The beauty of the landscape as well as the lack of oxygen takes your breath away.
Sometimes soaring well above 2000 meters, at others, plunging down the valleys, almost at sea level, the Guatemalan Highlands are full of surprises: the sudden rush of a waterfall that drops into deep ravines as you walk along a trail, the gusts of steam from the hot springs as you climb the steep incline to the now quiet volcanoes, the ever-changing view from one height to the next, the clouds so close you can almost touch them, and in fact at times you are in them. The vivid array of colors, flowers and greenery of every kind growing as they please, makes these mountains a veritable Eden.
But where are the humans? And is there a snake to mar this idyllic peace? A woman sits under the tree, one end of her loom strapped to its trunk and the other wrapped around her back. Her long black hair streams behind her like a mantle, the proud features of her ancestors chiseled on a face that will remain beautiful even with the lines of age and toil. The colorful clothes she wears tell the story of the Mayan tribe she belongs to. The colours she weaves so deftly are a reflection of her surroundings; the yellow of the wild daisies that grow among the corn, the deep purple of the bougainvillea that almost covers her humble mud brick home; the green of the tall pine trees, the red of the flamboyant trees, the mauve of the wild dahlias…
The ever-present guisquil vine with its green fruits shades her from the sharp rays of the midday sun: it is a quiet moment in an otherwise hectic life.
She wakes up to a world enveloped in rain-drenched clouds well before the sun rises above the mountain ridge. Her chores are endless, yet she doesn’t need a list to remember them all. The habits of a lifetime, first as a quiet witness and then as an active participant, are etched in the very frame of her being. Light the fire, as the memory of the forest from which she gathered wood since childhood fills her like the smoke that invades the kitchen, adding another layer to the soot on the ceiling. Bring the corn to the mill to be ground into masa for the tortillas that will feed the family for another day. Walk the long miles to the nearest stream to wash the clothes in water that’s questionably clean, and bring a bucketful home for the needs of the family. Find a ride, or walk to the market to sell the produce from the field to provide some extra income.
Tend to the livestock, another brood of children that claim her attention and care, most of the time without the help of the absent husband.
The rhythm of her day is set by the slap, slap, slap of hands shaping masa into tortillas, and the slap, slap, slap of clothes being vigorously scrubbed until they are sparkling clean. The slap, slap, slap of the child making mud cakes nearby, while the baby on her back squirms to let her know that it is time for a change of diaper or for the feeding.
Impervious to the cold or the heat she climbs the mountains without skipping a breath, on light feet despite the heavy load on her head, her body shape adapted to the weight and almost defeating the gravity that would pull her down the gullies below. Seemingly the life of a drudge or of a woman from the past, this is the reality of almost every woman living in the many rural villages nestled in the Guatemalan Highlands.
Somehow basic education has past by without leaving her the benefit of literacy, forever tying her to an endless wheel of dependence to the old ways. Nevertheless she still is a leader in her community and a strong supporter of change and improvement to bring about a better future for her children.
Life is a tough taskmaster for her in these almost primitive conditions and in sharp contrast to the life of the women in town, who wear the latest fashion clothes, talk on the web and ride motorbikes.
But it isn’t any easier for her counterpart. The man, forced to leave home and family for weeks or months at a time, pours his sweat in coffee or sugar-cane plantations, coming home for the planting and harvesting of his own piece of land. But lack of water, lack of government grants to improve the life of these areas of the country has left the people with no hope and no recourse.
And here is the snake that hides behind the beauty of this Eden: poverty that, at times of drought, leaves death in its wake; uneven distribution of wealth that sees some living in luxury, while others scrounge for the bare necessities. Land and water are the privilege of few, and those who have neither are forever knocking on the door of whomever it may concern, begging to be allowed to share the bounty of the earth. International aid is lost in the quagmire of bureaucracy and little, if any, trickles down to those who desperately need it.
But still here in the Highlands the sense of family is a stronghold and a saving grace that those who live in the city have lost. The children of these mountains keep coming back to breathe in the clean air and the beauty of an unspoiled creation, to renew the bond of kinship with people who prize people more than things, and to share the simple fare of life.
Miriam van der Zalm