“In the eye of a hurricane at sea, the ship is pitching, rolling, yawing and surging, so it takes awhile to realize the wind isn’t howling anymore. In fact, it’s stopped completely. You have the momentarily hopeful thought you’ve moved out of the storm. Then you realize only the wind is quiet, but the seas are not getting any smaller, you’re about to get your ass kicked in the very near future.” – John Allen, Commercial Fisherman
I had mistaken the calm at the eye of the storm for being out of the storm. This journey was gearing up for the second round of ass kicking. The first round, the emotional beatdown from karma I endured being confronted with the repercussions of my insecurities and fears. The $17 I had is all that separated me from hunger and sleeping under the stars. What would you do? Having traveled the length of Central America for love, knowing you lack the means to return and current resources and options dwindling fast? Realistically there is no right answer. However, love is a drug and I was its most willing fiend. I was devoid of rational thought and the ability to logically access a situation. I resolved to climb an active volcano. Made perfect sense in my state of mind.
Upon my arrival in Antigua I’d bought a voucher for a Volcano excursion. For $12, I received a day tour of Pacaya Volcano with a VIP van transfer, guide, security and lunch. I considered it a fair price. Especially since I’d talked the tour operator down from $20. At the pick up point, learned everyone else paid $5. Bastards! That VIP van? An old chicken bus with the middle section cut out and the two ends welded back together. Not VIP on any level. Luckily we only had about an hours drive from Antigua. Unluckily the roads were bumpy and the seats thin. Based on my 2 week intensive Spanish crash course, I was voted group spokesperson. This came in handy as our Volcano guide, Tepeu, only spoke a few sentences of Spanish. He spoke fluent Mayan however. Extremely practical with a group of European and American tourists. Tepeu was pushing 70 years old if I had to guess. He met us in workman’s overalls over a thick fleece, topped with a raincoat and knee length gumboots. That was my hint I was significantly underdressed in my shorts, thin long sleeve pullover, fitted baseball cap and casual walking shoes. We live and we learn. As the “VIP” van driver left, he yelled out his window to stay on the main trail with Tepeu as tourists were being targeted for robberies and kidnappings. Wait… What?!?! I was never told about robbery and kidnap! And Tepeu is security too!?!? A 70 year old with a thin walking stick was our security?? Lord have mercy. I hoped he knew some ancient form of Mayan kung-fu. Personally, I wasn’t worried about being kidnapped; more concerned about an expectant robber learning how much money I really had. He would be using me for practice to perfect his criminal craft. With no option to return to Antigua and feeling unsafe waiting for transportation, the group decided to carry on.
The initial climb was peaceful. I tried to make small talk with Tepeu but the extent of his Spanish seemed to be, “Veinticinco minutos mas”, 25 more minutes. I’d of course chosen a cloudy day to climb so no stunning views. As we climbed higher, grass gave way to volcanic rock which gave way to volcanic sand. The sand became finer and finer the closer to the summit we got. The first hour was moderately difficult. The second hour was hard. The last 30 minutes were obscene. Incline so steep many were forced to use their hands on the ground for balance. Every time we thought we had reached the top, Tepeu would say, “Veinticinco minutos mas”. He repeated that phrase the entire 2.5 hours it took to reach the summit. Near the mouth of the volcano it was downright treacherous! No one could see anything and the stink of the sulfur gas was unbearable. Eyes started watering, people began to gag, and Tepeu standing there like an unmoving statue saying, “Sí fotos. Sí fotos.” Fuck a photo Tepeu! We need gas masks! “Veinticinco minutos mas.” For real Tepeu?!. To add to this wonderful experience, a thunderstorm rolled in; fast. We were at the lip of an active volcano spewing hot sulfur fumes with exposed lava in rocks and now we’re in the middle of a thunderstorm?!?!? Sweet Mary and Joseph.
The powdery volcanic sand made it impossible to walk down, surfing was our only option. The graceful playful stance everyone struck was quickly abandoned after the first lightning strike. Second lightning strike all hell broke loose. Adults screaming and crying, arms flailing, yelling for their momma. Actually, only I yelled for my momma but I see that as a positive result of our close and loving relationship. My natural affinity to ensure the safety of the weak and less fortunate led me to be the first down the volcano… Ok. No. I hauled proverbial ass to save my own life. I slid down that volcano like the first black world champion of downhill volcano skiing in a thunderstorm. Visibility was zero. Had no idea which way to go except away from the lightning. Then, I felt a prickle of shame at the base of my neck for not waiting. My mom’s disapproving eyes danced in my conscious. I braked and waited for the others to appear out of the thick fog above. Eventually the clouds thinned enough I could see shadowy figures emerging from the peak. I turned to scan the horizon for a possible view and saw… nothing. I had stopped directly on the edge of the volcano. Half my left foot touched air. Startled to be so close to an unexpected ledge, I lurched off balance. Momentarily in flux between stability and uncertainty my stomach somersaulted at the weightlessness I experienced. My footing shifted in the fine sand and I believed that to be my last moment on earth. Before I could even let out a shout of alarm, a strong steadying hand grabbed my right arm and yanked me back on more solid footing. It was Tepeu. “No foto. No foto.” Did you really think I was trying to take a photo Tepeu??!! Whatever. Tepeu had saved my LIFE! There, I learned my third lesson on that trip, caring about the safety and well-being of others can save your life in ways you never expected. If I hadn’t felt a ping of embarrassment for leaving others behind I’m convinced I wouldn’t be writing this blog post. My concern for others, as slight as it may have been, saved my life. As you can imagine, I made sure to remain with the group as we skated down. Once we reached our van, exhaustion settled in after the adrenaline subsided. The group was so tired no one had the energy to complain about our “lunch”, a banana, small plastic cup of water, and two gingersnap cookies. I was just happy to be alive so I ate that banana like it gave me breath itself! I savored those two gingersnaps like mana from heaven! Nothing like a brush with death to put things in perspective.
Scaling an active volcano is hard work. My clothes were soaked through with sweat and my hat crusted with salt from the exertion. My legs and ass felt like I’d worked out with Arnold Schwarznegger. Although I was thankful for “lunch”, I was starving AND the water was still out in the city. I was hungry, dirty and still unsure how I’d be able to return to Costa Rica, yet I was happy. I felt undiluted joy for the first time in months. Everything felt so fresh and real! My normal routine was a mess, my usual comforts non-existent. Yet, I was content. Eye of the storm.
I still needed money to get back. I weighed my options and considered every alternative, except sex and violence. Sex because I smelled like someone who hadn’t showered in 48 hours and had just survived an active volcano. It rained that night and a great host of travelers rid themselves of their inhibitions and restraints of societal norms and bathed in the open courtyard of the hostel. People splashing and laughing while rushing to clean themselves before the shower ended. It was freedom. And now I was cleansed. It was time to go look for a short term job to earn enough to return. However, Guatemalans are no fools. They can spot a tourist in need of quick cash in a casual glance. No one wanted any part of someone who would work a few days then take off once they had what they needed. So, I, proudest of the proud, used the last of my funds to purchase a phone card and call my mother to ask her to Western Union me enough to make it to Costa Rica. I detest having to ask anyone for help, even family. It was connected to my insecurities about being a burden. I preferred to go without than ask. In Guatemala, Western Union was not so straightforward. It took 2 days for the money to actually arrive. I survived on $2.46. Bread and fruit for food, loitering in tourist bars and catching an hour of sleep in the corner table or the bathroom. then walking the streets until the morning. A truly humbling experience for a former legal advocate at a top law firm in Boston. Money came mid-afternoon of the second day. People regularly in that situation who don’t resort to criminality to survive have my utmost respect. To this day, I freely give spare change to those asking. One day of not knowing where I would sleep and choosing not between WHAT to eat, but IF I should eat left a permanent mark on my ego. With the lifeline from my not amused mother (I felt it better not to inform her of my jaunt through Central America with no concrete plans on how to return) I bought my return ticket to Costa Rica and slept peacefully with a full belly in a nice hostel in the center of Antigua.
Next morning a hot shower and massive traditional Mayan breakfast had me feeling like gold. Mindset was, “Today is going to be a good day!” Even the taxi driver was feeling my mood! He was super friendly and helpful. Bit too touchy feely but I brushed it off. I did think it was a tad strange how quickly he sped off after we reached the bus station. He didn’t even take the Dutch couple who tried to flag him down when I got out.
In 2001, Buses in Costa Rica drove about 8 hours a day maximum, then retired for the night. My US centric brain couldn’t comprehend this at all. How inefficient could an entire region be!?!? I was convinced it was a capitalistic ploy concocted by the bus companies and hotels to milk tourists. Bastards! Then I heard gunshots and screams through the hotel windows. Apparently, outside of Costa Rica at that time was a de facto war zone. The chance of being caught in a violent situation increased exponentially at night. A $4 hotel room was fair exchange for my life. That was a consistent theme in Central America for my journey, nighttime was for wolves who hunted in ruthless packs without mercy.
And western definitions of poverty are woefully inadequate for Central America. People begged for life, not spare change. What they gleaned from travelers wasn’t to supplement, but to sustain. Exiting the bus for toilet breaks was akin to wading into a sea of desperation embodied in human form. Our crumbs, their hope. Time shrunk from hours and minutes to the intervals between arriving buses. My discarded small plastic bag with a modest corner of Coca-Cola remaining shared amongst a family. The lump in my throat is the same now as then.