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Preface & Reader Response



The indigenous Guatemalan people, and their clothing, projected a friendly adaptation to natural surroundings – and remarkable calm and courage in response to hard-got resources and marginal political standing.

 


NOTES ON BARE EXISTENCE



Patterns from a Rooftop

EPIPHANY AT ATITLAN

Chapters: I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII

by Jerry Murley

We traveled the worst, most dusty, pockmarked, back-country mountain roads from Panajachel, circumventing the big blue lake of Atitlan. Once along the way we saw about fifty women, in their intricately patterned, multicolored local dress, strung out along the road. Each carried a basket of clothing or an earthen pot on her head, balanced as if the load were part of her body. Occasionally one or other of the youngest girls lifted an arm for a doubtful check or correction of the load she bore atop her black hair. Their bare feet kicked back gently, stirring the dirt briefly, revealing light-skin ankles and resilient soles.


We rode to Santiago, a small village quietly nested on a large bay of Lake Atitlan amid three dormant volcanoes: two southeast and one to the northwest across the bay. There were a few Spanish-style white stucco buildings: an old church, the municipal offices and a few tiendas and pensiones. But most houses, along the hills of the cobblestone streets, were made of cane and mud and were enclosed by chest-high walls of stacked gray boulders; the lower third of these dwellings was fortified by a wall of stone or brick and cement. All were roofed by a thick mat of thatch or palm leaves. Often the roofs were charred at one end as smoke dissipated, staining huge blotches as it filtered up from chimneyless wood stoves inside. The dwellings were usually arranged in groups around a dusty yard: a family complex with all the family huts standing behind the stone wall between them and the street. Behind the stone wall of each compound was a structure which seemed to serve as a common shed, and within each compound there was a supply of cane, a stack of firewood, chickens, turkeys, piglets, and a lackluster, undernourished dog.


Out of doors, in a yard of rock and dirt, women wove, kneeling at portable looms fastened to their waists. Each loom dipped and climbed as it attached to a fixed post some fifteen feet beyond, keeping the fabric loosely stretched before the weaver.

Outside the family compound some children with grubby faces played in the dirt of the streets. Some shouted from inside a school. Girls not weaving washed, toted water, or acted as fearless sales agents for their mothers at the market. Males not fishing, not carrying items to market, and not gathered in the town square worked the vegetable gardens down by the lake's edge or the corn fields on the hillside.


Santiago was an exquisite surprise. The market bustled in a remarkable lightness, packed with cross-legged girls and women with long, straight black hair, which fell down the back or was wound around the top of the head intertwined with colorful strands of thread. They congregated to talk and to sell foodstuff – fish, beans, tomatoes, onions, plantains, chunks of a chocolate-caramel-tasting hard substance, and cakes. In shop stalls, they sold their traditional clothing, much of it produced at home. Wearing the same patterns and colors, they were dressed in a similar fashion: a piece of cloth wrapped around and fastened by a belt at the waist below a loose blouse, with a long shawl draped over one shoulder.


On our first afternoon, we walked down to the water's edge. Wooden boats were pulled ashore. We rented a large hewn-log, flat-bottom boat for fifty cents and commenced to row across the large bay of the much larger lake. After being caught in a cross wind, sweeping us like a swift current toward the 25-mile-wide lake, two of the three of us aboard began to waver and weaken psychologically – or pretended to – at which point I seized the single oar and worked like crazy to prevent us from drifting toward imagined peril. Docking on the other side, we dove a couple of times and swam briefly in the shockingly cold water. As we rested, we talked to a small boy, wearing a miniature man's fishing hat made of straw and a miniature embroidered shirt and dirty striped, shin-length baggy trousers, who was engrossed in serious and self-confident play from his miniature log boat. Beating our way back with enough sense now, after instructions, to face the wind and angle into our destination, we reached the cove from which we rented the boat. I propelled the boat like a gondolier, as the locals did, to a group of large rocks lining the shore.

In that quiet cove women washed and waded in relative isolation; young boys and men fetched water for gardens, or silently fished off the rocks for small fish, or used nets from boats for larger ones. Daily near dusk, at this hub of communal baptism, men and women of all ages bathed and lathered their bountiful hair quickly owing to the refreshing chill of the water.


The children were a pleasure for us. At first, girls giggled and were shy, as were the women, especially when around our 6-foot 7-inch blond Canadian companion. But sometimes the children were an annoyance: as soon as I took a photograph of some, openness quickly turned to business as they sternly sought immediate recompense. And they continually entreated us, with diffident smiles, to take their picture again – for more pennies. Sometimes they begged at our dinner table for cookies. Some even stood in the street at our bedroom window for half an hour, with hands and fingers wiggling through the opening, playfully chanting: "Take a picture." Petty begging aside, the children possessed, and usually exhibited, much more interesting characteristics.

Wearing tiny, short-brimmed straw fishing hats, the little boys looked and acted like little men. They were perpetually scurrying about the rocks inspecting their favorite fishing holes. They were intent on the serious undertaking of fishing. Speedily and accurately maneuvering a dugout canoe, they wasted no time in getting on with the matter, even if they were only catching little fish or watching someone else. They were as studious and concerned about techniques and results as old men in the parks of Belgrade and Paris were towards chess. The small boys enjoyed our attentions and we theirs; as we passed on the streets they would say, "Buenos dias" in a snappy, formal, deepened voice. The older boys sometimes swam or lazily lay in a boat in the shade observing our peculiar gestures and activities, laughing; but more often they worked with their fathers, fishing or hauling wood or water.

The men were small in frame with tough dark skin and tight strong bodies. They were so short that they undoubtedly benefitted from the extra power gained by rowing their boats standing up. They carried loads harnessed with a strap around the forehead on a horizontal back, balancing heavy bundles without benefit of hands or arms.


On the second day there, I walked passed a Church of God revival in town, swam, and read on the rocks. Then I quickly bathed in the lake before the evening meal. The bath, the food, and the sleep were much the same every day. On day three, I tried to fish, but the current was too strong and I had no anchor with my 25-cent boat. I went aground, caught no fish, swam, and got sun burned. Twice I rented a boat and attempted to improvise fishing equipment without success. Maneuvering the boat on the windy bay was an equally frustrating challenge. Sleepy at four in the afternoon, I read Look Homeward, Angel. I was beginning to feel out of sorts a bit from the food we had been eating. On the fourth day, for the first time, I saw a woman and a girl display a bit of anger over a single centavo. Having had enough of the transactions about town, I struck out more independently: I climbed above the bay, alongside an old man, over rocks and dust to view the beautiful lake and the activity around it. Then I returned to the water to read, swim, and watch groups of men bathing. I watched a small boy fishing in a self-sufficient immersion in the eternal presence of nature, and I saw the exhilaration of a catch on his face amplified when he noticed someone respectfully witnessing his feat.

Sticking out like carnival freaks at a rural picnic, even when not in a conspicuous group, we foreign intruders persisted in exploring the village and surrounding hills amid the locals, pretending that we had no influence on how they behaved in their native habitat. One afternoon I was almost arrested. On my way to hike the hills alone, an unusually large pot-bellied captain of police watched as I crossed the dirt-covered public square, which was thick with foot traffic and locals standing in small groups talking and bartering with one another. From his perch in the shade outside of his office, he motioned me to come closer. Before dozens of spectators, he bade me enter his office with fulsome public gestures and feigned kindnesses. Once inside, he physically jerked the hunting knife I wore for the hike out of the scabbard on my belt. Apparently it was against the law, or his law, for one, or a foreigner in particular, to carry a knife on one's hip on a hike in the rough mountains, but it was not forbidden to tote a much larger machete in one's hand while walking on the streets and through the town square.

At the time it was not clear that my hunting knife was about to be confiscated by the sweaty fat man. Caught entirely off guard and utterly clueless, I tried to coolly plead my ignorance of his law and incomplete comprehension of the transaction. A bit too expressively – perhaps without good timing or proper deference or inflection – I asked, "Que pasa?" That little repartee in Spanish made the captain red with fury. I explained by voice and hand gestures that I was about to climb in the high-countryside around the town; that I didn't know his laws; that I would be departing his town in the morning; and that it was my father's knife brought with me from the States. Warmly and submissively penitent, I told him how deeply I regretted the incident and apologized for any civil improprieties or seeming disrespect.

His young deputy defended my incomprehension, painfully sensitive of my bewilderment and of the gruff, tactless approach of his superior. He motioned that the captain was a bit crazy and for me to simply take it easy. So I said I was sorry once more, but also said that I would like to have the knife back since it belonged to my father. He ordered me to sit, to my embarrassment, outside alone on the stage of the town square, where a gathering of herd-like citizens stared in curiosity, if not amusement, at my predicament. Along with self-concern, I had to maintain a face of cool innocence and confidence without appearing defiant. The captain returned, he took me and the knife to the magistrate, who gave it back to me, warning me to conceal it until my departure. He warned that if caught with it again, I would be jailed and fined thirty dollars. I thanked him and apologized again, squelching a faint smile as the slovenly captain snorted off abruptly. Had I not been so foolishly unaware as to walk directly in front of the police station displaying my eight-inch steel blade like a gunslinger, I might never have been noticed, for the sentries of the town's ambiguous laws and honor did not stray from the porch chairs and shade of the police office.


While in Santiago, we subsisted in a filthy, ill-furnished pension, just off a noisy courtyard overcrowded with farm animals and their odors, for fifty cents a day. Nightly our long battle with sleep was accompanied by a repetitious arrangement of dog barks, dog fights, rooster crows, and turkey squalls: there were dogs barking at two in the morning, dog fights at three, rooster crowing at four, and the monotonous scratchy chatter of turkeys until six. Early one morning at sunrise I came within a tail feather of booting one of those damn turkeys over into the pig sty. Then there were bedbug bites, which I tried to fend off by crawling fully dressed into a hot sleeping bag, doing little to relieve matters. And there were the nightly runs, in reaction to the bland, ancient meals we consumed each evening, to the pitch-black outdoor privy over the perils of turkey droppings. But generally fatigue from each day's explorations helped me sleep well enough. Blessedly, the daily bath in the icy water of the lake was a moment of ritual purification, and then the pattern repeated itself.

For the first few days we ate at our pension, typically a surprisingly filling meal of eggs, rice, beans, and salad. The frijoles, I soon learned, were much better eaten, if not digested, with lots of hot salsa. Eventually our inexpensive diet caught up with us. Early one morning, I found Mike, sick with a fully fermented digestive disorder, sleeping on the ground in the courtyard amid the turkeys. On our last night, we found a good vegetarian restaurant for fifty cents a meal, but by then Mike was so sick from the night before that he was reluctant to further feed the inner fires. We were obviously not in Santiago, Atitlan, for a week for the lodgings and fine dining.


Mike's coterie of travel companions, accumulated along the way, seemed to go everywhere together. Used to travelling by myself or with only one close companion, I grew weary of the constant entourage. Increasingly, for me, there seemed little dignity left in the travel. Locals mocked foreign groups of tourists, and members of such traveling bands often condescended to one another and the locals. In such circumstances the locals were not themselves and neither were the travelers. Prospects for social improvement were collapsing day by day. Feeling cornered in this unwelcome company, I began to view myself as less inclined to participate, less willing to part with money, and less agreeable than usual.


The time had come when I felt chained to my travel companions. I sensed I had lost valuable freedom of movement, and I felt a growing, dull incapacity for compatibility and companionship. I had reluctantly embarked on this rigorous journey to strengthen a budding friendship, but my companion acquired fresh acquaintances at every station who enjoyed touring together and I was no longer essential. Too frequently over the previous year of travel, I had observed how such groups could wall off the experience of quiet, intimate exchange with a foreign culture. These were precisely the types of exchanges to which I had become accustomed, in part as justification for my travel efforts. No longer enjoying travel, I became more and more restless and resistant to fitting in with a handful of English speakers. The cycle of disintegration in our fellowship had begun with only a week or so left of the journey. I longed to regain and enjoy solitude, self-direction, and some kind of productivity or pretense of meaningful engagement.


The gentle ways of the Mayans of Atitlan had cheered me significantly. They had also strengthen me and helped better direct my attention on the future and focus me on what truly mattered in my life. But now I yearned most for good Southern cooking, a simple wood-frame house, a job, an intelligent and enjoyable female companion, paints, my family, and my own garden. A friend back home had predicted that my journey south would end the evolving friendship between Mike and me. It seemed that it might. It was not what he knew of me or what I knew of him that made me disappointed in myself and him and all his company, but rather it was the constrictions and refractions of what we all believed we knew in those artificial and cramped surroundings that spoiled the possibility of further happy discovery. I was determined to ignore all of this for the time being, but that was easier to decide than to do. I put on a Mayan face of welcome and adaptation as best I could and made my next steps looking homeward.


Having admired Mayan garments during our long bus rides from Tikal and Guatemala City, I was eager to buy some woven items for gifts when we visited some of the remote markets we had heard about from other travelers. The fabric of indigenous Guatemalans was strong and the colors as vibrant and durable as the people themselves. The color combinations and intensity of finished cloth were a marvel: they gave one a light, joyful sensation. The indigenous Guatemalan people, and their clothing, projected a friendly adaptation to natural surroundings – and remarkable calm and courage in response to hard-got resources and marginal political standing.

Saturday morning we left by boat for Chichicastenango and its renowned Sunday market. By the time we left Santiago, traveled to Chichicastenango, and then on to Antigua, the time had come to set off on my own for at least a day. I departed alone for Guatemala City.

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