Guatemala Diaries, Part III
I went to see the Mayan ruins at Tikal, near Flores, in northwest Guatemala, but if you’re looking for real information about them this story will not provide it. Just to situate you: Tikal is the something largest Mayan site in the Mayan world, which spans Guatemala, and some other countries close to Guatemala, which definitely include Honduras, and some other countries. What else can I tell you about Tikal? It was further from our hotel than I thought it would be, has bad coffee, and the other people on our tour provided me with mild amusement.
We got in the van first: M., Alexis, her boyfriend, and me. Then a Mexican woman and her boyfriend got on. They were in their thirties, stocky, decent looking. The woman had prominent, sexy teeth. I never spoke to them but the woman sat next to me and she kept getting text notifications and I wanted to explain to her that adults were not allowed to have phones that made noise and considered combining this information with a compliment about her teeth to increase receptivity but never quite formulated a plan.
Then two young German girls got on. One of them had a cursive tattoo across the top of her back that said SHINE ON. The other one was blonde, composed, with the longest neck I’ve ever seen. I sensed a past in ballet, childhood dreams dashed.
We were crammed full at this point and I was just resting my eyes and settling in when we stopped again and I became aware of a woman shouting, “You can’t just cram us in there like cows.” She pronounced her words with the Spanish th, as in “Guatemala eth un dithastre.” She was in her sixties, soft in the middle under a tank top and shorts, with an at-home dye job, but it was obvious that she’d once been a great beauty.
“I have never in my life seen such dithorganithathion as I have seen in Guatemala. It has been one thing after another.” She continued to complain as the driver made some calls. Her husband, El Greco in cargo shorts, was dwarfed by her and the enormous camera around his neck. “Tomorrow we are going to Mexico,” she finished, “And it can’t come soon enough for me!”
Our guide was named Carlos. He was thirty— I know this because he wrote out the year of his birth, 1987, in Mayan numerals — with light eyes, strong arms, a little gut, and whitehead next to his mouth I very much wished to point out to him. He spoke extremely clear, slow Spanish, with helpful kindergarten-teacher gestures. He was interested in Mayan culture, but seemed to be almost as interested in bugs. He showed us an ant whose bite would make our whole body hurt, and a spider that would kill us, or maybe it was vice-versa. We stopped to watch a stream of what I assume were normal non-homicidal ants cross the path. “It’s going to rain,” Carlos told us, pointing to the clouds and wiggling his fingers. “The ants all huddle together when it rains.” He cupped his fingers into an imaginary ant huddle.
We stopped at a ceiba, a tree sacred to the Mayans. “Its branches represent the heavens,” Carlos said, pointing up. “The roots represent the underworld,” he said, and pointed down. Each German girl took a picture of the other posed identically: one arm around the tree and the other on the front of the tree, as if touching its chest. I wanted to hit on the ceiba tree too, but was afraid it might think I was too old for it.
The Spanish lady had gone on a different bus but ended up on our tour. It wasn’t long before she sidled up to me. “Quieres caramelo?” she said. She had flirtatious eyes. For any men reading this who are really stupid, this does not mean that the Spanish lady wanted to scissor with me in the Mayan ruins and was hoping my price was a caramelo. (Though honestly, friends, who among us hasn’t done more for less?)
I tried to refuse the caramelo, but she wouldn’t let me, and we talked as I unwrapped and ate it. “Hablas lindo español,” she said, which was a lie. I started taking Spanish in 1983 and have spent probably two years total of my life in Latin America and I still speak Spanish like a four-year-old — a really dumb one. I once had a boyfriend in Uruguay and when I met his abuela he told me that she thought I was sweet and very pretty, but possibly slightly retarded, by far the most thrilling compliment I have ever received.
I told the woman I thought Guatemala was just fine and I hadn’t had any problems thought I was certainly sorry to hear that she had. She launched into a long story about meeting a friend of theirs from El Salvador and how they tried to rent a car and how the car was late and then the car was really dirty and naturally the friend was embarrassed, and I didn’t see why because honestly other than a few stray words I had no idea what she was saying to me because as I said I don’t really speak Spanish for shit. If everyone spoke like Carlos, slowly, sticking to a single subject, it would be great. But this lady was using all kinds of idioms and generally all over the place. She finished the story, or she seemed to, because she stopped talking and looked at me significantly. I shook my head and said, “Que bárbaro!” which means, “What a pain” or “How terrible!”
I talked to the German girls for a while but they were a bore. They told me they were from Hamburg. I told them I wanted to visit Hamburg because I liked rivers, knew two people who lived there and had once read a very good detective novel set there. They smiled politely and left the conversation to take more pictures of each other.
The coolest part of Tikal was the giant plaza with several structures around a huge expanse of grass. Carlos told us that only rich people could come to this plaza and I was relieved to hear yet more evidence that the world has always sucked. Carlos told us one of the buildings was a hotel and I walked around it for a while because I really like hotels.
One of the Mayan hotel rooms was covered with graffiti. Anytime you found a spot where people could hide themselves from “the authorities” at Tikal, you’d find graffiti. “People have no respect,” the Spanish lady said, clucking her tongue over “Angela 2014” and “Nicholas 2008.” She went on. “I know some people in this country want to work. Like Carlos, he is good. But some of them…” She shook her head.
Later, she found an empty beer bottle on the path. Cursing humanity, she handed it to Carlos, who had to carry the thing around until he found an ancient Mayan trashcan.
My mind was blown once and that was when we climbed to the top of Temple Four — George Lucas’ inspiration for the planet Yavin 4 in Star Wars — and looked out over the canopy of trees. I felt like if I leapt off, I’d just land on top of them, sink into greenness and sleep forever. The Spanish lady’s husband took a lot of photos. I asked him if he got a good one, and he just shook his head and murmured, “Que canopia maravilla,” which I understood.
One of the last things Carlos taught our little group was that while the Aztecs and the Toltecs killed people on the top of their giant temples, “The Mayans never, ever sacrificed anyone this way, in public. Nunca, nunca, nunca. The sacrifice was private. It was in the family. It was in a building with four walls, and one door.” He held up four fingers, drew a square with his hands, and mimed opening and closing a door. “Any questions?”
Before we got into our separate vans, the Spanish lady found me again. She lay a manicured finger on my arm and looked soulfully into my eyes. “I speak a little English,” she murmured. “Did I hear you telling your friend that your bag was urinated on during your bus trip from the capital?”
“Oh, no,” I said, trying to look confused. “You must have misunderstood.”