Coban and Copan

August 8, 2000

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Sander and I have just returned from 11 days on the road in chicken buses to two towns. The first was Coban, Guatemala. For those of you who like to look at the map, you will find Coban near the center of Guatemala in the mountains at an elevation of 5,000 feet. Our decision to go to Coban at this time is to see an annual festival held there over the weekend of July 28-29 th. This town is the center of the Rabinal Mayan Indian population – a warring people. They held out the longest against the Spanish Conquistadores and have maintained a strong pride in that heritage. Each summer they celebrate with dancing and the election of a new queen. The town has the reputation for the most colorful festival in Guatemala. Since we need to get to the Honduran border to renew our passports by August 8 th, the timing is perfect for a visit to both.

Waiting for the bus in the middle of our trip, we are approached by a local. “Are you on your way to Coban?” “Yes.” “Come with us in this van.” After agreeing on the price, we are off with about 9 others in a 12-person van. One young man is just finishing an ear of corn. I ask if it is “Dulce Maiz (means sweet corn)” He replies (with a smile), “Yes, sweet corn.” We are surprised and ask, ”Where did you learn to speak English?” He grew up in Honduras and learned in school but he also has three sisters in the states married to Americans. From there we have a lively conversation in what Sander calls Spanglish…a little Spanish and a little English.

Part way up the mountain we hear what sounds like a baby with the croup…a very strange sound that neither of us can identify. The trip in the van takes well over two hours as we climb higher and higher into the clouds. Along the way some folks get off and more get on – at one point we count 24 people in that van! Every time we stop we are sure that these extras will never fit in, but they do. Wow! There is that sound again!

The ride through the mountains grows more beautiful and cooler with each passing mile. At one point there are more people who wish to ride and the driver actually says, “No, we can’t take any more.” That is a surprise as we actually believe that he will carry folks on his roof.

The next time that we hear the strange sound, we can finally see its source. An old woman in front of us has a straw bag. Out of the top of the bag are the heads of two chickens, really quite well behaved. At last, we are truly on a chicken bus! We try to explain our excitement to our English-speaking friend who thinks that we are just a little crazy.

One of our photos is taken in Coban to show you that those chickens actually do ride with the folks. The women of Coban are amazing! They carry a huge basket on their head, wear a satchel on their back to carry a small one, hold the hand of another child and nurse an infant in their arms as they walk. And I thought that it was difficult to fly a helicopter!

Our hotel in Coban is quite nice for a mountain town – private bath with cold-water shower. In case you are interested the cost was about $18/night.

I am including one photo from the festival. It is definitely hard to choose but this fellow is very picturesque with his ceremonial dolls. We are very surprised not to see more tourists around town. Actually it is very nice as the town is mobbed with people but they are Guatemalans and very much interested in the proceedings. The people of Coban are very friendly asking us often in Spanish where we are “from”. That’s hard to answer now because of our mobile style of life. We usually tell them “Estados Unidos – Chicago”. That is a place that most of them know, thanks to the Bulls and Michael Jordan.

One local man is buying a new straw hat for his wife and tells Sander that he needs a sombrero too. He asks me then, “ Como se dice ‘sombrero’ en Ingles?” and I respond that the word for us is “hat”. He is successful with that word and it pleases him immensely to repeat it. Later I see him again as I watch three men playing a marimba. Upon his asking the same question again, I can think only of a xylophone as a comparable instrument and tell him so. He looks very confused and asks “Que?…What?” After trying twice with that one, he finally gives up and does not ask me again. The marimba has wooden keys rather than metal and all indigenous people favor the music of the marimba over any other.

The strangest sight in Coban?…Sander sees an indigenous girl flossing her teeth with her hair. It’s sounds quite gross, I know, but the women are scrupulously clean and have beautiful long glossy black hair. Guess it makes sense if you need to get rid of that pesky bit of food and don’t have anything else handy.

Another attraction in Coban is an orchid hacienda. For the past 21 years Vivero Verapaz has collected orchid specimens from all over Central America. Some are so tiny that we need a magnifying glass to see the blossoms – fascinating and a great source for some lovely photos.

On Sunday (7/30) we make the trip back down the mountain and east to the border of Honduras. Our destination is the town of Copan Ruinas, very close to the famous Mayan ruins of Copan. The closest town that you will see on the map is that of Chiquimula, Guatemala, directly west of Copan. The distance from the border to Copan is about 15 miles but takes us nearly an hour in the back of a pickup truck. The road washed out recently and is being rebuilt. The bus will not make the route again til the work is completed.

We decide to look into the possibility of studying Spanish for a week while in Copan and find a very good situation to do just that. As a part of the Spanish language school program, we live with Duena Elena during the week to be sure that we speak only Spanish and learn some of the local customs. Duena Elena is in her mid-50’s and runs a boarding house. Her boarders include a young archeologist from the states on a Fullbright scholarship, taking tiny samples of dust at the ruins to determine what plants the Mayans used in their rituals. There also are several workers from the road-rebuilding project.

The cost per person of the school, for those of you who are interested: $100 for 20 hours of instruction and $60 for the room and all meals for the week. Since then we have heard that there are even less expensive schools in Antigua: $70 for 20 hours of instruction and $50 for the room and board for a week.

We are lucky to get instructors for the week that fit the bill for each of us…see the third photo. Sander is just starting his studies and works with Freddie who is able to speak a lot of English and has a wonderful sense of humor. That was vital for keeping Sander’s interest at a high level. Freddie is very bright and determined to escape the poverty conditions of Honduras. With the help of the young archeologist, Freddie has landed a scholarship to a college in Delaware and plans to leave very soon to begin his studies. Freddie is so quick and energetic that he was able to repeat the tongue twister: “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck…” after only 10 minutes of practice!

Carolina works with Jane. She is a 23 year old mother of a 3 year old son. Carolina speaks no English at all. For Jane that is an excellent situation. She has been studying Spanish on her own and needs the practice listening and speaking the language. When faced with a new word Carolina spent much time talking and giving hand signals until Jane finally caught on. Sure would be easier to use the dictionary, but that defeats the purpose. By the end of the week Jane carried on a conversation. I wish that I could say a ‘regular conversation’ – alas, not yet!

On Saturday, before our departure, we spend the day at the ruins. Tikal (see our earlier e mail) is like Egypt in the expanse and enormity of the ruins. Copan is like Paris with its beautiful works of art. Numerous detailed stella and sculptures remain today to be enjoyed by all of us.

We arrive back on Satori on Sunday, Aug 6 th, and will be happy to be here for a while. It’s always fun to leave on an adventure and then wonderful to be “back home” again.

We look forward to your message over our ham radio server.

Our best to all of you…

Jane and Sander