Why I’m Stuck on the Maya

Maya Girls

My first real trip outside the borders of the United States was to Yucatán in November 1975. I was so entranced with what I saw that I kept coming back to Maya Mexico for years, until 1992. During that time, I also wanted to go to Guatemala, but a civil war between the Maya and the Ladinos (Mestizos) was raging until 1996; and Guatemala was on the State Department’s “Level 4: Do Not Travel” list until just recently. Even now, the State Department as the whole country classified under a blanket “Level 3: Reconsider travel to Guatemala due to crime” warning.

Why is it that I am so fascinated by the Maya that I would risk flouting President Trumpf’s State Department?

For one thing, the Maya are incredible survivors. The Aztecs were ground down by Cortez within two years. In Peru, it took forty years before resistance was smashed by Pizarro and his successors. And the Maya? That took a full 180 years before the last Maya kingdom (at Tayasal in Guatemala) was leveled.

Today, there are 1.5 million speakers of Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. There are some 6 million speakers of the 26-odd Mayan languages and dialects. Of course, the Incan Quechua language has even more speakers: some 8.5 to 11 million speakers in several South American countries.

In recent years, there have been several disturbances in the Maya area:

  • In Mexico, there was a Maya war against the Ladinos in Yucatán that lasted from 1847 to 1901 and a Zapatista revolt in Chiapas that flared briefly in 1994.
  • In Guatemala, there was a violent civil war against the Ladinos from 1960 to 1996. It is estimated that tens of thousands of Maya were massacred by the army.
  • In El Salvador, there was a civil war from 1979 to 1981. (Only some of the indigenous peoples involved in that one were Maya.)

The Maya are still there, occupying large parts of Mexico (Yucatán, Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, and Quintana Roo); Belize; Guatemala; and parts of Honduras and El Salvador. It is no small achievement for them to have survived so much persecution for upwards of 500 years.

That is what interests me.

 

 

Quiriguá

Zoomorph at Quiriguá

Now that Martine has returned for the time being, I can turn my attention to other things, like that dream of Guatemala that is taking shape in my mind. One of the Maya ruins that I hope to visit is Quiriguá, which is nestled close to the border with Honduras. As the crow flies, it is not far from the even more spectacular ruins at Copán just over the line into Honduras.

In the 1840s, John Lloyd Stephens and his artist Frederick Catherwood paid visits to Copán, Quiriguá, and Palenque. Below is one of the many stelae at Quiriguá as drawn by Catherwood:

Stela at Quiriguá

Quiriguá is actually a small ruin that can be seen within a couple of hours. The trick is getting there in the first place. As I have mentioned in an earlier post, I have been informed that some shuttles that go to Copán also pay a visit to Quiriguá as part of the return trip to Guatemala City or Antigua. But as I look at the map of Guatemala, I see that the road network is nowhere near the routing of flying crows. It would probably add a couple of hours to the return trip. So I remain skeptical until I can get some information from someone on the ground in Guatemala.

Portrait of a Sucker

Scene in the Crafts Market, Otavalo, Ecuador

There is nothing quite like the crafts market of a Latin American city like Chichicastenano, Guatemala; Otavalo, Ecuador; or Cusco, Peru. One wonders down narrow ways awash with color and aglitter with native ingenuity. There are times when I felt bad for not buying far more handicrafts than I could reasonably be expected to carry—especially the textiles. What I do buy is usually small enough to fit into the single bag with which I travel.

I remember the first time I felt this way. I was in San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico. It was December 1979, and I was fascinated by the Highland Maya textiles. It was then that a little Chamula girl, no older than eight or nine, sold me a little doll in native costume that she had made herself (or so she said). As she was describing it in her Highland Mayan dialect of which I knew not a single word, and stroking it as if it were something rare and magical, my heart melted and I bought the doll. I still have it on one of my bookshelves, resting against the Latin American literature section.

At some point, I’ll take a picture of it so that you can all see what I sucker I am. I suppose it is better than being heartless.

San Pedro La Laguna

San Pedro La Laguna on the Shore of Lago de Atitlán

When I visit Lago de Atitlán in Guatemala, I plan to stay at San Pedro La Laguna rather than Santiago Atitlán. There is more to see and do in San Pedro, and I can always take a lancha (covered motorboat) across an inlet of the lake to Santiago Atitlán. It would make a nice day trip from San Pedro. While there, I can visit the Maya god Maximón and make an offering to him for a safe trip, and I could visit the weaving cooperative.

Why San Pedro? It seems there are more places to stay. The town has something of a reputation as a party town for backpackers—and that aspect of the town is one I wish to avoid at all cost. When I travel, I like to sit down and read my Kindle—not listen to an international crowd of juveniles who have had too much aguardiente to drink. In fact, I generally prefer to avoid places where backpackers congregate. I guess this is all part of the “will you rotten kids get off my lawn” aspect of aging.

 

 

In Dubious Terrain

Volcanic Steam Vents Near Þingvellir Iceland

It is almost five years since I last set foot in Iceland. Curiously, most of the vacations I have had since then have been in earthquake and volcanic zones. It is almost as if being in highly dubious terrain has become a metaphor for my life. All those Icelandic steam vents, all those fumaroles—they are a handy symbol for the curve balls that life can throw at you. I am reminded of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, in which Pilgrim must walk a straight and narrow path from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, which is Heaven.

My first memory of Iceland, going back to my first visit in 2001, was of all the steam vents on the Reykjanes Peninsula between Keflavík Airport and Reykjavík. Then, too, there were those fields of geysers where one had to stay on the path if one didn’t want to fall through the crust and end up boiled to death within seconds.

The Volcano Sabancaya in Eruption Near Arequipa, Peru

In my seventy-third year on this earth, I find I must walk on the straight and narrow path lest I fall by the wayside. Living with Martine was a pleasant distraction—one I would gladly suffer again—but on my own, there are more things that can happen to me. I am determined to take good care of myself, insomuch as that is possible.

As you read these little squibs of mine, I should not be surprised if you could tell that something is wrong before I can inform you of the details.

In the meantime, I continue to plan for my vacation later this year in Guatemala, another land of earthquakes and volcanoes.

 

Beliefs—Rigid and Lite

Yes, He Certainly Looks Rigid

What is C-3PO doing in this blog? I put his picture here because the actor who played the robot in all the Star Wars films was named Anthony Daniels, but he is not to be confused with the writer Anthony Daniels. I guess the confusion was so much for the latter that he now goes by the name Theodore Dalrymple.

By now, I have read quite a few books about Guatemala, my next trip destination, and he is the first writer who checked his beliefs at the door. At first glance, I thought his sympathies lay with the hounds, in this case the dictators/army generals who were responsible for some two hundred thousand deaths in the period of the Civil War, roughly 1960-1996. But then I saw that he was giving equal ink to both sides of the war and making cogent arguments that showed he was a good listener. He spent several days in Nicaragua talking to Sandinistas and Sandinista sympathizers. As both a travel writer and a physician, he even spent a couple weeks serving as a doctor on an isolated coffee finca that could be reached only by airplane.

At one point in Sweet Waist of America: Journeys Around Guatemala, Daniels (or Dalrymple) writes:

In fact, Guatemala is not a country for those who want the world to be neatly divisible into good and evil. Perhaps such countries do not exist. But to restore my confidence in my ability to recognize evil when I encountered it, I sought an interview with General Benedicto Lucas García. I had tried to contact his brother, General Romeo Lucas García [the worst of the recent Guatemalan dictators], but he was never at home….

He also interviewed General Efrain Ríos Montt, who was one of the worst recent rulers and who is now an evangelical preacher. Naturally, he did not fess up to having authorized any massacres.

Around this time, I started getting interested in Daniels/Dalrymple. On Wikipedia, there was an interesting summary of the recurring themes in his writing. These include:

  • The cause of much contemporary misery in Western countries – criminality,domestic violence, drug addiction, aggressive youths, hooliganism, broken families – is the nihilistic, decadent and/or self-destructive behaviour of people who do not know how to live. Both the smoothing over of this behaviour, and the medicalisation of the problems that emerge as a corollary of this behaviour, are forms of indifference. Someone has to tell those people, patiently and with understanding for the particulars of the case, that they have to live differently.
  • Poverty does not explain aggressive, criminal and self-destructive behaviour. In an African slum you will find among the very poor, living in dreadful circumstances, dignity and decency in abundance, which are painfully lacking in an average English suburb, although its inhabitants are much wealthier.
  • An attitude characterised by gratefulness and having obligations towards others has been replaced – with awful consequences – by an awareness of “rights” and a sense of entitlement, without responsibilities. This leads to resentment as the rights become violated by parents, authorities, bureaucracies and others in general.
  • One of the things that make Islam attractive to young westernised Muslim men is the opportunity it gives them to dominate women.
  • Technocratic or bureaucratic solutions to the problems of mankind produce disasters in cases where the nature of man is the root cause of those problems.
  • It is a myth, when going “cold turkey” from an opiate such as heroin, that the withdrawal symptoms are virtually unbearable; they are in fact hardly worse than flu. [Remember, Daniels is a physician.]

Anthony Daniels/Theodore Dalrymple

  • Criminality is much more often the cause of drug addiction than its consequence.
  • Sentimentality, which is becoming entrenched in British society, is “the progenitor, the godparent, the midwife of brutality.”
  • High culture and refined aesthetic tastes are worth defending, and despite the protestations of non-judgmentalists who say all expression is equal, they are superior to popular culture.
  • The ideology of the Welfare State is used to diminish personal responsibility. Erosion of personal responsibility makes people dependent on institutions and favours the existence of a threatening and vulnerable underclass.
  • Moral relativism can easily be a trick of an egotistical mind to silence the voice of conscience.
  • Multiculturalism and cultural relativism are at odds with common sense. [I don’t altogether agree with this one.]
  • The decline of civilised behaviour – self-restraint, modesty, zeal, humility, irony, detachment – ruins social and personal life.
  • The root cause of our contemporary cultural poverty is intellectual dishonesty. First, the intellectuals (more specifically, left-wing ones) have destroyed the foundation of culture, and second, they refuse to acknowledge it by resorting to the caves of political correctness.

Now this is a largely conservative set of beliefs that do not coincide with mine, but I like the man’s even-handedness, especially in his Guatemala book. The man makes me think, and it helps me to understand in some way the Trumpf revolution of 2016.

 

Miguel Ángel Asturias

Grave of Miguel Ángel Asturias at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris

It was almost twenty years ago that Martine and I were wandering through Paris’s gigantic Père Lachaise cemetery in the 20th Arrondissement. There were a number of surprises, one of which was the grave of Miguel Ángel Asturias, who died in 1974. Rising above a bronze funerary plaque is a Maya stela similar to the ones found at the ruins of Quiriguá in his native country. To this day, he is Central America’s lone winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, which was awarded to him in 1967.

I have been interested in visiting Guatemala for many years. During the time I was most available to go, Guatemala was in the middle of fighting an armed insurrection by a mostly Maya peasantry who were tired of being forced off their land, enslaved, or massacred. Between 1960 and 1966, some 200,000 Guatemalans died fighting, mostly Maya campesinos. I have just finished re-reading Asturias’s first major novel, El Señor Presidente, set during the presidency of Manuel Estrada Cabrera, who ruled from 1898 to 1920. I have been a big Asturias fan since 1975.

Miguel Ángel Asturias

Now that I am pretty much decided on Guatemala as my next vacation destination, I will add at least two or three more Asturias novels to the ones I have already read. To date, I have finished:

  • El Señor Presidente (1946), his most famous novel
  • Men of Maize (1949)
  • Strong Wind (1950), the first volume of the United Fruit Company trilogy
  • Mulata (1963)

I plan to finish the other two volumes in the trilogy—The Green Pope (1954) and The Eyes of the Interred (1960)—both of which were translated by Gregory Rabassa, one of my favorite translators from the Spanish.

Although Asturias is so identified with the Maya, it is interesting to note that he comes from a well-to-do Creole family that could trace its origins back to 1660.