Going to ground in Guatemala
By Guy A. Sibilla
Special to The Advertiser
By Guy A. Sibilla
t is the celebration of the Jesœs Negro," whispered a young Guatemalan woman standing next to an 8-foot crucifix.
The cross was being displayed prone instead of vertically, and I watched as a long line of supplicants waited patiently to kiss the knees of the Christ figure.
"It was a miracle," she said.
The church, overlooking the central square in Isla de Flores, Guatemala, was filled with dark-skinned men, women and children. Their western-style dress couldn't hide the angular features of faces that looked a lot like the fresco murals of their Mayan ancestors. Here, in the heart of Mundo Mayan, the missionary zeal of 16th-century colonial Spain still has a home.
Miracles, it seems, can happen anywhere, even in this tiny town in the northern reaches of the El Petén region of Central America.
"Why is the Jesus black?" I asked the young woman in a hushed voice. (Not being embarrassed at my own ignorance is one of my best traits.)
She spoke deliberately, searching for just the right words.
"Some years ago, a cathedral near here burned to the ground." There was a long pause. "After the fire, the church was all burned ... but not the Jesœs. It was only charred black."
Some time later, when the crucifix was taken to Guatemala City, the vehicle broke down. The people of Flores took it as another sign and kept it here ever since.
I wondered if the Vatican knew there was a black Jesus in their genealogy? Even if not, on this wisp of land known as the Island of Flowers, the celebration of the unburned crucifix is an annual January event.
Standing within the majestic shadows of the stained glass, I couldn't help but consider the odd confluence of cultures. A stately Mayan woman held a votive candle in silent prayer. As I took her photograph I knew she carried the same genes as some ancient Mayan temple priest who had once held a still-beating human heart toward the sun. I preferred the flickering light of a candle.
Most of the visitors to Isla de Flores and its sister town across the lake, Santa Elena, come to take advantage of their proximity to one of the great sites of the Mayan world, Tikal. It is just an hour or so away by minibus.
Tourists fly into the Aeropuerto Internacional Santa Elena, spend the night in one of the western-style hotels, drive off to Tikal the next morning, take the obligatory picture standing on top of or in front of the main temple and then fly out that same day, back to the frosty margaritas of Cancœn.
They have done Mayan and have the photograph as proof.
I came to do it the hard way because it makes for a better story. Misery loves company so I convinced my brother, Vic, to come with me to photograph the Mayan complex near the borders of Belize and Mexico known as El Mirador.
Few people realize that The Lookout, the central temple that rises above the jungles of Guatemala, is the tallest man-made pyramid in the world. Taller than the pyramids of Giza. Taller than the pyramids near Mexico City or Puebla. The Luxor in Las Vegas doesn't count because there isn't any culture there.
Unlike our tourist friends at Tikal, we find no easy way to get to El Mirador. The trail is about 180 kilometers of dirt, muck and goo through the Central American rainforest, which is sprinkled liberally with low-lying areas known as bajo (read "swamp"). Our little expedition included two mules, two horses, two Mayan guides and bug repellent containing so much Deet that it was a minor miracle the FDA didn't declare it unfit for carbon-based life forms.
As always, the beginning of any journey is filled with anxious anticipation curbed with a good dose of second thoughts.
I had been to central Mexico and Belize before; the former to climb Popocatepetl (17,887 feet) and the latter as part of an anthropological expedition sponsored by the University of Texas that was mapping uncharted Mayan temple complexes. I had prepared myself for the onslaught of creepy-crawly things like ticks, fleas, army ants, mosquitoes, tarantulas, beetles and an array of poisonous snakes that would make any herpetologist happy.
For Vic, who lives in Las Vegas, prowling the nightlife along the Strip is an adventure. We're both right. They're the same. Just different.
The morning of our trek into the jungle began with a four-hour ride in a minivan to the village of Carmelita, population less than 500. From here, we would head off into the jungle for about a week.
Then things got weird. As we geared up, my brother noticed uniformed men bearing M-16s form a perimeter. Just then, we heard a helicopter approach and watched in dismay as it plopped down right in the middle of almost nonexistent Carmelita. More uniformed men. More M-16s.
The next minute, our driver exclaimed, "It is our presidente!"
So it was. It also was my birthday, which was more important to me than Oscar Berger, the president. But like it or not, he was going to play a large part in my often-overlooked and little-celebrated day of American history. Instinctively, I grabbed my cameras and began running for the open field.
I approached the entourage and immediately stuck out my hand as I began to rip off a flurry of images.
"Buenos dias, el Se–or Presidente!"
I blurted out with a smile and an extended hand: "Yo estoy Guy Sibilla!" I continued in Spanish, "I am an American photographer from Honolulu, Hawai'i. And today is my birthday!"
A visibly confused yet gracious president shook my hand and offered his best wishes.
For me, it immediately catapulted this small banana republic to the top of my favorite places in the world to visit. Given the fact that we both met in remote Carmelita, I too began to believe in miracles.
If they do in fact occur, this is about as close as what one probably looks like.
While I was introducing myself as a foreign journalist, my brother learned that anthropologist Richard Hansen had just completed an extensive excavation of El Mirador. The potato farmer/anthropologist flies annually from Idaho to Guatemala to map what he believes is a Mayan city roughly the size of Los Angeles which predates the birth of Christ by centuries. In gratitude, the president was holding a news conference in this most unlikely of places.
That is how I came to meet El Presidente on my birthday.
With my matters of state having been disposed of, we began our trek toward El Mirador. The route toward it and back did not disappoint. We slogged through sludge. We humped over hills. We removed a bat from our tent one night. But mostly, we got eaten alive.
In fact, on my return to Ho-nolulu, I immediately solicited the help of a trusted friend and travel physician, Dr. Steven Berman. I showed him a sampling of the 338 bites I collected as souvenirs of Central America. He shoved a handful of prescriptions at me and warned me not to scratch myself into oblivion.
My brother, equally afflicted, has yet to thank me for that joy. But he did marvel at what 1,500 years of neglect does to the buildings of such a vast civilization.
Homes, rain structures, temples large and small, all look the same: huge piles of dirt and leaves, with trees and bushes grow out of them. This bears saying again. This isn't a Tikal photo op. At El Mirador, you can't just use your eyes. You have to feel it in your bones.
FROM SAP TO GUM
You have to imagine the farmers and craftsmen and potters and priests and warriors roaming the undulating fields that bury what used to be one of the largest settlements in all of Mesoamerica. There were slaves taken in battle with other tribes. There were jewelry makers of exquisite talent. Stone workers. Painters. And bureaucrats reporting to ever-higher levels of governmental authority.
But that part of the journey taken by the mind's eye was paid for by wear and tear on the body.
As we made our serpentine way, occasionally one of our guides would disappear and reappear later. In the meantime, we heard hacking like the sound of a huge woodpecker banging a hole in a tree. I learned later that our guides not only take people through this ancient land but also work as chicle tappers.
They showed us how they strapped on crudely fashioned spikes and shimmy up the chicle tree, or as those of us versed in botany say, the sapodilla. They cut lines into the bark of the tree and gather its sap, much like Vermonters tap maple sap to make syrup.
Once the latex is cured by heat, it becomes a block weighing about two pounds and is sold for about $12.
From Guatemala, it heads off to somewhere (it used to be Chicago), to become what made the Wrigley family enormously wealthy, Chiclets.
Given the dangerous heights to which these men climb to gather this sap, and knowing now that they live in the jungle for three months at a time doing so, my brother and I have reconsidered whether the pleasure of chewing gum is at all worth the risk to their lives. Especially now that we know two chicleros by name: Henrique and Geronimo.
By the end of the week, we found ourselves weary but enlightened. The Zen of simple things became gloriously satisfying rituals. Instant coffee at the end of a 16-mile day of humping tasted better than any Starbucks brew.
Vic started saving his tea bags to make second and third cups from the same one as he watched his supply dwindle and the trail lengthen. Freshly cut cantaloupe tasted so much sweeter on the trail than at home. Hardship focuses the mind.
And on our return to our flowery little island, we found that we enjoyed hot water more. We liked the feel of clean sheets. We savored the refreshing flavor of cold beer. And we both felt more strongly attracted to a culture that, while gone, kept speaking to us from under the earth.
And that's another miracle altogether.
Guy Sibilla is a Honolulu attorney, a freelance writer and a traveler.
Why travel by bus when you can experience ancient Mayan ruins via mule with sludge and mosquitoes?