RIO DULCE JUNGLE, Guatemala- The type of boat that the Maya fishermen in the jungles of Guatemala use to chase their game is called a cayuco. I must admit that sitting with three men in a cayuco is not an easy task. There is more than enough room in a cayuco for three men, as they are around 12 feet long, but the problem comes in their construction: cayucos are indigenous Maya dugout canoes, they sit low in the water, they are very slender, and they are, consequently, very easy to capsize. Each motion of any person in a cayuco wiggles the entire boat, constant attention must be paid to maintaining balance, or the entire expedition could easily flip bottom side up into the river.
This is not just the musings of a land lubing Gringo unfamiliar with local boating methods, as I have seen local fishermen along these rivers capsize while at work. It seems to be a laughing matter when this happens, as any onlookers privileged enough to watch one of their brethren flip a cayuco often busts a gut in laughter — fully amused.
I went out to fish for Tarpon, or Sabalo, with a group of Maya men on the Rio Dulce, and just as we got settled into the cayco and out on the river the fishing party that I went out with were met by a large recreation yacht flying by at full speed. The impending waves from this boat rocked our slender cayco towards the shore — up and down the boat moved in the waves — I held on to both sides to help balance it out, and the two fishermen that I was with stabilized us with their paddles. We laughed a little as we bounced in the waves. The two men began chatting quickly in Q‘eqchi‘.
“My brother asked me if you can swim. Can you swim?” Alfredo asked me in Spanish. It was a timely question, as we were trying to control the cayuco from smashing into the mangroves growing out over the shore and from capsizing all together. I said that I could swim, and prepared myself for a possible dip in the river.
After observing the social dynamics along the Rio Dulce between the indigenous, jungle dwelling Maya and the recreating, loud, often drunk, usually rich Guatemalans from the capital, I could not help asking Alfredo what he thought of people that I could not think of being anything other than intruders.
“The people in that boat,” I began, indicating the speeding yacht that just sped by and sent our cayuco rolling, “they are Capitalenos, no?”
He agreed that they were rich people from the capital of Guatemala, as I began pensively framing my question.
“Do they bother the people here?”
These rich Guatemalans from the capital city come out to the Rio Dulce, apparently, to party, drive their motor boats, yachts, and jet skis and full speed, get drunk, and yell “wooooo!” They seem to offer no acknowledgement to the local people fishing, and, like most recreators, they demonstrate little acknowledgement for anybody or anything outside of their pursuit of a good time. They are representatives of the rich class of a poor country, and are, likewise, often as under-cultured as the rich are in most parts of the world.
The dark skinned Maya are often the servants of these light skinned rich kids — some of whom can make a claim at tracing their ancestry back to the conquistadors — and they often are treated as being, more or less, backwards and inconsequent.
As I watch these clowns driving their boats and jet skis wildly all over the river and even up and down its small tributaries, I have to wonder how they are perceived by the local Maya, who are fishing with simple methods, selling their vegetables, fruit, and meat off their boats from dock to dock, while contending against the large waves emitting from the yachts moving at high velocity.
Alfredo spoke lightly that the Capitalenos did not bother him.
I rephrased my question and asked what he thinks about them driving their boats fast and making large waves in the river. To this he laughed as he clenched the sides of the cayuco and pantomimed what he does when the big waves from the fast moving yachts run up against his small boat . He laughed off my question, and seemed to harbor no resentment towards the outsiders who use the same river as he does for a very different purpose.
Though I felt that it was difficult to get a clear impression of what the I indigenous people in this forest really thinks of the boisterous rich classes of their country — as I am sure that they would want to appear polite and inoffensive even if they venomously hated the behavior of the Capitalenos. But Alfredo did not seem to have this reaction at all: conquerors have been stomping through here in one form or another for hundreds of years, the people here seem use to this by now.
Alfredo goes on with his life — fishing, boating, caring for his family — as the rich speed by in yachts drinking beer. Sometimes the fishermen comment on the large size of the boats curiously as they pass. To an observer, the two ways of life seem incorrigible and almost mutually inconsequential to each other. If it were not for the fact that some restaurants on this part of the Rio Dulce who serve the rich boaters buy Alfredo’s catch and the waves that their large boats cause, I would even go as far as to say that these two cultures exist almost mutually independent of each other while using the same river.
The jungle Maya do their thing, and the boaters and tourists do theirs.
Alfredo seemed to take the rich in their speeding yachts as more of a natural parameter in the environment to be worked around rather than as an unjust nuisance. The yelling and screaming Capitalenos on boat trips may as well have been barriers to fishing as normal and natural as the tide, rain, and sun. The fishermen did not grunt and groan each time the waves from a giant yacht, passing by at full speed, would send us rocking up and down. No, these men just grabbed onto the cayuco, kept it steady, waited for the boat to pass, and then resumed fishing as though their time and lifestyle was not drastically contrasted by another.
The lines between different cultures in proximity to each other are often thick. Just because the rich from Guatemala’s capital are in physical proximity to the jungle Maya does not mean that their ways of living cross more than a curious glance, or a residual business transaction, passed from one party to another.
But I sat in the middle of a surreal interchange none the less: I was in a dugout cayuco with Q’eqchi’ Maya men fishing with the simplest of gear as people from the other side of Guatemala and tourists from the other side of the planet would speed by in expensive boats — pulling each other in inner tubes, jumping waves in jet skis, yelling, laughing, partying.
Two very different worlds met on the same river, I was floating at the breakwater of two different worlds: I was at once with the people of the forest and the people of the city.
I floated on. When a yacht would pass away into the sunset, the simple features of the jungle would again reassert themselves. Alfredo would toss out his line, call out a joke in Mayan to his friends in nearby cayuco, and nothing other than scenes of ancient nature would surround us. Huts took form out of a jungle background on the shore, the river glittered orange in the sunset, twilight clouds floated over head, and the sky moved from blue, to red, to night.
Alfredo and I resumed talking about fishing.
At the end of the day, we had not caught anything.
“The fish are not hungry today,” I joked.
Alfredo joked about it too, “They don’t want to bite.”
Then Alfredo took on a more serious tone, “Today there was a lot of big boats, they scared the fish away.”
This article is part of a series on indigenous Maya fishing methods in the Rio Dulce region of Guatemala. To navigate through the other articles in the series, follow the links below