According to various travel websites, among the things to “avoid” during a trip to Guatemala are: active volcanoes, spiders, scorpions, rapists, murderers, drug cartels, pickpockets, child sex traffickers, kidnappers, extortionists, roving packs of rabid dogs, and the occasional mob, military uprising or government coup d’état.
Other things to avoid? Drinking the water, eating the food, breathing the air, closing your eyes, opening your eyes, going out at night, going out during the day, public transportation, private transportation, people, places, things, and finally, stepping foot in the country at all.
Among the things to “seek out” are: protection, weaponry, a higher power, and shelter – due to the ubiquitous earthquakes, hurricanes, forest fires, mudslides and floods that only occur all of the time, in every location.
I had packed one pair of underwear.
* * *
“That’s tremendous,” I said, louder than intended.
“What is?” asked the woman seated across the aisle.
My plane was delayed on the runway at Houston International Airport and I was five hours into the ten-hour journey from Philadelphia to Guatemala.
“That guy up there,” I said. “He’s wearing a t-shirt that says ‘Jesus Saves.’”
“So? So he’s enormous and he just got stuck in the aisle. Look at him! Squirming around. You’d think the sweat would be a lubricant. Hey, ya know what else saves, buddy? Dieting. Am I right?”
When the man who turned out to be her husband freed himself and arrived back at their seat, I decided to turn my attention to my left. There sat a shriveled raisin of a person, gnawed like the stub of the cigar he was licking, and he was not only donning a bedazzled cowboy hat, but he was pulling the look off.
Reaching into the small backpack wedged between my legs, I checked on my passport and pulled out the itinerary I’d created for my trip. This plane would take me as far as Guatemala City, and from there I’d have to make my way four hours cross-country into the Western Highlands. I was headed to a town called Panajachel that sat on the banks of Lake Atitlan, lauded as one of the most gorgeous lakes in the world.
It wasn’t until we began our descent into Guatemala City that I smelled the smoke. I considered that the plane was so old it had windows that rolled down, but knew something was wrong when I saw a flight attendant running towards me.
The man seated next to me had lit his cigar.
Tiny legs crossed and cowboy hat dipped, he was the picture of serenity before the flight attendant pulled the stogie from his mouth. He licked his dry, white-cracked lips and cocked his head towards me.
“Bienvenido a Guatemala.”
* * *
Guatemala City Airport could be any Midwestern hub, and I was disappointed to see the Starbucks didn’t exist in a thatched hut with bare-breasted baristas serving scones. Clearing customs was a complicated affair, and tourists were required to abide by strict protocol.
Step One: Smile at the woman behind the counter.
Step Two: Walk past her.
I had no means of travel, no working cell phone, no internet access, no grasp of the Spanish language, no understanding of indigenous culture, no local currency, and no information on my hotel other than a name scrawled on a scrap of paper. I wasn’t even entirely confident in my ability to point out where the country of Guatemala (if it was indeed a country) existed on a map. But this was all by design. I wasn’t just on vacation, I was on an adventure, and where was the fun in guaranteed survival?
In front of me was a sign that read “salida,” which I guessed meant either “exit,” “entrance,” or “salad.” Regardless, there was a door and I hadn’t eaten, so I pushed through it… and walked into Hell’s waiting room.
Screaming, sign-laden lunatics clamored to get the attention of anyone white and in need of a ride. They were being held back by Uzi-toting security guards and flanked by trucks hocking out black exhaust that would momentarily engulf everyone in plumes of darkness.
Had I landed in Trenton?
Each move forward made the crowd surge with anticipation, and for a moment I was stutter-stepping in confusion, which caused a rocking motion that looked like they were doing the wave. Before I could choose a direction, I was shoved aside by the obese man in the “Jesus Saves” t-shirt from the plane. He and his wife climbed aboard an idling bus, evidently anxious to do God’s work in air-conditioned seclusion.
Moving over to some available shade, I was soon approached by another man dressed like a cowboy. This one was not of the Western persuasion, but more of the Toy Story variety, and of similar size.
“What you want? Hotel? T-shirts? Sex? You want girls?”
“What? We’re at an airport. Why would I want a t-shirt?”
“American! Deadliest Catching! Walled Street! Dancing with Kardashians! Gaga Obama!”
Had he just summed up the past five years in American history? In order?
“Where you from? New York? Florida? Dayton, Ohio?”
“Yes, I’m from Dayton, Ohio. Do you know where I can find a cab? I need to get to Panajachel.”
“Ahh, Pana! Si. No one will take you there. It’s almost dark.”
“What happens after dark?”
“Ha ha! See him?”
The cowboy pointed to a spray-painted wall where the body of a man was slumped in a pile of trash. His eyes were closed and there looked to be dried blood on his face.
And…that’s a corpse.
“Jesus Christ…is he dead?”
“I made sex to his sister yesterday. Ha ha!”
Today counts as a vacation day. I now have one less vacation day.
“So, why can’t I travel after dark?
“They will kill you.”
The cowboy smiled and waved his arm in the air as if to signal he was speaking about the entire population. I looked back at the crowd.
Did that baby have a knife?
“I can get you to Antigua for a tip. How much you want to pay?”
“I don’t know, 20Q?”
The Guatemalan currency is the Quetzal, and the exchange rate is approximately 1 US Dollar = 8 Quetzals, or “Q.” I’d just offered him about $2.50 US, but ended up paying $20 US. He was a very convincing cowboy, and he threw in a t-shirt and a half-eaten sandwich. He also offered naked pictures of his friend’s sister, which I declined.
The cowboy ushered me over to a waiting couple, who I assumed he’d also swindled, and we waited as he jabbered into a cell phone. Twenty minutes later, a beat-up, two-door brown hatchback sputtered to a stop in front of us. The side of the car had a decal that said “Hunda” and all of the windows were tinted except for the passenger side, which had been smashed in.
The back door opened and two men jumped out, one of whom simply ran away. The other smiled to showcase his remaining three teeth and grabbed my backpack, tossing it into the open trunk, which for some reason I allowed. The couple, who turned out to be Brazilian and on their honeymoon, exchanged worried glances before allowing him to take their bag as well.
The cowboy pulled me aside.
“Okay, these are my cousins. They are very good. Very sexy. They will take care of you.”
“They will take us to Antigua?”
Wait, did he say sexy?
“Si, Antigua. One hour, maybe four. But the Brazilians, they paid double so don’t tell them what you paid, okay? Okay. You my friend, you get a special price. Call me when you need a ride back. We can go get girls.”
With that, the cowboy slapped me on my ass and went over to inform his “cousins” where the best place to dump our bodies would be. I tried smiling at the couple to reassure them, but they were praying and not interested in bonding. That changed when all three of us were required to sit in back, and with the limited room I soon found myself with a Brazilian woman sprawled across my lap.
My question was barely heard over the radio, which sounded like a chicken being raped by an asthmatic donkey.
Would I meet a similar fate?
“How long to Antigua?”
The driver turned to the man next to him and both started laughing. Then they shifted the car into gear and off we went, thumping over a dead dog in the road as we whipped around the corner and into Guatemala City.
One hour to Antigua…maybe four.
I gripped the sweaty ankle of the Brazilian woman in my lap, and wished I had packed more than one pair of underwear.
To be continued next Wednesday, when Sean meets two men inside of a bar and agrees to let them drive the additional three hours to Panajachel…at night.