The Gringos Become Marxist and Consider
Having Their MBA's Surgically Removed
..."do you mean the State Department isn't really interested in human rights?"
September 25, 1996 - December 30, 1996
[Note: Hey!!! Where'd we go? Our last letter was written in September of last year, but in spite of having nothing but time to write these, I've found that while it's just as easy to procrastinate on the road, it's a lot harder to find excuses. I mostly finished this a month ago, but couldn't manage to give it the I-Give-Up Stamp of Approval and mail it. But here you are, reluctantly reading it, so I must have finished it. This letter may not be as light as some of the others, but it should be at least interesting. Also, don't get the impression that we didn't enjoy Guatemala, because we just loved it.]
I remember being in China a few years ago, sitting in on a conversation about Central America, which I probably couldn't have found on a map. One tourist asked another about whether Guatemala was safe for travel, considering all the civil wars in the region. Never one to let complete ignorance interfere with my forming strong opinions, I said, "Oh, Guatemala's safe. They haven't any kind of wars there..., have they?" The traveler who'd been here looked at me blankly in disbelief. Let me tell you how far off I was: Guatemala has had 36 years of civil war, the longest in Latin America, where an estimated 140,000 people have been killed or are missing . How could I have grown up so close and known so little about it? I read a letter in Time recently where a woman referred to Washington, D.C. as the capitol of the world. In a way, that sort of sums up the problem. It's NOT the capitol of the world, it just seems like that when you grow up in America, only looking inward, building these great walls in your mind (and at your border), and including in the scope of "me and mine" the people in "your" nation and excluding all others as though they're less important somehow. When something like 50,000 Bengalis were killed in a typhoon a few years ago, it got less press than three American kids who died from tainted beef. Three minutes into the 11:00 nightly news I saw a feature on an 800 pound woman getting some surgery to help her lose weight, like that was the most important news in the world at that moment. "Oh, yeah, and by the way, several hundred villagers were massacred in some third-world country, but it's reported that they were poor and had dark skin. No Americans were involved."
When Whitney and I were in Mexico, we met an American archaeologist who'd worked there twenty years and explained to us that most archaeologists are Marxist, since while uncovering the history of a people they find so much oppression. He gave us a lot of information on what sites to see, and as he said goodbye, he said, "don't come back too Marxist." At the time I thought it was kind of a nutty comment, and although I haven't become a Marxist, now I think I at least know what he meant. The Indians of Guatemala have been abused to a staggering degree. They have had their land stolen, villages burned, women raped, and any resistance to the authorities was met with intense violence.
I read a newspaper account of the Guatemalan civil war which said that the origins of the war were unclear. I beg to differ. They seem very clear to me, and the roots date all the way back to the Spanish conquest in the 1520's. Besides 90% of the indigenous population dying due to a combination of disease, war, and famine, what followed was the methodical brutalization and oppression of the Indians for 450 years, and it continues to this day, though maybe to a smaller degree.
A book on Guatemalan history states, "the general perception of Indians during the colonial period as a reluctant, but necessary, source of labor...laid the basis of a society moulded principally by the need for extensive terror and force as a means of social control." That meant, among other things, the taking of slaves of any group who didn't embrace Christianity, forced labor to ensure workers for the Spanish haciendas, and the forced relocation of the Indians into larger, more centralized towns where they could be more easily controlled. This relocation was the first of many schemes for the land-owning elite to grab more land, leading to the current condition where 2% of the population owns 70% of the land. When forced labor didn't meet the needs of the large fincas (farms) they started lending money to Indians (at usurious rates) in return for labor. The interest rates were so high that the Indians were assured of working for years to pay off the debt. When that still wasn't enough, the government began taking land to ensure that the villages could not support themselves without working part of the year for the large fincas, at minuscule wages.
When, in 1944, a brutal dictator was overthrown and replaced by a truly democratic and elected government, the U.S. plotted, financed, and carried out a coup in 1954. The touted justification was the evils of communism, domino theory, etc., but it looks a lot more like U.S. business interests were threatened. And read this excerpt from a then-secret Policy Planning Study 23, written in 1948 by the State Department: "we have about 50% of the world's wealth, but only 6.3% of its population...In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity...To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives...We should cease to talk about vague and...unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are hampered by idealistic slogans, the better." They didn't mean the public shouldn't be hampered by slogans, just not the planners.
All of that set the stage for the horrifyingly brutal civil war that is just ending; the official peace signing was yesterday. Unfortunately the U.S. has backed the Guatemalan military throughout, in spite of overwhelming evidence of major human rights abuses. During the height of the government's atrocities, the Church's contribution was to proclaim that resisting the government was like resisting the word of God. Rigoberta Menchu is an Indian woman, about 38 years old now, who wrote a book about her life, ranging from touching stories of her youth to the story of watching her 16 year old brother being burned alive by the military for being a suspected guerrilla. This happened after he was tortured for two weeks, and his death was carried out in the town square as a warning from the army to guerrilla sympathizers. It was especially compelling for me to read this story since Rigoberta and I are about the same age, and I kept comparing my Wonder Bread youth to her experiences. Rigoberta went on to become a defender of human rights, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. I went on to become a travel bum.
Between corruption at the highest levels and the massive abuses of the labor force, there is an enormous gap between the wealthiest and poorest in this country. One of our "neighbors" here at the lake just arrived yesterday in his private helicopter. His massive house on the shore of the lake sits unattended except for a few days of the year. Meanwhile, the platoon of gardeners who works at his house make about 20 to 25 quetzales, or about $3.50 - $4.00. That's not per hour, that's per DAY. At least in the U.S. we have this idea, however faulty in practice, that somehow the wealth of the rich will "trickle down" and benefit the poor, but I think here they have the "trickle sideways" theory, where the the rich help their family and friends get rich. Periodically they implement the "trickle up - get off your land or I'll kill your whole family" theory when 10 gazillion dollars net worth just isn't enough.
Enough of my ranting about economic inequality. While my heart bleeds liberally for the economically disadvantaged, I've traveled for three of the last six years and haven't done a thing to help anyone's economics but my own. I sound like the traveler who I heard about who was walking around barefoot. His Spanish teacher asked him why, and he said, "To show solidarity with the poor people, man." Put your shoes on and shut up.
Anyway, our first stop in Guatemala was the incredible Mayan ruins of Tikal, set deep in tall rain forest. Even the jaded traveler is impressed with Tikal, because it's an immense site, with massive pyramids and huge courtyards. I still haven't heard any good explanation of how they could have built those structures without metal implements, the wheel, or beasts of burden (the four-legged kind, that is.) For me it's a funny combination of exhilaration and exasperation when I visit a place like that, because I want to know everything about it, and most of what little the archaeologists do say is speculation that they can't agree on.
A few hours south of Tikal we stayed at a place called Finca Ixobel ("finca" means farm) that was started by an American couple about 20 years ago, Michael and Carol Devine. It's still a working farm that has accommodation for travelers, with great food and a peaceful atmosphere. They have a spider monkey named Tony who's anything but spidery after stealing food off people's plates for years. He has other endearing traits like sucking the ink out of ballpoint pens and eating birth control pills and bars of soap. They've also got some beautiful and irritating macaws, also food thieves, who liked to dive bomb Whitney as she walked across the meadow. Unfortunately, the finca wasn't immune to the violence of the country. One day in 1990 some men came looking for Michael Devine and left with him in his pickup. Later that day he was found beheaded a few miles from the farm. The U.S. government got all excited about convicting someone for it and put a lot of pressure on the Guatemalan government. Two years later six military guys were convicted. The officer who was among those convicted disappeared the day after sentencing (imagine that) and hasn't been heard from since. It was later reported that he had been on the CIA payroll at the time of the killing. The U.S. doesn't seem to show a lot of discretion about who they hire to prop up military dictatorships. There's still massive speculation about what motivated the killing, but I've never heard anything conclusive. Part of the violence in Guatemala is the result of too many ex-military dudes, atrocity-trained and nowhere to go. Recently the finca was having a problem of some local teenagers robbing tourists as they walked from the main road into the farm. The finca managers went to the police and asked for help, and the police said, it's a small community here, and we don't really want to get involved. If you want it to stop, just kill one of the robbers and leave his body on the road, that will stop it! Apparently that's not uncommon advice given by the police.
Further south of the finca is the small piece of Guatemalan land that joins the Caribbean, and we went on a
three day sailing trip down the Rio Dulce (Sweet River) to the mouth of the ocean. "Captain John" is an American guy who's been in Guatemala for five years or so, and has the scars to prove it. That boy's got some stories, mostly horrifying and fun to listen to.
We headed to the beautiful colonial town of Antigua where an intended stay of a few days turned into almost three weeks. Unlike the concrete block sprawl of so many towns in this part of the world, Antigua has strict building regulations and has maintained their colonial style, with cobblestone streets and beautiful squares. The town is surrounded by some HUGE volcanoes, some of which spout steam occasionally. It's a really popular place to study Spanish, and it's filled with tourists studying at the estimated 200 Spanish schools. Along with tourists comes great restaurants, lots of shopping-which-I-hate, video cinemas, and plenty of places to hang out.
For the big Halloween/Day of the Dead celebrations we drove up to the town of Todos Santos (All Saints), located in the remote north-western highlands. The dirt road climbs 6,000 feet in 12 miles, reaching 11,000 feet at the high plateau, before dropping down about 2,000 feet into the steep valley where Todos Santos lies. The town is know for the men's traditional clothing, bright red and white striped pants and embroidered shirts with a sort of Elvis collar. It's also know for the annual horse race that happens on November 1.
The site of the race is a dirt road about 125 yards long, bending around a bit of a corner. The road is fenced at the ends, and has a steep dirt bank on one side and a rough wooden fence on the other. It's basically an endurance competition, the objective of which is to stay on your horse after drinking copious quantities of beer before and during the race. The riding goes from nine to twelve in the morning, then two to five in the afternoon, with pretty much the same riders the whole day. There were usually 20 or 25 riders and horses at a time congregated at one end of the track. When the whistle blew they'd all charge full speed down the road, four or five or six abreast, hooting and hollering, dust and dirt and the occasional drunk cowboy flying. At the other end, they'd drink more, or just talk and lean on each other drunkenly during the minute or two break. Then the whistle would blow again, and they're back, full speed, the other direction. Periodically one or more of the more drunken contenders would start so long after the whistle that the other 20 riders were already coming back the other direction. That was always a crowd pleaser, that and dogs that ran across the track and were nearly trampled. The other thrill, of course, was wondering how long that really drunk guy would be able to stay on his horse. Inevitably, he's do a face plant, and the crowd would gasp in titillated horror. Then the emergency medical team (any two guys who weren't as drunk) would unceremoniously pick him up by his belt and an appendage or two and drag him off the track. The race would continue in the best Pony Express tradition: neither sleet nor rain, not compound fracture nor vomit nor death shall impede this race.
Most of the tourists watching were amazed and stunned by the whole spectacle. Why would adults get really drunk and ride horses full speed over hard ground? Why don't they water the ground so it's not rock hard? And why don't they round the top of the fence posts so they don't look like harpoons? I heard over and over, "how do you know who wins?" We couldn't really understand a race where there wasn't a winner. I finally realized it wasn't about winning, but I have to admit I never did really figure out exactly what it was about. I would have loved to hear someone like Joseph Campbell talk about the symbolism of the hero figure and sacrifice in a ritual like this. We heard that it's actually considered good luck for the town when someone dies during the ride. We think someone was killed when we were there, but never knew for sure.
The following day the town goes to mourn the dead by spending the day in the cemetery. Although tourists are allowed to go, we felt awkward and didn't stay long. Not everyone suffered from the same doubts; we saw a young woman tourist standing on top of a concrete crypt taking telephoto pictures of the scene. We walked past an old woman sitting on the dirt, with her face pressed sideways against the above-ground grave, crying and talking in such an anguished voice that we didn't need to understand the words to imagine her pain. For most others, though, it's a very social time, with lots of chatting and live music. I think it's a really nice tradition to celebrate and mourn the loss of the dead as a community. We heard of an American woman who was suffering from the loss of a child and was helped by going to a Day of the Dead event.
Spurred by the success of successfully driving to Todos Santos, we headed to another remote village, Nebaj (pronounced Nebak). Three days, 12 hours of driving, one mudslide, and three huge mud holes later, we managed to get out of Nebaj.
Whitney decided to go home for Thanksgiving. While she was gone I was forced to feed myself and speak Spanish, two things I struggle with. I went to the caves of Lanquin and the dramatic "natural land bridge" of Samuc Champey. From the description I expected some arching bridge, but it's actually a limestone formation that has completely covered over a good size river for a length of maybe 150 yards. On top of the land bridge, pools are formed by crystal clear spring water that cascade down beautiful falls. Above the clear pools, the river plunges into a giant hole with such force that it's frightening just to look at it. A few years ago a Spanish priest fell into the hole and it took 45 days before he come out the other end, only 150 yards away. After Samuc, I went back to the finca and spent another relaxing week there.
When Whitney came back we went to the popular travel destination of Lake Atitlan, and there's no mystery why people come; it's stunningly beautiful. The lake is an intense deep blue, about 10 miles long and six miles wide, at an altitude of 5,000 feet, and surrounded by big volcanoes and rugged mountains. There's about a dozen villages on the lake, each with their own distinctive clothing. Gringos have been coming here for thirty years, and there's a large community who live here for all or part of the year. Even though the main town of Panajachel is gringo-fied in an unattractive backpacker sort of way, there's been so little big-time development here it's amazing. Anywhere outside of "Pana" is quiet and peaceful, and the local people who've been around tourists their whole lives have kept an innocence and sincerity that reminds me of the people of Nepal.
My friend Liz is renting a house here for six months, and while she went to Mexico for a couple of weeks Whitney and I stayed in her house. It's right on the lake, near the village of Santa Cruz la Laguna. Beautiful gardens, stunning view, no electricity, but a propane refrigerator and stove, fireplace, patio, hammock - it's paradise. In spite of our big plans to hike all the way around the lake over a period of days, our time here has been more like a retreat; lots of reading and meditating.
In the time we've been here we've met three people who came just to visit and left after buying property. (One of these was someone I met in Nepal two years ago!) I'm half-tempted to buy here, because you can get lake-front property for as low as $8,000, and further up the hill for as low as $4,000. I'm not going to buy anything now, but it's definitely the type of place I would consider.
We're leaving Guatemala (finally) today to see some of El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. We have to be back by the end of March, because our friends Doug and Lori and getting married on April 6. If you haven't written us lately, then send us a note and tell us why.