Sunday, October 09, 2011

On the Go: Guatemala/El Salvador

The Pan American Highway, 2 hours from El Salvador

He stands like a David…Michelango’s David. Long arms hang forth from broad shoulders. The white shirt flaps from every corner, like a sheet on a line before an afternoon storm. The pick-up truck weaves fast and overtakes ours. An emergency looms on the horizon waiting to make its debut.

The hand, once small, made from a mama and a papa, now holds the world at its mercy…what do the lines of the palm foretell? The answer: a silver gun manufactured to grip it.

The oldest poetry of war is being retold. Take from those who carry their livelihood hidden inside backpacks and sacks of corn. Take from those who fear, who have everything to lose.

“When the pirates came to raid the boat,” my mother begins her personal legend, “they took everything they could find…jewelry, gold…people.”

“A woman sitting next to me, she carried a statue of quan am, the vietnamese, buddhist god, the protector. We all prayed for our lives, for quan am to save us.”

And now, for the first time on our journey, I pray and I pray hard that nothing will come to harm. I imagine what my mother saw. Did they carry guns or knives? Were these thai men young or old? What did they smell like?

I can still see the sculpted hand and the silver gun. The image sticks annoyingly naked. Like a glitch on the screen that loops…yearning for a hard knock.


The Toilets: San Cristobal, Guatemala/El Salvador Border 

There’s a loud shush, the sound made when reprimanding dogs. I look over, a baby attached to a brown breast. I need to pay. Wait a second, did she just shush me like a dog?

My bathroom experiences in central america, are less traumatic, more efficient. No toilet seat, no locks, no toilet paper…no problem. There are large blue buckets filled with water with a cup…the famous el salvadorean flushing system. A process I’m not familiar with: take water, fill the tank, flush.

You have to pay she barks. There are now 2 girls, her proxies coming to collect. But their curiosity and shyness easily betray them. I ask how much, knowing too well the game. They stammer something that sounds like 3 quetzales. I pretend not to understand. Was that 1, I say? The final answer comes back from big mama herself…it’s 2 quetzales. Pay up bitch!

Toilet charges are customary but the border towns are the worse…a mix of desperation with a graceless sense of entitlement. I can easily walk away, but out of some guilt-ridden reason, I owe this woman compensation. I wave a 5 quezales bill. She walks over, standing 4’10…burdened by her sex, burdened by her lot in the universe…and now me, who’s used her toilets but who would rather not deal and run away. Inside her cigar box, her livelihood is exposed. A five-dollar bill among a handful of coins that yearn to be seashells on deserted beaches. Finally, she unloads a carefully counted mound squarely in my hand, the complicated change made for the 25 cents I pay. Like a spider, she retreats back to her quiet corner, reattaches baby and gets ready to take on the next person who finds themselves tangled in her toilets.


Migration: San Cristobal, Guatemala/El Salvador Border

He wears black loafers…the type that look like they need to be worn indoors. Shoes that remind me of a slimy CEO, I once worked for. We don’t need his rescue, but for some reason, perhaps, the long 9 hours on the road from Lake Atitlan, the rush to cross before nightfall, the boy takes the expeditor (tramitador) up on his offer. He helps us with our immigration papers in exchange for tips. He immediately becomes part of our pack as soon the border guard tells us to park the car. He recites the VIN numbers off to the Guatemalan customs officer; he helps unpeel the Guatemalan car permit; shows us how to correctly place it on the vehicle form. He takes the only copy of the dog’s health papers to get them stamped. The belly twists and aches as soon as he insists that we need to itemize our laptops, guitars, everything…a tactic to delay, make things more complicated than they are.

I’m worried and anxious. I don't fully trust this person but the alternatives are fruitless. It’s already 5:30pm and the light is quickly disappearing. We have another 2 hours until we reach our destination in El Salvador (Playa El Tunco).

The expeditor seduces the local women who walk by with a smooth smile; he's a hunk by any school standard. He carefully preens over his shirt to make sure it's perfectly white. For a split second, another face emerges…constrained, heavy. But the smile quickly waxes back on as the boy comes closer with another question.

As the final step, I see him run ahead of us with both passports. Our life in his hands. 


El Tunco, El Salvador

Upstairs at a beachfront restaurant, we order large liters of cold beer. It’s been a long day. 11 hours on the road. We’re among college students and folk who have come to party in this surf town. There are two young women…trolling for looks, they watch the men from above and laugh…a Venus flytrap waiting for a hungry morsel.

Amidst the smoke and din, the air sags humid and claustrophobic. I’ve left the mountain and the children of the clouds for a chair inside bacchus’ bar. The river empties back to the way of the world where everyone's worth is in american dollars (el salvador’s national currency since 2001). A Santana tune blares with trumpets and drums. A complete shock to the system that says too cheerily…welcome back.

By Mai Brehaut

leaving guatemala (bye bye crazy buses)
next stop...el salvador
breakfast of champions 
chicos looking at a truck load of masked militia
gigantic bubble gum delivery?
straight ahead, then a hard right at the volcano...
before buses

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