#17: Todosantos Chuchumantan – Guatemala – A Year and a Day …

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Todosantos Chuchumantan
Thursday, 20th November 2003

Had such a great three weeks
in Todosantos, not quite sure where to go next in Guatemala. Right
now in the city of Xela with some friends, we’ve been eating
doughnuts and watching the Matrix 3 (insultingly disappointing).
It’s now been four months since leaving the UK, starting to feel
very scared that I might have decided not to do this trip and stayed
in London – am perpetually amazed by all the great experiences I am
having.

Quite a lot happened in the weeks I was in Todosantos, and I’m going
to present the entries more or less as I wrote them down rather than
perhaps spoil them with the benefit of hindsight.

PS: Aware that by describing some of these events below, I’m
violating a family’s privacy. After some thought, I decided that
things I witnessed I could feel OK writing about, but have held back
some stories that were told to me in confidence.

Todosantos Chuchumantan


Todosantos' main street

Todosantos’ main street


Having arrived in Todosantos, I feel like I have been following
various signs and portents that were telling me to go here, and now
feel in the middle in a wonderful abundance. This is so exactly what
I was looking for in Guatemala, the time I’ve spent here so far has
been so wonderful and fulfilling. Very pleased that I didn’t listen
to the lots of advice in San Pedro and Antigua saying not to bother
coming here.

I decided to go to Todosantos because I kept hearing about it from
people, and each problem I came to got solved by a casual comment
from another traveller. I had read about the town about a year ago
in a newspaper article, describing the crazy horse race. I had
thought it sounded fantastic, and remembered about it when people
told me it would be happening soon after I arrived in Guatemala.
Then people told me about Spanish schools there, then more
information about the town, and finally, when I was failing to get
in contact with any hotel or school in town, and fretting about the
long journey and arriving so soon before their fiesta, I met someone
who had just come from there and advised me about the Spanish
schools in town… Plus, as it was out of the way, supposed to be
cold, a little crazy, and Spanish was a second choice to the Mayan
Mam language, going there seemed the silly, spontaneous decision
that I felt my trip had kind of been lacking up till now.

I have moved in with a local family, and that feeling of abundance
that I mentioned is never stronger than when I sit in their main
kitchen/living/eating room. Everything that is so normal for them is
so fascinating to me, I feel like I could sit all day every day
watching them. I probably annoy the mother immensely by sitting
watching them cook each meal with a big interested smile on my face.
I wonder if it perhaps sounds patronising to say all this (what
strange little natives…), but I don’t mean it to be.

The mother, Dominga, is the very diminutive and often worn out lord
of the house. Her husband, Augusto, is a somewhat uneasy eager-to-please seeming man, and spends most of his days and nights in the
family shop at the top of the hill. They don’t seem to have the
closest relationship – I’m told, that like a lot of the men in
Todosantos, Augusto has spent several years working in the US, with
Dominga raising the kids back home, and he returned a couple of
years ago. Dominga is usually wearing Javier, a remarkably tranquil
year old baby, who is perpetually wearing a bugs bunny woolly hat.
The women in Todosantos carry their babies wrapped to their backs
for up to the first two years of the child’s life. I’ve seen a young
girl fondly look at her barbie-type doll, then get her mother to
help her secure it on her back with a scarf around her shoulders…

There’s a mumbling old man living in the house, Christino, who is
Domina’s grandfather – 86 years old, and spends all his day sitting
in the sun in the morning and warming his hands by the fire in the
evening. There is a son, Daniello (13), but he mainly works with
Augusto and we don’t speak much. The two eldest daughters, Santa
(15) and Fedelina (14) are both deaf-mute from birth. Fedelina is
lovely, laughs a lot, and tends to treat her mother as an equal,
dismissing much of her scolding with smile and a wave of a hand.
Santa seems much more melancholy, more withdrawn, seems to
exasperate Dominga a bit sometimes. On the first morning in the
house, I asked Dominga to show me the gesture for “hello” in sign
language, figuring I should try to start communication as best I
could. I totally failed to sign properly, but felt I had made a good
attempt. This feeling was punctured somewhat to discover that the
two American students also staying in the house both knew sign
language – not the first time I have been left wondering on this
trip at all the actually useful things college educated American
travellers always seem to know, in contrast to my lengthy education
consisting of European 16th century history and abstract economic
theories.


Juana and Melissa

Juana and Melissa


The two younger daughters, Juana (10) and Melissa (9) are wonderful,
and my main Spanish conversation partners in the house – everyone
speaks Mam to each other when I’m not involved. Mam is a very
difficult language, lots of short, back of the throat sounds,
impossible for me to visualise the sounds in our alphabet. Juana is
friendly, loves quietly singing in Spanish to the radio, and has
incredible black hair that when undone falls almost to her knees.
All the women of the house have this amazingly dark, almost blue-
black hair. Her sister Melissa is more vivacious, always giggling,
likes to walk about with her hands lightly on her hips, skipping
around. It is a conviction of her sisters that Melissa is a little
nuts. One night Dominga apologises to me that Melissa has been
making the tortillas for the meal in funny shapes – hearts and
faces – saying Melissa is, after all, a bit crazy – Melissa shouts
out “Yes, crazy like a witch!”

All four girls do so much work in the
house, I would have been speed-dialing Childline if asked to do half
of it. Without much apparent direction or scolding, they cook meals,
tend the fire, wash vast amounts of clothes and blankets, sweep,
wash the floors, and weave in their spare time. One magical evening,
with everyone else out in the family shop, Juana sits singing to
herself while Melissa cooks a simple meal for about seven people,
Fedelina at times supervising. I tell Melissa that at age nine, I
couldn’t cook anything – adjusting the burning logs under the flat
Mayan stove, she sighs, “yeah, me too” (in her mind fried eggs and
beans for seven doesn’t count as cooking).

The family has five chickens, two turkeys, three pigs and three
piglets, one cat, two dogs, two rabbits. The animals generally live
outside, but the chickens roam freely, picking at whatever they can
find on the kitchen floor. I try to imagine my mother dealing with
chickens clucking around the dining room.

———–

Almost everyone in Todosantos wears exactly the same thing, the
traditional Traje – this looks pretty cool to me. Men wear red
trousers with white stripes running down them, a thick white shirt
with strong vertical stripes with big intricate red, purple or green
woven collars and cuffs, and what looks like a straw bowler hat with
a thick blue band tied around it. The women wear a long, dark blue
skirt and a thick intricate woven top, and sometimes the hat too. It
is fine for us gringos to wear the traje, and several visitors who
have been here a while have had the clothes tailored.

The town is about 2,000 people I’d guess, with a long paved main
street and a mixture of cobbled or mud paths leading off it.
Todosantos is 2,500m above sea level, 500m higher than Guanajuato or
San Christobal, and the first few days are a little tough to adjust.
The atmosphere here is magically welcoming – once people start to
recognize me I get endlessly bid good day and children run out of
their houses to shout “hola” and giggle when I respond.

———–

Times have got kind of interesting here in Todosantos. I arrived on
Wednesday, had my first Spanish lesson on Thursday with a good
teacher called Clara Luz. Later that night, her brother was shot
dead by a local police officer. As is customary in Guatemala, there
are an immensity of versions of the precise events and who was to
blame (was the brother drunk, was the police officer(s) drunk?).
The brother was the head of the local Mendoza gang, and on Friday
morning, the entire police force fled town, fearing for their lives.
At 4pm, with the town atmosphere already seeming a little tense, I
watched a big army truck pull up and camouflaged soldiers piled out
to act as our police force over the weekend. No one had any idea
when the police might be coming back at this point. That night, two
more people died – one teenager was knifed, no one knew why, and a
man drank himself to death.


The mad November 1st horserace

The mad November 1st horserace


The November 1st fiesta of Todosantos is undoubtedly mental. The
teams of horse riders began their preparations on Friday afternoon:
people play three person marimbas continuously for over 24 hours,
dancing, riders getting dressed up in hats and sashes, but above all
drinking. The horse race is in fact not a race in any normal sense –
there is no winner, and the riders ride along a road for about 200
metres, pause to take a drink, and then ride back to the other end.
This starts at 8am and goes on all day, with a break for lunch and
more drinking. These people have got drunk to a fantastic level
before they even get on their horses. One of my neighbours is taking part
in the race – I got up at 6am and walked into town, passing his body
passed out face down in the mud. By 8am he had been revived by
friends and was making his way to the race.

The race itself was a strange spectacle, already by the start the
riders’ eyes were glassy, many leaning back in the saddle barely
controlling their horses. By afternoon, they probably couldn’t walk,
let alone ride… One rider fell and died from being trampled.

I spent the afternoon having a great BBQ on the roof of my Spanish
school, drinking beer and watching the race. I spent a minute
standing away from my friends, looking into the vast darkness as
night grew, thinking how proud I was of myself to have got here and
made it to see the horserace. At night a few of us went to the town
night club – a huge cold disco, dancing girls in leather bikini tops
on stage, locals and tourists shaking their stuff, and about 12
assault rifled soldiers standing impassively watching the
proceedings.

In retrospect, although I certainly attended this event physically,
I wonder if I really missed the fiesta after all. I didn’t come to
the race with a very positive frame of mind, and fairly quickly got
bored of men falling off horses. As the town disco seemed to be
petering out, I went home at half one, not realising pretty much
everyone I knew was having a great time in a dingy bar till 5am. I
was in truth more than a little scared of what had been happening
over the last couple of days, and was happy to retreat home.

I woke
up the next morning to find my host family distraught: another
bandit had been killed over the night (a second man had also died in
the morning when a bus ran him over as he was passed out in the
street). Everyone I knew was very freaked out by these deaths, this
was a terrible time for many people in town, and it was frustrating
to overhear other recently arrived travellers assuming that this was
an everyday occurrence, “I guess these people don’t have the same
attitude to death as we do.”

On Sunday the fiesta changed pitch, for the Day of the Dead. This
day was far stranger to me and felt more raw, more private,
uncomfortable to watch for long. The cemetery is a plot of graves
above ground, like a cramped small-scale town for the non-living.
People arrived, danced, lit candles, sobbed, and got paralytically
drunk on beer and rum again. I walked around the cemetary, quite
unsettled, and was happy to leave and stop intruding.

People in Todosantos drink a terrible amount, especially every
Wednesday and Saturday (market days). Well aware I am no position to
lecture anyone about drinking to excess, but once you’ve seen
children leading their plastered father along, or a man my age lying
face down in a busy street at 11am with his pants pulled down, dusty
butt cheeks staring back at his onlooking townfolk, one’s attitude
to drinking does perhaps change a little…

By Monday, most of the other tourists had left, and around six to
eight people had died (other stories included a husband returning
after a year in the States for the fiesta and shooting his wife
after finding her pregnant).

———–

On Monday morning, with the other language students in my house
moved on for other parts, I went downstairs for breakfast to find
Augusto had got drunk last night and punched Dominga in the face,
giving her a powerful black eye. I feel deeply upset and disgusted
by him, but didn’t know what I could do.

The whole mood in the house
has gone terribly dark, the girls look on at their mother silently
with scared faces. Augusto is nowhere to be seen all day, Dominga
thinks he is sleeping drunk in a street somewhere. Days pass and
things still seem terrible in the house. I don’t know what to do –
realise I know little about the situation and not sure butting my
big gringo head in would really help Dominga. Not sure I want to
confront Augusto and see what he has to say, but not sure I want to
just carry on as if nothing has happened here.

I spoke to a few of the longer term foreign residents – Sam, who
coordinates my language school (Nuevo Amanacer); Rebecca, who runs a
great bookshop/coffee house; and Jaime, who coordinates the other
good school in town (Hispano Maya). Everyone advises me to change to
a different house, for my own happiness and to send a message to
Augusto. I find out many, many of the families here have problems –
domestic violence and affairs are pretty common, although certainly
not seen as “good things” in the culture. Many people, I find out
from one of my teachers, marry very quickly or have arranged
marriages. Plus many of the men go to the US to work for several
years – all in it can’t be easy to have a good marriage for the
Todosanterans.

———–

I feel terribly, terribly sad. I have just moved out of the house
and am missing the four girls awfully. The problems, advice of
others and that I was getting devoured by fleas/bed bugs each night
made me decide to leave. Felt almost immediately like it was a bad
decision – but plan to visit the house most days.

Now staying in a “Ladino” household (as opposed to “Indigenos”).
They don’t make their own tortillas or wear traje, although there is
a turkey strutting in the yard. I have dinner across from a big
bottle of Pepsi, with David Beckam’s face watching me. The sense of
rejoining the West is jarring.

———–

Have gone back to live at Dominga’s (three days later). I was just
missing the girls too much, and plus the mother of the new house
patently didn’t especially want me there. Decided the right thing to
do was to go back. To deal with the fleas, I have changed to a
different, nicer room, and employed the wonderful luxury of a full
service machine wash and dry. So delicious to wear clothes all
fluffy and warm. It feels great to be back, watching Dominga and the
girls deep-fry caulifowers and chicken, make tortillas by hand and
play with the baby. Very awkward around Augusto, suspect strongly he
doesn’t realise at all why I left – he asks if the dirty outhouse
toilet was upsetting me.

———–

Went on a great hike with Sam and a couple of others, to the
highland golfcourse-short grassland of the San Sebastian area. So
high up (these are the highest mountains in Central America), we
looked down on the clouds, and across Guatemala and back into
Mexico. Deciding that the situation merited it, and having toilet
paper in my bag, I took a shit in the woods, for what I think is the
first time, certainly since adulthood. If you haven’t done this yet,
I recommend it, quite liberating and very easy mechanically – it’s
what the human body was designed to do after all.

The Cuchumatan Mountains are amazing. The areas around Todosantos
are like an incredibly expressive landscape painting, but one that
changes before your eyes as the sun manoeuvres against the clouds.
Each time of day is different – hazy warm 7ams, hot bright clear
9ams, clouds approaching middays, chill grey afternoons, black
overcast nights. Taken lots of photos, but suspect none of them will
capture how incredible this area looks. Higher up on the Alta Plana
near Lake Magdelena, the scenery is bleak, brooding – like parts of
the rolling English countryside, but colder and more pitiless.

———–

Election Night

The election seems to have gone pretty well. The key news is that ex-
dictator Rios Monte has been knocked out of the Presidential race,
there will be a second round between more normal politicians Berger
and Colom in December. I walked the streets of Todosantos on the
night itself, they were packed with a happy smiling atmosphere.
People had bussed in from surrounding towns to vote, and the women
selling fried chicken and chips on the roadside were doing great
business. This felt much more like a fiesta than the horserace had.
People from even smaller towns, and so less used to tourists, shook
my hand smiling, “Gringo!”

Turnout was about 40% nationwide, but the problem seems to be that
too many people wanted to vote rather than too few – voting was
supposed to finish in town around 5pm, but people queued up way into
the night, and still many were turned away. One of my teachers,
previously an election observer, felt that the 40% understated the
turnout, as many on the voting register were probably now living in
the US or dead. Although someone I met who had been observing the
election said that FRG (Rios Monte’s party) had used a lot of
intimidation, especially on the elections to mayors and congress,
generally this result seems like a step forward for Guatemaltecans.
Now perhaps they can look forward to the boringly depressing
political problems we enjoy, like sleaze and spindoctoring.

———–

Vastly enjoying myself, running the Nuevo Amanacer school for five
days while Sam takes a holiday to Lake Atitlan. I was planning my
exit from the town, a bit perplexed about what I was supposed to
have accomplished in coming here (given my earlier feeling that this
was a place I was “supposed” to come to), when Sam asked me if I’d
like his job for a while. I thought it would be a great experience
and accepted.

We have two students, one taking weaving, the other Spanish. I wake
up in my room in the school, get breakfast, sit reading in the
hammock on the front balcony and wait to see if any new tourists
show up. In the late lunchtime make sure everything is OK for the
Spanish class and buy them a snack for their break. I generally
spend the rest of the day reading. Have been working through Sam’s
collection of Noam Chomsky’s writings – powerful stuff. Also read
Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, very good and wonderfully gloomy. The
teachers that own the school and employ me (it is a cooperative)
rarely come by, and only then for a few minutes, so I am de facto
boss. It also feels great to be shopping for mundane items like
light bulbs and boxes of tea bags, feels like interacting with the
ever friendly Todosanterans on a deeper, less touristy level.

———–


Market square

The market square of Todosantos


Finished last night more or less perfectly happy. Part of the
coordinator’s job in each of the three small language schools here
is to give a weekly meal for language students and other visitors to
the town. I was reassured that our weaving student, Isabel, offered
to help with the cooking process, and we walked among market stalls
hunting cilantro, onions, garlic and tomatoes; in tiny shops bought
tomato paste and spaghetti; in the panderia, bread rolls to make
garlic bread with guacamole; and stored ice-cream lollies on the roof
as a surprise dessert.

I was happy to turn actual cooking over the vastly more talented
Isabel – one of the key things I learnt at the Bank of England was
that I’m most useful to team efforts when I don’t actually do
anything (those who can’t, manage). I had been chatting to random
visitors all day and telling them about the party tonight – to my
surprise everyone showed up. Twelve people ate dinner, which we all
thought was an immense number (this should give you an idea of how
many tourists visit Todosantos). The night went on until after 3am,
with Jaime playing his CD collection to the few that remained, all
of us talking happily while wrapped in a communal blanket. As they
left, Jaime turned to me, “that was a great night… you would have
made a good school coordinator – I think you’ve got a future”.

I closed the door. I felt like this job was me on a very deep level.
I ran a school and had actual responsibility for most aspects of it -
rather than suspecting I was a small cog that probably wasn’t
actually connected to the big wheel. My job was to impart
information and education and happiness to people; to organise
classes, have conversations with lots of new people and tell them
about the town, and to put on parties for friends. Not that I felt
sure this specific job and specific place was exactly what I wanted
to do long term, but felt strongly I had discovered something that
suited me a lot.

———–

Last day in Todosantos was very melancholy. I knew I’d miss how
phenomenally friendly everyone was, the groups of kids that called
my name as I walked past. There is something special about
Todosantos. A calming place, easy to be happy here. I really liked
the other travellers I met here – and there were not many of us, so
it was a nice atmosphere. I bought the girls of my host family the
book “The Little Prince” in Spanish from Rebecca’s shop. I went to
visit them for the last time. I showed the book to Melissa, she
said, “Oh, we already have that book”. My heart sank – I
contemplated getting a refund. They brought out the book they
already had – it was Harry Potter. I smiled, explained these were
quite different stories. We played silly games, Juana tried to get
me to eat a caterpillar, I found a slug and told them it was her
boyfriend, then she and Melissa and me played catch the teddy bear
for a while.

Sam came back from the Lake, we had more drinks – he said he would
be leaving in February if I wanted the job full time. Not sure what
I think about that, but very nice indeed to be told.

The next morning I caught a 6am bus with my friends Fred and Isabel
for Xela, where we went to watch Matrix Revolutions and visit Xela’s
incredible Mennonite bakery.

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