Exile is the Womb of Nostalgia

Jeffrey Erkelens
Oct 27, 2018 · 16 min read
Image credit: Dleiva

The word nostalgia was coined in 1668 by Johannes Hofer, an Austrian medical student, who joined two Greek words, nostois (return), and algos (pain) to describe the longing of Swiss soldiers during the Thirty Years’ War, who were reportedly so susceptible to nostalgia when they heard a particular cow-milking song, ‘Khue-Reyen,’ that they defected. Its playing was punishable by death.

“Mythic homesickness” is how author Philip Cousineau describes it.

Exile is the womb of nostalgia.

Like faraway lovers whose yearning is kept fresh by distance, the love for my country has grown stronger during the twenty-two years and twenty-five hundred miles which have kept us apart. And like a mature, realistic lover, I have grown fond of its idiosyncrasies and imperfections which once caused me great irritation.

As recent immigrants, we would remain strangers in our country from the day my grandfather first settled there in 1940 until the last one of us left around the year 2000. But I never felt this way, estranged, even while recognizing that the country belongs, as it always has, to its original inhabitants: The Maya, whose civilization, at its height, rivaled that of ancient Egypt, Greece, and China, and whose Classic and Postclassic period spanned almost fifteen hundred years until the last independent Maya city fell to the Spanish in 1697.

Unlike American Indians in the United States, however, the Maya were not corralled in reservations, and contrary to common myth, they didn’t disappear either. A trip across the Guatemalan highlands is enough to prove my assertion. Their warrior spirit and more intelligent expressions in their gene pool might have been routed by Spanish conquistadors, but they remain firmly rooted in their spiritual land and myths. To date, they still comprise almost half of Guatemala’s population. What’s tragic, in my mind, is that despite the Maya’s astounding achievements, the rest of the country prefers to ape the hollow and materialistic way of life of the Western World thus never throwing deep roots, causing a confused sense of national identity mostly defined by shallow, yet picturesque idiosyncrasies.

After the last domino of our business ventures toppled in 1998, I did not visit Guatemala for several years. It was dangerous. The collapse was monumental and made many people lose their life savings. Since kidnappings were still in vogue, the family feared one of us would be picked up to exact blood or ransom.

When things quieted down, my wife, girls and I traveled there from our home in Northern California almost every year during the summer. Upon landing, I always felt as if switching from expensive, stiff patent-leather shoes into worn and comfortable loafers. The place evokes my wild and playful nature. The same occurs with language.

When speaking or writing in Spanish, I loosen up, unwind, and feel free to play the sensual, zany, and passionate chords of my being which are so dear to me and so much of who I am; expressions which I feel cannot be let out from under the suffocating satin quilt under which most Americans live. Trapped inside this inhibiting, puritan pressure cooker, I am never surprised when hearing of someone going stark-raving mad and unleashing their pent-up frustrations upon the innocent, or momentarily freeing their chained sensuality through perversions or addictions. Writer William Burroughs put it this way: “In the U.S. you have to be a deviant or die of boredom.”

Would I ever return for good? Doubtful. I fear that proximity would dull its shine once again. It’s the same fear, I suppose, that keeps my girlfriend and I from moving-in together. Apart by twenty-two hundred miles and able to see each other only for a few weeks every three months, there are always new things to discover about her; she never becomes familiar. The allurement of mystery, and opportunities for discovery, have kept the passion burning red-hot since we found each other again after thirty years.

I also doubt I’d return because I have grown fond of my current identity as a metaphysical gypsy, a term I borrowed from a book written by Costica Bradatan who said that the more comfortable you feel in the world, the blunter the instruments with which you approach it. When everything becomes evident, you stop seeing anything. Exile gives you a chance to break free. All that heavy luggage of old ‘truths,’ which seemed so only because they were so familiar, is to be left behind. Exiles always travel light. There is in every community something that must remain unsaid, unnamed, unuttered; and you signal your belonging to that community precisely by participating in the general silence. Revealing everything, telling all, is a foreigner’s job. Either because foreigners do not know the local cultural codes or because they are not bound to respect them, they can afford to be outspoken.

What is it about Guatemala that so enchants me? I think it’s a question we should never stop asking and answering for ourselves about the place we live in or the people we love. When considering how most people become jaded and fail to make new discoveries in the familiar, writer John Cowper Powys said he believed the most unphilosophical, irreligious and immoral word in the English language is the word “commonplace.” I would add unimaginative to his list.

Besides its lengthy and rich cultural history, my place is a land of contrasts, not just of people but its landscape.

Imagine packing thirty volcanoes into an area as small as the state of New York. Make several active and one third almost as tall as Mt. Whitney. As you travel across my country, your gaze is hardly ever level but constantly lured upward by the blue majesty of these giants, provoking an inner seismic stir. The landscape’s ruggedness makes you feel geological, antediluvian, wild. The rumbling fury of its dynamic volcanoes is unsettling and humbling. It reminds you of your ephemeral presence on the planet, and if properly understood, makes you relish every moment you’re allowed to live.

My middle brother owned a coffee and macadamia plantation on the slopes of Volcán Santiaguito, the most dangerous in Central America. It was always impressive to discover how far the cot I slept in had traveled through the night across the floor driven by Santiaguito’s convulsions. As I hiked to a nearby, tall waterfall and pool surrounded by jungle, the volcano’s constant jet-engine-like roar and crashing boulders down its slope made me feel Jurassic.

Santiaguito Volcano

The shores of my country are bathed by the Pacific Ocean to the West, and the Caribbean Sea to the East. In little under a ten-hour drive, one can travel from the treacherous riptides and high swells pounding the black-lava sand beaches of the Pacific to the aquamarine and unruffled transparency of the Caribbean, once teeming with abundant marine life.

What my father lacked in quotidian presence on weekdays, he more than made up with weekend adventures. One of my favorites was our regular diving and spearfishing trips to the Belize Cays, a group of uninhabited islands about forty sea miles from Puerto Barrios, the port at which my father first arrived in 1940 at the age of nine.

Today, I understand once can make the trip to the Cays in less than two hours but sailing as we did on a fifty-foot trawler, mostly made of plate steel, powered by diesel fuel, and carrying forty or so men, diving gear and beer, the voyage lasted six hours. We usually sailed at two in the morning and I will never forget the times Captain Cristobal allowed me to wear his cap (always falling over my eyes) and steer the ship perched on a footstool. No matter how steady I held the wheel, I was never able to cast a straight slipstream behind us but delighted in watching flying-fish and dolphins skimming and galloping ahead of the ship’s prow.

On one such voyage, my father was taking a piss on the boat’s stern, lost his balance, and plunged into the dark waters. It was only thanks to a pair of lovers who were entangled inside one of the rubber dinghies towed behind the ship, and whose shenanigans were interrupted by the loud splash, that my father did not drown that night.

The presence of women on these trips was discouraged, but, occasionally, we would see one or two female stowaways emerge from the bottom cabins of the boat once we arrived at the Cays. Most of the members of the National Scuba Diving Association were married, but fidelity was not in style, and often made those who upheld their marriage vows appear unmanly in the eyes of their mates. I suspected the stowaways were not their wives by how happy they seemed with their man, and how these clandestine couples hugged and kissed all the time.

The night before sailing, my father, brothers and I would dine at the Hotel del Norte, built in 1897 by the United Fruit Company on the wharf-front of Puerto Barrios. Weathered and warped, this two-story, cream-colored, tropical wooden building was the only decent place to overnight in this otherwise seedy port town. After dinner, we would roam its dirt streets engulfed in a stench of rotten fruit, fish, and diesel, and among drunks, prostitutes, and mongrels with the clammy heat smearing our bodies with a heavy, exasperating grease. A ship’s lugubrious horn, the heated combat of snarling dogs over scraps, the dry-knock of pool balls inside the bars blaring rancheras from lit, loud jukeboxes…the sounds are unforgettable. We would often make a stop at Bar el Medellin, a lowlife brothel whose entrance was shielded by a flower-patterned sheet and whose floors were covered in pine needles and sawdust to mask the stench and soak the vomit of its male customers. It is in front of this bar that I saw a catfight between two wharf whores in a mudpuddle under the rain, goaded by a rascal nicknamed ‘Cubanito,’ or Little Cuban, in honor of his stature, birthplace, and pinched-nose accent.

Barrel-shaped, potbellied, and hairy, Cubanito looked like a prehistoric caveman. A prominent brow and short curly hair — black as his beady eyes — completed the look. But more than his primitiveness, it was his zaniness which cast a powerful and unforgettable impression on my young mind. I had never met a man like him: uninhibited, irreverent, sensual and wild, burning with that hot consuming fire writer Somerset Maugham wrote about after encountering the natives of the South Seas, and which dazed the more subdued, conventional, and dispassionate light of the other men on our diving trips.

Cubanito never sailed on the trawler with us. Instead, he would purchase a wooden dugout canoe on every trip and head out hours before we did, accompanied by a local Carib youth, like Robinson Crusoe and his man Friday.

After sailing behind him, we’d first stop at the closest Cay to clear our papers with Lester and stock up on his homemade coconut oil poured inside discarded wine bottles. The oil was supposed to protect you from the sun, but we quickly discovered that it had the opposite effect, magnifying the UV rays to the point of making everyone look like boiled lobsters by the end of the trip. Speaking of lobsters, my palate memory can still taste the ocean freshness of their plump flesh grilled beachside along with the day’s catch of Grouper, Snapper, and Jack.

On one occasion, we woke up one morning to the shouts of “periscope, periscope!” and climbed out of our tents and ran to the water’s edge to see what the commotion was all about.

A used refrigerator (which Cubanito carried in his canoe on every trip to store the fish he speared) was sunk, midway, close to shore. Floating next to it was Cubanito, buoyed by his large belly, with his ‘periscope’ casting a wide arc of urine into the water.

At night, by the campfire, he’d strum his guitar and entertain us with bawdy songs, colored jokes, and incredible stories, such as his marriage to Miss Puerto Rico with whom he went into business slaughtering old horses to sell their meat to the Japanese.

I’ve been told by my father that on one of our trips, as I struggled to slip into my fins and mask for a dive, a large sea turtle glided under our rubber dinghy. Without a moment of trepidation, I plunged headfirst into the warm water, grasped onto the turtle’s carapace, and rode it for a while over the coral-strewn ocean floor. If this is true, it was perhaps one of the first manifestations of my lifelong impetuousness.

Somewhere, there is also a lost photo of me, bare-chested under a palm tree, strumming a guitar, prefiguring, perhaps, my lifelong fondness for romance, and as evidence of my fascination with Cubanito and his free spirit.

The exotic allure of these islands might explain why I almost ended up living in a tiny hut on the shores of Mexico’s Pacific Coast later in life.

The remembrance of the places to which our father took us are not so much etched in my memory because of their beauty, but by something deeper which I can only describe as mythological or spiritual. Their impact is not in the eyes but soul. Every experience went beyond the esthetic or the adventurous. My imagination imbued them with otherworldly dimensions and a narrative that spilled the borders of the commonplace into the fantastical.

In Madness at the Gates of the City, author Barry Spector says that in a world that devalues the spiritual, many forget how to think mythologically and are drawn to its toxic mimic: addiction (“consuming spirits”) which is the unconscious search for that same ecstasy. Ideologies [or literal thinking] force us to think the same idea, while myth invites us to have our own ideas about the same thing. Mythological thinking is symbolic, and when we think mythologically, we search for the archetypal nature of the event or place. For tribal people, to explain is not a matter of presenting literal facts, but to tell a story that enlivens the senses to multiple levels of meaning.

Near Puerto Barrios, on the shores of Amatique Bay, is the fishing town of Livingston, inhabited by the Garifuna, originally from the Lesser Antilles islands and descendants of African and Island Carib people. A thirty-mile boat ride from Livingston across the steep, jungle-clad narrow canyon of Rio Dulce (Sweet River), opening up to the wide lake of El Golfete, leads to Catamaran Island Hotel, another one of those mythical places of my childhood, and to which our father often took us on long weekends.

Owned by an American couple, the Catamaran Hotel comprised a set of rustic bungalows. Its centerpiece was a riverside straw-thatched bar favored by sailing vagabonds from across the world and executives from Exmibal, a company operating a nearby nickel mine.

Three things stand out in my memory of this place.

On occasion, we’d charter the hotel’s small powerboat and head into the Chocón Machacas river to fish for Snook and try to spot Manatees. While the smoky flavor of the citrus-bathed grilled Snook steaks still hovers in my mind, it was the death of the boat’s pilot, Hermenegildo, which is most vivid. While saying goodbye to his wife one morning on this way to work, he told her not to expect him back, ever, for that day he was sure to die. The boat exploded mid-river as he made his way to the hotel. I had already read Colombian writer Gabriel García Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, and when news of Hermenegildo’s death reached my ears, I felt I was inside the magical-realism of the book’s pages.

My solo-trips in a tiny wooden canoe through the lowland flood forest and mangrove thickets lining the narrow brown-water tributaries that fed into El Golfete, ignited, I believe, my yearning for quietude and a life of wild vagabondage. It was also a place where my senses were spellbound. Sighting turtles, Spider-monkeys, toucans, macaws, parakeets and diverse aquatic birds; gliding on my canoe as if inside a green concert hall filled with their cacophonous morning chatter; dipping my hand into the tepid chocolate-colored water and feeling the growing heat of the sun rousing the dense smell of swamp, my whole body was pervious and receptive to the atavistic arousal of all those primeval and sublime sensations. I wasn’t naturally conscious of this, and that’s precisely the point.

As we grow up, we begin to lose our natural sensitivity or embodied awareness. We become brittle and begin to live at right angles to the land. We alienate ourselves from our sensuousness and begin to divide the world into spirit and matter. No longer a seamless unity with a numinous dimension, Earth (from Latin mater or mother) becomes simply a target for exploitation and a dumpsite for human waste. A decade later, I, too, would cut the umbilical cord tethering me to Mother Earth, sacrificing my natural sensitivities at the altar of consumerism and societal approbation. I had to lose everything twenty years later to find my way back to enchantment.

The third memory is of a delicate butterfly tattooed on the breast of the teenage daughter of Captain Gavin, owner and skipper of the schooner ‘Leprechaun.’ Fresh from having read ‘Papillon’ (French for butterfly), the true-life story of Henri Charrière’s incarceration and escape from a penal colony in French Guiana, my imagination linked Gavin daughter’s bewitching butterfly, not to the one Charrière had tattooed on his chest, but with Zoraima, a native island girl with “breasts hardly the size of tangerines,” whom he took-in as his lover along with her older sister Lali.

A four-hour drive North-northwest from Rio Dulce takes you to the lakeside town of Flores at the edge of the Maya Biosphere Reserve in the province of Petén which extends across one-third of my country’s territory and is covered by dense tropical rainforests — home of the Jaguar, howler monkeys, harpy eagles, and leafcutter ants among other abundant fauna. Because of its poor soil and difficult terrain, the province contains only four percent of Guatemala’s population now at sixteen million, and yet, its northern section was once the cradle of Maya Civilization. Stone pyramids soaring above the forest’s canopy give silent testimony to their power and ingenuity. The best-known is the ancient city of Tikal.

A four-day journey I made on a quadracycle (ATV) across the rainforest toward the Mirador Basin, further north, later became the setting for one of the murders I would have committed by the female protagonist of my first novel. The region’s allure would also inspire me to drag my wife on a weary honeymoon horseback expedition with a broken rib toward the Maya city of Caracol.

The final leg of my nostalgic tour is through the Guatemalan Highlands, home to the majority of the Maya and its twenty-four distinct tribes, dress, and dialects, with a first stop at Lake Atitlan where our father would often take us on camping trips.

The drive from our house to the lake usually took five hours, with a mandatory stop at Katok, a smokehouse, cum family restaurant, specializing in chorizos, ham, and Landjäger, a semidried sausage traditionally made in Southern Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Alsace. On many occasions, we’d sit long at one of the large tables made from a thick tree slab waiting for our father to conclude a transaction with Cruz de Jesus, his trusted purveyor of Maya pottery, jade beads, figurines, and hatchets. Katok was a large wooden structure with thatched-palm roofs burned to the ground in 1981 at the height of Guatemala’s armed conflict. A year later, in a nearby village, army soldiers, dressed in civilian clothes, massacred more than fifty peasants in two separate raids suspecting them of collaborating with the insurgents. In reality, most of the Maya population was merely caught in the crossfire of that brutal conflict which increasingly became a proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The road from Katok to the lake ended on a downhill steep road with several hairpin turns which always made my middle brother carsick.

Facing three large volcanoes, we’d camp at a private beach close to the pink hotel where our parents spent their honeymoon and where Dad taught me all about the stars. It was within the clear, tulle-covered, frigid and deep-blue waters near the shore, where I first learned to spearfish.

Almost every late afternoon, tall cumulus clouds rise behind the volcanoes, the sky darkens, and heavy winds lash the lake’s surface forming dangerous waves. Few dare navigate across its fury. Native locals call this dreaded meteorological ‘Xocomil,’ which, in the area’s Kaqchikel language, is a composite of the words Xocom (lift or gather) and Il (fish).

My last stop is at the colonial City of Antigua where my fondest and most vivid memories date soon after my father purchased the Palace of Doña Leonor, since converted into a luxury hotel.

Hotel Palacio de Dona Leonor

With its dimly lit cobblestone streets, lined with colonial ruins of churches, convents, and monasteries, Antigua beckons silent introspection. Except on weekends, when the town explodes in a riot of sounds and colors: the street-market chatter of vendors hawking their multi-colored displays of fruits, vegetables, and handcrafts; the loud explosions of pipe bombs hurled up to the sky from the steps of the central square’s Cathedral; the deep, rich tones produced by the clash of mallets against the wooden bars of the marimbas, and the bellow of colorful buses, spewing dark clouds of diesel fumes, dangerously crammed with native and mix-blood passengers, an occasional mangy chicken and daring gringo, and top-heavy with wicker baskets, pine furniture, and cardboard boxes.

But within the thick walls of the Palace and inside the center courtyard, with its gurgling stone fountain surrounded by Bougainvillea and Passion Flower vines, the streets’ racket was barely audible. The peace within created an ideal space for me to read and write.

It is impossible to resist my country’s enchantment and only the jaded fail to fall in love with it. An imaginary journey through a nostalgic lens recalls vast extensions of jungle, of rain and cloud forests, of the snowlike burst of coffee blossoms in March, the gentle sway and rustle of cornfields, the sweetened air around sugarcane fields, the myths and identities sown on the huipils worn by proud, native women, the fogged hills of the highlands peppered with sheep, the blue iridescence of the Morpho butterfly and the crimson chest of the Quetzal, the national bird, the smells of firewood, the earthy odor of freshly-dug furrows, black beans and cornmeal, the miasma of mangrove thickets…

For all its exotic and intoxicating beauty, however, there is one thing my country never offered during my lifetime there: security, which was the reason I chose to live in exile.

I now ease my mythic homesickness by creating new loves, finding new places, joys, and memories to add to my heavy, sweet load of nostalgia.


Jeffrey Erkelens

Written by

Flying fish. Iconoclast. Currently writing ‘The Hero in You,’ a book for boys: https://www.facebook.com/bookforboys/

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