Monday, 8 March 2010

Yo termino al Quetzeltanango, proximo Los Angeles

Three weeks down the line and my brain has been ritually abused under the guise of Spanish classes. They say total immersion is the best way to learn a new language, I can’t disagree with this, it probably is. I do need to point out that some brains are not designed to cope well with another language. So many people ask how I manage in so many different countries, with so many different languages. For some reason I find it quite easy to pick up the basics in a language, once delving deeper I flounder drastically. Learning Welsh was a nightmare for me, only the patience of a welsh girlfriend managed to get me over that hurdle. Yet still I’ve lost any possible fluidity I had once gained. I’ve persevered with Spanish because I’m not about to set off into South America without the ability to converse properly with people. It’s my responsibility to speak their language, not expect to find English-speaking locals. The one thing I have come to learn, language is the only real tool to understanding other people, their culture and lives. It’s good making astute observations, but they are always tainted by your own understanding. To really appreciate different cultures you must understand the mindset of the people, saying hello and ordering a few beers just doesn’t achieve that.

Quetzetanango, otherwise known as Xela, is the capital of Mayan Central America. The last stand for an independent Mayan state, certainly the hub of modern day Mayan people. Xela, the Mayan name for the city, is shoulder to shoulder with people and vendors. The main avenue hosts a daily market, selling anything and everything. Stalls line each side of the street, often two deep. Narrow pavements give access one side whilst to browse the other stalls you’re forced to jostle with the constant flow of traffic. It’s not really a problem; traffic in this part of town is so slow moving it’s actually quicker walking. The main thorough ways are busy, crossing can be a nightmare until you get used to it. They are often divided by central reservations, just wide enough to offer refuge whilst waiting for a gap in the traffic. It freaks me out having to wait halfway across without their safety; traffic passing a foot either side of you is not very reassuring. The bulk of the traffic is minibuses that ply the same route for eighteen hours a day, charging Q1.25 (exchange rate is about ten Quetzales to the Pound) whatever the distance you ride for. You can pay your fare and ride round for as long as you like, these are inner city buses. The same driver works from dawn to well after dusk, his compatriot is most often a young lad who hangs out the door shouting their route and taking fares. As young as ten, they work the same hours. Chicken buses serve the surrounding areas and link up with other towns. They are slow; belch black clouds of diesel fumes, and provide many of the outlying villagers with a means to get their produce to market. Their roof racks are generally as full of produce as the interior is of people.

Closer to the centre streets of invariably one-way for traffic, with a cobbled surface giving just about enough room for a motorcycle and a car, until they meet pedestrians. With raised walkways wide enough for only one person you’re constantly stepping on and off the walkway to allow others to pass. It ’s vital to check for traffic, drivers rule by right of might rarely even slowing down for pedestrians. Towards the end of each working day these streets are nose to tail, all of them. The rest of the day it is only the main streets that are so busy. This all sounds very hectic and dangerous, at first glance it is! It took a few days to get used to it, now I weave in and out of moving traffic without even thinking about it. Hey, the last few days I’ve even had people stopping and waving me across! Maybe it’s a sign of my complacency, though I think to penalties for maiming pedestrians are pretty bad.

Another hectic market can be found near the Bus terminal, it’s like a rabbit warren. Countless walkways crisscross between hundreds of stalls, one section boasts mainly carnecerias (meat vendors), another mainly clothes, fruit and veg sellers line the path in and encircle the perimeter. But this makes it sound orderly, and it is anything but. It’s bedlam and I can spend hours walking around just looking, marvelling at the variety of people and goods. The sausages look especially appetising, I only wish I had access to a kitchen to cook some. Piped into raw intestines they are what sausages once were at home, the little red ones were so tempting, I just knew they’d be beautifully spicy. Pork scratchings are a firm favourite, but they do not come in nice neat, sealed bags. No sirree, sheets of pig skin deep fried, by the sack full. And the most pleasant aspect? This is Maya, no question about it, almost every stall within the market area is attended by Mayan women from the outlaying villages. I only wish I had more pictures of the experience, but it takes so much more than pictures, you need to be there. The sounds, the smells, the heat; it’s a total assault on the senses, a glorious one at that. My only disconcerting part was deciphering the sign which apparently advertising capital punishment. I have very mixed opinions with this, I'd rather get a whipping than spent time incarcerated, it would also be cheaper on the state. It is just a touch barbaric, but are prisons any better?

The surrounding villages are pure Maya, the city is chock a block with Maya, awash with beautiful hand woven, traditional garb. It doesn’t take long to realise that times are changing though, traditional attire is only evident amongst women, I’ve seen no men wearing anything but western clothing. The older ones favour cowboy hats, plain shirts and trousers. Those with a dash of flash complete the assemblage with cowboy boots and jeans. For the younger generation spiky hair and whatever they see on TV, must be worn. There isn’t an alternative for the youths, being hip means one thing, looking cool, and if you’re not hip you’re nothing. Facial piercings are seen around town, not much, but it is available. One thing that is not acceptable within current culture is tattoos. I haven’t seen anyone with one, though there is two tattoo shops in town. These are strictly the domain of undesirables, the criminal element in Guatemalan society. And yes, I do get stared at as I walk around town in short sleeves. And no, I have not been wearing vests when I go out, It is enough for locals to see the few on my lower arms. One guy explained to me that it would be almost impossible to get a job with a tattoo, yet it must be more than that, tattoos are easy to hide simply with a shirt.

The delight for me here is the rich variety of female clothing. The Maya are renowned for the fabrics they weave, the richness of colour and pattern. Nowhere are the Maya more prevalent than the Guatemalan highlands, this is their cultural homeland. Their best-known ruins may lay many miles away, but they merely represent a long forgotten Mayan empire. Today Maya lands stretch throughout Southeast Mexico, and Guatemala, I’ve seen plenty of evidence of this but am awed by this special place, the only one I’ve experienced where their culture is still the dominant one. A multitude of different weaves, patterns and colours are everywhere, wherever you are, wherever you look. Each area, village, even family has its own distinct look, its own identity almost. I guess a bit like the tartans in Scotland, unfortunately, here, machine woven fabrics are becoming more common. It’s hardly surprising considering the time taken to hand weave the fabric for their dresses. Many young girls still dress traditionally, including teenagers, though many are also seen in modern clothes. I wouldn’t like to guess the proportions of modern to traditional; neither is dominant, which is a comfort for me. Very few wear makeup, though I get the impression this is also changing, and they are not promiscuous.

Young kids sport western cast offs more often than not. Shops and market stalls have huge piles of second-hand clothes, there are a lot of outlets and the clothes are very cheap. It makes sense to spend time weaving items for tourism, earning money rather than spending precious hours clothing your kids in traditional clothes. Second-hand western clothes and shoes are mainstream business for many, dare I say, less developed countries. They’re all in decent condition, the people are not being dressed in rags. What gets to me is that they are being sold, people are making a profit from them. I personally have donated many unwanted clothes to charitable sources, assuming they are for distribution to the poor and needy around the world. Now I wonder who is actually benefitting most from such donations! OK, the more needy are getting a cheap source of clothing, the clothes are being distributed, which does cost money. But somewhere along the line, someone is raking it in. In Wales we have a new concept, notices through our doors asking for unwanted clothes, bags are supplied with information as to when collection will take place. Simply leave the bag outside your door, the clothes will be taken for redistribution, clothing for the third world. Many of these collections are not actually for charities. What a shame there is a market for ripping off the worlds most needy!

And now I come to the conclusion of nearly three years. Finally, I hope, the end to the fight for some form of justice. I’m on my way to Los Angeles, on my way to final mediation for the negligence that caused Cai’s death. I’m on tenterhooks, I know in their eyes it’s a financial conclusion. They just want to pay me off and see me on my way, I want liability accepted, I’m unsure whether this is possible. I’ve gone through enough though, I need to get on with my life! A crusade for justice will only prolong the agony. I know where the fault lies, do I really need a court to confirm this? I don’t think so! But I do want some acceptance of where the fault lies. At the end of the day it will be the various attorneys who profit from Cai dying, and their financial recompense will far outweigh mine. It’s the way of the world, I must accept this and move on!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice to read you again Les! Thank you for what you are doing, for your honest, for your strengh. I do believe it is something very right and it will we rewarded one day. I'm not sure you remember me, but I'm happy that I met you that day in Cuba. Please keep on pace and waiting for new posts and finally - for a book! Vartan.