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"It is the journey which makes up your life."

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Head Over Heels

I´m in love. Guatemala with its high cloudy mountains and corn fields and colorful indigena women carrying giant baskets on their heads and babies tied to their backs, its old schoolbusses packed with people like sardines, its glittering city centers and its mud brick huts, its ancient carvings and temples littered about, yet still living... It has absolutely captivated me. Today I am in Quetzaltenango. Everyone here calls it Xela (shey-lah). It is somewhere between the pervasive filth of Guatemala city and the touristed, decaying colonial splendor of Antigua. A working city. Cooper and I came in last night on the infamous chicken busses, which is what they call the 2nd class busses that everyone uses. They are old schoolbusses, painted in bright colors with luggage racks installed above the seats and on the roof. Two people should fit in a seat on each side of the aisle... they squeeze three to a seat, hunching shoulders, and fill the aisles with standing people. At one point yesterday, I ended up standing in the aisle with my back pressed against the emergency exit back door. There was literally no place to move. I have it better than Cooper, though. His legs are so long, he doesn't fit into the seats, even if there are any. We found a great hostel, a multi-leveled, whimsical collection of rooms and courtyards and patios patched together from several different buildings. We got a bed, use of a kitchen and even hot water showers (oh glory... up in the highlands the water is COLD!) for $4 a night. Life is good. And there´s a Reedie staying there! What are the odds?? I domiss Reed.We ended up staying our first four days in Antigua. After burning the Mayan city of Iximiche, originally allies, and having his second capital burried by a volcano within two years of founding, the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado founded Antigua as his capital, and it became the seat of colonial government until the mid 1700s or so when it was leveled by an earthquake. They moved the capital to Guatemala city, and spared Antigua the capital´s grit and glory. Guate, as they call the capital, is a striking city. We bussed through it... while descending into the wide valey we got sweeping views of glittering highrises.On the main roads, there were nice restraunts, chain stores, wedding gowns and furniture in windows. Lots of new cars. But as soon as the bus pulled away from city center towards the bus stop, the utter filth of the city engulfed us. The streets seemed to be swimming in a brown haze. There was mud and rotting vegetables and who knows what else mounded up against the walls of the buildings that lined the street. People everywhere, sitting in the muck withbaskets of vegetables or pirated cds spread on blankets. We had to switch busses, and the taxi drove us past miles of these decrepit buildings and decrepit people. As Cooper said, it could have come straight out of Orwell...white towers rising above the great miserable mass of humanity. Antigua is nothing like this. It is a clean, friendly, beautiful little town of 10,000, with all the old spanish style houses, high ceilinged, tiled roofs and tiled floors, and internal courtyards with gardens and fountains. Definitely highly touristed, but I quickly found that the kind of tourists who would mob Guatemala are different from the ones in Costa Rica. They all speak spanish, and are there to learn about the country... not just to have a nice vacation ona tropical beach somewhere. I think its the off-season for Antigua, despite how many people were there, because the innumerable cafes and handicraft shops all seemed strangely empty. We got to enjoy all kinds of wonderful food and company, a movie and some live music thanks to the tourist scene. Wasn´t¨the Real Guatemala¨ I guess, but it was a good place to be. From Antigua, we went to the lago de Atitlan. We had another long winding busride along the Panamericana, through high, misty mountains with stands of pine and a patchwork of corn fields and houses. Off the highway, we descended a crazy switchbacking road, several thousand feet to the edge of lake Atitlan. It´s a big lake... surrounded by cliffs and volcanoes, and just heartstoppingly beautiful. We stayed one night in the town of Panajachel, where all the tourists go... again strangely empty, then bargained for boat passage across the lake to San Pablo de la Laguna. This was a smallish town. Cobblestone streets go straight up the hillside from the dock to a church strung with pastel colored flagging. Houses and hotels and little groceries and restraunts are all perched along the narrow streets in the center, or fan out by dirt paths and blend into cornfields which ran down to the lake shore on the other side of the hill. I heard more Quiche(kee-chee, the most common highland maya people)spoken than spanish. Even the men here wore traditional dress. Many grunted their way up the steep streets carying huge tubs on their backs, hung from a strap of cloth across their foreheads. Women carry equally enormous bundles balanced on their heads. I cant imagine how strong you have to be for that. I really can´t imagine much about what life must be like for this people. Guatemala by the numbers has some of the worst poverty in the Americas, despite a relatively strong economy. The Maya have always been at the bottom of this. And then you add to this crushing oppression the kind of genocide that was conducted against them during the Guatemalan civil war, which lasted thirtysix years and left more than 200,000 dead or disappeared by right wing death squads. Like in El Salvador, all this was done with US military aid (against the ¨communists¨). The CIA ousted the only president who ever tried to do anything to help this people in 1954. Jacobo Arbenz, expropriated uncultivated lands for redistribution. Since most of the country was owned by united fruit company, and the compensation offered for the land was based on the values UFCo stated for tax purposes, the company was unappeasable. Arbenz was obviously a terrible threat to national security and capitalism everywhere. Leftist guerillas fought periodically against the string of US-supported generals that came after this coup. Death squads targeted the Maya wholesale in response. The civil war didn't end until 1996. I can´t immagine how much courage it takes to still wear those beautiful skirts and embroidered sashes, after all that. I'm on my second history book about this country. Sorry for the lecture. It is a terrible, bitter, and fascinating history. I cant really begin to tell you what I've read. But you can see it written in the architecture of the buildings and the faces of old people, if you look.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Northward Ramblings

Hi from Guatemala!
Sorry not to have written in so long. There are so many stories I hardly know where to start. I have been in four countries since my last confession.

I guess I should start from the beginning. I met up with Cooper in Nicaragua,a beach town called San Juan del Sur. There was a festival going on at the time, so our hotel room, between the sounds of fireworks, church bells which we calculated rang once every 47 minutes at random intervals all day, construction, and then the marching band, wasnt exactly quiet. Otherwise, it was a quiet town, though. In a big crecent shaped bay full of boats. We wandered around the beach and ate a lot of pizza, then spent another few days camping on the beach just north of there in a place called Playa Majagual. This was where the coast got truly spectacular. It was only acessible by forty five minutes in a taxi chugging down muddy, potholed dirt roads, and then hiking along the beach a ways, but the place that we found was well worth the trek. The whole coastline there is a string of crecent shaped coves, with flat empty beaches in the center, green water rolling in perfect tube-shaped waves into the sand, and crashing spectacularly over the rocks on the points. Two days there I did nothing but swim and read on the beach and climb around on the rocks.

From there, we bussed to Granada. The countryside gets a little healthier there. As in, there are some crops growing on the farms. Around Leon, the countryside was the saddest thing I had ever seen. This land, formerly tropical forest, formerly industrial cotton fields, had nothing but pastures for miles and miles along the flat plane all the way to the ocean. Pastures full of emaciated looking cattle and grass eaten to the root everywhere you looked. In the Spanish school they told me that the cotton farming had sterilized the soil, and it wouldnt be farmable again for another 30 years. 30 years! Peoples houses there often consisted of wood frames with plastic sheeting stapled to it. Forget plumbing. Forget electricity. You had a nice house if you had a floor. That's what it means when we talk about people living on less than $1 a day. Half the world lives like that. Around San Juan the countryside was a little healthier, in that the ubiquitious pastures had some grass in them, and north east of that, I was impressed to see some crops growing.

Granada is a beautiful city. It is clean, with the same colonial style houses and tiled sidewalks as Leon, but more freshly painted, with paved roads and nicer shops and fewer people wandering the streets selling lollipops and tortillas and pencils. We found a gloriously cheap hotel in an old mansion right next to the market, with a garden and a courtyard and a kitchen. We wandered around the square, which was pleasant... full of trees and benches and kids running around, down to the shore of the lake, through some old colonial churches, a fort, and the market, as gritty and bustling as ever. My favorite find of this visit was an art studio in a place called La Casa de Los Leones (the house of lions) where they had a kind of center of arts and culture. A bunch of artists lived in this old mansion and had their studios downstairs where you could come and look at their art and watch them work and talk to them about it. It was truly fabulous art. Modern, colorful. Each artist was different. I spent the whole afternoon there. The other great discovery of the trip was THE BEST drink EVER. Fresh lemons, honey, and aged Nicaraguan rum in equal proportions. Damn.

From there we went up to Esteli in the mountains. It was a rather graceless town. Wide streets and stout grey cement buildings. We had a terrible time finding a restraunt with halfway appealing food. Went to a movie for the night and then got out of there. The border crossing into Honduras was incredibly easy. So for that matter, was the one yesterday from El Salvador to Guatemala. Its just Costa Rica-Nicaragua and Honduras-El Salvador that's a bitch. Those are the countries with bad relations with eachother. Go figure. Well, we were just passing through Honduras on the way to El Salvador. People on the bus were friendly, and the country was beautiful. Coming down from steepsided mountains, it opened up into wide, fertile plains. The country houses we passed were cheerful looking, white with tile roofs, generally. And flowers in their yards.

El Salvador has the same mountains, but is almost completely deforested. Once across the border, after about six different busses, we headed east, up high into the mountains of the Morazan province to visit a town called Perquin. The town was tiny and charming. It was perched on a hillside and had cobblestone streets, just a few markets and houses, and basically nothing else. Surrounded, belive it or not, by pine forests. And there was the museum. The civil war was from 80 to 92 in El Salvador, and some of the most brutal fighting was in Morazan, the mountain territory perfect for a guerilla stronghold. Just uphill from the town was a war museum. It wasn't much, really, except for a collection of old photographs and some guns and such left over from the war, but its one of the most powerful things I've seen. They had pictures of war heroes. Not the Rambos I expected, but normal, honest looking people. A curly haired girl sitting at a desk. A young priest with a turtleneck and glasses. A fat housewife with an apron sitting at a typewriter. All killed. These were the movers and shakers of a revolution. They had pictures of soldiers too. Old men, young boys looking proud and holding rifles. There was one of two girls my age, crouched in some bushes with machine guns, smiling the most beautiful, joyful smiles. And there were printed testimonies from people whose towns were raided. Just gripping. Hiding in the hills for days and watching your town smoking and coming back and stepping over the corpses. Anti-guerilla tactics consisted in going into towns in rebel territory and killing everything. Babies. Old women. Livestock. Everything. And our government funded that. In a town just down the hill from Perquin, called El Mozote, they dug up more than 1000 skeletons from mass graves before excavations stopped. God. Outside of the museum, the twisted remains of a helecopter and an old plane. And there was this round depression, maybe
fifteen feet deep, thirty across, grown in with grass labeled humbly as a bomb crater. I realized the museum was surrounded with them. I don't really know how to describe the impact of that. The human face of it. The guns that had that greasy feel that metal aquires after long contact with the sweat of humanity. The utter infathomability that you could blow craters that big in a hillside, and that there were people where those craters were. The fact that this kind of brutality is going on in other places every day, and some of them are still our country's fault. I spent the whole afternoon shaken and a little teary.

Coming down from the mountains, we made our way to San Salvador, the capital. It is a sprawling, crowded, car-choked city. A lot like LA, actually. They had overpasses! And landscaping! I cant tell you how long its been since I've seen an overpass. But El Salvador has by far the best, most modern roads in Central America. The city was very modern, too. Shopping malls, movie theaters, six-lane roads, chain restraunts of all kinds. We found another very good art museum. I really like Latin American art. So, from there, we headed to Guatemala. Late last night, after nine hours on four different busses, I got to Antigua. I went into immediate Gringo shock. Haven't heard much english or seen more than maybe five other white people since leaving Granada. But it's a cute town. Lots of tasty looking restraunts (one with bagels! oh glory), and greater glory... last night the hostel had hot water!!! My first hot water shower in 5 weeks! I took two. Bask in luxury back home. You don't know what
you have.

Well, thats all so far!