Flowers cover everything

Huehuetenango, Guatemala


Ola Gringos! – as a Venezuelan parrot once said to us.

We passed through Belize – so laid back it’s hard to believe. The Cayes were beautiful and we got to swim with manatees which was a real treat, as well as tickling 3m nurse sharks and picking up 2m stingrays.

A lot of life in Belize is done sitting down. While sitting on the beach side trying to decode the wonderful Creole accents, we overheard this. ‘Hey man, you done drunk already?’ said to an old guy, who given the beer bottle in his hand, and the stagger, appeared to be so, despite it only being 10am. ‘Ah, no tengo no tango’ replied the old guy in mysterious Spanish. Everyone laughed. (‘Tengo’ = ‘I have’ in Spanish. The rest of the interpretation is up to you.) That’s how things happen in Belize.

Then we crossed the border in to Guatemala. Something about the police pickup truck that overtook us shortly afterward told us this was a different kind of place. Maybe it was the guy stood proudly on the back waving an automatic weapon.

Guatemala’s history has left its people with a fascinating way of looking at life. In a few short weeks we’ve tried to capture some of the basic rules (for next time you’re in town) – this is a joint journal.

1) Guatemalans are the most colourful people in the world. The women wear amazing blouses (‘huipiles’) with brightly coloured embroidery. In England you’d call it garish. Here its de rigour. You can tell where you are by the local fashion. In Nebaj its lots of green, with green headdresses with pom-poms on, and each pom-pom is green round the outside, but a different bright colour inside. In Zunil it’s red and jazzy – try to go for as many different patterns as possible.

In some places, such as San Pedro & San Pablo, Lago Atitlan, the men dress as snazzily as the women – in white trousers with red spots, bright stripy red and blue shirts and enormous cowboy hats. Sometimes they even wear a skirt (much the same as the women’s ones) over the top.

Even the buses here are the brightest imaginable – from their cheerfully stripy exteriors, to the stickers of cartoon characters (Tweety Bird, Taz) over the inside, to religious icons and messages declaring ‘Dios te ama’.

2) What’s in a name? We’ve been to Chichicastenango – pronounced ‘ChiChi’. We’ve been to Quetzaltenango – pronounced ‘ShayLa’. We’ve been to Panajachel – pronounced ‘GringoTenango’. Tonight we’re in Huehuetenango – pronounced ‘WayWay’. In WayWay the men wear red jackets with purple decorated sleeves, white trousers and small black hats. (There’s a rather snazzy boater and some very fine cuffs just 2 terminals away from where we sit!)

3) Guatemalans are never in a hurry. If the bus doesn’t go for another hour or two then they’ll just sit on the roadside and wait. If it begins to rain, everyone just waits in the doorway until it stops. Who needs a brolly!

4) Guatemalans are punctual if they want money. Arrange to meet your guide at 5:30am for a climb up a volcano (1500m climb in 3hrs, but mindblowing views of the surrounding volcanoes and lakes). You can sleep certain he’ll be there at precisely 5:28. Any other kind of timekeeping does not figure in Guatemalan thinking. If no money is involved – who knows. Guatemalans prefer cash up front – so could you pay now please.

5) Guatemalans have a tendency not to be telling you the truth the first time they tell you something. At bus stations there is never a bus to where you want to go when you first ask, but always turns out to be one if you ask the question a few times. If you ask the driver if he’s going direct to your destination, he always says ‘Si, directo’ but he is almost never actually going there, and you have to change.

One of these journeys the conductor of the first bus assured us our ticket would mean we didn’t have to pay on the next bus. This concept is so ridiculous we both laughed – imagine how the conversation with the next conductor would have gone. Probably:

Us – ‘I’ve got this ticket from the guy on the last bus, he says I don’t have to pay’.
Conductor – ‘What? Never heard of him. That’ll be Q3 please’.

When we did get on the next bus he took our Q3 but omitted to tell us the bus was only going half the way. As we get off to board the next bus we say ‘Q3 for only that?’ ‘Oh’ says the conductor and gives us half our money back. These things happen all the time here.

6) Guatemalans have an extremely elastic concept of price. Some examples from today alone:

Us: ‘Cuanta cuesta’
Hotdog boy ‘Q5’.
Us: ‘But the sign says Q4.50…’
HDB: ‘OK, Q4.50’.
Us’…with a free drink’.
HDB: ‘With a free drink’

Us: ‘Cuanta cuesta peliculas?’
Man in Kodak shop: ‘2×24 for Q49 or 1×36 for Q44’ (He even had printed signs up to confirm these prices).
Us: ‘Muy caro’
MiKS: ‘How about 2×36 for Q60?’

Us: ‘Cuanta es?’
Boy in coffee shop: ‘Q18’
Us: ‘Really? Cuanta cuesta cafe?
BiCS: ‘Q3’
Us: ‘Y pan?’
BiCS: ‘Q6’
Us: ‘So we owe you…’
BiCS: ‘Q12’

Its a bit wearing – but you get used to it.

7) Guatemalans rarely tell you something useful without being asked. Like when it’s your bus stop. Here you are on a bus bound for Guatemala city only you want to get off at the stop for Antigua. This is because Antigua is one of the most beautiful cities in Latin America and Guatemala City is not. And every tourist since the dawn of time has gone to Antigua. So the only gringos on the bus are bound to be getting off at the turning. But it doesn’t occur to anyone to tell you when that is.

If you try and ask ‘Is this my stop, I want to go to…’ they may well answer so slowly that by the time they do the answer is basically, ‘Yes, that was your stop back there.’

8) Guatemalans carry a lot of things on their heads. Bowls of fruit. Bowls of tortilla dough. Baskets of chickens. Flowers. Grass. Firewood. Shopping bags.

If their local dress requires a long embroidered scarf (as many do) then they might just fold it in a square and put in on top of their head for convenience.

We’ve been here a relatively short time, yet we really feel we’ve learnt a lot about and from these people. They’re very willing to engage in conversation with us (though they never know where New Zealand is, and asked once ‘Does England speak the language of the Unite States?’). They are quite happy to be crammed in next to us on the bus. They never make you feel like you’re being stared at.

I don’t think we’ve laughed so much with anyone for a long time. It seems as though their history (mostly Civil War) has left them slightly odd about how to interact with other people, which can make life quite trying, yet underneath there is a level of openness and warmth you don’t find often.

An excerpt from Guatemalan life which sort of sums it up:

Last night we stayed in a cottage on a hillside by some hotsprings. It wasn’t really open for business, as a new owner was busy doing it up – we arrived at the same moment as the lorry delivering beds! But we persuaded them to let us stay. It was cold last night but they promised us supper and an open fire. At 7:30 – the appointed suppertime – we went to find them, but were told food would be at least another half an hour. Duly, eventually, the man appears – just was we
’re about to light our own fire. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll come back soon and make you a big fire’ he says, and leaves. We figure we’ll light our fire anyway. An hour later he’s back. We show him the fire. ‘Oh, pequeno’ (small) he says. ‘I’ll make you a big one’. So he demolishes our fire and puts it out. Then he (rather implausibly) lights a piece of kindling with a lighter and starts piling on the wood. In approximately five minutes we have a roaring fire. We comment how well he’s done – given that some of the wood was wet. He denies that the wood is wet, despite the damp patch where it has been sitting in our room. But in fairness, his fire is blazing. He leaves. The wet wood in the fire spits huge sparks at us, but we daren’t go out to ask him to come and make us a smaller fire, and we daren’t let it go out since he has used all the kindling. So the fire eats all our supply of wood and by 11 we’ve run out.

All very Guatemalan.

All completely predictable.

And loveable.

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