I wrote this a few years ago with the hopes of sending it to be published in a travel magazine -- and I never sent it. Instead, I saved it on a floppy disk and forgot all about it. Until today. I found the floppy and checked what was on it. Now it is finally published -- on my blog!
A few years ago, I became fed up with the direction my life was taking and decided that it was time for a change. As many westernized citizens do, instead of addressing the problem and looking for a solution, I decided to run away from it and hope that the solution would find me. I decided to visit a third-world country that was bound to open my eyes to the amenities I take for granted in my own home. The country I chose was Guatemala. My destination: a small southern town by the name of Ipala. I was to go there with a friend in order to visit her friend, an affiliate of the Peace Corps and director of an outdoor education center in town.
Ipala was my only real chance to immerse myself in another culture – a genuine culture – that has not yet been tainted by tourism. This was not an attraction that the indigenous population altered in order to accommodate wannabe anthropologists. Mayan descendants would not be running around barefoot, sewing table embroideries, and wearing traditional costumes just so tourists can point and stare and throw a quetzal into their cup. This was going to be a town where people work for a living at westernized jobs, have TV’s in their homes, wear jeans, and shop at large supermarkets. This is what I longed to see: current human interactions amidst a developing third-world country (who’s the anthropologist wannabe now?).
The more I learned about Ipala, the more reasons I found to go there: lying on the base of a dormant volcano, the town attracts tourists from Guatemala and El Salvador, who come to conquer the peak of the volcano and bathe in its crater-lake. The summit is one of the two cloud forests in Guatemala, and it is also one of seven such ecosystems in the world. Our visit also coincided with Semana Santa, the week after Easter and the most important holiday in the Americas. I was eager to be part of the celebrations that would undoubtedly be happening while we were there.
From the moment we stepped off the chicken bus in Ipala, I realized what was missing in my life: complications. My life was just too simple, and I needed the obstacles that I was about to get. I turned to my friend and asked, “Do you know how to get to your friend’s house from here?”
“How should I know?” She turned to me. “I haven’t been able to get in touch with her for a few days.” The phone card wasn’t working properly.
“Does she know we’re coming?”
“I hope so.”
“So what now?”
“Let’s try to call her again.”
Oh, good idea. Let’s just take a little spin here at the one-pole bus terminal, which is surrounded by middle-aged drunk men, who are whistling at us by the way, and try to find a phone. Better yet, let’s pretend like we’re lost and ask one of these drunk men what to do.
“Perdon,” my friend turned to an old, barefooted, drunken man whose eyes lit up in a winning gaze toward the rest of the men. “We’re lost and looking for a phone to call our friend who lives here.”The man pointed in a certain direction and mumbled something.
We walked in that direction for about a mile, arguing incessantly if we should head left or right, until we miraculously reached a pay phone. Only then did we realize that Guatemalan pay phones work on phone cards only, and that there was no store in the area selling them. Completely lost and out of clever ideas we stood next to the phone and stared off into space. Suddenly a twelve-year-old girl approached us.
“Who are you and what are you doing in Ipala?” She asked in Spanish.
My friend explained in broken Spanish that we have a friend here, but we don’t know where she lives. “Her name is Ana Rodriguez and she is the director of ADISO, the Outdoor Education center in town.”
“Oh, I know Ana! She’s my neighbor!” the girl answered. She then proceeded to give my friend detailed directions to her house: “walk four blocks this way, turn right at the house with the yellow door, continue straight, turn left, then right again at the house with the red flowers….” And then she disappeared. Having no other option but to trust the young girl, we followed what we remembered and understood from the directions that she had given us.
The streets were deserted. We passed house after house with open windows and kids looking outside, maybe in envy or maybe just to point at the strange site of two gringas in their town. At around four o’clock in the afternoon, we passed a cantina full of men who stopped their chatter all at once (for a second it seemed as if the radio had also stopped playing), and looked at us with questioning stares.
Not far from there, we spotted a mother and three small children playing outside of their house. “Perdon, do you know where Ana Rodriguez lives?” (asked in Spanish)
“Yeah, right next door. Everybody knows that. Are you friends from America?” (my friend later translated this for me)
At Ana’s house, the windows were also to let the afternoon breeze in. Oddly, no one was looking out of them. Instead, they were busy watching Guatemalan MTV on a black-and-white screen that was blaring music all the way to the neighbor’s yard. Our knock did not disturb them. In fact, it did not seem like anyone even noticed it. A few moments later, a woman came to the door, welcomed us, and motioned us to follow her.
She led us through the small and dark living room, where we politely said hello to the three teenagers watching television, into a large patio in her u-shaped home. To our left was a master bedroom, which had a dark curtain in the doorway, and to our right was green grass, with a few clotheslines and an orange tree in the center. We followed the woman down the patio into a second bedroom that had a white curtain for a door. This room, in contrast to the rest of the house, looked very bright and lively. Struggling to make space for my backpack on the floor, I looked around the small room. It had two single beds in the far corners, each covered by a pink comforter and some stuffed animals. Between the beds was a CD player and a neat pile of music, and in the other side of the room was a computer with dial-up internet connection.
Guiding us back to the patio, our new mother offered us something to drink. But there was something that I needed to take care of first. Using the only words I knew in Spanish, I declined the drink, and asked, “Donde esta el banos?” The woman smiled understandingly and pointed at three wooden doors facing the patio. I laughed in uneasiness and started walking slowly toward the doors, hoping that maybe she would change her mind. In front of me stood what looked like three decaying wooden port-a-potties. I drew in a big breath and walked into the middle stall. Once inside, I was surprised to find a porcelain toilet, granted it was a little chipped, but completely clean and adorned with air fresheners, toilet paper, and a plant – you know, the usual toilet things. This provided me with a little more comfort about what was about to occur, although it did not help much knowing that the lock on the door was broken and that the 12-inch gap underneath it did not protect against peekers and eavesdroppers.
A few moments later I was ready to flush. I pressed on the handle, but nothing happened. I pressed again. Nothing. I jiggled the handle and tried a third, fourth, and fifth time. I gave up and carefully opened the door to find my friend having the same problem in the next stall. We decided to give the toilets a rest and hope that no one goes in until we figure out the problem.
Moments later, a familiar face walked into the house. Ana came home from work and we could finally start talking in English! After a polite small-talk about our travels, I averted everyone’s attention back to the toilets. Ana laughed. I guess she was ready for this. She walked to a huge barrel full of water, filled up a bucket, and emptied its contents into the toilet bowl. Just in the neck of time, the toilet flushed, and I clapped my hands in relief.
Ana explained that most houses in Guatemala have no running water. Instead, their plumbing consists of a pipe that is pointed toward two huge barrels. Every Monday morning, the pipe fills the barrels, and the new water is rationed throughout the week. This water is used for drinking, flushing toilets, washing dishes, doing laundry, and taking showers.
“Now, are you hungry?” Well, of course. I always am. “We made lots of corn tortillas, rice, and beans especially for you.” Oh, brother.
“Is that what you usually have for dinner?” I asked, trying to be offered something a little more appetizing.
“No, we have corn tortillas, beans, and sour cream.”
“And for breakfast?”
“Well, we have cereal, but usually we eat tortillas and beans.”
“Which is your favorite meal?”
“All of them!”
For the record, I did not go to Central America for the food. Those of you that know me intimately may be shocked to hear that in Central America I was actually trying to avoid food more than I was trying to eat it. At Ana’s house, I was left with a big predicament. I could kindly refuse their food and kiss their great hospitality goodbye; or I could pretend to enjoy myself. Seeing that I was to spend at least four days here, I decided to go with the latter option.
At ten o’clock at night we heard loud music coming from outside of the house. It took me a few moments to realize it was the procession for Semana Santa. It was the first of seven such processions that had so intrigued me to visit Ipala in the first place. I was curious to see what this small town could do to celebrate their most important holiday. What they came up with was quite innovative: leading the procession was a rusty bicycle that was towing and powering a generator. Stretching from the generator was a long cord, held by three children, that connected to a lighted float of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. The float was carried between the shoulders of six men, and looked as unstable as the statues balancing on it. Following the float were almost two thousand singing people, all dressed in their best church clothes. Ana and her family stepped outside to join them while my friend and I, exhausted from the ordeals of the day, strung up hammocks in the garden and went to sleep, lulled by the out-of-tune melodies of Ipala’s residents.
The following morning we were awakened at five o’clock in order to hike up Volcan Ipala – the second reason I was so intrigued to visit Ipala. We went to Ana’s office in ADISO (the Eastern Guatemalan Sustainable Development Association) to join a group of high school students with whom we would hike to the top of the volcano. This particular group, with aid and instruction from Peace Corps and Earth Corps volunteers, helped build an interpretive trail around the volcano’s rim.
On the way to the summit are strewn a number of houses whose families earn their living by collecting park fees and opening their kitchens to hikers and park rangers. They gave my friend and I, apparently the guests of honor, a very warm reception by serving us their best delicacies: The stomach of a chicken, its liver, feet, and undeveloped embryos. After this appetizing meal, we continued up the trail to the crater, swam in its freezing lake and enjoyed a piece of the still-undisturbed nature I so cherish.
I could continue to bore you with little details of my trip to Ipala, Guatemala, but I think you get the gist of it. This is a very simple town, whose residents lead very simple lives. However, to a stranger from the developed world, daily tasks could seem very complicated. We have been taking our inventions for granted. We have running water, flush toilets, and supermarkets full of foreign delicacies. It was beautiful to see how the residents of Ipala embrace change as much as they embrace tradition: They have internet access, but stay in their parents’ house until marriage; they watch MTV, but milk their own cows; and they take a shower with Pantene Pro-V, but have to pour water over their heads with a bucket in order to get the shampoo out.
If you’d like to learn more about this lifestyle, or how to hand-wash your clothes on a wavy concrete surface, you should take a trip to Ipala, Guatemala. While there, you can volunteer with the Peace Corps, hike up a dormant volcano, and swim in a chilly crater lake. You can also participate in the many celebrations that are put on during the summer months. Or you could move to upstate Maine, where you can live with the previously-discussed minor complications even in the winter months.