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Pray that the Road is Long

A Journey from Death in Paradise in Guatemala

From the sky, Guatemala opens suddenly. Inactive volcanoes and the Sierra Cuchumatanes surround Izaball, a glassy lake surrounded by quaint fishing villages dotted by occasional sailboats. At this point, Guatemala City is mainly obscured, but paradise remains intact.

Et in Arcadia Ego

98% of Guatemala City´s one million-person population lives in poverty. It is the largest city in Central America. Since no zoning laws exist, the city sprawls into a seemingly endless network of shantytowns. When people have money, they often spend it on building a larger home. During construction, they inevitably run out of funds so that you will find a colorful plaster lower level with a second floor 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 crucial transition country for the cocaine grown in South America.

I asked a beggar sitting outside of a church why he was poor. He told me he did not think he was poor because he was healthy enough to walk to church and 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.

Stray dogs are about as common in the streets 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 brown 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 me laid and was disappointed when he realized we both had girlfriends back home. Mauricio has many ¨girlfriends." He told me that one of them asked him why he never said he liked her or called 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.

In other words, capturing the essence of El Estor in words, a six-hour drive from the capital is impossible. It instead has to be described in terms of smell. The most prominent odor came from the banana fields when driving into the village. Outside of El Estor, Dole harvests vast fields of fruit — most men in the village work in agriculture. Many of the cattle pastures naturally smell like cow manure. 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 in a varying form 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 I have never experienced before. Thankfully, the rain smells the same. Without this constant, I might forget that I live 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 were all very nice (cun), a word that 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 no one had stacked the wood 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 cannot continue his education and would most likely work in the corn fields. Mauricio welcomed him into his home in El Estor, where he could attend high school. Like most kids here in Guatemala, Raimundo 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 had ever had.   

The next morning we left for Tikal, the site of ancient Mayan temples and palaces, which remain a mystery because no one knows why they were 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 are known to amuse tourists by masturbating and displaying their genitals to 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 have learned over time that they had 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 was. Horses run wild along its banks, and villagers go to the water to wash their clothes on the rocks near the shore. During the afternoon, I would lounge on the beach and read. One of these afternoons, I did some push-ups before plunging into the still surface. 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 to 11, and their mother. They had stopped doing their laundry 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 walked 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 across the sky. Exiting the lake, I noticed that the girl's group had grown considerably larger. ¨Buenos tardes,¨ I said before drying off and returning to shower.

¨Aqui termina el buen camino,¨ Mauricio tells me. Here, the good road ends. Josh, Mauricio, and I are packed in 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 seven kilometer (four mile) 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 stopped 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 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 older 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 that stretched across an overflowing river, its waters an opaque brown from rain runoff. Seven kilometers (four miles), 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. All of us are in our gear, and freshwater for the upcoming week is strapped to our backs. The air is so humid and moisture-filled that 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 to gain some perspective, 45 families live in Chinachabilchoch. The largest family has 15 children. Pigs, chickens, turkeys, dogs, goats, and other farm animals run free in the streets. By street, I mean the strip of land between each hut, 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 that it is as if you can pluck them from the air. Before sleep, I shake my sleeping bag 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 me. He is afraid of ghosts.

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

We returned to El Estor for the weekend, and one morning, we visited a hot spring where a naturally heated waterfall combined 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 you 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 saturated by thick air, intense sun, and gallons of sweat, the second journey proved to test us with the opposite extreme. We left at 6 a.m. 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 to shield the passengers and cargo. The only effect this protection had was to trap body heat, stench, and wet hacks from a sick child huddled against her mother in the corner.

At first, escaping the tarp and facing the rain head-on was a welcome embrace. Soon, however, our clothes became soaked, and our boots heavy with mud. When mixed with rainwater, the orange soil 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 church's benches, 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 knows how old they are in Chinachabilchoch. Birthdays are not celebrated. Her body was frail enough to be whisked away by even a slight wind. Her skin was a maze of wrinkles, an almost toothless smile. Although her body withered, her voice hit me with such resonance, such force that I grasped the palm tree under which I sat more tightly. She offered us a kind of local moonshine made from fermented corn. Josh and I could almost get drunk from its odor alone, so she knocked back three glasses by the time we left.

Mauricio translated the Q’qechi into Spanish. As we left, she told us never to stop teaching and to pray for more rain. I have been waiting for the appropriate time to ask Mauricio the question that continually ignites my mind.

"Why are you poor"?

The second week I spent in Chinachabilchoch finally offered me the correct setting and circumstance to ask the question burning in my mind. At first, he was quiet. I might have offended him. 

"Puta Nana," he said to me, the Q’qechi equivalent of a vulgar epithet. .

At this point, I knew he would answer the question. His response was not unlike that of a reaction 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 a part 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 are his ways of helping the situation. This individual effort reminds me of a quote from one of my professors last year who said it is better to light one candle than 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, and   the moon was nearly complete. Alone, I swam 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 about what I could find. But this journey never ends. I would see only water and, beyond that, even more water. Deeper with each advance. I exhale all 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 than usual, about 5:30 a.m., 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. The day before, Josh had startled a baby boy named Waqpu (pronounced Quock Poo). This incident caused the child to 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 their sickness. Josh consented to the request. By the time we left the village, Waqpus's fever had broken.

Mauricio wanted to take us to a dance at the City Hall in El Estor this past weekend. He promised a large turnout and, if nothing else, a cheap Gallo to get us excited about this event. He insisted that we get there right as the doors opened at 9:00 p.m. Brother Pat told us to run if we heard gunshots. Josh and I shrugged this off.

When we arrived, there were maybe eight people, including the three of us. An hour passed, and the numbers started to grow. Perched on the balcony overlooking the dance floor, I saw the craziness below me. By 11:00 p.m., City Hall appeared more like a Wild West Saloon than the one governing establishment in El Estor. Men dressed in a complete cowboy get-up (including hats, boots with spurs, etc.) danced with pistols tucked into their blue jeans, visible for all to see. 

No gunshots were fired, but Josh and I were chased by a black dog on our walk back home. Later, Mauricio told us that you are protected from such attacks if you spit three times before going out at night. 

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 dark liquor. Drunks urinated in the corner behind the DJ booth. 

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

In my first correspondence, I wrote that Guatemala had opened suddenly. 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 was initially drawn to these poems, but I need to live more to uncover their significance to the fullest extent. My Aunt Patty shared the poem Love After Love by Derek Walcott with me as she lived through 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 someone broke my heart the summer before I left for college. I bring this up because I used the poem Ithaca by Constantine P. Cavafy as a bookmark even before Central America. 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. As with Love After Love, it took this journey to appreciate Ithaca fully. I share this poem with you now to bring you closer to my travels.



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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