Guatemala, Belize   (2000)                                                                                                             

                                                       Mundo Maya

                                                 (The World of the Mayans)

When the God Child project announced their plans for a 15th anniversary celebration week in Guatemala, it presented us with a wonderful opportunity to meet our Guatemalan godchild and to see a part of the world we hadn’t visited before . We jumped at the chance.

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     El Fuego Volcano Erupting in Antigua                                                                                                                              Mayan Woman and Child

Guatemala.   Guatemala was the heart of the ancient Mayan world  which   extended north into Mexico, east into Belize and south into Honduras. It is also the center of the modern Mayan world with over 60% of the 11 million population of Guatemala of Mayan descent. So this trip was a great opportunity to spend a week among the Mayan people of today at the God Child project headquarters in Antigua as well as to visit some of the ancient Mayan sites in the area.

Antigua is undoubtedly one of the most picturesque cities in all of Latin America. It served as the capital city for two hundred years up until 1776, when a series of devastating earthquakes caused the government to move their headquarters to Guatemala City. Antigua has recently been declared a national monument and it retains all of the charm and character of its Spanish colonial history. Situated in the shadow of three towering volcanoes, the old city still has most of its old colonial homes, old cathedrals and original cobble stone streets. Many of the cathedrals have been damaged through the years by earthquakes but remain standing in a state of splendid decadence as a reminder of their past glories while in the background, one of the volcanoes (El Fuego) continues to demonstrate it’s activity  by belching out tall columns of smoke and ashes on an almost daily basis.

We were guests for the week in one of the most charming hotels in which we’ve ever stayed . . . a 16th century cloister converted into a private residence. Built in the classic Spanish style, the guest rooms were arranged around a central courtyard . . . each room with fire place, tile floors, beamed ceiling and filled with antiques. Walking though the entrance at the end of the day into the peaceful courtyard with its fountain, lush garden and bougainvillea-draped walls was like stepping into another world.

Unfortunately, the real world outside those walls is another story for the large majority of the Mayan people whose history has been one of oppression and poverty from the time of Spanish conquest to the present day. The last thirty years have been a particularly bloody struggle between the social and economic elite backed by the military against the disenfranchised, indigenous Mayan people . Using brutal, scorched earth tactics, the military razed over 400 villages and killed upwards of 100,000 people during that period. A peace accord was signed in 1996 and the situation has been relatively stable since that time . . . but the economic problems facing the Mayans are daunting in light of the continuing inequities in the basic social and economic power structure of the Guatemalan society.

The Godchild Project. The Minnesota-based Godchild Project is one very admirable and effective attempt to help these people by bringing relief and education to poor families in the highlands of Guatemala The project was started by a Minnesota couple, who came to the country in 1980 looking for some way to help. Their fledgling program was interrupted in 1982, when the military ordered them out of the country at gun point. They returned to Guatemala in 1985, bought some land outside Antigua and in the ensuing years have built a large complex with educational and medical facilities along with housing for the thirty or so volunteers, who live at the site and provide social services to the indigenous peoples in the neighboring villages. The project is funded by godchild sponsor-parents and general donations and is supported by volunteer work teams from the U.S., who come to the project throughout the year  to help build homes in the villages. The project serves 1,800 godchildren and over 8,000 family members who are eligible to receive services. It’s hard not to be impressed with the dedication, compassion and effectiveness of the project staff, who demonstrate great commitment to the program under difficult circumstances.

We had a chance to meet with both of our godchildren at separate picnics arranged by the staff. Our first godchild, Henry Marroquin, is fifteen and one of nine children. His father is a carpenter; his mother works at the project. Neither have any formal education. His mother, however, has taken advantage of the program to learn to read, write and develop other skills such as sewing and gardening. Unfortunately Henry has recently dropped out of school and, therefore, is no longer eligible for project assistance. We did our best to try to convince him to return to school but it’s hard to tell if we made any headway.

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Our new godchild, Erick Arguata, on the other hand, is a bright, little six year old with two sweet older sisters and a younger brother. His father is a tailor and his mother is a maid. Although she, too, had only a first grade education, she has learned to read and write and is a good mother to her four well-dressed and very charming children. After our picnic lunches, we had a chance to do some water balloon tossing, three legged races and other games with our families. I’m not sure who had more fun. . . our godchildren or us.

The occasion of our visit was to help celebrate the 15th anniversary of the project . . . with music, games and crafts and food We served over 1,200 meals each day to the peoples from the local communities. The closing ceremonies on the final evening included speeches, fireworks and a mixed choral performance of gringos and locals. The Godchild chorus ( "Coro della Familias de Esperanza"), in which Val and I proudly participated, was conducted by our White Bear Lake friend and neighbor, Suzanne Holtz-Lyons, and included a special hymn that she had written for the occasion.

Local Excursions. We did have a chance to take a few side trips during the week to a coffee plantation, a macadamia nut plantation and to some of the neighboring villages as well as a full day trip to Lake Atitlan, a large volcanic lake a couple hours from Antigua, where we took a boat across the lake to Santiago Atitlan. The scene of one of the worst massacres of the recent civil war, it is now a peaceful village with one of the oldest cathedrals in Guatemala. In a strange convergence of the Catholic and Mayan religion, the statues of  the saints in the cathedral are all dressed in colorful Mayan clothes.

Even stranger is the nearby chapel of a local saint called Maximon, who as the story goes, got too friendly with the local housewives while their men were out working in the fields and had his arms and legs cut off. His masked and stumpy effigy receives offerings of cigars, beer and rum from his "worshipers" and is attended by two "disciples", who keep his cigar lit and carry him up to bed every night.

For Val  though, the most memorable of the off-site excursions was the day she accompanied one of the social workers on her rounds into the villages to meet with several of the Godchild families in their crowded corrugated metal, dirt floored homes. The visit left vivid impressions that she won’t soon forget.

Ancient Mayans . After our week at the Project among the modern-day Mayans, we spend the next few days visiting two of the greatest city-states of the ancient Mayan world at Copan and Tikal. Located two hundred miles apart, both cities flourished during the golden era of the Mayan civilization from 500 to 900 AD, were reclaimed by the jungle and lost to civilization for a thousand years and were only re-discovered by the modern world in the mid-19th century. Copan is located just across the border into Honduras and about a 150 mile drive from Antigua. Tikal is located in the northern part of Guatemala and we reached it by car from western Belize.

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Mayan Stone Carving - Copan                                                                      Macaw                                                                              Pyramid - Tekal

Copan. The ancient city of Copan is one of the most outstanding Mayan achievements ranking with Tikal, Chichen Itza and Uxmal in its overall splendor. Located in a small, enchanting valley surrounded by pine-and-oak-covered mountains, the ancient metropolis is situated on the banks of the Copan River.  It is unique in the Mayan world for its rich collection of ornate petroglyphs and stone carvings. The remains of over 3,000 structures have been identified in the immediate vicinity of the main buildings suggesting a peak population of about 20,000 people.

The largest building (or acropolis) is really seven palaces built one on top of the other by a succession of twelve rulers who, each in turn, tore down the previous palaces to build their own on its foundations. Perhaps, the most intriguing structure is the Rosalia Temple, which was buried with its architecture and sculpture intact, under in the center of the acropolis and is only accessible through a maze of narrow corridors which are not open to the general public.    Next to the acropolis is a large ball court where, in an ancient form of soccer, two opponents tried to move a hard rubber ball across a goal line or through a ring. In some case, the loser of the contest paid with his head. 

Many of the stone carvings have been relocated into a modern, new museum building on site for their protection although there is a sad irony in the fact that the museum roof has already begun to collapse while the Mayan structures outside remain standing after over a thousand years.

We also stopped at the neighboring but much smaller city of Quirigua, located about fifty miles from Copan. It is noted for its intricate and well-preserved stone petroglyphs some as tall as twenty feet and covered with beautifully carved figures and writings. It was here that one ruler of Copan, with the improbable name of Eighteen Rabbit, came for an inter-city football match and had his head chopped off by his neighbors (not unlike our modern day Viking - Packers football rivalry).

Tekal. Hidden deep in the rainforests of northern Guatemala, Tekal is the most monumental site of the Mayan lowlands. If Copan was the Paris of the ancient Mayan world, Tekal was its New York - a magnificent city, where an estimated 100,000 Mayan nobility lived and ruled over an outlying population, which may have approached 500,000 people at its peak. The heart of this extensive cite is made up of various ceremonial, administrative and residential compounds each with its own palaces, temples, pyramids, ball courts and sweat houses.

Even more amazing than the reconstructed or restored buildings were the un-excavated structures covered over by one thousand years of trees, vines and sediment. Since each temple complex at the site had certain symmetry of layout, where one pyramid had been excavated it was not difficult to imagine what lay beneath the matching green mounds across the ancient plaza. What you could not see was in some strange way even more thrilling than what you could see.

The circumstances surrounding the decline and fall of these ancient Mayan cities is still very much a mystery. It may have been some combination of over-population, soil depletion, deforestation or, perhaps, inter-city wars. In any case, there is probably a lesson here to be learned by our modern civilization.

Belize. In marked contract with it’s neighbor, Guatemala, Belize is a small ( 250,000 population), racially integrated, democratic, literate and prosperous country. Formerly known as British Honduras, Belize is an English-speaking country which gained its independence from Great Britain in 1981. Combining the best of the Caribbean and Central American cultures, it is a great tourist destination. Two of its principal tourist attractions are the rain forests of Western Belize and the off shore islands (or keys) along its Caribbean coast. We split our time in the country between the two.

Chaa Creek. At Jill’s recommendation based on her visit there ten years ago, we spent three days at a remote, rain forest resort called Chaa Creek fifteen minutes from the Guatemalan border. Located on the banks of the Macal river, its attractive, thatched-roof guest cottages, elegant open air restaurant and exotic landscaped gardens provided a nice compromise between creature comforts and its wild surroundings. Activities included canoeing, hiking, horseback riding along with great bird watching and tours of a butterfly farm and Mayan medicinal botany trail.

One of quieter thrills, though , was just lying in our bed in early morning listening to the sounds of the birds and howler monkeys as the rain forest came alive with each new dawn.

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Chaa Creek Cottage                                                                                                                                                                                   Ambergris Kay  

Ambergris Keys. Just off the Belizean coast is the largest unbroken barrier reef in the Western hemisphere. Crystal clear waters with visibility as deep as 200 feet brings divers and snorkelers from all over the world. Although the damage from last month’s Hurricane Keith was still very much in evidence, we spent our final two days there at a beach front resort  . . sunning, swimming and working on our tans. One of the highlights a boat trip out to Shark-Ray Alley on the reef, where we had a chance to swim with a dozen or so nurse sharks and sting rays. Fortunately, they were more interested in the fish they were being fed than they were of the swimmers in the water with them.

After two weeks without TV or newspapers, we returned to the U.S. to find the recent presidential election still undecided. Perhaps, a Mayan hardball game between the two contestants might be the best way to resolve the issue once and for all.

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