11:45 Thursday morning struck me full force. My head pounded, nearly erupted from conjugating irregular verbs, speculating whether to use ser or estar, cramming vocab, and trying to decode the subjunctive. Llena el blanco con la forma correcta del verbo entre paréntesis. 11:55. I zipped through the first three, rapid fire. 11:57. Three more. 11:59. The last four: Llegue. Esperen. Practiquen. Salgamos. My one-on-one session ended with Eddy, and Jan and I walked home for lunch.
Beatríz sat at the table, cheery as always, content with the work she’d put in to prepare another wonderful meal for us. Plump, not fat, is the word to describe her, and she had no shame in showing off every one of the braces on her teeth when a good story or joke was delivered.
Jan, personable and extroverted with blond hair playing around boyish features, was one of the two other boarders living with me in Beatríz’s house in Antigua, Guatemala. At twenty years old, he had saved enough money to travel for six months in Central America and northern South America. The impetus of his trip, like mine, was a simple desire to see what else might be out there.
His demeanor, though, favored travel. Whereas I smile when someone smiles at me, Jan’s tenderness is unprovoked and unrestrained and without motive and extends to everyone present. A hearty “Hi! How are ya!” seemed to bubble out of him without a second thought. The connector. Our second day in Antigua, we walked through the city to meet five of his new friends—Jorike, Donny, Frenchy, and two Australians—at the Gato Negro Hostel, stopping along the way to chat with two Guatemalans he’d met the day before. Jan had already amassed this group of new friends, while I’d only met the people living in the house: Jan; Anki, a boarder from the Netherlands; my new Latina mom, Beatríz; and her twenty-four-year-old daughter, who wouldn’t date American men because they smell funny.
Jan was inspired by the newness of learning another language. “Tengo una buena idea para este fin de semana,” he declared to me as we lounged in the shade of Beatríz’s courtyard.
“Bro, I get it. You’re studious. But let’s work on our English a little while.” My smile reinforced the teasing note in my voice as I worked on peeling an orange, spewing juice all over my fingers.
“San Marcos La Laguna. It sits right on the coast of Lake Atitlán. Nothing but a bunch of natives and free-spirited hippies, hanging out on the water, a little swimming here, a couple of volcanoes to climb there. Perfect weekend trip.”
I didn’t need convincing. I knew better than to dash through my voyage in a blur, but I was always searching for opportunities, moments to linger in, to soak in—anything I likely couldn’t get my hands on back home. We have hippies in the United States, but they don’t come with volcanoes.
We raced home for a quick lunch after class Friday, caught the next thing smokin’ at 12:30, and arrived in Panajachel, the port town of Lake Atitlán, a half hour past our estimated arrival time at 4:37. We were immediately bombarded by kids, arms outstretched and faces curved by big grins, wanting to carry our backpacks down to catch a boat for San Marcos. Everywhere, these kids, these sweet little gnats with giant smiles, towns full of junior wheeler-dealers.
It’s a hard life in Guatemala. One either owns a corner tienda, slings pounds of pot up the border, or hustles single dollars from travelers. Tourists—hungry for sun, relaxation, and a little taste of flavorful culture—have forced yesterday’s farmers into town to hawk trinkets.
Either way, though, outside the tourist-infected towns of Guatemala City and Antigua, natives live off the land in some fashion. Everywhere you go, chickens waddle and peck the dirt free of bugs, unaware that they’ll soon be plucked, carved, battered, spiced, fried, and tucked up next to a pile of white rice and mixed veggies; oranges droop from overburdened tree branches, unenthused about the fresh-squeezed juice being served at tomorrow’s breakfast; and women smack corn paste into tortillas. The simple life reigns supreme in towns where kids scurry about in shoes handed down, tattered, from older brothers and sisters, while Mom and Dad cultivate corn or coffee or soybeans or bananas in the backyard. While Mexicans immigrate to the United States to perform the jobs we’ve deemed below our rank, these are the Guatemalans who skip the border to the north to take the jobs Mexicans don’t want.
I stood there, a bit bewildered as I stared down at the children’s faces surrounding me. Their lips flapped, spilling syllables littered with por favors in a passionate fight to earn my business. One boy crowded in on my right. He curled his fingers around the strap of my bag and began to tug lightly. His dark eyes met mine as he boasted that he was the best hombre for the job.
I gave in, releasing my bag into his care. With a triumphant laugh, he bolted forward through the other boys and led me on my way.
Three minutes later, I tipped the kid a couple quetzales for his brief work. He grinned, content, but desiring more. Always desiring more, never enough. He trotted away to the next turista.
Jan and I hopped on a blue fiberglass boat. Its dented sides whispered of the years it had spent in service. The vehicle seated up to sixteen. There were seventeen of us, so I curled up in the bow. I pulled out twenty-five quetzales, the price quoted to us by the bus driver. Jan, proud that his half-year voyage from Guatemala to Argentina was his trip (he saved the money himself and politely rejected his parents’ request to meet him somewhere along the way), was trying to grow up fast. At twenty, he looked twelve, and wanted to act thirty.
“Veinte,” he said to the captain. “Pago veinte.”
Anki chimed in: “And I will pay ten since I’m the first stop.” Her short curly brown locks bounced around her ears with the sway of the boat.
I couldn’t believe this. Negotiation? Really? After we got on? When you’re traveling, especially to less-developed countries, you expect to get screwed. Although, you can bargain for more favorable terms to make it feel as if you’re getting screwed a little less. But who negotiates after they’re already on the boat? That’s the kind of move that gets machetes pulled. With ten, maybe fifteen boats in the harbor, we could have tried to negotiate before loading up.
“Veintecinco,” the captain directed again, his tone neither agitated nor meek. He’d dealt with Jan’s kind before, and he knew he had Jan in a tough spot. There were five of us together—the three of us from the language school and two Canadian women we’d adopted on the bus ride—and he knew that we weren’t going to grab our bags and clamber back to the dock to save five quetzales.
“Veinte,” Jan persisted. He was going to save those sixty-three cents.
The captain huffed, ready to sling fire. He hit Jan with a string of Spanish too jumbled for any of us to interpret. It sounded as if he was pleading, but he had the clear upper hand, and Jan’s twenty-five quetzales was as good as in the captain’s back pocket. Jan’s timing was off. Later, we learned that, for a small fee, our bus driver had called ahead to announce our impending arrival to this particular boat captain and the captain had assembled the appropriate litter of kids to grab our bags as the wheels of the bus slowed to a stop. In reality, though, even with Guatemala’s cutthroat business practices, it became evident on our return trip that all the captains had set the price together and had agreed not to negotiate with passengers. Typical lake-boat oligopoly. Twenty-five was the price.
I stood, handed the captain my fare, and resumed my position in the cramped curve of the bow. Jan ducked and paid reluctantly, but the smile on his face as he turned around told me he was secretly pleased, proud that he’d had the balls to try to bargain. Sure, I lost, said the smirk he wiped off his face. But I stood up to the Man. (Two weekends later, we went to the market in Antigua so Jan could practice his negotiating skills—not buy anything; just practice the art of negotiation.)
As we slowly paced from one village to the next, the boat rose and splashed back into the water, a series of jolting fiberglass-and-water kisses. Gorgeous houses of smooth sandstone, framed by terra-cotta roofs and shutters, emerged from the skirting slopes, and luxuriant vegetation crawled around them. Anki climbed out at Santa Cruz La Laguna so she could spend the weekend scuba diving. Jan, the two Canadians—a mother and daughter in her midtwenties—and I were the fourth stop. More junior hustlers at the dock, eight of them this time, two per vacationer. One pack mule and a navigator. They dropped us at our hotel, and we each pulled out bills to tip the gang.
“Uno,” I started to count, placing the first crumpled bill in the hand of the kid who had carried my bag.
“Diez,” he offered, the going rate for a tip at San Marcos.
“Dos.” I put another in his hand, glancing into his squinting eyes.
“Diez,” he appealed.
I had only five in my hand, so this wasn’t going to end well for him. “Tres.”
“Diez.” He didn’t give up easy.
“Y cinco. Gracias por todo.” I smiled as he wrinkled his nose good-naturedly and scurried off in search of his next target.
We settled into the hotel, the two ladies in cozy beds and Jan and I on auxiliary mattresses dusted off from the attic. This didn’t bother me, and it bothered Jan less. No matter our living conditions, no matter what was on the plate in front of him, no matter the daily itinerary, he always cruised with the current. The whole month I spent with him in Guatemala, he just glided from park to restaurant, Internet café to bar, home to school, attraction to attraction—a cheesy grin stamped on his face all the damned time, saying, “This is the life,” to me at least once a day. He taught me how to curse in German, his native language, which could come in handy if I ever had to deal with shady lederhosen salesmen. He showed me techniques at the Ping-Pong table. He shared travel stories and future plans. He fought for the best price. All of this with an upbeat attitude—never complained once about anything, never said a cross word about anybody, never told me to hurry my ass up in the bathroom or asked, “Why are there always little black hairs scattered about the shower floor?” It seemed impossible to ruffle him. And when it came time to lay our heads on those musty old mattresses that night in that hotel in San Marcos, that cheesy grin persevered.
More people should be like that.
We slept deeply. At five the cock-a-doodle-doo of a rooster penned not twenty feet away woke us simultaneously—all four of us. I raked my fingers across the floor in search of a shoe to use as a snooze button. “His days are numbered,” Terry, the sixty-eight-year-old expat hotel owner said when we crossed paths with her later in the day. Worried that we might be a little upset about this side venture that went along with her lodging business, she added, “If you hang around long enough, we can all enjoy him together.” Customer service is precious at a place like San Marcos. Each of five hotels in this little pueblo had three to five rooms, so if I wasn’t happy with El Arbol, I could quickly pack my bag and skip twenty steps down the stone path to El Unicornio.
But excitement and grandeur overcame fatigue. We were, after all, about to discover for ourselves what the German explorer Alexander von Humbolt described as “the most beautiful lake in the world.” We paused for breakfast at a little café. After that, we strolled to The Platform, a wooden ledge thirty feet above the lake. I tiptoed on the edge, staring down into the sparkling waters, and felt my heart tap hard and quick against my chest. “Dang, that’s kind of a far drop,” I muttered, pausing to stretch out and breathe deep. I took a hit from a water bottle and then lunged off the edge, the air whistling past my sweaty body. An involuntary cry ripped from my lips before the sweet, cool water absorbed me. I laughed when I resurfaced, splashing beside Jan and the younger Canadian.
Birds flew past us, staring at the mirror images of themselves in the clear turquoise water. The air was hot but not heavy; it was a relaxing day in the sun. It was a thrill, but more of a revitalizing let’s-bust-out-some-cheese-and-sliced-apples-and-lay-on-the-deck-and-watch-the-volcano-in-the-distance-cough-dust kind of thrill than a Jesus-Christ-there’s-a-chance-I-might-not-make-it-back-to-the-hotel-for-chips-and-guacamole-tonight one. Not much to it; not much could go wrong. The water was there five hundred years ago, and it will be there in two seconds to break your fall after your descent. Climbing the icy face of a cliff? Skydiving? Running with the bulls? Less room for error when choosing the next spot to drive the pick of your ax, or testing your rip cord, or evading rampaging bovines. My morning at The Platform, though, was leisurely and tranquil and consumed by switching my gaze from passing boats to ladies clad in two-pieces.
We napped in the afternoon back at the hostel. That evening we ate below-average brick-oven pizza for dinner and went for a
couple of drinks at the Ganesh Collective, the go-to nightspot for tourists. The elevated, wooden building was owned by an American who crafted his own liquors. He’d visited Lake Atitlán five years before our arrival, immediately told his girlfriend he didn’t like her anymore, signed the deed for a plot of land three days later, and vowed never to leave because “this is my home, and these are my people.”
We were late to bed, but managed to wake at 2:45 the next morning. We had arranged to meet Edwin, our tour guide, at three. He showed up with bouncy enthusiasm at 3:48, assuredly, he told us in Spanish, with plenty of time to get to the top of the Indian’s Nose. Time in Latin America is different than anywhere else—a suggestion more than a resolute declaration. You learn to live with sitting around waiting for forty-eight minutes.
Edwin is a badass. Two trips to the Indian’s Nose ago, he was guiding a group of American tourists to the top. At the summit, they enjoyed the view, snapped some photos, built a fire, drank some coffee, had a few laughs. Then it came time to pay the “owner” of the mountain. The owner is little more than some guy who owns land in the area and possesses bigger huevos than anybody else up there. This dude, the owner of the mountain, collects a fee from each person who visits. If he knows you, you pay less. If he thinks he can get more out of you, you pay more. Kind of like your neighborhood used car salesman—just, you know, with a machete.
On this particular trip, a week before mine, Edwin paid the owner for each of the people in his flock, the same price that the people before him had paid. But the owner demanded more. Edwin and his crew stressed that they didn’t have more, so the owner pulled his machete and pushed Edwin to the edge of a cliff. One of the American women, courageous but foolish, tried to intervene. Edwin tried to call her off, but it was too late: the owner shoved Edwin off the cliff.
The American woman grabbed Edwin’s sweatshirt just in time. He dangled over the edge for a moment before she managed to pull him back up onto the mountain, saving him from certain death. Edwin then reached under his sweatshirt, grabbed his pistol, fired two shots in the air, and pointed it at his newfound adversary. (He must have thought his story was better with props because as he told me this part he pulled the pistol out from underneath his sweatshirt to offer me a demonstration. “Like this,” he said, waving the hefty gun and making sounds like a small child.)
The owner stepped aside and allowed the group to descend the mountain. Rock beats scissors.
Edwin, all five-foot-two inches in heels of him, told me this story on the way back down the mountain after we had long since paid him. The presence of Edwin’s friend—a certified karate instructor—further relieved any anxiety I may have held inside my chest. “Y si mi pistola no funciona,” Edwin said, “sus pies funcionan.” If my gun doesn’t work, his feet work.
Yeah, there are problems with thieves on that mountain and just about every other rural area of Guatemala, but that’s to be expected in a country with such extreme poverty. It bothered me that criminal activity could be so, sort of, accepted. But this is a developing country, and the people there do what they have to do to hustle up a living where there’s minimal opportunity. These guys don’t have degrees in robberomics. They don’t wake up in the morning and decide they’re going to be thieves. They can’t. Life as a full-time robber is just as unsustainable as life as a car thief or a drug dealer: death or prison are the only two endgames. These guys on the mountain are part-time robbers. They wake up, they bathe, they brush their teeth—just like you and I—they eat some Raisin Bran or whatever Wifey has prepared for them for breakfast, they grab a machete and a hoe or a shovel or a pickax, and they lumber out of the house to go cultivate some corn.
Corn. Sometimes it feels as if that’s all these people have: endless fields of corn sprawling over the mountain. And an occasional pissed-off cow tied to a tree. So here this guy is, doing whatever it is he does to a corn stalk to cultivate it, and—wouldn’t ya know it—here comes a group of gringos right now! And without a guide! He starts licking his lips as he spots the cameras swaying against their hips and the wallets bulging out of their backsides. (The women in front are street savvy enough not to pack their purses on this daytrip.) He hollers to his friends, who are also cultivating corn just a ways up the mountain there—calmly whistling a tune to themselves most likely. They all grab their machetes, Guatemala’s most popular accessory, and come streaming down the hillside. As a group, they relieve these tourists of their cameras and cash without hurting them. This morning they woke up harvesters, and tonight they’ll take their women out drinking and dancing on the town.
This is why you must hire a dude like Edwin, his trusty pistol, and his friend’s pair of Nikes. Who’s to say how our morning would have ended without him?
And then, at once, silence fell upon us. Edwin paused the story he was telling, and we all turned from our perches on top of the mountain. There we saw it rise: the sun.
In the online-dating days of my past—and no doubt, future—I have asked and answered questions like, If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you want to be? or If you had one hundred dollars left to your name and no job, how would you spend it? As we try to work into more important matters, though, the one question that always irks me is Do you prefer the sunrise or the sunset? It’s a silly question, boring, complex yet abstract. A stupid question. There should be no answer to sunrise or sunset? Each is unique, and each can be equally appreciated. Sunrises represent awakening, renewal, and hope. Sunsets represent memory, fulfillment, and worthy fatigue. One prefers a cup of tea, the other a glass of wine, but both should be respected for their unique substance, as well as their aesthetic beauty. The mere thought of pitting them against each other is ludicrous.
I’m no sunologist, though, and that morning in Central America, I’ll tell you that I wasn’t making comparisons between sunrises and sunsets or trying to dissect But what does it all really mean? We had reached the summit rather quickly—in maybe a fifty-minute climb—and had an hour to sit in absolute darkness, save clustered crumbs of light from the pueblos four thousand feet below. Just over a cloud straight ahead, streams of light started to prick our eyes, and the horizon awoke. The mammoth volcano emerged to the right; darkness lifted from the pointed hills to the left. Everything slowly turned from black to green.
Our weariness from the early-morning hike buried itself as we scrambled for our cameras. Streaks of scarlet and orange seeped through the clouds that buckled over the mountaintops, and the cool mist hanging above our heads dissipated, burned away by the rising heat of the sun. The morning chill started to break. The wind weakened, leaves paused. The last hour’s idle chatter vanished.
I knew this moment. I’d never been here before, but I’d been waiting for it. Down below, way down there somewhere, separated from us by a mass of heavy green foliage, people lay fast asleep, deep in Sunday slumber. I could yell, but no one would hear me. I could boogie, but no one would see me. None of the ordinary noises from the towns—the bragging roosters or the lonely, agitated dogs—could rouse my senses back to reality. Memory remained distant as the present slowly came into focus.
I thought about my loved ones back home. In the States, my friends were rising to go to church. My mom was making an omelet. Pops leafed through a James Patterson novel and raised his coffee mug to his lips every now and again.
I never noticed how pretty the lake was, really, until that moment. On our inaugural boat ride two days prior, I spent my time struggling to calm my heavy stomach. I just wanted to get checked into a hotel so I could collapse on my very still bed. And of course the lake was striking on that clear day from the platform, but even then I’d been preoccupied with the exhilaration of climbing up and jumping again.
But this morning, I had no activity in mind. What ache my muscles retained from the climb seemed to flee as I sat on the earth and just observed. Just watched this glistening, expansive lake, sitting calm, the sun reflecting just for this group of vacationers. No, just for me. Because in moments like this, the awe makes you forget for an instant that there are people around you. I started to wonder sappy, unimportant things like, Why do they call it the Indian’s Nose? It doesn’t look like a nose. Nor an Indian. Hm. That’s not what I would have named it. Our thoughts can be flighty sometimes, our minds wandering in seemingly futile directions. My head soon cleared, though. A smile slid from cheek to cheek. I drank in the magnitude of the silent, still moment.
It was spectacular, stunning, breathtaking, without equal. In fucking Guatemala. Nobody ever talks about Guatemala unless it has something to do with civil unrest—accusations of genocide or a protest gone bad—or about how they went to the wrong Antigua. Yet there I was, in Guatemala of all places, lost in the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen in my life.
The only thing missing at that moment—the only thing missing—was a girl by my side to lean over and kiss on the cheek.
Bill Clinton once visited Granada, Spain, and said that the view from Mirador de San Nicolás offered the most beautiful sunset in the world. I remember eagerly visiting Granada in college, standing at the exact same spot, watching the sun set, and thinking, Meh, yeah. Whatever. It’s all right. Bill must have been inhaling something potent, though, if he thought that was the best sunset in the world.
So I guess sunrises and sunsets depend on perspective, but if you ever get to Guatemala, I wonder what you will think about the most amazing sunrise I’ve ever witnessed. Go by San Marcos La Laguna and find Edwin. Tell him Adam sent you. He’ll say, “Who?” And you’ll say, “Never mind.” Tell him you want to climb the Indian’s Nose, and you want to know how much it will cost. Regardless of the size of your party, three people or thirty, he’ll quote you just about three hundred quetzales per person. Tell him he can go ahead and suck a fat one. Or you can peacefully mention that you’d like to shop around a little first. Either way, you’ll get the same response. He’ll say something along the lines of, “No, no. Wait a second. Let’s be reasonable about this. What kind of price did you have in mind?” Cut his number in half. “One-fifty,” you say. Now, he’ll tell you to go suck a fat one, but he’ll counter with two hundred. Take it. You can find someone to do it for about one-seventy or so, but they won’t have Edwin’s pistol or his karate-chopping friend. Edwin’s your man.
Then, wake your groggy ass up early, pack two energy bars in your cargos and fill your bottle with water, and climb to the top of the Indian’s Nose.