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An Excellent Fourth of July
It is the Fourth of July, 2007. At the age of fifteen, I find myself in a cattle truck with fifteen Americans, sixteen backpacks, four bags of corn, and close to a hundred Guatemalans. Oh, and some pigs. And a Canadian.
Effectively, I’ve just been felt up by an entire family of six, including the greasy-haired father, the harried mother, the grandfather, the toddler, and the newborn, who appears to be absolutely fascinated by the texture of my face.
Interesting fact: the newborn appears to have some sort of skin disease, possibly smallpox.
Another interesting fact: I’m here by choice.
It’s the summer before my junior year of high school, and I’ve chosen to spend it traveling around Guatemala on a tour run by a company named Where There Be Dragons. (As in, where maps end, there are dragons. And we go there. To find the dragons.) We’re a group of sixteen, twelve American teenagers and three leaders. Oh, and the Canadian.
We have difficulty explaining the name and nature of the tour to Guatemalans. Often, I’m forced to resort to this: “We’re students, and we’re, well, looking for dragons.” This triggers puzzled looks; one middle-aged indigenous man simply repeats, in broken English: “No dragons. No dragons here. Sorry, sorry, no dragons.” Of course, it’s hard to take him seriously; he is wearing a shirt that reads: Everyone Loves An Irish Girl.
The leaders are worse. They refer to us, the students, as “Dragons”. “We’d like four rooms, please. We’re traveling with a group of sixteen dragons.” “Could you take a dragon into your home? Thanks, thanks.”
It’s a trip for cultural immersion and language study, which means learning to curse people out in Spanish, eating corn tortillas forty-two days in a row, and spreading the good gospel of deodorant and Snakes on a Plane wherever we go.
It’s crowded in the truck, which is to say that we’re packed like sardines in a can, if the sardines were put through a blender first. This is due to Newton’s little-known Fourth Law, which applies only to cheap travel in Latin America: “There is always more space.” The distance between my ear and my shoulder, for instance, appears to be currently occupied by the family of six.
Luckily, we drive in circles around a city block for about an hour before setting off, giving us time to get comfortable. As we head into the mountains, the engine begins to grumble. In time, we are confronted with the ultimate obstacle: a hill, perhaps a hundred feet long, with a two percent grade. We chug upwards. We slip backwards. Grizzled old women begin to pray.
The truck stops, and the driver descends to begin a grave conference with a few of the men. They mumble and nod grimly, gesturing at the truck. Finally, they reach a decision. As the passengers remain, helplessly, in the truck, the men remove ten fifty-pound bags of cement. The truck, with the passengers, moves to the crest of the hill. The men shoulder the cement bags, climb the hill, and load the cement back into the truck.
Problem solved. We continue on our way.
I’m staying with a family in a nearby village, accessible only by a hour’s walk through cloud forest. It’s a two-room house: one room is given to me, and the family remains in the other one. There’s the one bed, which, apparently, sleeps eleven comfortably. There’s the fire, the chair, the plate, the fork, and the grandmother. Like the other elements of the kitchen, she remains by the fire at all times; in the course of four days, I don’t see her leave the room once. Immersed in smoke, she makes approximately 8,657 tortillas daily.
There’s also the mysterious bag, which sits next to the wall and, occasionally, meows. It’s about the size of a watermelon, and once or twice it squirms; when I ask the family about the bag, they explain: “Is cat.”
“But why is it in the bag?”
“Place for cat.”
The toilet is located behind the house, and consists of a hole, a wooden covering, and a door made of transparent plastic, the kind used for grocery bags. One rainy night, I stumble out there in the darkness, nearly bursting.
As recommended by the packing list, I have purchased a $30 flashlight with LED bulbs, a strobe function, and straps to attach it to my forehead, allowing me to cook, read, spelunk, and act as a walking disco ball hands-free.
Long story short: in an odd freak accident, the flashlight is doomed to oblivion in the depths of the hole. Goodbye, flashlight.
I return to the house and, shamefaced, tell my hosts the story. It takes some fine mime work on my part, as they speak little Spanish. But eventually they get the idea. My host father shakes his head sadly. “A horrible incident most is this,” he say, and then, inexplicably: “Post office.” His wife looks on the verge of tears. “Sorry. Sorry. Sorry,” she says, in Mayan, and steps outside. I’m touched. “It’s my fault,” I say. “I was just stupid.”
Ten minutes later, she reappears, surrounded by a crowd of neighborhood children with triumphant smiles. There’s something wrapped in a rag in her hands. She cradles it like a baby. “You,” she says, and thrusts it at me. I accept it, grinning “Thanks-“ I say, unwrapping- “Thanks-
It’s the headlamp. It’s my headlamp.
They brought me back the headlamp.
“How-“ I being, and then stop myself. I do not want to know that. I do not want to know that!
Too late. The wife, still grinning, points at her arm, and then at one of the children. “Washed. Water,” she explains.
I ignore the smell. I ignore the brown particles clinging to the straps. I gush with gratitude. They laugh and smile, proud of their accomplishment. I turn it over and over in my hands, trying to express the appropriate admiration for what they’ve done for me.
That night, lying on my wooden slats, I think: It’s times like these that I thank god for hand sanitizer.