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Adventures in Guatemala (Chapter 5 of 6): Gauntlet of Tortillas
Published on March 30, 2017 Email To Friend    Print Version



Who knows what it feels like to grow old?

By Mateo Askaripour

STOP! Before reading this chapter, go read Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3 and Chapter 4. Everything will make a bit more sense and be slightly more exciting.

Antigua

Where are we at this point of the story? Is this a story? You could call it that. More so a detailed recollection of my Guatemalan adventures. Hopefully you’re still around. We still have a few more stops to go.

I lost my blessing somewhere on the floor of Max’s apartment as I rushed out the door. If you don’t know what the “blessing” is, go back and read Chapter 4. It was midnight and I was carrying my backpack and duffle bag across the bridge I originally crossed to get to Max’s place.

If I ever travel to anywhere for less than two weeks, I only carry these two bags. No more. And, I’m starting to think that they’re all I need regardless of how long I’ll be visiting a country for. I’m convinced I don’t need more than a few shirts, shorts, pens, books and a pair or two of shoes (I like to go running) for any journey. Will test this out more.

Anyway, it was midnight and I made it to the end of the bridge without running into anyone. At this point, I wasn’t really afraid of much in the country despite how much I had heard of the dangers in Guatemala. What I’ve realized is that danger could be lurking around any corner of the world. And that it dwells in some corners more than most, but that you can’t live in fear of it. Because it’s out of your control.

The only thing you can control is how you react to any given situation. The same goes for any given person. While these thoughts crossed my mind, I was unaware of how useful this sentiment was going to be a few minutes later.

Coban

I walked over to what looked like a bus station and asked someone if my bus, Fuente Del Norte (FDN), was stopping there. They shook their head and pointed across the street. I walked over and saw a rickety old sign that said “FDN”, on it. With it being midnight, there was only a handful of people on the street. Thirty minutes had elapsed as I waited for my bus. It never showed.

While taking a breath and thinking of my next move, I saw another bus from the company coming from the opposite direction that I was going in. I caught the driver’s attention, and he waved me over. I told him that I was waiting for another bus. I didn’t really understand what he said, but he told me to get into the front seat with him.

Now, this was a coach bus. Meaning there are dozens of seats in the main cabin. But, he told me to sit up in the front with him so quickly that I wasn’t sure if there were others on the bus, or if it were just me and him. He whipped the huge bus around tight corners and seemed to only be accelerating.

“How long will this take?” I asked in an effort to feel him out. Without looking, he said “Thirty minutes.” I felt the strong urge to go into defensive mode and prepare for anything, but forced myself to relax.

As we cruised into the dark of night, I accepted the fact that I had no idea what was going on. And, I was okay with it. The words I told myself at the bridge in Chapter 2 bounced around my head like a ping-pong ball, “All you have to do is let go. Afterwards, all control is out of your hands.” So, I let go. A while later, we were at a gas station and he pointed me in the direction of another bus. I thanked him and walked to the other bus.

“Are you number 39?” a man asked me. “Um...” he grabbed my phone to look at my ticket and nodded (I took screenshots of my tickets in case they went missing). Number 39 was my seat. They had wondered where I was.

The bus was pitch black and I took my seat next to an elderly man. I quickly fell asleep and awoke when I felt his elbow rubbing against mine. I casually looked over and saw a towel over his lap while he was quickly moving his hands underneath it. “What the…” I suppressed my surprised and watched to see what in the hell was happening. I quickly realized that he was trying to urinate into a bottle. I wondered if I was angry or disgusted until I realized I didn’t care all that much. Who know what it feels like to grow old? I mean old, not older.

The breakdown of our physical bodies frightens me a bit. I won’t lie. I don’t think any of us are truly familiar with it unless we’ve witnessed a decline in health and motor skills for ourselves. I was fortunate to have been partially raised by my grandmother, so I’ve seen it. There was never any “put her in a nursing home” around my house, so my brothers and I witnessed the eventuality of all of our lives first-hand. A story for another time.

The bus stopped in Guatemala City. I was on my way to Antigua, but had to hang there for a bit until my next shuttle. One thing I wasn’t prepared for was how frigid it was. Rio Dulce and Livingston (from Chapter 4) were the Caribbean, remember? In Guatemala City, I saw men, women and children bundled up in jackets and scarves. I froze for a bit and then a man came in and asked for my name. He was my driver.

It still amazes me how many countries in Central and South America function like this. Where you wait for people to come and get you opposed to always meeting at a standard location. The same happened to me waiting for a tour at 3am in Cuzco. I actually really like the thrill of depending on someone to just find me. I hopped into the shuttle with a few other people.

One girl asked if I was going to the kite festival in Sumpango. There’s a large celebration there, every year, for Dia de Los Muertos (Nov 1.). People make fragile, colorful kites as large as houses and send them up in the sky only for them to be destroyed – it has something to do with freeing good spirits, getting rid of bad ones or something like that.

While the festival sounded fun, I was on my way to Antigua for one reason: to hike Volcán Acatenango. The third highest volcano in Central America (3,976 meters).

It was around 6am when the shuttle pulled in. I had a hostel booked for two nights, but not the day I arrived (just planned on winging it). My feet made their way over the cobblestone streets towards the hostel. While I hadn’t seen much, I immediately realized that this town was unlike any other one I had visited in Guatemala. For one, it was highly, highly organized. No doubt because it was the capital of Central America under Spanish rule.

Another thing was that all of the buildings looked new, or very well-kept. I would later learn that the entire city is a UNESCO site, causing the extreme cleanliness (extreme isn’t an exaggeration, they have their own cleaning crews that patrol the entire city) to make sense.

I knocked on the door of Tropicana Hostel and a man opened up. “I don’t have a room, but I want to stay here,” I said. “Come in. The receptionist will be in in an hour, but grab some free coffee.” I don’t drink coffee, but I didn’t want to reject his hospitality, so I just grabbed some water. About an hour later, a really pleasant woman named Margaret (again, a fake name. But, seems fitting) told me they didn’t have any beds for that night, but that I could crash in the lounge. “It’s Halloween, remember? We’re having a party here, but it should over around 10pm.”

Wait, what? I completely forgot it was Halloween and my late grandmother’s birthday (doesn’t matter to you, but something nice to thrown in. She was born in 1919). The thought of drunken backpackers with smudged makeup and gaudy costumes signaled screeching violins in my mind. “Great, thanks” I said.

mateo16.jpg
The roof of Tropicana Hostel

I headed out into the town for an early morning walk, and to push thoughts of trying to sleep in a crowded and loud hostel out of my mind. Antigua is a beautiful town. The streets are, as I said, extremely clean and well-organized. It functions on a grid layout, much like New York City.

As I marveled at the city, I couldn’t help but think about the costs that the native people (who were certainly Mayans) had to endure in order for this city to be built and thrive. But, I didn’t allow myself to dwell on this thought too long. I supposed that’s the definition of privilege; not having to be perpetually confronted with the atrocities of the past embodied in the world of the present and probable future.

I looked at the boutique shops, visited the famous arch and headed into one of the grander looking churches. Once inside, I said four prayers that I say whenever I’m in a church that I feel warrants it. I’m not religious (you can read in Chapter 3), but I do this ritual because I enjoy it. One prayer is for my family. Another is for the world. The third is for someone specific, and the fourth is for myself. Leaders eat last, right?

I grabbed breakfast at one of the unpretentious-looking cafes and sat on a sidewalk eating my food. At this point, I was pretty dirty. I hadn’t showered in days, my clothes had a tinge of brown and my hair was sticking out to the North, East, West and South. But, in that moment, I felt extremely proud. Proud that I was living life through direct interaction versus theoretically or vicariously. That I was in a place opposed to reading about it. And that I was a bit uncomfortable.

mateo17.jpg
My shirt matches the drapes! I mean, color of the building to the left of me. That’s the well-known arch in the back

For the remainder of the day, I alternated between reading Letters to a Young Poet on the roof of the hostel and seeing the sights e.g. Cerra de La Cruz. A note about Cerra de La Cruz. It’s a short walk from the city center and may be one of the highest points in Antigua. The viewpoint features a large cross and loads of stray dogs. There were about six prowling around when I was there. I had a few day-old tortillas, and threw one to one of the dogs. Like the others, he was extremely hungry and almost swallowed it whole. So, I threw him the rest of my tortillas.

Once the other dogs saw him eating, they surrounded and pounced on him causing a handful of people, including myself, to abruptly get up and stay out of it. They were vicious. I’d comment here on an appropriate analogy to the recent current events, but will leave it to your own imagination.

mateo18.jpg
View of the city from Cerra de La Cruz

There’s also an extremely hectic market in the town. It’s a maze. Actually, more like a gauntlet. Every corner I turned drew me in deeper and deeper into a world I felt like I had to fight to get out of. There were people selling flowers, flour, fish, tortillas, clothes, bicycles, etc. I even saw one guy carrying a cross around like Jesus. Once I escaped, I made my way to the bus terminal to check out all of the beautiful chicken buses. For those unaware, a chicken bus is basically a school bus that people pimp out with different colors, signs and pack an uncomfortable amount of people inside to make more money. Despite being a school bus, they’re typically the fastest thing on the road.

mateo19.jpg
Man standing in the doorway of a chicken bus
To reiterate, my main purpose for being there was to hike Volcan Acatenango. Margaret had told me that the hostel wouldn’t be going there the next day, because of the kite festival, so I had to find another tour. I shopped around and found one for a third of the price that I was initially willing to pay. It was leaving early the next day and we’d be sleeping on the volcano at night. So, that was set.

By the time I got back to the hostel, I saw about four different Uma Thurmans and a host of other people resembling characters from Quentin Tarantino movies. I quickly realized that was the theme of the party. I looked in the lounge and saw a handful of people hanging out and drinking inside. “How the hell was I going to sleep in here?” Fortunately, a few moments later, one of the staff members grabbed me and said someone left, so I’d be able to get a bed for the night. Rejoice! Sweet Hallelujah! I was ecstatic.

And, while I didn’t want to be a debby-downer, I was exhausted. So, I grabbed food and quickly retired to my bed. The beds in the dorm were three-story bunk beds. I’d never seen that before, so it was pretty cool. Another thing was that they all came with their own curtains… for reasons of privacy. I tried going to sleep until I heard a group of German guys in the room talking super loudly about something. My shoes were rancid, so I immediately assumed they were talking about that and plotting to dispose of them. If you couldn’t tell, I often let my imagination run rampant. It’s both equally fun and cruel.

After hours and hours of drunk English, American and Australian people screaming and making out all over the hostel, I the midnight and early morning travels caught up with me. “Toby?!” a girl dressed up as Pulp Fiction Uma Thurman screamed as she ripped my curtains open. “Huh?” I said as I sprang awake. “Oh, you’re not Tobias,” she said apologetically. “I’m sorry.” In my sleepy state, I wondered if I actually was Toby. What did he look like? How did he act? Was he a nice guy? Maybe I am Toby and I’m caught in a world where I forgot I was and am living a lie. Maybe we all are. Happy (belated) Halloween.

P.S. If I am actually a man named Toby, let me know. This is starting to bother me.

Mateo Askaripour is a writer who quit his flashy job in NYC to live life on his own terms. He’s done everything from working at an orphanage in Nairobi to building a new university in Abu Dhabi to sleeping on volcanoes in Guatemala. And right now, he’s working to get an agent for his book. Regardless of where he is, he’s always working. To keep up with him, follow him on Instagram and Twitter at @AskMateo and read one of his elaborate stories at www.SwagPapi.com. Check out the original post of Adventures in Guatemala!
 
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