In this vividly written travel narrative, Stephen Connely Benz explores the Guatemala that casual travelers miss, using his encounters with ordinary Guatemalans at the mall, on the streets, at soccer games, and even at the funeral of massacre victims to illuminate the social reality of Guatemala today.
The book opens with an extended section on the capital, Guatemala City, and then moves out to the more remote parts of the country where the Guatemalan Indians predominate. Benz offers us a series of intelligent and sometimes humorous perspectives on Guatemala's political history and the role of the military, the country's environmental degradation, the influence of foreign missionaries, and especially the impact of the United States on Guatemala, from governmental programs to fast food franchises.
A canoe glides silently through the rainforest. Monkeys bark warnings from the overhanging boughs as a caiman slips into the stream. Such is the stuff that green dreams are made of, but the reality of ecotourism can be closer to a nightmare.
On the Amazon, in Costa Rica, Honduras, and the Maya trail from Guatemala to Mexico, Stephen Benz describes his encounters with water, mud, insects, and other wildlife – and not least with the ecotourists themselves. He witnesses simulated cultural festivals and discovers that his fellow travelers prefer pursuing their own green dreams to coming face-to-face with the local people and their world. With witty insights into the phenomenon of modern travel, Benz discusses the paradox at the heart of cultural and 'green' tourism. His shrewd observations make provocative and absorbing reading.
"Stephen Benz's American Journey takes the reader on a roadside spin from Florida to Texas to New Mexico to California and back east again. Benz's poems travel by bus, car, and by way of the poet's thumb, one eye cocked to the litter of our lives, one ear cupped to the particular cadenc of our own American tongue. If Benz tracks the rough-and-tumble of the American road, he finds there is also its mitigating music, and sings that song." –Stephen Haven, author of The Long Silence of the Mohawk Carpet Smokestacks
Back on the bus crossing darkling land,
hands cupped around eyes to peer through glass,
you see – you're sure of it –
cactus, trading posts, dry gulches,
an Indian mounted bareback on a mustang
firing arrows at the Greyhound's flank.
"Benz brings the reader face to face with the landscape, the people, and the institutions of Guatemala. This book will appeal to a general audience, to students entering the field of Latin American studies, and even to people planning a trip to the country. His insights into and observations of Guatemalan society are invariably accurate and engaging."
– Pablo Medina
Most books on Guatemala concentrate on either the country's nightmarish political situation or its mysterious Maya past, making it difficult for readers to get any clear idea of contemporary daily life. Fulbright scholar Benz spent two years doing such ordinary, day-by-day things as shopping for food, buying a motor scooter and standing in the same administrative lines as ordinary Guatemalans. With his family in tow, he traveled to some of the most remote and unstable parts of the country, watched, listened, and came back with stories a more hard-driven reporter would probably never have taken the time to hear. Benz doesn't flinch from the fact that this is a country where, during massacres of peasants, the opening of a shopping mall hogs the news coverage. He grapples with the hot issues of the influx of foreign missionaries, mass killings and a strangling bureaucracy with the refreshing attitude that he is not an expert but an observer.
– Publishers Weekly
“Part narrative, part essay, this intense travel journal by Benz captures the complete ironic predicament of a country that lives in a permanent effort to evade its reality.”