History and heritage
Lightning forked through the tropical night, flicking the scenery across the other side of the great dark lake on and off, in a scene that any special effects designer would have dismissed as impossibly de trop.
I should like to report that our arrival on the shores of Lake Atitlán to witness this splendid sight came after much hard trekking and bug-slapping; and that I now stood like some grizzled Bogart as the teeming rain ran down my face. As it happened, I was lying propped up in bed watching through a large picture window after an excellent meal at a rather good hotel, the Villa Santa Catarina.
I have always been a sucker for the allure of Latin America, right from school days and that good-bad poem of WJ Turner, "Chimborazo, Cotopaxi had stolen me away". And then there is the not inconsequential matter of my two teenaged sons being born there, before we adopted them.
We began the boys’ heritage tour in Antigua - with its scores of stricken churches, monasteries and convents this colonial town should be a musty museum piece, but the gusto of Guatemala and Guatemalans keeps getting in the way. Half of the country’s population of 13 million are Maya, descendants of those endlessly intriguing temple builders, astronomers and ritual sacrificers whose pomp came to a sudden, and still not fully explained cession, at the end of the ninth century. Tikal, one of their greatest cities, lies in Petén, in the north of Guatemala, covering 16 square kilometres, much of it still unexcavated, with stepped temples that despite their limestoned immensity still contrive to loom suddenly above the swallowing jungle. Go, as we did, in July, in the rainy season, early in the day, and you will have this wonder largely to yourself, apart from the loudest cicadas I have ever heard, screeching macaws and howler monkeys hollering like lions.
The top of the Temple of the Masks, facing across Tikal’s great central square to the equally mighty Temple of the Giant Jaguar, is not a bad place to muse on Mayan matters. The prediction, for instance, that 2012, the end of one of their immense and minutely calculated calendar cycles, will bring the end of the world. The dependence of such a sophisticated people on bloody sacrifices which accelerated alarmingly in the face of climate change and harvest loss. The panic sealed in stone by the just slightly out-of-kilter construction of Tikal’s last temple. Or the Mayan Ball Game, a ritual game of keepy-uppy played with a three-kilo rubber ball: first drop loses, losing captain also loses head. And, too, the failure to develop the wheel, attributed by some to the lack of a large indigenous creature capable of pulling; by others to a belief in the sacredness of the great circle, the sun, not to be sullied by practical application.
Our guide Oscar, of mixed Spanish and Mayan blood, pointed out other mixtures, from Mayan arches supporting Spanish ones in Antigua, to the blending of the old and newer religions, which achieves its acme in Chichicastenango, a market town.
The colonial church of Santo Tomás, on the market square, sits on steps of an earlier temple: there are 18, the number of months in the ancient Mayan year. On them, shamans burn incense and say prayers to their God. Inside, there are low stone altars up the centre of the church, with candles. A sombre Spanish oil painting of the crucifixion was stained with aguardiente, the Mayan alcoholic drink of choice, and favoured offering. At the altar rails, a Mayan couple were praying; irreverent eavesdropping disclosed a Catholic prayer, in Spanish.
In Santiago de Atitlán, Catholicism manages to embrace a local saint called Maximón. Each year, during Easter week, an image of Maximón is placed in a little domed shrine outside the town’s church (where a picture of that old doctrinal hardliner, Pope John Paul II, is prominently displayed) and then moved in solemn procession to the house of a different group of devotees. There Maximón sits in a chair, flanked by his impassive acolytes, when he’s not in his bed upstairs, with his radio. He has a sombrero on his head, a cigar in his mouth, and likes to be offered strong drink, and money. This year’s house also displayed a reclining Christ in a glass casket next to offerings of empty men’s deodorant aerosols.
By now though, you will be wondering about the family element of the holiday, and that most fragile of things, the teenage attention span when exposed to culture, even if it is their own. Well, the younger one scaled the Tikal temples as if claiming them, and has constructed his own miniature version, while his brother, taking a break from beguiling the always enthusiastic Guatemalans with his card tricks, applied that useful teenage word 'interesting' to Tikal, and indeed the whole trip. Pressed beyond it, both of them talked about the energy, toughness and talents of Central Americans, past and present, said there was a lot to think about, whatever, and will be going back again.
After Guatemala, we had two days relaxing across the border in Belize at The Lodge at Chaa Creek, a jungle lodge with canoeing, horse-riding, swimming, spa, herbal medicine trail, and nocturnal torch-lit treks to view jungle creatures of the night (snakes! scorpions! tarantulas!).
Chaa Creek is run by an Anglo-American couple who heard about it in a Belize City bar 30 years ago and have been developing it ever since, along with the help and company of a near-perfect setting, two children, more staff than they really need, six foster children and a determination to show that tourism can secure both environment and employment.
But if your definition of a family holiday includes a cultural activity that grips all members equally, come back to Chichicastenango and a dark, marginally candlelit room off the main body of the Calvario church, where our two boys sat enthralled, black olive eyes large, as Sebastian, 80, gold-toothed, deeply lined, but still black-haired, is talking to us about 2012.
Sebastian, in the Mayan way both sacristan and shaman, told us in soft, slightly reedy Spanish that the end of one cycle leads to another rather than the end, and, just as calmly he predicted great disasters in the years leading to it, before the new age begins. This seems to encourage time-seizing rather than resignation. And an excellent sense of humour. In the hushed gloom, I asked Sebastian, in my predictable, hackish way, the secret of his long life. He didn’t hesitate: 'La cerveza,' he said.