Edit Blog Post
Published: August 10th 2015
It is Saturday evening and I am sat in La Aurora, Guatemala City's airport, as we await our flight to Bogotá, Columbia. It has been a while since the last update basically because I haven't really been motivated to write anything. Loads has happened though. E is off her crutches now, walking but not running, and though it is going to take a little while to get back to full capacity she has a degree of freedom not experienced in six weeks. As one might expect, the weeks have been fairly frustrating for her due to being essentially housebound for such a long time in a country that holds so many places to visit. Whilst the difficulties of helping that I mentioned in my last entry faded away, I don't think that was entirely my doing - part of it was E's drive to get up and do more for herself.
An illustration of this was our visit to Xela, stopping off at Antigua on the way there (my third time in the city... though it's really only good for three or four days) as well as San Pedro La Laguna on the way back. Still crutch-bound and able to
Rainbow Cafe, Antigua.
There is always a Rainbow Cafe.
walk no more than a few blocks, we decided to (for E, literally) hop on the camioneta to another city so that E could have a taste of uninhibited air. That is, air uninhibited by inner city pollution. We only spent a couple of nights there, in a hot dorm room, but took the opportunity to visit a cafe on a mountainside above Antigua called Cerro San Cristobal where we spent an afternoon eating and drinking. From there we headed straight to Xela.
Xelajú, also called Quetzaltenango, is Guatemala's second largest city. Unlike Guate, though, it has geared itself a bit more towards tourists due in large part to the beautiful downtown area surrounding Parque Central. It felt different to other towns I have been to in this region; more European, more explicitly "cultural". We stayed in a hostel-meets-hotel hybrid called Casa Seibel and spent three days visiting a chocolateria, a beautiful cafe called Bavaria that burned down the day after we had coffee there, and hanging out around the Parque Central area in general. The climate is a lot cooler than other places we have been to in a long time, throughout Guatemala, Mexico, and a lot of
the US. During the evenings it was chilly enough that I almost needed a top of some sort. Almost.
On our return to Guate we decided to stop off at Lake Atitlán once again but this time at the town of San Pedro La Laguna. The town is radically different from Panajachel, lacking much of the tourism that defines Panajachel and with a much more claustrophobic layout. Tiny alleys comprise most of the town, gridding their way from the lakeshore to the mountains, and populated with a host of tiny little bars and restaurants as well as residences, churches, and tiendas. We only spent a night here so there isn't much I can say about the place except that it is very beautiful and a far preferable choice to Panajachel. We did find it difficult to sleep that night, however, because of one of the local Evangelical churches having a night time sin-cleanse involving screaming and crying through loud PA systems until 2am. E described it as sounding like an exorcism. To me it seemed like a really dull way to spend a Friday night. Alejandro later explained that it was a very vocal form of confession and speaking
in tongues, common to evangelical denominations throughout the country.
I read that San Pedro has 37 churches, 36 of which are evangelical. Only one Catholic church remains in the town. Wikipedia states that it was during the military dictatorship that evangelical missionaries were granted mass permits to enter the country and establish new religious followings. The connections between the two are not immediately obvious but once you realise that evangelical organisations often have a lot of money the fog should lift. I met a woman named Sarah in Honduras (more on that soon) who had spent the last few years living in a number of indigenous communities through Central America and she stated that the rise of evangelism here has had, in her opinion, a supremely negative affect. Where Catholicism for all its faults, has for many generations at least brought communities together, they are now being driven apart and isolation has increased due to the large number of evangelical churches.
Alejandro said he once spent a year living next to a church that screamed and wailed until the early hours of the morning. I cannot imagine the frustration.
Leaving San Pedro, we took a boat across
Lago Atitlán to Panajachel where we eventually caught a couple of camionetas to arrive back at Guate, Zona 3. Despite the distance and exercise E's ankle (and arms, and back) was put through she arrived home better than ever, both of us impressed with what she was able to do considering her ankle had a severed bone part only a month previous.
Just 24 hours after getting back I took off once again, this time by myself, catching a bus up to the town of Flores about 500 kilometers from Guate. The town of Flores itself is a tiny circular island on a lake, joined to the mainland and the city of Santa Elena by a bridge. It is perhaps the most unique town I have seen so far in Guatemala. The circular layout with a church-topped hill at the centre gives it a very "old world" atmosphere, and being able to walk the circumference in no more than 15 minutes means it feels small in a way that cities like Guate, Xela, and Antigua simply cannot.
The main reason for my visiting was to see the famous Mayan ruins of Tikal. Located in a national park approximately
an hour's drive from Flores, it is a pretty touristy but nonetheless beautiful ancient Mayan city located in the midst of a jungle. Some bit of one of the Star Wars movies was filmed here, at Templo 4, and it was the inspiration for the conquistador-era scenes in The Fountain. I spent five hours walking around its winding jungle pathways by myself, discovering an immensely long line of ants along the way, took stock in moments of not hearing or seeing any other man-made objects apart from me, and generally had an interesting time poking around some 1500 year old rocks.
I have run into more tourists in Guatemala than anywhere else we have been. Antigua is a particularly popular place for travellers and tourists from other countries. British accents are as common as US, Argentinian, Australian, and European accents on the streets of Guatemala's cultural heritage locations. Yet nothing compares to the island of Roatán, Honduras, which I visited after my last entry but before E and I went to Xela.
Roatán is a Caribbean island about 30 miles off the coast of Honduras. It is all the white sand beaches, crystal clear blue waters, and palm
trees you'd expect from a Caribbean island and my days were spent mostly in the sea at West End both swimming an snorkelling. One thing photos of idyllic beach islands don't convey is their humidity, which makes spending hours in the sea almost a necessity though I wasn't really complaining. The aforementioned Sarah, a Brit that has been traveling the world since 1997 and a former dive instructor, helped me out with my first snorkelling experience during which I saw barracuda, lobster, jellyfish, and all sorts of weird coral just chilling out in the sea.
Roatán has a garbled history involving successive invasions by the British and the Spanish, creating a diverse local population of indigenous Mayans, mestizos, Garifuna (descendants of slaves from West African), and white ex-pats. The main language of the island is actually English although Spanish is also very common of course. Roatán's present is as a diving destination for Europeans and retirement island for rich, white people from the US. The huge number of fairly affluent US tourists here has led shop and bar prices in West End, West Bay, French Harbour and other popular locations to not only be displayed in US dollars but
to be nearly as expensive as the US. $4 for a standard bottle of generic lager is not what I expected from one of the poorest countries in Latin America - but then Roatán is little more than a sandpit for retirees now, vastly different to the mainland where San Pedro Sula is ranked the homicide capital of the world.
In between all these trips away, E and I watched a documentary called Concerning Violence: Nine Scenes from the Anti-Imperialistic Self-Defence. It is a brief look at the history of European colonisation in African and the 20th Century resistance movements of different countries in response to their colonisers. By the end of it I felt almost guilty for being British. The horror that the UK has launched onto the world is nothing to be proud of. Yet I don't think this response would have been so strong had we not left the UK in December last year and travelled to India, Nepal, and Latin America seeing the effects of European colonialisation first hand.
In Mexico City, Diego told me of the phrase "espejos de Cortez" - mirrors of Cortez. The story is that one reason the Aztec empire
prized gold was for its reflective properties. It was beautiful but also practical. The Spanish though saw gold only with economic properties, as a rare material that would bring wealth and glory to the Spanish empire. Seeing the abundance of gold that the Aztecs had, Cortez offered a trade: their gold for Spanish-made mirrors. These mirrors held even greater reflective properties than gold and so held even greater value to the Aztec peoples but ultimately the trade was entirely in the Spaniards' favour because the gold enabled them to build an empire that went on to exploit, enslave, and murder Aztecs and many other indigenous people by the tens of millions. The mirrors of Cortez: a phrase referring to the exploitative way that European culture has usurped and supplanted indigenous culture.
This has not stopped. Colonisation is today as it has been for five centuries. Antigua is a theme park for US, European, Israeli, and Australian travellers. Roatán is a Honduran island that carries out its commerce in US dollars. Guatemala is a country divided by US evangelism. Shopping malls dotted throughout Latin America are identical to shopping malls in Norwich, London, New York, Delhi. India's urban and economic
development mimics the Western capitalist model superbly. English language media permeates every corner of the globe. Los espejos de Cortez are manifold and multiplying.
And I am part of the problem. As someone from England travelling through these parts of the world I am exactly the demographic that is turning local culture into a museum or theme park, taking without much giving, gentrifying, weighting the world towards Europe. There is a growing part of me uncomfortable with this arrangement. I am not patronising enough to believe that the locals here are somehow helpless beneath the duress of my mighty European being; I am sure many are happy with the situation, both financially and culturally, and making the most of it. Nor am I ignorant enough to believe it happens only to indigenous cultures. Everywhere sells itself as a product or commodity. Tourism grips the world. However that doesn't change that difficulty I have with myself in my role. The value of my home has taken on new meanings.
It is now Sunday morning and I am sat in an apartment in Bogotá, Columbia, overlooking a city that is the cleanest I have seen in three and a half months. It took the night through to write this entry because of the weird hours and flight connections required to arrive at this, my eighth country and fifth continent, but I hope it hasn't taken you quite so long to read. Tomorrow E's sister L arrives and we will be spending two weeks together, making our way up to the coastal city of Cartegena in the most jolly way possible. It will be great to see a familiar face and, as E has said, to be able to make a joke without then having to explain it. Hasta luego, muchachos.
Tot: 1.662s; Tpl: 0.069s; cc: 10; qc: 57; dbt: 0.0287s; 1; m:saturn w:www (18.104.22.168); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.4mb