Chajul (I): Asociacion Chajulense

From Huehue I made a gruelling ride towards Chajul, in Quiche province. I didn’t quite make Chajul, deciding to stop in the bigger town of Nebaj. I faced some quite steep climbs along the way but it was the amount of climbing that did for me that day.

Nebaj and Chajul, together with San Juan Cotzal, are the three main towns that comprise the heart of this area known as the Ixil Triangle. It’s an isolated area and not hard to see why, as Nebaj is protected by a ring of mountains that I had to climb/stagger over before dropping steeply into the valley below.

Chajul is at the end of the main road and when I got there the following day it was obvious that the town felt quite isolated (though it’s only 20 km from Nebaj). My reason for coming here was to visit the Asociacion Chajulense, a group of indigenous Ixil people that has developed a number of interesting projects to preserve their customs and language. Even having checked their website for information, I wasn’t exactly sure what I’d find. The ‘eco-tourist’ posada sounded like it would be a good place to stay at, so I headed there first. Or tried to, getting lost along the way. When locals directed me along a dirt track, I figured that perhaps things weren’t going to be quite as advertised…and so it proved. “Hot water, internet, tv, parking, cafeteria” it advertised. They had one out of five…

Still, I wasn’t really complaining. I wanted to see what else they had going. The website showed a variety of operations: a coffee export co-operative; honey exports (both organic & Fair Trade); women’s association; promoting women’s and children’s education; radio station; textiles; running the ‘eco-tourist’ lodge that also acts as an education/workshop site.

When I wandered into the village I happened by the office, so popped in to have a look and arrange something for the following day. I had a quick chat with Miguel, the manager, but it became clear that seeing much of the Asociacion`s activities would be unlikely. Coffee production within the Asociacion is scattered quite some distance from Chajul, at least a 2-hour drive. Miguel told me that a meeting had just finished of some of the honey producers. Miguel looked busy so I suggested coming back the next morning. I thought that the posada, being part of the Asociacion, would be a good place to get info, but again, I didn`t see anyone around who was able to help.

The next morning I came back but was out of luck. Miguel wasn’t around, even though I waited around for a few minutes. No one else seemed able to help either. I was on my way out when Miguel did drop by, but he told me it was his last day before vacation and he was very busy. So I left it at that, thanked him for his time and headed back to the posada. By this time I’d sampled village life and was happy to get on the bike and head back to Nebaj.

That’s the way it goes sometimes…despite my lack of success in this Fair Trade visit, my short time in the village was fascinating. It was a shame that things didn’t work out with the Asociacion. But I got to see their office and the village itself, more about which I’ll post up next. I also posted a short video taken outside the office, reflecting on my lack of success this time around…

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Chajul (II): Village life

In all I spent 24 hours in the village of Chajul. Although the Fair Trade visit didn’t work out as I hoped, I found the village a fascinating place and got a little insight into how people here live.

Of all the places I’ve been to, this one felt the most isolated. I hardly heard Spanish being spoken. The indigenous population are Ixil. The women and girls all dressed in traditional clothing; each region has a distinctive design. To an outsider such as myself it looked as though their customs and traditions have carried through into the 21st century. However, this region carries more tragic circumstances. It is the heart of the Ixil region, and during the civil war (1960s to the mid-90s) around half the Ixil population disappeared or were killed. The Asociacion is one organisation working hard to help rebuild the local populations and their local customs.

A good education continues to be difficult to achieve, and most children still do not get much beyond a few years at the primary level. Given that children under 15 make up a large percentage of the population it is an uphill struggle. I saw lots of youngsters out in the streets and few looked like they attended any kind of school. As youngsters go, they looked happy, and I laughed at how they can so easily make themselves happy with the most basic ‘toys’ to entertain themselves. I saw some kids ‘sliding’ down the street sitting on an upturned bottle crate, whilst others had made a kite out of a plastic bag. They were very friendly though and shouted out at me, often in some funny English word they’d picked up from television.

It looked to me that poverty was a problem in the village. Aside from lacking the ‘luxuries’ of television and hot water, many dwellings looked basic and shabby. People would crowd at a local store to watch television, though mobile phones were everywhere. A typical ‘house’ is a single room dwelling made of wood or concrete. There is little light or ventilation so the smoke from the stove/fire inside has little escape. Even for me, walking the streets I found the smell and pollution quite overpowering.

The local market was pretty crazy, particularly when goods show up ‘fresh’. Second-hand clothes were hugely popular and so are bananas, as I could hardly find any anywhere! And tortillas were proving tricky too. Eventually I tracked down a woman at one of the ‘comedor’ places. They’re hand-made and she had some spare so I got some pretty fresh ones. Hands-down (sorry, bad joke) they’re better than the machine-made ones…I even went back there the following morning, made to order!

I felt like I’d visited a place that few outsiders would see, and I was happy to have the experience of seeing the village; just sampling all the tiny things that made it different. Beyond the town there are many even more remote communities, but I was happy just to spend a short time there. At times I felt uncomfortable, being so obviously an outsider in this very traditional village. I sensed this most particularly when taking pictures in the village. It was pretty clear that most people were uncomfortable if they saw the camera pointed at them. It’s always a challenge to record and document places and people but also respecting their privacy.

And even though the Fair Trade visit didn’t work out this time, my time in the village made the trip worth while.

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