When we last left Sean, he had two days left in Guatemala, and had just emerged from a swim in the lake to find a topless woman sunbathing.
* * *
After tossing my backpack into the darkness of the hotel room, I held the down button on the air conditioning keypad until it read 55 degrees. Then I took off all my clothes.
I stood there awhile underneath the vent, naked and caked in filth while the fake frosted air washed over me. Turning to the bathroom, I flipped the light on and saw fresh, white towels, soaps, shampoos, bath salts, and lotions. A tear formed in one eye and slid down the dirt dried sweat on my cheek. It was all so beautiful.
The shower lasted forty minutes, and I alternated sitting and standing, crouching and arching, front and back, bent and straight. I moaned, whimpered, laughed, cried and clawed at the tile, savoring its coolness under the heavy torrent of scalding water on my shoulders.
When I finally emerged, the mirror had fogged over, and I took one of the large towels to mop it away, scared to look at myself until I was sure I had burned off the grime of the Guatemalan countryside. My reflection slowly came into focus.
* * *
It was a luxury hotel, five-stars, one of the best in Guatemala City. I had sprung for the room on my final night, knowing that I’d be exhausted from roughing it the previous week. It did not disappoint, and the dramatic marble lobby, lavish spa, and high-end restaurants seemed otherworldly. Their bathrooms also had excellent lighting, much better than the ones in the jungle.
Which is probably why I didn’t realize that the sun block I’d purchased for the trip was actually Jergens Natural Glow, a self-tanning lotion… which I had been applying twice a day, all week long.
I was orange.
My face was orange. My shaved head was orange. My hands were orange. And, almost more embarrassing, only one of my ears was orange.
* * *
I thought back to the woman lying on the blanket. The one with the short brown hair and the long toned legs. The one with the dolphin tattoo on her right shoulder.
The one who was topless.
* * *
“Woah! I’m sorry. I was breast taking a nip…a dip! I was just taking a dip… in the lake and didn’t realize anyone was…”
And then I slipped on a rock and fell into the water.
She didn’t seem to mind, and when I managed to crawl back onto the sundeck she had replaced her bikini top and contorted herself into a yoga pose.
“Yoga. Cool. I’ve never tried it before. I heard a story once about a guy who got so tangled up he shit himself in front of the entire class. Can you imagine that? So, ya know.”
Quick, ask her to marry you. What are you thinking?! A guy who shit himself? ‘Imagine that?’ ‘Ya know?’ Are you asking her if she knows about shitting herself, and if not, to imagine it? Jesus. Say something else.
“I’m Sean, what room are you in?”
…so I can murder you later in your sleep. Fix your words.
“I mean, are you staying at the hotel? I’m Sean. I already said that. Haha. It’s hot out here, huh? Sweet dolphin tattoo. So, what room are you in?”
The woman smiled and untwisted herself, rising up from the deck on one leg. She was so attractive my eyelids sweat. But she said nothing. Instead, she grabbed her towel and started walking away towards the path leading back to the hotel. I yelled after her.
“Nice meeting you! Sorry about…me!”
She rounded the corner and was gone.
I looked for her at dinner that night, but she never showed. At the time I guessed that I had scared her off with my conversation, however in retrospect it was probably a combination of that, and the fact that I was orange.
* * *
The next morning I was due to meet Danny and Moses where they had dropped me off in the beginning of the week. I’d called them the night before from the hotel phone to confirm the time, but wasn’t confident my message had been understood.
“It’s Sean, from the other day.”
“John Frumdi? We remember you? The other day?”
“Danny. Listen. It’s Sean. The American. You drove me from Antigua, remember?”
“Hello, John. It’s Moses. Like the Bible. We remember you, John. 11 o’clock. Tee tee why el, John.”
“Wait, hello? Moses?”
* * *
I was standing about a hundred feet away from the dock and leaning on what I thought was a wall. Danny and Moses were 2 hours late. Suddenly, a metal slot opened inches from my head and a pair of bloodshot eyes peered out. I squinted back at them and the slot slammed closed. A door opened and out walked a man with a machine gun.
“Oh, good. You’re police, right? Is there a payphone around here? I need to call my ride.”
“No? So…just a guy with a machine gun then?”
I looked to where he was pointing and saw that both of my legs were covered in mosquitoes. I began shaking and slapping at them, dancing into the street and asking the man to open fire. The bites weren’t painful, but when I pulled my hand away, it was smeared in blood. Days later my legs looked like a teenager’s face.
I decided to abandon that spot and walk into town to see if there were any payphones, or at least people less heavily armed. Each booth I passed showed evidence of a phone long since ripped out. One was being used as a chicken coop, and one contained a sleeping drunk. I hadn’t gone far when another man materialized from the shadows, and just began screaming.
Sometimes, when surprised, I blurt out the word “why.” It’s a reflex, but I also hope that questioning the attacker’s motives might make him reconsider.
“American! Haha! Where you going?”
“Si, si! Guate! Guate!”
He pushed me onto a bus, closed the door and disappeared again. It had taken about five seconds. I was beginning to realize I was someone easily kidnapped.
I flopped in a seat by the window and cracked it open. I’d heard of these buses. They were called “chicken buses,” and derived their name from the crates of live poultry crammed next to passengers. They were actually just old yellow school buses, and had been shipped down through Mexico from the US like unwanted orphans, eventually ending up in Guatemala and painted bright colors to distract from the fact they didn’t have doors and you were about to die.
This bus seemed in relatively good condition and except for a few local women, it was mainly empty. After paying the driver 10Q (approx. $1.30), I settled in for what I thought was a five-hour ride to Guatemala City. After an hour, I was told to get off.
* * *
I stood on the side of a highway with hundreds of native Guatemalan men, women and children, pushing and pulling ourselves away from the road. Buses screamed by inches from our heads and every five minutes one of them would roar to a stop, dropping dozens off while twice as many crammed their way on. It was chaos.
I had been shoved to the front of the crowd and had no choice but to elbow my way through a mass of people onto the bus. Usually, school buses have two people to a seat. This bus had six. I didn’t walk as much as I fell into those in front of me, a giant orange man squirming around until I moved to a half-squat in the aisle, only one cheek on the seat.
Then we were off.
We whipped up, down, and around the mountainside at breakneck speeds, forcing the passengers to grip anything they could and lean into each turn. The driver made no more stops, and would simply honk twice and slow the bus enough to allow people to jump off, and more to jump on. If there was no room, the man at the front door would throw them back into the jungle like a bouncer.
We rode like this…for four hours.
* * *
I ended up at a remote bus depot in what looked to be a very bad section of town…in what I hoped was Guatemala City. My legs were cramped from the journey, I couldn’t find a taxi stand, and the sun was setting. So, in the last stupid act of my journey, I hitchhiked for the third time, promising a local man that if he took me to my hotel, I’d give him everything I had left in my wallet.
The hotel was two blocks away.
I gave him $60.
* * *
The next morning at 5 AM, still orange but refreshed from my shower and naked night of air conditioning, I climbed into the airport shuttle and started my journey home. I called a car service during my layover in Houston and by the time I arrived in Philadelphia a town car was waiting for me.
I immediately told him to take me to Campos, a popular cheesesteak spot on the corner of my street. When I got there, a long line of families blocked the entrance, confused and unsure how to order.
I turned away and pushed through the doors.
A familiar scene, gutter streams, mountains of concrete, sneakered feet cresting shores of pavement lakes, underground iron snakes, telephone line jungle vines with wooden spines, cries of car horns and newborns, spires of barbed wire thorns, a smoky sooty city sauna – my Philly flora and fauna.
I was home.