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Strangers on the Train

Thursday, December 22nd, 2016: Stories, Travel.

Steak on the Floor

Shortly after noon, as I turned into the desolate gravel lot between the elevated interstate highway and the lonely railroad crossing at Deming, I saw some baggage piled at the edge of the small, open-ended shelter provided by Amtrak for waiting passengers. And when I rolled down the window of my truck to let in some freeway air as I ate a sandwich, a short, gray-haired lady emerged from the shelter to stare at me.

“Train’s running twenty minutes late,” she said. “I just got a message on my phone.” I was also set up for text alerts, but I’d been sitting on my phone so I hadn’t heard the tone. Not that I cared about a twenty minute delay at the start of a two-and-a-half day train ride.

While I was eating, I noticed two young guys wearing packs approaching the shelter, one Asian-looking, the other an Anglo kid pushing a bike. They were both dressed in globally stylish trekking gear and wearing garish neon sneakers, so they looked like aliens in this dusty old cowboy town. The Anglo kid started doing showy handstands and elaborate yoga poses while balancing on the railing of the shelter – the kind of thing a college student might do to impress chicks.

I finished my sandwich. Deming is a couple thousand feet lower than my home, and the truck was getting hot in the bright sun, so I joined the others in the scanty shade of the shelter.

“Have you taken this train before?” I asked the old lady.

“Sure, every year I take it to San Antonio to see my relatives. This delay is nothing. One time I had to wait five hours because some idiot stopped his car on the tracks and the train hit him. Probably some idiot committing suicide. Damn government people made us wait five hours while they checked everything out.”

“Well, I’ve had to wait longer than that,” I replied, surprised by her callousness. “You need patience if you want to ride the trains.” I winked at the young guys listening to us.

“Damn government regulations are killing everything,” she continued. “I wonder how much longer Amtrak will last, running on nothing but subsidies from the rest of us.”

I chuckled. “That’s exactly what we were saying thirty or forty years ago. But somehow it just keeps going.”

“Government spoils everything it gets its hands on,” she said.

“Well, I’ve worked my whole life in private enterprise, and that can be just as bad. I rode the private railways before Amtrak, and the equipment was old and shabby, the trains were dirty, and the service was awful. Amtrak is a big improvement over that.”

“It’s government regulations that killed the private railroads,” she insisted.

The young guys were talking about a transmission that was due to arrive here from somewhere else. The Asian kid had a British accent. “Did your car break down?” I asked.

“Yeah, it was making a grinding noise all the way from Las Cruces, and we only made it to Akela, east of here, where it finally gave up. We got a tow into town, and we’ve been waiting five days for the replacement. It’s a really big one for a Ford van, so it’s coming from somewhere far away.”

“I hope they found you a rebuilt one, so you didn’t have to pay for new!”

“Yeah, no problem there.” The Asian kid left to get snacks at the gas station across the road, and his Anglo friend looked back at us. “My friend is from Australia, he got tired of waiting and decided to take the train east.”

“There’s a lady that sells burritos at the El Paso station,” said the old woman. “The train stops long enough so you can buy ’em from her right there on the platform. Two dollars for a good burrito.

“Some people won’t buy ’em because they think they’re not sanitary. They only eat in the dining car. But I know what goes on in restaurant kitchens. I had a friend that was a chef in a fancy restaurant, and somebody came in just before closing and ordered a steak.

“That chef pulled a steak out of the fridge, threw it on the floor and stepped on it.”

I laughed.

“Then he just picked it up and dropped it on the grill. And I don’t blame him for a minute. In a restaurant, they make you work overtime but they never pay you for it. It goes on everywhere, all the time, people working for nothing.”

I wondered how that fit into her hatred of government regulations. Then we heard the horn blow, as the train came rolling in from the west.

Dining Car Dreams

At 5pm, somewhere between El Paso and Alpine, I heard a call for dining car seating on the loudspeaker, and realized no one had come through the coach taking dinner reservations, like they used to. A conductor told me you have to go up to the dining car and make a reservation on your own, but when I got there, there was only one table occupied, and the hostess said she could seat me now, so I took the first empty table.

A few minutes later, a tall, full-figured young woman wearing a formal, all-black goth outfit strode past and dropped decisively into the middle of the seat facing me across the table. She was pale-skinned, with a tiny jeweled stud oddly-placed above her upper lip, dark lipstick, and a delicate but ornate black choker circling her neck. The dining car is normally strict about seating four people to a table, but they left us alone for the rest of the evening, as the tables around us filled up.

She was quiet at first, nervously glancing out the windows from side to side, where the sun was setting behind blue mountains and shadows were spreading across the plain. She looked to be about nineteen years old. “The desert!” she finally exclaimed. “I love the desert!” She spoke with an Eastern European accent so thick I needed an effort to understand her.

“Where’d you get on at?”

“Sacramento.”

“Long trip! Where are you bound?”

“San Antonio. I grew up in Texas, so I love the desert, where you can run free as the wind.”

She stared at me out of big, dark eyes as I wondered how she ended up with that accent, after a childhood in Texas.

Suddenly she turned and grabbed a pen out of a glass by the window, and started drawing on the paper tablecloth. I watched her, entranced. She was outlining something that might’ve been part of a figure, but I couldn’t tell what part. She glanced up briefly to explain, with a serious look, “The tablecloth is paper, that’s why they give us pens.”

I was burning with curiosity, but I waited a few more minutes before asking, “Are you always drawing, wherever you go?”

“Yes.”

“Are you in art school?”

“No, I’d like to study, but I can’t afford it. I could only go if I got a scholarship.”

“That’s the best way to do it anyway. You don’t want to get stuck with loans.”

Her accent was driving me crazy, in combination with her exotic appearance. She was like something out of an old movie. And even in the midst of drawing, she still seemed nervous, glancing from side to side like a spy, or a fugitive.

She’d added a female torso, head, and long hair above the original abstract outline, and said it was Rapunzel. Her lines were scratchy and hard-etched with nervous energy. She talked about women’s hair as a locus of power. Her eyes blazed as she recalled an art teacher in high school who had tried to stifle her creativity.

I hadn’t yet said anything about myself, but now I told her about my own teacher and mentor, who’d seen my potential from the start, introducing me to avant-garde work and giving me total freedom to experiment. I was studying her drawing upside-down from across the table, trying to figure out all the lines. “I would like to show her nude, but they might not like it here,” she said. “I always prefer to draw nude bodies, but nudity means you are vulnerable and not secure.”

“Or not. I took a year of life drawing with nude models, and for them, getting naked was a job. Men and women, sometimes old people with sagging bodies, they just stood or sat there in the middle of the room with everyone staring at them for hours at a time, getting paid for it. They seemed to have lost all sense that they were even on display, let alone naked. In some cases, I think being naked can be a sign of strength.”

Her eyebrows went up and she looked at me wide-eyed again. “I never thought of that!” I asked her if she’d ever used pastels, but she didn’t have any idea what I was talking about. I told her how I’d migrated from oil painting to pastel drawing because of the immediacy and tactile excitement of blending colors directly with my fingers and hands, and she recognized, accurately, that it would be like using charcoal, but in color.

How strange that two frustrated artists, one young and barely emerging, one old and burdened with experience, should be brought together, entirely by chance, in this dining car rumbling across southern Texas at night.

She was out on her own in the world, but drifting without a plan. She said she’d lived in three different cities during the past year. She scoffed at Los Angeles, so I told her about my friends there who’d survived as artists by working in the movie industry.

I mentioned the Ghost Ship tragedy in Oakland, but at first she didn’t know what I was talking about – I had to supply a lot more detail before she could figure out what I meant. So I went on to describe the post-punk festival in San Francisco that had inspired me to create my own art space and community, long ago, and how important it is for artists to have communities and spaces in cities where they can be totally free to experiment.

That reminded her of Austin. “Austin is – I don’t know, I think it is the arts capital of the world!” she exclaimed. “They have this thing called Freak Week, where anyone can do anything they want anywhere! It’s amazing!”

We were passing through Marfa – the minimalist’s idea of an arts capital. Blocky shadows, dim sodium vapor lamps. Not a human in sight.

“Do you know what is my dream? My dream is to live in a bus!”

I told her about the young woman I’d met outside Silver City, a refugee from the artist loft scene in Chicago, who was raising her daughter in a bus parked in the middle of a corn field, beside a desert river.

The hostess announced the 7:30 seating. Two hours had passed and our world had shrunken to the brittle, glaring brightness of the dining car, sandwiched between mirror-black windows. She sat back, sighing. “Well…it is very nice talking to you, but I should be going.”

She offered me her hand. “My name is Candace.”

“Max.” I shook her hand. “I hope you find what you’re looking for!”

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Volcano Fever

Wednesday, December 9th, 2020: Stories, Travel.

At the end of March, 1978, having finally wrapped up my 20 years of formal education, in the San Francisco Bay Area, I joined Pake, a grad-school classmate, on a trip through rural Mexico and Guatemala. Pake (short for Pecos, a nickname awarded in a card game) was tall, athletic, and worldly – his family had old-money roots in Switzerland and he’d spent childhood vacations abroad with the Grosvenors, founding family of National Geographic magazine. In grad school I’d started running and working out and throwing myself into outdoor activities like rock climbing, cross-country skiing, and sailing, but I’d had a sheltered childhood in a small Midwest farm town, and this would be my first time on foreign soil.

We started with no itinerary, but we planned to avoid big cities and popular tourist destinations like Cancun, Oaxaca, and Mazatlan, venturing off the beaten path, learning and making decisions on the fly, traveling and living as cheaply as possible, hoping to immerse ourselves in authentic local cultures.

Flying into Mexico City, we immediately jumped on a train, and for two months, we zigzagged southwards, traveling by third-class railway coaches and third-class buses loaded top to bottom with produce and livestock. We each carried a blanket, a waterproof poncho, a kerosene stove, a cooking pot, and one change of clothes, all stuffed into a medium-sized backpack. In addition, I brought my little antique parlor guitar in a waterproof sailcloth bag I’d made specially for the trip, and a sketchbook I’d hand-bound in tanned cowhide. We took back roads, stayed in cheap boarding houses with shared facilities, and occasionally camped out. Neither of us had ever studied Spanish, but we brought a dictionary and phrase book and learned enough to get by along the way, with the help of bilingual natives.

It must be almost impossible to imagine now, but this was before personal computers, before the internet, email, and the Web, before cell phones and smart phones, before Google, GPS, social media, or text messaging. We had to find our way around by approaching people face to face and asking questions, not by looking down and swiping a handheld device. Most of the places we visited lacked telephone service, and apart from sending postcards and letters from towns along the way, we had no way of sharing our experiences with friends and family back home, and they had no way of finding or contacting us if an emergency arose. In the context of my traditional family, our trip was such a radical idea that when I announced our impending departure, my Dad disowned me, canceling the credit card he’d given me in college. Afterwards, he hated Pake, accusing him of corrupting me and leading me into terrible danger.

Everyone had warned us from the beginning not to drink tapwater down there. But people under 40 may not be aware that purified bottled water – in the notorious single-use plastic container – is a recent innovation. Back then, the only drinking water we could depend on was carbonated mineral water purchased in glass bottles, and we were diligent about sticking to that. Still, restaurants used tap water, and by the end of April, we’d both developed nausea and diarrhea after eating in the dining room of a particularly sordid boarding house in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.

On the advice of other young travelers, we were heading to the village of Panajachel, a hippie mecca on the shore of Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan. By the time we reached the last town before the Guatemalan border, we’d been sick for a week. A pharmacist gave us activated carbon pills, which cured our symptoms and helped us endure the terrifying ride to the lake over narrow, twisting mountain roads in a bus that raced carelessly into blind curves.

At over 5,000′ elevation, more than 5 miles long and up to 1,120′ deep, with big wind-driven waves and clear blue water, Lake Atitlan lies in an ancient volcanic caldera, surrounded by a ring of cliffs and ridges blanketed with dense, dark-green tropical vegetation. Three steep, conical, forested stratovolcanoes rise from its southern shore: San Pedro, Toliman, and the tallest, Atitlan, 11,598′. The latter two are considered active, with Atitlan’s last eruption dating to 1853.

A series of villages dot the lakeshore at the base of the caldera’s circling wall, and the main road to the lake drops from the high rim at the northeast corner to the village of Panajachel on a level floodplain by the shore. A tiny resort scattered with vacation homes for upper class families from Guatemala City, it was a dramatic change from the rest of our trip.

As we relaxed on the beach on our second morning there, some laborers were preparing to launch an open aluminum dinghy with a small outboard motor, into which they’d manhandled a huge steel I-beam that extended several feet beyond the prow. Pake helped them get the motor started, and in gratitude they gave us a ride to a remote point on the north shore where they were building a vacation home for a wealthy Guatemala City doctor. From there, we had a perfect view of the volcanoes rising on the opposite side.

On our return to Panajachel that evening, we met a young French Canadian who shared the name “Gaetan” with the leading man in Barbet Schroeder’s The Valley (Obscured by Clouds), which had been released the previous year. This intense film, in which young European tourists seeking a lost tribe, a mythical Shangri-La, disappear into the misty highlands of New Guinea, had made a deep impression on me. We agreed that the tropical caldera of Atitlan, with its morning mists and shelves of cloud ringing the peaks, strongly reminded us of the movie.

Mail Boat to Santiago

Early Wednesday morning, Pake and I shouldered our packs, left our latest dollar-a-night boarding house, and walked a few blocks north to the Blue Bird, a “hippie” cafe run by gringos, where we had omelettes and yogurt with fruit and granola. After breakfast, we walked clean sidewalks past elegant homes nestled in lush gardens with gurgling water fountains, past rich young Castillian girls on bicycles laughing and speaking flawless English, past the modern resort hotel overlooking the beach, and finally to the municipal dock, where we joined a crowd of French and Japanese tourists boarding the small mail boat, bound for the village of Santiago, at the opposite end of the lake, at the foot of the volcanoes.

Santiago is a traditional Mayan farming village on the east shore of a deep inlet, with crop fields spread out along the shore to the south, ending at the foot of the cliffs ringing the lake. Across the inlet from the village, Volcan San Pedro rises directly from the shore; looming behind the village are Toliman and its taller, inland sister Atitlan, joined at the hip by an 8,200′ saddle.

As our boat approached Santiago’s dock, we watched women standing along the rocky shore, in blue water up to their thighs, washing clothing dyed or embroidered in all the colors of tropical flowers and tossing them over the rocks. Out in the inlet, fishermen stood up, paddling canoes carved by hand out of native hardwood.

There was a bar and cafe by the dock, El Cayuco, but we walked up the stone street past the church and other whitewashed buildings to Pension Rosita, a little informal hotel with shared facilities, where the friendly proprietor gave us upstairs rooms, one for me and Pake, another for Gaetan. The floor and rustic furniture were made of some sort of dark, unfinished wood which Pake recognized immediately as mahogany – a tree that was formerly abundant in northern Guatemala and Belize. He claimed that back in the States, the lumber in this room would be worth thousands. Through the open window, which overlooked a back courtyard, came the sound of the tinny, repetitive Latin pop music that had been driving me crazy in rural villages throughout the trip.

Calixto Gutierrez

Back out on the street, where the volcanoes towered above us. “Let’s climb a volcano!” I cried.

Pake and Gaetan both stared at me skeptically. “Are you kidding? Through that jungle?”

We walked down to the shore of the inlet, where some boys were fishing. They spoke rudimentary English, and I asked them if it was possible to climb a volcano. They said that Toliman belonged to the village of San Lucas, around the volcano on the next inlet to the east. They said if we tried to climb it from Santiago, the San Lucas people would chop our heads off.

We continued walking south along the shore of the inlet, past more women washing floral-embroidered clothes on rocks, and beyond the end of the village where we finally came to a Texaco gas station. I told the attendant we were interested in climbing Volcan Atitlan, and he said we should see Calixto Gutierrez, who might be able to guide us up the volcano. He gave us directions to Calixto’s place.

I dragged Pake and Gaetan back into town, up a narrow stone street, past a dentist’s office and some small, unmarked tiendas. Stores in villages don’t generally need signs, because everyone knows about them.

Around a corner and up a narrower stone path between stone walls surrounding small family plots, each containing a thatched bamboo hut, dogs, chickens, a pig, perhaps a cow or burro. A left turn past a knot of smiling girls, shy yet curious. Up a dirt trail between close walls, waist-high, another left, a right. And at the end of the trail, a wall with a gate, and inside a small courtyard, a hut with an open door.

“Hola! Buenos dias! Quiero Calixto Gutierrez!” I shouted from outside the gate.

A young woman appeared in the open doorway, holding a baby, and looked us over, frowning. “No esta aqui.”

Eventually lapsing into English, I tried to explain what we were looking for, and she understood well enough to assure us that her grandfather could meet us, back at the pension, at 8 that evening.

The three of us had dinner at El Cayuco by the dock, watching shadows lengthen across the blue lake and push the day’s last light up the forested cliffs on the other side. All the tourists had taken the mail boat back to Panajachel and the place was almost empty. Old Beatles songs played on the house sound system, dropping out occasionally, along with the lights, due to the sporadic power blackouts we’d come to expect throughout our trip.

A man at a neighboring table said he was from southern California, and had spent years exploring Guatemala. He told us about a valley, not far from here, where a Swiss immigrant makes cheese. With his Swiss roots, Pake was surprised and curious.

Back at the pension, an old man was waiting in the small lobby area, medium height and wiry, with short hair, bright brown eyes, and a week’s growth of beard sprinkled with gray. Rosita helped translate as I explained we wanted to climb Atitlan.

He adamantely maintained that we could not do this alone – the volcano belongs to the village, and we would have to hire a local guide. He offered to take us up and down in two days for the equivalent of $20 U.S., a fixed price with no bargaining.

I looked at Pake and Gaetan. “I don’t know,” I said. “That’s expensive! I’ve climbed lots of mountains – I even climbed Mt. Shasta, a bigger volcano than this – and I never needed a guide. Why don’t we just try it ourselves? Worst comes to worst, somebody catches us and gives us a hard time, or the jungle turns out to be impassable, and we have to turn back.”

Pake shook his head, smiling indulgently. “This is not your country, man! You can’t just go tramping around these peoples’ back yard. You’d understand if you’d traveled more.” Gaetan nodded.

“Back home, you can go wherever you want. But here, and everywhere else around the world, hiring somebody local is the only respectful thing to do.”

We shook hands with Calixto, and he grinned and said he’d pick us up here at 8 the next morning.

Night on Bald Mountain

The expedition was temporarily frustrated the next day, as provisions turned out to be very limited in the nearby tienda. Calixto already had his supplies, but he tried to help us, leading us farther afield. Pake finally rounded up a dozen eggs and set them to boil back in Rosita’s kitchen. He looked bored already, sitting there waiting on the underpowered gas range.

Calixto picked out a dozen green oranges; I bought peanut butter, honey, chocolate, bread, and beans; Gaetan acquired a bag of cookies; and Pake a bag of peanuts in their shells. Gaetan had borrowed a big plastic jug from Rosita and filled it with tap water, and Pake and I scrounged a couple of used one-liter pop bottles that we likewise filled at the tap, believing ourselves immune after taking those carbon pills. Besides, contaminated water was probably less common here, in a native village at the foot of volcanoes, than in the big cities.

Calixto had a bag with his bedroll and provisions, which he carried on his back via a tumpline, a strap around his forehead – the standard way of carrying heavy loads throughout rural Latin America. He was wearing a cowboy hat with a studded leather band and a fancy silver belt buckle, but his thick-skinned feet were bare inside homemade leather footwear that was half shoes, half sandals.

The eggs finally boiled, and we set out, Calixto often stopping to chat with friends. He spoke almost no English, but we were able to converse well enough to learn that he was 66 years old, he had nine children, he occasionally worked as a porter, he’d climbed Toliman many times, and Atitlan once before.

A quarter mile beyond the Texaco station, he led us left off the main road. We passed young men with long straight hair carrying machetes and short-handled hoes, all wearing purple-and-white striped knee pants. Each Mayan village has its own distinctive uniform for both men and women, akin to the “clan tartan” of the Scottish highlands. The women of Santiago wore magenta skirts.

We passed women with cloth bundles on their heads and tough-looking old men carrying footlocker-sized bundles of firewood to town from the foothills, bent over, using tumplines across their foreheads.

We passed between bamboo-fenced compounds containing huts, cattle, and small vegetable plots, shaded by low, spreading trees, and then out and up between hillside crop fields. The massive, perfectly symmetrical volcano loomed above, cloaked in dark tropical forest, pregnant with mystery. Its slopes funneled steeper toward the top, through a thin layer of clouds, the tip emerging from the forest, bald, in the top few hundred feet. We were planning to climb almost 6,500′ that day, and none of us was an athlete, nor had we trained in any way other than walking a mile or two a day, carrying our lightweight packs. But we were all in our mid-20s, and we gave little thought to the challenge ahead.

Climbing gradually in a straight line through dry corn fields, we first came to open forest, then to a steep slope which the trail began to traverse. Calixto was leading us into a steep valley below the saddle joining Atitlan to Toliman.

Halfway up, Gaetan began complaining of leg cramps. He soon left us abruptly to return to the village, taking his big jug of water. Calixto didn’t even stop, and Pake and I had to run to catch up. The old man was maintaining a relentless pace.

He finally stopped at the crest of a low ridge, where we all rested in shade at the edge of a cornfield, eating oranges and boiled eggs. The green oranges were dry but the eggs delicious. By sighting across the inlet to Volcan San Pedro, Pake and I estimated we’d climbed 1,000′ so far.

It was the end of the dry season, and all the dense vegetation around us – grasses and shrubs – was dry and dusty, and insects were mercifully scarce.

Calixto was anxious to resume climbing. Up we trudged, through more fields protected by plastic scarecrows. The trail growing steadily steeper, cutting shoulder and head deep between walls of earth, winding up dry creek bottoms lined with silver rock. Occasional damp spots indicated water below the surface. Around and around, up and up, in ditches so narrow we stumbled and reached out for balance, while Calixto raced onward. We had to beg him to stop so we youngsters could rest. He was polite but obviously frustrated.

After another thousand feet of climbing I got a second wind. I figured Gaetan would’ve been okay if he’d just hung in there a little farther. Now we were in a lush forest, and the path went straight up beneath the broad crowns of trees that harbored a profusion of air plants shaped like octopi.

Approaching the saddle, the path veered to the left, toward Toliman. Then it circled back, gradually leveled, and disappeared in the saddle itself, where berry bushes were interspersed with dry grasses and the burrows of animals.

Calixto kept moving, finding a winding route through the vegetation that he marked on stumps with his machete, clearing obstructions with short, precise strokes. He carried it tip back and blade upwards like all the Mayan men, holding it by the dull part of the blade right behind the handle.

The next day, on the way back down, he would stop in this saddle and tell us about “animales grandes,” shoulder height, which abound here and have been known to eat burros. Then, he would pluck a nondescript berry off a bush, chew it, and spit out the seeds and skin. I would try one and find it sweet with lots of little black seeds, but the taste would linger and become annoying.

After crossing the saddle, he led us up into a thin wood where we came upon the trail from the village of San Lucas. Calixto beamed with satisfaction. That trail led us into a rain forest where moss-covered trees wound their tortured trunks through a maze of vines toward a glowing emerald canopy. Deep vertical chasms ran down beside the trail. There were pines with long drooping branches like weeping willows.

We reached a small clearing where we stopped for lunch. A collapsed lean-to of branches and dry leaves lay beside a dead campfire. I tried a sandwich of peanut butter and honey – delicious. Calixto ate cold beans and tortillas – his sole provisions. He offered us some, but the Mayan-style tortillas were thick and doughy – an acquired taste.

From there, the trail just went straight up the 40-degree slope through dense rain forest. The concept of switchbacks seemed to be unknown here, but in any event, no slope was daunting for 66-year-old Calixto.

Moss covered everything. We used vines and folds in tree trunks as hand-holds. Calixto swung his machete liberally to clear the path. Strange air plants a foot long, like huge beans, hung in clusters from the canopy above. There were small red flowers. The effort of climbing became excruciating, Pake and I had to stop often to rest, and Calixto became exasperated, bounding 20 yards ahead then waiting impatiently for us to catch up.

The vegetation changed continuously as we ascended. That was the only way we could tell we were making progress – we couldn’t see out of the vine-choked jungle. Our view was limited to a few yards at a time. Higher up, flowers resembling dogwood trailed along the ground. We came upon giant trees with trunks 15 feet in circumference. In the canopy above us, black birds howled like monkeys.

My strength was failing and I was about to drop to the ground when I heard Calixto calling from somewhere up ahead: “El rio! El rio!” How could there be a river on top of a volcano?

I looked up and saw light, and Pake and I scrambled up out of the jungle, where we came to rest on a small boulder. From there on we faced an even steeper slope of loose volcanic rubble across hard outcrops interspersed with dry grass and red flowers. Calixto was impatient and we had no time to look anywhere but up. The slope was so steep that a fall would send you tumbling hundreds of feet.

While Calixto climbed straight up, Pake and I had to traverse back and forth across the rubble slope. It was just too steep for us. The end was in sight, we had to keep going, but those last few hundred feet seemed to take forever.

At last, I looked up, and saw Calixto waving. “El rio!” he shouted. Pake was ahead of me at that point, and as he reached the top, he turned to yell “Steam vents! That must be what they call a river around here!”

Calixto had predicted the climb would take us 8 hours, and my watch confirmed that I stumbled onto the peak of Atitlan exactly 8 hours after leaving Pension Rosita. While we were climbing, clouds had spread, encircling the peak in all directions, so that below us, an endless white carpet spread out to the world’s edge, shrouding the lake and its villages. The sun was still high, but glowed through a haze. The ground under my feet radiated heat, and white steam poured from moss-and-flower-filled cracks all over the peak.

I turned to the southeast, and witnessed the eruption of Volcan de Fuego, some 20 miles away.

Rust-colored clouds shot out of the peak, followed moments later by rumbling thunder. A dim trail of debris was spreading for hundreds of miles through the upper atmosphere. I continued turning to take it all in, until I saw, like some infernal mirror image, the simultaneous eruption of Volcan Santa Maria, 20 miles to the northwest, in a white outpouring that veiled the sun.

It was all too much. Today, something like this would be just another selfie moment to share instantly with hundreds of acqaintances and “followers” thousands of miles away. But we didn’t even have a camera between us, let alone a smart phone. I collapsed and lay on my pack on the warm ground. Calixto had wandered off across the peak, which was fairly level for only a couple hundred feet. I saw him waving at me. Crazy old man. He seemed to be waving me down, like he was going to do something I shouldn’t see. Eventually he rejoined us.

“Olla!” he said, pointing west. “Hay un’ olla!”

Pake and I followed him, scrambling over sharp rocks and skirting steaming fissures which led, seemingly bottomless, into the fiery heart of the earth. Suddenly it gaped before us, the crater of Atitlan. An utterly desolate funnel lined with chunks of gray rock, surrounded by steaming cracks. Shreds of clouds drifted over its far edge like the ghosts of pterodactyls.

I felt delirious with fatigue and altitude. We sat together at the east end of the peak, sharing a light supper of beans, eggs, and oranges, while in the west, the sun sank into a bloody bath of clouds. Our water was almost gone. Next to us was a crude partial enclosure with low stone walls topped by an open metal framework, under which Pake and I arranged our bedding, while Calixto spread a sheet of yellow plastic and covered himself with a coarse blanket and a bedspread. He had climbed the last 3,000′ barefoot.

Pake read by flashlight while I watched the stars come out. My legs ached and my face burned with fever. The ground was so warm that blankets were mostly unnecessary. I took two Excedrin, which helped me sleep for a few hours. Then it began to rain.

I pulled my poncho up over my head. Calixto didn’t even wake up.

Feverish, half-delirious, I slept and woke for 15 minutes or a half hour at a time. Once, I woke to the clearest night sky I had ever seen, with a Milky Way that looked like a diamond-studded belt, and constellations which I could not name. At the zenith I saw Vega and Pegasus, through the mystical steel pyramid which surveyors had erected above our enclosure.

Down to Earth

Sometime after dawn I heard the beating of wings on the stone wall behind my head. Small birds would alight near Calixto and tilt their eyes for a brief look at us.

I woke for the last time with a splitting headache. We shared a big breakfast, which helped restore me. We waited until 10am to start down. To his annoyance, I made Calixto hold still while I sketched his portrait. Screw you, I thought, I came along for a good time, not to train for the Olympics.

After our late start, Calixto was determined to lose no time on the descent. Pake had a bad knee, from some high school sports injury, and had to stagger downhill with his knees locked. He stopped to wrap an Ace bandage on, and after that, Calixto slowed a bit in sympathy.

The day was hot and dry. The descent through rain forest, lower forest, and scrub passed in a blur. We’d drunk the last of our water at breakfast, and when we finally emerged from the forest in the foothills, the harsh air of the dry cornfields parched our faces and cracked our lips.

The descent had taken 6 hours. The last few blocks leading to our pension were the worst. I could not think, I could only feel pain, numbness in my legs, and shocking dehydration. Pake and I collapsed into chairs in the small lobby. We paid Calixto and gave him some postcards from our stash. The old man was fresh as a daisy. He loped off, beaming with satisfaction at $20 of easy money.

As we reclined in our little room, Pake told me how he’d managed to get through Princeton in only 3 years, and how he’d cheated on a high school physics test by copying the teacher’s key and altering his exam after turning it in. We were both winding down. He seemed to have to get these things out.

After cold showers, we had a monumental feed. I endured another bad night with headaches and chills.

Losing Our Minds

We lingered in Santiago for a few more days, too fatigued or delirious to think straight, shuffling occasionally down to the lakeside dock, but lacking the motivation to board the mailboat back across the big lake, back to civilization. Completely cut off from everything and everyone we knew, we were just two more lost, scruffy, clueless gringos – our two changes of clothing were riddled with crude stitches and patches, having been worn out and mended multiple times during the past weeks with needles and thread borrowed from other travelers.

Returning to our pension in the evening, up the stony streets on pain-filled legs, we passed the open door of the church, and saw the men’s hats lined up neatly on a pew at the back of the candle-lit, rough-plastered room. We passed the open windows of family homes, and glancing in, saw bejeweled shrines and pictures of Jesus and the Virgin in gilded frames, and carpets of pine needles lining the bedroom floors. We passed girls sitting on the pavement beside tiny kerosene lamps, selling peanuts. We passed the shadows of men pissing on walls.

The diarrhea made us hungry all the time. Within a block of our pension, we found a little comedor that served Mayan pizza – perhaps featuring the local Swiss cheese we’d heard about at El Cayuco. The little senora would invite us into the kitchen first to choose our ingredients, and serve our pizza on a round wooden platform. Other times we’d return to El Cayuco for chicken, salads, licuados, and Beatles songs.

We gradually realized that the tapwater in Santiago, which we’d drunk on our volcano adventure and ever since, was making us sick. Not only that, it was sapping our energy, clouding our judgment, fogging our minds. I felt Pake drifting away from me. The differences between us had been thrown into higher contrast by temporary alliances with fellow travelers like Gaetan. We made it back to Panajachel, where we spent most our time lying on thin straw mattresses in our cheap boarding house.

We bought more carbon pills, but they didn’t help. Our stomachs were painfully bloated, and we tried milk of magnesia, but relief was only minor and temporary. Tossing and turning, sweating with fever and chills, we tried to read books left behind by other travelers on the Gringo Trail: Lillian Hellman’s Pentimento, Solzhenitsyn‘s Cancer Ward. Pake was even sicker than me, but he kept drinking the water he’d brought back from Santiago, despite my repeated warnings. It was like alien spirits had invaded and possessed us, robbing our will to live.

While I withdrew from society, Pake became more gregarious in his rare hours of activity. He went out and befriended Rick, a young guy from Seattle. Rick told him we probably had amoebic dysentery, and it was dangerous – the parasites could even migrate to our brains. But he was on his way to the old colonial capital, Antigua, where there was a doctor who could treat us. Pake told me that after Antigua, he and Rick planned to travel on to the ruins of Tikal. I could join them or not, it was up to me.

Somehow we managed to pack up and leave Panajachel. The ride to Antigua was a blur, and fittingly, the bus dropped us off at the circus grounds near the mercado. The ancient city smaller than we expected, with a maze of narrow streets running up and down between tall walls painted in bright primary colors. The biggest buildings, the whitewashed colonial churches, had been damaged centuries ago by an earthquake and were in a state of perpetual ruin. But to me, that made it all the more dreamlike, beautiful and romantic.

We found a posada past an arch containing a large clock, across from a ruined church and a Japanese restaurant called Zen. The doctor’s office was just up the hill. First, we got lab tests, then, starving again, we tried dinner at Zen. Teriyaki, fried shrimp, tempura – delicious. A wonderful ice cream shop nearby.

We returned the next day to see Dr. Aceituno. He spoke halting English with an impressive vocabulary. He took my temperature and blood pressure and knocked and felt around my stomach and liver, while I lay on my back staring at the dark hardwood ceiling, which was inlaid with an intricate, hand-carved star pattern. A beautiful black and white photograph of the doctor’s son, like an early Steichen portrait, hung on the wall beside his desk. The lab tests indeed indicated amoebic dysentery, and Dr. Aceituno wrote us prescriptions for Flagyl, a powerful antibiotic.

The next morning, we waited until 11am for breakfast, so we could have our last meal at Zen. There, we met Alice Bell, 60, from Palo Alto, who lived here with her husband. She took us back to her home and shop, which was like a museum – she claimed they had the most valuable collection of antique Mayan clothing in the country, from which native weavers got patterns to keep the ancient art alive.

Their small home, built by Mr. Bell, was a marvel, designed around a small hexagonal garden with moss, ivy, and a pond. Packed with art and antique furniture, and a second story, via a spiral stone staircase, with beds facing the city’s volcano – Volcan de Agua – through hexagonal windows, and an outside sun deck. Phi Beta Kappa certificates and war relics on the wall, a beautiful Japanese enamel tile in a floral pattern.

Alice saw my guitar and asked me to come back in a year or so to play in the bar she was planning to open.

I shook hands with Rick and Pake. Alice Bell drove me to the bus station. It was time for the next chapter.

Society in Denial

Pake and I had reached Panajachel and Lake Atitlan by walking down a narrow, winding road from the high rim of the caldera. Along the way, we had breathtaking views, but we felt like we’d entered a different world in other ways. Up until now we’d traveled through poor rural areas, but here, every other car that passed us was a late-model BMW or Mercedes. Panajachel was full of the vacation homes of the rich, and we were surrounded by wealthy, well-dressed, white-skinned vacationers from Guatemala City. We soon learned that unlike Mexico, Guatemala was deeply divided into two major social, racial, and economic classes: the white-skinned urban aristocracy, who identified as Europeans, and the poor, dark-skinned, indigenous Mayan peasants of the countryside, who were considered ignorant, superstitious savages.

Like its neighbors in Latin America, Guatemala has been a client state of the U.S. empire since the 19th century, enriching our capitalists as well as the local ruling class by ruthlessly oppressing the native Maya and exploiting their natural resources. In 1960, a rural resistance movement was finally organized, beginning what became known as the Guatemalan Civil War. In the eyes of the U.S. empire, which had stolen territory and resources and perpetrated genocide on its own indigenous population, the resistance movement and its natural Mayan allies were clearly contrary to our national interests.

While we enjoyed eating their bananas and wearing their colorful fabrics and embroidery, our government sponsored terrorism against the Maya for decades, culminating in the mass atrocities of the 1980s and 1990s, in which up to 200,000 indigenous Maya were tortured, killed, and mutilated by right-wing death squads trained in the U.S. by the Reagan administration.

In 1980, two years after our visit, the resistance movement reached Santiago Atitlan, and the Guatemalan Army established a base south of the village, amidst the cornfields of Calixto’s neighbors, and began a military occupation of the town. In 1981, a death squad assassinated the local priest, and throughout the 1980s, hundreds of Calixto’s neighbors were “disappeared” by death squads trained in the U.S., to be tortured, killed, and lost forever to their families. Finally, in 1990, unarmed villagers marched on the military post in protest, and the army opened fire into the crowd, killing 14 and wounding 21.

The “Civil War” ended in 1996, and Santiago became, temporarily at least, a “military-free zone.” But Guatemala was neither the beginning nor the end of state terrorism by our country. In the new millenium we’ve achieved more technological progress and less accountability. While we argue over domestic issues, safe in the bosom of empire, our government continues to perpetrate political assassinations and collateral murder of dark-skinned villagers in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, via drone warfare and “air strikes” in general, ignored by national media and overlooked in our public discourse. Conditioned by centuries of propaganda under the guise of “education,” we believe we’re a peaceful democracy and live in denial that the U.S. is, and has always been, an oppressive, exploitative empire.

During our recent election, the only presidential candidate who acknowledged this was Gloria La Riva of the Party for Socialism and Liberation. I voted for her, not because I expected her to win, nor because I believe in the European academic fantasy of “socialism,” but because I recognize that nations and empires are fundamentally destructive and unsustainable. Living in denial, most of us cling to the false hope that our culture is a force for good, wishing only that the privileged lives we’ve become accustomed to could persist and be shared with others. The sooner we recognize that our way of life is the problem, and the sooner we find local alternatives to empire, the less our world and its people will suffer. The “ignorant, superstitious” Maya of Santiago, far from being our enemies or even our victims, could have much to teach us.

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