The instant we stepped off the bus I knew I would like Todos Santos. It was a bustling market day and the streets surrounding the main plaza were filled with stalls selling all of the usual market wares like fruit, meat, clothing, and used nails that had been bent back into a shape that was somewhat straight. Almost every man walking down the street was wearing the red striped pants, straw hats, and blue striped shirts with very intricately embroidered collars that have been the worn in this town for years. There are not many places left in Guatemala where the men wear traditional clothing and it was a really neat thing to see. Some of the younger guys were sagging their pants a little or wearing a graphic tee under the striped shirt for a little more flair.
We’d decided that if there was a school in Todos Santos we wanted to spend a week studying there, and after doing some research on the internet I had sent an email to one before we left on our trek. In town I checked my email and still hadn’t gotten a response from the school so the only thing left to do was to start asking people in the street if a school actually existed here. We walked all over town before we found a building with the school’s name on it and since there was no one around we left a note on the door hoping someone would find it before we were forced to hurry up and catch a bus to Xela for the start of the new school week. Not sure what to do we walked around the market and stopped to buy a slice of watermelon while we thought over our options. We started talking with the elderly street vendor who told us all about his son who was currently working in Washington state. We later discovered that almost everyone that we met currently has relatives living and working illegally in the States. He asked us how much time we had to visit and we told him that we might be leaving the next day and about all the trouble we had gone through to find a Spanish school. As we were talking a woman passing by overheard our conversation. She leaned down from some steps nearby to tell us that her friend was a Spanish teacher and after a few phone calls we were back at the same Spanish school we had found earlier talking to the stand-in director, a Peace Corp volunteer from North Carolina. We immediately signed up for a week of classes.
We had heard that home-stays in Todos Santos could be very basic affairs without locks on the doors or showers and that we might not even get the chance to speak Spanish with the family since all of the locals speak mostly in Mam. It only took a moment of thought before we moved into the Hotel Viajero where we had access to a kitchen and plenty of blankets once we took them all off of the three beds in our room and piled them onto the one with the least pokey springs. The grandmother who runs the hotel was super nice. One time while I was cooking rice in the hotel kitchen she came out of her adobe kitchen and pushed two freshly cooked homemade tortillas into my hand and waddled away without a word, her own mouth full of corn. It was the probably the best tortilla I have ever eaten.
The mornings were always perfect and sunny , the evenings rainy, and the nights painfully cold. It’s not that the outside temperature was actually colder than our winters in Oregon, it’s that it’s the kind of bone chilling cold that can’t be escaped when you spend your evenings in concrete buildings without any sort of heat. We found that with six wool blankets, wearing base layers to sleep in, and each others body heat we could be comfortable for the night.
The sunny mornings were perfect for doing area day hikes. We took a disappointing tour of a coffee farm in nearby San Martin and hiked the amazing Tres Caminos trails near Toucoy. The terrain surrounding the town is amazing and we could have spent weeks staying entertained hiking and visiting nearby villages.
The school itself was a bit of a mess, but we didn’t care too much since we were having such an amazing time. We quickly found out that our teachers weren’t really able to teach us much in the way of grammar and we spent the week just talking for five hours a day. Basically it was like having someone that we paid to be our friend. It was a really interesting way to learn of all the local beliefs and gossip. I had a woman teacher the same age as myself and it only took her about three hours after she met me to open up about her cheating boyfriend and how he left her for another woman. I got to learn about who was cheating on who and who had multiple babies with multiple women at the same time. Condoms are available in Todos Santos, but since no one wants to be seen buying them, a lot of drunken dalliances result in children who wind up being the responsibility of the mother. According to my teacher there is a lot of drunkenness among the men (which was easy enough for us to notice in the streets) a lot of domestic violence, and a lot of cheating spouses. We also learned a lot about the local beliefs which Andy will write about in the next post.
The way everyone bathes in this cold climate without heated showers is to use a wood fired sauna called a chuj. We tried it at our hotel one night after the grandma had the fire burning for a couple of hours and got it all ready for us. We really wanted to love it, the heat felt amazing, but there was way too much smoke inside that made it impossible to breath. Andy couldn’t stand it and had to get out almost immediately. The grandma laughed and nodded knowingly as she announced that it was too hot for him to handle. I didn’t want the old lady to think I was a wuss so I held a towel over my mouth and put my head between my legs. I think the smoke inhalation took a few years off of both of our lives.
On our last night in town we were invited to a pig killing at the Peace Corp volunteer’s host family’s house. Killing a pig is a huge deal that only happens once a year for most families like this so we felt lucky to have such an opportunity. One women had huge pot of corn boiling to make into masa for the pork tamales that they’d make the following day and immediately put Andy to work stirring the pot. Every now and then to check and see if the corn was tender enough she would put some in her mouth, chew it, and spit it back into the communal pot. We knew we were getting down to business when we heard the first snorting noises of the pig being brought down into the family’s courtyard. The family had hired a local guy to help and he did the jugular cut and blood draining. After that everyone fell to scraping the hair off, skinning, and taking the organs out of the still steaming pig. It was sad to watch, but I think that it is something important to see if you are a meat eater. Every single part of the pig was used by the family and even the blood was saved for use in a Mayan ceremony that would take place later. Glad it was over, we were still helping with the corn process when we heard the squeals of another pig being brought down. This one had heard what happened to his buddy and he was not going willingly. We didn’t know that a second pig was being butchered and after the blood was drained from number two we decided to take a beer break. The family seemed bummed that we were leaving and made us promise to some back for dinner, which we did.
When we came back there was less blood in the courtyard and everyone was relaxing around a fire roasting fresh pig on a steel grate. We ate the deliciously charred meat in fresh tortillas drinking sweet coffee along with it. The general vibe was really great as everyone spoke in Mam and we started to realize that sometime during the afternoon the little old ladies had managed to get pretty drunk. Eventually we said our thank yous and went back to the hotel to pack our backpacks for the early morning bus ride to Xela.
Visiting Todos Santos was a great experience. It is a place where where wifi internet doesn’t exist, where you can’t buy cheese, when people speak Spanish they don’t bother to specify masculine or feminine, everything closes at 8 pm., and there is no ATM. It’s the type of place where the only other gringos we saw came in on a tour bus for a few hours on Saturday to go to the market and we absolutely loved every second we spent there.