I went to Guatemala because of a coffee shop. Not a coffee shop in Guatemala – I understand much of the world’s best coffee comes from the area, and there are probably some excellent coffee shops around, but I am far from a discerning coffee drinker and couldn’t tell you whether a given cup was from Guatemala or Ethiopia or a bottle of Nestle Instant – no, the coffee shop in question is in Gainesville, just a few blocks from my house. I go there on a daily basis to work – it’s essentially my office. I have an actual office, or more accurately, a cubicle, on the fourth floor of the computer science building, but it has no windows, or coffee, and it’s a little too far from my fridge. The one downside to my bright, cheery, folk-music-playing coffee house office, is that it closes for weekends and semester breaks. I wasn’t about to spend a week in my cubicle, so I decided to book tickets to Central America instead. I don’t know what reasons Vladimir and Diego had for wanting to go to Guatemala – perhaps they too were locked out of their respective coffee shops – I didn’t ask. I had 13,500 Spirit miles, which was just short of the 15,000 I would need to get three free round-trip tickets, so I got three free (+taxes) one-way tickets from Guatemala to Fort Lauderdale and paid $33 each for the flight into San Salvador; $33 is very cheap for a 3-hour international flight – I don’t think you could ride a pimped out Salvadorian school bus, with 83 of your closest Salvadorian friends, for that price. Brian signed on for the trip a little later. It seemed for a while as if Mike might buy tickets; I don’t think he did in the end. There’s really no way to be sure. Maybe he’s there right now. Or maybe he’s in Greenland.
I’m more or less done with mainstream tourist sights - I opted to steer the trip toward more questionable, backwoods destinations. I contacted my caving friend Dan who had led several expeditions in the area. He apparently had a 600ft rope stashed in Guatemala City. I hinted at borrowing this. We thought about bringing climbing gear and seeking out crags in both countries, but this would mean carrying an extra 50lbs on our backs until we picked up the rental car from our departure airport. This did not interest us. I had planned to get us to a sustainable ecotourism/voluntourism site in Peten. Google Maps claimed this was only a 5-hour drive from the city. Google Maps does not know about tumulos.
I see the flashing lights of a cop car up ahead and instinctively slow to 55. The two cars following me, rather than following suit, speed past at 100kph. The cop chuckles. He doesn’t need to do anything. The tumulos will take care of them.
There are speed limits in Guatemala. On occasion, there might even be a tiny black sign that tells you what one is. But these are mere relics. Through sophisticated highway engineering, Guatemala has advanced beyond the need for speed limits.
Google’s translation for tumulo is “burial mound”. This is appropriate because, after it rips off your front axle and most of your exhaust system, a tumulo may very well be the final resting place of your car. The nearest thing we have in western society is a speedbump, but these are not speedbumps. These are 2-foot high concrete blocks of despair that make you slow to a crawl and empty your car of any passengers, belongings, spare tire and excess seats. None of this will prevent the horrific scraping that inevitably ensues, but it might allow you to make it to the other side. Naturally, while you’re reassembling your car, three semis that you just spent the last hour trying to pass (since not a single straightaway exists in the southern 2/3rds of the country) will creep by, enveloping you in a cloud of noxious diesel fumes.
I used the word “crawl” a minute ago, but this is inaccurate. With crawling, a child puts momentum into his/her descending arm which pulls the body forward and is translated into a force that helps to pull the next arm into the air. With tumulos, there can be no momentum. At the crest, you must be stopped, and from there, you have no choice but to brake all the way to the ground, insuring that your shocks do not depress so much as a centimeter as your tires touch down. If you let gravity have its way, the tumulo will deliver a gut-wrenching blow to a range of valuable components.
Not all tumulos are equal. Some, you can breeze over at a gleeful 3kph. Some are imaginary; ample signage strikes fear into your heart, but the blow is never delivered. Some are painted black so as to garner business for the town’s many auto repair shops. Some half-kilometer-long villages will erect fourteen extra-tall tumulos so that you’re forced to break up the journey and patronize their restaurants, hotels, and bars.
And when there aren’t tumulos, there are children, cyclists, turkeys, cows, potholes, cliffs, and passed-out drunks. How much time did you budget to get to that town 50km down the road? Ok, that’s not a bad estimate - now add 4 hours to that number.
After their gear shed burned down, the village purchased a small set of new gear and stored it in a classroom. The guide had us drive him up the road to the school and, while curious children bounced around us, smiling broadly, we loaded up a 300ft rope, two harnesses, a few pairs of gloves, a couple of eights and carabiners, and five $1 flashlights. What about the line of helmets on the wall? Those weren’t for us.
We crossed a rickety bridge and followed a rough trail through jungle and open field, and along dramatic limestone cliffs. We passed one cave and continued on until we reached a shaky boardwalk that extended out over an abyss of depths unknowable. The guide tied the rope off to a huge tree and lowered it over the edge of the rotting structure. Did he have a way to tell when the end of the rope touched the ground 80m below? I didn’t think to ask.
I was to be the first one down the rope. Would it make more sense for the guy who laid the line to be the one to test it? And for that matter, wouldn’t it be better for someone who had done the rappel a hundred times to be the one to do it without a backup? I tied myself in and walked off the edge of the platform; a ladder on the underside made it an easy matter to negotiate the lip of the pit.
After 5m, I was hanging in open air, 250ft above the floor. The maws of an immense cavern, lined with jagged stalactite teeth, opened before me, ready to swallow my tiny frame like a plankter through the baleen of a whale. I started spinning uncontrollably and was instantly reminded of my recent bout of intestinal distress. Was there any way to stop it? I swatted fruitlessly at a stalactite 15ft away. Nope. I released some of the tension on the rope and started dropping faster. I could smell the rope start to burn as the eight heated up, but I was still an impossible distance above the floor. I felt as if I were losing my grip, as if at any moment, my strength would fail me, and the rope would slide effortlessly through the tiny descending device. Was the end on the floor? I couldn’t tell. I was wearing a good pair of hiking boots – surely their laces would serve as reasonable prusicks with which I could ascend back up the rope. Two-hundred feet up the rope with shoelaces; I might just take my chances with a 30ft fall.
And then I was on the ground. I gave a resounding “offffffffff rooooooooooooooooooope” and positioned myself to bottom belay the next guy, fighting to overcome the turbulence that coursed through my gut. After Vlad was down, we tied off our harnesses and passed them back to the top for the next two. We got Brian and Diego down, then the guide followed a trail over to a ladder on the other side. Stupid gringos. He wasn’t about to trust his life to such a rigging.
I awoke at 3am to an explosion that rattled the walls of our hotel room, shaking a rain of fine dust onto our beds. Would we find but a smoldering crater where our car had once sat? A few seconds later, a bomb burst in the air overhead and not another moment passed before a loud rat-tat-tat-tat ripped through the night. Trucks trundled through the cobblestone streets, blasting over loudspeakers the agenda of the new regime. We had chosen our Salama hotel because of the collection of caged squirrels in the courtyard, but I was now most thankful for the high concrete walls that encircled the compound, providing some illusion of protection from the hell that consumed the world without.
Was there still time to escape? Surely there must already be road blocks across every street out of town. Maybe we could escape on foot? Perhaps we could find sanctuary in the hills? They wouldn’t bother with the outlying villages. And what if we were captured? Would we be bargaining chips? And what if we couldn’t understand their demands?
A brief silence was rudely shattered by an even larger blast that left a ringing in my ears. Were they targeting this hotel? Did they know we were here? What was the meaning of it all? We dare not leave. We weren’t going to blend in for a second. We wore shorts and t-shirts and skin pallid as the fur on a squirrel’s chest. We were gringos. We were quetzales with legs.
We lay quivering in our beds, afraid to move, afraid to sleep, nearly too fearful to breathe, lest they learn we are here. I ran over in my head the sequence of events that had brought us here. I thought back to the day before, when we all hovered over the crude map on the second page of the Lonely Planet. Should we risk a rough road and the potential for nighttime driving to get to the quiet mountain outpost of Nebaj, or should we play it safe and take the shorter, all-paved route to Salama? However much logic had gone into our decision, it now seemed laughably short-sighted. But how were we to know the quaint central square and well-groomed streets of Salama teetered on the brink of revolution? Could we have read it in the eyes of the solitary men sitting about the plaza, reticently watching the traffic pass? Was it hidden in the voices of the churrasco vendors as they hawked their skewered meats? No, no one saw this coming.
Just after 5am, my weary eyes perceived the faintest touches of dawn playing upon the opposite wall. It had been some time since the last explosion so I decided to risk stepping outside and seeking out the management. I was surprised to see everything still intact. And even more so, to behold the hotel’s night man nonchalantly mopping the hallway floors.
I asked him in excited, broken Spanish, what the meaning of the explosions was, and why the trucks kept circling the blocks and barking their orders. “Dia de La Madre” he replied, “They start celebrating early”. It was indeed early – it was Friday – the holiday was still two days away. I suppose there is never a “too early” or a mortar round too large when it comes to Mom.
A pound of locally-sourced honey in Guatemala cost about $1. This and a loaf of white bread comprised Brian’s bid to beat the affliction that had tortured him ever since his first salchicha-stuffed pupusa. On the final day of the trip, the coneheaded bear remained nearly full, the level of the golden gel still hovering around eye-level.
We had spent the last 40 miles searching in vain for a car wash, but it was early morning on a Sunday, and Mother’s Day to boot. As a last resort, we stopped at the car rental shop across the street from our own and asked to borrow a bucket, rags and sponges. Cleaning the hubs and beating the floor mats certainly wouldn’t remove what we surmised must be thousands of dollars worth of damage to the underside of our battered Mazda 3, but it might very well lead to fewer questions. And as we emptied the car of the garbage that accumulated to about shoulder-height over the past week, there, among the piles of discarded water bottles and vanilla cream sandwich cookies, sat a dejected-looking honey bear. In his eyes, you could see that he knew all too well that he would never make it through security.
But this was not a bear that I could simply leave behind, its deliciously pure nectar snacked upon by cockroaches and rats amidst the dregs of a Guatemalan landfill. So as we sat at the tables in front of the airport McDonalds, polishing off the McMuffin and breakfast burrito and coffee that represented the remainder of our quetzals, I began to make honey sandwiches. And the word ‘sandwich’ is really rather misleading, because I could not afford to leave one side of each slice of bread bare, as one does with conventional sandwich-making; rather, I saturated both sides of every slice with as much honey as it could hold, and constructed not a sandwich, but a magnificent tower, whose upper tiers reached a full two feet over the cowering McMuffin. Now all that remained in the base of the bear was enough for four small shots; we passed it around the table, each raising it high over his upturned head and doing his part in a ritual that not one among us could ever question.
If the security lady, upon lifting the mutilated loaf out of my bag, recognized that it was twice as heavy as it should have been, she gave no sign of it.