Sunday, December 9, 2012

From the Empirical Archives: Bienvenido a la Ciudad de Guatemala by Jeremy da Rosa

Bienvenido a la Ciudad de Guatemala
Jeremy da Rosa
Originally Published in the June 2012 Issue of Empirical

Guatemala City sits around 6000 feet above sea level, and is built on the tops of mountains and highland plains. The land is wrinkled with elevation and streaked with valleys and throughout this high green landscape, volcanoes rise higher still and continually send smoke into the sky.

The city stretches out on a plateau, with innumerable fingers of mountain running out all at once in as many directions, forming hundreds of barrancos where thin muddy rivers and streams trickle through dense foliage gathering dirt and garbage. Houses and shacks crowd together and rush out to the very edge of the highland peninsulas, and some tumble over the upper edge of the ravines and lean on or stack haphazardly upon each other, stepping down toward the vertices of the nameless and numberless valleys.

Here the houses are made of concrete blocks or corrugated sheets of iron fastened to wooden frames with rusty nails Families live in single or two-room dwellings, and often the kitchen or eating room doubles as the family bedroom or sitting area. Out on terraces in the concrete houses, or in paneled yards beside the sheet metal shacks, clothes are stretched along rope or wire clotheslines, and slowly fade in color in the heavy, quick-drying sunlight and hot wind. When temperatures drop and thick clouds roil overhead, the clothes and lines are stretched out indoors in salas or in cool, open-air jardínes within the concrete houses.

Block and earthen steps and walkways lead down to the lowest of the houses from the streets above, and everywhere, uncared for and unwatched, dusty dogs, one with three paws, another missing an eye, wander in and out of the alleyways between houses and yards, muzzling through bags and piles of trash awaiting pickup from weekly trucks or skittering across streets. During the night, a fight breaks out over a discarded stew bone between a black mutt with matted fur and a brown hound missing half an ear. From inside the shack across from them, a brown one-liter Gallo bottle, Guatemala’s national lager, is thrown from a square hole in the iron and lands in the side of the black mutt. It yelps and jumps off into the dark, while the hound picks up the bone and moves on toward the road.

These roads stretch and weave around from the edges of the barranco, passing tiny corner stores with barred windows and doors, or, in other areas, corrugated tin shacks with banners and signs posted outside. Panaderías offer fresh bread and cakes, and in dim rooms with hard floors of dirt, dark women wrapped in colorful fajas shout or murmur quietly in their native Kaqchikel or K’iche’ tongue around hot comales, vigorously slapping and forming clay-like masa into tortillas to sell to hungry passersby for five per queztal. The hound streaks through the lot around the tortillería and wanders off into the thick undergrowth with his prize.

The concrete and block houses and buildings continue to spread evenly through the city, creating a layer of cream, orange, or another mild hue over the entire area. Here and there the houses are left unfinished at the top, with four uneven pegs of rebar reaching through at each corner of the buildings, waiting for another heavy level to be laid when the dueño has money to spare. Streets are spotted with holes and grooves deep enough to scrape the hard underbellies of automobiles and throw the wheels out of alignment. Vendors walk the concrete and earth medians, hawking roses, plátanos fritos, phone cards, and other necessities to drivers. On the corners sit simple tienditas with names like Abarrotería Occidental, Almacén Jordan, or Tienda San Pedro, each with brightly colored packages of chips, cookies, crackers, and nuts hung on plastic ribbons around the barred storefront opening, making a sort of edible curtain to entice potential buyers. Boxes of milk, cereal, and cooking supplies sit on metal shelving deep in the back of the small rooms, and aguas are stocked in old reach-in, glass-door coolers by the front of the store: juice, cold tea, Coca-Cola (Guatemalans prefer this over Pepsi almost nationwide), and various cervezas, each in file by size and flavor.

Auto shops and various hardware and domestic talleres, featuring hand-painted signs on concrete store fronts, are cluttered with the respective work of the trade, creating consecutive blocks of new tires and wheels, or a wide street lined with trophy and plaque manufacturers. Moving toward the southern central point of the city, the roads become wider and the pavement improves slightly. In all areas of the city are exclusive gated communities where the wealthy reside, but east of the airport, in the banking district, the concentration of these colonias privadas increases drastically, as do the appearance and price of the goods and services near them. Multi-floored glass buildings layered with banks, embassies, and offices stretch and straddle ample tree-lined boulevards alongside immense, westernized shopping centers and car dealerships, and fast-food chains. Grassy park-like areas stocked with monuments to each Latin American country lay between the oppositely routed traffic of the Avenida Las Américas, which culminates in a large, crescent shaped park with a view of the receding city limits. Far beyond them, the ring of mountains and valleys continues endlessly. The traffic on the main boulevards ribbon and billow in a rough T-shape through the southern end of the city, with the northwest side of the crossbar heading to Mexico, and the southeast to El Salvador.

Traffic in this highway is heavy nearly all times of day. Flamboyant and flashy, and equally dilapidated and derelict, red buses curl thick diesel smoke into the air and stop frequently to receive and release hordes of riders at every street corner. Fumes from the buses drift into open windows of well-worn Japanese automobiles missing a fender or bumper here or there, with red or white tape across tail lamp bulbs and innumerable scratches, dings, and dents. Throughout this jerking body of traffic whip late-model BMWs, Mercedes, and Jaguars, which quickly and mercilessly overtake the slower masses, while large SUVs with chrome grille-guards and black-tinted windows (often followed closely by gray pickups carrying at least three bodyguards) edge the smaller or more timid cars into the margins. And continually, among the endless gridlock of cars and buses, motorcycles fearlessly dart in and out of traffic, over low medians, zipping down sidewalks and along shoulders, or splitting lanes and narrowly avoiding an outstretched hand asking for space to change lanes. The bikes are small, and the 100cc or 125cc motors create a low- to mid-pitch whine, which serves as a backdrop for the scene. The motos, Bajaj, Shineray, Suzuki, Yamaha, and a spattering of other lesser-known brands often carry small propane tanks, plastic delivery boxes from Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, or another fast food or goods retailer en-route to or from the delivery destination. Near this river of gleaming metal and dispersing exhaust fumes, La Aurora International Airport stretches north to south, with one end of the tarmac capped by the aforementioned boulevard, and the other abruptly cut short by one of the barrancos which cut through the city.

Here, the intense contrasts which spread through the city are compacted along the fenced-off reception area outside the terminal. Taxis and shuttles sit patiently throughout the day, the taxistas mildly haranguing arriving travelers with rides to La Antigua Guatemala, Tikal, and sharp hotels in the city’s banking district, while cleandressed charter bus drivers and expectant parties shift their weight and hold signs with travelers’ names in large letters. Far more common are the wealthy, “Americanized” families, friends, or known business associates, glancing occasionally at watches or cell phones and leaning, with impatient eyes, toward the glass doors whenever a group of passengers exits. These are the descendants of Spaniards, or other European immigrants and indigenous Guatemalans, who have become firmly entrenched as the ruling elite in Guatemala. These are the owners of the Audis, BMWs, and Porsches, and those who have expensive U.S. or Japanese cars imported to their westernized homes in the banking districts and guarded colonias.

Mixed among them are the ladino Guatemalans, those who may still own multiple cars and send children to private schools, but do not live in the wealthy, internationally influenced areas and are outside the materialism of the ruling class. Up against the fence, and usually in subdued groups, wait the indigenous Guatemaltecos. The women come dressed in bright, durable, handmade ropa típica, and the men with white cowboy-style hats, dungarees or vaquero slacks, and leather boots. While the elite walk loudly in stylish clothing and flash cell phones and imported luggage, the short, dark couples wait by the fence and speak in low voices sometimes Spanish, sometimes in Lengua—and go largely unnoticed by the two other groups, their place in history and importance to the culture rapidly leaving them behind—and seemingly almost forgotten.

As the friends and their long-awaited guests weave out, waiting for buses, calling taxis, or merging through traffic in their personal transportation, the largest concentration of Caucasians in Guatemala outside of Tikal and Antigua are injected into the mainstream like farm-raised trout and are quickly separated and dispersed throughout the endless streets and calzadas and subsequently lose each other.

With the hurrying in and out of cars, buses, slim motos and waves of tourists, internationals, and Guatemalans, the airport, and, by extension the city, throbs and heaves with emotions and contradictions, which at once define and confuse its identity.

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  1. One of the best place I've seen so far. Guatemala City draws visitors whose interests range from Maya history to contemporary culture. Two museums house Maya artifacts, some of which were discovered on a nearby archaeological site. Great post.

    1. Thank you Becca! It is really one of the most incredible cities in the world. If you enjoyed that article, you may enjoy "Genius or Folly" in our archive as well.