19 February 2012

Knowing a Country

There are a few instances in which one can say that one has known a country. Of course, we can be living in the country in which we were born, and yet we make no effort to see what is in store of this country. Then, we can also visit a country and be a tourist for a week or two, but can we really say that we have known a country, just by visiting it and scratching the surface?

See, I am writing this while in Huehuetenango. It is a town about an hour from the Mexican border, in the Western Highlands of Guatemala. I have been on the road for a little bit more than two weeks now, and I still have a couple of days before I fly back to Buffalo. But right now, I already have lost count of how many chicken buses, microbuses, pick-up trucks, and other means of transportation I have boarded. I have lost count of how many tortillas I have eaten. I have lost count of how many switchbacks I have navigated. And most importantly, I have lost count of how many beautiful people I have greeted here.

The thing is, it is one thing to be a tourist. It is another to be a traveler. I have visited several places in Guatemala already (and one in Honduras). I agree, this is a beautiful region. I cannot believe the magnitude of the differences that one observes when one moves from one region to another. I can be in a cloud forest one day, followed by the jungle the next, and the mountainous alpine ranges the day after that.

I've been in several ethnolinguistic zones here. I've stayed in towns where Spanish is a distant second language. In Nebaj, Ixil was the language of choice. In Chichicastenango, it was Ki'che'. And here in Huehuetenango, it is Mam. They all sound the same to me, but the locals swear that they are mutually unintelligible.

Perhaps this is the first trip in which I actually can say that I have experienced a country. The fact that this is my longest trip so far helps. In the past, I have spent 8 days in Mexico City, and I got to know just the city, which is wonderful, but its depth is nothing like getting to know a country like Guatemala. I spent ten days in Peru, but those were just me traveling in the Sacred Valley, without actually getting in contact with the locals.

This time, it is different. I met fellow travelers who I spent a great time with, but perhaps I won't see again. I also met locals who were treasure troves of the huge cultural experience that is simply priceless. For example, I was hiking the Sierra de Los Cuchumatanes mountains a few days ago, and my Ixil-speaking guide was telling me of the difficulties that the people of Nebaj have faced, during the Guatemalan Civil War. He told me how people were sent away, and populations were wiped out. Those things are just some things one cannot experience in the bubble of a tour bus.

I also got to appreciate things I have and usually take for granted. I have seen plenty of instances where children work here. Boys work shining shoes at the central park. Girls on the other hand work by selling trays of enchiladas or other types of street food. As much as I would love to have a lifestyle upgrade, I am grateful that I have been fortunate enough not to be in their shoes.

Things have interesting associations now. Whenever I hear the loud honk of a horn, I know that a chicken bus is announcing the fact that it is passing by. Whenever I hear a clapping sound, I know that it is the ladies preparing tortillas to be toasted at the oven. I've tasted several different types of fried beans by now. And yes, a comedor is good if they have hot tortillas to serve.

Traveling is amazing. There is a whole wide world waiting for the curious one. What I don't understand is that there are people who may have the means, but are just so content with living in their comfort zone, and don't even have a passport.

So yes, I still have a few days left before this adventure comes to a close, and travelogues are definitely in the works. Stay tuned.

(Chairs, from my Cathedral of Learning Series)

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