In November, I got laid off from a second disastrous environmental job in a row. When I meet people and tell them I work at environmental non-profits, the response is always so impressed, a version of, I’m glad you’re doing that! (how does she live on less than $70,000 a year!?)
Non-profits are complicated, and they aren’t a beatific separate class. Behind some nonprofits’ jpgs of disadvantaged-but-excelling children, there are terrible attitudes about labor, managerial arrogance, savior complexes, and as much trash-talking as a frickin’ reality show…with the addendum that the people who want to save the world are often those most victimized by it, and most sensitive to the effects – and, therefore, those who often still carry the scars.
I don’t get institutional non-profitism. What keeps we leaf-cutter ants trudging along, other than Spotify and the occasional free food left over from board meetings? I don’t exactly see idealistic passion impelling people into work every day, their eyes burning with revolutionary zeal as they line up for hazelnut lattes in the Powell Street BART station.
“Is this really the way to do it?” I ask God. “No comment,” she responds. “Even Satan has a mission statement.”
After getting laid off, I fled to Guatemala. I like jungles, and even more, I like healing, and because of its 32-year civil war, Guatemala has a lot of experience with both. Guatemalans wear gorgeous bright clothes, talk in vibrant Native American languages, and have a level of friendliness, curiosity, and presence that white people seem only able to manage for one week a year at Burning Man. It’s also a gorgeous jungle, with fog tumbling over volcanoes and lakes. Plenty of iguanas, making clacking iguana sounds.
I went to the Caribbean side of the country first to chill out. This is a broad lake/river plateau with mangroves and lilypads. Water is everywhere. It saturates the land, the air, the sky. The main town, Rio Dulce, is a cluster of houses built on stilts in a river swamp, packed with trees and airplants dangling off them, and yachts bobbing gallantly.
It’s off the beaten track, so there are far fewer tourists and expats, and more sailors. It’s easy to tell the difference: tourists consult a tour book too much, expats have laptops and nicer shoes, and sailors drink raucously, have the cracked hides of leathery brown turtles, and often have made what some people call “bad life decisions.”
Within ten minutes of being in a Rio Dulce sailor bar called the “Sun Dog”, I was asked to join a trip to the Caribbean by a dude wearing a baggy tank top which read, Recovery is not an option.
“Nice shirt you got there,” I said. “Oh yeah,” he said, from behind the blue mirrored Oakley shades he was still rocking at 9 p.m. “It’s from Rehab. That’s another bar for sailors, in Honduras. You should go!”
For a week or so there, I zipped around in motorboats called lanchas, took a lot of bad pictures of the rainforest, met some army brats and kids from all over the world, and then decided to head up into the hills to find a site called Semuc Champey, a beautiful string of pools of different shades of blue. It was supposedly “worth the trouble getting there,” according to the undaunted Lonely Planet scribes who’d come before. They should always put asterisks and footnotes on statements like that, I thought. What goes “trouble” really mean? According to who? My seven-year-old nephew? Genghis Khan? What?
So: up into the hills! From the mangrove swamps, I got on a collectivo bus (a white minivan with a rack on top full of weirdly-shaped bags). I’d been told it was going to Lanquin, the town next to the magical azure pools. There aren’t any signs or anything on the collectivos, so you just say your destination and hope you pronounced it right when they wave you on the bus.
We bumped along merrily for seven hours, compressing our spines, and about three in the afternoon, the bus stops in the middle of a tiny, ramshackle town; the driver says to me, “Lanquin! change!” and gestures ferociously for me to get out.
I haul out my duffel bag and step out onto the mud. “Is this Lanquin? What do you mean, change? Change to another bus?”
The door slams shut and the bus roars away. I look around at this muddy pueblo I don’t know the name of, put together of cardboard and corregated tin. Everybody is speaking Quiche, it’s getting dark, and it’s starting to rain. There’s a guy Peter sitting alone in a wood hut, selling bubblegum and chips. We talk for some minutes while I shelter myself. Usually when I start a conversation, after hello and how are you and my name is, Guatemalans then offer up whatever English words they have in their vocabularies: welcome, one, two, three, extending courtesy, like giving a small gift. It’s very thoughtful. Obama! Peter said. The president, Obama!
The appropriate response to any of these is “your English is so good!” I know this because almost everyone I met in Guatemala told me “your Spanish is very good!” I believed that they were really complimenting me, and went around believing it until I realized that my Spanish was unintelligible in a socially awkward, embarrassed way; they were just being incredibly polite. All of them! As a form of kindness.
Peter, who is sweet with a nice smile, points me to a hotel which I run to in the rain. I pay four dollars for the night, and walk up dirty linoleum stairs to a dark, cavernous, foul-smelling hallway, with steel doors on each room that creak and clang shut. It’s a dungeon.
I have had a few of these random days in my life, when there’s a blizzard or my car dies and I have to wait two days for a part to arrive or whatever. They are special, like slipping out of time entirely. The universe is making the decision, not you. So you just bum around, and if you’re me, you intend on getting uselessly drunk. I get beer but unfortunately at eight p.m. the water, lights, and electricity go out for the evening. This forces everyone in the building to walk down the muddy hallway to shit and pee in the dark into one broken porcelain toilet that doesn’t flush for ten hours, and then shake their dry hands in the air, hoping they will not have to use them for anything important before the water turns on in the morning. Just don’t touch anything for ten hours and you will be fine. Semuc Champey, where I am trying to go, literally means, “where the water disappears.”
Trying to use the bathroom in the dark is more difficult than it sounds – getting your pants off your hips and situated on the precise right place on your thighs so that a. they don’t fall off onto the floor, b. they don’t make contact with the toilet bowl while you are crouching, and c. (because you can’t see them) don’t hike up far enough on your legs so that you accidentally pee all over your own pants. This is tricky!
If you don’t have a flashlight you can use a cigarette lighter, but if you are wiping, you only have one hand free, which means either you do that part in the dark, while putting the lighter in between your teeth so you can wipe with your own hands, and hopefully not setting anything on fire.
Which I didn’t do. I stayed up drinking Guatemalan beer by flashlight, reading a book about radical food politics, and trying not to breathe in through my nose because the whole hotel smelled like feces. When they say that travel will broaden your horizons, it is this kind of crap they are talking about.
The bus was supposed to leave at 4, so I woke up at 3 and walked around the empty main street in the dark. In Guatemala, a “bus” can be any kind of vehicle, from an open-top convoy to a minivan, most of them not marked at all, so you don’t know which ones are buses or are private vehicles. The only way to determine this is by asking. So in the raining predawn in this village, with only myself and the roosters awake, I scoured the streets, thumping on the windows of random vehicles and asking if they were going to Lanquin. Like this:
“Excuse me, are you going to Lanquin?”
A young man in a truck looks puzzled. “Yes.”
“What time are you leaving?”
He looks over at the driver in the cab, then looks back at the wet tourist making a grimace of desperation. “At eight o’clock.”
“How much is the fare?”
“Oh no, this is not for you,” he says, smiling, figuring out what’s going on. “We’re going to pick up some pigs and take them into Coban.”
In many cases, the tourist does not know the meaning of the Spanish words, “we’re going to pick up some pigs and take them”, but perhaps does recognize only the word “Coban,” which is where they want to go. If they are utterly lost, frustrated, and confused, then they harrass this guy until his Central American kindness and patience is so worn down that he almost becomes snappy.
Think about it. Wouldn’t it be strange, to be waiting in your Jeep at a meter on Powell Street in San Francisco, and have a bunch of harried tourists run up to you, thump on your window, ask you when you were going to Fresno, and what was the fare? No wonder people think Americans are morons.
By the time I actually get to Lanquin (travel time now at about 32 hours and counting), I could care less about these damn azure pools, because no matter how magnificent they are, they will probably not be worth all of this. I have several layers of mud on my body and I look like an archeological dig.
Finally, after wandering lost looking for the bus to the pools (33 hours and counting now), I find the bus (hurray!) and get to experience one of the greatest pleasures world travel has to offer: riding in cars and trucks without seat belts! Often in the back of a trunk, standing up, packed in with a bunch of other people, on bumpy roads, with low-hanging tree branches thwacking you in the face at 30 mph.
And finally we are there: the pools! Everyone else whips out cameras and saunters excitedly towards the park entrance. I shuffle towards it, like the wanderer lost in the desert, using his last bit of strength. The park is small, with the azure pools in the center. You can walk up to the pools, where you will be able to glimpse one or two of them, but to have the “full experience” and see them spread out in a string, you must ascend a thousand-foot mountain.
My god, these azure pools, I think, staring at the laminated park map. So endlessly demanding! Putting more and more obstacles before me, like a test of my tourist endurance. If I were to ascend the mountain in order to gaze on the pools – what would come next? Would the weather be unfavorable? Would I have to capture an eagle, fly to another location, and then be able to see the pools? Would there be an earthquake, destroying the pools so that the water sinks into the ground, leaving craters behind them? Will I ever see this goddamn pools?
So I walk to the edge of one. I sit down, and finally relax. The pools are indeed lovely, although I can only see two of them because I failed to ascend the mountain. I walk out on the ridge between the two pools, breathing deep and taking in the beauty. And then slip and fall into one of them, in front of a bunch of young, attractive, well-adjusted German backpackers.
An hour later, most of my clothes have dried, waiting for the bus that will hopefully take me away. I am pretending not to know any Spanish so I don’t have to talk to anyone. From Lanquin, we get on the bus to Coban (a big city with showers), and about halfway there the bus breaks down completely in the middle of the jungle. All the passengers start trudging up the hill, hopefully waiting for a car that we can flag down. We walk and walk, and this has become so far beyond ludicrous that I have capitulated completely.
Finally a truck pulls up…my god, we are saved! We stare, transfixed: a pickup truck, with room for all of us. Amazing!
“I can give you a ride to Coban,” says the driver. “Except you should look in the back.”
We look. The bed of the pickup truck is filled with stinking, rotting garbage bags with flies buzzing around them. It’s a trash truck. so we either walk 30 miles on foot, or we sit and put all our bags in the middle of heaps of trash. “Okay, vamanos,” I sigh, and sit on a trash bag. Within about five minutes, I realize it’s full of dirty diapers. Azure pools, I think, you have won. You have won.
At my hostel, when I finally landed in Coban, the manager asked me where I’d come from. “I went to Semuc Champey,” I say. And I don’t want to talk about it.
“Semuc Champey!” he smiles. “I hear it’s beautiful.”
“You haven’t been there?” I ask, surprised. “It’s only two hours away.”
“A lot of Guatemalans have not been there,” he says.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I would like to go. But people say it’s a lot of trouble.”