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The Familiar and the Unknown

"You do not travel if you are afraid of the unknown, you travel for the unknown, that reveals you with yourself." - Ella Maillart

I have been to Flores before. On this tiny island in the lake — wound up in the central-most of its few streets — I have been in this very hostel before too. Almost exactly a year before I came here with a friend from Brooklyn half-way through a trans-Central American journey. Here the travelers' paths (lovingly coined the gringo trails) split into two common directions: 1) north-east through Tikal and on to Belize or 2) south to Semuc Champey and on to Honduras.

I hadn't intended to come back because, well, I'd already "done it", so to speak. And what I hadn't done the previous year was Semuc Champey. The promise of those seven magical, glittering waterfalls — that every vagabond had raved about after we had committed to Path 1 — has brought me back to Guatemala determined to get there so directly that I've made many missteps in my rush.

Deep down I know that the art of traveling is to flow from one place to the next. To move like a bead of water down the rocks, pooling where you are welcomed and trickling out where it is full. But what I know to do and what I can do don't always align. I'm stuck, stubborn, and starting to think I shouldn't be traveling. My body is depleted from the mysterious tropical fever back in Mexico. My spirit is broken because I allowed other people's opinions of me (my whiteness, my nationality, my motives) to define this journey, rather than just the experience of it. And mostly I'm completely lost about how to reset that.

So I will see the goddam gleaming falls of Semuc Champey, buy a ticket back to America, and be done with it.



An Unusual Crossing

I’m a Barbie bandit, face tied in a pink scrap of fabric — hours earlier around my eyes to block the night’s floodlight — now slipped down over my nose and mouth. It could be 6 am or noon with the daylight so thoroughly shaded by the canopy of vine-snared branches. I search for my watch wrist, wound intricately in the thin sheets that have snapped away from the corners of the mattress. It’s 9:30 am, and much later than I’d like, but I pack swiftly and sacrifice breakfast, though largely only because I can’t tolerate another crap meal after I hear that the Internet isn’t working to distract me from it.

I still feel that I’m getting an early enough start, but it turns out that I’m not. The first two hours of my van ride I am able to distract myself by reading, but the carsickness settles over me like a fog, and I begin my lifelong tradition of trying to find something outside the window that doesn’t move. It all moves. Through my sunglasses the window bleeds in light in an ominous red, mutated by the overlapped layers of tints. The gray skin that has peeled from the corners whips desperately at the window, drumming a vibration, as it oscillates between adhesion and departure.

Here the land is more open, more farmed, and mounded with tree-dotted hills that would make Dr Seuss erupt in rhyme. I arrive in a little town and defiantly walk to the boats; I will not be overcharged once more. I was wrong, this is a very long hot walk; where’s that taxi? But feet work and I get to a broad brown river, where I am approached by a boy who seems simply helpful at first but is simply trying to sell me a boat ride. Something about this causes me to break, lip quivering, tears building behind sunglasses, as I relent to a lofty boat fare to Guatemala.

Deep breaths and the vibration of the motor soothe me to stillness, that kind of empty exhaustion a child feels after a fit has worn out. And I’m dropped at a muddy shore whose banks I climb tentatively, affected equally by its muddy slope and groups of men calling out, “Hello Blondie.” These calls are automatic, expressionless, vocal eruptions that lift the teeth from over the tongue, clattering shut once the force of air has passed. 

A rather nice local woman with startlingly blue eyes helps me change some money and book a bus ticket. I wait on the bench, reading, and when the transport is late I pull out my pillow and lay back. The sun splatters through the leaves even though it is raining at the same time. The hefty mango branches above me keep me dry and monkeys crawl down them to the ground to play with the dogs. Oh well if I get stuck; I’ll pop my tent in a field in this peaceful village and go in the morning. I smile at the charming little thought; how lovely life is! But the bus really doesn’t come and this is no longer a fantasy. Where will I sleep? 

A cement porch, it turns out, belonging to the friend of blue eye’s friend. I set up quickly under the single light bulb that dangles from an extension cord and the long line of male stares from next door. Once inside, I tie my pink cloth scrap over my nose and mouth to choke out the smoke from the nearby trash fires and then I’m asleep. 

Like all late afternoon naps, I awake in twilight, perplexed. And starving, but I still feel all those eyes still on me, and I resign myself to spoonful of nutritional yeast and a glass full of soluble fiber. I convince myself I can handle this. The morning bus comes at 6 am and I can survive that long. I try reading; try sleeping; my stomach squeals and whines, begging for more. I affix my valuables on my back and walk out into the night. 

 It’s only two blocks, but it unexpectedly requires me passing a cantina and it’s Saturday night. I head with as much not-weird speed as possible to the tienda across the street, and buy a “dinner” of chips and rehydrated soup. Some men venture near as I eat the half-cooked noodles, fork scratching, rubbery, at its Styrofoam walls. I pay and hurry home, though I am followed, calls begging my attention in my wake. Monotone, guttural, “Excuse me, baby, excuse me, excuse me, baby.” As always, the words eventually fall away with their owners, but I tie my tent’s interior zippers in double knots anyway. Inside I finally, ravenously, finish Lord of the Flies, finding it the appropriate final inspiration to clutch my knife to my chest as I slide into my sleeping bag. I hear grunts of nearby pigs as a dreamless sleep takes me. 

 I wake up to any sound that can be interpreted as footsteps, but eventually exhaustion grips me so hard that it holds me to the concrete with an otherworldly force. Around 3 am I noticed that my protective light bulb, swinging from its cord above me, has been turned off. Something is different this time, there really are footsteps slowly maneuvering the gravel. But that heaviness of sleep has taken over me and I fail to pull myself up from its depths. The knife is still in my hand but my grip is soft, tingling numbly with dreams. 

 I think I hear the sound of the pigs again but it’s snores. The full moon outlines two feet, gingerly crossed, pressing into the fabric of my tent, where they press rhythmically from the hammock that cradles the rest of their attached body. I consider both violence and sleep and the latter pulls at me, dragging me to the floor of my tent. I fight it feebly. 

 And then come the honks, furious, almost hilarious, as a bus careens through the streets in the dark. But I know I can’t break down my tent fast enough, and that mysterious body is still snoring outside. It’s only 4:30 am so I start packing softly inside, expecting another hour before the next bus. I don’t want to emerge unprotected from my fortress before then. And I time it almost right, but as I sit exposed outside, tent stowed away, the drunk unfolds himself from his hammock, stretches, and croaks, “Buenos días.” I nod, attempting that particular balance of politeness and non-engagement. He squints one eye, leans toward me, lips parted dryly. “Buenos. Días,” he says, drawn out, with force. I nod again, drawn out, with force. 

 The man stumbles off around a corner from which a bus emerges mere minutes later in an immense cloud of dust. My hand written ticket remains un-checked in my pocket as I climb on, joining the large number of men already headed toward work. Most of them attempt to sleep as I keep an eye out for the immigration station, which the bus rolls right past after a quick glance proves it empty. My driver informs me that it must be closed and shrugs when I ask if I’ll have trouble without having my passport stamped. I accept there’s nothing to be done except shrug along with him. I wedge my jacket against the window and join in the napping.  


Mattresses in the Sand


Mattresses in the Sand

I have long felt that the best thing about living in a place is leaving it. Even if just for a day, some perspective is refreshing. And movement is a catalyst, it activates and invigorates, generating creative energy. I have needed something to combat the stagnation, the sense of lifelessness that has surprised me in this beach "paradise."

On this day, I packed in under twenty minutes, post-surf and pre-breakfast, and I didn't want to go. I'm glad I did. I needed the motion.

In a car full of acquaintances, we headed on a generally unplanned trip in search of a so-called circus in the nearby town of Mazunte. We scouted a beach, rumored to be empty enough to camp on, and found it entirely perfect for the goal. We went back to town, most drank too much mezcal, none could see the circus through the crowd, all ate tacos, wandered to a dance party, and at some point made it to our beach. 

I don't know how, because I was sleeping in the back of the truck, snuggled soundly with a stocky pit bull. I had thrown in the towel after a dreadlocked drunk stumbled over his singular Birkenstock to demand that I dance with him or I would prove myself a square. Happy to be a square this night, I gratefully accepted sleep while those more energetic than I kept working at the dance floor. 

In the morning I emerged from my tent to find everyone entwined around the remnants of the campfire. After playing in the surf, topless sun-bathing and cowboy coffee we made our way home — I rested, the others exhausted — all glad to have had an experience outside the routine.



The Surf Gods

“Surfing, alone among sports, generates laughter at its very suggestion, and this is because it turns not a skill into an art, but an inexplicable and useless urge into a vital way of life.” - Matt Warshaw

I now know what any surfer can tell you: there is no experience more spiritual than being with the waves.

On the night before, we rented boards and went to sleep early, excited to visit an uninhabited beach with waves rumored to be even more wonderful than those of the beach on which we were sleeping on. At 5:30 am, 15 minutes before my alarm and 45 before sunrise, I awoke ready to go. In the darkness before dawn it was still cold so I pulled my shorts and sweatshirt on over my bikini. Out on the street I met the others, all bed-headed and rubbing the sleep out of their eyes. 

The five of us stacked our boards on top of the taxi we had prearranged and crammed ourselves into the four seats. We arrived at the break, La Barra, with only the slightest hint of light in the sky, stars still bright enough to reflect on the surface of the estuary and an honest-to-goodness white horse grazing untethered in the mist. I felt my cellphone in my pocket, pulled it out and took the most beautiful photo of my pals leaning on their boards against the backlight of the rising sun. 

It's the last thing my phone would ever do. At this moment I discovered that we would have to swim across a deep outlet to get to the beach and there was no way my bundle of clothing I had brought for warmth could possibly stay dry. And so I sacrificed my phone to the surf gods. 

I was rewarded by catching my first wave ever in the wild rush of some very powerful surf (such that probably should have injured me), emerging unscathed and exhilarated. Sitting on our boards out behind the breaking waves, we watched the sun, bright as blood, rise over the edge of the ocean. And over and over the sea took me and my shit-eating grin down, let me test the strength of my lungs while it held me under before spinning me back out into the air. 

After an hour of furious paddling and gallons of seawater in my nose I swam to shore, much closer to God, or death, or whatever it is that I felt more strongly present than ever before. 

Perhaps it’s good that I can’t share any photos from this day, and that I can’t look at any of them for myself. I remember the day more viscerally than I could if I had looked at it through a lens. 

And now every day without my phone is some kind of blessing.  I’m liberated from a kind of pressure to be reachable on a level that is unnatural. Every day, the only thing I’m now responsible to is my own gut instinct, without research or influence — just a glance at the water and what it calls for me to do in it.