Prologue: Lake Atitlán and Beyond
One afternoon, Jessica and John, an Israeli couple, knock on my door at the hospedaje. A cool breeze blows off Lago Atitlán, through my open window. They tell me of wanting to do the infamous Jungle Trail from Guatemala to Honduras, through the banana plantations and jungle swamp. But they do not know Spanish. Would I be interested in being their translator?
Would I? I have long dreamed of doing this adventure. But as a woman alone, going through territory that only one guidebook barely sketches. You must be kidding – I would not dare turn down this opportunity.
We spend hours looking over the maps. None that I have shows Finca Chinoq in Guatemala or Corinto in Honduras. John pulls out a map they bought before leaving the States. In detail it shows not only those two places, but also a road between them.
We decide to do it. We pack our knapsacks before heading out to dinner at La Última Cena (where the service is so slow you’d think it’ll be your last supper). We set our alarms before turning in. We have a very early start to get out onto the road.
We tumble into the night, to gather with the brightly bundled Cachikel and Tzutujil. At these worn steps of the church plaza, we await a 3 a.m. bus for Guatemala City, or Guate as it is called in this country.
We stop at many villages. People board with sacks, hushed voices. These pueblito have suffered so much repression, for so many years.
Dawn encounters us on a highway paralleling the train tracks – a road built by Árbenz, a railroad built by United Fruit. This ribbon of black pavement was a death knell for that Octopus’ monopoly over transport.
I stare out the streaked window of this old school bus. The green countryside, the sierra emerge from shadow. Men are already out in the milpas. With a flutter of my weary eyes, that history begins weaving through my mind.
Árbenz continued the agrarian reforms begun by the previous president. Over one million acres of fallow fields would be given to 100,000 families. Yes, the government would pay recompense the declared-for-taxes value. Of course, United Fruit would be affected. It used only eight percent of its lands.
The pale colors of this sunrise brighten behind the misty mountains. Many passengers are nodding in their sleep. A woman puts her baby to breast, quieting its whimpering.
Horrors, yelled US Secretary of State Foster Dulles. (Once upon a time he was a lawyer for United Fruit. He drew up finca contracts between the Company and the government of this country.) Horrors, screamed his brother Allen, the CIA chief. (Once upon a time he was on the Board of Directors of—yes—the Company.) The iron curtain is descending upon Guatemala. We must save it from the clutches of Communism.
The sunlight now shimmers off this highway. The Israeli couple rubs their catnap from eyes. Together we will walk the mythical Jungle Trail, a dream of many travelers: through Chiquita plantations, through selva, from Guatemala to Honduras.
We are nearing grey Guatemala City with its deforested mountains and concrete. In a colorless field near the road, an indigenous family sorts trash.
The coup that toppled Árbenz was led by Coronel Castillo-Armas (a Fort Leavenworth graduate). Yes, with help from—la CIA. On that mid-June ‘54 day, those “liberation forces” bombed Guate, Puerto Barrios and the port of San José.
Then the iron curtain of repression descended. Some 120,000 have since died.
In the full light of this mid-December day of ’93, this city shows no scars of that aerial attack by F-47s (flown by US pilots). The streets, the bookstores, the libraries are silent about those social-democratic years of Arévalo and Árbenz. So are the schoolbooks in pueblitos and in this capital.
Jessica and John tend their errands. I wait on a curb of the train station parking lot. My arms and one leg hug our knapsacks.
The city is alive. Vendors line the streets with fresh-cut fruit and drinks. Cheap watches drape one man’s hands and wrists. La Prensa Libre, calls another, holding aloft the daily. Buses roar and rattle by, fuming clouds of greasy diesel smoke.
We continue our journey towards Quiriguá. At times this black highway parallels the rail lines to Puerto Barrios. Once there, string our hammocks in a village hospedaje yard and welcome the night.
Come early morning we hike along rusty train tracks, along a dirt road, through banana plantations, to the ruins of Quiriguá. The trees are heavy with bright purple-magenta flowers. Thickening fingers of fruit emerge beneath the petals. This once-great Maya city is now an island in this green Chiquita sea. Magnificently carved stelae tower into the clear sky. The history of another golpe de estado: Cuauc Sky captured 18 Rabbit.
Again that tarry ribbon, eastward to Entre Ríos, the turn-off into the fincas. In the thin shade of a solitary roadside stand, we await a ride into that emerald heart. There are no buses, no combis there. But somehow we must arrive to Finca Chinoq.
In the back of a blue cargo truck, more than a dozen of us stand, bouncing down the dirt road. Through the slats of the stockade, I can see miles and kilometers of plantations slip by. The trees are blossoming. Blue bags protect their fruit.
“Where are you going?” A fellow passenger asks me.
The man begins jumping, banging on the back of the cab. He yells, Parada!” The motor roars, the gears grind. More jumping and banging. Parada! Parada!
A narrow earthen route lies before us. From the left-hand field, an older man appears. The machete in his gnarled hand shines dully in this already-hot sun. “Yes, it is the way to the river,” he tells us. Our steps kick up the fine soil. Yes, he works for the Company. Oh, for three years now.
There on the bank sits a man. Bundled sacks of flour, sugar and rice surround him. He, too, is awaiting a lift across these swift brown waters. He’s the shopkeeper in a little village named Jimeritos.
And here we wait for a soul to appear on that opposite shore. After an hour or more, we wave and shout. The man paddles his canoe across and carries us down river to the other side. We wave good-bye to that storekeeper.
And here we wait in El Chinchado for the migración officer to return. He’s down by the river
fishing, somewhere. No-one can find him.
And here we wait, talking with the soldiers. No-one knows of this way through the fincas to Corinto. Perhaps so-and-so knows. He doesn’t either.
In this central field, cows graze. A horse pursues a mare. Children kick a ball. A girl idly swings on a loose porch post.
And here we wait, the afternoon aging. The official returns, pole in hand but no fish. The road to Corinto the couple’s map shows? Pues, many foreigners have arrived from the other direction, lost and loonie. No, he shakes his head, he doesn’t know the way. Look, it’s late—now 4 p.m. Why don’t we spend the night? Perhaps they can find more information for us. John looks firmly at Jessica and me. “No, we go on. We’ve already lost enough time.”
We head out, a young boy leading us down a barranca. The land drops away, lushly green on either side. But after a while the lad stops. He should return home. He didn’t tell his mother….
We continue down this dirt track through the banana forest. Muddy, slippery, only wide enough for one person or one beast. Cows move slowly on at our approach. The still-broiling sun casts long shadows across our path.
Overhead we hear a hum. A banana-yellow plane sprays a new-leaf-green cloud. Pure poison, Jessica and John hiss in unison. We cover our faces with our t-shirts and duck down. That pesticide is eye-burning, sour-tasting. We hurriedly trek, stooping and covering as the plane nears again and again. Men mark each pass with white-flagged poles. They wear no masks, no gloves.
The first stream lies stagnant beneath a two-log bridge. We grasp desperately to the frail cellophane-cord handrail, not wanting to fall into those dead waters.
A man shows up. He confidently strides across, whistling a tune. His machete swings from his waist. In the gathering shadows of dusk, he leads us over each log or rail-tie bridge. In the now-black distance, lantern lights glow yellow.
We arrive at small village hidden among the silhouette banana trees: Jimeritos. The shopkeeper leaves his cane-slat and palm-thatch hut. Inside his family still eats. He greets us at the window-counter of the concrete-block store. Our mouths drop open. “How did you get here?” He only smiles as he uncaps our sodas. That icy drink in this heat. Ah—nothing has ever tasted so good.
This night, under a velvet sky and stars, the forty-odd families gather on the store’s front porch. Telenovelas flicker in the dark. Children wander and explore crying out on fall-hurt buns.
By 9:30 everyone is to bed. John and Jessica crawl into their tent with a hushed good night. I unroll my sleeping bag and drift away on the silence.
A morning rain bathes this pueblo of sameness rustic huts. The men are already in the fields. We must draw water from the well. It streams from holes punched in the bucket. To relieve ourselves, we must go out into the dense brush. Jimeritos has nary a latrine.
John isn’t feeling well. No, he hasn’t been taking his malaria medication. Are there pack animals we can hire? The answer comes after breakfast. No, they are all being used.
So with an adios, we leave this village behind. Weighed under our knapsacks, we mount the barranca again. I slip in the slick mud. John looks angrily at me, “You and your old pack.” I pick myself up without a word. Jessica is the next to fall … and then he …
We continue on, slipping and sliding. I freeze at the first bridge of this second day. John helps me across. Step one, step two, pivot. One step, pivot. Then a long string of old railroad ties, rotted ends butted up against each other. Step off to the next one. There are no handrails. I grasp the Israeli’s waist.
Onward we trek, calling out to the bananeros, “Is this the way to Corinto?” They wave and nod, pointing in the direction. We trek through miles of fincas stretching green to the horizon. We puzzle at the cable lines winding through their midst.
Behind the parting clouds, the sun rises higher. The day grows muggier. In the nearing distance, we see an open-sided palm-thatch building.
“My we rest here?” we ask the people inside.
“Of course, of course.” They look amazed at our presence.
“Where are we?” We heave our packs onto the long benches.
“Is this Honduras?”
“Where are you from?” These mostly women ooh and aah over John and Jessica’s postcards of the Holy Land.
“Where are you coming from?” asks an old man looking dubiously at our knapsacks “You’ve been crossing the bridges with those?” With permission, he hefts one. “Wow,” he wipes his brow. “I surely would have fallen.”
“Where are you going? A group of us are going at noon. You can come with us.”
“How are we traveling?”
They point at those lines of cables.
John looks at his watch. It’s only 10 or so. “No—we go on—alone.”
With a farewell we leave. Once more we walk onto and down the barranca, slipping and sliding calling out to the field hands, “Is this the way to…?” The nods, the points. “Are we in Honduras yet?” Their answers cut across the banana forest clearing. “No—This is Guatemala.”
Over time the plantations thin. The barranca levels out to an overgrown pasture. Now there is no-one to ask. This path faintly leads to and around a lone, worn-wood house. We bewilderedly look at a man who steps out the front door.
“Is this the way to Corinto?”
“Are we in Honduras?”
“No.” He says something about rails, something I don’t understand.
We follow this mere scratch in the brush to a large gate. A lake the rain has left behind blocks our passage. We heave our knapsacks over the barb-wired fence and slip through the turnstile. There, on the other side, is a border obelisk. We leapfrog over it. Here a real road of knee-deep mud begins.
We abandon it, cutting across a meadow on higher ground to a broad river. There, spanning the swift waters, is a bridge of three rails … and no handhold.
John wanders to a house up on the knoll. Perhaps there’s another way. A man leads a horse down the bank and through the chest-deep water. On the ground I spy a chicken-clawed stick. It’s about three meters long.
Foot on one rail, other foot on the other, stick on the outside of the third rung. The fast flow pulls at my staff. Okay. Foot on one rail, other foot on the other, stick between the second and third …
No—again that current. Bueno. Foot on one, other foot, this pronged stick on the third and shuffle, shuffle, shuffle across.
Once on the other side, I dump my mud-streaked pack. Within one step of this bank, I re-e-each, the staff barely touching Jessica’s outstretched fingers. John returns midways her journey and soon joins us on this shore.
We continue our journey down the wide shaded road. That horseman has now disappeared. But soon the trees close in. Off somewhere, there and there, we hear shotgun blasts. The trail we are upon fades into the swamps. Pods hang heavy on cacao. We carry our knapsacks atop our heads, wading through the thigh-deep mud and water. We walk along a narrow ledge and into another morass. Gunfire reverberates through the jungle.
At firmer though still-soft ground, we stumble across a soccer field. On the other side houses line a street. We have reached Corinto.
The past-noon sun is high and hot. Down the road walks a young girl on her way to the milpa. She’ll help her father plant chilies. Most of the men of this village are gone, bananeros on those fincas on the other side of the swamps.
But here we must stay until first morning’s light when a bus for Puerto Cortés passes. Honduran immigration will just have to wait another day.
Dirty Chai (Nº 2, Winter 2014)
NOTE: It is no longer possible to do The Jungle Trail. That road shown on Jessica and John’s map was finally graded into reality, and buses now wend the route.