When we last left Sean he had just arrived in Guatemala City. With the help of a perverted cowboy, he had talked his way into a beat-up car driven by two strangers claiming to be cousins. They agreed to take him as far as Antigua, which was one hour away, “or maybe four.” Also, there’s a Brazilian woman on his lap.
* * *
The car ahead of us was on fire. And no one seemed to mind.
Pedestrians sidestepped between the gridlock and casually tossed wrappers and soda cans into the flames as they passed. The only person who stopped had done so in a failed attempt to light a cigarette.
The cousins briefly conferred in the front seat and decided the most efficient course of action was to honk twice and accelerate, ramming us into the back of the car.
They hadn’t shared this plan with their passengers though, and we all jolted forward on impact. The move was evidently meant to push the flaming heap off to the side of the road where the driver could burn to death without impeding traffic, but instead we were surprised to see him hop out and climb aboard an idling bus.
The two honks by the cousins were not done randomly, and honking in Guatemala has a special cadence understood by all motorists.
One honk = “Hello.”
Two honks = “Heads up.”
Three honks = “FYI, we’re all about to die.”
Cars were everywhere – on sidewalks, driving the wrong way, driving backwards, driving sideways, parked in the middle of the street, or just abandoned completely. Passengers clung to roofs, sides, fronts, and backs. There were buses, bikes, wagons, horses, chickens, goats, scooters, jeeps, trucks, and things called “tuk-tuks,” bastardized machines that looked the result of a golf-cart mating with a motorcycle.
A few minutes after we’d passed the car fire, our driver honked three times and steered us directly into the path of an oncoming truck. I felt like a goose committing suicide. I squeezed the foot of the Brazilian woman on my lap, hoping she was the equivalent of a South American rabbit, and she screamed. When I eventually opened my eyes I discovered it wasn’t the pain that caused her alarm…
It was a penis.
We had managed to avoid slamming into opposing traffic, but were now stuck behind a bus. And as we sat there, a man holding a sandwich stumbled over to my window and pulled out his penis.
Interesting development. I hope this isn’t the Guatemalan version of a toll booth. What would a bridge crossing cost? The name would make a good sexual position though. “The Guatemalan Toll Booth.” Is he eating the same sandwich we were served on the plane? I should’ve eaten. I’m starving. Why is he just standing there? Am I being rude? Is this how they say hello?
I felt a lot better when he started urinating against my door. The Brazilian woman didn’t share my relief, or the relief of the man urinating, and continued screaming until our driver leaned out of his window and threw a tennis ball at the man’s head. The shock of the tennis ball caused him to urinate on himself, and I hoped he wasn’t on his way to any meeting that would notice.
“Pablo. You’re late. Again. And wait, is that…is that urine?”
“I swear it’s not my fault this time, sir. I was minding my own business, pissing in the street like everyone else, and this guy comes out of nowhere and throws a freakin tennis ball at my head! So I…”
“I don’t want to hear it, Pablo. Jenkins is getting the promotion.”
* * *
About an hour later we found ourselves winding through hilly countryside as the sun began to dip lower in the sky. Freed from the gritty depression of the inner city, the mood of our group began to lift, helped tremendously by the fact that enough time had passed to prove our drivers didn’t harbor any murderous intent.
Soon we had arrived in Antigua, a city I was looking forward to visiting as I had heard of its colonial charm and colorful painted adobe homes. Before we could make it into town though, we nearly ran over a tourist who had stopped in the middle of the street in an attempt to take a picture of a dead parrot.
The man was sickly thin, and his newly purchased, starched jungle khakis hung loose from his gaunt frame. His head seemed an almost perfect circle though, and atop it was perched a floppy fedora, curved up on one side and festooned with a tail feather that may or may not have belonged to the creature he was photographing. When he turned towards the two honks of our car, my worst fears were confirmed.
He was American.
Why do American tourists feel the need to wear clothing labeled with the states they’re from? Do we think the locals will confuse us as neighbors? If anything, the locals must think our government requires us to wear this clothing, as a sort of dog collar identifying where to ship us if we’re found – white vans dropping off dazed families in front of Hard Rock Cafés all over the United States.
As the man in the Wisconsin t-shirt finally moved to let us pass, I avoided the glares from the others in the car by looking out the opposite window, where I noticed a Guatemalan man wearing a Chicago Bulls jersey.
The cousins dropped us off outside a comic book store and casually tossed our backpacks in the gutter before speeding off down the street. The Brazilian woman, who had been on my lap for the past two hours, immediately turned and smacked her husband across the face. Then she hugged him and started to cry. I moved to join them, but for some reason was turned away.
No matter. It was five o’clock and I was determined to move on to Panajachel, which was still over three hours away. After bidding farewell to the Brazilians, I figured the best way to find a new ride was to avoid the numerous travel agencies lining the street and instead find a bar. It was there, over a round of cloudy Tequila shots, that I met Danny and Moses.
* * *
Danny was 35 years old, and Moses was 18, though Moses was taller than Danny by about a foot. They were out drinking to celebrate the fact they were now brothers-in-law, as Danny had married the sister of Moses the day before. Danny took an immediate interest in me, and he wasn’t the only one. I was a novelty in this dark, dusty bar and the other patrons gathered around me as if my pale skin emitted moonlight.
Danny seemed sympathetic when he heard I needed a ride to Panajachel, but I couldn’t be sure if the concern was genuine, because his heavy accent made each sentence seem like a question.
“We can drive you? I have a car? A good car? You will get there? Ehhhhh….”
“Are you asking me? I’ve never seen your car. Why don’t you have shoes on?”
“You trust us to drive? You can trust us? Ehhh…”
“So you don’t know if you have a car, and you’re not sure if I should trust you?”
“Like the Bible?”
He had introduced himself earlier by saying their names were Danny and Moses, “like the Bible.” Meaning, I should trust them. When I turned to Moses for his input, I saw that he was bleeding from a cut on his hand. I asked how he’d injured himself and he just smiled and pointed to his head, which cleared things up.
Thirty minutes and five shots later, I followed them out through the back door of the bar and into an alley where their car was waiting. It was in much better condition than the first car I’d ridden in, and I took that as a positive sign. Also they had bought the first round inside, so I trusted them implicitly.
Handing over my backpack, I hopped in the backseat and was passed a fresh bottle of rum for us to share on the journey. When we pulled out of town we passed the American tourist in the Wisconsin t-shirt not far from where I had first seen him. Moses threw a CD at him.
After clearing the city limits, we struggled up a steep incline until we came to a fork in the road. To the right was a well-paved highway, and off to the left looked to be a more residential dirt road. Danny grabbed the rum from me and took a long swig before handing it back.
“Dónde? You want long way? Or you want fun way?”
Moses sensed my apprehension and chimed in with his opinion, which were the first words I’d heard him speak.
“This will be like Playstation on life, man.”
I couldn’t argue with that logic, and took a pull of rum.
“The fun way. Let’s take the fun way.”
* * *
I woke up to ringing in my head and whispering from the front seat, the bottle of rum now empty and serving as my pillow. It was dark and we were driving fast down a narrow cobblestoned street.
Before I could say anything the car skidded to a stop and sent me rolling onto the floor. One of the doors opened and I heard the faint noise of waves lapping against the shoreline. Moses yelled out in Spanish. Rising to one knee, I peeked out the window and saw three red cigarette tips approaching.
I crouched back down, waiting as the sound of footsteps grew closer.
To be continued next Wednesday in Part Three, when Sean explores the native villages surrounding the lake, and is chased by a local with a machete.