After six hours on the bus from Belize, the air brakes of our old bus announced the arrival of the remote intersection where we jumped out to hitch a ride to the nearby lakeside village of El Ramate. I had a small amount of trepidation about coming to Guatemala. Often travelers had warned me to be on guard or be extra careful. Combine this with the fact that the only news I had read in the states about Guatemala lately was about a U.S. tourist getting shot during a robbery, and it fanned the fear within.
Spanning the narrow Central American isthmus, Guatemala is a physical and cultural microcosm of Latin America, displaying an astonishing array of contradictions within the borders of this small country. In 1996, thirty years of civil war came to an end and the beginning of peace started. Peace is a relative term, depending on which end of the gun you are looking at. Going for a swim in the lake one late afternoon, we were accompanied by a friendly group of local people. Strewn across the wooden dock laid the pants of the cattle ranchers who had come with their friends and family to spend a quiet afternoon.
Attached to each pair of pants was a pistol, loaded and ready to go. It was explained to me this was one way of stopping those who try and take what doesn't belong to them. Then someone asked me, "It's like that in America, isn't it?" Not really,” I said. As it started to get dark, we pulled up and headed back to our hotel as they invited us to stay and drink a beer with them. Beer and guns, I thought, not a good combination, so off we went. Not long afterward, the target practice began as the shots echoed across the otherwise peaceful lake.
I am a little ashamed of how little I know about the modern remnants of the ancient Maya civilization. How is it that a people so grand and remarkable, living so close to the U.S., have escaped me for so long? But, this is a part of why I travel, to go and discover for myself those magnificent things and places that until now have existed more as an idea than a fact.
For some three thousand years before the arrival of the Spanish, Maya civilization dominated Mesoamerica, leaving behind some of the most impressive architecture in this part of the world. The Maya culture was sophisticated and complex, developing an amazing level of engineering, astronomy, stone carving, and mathematics as well as a complete writing system. Walking through the ancient ruins of Tikal brings it all to life on a scale that is overwhelming. The air is so thick you can cut it, as the humidity drips off the leaves of the lush vegetation. The atmosphere is spellbinding, as the jungle around the ruins is home to hundreds of animal species. It was here that I saw my first toucan, prompting memories of Fruit-Loop cereal commercials. The sound of the howler monkeys that brought images of jaguars attacking to my imagination all add to the intensity of this magical place.
As you walk in the shadows of the great Maya pyramids, which tower above the canopy like stone royalty, it is impossible not to be in awe.
We were the last to leave the park as the darkness had already begun to envelope the jungle when we came to a main part of the complex. It was still light enough to see an outline of the pyramids against the star-filled sky. And for a brief moment it was like being transported back in time and I pictured thousands of people sitting there looking up to the stars waiting for the great messages from above.
I am just beginning to adjust to the frontier feeling here or the sense that justice and the law are fuzzy lines in this poor country attempting to come to terms with its recent dark past. The people are kind, yet reserved, generally willing to help. Thirty years of civil war has taken its toll, leaving people less willing to chat about particular topics or opinions. For years those who did speak up would mysteriously disappear, only to be found later in a ditch in the countryside. But with a little effort, I'm finding those who are willing to chat, if even briefly. This effort is also hampered by my lack of Spanish skills.
Lucy, 26 of Guatemala City had something to share. "Come to Guatemala because the people of the United States are very interesting and I enjoy meeting them." She also added, "When they come here, they will feel at home."
I was thinking about Lucy’s words as we sat down at a little roadside restaurant shack with walls made of plywood, red plastic chairs and a blue plastic tarp draped across the top for a roof. It was just large enough for three people to sit and have some lunch and I imagine if the wind blew very hard, it would all come crashing down. The older woman serving me homemade tamales wrapped in banana leaves smiled as she sat the plate in front of me. Suddenly, the cell phone hanging from her hip started to ring and she broke into a long conversation and I thought, ‘yep, I feel right at home here.