay off through more work. Children who were born to these families became the property of the owner, known as ´Hijos de la Casa´or ´children of the house´and could never leave, even if their families did. This was a way of ensuring future workers for the farms. There was a similar situation in towns, where peasant workers would migrate to work as servants ion houses and whose offspring similarly could not leave. The army controlled these settlements with force and weapons supplied by the USA, who unsuprisingly owned much of these farms, for example the infamous United Fruit Company whose main export was bannanas.

Interestingly, the end of the 10 years of civilian government that had started in 1944 and brought many socail`improvements including new roads, hospitals, schools, was put to an end as a result of a conflict with the United Fruit Company. President C recognised that it was ridiculous that such a large part of Guatemlan land was in foreigh hands, not benifiting Guatemalans. He made a law of land redistribution, where plots of land lying unused were reclaimed by the government and distributed amongst peasant farmers. Unsurprisingly when some of the redistributed land turned out to have belonged to the United Fruit Company there was protest. He offered to buy the company back from the US, and when a ridiculously inflated price was asked didn`t back down. Clearly this caused outrage amongst US investors and conveniently accusations arose that the president was a communist and he was forced to flee into exile. Ronald Reagan made a speech around this time claiming that US interests were at stake in Central America, implying that Guatemala could not demonstrte this independence, it needed to be seen to be an example of US strength. Shocking.

A period of military government began again. However, the Catholic Chrch, which had originally been closely linked with the military and the government, began to support the peasant farmer, acknowledging the inequality in land ownership, and preaching the liberating gospel. They aimed to raise the consciousness of the people, to show them that they were not poor because it was their fate or that they `deserved´, rather that they were entitled to land, respect and education. In 1979 a group of Bishops signed a letterknow as `The Cry for Land´outlining the necessity to provide the people with the land they were entitled to. This caused problems for the government - it was not in their financial interests to have an educated aware populace demanding their land back, and so began the persecution of the church and the campesinos, the disappearances, tortures, and outright murders. Here, as in El Salvador, the word `disapparecidos´, the disappeareds, became commonplace in the years of war. Priests, their families, anyone who mentioned `land reform´anyone who spoke out about the disappearances, disappeared. Sometimes their bodies turned up, mutilated, tortured, days later. Sometimes familes uncovered unmarked graves months or years later. Other bodies never reappeared. My teacher Francés shared with me the very painful personal history of her older sister whose husband was one of the disappeared´s whose body was never recovered. Her sister now lives in the United States.

The religious vacuum left by the persecution of the Catholic church began to be filled by US religious fundamentalists. There is evidence in a report known as the `Rockerfeller document´that the influx of Evangelising Christians was a deliberate attempt at controlling and pacifying the population of Guatemala, which the US government saw as having been influenced by the `communist Catholics´. The peak of the Evangalist conversions came in the two most violent years of Guatemla´s history, 1982 and 1983, when President Rios Mott was in power. Gradully some converted back to Catholicism, although there are still many Evangelical churches today, and I would say that the majority of folk I´ve met throughout my time in Guatemala have been Evangelists, in fact I can´t think of one Catholic I`ve met. The benefits that the Evangelists brought were social projects, an emphasis on preserving family values and personal development, but it is argued that this came at the cost of indigenous culture, which was seen as `pagan´and needing to be changed.

A reaction to the government and business led, army executed repression of the church and the campesinos was the formation of the guerrilla armed forces, collectively know as the URNG. Peasants, intellectuals and US volunteers took up arms to protect the villages from the massacres, rapes and destruction being wrought by the army. The conflict lasted 36 years. The statictics state that during this time 90% of the casualties were civilians, not the army nor the guerrillas.

In these post-war years there are still problems. When we asked Jaimie, the founder and director of the El Nahual school, what he though of the current government he was scathing, saying it is corrupt. Both he and one of the Spanish teachers here, Angel, gave us lectures about the problems facing education in Guatemala, and one of the points that came up in both lectuires was that this year education was given an extra Q150000 that has all been channeled into the president´s wife´s election campaign, by paying either in food or cash, potential voters. The extra cash has not therefore reached the poorest communites where it is most needed.

One of the biggest problems facing education in Guatemla today is that so many children drop ouyt of school at a very young age for financial reasons. Although in theory education is free, the cost of school books and uniforms mean that many parents cannot afford to support all their children all the way through school, so they drop out and start to work instead. That is where schools like El Nahual step in, and that is where us volunteers become useful.

El Nahual is the reason I came to Xela in the first place, to work with the kids who come to the after school Manos de Colores program hosted in the same building where we take our Spanish lessons. As well as Manos volunteers from El Nahual teach English in public schools in Xela and help out with the Saturdy adult classes specifically aimed at helping teenagers and adults who have had to drop out of school early to complete courses free of charge. All the profits from the Spanish classes fund these projects.

In my two weeks at El Nahual I helped out with a few of the English classes. This is an area where a feww of us volunteers wondered how useful we were, without specific training, but as one pointed out, the little we provide is better than nothing. There are longer term and more experienced volunteers leading some of the English classes, so there is more consistency for those students. Where I felt most useful and what I most enjoyed, however, was the wall painting project that I led the second week and that really brought joy to the kids... they were so incredibly excited, the boys and girls fighting over which group got to paint fisrt each day ( refusing to paint with each other, making me think of school disco days, boys on one side, girls on the other!), even begging not to go home at the end of classes some afternoons... that`s got to be a good sign!

The design was based around the Xela flag. For two brief years from 1824, Xela was independent from Guatemala as part of the Six region state. For this reason it has its own flag with a shiled in the centre, whose elements we took and added some national symbols to in the design for our mural. So the backgound colours are blue, white and read, the colours of the flag. From the shield are the Ceiba (national tree), the Quetzal, (the national bird) which represents freedom (according to Frances this is because whenever they are in captivity the die quickly, scientifically bvecause they need a particular insect to survive) the bow and arrow which represent the struggle for freedom, the volcano, which represents strength ands laurel. The other elements we added are the marimba (national instrument) being played by a lady in the traditional Xela colours (purple, pink and yellow), the Monja Blanca (national flower) and the Díos del Maíz (God of Corn) who is extremely important to Mayan culture, whose creation story tells how humans were created from corn.

Over the week many hands were involved in the painting. The majority was done by the boys and girls of Manos de Colores, and we also had the help of three kids of one of the Saturday students, and 15 year old Walter another Saturday student. Director Jaimie took his sweeping paintbrush to the flying quetzal one afternoon, and Patti the cook and secretary spent an afternoon helping us out. A number of the volunteers also gave a hand, Margaret, Kamilah, new co-ordinator Agie and the `three-English-girls´Kat Klara and Jackie. To live up to the name `Manos de Colores´ (colourful hands) one of the days we had the Manos kids painting their hands to add colour texture to the volcano, we also used potato printing for the leaves of the ceiba. And the final touch was added by Spanish teacher Sergio on my last afternoon... he had cut letters out of styrofoam and coated them in gold glitter, which ended up all over his face carnival-stylee as we glues them up to read... Bienvenidos a El Nahual (welcome to El Nahual). We took plenty of group photos in front of it with the kids, a happy end to an energetic project and a lovely goodbye to Xela.

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