Welcome to our family blog!

We began in September 2010 by traveling a portion of the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage route that leads to the tomb of Saint James in Santiago, Galicia, in the northwestern corner of Spain. The name of our blog is inspired by the camino, and we'll have many stories (cuentos) to tell! We spent 2010-2011 on an intentional international journey, living and working in Spanish-speaking countries. Since then, we are immersed back in our lives at home but will report on occasional openings and discoveries. Please join us!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Weekend in Quetzaltenango, place of the quetzal

We just came back from a long car ride to and from Xela, the place of 10 peaks, otherwise known as Quetzaltenango, the place of the quetzal bird. The bird is no longer there, having left this sprawling metropolis in search of greener hills. 
Indoors arcade from 1920s, Xela

Xela is filled with unremarkable streets and small storefronts, an elegant central park and a museum whose wooden floorboards recall the old shops of my childhood with their faded blue paint. The first floor contains a touching history of technology, from the town’s first telephone bank, to mimeograph machines and the first portable telephones. Another room is devoted to the proud history of Xela, once the capital of its own separate country, once a modern city filled with coffee barons. A third room is filled with natural history oddities, from a family of stuffed lions with outsized staring eyes to jars of sad white fetuses. Hanging in midair is a stuffed goat with eight legs splayed in all directions, which lived for several hours and according to eyewitnesses,  gave off a strange yellow smoke when it breathed. One imagines the schoolchildren crowding around to read the descriptions and the undercurrent of Satanic urges hinted at by the commentary. 

Stone pedestrian bridge in Xela

Our purpose in visiting Xela was to help to build stoves that are fuel-efficient and have chimneys, helping to avoid respiratory disease which is the second leading cause of death in Guatemala. We met our friends in the early morning and took the chicken bus, the local bus which was formerly a US school bus, now painted in multicolors and decorated with religious sayings, out to a nearby suburb. A place of dusty hillsides, where construction is ongoing and huge trucks mine the earth. The homes are simple, with tin roofs and their dry rocky yards. Now is the dry season before the rains but after the harvest, so the land looks especially bereft. Instead of crops, the little tracts hold broken buckets and discarded plastic sandals.

Building the stove
The children crowded around as we worked, and helped wherever they could. The mother dug an expert hole, working in her sandals, while the children hauled wood and furniture out of the kitchen to make way for their new stove. After a morning’s work, we left the concrete and cinderblock frame to dry. On a later trip, volunteers will put in the firebox and install the shining chrome cooktop and metal chimney. The family will no longer have to cook over a simple fire in the kitchen building or breathe in the smoke.

On the way back, we spent a long dusty afternoon heading south and east back to Antigua.  We took the main road, the highway of Guatemala, its dusty margins covered by a perpetual fog of exhaust fumes and sellers of tropical fruits. The mameys, huge as a monkey’s head, hiding a clear yellow freshness inside. The zapotes with their dented, rotted appearance from the outside and the orange fruit like sweet squash.  The pitahayas like large plums, with a shocking neon purple flesh surrounding small black seeds. The pineapples each with their identical color shift from green to yellow, advertising their exquisite sweetness.

The Interamerican Highway it is called, the main conduit of traffic of all types from El Salvador and parts south on up to Mexico and the United States. The shortest route to Mexico where it stretches a finger south along the Pacific coast into Guatemala, its porous border welcoming travelers. Travel on the road is slowed by road works. Here the mudslide of last year came pouring over the bridge, the bridge still under repair and cars crawling around it through the underbrush. There a fuel truck has turned over on its side, its driver come back to alert the travelers to slow to a single lane. The shocking sight of it lying on its side like a dead animal, its fuel tank miraculously intact. Once we were jolted by a car coming towards us at full tilt, a construction detour unannounced to travelers coming from our direction.

Pickup trucks coming south with California license plates carrying loads of new items: car bumpers, washing machines, new bedframes. White panel trucks driving north with no company name, shut tight. One can imagine so many refugees packed tight inside, sweltering in the heat and praying for a safe journey.

Little tendrils of economic anxiety reached into my life in Guatemala, when someone took the numbers of my debit card and my attached security code from the automatic teller machine I used one day. The numbers made their way down this highway to Bogota, Columbia, just south of Panama. There, some desperate person turned those magic numbers into cash. A small tax on the rich for use by those in need. I did not even have to bear the cost due to the safety net of the United States banking system which reimbursed my loss. When the same thing happened to my Guatemalan friend, $800 an absolute fortune to him, his bank ignored and perhaps smiled on the theft. My dutiful report to the bank was met with a wall of stony silence.  Many in Guatemala are trying to create a state of economic and physical security, but poverty and related violence are hard to root out.

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