‘Hey you monkeys, quit monkeying around’, said Emma gazing up at two spider monkeys hanging from their tails high in the canopy of a forest in Guatemala and pushing each other around. Telling monkeys to quit monkeying around amuses me greatly. I love it and so I adopted it as my own and told every monkey we came upon after that to quit monkeying around, whether they were or not.
We went to Guatemala for a day, because we could. Because it was there and so were we. Because how many times in your life do you wake up and say to each other, ‘hey want to go to Guatemala?’. Because it was a whole other country. Because 24 countries in a year is better than 23 and because while Belize has lots of Mayan ruins, Guatemala has the biggest and best Mayan ruins of them all – Tikal.
I still took some convincing though. Nobody told us Belize would be as expensive as Europe. Why is Belize as expensive as Europe? I feel I can be forgiven for assuming we could spend two weeks in Belize within the constraints of our budget, but apparently not. Especially if you decide to go to Guatemala for a day. Ouch.
Emma and I sat down and had a heart to heart about it one morning while Amy and Oliver were working on a lesson in botany. I had been busily adding up the price of re-establishing life at home and trying to reconcile that with the cost of going to Guatemala. The two however were not entirely congruous so we concluded that on balance we’re still more into buying experiences than we are buying stuff. Our new car probably won’t have a sunroof and there’s a good chance that door in the back of the garage, that we have been talking about for ten years, will be talked about for ten more. And that’s ok.
Luke, who picked us up early the next morning to take us to the border explained why everything was expensive in Belize. According to Luke it’s because Belize produces almost nothing, imports almost everything and the government slaps close to a 100% import duty on everything that comes across the border. He did say the literacy rate of the children is 97% or something – one positive for the high taxes.
He also blamed the high cost of everything on the entrepreneurial Chinese who relocated from Hong Kong to Belize at the time the British yielded their rule of said province to China who know how to buy in bulk and are snapping up all the supermarkets and forcing everyone else out of business. Luke was a font of information that may or may not be true on almost everything you may or may not ever have wanted to know. He was also funny and engaging and it was easy just to sit back and listen to him talk.
Luke has three daughters himself and once a year he makes a trip to the US to buy a new car for his business. While he is there he buys a year’s supply of shampoo and conditioner and other assorted goods which he loads into the new car until it is bursting at the seams. On the way home, some of the goods may become inducements for the officials at the border crossing to significantly reduce his import duty. All par for the course for life in Central America one supposes.
We didn’t need to provide inducements to the Guatemalan border officials to get into Guatemala fortunately, although Luke left me with the impression war between Guatemala and Belize could break out any time and I was coming rapidly to the conclusion that I didn’t want to be anywhere near the border when the shooting started.
Guatemala lays claim to a much larger slice of Belize than Belize and the rest of the world concede. Luke thinks this is funny, even though Belize has a population of 375,000 and Guatemala 14 million. He’s pretty sure Britain’s got their back. Many of us used to think the US had our back too. I wonder if that’ll stick come next January. But I digress.
The border crossing went smoothly. I was only nervous when Carlos, our guide on the Guatemalan side who we had known for all of 20 seconds, disappeared with all our passports to get them stamped. ‘But, but, but…’ I blundered softly to myself as he vanished. Fortunately, he reappeared ten minutes later and all was well. A passport in the hand is worth everything when you visit random Central American countries on the brink of war (it’s not, but Luke spun a good yarn).
An hour’s drive through the Guatemalan countryside ensued. Guatemala is a wealthy country Carlos told us, for five percent of the population who have a strangle hold on all the major industries and power. Not so much for the rest. Look what that lead the US to do. But I digress again.
We soon arrived at Tikal, one of the mightiest cities of the ancient Mayans. Ancient Maya was not, as I would have thought, one cohesive society but rather a bunch of warring city states (a bit like the ancient Greeks). I’m not sure which king of Tikal it was that saw fit to immortalise themselves through monumental structures of stone but it is a time-honoured method of shoring up your power base. No wonder Donald Trump has big plans for US infrastructure. But there I go, digressing again.
We watched a documentary on the Mayans the night before we went to Tikal and learnt about one Mayan King, somewhere in modern day Mexico I think, who ascended to the throne when just twelve years of age under less than perfect claims of inheritance. He solved the problem by declaring his mum to be a deity thereby making him the son of a Goddess. Perfect! He probably also went on to build a bunch of big stuff using the labour of the population at large to prove that what he said was true. There’s a simplicity to it which both beggars’ belief and is infallible in its internal logic.
Still, Mayan architecture has stood the test of time and Tikal is proof of that. It is a vast city of stone slowly but steadily being reclaimed from beneath the thick cover of the jungle. There is a better than even chance that every hillock in this landscape is sitting atop a Mayan structure, waiting to be unearthed.
It has an other worldly vibe to it which Steven Spielberg has known about for decades. In Episode IV of Star Wars the Millennium Falcon lands on Yavin 4, a jungly rainforest moon. It’s from here that the rebels commence their attack on the Death Star. That was filmed from the top of the unimaginatively named Temple IV, where we sat and soaked in the view with fifty of our closest friends. Carlos is fairly certain it will be closed to visitors in coming years as more and more people visit and the damage that does becomes too much to bear.
We also visited the central plaza of the ancient city with its steep sided temples standing proud again after the jungle has been meticulously peeled away. A short distance from that we visited the ancient king’s bedroom. A tiny room of about four by three metres wide which confirmed my long held view that the lifestyle of the average Australian today far exceeds that of the kings of old. Relativity is everything when it comes to wealth.
Toucans fluttered here and there as we explored and they had me enthralled in equal measure with the ruins. The locals call them flying bananas which I think is a little unfair. Their magnificence is just wildly erratic, that’s all. You couldn’t invent a beak like that and if you did nobody would ever believe you. A toucan has no right to credibility other than the fact that it exists.
I paid homage to the unlikely existence of the toucan by patiently snapping away at it to get a nice photo while the others relaxed in the shade of a tree and tried to drink enough water to replace that which was stolen away by the twenty-nine degrees of heat and nearly 100% humidity. There were other cool critters like the coatimundi (racoon relative) but we didn’t see the tarantula or boa constrictor that I had been hoping for, even if that was a long shot.
We crossed back into Belize as easily as we passed the other way only this time I was more relaxed. Carlos had won me over and the automatic machine guns on the shoulders of the officials remained slung behind backs rather than cocked and ready suggesting that armed conflict was not imminent.
Luke picked us up on the Belize side and no sooner had our seatbelts gone click than he started telling us all about the Central American immigrants that flood across the Belizean border using it as a transit to the USA because Belize is the only central American country with an open border with the US. I couldn’t vouch for any of it but it was fascinating nonetheless. He also thought Donald’s wall along the Mexican border was hilarious and that it would soon collapse under its own weight from all the holes that would be dug beneath it.
The next day Amy and Oliver were swinging from the rafters. Literally, swinging from the rafters, so we needed to get out and about again. In downtown San Ignacio we found just the thing, a course in chocolatiering. As you will no doubt be aware, the ancient Mayans were one of the first, if not the first, to discover the cocao bean and our host was of Mayan descent.
We tasted our way through the whole process starting with the raw fruit, followed by the fermented and then sun-dried beans. After that we crushed and ground beans on an old-school style grinding stone into a smooth paste. Honey and hot water were added along with chilli, cinnamon and nutmeg to make our very own hot chocolate. It was superb.
It wasn’t until 1800 and something that westerners started adding vast quantities of sugar to cacao to make the chocolate we all know and love. While the Belizean’s seem more than happy to export their crops for this purpose, they themselves suggested the cacao bean should be considered more akin to the coffee bean and enjoyed in its natural unsweetened state as their descendants did for thousands of years. As for me, sweetened or unsweetened, it’s all good.