Guatemala: Day 3

Oh noes, I’ve fallen a day behind in my updates! You wanna know why? Because I fell asleep early last night. I have no logical reason for this; I spent most of yesterday sitting in a car driving to and then from aset of Mayan ruins, but somehow I got back to David and Jenn’s house utterly exhausted and went to bed at 8pm. I’m not gonna lie–it was kinda glorious. I LOVE SLEEP. Can we talk about how amazing sleep is? You wake up feeling all rested and everything. Why do we stop having naptime after kindergarten? What a silly move that was on the part of adulthood! I want to know who was in charge of this decision. I bet they’re just grumpy about life, and need to take it out on the world. They’d feel better after a nap.

Anyway, I digress. Mayan ruins! I saw some! The ones I saw were at a site called Iximche (ee-zim-che). As best I can understand, the site itself is not so many miles from Antigua, where I’m staying. However, because of the shutdown of a major local highway for construction, the only way to get there is by traveling through the two-lane roads connecting local towns and villages. This is all well and good once you get outside town limits, but inside town limits–oh my friends, hold onto your bladders, because everything is paved in cobblestones. They are quaint. They are picturesque. To drive on them is to understand at last what ice cream goes through in order to become a milkshake.

As you can infer, driving quickly on these streets is not possible. And also, Saturday is market day just about everywhere. So despite the ruins not being very far, one must take into account for travel logistics:

1) Cobblestones

2) Traffic

3) Being easily outstripped by pedestrians once in town

4) Cobblestones again.

Traffic aside, there’s a joy and an interest all of its own to travel slowly enough through a town to be able to see what’s on a typical street, and to people-watch/dog watch/goat watch. As we got further outside Antigua, I started to notice more women wearing the traditional woven blouses that are made with vibrant colors and designs. There were fresh tortillas being sold everywhere. Small food stores had heat sources set up on the sidewalk so that they could cook in full view of the street. People were buying and selling things on every corner, from fresh fruit to cell phone plans.

Once we got out into the countyside, the scenery became stunning. We climbed higher into the highlands, and the mountains seemed to surround us. The rich volcanic soil means that everything is vibrantly green. (Jenn noted that the girls in school always draw their mountains green; she and I remember drawing ours brown when we were small). There are hundreds of small farm holdings out in the countryside, growing food for home and for export. I didn’t see any tractors or farm equipment; people were out in their fields, bending over their crops, doing everything by hand.

Iximche, as far as I understood yesterday, was a flash in the pan in terms of Mayan civilization. It was a fort; surrounded on three sides by a ravine that is still dizzingly steep 500 years after the fort was abandoned. The Mayans were only there for about 50 years; they moved in from older settlements to the north, and left as the Spanish conquistidors started pushing inland. (Note: I just read the Wikipedia article on Iximche to fact-check what I just wrote, and man, the version I absorbed left out ALL the gritty bits, from human sacrifice to smallpox. I remember thinking yesterday that it seemed like I was getting a version of the story where humans seemed to behave very maturely and kindly to one another. I’m secretly relieved to know that my Lutheran low anthropology is been borne out in this particular history; without minimizing the horribleness of the death toll, I was confused by everything seeming to wok out so poorly for the Mayans when everyone was behaving so well. The world makes sense again.)

For a settlement that was there for so short a time, the archaeological record is stunning. Only the stone foundations of the original buildings are still intact, but there’s enough there that you can imagine what it was once like. And everything was built by hand…out of stone and wood…at 7500 feet above sea level. There are five main plazas, grouped around the five main families that governed the settlement, including two ball courts. Can I pause here to commend to you the unsung cinematic classic from 2000, The Road to El Dorado? Not only do you get the treat of witnessing Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh, two Very Serious Actors, do cartoon voiceovers *with singing,* but there’s a great ball game scene that provided a major assist to my powers of imagination.

The first three plazas are fairly well-excavated and interesting for that reason, but the fifth plaza is fascinating on a whole other level: it’s where the Mayan rituals are still observed. I was strongly reminded of sites around the Holy Land when I saw this unfolding: in highly-trafficked religious sites like the Holy Sepulcher, I found that tourism and religious reverance were uncomfortably smooshed together. At Iximche, I’m reasonably sure that of the two groups we saw holding ceremonies, one was a religious observance by people who would identify as Mayan in their religious practice, and they were doing their thing casually observed by tourists who were strolling by or lounging on nearby stone ledges; the other group was (again, this is a guess, but a reasonable one) a group of tourists being led through a Mayan ceremony by a hired guide.

Our own guide brought a third angle to consider; upon finding out that we were clergy, he identified as Christian too. But as we wandered the site, he made lots of references to Mayan traditions, many tied to religious practice, that inform his faith and his life. For the 64% of the Guatemalan population who are descended from the native Mayan groups, these faith traditions seem to be just as much cultural as they are religious.


We got back to Antigua in time for my Spanish lesson, which broke my brain. The very good and very patient Giovany, my tutor, gave me a small break from the scary-long list of vocab and verb conjugations: we worked on the alphabet, on numbers, and on just two innocent little verb forms. Just two problems:

1) There are literally infinite numbers.

2) The two verbs are “estar” and “ser.”

Those two verbs BOTH mean “to be,” but they’re used in different circumstances. Briefly, “estar” is used when describing a temporary condition, and “ser” for permanent ones. (So, I am [estar] in Guatemala, but I am [ser] from the United States.) For an innocent North American native English speaker who has never encountered two verbs forms for “to be” and, to be honest, has never felt the lack, this was utterly mystifying.

And on top of that, as I mentioned, my brain broke. (And Giovany used this as an opportuniy to teach me how to say, “I want to shoot myself with a banana.” This turn of phrase was his idea.) Brain-breakage is the best way I can describe the neural overload of 12 hours of Spanish study in 3 days. David and Jenn picked me up and took me to dinner, and halfway through a pile of delicious cheesy quinoa grit things I dropped my fork, turned to Jenn with an anguished look, and confessed, “I can’t remember the difference between estar and ser. WE SPENT AN HOUR ON IT. HALP.”

Whereupon Jenn said, “Sleep on it” and refused to tell me the difference between estar and ser.

And you know what? I slept on it. In the morning, I could remember the difference.

Which brings us full circle to the life-giving power of sleep and the importance of naps. And it is here that I will leave you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: