An essay by Lloyd Jones

A sojourn in the Mayan world


It didn't take my wife Willa and I long to decide we needed another holiday. Winter's snow and cold aside, one or two of the tenants up in arms and the doldrums of daily tasks, the bad?news broadcasts on TV and radio, surely the time was right. Tammy our daughter, with Creighton, her five? year old son, were in Guatemala, where she was studying Spanish. We'll put it on Visa, Willa said rather carelessly, and before long, armed with travellers cheques, health insurance, and several duffle bags of stuffed toys and children's clothing, we were airbound, first to Toronto, then to Mexico City. The February blaws, I thought, as we were high above Lake Superior, that's what they call it in Yellowknife. It also occurred to me the people in Canada's north call February suicide month. With Thunder Bay far behind, and the newspapers and magazines we picked up at the Toronto airport thoroughly absorbed, the four and a half hour sardine flight from Toronto to Mexico was soon landing at the smog?covered city.

After a speedy exit from customs and immigration, we quickly realised that we might have to spend the night at the airport. With the Marriott airport hotel financially out-of-

reach, and a budget hostel no where around, we had to be content with the well?polished marble floors adjacent to the in?flight counters of Air Caribe, the carrier that would take us to the capital of Chiapas, Tuxla Gutierrez in the morning. They need a hostel at the airport, I muttered as I stuffed my winter coat into the pillowcase I had brought with me. Laying down for a rather uncomfortable nights sleep on top of the dunnage bags of soft toys and children's clothing I dreamt about what lay ahead: guerrillas, volcanoes, cobble?stoned streets, hot springs, night markets, kids selling chicklet gum, Mayan ruins, colonial churches and the like. Soon I was out like a light. Willa, the light sleeper she is, either wandered around the airport for the night, took the occasional catnap upright on the benches, or tried to sleep on the floor next to me. Morning came early, and before long we arrived in Tuxla Gutierrez, taking a collectivo to the colonial city of San Cristobal de Las Casas.

Located in the lush valley of Jovel, the city of 80,000 was founded in 1528. With beautiful colonial architecture and historical monuments, it also is the centre of the many Mayan native groups in their distinctive colourful dress who come in frequently from the surrounding villages to sell their fruit, vegetables, crafts and other wares, and to collect supplies to take back. A quotation from the Lonely Planet guide on Mexico sums it up: The city, with its straight streets rambling up and down several gentle hills generously rewards those who have time to get acquainted with it, being endlessly intriguing to explore, surrounded by fascinating Indian villages, and endowed with abundant good?value accommodation, food to suit all tastes and easy?to?find good company.

This was not our first time in San Cristobal. On other occasions, we had simply passed through, taking enough time to visit one or two coffee shops, buy some souvenirs and relax in the central plaza for a few minutes. This time Willa and I would wedge a week in Guatemala with three days spent before and after in this fascinating city. Our last visit was ten years ago en route from the Palenque ruins. In those days, we observed the extreme poverty and begging that seemed have reached crisis proportions. In spite of the rich farmland and the wealth in minerals, timber and other natural resources, the native people were very poor. On this visit, there were many tourists, and there seems to be a prosperity about the place that I had not detected before. Internet cafes abound, new cars were everywhere, and central plaza and the old colonial buildings had a fresh coat of paint, as did the cathedrals, and peoples' homes. Mexicans love to paint the adobe?looking houses with their inner courtyards with lovely pastels of varying colours, and the casas of St. Cristobal were no exception. As with Quetzeltenango across the border in Guatemala, tour groups from Italy, Germany and Japan were everywhere.

On New Years Day of 1994 people awoke to the news that four towns in Chiapas had been taken over by a group calling itself the Zapatista National Liberation Army. (EZLN). Militarily they had timed their strike against the Mexican army well, and even managed to capture the former Chiapas governor, now a military leader. Taking San Cristobal de Las Casas, Zapatistas ransacked government offices, freed 179 prisoners from the local jail, and attacked one of the army garrisons. Emiliano Zapata played a major role in the Mexican Revolution 73 years earlier. The memory of Zapata had faded into the worn pages of history. The present Mexican government headed by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is considered by the EZLN as betrayers of Zapata and what he stood for, so the Zapatistas have come back to haunt them.

We have nothing to lose, absolutely nothing, the rebels said, no decent roof over our heads, no land, no world poor health, no food, no education, no right to democratically choose our leaders, no independence from foreign interests and no justice for ourselves or our children. But we say enough is enough! We are descendants of those who truly built this nation, we are millions of dispossessed and we call upon our brethren to join our crusade, the only option to avoid dying of starvation.

On January 4th, all hell broke loose. The big guns hit back. Reports came in of a least 400 people killed in the bombing of some of the towns. Government offices were burned by the rebels. Government tanks soon arrived and the killing began. Some of the Zapatistas started killing their own people whom they branded as traitors. The mayor and a few other officials were gunned down in the central plaza in San Cristobal, the old colonial buildings riddled with bullets. The whole issue of Mexico's questionable human rights record was displayed to the foreign media. A cease?fire was arranged on January 17 and peace talks were arranged, with Mexico adopting a conciliatory approach under the condemnation of the international

community and Amnesty International. The EZLN retreated to the mountainous jungles and are still bitter to this day. Mexicans have a right to form opinions and to protest about aspects of Mexico's political life, Zapatista leaders said, Peace without respect and dignity continues to be, for us, an undeclared war of the powerful against our people. How much blood must be spilt before they (PRI) understand that we want respect not charity.

While I wandered the streets and took in the markets, Willa made friends with the hotel proprietor, herself a Zapatista sympathiser. Taking along the bags of stuffed toys and children's clothes, Willa and the proprietor drove to a few Indian villages. Imagine Canadian toys for Zapatista guerrillas! Five years after the attack on San Cristobal, it doesn't take much to realise that the Mayan natives are still rebellious, their cause still in the forefront. The pastel?coloured buildings often serve as billboards for the rebels, and the constant whitewashing of the Marxist graffiti cannot completely erase the sentiment of the people. Even the souvenir dolls in the day markets have ski masks, the trademark of the Zapatista guerrilla. Pictures of the rebel soldiers and their leader, Marcos are found on post cards and T shirts.


Chiapas is an atrociously poor area. 41% of the population has no running water. 35% are without electricity, 63% of the people live in accommodation of only one room, 19% of the labour force has no possible income and 67% of the labour force live on or below the minimum wage, and in Mexico we can take this as being very little. Despite promises of Land Reform in the constitution, nothing has happened.

While the northern part of Mexico has developed factories to cater for companies making use of cheap

labour, the southern part of Mexico has been left to become an economic wilderness. EZLN fears that the

North American Free Trade Agreement (among Mexico, Canada and the US) will keep Chiapas further

isolated and underdeveloped. Chiapans are reminded the EZLN's Declaration of the Jungle: In accordance

with our Constitution, we issue this declaration of war ....People of Mexico, we call for your total

participation in this struggle for work, land housing, food, health care, education, independence, liberty,

democracy, justice and peace.

Willa and I had time to reflect on such heavy matters as we drank our coffee under the plaza gazebo that overlooks the central square. Seated along metal park benches were old folk who gathered together to talk about old times, and shoeshine boys hoping to add a few pesos to the family coffers. There are chicklet sellers, strollers, newsboys and their readers, and the Mayan mothers and their children peddling bracelets, beads or blankets to the tourists. By the roadside each hot dog and hamburguesa vendor has staked his turf. The colonial buildings have been freshly painted, the bank in dark blue with white colonnades, the hotel in pale orange and the zapateria in brilliant yellow, with soft green window frames, the city hall and tourist office with the bullet holes filled in, and the blood covered over with shining white paint. We thought of the poverty of the folks in the countryside, the guerrillas in the hills who have been locked in a stalemate in the heavily militarised state, trying to keep their cause alive through mainstream political channels and various propaganda outlets, like the internet and their own newspapers which are readily available in the town. We picture the banners that the rebels carried when the tanks moved in: Enough is enough! Time to move on, we thought, and took the bus toward the Guatemalan border the next day.

Assigning us our seats, the bus company apologised for the late arrival of the coach going to the border. The short two?hour journey was relaxed and comfortable, save for the slish?slosh of the toilet just behind us. Passing through lush agriculture land, we eventually landed at the Mexican Customs and Immigration. A collectivio to the Guatemalan border town of La Mesilla where we quickly zipped through Guatemalan border formalities. After paying a small fee for our visa, we eventually boarded a rainbow?coloured discarded Canada?made school bus that was heading to Quetzeltenango. Such coaches are affectionately called chicken buses. Chickens there weren't, but the bus filled up quickly and soon we were on our way. The seats, built for two, held more, and eventually one young lad simply fell asleep beside me using my lap as a pillow as he was encouraged to move along the seat to allow another half?buttock. (On a bus to the Pacific Ocean beaches, a family of 5 shared my crowded space. It can be done!). Unable to sleep, I got out my Lonely Planet Guide, La Ruta Maya interspersed with Pamela Beck's The Cannibal's Cookbook, hoping that no one would suspect that I was in Guatemala for ulterior motives.

Known as the land with the eternal spring, Guatemala, with a population of about 11.5 million, (expected to double by 2021), has the largest Mayan population in Central America and is one of the most fertile and biologically diverse countries in Latin America. We came the magical way, by land, soon discovering the stunning beauty: the towering volcanic mountains, some still active, some with ponderosa pine forests, others bereft of trees and the deep ravines in between. Tucked behind these hills and valleys lie teeming townships of various ethnic Mayan Indians, where the women and men dress in intricately woven coloured skirts and sashes. The men too are proud of their brightly coloured jackets with the same intricate designs. Dirt?poor farmers, they till the soil along with their children as their ancestors did for hundreds of years. The highway we took was once a trail through the dense forests. The present?day celebrations in the small villages with enthusiastic rum?drinkers, marimba players and parades to the local church by the faithful diminish the memories of the Spanish conquerors, who with their muskets and horses were no match for the arrows and invocations of the Quiche warriors.

Guatemala's recent history has been none too happy, spawned by the colonial period of forced indigenous labour and domination by those of Spanish descent who had wealth and privilege. The Mayans who lived in the lowlands and hills near the sea and in the towns and cities became to be known as Ladinos. They eventually integrated with the Spanish, often inter­marrying and eventually accruing power and control over the highland peasants who only barely supported themselves. Only recently has a peace accord been signed to end a civil war that lasted 36 years. Courageous people, Willa would say when we got home, well aware of all the letters her Amnesty International chapter had sent on behalf of prisoners of conscience. When the first group of Guatemalan refugees came to the Ontario border near Thunder Bay in the early 80's, we listened to their endless tales of torture, death, and persecution. They told harrowing stories of watching whole villages being slaughtered, of the degradation of being imprisoned, and of their escape to Canada through what was known as the overground railroad. In Canada most people know the horrific human rights abuses on one hand, and the romanticised colourful indigenous culture used to attract tourists on the other, but the in?depth explanation for this escapes them. It is only in the last decade that Guatemalans have gained a degree of political space to write and talk about the evils of the military governments, and the succession of oppressive autocratic and self?righteous leaders. Making sense of the country's terrible beauty is not easy, except the ongoing tragedy of a whole country caused by poverty, discrimination and war and the struggles to end them is at last being told.

Through all this degradation, Francisco Morales Santos, in his poem, Let us Rejoice, enumerates the threats to life, dignity and freedom that have marked Guatemalan life. But he also powerfully celebrates the right to dream and the reasons why threats cannot quell life, ideals and relations. Nothing, he states, can take the good away from us. The indigenous people are declaring a new dawn, a time for renewal and clarity and for re?establishing their Mayan history, history and languages. It's also a time for Guatemalans to assess how they can live together on terms of equality and mutual respect.


The mists of the valley filtered through the twilight sunset as we descended on Quetzaltenango, a city of 250,000. In the darkness of the early night, accompanied by several other gringos, we made our way from the bus stop to the central plaza, and then booked in for the night at the American Hotel. Our evening stroll around the plaza was a way to unwind after the four?and?a?half?hour journey. Stationed around the plaza were the usual hot dog and hamburguesa vendors. Boys, and girls and women in their traditional costurnes sold necklaces, woven bracelets, sashes and blankets. A small local marimba band started to play drawing spectators from the nearby hotels and residences. Across from the park were the usual buildings: some banks, stores, a government tourist office and museum, the municipalidad and a cathedral, recently remodelled. The city hall follows the grandiose neo?classical style so favoured as a symbol of Guatemalan culture and refinement in this wild mountain country. There's also a palatial?like pre?colonial?like structure meant to be lined with elegant shops, but the graffiti walls indicates its slippery decline into disrepair. It houses a pub, which serves as a gringo mecca complete with internet facilities and some language schools. In the surrounding streets adjacent to the plaza is the theatre, restaurants, general merchandise shops and a coffee shop complete with quiet classical music, reading material, and the owner's giant collection of historical pictures and personal recollections neatly framed. Close by is the post office managed by Canada Post. We rested for several minutes taking in the plaza activity, hoping to discover where Tammy and Creighton might be. Hopping over to the pub, we asked if anyone knew Tammy. Is she the one with the little boy? the bartender asked. She's probably staying at the Casa Argentina, she continued. That's the gringo hostel in town.

Deciding to have our breakfast at the Pension Bonifaz, we had a commanding view of the central plaza and

its imposing pillared rotunda (without the dome). The street vendors, shoe?shine boys, chickelet sellers were out early like the park scene in the movie Mary Poppins. As we descended the stairs of the hotel, we heard a child's voice from the park: Grandma! Creighton shouted. We were reunited.


Tammy's agenda was straightforward: bathe in the hot springs, climb Mt. Santa Maria, go to the beach at the ocean, and visit Lake Atitlan.


If you can imagine a high wall of tropical verdure? huge, green leaves, ganglions of vines, giant ferns,

spongy moss, profusions of tropical flowers? at the upper end of a lush mountain valley.. at the base of

which is a limpid pool of naturally warm mineral water .... this is Fuentes Georginas, the prettiest spa in

Guatemala. (Lonely Planet: Central America). The guide book writer visited a virtual Eden, only 20 minutes away from Quetzaltenango. When we arrived (a short collectivo ride from the village of Zunil), we saw that last years' Hurricane Mitch had wiped away much of that idyllic scene. An avalanche had buried the entire spa, the restaurant at the base, and one or two guest houses. The story goes that a Japanese multinational had offered to clean up the mess and replace it with a five?star spa complex ....for the rich! The locals would hear nothing of it and banded together to clear the debris, rebuild what was damaged. It's our hot spring, the villagers said, wewant it available for everyone. We were in no hurry to leave although couldn't resist a ride back to town from the US school teacher who told us the story.

Quetzaltenango (or Xela as the locals call it) is located in a large valley at an altitude of 8,000 feet above sea level. One of the most familiar landmarks in the distance is the cone?shaped dormant volcano, Santa Maria, towering 4000 ft above the city. Gofor it, Quetzaltrekkers owner James Sim, shouted to us across the courtyard at the Casa Argentina where he had an office. This trekking group helps street kids and their families, finding them stable foster homes and offering an educational life?skills programme. Jim and his British partner Gavin provide trekkers the opportunity to experience the beauty of the highlands thus helping local children and the community. So at 4:30 AM, Tammy and I hailed a taxi to take us to the foot of the mountain.

The road soon turned to a path, overgrown on both sides by dense foliage. The mist enveloped us as we groped through the blackened air. You'llprobably never encounter bandits, Jim had reminded us but we knew that one of the risks we took was the possibility of being the victim of bandidos. Lets turn back, Tammy ominously suggested, hanging on to my coat?tail. Trudging carefully onward, I remember remarking that I would protect her. We followed Jim's map and through the darkness we could make out the lights of the city. The brightened haze in the distance indicated a new dawn. In front us, we could make out the outline of the mountain ahead of us. The advantage of a cone was that if you take any trail up, you eventually made it. On either side, we could make out fields of maize, and even the silhouettes of cattle grazing in the distance. I thought back on my last year's trip to Mt. Kinabalu in Sabah. The guide cautioned us: Step by step, take it easy, breath deeply, rest when you need to. Stumbling occasionally, hanging on to pieces of grass, young branches of trees, the trail developed into a black thick mud, rocks and broken trees blocked our way, dense vegetation hid the path ...up..up...up...we climbed. Our hearts pounding, our breathing laboured, we seemed as tiny ants as the tangled forests soon became stately ponderosa pines, towering like gigantic statues from the mist around them, their tops emblazoned against the blue sky above. The heat of the day was not quite enough to take off our coats but we rested frequently in the soft undergrowth. I closed my eyes and imagined the few hours at the hot spring the day previously. Delving into the whole philosophy of resting places, I felt it consumed my tired mind. At 63, surely this would be my last mountain, I thought. The old hymn, My Faith has found a resting place, came to me and I felt at peace oblivious to the agonising climb ahead. Reaching in her knapsack, Tammy shared peanut butter sandwiches. I had forgotten it was her favourite spread and wondered if she remembered the times when I nagged her to put the cover back on the peanut butter jar when she was a kid. Refreshed with the bottled water she had also brought with her, we were ready for the final ascent. Beyond the Olympian forest lay a band of grasslands, and eventually the summit, a conglomeration of graffiti?laden volcanic boulders. In the distance, the steaming vapours of Santiaguito Volcano intermingled with the increasing mists that soon enveloped the summit of Santa Maria. Alone, Tammy and I were soon joined by a group of Mayans, who with their tents and food were prepared to spend a night at the top. Kneeling down and facing the distant cauldron, they prayed, each in turn for having reached the top. On our backs and gazing up at the disappearing blue sky, we were also thankful. It had taken us six hours.

The descent was an agonising five?hour downhill mudsliding exercise, yet exhausted and filthy with black volcanic mud caked on our clothes and hands, we reached the village below just in time to catch the local collectivo to our hostel. We came, we saw, we conquered.

The four of us the next day made a hurried bus trip to the black volcanic beaches of Champarico and back to Xela again relaxing around Quetzaltenango to enjoy one last day of visiting the various shops and chitchat with fellow travellers at the hostel. We said our goodbye's and spent the next two days in Panajachel and around the Lake Atitlan area. Nicknamed Gringotenango by the locals, Pana is one huge souvenir marketplace teaming with tourists, European retirees, intermingling with the local artisans from all over Guatemala. For the Mayan countryfolk, Pana is a virtual goldmine where more money can be made in a day than in a month in the artisans home communities. A caldera more than 320 metres deep, Lago Atitlan is rimmed by a series of active volcanoes and small villages which have also been affected by an increase in tourism.

The visit across the lake to Santiago Atitlan is usually a relaxing time, apart from the many artisans who chase tourists to buy their wares. Tourism is not the only thing that has touched these people. In 1990, yet another act of terror visited these Tzutuhile Indians who had just been through the Guatemalan holocaust of the 80's. The army killed 13 of its citizens and caused an international outcry. With the backing of human rights organisations, the community, demanded the army's withdrawal from the area. The local base was forced to shut down and the hated civil patrol was disbanded. Soon, the Tzutuhiles were organising their own local defence system that served to sound the alarm whenever the army tried to violate a presidential order to stay out of Atitlan. Santiago became the first army free town in the country, and set an important precedent for demilitarisation. Clinging to its traditional lifestyle, Santiago Atitlan embraces the past. The women still weave and wear huipiles with brilliant coloured flocks of birds and bouquets of flowers embroidered on them. Any day seems to be market day. Evangelistic gospel music comes from every home, and various Protestant denominations compete with the Catholic church for the souls of the people.

The greatest curiosity is the reverence the local people give to Maximon, a local deity, a cross between Alvador the famous conqueror and the biblical Judas. Despised in other towns, Maximon is revered in Santiago Atitlan. His effigy with a wooden mask and huge cigar is paraded triumphantly during Holy Week processions. Legend has it that centuries ago, Maximon was a man who offered to take care of all the town's women while the men attended the fields. When the men came home one evening, they found Maximon in bed with their wives and so they cut off his arms and legs in revenge. This rum?and?cigar man attained godhood soon afterwards.

We sensed a renewal coming from decades of war and social unrest. While many of the disparities in wealth and status remain between the minority ladinos and the majority indigenous people, there are signs of new beginnings and new opportunities encapsulated by the New Dawn prophesized by the Maya of old. There is hope that in the years ahead Guatemalans can overcome its history of segregation and discrimination.

Soon our trip would come to an end. After leaving Tammy and Creighton for a few more days of Atitlan, we took the bus back to San Cristobal de Las Casas. Choosing to spend our last night in Chiapas de Corzo, twenty minutes from the Tuxtla Gutierrez airport, we relaxed under its broad shady trees, and sipped fresh orange juice beneath the cool shelter of the colonnades surrounding the central plaza. This was our resting place as we thought of the Zapatistas and their ongoing struggle, and the citizens of Guatemala wrestling with the dreams that they hope to make into reality.


As the poet Francisco Morales Santos reminds us:  Nothing and no one can take the good away from us. Dream on, dream on, dream on.


Lloyd Jones

Submitted: October 04, 2014

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