28 July 2006

The Parrots of Quetzaltenango

XELA—Spanish classes began, here in Guatemala’s second largest city, at the uncivilized hour of 8 in the morning. After a fitful night in a bed that sloped precipitously to the middle we woke un-rested and lay for a while contemplating leaving the El Puente Guesthouse that had been our pleasant (other than the bed) home for the last few days. Then we had to hump our stuff to the other side of town, endure five hours of Spanish classes and then be assigned to different families to live out the next two weeks.
Of course whining does no good and with the personal mantra of strength that got me out of bed through almost four years of military school I chanted, “Ahhhh f…k it,” and swung myself out of the bed’s warmth, onto the cold tile floor and stood bravely at attention while trying not to cry.
We finished packing and like so many other places we left the key in the door and slipped out into a bright morning loaded like infantrymen on their way into battle. Of course, for all the whining, the hike wasn’t so bad except for one heart-stopping moment when Katy almost tripped into traffic. The morning was bright and clear and beautiful and the first few hours of classes slipped by. A donut and coffee from Xelapan bakery made the next hours of class slip by as well. They called our Guatemalan-families-to-be and a nice woman named Dora came and led me a few blocks and installed me in a clean room with good natural light, cheery yellow walls and a somewhat musty bed that was essentially a few blankets laid over a wooden board. There was a mattress but it had the same thickness and consistency as a flak jacket. The pillows were much the same, only thicker. I estimated that one weighed about five pounds and the other around eight. I reminded myself never to throw myself onto the bed as broken bones might result. Dora left me to my own devices and I sat on the edge of the hard bed and was lonely, wondering what Katy was going through in her family, when my door swung silently open. I looked up and when I saw no one there I confess my heart tripped a few beats. Then I looked down and saw the door had been pushed open, not by some phantasm but by a medium sized bright green parrot that was walking across the floor towards me. It cocked its head and gave me a questioning eye.
“Hello parrot,” I said.
“Crrraaaawww,” replied the parrot.
“Ration my rum?”
“Pieces of Eight?”
The parrot walked closer and began chewing the leading edge of my left boot.
“Yardarm? Shiver me timbers? Billions of bilious blue blistering barnacles?”
“You and I need to have a talk.”

In Guatemala

4 May 2006

XELA—I think of Guatemala as a place where the curtain between the worlds is a thin one and reality of an uncertain and changeable nature. I think of the clouds that shift over the volcanoes and the sheen of gold and of silver playing simultaneously over the land. I see the clouds that conceal the peaks you are among shift in the electrum light to reveal fantastical shapes of up-thrust rock and green-clad earth. It is watching the moon dance over Mt. Fuego and the depth of the water in the navel of the world.
It is moving from ancient temples climbing to the sun from monkey-shrieking jungle to cold mountain passes where sheep graze in perpetual mist. It is the tons of incense burned over the millennium for one religion or the other so that earth and stone seem permeated by a constant perfume. It is the same earth and stones that have drank deeply of their people’s blood and thirst for more.
It is knowing that whole villages here were massacred and many of the killers never caught. It is knowing that the man you sit next to in the park may be guilty of genocide. It is knowing that the Maya here still worship at their ancient alters, to their old gods. It is that sense of trespass, of uneasy wonder and fear, knowing there are things here you will never know and those you would rather not.

Rainy Season

2 May 2006

ANTIGUA—In the market Katy bought an oil painting of the style and perspective peculiar to Guatemala and particular to Lake Atitlan wherein the figures, in market scenes and agricultural tableaus are portrayed from directly overhead as if the artist was hovering and sketching from perhaps 20 feet in the air.
I had first seen the style a year ago and then we came across a particularly fine example by an artist named Gonzalez from San Pedro la Laguna. Some of the people in this market scene were looking up; others were looking forward, conducting business, so that all you saw were the tops of their heads and shoulders. The expressions of those looking up showed no surprise, as if used to levitating artists.
Katy had just concluded bargaining for the painting when we saw that the nearby mountains were covered in dark clouds moving our direction. We hurried down the street to our guesthouse as a few fat drops began to hit. Thunder rolled over the volcanoes and echoed through the cobbled streets. I had the key out and ready and got us through the gate just as the rain began. We lay in bed and read as the rain on the corrugated roof grew louder and louder until it drowned out every other sound in a steady roar of grey noise.
I walked out onto the balcony and put my arm into the storm. My skin was pelted and stung by the hard-falling water and I thought, “This is it. I have just felt the rainy season begin…”

La Ceiba Nocturne

24 April 2006

LA CEIBA – On the wall facing the bed is a sign that reads, in Spanish, “Esteemed Client, demonstrate your culture and don’t write on the walls.” The night is hot and loud with music and car horns and I stood outside the gate in front of Hotel Tropical after a solitary dinner at the Expatriate’s Bar. A skinny boy with a dirty face curled up against the wall, trying to sleep. His friend bothered him, wanting to play. He had a new toy, a live cockroach tied to the end of a string.
A man and a thin girl in a short denim skirt and blousy white crop-top were trying to get a room. He didn’t have enough money and argued with the clerk that he only wanted the room for a short time. She waited impatiently, tapping her foot while he stood counting and recounting the tattered, sweat-darkened bills clutched in his fist. He stomped out, in search of cheaper privacy with her in tow behind and as they passed she reached over and cupped my balls with a quick and practiced hand.
As she tottered away on too-high heels she tossed her hair, looked back over her shoulder and smiled with teeth that were very white against her skin and hair and the night.



The gates to the old cemetery
Were padlocked shut,
With a rusted chain
So I found a corner, in the shade,
Where the wall was low,
And went over the top.

The ground was uneven, pocked with holes,
Covered with thorny vines hacked
Roughly back.
The tombs are crumbling stone and,
Near the middle,
Is a slab contained by a
White iron fence.

On it is his name, letters cracked and gone,
William Walker.
The grey eyes lie below,
Returned to earth.

Over, past crooked crosses,
You can see, The blue Bay of Trujillo,
Where on 12 September 1860,
The man of destiny from Tennessee,
Stood silent in the face,
Of the firing squad.

I wonder if he heard the crash
Of the waves behind him,
Before that of the rifles.
If he looked at the jungle covered hills,
And thought,
It might as well be here.

His nearest neighbor is,
a Jose Nunez who died 22
Years later. It is a lonely place here,
Amongst the thorns, overlooking the sea, a long way,
From Tennessee, and I stay with him a while.

Trujillo Blues

20 April 2006

TRUJILLO—The sun is a big orange ball the same color as the face of my Doxa dive watch. The Caribbean Bay of Trujillo turns the color of a finely blued gun barrel except where the sun burns a path of reflected orange across it. Dark skinned boys and girls play in the gentle waves off the end of a dock with a thatched roof. I am alone at the mahogany topped bar of the Rogue’s Galleria drinking a Port Royal beer that, in small type at the top, reads: “At 87° 56’ W, 15° 51’ N A FAIR HARBOR AND A SAFE ANCHORAGE.” These, I assume, are the coordinates for Port Royal--not the well known pirate town of Jamaica--but that of the same name on the Honduran Island of Roatan where the descendents of other pirates still live and from where William Walker sailed for Trujillo in his ill-fated last attempt to become president of Central America.
This is the last city of any size before the Myskitia jungle begins. It was here that Columbus first came ashore on the mainland of the new world and where the first mass was said. A statue of that rather lost Genoan looks out to sea. Here generations of pirates periodically came ashore to plunder and burn, at times leaving Trujillo desolate and nearly uninhabited. And it is here that Walker stood in the face of a firing squad and was buried in the old cemetery.
There is a frontier, end-of-the-world aura to this place. It is stunningly hot and everyone moves slowly. The people are an equal mix of Hispanic and Caribbean black and many go openly armed. There is a feeling of being on the edge, at the end of the line and I wonder if Walker heard the waves to his back, looked at the mountains ahead and down the black holes of the muskets and thought, “It might as well be here….”
After dark I walk through town. The few bars and restaurants are nearly empty and I am feeling slightly mad, the quiet and desolation of this place ringing in my ears. I walk into a place called Mambos and am the only customer. I order rum and Coke in what I think is Spanish but the waitress looks at me as if I had said, “My hat is big but dirty monkeys are eating my brain.” I politely repeat myself until it becomes pretty clear I am not saying beer, which pretty much means I must be saying rum. After finally getting my drink, which I don’t particularly want, I walk out onto the patio. High walls surround it and a huge spreading tree hung with baubles and chimes grows in the middle. It is unlit and the wind pulls at a loose flap of tin roof. On one wall is a large movie screen.
When the waitress comes out to ask the strange gringo sitting alone in the dark if he wants another drink she tells him they show movies on Sunday. He asks her why there are no people here at such a nice place and she replies, “It isn’t Sunday.” He decides against another, pays his tab and walks back into the night.

Dust clouds blow down the streets and I feel very lonely. Down the hill, from the beach I can here the Afro-Latin rhythms of Punta music. I walk down and at the entrance to the Arenas Disco is a heavy-set, fiftyish gringo by a dark pickup truck talking to two chubby, pre-pubescent local girls. I nod to him as I enter. He scowls back and turns away. Inside a few black girls are dancing on the small floor. I order a Port Royal and stand at the bar and talk for a while about nothing with a dred-locked man whose rusty revolver protrudes from the cargo pocket of his shorts. Like The Rogue’s Galleria down the beach the bar is open to the sand and sea. I walk out and down the beach and stare at the dark waves. The Arenas is the only place where there is any sound and movement so I walk back to the front where the unfriendly gringo had been. As I come around the corner one of the young girls is displaying her fat little proto-breasts to the man. She quickly jerks her shirt down. He is heavily built of a solid stature, square face and grey brush-cut hair that look ex-military. His face is sagging, and the corners of his mouth turn down. He stares at me as I walk by and his look is heavy with a confidant sadism built of years of doing things the world judges wrong except where the sun is too hot and life is cheaply sold, cheaply bought and cheaply taken. When I finish another Port Royal and leave he and the girls are gone.
Trujillo is quiet and nearly dark as I walk back to my room at the Hotel Plaza Central. I smear my body with DEET repellant and kill mosquitoes to pass the time until I am tired enough to sleep. There is that ugly moment when you know that sooner or later you have to sleep and that every time you smash the last malarial little bitch another three take her place. So the lights go off and you feel the sweat run in rivulets down your chest and the mosquitoes whine in your ears and finally unconsciousness comes.