** This is the first in a few posts that we're going to do about our recent travels to Guatemala - it's just an entry that I scribbled into my journal the first night we touched down in the big bad city. Once we reached our paradise locations, my drive to hide away in my notebook dwindled a bit for the cobble stone streets of the old capital or the gardens, hikes and swim spots of the lake.
We arrived in Guatemala City about 20 minutes ahead of schedule. Flying past the Arizona state line happened in a blink. We'd just frowned away the carted cups of Coke and bagged peanuts when the pilot came in with the BING-BONG announcement ping telling us that if we looked out the window, we'd see a sliver of New Mexico going by.
On the next flight from Texas to Guatemala City, I noticed this sultry scent of dog's breath filling the plane, and then the dinner cart came squeaking along from the rear. Juwels was asleep (she never gets any sleep the night before a trip - filling the hours by checking off toiletries, swim suits, and all sorts of other things that I didn't even know we owned.)
"Cheeseburger." the stewardess said. "Cheeseburger. Cheeseburger. Cheeseburger."
She wasn't so much asking as she was just telling what it was. "Cheeseburger," she'd say, handing the microwaved bag of bun and beef into the hands of one passenger after the next. The burgers were all balancing on the top of the cart in a shaky pile, and beads of moisture stuck to the inside of the overinflated bags like the the fogged up windows of an old Chevy on Lovers Lane.
The other passengers looked bemused as they accepted what could come to be their last meal.
"Cheeseburger," she came to me, extending a bag in my direction but already fumbling around to reload with another. I may have been the only one on the plane that refused (thank God I ate on our layover..) I eyed deeper into the cart where the trays of fixn's were ... "Can I just get -"
"You just want the salad?" She guessed, reaching for the clam shell container of iceberg lettuce, slice of onion and packet of ketchup.
"Actually, the cookies," I said, pointing at the travel sized pouches of Millanos.
"Anything for her?" She pointed at Juwels.
I just smiled and shook my head.
"Cheeseburger ... Cheeseburger." She was gone.
Juwels awoke just as I was finishing my cookies. "What's that smell?" She asked.
"Cheeseburger." I said.
"Did they bring the vegetarian meals out? They normally bring those out first."
"I don't think there's any vegetarian meals on this flight." I said.
"I ordered the dairy-free vegetarian meal when I booked the tickets."
She repeated this a couple times, and I don't know why, but in her newly awoken haze, with the imprint of her sweater on her right cheek and this air of disbelief about her, I just found it totally cute and entertaining.
"Cheeseburger," I smiled.
She huffed and snuggled back into my shoulder. "Welcome to Guatemala," I said.
We arrived in Guatemala City about 20 minutes ahead of schedule. Normally, this would be a good thing, but to someone who had stupidly read the US Crime Statistics Ledger on Guatemala the night before departing, my head was abuzz with less than tasteful scenarios of how our night might end up. During my light nightly reading about rape, murder, robbery and kidnapping, there seemed to be quite a few lines dedicated to problems near the airport, at night, to travelers ...
"Don't become a target by milling around outside the airport. Know your destination, and arrange a pickup in advance."
We'd booked a hostel online, and the person I was talking with assured us that they'd send someone to pick us up ... but as we walked through the empty airport towards the luggage pickup, I wondered if our driver would know we were early. We had decided before we left where we'd stash our money, but as the smell of diesel exhaust and musty carpet filled my lungs, I started to feel like the red letters A.T.M. were blinking across my forehead or like some kind of human easter egg hunt.
"Should I stash some in my bra?" Juwels asked.
I shrugged - the general implications of it made me even more uneasy. The combination of dirty money, fear and private places was unsettling at best.
We hadn't checked any luggage, so I instinctively headed straight towards the customs checkpoint and the door, but then Juwels stopped me, "Shouldn't we hang out in here for a few minutes, so our driver can get here?"
Around the baggage roundabout, there was an odd collection of people waiting. Smiling westerners with grey hair, single women, and a large group of American students of maybe 16 or 17 years old, and I started to feel like my overcautious thoughts were unnecessary.
Juwels struck up a conversation with one of the directors of the group of students. They were from Michigan and were in Guatemala volunteering for two weeks. As one of the bags came off of the belt, the woman sighed and said, "Okay - glad to see that this one's not lost! This bag has all the medication for the students. It could've made for a real interesting trip if we lost this..." I asked if she had any travel advice for first timers, and she said to keep our money in different places and said that she told the kids not to bring anything that they weren't okay losing.
Out on the curb there was a lot less going on than I was used to seeing at airports. A couple of guards stood around, and a few feet away, behind steal gates, there were a bunch of cab drivers hooting and hollering and family members patiently waiting. I saw a guy with a handmade sign with the name of our hostel on it and pointed him out to Juwels. He waved us over, and we came around the gate. He introduced us to a very old German lady who he was bringing to the same place. He took her bags, and then we all followed him out into the covered parking. I don't know why I was envisioning a van or shuttle of some sort with the hotel logo on it, but I paused a half second when I saw him pop the trunk of a beat up old green four door with a cracked windshield and taped up tail light. His trunk was clean and empty, but I still felt a little odd placing our bags inside.
Out of respect for our elders, we let the little old lady ride up front, but as we pulled out of the lot into the night, I wondered if that was such a great idea. The guy's tint was real dark in the back, so you couldn't really see who was inside, but up front it was a lighter tint, and the lady's grey hair and white skin seemed to glow like a luminescent target. We're gonna get plucked, I thought.
The city was eerily quiet, and the street lamps, few and far between, cast a dim orange light. How far is 900 meters, I wondered. I know a meter is about 3 feet, but what does any of that feel like in a car? I was basically just trying to tick off the distance in my head, so I'd know roughly when we'd gone too far, and at what point I should whisper to Juwels that she should barrel roll out her door and I out mine ; )
(Never too cautious ... Juwels loves to tell the story of when we were leaving Thailand, and I got what I thought was a cockeyed glance from our cab driver who had just showed up to take us to the airport. So as he picked up our bags from the hotel cafe, I loaded a napkin with a little pile of sea salt with the idea that I could reach around and hocus pocus a palm of salt in his eyes if he veered us down the figurative dark alley. ** In my defense, I had just read something in Lonely Planet about "taxi mafias" and we had met this cabbie in a less than professional way (he was holding a cardboard sign on the edge of a crowded market that read "Taxi", and once I saw his car, it was clear that he wasn't a real cab driver ..)
Winding through Guatemala City, my eyes darted ahead to a motorcycle abandoned by the side of the road with its headlight still aglow. As we got closer, I saw a well dressed man farther off on the dirt watering the plants with his salty nitrates. Another turn, another twist and bend, and street after street I scanned ahead for the hotel sign .. or any sign of life at all. And then we reached a blockade. It was guarded by just one man, but a sinister man he was. From my side of the car I could only see his dark pants, long sleeve cloaked arms and the black shot gun that hung from a strap and doubled as an armrest. Were we being driven into Scarface's compound, I wondered?
Later Juwels told me that he was wearing a full coverage ski mask with only his eyes showing. The guard lifted the gate and let us through. After just two more streets, we headed down the long last street to our hotel ... of course I didn't know that was our street, but what I did immediately see was two men walking the empty blacktop in our direction. The driver started to roll his window down a sliver as we approached, and he stuck just the tips of his fingers out of the opening and waved as we passed them by.
"There's our place!" Juwels said, somehow noticing the sign on the dark wall.
The wall was decorated in the Guatemala-City-standard stretched bail of razor wire which also doubled as a trellis for beautiful sleeping orchids and vines. I stepped on a giant overripe avocado in the gutter as I exited the car, and seeing a few more of them scattered on the sidewalk beckoned my eyes skyward where I saw a wise old tree with many more round reptilian-like fruit hanging like bats in the moonlight. Remembering the men on the street, I spun around but found that they had vanished completely.
The cab driver jumped out and opened the large steal door which let into the courtyard of the hostel. Inside there were lights and people, lush tropical plants and a loosely strung hammock. The car's trunk popped open, and the driver urged us into the hostel saying that he would get the bags. We smiled and nodded, but went back and got our bags out anyway. Rule number one: keep your eye on the prize. (this is a huge post .. I know. . but I love people who gobble up the written word, so to reward you anti ADD-athletes, we're going to send a couple of free candle to the first three people who dig in this deep. Just bee one of the first three people to post a comment that says, lovely linguistic linguine, and you win : ) Then send your address to pollenarts-at-gmail-dot-com, and we'll pack your box.)
We spent the rest of the night cloistered away in our little private room. We hadn't seen each other in 4 days because I'd caught a ride down south to see the rest of my tribe before meeting Juwels at the airport. The brightly painted walls and soft bed were a welcome break from the dark, crude city and the cramped airplanes. Juwels unpacked a spare set of sheets that she'd brought from home, dressed the bed, and then she showed me all the nuts and berries and health food snacks that she'd smuggled into the country to keep her alive while I'd spoon beans and bread and huevos rancheros into my gully.
This was our one and only night in the City, and the next day we headed to the old capital, Antigua, which was beautiful and romantic and full of life. I did a lot less journaling in the following days, but Juwels took magnificent pictures, so you'll have those to look forward to in the next couple of posts : )