I fumble foolishly for the alarm. In the end I defeat its sly slithering. I throttle its bleating. It says 5:15. I wobble to the bathroom and blear around. My clothes find places. The door taps quietly. The maid brings in toast and coffee. She was supposed to bring it at 5:30. It is 5:20.
At 5:55 I tow my wheels towards the hotel door. The maid comes towards me. The taxi is outside. Guatemalans have the same attitude to time as Germans. Early is good. Late is unthinkable. I blink. It is a taxi, not a mini-bus. I figure it will take us to the office where we will change vehicles.
At 6:05 Jason phones. They are running 5 minutes late. This much is already obvious. The taxi-man drives me to their apartment. They get in. We set off to the office. We go the wrong way. Jason explains that it is because all streets in Guatemala are one-way and we have to circle. We leave town. We are not going to Rio Dulce in a mini-bus.
The driver is Aparicio.
One diagonal of thin stitched canvas clicks into a flimsy clasp. The clasp is attached vaguely to bodywork near the top of the door. The waist strap hides.
The dual carriageway twists steeply out of Antigua. Aparicio occupies the left lane. From there he sees round corners. He gets advanced warning of stopped and turning vehicles in the right lane.
We see few cars. Chicken busses power past. Workers gaze stunned from windows. We leave Sacatepequez.
We enter Guatemala burbs. We hit stationary traffic. It is 6:50.
Thirty-year-old pickups with flapping bits edge past shiny Toyota SUVs with black windows. Chicken busses trump everything. Movement is less than walking pace. 125cc motorcycles slide over and between. Five lanes form where three are painted. Traffic is protracted turmoil. Vehicles are air-conditioned and single occupancy or air-vented and stuffed. Drivers telephone. Pedestrians are few, but fast.
We stop to refuel and stretch legs. We are still in the burbs.
We creep back into the carpark. I find my canvas strap. It runs out without resistance. Seatbelts are required in cars. They already serve a legal purpose. They do not have to serve another.
Big chicken busses are opaque with their burdens. People hang outside small ones. They are rarely in danger. If they let go their vertical velocity would not be enough to hurt them. Their horizontal velocity would be negligible.
Sometimes the whole carpark inches forward, mostly it does not.
The sun gains strength. It refracts through billowing slate-blue diesel. Walkers stride past through fog.
Aparicion sneezes. He wipes his nose on his hand. He wipes his hand on the wheel.
We approach the airport. The world is billboards, office buildings, petrol stations and shopping malls. This is the classy side of town. The road is a broad boulevard with vegetation in the central reservation. Walls prevent U-turns except where they don’t.
We breathe deep-fried air. Long-dead ferns provide generous servings of soot and carbon monoxide. Scrapes are like tree rings. Shiny cars morph into ramshackle facsimiles by accumulating gouges.
Aparicion clears phlegm and sneezes. The oncoming carriageway is nearly empty. Our side is solid. Buildings dense up. We are in the City. Our carriageway squeezes to 2 lanes with the speed of glaciers. We have lost our third lane. It carries rapid oncoming traffic.
Razor wire or broken glass top walls and iron fences. Bright paint glimmers through the fug. Low buildings are topped by cement pillars with rebar ribs. Guate is built like a dead antelope. Unfinished brieze-block construction lines the sclerotic traffic.
Roads feed diagonally into our carpark. Ambling pace shrinks to velocities used by subducting continents.
Blue air shimmers and moves with heat. Sooty truck exhausts gape and vibrate at window-level.
Aparicion wipes and inches forward. Buildings re-modest. They are less dense. They are dirtier. A banana shop looms through blue fog. Rays of sunlight play. Our aquarium.
Our side of the road oozes forward. We reach a bridge across a chasm. Wind drifts the smoke off the road. A rusty railway bridge spears across the chasm to the right. A large private cemetery fills the sides of the ravine below the bridge. Slum housing spatters other slopes.
Alison says graves are rented. When families cannot pay the body is exhumed and dumped in landfill. I think about the pay for wheeling exhumed bodies from cemetery to landfill.
We toil off the bridge. We struggle up a hill. We inch under an overpass. The steel girders are bolted to rock embrasures. The embrasures are protected by razor wire.
Aparicion takes us out of the carpark at an intersection. We go up the ramp and through the intersection and down the other side to the car park. We have gained 30 car-lengths. We will reach the other end a few seconds early.
We are back in blue air. We labour collectively up a hill. On the right the road cut exposes a huge depth of soil.
We reach the cause of the jam. An accident in the oncoming carriageway is mostly cleared. Police and firemen wander and stand. Wreckage is mostly gone. A crowd of onlookers stand on the central reservation. They take photos and make videos on their cell phones.
Our lane loosens. Traffic releases. We hurtle. The opposite carriageway is a carpark. It is 5 or 6 km long. We leave the city at 8:10.
The road wriggles generally down. It is a broad dual carriageway with a good surface. The curves are sometimes tight. There is little traffic. We wind down through dry hills. Scrub and bush scatter through burn-scars and steep slopes of grey-brown grass.
The road narrows to two-way. It plunges down around the flanks of hills.
Oncoming Freightliners slog uphill in first gear. Their wheels hardly turn. They carry nose-to-tail loads of fizzy drinks, cement and garden furniture. A double yellow line discourages overtaking. Chicken bus drivers may not always understand “yellow”. The road curves tight. Upward and downward Freightliners brush rear-view mirrors.
The road widens to dual carriageway. Aparicion sneezes and clears phlegm. He wipes. We fly downhill. The speedometer needle is missing. The odometer increments. It records 200 000 km. We enter El Progreso.
Dry hills covered in dry bush haze into forever. Road cuts look unstable and unconsolidated. We pass roadworks. A tracked backhoe climbs an impossibly steep incline. At any moment it will gracefully somersault backwards. It is perhaps trying to remove earth and rock that will collapse onto the road in the next rains. Boulders fan over the road. We edge past.
Alison and Jason snooze. Aparicion sneezes and wipes his nose on his hand. He smears his hand on his trousers.
We approach nowhere. Mountains simmer indistinct in hot haze. Aparicion finds a rag. He wipes the steering wheel and his palms. He puts the rag away. The road narrows to two-way. It enters a broad plain. The plain is dry. There are no inhabitants.
Aparicion gets up close to overtake. The pickup truck carries thin telephone poles. We are close. I count growth rings. We ride the suction. Aparicion drives carefully. He does not overtake until he knows the road ahead is clear. This can take time. The road oscillates in all dimensions. Oncoming traffic may be faster than it seems. Growth rings reveal much about telephone poles.
We stop at 11 for breakfast. I slop two undercooked fried eggs. I ruminate one desiccated wodge of bean paste. I ingest instant coffee and bottled orange juice.
The road interminables eastward. We drive through Zacapa.
Aparicion tells us the dim mountains to our north are full of jade.
Aparicion answers the phone. He will be there in two hours.
Aparicion gets up close to overtake. The pickup truck carries a heap of stuff. On top of the heap is a spillikins of thin rebar. Aparicion tucks us into the shade of the rebar. I am in the suicide seat. I stay cool. It is a good day to die.
Sometimes we pass through a township. Tuk-tuks nimble across the road. This is not Africa. There are no goats. The only chickens are busses.
We leave Zacapa. We enter Izabal. The vegetation greens. It flourishes. Fields and farms surround us. The coast approaches. For a long time.
Aparicion answers the phone. He will be there in an hour. It is a struggle to get his phone out when it rings. It is a struggle to put it back.
Alison and Jason and I agree not to come back with this taxi but to take a scheduled collectivo. We discuss fares with Aparicion. I slip my money belt to Alison. We discuss dollars and Qs. I put my money belt back on. Aparicion wipes his wheel and his hand and puts the rag away.
Aparicion answers the phone. He struggles it out. He will be there in half an hour. He struggles it back.
Aparicion answers the phone. He will be there in fifteen minutes. He is tempted to hurl his phone out of the window. He struggles it into his pocket. He has the patience of Job.
A great bridge announces Rio Dulce. The bridge is full of traffic. It carries us up over the river. It carries us down into the crowds and heat.
We stiff out onto the melting asphalt. We pay Aparicion. He seems less than gruntled. We shake his wet hand. We thank him and say goodbye.
Crowds granulate. Tuk-tuks and bicycles compete for space with pedestrians and fruit stands. Collectivos and taxis and Freightliners din with chicken buses. The town is a baking tray in a neon oven. It is full of people who need to be somewhere else. Noise bounces off the incandescent sky.
We drag luggage down to the jetty. I tow my black carry-on bag. A yellow dwarf undergoes nuclear fusion 150 million km above my head. Its surface is plasma at 5505°C. My Tilly hat softens the blow. Jason tows a genuine suitcase. Alison calls the Crocodile Hotel. She explains where we are. A launch will come to pick us up.
A rotund Gugatemalan bellies up to Alison. He has white shoes. He insists. We must take a tour. Alison outmanoeuvres. She promises to take the tour tomorrow. She will book it later.
We sit on a bench in the shade and sweat.
A launch arrives. We load luggage. We rock the boat. We sit down. Alice and Ollie join us. They are British. We speed to Hotel Kangaroo. We meet Gary. His wife Graciella watches us from behind the bar. We think she is one of his staff. We are surprised when he announces his relationship. They do not radiate bliss.
Graciella switches her smile on and off. She practices looking happy. She is not a method actor. She shows us our rooms.
We have rooms on the first floor. Two walls are windows covered by mosquito netting. The roof is palm fronds. A fan hangs from a beam. This is comfort.
We order beer. We chat with Gary. There are 18 guests. There are 3 toilets. He explains what we might do and see tomorrow. He is a tape recorder. He masters message. His delivery is race-through rapid. His accent is Adelaide. He should practice laconic.
The hotel has a waterfront deck. Tables and chairs are arranged under parasols. The river below the deck is opaque dark green. Water plants drift by. We swim. It is hugely refreshing. We go to the jacuzzi. Cold water froths around us. We chill.
We eat dinner. We go to bed.
The fans revolve.
Tagged: , Guatemala , one a day , Rio Dulce