We go to the mall. To Macy’s, Whole Foods, or Wal-Mart. We order off-line and gone are the days of mail-order catalogs. We may still peruse them, but our life is online now or in a department store. Amazon, e-bay; Barnes & Noble, Fresh Direct. It’s a different culture and we’re living in far different times. I remember the J.C. Penny’s catalog arriving at our home around the holidays, or picking one up at the mall and returning home with my mom to look at the various possibilities: I think the only thing they didn’t sell was food. Not to worry though, Amazon now takes care of that for us. We’re light years ahead from what we thought was convenient in the 80’s. Pretty soon we’ll select ingredients from grocery stores online and have them prepare a meal for delivery. Will the concepts of buying/shopping + cooking evolve as a product of modern lifestyle changes? And just as trends re-emerge, are we finding or will we find that our ways of living do as well?
On a recent trip to Guatemala I spent the majority of my time in a rural town, Chajul, located in the western highlands. Its population is roughly 20,000 which includes the smaller aldeas surrounding the main center. In comparison, the population is ½ the size of Binghamton, NY; 1/5 the student enrollment of all 25 San Francisco colleges; and slightly larger than the refugee camp I lived in 2006 on the Thai-Burma border; it is, 6-7 hours north of Antigua, 3 hours north of Quiche, and the cost of a local lunch is Q12, or $1.50. Frijoles (beans), tortillas, and a scrambled eggs and tomatoes concoction at a town comedor will fill your plate.
Chajul has the basics for the local community where needs and wants are clearly divided. People in America can be heard expressing, “I need coffee to wake up” or “I need a manicure.” In reality, they are not needs but wants. Even in a coffee-producing country there is no coffee shop, no “For here or to go?” questions and yes, there is no trace of a Starbucks. In fact, Nestlé coffee can be found on the shelves of homes and shops – it’s cheap and quick. In companionship with other countries – Brazil, Vietnam, Dominican Republic – Guatemala does not lag behind and too exports some of its best coffee around the world. In some ways, it doesn’t seem like we need to travel far to experience other cultures and a country’s products. In fact, at least in the U.S.A., when checking the label of food commodities, ‘Produced in’ is usually followed by Brazil or Bangladesh, China or the Philippines; the name of a country other than the United States. I think the message is out and many communities are moving back toward locally-sourced products, greenmarkets, farmer’s markets and the like, but still, foreign goods exported to the United States are by no means uncommon. We can’t get away from it. But traveling goes beyond sampling foods and local cuisines, it’s about those moments that take you outside of the familiar and jump-start your fears and passion. They’re the moments that cause you to pause, to take that second look, to move forward because you know possibly only something beautiful could emerge.
Being in Chajul, or more so, traveling, always manages to put my western lifestyle in perspective. You meet strangers, you befriend travelers, you experience a way of life that falls in between living in a new country and being a tourist depending on your mission in-country. Meanwhile though, you have advantages, sort of like a “Choose your own Adventure” book. You have the option to leave, to return to where you came from or to a lifestyle that is probably affording you more choices than what is necessary; or you have the choice to stay and be challenged by a lifestyle far different from how you grew up. Whatever your choices though, you have the capital to travel and experience something new and to stretch your level of comfort. Spending 11 days in Chajul opened my eyes, again, to not only the modern conveniences of western life, but redefined the words convenience and necessities, all surrounded by poverty and community. I’m still asking myself, what do I need here in New York City? What do I want? It’s easy to feel your head spinning at the panoply of choices and options we have available. Do the people in Chajul posit these same questions?
Market day in Chajul occurs on Tuesdays and Fridays and opened my eyes to a totally different pace of life than markets in New York City, artisan markets in Ireland or everyday markets in Marrakesh. It’s a buzz of activity and colors blend before your eyes like when you’re sitting too close to the television screen and all you see are the green, red, yellow and blue boxes. Chajul is colorful, the market just as much, and the people of the community are an indigenous population, Ixil, who dress so beautifully that if you didn’t know it was their traditional attire you might assume a more celebratory event.
Visiting the market allowed me to observe their local life in action. It was more than watching a morning event in a rural Guatemalan town, it was observing the rhythm, the ebb and flow of its people and culture; the pulse of a community was alive. Throughout my trip I’d been unusually touched by the connection the Chajulanese had to their community, to their culture and to the land. This was their home and after a 36-year civil war in country, why would one want to leave after fighting so hard to keep what they could? Experiencing the market helped contextualize my time in Chajul – it was like seeing the fruits of their labor, the money they earned, as well as spent, exercised into action – people in the U.S. pass penny’s on the sidewalk, spend frivolously on unnecessary items out of pure convenience – but here? In Chajul? Every coin counts. Like every other business in our global economy, each seller, laborer, business owner is out to make an earning and hopes for a few extra sells at the end of their day. Dish soap, fruits, vegetables, shoes, thread, sweets & treats, ice-cream for $.10, tortillas, avocados, yucca, clothing from weekly drop offs by the Salvation Army. Their market is our modern-day Amazon and no other tienda in town could rival its delightful discord on these two days of the week.