Life's Merry go Round
Minutes before the main street, Santander had become a river.
A river of detritus. They had no way of knowing how long, or how many days, it had been since the previous rain. They guessed days because of the considerable quantity of garbage being swept down the usually very busy cobblestoned street.
Mostly black and colored plastic bags as they floated on the roiling surface. There go coconut tree fronds, pieces of branches of all sizes. Lightning flashed across the black, cloud covered sky over the ancient Lake Atitlan.
Incomprehensible volcanic upheaval formed Lake Atitlan. To ponder successfully, mountains of ground, untold tons, raised into the clouds and scattered everywhere is rather impossible. To think that they consider this lake is a volcanic cauldron. Surrounded by several volcanoes today, its beauty is incomparable the world over.
Jack and Marla reached the upper edges of the two thousand-foot drop off into the basin where the lake was. Its beauty took their breath away as they started down the quest towards the lake’s principal town, Panajachel.
Resting in their room, Jack watching Marla, he admired her light brown braids that reached her waist, one laying across an ample breast, the other down her back. One sweet drop of sweat stopped its slide on the top of her upper lip. In the dim natural lighting, Jack could just see the shiny, almost invisible fur she had there. She sat like a sculpture, as though she were suddenly frozen. Happy exertion reddened her cheeks. Her green eyes, no, more emerald, light olive, like her flawless skin, her attention fastened, immobile, to the pouring torrential onslaught just beyond their window.
What did the earlier inhabitants of this place, the Mayans, do during a deluge like this? Throw themselves on their knees in awe and worship to one of the many gods. Very likely.
Jack felt like doing something spiritual and philosophical as the thunder attempted to uproot existence in this valley that edged the often fog shrouded world famous, majestic lake. Jack and Marla often felt driven to express things in a spiritual or philosophical light. They both knew it was their young ages.
Nestled in the Guatemalan highlands, Lake Atitlan was a destination for the more adventurous traveler. In those days, it was usually of the younger set, those that flirted, at least temporarily, with the hip or bohemian. Adventurous because in the late sixties making the ride from Guatemala City four hours away was a crap shoot into staying alive versus ghastly misfortune.
The Marxist guerillas and the US propped Guatemalan army both would on restless impulse fall upon these young travelers. As though a welcome distraction from the utter ugliness of dying.
Hope in their young hearts. The young tourist females, many wearing recently bought brightly woven blouses like those worn by the indigenous people, jeans, sandals. They were no threat to the warring sides. The opposing fighters often attacked a passing bus on its way to Atitlan from Guatemala City claiming that aboard traveled those opposed to their causes. Of course, it made absolutely no sense.
Armed conflict rarely makes sense.
Yet there were some who, for whatever reason, thought it would be fitting to intentionally place their necks on the chopping block. Unwittingly, it was their foolish behavior that very well may have played a part in endangering those traveling purely for fun to see the culture.
There was the case of the tall, Lincolnesque, black bearded man who affected a tall, round top, black felt cowboy hat, mid-twenties, who’d apparently just gotten a degree in political science. This alone wouldn’t have been enough to have sparked anyone’s attention.
Adding to the tragic fact is that the young man chose political science over a business degree to show his father he’d never join him in his hard won and lucrative car sales business.
This young man determined to write about the unjustly oppressed. Back at his university, he started a rather unsuccessful weekly dedicated to crying out in favor of the downtrodden, those poor souls seen sitting in rat infested back alleys of American cities in rags and eating scraps. Yes, these were and are serious issues. Here in Guatemala, he wrote of the same sort of thing, in passable Spanish, about the crushed indigenous people of Guatemala.
While this is worthy of note and applause, a noble calling to attention of the unfairness of the unbalanced distribution of wealth in the Guatemalan society, it also was a red flag for those actually risking life and limb in the cities and mountains. His writings to his eventual great misfortune captured the attention of certain military officials.
After mid night they dragged him, bound and gagged, from his small rented room in Lake Atitlan’s principal town Panajachel. Taken to the local Army post, the top officer showed the young man his work. His thin manifestos, whose black and white hand done art, showed a stark existence as the glorious hammer and sickle rose radiant sun like in the drawn horizon.
The saddest part being that the young man, recently graduated, was planning a life in US politics. This misadventure to Guatemala was a vacation of sorts. His parents had paid for his tickets. He’d done well in his studies, and it was Mom and Dad’s way of congratulating their boy. His plans called to return to his parents’ home in time to sit in front of the fireplace and share gifts on Christmas day with his three younger sibs.
Had his far more savvy parents known what their self-designated crusader for the less fortunate was planning in Guatemala, they would have done everything to keep him from going.
The rather sharp and crisply written six page pieces, done in the way the current ‘underground’ circulars were written in the sixties, cried of oppression and injustice. The young man had enjoyed relative success with his work back in the cozy coffee shop environs of Michigan State University. Sadly, Guatemala was a very long way from there. Things did not bode well for the writer.
They found him floating face down at lake’s edge, bobbing ever so gently with the slight waves, eyes burned out, throat slashed. The US government, of course, had permanently listed Guatemala as a not safe for travel destination. In part, it was just this official notice that attracted the youth to travel here.
To ignore the travel advisory was a protest of sorts. Unfortunately, no one noticed, no one cared.
For the most part, the long-haired hipster tourists were left alone. Of course, they couldn’t get involved with the national issues. One Guatemalan right winged president/dictator complained on the air. He was hosting two smiling American visiting diplomats after one particularly gruesome raping and killing of a young woman from France. French politicians had raised holy hell with the Guatemalan government. The president simply voiced an official lament, not taking any responsibility, in the remotest way, no involvement with the killing, claiming that it was not the Army that was responsible.
He blamed it on the Cuban trained rebels. He added that the young people traveled to Guatemala and became involved in things they could not possibly understand. Unlike middle aged tourists who, during peace times, went to Guatemala to see the Mayan ruins of Tikal and the ancient abandoned Catholic churches in colonial Antigua.
The atmosphere in many parts of that crisis torn country was one of danger. Though not to the degree that made travel impossible. Marla and Jack rode their Yamaha from California and after two weeks of riding through the Mexican mountain side, crossed the border into Guatemala and reached their destination: Lake Atitlan. Perhaps it was just dumb luck that on the entire haul, they had not experienced a single scare of the kind that suggested life and death concerns.
Could it be that being blissfully unaware of the social and armed upheaval in Guatemala allowed them an unexplainable immunity? Out of sight, out of mind. Bringing to mind for a moment that Viet Nam was raging and had everyone’s attention. In fact, there were many who, upon returning from a month-long trip to Central America, said they’d not encountered a single incident that might suggest violence or lawlessness.
The heavy rain fell, showing no sign of letting up. Marla and Jack couldn’t have been happier. Their trusty Yamaha, a 250, was parked safely in the enclosed garage of a cheap inn used by the backpackers. Seventy-five cents the night! They still couldn’t believe it. Clean sheets on solid wood cots called ‘tijeras’ or scissors for the criss- cross structure of the legs. A thick, tautly stretched, white canvas was all there was along with a sheet and two wool blankets to stave off the chill mountain air.
Sleeping on the trampoline like surface was surprisingly exhilarating. A communal bathroom, kept sparkling clean, was just two doors down.
A plant filled, open skied courtyard where there was limited space for parking had a couple benches for relaxing. Now used for sitting and parking, the space had once been the inner court where, in days of old travelers, could park horses and carriages. As they checked in, a ten-year-old boy took the couple’s payment for the next five days and then showed them to their room. The old double doors opened with an unbalanced clatter. The key looked like it was from the days of the conquistadores, as big as a fork.
Once in the confines of their high-ceilinged room, they climbed atop the high cot and with gleeful anticipation helped unclothe one another and made love, slowly, savoring each other’s bodies.
After braving an unheated shower together to get clean after the day’s long ride and activities, they stepped out of the inn. The dark and glistening cobble stones reflecting early evening lights of the street. The sky was black, and the rain had for the moment let up. Quite different from the dazzling sunny day they’d rode those last miles to Atitlan in. A cool gust blew in from the lake several blocks distant. Papers and leaves floated through the air, signaling the continuing storm to come.
They wanted coffee but wanted to see the lake shore first, so they hurriedly walked the few blocks to the lake they’d heard so much about. Across the immense expanse of water were several volcanoes. Marla was trying to remember their names.
‘Let’s see, was it Santiago? Yeah, I think so. Another one is San Pedro, that’s easy enough to remember, Jack. Do you remember the other one?’
‘No way Marla, I think we did good, just figuring out the way here from the Mexican border.’ He put an arm around Marla’s shoulders as the chilly late afternoon breeze picked at them. A young, barefoot boy approached them with a basket on his head and offered freshly made tortillas and slices of white cow’s cheese. They were delicious as the two gulped down three of the still hot tortillas. The cheese had a refreshing salty quality to it, which suggested eating more.
‘Hey Jack, let’s find some coffee someplace. We passed a bunch of those street stalls on our walk here. God, this is beautiful, Jack. I’m really glad we came. It was a long ride, and I wasn’t always sure we’d get all the way here, you know?’
‘Yeah, I here you Marla. Hey look at the dugouts out there, the way they bounce around in the waves, must be lots of wind out there, wow.’
They found a place which was where the main street Santander split into a second street. The point that sat at the split there was a small, tin roofed wood structure. Behind an opaque, cracked display were various breads, what appeared to them to be portions of natural candy made from yam and honey. In the back of the service counter were a percolator, a small counter top oven and a refrigerator to one side.
On the wall above the back counter top was a large wood cross with Jesus nailed to it, his face forever expressing the intense pain and disbelief that we could be such assholes to one another.
Over to the left, the wall had a prominent blue and white Guatemalan flag, just below it a calendar displaying a scantily clad, impossibly physically gifted woman astride an oversized Harley. ‘Hey Marla, catch the Harley. That’s what we need, right?’
‘Yeah sure Jack, without the girl, right?’ Laughs and a quick jab at Jack’s shoulder.
‘Hey! Ouch Babe, I didn’t deserve that, did I?’ He reached out and grabbed Marla from behind and gently held her captive around the waist, snuggled into her neck.
‘I don’t know, did you?’
They asked the young lady behind the counter for two coffees with cream. Pointed out a couple of bread items. The young lady said with a smile, ‘they are called semillitas’, she laughed after Jack attempted to say the word. Both couldn’t help but notice how in that first instant she couldn’t take eyes off Jack.
‘Hey bud, I’m definitely gonna have to watch you down here.’ Marla joked, but Jack could hear the added measure of firmness in her tone.
‘Oh come on Marla, you can’t be serious, I’m just trying out my Español okay?’ Jack smiled.
‘Yeah, right, Rosa told me to watch the ladies down here. She said they were like hot salsa, so I better…’
‘What? That’s not very nice to say about the people down here, you know.’
‘Oh sure Jack, I’m still gonna watch you.’
The flashes of multiple lightning lit up the much darkened sky outside. It seemed to them both they had struck right outside. Boom! The ensuing roar shook the small building, rattling the window shutters.
The young lady shouted in surprise, catching both their attentions. In moments, the clouds opened up, unleashing a torrent that once again turned Santander and the second street into merging rivers. They sat in silence. Talking was impossible. The building’s tin roof made a horrendous clatter. The young lady came around from the counter and served them their coffees and breads.
She offered them a free portion of the candied yam. She had an eye-catching smile, full lips and gleaming white teeth. She was stunning. She turned and walked away and Marla watched her and Jack, but stayed silent.
Jack couldn’t help but think that even though one was completely innocent, one was still to blame, unfairly as it may have been. Guilt by inference. It occurred to him that just maybe it made sense to leave this coffee shop and find another. The rain made this idea impossible. He reached out and stroked Marla’s back. Funny how nothing could turn into something.
The roar of the storm nudged them into a drowsy state. Very peaceful. Jack felt he could’ve sat there soaking in the pleasant peace for a long time. He couldn’t help notice that the young attendant stole quick glimpses at him. He did his best to play the situation as straight as possible. After all, he had no interest in the young lady and yet he was already deemed guilty.
The rain let up and in that moment; the church set off a barrage of fireworks mortars high into the sky over the town. Booms resonating within the valleys’ high walls unleashed a cacophony of dogs barking, children yelling and laughing. Most surprising were the many crowing roosters making claim to their harems.
A man appeared in the doorway. He shook off his umbrella, sending spray everywhere, including on the couple. His miniscule round lens, frameless glasses, seemed to hang at the tip of his nose. He wished at an almost invisible pencil mustache. John Lennon was invoked, even the man’s face, eyes almost Asian. He wore a dark purple beret flat on top of his head. A rather pronounced tassel seemed to fly just above his head. There was an intellectual highlight.
‘Oh so sorry, so sorry, how careless of me.’ He set his umbrella against the wall. ‘Please allow me to introduce myself if I may.’ A slight pause, then: ‘my name is Pedro Antonio Velasquez. I am from San Marcos not far from here. I came to town to buy a book for my daughter. Are you familiar with Cervantes?’ He watched the young couple.
Marla had a minor in literature and spoke up. ‘Actually, yes I am. Of course, I’ve read Don Quixote and several of his short stories. I really like him. Is your daughter interested in Cervantes?’
‘May I?’ Gesturing to an empty chair at their table. He pulled a well-used paperback from his jacket pocket and placed it on the table in front of him.
He sat with a sigh and brushed water off his jacket sleeves. ‘Oh, that’s wonderful Señorita, I am happy to hear that you have read his work. My daughter has a special course through the University of Pennsylvania and one of the subjects of study is Cervantes.’
‘Wow, that’s very impressive Pedro…’ he quickly asked her to call him Pedro Antonio. ‘Oh of course, thankyou Pedro Antonio. So how old is your daughter?’
‘Well, Señorita, she is eight years old. And what are your names?’ They were quickly on a first name basis.
‘So Marla, my daughter’s name is Damaris Catarina. Do you like this name?’
Both Marla and Jack nodded. ‘It’s a beautiful name, Pedro Antonio…’ conversation between the three was easy and enthusiastic.
The coffee shop server approached to refill coffees and she volunteered her name, her eyes settling on Jack. Though not overly so, surely she did not want to upset his girlfriend. Everyone nodded politely and took her introduction in stride. The roaring rainstorm seemed to encourage gathering, a minimizing of the usual social barriers. It was nice, and it seemed everyone felt it.
‘My name is Marlena’, at which point she quickly glanced at Marla. ‘My name is almost like yours, Señorita,’ she smiled beautifully.
‘Oh please, Marlena, call me Marla. Please. I insist. Are you from here in Atitlan, or should I say Panajachel?’
‘Yes, from here in Pana, instead of saying the long Panajachel you can say Pana. It is easier, no?’ Everyone laughed. This coffee shop is my mother’s and I care for it as she is not well. Her thyroid is causing her great suffering. I go to San Carlos University to the capital when my mother is well, otherwise I attend class in the small San Carlos branch here in Pana. What do you do?’ The question meant for both Jack and Marla, but her attention was clearly directed towards Jack.
Jack was taken by surprise and the slight reddening of his face showed this. Even his handsome Che Guevara beard couldn’t hide it. Even Pedro Antonio saw it. Not to say that Marla wasn’t suddenly showing a keen interest in the unexpected energy play between Jack and the young lady.
‘Uh, well, I’m, uh, I graduated…’
Marla rescued Jack. ‘Jack and I graduated from our universities last year and we took the year off to travel before we entered the workforce. We’re both lawyers.’
‘Oh yes, how interesting. A year to travel.’ Marlena said quickly, looking at Pedro Antonio. The silent communication was not lost to both Marla and Jack. Too late now, though. Very few Guatemalans could ever hope to take a yearlong vacation before deciding to get real and go to work. Jack quickly added, ‘Marla and I saved every penny during our last two years of law school, so we could take this trip. We still have to find odd jobs on the road for about a week at a time for the expenses.
‘In Mexico we worked cutting mescal at a mescal farm for two weeks, which was quite an experience.’ The two Guatemalans smiled and seemed to appreciate the information.
It was Marla who invited Marlena to join them at the small round top.
The rain took on an even more vengeful display. The four had to incline their heads together to be heard. ‘Marla and Jack, you eat the Yam by just dipping your fingers into the sweet sauce and grab small bits of the fruit. Like this.’ Jack watched as the attractive Marlena showed a sensual, step-by-step tutorial and almost intimate display on how to fill her fingers with sweetness and yam then slowly and carefully place it into her beautiful mouth. She finished by subtly sucking three fingers and swallowing.
It was Marla then, again, who burst out laughing wondrously. ‘Marla, my god, how do you do that? You are amazing girl. Oh, hell Jack, enjoy…’
Even the otherwise rather stiff professor- like Pedro Antonio squirmed ever so slightly.
Clearing his throat. ‘My daughter Damaris Catarina hopes to win a scholarship to go to the US to study high school and then University. An important organization from Cornell University came down a year ago and tested many children from this area and said they would offer several full scholarships.’
‘That’s terrific, Pedro Antonio. Does your daughter show a special interest? Is there a special area she excels in?’ Jack asked.
‘Well, yes, she writes. She writes since almost a baby. She writes about the human struggle, mostly. She says that she writes romantic stories when she is relaxing.’ Laughs and says, ‘what might an eight-year-old write of romantic things? You’d be surprised in a good way, things strictly of the heart. She writes every day. We don’t know how she got started other than that both me and her mother read.’
‘You must be so proud, Pedro Antonio.’ Marla took another sip of coffee, dipping into the candied yam with her fingers. She noticed Marlena seemed to determine something about Jack, without a doubt attempting to conclude an idea. Against her best efforts, the drama once again unsettled her.
Suddenly Marlena blurted. ‘Jack, I am certain you are an actor. I have seen you in several movies, the Vampire movies. My most favorite of all movies ever. I am right, yes?’ Almost pleading. ‘ You are Robert Pattinson, you are Edward!’ Marlena couldn’t hide the shame she now felt shame at her outburst. Her hand covered her mouth.
It was Marla who almost burst out laughing. ‘Marlena, you are so right. Oh my god, I’ve always thought that too, I mean not that he’s an actor. He looks exactly like Edward the vampire! The guy who falls hopelessly in love with the normal girl. They could be twins.’ Marla looked as though a certain disquieting weight had been lifted off her. ‘Oh god, I can’t believe you saw that, well maybe it’s not too surprising. Are you a fan of those vampire movies, are those…’
‘Oh my god yes Marla, I have posters of Edward all over my wall, and my mother says I’m sinning doing that!’ Both women burst into laughter, both laughing from quite differing perspectives.
Both Jack and Pedro Antonio were at least a little surprised that the two girls hugged as they laughed.
Though completely innocent, Jack felt like he’d been saved by the bell. He couldn’t help notice again just how stunning and incredibly sexy Marlena was.
Guilty by inference.