Friday, December 17, 2010

Quick Update from the Land of Tortillas and Quetzales - Guatemala

The Little Picture - My Accommodations
I am staying with my friends John and Christel. John is an expat from NYC, a brilliant quirky guy who landed in Antigua, Guatemala years ago with $50 in his pocket. Since then he has opened the best dive bar in the world, Cafe No Se, as well as a cafe, Pina, and a book store, Dyslexia. He has also moved from smuggling mezcal down from Oaxaca, Mexico in jerry cans in pick-up trucks dressed as a priest to being the proprietor of the ever expanding legitimate booze label, Ilegal Mezcal. And he, with my good friend Mike, edits and publishes La Cuadra, an irreverent local magazine with an international readership online. John is a kind and smart guy. Christel is also a smarty-pants, an anthropologist from Holland who came to Guatemala and in partnership with Ana built a school, in Ciudad Vieja, which serves the slum children in that modest town outside Antigua. These are kids who would have had no options if it weren't for Ninos de Guatemala and the school the organization built. Christel is a kind and smart woman.

John and Christel recently moved into what Mike called "the nicest house in Antigua." I dare say he just might be right and when Christel insisted I stay with her this year I didn't realize how lucky I was. This place is gorgeous and roomy with a rooftop terrace and a stunning view of the volcanoes Agua and Fuego. Our neighbors include a convent and a man with 17-40 (reports vary) poodles whose chorus is more amusing than annoying. It is here that we will have the big Christmas eve party (my fourth in Antigua) with all the oddball expats and Guatemalans that make up my strange little family away from home.

My time here so far has been made up of the usual and unusual shenanigans....I will share some of the sharable. Of course, the first night I stayed up too late and drank too much, amped on adrenaline from being back among my friends. I am not usually prone to being sick but I got a sore throat and the usual diarrhea that comes whenever I land in this town. I have laughed more than is probably physically advised and have had a smattering of dramas and escapades that I dare not share here...just know my life continues to be odd and filled with love and friendship.

The Bigger Picture - Guatemala
The situation in Guatemala continues to be challenging for those who call it home. Guatemala was recently ranked the most dangerous country not at war and it has the highest per capita concentration of guns outside the middle east. Guatemalan men I know carry guns even in Antigua and I understand and am sympathetic...and frankly, it is these men that I often ask to walk me home at night. One new friend, A-, is a manager at a factory near Guatemala City where they make clothes for Gap and Banana Republic. A- invited me to visit the factory with him but warned that we have to go through "the red zone," the few dangerous blocks where he lays his gun in his lap ready to respond if attacked. He assured me that once inside the factory I would be safe as it is heavily guarded. I have not decided whether or not to visit the factory. A- and I also have a date to go to the shooting range but are waiting for his practice rounds to be delivered.

Overall the violence in Guatemala continues to increase as the drug cartel turf wars spill into the country from Columbia and Mexico. It is reported that these cartels now dominate in Guatemala, even over the Guatemalan gangs. Because Guatemala has an extremely high impunity rate and has been called "a murderer's paradise" this violence has gone unchecked. The "justice" and "security" institutions are corrupt, dysfunctional, and often complicit in the crimes they are supposed to be mitigating. These conditions make Guatemala a principle place for trafficking and warehousing drugs headed north and money headed south. When Guatemalan police have made seizures (they are rare and only a pittance of the overall trafficking) the drugs and money are often not accounted for and politicians and officials have been accused of but rarely indicted for corruption. These conditions and the shitty economy world wide has resulted in a quieter Antigua this year. There are less tourists about town with fewer folks in restaurants and walking through the park.

All this also means that the poorest of the poor and the racial majority, the indigenous Maya, continue to live in poverty and in an environment of racism and terror. Approximately 60% of Guatemalans live in poverty, most of them indigenous. The tenants of the 1996 Peace Accords continue to be ignored and not implemented and the oligarchy of Guatemalans who maintain control of most of the country's resources appear to respond to the situation only by hiring private security forces and putting up more barbed wire. One of the fastest growing industries is private security businesses with a growing number of personnel that already out rank the police force more than four to one. Gangs in Guatemala City continue to recruit the young and desperate who often do the bidding of the drug cartels. The estimates of Guatemalan gangs vary from 14,000 to 165,000, so basically, no one knows. The situation is expected to continue to deteriorate as long as corruption and the resulting impunity rates (97-99%) and poverty continue to go unaddressed.

Sorry for the bummer report but Guatemala is a tough country with intractable problems. Still, life goes on and fresh tortillas are made and children smile and Antigua continues to be a bubble of relative peace and prosperity with it's nice restaurants and colonial charm. My friends continue to do the good they can and laugh and celebrate life. Meanwhile back in the states my own fellow US Americans continue to elect selfish idiots and foment racism and homophobia. So I reckon I will continue to count my blessings, eat some tacos at No Se, enjoy the incessant laughter that marks my days here, and hold a little hope for both Guatemala and my own country.

Miss my friends and family and my sweet old dog and am also glad to have a loving crew of smart funny folks down here with whom to celebrate life and get perspective.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Merskiana Jones and the Temple de la Jungla - Another Quick Blast from Costa Rica

Tortuguero, the Northern Caribbean Coast

I won't bore you with the details of the getting there, the grumpy French people on the bus who ignored me when I said "hola" or the tour guides babbling for much of the drive, speaking first in Spanish and then translating everything into French and English. There were some highlights during the getting there, driving into a tunnel bored through a volcano and the beautiful cloud forest with it's mist and huge-leafed plants, one with the common name "the poor man's umbrella." Or the long boat ride in the the bus and on a boat I was happy, even with the cranky French tourists. After we arrived at the lodge and settled into our rooms, we went to the village of Tortuguero and putzed about. There I found more aloof Europeans, lips pursed, ambling among the ever friendly Costa Ricans.

I did make some friends, a young German couple, Mattius and Claudia, a psychiatrist and internist, respectively. They were unassuming and very friendly and we immediately hit it off. I was amazed at my own ability to be an utter smartass with limited shared language....we laughed a lot. At one point when the grounds were completely flooded and we knew not when we would leave, I made some reference to Lord of the Flies and then asserting that I would be fine because I had an Epi-Pen, a headlamp and a liter of rum. They looked at me like I was insane and then cracked up.

There was also a Dutch couple, a little older, and they warmed up after a bit. In Tortuguero the Dutchies and I sat on a porch watching the rain, waiting for the boat to arrive to taxi us back to the lodge. There was a group of Americans talking loudly complaining about TSA agents at the airport on their way out of the US. I leaned into the Dutch woman, rolling my eyes and said, "Americans." She laughed and sarcastically offered, "but her story is so fascinating." She asked where they were from and with their accents I guessed Texas, George Bush country I explained, the president for which I have spent much energy apologizing for when I have traveled out of the USA. I told her San Francisco was like a different country than Texas.

From the moment we arrived it rained...I would guess 95% of the time, much of it big-dropped tropical down pours. The humidity was intense and everything was always a little damp, if not soaked from walking through the flooded grounds. I was feeling a little claustrophobic being in a group so I arranged for a fishing guide the second day.

Cirilo with a big fat snook. 
 Cirilo picked me up the lodge and we headed into the narrow canals where the water was less turbid and the snook were running. It was pouring as Cirilo sped to our fishing spot and I was hunkered down under a giant green poncho from the lodge, getting pelted by the rain. It was awesome. As the canal narrowed Cirilo backed off the throttle and we tossed our lines and trolled large rapellas near the shore...or I should say the foliage where the shore used to be before the canals swelled and crested so that I could not find a shoreline which was surely way back in the jungle.

Cirilo was quiet, reticent even but I asked him questions and he soon relaxed a bit, answering me slowly and thoughtfully in a thick Caribbean accent. He asked me questions too and was particularly curious why I never married or had children. The history of my romantic life is a bit complicated to explain in Spanglish cross-culturally so I simply offered, "es mejor, I can fish and drink beer whenever I want...y yo sobrinas es suficiente." He agreed with a big smile and a nod and then we talked about our sobrinas with loving pride. 

Cirilo is 47, single and has always lived in the local village, Tortuguero, and has fished the canals and Caribbean since he was a boy. I asked him who is generally friendlier, the Europeans or the Americans. He quickly answered the Americans and I believe him (I think we are the most obnoxious and the most friendly). I asked if the French were the worst and he immediately said yes with an expression of disgust and then we laughed. We trolled through the canal minding our rods, enjoying the long beautiful perfectly cadenced silences that happen while fishing with men on boats. After a couple of hours Cirilo quietly said, "you are a very nice person." I half bowed towards him and said, "so are you." We grinned big at each other and then easily returned our attention to our lines and the water. His acknowledgment was worth more than a hundred fattened snook.

We caught six snook, gave one to a family who runs a modest bare-bones bar/hotel on the canal deeper inside the jungle. We had a beer with them and laughed a bit and the man complimented Cirilo's fishing skills and with a bucket full of fish I nodded enthusiastically. We continued to fish and saw butterflies and howler monkeys and a variety of beautiful birds when the rain would ease for a few moments.

When we returned with our catch I asked the Lodge manager if Cirilo could join me for dinner. She said yes but when I got to the restaurant that evening (everyone eats buffet) the lead tour guide asked me if I wanted to sit with the English speaking tourists or the tour guides and Cirilo (apparently Cirilo was not allowed to sit with the tourists). It was an easy decision and I immediately said the guides, happy to be away from the Europeans (except the sweet German couple). The restaurant fried up the snook and made a special batch of ceviche for Cirilo and was some of the best I have ever had. We all ate the fish and then I took the rest to the Europeans who seemed appreciative.

I bought the guides beers and we shared stories in Spanglish. The guys shared their nicknames which included Cirilo: Caballo; Alex: Tucan; and then Monkey Belly. Of course when Monkey Belly shared his nickname I immediately forgot his real name because Monkey Belly is just too precious. Monkey Belly explained that he was a skinny little kid with a big round belly which folks said made him look like a pregnant spider monkey. "Mer" is too weird for many Spanish speakers so I added "Captain" a little something to hold onto on the way to "Mer" (they knew me as Marie because it was the name on the reservation).
Mer with a big fat snook.
The rain kept coming big and hard and while I was fishing the others did very little as the guides didn't want to take the boats into the jungle in the pouring rain and rising canals. I was so glad to have spent the day with Cirilo in those very canals, trolling , drenched and smiling. The rain was relentless and the canals continued to rise and sheets of water rushed off the jungle inundating most of the lodge grounds. All the structures are built on stilts but many of the cement walk ways are only a couple inches off the dirt so to get anywhere one slogged through water, sometimes knee deep.

There were two reports of poisonous snakes falling from trees onto the walkway near the pool. I asked Monkey Belly if this is common and he said, "oh not just snakes, poisonous insects and scorpions also fall, but don't worry, lodge guests have natural immunity." Monkey Belly is quite the animated character and we had a great time BS-ing. He explained that when the grounds are inundated the creatures seek refuge in the trees and as it continues to rain hard and the winds blow the creatures sometimes fall out of the trees.

The morning we were set to leave the grounds were a mess, the canals had completely crested and were raging a swift current and the rain was still coming big and hard. Alex informed us we would be staying at least another night as bridges on the canals had been washed out or collapsed, roads were flooded, and there was a landslide near the volcano tunnel. We weren't going anywhere. He said we would possibly leave the next day by a charter plane or boat. I pulled aside Gabriel, a sweet 23 year old man who worked at the lodge and was very friendly with me, and I asked him to give me the real 411 on when we would get out. He explained that we had to wait for the rain to stop for the canals to be safe and the roads to be cleared and the forecast said it would stop raining the next day. Then he added that for much of the country the forecasts mean something, but in the Caribbean jungle they are usually worthless as the weather is almost totally unpredictable. He said it could be tomorrow or it could be days. Apparently this kind of flooding happens about once a year....this was the second time in 2010. I felt so very special.

We spent the extra night and did end up leaving the next day, slogging through the water to get to the boat, taking an alternate route through the canals and lowlands and banana farms. We hit horrendous traffic in the mountains where the landslide had narrowed the road. But I gotta say, it was all worth it to fish those canals with Cirilo, bullshit with Monkey Belly and the gang, and laugh with the German doctors in la jungla. And I did not listen to my iPod once as the jungle sounds and pouring rain were so beautiful that to ignore them seemed criminal.

More soon. Gonna try to get to the Pacific Coast before heading back up to Guate.