Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Cautionary Tale for Jumping Vaginas

I had a few hours to kill before heading back to my jungle lodge for a night of ceviche and reading. Two years ago when I was first in Fronteras, Guatemala, I stumbled into Bruno's, the place where Rio Dulce yachties from the west eat and drink to excess. I drank screwdrivers with a gang of drunken sailors and listened to their stories and watched them get stupid. So I figured, even though it was three in the afternoon, I'd stroll over and see who was kickin' at Brunos. I walked to the bar and ordered a mineral water with lime and turned to look for a place to sit. No sailors yet. A young couple, backpackers from the US, were quietly reading at a table. As I walked by the man said to me, "Utila? Honduras?" pointing at the Captain Morgan Dive Shop t-shirt I was wearing. "Yes" I said with a smile. We started chatting and they, Chris and Beth, asked me to join them. We talked about the islands and diving the reef, Guatemala, the jungles, their plans for trying to hitch a ride on a sailboat somewhere. They were traveling for a year and were three months in and had spent most of their time in Guate. I liked them. They were open and super friendly, asked me questions, spoke of their families and what they left behind for the year. Somehow the conversation turned to, and I am not sure how, the topic of jumping off high places into bodies of water. I think they were considering heading to some falls and Beth mentioned she was ready to make the jump. Chris looked at her and mumbled something about it not being safe. Beth balked and said with a smile, "you don't make my decisions for me." Chris cocked his head, a look of deep concern on his face...almost pleading. She grinned and said to me, "I had an accident, back in Colorado, jumping off a 30 foot high ledge into a swimming hole." I nodded, not thinking too much of the disclosure. Then Chris said,"why don't you tell her the whole story." Beth looked at me smiling and said, "I jumped off the ledge and when I hit the water it tore a three inch gash in my vaginal wall." I grunted and grabbed myself, crossed my legs and blurted out, "Oh my god!" Beth was grinning, she was enjoying the telling of the shocking tale. She said the pain was excruciating and she was gushing blood out of her vagina. She stripped her bikini bottoms off and someone put a towel between her legs and it was quickly saturated with her bright red vaginal blood. People, whom she did not know, grabbed her and put her in the back of their truck with a clean towel between her legs....Beth matter-of-factly explained that she was too bloody to be in the cab of the truck. The hospital was a two hour drive and she had soaked three thick beach towels before getting to the ER. She was quickly rushed into surgery, and I am happy to report, the surgery was a success. Beth's vagina is doing just fine...she enjoyed a full recovery. Beth explaned that when she jumped off the ledge she held her legs close together with an inch or two gap. When she hit the surface, this positioning streamlined the water and rocketed it into her vagina causing the damage. The doctors said it was a freak thing, and had her legs been slightly farther apart or crossed, the injury would not have occurred. Beth cautioned that women should always tightly cross their legs when jumping off ledges into bodies of water. Noted. Firmly noted. This is advice, I will never forget. After hours of chatting we parted ways, sharing emails and facebook info. I asked Beth if I could write her story, promising to change her name in the narrative. Beth grinned generously and said, "of course." I offered that I see it as a cautionary tale, one that women need to hear, for the protection of jumping vaginas everywhere. We laughed. One of the reasons I love traveling alone is this kind of shit happens (truth be told, even in the states strangers often tell me things, tell me their secrets). People get real and engaged quickly. It's not "let's do lunch sometime" and then three months pass before you're sharing a table. On the road, there is the here and the now. You're away from the familiar, open, receptive, and it gets more real more quickly. Just the way I like it. Thanks Chris and Beth, for sharing an afternoon with me. Thank you Beth for sharing your horrific and amazing vagina story. Chris, thanks for being so concerned about the safety of Beth's vagina. Who knows how many women may be helped by your cautionary tale. Fair winds to you both! Sisters, cross your legs!

The Coffin

I am not dead. I am not a vampire nor do I have some goth or twisted fascination with death. That said, I just spent a week sleeping in a coffin. A coffin for the living, the sailing....a coffin in the belly of a 43 foot Polynesian catamaran named Las Sirenas (LS). I slept in a coffin despite the fact that I have claustrophobic tendencies and a profound affinity for fresh air. I sleep with my window open, at least cracked, 365 days a year. With past lovers and sleep-mates I have forcefully explained that this is nonnegotiable. I don't like to be locked in stuffy small places. We boarded the LS a couple hundred yards off the deck of the Rio Bravo, a cafe on the Rio Dulce in the jungle of eastern Guatemala. Our bags were dropped on deck and we puttered around looking at our new home. I finally turned to one of the crew and asked where my berth was. He pointed to a hatch on the stern and I nodded and started to hoist my red backpack. He stopped me and said, "there is no room for that" and directed me to put my pack in the salon, which I did. "No room for my medium sized backpack?" I thought as I walked to the hatch he pointed to and pulled it open. Oh, now I understand. I looked in and couldn't believe this was where I would be sleeping for a week. I lowered myself down through the hatch, which left me standing where my head would be when I got supine. I crouched and worked myself into the space. The berth was tapered in the shape of a coffin. I looked up at the open hatch and imagined it closed and a mild panic started in my chest. I sat up, breathed deeply, and thought, "Mer, you can do this, just keep the hatch love sleeping on your boat under an open hatch." The hatch was the only entrance/egress, and when shut, one is literally entombed, with not enough room to sit up straight. Inside the coffin there was a four inch West Marine fan and a small light. On the opposite side a small gear hammock hung for tucking away a few personal items. I got in and out of the coffin several times before night fell, acclimating, self-soothing, telling myself I would be fine. Alas, the night came and so did a mild tropical shower. Shit, it's gonna be raining on me! But the crew put up a rain Bimini and I noted that it covered my hatch...phew. I exhaled. That night, after an excellent meal and a couple glasses of red wine, I retired to my tomb. We were anchored in the jungle and the air was hot and heavy with felt like more rain would come before dawn. In my tomb I turned on the fan and light and stripped to my underwear and t-shirt, draped the sheet over the top of my legs, and grabbed my book. Sweating, I read for a couple of hours and finally fell asleep. In the middle of the night I was awakened by the sound of a sudden heavy shower. Just as I become slightly conscious a big splash of rainwater hit me in the face. I quickly realized the wind was whipping the Bimini and chucking water at me. In the next moment one of the crew was standing over the hatch in the dark working to release the catch and close it to protect me from the rain. Just as it came down I instinctively held my arm straight up under the hatch and said "no!" The man understood, and without saying a word, he grabbed a plastic bottle to keep the hatch wedged open a few inches. The rain still whipped in a bit, hitting me in the face, but it was very tolerable, much more so than being sealed in the coffin. This situation repeated itself many times throughout the week...the rain would come and wake me through the open hatch, I would grab a stiff plastic cup, which I kept handily in the little hammock, and wedge it under the partially closed hatched. I would open and close the hatch many times during the nights, but it worked. The fresh water splashes were a bit of a relief from the intense tropical heat, and I got used to, and even a little comfortable with, sleeping in my coffin.

The Pullman Bus and the Gun

When you board a Pullman bus at a Litegua bus station in Guatemala, a man in a kacky uniform, with a .38 holstered on his hip, pats down each male passenger and checks every bag and purse, looking and feeling for weapons. Although there is the security check at the Litegua stations, the bus makes many stops along the highway during the six hour drive from the coast to Guatemala City. When people board at these interim stops, there is no armed guard frisking the men and checking bags. On my return trip from Fronteras on the Rio Dulce, I sat in the second row next to the window opposite a young Guatemalan man who also sat alone across the isle. At one stop about midway back to the City, in what seemed to me like the middle of nowhere, a stocky middle aged man wearing wrangler jeans, a yellow plaid shirt and a thick belt boarded the bus. He sat in the front row and as he turned to sit down I saw the shiny butt of a .45 caliber semiautomatic handgun which the man had shoved under his belt above his right ass cheek. It had a chrome finish with a black grip. It was big and looked new. The young man sitting across the isle from me saw the gun too and we looked at each other, eyebrows raised in a non-verbal and comical "what the fuck?" We shrugged at the same time and smiled. The man made no attempt to conceal the weapon and the driver's assistant, who checks the baggage and collects tickets, surely saw the weapon as the man boarded. The man was on the bus for about 45 minutes and spent most of the time talking loudly on a fancy cell phone. And then he got off the bus in another nondescript scrappy little town somewhere between here and there. I pondered this situation, quietly contemplated what might have been going on. He did not look like a cop, had no badge (the police here are nothing if not neatly uniformed and well groomed). He moved with total confidence and seemed completely unconcerned about anyone seeing his big shiny gun. Drug trafficker? Narco boss or henchman? We were far from Guate City and he did not look like the typical gang member, no tattoos, his dress was banal. But his confidence was unmistakable. He gruffly and distractedly said thank you to the driver as he exited and the driver casually acknowledged him. This guy, whomever he is, was allowed on the bus with a gun sticking out of his pants, apparently, without causing the driver and assistant any concern. Life in Guatemala.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Little Bombs and Big Processions, It's Christmas Time In Guate

I sat alone on a bench in Central Park, Antigua, this evening, spacing out, looking at the gorgeous lighting of the centuries old buildings and the cathedral. I was aware of the banter, in Spanish, of the cabbies standing a few feet behind me as people were walking this way and that at a leisurely pace. I was smiling. And then BAM an explosion about 20 feet from me behind some inches-high plants in the park. I jolted in my seat and felt the shock waves hit my pant legs like a strong gust of wind. Smoke was everywhere. Such is the Christmas season in Guate. And I gotta say, I don't like the fireworks part of it. Two evenings ago I got caught in a procession 20 yards from my house when about 100 people holding candles and crosses and singing were headed straight at me. A priest in fancy regalia carried some religious, bejeweled container as men held a thick and tasseled canopy above him. Apparently clearing the way for this group of worshipers, a few men lit and threw bricks of firecrackers a few yards in front of the procession and a few feet from where I was standing. Bam bam bam bam, little bits of smoke and fire everywhere. I ducked instinctively and felt my heart race as I had not been aware of their plans! I quickly pressed myself into a doorway with my hands crossed in front of me, trying to look respectful as I smiled slightly at the somber-faced folks walking and singing their way past me. Everyone was in dresses and suites and many of the boys wore white priestly frocks with red scarves on their shoulders. I could see Jose and Lucky up ahead, standing in their doorway, singing and holding candles. Finally the crowd thinned and as it slowly passed and I made my way to Lucky. The rest of the night sounded like a war zone. Across town the devil was being burned and throughout the city streets processions trapped the clueless in doorways. It is the beginning of the season of the birth of their Lord Jesus. And it is not about buying shit. I ain't Catholic and I have many big-ass problems with the church, but I have to admit, being in a place where the celebration of Christmas is NOT about shopping and buying shit...well, I really feel a relief in it. My friends down here, for the most part, are far from rich. They're artists and writers and managers and barkeeps. They don't focus on buying shit. They don't have that orientation or the money. Down here it is mostly, by a big margin, about spending time with family, eating good food, (and in the case of most of my friends, drinking good booze), playing music, singing and dancing, and just being together. Bring a bottle of wine to dinner, if you want, and more importantly, an open and loving heart and be ready to laugh. And if you are religious, it's about processions, mass, and all of the above plus burning the devil (which I think is cool). That's Christmas down here. And I appreciate it all, except the small and not so small celebratory bombs. Those I could do without. NOTE: All this said, I do miss my family and friends and my Cosmic...just not the compulsive shopping and incessant advertisements.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Back in Antigua Yet Again

I arrived in Guatemala City early Monday morning, cruised through customs, and was first greeted by the familiar face of Maco, a sweet Guatemalan taxi driver who is friends with Jose and Lucky. He stood patiently among the throngs of drivers and cabbies waiting to solicit or collect passengers leaving the airport. Maco held a piece of cardboard with block letters that spelled "Mer," a sight that has come to be quite comforting when landing in a notoriously dangerous country. I half dozed in the backseat as we eked through Monday morning traffic and headed towards Antigua. Big hugs and smiles and a late breakfast of eggs and tea at Jose and Lucky´s and then I settled into my room and crashed hard after a sleepless red-eye flight. Walking the streets of Antigua yet again, everything is familiar, nothing seems fresh or new....the anonymous young transient hippies and do-gooders are mostly different people than those I last saw eight months ago, but they all look the same, act the same, pose the same at the No Se bar, walking over the cobblestone streets, sitting in internet cafes talking too loudly in Dutch or German as they skype Europe where girlfriends and moms peer back through pixalated screens. And my arrival at No Se felt warmly familiar. My friends slowly trickled in for big hugs and boisterous hellos and the banter started immediately....Michael (a middle-age Brit whose nickname, for reasons that have never been adequately explained to me, is "Auntie Barbara") greets me with the line "Hello Mer, are you now willing to have sex with me?" My dear sweet friend Mike wispers¨"welcome home" in a long embrace and then vocally contemplates a new business venture for me, "Mer´s Merkins," apparently based primarily on it´s alliterative quality and proximity to pussy. Kevin continues to assure me he will turn me straight, in time, and confirms that I am, in fact, his daddy. I am sure there are many who would find such banter offensive, but to me, it was all positively charming and lovely. Of course what I have cited above are just a few excerpts of the bar banter that is well known to those who stumble into (or are summoned by some strange force) to the bar Cafe No Se. But as the evening stretched into the wee hours this banter only peppered the more substantive conversations that included disclosures of heartbreak and grief, rants on US politics, news of art openings, talk of writing, and an unfinished conversation considering, from a social-psychological perspective, inter-generational and crosscultural interpersonal communication....or something like that. Then we all landed at Mike´s appartment good and drunk and most suited to call it a night. Instead, we attempted to sing and dance. No one was hurt. And as far as I could tell, fun was had by all. And out of defernce to a friendship, I will not disclose the happenings in the cab ride home....sufice it to say, the evening was appropriately punctuated.