Todos Santos

THE SAINTS OF THE CUCHUMATANES

I'm afraid I cannot think of anything nice to say about Huehuetenango (or just “Huehue”). I arrived here yesterday from Mexico and ever since I have seen nothing but rubbish and ugliness. It already started while driving up here by bus: an American girl was reading a book and crumpled up each page that she had read and threw it out of the window, just like that! Full of unbelief I watched many a page fly out of the window. Probably this was a sign for what was about to come… Huehue!

 

Vultures on the roof

Todos Santos marketday

It's amazing that such small town at a height of 1900 meter with just 20.000 inhabitants can be so busy, so dirty and dusty, so obstructed with cars and so polluted with exhaustgases. About my hotel I can be equally negative; everything is within reach, but it all looks so miserable that I think one night in this room will be more than enough. The shower is huge, with a large Huehue busstationstone basin, and there are electric wires everywhere. Deadly dangerous, if you ask me.
A visit to the small Maya ruin of Zaculeu - once a religious place for the Mam Maya - cannot ease the pain; I cannot imagine an uglier Maya temple than this one! The constructions are covered in a white, grey or black layer of plaster. This used to be the case in the old times too, but then at least the buildings had been beautified with colourfully painted decorations. Today I am the only visitor. Very soon I am standing once again at the busstop waiting to go back to Huehue, when it starts to rain and thunder. I am so glad to be able to leave for Todos Santos Cuchumatán tomorrow morning!

Walking towards the busterminal my impression of Huehue is still more intensified. I see nothing but Todos Santos marketgarbage, waste, dirt. The trees and bushes are covered with a layer of brown-grey dust and along the road I see numerous broken down cars waiting to be repared at one of the many garages. But then I haven't seen the busterminal yet! Like on a rubbish-dump large groups of vultures are prying on the terminal-ground and on the surrounding roofs. From all sides vultures are closely watching the coming and going of buses. The whole place is muddy, everywhere there is waste, stones, holes in the road, plastic, you name it. The smells are horrific. The market through which I have to walk to get to the bus, is equally unappealing: smelly pieces of meat, bald roaming dogs…
The excentric, colourfully painted buses, full of religious decorations, are old American Bluebird schoolbuses. When I go and buy my ticket, the man behind the counter asks me where I want to sit. He shows me a wooden plank full of little holes: one hole for each seat, three seats on each side of the bus. For every seat taken he puts a little stick in the concerning hole until the plank has become a wood of sticks. Carefully I pick my hole.

Todos Santos

Right on time, at 11.30 AM, the bus leaves and soon we start climbing the Sierra de los Cuchumatánes, Todos Santos peoplethe highest mountain-range of Central America. The unpaved road is steep and zigzags its way up so slowly that we advance with just 16 kilometer per hour, measured by the distance we cover in one and a half hour. On the plateau we stop for lunch. Up here it is pretty cold, it is almost winter. The clouds are hanging low and embrace the mountains. Then the valley in which Todos Santos lies comes in sight. After a three hour drive (a distance of just 40 kilometer) I can take my backpack off the roof of the bus and start looking for a place to sleep. In the Casa Familiar on the mountain-slope I find myself a tiny but lovely room with an equally tiny window with beaufitul views. On the narrow bed I find a couple of woolen blankets, which tells me it can be quite cold at night. Two warm showers and a traditional “chu” – the Mam sauna – are for general use. There are some more backpackers. They sit and chat with each other on the big stone verandah with views of the village and the surrounding mountains. At once I am thrilled to be here and so happy with the relaxed atmosphere in the village and the guesthouse, and the decision to stay longer than the initially planned one night is easily made.
Together with the other travellers I go out for dinner and later on we have a warm hot chocolate on the verandah. At night I feel terribly cold, despite my sleepingbag and the three warm blankets. It must be because Todos Santos lies at a height of about 2450 meter.

Phone home

While having breakfast on the verandah, the sun is shining bright. I really feel good here in this Todos Santos marketparadisiac little corner of Guatemala. So good that at first I totally forget that it is my birthday today! I cannot think of a nicer place to celebrate my birthday than this one. While looking for a phone to call home, I soon find out that there is just one phone in the village: on top of the roof of a dilapidated farm just outside the village. Reception is said to be best here. The entire farming family plus other villagers are curiously watching me from a distance.
The rest of the day I hang around in the village. Today is wednesday: market-day (the big market is on saturdays). Sitting down on the pavement I slowly start taking pictures of the movement around me: the Mam indians in their traditional clothes, the goods on sale, the negotiations, the meetings. Uninterupted, I am able to take photos, nobody seems to be bothered by me. Sitting on the ground like this makes me feel quite invisible…
Todos Santos babyThe approximately 2000 Mam Maya indians of Todos Santos stick to their old ways. Nearly everyone is traditionally dressed. The men wear their red trousers with the vertical white stripes and white shirts with beautifully embroidered collars and borders. While the women carry their dark blue skirts and intricately woven purple or red blouses, the so-called “huipiles”. Horse-races are held each year in November and are part of their tradition too. During this celebration, for days there is eating and dancing, and a lot of drinking as well. The indians from the nearby village of San Juan Atitán have also made it to the market today, one can recognize them by their own attire.

Mam sauna

I walk up and down the only proper street in the village. The weather is sunny and warm. With an Israeli girl I walk around the valley floor and we have a look at the farms and fields. When we sit down at the bTodos Santos marketakery opposite the Catholic church to have a tea and some bread, it starts to rain. Soon it is raining cats and dogs. So we hang around at the bakery's and chat with two Maya women and a Canadian boy of just nineteen who has come all the way from Canada in his car! Back at the guesthouse, we ask for the Mam sauna to be made ready for us. In the meantime I lie on my bed, it is starting to thunder... But, wow, what a wonderful little village this is! After an hour the sauna is heated. It looks like an iglo made of dried clay. On our knees we crawl in - one cannot stand up in here. For twenty minutes we sit cramped on a tiny bench in this narrow, dark little cavelike thing. We are being given a candle and are supposed to close the little door. But it is so hot and smoky that we decide to leave it open a bit. Because of the smoke I keep my eyes shut. Despite all Men of Todos Santosthe complaints, it is truely a lovely experience.
In the evening we watch a video in the school where Spanish is being taught, about the bloody eighties. In those years the village was the stage for conflict between the guerilla and the army of Guatemala. 1981 was the gruesomest year of all when all suspected guerilla sympathizers were being systematically slaughtered. It is an hours long video and it is very cold in the school, so after one and a half hour we give it a break. Back in the guesthouse I steal an extra blanket from one of the empty rooms and with four blankets I am soon sound asleep!

Clouds and a blouse

The next day I walk up the mountains together with a dutch girl, in search of a beautiful view of the valley. Unfortunately it is very cloudy and cold. We pass some very basic houses and their occupants. Children walk with us and the elders try and have a talk with us as far as this is possible, as they speak very little Spanish (they have their own Mam Maya language). Todos Santos is a poor village; there is always a shortage of land and often families cannot grow enough to provide the family with food for a whole year. Running water can only be found in the centre of town.
CuchumatanesThe landscape around Todos Santos is beautiful and rugged, but far from pristine. People live and work on every little piece of land, there is no room for forests. I have heard that even after an exhausting hike up from the village to a height of about 4000 meter, one will still encounter little houses with fields on the rocky, windy summits. Actually I had not expected this, as I read in my travelguide that this area is supposed to be part of a national park. So where are all the plants and animals? Clouds have drifted in and take away any kind of view of the valley and mountains. After a two hour climb we give up. It is just too cold, too gray, and what's more, we keep sliding away in the mud. The weather remains gray for the rest of the day, so I hang around town and in one of the shops with artesanías I buy myself one of those lovely Todos Santos (men's!) blouses. (I shall never wear this blouse in Guatemala. Only after having arrived in Honduras, where nobody will recognize me as a Todos Santos indian, I have the nerve to wear it...) In the evening I am once again sweating in the wonderful sauna.

Girls in Todos Santos mountainsThe bus back to Huehue leaves at 5.50 AM. It is still dark and cold when I walk down to the busstop. Nobody was awake yet in the guesthouse, so I put the money for the three nights on the table in my bedroom, hoping that this is okay. The sun comes out and once again the land looks gorgeous. There are just a few people on the bus; something you will seldom see in Guatemala. We climb up from the valley and behind me I can see Todos Santos disappearing into the depths. Lowhanging clouds far below us. On the plateau it is freezing cold and the landscape is covered with a white layer of ice. The steep road down now has spectacular views. In this christal clear weather I can see practically the whole of Guatemala lying in front of me, right up to the vulcanoes in the south of the country; I count five or six of them. Driving down the mountain the ride goes so much faster and after two hours I arrive in foggy Huehue. And now it is time to search for my next Bluebird bus!