After weeks of torrential rain and mudslides, I joined a friend to visit artisans in a remote village, detouring around road cave-ins under reconstruction until, after a four-hour drive from Antigua, we reached the turn-off to Chilascó in the central Guatemala department of Baja Verapaz. There stood an old man with a worn backpack, his lips sunken into a toothless mouth. My friend pulled over, familiar with the long uphill trek ahead and, with no words exchanged, he scrambled into the flatbed. Our pickup bounced along the rocky dirt road, splashing through mud puddles that shone like crystal in the reflected sunlight. From trash bags in the open back, tightly packed with wine bottles, the jingling of rolling glass sang as we rounded curves and scaled rocky bumps and pits.
We pulled over to the side of the road by the church in the tiny village of Chilascó where only a few houses petered out into a landscape of trees. Our passenger hopped out and walked off. Next door to the church was a tienda, a small shop, dark at this time of day, when the sun’s glow did not yet enter the space, unlit by electric light. Two boys ran out to unload the bottles, soon to be filled by the shop owner with her local berry wine brew. My friend handed them a smaller bag filled with corks.
On our way back up the dirt main street, we picked up two women carrying four huge lidded baskets they had made, and toting plastic bags filled with other handmade goods. We continued on, gathering riders, until we came to the school building. Having already heard the buzz in that close community that the woman from Antigua had arrived, four women came out to meet us. Indigenous dress was not the norm in this village; western dress was sometimes combined with a woven piece or two, but it was apparent that textile weaving was not their tradition.
Their art form utilized the natural resources in the surrounding hills, pine needles. In the main room of the school, against a wall of lavender concrete and green peeling wood, about twenty-five large baskets were piled, some fat and round in the middle tapering to a narrower neck with lids loosely tacked on to keep them tied to their respective vessels, others with vertical walls open at the top, a handle on either side fashioned from a couple of rows of needles pulled up, forming a space for the hand to enter. My friend counted the baskets, smiling with delight with their work, hefted them, and expressed her satisfaction to each of the artesanias. These items would complete an order from one of her remote export customers, Oxfam. No, I couldn’t buy one, they were already sold. My role was as photographer, and happily so.
Carrying a basket in each hand, the women descended the stairs and out to the pickup in an informal line, placing them inside. They just kept coming, like a flock of birds, landing on the pickup, and flying off to bring more of their contributions to build the nest. Children gathered to watch the procession. Stacked haphazardly, soon the load required some rearranging in order to fit all of those round containers into the square metal space, those with lids not being stackable, but the handled ones loosely nested inside one another. My friend directed traffic and helped shuffle the baskets, towering above the diminutive craftspeople, head and shoulders taller than most of them. Once the forms were sufficiently stacked or tucked in, she stretched a blue plastic tarp over the wares and the women helped her tie it down. My friend tested; they adjusted. Then all stepped back, admiring the package ready for the bumpy roads and highway journey to Antigua.
The pickup, now full, putt-putted back up the road to a one room round tourist hut, built, with the encouragement and assistance of a former Peace Corps volunteer, to promote hiking to Salto de Chilascó, the tallest waterfall in Central America. The trail, a dramatically steep descent, would have been too muddy after the rains to be passable at that time. Yellow letters, carved into a dark weathered wooden sign mounted on cement posts over the walkway, announced Información Turística, tourist information; the wooden structure’s thatched roof rose to a rounded point. Posters sporting images of the waterfall encased in green rainforest and maps of the route adorned the interior of the tourist hut. A wooden rack of high black rubber boots to brave the muddy trail stood against the wall. The tour guide, an older man in a blue uniform, greeted us. Business had been slow since the heavy rains and he was glad to have some bustling activity in his office.
As the women poured into the hut, my friend welcomed her vendors, thanked and congratulated them on their delivery of an important order within the time specified, and such fine work! I was captivated by the stream of baskets and by the shy smiles on the faces of these villagers, quietly proud of their craftsmanship and to have something useful and attractive to offer, happy to show their work and to reap the benefits as their paltry incomes rose. A woman sat on the bench next to a window, forming an oval placemat during the meeting, lit by the sunlight on one side, in chiaroscuro dark and light, holding a bunch of the longest pine needles I had ever seen, pulling tight as she wrapped them around the shape, binding them with needle and thread into place.
Coasters, placemats, and jewelry, made from flat spirals of pine and fastened with the same thick brown thread as the baskets, emerged from plastic bags, were counted, and the artisans were paid. One woman recorded the transactions in a notebook as they were finalized. A new design was reviewed, a flat tray with brown handles, the thread wrapped tightly to create a color contrast. My friend suggested some minor alterations in the way in which the handle pulled away from the disk, and asked my opinion about ringing the entire tray in brown. I agreed. She then placed a new order, a list was carefully written down in the notebook, and the women discussed who would make each of the items. Some price negotiations took place until each side was satisfied.
Horses trod the muddy road outside the tourism hut, each laden with two lumpy, white bags stuffed with green broccoli, bound with red cord. Men and boys waited to unload the bags and quickly sort the goods into containers to be loaded onto a waiting truck. The vegetable was not endemic to Baja Verapaz. According to local history, an agronomist had experimented with various plants and had found that broccoli loved the mountain soil and thrived like no other crop, so it was introduced successfully. The villagers don’t eat broccoli, but they farm it and it has become the bedrock of their local economy.
Because the vociferous plant grew like crazy, more hands were needed to pick the produce, so families began having more children. Chicken shit, used as fertilizer, needed to be thoroughly dry before applying, but as the fields expanded and the crop demanded more, the substance was brought in from other towns, and in haste was not dried properly. Swarms of flies converged on the area to feast on the manure, bringing disease. Children began dying from inexplicable illness until the cause was detected. To this day, flies dot every surface in Chilascó, but their numbers have been reduced since the fertilizer problem was solved.
A baby boom bubble caused overcrowding in the school, recently expanded using an environmentally friendly design. The walls were filled with two-liter plastic bottles stuffed with trash, picked up by children, an insulating factor and an educational opportunity to teach children not to litter, then smoothed over with concrete, to a form an even surface and painted in bright colors.
Guatemalan towns are plagued with trash, and my friend speculated that, decades ago, everything that was discarded was biodegradable, so it was only natural that, as plastic packaging became pervasive in commercial products, wrappers, bags, and containers were thrown away in the same manner without a thought to their accumulation. Chilascó was a classic study in how the introduction of one new element can affect the ecosystem in unanticipated ways, destroying the delicate balance of existence.
We drove back down the hill into town to an outdoor stall for lunch, corn soup with a tough chicken drumstick, the bird having been raised in a local yard, a touch of ground red chili pepper, and soft fresh tortillas. My friend, a regular customer when in town, greeted the owner, and asked how she was.
”Working hard,” the cook grumbled in Spanish, “but that’s life. If you don’t work, you don’t eat.”
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