Travel and travellers are two things I loathe–and yet here I am, all set to tell the story of my expeditions. -Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques
Since meeting my family in Ilo-Ilo City and Guimaras Island, I have been expecting to integrate my brief experiences into some new definition of self. But recognizing the extent to which I have or have not found meaning by meeting Lola Doty or Lolo Nando, etc has been the cardinal question of the past few months. These faces still exist for me in oscillation somewhere between “stranger” and “everything.”
My weekend visit may have been too short to establish a real emotional connection beyond our immediate and warm acceptance of each other as family, but it was just long enough to alter my behavior. This is a post about the social significance of the people we call family and the surprisingly simple process of cultural transmission.
“Do you know how to eat buko?”an Ate (term for addressing an older female family member) asked me as a Kuya (term for addressing an older male family member) shimmied up a nearby palm tree to hack off a few young, green coconuts. I did know. With friends in Puerto Galera, I had learned to sip the water from the bowl and to use the top coconut shell piece as a spoon to scrape out and eat the soft white insides after.
With our 10-pound bukos in hand, we sat down to lunch at a picnic table. A Lola handed me a Guimaras mango (infamous for being the sweetest mangoes in the Philippines.) “Now, I’ll show you to do it our way,” Lola coyly suggested, feeling that she faced certain ridicule for her provincial ways. She dug into the side of the yellow skin and proceeded to circumvent the fruit, finishing with one long curly mango peel. I peeled my own in this way, leaving a stub of peel at the bottom to grip while I bit into the fruit. Lola was visibly pleased that I embraced this technique, and I was equally gratified to participate. It was a simple, almost forgettable moment, but I have since returned over and over to this memory nearly every time I buy a whole mango–because now I have to decide whether I want to use a knife or peel it.
I learned to eat local fruits by local practice in two ways–buko by friends and mango by family. For the life of me, I can’t enunciate what the difference is. While learning from my friends was just as practical and permanent, there was something sacred in learning from my Lola. It was almost as if I was learning from all her bygone generations as well. I believe this is something that is presumed or inherent in generational learning: we imagine these lessons to be timeless and intensely personal possessions passed through family.
Time draws nearer to take off for the Philippines, and pre-departure preparations have precipitated into a frenzy. I am less timid now about my impending new life as a foreigner, and instead welcome my landing in Manila as a vacation from the bureaucracies of being a traveler!
Some thoughts in recent weeks have revolved around my impressions of “the motherland.” I never once, until ten years ago, even thought of the Philippines as more than that terra incognita my grandma and her accent are from. Family and school didn’t do much to alter this position. During my first year in college, I finally got the opportunity to consider the Philippines as a historically significant country and culture. And since then, the Philppines and its people, in my mind, have morphed from bland obscurity to improbable myth. This is a bit of my piecemeal construction of the land I often envision a version of myself living a possible, synchronous life, and of the people I imagine myself to belong to. I have quotes from my friends, family, and acquaintances, scenes from Filipino literature and film, and academic script of theoretical Filipino culture to go on:
I won’t walk the streets of Manila so much as shove my way through masses of people, and dodge reckless vehicles, but the heat will wither away my will to even leave whatever cool indoors I can find. I’ll be greeted in Tagalog, but will have to answer guiltily in English. People will be in general, very friendly toward me. Each person might remind me of a family member or friend back home. Some people will be overly helpful; that’s probably when I’ll draw my belongings closer and start looking for a way to excuse myself. In one block I’ll find comfort in the familiar yet somehow estranged environment of a Filipino super mall. In the next block I’ll find myself inconsolable in the foreign terrain of one of the Philippines’ garbage mountains. I’ll go out to a bar. Locals will draw near enough to satisfy their curiosity, yet even after months of friendship, they will keep me at a distance. I’ll find ex-pats to commiserate with. Every night I’ll blow black soot from my nose, and attempt to drift off to sleep in the suffocating humidity.
I want to be able to reflect on what I imagined the Philippines to be when I believed it would always be a place only in my imagination. The people I know here, my family and friends, other Filipinos I’ve met, and the years of Filipino culture, history, and language classes have been my only personal link to the Philippines. Having a physical racial stamp does not prepare you for the cultural implications of being that race. I couldn’t tell you the first qualification for being Filipino, or Filipino-American, or “only part Filipino.” But I’ll still tell you I’m Filipino.
In the Philippines, I always imagined I would be approached with curiosity and skepticism, since I am an American biracial Filipino. But I find comfort in the the fact that friends of mine who look undeniably Filipino, still “act” American. My deepest fear is that after calling myself Filipino all these years, I’ll realize I am the furthest thing from a Filipino, and in fact, I don’t really know what I am.
I ran across this NPR piece about the many transient 20/30-year-old Americans bustling around the world today. According to John Zogby, author of The Way We’ll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream, not only do we have access to a completely different lifestyle from our parents, but we seem to have created a disparate American Dream for ourselves, too.
The New American Dream:
- Accumulating experiences rather than things
- Public service based on the idea of a shared fate
Looking back, I’ve met so many people in college and on the road who perfectly fit this profile, and it’s strange for me to conceptualize us all as this mass movement toward a new American Dream. Sometimes I feel more like we’re a lost, disillusioned generation–possibly, cornered into fleeing the country and wanting to change the world because we don’t have the most inspirational alternative options. Zogby makes a good point though that, with the efflorescence of social technology, our perception of near time and space has led to our more global mentality. However, I’m not sure how much the globals generation can be reduced to these elements: access and technology. Personally, my inspiration for travel has relied more on a learned need for cultural understanding that started in interaction with my immigrant friends and their parents (including my own family.)
It’s interesting to me that the culture of the globals generation depends a great chunk on travel, and probably very often solo travel. I’m curious about how members of this generation learn to conceptualize travel as idealistic, even romantic and adventurous, etc. I’m curious about how they learn to travel period, because I’m confident most of us didn’t learn it from our parents. My parents are only just now beginning to travel outside the country, and they have traditionally spoken of foreign travel only as vacationing. My grandma travels only to visit relatives in the Philippines. I’ve always been attracted to the idea of traveling with a feeling of semi-permanence. I guess you could say it was a sort of search for global belonging, if not just a desire to gain belonging in the most impossible of circumstances…foreignness.
“Want to take a little trip on thursday?”
Thursday, by no coincidence, was the day our school’s director would be away on personal business. I had chosen to remain with Juliza as my final Spanish teacher after filtering through a sort of foster care within the school. As a student, I am the sort of frustrating person who can’t be told what to do, and has to be tricked into a lesson. My first day with Juliza, I was too busy extending my vacation at Lake Atitlan to show up at class. Our second day, just after meeting, Juliza checked a text message, turned on a charmful smile and asked, “Want to take a little trip?” We spent the rest of the lesson gossiping while running errands at her son’s school. I like to think of our relationship as soul mates of indolence. We loved learning, we loved language, but we didn’t have patience for all the formality.
Our Thursday trip turned out to be our most excellently squandered lesson of all. Olintepeque, a village just outside the city of Xela, holds an exhaustive livestock market which was one of my most outlandish observances in Guatemala. As our chicken bus pulled up to Olintepeque–our companionable teacher-student truant pair in tow–I heard what sounded like children screaming just outside the window. We deboarded amidst a parade of marketeers taking their bounty home. An old woman walked near, her arm immobile with the weight of a bundle of feathers. At closer glance, I saw the bundle blink, and then cluck. She had about four live chickens by the talons, as calmly as if she were pulling along a bundle of carrots. Even more disturbing, the chickens were also as casual as carrots. The four of us entered the market, passing a few stalls of attractive fabrics, and readying our wallets. However, past the inviting display, we walked right into a wall of animal frenzy encapsuled by manure stench. Tightening our ensemble, we nervously packed our wallets back into our bags. A pair of young girls marched from the assemblage, pulling along a resistant pack of piglets down the dirt road. I recognized the pigs’ squeals as the ‘children’s screams’ I had heard minutes earlier. The pigs didn’t walk a step; they locked their little legs into the dust, and the girls dragged them away, leaving panicked piglet dust trails behind. The four of us held our breath and entered further into the fray. Goats, sheep, horses, donkeys were all being led somewhere or other. Vendors called out their products to us as we passed. A small cow stepped in front of me and mooed. “These animals have already been bought,” explained my teacher, as she pointed out a barn shelter. Behind the barn, was an indoor market brimming with what was probably the entire town and all other surrounding villages. Nearly all vendors inside were women wearing traditional woven blouse and skirt; and this gave the indoor market a disparate aura from the outside lots. Swarms of color from the women’s clothes erased memories of muddy animals casting forlorn faces. Female chatter replaced mournful moos and piglet screams. Women and girls squatted over cardboard boxes filled with small grey bunnies, or chirping chicks in a netted sack.
The market wasn’t our final destination that day. Our featured stop was a visit to the temple of San Pascual Bailon, which we were told held the skeleton of San Bailon himself. In Guatemala, San Bailon stands as one of many Catholic saints hybridized with Mayan beliefs. Not limited only to be an ephemeral guide, San Bailon materialized to this part of the earth in the form of a miniature human-like skeleton that was discovered buried in the surrounding hills during Spanish colonial rule. I never completely grasped what sect of human misery San Bailon protected against or had special powers over, but I did understand that whatever a person might ask for, it was best accompanied by festive decorum and dancing (“bailon.”) Inside the temple, patrons stashed their live chicken bundles from the market to the sides, and found spaces on the center floor to place prayer candles—a different color for specific needs (money, love, children, health, etc.) One teenager in a backpack and hoodie approached the Mayan priest stationed at San Bailon’s altar with an armload of candles, one of each color. The priest blessed her with a smoking incense bundle, and then she walked back to light each candle on the floor, placing her prayers with concentration in the process. Other patrons were now approaching the Mayan priest and priestess, and speaking to the altar of San Bailon. The other student and I decided to check out this San Bailon for ourselves. We peaked at the glass case behind bountiful flower arrangements to see a tiny skull—no more than 2 inches wide—adorned with a tiny crown. What was likely the rest of the skeleton was dressed in regal clothes, and donned a cape. As sure as Juliza had promised, there stood the miniscule human-like skeleton representing San Pascual Bailon. We stood there, bemused and unsure of our reactions, caught between our skeptical sensibilities and the droll supernaturalism of the situation. Comparing my experience with San Simon (Maximon) in Zunil, I began to see a pattern of spirituality centered on, not the religious lore, nor the space of the temple, but rather on the humanesque representation of the spirit. Maximon, a life-size flamboyant store dummy, and San Bailon, a 12 inch carcass of God knows what. There is a tradition of tactility; face-to-face conversation with the saints on which these Guatemalans place their lives’ hopes. I know from personal contact, the shock of these off-set images of humanity–images that represent us, yet in aberration, stand for something more ethereal–was enough to fill me with some unearthly reverence.
When we all finally had our fill of the cluttered, eclectic crossing of life desires, livelihood, and livestock, we jumped on the bus back home. A woman next to me cradled a squirmy burlap sack, as blandly as if she were holding a baby. I knew it was best for me not to ask, and even better not to imagine.
In Guatemala, when you see a dog on the street, it is most likely eating from a shredded garbage bag, or cowering from a threatening resident. Most are only harnessed by their own bare ribs. Females carry long teats that sway heavily as they trot through cobblestone roads. Sometimes, on the corner stoop beneath my Spanish school, a borracho–drunkard–would be nestled in a group of three stray dogs who ran this territory. One white, one patched, and one sandy. The three would always lay across the sidewalk, side by side, in the morning sun, and would always be warned away by merchants of Mercado Las Flores with upraised hand in the afternoons during lunch. In less aesthetic areas of Xela, the dogs would less trot the cobblestone roads than race panicked along the edges of walls. At Terminal Minerva, chicken buses collected down one alley to deposit trash into the gutter, and sweep out dirty water from the between the seats. I once saw a thin dog picking at the black bags underneath one bus’ tire. He turned to expose a dramatic pink infection down the side of his body. I never recovered from the image. So, when one cold morning during rainy season I stepped out of my apartment and saw this fluffy, well-fed pup wrapped warmly in a sweater, I snapped a picture. I might have been overwriting my memory of the less fortunate by convincing myself (in a desperately touristic move) that I was surrounded by comedy and beauty. Instead though, I think I might remember this strange moment as a representation of Xela, a city that teeters between episodes of the abysmal and the endearing.
Sometimes a different forum can inspire different writing. So, I am now posting some travel tales on Findery.com. A place to leave and read notes around the world!
Follow me at: https://findery.com/Shelleybean
I usually pride myself on my independence, especially during travel, but my time in Guatemala has made me the most fearful, boring and unadventurous traveler I’ve ever been. All the obvious drawbacks aside, my sheepish ways on this trip have actually resulted some more fruitful travel experiences. Typically, I never spend money on tour guides if I can do it myself. However, what I gain in free exploration, I lose in well-researched information. My Spanish school offered this trip to the neighboring volcanic valleys of Zunil and Almolonga as a group excursion, and hired a government-approved tour guide to fill our experience with lively facts and insider history.
The town center of Zunil was our first stop, just a 20 minute drive outside Xela. The village lays comfortably inside a steep valley. Lush patch gardens lead the way toward the town center. We arrived here for three attractions, two of which were as normal as could be expected in this seemingly typical small town in Guatemala. The third was a whole different story.
Because the indigenous Mayans were accustomed to worshiping outside their temples, Spanish conquistadors had troublebringing the new and potential converts indoors for mass. The conquistadors resorted then to creating elaborate decorations on the face of the cathedrals throughout Guatemala. This particular cathedral was built in the 16th century.
Indigenous Women’s Weaving Cooperative, Zunil
Just a minute from the cathedral, we visited a women’s weaving cooperative. Centers like these host products crafted by various local women, giving indigenous women a simplified forum for making traditional weaving viable.
Altar of San Simon, also “Maximon,“ Zunil
Maximon, once a rebellious Mayan leader, evolved into sainthood after suffering defeat at the hand of the Spanish. He now takes the form of a life-size manequin dressed as a cowboy ganster. Bandana, cowboy hat, shades, alligator boots–the works. Locals come to share a smoke and a drink (poured down the doll’s throat) with the idol. There is a small altar of flowers and prayer candles in the center of the room, and a place out back for frying chicken–in a more sacrificial than KFC manner.
Just 10 minutes outside Zunil, the village of Almolonga sits on land thriving with natural “cumbras” (saunas) and “aguas calientes” (hot springs.) We found a privately owned bath house offering private rooms. Beside privacy, the benefit of one of these houses is the ability to personalize your bath temperature.
More about Zunil:
Arriving here in Xela (shay-la) this week, all the hopes and fears of the last two months are put to rest. Xela has the essence I had hoped it would. Narrow one-way streets wind around the center square, which hosts the Spanish architecture Cathedral, banks and other ancient colonial buildings now housing commercial offices and restaurants. Couples and families sit on the stone benches surrounding small flower gardens, and enjoy an ice cream cone. Teenagers meet their friends in the square’s centerpiece, a large Greek-columned gazebo. As a confirmation of its 6 universities and more than 30 Spanish schools, Xela has nice a college town café culture. Small cafes are tucked into most corners around the old town center. Walking through town, American or European students appear fairly often, and are recognizable by their sunglasses and floppy shoulder bags.
I had this notion for the past few weeks that Xela would be my Galway of Guatemala. After finishing a work visa in London, I decided to stay in Europe a while longer and added on a short work visa for Ireland. I landed in Dublin and immediately the traffic annoyed me, the hostel annoyed me, I didn’t see myself belonging there in any way. A friend in London had recommended earlier that I give Galway a try. I checked out of the hostel early the next morning, and took a cross-island bus to the Gaelic capital of Ireland. On the highway, I instantly felt better. The green wet landscape slid by. My senses could stretch all the way across the hilly horizon rather than be squelched by a cramped city. Finally the bus pulled up the train station just off the main square of Galway. Throngs of drunk, happy tourists and colorfully dressed performers careened down the town’s cobblestone main street. I had arrived during the city’s primary annual attraction—an arts and music festival. And even though the whole city didn’t contain a single free bed, and I was forced to spend a cold night under a tree near the river, I knew I had found my Ireland home.
Minus the cold lonely night outdoors, my transition to Xela from Guatemala City did feel very much the same. Comfortable on my “first-class” bus (comparable to Greyhound at its best) I endured a few slow miles of potholed streets and angry bus horns, until finally we rolled past the edge of Guate’s stacked and broken cityscape, and into the open mountain farmland. The driver put a rotation of Mexican music videos on the overhead TVs. The mother of an American family in the front of the bus turned around in her seat toward her daughter to comment on the changing scenery. She did this often, and every time she whipped her blond head around, she locked her eyes with mine for a second, maybe deciding whether to breach contact with a fellow foreigner. I never gave her the chance. I was enchanted in my directionless, language-less state, and I didn’t want to break the spell.
Being directionless, my memory of the bus ride scenery has blended into a single image of hills, trees, roadside shacks. I remember
women in colorful woven dress with bundles on their heads, firewood bundles on their backs, or children slung to their hips. I think I might have caught the last glimpse of Lake Atitlan bowled by perfect triangular volcanoes. After 3 hours, the bus pulled into a rest stop near Cienega Grande for a brief meal break. The passengers were happy for a quick warm meal and a stretch in the mountain air. A group of college kids sang along with their resident guitarist, a pattern of Spanish songs with Bob Marley, Maroon 5, and Sam Cooke.
We reached Xela a pleasant, music-video-less hour later. A member of my host family met me at the bus stop. It didn’t take language to tell that she and her father were sweetest family I could hope for. As we juggled a small car through a maze of one-way streets toward their house, the two did their best to make small talk with my broken Spanish—broken and unrepaired since 2001. They pointed out landmarks I couldn’t distinguish, and fun facts I couldn’t quite understand. In my own absorption, I noticed first off that Xela lacks an obvious corporate chain presence—Guatemalan or international. There is the odd McDonalds and Wendy’s, and the ice cream service Sarita, but this characteristic was so distinct from the US culture I’m used to that it struck me as the most foreign quality.
I was lucky enough to meet another American resident in the homestay, who is a teacher rather than a student. She invited me mass at her church the next morning for the Semana Santa service. Sensing my interest in the religious events, the homestay grandfather also offered to escort me to an evening procession as it passed near the house after dinner.
The procession that night—though less structured and much smaller–was even more beautiful than the massive procession I saw in Guatemala City. A solemn brass melody from the band drifted forward as boys in black robes carted the altars of previous processions—Jesus tortured, Jesus dying. Two long lines of boys and men bearing candles followed them on either side of the street, ushering in the thick of the procession. The altar of Mary shined with the light of hundreds of electric candles, and it floated
down the street like a Dixie Queen steamboat in the black Mississippi. Next in the procession, white-robed children swung metal balls filled with burning coal and incense, and Mary swayed high behind smoke clouds. As the altar approached, I could see the women beneath, balancing the scene (at least 10 feet long) on their shoulders. They were pressed to one another, supporting the structure back to front without a gap. And as if that weren’t unnatural looking enough, they rhythmically slid their feet forward in a slow, eerie march.
After the weekend’s festivities came to a rest, I fell into my weekday schedule. 5 hours of Spanish at 8am can really take it out of a person. I break for lunch and then head out for 3 hours of volunteering in the afternoon. They are full days, but they feel well spent. I have a few hours in the evening to take advantage of the city’s café culture, but I am sure to get home before dark. I haven’t ventured much into nightlife, as there are some safety concerns (but that’ll be a whole different post.)
The past week has been a momentous cultural immersion for me. I know now that it’s an accurate phrase because, much like being submerged, I feel that I can’t hear what anyone’s saying and no one can hear me. I’m confined to a mute and deaf environment. And today, I realized that I will spend my entire trip still trying decode the people I’m living with and the place I’m living in; still trying to adjust to Guatemalan culture. More disconcerting though is that I’m now in the addictive, adrenaline-producing survival mode that I travel for, and I haven’t yet considered how I will be able to adjust when I come back to the boring old U.S.
On April 5th, after 12 hours of airports, security scans, and Dramamine-induced slumber I landed in the sprawling shanty-encrusted valley that is Guatemala City. After hours upon hours of nothing but sea, I grew enchanted with Guatemala as soon as we slipped over its thin beaches along the coast and into the vastly green and then vastly volcanic terrain. However, I descended into clarity as we were lowered over the capital. I began to make out miles of tin roofs and cracked concrete, and the city grew more reflective of its ugly name contraction, “Guate,” (sounds like squat.)
I passed through customs, made my way outside to a rapt audience, most already looking past me, but others lifting their hotel name picket signs in greeting. I waved to a young man holding, “Hostal Los Volcanes.” Hostal Los Volcanes was a pleasant 5-minute walk directly from the airport. After I checked in and handed out appropriate tips, I fell into bed feeling like I’d arrived at some sort of home, but also feeling that home was a distant pinpoint 12 hours away. In nostalgic moments, distraction is my best comfort. I got up, grabbed a taxi and headed toward the most dependable site in any city, which is not coincidentally the only Spanish I can piece together: “parque central.”
Spanish architecture—the center-piece being a three-towered cathedral dressed in purple banners and a poster of the child Jesus. Many men and boys were dressed in purple and black robes similar to the cathedral decor. Groups of women and girls walked in groups wearing long textile skirts and ornate blouses. The center was abuzz with preparations for an important religious holiday, Semana Santa. Leave it to me to arrive during one of the biggest holidays in Guatemala without the slightest clue.
But I was fortunate for it. The real life of a place is often kept separate from the tourist façade. Here was an entry for me to fall in step with the heartbeat of Guatemala City. A procession of solemn robed men led in displays of Jesus and Mary to a corner of the square. A marching band started up
a jaunty tune. I wasn’t getting stared at for snapping photos of seemingly ordinary things now. I was one of the many frantic for a shot of bloody and emaciated Jesus propped up on an elbow, reaching out for help. All of a sudden this wasn’t the shanty carpet of the mountain valley I initially saw. This city and these people were beautiful.
I woke early the next morning to catch a 4 hour bus to Quetzaltenango where I’ll be based for the rest of my stay in Guatemala. I was lucky to hail the only cab in sight, but then unlucky as I began to understand that the bus station ticketer was trying to explain that there was no bus today to Xela, the casual name for Quetzaltenango. I wanted to explain that he must be mistaken. I had made a reservation online. The woman ticketer beside him shook her head and pointed to a phone: better to call. As my stomach slid down towards panic, I rummaged through my handful of accessible Spanish, and turned back to my cab driver, “Otro bus?” He picked up the meaning right away, and we headed off to another station, and another, all closed off to Xela for the festival day. At my last resort, I asked to check the minibus lines. It turned out there was a bus headed that way, but I took one look at the minibus–also called chicken bus because you’re likely to sit by some chickens or other livestock–and I decided it was possible, but not worth the extra adventure today. Like any American at the beginning of her budget, I opted to stay one more night in city I was growing to hate again.
Guatemala Travel Tip of the Day: Watch your step! Most of the sidewalks in Guatemala city have missing or un-sturdy concrete blocks.
What I Ate
I was almost seduced by street food, but instead stuck by my memory of stomach troubles in Mexico and found the most Americanrestaurant in Guatemala: Jack’s Place. This is a Jack Daniels themed (or sponsored) pub-style restaurant. Open seating and pleasant atmosphere. They have an English menu with a mixed selection of American and Mexican food. Happy hour and beer specials are available.
Italian café—built on a legacy of early 20th century Italian immigrants–serving desserts and GOOD COFFEE. And they have actual décor.
Mexican restaurant right on the main street, 6a Avenida. Great food, and obviously foreigner-friendly. Bar up front and restaurant in back. Ask about drink specials: I saw one table milking from a large beer-filled tube.
Where I Stayed
Hostal Los Volcanes
Hostal Los Volcanes is awkwardly located in a gated and guarded block near the airport, and seems to be far from any good food or night life. This place is on the pricey side for its basic accommodations. $25 for a single private room with TV. The hostal seems to be run by a group of young men who are friendly and helpful, but will try to pin a $10 shuttle ride to town on you. A cab to Zona 1 should cost $5, or 40 quetzal. This would be a good place to stay, though, for a late arrival or early departure since it’s about a 5 minute walk from the airport.
At my cab driver’s recommendation I stayed my second night at Pension Meza in Zona 1. Five blocks from the central park, this is a good location for restaurants, sites, and getting cabs out to other tourist spots in Zona 10 and 13. The place is shabby around the edges, and is truly the Central American experience I’d always dreamed of (see shower photo.) I didn’t realize the roof was tin until the afternoon shower began to bullet spray above me. However, there is a definite hostel vibe with the young clientele, including a few English-speakers, wifi and on-site computer access, resident bunnies, and staff is friendly. 60Q for a single room.
*Ask me if you want the exact location of these places, I have the details down here somewhere.