Before arriving in the remote town of Nebaj, Guatemala, Bryan and I weren’t sure what to expect. Searches online turned up almost zero info on the area. In fact, we found very little about the civil war that terrorized the community only a generation prior. In the 1980’s genocide and ‘disappearances’ happened regularly in Nebaj, as the Guatemalen government gave free reign to the military to control the Ixil indigenous population by any means necessary. For more information on the long and devastating Guatemalan Civil War, read here.
As we rolled into town (standing in the back of a pick up truck no less) we were surprised at how large Nebaj was. Sitting in a bowl of mountains, Nebaj is home to the indigenous Ixil community, a group of people who wear very traditional clothes (for women, red woven skirts and multi-coloured woven shirts, for men, red coats and large white hats) and speak Ixil-Maya.
For Bryan and I, this was the first place we’ve been where no one in town speaks English. To boot, very few speak Spanish either. Ixil-Maya is a fun language to hear – it’s throaty and jumpy, made up of low B and H sounds. As a person with a fairly high voice, I’m horrible at attempting it. Bryan is much better. We were also an oddity in Nebaj. Few backpackers make it to this remote region and that garnered us a lot of giggles and stares, and even one brave boy who ran up, touched my jacket, shrieked and ran back to his friends.
Gettin’ my weave on.
One thing we did know we wanted to do while in Nebaj was learn about the weaving that dominates the Ixil traditional dress. We were lucky enough to meet Tina, an Ixil weaver who was selling her wears outside our hotel. In broken Spanish (for both of us, as Tina’s first language is Ixil-Maya) we arranged for a lesson on traditional weaving and looked forward to learning the colourful art.
Our lesson started with a visit to Nebaj’s bustling market, where Tina led us down a dark ally to a hidden area full of sewing and weaving supplies. Here we chose the cotton colours we wanted to weave with. Traditional scarves, belts, shirts and skirts are often woven using 9 or more colours, but we decided to go with a more basic 4-colour palate. This got a laugh from Tina and the yarn salesman, especially when we chose our colours: green, orange, purple and black. I think they were surprised we didn’t choose red – everyone here wears red, almost exclusively.
We were humbled to follow Tina to her house where our lesson would commence. She explained that it had been in her family for 3 generations, and she lived there with her 3 children (a grown daughter, and 2 sons, 12 and 15) and her parents. Tina was shocked to hear that in Canada we don’t often live with our parents as adults. The house was made of dirt-packed bricks and Bryan had to duck just to get in the door. We are much taller than anyone else in this town. Our hotel room looked jammed with ‘things’ in comparison to Tina’s sparse house, and we’re living out of backpacks, which begs the questions: why do we need all this stuff?? Tina and her family seemed to be getting along just fine without it.
Bryan weaving some yarn.
Tina and her daughter had many laughs as Bryan and I struggled with the most basic of tasks: unrolling and re-rolling the yarn in prep for weaving. To be honest, we were pretty shit at it. And super slow. We appreciate that they didn’t just roll their eyes, grab the yarn and roll it in a fraction of the time themselves – they were very patient with us.
Next up came the looping of the yarn around a large wooden device to make sections where the yarn crossed over each other. After watching this happen, and participating it in myself, I still have NO CLUE how this process works to result in a woven scarf, but it does. Magically.
Tina took over for the intricate parts of tying off sections of the looped yarn and applying it to her basic apparatus of spare plastic tubes and tree branches. Together these items make up a simple hand-held loom. Both of us took turns following Tina’s instruction to weave, while sitting on a sling to provide the tension needed to pass the dowel back and forth between the crossed yarn.
Once we (sort of) had the hang of this, Tina added in a twist – we’d also be knotting in an image to our scarf. This part really threw me for a loop. No matter how often I watched Tina and Bryan knot the proper sections of yarn, I barely got the hang of this. Our final scarf has a very distinct ‘Kaili section’ where everything is just a little askew. Tina was so fast at this process. Her hands passed across the yarn, tying 10 knots in the blink of an eye – and always in the exact right place. In comparison, I think the same process took me, for real, over five minutes per line.
Our skilled teacher, Tina.
When it was time for us to leave 4 hours later, we had only finished 1/6th of the actual scarf. My back was aching and I was a little cross-eyed. Tina let us know she’d have the whole thing done by the next morning. She is one fast weaver! Over a lunch of tomato and leafy green soup and we sat and talked (as much as three people who only speak a limited about of a common language can).
Our final piece.
We learned that Tina’s husband left her many years ago, and since then she’s struggled to provide for her family. She told us that for 7 years she was very sad, but was feeling better now. She sings in her church choir multiple times a week and a few friends stopped by for a visit while we were there. She has never attended school and looked at us with wide-eyed amazement when Bryan told her he spent over 20 years in classrooms. The only job Tina ever had is weaving and selling her pieces in the market or hotel lobbies.
There are mixed feelings when doing something like this because we wish we could do more to help Tina and her family. This experience was more than we hoped for when we arrived. We parted ways with a hug and a smile, and our perfect souvenir from Nebaj.