Guatemala through the Senses

Below is a paper that I wrote while in Guatemala as part of the academic requirements for the trip. I noticed that it works well as a blog post so I thought I’d include it here to provide readers with a better idea of what it’s like to visit Guatemala. I really didn’t want to write this while I was on my trip, but I ended up having fun with it.

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Guatemala through the Senses

Traveling abroad is an exercise rich in novelty, and represents a stimulating multi-sensory experience. When one travels, the exposure to disparate cultures and unfamiliar landscapes provokes psychological and, sometimes, physiological responses. One must grow accustomed to range of new stimulus modalities, necessitating a period of transition that can be pleasant, unsettling, or both.

In a recent trip to the Central American country of Guatemala, for instance, I found myself experiencing transition shock while I acclimated to an unfamiliar environment and the overwhelming sensory input that accompanied my arrival. Despite the initial difficulties, however, the journey has been a profound adventure and a treat for the senses. Indeed, relating my experience in Guatemala can best be accomplished through the lens of the five primary senses via which we all interface with the world: olfaction, taste, touch, hearing, and sight.

Guatemala’s long, tumultuous, and storied history contributes to a cultural richness that is evident in nearly all aspects of the country. In few places is this more apparent than in the magnificent city of Antigua, where a UNESCO World Heritage declaration preserves its beautiful Colonial architecture and historical essence.

On a walk around the city, one can get a good sense of Guatemala using the sense of smell. Travelling Antigua’s narrow cobblestone streets, the smell of one of the primary mechanisms of cultural interchange—food—wafts out of the doors of the numerous vendors of comestible products. One can smell the starchy scent of tortillas as they are cooked on a cylindrical steel grill by an elderly woman dressed in the traditional technicolor attire of indigenous women. Freshly cut mangos and watermelon beckon pedestrians from fruit carts positioned all around the central plaza. The alluring scent of cooking meat drifts from the vents of an upscale hotel’s restaurant.

Other olfactory stimuli are less pleasant and not quite so foreign. On the drive to Antigua from Guatemala City, the smell of combusting diesel fuel is overpowering. A group of workers spray pungent chemicals in an attempt to thwart the insurgency of weeds seeking to take back Antigua’s streets from human encroachment.

The scent of ozone is strong as dark gray clouds loom on the northern horizon, foreshadowing the torrent that they will unleash soon enough. Several men in a park are burning something, possibly plastic or rubber, releasing noxious fumes that sting in the nostrils. Guatemala is a country in flux, and the transition to modernity yields strong scents.

Guatemala’s cultural richness is just as apparent in taste as it is in smell. The country’s deep history, numerous ethnic influences, and its position within a tropical latitude all contribute to a unique bounty for the palate.

Locally grown fruits, for instance, have an inherent sweetness that is mostly sacrificed for preservation when they are shipped to faraway locales such as my hometown. Bananas represent the quintessential example. Having been harvested and shipped while still green, they are not given the time to mature, thus resulting in a bland, nearly tasteless fruit. In Guatemala, by contrast, they are allowed the necessary period to build a reservoir of sugars that gives them a sweetness to such a degree that they might be considered an entirely different fruit.

Fruit, however, is not the only flavor of Guatemala. Black beans mashed into a dark paste, tortillas accented with an avocado spread, and potatoes fried with local spices are ubiquitous components of Guatemalan cuisine.

One can taste in the food the cultural interchange that has been an intrinsic aspect of Guatemala society since before European influence: Mayan and Spanish, old and new, globalized and local. One can sample the flavors of traditional indigenous staples, or take a short walk and eat New York Style pizza. Whatever food one chooses to consume, however, the essence of Guatemala will be experienced by the tongue, as long as Guatemalans play a role in its preparation.

Guatemala is a deeply textured place, both figuratively and literally. The tactile sensations that can be felt in Guatemala speak to its vibrant, mysterious, and occasionally dark past. Walking through Antigua’s cobbled streets, I run my fingers along the external walls of the city’s antiquated edifices. Their stone and stucco facades are rough to the touch, having weathered centuries of tropical climate, political unrest, and geological disturbances. The cobblestones of the narrow streets twist my ankles, but their timeless beauty more than compensates for momentary discomfort.

Near the modern town of Flores, the vestiges of the ancient, enigmatic, and majestic Mayan city of Tikal rest in a jungle of sublime aesthetic beauty and biological diversity. Much of the once resplendent socioeconomic center of Mayan culture is still held tightly in the grasp of nature, but the deep scars left by humanity remain evident after more than a millennia.

The first tactile sensation felt upon entering the biological and archaeological reserve is the overwhelming, oppressive heat, intensified by the rainy season humidity. One remains in a constant state of stickiness in which sweat leaks from every pore. This discomfort rapidly fades into the background of consciousness when one rounds the corner to view the lofty temples rising in exaltation above the jungle canopy.

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I sit upon the highest pyramid, feeling the coarseness of the limestone blocks and look at the crowns of other monoliths that reach above the dense forest. I try to imagine the forest devoid of trees, with thatched roof domiciles and tens of thousands of people playing their roles in a flourishing society. I watch as an ornately dressed shamanic priest leads a procession up the steep temple stairs. Behind him stoic attendants bear the weight of the Divine Ruler who is carried on a palatine. The green iridescent quetzal feathers of her elegant headdress bounce with each step forward.

My reverence, however, is broken by the careless laughter of American tourists, who run up the temple stairs, taking selfies, and giving no thought to the unique historical significance of the site.

This brings me to the next way to perceive Guatemala: with sound. I hear the ceaseless chatter of the jungle all around me as I wait for the sun to break the horizon. Insects buzz and chirp; birds call to one another; the wingbeat of a nearby toucan grabs my attention. The ululating, groaning shriek of howler monkeys fills the air with low frequency clamor. It sounds as if I have been transported to a primeval forest where dinosaurs assert their dominance somewhere behind the tree line, out of view.

Back in Antigua, the din of a bustling, modern city is a stark contrast to the primal music of the jungle. Motorcycles roar past my home; the brakes of a tourist bus squeak sharply; doors slam shut; a car alarm erupts after a thunderclap explodes the calm of the night; a man vociferates angrily in rapid, unintelligible Spanish in the adjacent house—a woman cries and pleads in response; two dogs can be heard fighting viciously.

Not all the sounds of Antigua are quite so unpleasant, however. The afternoon deluge dampens the clangor of the dense city; the laughter of my host family’s toddler adds innocence to the ambience. Other sounds remind me that I am not at home. A Mayan women with armfuls of handmade necklaces attempts to patronize me. On my left a man alternately plays a wooden flute and offers increasingly lower prices. “45 Quetzales! A great gift! 35 Quetzales?” The flute sounds beautiful, as if the rain forest were singing to me. “No, gracias,” I respond repeatedly. “I don’t have enough money.” “Mi madre no necesite mas jewelry.” The woman laughs.

Guatemala is a place that offers a profound multi-sensory experience, but it is best appreciated visually. Entering Antigua, one can see the enormous, imposing Volcan de Agua dominating the southern horizon. Like all volcanoes, it is symbolic of the duality of life and death. At times in its past it erupted violently, destroying everything in its blast radius. The fertile volcanic soils it has left behind, however, contribute the verdant greenery that surrounds Antigua, and allow for the cultivation of numerous comestibles. Such products provide rich color to the market in the central plaza: yellow mangos, green avocados, and a rainbow collage of other fruits and nuts whose names I have yet to learn.

All around me in Antigua, one can appreciate the history of the city through its beautiful colonial Spanish architecture. Ruins, old churches, and a magnificent cathedral contribute to the historical and cultural richness of the area. Everywhere one looks, history can be experienced visually.

Furthermore, a product of the Spanish architectural influence is the open centers of the city’s edifices, which often contain exquisite gardens. In the center of a hotel, for instance, a garden of stunning beauty is open to the sky, and all around it painters create their intensely colorful artworks. The Mayan and other indigenous women contribute yet more color to the city with their woven, embroidered traditional outfits.

In Tikal, the jungle grows in a thin veneer of humus atop a pure limestone foundation. The porousness of limestone and the lack of any significant level of soil give the forest floor a unique appearance, with thick, serpentine roots extending radially, anchoring trees to the karst landscape. Other plants attach themselves wherever their roots can find a foothold—vines wrap around trees and Mayan temples while small shrubs grow on branches and in the nooks of large trees.

Above, monkeys live out their arboreal existence in the canopy, occasionally glancing down at the strange trespassers who point and watch them as they go about their business. A snake disappears into the undergrowth; an exquisitely camouflaged praying mantis waits in ambush on the trunk of a small tree; lizards dash about on the sun-heated hotel parking lot.

When observing the enigmatic Mayan ruins, one must not overlook the natural beauty of the Petén biosphere. Nevertheless, the striking beauty of the temples, palaces, stelas, and other structures commands one’s attention. Their white limestone facades are conspicuous amongst the dark greenery that surrounds them. When the dark afternoon storm clouds roll in from the north, they create an even more dramatic atmosphere. This helps to remind us that we are not just visiting a tourist attraction, but exploring the unique, enigmatic, and turbulent history of Guatemala.

When traveling to Guatemala, one is treated by a profound multi-sensory experience. Stimuli arouse each of the five primary senses to an almost overwhelming degree. Indeed, many people, including myself, experience what is referred to as transition shock when visiting such a place for the first time.

Upon my arrival, I was miserable and feeling regretful; part of me wanted desperately to return home. As I began to adjust to all of the novel sensory input that I was experiencing, I grew to love Guatemala and all that I encounter here. The sights, the sounds, the tastes, the smells, and the textures are all unique and each provide their own memorable experience.

When I finally return home, I expect to yet again have to go through a period of transition. The sensory input that I grew to love so much in Guatemala will fade into memory, and I will look forward to the next adventure abroad.

About the author

I'm a recent graduate from JCC, beginning at Mercyhurst University this fall to continue working on an anthropology degree with a concentration in archaeology. I' spent time in Guatemala to learn Spanish, experience new places, and to visit important archaeological sites, such as the Mayan ruins of Tikal. This blog will cover my experiences in Guatemala with an anthropological inclination.