November 28, 2003

To Lake Atitlán

We left the colonial city of Antigua by taxi at dawn and ventured deep into the highlands for Lake Atitlán, a virtual inland sea ringed by towering cliffs and swooping volcanoes.

The gravitational pull of Guatemala City still held. Smaller tumble-down satellite towns crowded the highway and capped the surrounding hills. Construction was purely functional; square gas stations next to roadside diners with plastic tables and chairs; general stores adjacent to basic watering holes. Three of four minutes of driving time punctuated each cluster. Painted American schoolbuses wheezed up the hills and spewed tangy black fumes of diesel.

The four-lane freeway became a two-lane highway. The sky opened wide. We began crossing a plateau of rolling green hills checkered with farmland and residual patches of forest. This was not a tropical landscape. At 6,000 feet, palms and floppy banana trees are a rarity. Here was a temperate climate with suitably temperate vegetation; oaks, pines, and deciduous trees I couldn´t name. This was a Latin Ohio with volcanoes and mule carts.

Shelly and I feasted on a junk picnic of chocolate cookies from Chile, oat and honey granola bars from the States, and bottled water from France. We gladly shared our snack on the road with Hugo, our driver. We bummed him some Marlboros for letting us smoke in his car.

“Thanks so much for driving us all the way out here,” I said to him in Spanish.

“Eh, no problem,” he said. “I love driving tourists around. Last week I took two Israelis all the way to Tikal.”

Tikal! Deep in the Petén jungle thrusting north into the Yucatan, the Mayan ruins at Tikal, Central America´s Giza, are at least 14 hours away. The road is a punishing gash through the lowlands. It must have been quite a cab ride.

I told Hugo we needed a bathroom break. “In the next town up ahead there is a gas station,” he said. So we waited and passed through more farmland.

Run-down houses and shacks squatted on miniscule plots of corn. Every surface needed paint. The walls on the worst of the shacks were tin propped up with sticks. Roofs were made of scrap held down with rocks. Holes gaped in the sides.

Campesinos walked along the side of the road carrying primitive farm tools I had never seen before, presumably made obsolete by technology up north. Their faces were shrunken and cracked. They seemed to me a hundred years old. Somehow I doubt they complained much.

We reached Chimaltenango and drove through miles of highway sprawl. The city seemed to have no center but the highway and was totally unwalkable. Every building was filthy, shrunken, and slouched. Garbage was strewn everywhere. It seemed God had smote this town with a curse.

It was our bathroom break.

We stopped at a decrepit gas station and both used the men´s room. The women´s was locked and the attendent had lost the key. Half the toilet seat was missing, there was no paper, and the tap in the rust-stained sink was dry.

I stood and stretched my arms and back on the grass outside and imagined getting stranded in this place and having to walk out. I shuddered and felt very far from home. Antigua is beautiful, Guatemala City has its fancy neighborhoods and hidden charms, but Chimaltenango, at least from this road, seemed a place of absolute ruin. Maybe there was a nice downtown somewhere off to the side, but we weren´t about to stick around and find out.

Life in the countryside was hard, to be sure, but at least the campesinos had a little land, a lovely view, and a nurturing landscape. This was an evil place of vicious bars, squalid housing, feral dogs, and a shortened lifespan. For the first time the poverty in this country really got to me. I felt physically depressed and wondered what on earth I was doing in this god-forsaken place. I said so to Shelly, and she solemnly nodded without saying a word.

I have little desire to visit resort towns like Cancún, but I understand why other people do. Guatemala is beautiful, but it hurts me.


We left the populated region and entered a wilderness. No farms, no settlements, no houses. Only the winding road through the forest. It could have been Maine or Vermont, and as we kept climbing higher the leafy woods gave way to clusters of fat pines. These weren´t the evergreen spires I know from back home, but with a little mental adjustment I imagined myself on a weekend drive in Central Oregon above the city of Bend.

One of my simplest pleasures is backpacking and camping in the Cascade Mountains, that range of volcanic peaks dividing the West Coast of the United States from the interior mountain West. On a visit four years ago to Costa Rica I swore I would never camp in Central America. The jungle is exhilirating but frightening. Jaguars, crocodiles, bullet ants, tarantulas, bot flies, coral snakes, killer bees, malarial mosquitos, giant beetles, and Lord know what else creep and slither and crawl all over this place. I am not sleeping outside on that ground. But the highland forest of Guatemala is something else. There are some noxious fauna, I know, but it looks so peaceful and benign, unlike the manifestly hostile lands down below. Here is a place where I think I could sleep outside, under the stars next to a campfire with a cup of hard black coffee and a blanket.

We came at last to the lake. Or, I should say, the rim of the lake. The road until now had been more or less even, but now it descended down the cliff face like a waterfall. The surface of the lake rippled like the ocean from a plane. Three perfect volcanoes swooped up the other side.

The car dove downward around harrowing curves. Out the passenger side window was nothing but sky. God, I hoped Hugo´s brakes were good. In front of us was a chicken bus crammed with locals. I could see the headline now: FIFTY DEAD IN BUS PLUNGE HORROR. At least there was a guard rail.

The air became warmer and heavier as we went down. The trees grew larger and greener. The leaves were floppier, the vines twistier.

Panajachel is the lakeside town down at the bottom. Suddenly we were in a prosperous city again. The houses were bigger and dignified and freshly painted. The streets were lined with palms. All manner of tropical flowers tumbled over the garden walls. Thatch-roof restaurants followed the sand around the shore. A fleet of commercial boats plied the inland sea to roadless Indian villages and secluded Spanish towns tucked among the cliffs. International cuisine was everywhere. Japanese, Greek, Mexican, Italian, and Argentine. Shops bursted with crafts, goods, and imports.

The view from the shore is heartstopping. The majestic volcanoes are from a child´s imagination, perfect swooping cones topped with craters. This land is primordial. It really does look like the dinosaur age. I would not have been surprised to see pterodactyls circling above.

As we poked around in the shops, black mountains of cloud rolled in over the lake. Raindrops the size of my thumb splashed (yes, splashed) on the pavement. We ducked into a thatch-roofed Italian cafe on the shoreline. Thunder clapped, and sheets of rain swept the vast open water. We sipped red Chilean wine and twirled pasta on our forks. Lizard-tongues of lighting lashed the sides of the mountains. It was the perfect afternoon in the highlands.


A word about tourism.

Some people think tourists ruin a place, distorting its character with their own. There is some truth to this. Mayan seamstresses around Lake Atitlán sell hippie clothes they wouldn´t wear if you paid them. But don´t think a place would improve if the tourists left it alone. Panajachel is prosperous by Guatemalan standards. Europeans, Asians, and people from all the Americas inject thousands of dollars into its economy every year. The standard of living is markedly higher than in the destitute towns between the lake and Antigua. Tourism breathes life and variety into Panajachel. If people stop coming, it will wither. Giving the place "back" to the locals will only hurt them.


After statistics, there are no greater liars than maps. Look at an atlas. Central America is a coat hook for the South American continent. Guatemala is a tiny part of that hook. Lake Atitlán won´t appear on that atlas. Yet it´s enormous and overwhelming when you stand on it. You could fit a small nation inside. The maps can´t see this. The maps don´t show this.

That slender waist of green between our two vast Americas is itself another America, lush and fecund, tortured and hot, ancient and modern, European and Indian, prosperous and poor. It has a beauty that hurts, but it truly is not to be missed.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:39 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

November 25, 2003

In Guatemala City

Guatemala City is a rough place.

The air is choked with diesel fumes. Buildings downtown are smudged with streaks of black. Narrow sidewalks are made narrower by street vendors, and on Avenida 6 pedestrian traffic spills into the streets amid old cars, brightly painted school buses, motorcycles, and carts. Horns blare for no apparent reason other than that drivers seem to like the sound. There is no concept of lanes. Still, if you need to cross the street, someone will stop and wave you across – courtesy amid chaos.

Many of the buildings downtown ought to be charming. At least a fourth date back to the 19th Century. They’re adorned with intricate scollwork, dignified columns, tall vertical windows, solid wooden medieval-looking doors opening to tiled interior courtyards. Yet these would-be lovely gems are jammed up against cartoon eyesores from the 1960s, buildings beyond parody that seem purposely designed to offend every aesthetic sensibility ever cultivated. They are the worst I’ve seen anywhere, caricaturing themselves and insulting their neighbors.

The city isn’t crumbling. It isn´t a pretty sight, but it holds together fairly well. The buildings and infrastructure are more or less intact, but the city is tired and world-weary. It lays supine in the highlands valley, beaten down by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, civil war, revolution, economic devastation, and dictatorship. The city is hungover. Its eyes squint at the sun. It groans with depression and exhaustion.

There are no skyscrapers in the center of the city. The narrow streets are miniature canyons lined with three- and four-story buildings, just tall enough to keep the sunlight out and the pedestrians claustrophobic, but not tall enough to convey that I’m in the largest city in Central America, population 3 million, about the size of Seattle.

Even the Plaza Mayor is painful. It is fronted by the National Palace, which looks nice enough up close but from a distance looms oppressive and Satanic. I swear that building has horns on top and a tail somewhere in the back. It glowers menacingly at the city and seems the perfect command center for a diabolical dictatorship, which, until only a few years ago, is exactly what it was.

Humorless palace guards point machine guns at everyone walking past. Don’t even think about cracking a smile at these characters. I tried a couple of times and they stared holes right through me, stonefaced as the Mayan frescoes at Tikal.

The economy here isn’t remotely up to Western standards, but every shop is full of modest wares, and street vendors hawk everything from knockoff goods (“Hugo Boos” t-shirts), pirated gay pornography on DVD, and allegedly brand-name perfumes in tiny bottles with hand-made labels. There are almost no beggars at all, and even less garbage and graffitti. The city is poor but the center is nearly immaculate, much cleaner than New York or Paris. Nearly everyone, even the very poor, are sharply dressed and unfailingly polite. The people here have a sullen and heavy look about them, but they carry themselves with a quiet upright dignity. They are poor, but they do the very best they can with what little they do have. Everyone here is a survivor.

Guatemala suffered a 36-year horror show that only ended, nervously, in 1996. The military lorded it over the country with a brutal reign of terror. Communist guerillas, backed by the Soviet Union, waged revolution in the countryside. The armed forces hit back with a scorched earth campaign that made no distinction between combatants and civilians, between Communists and Maya Indians. In the 1980s, thousands of Maya were ethnically cleansed from their villages and relocated to concentration camps euphemistically dubbed “model communities.” Cities and villages were terrorized by gestapo-like death squads of La Mano Blanco (the White Hand). Mass graves and bone piles are strewn across the highlands.

Everyone in Guatemala over the age of ten remembers all this. The scars of psychological trauma are etched in their faces forever. But all that is over now, and the capital city has a bit of a blank slate feel to it. The future is open and more hopeful than anyone here can remember. Guatemala is slowly, in fits, becoming a normal country with problems instead of a tragic place that explodes.

The only people who have begged me for money are the war wounded. The city isn’t full of them, but they are around. Every ten blocks or so I’ll see one on the sidewalk. They are horribly disfigured people, always men, with missing or disfigured limbs. Just in case I wanted to pretend that Guatemala’s recent history was more like tranquil Costa Rica’s, they’re a semi-regular reminder that this is not so.

I have never been to Guatemala before, but it’s obvious the economy is better now than it was. Young people here are short by American standards (I swear I’m the tallest person in Guatemala right now), but they tower over their elders. I’ve never seen such tiny people as the oldest of this country, especially the Maya. Most of the men look me in the chest, but some of the elderly Maya are only as tall as my stomach. Malnutrition was obviously widespread and severe. But teenagers today are much taller, and look as healthy and hale as those in Europe.

“The inhabitants of Guatemala appear to have little desire for public amusements seen in most cities.” So said Robert Dunlop in 1847. He could have said so last week. There are few restaurants, fewer bars and cafes. Movie theaters have been converted into clothing stores. Strolling the markets and praying in church are the high points of public entertainment, at least to my casual wandering eyes. This is not Spain, where even grandparents are out at two in the morning in the restaurants and bars. Guatemala retires at seven. I haven’t seen a single club in the capital.


Almost no one in Guatemala City speaks English, not even at the elegant colonial hotel where we are staying. The exception is our doorman.

“¿Habla Usted ingles?” he asked me.

“Yes, I speak English” I said, surprised to hear a local ask me this question.

“Where are you from?” he said.

“Oregon. United States.”

He beamed with delight. “I love United States,” he said. “I lived six years in Chicago. I worked at Ritz Carlton Hotel by the lake. Chicago, it is the most beautiful place I have ever seen.” He put his hand on his heart. “I miss it so much.”

I didn’t want to ask him why he came back to Guatemala. I didn’t want to hear a tragic story, that he was illegal and was deported. It would have broken my heart. I wanted to give him Chicago back, but I couldn’t.

“Yes,” I said. “Chicago is beautiful. I used to live nearby and I visited on weekends. I miss it, too.” And it’s true. I do.


I met Joey in the hotel bar. He looks like the perfect California beach dude. Turns out he’s a ballet dancer from Toronto.

“I’ve been to a lot of cities in my life,” he said heavily. “A lot of cities. And this is by far the worst one. I walked down the street a couple of blocks and came straight back to the hotel. I’m done now. Not going out again until we get to Antigua.”

I chuckled.

“I hear you,” I said. “It’s not a pretty sight. But I like it because it’s real. Besides, this place is nowhere near the bottom. Tijuana, Mexico. That’s the worst place I’ve seen. Next to that, Guatemala City is Prague.

It takes a half-hour to get downtown from the airport in a taxi. And I didn’t see a single slum along the way. At least, not the kind I’ve seen in Mexico. There are shantytowns around, I know, but I’ve yet to run into one. Run-down neighborhoods, yes. Dickensian squalor, no. I didn’t think it possible to drive clear across this city and miss all that, but apparently you can. The outlying areas remind me more than anywhere of Los Angeles; shiny glass towers, nail salons in strip malls, palm trees in the meridians, and bougainvillea atop the garden walls.

Despite the poverty, despite its traumatic past, the city somehow manages to hold its head up. It has little to recommend it for tourists looking for entertainment and luxury, but it’s interesting (for a short while) if you can appreciate a bit of realism. It is like a resiliant survivor of a terrible accident who gets back on his feet and stares down death in the face. History weighs so much here. But if this city could speak it would say – firmly – I want to live, and godammit I will.

(We have had enough of realism and have moved on to the lovely colonial city of Antigua. It is ancient, bright, colorful, and soul-soothing. Primordial green volcanoes tower over its streets. It is, I think, the perfect Latin American city.)

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:26 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

November 21, 2003

We’re Off

Shelly and I are going to bum around Central America for the next two weeks, and we’re leaving tonight. We’ll spend a week in the Guatemalan highlands, and then another week on an island off the coast of Belize.

Keep checking in to the site, though. I’ll have some degree of Internet access, and I’ll send reports when I can and when I feel like it.

Enjoy the snow for me and I’ll enjoy the sun for you. And have a great Thanksgiving.


Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:37 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

November 19, 2003

Not for Sale

Nick Confessore in the Washington Monthly is making a fuss out of the fact that Tech Central Station gets money from corporate sponsors, and that TCS sometimes publishes pieces that favor the positions of those sponsors.

Since I sometimes write for Tech Central Station, let me just say a couple of things.

First of all, no one on this Earth tells me what to think or what to write. That includes Nick Shulz, the editor of Tech Central Station. It also includes Halliburton. None of Dick Cheney’s old pals call me up at home and tell me what to say about Iraq or anything else.

I write for TCS freelance. That means I pitch my own ideas to the magazine.

My pieces get edited and Nick asks me to approve the changes. I don’t always like the changes he makes, so then we discuss it. Sometimes he convinces me that it’s better this way or that, and other times I convince him that his edits weren’t for the best. It’s a give and take, a healthy editing process, and nothing with my name on it gets published without my consent.

Any suggestion, implicit or otherwise, that TCS articles are vetted by its corporate sponsors is silly. None of my articles have had anything to do with any TCS sponsors in the first place, but that’s not true of every piece published there. Daniel Drezner says one of his articles directly contradicts the agenda of a TCS sponsor.

This, I think, is Confessore’s point in a nutshell:

[I]t's only human nature to put more trust in the arguments of seemingly independent observers than those of paid agents of an interested party. And that's why a journalist willing to launder the arguments of corporations and trade groups would be so valuable. A given argument, coming from such a journalist, would have more impact than precisely the same case articulated by a corporate lobbyist.

I agree. However, TCS is pretty up front about its biases; its writers are social/economic libertarians and foreign policy hawks. Glenn Reynolds, who also writes for them, agrees (in Daniel Drezner's comments):

It's a libertarian policy webzine, so it (mostly) publishes libertarian policy stuff, with occasional pieces by conservatives and liberals.
Tech Central Station does not claim to be “fair and balanced.” They don’t promise “all the news that’s fit to print.”

Nor do I.

I think you should take TCS’s biases, sponsors, and agenda into account, and you ought do the same when listening NPR and Rush Limbaugh. But it isn’t worth making a big deal out of it unless TCS, like Fox News, decides to pretend it’s impartial.

UPDATE: Pejman has a roundup of responses from other Tech Central Station writers. None of us are particularly impressed with Mr. Confessore's piece, and everyone's experience seems to be rather like mine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 7:03 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

November 18, 2003

Geek Boy is Busy

Your regularly scheduled programming has been interrupted. Mr. Totten received by mail his copy of the extended version (43 extra minutes!) of The Two Towers, the second of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. Lord of the Rings is popular in his household, and he and his wife are busying themselves with Orcs, Ents, and the battle of Helm’s Deep. He is not available this evening for blogging duties. He shall return shortly.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:16 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

New Column

Here's my newest Tech Central Station piece: Iraq is not Vietnam.

UPDATE: There's a fiesta of schoolyard taunts in the comments. If you miss the fun-filled days of highschool, this is your special day.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:06 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

Britain: America Doesn’t Suck

Andrew Apostolou emailed me this piece from the Guardian.

A majority of Labour voters welcome President George Bush's state visit to Britain which starts today, according to November's Guardian/ICM opinion poll.

The survey shows that public opinion in Britain is overwhelmingly pro-American with 62% of voters believing that the US is "generally speaking a force for good, not evil, in the world". It explodes the conventional political wisdom at Westminster that Mr Bush's visit will prove damaging to Tony Blair. Only 15% of British voters agree with the idea that America is the "evil empire" in the world.

It still amazes me that even 15 percent think we’re the new (or is it old?) evil empire. At least it isn’t the norm.

And look at this.

The ICM poll also uncovers a surge in pro-war sentiment in the past two months as suicide bombers have stepped up their attacks on western targets and troops in Iraq. Opposition to the war has slumped by 12 points since September to only 41% of all voters.
Terrorism isn’t working on the British.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:48 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

Autumn in Portland


Light Rail Tracks


Old Town




Pioneer Square in the Rain


Driving at Night

Photos by Michael J. Totten

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:46 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

Bloggers are People too

Sheila O'Malley reminds us of something that ought to be obvious but is still often forgotten. We are greater than the sum of our blog posts.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:41 AM | Permalink | Comments Off
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Winner, The 2008 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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