It’s not that I’m crazy about birds (not yet!), but I do like spending time with enthusiasts – anyone (almost) who has a deep enthusiasm and interest in something esoteric (confined to and understandable by only an enlightened inner circle).

Birds generally are present in many, often pretty, places. Each species’ individual story tells something curious, or fantasic, or just worth knowing about the world. Hence, a visit with the bird nerds.

Guatemala has plenty of interesting birds of its own. Think toucan and quetzal, then add the less famous but really cool trogon, differentiated hummingbirds, seed-eaters, woodpeckers. But wait! There’s more! Many North American migratory species pass through or over-winter here, starting about now. Guatemala, the size of Ohio, has nearly as many species as the entire US/Canadian land mass.

So a handful of us strode off into the back lot of Hacienda Tijax, quite near Fronteras, our temporary ‘home town’. Las senoras, from boats were easily identified by their extra-heavy night vision marine binoculars, quirky footwear, and lack of bird book or birding life list. But we caught on quickly enough, with a little help from our new friends. As always, keep your mind open and your mouth shut, and remember the golden rule. Also, on the canopy bridges, don’t let your attention wander too far.

So, when all I would have seen was a distant little flutter, Leo or Meynor or Bryan (a young man who also taught us, in the guise of a drawing lesson, to notice the shape of the beaks, the feet, the wings, as well as a bit of birder vocabulary) would announce: “Oh, a white-collared seed eater.” Heads swivel. Binoculars up. “Female” “ooh” pencils out to mark down the sighting, Howell’s book out to show ‘las senoras‘.

The birds kept coming – in the hour or so before sunset we, or at least they, saw 17 different bird species, and knew them by first last and middle names, and sex, in several languages.
One of the most charming aspects of birdwatching in Guatemala is that English is the bird-nerd language; aficionados earnestly discuss anatomical features, such as the ‘slatey’ tail feathers which distinguish one trogon from the next …, in English!

Probably somewhere, Cicero’s ghost is gleefully saying ‘and ya know, they still use Latin too!’ All the guides knew those names as well.

Next day many more, many different, birds. And some real spectacles: the trogons were a colorful revelation.
The black-cowled oriole is related to my state bird, but I’ve never seen one in Maryland. The American redstart. The cuckoo something – I forgot to write it down, but remember Leo’s description of the long swinging tail and my mental image of my grandmother’s cuckoo clock.

And me, another spectacle. Now I’ve got a pencil and a book too, and a tangle of strings around my neck, connecting me to my hat, sunglasses, camera, pencil in my mouth, book under my arm. Ahha! So that’s why they have those vests with all the little pockets! I hope this urge to accouter is not contagious.

I was very impressed with the enthusiasm and knowledge of the speakers. I was also impressed with the quality of the INGUAT-certified guides, not for the first time. In fact, as we noticed, we have almost never spent time with well-educated Guatemalans before. It was a treat.
PHOTO MEYNOR SCOPEMeynor was a wizard at setting up his ‘scope’ and making sure we all saw something.

So my visit to the nation of birdwatchers was a great success. Makes me think that from now on, rather than wandering around clueless, I’ll find the local ‘twitchers’ as the Brits call birdwatchers, and see what they find interesting.
Photo by Carole Webster.

Harvesting Rubber


Think AIDS, which sent the consumption of latex gloves in medical facilities skyrocketing. Think latex condoms, which are available at nearly every checkout stand in most countries, but seem insufficiently used.

Think rubber mattresses, expensive, but ever so comfortable, I hear, and they last a lifetime. Think rubber boots and tarps. Or think vehicle tires, which is actually where most of the world’s rubber production goes.

Where it comes from is here. At least some small fraction of the often-preferred natural product (most ‘rubber’ is synthesized from petroleum) comes from right here on the Rio Dulce. The tree, Hevea Brasiliensis, is a native of Brazil, local to Central America and was used by the Mayans for their rubber game balls. In some respects (climate, rain, sun), this Rio Dulce area is ideal for rubber plantations, and there are several.

Also, as I learned at Tijax, another local plantation, their trees are a cross between the Brazilian and a Malaysian variety. As well, during dry conditions, as we have had recently despite the so-called rainy season, tapping stops in the interest of arboreal health.

In 1844 Charles Goodyear patented the process of vulcanisation, the process of mixing raw rubber with sulphur under extreme heat. This made a cheaper more elasticated rubber. Gloves, and condoms, are made by dipping glass forms into liquid rubber.

As usual, most everything I ‘know’ I Googled. Here’s some more.

In the world scheme of things, far more rubber is produced in the vicinity of Malayasia, Thailand, and India. The forest that was cleared to grow these trees may have been ecologically preferable to the orderly rowed plantations; but economic forces have their own logic. In La Esmerelda almost all the workers I see are young men; but in Southeast Asia, it’s often women’s work, which is to say, poorly paid.

Whenever I asked my informants about the harvesting work, they always refer to ‘ulli’ trees. Come to find out that ‘ulli’ is a Mayan word, meaning blood, or rubber. Also, one of the sometimes contradictory factoids of Google indicates that hevea brasilensis and the maple tree may be related. Or not, but it seems like they should be.

For reasons of tree hydraulics, the trees are tapped at night or very early in the morning. On my daybreak walks, I sometimes see people still wearing head-lights, and hear the scritch of their knives as they move from tree to tree opening the veins, so to speak. They could be tapping new latex every couple days, as in Asia, but I don’t think it’s that intensive here. I should go out in the wee hours sometime to make sure, (but probably won’t).

The tree, handled skillfully, is said to be good for twenty years of latex. Then its wood, stronger than oak (according to the rubber-wood-marketing board), can be used for furniture etc.

Mexico may be Guatemala’s main latex rubber customer. Factoid: rubber is the only naturally-grown product used in the automotive industry, with the possible previous exception of silk.

The Asians seem to try to keep their rubber in liquid form, which means using ammonia as a solvent, according to a Google site. Or, according to the guide at Tijax, a muriatic acid solution is used.

Here, the latex rubber is harvested in ‘cup form’ and as ‘tree lace’ (peeled from the drip line). Its processing involves a lot of heat, which destroys at least some of the proteins (latex allergies are blamed on proteins), and the result is solid rubber.

The workers leave their ‘cup forms’ and ‘tree laces’ beside the road for a tractor to pick up. Gnats seem to like this powerfully scented ‘ulli’.

For more info see, or try Google, and see where you bounce!

A laugh on me

How good is my Spanish these days? Well, here’s how good it is.

I was sitting on a bar stool, waiting for Doug, lip-reading the paper (Diario), and drinking a licuado, when a man came up behind me and asked the lady behind the bar for ‘el papel’. Guiltily, I closed the newspaper and pushed it toward him.
He looked at it, and me, a little sadly I thought, then at her. She handed him a roll of toilet paper and he went into the men’s room.

A few seconds passed while I worked out what had transpired, then I began to chuckle. The bartender and the other customer exchanged a discreet few quiet words. I held up the Diario and said, in Spanish something like “i ingles, esta se llama el papel”. Only then did they begin to laugh.

Later, another man came up to me. He told me I had a voice like Vicky Carr. I asked ‘is Vicky Carr young and beautiful?” (no subjunctive for me). No, he said, she is like us. But he liked her because she had a beautiful voice and she sings English and Spanish both without an accent.

Best I can say for myself is that I laugh without an accent.

Early morning walks along the pipeline

I had been walking three times a week with Kim, but she’s away now, so now I go by myself. On the road by 5:30 AM-it’s light but hasn’t been for long, and home, primed for the day, just before 7. It’s the best time of day.

My route is a road whose main purpose is to service the crude oil pipeline that runs alongside it, and maybe to supply the village of La Esmerelda, which is bounded by the river, the road and the marina.

There are more animals than people abroad at this, the rooster hour; also some very handsome chickens, pig families, even ducks, if it’s been raining and their stream is flowing, and flocks of turkeys. Dogs sometimes appear in gangs, but they are sickly or juvenile two-faced bullies, most of these dogs, just the kind I’m not sure how to meet. Doug suggested I pick up some stones; it works! The mere bending over to pick them up is something the dogs have seen before, and not liked. They don’t even know that I throw like a girl.

At the very end of La Esmerelda there’s a house I always like to surreptitiously examine. It’s a place with the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ written all over, and no proper sanitation facilities either. There’s often a blazing cooking fire visible through the cracks in the board siding, bringing the pre-daybreak temperature well over 100 already. Luxury would be an outside cooking shelter and an enclosed outhouse separate from the well.

Does the woman of the house step from her hammock every morning eager to build that blazing fire? Or does she imagine another life – one that doesn’t require such heat so early in service of so many people, for so long. Cultural expectations may vary. She might be wondering why I’m by myself, moving so fast in this climate and what my family is eating since I’m not there to make the tortillas.

The road is packed dirt road full of rounded river stones from kidney- to head-sized. Or rather, it’s a stone road, with dirt infill. There are a number of hills I can never quite remember to count, but they’re nicely arranged, as if laid out by cross-trainer software.

Beyond the village, the rubber plantation begins. The ranks of trees look old and well-established, as they stretch off into the distance. Some mornings are redolent with the not-altogether-pleasant scent of fresh-tapped rubber.

One little valley has been cleared, roughly, and planted with corn. There are a few areas of streams and ponds where the original vegetation remains. Here is where you’ll see some nice butterflies and Bird-of-Paradise.

Then comes another plantation with different trees. We’ve identified these as gmolina, and believe it’s being grown for pulp, or possibly lumber – more details to follow.

The gmolina gradually gives way to fairly recently cleared pasture land, sometimes with cows and/or horses, but mostly empty save for a few small birds.

The river Seja marks our usual stopping point, where we comment on how low the water levels are and how the rainy season never really got going. Occasionally we go all the way to ‘the crossroads’ where we often see men with machetes sitting patiently waiting, ?for a ride?Photobucket

And the pipeline marches on, 275 miles long (so said my source, but now I think it might be kilometers), it starts in the far north of Guatemala, near the border with Mexico and its Tabasco oil fields, in a jungle and wetland area that was rebel-active in the civil war, which slowed down hydro-carbon resource development. In fact, under this rock are more sordid details about World Bank funding and hasty/sloppy environmental assessments which encouraged oil drilling in a rain forest.

According to

Guatemala has four sedimentary basins located in the north, south and eastern sections of the country, all with potential hydrocarbon reserves: southern Peten, northern Peten, Amatique and the Pacific. Exploration to date indicates the existence of both large and small fields, with recoverable reserves of between 20 and 30 million barrels of petroleum of varying API gravity, from heavy crude to medium and light grade.
Approximately 65% of Guatemala is covered by sedimentary rock, indicating the probability of finding oil in almost anywhere in the country.

The “tuberia” continues under the Rio Dulce and on to the Caribbean seaport of Puerto Barrios, where I think it is refined. Guatemala is the only Central American country that produces oil, and it still needs to import substantial amounts.

Perenco is a European-owned conglomerate.

Those men with machetes sometimes materialize to trim the vegetation that grows under the ‘tubo’. The pipe shows signs of inspection and painting, and we see the occasional boat drill with towed containment booms on the river. Other pipeline regulars I meet, or at least wave at, are the rubber cutters, and a man we call ‘El Guapo’, the handsome. He speeds past, usually in a jeep or ATV, always wearing a white cowboy hat, and waves with an economical gesture.

Recently there have been other marina users of the pipeline road, later in the morning, but by then, it’s a different road. Friendly women, men with paddles moving towards the rio, the kids who go to school (there are those who don’t)all progress down the lane in their heartbreakingly clean clothes, wet combed hair, the scent of soap in their wake. “Buenas dias”, a shy smile; as I clump on past, wishing the world weren’t so complicated.

El Estor

We took a little bus excursion for an overnight at El Estor, a small town on the north shore at the far end of Lago Izabal. You could take your own boat up the lake but most people don’t – one security incident (theft) even a while back puts people off a place for years.

We were curious, having heard that originally this was a location where the Spanish stored treasure. When? What treasure? Where did it come from? How did it get down the narrow river gorges without being picked off? Lago Izabal was also how the coffee plantations in the highland state of Alta Verapaz connected to coastal shipping before trains and trucks arrived.

Nobody knows nuttin’about the Spanish- might be one of those stories that gets passed along because it sounds interesting and we want to believe it.

The next story about El Estor is its name: The Store, said Spanish style. This is true; the building still exists and is in fact the hotel, Vista del Lago, where we stayed, in a very small and basic room. A train line to carry coffee from the Highlands to Puerto Barrios on the coast passed this way starting sometime in the 1800s and The Store, started in the 1850s by two British gentlemen, was the only source for European goods for miles around. How many people wanted European goods? I can’t even imagine.

Eventually a highway was built south of the lake and El Estor slipped back into near oblivion.

Things get active again in the 1960s when a high grade of nickel was discovered nearby. A Canadian company, via its Guatemalan subsidiary, put money into the town, building the roads and a town square, a hospital (now finally being restored for use), housing and schools, even a golf course for the employees.

Their plant stood a couple miles outside of town. It’s still there under its tall smokestack, fenced off and guarded, looking like it could swing into some kind of action shortly.

Various technical and transportation difficulties shut it down in 1977, “much to the relief of the locals who had witnessed the decimation of the surrounding forests and rivers” says Shelagh McNally in Pocket Adventures Guatemala.

Our host at the hotel had been employed at the mine in its prime. He was happy to take us out there and tried to explain how the plant had been operated; neither of our language skills were sophisticated enough for some of the discussion. Apparently, they needed to generate a lot of electricity and eventually the price of diesel fuel for the power plant contributed to their demise.

What looks even clearer in El Estor than in our ‘home town’ of Fronteras is that many many people, maybe 80-90 percent? are the indigenous Mayan, K’iche’. Reading further into Shelagh McNally’s book, I learned that land rights have been and continue to be of ongoing concern in this area. There was an infamous massacre here in 1978, 100 people gunned down by the Guatemalan army. Amnesty International came through in 1999 after a prominent human rights activist went, and stayed, missing. And in recent years, the Guatemalan military has violently evicted Mayan communities living on land the government preferred to transfer to international corporations.

Although there was successful community resistance to keep international oil drilling out of the lake, efforts to promote conservation and preservation in the area, which is quite near the extensive valley of the Rio Polochic BioReserve, are also fairly low-key.

Since the nickel mine isn’t running, and there aren’t really any signs of a fishing industry, or a cattle industry, or much commercial agriculture, except on a very small scale, it’s hard to say what makes the money go round.

At least that’s the gist of what I’ve learned by Googling around, in particular from

The orderly grid of streets, broad, with curbs and sidewalks, give El Estor a dignity unlike the usual bustling but ramshackle feel of other Guatemalan towns. I’m nearly certain that we were the only tourists in town, and after we’d been up two or three blocks, and over four more, everyone knew us as well.

We did our best to entertain them: taking pictures in a surprisingly well-stocked music store,
checking out an aguardiente (firewater, as in grain alcohol!) joint, watching cayugas get loaded (not with firewater!) for trips to even smaller villages somewhere.
We drank street-vendor drinks out of plastic bags, and a chocolate licuado made with Nesquick that was pretty good. We checked out a small eco-resort, visited the nickel mine, ate something delicious smokily cooked over an oil drum, and slept in our tiny lake view cabin.
Next day, as we had a tipico (refried beans, plantains, eggs, bit of cheese, tortillas, fresh juice) breakfast at a cafe overlooking the square, we tried to give part of it to a young boy, in neat clean clothes but clearly hungry, who had been watching us intently. The waitress intervened to stop us, ‘on principle’, the principle of not having their customers hit upon, I guess.

These folks were waiting for the bank to open. The line stretched half a block already and was still there when we left town an hour later. I went off to buy some Rio Polochic rice (sorry to report, it’s undistinguished) and then we boarded the bus, clambering over the bundle of plastic plumbing pipe in the aisle (no chickens), towards Boqueron.