Adventures While House Sitting


Tz'utjil generations.


In recent years we have heard the terms “One World Village” or “Global Village” frequently and most of us understand that turning the Global Village concept into reality is impossible.  The world’s population is too diverse in language, values, philosophies, religions and goals.

However, there appears to be a micro exception.  Santiago Atitlan is a dynamic self-governing village of 33,000 peaceful Tz’utujil (sounds like; suit-ah-hill) Mayans squeezed between the Toliman Volcano and Lake Atitlan .  Santiago is the capital of the Tz’utujil Mayan nation and considered, by them, to be the navel of the world.

At the village center stands a catholic church dating back to 1541 testifying to the period of Spanish occupation.  A park with pretty sitting benches and flowers is nearby.  There are no bars (except in the gringo hotels) and we have encountered only two intoxicated Tz’utujil. Both were very light hearted and not at all offensive. Drugs do not seem to be a problem.  Apparently the “jail” consists of a pole where disorderly people are placed, tied and left until sober. I am not sure who ties folks to the pole but we have never seen a policeman.  Occasionally we see a uniformed man with a shot gun at the lake’s docks, a small group of military men visiting the village and hired guards with shotguns accompanying the Gallo beer delivery truck.  The village has elected officials, fire department, ambulance, hospital etc… by and large the culture is conservative, industrious, deeply religious and committed to their families and neighbors.

We have been in Guatemala nearly six weeks now and live on a steep volcanic hillside (San Pedro Volcano) directly across the bay from Santiago. The sounds of Santiago’s festive and somber activities are carried by air currents three miles to our side of the bay.  When we go to Santiago to shop, visit or dine-out we literally rub elbows, bump hips, step on toes, jostle and talk with the villagers. Thus we are exposed to the village of 33,000 Tz’utujil from both a distant and close-up perspective. 

When we first arrived Santiago was in the midst of a two week festival.  A small carnival was located in the church plaza; music and fireworks filled the air 24/7.  The festival dates back hundreds of years and has something to do with synchronized Catholic and Mayan pagan religious activities. Every night we would sit outside and listen to the activities across the water.  We were struck by the level of energy the Tz’utujil have.  Just listening wore us out and we’d eventually go to bed with ear plugs, which helped but did not prevent the startled wakefulness when the really big batches of fireworks went off.

Our first Monday morning, we awoke to someone standing just outside our window talking loudly. I got up and realized the voice was carrying across the bay from Santiago and that is was a radio announcer. I now call the mysterious person that blares their radio every Monday morning starting around 2:30AM “the baker”, since, in our world, only a baker would be up that early.  Sometimes the baker plays Latin music, sometimes classical, this week it was the death march, because a death had just occurred in Santiago, followed by Tchaikovsky.  The radio is silenced around 10 am. Needless to say there are no laws pertaining to noise pollution, which is OK with us since the sounds we hear are full of life and festivity.

It is not at all uncommon for revivals, rallies, speeches and music to begin about dinner time and run through the night until 2:30, 3:30 even 4:30 in the morning.  The events are loud and frequently punctuated with fireworks and always a grand finale of loud speaking, preaching, praying, crying or music and finally a full round of fireworks. All of this is followed by an hour of silence while the early morning cooking fires are lit as evidenced by the thick haze of smoke that slowly accumulates and lingers over the village. Also around 4:30AM the roosters and dogs start in and by 5:30AM (some men are even earlier – crossing the lake in the dark), the men are in their koyok’as crossing the lake for another day of work and the women are preparing for a day of weaving, selling or washing clothes in the lake. These people are the hardiest and happiest people I have ever met.  In the world Quality of Life Index the Lake Atitlan area rates four (out of five) on the happiness chart!

At first I thought all this noise would drive me crazy, but as the weeks pass I find I actually enjoy the lively mix.  Water taxis on the lake (motorized boats), the beautiful scenery, sunshine and constant music and village sounds make it seem a perpetual holiday. The sounds of people swimming, conversing and laughing in their Koyuk’as and the low murmur of women talking as they wash clothes at the lake shore is so dramatically different than the dead silence of an Alaskan winter day that I thrive on the sounds of life; chaotic as they may be.

I have always believed a “village” is made up of a small number of people in a remote location and could not possibly consist of 33,000 souls, but I am learning that size is not a defining factor; it is the heart and mind of the people.  Today, September 11, 2011 is a very big day for Guatemala as it is local Election Day and the primaries.  Guatemalan’s will be electing their local and national leaders. Consequently for the very first time, since we have been here, Santiago was absolutely silent last night.  By law the political rallies and commercialism ends 48 hours before the election. Friday night was certainly quieter than any other Friday night since our arrival, but last night a silent contemplation fell over the village and you could feel the prayers and concerns of the people on the soft blowing breeze.  It placed in me an even deeper respect for the culture.

Otto Perez Molina is front runner for the presidential seat. This is a very big concern for the Mayans and particularly the Santiago Tz’utujil.  Perez served as military general during the Tz’utujil genocide programs of the 1990’s.  He actually commanded troops to kill the Tz’utujil and burn the villages.  Many of Santiago’s men were tortured and slaughtered as well as women and children. 

During the silent night (probably the single silent night we will experience while here) my thoughts and prayers were with the village and individual Tz’utujil friends.  This morning even the village dogs and chickens are quiet, they too sense the serious collective thoughts of the villagers. The catholic and evangelistic churches are no doubt packed with praying saints. Generally when looking out over the bay at this time of morning you see dozens of men in their Koyok’as crossing to our side of the lake for another day of climbing San Pedro volcano to tend their fields, fish the shallow reed beds along the lake’s shore or to cut and dry cane grass for weaving. But the lake is strangely barren.

Today, when the voting is over we will hear, in full force, the celebrations of the village which will include free food, music, fireworks and no doubt speeches in the village plaza.  This will go on for at least two days.  This lively village works, eats, prays, sings, cries together and seemingly never sleeps.

The villagers are animated story tellers.  David and I rock with laughter when our Gardener, Nickolas tells a story using words (many of which we don’t understand as he flips back and forth between butchered Spanish and Tz’utujil), hand and body motions. Yesterday he explained to us exactly what will be going on for the next couple of days as the voting begins followed by free food, music and speeches.  He told us stories about villagers and the polite way they will, at first, refuse the free food and drinks over and over (even though they have already seated themselves at the table) but will eventually be ‘convinced’ to eat and then will eat all day and all night and how some will trick the food servers with feigned accidents and during the confusion fill their bags with food, rush out, go home unload it and then go to another free food location to repeat the process.  It reminded me of the Athabaskan potlucks I had attended when Sarah Malcolm would slyly wrap up foods with white paper napkins, place them in her purse all the while motioning for me to look away and pretend I did not see her petty thievery.  The silly thing is everyone at the potlucks knew that all the elders were doing this. I assume it is the same in Santiago.

When we shop in the tightly packed market, the black eyes of the Tz’utujil follow our moves and conversations.  Partly this is due to the competitive spirit of the sellers – they are hoping you will buy from them and partly out of curiosity (we never see other whites in the indoor market).  Yesterday while David haggled with an elderly man over a couple tubes of newspaper (fire starter) I stood on an elevated stair waiting.  Suddenly I noticed a hushed stillness at our end of the market. I looked out over the vendors and saw that all nearby activity had come to a stop. Dark eyes closely watched our actions.  Presumably in part out of curiosity, but definitely to make sure their elder is treated respectfully.  I smiled big and said “Hi everybody”!  Giggling erupted, embarrassed faces turned away and the market din resumed to the usual bustling roar.

With very few exceptions the women still dress in the Huipiles, beautiful hand woven and ornately embroidered blouses and the Cortes or wrapped skirt made from hand woven fabric.  The Cortes is double layered and reversible.  The most expensive Huipiles run 500q, Cortes skirts cost 800q and a beaded belt 150q (100 q. = $12.50 US dollars).  Several types of belts are available including beautiful hand painted strips of cowhide.  All the women wear a large woven ‘scarf’ over one shoulder.  The scarf can serve as a head covering, a bag, a cushion for loads carried atop their heads, to carry infants and a variety of other activities.  The prices I mention are what a Tz’utujil woman would pay for her clothing if she did not make it herself.  Each village produces its own distinctive weavings and embroidered designs of flowers and birds in specific colors. Santiago’s primary colors are purple and white.

The men’s pantaloons are also hand woven and intricately embroidered.  Today only tour guides and “wealthy” (by Central American standards) can afford to wear the pantaloons. Pantaloons originated because men spent so much time at the lake shore.  Thus this cut-off version of pants prevents the wearer from being wet all the time. A complete outfit for the men includes a hand woven sash or belt, leather sandals, shirts of either western fashion or western style but cut from woven cloth and cowboy hats. The oldest men also carry woven ‘purses’.  Today, most men are dressed in western clothing purchased new or used. 

The wages these people earn is ridiculously low.  A professional such as a roofer earns $90q. for a seven hour work day (1.60 US dollars an hour), a laborer earns 40-60q. for a seven hour day.  The women earn far less for their beautiful handwork.

Aklash Sba Chjay (Tz’utujil for “Time to go”).  Stay tuned for Next Week’s Part 2. Meanwhile you can practice the Tz’utujil word for rain which is Hop.

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