Through the Portal of the Gods Indian Uprising

Through the Portal of the Gods

Indian Uprising

How I Blew My Q's

We were chased out of an lost world by dung-wielding monkeys. So what's new?

Belize to Antigua, Guatemala
25th June, 2001

The first question you ask yourself when you come to Central America, is why you have never come before. Sure, the answer to that is easy. All I had ever imagined for this part of the world was violence, explosions, drugs, streets filled with angry mobs waving their arms in the air. Like a Corrs concert. But this is one of the most beautiful and diverse areas on Earth, and I could easily fall in love with it.

We left Playa del Carmen at 4am, a time of day that has no business existing at all. My sleep starved body ached. Our route passed through the Southern Yucatan, a rich tapestry of ancient ruins and home of a great pre-Columbian civilization. My reaction: why are no beds here? no beds? why no sleep hurty head? Did the civilization end after endless generations of cramped weary heads?

The Funky Bus

My companions: Helena and Gita: two young women from the States, one a former political lobbyist and the other a former investment banker. A politician and a banker on the run in Central America? Hmm. I can already see the CIA-backed Nicaraguan hit squad on our trail. Then there's Horken, a Swede, also known as Horken the Magic Muffin Man for his endless sack of sweet cakes. Caroline, an Irish-Australian, and Patrick, our guide. Caroline and Patrick share a strong interest in photography and sit at the front of our van, snapping away. Look at the bottom of www.funkytours.com/photos.htm. Spot the odd one out.

At about 10am we entered the nation of Belize. At 4pm, we exited the nation of Belize, having been to the zoo. Visiting an entire country simply to go to the zoo? Yes, I am the yuppie tourist. And what else could I be? To be a real "traveller" I'd have to quit washing, carry a tassel bag and look like Jesus. I'm afraid I'll have to make do with swim-up bars and pina coladas.

Belize is an unusual country, like a tiny piece of Jamaica that's drifted off and become stuck to the mainland, wedged reggae and all between the latin countries all around it. The people speak a mixture of Spanish and Caribbean English, and are laid back, chilled, chillin, mon. And they really do have a great zoo. Our particular favorite was the tapir, a champion of Latin American manners. If you annoy him, he'll urinate all over you.

We were only passing through Belize. Our true destination was Guatemala. And as we left the lowlands of Belize, climbing ever steadily into the hills, we came at last to the border crossing. On one side of the metal gate was Belize, relaxed maybe, but with still a reassuring British calmness. On the other side was a seedy office manned by sweaty officials, looking at my European passport with distaste, before stamping it with all the force their petty authority could muster. Welcome to the third world.

Coca-Cola with Menaces

And then... Guatemala. The beauty of Guatemala sears my eyes. Each turn in the road brings a heart-shivering view over jagged forest-clad mountains, cut with sharp misty valleys. The people of Guatemala are very poor, but cheerful and proud. There are few Cuban-style street hustlers here, asking for a dollar for nothing. Instead, some Guatemalans prefer to take it at the point of a gun. In that way they can show both their own independence and a rough, manly respect for you as fellow human, worthy of their violence.

Helena and I both felt a growing disillusionment with our idyllic surroundings. Where was the violence, the squalor? Where were the moustachioeurroundings. Where was the violence, the squalor? Where were the moustachioed banditos, sweeping down to take our defenceless dollars? We're tourists, we wanted to shout, abuse our trusting naivety! Even our cabanas had been clean, pleasant and airy. We had been cheated of the rank ordure we had come far to find. I had bought a lot of Guatemalan currency, Quetzales or Q's, and if some well meaning mountain robber did not relieve me of them soon, I would find it hard to blow the lot here, where the rooms were $2 a night. The Guatemalan people smiled and got on with their water-shop affairs.

The Monkeys of Tikal

We drove a short distance from Remate to Tikal. This was once one of the greatest Mayan cities of Central America, around the same time as Imperial Rome. We strolled though the ancient pyramid temples and great central square of a city that once held 100,000 people who worked, thought, played and worshipped here. Now only the jungle remains, and the great pyramids, each larger the one before. I could see the old priests of the highest temple, temple IV now, standing on top of each construction, hurling abuse and rotten fruit at the others, and then agreeing to pick on the wieners of temple V, the littlest temple of all. Only monkeys live their now, but they still carry on that tradition, flinging their own dung at passers-by, as Gita discovered. We should have brought our own tapir along, for an overwhelming retaliation.

We stayed that night in Flores, an island community in Lake Peten Itza. Appropriately, we went to a restaurant where they were screening The Matrix, starring Keanu Reeves. The point to this film is that the world isn't real. We had just been chased out of an ancient lost world by a race of dung-wielding monkeys. So what was new?

In Tikal we met Drew and Christina, who wanted to go to Semuc Champay, said to be one of the most wonderful places in Guatemala. We looked at the map, and as it was on a road sort of on our way, we decided to go with them. Following the map we came to a sort of stone and dirt scree that looked like the the rough entrance to an old quarry. We turned onto this layby wondering if it gave access to the road. It was the road. The dirt track wound for hours above precipices that threatened ruin at any moment.

Every so often we had to brake at the last minute to avoid crashing into a truck or bus stuffed with people (and chickens, the famous chicken busses of Guatemala.) But of course, it was beautiful. Astonishing mountain descents followed astonishing mountain climbs interspersed with tranquil forest and Indian vilages. The Mayan people paused from their labour, the men in their maize fields, the women wearing their multicolored traditional dress, to look at us for a moment. As if to say, why have you wandered into our difficult back-breaking world, when you could be at home, in a city, an air-conditioned office, a strip club?

The Semuc Champay Vocabulary Test

Semuc Champay is a natural limestone bridge over a rushing mountain river. We stayed in yet more disappointingly cheap, clean cabanas in a magnificent river setting among courteous, cheerful Indian hosts. Guatemala is so lovely, it challenges my vocabulary. I'll quit when I run out of synonyms for "beautiful".

That night we discovered a new rage set to sweep the world music stage now that salsa is dead: three man wooden xylophone combos. They serenaded us throughout dinner, ponging energetically away at cunning xylophone variations. All they needed for world domination was Ry Cooder and a recording contract. Then they blew it all. They started to argue. Probably one band member was taking a new direction with experimental tenor xylophone notes, trying to push the limits while the others contented themselves with whimsical xylo ballds. At last artisitic rivalry triumphed, and they split, to pursue solo careers.

Animal waste products seemed to define our lives on this trip. We visited some limestone caverns and emerged covered with bat guano, and then descended from the mountains at last, awash with the ordure of everything that flies, swings or crawls. It was time to move on, before we achieved the "traveller" look entirely by accident. Besides we had to find food. The mountains are filled with subsistence farmers, who appear to subsist entirely on sweet maize cakes and very sweet bottled beverages. Nowhere in my geography textbooks did they mention the plight of the muffin and Coca-cola farmers of Guatemala.

Their lives are hard. It was market day as we passed, endless streams of women walking miles in the mountain rains, carrying great bags and pots on their heads to market. Each was dressed in the multi-colored dress that indicated village, people and even containing references to the same religion that raised the pyramids or Tikal. The spoke softly in their own tongue, laughing and looking down as we passed. Perhaps they noticed the bat dung. And finally we left our dirt track, back onto the main road, the normality of truck stops and traffic fumes that had seemed so remote the night before, and on to to our next destination.

We skipped Guatemala City, known to be the centre of all death, and came to Antigua. Antigua is of course beauti... oh hell you know all that.

 

 

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El Remate

 

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Helena in Tikal

 

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Guatemalan Children

 

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Funky Group

 

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Semuc Champay

 

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Guatemala Route

 


Hat & Spoon

 

 

The Facts

Where I stayed
El Remate: Casa Monbego. Local cabanas. Very cheap, clean, located by Lake Peten Itza.
Flores: Hotel Posada Tayasal. Clean rooms. Lovely roof terrace with views over the lake.
Semuc Champay: Local cabanas/campsite (there's only one). Beautiful outdoor location by river with large wooden hostel for slinging hammocks or individual cabanas.
Antigua: Hotel. Old Spanish colonial building, huge ornate rooms, roof terrace.

How I got around: Funky Tours. I can't praise Patrick and Catherine's operation highly enough. I have never laughed so much in my life.