On a recent trip to Central America with Overseas Adventure Travel, on their wonderful Route of the Maya adventure, I got caught up in noticing benches – yes, benches. Why would something as simple as a bench catch my attention, I was asked. Well, I figured that after I took enough photos of benches, I would figure it out. And figure it out I did.
For one, benches are a place where people –and even governments – leave their mark so passersby will be reminded. And sometimes reminded in an historical context. In Northern Thailand, in the Golden Triangle areas where Thailand, Laos and Burma come together and where the heroin trade was once rampant, I once saw a bench during some solo travels left by the US Drug Enforcement Administration. How did I figure it out? In red letters it had printed on the back of the bench, “Donated by United States Drug Enforcement Administration/Royal Thai Police Narcotics Suppression Bureau/Sensitive Investigative Unit Bangkok.“ Well, at least it was donated. Interesting to note as well, that the bench had been updated for the digital age with a DEA web site.
Social comments too, have been left on benches, although that was not their intended purpose. In Cape Town South Africa, I saw benches that designated the race of the people who could sit there, a remnant from the old Apartheid days. Today they remain, but as a reminder of our seeming inability to overcome racism and bigotry, as hard as we may try. They are there for tourists now, so we may be reminded not only of history, but of our present times as well.
So..why benches in Central America? Benches as well as chairs serve as places of reflection, places to eat and socialize, gather, or to just be alone. In the stunning scenery of the Central American countries I visited, they were an opportunity to look out into what I called “God’s Window” and to reflect and enjoy nature. Some were for tourists, some for locals gathering to enjoy a Sunday after church. Some were made of local materials such as tiles as I noticed in Nicaragua, or the wood products that were so abundant along the Flower Route of El Salvador, enabling the locals to make a living. In Belize at the airport, I noticed beautiful benches for departing passengers to use. They were made of the local, beautiful indigenous wood. I have both jewelry and place mats that look like those benches.
Some allowed us to reflect upon history, as I saw in the ruins of Guatemala, along the path to the premises in Tikal and other Mayan sites. And some allowed the people to reflect upon loved ones, as I saw at a cemetery in Guatemala City. Families gathered to talk about their loved ones, with benches and even tables right in front of above-ground tombstones and houses for family graves. It was not hard to imagine a family gathering on Day of the Dead for instance, to eat food and share in the joy they once had with their families. So benches also represent a tradition found in some countries, and allow for that tradition to continue year after year.
Empty concrete benches by the churches looked lonely to me. Always empty it seemed, and ever so uncomfortable. Maybe they were just built so people could have a short sit (rather than a quiet reflection) in the middle of a busy Sunday afternoon. Or maybe people used them to quickly place their goods down on the way from the market after buying foods for home, or even bringing goods to sell la the local mercado. One thing is certain; when I saw these benches, I quickly wondered how they were put to use in Mayan times and how they were currently used by the local population. This flight of imagination is one of my joys in world travel.
But I also noticed that next to benches are often fences. Fences keep people and “things” in as well as out. But do they they always? In Central America, I was struck by the fences that merely served as boundary markers for property, but not necessarily a fence that prevented passage onto the adjoining land. And one “fence” in Guatemala, had a huge hole in some fabric covering the wood! So what was the purpose of some of these fences, but to intrigue? Surely they had a purpose at one time, but it was not always one that was maintained.
In one town in Guatemala, I saw some fences that were clearly used to keep people out, but they had interesting designs etched on them. The most famous of all of the fences and walls in world history is of course the Berlin Wall. Its sole purpose was to prevent people from crossing over from East to West Berlin. And to my amazement as I was photographing fences, in Guatemala City, what did we see? Pieces of the Bern Wall itself! There was at one time a large influx of German nationals into Guatemala, including refugees who fled Hitler and found safe haven in Guatemala. So the monument we saw to the Berlin Wall was in honor of the relationship that Guatemala has had with Germany, including in the early days of the coffee trade in Central America. The Berlin Wall, which had been attached to an electronic fence for decades to prevent people from leaving East Berlin, was as stark a reminder as one could find of the negative value of fences.
Was there a positive wall or fence that we saw? There was a reconciliation wall in San Salvador itself. After the mass murders and atrocities that the entire country experienced in the 80s – and which the government still denies – attitudes still exist which once divided a nation and entire region and in many ways still do. Can the symbol of breaking down barriers with this wall now try to unite and help heal? After meeting the people and hearing their stories about the loss and disappearance of family members at the hands of their government, and the killing of priests, nuns, and their followers who were just trying to help a downtrodden people, it’s hard to believe that a simple fence or wall can heal a nation. But in this case, it served as a symbol of reconciliation in progress.
And in both Nicaragua and El Salvador, I surely saw fences that had murals on them. The art on the walls and fences along the Flower Route in towns like Ataco and others are beautiful and often legendary. Guatemala has its share of fences that are being tuned into murals, and students are currently aiding in the effort. The murals become peat of the culture and the pictures that are represented becomes part of the story that each town has to tell. Cross Lake Atitlan and visit some of the small villages across the lake, and you will see more. They are all over Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
Fences, like benches and my other favorite topic clothes lines, tell a story. But each of them tells a different story about a people, its history, and its culture, and in a uniquely different way. Let your mind wander a bit as an inquisitive traveler, and you can reconstruct some current or historical narrative, and imagine how the people lived.
Bear in mind however, the fences also preserve. Aside from preserving culture as they do with the murals, they also help preserve nature. I saw fences in Nicaragua where the nesting turtles were having their eggs preserved by locals during nesting season. On a day trip to San Juan Del Sur, I got to see the area where the nesting turtles are having their eggs kept. It was the first week of turtle nesting season. They emerge from the water at night and drop their eggs on the sand, where locals retrieve them and put them in the nests behind an enclosed wire fence. About 25 years later, the same turtles return to the same exact location to nest their own babies.
OAT’s Route of the Maya trip is filled with one highlight after another. However, for me, one of the many was McCaw Mountain in Capan, Honduras, after we saw the Copan Ruins. After a long and bumpy drive, behind fences, we were able to enjoy macaws and toucans flying freely in spaces that were designated for them in what was truly a complete Central American ecosystem. They were kept in large enclosed areas, but they were in their elements with coffee plants, ferns, and just about every Central American plant they have come to know.
I could, unfortunately, go on and on about benches and fences. For every sight we saw, there were benches and fences that caught my eye. The benches open people up to the world, the fences can restrict or create arbitrary boundaries between mankind and nature and the rest of the world. In his poem Mending Wall, Robert Frost wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, “ perhaps referring to the boundaries they create. By the end of the poem he concluded, “Good fences make good neighbors. “ In an homage to Robert Frost, and with apologies to this poem Birches, I will also conclude that one can do worse than be an observer of benches – and fences.