There is an art, or rather a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. I thought about this Douglas Adams quote as I wondered what the hell I was doing standing on a platform 12 stories up in the middle of the Peten jungle in Guatemala. It so green that it made my eyes hurt, a reality made possible by the circumstance. It was dead center of the rainy season filled, no doubt, with ubiquitous malarial mosquitoes and here in my harness, tethered to a steel cable no bigger than my pinky finger, I was trying to muster up the courage to throw myself towards ground and, hopefully, miss. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Part of me thought that it would be a fun idea to go flying through the jungle canopy, but standing on the platform polling which of my parts wanted to do this, they were conspicuously silent. Nary a peep.
I understand that things fall at 9.8 meters a second and accelerate at 9.8 meters a second or expressed as an equation: v = a * t. Standing there, and taking important height, weight and wind resistance factors into account, I quickly calculated that I’d hit the ground somewhere between “oh shit” and “fuck me in both ears, I can’t believe I’m standing here”. Anyone? Still, the multitude of parts was silent.
So much for flying like the angels. It’s easy for them because they are unburdened by an understanding of Newton’s second law of motion. I know I know, I’m stalling.
When I thought up this idea, Steven Newman was my first choice for travel companion. I know a lot of “travel people” and after a few drinks they think they are tough. Steven actually happens to be the genuine article. About 20 years ago he went on a very long walk.
Around the world.
For four years.
Thrown in jail four times and nearly murdered on more than one occasion on his journey, he is either the stupidest person ever or the toughest person ever. I know for a fact that he’s quite brilliant so you can rule out the former. He is also lucky. Very lucky. Yep, just the kind of guy you want on an adventure. I have the unique honor of being his brother. Not his biological one, but his real one. The difference? He brings a lot of joy and respect into my life and that is a measure of true family. He was my hero, who became my friend who became my family. Pretty damn cool I’d say and today, years after first meeting, I am in no less awe of his achievement. Order his book “Worldwalk” when you can. Trust me, you’ll be in awe too.
Steven looked at me and said “we came this far, no sense in turning back now!”.
Shut up Newman. I’m still stalling.
* * *
We arrived the day before into the rain saturated metropolis of Guatemala City in pursuit of our guy adventure. When taking travel writing courses I learned that it’s better to use strong verbs than adjectives. The strong verb appropriate for this was “drench”. The rain drenched us unceasingly at first and then only slightly more mercifully as the day went on. Arriving in the morning, our bus to Flores didn’t leave for another ten hours so we had nothing to do except to explore Zona 1 in Guatemala City. Frankly, for this essay, there’s not a lot for me to say about Guatemala City. I have been to the capital numerous times and it doesn’t blow a lot of wind up my skirt. It’s never been a destination for me other than my association with friends who live here and I’ve always been on the way to somewhere else. There are two things that stood out during our exploration of Zona 1: no one was smoking cigarettes and every other store we encountered was a shoe store.
Sitting in a restaurant, having our bargain basement priced pollo and papas fritas, we were discouraged by the television news. It didn’t take a spanish major to understand that the situation throughout Guatemala was dire. The country was receiving unprecedented rains resulting in numerous landslides everywhere. At least two landslides ended with buses and cars being swept from the road, burying all souls on board. People were homeless and shelters in some places were overflowing. Earlier the massive rains resulted in entire buildings being swallowed by a sinkhole opening up in the relatively impoverished part of Guatemala City.
This is significant because these were not tiny sinkholes. In fact, even calling them sinkholes is a misnomer. Natural sinkholes generally form when heavy, water-saturated soil causes the roof of an underground limestone cavity to collapse, or when water widens a natural fracture in limestone bedrock. There is no limestone directly under the city. Thousands of feet yes, but not immediately adjacent. No, there is something much scarier closer to the surface.
Guatemala, which you may already know, is home to almost 30 volcanoes. Over time, and by that I mean tens of thousands of years, the country has been covered by layers and layers of pumice creating a not so solid crust that’s structurally similar to a sponge. Now imagine building cities on top of this surface. Cities that will not only suffer yearly rainy seasons, but cities that will also house millions of people, all using leaky plumbing that also erodes the land. What you end up with are the occasional euphemistically named “piping features” that open up to swallow everything built on top. Holes that are typically hundreds of feet wide and hundreds of feet deep.
Our mission? To traverse from Guatemala City north to the middle of the Peten jungle to Flores by bus and hitch another minivan to Tikal, a journey of about 12 hours.
We came this far, no sense in turning back now. Indeed.
Steven and I made it to Flores and amazingly in pretty good time considering the rains. There were numerous landslides to drive around but we managed to reach Flores and catch a minivan to Tikal in short order.
It was strange returning to Tikal again. My very first visit to Guatemala was to Tikal in 1990 and I immediately fell in love with this little country. I loved it so much that I went back two weeks later to explore Antigua. This was my sixth trip back and I never tire of this place. I don’t think I ever will.
It was a different time in Guatemala in 1990. A time of war.
The Guatemala Civil War lasted from 1960 to 1996. 36 bloody years that resulted in 40,000 to 50,000 people being “disappeared” (usually into volcanoes or the ocean) and more than 300,000 just being killed outright. When traveling to this remote outpost there was a real possibility of being robbed and/or murdered by the paramilitaries. Back then, Tikal was not quite as popular among tourists and I spent my entire time climbing all over the ruins with no one or no signs to to tell me what I could or couldn’t do. The government had other pescado to fry.
Tikal is massive. There are other contemporary Mayan places like Tulum and Chichen Itza that tend to get the publicity as the places to visit, but for my money Tikal is unbeatable. It’s the Maya equivalent of the old city. It’s downtown.
Once it was the headquarters of what was the most powerful Mayan empire of the day. It’s also the most understood since we know the details of the rulers and the investigation of the place has been extensive. Here some facts to scratch the surface. There are over 3,000 structures here, the vast majority of which have not been excavated. The largest structures are excavated and they are referred to as Temples I through VI. The monumental architecture dates back to the 4th century BC and apogee of this empire is best placed at 200 to 900 AD. The peak population was probably around 90,000 people. So where did they go? Who knows? It’s still a mystery.
Whether they starved, died or were taken home by the ancient astronauts, we do know this: the Spanish never conquered them. They were all gone by the end of the 10th century.
We also know this: they were a blood thirsty bunch of folk. You get a real keen awareness of this when noticing the sheer volume of sacrificial altar stones scattered throughout the complex. It made me wonder someday, while unearthing our civilization, if future alien civilizations will see our buildings and bridges and think “Wow! What an advanced people” and then they’re going to find the electric chairs and missile silos and think “Wow! What a blood thirsty people”. As a species, there are some things you can count on with us.
Regarding the Mayans, human sacrifice was downright mild compared to the Aztecs. Mayans would save the human sacrifices for big events like ill fortune, warfare and consecration of new leaders or temples.
Oh yeah, and they mostly used prisoners from neighboring tribes.
The main attraction is the Great Plaza. On the east and west stand Temple I (Temple of the Great Jaguar. 154 feet tall) and Temple II (Temple of the Mask. 125 feet tall). The North Acropolis developed into a funerary complex for the ruling dynasty. Each new royal burial would add a new temple to the top of the existing one. It is here you will find Temple 33 and in its substructure, a giant mask of Chaac. I had heard from a park ranger years ago that when prisoners were captured they were taken to see Chaac right before their execution. I must admit, looking at it gave me the chills too. It’s so damned intimidating.
Unlike 20 years ago, there are now wooden staircases to climb the structures. Staircases that, in the U.S., would immediately be declared hazardous and roped off. Built of untreated wood and maintained maybe once a year, I am reminded of another reason I love Guatemala. You can still die there fairly easily if you try. It’s a little terrifying at the time when you’re 90 feet in the air halfway up Temple V and climbing dubious 2×4 scaffolding.
There’s a lot to climb in Tikal and climb we did. Up all the temples and after a while the superlative adjectives just fail miserably. The Peten jungle is a beautiful place. From the top of Temple IV you can see that it’s jungle for as far as the eye can see and if you practice some mindful-awareness of your circumstances, you realize your tiny place on this earth. In that regard, it’s humbling, which is probably never a bad thing to be reminded of.
It’s also not a bad thing to be reminded that bug repellent can’t be slathered on enough especially during the rainy season. Every morning it was always the same routine: wake up and immediately survey the bed. Invariably there were splotches of blood where something feasted on me during the night. Bedbugs? Probably. All the bug repellent in the world didn’t seem to help my ankles which is where the buggers tended to bite. Steven however seemed to be immune. More of that Newman luck I suppose.
After a few days in Tikal we traveled back to Flores, the largest city in the Peten region with about 14,000 people. The old part of the city is on an island in the lake, Lake Petén Itzá, that’s connected to the mainland by a causeway. It’s not a very long minivan ride back to Flores and since our bus to Guatemala City didn’t leave until late we decided to go on a boat ride.
The boat ride, like most things in the developing world, was agreeably cheap at around 10.00 for us both. It was good to get out on the water and just smell the lake and relax. The experience was everything I could have wanted in a spur of the moment ride. Confident captain, a weather worn vessel with faded colors to match and a pleasant dusk to enjoy it all. I like being on the water for the same reason I like being on a bicycle, it’s just instant zen. I’m not sure how to otherwise explain it.
It was about 6:30am, in the mountains heading back into Guatemala City when I saw that familiar look of horror on Steven’s face. We apparently had a close call with a boulder, as if negotiating the maniacal traffic weren’t bad enough. The bus driver was apparently in some hurry to get back to the city and would drive at a terrific speed, missing boulders and other vehicles at the last second.
I’m not a generally religious man but trust me on this, if you want to get a close and personal relationship with (INSERT YOUR DEITY HERE), bus rides in Guatemala are a great way to do this. When I first started riding the infamous chicken buses I would nearly gouge holes in the seats from holding onto them so tight. They are not called chicken buses because people bring chickens on board, although that happens from time to time. They are so named because the drivers routinely play pollo with each other on the mountain passes. Most of the time it’s safe (?!), but it does result in the occasional fiery bus crash down a mountainside with near certain death for everyone involved.
Here’s the easy way to imagine it. Just pack a metal coffee can with small mice, nails, a little bit of gasoline and broken glass. Now set it on fire and slam that against a wall as hard as you possibly can.
Enjoy your bus ride!
Next stop for Steven and I was Antigua. We arrived no worse for wear in Guatemala’s third capital (the first two being destroyed), a beautiful place surrounded by three volcanic peaks. The most dominant one is Volcan Agua (12,400 feet) so named because an eruption in 1541 destroyed the original capital with a mudflow. It hasn’t been active for quite some time, but looking at it from Antigua, you are aware that it’s watching. Always.
The other two volcanoes are no slouches either. Acatenango is the tallest of the three at a little over 13,000 feet and it had its last eruption in 1972. Volcan de Fuego is famous for being constantly active at a low level. It consistently fires off every 15 to 20 minutes with a loud bang. It’s also the least imaginatively named of the three (Volcano of Fire).
Antigua is a tourist dream. Everywhere are cobblestone streets with buildings of Spanish Colonial architecture. At the center of it all is Parque Central (Central Park) at the center of which is a beautiful reconstructed fountain. Also in the park on this day were school kids practicing their English and they set their sights on Steven and I. They peppered us with questions like “What did you eat for breakfast?” and “What do you like best about Guatemala?”. They were so enthusiastic at having real Americans to practice on that turning them down was never an option.
Then there was Club Habana. I have two great weaknesses I submit to when in Guatemala: Cuban Cohiba cigars and Cuba Libres made with Ron Zacapa Centenario Rum. We were in Antigua for a couple of days and after walking around, people watching and seeing the sights we ended up at Club Habana smoking, drinking and listening to a Cuban duo perform. It felt like what a 1950s club in Battista’s Cuba would’ve felt like I imagined.
Antigua is a nice place, but it has a much darker side that hits closer to home for me.
I worked for two years as a volunteer IT director for a non profit in Washington DC: the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC). It was there I met and became close friends with Sister Dianna Ortiz. Sister Dianna Ortiz is an Ursuline nun and was at an Antigua convent in 1989 when she was kidnapped by a U.S. trained Guatemalan army captain and taken to the basement of Politécnica, a police training institute near the US Embassy.
It was there that she suffered horrific torture. She was shown a picture of a woman who looked nothing like her and asked if it was her to which she replied no. Each time she answered no she was burned by a cigarette ultimately enduring 110 burns by the time it was over. It was after this that she was repeatedly raped and tortured (details of which I can’t bring myself to write).
It wasn’t as if Dianna was some sort of radical. She was taken because she was a run of the mill Catholic missionary who was unfortunate enough to be in Guatemala at a time when the military was hell bent on scaring the church. Priests, nuns, and human rights workers were routinely tortured for decades in Guatemala with the sole purpose being nothing more than to terrorize entire trades.
Dianna’s torture included having to assist killing another prisoner. She was handed a knife and with a torturer’s hands around hers, the knife was plunged into another unfortunate female prisoner at the Politécnica. She endured being placed in a pit of dead and dying people that included other women and children. Her captivity lasted for 24 hours, but during that time she ended up losing all memory of her life up to the abduction. She was only released when the American leader of the torturers, a man named Alejandro, instructed the other torturers that they had made a mistake in taking Dianna. They had the wrong woman (as if there was a “right” woman to torture). They had taken an American nun and people were starting to ask questions.
While working at TASSC, I had the occasion to see Dianna talk about her torture which she managed to do fearlessly and I don’t know how she managed. Sometimes, when others were talking about her ordeal, she would just put her head down and cover her ears and it ripped me up to see her in that state. She told me that having to talk about it again only made her re-live the experience. She would say that she felt guilty for years after the abduction because she thought that she was somehow to blame. Her shame was made even deeper by having to endure an abortion because she was impregnated during her multiple rapes. This is how you can hate people you’ve never met and I hated these people for what they did to her.
She is hands down one of the bravest people I have ever met. Dianna later went back to fight with two lawsuits in Guatemala and one in the United States. Lawsuits with the intent of uncovering U.S. paperwork of her torture. The U.S. government is a major funder of the Guatemalan military and it should come as no surprise that the State Department did what they could to cover up her torture.
Famously in a 1996 interview on Nightline, Cokie Roberts came out and insisted she was lying even though there was ample evidence of her ordeal. It should come as no surprise that Cokie Roberts’ brother Tom Boggs, worked for the law firm of Patton, Boggs and Blow, a law firm that was paid by the Guatemalan military to promote a positive images of the dictatorship and death squads in Guatemala.
My experience with TASSC made me realize that it‘s true that sometimes fictional characters can be more real than those people with real flesh and blood. People are capable of unspeakable horror and some things I am just never going to understand in a million years no matter how hard I try.
You can see Dianna’s story here, at least the first part. You can see the rest of the series at YouTube, but better yet buy her book “The Blindfold’s Eyes”.
* * *
Dateline: the market at Santo Tomás Chichicastenango, or as the locals call it, Chichi. This market has been a trading place for hundreds of years, even before the Spanish showed up. There’s a little place where I like to stop and eat a traditional breakfast before taking on the shopping. It’s scrambled eggs and mozzarella rolled into tortillas and covered by a black bean mole sauce. It is a great meal that I love so much that even now I have it almost every morning minus the tortillas.
Chichi is a large market covering several blocks with narrow walkways and vendors everywhere trying to pull you in to consider their handicrafts. Everywhere you turn something catches your eye. It’s a detonation of color with emerald greens, royal blues, cherry reds, and other bright, indescribable colors competing for your eyes. The textiles are famously multicolored and you can buy them incorporated in thousands of different items from jackets and bags to hammocks and purses.
It’s dizzying to say the least. It’s a dilemma everytime: so many things for sale with so little time and baggage allowance. The haul this time? A couple of masks, a shirt and some small worry dolls. The idea is that you place them under your pillow at night and they take your worries away. I’m not holding my breath, but I like the thought.
Now I’m standing on the platform again. Thinking back to it all, it seems like a dream which I suppose it is. All phenomena is a dream, or the as the bible says when it remarks that “This too shall pass”. I hope that Sister Dianna remembers this but it’s important for me to remember this too while I am trying to throw myself towards the ground in my quest to miss. There’s an Aztec proverb….
We only come to sleep
We only come to dream
It is not true, it is not true
That we come to live on Earth
I am comforted by this as I jump up in the air, throw back my head and fly down the wire into the unknown. Indeed, I have missed.