Editor's Note





Book Reviews

Contributors' Notes

Picturing Guatemala

A photograph: Diana, a two-year-old Guatemalan girl stands in a doorway, shrugging her shoulders. Her messy black hair partially obscures the mystified look on her face. Directly behind her, peering out from the shadow of a hallway chair, Miriam, the teenaged housekeeper, snickers into her hand. It's a classic picture of hide 'n seek.

But it doesn't exist. At the moment Diana appeared in my doorway, I asked her, "Dondé esta Miriam?" Diana shrugged, and disappeared to resume her quest. An instant later, Miriam was found amid squeals of laughter. All the while, my camera sat idly in my knapsack across the room. Though I try to take a lot of photos when I travel -- at least half a roll per day (in the old parlance of film rather than digital) -- many, like this one, are missed. When I return home and develop my film, it's these missed photos I try to recall before they are lost forever.

During the week I lived with a family in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala's second largest city, I took photos of Diana, her brother and parents eating around the kitchen table, a close-up of her father scowling, some group poses and two shots of the master bedroom: Diana's collection of more than 150 stuffed animals on one wall and her father's collection of 80 baseball caps on another. A good, if conventional, range of domestic images of my first week. The shot of hide 'n seek would have been the best of the bunch. Such moments are fleeting by nature and one can hardly be prepared to photograph them; even so, I winced when Diana turned out of my doorway.

After I left Quetzaltenango, I realized I'd missed other photos that week. In the afternoons, I used to study my Spanish verbs at Café la Luna, a multi-room house with firm wooden tables and chairs usually occupied by other foreigners doing the same thing. Old manual typewriters, including some big, sturdy Underwoods, sat on the shelves and in cabinets. I love old typewriters but it never occurred to me to take a photo until it was too late.

Nor did I get a photo of the old men chatting on the benches at Parque Central. They do this all over the world, and I wanted a picture here to go with others I'd taken in Hanoi, Istanbul and New Delhi. But I've never been good at walking up to strangers and snapping their photo, and I didn't have the opportunity to take one while they weren't looking -- a technique I later perfected at the busy markets of Totonicapán and Chichicastenango.

Even when I've made a connection to someone, I'm reluctant to take a photo because I fear it might sully a pleasant interaction.

Traditional Mayan villages dot the highlands and one morning I walked and hitched from Nebaj to Chajul, one side of the "Ixil triangle," a remote area that suffered waves of violence and human rights abuses during the recent civil war. After visiting the white-washed church in the central plaza, I walked out the road going north to see if I could get up onto the ridge and have a view of the valley. One hill led up to another and I never got close to a viewpoint. But I came upon two men and a boy collecting firewood and we chatted for a while. Where was I going? What did I want? Where did I come from? I pulled out my compass for an impromptu show-and-tell and showed them where I had been, and the direction of Canada. They were impressed that I had come from so far away; then one of them asked, "So, is Canada larger or smaller than Guatemala?"

"It's a bit larger," I told them.

If it was possible to capture how the men pensively nodded their heads, absorbing this new piece of information, I might have tried. Instead, I bid them a good afternoon and continued along.

Late one night in Panajachel, I had a lively discussion with Eddie, a computer specialist who lived in Guatemala City and had come to a conference for half a dozen local mayors at my hotel. He spoke in broken English and I spoke in broken Spanish and together we wondered how best to make change in Guatemala. He related a story about visiting Washington, D.C. for a conference on aid to his country and described feeling squeezed by the conditions necessary to secure loans. I tried to make him understand that unfortunately, Washington, the U.S., and the West couldn't care less about Guatemala. Long after the lights in the hotel foyer were turned off, Eddie and I were still using our hands, throwing in words in our own tongues, straining to communicate, and I remember the rosebud of Eddie's cigarette blazing like a comet as it swung to and from his face in the dark.

When I arrived at the ruins of Utatlan, a small stepping stone on the way to the grand ruined cities of Copán and Tikal, the attendant looked like he'd been sitting alone for days and was pleased to have a visitor. Speaking with good humour, he told me I looked like the brother of a doctor friend of his in the capital and proceeded to call me Rodrigo. After I signed the guestbook he said, "That's not the way 'Rodrigo' is spelt," and laughed. I got photos of the thousand-year-old grass-covered ruins and a keyhole of light at the end of a tunnel underneath them, but now have nothing to prevent the man and his laugh from fading.

On my way north, I stopped in Livingston, on the Caribbean coast, a funky, laid-back town with a mix of displaced highland Mayans and black Carib people. Scorched by the morning sun, I asked a 16-year-old Mayan shop girl, resplendent in her rainbow-woven skirt and blouse, if there was a place where I could have my laundry done before I ventured off to find a shaded beach.

She told me there was a public lavandería two blocks away, off the main road.

I protested: wasn't there a place I could pay someone to wash my clothes? I just wanted to go to the beach.

She said no. I should wash my clothes myself -- I would get them cleaner. I could go to the beach afterwards. It seemed quite obvious to her.

I told her I'd rather go to the beach.

"You should wash your clothes," she said with matronly wisdom, "and then you can go to the beach. You will enjoy it more."

Afterwards, with my laundry hanging on the line, another traveler and I were busy enjoying a fresh fish lunch at a restaurant on the beach, eyeing a pair of hammocks that hung under a canopy on the dock. We could recline, sip fresh fruit shakes and watch the pelicans glide over the waves. But the hammocks were occupied. Still, with every bite, I kept a steady eye on them, hoping they would soon become available. As we finished our lunch, at last the hammock loungers got up from their siesta: a pair of policemen. I'm not sure which photo I missed: the policemen reclining, the two of us running down the dock to claim the hammocks, or, with pelicans swooping over the sea beyond us, the next pleasant hour, swaying in the Caribbean breeze.

Even when there's nothing to stop me from taking a picture, sometimes I come up against the limits of the camera.

One morning in Panajachel, I took a boat across Lake Atitlán to San Pedro, intending to hike and hitch a quarter of the way around the lake to Santa Cruz, where I could catch a boat back. Looking around on the boat, it was easy to see why Aldous Huxley called this "really too much of a good thing." One volcano would have been enough; two more than adequate. Three, however, ensured that no matter which direction you looked around the lake you saw an age-old sleeping giant poking his elbow into the sky. Like the mountains in the Popol Vuh, the Mayan book of creation, that, when called, appeared instantly "from a mist, from a cloud of dust," it was an embarrassment of primordial riches. The only way I could cope was to move to the prow of the boat, stand against the wind and fix on each of the volcanoes in turn, as if trying to will the panorama into my memory, section by section.

I lunched in the shade of palm trees and began walking down the road to Santa Cruz, several hours away. The lake sprawled beneath me, ringed by the volcanoes whose peaks were now in the clouds. Slowly, the clouds darkened and the wind picked up. I had started too late in the day. By the time I got to Santa Cruz, two or three hours down the road, a storm would likely be raging and I'd be stuck, unable to get a return boat to Panajachel.

I hurried back to San Marcos, which I had just passed, barely in time for the 3 o'clock boat. We chugged down the lake to pick up more passengers and then stopped again, at Santa Cruz. By now, the lake gurgled about us, a cauldron of rising, splashing and falling waves. Our long, pencil-thin boat rode up one wave only to have the next crash over its bow. I heard snatches of the motor laboring and feared it would conk out at any moment. They run these boats every day, I reasoned, trying to calm myself. Meanwhile, wave after wave erupted onto us.

I glanced at John, my seatmate, a fifty-ish ex-pat American, his clothes soaked from the spray, and his glasses speckled with water droplets. He took this boat several times a week and I hoped to hear a word of encouragement; he gazed ahead stoically. Behind, other passengers gripped the bench or the side of the boat. I was drenched, and now shivering. When the next wave splattered onto me, I again turned to John. Oblivious to my concern, he stuck his tongue into the corner of his mouth and licked a drop of water that had streaked down his face. Such a photo can only be caught in the mind's eye and I remember nothing further about the journey because from that point on I ceased to worry.

In Lanquin, a small Qeqchi village in the center of the country, I waited with a group of travelers for thousands of bats to emerge from a cave at dusk. We chatted and joked, expecting a cloud of black to fill the sky. We grew impatient. What was taking them so long? Night was falling and there was no sign of the creatures. Eventually, we shone our flashlights at the mouth of the cave. The bats were slipping out dozens at a time, almost unnoticed. We heard nothing. They poured out thick and fast, absolutely silent. I now remember them as a rippling black shadow.

Sometimes I took photos out of a dutiful desire to record a place.

I planned this trip in only two weeks and didn't have much time to read about Guatemala's recent turbulent – and tragic – history or about the Mayan people. Consequently, in visiting the ruins I was lost, unable to conjure the pageantry and processions at the temples ages past or the ghosts that might presently haunt the sites. Touring the famous ruined city of Tikal, I photographed whatever looked aesthetically interesting, including the staggeringly steep pyramids, the ball courts and the lush jungle, hoping that with time and study, I'd develop enough imagination to create a Mayan world in my mind. I finished the first afternoon by scaling the sheer stone steps of the Temple of the Lost World and, along with dozens of other travelers, watching the blood-red sun set into the mountains behind Temple IV, the same view that Mayan priests would have had more than twelve centuries ago.

The next morning, I got up an hour before dawn to trek up to Temple IV for the opposite view: to catch the sunrise. A hundred or more steps rose up to the temple summit, high above the jungle canopy, and from there I listened as the jungle began to stir with the sounds of toucans and howler monkeys. With cameras poised, a dozen other travelers waited for a glimpse of the sun. I was about to join them, but when I opened my knapsack I discovered I'd left my camera back in my room. Minutes later, the sun rose through the mists and lit the sky. I remember the feel of the cold stone, yet to be warmed by the sun, and the clicks of other people's cameras.

Some photos are missed because they are impossible to take.

By the time I arrived in the mountain village of Todos Santos, the rainy season had started. The combination of high altitude and dampness, plus the shock that this was not the tropical Guatemala I'd gotten used to, ensured I was cold all the time. When another traveler found out our guesthouse had a chuc -- a Mayan sauna -- I knew I had to have one. While the rain poured down late afternoon, three of us climbed into the four foot high clay oven and sat on a bench in the dark. After dumping water on the red-hot coals, we received a blast of steam hot enough to cremate Sam McGee. We laughed at our good fortune and bet on who could withstand the heat the longest. As we breathed in thick air seared our nostrils. Within minutes, all three of us scrambled for the door of the chuc. A moment later, rain poured down onto our sweaty bodies. Grinning in the hot dark, grinning in the cool rain, these were purely sensual experiences.

And, there's no way to capture on film the poly-syllabic thrill of zipping along the floor of Cuchumatanes valley, from Sacapulas to Huehuetenango, bumping in the back of the truck. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, the way the local people, young and old, sleepily board a bus an hour before dawn and whisper, "Buenas dias a todos," to those of us already seated. Or the surge of excitement as the bus roars into a dusty station, the driver blasting the horn, the conductor auctioneering the next destination, "Guatay, Guatay, Gua-tayyyyyy."

I managed to get a few photos of the crazy-painted "chicken buses," but to my ongoing chagrin I got no pictures of bus drivers or ticket conductors, who, together with matter-of-fact patience and efficiency, shepherded the people around the country.

I also failed to capture other scenes of daily life: people carrying enormous loads of firewood on their backs, supported by a forehead strap; kids who waved from doorways, through windows, behind fences; young Mayan girls composed of long skirts and chromatic blouses, topped with a gold-teeth smile; I bought postcards so I wouldn't forget.

But sometimes I think it's good to be forgetful, to let things slip.

Upon arriving in Panajachel early in my trip, I went to the Sunset Café to enjoy the late afternoon scene. With the buoyant sounds of the Gypsy Kings radiating from the bar, I tried to decipher the outline of a volcano in the haze across the lake. To the west, the sun passed behind the ridge and the clouds began turning pink. As I watched the sky change color, past sunsets floated into my mind: talking to a Lao-French man while towering, red-lit thunderheads loomed over the Mekong River during the rainy season in Savannahket; watching pilgrims bathe in the Ganges in Varanasi as the façade of ancient temples above them turned gold in the late afternoon light; drinking a glass of house wine on a rooftop in Selçuk as the sun disappeared in the west behind the ruined city of Ephesus.

To be forgetful is to enjoy the awakening mental nudge of being reminded -- that travel is full of surprises, that there's beauty in the world. The forgotten things are not forgotten at all; they are lying dormant, waiting to come to life again. There was no photo to take here. By itself, the ridge was unimpressive and the colors were too subtle. If anything, the proper photo to take was of my face, tinged with fading light.