Aug 032014


The purpose of travel must be to abandon expectations.
—Deborah Willis

Volcan Santiguito croppedVolcan Santiguito


Chichi fire


The roads are grey; the buildings are grey; the pigeons that congregate in the central square are grey. This city is surrounded by volcanoes, including the still-active Santiguito, and I imagine that the people of Quetzaltenango once swept up volcanic ash and used it to construct their city.

Of course, that’s not true. What’s true is that most houses and buildings were built of concrete blocks—more accurately, rebuilt with concrete blocks after a 1902 earthquake and the volcanic eruption of Santa María. This city seems meant to be solid, not beautiful.

Each evening, after studying Spanish in a café, I walk home with my friend Mary along Calle 5A, where there is a McDonald’s, a gas station, and tiendas that sell chips and corn nuts and tamarind liquor that swirls in the bottle like clouds of diesel from the cars.

“Watch out,” says Mary as we stroll along the sidewalk. “There’s always vomit or poop on this street.”

Xela street sceneXela Street Scene



The high elevation means cold, dry air and no beaches—this is not the Central America of my imagination.

I might as well have stayed in Calgary, I think petulantly as I unpack. I’ve brought skirts and t-shirts, so the first place I go is an outlet store called MegaPaca. It too reminds me of growing up in Calgary, when my friends and I took the C-Train to Value Village and bought plaid pants and cardigans and old costume jewelry. At the door to MegaPaca, a security guard with a rifle checks my purse, then I look through racks and racks of used clothing as Christmas carols play over the sound system. To the tune of “Jingle Bell Rock,” I hear:

won’t you please touch my
won’t you please lick my
won’t you please suck my cock

I must be the only English speaker in the store; everyone else continues to shop, oblivious to the lyrics.

I buy two sweaters, one grey and one black, and they set me back the equivalent of two Canadian dollars. I wear them, one on top of the other, every single day.

Xela marketXela market



According to legend, Guatamala’s second-biggest city got its name when the K’iche prince, Tecún Uman, was killed by conquistador Pedro de Alvarado. The battle turned the nearby river red, and when it was over, the Quetzal—a small, red-breasted bird—flew out of the prince’s bloodied chest.

Now, four hundred years after the Quetzal rose like a phoenix from ash, four hundred years after the city was brought under Spanish rule, everyone still refers to the city as Xela, the shortened version of its pre-conquest Mayan name, Xelajú.

I’m here to study Spanish, and for five hours a day, five days a week, I sit with my teacher, Aracely. She is five years younger than me and five months pregnant, with a pleasant double chin and a slash of blue eyeliner over each lid. She is a feminist; she is stylish; she has been working since she was ten years old. She carries Kleenex tucked into her sleeves because the cold morning air makes her nose run. “Mi nariz,” she says, shaking her head. “Oh, mi nariz.”

I love her the way I loved Madame Potvin in grade two, when our class had a ginea-pig and I got to keep him at the end of the year. Aracely writes grammatical notes for me on thin sheets of grey paper. We sit at a wooden table, on hard wooden chairs, next to a row of old desktop computers. We tell ourselves that the computers humming beside us are generating heat, even though that’s not really true. What’s true is that as Aracely quizzes me on verbs, we can see our own breath.

Making tortillasMaking tortillas

Home isn’t any warmer. I’m living in a homestay with Doña Maria Teresa, a woman who moves heavily through the house, sings to herself, talks to her dog, and makes the best food I’ll taste in Guatemala. Lime and tomato soup, whole-grain pancakes, fruit salads of papaya and pineapple. Maria Teresa’s long black hair is veined with ash-coloured streaks, but her face doesn’t seem old so much as soft and malleable like the dough used to make tortillas. She wears the traditional traje of indigenous women in Guatemala: yards of cotton wrapped around her waist and a blouse hand-embroidered with bright flowers.

She runs a store that sells mostly liquor to men who stop by at lunch or on their way home from work. The store is attached to her house, but Maria Teresa keeps herself separated from the men by a metal grill, passing them bottles or bowls of soup through the bars. She keeps track of her expenses and sales in a small notebook, and washes dishes and clothes by hand in a pila—a cement sink with a built-in washboard.



One weekend, to escape the diesel-fumes of Xela, my friends and I decide get out of town. We travel on a “chicken bus,” Guatemala’s cheapest form of transportation, a former school bus familiar to me from my childhood in Calgary. I sat at the front with Leanne Snowden, and the grade sixers at the back threw staples and dirt and bits of chalk at our heads. I don’t have to worry about bullies now, but my guidebook advises me to be careful of theft—lock the zippers of your bag, keep nothing in your pockets.

Chicken busChicken bus

Mostly I’m distracted and thrilled by the pimped-out glory of the chicken bus. Instead of the typical mustard-yellow exterior, the bus has been painted glittery blue and green and gold. Prayers are stenciled on the inside and outside: Jesu Cristo vive. Que dios nos acomparnos.

Passengers crowd three-to-a-seat or stand in the aisles, tilting into each other as the bus takes the turns too fast. There are women with babies tied to their backs, children with blackened teeth, men playing games on their cellphones, tourists who are exhilarated and exhausted. We are a moving congregation, addressed by traveling salesmen instead of a preacher. “Are you tired?” asks one of these men. “Is your energy low?”

The sermons sell us vitamins, small packets of shampoo, creams to cure rashes and acne and dry skin.



We arrive in Chichicastenango—or Chichi, as it’s known—the site of one of the biggest markets in Central America. Everything is here: blankets, sandals, fruit, vegetables, notebooks, chickens, tortillas. I buy a shoulder bag, a drum for my nephew, earrings, and—for an almost unimaginably kind man who lives in Calgary—a piece of cloth embroidered with the image of that rare bird, the Quetzal.

Chichi street sceneChichi street scene

After the market we visit the cathedral, a white building that houses many gods. A woman named Tomasa offers to give us a tour. When she smiles, which is often, she shows a beautiful plate of false teeth: there’s a gold, five-pointed star at the centre of each tooth. She tells us that Jesus is worshiped at the front of the cathedral, and at the back there are twelve Mayan altars. Here candles are burned—white for prosperity, pink for love, yellow to bless the dead—and they make a soft crackling sound.

Mayan priest -001Mayan priest

Outside, on the church steps, Mayan shamans burn pine resin or swing metal cans that release white, aromatic smoke. In jeans and sneakers, they are nothing like the shamans of my imagination. Tomasa says they are hired by families to pray for luck, or happy marriages, or better job opportunities. Across town there is a smaller, darker church that represents death, says Tomasa, but this one is used to celebrate life.

Chichi church stepsChichi church steps



Back in Xela, to celebrate life, we drink overly sweet mojitos then decide to go dancing. We head to a place called Pool and Beer, which provides exactly what the name advertises, then to another place that must have a name but I can’t remember it.

People are smoking and it reminds me of when you could still smoke in bars in Canada, when I was eighteen and went to Cowboys and drank 25-cent draft. Except now, instead of two-stepping with men who are too old for me, I salsa dance with a Guatemalan who is too young for me. He looks like a Latino Justin Bieber: slim, with a popped collar and a tongue-piercing that glows in the dark. It flashes like an ignited flame every time he smiles.

Xela eveningXela, evening

The next evening is one of my last in Xela, and I walk through the streets wistfully wishing I could stay. This city consistently failed to live up to my romantic imaginings, and yet, during my days here, I have felt calm and engaged in my life. The purpose of travel must be to abandon expectations. I lived here like a child. Made new friends, relied upon Maria Teresa’s kindness as though she were a mother, found my way around without GPS, learned the language one word at a time.

I find myself in the central square during the procession of Guadalupe. A plastic, lace-draped, neon-lit effigy of the saint is carried through the streets. After she passes, strips of firecrackers are set off. I’ve read that during Guatemala’s civil war, rebels sometimes set off firecrackers to mask the sound of their gunfire. I’m sure that I could stay in Guatemala for years and never get used to the sound. I cover my ears as a string of firecrackers explodes. When it’s over, the casings smolder and it looks like the street itself is burning, or like the pavement is volcanic.

Mayan candlesMayan candles

—Deborah Willis

Deborah Willis was raised in Calgary, where she currently makes her home. Her first book, Vanishing and Other Stories, was named one of the Globe and Mail’s best books of the year and was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for fiction. She has been the writer-in-residence at the Joy Kogawa House in Vancouver and at the University of Calgary. Her fiction has appeared in PRISM InternationalGrainThe Walrus, and Zoetrope.


  6 Responses to “What It’s Like Living Here: Quetzaltenango, Guatemala — Deborah Willis”

  1. brings back memories….

  2. Gracias, Deborah. Brought back memories for me, too, and I’m so happy to know that there are people like you learning Spanish in Xela and making home-stay arrangements–rather than in the usual (and more tourist-oriented) Antigua–bringing some much needed income to ordinary people. Also so happy to read of Mayan altars in the Cathedral. When I was in Chichi, I can’t imagine indigenous rituals taking place there. The genocide had begun. One evening I was explaining about the school for indigenous education where I’d been living in Oaxaca, Mexico. An army officer interrupted me and said I shouldn’t speak of such things because it was all very well in Mexico “but in this country, if you teach an Indian to read, the Army has to kill you.” I loved reading of your experiences in Xela and Chichi.

  3. Thank you for your comment and your perspective, desilef. Guatemala was a wonderful place to travel and seemed like a difficult place to live.

    • Difficult, yes, as we see from the children crossing the border. (I want them all to be welcomed and allowed to stay.)
      I’m glad you found Guatemala a wonderful place to travel as many reports focus on the violence and that does scare many potential visitors away. Their loss, no?

  4. Hi Deborah,

    I’m glad you shared your story! I have roots in Guate and I’m actually considering staying there for a bit. What kind of advice could you offer me? How where you able to survive economically? How did you find a place to stay. Although I don’t have much money now I’m willing to take in any kind of work. My greatest advantage is that I at least speak the language. Any feedback/ insight would be greatly appreciated! Thanks so much!

    Karine C.

    • Hi Karine,
      Thank you for reading the essay! I was only in Guatemala for four weeks (the essay series being called “What It’s Like Living Here” was a bit of poetic licence in my case) so I can’t advise you on moving to Guatemala. However, I met a lot of people who’d been in the country for months or years. They had to leave every three months to renew their visa (this often involved a bus trip to Mexico) but they found places to rent very easily. I’m not sure about finding a job, though the cost of living is so much lower there that I think you could buy yourself some time to get settled if you had even a small amount saved. (For example, some people rented a room in a house for about $100 per month.)

      I can only say that I highly recommend traveling in Guatemala. It was one of the friendliest places I’ve ever been, as well as so interesting and beautiful. Good luck!

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