Quetzaltenango (commonly referred to by the shortened version of its Mayan name, Xela) is a tough place to describe, at least in just a few words. Xela is hard core Guatemala, authentic, the real deal and rough around the edges. You rarely hear a word of English spoken in Xela and
tourists don’t seem to find their way there except for stragglers of Spanish students like me or those who come volunteering for one of the NGOs (non-governmental organizations), Guatemala’s version of a non-profit organization.
To me, Xela is the neglected envious step-sister of Antigua which is the crown jewel of Guatemala. Unlike Xela, Antigua clearly acts spoiled by its good looks and lots of attention. Antigua is flooded with intrusive tourists, mostly European and a few North Americans and Asians, who seemingly taint the Guatemalan culture by piercing it with their foreign languages of English, French, German, Japanese or Korean, and polluting the air with cigarette smoke and throwing their cigarette butts into the streets. Some are disheveled backpackers who often look desperate for a shower or a bed in one of the many eco-trendy hostels in Antigua. All of these alien invaders impose their own values on the remarkably resourceful Guatemalans.
North-Americanized restaurants and shops shout their entitled existence, thrusting themselves to the front of the line as if superior and getting in the way of an authentic Guatemalan experience. Antigua is full of ex-patriots, most of whom seem or pretend to be contemporary earthy hippies or wannabes (okay, so I’ve grown this bushy beard which doesn’t count). And there are numerous bars and pubs whose live bands further taint the atmosphere in Antigua by playing American and British rock and roll and even bluegrass. And thanks to all the tourists in Antigua, you can expect to receive the highly inflated “gringo price” from the street vendors and others who believe that tourists, especially North Americans, have lots of dinero. It can be quite laborious to try and haggle the price back down to something more reasonable, if it’s even possible.
Antigua is heavily protected and guarded by huge numbers of police and patrolling fierce looking armed soldiers with “don’t fuck with me” expressions (as only a Guatemalan soldier can have). The Guatemalan government certainly does not want anything to happen to its prized favorite daughter so as not to jeopardize Antigua’s strong tourist trade and all the money it brings into this struggling developing country. (Much of this money then apparently and sadly gets funneled into the coffers of the government officials for allegedly corrupt purposes rather than the places and people that actually need it. Or at least that’s what I’ve been told my the locals here).
Xela is not shy about being exactly what it is: raw, urgent, dirty, frenetic and seemingly in survival mode. The pollution is nasty. I found myself coughing frequently as disgusting black sooty exhaust would spew from dilapidated cars and broken groaning chicken buses or camionetas. Impatient swirls of wind gusts would kick up filth, garbage, volcanic ash and the powdered remains of desiccated dog shit that litters the streets from scores of homeless dogs that continuously roam in search of scraps of anything remotely edible when they are not sleeping anywhere they can find including under cars.
When I first mentioned to people here in Guatemala that I was going to live in Xela, the first thing that everyone told me was how cold it would be. In Guatemala, Xela is synonymous with the word “cold.” And they were right. Xela sits above 7,600 feet and the nights and mornings were in the low 40s or upper 30s. There is no calefacción (heating) in the houses so my bedroom would also get down to the low 40s at night and in the mornings which was definitely a challenge. I tried to adapt, sometimes unsuccessfully, with gloves and multiple layers of clothing including a down jacket with a hood over my head, and three or four blankets on my bed. Sometimes it was so cold, I would get under the covers early in the evening with all my clothing layers still on and watch a Spanish language movie on Netflix. It was too cold to shower in the mornings so I waited until the afternoons when the air was a bit warmer. Given the hassle of showering during the day, I admit that sometimes it was every other day.
I had to look closely to find Xela’s redeeming qualities. And there are some but they can be well-hidden since there really isn’t really much to do in Xela itself. I had to be highly vigilant, keenly alert and annoyingly curious,
peeking in buildings, open doors and always keeping my eyes wide open.
Being in Xela was the immersive experience that I was hoping for but the danger there kept me on edge. I was deep in the heart and belly of Guatemala. There was an intimacy with the country and people that I felt by living there. I could feel their anxiety and their urgency. There is no pretension in Xela. The city sits exposed as it is, vulnerable, with nothing to hide in the shadow of the perfectly cone-shaped specimen of a volcano, Santa Maria, and it’s highly active offspring, Santiaguito which I was fortunate enough to see erupting in full splendor!
Xela has no problem showing its dirty laundry and its skeletons for all to see. The city simply looks the other way or doesn’t care what outsiders see or think. The tension to survive there is palpable. The city shivers in the cold. The water breaks down and whole sections of the city lack water for hours or days. The electricity fails and the city darkens like an approaching turbulent storm. Some businesses are prepared with noisy inefficient electric generators that gag and stink from unburned noxious gasoline.
And Xela can be dangerous. I was told by the family I was living with to never walk alone in a nearby hilly park, El Baúl, because it was a haven for ladrónes or robbers. The family and even the Spanish school that I
attended also told me never to walk anywhere alone after dark which for
the most part I complied. On the very rare occasions that I was out later, I took a taxi for the five minute ride home which was better than walking through the dimly lit, street-dog infested dusty streets. A few times, I had to walk very early (around 4:30 or 5:00 a.m.) to school for an early departure weekend day trip while it was still dark. The eerie silence was deafening as I walked through the empty streets in a shroud of misty fog illuminated by yellowish halos around the street
lamps. Suddenly, the silence would be broken by the stereotypic crow of a
nearby anxious rooster or the threatening nasty growls of aggressive street dogs that would flood my body with nerve-shocking adrenalin as I yelled and waved my arms to keep them away, my heart pounding.
Many of the buildings are heavily in disrepair. Or they are falling down. Others look partially constructed and suspended in time. Many buildings
have steel rebar sticking up above their roofs probably in anticipation of
building a second story some day. Many things are jury rigged, as the clever and highly resourceful Guatemalans in Xela somehow find ways to keep things working and functioning. Electrical wires drape over the utility poles and streets like tangles of messy hair. Angry barbed wire twists around many buildings in hopes of deterring throngs of
vexatious thieves. Or pieces of razor sharp broken glass are glued to the edges of buildings screaming “keep the hell out or risk massive hemorrhaging!” There are bars on almost every window in Xela and strong metal doors are heavily padlocked. And lots of graffiti hurls epithets in opposition to the political corruption, among other communications and cartoonish “artwork.”
Cars speed through the streets ignoring or sometimes seemingly targeting pedestrians. Some cars would actually speed up as I was crossing forcing me to run across to the other side. Some drivers even blast their horn as if to say “don’t even dare to cross in front of me!“ The sidewalks are narrow and irregular making it easy to trip (which is true of Antigua as well). Each evening, a local barber would take down his traditional electric motorized barber sign so it doesn’t get stolen. By the way, a standard haircut is just 15 Quetzales or just $1.95!
As I walked home after school for lunch, the streets became progressively quieter as I got further away from the central historic area. However, in the neighborhoods, I loved running into the bustle of school children nicely dressed in their uniforms of smart looking sweaters, skirts or slacks and neatly combed and gelled hair walking home or meeting their parents. The kids in Xela and all through Guatemala are bright-eyed, alert, curious, friendly, clever, affectionate, intelligent and beautiful.
The shops everywhere in Guatemala, and notably in Xela, have enormous inventories, packed shelves and items stacked to the ceiling as if things
will be flying off the shelves. The amount of food in the mercado, including
fruits and vegetables, chickens and meat is staggering. They can’t possibly sell it all and then where does it go? And nothing is refrigerated. Beef, pork and who knows what else hangs in the open air feeding the persistent flies until if and when a buyer comes by. Naked slaughtered chickens are displayed split open, some of which contain gifts of golden yolks that would have been inside eggshells in the next few days or weeks. Bowls of expressionless chicken heads, necks and feet sit nearby.
But there are a few treasures that I was able to find with lots of detective work and a few hints from insiders. A charming coffee roaster sits
unassumingly on a side street where I enjoyed possibly the best cup of coffee that
I’ve ever had. A hippieish restaurant has filled its walls with tons of items worthy of an antique shop. A lovely tiny private library has traditional school desks for anyone to sit, read a book, check one out and have a cup of local coffee or a bakery snack. A locally famous bakery chain, Xela Pan, provides a wonderful assortment of very inexpensive delicious baked
goodies such as a chocolate cupcake for just 32 cents. In fact, food in Xela
is very inexpensive. For example, I could get a Guatemalan tipico (typical or traditional) breakfast of two eggs, plantains, frijoles, cheese, cream, bread or tortillas, orange juice and coffee for just around $6.50!
An unassuming Mediterranean restaurant serves juicy and tender chicken kabobs in a former run down mansion that has its own uniquely dramatic history. A Mennonite bakery sells fresh pies and doughnuts filled with fresh fruit. A sparking new mall rivals the finest found in the United States. A hillside restaurant, aptly named “Panorama,” provides breath-taking
views of Xela and many of the surrounding pueblos. A lovely municipal
theater has a novel-worthy history of wealth and poverty, peace and war, life and death and of course, comedy and tragedy. And a sign outside of the bar, “El Shamrock” says ” No Guns, No Drugs, No Minors and No Bad Vibes.”
A clownish talented juggler entertains the Sunday crowd in the Parque
Central in the historic district. Lovely murals and street art are an
unexpected pleasant surprise. Beautiful courtyard gardens and even art galleries can be found by looking in doorways. I had a chance to witness a spiritually lovely Mayan fire ceremony. A street vendor sells tulips freshly sprouted from bulbs. A couple of elderly street janitors hold onto each other in the chilly damp morning. A Mayan woman enjoys having her photo taken as
she makes cascarones, which are colorful eggshells filled with confetti
which the kids throw at each other during Carnival. And a chaotic cemetery of unexpected colorful and sometimes temporary graves and crypts is full of history, legends and possibly even ghosts. (See my story about Vanushka, a hauntingly charming Guatemalan Romeo and Juliet legend).
Short anecdote: On one of my day trips outside of Xela, while riding in the chicken bus, I happened to notice a small store named “Kike’s” which I read to myself with the same pronunciation as the highly derogatory word for “Jew” which some consider to be the equivalent of the N-word. Of course, I quickly concluded that the shop’s owner surely could not have known about the disparaging meaning of his store’s name. I happened to mention it to a local person here in Guatemala who quickly pointed out that I had read the sign in English whereas in Spanish, it was actually pronounced, Kee-kays, which is a shortened version of the name, “Enrique.” Reminder to self: when in a Spanish speaking country, read signs in Spanish, not English.
So I’m still struggling to figure out Xela. I keep asking myself whether I liked it. Mas o menos (more or less). Like anything, it had its good things and those not so good. Overall, I was glad that I lived there and had the chance to live with a wonderful family, the wife of which had a European background from many generations ago and the husband was a handsome indigenous Mayan gentleman (which caused a lot of conflict in their families when they decided to get married almost thirty years ago). I liked being immersed in the culture and rarely if ever hearing a word of English. Admittedly, we all have our dark sides and so did Xela. We had a challenging and maybe even a dysfunctional relationship but we both managed to get through it.