Monday, December 29, 2008

Mer Whines for Just a Moment

I am sick and it sucks. Did not go to school today and spent most of the morning in bed. A water main broke near the market so our house has no water and I had a bird-bath with a small bottle of water. I think anyone standing near me would agree that I need more bathing. I spent the weekend ambling slowly through the streets, lingering in cafes and internet cafes, and reading my book, Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana Jr. (1840). I will have lunch at home in a few minutes where the food is mostly decent, better than my house last year. We eat a lot of eggs (cooked with some kind of red sauce that is so damn good) with tortillas and fried plantains. We sometimes have meat, often in the form of a bite of pork stuffed into a small tamale. But I feel lucky that I am not 'rounding the horn eating salted meat, sea biscuits, and hot water with molasses like Mr. Dana. It is an unusually cloudy day today and the volcano Agua has disappeared which is quite a feat. Usually the weather is close to perfect, sunny, highs in the 70s almost every day. At close to 5000 feet you would never know we were technically in the tropics, below the tropic of cancer. As a result of getting sick I am pretty set on not going to El Salvador but rather staying in town and seeing my friends as much as possible. New Years here is off the hook...crazy in fact. I hope to be recovered enough to be an enthusiastic participant and keep my wits about me in the chaos. Have more interesting things to write but can't muster the enrgy right now. Ok. I'm done. No more whining.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Blood Suckers LOVE Mer

It's true. I remember my first night in Hawaii some 25 years ago after playing an evening game of croquet and counting no less than 45 mosquito bites on my body. Then there was San Ignacio, Belize, and the Yucatan, and the jungles of Tikal, Guatemala, where I suffered a slightly higher number of assaults even after spreading copious amounts of deet on my face and body (I am amazed how quickly priorities change when inundated by blood suckers...suddenly spreading dangerous pesticides onto your hot sweating skin seems like a very good idea).

Well, last week there were hundreds of well fed sand flies and mosquitoes on the small Caribbean island of Utila....fattened with my blood leaving me looking like I have the pox. Bare with me while I have a little catharsis by sharing my torment with you all. Imagine being bitten about 250 times (at least...I counted), legs, arms, neck, feet, face, ears...anything exposed being assaulted with small punctures, sucked, and injected with a relentless irritant. Now imagine being in the tropics where the slightest...and I mean the slightest exertion (i.e. breathing, beating heart, etc) precipitates some kind of healthy sweating.

Now imagine those 250+ bites being antagonized by the tropical heat and much so that you succumb to the perverted seduction and begin to scratch yourself with increasing vigor all the while knowing you are facilitating your own deeper decent into itch hell. Such was my life on Utila, a place the guide books say is "notorious for voracious sandflies." I don't think I have read a more accurate description of anything in any guidebook. But in some kind of twisted yin yang balancing, the one thing that brought relief, besides unconsciousness, was salt water. When I slipped (or ungracefully fell) into the ocean, all was quieted. The itching stopped. There was peace. And as I dried in the sun, the sea salt crusting on my skin, the relief persisted.

But alas, with a freshwater shower at the end of the day, hell sprang forth yet again and I helplessly scratched myself and spread the barely effective hydrocortizone ointment over my wounds...and then drank a bit of rum and tried to distract myself by conversing with all the characters that live in or move through that strange little island community. And in the end would I say the torment was worth it? Absolutely. But I still have scabs all over my body and I still look like I have the pox. Thankfully, it has not left me the pariah...yet.

Utila - Getting There and the Diving

Utila is one of the Bay Islands of Honduras which sit in the Caribbean off the mainland town of La Ceiba on the east side of the country. Utila is a small island with a scrappy little town containing a strange mix of Islanders, Hondurans, expats (from all over the Americas and the world), and backpacker-type tourists. The draw is diving. Utila is reported to be the cheapest (and funnest) place to get certified in SCUBA and boasts the largest barrier reef in the world after Australia's great barrier reef. There is superb snorkeling and diving all around the island, many reputable dive companies, and for about $275 US you can leave the island PADI certified to dive in open water anywhere in the world. Getting There For me, this adventure started with the usual early morning van pick-up at 4:00am in Antigua, getting to the Guatemala City airport about an hour later. Unfortunately, there is no direct flight to La Ceiba and I was required to take three flights (via San Salvador and San Pedro Sula) to get to the coast (a direct flight would be less than two hours, instead I spent the better part of a day travelling). The last flight from San Pedro Sula was in a stuffy little prop plane which flew low and I got a nice view of the lush Honduran country side and the Caribbean as we flew over the mountains, jungle, and into La Ceiba. I arrived in La Ceiba at the tail end of a huge storm that precipitated massive flooding in the city. The mountains sitting tall to the west feed many rivers that flow to the coast and in the cab ride from the airport we drove across the bridges and saw the swollen rivers below. I met my friend Andie (from the States) at a hotel in La Ceiba where we hung out in the bar for a few minutes watching the local news coverage of the floods. There was footage of men standing next to their homes in chest-deep water, people in boats in the middle of flooded streets, and rivers swollen and cresting. The ferry to Utila had not been running for two days because of rough seas. We had lunch at the hotel and prayed the seas would calm so we could get to Utila the next day as planned. Luck was with us and the morning ferry was running on time although the seas where not exactly calm. I sat on the port bow and got splashed as we crashed into the waves until I finally hunkered down, sitting on my backpack behind a bench for shelter (see pic of me peeking into the cabin as Andie snapped this shot). A young brown-skinned girl, about 12 years old, sat on the bow, head down, holding a plastic grocery bag which she periodically vomited into. Andie went inside the ferry cabin and later shared that many folks inside were also vomiting. I loved the salty spray and the smell of the sea and the feel of the Caribbean under the bare-bones barge-like ferry. I am very thankful that in all my years spent on boats I have never once been seasick. At the municipal dock on Utila we were greeted by the lovely Vicki and Jim, two retired corporate execs from the states. They manage the little house I rented (among many other more grand properties) and were incredibly sweet as they put our bags on their golf cart and drove us through the dirty little town and situated us in the "Boat House" at the end of the main street. The house was adorable and built over the water, on stilts, with a dock and steps to the sea. Vickie and Jim offered advice on where to eat, drink, snorkel, etc. Andie and I lounged on the dock and started to better acclimate to the tropical heat and humidity. I unpacked, but Andie did not, since her bag had been lost in a debacle that precipitated her own little Central American adventure. Andie had been scheduled to arrive in La Ceiba a day before me but was stalled by a freak snow storm in Houston. She eventually made it to San Pedro Sula but the flight to La Ceiba was cancelled and she found herself stranded in this scrappy Honduran City. It is not exactly a tourist destination. On the flight to San Pedro Sula Andie had met a nice Honduran man who worked in the states quite a bit but lived with his family in La Ceiba. After landing, the sweet man took pity on Andie and offered her a ride to La Ceiba as his wife had driven, with their 3 kids, to San Pedro Sula to collect her husband. After about 3 hours of driving, and a quick stop at the store to buy Andie a toothbrush, the family made Andie comfortable for the night in their back-house apartment. Andie met me in La Ceiba on time but her bags took 3 more days to make it to Utila. I lent her some t-shirts and underwear and we spent a couple days walking the island and exploring (see pic of me standing by the tree unknowingly being voraciously eaten by sand flies)....waiting for her bag which contained our masks, snorkels, and fins. At last the goods arrived, Andie rejoiced in having clothes, and we grabbed our gear and hit the water. Diving What a thrill! Andie and I signed up with Cross Creek Diver Center and started our classes in a little wooden classroom watching videos and taking quizzes on the rules and equipment. Our instructor was an adorable little French Canadian man nicknamed Bisquit. He has logged over 800 dives and knows his stuff. And he was just so cute and funny making even the tedious parts of the class entertaining. We assembled and inspected and worked our equipment on the dock while Bisquit made hilarious little sound affects as he demonstrated how stuff worked. We picked wetsuits and made up weight belts and packed our gear onto the stocky bright yellow dive boat. Mer plus the sea plus a boat plus the tropics equals one happy Mer. Standing on the toe rail holding onto the side of the cabin, half hanging over the sea, salty wind in my face...I was a happy gal as we punched through the waves towards the dive spot. Once tied up to the mooring buoy we donned our gear which was incredibly awkward with the BCD (buoyancy control device) vest, a heavy weight belt, air tank, mask and fins. An instructor helped us stand and walk to the back of the boat which was a low platform for "easy" entry. We were instructed to just take a big step off the boat holding our regulator, mask, and weight belt. Sounds simple but ones center of gravity is grossly changed with this gear. I was a complete spaz the first three times falling in at odd angles completely out of control....once doing a face-flop and losing my mask and snorkel. My fourth entry was good. My last four entries were perfect and I am sure I was the picture of grace (well, sorta). We spent time in the shallows practicing skills including breathing slowly and deeply with our regulators, clearing our masks, taking our masks off and swimming around blindly then refitting them, clearing our regulators, buddy breathing, and the most challenging of all, managing our buoyancy using our BCDs and our breathing (see pic of me trying to breathe my way off the sandy bottom). Our dives had us swimming over unending reefs with the occasional patches of white coral sand. We saw tons of fan coral and brain coral and tropical fishes. Highlights included seeing a green moray eel, two large rays (one of which I swam behind for a bit) and a large spiny lobster nestled into the reef. The air was always tropical warm and the water was relatively warm so we wore only shorty wetsuits and waiting to get into the water we heated up requiring a dousing with a bucket of sea water. Two of our dives got us to 60 feet...a very strange feeling indeed. It is a wonderful world that ultimately felt quite familiar. Over the years many people have told me, given my passion for the sea and snorkeling, that I should learn to dive. They were right. And all I can say now is, better late than never. NOTE: We had a sweet Japanese man in our class (just the 3 of us and Bisquit). See pick of me, Japanese guy and Bisquit. I have more pics (these are Andies) but I can't seem to download them from my camera. Will post more when I figure it out.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Right Now

I am sitting in my host-family house at 2nd Ave. Sur, Number 69, Antigua, GT. The night is cooling and it is good to be back from Utila. Here there are few mosquitoes, no sand flies, and the salt shakers work. I am sitting in the middle of the house, it is open air and I hear the streets alive with music and fireworks. People come out on Sunday nights and the holidays bring a lot of parties, processions and singing and the ubiquitous fireworks. As I walked through the Central Park this evening children were neatly lined up on the cathedral steps wearing matching Christmas colored robes singing something beautiful in Spanish. Folks gathered 'round and cheered after each song. I am very tired after my week in Utila, diving and drinking and eating really bad food. And after a long day of travel and sitting in airports in three countries, I made the dubious decision to go see my friends at the bar. I behaved, but so many folks were there and so happy to see me...I couldn't help but stay up half the night talking and laughing. But it all has left me sleep deprived. Tonight, felt a little homesick for the first time as I walked through the park. Could use the comfort of my own bed and a cuddle with my sweet Cosmo....the hug of an old friend. Bought a cell phone and called a couple people. No one answered. I know the feeling and that it will pass...probably very quickly. It always has. But right now, feeling a tad wistful.

Fuego Burps Fire as We Head Out of Town

"Drinking, Smoking, & Screwing: Great Writers on Good Times"

That is the title of the book I just finished and loved. Dorothy Parker kicks off the anthology with "You Were Perfectly Fine," a story about a woman reassuring a man the day after he had gotten seriously drunk and remembered little. She is hilarious and although she wrote it in 1928, the story spoke directly to me in 2008. In the story "Preface to a Book of Cigarette Papers" by Don Marquis (1919) , I found a great quote worth sharing:
We have never been the person on earth we should like to be; circumstances have always tied us to the staid and commonplace and respectable; but when we become an angel we hope to be right devilish at times. And that is an idea that some one should work out - Hell as a place of reward for the Puritans. But it is possible that that elderly Mephistopheles, with the smack of a canting Calvinistic archangel about him, Bernard Shaw, has already done so somewhere.
Right devilish at times...seems I have already figured this one out a bit. But I harbor the same hope as Mr. Marquis. That's all. For now.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Sweet Little Turtles and a Rant

First, the Sweet Turtles When in Montericco I was privileged enough to release a sweet little one-day-old sea turtle into the Pacific waves. Next to the black-sand beach there is a turtle hatchery dedicated to preserving these little guys that have been hunted to the point of being threatened. The folks at the hatchery collect the eggs that are laid on the beach by hopeful turtle mothers. They collect the eggs to protect them from would-be human and animal thieves who steal them for food. They incubate and care for the eggs until they hatch and, at one day old, they are released into the Pacific. At sunset, for about a dollar, anyone can hold and release a turtle (the fee suppoorts the hatchery). I got my little guy and he was rearing to go. He would not stop wiggling and moving his little flipper-legs. We watched a gorgeous sunset and were finally instructed to release our turtles in the sand a few yards from the crashing waves. We watched as the little guys instinctively bolted (as much as a turtle can bolt) towards the sea...their little one-day old selves giving it their all. The volunteer from the hatchery explained that about 20% of the turtles would make it to maturity. The rest would be some creatures snack or meal. Now for the Rant As we were standing there waiting for the sun to go down, holding our precious little turtle friends, a young German man standing behind me with a group of 6 Europeans pops off with, "It´s so touristy here. I wish it wasn´t so touristy. Blah bñlah blah." I felt a mild anger rise. On the beach were about 100 folks holding turtles or watching. Of those folks there were maybe 10-15 westerners. Most of the folks who go to Monterrico are Guatemalans, the poor and the slightly better off. What was this young man referring to? My mind raced and I thought..."You arrogant little fuck. You want some isolated "authentic" experience using the "other" as a prop for your own little adventure with all the little turtles and the relatively poor but gleeful Guatemalans, young and old, waiting to watch those little guys make a run for the great Pacific. Shut your pie-hole, watch the sunset, and release your precious little tortuga." See, I am not always sweet and cuddly. And a Nice Ending My internal rant only lasted a minute and then I was taking my own advice. The little guys reached the water and got pummeled by the waves. But they kept on charging and at last the waves took all the little turtles to the sea. I thought about all the hungry creatures that awaited them just past the break...and then I walked down the beach and watched the light wane.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Guns and Firecrakers

When I first arrived in Antigua Guatemala last year I heard a lot of bang bang bangs. My first instinct was to duck and hide behind a car or corner or whatever was handy. This instinct is informed by a couple of facts. The first is that from 1984 to 1990 I worked as a private patrol officer in Los Angeles. I wore a slate grey uniform, a kevlar ballistic vest with a custom (for my boob shape) made shock plate that fit over my chest and heart, a belt with two pairs of Peerless handcuffs, a PR24, and a Smith and Wesson Model 15 .38 4 inch revolver. I had a LA police commission issued badge and I drove around in a patrol unit and responded to all kinds of calls. As part of this job I had to qualify quarterly with my revolver in a shooting course that presented several situations and types of shooting. I also practiced on my own to ensure I qualified with high marks and maintained some reputation in a world of men and rampant sexism. I still have the .38 on the top shelf of my closet along side an 18 inch Remengton 870 pump action shotgun (the kind the cops use). I have not fired either of them in years and I keep no amo in the house. In my life I have also fired at one time or another, a .44 Magnum, a 3030 lever action rifle, a 3006 rifle, many .22 rifles, and a 9 mm semi-automatic handgun. All a long time ago in what, in many ways, feels like another life. All this to say, I have been around guns. A lot when you look at the totality of my life. I have heard all kinds of guns fired at close range and in the distance. It is a distinct sound and different caliber guns sound different sounds when fired. Also in the course of my years wearing a uniform I studied police tactics and developed certain responses as a result. I can quickly discern the difference between cover and concealment (the latter wont stop a bullet) and still am quick to move in that direction if I sense a firearm threat. Despite the years between me and that uniformed experience, those instincts have lingered. There is something very profound about being 19 years old and putting on a uniform and vest and then coming to understand someone might want to kill you because of it...without ever knowing your name. This is especially so for a sensitive sap like me. So that is the first reason I dive for cover when I hear bang bang bangs. The second reason is I live in Oakland, CA, recently ranked the fifth most dangerous city in the US (Detroit made number 1). I also live just north of a tougher part of town. When you hear a pop in Oakland, unless it is July 3, 4 or 5, it is most likely a gunshot. Again, the old instincts reign. Hear a pop, look for and move to cover. Back to Antigua 2007. After being told that the pops and bangs in this town were from firecrackers, I unlearned that association enough to not dive behind a car at every pop I heard. Firecrackers are a ubiquitous thing in Guatemala and especially so around the holidays. Folks need little excuse to light a string and watching it dance in the street. "Hey! I´ts Monday! Lets celebrate with a string of firecrackers!" You hear them all the time day and night save for around 2-9 in the morning. So when I found myself on the Pacific coast of Guatemala in the small beach town of Montericco, I thought nothing of it when, starting at about 10pm, the air rang with bang bang bangs into the early hours. Firecrackers I thought. Those Guatemalans love their firecrackers and after all it is Saturday night. I thought nothing of it and focused on my books and solitaire games. In the morning I mentioned the firecrackers, that popped all night, to my guide Sender. He looked at me and shook his head. "They weren´t firecrackers?" I asked surprised. "No. Boracho (drunk) men" was his response. Drunks shooting into the night for the thrill of it. I nodded. Ok. I thought about the fact that I was sleeping under a polapa roof. I thought about all I had learned about shooting tragedies when I wore a uniform and studied such things. I thought about all the drunk men I had seen the night before...some of them with pistols strapped to their sides. I guess my ears no longer easily discern what they used to. I no longer go to the firing range or the desert and shoot at targets. I guess I can no longer easily discern the difference between a gun and a firecracker ignited at some distance. But this I do still know, whatever goes up, must come down. And it don´t come down slow if it is a lead slug.

My Saturday Night...

...was spent with 8 Hebrew-speaking Israeli men playing Texas hold 'em. Fifty lempiras buys you into the game (about $2.70 US) plus L10 an hour per player for police extortion (the police allow the poker games at the bar if they are paid this money, otherwise it is "illegal").

Friday, December 12, 2008

A Really Good Monday

It started with me meandering through the bus terminal (a dirt lot with a bunch of chicken buses everywhere) looking for the bus to San Antonio Aguas Calientes, a small town outside of Antigua. I am meeting my friend Carlos for breakfast, a walk in the country to a finca de macadamias, and to chat with a nutty old gringo who has owned and run the farm for over 30 years. I am fortunate as the bus is not crowded and so no one sitting on my lap. Literally. We cruise out of town and into the country and finally into San Antonio Aguas Calientes where the bus driver aggressively drives through the narrow streets. At one turn, he perfunctorily, with the help of his assistant in the street yelling and giving hand signals, makes a nine point turn to clear a sharp corner. A nine point turn in a school bus. After about 40 minutes of driving the assistant announces my exit and I walk a block to the central park where I am to meet Carlos. As is always the case, a church sits at one end of the square and there is some kind of special mass in progress and the large white-washed building overflows with people. I sit on a concrete bench in the park listening to the sermon. I understand quite a bit of what the padre is saying (in Spanish) as preachers tend to talk slower and enunciate more for emphasis and to ensure their message is received. Across from me an old man dressed in a short sleeve tan button down shirt tucked into brown pants walks with his two dogs and sits on a bench. He pulls out a bag of rolls and feeds the dogs as they patiently take turns receiving the bread (no religious metaphor meant here). I have wondered about the dogs in Guatemala. They are often healthy looking and trot through the villages with intention as thought they have appointments to keep and people to see. And the boy dogs always have their balls, something that still looks so odd to me since in the US, poor boys, most of them do not. Carlos arrives and we greet each other with big smiles and a hearty hug. We head to the modest street restaurant across the park and order a Guatemalteca typica breakfast of eggs, beans (I didn´t know! Carlos ate mine) and tortillas. It comes with coffee which is really bad and Carlos explains that, although there is coffee growing all around us, a good cup of coffee can not be bought in San Antonio. It is loaded with sugar. Everything one drinks in Guatemala is loaded with sugar. Carlos is a good, gentle, kind man. He is a lawyer from Tennessee who has been living in Guatemala for the better part of more than 4 years. He runs the book store Dyslexia, next to Cafe No Se (see picture). He also volunteers doing community organizing to help implement the peace accords signed over a decade ago. Carlos and I settle into serious conversation. We talk about Central American politics and history and his work. He confirms my general understanding of things and then fills in many of the details. We talk of Che Guevara and his time in Guatemala and how what he saw in this country was seminal in his conviction that armed revolution was necessary in Latin America. We talk about the reverberations of singular decisions such as the US embargo of Cuba and contemplate what the world would look like if such decisions had not been made. What would the world be like if Che had not come to Guatemala and become so radical...what if he had not gone to help Castro and influence him with his radicalism?We talk of the genocide of the Mayan people. We talk about the villages that were destroyed and how the small hopes of reform in the 1950s were displaced by the US backed coup and 35 years of fighting. We talk about the systematic killing of Mayans and the destruction of their villages in the "scorched earth" policy of the Guatemalan military...poor people with few resources slaughtered like animals. We talk and our eyes fill with tears...and then we are both crying. Carlos and I harbor few pretenses with each other regarding our sensitivity. It is a very sad story. "Mer, you bring it out in me" Carlos suddenly accuses. With tears rolling down our faces we start laughing and I return the blame. I imagine the Mayan women who is serving us thinks we are nuts crying over our eggs. Carlos eats my frijoles (which I have used incredible mental discipline to ignore as I ate my eggs). We walk through the town and onto a country road towards the finca. It is a beautiful day and we walk at a leisurely pace and look at the volcanoes. After about 30 minutes a jet-black crew cab Sacatepeqez truck pulls up behind us and stops (they are the PNC, the Police National Civil). Using formal Spanish, Carlos greets the four men inside and they ask what we are doing and where we are going. Carlos answers and the driver hesitates and then says, "pelegruso" (dangerous) and offers to drive us to the finca. Carlos looks at me and I smile and say "Si." The two men in the back of the truck quickly jump out and head for the bed of the truck offering us their seats. Carlos and I try to protest but they insist. I don´t think they would ever let a woman sit in the back unless absolutely necessary. I am struck by how deferential Carlos is to the men and note his use of the formal Spanish. All of the men are very young, early 20s at most. At last we reach the finca and thank the men profusely, smiling and shaking hands with each of them. We walk through the macademia trees and head towards the garden where we will eventually have lunch (yes this is an eating day!) of macadamia flour pancakes with macadamia-nut-butter and organic blueberry compote. But this is not the true highlight of this visit. Lorenzo is. Carlos leans into me and whispers, "I was going to warn you but decided you should just experience him." The "him" is Lorenzo. Lorenzo is an American expat who owns the macadamia farm and is brilliantly crazy. He is 69 years old and has lived a very interesting life. I am his audience and he is very happy to perform. The next few hours I listen and ask a few questions as Lorenzo tells story after story peppering things with really bad jokes...fart jokes and whore jokes. I respectfully laugh and wait for this nutty raconteur to move into the next substantive story. Lorenzo was a firefighter in Redwood City, CA, in the 1970s and was hurt on the job several times and was finally forced into a medical retirement at age 32. At the request of a friend he headed to Nicaragua to plant macadamia trees citing, "I was uniquely qualified as I knew nothing about trees and I did not speak Spanish." During his stay in Nicaragua he learned everything he could about macadamia trees and eventually bought the finca in Guatemala. That story is much wilder and interesting but this is the upshot. There is no way to sensibly recount all that was said by Lorenzo that day. But I can give some sense of the stories he shared. There was the driving trip from Guatemala to the US in his old Pontiac trailering a Land took over 200 days and included a very serious accident that somehow left he and his vehicles unscathed save for a broken safety chain and sheared trailer hitch pin. There was the close encounter in a jungle swimming hole, nude, at night, with a deadly snake which smelled his balls then decided to let him live. There was the magic mushroom picking in a cow pasture, blending them up and drinking them and going on a 3-day "trip" in the middle of the Peten. There was the encounter with the Guatemalan government officials who suddenly appeared in his back country camp in the middle of the Peten (i.e. nowhere) to ask him if he knew about farming pot. There was the time he had to light a big fire on the finca so the helicopter could see where to pick him up to take him to Coban to talk to potential investors. And on and on he went. During his colorful raconteuring Lorenzo would suddenly stop, look me squarely in the eye and assert something like, "What we need to do is just love each other. That´s what it all comes down to, we just need to love each other.¨ I nod and vigorously agree with him. At last Carlos indicates it is time to go and we begin our parting which actually lasts another half hour. Lorenzo insists I sit for young Vivian to give me a facial with macadamia nut essential oil. Sweet Vivian massages my face with the salutary oil and when finished hands me a mirror and asserts, "muy joven" (very young). I look and nod, "Si, muy joven." Carlos gets a facial too and we both tip Vivian generously. I buy a t-shirt and Lorenzo walks us towards the road. He slows a bit and sincerely thanks us for the company. He turns to me, hugs me big and hard and says, "If you are ever all fucked up you have some place you can come to. This is your home. You are always welcome here." I smile, look him in the eye and thank him. I know he absolutely means what he is saying. Carlos and I wait on the road for the chicken bus. Carlos gets off in the nearby Ciudad Vieja and I continue on to Antigua, smiling, feeling content. It was a very good Monday. PICS coming soon!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Bitter Irony

Happy, healthy, brown people in colorful traditional Mayan clothing smiling out at you. That`s what you see everywhere there is a billboard or literature promoting Guatemala as a place to visit. If one knew no history and only saw these pictures, one would think that the Mayan people are the cherished people of Guatemala. This is hardly the case. The Mayans are at the bottom of the social strata. They are the beggars in the street, the poorest of the poor in Guatemala. They are the agriculture workers, the maids, the servants, the dishwashers...the invisible ones that quietly do the jobs that no one wants. They have long been the victims of racism and oppression. It is the Mayan people that have been most exploited for decades by the horrendous labor practices of the US backed United Fruit Company. It is the Mayan people that were, during the "civil war" (aka genocide) hunted down and killed en mass. It was the Mayan people that suffered the systematic destruction of over 400 villages by the Guatemalan government. Don´t they weave such lovely and colorful clothes and bags and table cloths? Aren´t they such charming, cute, little folks? Wouldn´t you like to buy a nice colorful woven bag for a couple dollars?

Monday, December 8, 2008

It´s the Little Things

The things I am most thankful for when traveling in a developing country: my travel towel, my headlamp, Cipro, books, hearty/comfortable shoes, soft t-shirts, my journal, a couple good pens, my old red Kelty mid-size backpack (for weekend trips), and my glasses cause I can no longer read a word without them!

Sender, the Man from Monterrico

We met through the window of the tinny tourismo van as the driver skidded to a stop on the bumpy dirt road in front of the modest pink stucco hotel in Montericco. Sender is a slight man, maybe 140lbs, short, 31 years old, Guatemalan born on the Pacific coast in Monterrico (see picture). He wore loose tan pants with a tie at the waist, a white tank t-shirt, thin black flip-flops, and a small Tigo backpack (Tigo is a local cellphone company). In english he eagerly petitions me with an offer for a sunrise boat tour of the mangrove canal that runs parallel to the Pacific about a kilometer inland. His english is good and in the hotel courtyard we sit sweating in the tropical heat and talk. I agree to the tour and give him a Q10 deposit on the Q60 fee (a little over 8 dollars total). He appears particularly, in a humble-shy kind of way, appreciative of my business, thanking me again and again as though having a patron was an unusual thing. I ask him where he learned his english and he mumbles "fucking LA." Although I think he meant for me not to, I hear him. However, not trusting I hear him correctly I repeat what I thought I heard with a smile to let him know I am not offended by the cursing. He responds with, "bad things happened in LA...very bad things." I share that I grew up 20 minutes from downtown LA and ask where he lived. He references a of couple streets and I respond with a knowing, "East LA." He nods. He changes the subject and we agree on the specifics for our 5am meeting...he will knock on my door to wake me as my shitty travel alarm clock doesn´t ring loud enough. I promise him I only need 5mins to get up and ready. With the details agreed to, he lingers seemingly eager to talk more. I am receptive and so he continues again alluding to the "bad things" in LA. Knowing a bit about East LA I ask if he had been involved with gangs. He says "no" then abruptly leans back in his chair and blurts out, "they killed my mother...gangs killed my mother." He seems a bit relieved and continues on with more details explaining that he wanted to join the gangs for revenge but returned to Guatemala instead. I ask few questions and he continues with his story. Back in Monterrico he descended into severe alcoholism and drug addiction living like a bum and wasting away to an unbelievable 82 pounds (something hard to envision looking at the healthy young man sitting before me). "I had so much rage and hate inside me...I could not handle it." Then months ago he looked into the mirror and saw his wasting body and did not recognize himself. He looked into the eyes of his two young sons and realized he wanted to change for them. He wanted to be a father to them and not let them remember this pathetic man he had become. Seven months he has been sober. His eyes are bloodshot, but he is healthy and eager and seems appreciative for the audience. The reason for the latter, I suspect, is a very complex thing having to do with the broader cultural context we find ourselves in, our relative social positions, more than anything particularly special about me. But I will acknowledge than I do make good eye contact and can be an engaged and excellent listener. After about a half hour in the courtyard talking, we shake hands and part. It is late morning and I go to the rustic hotel restaurant and sit in a plastic chair and eat rice and work on my unpeeled shrimps with the heads still on them. I ask the Peruvian hotel manager/waiter if Sender is a reliable guide. He cocks his head, frowns and offers, "I don´t like to talk bad about people but he sometimes shows and sometimes doesn´t." He adds a bit about him being a drunk and a trouble-maker. He offers to give me a reference for a reliable guide. I suspect all of this is not as innocent as it sounds as there is always a network of allegences in such situations and references and favors are surely rewarded. But I take him seriously, nodding and thanking him for his candor. I reflect on this new information. This is Guatemala. It is an extremely poor country. Monterrico is a very poor place and the small towns adjacent are even poorer. People have to scrape to live. There is no excess for the locals...every quetzalas counts. I know crime is rampant and the stories I have heard through the travelers grapevine are enough to intimidate even a tough broad like me (not that tough but I try to imagine myself so). Sender and I see each other later on the beach and chat more. Then later that night as I sit in Johny´s Place, a polapa restaurant on the beach, eating my bland dorado and steamed frozen cut green beans and carrots, Sender is suddenly standing next to me and once again confirms our date. He mentions that the manager at my hotel had spoken badly about him and a couple of young women had cancelled their reservation. He offers that another German couple will be joining us in the morning. I feign ignorance and offer a little sympathy. I am cool but something tells me to trust this young man...even though I feel some reservation. He seems eager and I struggle to discern whether it is because I am a sucker or he is just appreciative for the good faith. I spend my evening in an Adirondack chair at Johny´s reading and writing, listening to the Pacific waves violently crashing in the dark yards away. I walk along the beach in the dark back to my hotel and retire to my room. I take my first malaria pill in preparation for my trip to Utila in a week but I can´t sleep. Huddled under my mosquito net I read and write and play countless games of solitaire before finally passing out after 2am (I suspect the cause of the insomnia is the malaria pill). The knock comes at 5am. "Gracias. Un momento" I say instinctively. I stumble into my clothes, brush my teeth, grab my pocket flashlight and meet sender in the dark courtyard. He is alone. "We have to go pickup the other women who are coming at the other hotel" he says. "I thought you said a German couple was coming?" I say with some suspicion. He stumbles through an explanation that things have changed and now it is a group of women that is joining us. I don´t like the changing story given that we last spoke in the evening the night before. This coupled with the hotel managers warnings leaves me a little uneasy. I am nervous as we walk along the dark road through Montericco. I am alone with this guy walking down a dirt road through in a dangerous Guatemalan town. I recall seeing men the night before riding ATVs past Johny´s Place drunk with guns blatantly strapped to their sides. I think of all the stories I have heard of rapes and robberies throughout Guatemala....old and new stories as the stories are unending. As we walk Sender suddenly says, "thanks again for agreeing to come with me." I am cool but polite wondering if he senses my discomfort and is assuaging me into a situation I will regret. But something in me says despite my nervousness I should keep walking into the night with this man named Sender. Ten minutes later we reach another hotel and several young Europeans join us. I am relieved and walk ahead with Sender and we talk with ease now. We arrive at the dock and he situates us in the long wooden boat which, like an Italian gondola, he poles along the tranquil mangrove canal (see picture). It is still dark but there is now the sense of impending dawn. Sender is an excellent and knowledgeable guide offering information on the birds, plants and animals of the canal. We see the fisherman and wave and then stall in an open area and wait for the sun. In the shadows of predawn he points to the volcano's of Antigua: Agua, Fuego, Pacaya...and to the north XX which stands at the coast of Lake Alitlan. They are more than a hundred miles away and Atilan even farther. The perspective is stunning. Moments later the sun rises up over the mangrove and begins to illuminate the volcanos to the north. It is not something I can sufficiently describe and we sit in relative silence...stunned at the beauty. A couple of hours later we are back at the dock. Sender wishes the others a good day indicating they had already paid in full. He turns to me and I discretely hand him Q100 before he asks (which he showed no signs of doing). He frowns and starts explaining a bit frantically that he has no change. I interrupt him, "no my friend, it is all for you, I need no change." He stalls then says with utter sincerity, "no, are you sure?" There are people all around at the dock and I quietly say, "I am very sure. You were an excellent guide and you know so much." A hundered quetzalez is about $13.50 US. I hug him and say something sincere and encouraging about staying on the path he is on, staying sober and doing it for himself. His eyes well up (as do mine) and he thanks me again for trusting him and says that maybe he will see me again before I leave. I go back to the hotel sweaty and dirty and covered in deet. I eat a thin omelet with ham and American cheese and drink orange juice. I sleep under the mosquito net and ceiling fan for a couple of hours before showering, packing, and waiting for the sweaty van ride back to Antigua. I do not see Sender again. My hotel in Motericco on the black sand beach. Sunrise in the mangrove canal. Sender poling us along the canal. The dock in Montericco. Young girl poling through the mangrove cananl.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Enferma Poco

Spent half the night on the toilet with painful cramps, etc. Lovely. But feeling better today. Although I am glad to be back, after last night my stomache and intestines have mixed feelings on the matter.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

It´s Happening Again!

I am bloody speaking Spanish. I speak it like a very small isolated child with a learning disability....but I speak it. Had a relatively long conversation with my host family at lunch. There was only the two of them and one other women who speaks even less than I do so there was some space to talk. Usually there are several students that talk very quickly and notice not the confused, bored expressions of those of us who are struggling. "Um, hola." As we did last year, my teacher and I spend a lot of time laughing. I am a big goof doing things like pointing out that "mejor" (which means ´the best thing´) sounds like "me whore." My teacher thinks I am nuts. Can´t imagine doing it any other way than laughing through it all. I might like laughing more than sex....wait, what the hell am I saying! That is what we here in Guate call A JOKE! But laughing AND sex, now that´s just heaven. Antigua feels incredibly familiar and relaxed. Many folks remember me from last year, even a waitress at a favorite retaraunt. It´s very sweet. But there is always the shadow side. My house is at the southern end of the city on a quiet street with little traffic. My housemate was, in the course of a few weeks, the victim of three attemted muggings. She fought back twice...once lost her cell phone and once was interupted by someone coming around the corner so the would-be robber left before getting anything from her. In one instance she was wacked-up-side the head. I keep my money in about four different places on my person. And at night, even early in the evening, I take cabs. My house last year was closer to the town center and I walked home alone at night except after about midnight. I was hyper aware and would wait or reroute if a street was emty or had no open businesses. As the economy tanks the most vulnerable are the poorest countries and people. And Guatemala is one of the poorest countries in all of Latin America. There will be less revenues for an already neglectfull government, fewer monies for NGOs working piece-meal to offer the most basic supports for the poorest people and orphans. And as the abstract notions of plumiting stockmarkets manifest into the reality of a world-wide reccesion, the most desperate will become more desperate. When I travel in Latin America I am always humbled and filled with gratitude for all that fate has allowed me to have and know. Only a fool would not. More later. PS Sorry for no spell check.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

In Antigua Again

I am here yet again arriving on TACA flight number 641 at about 730am on Sunday morning. For those of you who have said you are curious about such things, I offer a basic description of my current circumstances. I am staying with a wonderful middle aged Guatemalan couple, Luky and Jose. They host several students at a time and are very practiced at doing so. My accommodations are much nicer than last year. I have a decent sized room with a small armour, a bookshelf, a table for a desk and two twin beds. One bed I sleep on and the other I throw my clothes on. My door locks and I have a key...I have not hid my shite in the same way I did last time. There is a computer which we are allowed to use for an hour a day. However, on half the keys the letters and symbols have been worn off. Many of you know that my typing is some strange system that emerged from my isolated relationship with an old electric typewriter. I violently hunt and peck. With the little symbols missing, I freeze. So it is a bit of trial and error and painfully slow (um, slower actually). So to the internet cafes I shall go to write. In the house there are several students from Europe and the USA. They are very very young. Again I am the oldie. It bothers me not. They are much friendlier than the westerners I encountered last year. Last night we played cards....a game called asshole. If you lose you are the asshole. I was the asshole many times. It bothered me not. Luky and Jose are kind and animated and much more liberal than my previous host family. There are not religious symbols everywhere the eye can see. No Jesus hangs above my bed this time. Conversation topics during my first few meals have included circumcision, friends with benefits, loveless sex, and hangovers. The details were lost on me because of my crude Spanish, but the topics were unmistakable. It was very entertaining. And exhausting. I am remembering how exhausting it is to not understand so much of what is going on...but I am so much better than the first time around. My first night in town I spent at Cafe No Se and I was pacing quite well, for hours in fact, until people so generously insisted I shoot mescal. Bad idea. Bad hangover. But it was a brilliant night. When I walked into Dyslexia Books Carlos just kept saying, ¨I don´t believe it! I don´t believe it!¨ He finally believed it and we sat together for hours at No Se. All my buds were there...Mike, John, Nora, Steve, Kevin and Katie. We all laughed and laughed and told many stories and jokes. I am the big crazy dyke here and the role suites me. And as is always the case in No Se, I have already met new and interesting folks. I got so many warm hugs and, as usual, someone called a sweet cabbie to get my ass home safely at 3am. I must run for la cena (dinner). More later. Just wanted to check in. Adios. PS Spell check is not working so sorry. Will correct later...please forgive me for this disability. Punctuation is also limited because of the Spanish keyboards. The symbols often don´t match the action. Everything is hodge-podge here...a patchwork of old keyboards both English and Spanish and nothing ever seems to match up. And you have to learn little tricks like alt-64 gets you this @. You can´t send an email till you learn this one!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Parting Shot....

Mike doing his best Johnny Cash impersonation. Notice perfect quote on the wall behind him to the right.
Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.
TS Eliot

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Home Safe

I am back in the to face 2008...and already dreaming of my next adventures and missing my new friends. Thanks for reading.

New Years Eve in Bullets...and More

  • The brilliant chaos of Parque Centro
  • Cafe No Se...but of course
  • New friends that it feels like I have known forever....
  • Fireworks, a lot of fireworks
  • Illegal Mezcal and Tequila
  • Poetry and singing and toasts....many toasts
  • Love and friendship and honesty and hope...
  • Lou Reed and Dylan and four chords and the truth
  • Nora and Barbara singing in German...the beauty of it all needing no translation
  • Steve quietly treating me like a queen...never in want for a thing
  • To bed at 6:00am!
Here's to 2008 and the friends that I will never forget:

Steve...the sweet Aussie with the most infectious smile and a quiet kindness. Have a big crush on you boy!

Mike, you are a kindred soul, truly. We are cut from similar clothe...and yes, "water finds it's own level." And your baritone singing "If I were a rich man..." is still an ear worm in my head!

Nora, you are gorgeous and loving and brave and talented....a Gypsy spirit...and you can drink more mescal than anyone I know!

Barbara, you are a love and a friend...we shall meet again in SF or Germany...."and fuck the bitches and the bastards!"

John. You are a beautiful, patient, accepting man and you ground No Se. Your openness and kindness are an inspiration to me. And thanks for always calling me a cab.

Catherine, a free spirit and new friend....we shall meet by the Sea of Cortez and make our own No Se wherever we need too. Here's to smart kind men in bars everywhere!

Ivy, gorgeous and kind and perpetually smiling. We'll do lunch and talk philosophy next time!

Anna it was an absolute pleasure talking to such a smart young woman. You were great company and I wish you the best in your studies.

Kevin. You are a good man and a great bartender. Thanks for taking on the reading assignment I gave you and for appreciating so much my freaky self. I look forward to seeing you and your girl in Oakland soon.

Vince...I was amazed at how well you found every excuse to use the word lesbian while in my presence...I thank you for calling me your favorite lesbian.

There are more of you....and I could go on, but Cafe No Se is a new touchstone for me, a place of healing and renewal and acceptance. You were all a good-bad influence on me and I felt so much love in that place I am a better woman for it. Thanks for all the hugs and kindness....I will be back....and Mike has promised me that when I return he will quietly pour me a drink and say "welcome home." Indeed Mike, water finds its own level.

To all my friends.... a few photos....

John praying to a Corona

Me & Barbara

Ivy, Anna & Me

Catherine, Mike, Barbara & table...typical scene


Anna, ?, Nora, Edwin & Catherine

Me & Steve

Ivy & Elliot's head

Steve & John tending bar

John & Mike

Me & Steve...again!

Map of US...excellent cartoon of US politics!

Vince, me & Barbara

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Expats in Rio and Bars

The rich Guatemalans at my hotel...well, they spoke only Spanish and did not seem the slightest bit interested in me. And so, even with my clean sheets and hot shower, I wanted more....wanted to talk to someone....maybe practice a little English. So off I went into town....Brunos the guide book explained, is favored by the cruisers....I am talking sailors.

After a cab ride and buying my bus ticket at the station I crossed the street and followed the signs through a trashy yard surrounded by dilapidated the waters edge and a small marina with an outdoor palapa restaurant and a swimming pool. I bought a drink. I made eye contact and started a conversation with a couple of chaps I have met 100 times before in marinas and bars in many different places over the course of my life. They each had two full drinks in front of was happy hour...a double or two drinks....your choice. But here is an overview.....

There was Steve the retired cop from Gainesville Florida who sailed south and bounces between Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize. He is a self-proclaimed right-winger who is far kinder than the assertion would imply. He guessed within 2 minutes that I was from Berkeley and within 20 minutes asked me if I was gay. He told me about getting hit by lightening, anchored in the river in front of the marina....his mast took the hit. He lost his antenna, wind vane, some electronics....his dog and he had their hair buzzed straight up, defying gravity.....and Steve conjectured that perhaps it was god getting him for flying his confederate flag....hmm, ya think? He went on to explain that he is not racist and there is more to the history of the flag than slavery and the civil war was really about states rights and blah blah blah. I told him I understood his logic.....I left out the part about disagreeing, and he was drunk (see pic...Steve right, Jim left).

Then there was Jim a sweaty, salty, old ex merchant marine who had seen the world many times over. He too had a boat and spent his time bopping around the western Caribbean...and drinking...sitting next to Steve....sipping his beer....swimming in the warmth of his hoary buzz. They were both unhealthy, unhappy, save for the liquor and the friendship of bars and the habit of boat tending.

There was Al (see pic left) who ran a whore house in a neighboring port town and treated his whores well. He got out of the business because of the stress and the violence. Now he does sailing charters and was insistent I come back emphasizing over and over again that his cruises are gay friendly and clothing optional.

There was Doc, a retired public health doctor from NYC who was trying to pick up on young Adriane from Canada (see pic right...Doc with manuscript). He was reading to her (I insinuated myself into the situation) from his surreal sailing narrative that had Columbus and Magellan and Cook in his cockpit with him as he crossed the Atlantic....and actually, his writing wasn´t that bad. And Adrianne confessed she was going to sail with him to the Bay Islands...until she saw his boat....too small. She is not a sailor and asked me my opinion. I concurred, too small and a front was headed south.

Then Jody joined us (see pic below), a sane woman from the states who used to be a stockbroker. She is living in Rio now and her daughter taught English in Argentina and just started working at a local orphanage. Affable, in her late 50s, we drank and when Steve got belligerent about US politics we scattered and Jody asked me if I wanted to join her at another bar run by a really cool Dutch couple. Sure Jody...and so we headed out through the nasty yard and passed the armed guard carrying one of those shotguns (see pic...always be nice to the guards with guns).

Sundogs is cute, tropical, small, has top shelf booze and a quieter crowd. And so we chatted with foxy Jessica from Minneapolis...she told me about going to Cuba on a French catermaran with her French lover and she didn´t spend a dime but still got a picture sent to her from the US state department asking her what the hell she was doing in was a pic of her in a store! Our government is so was eventually dropped. While there she listened to Castro give a 7 hour speech in the park...with breaks...apparently this is common. Lastly, she asserted, she only sails south...never north. Been on many boats....her own and other folks. She was gorgeous and sexy....but knew it a bit too much.

And there were the owners of Sundog, Julienne...he is cute and we talked music and politics....and about his tatoo and the number 19 and the tao te ching (see pic him behind bar). And there was his beautiful wife Babbette who flitted about charming everyone and referenced jokingly something about she and Jessica being porn stars (see pic, Babette left, Jessica right).

Bars, no matter where I am I can count on them for company...I just wrote the following to a dear friend in an email...
....the meeting people in bars. It is an easy place to meet people and I fit in very well.....very well. I am skilled in bars, humble bars....sometimes sophisticated bars....but best in bars with pros and not a drop of haughtiness. I know these people.....I grew up with them...I recognize them in any any town tavern in any country. And through the haze of intoxication...through the liberation of the drink...I see them and love them. Truly. And they return the favor...without condition at 4 in the morning.
I didn´t shower for days....why only sweat more...I am not sleeping with anyone...and everything is dirty, save for the sheets in my expensive hotel.