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Vertical Pilgrims

By Cameron Smith

XW 114 smallWe are in the Western Highlands of Guatemala at a mountain resembling a giant tooth, formed by the volcanic violence of ancient and recent history. A hundred feet of thin mountain air below me, not far from the base of this sheer cliff that I am inching up, there is a Mayan woman crying loudly, sobbing and wailing in a hoarse voice, begging for absolution. “Sin” and “señor” and “dios” and “mi culpa” echo up to me, and in the distance there is, on backup vocals, chorus upon chorus of singing prayers and sobbing pleas.

There are pilgrims at the base of this mountain face that I am on, there are pilgrims at the top of the mountain face that I am on, and, unbelievably, there are pilgrims inside the vertical mountain face that I am on. Their sobs spill from the lightning bolt cracks that split this particular section of rock. It sounds like the mountain itself is crying to the heavens. “DON’T LEAVE TRASH ON ME!!!”, I hear it scream.

Sometimes when I’m up there on the wall, I find myself in a beautiful bubble created by inhabiting that state of blissful flow, and I don’t even notice the wailers sobbing below. Other times I’m scared and sweating, hanging from a half-fingertip deep side-pull grip on a crack, my rockshoes reluctantly sticking to a small edge, my leg shaking like I’m doing an Elvis impression and I’m counting down the seconds until I lose my hold on the earth and I begin to fall into space. And it’s at that moment when I hear some noisy evangelical below me, crying out prayers whilst slamming a fellow repentant sinner’s face into black volcanic rock. At these times I feel like screaming out obscenities at the acolytes below. Sometimes I do. The devotees, dressed in their güipiles and impractical footwear, look at me as a I hang there gripping small cracks and undulations in the rock like I’m some kind of circus performer.



P o p p i n g

Guerrilla Gardeners

Rumor is a group of Xela locals and foreigners might be organizing themselves to green up and beautify their homes. A need to reclaim their knowledge of food is driving these subversive gardeners to plant their own munchies. And it seems like a perfect idea: a country blessed with plenty of rain and sun should be filled with gardens of luscious edibles. The idea is to volunteer helping others to set up their gardens, until they eventually make it your house – not a bad a tradeoff! So keep an eye open for groups of muddy, shovel carrying, machete wielding folks -  they are coming to get you.

Top Tips for Learning Spanish in 2015

by Diana Pastor

2015! We begin a New Year and we’re sure that many of our readers are here in Xela with the purpose of improving their Spanish. Many of you are no doubt wondering how long it will take until you’re able to crack a joke in Spanish that results in people laughing at the actual joke rather than at you, or when you will be ready to successfully woo a good looking Guatemalteco/a. The answer is deceptively simple: it depends on how much time you are willing to dedicate to your Spanish, but also on how you go about learning it.

Whilst learning Spanish in the local Spanish schools is one of the most effective and traditional ways to pick up the language, you can also find many other resources to train your ears and your tongue after you finish class. Listen to Guatemalan radio – we recommend giving Emisoras Unidas, Sonora or Radio Punto a try, where you will not only learn what has been going on in the country but you can also listen to interesting radio programmes and interviews. This is quite an effective method that can help you to more quickly understand what people are saying when they are speaking at their natural speed with local vocabulary (we know how it feels when you have to listen to Guatemalans who speak so fast you feel frustrated with yourself for not understanding!). You can tune into these stations with any radio or via the internet.

Recipe of the Month – Enchiladas a la Chapin

by Simone Riddle

Guatemalans have been topping tostadas (a fried or toasted tortilla) with ‘eschabeche’ (a Central American  spin on pickled vegetables) to transform them into the famed ‘enchilada’ since the 18th century. One thing to note about Guatemalan cuisine is the difference between the Guatemalan enchilada and the Mexican enchilada. Just as you wouldn’t dare suggest an Italian pizza comes in a deep pan, neither would you suggest that an enchilada comes in a floured, rolled and filled tortilla in Guatemala. Perhaps Guatemala reinvented the enchilada just as America reinvented pizza. Who knows? Whether it was the Mexican or the Guatemalan enchilada that came first, if you plan to win friends in this town, just make sure you know the difference between the two. And of course you should answer, without hesitation, which version is best.

There are more complicated recipes out there; some enchiladas come topped with ground beef for example. This is a simplified, vegetarian version.

Guatemala – The Cultural Capital of 2015

by Alba Carrasco

Guatemala City will begin this year 2015 as the Cultural Capital of Latin America! This is an award that every year the Union de Capitales de Iberoamerica –UCCI— awards to one special candidate city that can demonstrate a pertinent story and offer a full agenda of cultural events in recognition of the development of a unique cultural scene and strong national cultural institutions.

Among the objectives of conceding this award to Guatemala City are improving the sense of cultural belonging of Guatemala’s citizens; putting Guatemala on the map as a city committed to culture Guatemala; and enhancing cultural tourism. However, ultimately the principal aim is to help to foster cultural institutions and strengthen the development of a long-term cultural strategy for the city. This will undoubtedly be a difficult goal to achieve in a few months, and will require a more sustained partnership between private and government institutions over 2015 and beyond.


As 2014 comes to an end and the Government is preparing for their last year in office, and their last opportunity to secure the next elections a year from now; the country faces one of its worst governmental deficit crisis in the last 50 years. The government literally ran out of money. Over-spending on publicity, expensive trips, over-hiring of public employees, and a tax reform that failed to bring in the money it promised, all helped to speed up this anticipated and inevitable shortage. In 2013, congress rejected the 2014 budget but somehow that amount was still ill spent, affecting in particular the hospitals and police. It got to the point that prisoners were being taken to court on public transportation because the police cars were out of gas and money.

But one of the most affected sectors has been the health system. It is well known that if you end up at any government run hospital, the chances that it will be understaffed, that you’ll have to buy your meds, and that you might be sharing a waiting room with a few dozen other patients for hours, are pretty high. But in the last month or so things have taken a turn for the worse. Hospitals were unable to pay their food and cleaning providers, and they ran out of things as basic as surgical gloves. Nurses and other hospital employees accumulated up to four months of not receiving a single paycheck. Guatemalans have been discussing the fiasco using the #RetosPresupuesto hashtag.

Happy Gluttony

Portada XW113 smallChristmas time is upon us once again, providing us with the perfect opportunity to forget about those silly middle-of-year fads such as dieting, exercising more, drinking less and going to bed early. Those were so November.

Indeed, if there´s one thing in common between all of the diverse  traditions for celebrating Christmas across the globe, it’s that they all give us a chance to splurge. Around the world mountains of food ranging from turkey, ham, meatballs, fish soup and curried goat to mince pies, cookies, fruitcakes and yule logs are washed down with the likes of bucks fizz, eggnog, mulled wine, cider and Christmas beer.Guatemala is no different and here Christmas food and drink takes a centre stage over the holidays. Guatemalans are already salivating over the prospect of eating the famous tamales navideños. So if you´re planning on spending Christmas here in Guate – make sure you eat at least two dozen (we recommend the chocolate ones).

And up for drinks there is the ponche navideño to look forward to – a drink so delicious we just had to include it as our Recipe of the Month, courtesy of Simone Riddle. So now you have no excuses for not popping to the market, stocking up on ingredients, buying a few bottles of rum and tequila and making a gallon or two of punch for your own Christmas posada. Just don´t forget to invite us. We like punch.



P o p p i n g

Eighth Time Lucky

Football season is back into full swing and the matches for the Liga Nacional have got off to a cracking start… for the other teams. Sadly, it appears as though the Super Chivos still can´t find their mojo, which seems to have gone missing ever since their spectacular win of the Quinta Luna back in 2012.

This season has been going rather embarrassingly for Xelajú to say the least: of the seven games they played between October 25th and November 19th, they managed to win precisely… zero.

Still, it´s not over yet and it appears as though the team has broken their streak of bad luck (we´re hoping so anyway): they finally managed to score a 2-1 win over Petapa on November 23rd.

They´re currently in 7th place (out of 12), and so only need to move up by one in order to move forward to the next round, for which the top six teams will qualify. Come on Super Chivos – you can do it!

The Case for Hitch-hiking in Guatemala

by Jason Crawford

It may seem crazy to the uninitiated, but hitchhiking is by far my favorite way to get around Guatemala. It’s fast, it’s often free, and most importantly, it’s safer than the camionetas (chicken buses). This is where my readership collectively double takes. “Safer than chicken buses? But what about kidnapping and car crashes and lions and tigers and bears?” Well, the problems that don’t involve wild animals are far MORE likely to occur on the public transit system, plus hitching’s a much more comfortable experience.

For one, buses are basically giant rolling piñatas for thieves. If you were about to risk your life holding up strangers for valuables, do you pick the truck that has maybe three locals or the giant bus jam-packed with 50 people, many of them rich foreigners if you pick the right route. It’s basic risk versus reward, and humans generally act in self-interest.

Christmas is here, but I´m not with you

I never thought that I would spend a Christmas so far away from you. The previous times when we had to be separated, I managed to come home and celebrate Christmas with you. But this year it will be different.

What will I miss most about you at this time of the year? Perhaps it will be the perfume you wear that smells like pine, spices and sweets. Or maybe it will be the aroma of one of those delicious dinners that you prepare in order to serve at midnight, with the potato paches and rice tamales.