1988: A brief remembrance of Guatemala
By Cole Williams
Designer of The Journal
The Volcán de Fuego (Volcano of Fire) which just exploded in Guatemala last weekend reminded me of a trip Doris and I took to the Central American country which was, ironically, the result of another natural disaster. I was going to surprise Doris with a birthday trip to Mexico in 1988. Tragically, Hurricane Gilbert smashed into the Yucatan Peninsula that September causing incalculable property damage and killing over 300 Mexicans.
So much for the surprise. The tiny island I’d wanted to revisit, Isla Mujeres, was all but wiped off the map. We decided to go a little further south in the Americas to Guatemala. I’d heard big things about the small country from travelers I ran into on my visits to Mexico. To this day, it’s one of my favorite places I’ve ever visited.
It’s called “The Land of Eternal Spring“ and its natural beauty is breathtaking. The vivid colors of the flora and fauna test your brain’s ability to take it in. We saw hundreds of yards of jungle floor covered in striped purple wandering Jew plants. Succulent plants of myriad variety were everywhere as well as walls of bizarrely-shaped, multicolored flowers. Every tree seemed to be loaded to the breaking point with bromeliads.
The trees were also loaded with toucans, hummingbirds and macaws. We never did see a quetzal bird with their famous curlycue tail feathers. Oh, well. There were also lots of monkeys scurrying around up there. The ones I didn’t like were the howler monkeys. I thought they were ugly and obnoxious. They probably thought the same about us. We didn’t see any jaguars, which was just fine with me.
Now is the time of year when I wish I could escape the heat of South Louisiana and enjoy the climate of Guatemala. While the rain forests can get steamy, the temperature in most places we stayed was extremely pleasant.
In Chichicastenango, for instance, the temperature topped out at around 60°F during the day. At night it dropped to around 40°F. And it stays like that year-round.
Of the 17 million people in Guatemala, 93% speak Spanish. Many also speak one or more of the 23 Amerindian languages recognized there and most are ethnically Mestizo, or mixed European and Mayan. They are generally not tall. At 5’7”, I’m not used to towering over people, but it was kinda fun for a change.
Many of the women make textiles, mostly hand-woven pieces of cloth. These are highly-prized and sold throughout the world. Tinted with local natural dyes, they are as vividly-colored as the plants and animals they are extracted from.
Here’s the downside of our trip. We noticed lots and lots of heavily-armed soldiers at just about every street corner. We knew the country was politically unstable. What we didn’t know was that it was in the throws of a full-blown but underreported civil war. After a few scary encounters we returned to the USA. I wrote to the human rights watchdog group Amnesty International. When I read the materials they mailed back I was horrified. While it was obvious something wrong was going on in Guatemala, had I known the scope of human rights abuses and downright atrocities going on under our noses, I would have been terrified. At the height of death squad activities over 200,000 Guatemalans “disappeared.”
I could go into the reasons for the civil war but it’s over now. Suffice it to say it was a battle between the government’s military junta and guerilla fighters associated with civilian labor unions. An old, horrible story in much of Latin America in those days. Just thank God that it ended in 1997.
As of this writing, the volcano has killed at least 69 people, a toll which is bound to rise as deadly gas and lava continues to spew. As rescue operations are underway, I sure wish the best for these lovely people and their beautiful country.