Totonicapan: the capital of Totonicapan province. Not a particularly impressive town, but then very few towns in Guatemala are–the biggest city is Guatemala City at 300,000, and the next down is Xela (Quetzaltenango), where I´m staying. Xela has 150,000 people, and doesn´t really “feel” like a city to me. The winding alleys are nubbly with cobblestones, the houses are adobe or cinderblock (with the odd, astonishing Greek temple), and ancient buses, grinding and squealing, belch black smoke into the smoggy air as they creak past the corners.
Totonicapan is just like Xela, only smaller.
Anyway, I almost didn´t make it to Totonicapan, primarily because of my own cleverness. I was so excited at being able to ask ¿Donde es la terminal des autobuses? (“Where is the bus station?”) that it didn´t occur to me to ask *which* bus station. Turns out there are three of them, and I wound up at the wrong one. Sorting all that out was very exciting and featured not one, not two, but THREE sentences in Spanish (all by myself!), but I finally made it there, about half an hour late.
(I am singularly proud of my new fluency. Admittedly, I get lost about three words into anyone´s reply, but I have now advanced to the approximate level of a Guatemalan two-year-old, which (coupled with enthusiastic and innovative sign language, pointing, etc.) enables me to do resoundingly independent things like calling a taxi, negotiating the price, and tell him where to go. Armed with that and a guidebook, my world has suddenly opened.)
Anyway, I arrived in Totonicapan at last, and what should meet me but an English-speaking guide?? I was ecstatic–I had expected a few words at most, but Carlos (the guide) spoke excellent English–he´d lived in the U.S. for nine years. Not only that, he knew all the spinning and weaving terms. O joy, o joy, o joy!
So we set off on our tour of artisan places. The first place we called was closed, but at the second, a weaver showed me his loom (a standard four-harness, four-treadle number) and how he created his patterns. It´s funny, because we think of looms as fine furniture, but they really aren´t–this one had its beams hammered crudely together, there was dust all over, harnesses dangling from old bits of nylon rope. But it worked just fine, and I took a bunch of photos.
Then Carlos took me to his village, which is a traditional Mayan village. We walked past new fields of corn, beans, and squash, planted in the Mayan way–the beans growing up the corn, and the squash tendrils running underneath–and past several concrete and adobe houses. Then, as we were passing another small cinderblock structure, the coughing roar of a generator intrigued me, and I stuck my nose in for a look. An old Mayan man and a young girl were pouring soft, wet, and enormously swollen kernels of white corn into a hopper, while lumps of soft, pasty stuff dropped out the bottom. As I watched, the girl dusted her hands, then plunged them into the doughy mass, kneading it–and then I realized, I was watching tortillas being made! The giant kernels of white corn were regular corn soaked in lime to soften it, and ground in the giant hopper; she would take the pasty mash home, and make tortillas or other stuff out of it.
(Okay, color me dumb. But I always figured you used cornmeal for tortillas, not ground corn–it was way cool to watch the process happening.)
Anyway, I took some photos of the machine–I was hoping to get a photo of the girl, too, but she skipped out of view. Guatemalan people can be sensitive about being photographed, and children are especially likely to say no, probably because of a widespread rumor that Americans kidnap Guatemalan children and cut them up as organ donors. (No, I´m not making this up. Honest.) Anyone photographing children runs the risk of being mistaken for a baby-snatcher, and in fact a Japanese tourist and his guide were lynched in Todos Santos a few years back, after panicked villagers decided he was sussing out the area for babynappers. Another woman had a very near brush a year or so ago–considering the widespread prevalence of the rumor, I´ve been actively avoiding pointing my camera at Guatemalan children. Which is a pity, because they´re so beautiful…especially the young women. But I´ll leave that to the photos…
Then my guide took me back to his house, an old adobe structure that had been standing for over 200 years. (He told me proudly that he was the fifth generation to grow up under that roof.) The roof was blackened and charred with the soot of many cooking fires, the mud crumbling away from the walls and exposing the bricks of sun-dried clay, the fireplace still in the center of the room, where it had once warmed the entire house. A battered old gas stove sat in one corner, but its real purpose wasn´t revealed until he opened the oven: a storage place for fruits, to keep them away from flies.
His wife was there, and showed me her ikat technique. (Ikat is a process whereby either the warp or weft threads are tie-dyed, creating a pattern in the final piece. It requires great skill, both to create and to weave.) She is a specialist–she ties the knots, then gives the yarn to a dyer, who in turn will give it to a weaver. (Yes, it really does take a village to create a fabric. LOL) She showed me some lovely pieces that mixed ikat with handspun brown cotton (!), woven on a backstrap loom (!), and I bought a used one for 350 quetzales, about $50. But I wasn´t floored until my guide offered me an old dishtowel to dry my hands–even the dishtowels are handwoven with beautiful, intricate patterns! I almost offered to buy the dishtowel–then I got my crazy-gringa instincts back under control. I mean, everyone knows Americans are weird, but buying up the dirty dishtowels??? But it was beautiful. I still kind of regret not buying it (or trying to).
Last on the list was a bunch of Guatemalan wooden masks, used in traditional dance…crudely carved of wood and painted in bright colors, they´re used to re-enact stories of the Conquistadores in traditional dances. I didn´t think much of them, until they turned up with a tiger mask. I owe the Traveling Tiger an apology–I told him there weren´t any tigers in Central America! They were selling the masks, and after some haggling I paid 275 quetzales for the tiger. (I am the traveling tigress, after all…must collect tiger memorabilia from every single country!)
Anyway, that was my morning…in the afternoon, I got to go shopping with my Spanish teacher, and that was a hoot. She and the other teacher blazed a path through the market, bargaining in rapid-fire Spanish with shopkeeper after shopkeeper, laughing and giggling, with two rather dazed American students scrambling behind them. It was fun watching the devastation, but I have to admit, I´m still a gringa at heart: I would have been happy to pay the extra ten quetzales and just buy it from the first vendor. Of course, that would have been cheating. LOL
My teacher also looked at my purchases from the morning, asked how much I´d paid, and blithely told me I´d been robbed–the blanket would have been 300 quetzales or less *new*, and only 100 quetzales used, so I´d paid triple the asking price, and the tiger mask was worth maybe 60 quetzales new, let alone used.
Hmm. I´ve even seen that particular tourist scam before…get a tourist out, have them meet the artisans, then sell them goods at inflated prices. Oh well…it wouldn´t be the first time I got cheated, and it certainly won´t be the last. I will think more about it next time, though.
Tomorrow is the San Francisco el Alto market, which is the biggest market in all of Guatemala. I´ve been warned that the pickpockets will steal everything that isn´t nailed down, so I´m leaving my backpack at the hotel (which would normally be a no-no) and going with just an old bag. Looking forward to seeing it…should be way cool!
P.S. I forgot to mention that I´ve come down with flu–pretty nasty, fever and chills and the lot–but am fortunately not all that congested, and it hasn´t affected my energy much. Still, trying to take it relatively easy the next few days…er, well, maybe.