Newsletters  | Mobile

Under the Volcanoes of Guatemala

Yet here we were. We drove to a steep hill town above Antigua called Santa María de Jesús, an almost wholly Mayan community with fields of beans, soy, and corn carpeting the slopes. There was a long voting line near the central plaza, where a busy Sunday market offering a spectacular array of produce, weavings, and all kinds of modern goods was in full swing. Besides men in jeans, the line was full of women in handwoven skirts and blouses. Many carried babies in tzuts, woven papoose sacks worn slung over the shoulder. They'd be waiting for hours. But they were smiling. There was a festive air to the proceedings.

In the cemetery, children were flying barriletes, handmade octagonal kites, the tails tied with plastic that rattled in the wind. The Mayans fly kites in cemeteries as a way of scaring off evil spirits that might bother the dead. Perhaps they also keep away evil spirits that would want to tamper with an election. Because, despite the UN's concerns and the worries of the international press and the observadores monitoring the ballots for illicit activity, and even as keyed-up voters turned out in droves all day Sunday, there was little trouble to report. By Monday, to everyone's relief, Ríos Montt was out of the race."This is a great day for democracy," Roberto Izurieta, a George Washington University professor, was saying on CNN as Kate and I packed to leave our hotel in Antigua. "For a country with so few resources, it all went very well, and I think democracy has been strengthened."

Kate was pleased, but not quite so unabashedly optimistic about Oscar Berger, who became the new president after a runoff vote in December. "For thirty years, all the best political leaders were killed," she said. "So you're left with an impoverished political landscape." If anybody could point out the shadows to me at every pretty place on this trip, it was she. As we drove between Antigua and Panajachel, the main town on Lake Atitlán and our intended destination, Kate ignored the breathtaking views of mountains covered with colorful crops and kites fluttering merrily over the fields and kept her nose pressed into a book, Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror, Betrayal and Forgetting in Guatemala, by Daniel Wilkinson. It examines the country's history through the prism of a single incident: a fire set at a coffee plantation in 1983. Native workers have long been mistreated in Guatemala, which, with a population that is 60 percent Mayan, has more indigenous people than any other Central American country, even Bolivia. Their struggle to win back any kind of power has been ongoing. In the thirties, the Socialist Party began to organize workers, but then came the Cold War. In 1954, Eisenhower sent in the CIA, a covert operation that helped to depose a democratically elected president. In the eighties, the U.S. supported the Guatemalan government with training and intelligence aimed at defeating leftist guerrillas, who had by then taken refuge among the Mayans in the highlands.

Yet once we got to Lake Atitlán, where less than 20 years before there had been military bombings of rural populations, even Kate couldn't help but be wholly seduced by its loveliness. We stayed up late one night drinking tequila at a thatched-roof restaurant below our hotel in Santa Catarina Palopó, a village outside Panajachel. We rode boats in the sunshine beneath towering volcanoes and greeted children who wanted to sell us pens and key chains they'd woven and beaded with alacrity. On a hike, Kate and I met a local politician who'd just lost the race for mayor of Santiago Atitlán, where 13 villagers were killed in 1990 for protesting harassment by the military. "I don't understand it," he complained. "I gave people free rice, corn, and beans and they still didn't vote for me!"

What could we do but laugh?At the quite untouristed Tuesday market in Sololá, a few miles north of Lake Atitlán, Kate bought herself a pair of the locally embroidered pants—bright hues on a field of red. We sat in the central plaza watching the great fashion show all around us. In Sololá, even the men dress traditionally. They wear plaid wool skirtsover intricately embroidered pants. But it's the women who are resplendent in the clothes they create for themselves. "Fabulous," was all I could say. Kate, who left to go home later that day in a far happier state than she'd been in when she'd arrived, had to agree. I only wish she could have been around the following morning, when, giddy with touristic acquisitiveness, I bought four panels of divinely woven and embroidered fabric—in shades of turquoise, green, and purple—and had a pair of trousers made. The $60 they cost is about the monthly salary of a weaver.

As with everything in Guatemala, there's politics in this too. Would Mayan women be weaving and wearing their huipil blouses and skirts, had they not been economically marginalized for so many centuries?Would having access to money for Levi's and Patagonia jackets have made them less oppressed, but also less well-dressed for my voyeuristic pleasure?In an article two years ago in the Times Literary Supplement, Kenneth Anderson observed that the assorted do-gooders and nonprofit organizations now working to help Guatemala have turned the Mayans into "tourist-friendly weavers and artisans." There is more than some truth to that. But the fact remains that in Guatemala women can make far more money selling woven garments than they can picking coffee beans. And without the presence of the tourists from Europe and the States, the country would be in much worse shape than it is today.

Carmen Giuliani, for instance, has a high-end shop in Antigua called the Loom Tree. A native of Modena, Italy, who fell in love with Guatemala 15 years ago, she employs 45 weavers from around the country, who come up with unique designs for refined fabrics that appeal to an international clientele—including, she says, the pope. Her workers do well. One, who makes fringe, has earned enough to build a house, send her children to college, and start her own small business.

"If you're going to be here, you'd better have a good reason," Father Greg Schaffer was saying. He has run a parish in San Lucas Tolimán since 1963 and was around when Father Stanley Rother, branded a Communist by the government, was killed in 1981 by a paramilitary death squad in nearby Santiago. In the last few years, Schaffer has started a business to help locals market the coffee they pick and roast themselves. Thanks to his efforts, San Lucas Tolimán has a health clinic and hospital, and a nondenominational, tuition-free private school. He has also purchased land, built housing on it, and given it to villagers.

"Everything starts with some land and a house," he told me over lunch in his bustling parish hall, where American volunteers were swarming. As for the election, he wasn't happy that the FRG had won in so many small towns. "But I was pleasantly surprised that there was as little violence as there was," he said. "I'm the type of person who will latch onto anything as hopeful."

And why not?Despite all the seemingly insoluble issues, it's hard not to see stirrings of hope in Guatemala today. You can see it in voting booths. You can see it in the traditional pride instilled in the population by fellow Mayan Rigoberta Menchú, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 after writing an autobiography that powerfully (and somewhat inaccurately, it turns out) depicted the atrocities her family faced. Around Quetzaltenango, meanwhile, a western highlands city, Habitat for Humanity just finished building its 15,000th house. In Antigua, El Sitio arts center works to bridge cultural gaps. "The Mayans have their own way of talking," said Ramelle Gonzales, who recently mounted an exhibition there, "and we have to listen."


Sign Up

Connect With Travel + Leisure
  • Travel+Leisure
  • Tablet
  • Available devices

Already a subscriber?
Get FREE ACCESS to the digital edition