I was introduced to the author by his agent, who sent me another book of his, Topographies, to review. A stellar collection of travel essays that take the reader through places as diverse as rural Wyoming, the Florida Everglades, and a train ride across the border from Romania to the former Soviet Union. https://millionmilewalker.com/2020/06/book-review-non-fiction-topographies/
While researching my forthcoming book, The Guatemala Reader, I was delighted to learn that he’d written a book similar to this entitled Guatemalan Journey. Identical to my Peace Corps experience there, he spent two years as a Fulbright Scholar doing the day-to-day activities and dealing with the same bureaucracy ordinary Guatemalans have to do. Unlike my memoir, Different Latitudes, he doesn’t mention his family, although he brought them along for this impressive trek. Always the consummate observer, Benz starts the book grappling with critical issues facing the country, like the influx of foreign missionaries, mass killings, the strangling bureaucracy, and cultural appropriation.
He starts the book by contrasting two unrelated events that sum up the complexity and ambiguity of Guatemala’s social reality. On the one hand, a massive new mall, the “Megacentro,” featuring 70 stores, which would have been the envy of any mall in the U.S., is hogging all the publicity and focus of Guatemala City’s population.
The very next day, a massacre occurred in a small village near Chimaltenango, El Aguacate, where 22 men were dragged from their homes and murdered. After the typical government pronouncements that the guerrillas were to blame, it became apparent that the military was the source of the violence. The author follows the funeral procession to the cemetery, which is like “a scene from a Latin American novel. Twenty coffins were carried up a hill of rocks. The wind whipped up dust and swirled it everywhere.” He ends with, “for me, it was the beginning of a difficult struggle to better understand a place where malls and massacres could be so strangely juxtaposed.”
He analyzes some underlying conditions behind this juxtaposition – the fundamental disrespect of the Mayan rural population, starting with travel writers. Guidebooks from the 1920s and 1930s barely mentioned them, although they’re close to 50% of the people, other than to say they were “primitive but Christianized.” Their distant past was considered much more interesting than their degraded present; even intelligent and appreciative travelers of the time, such as archaeologist Alfred Maudsley and the novelist Aldous Huxley, were dismayed by the “primitive” culture of the descendants of the great Maya…”
In recent times, the elite in the late twentieth century were more concerned with progress than the survival of indigenous culture. They were amazed that the world seemed to embrace the Indians and wished to protect them. “Rigoberta Menchú, an untutored Indian woman, for a prestigious award like the Nobel Peace Prize? Had the world gone mad?”
Later in the book, the author marvels at the weavings that made up each Maya group’s clothing. “Walking around Nebaj, I saw each ‘huipil’ as a fragment of a huge, unending hieroglyphic text – one that for me must remain elusive and mysterious, though I felt certain the Ixil could read these texts and could see in each individual weaving what my untrained eye could not.”
The book’s second part focuses on the places he visited, most of which I’ve lived in, or worked around, over the years. One of my favorites is his description of The “Biotopo,” not far from where I met my Guatemalan wife. The “Biotopo” is over 2,800 acres and is a bold attempt to save one of Guatemala’s most symbolic creatures, the quetzal. It’s revered because it can’t be held in captivity, and its glowing green/red plumage sets it apart from anything in the cloud forest. Unfortunately, many predicted that the quetzal would not survive the first decade of the twenty-first century, which reflects the extreme deforestation and effects of climate control.
It has a unique environment where it can rain all night and still be drizzling in the morning. Benz describes such a morning when he saw the guard in the visitor’s center waving him over. “Somehow, he’d gotten a fire going in this dampness – a skill one had better develop in the land of the ‘chipi-chipi’ – and had boiled some coffee.”
Benz sums up his experience by listing some of the names he was called over two years in Guatemala. Everything from “illustrious doctor” and “eminent critic” to “gringo jodido.” But after two years in Guatemala, one term stood out, “I remained a stranger.”
I’d agree with The Publisher’s Weekly when it observed, “Unfortunately, the book comes to a rather abrupt end, leaving readers searching for a missing chapter.” But I will definitely add this to the bibliography of my forthcoming book.
- Language : English
- File Size : 864 KB
- Publication date : May 28, 2010
- Date First Available : December 7, 2012
- Publisher : University of Texas Press
- ASIN : B00DCD9KKS
- Best Sellers Rank: #3,692,432 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
3.8 3.8 out of 5 stars 9 ratings
Stephen Benz is a Fulbright Scholar and an award-winning writer whose previous travel narratives include the Guatemalan Journey and Green Dreams. His essays have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, including the Washington Post, Miami Herald, and TriQuarterly. He teaches professional writing at the University of New Mexico. You can learn more about him at https://www.stephenconnelybenz.com/about
Mark Walker was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala and spent over forty years helping disadvantaged people in the developing world with agencies like Food for the Hungry, Make A Wish International, and Hagar USA. His book, Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond, was recognized by the Arizona Literary Association. His second book, My Saddest Pleasures: 50 Years on the Road, won the 2023 Peace Corps Writers’ Award for Best Travel Book. He’s a contributing writer for Literary Traveler, Wanderlust Journal, and The Authors’ Show. “The Million Mile Walker Review: What We’re Reading And Why” can be found in the Arizona Authors’ Association Newsletter, Authors Digest. His wife and three children were born in Guatemala. You can learn more at www.MillionMileWalker.com.