Dusk falls over the jungle at Tikal.
So what was my excuse? A good friend from high school was getting married in Guatemala. So I went there to be in his wedding. And, to get more points, I also went to El Salvador.
The most densely populated Central American country, it's one of the few on only one ocean (the Pacific), and has some cool parks, good seafood, and an interesting history - set aside as a colony just to grow indigo (which collapsed when aniline dye was invented in the 1870s) and with a smaller native cultural and genetic component than most if not all Central American countries. One day I did walk across a large fraction of the city and had a lot of interesting conversations with shop-owners along the way. People were extremely friendly and approachable and everyone seemed to have a relative either in Washington D.C., or the oddly-specific San Francisco suburb of Daly City. It seemed very much like NAFTA had benefited them, judging by the many small new-looking factories with foreign flags all over the place, and by the informal Tom Friedman standard, i.e the many taxi drivers, shop owners, etc. who said NAFTA was a good thing. I like to buy national soccer jerseys where I travel and I got what remains my favorite running shirt, an awesome blue jersey you can see in the photo of your handsome blogger at the top right of this very blog. (More than once people have called out "¡Salvador!" as I ran by them.)
Outdoors: it was nice for this Californian to learn that the Pacific does get warm once you go far enough south, but I finally got to a black beach, which turned out not be all they're cracked up to be. From the mountains in the interior I was tortured by the distant mirage of an absolutely beautiful white sand beach on the blue green ocean. Just as I complained in Morocco, trail-running was not really a possibility, despite the awesome-looking volcanoes ringing the town, as everyone assured me I would be robbed or worse. There was a possibility of taking a guided tour with people who had actually fought in the Salvadorean Civil War on the trails they used as guerillas. I'm already a little uncomfortable with American Civil War re-enactments, where everything is far in the past. And it seems even stranger that a few times, Japanese and American soldiers have met on the actual soil where they were trying to kill each other. But tourism? On the site of a very recent civil war with many unresolved questions? No thanks.
For some reason I strongly associate this trip with two books I read, Infidel, by the amazing Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Chung Kuo by David Wingrove, neither of which are about Central America. I tried to read something in Spanish by a Guatemalan Nobel prize winner, El Señor Presidente by Miguel Asturias, but had to confront that while my spoken Spanish isn't bad, it isn't up to reading a major novel.
Above: a random event I ran into on top of the volcano. (Funeral? Wedding? Holiday? In Latin America it's often hard to tell.) Below: my guide insisted that these were venomous, and I tried not to openly scoff, because as everyone knew in 2008, the only venomous lizards were gila monsters. Well guess what! A year or two later it was found that komodo dragons were venomous, and so are many of the iguanas that people keep as pets. I don't know if this particular character is venomous but I'm much less likely to dismiss it as impossible now. I took this while waiting in line to get into the Joya de Cerén excavation, and in a theme that continued throughout my visit, the guide picked up a random orange fruit and showed me that the stem was in fact a cashew. The fruit itself was like a durian but without the charm.
The next four are Joya de Cerén, the pre-Columbian Pompeii. The eruption was not as violent and deadly as Pompeii but it similarly left a very well-preserved village, including the footsteps of people running away during the eruption. The ash is quite obvious.
The next four are also Joya de Cerén, but outside. As you can tell by the last one there is still a lot left to unearth. This is true throughout Guatemala, where even in the partly-excavated cities there are mounds covered with vegetation and soil that are obviously buried structures. (In this climate it doesn't take long to get buried by vegetation.) If you've been to any of the sites in these places it's no surprise that new imaging techniques are finding evidence of whole new areas of cities.
Above: a fire tree. Below: typical views of the Salvadorean countryside.
The next few are from El Bosque Imposible (the Impossible Forest), a national reserve. It earned its name from the ruggedness and how difficult it is to cross. I joked with my driver that it should be called the Impossible Road given the way in. It's also infamous for both jaguars and mountain lions - it seems like this used to be El Salvador's answer to the Sundarbans' tiger buffet. The guide said during mating season you can listen for the cougars screaming their come-ons back and forth across these canyons. She also said she's had to turn around on hikes because of large boas and other snakes coiled in the trees at face-level right next to the trail, though fortunately we never had such problems. We did have a random cloud of wasps pass over us when we were at the highest point; when the guide saw this she froze and said "Don't move until they're all gone," then once they passed said "When the guide is nervous, you should be nervous too." Of course there were lots of dangerous-looking tropical plants and vines to complete the picture. I felt a bit like I was on a hostile alien planet at this point. To top it off, this is where I was taunted with a view of a far off white-stand beach. Still, on the drive back down, there was so much tropical fruit basically falling into our mouths through the open windows that the driver offered to stop a few times and when I got back to the hotel I was still full.
A side note: when I went on this trip, I was at a point in my life where, for whatever reason, I started being less interested in tolerating the discomfort necessary for a true "adventure". Because I no longer felt I needed to prove anything? Or recognized how useless that is? I had the money? I focused more on what I was there to see and do? Who knows. I knew while I was in San Salvador I would have to go down to the bus terminal and buy my one-way ticket to Guatemala City. When I did, I talked to the person at the window and learned there were two ways to get there. For $20, the "chicken bus", which most people who've traveled outside the OECD countries will understand; and for $36, a double-decker with air conditioning, a computer screen at every seat with free movies, cocktail service, and attractive attendants. Would I have had amazing, unique conversations with the people I met on the chicken bus? No doubt. But did I want A/C and martinis? Even less doubt. I found myself wondering why I was even hesitating, and forked over the extra $16.
Guatemala City is small, and the nice parts of it are really small. It's alright, but not that historic or pleasant (or safe) as a walking city - that would be Antigua, which unfortunately I didn't have time for. Some of the realities of life in Latin American cities are quite clear here. Asking people for directions outside of their few square blocks - I mean educated people who have been around - often met with blank stares, even when I could point to my desired destination on a map. Also, it became clear when we went out with my friend's in-laws-to-be that there were about two blocks in the center of the city that served as night life for the upper class. Everyone there seemed to know each other, and many of them were family members of industrial magnates or ambassadors. (Relevant: my friend's fiancee and her family are fairly light-complected; most Guatemalans are not.) A couple days after the wedding I went along on a trip to the "good" mall with her, and I asked her pointedly who all the white people on the fashion billboards were. "There are light-complected people in Guatemala!" she objected indignantly. "Yeah, and all two hundred of them were at your wedding," I said. That was a quiet ride back. I should shut up sometimes.
Pacaya Volcano An active volcano just west of the city. Locals hike up it all the time, I guess because it's less active than Volcan de Fuego (which will definitely kill you, as opposed to possibly.) My friend's father-in-law had actually camped on it with his mother at one point! When I got there and realized how active it was - with booms and lava flows - I went part way up, and then had a rare moment of common sense which you can see in the videos below. Forgot actual volcanic activity - lightning is an even bigger problem on volcanoes in the tropics than elsewhere. Interesting experience. Wouldn't do it again.
Guatemala City is in the cooler highlands of the country's center. The Petén is in the northeast of the country, the tropical and often swampy tropical lowlands as you get out on the Yucatan Peninsula shared with Mexico and Belize. It's also where all the Mayan ruins are, and my friend's in-laws were kind enough to set up a flight for me while I was visiting. I opted for the 1-hour plane ride rather than a horrendous bumpy unreliable car ride on washed-out roads.
Above and below, some critters from Tikal. Howler monkeys would be terrifying to hear during their dawn chorus if you didn't know what lazy goofy guys they are. They're also scary because they urinate from the trees, tourists look up to see what's dripping, and then they finish. I swear they do it intentionally. The turkeys are amazingly colorful as you can see. I actually got a trail run in here, which despite the miserable humidity wasn't so bad; I guess I was expecting to be hot and sweaty. I realized as I was running back that there were all manner of nasty snakes (that I couldn't identify) to step on or fall on me from a tree. I also noticed the "Danger Crocodiles" sign at the little ponds I ran by. Bad times.
Above and below: tropical trees are strange. Below, a ceiba with classic tropical buttress roots, which Wallace recorded on his travels.
Below for many pictures: Tikal, which mostly speaks for itself.
If you haven't seen Apocalypto, you should - for its depiction of what life may have been like in a Mayan city (and, complete spoiler, here's the twist ending.)
The steps are every bit as steep as they look. The large headstone-looking objects are stelae with inscriptions about kings and military victories. They are not fully translated, but we understand their dating system, which is why we can say things like "On July second A.D. 748, Two-Grass vanquished his enemy Eight-Rabbit from the next city-state" because that's what the stelae tell us. (Of course, can we trust the stela-carvers? Prehistory is based on physical objects and can't lie to you in the same way.) Below, that's where sacrifices (human and otherwise) took place, with a gutter system for the resulting blood.
You may note the fuzziness of these photos. We were there right before the rainy season was to begin and the humidity was unbelievable. While I got treated to a true tropical thunder-squall in the Petén (constant thunder claps, black clouds suddenly obscuring the hammering sun, rain drops the size of your fist, all on top of you in minutes) that didn't make up for the basic fact that I am not an animal designed to be in the tropics. Until this moment I had thought of myself as indestructible, able to survive in any climate, desert, glaciers, jungle, throw it at me. After being eaten alive by mosquitoes, sweating so much that my clothes were literally as sopping wet as if I'd jumped in a river, and literally having fungus start growing on me in a matter of days, I realized that the jungle is not a place I belong. (For the record, I still do fine with glaciers and deserts.) What didn't help was that my travel companion, while civil and helpful at the time, was very defensive about her reiki practices, and didn't miss the opportunity after we got back to snottily point out that she hadn't been bitten at all while I got devoured. (Of course! That's the only possible answer!)
Above, what the main pyramid looks like from the back. Below, howler monkeys were often hard to spot, but if you look they're there.
The view out over the canopy. To Mayans, an open view of the sky unobstructed by trees must have been a revelation. Supposedly some of the Mayan city-states were so small that from the tops of their pyramids, the rulers could actually see the other city-states. I dozed off sitting up there and when I woke up a toucan had landed on the stone just in front of me.
Above and below: Flores, a village on an island in a lake in the Petén. This was a village before the Spaniards came but that's not obvious now. The water came up to just outside my hotel room and at sunset someone (a German of course) was swimming out there. I don't know which I would be more scared of, crocodiles or fecal coliform. Below that: a classroom in San Andrés. I knew someone from high school who had started his own NGO and built a school (put cinder blocks on top of each other, installed wiring, etc.) and then taught the kids. Talking to him I finally started to get some of the problems of conservation in developing countries; he'd just gotten the government to set aside land for a preserve around the lake, but people were still logging and hunting it, because not only had they never heard of this idea of a preserve, but once they did, they thought "well if it's public land that means I can go in and take whatever I want", and it doesn't help that people are desperately poor. One of the more meaningful things I've ever done on a vacation was here, where I explained the periodic table to a bunch of very attentive little kids, having to stop occasionally and tell them "Okay, I don't know if this is actually the right word for these things in the nucleus, but let's just call them 'protón' and 'neutrón', and if someone else uses a different word later they're probably right." (I guessed correctly. Three cheers for Latin-based words with predictable phonologies in English and Spanish.)
Below, Yaxha. Another city a couple hours from Flores. Only 40% excavated. At the time, the rest of the known cities were only about that much or less. Frustrating that this hasn't occurred yet, but on the other hand it's pretty exciting to think about the discoveries that are surely yet to be made.
One of the mysteries of Mayan cities is that they don't seem to have been used for living - not by many people anyway, only by royalty and the priesthood. They do have some dwellings reconstructed but they're not impressive next to the ceremonial buildings. This is interesting for a few reasons, one of which is that there's an ongoing archaeological debate for cities in the Americas (including ones in the modern United States like Cahokia) - did the cities grow and then the religious monuments were built, or did the ceremonial and religious function of cities come first? Since the Americas are thought to reflect the developments that occurred in the ancient Near East (except delayed by about 4,000 years) the answer to this may have far-reaching implications for our understanding of ancient history. The recent discovery of many more buried structures spreading out around the core Mayan cities with the great pyramids may give the answer to this. And it makes sense - imagine if Martians landed on the Mall in Washington, D.C. a thousand years from now. They might like the monuments, but they'd wonder where everybody lived.
The leafcutter ants had quite a thriving civilization going in the shadow of the fallen Yaxha, leaving noticeable trails on the ground where they move back and forth. It struck me that they cannot understand that impossibly long ago from their perspective, a species far more intelligent and longer-lived than they built their own hive - but the ants outlasted them, oblivious that there was even anything to collapse, much less that it had. This leads quickly to all kinds of thoughts about finding alien life, the Fermi paradox, and the sober reflection that even ant civilizations have their own terminal failure modes.
Above: our hosts noticed my fascination with this blanket, as I had become convinced that the symbols were a code (some of them repeated, seemingly non-randomly but not in a low-information pattern either.) My friend's father-in-law told me it was made by the wife of the groundskeeper and that he would be stopping by later. I asked him if they meant anything and he said no, which somehow only deepened my suspicion. I took this picture in case I wanted to tackle the problem later but you're welcome to it if you have free time!
Below: typical roads away from the lake, using lava rock to build, and finally the start of the road back to Guatemala City.