- Essays: On The Road (And A Little Off)


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Remate, Guatemala, Jan 28, 2007 --
It is Sunday.

Yesterday at the border crossing, the last
Belize school bus I would ride dropped me
off in front of a building, one side of
which was for the purpose of Belize
extracting one more pound of flesh before
letting me out of the country: it cost
about 18 bucks US just to go away.  There
are places I've been that were glad to see
my backside going somewhere else at no
charge to me.  Some even bought the ticket.

At the other end of the hall was the
Guatemalan entrance desk.  I paid a far
more reasonable amount to enter...I think
it amounted to a couple of bucks US.

I stepped outside into the DMZ between
Belize and Guatemala.  I was immediately
accosted by a taxi driver with a barracuda
smile, who offered to drive me to Remate for
"only $80 US."
"You gotta be kidding," I said.  "Look at
me!  Do I look like I can afford $80 for
"Well, for you, I can do it for $60."
"You haven´t LOOKED at me.!  $60 is a
fortune to me!"
"Oh, Senor, I´m afraid you're in trouble,
because it´s very expensive to get around
here in Guatemala."
"Hey, dude, last night in Belize everyone
told me it´s very cheap here in Guatemala."

A small boy was watching this exchange.

"Most things, yes.  I´m surprised your
friends in Belize did not tell you how much
a taxi, which is the only way to go,

There is a fence running perpendicular to
the building.  I could see that if I walked
about 80 meters to the end of it, I could
make a U-turn around it and go back to
Belize(there would this time be a re-entry

"Well, screw this!  I´m goin back to
Belize" and I set off walking to the end of
the fence.  The small bay caught up with
"He is lying.  You can go through Guatemala
customs and my father´s taxi will take you
into town for 10 quetzales.  There you can
get a small bus for 30 quetzales to Remate
or Flores if you like."

And so I came to meet Edwin, whose
school-learned English made communication
easy, and his taciturn but pleasant father,
Jose.  And the ride into Melchor did indeed
cost 10 quetzales, and Edwin and his father
took me directly to the mini-bus terminal.

[The street rate is currently 7 quetzales
for one dollar.  The official rate is a
little higher: about 7.2 to one.  I think
it´s neat that the unit of currency has the
same name as the national bird.  We
sometimes used to call dollars "eagles,"
too.  But here it's official.]

We pulled up beside an empty new soccer-mom
Toyota van and I met the driver, Nery.
"You can sit in the front - the seat of
honor," he laughed, while a couple of
other small boys stowed my backpack and
guitar on the roof.

We drove around, picking up other
passengers, and then we were off to Remate.
I saw a big truck lettered in Korean.
"I bet it´s from area code 404, too," Nery
said.  And it was.
"Atlanta," I said.

"Yes.  I just came back from there.  I
lived there 20 years."  His English was
nearly American.  And so I heard Nery´s

"It is very hard to get ahead here in
Guatemala, as you can see," and so 20 years
ago I went to Mexico and from there across
the border into New Mexico."

"Were you illegal?" I asked.
"Hell, no, man.  I wasn´t illegal.  I was a
wetback."  He bagan to sing "Born in East
LA", and we laughed.  "I love that movie,"
I said.

"I somehow found myself in Atlanta where I
went to work for a company making
spun-aluminum light shades.  And so for 20
years I stayed there, not being paid much
by American standards, but a lot by ours.
But it was like any job where you have a
boss, or too many bosses.  I saved up some
money, though, and sneaked back through
Mexico and then Guatemala with it.  That
was four months ago.  I paid 140 thousand
quetzales for this van and another 60
thousand for...uh, 'permits'."  He laughed.

The road had so far been very muddy.  Nery
stopped.  "He won´t make it," he said,
indicating an empty flatbed tractor rig
going up the hill in front of us.  "He
doesn´t have enough weight on his drive

Sure enough, the tractor slowed, then
strted backing carefully down the hill.  We
"They're working on the road on the other
side of the hill, "he said.  "Watch what
A giant road machine, with cleated steel
wheels, , breasted the hill and turned
around.  The tractor driver and his helper
attached a steel cable to the road machine
and got back in the tractor.  The machine
pulled them to the crest of the hill and as
we passed they were unhitching the cable.
"Happens all the time," Nery laughed.

We passed the road to Tikal.  "We'll be at
your stop soon," Nery said.  And we were.

A small boy and girl grabbed my stuff as
soon as it hit the ground.
"Hotel, sir?  Only 35 quetzales."
"Mira," I said.
And I was led down some stone steps to The
Eden and shown a room and the bath.  I paid
my quetzales with some self-flagellation,
for the place was funky even by my
standards, but the family was poor, I could
tell, and so...
I told myself that I would walk down to
town later and find quarters more suitable
to my august station for tomorrow night.
It was a good decision, and later I did
just that.

I walked around a bit and had dinner in
town for 20 quetzales ($3) and then hoofed
it back up the lakeside trail to the Eden
at about dusk.

One of the little girls of the family was
having a cumpleanos (birthday) party, and I
took some pictures and played and sang
"Happy Birthdaÿ" in English and
extemporaneously translated Spanish.
Later, after the party, we sat around and I
recorded the father and children
singing (one of the songs was about
September 11).

Then, the dad asked if I was religious.
This is always a loaded question for me,
because "religious" means so many different
things to so many different people.  But
finally, I said, "Yes, I am."  Mostly
because I do not know how to say "maybe" in

Big mistake.

"¿Catolico?" he wanted to know.
"Presbyteriano," I replied.  I am really a
Cumberland Presbyterian, in fact really a
Rockvale Tennessee Cumberland Presbyterian,
but expressing denominational nuances in a
language you can barely order dinner in is
bound to be futile.

Then he set in.

He brought me a tract in Spanish about El
Apocalypto and how only 140,000 are gonna
win that lottery and be saved from
hellfire...it was in Spanish so I could
pretend (quite easily and truthfully) that
I did not understand it long enough to
discourage him from breaking out the snakes
or whatever they do around here.

[I have to say right here that when the
Rapture happens, judging by my impression
of the idea's adherents, I´m gonna ASK to
be left behind.  Our Pastor doesn´t talk
about that kinda stuff at Rockvale CPC,
though I suppose there are one or two who
wish she would.]

Finally, I was able to slip off to bed.
There had been a huge 7-legged spider on my
wall earlier, and he was still there.  I
guess he was pissed off about that leg, so
I got out my pills and, the spider and I
eyeing each other warily, I lay down in my
bed in the thatch-covered mouldy room which
could surely not be doing my old lungs any
good, and went to sleep.

Next morning, the roosters woke me up
before dawn (how do they know?  Do they have
internal watches?).

I'd packed my stuff the night before and
now, in the darkness, the lake sitting calm
as the night itself, I made my quiet
getaway on the path beside the water down
into town.