Sunday, December 24, 2006

Some notes from my trip

Back in Tulum I was discussing land acquisition with Yannicke, the co-owner of Las Ranitas.

The story he had to tell sounded fairly familiar - the coastal strip around Tulum has been subject to a multi-layered land scam dating back to the late eighties at least. Nobody has clear title to their property and every few years a wave of intimidation and other unpleasantness rolls in.

His wife also told me how Cancun aiport was shut for a month after the hurricane last year which hit Tulum pretty hard. Ottie also described how hundreds of tourists had to sling their bags onto the back of local trucks and head across the peninsula to Merida to make their escape.

In Cayo (San Igancio) it was obvious that the Macal river isn't quite the pristine rainforest waterway that it once was. Locals blame the swirling dirt on the Canadian dam project. Oddly enough there are also crocodiles in the river now. Luckily there weren't any when Surfer and I did our little canoe trip to the Black Rock falls in '89. Thanks to a heavy storm over the Maya Mountains there was a flash flood on the Macal and we ended up having to carry the canoe over our shoulders for a good part of the distance as we waded up river against a raging current.

There are apparently only around one thousand British troops left in Belize, all camped up in the Mountain Pine Ridge.

Having made it across the border into Guatemala I decided to escape the backpackers and make up some time, so I made a deal with a local driver called William (originally from El Salvador) to take me from Melchor to Santa Elena. His pitch to me when we first met was that it had been drizzling steadily in the Petén for about a month and the colectivos were struggling with the road. It wasn't exactly unpassable, but he hadn't been exaggerating completely.

There aren't many attractions on this route other than excessively large potholes, but the Kaibiles base is still there just outside the township of La Polvora (Gunpowder), so called because of the many confrontations that the special forces unit had there with the guerrillas during the civil war. When I passed in '88 the military zone was marked off with signs featuring grinning skulls and other hostile motifs, and we were forced to get down from the bus twice, once on each side of the town, first by the troops and then by the insurgents (Mostly teenagers). The Kaibiles base seemed fairly deserted on Wednesday morning. They must all be on tour up in the northern states of Mexico!

William also pointed out a salt-water lake next to the village of Macanche and claimed that every year all the fish die off due to a strange underwater eruption of a sulphurous nature. If you didn't know it was a natural phenomenon you'd have to think some local Guatemalan official was responsible.

Yesterday V cooked our eggs with cilantro, freshly ground nutmeg and melted cheese fresh from the Finca. Now, without question Las Ranitas was a great discovery - perfect, near-deserted beaches, great hospitality and genuine French chic, not the manufactured glossy magazine sort. Yet if it had one fault worth reporting it would be the quality of the breakfast. There wasn't anything wrong with it as such, I just think it's such an important meal in the tropical day, and for any guest house there's perhaps no better opportunity to make a lasting impression. The breakfast at Lunata is more memorably presented, though I didn't stop for it this time.

Las Ranitas wasn't the sort of place to have a TV in the bedroom. When I got to San Ignacio and turned on CNN, I discovered that the most important piece of news I had missed was the fact that Miss America was not going to be sacked by Donald Trump for under-age drinking after all.

The Christmas swell is peaking

Though it's a bit quieter than usual as this is Guatemala's first cachinflin free Navidad.

Yesterday we had a perfect afternoon, caressingly warm, with a soft haze and a gentle breeze. We spent it tidying up the garden at the back of V's brother's house next door in preparation for his visit on the 25th. I have a blister at the base of my right index finger from over-keen use of the machete on the lawn. It was overgrown as Felipe hasn't been back to Antigua since V returned to London in July (mostly, he says, because they have been digging up and resurfacing the main road to Guate for the past three months.)

Today is much hotter and I'm over at Alexandra's house waiting for a game of kick-ball to get going.

On Wednesday afternoon I caught the 2pm Maya de Oro bus from Santa Elena and as it was a predominantly daytime drive I managed to avoid the worst of the snoring, but I had forgotten about the merciless aircon on these buses, which has to approximate the experience of travelling in the under-carriage of a jet airliner.

It took eight hours in all, with the unfortunate consequence that I arrived in Guacamole City earlier than scheduled and had to hang around in one of the least savoury parts of Zona Una: 17 calle, 9 Avenida.

By the time V arrived with Alexandra's driver Esau and the retahila I had been fighting off the attention of assorted druggies and loons for around forty minutes, and the little bar where I had sought refuge was threatening to close when the last bus left the 'station' in front. "La cueva de los ladrones," said Esau later, chuckling at my rather worn-out expression.

When I next do the overland journey I think I will bypass Belize by jumping on the ADO bus bound for Chiapas at Tulum. The way I did it this time involves too many points of discontinuity, where vehicles have to be changed and new negotiations made. The alternative is one monster bus ride to San Cristobal, from where a private shuttle service takes you direct to Antigua via the border close to Huehuetenango.

(I have updated my Flickr page.)

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Cayo (San Ignacio)

You are never very far from a puddle of green slimy stuff in Belize. Cayo's drainage is pretty much state of the art in that sense.

I haven't stayed here for seventeen years, though I passed through in 2004, long enough to get some Duurly's Parrot rum from a Chinese supermarket. (All the supermarkets and most of the restaurants in Belize are Chinese.) Repeating the transaction last night I asked how much rum I could carry across the border with me into Guatemala. Answer, "a rotta lum". It's not exactly Ron Zacapa Centenario, but the Duurly's bottle fills me with nostalgia.

I thought San Ignacio would too, but it doesn't. Back then it had this last outpost of the British empire feel to it, a real frontier town surrounded by the hootin' howlin' jungle in Belize's wild west. It's still kind of rough, but some of the old clapboard hotels on Burns Avenue have been torn down and replaced with unprepossessing offices made from concrete block. The heart of Cayo is a pot-holed five-way junction that is extremely perilous for pedestrians. I don't suppose that the guests of Francis Ford Coppola's Blancaneaux lodge and the other jungle resorts that now line the Macal river spend a great deal of time here.

Eva's on Burns Avenue describes itself as "the first cyber cafe out west". It is run by a former British squadie that married a local girl. I remember when I first crossed the bridge over the Rio Hondo in the far north it was manned by members of the Parachute regiment in their red berets. Now it is little more than the on-ramp to the bizarre duty free zone that straddles the border with Mexico. There's even a big white casino doing its best to look like a little piece of Monaco in the heart of Central America.

Yesterday was one long bus ride. First the ADO GL service from Tulum to Chetumal. GL means aircon and fabulously comfy seats and a little red light that comes on every time the driver reaches the official speed limit. It also means rubbishy films that play at full volume from little flat screens all down the aisle which makes either reading or quiet contemplation of the narrow green tunnel of scrub around the coach all but impossible. (I tuned into one with Val Kilmer and Neve Campbell set in New Mexico and involving an amnesiac would-be Presidential assassin. It kept me awake, just.)

Chetumal looks remarkably prosperous these days. On our way in to the city centre we passed a huge mall-cinema complex that puts to shame anything we have on the east-side of London. There were no obvious colectivos to negotiate with at the ADO terminal, so I signed up for a bus which appeared to be run by a newly-nationalised Belizean company.

After the hicks and the chics, I had a new bunch of fellow travellers to contend with: the oh-so-pleased with themselves backpackers. From Orange Walk south I was sitting next to a local guy playing thumping reggeton tracks out of his mobile phone, but by far the loudest thing on the bus was a pair of sun-reddened New Zealand girls competing frantically with rtwo all American boys for mochilero kudos: "Have you been...did you do...and we saw..what's your major?" Fortunately when I switched buses in Belize city I was the only non-creole.

No speed limiters on that one - we made our way to Cayo along the Western Highway in the dark at break-neck speed. The skin on my face is still feeling wind-dried.

Belizeans are a fabulous mix of different bloods, and probably around one in every twenty or so individuals is neck-turningly interesting to look at; men and women, young and old, especially the very young and the very old.

So, I now have my Duurly's and yet more habanero chile sauce (the famous Marie Sharpe's) and I am off to the border just beyond Benque this morning, where I will catch another - even more chicken flavoured - bus to Flores on lake Petén Itzá; Guatemala proper, but still an eight hour ride from the highlands and home.

I think I'm carrying more Christmas presents for the dog than anyone else!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Au revoir to Eco Chic

Sadly I have to say tatty bye to all this tomorrow. Tant Pis.

This place is a bit like a biosphere reserve for Mac users. How they roam freely...

In a matter of days I will be in a less protected area where quite natural behaviours, like walking around with an expensive computer, are likely to result in a violent death. I'm sure that the free wireless internet at Pollo Campero is a cunning ruse to get the laptop users out in the open where they can be picked off more easily!

It's been more "bonjoooour" mwuah mwuah here than "hey, are you guys from Philly?" The twitching NFL addicts don't get much further south than Playa. Not much chance here of finding one of those bars with folks shooting pool to a soundtrack of B-b-b-bad to the bone.

Right now I'm listening to a bit of Django Reinhart and the Hot Club of Paris. There's a very pukka English family playing Scrabble around the sofa next to me. The waitress asked if they wanted some music and when they said "no thanks" on it came.

Ottie, my taxi driver here in Tulum (#142) agrees with me on two key points. Playa has become spoiled, and Cancun was always a shithole. It appears that the European sophisticates have finally abandoned Playa and its environs and drifted down here as their old playgrounds have been swallowed by the barbarian "hey y'all" hordes from the north.

When I checked into Lunata on Saturday night there was a very pleasant American couple enquiring about the availability of 'eco-tours'. The girl at the desk gave them a blank look then handed out some brochures to the sort of places where you can molest a dolphin along with hundreds of other like-minded punters. But, they whined, we wanna jag-oo-ar.

They were just a bit too ensconced in Vacation World. The road I will take south of here tomorrow pulls away from the Caribbean leaving one final corner of the peninsula to unspoiled habitats, where even the eco-friendly hotels with their solar panels are barred: The Sian Ka'an ("Where the sky begins") biosphere reserve. Here you might find all five species of Central American big kitties - Jag-oo-ars, Oscelot, Margay, Puma and Jaguarundi.


Will be posting some pics to my Flickr page as I go along.

Las Ranitas

I asked the waiter last night if the name of this place had anything to do with the fact that it was owned by a French couple. He gave me an evasive spiel about little frogs that croaked away in the night and I decided that I wouldn't be repeating the question later to le patron.

Back in 1988 when I first came to Tulum there was nothing here other than what the Maya had left behind. Nowadays there's a 10 km row of boutique beach huts along what is probably the Yucatan's most perfect stretch of white-sand beaches.

Anyone that knows me will know that, in Spanish-speaking lands at least, smart little hotels run by smug foreigners that speak the language rather less well than I can, are not really my thing; But I will make an exception here. For a start the restaurant is superb. Wherever you stay here the only place to eat is the hotel's own dining room, so it's a very important aspect of choosing where to sling your hammock, so to speak.

I made the mistake of asking the the chap that carried my bags to my room what was on the menu tonight and he went off on a long discourse involving a multitude of unusual local ingredients. Of course when I got to the table later I could hardly remember any of them and when he appeared again as my waiter with a stern "Ya se lo dije" (I've already told you...) sort of look, I opted for "the fish". This turned out to be an excellent choice: Boquinete entero a la plancha with a sauce based on a local dry chile called Guajillo. (Boquinete is what the Belizeans call "Ssnappaaar!". )

It really is so nice here that I almost can't be bothered to go and see the ruins again this afternoon. But I will take this sudden onset of perezitis agudo as a good sign.

There was an uptight American intellectual type on the bus last night. He might just as well have been wearing an "I'm an anthropologist not a tourist, OK?" t-shirt. I had an hour of schadenfreude watching him sitting next to a woman with two howling brats on her lap. It got better still when the cholo standing beside his seat leaned over him whilst playing a racing game on his SONY PSP at full volume. In contrast all I had to distract me were two young Maya learning German en voz alta right behind me. "Orale...Ich heisse.."

Mobile phone update: apparently if I take the stairs up to the high terrace I might get a signal. Using the Chocolate phone when your hands are sticky with factor 30 is quite a challenge. It gives new meaning to the term slider and the touch sensitive buttons on the front panel just aren't any more.

George Bush Innerconinennal

Houston airport was its usual charming self on Saturday.

"At this time we are ready to board rows 20 through 34. Please have your passport, boarding card and half-eaten pizza ready for inspection."

Looks like all the old-fashioned CRT televisions in Texas have found a home in Continental's new terminal E.

Win some, lose some

This morning I have wireless Internet in my bedroom but no mobile phone coverage. For anyone that is wondering why they can't get hold of me (my wife included) that will teach them to read my blog more regularly!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

"Hey Amigos"

It's the the end of a long Sunday soaking up the sun's rays and the spirit-warming hedonistic vibes of the Mayan Riviera.

There's nothing quite like this in Guate. Down there there's a certain amount of honest grot wherever you look, an attention-grabbing lack of uncorrupted artifice.

But here you are in Vacation World; an ersatz gringo playground. And if you are not part of it you are in a way forced to act like a cockroach scurrying out from the cracks whenever opportunity permits.

V reck0ns that one reason that there are no recycling bins in Antigua is that there are loads of 'unofficial' recyclers on the prowl. You have only to drop that Coke can in the dust and not long afterwards some hungry fingers have whisked it up into a carrier bag. Well this pic shows what happens in Vacation World, which of course must keep up the pretence of local adherence to First World mores - open war between unofficial recyclers and the municipal recycling bin. I passed this one three times at different stages of the day today and each time it looked as if it was eating a man's arm.

I'd been up for 24 hrs when I called it a night at the Blue Parrot last night - midnight - not late enough to observe the women on the ground beneath the bar's swing seats sifting through the sand in the hope of finding a 5 peso coin...

The B.P is pretty much all that's left of "old Playa", that hip, rather Bohemian stretch of palapa-style hotels and bars that sat on the white sand between the two piers. It looks like Wilma gave the developers a bit of a head start, but beach-front property aside, there's little to support the mayor's assertion the day after the hurricane struck that Playa had been "destroyed". I hadn't been expecting to see the towering palapa of Madre Tierra, but there it was, and now here I am in the Zoo cybercafe underneath it.

Earlier in the day I watched West Ham play Manchester United in this same bar. One of the two Argie commentators on FOX started singing (to an imaginary hard rock beat) when Rio-Coker scored, and then didn't really stop. Simon Cowell would have been sitting with his arms folded, smiling knowingly. Talking of Argies, "gwess-hum" won because they didn't play that pair of hopelessly slack economic migrants Tevez and 'Rasca-ano'.

I get more smiles here when I don't roll out my colloquial Central American Spanish. It tends to throw them a bit. Firstly, they don't really like Guatemalans, and secondly it spanners their whole "hey amigo" patter. Still, they are an impressively industrious lot these Yucatec Maya.

I don't know another place in the world with such a concentration of opportunities to buy things you don't really want or need - including stuff that nobody could need, not here at least. What's with the surf boards? Are you supposed to wander up La Quinta with this fetishistic lifetsyle symbol under your arm, occasionally taking out a Mariachi with a deft side-swipe? It's no use in the Caribbean Sea for sure, the waves just aren't gnarly enough.

Actually, there is one useful item on sale here: Indonesian sarongs. V has bought loads over the years and I offered to add to her collection yesterday, but she has more than she knows what to do with, she told me last night.

And my bags have a lot more Habanero sauce in them now than when I arrived. Melinda's. has gone all "no maaanches" on me - it seems to know that I have plugged into a local area network in Mexico and has displayed all the menus in Spanish.

Anyway, it's almost time to catch a bus that will take me another 50kms or so further south to Las Ranitas. If there's wireless there I may get in another post before Belize.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Truth, Torture and the American Way

An interesting interview with Jennifer Harbury, who makes the point that many of the 'techniques' exposed at Abu Ghraib had been used in Latin America before, usually by local torturers in the presence of a CIA trainer-observer. (I'm acquainted with one of these CIA guys in Antigua. He used to be attached to the local security service nasties known as G-2. After retiring from the Agency he started selling handcrafts− amongst other things − and then came into serious money when a relative died.)

I was listening on the World Service today to a UN official who was describing his expectations of the commission that has just been set up to help Guatemala dismantle illegal armed groups. It will have an initial mandate of two years. He noted that the "lawlessness" in the country can be blamed on the very weak state and the continued presence in Guatemalan society of armed groups that never really disbanded at the end of the Civil War. Just this week six policemen have been killed, two of them were Internal Affairs officers, an indication of the urgent need for an independent force within the criminal justice system over there.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Cross Talking

I think I should shut up about Apocalypto until I have actually had a chance to see it. (Though I will be in the Yucatán myself when it is released here.)

Patrick from Guatemala Solidarity seems to share my caution about the race to write it off as "unbalanced" as its mad-eyed director.

I spotted this quote from the Guardian in his post:

"The percentage of Maya speakers in Yucatan state fell from 37 percent in 2000 to 33.9 percent by 2005. Paradoxically, for a state that advertises the glories of the Mayan culture for tourists, it is having a hard time keeping the present-day Maya there; many are migrating to the United States."

Hmmm. Playa del Carmen has been growing at a rate of 26% per annum for many years now; it's officially the world's fastest-growing town. I'd hazard a guess that the dilution of Yucatec speakers in the region has as much to do with immigration as emigration.

Now, if you really wanted to portray the Maya as a savage bunch you'd have to make a film about the Caste Wars in Yucatán in the 1840s. They seem more up Gibson's street anyway. There's even a talking cross and Maya members of its sect referred to their criollo enemies as "Jews".

Sunday, December 10, 2006

El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan's Labyrinth)

Like Jim Henson's Labyrinth, but with added nightmares. Lifelong nightmares in the case of the under tens I would imagine.

Yet if I had been born within the last decade I'd still want to experience it, even if its monsters were going to chase me around the darkened burrows of my subconscience determined to imprint themselves there forever.

The monsters in question exist on two parallel planes, one fantastic, the other fascistic. The story joins the growing line of treatments of Franquismo that seak to reveal its evil through the imagination of the uncorrupted − such as Carlos Ruiz Zafón's La Sombra del Viento − thereby perhaps sidestepping a more direct (and still controversial) political take. "Innocence has a power Evil cannot imagine" is the story's strapline.

Mexican director Guillermo del Toro went down this route before with his last Spanish-language film El Espinazo del Diablo. That was very good, but this one is close to being a masterpiece.

And yet it's only getting distribution in the UK thanks to a lottery grant, but the word of mouth must indeed be good as it was a sell-out. (Even though the girl at the ticket desk was cautioning punters with the question "You do realise it has subtitles?")

Alfonso Cuarón − another of the young generation of superb Mexican directors − produced the movie and may have had a hand in the casting of Maribel Verdú from his Y tu Mamá También. Both Verdú and Ariadne Gil were in 1992's Belle Epoque. Yet the undoubted stand-out star of the show is Sergi Lopez playing the most evil of stepfathers, Captain Vidal. He's the kind of baddy that makes you want to shout hijo de puuuuuta at the screen until your throat is hoarse.

Perhaps it was appropriate to watch this stunning film on the day that Augusto Pinochet died.

End of the happy compromise

I reacqainted myself last night with the look-away awfulness of the penultimate Bond movie Die Another Day.

There are people that believe that Connery was the essence of Bond and those that think it was Roger Moore. For a while Brosnan seemed like a happy compromise. But perhaps the real divide all along was between 007s with relevant foes and those without.

Connery and Moore were both Cold War Bonds. After them the search for new villains began in earnest. Dalton took on the narcos, but then he had only just finished riding with the ragheads in Afghanistan against the Ruskies. Brosnan went after Rupert Murdoch's evil twin, before thwarting the intentions of a North Korean maniac who had re-engineered himself as a pyschotic English public schoolboy in a Robocop suit.

"While you were away the world changed " M told Bond in 2002. "Not for me," he replied; and he might have added "...not yet" as it turned out, for the writing must have been on the scriptwriters' wall even then.

Daniel Craig's first outing has done much to re-position the character and his on-going mission away from the complete and utter bollocks that was Die Another Day. Yet before we get too excited, it must be noted that although Le Chiffre was an independent mortgages and pensions adviser to the world's deadliest terrorists, the only example we saw of the latter were a pair of AK-waving Ugandan bush guerrillas.

Back in the 60s, 70s and 80s Bond had the courage to significantly reduce the Red Army's headcount when we weren't even at war with the Soviet Union, so will he now finally take on the Islamists mano a mano? (The producers seem to have a weak-kneed reticence on this that Ian Fleming would surely not have approved of.)

Perhaps the old foe is coming to the rescue in its refreshed and re-poistioned new form, the FSB. Radioactive California rolls are just the sort of thing that SMERSH would have loved to have in their recipe book − plenty of collateral damage. (And Lou reckons Scaramella sounds like the sort of bloke that just might have a third nipple.)

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Maya Collapse

Jared Diamond's Collapse has a good chapter on the underlying causes of the Maya Apocalypto. There's clearly a lot more to it than a lack of access to Catholic Revelation!

Living 1000 miles north of the equator the Maya had to live with very unpredicatable rainfall. The forested south was wetter, but the ground there was that much higher above the water table.

Across the region the leaky karst terrain could be plugged to create reservoirs and in the north there were cenotes. (Tikal had a reservoir that could keep 18,000 people supplied with water for a year.)

Corn − which yields comparatively little protein − made up 70% of the diet of all classes. In this humid climate it could be stored for a year at most. (A bad year was something the Maya could take, but nothing more.)

The only domesticated animals were dogs, turkeys, Muscovy ducks and a stingless bee kept for honey. There was no animal-powered transport or agriculture. "Maya warfare was intense, chronic and unresolvable , because limitations of food supply and transportation made it impossible for any Maya principality to unite the whole region in an empire."

Around 70% of the Maya population were peasants and each farmer could produce twice as much food as they needed themselves. (Ancient Egyptian peasants could produce up to five times their own needs.)

Population levels were at roughly twice the density of the most densely populated states in Africa today (Burundi, Rwanda) − at 1500 individuals per square mile.

There is some evidence of sophisticated agriculture − raised fields, irrigaton, terracing − but comparatively little at the major urban centres like Tikal and Copán .

In Copán from 650AD population pressure was clearly forcing people to start occupying and cultivating the higher slopes and the acidic, more infertile soils up there were being carried down and reducing yields in the valley below.

Pine forest was cut down to fuel plaster production which left the soil further unprotected and may have increased the likelihood of drought because of the role forests play in water cycling. (Diamond notes that the elites covered their palaces and temples with thicker and thicker plaster as the environmental meltdown closed in on them, rather like the Easter Islanders who blithely carved out ever more statues and cut down more trees; he then compares this behaviour to the consumption patterns of modern American CEOs!)

So, apocalyptic collapse is not something that ocurred one time only at the end of the Classic Maya civilisation, it was to a great extent happening all the time as major urban centres and their elite cultures attained a prominence that was in its very nature unsustainable.

Variations in solar radiation cause significant droughts in this region roughly once every 208 years. It looks like a period of relative drought from AD 125-250 was responsible for the collapse of the Pre-Classic city El Mirador in northern Guatemala around AD 150 (Its Danta pyramid rose to 230 ft and is possibly the largest pyramid built anywhere in the world.) In AD 760 the region experienced its worst drought in 7000 years which would account for the next big cluster of urban collapses.

As a result the southern lowlands appear to have lost up to 99% of their population, which receded from a possible high of 14m people to just 30,000 by the time the Spanish turned up. There were further severe droughts in the ninth and tenth centuries: mini-peaks of waterlessness within the macro-disaster.

As ever with Diamond, the conditions leading to societal collapse are taken to be largely structural. But from V's regular rants about the inability of her compatriots to protect and grow their assets, or to direct a sustained effort at any particular enterprise, one has to wonder about the cultural factors too, and about how deeply ingrained some of these might have become.

Diamond certainly hints at a pyschological angle when he refers to the intensified ornamentation that the Maya rulers embarked on when their kingdoms were at their most vulnerable. Yet it seems to me that he is often guilty of a kind of inverted western racialism as he is far more willing to point the finger of blame at the culture (especially the Christian culture) of the Norsemen of Greenland for their own society's collapse, than he is when he describes the responses of non-Western peoples.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Historical perspectives

One day long ago Surfer and I were resting at the top of Temple II in Tikal when a small group of Danes turned up. They made themselves comfortable, joining us in the safe contemplation of other trekkers essaying the far trickier ascent of Temple I opposite.

"What is this place?" one suddenly asked.
"It is a temple..." her companion responded;
"A temple for the sacrificing of human peoples....and mice."

If Mel Gibson's film Apocalypto does anything to dispel one or two common misconceptions, to stop day trippers to Tulum from Cancun thinking that they are visiting an Aztec (or worse still, an Inca) ruin then I am all for it. It's high time that the Maya were properly on the pop culture map.

How many other Mesoamerican cultures have had a whole Hollywood movie to themselves? People will read about the Maya; some of these will surely get on a plane to Guatemala.

Does HBO's series Rome focus on the construction of aqueducts or the poetry of Ovid and Virgil? Hell no.

Are we not sick of Native American peoples being portrayed by Hollywood as congenital tree huggers? Hell yes.

The ancestors of ABBA have also had to suffer years of abuse at the hands of American film-makers. Sure there was more to the Vikings than sailing, drunkenness, rape and pillage, but when it comes to the World Cup what sort of helmets do Scandinavian soccer fans wear? Even the Kazakhs are wising up to the value of bad publicity! There's always a time to redress the balance but its usually after several blockbusters worth of epic sex and violence.

More seriously, it has occurred to me more than once that nobody has ever made a (realistic) film about the Middle Ages that contains characters with preocupations that any modern person can identify with. The Seventh Seal and The Name of the Rose, to name a couple of the better examples, are more likely to make one rather glad about the historical distance that separates us from that ordinarily unforgiving era.

I suspect that many people subconsciously don't really like the idea that someone that lived many centuries ago was just as complexly vital as they feel themselves to be in the present moment. Being long dead is often taken as a mark of moral as well as cultural inferiority.

It's a shame that we still await a dramatisation of the story of Abelard and Heloïse which explores the psychological modernity of twelfth century urbanites.

And what of England's homosexual medieval monarchs William II 'Rufus' and Richard I, the Lion Heart? The former remains untouched by mainstream film-makers and yet is one of the juiciest characters in our history and even managed to come to a very movie-genic end in the New Forest. A flamboyant atheist, Rufus expelled the Archbishop of Canterbury Anselm of Bec from his kingdom in 1097.

It has also always intrigued me that no mass or other church service was held in England between 1207 and 1209 whilst King John was under the Pope's interdict. We like to think of medieval people as compliant church-goers but such a ban would surely cause more of an outrage today than it apparently did back then in the thirteenth century.

Spear Hurling

Mel Gibson's new Maya epic Apocalypto already has them reaching for their jagged obsidian knives:

"Activists are angered by the depiction of their ancestors as a savage race with a penchant for spear-hurling and human sacrifice."

Hilarious...I'd like to meet the person on this planet who can honestly claim that his or her ancestors didn't go in for a bit of spear-hurling (and before that, rock chucking).

As for the human sacrifices, Gibson didn't paint these murals did he?

I suppose he now has such a reputation for being racist and offensive that anything he does is assumed to be warped by his worldview.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

White Winterval in Guatemala?

It may not be snowing anywhere near Europe's ski resorts, but it is up in the highlands of Guatemala. Yesterday it was colder in Antigua than it was in London.

V has only been back there for a few days but has already had a bit of a shaking. She told me that the experience reminded her of the one time she was out on a sailing boat off St Lucia: the earth all around her was rippling just like a choppy sea.

It was Jin's first quake. He stood still, ears pointing skyward then trotted over and rested his head on her leg when the tremors had ceased.


It seems there have been several (not wholly satisfactory) attempts to make a film version of The Invention of Morel and Last Year at Marienbad was inspired by Bioy's tale. (I shall have to watch that one.)

The fugitive's obsession with Faustine reminded me of Nicholas and 'Lily' in The Magus by John Fowles. It's very hard to translate these gripping stories of illusion and obsession to the silver screen because they depend so much on the representation of inner states.

I suppose that if you wanted to write a successful script based on The Invention of Morel you'd need to fluff up the mystery surrounding what passes between Morel's friends on the island, extending some of the characters that he only gives us a glimpse of. A bit more intrigue essentially.

There's possibly also scope for writing a kind of spin-off story about a being that appears to be an ordinary person interacting with friends and colleagues, but is in fact an outsider looking in that has previously studied each scene he participates in a great many times and has decided to try to insert himself and act as if he belongs there. You could build quite an interesting movie plot around that little conceit alone. (And perhaps this individual would not be as forever cut-off as Bioy's narrator and could suddenly announce that he had been fudging his life all along!)

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Invention of Morel

"Perhaps we always want the person we love to have the existence of a ghost..."

Adolfo Bioy Casares was Jorge Luis Borges' best mate and acolyte. Whereas the master preferred to use short fictions to suspend a metaphysical labyrinth in literary space, in 1940 the young Bioy felt empowered to fashion some of the fantastical ideas that they shared into a proper novel, albeit a fairly short one.

What impresses me so much about these Argentines is their precocious awareness that the natural and the supernatural could be conceived as ontologically inseparable − that the one might always be explained in terms of the other. As artists they were writing only a decade or so after the important philosophical shifts in science, long before more recent champions of corrosively immanent virtuality, Philip K. Dick and Jean Baudrillard.

The story takes the form of a diary written by a Venezuelan fugitive from justice who has purposely marooned himself on a tropical island, supposedly kept deserted by the stigma of disease. After a while however the narrator discovers that he is not alone − there are "others" here, as there are in Lost, the most up-to-date example of the enchanted island myth.

Carefree people in oddly old-fashioned garb (with a gramophone that endlessly repeats Tea for Two) appear out of nowhere, and fearing betrayal the diarist flees the main building complex and hides in marshland. He begins to observe them from a distance, one in particular, a beautiful gypsy-eyed woman with a red headscarf that settles on a rock to watch the sunset every evening. The green-eyed monster has him in its powerful jaws as her male friends − including an aloof beardy called Morel − hang around her, addressing her as Faustine.

When he can bear it no longer he emerges from the bush and attempts conversation, only to be roundly ignored. The reader thinks "ghost" and wonders why the narrator is so slow on the uptake, but Bioy leads us to a more intriguing solution to this mystery. (Spoilers...)

Morel turns out to be an inventor of the reckless variety with a machine that can record "living reproductions" of human beings, synchronising all the senses (not just sight and sound) to deliver "an album of very durable images".

To launch his invention Morel brought all his friends to the island for a week to be secretely virtualised in this way, creating "a legacy of the present to the future" and granting them, as he puts it, the promise of immortality. It is the results of that promise that share the island with the narrator.

These projections living the same week over and over again are indistinguishable from the real thing. Morel's machine duplicates all the material elements of a person which might impact on another's senses and "the soul emerges...that was to be expected", because "the world is made up exclusively of sensations".

Yet the soul of Faustine remains utterly inaccessible to her lover now doubly marooned on an adjoining plane of reality.

There's a yet more unpleasant snag. The images supplant the originals: Morel, Faustine and the whole group of friends have faded away and died. Only the copies are incorruptible.

The narrator plays with the abandoned machinery until he no longer knows which of the flies buzzing around him are real and which are the copies he has fabricated himself. He notes that there are two suns high in the sky and that the super stifling temperature on his island probably reflects this bizarre interpolation of realities. (Which also explains some of the mysterious qualities of the island's vegetation that he noted on his arrival there.)

Groundhog Day naturally springs to mind as he re-lives the key social moments again and again in order to extract more and more meaning from the details. (He admits to us that he has even peered under the long table to see if any limbs were in contact during one gathering in the main hall.)

Ultimately he cannot bear the thought that Faustine lives within an image for which he doesn't exist. He therefore elects to become a transmitter himself, exposing himself to the inventor's sensors, so that he too can join Morel's cycle for eternity.

Without yet really comprehending the social dynamics of the group (this part I liked), the fugitive spends a week becoming part of the drama, inserting himself into specific scenes and adding appropriate contributions to the dialogue. He then completes his written diary as his original body begins to crumble away.

Morel might be an allusion to H.G. Wells's Dr Moreau, though Borges also had a character called Morell. Bioy Casares claimed that his own obsession with the unobtainable image of the lovely silent film star Louise Brooks was an important inspiration for his novella: "She vanished too early."


Of The Proposition, Surfer said this afternoon, that it is one of those films that makes you glad you weren't around in 1880. It is; yet it's also one of those that makes you wonder whether it's worth being around at all.

He also pointed out the similarities with Picnic at Hanging Rock, one of my favourite films from the days of my adolescence, and one which also intimates that the ancient, alien landscape of the Aussie outback is relentlessly hostile to non-natives with their empty dreams of civilisation.

By coincidence, the last two novels I have read have been about Tabasco, another region seemingly guided by an enduringly anti-humanist spirit.

The first of these was The Power and the Glory, which was one of those rare books which is almost too good to blog about. Merely good reads have digestible meanings and this blog is the plate where the consumption is supposed to start. But the best literature is in a sense indigestible. It goes in but it doesn't come out - it stays with you, becoming almost a part of your metabolism. I used to read more of that kind of book. Graham Greene's tale of a 'whisky priest' fleeing the firing squads of the red shirts in Tabasco is still rattling around in my gut...

Max Frisch's Homo Faber on the other hand is a novel I want to blog about before I've even finished it. It's narrator leaves La Guardia bound for Caracas. He is an engineer, a typically literalist Swiss called Faber. When his plane comes down in the Tamaulipas desert in Mexico he observes of the moon he has to watch for four nights that it is "a calculable mass circling around our planet, an example of gravitation, interesting, but in what way an experience?"

One of his travelling companions is heading to northern Guatemala to address the future of the German cigar. During the games of chess they play while waiting to be rescued, Faber discovers that this man is the brother of one of his oldest friends and that this friend ended up marrying the woman that he once loved. He abandons his trip to South America in order to follow the German to the plantation owned by his old mücker.

From Campeche they take the (long lost) train south and are the only passengers to get down at Palenque. There they find but one "ruin-lover", an American that initially fails to persuade them to join him in his daily clamberings over the remains of Maya palaces.

Rather like Surfer and me back in '89, the pair become "suspended" in this Tabasco town.

"Every step set the sweat pouring, which immediately had to be replaced with beer...we were suspended in hammocks, with beer within reach all the time, sweating as though sweating were our purpose in life, incapable of coming to any decision, quite contented actually because the beer here was excellent, Yucateca...we lay suspended in our hammocks and drank so that we could sweat better and I couldn't think what we really wanted." (Surfer and I also wound up briefly in another town nearby called Tempisque, similar in all respects except there appeared to be no beer on sale at all!)

Faber laughs aridly when his new pal suggests they go out to the movies together. "Lightning flashed every evening, it was our only entertainment in the evenings. Palenque had a diesel motor that generated electricity but it was turned off at 9pm." The American Maya-enthusiast is a musician from Boston, another of those artist-types Faber observes, "who think themselves loftier or more profound beings because they didn't know what electricity is."

And so they are poised for a journey across the border into what even today is one of the most inaccessible parts of Guatemala. Surfer and I bumped into a similar duo of middle-European sense-of-humour failures on this very route, which is just one reason why Frisch's novel is resonating so much with me.

We had been told that it would be "impossible" for us to reach Palenque from Flores without either going south west and out via Huehuetenango or back into Belize, up to Chetumal and along the northern limits of the Petén to the nearest border of Tabasco. For some reason we took this as a dare and set off on a bus full of prostitutes and gnarly old men with even older rifles (members of the PAC) all bound for the distant military outpost at a place called El Naranjo...

The Proposition

Harsh, very harsh. Less Unforgiven than Godforsaken.

This misanthropic outback 'western' was penned by Australian musician Nick Cave. It grabs and holds your attention from the superbly realised firefight at the start.

Guy Pearce plays Charlie Burns, an outlaw captured along with his younger brother Mikey by veteran English trooper Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone).

Stanley takes a gamble. He knows that Charlie has split from the 'family' gang headed up by his elder brother Arthur (Danny Huston), that has been raping and murdering genteel English settlers. He proposes that Charlie can have a pardon if he hunts down and kills Arthur...otherwise Mikey will be hanged on Christmas Day.

The trouble is that most of the characters are there solely to stand for something. For example, Stanley's wife Martha and his boss Eden Fletcher stand for everything the Australians dislike about us Poms. Only the Captain himself has anything like a personal pyschological narrative within this inexorable plot. You might say the same of Clint Eastwood's movies, but these always had both the underlying mythology of the American West and the overlying one of the unnamed (and increasingly fantasmal) lone-riding gunman to provide some meaning to events on screen.

There appears to be no reason behind the Burns gang's campaign of brutality, other than the fact that they are Irish − "niggers turned inside out" according to John Hurt's craggy bounty hunter Jellon Lamb (an excellent cameo - a kind of Gandalf from Hell) They are there in this wilderness, detached from both the civilised and the uncivilised, as agents of a kind of cosmic barbarism. While everyone else is hateful, they are simply implacable.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Land and Freedom

Ken Loach's film from 1995 tells the story of David, a young communist from Liverpool who heads off to the Aragón front in 1936 and finds himself fighting with the POUM against Franco's rebellion, and falling in love with a heasdtrong militia member called Blanca. (Doomed of course.)

On the one hand it borrows its core message from George Orwell's Homage to Catalunya, showing us how the Spanish Republic fell apart from within, as the Communists increasingly conformed to the Soviet model and the aspirations of ordinary people were systematically betrayed. On the other hand, with the benefit of an historical distance Orwell never experienced, it is a moving reflection on Europe's lost ideals.

It's a paradox I confronted myself three years ago when I wandered through an exhibition of photographs from the time of the Republic in Seville. One in particular showed a group of smiling anti-clerical peasants and workers that had taken possession of the cathedral, these days back in the hands of the clergy, the faithful and the tourists. This world where ordinary people could so comprehensively reject what they saw as the the privilege and hypocrisy of their priests seems almost inconceivable now. There are surely still a few atheists left in Seville, but they won't be nearly as organised, nor I suspect, as idealistic.

My heart tells me that had I been born at the time my sympathies would have been with the Republic, perhaps sufficiently to want to defend it. The trouble is that although Fascism is undoubtedly bad, anti-Fascism has rarely managed to keep itself consistently on the side of the good. And my head tells me that Spain would surely not be the modern, prosperous place it is in 2006 had the Stalinists (or even the workers' militias) held onto power there.

The really central scenes in the film are more jaw jaw than war war. You have to be prepared to imagine yourself in the thick of heated debates about matters like rural collectivisation and military organisation, and you have to be prepared to come out of them wondering if there was, or is , a right answer to any of these issues.

Xeni in Guate

Boing Boing's co-editor Xeni Jardin has been trekking in Guatemala and posting to her online journal, as temperatures in the highlands have plumetted to their lowest in 15 years.

Last weekend she took a trip to the lower-lying north. I remember the days when I used to call the Petén "the jungle" too: it does make one sound so very adventurous. It's actually a seasonal tropical forest, sadly not even wet enough to be a proper rainforest! Oh does have big cats and posionous snakes and stuff.

She's been there while the Volcán De Fuego (3763m) had one of its seasonal fits of serial belching (V's younger sister lives in Yepocapa), and as 18 died in the market fire at La Terminal; She's filmed men playing marimba and women making tortillas and reported on the wave of femicides with the new angle of attacks on transgendered and transvestite individuals.

She has also noted the relatively radical nature of spectrum reforms over there, where bandwith is assigned as personal property with legal title: "In 10 years, Guatemala has granted almost 4,000 TUFs, including 590 to amateurs. Although it is among the poorest of Latin American countries (with GDP of $1,500 U.S. per capita), it possesses the highest quantity of spectrum for wireless communication: 140.0 megahertz."