Dick’s Guatemala Journal – December 20 – 24, 1999

The following is my uncut, unedited and unorganized journal – but with lots of (hopefully interesting) detail about what we have been up to!

December 20, 1999
– We arrive in Guatemala City and immediately descend on the ATM. Based on our Costa Rican experience where our card, (Cirrus) was not useable in most machines and concerns that between the election on Sunday, December 26 and potential Y2K issues, cash will be king. Unfortunately, the machine restricts withdrawals to 1,000 quetzales, (approximately $130.00 based on the exchange rate of 7.6 quetzales per dollar) so I stand for 15 minutes, in a country known for armed bandits, at an ATM repeatedly making withdrawals. Also, the largest denomination note is 100 quetzales, (approximately $13) so I am walking around with pockets fully laden with what’s equal to a year plus of annual income in Guatemala.

Guatemala City is a large urban developing country capitol, highly polluted, population of 3 million (almost equaling the total population of Costa Rica) out of the country’s total 10.5 million. That said, we pass Indian women in brightly colored traditional native garb carrying large bundles of fabric on their heads without using their hands, street vendors all over the place selling everything from baskets to peanuts, which more than make up for the large Coca Cola bottling company, Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, Dunkin’ Donuts and Chucky Cheese.

I ask about potential safety issues with regard to Guatemala’s run off election this Sunday, December 26th and I’m told that there should not be any problems, certainly not in the smaller villages which we will be visiting, and even in the capitol, there would probably only be isolated incidents.

The road to Antigua takes you from Guatemala City at approximately 1,500 meters over 2,000 meter paths leaving the city’s noise and pollution behind and again descending to 1,539 meters over sea level. Antigua is one of the oldest cities in the Americas and originally housed the first printing press, the fifth university in Latin America.

December 21, 1999
– Antigua, Guatemala – We awoke this morning to a magnificent view of Volcano Agua looking very Fiji like and encrusted in snow.

Antigua is a perfect Spanish colonial style town of 30,000 complete with markets full of local produce, live chickens, turkeys and ducks and brightly garbed Mayan Indian descendants. Certainly not untouched by tourism, there is a sign at Plaza de la Paz, Peace Place, in front of a historic church which has a prohibition in Spanish and English “No nudity either top or bottom”. I assume this excludes the Indian women breast-feeding their children in authentic, original Snuggly type baby holders.

There are wonderful restaurants and boutiques with amazing Guatemalan handicrafts, furniture, carvings, fabrics and ceramics, (and we have been told that prices here are substantially higher than elsewhere in Guatemala, even higher than Guatemala City) but there is not much to complain about – there is even an Yogen Fruz (my favorite frozen yogurt – pick your own flavor and have it blended in on the spot). There is even a “four corners” in which three of the corners have photo-fnishing stores, along with colorful markets, street vendors hawking everything from fresh charcoal grilled corn on the cob to an array of breads, vegetable, fruits and Christmas decorations and ornaments.

December 21, 1999
– We’re in the market in Antigua where there is a wide range of artisan’s handiwork and I am listening to Ben throw a fit over which type of plastic, battery operated cell phone toy he wants to buy for a $1.50. There is something drastically wrong with this picture. And then with Ben screaming, we make another stop in the market where Alex finds a great deal – only 30 quetzales (approx. $4.00) two plastic Superman action figures shrink-wrapped with a DC comic.

An hour later, everyone has calmed down, and are looking at fireworks in the market and have successfully bargained down the price of Katie’s beautiful stuffed horse (a much more legitimate Guatemalan craft from $2.00 to $1.00.

I place a call to Iomega regarding two intermittently failing Click drives. The only way to place a call to their 888 number is through MCI. I am kept on hold for 25 minutes and then after 25 minutes am talked through a diagnostic the tech support representative finally agrees with me that indeed I do have intermittently failing drives, but informs me that there is nothing he can do to help me, I have to call the company that handles Guatemala. I explain to him that there is no company that handling Guatemala and that a call to Miami will not be satisfactory, finally speak with a supervisor who, 30 minutes later has arranged a new shipment to me in Guatemala. The next challenges will be to see if anything arrives and hoping to avoid the 100% duty on imported items by calling them replacement parts.

At the libreria (stationery store), we purchase a range of school supplies – pens, crayons, paper and journal notebooks – for about $10. We then stumble upon a shop selling Pokemon cards run by a Guatemalan woman whose brother in-law ships them to her from New York. I ask her, and sure enough, the only buyers are American tourists. Guatemalan kids have neither the interest nor the incomes to support that expensive habit.

All of the very serious looking bank guards toting sawed-off shotguns peering intently at all passers by give one pause. This does not appear to be a security guard job for retirees seeking a social security supplement. Armed guards accompany even the soda bottle distributors.

December 22, 1999
– After long “conversations” of a sort that spouses of many years engage in (its not an “argument” it’s a “discussion”) Patty helps me “see the light” that I am being too hard on our children, that for nine months, they don’t have a “home” and even though nine months of traveling around the world is our dream, and the children are enjoying it and doing very well, it is a stressful experience. It does place stresses on them not having a home, friends, their own room, their own things and they have reacted quite well to the theft of their special possessions. We do constantly get comments from people who cannot believe how well they are handling the constant change. We resolve that we will set an absolute standard of no whining or fits in public places, but otherwise allow them a bit more flexibility. In truth, I recognize that Christmas is coming, we are not at home and they are reacting as children. Ben really does love his cellphone; Alex purchased the Superman and other poseable action figures.

December 23, 1999
– In the market in Chichicastenango – We are each buying Christmas presents for each other. We negotiate hard over each quetzal (approx. $0.13). Ben sees a toy gun for Alex and I explain to him that buying guns is not a very good idea in a country where they really use the guns. We have very complicated personnel assignments as each child secretly gets presents for the other and for us.

December 24, 1999
– Chichicastenango – Mayan Inn. The past 48 hours has been a fantastic blur of travel adventures and experiences. Beginning at 6:00 a.m. Wednesday, December 22nd, I get ready to set out for Guatemala City to meet Fernando Bolanos a fellow YPOer who has responded to our “seeking pen pals” for our children. The get together was originally scheduled for both families at breakfast at hotel Quinta Royal in Guatemala City. Based on our plans, the balance of the day, the children’s then current state of mind and the relative lack of appeal of having children meeting others in a fancy hotel breakfast setting, we change plans and I was going in alone. Fernando also requested that we move the meeting time up from the original 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. seeing as it was just going to be the two of us.

As Patty and I the night before, at midnight, finished our e-mailing of 38 photographs from Costa Rica for our first “photo gallery” on the website, I give serious thought to canceling and avoiding the hour drive in and out for a short, potentially stilted meeting. As it turned out, that would have been a very bad decision. As breakfast, in addition to learning that the upcoming election, on December 26th was to be a shoe-in for the new, now self-proclaimed “right wing” president (who had earlier been exiled from Guatemala during their 36 year civil war against Communist insurgence) and has admitted to two murders while exiled as a Communist in Mexico. For political opportunism he has since moved to the center and now to the right. Fernando explains that the business interest are particularly nervous in that no one took his candidacy seriously a year ago and now everyone is very concerned about what actions he may take when in office. He appears allegedly to have no real platform, promising anything requested to any audience, however, I am told that this is Guatemala’s fourth election since democracy was restored after the civil war and no problems are expected. Fernando’s primary business is banana plantation – they have 6,000 hectares, presently approximately 15,000 acres under cultivation and supply half of Del Monte’s Guatemalan production and 18% of Del Monte’s worldwide banana crop, in a business totaling approximately $100 million dollars a year. They also have side businesses and joint ventures including mango fruit processing, palm oil production and even multi-screen cinemas. He sells on 10 year fixed price contracts to Del Monte and Dole, which largely serve as middle men and shipping companies, with the following rough economics; he sells a minimum 40 lb. box for approximately $6.00 (approx. $0.15 a pound which is then sold by Dole or Del Monte for $0.25 – $0.40 a pound to the supermarkets which in turn sell an average retail of $0.49 – $0.59 a pound. As it turns out, bananas are very important to supermarket economics with gross margins of up to 50% and represent on average 3% of a store’s profit.

Fernando leads a very international life – visiting the States, usually Miami, every six weeks to see his customers and making at least an annual trip to Boston. Several of the trips were for medical visits for family members at Mass General.

As our breakfast draws to a close, Fernando (or Don Fernando as he is known to his “people”) asks me what my plans are for the balance of the day – I explain that I am going to shop at which ever department store he advises in search of Gameboys, Pokemon, Legos and other present that the kids have been requesting of Santa, rather than restricting it to Guatemalan handicrafts, which would be more “typical and authentic” – but after all Scrooge it is Christmas regardless of our own idyllic immersion in international travel. Fernando suggest Cemaco as the best department store for imported goods in Guatemala City, but also asks if I would have some time and an interest in joining him as he flies to inspect one of his fincas this morning. A quick call to Patty and she graciously agrees to watch the children at the hotel back in Antigua for the morning and enable me to go on this adventure. With incredible Latin gracious hospitality, he insists that I dismiss my driver and that his driver, after our visit, will accompany me to the store and then take me back to Antigua.

As we arrive at the airport, I’m expect to see a small Cessna – Fernando had explained that he could arrive in 35 minutes at this finca as opposed to 3 ΒΈ to 4 hours on curving mountain roads. We’re met instead with a Bell Jet Ranger III helicopter and he puts me in the front seat as the pilot nervously removes all the dual control apparatus not wanting me to panic at some point putting us into a steep dive or climb by grabbing the “stick”. We rise to our cruising elevation of approximately 300 feet above the ground. Immediately upon leaving the airport I am shown the remaining fuselage of the Cubana Airlines DC10 which crashed 100 feet upon take off yesterday, killing at least 28 of its 210 passengers. It was fortunate that it didn’t go another 100 feet and begin plowing into hundreds of squatters’ cottages. A 35-minute bird’s eye view takes us past colorful lakes, burning sugar cane fields (an environmental nightmare which is carried out on all sugar cane fields prior to harvest, as it increases sugar concentration and removes all the loose leaves.) In order to force a stop to the practice, the US is threatening to restrict imports into the US from burnt fields. Harvesting is still largely manual but increasingly becoming mechanized.

I digress here for one moment on the Guatemalan sugar cartel as a fascinating example of probably one of the best functioning oligopolies today, although its solidarity is beginning to fray. There are a half-dozen producers who control Guatemalan sugar. World market prices for sugar are approximately $0.06 a pound – domestic Guatemalan oligopolistic prices are $0.27 a pound. The government has taken no efforts to impede the oligopolistic activities and the only crack so far has been Pepsi, which succeeded in getting one of the smaller producers to commit to it on a long-term contract of $0.16 a pound. Guatemalan law, as provided by the government as protection to the sugar producers requires soft drink bottlers to use only can sugar and not corn syrup as is now used throughout the world. This is a country which does not generally have “repressed rage” with its psychological implications – gunfire, explosives and heavy security seem to be the prevalent method of dispute resolution. In fact, when an entrepreneur sought to break the taxi medallion cartel in Guatemala City, his office and several of his cars where torched.

Banana growing is substantially more labor and capital intensive and productive than sugar cane. It takes one worker per hectare (approx. 2.5 acres) to run a banana plantation – 20 times the number required for sugar cane. Bananas also require extensive irrigation and drainage systems and very heavy fertilization. I learn that that is 550 kilograms of nitrogen and 750 kilograms of potassium and substantial fungicides. I am told that the banana plantation requires one kilometer of irrigation piping per hectare.

We also fly over and around volcanoes, the presidential summer retreat, pineapple, mango, cut flower and other plantations.

As we land, the chopper is met by two heavily armed, shotgun-toting security guards and proceed the next two hours serving all aspects of the 750 hectare finca’s operation with the manager. The project is a joint venture with Del Monte and is only in its second year of production.

First small banana shoots are purchased from laboratories in Costa Rica and Israel, which use tissue culturing to produce the rootstalk. The stalk is then shipped temporarily potted in soil and placed under protective netting and then transplanted into the fields. One year later the first bananas can be harvested and thereafter, the main stalk is cut down (and one of the shoots or sons as they are called) is allowed to grow 9 months later producing its crop of bananas. Some plantations go 50 plus years with a great, great, great grandson’s producing. Through Don Fernando’s “direction” to his manager, I learned about the incredible attention to detail necessary. The plants must have a minimum of 40 millimeters of diameter in each banana harvested (some had been harvested early and would be rejected) the stalks enroute to the packing plant must be carefully wrapped in foam so the bananas don’t bruise each other as they are hauled along on guide wires through the fields by cargadores who will pull many stalks at one time. One small blemish in the field will result in a completely black fruit by the time it is ripened in the States, then on to the packing shed where the bananas are cut into smaller bunches, quality controlled and with only top quality going for export, second quality for domestic supermarket sale and consumption and third quality thrown on trucks for local village use (Don Fernando claims that much of this isn’t even paid for but given to the distributors of the villages in exchange for carting them away.) Otherwise, the business is similar to most others – Fernando hears of the problems of labor shortages because of Christmas, and that quality slippage is not allowed, all workers must understand and comply with the same standards, and that loss and wastage rates are far too high due to improper harvesting, temporary wrapping to the fields, and quality control for packing. One interesting operation is the wrapping of the banana stems once they have all been pollinated. They are wrapped in a white plastic to create a warmer, more humid environment that hastens ripening and improves the size of the resulting fruit. This is done by a single laborer on a small ladder who is paid piece work based on demonstrating his production by the number of flower tips cut off and counted at the end of the day, (cuts and bags approx. 200 trees per day). I am told that the plantation workers make an average of $8.00 per day, which is approximately 3 times the wages they would normally receive. The legal minimum age of 14 years old is waived with parental permission and it appears that, not withstanding compulsory education through the sixth grade, there is an ample supply of a very young labor force available.

I returned to Guatemala City fully invigorated by the helicopter ride and fascinating overviews I have seen. I was escorted to the Cemaco Department Store by one Don Fernando’s drivers/guards who assists me in purchases for children’s presents which probably far exceeds several months’ worth of his wages. An awkward situation at best, but one which is very prevalent in developing counties. He relays first hand his fighting battles in the Civil War against insurgence in the jungle, said his original group of 500 suffered fatalities resulting in only 200 survivors at the end of the three year term, how he was conscripted at age 14 and served until he was 17 and about how, of those 200, many lost limbs or otherwise were permanently maimed or disfigured and how you’d be sent back into battles after injuries which were barely beginning to recover, and how the Communists fully infiltrated the local peasantry and were that much more dangerous in setting up ambushes. He is now one of many Don Fernando’s security workers and explains of all the cautions that have to taken by the “executives” in Guatemala – the situation has dramatically improved from two years ago when kidnapping had become a major business operation. Two of Don Fernando’s cousins were among those kidnapped. One of them was the first ever kidnapped for ransom and was released after 7 days for approximately $250,000. The second, six months later, was held for 45 days which tremendously frightened the family as no one knew if they were negotiating ransom for the release of someone still alive – all earlier kidnappings had been 7 to 10 days. As the tension increased so did the ransoms, with later ransoms being in excess of a million dollars. My driver/guide/guard has had several of his friends killed in defense of the executives they were guarding.