Life Without Lightbulbs: Battling Culture Shock in the Ixil Triangle

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This is the first in a four-part series chronicling a particularly eye-opening trek from Nebaj to Todos Santos, Guatemala. Why did I find this trek to be so transformative? Read on to find out.

Peering out from behind the walls of the abandoned, white house, I gulped, sending shivers down my spine. The rain poured so hard I could barely see the road in front of me, soaking through the layers of clothing I’d donned for the chilly evening portion of this trek. My flimsy drawstring backpack was drenched, my camera and phone imprisoned inside. Looking back into the skeleton house, the ground was littered with feces and dirt floors, reeking of all the animals and people who sought refuge in its walls before. Fernando, my guide, was yelling at me to move ahead, to keep walking. As I stepped out from my temporary shelter, the rain seemed to pound down harder on my skull, the cold droplets sliding down my face, blurring my eyesight. I was doomed. What had I gotten myself into?

* * *

Just a few days before, I’d entered the small reception area of Media Luna Medio Sol Hostel to organize my trek through the Guatemalan Highlands, from Nebaj to Todos Santos, with Guias Ixiles. The woman at the reservations desk warned me that this was the most difficult trek they offered — it spanned 3 days with 2 nights in remote homestays, and ended in the city of Todos Santos, high up in the Mám region of the Cuchumatanes Mountains.

The trek would pass primarily through the Ixil Triangle, an area of Guatemala named after Ixil, an indigenous Mayan language spoken only in that region. After volunteering with Mayan communities in Guatemala in the past, I’d learned that the Guatemalan Civil War had a huge impact on many indigenous populations, leaving many people separated from their families and homes. It sounded like a tough climb, but I was intrigued by the opportunity to see first-hand an area of Guatemala that not many people get to experience.

After much deliberation, I decided to give it a shot. Although I wasn’t an experienced hiker, I’d done a few multi-day treks before and decided that this one couldn’t be too much more difficult. I signed up excitedly and began preparing for my trek.

I returned to the hostel the next morning, where I met my guide: a quiet, stocky man named Fernando. Fernando was a native Ixil speaker and had guided hikes through the Cuchumatanes for many years. Despite the strange situation of hiking solo as a twenty-something female with a middle-aged male guide, he seemed like a trustworthy companion for the next three days. We set off right away, heading west out of Nebaj and walking through some hills through nearby villages. As I would find out later, there’s a significant portion of the population who only speak Ixil. Some townspeople learn basic Spanish in their lifetimes, but only if they have access to education.

During our initial trek, the landscape varied between gravel roads, grassy pastures, and wooded dirt paths. In the forests, Fernando pointed out some of the Mayan temples, often made from rocks and trees, and explained what rituals are performed there. In the afternoon, we stopped for lunch at an Ixil family’s home, which consisted of two buildings: one small, cramped space for sleeping around 10 people, and a kitchen room. Homes in Guatemala are often multi-generational, and this one was no exception; I shared a lunch with a grandmother, a mother, some children and great-grandchildren. As we thanked the hosts and began walking once again, I wondered what it would be like to live in a one-room home with so many people.

Soon after, the rain came.

We trekked for what seemed like hours through this rain storm, mostly uphill in a disgusting mixture of mud, rain, and horse droppings on the path. I looked down at my once-purple hiking boots, realizing that they’d quickly turned a rusty brown color. Yuck. Fernando was far ahead of me, at some points barely recognizable in the thick fog and rain. In these rugged mountains of Guatemala, I felt so alone. Trudging up the mountain at slower-than-normal speed, I started to question my decision to go on this trek.

Why did I sign myself up for this? Was it too late to turn around? How much farther was our homestay? I couldn’t help but churn through these questions over and over again in my head as I continuously slipped in the mud-crap combo, thighs burning from the incline. If I ever had an ego, it was erased by this point. Covered in dirt, shit, and drenched in rain, I felt so hopeless as I silently continued along.

Eventually, the rain subsided to a light drizzle and the terrain began to flatten out. Instead of mud and pebbles, the landscape atop the mountain was spotted with beautiful, light gray rock formations and rays of sunlight leaking through the canopy. This place was other-worldly, with many areas seemingly untouched by humanity. As far as the eye could see, there were no houses or human constructs, only boulders, trees, and the earth below. I stared in awe as we journeyed forward, hoping to make it to our homestay before nightfall.

Finally, the dirt paths brought us to a small, quiet town atop the mountain. According to Fernando, the town’s name was Chuatuj, and it only consisted of a few dozen families. No cars or even motorcycles existed here – visitors could only arrive by foot or horse on the path we’d just come through. We approached a small, wooden home on the edge of the town, our shelter for the night.

Our host was waiting outside, a friendly-looking man wearing a cowboy hat and boots. He spoke very little Spanish, but smiled with a wide, toothless grin every time I spoke to him. Fernando translated for us as our host showed me to my room for the night – a dark, drafty space walled off from the rest of the family’s sleeping quarters. Cracks in the wooden walls sent light beaming into the room, but I knew that once the rain started again, I’d be out of luck.

Next in the tour was the bathroom. It consisted of a tiny outhouse that was a few minutes’ walk from the house — inside was a simple drop toilet that looked like it had no plumbing to remove waste. There was no sink or mirror. There was no lighting. It reeked. Never in my life had I spent the night in a place like this, and I began to feel nervous about it.

The culture shock set in quickly

I won’t sugar coat it. I panicked. Here I was, a young adult who grew up in sheltered, middle-class America, damp from the rain and covered in a horrifying mix of shit and mud, now sitting in a normal home in Guatemala and freaking out because of the unfamiliarity of my situation. Once Fernando and our hosts left the room, I sat down on the dusty covers of the bed and cursed myself for deciding to do this. What was I thinking?

I know, I know, it was such a first-world problem to have. After all, I only had to spend one night here. At the worst, I could ask Fernando to return back to Nebaj in the morning and be back in civilization. However, I’d come here to learn, and I reminded myself that I shouldn’t write off this experience yet.

As I mulled over the situation in my head, I realized just how lucky I was to have been born into a situation like my own. Most people in the world live just like these people – without running water or electricity, much less Internet, phone service, air conditioning, and other ‘normal’ luxuries that I’d taken for granted all my life.

Not many tourists venture out into the Ixil Triangle, which was removed from Guatemala’s maps during the civil war, so this homestay would be a really unique opportunity to learn about these people who were, for so long, overlooked. After a few moments of quiet reflection, I picked myself up and decided to try and learn as much as I could as an outsider in this unique place.

Night began to fall, and I joined my hosts – a family of three or four generations – in the kitchen for dinner. They’d set up a small fire in the middle of the room to keep warm as they cooked on an iron stove. The walls were charcoal black from years of meals shared as a family within, and simple adornments of Catholic figures and animal hides hung from the pillars above. We asked each other questions as Fernando translated for us, each party excited to learn more about the others’ lives.

As I settled into my bed, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of foreboding as thunder rumbled in the distance. The next day’s trek would be even longer and even more remote, and I was quickly realizing my threshold for adventure. I tossed and turned for hours trying to fall asleep, and finally, when the rain began to pound on the tin roof above, I drifted off into a restless and uneasy slumber…

Want to hear about the rest of my trek? Stay tuned for part 2 of the series, which includes an abandoned house, a run-in with some nasty critters, and a Guatemalan church party.

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