Welcome to Guatemala! Heart of the Mayan World! Just not the freshly-ripped-out-while-beating kind!
Another cool day, alas. It’s the tropics. So it’s cool. Right. Well, it was not only cool, but Guatemala - another of those countries I know mostly from bad news in college, when there were Rebels and Bad Military Guys and we were always on the wrong side, at least according to college editorial pages. We were going to head inland to a rain forest, and hence got up early and headed down the creaky steps. A woman in typical Guatemalan dress bid us welcome; since we had a few minutes we wandered past the men selling excursions and entered the caucaphonous Hawketorium, where vendors shout MISTER and HELLO and T-SHIRT, BEST until you stop turning them away gracefully and pretend you don’t hear that. I hate doing that, but when you’ve had one cup of coffee and the prospect of bouncing across the bay on a tiny boat awaits, you - meaning me - are, am, not in a good mood. It’s not a safety issue. I just don’t like confinement and loss of control, but that’s what it is.
It’s the old panic disorder, to be honest; haven’t had an attack in decades, but the little bastard monkey is always there in the back of your head. This would be a wonderful place to hyperventilate and have an uncontrollable heartbeat, eh? Right here, in this tiny boat? No, I take that back - I’ll wait for the bus, when it’s 40 miles in country! Mwhahaha. But it doesn’t happen and it never happens, so to hell with it. So we got in the tiny boat, put on our musty crusty life-jackets, and bounced over the bay to a resort, the Pride of Guatemala.
It was deserted. Creepy deserted. Well-maintained, open for business - the fountains were splashing, the blenders were out and set up for smoothies, the chairs arrayed at the beach, but no one was there. You expected to find CROATAN carved in a tree, or a limb in the underbrush with strange tooth marks. What is it, professor? Jaguar? Human? I do not know - it seems to have the characteristics of both.
Then the bus, which made a tortuous crawl up a rutted road, past shacks and cement huts and packless dogs and pantsless children, up to the rainforest preserve. I gather this is a national pride-and-joy; it’s a fairly recent project, and provides jobs to the guides and money for the jewelry and food merchants who stand around impassive and watch the pale-legged tribe hike into the depths.
It was marvelous, and I attained total peace and bliss here. Which is stupid, because this place will kill you. Anyway, here’s a one-minute tour:
When it was done we had some time to “relax,” i.e. buy jewelry and food from the locals standing around in front of tables full of handicrafts and freshly split watermelons. I was more interested in the old concrete buildings at the perimeter, and of course as a Happy Tourist Boy I saw them in terms of interesting textures that would make great monitor wallpaper:
Then I saw this, which just looked so damned sad and so damned poor. A child’s bassinet toys.
As if to impress upon the group the depth of the county’s poverty, we took the bus to a “village,” where we would make tortillas. This was the grim part: shantytown. No electricity. Tin roofs. Everything tumbledown, with fowl walking around, nothing painted or maintained. Bible verses nailed to every tree. Dogs. An old sick stick-thin dog -
A soulful young dog as skinny as an envelope containing a letter on which was written the single word “hungry.”
Did we feed him? Yes. We made tortillas and then fed them to the dog, which may have been a great insult, but he was hungry and sweet and beseeched with such charm, turning his head this way and that. Two British women were appalled at his condition and wanted to take him home. We all did. But of course we could not. I wandered away, again, and explored the town - again, mostly deserted, half-built. I saw a tidal-wave instruction stapled to a tree, complete with pictures telling the illiterate to get to higher ground. Pepsi signs:
On the way out, I saw something that seemed like a lost ruin, and it made my day more than other ruin I might have spied. Here you go: another minute travelogue, with my discovery at the end.
I don’t know what others got from the jungle, whether they see Nature in its Purest and Noblest untouched form, but I got an overwhelming feeling of patience and indifference. Do what you wish, build what you like; it will all be ours again eventually. And it’s probably good old Western guilt-projection to think the villagers - few as they were - resented us for driving up and having a merry time making tortillas; they’re paid for this, and dollars aplenty went into the big wooden tip-barrel. They get the bus. They’re the lucky ones.
On the way out we passed the school. Tiny. Neat. Ask the tour guide why people stay here, and she smiles: some do. Some don’t.
Back in the boat, and back across the bay. As we pull up beneath the prow of the Navigator the tour guide thanks us for coming: “I don’t care if you don’t remember me,” she says, “but I want to you remember my country.” She pulls out a bag and passes out tiny hand-made dolls in Guatemalan garb to everyone in the boat. I know I’ll add this to the stuff I’m collecting for my desk at work, next to the plastic gim-crack souvenirs and snow-globes and cheap bottles of Authentic Sand. I will remember her country; I’ll remember her.
Back to the luxurious ship. Tea and eclairs with my daughter; there are always tea and eclairs here. A nap on soft sheets, then up to give a lecture on Rome with David Allen White and Hugh Hewitt. There’s coffee and cookies. There are always coffee and cookies here. Before dinner the ship shudders and moves away from Guatemala, and I head up to the stern to watch it disappear. I have a drink and a cigar and I am dressed for supper. I have already forgotten how many days we’ve been out.