December 1, 2004

 

Antiguas

 

Four-hundred and forty years after its founding was the year when I first pulled into Antigua, Guatemala. There was war in the hills in those days---a war both civil and genocidal. There were soldiers all about, a reasonable deployment since the communist guerrillas prowled nearby and were quite the nuisance. But not as much a nuisance as the army. This body, especially its elite Kabiles, was responsible for at least 100,000 deaths among the indigenous Mayan population. Another 100,000 fled to camps in Mexico. This war against the communists and the government was all-out, and as usual in such events the government won. One of the slogans of the time was

 

Para eliminar la rabia,

hay que matar el perro.

 

The rabies being communism of course. While busy eliminating all that rabies the army also eliminated some of  the seas in which the communists swam, the hundreds of indigenous Maya villages that dot the entire countryside of this country. This was classic counter-insurgency warfare, though a particularly crude and brutal form of it. (Is there a kinder and gentler form?) Like the failed communist uprisings in a host of Latin American nations, the Guatemalan version left in its sad wake poverty, corruption, economic dislocation and a habit of violence both personal and political.

 

During the war there were few foreigners in Antigua for obvious reasons. Streets were quiet, restaurants were small and empty and there were only three Spanish language schools. Twenty years later Antigua is a Guatemalan version of Cuzco. Restaurants are myriad and with varied cuisines, travel agencies abound, there are 27 language schools and internet is ubiquitous. The town in chock-full of foreigners who bring with them lots and lots of cash and freely spend it. This has caused sort of a boom here that has affected---as far as I can see---all economic classes. (Good lord, there is even  a McDonalds and a Burger King---though by law all structures must conform to the building style prevalent here for 400 years. So no īgolden archesī.)

 

Compared to Antigua Guatemala City is a sight right out of Dante: dirty, noisy, polluted, crowded, congested, violent---in short, it is what every third world capital city is. I had to visit the place today to get some topographical maps of the jungle regions of the Peten. A true nightmare it was, and it caused me to wonder why anyone would live there. The answer is obvious: they have to. Not every place in Guatemala can be as Antigua, and not every place in Peru can be as Cuzco. Antigua is no arcadia, as with the disappearance of the army after the civil war armed thugs have entered the Guatemalan political scene scene in force. They have wreaked some havoc around Antigua and in Tikal---wherever tourists are in fact. (But Antigua is no doubt more peaceful than Washington DC.) I almost miss the soldiers on every street corner.

 

(A similar problem has existed in Peru since the end of the civil war there. Armed men periodically raid tourist areas and cause mayhem---that is where the money is, after all. Both the Peruvian and Guatemalan governments have responded by training and placing several legions of tourist police all over the tourist areas. Neither government can afford the huge loss of hard currency that a flight of tourists would cause. The bandits do not just go away of course. They merely change locales. Para eliminar la rabia...)

 

I will do my best to avoid another descent into the netherlands of the capital. My transportation for the jungle leaves from here---another welcome change, as formerly one had to get a bus to the capital, a taxi to the bus station, and then try and bargain for a seat on the next bus to the Peten.

 

I have no idea of the internet situation in the Peten, so I might not be able to post until my return around January 15 or so. Both Christmas and New Year will be spent in my tent, a tradition I have kept for almost one decade straight.

 

Just for fun do a google search for Laguna del Tigre, Dos Lagunas, Nakum , El Mirador and Yaxha. I will be somewhere around these places having a fun time. Pray for me. Itīs a jungle out there.

 

Bye. 

top

 

 

December 18, 2003

Not Quite Green Hell

It was my third day in that damn swamp. I kept one hand on my machete to ward off crocodiles. The other hand clutched my al-Mar knife with its eight-inch blade. My eyes were scanning both the water and the shore in case any beady-eyed crocodile or wandering puma got any ideas. All the while mosquitoes fed with a wild abandon as the sweat dribbled into my eyes and down my face...

OK, it was not that bad, but there was an ocean of mud. And rivers of rain. And hordes of mosquitoes. And there was a wandering puma that devoured an unlucky Guatemalan worker---but see below. It seems I miscalculated the rainy season, which was in full force while I walked alone for five days among obscure Mayan ruins. So all was wet and muddy and bug-ridden. I was lost somewhere in the vicinity of Tikal, and using my compass and machete---always at hand, you see---I had to cut across some wild country for hours and across a croc-infested lagoon as well. And I picked up a few ticks. But still it was, well, fun. (Yeah, I have an odd sense of what constitutes fun.)

At all times I was followed by monkeys. I hate them; I despise them; I loathe them. If they were not part of God`s Creation (and if I were not a Christian) I would slaughter every one of those damn things on sight. I would look right in their simian eyes as I choked the life out of their disgusting bodies. It would give me great pleasure to do so. Without any doubt they are the filthiest beasts on earth.

There were cat tracks everywhere but I saw none of the beasts. Neither did the fellow below.

top

Lions and Tigers Not Bears

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

---William Blake (1757 - 1827)

It seemed a day like any other. Pedro (not his real name) awoke in darkness, slipped on his rubber boots and prepared his breakfast of tortillas and beans. Soon he left the jungle camp where he worked. But this time he was not heading off into the bush to collect xate. Today he was heading to Uaxactun, an all-day walk through the jungle on an obscure trail. He would spend a day with his family and then return to the xate camp. He never made it, for it was his last day on earth.

Four hours away his killer awaited him. On 'dread feet' he padded his way through the bush, eyes wide open, searching. On this day his hunt would be a successful one.

At ten that morning Pedro was approaching the limits of Tikal National Park. The killer heard his steps, and followed.

What happened next can be peaced together from the scatered bits of skeleton found three weeks after Pedro was killed.

The cat took him from behind, its classic killing method. His front claws ripped into Pedro`s shoulder while his jaws clamped hard and tore across Pedro`s throat. The man was dead before he hit the ground. I like to think that he felt nothing, that he saw nothing, that his death came upon him in an instant. The cat paused after the kill, then drug the corpse into the bush. He fed, and would return to the kill several times in the next few days. When only ragged tissue and bone remained the cat went after the marrow, crunching the human bones into jagged pieces.

The killing site was found by other xate workers. Pedro`s machete---still in its holder, alas!---was found near his remains. There was no news report because Tikal is a great money maker and tourist magnet for Guatemala. If word got out that a man was killed and eaten by a cat within the park...

Meet one likely suspect, Felis concolor:

The average Guatemalan is smaller than the average American. From behind, and hunched over while walking fast he would resemble some of the puma`s natural prey. An American man walking with a large pack on his pack---me for example---would almost assuredly not be attacked. He simply appears too big for the cat, who would rather not fight his prey. But when the pack comes off, the man better have machete and knife real, real handy, just in case. He will keep his eyes open, build a fire and set the tent. The night will bring the screams of the hungry cats.

Let this be a reminder that the jungle is nothing like the innocent arcadia imagined by the environmentalists. Their minds filled with Lion Kings and addled from years of brainwashing in school, they see the rainforest as a veritable cornucopia of medicines, noble savages and eco-Edens.

All this is nonsense. The jungle is full of death. It walks on four legs. It slithers upon the ground. It flies through the air. It wriggles in the grass. It lives invisible in a host of insects only to burst forth in the most hideous diseases known to man. It burrows into your flesh and organs. It infects and paralyzes and blinds. In the city you might be doctor this or professor that or senator so and so, but in the jungle your are nothing but prey. Ask Pedro.

And I can hardly wait to return to it. (Please recall my idea of fun.)

Before venturing into cat territory do some research. Start here:

Bye.

top

February 18, 2004

Avanti Central America

I am continually amazed at how much Central America has changed for the better since my first visit 20 years ago. Then all was dirty and impoverished and politically disturbed; now the poverty is still there of course---though less in-your-face---but all nations have improved economically and politically, sometimes dramatically so. Part of this has been due to the end of the regional wars that afflicted almost every nation here. In 1983 there was either war or revolution---or both for always unlucky Nicaragua---everywhere, and the USSR and its hand-puppet Cuba were up to no good financing this war and that guerrilla army. The silly and pretentious and parasitical intelligentsia of Latin America---Chč pretenders the lot of them (and almost as malignant as our own professoriate)---wholeheartedly supported all this, perhaps in their adolescent heart of hearts yearning to come to power themselves. (And sometimes these bookish types did: witness the carreer of Sandinista poet and dreadful little cad Ernesto Cardenal. This girly-boy crybaby once declared that the reason he could not write poetry was because of Ronald Reagan---yet another success of Reagan's foreign policy.)

Speaking of whom...when Reagan came to power in 1981 he vowed not just to contain communism in Central America, but to 'roll it back' and defeat it. And truth be told he had his work cut out for him after the four years of Carter incompetence. But Reagan was as good as his word. With US cash, military advisers, support for anti-communist movements and a will of iron he brought democracy to the region (by Central America standards, that is) and began the process of radical economic and political reform. The results are clear to anyone who was here then and who is here now. Even the 'accursed by God' Nicaragua is better off now that the Castro-wanna-be Sandinista thugs have been voted out of power and have returned to their dreary poetry seminars. In fact, the Nicaraguan cities of Leon and Granada have become sort of hip places to hang out.

Honduras itself is most certainly a different place now than it was 20 years ago (even the girls are prettier).  Travelers still normally just stop at Copān for a day and then head to Nicaragua via Tegucigalpa, but there are more of them---and they are beginning to venture out into the astoundingly beautuful Honduran forests. Truly Honduras has more eco-adventure-tourism-type possibilities than all its neighbors combined. This is why I have chosen to see as much of the place as time allows---time being defined as between now and June 1. It is somewhat shocking to be in a cattle town in the Honduran countryside---Juticalpa, that is---and find internet cafes where I can work on my web site. Yes, things have changed here.

OK, there is still trash everywhere---though less of it---and the Hondurans still spit too much (though 'Please Do Not Spit' signs are obeyed more often than not), but hey! While traveling one takes what one can get.

I head to Gualaco tomorrow as it provides access to the mountains surrounding Sierra de Agalta National Park. Monte Babilonia hides behind some clouds thereabouts, and I there I go to seek her.

top

April 20, 2004

All Highs, No Lows

This is the last entry of my sabbatical. I will write again for sure---too much, depend upon it---but not until I return to God's Country. This 'Year of Living Dangerously' will be then officially over. Is there a summation? Some clever words or advice I can give? Not really. This past year is not so much a done deal as it is a work incomplete---much time must pass before all of the year is understood. Think 'impressionism' rather than 'classicism'; Manet rather than Michelangelo.

Which does not mean I have nothing to say. All who know me know that this would be quite impossible. What has happened to me since June? Well, a lot. To write of the highlights would be enough---for now---to put the year in some sort of place. So what were these high points? Well, there were a lot---a whole lot. In no particular order of importance...

All was new. I went to places I had dreamed of but never visited. Iruya, Argentina---a type of village one cannot find elsewhere: shimmering in frozen sunlight, shockingly beautiful huddled beneath its  canyon walls, hovering in crystalline air. Putre, Chile---a delight, all small and comfortable, guarded by a family of ice-capped peaks, living under sun-soaked days and frozen nights. Cotahuasi, Peru---the deepest canyon in the world, home to Inca who still speak Quechua, reached by vertigo-inducing stages of descent (and not for the faint-of-heart), where the route passes pre-Colombian ruins. Camp there---you will be alone---and hear the voices of Inca long-dead.

And the friends along the way! Eddie and Julietta and Adrian in Lima---known for ten years; Chip and Lucia and family in Santiago---truly a family blessed by Christ; Wilma and Vanina in Rio--real cariocas, alive to life, beach addicts and friends forever. What they showed me of Rio cannot be garnered at any price; the brothers Mario and Leonel---Guatemalan all the way, whom I met all of 21 years ago, to whom I owe much (the Spanish language, the volcano Pacaya, pepian, a love of Guatemala); and the unique Lauren---Yale grad, bright, beautiful, poetic---she is Irish after all---all of 22 years young, out to save the world---or at least the Central American part of it.

And ex-students! They were everywhere; Adrian in Lima, Paula and Giulia in Cuzco, Vanina in Rio, a whole swath of them at the American School in Rio, and those '5 Cool Guys'---Jeff, Matt, Sebastian, Erik, Nathan---in the jungles of Costa Rica. After hanging out with them, it was time to come home, as nothing could beat the time we had out there in wilds. Nothing.

Cities long-dead drew me to Peru; they draw me still: not Machu Picchu this time---that I had conquered long ago---but the ruins of the Chachapoyan---a vanished threat to Inca imperialism who left behind the astounding '7 cities of the Condors'---Kuelap, Gran Vilaya and scores of others yet uncovered; Choquequirao, an Inca site that dwarfs even Machu Picchu in its spectacular setting in the high Andes. Walking there and then continuing across two Andean passes---120 kilometers of footwork, 10,000 meters all told up and down---took every ounce of my physical and mental discipline---but it was Christ who carried me; the Hellishly hot Paraguayan Chaco, abandoned by God except where His Mennonites have settled, the only light in near absolute darkness; Rio, a city that boasts the finest location in the world, cursed by a venal and corrupt political class, diseased by a nightmare of narco-violence---but all the while enjoying the blessing of the soothing, oh-so-democratic and rejuvenating beach.

Then I was yet again in Central America, which I had first visited in 1983. All was new and transformed ---except the jungle, for only God and timber companies can do that. Tim and Kristina, lovers of God and some of the finest people on earth,  met me in Belize and together we went to the Mayan citadel of Tikal; one week later I became lost near those ruins and almost gave up the ghost after wandering for hours---thank you Lord for pulling me out of there; a climb to the Honduran Mount Celaque reminded me of Oregon, and I became aware of the first intimations of home; cool and hip little Granada, Nicaragua---like Flores and Antigua in Guatemala, and Copan in Honduras, this place reeks of leisure and culture. If you are bored here you are dead.

So there it is, both too long and not nearly long enough---and all is still too fresh to really come to grips with. With time and beer and many Masses I will understand more of all that has happened since June. I will certainly let you know when I do.

There is yet one thing I need to say. I am different to be sure: stronger physically, mentally, spiritually. Whatever limits I had have long been pushed outwards and upwards. I have at times thought myself invincible---foolish, I know, but if you had been there on those frozen Andean peaks, all alone, far from civilization...well, you get the idea. And it is not peace and quiet I yearn for; I yearn to rediscover my nation---and to do this the way I want, with tent and pack (and gun). This part of my life, this 'year of living dangerously', is over. The rest of my life will follow. I am in no hurry.

Bye.

top

April 21, 2004

Goodbye to All That

 

It had to happen some time---I am finished with my year-long walkabout, and thus finished with writing about the oddities that are common when one hits the foreign road with pack and tent. From now on, writing will be concerned with things more or less domestic: economics, history, politics, theology, culture, backpacking in the US, and the odd picture or two.

        

The travelogue of my sabbatical can be read here. It only concerns stuff that happened 'on the road' and not my brilliant commentaries about 'Life, the Universe, and Everything'.

 

And it was a bit unsettling---and shocking---to realize that what I had planned to do for years, what I had dreamed of doing for years, what I had threatened to do for years---was now over. Done. Finished. Completed. Wrapped up. Close the book. Thanks for the memories. Now let's move on, Ok?

 

Right now I am sitting in the Guatemala City airport awaiting my United flight to Los Angeles. Last night I went to eat Italian food with my two Guatemalan friends Mario and his brother Leonel. I first met them 21 years ago during my first journey down here. Mario had just started a Spanish school, La Escuela Tecun Uman. His was the third such school in Antigua. Mario was a forward-looking sort, as 1983 was a time of extreme violence in Guatemala. Civil war raged in the hills and cities. It was a brutal affair---but then, all Latin American civil wars were such. There were few tourists, of course, but as peace came they began to flood into Antigua. Now the school is filled with students from around the world.

 

It was tough to say goodbye, as I said it not just to Mario and Leonel but to Antigua, to Guatemala and to Central America. Right now I can see no reason why I would ever return. All was said and done in my eight journeys to the region. And I am not the nostalgic sort; I would never return to a place only to relive past victories. There are too many future victories that will claim my time.

 

Tomorrow begins another sort of life from the one I have been living for 11-odd years. There will be surprises. I look forward to them. I hope they don't hurt too much; I hope they don't cost too much.

top

 

about    archives    home    search    books    e-mail    professional page