Free Ashanti (And Everyone Else)

Guatemala Diaries, Part VI

M. and Alexis were taking three boats and a bus back to Guatemala City. One of the boat routes, from Punta Gorda, Belize, to Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, was attacked in 2000, and several people were brutally murdered. I am a big chicken, but not so big I actually saw that situation duplicating itself. But even so, the trip seemed long and punishing. After much wringing of hands, I bought a plane ticket from Belize City to Guatemala City. It was expensive but a relief to just make the purchase. Seconds later, I got an email informing me that I had just gotten paid for something that I totally forgot about, so it was like the ticket was free anyway.

A few hours after buying the ticket I lost my cash card in the ocean. I had tucked it into my bikini top and put on a dress with a built-in bra, and it seemed fine, but then I was walking along the beach to dinner, and was like “Jesus Christ why am I wearing 1000 bras?” and took the bikini top off without thinking. I’d like to point out here that I carry stuff in my bra a lot and have never had anything even vaguely resembling a problem. Also, my cash card will not be lonely as there is a lot of garbage in the Caribbean. If you see a clean beach in the Caribbean, it is because someone has cleaned it for you.

In addition to having no cash card I also had no phone as my brand new iPhone stopped taking a charge for no reason. The bad news is that without a phone or a cash card I don’t feel like a real person. The good news is I am going to replace both of them soon and be made whole, like this woman at the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología with her complete matching necklace and earring set:

Photo by Alexis Bloom

More good news: not having a phone forced me, during a four and a half hour bus ride from Placencia to the airport in Belize City, to become intimately acquainted with the song “All Tied Up,” by Casey Veggies, Ft. DeJ Loaf. This happened because iTunes, as it does, had un-downloaded all my music. I only had three songs to listen to — “All Tied Up,” Robyn’s “Indestructible,” and Ashley Monroe’s “Like a Rose.” Why these songs? I have no idea. Ask the bag of dicks previously known as iTunes.

I could only listen to “Indestructible” once because I have heard it so many times. I have listened to “Like a Rose” a lot too, but probably not as much. In this song, a woman who had a terrible childhood and life reflects on how she turned out well anyway — how she “came out like a rose.” Listen to this song. Here’s a very simple and accurate test you can take while listening: If it doesn’t remind you of yourself in some small way, you have no soul.

I downloaded “All Tied Up” right after it was featured on an episode of “Girls” and listened to it a few times but never really gave it its due. The song starts out with DeJ Loaf singing over a floaty, dreamy sound that slowly works its way to becoming music: “I’ll be a lady in the streets in a dress with her hair tied up/Or I can be a freak in the sheets in the room with her hands tied up/It’s whatever you want/whatever you like/It’s not a problem at all.” That last line really makes it for me, how it’s like she’s telling him she’s going to bring him a cup of coffee, just casually informing him she is good at lots of different stuff. Then Casey Veggies (of the world’s stupidest name) comes in with a pretty good verse and then DeJ Loaf, thrillingly, is back again with her same part. She’s way better than he is but he’s not ruining it — it’s no Ja Rule/Ashanti emergency. (When they were popular, my friend and I kept saying we were going to make “Free Ashanti” T-shirts.)

It’s one of those songs where he likes the girl because she’s smart and pretty and faithful, fine/yawn:

Fly face, nice body, and swag crazy
She work and she goin’ to school, she ain’t lazy
And when she out and about, she look wavy
And when they try to ask what’s up, she say Casey.

Anyway, Casey Veggies is doing Ok until he’s not. At around 2:15, the sexily accommodating DeJ Loaf is repeating “whatever you like, whatever you like, whatever you like,” and he stumbles in, muttering spastically: “She’s gonna do whatever I like/ She’s gonna do whatever I like/ She’s gonna do whatever I like.” He just sounds so pre-butthurt, like he knows deep down she’s only saying all that stuff because she has to and she’s already called a Lyft.

If this song were focus grouped my hand would shoot up and I would shout “I didn’t believe the part where she said she’s going to do whatever he likes. And then, when she said “it’s not a problem at all” I thought that was definitely going to turn into something, because it seems like it would definitely be a problem? And then when nothing happened with that, like, it confused me?”

Oh well. The DeJ Loaf part is perfect, made more so by having to wade through Casey Veggies to get to it.

The bus was an inferno. I kept trying to remind myself that this was how most people in the world traveled blah blah blah but it was not helpful. I couldn’t get away from the sun. Someone was wearing a lot of Shalimar. A kid was kicking my seat, although, completely anecdotally, I have to say that children in the Caribbean cry and complain less in public than American children. Just an observation, possibly wrong.

I put a straw hat I had just bought on the seat next to me and it blew off, tumbled down the aisle and out the bus’s open door.

In Belize City, I got a taxi. My taxi driver was maybe 40, black, very big, maybe 6’3 and maybe 225 pounds, but not really fat. He and I had an instant emotional connection and fell quickly into a deep conversation. As soon as I said I was American he asked me how Donald Trump got to be president if so many people hate him and I explained the electoral college. At first he seemed to be concentrating, then he looked perplexed, by the end, he was full-on wincing. He asked me if a lot of people in the United States hated black people. I said yes. He asked me if I hated black people. I said no. He asked me if I thought I was prejudiced. I said I thought everyone had prejudiced feelings at times but I would not characterize myself as being ideologically prejudiced. I added, “Like when people say “I don’t see color,” I feel like that’s weird, even if it’s supposed to be ‘nice.’”

He nodded and said he understood.

I asked him if he’d ever been to Guatemala and he said he’d never been out of Belize. “I grew up real hard,” he said. We were at a light and he looked straight at me and didn’t look away. “I have had to hustle my whole life.” He was direct in a way that has become unusual and this moved me. He kept talking. “I didn’t have no father, my mother died, and I just lived with my aunt, and she didn’t really have no place for me, and I just worked.”

I asked what he did, and said, “Whatever. I did whatever.” He nodded and said again: “I grew up very, very hard. But I am a hustler.” He looked at me again and nodded slowly. “And I got a house now. I don’t have everything perfect but I am good, and I am a good person, try to always be calm, no matter what.”

My taxi driver would pass the “Like a Rose” test.

I flew to Flores, Guatemala in a tiny plane with an archaeologist who seemed like she’d never been in a bad mood in her life. I seriously bet she wakes up every morning, plants her feet in a sunny spot on her clean floor, stretches her arms over head and says, “I can’t wait to archaeology today!” Then her dog jumps into her lap and licks her face, then they go for a jog, then it sits at her feet as she reads the comics to it aloud. We flew from Flores to Guatemala City in a larger plane and sat together. She told me about how “the Mayans” were not just one uniform group, and that they were always killing each other. I kind of figured but it was good to hear it from someone who didn’t always expect the worst of everyone.

My friends Sam and Daisy were in Guatemala, part of the reason I’d wanted to hustle back. Daisy took us to a fancy place for dinner and told me I could pick out whatever wine I wanted. I picked out a pretty pricey bottle from Portugal because Daisy always means what she says. I was going to save the cork but I forgot. We had expensive ham. I slept in their room on a cot. M. and Alexis showed up at 2 a.m. and got another room. In the morning we all went to the Museo Arqueología y Etnología. We took a dangerous but fun cab ride.

We tried to find this one museum about the Guatemalan genocide and it seemed like there were several. Sam made fun of me for wanting to go to it because his mom and her boyfriend, who were also in town, kept asking all these Guatemalans about the war and they obviously did not want to discuss it. I said just because they were pests didn’t mean I couldn’t be interested. He said he agreed. We still couldn’t find this museum and then it poured and we took cover in a touristy restuarant where a marimba band was playing. After some time on the restaurant Wifi we were able to orient ourselves and headed out again. I was incredibly struck by the beauty of a little urban park everyone else found unspectacular.

The Casa de La Memoria was more like a conceptual art piece than a traditional museum. It started with the arrival of the Spanish and went up through today and wasn’t attempting to communicate everything that’s happened in Guatemala so much as help you begin to wrap your mind around the scope of cruelty and death.

Poem by Luis de Leon, 1940–1985

From there we went to a game-themed café — hilarious that this place existed and we happened to find it since we are all to some extent game nerds — and played a game called Secret Agent, followed by a game called Stage 2 Trivia that was 30 years old and had never been opened. The music was all 90s. I got annoyed with Sam because he likes the Cranberries song “Zombie” and he got mad at me because I like the Verve song “Bittersweet Symphony.” We called what we thought was a van taxi and were sent instead a tiny one which we piled into laughing very hard. We slept. Max, Daisy, and Alexis went to Lake Atitlán.

For 24 hours, M. and I did almost nothing. We bought some gifts. He watched T.V. I read Wikipedia articles about Guatemala. I read about José Efraín Ríos Montt, Guatemala’s president from 1982 to 1983. In December, 1982, Ronald Reagan visited Guatemala and said, “President Ríos Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment. I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice.” That same day, the Dos Erres massacre took place, resulting in the deaths of over 200 people. Ríos Montt, who is 93 and already in jail for other war crimes, will face another trial for the Dos Erres massacre later this year. On our last morning I went to an art museum and was the only person there, which was both sad and luxurious.

At the airport, I watched the “All Tied Up” video. Casey V. is better in person. I literally can’t think of anything stupider than that name. Who came up with it? What is wrong with them? I see he has a management company called Peas and Carats. Why not Casey Carats? Casey Carats is good! Casey Carats, can you hear me?

Part Five:

Part Four:

Part Three:

Part Two:

Part One: