Falling in love with the history and people of Guatemala
The skies turned a dark grey and the sounds of thunder filled the air only a short time after I arrived to Guatemala City. May kicks-off the rainy season there and I found myself in the thick of it.
The city, like many other major cities everywhere, is crowded, congested, loud, and overwhelming. It is not only the capital of the Guatemala, but also the most populous city in all of Central America. The only time I felt like there was a break in the action there was when it rained heavily or when I was cozy in my room at the Adriatika Hotel Boutique. Yet I found myself loving every minute of it.
My friend and tour guide, Norman, managed to find a place where we could escape the waters while enjoying some traditional “chapina” (Guatemalan) food made by a Mayan chef at Arrin Cuan.
We listened to the heavy rain fall as we chatted and exchanged stories over some warm stews, empanadas, and of course, corn tortillas.
This might be when my love affair with Guatemala began. Or maybe it was before. Perhaps it was when Norman started sharing the stories of his Mayan ancestors and growing up in Guatemala. Maybe the love began after I recognized the ease with which chef prepared the dishes he proudly presented to us; recipes that have strong significance in the cultural and socioeconomic history of Guatemala. Maybe it was the sounds of the live marimba band playing in the background all night long.
To be honest, I can’t really pinpoint when I fell in love with this Central American country. All I know is that I never expected to love it as much as I did. And I’m still thinking about it. Every single day.
Viewfinder tip: When visiting Guatemala for the first time, hire a tour guide to help you through the many sensitive cultural nuances and language barriers.
I learned fairly quickly that when it comes to Mayan culture, Guatemala is the place to visit. Not only to learn about it, but also to experience it. For years I associated the Mayans with Mexico; I attribute my ignorance to the power of marketing and advertising. Turns out that although there is a small Mayan population in Mexico, that population pales in comparison to that of Guatemala’s, where Mayan civilizations first began to emerge around 2000 B.C.
Today there are about 26 different Mayan dialects spoken throughout the country. As a language, Mayan is second only to Spanish, the official language, and there are about 4 million indigenous Maya who live there still. Whatever I learned about Central America in my sociology classes in high school could never have prepared me for how beautiful and enriching an immersion in all of this diversity turned out to be.
To further enhance the experience of visiting Guatemala, the colors you see everywhere are breathtaking. They are an influence of both Spanish and indigenous people, as well as of descendants from Africa and the Caribbean.
When admiring the Mayan attire, you will notice that some textile patterns depict animals, plants, and/or people. Each design, symbol, and embroidery has a special significance, either specific to a tribe or a religion.
The colors don’t just appear in clothes; they are in the architecture, the foods, and in nature. I was so impressed that I found myself happily waking up before sunrise just to admire how the light changed everything around me throughout the day. This strategy was well worth the loss of sleep, especially in areas such as Lake Atitlan.
It helps that I speak Spanish, but I spent a lot of time trying to learn local dialects at every stop. Sometimes I sounded awful, sometimes my efforts were a success. Always I received gratitude among locals for my trying.
Photographing the people of Guatemala is tempting, especially the Mayans in their colorful clothing. Still, I advise against doing so without asking first. If you do end up taking pictures of locals, always offer something in return, such as 5 or 10 quetzal. Never photograph a person in prayer. In some cases, locals have been known to whip tourists disrupting them and invading their privacy in this manner.
It’s also not a good idea to photograph children without asking. These are general rules for me when traveling, but I found that people here are very protective of themselves and their own. I absolutely loved that.
It’s fine to negotiate when at markets, but remember that a lot of the artisans come from very humble means, and your money supports them and many others in their community. My rule is this: Just because I can barter doesn’t always mean I have to.
When I returned home, friends back in the United States asked me a lot about my safety. Most of the negative press we have heard about Guatemala has to do with civil and political unrest. This is a reality in Guatemala, as it is in many Latin-American countries surrounding it. Norman was great at helping me navigate the streets, I never ventured out alone in the dark, and I always made sure to keep my belongings close.
All that said, I felt very welcomed and well-received in Guatemala. I was invited into peoples’ homes, an experience that many can have organized through local tour agencies. I also connected with a number of expat communities. Expats live in various spots throughout the country, but the largest community was in Antigua, where coincidentally my husband studied Spanish when he was younger.
Overall, I found that Guatemalan people were receptive to telling me their stories when I inquired and were happy to share their traditions with me. Strangers also were glad to exchange a smile or two, even when no camera was around. I felt a sense of home in Guatemala. No wonder I fell in love.
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