Refugees

Salvadoran Refugee and Daughter Drowned While Attempting to Swim the Rio Grande

The photograph above of the bodies of a Salvadoran refugee and his two-year-old daughter will be the iconic image of our president’s attempt to stem the tide of immigration from so-called “shithole countries” to the south. I have visited a number of these countries and found myself admiring the people I met.

Many of these refugees are Guatemalan Maya escaping the bad government that has dogged their country ever since 1954, when the United States deposed President Juan Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán in a coup d’état for daring to oppose the destructive policies of the United Fruit Company. I guess that made him a Communist in the eyes of the U.S. State Department under John Foster Dulles. Ever since 1954, Guatemala has been ruled mostly by rightist generals, some of whom, like the infamous Kjell Eugenio Laugerud García and José Efraín Ríos Montt went in for large-scale genocide of the indigenous population. Some 200,000 Maya men, women, and children lost their lives.

Jacobo Arbenz, Deposed President of Guatemala

Since 1996, the scale of the killings has abated, but not stopped. Under Jimmy Morales, Guatemala is not an entirely safe place unless one has renounced indigenous ways. That’s why many of the refugees from Central America are Maya from Guatemala.

I have also gone across the border into Honduras (to see the Maya ruins at Copán). If I thought Guatemala was a poor country, as soon as I crossed the border into Honduras, I saw that the economic situation was more dire. That, plus one of the country’s largest cities, San Pedro Sula, was ruled by criminal gangs and, for a while, was the murder capital of the world.

My concern is that the United States under Trump is slowly turning into a shithole country. If so, where will we go for aid? And will we be welcomed? Not likely.

 

An Unforeseen Difficulty

A Protest Around La Unión Hold Up My Trip

As I have written before, the biggest transportation problem on my trip was getting from Copán, Honduras to Rio Dulce, Guatemala. In the end, I was right. There had at one time been shuttle buses that made the trip, but either they had been canceled or occurred only during certain times. In the end, I cut a deal with a Honduran travel agency called Baseline Tours out of the Café ViaVia to hire a car and driver to:

  1. Drive me to Rio Dulce
  2. Allow for a one- or two-hour stopover at the Maya ruins of Quiriguá on the way

I wound up paying 1,700 Guatemalan quetzales (about $217) for a car and driver to take me there. I could have taken public transportation for much cheaper, but it would have thrown a monkey wrench into my schedule. I would have had to take a collectívo to the Guatemalan border at El Florido, a Litegua bus to Chiquimula, and an (unspecified) second class bus to Quirigua, where I would have had to spend the night. And then, I would have had to face the chore of a bus from Quiriguá to Morales, and from Morales to Rio Dulce. So I spent the money and adhered to my schedule.

Except there was one little unforeseen difficulty. Midway between El Florido and Chiquimula, the highway was closed in both directions because the residents of La Unión were protesting en masse some government dictate or malfeasance. For an hour and a half, I sat in the car reading my Kindle when—quite suddenly—the local police (shown above) started letting traffic through.

It is not unusual to find whole towns in Latin America shutting down access to and from their towns while they make their point to the government. Bolivia is particularly notorious for this type of action.

In the end, I got to Quiriguá and Rio Dulce with time to spare. It was not an accident that I left early, around 8 AM, to allow for this sort of hindrance.

 

The Copán Ruling Dynasty

 

Altar L with God/Kings of Copán

When I first began traveling in Maya lands, the Maya did not appear to have a history. Now that so many of their glyphs have been translated, we see that—particularly in the Classic Period between AD 600 and and some point in the 9th century AD, most of the major archeological sites not only had a history, but a rich one as well.

The first event recorded at Copán in Honduras was in 321 BC on Altar I. There was a founder of a dynasty called K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ who ruled between 416 and 437 AD. Then there were two unnamed rulers before K’altuun Hix dedicated a carved step inside the Papagaya Structure around 480 AD. There were two more unnamed rulers before Balam Nehn (524-532 AD) and Wil Ohl K’inich (532-551 AD).  After an unnamed Ruler 9, we have a filled-chronology that takes us all the way to 822 AD:

  • Moon Jaguar (553-578)
  • K’ak’ Chan Yopaat (578-628)
  • Smoke Imix (628-695)
  • Waxaklajuun Ub’aah K’awiil, better known as 18 Rabbit (695-738)
  • K’ak’ Joplaj Chan K’awiil, better known as Smoke Monkey (738-749)
  • K’ak Yipyaj Chan K’awiil better known as Smoke Shell (749-763)
  • Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat, better known as Yax Pac (763-820)
  • Ukit Took’ (began reign in 822 AD)

It was Ukit Took’, the last known ruler of Copán, who dedicated Altar L, shown above, identifying his predecessors. There are no known dates at Copán after 822 AD.

What happened in 822? The kingship failed for various reasons, as it did around then through most of the adjacent area, for environmental reasons (probably drought), overpopulation, and a change in the form of governance.

As alien as the dynastic names above may seem, the chronology is surer than that of many European dynasties of the period. The calendar was sacred to the Maya, so they were sure to note the exact date that events occurred—and that didn’t even happen in most European countries of the Dark Ages.

 

Speed Bumps

A Poor Man’s Speed Bump: Just Stretch a Thick Rope Across the Road

It’s not unusual to find speed bumps or humps on suburban residential streets in the U.S., but Mexico and other Latin American countries put their speed bumps on major roads that cut through populated areas. In Mexico they were called topes; in, Guatemala, tumulos. It was in Honduras that I first encountered speed bumps that were thick ropes stretched across the highway. In the above photo, the rope is on the main street through Rio Dulce (a.k.a. Fronteras).

On the route I took from Copán, Honduras, to Rio Dulce, it seems that we went over a hundred or more speed bumps. Every community seemed to have them on the main highway from Zacapa to Puerto Barrios and the Petén.

 

 

Tuk-Tuk? Nyuk-Nyuk!

An India Import: Auto Rickshaws, or Tuk-Tuks, from Bajaj Auto of Pune, the World Leader

If one travels to smaller towns in Central America, one is likely to travel around town in an auto-rickshaw, called a tuk-tuk from the sound of its engine. Above are two tuk-tuks parked near the public dock in San Juan la Laguna, on the shores of the Lago de Atitlán. In towns where taxicabs exist, they generally are more competitive, costing 5 or 10 quetzales instead of 20 or 30 quetzales (or more). As of today, the quetzal is worth 12.7 cents based on OANDA Corporation’s currency converter.

Riding a tuk-tuk is sort of fun, if you relish the experience of being puréed in a blender. Given the cobblestoned streets and the quick sideways maneuvers to avoid oncoming automotive traffic, you are likely to be tossed about a bit. And if you look closely, you won’t see anything that resembles a seat belt. You just have to hold on for dear life.

In Guatemala and Honduras, I have seen tuk-tuks with a driver and up to four passengers, three sitting in the back and one perched precariously next to the driver. But then, the Maya are not a large people. You can probably fit two American adults, max, in one of these three-wheeled wonders.

Tuk-Tuk Traffic in Panajachel

At first, I was afraid of trying to ride a tuk-tuk, until I found myself stranded at the eastern edge of Antigua. I was footsore from walking too many miles on rough cobblestones and narrow, dicey sidewalks, and I didn’t see any taxes passing by the Santo Domingo Museum, but a tuk-tuk stopped for me; and I was happy to take a load off my feet.

Back from Guatemala

At Santiago Atitlán with Volcan San Pedro in the Background

Last night, after an agonizing ninety minutes going through customs after a number of jumbo jets had disgorged over a thousand Chinese, I finally returned home. We wasted no time in going to sleep, as I was still on central time. The last day of my vacation was twenty-six hours long.

All in all, the trip was a success. I went everywhere I planned to go using a variety of transportation, including airplanes, tourist shuttles, tuk-tuks (more about these later), fast motorboats, buses, taxis, and at one point a hired car. My itinerary was as follows:

  • Los Angeles
  • Guatemala City
  • Antigua
  • Panajachel
  • Santiago Atitlán
  • Chichicastenango
  • Antigua again
  • Copán, Honduras
  • Rio Dulce
  • Flores/Santa Elena
  • El Remate
  • Guatemala City
  • Los Angeles

The toughest part, as I suspected in advance, was going between Copán and Rio Dulce. That’s where I hired a driver through a Honduran travel agency to drive me to Rio Dulce with a two-hour stopover at the ruins of Quirigua, which was on the way.

In the weeks to come, I will describe the vacation in some detail, as well as including a number of historical, cultural, and other observations as they come to mind.

 

 

Hondurans Invade American Space

Honduran Invader Armed to the Teeth

Even as thousands of Hondurans are making a bid to upset the American government, I am planning to invade Honduras. On Friday, I went to the Bretton Woods Foreign Currency Exchange in Brentwood and bought $140 worth of Honduran lempiras. (That’s not a food: It’s what their currency is called.) I checked to see f they had any Guatemalan quetzales, but they were dead out. I’ll just hope to get those at La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City.

My Honduran destination is only a few miles shy of the Guatemalan border: The Maya ruins at Copán. It will be the first Maya archeological site for my upcoming trip. The others are Quirigua and Tikal, both in the Petén region of Guatemala.

Five Lempira Note

The Five Lempira note illustrated above has a portrait of Francisco Morazán, the only figure in Honduran history I have ever heard of before. He figures in John Lloyd Stephens’s Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatán as the generalissimo of the Central American Republic, which existed briefly before splitting up into its component parts.

I hope the Hondurans manage to find some place in the world of the Norte after they succeed in overthrowing the Trumpf Dictatorship.