Saturday, May 23, 2009

A DIfferent Kind of Freedom

Recent rummaging in old boxes led to the discovery of a few weathered slides, some of them recording a madcap junket made decades ago, when my friend Capt. Jim Leonard saw an advertisement for a cheap trip to Guatemala--"Guatemala Ganga!"-- in the Sunday Miami Herald. Jim owned and chartered a 27 ft. catamaran in the Florida Keys and avidly followed any news of multihull designs and exploits. Mark Hassal, a friend of celebrated trimaran designer Jim Brown, had built one of Jim Brown's Searunner designs, and had sailed it around the world, heading west, from California to Guatemala.
Things were slow in the Keys that spring. This was the year of the Nixonian gas shortage; you could have shot a rifle up US 1 mid-afternoon and not hit a thing. As not much else was happening, we decided that it would be a worthy adventure to go to Guatemala and check out Mark Hassal and his boat in person.
Guatemala had just had an election, and there was still a degree of unrest in the capital. We headed for the Caribbean side, where Mark was supposed to be living. After driving for miles through clouds of acrid smoke (it was slash-and-burn season) we came to a river crossing. Some boatmen said they actually knew him, and took us to what they said was the only place to stay: a "Stage One" resort on a nearby island, which had purportedly been a training camp for the Bay of Pigs invasion twelve years before.
Word of our arrival went out via jungle telegraph, and that evening we were pleasantly surprised to see a 37 foot trimaran come ghosting out of the shadows to make a perfect landing at the island's dock, and Mark Hassal stepping ashore. After a couple hours of most engaging conversation he and his wife Bonnie agreed to take us down to the mouth of the river to Livingston the next day. Livingston was then a remote Garifuna village, seldom visited by outsiders, although we did meet some German hippies living in stick huts and an Irish nun at the local school.
Needless to say, I'm leaving a lot out in this short narrative. On the river trip Mark pointed out the very few riverfront homes owned by wealthy Guatemalans as we went by. Of course it wouldn't do, we were told, for a foreigner to invest in any such thing. If it were too nice, it might be coveted by a bigwig from the city, and you might have no choice but to give it up to him. Mark himself lived in a simple but incredibly striking native-style structure right on the river, self built with the aid of a chain saw and a few local friends. But in spite of the government and sociological realities of the place, he found his situation on the river to be the most agreeable thing he'd found after a near-complete circumnavigation of the earth. "It's a different kind of freedom," he said.In those days there was an old van up and down the Keys with the words written on the back. "When reality starts expanding, it's time to start truckin'." Although that slogan always annoyed me, I wondered how long it would be before reality started expanding on Mark and Bonnie. We'd hear reports from people who visited down there from time to time that they were still there and doing well, and it turned out that paradise for them lasted a good fifteen years. I stumbled on their exodus story here. It's a interesting tale for those with a little time and patience. The most poignant section (on page five) clearly sums up why the Hassals "...needed to get out of the Rio Dulce. It was time. Past time."
Reflecting back, I'm grateful (and a little amazed) we were able to travel like that on a shoestring budget. And for all our occasional national self-deprecation, I still prefer the type of freedom we have here.

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