Point Of View

I just moved the modem that serves my room so that it no longer has to pass through seven meters of adobe to reach my computer.  Voila!  everything works better now.  Line of sight, perspective and point of view are powerful things.

I’ve been walking up the hill most days for exercise.  The first day, I made it as far as the main road above town, stopping three times to catch my breath.  The streets here are steep, and I am about 1000 meters higher in elevation than I am used to.  The second day, I made it a bit farther, to the lavadora,  the public washing space for clothing.  That became my regular for a while.  After a week or so, I was able to make it there without resting.  This photo is taken on the only flat part of that walk.


A couple of days ago, Daniela, (my adopted Guatemalan nieta) and I actually ran up the last and steepest part, which comes not long after this.  We have also extended the regular hike to the football (soccer) field about twice as far up the hill.  Today, we went even farther, to the Mirador, which is the starting point if you plan to hike the volcano, and at least that distance again.  You can see the football field below in this next photo, and a good but of San Pedro as well.  Our starting point is by the lake.


A little elevation gives one a broader perspective.  One can see the towns of San Pablo and San Marcos on the other side of the lake, and while one can see most of San Pedro, it feels smaller and less significant compared to everything around it.

It is easy when all one knows is one’s own immediate vicinity, to see it as the center of everything.  It is only when one ventures outside of one’s comfort zone that one can come to appreciate the breadth and diversity of the world, as well as the interconnected nature of it.  The internet was supposed to make the world smaller, by connecting us all, and, to some extent, it did, for a time.  What we are finding now, though, is that the algorithms of social media are separating us into comfort zones again.  The buzzword is “polarization,” although that implies only two viewpoints.  I would say “balkanization” would be more accurate.  We are being divided into as many focus groups as possible, to facilitate the marketing of both products and politicians.

I was 45 when I traveled more than 100 miles from the US border for the first time as an adult.  Even so, I had traveled more than the majority of Americans who don’t even have passports, and the large percentage who never leave their home state or even town.  It was an eye opening experience for me.  Suddenly, I was immersed in another culture, where people spoke another language, where the climate, the flora, and fauna were all alien and beautiful.  I was 100% tourist, but still it changed my point of view about many things.  It also made me thirst to explore and experience still more of our fascinating planet and its people.

So I did.  Aided in part by a nice gig with McGraw Hill Education, I visited almost 20 countries, from Southeast Asia to the Middle East, to South America.  Now I am here in Guatemala for the sixth time, and I am discovering that narrowing ones perspective can be equally eye opening and mind blowing.  I have gone from the broad brush of a three week photographic whirlwind through a country to a months long experience in a country whose language I speak, visiting the homes of people with decades of experience completely different from my own, hearing their stories, even though they speak yet another language I do not understand, making physical and emotional contact with them, learning from them.

It is another view of the breadth and diversity of the world, but also of the similarity in many ways of its people.  The only thing I lack now is the ability to speak yet another language.  It is so often that which divides us.  So, after the book is finished and at the printer, I will be taking a month of immersion classes in Tzutujil, the predominant Mayan dialect.  I anticipate that it will be much harder than Spanish, but maybe I’ll get to the proficiency of a child.


Don Domingo Cruz Puac, 79

Dressing Up


Gertrudis Chavajay Chac makes her living selling her home made tamales, which are quite different from the Mexican tamales we in Arizona are accustomed to.  For one, the wrapper is different.  In lieu of a corn husk she uses the leaf of a banana tree.  The ingredients are similar, but prepared differently.  The exact differences aren’t important, but the fact that they exist is.

Most people who visit Guatemala as tourists don’t see past the wrapper.  The colorful clothing, painstakingly hand made in a distinct design for every town, becomes a photo op.  Tourists swarm the Chichicastenango market with their powerful telephoto lenses, angling for “candid” shots of colorful locals.  I am not innocent of this.  Been there, done that, in many parts of the world.  It wasn’t until my third or fourth time here that I really noticed the objectification happening.  I was at the Chichicastenango market and decided to go around taking photos of the tourists who were taking telephoto shots of the locals without permission.  (One reason I often don’t get as many people shots as other photogs is that I try to ask permission first.)  I was taking pictures of one tourist and a man came up to me and asked, “So, you like my wife?”  My response was “Well, I figured if she could take pictures of people without permission, she wouldn’t mind someone doing it to her.”  He didn’t respond.

Doña Gertrudis assumed, when I suggested a photo with her wares, that I wanted the stereotypical photo of her with the tamales perched on her head.  I was thinking more of a shot of her with the tub in front of her displaying her product, but she had that thing on her head as fast as you could say quaint postcard.  I like the shot.

Mostly what I’m getting at here is the metamorphosis this project has gone through, from a product designed for tourists with the side effect of being a financial boon to the community, to a product which will still be sold to tourists, but which is more aimed at the children and grandchildren of the people represented, preserving and honoring who they are, in context of their culture and their lives.

When I first started two years ago, my maestra Celeste and I interviewed and photographed three people.  We asked that they wear their traditional clothing, which everyone has.  We asked that to make them visually appealing to tourists.  I’m no longer making such requests of people, so some of those represented in the book will be wearing more modern clothing, or some combination.  While this might not be “authentic” Mayan garb, I believe the people are being authentic to themselves and not just dressing up for the tourists.


Don Clemente Juarez Perez

And Now For Something Completely Different

When I am not in Guatemala documenting amazing people and their lives and culture, I am a member of a writing group in Tucson.  This awesome group of people contacted me online today as they met, and I was able to participate in the day’s exercise.  The first line that follows was my prompt.  I turned it into something just a bit creepy.

“There’s a surprise for you in the garage,” she said.

Something about the look on her face made me think that it wasn’t going to be a surprise of the good sort.  She was smiling broadly, but her eyes didn’t match.  I played along anyway.

“A surprise?   My birthday isn’t until August.”

“Just go look.”

“OK,” I stared at her.  She didn’t look away and kept smiling, but it still felt wrong.  She was definitely hiding something, and I didn’t think it was good.  I hung my coat on the hook in the hall and headed through the kitchen to the garage door.  Nothing looked out of place, the afternoon paper was open on the table where she had been reading it (I presumed) when I came home.  The dishes were done and still dripping in the dish drain.  She never did them until the last minute.  I turned and almost jumped out of my skin.  She was right behind me, having silently followed me into the kitchen.  I laughed nervously, and she joined in with a chuckle that felt as wrong as her smile. “Am I going to regret this?,” I asked.

“Maybe,” she said, and her face went serious.  “I don’t know, really.”

“What the fuck?  What is going on with you?  What aren’t you telling me?”  I tried to push past her back into the hall, but she was like a brick wall, standing there impassive, even the smile gone.

“Go. Into. The. Garage.”  She sounded downright evil now.  All pretense of normalcy discarded.

I snatched a knife from the magnetic holder on the wall, thinking what?  That I was going to stab the love of my life?  But was this actually her?  I hesitated, and in that fleeting moment, she snatched the knife from my hand and stuck it through the cabinet door.  Not just into it, through it, all the way to the hilt.

Holy shit.  Not her.  Definitely not her.  Not knowing what else to do, I turned and opened the door.  The garage was pitch black.  Not even the light from the kitchen passed the threshold.  I squinted, but couldn’t see anything.  Taking a deep breath and holding it, I stepped through the door.

La Nariz

“TOUR IN THE INDIAN NOSE” says the unappetizing sign in the center of the tourist district.  I instead took a tour to the Indian Nose, or Nariz d’el Indio, so known because the hill resembles the regal profile of either a Mayan or Incan man.  You can get an idea of it from this photo, although it was somewhat cloudy when I took it.


I got up at 3 AM this morning, had coffee and an avocado with lime and then went downstairs to meet Samuel, our guide.  We then walked from the base of the building where I took the above photo, up and over the hill where the communications towers are to the neighboring town of San Juan.  We walked through San Juan to the base of the Nariz.  From there it was ridiculously steep.  About a third of the way up, I decided I wasn’t going to make it.  I was panting and wheezing, and knew that I was just slowing everyone else down, so Samuel found me a comfortable rock to sit on and they took off.  It was probably 4:30 at that point.  I sat and watched the sky brighten and listened to the birds come alive around me, as well as to the tiny landslides created by critters stirring above me.  A squirrel climbed up the bank onto a tree directly in front of me, eyed me curiously, and then continued upwards.  I think I took this photo a little after 5, long before the actual sunrise, but the colors were nice.


At exactly 5:14, I heard a low rumbling sound and felt a vibration in the ground at my feet.  The sun rose at about 5:45, and I decided to head on up the hill.  It was even steeper than before.  A few minutes later, Samuel met me on his way down.  Since I wasn’t clear on the route and was determined to make it to the top, he turned around again and joined me.  On one of my many stops to catch my breath, I asked him about what I thought had been an earthquake earlier.  He told me it was the sea calling out for rain.  I didn’t argue much.  Eventually I made my painful way to the top, although I did not go the extra bit to the viewpoints on the profile of the Indio.  We went directly to Santa Clara, which is the town nearby, and caught a pickup back down the terrifying road to the lake.  I was jammed into the back of the pickup, standing with a dozen local folks.  Samuel was hanging off the back.  I had my camera bag dangling over the railing to make room for everyone else.  All I could think of as we canted around the hairpin turns was the horrible condition of all the tires I have seen here.  One blowout at the wrong time and we would have gone tumbling down.  We finally made it down to San Pablo and took a tuk-tuk from there to San Pedro, where I had a cup of coffee and looked on the internet to find that at exactly 5:14 there had been a 4.4 magnitude quake in Casillas near the coast.

A Little Respect Goes A Long Way

Tzutujil, the local Mayan dialect, is a difficult language to learn.  It is full of glottal clicks and percussive vowels.  At some point I will have the time to sit myself down with a teacher for four hours a day and train my brain to accept it.  For now, I content myself with the few phrases I need to respectfully greet and thank the people I am meeting and documenting daily.  I sit while Juan asks them questions in Tzutujil and they answer at length in the same language.  Occasionally words stand out, lifted from Spanish.  “Respeto,” “Dios,” “Iglesia.”  The three predominant themes.  I sit quietly and listen.  These people obviously have so much to say.  I wonder how often someone just sits and listens to them, as we do, for a half hour, or an hour.  I wonder if there is any other repository of their words akin to the videos I am collecting.  Rene tells me there is someone here who could take all the videos and extract the salient bits from each and put them together in to a cohesive documentary.  This would be amazing.  I don’t think I can afford his services, though.  So the daily ritual continues.  Two interviews a day, translations at night, soon building pages for the book.

Don Francisco Chavajay is 98 years old and sharp as a tack.  He had memorized all the questions and dove right in to his responses with a clarity and energy I haven’t always seen from people in their 70s and 80s.  He spoke for almost 20 minutes without stopping.  Juan tells me he is a sacerdote Maya, or Mayan priest.  I am not completely clear what that means at this point.  His altar was very Catholic, unlike the shaman I interviewed on my last visit here, but he does lead ceremonies of some sort.  I’m still waiting for the translation of his interview, and I will explore this more later.

Now I need to practice saying “good afternoon” in Tzutujil.


La Clave

One of the questions we ask is “What is the key to a long life?”  I couldn’t understand Rosa Chipir Sac’s answer, and I have yet to translate it, but I am sure that this delightful lady was helped to the age of 86 by her sense of humor.


Laugh often and laugh together.

This Photo Is Black And White, But Issues Usually Aren’t


A shot from the hill above town.  The man on the left is taking his kids to church.  After church today, there is a vote on a referendum to take a bunch of land from Belize.  Or to take a bunch of land back from Belize, or to start the process of negotiating the status of a bunch of land claimed by both countries.  One of the promises the current president and former TV personality Jimmy Morales made during his campaign two years ago was to make Belize part of Guatemala again.  The dispute dates to the 18th century, and really has more to do with Spain and Britain than it does with the indigenous people.  I read an article in La Prensa yesterday about families living astride the border with no conflict at all, even having a football field symbolically straddling the imaginary line.  I also heard a story about people being killed on the border when their animals strayed across and grazed in the wrong country.  I don’t think anyone really knows what will happen if the referendum passes.  The thing is, if less than 50% show up for any vote in Guatemala, the results are invalidated.  That is likely to be the case today.  From what I hear, there isn’t much interest.  This may be a good thing.  Just let it ride until more thought has been put into resolving it.  Coming from a country where most primaries are decided by 25% of voters, and most local elections even less, I like the idea of requiring a 50% turnout a whole lot better than, for instance, allowing 12% of the population to choose who draws district lines.  The less people participate, the more black and white it becomes, with only the extremes fighting for control.

Soldier Philosopher

I just finished my translation of our interview with Don Luis Raymundo Batz Solis.  When we asked about changes he had witnessed and formative events in his life, he spoke of the 1944 overthrow of the US backed dictatorship by leftist populists who were subsequently overthrown in a US backed military coup because United Fruit didn’t like paying a fair price for land or bananas.  We pretty much did this all over Latin America under the guise of fighting Communism.  It is a shameful part of US history.  It is worth noting that the middle initials of George H. W. Bush stand for Herbert Walker, who, as United Fruit’s representative, overthrew the government of Honduras and declared himself King.  To learn more about this period in Guatemala’s history, I recommend reading the Wikipedia pages about Jorge Ubico, Jacobo Arbenz, and Castillo Armas.


When asked for advice to the youth of today, he quoted a South American Poet (unnamed), who said “Juventud divino tesoro te vas para nunca volver,” or “Youth, divine treasure, you leave, never to return.”

One Week In

We finished the week with two abuelas, dos amas de casa (housewives).  It is interesting to see how consistent some of the answers to our questions are.  The prevalence of religion and the gratitude to God for all their good fortune were not surprising.  When we ask what changes there have been during their lives, however, almost every person cites the lack of respect that young people now have for their elders as the most significant change.  We are going to try to adjust and expand on this by asking what they think are the causes.  So much has happened in the world during the last 80 years, it is fascinating to see this brought up over and over as the most significant change.

Here is Doña Elena Coché Gonzalez, talking with her daughter off camera when we asked her to expand on her answer. Her daughter said she always had a lot to say, but that she was really nervous in front of the camera.  I wish I could speak Tzutujil and put her at ease.


La Doña Y Su Altar

San Pedro La Laguna is an extremely religious community, especially among the elders.  Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t ascribe to any dogma, and am skeptical of all claims of things supernatural. The irony here is that the religion embraced by these people is not a Mayan religion, but one which was brutally imposed upon their ancestors by Spanish invaders.  I am neither a psychologist nor an anthropologist, so I will not try analyze the causes, but it is challenging when you ask someone what their secret to happiness or advanced age is, and “Dios” is the immediate response.  We try to nudge them towards more down-to-earth responses, but results are mixed.  I’m sure God and religion will be omnipresent in the book, because they are omnipresent in the people I am documenting.  I have yet to see the translation of Doña Elena Quiacain Tuch de Gonzalez’s interview, but she specifically asked to be photographed with her gorgeous altar.