STOP! Before reading this chapter, go read Chapter 1 and Chapter 2. Everything will make a bit more sense and be slightly more exciting.
Slightly hung-over, I stumbled my way out of the hostel property. “You can take a ride with us, bud,” a driver who was bringing backpackers to the city center said as he stood in one of Guatemala’s many military-styled trucks. “No, gracias. I have a bus waiting for me.” I was stupid enough to schedule majority of my transport before actually entering the country. Not only did the company I book with (Casa Alegre Tours / Guatemala Transportation / Atitlan Transportation – different names, but same company) charge me much more than the cost of a standard ticket, they also made it extremely difficult to find the shuttles or buses I was supposed to take (more on this later).
Fortunately, my prepaid SIM card with Claro from Costa Rica worked, so I used Skype to call up the transportation company. “Hombre en el cortos verde,” I repeated, telling them to look out for the guy in the green shorts. I ended up catching a ride to town with the guy who initially offered.
After sitting around for ten minutes, two little kids approached me. “Hola,” one said as his eyes fixated on my camera. “Quieres ver?” I asked. They both nodded with smiles from ear to ear. “Conosces Semuc Champey?” I asked them. They nodded again. So, I proceeded to show them a few photos of the mesmerizing land bridge from yesterday.
One of them asked me where I was from. “Los Estados Unidos,” I said. Blank stares. “Have you heard of the United States?” I asked. They both shook their heads. “Have you heard of England,” I asked, going for something equally popular, albeit far older. They nodded.
It’s funny, coming from the United States I am often guilty of living in an American-centric view of the world. Meaning, I assume that everyone knows about the United States. I assume that people are interested in our politics (only because I’m asked about it so often). And, I routinely falsely assume that everyone wants to at least visit America – a friend in Thailand was one of the first to deny this notion. I noted filed the interaction with the children away and Skyped the transportation company again.
Twenty minutes later, someone found me and told me to hop on the shuttle I booked. There were at least three too many people in the shuttle (not complaining, it’s just how it goes in some places), and we jostled one another all the way to Coban (remember Coban from Chapter 1?). However, this was no part of Coban I was familiar with. We were at a McDonald’s – supposedly where all buses stopped. More like where all tourists come to eat enough greasy, salty, GMO’d food to ensure that they’ll require a triple-bypass by 50.
I’d honestly (very, very serious) rather be punched in the face by Mike Tyson (now, not in his prime) than subject myself to eating McDeath’s. Not that the drinking I did the previous night was any better, but the same applies. It disgusts me. So, I went to a supermarket and made myself a good old bread and cheese sandwich with a side of Gatorade (I also have my views on this… but needed electrolytes).
Me in front of a sign for the city of “Coban,” across from wretched McDeath’s
As I waited for my bus, which was or wasn’t coming, I overheard some people talking about the Mayan ruins I planned to see: Tikal. “You guys going to Flores?” I asked. “Yep,” one of the guys, with what I believed was an Australian accent, said. “Me too.”
The bus eventually arrived, and four of us piled into it. The Australian guy, a young Danish couple and myself. After having been in that packed van from Coban, I couldn’t believe there were only four of us. We all got acquainted and put a movie on (the shuttle had a screen with loads of movies). We settled on White House, with Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx. After a few minutes, we all agreed that the movie was insanely corny. But, pressed on and eventually became engaged.
The Australian guy and I exchanged handfuls of stories. He was (is) a doctor and used to live only a few stops away from me on the L train (good luck in 2017, friends) in New York. The couple had been traveling for a bit and eventually planned to go back home and begrudgingly attend university. Out of the four of us, I was the only one who could speak any Spanish, and was therefore tasked with communication with the driver.
The drive was around four or five hours. At one point, we were held up for an hour. I asked what was going on, and the driver said we needed to wait for a ferry to take us across an extremely small river. As we inched closer and closer towards the ferry, I saw possibly what was one of the weirdest parts of my trip. There were about five men standing around in cowboy hats and boots. And, a few meters away from them, in front of a bar, were a handful of young guys stumbling around – obviously drunk during the middle of a Thursday.
As we looked on at these kids nearly falling flat on their faces, one guy suddenly hit another. The guy who got hit ran away, out of fear. Then, another guy, dressed in black, came out of the bar and started jumping around like a chicken. “What the…” Our faces were all pressed against the windows of the van. The chicken guy kept jumping around and eventually hit a few other guys. Then, a guy in green and red began to fight. The cowboys looked on with glee. Eventually, the fight went around the corner out of our sight and we saw police. I badly wanted to get out and record it all, but thought that the line between art imitating life and life imitating art was very fine.
The ferry eventually came and we drove onto it. One thing about Guatemala is that there are a ton of guns. Glocks, semi-automatics, shotguns and more. I honestly had never seen that many guns in my life. The only places that come close are Kenya and Uganda. I remember being on a safari in Kenya watching huge hippos cross a river. A soldier in front of me had an AK-47 almost the size of his body. When I asked why he was carrying it, he said to put a bullet in any animal that became dangerous.
So, this situation was no different. The only difference being that the most dangerous animal to roam the earth has always been, and will always be the human.
Back to the ferry. I saw soldiers (?) piled into the back of a truck brandishing their semi-automatics as they surveyed the area. I began to mime a camera to one who stared back at me, causing him to shrug. Unsure of if he understood that I wanted to take a photo, I took his shrug as a “yes,” hopped out of the van, and began to take photos of a few of them.
I tried telling them to smile. Can’t win ‘em all
For some reason, a French girl in another tourist van (knew she was French because she was on the tour I was on the day before) began to yell at me and say, “No, no! Stop that!” It’s not like the soldiers were going to accidentally twitch and shoot me right there and then. Or would they…? We made it to the beautiful island of Flores a little while later and the four of us found our way to our hostel: Los Amigos.
Unlike Zephyr Lodge (from Chapter 2), Los Amigos is centrally located on the island of Flores. There are dozens of hostels all within walking distance from one another, and a bridge connects the island to the main town and other shops. The hostel itself is stunning (see photo below). There are beautifully painted elephants, tigers, people and other works of art adorning the walls. Tibetan flags (not really surprised, right?), wooden decorations and other subdued lights hang from the ceiling above large areas with tables and throw pillows, giving the impression that you’re in a psychotropic harem. The people, as in Zephyr Lodge, were helpful, informative and kind. I grabbed food and then knocked out.
The harem-like inside of Los Amigos Hostel
The next morning, I woke up around 6 am (this is really a ritual whenever I’m in a new place), and ventured out with my camera and GoPro. The island of Flores itself is truly a work of art. Majority of the buildings on the island are painted different pastel colors that look post card-esque from a distance (see photo below). The streets are all cobblestone and you’re as likely to see old, broken Volkswagen Beetles as you are lanchas (little wooden boats) at what I’ll call the marina. What’s also amazing is that you can walk around the whole island in about 15 minutes, which I did.
As I rounded a corner and saw lanchas ferrying people back and forth between Flores and another island, San Miguel (where I had a hostel booked, but ditched it for Los Amigos), I heard a guy call out, “Muchacho! You want a ride?” “I don’t have any money on me, sorry.” “It’s okay,” he said. “You can get it later. This will be a private ride.” “How much?” “50 quetzales.” “Too much. 30.” “40.” I did some quick math and realized it was $6. “For how long?” “30 minutes?” Even if I were getting scammed, which I didn’t think I was, I could hardly think $6 for a private 30-minute boat ride around the island wasn’t worth it. So, I hopped on and my new friend Jose and I were off. “I have family in New Jersey,” he said. “God bless them,” I replied.
Jose was a really kind guy who was extremely knowledgeable of Flores. He told me that Peten, the district where Flores was located, was the largest in Guatemala. He also told me about the history of Flores, his home San Miguel (the other island right across the river) and why all of the buildings are so beautifully painted (it’s mandated by the municipal government… I think. The whole tour was in Spanish). We had a great time. He pointed out wildlife (ducks, vultures, turtles) and told me to touch the water. When I did, I was pleasantly surprised to feel how warm it was despite it being the morning.
“Want to swim?” he asked. “Of course.” So, I took my shirt off and jumped into the water. It was as warm as a recently ran bathtub and I couldn’t help feeling immensely grateful for all I was experiencing. The water, the view of Flores, the country of Guatemala, and this positive guy, Jose. “How did I get here?” I rhetorically asked myself. I thought back to my friends and family in New York. My favorite season: the Fall. My old job. My old life.
I continued to swim around thinking of my next step in life when Jose interrupted my contemplation. “Do you believe in God?” he asked out of nowhere. I paused for a second, a bit shocked by the question. While I ran a few calculations about why he asked, whether I thought he believed in God or not, if I should tell him the truth, I settled on just being honest. “I believe in something bigger than us,” I said. “But, I wouldn’t exactly call it God.” He nodded. “Yeah, me too.” “As long as we’re good to each other, you know?” he said. “Yeah, I know.”
View of colorful Flores from afar
I headed back to Los Amigos and saw my Australian bud. We ventured off for breakfast and had huevos rancheros with a side of good conversation. Somehow, we made our way from the Middle East to the atoms in our bodies. We didn’t see eye-to-eye on everything, but at no point was the conversation ever hostile. I always know I’ve found a new friend when you can disagree with someone, but still be respectful. There’s nothing more ruinous than a shouting match or people constantly vying to be right, opposed to actually listening to learn. We headed back to the hostel and grabbed a bus for the sunset of the Mayan ruins: Tikal.
Upon arriving in Tikal, we were greeted by an enormous Ceiba tree. Our guide told us that the roots, which were hidden, resemble the underworld. The large trunk, the world we inhabit (Earth). And the top, heaven or some version of it. I remarked at how similar this belief was to the Incas. For them, the snakes represented the underworld, the puma the world we inhabit, and the condor for the world above.
We walked onwards a bit and encountered the first pyramid. It looked like it was straight out of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto. The part where they paint the captives blue and march them up the pyramid to be sacrificed (not really a spoiler). It was huge, and I was ecstatic when I heard we could walk up it. Only in retrospect do I question doing it.
Tourism is a very sharp double-edged sword. At one end, it injects enormous amounts of capital into many countries that badly need it. On the other end, it has the potential to wreak havoc on a country’s wildlife and historical sites e.g. Tikal. What toll does one of those pyramids pay for the hundreds of people who walk, jump and stomp all over its millennia old structure? Are we hastening its end? Just a few thoughts, back to Tikal.
My friends and I ran up it and then surveyed the area. There were around 90,000 Mayans inhabiting the city anywhere from AD 700 – 830. As with most ancient ruins or artifacts, I was amazed at the sheer craftsmanship of them. I can’t even make a proper lasagna.
The first pyramid we saw in Tikal
We learned about the Mayan language, saw distant cousins of raccoons running around and made our way to other, larger temples. The difference, I learned, between a Mayan pyramid and a temple, is that the temples had rooms at the top for the astronomer and leader to take shrooms in and divine the gods. It sounded a bit like what some of my friends back at home do, but c’est la vie.
Eventually, we made our way to one of the largest temples, temple number V (I think it was V). We rounded the back and were told to be very, very quiet. I was wondering what all the silence was about, and then I saw it. The vast oranges and reds were spreading across the sky like wildfire. There were about 15 of us, all silently staring off as the sun set. And, in that moment, I felt something. A calming sensation washed over me. A deep sense of gratitude. Something spiritual. We stared and stared and stared until the sun was gone. Then, we left.
As I descended the temple, Jose’s question popped into my mind: “Do you believe in God?”
On the bus ride back, I remarked at all of the people I had met. One common theme running across most of them was that they were unafraid. Unafraid of exploration. Unafraid of losing themselves for a bit. Unafraid of, perhaps, being afraid. It was this realization that, for how bold I am and have been, made me feel a bit small. As though I’m not as risk-averse as I think I am.
I know that comparing myself to others is rarely a worthwhile endeavor, but, in that moment, it was serving as motivation. Motivation to push myself to see and explore more. To always be more. To remain unabashedly in love with the meeting of differences. And, to know that if you’re patient and open, only good can come of it.
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