Friday, June 12, 2009

Why I love it here II

Later that same day I'm returning from the farm on foot as I left the tractor in the shade and decided to hike for some extra exercise. As I walk past the tractor shed I remember I left some tools on the dashboard of the little Ford, as I picked up the tool from the dash I felt someone watching me.....

Why I Love it here, one of several reasons.

It's 5:30 a.m. the sun is lighting the San Gil area with gilded edges on the few clouds that cover the mountain. Pretty soon the Hummingbirds start their morning routine of baths and flower pecking. First I see these hummingbirds grooming their feathers and shaking the dews drops from the bougainvillea:

Then this guy decides to take a bath on the salmon-orange bloooms of the bouganvillea:

Just a few minutes later we're visited by the Chachalacas (Ortalis vetula) the smaller member of the "Crassidae" family (Turkeys) that live right here in the Jungle. If you turn up the volume you'll see why they are called "chachalakas"

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Flowering Trees of Izabal

I read somewhere, I think it was "Jitterbug Perfume" by Tom Robbins that flowering trees in bloom are in fact "having sex" most trees are hermaphroditic and can successfully have sex by themselves and reproduce usually with the help of insects for fertilization of the ova with pollen, all conveniently placed in the flower. Trees in bloom therefore are having the vegetable equivalent of an orgasm and it can be quite impressive for the observer of things natural.

Juan Ponce de Leon, a Spanish Navigator and explorer was the first westerner to sail around the coast of Florida and on April 2nd 1513 after crossing open waters from what is believed to be the Abacos he sighted land (thinking it was another Island) and called it La Florida after the lush verdant shores and I bet the flowering trees, also being Catholics, Spaniards celebrated the Easter season called Pascua Florida after the Judeo-Christian tradition of celebrating passover with palms and flowers.

So much for history, the fact remains that every year around Easter the Caribbean goes into bloom from Florida all the way to the Orinoco and probably all of tropical South America. In Guatemala alone there are 38 species of Leguminous trees (Basically large bean plants) that produce very pretty flowers and which then turn into pods with bean like seeds inside. Some commonly known legume trees in the west are: Acacias, Mimosas, the Flamboyant, Guayacan, Guanacaste, Guapinol, and yes even Rosewood is a Legume. In fact leguminous trees fix their own nitrogen in the soil thanks to a symbiotic relation with aerobic bacteria which create nodules on the roots of trees and there fix Nitrogen which naturally only exists in the atmosphere as a gas. It eventually gets released into the soil in the form of ammonium nitrates by the decaying bacteria or nitrites by animals though urine, hence the smell of ammonia in rich soils and compost. Leguminous trees are thus well fertilized and often produce oily hard woods which are appreciated the world over as precious and constitute one of many Guatemalan's contributions to the Biodiversity of the Planet, courtesy of our Mayan ancestors which first identified these plants and later domesticated them and developed useful household products. Other contributions are: Corn, cotton, cacao, vanilla, tomatoes and potatoes. Just try to imagine what life would be like without these. No corn flakes, no chocolate or vanilla ice cream, no tomato sauce or ragu on your pasta or pizza, no cotton T-Shirts or sheets, no chocolate bars no French Frye with your burghers.. Awwww..

Needless to say flowering trees (and other beans, yes including black beans as in "frijoles") are an incredibly important part of the ecosystem and our biodiversity. I find that most tourists and visitors to Izabal and the Caribbean part of Guatemala barely notice this wonderful yearly occurrence of this "Planetary Orgasm" which is such a beautiful life giving demonstration of Gaia at her best. Easter always occurs around March-April but the blooms will continue into May and June till the beginning of the heavy rains. Some old timers among the locals use the blooms of different trees to foretell how the weather will evolve. for example this year the San Juan Trees are beginning to flower now ( Late May early June) when in fact they are supposed to do so on Saint John's Day which is June 24th. The Matilisguate's flowered late. Orchids and other species will also bloom around this time of the year, so for the nature enthusiast it is a time to be on the lookout. Bring out your cameras and binoculars and enjoy!!! Click on pictures to enjoy full screen view.

For more information on Guatemala's Biodiversity please look at the Encyclopedic publication recently produced by CONAP you can download chapters or the whole book, some sections are translated to English and Quiche:

A day in the life.....

May 6th 2009

Woke up after tossing and turning in bed for some time, it’s still dark out but I know the moon is half full contributing to a bluish glow in the pre-dawn hours. Went downstairs and brewed some coffee. I did sleep soundly for some 6 hours but perhaps it’s the images that are etched in my mind from Josefina’s dead baby or maybe it’s Don Rigo, laying in his casket just over a month ago, peaceful but not smiling as he always did.

I thought I should write on my blog about “A day in the life of Me” just to give a glimpse of what it is like to be Me, someone who is carving a living from a forestry project and Eco-Lodge in what’s left of the Jungle of Guatemala (not much) in the Rio Dulce National Park, but too many days blend into each other now and too many repeating episodes like recurring bad dreams come back over and over .. it will end up more like “Life and Death” in the Rio Dulce.

Don Rigo Garcia was one of the best workers I ever had, which is an understatement. He was very poor and of very humble origins from a little aldea called ironically “La Libertad” just 12 Kilometers from here. We’ve hired several workers from that village as the local “Fronteras” people are now used to working with tourism as boat drivers, hustlers, etc and no longer want to wield a machete and rake yards for $ 10.00 a day but prefer to hustle or scam tourists.

So Don Rigo came as a yard man. He was not accustomed to our many tools and machines at the hotel like mowers, drills, power washers, and pumps but soon got the hang of it. He was always smiling no matter what.. If I scolded him he would just slowly move his head from side to side and agree with me with an incredible smile under his mustache which he kept impeccably trimmed. He was only five foot two or three .. a small guy but a real bundle of energy. Don Rigo seemed to be omnipresent at times, He was driving some tourists back to town, running an errand for a skipper, depositing our checks, buying medicine for some sick passenger, mowing the lawns, fixing the pump, cleaning the pool, all at the same time. He carried one of our radios and it would be constantly beeping, Don Rigo here, Don Rigo there …get the vegetables, there’s no water in Bungalow three, a burned light bulb in Cabin Toucan.

One day I walked into the hotel from my house and I saw him gesticulating in front of another worker, actually his immediate superior. He was spitting out something that seemed like water and arguing with the other guy. I asked what on earth was going on and found out that as a “prank” the boss had put “pool clarifier” into the drinking water bottle of Don Rigo. I spoke with the floor manager and discovered that this type of “prank” was one of several done by this nameless bastard so even though he had also appeared to be a good worker, I fired him.

When I did, he looked at me in and asked in disbelief: “You’re firing me over this?” I replied in the affirmative telling him that poisoning his fellow workers was not acceptable behavior in my business and that I was sorry but had to let him go as he had also been a faithful guardian at the farm and he lived along with his family at the gate.

So Don Rigo was ascended to the position of “Chief of Maintenance” and continued working with even more fervor in his multiple tasks always with a smile and truly gained all our hearts. He was a humble guy, never bragged, not the macho type, never late, never missed a day, never whined nor complained and continued being a key player in my small operation..

One Friday about a month and a half ago I was home with the wife and the kid watching some silly novella that she likes to indulge in every night when around 8 p.m. I heard the sound of planes and choppers just overhead my house which sits about a mile from the water front. I went out on the porch and it was a dark moonless night with a low ceiling of clouds and smoke, typical or the dry season when fields are burned, scorching heat and the smell of burned forest in the air. I could see a plane flying overhead in a “pattern” … must have been medium sized as he had at least two turboprop engines and circled the same position over and over. Off to the north near my forest one or two choppers with what I guess are full ‘Night Vision” capabilities were flying low and strafing the forest or fields. Gunfire and bombs went off. We were scared into going back inside the house but the flying continued, later we heard a blast and some light artillery or rather a big machine gun “pop pop pop” in the night.

I flashed back to the 70’s when I lived and worked in Chimaltenango. There too I had lived for the last year of my five year “experience” there a life of “terror”. I was with my first wife and 3 year old daughter in a house in the outskirts of San Jose Poaquil a Kackchiquel town we had helped rebuild after the 76 Earthquake.

I loved the town and the people, enjoyed my job and was proud of what I did at age 24 but frankly after a year of sleeping with an old double barrel shotgun under the bed and watching at night from the rooftop, lights meeting in the middle of the cornfields, hearing rumbles of equipment going up the road to Comalapa, hearing “things” about the advancing guerrilla forces and every morning getting up wondering who had been “disappeared” that day by the ever present “judiciales” the officially non-existing brutal police parallel force in charge of kidnapping, torturing and killing suspects of collaborating with the guerrilla, I was dumbfounded and somewhat scared.

Needless to say I was probably on their list as no self respecting young “Bourgeois” Guatemalan would be just “helping” the village without being involved with the “Commies”, we were still in the cold war.

In fact I was not involved with the guerillas and so I was on their list too as a “Reformist” or a “Gringo Sympathizer” either way I had read already too many books from Jesus to Gautama to Gandhi to know that by shooting people all you get is more dead people ( I believe it was Gandhi who said: “ an eye for an eye will result in a lot of blind people” while comparing our Judeo-Christian background to the less belligerent Hindu-Buddhist Culture) so I had consciously decided that although I supported the cause of the Mayans and even the Leftist Government that had been ousted by the military during the Banana Revolt of 1954 I would not pick up a gun and shoot anybody and the old double barrel under the bed was just in case “they” came to get me. I would not go down without a fight. I was pretty courageous, I thought at the time. Now I see I was young and stupid, nevertheless I lasted there till the very end.

Several dozen of my friends and colleagues had “disappeared” then I saw the “writing on the walls” literally one March 20, a day after Saint Joseph’s Patron Saint of San Jose Poaquil we had a great fair, probably the largest since we had rebuilt the town with the help of the Canadian Gov. and Dutch Institutions (NOVIB). There was a noticeable affluence, businesses had flourished, we had set up cooperatives, women groups of medicinal plants producers, basket weavers, brick makers, rebuilt 630 homes, several schools, many water supply systems, set up Bio-Gas Digesters, introduced the dry latrine, the wood burning mud stoves, so there we were proud and happy playing “Loteria” with my wife’s friends and kids in the main square, full of garlands and pine and firecrackers when all of a sudden I saw “them”, a bunch of kids obviously from the university with Che Guevara like bonnets, the girls with “Huipiles” and jeans which no self respecting Kackchiquel woman would ever wear. We knew they were the “guerrilleros” or their cronies; we looked aside nervously and did not comment.

Next morning I got up as usual to go to work, as I left the house in my “Subaru” 4x4 station wagon (not anything like they are today) I saw every wall in town had been painted with spray cans. The slogans were the same: “The army are Assassins” “ Viva la Revolucion” and more: “Gringoes get out of our town” and “Ricos (rich) get out of our town.” I assumed that would be me.

I still hung around for several weeks, my family and friends both local and from the city begged us to leave, finally I was summoned by the “commander” of the Army in Chimaltenango and he knew my family on my wife’s side. He unceremoniously told me that they were going to “clean up the area” and that I should pack up and leave. When I asked how “soon”? He said “now, go home pack your wife and daughter and get out of there”. So I did. What happened next is another story, needless to say several thousand people died and I was one of the few if not the last “gringo*” to walk away alive. My house was torched a year later, and I never would recover fully from that dream gone sour of actually being able to help our fellow humans and succeed at making their lives a little more bearable.

I’m back in 2009 on my porch of the Hacienda and choppers and bullets are flying in the dark night. Oh no! I say to myself not this again. I comment to Monica, the baby is sleeping soundly next to us we lie huddled in our bed wondering when this torment will be over. Now it’s the “narco” wars. Again I’m caught in the cross fire.

After a sleepless night at 6:30 as I was dozing, the phone rings. It is Rigoberto my manager and namesake of Don Rigo. He’s breaking up over the phone, I’m confused. “They” called from Don Rigo’s house to say he won’t make it work today.. He was shot in the back. Three bullets, not twenty steps away from his front door. I go into a deep funk. I make some calls to the staff to arrange for the funeral and give the family some money. I grieve in anger. This nice humble man’s life was needlessly cut short by some coward. This man that we had so much to learn from about “humility”, “constancy” a positive attitude, hard work .. was gone.

I “Zombied “my way though the day. I hate funerals and seldom attend one but I had to go to the wake. I owed it to him. So we went. Saw the spot where he had been shot down, some flowers strewn around a spot marked with lime, a candle or two. A tent and some rented chairs. The small casket; a few relatives, two of his young boys sit around bleary eyed. The wife accommodates us next to the casket. We mumble our condolences; I’m choked and can barely speak. Do I want to see him? she asked. Actually yes, I wanted to say good bye to Don Rigo. She opens the little window in the casket and there he is, pale, peaceful or rather expressionless and, yes, the “smile” is gone from his face.

I thought inside myself they took even that away from him and from us, that nice broad kind smile. The coward that shot him in the back will slither and grind his teeth and although he stole the smile from Don Rigo he will never be able to wear it. Don Rigo is gone but “Cheshire Cat” like his smile is the last thing to vanish. I still see it.

Again yesterday we mourned the death of a three month old baby. Josefina’s baby was “sick” We still don’t know exactly what he had, probably some degenerative disease. But I could see in her eyes and feel in her hug the pain of a Mother’s Love for a lost child and as much as a man may try to comprehend that pain I feel I fall short. She wanted me to see the baby in the casket. She scolded me and said “You never came to see him while living”, I looked while I held her, she stroked his chin, a doll like paleness, again quiet, too quiet but painless, it is over now; her month stay in the Social Security Hospital where workers are treated like cattle even though we pay 13.5% of their wages in fees. The room is full of family and friends, some of my fellow staff show up they are well dressed and radiant, they hug Josefina, I slip away to my car and back to the hotel.

Then home, check my email, answer, send some pictures. Replies to customers, “Is the Rio Dulce safe?” “Is it true that there are problems in Guatemala”: yes Sir, no Ma’am. ‘In twenty years only one tragic incident has occurred to a tourist, a robbery gone wrong” “We now have in place a Navy Patrol”

The day begins. I have to get out there and face the music. The day Don Rigo was shot and the next day in the aftermath of the “Narco War” episode in the farm next door, “strangers” with 9mm pistols and clips were wandering around the fields and forest “looking for stray calves.” Yeah, right!

We had to gently and diplomatically keep our tourists guests from going into the jungle and the farm for several days. I run a small Eco-Hotel in the Rio Dulce area of Guatemala, look after the forest and the trees I have planted over the last 20 years, the forty plus families the business employs. There is a dark side, out there somewhere lurks death, administered by sociopaths and bureaucrats both public and private, and they steal humble men’s smiles and baby’s toothless grins, all the while tormenting the living with the threats, the terror, their laws or lack thereof, their voracious appetites for gain.

I keep telling my friends half in jest and half dead serious. Guatemala is a great destination for “Spiritual Growth.” Here you will learn: “Acceptance”, “Tolerance”, “Patience”, “Sisterly and Brotherly Love” “Facing death and dying” you will practice all these virtues and more. Come visit. Don’t be afraid.

In the meantime I’m glad that my other kids are grown and have flown the nest and are prospering elsewhere and I’m concerned about my new family. What kind of world will they face?

Today is all I have and if I’m to make a difference I have to finish this story, get my ass off this chair and go back out there and fight the dragons inside and outside me. Today.

Rio Dulce May 5th 2009

Eugenio Gobbato