Guatemala in Reverse, Part 3: A tale of two Mercados

On Saturday mornings in Nebaj, on the stretch of road behind the catholic church, is the weekly organic farmer’s market. The instagram image of a “farmer’s market” is not what you’ll find in Nebaj.

The rise of the farmer’s market in North America provides an interesting contrast to the situation in Guatemala. In Nebaj there is “the” market, as in the standard Guatemalan scene. “The” market is active every day of the week (with extra chaos on Sundays and Wednesdays) and is composed of a series of narrow streets and alleys packed with vendors selling fruits and vegetables and machine-made clothes and rice and soap, etc. Guate pt.3, home life 096It’s almost all imported, including the fruits and vegetables, from other parts of Guatemala and sometimes Mexico (ALL the eggs come from Mexico). By most North American standards, this sounds pretty farmer’s market-esque. One might assume that small-town Guatemala is a locavore’s paradise, sustaining itself on the rich harvest of its neighboring green mountains. Not so, with most of that produce being corn and coffee and other cash crops shipped elsewhere in exchange for fruits and vegetables shipped from the pacific coast and an area around Xela where big agribusiness produces that which supplies many North American supermarkets. Small towns like Nebaj get the rejects, sold mostly by intermediary vendors from other parts of the department of Quiche.

A deeper explanation of the social and economic context would be good here, but in my limited way I’ll just note that in rural Guatemala “organic” is to many just a nicer way of saying “too poor to farm the better way,” as in, the conventional chemical way. Years of USAID funded extension programs have rendered a firm belief in chemically-empowered agriculture, and considering the difference in crop yields, it’s hard to blame anyone without sounding preachy about environmentalism.

Guate pt.3, home life 100 Guate pt.3, home life 103

In any case, the creation of the Nebaj farmer’s market was an uphill battle. A battle whose charge was led by a European Union-funded development project no less, but at least locally designed, implemented, and managed. After months of recruiting small-scale farmers in Nebaj that didn’t use chemicals (some for lack of resources to buy fertilizers and pesticides, but some also out of an inherent belief that organic is still better), Fundación Maya inaugurated the first Mercado Campesino (farmer’s market) in Nebaj in the spring of 2013. Each Saturday morning we would grab our baskets and head to the parque central where about 20-30 Ixil Mayan women (and a few men) would be perched on the steps outside the church with their own baskets of surplus goods.IMGP8533 Bananas, leafy greens, peppers, squash, limes, sometimes huevos criollos (organic, home-raised eggs), and even the Guatemalan god-send that was Pan de Elote (naturally gluten-free corn bread). All for cheaper than at the usual mercado, all fresher too. These were perhaps the only instances where my Spanish utterly failed me in communicating with Ixil-speakers (tantixh nan?), but a transaction was always achieved, and to their benefit I was incapable of bartering.

Racism against indigenous farmers thinly veiled as town politics would later see the mercado campesino moved to a less central, less visible location, and there were reports of outside vendors buying up the organic produce and re-selling it for higher prices in the usual market, as social ills are never so easily circumvented. But the mercadito lives on, bringing quality local produce to the community and supplemental income to those farmers resilient enough to stay true to their organic roots.


Guatemala in Reverse, Part 2: Cumple en Tikal / A Tikal Birthday

For my 25th I decided to cross off my last big item on my Guatemalan bucket list before leaving. So we went to Tikal, the national park in the northernmost department of Peten and home to the famous ruins of a Mayan empire, that pyramid image you always see on tourism adds for Guatemala.

We took a groggy 5am bus from Nebaj to Coban, then from Coban to Sayaxche via Chisec (including an adorable 20-second boat ride across the Rio la Pasión), then Sayaxche to Santa Elena, and finally landed in Flores around 3 in the afternoon, having made a northbound journey through the Department of Alta Verapaz. In Flores we were proper tourists and bar-hopped the many happy hours along the lakefront and found amazing street food for dinner. After Flores we checked out the Caves of Actún Kan, a small tourism endeavor in Santa Elena where you can explore some amazing caverns. You have to bring your own flashlight but it doesn’t get much traffic so you’re likely to have the caves to yourself which is seriously a trip. After that we took a bus up to El Remate for the afternoon before venturing into the jungle to camp out in the national park among the ruins. We snuck around the construction on Temple IV to catch the sunset until the guard scolded us and we even got up at 3:30am to hike through the dark and hear jaguars purring in the night to get back up the Templo for the sunrise. It was overcast in the end, but the eerie call of the howler monkeys in the mist was so cool and then we had the whole Plaza del Gran Jaguar to ourselves. We found a quiet corner of ruins with a modern mayan altar and held a small ceremony for 2 Ee (B’ey, en Quiché Maya), asking for clarity and work, Día del Destino.

A case of early onset nostalgia…

As I wait for my next adventure to pan out I often find myself scrolling through the hundreds of photos and even flipping back through old notebooks to take myself back, at least mentally, to the beauty that was my life in Guatemala. So I’m stealing a page from my friend Caitlyn Cartlidge’s blog (, and posting some of those thoughts and photos I had about my life there, but kind of in reverse. May it serve to act as a balm on my nomadic itch…

The night before I left Nebaj, and Guatemala, we held one final ceremony at Ti’kajay (ti-ka-high) with spiritual guide and resident feminist powerhouse, Doña Ana Laynez. Within Nebaj there are numerous cerros, or hills, that hold extra spiritual weight for certain energies of mayan cosmology and Ti’kajay is host to the energy/nahual that Leonel and I share. I won’t name which since mayan cosmology also advises not to share your nahual with strangers because that intimate knowledge can be used against you.

Anyway, we started the ceremony just before midnight, the strongest moment of energy for a given day, and Doña Ana guided us through her prayers in Ixil. A ceremony or prayer means many different things to different people, so I won’t try going into detail here, but connection is the central theme. Connection to the fire, at the most obvious level, connection to the energy of that day and of oneself, connection to what one seeks, and ultimately connection to all that is spiritual and physical in this world.

I didn’t really have faith in anything growing up (except perhaps in the mythical promise of good grades), so to be welcomed throughout my time in the Ixil to observe and participate in the faith of another people with such open arms and non-judgement was truly an honor and a gift. And a beautiful one at that.


To the River and the Lake

Semana Santa, the holy week prior to Easter, is Guatemala’s spring break and the country surges with tourism. We decided to road trip in Joni’s tough little honda civic (which had already survived a drive down to Nebaj from Canada), and headed to the Rio Dulce/Sweet River that flows out to Guatemala’s Caribbean coast. From there we swung back down to Lago Atitlan, the cosmic vortex even Hemingway couldn’t resist. Several of our group of expats from Nebaj converged at Maya Moon Lodge for Joni’s birthday, and after the crowd dispersed, Leo and I stuck around for a couple more days to see Danielle in San Juan.

Que buen viaje,


2 Chee continued: Images of Guatemala

market bounty

market bounty, the little baggies are fresh coconut water…mmm

There is nothing quite as satisfying about living in Nebaj as the market. It’s there everyday, an open-air market with vendors upon vendors and low-hanging tarps. Most of the vendors come from larger cities, bringing goods not produced in the region, and the mix of traditional traje/dress from other regions is notable. But on saturdays the mercado campesino, or local farmer’s market, pops up on a side street and Ixil women in full head wraps sell handfuls of organic mustard greens for 15 cents a piece that they grew on their farms.

photo by Leonel Morales

photo by Leonel Morales

A Mayan Ceremony

A couple of weeks ago, Leonel’s father hosted a traditional Ixil (ee-sheelMayan ceremony in his home to give thanks for our safe return from Mexico and bless us with good energy and healing vibes. Leo’s uncle and grandfather, as trained Ixil spiritual guides, led the ceremony before an altar with photos of ancestors, Leo’s father’s wooden scepter (which he holds as a member of the traditional authority counsel in Nebaj), and a cross, as Leo’s grandpa is also devoutly Catholic.

Dispatch for the new year

So I went to Mexico for the holidays with my partner and friend Leonel who was born and raised in Orizaba, Veracruz, before moving to Nebaj (which, by the way, is pronounced “neb-ah,” I failed to mention that before). We left around 4am following a classic night of scrambling to finish pending assignments, meeting up with his father. The first bus to Sacapulas left at 4:30 and we had one beautiful view of the little bowl of a valley that Nebaj sits in, glowing with lights as I put on “Christmas with the Rat Pack” on the ipod to inspire some Christmas spirit.

We transferred at Sacapulas and again at Huehuetenango and again at La Mesilla where we stamped on the Guatemalan side, crossed the border, and taxied to the Mexican office about 15 min in from the border. You get a 6 month visa upon arrival, but what they don’t mention is that if you stay for more than 7 days you have to pay. Keep $306 mexican pesos handy for your return crossing, as I did not, which led to running around in circles for atm machines and street money exchangers and 4 extra taxi trips.

From the border we took a small bus to Comitan, missed the direct bus, stopped for tacos, and then hopped to Tuxla (stopping for tacos again) and then Cordoba, then Orizaba, where we took a taxi to their home. Coming from a small nuclear family, to be introduced to over 30 new people who are so open and loving and ready to treat you like family was overwhelming in the best of ways for me. And so the next few days were filled with family parties and exploring Orizaba.

There’s a tradition unique to Veracruz called La Rama, the branch, which was introduced to me in a cantina when a kid of about 12 walked up to our table holding a pine tree branch with a balloon pinned to it and some shiny streamers. Feeling nostalgic, Leonel requested a singing of La Rama, and the kid broke into a quickly recited poem which I failed to catch much of. The lyrics of this poem-song vary among a few different versions but basically exist as a cute way of asking for Christmas spending money, much like trick-or-treating for candy on Halloween. Para los que hablan español, Over the course of the days leading up to the 25th, I lost count of the number of kids I saw carrying their own ramas through the streets, and going door to door.

(not my picture)

On the 25th we made an impromptu decision to drive up to the Distrito Federal (the capital, Mexico City) with Leo’s sister and cousin and spend a few days being tourists at the museums. In El Centro we saw la Catedral and el Palacio Nacional, where some of Diego Rivera’s mural work is on beautiful display, and in Coyoacan I made pilgrimage to la Casa Azul, Frida Kalho’s cobalt blue home-turned-museum. Many more tacos were had, as well as some pulque and horchata, and we got some glimpses of el D.F.’s bar scene. We also made a day trip to the pyramids at Teotihuacan, where I tried to feel the good vibrations on the top of la pirámide del sol before being spooked by Leo from behind.

We returned to Orizaba for New Years with the family and spent the last few days relaxing our way through the first two seasons of Breaking Bad and eating our fill of home-cooked food. Back in Nebaj now, and ready to start these last few months in Guatemala.