Guatemala: Where the Free Market Reigns

Antigua, Guatemala, morning

Yesterday I left Panajachel for Chichicastenango, a small pueblo in the mountains of Guatemala where every Thursday and Sunday campesinos gather from the surrounding hills to sell their wares in what my guidebook calls the biggest such market in Guatemala.  And big it is, occupying the entire heart of the town, radiating out from the central plaza, so dense that it subsumes the plaza within a chaos of Guatemalans dressed in traditional attire offering garments, blankets and trinkets for sale.  Men wind their way through the assembled crowds and shout at regular intervals, “Matamoscas, llévese matamoscas para la piel,” imploring the throngs to protect themselves with mosquito repellant, purchasable for one Quetzal.  An ambulating newspaperman repeats calmly and robotically in Spanish, “Snake-woman, snake-woman.  She has the face of an old woman and the body of a snake.”  Tourists are oblivious but the locals flock toward him to purchase a newspaper for a Quetzal.

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Chichicastenango, Guatemala

There’s so much energy in this tumult of buyers and sellers, beggars, cripples, sad faces, smiling women, women of all ages carrying babies on their backs wrapped in colorful blankets, women balancing baskets on their heads filled with corn, fruits, and nuts.  “No, gracias,” the few Gringos say over and over with such regularity that you might set their words to a rap beat.  They fend off entrepreneurial vendors.  They pause every ten paces to admire a multi-colored weaving and commence negotiations to purchase it.  The market fascinates me, the way one can lose oneself in the sea of colors, the murmur of the throngs punctuated by the shouts of the man peddling newspapers.  The Guatemalan sun bathes the scene in its harsh light and throws shadows all around at impossible angles.  The market is fascinating but overwhelming.  It’s too big, too dense, too stimulating.  The mind can’t contain it all—the scene encompasses too much sadness, pain, boredom, joy, desperation, peace, anger, indifference, warmth, vigor, triumph, surrender.  There’s too much humanity here, there are too many interwoven realities and fates, too many contradictions.  The world can’t be this complicated, this raw, this awful and wonderful all that the same time, can it?

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Antigua, Guatemala, morning.

We rarely see all of these things in the same place in the U.S., where the poor live among the poor, the rich among the rich, the lucky and the unlucky each reside in their own separate kingdoms.  Usually, when these disparate tribes meet, it means that something has gone wrong, some natural law has been breached, order has been broken.  Yet even on those rare occasions when these different worlds share a common space for a moment—say, at a baseball game—they remain separate.  Each group sits with its own kind, in its own seats, its own skyboxes.  Not so here, in the Chichicasteango market, where a poor Maya woman living on a few dollars a day sells a blanket to a New Yorker ten thousand times richer.  The woman speaks several dialects of her indigenous language, plus Spanish; the New Yorker speaks English and a select set of useful Spanish phrases, some numbers, “por favor,” “gracias,” and clutches at a dictionary in his pocket.  Nearby stands an elderly man with a sun-cracked face, wearing clothes soaked through and stained yellow with sweat.  He may be forty or he may be eighty.  Who can know in this place that ages people so quickly?  He has no arms.  He stands there in the market beside the Maya woman and the New Yorker and he sells what he has: his disability, his incapacity to lay brick, to sow crops, to harvest corn, to labor in the fields.  He wears a cloth bag around his neck into which passersby may drop coins and bills.  He smiles, he chats with his fellow vendors, jokes, laughs, shakes hands with the nub of his arm which ends just above where his elbow should be.

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Lago Atitlán, Guatemala

At the old man’s knees a little boy darts through the crowded street, through the forest of legs.  In a squeaky voice he exhorts tourists to purchase a stuffed elephant, a bracelet, a handmade leather wallet.  He follows some of them, usually the solitary travelers, for entire blocks, trying out different prices, offering different bargains, persisting, persisting.  It’s incredible the tenacity of these street kids.  I sometimes think that if capitalism exists anywhere in total purity, it is in markets like this one, where the market literally dictates prices, wages, the allocation of labor, destinies, and lifestyles—where the state has little say over who can work, at what age, in what capacity, for what compensation.  In this market a trinket that in the States would sell for $20 goes for a mere quarter.  In this free market, where labor laws either don’t exist or aren’t enforced, the value of everything is relative and intrinsic worth is almost meaningless.  Here, where building codes are scant, houses stand half-finished, buildings are missing floors, rebar twists into the sky from unfinished concrete pillars awaiting new floors that will appear when needed or when time and money allow.  Pollution hangs in the air, obscuring mountains that are barely a mile distant.  The haze drifts across dozens of miles of mountains and valleys from Guatemala City and from forests being cleared for farmland.  It works its way into your lungs.  You can smell it with each inhalation, the mix of car exhaust, burning trees, industrial pollutants.  “Here it’s every man, woman, and child for himself,” an ambitious Guatemalan guide told me.

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Chichicastenango, Guatemala

In the absence of a web of social safeguards and laws that ensure the common good, it makes sense for a farmer to burn his forest for more cropland.  It makes sense for industry to dump its waste into rivers and lakes.  It makes sense for the elite to live in urban castles without giving a thought to the poor and the destitute in the countryside—because in such a world each person must fend for himself.  To do otherwise would be to repudiate life itself.  For the destitute, today and tomorrow matter.  The future beyond that does not exist and hardly bears thinking about.

I saw capitalism in its most frenetic form not in the United States, but rather in a tiny country in Central America.

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Crumbling Dreams: Rhyolite, Nevada: Ghost Town in the Mojave Desert

Rhyolite's school building

A few miles east of Death Valley National Park there stand the ruins of a mining town that at its peak numbered more than 3,000 people.  In a span of two years, beginning in 1905, the people of Rhyolite erected a three-story bank, a hospital, an eight-room school, a railroad station, an opera house, and an assortment of other buildings intended to accommodate a vibrant community of miners and their families who had come from far and wide in hopes of striking gold in the parched deserts of Nevada and California.  Within a mere five years the boom ended, Rhyolite’s residents began to flee, and the town began to die.  By 1920, time and the elements had set to work dismantling what thousands of people had so carefully built.

All that remains of Rhyolite are crumbling buildings and the detritus of the people who inhabited them. Old, rusted beer cans lie strewn about on the ground.   Gusts of wind blow them around like autumn leaves.  Defunct mineshafts watch the town from the surrounding hills.  Rattlesnakes seek shelter from the heat of summer and the chill of winter in the rubble of collapsed walls.  Jackrabbits bound through desert shrubs clinging to existence.  The only sounds are the howl of the wind and the scraping of beer cans against hard white sand.

The ruins of Rhyolite speak to a million deliberate decisions, vestiges of thoughts and intentions and hopes and dreams.  “Here we’ll erect a two-story school house so that our kids can grow up in this town.  There, across the wide main street, we’ll build a bank so that we may deposit our earnings and draw on them in the future.  We’ll pipe water into town, build an electrical grid, lay railroad tracks, and construct a train station so that people can come and go.”  Everything about Rhyolite assumes a future, a sustained presence, the persistence of a way of life that we know came to an end but that the town’s inhabitants saw as everlasting.

The Cook Bank of Rhyolite

The ruins of recent history are more haunting than those of the deep past.  Machu Picchu is sublime.  To lay eyes on its green terraces, its crumbling stone walls, and the towering Andes Mountains that protected it from the destructive hands of the conquering Spaniards is to experience transcendence.  Machu Picchu is a celebration of human achievement and audacity.  It doesn’t matter that in the end the civilization that built it fell and nature reclaimed it.  What matters is that people dared to build the city in the first place.

Machu Picchu doesn’t haunt me because I can’t imagine having lived there.  I have no relationship to the people who built it.  Their traditions and way of life are foreign to me.  Rhyolite is different.  I can imagine my great grandparents having worked in its gold mines, sought medical care in its hospital, deposited money in its bank.  I belong to the civilization that built Rhyolite.  It is part of my story.

About a hundred years ago a critical mass of people chose to establish an autonomous town here in the driest, most desolate desert in North America where everything on the surface—the howling wind, the dust, the cracked ground, the snakes, and the relentless sun—warned them away.  All for something shiny that lay buried in the surrounding hills.  I like to think that the works of my time will endure where those of the past crumbled to the ground.  Rhyolite dispels this notion.  Nature makes no exceptions.

A piece of art placed on the outskirts of town in the 1980s.

The Cook Bank

Inside an old train car.

The school.

In the Valley of Death: Death Valley National Park

When describing a desolate landscape, it’s always best to start with the names people have applied to it: Death Valley, Badwater, Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells, Dante’s View, Hell’s Gate, the Devil’s Golf Course.  Pictures say something about the surface of the land.  Names tell its story and speak to relationships between the place and the people who have lived and died in its environs.

Nothing about Death Valley is hospitable, yet it is one of my favorite places on earth.  Scorching hot during the summer, cold and windy during winter, always dry, on a scale that shrinks one to nonexistence—Death Valley neither needs nor asks for an audience, yet people flock to it by the thousands every year.   Yosemite and Yellowstone seem vain by comparison.  Their waterfalls roar.  Their fertile green meadows beckon.  These parks speak the language of life.  Life courses through Death Valley, too, but the desert makes no show of it.  It doesn’t care to do so.  Death Valley neither invites nor rejects onlookers.  It is content with simply being.

At dawn the sun throws a sliver of orange light on sharp mountain ridges a hundred miles to the west.  A sea of black shadows recedes, revealing still more orange ridges, each one closer than the last, so that it’s as if a tsunami of light were rushing across the landscape, pulverizing the last remnants of darkest night until it spills into a valley more than one hundred miles long.  The new light settles on undulating sand dunes and blinding white salt pans that sink hundreds of feet below sea level.  It’s as if God were leafing through a photo album of creation and happened to turn to the page that includes you.

Dante's View. From here you can see mountains that are two hundred miles away.

From Aguereberry Point, almost 7,000 ft above the valley.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

From Augereberry Point

From near Aguereberry Point

Old gold mining operation.

That's my dad.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes: Family of three forming a nice triangle.

Photographer at work at Dante's View.

From Dante's View. You can see about one hundred miles down the valley from here. The most distant mountains are about two hundred miles away. The valley itself is over a mile below.

From Aguereberry Point.

From Aguereberry Point.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at dawn.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at dawn.

Photographers at Zabriskie Point.

Near Zabriskie Point.

Badwater, the lowest point in North America (282 ft. below sea level).

Lost Footprints: Returning to the Places of Childhood

When I was a child, about once every two years my extended family would descend on a small island off the Gulf Coast of Florida called Sanibel.  We came from Michigan, Texas and Oregon.  We created on Sanibel a reality separate from the ordinary world, where we combed the beach for shells, swam out to sea, played volleyball and tennis, read and exchanged books, and stayed up late playing raucous games of canasta.  All of us gathered together–aunts and uncles, parents and grandparents, children and cousins who saw each other only once or twice a year.  Together we fashioned a space in time and place that existed only when we were together and unraveled when we parted.

What can I say? Sea gulls are always awesome.

In early November I drove my grandmother from Michigan to Florida, where she will spend the winter.  One day I crossed the new causeway to Sanibel in search of the reality I had known as a boy.  But though Sanibel remains beautiful, though the ocean laps at the shore and murmurs in the same language as when I was a kid, though pelicans still glide across its roiling surface like World War II bombers and conchs, clams and sand dollars still pile up on its beaches in infinite number, this is not the Sanibel I knew growing up.

No, that’s not right.  Sanibel remains the same; I have changed.  I’m not that little boy anymore who strolled alongside the ocean and believed it held all the answers in the world; not that boy who dreamed of quasars and nebulae, of unpacking the universe and deciphering its mechanism; not that boy who fretted over girls, wrote little poems about cresting waves and grains of sand, and wandered the beach for hours in search of the perfect sea shell.  No, I’m someone else.

Today I stroll down the beach.  The ocean laps at my feet.  I leave footprints in the wet sand and the waves sneak in behind me and wash them away, so that if I turned around I would see only an incomplete trail of footprints the waves had not yet erased.  A stranger may happen upon my trail just after I’ve left the beach, and though he could say briefly that a man had walked there, he could not tell you where that man had come from.

I feel like this image encapsulates the human experience.  We move through life leaving footprints in the sand.  Before we’ve walked ten steps the world wipes away the evidence of our presence.  Maybe we walk faster, sprint and get ahead of the deleting waves, but they always catch up with us.  We can pound the sand and so leave deeper impressions.  Our footprints may last longer, but still the lapping sea fills them in, erases them.

I returned to Sanibel in search of footprints I left there as a boy, but the ocean had long since washed them away.  It’s a mistake to believe that the places of childhood should somehow be faithful to me.  How many little boys felt about Sanibel as I did?  It was, is, will be their island, too, even as it really belongs to no person.  And that’s OK.

Osprey eating a fish.

Grandma knitting at the beach.

Sanibel Island, Florida.

Halloween

From the Bellagio Hotel, Las Vegas, in 2009.

 

Also from the Bellagio Hotel.

Photos: New York

Brooklyn Bridge

Manhattan from "Top of the Rock"

Brooklyn Bridge

Travel as Distraction

I’m tired.  I’ve moved around a lot over the last five years, from Austin to Houston to Dallas to Boston to Madison back to Dallas to Lexington back to Boston and soon to Michigan.  In those five years I traveled to most of the fifty states; backpacked in Costa Rica, Mexico, and Puerto Rico; and spent Easter of 2011 on a hostel bunk in the place I grew up, Austin, TX.  All of this change and uncertainty, this not knowing what I’ll be doing a year from now, this mentality I can’t seem to shake that whatever I’m doing now will not last, has depleted me.  I would really like to just stay put for a while and learn to live without the distraction of moving and traveling.  Why have I so effectively avoided permanence in my life?  How did I become so addicted to traveling and constant movement?  

Millennium Park, Chicago

I travel because it keeps me busy and occupies my mind.  When I’m traveling I have less time to think about the future, to worry about what career to pursue or what school to attend, how I’ll pay off education loans or whether one day I’ll start a family.  All that matters is where I’ll walk today and what bus I’ll catch tomorrow morning, what cheap snack I’ll munch on, whether I’ve charged my camera batteries, packed my clothes, scribbled in my little journal, and secured my passport.  Nothing matters except these trivialities. 

Chicago

When I travel I get to meet strangers and for brief spells pretend to be the gregarious guy that I’m not.  It’s easy to find a stranger who will talk my ear off.  More often than not, all I have to do is ask someone a few simple questions and listen.  I think the strangers I meet believe that I’m more talkative than I actually am, maybe because they judge our encounter based on how long I spent listening to their story rather than on how much I actually said.  Which makes sense.  If the typical random encounter entails at best a smile and a nod, then one in which two people sit down and exchange even a few words lasts an eternity by comparison.  And since most people probably don’t feel like anyone really listens to them, a few minutes of conversation that they dominate could easily feel like hours of balanced give-and-take.

Millennium Park, Chicago

But I think there’s something more going on.  When a person I don’t even know puts his whole life on pause to sit down and talk with ME, of all the people in the world, I feel like he has approved of my existence.  He has seen me.  And in a world where I feel pretty invisible most of the time (to the extent that when I’m around a lot of people, stuck in traffic, shopping for groceries, odds are that none of them will know who I am or remember that they brushed shoulders with me in the cereal aisle or rocketed past me on the freeway), it feels good to be seen. 

Amtrak's Empire Builder, Lounge, somewhere in Montana

 The most contented I’ve felt over the last few years was riding Amtrak’s Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle, maybe because the train combined permanence with movement.  I was stuck on one train for fifty hours, slept in the same coach seat two nights in a row, and talked to the same strangers off and on for three straight days.  Yet I was also moving.  I was going somewhere.  The scenery outside the window was changing.  The urban density of Chicago gave way to the green farmland of Wisconsin, which gave way to the blackness of Minnesota at night and the void of sleep, until I woke up the following morning to sunrise over North Dakota’s golden wheat fields that undulate like a vast inland sea.  I saw the sun set over the snow-capped Rockies of Montana and rise again two hundred miles east of Portland, Oregon, where the Columbia River quivered and sparkled in the new dawn light.  I was stationary yet I was also in motion.  The train left me with only two choices: to stay on until it delivered me to the end of the long route or to get off somewhere in the middle of my journey.  That was it.  Life was simple.  Stay on or get off. 

North Dakota

Montana, approaching the Rockies.

Columbia River Gorge

Ferry and Space Needle, Seattle

Seattle Ferry and Olympic Mountains

Brainbridge Island, across from Seattle in Puget Sound.

Seattle Skyline from ferry.

Union Station, Seattle (no longer used as a train station).

It does rain in Seattle, though, interestingly, it receives only about 37 in. of rain per year, compared with 33 inches in Austin, TX and and 50 inches for New York City. The difference? In Seattle it drizzles year round. According to the National Park Service, the west-facing valleys of the Olympic Peninsula, just west of Seattle, receive 12 FEET of rain per year.

Useful information.

Puget Sound

Train Station in North Dakota on Amtrak's Empire Builder Route.

Old posts about the train trip I took from Boston to Seattle in 2009:

Amtrak: Everyone’s Here

Boston to Seattle by Rail: Somewhere in North Dakota

Minneapolis: City Within a City