Guatemala Diaries, Part IV
Alexis’s boyfriend flew out the day after we went to Tikal. When I came down to breakfast, she was alone, drinking a banana licuado and staring at the flat surface of Lake Petén. “I didn’t know you were writing about us,” she said. Alexis is thirtyish and studying to teach ESL after several years as a civil servant. She is sensible and engaging in spite of having been raised in a culture which doesn’t value either quality.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “You are the most normal person in your family and will be represented as such.”
“Thank you,” she said, touched.
Presently, M. came down and tried to order a hot chocolate. “What are you, ten?” I asked him. Having finished Ten Greek Plays he was now reading Kafka’s short stories and didn’t look up. When the waitress delivered his banana licuado he thanked her and she smiled a little more than may have been necessary.
“I think she likes you,” I said.
“Most ladies do,” he said.
After we ate, it was time to decide where to go next. It’s tricky to get three people to make a decision. It is especially tricky when two of these people are related and come from a family with entrenched values about thrift, and the third person’s philosophy about money is “in for a penny, in for a pound.” More issues in the mix: Alexis and I have typically gendered people-pleasing issues. Well, actually: I am not actually a pleaser at all and can get suddenly aggressive upon discovering that I have somehow cornered myself. The final twist: M. has this routine where he argues for what he wants and people give into him expecting him to just shut the fuck up about it. Then, once engaged in the very activity for which he lobbied so hard, he sets about trying to ruin everyone’s enjoyment of it by speculating aloud that everyone should in fact have done the other thing, or, something else altogether.
It would not have surprised me if we spent the rest of our lives sitting in the bus station in Flores. But we managed to agree to go to a place called Rio Dulce, and stay overnight. From there, we would take a boat up the Rio Dulce to a town on the Caribbean called Livingston.
Rio Dulce itself was hot and crowded. We took a taxi to a hotel, little A-frame cabins set off from the river with a nice pool. This is probably the narrative of many American travelers visiting slightly off-the-beaten path places like this, and one has mixed feelings about arriving in a dusty town and being like “Peace!” I don’t know that anyone in the town of Rio Dulce was terribly interested in us.
We had lunch on an open porch overlooking a big cement bridge, which M. informed me was “beautiful and well-engineered, which are really the same thing.” M. and I drank Gallos, the beer of Guatemala. When I opened one I would address Gallo’s rooster logo with a cheery, “Hello, new best friend!” then hold the bottle up to my ear and say “Awww! I love you too!”
I never tired of this.
There were allegedly a lot of snotty rich people at this hotel, but they were like wallpaper to me. Also, I don’t think they were that rich. It’s not like M. and Alexis have never been anywhere or done anything or grew up really poor. But they just feel bad about treating themselves well, at all.
“Places like this make me feel pretentious,” Alexis said. “They don’t make you feel that way?”
“I know I’m pretentious,” I said. “It’s a done deal, a foregone conclusion, water under the well-engineered, beautiful puente.”
She said she didn’t think I was pretentious and I nodded and said, “I am.”
A thunderstorm rolled in as we ate lunch. M. spoke knowledgeably about its being very far away and a few minutes later we were nearly knocked out of our chairs by a clap of thunder. “I’m going in the pool,” M. announced.
I suggested he wait a little while.
“Why, because I just ate?” He got up.
Lightening hit the river and a few seconds later we heard M. jump into the pool.
“Your brother is actually in the pool,” I said to Alexis.
She nodded helplessly.
“Why do so many men who grew up in rural Northern California want to die in hideous accidents outdoors?” I asked. Instead of answering, she asked if I thought we should stay here one more night. I admired her political savvy, getting me alone, sniffing out the direction of the wind. I said I kind of wanted to stay another night. She said she’d be up for that but also up for moving on. “But don’t you think this place is pretentious?” I asked.
“Kind of,” she said. “But it’s also pretty nice.”
The thing about people who say they don’t want nice things is that they actually do.
Once the storm was at a safe distance I joined M. in the pool. He pointed out a rusty nail protruding from the cement wall of a hot tub. “As a person, I am enjoying this country,” he said. “As an attorney, all I see is lawsuits.”
We did leave Rio Dulce for Livingston the next day, right after a morning kayak trip to see howler monkeys. The trip up the river took about two hours and blew my mind. On one side of us were sheer cliffs thick with trees, ten shades of green. People lived in little huts along the river. One of them was painted with a Nike swoosh.
Livingston is different from the rest of Guatemala. The people there don’t consider themselves Guatemalan, but Garifuna. They have their own language, their own customs. I am sorry to say I don’t know much more, except to say that several people there bragged that Livingston is better than the rest of the country, more peaceful, more friendly. I am not saying this is true. I am just saying that’s what they said. Also almost all of the people I met in Livingston were Seventh-day Adventists and believed that I was one too. I will get to that later.
On the boat I saw an unread Facebook message from before I left from a friend who’d been to Guatemala, which read: “You don’t have to worry about malaria shots, I mean it’s not like you’re going all the way to Livingston.”
Naturally, M. was delighted at the prospect of contracting malaria. Once I found out that our chances were pretty low, I was like “This will never happen to me!” My greatest fears, in order, are 1. mountain lions and 2. Tie between ISIS and sharks. People are always lecturing me about this, especially ISIS, like I’ve never heard of the Balfour Declaration, like if ISIS ever cuts off my head my last words aren’t going to be “Gosh Darnit, this is ALL MY/LORD ROTHSCHILD/WOODROW WILSON/BOTH GEORGE BUSHES/BARACK OBAMA’s fault.” You can’t help what you’re afraid of. I mean, who lies in bed at night like, “I can’t fall asleep because I am afraid that I will never fully grasp the extent to which my hideous privilege has poisoned the world?” I mean, sure, I think about it, but I only like to obsess over things that seem to have some kind of bottom.
So my two little NORCAL-raised Communist traveling companions had the idea that we were going to go to some hostel type place outside of town, and I was willing to check it out. But then we got there, and it was just really just kind of pushing it for me. We walked down a trash-laden beach. We saw a toilet seat floating in the water. It was M.’s dream.
A woman working at the hotel’s dark bar showed us a room with no mosquito nets, and gaps in the wall. I was like, “Ma’am, I don’t know if you know this but ISIS could totally get into this room, and so could mosquitos.” But then, somehow, we just agreed to stay there, because I thought they wanted to and I didn’t want to be an asshole. But then once they were making up the room, I saw that neither of them really wanted to stay there, and hit the eject button. Actually, I jumped up and down on the eject button.
We went to a really nice place that cost the same amount of money, the place I wanted to stay in all along. “Oh my God,” Alexis said, emerging from our lovely bathroom, hands clasped in girlish excitement, “They have a HAIR DRYER here!”
The two of them promptly got in the giant pool that they made fun of me for wanting and cavorted like seals for hours. If they hadn’t been so delightful I might have killed them.
That night, they went out, and I stayed in the room. I heard a choir and found the source, a woman singing along with a karaoke machine in a bright yellow non-air conditioned Seventh-day Adventist Church. An old woman came up and took my hands and asked me where I was from. I told her that I was from California and that I had just heard the music in my hotel and wandered in. Then we sang, the woman sharing her hymnal with me. I used to be in a church choir even though I have never believed in God and I fought to keep tears out of my eyes because I was enjoying this so much and was reminded of this thing I used to do that was so long gone.
During the sermon the minister said that people who watched telenovelas would not go to heaven, even if they did everything else right. “Who wants to one day hear God say, ‘I almost let you into Heaven?’” he demanded, and I shook my head and laughed along with everyone else.