by Pa Rock
The port at Santo Tomas de Castilla, Guatemala, was more like a military compound than a tourist trap. Immediately at dockside was a large expanse of warehouses and barracks sitting before a background of lush green mountains topped with a morning fog. A platoon of soldiers was marching in formation as our group was preparing to disembark.
There were no tourist shops or facilities visible from where our ship was docked. People who wanted to visit the city had to walk through the warehouse area and out the gate into the community. Those who signed up for tours, however, were met at the dock by buses.
I took two tours in Guatemala. The morning outing was a visit to two hotels. The first had been one of the swankiest in the country a century earlier. It was a large rambling affair, constructed entirely of wood, with very small guest rooms that contained only a small bed and a dresser. The facilities were “down the hall.” The old hotel was an interesting bit of history, showing where the wealthy capitalists had once stayed and played while dividing up the wealth of this small nation.
The second hotel on our tour was a shiny and new playground for today’s tourists. The focus was on bars, beaches, and recreation. People were busy swimming, snorkeling, sunbathing, playing volleyball, and drinking. It had everything that yuppie tourists could ask for, and the obligatory Mayan ruins were only a short bus ride away.
I selected something with more of a social work feel for my afternoon excursion: a tour of the Del Monte banana plantation. Our bus ride into the Guatemalan countryside was nearly two hours in length over curvy, mountainous roads. The terrain, coupled with the dilapidated state of the roads, created a situation that was ripe for accidents. Not only did we see several wrecks along the way, there were numerous times when crazy motorists would go flying around our bus on blind corners, leaving me with the a nervous foreboding that I would draw my last breath in Guatemala!
We were cautioned that there were only selected areas at the banana plantation where we would be able to take pictures. We had just barely gotten off of the bus when the reason for the prohibition on photography became apparent. A rusty old pickup truck rushed by as we were strolling toward the area where the bananas were being boxed for shipment. The three farm laborers riding in the back of the truck each appeared to be around eleven-years-old!
We were shown two aspects of the plantation operation. The first was a large, wall-less room where people were busy inspecting and boxing green bananas for shipment. There were seventy-five or so people involved in the process. The boxed bananas were put on trucks ready for immediate movement to the ports.
We were also taken into the fields to view the crops. The growing process was explained in family terms. Each banana tree was the mother. Each mother produced one bunch of bananas and a baby tree. Then the mother died and the baby tree grew to take her place. There were mothers and babies and bunches of bananas as far as the eye could see!
The ride back to Santo Tomas de Castilla was just as harrowing, but fortunately was without incident. We did stop at one very nice rural café for a restroom and refreshment break. Their postcard rack contained a wide selection of Guatemalan art at postcard prices, many of which wound up in my growing collection of art-on-a-budget.
Our stop in Mexico was at a relatively new port in Costa Maya. As the name implied (Mayan Coast), there was a Mayan archaeological site nearby. It was more developed than the one that I had visited in Belize, as well as more expansive. I climbed several pyramids and mounds and enjoyed taking photographs of the unusual flora that the site offered. At one point in my excursion I came upon two young Mexican boys who had a couple of tropical snakes. They posed for pictures and then gave a modest nod toward their tip jar.
During the afternoon in southern Mexico I walked along the seashore, and made a pass through the souvenir shops at the port. Two memorable purchases were a handmade leather belt that has served me well during the intervening year-and-a-half, and a very large, free-standing pink flamingo made of papier-mâché that I had to transport home as carry-on baggage. The flamingo is in charge of my apartment whenever I’m not there!
And then we sailed back to Tampa, with many workshops along the way. The highlight of the trip eastward across the Caribbean was a poetry-reading in the ship’s theatre one night by Tyne Daly and a young lady poet from Tampa whose name I have since forgotten. Both women had a true love of poetry and were able to convey that feeling through their beautiful readings.
It was still winter when I got back to Kentucky.