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Editor’s note: Since July of 2004 journalist Anthony C. LoBaido has traveled through Central America, including Belize, Guatemala (three separate trips), Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. This is Part 2 of his series on that spectacular region of the world. Read Part 1, “In the arms of angels.”
Also, don’t miss an additional page of photos LoBaido has taken in Central America.
LA ANTIGUA, Guatemala –Winston Churchill said that India was “no more a nation than the equator.” This observation seems to sum up Guatemala to perfection. It’s more akin to a world than a nation, in the same way that Thailand and South Africa are. Upon arrival in Guatemala, the interloper will find teaming jungles, pristine beaches, ancient Mayan ruins, steaming volcanoes, giant lakes and Conquistador-hewn cities.
Armies of travelers and backpackers from as far away as Scandinavia, Israel and Australia have come to Guatemala to find techno beats emanating from hidden discos, pure cocaine, wild parties, rampant crime, criminals dressed up in police uniforms and page after page of murder photos in the daily newspapers such as La Prensa.
It’s a nation that has suffered the human sacrifice of the Mayans, the machinations of the Spanish Conquistadors, Marxism, horrendous civil war, volcanic eruptions, destructive earthquakes and poverty. (Today, the U.S. dollar stands at 8 to 1 against the Quetzal).
Still, the citizens of this proud country soldier on. They are Mayan, black Garafuna and, of course, the remnant of the Spanish conquest. As such, they are a people who possess both a unique look and outlook. The truth is you never know what’s just around the corner in Guatemala.
For example, the local Hooters in Guatemala City hires sensibly dressed waitresses. People show up with their babies to eat chicken wings and talk quietly over a beer. The old axiom, “If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around to hear it …” applies.
Is it Hooters if there aren’t any hooters?
You might find Marxist revolutionaries spray painting a sign on a Burger King in Guatemala City reading, “Companeros, levantarse y encontre la revolution … pero primero quiero comer mi hamburgesa.” Meaning, “(Marxist) friends, rise up and begin the revolution but first I want to eat my hamburger.”
One of the most popular souvenir dolls sold in Guatemala is the Zapatista, or Mexican Marxist revolutionary popularized in Mexico. Make no mistake, Guatemala is not immune to the new Marxism spreading through the Americas (Venezuela, Brazil, Uruguay and other nations) like a wildfire.
The European Union has a hold on the Guatemalan military through arms deals and training. Western NGOs, or non-governmental organizations, spread ideas of archetype Marxist land reform. The leftward drift is non uncommon in this region of the world. In neighboring Belize, affinity for Cuba is rife. Honduras is a lawless country where just about anything goes. In El Salvador, the FMLN is still active, (“acting like a bunch of spoiled children” as one hotel working in San Salvador told this writer) if ideologically spent, while Sandinista elements in the Nicaraguan military were recently caught trying to sell shoulder-fired missiles to Middle Eastern terrorists. The latter were thwarted at the 11th hour by the CIA.
Clearly, American influence in Central and South America is either waning or non-existent, while mainland China is gaining more and more influence with each passing day, be it through control of the Panama Canal or negotiating an energy deal with oil- rich Venezuela. As such, it should come as no surprise that Donald Rumsfeld recently visited Guatemala to address that nation’s role as a transit point for Middle Eastern terrorists and Central American gangs. This has long been common knowledge to the average Central American walking the streets.
La Antigua is the former capital of Guatemala. Situated about 28 miles from Guatemala City, it is home to three scenic volcanoes (Fuego, Acatenango and Agua) and magnificent Catholic religious ceremonies (seemingly) all year round. Its architecture combines elements of the Renaissance with the Baroque. UNESCO has declared La Antigua a World Heritage Site. Long before, in 1566, King Felipe II of Spain referred to this city as “Muy noble y muy leal ciudad” or a “Very noble and loyal city.”
This past Easter season, on Holy Thursday, thousands of the faithful flocked at midnight for a ceremony that defied human comprehension. One of the main parades on Holy Thursday is called “Jesus of Forgiveness.”
Countless other parades were held. “The Way of the Cross” is especially moving, as are “Jesus de la Borrquita” (Jesus on a Donkey) and “El Senor de la Caida,” or Fallen Jesus, where He is depicted on one knee while carrying the cross.
As an aside, it is said that naughty children must be spanked on Holy Saturday “or they will never grow up.” Such politically incorrect notions might seem to have originated on Mars to the average Westerner.
Young band leader in La Antigua parade. All photos: Anthony C. LoBaido
Many of the marchers wore spectacular costumes of purple and black (representing sin). Many carried spears – ostensibly to be used to thrust into the side of Christ. Others dressed as Roman soldiers and mercenaries who cried out “Jesus is sentenced to death.” WorldNetDaily was handed a printed notice stating that Pilate had cleansed his hands of Jesus’ sentencing. It is a tradition to pass this notice around the crowd. The scene of Christ standing before the Roman governor was brilliantly created by a troupe of street actors.
Women young and old carried floats of the Virgin Mary down the cobblestone streets of this ancient Conquistador city. Children, boys and girls both, dressed in nice clothes while accompanying the floats in these solemn processions. The girls usually wore black veils. Modesty is the order of the day and stands as a throwback to more sensible days.
Many of the marchers moved to solemn drumbeats in otherwise (and almost complete) silence. The police presence was minimal. There were no fights and even less drunks. One might have been reminded of the scene at Saint Peters Square of A.D. 999 at the turn of the last millennium – only the staging for this event was the town square around Central Park.
These parades are most often carried out over hand-made street carpets freshly designed out of sawdust, fruits and flowers. Some of these street carpets may take many hours to make. Then in an instant they are trampled upon by the marchers.
Making street carpets before the parades.
The religious parades in La Antigua aren’t media driven. There aren’t any Macy’s Day floats, and the celebrations aren’t televised as they might be in a Western nation. This may not be the faith of the Afrikaners at Blood River, but you can see it from there.
The culture of life is strong in Guatemala. It cannot be stressed enough that people on average dress conservatively – whether they work at Hooters or not. Sunday retains its special mystique. No one longs for the return of the Mayans, although tours to Tikal in the north via the cul de sac town of Flores (which rests on Lago Peten) remain immensely popular. While the Mayans may be the darlings of PBS, Guatemalan Catholics and other Christians know better. This is not to say that the many sins of the Conquistadors have been forgotten. Were they merely gold-seeking mercenaries, or did they truly confront what they saw as paganism and human sacrifice with a sincere heart for Jesus Christ?
Abortion is illegal in Guatemala and the pope is highly respected. If you aren’t a Christian or a Catholic, you’re going to have a hard time gaining a true understanding of the culture. This can be especially hard on the post-modern travelers from Europe, even those from Spain.
Gemma Gil is one such woman. She traveled to Guatemala last fall with her friend Irene (Spain’s answer to Cindy Crawford), fell in love with the former Spanish colony and then left her job in Madrid to work as a journalist for La Prensa in Guatemala City.
“I was named after Saint Gemma,” she told WorldNetDaily. “My mother made a special promise when I was born.”
Like many Europeans, Gil has trouble understanding the rightist American political and religious culture. That said, she is not alone in questioning the rationale the war in Iraq – especially if it is being waged upon the ideals of Jesus Christ and the Gospel.
Believers and non-believers alike are drawn to La Antigua by the old ruins dotting the city. There are about 30 of them. They include churches, convents and the Saint Catalina Arch. Their names roll off the tongue like a symphony: “Iglesia y convento de nuestra senora del Pilar de Zaragoza,” for example. Santa Clara, the College of San Geronimo and La Recoleccion are this writer’s personal favorites. They will keep any romantic, historian, Catholic, Christian, searcher, honeymooner, writer and/or photographer in a state of rapture for days if not weeks. It could be fairly said that La Antigua is a world of its own, a true time machine for the curious at heart and those who dare to imagine a bygone era of European and Christian expansion, no matter how flawed it may have been.
Lago Atitlan is perhaps the most spectacular sight in the entire Western Hemisphere. It’s a giant lake surrounded by a plethora of volcanoes. It’s impossible to know where the clouds end and the summits of the volcanoes begin. The names of the volcanoes include Toliman, Atitlan and San Pedro. The tourist town of Panajachel is the launching point for a journey to the many small villages around the lake.
The weather in Lago Atitlan is fairly consistent, with almost daily afternoon rains in the fall. This pace of life offers a certain consistency in an otherwise timeless aura. There’s a place for cliff diving off of high rocks. Coffee is grown, dried and processed. Jewelry is hand made and sold from roadside stands, as are fresh juices.
Women gather to wash their family’s clothes in the lake while dispensing stories. Giving them a new washer and dryer would be akin to telling an Italian grandmother to serve spaghetti sauce out of a jar.
The people live close to the land, and horses and pigs are not uncommon. You’ll find huge hand painted billboards saying, “Jesus Es El Senor!” (Jesus is Lord!) and murals dedicated to Noah, his Ark, his many animals and the concept of “obediencia” or obedience. Children in Lago Atitlan are trained up to fear the Lord in a way that would astound the average American suburban soccer mom.
Panajachel and the surrounding region were home to some of the heaviest fighting during Guatemala’s Civil War in the 1980s. It played host to irregular militias that were highly mobile, well-armed and rugged. Guns are still to be found a plenty, only now they accompany the Coca-Cola route driver on collection day. Guns to Guatemalans are like baseball, hot dogs and apple pie to the modern American.
Lago Atitlan is dotted on the shoreline with fabulously wealthy homes that could easily grace the cover of Better Homes and Gardens or air on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
Yet most of the villages are poor. The traveler can visit any of the villages almost daily on the steady diet of water taxis that crisscross the lake all day and sometimes at night.
San Marcos La Laguna is a New Age archetype Mecca with a pretty shoreline obscuring an interior strewn with litter and starving dogs with their ribs sticking out. It’s shocking and depressing all in the same breath. When this writer visited San Marcos, I gave away my lunch to the starving dogs. A branch of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is desperately needed in the village.
The traveler, if he or she dares, can sail all alone on a large ferry over to Santiago La Laguna. It is there that Maximon, the local demon-man (really a cigar store mannequin), is the object of worship to superstitious locals.
Last fall, this writer took an open launch from San Pedro to Santiago. I then took a taxi to visit the demon, which was (and still is) housed in a small green building. The streets were congested and narrow. Smoke from wood fires filled the air. I walked down a dirty path hewn with large holes. Finally, I came upon a nondescript green dwelling housing. Inside, I found two men milling about at first, and then a third, all dressed in what appeared to be pirate costumes. They said politely in Spanish that the demon was up in the attic.
I looked around the room and waited for them to fetch the demon. The room itself was surreal, littered with candles and three large statues of the Virgin Mary, who was cloaked in red. One of the statues was holding a filthy 20 Queztal bill in her hands. The money in Guatemala is quite often terribly dirty for some odd reason.
I thought of that old Bugs Bunny cartoon, “Don’t play with the dirty money …”
To the left in the room was a glass case housing what the pirates claimed was Jesus. Two old Guatemalan women sat near the case. Their faces were old and leathery, like horse saddles with eyeballs.
I studied them briefly. Then the high ceiling caught my attention. It was decorated with party favors, streamers and large ears of corn that were made out of paper mache. I thought of Eric Van Daniken’s nutty, yet best-selling, book, “Chariots of the Gods?” and the picture of the Mayan cornhusker inside, alleged by the author to be an alien astronaut.
Two small girls, very cute, appeared at the gate of the dwelling. They were fooling about, tapping me on the back and running away. I took their photo.
Flies were buzzing all around me. Balloons were dropping from the ceiling as though I was attending some obscure Guatemalan bachelor party. But who was going to jump out of the cake? An obscure nun?
The demon idol Maximon.
Finally, it was time to take down the demon. One of the men climbed up a ladder they had placed on top of a large wooden table in the center of the room. Then after a few minutes, down came the demon. It was an idol with a cigar in its mouth. It was made of wood and was wearing a hat like Tom Landry, the late football coach of the Dallas Cowboys.
The pirates carried Maximon to the floor and began decorating him in a coat and tie. I soon realized that this was no ordinary mannequin. A man came in off of the street and gave the demon a bottle of rum. He knelt before it and pronounced curses on various townsfolk before making a personal request for riches.
I was reminded of the climactic line in “The Ninth Gate,” a popular film about a book dealer searching for a way to communicate with Satan: “I’m in uncharted territory, on the road that leads to equality with God.”
Or perhaps it was the Salem witch trials? Did the witches have power because of some magical spells or because those who believed they did gave power over to them?
Or is the Maximon phenomenon more in line with the quarterback in the film “Friday Night Lights” who said, “It’s like I’m cursed. When things are going bad I feel it. And even when things are going good I can still feel it.”
His coach, played by Billy Bob Thornton, tells the quarterback: “There are no curses.”
Meanwhile, I bartered with the pirates for the price I needed to pay in order to take photos of the demon. I got them down to two photos for 10 Quetzals. The pirates sat adjacent to the demon, as though guardians. Soon the photo session was complete, and I was glad to be short of that creepy, eerie place.
[Note: In 2005, deadly mudslides at Lago Atitlan sadly killed Guatemalans living in this beautiful area. Strangely, the mudslides centered around Santiago, home of Maximon.]
The other villages around the lake carry a very different ambiance than Santiago La Laguna.
For instance, San Pedro plays host to the major portion of the tourist crowd. Neighboring San Juan offers a wonderful horseback trail and the best I-MAX style view of Lago Atitlan.
Other horseback trails meander in and out of San Pedro to the lakeshore, while the main street is paved in stone. Both town and lakeside are littered with unfinished buildings.
Wheat, corn and every kind of produce imaginable are also grown here, in addition to rich coffee blends. The San Pedro volcano dominates the landscape, as does a hill known as “La Nariz,” or “The Nose,” because of its distinct shape.
You’ll find hippies in San Pedro, armies of tourists from Holland, Denmark, Spain and just about everywhere else you can imagine. There are also nice restaurants (D’noz and The Allegre Pub are the two best) and friendly people.
One local family, who run Maritza’s Restaurant, are proud parents of their daughter by the same name. She’s an 8-year-old so beautiful that she was featured in a special segment run by a major media group from Spain.
Just below Maritza’s Restaurant, which is situated on a hill overlooking the lake, is a manicured soccer field complete with goals. It is here that San Pedro’s children gather for impromptu games at sunset. Any American child who ever played ice hockey on a local pond or played baseball on a rocky school field would be rather envious at first glance. One can honestly say that not even Solomon crowned in all of his glory, the centerfielder of the New York Yankees (from Mickey Mantle to Mickey Rivers), or even Pele has ever had a finer stage upon which to perform.
The view of the lake is simply breathtaking from this field – which is only befitting, because the children of Lago Atitlan are still children. Yes, perhaps they are poor in the material sense, but they’re rich in safety, family, freedom and (for now) morality, while the paganism and nihilism of the West and the emerging “global civilization” are held at bay.
Would you expect anything less from this world of endless wonders?