National Geographic : 1936 Oct
GUATEMALA INTERLUDE In the Land of the Quetzal a Modern Capital Contrasts With Primitive Indian Villages and the "Pompeii of America" BY E. JOHN LONG «' TAND BY! You're going over the side!" shouted an efficient young deck officer from the rail of the "Santa" liner, as it rose and fell with the measured breathing of the sea a mile off San Jose, Pacific gateway to Guatemala. Six of us, seated in the "cradle," which resembles the open cars on a Ferris wheel, felt a slight jerk as the rising boom tight ened the heavy supporting ropes. The next moment we were swinging in mid-air. Presently there came a lull. The cradle poised well beyond the rail. A whistle blew sharply, and we were lowered to the flat top deck of a bobbing tender alongside. In a few minutes we cast off, a tug swinging the tender around and heading it for a long steel pier jutting out from the shore. Ahead we could see a line of foam where big combers dashed up the steep, palm fringed beach. Crowded together along the shore were a few weather-beaten buildings roofed with corrugated iron. Blue and hazy in the distance rose the cloud-tipped cones of several volcanoes and the dim, mysteri ous mass of the Guatemalan highlands. With a resounding bump the tender was swung alongside the rusty iron piles of the pier, a stout cable holding it just out of reach of the surf. Here the process of get ting ashore was the reverse of leaving the ship, except that a circular railed platform, with a center pole to hold to, lifted groups of eight or ten passengers at a time. THROUGH GUATEMALA'S BACK DOOR San Jose is a sleepy little tropical port. Between steamers this "back door" to Guatemala drowses in the shade of tall breadfruit trees and coconut palms, and carries on a desultory commerce with the Indians of the coastal lagoons. Its dingy water front, ragged porters and fishermen, stifling heat, and main street preimpted by railroad tracks give no prom ise of the color and activity of Guatemala's gay, modern capital, high up in the cool central plateau; nor of the pristine beauty of its smoking volcanoes and deep-blue lakes; nor of the primitive charm of high land Indian villages whose markets rival oriental bazaars for color, wares, and bril liant native costumes (Color Plate VII). Nondescript iron-roofed warehouses scarcely suggest the grandeur that was Antigua, the old Spanish capital and the "Pompeii of America." Steam whistles and the raucous cries of parrots are hardly a prelude to the haunting melodies of the marimba, which one hears everywhere in the rugged highlands. QUETZAL IS BOTH COIN AND BIRD When we bought our tickets for Guate mala City at the San Jose railroad station, we learned that the country's currency is on a par with that of the United States. The unit of exchange is the quetzal, named for the national bird of freedom (Color Plate VI), and it is worth exactly one dollar. One reason for this happy financial condition is that Guatemala enjoys a favor able balance of trade, exports exceeding imports by more than $2,500,000 in 1935. The first part of the 73-mile journey to Guatemala City follows a gently rising plain, whose black volcanic soil is planted thickly in bananas, sugar cane, cotton, cacao, and fruit trees. Guatemala City is nearly a mile above sea level, in the cool and healthful tierra templada, or temperate zone, and the train must gain most of this altitude in the last fifty miles (map, p. 432). Not far beyond Palin the line creeps through a narrow valley between two tower ing peaks and comes out on the edge of mountain-rimmed Lake Amatitlin. For several miles we wound along the shore, passing groups of Indian women washing clothes in hot springs at the water's edge. It is a convenient laundry, for clothes may be boiled in the springs and rinsed in the cold, fresh water of the lake without taking a step!