Bus hopping into Guatemala
First week on the lake and our entry into Guatemala served as a reminder of what this trip is also all about; stepping into the unknown and out of our comfort zone. There was a certain amount of planning before we headed south but nothing could prepare us for the experience ahead.
On Monday morning Pam and Alan drove us to the border where Mexico meets Guatemala. As we walked over the bridge to enter Guatemala, we noticed people illegally swimming across the river to step onto Mexican soil, a daily occurrence here. As soon as we crossed the hassle began, men trying to exchange currency, offering bus services and help with passport stamping and any other information they thought we needed. Cambio, cambio! (exchange, exchange!), A donde va? le ayudamos! (where are you going? we can help you!). We met Eddie whose mini van was going to Malacatan and hopped on our first of many bus rides.
We arrived 20 minutes later, Moacir and I stood on a quiet street and jumped onto our first chicken bus. For those of you who are unfamiliar with chicken buses, they are basically extremely old modified school buses that have been decorated with colour. They transport people, goods and often livestock (yes, chickens!) from different communities and can be found all across this side of the world. After we hopped onto this particular chicken bus, we could already hear the breaks squeaking loudly at every corner. Because these buses are so old, safety is always a concern, especially because of the roads and crazy drivers. Chicken buses are also where thieves like to hang out, so we made sure we kept an eye out. Once we arrived to our destination we took a taxi to a nearby town and hopped onto another combi. We got off the combi at an overwhelmingly busy market place in Quetzaltenango and boarded another chicken bus to Panajachel.
Soon after we boarded the bus, it raced down winding narrow roads at full speed and we slid from side to side like a very full on game of corners. It felt like we were on a rollercoaster. We felt safe though, and the view was spectacular. There were tiny houses surrounded by corn crops in every direction, stunning mountain ranges and family’s were working the land. The locals were letting us know what stop we were at and were very hospitable. We arrived in Panajachel almost 3 hours later, we were so tired but excited to have arrived. Our tuk tuk driver, Don Diego, taught us a few words of the local lingo, Kaqchikel en route to our Airbnb home.
The next day we set out to have a look around. As we approached the Lake we were blown away! The view is breathtaking and we were lucky to see Volcan San Pedro, Toliman and Atitlan in the distance. Due to the rainy season, the luscious rainforest that surrounds the lake is thriving. You can experience such peace and tranquility near the lake but as you walk into the main street of Panajachel, it is another story! Tuk tuks and scooters are out in force, artisans are selling textiles on the streets and everyone is going about their busy daily lives. Everywhere we walk the local indigenous Maya wear their traditional dress with pride, which is so special to see.
It hasn't taken us long to connect with some exceptionally talented artisans. As we walked down the busy main street, we spotted a shop front that had the most amazing leather bags. We entered the store and the owner Juan began to explain to us that he and his wife Sylvia had been designing bags on the lake for the last 10 years. Now they employ 40 people (all whom are family members) to hand make each design in their home workshop. Vintage huipiles (the traditional blouses worn by indigenous women) are sourced from local markets and combined with naturally dyed leather to make each bag. Juan and Sylvia also commission local weaving co-operatives to create their own textile designs, further creating more jobs on the lake. Each piece pays tribute to their Mayan roots and is entirely unique, having its own history and meaning. I spent two full days in Juan and Sylvia's store sourcing a few limited and special pieces for Cielo and I can't wait to show you these stunning creations.
This week we also took a boat to the other side of the lake, to San Juan La Laguna. As we walked up the steep hill of the town’s quiet main street, we spotted a road side stall displaying the most beautifully woven textiles. Inside we met a woman named Ingrid who explained that the shop was a part of the 'Asociacion Madres Solteras' (Single Mothers Co-operative). Here, 23 women support one another, produce work that they love and as a result earn an income to help raise their children who were abandoned by their fathers. Ingrid shared her story with us and opened up about the difficulties of raising a child alone in Guatemala. There is no help or support for single mothers here, so life is a daily struggle. Ingrid also told me that many of the women were rejected and discriminated against by other weaving co-operatives on the lake simply because they were single mothers. Luckily through 'Asociacion Madres Solteras' these women have had the opportunity to find work and a community of women who have become family. The women all hand loom textiles on a backstrap loom which is such an amazing and difficult artistry. The textiles are then naturally dyed with ingredients such as avocado, cacao and carrot to name a few. It is a long process but the quality is exceptional and I am so grateful to have met such strong and creative women.
As we were leaving I purchased a huipil that Ingrid had hand loomed herself. She explained to me that the money from the sale would help her take her 2 year old son to hospital as he had become ill with pneumonia. Being able to support women like Ingrid through Cielo makes me so happy. It made me realise again how important our purchases can be. If you choose to shop ethically, a purchase can change lives, send a child to hospital and feed a family. This relationship is just beginning and we are looking forward to meeting with Ingrid again this coming week to source pieces for Cielo and get to know each other more.