Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Day 4 – Mayan site: Altun Ha

Central America and corruption

On the way to our next Mayan site at Altun Ha, near the coast, Chris explained that this stretch of road had seen a jet land, full of cocaine. The government impounded and sold the jet but the drugs and the people disappeared. It showed the level of corruption in these countries. The current Prime Minister has literally monopolised the telecommunications industry and appointed relatives to the board. Drug trafficking is causing real problems with crack cocaine a menace on the streets of Belize City, where the murder rate is rocketing. While on Caye Caulker, the news reported a plane that had ditched off an island with a tourist resort closed for the season. There was no real explanation for the identity of the pilot, where the drugs had gone and do on. While in San Ignatio, a bus had been hijacked by two Guatemalans, one with a handgun, another with a live grenade. They had robbed the passengers, then the gun jammed and the passengers stabbed one assailant to death, the other escaped across the river to Guatemala. This took place on the same road we used on the same day.

Guatemala itself has a history of brutal repression and genocide, especially of the native population. This was bravely revealed by a Maya woman called Rigoberta Menchu who won the Nobel Prize for Peace. The whole country is run by only six families and has a terrible human rights record, as has the US in branding every attempt by the poor to fight back as ‘terrorism’ by ‘guerrillas’. At a local level, we all had to pay an illegal $2 tax when entering the country, which goes into the pockets of the local police! You simply tuck it into your passport.

On the subject of corruption, Belize is best known in the UK for the infamous Lord Ashcroft, largely known as a crook in these parts. He has a past in dodgy business dealings and a 30 year tax exemption in Belize as well as lying about his non-dom status in the UK. Spending his tax savings on swinging an election in the UK and lying about his intentions make him a criminal in my eyes. He also imposes ridiculous charges on banking services in Belize – for example, 17% commission on exchanging Euros to Belize Dollars.

Altun Ha

Our guide at ALTUN Ha was a hoot, deadlocks and a huge amount of enthusiasm unfortunately not matched by his knowledge of the site. He saw the Mayans as having died out through over-sacraficing themselves – novel but wrong! He then got the dates of most of the temples wrong and had never noticed the marks indicating a structure in the middle of the plaza. However, he was great fun, especially when comparing Copal to cannabis!

This is an interesting site in that it lacked stelae and seemed to be a trading town, acting as a distribution point from the coast to the interior. Unlike most other sites it may not have relied so much on agriculture and was occupied for around 1200 years. It has about 500 buildings, We did a clockwise loop of the site climbing the Temple of the Green Tomb (550 AD), ending on the largest temple in the complex, where the famous Jade Head was found.

Shaking your booty in Belmopan

We then drove to the capital Belmopan, where we visited the Parliament building, which looked like an Eastern European slum. We did, however, have a very nice lunch; rice, beans, chicken and fish, in a local restaurant, and bought a Punta CD and some coconut cakes. If you have never heard of Punta, it’s dance music that needs the independent control of each buttock muscle, otherwise known as ‘shaking your booty’.

Hummingbird Highway

Then off to one of the most beautiful drives in Central America, the Hummingbird Highway, famous for its citrus industry. Indeed, there were two Tropicana factories alongside the road. But it was the birds and forest that made the drive so beautiful. Dense forest, occasional Cortes Trees, blooming for only four days in an intense yellow bloom. We stopped at Chris’s house, surrounded by trees he had planted, his dogs, chickens and river at the foot of the garden. His little blue house was a gem, and after a beer in the local restaurant, we were on our way to Placencia.

Placencia

This long peninsula was being redeveloped and at one stage the Macmansions were a hideous reminder of what tasteless drug money brings. A casino was half built and looked like hell. However, the original peninsula communities, such as the Garifuna village of Seine Bight, was dirt poor and with an African looking population, very different from other villages. We then passed Scorcese’s hotel as we were bound for the less luxurious Seaspray Hotel, where I was offered cannabis within five minutes of arriving! We ate Tacos and fish at a fish restaurant the first night then prawn curry at the De Tatch restaurant the second.

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