There are few things more familiar in Guatemala for me than amoebic dysentery. So it wouldn´t be a complete trip this beautiful country if I didn´t have a frequent relationship with the various bathrooms of the country. It is a little like what I imagine going to one´s highschool reunion might be like – all too familiar and you wish is wasn´t. But I am getting ahead of myself, because so much more has happened than you can possibly imagine in the last week and a half that I need to start from the beginning.
First of all here are the necessary players:
Me – your wandering chicken man who like it or not ogles all the various chickens that we see along the way bearing the brunt of most of the jokes from all my fellow travelers; Mari – my permanently silly partner who inevitably keeps me honest even though she may not be;
Tshilo – Mari´s brother who will stop at nothing to give me (and everyone else) a hard time but will go to bat for you like no one else I know; and Brook – Tshilo´s partner, who gracefully puts up with all of us and when you least suspect it will pull one of her own jokes out and leave you jaw-dropped in shock. It is fabulous company.
Brook and I arrived in Guatemala City on a Saturday just in time to find out that some of my friends had clashed with the police over the celebration of military day. We proceeded to hang out in the city until Monday when Mari and Tshilo arrived in the evening and promptly informed us that they needed to see a doctor as the left side of Mari´s face had swollen up do to pressure from diving in Honduras the previous week and Tshilo´s left ear was giving him a lot of pain. Looking back on that moment now, I can see all of the plans we had set up calmly scurry through the open window never to be seen again no matter how we tried to chase them. Over the next few days we visited the Red Cross, two hospitals, two clinics, and numerous pharmacies, in at least three different cities and towns looking for increasingly better and more informed diagnosis. We were evidently short on luck in this department and all roads eventually led back to Tshilo really needing to see an ear specialist (in Spanish this is Orintoringo – try and say THAT five times fast). Naturally we were not in one of two places in the entire country where this was possible, but instead in Nebaj, a mountain pueblo close to where I had lived for a year in 2001-2002. The decision was made that Brook and Tshilo would head to Xela in search of an Orintoringo and Mari and I would go on to Ilom where I had lived for a one night visit. Thus began a series of events that would nearly reach epic proportions…
Brook and Tshilo left in the afternoon from Nebaj, leaving Mari and me to relax and enjoy the quaint beauty of Nebaj. Distracted by a market filled with beautiful weavings and other assorted items we passed that day quite quickly. That evening while sitting at dinner our table began to shake ever so slightly until our chairs were also shaking. Looking around our neighbors at next table responded with ¨yup, it´s an tremor.¨ Very strange feeling for sure. We later heard it was a 6.0 earthquake with an epicenter somewhere near Chiapas, Mexico.
The next day we bounced off in a pickup at 9am bound for Ilom. Our plan was to stay for only one night, both knowing it would never be long enough and not wanting to be a burden as we would be staying at people´s houses. It was a Friday and our plan was to leave the next morning from Ilom to rendezvous with our other two fellow travelers in Guatemala City. A simple enough plan. A three hour trip lasted until close to 2pm due to slow going on a road often plagued with landslides, especially during the rainy season such as in full blast now. The most interesting item we found out during our pickup trip arrival was that the rides from Ilom to Nebaj now leave at 3am every morning meaning we would have somewhere around 12-13 hours total time to spend in the town I had lived in form nearly a year. It would be a test of creativity for our abilities to not only pass by all the necessary homes of people I wished to see, but a test of our ability to endure cup after cup of atol, coffee, juice, or whatever other drink would surely be generously but forcefully offered to us with each visit. All in a very short time. I was not sure it was humanly possible.
Going back to a place that was once so familiar – I had lived in Ilom for nearly a year as an international human rights accompanier – is a long disjointed bought of dejá vu. We dismounted from the back of the pickup and not more than 100 meters along the road we were greeted and offered a well needed lunch of black beans, tortillas and chile. There are few things I am sure of in this life, but one that I have no doubt in my mind about is this: the tortillas of Ilom are the best in there ever were. They are nearly the size of my hand, thick and flavorful, made of nothing but generations old corn grown on the slopes around the community. We couldn´t stay long after lunch. They were preparing for some political rally as the elections were ever nearer, and we hadn´t even arrived at where we hoped to stay the night.
The afternoon blew by and though I would have loved to see everyone I had shared meals with and worked alongside, it was somewhat fortunate due to our very limited time that not everyone was home when we passed by. In the end, no time is enough to elapse the gulf between my ability to come and go as I please and the impossibility for the opposite to happen. As the day wore on and we tried our best to pace ourselves and enjoy the quality of our company it was ever present in my mind that we were going to be getting up around 3am in order to get on a pickup back to Nebaj and then another seven hours to Guatemala City to meet Brook and Tshilo. At some point during that day I assured Mari that the family we were staying with would go to bed shortly after 8pm, as that is how I had remembered it from my time there. It was as we were finishing dinner that we were informed that their son was using the house we were staying in to show movies at night – every night in fact – and that an 8pm bedtime we were looking forward to in anticipation of our crazy early start would be interrupted by about 30 young boys watching a kid ninja movie dubbed into Spanish. Awesome. So there we were, after eating the best handmade tortillas ever to have graced the universe all by firelight, desert for us and the Ixil youngsters was dubbed karate for Q1 each with generator fumes wafting in from just outside the door. The world is certainly a strange place.
Sleep finally came, and quickly, just as I set the alarm for 2:47am and trying not to think too much about it. In fact, we had been told that if anyone heard one of the several pickups that leaves at various times, they would be sure to wake us up. And suddenly it was 2am and we were woken. Somehow, the first thing to arrive in my slow working mind was ¨this is NOT 3am¨ and therefore not fair. All the while, Mari and I were tying our shoes and stuffing the sleeping bag into the backpacks. A quick look to see if we missed anything in the deserted movie theatre/sleeping quarters and out the door we scooted, down the rock steps and into another pickup not more than 12 hours after having arrived. It struck me that somehow leaving in the middle of the night suited better with such a short trip as I didn´t have time to think about feeling bad for leaving already. Selfish, but a tad realistic perhaps.
Feeling sorry for all the souls that were getting woken up as the pickup repeatedly blared its horn, we bounced up the dirt road through Ilom. Next to me was a young guy I had played soccer with in the afternoons and on Sundays. Even in the darkness we quickly recognized each other and began making small talk about soccer and anything else that came to mind, including finding work in the states and if I was coming back for good or just to visit. The cool air chilled our ears and our hands as well as we gripped the metal railing that is attached to almost all of the pickups in the countryside of Guatemala. Our driver clearly knew what he was doing and we were making quite good time. I began to estimate when we would arrive in Nebaj – just in time for fresh coffee at El Descanso accompanied by banana bread – and then eventually Guatemala – time to take our clothes to the laundromat, relax, shower, and later go out dancing. I even began to feel happy about our 2am departure that had left me grumbling a bit inside at first, and mentioned it to Mari. She later told me that she thought me saying something like that was a bad idea, but at the time didn´t mention it.
Within an hour we had covered a bunch of ground and had arrived at the first small village we would go through. In my mind, simply a marker of where we were and how much farther we had to go. We stopped behind another pickup and our driver hopped out and entered the only lit building. A minute later he emerged and said off handedly, ¨we can´t get through, time to sleep.¨ Now, I have heard lots of random excuses and reasons for not arriving on time or sitting around waiting in Guatemala, but this was said in such a simple, plain way that for some reason it didn´t register. When I asked if he was serious, he told me yes and that there had been a big landslide and no one was getting through until the backhoes began working again (there had been a significant amount of work done on the road due to a giant hydroelectric project being undertaken between where we currently were and Ilom.) It was 3am. Clearly no backhoe operator was going to be working until at least 7am, which was when I was supposed to be drinking coffee and eating banana bread. In my head, I rejected the idea and at the same time reached for my backpack to pull out the sleeping bag. It was the reverse of an hour earlier only this time in the back of a pickup with seven other people, and setting an alarm would not mean it was time to go. At no point in our trip was it more evident to me that I had forgotten the necessary patience for travel in Guatemala during my three years in the states.
Somehow we slept. Mostly I slept to not think about the fact that we were stuck. And if I had seen the actual landslide at that time, I would have realized that there was really nothing we could do. Sometime shortly before we began moving but after the sun was lighting the low cloud cover overhead, we found out that there had been another landslide somewhere behind us and cars were not getting through there either. Now we weren´t even going back, at least not for a while. I told Mari I had wanted her to have the full Guatemalan experience and that it had taken a lot for me to arrange all of this, so I hoped she was grateful. She grumbled and looked barely amused.
We moved on, and about 20 minutes ahead we arrived at the sight where we discovered a slide 75 meters across and three times that from top to bottom. The angle of the slope was more than 45 degrees in the middle. We weren´t even going to be able to walk across and get into one of the many pickups on the far side that were also lined up looking longingly as we were. The most convenient piece of the entire situation was that by luck, fortune, or fate the slide had taken place with a backhoe on either side. As we arrived at the site, the drivers were both tossing aside their cigarettes and firing up the monstrous machines that I have never been more grateful to see.
Miraculously, and with little fanfare, less than two hours later there was a passable road. By this time, the lines on each side had grown (meaning the other slide behind us had also been cleared). For better or worse, we were one of the first cars across and we passed without incident. It felt like a lifetime ago that we had roused ourselves from the wooden bed in Ilom. Very quickly we would find ourselves in the town of Nebaj, sleepy and a bit disoriented. Foregoing coffee in lieu of a quick getaway towards the capital city, we got some banana bread to go, used a well needed restroom and jumped in the first micro-bus towards the city of Quiché, halfway to Guatemala City thinking to myself that we were practically home free…an hour later the bus overheated, gurgling water as it spewed out of the engine and onto the now hot pavement. This time there was no waiting to be done. The bus was not going anywhere for some time, but we surely were. Backpacks in hand, we quickly paid the driver for the distance we had traveled and luckily flagged down another before the other passengers of our steaming bus and away we went. It was the last of our traveling worries that day. At 4:30pm that same day we arrived at my friend Caren´s house in Guatemala City where we were to meet the other half our party of four. Fourteen and a half hours after we had left, and one pickup, two micro-buses, one chicken bus, and a taxi later, we were grumpily unpacking our bags to try and make that early morning dream I had of washing clothes a reality. What would not become a reality would be the dancing and the meeting up with Brook and Tshilo…