A Thousand Years Too Late

The inland waterway from Livingston to the end of Lake Izabal is as beautiful a place as you can hope to see in your travels. Canyons, rivers, mountains, and waterfalls give the visitor many opportunities to see Guatemala as it was hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

But what was it really like back then -- before highways, airplanes, and outboard motors? I was lucky to visit the area in the mid-seventies and many times afterward, which helps me imagine how it might have been before the Spanish arrived.

I see the rivers and lakes dotted with small ranches and villages. More than anything I can hear the quiet. Small clouds of cooking smoke rising from a village, a few snatches of song or conversation, perhaps the sound of firewood being cut and broken for the fires.

Above the flood plain, old-growth forest reaches to the summits. The few large trees taken from the lakeshore are used mostly for the making of canoes.

The mountain trails are invisible as they wind among the tall tree trunks. It's the lazy time between harvest and planting and there are few people on the trails, unlike harvest time when the men, straining against their head-straps, bring the corn down to the villages.

The forest looks much the same as it has for thousands of years. A combination of disease, infant death, and a relatively short life span has kept the human population stable. Only the fires in the dry season and pests molest the majority of the forest. In the secluded valleys to the north of the waterway, wild animals live a quiet life. And the birds...just imagine the birds!

Now I can see a dugout approaching a village with what appears to be a sail, but as the fishermen reach the beach they drop the three or four palm fronds that were held erect in the bow to catch the afternoon breeze. Exposed are the fish and turtles within. Perhaps, if they were lucky today, they might have harpooned a manati and have it in tow.

Scattered along the shoreline, I can see women rubbing and beating clothes on flat rocks. Children crowd around the boats excitedly examining the days' catch. It's a good time of the day. The breeze is up and the temperature has dropped a few degrees. Everyone is in a good mood because there is fresh fish to eat.

There's talk in the village about a rise in the price of salt and obsidian, and one person is trying to explain about the new tax for a temple in the great valley to the south. No one's really worried though, as they don't have to think about it right now. They will think about it "mañana", which predates Spanish time and really means only one thing: "not today".

Just about everyone in the village is related in some way. There's security in that. Tomorrow will take care of itself.

Sometimes I think I was born a thousand years too late. These people had it made hombre. It's easy for me to rationalize though, as even in this day of satellite dishes and waverunners, I can see almost everything I imagined right here on my own beach. As I sit here writing in the afternoon breeze, all I have to do is look around me and listen. A songbird singing in the mango tree nearby. The laughs and cries of my children. The rhythmic tapping sound is my neighbor patiently putting the finishing touches on a new cayuco. Further along, a group of men are re-thatching a friend's roof. I really didn't imagine all that much, did I? The old ways are still here, you just have to slow down a bit, take it easy, and much of the Guatemala of old is still right here for anyone to see.

--Dennis Gulck

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November 9, 2012
© 1997-2012 Phillip Landmeier