Chichicastenango, Guatemala

A chaos of colors, cultures, contrasts.

Sunday, early morning, the market is Mayan for the Mayan while the tourists are still sipping their lattes. A large hall and warrens of alleyways are rich with vegetables, fruit, live chickens, rabbits and turkeys, clothing, household implements and crafts of the community for the community. 

Women, mostly women with babies slung on their backs and children tagging along, are haggling prices, sampling sweet pineapple, burying their purchases into baskets.  They wear the traditional brightly-colored blouses and traje (dresses) in the distinctive pattern of the K’iche’ nation-deep colors: reds, blues, and greens. 

By mid-morning the tourists are easy to spot in the crowded alleyways, a head or more taller than the tallest Mayan.  One old woman walked passed me, her head barely higher than my waist.  The tourists carry plastic bags full of souvenirs: masks, blankets, T-shirts, traje, dipsys and doodles of all manner.  One stall after another appears to carry the same souvenirs and one wonders if all this is Mayan craft or is it made in China.  

We negotiated in Spanish or, in many instances, English and made our purchases in Quetzal (Q). Bargaining is expected and we walk away wondering if we paid too much or did we bargain too hard.  We leave our footsteps in this land by the impressions we make.  Do we leave enough on the table for that vendor, that waiter, that child to ensure their worth?  

The market is sandwiched between the 400-year-old Iglesia Santo Thomas to the east of the market plaza and the equally old Capilla del Calvario to the west.  Although Catholic is the primary religion, the Mayans look to shaman for healing and spiritual guidance with “smoky” divinatory rituals conducted in a side room of the Capilla.  In the Iglesia, women, on their knees, plod up the center aisle to the sanctuary and back, reciting prayers as instructed by their shaman.  

We volunteered with Habitat for Humanity to help build houses in a remote village—a week of digging footings, chipping and moving rock, building rebar cages and mixing concrete. Everything is done by hand as we worked side by side with the eager homeowner.   Our purpose was to provide support as well as to learn about Guatemala and its people.  

In these highlands we find the people purposeful, cheerful, clean.  How do the children sport white shirts and blouses?  How do all these tiny tiendas (shops) net enough business to support the owners?  How has globalization affected the Mayan culture and do Dorito chips change the way they perceive life?  How do you cope when the mayor, pissed after losing the election, fails to pay the city’s electricity bill thus shutting off the water supply? 

Our guides answer other questions.  The country is strangled by some 20 families who control everything in commerce and governance.  Keep the peasants in place by discouraging education.  Children learn to read and write and compute and then go to work—most children never reach high school and are put to work to help their family.  Discourage entrepreneurs who challenge those in control. Let the NGOs provide assistance while the government administers to its own.  The coffee crops’ plummeting price has resulted in migration to the US—the small land owner can’t compete.  Malnutrition over generations of Mayans has affected their height. 

Guatemala, a country of contrast, is beautifully green and its people beautiful, colorful and memorable. 

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