Okay so I apologize for being a bit AWOL, there’s been a lot going on these past two weeks. Last I wrote I was in the second week and life was great. Life is still pretty good, it’s just starting to feel more like life and less like summer camp. I’m recognizing people in the cafes/ streets and they are actually acknowledging me, which is a cool feeling. I’m somehow learning salsa, how I really don’t know except for the fact that counting is a helpful thing, and my Spanish improves daily. We have hiked to a sacred Mayan lake, Laguna de Chicabal; heard testimony from a former guerrilla fighter in the Guatemalan civil war; and taken a break from life at some beautiful hot springs nestled in the jungle, Los Fuentes Georginas.
Laguna de Chicabal was a day filled with new experiences for me. To get there we threw caution out the window and piled into the back of the oldest pick up truck I have ever seen. I certainly felt immersed in the culture as we were sliding to the back of the truck while the wheels scrambled for traction on the steep, pitted dirt road. After the road vaguely flattened out we hopped out and started the hike portion of the trail. As we walked upward we passed religious pilgrims standing in the beds of pickups and a sign that told us we needed to ask God’s permission to go to the lake. The lake itself was a still lagoon with fog rolling off its surface surrounded by dense jungle. All the way around the edges of the lake were Mayan ritual sites, charred black remnants of fires and flowers left for love ones gone to the other side.
The indigenous Mayan religion sees lakes like this one as entrances to the underworld and they go there to pay respect to lost loved ones. We kept a respectful distance from the ceremonies, but it was impossible not to hear the characteristic wailing of the mourners. According to one of the coordinators, this sobbing and moaning is their way of empathizing with the dead. We stayed there for a while, eating lunch on the other side of the lake and dozing in the sun, but even with these pleasant circumstances it was easy to understand how the people here can see this as an entrance to the underworld. The stillness of the lake and the strangeness of the low rolling fog gave the entire area an eerie undertone.
The rest of the week was dominated by the theme of the 50 year long civil war. Our readings for the week were all about the atrocities committed by the Guatemalan government, a military government filled with graduates from the School of the Americas. These readings were not pleasant in the slightest. They documented the reign of terror genocide by genocide, making sure that we knew the story of every town of ingenious Mayans that was systematically exterminated by a government that the US supported, officially in the beginning then unofficially at the end when Guatemala became known as the second worst offender against human rights, second only to the blood bath that was El Salvador in the 80s. This theme was wrapped up by testimony from a former guerrilla fighter. Unfortunately, this person in particular was not a talented speaker, his Spanish was mumbling and difficult to understand and honestly it felt like he only answered questions about motives with predigested propaganda statements.
Originally, this frustrated me immensely, because I wanted to know what happened during the war, who was fighting for what and what were the outcomes, etc. However, after doing some extra readings on my own about the scope of the civil war I came to a different understanding of his talk. His talk wasn’t meant to teach us about the war, it was to show the perspective of a person who lived it, a person who grew up exiled in Mexico, who wasn’t allowed to go to school as a refugee, then returned home to fight a war against the very people that were supposed to protect him, the army. He couldn’t articulate the motives of the guerrillas well, because they were simply people trying to survive extermination. There weren’t any grand motives except to survive and to take the people out of power who wanted to see a Guatemala without Mayans. Over 90% of the atrocities committed during the Guatemalan civil war, from the 1960s to the early 2000s, were committed by the Guatemalan army against its own indigenous people.
As you can probably understand, we desperately needed a break from the depression inducing week of reading materials that we had so Sam, a very organized and helpful guy in our group, planned a trip for us all up to Los Fuentes Georginas, hot springs about an hour away from Xela. The hot springs looked like something out of a movie, Jurassic Park perhaps. We stayed in cabanas built in the 60s, ate in a thatched roof cafe overlooking the jungle, and soaked in stone pools beneath cliffs covered in ferns and waterfalls. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before. The thickness of the jungle was amazing and while we didn’t see any wildlife due to the amount of people during the day at the springs we did find a jungle vine to channel our inner Tarzans. The best part of the trip was that, because we were staying the night, we had access to the pools all night. We brought firewood and candles down to the hottest pool, coincidentally one that you had to descend into the bowels of the jungle to find, pulled out the whiskey and set up shop for a strange and beautiful night.
We got back into Xela today, exhausted and smelling of sulfur, but very content. I still can’t believe it has only been three weeks since I arrived, but all I can say is that I hope the next 20 weeks are just as awesome. Buenas noches mis amigos, I love you all and would love to tell you more, but dinner is calling. Adios.