The Beauty of Three Generation Travel: Chichicastenango

February 25, 2011 in Guatemala, North America, Travelogue

The children hop like grasshoppers when the word “Chichicastenango” surfaces. It’s one of their favourite towns in the highlands of Guatemala and is home to a market that draws visitors from miles around; a blessing and a curse.


We’ve been there before, of course, last year and this year. It’s a standard stop on our “visitors” tour and for good reason. Ezra loves it because it’s his favourite place to haggle and get a really good deal on something. I love it because of the two fantastic, and very different, churches there. Hannah just loved that, this time, she wasn’t navigating the narrow, cobbled and dirt streets and spiderweb alleys within the mercado on crutches!


It’s an hour and a half up out of the crater lake to the Pan American highway, east to los Encuentros and then north-ish through the winding mountain roads. Ezra, appropriately medicated, did not have to hang his head out of the van widow and vomit half way up the hill from the lago this time, which we all counted a personal victory on his behalf.


Traveling with my parents is, perhaps, my favourite way to travel. I get a great deal of joy out of hanging back and just watching them move through a crowd in a market, haggle for little trifles and the few big purchases they’d planned for and just swim in the sea of color on whichever continent they join us.


There is nothing like watching them with my kids as they wander hand in hand, chatter about how the landscape, people group, community and world has changed in the 37 years since they’ve been here (or anywhere else!) and sow their richness one generation deeper in our family.


My Mom seems to get special joy out of listening to the boys chatter away in their emerging Spanish with our driver as he swings wide around the roadside crowd where the chicken bus rear-ended a tourist collectivo in a particularly peligroso curve. Perhaps because she was a Spanish teacher, once upon a time.


My Dad loves to tell stories as we drive, of the places and people they encountered, “years ago.”  He wowed the boys, even Uncle Derek, with his story of hitchhiking this very road when Mom was pregnant with me and being picked up by Col. Fuentes, at the time, the commander of part of the Guatemalan air force. The story of having the car pull over, the armed gunman get out and motion for them to put their bags in the trunk and then getting nervously into the backseat with the instruction to “lay down on the floorboards if we’re shot at” is a pretty good one. This was in the midst of the political unrest that lead to the terrible atrocities in the highlands in the coming years and Col. Fuentes was targeted by the revolutionaries. They had a Coke with him at a roadside restaurant that is still there and got the story of a lifetime.


My Mom teared up a little, in the quiet darkness of Santo Tomas, surrounded by the blackened icons, shiny with years of soot. It’s impossible not to be moved by the barefooted penitents, hunched over the flat mesas lighting candles, whispering prayers in K’iche, offering piles of rose petals and pouring alcohol to sweeten their offerings to the recipient of their prayers.


She wasn’t crying for the beauty of the place, or the people. Rather she wept with understanding for the deep pain and suffering that these calloused little feet and steadfast hearts and endured in the four decades between her visits. The highland peoples were systematically attacked and wiped out, village by village, at the hands of their own government. Women and children were herded into the churches, which were then set ablaze and burned to the ground. Men, assembled in the plazas, were cut down by machine gun fire. These quiet worshippers, whispering in the darkness, these are the survivors.


It was a beautiful market day. Our friend Derek went along and took pictures for us, “Don’t worry, I’ll get lots of good shots of the kids with your parents, I’ll be your personal paparazzi!” He quipped with his signature, slightly crooked grin.


Ezra drove a hard bargain for a head strap made of cow hide, hair still clinging to the inside, working the guy solidly down from 50Q to 20Q like an old pro. He and Elisha both bought one. They want to learn to carry like the Mayans, so far, the laundry has been the most popular load to carry.


Dad bought his machete. He’s purchased at least one on every trip. He overpaid the tiniest of hard bargain driving, pigtailed girls for three bookmarks, “Two for ten, or three for twenty!” She chirped. “I’ll take three,” my soft old Dad smiled in return. He got a sisal bag to carry it all in and Mom added a beautiful handwoven wrap in her favourite sapphire blue, an embroidered bag to check under the airplane going home (evidently carry-ons will not be sufficient after the mercados!!) as well as a handful of other little treasures to take home to friends and loved ones.


I learned something this visit to Chichi. I learned that I need to step up my parenting game. At every new brain stage of development, from the time my oldest was two I’ve had a clear moment in which I’ve thought to myself, “DOH! I’ve been had! Foiled again! She’s outsmarted me!!” And then I set about figuring out how to outsmart HER again for that next stage of life.


She sidled up to me with her disarming smile and freckled nose, just as cute as when she was two, only her hair is gently folded in a very grown-up braid down the middle of her back now, instead of sticking straight up in two spunky little spouts above either ear, and asked an innocent question:


“Mom, what would you do if I got a puppy?”


I laughed, “Nothing, but you’d not be taking it home.”


Five seconds later, she had a puppy in her purse and I was standing there in the middle of the market, remembering clearly how I felt when she was two and threw herself down in a shoe store and held me hostage with a huge temper tantrum for the first time in public. I guess we’re always “first time moms” with our oldest.


What did I learn? That when teenagers ask a question, it is not hypothetical, they’re working some angle, even if you can’t see it yet!


The puppy is cute. She’s been named Chucho, which is slang for pup here and also the name of a character in one of our favourite children’s books about a boy growing up in the Peruvian highlands. She’s smart too, thankfully, and seems to have come house-trained.

Miss Hannah, however, is learning a thing or two about impulsive teenage decisions and is now in knee deep with her Dad, who wrote her a very long e-mail (he’s in Boston working at the moment) about the responsibilities associated with taking on another life, the realities of our lifestyle, the cultural implications of feral dogs in Guatemala and how she plans to navigate all of those things to resolve the many issues she’s created. I’ve been instructed to stay out of it! 🙂


The dog is a pretty good pup, all said and done. My Dad would like to take her home, although I doubt that will happen. The kids are enjoying her and learning quite a bit about training, diligence, the difficulties logistically associated with owning a pet, and the nighttime interruptions of caring for a baby anything. We’re not thrilled, Daddy and I, but you know, in the grand scheme of things, if this is the biggest impulse decision we deal with in our teens then WE’LL TAKE IT! (Dont’ worry, we’re not delusional, we figure there’s more to come!) It’s a relatively small potatoe in the realm of potential consequences incurred by young adults and it’s an excellent opportunity, once again, to teach and grow our kids towards responsible adulthood.


And, it’s definitely the most memorable purchase we’ve made at Chichi.