Summer in Guatemala
"Pam, you don't just take pictures of people without asking them," I say.
Lake Atitlan stretches wide and blue in front of us, bounded by jagged mountains and foregrounded by a group of indigenous girls spreading their laundry out on the sand. They're clothed in rainbow striped embroidered cloth, and the way they carry themselves, flock and wear their faces is stolid and foreign. Pam is already snapping off photos.
"Ok, look. I'm sure they don't care," she says. "But I'll go ask them anyways."
I watch Pam go over and stutter and gesture; I hope they ask her for money or tell her to fuck off. She is hefty and middle-aged, an attorney with kids and a husband at home. The girls charge her 10 quetzales (like a dollar) for a close-up and she comes back pissed. "Look, if you had rich foreigners gawking and taking pictures of you from birth to death you'd start asking for money too," I tell her.
We hire a motorboat at some rickety docks crowded with tourists and ask our driver to take us across the water to what Pam's guidebook calls a "quaintly traditional" village. Other boats are taking other tourists to other villages and on the water we watch their yellow oil trails rock under our boat's wake.
On the other side a flock of ragged indigenous kids runs up selling mangoes and peanuts and one says he will show us around town for a few quetzales. It feels like we are in Disneyland because it seems everyone is working overtime to please the tourists-there are women with their fabrics spread out for sale everywhere, men with random items like socks and shoes for sale, kids trying to get everyone's attention. "Te voy a mostrar el municipio y el maximo," our kid says and we follow him not knowing what el maximo is. When Pam sees it's not in her guidebook she gets annoyed and goes off on her own.
I ask the kid for a tour before he takes me to maximo -whatever it is- and so first he takes me to the old Catholic Church where we squeeze through a crowd of families and watch mass, nobody stares at us, they are used to tourists. We leave and my kid takes me to the slum where he lives and into a ratty corner store cut out of someone's house and asks me to buy him food, pointing to coarse bread on dusty wooden shelves. He translates the clerk's quiche for me and I end up getting him a feast that costs around 10 cents.
When we walk away, the kid who I start to call maximo sees some other kids who curse him, throw shit at him, and tell me not to go with him, to go with them, to make maximo give them some of the food he's parading around with. He tries to get me away from them and take me to see more places in the town. I notice that older people, parents and grandparents, are glancing at me as we walk. Maximo struts with his cheeks crammed full of bread.
He takes me to the tourist shopping street, I notice its oldness, its worn stones set by forced labor by these people's ancestors under some lower-class Spaniard. I wonder if the humble, almost deferential way people glance at me here was how their ancestors glanced at the Spaniards in the wake of the conquest. People sell trinkets to gringos here, bags that say Guatemala, fluorescent weavings and paintings; maximo takes me into specific stores and pushes me to buy specific things, smiling at the vendors, he's obviously got a little network of connections and pay-offs going. People greet me with a sort of reserved servility. Finally maximo takes me to el maximo.
American and European tourists crowd the door of the shack that houses this thing, some clutching guidebooks, apparently it was in the guidebook, although I still don't know what it is. All the tourists are on some sort of bizarre scavenger hunt for items in a brochure. Maximo and I push into the hut, the room is an off-kilter shrine lit by hundreds of half-melted candles and there are tawdry medieval style icons of the saints and the Virgin Mary everywhere and I see el maximo, a life-sized wood model of a wide-eyed Spanish guy with a real burning cigarette in his mouth, a terrifying wooden grin on his face showcasing a perfect set of square white teeth, smelling of hard liquor. A man sits squarely on a stool next to el maximo and charges me about a dollar for having come in. You pour liquor on him (maximo) and make a wish and if you're lucky he will grant you it, the man says. I see a Scandinavian couple, they are about to do it (they paid extra), smiling and self-satisfied in humoring this creoled superstition. The man goes on in laconic Spanish about how maximo represents the marriage of indigenous beliefs and Catholicism in San Pablo; his words bleed together.
When I arrive back at the pier, Pam is standing there uncomfortably, nervous to be alone in this sea of Indians. She is waiting for me and there are indigenous women waiting with mangoes and limes for more tourists to sell to. Pam glances at her watch and glances at me. Maximo and now one of his friends have detached themselves from me and wait for new tourists to arrive along with the others. Pam is clutching a bunch of fabrics, a painting and a ceramic plate that says "Lago Atitlan, Guatemala."
"The hardest part of travelling is buying the right gifts for people that really capture place you've been," she yells when we're gunning across the water. She is disappointed she didn't see maximo, which in her guidebook is actually spelled "El Machimon." Occasionally she tells the boat's pilot to stop and help her get up on the front of the boat so she can take a picture.
After about half an hour we are back where we started, Panajachel. Panajachel is the main town on the Atitlan waterfront, its economy is based on tourism, and it's where we are staying at a place called "Jimmy's Hotel." When we get off the boat we fight through an onslaught of people who stand below shoulder level: mothers following us saying their children are sick and would we please help them, children selling their mother's fabrics for a couple dollars, dozens of people, families, selling identical keychains, peanuts, fingerpuppets, gum, trinkets, quetzal figurines, woodcarvings, woven shirts, skirts, silverware with non-Western-looking artwork engraved, T-shirts of Che Guevara, newspapers. This feels like a swap meet in a refugee camp. There are sticky popsicle sticks and plastic and trash all over. Most of these people know a few English phrases and can pronounce them in perfect American accents; things like "Would you like to buy it?" I can feel the stones through my soles, signs in English have been hung over the doors of old Spanish buildings, troops are here on the side-streets, indigenous or ladino but with vacant, hard eyes, conducting exercises with green camouflage trucks and machine guns. In front of the bank there are two squat men in black uniforms lazily handling AK-47s.
It's our last night here so Pam wants to go shopping. She is going back to California soon and hasn't bought enough things to show her friends back home; in South Africa, Mozambique, Eastern Europe and India, places about which she speaks to me with authority and sentimentality, she acquired many more souvenirs than she has bought here. She wants me to stay close to her so I sit on the curb next to a row of clothing booths so she can shop while the sky waxes orange and purple and clouds form and jet up into the sky and the people disappear back into the woodwork. Out of the darkness I see Jill, a girl I met in Quetzaltenango. I remember her complaining to me about people like Pam. She is walking down the street, visibly comfortable and yet vaguely dissatisfied with her surroundings.
A few weeks later I sit in an air-conditioned ex-pat bar in Quetzaltenango staring into the clear porcelain of Jill's eyeballs, feeling out of place but more in place than I felt with Pam. Although the week we met we spent all our time having sex and fantasizing about never going back to the U.S., Jill's voice has remained distant, with a strain of vicious and clairvoyant contempt: she hates Americans, even though she is one. She has a subtle white moustache, big golden hair, light blue eyes, her body is sickly, she looks like a pale-faced goodie-two-shoes college-girl. We're going to stay in a shantytown in the mountains where she teaches.
We get up there sitting in the back of a rickety early-80's pick-up on a stony trail where I feel like I'm going to get bucked off and fall down the mountain-side every two minutes. As we go up we pick up, with Jill's permission, more and more people who are walking up the mountain, an old pruned indigenous women with a sack of unsold onions from the market, a gang of barefoot kids with ripped Backstreet Boys T-shirts and slingshots, a guy who gets off his horse and leaves it with a friend and rides up the mountain with us, a 15-year-old peasant-girl-turned-prostitute decked out in tight leather going back to her family in the mountains. They are joking around in quiche and Spanish, the young girls giggling amongst themselves. Jill jokes with them, talks politics with the adults, and gives the kids a pack of crackers. They squabble over it. One gets a grip on it and stuffs them all into her mouth at once, looking like a hamster with her rosy brown cheeks puffed out, straining her jaw to chew.
When we first get there the shantytown hits me like a frame from one of those charity infomercials you see at 2AM on TV with the hungry barefoot kids: it's centered in a grassy bowl the size of a football field cut out of the mountain. It consists of like 20 ragged huts with layers of black trash-bag plastic over their straw roofs for water insulation. In the center there are a dozen or so trashcans that people fill up with water from the city below every day and there is a small concrete building with a sign that says escuela. Children walk to the city for school but at this place Jill helps them with their homework and teaches adults how to read and write. Jill tells me one of the main reasons the people moved from the countryside into this shantytown was so their kids could get an education and get a better job.
Carved into the mountain that towers above and drops out below are people's farms, little plots where they grow corn and potatoes to supplement their income when they aren't working in the city or on some of the big coffee plantations further up. I realize this is probably the most serene place I've ever seen. An ascending mountain the top of which you can't see, and where the farther up you go the more ancient and unreadable the culture becomes and the farther out your worldly problems orbit. Below us stretches the city, sprawling and hazed over in turquoise, like a view from an airplane.
Jill and I sleep in the "school", which has only one room, on a ratty bed leaned up against the wall during the day to make space. She is particularly distant now. She can understand quiche and speaks Spanish and during the day I help her tutor the older kids and young adults who can speak Spanish. Whenever I take the 3 mile descent into the city I bring a bucket of water, fill it and carry it back up and pour it in one of the basins, I suppose this means I'm making a contribution. Sometimes I'll bring things I've bought for the people like machetes, balls for the kids, board games in English for English class.
On days Jill feels her class is going well she will pass me while I'm reading or playing soccer outside and not even acknowledge me with her eyes, totally engaged in her work. I have to admit that knocks the wind out of me. On bad days she will confide in me, we will talk about home, she will show me her mail, and she'll fuck me, on top, riding me with genuine affection. This is a fucked up relationship I realize but I really would rather stay than go, where would I go to, just keep wandering around raking the surface of the culture like Pam was doing? Once at night Jill takes me to a Mayan shrine about a mile up the mountain and we light a beeswax candle and drip the wax onto a sort of symbol and pray to a god whose name I can't pronounce while we hold hands. Real spiritual or whatever. Another time she takes me to see a friend who lives about 2 miles up where you can start to feel the oxygen deprivation. She is an old woman, a leader of the peasant rebellions of the 40's. Jill loves to talk to her and she translates for me.
I make friends with a kid named Ramon, his father is a bricklayer who organized a union, had his face burned into a pasty brown mask by the patrulleros, worked with the guerrillas and got to go to a pan-American socialist conference in Cuba courtesy of the Cuban Communist Party. That trip was the high point of his dad's life. Ramon is finished with 6th grade so he hangs around the village all day. We go exploring in the rainforest, sometimes with his friends, we play soccer with a new ball I buy him, we pick nuts and smoke weed and hard tobacco rolled in newspaper. He and his friends sniff out of rubber-cement cartons they've dug out of the trash sometimes. I can't stop them. Ramon learned some Marxism from his father, and we discuss the class struggle, the death of the Central American revolution, the example of Cuba, building an alliance between urban masses and peasants, the resurgence of the paramilitary groups, the ignorance of the North American people, imperialism, the second intifada. I tell him what it's like in the U.S. He hates gringos. They piss me off too, even though I will always be a gringo. I wonder if Ramon will still be playing soccer, dealing with lice and fleas and ringworm, working on a plantation, and sniffing himself stupid with glue with his friends when I'm a high school teacher in Los Angeles. I imagine bringing him back to L.A., showing him a computer or my parent's living room. I know Jill won't be able to part with many of these people.
"Do you wish you were one of them?" I ask her through the thick darkness and the sound of crickets one night after she has come; we are sprawled out naked enveloped by drafts of hot water-pregnant air.
According to one of Jill's theories, breaking ourselves down physically can smash the wall between identity and community, and so she has convinced me to undergo a sort of ritual and now I am climbing with her and a group from the shantytown to the highest peak in Central America. It's up and back in 2 days without sleep or food. Jill and I, Ramon's father Ramon, and some others named Loretta, Odelina and Juan make up the group.
We are climbing the sheer face of the mountain on a muddy trail through heavy foliage, the city's off-square block patterns are appearing below in the twilight, the horizon is exploding in hues of orange and yellow. We have old orange plastic flashlights and I carry a dusty zip-lock sack of batteries, others carry unlabeled plastic water jugs and woven bags with drums and scratchers.
Quetzaltenango is already a couple miles above sea-level, and now the city flutters and winks a mile below us, how it must look from an airplane for tourists headed to Guatemala City, that distant and alien. I hike next to Loretta in the middle of the pack, a thick woman of 20 who has two infant daughters in the shanty-town. She speaks broken Spanish, but we barely speak- only to warn each other about branches, slippery clay and other obstacles. We pull at foliage and branches and trade off in the lead. We are soon both drenched in sweat, my shirt clings to my back.
For the first 3 or 4 hours of the trip we pass through a network of Mayan villages; we see the flashlights of men out hunting in the early morning light. When they are close enough Ramon or Juan whistle and they whistle back from across a gulley or from within some foliage. We are afforded a respect for making this trip by passerbys; apparently it is not something most people attempt more than once or twice. This all makes me nervous.
Loretta and I stay together and at times we speed up to catch up to Jill and Ramon who are ahead of us and climbing perpetually faster. At the plateau the group stops and we rest and pass around bottles of water. Nobody is denigrated for being behind, everyone is encouraged, everyone stays together and no one is ever left to hike alone. The blood has receded from Jill's face and she is unrecognizable to me the way she holds herself as she rests. I'm too tired to care but I get that wind-knocked-out-of-me feeling. She has been in some sort of intense conversation with Ramon. Before anyone ever gets too comfortable we continue.
Day breaks and I feel hunger pangs. I ask Loretta if she does but she pants "no, estoy bien.". Nobody wants to discuss whether or not they're tired or hungry, I realize that complaining to each other only sabotages morale. But I've begun to run on empty, my head is swimming, it feels like a drug setting into my system. Steps become automatic, body movements become automatic, social convention becomes irrelevant as Loretta and I substitute grunts for words. My stream of consciousness separates from the climb, I'm free to ponder and fantasize and conjure up images and observe my body dodging stones and finding thick branches to hang on that won't snap or fall away, I am withdrawing into myself, curling up. Until late afternoon I fight it, worried somehow that I will injure myself, but slowly this feeling is broken down, and I get the feeling that all that I care about is the here and now and succeeding in reaching the top. The will to be one with the group also helps me to keep going.
By sunset images lock into motionless frames, quickly moving and then stopping again. Loretta looks exhausted, but her big eyes are shining and she is pushing down with both arms on her calves each time she takes a step up. I wonder what's going through her mind, if she is thinking about her kids and her family or what. At the next plateau the city fits shimmering and yellow into the gap between my index and middle fingers, squeezed in between long wafts of ascending rainforest and rock. Nobody talks; we are all disheveled, we pass around the water bottle, the sun hangs low over the distant mountains. Ramon massages my chilled, sweat-drenched shoulders and gives me a slap on the back and shouts "asi es companero!", grinning. When I first came to Guatemala I took the warmth of Guatemalan men towards one another as something almost sexual. It still feels that way but now it feels comfortable and endearing. To think that in San Diego where I live Ramon would be mowing my parents lawn or crossing his fingers at a day-labor meat-market.
Hiking through the night is like a dream. I am not sure if I am awake. Sometimes I am aware of every ligament, other times I feel withdrawn inside my head and I have a vague sense of flashlights snaking up the slippery slope, the snake is panting and groaning in the darkness, it is chirping with the insects, together with them, in a dialogue with them, and I am part of it. I am walking through layers of spider webs. I can feel insects land on me sometimes or brush off on me as I move through foliage. The sky is soaked from horizon to horizon in rich sprays of stars, the Milky Way gushes through them like a glowing vein of quartz.
I know we have reached the top when I hear Ramon yelling and beating his drum, "aqui estamos companeros, cien pasos mas, cuarenta pasos mas," etc. His voice echoes through the midnight darkness and seems to come from within me almost as an inner compulsion to continue through to the finish. At the top we can see the gentle glow from El Salvador, and the Southern border of Chiapas. By the morning we can see both the Pacific and the Atlantic. We sit in a circle and play drums and sing Christian songs I have never heard of. Sometimes we hold hands and pray to God in sentences I can't get a grip on, all together on this highest peak in the land.
On the plane home I realize that I don't believe in the songs and I could never be a Christian, and besides even if I believed in God I could not have broken down the differences between myself and the Mayans who I made friends with in Guatemala. Jill, she is still living on the outskirts of Quetzaltenango, trying to fit in and pretend she isn't a yuppie North American. Pam sends me copies of her pictures including the one she paid for on the beach that one day and they are posted like trophies on my refrigerator, probably just the way they are on hers.
Josh Saxe is Josh Saxe, 22,
lives in Los Angeles and works as an external organizer for SEIU in Los Angeles. He's a member of the Los
Angeles Strikers Solidarity Organization. His email
address is firstname.lastname@example.org.