Guatemalan Army Elite Kaibil Troops
Usually translated as “Tigers,” the kaibiles are elite counterinsurgency troops of the Guatemalan army. According to Ronald Wright’s Time Among the Maya: Travels in Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico, the Mayan word actually implies a “double” or something of double the normal strength. Wright describes meeting a kaibil detachment as he enters Guatemala from Belize:
The pole across the road is lifted, and we are waved through, between a wooden watchtower and a sandbagged machine-gun nest. Not far beyond the tower there’s a billboard with a naive painting pf a Guatemalan soldier in camouflage fatigues. The soldier is shouting, “If I advance, follow me; if I delay, hurry me; if I retreat, kill me!” An inscription below him boasts: ¡AQUI SE FORJAN LOS MEJORES COMBATIENTES DE AMERICA!—HERE ARE FORGED THE BEST FIGHTERS IN AMERICA! I have just begun to wonder whether this is intended for Belizean visitors or rebellious citizens when I see the back of the sign, which direcs its message to those coming from the Guatemalan interior. It shows a gorilla head in the King Kong tradition, or maybe Planet of the Apes. Maniacal eyes burn ferociously, the gaping mouth is dripping with blood and armed with sharp fangs; and lest anyone fail to get the pun … the creature wears a Che Guevara cap. Above it is the single word ¡ATREVETE!—roughly, MAKE MY DAY.
Wright goes on to describe kaibil hazing rituals which include cannibalism and drinking human blood.
His book, which was originally written in 1989, is (fortunately) now a little dated. Most of the depredations on the Maya population by the Guatemalan army have ceased since a peace that was signed in 1996. Still, when I go to Guatemala in January, I plan to steer clear of the army. Many of the army posts Wright describes no longer exist. I hope.
The Airline I Will Be Taking on My Vacation
I have been talking long enough about my upcoming trip to Guatemala, but I finally took steps to reserve my flight to Guatemala City and back and reserve accommodations for the first part of my trip in the highlands. These include the Antigua and Santiago Atitlán. Within the next few days, I will also reserve single-night stays in Panajachel and Chichicastenango.
The second part of the trip—to visit the Mayan ruins of Tikal, Copan, and Quirigua—will remain fluid because of lingering transportation concerns. Right now, the plans for the second half of the trip appear to be a bit complicated:
- Take a shuttle bus from Antigua or Guatemala City to Copan, just over the border into Honduras
- Take “chicken buses” from Copan to Rio Dulce in Guatemala via El Florido and Chiquimula
- Hire a car and driver to take to from Rio Dulce to Quirigua and back
- Take a first-class bus from Rio Dulce to Flores and then to El Remate
- Take a minibus from El Remate to Tikal
- Return via bus to Flores
- Fly back to Guatemala City, or take a 12-hour first class bus back if I haven’t burned up too many days by the above
My airline of choice for this trip is Colombian-based Avianca. If you are not familiar with the airline, it is the oldest commercial carrier in the Western Hemisphere—older than any of the U.S. carriers with their money-grubbing extra fees. The plane may have Taca or Lacsa livery, because Avianca purchased these two Central American airlines a few years back. The only airline in the world that is older is KLM in the Netherlands.
I’ve mentioned this before, I think, but I am prejudiced against U.S. carriers. The last time I flew to South America, I had to take American to São Paolo, Brazil. I ordered a cup of hot tea. They gave me coffee instead. I spit it out (being the coffee-hater that I am) and complained bitterly to the stewardess, who insisted it was tea. Until she tasted it. Oh! So sorry! (And so typical.) On Avianca, they know the difference between coffee and tea.
Ruins at Mayapan in Yucatán
You can see the prejudice even in the naming of the archeological periods of Maya civilization. There is Preclassic, Classic, and Postclassic. The Classic Period ended around AD 800, while the English were struggling with Viking invaders, and while Charlemagne ruled in France. The Classic period was when most of the big pyramids and temples were built—some 700 years before Cortés and the Spanish decided to muscle in on the action.
When we travel in Yucatán or the jungles of Petén, what we marvel at are the Classic ruins of places like Tikal, Copan, Calakmul, Uxmal, and Chichen Itza. In our simple way of admiring the wrong things. The Classic period was great for the divine kings who wasted their subjects in massive construction projects and endless wars.
After the Classic period, the Maya actually improved their lot: In place of pharaonic dictates to abject slaves and massive tragedies when one of their divine kings bit the dust, the new emphasis was on trade and multiple sources of power. Of course, there were no more huge pyramids, but the Maya could spend more time on agriculture, trade, and a slightly less domineering religion.
When the Grijalvas and Alvarados began attacking the Maya, the Maya resisted. The Aztecs lasted only a couple of years under the onslaught of the Conquistadores, whereas the Maya held out until 1697, some 175 years after the Aztecs fell. Today, there are about a million speakers of Nahuatl, which was the language of the Aztecs. The Maya today number about six million in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—and they speak some 28 dialects of the Mayan language! While the Aztecs went down in flames, the Maya survived in greater strength despite multiple attempts to curtail their numbers and their power.
My First Trip
Heck, I was just a kid at the time; so I didn’t know any better. All the other family trips were decided on by my parents—and we didn’t travel much even then. Up until the mid 1960s, the farthest I ever went with them was Detroit and Pontiac, Michigan, to the west and Niagara Falls to the east. Then, one day they listened to me. I suggested that we visit Schoenbrunn Village near New Philadelphia, Ohio. We had just learned in school that it was the first white settlement in Ohio, founded in 1772 by Moravian missionaries intending to convert the Delaware Indians.
What we found was a Disneyfied patch of log cabins that looked so badly chinked that they probably had to plug the leaks every year. There was the obligatory souvenir stand on the premises and (although I do not specifically remember it) a snack bar. Of the souvenir stand I am sure, because my folks bought a rubber-tipped spear for my little brother. The return trip was hard on him so he detonated by the time we neared Akron.
It was not particularly a fun trip. Once the fact settled in that it was the first settlement in Ohio, the rest was primarily just visiting all the cabins and nodding sagely. Interestingly, Los Angeles was first settled nine years later than Schoenbrunn Village, and some of the original buildings are still around, such as the Avila Adobe on Olvera Street and scattered Spanish missions and adobes scattered around town. I guess log cabins of that design don’t last long.
Fortunately, all my subsequent trips were much better than that ill-fated day trip some 60 plus years ago.
Aboard the MV Lady Rose in 2004
I have always liked Canada. While we were losing our minds and preparing for a second Civil War, Canada remained itself—calm, reasonable, sane. One of the highlights of my 20014 trip to British Columbia was an all-day cruise from Port Alberni to Bamfield and back. The Alberni Inlet and Barkley Sound extends for many miles of isolated houses and logging camps, many of which were supplied by the packet freighter MV Lady Rose. I understand the ship is no longer being used for that purpose. On the plus side, she is at Tofino awaiting restoration at Jamie’s Whaling Station.
There is something about small ships that intrigues me. In Argentina, I took the Modesta Victoria on Lago Nahuel Huapi to Los Arrayanes National Park. The Modesta Victoria was built around the same time as the MV Lady Rose, though in the Netherlands rather than Glasgow. The Modesta victoria has recently celebrated 75 years of navigation on Lago Nahuel Huapi, which sits in the foothills of the Andes in Argentinian Patagonia.
The Modesta Victoria at Anchor
My day cruises aboard both ships were among the highlights of both vacations. The Alberni Inlet was lovely, abounding in bears and other wildlife. And the Modesta Victoria’s cruise to Los Arrayanes was spectacular. It is said (though probably this is a myth) that the orange trunks of the Arrayanes trees were the inspiration for the forest in Walt Disney’s Bambi.
A Tree in the Center of the Road? Yes, This Is Paraguay!
My mind keeps returning to Paraguay, and this without having done my Guatemala trip yet. There is something attractive to me about a country with such a screwed-up history. And yet, at the same time, the country fascinated Graham Greene and kept appearing, albeit peripherally, in his books, such as Travels with My Aunt (1969), A Sort of Life (1971), and The Honorary Consul (1973). It is also the country which gave birth to one of South America’s greatest (and most unsung) authors, Augusto Roa Bastos, who wrote The Son of Man (1960).
I want to go to Asunción, learn how to speak Guaraní, and drink endless glasses of iced tereré infused with herbs. I will read more about the sad history of the place and enjoy myself thoroughly. It will give me great pleasure to hear people ask me, “Why Paraguay?” I will, of course, answer them by saying, “Because it’s there!”
Palo Borracho Trees by Filadelfia in the Gran Chaco
Or, if I were someone other than who I am, I could take a gigantic passenger ship to some Caribbean isles where the sun will scorch the skin off my back and my fellow passengers will bore me into catatonic rage.
Fumaroles on the Road to Þingvellir
It isn’t long after you leave the airport at Keflavík that you see with your own eyes that Iceland is like nowhere else on earth. You are now in Volcanoland, on an island where there is an almost total lack of trees. There is an old joke: What do you do when you’re lost in an Icelandic forest? The answer: Stand up. Nowhere in Iceland are there trees in any number that tower above the human form. There are black sand beaches, steam venting from fumaroles visible between Keflavík and Reykjavík, hotel showers that smell of sulphur, strange ice floes tinged with a light blue shade, seemingly hundreds of waterfalls, numerous active volcanoes—and that is only the beginning.
I have been to Iceland twice, in 2001 and 2013. And I want to go again. It’s not exactly a budget destination. Yet the country is teeming with European tourists, mostly of the backpacker persuasion.
Duck-Shaped Ice Floe in the Lagoon at Jökulsárlón
On both of my trips, I visited Jökulsárlón, the lagoon full of blue-tinged ice floes from the giant Vatnajökull Glacier that is the largest in Europe. I took an amphibious boat tour of the lagoon and even tasted the ancient ice from the glacier. The lagoon is so striking that all scheduled buses passing it stop over for around an hour so that the tourists can get their fill of the sights.
Strange Rock Formations at Dimmuborgir by Lake Mývatn
The strange rock formations at Dimmuborgir by the southeast shore of Lake Mývatn are said to be the homes of elves who suddenly pop up through a hidden door and drag unsuspecting Icelanders to their subterranean halls.
Even in Reykjavík, there are strange unexplained things. To avoid jet lag, I took a ghost walk from the old harbor to the cemetery of Hólavallagarður. Although I slept well that night, I had the strangest dreams.