I spent four weeks in Guatemala riding buses and somehow, I didn’t take a picture of a single one.
I was only in the country for four weeks but in total, I must have spent close to a week’s worth of hours on buses traveling and meeting women and girls across Guatemala City’s zones; going back and forth to el oriente, the Eastern highlands; making the long night trip up north to the Mayan jungle; and an even longer, convoluted trip to the Northwest.
Guatemala City was home base.
Ingrid, one of the Mexican friends I made in Canada put me in contact with Ana, an agronomist who let me crash at her apartment, told me what buses to get on, got me phone numbers, introduced me to wonderful feminist and indigenous music, cooked for me, and took me to amazing events – Ana was my fairy godmother. She was incredibly kind and welcoming; I hope one day I can be as much of a blessing to any person one day.
On June 25th, Ana and I joined the LGBTQ parade, wearing Minnie Mouse ears and t-shirts made vibrant with Guatemala’s national bird: the Quetzal. Rainbow-colored of course. We looked so cute that our picture ended up winning a Facebook contest and we won two tickets and backstage passes to go see Sara Curruchich, a Maya Kaqchikel singer-songwriter.
Ana, as I came to find out, is friends with everyone in the city including Sara’s sister so we would have ended up going backstage and meeting Sara anyway. Sara filled her stage with the earth: grass, flowers, maiz, gourds. Her music, sung in both Spanish and Kaqchikel, spoke of her Mayan raices, her ancestry, and everything that lives and gives life. Her smooth voice, is carried by traditional instruments and the sounds of the earth-birds, waterfalls. There’s nothing like it.
A few days later, Ana took me to a book release at Casa de la Memoria. This was a book holding the testimonios of viudas, indigenous widows from the highlands who had lost their husbands during the armed conflict. I listened to around 12 women, finely dressed in their handwoven huipiles, tell their painful stories of loss, as husks of maiz and paper birds watched over us. “Somos las semilla que no pudieron matar”, they said. “We are the seed that they could not kill.”
They the military.
We the indigenous peoples.
Maiz is not a vegetable. It’s the seed of the Americas.
The armed conflict lasted 36 years. The military, mobilized by Government forces, committed genocide against the Maya population in Guatemala. Land was stolen, +200,000 people were displaced, disappeared, and murdered. It wasn’t until 2007 that the sons and daughters, the living semillas, demanded and got the annual Day of the Armed forces parade suspended. But this year, the current president revived the egregious tradition and welcomed the military to invade the streets.
Ana said it would be too dangerous too participate in the countermarch, but we certainly marched at the Marcha y Festival de la Memoria. It was a beautiful journey, loud and angry, with stops that helped people reflect and share testimonies. We ended downtown at La Plaza de La Constitución and there, I met my hermana, my feminist sister: Rebeca Lane. She is a rapper that speaks out about the armed conflict, demands justice and freedom for women and girls, and celebrates indigeneity, mestizaje, pachamama (mother earth). Her song Mujer Lunar became the soundtrack for all the bus trips I told you about.
Through another one of Ingrid’s contacts, I met a woman who walked me into el Foro Nacional de La Mujer, the government office ensuring women’s rights, as dictated by the Peace Accords, are met. This is how I got my second internship and within days was getting on a bus at 5:30am and traveling to nearby cities and schools to help facilitate a gender module for indigenous women and girls.
I heard stories of women who stopped asking their husbands before leaving the house. Women who were reviving their traditional knowledge of medicinal plants and using it as a business tool to promote economic independence for themselves and other women through the production of shampoos, soaps, etc. Girls who saw their indigenous clothes as an important part of their identity. Women who were raising three, four, five children alone while their husbands worked in the U.S. Women who were outraged that comadronas, traditional birth doulas, charged more money for the birth of boys, that special broths were prepared to celebrate them while girls were half-priced. No celebration was prepared at all. I will remember the soft-spoken yet forthright anger of all of them.
I carved out time for one tourist trip: Petén. I took a night bus with ADN, as recommended by Ana. Many people warn against riding any bus in Guatemala, especially night buses for fear of robberies. But ADN is a first class bus that has never encountered such problems, and thankfully the only negative thing I encountered during my twelve hour bus ride was a blasting air conditioner.
As soon as I got off the bus, I desperately threw off the scarf I had loved all night. Petén is in the middle of the jungle.
H u m i d.
So I sat on a plastic stool sweating profusely, attempting to adjust my lungs to the humidity at 6am. I drank an atol de arroz, then haggled for a tuk-tuk to take me to Isla de Flores. I haggled again (although not that well) to have a boat take me across the island to a site Ana recommended. I almost didn’t make it up the stairs but eventually did climb up the hidden temple and reached the top of the shaky wooden tower that allowed me to see the island in its entirety. Luckily, my guide dropped his keys somewhere on the way up and disappeared for 10 minutes, allowing me to enjoy the view on my own and to take plenty of selfies.
Because it was still so early and a Sunday when I made it back, everything was closed and growing hotter. I walked up and down the cobblestone streets with a pool of sweat forming under my backpack until I reached the church. I sat outside among the families who came late until mass ended and everyone came out in a hurry, quetzales in their hands, and lined up to buy tostadas being sold outside. When everything sold-out, I found a restaurant along the water and had a traditional breakfast of eggs, black beans, plantains, cheese, and tortillas, plus non-stop coffee.
A tuk-tuk took me to a bus station where I climbed on a full van that kept shoving more and more people in, along the hour-long journey. I counted twenty adults and children total, and let’s not forget the h u m i d i t y hugging us all. I made it to El Remate, a quiet tourist town surrounded by the bluest water. I fell asleep on a hammock inside my hotel’s patio as rain poured down. It was perfect.
By 4:30am the next day I was on my way to the abandoned Mayan city of Tikal. Unlike Machu Picchu, Tikal is still being uncovered. Many temples remain hidden by the jungle and all types of wildlife still roam. I touched and climbed everything that I was allowed to and had an amazing time. When I was brought back to El Remate, I went for a swim before climbing on another 20-person van that would take me back to Isla de Flores. I went back to the restaurant by the water and waited out the rest of the day until the departure of my night bus back to Guatemala.
Next post: my trips to the Southeast and Northwest.