Sights, Sounds and Smells


The art of Tejada in Guatemala

One of the many parts of living abroad that I find fascinating are the local sensory experiences. These are the experiences that are happening around me all the time, which I oftentimes don’t pick up on until I’ve left the area and no longer have those sensory experiences to trigger certain feelings or reactions. Already, my senses have been overloaded with new sights, sounds and smells, so I wanted to share a few while they’re still fresh in my mind (quite literally).


Rebar, rebar, everywhere – Indeed a strange sight, the fact that every house and building seems to be under construction. It wasn’t until someone explained to me that buildings “under construction” don’t pay property taxes, that I noticed just how many buildings followed suit in finding a loophole for saving money.

Women in traditional dress – Matt and I noticed that quite a few more women than men wear the traditional dress of the local area, with intricately designed and sewn shirts, skirts and belts. While some younger women wear jeans and t-shirts at times, the norm is for women of all ages to wear the traditional dress.

People walking about at night – Because it’s a small town, because the temperature allows for it, and because it’s the way people socialize with each other, there are often people walking around the town center and socializing as late as 11pm at night. I can’t vouch that these are indeed the real reasons why, but it’s an interesting sight that each and every night, the town center is filled with people simply milling about, including groups of kids playing basketball at the center courts.

Views of the lake, the mountains, and the volcano – From nearly every place in the town, one can see views of something, whether it’s Lake Atitlan, the mountains surrounding the lake, or the dormant volcano set in the background of the city. Most views are breathtaking, and the scenery has helped us out more than once in figuring out where we are in the city after being turned around on the many undulating streets.

Modes of Transportation – This includes modes of transportation for both people and things. They have what they call “tuk-tuks”, or very small, 3-wheeled, mini-taxis, for carrying 1-2 people through the narrow streets. Pickup trucks rigged with scaffolding in the truck bed allow for transportation of up to 20 people at a time, are a main mode of transportation. Lastly, women carrying tubs of clothes, food and other goods on their heads, and men loading sacks of coffee, beans, and corn on their back, are the common methods for carrying most things.


Cars, motorbikes, and buses – Our home is near the center of town, on the main road into town, so we hear pretty much every motorized thing that passes by our door, and there aren’t exactly regulations on motor volumes. Let’s just say it’s loud enough to drown out your voice and your thoughts, and they all pass by quite frequently. Perhaps my favorite is the horn of the “chicken bus”, as it’s called, that has an unmistakable rhythm that tells the entire town that it’s coming.

Hearing Maria Make Tortillas – The first time I heard the slapping sound of tortillas being flattened into perfect 4-inch diameter circles, simply by the palms of her hands, I wasn’t sure what Maria was making. It just sounded like she was clapping her hands, slowly, but forcefully, and I wandered what she was cheering for. Instead, when I actually saw that she was making fresh tortillas with corn that had just been ground and mixed into the right consistency for tortillas, I was surprised to say the least. I thought we’d be eating fresh tortillas, but so fresh that she makes them for each meal, each one still warm from the cooking pan…I could have never imagined. I always know when she’s preparing meals, because I hear her forming the tortillas by hand, and it triggers a new hunger for fresh tortillas that I imagine will only be satiated by Maria’s cooking. Even walking through the street, I can now picture women making tortillas in their home as I pass by their doorways and hear the unmistakable sound of forming these wonderful discs of ground corn.

Church music – Just within a 2 minute walk of our home are three churches, and that doesn’t begin to encompass all the churches that are in our town. The churches are very active in the community, especially in the realm of music. Every day, beginning around 3-4pm, they start practicing songs at a very high volume, and it lasts until about 10-11pm every night. The instruments they practice (at least the church across the street), are the drums and another one similar to a xylophone. I’ve learned to tune it out most of the time, but at times it can be a bit pervasive.

Other language – Oddly enough, the primary language of this town is not Spanish. It’s another language called Tz’utujil (I still can’t pronounce it, so I’d be amazed if anyone reading this can), but they also know Spanish. So sometimes it gets a bit confusing when our family talks to each other in this other language, or when we’re walking about the town, hearing a completely different language than the one we’re learning. It’s also a bit humbling that most people here are already bilingual and most likely working on learning another language, and we’ve only just begun on our second language.


Burning wood and garbage – A lot of people still use wood-burning fires instead of gas or electric stoves, so the smell of burning wood is quite prevalent. The only downside to all this wood-burning, is that it often feels like a thin blanket of smoke lies over the city. We in fact saw this smoke effect when we went kayaking last weekend, as we were able to distance ourselves from the city in order to see the blanket of smoke from afar. The other smoke contributing to the smells and smog of the city is that of burning garbage. It’s a distinct smell that brings back memories of Mexico and Ethiopia, as it’s a very similar smell that seems to stay in the nostrils for a long time. I have to admit, this isn’t a positive sensory experience for me, but it is how many people in the world dispose of garbage, so until a good system for garbage is put in place, this smell will always be in the background of the city.

Food – Sunday is the big day for the market here, where vendors come from other cities to set up shop and sell their goods, such as fruit and vegetables, prepared food, clothing, shoes, and hygienic products like toothpaste. We walked through the stands in the morning and afternoon, and each time smelled very different things, from the fresh cilantro to dried fish. The smells seemed to gather strength as the day went on, taking in the heat of the day and the energy of the market. Aside from the Sunday market, there are always street vendors whose foods carry distinct smells all of their own. Perhaps my favorite smell is that of the local coffee, freshly ground and brewed in one of the many cafes that we visit each day.

This is just a snapshot of what goes on in my eyes, ears and nose, each day. So far, we have experienced something new and surprising every day, and we make sure to keep our senses open to whatever happens next.

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