Greetings from Mexico! Actually, greetings from the ship as we are opting to stay aboard during our two Mexican stops, Acapulco today and Cabo San Lucas on Wednesday. Seeing the armed soldiers with drug-sniffing dogs outside our ship, and with the temperature today expected to reach 100 degrees, at least for today, this seems like a wise decision.
I don’t usually devote an entire travelogue to one port, especially one we’ve visited previously, but the day in Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala, on Saturday was so interesting that I am making an exception. Before I go further, the minimum wage in Guatemala is three times that of Nicaragua, $300 US$ a month, but the illiteracy is a surprising 23%, mostly for people living in the mountains.
And what was so interesting, you may ask. The tour to see the Pre-Olmec era pot-bellied stone figures was interesting, despite the fact there were only a few. Created by the earliest civilization in Guartemala, they were removed from their place of origin to sit in the town square of Democracia, surrounded by locals eating their lunches on the statues’ bases. Being shaded under a pavilion, the statues offered the only shade on an extremely hot day. The guide told us in advance the locals who have little to no tourism, would have as much fun watching us as we would looking at them, and that proved to be the case.
Our second stop was at a private museum in the tiny town of Baul. Let me preface this by saying when I was around ten years old, I wanted to be an archaeologist. Egypt was my first choice, and I would discover mummies, pots and gold jewelry. The unfortunate part was that I couldn’t keep it. That would not be true in Guatemala where anything found on a person’s property belongs to the landowner. In a country where there are artificial mounds scattered apparently everywhere, representing many indigenous cultures, this is significant. The museum we visited was on the property of a sugar plantation owner. His father had uncovered ruins for decades, received a grant in the 60s as well as help from an American archaeologist to catalog his finds, and built a two room museum open to the public to display most of them. These were not just bits of pots and arrowheads, but serious museum type finds including an altar with a jaguar entry, and four pillars representing the directions of the earth and its energies. The largest object is an 80 ton giant plaque, if one can call it that, that tells a story of warriors, historical figures, a dwarf and even a puppeteer. The original remains in the ground where it was discovered, hidden from view by sugar cane stalks, but is represented by a giant plaster cast along with photos of how the cast was made. A second casting is in another museum.
While most people were inside the family’s chapel—also the local church—I was taking photos of some of the stone statuary outside, when a woman and her two daughters in traditional dress came walking down the dirt street, carrying bottles of Coca Cola. They stopped and said hello in English, and I asked if they would mind if I took their photos. They were happy to oblige, and I showed them their pictures in the back of the camera, which made the smaller girl especially happy. I have a Kipling little shoulder bag with a monkey hanging from it, and she was petting it with her hand, so I decided to remove it and give it to her, which brought me a hug. Surprised me, but sweet. Also surprised they all spoke English.
Part of the tour was a visit inside the owner’s family home, and standing outside were the mother, two daughters, plus an older brother, uncle and grandparents, all displaying textiles and trinkets to sell to our group. We were told they come down from the city of Antiqua, and the owner does not charge them to sell to us—it appears to be another of his charitable acts—which he can afford owning miles and miles of sugar plantations which he leases to the largest sugar processor in Central America, located conveniently next to his property.
(More precisely he is one of six brothers, each of which has a large bedroom in the home shared by parents, children and large screen televisions! Most of the brothers live in cities now, and come to Baul mainly for holidays. )
Returning to my saga, the older sister has now spotted I have a second money hanging from my backpack, and she asks for it. I was a bit ambivalent about parting with this one, but I have the feeling the smaller girl is always favored, so I gave her monkey number two, also bringing me a hug. Two minutes later, she reappeared—did I have anything to give the brother?—who looked to be about fifteen, much older than the girls—and this time I said no. Tight about now grandma appears, thanks me for being so nice, and says I can have a discount on anything I buy. I thank her but say today I don’t need anything, though all the textiles are lovely. She walks away, but reappears a minute later with a small corn husk doll. I tell her I really don’t need a doll, but she says this is a gift to thank me for my kindness. I say that is nice, but I cannot accept a gift, but the woman is insistent, so I finally take the little doll. You are all smarter than me, and know that something else is coming, right? The older woman waits two heartbeats, looks me in the eye and says “Can I have your hat?” I look right back at her, say” No, It’s my only hat” and walk away. Fortunately for me, there were enough people making purchases that I escaped further scrutiny.
I started with an act of kindness, though Elton thinks I fell into a trap. I think the little girls will enjoy their monkeys for a long time, and I have a great story.
And I am only now reaching the most interesting part of my day. Our journey from the ship to the two towns is approximately ninety minutes, and the entire distance is sugar plantations, the number one export crop I might add. Actually the journey is ninety minutes—unless you get stopped in serious traffic jams, one going in each direction!
The first one was caused by a traffic accident, and took almost ¾ of an hour to crawl past, giving the 14 of us on our small bus the opportunity to get a close look at the vehicles nearby. Most interesting was an open-sided Coca Cola truck, filled with cartons of soda. A guard standing on the back, had a cell phone in one hand and a double-barreled shotgun in the other, and I imagine the driver was similarly armed. The driver of ne truck slowly rolling along was using both hands to assemble his lunch—one hand was holding the sandwich open and the other was squirting ketchup on it. There were open pickups filled with plantains, oranges and watermelons, entire families in battered sedans, and brightly colored ‘chicken’ buses. For those of you unfamiliar with ‘chicken buses’, they are used throughout the Caribbean as local transportation. The gaily-painted buses started life as US school buses, resold at auctions to private owners who decorate and care for them with as much care as Jay Leno does with his car collection. In Guatemala, the buses are too long to turn corners in the towns, so they are sawed in half, two rows of seats removed, and then taped, glued and welded back together. They are government regulated, have routes and proide inexpensive transport for locals except during Easter Week and New Year’s Eve. Each bus has a driver and an assistant who climbs to the roof at each stop to throw down the parcels (including chickens and occasional pigs) for departing passengers, and safely stow the new packages of those boarding.
After our guide (Karen) finished amusing us with tales of sugar and chicken buses, and unable to determine how long we would be stuck , she played Marimba music to amuse us—appropriate mood music for this situation. And we were indeed stuck since between the ship and out destination, there were no other roads.
But we would not starve! Traffic tie-ups like this must be common since soon the vendors appeared. Walking between the rows of cars and trucks were men selling bags of fruit and carrying buckets with bottles of cold water. Our guide hopped out and bought several bags of freshly baked plantain chips from one young woman, which we all shared.
Traffic accidents are also a form of local entertainment. While we were travelling at a snail’s pace, (did you know snails can halve 2500 teeth?) many young motorcyclists zipped between the cars, and when we finally reached the accident (two semi-trucks had collided) at least 60 motorcyclists and probably 100 onlookers had gathered.
Not to worry, the guide assured us, it would all be cleared up by the time we returned. As it turns out, she was correct—but now there was another jam, and this time our little bus did not move for almost an hour. More Marimba music, more stories of local lore (did you know the volcanic Mt. Fuego has been belching puffs of toxic smoke constantly since the year 1616? We even saw the puffs emerge!)—she really was an excellent guide—and this time we each had to tell something about why we like where we live. For most of the hour, we were next to a pick-up carrying oranges, and eventually Karen left the bus to purchase oranges for everyone from the driver. One vendor knocked on our door to offer soda and beer. We were one of three buses from the ship, and the guide from one of the two bigger buses about a quarter mile behind ours came walking down the road to announce his bus had a bathroom if anyone needed it. We all were relaxed and enjoying this local slice of life.
What we noticed was that no traffic was coming in the opposite direction. This is a four lane road, two in each direction, and our two lanes weren’t moving at all. However, the occasional truck would go zipping past us down on the wrong side of the road, as would the chicken buses with the assistants always hanging out the doors. Soon that lane was filled with trucks as well, and we could see the chicken buses and other vehicles now zipping down the fourth lane. Our driver, with his precious cargo of tourists, clearly was wedged in and wouldn’t have dared drive on the wrong side of the road. An hour passed, the oranges were devoured, people were looking hungrily at other trucks near ours, wondering what food goodies might be in those. It was three o’clock and nobody had eaten since breakfast—when someone spots a truck we think is filled with bananas, but unfortunately the guide says they are plantains and too green to eat.
Just then there is tremendous honking, and a chicken bus in lane four is driving backward, almost being pushed that way by the driver of a huge semi-tractor whose horn would be swearing at the bus if horns could utter obsecenities. Traffic starts to first crawl, then move at the relatively fast speed of ten miles an hour until we pass the problem. Lane one on our side is blocked by a broken down tow truck that had come to remove a broken down car. Trying to get around it, the vehicles on our side had managed to totally block the road so that all the lanes funneled into a single lane going toward the port, and no lanes could pass in the opposite direction until the huge truck decided to finally push into the jumble to free the fourth lane. As we cleared the mess, we could see the opposite side backed up for miles.
What was amazing was the calm and acceptance of the drivers and passengers, eating, talking with one another, sitting on top of their vehicles (often while moving), and the vendors who were selling food and drinks between the lanes. No road rage, no horn-honking or fights breaking out, just people having a good time in a traffic jam!
Susan and Elton