Sexteando in Guatemala City

avenida sexta GC

Guatemala City.…home from home for a Scot!

Porridge for breakfast and a bus system that lets you ride all day for one Quetzal…about 10p….as long as you don’t get off.

I should qualify the porridge, though, known as ‘mosh‘….it is made very thin to resemble a drink and is flavoured with cinnamon and sugar. The sort of Scot who takes his oatmeal standing and flavoured with salt would find it effete…but I liked it as a starter to the breakfasts we took each day in a caff we found while looking for one recommended in the ten year old guidebook which Higher Authority was using as a vade mecum on the grounds that

A….buildings could not be moved.

and

B…it was a false economy to buy an up to date guide when only visiting for a week.

This policy led to many architectural discoveries…from Spanish colonial to art deco

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via pure fantasy….while pounding the back streets in search of long vanished Argentinian steak houses.

post office GC

Returning to the caff, that too would delight a Scots heart…a full breakfast for one pound fifty….mosh, followed by a plate of refried beans, cheese, fried plantains, sour cream and a choice of eggs cooked several different ways or, if feeling like making a splash, a pork chop for thirty pence more, accompanied by coffee and bread such as I had not tasted since leaving the U.K. all those years ago…a crisp crust , feather light within…not a Glasgow morning roll, to be sure, but not far off!

There are twenty two zones in Guatemala City and I suspect that some of them bear out the reputation for dirt and danger which was proclaimed by the guidebook but the experience of the zones down the spine of the city was decidedly different. I have never in all my puff seen so many street cleaners to the square yard…..they wash down the pavements early in the morning and then spend their day picking up litter and sweeping away rubbish. The place is spotless.

As to danger, the city crawls with police of all sorts, from the ones who mind the zebra crossings who wear gaiters at one end and pith helmets at the other to those in black who pile out of pick up trucks in response to goodness only knows what and the paramilitary ones in green fatigues who patrol fully armed.

Many shops have their own security guards, armed to the teeth with pump action sawn off shotguns, while chemist shops, in particular, look like old fashioned zoo cages – you half expect Guy the gorilla to appear to take your order – so I imagine that security could be a problem if control were to be relaxed.

The original city bus services had had a bad reputation for crime, whether it was robbing passengers or shooting the drivers to extort protection money from the owners and in response the city has set up two systems which avoid the drivers carrying cash – the Transurbano which covers a great deal of the city and access to which is made by a card which can be topped up, rather like London Transport’s Oyster card, and the Transmetro which is accessed by paying a Quetzal into the slot machine at each station, guarded by a policeman, and is the one on which you can make a tour of the city just by changing lines at the junctions. The old red buses are still there though, belching fumes as they lurch round corners  with the young conductor hanging in the open doorway to hoist potential passengers aboard…

transmetro

There are two types of taxi… white ones with black chequerboarding and yellow ones. The first roam the city and charge by agreement, the second is summoned by telephone and charges by the meter. There is also Uber apparently, but as I have no wish to encourage the leeches who run it I don’t use it.

We met the first type when starting on the museum visits….we were staying in Zone 1, the historic centre of the city, as it is good for walking. The museums we wished to visit were in Zones 10 and 13…a long way down the spine and mostly set in parkland, way off the bus routes.

You have not lived until you have sat behind a Guate taxista who, in heavy traffic, is driving with a tablet in one hand to access a map and a mobile ‘phone in the other, over which a mate is giving him directions. And even then he took a wrong turning…..

church GC

I thought it might be a Russian Orthodox church…but it was certainly not the museum we were heading for. Still we made it eventually and were assured that the museum staff would call us a taxi for the return trip.

Indeed they did. A yellow one.

Given the traffic, exacerbated by repairs on one of the main roads through the city, the meter was mounting up alarmingly…so Higher Authority commanded a change of destination.

‘The nearest Transmetro station’.

Money ceased to hemorrhage and we were back at the hotel for a Quetzal.

I had never felt much attraction for the pre-Columbian cultures of Central America, but the exhibitions of the Popul Vuh museum changed my mind. The flowing movement of the painted ceramics, then the melancholy of the incense burners and  the funerary urns  recalling the canopic vases of ancient Egypt was that which, finally, gave me the human link which had previously eluded me.

museo-popol-vuh pot

 

Interest in the Maya thus kindled I was sorely tempted by reviews of a restaurant offering a fusion of modern and Maya cuisine, just round the corner from the hotel.

La Cocina de la Senora Pu.

The lady in charge is an anthropologist and her message is that Mayan culture survived the colonial period in its essentials…as demonstrated by the syncretism of religious practice and the perseverance of cooking styles.

Temptd by the blurb on her website I ventured out to take a look but was repulsed by the style of the place. The customer eats at a bar surrounding the cooker at which the owner exercises her arts and that is much too close for comfort for me. I like to have a table far from the maelstrom without interaction with other diners…let alone the chef… and the reaction of Higher Authority on learning that he was expected to sit on a stool at a bar to eat his dinner would certainly have ruptured any idea of social harmony and drawn unflattering comparisons with the conquistadors.

la-cocina-de-la-senora

Do I regret it? In a way, yes…I was curious….and in a way, looking at the photographs of the food supplied by the restaurant, no. The sauces would have to be jolly good to make me eat some of those veg.

la-cocina-de-la-senora dish

As a one time spinner, dyer and weaver I was keen to learn more about the traditional arts of the Maya women.

A friend had given me addresses in Antigua where I would find the real thing…natural dyes and natural fabrics… but as Higher Authority overdid the walking and was thus confined to the hotel for a day I had had to renounce a visit to that sanitised home of yoga mats and boutique hotels.

Instead I visited the Ixchel museum,  home of indigenous textiles…alongside the Popul Vuh.

I was intrigued by the clay figures of Mayan women of the classic period with their geometric hairstyles…the Mary Quants of their time….. but less intrigued by the failure of the museum to demonstrate more clearly the  techniques of dying and weaving, particularly the use of the backstrap loom

backstrap loom

though the exhibits did show the colours and patterns typical of each area when producing the huipil, a rectangular garment with a hole for the head

Huipil-(Guatemala)-45317

and the cortes, a wrap wround skirt secured by a sash.

cortes

 

Dress changed in the colonial period…to be assimilated, men wore more European style clothes…but traditional  dress was preserved in the ‘cofradias’ the groups of people who held themselves responsible for the upkeep of venerated statues and the like….again, something more marked among women than among men.

The museum was good at showing how weavers now use ready dyed artifical thread…and a lot of sparkly stuff…to produce their wares, while still keeping a link to the traditional colours and designs of their area which went a long way to explain the forty shades of bling encountered on the streets where the vast majority of the women wore Mayan costume.

And there was, of course, the railway museum.

museo-del-ferrocarril

Not only could I wallow in photographs of steam trains crossing spidery viaducts

steam-locomotive

but I also learned that the Guatemala and El Salvador rail systems had a unique gauge, that a bankrupt government handed the Guatemalan railways over to the United Fruit Company whose hold was so complete that Guatemalans had to pay to use the port they built on the Caribbean coast and that it was to break that monopoly that a later president built the road to the coast which in turn broke the railway.

A long conversation with the staff about the role of the unions in advancing social welfare, a joint rant about neo liberalism…and my day was made!

Staying in the old city centre I was well placed to see the procession which brought the Immaculate Conception from the church of San Francisco to the Metropolitan Cathedral….complete with petards, men selling balloons and a band playing lively pasadobles which incited those pushing the attendant saints  on brown wheelie bins to pass at a fair lick.

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Two gallant gentlemen had hoisted me up on the wall of the park to enable me to take photographs while below us an elderly lady was  informing her neighbours that this, for example, was Saint Theresa. Presumably the Avila one rather than the Lisieux one.

‘No’ said a gentleman with the lapel badge of one of the cofradas ‘That is Saint Clare’

Then she spotted Saint Francis….no it wasn’t, it was Santo Domingo…and so it went on while the float bearing the Immaculate Conception made its solemn way to the cathedral steps. Just as well that the eighty odd men bearing it were able to ignore the band as trying to leg it to a pasadoble would have led to instant disaster and possibly thirty years more in Purgatory.

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Assisted to the ground by the two same gallant gentlemen I made my way back to the hotel, passing the bar where Che Guevara downed a few beers in his time, in a gallery off the main square.

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I would return to the cathedral to take a closer look….

cathedral GC

You see the pillars in front? They form a monument to those who ‘disappeared’ during the bitter civil war in Guatemala, where villages were razed to the ground on suspicion of aiding guerrilla bands trade unionists and activists were snatched on the street, never to be seen again.

cathedral pillars

Twelve pillars….but there could be twenty and still names would be missing.

Ordinary people, a baker, like the chaps who made my breakfast rolls, snatched and never seen again. His wife sought information for years…and found it when a building housing police archives collapsed. She learnt that he had indeed been snatched…and, amazingly, that he had been under surveillance for seventeen years previously.

Just take a moment to think…seventeen years in an age of pen and paper and police informers… in our era of camera surveillance and interception of electronic communication any government fearing dissent could act in an instant.

We too have our secret…and not so secret…police.

But across from those grim memorials a Christmas Fair was taking place in the square….music, fast food, loos whose posters announced ‘Two Quetzals to get in, exit free’…and an ice skating rink where a hard hat was issued with your ticket.

I soon saw why…clearly the locals are not adept at the art of skating. Crowds shuffled along the sides, holding on for grim death and wailing in unison when some bold soul headed out for the middle, only to fall in a heap to be picked up by the attendants.

I left Higher Authority sitting on a wall while I went to fetch him a hot coffee and was impressed to see that the patrolling police homed in on him at once…an elderly man on his own in a venue meant for families with kids..

It was all very discreetly done, but they had no intention of having any risk of unsavoury behaviour so we were all relieved when I turned up with the coffee and the subject turned to policing in Europe!

The hotel was nearby…the Pan American…an art deco institution in the city.

hotel-pan-american

We did not have one of the rooms with balconies overlooking the streets below but were perfectly comfortable…the water was hot, the shower pressure was great and the bed was comfortable. I could not have wished for more amiable staff…we needed the lift to travel up and down to the reception area and one call to reception had it at our disposal…and what a lift! A hand operated Otis, all gilt and mirrors, run by one or other of the two young men who did all the running, fetching and carrying around the hotel. It was a privilege to travel in it!

Further, the hotel was situated alongside Avenida Sexta  – 6th avenue – once called the Calle Real and for years the shopping centre of the city before the glitzy malls took over. Despite the prevalence of fast food franchises it still attracted people…en masse before Christmas…and so we did what those before us had done and went window shopping on Avenida Sexta….

Sexteando.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

46 thoughts on “Sexteando in Guatemala City”

  1. Great reading! Thank you.
    I think disappearances are common throughout South America. I have Chilean friends who “lost” family members when the Junta was active.

  2. Interesting. Guat City has cleaned up a lot in the 30 years since I was there. I think we beelined from wherever we were staying — not Antigua, which even then was too tidy, but somewhere. 30 years is a long time ago, so my memories are a bit fuzzy, but I believe that we ditched the buses that we otherwise took everywhere, for a cab that took us straight to the airport. Just looking out the windows, it was easy to believe every word of the warnings of kidnapping, etc. Mind you, this was after blithely cruising through areas where whole villages had recently been gunned down. You’re making me want to revisit Central America, Helen. I never thought I’d say that.

      1. Doesn’t it just…turns your hair grey just thinking about it!
        I have to say, I would not have been in Guatemala at that period…just as I wouldn’t be in Honduras now…

  3. What a fascinating read … my senses are overloaded what with floats full of immaculate Mary and her sainted entourage, weaving (I had no idea about your own weaving and dying provenance … more please!) and displaying of amazing colourful fabrics, Mayan history making me want to explore more of that culture, restaurants with chefs insisting on being up close and personal would have me running for the hills. And then the leveler in it all. The chilling certainty that we are all being watched now pales when you take time to consider all those massacred and snatched on suspicion. Cleaner it may well be but it still seems mighty messy to me. And mighty tempting for a visit.

    1. I weould have liked to venture out of GC….but Leo had overdone things and needed to rest. Still there was plenty to see and plenty that we did not see without venturing outside the city…..

      1. It looked an amazing adventure to me …. I was particularly heartened that there are still random fellows willing to help damsels of any age get the best views and down again!

        1. They were charming gentlemen….as were the security guards who, armed to the teeth, would insist on helping me up a step into the shops they were guarding. Leo fared well on crossing the roads…one look at he elbow crutch he was using and traffic stopped! Even the red buses!

  4. So glad you made the trip. Glad Leo was able to make the trip. What a great ending to that hospital trip! Wonderful photos. A place rich in history, like a lot of others: the good and the bad. Love the colorful clothing. Glad you’re home safely. Be well. Take good care. And I wish you and your whole pack very Happy Holidays. And to all our wonderful cyber friends here as well. Paulette

  5. Thank you. Word is the fire won’t stop until it rains. There’s just too much dry forest and brush, etc. We’re pretty much staying indoors with our HEPA filters roaring. When outside, we have to wear masks although Terry has been doing the shopping and chores. I had to get out and my big adventure was cleaning up dog poop. True, but it felt good to be out of the house. Your friendship and support has been a big help to me. You’re definitely a cyber sister. ❤

    1. Well, we both pick up dog poop! And isn’t that a damned sight cleaner than the fake news and the eternal spin on facts…
      Better start a rain dance….you need it, and the England cricket team need it too to avoid yet another defeat…

  6. S glad that you both managed to have a break together, Leo must be doing well under the circumstances. Great reading as always. Hope that you both have a great Christmas, take care Diane

    1. Thanks, Diane. I do hope that you are coping with the cold back in the U.K….it looks beastly.
      Leo wanted a break as a goal to get walking properly again….so that is why we chose a city centre hotel with plenty to see within walking distance. He did a bit too much walking…quelle surprise…but, yes, it has got him going again.
      Enjoy your Christmas…and keep warm!

  7. A superb little vacation, well planned for the sightseeing. Though sort of luck in settling into good accommodations. I remember cursorily skimming across Central America in history in fifth or sixth grade.

    1. A cursory skim was all we had too…so looking into the history has been a must since settling here.
      I was ratty about the textile museum…could have made much more of demonstrating technique…., but there was a further museum which I did not have time to visit which might have been better.

  8. So glad you made that trip!
    Sorry the taxis were so expensive, but I am with Leo here!
    You needed time off and so did he, the change alone is good for you.
    Well done.
    I would love the railway museum.

  9. The white ones were O.K….especially if you include the unforeseen sightseeing tour while the driver looked for the destination…but the yellow perils were something else!
    You would indeed have enjoyed the railway museum…the special gauge was news to me!
    Leo overdid things, though….but got hmself walking pretty well, so mission accomplished.

  10. It looks and sounds absolutely wonderful. You have found out so much about what you’ve seen and spotted so may small details, and this makes your post so much more interesting than most peoples’ accounts of their holidays. I must say I love the idea of a toilet that you have to pay to get OUT of. Not that you encountered one, I know; but the notice suggested that they are not unknown.
    I love the brightly coloured weaving. Actually I love the whole post. I think I’d have found the restaurant a little strange but I’m always up for something new so I think I would have forced down the veg and made polite conversation with the folks toiling in the kitchen. After all I do enough of this when I visit friends.

    1. Perhaps the three incarcerated old ladies were Guatamalan….
      The restaurant did put me off, unfortunately..it was all too eyeball to eyeball. Perhaps if I had thought of it in the way you suggest I might have been able to put a brave face on it…
      I am glad you enjoyed it…I can only suppose that those dreaded start of the autumn terms essays on what we were admitting to doing on our holidays have finally borne fruit!
      If so, all credit to the wonderful teachers of that period.

    1. The last couple of days were cold there…people huddled in head to foot woolly garments. They wouldn’t survive a mid winter in France….neither would the ministers who cut off winter fuel payments for Brits living there…

  11. Guatemala City seems to still have some real old-style charm to it. Some would say this is dilapidation or failure to keep up with the latest architectural trends, but the flagstones on the streets, checkerboard-tiled entrances to restaurants and stuccoed buildings are a nice change from glass monoliths and blacktop as far as the eye can see. It also helps that there’s still some genuine character left, as opposed to that ginned up by chamber of commerce types. I’m glad you and Leo are able to avail yourselves of day and night on the town.

    1. I think zone 1, round the historic centre,, is charming and there are other areas we passed through which have old fashioned style too….nice that it is genuine and not some mock up to attract tourists….of whom we saw very few. I think they all go to chocolate box pretty Antigua…

  12. A city with more edge to it than Scunthorpe. Jesting aside, that was absolutely fascinating – a part of the world I know very little about. My daughter wants to travel in parts of South America – I shall forward a link to this excellent article to her. Have a wonderful Christmas, both of you! Best regards, Mike.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it….we did!
      Your daughter will have a great time in Central and South America…and – if she can tolerate eight noisy dogs and two eccentric old farts – she will be very welcome to visit us in Costa rica.

  13. Goodness, Guatemala City seems to be alarmingly crime-ridden and crawling with police. And security guards armed with sawn-off shotguns? Good grief! Glad to hear the city centre was a lot safer and you were able to go sightseeing without any problems. Though I’d be reluctant to use a cabbie who’s consulting both a tablet and a mobile phone while driving.

    I was amused by the elderly lady who was confidently giving you totally false information. She probably asks everyone if they’re enjoying Buenos Aires and isn’t President Ortega a lovely man?

    1. She was a delightful old dear…cotinually being corrected by the gentleman next to her and carrying on regardless.

      I suppose I am used to armed security chaps everywhere in San Jose, so GC did not seem too fearsome after that…and having a place crawling with police seemed to me to be an idea other cities could copy!

      The cabbies were something else….both hands fully occupied, watching the map, listening to their mates on the ‘phone and occasionally asking us if we were sure we wanted to go where we were going…but lovely chaps, all of them.

  14. Wow! That has left me exhausted, hungry and envious (well, mostly, I am a little timid around pump action guns…). Phew. Loved the religious processions too. Have a bit of a thing for statues. Sorry I didn’t find it earlier. I must sort out my communications…

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