My first trip to Guatemala, I assumed my liberation from the torment of work would be a brochure-perfect tropical paradise of white sand and clear-water beaches. My partner had done little to discourage my tourist fantasies about our approaching trip. It was December, the end of the official rainy season. But the rains lingered throughout the country, especially along the Caribbean coast and in the department, or state, of Izabal.
Wet tarmac greeted our plane once we touched down at La Aurora Airport in Guatemala City. We headed directly to the bus terminal and joined the orderly line of passengers waiting under a scattering of sprinkles to board the large Litegua bus for Morales, Izabal. The Litegua company offered wide-seat comfort, an experienced driver, and a security officer at the front door who carried a small pistol. Our five-hour bus ride began in the crowded capital city with the driver blowing his horn at all cars and pedestrians that attempted to impede his route.
Once outside the capital, the bus carried us through a series of small towns. Some were on flat palm-covered terrain, and others were on hilly ground with a backdrop of green mountains and approaching forest. Relaxed most of the route, my anxiety heightened when I looked towards the rain-splashed front window of the bus and noticed that the entire highway was reduced to two wet lanes. As the wipers swished across the large windshield and the driver changed into the opposing lane of traffic to pass a slow vehicle, I held my breath. Even worse was the drive along the narrow mountainside. If I looked right, I saw a mountain that extended upwards and that was covered with countless huge boulders. On my left, I noticed that beyond the opposite lane of traffic there was a steep drop down the side of a cliff.
At our last bathroom and food break in the town of Los Amates, Izabal, we walked under a warm rain towards a wooden stand directly in front of the bus station. The stand was shaded by a large blue, green, and red covering that, wet from the recent rainfall, flapped hesitantly in the breeze. “Me puede dar una bolsa de pepinos,” I asked the young vendor, as I looked at the cut-and-bagged cucumber.
“Como quiere,” she answered, letting me know she would attend to me right away. After I gave her the Guatemalan paper money, she reached her hand into a pocket beneath her red huipil – a traditional shirt of the Mayan people – to fetch my change. Imagine, then, that during that transaction, not just a few coins, but hundreds of quetzal birds emerged, flying from her pocket. With green backs and red chests, visualize how they beat their wings against the falling rain, how they sang their guttural chirps across the gray sky.
I savored the juicy goodness of the cucumber from my seat on the departing bus. The chili sprinkled on top had the right amount of burning zest for my taste buds which the juice of the cucumber washed down my throat. Glancing out the rain-sprinkled window, I used my tongue to press the lingering cucumber seeds to the top of my mouth.
After we arrived in Morales and disembarked, I wondered how this small city might be connected to punta. My partner, who was thrilled to visit his birth country after more than eight years, was one of the best Guatemalan punta dancers on the Los Angeles dance circuit. An Afro-Indigenous dance and music of the Garifuna people of St Vincent Island, punta perfectly embodies the rebellious spirit of a Black community that was so insurrectionary during enslavement that the British exiled them to Honduras in the late 1700’s. From there, the Garifuna people traveled to other parts of Central America. Yet I did not feel the Garifuna presence I had imagined would be part of my travels to Morales. Oblivious to the idea of dancing, my partner hurriedly went around to the side of the bus to get our baggage. From the small Litegua bus station, we lugged our bags a couple of blocks until we got to the sparse city center. In addition to the main marketplace, there was a bank, the police station, and a series of small shops. In front of a food store, we waited for a second bus that would take us to the banana plantation.
“It’s coming now,” he said.
“You said that before,” I told him. I was learning to not believe him. We had been there for over forty minutes. The rain that day sometimes poured and sometimes sprinkled, but while we waited, it poured. My navy-blue rain jacket was soaking wet. I was glad for the hood that kept my natural hair –- pulled back in a bun –- mostly dry. The lightweight jacket was perfect for the low-eighties temperature in tropical Morales.
My partner was right. The bus came, but it was no relation to the comfortable Litegua bus that brought us from the capital. A yellow American school bus rumbled down the road ready to serve as transport for the crowd of maybe twenty people waiting in front of the food store. After driving over the wet dirt road covered in small rocks, the conductor brought the yellow bus to a slow halt. The people in the crowd, with wet t-shirts and moistened hair, jostled and pushed to gain a position as close to the front door as possible. No one was spared. Old women and men were pushed as equally and forcefully as the young.
After one hour, the yellow bus left us in the midst of the fincas – the banana plantations. We disembarked on the main dirt road that ran alongside the train tracks. To the right of the main road, two smaller dirt roads ran perpendicular and extended from the main road to the rear. In the middle of the two small roads stood a small cabin on a patch of green grass. At the time of our late afternoon arrival, there was no one in the cabin. The bags of chips – Sabritones and Lays – were visible behind the wire mesh window. Before the arrival of wireless phones, this cabin had been the location of the only landline phone for personal use within an hour’s drive. The only other phones to be found on the plantations in the past were those used in the offices of the banana companies. Behind the small cabin, wooden homes ran alongside each of the small roads. The houses stood on wooden stilts above the ground in anticipation of the yearly hurricanes and floods. All around the homes, extending back as far as my eye could see, were the banana trees.
Instead of entering the small roads, I continued walking beneath the rain along the main road towards the banana plant building. My partner followed. My blue rain jacket protected me from the rain. In that part of the plant that was open to view, I noticed the workers cleaning, cutting, and boxing the fruit. Completely aware that this really was the destination of my tropical vacation, I began to splash my discount ankle boots into the puddles of muddy rainwater. The muddied water jumped from the soil to the insides of my boots.
A faraway thunder rolled beneath the grey clouds and could have been, in another time, the sound of the first train brought into Central America by the North Americans to establish the United Fruit Company. The wet soil I traversed might well hold a congregation of thousands of souls of Mayans sacrificed to Western enterprise. Despite the rain pelting their leaves, the large green banana trees swayed in the breeze and stretched towards the heavens against the sky’s grey backdrop. I paced the wet soil that had cultivated a fruit whose origins trace back to Southeast Asia and Africa. I studied the damp faces of the workers. They stared at my face, wet from the rain. I strode on, puddle after puddle, my feet sinking into the wet soil. I felt feeble before the forces of nature. The workers cut stems, dipped the fruit in cleaning agent, and then packaged them. For the past century, three companies – Chiquita, Dole, and Del Monte – have monopolized the banana trade except for the decade of the Guatemalan Revolution, 1944-54, when United Fruit was nationalized. The price paid by the workers during one hundred years of banana cultivation has been excruciating. The low wages. The work stoppages. The hours under the rain, cutting the fruit with freshly sharpened machetes – the same tools that were used to threaten the union leaders who, after a successful strike, had to leave their country and flee into foreign exile. I splashed puddle after puddle, oblivious then to the history of the fruit that is the most bought and the most profitable in the United States.
After a week, our last stop was the coastal area of Puerto Barrios – another city in the tropical region of Izabal. Home to a major shipping port; it, too, lacked the sandy beaches I no longer expected. On one of our final days, we entered a small restaurant that had lifted its metal awning, so the entire front of the restaurant had an up-close view of the city street. Our table, with its beige flowered table cover, was back far enough to protect us from the morning’s light rain. My partner, having no need for a menu, said, “Order what you like.” He already knew exactly what he wanted.
“I’m checking,” I told him as I studied the dishes, not sure if I wanted fried plantains with crema or scrambled eggs. I chose the eggs scrambled with onion and tomato, assured that they would come with handmade corn or flour tortillas or a fresh bread roll. Delicious. The flavor of each distinct ingredient formed a perfect blend. The spice of the onion. The slight sweetness of the tomato. The richness of the egg yolks. The yellow of the yolks echoed the yellow of the banana peels I had seen throughout the plantations. As I ate the warm eggs, the distinct yellows fusing in my mind, the warm sun burst from behind the now white clouds illuminating the Caribbean ambiance of Puerto Barrios. As I glanced toward the street, the sun glistened on car windows, flashed off bicycle fenders, and sparkled on the shiny hanging earrings of the young girls passing by. People who had ducked into storefronts minutes before to avoid the rain, walked out into the streets, engaged in conversation and laughter. A passenger in a passing car rolled down her window, and I could hear the resounding beat of the Afro-Indigenous punta music resonating down the road towards the Caribbean Sea. The sun, the palms, the blue sky, the air fresh and inviting, and the music – all of it reminding me of freedom.
The history of the banana trade is from “Toward a Hegemonic Resolution in the Banana Trade” by Henry J. Frundt in International Political Science Review (London: Sage Publications, Vol. 26, No. 2, 2005)
About the author:
Audrey Shipp writes creative nonfiction in Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared in A Long House, Another Chicago Magazine, LitroNY, and A Gathering Together. She can be found on Twitter at @Adri16, on Instagram at @AudreyShipp, and on Substack at Blog Riffs Writing the Globe.
Feature image by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash