One of my favorite things about traveling alone is that it forces me to make friends and personal connections, especially when I find myself in unexpected circumstances. A week ago, I boarded a bus out of Guate, as the capital is called, bound for Los Encuentros, a crossroads where I would travel on to Panajachel. That morning, I had spent more time than anticipated wandering the wonderful Museo Ixchel, a museum dedicated to Guatemala’s textile traditions. The ride to Pana was supposed to take 3 hours, so I wasn’t worried about arriving too late despite getting on the bus at 3:30.
The rainy season disrupts all plans, though, and the bus was stuck for an hour and a half in Chimaltenango, where the road was washed out. By the time we made it out of traffic, it was nearly dark and I wasn’t even halfway to my destination. I still wasn’t worried, and I’d spent much of the time when we were stopped talking with Luci, the Guatemalan woman who sat next to me. As it got darker and darker, and the landscape was lit only by flashes of relámpago, Luci– who was mildly reproachful of me traveling alone as a woman (¿soltera?!)– advised me that I should get a hotel in Los Encuentros and go the rest of the way in the morning. Or, she said, I could come stay with her for the night in Xela, where she lives with her mother and 9-year-old daughter. I happily accepted her offer, despite having never heard of Xela before. After a few more hours careening around in the dark (I’ve learned my lesson: no more traveling in chicken buses at night, if I can help it) we arrived in Xela at 9:30 pm. I was incredibly happy to have a snack, watch a few telenovelas, and go to sleep in a comfortable little bed in the living room. Muchas gracias, Luci!!
Before I went to sleep, I checked my guidebook to figure out where I was. Xela, apparently, is the pretty much ubiquitous popular name for Quetzaltenango, one of the larger cities in the Guatemalan highlands. Serendipity! There’s a weaving group in Xela that I’d been meaning to check out, so I decided to stay a few days. In the morning, my wonderful hosts gave me a hot breakfast of avena and helped me find the central plaza and its many hotels.
Xela is surrounded by beautiful, misty blue mountains. Every day it was sunny in the morning, then rainclouds appeared during the afternoon.
During my 3 days in Xela I was able to visit two weaving cooperatives, one in the city and one in Zunil, a nearby town. Both are relatively large, well-established organizations. There are hundreds of weaving associations and groups in Guatemala, and I am currently in search of one that will let me stay with them for the bulk of the 3 1/2 months that I’m here, during which time I’ll learn to weave and also gain an understanding of the social context in which the group works. Because of how many groups there are, it’s more a question of choosing one that suits my interests and fits with my project. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few days thinking about the relative merits of small vs. large organizations; new vs. long-established; relatively grass-roots vs. organizations with lots of foreign support and contacts. There’s also the question of different products and weaving styles, which vary dramatically all over the country.
I’ve spent the last few days in Panajachel, my original destination, which is on the shores of Lake Atitlán. The lake is spectacular:
Today I took a lancha across the lake to San Juan la Laguna, where I visited another cooperative which uses natural dyes to color their weavings. The resulting colors are much more subdued than the usual super bold colors of synthetically-dyed thread:
Here’s a mediocre picture of the telar de cintura, the backstrap loom on which most women weave. It’s hung on some object (a tree, a post) and held with a strap behind the woman’s back, which makes it pretty portable. It’s mostly made up of thread and a few specially designed pieces of wood, and I’m secretly thinking about trying to make one myself once I figure out exactly how it works. Hopefully very soon I’ll be learning to weave on one of these!
I’m really excited about one connection I’ve recently made. I found an educational group, based here in Pana, that works with various small weaving cooperatives scattered across the country. Their mission is to hold workshops and classes with the goal of improving artisan skills, democracy/leadership, health, and small business skills within the different groups. I’ll be talking with the heads of the organization over the next couple days, in order to figure out which villages might be best for me to work/study/live in, and whether there’s some kind of volunteer project I could work on for them during my time here. I hope it works out!
Out of place, but I like this picture:
Last Sunday, when I was in the capital, I strolled around the super-busy plaza with tons of Guatemalans enjoying the sunshine. Also, I ate fried platanos maduros WITH SUGAR. Almost too decadent for me to handle.
On the topic of food, I have discovered the most wonderful snack ever: chocobananas, a frozen banana on a stick dipped in chocolate. They cost about $0.15 and I’ve been eating at least one a day since I first tried one.
Whew, that’s enough for now. Thanks to all of you who are reading and commenting!