Here it is, the first post about my time in Guatemala. The first time for me to visit a country in Latin-America, the first time to stay in a ‘developing country’. I even believe I have never been out of my comfort zone this much. Many first times! I like to think of myself as a woman of the world, but I notice this month that I have overestimated myself (like, a lot).
I arrive in Guatemala City on a Friday evening. It is chaos. No traffic lights, a lot of cars. I think you get the idea. Luckily my lovely colleague Gilda is there to bring me to the B&B. First thing I notice: my Spanish sucks. I have been practicing Spanish almost every day on Duolingo after taking an A1 course a couple of years ago. Did not do the trick at all.
An independent woman
I stay in Guatemala City for the first week. My jetlag is quite bad and I feel like a prisoner. To be honest, I highly value my freedom and I am independent, so I don’t like to be chauffeured around all the time. One day I decide to walk from the office to the B&B. It is a bad idea. After I tell my lovely colleague Gilda the plan, her eyes grow big and she says: “Don’t look at anyone, don’t talk to anyone. Please, be careful”. Very reassuring. I go anyway. Crossing the street is a gamble with my life and I am suspicious about anyone approaching me. I think I’ll make this a once in a lifetime experience.
No time to rest
The works starts immediately. I have meetings, do my readings. Meet by bosses and colleagues, visit an orchestra in the German country club (which turned out to be highly religious) and see one of the most famous bands of the country (I am a fan!). After a week I travel to my hometown for the rest of my time here: Cobán.
On Sunday I visit Semuc Champey, a major tourist attraction in the area. Together with two Swiss I walk up to the view point, panting like crazy since it is at an altitude of 1500 meters (or I am just in a very bad condition). In Cobán some workshops follow and I try to find a place to stay. For now my home is a hostel.
The men and women must be deeply connected with their culture and religion
Grandma in a party place
The third week it is time to explore the country and to learn some more Spanish. I decide to go to San Pedro La Laguna, a small town at Lake Atitlan which I picture as a calm place with a beach and some nice bars. I need headspace and hammocks and clear water to take a swim. You can guess, San Pedro is not the place for this. Do you want to party? Then definitely come to San Pedro. I visit a bar with nice live music and have a fun first night. Which I regret the next day, since I have a 5 hour long conversational Spanish class.
The rest of the week I am a ‘grandma’. Going to bed early, waking up early. Visit some of the other towns around the lake in the morning and take Spanish classes in the afternoon. San Marcos is my absolute favourite and yes, there it is possible to take a swim and to wind down. I see the sunrise from the Indian Nose and I buy some handicrafts from local indigenous women in San Juan.
During the most important days of Semana Santa, the week before Easter Sunday, I stay in Antigua. The city is packed for the procession on Good Friday, the day people commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus. Hours before the procession starts groups work on their Alfombra (not taking into account the months of preparation here), a colourful carpet mainly made of sawdust and flowers. These carpets are temporary art pieces, since the people who carry the heavy Andas Procesionales destroy it when walking over it. Andas Procesionales are big wooden platforms with sculptures representing Jesus’ death and the mourning virgin Maria. Everyone in the procession wears black, which forms a beautiful contrast with the Alfombras.
Before the Andas Procesionales pass by, the story of the crucifixion of Jesus is shown on several smaller platforms. The smoke of burning incense fills the air which creates a heavy atmosphere. I find it all super intense. Seeing the suffering on the faces of the men and women who carry the Andas makes this a special experience. Not because I like to see people suffer, but because it makes me wonder. The men and women must be deeply connected with their culture and religion to be willing (and to see it as an honour) to carry such a heavy weight for hours in a row.
Now after one month of travelling back and forth and experiencing a totally new culture I can say that I have finally landed. I like the friendly people, the nature and the fact that there are fresh vegetables and fruits available at every corner. I like to be surrounded by indigenous Maya women wearing handmade traditional clothes and I like my colleagues. There are many sustainability issues as well though. I see children working and waste lying around. I see burned down forest (to create space for agriculture) or the poorly built houses some people have to live in. Many cars are exhausting black smoke and women have to wash the laundry in the lake every day. Let’s say there is a lot to improve.
Being here brings sustainability challenges for me personally as well. I cannot have the sustainable lifestyle I am used to have back home. And of course, I travelled by plane to get here. The upcoming months I hope to share more stories with you. Personal ones, like this post (which shows I am not a sustainability saint), but of course also about sustainable tourism projects, about which places to visit and about sustainability in general. Keep posted!