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july 28th, 2005 -> temples and tapados of guatemala

Max – our friendly hostel owner – gave us and three young British girls a ride to Tikal from San Ignacio, Belize.  I admired the ladies' bravery: they could not speak a word of Spanish and had great difficulty understanding how much money they had just withdrawn from an ATM.  But they were there, and they were trying.  The parking lot was filled with buses and cars when we arrived.  Tikal is the largest, best-known and most-visited Mayan site: 120,000 visitors arrive annually.  We stowed our backpacks in the kitchen of a little restaurant – “just make sure to order a sandwich or something there to pay them back,” Max advised – and hurried to the museum.  It looked as if it might rain at any moment.  Too quickly for my liking, we surveyed the warehouse-like space, which was stuffed with extraordinary stelae and exhibits (in Spanish) about the discovery and extensive restoration of Tikal's buildings.  I wished that I had more time and my copy of “Time Among the Maya,” but the sky continued to darken outside. 

Clutching our map of the ruins, we marched along a system of well-maintained trails towards the Temples I and II.  We couldn't see them until we were upon them, so dense was the canopy.  Several tourist groups clustered around their guides, listening half-heartedly to the history lessons and gaping skyward.  The two temples facing the plaza were higher and steeper than anything we had seen at Caracol and Xunantunich.  Their staircases were almost ladders.  On the other sides of the plaza, like bleachers stretching between two goalposts, were the North and South Acropolises.  Temple I – the Jaguar Temple – was off-limits for climbing, while Temple II had a twisting wooden staircase at its side. 

I was extremely disappointed.  I had really wanted to climb the Jaguar Temple, to power up its steps without stopping and arrive panting, deserving the majestic view.  But the more popular a destination is, the less accessible it becomes.  A few tourists climbing the staircase would be all right, but hundreds daily would destroy it.  Your hardy backpacker-types could scale it safely, but less-agile tourists could easily tumble to their deaths or worse – sue Guatemala for insufficient safety measures.  Finally, most tourists liked to take photos of the temples without other tourists crawling all over them.  I understood and agreed with all that, but it still vexed me.  “Show me the waiver and I'll sign it,” I complained to Nori.

It began to rain.  We rushed along to Temple IV, which we climbed by means of a ridiculously steep wooden staircase.  The kids loved it, laughing as they climbed, while their parents swore and sweated.  We sat near the top, looking over the canopy towards the aligned apexes of Temples I-III.  It was one of the most famous views in Guatemala, but it reminded me of something else that I couldn't recall until later.  Tikal had been used as the set for the rebel base in the original Star Wars.  In a scene that lasted only seconds, X-Wing Fighters buzzed past the temples and landed in the jungle.  A large group of Americans wearing “Mundo Maya Tour 2005” T-shirts made it to the top and began talking at incredible volume.  One woman thought she saw a friend standing atop the “Lost World” Temple – at least half a kilometer away – and began shouting and waving at her, oblivious of the dozens of other tourists trying to peacefully enjoy the view.

One overcast morning, we zoomed down the wide Rio Dulce (Sweet River), past sporadic expatriate mansions with docks whose awnings sheltered gigantic motor yachts.  As the river narrowed, the clouds released pulses of rain that had us scrambling for jackets and backpack covers.  Then we entered a deep gorge, its echoing walls muffled in layers of exuberant vegetation.  Colorful birds perched on yellow cliffs streaked with guano.  I had to laugh.  If we had been in Papua New Guinea we would have been climbing those cliffs, not gazing at them.  The Caribbean began at the end of the gorge.  On cue, the clouds parted and the sun roasted us in our rain jackets.  The river widened, and black children stared at us from simple thatched roof homes.

Black communities stretch along the Caribbean coast from Belize to Costa Rica.  Brought from the islands centuries ago to work fruit plantations, fell trees or build railroads, they created an Afro-Caribbean culture that is more Jamaican than Central American: a laid-back (some would say lazy) lifestyle, seafood, beaches, coconut-flavored stews, reggae music, and marijuana.  They speak English, though many know Spanish well.  New highways have reduced the geographical isolation of the communities, but they remain culturally apart.  Predictably, many non-blacks viewed the Caribbean coast as a crime haven.  “It's like the Wild West, out there,” a man in Nicaragua told us, “No laws, no police.  You have to be careful.”  Historically neglected by their Spanish-speaking governments, the tourism potential of this “undiscovered” corner of the Caribbean has – at least partially – opened officials' eyes.  Though their governments would never cede the land, I often thought how appropriate it would be to give the Afro-Carib communities of Central America their own country – a black Chile, long and narrow, snaking from the Yucatan to Panama.

Livingstone is only accessible by water.  It sat on knoll overlooking the mouth of the Rio Dulce, a motley assortment of concrete and clapboard buildings rising between the palms.  A trio of Rasta men met us at the dock, paying particular attention to three blonde German girls.  “Wel-kome to par-a-dice ladies!  You godda place to stay?”  They greeted a dreadlock-wearing German teenager like a compatriot, performing a complex handshake ritual that he faked badly.  We walked uphill to the center of town, passing three heavy black women whose foreheads dripped sweat.  They were angry about something, but I couldn't catch a single word.  They might have been speaking Garífuna, a hybrid language spoken by the mixed-race ancestors of Indians from the Guianas and blacks from shipwrecked slave galleons.  Two-story concrete shop houses and open-fronted restaurants flanked the main street, many painted in bright colors to attract tourists.  Only pedestrians and bicycles filled the street.  There were no cars.  There was nowhere to drive on this mainland island.

We walked to the end of the commercial district, where the road dropped over the other side of the knoll, and found a tiny restaurant.  It took a while to locate the waiter.  “Do you serve tapado?” we asked.  He shouted a question to a woman at the back of the restaurant, and another to the shopkeeper across the road.  After they had responded, he smiled and nodded.   I sweated and panted while we waited, emptying a bottle of Gallo beer in one gulp.  A half-hour later, a chubby woman brought out a large, steaming tureen.  She lifted the lid – tapado means “covered” in Spanish – and a heavenly aroma overwhelmed our noses.  Crawdads, shrimps, fish chunks and a whole, small crab stewed in a seafood-infused broth of coconut milk, chilies and other spices.  The hot, sweet and spicy soup was the wrong thing to eat at midday in the Caribbean, but I didn't care.  It tasted divine.

On our way back to Honduras, we stormed off the bus after a shouting match with the driver.  We were convinced that he was overcharging us, and the locals sitting beside us seemed to agree.  Indignant, I rushed to the ticket office in tiny Poptún and discovered that the fare had been high, but correct.  Feeling stupid, we sat and had a soda while we waited for the next bus.  Across the road, a pizza shop was advertising its grand opening. Two mammoth speakers blasted music at eardrum-shattering volume.  “That's how they do it here,” explained the Dutch owner of the convenience store, whose presence shocked me until I saw his pretty half-black, half-Indian wife smiling from behind the counter.  We told him about our bus incident and he laughed.  He seemed pleased to speak English.  “You have to be careful.  That bus company is run by a crime syndicate.  The boss owns most of the land around here.  A few months ago, another bus company tried to start operations, but their drivers kept getting shot.”  Twenty minutes later, we meekly boarded the next Fuente del Norte bus – which we renamed “Mafia del Norte.”  “Rambo: First Blood” was playing on the VCR.