It’s better to burn out than it is to rust – Neil Young
The border station at Comitan is a breeze and we begin our ascent into the magical mountains of Guatemala. The feeling changes as soon as we leave Mexico.
There is an innocence here that is very old – unscathed by cynicism bred of progress. The Indian way is gentle and forgiving. I feel completely safe here, despite the atrocious human rights record of the fair-skinned Guatemalan military that protects the fincas of an even fairer-skinned oligarchy that has controlled this nation’s economy ever since their Spanish descendents landed here to slaughter Indians centuries ago. Two percent of the country’s population controls 80% of all arable land.
We arrive in Antigua – a quiet colonial town encircled by active volcanoes. People are friendly, but seem very nervous to talk politics. We sign up for Spanish conversation classes. One of the original goals of our trip was to study here in Antigua. Originally we sign up to stay with host families, but the “cultural immersion” experience involves wealthy families of right-wing preclusion who watch lots of cable TV and eat peanut butter sandwiches.
We opt for a more genuine cultural experience that includes an $8 ounce of kind bud and a room at the $1.25/night El Refugio Hotel, where ice cold showers and rock-hard beds seem more indicative of the real Guatemala. We meet many like-minded “refugees”, who share our propensity for reefer madness and midnight jam sessions on the roof of the hotel, where views of a full moon gleaming down on the fiery Fuego Volcano are inspiring. Tonight Ed – a California runaway – plays guitar, while I chime in on harmonica in a rendition of Neil Young’s Heart of Gold. An Australian named Michael rolls one-handed joints.
Language is an important window through which to understand any culture. While learning Spanish from a middle-aged woman named Muriel, a whole new body of knowledge seems to spring into being. She speaks no English, so the onus is totally on me to pick every detail of what she is saying. Our entire conversation is part of the daily lesson. I learn a good bit of Spanish in two short weeks, as well as a whole new perception of reality. The weed probably didn’t hurt in either endeavor. Tonight there is a party at the school. I talk at length with Bill, a computer hacker bound for Nicaragua. He once traveled throughout Africa in the back of a pickup. His tales fuel my desire to keep traveling.
Panajachel, Guatemala 11-7-87
“Pana” is home to scores of US and European hippie refugees who have cashed in their greenbacks and harried lives for this idyllic utopia of cheap shelter, cheap eats and cheap smoke – though all of these fringe benefits pale in comparison to the pleasant company of the Quechua people whose villages encircle the crystal-clear Lake Atitlan, on whose banks Panajachel sits.
We arrive today as part of a school outing led by Cesar – the owner of Casa Internacional de Espanol, whose rico status and jackal ways are increasingly grinding on my patient desire to learn Spanish. Brian and I quickly escape the school mob scene and grab a boat to San Francisco de Atitlan, a tiny Quechua settlement across the lake, which survives by weaving traditional clothing for the heavily-touristed Saturday market in nearby Chichicastenango.
Chi-chi pinas y cocos, sweeper keeping it clean all night
Gringos drowning poverty dressed in rainbows
It’s a 24-hour ordeal when you’re an Indian
Assassination in the paper, tranquilo aqui, alone
The table cloth, Quiche colors, a cigarette hole, laughing Texan
Study Espanol on Daddy in barrio, oil exploration Alta Plano
Little baby in a sack on her back strolling by, old man stumbling behind
Local brew got the best of his pants below his knees or wearing a dress
As we disembark the vessel at San Francisco de Atitlan, a handful of old men wearing brilliant purple and white-striped dresses come out to greet us. Guatemala is like an intense mushroom trip – colorful beyond imagination. But this takes the cake. The people in this village glow with intense light and beauty as they eagerly carry out their daily subsistence tasks. Is it this intense light that compels the dark Aryan rulers to wipe these people off the face of the planet? Is it their simple free way of life – one that neither produces nor consumes for Big Business – that threatens to break the chains through which global monopoly capitalism holds most of the earth enslaved? Is it their pantheon of animal spirits and gods that threaten to expose the Big Lie of organized religion – the epistemology for monopoly capital? Or is simply that these miserable rulers cannot bear to see such happiness in their fellow human beings?
We travel back across the lake, the sun bathing us as we ride a magic azure blue carpet embraced by the smoldering volcanoes that created it. The school hoard is gone. After a bite to eat, we stick our thumbs out on the steep road leading out of Gringotenango. Soon we are heading back down the Pan American Highway with a girl with tiny hands named Eve whom we met on the boat. Back in Antigua, we stop at the popular Mio Cid’s for a beer. Here I meet Belisario. He is the first Antiguan I have met who is willing to engage in a political discussion regarding the brutality of the US-backed Guatemalan government.
Belisario has just gotten out of prison. He had been tossed for lacking the proper paperwork on his bike. The cops told him that if he gave them his sunglasses and his knife he would be set free. He refused, so they impounded the bike and threw him in jail for 15 days. It cost him $400 US to get his bike back after he got out of prison. Belisario believes the police had a political motive for hassling him. He promises to take me to his village tomorrow to show me what so irked the authorities.
We set out in the morning by pickup then hitchhike the rest of the way into San Andres Ixtapa – a Kacchikel village in the mountains northeast of Antigua.
For the past three years Belisario has been working with Steve Gaskin and his fellow members of The Farm – a Tennessee-based self-sufficient commune formed by Haight-Asbury refugees in the early 1970’s. The Farm has been helping San Andres in the construction of decent housing and in setting up a soy-based planting and processing system that will yield such products as soy cheese, soy milk, soy yogurt and soy ice cream. One pound of soybeans will yield one gallon of soy milk. Just one 8 oz. glass of soy milk contains one person’s daily requirement of protein. The Sandinistas were trying to implement a similar soybean-based agricultural program for the whole country of Nicaragua when I was there.
The Farm began helping San Andres in 1976, when the village was rocked by a huge earthquake. Gaskin came to visit the area to find out how his people could help in the relief effort. After securing a $4 million grant from the Canadian government, he returned with fifty-four other “Farmers” to launch Plenty, a group that today operates in numerous Third World countries, providing technical assistance for projects aimed at self-sufficiency. The Guatemalan military junta saw Gaskin as subversive and eventually forced the entire Plenty organization out of the country by denying them visas. The soy dairy remains half-done and needs more funding. The Guatemalan oligarchy has bought up many parcels of land in the area upon which the villagers had hoped to grow the soybeans. Instead, the land now grows snow peas and broccoli for export to the US.
A group of women saunter by in colorful skirts, carrying bundles of firewood on their heads. Firewood has become so scarce that villagers have begun to dismantle the wooden roofs of vacant huts to burn. The streets of the village are washed out and a murky solution runs off the hills beside the road. There is no sewer system in San Andres. Belisario’s mother gives us a glass of muskmelon juice. We sit outside watching the colorful villagers desperately working their remaining fields.
Rio Dulce, Guatemala 11-12-87
This day trip with Belisario peaks my interest in the daily struggle of Guatemalans. Antigua is beginning to look tame and touristy. I want a less sanitized view of Guatemala. Ironically, a Mercedes Benz bus out of Guatemala City is just the ticket.
We freeze our asses off as the air-conditioned beast chews up the highway connecting the capital with the Caribbean banana port of Puerto Barrios, where John Morrell and Chiquita banana owner United Brands runs the show. The mafia-founded company was known as United Fruit when – with help from the CIA – it overthrew the democratically-elected populist Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. Arbenz had threatened to expropriate their extensive banana plantations and give the land to the poor.
A pretty stewardess brings us ham sandwiches and colas. We drive through burning sugarcane fields toward the coast. We think she would like to marry one of us and go to the United States – land of shopping malls and soft beds.
Dean Henderson is the author of five books: Big Oil & Their Bankers in the Persian Gulf: Four Horsemen, Eight Families & Their Global Intelligence, Narcotics & Terror Network, The Grateful Unrich: Revolution in 50 Countries,Das Kartell der Federal Reserve, Stickin’ it to the Matrix & The Federal Reserve Cartel. You can subscribe free to his weekly Left Hook column @www.hendersonlefthook.wordpress.com