October 23, 2016

Get out of your comfort zone: visiting Nebaj (Guatemala)

By macu In America, Guatemala

The highlands of Guatemala have seen a lot of violence. First, rivalry between several Mayan cities. Then the cruel Spanish conquest, which basically slaved the indigenous population. When they finally got their independence, they only had a series of corrupt dictators followed by a long civil war.

But when you travel following the “gringo trail”, staying at hostels owned by Australians and moving around the country in comfortable private shuttles, it is easy to forget you are in a very poor place. You may pretend you are an alternative backpacker but you are not seeing the real Guatemala.

I was also part of the gringo trail. So I decided to get out of my comfort zone and find an authentic town not visited by most tourists. No more private shuttles but ready to find the joy of Guatemalan microbuses: in a vehicle designed for 12 people, it is always possible to fit 25! Kids on top of each other, people pushing until they fill every tiny space. And 3 guys on the roof.

Not the best trip but, when I arrived, I knew I had found what I was looking for. No more gringos. Only local people who, after the horrible things that happened during the civil war, wanted to enjoy their Mayan traditions again. They proudly wear their traditional dresses but, at the same time, are happy to invite you to their houses to drink a coffee and learn from each other. Walking in the street is magic: everybody dresses the typical garment, people speaks Ixil (an ancient Mayan language) and the local transports are tuk tuk (old three wheels Ape Piaggio vehicles) or chicken buses (old US schoolbuses). I spent few nights in a local hostel where guests are not only humans. It was fun to see chickens running away every time I was opening the door. Judge by yourself, hope you like my pictures!

I have fallen in love with the local traditions and especially the way people dress. Surely they do not have our first world problem ‘what do I dress today’. As Mayans are traditionally dedicated to the agriculture, the garment needs to be comfortable for working activities but also adequate to public decency. They also show the social class. Normal women use the huipil (a decorated square-cut blouse), a skirt and a cape, while men dress the classical pati (a typical red trouser).

I had the opportunity to observe how textiles are produced. Petronilla, a local artisan I met, explained me in a very basic Spanish how the work is done. The backstrap weaving technique typical of the highlands implies the use of various parallel sticks between which the warp thread are stretched. The body becomes part of the infrastructure. The grid is stretch between the roof and the back of the artisan. The composition of the drawings is not far from the pixel art: every single knot contributes to make the bigger final art.





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