Melchor, on the Guatemala – Belize border, for the second time. It’s the only place it’s possible to cross between the two countries by land, which means most people end up there several times, as is often the way with border towns. I am sitting in a pleasant comedor overlooking the Mopan river with four hours to kill and a river-fish to eat before an overnight bus to the capital. The first time I was here, two weeks ago, going the other way, I didn’t take much notice; now I am shabbily charmed. Families combine bathing and play in the Mopan; melancholy Spanish tunes on the comedor stereo: ‘te vas, desde me vida…adios, adios mi amor…Marisa, adios amor…’As often seems to be the case in Guatemala, everything appears peaceful, but I am told by a lady at the next table that there are many ‘malvivientes’ in this town, and that I should take a bus that leaves before night fall.
One interesting aspect of life in Guatemala is the ubiquity and sheer number of camionetas, allegedly called Chicken Buses by tourists because of the likelihood of Guatemalans taking their chicken along for the ride (to market). As in Belize (see photograph in the post below), the majority of the bus service is made up of old American School buses, garishly painted and adorned with racing stripes, licking-flames and religious slogans. Each bus has a conductor as well as a driver, and he is a very specialised employee. His first duty is to convince people to take his bus, which he does by hanging or leaping out of the perpetually open door while the bus is rolling at low speed, shouting ‘Xela Xela Xelaaaa,’ or wherever the bus is going. Once all the rows of seats, designed for school children, are packed full (three people to each two-person row), people stand in the aisle, and eventually on the steps, around the driver, frustrating his attempts to change gear, while trying not to fall out of the open door as the bus lurches around hairpins. The conductor is immensely acrobatic: he shimmies up to the roof with luggage resting on his shoulders against the back of the neck, where it is stored, without apparent difficulty. He will jump on and off the bus while it’s in motion, hanging off the back. It is a skilled job, and they never seem to tire. There is apparently no limit to the number of people it’s possible to fit on board – when it seems there isn’t room for even one more, he will still jump off and call to anyone on the pavement who looks as though they might be persuaded into taking his bus. And on top of all this he still has to keep track of who has and hasn’t paid.
From the windows of various chicken buses I noticed various coloured designs painted on rocks or the sides of the cliff from which the road has been cut out; the most common are a blank red, and a pattern like the German flag except the yellow is proportionally larger. There will be an election in Guatemala in November 2011, and until the New Year campaigning was apparently illegal: the explanation I received for the colours was that it was the parties trying to get a covert and subliminal head start. I also later heard that the reason for the German colours is that the candidate they advertise is of German descent and is using that as a premise for electability, on the grounds that he will run the nation with German-like efficiency. I don’t know how true this is, but I feel it is worth writing nonetheless. Much of the information I have been presenting as fact here is like this: really just things I heard from people or read in sources I have forgotten and then remembered later. I have made a point of not using the internet to research stories or histories that I’ve picked up, preferring to take what information I’m given as it is, and trusting that it will contain more that is factual than not.
Something interesting I either heard or read about the ‘impossible landscape’ (Aldous Huxley) of Lago Atitlan when we went there is that there is some suggestion that an unusual mound on the shore might be the model for the famous elephant-being-digested-by-boa-constrictor drawing at the beginning of The Little Prince, which I am reading in Spanish (El Principito). Antionne Saint-Exupery lived in Antigua while he was recovering from an accident, had a relationship with a Guatemalan woman, and visited Atitlan. The three volcanoes on the Little Prince’s planet may also correspond with those that loom over the lake.
In the Mayan village of Zumil, in the Western highlands, resides Saint Simon. He was given his Spanish name following the conquest in order to avoid trouble, but in fact he is far older than that, and in some obscure way I don’t understand part of the ancient Mayan belief system. In his current incarnation he is a life-sized figure that appears to be made from plastic or wax, wears western clothes, shades and always smokes a cigarette – it is someone’s job to tap and collect the ash, as it has healing powers. He is moved, once a year, between different houses in the village, and people come from far away to light candles in front of his chair, which act as supplications: yellow for health, red for love, and black to wish ill on an enemy.