"I want you all to come back with every inch of skin that you have now.”
By Mateo Askaripour
STOP! Before reading this chapter, go read Chapter 1. Everything will make a bit more sense and be slightly more exciting.
I bid the taxi driver farewell, silently thanked him for not trying to rob me (again, stupid but true) and followed the teenager, Daniel, down the street. “Just hop in there and wait for a bit, my friend,” he said as he pointed to a very large truck with a huge bed in the back covered with a green military tarp.
“Never has anyone said, ‘Yeah, I’ll just hop into the back of this sketchy truck, it’s safe,” I thought to myself. But, by this point, I was exhausted. The flight, four hour bus and two hour taxi ride were beginning to take their toll. I decided to rest my eyes to the sounds of stray dogs barking, water flowing down and a far off stream and men in the street laughing to one another.
After thirty minutes, the truck began to move into the darkness of the night. As the truck lurched up an extremely steep hill, I was thrown backwards, causing me to almost fall out. A few minutes later, we arrived at Zephyr Hostel. It was secluded and seemed to have a large party going on inside.
There were a dozen people huddled around pairs of dice and empty shot glasses. Sweaty couples dancing and making out on tables and reggae blasting on speakers I couldn’t locate. Whatever was going on, I was exhausted and wanted no part. So, I quickly ordered a burrito (which was delicious) and inhaled it.
The property itself was large: about ten long wooden tables in what I’ll call the “main area,” a beautiful pool surrounded by sprawling hills and low-hanging clouds and then the rooms. There were private bungalows, a tent pitched off to the side and then my humble abode: the dorm. The dorm was more spacious than any I had ever slept in before. It was as if they brought in a master architect to somehow install about ten bunk beds while still making it walkable and comfortable. Windows with different colored panes that, the next morning, would let in deep hues of green, blue and orange were also a nice touch. I crawled into my bed and took a breath. At $7 / night, the comfort of the bed and location couldn’t be beat.
When I woke, I felt fingers of light pulsating all over my body; urging me to get up, get up and get up. It was 6am and quiet. No doubt because everyone had partied the night away. Among the staccato snores of weary backpackers, I heard a stream gurgling outside. I looked out and, beyond large pine trees, saw water rushing through the woods. “Where the hell am I?” I thought. I jumped out of bed and surveyed the back of the property – the whole of it was breathtaking. Forested mountains and the silence of the country molested my eyeballs and ears (weird verbiage, but it feels right) – it was all overwhelming, to say the least.
Pine trees, sunlight and water flowing down a stream in the distance – the embodiment of "crisp”
After a quick breakfast of my normal Central American staples (sweet plantains, rice, beans, salad and eggs), I headed outside for the tour to Semuc Champey. I was told it’d include a trip to some caves and a bridge we’d be able to jump off. I was ready for a little mischief.
“Alright, everyone,” some guy said. “Listen up. I want you all to come back with every inch of skin that you have now.” “Every inch of skin? What the hell…” I thought to myself. But, I couldn’t let my attention wander. I wanted to come back with every inch of my skin, too.
“The nearest hospital is two hours away and we don’t want to have to bring you there. The caves are dangerous. You’ll have a candle, but they’ll still be dark. There are sharp, jagged rocks. Holes you have to climb through. The bridge we’ll bring you to is about ten meters high. That is high. Jump straight. For those who aren’t familiar with water tension, if you hit water the wrong way, it will feel more like slamming into concrete at full force than jumping into a nice relaxing pool. Water can shoot up into your nose and down your throat – it’s not a pleasant sensation. In terms of Semuc Champey, there are about seven pools for you to swim through.”
“Jesus,” I said turning to a girl next to me. “Doesn’t make it all sound like a lot of fun, does it?” “No, I’m actually quite scared now” she said. “And,” the guy added, “you’ll all be hopping into the backs of these trucks and standing up. Thirteen in the back of each. Hold onto the rail, we don’t want any of you falling out.” “Off to the gulags again, I thought,” as we piled into the back of another military-styled truck.
We piled in and quickly became acquainted with one another. “Not the most wholesome way to start a tour, huh?” I said as I tried to break the ice with the other 12 or so people I was stuffed into the back of the truck with. Fortunately, a few laughed and we began to make our way through the niceties of “where’re you from?” “where have you visited, thus far?” etc. I was relieved to have found myself a good, fun group of people. I have no qualms about going into “solo” mode, where I don’t speak to anyone else and focus solely on having an experience by myself, if the situation calls for it, but it’s sometimes more enjoyable to experience new things with others.
We discussed everything from David Beckham being the best footballer there ever was (kick, kick shoot football opposed to run, run throw football) to New York City’s vast Central Park; good conversation all around. After a rollercoaster of a ride, we arrived at a path that led to the caves. And, we had our very own welcoming party.
“Chips, beers, sir?” little children began to ask as we exited the truck with arms now slightly swollen from holding on for our dear lives. “No, gracias,” we replied. “What’s your name?” they’d ask. After someone would reply, they’d proceed to write it down in a notebook. “Notebooks? I’ve never seen that one before,” I said to myself. I had a little girl in India literally following me for about 20 minutes after her mother sent her after me to ask for money. Children in Kenya asking for food as flies flew into and out of the dried snot on their faces. Shirtless drug addicts in Costa Rica (yes, Costa Rica) slicking their hair back and shaking their bodies like a flag in the wind as they asked me for a few cents. But, I had never seen anyone have notebooks. Children, no less.
“Well, my name is Jonny,” a boy said as my companions and I walked towards the entrance of the caves. “Find me afterwards and you can buy from me, okay?” he continued. “Don’t buy anything from them,” our driver quickly interjected. “These children should be in school, not out on the street with their parents selling stuff.” While not knowing the needs of their families or situations, I agreed with him. We’ve come a long way from the industrial revolution, when children at the age of five or six would have to go work in a factory to provide for their family. Well, we’ve come a long way from that in the United States and Western Europe, at least…
Las Marias Caves
The Las Marias Caves, as the fear-mongering guy at the hostel initially said, were legitimately dangerous. This was honestly no tourist excursion. The rocks were jagged, and came out of nowhere. Shoes were a must. The gist is, you have one guide for about 30 people. You’re given a candle (if you lose yours like I did, you’re SOL) and wade in water a bit before you get to a sand bar where you stand and the guide draws different patterns, stripes or phallic objects (seriously) on your face. I, unfortunately / fortunately, wasn’t part of the phallic tribe. What does that say about me?
Anyway, after waiting for all 30 people to become initiated, we hopped into deeper water and began to make our way to the next spot. There was a rope, but that didn’t help much when the water became so deep that we had to swim. The rock formations resembled icicles; large, sharp and unforgiving. There were all sorts of crevices we had to crawl through, climb up, or jump down. At one point, the thought of this all crashing down on us occurred to me, but it was a bit late for that.
Our guide also kept making some loud, “YIP! YIP!” sort of noise, which prompted me to scream, too. I always enjoy a good scream at the top of my lungs (I’m particularly skilled in barking like a dog or screeching like a monkey). I’m convinced I’m part both. The larger party became disbanded and, eventually, I found myself with a group of five to ten people.
We trekked around for about two hours. I stupidly forgot to put my contact lenses in, so I was diving headfirst into little pools with my glasses on (thank you, Warby Parker). At the end of the journey, there was a little hole that you’re supposed to slide down. It’s a waterfall, of sorts. Our guide instructed us to slowly lower ourselves down into a pool, one by one, but as I “slowly” lowered myself, water began to shoot down my throat, so I just dropped a few feet into the pool.
“Whew! Not that bad,” I said out loud as I triumphantly walked out of the cave. But, upon exiting The Cave of YIP! YIP! (good name, no?), I saw a handful of people bleeding from their heads – it seems as though that last fall was not safe, at all.
Next up on our tour of skin-peeling activities was a large yellow bridge that we intended to jump off of. Once we arrived at the bridge, I looked down (never look down), and immediately pulled myself back only to see people climbing onto the top rail and jumping off as if they had suicide on their mind. “What in the…” I knew I was going to jump because there was no way I couldn’t.
The young kids selling chocolates and other goods were back, too. An English girl was hanging off the bridge, and I was egging her on to go and get it over with. “Jump!” I screamed. “3..2..1!” The countdown didn’t work. Eventually, she did jump. Then, I hung off the bridge myself and saw just how high it was. “Damn,” I said as my breathing became more shallow. “Hey!” a little kid called to me. “Do it like this!” he said as he flipped off the bridge. I continued to stare down at the river below trying to attribute the young one’s bravery to a life of few material diversions (e.g. probably no Xbox, so must physically and literally jump off bridge instead of simulating it).
We jumped off of that!
The current was strong and I felt like I was ten times higher than I actually was. The water was a greenish-yellow, and there were people floating down it in tubes like a lazy river at Six Flags. The bridge was going to be there all day, but our group wasn’t. I either took the plunge or I didn’t. It was game time. “All you have to do is let go. Once you do, there’s nothing you can control,” I told myself. Only later did I realize how apropos this was as a motto for life, in general. So, I let go and hit the water (not concrete) seconds later.
It’s funny, we often get so worked up about making decisions that we often forget about the decision itself. It’s like doubt, anxiety and panic are forks in the road that then lead to other forks, that lead to other forks and so on and so forth; all serving as a means to transport us away from what’s really important: the present moment. A moment in time that is always worth jumping headfirst into, even if it does have the potential to feel like concrete.
Everyone had worked up an appetite, what with being gouged in caves and jumping off of a bridge the size of a small house. Our driver brought us to a place where a woman and a few other men had prepared a proper meal full of tacos and beers. I grabbed a table with a couple of newfound friends (trauma does that to people). “So, I guess we just head back to the hostel now, yeah?” I asked in-between bites. Everyone at the table laughed. “Nah, mate,” one guy said. “Now, we head to Semuc Champey. The thing we all came here for, remember?” “Oh yeah.”
Semuc Champey was more picturesque than I had imagined. The water was crystal blue and flowed from one pool to the next. It’s essentially a 400-meter limestone landbridge. We hiked up to the mirador (viewpoint) to see it in all its splendor, then headed down to swim throughout the pools. The water was warm, and there were these little fish that bit you every few seconds. A friend suggested we grab one and eat it in front of its family to ward the rest off. Aggressive, but I liked her style.
There were deep blue pools we jumped into, natural slides made out of the limestone and just an overall relaxed vibe of a seemingly (albeit, not true) untouched country. If you go to most places in Central America from May – October / November, you may find yourself, like we did, as the only people visiting a specific spot. It’s like this because May to October / November is rainy season, and most people prefer not to travel around Central America when it could pour on you at any moment. If you ask me, this is the time to go. Just don’t have a strict timeline, and you’ll be fine.
With a full day of splendor (splendor sounds corny, but I like it) behind us, and only minimal amounts of skin torn off, we headed back to the lodge. The tour came with a congratulatory beer, and we all gladly sipped away on a cold one around the pool. Then, as day slowly turned to night, the festivities ensued.
“A round of shots?” a new friend proposed, even though a plate boasting eight or ten was already in her hand. We drank. Then, more shots. Then, some beers. And, more shots. Then, a toast. “When I came to Guatemala, I knew absolutely no one. Now, I have about ten friends,” I said as I held my tequila shot up to the group of people who, in a matter of hours, I had come to like and respect (alcohol often accelerates how quickly you either like or dislike someone).
One of the girls in our group approached me and said she had a surprise for me. “What?” I asked, puzzled and a bit intoxicated. “Listen,” she said. As I craned my head around to catch the soundwaves from a direction I was unsure of, I began to hear it. “Dun, dun, da, dun, dun dun.” It was Frank Sinatra’s “New York.” You can go back and read that “dun, dun, da, dun, dun dun,” so that it makes sense now. Soon enough, the group and myself were on the tables stomping our feet, much to the chagrin of the rest of the lodge, and screaming at the top of our lungs. I was sweaty and tired, but still high from the day’s adventures.
“Ay, New York. Get over here,” a British guy said. I followed him to the bar and joined a group of other people. “Wanna play?” he asked as he held dice in his hands. “Sure.” “So, the name of the game is person who rolls the lowest number has to buy all of the shots. It’s that simple.” “Sure,” I replied again, forgetting that this seemingly harmless “dice game,” was the same one I had seen people playing the night before. To say the least, that game was my downfall. Out of about the ten rounds I played, I only “lost” once. But, one can lose in many, many ways when drinking.
Our group continued to play, laugh and dance into the wee hours (whenever I write “wee hours” I hear it being said in an Irish accent. Is that odd?) of the night. “This is what it’s all about,” I said as I stumbled back to my room and stared off at the moon illuminating the Guatemalan mountains I couldn’t take my eyes off of in the morning. “You meet people.” Hiccup! “You meet yourself.” Hiccup! “You adventure and you…”
The memory of the end of that night trails away like the crystal water flowing down Semuc Champey.
Mateo Askaripour is a writer who quit his flashy job in NYC to live life on his own terms. He’s done everything from working at an orphanage in Nairobi to building a new university in Abu Dhabi to sleeping on volcanoes in Guatemala. And right now, he’s working to get an agent for his book. Regardless of where he is, he’s always working. To keep up with him, follow him on Instagram and Twitter at @AskMateo and read one of his elaborate stories at www.SwagPapi.com