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Posted December 16, 2008 in Oxx Tales by Jim Markel
Red Oxx took the initiative to contribute to the well being of a simple quiet mountain village in Guatemala by creating a Fair Trade agreement and developing income for the villagers. When Red Oxx ran out of Monkey Fist Zip Knots, Jim Markel scouted around to find more. Instead of going through a supplier, Jim went to the source. In this installment of Jim’s Trips, we take a followup look at where the village is now, both economically and culturally.
People have been consumed by their passion for Mayan history and culture. The thought of a highly advanced civilization developing separately from the European and Asian cultures has captivated many a brilliant mind. The things we know about the Mayans are quite extraordinary. A vast and complex knowledge of astrophysics and calculations that were so accurate that they defy the age. Then there’s the mystery surrounding their society and its decline.
At one juncture in history they were the equal or in some cases the superior society. Only to be usurped by the Spanish and other European interests. Diseases and superior weapons sealed the fate for the indigenous people of the Americas. Still you can’t help but wonder what secrets may have disappeared with them? Their mighty cities reclaimed by the jungle have only been partially excavated.
To truly appreciate the scale of this chapter in human history you need to get boots on the ground.
Like a lot of kids I learned of these ancient and remote places by reading National Geographic. The fabulous pictures and engaging stories carried my mind away and imprinted the desire to see them. Still getting there is no easy feat and sometimes the gods conspire to deny your discovery.
For me it was a recurring case of what I call Monkey Fever. Not sure what the cause is, but every so often I get laid low and it’s all I can do to keep breathing. Such was the case on my last visit to Guatemala and my dream of Tikal was denied. Now I was going to be traveling as light as possible on the way in and leaving space for my loot on the way out.
A sudden inspiration struck me as I began assembling my travel kit. Taking a Roadster Mini Ruck, I folded it flat in the bottom of my PR5 Safari Beano. When in country I really like the versatility of a backpack or even my well traveled Gator bag.
Next in goes my assortment of custom shorts made from recycled climbing pants. I’ve found these extremely durable and perfect for scampering around the less civilized parts of the planet. Deep pockets thwart would be pick-pockets and the reinforced seat provides a little extra comfort on rough surfaces. The Rule of 3 applies here so try to keep your clothing sorted into groups of three.
Stuffing three pairs of socks into one end pocket of my PR5 I then stow the Tri-fold on top with the main compartment open for quick access at the TSA security checkpoint. Then a pair of long pants and a light bush jacket usually round out my selection. Last but certainly not least goes my Travel Tray. The load’s right at 25 lbs with room to spare.
I like to wear something nice on the plane; that takes care of any special occasions like dinner. Being dressed nice also can get you an upgrade to 1st class if space is available. Next my perennial personal item carry-on is the Gator bag and in goes the Nikon D300 DSLR and my back-up camera, a Nikon Coolpix. Chargers and patch cords go into a Lil Roy.
Outside pocket is for the iPod loaded with photos and music. They say a picture is worth a thousand words so 5000 photos go a long way communicating with your fellow travelers. The new Rigger Wallets are tailor-made for this type of travel and the ID window works like a charm as I flip the Hawaii Five-O and cruise through security.
Booking your ticket is more about <pem”>when to arrive then actually getting there. Working backwards is great way to plan an operation. For example, the last thing you want to do is arrive in Guatemala City during rush hours. So planning a late arrival had set my itinerary and kept me from the joy of inhaling exhaust fumes and waiting in traffic. There’d be plenty of that later on in my journey. I’ve been using the same driver for the last few years and he was waiting by the curb ready to roll. The rest of the passengers were still in the terminal awaiting their checked bags!
My driver Giovanni is quite the adventurous soul. Having lived in several major U.S. cities he’s somewhat of an oddity among the locals of Panahachel. Sure, the foreign ex-patriots have traveled and lived a life of mobility. But native born Guatemalans have a harder time obtaining the resources required to move abroad. His combination of street smarts and desire to learn make him a kindred spirit.
Twisting our way into the darkness we start sketching out our plan of attack for the road to Tikal. Arriving late at Los Encuentros I bid good night to Giovanni and let myself in. We agreed to meet in a couple of days. My favorite room was waiting for me with a snack in the fridge.
Before Early Morning Nautical Twilight (BEMT) is when the world hangs in the apogee of the dawn. The absolute sweetest time of the day brings the promise of new experiences and a moment to reflect the past. Laying there in my homespun wool blanket I relish the moment before the rooster crows and the cycle begins again. Somewhere a poor grunt is thinking how cold it is and not wanting to roll out of his sleeping bag.
While the clock indicates the time, it’s more about the nature of the moment. Each day we have the chance to experience this moment. Yet I only seem to when I’m checking out the world. Maybe it’s the excitement of visiting my favorite place in Panahachel?
Mike and Adele Roberts run an awesome coffee shop. Crossroads Cafe’ is the meeting point for a variety of characters from around the globe. Mike is a master roaster and is up early roasting fresh beans. While his wife Adele is creating some of the most delectable deserts to be found anywhere. The two of them, along with their two daughters, have made quite a life for themselves. Strolling down the cobblestone streets I can smell the roasting coffee from two blocks away.
Rapping on the door Mike lets me in before "official" open time. My early morning visit is to get a look at his new roasting set up. Mike starts explaining all various intricacies of roasting; the air temperature and humidity play a major part in the roasting process. He’s now teaching his art to select students who care to make the pilgrimage. The machines roll the beans.
Timing is everything at this stage as he pulls the handle and the smoking beans come rolling out. The smell is wonderful; indelibly marking my memory and literally overloading my senses, giving me goose bumps. Head spinning I watch as he systematically packs up orders due out for shipment abroad.
Mike has a global following from this little café and it’s well deserved. You’re likely to meet intellectuals from the city who are working to make Guatemala a better place. The younger generation is getting out there and making a difference. I meet the director of the local university and we discuss entrepreneurship and business.
Switching from gear to gear we discuss a variety of subjects. LEAN manufacturing principles lead into viral marketing then we jump to the Internet. We’re joined by fellow teachers and students. We talk for hours and I’m blown away by the depth of their knowledge.
Getting this knowledge to move down the socioeconomic ladder has become a passion for these eager young minds. They pick my brain for hours and I unload a pile of information. They are particularly interested in my Monkeys Fist operation. Wondering why I haven’t moved the knot to China like everyone else. I explain why and what we’ve done for the people. They wonder how to repeat this.
My stubborn commitment to make one small place in the world better is really starting to make a difference. I’m talked into visiting the university and touring a local villages that’ve also been doing something extraordinary. I’ve seen similar arrangements in Zambia for native craftsman.
Using all-natural dies made from plants and traditional weaving techniques the locals formed a cooperative. The craftsmanship is superb. They’ve taken to paying to have the town cleaned on a set schedule. The local library has a handful of computers with children queued up for their turn. The 21st century’s magic box, waiting to dispense knowledge to the masses as the computer age comes to remote corners of the world. The consequences of this event have yet to be felt as these children are taking their first steps toward knowledge.
The Mayans were superb mathematicians and their codex was the source for many of today’s modern medicines. The next Einstein could be peering over those shoulders patiently waiting for his turn on Pandora’s Box. Witnessing the next Cultural Revolution in real time is an awe-inspiring moment. Access is what they have now and they’re not wasting the opportunity. Following the river of information has fired their imaginations.
The current situation is tenuous at best and seeing a distant prosperous future takes vision. The change that’s taking place appears to slowly making that future a possibility. The director of the university wonders how these practices are scalable. I see a regional craft that has a worldwide fan base. Maybe one day those children in the library will lead their people into the world via the Internet.
If it’s possible for Red Oxx to launch a global enterprise from Billings, Montana, then it stands to reason that it’s possible from anywhere. The next revolution is coming from the Internet. Economic, social and political, the web is shaping the world and we hardly seem to feel it. The awareness created by the web is felt everyday here in my little corner of the world. Shipping out to over 93 countries over the last year has certainly fired my mind for the possibilities of the 21st century’s new economy.
Giovanni’s prepped the vehicle for our cross country trek. The decision to forgo the plane and drive was an easy one. The mobility and endless possibilities are an easy lure for the gypsy in all of us. Going “native” gives you the time to really get to know a country, sidetracking across the land absorbing the sights and sounds.
Piling my Mini Ruck and Gator into the microbus we set out through the mountains. Climbing through the forest I’m struck by how the pines give the impression of a forest in Colorado but the cypress trees add an outwardly feel.
The lack of cars indicates bandits are running a block up ahead. If you go more than 10 minutes without seeing an oncoming vehicle it’s advisable to turn around and seek another route.
Safely out of the mountains we approach Guatemala City and wedge ourselves into the melee. Under the scorching sun we jockey our way through mid-morning traffic. Giovanni takes off his sunglasses. Slipping mine off, I notice the neighborhood we’re in. The stop and go traffic is the preferred hunting ground of the motorbike bandits. They love to ride up and snatch anything. Including sunglasses and loose luggage. I seat belt my bags when the windows are open. This prevents an untimely exit of your bag from the vehicle in case of a ride-by snatch.
When I hear people reminiscing about living in the Wild West era I tell them it’s still out there in the frontiers. Folks simply shrug it off and say it’s not the same. From my perspective the times have changed but in some cases the circumstances have not. Vigilante justice is present in modern day Guatemala as well as banditry. Throw in corruption and you have the makings of a modern day Wild West.
Exiting the city we relax a bit and I have a chance to take in the environment. High agricultural valleys cut into the hillsides bisected by rivers. The scale of agriculture here is amazing. While starvation in Africa is prevalent, the verdant fields of Guatemala produce a bounty that’s remarkable. Lush valleys teeming with crops and surrounding hills covered in cacti. Villages have an almost Baja-like vibe from another time. These give way to lowland banana and mango farms.
Here the houses are more scattered as the population lives ever closer to the land. The temperature and humidity all lurch upward as we continue east. Passing through the towns I notice the local handicrafts for sale along the roadside. Here’s the source for these items that eventually end up in the larger market towns.
Something about discovering the place where something is actually made never seems to lose its novelty. Each item is imbued with the local flavor that defines its origin. Finding a few choice treasures along the way for my friends and family keep them in my thoughts.
Arriving Flores late afternoon we search for rooms. As usual I failed to make reservations. It took few tries. The narrow streets on the tiny island are completely covered with buildings with balconies. A relaxed feeling permeates the air, no pretenses of your typical tourist destination. It has the same feel as Key West did in the early 70s.
Tiny bars and cafés circle the new promenade built around the shoreline. Sitting on my balcony as dusk falls across the lake I see the evening crowd coalescing on the streets. I call across the alley to Giovanni and we head out to see what the night has in store.
Flores is small enough to walk around in just a few minutes so we find a spot facing west and sit back to enjoy the sunset. Practicing my Spanish on the waitress never fails to bring a smile to Giovanni’s face as I make a mess of the order. We settle back and he begins to tell me about his time here when he was a much younger man.
We had passed by a military base and he explained that he’d been stationed there. Indoctrinated into the military at 14 his story was typical of how regimes perpetrate genocide with the help of teenage boys. As the sun set I could see the tears in his eyes as he told me how he never shot at the people. He aimed his weapon over the heads of the villagers as they escaped. The penalty for not firing your weapon was a severe beating or worse.
The civil war is rarely talked about here. To get someone to open up is rare. I’ve picked up bits and pieces over the years. Each story has its own perspective. The one common thread was the persecution of the indigenous population. The war’s wounds will take a few generations to heal.
Shaking off the melancholy, we decide to blow the joint and look for dinner. Cruising down the boardwalk I hear the sizzle of meat and vegetables. At a crowded street café we inject ourselves into a table full of people and before long we’re exchanging jokes and feeling camaraderie of good friends on holiday. The group was here working for the last 6 weeks and they’re winding up the stay with a night on the town. Soon we’re invited along and head to one of the clubs blasting dance music and cheap drinks.
Sitting on the balcony we crowd around the table and exchange stories. Stars and palm trees overhead as the cool lake breeze keeps insects at bay. Before long it’s 3 am. Dew is cool on the cobblestone and our footsteps echo on the nearly deserted streets. You know those 20 dollar hotel rooms aren’t so bad when you only stay in them a few hours.
I was up with the dawn and down by the water sipping some excellent coffee waiting for Giovanni to roll out of the sack. He’d partaken of the local brew and was out of it when I last saw him. It was a nice moment to take in the natural beauty of the lake. I see a mother hanging out the washing. Further down the shoreline a young boy is ferrying his sister to school.
Witnessing these small moments reminds me of my time in the outdoors observing nature. Sit long enough in the forest and the creatures all begin to resume their normal routine. A red-eyed Giovanni finally makes his appearance and gratefully accepts a steaming cup of Joe.
Flores is the traditional overnight spot for visitors here. Some eco lodges have sprung up closer to Tikal and they offer an alternative experience. For a night out on the town your best bet is staying in Flores.
There’s still a short drive to the park. The drive seems to take forever as I soak up every nuance. Spotting weaver bird nests high in the trees, we stop. I can hardly believe the size of the trees; something that didn’t quite hit me earlier. The nests were way out of reach of any ground predator. I notice how dry it is here during this season. I’d expected more of Amazonian environment.
A local guide is required for touring the ruins and on arrival I discovered all the English speaking guides were out with groups. Undaunted, I booked a local guide who only spoke Spanish. My guide was a well-seasoned park veteran of over two decades. Moving like a jungle cat through the forest the old man still had some moves. He had his own paths for moving through bottlenecks of tourists. He’d stop occasionally to point out animals and Mayan ruins almost completely reclaimed by the jungle.
An untrained eye could easily miss the water cisterns and food storage as they practically blend in. Working our way to the first pyramid I make the climb up the scaffolding and through the forest canopy. Finding a perch near the top I take a few minutes and let the cool air above the forest dry my sweat.
We all have our reasons for going to the extreme less traveled parts of the planet. The journey is a big part of why we go. The pull of these special places is not to be denied. Searching for some epiphany from high above the forest I’m unable to latch on to anything "life changing." Still, the natural beauty of the forest and the geographic isolation have an impact all their own.
The access to the monuments is a privilege. I spend the day scaling as many as I can. In between summits my guide points out the wildlife that abounds in the jungle. From the tiniest of insects to the rare Quetzal, they all magically appear as we ghost through the forest. As a hunter I can appreciate my guide’s skills and it’s not long before we’re moving in sync. Though limited by language I’m still able to connect. The sun waning it’s time to find Giovanni.
Death by pyramid is something that’s quite possible due to the steepness of some of the climbs. No way lawyers in the U.S. would let something like Tikal stay as open as it is. People have been killed while climbing and others have taken the wrong path and been lost in the jungle for days. You get the feeling that if you have a “Darwinian moment” the consequences can be severe with no real recourse. The reward is worth the risk, as most things worth experiencing are usually protected by a challenge of some kind.
The three of us head back the village. Inviting our guide to dinner he points the way to a little cantina by the road. Ordering up a mix of Tipico food we settle back for a rare feast. Even the tropical heat could not curb my appetite after a hard day of exploring. Chicken cooked in coconut milk with fresh vegetables followed by some small pork ribs in a delectable spicy red sauce. I especially enjoyed the radish cabbage salad, crispy with just a hint of citrus.
Eying the village I spot the small signs of prosperity brought in by the park. Nice roads and a scattering of late model vehicles. Not every village in Guatemala can boast a Tikal in the back yard. It’s a great to see money making its way down to the people.
Tales of mermaids accompanied the Spanish explorers back from the Rio Dulce or "Sweet River." The river and Lago Izabal are still home to a small population of manatees. Hunted to the brink of extinction for their meat and blubber, they cling to an uncertain future. Conservation efforts have been underway since the 1970s but their situation is still tenuous. Yet the waters are a alive and a balance between man and nature seems to be holding.
Arriving late in Rio Dulce a fiesta’s in full swing. The cool breeze by the river a welcome change. A working town, the market was bustling with people as I threaded my way through the crowd. Teenage kids and families crowded around the stalls with the vendors each cooking up a unique dish. Spotting an empty stool I slide in and eye the fare. Mumbling my best Spanish while holding 3 fingers up, the cook is soon searing up some onions and pork with fresh tortillas.
While not high on most epicurean lists, there’s something about eating with the locals that appeals to my palate. Embracing what is readily available can be lead to some interesting discoveries. Like corn on the cob slathered in what appeared to be mayo, hot sauce and some sort of crumbs. Judging by the line to get one I was easily drawn in for a taste and well rewarded for taking the chance. Next for desert I spotted some milk shakes at another stall. All said my satisfactory 3-course meal ran less than 5 bucks.
Rio Dulce is a nexus point of departure for several destinations in the region. Whether your going to Tikal or even Copan in Honduras or down river to Livingstone. Also known as La Buga by the Garifuna, it’s home to the only Carib settlement in Guatemala. Access to Livingstone is by boat only so I had hired a launch for the day and was up early with my Gator bag in hand.
Starting in Rio Dulce it’s 25 miles of gorgeous river to the Atlantic Coast. Heading upstream to check out the Old Spanish Fort of San Felipe was first on the agenda. The fort was originally built to protect against pirates. Destroyed and rebuilt several times over the fort commands the entrance to Lago Izabal. Original cannon are still in place and you can see how the narrow channel was effectively controlled from the battlements.
Past the marinas I spy the flags of many nations hanging from the masts of the sailboats. Small cottages and micro hotels along the shore are concentrated closer to the town of Rio Dulce. The signs of man become less present as we continue downstream and the natural beauty of the river lifts the soul.
Gazing into the surrounding mountains where the jaguar still hunts in the night, I’m again encouraged by the conservation efforts here in Guatemala. Finding a balance between sustainable use and preservation of habitat is a challenge in developing countries. The need for more farmland in countries with burgeoning populations has led to massive deforestation. Recent awareness of this situation has helped bring about many projects to restore these critical environments. From planting trees to more efficient wood stoves these efforts are helping curb the destruction of precious natural resources.
Stopping at a small settlement along the river I take a short swim in the hot springs. Plunging into the river for a cooling down I float along the calm surface and listen to the grinding of gravel on the riverbed. While not common, sharks have been known to swim into fresh water estuaries.
Up around the next bend limestone cliffs tower 300 feet over the boat as the channel narrows. Vines with birds perched along them snake down the rock face as we motor through an unspoiled landscape. Coming out of the narrows we enter the brackish water that mixes with the sea. Livingstone is close by and I’m prepared to meet civilization at the crossroads of the narco trade.
The Garifuna have a distinct culture, recalling more of a Caribbean feel than what you’d expect in Latin America. First impression is of cheap souvenirs and a total lack of economy outside of tourism. A party town for smoked out American refugees hiding out from the world.
I’d heard the food was amazing. Ordering a traditional bowl of mixed seafood prepared in coconut milk, I was blown away by the flavors. Sipping a cup of jet black coffee afterwards I reflected that had to be one of the finest dishes I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting.
Gathering up my Gator bag and camera I made a quick tour. Being midday the reggae was not flowing yet. A quick stroll down the beach was less than thrilling but the breeze was blowing onshore and pleasant.
Turning uphill through the sleepy neighborhood I again note the lack of industry out here on the edge of the world. Making a buck around here has to be tough and yet there’s a solid sense of community with a relaxed cordial atmosphere. The run upstream was full-bore so I slipped on my iPod and let the sounds of Ali Farka Toure` carry me away. Somehow the sounds of Radio Mali fit the scene rolling past my eyes.
It was time to head back to Panahajel. Stopping by a roadside shack Giovanni and I settle in for mid-morning breakfast “Guatemalan style.” After putting down a half-dozen scrambled eggs each we start getting the low-down from our host.
Her husband has been working in Maine as a janitor and sending money home. About a third of the population in Guatemala relies on remittances from the United States. Money comes from family members working in the U.S. and is a major factor in the Guatemalan economy
Remittances now exceed the total income of exports and tourism. Approximately 3 billion dollars is sent home to families. This money has become a major pillar of the Guatemalan economy. The cost of this money hits these tight knit families hard. A generation of children is growing up with out the benefit of a head of household.
Our Monkey’s Fist project has helped keep our workers families together and provide much needed hard currency in a remote corner of Guatemala. How such a simple thing has a major impact on the micro-economic level is profoundly rewarding. We all have the power to shape our destiny and bring about change. Flying home on long overseas flights gives you the time to slow down and reflect on…
What it is you are going to do about making the world a better place.
Figuring how to tie a Monkey’s Fist is the first step; now do that several hundred thousand times. Weaving and textile work is something the indigenous population is known for. Matching up their skill set and then doing something out of ordinary with those skills has led to an amazing thing. We also leave nothing behind in our wake. The cord is produced in the United States and then makes a return trip to Montana as Monkey’s Fists.
In the spirit of Fair Trade Red Oxx has invested in our employee’s welfare. You may recall from our last visit that we built a new shop. This year’s addition was a running shower and flush toilet. Things that we take for granted every day are almost unobtainable in this remote part of Guatemala.
I tested out the facilities and said hello to the family pig. We caught up on what had transpired over the last year. My Spanish has improved and soon we’re discussing business. Our foreman Juan wanted to open a Molina in the village.
A Molina is where the villagers have their corn fresh ground for tortillas. Approximately every two days they had to walk the nearest Molina which was two ½ hours by foot each way. They also sell small staples of village life and are a hub for the community. The highland economy is mostly self-contained and the numbers work out to about two dollars a day in earnings.
Starting this new venture was a way to bring his son home from the coast and run the Molina. The entrepreneurial bug had been caught and I was not about to let his dream slip away. He’d already taken the first step and purchased the land on which this new venture would be built.
Hiking down to what passes for a main street I spot another parcel of land with a building already on it. The two parcels were adjacent and after inquiring about the ownership of the building I had him on the cell phone and 10 minutes later we quickly had another building and some land to work with.
By combining properties we’ll have the Molina open this year and have plenty of room for planting trees. This small capital investment in village life will have a big impact on the daily lives of our workers. The more Monkey Knots we make here the better life gets for these people.
I’ve been encouraged by all the varied uses people have come up with for using their zip knots. A favorite has been to use them as zipper pulls for jackets. Slipping one on your key chain serves as a reminder of the positive impact you’re having on the world. It also makes them easy to hang up after your commutes. Whatever you use them for we appreciate the support and would like to say thanks to those who buy them in bulk.
I’m interested in hearing how you the reader is using the Monkey’s fists. I ask that you please post your reviews on the Monkey Fist page.
Jim Markel CEO
"No sky too high, no sea too deep"
Since the dawn of time travelers have moved through the world for a multitude of reasons. The binding element is the courage to go and make contact with a foreign culture. Each party receives something unique from the exchange and the experiences have helped create a better understanding of the world at large.