Further Impressions of Guatemala

Somehow, the time has passed and we’ve spent nearly six weeks in this interesting country. Here are a few more things we’ve noticed as we’ve traveled around Guatemala:

  • The marimba (a big wooden xylophone you play standing up) appears to be the national instrument. Any important occasion merits a marimba concert. In many smallish towns, a sign on some building will proudly proclaim the local marimba school or the home of the town’s marimba band. We’ve heard individual instruments being played, but we have yet to experience the full force of massed marimbas.
  • Unlike the scenery and the traditional clothing, which are vibrant and beautiful, typical food in Guatemala is pretty dull. For breakfast, there are eggs, beans, corn tortillas, and grilled plantains. For lunch and dinner, there is meat (fried chicken or grilled pork or beef) plus beans, corn tortillas, grilled plantains, and maybe some rice. If you’re poor, skip the meat and add various kinds of tamales (steamed corn meal with a little bit of salsa or chiles or meat inside). Condiments consist of salt and tongue-melting hot sauce. Fruit is available on street corners—peeled oranges cut in half and slices of mango, melon, or pineapple. There’s not much in the way of vegetables or baked goods or sweets.
  • That’s not to say that Western-style breakfast cereal isn’t available in the corner stores. It is, but only one kind: corn flakes. Since corn is the national staple food, corn flakes probably don’t seem too strange or exotic—not like shredded wheat, rice krispies, or fruit loops. And, with hot milk, it’s a fast way to make the ever-popular breakfast porridge.
  • Lacking pockets, women in traditional Mayan dress keep things in their bras. I’ve gotten used to seeing market women reach in there to retrieve a wad of cash to make change. But I was surprised recently when I saw a girl reach into her blouse and pull out a cell phone.
  • Very few Guatemalans seem to smoke. If you’re sitting or eating somewhere and you smell cigarette smoke, 9 times out of 10 it’s a gringo. That adds an interesting wrinkle to the fact that Guatemala recently passed a law banning indoor smoking in public places.
  • Women below middle age who travel in Central America get used to an almost incessant chorus of whistles, car horns, and comments from men as they walk down the street. If you sit alone on a park bench, men will invariably come and try to talk to you. Chris is usually over some invisible age threshold for such hassling, but Melissa (looking much younger than her 33 years) is not. Such attention is generally more annoying than threatening. But, wonder of wonders, it doesn’t happen in the more traditional parts of Guatemala. Maybe such interaction isn’t part of traditional Mayan culture. Or maybe, as Melissa put it, in such areas we’re so out of place that “we look like Martians. Who hits on a Martian?”
  • Some strange connection exists between Guatemala and the U.S. state of Minnesota. So far, we’ve met at least four people here who have relatives in Minnesota or have lived there themselves. Recently in Antigua we saw a local guy walking down the street in a Minnesota Vikings T-shirt. Of all of the places in the United States for Guatemalan immigrants to settle! The winters must be a real shock.
  • Modern communications seem to be putting even the tiniest villages in touch with the outside world. In market stalls, you see among the snacks and toiletries and shoes an old office-type phone on a long cord with a “for rent” sign above it. People who can’t afford to have a cell phone or a pay-phone card can rent these land lines by the minute. A hamlet like the one we visited near Nebaj (called Acul)—too small for a hotel or much in the way of restaurants—has an Internet office with at least one computer connected to the outside world. It’s no longer strange to see school girls in traditional Mayan dress crowding around a terminal in an Internet cafe working on their homework. Even in small places, horizons are getting a little wider every day.

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