Guatemala was a journey of four quarters, which together did not make the whole picture that let me see under the skin of this diverse and, in many ways, troubled country (an ex-army general who happily admits to extra-judicial killings is way ahead in the polls for the presidential election as he is seen as a man able to tackle the drug cartels, even though he is clearly in their employment). As such i will give you snippets:
Äre those army boots?¨
My boots had been passed back from the front of the turista minibus and the muscular guy infront clearly hoped they were indeed from the military. In that moment my train of thought joined up with the mainline and made it´s way into the central station: i had met a whole load of israeli young people in the previous week or two and despite a large effort on my part not to judge them based on the war crimes and apartheid-creating tendencies of their government, I had not been able to shake off the impression that the majority- though not all- of the maybe 2 or 3 dozen israelis that i had interacted with, were aloof, insular and often bordering on rude. this had been reinforced in some conversations with guatemalan barmen and tuktuk drivers; they stay together in groups, rarely mix with other travellers (for example, in two of the places i visited they had their own hostels) and, i was told, could be really condescending to the locals.
but then i realised- some, probably the majority, of these people were fresh out of the IDF- Isreali ´defence´force- and had been told time and again that the world had an irrational bias towards the palestinians and that they might have a hard time on the road. probably why these guys had picked a place as far removed, geographically and politically, from the whole issue as possible. and, knowing that the question ´what do you do where you come from?´is part of any good getting-to-know-you travelling conversation, and knowing that ´well, i used to be in the IDF´would cause plenty of consternation amongst us right-on, left-leaning travelling types, they probably thought ´well, why bother when i can just hang out with people who Understand?´...
and would there be any point taking up the issues- the settlements, the blockade, the water and land rights, the future´- with these young, touchy and at least partially brain-washed travelling buddies? as we hiked down to the gobsmackingly beautiful fresh water pools at semuc champey behind two ex-IDF officers, i refined and re-refined what i would say to them if they asked my opinions about the whole thing. i wanted to be clear and for what i said to be useful. ´stop building settlements... stop all restrictions on goods entering gaza... bring down the wall... stop thinking of palestinians as inferior to isrealis... accept that there will never be peace whilst israel is a state based on one religion... yes i am against zionism... no it isn´t anti-semetic to be anti-zionist... we need to bring down the governments of both america and iran before there will be a solution to this issue... no that isn´t a colonialist thing to say...´and i could see the whole conversation rolling out infront of me, with my friend´s jaw slowly tightening as he either clammed up or let his fury loose. so when we sat in the cool of the pool and he told me about his experiences in the idf i said nothing, just listened. and when he told me i should ´follow my dreams while i can´and be a musician , i did not ask him when the people of gaza, 45 percent of whom are unemployed, would be able to follow their dreams... what would have been the point? if we had become actual friends, perhaps drank some whisky together, and his respect of my thoughts was high enough and his social barriers were low enough to actually maybe listen and absorb, maybe that would have been the time...
I have concluded that the best moments of travelling happen in the in between bits, the examples of the proverb ´life is in the journey´. it is the people that take you in for a meal or for the night when you are stuck in the middle of nowhere. sharing a knowing look with a old lady on a hot day as you walk down the street. trying a new fruit bought through window of a bus.
and it was with this in mind that i began to walk around lake atitlan in the western highlands of guatemala.
after the first days hike i ended up in something between a town and a village. as i walked in a guy that turned out to be the village idiot accosted me and in turns insulted me and asked me for money. i shook him off when someone else asked me what my calabash was. for the umpteenth time i pulled it off my back, fixed the mbira in it and began to play. nhemamusasa. after about a minute i looked up to see a sea- perhaps 20- mayan women, all in exactly the same traditional dress- blue with multicoloured trim, crowding around, their small stature giving the impressiom that i was in the middle of a slowly swaying sea of egg shaped blue domes. i stopped, they laughed and passed the mbira around as i asked if anyone knew anywhere i could stay. one of the women took me down some back alleys to her house, populated by three angry dogs, a load of chickens and two MASSIVE turkeys. i laid down my things, went down to the dock of the bay and played mbira in the company of two small children, one in a barcelona shirt (there are so many barcalona shirts here- after the champions league final they let off fire crackers in the small town i was in) and watched a massive storm slowly roll in.
and then it hit and the rain sheeted down as i ran up the hill to the nearest cover- the local church. and, as i half read woodie guthrie´s autobiography (an amazing book; everyone should read it) and half listened to the (at times ear splitting) church rock band soundcheck, the church slowly filled up with maybe 100 people, all the women in beautiful traditional dress.
and afterward the best chicken and chips i have ever tasted, then the next morning i sat and played more mbira as i watched my host make fresh tortillas to go with the boiled egg and beans that were my breakfast. lovely stuff. totally random, unplannable, and what i travel for.
birthday in the jungle
this time last year i was trying to smooth over the rude cracks in the SOAS end of year party at Club Egg in London. There were awards to be given out (and accusations of bias to be slighted), queues and bouncers to assuage, bands to soundcheck, DJ´s egos to manage, cleanliness and sobriety to be maintained and smalltalk to be chewed out. As I rode/wobbled home at 4 in the morning, job done, with mari on the back of my bike, i vaguely thought that whatever i happened to be doing on my birthday the following year, it would be siginificantly less stressful than the night i had just had.
and, lo, june 7th 2011 was as mellow, interesting and special as all the days in my life seem to be on this road, though most of today happened to be spent on a minibus, squashed on all 4 sides by rigid guatemalan men.
We- me and shelley- were heading into the jungle. The minibus took us to a trailhead and then an 8km hike took us from the road, though fields full of cows with huge floppy ears, and into the jungle proper. The ancient mayan people built huge structures that attached to cities all over what is now guatemala, but apart from the big tourist attractions many are wholly or partly buried under the ever-returning jungle. This was one such place- silver/black stone structures prodded out of the ground, some a few feet, some 10 or 20 metres high. One would be walking along a trail and realise the steps one was walking on were clearly the original mayan steps.
But for me, just as impressive was the natural architecture: tree roots like the sprawling limbs of a giant forming natural sets of steps. Thin but immensely strong tree creepers plunging down to the ground from unseen branches above, rooted in the soil. Extended families of mushrooms colonising the forest floor and fallen trunks. Ants making 6 inch wide paths that stretch for dozens of metres in the grass between their nests and particularly tasty trees (the overall effect of this from above was like seeing a superhighway system and cemented my (and alan merriam´s) belief that ants will be the new humans once humans die out). Monkeys in the trees howling like at the dawn of creation and then, as we tracked their cries and found the trees the were in, they became silent and just hung there and looked at us, looking at them, looking at us. And down a long, winding path a big old river and a young lady slowly paddling a canoe, with her husband slinging his net.
But as beautiful as this was, the mosquitos were relentless and the heat pressed in like an overbearing auntie and sucked away energy and enthusiasm and for the first time i think ever i dreamed of the joys of a dreary scarborough afternoon.