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Tintin in the land of the Maya

Posted by on November 26, 2013

guatemala - 190Guatemala City, February 2006 – It’s good to hear the Spanish language around me again. You can be homesick for your motherland. Or the place where you used to live. I knew that. But can you also have the same nostalgia for a language? Even if it is not your own? I just realized how much I have grown to love the Spanish language. A language that is invariably associated with many hand gestures and a lively melody. Somewhat disturbing is the knowledge that the vast majority of the Spanish speaking population in this rugged country is in possession of a gun. A bit of a false note in the melody let’s say. Nevertheless, I am thoroughly enjoying my stay here, already a month now, and writing this I look back on an eventful and international year.

First a little job of six weeks in Cambodia. It was a trip to remember. In Cambodia I lost my virginity. In a dirt bike kind of way. The tours with Jeroen and Sig through the countryside around Phnom Penh will remain a lasting memory. The Candlelight Dinner with a Blonde Beauty, very romantic and overlooking the hotel where her Knight In Shining Armor remained kneeled in front of the toilet bowl for two days straight. I shall not lightly forget.

Back in the Netherlands a fairly busy domestic season awaited us, immediately followed by a back and forth up and down Scandinavian season. Finally I got to know Helsinki a bit better and, despite my dislike for big cities I have learned to love it to some extent. During the same period we also raided the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Countries just liberated from the Soviet regime, new brothers in our close-knit European community. Yes, that was a hint of cynicism. In these former eastern bloc countries, we discovered a rich abundance of beautiful women parading the streets. Ladies who, because of the prevailing shortage of men, were very committed to displaying their… ehr…  ‘assets’ as advantageously as possible. Marketing at its best with us, the boys from the promised land, acting as the applauding audience.

A brief trip to Sweden followed by a few weeks in Doha, Qatar. Talk about culture shock ! My first encounter with the arab world and temperatures above 40 degrees. If you could find a bit of shadow, that is. Qatar, the home of Al-Jazeera, was a fantastic mix of Arab culture and Western and Pakistani / Indian influences. We took pictures over gas plants, oil fields and pumping stations and saw supertankers grouped around filling stations in the middle of the sea like huge insatiable babies sucking on the breasts that power the Western world. Allah be praised that the air conditioning on our Cheyenne continued to work.

After Qatar it was again back to Finland and Sweden, with a few days in Ireland for our ongoing mission there. For lack of anything better we had to spend a night in a converted mansion with a centuries old cemetery directly under my window. In the morning gray wisps of fog hung around the mostly nameless tombstones. Slept like a baby and didn’t even see a werewolf.

After Scandinavia and Ireland two visits to Saudi Arabia. First to change a tire, a few weeks later for a longer period. In the holy city of Madinah, whose center is off limits for us unbelievers. Haram under penalty of fifty lashes per day. The hotel and the airport were the only places where infidels like us could hang around. It was quite an experience. Madinah is like the Staphorst (extremely religious town community in the Netherlands) of the arab world. Five times per day life came to a standstill in order for prayers to be done. At these moments you would find yourself holding your coffee and cinnamon roll in hand whilst being whisked outside of the local Starbucks, the door locked behind you. Shops and businesses close their shutters for half an hour. The first prayer takes place at half past five in the morning. A wholly unchristian hour so we happily decided that for us attendance was not mandatory.

But now I’m in Guatemala. Yes, you go and find that on the map,  a mighty long swim away from Holland. Land of volcanoes, quetzals and shotguns. Never in my life had I seen a working volcano up close. Here, you’ll always see such a chimney of Mother Earth somewhere on the horizon. A few weeks back we even had an earthquake, a normal phenomenon associated with volcanoes and fault lines. It was two o’clock in the morning and I slept right through it. Apparently it takes more than some silly little earthquake to wake old Hans from his sleep. A clear conscience, I kid you not.

When I came here, the first thing to do was to install a new engine on our little plane. The old one had broken down and couldn’t be repaired. It was all finished within a few days. From that moment on we’ve been flying like crazy. With success but also with many many hiccups. Especially in the beginning it was one thing after another that broke down or went wrong. I was starting to suspect that every night, seated around a campfire, a bunch of Maya indians were chanting and putting voodoo needles into a little airplane. I will not list all the things that failed on our airplane and camera, but the first day we returned from a flight and there was nothing for me to repair or fix left me with feeling of emptiness. But now things are going pretty well. We work long hours, and after the last flight today the project stands at 49,77%.

When I get home I should really have a little chat with Lex, the navigator whom I replaced here.
“Not much flying, enough time to do some sight-seeing. Usually clouded weather. And if you do fly it will only be for an hour or two.”
Well, Lex, at this point let me just say this. Already we’re running out of hours for the next inspection, which means we’ve been flying almost 50 hours since you left. And more than once we’ve had to switch on the landing lights before landing. I had hoped to be able to write a bit, work on my web pages etc etc. But I’ve been so exhausted every day that nothing has come of it and it has taken a month before I could write this story down. Anyway, Lex, at some point we’ll discuss how to straighten out this small matter of miscommunication between the two of us. I suggest you be a man and at least volunteer for the next mission in Bangladesh.

How can I describe Guatemala so far? Not very detailed I’m afraid. Except for a stopover at Tikal, and a small trip to Antigua, I really haven’t had time to travel or visit the sites. I can only say something about Guatemala City, the capital of this country. The Lonely Planet, Bible of the BackPackers that follow its directions like ducklings behind Mother Goose in their futile attempt to leave the beaten path mentions the capital briefly. “If you are forced to spend some time in this stinking city there are about three places worth visiting.”  When we mention them to our driver, Alfonso immediately dismisses two of them as impossible because too dangerous. So no visit to the Plaza Mayor and the Central Market. Hmmm. I will have to interrogate him some more about this. After all, if those naive backpackers can go there, why can’t we? Maybe our Rodolfo was just bored to take us there. Anyway, Guatemala City is a city that smells of diesel with no possible escape from the noise of traffic and honking. The main cause of the thick diesel smog are the many buses that infest the roads here. I suspect that they are privately owned, because there is a large variation, both in appearance and condition. Some are totally jazzed and very bling bling, others are in very poor condition and have already died of old age and fatigue. But without exception they toss out alarming quantities of suffocating diesel fumes that would challenge any volcano where it comes to environmental unfriendliness. The concept of protecting the atmosphere by mandatory installation of diesel particulate filters has not yet fully been implemented here. A great task lies ahead for the local tea gulping activists of Verde Izquerda. 

Besides the few places mentioned, the Lonely Planet mainly talks about hiding your money and passport in a plastic bag in the toilet water reservoir, and how to act when you are the victim of a robbery. None of my business. We have a safe in our hotel room and I have yet to meet any robber in the well guarded (because rich) neighborhood that our hotel is in. On every street corner and in front of every hotel or car park a guy holding a shotgun bores himself to death. Mostly their fire weapons are in such pitiful state that firing them would probably pose a greater danger to the shooter than to the shootee, but I guess as a criminal it’s always better not to take this risk. A week ago I heard a loud bang, followed by a lot of small pops. “That’s it, now the shit hits the fan.” I thought. With my camera in hand and dressed only in white briefs I slipped out of bed. Slithering across the floor I made my way to the hotel window. Every moment I expected to hear the sound of breaking glass and the whistling of bullets over my head but was determined to capture the event on camera like a proper war reporter. Well ok, it all turned out to be nothing. But even so I must insist that in a country like this, even during the celebrations of Liberation Day, the use of fireworks should be forbidden, or at least announced well in advance, in three languages.

Apart from firearms and fireworks also the traffic here is not devoid of challenges. Almost without exception the cars here are blinded with heavily tinted plastic film bought at the local Walmart. Often both front and rear windshields. Pedestrian crossings are painted on the road but are of no significance. As a pedestrian you are fair game, and hitting a gringo like us counts for extra bonus points. At least so it seems, because no car will ever stop or even slow down should you have chosen the wrong moment for your attempt to reach the other side. And after a close encounter with such a leadfoot it is wise, in the interest of overall bodily watertightness, to keep your middle finger in your pocket. After all, you never know what this temperamental and easily annoyed gentleman might carry in his glove compartment. A few weeks back there was a road shooting, just a few hundred meters from the hotel. Probably some driver annoyed some other driver and suffered the consequences. Serves him right.

Of course it should be noted that such could also happen in Amsterdam or Rotterdam, so you can’t let such small things spoil your life. If you read the guidelines given by our Dutch Foreign Ministry and addressed to anyone wishing to visit Guatemala you wouldn’t even dare to leave the hotel at all. Nonsense, of course. You just have to adjust somewhat to the circumstances. Don’t roam the streets on your own with too much money in your pockets and too much drinks in your belly. Don’t be too obvious with expensive cameras and mobile phones. Or you could follow the strategy applied by American tourists here. They arm themselves with thick layers of fluttering bulletproof body fat and move only in herds between feeding spot and feeding spot. This makes them too much to handle for the average starved Guatemalan criminal and as such relatively safe. Y’all have a nice day now y’hear !

In the area of food this is quite the place to be. Like the Spaniards also the former Maya love good food. Local, Peruvian, Nicaraguan, Mexican, Spanish. Everything is available. The best steaks roasted on a wood fire. And for prices that wouldn’t even buy you a portion of french fries in the Netherlands. The guy that stares me in the face every morning in the bathroom is starting to develop something of a belly. Time for him to take the stairs instead of the elevator from now on.  Also there are lots of bars and for the youth many clubs in the vicinity. Most of them have a sign next to the entrance. A picture of a gun with a red cross through it. No weapons allowed inside. You leave them with the doorman in exchange for a voucher with a number. 

One evening we decided to have a men’s outing to celebrate a good flying day. Our driver Rodolfo knew just the place he said. All of us got in the car and Rodolfo brought us to a place in the less glamorous part of town. The parking attendant who doubled as a doorman knocked three times on a rusty steel door. Like in a bad movie, a little hatch in the door slid open and two skittish eyes appraised the new visitors. Apparently our party fit the bill and the door swung open. All four of us attempted to enter, but were immediately stopped by the doorman. With some hand gestures and a few English words he made it clear to us that we had to enter one by one. And so we did. Each of us was thoroughly searched for weapons and subsequently ushered through a sliding glass door into the bar. Safety is important here, and we can appreciate that of course. On stage a lady was dancing with a chrome pole. Waitresses in the ‘bar’ were either sitting on sofa’s against the wall or bringing drinks to the male visitors sitting at the tables. All girls were dressed in some sort of bunny suit. They must have felt very hot because apart from a fluffy  bunny tail and two bunny ears they weren’t wearing much else. The lady on stage must have gotten even warmer with all the exercise she was doing since she suddenly decided to take off what little clothes she was wearing and throw them into the audience. Well, this of course was a big surprise for us. Who would have thought something like that would happen in a place like this? Had we known we would have never gone inside, obviously. Such is of course very clear to our better halves in the Netherlands. The shame ! 

Sadly beer could only be ordered by the bucket, each containing five bottles. Since we’d ordered two of them upon entering we had to stay for a bit longer so as not to waste good beer. Meanwhile the lady on stage was replaced. It was clearly one of the more raunchy establishments in this part of town and it became clear to us that the ‘waitresses’ sitting on the sofas around us were rentals.
Some time later, a new customer entered. Even before he was searched he routinely took a big black pistol from his belt and, whilst chatting, removed the cartridge from the magazine and handed the weaponry to the doorman in return for a little ticket. Free of his armament he leisurely joined us at the bar. Now it was us who were getting a bit warm. After a last gulp from our bucket we retreated outside, welcomed by the cool evening air of Guatemala City.

Yep. Shit happens when you’re out and about, doesn’t it.

Well, enough with the writing for now. Later more about this mysterious land, our trip to Tikal and Antigua, living in this hotel and much much more.

I hope.

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