Friday, June 09, 2006


One bridge crosses the Rio Dulce. The river spreads out below the bridge into a twenty kilometre lake dotted with mangrove islands and indented with creeks and side rivers and streams that disapear into jungle. Below the lake, the river is squeezed into a narrow ravine. The vertical cliffs rise 300 feet and are cloaked in jungle. The ravine ends at the sea and at the small Carribean port of Livingston. No roads lead to Livingston. There is only the river and the sea.
Above the bridge is a short stretch of river which ends at the narrow entrance into Lago Izabal. At over fifty kilometres in length, Izabal is the largest lake in Guatemala and was the road of conquest for the Spaniards who built a fort to protect the approach to the lake from English pirates. Fronteras is the name of the town that has sprouted from the northen end of the bridge, Fronteras because the bridge marked the frontier to the little explored and scantily populated province of Peten.
I first visited Fronteras some fifteen years back. In those days Fronteras was a dump. It remains a dump, a very likeable dump (I have a soft spot for dumps). A few new buildings exist; banks have opened branch offices; tin shacks have grown concrete block walls and some have been freshly painted - as have the whores taking the sun outside the whore house. These look to be a little younger - true, my eyes have aged. Men on horseback were common back then; they are now a rarity. Common now are long-legged young women in short skirts astride motor scooters.
I have a travel piece on my web site that I wrote ten years ago which I could as easily write today:
The piece describes a trip up-river from Livingston and a meal Eugenio cooked from small fresh water clams we had dived for amongst the reeds fringing Lago Izabal.


Eugenio is driving us in his launch all the way downriver to Livingston: no willows, lots of mangrove. Monica sits in the back with Andresito on her knee. Slam into the wake from a
taxi launch, shrimp boat or motor yacht, Andresito never complains. I sit up front beside Eugenio with a nappy over my burns and Eugenio´s work hat at a rakish angle. I kind of fancy myself.
Monica and Eugenio suggest that I resemble an aged wreck.
I remind them that I was up guarding the house and livestock at 6 a.m. while they wasted hours in dalliance.
I plan visiting a school midway down the river. The school recruits bright kids of both sexes from the Maya villages and educates them to be leaders in their communities. The school is the brain child of a North American from the US. I must enquire as to his background.


My leg hurt and kept me awake. I heard horses out on the farm road soon after first light. The horses had escaped from a paddock. I doubted if there was much I could do - maybe stand in the road and wave my arms while one of Eugenio´s farm workers coralled the beasts. So I tiptoed barefoot downstairs and out onto the lawn. A puppy the size of small elephant made a charge for the door - so I closed it. The keys were upstairs on my dressing table. Andresito permitted Monica and Eugenio a Sunday sleep-in. So I sat on the lawn for four hours. For the first half-hour I thought of myself and that I wasn´t doing too well what with the leg and the locked door. Oh, and the camera that I left in Grand Central station, New York.
Over the next half-hour I relented in my self criticism. Yes, I admit that doing the leg was an act of adolescent stupidity and that senility could explain the loss of the camera.
However, Josh and Jed leave things.
And there was the time I did my leg in on a Bultaco Matador, laying it over and sliding into an unexpected traffic island on the road to Ibiza town from our house in San Jose. This was a main road that I rode every day and more than once. True, it was at night and what mind I had had drifted far off course. But I was forty years younger...
And look at the positives. I am amongst friends. I am enjoying myself. I am interested by people and I keep meeting new people, nor have I lost the art of letting THEM do the talking. Yes, and I have a passion for good food and have eaten some remarkably good meals. And the Honda is stalwart companion.


I was in the pool at the hotel on Friday evening. An ex-cop from Israel was talking with me. He had served in the anti-terrorist squad for a while. He mentioned that Israel was more or less at peace now that the wall was built. The US is about to build a wall along the dividing line between El Norte and El Sud. Such walls are statements of despair and of defeat. And they always fall.
The Great Wall of China failed to keep out the Tartars.
Hadrian´s Wall signalled the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire.
The Germans drove round the corner of that great wall of interconected fortesses and bunkers, the Maginot Line.
The Berlin wall was pulled down by joyful Germans, both East and West.
However, let us be positive and consider the needs of those morally righteous amongst the US contracting fraternity, those who loyally contribute to the Republican Party´s war chest. They are always in need of a little extra and the Iraq war can´t last for ever.
Think Cheyney, think Rumfeld, think Haliburton...
And don´t concern yourselves up there in El Norte, your servants will find a way through.


I researched the Guatemalan chapters of AFTERMATH while staying at Tijax. Now I keep recognising places I have used. Today we drove into Morales. On the return, we stopped for chicken soup at a restaurant/carwash that I used. Should you wish, you can find a short extract under FICTION on my web site that describes the place:

The carwash had a dangerous reputation for some years. The then owner´s husband had been shot dead. So had a few others. Gun battles under the palapa. The widow is not the woman in the book - though she was a warm woman and left with three small children who I remember as timid of strangers.
The new owner had worked as a mechanic in El Norte for a few years, a leagal with a green card. He didn´t know of the gun battles. Nor did he know much about restaurants and went into a huddle with Eugenio who gave him advice.
Josh, Jed and I were living in Cuba ten years ago; Bernadette ran her business back in England and visited every six weeks. Shops were empty in Cuba. Eugenio and I would drive into Morales. Eugenio would do his banking and the chores, then come looking for me. He knew where I would be: in one of the Chinese stores, mouth open, gapeing at the choice: three different marks and sizes of refrigerator, same for TVs, bikes, scooters. For Eugenio this was a corner shop. For a resident of Castro´s Cuba, it offered the joys of a combined Harrods and WallMart.


I wrote, ten years ago, much of the Guatemalan section of AFTERMATH in the restaurant at Hacienda Tijax ( The marina is bigger now. Eugenio has added a swimming pool and an open-air jaccuzi; the guest cabins are of wood and mosquito proof. Ten years ago, Eugenio and I lived in open walled palapas and I defended myself against the mosquitoes with an electric fan. Oh, and Charlie, Eugenio´s dog of very mixed parentage, ate one of my brown Church shoes. I wear brown shoes by Church on this trip. They are comfortable and, under normal conditions (riding motorcycles, climbing mountains, crossing forests) are indistructable. However they are made of high quality leather. Flexible leather. To a Guatemalan dog, they appear delectable. Eugenio has a pack of dogs. One is a puppy, a spotted Brazilian mastiff with feet the size of snow-shoes. He will be truly massive should he ever grow into his feet. For the moment he believes he is very small. I read on the verandah and he tries to climb on my lap. I reject him. He droops his head, eyes so mournful that I expect him to weep. I relax for a moment and he lays his head on my Church-shod feet and drools a little. The drooling gives him away. And that every now and again he has a little lick at the leather - just a taster.


Eugenio has married, he has a new son (Andresito, 9 months), he has built a house. Hacienda Tijax ( ) rises for the shores of the Rio Dulce to a high ridge from which there are views thru 360 degrees to mountains in the distance and both down the Rio Dulce and up towards the Spanish fortress that once guarded the entrance to Lago Izabal from English pirates. For me, the view is the most beautiful in the world and I had expected Eugenio to site his house on the ridge. Eugenio has chosen a site further down the hill. The house is on two floors; all rooms have French windows opening onto wide shaded verandahs or balconies. The house faces down a valley of cattle paddocks to a fringe of forest that hides the water. The distant mountains are the least imposing of those that are visible from the ridge. It is a restful view. It is undemanding. You may look or not look. You can read in peace.
I understand Eugenio´s choice of site. He has enough demands put on him each day with his hotel and his marina and the restaurant and the rubber plantation and cattle rustled and his fear of forest fires that could destroy the teak plantation. I understand the armed guard who patrols the hacienda and I understand the gate and the high wire fence fixed to white ceramic insulaters that surrounds the garden.
Eugenio is never short of courage. If anything, he is risk prone. He has lived thru the clandestine war; attached to the Ministry of Finance, he worked with the Maya and lived in their villages. But now he has a young and beautiful wife and small son to protect and, here in his house, while still a batchelor, he was robbed at gun point by three men.


The Honda is loaded onto Eugenio´s pick-up. We drive down from Antigua into the capital for lasagne with Eugenio´s mother. I make notes in my journal of a conversation earlier in the morning. The speaker was a woman, a Gutemalan. She talked of massacres during the clandestine war, of a country in which, for thirty years, Governments placed no value on life. She talked of Big Brother up north who placed no value on the lives of Latin Americans, of Arabs, of Asians. Bomb anyone you don´t like (the enemy). Why care if there are civillian casualties? And why be surprised when gangs of city kids in Guatemala have as little care for life?
"They see the corruption in Government. We used to think it was only us. We thought that countries outside, in Europe were different - countries like England. Now we learn that all Governements are the same. Look at your Tony Blair. He is a liar like the rest. What hope is there? Why should the kids have hope?"
I have been in Europe too long. I have lost touch with the reality of the outside world. I had been critical of a school Principal´s lack of courage in a country where, for thirty years, to be suspected of thought crime could get you shot.


I chose to travel in the rainy season. I have been blessed with greenery even in the wastelands of the Texas Panhandle. Now Eugenio and I are staying with an ecentric French conservationist, Santiago Billy, on the eastern litoral of Lake Peten Itza. Clouds rise from thick forest on the far shore in layers of greys that range from the almost white to the almost black. The waters reflect the layers and we watch, from the small palapa at the end of Santiago´s jetty, rain squalls first chase each other across the forest before joining forces in a solid curtain that shatters the calm of the lake and thrashes the surface into silver foam. You can keep your days of endless sun. This is glory...
Even when the satelite connection to the internet crashes and eats the same piece of rewritten work on three seperate occasions. Which is what I did yesterday, write and have the connection break before I could post the blog.
Today I am in the capital of the Peten, Flores, where there is a cable connection and where Santiago attends a breakfast meeting with the Minister of Agriculture. Eugenio remains in bed. I feel that I have betrayed him. Our plan was to ride a huge loop. Instead we are stuck here by my ugly leg. On Tuesday Santiago demanded that I drive with him to a doctor in Flores. Santiago insists that the doctor ordered me to return in three to four days. Meanwhile I was to rest: no alcohol, no dancing, no sex. I quote Santiago. I wasn´t listening. I sat hypnotised by a hyperdermic and the size of the bottle of antibiotics the doctor had placed on his desk beside the pills and dressings and creams with which I was to annoint myself. Forty-eight hours have passed and the contents of the bottle remain as a big sore bump in my bum. As for the leg and the creams--shush. Anna, Santiago´s maid, returned from the forest yesterday with a portfolio of herbs which she infused in hot water and stood over me while I bathed the burns. The wounds dried miraculously, no more seepage until this morning when I reaplied the doctor´s creams. I betray modern medicine in continuing Anna´s treatment.
I shall mix the two.
Meanwhile, temporarily at a halt, I shall catch up with the Blog.

Thursday, June 08, 2006


Ten years have passed since my last visit to Antigua. Of my friends, all but an artist and her Frenchman have abandoned the city to commercialism and moved to gated communities on the outskirts. I recall eating dinner in this house my last night in Guatemala. We sat in front of a wood fire and drank wine and discussed a future of hope that accompanied the peace process. Today, the artist, a liberal educated at University in Europe, talked of the nihilism that drives the country´s urban youth to kill for a few Quetzals and ape the most extreme details of the sexual act as they dance the raegeton.
The artist´s son was 12 or 13 when I last visited. Now he is a six-six Adonis back from college in Colorado. He guides tourists up volcanoes and teaches rock climbing.
He is exceptional in having returned. The majority of his generation, the offspring of my Guatemalan friends, are in Spain, Canada, El Norte, even England. Do they sense, if only subconciously, that they have no future in Guatemala? If so, are we once again entering the territory of race?


Be patient. I write my journal throughout each day. Transfering the journal to the internet is more complicated. Thus I take the reader backwards on occasion and forward on occasion. Now, if you are with me, we are in the days prior to the stupidity of my leg and my misconception as to my true age and abilities. This is a pompous discription of my having been truly dumb!

Antigua remains full of beautiful buildings. I ride with care on the cobbles and I ask of myself, as always, who were the architects? And I wonder if the conquistadors numbered camouflaged Muslims amongst their number. We know of three recursos (Jewish "converts" to Christianity) amongst Cortes´group and that Cortes´neighbors back in the Extremadura of his childhood were Islamic owners of a vineyard. I imagine myself a bright Islamic kid of the period. Banned from Spanish universities, where would I have studied? Perhaps to that great centre of learning, Baghdad. Returning home to Spain, I would have been faced with the bigotry and zeal of Christendom. What then? Surely I would have been tempted to change my name to Jose Jesus and escape to a New World.

Last night I visited the home of an elderly Guatemalan, a wealthy businessman, whose brother is an architect in New England. The Guatemalan brother has a fierce loathing for George W Bush whom he descibes as totally ignorant and Fascist. He recounts that his brother warns him to be careful of what he says over the telephone as all calls from abroad to the US are monitored. The conqueror dresses himself in the clothes of the conquered: The US increasingly wears the the clothes of Nazi Germany.
I report the views of two elderly respectable conservative gentlemen. I encountered the same views in Mexico amongst all classes. I leave the reader to judge whether such beliefs should be of concern...

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


The toad toasted himself. The fault was a friend´s. Obviously. Remember WIND IN THE WILLOWS? Toad is never at fault.
Eugenio has built a tower on the crest of the hill above his house at the Rio Dulce.
"The road is rough," said Eugenio. "Don´t try riding up on your bike. I´ll run you up in the pick-up once I´ve finished down at the hotel."
So I waited. Then I recalled Ibiza in the Sixties.
I recalled me on a Bultaco Matador 350 trial bike.
I pictured myself as I had pictured myself then: chest thrust out as I gripped the wide-spread controls, white canvas trousers over Frye boots, granddad T shirt, sun-bleached locks in a coronet of Moroccan beads. Wow, was I something. Every girl´s dream (as long as she was short of brain) - Poop Poop.
So what had changed? Nothing (I thought) and kicked the Honda alive. No trouble for the first flat fifty meters. Then uphill on a wet rutted track. The front wheel slipped. I hadn´t the strength to hold the bike upright. Over it went. My knee hit the exhaust pipe. I yelped and tried to stand only to hit the exhaust pipe wth my calf.
So what had changed?
As Monica, Eugenio´s young and intelligent wife, remarked. "Hey Simon, you are an old man. You need to be careful."
Careful, I wouldn´t be heading for Tierra del Fuego...

Monday, June 05, 2006


First an appology. I criticised the timidity of a school Principal and of a young Licenciada. I mocked their fear that I might contaminate their students. Guatemala suffered thirty years of hell that historians refer to as a clandestine war. People were murdered throughout those thirty years merely on suspicion of wrong thinking. Of course the Principal and the Licenciada were nervous of who I was and of what questions I might ask of their students.

I have ignored, until the past few days here in Guatemala, the cowardice of the novelist. The novelist choses safety. He is always ready with the novelist´s excuse. I hear myself: "It´s a novel. That wasn´t me. That was a character speaking."

Now I write fact as I perceive it; I place my own opinions naked before the reader; I do so in a country in which horrific violence is commonplace and where fear is as normal as eating breakfast.

I have dear friends here. They may supply the chanel to those whom I wish to interview. They may be judged for the opinions I form - not judged by a court of law, judged by those with whom I talk or by the reader.

And I write with no knowledge of even the very immediate future. Yet I fear for this beautiful land. I fear because of its past; I fear because of what I hear and I fear because of what I don´t hear.

I will write. Only permit me a little time...


I rode up out of Pana at 9 a.m. on the steep climb towards Guatemala city and was rewarded for the misery of yesterday´s decent with wonderful views both of the lake and of the volcanoes beyond that were dressed in raggedy minskirts of pearl grey cloud. I stopped near the top and watched a launch, made tiny by distance, drag Vees behind it that seemed tired and soon collapsed to leave the water calm and unmarked. The weather stayed dry and I had a fine run across the crest with splendid views of forest way below and of the great volcano dominating the horizon.
I rode into Antigua in early afternoon. I had expected this jewel of Spanish colonial architecture to cast its usual magic. Much had changed in ten years. I recall shops and cafes and guest houses sprinkled amongst private homes. Now there is only commerce. Magnificent 16th century doorways and passages to inner patios have been desecrated with kiosks in the scrabble for an extra dollar. I searched for a room within my budget and was shown a series of windowless cupboards attached to dank horrors that I was assured were bathrooms. Finally I struck lucky both in hotel (Hotel San Vicente, 6A Avenida Sur 6) and owners and in discovering a pair of bright and charming young English honeymooners as fellow guests.
I spoke with my friend, Eugenio, on the telephone. He was on his way up from Guatemala city in his double cab Ford pìck-up (new and luxurious - especially when compared to the bum-numbing Honda). Antigua was a disapointment while the changes in Eugenio´s state were extreme but positive: a beautiful young wife with a great sense of fun and humour and a son of nine months who takes teething in his walker-aided stride.