Rio Negro is a community more isolated than any I’ve ever been to before. Located on the Chixoy Flood Basin (formerly a river), it is a tiny community of approximately 19 families that has suffered beyond belief.
The, I guess I should call it an adventure, to Rio Negro started early in morning by meeting our guide and local community member, Sebastian. He is approximately forty years old and was born along the banks of the Chixoy River. He met us at our hotel in Rabinal to start the journey to Rio Negro. This was the one aspect of the trip that I’d been worried about pre-departure. Our professor had warned us of how brutal the hike can be. The previous time they did it, it took about 6 hours (not counting the hour or more in the back of the truck).
So, we all hoped in the back of the pickup truck outside our hotel to start up the winding dirt roads high on the side of the mountain to Chitucan. This, in theory, should be the easy part of the journey but the heavy rains the night before had other things to say about it. The first bit of the truck ride was uneventful, even pleasant but slowly the mountains began to reveal their problems. It started when the truck was spinning its tires in the mud. That was our cue to get out of the truck, and where our work started. So Sebastian and the driver pull some ropes from somewhere within the truck and tied them to the front bumper. Then we each took and section of rope and began to pull. That’s right, we were pulling a truck up a mountain. This was the first time, and we succeeded. The second time was more challenging, there were no clear paths and at points I thought we would surely be heading back down the mountain. But somehow, 2 Mayan men, 2 Mayan women, 8 Canadian females, one Canadian man and one Mexican photographer got that truck up the hill. It ripped my fingers to shreds ever so slightly, but I will honestly tell you that there is no sense of accomplishment that compares to pulling a truck up a mountain.
The rest of the truck ride was uneventful in comparison, With the only excitement being the dozen or so piglets squealing and running along the side of the road. And Chitucan is a small community, remarkable in few ways, and largely forgotten by most. It, like most others in the region, suffered massacres during the internal conflict, but it’s name has fallen by the wayside compared to Plan de Sanchez and Rio Negro.
Then the hike began. If you’ve read my blog before, you will likely remember how much I loathe hiking, or any exertion at a sharp angle (particularly uphill). This is no different. The first hour of the hike was uphill. Combined with the sun and all my necessities on my back for the night’s stay in the community, that makes for one unhappy camper. Luckily for me (I guess), the next 4 hours of the hike are downhill. Preferable, but still hard on the ankles, knees and the shoes so caked in mud there is no such thing as traction. So down we went, luckily not on my bum, just the hill, until we reached an area 3kms outside Rio Negro called Pacoxom. It is a place of memory, now sacred but scarred by sadness. It is where 107 children and 70 women from the community of Rio Negro were massacred in May 1982. The community patrollers from a different village came to Rio Negro to execute the second of the four massacres in this community. The first killed most of the men, the second the women and children, and the third and fourth any survivors. At Pacoxom, we stopped so Sebastian could tell us the story. He’d lost his father in the first massacre, and most of his family (but one brother), in the second. He told us of how after Pacoxom, he felt lost in an empty house, with no mother, sisters, aunts or grandmothers to be his family.
He, along with his brother and Carlos Chen (one of the most prominent survivors), fled and hid in the mountains for 2 years and 3 months, They were barely able to survive, eating the roots of plants raw, as fire would give away their position. After those 27 months in the hills and ravines around Rio Negro, Sebastian and his brother turned themselves in to the army in the belief that life could not possibly get any worse. They were wrong. Sebastian and his brother were tortured for days on end, imprisoned in a small putrid bathroom, until one day his brother had enough. He decided he would escape or die trying. Unfortunately, the latter became reality. He was caught in the barbed-wire outside the base when they caught him. But Sebastian survived, somehow. He now lives in Rio Negro once again, with a large family. He is a community leader, a survivor.
Just as Sebastian was finishing this story, the thunder began. It didn’t rain immediately, creating a stunning vista of the community with a backdrop of the flood basin and the mountains behind, all sun-speckled.
That last 3 kms was a walk mostly done in the rain. A violent rain, that soaks one to the bone. And it is a deceitful walk as you fell so close to the community, it is constantly in sight but somehow never seemed to get closer. The eventual arrival at the community centre was lovely. It was covered, there were showers, and beds. Dinner was nearly immediate after our arrival. A gringo meal of soup, tortillas and rice. I didn’t realize at that point I had a touch of sunstroke and it would nearly all be coming back up within half an hour.
After dinner, the young women of Rio Negro came to the community centre to sell their wares. A variety of local weavings, stunning in colour and unique to Rio Negro. We were more than willing to shop here, and support the women and the community where extra funds are limited. It was a sound night’s sleep, as only hours upon hours of fresh air can really provide.