xela (quetzeltanango) and surrounds, guatemala, june 3rd 2009
Water dictates life in the Guatemalan wet season; and May is most definitely the wet season. Biblical downpours arrive each day, after four if you’re lucky, eleven if you forgot to pray to the Virgin Mary yesterday. Either way, you can be assured that it will basically start raining around lunchtime every day – for six months.
Between damp days focused on the daddy of Mayan ruins at Tikal, and the flowing red lava of Volcan Pacaya we are heading to San Andres Xecun, 30km from the rutted tourist trail at Xela in the Guatemalan highlands. The town’s highlights are straight out of children’s television: two bright yellow facaded churches. One has a mutli-coloured dome and a front is adorned with a selection of pink, purple and azure berobed saints, with monkeys (complete with hair!) poking out from between their legs – as if the colour hadn’t quite sealed the garish deal.
A young lady wafts the flies from her baskets of bread in the square abutting the church; she pulls me aside, “Where are you from?” she asks. “I’m English” – she smiles and spouts her love for the English and all things English. She has friends there and can speak the language she tells me. “We should be speaking in English then so you can practice!” I say; we’ve been conversing in the colonial tongue until now. So she does: “Jesus is my saviour; I love Jesus with all of my heart; I must repent for all sins committed on this earth to achieve eternal life in heaven”, I’m just a little stunned at the rote religious outburst.
The conversation moves onto films. She loves the cinema, and takes the bus to Xela regularly to see the latest Hollywood movies; “I love Mitchell Douglas”, she tells me. Well, maybe they’re not the latest blockbusters – but my bread selling friend still has disposable income of a sort.
We struggle up the hill in town to the second yellow church. The late morning sun still has the upper hand over the gathering storm clouds and dries the brightly coloured wools dyed by the local people to make so much of their clothing, traditional in style. Yellows, reds, blacks, whites adorn the teracotta rooftops.
“Jesus is my saviour; I love Jesus with all of my heart; I must repent for all sins committed on this earth to achieve eternal life in heaven”
The view under the forced dappled light of the overcast day is tremendous.
Back by the monkey-clad church, I ask my new friend if many tourists come through. “Yes, in minibuses in the afternoon, maybe three or four a day”, she says, “occasionally larger buses”. San Andres is unusual, and not just for its sunny hued churches. We haven’t been approached by kids for money, nor have we had fifteen chicken shaped over-gloves shoved in our faces when we were desperately seeking an umbrella; I haven’t seen a single souvenir stall. The residents have no want or ambition to turn their sentence in the guidebook into a paragraph. There is no overhyped market or non-existent relics; it’s a market town with yellow churches and wants to stay that way.
I bid my bread-selling, Jesus-fearing friend goodbye, and jump in our taxi to the day’s second off-the-beaten track location. Our taxi driver, we later discover, has no idea why we would like to go to Palmar Viejo and has no idea what is there; but a dollar is a dollar and he plans to drive us. He is the jovial sort and we picked him from a bunch as the car comprised only one piece, and even sported a flash of black and white squares to imply its commercial life; it’s doing him and us proud so far. He joked and beeped a number of people as we sped along the route. “That’s my brother, he’s also a taxi driver” he commented, ” it’s much easier than working in the fields”. Sure thing.
We wind down a good road into the lowlands and pass transport moving ordinary Guatemalan labourers to or from the banana plantations; the clouds begin to drop their load. Damp flat bed lorries move 30 men, women and children protected only by a flapping plastic tarp. In a scene deserving of the caption ‘survival of the fittest’ a young girl is left uncovered by the wanting sheet – she looks irredeemably miserable.
Later in the day, the eastbound carriageway of the Interamericana will be impassable where a landslide had submerged the road in mud; a tuktuk scrambling like a new born lamb persuades our driver to turn around. He thoughtfully waves his hand from the window as he u-turns, and heads the back to the nearest point at which the central reservation can be crossed. It’s useful for the dodging traffic to know there’s a landslide ahead, and not just lost Brit driving on the wrong side I suppose.
Once we’ve crossed over to the passable side, the hand is retracted and the window raised; a minibus driving down the wrong carriageway doesn’t need an excuse here as we dodge yet more seemingly unfazed motorists. We rejoin our carriageway past the blockage and continue having avoided collisions with monster lorries by a narrow, but safe margin.
Back on the steep road that leads to Palmar Viejo, we see tens of handmade signs advertising the services of local brake mechanics and a chap wanders past with a transmission on his back. They are kept in good employment by the strewn trucks we pass, who’ve puffed their last breath until they get much needed mechanic medicare.
“That’s my brother, he’s also a taxi driver” he commented, ” it’s much easier than working in the fields”. Sure thing.
Further deluges of water cascade as brown opaque watser floods down the hillside in canyons that somehow flow under the road and out the other side; it is an engineering marvel. The road is a foot under water in places in the towns. Where it’s not, a torrent spurts vertically from the overworked drains and onto the road to top it up.
We are headed to Palmar Viejo, dubbed the Pompeii of Guatemala by the paragraph in the guidebook; it should have been a line. One evening in 1990 the river cut a canon thirty metres deep straight through the town. The altar of a church stands on one side of the gorge and the entrance door of the nave on the other. Two mercilessly rickety bridges provide a route to collect firewood.
Having wandered a little aimlessly with no sign of he aforementioned church, we approach a group of apparently lounging gents. One of whom agrees to walk us to his old home. He shows us a school, houses, and two churches – all derelict for 20 years and now deep in the jungle. Then, he disappears off into the undergrowth, transient – as indeed his settlements seem to be. The village was moved in 1990 and there are now three settlements: Nuevo Palmar, Viejo Palmar and Ruined Palmar Viejo. Come back in twenty years for two more incarnations.
Poverty, discomfort and hard manual work shape the lives of the people of the Guatemalan highlands, but water truly defines it. It dictates when you can travel, when electricity is on, when you can see beyond your nose, and sometimes even whether you and your fellow villagers will live or die.
Truly, a land at the mercy of water.