Mirage on the Black Rock Desert

It is nearly quiet here in my edge-of-town Reno garden. There is a soft, consistent, white traffic sound, like a stream flowing hidden among trees, a waterfall behind a knoll of rock, an off-trail Sierra lakeside with afternoon wind moving the tops of the trees. It is never quiet in the way of the desert.

The Black Rock playa, most of the time, is quiet in a manner so dense one can taste it, cut it with a butter knife. No background sounds of wind in the treetops, no muffled music of flowing water.

But there is a small corner of the desert which begins, now, to change – a corner where a city will soon rise. Teams of city builders are gathering, working at the ranch north of Gerlach Nevada, preparing for the August 1st start of on-playa activity.

First the survey crew will lay down the outline of the city – the position of the man, the streets, the perimeter. Then the perimeter fence will be built, followed by setup of the infrastructure (commissary, Dept of Public Works, etc) then Center Camp will begin to rise in the desert. The Temple crew starts their construction, the largest art projects begin to appear. The quiet of the desert, in this one little corner, gradually changes.

By Sunday August 26th, the heart of Black Rock City will light this little bit of playa, the dense desert silence will have ebbed away. Over the ensuing week the city will be populated, will reach its zenith. The sky will fill with flames, the ground will vibrate. And then, as suddenly as it came, this 21st century desert mirage will melt away.

Black Rock City Nevada, will become a temporary ghost town, then will vanish altogether. Like a gold-rush boom town, quickly built, burnt, then reabsorbed into the quiet, vast desert. With a few small differences – this ghost town is cyclic. Like some but not all ghost towns, it disappears entirely, but like no other, it returns the following year.

And it is very nearly time for the builders to begin their work on the playa.

Read John Curley’s first hand reports from the playa describing the start of Black Rock City 2012 and the building of the perimeter fence.

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Burning Man 2012 – before the burn

Burning Man is transitioning – change is afoot. Last year, for the first time ever, the 50,000 allocated tickets sold out. The results last year were desperate would-be burners who had always waited til just before the event to plonk down so much cash, and a new scalping of tickets.

The effects on the ticket availability for 2012 has been even more dramatic. Continue reading

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Garden Dreams

I used to dream about worms. If that sounds odd to you, you are probably not a composter.

My dreams were inspired by piles of leaves, reclaimed from curbs, moistened by a foot and a half of snow which soaked in as it melted, full of earthworms busy at the work of breaking down my layered leaves to dark, nurturing humus. When I turned these leaves with a pitchfork, worms were everywhere. So I used to dream of worms, excited about what they meant to my garden. Continue reading

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Colors of Guatemala

Quetzal tail feathers photographed in Maya history museum, village of Chajul, Ixil Triangle, Department of Quiché

The Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) is emblematic of Guatemala – it is the name of Guatemala’s currency and its national bird. And yes, it is brightly colored. The mostly green body has iridescence in tones of green, gold, blue and violet, and it bears a prominent red mark on its breast. The tail feathers are an iridescent green and are particularly long and showy on the male during breeding season.

[Image at right from internet, photographer unknown]

Most likely you won’t see one though there is some chance, during the misty morning feeding time, in the cloud forest, if you get up early and are led to just the right spot. You just might. The species is found only from southern Mexico through to western Panama, though related species occur further east in Panama and in South America.

Where you will be sure to see it in Guatemala is on the flag, in the carvings decorating the temples of the Maya, painted into murals depicting indigenous legends and woven into textiles. You may also recognize it in the many ways that Guatemala embraces color. Continue reading

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Cemeteries in Guatemala

I’ve always had a bit of a fascination for cemeteries because they hold intriguing clues to the culture and history of an area. And perhaps I just enjoy walking with ghosts.

Los cementerios guatemaltecos promised to be of particular interest as they share the vibrant use of color seen elsewhere in the country – in the traditional dress (traje) of the indigenous Maya and in the deep pastels painted on the houses of the living. And if you have looked at photos of Guatemala, you might have already seen the iconic photos of the cemetery in Chichicastenango. Continue reading

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Guatemalan Food part 2 – Changes Over Time

Fruit Vendor, Sacapulas, Quiché Department

I wrote a first installment on food at the end of my first full day in Guatemala. This second installment is a retrospective.

Fifty years ago, the foods that were available in Guatemala were highly location specific. Around Lago Atitalan, the soil is poor and there were very few choices. The diet of the Maya living in the lakeside villages was largely limited to the following: Continue reading

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Six and half weeks in Guatemala

photo above from Uspantán

Traveling with a fixed plan doesn’t work so well for me. There is a poor psychology to the whole thing as all too often what is expected simply changes. When things don’t go as they are ‘supposed to’, the result is stress. There are always delays, and no-shows, and lost reservations. Expectations are not met, and it is just that – the presence of expectations – which trips me up.

So instead, as much as possible, I like to travel with an open slate, and an open mind. Little needs to hinge rigidly on prior events and so surprises are generally welcome.

[coming: Antigua, Rio Dulce and Livingston, Flores and Tikal, Chichicastenango, Lake Atitlan, Semuc Champey, Uspantán, Nebaj (Acul, Chajul), Santa Cruz del Quiché]

Map of Guatemala

This trip began with a big surprise which came close to being a most unwelcome one. Continue reading

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Santa Cruz del Quiché to Guate

There are ‘rules’ for safe travel in Central America and I am about to be challenged by several of them. I am in Quiché, and flying out of Guatemala City in a couple of days. The conservative approach might be to head for the supposed safety of Antigua and book a tourist shuttle directly to the airport for the morning of my departure. Or I could travel to Guate the day before and stay somewhere near the airport. But I am happy and entertained here in Quiché and want to spend all my remaining time here. So I stay, Continue reading

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Ixil Region – Acul, Xexuxcap, Xexocom

The morning in Nebaj, Guatemala, started with light rain. A friend had organized a couple of young boys to guide me on my planned walk, but truly I just wanted this day to be a solitary one – one when I could wander quietly and freely, when I could reflect on the horrors this region had endured in the early 1980s. Having a couple of young boys along was not really part of my plan, and the rain was a perfect reason to decide not to hike after all. But soon after relaying that message to my erstwhile ‘guides’, the rain abated.

I was now on my way to enjoying a quiet afternoon, a largely silent and thought-filled exploration of a small bit of the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes, walking through an area thick with scars from the Guatemalan Civil War.

At noon on this Saturday, I boarded a microbus headed for Acul. Though the village lies only 4 km from Nebaj, the drivable route is much longer, following the river drainages. Acul was one of many hundreds of aldeas in this region destroyed during Guatemala’s civil war. The army then built a camp on the site of the razed village. Survivors of the Acul Massacre, and other refugees from the surrounding mountains, were also housed here, and guarded in a barbed wire encircled compound. It was these refugees who actually constructed the new cookie-cutter Acul. For this was a “model” village which little resembled what had once stood here, little resembled what was familiar and homelike to the villagers.

The sole surviving building in the village was an adobe church

Cookie-cutter cement block houses are a contrived setting for a rural life style

From Acul, I caught a shared ride to the next village, Xexuxcap.

The road between Acul and Xexuxcap


The tienda in Xexuxcap

The tuktuk had dropped all the riders at the near edge of Xexuxcap. I headed on from there by foot, through the village, then about 45 minutes up the long hill, bordered by agricultural fields and forests, to the next tiny settlement, Xexocom.

The main street through Xexuxcap, and a couple amused little girls

The main road leaving Xexuxcap turns sharply right ahead

The road rises steeply up to Xexocom

Continue reading

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Chajul – Children, Cemetery and Comedor Cristina

Often the village cemetery is up on one of the hills above the town. In Chajul, my random exploration of the hillside streets to the north of town neither led to the cemetery, nor revealed a view of it. My next tactic is the obvious one – I ask how to find it.

In this case it turned out that the cemetery was at the edge of town, adjacent to the main road. I had passed right by it in the microbus. So I set out now with a clear direction.

While I saw a great many children playing in the streets, shortly after learning how to find the cemetery, I happened across a group of children gathered in a small adobe room for an afternoon school session.

The teacher and his charges gathered in the doorway and at the window, and most seemed delighted by the very unusual sight of gringa abuelita in their out of the way neighborhood.

The boys crowded to the front of the doorway.

With the help of good directions, I soon found my way to the village cemetery.

Though there were some fairly substantial and colorful tombas, most were in ground and marked only by a little spirit house blackened by candle flames.

Looking toward the village, and the hills I had climbed toward earlier.

The children living nearby used the cemetery as their playground

This young girl was especially agile and daring.

The house next door to the cemetery, and a couple of the children living there

These little girls lived in the house adjacent to the village cemetery

The end of a fascinating day, heading back into the main village.

And the perfect thing to do before catching transport back to Nebaj – a nice plato típico at Comedor Cristina. How appropriate!

Comedor y Caferteria Cristina

– Continue reading to explore three much smaller pueblos to the west of Nebaj

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Chajul walkabout

Apart from the obvious interest of the market day, what I enjoyed most in my visit to Chajul was the simple, quiet pleasure of wandering around this lightly visited village, without a map or really much idea of what I might find. I had boarded a microbus in Nebaj at 7:45 am for the 45 minute rides to Chajul, and had spent the morning exploring the biweekly market. Now it was time to see more of the village.

The main street entering the village is of concrete and in good repair. There is a reason for this, and it is not a happy one. During the Civil War in Guatemala, the army completely occupied this town. The road was built to support the army infrastructure.

Mostly foot traffic on the concrete paved main street

Where the paving was asphalt, the surface was typically badly cracked.

The buses and microbuses entering the village turned off the main street before they reached the central area

In the more central residential areas, streets were either cobbled or paved with small cement blocks, no doubt another remnant of the military presence here in the 1980s and 90s.

Children and chickens play in the street

A little shop (tienda) in the village (aldea), with farms on the surrounding hills.

Throughout the Ixil area, the women and girls almost always wear traditional clothing (traje), while males – even tiny little boys – are dressed in Western clothing.

Away from the central areas, the streets grow more rough.

As the road climbs up into the surrounding hills it grows more narrow and rugged. Clean stream water is captured in a cement holding pond. Below are village women using the outflow to wash clothing.

Laundry is put out to dry on fences and gates

Traje drying on fence

and on roofs

Sturdy cotton fabrics, heavily embroidered, require long drying times. All sorts of vertical and horizontal structures are utilized as drying frames and racks.

After exploring to the edge of the main village on the roads that climbed into hills to the north, I returned toward the main road. My goal was to reach the village cemetery.

These little girls lived in the house adjacent to the village cemetery

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Market Day in Chajul

The main road into Chajul leads directly to the Plaza and La Iglesia Católica de Chajul. The last bit of road is closed to vehicles on market days.

It is market day in San Gaspar Chajul, Guatemala.

In many rural areas, the local market days rotate among a few of the more prominent villages in the region. In the Ixil Triangle region of Guatemala, Nebaj is the largest population center, with about 20,000 inhabitants. Chajul and Cotzal each have about half that population.

I had arrived in Santa Maria Nebaj just in time for the Thursday morning market. Now it is Friday and the activity has passed on to Chajul. Tomorrow it will move onward to San Juan Cotzal.

There are several advantages to visiting a village on one of its bi-weekly market days. First, transport to and from the village will be especially frequent on these days. Second, a great many people will be around. The rural inhabitants will come into the village, both to sell their produce and other wares, and to spend their proceeds. Third, the high level of activity is interesting to a visitor wanting to observe and, at the same time, the visitor is somewhat less noticeable.

To see the market at its most active, it is best to get an early start. I was tucked into a microbus and underway at 7:45 am, and in Chajul by 8:30. I first did a little wander in the village, walking away from the central area to get a feel for the appearance of the streets and the homes.

Most of the local people seemed much better off than this woman. Her husband was just behind her, carrying load of wood supported by a head strap. He was straining hard under his load. She carried a few sticks as well. Her bare feet spoke all too eloquently of their poverty.

I then walked back toward the busy market, along with groups of locals headed in also, and found a quiet little spot from which to quietly observe.

Because of the hilliness of the site, the town plaza is elevated. The street which led into town ended at the main stairway leading up to the plaza. To the left were shops. At the far side of the Plaza was a stairway which climbed up to La Iglesia Católica de Chajul. To the right a few more stairs led down to more shops.

La Iglesia Católica de Chajul stands at the far end of the plaza

The plaza viewed from the Iglesia. The market area is at the far right.

The street paralleling the front of the plaza was filled with tables and stalls, and with tarps and blankets heaped with various goods.

Along the street which parallels the Plaza

Shoes often come in piles of sizes and styles. Matched pairs are more expensive.

Most interesting, and unusual, were the rural women who stood in a double line along the street leading to the plaza with their baskets of maize on the ground in front of them. A few also had baskets of black beans or avocados.

An hour or so later, the regimented line had relaxed. The sellers who were known to provide the best quality had already sold all they had brought. Buyers who arrived later would still have much to choose from but it would probably be of lesser quaiity.

Several of the women approached me to see whether I might come with them to their home to browse through some of their weavings. Eventually, when I had satisfied myself that I had seen what I had come for in the general market, I did agree to do that.

Certainly I did not really need, or even want, anything. But those small purchases can mean a great deal to the woman you buy from. And so I bought a couple of inexpensive used items – a little girl’s huipil (woven top) and a faja (sash).

A few small purchases can mean food on tonight's table.

And later that day I did purchase another huipil.

The weaver/artist wearing the huipil I bought from her

The textiles in Guatemala are so varied and beautiful, eventually it is hard to resist buying things you know you really don’t need.

And so passed the first part of my day in Chajul. From there I went on to explore much more of the village, wandering up the hills, and down, eventually discovering the very unusual Cementario (cemetery), and interacting throughout with the uninhibited and delightful children of the village.

– Continue reading to see more of Chajul

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Nebaj – somewhere, in the middle of nowhere

Nebaj. The name rings magical. This town of 35,000 tucked into a lush mountain valley in the highlands of Guatemala is the political center of the Ixil Triangle region. The Ixil (pronounced Ish-il) Maya live here and in the nearly 100 villages surrounding. Nowhere else is the Ixil language spoken other than in these mountain villages; the traditions hold fast – beautiful textiles, strong family and community ties. Continue reading

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Uspantán to el Entronque de Nebaj

Mud bricks, tile roofs, dividing fences made of piled wood for the cooking fire. Pigs tethered between close-set houses. Fences of vertical sticks tied together with twine. Men in dark clothing with dark faces beneath pale straw cowboy hats. If they wear white hats, they must be the ‘good guys’.

Pickup trucks with wire frames, open air and cold local transport. Full of faces, people standing, holding onto the frame as the truck careens around corners.

Fields of maize climb the mouths of ravines; in the open spaces rich, dark, tilled soil. Cloud forest rims the fields, mist coming right down to the field edges. Are there Quetzales hiding in those trees?

The van driving in front of ours is full. Six men and boys ride on top, three more hang off the rear ladder. I am warm and safe inside. It is good being built small though even so my legs are much longer than the guatemaltecans beside me. But basically I fit comfortably.

We drive the packed dirt of the mountainside above a chasm of a valley. It is a dramatically beautiful terrain. Villages come and go, just houses hugging the road, above and below. Beyond the houses the mountain drops sheerly away. Tiny tiendas all with the same limited assortment of necessaries. Saddled horse tethered to a tree, grazes and waits. Horses are the most useful form of transport to and from these fields.

Far across the valley a large slip bisects a road which looks like ours must from a distance – clinging precariously to the mountainside. This is the nature of the road through the Cuchumatanes linking Uspantán and Sacapulas.

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It is mid-afternoon. The whole day til now has been spent traveling and it is time to wander around this quite isolated village of 3500 where the only languages are Spanish and Q’eqchi Maya.

My two goals are to get a feel for the town and to cash a traveler’s check. One proves to be easier than the other. Continue reading

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