Leaving Panahachel we literally jump on a moving “chicken bus”. I asked the bus driver “ This bus is direct to Xela?” He looks me up and down, nods and says “Si”. I ask once again “Directo?” The driver looks me in the eyes and emphatically answers “Yes, of course!”
4 hours, 3 bus transfers, one mini van, and one taxi later we end up in the city of Xela. As we approach the main square in the taxi I remember the bus driver’s plea and I begin to laugh to myself. This is why we came to Guatemala and this is why we have come to love it….. In Guatemala, the uncertainty of everyday life is the only certain thing. Every day traveling this beautiful country you are forced to be patient, adaptable, strong in your head and sensitive in your heart. To me this is perfection. This is what life here is all about and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
After arriving in Xela we decided this was the place we wanted to settle for awhile to volunteer. We made arrangements with two organizations in town, found an apartment, and treated ourselves to a 7 day hike while our November work and lodging arrangements were pending. We found a very laudable hiking company called Quetzaltrekkers who donate all their profits to schools in the indigenous communities. We decided to go with them on a 7 day, 40 mile, roller coaster ride of a hike from Nebaj to Todos Santos. The group was made up of wilderness guides, survivalists, adrenaline junkies, Christina and myself. Needless to say, Christina and my physical capabilities were well under prepared for this arduous journey and we spent most of the hike far behind the others. Another needless-to-say is that we could not have asked for a better life experience. For seven days we got to see how the most remote indigenous people in Guatemala live, stay in their houses, discuss life with them and for this (and the scenery) we will be forever thankful.
The last day of our hike we were to end in Todos Santos just in time for their famous Dios De Los Muertos Fiesta. Every year on November 1st people from all over Guatemala and the rest of the world descend on the small village of Todos Santos to admire their unique indigenous garb and watch their interesting festivities. The best and only way to describe these “interesting festivities” would be to call it the drunkest horse races known to mankind. Basically, the villagers of Todos Santos stay up all night drinking on October 31st to take part in the next day’s strange horse races, which many foreigners come to see. The reason I call these horse races strange is because there is no winner to the race (which makes it not a race at all) and if someone falls of a horse and dies the people of Todos Santos believe it is a good omen. The drunker the rider the better.
Now, why does such an odd race exist, you might ask. Well I decided to do some research with the fact checkers and historians of Todos Santos and this is what I found out:
Hundreds of years ago in the village of Todos Santos The Spanish invaded and more or less made slaves out of the indigenous population. When the Spanish came to South and Central America they brought horses with them. These horses were new to indigenous communities of the Americas and the Spaniards strictly forbid indigenous people from riding these majestic creatures. Now, one night back in Todos Santos a local man got so drunk he said “screw the Spanish”, stole a horse, and rode it into the distance (until he was chased down and killed). This unruly event became an important liberating moment in Todos Santos history and as the years progressed more and more indigenous started riding horses. Today, in honor of this drunken liberator every man in the village gets as drunk as humanly possible and tries to ride off into the distance.
(Disclaimer: it is possible this history is not completely accurate. Please do not hold me to any of this because this is just what I heard from others.)
I have to say I respect all people’s beliefs, customs, and traditions but this was a pretty sad event to see. The men of town get so drunk I have never seen anything like it before. At first it was kind of funny but once you start to see dozens of little kids next to their drunken incoherent dad, waiting for him to wake up, it becomes quite sad. Luckily, I was told by guides that Todos Santos is usually a dry town and the men only do this for one day to respect the tradition.
The next morning we went to the cemetery, where the town was gathered to celebrate El Dia de los Muertos. The above-ground tombs were really colorful and decorated with streamers, candles and flowers by their family members. The holiday is to remember those who have died by going to the grave site, making their favorite food and telling stories about them. Some tombs were decorated in red, white and blue with the words USA on them. Many people in Todos Santos have traveled to the US to work and returned with money saved in hopes of having a better life. This is why Todos Santos is richer than many other towns and why there is so much pride for the U.S.
When we returned to Xela we were anxious to start working and deepening our bonds with Guatemala. As we were moving our stuff from the Hotel Casa Argentina and into our new place, Christina reminded me I forgot something in the room. As I ran up the few stairs to the outside courtyard and back to our room I heard Christina yell at me. Naturally, my first thought was what am I being yelled at for now, but when I looked back Christina and everything else in the open room was shaking. I ran back to Christina and we took cover in a door passage which had the strongest support beams (I think). As the building continued to shake we had ample time to realize what was happening. Earthquake! After about 5 seconds we realized this could go on for a bit so I tried to move Christina to the open Courtyard a few steps away but I was unable to break the GI Joe Kung Fu Death Grip she had latched onto the door frame with. I put my arms around her and we stood in the doorway awaiting our fate. About 20 seconds later the shaking stopped with virtually no damage to Casa Argentina. We later found out the Earthquake was the biggest one in Guatemala since 1976 and the center was about 2 hours away in San Marcos. The city of Xela was left unharmed and (Thank God) no injuries. I remember thinking after the Earthquake how much I reluctantly prefer Hurricanes to Earthquakes. Being from Florida I always like to be well aware of my natural disasters and their whereabouts.
We have moved into our new place and have started working on two different projects. One is at a orphanage teaching English and the other is at a Women’s Shelter where we will be coordinating everything from computer classes to arts and crafts projects. It has only been a week but it has been both eye opening and humbling. The most interesting thing so far is that I am yet to come across a women or child who is angry, or spiteful of their circumstances. They are all so loving and kind that it pains me to think what kinds of horrible things they have been subjected to in this life. This experience makes me feel bad for ever complaining about one thing in life when I know how truly lucky I am. We will be working hard to make sure our influence in their lives is positive and helpful.
We have this ongoing joke here between volunteers and travelers from the US and Europe. It goes something like this. When you here another volunteer complaining about some small problem in their day that upsets them you say “First World Problem”. Basically this means that the problem you just mentioned is not even applicable to the people or the country you are in because they deal with much worse problems on a daily basis.
Person 1: “ I can’t believe this place doesn’t have hot water”
Person 2: “First World Problems”
Every time someone says this to me I think about it, I laugh, the problem vanishes from my mind and all that remains is gratitude.