Visiting Tikal

In the late 1990’s, while I was in Guatemala, I took a weekend to visit the Mayan ruins of Tikal in the north of Guatemala. Tikal is set in the jungle bordering Mexico and British Honduras. There are a lot of Mayan ruins in both Mexico and Guatemala but the well known are Tulum, Copal, and Tikal. To get to Tikal from Guatemala city, we flew to the town of Santa Marta, then took a bus to Tikal where we spent the next two days exploring the lost city and all the ruins. 

You could sense the amount of time these pyramids have been in existence and what they have witnessed through the last four thousand years. 

The ruins of this Mayan city sit in the middle of the jungle north of Guatemala close to the border with Mexico and British Honduras. This city was complete with two temples at either end of a city square the length of many football fields.  For the next two days, we spent exploring the ruins. Walking up one of the pyramids was fun, hard exercise, and exhilarating at the same time. You could sense the amount of time these pyramids have been in existence and what they have witnessed. A civilization’s rise, zenith, and fall. Mother Nature taking over and completely burying the whole city in the jungle with trees, vines and dirt completely burying them. When they were discovered back in the 20th century, they had to literally dig the temples and courtyards foot by foot from the jungle around them. When we climbed to the top of one of the pyramids, we got caught in the rain and literally saw the rain approaching across the jungle from the other pyramid. It was great seeing the surrounding countryside above the tree line of the jungle.


We had lunch and dinner at a makeshift restaurant underneath the trees. It was local food and very tasty. All the exercise made us very hungry and tired. After lunch we explored some more. The next day we finished our exploring and got finished at 4pm. Then, it was time to go back to the hotel. We had a bus full of tourists and on the way out of Tikal, we found a French tourist lost in the jungle, left behind by his tour group, and wandering aimlessly. He spoke French only, so someone in the bus who spoke French determined the plight of the Frenchman and we took him back to his hotel to reunite with his group. A good deed for the day.

We spent the night day in a beautiful B&B outside of the town of Santa Elena. The B&B was in the woods and had its own lake. We went swimming in the lake and we were the only human beings there. Afterwards we sat by the edge of the lake and had a couple of beers and talked about Tikal and the experiences we had. We discussed how the people lived back then: farming, harvesting, keeping the jungle from taking over. The festivals and celebrations in the city with the king and the priests, the sacrifices, the games, etc. The common folk lived outside the city in little clearings and they all came to the city during the festivals and important days in the Mayan calendar. Afterwards, we had a great dinner in the B&B made up of local foods, a grilled steak, corn on the cob, potatoes and dessert. The next morning, we arranged for a tour of the town of Santa Elena with its submerged section by the lake where could still see buildings, telephone poles, churches, etc half out of the water.


We spent another day at Vieja Guatemala, an old capital by the foot of the water volcano. You could see evidence of past earthquakes and past civil wars in the facade of the Spanish style buildings and churches. The Cathedral was half destroyed by an earthquake and it has not been fixed yet. There was a heavy Government Force presence in the city, with heavily armed soldiers guarding the central square and all the government buildings around it. I bought trinkets at the local open air market next to the cathedral from a woman who had a baby on her back and several children in tow. I gave her a big tip for the kids. The many vendors were plying their wares to the tourists and local folks alike. 

We returned to Guatemala City and spent the last day there. The next day, we left via an early flight to JFK. It was a trip of a lifetime and a learning experience about the Mayan culture.

One final note, Guatemala is the top source of asylum seekers in the United States, with citizens fleeing poverty, violence, drought, and low coffee prices. It is another disaster for the descendants of the Maya who have going through a lot over the last 3-4 thousands years. 

But the descendants of the Mayas take everything in their stride and keep on living their lives. no matter what. 

Running Away

I was ten years old and running away from home while living in the Galapagos Islands. Galapagos – Why did I run away from home so much while I lived there? There are many reasons: I was mistreated, treated like a servant, took the blame for everything that went wrong, got beatings, went to bed without supper, and was very unhappy to be there with no hope of getting out until I turned eighteen years old. Continue reading “Running Away”

My Grandfather and Cuenca

I lived with Grandpa Felipe in Cuenca three different times that I can remember. You see, I was only eight years old when I went to live with him for the third and last time. This time was for about two years. It had been time for me to leave my mother, she had found another live-in housemaid job and kids were not welcome. So, she convinced Grandpa to take me for a spell, and I was put on a bus to Cuenca. This sheltered little city sits in the valley between the Andes in the south of Ecuador. In the early ’60s, Cuenca was small and naturally sheltered. Its people still spoke Spanish in a singsong with a Castilian accent.

Today, Cuenca has become the retirement mecca for both American and European retirees (the gringos). Great weather, low taxes, and low cost of living are the lure for the Gringos. And, several journals and blogs on the web are written about Cuenca, Ecuador, and its virtues. If you like small city living, living in a foreign country, affordable housing, affordable living expenses, and being far away from home, it is one of the better destinations for you.

For me, at a young age, it was being left alone by my mother and living with another relative once more. This pattern had been repeated so many times that my head was spinning. I had learned to be calm, resourceful, independent, and a great guest. I understood that this was a way to survive while my mother got her problems out of her system, and sooner or later, she would return to claim me. I suspect that the relative in question would write to her and demand that she pick me up. And the cycle would continue. She would ask another relative to take me so she could have her freedom and work at another live-in job. I’m not blaming my mother, she had to make a living, and without an education, the best she could do is get a live-in maid’s job. So, most live-in maid jobs demanded a single person. Hence, the little boy was left with a relative. I get the necessity for doing that; but, how do you explain to a four-year-old that Mom needs to leave you behind while she gets another job. You can’t because the child feels abandoned no matter what the reason was.

Back to Grandpa Felipe in Cuenca. He was a leather goods merchant by trade, and he would make belts, soccer balls, backpacks, briefcases, holsters and other leather goods for sale to the public. He had a storefront in one of the main streets in Cuenca and conducted sales and manufacturing in this tiny storefront. In the back, there was another room where he lived with his youngest son (Vicente) and his family (a wife and two small daughters). Imagine a room where five people lived, now I was the sixth, and the place felt crowded. My Grandpa used a corner of the room as a kitchen. The rest of the room was living space with two beds, a trunk, an armoire, a small table, and some chairs. The bathroom facilities (bathroom and showers) were a block away in a tenement house.

When I was a baby, I remember waking up in the babysitter’s apartment in the tenement. I was sleeping in a crib, and the room was lit by candles. The sitter noticed I had woken up and came over to pick me up. This memory was in the early ’50s when I was no more than six months old. I could not move and only remember the crib, the sitter, and the candles.

The second time, I was around five years old, and I remember the Sunday routine of dressing up for church. Going to Mass and afterward going to the local bar with my Grandpa. He would meet his friends and have beers, and I would get a lemonade. I would sit listening to the adults talk while I sipped my hot lemonade. Some Sundays, Grandpa would take me to a soccer match, and we would sit on the stands watching the game and drinking sodas. I also remember, my Mom came to visit and stayed for my first communion. I was small and remembered the day. The black suit I wore and the lunch party we had afterward. I Have a vivid memory of having a picnic and frolicking in the river.

The third ad final time, I was already starting 3rd grade, and I was enrolled at the Christian Brothers in town. I was a good student, and I was able to finish the year with honors. I had the highest achievement in third grade, and I was given a prize for the achievement. The Christian Brothers were very strict. Any infraction would be punished. I remember being kept in the classroom during recess because I didn’t know my catechism that day. We were physically punished for infractions or not knowing the lessons. A ruler would be used to slap a kid’s hand, palm side down, on the nails. You didn’t forget the punishment or the pain for a while.

While going to the Christian Brothers, I was preparing for my First Communion. We were instructed not to eat anything till we finished our Mass at 7:00 am. This was the first period at the school, and everyone attended. I would fast every day, and just before communion, I would faint at my pew. My teacher would carry me outside and make sure I was OK. This happened several times before anyone thought that fasting was the cause. I was a small & thin lad, and the fasting in the morning would lead to fainting spells. I was given special dispensation to eat before coming to Mass. The big day arrived, and we had our First Communion, and afterward, we had a nice lunch at a favorite restaurant. Finally, we finished the day with a pleasant walk by the local river on the outskirts of town.

I had a negative experience then. A stranger abducted me and raped me in the back of the church. I didn’t know what that was about except that it hurt a lot, and I bled from the encounter. Afterward, the man left me in an alley next to the church, and I had to find my way home. I never told a soul about this encounter as I was deathly afraid I would be punished for it. I can still remember the church, the man, the hurt, the blood, the shame. The whole experience is as vivid as if it just happened yesterday.

Just when I thought life was lonely, my uncle Gonzalo and his family moved to town. They got a big apartment just around the corner from our shop, and he set up shop at the next corner from my Grandfather. Uncle Gonzalo was also a leather goods tradesman, and I suppose he competed with my Grandfather for clientele. I was delighted to have playing companions with my two first cousins (Marcelo and Juan Carlos). Marcelo was one year older, and Juan Carlos was one year younger. We were the three musketeers and did everything together. We played, went to school, did errands, slept at Uncle’s shop to keep the burglars out, and generally knocked a great time.

When I finished fourth grade, my Grandfather’s fortunes changed. His biggest customer (The Cuenca police) canceled their contract and refused to pay outstanding invoices. He was destitute and could no longer afford to keep me. He wrote a letter to my Mom, put me on a bus to Quito (where my Mother was living at the time), and that chapter was closed. A new chapter was beginning, but that is for the next time.

Kindness of friends

Joe is a homeless person who has lived by his wits and on the margin of society his whole life. When I met him, he was living in a friend’s apartment and had a sweet deal. Live rent-free and have spending money in exchange for taking care of all household duties and any errands his friend needed. Joe was an executive assistant. This arrangement worked while his friend needed help.  Now, his friend has met a girl and is moving in with her. Joe needs to find an apartment he can afford.

Continue reading “Kindness of friends”