Guatemala #6 Alta Verapaz – Chicacnab

After doing some research in Coban, I found an organization that organizes hiking trips to remote villages in the cloud forests of Alta Verapaz. I arranged for a local guide, Manuel, who met me at the bus station in Coban to lead me to his home where I would meet his family, see his daily life and hike around in pristine forests. Manuel is a Keqchi speaking campesino who only comes to town several times a year to resupply. His occupation is to grow his milpa (corn and beans) among other odd jobs (now ecotourism!). Some years he cannot grow enough food for his family and must go to work for a month or two at a time on coffee, sugar cane or African palm plantations. As I spoke of in previous posts, the living conditions and wages on these plantations are horrible but lacking any formal education Manuel has no other options. He and his family must eat.

There were several bus transfers involved as the towns got progressively smaller and the method of travel more uncomfortable. Six hours later, what started in a comfortable bus with actual seats driving on paved roads finished in the back of pickup truck careening down winding, bumpy, dusty dirt roads. From the village center of Chicacnab (this term is used very loosely, basically a church and a single store selling soap and candles) we hiked for 45 minutes up into the mountains to reach Manuel’s two room wood and corrugated aluminum home. Manuel learned Spanish in the army but his family of seven children (ages 7-23) and his wife only spoke Keqchi and what little Spanish they had learned in school. I was housed for two nights in a little bungalow separate from the home. It was fascinating to watch the daily routines of the family as they went about their business, basically living as the Keqchi have been for hundreds of years, the only difference is that all the children had cell phones. There was no electricity though so the family had one solar panel to charge their radios and lights. There was no running water either, the family walked twenty minutes to collect water from a well that was shared with several other families.

Communication with words was limited but I used a lot of sign language and gestures to share experiences. By far the most social place in the home was the kitchen which consisted of a raised bed of dirt upon which sat an open fire, surrounded by blackened cooking pots and the odd chicken or young child running around. The ceiling and rafters were absolutely covered with a thick coating of black tar, from years and years of smoke from the cooking fire. The family and I would congregate in the kitchen before meal times to watch the process of cooking, as the master chef barked out orders to the younglings for more water, pass the salt or get the dog out of the kitchen. Of course this all happened for me in a world devoid of meaning as I could not understand a single word that was said. Therefore I had fun imagining the conversations and adding my own subtitles. Occasionally I would ask the words in Keqchi for household appliances and food items, of which we would all have a huge laugh as I horribly pronounced the words (keqchi is very difficult, consisting of sounds that we don’t have in English and requiring some lingual gymnastics to sound correct). I self-appointed myself the job of grinding the Maize in the hand turned grinder for each meals tortillas. This was hands down the best food I’ve eaten yet in Guatemala. Because of the altitude (around 5,000 ft.) a type of yellow maize is grown here. The yellow maize has a much richer texture, more fiber and a much heartier flavor. Contrast this with the lower elevation maize which is white in color and much lighter in taste and texture. Manuel´s wife varied every meal and over the course of the two days I had vegetable soup, stir fried vegetables (most of which grows locally wild), beans, eggs, bean and vegetable tamale and tayuyo (tortillas stuffed with beans), all of which was accompanied by fresh homemade spicy jalapeño tomato salsa.

Manuel had the typical campesino stoicism, but after some patience opened up quite nicely to share is point of view on a wide variety of issues. We talked about community life and his dreams for the future. He described how the community supports each other by helping to plant each other’s fields. There is a phrase here “hoy por ti, mañana por mi” which is “today for you, tomorrow for me”. The campesino men all gather and spend the day on one man´s field, then the next day on another, and so on until the whole community is sown. The host man´s responsibility is to feed his labor force. While exploring around the community I witnessed this tradition many times, much to the delight of the locals who all would stop working and wave to the long haired gringo walking around. A rare sight in these parts I am absolutely certain, given the amount of attention and wide eyed stares I received.

During the day I also hiked around in the forests that surround the village. Unfortunately I witnessed severe deforestation in many areas, with the majority of land cleared to plant milpa. The campesinos on the whole do not understand the biological value of these forests in terms of biodiversity and climate control. I explained to Manuel and another farmer who I ran into in the town how forests control climate by producing moisture through transpiration, which then falls back as rain in cycle. When you deforest a region, the moisture is not produced by the trees and the climate gradually dries up. This is already being observed in this region which is currently in a drought. Coincidentally this phenomenon of local climate change in response to deforestation is credited with playing a huge factor in the collapse of the Mayan civilization after the year 800 AD. The program that organizes the family home stays is trying to persuade the campesinos to save the forest by demonstrating that an intact forest can attract eco-tourism opportunities. Manuel has about 10 guests per year, I am not sure he is convinced. But aside from this, the forests here are amazing, characterized by humid tropical cloud forest teeming with mosses and a plethora of air plants, orchids and flowering trees and bushes. It was surprisingly cold here as well with temperatures dipping into the 40’s at night. Additionally I saw 7 quetzals! The quetzal is Guatemala’s national bird and is a huge icon in the country. They are actually quite rare now, due to deforestation and human activity they are confined to several small forest reserves and scattered forest plots. I was so lucky to have seen them, they are amazingly beautiful birds and the historical and cultural significance adds to their grandeur.

On the bus Manuel mentioned that he knew a man from a community nearby that had lived in the United States and spoke English quite well. Of course fate would have it that while wondering around the community I ran into this man. After speaking basically nothing but Spanish for weeks it was interesting to see someone fumbling around with the English language. This is how I must appear with Spanish at times! Anyway, this man was extremely friendly and we talked for a long time about his experience (in English, so he could practice). For his privacy I will call him Lucas, and he shared with me his entire story which was extremely humbling to hear. Like many Latino Americans, He had crossed illegally in the desert from Mexico to Arizona in pursuit of better economic opportunities. He crossed with a group of 20 others, which took 5 days of walking, day and night with only enough food and water for one day. Lucas was caught by US immigration in Phoenix, from where he was returned to Mexico. Not to be deterred he crossed again, this time successfully reaching Chicago from where after several jobs he ended up in Alabama working for a doctor on a horse farm. His brother was also with him and found employment in a chicken production factory. Both were in debt to pay the fee for the help they received to cross (around $5,000 US), but they paid their debts quickly and began sending money back to Guatemala to support their families. Lucas learned English by taking classes and stayed for 4 years before the pain of missing his family pulled him back to Guatemala. With the money he earned he was able to buy a sizable piece of land for his family to farm in addition to starting a local transportation business running a collective taxi between communities surrounding Coban. The reason for wanting to go to the US in the first place is because here in Guatemala there are simply very few opportunities for employment. This is the number one complaint I have heard here. No employment. And due to this people are forced to rob, kill or deliver black market goods, as they literally are left with no other options. If you are landless and unemployed here, your best option is to go to the US illegally and work a minimum wage job in agriculture. Before my trip here I didn’t understand this. Now, after seeing the level of dissatisfaction and the levels of unemployment and economic disparity between the rich and the poor it is plainly obvious to me that to work an agriculture job in the US is a hundred times better than scrounging for work here. For example, Lucas told me that he could go to work on a plantation and after living expenses (monopolized by the plantations) earn twenty five quetzals a day. This is approximately $3.50 per day! In Alabama he was making $8 an hour! The choice is obvious and now I totally understand his situation.

The most humbling aspect of my time talking to Lucas was how he told me of the racism and discrimination he received from Americans. I thought of all the spoiled, jaded, racist and ignorant people who put up their noses at Latino agricultural workers and treat them like some sort of sub human workforce.  Of course these people do not understand that the US agricultural system absolutely, 100 percent depends in immigrant labor. Immigrant labor fills a sector of the US economy that is considered too low for the majority of US citizens to consider working in, when in reality this opportunity to work is an absolute godsend for millions of people. I felt deeply for Lucas’ story, as he was a wonderful human being who just happened to be have been born on a different side of an imaginary line drawn in the sand. It pained me deeply to hear of the abuses he and his fellow workmates had been the victims of, mostly at the hands of police and business owners who exploit immigrant labor knowing that their workforce is illegal. With immigrant policy a hot topic in American politics right now, I know that I am going to start paying a lot more attention as we are talking about living, feeling, loving human beings just like you and me. And the next time you go to the grocery store and select that piece of fruit or vegetable, remember that there is a 99 percent chance it was picked by hands of an immigrant laborer, so please give thanks to this underrepresented and taken for granted aspect of our culture.

That’s all the raving I can do for the moment. I am on to the Caribbean now for a short jaunt to Honduras where I will learn how to scuba dive! Then the cultural critique will recommence as I head up into the mountain Highlands of Guatemala.


Guatemala #5 Alta Verapaz – Coban


I am now in Coban, a cool little mountain town with a history of German development and coffee farming. Most recently Cardamom has taken the spot as the top cash crop although everyone here is quite upset because prices are really low. Good for India i guess! (the prime export market for Guatemalan Cardamom)

Today, while awaiting a guide to do a cloud forest hiking trip, I had a relaxing day at a spectacular waterfall/river called Samuc Champey, 2 hours outside of Coban. Standing in the midst of this beautiful natural scenery I was struck by how amazingly special the Earth really is. The variety of natural beauty that she is capable of producing through her inexhaustible resources of matter and form, and her indefatigable patience is astounding.

But also with this traveling I had some time to write, and the subject that has been on my mind recently is the tortilla. For Guatemala, the tortilla is more than just a staple food crop, it’s a part of the culture. The Mayan cosmology literally says that men are made of corn, which if you believe the phrase “you are what you eat” is exactly correct! Not a day has passed since my arrival here that I have not eaten at least one tortilla and it has been absolutely fascinating to observe how obsessed this culture is with corn.

Maize was domesticated by the Mayans around 5000 years ago from an ancestor that resembles a type of grass found in the region today. It is cultivated across the entire country today, and it is a source of pride and security for the Mayan farmer, who regardless of where he is or what he is doing will hurry home during planting time to sow his precious milpa (this is the term for field of corn). There are stories of wars during the conquest of Guatemala by the Spanish where the Spaniards were on the brink of being eliminated by Mayan armies. What saved them was that planting season was approaching and the Mayan army deserted to return home to plant their milpas, therefore allowing the Spaniards to reinforce and defeat the Maya upon their return months later. I don’t know if this is actually true, but I really don’t doubt it at all after seeing how Maize obsessed the people here are.

I have talked to many farmers and watched enough women working their magic in the kitchen to know the basics of how this wonderful plant is produced and consumed. The maize is sown in different parts of the year according to the location, altitude and climate. It takes about 4 months from sowing to harvest, again depending on climate. The cobs are harvested and dried, from which the kernels are removed. In order to make tortillas one must take the kernels, soak them in water for a few hours then boil them for 20 minutes. Once they have been cooked the water is removed and the cooked kernels are ground and mixed with water into coarse dough. This dough is called masa and is the base material for making tortillas, tamale and every other delicious derivation of maize. The masa is then shaped by hand into flat little patties and cooked for about 2 minutes on a clay slab called a camal. A wood burning fire sits underneath to provide the tortilla with a wonderful smoky flavor. I have observed several times in kitchens of Guatemalans here both a gas stove (rare) and a wood burning camal. Even though gas is available and much more convenient, everyone prefers the taste of the smoke.

The taste is absolutely wonderful, delicate and mildly sweet with a hint of smokiness. The texture is fairly rough and doughy, quite heavy and very filling. I smell every tortilla before I eat it, which most Guatemalans think is quite strange. I was feeling creative and composed a short poem on the subject with mostly the same information as above. Learning is way more fun when it rhymes.

An ode to the Tortilla

Thousands of years in the making, the domestication of Maize
Whose stalks now stand proud, soaking up rays
A plant woven into the cosmology of a people
As ubiquitous a symbol as a cross on a steeple
But i dont want to bore you with history and fable
What ide really like to tell you is my perspective from the table
The wonderful process begins with the placing of a seed
The noble campesino performing this historical deed
Four months after the kernel springs to life with such force
The farmer is rewarded, weather permitting of course
The harvest is then dried and set over fire to stew
Quite a lengthy process before consumption can ensue
The grains are now ground into a rich textured dough
With machines powered by hand, meticulous and slow
Meanwhile a fire has made the clay cooking surface ready
And the tortilla making commences! consistent and steady
Thousands of hours of practice forms them perfectly round
Only one minute to a side and their perfectly browned
The anticipation builds as the stacks of tortillas grow
My oh my what a surprise! how the saliva can flow
The smoky richness alone is almost too much to savor
Add beans and eggs? a treacherous triangle of flavor
Factoring in the chilies the combos defy comprehension
Simply an orgy of flavor that demands your attention
If my tale doesnt tempt you, your buds need surgery or a suture
I sense a google recipe search may lie in your future
But to claim your creation is the same, your taking delirients
You simply cant trump five thousand years of experience
Still not convinced corn can make your mouth sing?
Then come to Guatemala and try the real thing!

Guatemala #4 – Alta Verapaz, Chisec

 Four days ago I left the steamy hot jungles of El Peten for destinations further south in the rolling limestone mountains of the municipal of Alta Verapaz. I had visited a small town called Chisec in 2004 with a high school organization and I was interested to see what had changed and revisit some amazing caves in the area. I also had a contact in Chisec through a former Peace Corps volunteer who worked out of Chisec, mostly in the area of community development and organization. After a one night stay on an American owned small farm along the way, I arrived in Chisec and met with my contact Ernesto at his office. Ernesto is one of the key organizers of a local community development organization called SANC. This organization is currently working to fortify communities in the area against encroaching foreign business interests, settle land disputes, open up new markets for local campesino products and also to educate local farmers in crop diversification and cultivation techniques to empower themselves and their communities. From the moment I first met Ernesto I experienced him as being very open, friendly and willing to share with me, we talked for hours and hours, him telling me all about the organization, his personal life and his experience with peace corps volunteers. One of my goals was to understand the role of the Peace Corps volunteer from a local´s perspective, and through my conversations with Ernesto I definitely got a feel for this idea. Ernesto invited me to stay with him and his family in their home and I have really been enjoying this experience.

It was also just my luck that for the past 2 days SANC was hosting a group of Guatemalans from the Mountain Highlands region of Nebaj. The aim of this meeting was to demonstrate the success that SANC has had here in hopes that that group members can take these ideas with them to their own communities. The opportunity to accompany the group in their daily itinerary was opened up to me and I accepted. With a group of around 30 campesinos; men women and children, old and young, I toured a very rural community in the Chisec area where we had to hike through dense forest to reach the community. In this community SANC had helped to establish crop diversity, (citrus, cocoa, maize, beans, sugar cane, herbs, pimiento, platano, among many others) and also more importantly a collective ownership of land that did not allow for the individual sale of land that could threaten the community (more on this later). It was an amazing experience to spend time with the group as we toured around the area visiting different communities and talking. Some of the group members didn’t speak Spanish so there were always translations into the Mayan dialects, which was very interesting to hear. (guat has 22 indigenous languages) I talked to most of the members and made some great contacts for when I go to the Nebaj region of Guatemala in 3 weeks or so. At times I found myself surrounded by about 10 Guatemalans fielding questions about a variety of subjects from international politics, travel, science, food (Guatemalans all seem to think that Americans eat nothing but bread), language, romantic practices and a variety of other cultural norms. The best though was when a gentleman asked me whether or not he should sell his land here in Guatemala and attempt to enter the United States illegally. He was serious and I advised him against this idea, but it is a very difficult question to answer. In Chisec, SANC has organized a Saturday morning market for the local campesinos to come sell their farm products. As the final activity before the group departed we toured the market together. It was incredible to see the scene, hundreds of people peddling their products of fresh cacao, chickens, spices, bananas, vegetables, fresh tamales, homemade concoctions of various derivations of corn and raw cane sugar, weavings and of course beans and corn. Hardly any Spanish was spoken here; all I heard was the soft clicking sounds of the local dialects. I said farewell to the group and proceeded to visit the close by cave system of Bombil Pek. An enormous water carved limestone cavern in which I crawled around and enjoyed the peaceful serenity of the cave. This cave system has a long historical use as a Mayan religious site and I can understand why. Caves are powerful places filled with mysterious energies and feelings. Tomorrow I leave Chisec and head south for higher altitude Coban where there is a local project that works to guide tourists into the cloudforests in the region in hopes of seeing the elusive Quetzal (the national bird). I am going to go see what I can find in the Coban area before I head east for the Caribbean.

So now that I am in a different region, there is a whole new set of issues that seem to be plaguing the environment and the communities (different issues yet recurring themes). On my way south from El Peten, along the road I observed thousands upon thousands of acres of freshly planted African Palm trees, in addition to seeing a massive plot of forest in the process of being burned and cleared for more palms. Ernesto informed me that these plantations have only been started within the last 5 years and represent the latest foreign corporate interest threat to the environment and the regional indigenous communities. The oil of the palms is mostly used to grease obese American´s french fries and processed food goods, but also for commercial lubricants and biofuels. This is a very shortsighted pursuit as the palms don’t stay viable for very long, require large amounts of resources to maintain and of course more forest must be cleared. Additionally the plantations only employ local workers several times a year during harvest times with terribly low wages and atrocious living conditions being the norm. What is happening here in the Chisec region is that foreign and national corporations approach communities living on viable land in an attempt to buy the land for plantations. When communities don’t have shared land titles and individuals are titled to their own land they are much more likely to sell. The vast majority of the campesinos who sell their land want to buy trucks and start cattle ranches. (this is perceived as being a very desirable occupation here in Guatemala) Once the corporation has infiltrated a community they can pressure others to sell by blocking roads that pass through their property, restricting access to water, polluting surrounding areas etc. I have heard enough stories to realize that the corporations will go to any end imaginable to get what they want from locals including threats of violence. SANC is working to fortify communities by arranging collective land titles where no one individual can sell anything because everything is communally owned. Then within the community, each family is given a certain parcel of land to work however they see fit and sell or consume the products totally for their own gain. It is a wonderful system that keeps the communities safe but also allows for more ambitious individuals within the community to work harder for their own advancement.

The topic is slightly different (African palms versus cattle ranches as in El Peten), but the theme is exactly the same; Foreign and national corporate interests looking to take advantage of local more naïve populations to exploit their land, resources and labor for their own profit driven, shortsighted motives. This seems to be the history of western civilization beginning with the European colonization of Africa and the Americas. And of course along every step of the way Governments are in on the tragedy as well through corruption and campaign financing. Ernesto talked to me about a phenomenon where the people of country are “colinized” and are basically brainwashed into accepting their subjugated role in society. I have very much observed this phenomena here in Guatemala. This is typified by a phrase thats common here “saber”, which basically translates to “who knows?”. In a conversation with a local man I asked him, what do they use the palm for? saber! Next question: what company is trying to buy your land? saber!, and so on for several more questions. Here is a threat to your very way of life that threatens your economic, environmental and societal well being and the best response you can muster is saber! Tragic. 

ImageStaring me in the face, thousands of rows of palms with a forest burning in the background I couldn’t help but think that all hope is absolutely lost. We as a human race are absolutely doomed on this planet. The forces conspiring to turn the planet into a desert wasteland in the pursuit of money are just too powerful and have too much control over culturally conditioned values that have brainwashed entire populations. But then, upon having the experience I had with SANC and the group members I am holding out a tiny bit of hope. Because I know for a fact that the key to solving our collective problems will only be solved by self empowered individuals acting in a conscious, aware manner. Only when every individual is awakened will we have a glimmer of hope to move towards a more enlightened society as a whole. This is the goal of SANC and thousands of organizations like it who are working to educate, enlighten and empower individuals to make the best decisions for their communities, themselves and their unborn grandchildren who will be the inheritors of this colossal fuck-up known as the corporate industrial democracy. History is the race between education and catastrophe. At this point It’s a toss up. In talking to all the campesinos I translated this phrase into Spanish for them and they all loved it.

“when the last tree is cut, when the last river is polluted, when the last animal is hunted down, we are going to realize that we cant eat money”




Guatemala #3 – El Mirador

How do you describe to someone the feeling of standing alone atop a 2000 year old Mayan temple watching the sun set with nothing in sight except tropical rainforest and other temple peaks? After playing with words for over an hour trying to describe the scene in its ineffable beauty, and my own emotions with their complex mix of sensations, I have concluded that it is utterly impossible to put into words my experience. I ripped up the sheet and threw it away. Some things are better left unsaid. I can only say that it is something I will never forget for the rest of my life…

Two years ago I first heard of El Mirador, one of the largest pre-classical Mayan cities that lies a two days hike from any form of civilization. Six days ago I took a bus four hours up an endlessly bumpy dirt road to arrive at the frontier town of Carmelita. My plan was to wait for a group of other tourists to latch myself onto in the attempt of cutting costs. After a brief look around Carmelita I concluded that this was not a place I wanted to spend any more time then absolutely necessary and with no other tourist groups coming I made a decision. I hired a guide solo and the following morning we trekked north into the Jungle. These forests are incredible, so filled with life and sights that for a while the walking was quite slow as all the wildlife had to be photographed. My guide was a wonderful, honest, family man of 40 years who knew every plant and animal species we encountered and pointed out many medicinal plants as well. We hiked for 6 (28km) hours the first day and overnighted at a Mayan ruin called El Tintal. The sounds of the forest at night are incredible, Howler monkeys screaming along with Owls and the chorus of crickets to round out the symphony. More beans, eggs and tortillas with a spattering of watermelon and the other odd fruit or vegetable rounded out the camping diet. Lots of carbohydrates here, it is difficult to find a good source of healthy fat. I have been mostly subsisting on avocado, peanuts and coconuts. The second day we hiked a gruelling and steaming hot 7.5 hours (30km) to reach El Mirador. This city once supported a population of over 100,000 people in the time of Christ´s birth, and is absolutely massive with over five different temple complexes and countless residential establishments. Upon entering the city walls we had to walk for over 30 minutes to reach the camp. Very little has been excavated at Mirador so I experienced it basically as the other more well known sites such as Tikal were found years ago. The third day was spent exploring the site, climbing all the temples and seeing the excavated carvings. Pottery shards litter the ground all over and I found many. The fourth day was a return to El Tintal and the fifth was a hike back to Carmelita with an afternoon bus back to the noise and commotion of civilization. After spending 5 days in the forest seeing nothing but jungle greenery and old decaying stone buildings it is hard to imagine that places like NYC or Miami even exist in this world, and it makes me sad to think that the majority of people living in the world will never see the beauty that I have seen. The simple rhythmic daily cycle of the forest lulled me into a sense of peace and tranquility that I hope will last for quite a while.

The politics behind forest conservation here in Guatemala are very interesting and quite complex. On the one hand you have the environmentalists (some nationals but many foreigners) who want the forests completely sealed and guarded, and on the other hand you have the business men who see nothing in the forest except an exploitable resource (wood and land to raise cattle mostly). In reading and talking to everyone I could (my guide and the guards I encountered in the forest) I learned a lot about the potential fate of the forests. CONAP is the Guatemalan environmental protection agency and is in charge of caring for the natural resources and parks of the country. The problems plaguing the forests today are illegal settling on lands by poor farmers, illegal hunting of exotic species, illegal harvesting of timber and the clearing and burning of huge tracts of land to raise beef cattle. All along the road to Carmelita on both sides of the road is nothing but desert like cattle pasture, where just 20 years ago was a thriving, and living forest. The problem is that here in Guatemala (and in other developing nations) ecological conservation really only exists on paper. In reality there are very little monetary resources dedicated to conservation from within the country and the money that comes in from outside sources is plagued by corruption and people taking their cut. The end result is that there is very little enforcement of rules and regulations designed to protect the forests because there is insufficient funds to pay for the manpower and technological resources needed. Additionally, corruption within the organization itself allows the illegal harvesting of timber and animals, as those few at the top benefit immensely from turning a blind eye to illegal behaviour. I don’t know what will hold in store for the future of the El Mirador basin forest (which as of right now is the largest tract of rainforest left intact in Central America), but I certainly hope that it can be saved. It does make me feel better that every common man I spoke with (the rangers and guides) professed an undeniable love and respect for the forest, I hope they can make their voices heard.

Just a quick note on coincidences. When I was in Tikal there was a very friendly man who ran the campsite whom I spoke with for quite some time. When I returned to San Jose, 2 hours away, I was walking down the street and heard Marimba music (the national instrument, basically a giant xylophone played by 4 people simultaneously). Upon entering the patio where the music was being played, guess who was one of the players? Of course the man from Tikal. And the past week when I was walking on a very out of the way backroad to see the small Mayan ruin of Motul, I was passed by a man on a bicycle. We chatted for a minute but I didn’t really think much of it. This past week when I arrived at El Tintal, 6 hours walking from civilization, guess who is one of the rangers who guards the site? Of course the man with the bicycle! Wake up people!! There is some crazy stuff going on here!

I will leave El Peten tomorrow and head south for Chisec and Coban where I plan to explore caves, hike through mountainous high altitude cloud forest, explore volunteer opportunities and enjoy more beans and tortillas!



Guatemala #2 – El Peten, Tikal

This past weekend I spent two days in Tikal, exploring the ruins, hiking through pristine jungle, camping under the stars, talking to local tour guides and workers about the politics of conservation in Guatemala and meeting other interesting tourists as well.

To start, Tikal is simply incredible. Located 50 miles from any cities or towns it is totally isolated in the middle of the Peten jungle, save for a single road leading to the ruins. The whole time I was riding comfortably over asphalt I was thinking of my Father telling me that when he came to see Tikal in the 1980´s the road was all dirt and mud, and how he got stuck and had to push. Sorry dad, times have changed! Anyway, I arrived at 8am and basically had the ruins to myself for quite some time before I saw anyone else. There is a main central plaza of ruins and then many smaller temples and acropolises spread throughout a few square mile site. It took me until 6pm, however I walked over practically every inch of the site, soaking in the magical sentiments that I felt there. Seeing the mist rising from the jungle while standing alone atop an ancient mayan temple with nothing but jungle greenery around me, birds and howler monkey screams permeating the thick air, is a feeling I will never forget. There is power in this place, at times palpable…just a magical feeling one gets when they are in a very sacred place. The architecture is stunning to see in person, with many of the temples built to cleverly coincide with astronomical phenomena such as the rising or setting of the sun during the equinoxes. I walked around with my jaw on the ground the whole day. Before coming I had read of the history of the city, its various rulers and importance as a center of commerce.

One interesting aspect of Tikal is that the site has been excavated from the ingression of the jungle ever since the majestic city was abandoned by the 100,000 inhabitants around the year of 870 A.D. When the site was rediscovered in 1847, the temples that stand so beautiful and majestic today were totally covered by trees and earth. I can only imagine what it would be like to discover a ruin of temples this large, completely enveloped by jungle. The process of excavation is very interesting. The trees that have grown over the site must be cut, but cannot be removed until the root systems are dead and dried as tree roots have grown between the blocks of stone used to build the temples and to pull them out hastily is to pull out large chunks of building. Then the process of removing the tons of earth that cover the temples must commence, with finally a refinishing of the surface with limestone taken from the original quarries. It took a team of hundreds of men 7 years to excavate one temple due to this lengthy and delicate process.

Seeing such a large city in all of its ceremonial grandeur completely empty and abandoned leaves one with a very eerie feeling. Imagine walking through Times Square, or around the Eiffel tower or any other major hallmark of modern civilization and seeing it completely desolate and in ruin. It was wonderfully humbling to see that no city or civilization lasts forever. Tikal is especially interesting however because of the mystery that surrounds it´s collapse. There are many theories that have been proposed as to why the city was abandoned and in no particular order, for only a brief sampling they are:

  1. Over population leading to resource scarcity, pollution of water sources and food shortages.
  2. Dissatisfaction with the hierarchical societal structure in which there was a small ruling elite with hordes of poor masses, leading to unrest and war.
  3. Climate change caused by the cutting of the rain forest to make room for croplands, leading to a dryer regional climate, crop failures and collapse.

I began thinking, what does our modern society have in common with the Maya? All three themes listed are in the process of realization in our own society! Are we just a few years away from realizing a similar fate? Albeit the situation is much more complex due to the global scale of our technological achievements, the basic premise is the same; if you live in a manner out of balance with the ecology that supports your particular lifestyle, the whole system will collapse. There are no technological fixes to this law of nature that one way or another we are going to have to come to terms with. I wonder if people among the Mayan culture saw the problems mounting and tried a campaign of educating the rulers and masses. I can jokingly imagine a Mayan ¨green movement¨ in which the scientists of their time cried to stop cutting forests and having babies! It just appears to have come a bit too late for them. I hope it is not too late for us.

I continue to be blown away by the hospitality and friendliness that I have witnessed here in Guatemala. Most people are very willing to engage in conversation, on buses, in the streets, in restaurants etc. They seem to be impressed that I can speak Spanish, apparently not many tourists make the effort. Not only that, I have met many apparently ¨normal¨ Guatemalans who are well versed on issues of our times such as environmental degradation and political corruption. It is refreshing to find that more enlightened ideas have spread to even very poor countries such as Guatemala. I had dinner with a family last night in a small village where I stayed the night. It started as an innocent question of asking where I could rent a canoe and five hours later I left their home. It has become clear to me that in order to have an “authentic cultural” experience here in Guatemala I must avoid other tourists and tourist spots. This will be my plan for the remainder of my quest.

In talking to many Guatemalans I have had many “why me” moments in which I can only ask myself the question “why me”? Why was I born in a society and part of the world so rich in opportunity to learn, enrich and grow? The social safety net that we have in the U.S. simply does not exist here. It is extremely difficult for people to advance in this type of society and receive advanced education that would allow for a different lifestyle. I have met many young people who want more education, they want to learn and study, but they cannot because of finances, they have to help their families earn a meager living peddling trinkets in the market or selling tortillas. It seems that only a lucky few are able to receive a college education and hope of scaling the social ladder. On the opposite side however there is also a sentiment of apathy and neglect in this culture. I have seen many people who do not have jobs, they either do not want to work or do not want to look for work and are just scraping by, usually relying on their families. I really wonder how these people eat every day. It is much more common here for young people to just do nothing once they have graduated from high school. Coming from a culture in the U.S. which is almost the polar opposite, very much focused on work and “doing”, it is interesting to observe and difficult to understand.

I will stay near Flores for two more days to witness a local Maya Itza ceremonial festival, then I plan on going north to Carmelita, a small jungle outpost. There I will hire a guide and hike 5 days round trip through the jungle to a very remote (no roads go there) Mayan ruin called El Mirador. I think this will be an incredible experience as these forests are unlike any I have ever experienced in my life. A veritable riot of life; so dank, dark and lush that sunlight cannot even penetrate the forest floor. These jungles are the type that men fear more than any other in the world for their collection of venomous and or harmful inhabitants. I think I will be safe though, the guides are professionals!

Adios, Por ahora.


Guatemala: El Peten

A brief summary of events:

I arrived in San Jose, El Peten on Monday evening, flying from Guatemala City. I met the family that I am staying with, a woman and her two sons ages 15 and 20. They are friendly and nice, although a bit strange, quiet and with interesting habits of activity. I can only imagine what they think of me. On Tuesday morning I awoke early and walked around the small community of San Jose. Nestled right on the lshore of Lago Peten Itza, San Jose is a community of Itza Mayan people. The only indigenous group left in the region. In the morning I met the director, Paula, of the Spanish School that I am affiliated with, Escuela Casa Nikte. Paula is extremely involved in her community; she manages a local women´s organization that works to provide economic opportunities to empower local women in the area, organizes health talks at local schools and through the school employs members of the community. Through talking with Paula it is clear to me that she is very intelligent and understands how the local politics work, she understands the corruption that seems to be present here on many levels of administration and she is working diligently to empower her community to better themselves. My Spanish language training has basically consisted of me following Paula around as she goes to various committees and meetings. With her I have attended a talk at a local elementary school about the spread of infectious diseases, I participated in a march to celebrate international women´s day, I met with the director of a local Mayan Itza language school that works to teach Maya Itza (an indigenous Mayan language that is in sever danger of extinction) to children in the local school system, I visited a cooperative community of ex-guerrillas who have returned to civilian life following the signing of the 1996 peace pact, among other various visits to local community members who are involved in various projects. I also visited a minor Mayan Ruin that was an 8km walk from the village through patches of pristine forest. The ruin, Motul, consists of 4 pyramids and plazas, mostly unexcavated and reclaimed by the jungle, but quite impressive nonetheless. I have been very busy exploring, speaking nothing but Spanish, eating tortillas eggs and beans for every meal, taking photos and more exploring and talking to locals. I have plans to go to Tikal this weekend and visit a forest reserve on the way back. Then I plan to stay a few more days in San Jose, improving my Spanish with formal tutoring and staying to witness an annual community Itza Mayan festival held here that has its roots in ancient Mayan traditions. After that I am going to head north to do some jungle trekking to see El Mirador and other very remote Mayan cities.

A topic I would like to address is the issue of language. It feels quite strange to be doing all this thinking and writing in English. It has been absolutely incredible to watch my mind wrap itself around the Spanish language. What started out as incomprehensible jibberish has evolved to contain actual meaning and intention. At times speaking and understanding can be quite laborious and I must concentrate very hard to communicate at all with humans in my surroundings. Words must be chosen carefully and searched for in the crevices of my mind and memory. At other times, words and ideas just flow out of me in this foreign tongue, I don’t even think, I just react. Occasionally I look around and see if anyone notices that I am speaking something so strange and foreign to myself, but then quickly realize that everyone is speaking it, and that it is expected here. It is so much fun and quite satisfying to realize that I now have this power to communicate with this other world that having not been able to speak their tongue, would have been totally closed off to me. Languages are doorways to having a more thorough understanding of a regions´ people and culture. Encapsulated within a language is an entire culture and world view that can only be understood through interpreting the world through that linguistic filter, with its limitations and capabilities for description. Of course it has not been easy. At times I have been completely humbled by my inability to share my profoundest thoughts and feelings with the beings around me. For example being at the cooperative for the ex soldiers and hearing the horrific stories of these people who had been living in the forests for years without proper food, clothing or shelter, constantly in fear and with very little hope or future. I wanted to tell them how deeply I felt their story and experiences, how so badly I wanted to understand their pain and way of life, but simply could not, from having the stable upbringing that I had. This is where languages fail, and the foreign tongue becomes molasses in my mouth and mind. Only when we are deeply humbled by our own inadequacies speaking a foreign cultures tongue can we fully appreciate the often taken for granted facilities of communication afforded to us by our own native language. The prior sentence being a case in point. That sentence would be impossible for me to translate into Spanish.

I have observed many interesting phenomena within the Latino culture here in Guatemala. I feel that at this time it is too much to write about and is best saved for a later date when my ideas will be better shaped and formed by time and experience into coherent impressions. To say the least, life flows very differently here. Priorities are different, expectations different, traditions different etc. This is not big news here, I realize. However coming fresh from the US and I am sure for people who have never seen abject poverty and despair, it can be quite shocking. There is so much to write about now that I feel I must wait, let the pot simmer a bit and see what motifs and themes are left over when the culture shock wears off and I can see more clearly the world that I have jumped into.

I will update again soon! Espero que te vaya bien.


The Importance of Sustainable Agriculture

In this exploration I would like to discuss the current state of agriculture in the United States and its widespread implications upon our cultures’ relationship with food. I believe that this idea goes well beyond the idea of simply producing and consuming food; agriculture is an extremely taken for granted element of our culture. When one examines the implications of a failed agricultural system, this sector of society appears to be even THE most important element; in biological terminology, the keystone element of a culture upon which our social and economic systems are precariously balanced. Without a functioning and productive agriculture, a society is teetering on the precipice of a quite rapid plunge into unsustainability. I make a case that the implications and influences of our means and methods of producing food have unintentional consequences in countless other areas of our culture.

For me, to eat food is so much more than just ingesting nutrients. It is an experience of sensorial delight and pleasure that stimulates me to focus my awareness on the present moment. I love the awareness that is possible while tasting a food, deeply, richly and with patience and attention. Additionally I love cooking and preparing food; the always differentiated nuances of recipes and trial-and-error methodology until the dish is prepared just right. And then of course we must not forget the health aspects of consuming food. How our bodies crave the nutrients that the foods contain inside of them; nourishing and becoming one with the food stuffs. Literally, the food that you choose to put inside of your body will become an integrated part of your structural physical vessel. All foodies intuit these things to be true.

Which leads me to the main point of this post, after much reading, research and thinking, it has come to my attention that the current state of agriculture in the U.S.  is entirely unsustainable for several reasons: the loss of soil and soil fertility due to erosion, the over use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the increasing rate of groundwater depletion, the economic governmental policies of subsidies and international free trade agreements and very importantly, our cultural preference for excessive meat consumption. Each of these topics will be addressed singularly and from a reductionist perspective, however in reality they augment each other to form a holism of the world that we actually inhabit, which cannot be reduced to the sum of its parts. This situation is very complex and I definitely don’t claim to be an expert; this is simply an account of what the facts are related to our current predicament. Of which, I think the first step in correcting ourselves is to acknowledge that a predicament even exists; from which we can then take self-empowered steps towards correcting the problem.

The issue with the soil is that we are currently losing over an inch of topsoil a year due to run off. Due to excessive mechanized tillage of the soil and the successive planting of crops that remove organic materials from the soil faster than they are replenished, during heavy rainfall events, the top layer of soil is washed off the fields where it drains into streams and rivers. After years of these practices we are left with fields of dirt with very little organic matter and a very low vitality for growing plants. To make matters worse, the ocean refuses no river, and in the case of our country, the mighty Mississippi river is the conduit for this silt laden, chemically polluted, nitrogen rich soil, as it makes its way to the gulf. At the mouth of the Mississippi is the largest man made dead zone caused by algae blooms, due to this confluence of run off. Anyway, the current practice of growing commodity row crops such as soy and corn is especially taxing in terms of soil erosion.

The increasing application of pesticides and chemical fertilizers is having deleterious effects in multiple ways including: chemical residues on food, disruption of ecology in surrounding ecosystems, increased chemical resistances in insect species, groundwater and surface water contamination, air pollution and worker safety. From a human health perspective, the usage of pesticides has been linked with endocrine disruption, immune system dysfunction, cancers, neurological disorders and a host of other rare illnesses. Probably most importantly from an environmental perspective, pesticide and fertilizer usage represents the largest area of energy input for a farming system, with the source of this energy coming entirely from petroleum. With huge tracts of agricultural land devoted to monocultures, pests have been able to take advantage of this by adapting to their food source. Monocultures increase the reliance on pesticides, which have increased 33-fold since the 1940’s. Despite these increases, today an estimated 37% of crop production is still lost to pests due to biological adaptation by the pest species.

The issue of farm subsidies in this country is a clear example of the mismanagement of environmental resources at the hands of politicians and multinational corporate interests. Currently, depending on market prices, the U.S. government spends between $10 billion and $30 billion in direct payouts to farmers. Great, you may be inclined to think, let’s support farmers that provide our communities with healthy nutritious food! Not quite. Last year, over 90% of that money went to farmers growing just 5 crops; soy, corn, wheat, cotton and rice. This will have even greater implications when we talk about the ecological impacts of meat consumption. So basically farm subsidies provide farmers with a means of profiting on a crop that has a lower market value than its production cost. For example, after calculating all farm inputs such as fertilizers, fuel, seed, labor etc, it may cost a farmer in Iowa $2.50 to produce a bushel of corn. The market value of that corn may be $1.50 per bushel. The farm subsidies step in to ensure that the farmer can still make a profit at the risk of increasing environmental degradation, resource consumption, reliance on unsustainable agricultural practices and the loss of small-model farms which cannot stay afloat economically. So why would we be doing this you may ask? Farm subsidies encourage overproduction of commodity crops which lower market prices further. Major food producing corporations in the U.S. buy these subsidized food products and either process it into high fructose corn-syrup or other processed food base, or feed it to animals to produce meat which is then fed it to an unthinking, unquestioning, generally unconscious public. Other surplus commodity crops are also converted into biofuels and sold at a profit under the guise of being more environmentally friendly. Multiple peer reviewed articles have been published showing that it takes more energy in terms of fossil fuel usage to make a biofuel than can be derived from the fuel itself. There is nothing environmentally friendly about biofuels.

The link between our government, economy and food production systems is that we have elected governmental officials who regulate the agricultural economy  and have managerial ties (such as being shareholders or serving on boards and committees) to major corporations in the petroleum industry, chemical industry, food processing industry and meat producing industry. So back to the prior question, why are we doing this? Money, a few people are making lots of it due to the current economics behind our agricultural system, at the expense of the environment, the health of our citizens and every branch of industry that agriculture is connected to.

So with these facts laid upon the discussion table, the last aspect to discuss is the issue of meat consumption in this country. The average American eats 273 lbs. of meat a year.  According to 2003 figures, there were 9 billion livestock maintained in the U.S. including hogs, cows (dairy and beef), poultry and lamb. These animals collectively consumed 7 times more grain than the human population of the U.S., which is approximately enough grain to feed 840 million people eating a plant based diet.

From a biological perspective it is much more energy efficient to consume plant protein rather than animal protein as plants are primary producers; performing the most magnificent process on this planet of converting gaseous carbon dioxide and water into stable solid carbon based sugars. Animals must consume these sugars to turn them into their carbon based physiologies, at an energy loss rate of 10:1 however. Meaning that on average, for every 10 lbs. of plant material consumed there will be 1lb of animal tissue grown.

The environmental aspects of meat consumption are staggering when you consider the energy returns on meat producing systems compared to plant consumption. When taking into consideration the production costs of meat production we are considering the following: the resources (water, soil, fertilizers, pesticides) needed to grow the grain based feed (usually soy or corn), the processing and transport of the feed, the actual energy costs of managing a meat producing facility, the resources needed for the processing of the meat product and finally the transportation to market. Certain systems are more efficient than others, but on average the energy input for all animal protein products is 25 kcal per 1 kcal of protein produced. Contrast this with a human eating corn, which requires an energy input of 2.2 kcal energy input per 1 kcal of protein produced.

When we consider that over 60 percent of corn grown in the U.S. is used to feed animals along with very high percentages of other grains, it becomes clear that hunger in the world is not a problem with food production, simply with food distribution and usage. By collectively reducing our meat consumption we can lower the environmental costs of commodity crop production by reducing demand for these products. Not to mention totally eliminating a huge source of pollution and environmental degradation directly caused by unsustainable factory farming methods. I am not advocating for anyone to totally abstain from meat eating, I am simply suggesting that the consumption levels be reduced and if at all possible, buy meat that has been produced locally, sustainably and more humanely.

Now that the situation is a bit clearer, I find it easy to lapse into cynicism and despair when faced with the onslaught of such devastating scientifically validated facts about our agricultural system. Additionally, disempowering media advertising for food products and political rhetoric add to the total hopelessness of the situation. But alas, fear not faithful reader for right now in your mind and in your wallet you have the key to empowering yourself. Every time you go to the grocery store or a restaurant and purchase “normal” factory farmed meat or processed food product you are choosing to support an environmentally, ecologically and economically destructive system.  Change in our society towards a sustainable model will not come from a new political cabinet in office, or from laws passed by men sitting in offices, worlds away from the consequences of their usually economically or politically motivated decisions. Change does not, never has, and probably never will move from the top to the bottom of a social hierarchical pyramid. Change will only occur when we have individuals at all levels making informed, conscious decisions about how they want to live their lives and what type of an Earth they want to live in. With that in mind, the solution to many of our problems is conscious consumerism. We all must eat and buy basic necessities, but each time we spend our money we are buying into a system and voting for the continuation of that system.

In regards to food, the most important thing we can do collectively is to buy sustainable, locally grown organic fruits, vegetables and meats. Yes, this will mean spending more money, but it is only the health of our Earth and ourselves that is at stake. Our cultural obsession with “economism”, where practically every decision we make in our consumer habits are based on the most individually economically advantageous product, rather than evaluating sustainability of the system is frightful. We are literally poisoning ourselves and our environment due to the complete subjugation of all values to the realm of economic savings. This is lunacy. Practically every town in this country has a tradition of farmers markets to make buying local food products a possibility if the citizens have the will to support it. Buying local produce not only has the effect of supporting your local economy by not sending profits to huge corporations outside, but also serves to reinforce a sense of community. When you can go chat with the farmer about his farm and his work I guarantee you will feel more of a connection with that delicious food he or she is providing for your wellbeing. At this moment in time I think that making informed consumer decisions is the most important thing we can collectively do to stem the tide of corporate greed and ecological destruction that threatens almost every aspect of our culture. Making a conscious choice every time we buy and ingest something into our bodies is a very important way we can bring more awareness into our lives. With time this will have widespread implications in not just the health of our environment, but ourselves as well.

“The ultimate test of man’s conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations who’s words of thanks will not be heard” – Gaylord Nelson

Sources :

Heitschmidt RK, Short RE, Grings EE. Ecosystems, sustainability and animal agriculture. J Anim Sci 1996; 74: 1395-405

Pimentel D. Livestock production: energy inputs and environmental. Canadian society of animal sciences proceedings. Vol 47. Montreal Canada, 1997 17-26

Pimentel D, Pimentel M. World population, food, natural resources, and survival. World Futures 2003; 59: 145-167

Gary Holthaus, From the farm to the table: what every American needs to know about agriculture. University of Kentucky press, January 5, 2007

US department of Agriculture. National Agricultural statistics service. Washington D.C: U.S. department of agriculture, Economic research service, 1997