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  • "As told in the stories that nobody believes now—neither grandmothers nor children—this city was built over buried cities in the center of America…"

    - Guatemala, Leyendas de Guatemala, Miguel Ángel Asturias


    I am navigating in the dark. Time passes slowly when sailing with one nautical mile per hour and those final moments of night seam interminable. I know there is land in front of us just a few miles away, I can see it on the chart. The shores of Guatemala are so close I can scent the dry smell of earth and ancient mysteries. In the dark I can make out nothing more but the contours of mountains, a darker shade of black under the night sky.

    Two miles from land dawn begins to break with the speed of a flower blooming, and the most beautiful view gradually unfolds before my eyes. No more sea but mountain. Dark old cloud-eating mountain. The back of a sleeping monster in whose veins flows the blood of trees and forgotten animals. Green hills on the bank of a river, a home of herons, water lilies, and ghosts.

    There, on the shores where the river meets the sea, under the lush chest of the mountain, men built a small town.


    Before heading up river to Rio Dulce, we spend a couple of days here dealing with customs and immigration, a lengthy but smooth process, and take advantage of our free time to explore the town.

    Livingston is a busy fishermen village where people and goods arrive solely by boat, as there is no land roads leading in and out of town.

    Fishing boats and lanchas stop on the main docks to fuel, bring supplies, or pick up passengers for Rio Dulce or Puerto Barrios every few minutes.

    As we walk up the main street where small negocios offer fresh fruits and vegetables, pan de coco, tortillas, and pretty much everything you need, we notice a bizarre mixture of people. Ladinos with cowboy hats and checkered shirts are walking slowly down the street, indigenous Queqchíes and Quiché women with long black braids, bright-colored laced shirts and long pleated traditional skirts are sitting on the side of the road surrounded by a bunch of small kids. But what make Livingston a truly unique place within Guatemala is its Garifuna community: black Caribbean men and women with dreadlocks and Jamaican hats who make up the majority of the local population.

    Los Garifuna

    In Livingston we met the “black indigenous people” of Central America. Their identity was formed, in the 17-th and 18-th century, in the midst of destructive experiences, exploitation, and displacement. Their story begun with a shipwreck.

    In 1635 a slave ship loaded with African men and women destined for the plantations of the colonies in the New World wrecked near the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent. The survivors found refuge on the island among a community of Carib Indians who had escaped the colonization in South America and lived free of European oppression and exploitation on the island. The two peoples’, traditions, music, and spirituality blended giving birth to a new ethnic identity: the Garifuna people.

    Later in the 17th century, French settlers joined the island community in a peaceful coexistence. But when English colonists came and started appropriating land, war started between the British and the Garifunas supported by the French. In 1796 the massive British troops won the war and exiled the Garifunas to the Roatán Island off the coast of Honduras. There, the Garifunas established new communities and fishing villages which spread to Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Belize.

    Today, Livingston is home of the largest Garifuna community in Guatemala, with population of about 2,400. Here we met Polo Martinez. He takes us for a tour around the Garifuna part of the village. Extremely bright and knowledgeable person, Polo introduces us to their history and culture, music, language, and traditions. In exchange for the tour he asks for a bag of rice and some used books, in English.

    The Garifuna people of Livingston are with no exception multilingual. They speak, along with English and Spanish, their own Garifuna language, a mixture of Arawakan, Carib, Spanish, English, and French. What is most fascinating about this language is the division of its vocabulary: women use different concepts and words than men.

    Another friend we met on the docks while waiting for wind, Liverio Gamboa, tells us more about the local community and its struggles, mixing English and Spanish in a most innocent way. He is a curious-looking individual: black skin, white beard, long dark dreadlocks rolled under a red hat, and blue eyes.

    “How come blue eyes?”, I ask him.

    “That’s the problem, he smiles, I told you. Who knows where these eyes came from…”

    As the afternoon wind picks up and we are ready to sail upriver we say good-by to Polo and Liverio. They will be there if we return.

    “And remember, Liverio adds, somos el único pueblo que no ha vio combate. Aquí la gente muere de vejez.”
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