Moments #9 Journey Across Central America (part 1)

A little natural history.

The name ‘Guatemala’ comes from the local Indian Nahuatl word Cuauhtēmallān, a “place of many trees" and if you think of as jungle being the dense version of such, it was all around. The Colombian author García Márquez, when speaking of the magical quality of Latin American life said in an interview, “you see there are in our countries, rivers which have no names, trees which nobody knows, and birds which nobody has described. It is easier for us to be surrealistic because everything we know is new.”

I couldn't choose between the two countries, El Salvador, Guatemala. Their veins hold the same blood. Hemingway sentences, those simple declarative statements that showed the truth and distilled the meaning apply here. For me I have immediately come to love the place. I have travelled in these parts, to Baha, the Isle of Ometepe, Granada, El Salvador and I fell hard for Nicaragua and Mexico. In each country I had fantasies that I could live there.

Guatemala was like that for me, the capital and largest city is Nueva Guatemala de la Asunción, also known as Guatemala City, sounded strange to my non-indigenous ears. Any place can impart its fearful reputation and so persuade you to pass through quickly, but this time it felt quite different. Freshened with an economy made more robust by a stable currency, more work for people or an internet connectivity that allowed true comparisons with the rest of the world I didn’t know, but my first visit in 1996 passed through the same year a decades old civil war ceased, so leaving the country paralysed in a kind of killing psychosis.

Some more history

The territory of modern Guatemala once formed the core of the Maya civilization, which extended across Mesoamerica after which most of the country was conquered by the Spanish in the 16th century, so becoming part of the viceroyalty of New Spain. Guatemala attained independence in 1821 and from the mid to late 19th century, the country experienced chronic instability and civil strife. Beginning in the early 20th century, it was ruled by a series of dictators backed by the United Fruit Company and the United States government and not until 1944, when the then authoritarian leader Jorge Ubico was overthrown by a pro-democratic military coup, could such a revolution lead to sweeping social and economic reforms. What became a daily turmoil didn’t end there because in 1954, a U.S.-backed military coup ended the revolution and installed a dictatorship, and just when you think it was safe to visit with your suitcase, Panama hat and paperbacks of Hemingway under your arm, from 1960 to 1996 Guatemala endured a bloody civil war fought between the US-backed government and leftist rebels, including genocidal massacres of the Maya population perpetrated by the military, and that’s when I first passed through.

A potted biography

In 1983 I cycled over 9000 miles from Cairo to the source of the White Nile and back, the first attempted solo ride of this route and it meant crossing Uganda twice, initially not knowing it was in the midst of a civil war. As a member of the British Commonwealth visas for entry were not needed so being a haphazard youth delved no further into the details of such a transit. At the unmanned border with Sudan, broken munitions and tanks made it instantly obvious there was a serious conflict nearby or one that had recently passed. It was definitely a war. I cycled along the Bomba Road from the northern provinces of Gulu to Kampala, a route I was to soon understand as being the ‘most dangerous road in Africa’. It was with such supremely gullible and headstrong self belief that only a youngster can possess, that I continued.

In my very young life and as a matter of survival I always had insight, to move fast even just to stay still. I knew then I’d be careless and self-centred with youthful conceit. But without ignorance and stupidity to overcome what use were these journeys. There had to be a reason for doing so many.

More insight. For example. I wish my careers master had told me how exciting my life was going to be, the great future that lay ahead. Instead he inferred at my lowly comprehensive school staffed by a paltry few free minded well meaning people who never told the truth because they were constrained themselves. “Half of you have gone as far as you will go,” they would think without saying. “Some of you a bit further.” We all knew that most of us would get an ordinary job, marry, weekends away to London, a week in the sun once a year but they never told us how many might do something worthwhile. What? Be published, hang a painting somewhere. They never said about the tarnishing of true love. The dissolution of family, tragedies that unfold, and as for free thinking, what of that? One in a thousand gets a glimpse of the future whilst the rest of us blame someone else or find an excuse because we know it’s not me.

That’s why I journeyed then and do still now. In a moment of reflection when you are not sitting riding your bike. Briefly not braced against the impact of oncoming traffic when the wind isn’t knocking ten bells out of your head whilst trying to think you know how our thoughts shape us. We become our obsessions as we ride and I guess depending on the day, our thoughts can ‘enslave us or save us.’

My job even then, having indoctrinated myself only to succeed, was not to return until the adventure was completed. You would ask yourself how could such a journey fail. Easily, quickly and violently. It’s the same answer then as now.

That boy on his bicycle was trying so hard to make sense of his life by bringing movement to his particular theatre and the success of this methodology is that it hasn’t stopped. The defining logic was always based on need. A need to earn money. A need to be noticed. A need to try and understand and even help clear up the mess others have made. I knew then how most people see outside themselves, their exceptions, as a dim shadow. If you do feel the total consciousness of the world as Nietzsche says (All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits), you would “collapse with a curse on existence.”

In a war zone, and I have only ever seen the edges of the aftermath, you instantly can no longer be oblivious to what the effects of what massacre meant. I saw people from the wrong tribe marched off buses to be slaughtered in the jungle. I was on that bus. I heard from local people. I read the reports of that time and place on my return. The Luwero Triangle which I’d visited in June 1983 was a Killing Field and I had just cycled on through. It wasn’t my war I thought. What a young fool.

In 1994 for nine months I sailed two narrowboats from the Black Country to the Black Sea. The massacre of Srebrenica, where 8,372 deaths mainly Bosniak men and boys, perpetrated by units of the Bosnian Serb army, happened between 11th and 22nd of July 1995, 50 miles from the banks of the River Danube. The 87 day siege of Vukovar in eastern Croatia started August 25th 1991, a little over 18 months before I arrived, unheralded but with advice to pass through quickly and never to stop. Sailing my narrow boats on the longest such journey ever undertaken was done simply because this sponsorship support, if successful would allow me to keep them as my prize and so have somewhere on which to live. 1800 lightly armed soldiers of the Croatian National Guard and civilian volunteers stood up to 36,000 Serb paramilitaries equipped with heavy armour and an onslaught of up to 12,000 rockets each day. It was at the time the scene of the fiercest and most protracted battle seen in Europe since 1945 and Vukovar was the first major European town to be entirely destroyed since the Second World War. 90% of the housing stock was damaged and from the boats I could see at close quarters the effects of the munitions having slammed into the places and apartments were people had once lived.

I read a report from a Croation soldier at the time, “by early October, there were no cigarettes. People were smoking grape leaves or tea. There was no yeast for bread. My son was eating tinned food with me and my wife. There was less and less of that. The shelling became 24 hours a day, and the cease-fires were worse. When people came out of the shelters to go to the well during the cease-fires, the snipers shot them. You can't keep children in for two months, and when they ran outside, when there was sun in the morning, they shot at them, too.”

Marcus Tanner of The Independent, “a silent, ghostly landscape, consisting of mile upon mile of bricks, rusting cars, collapsed roofs, telegraph poles and timber beams poking out from the rubble. The wind whistles through the deserted warehouses along the river front. By next spring, grass and saplings will be sprouting and birds nesting in these piles, and hope of rebuilding will be over.”

So, in a similar mood and manner in 1996 I rode through Guatemala, this wounded country on my Daytona 900 and the landscape and people felt dark and dangerous. A decades long civil war had just ended, mostly. The Guatemalan Civil War was a civil war in Guatemala fought between the government of Guatemala and various leftist rebel groups supported chiefly by ethnic Maya indigenous people and Ladino peasants, who together make up the rural poor. It lasted from 1960 to 1996.

The 900 Daytona was born out of the Daytona 750 and had more aggressive styling and better performance and it had an engine that was bulletproof. The heaviness and high centre of gravity meant you had to partner it rather than just ride it and at slow speeds more than once in an erstwhile slow u-turn the damn thing would topple over and slide down my leg. Between 1993 and 1996 some thought Triumph had produced arguably one of the first sports tourers to be manufactured in the United Kingdom and spot on the money IBM and Mobil Oil paid me a salary to practise my craft here in the Americas. Civil war or not, and as a practise run for me to teach myself how to ride, it was the way to go.

This time, 25 years on, the ride across Guatemala was by any comparison a genteel surprise; everyone smiled or at least responded positively to one, but so quickly does one pass in the rocket ship maelstrom of speeding time I was in the heart of the country and in a flash thinking of exiting into yet somewhere else.

A Final Thought from Someone Else

“Life is fundamentally a mental state. We live in a dream world that we create. Whose life is truer, the rational man of action pursuing practical goals of personal happiness and wealth or the philosophic man who lives in a world of theoretical and metaphysical ideas? We ascribe the value quotient to our lives by making decisions that we score as either valid or invalid based upon our personal ethics and how we think and behave.”

Kilroy J.Oldster Dead Toad Scrolls

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