An Invitation to an Amazing Oaxacan Adventure

Friday, June 26, 2020

San Juan Murals

We drove by the town basketball courts in San Juan la Laguna, a sleepy tourist town on the western shores of Lake Aritlan in Guatemala. Like many small villages, they use prominent murals to tell the stories of the town. 

“ Would you like me to explain to you the history of the murals?”, he says with a glint in his eye. “Yes definitely, lets do that after lunch.”,I said knowing I wanted to be well fed so I could digest the story. They looked good and I couldn’t  wait to go back. 

Coffee is a big part of their community

The corn goddess//princess with her animal familiar the rabbit - I am loving these magical realism murals.

I’m not sure exactly what this one is about 

The young boy with the fish tells the story of how important  fishing is to the  village

Sweet Shop

Some shops make my little heart go pitter patter and even more so when I find them tucked away on a cobblestoned street in a tiny colonial town in Guatemala. Who knew? 

Uniformed staff pack up beautiful boxes of tasty house made sweets on display in big glass  cases in this more than century old shop. A real find - classic old school sweet shop. 

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Embroidery of Atitlan

The town of Santiago Atitlan is the largest village on the lake and is famous for its striped clothing with elaborate embroidery of birds 

Women here work from their imagination and inspiration. Inspiration is a word you hear bandied about a lot. But they’re also not above referencing an Audobon or a Sibley’s bird ID book to create their realistic and naturalistic embroidered pieces. 

The skill level is just off the charts. Traditionally the birds were put down in a more linear fashion but now you see them in all kinds of configurations. On this huipile above, they seem to be flying all about. Do you think the wearer imagines herself a bird or do you think she just wants to be surrounded by a swirling flock? 

A whole piece devoted to various parrots 

And this one my friend bought was all birds of prey. 

Nowadays some women specialize in embroidery and job out the striped fabric that forms the base of the huipile to backstrap loom weavers. Notice in the photo above the embroiderer has asked for brown and golden stripes to match her bird designs. This is a complete departure from tradition 

Look at the incredible detail on this trio of songbirds above.

Two of my great loves birds and textiles rolled into one. I’d love to go back here (when we start post corona traveling) and go birdwatching in the morning and study embroidery in the afternoons. My bird guy friend tells me this is the town where you Can see the famous colorful quetzal bird. But I had to save that for another trip. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The Temazcal

The temazcal seems to be ubiquitous in backyards of many traditional homes I have visited. It’s a kind of sauna/steam using hot rocks and water and usually herbs. It’s an elegant bathing solution for communities without running water.  They use the temazcal for cleaning and purification on both mundane and spiritual levels. Often you’ll find rue and other herbs nearby. Surprisingly, I have never taken a temazcal. Just never has popped up. It’s on the to do list. 

The Graveyard at Chichi

I knew about the civil war in Guatemala and I knew it was bad in the 80’s and I’m old enough to remember Central America Solidarilty Newtworks working for change and big bad Oliver North, but I didn’t expect some 35 plus years  later to still have the war be such a big part of the story. (Sidenote - this war thing has got to end). I was in Guatemala to learn about textiles not about a sad part of US overseas involvement. But there it was and hard to ignore.

This war went on for over 30 years. This means entire generations in some parts of the country just didn’t go to school. Think about that. It also means collective PTSD and when I ask a guide about the war, he suggests I google it. You can’t really blame him. Why should he want to relive this trauma every Sunday when the tourist shows up with their endless questions? I did google it and you can go here if you’d like to learn more. Trigger warning - just about every bad thing you can imagine happening does, in fact, happen. 

On the  north side of the graveyard, away from the big, gaudily painted  mausoleums, and the hustle and bustle of a busy Sunday including the families visiting their loved ones, the tiny packs of tourists and the shamans hard at work with incense and prayers, there’s a peaceful, shady knoll with grassy mounds and pine needles and crosses.. This is  Chichicastenango’s  version of the tomb of the unknown soldier. Except they weren’t soldiers, they were hundreds of innocent peasants slaughtered and buried in mass graves during the US sponsored civil war.. The people of this community felt it was important to give their dead a proper burial and so dedicated part of their municipal cemetery for that purpose. They’ve created a hauntingly beautiful sea of several hundred blue and green crosses to honor these unknown innocents. Their story deserves to be remembered.  

The Amazing One and Only Nim Pot

There is no other store in the world quite like this marvelous emporium of all things handmade and Guatemalan with an emphasis on all things textile
What Cargo is to Portland, what ABC Carpet and Home is to NYC, what Watson Kennedy is to Seattle,  Nim Pot, which is also the name of a full length Mayan ceremonial robe, is to all of Guatemala. Like all these stores, Nim Pot appears to be a la labor of love by a visionary owner who also has a little bit of the maximalist hoarder gene. 

At first glance you might think you’ve stepped into a giant  souvenir shop (which it is) but you’d be missing the probably single largest collection of Mayan textiles ever assembled in one place. And it’s not a museum,  you can touch and buy them too!   

This wall shown above, all organized by regions and very tidy, went on for a while. Be still my beating heart. Mostly huipiles but also ponchos, stacks of red and white striped handwoven men’s pants, children’s clothes and yardage. Everything is used but in good condition. Don’t have a photo but there were also two huge tables full of torn, extra worn, and stained pieces. Here’s a link to a video that presents a different side of the used textile business in Guatemala. Full disclosure  - I need to educate myself more about this sensitive subject. No one wants to be exploiting these talented weavers when buying huipiles so take a look and see what you think here  

Then two aisles of the best of the best, vetted, vintage huipiles, dancers outfits, and belts - all very tidy and hanging on display rods. Again, most of it was organized by community so you could really study the nuances and variations on a theme but get a sense for the overarching style. Yes we died and went to heaven. Frankly, it was more than I could take in. Heaven was exhausting. Went back the next day too. 

The whole back wall was filled with these beaded, sequined Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band meets Napoleonic French soldier in the highlands of Guatemala ceremonial outfits (photo above) which they described as warlocks outfits. I wanted to buy ALL of them in the worst way. If I still had the store at least one would have been coming home with me.

Then there were two floor to ceiling walls of masks almost all vintage. 

Then trinkets galore including this bowl of slingshots,

an old canoe full of hacky sacks,

and even hand rolled tobacco cigars. Plus kites, worry dolls, beaded jewelry and pretty much any kind of
souvenir ever made in Guatemala. Nothing about this store says restraint. Another notable thing about Nim Pot was that despite the fact that it looks like it takes a veritable army of elves to fold and stack everything, the salespeople were inconspicuous and low key. This is the opposite if the extra attentive sales pressure you find in so so many places here in Guatemala and a somewhat welcome relief  It was a great place to start our textile adventure. 

So Many Textiles So Little Time

I didn’t fully appreciate the richness of the textile scene in Guatemala until I got there and once I arrived, it was pretty overwhelming from just about day 1. Guatemala is probably best known for the handwoven, backstrap loomed huipile like the magnificent example above - everyday wear in San Juan Atitan. Hashtag she made her clothes. But the blouse like huipiles are but  one piece of this many layered puzzle. 

Because there are a zillion different kind of belts that are woven, embroidered or sewn on all manners of looms and machines.  And there are belts for children and belts indicating status and belts to support an aching back and ones with tassels and some for the hair. You see what I mean? Kind of endless, right? 

Then there are hats like this ceremonial one above from Santiago Atitlan on the Lake. 

Plus men have their own hats too - hand plaited and embellished with woven bands like the one above.  I would love to see one of these hats being made - again from San Juan Atitan in Mam country. Headgear is big.

Plus then  there are skirts. Lots of them and often color coordinated. This one above is embroidered with a cross that tells us the wearer is married. 

Plus then ikat , tie dye, or as it is know locally jaspe, is everywhere in every imaginable color. Also lots of shawls, ponchos, hand crocheted bags, and carrying cloths. And that’s just everyday wear. There’s also fiesta wear not to be confused with ceremonial wear. And you’ll find  cotton, rayon , silk, acrylics,  and wool and  probably some things I don’t know about being used for cloth.  It just runs very very deep and with almost 3/4 of a million weavers working just about everyday, the output is incredible and there are innovations happening daily.. Guatemala is a textile lovers dream. We started in the capital Guatemala City because I wanted to see the Ixchel Museum and then went to Lake Atitlan vía a couple of days in Antigua. We landed for a week on the western edge of the lake and traveled to visit various weaving villages. Then deeper into the hilltown of Chcicastenango and finally  further into Mam country near Hiehuetenango. This is all to say we barely skimmed the surface.