"You could pass for Garifuna if you didn’t carry that camera around, you know?”
By Mateo Askaripour
STOP! Before reading this chapter, go read Chapter 1, Chapter 2 and Chapter 3. Everything will make a bit more sense and be slightly more exciting
Four days into my trip in Guatemala felt like four weeks. I had already experienced so many new things and met so many new people that I was unsure how it could get better. What I had seen of the country left me in a state of constant awe. The beauty. The people. Not one thing had gone wrong. But, instead of resting on my laurels with a smug face of “I feel like this is too good,” I told the world I was grateful for my time, thus far, and hoped it would continue. This sense of gratitude was instilled in me during a trip to Peru in July, when my perfect trip with my younger brother encountered a few road bumps almost immediately after I marveled to him at how “nothing has gone wrong, so far.”
But, my trip in Guatemala did get better. After arriving in the Caribbean town of Rio Dulce, I was met with humid, albeit perfect, weather and the sight of palm trees, boats and men kayaking down the tranquil river. I also remembered that I was staying on a boat for a few days. Through Couchsurfing, I was fortunate to have met a guy who, although he wasn’t in Guatemala, was kind enough to let me stay on one of his boats. He also gave me directions to the house of one of his friends, so that I would get set up smoothly. In order to reach his friends, I had to cross a long-ish bridge.
As I crossed the bridge, I noticed a kid selling “nieve,” or what I think is a derivation of ice cream and gelato. In retrospect (a month later), I finally learned that nieve means snow. I had never seen this before, so I asked him if it had nuts (I’m allergic). He shrugged, said no, and handed me an already-dripping cone with a squirt of some type of berry syrup. I posted up at the top of the bridge eating my nieve and marveled at the town. Being in any Caribbean country or place makes me feel a bit like I’m home. Another home, at least. Growing up with a Jamaican mother, my family and I took trips to Jamaica often; to the point where a bit of humidity and the smell of smoke (or trash burning) only conjures up fond memories for me.
Cone still in hand, I bid my little buddy (kid was 13 pushing ice cream in the sun on a bridge) farewell and easily found the place I was looking for. My Couchsurfing host’s friend lived in a place behind a green steel gate. I banged and banged and banged on the gate to no avail. Eventually, I realized I could just open it myself, which I did (I was praying this wasn’t the type of place where they’d shoot first and ask questions later).
A beautiful shot of the Rio Dulce from the bridge
I opened the gate and saw a bearded fellow exiting the bathroom. “Are you Max?” I asked. “Yeah, who are you?” he said with a furrowed brow of perplexity. I was really hoping he didn’t have a gun. “I’m the guy staying on Porter’s boat.” P.S. I changed these names in case the people don’t want the “outside” world knowing where they are. The last thing I’d want to do is ruin someone’s hermitage. “Oh, come in, come in. You must want to clean up,” he said with an easy-going air of hospitality.
I surveyed the area and saw a marina full of boats, some new-looking and others practically sinking, and a few apartments stacked on top of one another. “I live up there,” Max said as he pointed towards the apartments. “The bathrooms are down here. They’re shared. I hide toilet paper so as to conserve it. But, I’ll show you where it is.” “Um, thanks.” I replied. After finding the toilet paper’s hiding spot, Max showed me the kayak I’d have to use to head out to the catamaran (I honestly didn’t know exactly what a catamaran was). “Kayak? I didn’t hear anything about a kayak,” I thought to myself. Not being one for the nautical lifestyle beyond a beach day here and there, I was determined to become acclimated with the world of sailors over the next few days.
“Let’s go get you situated,” Max said as he lowered my bags into his powerboat. “You going to be okay in that kayak?” he asked. “Of course,” I said. Short story short, he ended up pulling me to the boat because of how slow I was going. Anyway, once we arrived at the boat he told me to tie the kayak to one of the rails on the side of it. But, I hopped out too quickly and it began to drift away.
“Go and get it, man,” he instructed. “Okay, one second. I have to get into my trunks, and then put my contacts in.” After I had done that, I realized the kayak was pretty far out (by my standards, at least). “Uh, hey man. I’m not the strongest swimmer. You may need to help,” I said. “Well,” he started. “If I go and get it, I’m not coming back to show you around the boat.” “Damn.”
He ended up getting the kayak, showing me how to tie it (my knot did the job, but looked nothing like his) and then showed me around the boat. “This is worth around $200,000 new, but Porter would be lucky to sell it for $10,000.” “Why?” I asked. “The inside does look pretty banged up, but it has four rooms, a kitchen, a large main cabin and doesn’t seem that bad.” Max smiled his funny smile (the kind where you know he’s not going to tell you everything he thinks) and said, “The inside is one of its most endearing qualities. It’s the stuff you can’t see that’s really messed up.”
The inside of the boat, which was “one of its most endearing qualities”
I bid Max farewell and told him I’d head back to his place later once I got my sea legs. ‘If you don’t tie the kayak well, it’ll float away or get stolen,” he said. Once he left, I surveyed my floating castle. The boat was called, “Friend ship,” and was large. The inside smelled a bit funky, but I had honestly never been on a boat like this before, so I wasn’t sure what was nice, what was more than sufficient and what was bad. I ran around the boat a few times and looked out into the river. Ropes banged against the sails, speedboats and yachts zoomed around and birds circled in the sky. “How did I get here?” pressed itself into the forefront of my mind, once again.
There were anarchist books strewn all over the beds, and I wasn’t sure which way was up. An hour later I collected my stuff and managed to kayak back to the marina. Once Max saw me at his door, he told me it probably wasn’t the wisest to kayak with my computer, camera and GoPro in my backpack. But, as a rule, I was never letting these things out of my sight. After packing away my books, clothes and a desk (I found in my old Brooklyn apartment), in storage back in New York, and lending my Vespa to a friend, these were my only worldly possessions and I couldn’t afford to lose them.
After writing that last sentence, I realized many, many people have far less and are struggling to literally survive and find food to eat daily. It’s thoughts like those that constantly give me perspective and aid me in assessing what actually matters and what doesn’t. Unfortunately, my scale is sometimes more sliding than fixed. Anyway, food for thought.
A more appealing shot of “Friend ship”
Upon entering Max’s quaint apartment, I noticed tons of gadgets, books, and other things lying around. “Things” like weapons all hanging from his ceiling. There was a holstered pistol, crossbow with arrows, harpoon, and a machete. “Uh, what’s all this for, man?” I asked while not trying to convey a tone of anxiety. “You need these things if you live out here. Especially if you own a boat. Pirates are real.” “Got it,” I said with a nod. It’s important to note that he also had a parrot. Maybe he was the real pirate.
“Want some whiskey?” he asked. “Sure.” So, we grabbed some whiskey and water and headed down by the marina. I learned that Max had been boating for a long, long time. And was no stranger to sailing a boat from Florida to Guatemala, Mexico and places like Cuba. This guy had tale upon tale upon tale, and I wanted to hear them all. “A boat is the worst investment ever,” he said. “It’s also like being married. Oftentimes, your significant other will be opposed to it and you’ll have to choose.”
After discussing boating and his plans to help the indigenous people establish some type of real economy, we headed out to a bar. Thinking that we were walking, I began to make my way for the steel gate I had entered through hours earlier. “Where are you going?” he asked. “Uh, to the door.” “For what?” he said. “We’re taking the boat to the bar.” “Oh.” We made our way to Sundog Cafe, and were immediately greeted by a dozen or so obnoxiously loud Guatemalans. “What’s going on?” I asked. Max just smiled and nodded.
We ordered a pizza for two, grabbed some beers, and Max told me he was an anthropologist, which caused me to jump directly into some litany about the asshole conquistadors, which then prompted him to go into how Cortez conquered the Aztecs.
“It was done by ideological warfare,” he said. “He went in and wasn’t all ‘boom, boom boom.’ Instead, he was more clever. He bought a princess, who was being held as a slave, La Malinche or Doña Marina, and used her to interpret a variety of indigenous languages to help him strike up alliances with the enemies of the Aztecs. Many of these indigenous people viewed Cortez as a god, or some supernatural being, so he used that to exploit their naivety. Then, when he had an army large enough, he went in and took the Aztecs down.” “You can’t make this stuff up,” an English guy at the bar who was eavesdropping said. “Mind if I sit down?” He proceeded to grab a seat and join in on the discourse of the conquistadors. By the end of the night, we were all full of beer and bloodshed, and Max and I headed back.
“Take this flashlight,” he said as he thrust one into my hand. “If you hear a motor, flash it so that they know you’re out there.” “What if they don’t see me?” I said to myself, but didn’t dare to ask out loud. If they didn’t see me, I was done. I quietly lowered myself into the kayak, untied it from beneath the dock (this whole maneuver, while trying to not capsize it in the dark, was very difficult) and began to make my way across the water while doing my best to not picture a shark swallowing me whole.
Once I arrived at “Friend ship,” I made the tightest knot I could and then entered the main cabin. By this time, I was spent. It was a bit hot, so I opened the hatch above me and stared off into the stars. Every so often I’d doze off to the gentle rocking of the water, only to be awakened by some noise. “Pirates!” I said once directly from the depths of the hypnagogic state (you certainly know how it feels, but if you don’t know what it is, it’s that feeling between a state of sleep and being awake).
I hopped onto the deck only to be met with the clinking and clanking of ropes on the mast and other boats anchored off into the difference. “I’m the captain now,” I cornily told myself as I went back to sleep.
Forgetting where you are and waking up on a boat in the middle of the water is an amazing feeling. I removed my covers, stretched my limbs and headed out to the front of the boat to do my daily stretch routine. Yes, I have a daily stretch routine full of mantras and positive affirmations that I do every single day with the exception of extenuating circumstances. I ended the stretch with saying what I was excited for (a trip to a town called Livingston) and what I was grateful for (not being swallowed whole, or partly, by a shark, of course).
It was then that it hit me. I wouldn’t be sleeping on the boat that night as I had planned. The company that I had booked my transportation with (again, worst idea) scheduled a bus to pick me up around midnight. So, it made no sense to return to the boat for a quick sleep after my trip to Livingston.
With that in mind, I grabbed my stuff, said goodbye to “Friend ship,” thanked her (or him?) for the good time and kayaked my way back to the marina. “Good morning,” Max said as he saw me in the doorway. He was watching an RSA animation about the power of empathy. I sat with him and we munched on tortillas with refried bean paste. They were delicious. “How do I get to Livingston?” I asked.
I had read about Livingston on the Expert Vagabond’s site. He said it was basically where all of the darker-skinned people lived; the Garifuna people. While in Central America, I’ve always made it a point to visit these populations. Whether it was in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica or Livingston, Guatemala. They fascinate me and have their own rich histories. As you can imagine, they were also often segregated for decades upon decades. “Go outside and ask one of the guys on the corner to order you a lancha, they’re supposed to be cheaper on this side of the bridge,” Max said.
It was around 8:45am. I walked over to the group of older men smoking cigarettes and drinking beers (“…it was around 8:45am”) and said, “Quiero ir a Livingston.” One of the men patted me on the back and said to sit down. He made a call and after sitting around for 20 minutes, I asked him what was up. He said, “Oh, it’s coming at 9:30am.” And, at 9:30am, I followed him back to the marina, where I hopped into a little lancha and we were off.
It was a colectivo, meaning it made stops. We jumped from one backpacker hostel to the next, gaining more and more scraggly passengers. Then, we embarked on the two-hour journey. There was a ton of chop. If you want to understand what chop is, watch this. At one point during the journey, the river, with large green trees to the left and right, looked like it was straight out of Embrace the Serpent. If you’ve never seen that, I highly, highly recommend it. But, to give you an idea, the river looked untouched and felt as though, aside from obvious anachronistic elements, we could have been thrust hundreds of years into the past.
They probably didn’t have life jackets hundreds of years into the past, but you get the point
From afar, Livingston looked like many of the places I had seen in the area. Save for capsized boats only a few dozen meters off the shore (what in the…). When we docked, I was happy to be greeted by the oily faces of dark-skinned men shouting a handful of things. “Casa Iguana is the best hotel!” “Want some weed, my man?” Etcetera. You get the point. I had read about the sheer onslaught that I’d experience once hopping out the boat, so I just ignored them.
I walked into town and an older man, a rasta, started to walk with me. I ignored him for a bit until he said, “You see those chains, over there?” I looked in the direction he was pointing, and walked over to the chains. They were old, rusty and extremely heavy (see photo below). “These chains were taken from the galleys of slave ships. They were used to anchor the ships when they came here in the 16th century.”
Once I saw and touched the chains, I became a bit emotional. Thinking back to when humans (men, women and children) were beaten, branded and brought over on a wooden ship in the most deplorable conditions only to be treated like nothing more than cattle. Hell, in some instances, worse than cattle.
For those who are familiar with sales, or psychology, there’s a common saying: “People make decisions based on emotion, and justify them based on reason.” This is all to say that the rasta (his name was Reynaldo) became my official tour guide for the day.
Chains used to anchor slave boats. Unreal
“I’m going to take you to some places to take some real nice photos, my man. You get your photos, you show the world, you go home happy.” “Yeah,” I said with a bit of reluctance. I didn’t know who the hell this guy was. This is the part where “reason” started to come into the equation. We walked over to a viewpoint where I saw a statue of a man who supposedly started the insurrection on the slave ship that the Garifuna people had taken from Africa to this area.
“They took it to St Vincent, first. Then burned it so they’d have to stay there. But, the people in St Vincent were scared of them! They were these big, ol’ black folks. The people from St Vincent sent them into the forests and told them to chop down trees, make new boats, and get the hell out of there! So, they did. And they came here.” I nodded along. The viewpoint was nice, but I wanted to experience the real Livingston.
We continued to walk and Reynaldo showed me some beaches. There was one with a white statue placed in the water a few meters off the shore. “You going to take a photo?” he asked me with a quizzical stare. “Nah,” I replied. I may as well have been yawning, because he soon picked up on my boredom. “You don’t want to see this stuff, huh?” “Nah, not really,” I replied. “You want to see the real Livingston? Where we live and hang out?” he asked. “That’s right, my man” I replied. He clapped his hands and said, “Okay then, little brother! I never take people ‘round these parts. But, for you, why not? You could pass for Garifuna if you didn’t carry that camera around, you know?”
The “tour” suddenly became exponentially more interesting. He brought me into the homes of his nieces and nephews (I feel like everyone was a niece or nephew to him), showed me local hangouts that were blasting reggae in the middle of the day and also brought me through some parts that honestly made me slightly anxious. We passed a group of huge guys, all bearing golden grills on their teeth. One looked me up and down and said, “Sup, fella?” With a quick smile and a nod, I was on my way.
I was in the backwoods of the town. If my main man Reynaldo decided to hack me up with a machete that he claimed he usually carried around, no one would’ve thought twice about where the eccentric-looking tourist went. Again, just like with the taxi driver in Chapter 1, I pushed these thoughts immediately out of my mind.
“I’m sad, man. Sad that my people are no longer unified. You know, when I was younger you’d sit out and eat mangoes with your friend. Go fishing and bring back shrimp THIS BIG (he grabbed his forearm). Now, it’s divided. You got all these rich people coming in, buying land and not even taking care of it.” “Is there ever any trouble between the Garifuna people and rich landowners?” I asked. “No man!” he screamed. “They have tons of guns. No one’s gonna trouble them.” “Ah, I see.”
I let my mind wander to the obvious inequality around me. It seemed as though these people had no opportunities for work aside from being a tour guide, pushing hotels onto unsuspecting tourists, and making souvenirs. Reynaldo told me the largest population of Garifunas is actually in New York City. “I used to work there. I’d ride the J train into Manhattan every day.” “Me too!” I exclaimed at this newfound connection.
We continued walking until Reynaldo found a seed that he said was a blessing. Then, he found another one, brushed it off and handed it to me. It was brown, had a leathery texture save for a white, plastic-like ring around it. “I’ve never found any of these while walking with visitors, man. These are blessings, and they’re not blessings from me. They’re from the island.” I contemplated my newfound blessing and was grateful for it regardless of if it was legitimate or not.
We then walked around for a few more hours, saw a bridge, had a quick conversation about how much I owed him (hint: it was far more than I wanted to pay him, but met him in the middle since it honestly didn’t seem as though he had any other employment on the island) and grabbed the lancha back to Rio Dulce. I met up with Max and we shared a few more whiskeys.
Then, he told me about his adventures in Oaxaca, Mexico and how he saw indigenous people burning huge husks of agave to make Mezcal. Him and his friends lent them a hand and walked away with some of the purest Mezcal he’d ever tasted. Unsurprisingly, he had some back in his apartment and invited me for some evening taste-testing. I then crashed on his floor before having to catch the bus at midnight, which was another adventure in and of itself.
Mateo Askaripour is a writer who quit his flashy job in NYC to live life on his own terms. He’s done everything from working at an orphanage in Nairobi to building a new university in Abu Dhabi to sleeping on volcanoes in Guatemala. And right now, he’s working to get an agent for his book. Regardless of where he is, he’s always working. To keep up with him, follow him on Instagram and Twitter at @AskMateo and read one of his elaborate stories at www.SwagPapi.com. Check out the original post of Adventures in Guatemala!