The Town of Powdered Paint – Guatemala, Central America

The moustached driver of the minibus that took us south from Tikal looked like the late Colombian drug lord, Pablo Escobar. Having flagged him down on the side of the road near the entrance of the ruins, we were alone in his minibus for more than half an hour until he stopped in front of a school in a one-street town to bring the teachers home to Flores, the capital of the northern, mostly jungle region of Guatemala known as El Petén.

There was not much to the school. One of the classrooms was visible from the road; primary school kids sat at old wooden desks under what amounted to nothing more than a tin roof shelter. There were no walls. When class ended, the kids picked up their desks and took them to a storage room. I could only presume this was a preventive measure to stop them being stolen. But it was only midday – why was school out so early?

"The little kids finish at twelve," the driver told us. "Then the big kids come at one."

Several teachers crammed into our minibus, but most of the children set off on foot. "Do you want to ride with us?" a teacher asked one of her students.

The boy shook his head. "They (bandits) will rob me," he replied. It was quite an insight from an eight-year-old, I thought.

"No, they only rob big people," the teacher said, reassuring no one, especially not myself. The boy walked away.

My first impressions of Guatemala were thus formed. The height of civilisation in this country was 1,500 years ago, when Tikal's influence spread into modern-day Mexico, Belize and Honduras. Now there were half as many schools as there should have been, and my 6'1" frame made me particularly susceptible to being robbed.



Alhough the Flores-Tikal route was considered one of the most dangerous, bandit-wise, undoubtedly due to the large tourist presence, there was no trouble on this trip. We changed buses near Flores and headed for the Finca Ixobel, a ranch in the countryside south of Poptún, for a few days of rest. These fincas, scattered all over Guatemala, are wonderful for relaxing, doing outdoor activities like caving and horseback riding, eating good food and meeting travellers. At Ixobel, I even bumped into an old high school friend completely by accident. One could easily travel through Guatemala by merely going from finca to finca. It was a tempting prospect on the one hand, but on the other, it defied everything that travel should be about. You had fun at the fincas, but they were not close to the real Guatemala. That was what I sought, so when the thunderstorm that coincided with the death of Pope John Paul II passed, my fiancée, Wendy, and I left the finca in search of a more authentic Guatemalan experience.

That came in El Estor, and even more so in Cahabón. The former was a small town on the shores of Lake Izabal; Guatemala's largest, not far from the country's tiny section of Carribean coastline. We bypassed the more developed tourist towns of the region, Livingston and Rio Dulce, having deduced that El Estor was actually closer than either town to the two natural attractions that we wanted to see: a hot springs waterfall and a dramatic canyon.

Daily Market

Daily Market

The daily market dominated El Estor's few streets and provided our first glimpse of rural Indian life in a country that had the greatest native representation in Central America (more than fifty per cent of the total population). The women selling fruit and vegetables were attractive in their bright, loosely knitted ponchos and long, colourful skirts. The men had abandoned their traditional dress owing to the expense of making it, and typically wore T-shirts with pictures of Hollywood action stars like Stallone or Van Damme, or the same type of American college T-shirts we saw in Cuba, the ones that seemed so humorous when worn by the wrong people (SAVE WATER … DRINK BEER! SPRING BREAK ‘97).


Semuc Champey pools

On our one full day in El Estor, we swam beneath the waterfall and in the canyon by early afternoon, leaving me plenty of time for an overdue haircut. The barber only wanted to talk about football. I made the mistake of telling him the United States did not have a very good team (a quarterfinal appearance at the 2002 World Cup aside), just before he told me the U.S. had come to Guatemala two or three weeks earlier and defeated the national side 2-0. After that I kept my mouth shut.

There were buses to Cahabón, from where we would change to reach Lanquín, at nine o'clock and midday – only we did not find out about the first of these until it was too late. We found seats on the midday bus, but it was so full by the time we left Cahabón that three people, and sometimes four or five if there were children, sat on each of the seats that were designed for two. More people were forced to stand. This was a typical Guatemalan bus; they were called chicken buses, though so far I had only seen an actual chicken on one form of Guatemalan transport, and that was the air-conditioned minibus we took from the Belizean border.

The absence of livestock continued on this day. There were no chickens on the bus, though I think I could have been excused for feeling like one, considering how cramped I was. Riding on the bus in this manner, with too many locals crammed in and about half of the colourfully-dressed women nursing babies, on a road that was not paved for even an inch of the way to Cahabón, but one that took us through gorgeous natural scenery – it all reminded me of Indonesia, a fantastic experience but one that – the actual travel part, at least – was extremely trying.

The journey to Cahabón was supposed to take three hours, but after that time had elapsed, we were still at a much higher elevation than from where we had started, and it seemed a long way from reaching our destination. Another hour passed, then half an hour more before the village appeared – four-and-a-half hours on an uncomfortably cramped chicken bus, only to find out that we had missed the last bus to Lanquín and were stuck in Cahabón for the night.

This was not a terrible thing, however; there were plenty of worse places to be holed up. It was a pleasant, unpretentious village that must have seen virtually no tourists. It was more than four hours in either direction to the next town of any notable size, and this mountain isolation was part of the attraction. It was an Indian village – the women dressed in the same manner as those at El Estor – and the name was derived from the words Chi Kaj B'om in the local language, Q'eqchi', in powdered paint, a reference to the abundance of cochineal in the region.

The locals were very friendly and ignorant of things outside their village. A little girl asked me what my camera was, and when I answered in Spanish, it did not seem to register at all. An old lady asked us, in her native language, if we spoke Q'eqchi'. Only as a second resort did she consider asking if we spoke Spanish, a foreign tongue for her as much as it was for us. Even then, she used the word castellano, and not español, the first time since I arrived in Latin America three months earlier that I had heard someone call it that. Near the village's main church, an Indian man offered what was presumably the only phrase he knew in English, Good morning – nothing wrong with that, except that it was 6:00 p.m. Inside the church, the caretaker yanked a length of rope to ring the bell. He did this three times, then, noticing that I was watching him, paused to smile and say, "Hola!" before pulling his rope three more times.

The irony was that the very people I was admiring for their small villages and simple way of life were descendents of those who were presumably among the smartest and most advanced people on earth. At Finca Ixobel, I had picked up Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, a book I was thoroughly enjoying. (The story of our recent attempts to exchange books was entertaining in itself. At the hotel in Belize City, which was said to have a book exchange, the woman in charge responded to our queries by showing us her selection of seven reading materials available for exchange. Only two – a book of Spanish poems and a guide for Mexico – were actual reading books. The other five were Martha Stewart's Living magazine, a pamphlet for a handicraft store, a Belize City telephone directory, the previous year's calendar, and a user's manual, in French, for a Brother brand fax machine. Needless to say, we hung onto the books we had until we reached the finca.)

In Diamond's enthralling book, the point of which is to attempt to determine why human history evolved differently on different continents, he cites the Mesoamerican region – southern Mexico and Central America – as one of only five places in the world where we can say with absolute certainty that the inhabitants advanced from being hunter-gatherers to food producers of their own accord (the other four being the Fertile Crescent, China, the Andes and the eastern United States). In about 3,500 BC, Mesoamericans began cultivating corn, beans and squash. The first two still appear in almost every meal in the region. In four of the five regions mentioned, including this one eventually arose among the greatest empires of ancient times. I could attest to this myself in the case of Mesoamerica, being only a few days removed from having seen the most spectacular remaining city of the Maya world.

The enormity of Tikal seemed a world away in sleepy Cahabón. Even the early morning bustle – little kids going to school (but not big kids, yet), shops opening for the day, women going to and from the market – was lovely and quaint. There were virtually no cars in Cahabón. This, combined with the sun's warm rays and the fresh mountain air, made it a delightful place to be.

We had a bus to catch, a 7:30 a.m. departure for Lanquín. It was only 29 kilometres from one village to the other, but on precarious dirt roads in mountainous rural Guatemala, it was best not to note the actual distances between places. The journey took an hour-and-a-half. The bus was packed, again, and it was the conductor, not I, who suggested I sit on the roof. I jumped at this opportunity, and spent the next ninety minutes in glorious sunshine with a cool breeze in my face, gazing at the corn fields, forested mountains in all directions, the small waterfall we passed, and the rapidly flowing river far below that a few hours later I would be floating down in an inner tube. The Guatemalan Indians who occasionally appeared at the roadside smiled and waved at me, and I thought: these chicken buses are not so bad, after all.

Lanquín was smaller, more beautifully situated and still more friendly than Cahabón. Everybody said hello as you walked along the town's few streets, and they did not need signs (as in Cuajimoloyas, Mexico) or radio advertisements (as in Belize) to tell them to do so. These Q'eqchi' Indians, I decided, were the nicest people I had come across on this journey that was in its fourth month. Mexicans had been indifferent to our presence. Cubans were generally nice but often only because they wanted our money. Belizeans were too busy swearing to notice that we were even there. Guatemalatecos, on the other hand, were genuinely friendly, very hospitable, and even a tad curious.

"Do you like being called gringos?" a 14-year-old girl named Miriam, who preferred to go by Vivi, asked us one afternoon.

"Err, not really."

"Of course they don't like being called gringos," said her brother, Angel, who was one year older. "Do you like being called Indian?"

"But I am Indian," she reasoned.

"You are not Indian; you are Maya," Angel replied.

Of course, he was right. The Maya people were no more Indian than I was. The only reason native Americans were called Indians in the first place was because during his four voyages to the New World, Christopher Colombus refused to sway from his firm conviction that he was in India.

Vivi and Angel were interesting kids to talk to, typifying the friendly and laid-back atmosphere of Lanquín, but I had trouble figuring out exactly how they were raised, since Vivi said her first language was Spanish and Angel said his was Q'eqchi'. Vivi, who was wearing a school uniform, was only home so soon because she had an exam that day. She usually started at 1:25 and did not finish until 6:30; a confirmation that the doubling up of primary schools and high schools in Guatemala was not limited to El Petén.

For kids their age, Vivi and Angel were very appreciative of what they had in Lanquín, when they could easily have dismissed it as being too small and with nothing to do. They had recently been on a holiday to Tegucigalpa, the chaotic capital of neighbouring Honduras, but did not like it.

"Here it is tranquil," Angel said as he stretched out in his hammock and looked out through the trees and over the river to the mountains that rose steeply from its far bank. As an afterthought, he whispered almost to himself: "Here there is no violence."




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