Studying botany was really a parenthesis in my life. I had always liked plants, but this is not really what I wanted to do. Circumstances irrelevant here (well, I realy wanted to study anthropology) made it that it was botany that I studied, specializing in taxonomy and in ecology. I must confess that, although I am not a militarist, military life was much more pleasant than academic life, either as a student, or, years later, as a researcher. The military encourage companionship, as, in case the soldier next to you gets wounded, you have to go assist him under flying bullets, whereas in the academic world competition is ever present, competition for grants, for prestige, for being the first to publish something. Anyway studying botany gave me the opportunity of a trip in Africa, first in Ivory Coast and its rainforests (years later I photographed the Ivory Coast rainforests again) then in Burkina Faso (then called Haute-Volta) where I stayed in a village to prepare a thesis on savannas (no African savannas online yet). The trip ended in Niger, reached by camel from northern Burkina Faso, where I had a brief glimpse at Fulani nomads and at the Sahara desert and Tuareg nomads. Once finished studying, I didn´t wait for the graduation ceremony and I went traveling.
So there I was, on my first trip to the Latin America, specifically Central America. I flew from Brussels to New York, took a Greyhound bus to Miami, and flew to San José, Costa Rica, to join a volcano specialist who was studying the eruption of the Irazú volcano. We didn´t get along well, so I split and I went to Guatemala, a trip I will always remember. I first wondered around the lowlands. The highlights of that first part were the Maya ruins of Quirigua, and a colorful procession with women wearing beautiful ceremonial huipiles in one of three Ixil (a Maya language) villages, Nebaj. I went then to Huehuetenango at the base of the Cuchumatanes mountains. I had seen colorfully dressed Indians at the market. Showing a map to a local resident, I pointed to an empty space, and I asked him: “What is there?” He replied: “Nothing”. So next day I was taking a bus on a dirt road to nowhere… and to an experience I will never forget. I asked the driver to stop at the bifurcation of a smaller road going to Todos Santos Cuchumatanes. I had a 16 km hike to reach the village as night was falling. In the first few days I spent the night in the Catholic mission, eating in a local Indian “comedor”. Todos Santos lied in a beautiful valley among mountains, unfortunately I don´t have images online yet because I was shooting Kodachrome, which my Nikon 5000 scanner cannot handle; I will need to have drum scans made. (I am told the Vuescan software can hadle Kodachrome, I will try it). A characteristic of Maya Indian villages (and of many Indian villages in Mexico) is that each one has its specific identifying dress, especially the women; in Todos Santos Cuchumatanes the men also wear very distinctive red and white striped pants I will illustrate the difference in dressing of two neighboring villages speaking the Mam Maya language with images of two little girls, one from Todos Santos Cuchumatanes, the other from San Juan Atitan, the latter showing a beautiful handwoven huipil (a kind of poncho-like blouse worn by Central American Indian women) with a traditional pattern specific of the village.
A parenthesis here: I don´t remember if it happened in Costa Rica or in Guatemala: my Canonflex (a wonderful concept camera) had a problem, and I had to go by bus to Panama, where the Canon representative for Latin America was then, to have it fixed. While In Panama I bought a Miranda tape recorder, with which I later made recordings of native music of Guatemala, later published by Folkways Records (now Smithsonian Folkways): Music of Guatemala, Vol.1 and Music of Guatemala, Vol.2.
I hiked from one village to another, once the night fell with no moon or strs, I had to feel the trail with my feet, until I saw a light… A house! I spent the night there. Somewhere along the way I strained a muscle or a tendon on the side of my knee and I could hardly walk any more. With great pain I reached a road or a village… After a few weeks of rest I was well again. I went to the latest villages in the Cuchumatanes mountains, San Mateo Ixtatán, a town with a beautiful colonial church and where women wear the most colorful huipiles. But it was to be the end of my trip. I got sick and I had to go back to Guatemala City where it was found I had hepatitis (I later found that I had antibodies for hepatitis A, while doing lab tests for a hepatitis B I got in Brazil years later). I was hospitalized, then I flew to Los Angeles where I had a friend from my military service days. It was a disappointment as French archeologist Pierre Becquelin had invited me to be his assistant for his excavations in Nebaj.
… more SOON …