Time Travel 1977 Guatemala City to Coban: After the Earthquake…

continued from previous…  

February 1977


Guat City isn’t really so bad on second glance, and Pension Meza is the place to be, dollar a night WITH breakfast.  Maybe the most revealing–and appealing–thing to me is the congregation here of people from all over the world, Europe especially, but Japan also.  Whereas Mexico is largely a playground for Americans and Canadians, Guatemala is on the world circuit, and especially popular with Italians, for whom the language is an easy transition.

At least the violence for which this city will one day become famous has not erupted in full force yet, so the city is more or less safe to travel in, and if you go outside zone 1 you can find the middle and upper class neighborhoods that might even remind you of home.  Or you can go the opposite direction and find shanty-towns that should remind you of how privileged you are.

003 (2)Of course the military governments keep a tight grip on efforts to improve indigenous lives, so there’s that reality behind every picture.  If you go red, you’ll end up dead.  The local Maya Indians migrate to the city, and the shanty town surrounding it is as far as they get.  It’s pretty miserable, plain cardboard walls with corrugated cardboard roofs.  Average pay is about a dollar a day, maybe two if you’re lucky, just enough to buy beans and tortillas.  Still their lives are somewhat traditionally Mayan, and Indian villages are not far away.

The women mostly stay inside smoky hovels weaving and cooking and making babies by the dozen, only a small percentage of which will reach the age of five.  Unlike the men, the women maintain a traditional costume, and the alert observer will know a woman’s provenance by the style and fashion of her most basic provision, a square-cut huipil with cloth panels that meet at right angles, the better not to destroy the selvedge of some of the most beautiful weaving the world has ever seen, from some of the world’s poorest people.

I meet up with some local guy here who shows me around, a first time for that, so kinda nice.  But a city is still a city, and anathema to me, so I don’t stay long.  There is no groovy café scene like Panajachel, the market is still in ruins, and the jungle awaits.  Plan is to head north to Coban, then strike out across the jungle by boat up north toward Tikal.  Tikal or bust!  Fortunately my language hacking skills seem to be improving, so hopefully I won’t get lost…


IMG_0476The highway heading out of Guat City first heads northeast toward the coast before turning west up into the mountainous interior, right after crossing the Motagua River, the one which follows precisely the Motagua Fault, the one which devastated Guatemala only a year ago, causing 23,000 deaths and many times that the number of casualties, with aftershocks still continuing to the current day.

Guatemala is the one country where you’re almost guaranteed seismic activities, volcanoes or earthquakes, if you hang around long enough.  It sits at the junction of more major tectonic plates than anywhere else in the world, and the opaque smoke from volcanoes is visible for hundreds of miles.

Earthquakes are another thing, and must be locally experienced to be appreciated.  Feeling a rumble below is the usual method, but if you’re lucky you might just see the earth in front of you rippling like so much pudding, placed in the fridge to cool.  It’s unnerving—and cool.

Coban is the first major stop going straight northward into the Mayan jungle heartland of Guatemala, and is a pleasant enough provincial town.  There are indigenous people here, too, but not as colorful as the highlands proper.  This is the land of the Kekchi, who are more of a lowland people, though Coban is still pretty high.

And though not the anthropologists’ darlings that the highland people are, these people may indeed have inhabited this area much longer, direct descendants of the classic Maya, rather than a product of the repeated inter-mixings and Mexican immigrations that the western highland people seem to be.  I hook up with some local guy again who shows me around, just like Guat City a few days ago.  “You’re Guatemalan!” he even compliments me at one point.

The Mayas here wear huipil blouses that are much more lightweight and frilly, almost transparent, but with elaborate embroidery that makes them still special.  The really special ones, for weddings and such, are much nicer.  Still this might seem odd for a city up at an altitude of over 4000ft/1300mt, where the nights can get chilly.

After all, Lake Atitlan is only 1000ft/300mt higher, and the huipiles there are thicker and tighter than blue jean fabric (which they have a local version of from Nahuala’ and which seems to have possibly coexisted in Mexico).  The answer would seem to be that these Kekchis occupy a large amount of terrain, including Belize, which includes much hot sweaty lowlands.  The double-ikat cloth for their skirts are made in Salcaja, near Xela, like most in Guatemala (except the Nahuala’ style and a few others)…

Now it’s time to test my mettle, out into the vast interior of the Peten jungle and forests to the Tikal ruins up north, by the Rio de la Pasion and tributaries from Sebol to Sayaxche’, sounds better than the circuitous route to the coast, then up north on torturous roads.  We’ll see.  Next stop, Sebol.

to be continued…