The Guatemalan equivalent of “Can I help you sir?” is either “Hola amigo!” or “Señor?” I spent three weeks in Guatemala without using a gendered bathroom except in a few restaurants where the bathrooms were in the back and I could use them relatively unnoticed. Donna used many “servicios sanitarios” in the markets but I avoided them. I didn’t want to risk being challenged, and I don’t speak enough Spanish to respond appropriately.
I found it hard to balance being comfortable in my clothes and comfortable on the street. I opted for the basic butch t-shirt and jeans look. Donna wore purple and pink; loose linen tops and pants. She always looks slightly dressed up and put together.
In the western highland areas of Guatemala, most of the women wear traditional Mayan clothes (skirt, blouse, sash, apron, shawl). Most of the men wear contemporary western clothing (a lot of A&F and HCO knock-offs for sale in the markets). My jeans and t-shirt blended me in with the guys. They saw me first as a gringo; then they dealt with my gender presentation. I caused a lot of confusion.
We spent five days in Santiago Atitlan, a center of traditional weaving. Women use a backstrap-loom to make the fabric for their blouses (huipils). Each town has a different background color/pattern and embroidery style. Donna wanted to photograph the women, but they did not want their pictures taken. She tried to take some on the sly, from a distance, in the market. While she took pictures, I wondered what it would be like to grow up butch and/or trans in a small town in Guatemala. How I would plot my escape.
I don’t have a good answer to “DId you have fun on your vacation?” We went to think, to learn, to look, and to shop for textiles. From that perspective, it was a success. I liked visiting the Mayan ruins and the local markets, but my favorite part of the trip was a morning we spent in Fuentes Georginas, a small hot springs complex near Zunil. There were three hot pools and a little bar/restaurant in a clearing in the forest way up in the mountains. There were a handful of tourists and several Guatemalan families taking the waters. I let myself completely relax soaking in the hottest pool. I stopped feeling like a tourist and became a lobster. Donna’s lobster.
We felt the tension between indigenous Mayan, mestizo, ladino, and criollo. The tension between traditional and modern; between those who cater to tourists and those who do not. It is the traveler’s paradox. I change the place I visit just by being there. I bring an i-phone, a camera, an e-reader, and credit cards. I expect to travel on paved roads and stay in lodgings that have electricity, hot water, and cold beer. I try not to behave like a visitor at the zoo, but the similarities disturb me.
I was recently on the receiving end of this. A friend from out-of-town was visiting and I told her about my name change and identification as trans and butch. She looked at me as if I was a two-headed-dog and started aggressively questioning my queer-ness and my trans-ness. I do not know if she got past it to see me as a whole person again.
Towards the end of the trip, in the large open-air market in Totonicapan, I saw my Guatemalan counterpart. Short hair slicked back, HCO t-shirt, camouflage cargo pants, Adidas. We made eye contact. We checked each other out up-and-down. We nodded in recognition, and moved on.