Guatemala – round “two” many Gallos

Sunday March 7th at 4:30am my cell phone alarm twinkled its delightful tune to inform me that it was time to move my ass.   So I did, for my second visit of the year to Guatemala, home of my new favorite beer – so appropriately named Gallo (rooster).

After arriving in Guatemala City, I waited in the airport all day for my 6pm flight to Flores, Peten, with Rafa.  Peten is the northern jungle region of Guatemala, home to the famous Tikal Ruins of the Mayan Civilization and some of the most dense populations of Jaguars in the Americas.  The flight was short and sweet; we took off looking at a sunset background behind the skyward thrusting peaks of volcanoes.  Cristian Beltran, a chilean actor and director was at the aiport in Flores to meet us.

Flores is a typical tourist town built on an island in lake Peten Itza surrounded by a hot tropical setting and the real Guatemala. (please note that I will try my hardest to refrain from commentary that deals with various personal observations and opinions that I have been gathering over my visits which include but are not limited to; religion, tourism, and the ethics of driving) Restaurants, bars, hostels, hotels and point and shoots waving frantically through the air.

Lake Peten Itza at Sunset

Cristian lives in San Andres, a 25 min drive from Flores but still on lake Peten Itza.

The first day, Cristian took myself and Rafa for a drive into the jungle.   We picked up two of Cristian’s friends from Flores who are self made filmmakers and we drove to Tikal national park.  Tikal is the famous Mayan ruins you may have seen featured in Star Wars, unfortunately we were unable to visit them because of time restraints and because the park manager was absent when we arrived at the admin building – surprise.   This did not deter us, and we drive a further 45 minutes on a dirt road through the national park to a town called Xuatactun (wash-ak-toon) or (washington) where there are other Mayan ruins.  This is actually one of the communities where Daniella Prieto, another Chilean artist is working with ArtCorps however she was not there that day and we met with her later that week.

Mayan Ruins.

The ruins were a great sight, impressive even though it is one of those things you hear about all the time to the point that it becomes ordinary – but moments like that should never be ordinary and if you allow yourself to be humbled by the awesomeness and mystery of such a place then you can truly appreciate it.   There is a large camp site in the community where  archeologists from all over world stay who are studying the site.

Cristian is working with ACOFOP, the association of forest communities of Peten.  It was created in 1990 when the government of Guatemala declared Peten a protected region – the Mayan Biosphere reserve.   The mission was to serve the hundreds of communities that already existed within this newly declared reserve in order to educate and support the lives of so many who depended entirely on the use of the land around them, which from one day to the next was declared protected.   This is not a unique case in the world, however I see it as a problem that goes under the radar of importance.   What if the government of Canada declared Quebec’s water ways as protected and Hydro Quebec could not function, there might be an economic problem which would require a change of plans – this is the point of ACOFOP in a nutshell.

My next stop was in the highlands of Guatemala, Alta Verapaz, where Amy Glasser from Chicago is volunteering for the year.   Amy is a visual arts major working to bring art to the methodology of FUNDENOR, an organization aimed at the economic and social development of the northern regions of Guatemala.   Purulha, a small mountain community where the main office of FUNDENOR is located, is a quaint little town in Alta Verapaz.   Alta Verapaz is one of the largest coffee producing areas in Central America (comment about coffee industry shall be withheld until a later date).  We spent the day in meetings with the organization administration talking about the plan for the year.

Youth in Alta Verapaz.

The following day we took a drive to one of the communities where FUNDENOR works heavily in the mountains called San Lucas Chiacal to see a workshop dealing with proper breeding and feeding of chickens in relation to human health and sanitation.  Have you noticed yet how many ‘Sans’ there are in Central America?  This very rural community consists of an entirely Poqomchi’ population.   Poqomchi’ is one of the 29 languages that are spoken in Guatemala, most of which are variations of ancient Mayan.  The youth who attended the workshop were a fairly enthusiastic bunch and I spent a little time with a few of the boys trading words in different languages – yeah man!  is a favorite expression – and Karate is apparently a French word – hilarious.  Something that I have noticed, and was brought up throughout various workshops with ArtCorps artists learning about local culture and teaching methods, is the lack of participatory personalities.   This is a problem especially in rural areas of Central America, and I have to assume much of the world, where traditional teaching methods use the follow the leader approach.   Basically, the teacher knows everything and the student knows nothing, so they just listen and copy.   The problem with this is that the students never learn to think for themselves so when asked a question, they either do not know how to begin to find the answer or even if they know it or think they know it, they are too afraid to speak up because of their acclimatization to the know it all tradition.  This is something I think ArtCorps is hitting right on the nose, trying to dissolve this outdated, almost oppressive style of education by allowing education to be a two way street – you learn from me just as I learn from you.   Everyone has something to teach everyone else, regardless of your level of education and this is something I think is extremely undervalued in most of the world today.  I said I would try and refrain from comments to do with religion, however I need to address this one observation.  While I was in Guatemala, I kept seeing religious phrases that made me extremely upset.  I am unsure if they are simply worded poorly or what, but when I read:  “Without Jesus you cannot change your life”  I am amazed at the arrogance of such a declaration.  This is where I will leave it because I am nowhere near qualified to debate the validity of religious teachings.

The next stop on the tour was Lake Atitlan, a tourists mecca in Central America and a case study of its own for another time.  Elena Rodriguez from Madrid is living in San Juan la Laguna, one of the lakeside towns that border the relatively large freshwater lake.  She is a community based artist who has been working on social issues for the past several years in Costa Rica and in Amsterdam.

View of Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan has suffered severe degradation in the past couple of decades.  Non existent sewage systems, runoff from animal farms, and other harmful activities saturated the lake with waste and chemicals resulting in a cyanobacteria epidemic (blue-green algae).   The spread of algae was so bad that NASA images picked up images from space – so of course I had to go swimming!  haha, its actually cleaned up alot since last year so I was told.  Efforts to clean up the lake are strong because of the driving tourism industry that keeps alot of the economy afloat in the surrounding area.   Myself, Elena, Amy, Cristian and Antonietta who all came to visit one weekend went to a music festival in Santiago Atitlan which was held to raise money for the conservation of the lake.   It was mainly tourists flocking in from all the surrounding towns for a night of good music, dancing and “peace and love man” activities.  To summarize the night, it was delightful.

Traveling is great and an incredible education, but man is it tiring.   A friend of mine recommended I write a song about traveling on buses so much… I think I just might.

Well, I don’t want to bore you to death so I will cut off this post here.   I am learning a a lot on this assignment and the year is starting to bring some very appetizing prospects for my professional work.   Photos for this post will be up soon – I am currently without internet at home and am using a local coffee shop’s wireless connection.  Stay tuned.


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