Guatemalan Livingston, a mixture of two cultures.
Our tiny waterbus is fighting against the wind and the rain on Rio Dulce river. All ten of us, from different countries around the world, crouch under the plastic covers of the jam packed boat, trying not to get soaked. As the river widens and opens up to El Golfete lake, the waves slam against the bottom of the boat, resulting in water splashing in from both sides. Despite the weather, we stop to take photos of Bird Island and a lagoon of waterlilies.the river narrows again, turning into a canyon, which is framed by limestone walks, dozens of metres tall. All of the sudden the rain stops and the surrounding jungle gets covered in a thin web of light mist.
Two hours later we arrive in Livingston, which is completely cut off from the rest of Guatemala, with no road access to it at all. The village’s original name “La Buga”, meaning mouth/opening, is quite fitting, since the village is situated right where the river flows into the Caribbean ocean. The buildings at the centre of the village have been painted with bright colours, and larger buildings have also been decorated with flamboyant street art. Palm trees sway against the sunny backdrop off the beach. I’d love to immerse myself into this November scene, and I cant help but smile when I think about the weather back at home at this time of year.
What really makes Livingston such a special place, however, are the people living there. We get a chance to catch a glimpse of the Afro-Caribbean “Garifuna” nation’s lifestyle, guided by Felipe, who’s relaxed smile beams from under his colourful beret and graying dreadlocks. He begins with a statement “Don’t come here to tell me who I am, come to ask and show an interest, and I will happily tell you my story.” We get to hear that the ancestors of the Garifuna were Arawak-Indians who’d settles on the island of St. Vincent. In the 17th century, Spanish ships carrying Nigerian slaves got shipwrecked on the same island, bringing their ethnic characteristics to the mix of the islands future generations. In the 18th century, during the period of British colonialism, the coloured Garifuna were threatened with slavery yet again. Nearly all their men were killed in the fight against the British army and their women and children were sent to sea in a ship with no sails or ores. The vessel eventually hit shore in Roata, an island belonging to Honduras, but because the island was no good for growing crops of any kind, the Garifuna spread from there to different beaches on the Caribbean, to places such as Belize and the Guatemalan Livingston. During the civil war, Guatemalan Mayas also fled to Livingston, resulting in the present day mix of cultures often advertised in travel books and brochures. According to Felipe though, the two cultures in Livingston don’t actually mix in reality, but exist side by side. Although it’s common to hear English, Spanish and Creole being spoken on the streets, the Garifuna are meticulous about preserving their own heritage and traditions. Mixed relationships are still a taboo and intercultural marriages between the Mayan descendant Guatemalans and the Garifuna are strictly forbidden.
The Mayan population of Livingston, whose main source of income is tourism, appear a touch more entrepreneurial than their Garifuna neighbours. The town’s restaurants, hostels, and gift shops are almost exclusively owned by them. On the other hand, however, tourism has also cost the environment a lot. It saddens me to see the huge turtle shells, seashells and chunks of coral for sale! In 2004 the already poor population of the town were hit with a hurricane, causing devastating damage to both the buildings and the crops. Europeans and U.S citizens came to their rescue providing emergency provisions such as food for children and healthcare, but many of the buildings remain destroyed. We really notice that when we follow our guide to the slum-like Garifuna estate, where tourists don’t usually set foot at all. The Djembe drums inside one of the houses catch our eye, they are an important part of Garifuna culture and religious rituals.
After our fascinating day trip we return to Rio Dulce harbour, where the jetty boasts many magnificent sailboats and one motorhome; Epeli! The sailboats have got here from the Caribbean via Livingston using the river. We enjoy the evening blending in with those traveling the world by boat, and feel like we’re all part of the same crowd, even if our “vessel” does use rubber tyres instead of a sail.