Nicaragua Night Hotel

The man who guards the front door sings to himself as he guards the front door. There’s one huge roof over the squat hotel, hovering over the rooms on columns. The rooms are a set of cement walls and a few flimsy doors. There’s a patio in the middle.. Most of the guests try to bathe before trying to sleep through the slow tropic heat, and the showers have elaborate tiles which are old enough to be covered in something that looks like rust. Only near the door are the tiles smooth and bright, worn by feet into a thin trail. There are cement washtubs built into the corner of both small shower rooms. The guests never used to bathe with running water. Above, a single fluorescent tube is screwed into one of the vigas, the spiderwebs around it have become so clogged with dust that they have become the ceiling.

At night there are only the sounds. Men murmur to their lovers, water falls from a plastic pipe in the shower, the singing man guards the front door from a rocking chair. He will stand naked in the shower at dawn.

Then it starts to rain like teenagers throwing fistfuls of water against the fired-earth tiles of the roof. The drips start through the spiderwebs. Empty rocking chairs nod with the wind coming off the lake, which is running down the empty streets, looking for open doorways. If the guests were to take showers now, they’d run across the patio, trying to avoid the rain. They run their fans all night long, for the mosquitoes. For the sound.

A dog is echoing somewhere outside. Most of the guests are old. They’re asleep now, or laying awake waiting for drips, listening to the fans.

The man in the rocking chair also whistles. His tongue is a cello bow drawn across a bending handsaw. The flimsy doors are closed. Snoring harmonizes with the rain that harmonizes with the fans. The dog must be stuck on a roof somewhere.

The curtains are thin. The sheets are thinner. And the man who whistles a handsaw is the thinnest of all.

Another Bus Another Border


We all get on the bus before the sun gets on the earth. It's four fifteen A.M. in the dusty Guatemalan city of Santa Elena in El Petén, best known as being the service city to the Tikal tourist trade. The bus station is open all night but the ticket counters are all closed, so most of us are milling around back behind the station waiting for the bus to show. It does, another big, busted out old school bus painted in bright colors. They start calling out its destinations as it coughs and sputters, backing up to the curb. "La Técnica!" is last but not least, it's the one I'm waiting for along with most people on the curb, I think. The back door is thrown open, the same door I used to practice emergency exits from in elementary school. I grab hold of the bars on either side and pull myself up, my bags bumping against the sides.

Buses, Huehuetenago, Guatemala

It's dark inside and there are only a couple other people aboard when I get on. The bus has filled up a bit more by the time we pull away at five, but most people are still sitting one to a seat, an incredible luxury around here. Most of us have hoods pulled around our heads, our heads that hang from our necks as we try to sleep and our heads bounce with every bump in the bad road. Me, I'm just trying to get up to Yucatán the cheapest way possible (avoiding border taxes in Belize), to drop my things and start planning the next leg of the trip. The rest of the people on the bus, except maybe for one very lost looking female tourist, are on very different journeys. Even though it's obvious, I haven't slept solidly in days and I don't fully realize what most of the men are doing here until around three hours later.

Bus, Guatemala

We leave the pavement somewhere shortly after dawn, while the mist is still hanging low on the deforested land like the lost souls of harvested trees, their bodies now smoke and furniture. I'm not one to let the world pass by the smudged bus windows without learning where I am, but this morning I'm content to wait out our half hour stop at a small town on the way without even asking its name. Most of the people in the bus, especially the two thick groups of men sitting up front, have gotten off the bus and disappeared into the comedores on the edges of the mercado. This is probably the last chance to eat a solid meal today. It's definitely the last chance on Guatemalan soil.

I get a good look at them for the first time when the board the bus again. They don't look like Guatemalans, but I can't be sure. They're certainly dressed a bit diferently, in hoodies and collared shirts. I'm sitting near the front of the bus, as far away from the wheel wells as possible, and I notice their fresh haircuts.

Bus, Guatemala

Before we pull onto the dirt road, a plainly dressed man has filled the seat next to me. We're off, leaving the fighting dogs and steaming atol behind in the blinding dawn. Again, one by one our heads begin to bob in half-sleep, and the bus continually stops and starts, picking up and dropping off more people. Even when it is moving, it's never moving fast. There's a young kid working the door of the bus, he's the one that's yelling "¡jále!" over and over, letting the driver know when the person and their luggage is off or on the bus. Several women enter, loaded with radishes and other greens that were probably all picked that morning. We continue on.

I figure we're about an hour away from the Río Usumacinta, which forms the Guatemalan / Mexican border here when the bus stops and doesn't start again right away. Government men are entering the bus quickly, some dressed in simple polo shirts, other in full law enforcement gear. The shirts read "MIGRACION." They ask me for my papers, which I luckily have, and have close. I hardly think they gave them a glance at all. One official is waiting on the other tourist as she fumbles through her bag, while the rest deboard several men from the front of the bus.

Bus, Guatemala

The man next to me is chuckling. We exchange looks and I tell him that I've never seen a Guatemalan bus boarded by officials once during my three week stay. He obviously has ridden this route more times than me. "No es nada," he tells me, "solamente quieren algo de los mojados." Of course the men riding on the bus were not from Guatemala. They were from el Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, still on an early part of a very long journey that wouldn't even end and the far opassite end of México, but of course in the United States. The migration officials see their type everyday and were just manipulating them for a "small bite" of the money the workers had brought with them for the trip. This isn't the first time it has happened on the trip, and certainly it will happen countless times more in the two foriegn countries yet to come.

They're back on the bus, their pockets a bit lighter. "¡Jále!" We're rolling. I watch the officials move back under the shade of a small tree, under which their cars and a moto are parked. On the other side of the road, we pass yet more former jungle that is now pasture land for the endless clustures of huge steer.

Bus, Guatemala

I lose track of the migrants somewhere near the border, when everyone starts thinking only about their own trip. No one on the bus had thought to let me know when we passed the Guatemalan border station, so I missed my chance for leaving the country legally with an exit stamp. Oh well, I should have been more awake. I should have asked. I cross into México the way everyone does from here: for 10 pesos in a long and skinny motorboat lancha that speeds across the muddy and wide Usumacinta.

In México the woman working the border station is content with just laughing at me, after I tell her a story about how there "wasn't anybody at the office when we passed and the bus wouldn't wait." She doesn't make me return to Guatemala. Somebody bless her.

These "mojados," as everyone calls them here, travel in small, tight groups. There's another group with me in the collectivo van from the border up to the Mexican city of Palenque, Chiapas. We all eventually head our separate ways and I have no idea where they sleep, even if they do sleep, out there somewhere tonight.


San Pedro la Laguna, Sololá, Guatemala

I wear striped pants Numero cuarentasiete La milpa ama a la orilla Numero diecinueve they all shout and clap fill the afternoon hammock on the cieling los sonidos del pueblo llora llora la bebe el grupo empieza a tocar los chavos a bailar numero cincuenta sies the bus's pistons run like disjointed reggaton "a dios sea la gloria" el grupo sigue sigue las guapas a coquetear numero diecirubio El milagüero, super heroe capaz de todo como comer chilaquiles sin parrar. De aviones no hay la hormigüita se encuentra por el techo del cuarto piso suena el autobus llora el gallo read the horizon like a bar of music scream the mountains para el milagüero no hay pedo.

Thunderclouds made from the bus's tailpipe the laudry is calm as it hangs the elotes are calm as they bounce in the bag hanging from the old man's neck. The horizon is occasionally out of tune. Every line must bend sometime. Sometimes, rap is like talking with mechanical lungs. Ink blot snow drop. The viejitos sit in their boats on the edges of the fishing nets dancing in the glass water. Their hands make prayers with invisible lines. They also bend. You understand, I have to write small to make it all fit. For instance, men here park busses like well-lubricated jigsaw puzzles, one after another. I promise that the birds are not talking shit about you, even though they are talking spanish. Most of them, anyway. The blue bus is named Windy. It waits for the alley. The woman who rents the boats is named Jesus. She told me so.

The fish sigh in the bottom of the boat. Some words are more popular than other words. This is how we communicate. The mechanic sighs as the last bus rolls into the alley. The driver yells "¡sale!" into his rearview mirror. Hands of the mechanic are black, from throwing ink blot snow balls and cursing, banging. All the dogs ever talk about is barking. Black heads walk down the street, blonde heads up, mouths usually open. I feel like there should be more lighthouses in life. The busses have each been cut down the middle of the chest, sparks flying from the welding. "¡Sale!" is a very popular word. It is how we survive. By agreement. Saludos a todos. The king wants to put a sheet over the clouds to hide their nakedness. Haven't you seen the vulgar sky? It's hard to say no. Sometimes our rulers look like constipated stuffed animals, filled with twenty dollar bills. Sometimes the dictionaries are stuffed with pesos. Mosttimes not. But it's worth looking into, like cocaine in the bible. We are each smeared in the ash we burn. I once met a man with a mouth full of carbon. It stumbled out black when he smiled. It's usually a song we already feel like we know. Familiar like él que amanece.

Three Days Without Pavement

Cobán, Verapaz, Guatemala To understand this, you're going to need a good map. From Todos Santos Bartek and I headed even higher into the Guatemalan altiplano highlands, through endless fog and rocks to a dismal little town called San Pedro Saloma. It took us an hour waiting by the side of the road in Tres Caminos to flag down a bus. I played guitar and drew a small crowd, most of whom were laughing at me, which is never a bad thing. Then this local kid brought out his cheap Mexican classical that had never been tuned. I put it to the pipes, got it ready and we jammed for awhile, him on the one chord BOOM-pah-pah BOOM-pah-pah and me soloing like the constipated gringo rocker that I am. Full-on antics.

The bus was driving too fast for the narrow road, the driver all hopped up on the blasting spanish gospel music. HEY-SOOS DIVINO, DELIVER ME UNTO THE MUDDY STREETS AND HONKING HORNS OF SOLOMA, I prayed because I was moved to.

Soloma, en medio de la nada, is a Little America. So many men leave from here to work in the States that you'd think you were somewhere near la frontera instead of centroamérica... Western Union offices, llamadas internacionales, VIAJERO DE LA FRONTERA written on the windshield of pickups and men who smile sly when they slip words of engrish into conversation, because they can, pues.

The next morning we caught the first chicken bus out of there. For those unfamiliar, the chicken bus is a unique concept in transportation. They're old school busses from the States and Canada, sold off after they were deemed too old and too scary for white kids. Now they're in Guate, painted evil circus colors, and crammed with over 70 people usually. Riding one of these things up a road that is more potholes than not is really almost like its own Xtreme sport. Sitting over the wheel wells, you should see how much air you can catch at a time. I'm talking spine-compacting, gringo-flipping, diesel-fuming, XTREME ACCIÓN.

This road is that place you've always wondered about: where the sky comes down to meet the earth and talk things over. All around the bus, the clouds were so thick it was impossible to see more than three or four meters. Mud everywhere from here on out.

Four hours of chickbus xtreme hell. We arrive in Barillas, a wet frontier town that I only know through foggy windows. We were stopped long enough to buy a bag of peanuts, four oranges and 40oz of agua pura. Then we piled into the back of a Toyota Landcruiser, along with nine men and two little girls, all covered by a metal frame and canvas.

The road from Barillas to Playa Grande was only built eight years ago, though some of what was some of the most untouched jungle in Guate. It still doesn't appear on many maps, but for 35 quetzales (around four bucks) it's possible to make the five hour trip. This is far, far off the "gringo trail" of tourist Guatemala. During the civil war, especially during the early eighties, this was where some of the most bloody fighting took place. Organized guerillas were supported by little pueblos, and then the army would arrive to masacre, kidnap, rape and tourture people from these little towns for supporting the "communistas." It was a tug-of-war game played on the bloody backs of indiginous peasants.

After the peace accords were signed in 1996, the country entered a new era of hope and the government undertook many rural development projects, such as the road we were on. This can be seen as the government finally coming through on its promises ("Obras, no Palabras") of aiding rural peoples, or it can be seen as creating the infrastructure for greater control of the countryside by the central government. Either way, it meant a boom in rural settlement, with poor ladinos (mestizos, mixed blood) moving into areas that had been home to only indigenous peoples. The land is fertile here, and milpas (maize, corn fields) follow the road for its entire length. So fertile in fact, that there are two harvests a year.

When we dropped out of the clouds the rain stopped and we peeled back the canvas so we could all stand up and feel the wet air on our faces. We were a motley group, the farmers, the traditional indigenas en ropa tipica, the sketchy government official, the kid who worked for national health, the viejo, the young kids and the two gringos. In their eyes, we of course had no reason to be where we were: "¿Están aquí para trabajar? Ai, ¿pasear y nada más?" We were entertaining though, and the half-naked kids on the sides of the road would point as we flew by. Things got even more interesting as we passed the half-way point and I started to notice empty beer cans being thrown out of the cab of the truck.

We arrived in Playa Grande at sunset and collapsed onto cheap beds in a cement room. It was raining. Again. Playa Grande of course means Big Beach. There is neither a Playa nor is the place Grande. There isn't much to tell. It's famous for a laguna, but we didn't have the ganas to go look at more water, especially in the rain. Bartek reported that he actually saw some foriegners on his way to use the satillite internet connection, which really wasn't much of a connection at all.

Yesterday we took a microbus the hell out of the jungle. A microbus, it begs explaining, is a small, boxy, Toyota van. It is also a miracle that the thing does not fall to pieces as it is crammed with 16 people and driven at high speeds over more potholes and through deep mud. It is, however, preferable to the chicken bus as it is faster and may (or may not) have a shred of suspension left. The driver was a total pendejo who tried to charge us for bringing our backpacks with us, but he was an ameture at gringo-jipping, I shot him down with a couple well-placed, quick sentences, in front of everybody. Jaja, fucker. Hablo una chinga de español ya.

I have never in my life been so happy to see pavement. I fell asleep in excitement. Cobán is a good place to be. It's a real city, repleat with ATM's (in the nick of time), gallon jugs of agua, food besides pollo y arroz, night life and turismo. It's still a pretty meditative place, surrounded by fincas de café (coffee plantations) and clouds. Kinda romantic, makes me with Bartek was less Polish and more my girlfriend.

And that, cabrones, is three days without pavement. I stink.

foto: bart pogoda