The mountains, lakes, volcanoes, and Mayan ruins made for a spectacular visit when I traveled to Guatemala in the mid-1970’s with my high school Spanish class. The visit to this little country nestled alongside Belize and the southernmost border of Mexico, was eye-opening for this middle-class American girl.
The dichotomy of donkeys pulling carts alongside the cars in the middle of the capital city spoke to the vast, economically diverse culture I was about to experience. In Guatemala City we visited the National Palace (outstanding tile work) and an ornate church where the decaying bodies of their saints were displayed in clear glass caskets on a top shelf inside the sanctuary. In the park, ladies dressed in hand-woven clothing sold flowers to tourists. Children with big brown eyes begged for money or asked us to buy trinkets they had woven from grass.
We used public transportation (chicken buses) to reach the outlying cities. These recycled school buses were highly decorated and filled to the brim (plus whoever can hold on to a rail or balance on the roof) with two-legged passengers plus goats, pigs, dogs, and chickens. The pigs were none too happy about the crowding; the goats were somewhat more tolerant. I was able to manage an open-window seat with a breeze and a view. When we stopped at a dusty shack of a service station, ladies brought out fried chicken feet (not legs) in baskets on top of their heads to tempt us to buy lunch from them through the bus windows.
Most passengers, wearing serious expressions, were dressed in traditional hand-loomed fabrics. The children were clean and quiet. The drive to 6,400 feet in the mountains to reach Chichicastenango in a rickety bus was not for the faint of heart. Blind hairpin turns were common on the rough two-lane roads. As we traveled along the absolute edge of the mountains, the bus driver always stopped well before the turn, honked the horn and waited for any return honk. If none echoed, we challenged the turn-back on the tiny road with our big bus. No shoulder or railing was visible from my window seat–only the memorial crosses just below the edge of the road.
The country is rich in spirituality, any spirit or superstition. In Chichicastenango we saw a Roman Catholic church built on a Mayan temple mount. There was a man swinging an incense pot at the door, and a Shaman/Witch Doctor performing within a few feet of each other. This blending of religions extended to the cemetery behind the church where chickens were sacrificed to pagan Mayan gods.
The renowned open-air market was filled with fresh produce, hand-loomed fabrics, pigs and goats on leashes tugged by young boys and girls. There was always a scout to help you find (drag you to) just what you need. Weavers with simple looms deftly created masterpieces with thick rough yarn that was probably dyed with berries. The ladies used these sturdy and colorful pieces of fabric to carry young children on their back, and produce on their heads.
In each community wall-less buildings sheltered concrete sinks along the edge of the creek where women and children gathered to wash clothes. Creek water was used to wash and rinse the clothes that were laid out on flat rocks to dry in the sun, then packed back into bundles or baskets and balanced on steady heads for the walk home.
Guatemala today is only slightly different from the 1970’s. The national parks have seen some improvements. Visitors to Mayan ruins now walk on pathways, and some of the stone carvings now are protected with little sheds over them. The city streets no longer have carts and donkeys and seem wider and safer.
The chicken buses are still busy, but much more road-worthy! Modern buildings have sprung up, yet poverty is still rampant. In Guatemala City the city dump is home–yes HOME–to many children found homeless after years of war. The abandoned or poverty-stricken residents still try to sell whatever they can, shine shoes, or find an illegal way to survive.
The market at Chichicastenango now has a few tin and wooden rooftops. The church still has both Catholic and pagan worship blended together and clothes are still washed in the creek.
This video shows a woman weaving.
Writing prompt – She had never seen anything like it before, so she watched them intently. It had to be the most beautiful sight in the world when the little girl reached out her hand to…
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Long-time Bible student, Lisa Worthey Smith has been called the parable teacher. Finding truths in everyday events and nature itself, she uses those truths to point to the hand of God all around us. She, her husband, and their 21 pound of cuteness wrapped in a Schnauzer suit, live in north Alabama where she teaches an in-depth Bible study class and spends time in her garden.
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