Monday, August 8, 2016

Chicken Bus Fever: Part IV Jungle Love

I don´t actually know what insect attacked my arm in Coban. I was asleep and then woke up and felt an angry itch under my arm. I am not immune to mosquitoes and usually sleep with a mosquito net to avoid the red welts that appear after a mosquito has feasted on my blood. But the infection that followed this insect bite in Coban was like no mosquito bite I can remember and it looked nothing like sample mosquito bites. It looked like makeup for a zombie movie, veins bulging, skin decaying, ragged diseased appearance. I thought I would have my arm amputated but the only ill-effect was itching. Thus began the lowland chapter of my Guatemalan travel.

Needless to say, after the marathon bus trip from Huehuetenango, 110 miles in 10 hours, my back and neck were ruined for a day, so I slept most of the first and second days, only venturing outside for some fried fish and yogurt. Coban has a famous limestone phenomenon that clarifies a river and creates an enchanting destination for those travelers who have not been spoiled by natural beauty like Oggy. In my early days I hungered for the exotic location, but now I am more interested in leather fashion and mechanics and electricity. This is the downside of 20 years of reckless exploration: I overdid the feast on natural beauty and spoiled my taste for it. Long bus trips to see trees and water are not on my agenda. I would rather practice mandolin. I did try to hunt down a museum of Mayan history in Coban but was told it had moved or didn´t exist any more. I was not disappointed because the trek around the city, asking for directions from taxi drivers, browsing cobbler shops, searching for a Charango, eating at outdoor grills, kicking soccer balls with curious kids who thought I was Marco Antonio Solis, are more engaging and real than a museum. 

I don't see the resemblance between me and Solis.

I'm in the museum of the future. Sure, it's interesting to see museums of past artifacts, but I'm surrounded by the artifacts and anecdotes that will fill future history books and museums so is there any real difference except time?

The long trip from Huehue also meant that the hardest part of the journey was behind me. I could see on a Guatemalan map that a few towns existed between Coban and the north city of Santa Elena. It was not a great distance, easily covered in one day, but I no longer had to take marathon trips although I was still traveling as a Guatemalan travels in small buses with multiple transbordos to other small buses. That did not bother me as much as being forced to sit on a bus for more than 10 hours. I was in no hurry, so what difference did it make if I spent $6 sleeping a night 4 hours north or traveled 8 hours and then spent $12 sleeping two nights? It was economically identical but in the first case I would spent more time in each small town and less continuous time on the hellish buses feeling my spine snap.

As luck would have it, I delayed my trip north until Sunday. The room had no fan to keep mosquitoes and spiders off me and the mattress was a torture rack and the fact they refused to give me a a key to my own room made me feel it was time to move on, but I could argue that staying until Monday would have been wise because there was no direct bus north. The only bus that was leaving from Coban on Sunday was on the way to Raxruha, which the bus drivers pronounced in one insane mumbling syllable that sounds like (R@*^@h$). I mean, this word was so impossible for me to speak or understand that it was comical. They had to point to it spelled on the bus front and I was amazed that was the word they were pronouncing, not that I knew where it was. Coban is in the area where the language of Quiche is spoken with Spanish.
This is my Hospedaje in Sayache and the red letters are a Quiche translation of the simple "Bathrooms for rent" in blue Spanish. If you tried to pronounce this in phonetic English it would not sound remotely like fluent Quiche. And native speakers of Quiche who learned Spanish second speak with an accent that is totally unintelligible to me. Spanish is hard enough. They might as well be carving dragons and arrows in stone. I mean, I don't even know what language they are speaking, but it is Spanish with a Quiche accent and I am an ignorant bearded Gringo wearing a pith helmet and short shorts wandering their land.
Here's a video someone else made of this language spoken if you are curious. Even the word Quiche is also spelled K'ichE and is not pronounced like the egg and cheese pie.


I had a great fear at this central hub of Coban that I would get on the wrong bus and either go backwards to Huehuetenango or East to Honduras and I had no map so this unpronounceable town meant nothing to me. It's like saying you want to go to Boston and the driver says he's going to M&#(&!LK. Well, where the hell is that? What the hell town is that? What are you even saying? Are you swearing at me or telling me a destination? Is it near Boston? Is it another name for Boston? This is such a common phenomenon as I drove through Central America, even when I had a map, all the signs would not say Guatemala City, where I was aiming for, but instead, Wekillgringostenango...which meant nothing to me. Oh, but another arrow says Lostasfuckcingo. Well, where is that? I don't want to go to either of those locations, can't pronounce either, neither is on my map, so which is the branch I should take in two seconds? Over and over this happened. But they said there was a crossing road north toward Sayaxche (Sigh-a-chE) where I might get a bus north to Flores and since I had no choice except go back to the hostel and wait for Monday when a bus would go directly to Sayache, I got on and found a seat. The best solution is have a major destination like Flores in mind and be able to pronounce it because the assistants will probably get you on the right bus at which point it will be your responsibility to get off at the right spot.

These smaller buses were no picnic but at least I knew it would a shorter ride as the landscape flattens somewhat. The speed bumps are unavoidable, but with fewer towns there was less need to impede traffic to protect pedestrians and horses. Another reason there is no need to go to specific parks for natural beauty in Guatemala is because the countryside is visually pristine. The thin paved road the bus traveled on was the only sign of modern construction and horses and goats were as apt to use the road for travel as vehicles. Everywhere is natural beauty of the rarest kind, soil derived from Volcanic dirt. Yes, the rivers are poisoned by agriculture pesticides and human waste and dead dogs and car batteries and used motor oil, but all that is basically hidden from view as one drives from Alta Vera Paz to Peten. This landscape is farmed extensively, but it is green of every shade, green trees, green grass, alfalfa, corn as far as you can see. From horizon to horizon is a sea of polarized green, which is why Guatemala is called the land of eternal Spring. It's also called the Land of eternal war, but I didn't see much military or rebel presence from Huehuetenango to Guatemala City.

The road from Coban north was the actual reason I took the circuitous route through Huehuetenango. This route would make no sense to someone familiar with the journey to Tikal, but I didn't want to leave a major area of Guatemala unexplored. I was curious about the road condition from Huehue to Coban, and can confirm it's abysmal, but the road from Coban to the north is the area I was really curious about but knew it would destroy the van to reach under my own power. The bus solution solved everything as the drivers bore the immense burden of navigating the horrors and obstacles that await one around every turn. 

I swear driving in Central America requires nerves of steel and driving my specific van in Central America with my cargo is my limit, it's absolutely the limit of insanity I can survive. I could not tolerate it. Every nerve and sense had to be on high alert at all times for obstacles, threats, guns, demands, road blocks, protests, hijackings, fake tolls, extortion, dogs, children, funerals, weddings, parties, flowery Jesus floats, goats, drunks, cats, more dogs, rockslides, fires, a whole cargo truck of cement blocks dumped on the road, accidents, police, ambulances, rebels, gangs, juvenile glue sniffers, cliffs, more fucking dogs, mud, trees, rivers, floods, volcanic ash, fog, rain and finally more fucking stray dogs. It was like rocketing through a crowded mall full of lunatic terrorists and praying zealots in a VW superbeetle with bad steering and trying not to die or kill anyone. I lost 20 pounds of fat for a reason. Something has to give in those conditions and for me it was eating. I sacrificed food to survive. The food in Guatemala almost killed me, so it was not a great sacrifice. I never want to repeat it and would never recommend it to anyone. Even if the van were completely empty I'm sure I would've crashed off a cliff when the brakes failed or broken an axle trying to drive to Coban. God, do not attempt that trip in a vehicle you cherish and if you attempt it in a disposable vehicle then good luck.

Even driving north from Coban toward that unpronounceable town was not some leisurely trip. We traveled on a Sunday so traffic was light, but for the majority of it I was gripping the seat in front of me with one hand and making sure my mandolin was not crushed with the other. The twists and turns were significant and this brings me to a point where I must criticize the liberal and often ridiculous use of window polarization in Guatemala specifically. 

All Central American countries seemed to have no concern about obscuring the driver's view with Catholic hexerei dangling from the rear view mirror (if there is a mirror) or directly in front of his eyes from the visor. I mean, a full veil of Mardi Gras beads as thick as a peepshow curtain directly in front of his eyes. But the worst of all these distractions is the heavy window polarization that is applied directly to the front windshield of all buses and most private cars and is often peeling and bubbling to create a maze of significant polka dot distractions. Most of the buses have huge lettering "DIOS ES AMOR" or "DIOS ES MI GUIA" completely blocking the windshield. The driver must scan the road between the letters U and I to make sure he doesn't hit anything. It's ridiculous, but Ok, at least these statements are putting faith in God, backwards to the passengers but readable to the other bus about to hit us head-on. The very very worst is a full sheet of heavy duty sun polarization applied to the front windshield, almost opaque black, along with a full biblical chapter pasted on the top and bottom of the windshield...and to top it all off the driver has carved a small window in the polarization IN THE SHAPE OF THE APPLE COMPUTERS APPLE. Yes.
The whole road must be navigated through a window a little bigger than the size of this apple logo. The remainder of the windshield is totally black or covered with professions of faith.

I understand that the sun is very brutal, yes, and the polarization cuts down heat exposure and air conditioning is seldom used because servicing the Freon line is impossible in a town like Raxruha. Ok. But to cover the entire front windshield in thick 90% sun polarization film, cover that film with biblical verse, hang trinkets and paraphernalia from the visor or mirror, THEN, because it is almost impossible to see anything through the opaque polarization and debris on the windshield, to cut out a tiny window from the film in the shape of the Apple Computer logo...what in the name of God are you doing? Granted, it is slightly easier to drive using this small window when one is seated in the driver's seat, but I strenuously object because aside from obvious threat to our safety it caused me real inner ear distress because from the midway seat in the bus all I could see out of the front windshield was this small area of the road flashing through the apple logo like a psychedelic Zoetrope, and this was totally out of sync with the side windows and the stationary interior so I could not focus on the road or the horizon in front of us because the Apple logo was not big enough to include the horizon. I don't know what else to say. What I am describing doesn't even sound credible but this is my story so take it for nothing more than an unusual phenomenon and it did nothing to make these bus trips enjoyable.

Thus we drove north through the moderately hand plowed agriculture corridor of southern Peten. In my Texas oil-field era I daydreamed about shipping a tractor to this area of Guatemala and renting it out as an owner operator. Then I saw what Guatemalans can do with a machete, cutting a grass lawn better than any riding lawnmower, and I decided such a Bobcat tractor would only impoverish about 30 people, while getting 3 retrained for a modern mechanism, and no improvement would be achieved in work quality. It would save some people some back pain but cause a chain reaction of problems and grief.

We stopped at one town that may have been Chisec where the clouds covered the sky with grey, solemn indifference, nameless meat was roasted next to corn and a chicken leg on a coal fire. Kids offered gum and wilted papaya, women had made "fud" sandwiches to sell from woven palapa baskets, water bottles were offered, chips, peanuts, wart remover, magic creams to make my skin younger, aphrodisiacs with unpronounceable ingredients were for sale. Each stop in the bus attracted a sea of clamoring street merchants and magicians and poets and preachers and musicians and usually at least one person with a deformity such as a giant tumor on his neck or a cleft palette or blindness or ghastly tropical disease eating his feet or legless or one arm a crippled useless tree branch of flesh and bone and asking politely and solemnly for money or prayers. In my several trips to the Xela terminal I gave money to the same man with a deformity to his stomach that actually looked like Kuato from the movie Total Recall. It looked like a fetal twin had partially formed in his belly and had been unprofessionally removed with surgery using a plastic scalpel from a kid's 'My First Tumor Removal Kit', that left half a baby's body hanging from his chest along with enough scar tissue and open sutures to give me chills. Another guy had some kind of diabetic swelling of the feet. The blind, the deaf, crippled, deformed all would passively ask for money. I would not call this begging because there is plenty of that. It's more polite, definitely a form of work that they can do without too much pain, simply presenting his case in a script and flashing the awful deformity and then passing the hat as women push by him with baskets of roasted chicken feet. Either give money or don't; it was a soft sell; prayers work too. Other salesmen would get on the bus as it was leaving and launch into a shouting, confident monologue explaining something I could not quite translate but sounded desperate and unjust, possibly children dying, possibly children dead, or wife murdered or unjustly imprisoned brother. I don't know exactly what some of these scripts involved but they shouted them over the loud motor and the wind through the windows, back to the front, leaning on the seats for support as he passed the hat and then got off a few kilometers down the road. Sometimes a comedy team dressed as clowns got on the bus and performed an entire comedy skit complete with dancing, gay insinuations, songs and jokes I couldn't understand. Each bus stop in the countryside was a harmless form of chaos.

Finally, the road leveled out but the bus soon pulled over at an intersection and I was told this is where I get off to go north to Sayache, as they went east to Raxruha. Ok. I get off in the rain, the only person to get off. It's a cross road with the ruins of what looked like a gas station that failed and decayed or was bombed. After the rush of sales people and legless beggars moved on I was left in the rain at this junction sitting on a broken cement curb with one ruined gas station on one side and shanty selling chips on the other side of the road. Narrow dirt paths led into the jungle and after the bus grinded off to the east the silence that descended on that junction was like time had stopped in the year 1720. There was no electricity, no machines of any kind, no vehicles, no parties, no fireworks, nothing. And this is why traveling with enough time to get where I was going was so important. Maybe in my younger days I would've dragged my feet back in Coban and ended up leaving for Sayache later in the day and not grasped that I had caught the last bus for Raxruha and there would be no bus to Sayache because it was Sunday and they stopped early so I end up sleeping in the ruins of a gas station, but fortunately I am older and left ample time to make this short trip. I was not concerned and merely sat in the rain pondering the jungle until a bus with Sayache written in paint on the windshield under "JESUS ES MI PADRE" in huge lettering that obscured all but a tiny fraction of the window came from the east and turned in to pick me up. The window was covered with polarization except for a long two inch channel running from one side to the other. Fortunately there was a seat and off we went to the north.

This was more flat and straight as it felt we descended toward a gentle river valley. I could travel like that all day long in comfort, light rain keeping the heat off the fully polarized windshield, lush landscape to each side. We rolled into Sayache in the early afternoon. I'm not sure what time it was but there was plenty of time to keep going to Santa Elena or Flores but I saw that the road literally ends in Sayache. There is no bridge across the river La Pasion. No, there is only a short floating vehicle platform that is pushed by a small boat with an outboard motor attached to one side and long narrow passenger launches to cross the 40 meters of river. I had cool video of a storm lashing this boat launch but managed to delete it without saving it when I uploaded some photos to an online photo storage box. The land is flat so I could see the rain coming for twenty minutes through the damp air, purple clouds rumbling with thunder, stirring the leaves of the cottonwood trees and turning up water spouts on the river surface.

The town itself looked exactly like the kind of semi-modern but very compact town I feel at home in, dusty, but with multiple fried chicken stands and ice cream stores, so I decided to stick to my plan of renting a room for the night. From the riverfront I saw a Hospedaje next to a Sarita ice cream shop, which is like a huge red sign saying "Oggy Sleep Here!" so I went and got an ice cream sandwich and rented a room. The guy even gave me a key to the room lock, which was cool. Since it was Sunday there was a soccer game on the television of the place that served me some chicken and rice, Argentina/Chile in the America's Cup final. It was a nail-biter.

I think I will end this chapter with an essay on Soccer.

I am a sports fanatic who is in recovery but I have many relapses. I do not desire to return to the wasted years of devouring sports statistics and agonizing over small details of games. This is the curse of fanaticism that I can understand because the highs compensate for the lows, but I fight the urge because it's a huge waste of time. I prefer to play sports. If I had played guitar instead of watching baseball I would be the next Joe Pass instead of a guy with bad eyesight. The amount of time I spent at Fenway Park is so irresponsible considering I was not an employee. I actually prefer to listen to baseball games because the commentators on the radio generally are more interesting than the plays which I have seen a million times before to the point I can imagine them in my mind while I do something productive like weave leather. Now, NFL football is the absolute elite of televised sports. This is the golden era of NFL coverage and I feel it is waning because now cameramen are allowed to rush at the ball carrier even on the field, between the lines, an instant after he scores and this is unsavory to me and portends a dark period when players will have bodycams or some insanity that turns the whole strategy and agony and 'dance' into a video game. Well, the coverage of NFL is not only a thing of beauty, but the commentators, even the worst ones, pick apart the exact parts of the play to analyze and highlight what happened that is critical. I LOVE it. There is exactly enough time between plays to completely analyze the previous play. It really is possible to understand the exact chain of events that makes a play work or fail, which makes Football the ultimate game of strategy and practice and design from a spectator's standpoint. The footage is available to the minute detail in perfect HD resolution, super slow motion. Incredible. Then there is Soccer.

Dear lord, the commentary of this sport, the analysis of this sport is so abysmal. Even the video footage is pitifully lacking. The game requires about twenty cameras and it has two or three. The fandom is definitely far more zealous, but the footage and analysis is horrible. The commentators literally simply verbalize what you are watching.  Why do I need someone to verbalize that this person kicked it to this person? I just watched it happen. You are telling me what a 5 year old child would tell me about what is happening. There are so many things wrong with this sport as a spectator event on television that I can barely cover them all. I've been keeping mental notes of how many problems there are with the televised footage of this sport and the rules and the analysis. Where to begin? First, turn the whole game over to Jerry Jones owner of the Dallas Cowboys. That would solve almost every problem right there. Soccer would surpass NFL for popularity in a few weeks. You would think it was a new sport invented in Texas.
June 22 - USA loses 0-4 to Argentina. USA takes zero shots on goal! Zero! They passed the ball for 90+ minutes. This is not simply a shutout, the team never swung the bat!

The game play: ok, let's start with the basic format of a clock that never stops. Horrible idea. This requires flopping (the intentional phony display of some phantom trip or injury that makes the victim look (fake) like he's been shot in the face with a bazooka) in order for players to rest. So, the rule that the clock doesn't stop actually causes an insane series of blatant acting hysterics so they can catch their breath? And the clock continues to run while the medics come and check out a phantom injury? Adults actually humor this kind of fraud? And the player who looks like he has been attacked with an axe one second will be running and headbutting the ball ten seconds later with no trace of injury?? What? And the ball is in play almost the entire 90 minutes? And if the game is tied they play an extra 15 minutes, followed by some penalty kicks? Man, what a mess. It's like kids are trying to finish the game before recess. It shows no consideration for the spectators. I have made a list of recommendations for Soccer:

Penalty kicks at the end of every half no matter what the score is.- this will mean there is some kind of score after 45 minutes that can be changes after 90 minutes. 0-0 games after 80 minutes should be abolished.

The clock stops after each goal or shots on goal. Why? Because the commentators never have a chance to analyze what just happened. When I watch soccer I see that the 'play' that scores can be traced back as much as twenty seconds, maybe further, the whole development of the field, the decisions the players made, the trips, the hesitations, the wind. Everything comes into consideration, but the highlight will show only the final 2 seconds. The actual goal is all that is replayed and analyzed. Big deal. That is not the only part of the play, but the only replay we ever see is one little dimension of the play and I know there are more dimensions. Soccer is not like NFL where the action almost always takes place around the ball, the whole strategy of Soccer means the person with the ball almost never scores because there are 7 people between him and the net. So, the action and strategy must take place all over the field, the feints and deceptions. I was talking to a long time soccer player in Guatemala, who may have been foreign service or CIA but claimed he was a journalist, and he broke down the details of strategy and the design of scoring plays better than any commentator who parrots "Perez passes to Diego. Diego passes to Messi. Messi kicks, scores! Gooooooal!" What happened? What were the details? In NFL the plays are analyzed better than the invasion of Normandy and that is like history porn to sports addicts. Soccer is treated like the final 2 seconds are all that matters when we know the play had strategy and design. Why not film it and pace it in a way that gives spectators watching on TV a chance to appreciate the art? That would cause commercial breaks and the fans at the stadium would suffer. Yes, I'm not saying my solution is perfect, but this is abysmal. There are never any X's and O's drawn on the screen in soccer. never. It's like the play started when the ball was in the air toward the net. Man, what a waste of the finesse involved. These athletes are so talented in ways only a fanatic can understand but it's never honored in the way NFL gloats and fawns and worships players. And the reason, again, is because the clock is ticking and the commentators are actually reviewing the previous play during game time, which is a Sports sin because they could miss what is actually happening. It's ponderous.

Also, this flopping phenomenon has to stop. Good lord. It's an embarrassment. There are enough genuine injuries during the game to eliminate pure phony acting to catch their breath. I recommend using the hockey rule of forcing a team to play short handed when there is a penalty. That would be awesome. Instead of allowing a player to be replaced if he is ejected, let him simply sit out for 10 minutes and his team plays without one man. Then we get to see some action. I was also in favor of shortening the field but then I watch soccer in small arenas and I don't like it. There is not enough space to let the play develop and pro players are not affected by the length of the field. They move it up the field in about 3 seconds. Just let the stop clock, get more footage, allow commentators time to back up to the point when a goal or attempt developed, have penalty kicks after each half no matter what the score, force players who flop to sit out for 10 minutes with their team short-handed. And have cheerleaders. Jeez! No brainer!

The moral is that on this small village on Rio La Pasion in the department of Peten in Guatemala, I sat with some fans and watched this America's Cup final, biting my nails and agonizing over every missed shot on goal, united with other fans of the sport. Yes, it's abysmal how the details can not be analyzed, but the game itself is sound, the athletes are elite. It's not made for easy public consumption, but the global appeal is obvious. This was a game between Argentina and Chile. Guatemala did not have a team that even qualified for the tournament. I think only Panama and Costa Rica and Mexico and the U.S. represented anything north of Colombia but in this small Guatemalan village where the lights went off when there was a bolt of lightning and the ferryman had to be found and woken up or sobered up if you wanted to cross the river after 8PM and crocodiles swam with plastic bags in the dirt brown water, the town was united in watching this game. Every bar and restaurant and even my Hospedaje had a television tuned to this game and we drank and moaned and second-guessed all the action. Soccer deserves better coverage, but you wouldn't know it by the popularity it earns in Guatemala.

I will pick up this trip in the next chapter that includes an essay on how to use toilets with no water tank.

Part I: Pacific Blues

Part II: Sierra Madre

Part III: Mal Estado

Part IV: Jungle Love

Part V: North

Part VI: Ruined

Part VI.5 Sweet River

Part VII: Lost and Sick

Part VIII: Capital

Part IX: Coming Full Circle
Creative Commons License
Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.