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Originally appeared in Issue No. 5.



Money, Language, and Art in Guatemala
by Laurie O'Brien

I.  Cambio del dia 6.81

"Don't worry about it. . .you'll go to heaven" reads the sign behind the money changer's booth in the Guatemala City airport. Not too many years ago the exchange rate was one-to-one. Now it's close to seven quetzales for one American  dollar. Best for Guatemalans not to worry. It would be too terrible.

We study the sign that announces 6.81 quetzales. Someone tells us this is a good rate. I change $200 in travelers cheques. The wad of quetzales is enormous.

Maya weavers in the Guatemala highlands.
Maya Women weave outside their house in the village of Santa Catarina Barahona in the Guatemalan highlands. They use backstrap looms which are attached to a tree and consist of several smooth pieces of wood threaded with the bright cotton used for weaving. The skill of the weavers in this region of Guatemala is extremely high, producing some of the finest textiles in the country.
Photo by Laurie O'Brien.

The next day at our house in Antigua, Liza gives us a small chart, "Money  Changes Everything," we can carry around which shows the exchanges for each unit of Guatemalan currency. One hundred quetzales is about fifteen dollars. As it turns out, fifteen dollars, 100Q, is a lot of money in Guatemala, even for  Americans. In my room before going out I study Liza's chart. I understand it, but I don't master it. I fold it carefully and put it with my wad of quetzales. I never consult it again.

Commerce in Guatemala is raw, unplanned. Shopping, at least for Americans, overlaps every other activity. To look at a seller's wares is to commit a purchase. And the sellers are everywhere, on the streets, in the Parque Centrale, in the shops, in front of the shops, inside the cafes, on the steps of the churches. Everything is a bargain; remember, seven to one. And everyone is selling: mothers and their babies with intricate weavings spread out like giant quilts in the grassy shade of the Tanque de la Union, the communal washing pila. Little girls dressed in traje, the traditional dress of the Maya villagers, balancing wicker baskets of tipica on their heads. Little boys with enormous bags of cashews selling single scoops.

I buy weavings, tiny bags, worry dolls, a rosary. No cashews. I'm afraid to eat the cashews.

A young Maya boy selling tipica.
A young Maya boy sells tipica (trinkets, small items) in the indigenous market at La Fuente in Antigua, Guatemala. Everything he sells is handmade, and the prices are always bargainable.
Photo by Laurie O'Brien

Prices are fluid. Everything is bargainable. "I make you good price!" may be the most common English phrase spoken in Antigua. I learn to count. The single digits are easy, and, by extension, so are the larger units. The teens confuse me for days. I learn after the first outing to keep the big bills--20, 50, 100Q--separate from the ones, fives, and tens. I abandon the coins to the bottom of my suitcase back in my room. Twenty-five centavos is less than two American pennies. One centavo is incalculable. I learn to be able to separate one bill from the wad in my pocket so no one will see what I am carrying around. This roughly parallels what the guidebook has told me: Guatemalans understand that Americans have paid more for their plane tickets down than the average Guatemalan will make in a month. Still, we find that the sellers are uniformly honest, escaping with a too-big bill to collect change from their fellow vendors down the street, always smiling when the deal is struck.

When we go to the Parque Centrale to sketch and take photos, we collect little tipica peddlars in an immediate swarm. They are both charming and insistent. But we aren't shopping, we're drawing we pantomime to them. The prices tumble like leaves on a fall day. We buy something. It's impossible not to. And, of course, immediately the swarm expands exponentially. It takes about a week before we understand that the only way around these endless transactions--and there must be a way around them because we cannot buy something from every child in Antigua--is a quick pace, no parcels, and a smiling but firm no, gracias. This means we can never draw in the Parque Centrale before the very beautiful cathedral and the strangely erotic fountain.

The Guatemalan unit of currency, the quetzal, is named for the Guatemalan national bird. The quetzal is a brightly plumed creature that cannot live in captivity. It's all but extinct, residing only in a few sanctuaries. Seeing the quetzal bird may be about as likely for a foreign visitor as seeing a 100Q bill is for an indigenous Guatemalan. And the only folding quetzal to carry a picture of the indigenous Maya is the 1Q bill, worth about 14 American cents.

II.  The Right Names of Things

I buy the CDs a month before we leave. Three discs, a book of lessons, and a small dictionary all in a box. The Spanish professor whose office is down the hall has recommended them. I don't have enough time to take a class.

I listen to the first CD in the car one night going for takeout. It begins with a long list of names. I like the sounds. I think about learning to roll my Rs. But soon after that, the whole business goes into the trunk of my car. I don't have time for this. I'll just have to be an illiterate American tourist, confined to por favor and gracias. It takes less than 24 hours in Guatemala for me to realize how misguided this approach is going to be.

The first morning after breakfast, Adolpho takes us walking around Antigua. He is one of Liza's helpers. He tells us he is mestizo, some Spanish blood, some Caribbean, some Maya. He laughs when he tells us he is simply too tall to be taken for an indigenous Maya. His English is very good. He explains the calles of Antigua, running east and west, and the avenidas, north and south. He shows us the pila where the women wash clothes and the beautiful and ruined church of San Francisco where the indigenous market is blooming on the wide stone plaza. He shows us La Fuente with its maze of shops and its indigenous market, a veritable carpet of embroidered and woven textiles laid out in the courtyard sun around the fountain. Then he takes us into La Casa de Los Gigantes where I buy three wildly painted wooden dogs.

Antigua architecture is as colorful as the Maya.
This doorway of a house in Antigua is typical of the beauty of the town. Only nine blocks in each direction, Antigua is filled with 18th Century buildings, cobblestone streets, and the ruins of early Spanish churches and other buildings.
Photo by Laurie O'Brien.

Back at the house where we're staying on Primera Avenida Norte, I take the dogs from the bag and lay them on my bed. They are even more wonderful than I had realized when I bought them. One is white with black and red spots and sits on a little green platform with wheels. One is a spotted marionette whose legs fold much like those of a real dog. One is tiny with floppy leather ears. All have been cut by hand and painted in bold, stylized colors. Two have removable tails. I pull out the Spanish dictionary. Dogs, los perros.

I start a list in my journal: dog, perro; bark, ladrio; moon, luna; spot, mancha; tail, cola; poem, poema. I can see these words working their way into poems, but I'm a long way from being able to have a conversation with anyone in Guatemala.  A couple of days later we ride in the back of Pancho's blue pickup to the home of Zoila Garcia, a weaver Liza knows who lives in Santa Catarina Barahona, a village about 30 minutes from Antigua. By now I can say Buenas tardes, senora. I can say an enthusiastic Mucho gusto. I can ask her children what their names are. After we eat the local speciality, pepian, red chiles and other ingredients cooked over a wood fire into which we dip the corn tortillas Zoila has taught us how to make, we go with her little girls up the mountainside to see a waterfall. When we get there, however, we find the waterfall has been displaced by last year's Hurricane Mitch and its ensuing floods. So instead we see enormous boulders scattered as if by a giant hand and lush, green forest everywhere. Flowers are abundant. Banana trees, ferns, wild orchids are everywhere we look, and impatiens grow profusely between the rocks.

Carmen, another of Liza's helpers, has come with us. Carmen is from ChiChi, or Chichicastenango, a Maya market town in the highlands. She is petite and dark-skinned, open and friendly. She speaks the Maya language of her area (there are 22 Maya languages in Guatemala, according to some official sources, and many more according to others) plus Spanish and English. It's wonderful having her with us because she is eager and fun and because she lifts us out of the restricted valley of long-unused high school Spanish where we are mostly confined. She can translate and interpret well beyond our usual conversations about quetzales and calles and whether there is any more milk or salsa verde.

We talk about the flowers. Carmen says that in Guatemala little flowers like impatiens are sometimes called marguerites. I tell Zoila's daughter--through Carmen--that another name for impatiens in the U.S. is patient Lucy. Then Carmen offers the Guatemalan nickname for the flowers--teenagers.

Teenagers? Maybe there is even more of a language barrier than I had realized. Quinceaneras, she says, 15-year-olds. The year when girls in Guatemala come of age, have big parties if their parents can afford it, take their first boyfriends. And where they often go with these boyfriends is to places like this, into these ferny, flowery woods.

That night, back in my room, I get out the Spanish dictionary again. There are more words to add to the list in my head and in my journal, more questions to ask Carmen and Adolpho the next morning about the right names of things.

The days pass. The greetings and questions roll a little more easily off my tongue. Each night I try to learn another phrase to add to my repertoire. I make more notes in my journal. I read further and further into the dictionary. And finally I realize that this is what I love, the way words work toward understanding, even when they aren't mine. Listen: bombardarios voluntarios, Arca de Noe, quinceaneras, Udi, Meson Panza Verde, Solola.

Maya women keep their babies close as they weave.
A young Maya weaver carries a baby in a traditional woven wrap which allows women to keep babies close as they work. The long wrap is hand-woven on a backstrap loom.
Photo by Laurie O'Brien.

III.  The Visitable Past

Novelist Henry James described the "visitable past" as "those places where it is possible to reach out and find the past firm and continuous." And so I stepped off a Continental 747 into an airport and then into a rattletrap van which took me over and around several mountains and deposited me on the cobblestones in front of Numero Tres, Primera Avenida Norte, on the eastern edge of the old city of Antigua, Guatemala. Our little group was shown to our rooms where, somewhat tired and travel-worm, we unpacked a few things, crawled under the Indian blankets on our beds, and fell asleep.

What woke me the next morning were sounds, a barking dog, ancient automobiles clattering on the stones, and a bit of near-equatorial light sneaking under the drapes. I looked out one window and saw a volcano, Fuego. I leaned out and looked down the street and saw another volcano, Agua. The houses along the street were made of stone and tile and painted in beautiful colors, rose and turquoise and ochre. Green vines and purple bougainvillea spilled over the high stone walls. Below the little cobblestones were as rounded as new loaves of bread. Light struck the roof tiles in an endless variation of patterns.

I went downstairs and walked out into a courtyard filled with birds of paradise, flaming lilies, and an orange tree in full, sweet bloom. I went into the street and saw women in embroidered blouses balancing huge baskets on their heads. Shaggy horses pulling ancient carriages. Windows rimmed with scrolled iron. Doors of carved wood with centuries-worn knockers. Saint Everybody peering down from various niches. Fountains overflowing in every open courtyard gate.

It became almost impossible for me to get anywhere. Everything along the way was too beautiful. And much of the beauty lay in the oldness, the feel that it had been this way for a very long time. I stopped to look, stopped to take pictures, stopped to write in my journal, stopped to draw. Finally I stopped worrying entirely about getting to the next place. I began looking closer--flowers grew out of the chinks of walls and roofs. The sky was so clear and blue that when Fuego puffed out a little belch of activity, I could see the purple mushroom linger a while before it finally floated away. School children, absent from the streets for hours at a time, poured forth in the afternoon chattering and nuzzling, their white knee socks a glimpse into my own ancient past.

Everywhere there was evidence of great care having been given to things, sometimes in the far distant past, sometimes more recently. The houses, shops, little parks, and fountains were exquisite. Blue-green bumped up against mauve, sepia framed emerald. Turn a corner and a new palette lay before you. And after a row of high-walled buildings with only little snatches of their inner riches visible through an open gate or doorway, there would be the ruins of a centuries-old Spanish cloister, its roof open to the sky, a benevolent saint waving a little blessing from the odd recess. Under the Arco de Santa Catalina it was easy to imagine the nuns for whom the arched walkway was built so that they wouldn't have to show themselves on the street when they went from their lodgings to pray or sing.

A young Maya girl displays her family's weaving skills.
A little Maya girl shows the skill of her weaving family on the embroidered huipil (blouse) which she wears. She peaks out from behind another piece of weaving done by her mother in the village of Santa Catarina Barahona in the highlands of Guatemala.
Photo by Laurie O'Brien.

In the various indigenous markets that regularly took place at the pila or in La Fuente, I saw the handwork of women and children who spent weeks weaving a tablecloth or some napkins to sell to the touristas. But I also saw their own clothes, the lavishly embroidered huipils which showed each village's own particular symbology. Even the little strings sold to hold eyeglasses, the little worry dolls prized by American children, have been patiently made by hand. It's an esthetic which is at once breathtaking, appealing, and appalling. How much time, how much toil.

A backstrap loom is little more than a few small pieces of wood. One end is tied to a tree. The woman or child sits some distance away on a straw mat on the dirt, pulling the warp strings tight, weaving flowers and birds and little animals from memory; no patterns seem to exist. The best weavers display their wares by turning the piece over. The pattern is exactly the same underneath as on the visible side. There are no mistakes, no loose threads--the weavers are that good.

They are also patient, quiet, shy, and very dignified. Many live without electricity or what we would consider clean water. Their houses are for the most part open to the elements--lovely on a summer day, more dangerous when a big storm threatens. They hang cages of Inca doves in their yards, grow their own food, look down from the steep plots where they live and farm on breathtaking vistas of town and farmland and volcanoes. "Progress" is nearly invisible, save for the ubiquitous Pepsi signs at each local tienda. The visitor, the artist, the writer wishes it could stay this way. Except for the lack of healthcare, the absence of enough schools, and few other necessities.

Progress will eventually come to Guatemala in some form. It's already slow in arriving. One wishes it could come very selectively: more doctors, less traffic; more schools, no television. The answers are complicated, of course, and I'm only a tourist, a visitor. One wishes all good things for the people in Guatemala, one hopes it remains beautiful.

Guatemala borders Mexico, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador
Map courtesy of Maya Explorer.


Laurie O'Brien is a poet and essayist living in Pensacola, Florida. She teaches and directs the Creative and Professional Writing Program at the University of West Florida. She's the author of four collections of poems including Guard Your Body, Save Your Soul; Marco Polo at the Millennium; Our Own Sweet Time; and Songs Bearing Weight. Her works have appeared in Poetry, Negative Capability, Southern Review, Mississippi Review, and many other journals and magazines. She recently taught a writing workshop in Antigua, Guatemala, for visiting and local writers. She's the mother of two daughters and trains an obedience dog in her spare time.

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Guatemala Travel (Official Site of Guatemala Tourism)

Guatemala Online

Maya Explorer

Maya of Guatemala

Maya Connection - Las Cimientos Alliance


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