Traditions warped in cloth
Lots of different-sized towns and villages surround the lake. Some are dubbed ‘Gringolandia’ because of all their expats; others have no road connections. A handful have kept faith with traditions. Above the settlements are either volcanoes or steep, forested mountains with ridges that suggest anthropomorphic forms – one is called ‘Mayan Face’, another ‘The Elephant’. Where the land allows, the indigenous communities till fields and build terraces, cultivating mainly coffee, as well as onions, frijoles (beans), tomatoes, chickpeas, maize, avocados and tropical fruits.
In Santiago I visited Cameron Krummel, an American raised on the lake who helps run Cojolya, a non-profit company that supports traditional backstrap loom weavers. The organisation was founded by Cameron’s mother Candis in 1983 and now has a smart shop as well as a small museum on the main drag. The latter shows the workings of the looms and weaving pegs that, for the Mayans have profound connotations linked to birth and the female body; it also displays some fine loom-woven clothing. A quote by Nobel Prize-winning Guatemalan poet Miguel Angel Asturias captures the beauty of the intricate brocades: ‘So many symbols, stars and conjunctions are warped in their cloth.’
These days most Guatemalan males prefer T-shirts with
English-language slogans and jeans, but a lot of the young women still wear the corte (wrap-around skirt) and multicoloured woven huipil (top).
In recent years, Cojolya has branched out into a new project: safe, environmentally sound, economically efficient ONIL stoves from the USA. Through micro-loans and NGO grants, the locals are helped to install these basic concrete ovens – developed by American engineer Donald O’Neal in the mid-1980s – which have an air-vent system that ensures that fires burn less wood, saving the families money.
“They only cost around 1,000 quetzales (₤78) to install,” said
Cameron. “Families recover the money in a matter of months. They use perhaps half the amount of wood – which is also positive in combating deforestation. They don’t blow smoke into the kitchens and help avoid children getting burns.”
We visited a few families to see how people were getting along with their stoves. Their homes were made from breeze-block, bamboo and zinc, and bereft of comforts. All the women I chatted to – and only women matter in Guatemalan kitchens – were delighted with their money-saving stoves. In the house of Josefa Sinabestis, there was an ONIL stove as well as a traditional comal – a big flat pan set on stones and burning logs. The room was full of smoke.
“My mum won’t use the new stove,” said Josefa, smiling. “She says it takes too long to heat up the tortillas.” In another house, Juana Cecilia Qehu-Mendoza told me she would make a hundred tortillas that morning. There’s no time for idling while a stove warms up.