Back in the highlands

Just finished my first couple of days of really traveling on my own, and it went well. It was planes, trains, and automobiles, so to speak.
A local bus from Tikal to the nearest town (Santa Elena). Wandered around this crappy industrial town trying to find the bus station. Was given five different directions by five different people. Finally just hopped in a tuk-tuk. Turns out the one bus a day to Cobán was leaving in 15 minutes, but I needed cash. There was an ATM at the station, but it was broken.. because it’s Sunday, or something. No problem, negotiated with another cabbie to run me down to the bank downtown. Got cash, made the bus. I wanted to go to Lanquín, but couldn’t make it in one day. So I made it as far as Cobán, the capital of this region.

The driver and his buddies were doing coke up front, which they didn’t do a very good job of hiding. Lots of locals getting on and off, I was the only gringo. We made the same river crossing as with Alex.
Of course the bus dropped me somewhere out of town, and I was immediately swarmed by touts. Just give me a moment to breathe and get my bearings! I find it difficult to divine between the real information these guys can provide and their own agenda to separate me from my money. Particularly when it’s cold, dark, and raining, as it was on this particular day! Anyway, I got into a wonderfully ancient car (from the 50’s, complete with rusting out floorboards and dozens of wires hanging down from the dash) and had him drop me in the center of town, where gathered myself. Found a cheap local hotel, and all was right with the world.

We´re really up in the cloudforest here. They say it rains 13 months out of the year here. The kids grow up with webbing between their fingers and toes. They call the eternal soft rain “chipi-chipi“.
The architecture in Cobán has hints of Europe, because of the Germans who settled here around the turn of the last century. They owned most of the coffee fincas. Then the U.S. made Guatemala kick them out during WWII, since most of them were Nazi sympathizers. But their legacy lives on.
Although I should be feeling crappy (alone in a foreign industrial small town in the rain), my spirits are high. Perhaps it´s because the weather reminds me of Seattle or London. Maybe it’s the fresh air, or the holiday decorations going up. Perhaps it’s happiness born of pride – i’ve been handling things with the right attitude – no expectations, taking everything in stride, laughing and smiling at the crazy situations. And I’m happy to be on my own.

It’s nice to be back with Mayans. They’re truly beautiful people. I like their clothes, their faces. Although they initially stare, they warm up quickly when you greet them.
I stumbled upon a religious ritual going on outside a church in town, which was neat.
You can smell the cardamom walking down the street. It’s grown mostly for export to the middle east.

After one night in Cobán, I made it to where I really wanted to be, Lanquin. The ride down here was a perfect example of local transportation – at one point, I counted 21 people crammed into this microbus/minivan. 23, if you include the babes on laps.
This area is known for it’s caves and natural river pools, and for the backpacker’s haven of El Retiro, a very chilled out eco-lodge on the river. The cabañas are thatched-roof affairs replete with hammocks. Unfortunately they’re also duplexes with simple bamboo walls between, so I can hear every groan and grunt by my neighbors. I like this place, but it is so stereotypical. Tons of dreadlocks, but not a person of color to be found. Hippy food served at big communal tables. Eco-toilets that don’t use any water – instead, you sprinkle lime ash on your shit. [It actually works!] I’m trying my best to talk to people and not feel old. I think going on some of the tours will help break the ice.

This area has an illustrious past in relation to the 36-year civil war. There were four massacres in 1982 alone in this region. One one occassion, a couple hundred protesters massed in town. The army simply mowed them down with their machine guns. Women, children, innocent farmers. The really appalling thing is that the day before, the army had prepared a mass grave with bulldozers… so it was premeditated genocide. In the past few years, locals have exhumed several of the mass graves that pepper the hillsides and reburied some of the 4,400 victims from the municipality.  It boils the blood to think that most of these perpetrators are living free. Despite 8 years of investigations, only 3 very junior conscripts have been jailed, and the officers who directed the campaign remain free. Not surprisingly, when ex-military dictator Rios Montt attempted to land his helicopter here during the 2003 election campaign, he was forced to retreat back to Guatemala City under a hail of rocks.

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  • Judith Johnson says:

    Hi Josh, I loved hearing about Tikal and all. It looks impossible to climb them, so tall and steep. Your pictures are great. I’m impressed with your “no expectations”. I can’t always do that. Expecially in the rain which I of course don’t have the friendly feelings for you do. You are an impressive traveler. J

  • Clair Garman says:

    I never had the courage to walk down the incredibly steep steps of the temples I visited. I sat on my butt and worked my way down one step at a time.


  • Eddie says:

    Hi Josh–from Freiburg Germany (9:30PM)
    Finally had time on this trip to catch up on reading blog–great stuff!
    I have always wanted to do a canopy walk.
    Your picture of rambutan immediately caught my eye–have only had canned, which are very good–can only imagine fresh ones!
    I went to James’s website and watched video on cemetery in Manila– a truly unique “gated community”! –plan to look at his other things when time available– very talented–thanks for posting link.
    And the monkey sound clip–incredible– I’m trying to figure how you did it– microphone in I-phone??
    The Peace Corp folks as local resource–terrific idea and I’m sure they like to see folks from States.
    Be well–

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