Freedom, fighting and the other Ernesto

I’m standing on a corrugated iron roof in the baking midday sun, looking out over Leon, when my new friend Ernesto begins taking his shirt off. He wants to show me something. He turns to show me his back, but more to the point, the pink welts that dot its lower half. Shrapnel scars.

Ernesto was a member of the FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) the revolutionaries who fought to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship in 1979. He was 15 years old when he took to the streets of Leon with a gun.

Ernesto is my guide at Leon’s Museo de la Revolucion, and despite my lack of Spanish and his lack of English, this tour is exceptional. And it is Ernesto who makes it so. With simple Spanish, charades and a lot of patience, he walks me through the story of the revolution.

He talks of the half-century struggle against the dictatorship and the suppression and persecution the people who lived with during that time. He tells the story of Sandinista, who was kidnapped and executed by the National Guard during peace negotiations, of Rigoberto Lopez Perez, the poet who died while assassinating one dictator and of the scores of revolutionaries who simply disappeared during the Somoza regime.

The weapons room is also quite interesting. Here the weapons the FSLN had to fight with are lined up side by side with those that the National Guard was fighting with. While the FSLN had grenade launchers made from poly-pipe and duct tape, the National Guard had weapons that wouldn’t have looked out of place in, say, the US military…

Then its up to the roof, and I creep along the creaking sheets of corrugated iron taking care not to place foot wrong. Ernesto leaps lightly across the roof like a cat and starts pointing out tactical positions taken up by both the FSLN and the National Guard in the fight for control of Leon. Evidence of the battle for Leon is still very much visible in the central square; bullet holes still riddle the walls of most of the buildings in these streets.

“Where were you?” I ask. With general charades and much pointing, I soon work out where he fought. Then Ernesto begins to tell me his story. He was born and raised not far from Leon, and was named after that other famous revolutionary, Ernesto “Che” Gueverra. He was 14 when the FSLN began gaining serious momentum, and 15 when the revolution came to Leon. He – and many of his friend and family – took up arms and took to the streets.

“Were you scared?” I ask. “Terrified,” he said. “But what else could I do?”

He hadn’t been fighting long when there he was thrown off his feet. He tried to get up, but found he couldn’t used his legs. Lying in the street he reached to feel his back and when his hand came away covered in blood, he was convinced he had been shot in the back. “I thought I would never walk again, and I cried,” he told me.

But 15-year-old Ernesto made it to safety, and later it was found that it hadn’t been a bullet, only shrapnel that had torn across his back and injured his spine. He did walk again too, and there is a great deal of pride in his step.

I’ve thought a lot about freedom and liberty since leaving that museum. About how at home, in Australia, we have had our freedom handed to us on a silver platter. From the time our country was created, freedom was birthright. Yes, we have fought wars, but on the home front we have never had any genuine threat to our freedom. Our right to vote, our right to speak up, our right to live – mostly – as we please. We’ve never known persecution, never known real fear, people have never “disappeared” at the hands of our government. And I dare say that – thankfully – we never will know it.

But I do wonder, if we haven’t known – or will never know – any of this, do we really, truly know the value of our freedom? Ernesto knows it and it was my privilege to spend the afternoon with this man, and to be given a hint of just how much we take for granted back home.

Tik’al; more than a just a Rebel base

Tik’al: Depending on your knowledge of pop culture this place is either an impressive set of Mayan ruins in Central America or an excellent place from which to launch an assualt on the Death Star.

Not following me? This may jog your memory…

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Need it spelled out? If you rent a copy of Star Wars (Episode IV; A New Hope) you will find that the rebel base set in the jungle of Yavin is in fact Tik’al. Unfortunately I wasn’t actually aware of this fact at the time of our visit to the ruins, so I wasn’t able to ask our guide any smart-arse questions about Stormtroopers or The Force. A missed opportunity right there.

Anyway…Tik’al. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (or perhaps about 1000 years ago in Northern Guatemala) the local Mayans built a vast city which went on to become one of the most powerful kingdoms of its era. Hundreds – if not thousands – of palaces, pyramids and plazas were built here during the 700 years the city thrived, however these were all reclaimed by the jungle with the abandonment of the kingdom. Today the majority of these structures remain covered, with only a handful fully excavated and restored. No matter – that handful are amply impressive.

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Understandably all by one of the temples was closed off to tourists (damn Rebels must have ruined it for everyone…). We were able to take stairs up to the top platform of Temple IV – the tallest temple at the site – and the view up there was stunning. Lush untamed jungle stretched out before us, punctuated only by the stately crowns of the other temples. I spent many minutes up there, taking in what lay before me, and again reflecting on the wonders of ancient Mayan engineers.

We spent four hours on our guided tour tramping through the winding jungle paths, learning about the moss-covered structures and the stories behind them, and of course snapping these grand monuments from every possible angle. Every time we came to a clearing we were presented with yet another “Kodak moment” and it took me hours to sort through the number of images we now have of this site (and yet I still don’t think our photos quite do it justice).

The tour also came with something of an unexpected bonus – our guide was also something of an amateur zoologist and was intent on seeking out the animals of Tik’al for us. Spider monkeys and a precocious coatimundi (think racoon with a monkey’s tail) made a welcome appearance. However despite our guide’s best efforts he could not find a tarantula for us to see…which I really didn’t mind.

I’ve seen many ancient Mayan sites on this trip and I confess to becoming a wee bit bored at some of them. The ruins at Tulum in particular were distinctly underwhelming. But Tik’al really did blow me away; the scale, the grandeur, the vastness of this place really is something else.

There was only one downside to the day. After our tour had finished we were left to explore the main plaza and its buildings, which I happily did. Except when I was inching my way down the moss-covered stone steps of one of the buildings, I took quite a tumble. Of course, I took a tumble. Sunnies, bag, camera all went flying in random directions and I came close to taking out two teenage tourists just a few steps below me. My hands received some cuts and scrapes, but in the end it was only my dignity that got bruised. The force was clearly not strong in me that day.

I’m doing the right thing…right?

Stressful job vs travelling Central & South America. It shouldn’t be a difficult decision to make; there’s a clear winner there right? Right.

But if so…why the little voice whispering “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” before I fall asleep at night. It’s a decidedly annoying voice, and one which I first attempted to silence by throwing myself decisively into the preparations for the trip.

So I’ve braved the multiple vaccinations like a big girl, I’ve had my backpack expertly fitted and adjusted, I’m now the proud (and bemused) owner of a mosquito net and I’ve reluctantly come to the heart-wrenching conclusion that the heels will have to be left at home. All of them. Even the cream-and-tan snake-skin heels that do actually go with everything in my wardrobe (previous bridesmaid dress included).

And yet the whispers still came. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

The other day I decided sit down and have a coffee with the little voice. Metaphorically speaking, obviously.

“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” it asked.

I hesitated. I had always been afraid to answer the question. In my hesitation, I ultimately answered the question. No, I do no know what I’m doing. No, I do not know if it will be worth the money. No, I don’t know that I even have enough money for the trip – I might end up completely broke. No, I do not know whether A and I will last a year without strangling each other. No, I don’t know how workaholic me is going to cope without work. No, I don’t know whether I be able to get a job when I get back.

“Well now,” said the voice calmly. “And so why are you heading off on this trip then?”

I took a deep breath. And the answers tumbled out

“Because I want to eat real tacos, I want to learn to salsa, I want to hike up volcanos, I want to drink cheap beer on foreign beaches, I want to see the Mayan ruins, I want to surf, I want to learn Spanish. I don’t want to dream about far off lands anymore, I need to see them.”

If a voice could smile, then this one would have. “Sounds like a good plan,” it said. “I think you should go do it. The doubts are just details. You’ll sort it out as you go.”

Wise words. Thank you whispering voice – you may go now.

So…do I know what I’m doing? Not at all. But am I doing the right thing? Absolutely.