Adventures While House Sitting


A Mayan women contemplates a market  purchase


The Mayans are a corn culture. Their entire existence revolves around corn.  Every morning the women of the household make fresh white corn tortillas for their families.  These soft white three inch tortillas are their bread and butter and frequently serve as a complete meal at noon.  The primary diet of the Tz’utujil consists of tortillas with black beans and possibly a hardboiled egg sliced and added to the tortilla “sandwich” and coffee for breakfast, plain tortillas and coffee for lunch and dinner is the same as breakfast minus the egg.  Coffee is the beverage of choice and children drink it from the time they are weaned.  My Spanish instructor believes he grew an extra two inches because he quit coffee in his teens (he the tallest of his family) now at 26 he drinks coffee constantly. 

In addition to tortillas and beans the occasional plantain, chicken or beef, wild and domestic fruits, fish, fresh water crabs and veges serve as supplements to the ever present corn tortilla for those who can afford these luxuries.  In spite of this mundane and seemingly imbalanced diet the Tz’utujil climb the steep volcanoes twice or more times a day to tend fields, pack huge loads with a trump line across their foreheads, then attend social events in the evening, sometimes all night, and start again in the morning.  I have never met a heartier people.

We frequently see a 97 year old man crossing the bay, hunched over and paddling slowly in his Koyoka.  He then ascends the volcano to tend his fields.  Because of Otto Perez’s genocide program it is rare to see a Tz’utujil man of this age.  I would love to be able to speak to him and hear his stories but Tz’utujil is a very complex language.  Many Tz’utujil do not speak Spanish and certainly not English.  English is not a required subject in the schools and while some tourism exists, the area is not inundated by it. The Tz’utujil really have no reason to learn English unless involved in business or government.

The Tz’utujil language can be very soft and pleasant.  At church services the singing is absolutely beautiful (every time I hear all those voices lifted in praise I ask God to bless the village). But, when sitting in the midst of a lively family conversation, the language sounds very harsh.  It is a guttural language and sounds, to me, like a cross between Asian and Arabic. Interestingly the word for thank you is Mateowash ( in the Alaskan  Athabaskan dialect it is Maseechoo).  The word for the small lake crafts the Tz’utujil use –Koyoka is not too far from the Eskimo word - Kayak. 

The Tz’utujil are small in stature.  The men average four and a half to five feet tall weighing less than 120 pounds and are inordinately strong for their size.  We have seen men packing 200 lbs. of grain secured by a rope and trump line or a bundle of green firewood that extends over their head down to their knees and is a foot and a half high. A few days ago, I found myself halted to a crawl by two women, probably in their seventies, which were no more than three feet tall carrying big bundles atop their heads.  It is pretty easy to pick out the 5% Tz’utujil/Spanish mixed population of Santiago since they stand a good head or two taller than the full blooded Tz’utujil. Yesterday, I was sitting outdoors waiting for David to get a haircut ($1.25 - $3 US dollars) and noted a whole group of women probably between 70 and 95 years of age.  They were all thin and not one was over four feet tall.

It is difficult to tell the age of this ethnic group.  Often they look like kids but are in their twenties to forties. Facial expressions can change from an intense intimidating stare, then in a flash, light up with a childlike happiness by a simple smile that infuses their whole being.  Frequently I find unsmiling women looking very intently at me as I pass them on the street.  I smile at them and keep smiling and after a few moments they break into a pleasant smile in return.  Their smiles are inviting and genuine.

The Tz’utujil are perfectly adapted to their environment of water and mountains.  It is amazing to watch the men navigate and work from their small wooden koyuk’as which are very unstable (I tried one) and yet they use them as an extension of terra firma. They travel the lake and mountains in pitch dark with big loads of firewood, harvested foods and reeds.  The worst tropical storms do not send them scurrying for cover.  Without exception men will travel the lake, without any raingear, as booming thunder and lightning strikes surround them.  Men paddle standing up even in the severest winds and waves.

Both the men and women wear impractical footgear that seems absurd.  We had wood delivered and the woman who came along (with a bundle on her head) was wearing tiny little gel sandals. Our gardener Nicolas wears wallabies that are completely untied. Presumably so that he can easily slip them off and on when using his Koyuka. The Koyuka’s are wooden, seat less and always take on water.  

Most Tz’utijil are not well adapted to machines of any kind and the Machete is the tool by which everything is accomplished.  Recently our boat dock had to be rebuilt and David was amazed at the skill with which Nicolas (the gardener)used his machete to cut and notch hardwood logs and thick beams.  David said Nicolas can easily keep up with a chainsaw and would be perfectly capable of building a log cabin using only a machete.

Unfortunately we consistently find a bad attitude towards the indigenous peoples of Guatemala.  People of pure Spanish descent loathe them and Ex-pats speak very poorly of the Mayans.  Some of this is understandable since many are petty thieves, especially in areas of harvesting, land use and tourism.  If they do not respect a gringo they will steal from them. In and around the cities of Guatemala the thievery is far from petty and is well organized.  We have a friend that gave up on his coffee plantation because armed groups would cut through his fences and steal his ripe coffee crops.  He felt he could not protect his workers or his assets and so became an attorney instead.  He now fights organized crime.

One of our neighbors is a doctor who rarely visits his home on the lake.  He has Tz’utujil caretakers that are free to use his land to produce additional income.  One week we watched them build a fish farm in the lake in front of the doctor’s house, a couple weeks later they constructed a bamboo lookout tower at the edge of the lake.  We learned that fishermen were stealing from the fish farm in the night and so, up went a lookout tower which is manned all night.  When you visit private properties absolutely everything is fenced, locked and chained.  Propane tanks and other outdoor objects are locked to rebar hoops in the cement; even Koyoka Paddles have to be hidden away when not in use.  And we learned the hard way; that many Tz’utujil will certainly take advantage of stupid gringos.

In our first shopping adventures I made some big blunders.  At first I had no idea what sellers were saying to me and I would pay whatever they asked, when I say pay I don’t mean I understood what the price was and even if I had I really had no idea how much something should cost.  I would just fork out money until they were satisfied.  But I began to feel like I was paying too much and decided to do some homework.   First, I made myself small cards with Spanish numbers and words to use when asking about prices, then I made a list of things we buy at the Santiago market and Nicolas would look at things as I pulled them out of the fridge or unloaded them after a shopping trip and  tell me how much he would pay for them (which is not the same as a gringo pays), I listed everything on a small notepad I can fit in my shirt pocket and I finally figured out that Libre is the Spanish word  for pound.  Many of the vendors speak just enough Spanish to conduct business with tourists.

The next time I went shopping I surprised the vendors as I dickered over prices and actually knew what things should cost and the right size bill to pay with.  Some of the vendors were very happy we figured it out and even sold to us at non-gringo prices.  Consequently these same vendors were the ones that had not overcharged us in the past.  Other vendors were not happy we figured it out, so now we avoid them.  We generally test a couple, new to us, vendors each week and spread our purchasing around.   We have quit shopping at two Tiendas (small hole-the-wall stores) because after we have purchased the same thing a couple of times, they suddenly raise the prices on us.  One thing that amazes me, at the Tiendas, is how in the world they keep track of prices since nothing is marked.  Presumably the price is different for each customer depending on relationship.

The other day we heard an unpleasant discussion going on and learned that one of our neighbors had told some of his family members that they could cut firewood from the doctor’s land.  Land use is closely guarded and we are hyper vigilant about the property we are currently responsible for and constantly making sure no one is extending their property line, cutting wood, stealing avocadoes, lemons or cutting the lakeside reeds. By-the-way, if a fruit tree is on a property line you can only harvest what is on your side…this is a very important issue among the locals since property ownership is not usually a legal documented ownership, but simply “owned” through generations of use.  The Mayan mindset is simple, if I work the land it is mine.

Occasionally a diver will show up, don mask, snorkel and taking his homemade spear gun flip off his Koyuka into the lake.  It is said he steals from people’s fish and crab baskets and that he thinks it’s OK because he can do something the rest of them can’t (Snorkel).  We recently had a piece of firewood stolen and spied it through a hole in a locked shed next door…this has happened before and the same neighbor was responsible.  We have been told you must stand up to these petty thieves and so a plan has been formed on how to deal with this repeated offender. The interesting thing is that this stuff goes on constantly and is settled with talking or simply ignored.

I believe I grasped the gentle and respectful nature of most of the Tz’utujil when watching a scene unfold in an outdoor restaurant in Panajachel.  A tall drunk woman in western clothing wandered into the restaurant and was intoxicated just enough to be loud and demanding (she did not appear to be Mayan).  For at least ten minutes the waiters talked with her and finally politely escorted her out.  This was repeated four times.  The men were very gentle and kept their voices low.  The woman was definitely a nuisance and in America we would have called the police or had a bouncer kick her into the street. 

These people are not at all forceful and in fact a public forceful attitude is highly offensive. Diplomacy seems to be the preferred course of action. In my limited experience the men who are of a passive nature will quickly come to an agreement with you when you address them about an inconsistency in fees.  The Tz’tujil were once fierce warriors and battles between villages was simply part of everyday life.  Their current peaceful attitude is genuine in the Christian sector but for some it is a thin veneer kept in check by an unspoken ‘village/family accountability code’.  However, we have heard many stories of thieves put to rest with a machete by a property owner pushed too far.

We consistently notice the villagers that are 35 or 40 years and older are sincere and very friendly.  The younger ones are more likely to be rude, try to rip tourists off and can just have an attitude (they also happen to be the first generation exposed to TV & non-traditional music).  Still it is refreshing to see all the males with short hair, all the females with long hair and no piercing or tattoos. I really appreciate the teens that spend their time fishing and swimming; they can spend hours if not all day at it. They are shy but friendly. I don’t think it would even dawn on them to try and take advantage of someone. 

The Tz’utujil are very protective of their children and in fact we try to ignore the children we encounter on shopping trips and take pictures only of children we know.  A Mayan friend invited us to an event that involved all the elementary schools. The children were performing in the church plaza. After about an hour we decided to leave because we noticed a number of people closely watching us. We were the only white faces in a crowd of about 800.

When we are in any of the lakeside villages I have to watch what I wear.  Even a modest skort (skirt/shorts combo) is frowned upon.  I was not aware of this and twice went to Santiago in my skort.  The women giggled and the men stared – it made me uncomfortable and David mad, so I asked our gardener if what I was wearing is ok.  He said “No, it means you are for sale”.  So now I just roll lightweight pants up to my knees when we go shopping.  If I show up at the dock in a skort I get a disapproving frown from the gardener. David and I have talked to him about the fact that I cannot work like I do fully dressed as it is just too hot (recently I did work fully dressed and had a slight touch of sunstroke – the effects lasted three days).  Nicolas understands this but apparently feels I have to stay hidden and not appear at the lakeside.

I recently saw a young couple in western fashion kissing in a back street.  Two women walked by, one stopped and scolded them; the other kept walking but scolded them as she passed.

Dogs are a constant problem and have to fend for themselves.  They are very adept at polite begging and getting trash out of the lidded cans in the park. I wish they had a dog program to spay/ neuter and put the ones that are severely injured or sick out of their misery. The dog issue is one thing about village life I find difficult to accept. On the other hand, we regularly watch two dogs swim the three miles from Santiago to our side of the bay as their owner paddles his Koyuka over. These dogs are well cared for.  On our side of the bay dogs are posted at various farming properties to keep away intruders and wildlife while the owners are back at home in Santiago. We frequently here them barking at night and more often than not they are barking at squirrels, coyotes and wildcats - BIG WILDCATS!  (We recently had one visit).

Santiago is a very clean village, even in the back streets.  Businesses generally open at 10AM and the first task is sweeping and watering down the “sidewalks” and stone street in front of their shops and stalls.  Trash cans are strategically placed around the village and except at the lake front most people put their trash where it belongs.  We visited one village – San Pedro and I was appalled at the filthy streets and stench.  I also noticed the village had a lot of waterfront New Age businesses owned by foreigners.  Even though there was a great outdoor restaurant with a huge and delicious tropical salad for $2.25 we have not gone back.

We have found a great little indoor/outdoor restaurant in Santiago and we never miss the opportunity to drop in and visit with the Mayan family that owns it. The rich dark wooden tables & chairs dressed in colorful Mayan woven table cloths along with the outdoor patio and plants is the perfect place to sip one of their HUGE Fruita con Aguas  (to us, it’s a fruit smoothie and costs $1.50) after trekking around with loaded backpacks (remember nothing is level here, except the lake’s surface, everything else is up and down steep hills).  Also, we have been helping the owners with translating signs from Spanish to English. They are advertising a private room and bath available to rent for $90 a month!

We also visit our banana lady who sits on the curb under a beach umbrella on the side of the main street with a small basket of fruits.  Yesterday, we purchased 20 bananas for sixty cents and five oranges for $1.25 (oranges are hard to find here). Then there is the pen guy…he weaves names onto BIC writing pens and I’m quite sure he watches for our boat at all times since, before we can even tie up, he is standing beside the boat asking if we have anymore names?  We usually give him two or three. Then there is Andrea, a Mayan woman with a stall of beautifully woven garments and scarfs.  She always has the best prices and generally chases me down the street. We have learned to communicate pretty well. Usually as we walk from one destination to another we will suddenly hear our names called out and here come Nicolas’s three youngest children chasing after us. We chat on the side of the street and with hugs and kisses all around we eventually part ways.

Then we visit the Papaya lady, the potato family, the hardware store, the young owner at our favorite tienda,  the meat man, the…

Well, I could go on and on, but I won’t. 

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