Sunday, August 30, 2009

Deforestation - Lessons Learned

Today started out with a walk back to the market, where Ellery and I explored the produce and meat market. There were baskets upon baskets of onions, bananas, oranges, cauliflower, potatoes, strawberries – just about every kind of produce imaginable. And the smells of it all – the strong onion, the allspice, the garlic; you could even smell the freshness of the tomatoes. On the meat side of the equation, one had a choice of live or almost alive chickens, turkeys, pigs and cows. After wandering a bit, we sat at a small comedor and enjoyed a breakfast of eggs, tortillas (you would not believe how many tortillas can be made and sold in one country), beans and bread. And the best coffee I’ve ever tasted in my life, truly.

Our next stop was the small coffee plantation on the south side of the town, where we were given a wonderful, brief tour of the different kinds of coffee beans and how they are grown, harvested, and roasted. The tour ended with a cup of coffee – a good one, but not as good as the one in the market.

We then checked out of the hotel, determined to make it to Chichicastenango by nightfall. To do so, we had three options: taking a bus down to Guatemala City, and then minibuses to Antigua and then one to Chichi; engaging in the “wave down” process through the back roads of the Western Highlands, or hiring a private car and driver. I confess, not wanting to risk being at some crossroad in the middle of nowhere at night, I opted for the private driver. And thus, we were picked up by Armando and Manuel promptly at 10:00 a.m.

Initially, Armando wanted to take the route through Guatemala City, a bit longer milage-wise but much faster due to the good roads. And, there was the small matter of the road to Uspantan having been buried under a massive avalanche a few months earlier. But after many inquiries and confirmations that the road was reopened, Armando agreed to give that road a try. I think if he had known it’s true condition, he wouldn’t have taken it, but I am so glad he did. The road winds high into the mountains and the scenery and views, even though marred by the obvious clear-cutting of the forest, is spectacular, and rivals that of Bhutan, Colorado, and every other mountain range I’ve been lucky enough to see. The road, on the other hand, is unpaved, single lane, muddy, and treacherous. But Manuel, the driver, navigated it well, and it took us only about 3-1/2 hours to reach Uspantan.

One of the more interesting sights along the way, which I'm sorry I did not get a picture of, was a woman spinning thread ... spinning it out of some sort of plant. Even more interestingly, she was doing it by the side of the road, on what looked like an old bicycle tire, the the line went way, way down the road along small branches along the road, almost like miniature telephone lines.

However, if ever there was a cautionary tale about the problems of deforestation, the avalanche is it. A huge area of what was once a stately mountain looks like it has simply been sliced off. As you get closer, and then as you drive through it, you can see how it has all fallen into the valley below, both huge chunks and boulders and tons of dirt and debris. Thirty people were killed at the time; it’s amazing there weren’t more dead.

From Uspantan, it was an easy, although equally curvy, paved road through to Chichi by way of numerous several towns and villages. We could tell when we were getting close to a village because of the road bumps, or "sleeping policemen" as they are called. Why they are needed, however, remains a mystery because, really, it's impossible to go very fast on these mountain roads.

After Uspantan, there was no mistaking the fact that we had started up to the highlands. The tropical jungle plants gave way to the type of forest more common in the U.S., with pine trees and dense brush. The houses and small outposts also changed, from wooden huts with thatched or corrugated metal roofs, to mud brick buildings with red tiled roofs. Cattle returned to the scene, along with sheep and goats, and the wardrobe of the women became more colorful, and more detailed. And corn …not an inch of cleared space was without corn growing on it.

We arrived in Chichi around 4:30, well before dark and, quite frankly, well before we would have gotten here had we taken the Guatemala City route. Our hotel is a large one, colonial in style, with rooms surrounding a lovely courtyard. But we didn’t rest long, because we wanted to take a walk around town before dark (since we’ve been warned not to do so at night, and while I’m not a fearful traveler, with Ellery in tow, it’s advice I didn’t want to ignore). We were treated to a small preview of tomorrow’s market day, as many of the stalls were being set up and the sellers already hawking their wares. It definitely looks to be a huge undertaking worthy of its fame. We also took a look inside the two main churches which, like another we had visited earlier in the day, was rather plain, with the exception of the beautifully-carved wooden statues of just about every saint imaginable. But the main church in Chichi has an added attraction – down the center aisle are square stones with flower petals and other offerings on them. As Armando had explained, in Chichi, Catholicism and ancient Mayan traditions mixed together to form a unique blend of beliefs, and the offerings in the center of the Church were evidence of that.