Antigua Part I

July 12,2000

If you have promised to forward this message to some of our friends, please remember to do so...Thanks. It's been quite a while since we last wrote - mid May in fact. We have been well and busy but had nothing new to share til now. We spent our second and third month on the Rio completing two big projects on the boat and living day to day. Sander has completely torn down the steering system and rebuilt it. A short trip down river to Livingston to renew our boat papers proved that the job went well. The steering is smoother and more quiet than it has been since we purchased Satori. The second project was the alternator system for the engine. Both 12V and 24V alternators have been rebuilt and several items within that system have been upgraded. We want to be certain that we have all systems working before we take any more long trips. The new auto pilot has arrived and Sander has completed the installation except for the hydraulic system. We are once again playing the waiting game for parts from the "Land of Stuff".

We spent the first week of May on our first trip to the highlands of Guatemala. As luck would have it, Joe (our friend from the States) had planned a trip to Guatemala and we went along in his pickup - sort of folded into the cab with him. It's a long ride, about 5-6 hours. If you have a map, you will easily find the capital city of Guatemala City. A large % of the population of the country lives there. Antigua was the original capital city of the country and can be found a little southwest of the current capital.

The altitude is about 5,000' therefore much of the trip is climbing up on a twisting two lane road. After the heat and humidity in the lowlands of the river, it is a heavenly experience to arrive in Antigua. For the first time in a year and a half we could sleep beneath a blanket. The temps at Antigua are about 80 degrees and during the night about 60. While in the city we stayed at the private home of an ex-pat (replaced American) named Romelle - more about her later.

All of the homes in the city are behind high continuous cement block/stucko walls. Within the walls are homes in the Roman style with gardens in the center and the home arranged around the garden. Romelle has four rooms to let at the price of $5/single and $10/double. She offers her kitchen for use and it's far enough from the center of town to be very quiet. Romelle built her home 7 years ago when she initiated her Foundation for Education.

Through books at her house we have barely begun our education on the history and current conditions of this country. When I wrote about Belize, I was incensed about the monopolies which make life expensive for lower classes. In Guatemala the force that caused the 36 year civil war and continues to keep the indegenous people down is the distribution of land. I could write pages about problems, but perhaps it is simplest to say that 70% of the land is owned by 2% of the people. According to a United Nations report, the top 20% of the population has an income 30 times greater than the bottom 20%.

Something happened to us while at breakfast one morning in Antigua that seemed very unreal. A nice young Guatemalan couple from Guatemala City joined us at our table. They were obviously in the aforementioned top 20% of the population. He had a printing shop which tended to the ball cap and T Shirt specialty trade. Mentioning that we would going to Guate in the next few days, she pulled out a brochure advertising an upcoming fund raiser to "SAVE TIBET". I coulc not resist reminding her that there were thousands of the people in her own country who need to be "saved". They really do not care at all, because most of the upper class perceive the indigenous to be heathens and vermin.

In Guatemala there are two main groups of people. The indigenous are the Mayan descendants living primarily in the mountain villages, the women still wearing the village clothing of long skirts and colorful blouses called huipiles (pronounced Wheepeelays) and hats of straw or brightly colored cloth woven around the head. When you see pictures of Guatemala, it is invariably these women and children in the brilliant dress that will be shown. The huipile is handmade by the woman and handled very carefully so as to last a long time. Each village has a festival time during the year. For these times there are special costumes that are worn only then.

Through the 20th century the indigenous have lost more and more of their land while the cost of living has rose. The average amount of land owned is less than an acre. On this plot they must plant their crops beside their primitive shacks. Some are lucky to have a plot of land high above the village where they grow their corn on terribly steep terrain. But the soil is good. There are several volcanoes around Antigua and that volcanic soil is rich brown and well watered during the rainy season. The corn that we saw on our hike to the volcano was at least 8' tall and had not yet tastled. The government of Guatemala has been primarily military dictatorships through the years. The USA has had a major influence here. The primary presence has been that of the United Fruit Company, later bought by DelMonte. They owned and controlled a huge area for banana and pineapple growth.

In the 50's there were two men elected who did their best to forward land distribution and improve the services to the people - including labor laws that seemed liberal at the time. The second leader actually decided that any piece of land over a certain size (20,000 acres?) that was not being used should be purchased back by the government and distributed to the people.

The United Fruit Company stood to lose a lot of land, although they were not even using it! They were paid at the current value for that land and claimed a value many times what they had been paid. At that time John Foster Dulles and the US government pitched such a fit that the man in power was run off. The UFC was given the land back and paid $11 million for their (agrivation?).

From that time until 1996 civil war has been the menu for the people of Guatemala with thousands of indegenous people suffering the most. The military forces in power were supported throughout with funds and training to subvert the gorilla forces. Reagan was one of the worst in this situation with the highlands (with the indegenous peoples in the middle) being use for training grounds for our forces. Learning of these things made us both feel uncomfortable about being from the States. Now one travels through Guatemala and sees mile after mile of unused land; only to visit the highland villages to see the indegenous people crammed onto their tiny plots of land and struggling to stay alive and feed their families.

This letter is already large enough to overwhelm the ham radio system so I will close here and send a second letter with our final thoughts about this trip.

Til then...

Jane and Sander