Men With Machetes, Bones With Souls, Mountains With Secrets

“Not even anthropologists or intellectuals, no matter how many books they have, can find out all our secrets.”
-Rigoberta Menchu Tum

Lake Izabal

Lake Izabal

„Are you afraid of death?” he asks me with the same intonation as if he is asking Do you like yellow flowers. I don’t know how to answer. My mouth becomes dry. „When you go to the graveyard, are you scared?” he clarifies.

„When I was a little girl, yes, I was scared of death and to go in graveyards, but now no. Now I am more afraid of the living than of the death.“ We both lough at the joke.

 

Hiking through the jungle

Hiking through the jungle

 

We are walking on a dirt road through a vast plantation of palm trees, the guy and me, past a palm-oil treatment plant, across a wide shallow river, and into the shadow of a jungle-covered mountain. Ivo, Joni, and the two other guys are walking ahead of us. We met them this morning. We don’t know their names. We don’t know if they are good guys or bad guys. All we know is that they are young indigenous Q’eqchi men who agreed to take us to a cave in the mountain above their village. They are wearing jeans, t-shirts and black rubber boots, carrying small backpacks and machetes.

 

Cutting a nut-like fruit called Monok from a spiky tree

Cutting a nut-like fruit called Monok from a spiky tree

 

The whole thing happened spontaneously. We were sailing along the remote edge of Lake Izabal, Guatemala’s biggest lake. It was getting late; we had to find a place to anchor overnight. We approached the shore where a big column of grey smoke was coming out of the forest: a village, we thought, and that’s where we stopped. From the boats we saw a few houses on the banks of the lake. Tiny, made of thin logs and roofs of dry palm leaves. Behind them, the heavy humid mountains of Sierra de las Minas: white limestone covered with thick intensely green jungle. The night fell.

In the morning the entire village gathered on the shore to meet our kayak. Caxclampon Pataxte is a small community of a few hundred indigenous Q’eqchi, mostly children. Tourists don’t stop here often, and so our visit is a huge event.

 

The people from the village greeting us

The people from the village greeting us

 

“Are there caves near-by?” I ask. Only a few speak Spanish.

„Yes, there is a cave not too far; we can take you there if you like.“ Thus begun our journey.

Once we enter the jungle and start climbing the mountain there is no road anymore. Our progress is slow and difficult. The guides use their machetes to cut a path through tangled vegetation and dig holes in the steep slopes making steps for us. The terrain is extremely harsh, at places seems impossible to pass.

 

Hiking

Ivo with one of the guides, hiking through the jungle

 

By the time we reach the cave, our guides tell us all about their struggles against the Colombian palm-oil company which, since over a decade now, is exploiting and polluting their land. The vast plantations of palm trees we have seen on our way, the smoke of the palm-oil treatment plant, the channels dumping chemical waste in the lake, are all killing the trees, poisoning the water, and bringing disease to their children. They have been robbed of their ancestral land by a corporate giant and are now fighting to get it back.

 

Road through the plantation

Road through the plantation

 

By the time we come back from the cave, we have become friends. The kind of friends who look out for each other and can count on each other. We could count on them for protection against the village crooks and the company people who saw us taking pictures and filming around the palm-oil treatment plant; they could count on us to tell their story of struggle against injustice.

 

Taking a break, sharing stories

Taking a break, sharing stories

 

We get to the cave’s entrance after about three hours of extreme hiking through the jungle. It is a small hole in the grey rocks leading down. The three guys stop at the edge of the hole to say a muffled prayer in Q’eqchi before going in. We follow. It is a place they rarely visit, they say, a sacred site for prayers and rituals; for secrets and secret knowledge. We are the first white people to ever enter this cave.

 

Saying a prayer in front of the cave entrance

Saying a prayer in front of the cave entrance

 

They lead us into a narrow dark corridor, humid and cool. We get to a chamber. The light of a small flashlight illuminates scattered objects on the floor: yellow bones, human skulls, lower jaws with crooked teeth. Some are calcified to the cave’s walls; others lay loose on the ground. It is a Tomba Maya, they explain, a Mayan burial ground. The skeletons must be hundreds of years old, they say, from the times before the Conquista.

 

Inside the cave

Inside the cave

 

Being in the presence of ancient Mayan remains is something both strange and beautiful. In the dark, my mind begins to wander. The cave with its breath of a carnivorous flower becomes a temple; I become a ghost from a faraway land.

“I am honored and deeply grateful, I whisper, to be here with you: men with machetes, bones with souls, mountains with secrets.”

 

Mayan remains inside the cave

Mayan remains inside the cave

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Aquatic Protest of Powerlines in Rio Dulce

 

Rio Dulce Powerline Parade October 4, 2013

Rio Dulce Powerline Parade October 4, 2013

October 4, 2013.

Good morning Rio Dulce, Guatemala! It is a hot day today in the Rio hotter than usual. It is also a historical day.

We just came back from the first ever aquatic boat parade here in the Rio protesting against the construction of a new powerline over the river, a project by the TRESCA corporation to provide a enormous power supply to the El Estor mining operation.

 

Rio Dulce Powerline Parade October 4, 2013

Rio Dulce Powerline Parade October 4, 2013

 

El Estor Mine

El Estor mine is one of the largest nickel mines in Guatemala located in El Estor, Department of Lago Izaba, not far from Rio Dulce. The mine has a dark history. It all started in 1960 when a Canadian mining company Inco purchased the open pit nickel mine near El Estor. During the 36-year Civil War in Guatemala, the mining company cuts a corrupt deal with the military to provide „safe operations and security“. The result is somewhere between 3000 and 6000 innocent peasants killed in the region by the military whose chief of operations was nicknamed The Butcher of Zacapa. In 1970 he  is elected president of Guatemala, Colonel Carlos Manuel Arana Osorio. He promises that if necessary, he will “turn the country into a cemetery in order to pacify it“. Q’eqchi Mayan farmers are expelled from their land to make space for the mine and the construction of a town to house the miners. Public protest grows. The tension between miners and the local community rises. In the years to follow, murders, gang rapes, and more extraditions of Indigenous Mayans become regular incidents. After the end of the Civil War in 1996, new Peace Accords promise returning of historical Mayan land to the Mayans and restrictions of military and police forces. Still, the conflict in El Estor continue. In 2004 another Canadian company closely related to Inco purchases the mine without consulting the indigenous population. mayan Q’eqchi return to their lands only to be evicted by police again, without a court order. The eviction is accompanied by burning homes and gang rape of Mayan women. Today, the mining company is property of a Russian company, Solwey Investment Group, which bought it from the Canadian one in 2011 and the tensions continue. The same issues remain today: exploiting Mayan land and Guatemalan resources by foreign companies, evicting indigenous populations from their ancestral lands, clashes between miners and locals, between military and civilians.

 

 

*For more about the history of the mine read here, and  here, and watch the short documentary Violent Evictions at El Estor, Guatemala

 

Protest in Rio Dulce

 

Rio Dulce Powerline Parade October 4, 2013

Rio Dulce Powerline Parade October 4, 2013

 

Today about 50 boats of all kinds assembled under the bridge for the first time in the history of Rio Dulce  to protest peacefully against the construction of powerlines for the El Estor mine. Fata Morgana was in the middle of the boat-soup, along with other sailing and power boats, locals and from the international community,dinghies, lanchas and fishermen’s cayucos. The whole thing turned into a huge aquatic party-parade to the sound of „Johnny, la gente esta muy loca“ song.

 

Casa Guatemala Orphanage was represented!

Casa Guatemala Orphanage was represented!

Unfortunately, those opposing the project are doing it for the wrong reasons, it seems to me. It is not an opposition to the mining company and its operations in the region, nor it is in support of the local populations still suffering displacement, injustice, and oppression. The Rio Dulce boaters simply try to protect their beautiful view of the river and the Castillo de San Felipe from getting obstructed by powerlines. And the scariest part for the boaters is the possibility that the powerline clearance will be too low for some masts to pass under. Therefore, some proposed, let them build the lines under the river…

Mira holding a sign:  El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido.

Mira holding a sign:
El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido.

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Celebrating Independence Day in Guatemala.

Guatemalan boy and girl in traditional dress.

Guatemalan boy and girl in traditional dress.

Guatemala

Cuauhtēmallān, a place of many trees, of monumental stone structures in the midst of cloud forests, the cradle of the Mayan Civilization, one of the most biodiverse corners of the planet. Color of maize, scent of cacao, sound of a feathered serpent in the misty depths of the highlands. 

La Conquista

There was a brave and magical prince of stone in the place of many trees: Tecun Uman.

There came from the belly of a great ship a cruel god with shiny armor, like a red sun, to take the land and the souls of the maize men and their lord Tecun Uman.

There they were face to face Tecun Uman with all his warriors and captain Pedro de Alvarado with an army of beasts and weapons of thunder. Tecun Uman and his warriors never surrendered, attacking many times, until the prince fell mortally wounded. When he died, blackness fell upon the land of many trees.

The Colony

Blackness fell upon the land of many trees for many years illuminated only by fires of burning men and ancient gods.

Independence

On September 15, 1821, Guatemala, Cuauhtēmallān, the place of many trees, proclaimed its independence from Spanish Crown.

Celebration

Now September 15 is a day of jubilation like no other. The entire country celebrates after weeks of preparations.

The celebrations in Rio Dulce spanned for many days starting with a beauty pageant in the school. One girl is chosen to represent every class. Then the kids from the entire school vote secretly to choose the most beautiful one. It is an impossible task as they are all magnificent.

Estrella, the queen this year.

Estrella, the queen this year.

 

Another activity to celebrate Independence Day on September 15 organized by the school is a dance competition. The kids, after many days of practice, perform a traditional dance wearing trajes (traditional costumes) in front of parents and friends. While in many parts of the world traditional native dress has disappeared, the indigenous women of Guatemala still proudly wear their trajes identifying with their ancestry through them. They are also village-specific, every region has its own traditional dress. In the region of Lago Izabal the women’s traje consist of a long pleated corte (skirt) and a colorful lace huipil (shirt). The fabric for the skirts is very expensive, so is the huipil. We had to borrow them for a day from a K’iche woman so that Maya could participate in the danse. 

 

Noial, Sofia, and Maya in traditional mayan costumes. The skirt is called corte and the top is gupil. Mayan women in Guatemala wear similar clothes.

Noial, Sofia, and Maya in traditional mayan costumes.

 

Maya and Noial

Maya and Noial

 

 

The indigenous men’s clothing in Guatemala, unlike the indigenous women’s clothing, is disappearing at a fast pace. It is still visible, especially in the smaller towns, but in most places jeans from the north have already replaced the hand-woven textiles that formed pants or shorts identifying each man’s region and heritage. For the traditional school dance the boys showed up wearing traditional men costumes. I think, much more impressive than jeans.

 

Los varones

Los varones

 

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El palo ensebado

Then there was a traditional palo ensebado (greasy pole climbing). This ancient tradition has its origins in Naples, Italy in the 16th century. In Spain and in other European countries similar rituales known as el árbol de mayo and la cucaña were practised in time of religious celebrations as a cult to the gods, where dancing around the post symbolized a prayer for fertility both for the land and for the women. With the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors and the catholic religion in the New World, the ritual was adopted by the local populations. Today, it is a tradition that has lost its religious significance and has become a fun game and a dangerous challenge.

For more about the game, its origins, history, and variations, read (in Spanish) here.

 

The boys climbing the pole

The boys climbing the pole

 

The kids from the school helped to erect a 10 meter high wooden pole greased with butter in the schoolyard. An envelop with 200 quetzals was stuck on top. The kids split in two teams, boys vs. girls, and for about one hour struggled to get to the top. There was much laughter and screaming and an impressive demonstration of teamwork. Finally the girls, after piling up on five levels, won.

 

The girl who reached the top won 200 quetzales (about 28 US$) and shared them with the rest of her team.

Miriam reached the top and won 200 quetzales (about 28 US$). She shared them with the rest of her team.

 

The celebration was complete with a roast for the entire village. On the morning of the second to last day of celebrations a gift from the mayor of the neighboring village arrived: a cow. The cow, a young male calf, came in a small pickup truck and was brought to a slaughter place to be sacrificed. 

 

The calf before being slaughtered

The calf before being slaughtered

 

The next day, the entire village was invited for the barbeque. There were tortillas, black beans, salad and roasted beef galore.

 

The roast

The roast

There was the entire village lining for a piece of meat as well as many visitors from other villages.

Mira enjoying the meal in the company of two Mayan women and their children.

Mira enjoying the meal in the company of two Mayan women and their children.

 

In the evening, there was a dance party which ended with the arrival of the torches at midnight. La marcha de antorchas is the greatest of traditions celebrating Independence Day in Guatemala. Thousands of Guatemaltecos from the entire country participate each year in organized marathons that last over 12 hours. Starting early in the morning people of all ages join on the streets and run for many kilometers carrying lit torches. The participants from El Relleno started at 5 in the morning, ran to the border of Honduras, over 50 kilometers, and returned at midnight. The sight of people running with torches in the night is unforgettable.

 

The torches of Independencia return after a 19-hour marathon.

The torches of Independencia return after a 19-hour marathon.

 

 

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Inside The Storm

„When in the wind’s eye she refused to go farther and with all her sails aback she slowly forged astern. Back, back, until every watcher’s heart was ready to burst with suspense, back to that fearful maelstrom. Back, to the octopus whose arms were extended to receive the doomed ship and her crew. Back, till in the hollow of a huge wave her stempost struck the sand beneath and the story is told.“

-An account of the 1849 storm and the wreck of the Hanover, by Milton Spinney, son of the keeper.

 

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Imagine you could get to a small Caribbean island, one hundred percent virgin, covered with lush tropical vegetation, bordered by a long stretch of white powdery sand where you can go for walks in the morning and collect pink seashells, surrounded by waters so crystal and fresh you just snorkel all day among purple corals and fish. Imagine you can get there for free and stay for as long as you like to, never having to pay for airplane tickets and hotels. There, you don’t even have to worry about food. The avocado and mango trees are loaded with fruit, lazy lobsters and fat fishes are begging to be fillet and barbecued, and watch out for those big coconuts constantly falling from the palm trees just next to your bare feet. Totally free!

This is what you sign up for when you give up house and job, when you buy a sailboat and load all your belongings and kids aboard, and one fresh April morning you lift anchor, spread the sails, and chose a direction.

This island experience is not some romantic totally unrealistic representation of the cruising family’s journey. We are enjoying such moments since a few months now. The only detail that is not completely true, besides the coconuts falling next to your bare feet (if you want a nice coconut, you have to climb up the palm and get it!), is the „totally free“ part. Everything has a price, especially freedom. And not everyone is willing to afford the price of ‘free travel’. Sometimes this price can be as high as your very life and the life of your children. But you only realize that when you hit your first storm.

August 23

We are tired after a day of sailing and we still haven’t found a protected place to anchor. It is dark when we clear the reef and drop anchor just past the breakers, in sixteen feet of water, not too close to the shore of a small island where we can see the lights of a few houses. Belize City glows in the distance, further west. We are now in Belize.

This isn’t really an anchorage, there are no other boats, and between us and the sea is just a tiny stripe of coral reefs which are calming the waves a bit, but are unable to slow down the south winds. Our plan is to spend a few days here, check out the islands and snorkel around the Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest reef system in the world after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. But Neptune had other plans for us.

The next morning we wake up under heavy skies. A black cloud almost touching the sea is getting closer and closer from the south-east and soon a thick and dark wind full of rain descends upon us squealing and roaring and howling. Here comes the crazy old man riding upon the storm like a demon coming from the deep, mighty and furious. Lightnings slit the darkness around us followed by terrific explosions. We no longer see the shores of the island, we see nothing. The GPS says we are dragging anchor and fast. We turn on the motors and try to keep the boat from crashing into the reefs or to shore, but we have no idea which direction to turn, plus the wind is way stronger than the engines to be able to turn. Total chaos.

Good thing we dropped anchor away from the reefs and the shore and we had enough space to ‘drag safely’ for an entire mile. After some time, I have no idea how long the squall lasted, the wind calms down a bit, giving us enough time to reanchor and let out 300 feet of chain. Then it hits again. This time we don’t drag. We take GPS position every half an hour. The storm like a vulture circles above us and assaults us many times in the next couple of days and nights. Each squall is worst than the previous with winds of 40, then 50, then 60 miles per hour. But the boat takes it. We even get used to it and start playing cards.

On the third day looks like the worst has passed. The sky is still grey, the wind is still blowing hard but steady and the sea is rough, but no more squalls. Our wind-vane which anyway wasn’t working is missing and we are exhausted, but everything else is fine. It could be a lot worst. We could have been at sea and not at anchor, what would we have done then? Probably, for the experienced sailor, this would have seamed just a swirl of clouds. To us it was a hurricane. Later we found out that it was tropical storm Erin.

Time to sail the hell away from here, forget about snorkeling and visiting Belize, we now just want to get to Guatemala as soon as possible. Thus, we never set foot on Belize land, nor in Belize waters, we never met a single Belizean man or animal, although technically we spent a few days in Belize. Our memory of this country is populated by the terrible sounds of the storm. And the story is told.

 

Inside The Storm

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A Sunset Full of Dolphins

This was the second time we went out on the Schooner Wolf (the flag ship of the Conch Republic) for a free ride with friends.

Out at sea: the sound of the wind, a sunset full of dolphins

(for a background…)

wolf

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In the Background

I love these two Cat Pictures because of the background. The Background is a typical Stock Island Key West Florida scape.

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