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


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Rockvale, TN, February 9, 2007 - -
It is Friday.

If there is one thing about Guatemalan food
that stands out in my mind, other than
Maria Luisa, the waitress in El Remate who
spoke no English with her lips but volumes
with her eyes, it is that there is truly no
national cuisine in Guatemala.

There was a kind of limp corn rollup,
nearly tasteless, that I could only with
the greatest of determination get through
one of without gagging.  Most of the time
when I ate dinner I ate spaghetti.  I hardly ate
breakfast at all, but when I did it was an
egg dish that approximated huevos rancheros
without the salsa and the tortilla on the bottom.

Hamburgers (without lettuce - I did not eat
any leafy vegetables the whole time for
fear of dysentery) made up the rest of my
diet, except once in Panajachel when I
thought I had discovered a local dish and
ordered it only to find that it was a hot dog.

In Belize City I would stroll down the
street and buy a whole sliced papaya from
the same cart every day for 50 cents and
sprinkle it with salt and eat it standing
on the street.  Oranges there were aplenty
as well.  The meat dishes were usually in
the form of soups...I ate a variation of
the oxtail soup I used to eat in Miami, and
a lot of chicken and fish dishes.

Whatever you do, if you follow the Gringo
Trail into Guatemala get a copy of Lonely
Planet for Central America.  Had I not run
into Bonnie and had she not given me her
copy just  outside of Guatemala I do not
know what more than somewhat pleasant
adventures I would have had, as the LP
guide proved invaluable in steering me
toward cheap and decent, clean and safe
places to stay.

Taxis are cheap everywhere,
in Mexico as well.

LAST HOTEL IN MEXICO...Leaving Guatemala
last month, I ran into a Belgian kid named
Steve and we ended up sharing a couple of
jitney and bus rides from Solola through
Huehuetenango and La Mesilla and on into
Chiapas.  He was on his way to San
Cristobal, to go from there to some
southern Mexican ruins.  He'd been in
Central America for four months and still
was not ready to go back.  I passed on his
invitation to spend a night in a hostel
because when we got there the music was
techno, and the crowd was young and
boisterous, and I was old and tired.  I
opted to spend my last night in a good
hotel with a private room near the bus station.

Very few of the international tourists I
met who were actually spending any time at
all in Guatemala were from the United States.

There is a kind of mindset here, I think,
that keeps us Americans, especially us
working-class Americans, from seeing other
parts of the world dressed in anything but
a military uniform.  We are, somehow,
discouraged from visiting other places on
our own as private citizens, unless those
places have a Hard Rock Cafe or at least a
Carlos and Charlie's.  Consequently, mostly
only our well-heeled citizens travel and
when they do the stay at the Ramada, the
Westin, or the Hilton.
You'll find US citizens wall-to-wall in
Cancun and Cozumel and even the cleaner,
more scenic spots of Belize, but it was
rare to meet a fellow American in Guatamala
except in the area around Panajachel.

And those I encountered there
were without exception expatriates or
people who, like my friend Slick the
harmonica player, have business interests
that keep them shuttling back and forth.

In Belize, in the very north of the
country, there is a town called Corozal,
which is home to a large number of American
retirees.  I ran into some of them in
Chetumal, Mexico, on my way down, and was
surprised to find that hardly any of them
speak any Spanish at all, which explains,
says Joe Bageant, why they live in Corozal:
being in Belize, the language is English,
yet they are close enough to Chetumal to
still get to the Wal-Mart there.  There are
(as yet, anyway) no Wal-Marts in Belize.

In Guatemala, I was amazed by the used-up
quality of the quetzale notes, which
handled much like rags from repeated use.
The only time I had new money was when I
got it from the ATMs, which dispensed crisp
new 20 quetzale notes.

Next time I go, I will go immediately to
Panajachel or across the lake to San Pedro
and enroll in one of the week-long
intensive conversational Spanish classes
before I continue my journey down into El
Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica
and Panama.  My Cuban restaurant Spanish
was of very little help.  I think it would take
at least three months to see enough of Central
America to feel you had been there at all.

El Peten is the section in Guatemala that
lies to the west of Belize and to the east
of that region of Mexico called Chiapas.
It sticks up in a square between the two.
I had heard of the famous black sand
beaches on  the Pacific side and wanted to
get over, either in lower Guatemala or in Chiapas,
but when the opportunity presented itself
I was making my way home, both broke and
homesick. The black sand beaches will keep.

In San Cristobal I got on another of the
deluxe Mexican buses and for the next
sixteen hours rode across lower Mexico and
back into Cancun.  I passed again through
Chetumal, Mexico, on the border with
Belize, which meant that I had made a
circle of sorts in my abbreviated odyssey.
At the bus station in Cancun I caught a
shuttle out to the airport.

I had a strange sense of unease in the
terminal and finally realized that here,
all around me , were giants...Americans,
all enormously tall, and massing more than
twice what my most recent encounters,
Mayans, weigh.

In the airport, I felt a longing not to
come back home.  I was pulled by the land,
the mountains, the good times and the
people I had just left, and felt a wistful
sadness as I realized that maybe I won't
get back here, in this lifetime at least,
after all.  I had wandered wherever I wanted these
last three weeks, and it had been good not to have
the pressures of Amurrika.  I remembered what I
had felt in El Remate, that I could stay
there forever and be content, to the extent
that I had had to  force myself to get on
the bus and travel to the next slice of paradise.

I got on the plane and came home.