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2008 Narrative Travel Writing Contest — 2nd Place Winner

Pray that the Road is Long

A Journey in Guatemala

From the sky, Guatemala opens suddenly. Inactive volcanoes and the Sierra Cuchumatanes surround Izaball, a glassy lake surrounded by quaint fishing villages and dotted by an occasional sailboat. Guatemala City at this point is mostly obscured. Paradise remains intact.

Et in Arcadia Ego

98% of Guatemala City´s 3 million person population lives in poverty. It is the largest city in Central America. Since there are no zoning laws, the city sprawls into a seemingly endless network of shantytowns. When people do have money, they often spend it on building a larger home. They inevitably run out of funds during construction so you will find a colorful plaster lower level with a second floor made of patched up scrap wood. Men consider wearing condoms a sign of weakness and most believe that birth control makes women sick. The AIDS rate soars. Moreover, Guatemala is a key transition country for the cocaine grown in South America.

I asked a beggar sitting outside of a church why he was poor. He told be he did not think he was poor because he was healthy enough to walk to church and could enjoy the company of friends. This man’s name was Fernando and he lost one of his eyes in a car accident as a child. He told me I speak good Spanish, but my accent is mierda (shit). Although I could only understand clips of the priest’s homily this morning, his message was, to put it bluntly, that people’s lives suck, but to find happiness is to embrace human connection, trust in God and treat people calmly.

In the streets, stray dogs are about as common as squirrels in Hyde Park. At first I thought this would offer the multitude of children throughout the city ample companions. When I saw my first twisted corpse of a yellow and brow mutt in the middle of the street, I realized that to love a dog in Guatemala City is to have your heart broken every other day.

I asked Mauricio, one of the people I am traveling with, about his family but he was more interested in learning how to curse in English. He offered to get my friend Josh and I laid and was disappointed when he learned that we both have girlfriends back home. Mauricio has many ¨girlfriends¨ and he told me that one of them asks him why he never says he likes her or calls her pretty. He honestly did not have the words to say such a thing.

According to Brother Pat, our leader here, we can trust Mauricio with our lives.

It is impossible to capture El Estor, a six hour drive from the capital, in words. It instead has to be described in terms of smell. Driving into the village the most prominent odor came from the banana fields. Outside of El Estor Dole harvests vast fields of the fruit. Most men in the village work in agriculture. After the banana fields, come the cattle pastures which naturally smell like cow shit. Most of the cows are incredibly thin and unhealthy looking. Skin seems to drip from their protruding ribs and brittle bones. It is a wonder McDonald's gets any meat from their slaughter. The town itself is a varying popery of burning. Burning wood from the stoves in the huts. Burning trash in the street. Burning earth from the oppressive sun. Most of these smells are strange and exotic, mixtures of chemicals and materials that before I have never experienced. Thankfully, the rain smells the same. Without this constant I might forget that I am indeed living in reality.

Most of the kids we teach here are bilingual. They speak Spanish and a Mayan dialect called Q´qechi. My most embarrassing moment was when I tried to tell them all in Q´qechi that they are all very nice (cun), a word which should be pronounced with a hard glottal sound. Being the gringo that I am, I cannot make the noise in my throat required to pronounce that word correctly. As a result, rather than calling them all very nice, I called them a bunch of dicks. 

Last night I asked Mauricio what one of the scars on his arm was from. He told me that when he was young, his father came home drunk one night, heated the buckle of his belt and beat Mauricio with it. His father was angry because the wood was not stacked neatly enough in the corner of their hut.  

Mauricio had one of his students, Reimundo, from the village come down to El Estor to celebrate his 17th birthday. Without help, Raimundo will be unable to continue with his education and would most likely end up working in the corn fields. Mauricio welcomed him into his home here in El Estor where he now will have the chance to attend high school. Raimundo, like most kids here in Guatemala has a smile that stretches from ear to ear. We ate dinner and spent the evening at a lakeside retreat called El Paraiso, paradise. Here, Raimundo lounged in a hammock, drank beer with us and tasted the first hamburger of his life. That night he told Mauricio it was the best birthday he has ever had.  

The next morning we left for Tikal, the site of ancient Mayan temples and palaces which still to this day remain a mystery because no one knows why they were ever abandoned. The ruins jutted from a thin veil of mist and a cloak of vibrant green jungle. 

The spider monkeys are one of the other attractions of Tikal. They have been known to amuse tourists by jerking off and wielding their shit at unsuspecting bystanders. They also wail like children when hunted by poachers. Spider monkeys mourn by standing around the dead. Unfortunately, this ritual makes them easy targets for hunters. As a result they learned that they have to either weep alone or not at all.

Our hotel sat next to a lake whose Caribbean blue expanses made it appear more like the ocean than the body of fresh water it actually was. Horses run wild along its banks and villagers go to the water to wash their clothes on the rocks not far from shore. During the afternoon I would lounge on the beach and read. One of these afternoons before plunging into the still surface, I decided to do some push ups. After approximately 5-10, I heard a gaggle of laughter. Looking up, I noticed I had caught the attention of a group of girls, maybe 6 in total, ranging in age from about 4-11 and their mother. They had stopped doing their laundry in order to watch the silly gringo exercising on the shore. Their laughter changed to shrill whoops as I stood up, removed my shorts, waved to them and proceeded to walk into the azure blue water wearing only my underwear (which I later discovered were quite see through). In the lake, I was surrounded by a school of small fish which, like a silver scaled shadow, followed me wherever I swam. I played in the water for about thirty minutes before it started raining. It was a gentle fall and a complete rainbow opened up across the sky. As I stepped out of the lake, I noticed that the group of girls had now grown considerably larger. ¨Buenos tardes,¨ I said before drying off and walking back to shower.

¨Aqui termina el buen camino,¨ Mauricio tells me. Here the good road ends. Josh, Mauricio and I are packed in the back of a cattle truck with maybe 50 other people, crates of eggs and a pig or two. There is no room to move. The truck will drop us off at El Banke, where we begin our 7km trek to Chinachabilchoch, a Mayan village tucked away in the mountains. To get to El Banke, the truck climes a one-way mountain pass. To the right, a sheer drop off to the surrounding canyon. To the left, a steep precipice. The bus barely fits on the road. We stop two times to clear rocks left over from the previous night’s landslides. Once, a car drives toward us in the opposite direction. Since we are the ones at this point in descent, it is our responsibility to reverse and back up the mountain until we can find room for the car to pass. An old woman throws up over the side of the open air truck. We avoid disaster and eventually make it to El Banke. 

Now the difficult part of the journey to Chinachabilchoch begins. The hike started by crossing an Indiana Jones style suspended rope bridge which stretched across an overflowing river, its waters an opaque brown from rain runoff. 7km in reality is not that far, but Chinachabilchoch is nestled inside a mountain canyon at high elevation. The walk is pretty much a straight climb upwards. Every time the trail breaks downward, it leads us to a river or creek that needs to be forded. This all with our gear and fresh water for the upcoming week strapped to our backs. The air so humid and moisture filled I can almost suck it in, chew it, and then spit it out. We arrive at the village near death, reeking and dehydrated.

How do you describe a place where less than a handful of outsiders, much less white people have ever been? In an attempt for some sort of perspective, 45 families live in Chinachabilchoch. The largest family has 15 children. Pigs, chickens, turkeys, dogs, goats and a handful of other farm animals run free in the streets. By street I mean the strip of land between each hut, which are made of scrap wood with roofs of a kind of leaf or reed. All of the floors are dirt. There is no electricity. There is one water faucet where people bathe, clean clothes and gather water for cooking if the river is too mud filled from the rain.

Josh and I sleep on the concrete floor of the church. Exhausted from our journey, this felt like a bed of clouds. The stars at Chinachabilchoch are so close and bright it is as if you can pluck them from the air. Before sleep I shake my sleeping bag out to scare away bugs and other critters. I had to kill a scorpion once.

The week before our arrival, a 50 year old man hung himself in his hut. He suspected his wife of infidelity. He had tried killing himself on two previous occasions. His family, including 12 children, came down from the village to attend mass here in El Estor last night. Three years ago, his 26 year old daughter also took her own life. Suicide is not uncommon in the village. Mauricio asks to sleep on the floor between Josh and I. He is afraid of ghosts.

In the morning, we are awoken by a multitude of whispers and eyes. Children climb each other’s shoulders to get a peek at the white giants in their slumber. Wherever we go we are followed by a crowd of barefooted kids.

We returned to El Estor for the weekend and one morning we visited a hot springs where a naturally heated waterfall combines with the cooling waters of a river. We swim out underneath the falls. It is the first shower of warm water we have had the entire time in Guatemala. If you submerge yourself beneath the flow and gently let yourself float to the surface you hear the crash of water grow louder and louder. The temperature rises. When you emerge and take in the first breath it is almost as if one were born again. Some baptisms take place without the presence of formal clergy. They instead occur in the company of friends and are best experienced at dawn.

If the first trek to Chinachabilchoch was defined by thick air, strong sun and gallons of sweat, the second journey proved to test us with the opposite extreme. We left at 6AM in an attempt to avoid the heat. About a third of the way up the mountain the clouds opened and unleashed such an intense volley of rain that the truck had to stop for about 15 minutes for the burst to subside. The driver unfolded a thin tarp in an attempt to shield the passengers and cargo. The only effect this protection had was to trap body heat, stench and the wet hacks from a sick child huddled against her mother in the corner.

To escape the tarp and face the rain head on was, at first, a welcome embrace. Soon though, our clothes became soaked through and our boots heavy with mud. The orange soil when mixed with rainwater creates a murky red paste. The rain is always welcome in Guatemala. The ground needs it and the farmers rely on its fall to sustain the corn fields. Nonetheless, when it does rain, it is impossible to ignore the fact that it appears as if the earth is bleeding. We arrive in the village, throw our bodies onto the benches of the church and eventually when we regain our strength we will wash the muddy footprints from the floor.     

For lunch one day we met with the oldest woman in the village. Supposedly she is over 100 years old, but no one really knows for sure how old they are in Chinachabilchoch. Birthdays are not celebrated. Her body was frail enough as might be whisked away by even a slight wind. Her skin a maze of wrinkles, an almost toothless smile. Although her body withered, her voice hit me with such resonance, such force that I grasped more tightly the palm tree under which I sat. She offered us a kind of local moonshine made from fermented corn. As Josh and I could almost get drunk from its odor alone, she knocked back three glasses by the time we left. Mauricio translated the Q’qechi to Spanish. As we left she told us never stop teaching and pray for more rain.

I have been waiting for the appropriate time to ask Mauricio the question that continually burns in my mind. Why are you poor? This second week in Chinachabilchoch finally offered the correct setting and circumstance for me to ask this. At first he was quiet. I thought I might have offended him.  Puta Nana, he said, the Q’qechi equivalent of mother fucker. At this point, I knew he would answer the question. His response was not unlike a response in the United States. He told me people have so many kids that they cannot afford education. High school is a rarity. Without education, there is no means to advance, he told me. Large families have been apart of the native culture for so long (they were necessary for labor) that between this tradition and the fact that men in most cases refuse to wear condoms it is a problem that will continue to repeat itself. Mauricio's guidance and support of Reimundo toward higher education is his way of helping the situation. This individual effort reminds me of a quote I heard from one of my professors from this last year who said, it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.

It has almost become a ritual that we spend the first night back from Chinachbilchoch in El Paraiso. It was a clear night, the moon nearly full. Alone, I swam out into the dark waters, the moonlight casting a silver trail on the calm surface. A part of me wanted to follow this road to its end, curious as to what I might be able to find. But this journey never ends. I would find only water and beyond that even more water. Deeper with each advance. I exhale all of the air from my lungs and allow myself to sink to the bottom. I pick up a stone and push myself back toward the surface. I skip this stone three times and swim back to shore.

On the last morning before leaving Chinachabilcoch, Mauricio woke us earlier that usual, about 5:30am and was armed with a pair of scissors. Without so much as a good morning, he told Josh that he needed to take a lock of his hair. Apparently, the day before Josh had startled a baby boy named Waqpu (pronounced Quock Poo). This incident caused the child the spike a fever overnight. The only cure for such an ailment was for the victim to eat a lock of hair from the person who caused his or her sickness. Josh consented to the request. By the time we left the village, Waqpus fever had broken.

This past weekend, Mauricio wanted to take us to a dance that was being held at the City Hall here in El Estor. In order to get us excited for this event he promised a large turnout and if nothing else, cheap Gallo. He insisted that we get there right as doors opened, 9:00pm. Brother Pat told us to just run if we heard gun shots. Josh and I shrugged this off. When we arrived, there were maybe a total of 8 people including the three of us. An hour passed and the numbers started to grow. Perched on the balcony overlooking the dance floor, I could see all of the craziness unfolding below me. By the time 11:00 pm rolled around City Hall appeared more like a Wild West Saloon than the one governing establishment in El Estor. Men dressed in full cowboy get up (including hat, boots with spurs etc.) danced with pistols tucked into their blue jeans, visible for all to see. Prostitutes stood by the side and like the sirens, swayed to the pulsing music and lured the local men and boys. Near the area set aside as the bar, men slammed back what appeared to be shots of some kind of dark liquor. Drunks pissed in the corner behind the DJ booth. No gunshots were fired, but Josh and I were chased by a black dog on our walk back home. Later, Mauricio told us that if you spit three times before going out at night, you are protected from such attacks. 

The Catholic Church where the ceremony is to take place is empty except for Padre Javier, Brother Pat, Mauricio and Josh, now my godfather. Padre Javier jokes that he is going to need a ladder in order to reach my forehead.

In my first correspondence I wrote that Guatemala opens suddenly. It seems to me that now my time here is coming to a close with equal velocity.

Poems have an interesting way of finding me before I have a chance to live the experiences they describe. I am initially drawn to these poems but I need to live more life in order to uncover the full extent of their significance. My Aunt Patty shared the poem Love After Love by Derek Walcott with me as she lived the pain of divorce. This poem remained pinned to the bulletin board in my room for two years, but its true meaning did not strike me until I had my own heart broken the summer before I left for college. I bring this up because even before Central America I have been using the poem Ithaca by Constantine P. Cavafy as a bookmark. It was a gift from my girlfriend and has been a part of every adventure I have undertaken here in Guatemala. The page has wilted in the heat, its edges curled and frayed. Fold marks have scratched out some of the words. For me, as with Love After Love it took this journey to fully appreciate Ithaca. I share this poem with you now to try to bring you closer to my travels.

Ithaca

When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the angry Poseidon -- do not fear them:
You will never find such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not set them up before you.

Pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many, when,
with such pleasure, with such joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time;
stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
visit many Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from scholars.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
She has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what Ithacas mean.
  
Maybe throughout my time here in Guatemala I have not been able to gather coral, amber or ebony. Perhaps the only sensual perfume I have encountered is a mix of lake water, burning trash and cow shit. What I will come home with are a few pieces of hand woven cloth, a pocket full of stones and enough stories to fill a life supply of journals.  

Pray that the Road is Long.

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