The day after our spectacular welcome in Tapachula we were up at 5:00am to head for the border and enter Guatemala. Guatemala is a land of myth and magic, of Mayan culture and indigenous struggles, of beautiful landscapes and terrible violence, of abundance and exploitation. The programme was intense so we had to split into 2 buses; I was in the first bus that was planning to spend the night in the capital, Guatemala City and the other bus was heading a few hours further East to Esquipulas.
On route we stopped and did a couple of Marches, one through the border city where we crossed the border into Tuxtla. On this March we had Miss Guatemala accompanying us in her precarious high heals, looking beautiful and trying not to sweat too much in the heat, plus a group of drummers from Costa Rica (who you’ll hear more about later) and our new base team member, Guillermo from Argentina. We’re gathering quite a collection of beauty queens on this March, Miss Australia 2008, Miss Czech Republic 2003 and now Miss Guatemala!
The second march was in a smaller town where we were accompanied by tens of children dressed as firemen. Apparently the day is a special day in Guatemala, a public holiday where the children take part in civic events to support local services, in this case the fire brigade. It was very cute, and with the drummers and the stilt walkers it had a great atmosphere.
Later on in the bus we stopped at a place called “Los Encuentros” where the local indigenous spiritual guides performed a blessing ceremony for us. This was fascinating to watch. There was a big fire in the centre of a patch of land and the shamans were throwing different chemicals on it to produce different smokes, different flames and different smells. Then they started to throw the same chemicals into the encircling crowd (I don’t know if this was to make the base team more flammable or not but no one suffered any injury or burns!) Some of our people were very moved by the scene which was made all the more strange by the dramatic mountainous landscape and the indigenous folk of the area who are very short and wearing typical clothing of the area. We had with us a couple of great Guatemalan lads from the capital city, Gustavo and Andres, who looked like twins and clearly had some European ancestry because they towered above the indigenous guys. They looked like giants in the land of the little people. Even I felt tall!
Having received the protection from the indigenous friends we headed for Guatemala city. Along the way I spoke to Camilo, a member of the “People’s Front” a socio-political movement that doesn’t participate in elections but yet is working at the social base in a civic education project that aims to inform people better so that the population is able to make better choices at election time. Apart from being Gustavo’s and Andres’s uncle, he is very well informed about the situation in Guatemala.
Guatemala is an incredibly rich country with an incredible inequity in distribution (I think we’ve heard this story before with other countries!) Most of the Central American region’s food comes from here and in addition many different minerals are mined here, including gold and uranium. Of course none, or very few, of the benefits go to the locals – surprise, surprise. This is the biggest conflict in the country. A few control the vast majority of the resources, discrimination against the Mayan’s is rife everywhere, and the people keep on voting for the same rotten politicians.
In the evening, we arrived in the capital to be greeted on the highway by dancing, music and hot chocolate! Then we went to the central event for this team which was a cultural event in the city centre. We heard the local musicians, watched a demonstration of the ancient game, Pelota – a rather strange game where you try to get a 12 kg ball through a vertical hoop about 2 metres up a wall, with points scored depending on the part of the body you use to get the ball through the hoop – and then we made a rather beautiful peace sign with candles. I love these things – maybe I was a pyromaniac in a previous life.
We stayed overnight in a modest hotel that at least had good internet access and we slept for a few hours. In the morning (up again at 5:00am) I got rather a shock when on the bus Rafa pointed out 3 or 4 men standing around outside the hotel. These people were our security guards for the night. I rather naively assumed that we’d be safe everywhere in the world, but Camilo from the People’s Front organised security for us, just in case anything bad could happen. I’ve travelled to many, many places around the world and never has anyone organised security for me. I’d heard about bandit attacks in Latin America in the past, and clearly with a rampant drug trade and immigrant smuggling rife you never know what could happen, but still it’s the first time on the March that I’ve felt anything apart from perfectly safe.
Once on the bus we headed for Honduras and the city of Copan. This is just over the border from Guatemala and was our only plan for Honduras. This is largely due to the fact that the country suffered a coup d’etat in June. For people who don’t know the story, the President of the country was attempting to take a revolutionary path, like Morales in Bolivia and Correa in Ecuador, and call for a constituent assembly, convoking citizens to design a new constitution for the country. Now, Zelaya organised a referendum on this subject and 2 days beforehand the Right Wing parties organised with the military to storm into his residence, bundle him onto a plane and fly him to Costa Rica at gun point! The International community complained, the OAS passed resolutions, even Obama expressed his outrage (although if you ask any Central American and they’ll tell you that this coup happened with US blessing) but after all this they let the coup just happen.
The days before we arrived in Copan there was a new election which all of Zelaya’s supporters boycotted and of course the Right Wing won handsomely.
In Copan we were met by the people of the country; a mixture of indigenous peoples, Europeans, mestizos (those who’ve mixed between indigenous and Europeans) and, rather unexpectedly, Africans. Apparently during the colonial days many Africans made it from the Caribbean islands to the mainland in Honduras and established a thriving colony of their own. We were treated to African dancing and drumming, and suddenly we were transported back to another continent…
After the official welcome, we headed to the nearby Archaeological Park where the Mayan city of Copan is found. It’s incredible. There are pyramids and a huge complex of buildings that shows a great hub of Mayan culture which was re-discovered and recovered from the jungle that is capable of eating everything. There are trees hundreds of years old growing out of the side of structures and literally destroying them with their massive roots systems that can break rocks as they grow down in their search for water.
Now the site is cared for, it is a UNESCO heritage site and there are archaeologists and with time, the complex is being restored. Here we planted a tree for the World March – a local pine tree, and hopefully in hundreds of years time it will still be there for future generations to come and see the moment when human history started and pre-history was left behind.
With a big hug
P.S. There is a whole other story about Esquipulas: 2000 people waiting for the World March at 2:00am in the morning.