24 Feb Guatemala Explorations #3
Yalu lies in a mountainous region just half an hour from the UNESCO World Heritage site of Antigua, the cobblestone Guatemalan town that draws tourists from much of the developed world to enjoy its eternal spring weather and varieties of flowering vines. But Yalu itself is a small, dusty village. Like about half of Guatemala, its 350 inhabitants are Mayas whose heritage in the area goes back some 3,000 years or more. Indeed, their ancestors are the people who built cities like Tikal and El Mirador, complex pyramid and temple metropolises of limestone obtained from the floors of the thick surrounding jungle.
Yet these temple cities are a full day’s ride from tiny Yalu, and the residents of this small village reveal little of their ancestral roots: no Maya royalty, no armies of soldiers, no couriers to the courts. The Yalu men, sons of generations of elite warriors who were said to have once stood nearly six feet tall, now do well to reach five feet. The women, who still weave the stunningly colorful and complex huipiles (blouses) on back strap looms, often stand only several inches over four feet.
Walking into Yalu requires stepping off a simple main path and down onto a dusty dirt track that stretches less than a hundred yards to the end of the town. The humble houses that line the walk, constructed of corrugated tin and cement blocks, sport a mixture of bright paint and faded political party slogans on their walls. The two stores in Yalu are 3’x4’ stalls constructed of plain boards with a shelf or two to display their merchandise of a few eggs, fresh tortillas and canned sodas. Occasionally a lucky child will appear from behind one of these local “malls” with a lollipop to share with other dusty boys and girls spending idle time along the path.
Four girls sitting on a porch bannister display big smiles as we pass. Several of their feet are bare and the luckier ones wear a pair of out-sized flip flops. Engaging and ready to interact at the slightest sign of interest, they giggle when greeted by my rudimentary Spanish and respond in kind, testing the limited communication skills I display. But Spanish is not even their native language as all the Yalu children also speak their native Mayan tongue, Kaqchiquel.
Making our way toward the end of the village road, a gaggle of children accompany us with occasional smiles and even a question or two in English: “What is your name? How old do you have?” As we feign to snatch them up, the kids respond with shrieks of glee, backing off and then quickly returning for more, ready to play even with older foreign visitors whose presence brings a bit of comic relief to their day-to-day existence.
As the road ends the ground level drops down to the last residence in Yalu . The square hut has only three walls, each made of dried corn stalks, and a thatch roof to protect the family of five from the heavy downpours of the months-long rainy season. The young mother holds a baby on one hip and smiles a gesture of welcome as our intruding group suddenly peers into her space. On a rudimentary cook stove the evening meal of black beans is simmering in a pot over smoking wood flames. The pot holds dinner for the family, hopefully to be served with corn tortillas if sufficient cornmeal remains.
The 7’x9’ hovel in which the family lives has an old mattress where the parents and baby sleep, while the two older children now have blue metal bunk beds donated by an American charitable development program. The dynamic middle-age woman who runs it has great plans for Yalu: bunk beds for all the children, a wood stove for each family, paint on every house, and even a school for the dust-laden boys and girls to attend. Her efforts are admirable and her progress, in conjunction with the community, is palpable. But her plans also test the limits of centuries of deterioration of Maya culture brought about by a combination of droughts, colonial imposition, civil war and continuing discrimination. Yalu stands on the downside of history, a major retreat from a noble era long past.
It is virtually impossible to conjure up hope for the Yalus of the world, whether in Guatemala, Africa or Asia. No industrial base exists to build upon, and the peasants are so poor that most haven’t sufficient land to grow their own crops. Education for the children often never begins or stops after several years. School is considered a luxury by parents who see little value in such frivolity when children are needed to fetch water and firewood, help with subsistence farming and care for younger siblings. But bright eyes and engaging smiles of the children refuse to allow the observer to write them off. Other peasants in other parts of the world, now far better off, were once just like them.