Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Itzapa was a town with charm all its own. Nowhere in my trip was friendlier, more welcoming, or more wonderful a place. It didn't take very long for it to feel like home, the streets our neighborhood, the local kids our siblings, the tastes, sounds and colors all a part of who we were. I've heard it said that the poorest people on this planet are often the most generous, kind and courteous. This was certainly true of Itzapa, even those who had nothing would invite you to their homes, insist on feeding you, and if you made the mistake of complimenting something in their house they might try to send it home with you.

Decades ago there was a great earthquake, it wreaked havoc on the country as a whole, while some spots were hit harder than others. My understanding is that Itzapa was completely leveled, everything had to be built anew. Supposedly, it was once full of beautiful old wooden homes, rare in a country constructed out of cement and cinder blocks. The lure of cinder block construction is that its quick, relatively cheap and lasts much longer than wood. And so with blocks of gray and truck loads of cement Itzapa was resurrected. And so it has stayed.

Itzapa, and much of the Guatemalan streetscape, is defined by blank windowless walls. On the pedestrian level that's mostly what you see- row after row of long gray-brown walls, banal fortresses completely obscuring whatever beauty might exist inside. The new-urbanist James Howard Kunstler rails against blank windowless walls, provoking that "no amount of xanex" could make such design blunders okay. They are an affront to our humanness, a drain on our souls.

I agree that everyone would probably be happier if they were surrounded by excellent design and beauty, but ultimately he is wrong- community is the trump card. A beautiful living space, like the proverbial icing, is a wonderful benefit, though hardly a necessity. The long dusty corridors, the monotonous gray brown, the lack of vegetation- none of these things compromise the strength of the people, their commitment to one another, and joy in being alive.

As i look back over my photos from Itzapa there are a few worth mentioning:

This truck was one of my favorite parts of the town. It would just drive around for hours announcing things, anything. This truck was the town crier, the community's news source and advertising service. I remember wondering if anybody actually paid attention to it, and then one of my friends told me he was talking to a store clerk who told him to shut up so she could hear it. Question answered.

One day i heard this terrible noise coming from outside, so i walked out to have a look and there was a horse stuck underneath the back of this truck. Who knows how it even got there, it was pretty freaked out and having a hard time getting free. Eventually it wriggled itself out and walked off like nothing happened. Maybe it was embarrassed.

I really liked this image, particularly on this wall. I always found it beautiful, stopping to look at it often. It was disheartening to learn that it was a relic from a propaganda campaign of the oppressive conservative government during their long and brutal civil war. It reads "patriot."

This was one of the many animals that belonged to the kids across the street. The littlest kid, who we called the penguin, was once playing with a kitten, giving it kisses and petting it- next thing you know she's got the kitten's entire head in her mouth. I almost peed my pants when Anneliese told me about it.

Every day the town center was overrun with people playing soccer, chasing dogs, and eating choco-bananas, but mostly it was full of people selling fresh food. Tuesdays and Saturdays were the big market days when LOTS of people came out (like the photo above) but mostly it operated at quarter capacity- still pretty busy. The market was one of my favorite parts of town, everybody would just come and hang out, whether they had any "business" or not- it was just a great excuse to be with people. And maybe buy some tomatoes. (You had to be careful though, if you didn't pick out your own vegetables, some of the vendors would try to sneak rotten and bruised ones in there).

Considering our collective adoration for human-power, these hand-cranked icee makers really caught all of our attention. They'd take a big block of ice and stick it under a big screw with spikes on it. The screw rotated the ice block against an opening with a sharp edge, the shavings would then fall off into the bucket below, add a brightly colored syrup and, voila, icee.

This was one of the most upsetting parts of being in Guatemala. Itzapa was, unfortunately, no exception to the rampant littering and blatant disregard for the shared water sources. There were times when the river in town would run black. It smelled awfully.

Seeing all of the trash kicking around everywhere it would be easy to think of Guatemala as being on par with us for waste, but on closer examination this isn't the case at all. First of all, there's no doubt in my mind that per capita, Guatemalans consume far less than we do- they just don't have the resources to process (i.e. "disappear") all of their trash, so it remains jarringly on display.

Though, it was something else that really struck me about their relationship to waste. Once i went out searching for some scrap to build with, and despite the dorito bags floating down the street there was absolutely nothing usable. I realized that what i was trying to do was what anyone else with any common sense had already done- anything with any value is immediately re-absorbed into the system. An analogy came to me as i stood stupidly looking around at a whole lot of nothing- in the rain forest the soil is actually incredibly nutrient poor- the reason is that the wide array of flora in the forest immediately reabsorbs the nutrients of anything that falls to the forest floor. Everything useful is used.

Ah the internet cafe. Well it was really more of an internet knick-knack shop. The people there sold all kinds of random stuff- fireworks, stickers, canned food, radios, ice cream, creepy baby dolls. The store, i guess it didn't really have a name, we'd just say we were going to the internet lady's. (Apparently she didn't have a name either).

I always got on number three, it was by far the best computer. I spent countless hours there, sometimes up to ten a day- they'd have to throw me out. After a while they started making me food and coffee (Guatemalan coffee consists of one part coffee, four parts milk and three parts sugar). We, well, really, I, was a total internet-junkie. Thirty six thirty sevenths of this blog was written on computer number three at the internet lady's.

This pig was one of my favorite things ever of all time. I love it. I love the pig. There were so many awesome hand painted signs all over the country. This one was actually in Chimaltenango, the next big town over, but whatever, its the greatest thing i've EVER seen.

And in case you didn't notice, it is peeing.

I've included an interactive map of Itzapa, courteous of the technical geniuses of google. You can't pick out Maya Pedal at all, though you can find its street- its the one that on the far left has a cemetery and a big dusty brown soccer field.

View Larger Map