Lake Atitlan Stories and Tips

Tips for Co-existing with the Mayans

Happy Hour Photo, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Like most travelers on la ruta maya, the colors and pageantry that I associated with the Mayan culture and its history compelled me to make Guatemala the main stop on my travels through Central America. The 22 language sub-groups that make up the Mayans in Guatemala have survived 300 years of Spanish occupation, followed by uprisings, coups, countercoups, insurgencies and counterinsurgencies that continued up through the 1990s. Any butcher’s bill that had to be paid during these violent times was normally paid in great part by the Mayans. Through sheer determination, their identity and traditions have remained stubbornly intact – albeit with their populations decimated. Between the official end of the civil war (1996) and today, the Mayans seem to have been transformed from Enemies of the State into a big tourism draw – at least to an outside observer. But, at least three-quarters of the nation’s population is still below the poverty line, which presumably includes the Mayans, and the Modern World continues to encroach upon the Mayans in every aspect of their existence. During my travel there, I saw how Mayans dealt with the changing world going on around them, and how it affected my own travel. What I experienced ranged from the overwhelmingly positive to the downright disturbing.

The juxtaposition between the Mayans and Lake Atitlán’s Gringo interlopers is an interesting one, particularly those Gringos hanging out in San Pedro. The Mayans are very religious, traditional and conservative (evangelical Christianity and Catholic missionaries have a strong presence all around the Lake), and the focus of most Gringo residents seems to be anything but conservative. In all fairness, those tourists with more bacchanalian pursuits in mind pretty much kept their activities hidden from plain sight, and I saw an apparent peaceful co-existence between the two groups. Granted, there were always a handful of Gringo revelers that could be found stumbling around in the wee hours of the morning, but this was really no different from the Mayan men who would gather at certain tiendas at all hours and drink Quetzalteca until stupefaction set in. (Followed by a nap on the pavement.)

Those Mayans that made a living off of tourists (tienda or comedor owners, hostel operators, etc.) were quite friendly, and more than happy to make money off of ex-pats and tourists. And those locals that did not make money off tourists seemed to go about their business oblivious to them. It was no surprise that the younger generation had fewer hang-ups about tourists than their parents. While the young machos may have monopolized the hustling tourists for tips (or as they pronounced it: "teeps") in return for dragging them to a language school or hotel, the young girls who sold baked goods such as pan de banan proved that the boys certainly did not have the market cornered on "motivated salesmanship". Never shy, the girls are impossible to miss as they buzz around the main thoroughfares of San Pedro in their traditional traje with a basket balanced on their head. If you sit long enough in one place, one of them will eventually find you. They are hard-nosed negotiators, dauntless and charming, and rarely take "No" for an answer.

The story was the same at the mercado in San Pedro, where I went to buy a flashlight. It was only my third day in Central America, and my negotiating skills (and math skills, apparently) were so poor, that the young brother-sister duo running the stand gave me more change than the price we had agreed upon. Apparently, I had negotiated the price in the wrong direction once they threw batteries into the discussion. (I was flustered, OKAY?) I guess they felt I would need every Quetzal I could get, as I would undoubtedly starve to death if I continued negotiating in a similarly poor fashion for my next few meals.

Despite the bravado-filled countenance of these young entrepreneurs, a little one-on-one conversation with any of them revealed kindness, innocence, and intellectual curiosity beneath. The boys, no matter how young, always insisted that I treat them as much like equals possible, even when they were a fraction of my height. This required, for example, that I reciprocate a ridiculously firm handshake or high-five them in front of their compañeros, which never failed to impress, I’m sure. On my walk back from Tzununá, one of the young boys that I met as we both waited for a ride was full of pride to tell me about his full-time construction job after he had asked me about my own profession (this from a 13-year old boy). From both boys and girls, there were always questions about family and school – two things they could directly relate to. (Place-names and geography were too abstract.) One game two of the "pan de banan" girls loved to play with me was to let me try and read Tzutuhil vocabulary aloud from their Spanish as a Second Language textbooks. Nearly every word I spoke (read: mangled) was met with tittering that built up through suppressed giggles to doubled-over guffaws. I suppose I must have sounded like a drunken Bushman with Turrets Syndrome, so maybe the laughter was well deserved.

While the Gringos and the Mayans co-exist peacefully in San Pedro, it is not always the case in other parts of Guatemala. With the growth of tourism, countless Mayan entrepreneurs have risen to the occasion in chasing the tourist dollar. Markets selling traditional clothing are booming in such towns as Panajachel, Antigua, Todos Santos, and Quetzaltenango. Development of the tourist industry is far enough along for organized bus tours to come visit these market places on excursions operated by the more established tour operators based in Guatemala City or Antigua. While Mayans are comfortable with our bizarre appearance (particularly if there is a tidy profit involved), an incident occurred during my stay where the stiff competition of the midday market, the skewed perceptions Mayans had of foreigners, and the disregard of tourists for local customs built up into an hysteria with deadly consequences in nearby Todos Santos Cuchumatan.

Every traveler I met in Guatemala loved explaining the Golden Rule of interacting with the natives: Do Not Photograph Mayans Without Permission. I received some half-baked explanations about "losing a piece of their soul" from some awful hippies I met which I found hard to swallow. What was clear was that many Mayans are nervous around the camera because they do not understand the intention. Naturally, many of them lose their fear if a "teep" is negotiated in advance, but it is strongly advisable to not shoot first and ask questions later. Sadly, that spring, a group of Japanese tourists visiting Todos Santos did not heed this advice (or perhaps they were never told). I read conflicting reports in the various local papers and from travelers who were in Todos Santos at the time of the incident, but what is known is that a group of Japanese tourists apparently disembarked from their tour bus, whipped out their cameras and started snapping pictures with impunity.

It will probably never be clear what exactly sparked the violence. Maybe it was the high-pressure competition of the market that day, or the rumors that had been circulating then about kidnappers were stealing children. Perhaps it was the fact that one or two of the Japanese tourists were dressed all in black, but in the end, one woman working in the market snapped – and accused one photographer of trying to steal her child. The hysteria quickly built up, and an angry crowd began stoning the bus, the Japanese tourists and the brave tour guide (a Guatemalan) who had tried to intervene. The crowd ended up stoning one tourist and the guide to death. To amplify the horror further, some men in the crowd then set the tour guide’s corpse on fire. The police arrived too late to save the victims, but they did arrest a number of suspects. Looking at the picture in the paper of the six somber Amerindian men, standing there handcuffed together, wearing their traditional traje (in Todos Santos, this consists of wonderful red pantaloons and a hat), I had little understanding of how this could have happened.

It is clear to me now, is that if you wish to travel on your own as a backpacker "amongst the locals", you should be armed with at least a rudimentary understanding of the customs when there is a huge cultural gap. Any cultural understanding you have will only enrich your experiences, and this knowledge can clearly have far more important value. A willingness to accept and act on this is a key aspect of traveling off the beaten path.

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