Friday, February 16, 2007


On our way to Tikal, Lika and I took a detour to visit the Guatemalan coastal village of Livingston, which is only accessible by boat as it is situated on a delta island at the mouth of the Rio Dulce. Livingston is a long haul from Guatemala City. By the time we arrived at the transit point for Livingston, Puerto Barrios, it was too late to find a launch so we had no choice to stay the night.

Puerto Barrios is a rough town, nearly a half a century past its hey-day as the principal port for Guatemala. It has long since slid back into a tropical torpor. The most prominent features of the town are the towers of Dole shipping containers stacked four high behind fences topped with razor wire. The containers are painted with the failed Dole mascot, Bobby the Banana, who never took hold in the States. At least it was the first I had heard of him. There was something indecent about the enthusiastic Bobby depicted cruising along on his skateboard happily peeling himself.

We made our way through the muddy streets to Hotel del Norte, the only game in town for the handful of people who miss the 5 pm ferry, or who for some inexplicable reason might want to linger and contemplate the town’s layered bouquet of port water, diesel, and excrement. Del Norte is a dilapidated two-story mansion with wood siding that is warping under a yellowing paint. Its screened hallways, wide enough for a locomotive, were nostalgic for past glories. The veranda still breathed the cigar smoke from the Banana moguls who lounged about sipping rum, plotting intrigue. Easily a centenarian, the hotel groaned under the burden of every footfall over its sloped and cratered floors. A once glorious mansion mired in the general malaise.

After dinner at the town's recommended restaurant, a cocktail of cheap Guatemalan beer and fumes off the bay had inhibited my judgment to the point that I agreed with Lika that it would be a good idea to stretch our legs down the dark streets to the hotel. We soon found ourselves walking beside another long stretch of containers. Opposite the storage yard, there was a makeshift bar, what had also once been a container with the side cut out so that it opened to the street. The novelty of a bar inside a shipping container was enough reason to stop for a beer, though a local youth who was twirling a large, angry snake he had just caught by its tail just up the pitted road from the bar provided some additional incentive to hang back depending as I did not have much trust in a boy slinging a large, pissed-off snake. There were two men seated at the plastic table in front of the bar, and one of them asked us, in English, to join them for a beer. His name was Gerry. He was wearing a baseball cap with the American flag and spoke with an accent that sounded almost Jamaican, though he had a bizarre and anachronistic cadence of an early blaxploitation film. Gerry was a Garifuna who had immigrated at the age of seven to New York and was back in his homeland for the first time after 38 years in the States.

I was amazed to hear that after four decades he still did not have permanent residence status. It didn't seem to bother him, and he spoke as if he might never return to the States. He had been back in Guatemala for 7 months, though his eyes lit up and his face broke into a broad smile every time he mentioned the move. He said he was still meeting cousins and nephews he had never known existed and was touched by how many of these new relations, long before having met them, had his picture on their walls. Gerry was the boy who went to America and made good. Raised in Harlem, he went to college and studied to become an electrician. He then spent a good portion of his career based out of Houston while working on oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

His Spanish was shaky. It is a second language for many on Caribbean coast, and though he learned it as a child, he lost it growing up in New York. He sounded fluent in the other language-- my first guess was French Creole-- he spoke with his uncle. They were speaking Garifuna, a unique blend of West African and indigenous Caribbean language with a twist of French, his first language growing up. After leaving Guatemala, his mom was his only link to his native tongue, though he tenaciously held on to it to the point of talking to himself in the years he lived alone so he would never forget. He has even taught it to his two American daughters who have never met another Garifuna.

"That's culture man, you hold onto that. Dig-it?” Gerry said, reaching his hands behind his head with a satisfied grin.

Before we arrived, Gerry and his uncle had bled the container’s cooler dry, so when they finished their beers we said goodnight. We stopped by a container-corner store for some beers which we drank on the veranda where we watched the carnivorous mosquitoes fly in formation through gaping holes in the screens. Flanked on three sides by a thousand self-skinning Bobbies and their demented grins, we to get some sleep under the heavy blanket of port air.

Daylight did not flatter Puerto Barrios. Mosquitoes played in the dust clouds of the steady stream of big rigs lumbering towards the terminal over unpaved roads. Haphazard slabs of concrete sidewalk partially covered stagnant sewer water that was slowly cooking into a retched broth by the late morning sun. We had waited some time for a launch to Livingston after missing the morning ferry. After half a shipping container's worth of beer Gerry had given us the wrong time for the regular service.

We arrived in Livingston early afternoon. While exploring the town met a local musician/historian by the water who was waiting to engage the few tourists willing to ignore the trickling sewers and sullied beaches on the backside of the peninsula. We hardly noticed. The breeze off the water was a pleasant contrast to the pestilential stench of Puertos Barrios.

Polo is a man of at least 60 judged by his cottony curls and dark sunken eyes. He is a jack-of-all-trades, a teacher (and advocate for the first Garifuna language primary school in Guatemala), drummer, historian, and master storyteller. Once we showed some interest in his community, Polo leaned back onto a cinder block wall abutting the shore and started from the beginning.

The Garifuna people come from the Island of St. Vincent, where, in the early years of the slave trade two ships loaded with Africans wrecked off the coast. The surviving slaves mixed with a local population of Carib Indians, according to Polo, the Arawaks from the Orinoco river basin in present day Venezuela. This was a fortuitous union, as the African blood of the escaped slaves lent the population immunity to the Old World diseases that elsewhere decimated local indigenous populations by 90-98 percent in little more than a generation. Historians say that the Arawaks were completely wiped out by the twin scourges of disease and, depending on the extent one accepts the thesis of the Black Legend, the brutality of the Spanish in their single-minded pursuit of bullion. Polo, however, contests the extinction of the Arawak as he claims the Garifuna are direct descendants. Because this African-Carib community, the Garifuna, had resistance to small pox and a fierce martial tradition, the Spanish were unable to conquer St. Vincent. For over two hundred years then, the Garifuna were an independent community that prospered by trading with the Spanish Convoys that stopped for provisions en route to and from the Spanish mainland. English pirates took advantage of this autonomy and used St. Vincent as a staging point for attacks on gold and silver laden Galleons, a disruption to the Garifuna trade with the Spanish. In time English naval power took command of the Caribbean from a sclerotic Spanish Empire, and the Garifuna cast their lot with the new rivals to English domination of the Caribbean, the French. After several unsuccessful attempts, the British subdued the Garifuna in1797, nearly two centuries after the shipwrecks that brought the Garifuna into existence. The British decided to exile the remaining Garifuna to the Mosquito Coast island of Roatan off of modern day Honduras.

Here Polo colored the story with touches reminiscent of West African folk tales. After the British left them to starve on a barren isle with only the poisonous manioc, the Garifuna had to find a means of subsistence. They noticed how snakes ate the island's poisonous toads by squeezing out their toxins before swallowing. The Garifuna did this with the manioc, stuffing the tubers into sacks that the women, "with their large buttocks", sat on until they had drained away the toxins. It's a nice children's story even if the facts are less enchanting. Anthropologists and historians have found evidence of Arawak's consumption of manioc and yucca long before the arrival of the Garifuna on Roatan, and sadly, many of the original exiles did succumb to starvation.

A fraction of the displaced Garifuna did eventually adapt to the hostile island. Others migrated to the coast of mainland Honduras, and today Garifuna villages are scattered along the Caribbean side of Central America from Southern Belize to the Honduran stretch of the Mosquito Coast. They are a people proud of their heritage and, and like Polo happy to share their culture and history with visitors.

After the history lesson, Polo took us on a tour of the Garifuna section of Livingston, mostly shanties, cinder block bunkers, and overgrown yards with subdued kids and scraggly chickens. The thatched houses that once predominated here had been blown away hurricane Mitch. Families sat outside and played dominoes on plastic tables. Polo invited us into a single room home where several generations of women were watching a Spanish football match on a TV that was the one decoration in the room. We finished the tour at a local hangout community center where kids were practicing on various sized hand drums. Polo complained that the kids were tearing up the drums, but he was pleased that so many of the youth here are engaged in the traditional music.

Before leaving us, Polo recommended a Garifuna restaurant, though I was little wary when we were the only customers on a Saturday night at 8 pm. The waitress slowly shuffled towards the table, perhaps annoyed that two customers would extend her workweek by hour. I ordered tapada, a coconut based seafood soup, and she took my order with a wry smile. The tapada arrived with the head and tail of a whole fish protruding from the broth. The shrimp and crab swam in their shells along with a whole baby squid, conch, and the fish. After dinner she returned the same eerie smile which widened when she said, "After tapada, a good siesta," which brought maniacal laughter from the women watching us on the stoop just down the street. The taunt made me nervous, and the residual spices left me sweating for much of the rest of the night. Fortunately system failure did not ensue.

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