|Jan/Feb 2009 Travel|
Guatemala doesn't need its infamous roving guerrilla bands to be dangerous. As I stood at the port of entry, throngs of peasants walked around or through the checkpoint without presenting identification. Officials appeared not to notice and devoted their time to the monied foreigners. Since the country's frontiers often consist of tiny shallow rivers in unpatrolled jungles, it's probably a safe bet that anyone respecting law enough to cross at a border station means no harm.
Inside my first night's hotel room, a bulky television set tilted semi-securely on an overhead wall bracket—that is as long as no one accidentally opened the door too far. In such a case, the careless soul would instantly be snatched from the gene pool by natural selection. If one avoided death-by-Sony, the ceiling fan wobbled like a fat kid with a hoola-hoop at approximately gringo eye-level. If one bypassed the whirling cornea-transplant, the shower offered a water-heating device consisting of an on/off switch attached to tangled wires wrapped around the showerhead with exposed live ends dangling inches from the water flow. After surviving this mid-range Guatemalan hotel, it seemed only fair to me that those living in safe little hovels should have to contend with execution squads.
I'd entered the country through Mexico's Soconusco Valley by the same route Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado used in 1523. This time, however, the indigenous people were ready. The local Sunday market offered the usual non-touristy things: vegetables, fruits, grains, live chickens, dead chickens, disassembled chickens, blankets, spices, firewood, coffee, chocolate, soap, rope, boots, cowboy hats, guns, machetes, baskets, pots, candles, crucifixes, knock-off clothes, and rip-off CDs, but it also sported a plethora of genuine Mayan souvenir mugs, key chains, and baseball caps. Some bore a mysterious faded hieroglyphic vaguely resembling the words: "Made in the People's Republic of China."
I took a pass on the trinkets and hopped a bus. The smell of bananas, papaya, coconut, and pineapple and the sound of birds, insects, children, and marimba faded away as we ascended from the sweltering coastal rainforest into the cool mountain pines. We eventually leveled-off then began a ferocious serpentine descent. When the driver had initially told me how few quetzals I needed to pay for the ride, I figured someone had made a mistake. Someone had. That would be me. This was not the rich-and-demanding-tourist bus; this was the poor-and-ready-to-meet-Jesus-campesino bus. If you struggle to lift your thoughts from the worldly to the eternal, I highly recommend this form of transport.
Brakes squealed, babies squalled, luggage flew, and rubber burned. Though the rusty Blue Bird school bus had been retired from U.S. service decades ago for safety reasons, it now rattled and flung around blind hairpin turns with horrifying centrifugal force. Passengers braced limbs and grabbed strangers to avoid becoming projectiles. Behind schedule and accustomed to navigating by faith not sight, our pilot swerved and dodged oncoming trucks, cars, motorcycles, bicycles, toddlers, and goats. My face turned white then green. Only one thing kept me from screaming to be let off: the presence of the old woman behind me, vice-gripping her grandson, fingering her rosary, and staring stoically ahead as she did every day of her life.
We arrived in Antigua stunned and starved. No welcome could've been better than the relaxing sound of Fidel Funes' Orchestra and the candlelit sight of our traditional Mayan feast. We sampled kak-ik (spicy orange turkey stew), sopa tortuga (savory-herbed turtle soup), pepian de pollo (chicken with chayote/pumpkin dressing), gallo en chicha (rooster with sweet red woody sauce), tepezcuintle (grilled fox/dog/weasel-like mammal), pupusas (fat cheesy tortillas with radish salad), and a banana leaf tamal. Washed it all down with the smooth black Guatemalan beer Moza and slept for ten hours.
Woke up to streaming sunshine and a whim to tour a coffee plantation. The day was gorgeous, but the java estate was disappointing. In the greenhouse, we watched drudging assembly-line workers scotch-taping Arabica stems onto Robusta roots, for plants that could survive the current drought and still be marketed as 100% Arabica. Legal but unromantic. I didn't think Juan Valdez would approve.
We next viewed the opulent stables where the proprietor kept his pedigreed horses, and the slightly inferior accommodations where the women harvesters lived. Our guide boasted of the owner's generosity in building this dormitory "so the children could be with their mothers."
"Do the kids work too?" someone sheepishly asked.
Mister public relations cleared his throat, "Why, yes. It's wonderful. The adults can reach the high beans and the children pick the low ones."
How perfect, I thought, fuckin' Shangri-La!
Time to take a break from humanity and climb an active volcano. Though I no longer felt much like a virgin, perhaps I would throw myself in. Not that a modern person would seek to appease the angry gods—I just wanted to shut out their voices.
Mount Pacaya , like my libido, has been continuously active for decades. As we strode up the burro-dropping-and-volcanic-rock-strewn trail through lush forest, my guide remained continuously silent behind his Ray-Bans. I chose him solely for his name: Emmanuel, which means "God with us." I'm not usually superstitious, but I don't usually walk across hot lava either. (Hmmm, God with us, guiding us across hot lava—sounds like an old Tony Robbins seminar.)
Above the timberline, we trekked over charcoal-gray extinct lava and ash-white avalanche debris. The panorama stretched from golden-cloud-covered Pacific Ocean below to glowing-red-veined black summit above—heaven and hell flipped over. Suddenly, I felt and smelt something amiss. Just as many religious folks had predicted, my sole was burning. They were new boots too. I quickly hustled on up the moonscape, past lava flows so thick they appeared motionless.
The ground became ever more treacherous: up then down, cold and razor sharp then hot and melting away beneath your feet. Finally, I reached a rushing near-blinding River Styx, into which I thrust my walking pole to see it burst into flame and move steadily down the stream, like an Olympic torch for the Hadean games. A bit dramatic? It is, because it was. Hiked down the mountain and caught a van ride to Lago Atitlan.
On the shore of this crater lake deep as an abyss, framed by volcanoes high as the heavens, lies the hippie town and transport center of Panajachel. On the patio of the Sunset Cafe, drinking Cerveza Cabro, listening to Gypsy Kings Flamenco, and gazing at the reflective water extending from the embarcadero, lay me.
I like hippies, but after a couple brews, I uninhibitedly asked one, "If all you need is love, why do you guys tote around such wacky ideas?" No longer welcome at the cafe, I caught a gently-rocking boat for the Tz'utujil Mayan capital of Santiago Atitlan. Some tourists from Philadelphia bitched about our slow passage while the fresh breeze and idyllic view made me wish the small sputtering engine would conk out altogether.
We docked in the midst of a purple-and-green-clad indigenous crowd. Women sported vibrant woven skirts; men donned cowboy hats and cotton shorts. A shaman held the older gents spellbound by lewdly demonstrating the benefits of a medicinal herb for prostate trouble. The hunched and wrinkled group howled and clucked with laughter.
I hailed a red golf-cart-like taxi called a tuc-tuc and drove to the current shrine of the ancient deity Maximom. "The mam" resides in a different house each year and (if not sleeping) accepts visitors offering cash, cigars, or booze. He's sort of a bully god who grants prayers for greed or revenge.
Most locals don't take Maximom too seriously. Like the town's rapidly-growing charismatic church, he offers a way to extend the middle finger to the historically force-fed Catholicism, which many perceive as the ally of their rich oppressors.
The shrine guardians and I shared some laughs followed by some swigs of Quetzalteca. This raw-cane-spirit Mayan moonshine can make you see visions or go blind. Groping for the door, I bumped into the sacred figurine then apologized profusely.
The caretakers said, "He appreciates apologies but prefers money."
I said, "Who doesn't?"
They said, "Good point."
I said, "Goodbye." Of all the deities I've offended, the wrath of Maximom weighs least heavy on my mind.
Heading back thru the fruit market, I made friends and requested photos. Many Maya feel uncomfortable being photographed and have a vague mystical sense that such snapshots take a piece of their souls. Others have a very concrete practical sense that such pictures should be highly compensated.
One lady expressed glee at my photo suggestion but insisted I must buy three of the dresses she held. I said they were beautiful but that (unlike many other men from California ) I don't wear dresses. She responded (roughly translated), "It's not about you, you idiot, it's so my kids can go to school!" A truer word was never spoken, but perhaps the refreshing charm of honesty in business has its limits.
On the return boat, I sat by Amelia. This newly-wealthy Mayan businesswoman was going on vacation. She exuded excitement over her premier opportunity to be on the tourist side of the camera. I watched when she set her first foot down on the other side of the lake then looked around like Christopher Columbus. There will always be new worlds as long as there are new eyes.
My last Guatemalan memory comes from the village of Malacatan . I detoured there to see the annual Christmas tree inauguration, which I expected to be a heartwarming folksy affair. No such luck. Around the town square, towering state-of-the-art amplifiers blared out a thumping backbeat. This would be the least shocking of many surprises.
The impoverished municipality had apparently traded the magic of Christmas for the financial wizardry of corporate sponsorship. The plaza was framed with lush Ceiba trees once held sacred by the Maya but today used to hang inflatable bottles of Gallo, the salty pale-yellow beer of Guatemala since 1896. Not tacky enough? Atop the soaring, glittering, twinkling, pine tree sat the Gallo rooster logo.
Near the central gazebo waited a portable bandstand and an unattended artillery barrage of open-mouthed firework cannons. A flimsy encircling string sought to discourage the numerous children from playing with the explosives. Only a few did. Most were otherwise occupied stomping in the gasoline puddles flowing from the petroleum station next door. (While Darwin 's travels confirmed his belief in survival of the fittest, mine have only postulated survival of the damn lucky.)
My attentive concern was short-lived. Suddenly, the bandstand lit up like a Vegas show, the music convulsed into electronic pop, and out danced the Gallo Girls in red and black Sporty Spice outfits with blinding cubic zirconium in their tight navels. My shameless slack jaw could only mouth the words, "God bless Guatemala."
I enjoyed being the tallest guy in the crowd and hearing my favorite songs, even with the word Gallo strangely inserted throughout the lyrics. I might've even supported a yuletide pitch to drink the national beer, if 90% of the audience hadn't been twelve years old.
Of course, these were the same Mayan preteens who drove their newborn babies around town on ATVs. Maybe, they were ready for other mature decisions, like which brand of beer would form part of their lifetime identity. Perhaps, the born-in-a-manger stuff would only confuse, since this qualifies as luxury accommodations in Guatemala. And of all the foreign deities imposed on the Maya, which has brought more joy to this corner of the world than beer? My motto: If you can't lick 'em, drink 'em. Can't seem to find any notes from the rest of the evening.
Doubtless many readers will share my chagrin to see this classic culture absorbed into the globalization machine. And as for those who consider globalization a unique opportunity to employ children or sell them garbage, may they rot in hell. Still, as long as people travel, trade, and innovate, the world will continue shrinking. The Maya may even have begun the process that now threatens to engulf them. Their awe-inspiring pyramids were as much centers of commerce as spirituality; their ancient entrepreneurs, who gathered to swap cocoa beans and seashells, were as eager for multi-national expansion as anyone listed on today's New York Stock Exchange.
Like it or not, all cultures are forever changing and forever changed. Such is life on earth. Perhaps, we love to climb mountains because they seem so eternal, while everything else appears so transitory. Yet, volcanic eruptions shatter the illusion of permanence, spewing forth new earth even as the old is tucked underground along deep-sea portals, destined for the fiery subterranean melting pot into which the minerals comprising both mountains and our bodies will eventually be folded. So, climb those lofty peaks and visit those nostalgic peoples while you can, because they do symbolize the only eternal reality, which is change.