Life on the Rio:

Fronteras is a wide spot in the road. In some places, it is less than a hundred yards to the river from the highway. Almost all commercial activity is strung out along the road; and the residential area, such as it is, exists on the side away from the river.

Catamaran is one of many marinas along the Rio Dulce in Guatemala, and like most of them, you can’t get there on wheels. There is no “municipal transportation” on the water, so the coming-and-going is by dinghy (small runabout), private launches (larger skiffs) owned by individual marinas or other business, or public launches for hire: marine taxi cabs.

Tamar and Don normally tie their dinghy up at Bruno’s dock when they go to town. Bruno’s is close to the commercial center of Fronteras, and nobody bothers you if you don’t eat there – although most of the commuters do, the food being so good; as we did after getting off the bus and before setting out for Catamaran.

[One of the paths at Catamaran]

Diana’s knee was bothering her, so instead of us trying to clamber down into the dinghy with our luggage, Tamar called for Catamaran’s launch, and directed us to a nearby dock where there were steps down to the water, making boarding a little easier. Cell phones, by the way, are cheap in Guatemala. Almost everyone has one. Boaters trade them back and forth as they come and go from the Rio.

Anybody want a hot Rodolfo?

As I have written before, the family of late painter Rodolfo Morales has embargoed all sales of his work since his death, thus driving the price of their own extensive holdings through the roof. This mostly affects all the places where his work has been consigned: clearly anyone who has purchased one has the right to sell it. Now comes a new twist, the market in fake Rodolfos. A subscriber sent me the following email:

I read about the fake Morales’ paintings in an article in Noticias about mid-November (I read online). [Stan: I missed that one.] They charged the owner of Plata de Oaxaca located on Abasolo at the corner of 5 de Mayo. The article caught my eye because I had been in that store in October as I was looking for art and I saw 2 of the 4 collages. At the time I was surprised to see Rodolfo Morales art in such a store but they were signed making me think maybe they were real. They were not marked with prices and I looked for someone to ask the prices but the young man was busy. Noticias said the owner was asking 15000 pesos each. He said he got the collages from the owner of Manos-something on Constitucion for 3000 each. Apparently the RM foundation found out about the pieces at Plata and instigated an investigation.

Life on the Rio, continued:

Pearl is tied up to a dock in a sort of cove of the island that Catamaran occupies. She shares the dock with two other boats. In order to garner a space, a boater must be recommended by at least one former or current nautical resident, and no children or pets are allowed. Ken and his wife have owned the place for over 30 years and they run a tight ship, so to speak. Water and electricity are available at each slip, for a fee. Pearl’s space costs about 165 dollars a month, plus utilities, a relatively low price made even lower by the quality of the services provided. If a boater wants to reserve their space while they go sailing, they must pay the rent while they are gone — and (a normal arrangement) the owners may rent the space to another boater while they are away.

The water, which comes from the river, is assiduously filtered and said to be drinkable from the tap. However, bottled water for the more nervous among us is provided in every cabin, and we decided to use it despite the claims, the river being a cesspool, especially in the “backwaters” and sheltered areas. Nobody on the river treats their waste. With thousands of folks living in the area, I do not recommend going for a swim. Pearl has its own filtration system, so using the water provided is not a problem while on board.

While Tamar and Don generously offered to give us their bed and sleep on the convertible couch, we chose what we all thought would be a more comfortable alternative, and rented a small cabin at the head of the dock. Named in the universal flag signal code, “Tango” was a pleasant, rustic room with its own bathroom, and daily maid service.

Catamaran is a complete resort, with tennis court, swimming pool with wet bar, dining room, salon, and bar. There are over thirty cabins. We rented ours for 12 nights, and because we did not eat the included breakfast, and because we were visiting with boaters, and because we were staying as long as we were, we got a rate of about 1/4 off, with two nights free.

Sailing and motorized vessels on the Rio run the gamut from yacht to no-longer-seaworthy. Part of the fun of being there is getting to visit other boats to see how other folks live. We did a little of that, and took some day trips.

Is it gang war, or military peace?

Investigative reporter Bill Conroy has been digging deep into the infested bowels of the so-called War on Drugs for many years, and has become a conduit for leaks from frustrated law enforcement officers, who are often punished for telling the truth about the corruption and ineptness within their respective agencies. His analysis of what is really happening behind all the killings and corruption arrests along the Rio Bravo / Rio Grande and throughout Mexico is based on this kind of insider material, and his conclusions may astound you. He says that the Mexican army is piling up the bodies as it moves to take over the Mexican drug trade. I think that what he has to say makes a lot of sense. Read it HERE

The hot waterfall:

Paraiso (paradise) is reachable (about an hour) by local bus or colectivo going to El Estór from Fronteras. You can also get there by boat to Finca Paraiso (a working coffee and tropical fruit plantation) and then on foot for about a mile. Since there were six of us -too many for one dinghy – we decided to bus it.

Paraiso is a small village, and the land the falls is on appears to be collectively controlled.  Admission, for a small fee, can be purchased at the bar / snack joint near the road. From there it’s a relatively level twenty-minute walk to the falls.

The creek that flows through the pool where the falls comes down is cool; the falls, which drops from the rocks above the pool is bearably hot. The flow of the falls is light. The result is that if you stand right under the falls it is hot, but a foot away it is cool. The rocks themselves retain some heat, and there are places where you can stand “behind” the falls, underneath overhanging rock, that have much the same feeling as a steam sauna.

This is a small place, but fortunately few enough tourists get there that it is not too crowded; and there is always an attendant on hand to keep things orderly and neat, and assist elderly folks down from the beach and over the rocks to get into the creek.

On the way out, a stop for a cold beer or soft drink at the bar is a welcome break before crossing the highway to flag down a public transport returning to Fronteras.

[This house is located on a creek that feeds the Rio Dulce.]

That pesky AMLO just won’t go away:

Andres Manuel López Obrador, the “legitimate president” of Mexico (he actually won the election, but had it stolen by Calderón, according to many) gave a major speech in a small town in Jalisco a few days ago, part of a tour of the Mexican countryside that will have touched down in every state in the union by the end of February.

In an attack on the neo-liberal security state, he talked about the 30 families and institutions (including the two major t.v. networks) that control the country through a combination of disinformation, corruption, and repression; the nexus between the narcos and the politicians; the hunger of the ruling class for the privatization of all public-owned institutions; and the need for social revolution.

This, at the same time as the PRD party is imploding, with the dominant faction being accused by many of having sold out to the privatizers; and the re-emergence of Porfirio Muñoz Ledo, co-founder with Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas of the PRD back in 1989: Muñoz broke with Cárdenas in 2000 and joined the campaign of Vicente Fox; and now leads the FAP, a new coalition that includes the Worker’s Party (PT) and Convergencia. FAP has recently declared that the current PRD organization is not welcome, although individual members who can prove their opposition to the PRD leadership are. One such person, a PRD deputy, just resigned from the party and joined the PT, the more radical of the wings of the FAP. Another just resigned from the PT to join the PRD.

AMLO has not moved to formally align himself with Muñoz, but I predict (remember, my predictions are only sometimes true) that he will. AMLO has been going around the country organizing the citizenry to be more active in local and national issues, while insisting he has no plans for elective office, and ignoring party structures, but come 2012, if things continue as they are going, the FAP will be a natural home for whatever organization he is developing. He still wants to be president, and he can’t get there from here without a party organization.

A quick trip to Livingston:

One of the boaters tied up near us had recently taken possession of a very fast launch with a giant 200 horsepower outboard, which he intended to use for fishing trips out on the Caribbean. When we arrived, he was in the process of test-driving it to work out the bugs before setting off for a four-day fishing trip. We were able to arrange a trip to the mouth of the river and back for four of us, for 50 dollars, about half the price the commercial taxis charge.

The trip from Fronteras to Livingston on the Rio Dulce takes about 2 hours in most of the commercial launches (longer if it is a “guided” trip, stopping at various points of interest along the way); our fast boat made it in less than an hour (top speed, 40 mph).

Livingston, at the mouth of the river, is a port of entry for Guatemala. The town was founded by Garafuna (gar-AH-foo-na: descendants of escaped African slaves). There are no roads to Livingston, so everything goes in and out on the water. When we were there ten years ago, Livingston was a very sleepy, funky place, with little to do but lay about. This time we found it more tourist-formed: more t-shirt shops, restaurants, cyber-cafés; cleaner streets; and even an old beat-up taxi cab.

We were there about an hour, long enough to walk up and down the main street and have an ice-cream – our captain took his hot boat out in the Caribe for some fishing – but that was o.k., since the main purpose of the trip was seeing the Rio itself. Dotted with houses on stilts, small marinas, and fishing villages, it has all the tropical beauty of the upper river, plus a portion that makes its way through a deep canyon — with vegetation all the way up the sides of the cliffs, caves to explore, and alligators to look for.

Organizing revolution in Michoacán:

For the last couple of months, since the passage of the controversial “Quality Education Law”, protests and demonstrations and occupations of government offices have erupted all over Mexico. Perhaps the strongest and most universal – and most viciously oppressed – manifestations have occurred in Michoacán, Guerrero and Puebla states. What is at stake is the future of public education, which under the new law would be dismantled, starting at the “normal schools” where teachers are educated before being sent out into the countryside to practice their trade. Normalistas tend to be more radical, as befits their age, low economic means, and view of the difficult jobs ahead of them. They have borne the brunt of the repression, but they are no longer alone. The guerrillas are coming…

Recently, it was announced that a new “revolutionary council” is being formed, which will include elements of several armed factions across these states, in order to add armed resistance to civil disobedience.

It is not yet clear how the normalistas will react to this offer. That is has been put forth at all is a reflection on how angry the reformers have become in the face of the mass arrests, beatings and disappearances they have suffered at the hands of the forces of order.

[A wall of the canyon near Livingston. It’s hard to get a perspective, but the plants and trees are clinging to  near-vertical surface.]

Up a lot of lazy rivers:

This part of Guatemala is tropical rain forest. There are creeks, inlets, and islands everywhere along the Rio. One of the joys of being there is taking a small boat – the locals often use dugout canoes – up a waterway just to see where it goes. Often, there are houses, or even small marinas tucked away, just beyond the next bend. And of course there are the birds, and even – although they tend to be nocturnal – howler monkeys. Mosquitos were surprisingly absent in most cases, although Diana and Tamar were attacked during one walk along a rope bridge over a swamp.

Back to San Pedro Sula:

When you add it up, it turns out that a $140 dollar van ride direct to the airport – while seemingly a lot of money – doesn’t cost much more than two bus tickets plus an overnight hotel room plus meals; and it has the added advantage of not having to spend any time in San Pedro Sula (see the last newsletter).

Furthermore, it’s a much quicker ride: you don’t have to wait at the border for a busload of people to clear immigration and customs with you; the driver takes the baggage through customs while you clear immigration; and unless you want to, there is no pit stop for food or bathroom. Plus, we got lucky and found someone – using the cruiser radio net – who was also going to SPS, and willing to share the expenses.

Once we got to the airport, we got our tickets, changed our Guatemalan quetzales and our Honduran lempiras for dollars, and visited the only “restaurant” in the terminal -a Wendy’s – while we waited to board our flight.

When the time came to move toward the departure lounge, we were stopped at the gate. “Where” we were asked, “is the document that shows that you paid your exit tax?” Exit tax? Nobody – not Mexicana, or the immigration agents we dealt with in arriving, departing, and arriving again in Honduras, mentioned any exit tax. “Just go over to that (conveniently located nearby) bank window and pay it. You can’t leave until you do.”

“$34.04 u.s. dollars each” said the teller. We scraped through our dollars, and came up with some 20’s, and a 10.. So, I said as I pushed the money through the window, that’s 68 dollars and 8 cents, here’s 3 20s and a ten. “Oh, no, each has to pay their own”. That would have meant that one of us paid $40 (remember, we had only one sawbuck) and the other also $40 — and all the change in useless Lempiras. I balked. Get me your boss, I said; get me your minister of tourism. This is a rip-off. The teller talked to someone else, and we were allowed to pay together. As we walked down the hall to our waiting room, I remembered the odd-seeming question that I was asked when we crossed over to Guatemala about whether we were coming back to Honduras, and I realized that if I had said “no” we would have had to pay the exit tax then.

Whither to goest?

If we had it to do again, we would fly to Guatemala City. From all accounts by others, the food is better, the hotels are nicer, the bus is more deluxe and runs more often, and there is no exit tax. Don’t do as I did, do as I tell you: plan more; research better. It pays.

Meanwhile, back at the rancho:

When we got back, it was Revolución season (celebrating the beginning of the Mexican Revolution of 1910). Diana snapped this picture of little Zapatas and Villas and other heroes, marching down the Alcalá.

Right now, we are in the season of Navidad (Christmas), which started on the 12th with the fiesta of the virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint. We’ll still be in it in a couple of weeks (Navidad lasts until January 6), when we put out the next Newsletter.