|Xela, Guatemala (May 2004)
|May 20, 2004
Sitting at anchor in Bahia del Sol (but with all this rain I think it needs to be renamed Bahia de Lluvia),
Costa del Sol, Departmento Zacateccaluca, El Salvador, Central America. Lou, Emily and Martin are in
Denver, Colorado celebrating niece Katie Dietz’s wedding to Matt. I’m taking care of Ace and enjoying
having the whole boat to myself.
There are about 25 boats in this anchorage— 6 boats with kids. The river is not attractive for
swimming. There is a hotel here that acts as our cruising headquarters/marina. They have a swimming
pool and restaurant/bar. And there is a pupuseria just up the street about ½ mile where we get
pupusas—cornmeal or wheat tortillas stuffed with cheese, frijoles or meat or all of these. Our family can
eat and drink (beers and sodas) for around $5.00 to our fill.
We spent a week in Quetzaltanengo (Xela), Guatemala. I think Guatemala is like India for my soul. I
feel completely comfortable with the people and the pace of life. We immediately got into backpacker
travel mode. I had done a little research and had talked to some people about Quetzaltanengo—but
mostly was going on intuition. On Sunday morning (Mother’s Day), we caught a bus outside of the hotel
and headed for San Salvador, changed buses there to Guatemala City, then changed buses there to
Xela. It was a full day of traveling but all of us kept in good spirits. Lou enjoyed counting the number of
people they crammed into this microbus for a ride into San Salvador (28—in something slightly larger
than a minivan). Emily and Martin were fantastic travelers-reading and talking as we went along, . We
got into Xela around 7 p.m. and went to the Language School that had been recommended by another
cruising boat. They were still open and arranged for us to stay with a family for the week and start
school Monday morning. We stayed with a family of four. The family was amazing—and you could see
that they are going to be successful as a family. They had two children- Carina (age 9) and Daniel (age
5). The father, Andres—is a very caring and conscientious man. He is a marimba player, so he is not
on a normal schedule, but he is definitely a partner in running the home—he cooks, he washes dishes
and he does laundry. The mom, Asuecena, is a very kind and intelligent woman. She has goals for her
family and herself- yet she keeps a very good and loving spirit. Her family is Mayan—last name Toc (a
common Mayan last name). However, she understands the Mayan language (Quiché) but can not speak
it. Another situation where the mother language is lost due to assimilation and fear of reprisals for being
Each day we would walk to school. It took us about 10-15 minutes. The weather was cool, not cold—
kind of like San Francisco. We definitely did not pack enough warm clothes. Its hard to pack when you
are sweating when you wake up in the morning. Each of us had one on one instruction in the morning—
5 hours! Emily and Martin mostly did field trips. They seem to speak Spanish more confidently now.
Lou and I worked on grammar. Oh boy! I haven’t lost my ability to not be able to sit too long and work
on grammar and so I talked my teacher into a couple of field trips—both to my favorite places—the
public market. We went to a large public market that was probably 15 city blocks full of stalls selling
everything from live pigs and chickens to bras. It was in a town called San Francisco El Alto As the
name decribes—it is up in the mountains. There were tons of people and for the first time in my life—I
could peer over the heads of many of the people ahead of me in the crowd. I felt like a giant. My eyes
feasted on beautiful colors. And someone took about $5 from my pocket—I had that easily accessible,
but had hidden my other money. I’m still not able to bring myself to purchase things very readily. I did
find my mom some fabric and bought some things for Lou to take to his family. I really wanted a Mayan
blusa—but I don’t like “flowers” on things—but am more a geometric person. I didn’t find any blusas sin
In the afternoons we would have special field trips sponsored by the school. These included salsa
dancing and cooking.
We went to a couple of marimba concerts. The marimbas are huge. Seven people play at one time.
Lou and I got to have a close up look at the marimba. I got to play chopsticks on the marimba.
Amazingly, our host, Andres, did not know this classic!!! The marimba predates the Spanish invasion!
The day after we arrived, was May 10th. In Mexico and Central America this is Mother’s Day and it is a
BIG DEAL--- without Hallmark inflicting their push to make sure that you do it “right”. It was also our
hostess’s birthday. We were warmly welcomed to the family party. We feasted on avocadoes, pork ribs,
rice, salsa, tortillas and cake. And we drank—caldo de fruta (a drink of fermented mixed fruit) and a
creamy rum drink. We toasted many times “El día de la madre”
On Saturday, we went with our host family and some other family members to a hot springs. It was up in
the mountains. Beautiful. We were amazed although a little concerned to see all the small (less than an
acre in some cases) farms along the hillsides. One town we went through claims to be the Vegetable
Garden of the Americas (in English). The hot springs were very nice. It did rain on us while we were
there so we huddled in the outdoor restaurant and drank hot toddies. Emily found a puppy and fell in
love with it. She tried to plead her case, but she knows that Lou and I won’t be swayed. We met some
twenty something travelers and they really thought it was fantastic what we were doing with our
children. Our kids enjoyed hanging out with these young adults.
On our way back, we stopped in a small town and walked up a path to a special shrine for a saint that is
purely a Guatemalan highland custom. This rum drinking, cigarette smoking saint, San Simón, is
revered. We walked into a bare yard where there were chickens, turkeys and dogs running around.
There was a stand (looked like the fireworks stands that crop up around the Midwest just before the 4th
of July) where they were selling candles, rum, firecrackers, and cigarettes. We were then shown into the
room where San Simón is kept. The room was hot from all the candles burning on the floor. And there
at the front and center of the small room was a mannequin sitting in the chair—decked out with
sunglasses, cowboy hat, and a scarf around his lips and some towels to catch the rum that they try and
put down his mouth.. People would come up to the saint—with their unlit candles and whisper in his
ear. They would come endearingly to him and touch his hand. They would ask for freedom from their
afflictions (physical, monetary and even other people). There was also a fortune teller in the room.
She wanted to tell my fortune—I shied away from that one (I can imagine the misinterpretations I could
get from having my fortune told in Spanish). In the room, a young woman had her baby girl on her
back. The baby was about six months old. She looked at me deeply in my eyes. She held my finger for
a long, long time and I would look at her and she would slowly return my gaze—I would smile and then
she would smile back at me—deliberately, yet restrained. It was a magical encounter in this mystical
place. Lou took some pictures—although it was “not allowed” He got caught once and it cost him 10
quetzales (about $1.25).
We had a wonderful trip and I look forward to some more traveling when the family gets back. Another
storm is building. It keeps things cool, but my morning ritual is de-watering the boat. Tomorrow I’m going
to wash some things with the rain water. One of my friends has captured about 20 gallons of water. I’m
trying to keep some swifts from building a nest in our main. I’ve talked to them, I’ve taken the sticks out—
but they just don’t get it. They spent a fair bit of time scoping this place out. And when they were—I told
them—LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION.
Books we are reading:
Mary- Neotropical Companion (An intro to the animals, plants and ecosystems of the new world tropics),
Beyond Fear, and listening to Havana Dreams. Finished The Only Girl in the Car.
Lou- Bitter Grounds, The Only Girl in the Car and Living History (some editorials about Mexico, Central
and South America)
Emily- Mercedes Lackey book (I can’t remember the title) and Archie comics. I know she will come back
from Denver with loads of books!
Martin- Redwall some more and Archie comics!!!
|All of Guatemala is colorful, but the
markets especially so.
|The young woman with the basket had just
dropped it, and several other people
helped her gather up her produce and
hoist it back up. She's still looking
|This is San Simon, the Guatemalan saint of
drinking and smoking. People come to him
to be healed, but we understand that you
can also pray to him to do something bad
to your enemies! You can buy tobacco and
liquor outside the door to give to San
Simon as an offering
|These little girls live in the house where
San Simon currently resides. He moves to
a different house every year (to spread the
wealth, I think.) They were very camera
shy, so I had to sneak this picture.
|Though Guatemala is not as
overpopulated as El Salvador, it's still
running out of useable farmland. They
farm on slopes that are way up the sides
of mountains and volcanoes.