Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Jesus Lizard, Part Ten -- Guatemala Ho!

We were on our way to the Guatemalan border the next day by noon. But not before the Shared Bath Incident. Hierarchies have a way of seeping in whether invited or not. Get a group of people or animals together and they must align themselves into those dominant and those on the bottom. It was becoming clearer and clearer that I was sifting to the bottom of this group. My age alone put me at a disadvantage, but it also became clear that Miss Rockbottom, being accustom to a high rank as a school teacher, and an even higher position due to her being a New England Christian Scientist meant she was made of Ice Age deposited granite, not flesh, and therefore impervious to anything but dynamite, something I didn't have in my kit. And she made it known among the others simply by her stride and her cosmic bullying that they were to consider me of Sherpa status.

The more generous of you might believe your Sherpa to be a master of sorts, one who keeps the camels well-fed and in an agreeable mood. A useful Sherpa knows the signs of the sky and when to take an alternate route. But I was not that kind of Sherpa, I was lower than the camels, I was to sleep outside the circle of fire and know my cast was something akin to the village idiot. I dutifully took on this role. It was the only strategy to take if I were going to make it to Guatemala and back again, and once out of the jungle, I would have to swim with these lady sharks off the Belizean coast. I had a long journey ahead and succumbing to my placement at the back of a herd of oxen, to walk in their dust and swat their flies was fine with me . . . eventually, I would write in my journal while waiting for my final plane home from the Miami airport, "They had their trip and I had mine." But my cast was sealed over the sharing of a small bathroom the night before we left Guatemala.

Nigel and I had sent London back to Dangriga for the errant duffel bag, there was nothing to do now but have one more cold beer and plan our itinerary for the next day. All of them, the old oxen had gone to bed, but a few strays came up to the main house to find me and Nigel bent over our beers. They had no idea that we were working, they just assumed I was up and making trouble of some kind. When I finally retired to my suite at the far end of the compound, it was close to midnight and a light was on in the room next door, the door was ajar and I heard humming. It was Katrina Ghandi, one of our younger travellers. She was 49, perhaps 50 and she hailed from the San Francisco Bay area, which gave her an air of extra coolness that I was drawn to, but she didn't associate with dirty Sherpas. I went into my room and looked around it for the first time, I realized I hadn't been there all day and now all I could do was unpack my pajamas and take a shower. We'd be birding in the morning and then leaving for Guatemala, for the Temples of Tikal, and this was just a pit stop. I scanned the room, there was a wide window that looked out onto the night pastures -- this made me take a deep breath and imagine the little mustangs asleep on their feet dreaming of Spanish galleons and a bloody battle with the Mayans.

But there was no door in my room that would lead to a bathroom, so I poked my head out into the hallway and there, to my left was Katrina's door still emanating a sort of meditative glow and next to that was another door. I stepped toward it, opened it and turned on the light. Ah, yes, a tidy little shower and sink with a toilet that was much cleaner than any I had seen since Dangriga. I noticed a small bag of toiletries on the shelf above the toilet and a bra and panties hanging over the shower curtain rod. Of course, this was Ghandi's gear and just as this occurred to me, she appeared at the door, "Miss Wolfy? What are you doing in my bath?"

"Uh, well, good evening Miss Ghandi. I think we've got a shared bathroom suite here. I won't be a moment, just need a quick shower, then its off to bed with me."

"Shared? I can't believe I'm sharing a bath with you. That's just not possible. I was told all my accommodations would be private. I certainly paid for private accommodations."

It was at this moment that I knew I was the Help -- I was no longer a human sharing this jungle adventure and now I had to stand my ground for a shower and nightly ablutions. "Miss Ghandi, its just for the night. We will be settled into the Tikal Inn by sundown tomorrow night and I am told it is practically a three star hotel by Guatemalan standards, plenty of water closets for everyone."

"Three star?"

"I don't think we can wish for five star in Guatemala, that might be asking too much."

"I really can't believe this . . ." Ghandi looked down the dark hallway as though someone of some kind of authority would appear and she could complain and have me forcibly removed, but there was no one but me and the camels. She let out a big huff of air, and brushed past me to pull her under things from the curtain rod. She scooped her toiletries up into her arms and brushed past me again, "I was meditating you know . . . I am beginning a two day fast which I plan to end after I reach the top of Temple Five in Tikal. I need complete quiet to begin this spiritual journey, do you understand? Miss Wolfy? Do you hear me?" I nodded and said nothing in return. But I took note that now one of my travelers was planning not to eat anything for at least 48 hours. She was not the most hardy looking woman and what with the heat and humidity and the intense hiking I knew we were to face to get up to Temple Five, I became concerned. But then I decided not to care, I thought, fine, let her faint from low blood sugar somewhere about half way up Temple Five, let her visions be powerful! Life altering! I just need a damn shower.

The road to Guatemala, the Western Highway, is a jaw breaker of a trail. And when you cross the border, you know you are not in Belize anymore. The bucolic colonial jungle atmosphere dissipates immediately, and is replaced by something politically torrid. The Guatemalan police stamp your passport and at some point not long after that they put the bus on this pulley ferry. We of course, let the bus go first, without us, and I wondered if this might be It; if the ferry which was pulled across this reach of dirty river water not wide enough to discourage even the most unambitious of bridge builders, might capsize with all duffel bags accounted for and not accounted for and bird guides and binoculars and Panama hats, but the Mayan boys got her across. There was a black burro tied to a banana tree on the other side and he switched his little tail at the jungle flies and he twitched his enormous ears and he seemed happy to wait for the Mayan boys to ride him home at sunset. I was glad he wasn't pulling the ferry, not fitting work for so terrific a burro.

One of the first sights we saw on the Western Highway inside Guatemala was an enormous rancho that sat on a hill across a verdant valley of soybean and yam fields. There had been nothing but roadside shanties up until this grand thing appeared in the distance, like Oz, sparkling with terracotta tile roofing and a veranda that must have teemed with Mayan Help. You could imagine the helicopter pad that sat behind the main house and the stable full of Andalusians. Nigel explained there were several families who basically owned and ran the country -- in Guatemala, you were Mayan or you were part of these Spanish cartels. It was beyond the Haves and Have Nots, it was the definition in its most extreme form. The cartels controlled everything -- and there was no secret about the source of their wealth. Drugs and farming. They told the government what to do, they told the people what to do. And if you didn't do what they said, they killed you and left you to be eaten by howler monkeys. The tangle of the jungle rebels, the CIA, these cartels, the trafficking of drugs to and from the US, and the complete disregard for human rights was so complicated that it was impossible to believe that this was actually a period of peace in the country. Only a few years before no American was safe to travel in Guatemala, and frankly, as we bumped along the Western highway, I wondered if it was ill advised to be there at that moment. We traveled deeper into the country and the bus began to groan and our merry band grew quieter and quieter. I passed out cold drinks and whispered to Nigel that Miss Ghandi was looking somewhat ill, "There's always one in the group, one who makes this some sort of religious experience. Americans are a funny lot, they want to renounce the fact that they're white in places like this. Let her have her visions and if she passes out, we can handle it."

We came to a particularly poor looking village, there were chickens and dogs and children sitting in the road. The chickens looked to be the healthiest of the group. Most of my group just stared straight ahead. They had come to see birds and temples, not poor people. The idea that this highway was haunted by the ghosts of guerrillas and the victims of genocide was unimportant to them. About a mile past the village, London stopped the bus. He opened the door and whistled. Two tiny Mayan children, a girl of maybe 4 or 5 and a boy of 8 or so came running out of the jungle. They were naked and their hair was long and black and completely wild. They smiled these white bony smiles and jumped in the door of the bus and London went down to them and hugged them fiercely. There were giggles and screams of joy. I looked at Nigel and before I could ask, "Those are his kids." There was a nervous rustling behind us on the bus. London let the kids go and walked to the back of the bus where he garnered a large cardboard box. He took it forward and out to the side of the road where the children waited for him. A tan puppy came bouncing up the road and it wiggled and shrieked as London handed it something to eat from the box. He carried the box back into the jungle and the kids followed him. They were like Mowgli and his little sister, I expected a band of wolves to appear in the shadows too. "His kids? Really?"

"He considers them his kids. They live out here on the edge of the village in a dog house. They have no one but London. He wants to smuggle them back to Dangriga some day, but he hasn't figured out how to do it yet. In the meantime, he stops every time we pass. He brings them food and clothes."

"Clothes?

"They never wear them. We think they trade them for food with the Mayans in the village."

"Why don't the people in the village take care of them?"

"We don't know. They're mother is dead, she might have been a prostitute. Or involved with the cartels or the guerrillas. They are afraid to go near the children for some reason. Bad juju you know."

Some time ago, a few chapters back, I told you about Jeanne, the pleasant lady who took no sides in the hen house on our bus. The lady who sometimes ventured to stay up slightly later than the others and genuinely seemed to enjoy her beer. We even played a few rounds of backgammon together. The one who was a Federal employee? You remember Jeanne? If not, here's her chapter. Well, its right about now in the story that I want you to be conscious of her presence on my bus. Cause its a few miles down the road, after we stop to put in supplies to London's Mowgli and Miranda of the Rain Forest that we pass a rebel camp. As we get closer and closer to this camp, Nigel tells everyone to put their cameras away, I mean, away! Put them up in your duffel bags and your binoculars too. And don't even put a pen to paper. Don't look at your watch or your compass. Don't do anything that might be construed as trying to record where the camp is or what it looks like or how many boys might be guarding the gate with AK47s. Just act as though there isn't even an 8 foot fence with death heads painted on scraps of tin, just mind your own damn American business, or they're gonna come out and want to board the bus and go through our bags and ask questions and then we're going to have to give them money to be on our way. That's all, just money.

So we drive by this menacing plot of land in the jungle and there are indeed boys patrolling the fence line and their guns are bigger than them and we try to ignore the death heads and what they imply. And its at that moment that I remember the story of the American nuns who were raped and murdered in Guatemala in the 80s...one of those nuns was from Westport, CT. My hometown. She rode horses at a little farm that sat up the rode from my grandparents house. When the news broke that she was one of the missionaries murdered, the neighbors told everyone how sweet a girl she was. But I remembered seeing her ride in their field once and she was beating this horse mercilessly -- and she was shouting at him as though he were some Godless child. I didn't know she was a nun at the time, I just thought she was sort of nuts. A year later she would be left for dead in a Guatemalan jungle. She didn't deserve that, no one deserves that, even if she did beat horses. But that's the thought that came into my head as we seemed to float past the rebel camp, it was as though the bus knew we were in grave danger. And we just thought we were a bus full of American tourists, a bunch of nature buffs who wanted to see birds and lizards and the thousand or so kinds of palms and the temples, don't forget the temples. But what we didn't know was that we had a CIA agent in our midst. Jeanne was sitting quietly, glancing out the window, sipping her bottled water I had brought to her. She knew what she was. But we didn't. And all it would have taken was for someone idiot like Miss Rockbottom to decide that even rebels couldn't tell her whether she could take a picture of their death heads or not and WHOOSH, those boys with the AKs would have swooped down on us and when they saw who Jeanne was, because all she'd have to do is give them her passport and they would see the tremble in her brow and they would know she was CIA and we'd all have been dead. Call me paranoid, go ahead. Call me a scaredie cat, but think about it, would you like to be on a bus full of Americans and ONE covert CIA agent on the Western Highway of Guatemala? It was 1995 and not enough time had passed for the rebels to be forgiving. The country was still in turmoil, and just because Bill Clinton was in office, and not that old spook George Bush senior, didn't mean that we were safe. But we went on past, nothing happened, well, nothing til the bus broke down . . .

1 comment:

T.S. Dogfish said...

I love the idea of you being a "sherpa". That idea alone made me so happy that it gave technicolor glow to your story!