It was 11:35 p.m. when our bus hit the lighted outskirts of Guatemala City. I gently nudged Heather awake. She rubbed her eyes, glanced at her watch and tried not to frown. We had missed the last connection to Antigua and now needed a plan for the night.
With several weeks of rural travel under our belts, missed buses had become an accepted fact of life. In most cases, patience and a pack of cards was enough to see us through. Rolling into Central America’s largest city at midnight posed a new challenge, and
Heather sat up and asked me if I smelled something “funny.” At that moment, I was more annoyed with the exaggerated snoring emanating from our drunken neighbor. With Heather’s prompting, I inhaled deeply. There was something unpleasant in the air.
“Guat,” as the driver called it, had the reputation of being a pretty rough place.
”He had ingested a whole chicken and several pounds of rice for the single purpose of re-depositing it undigested on the floor”
As the bus rumbled forward, the city continued to gather. What we saw was not reassuring. Intermittent streetlights illuminated crumbling, graffiti-laced buildings, grimy billboards and narrow, trash-lined streets. A thick, man-made haze hung in the air, hinting of recent fires. It was a grim, disordered landscape.
Heather leaned her head wearily against the glass. I could see the toll of the trip in the shadows under her eyes. In contrast, the other passengers filled the cabin with restless energy and easy conversation. Trying to muster a little enthusiasm, she took a deep breath and said, “This is going to be fun.” She could not have been more wrong.
The station was a congested mess. Cab drivers jockeyed with families, vendors and beggars filled every inch of space. Despite the late hour, three more buses arrived in rapid succession, each dumping a full load of passengers onto the tarmac. We stepped tentatively into the throng. The smell of unwashed bodies was dizzying. After collecting our packs, we headed for the station, elbows out.
Once inside, we bypassed the sleepy attendant and located the schedule board. What little hope we had of catching an early bus out was quickly dashed. The first shuttle didn’t leave until 7:30am. This meant we had approximately eight hours to kill.
By this point, much of the crowd had made its way inside. The sudden spike in noise was too much. I was hungry, I was tired, but most of all, I just wanted some quiet to contemplate our next move. We dragged our packs to the back of the station and found a seat on one of the benches. Heather grabbed the guidebook to see if there was decent lodging nearby. Shaking her head, she read aloud the description of the neighborhood. There was nothing around, no hostels, no hotels, no B&Bs. In fact, the final paragraph advised that, due to “undesirable elements,” it was best to steer clear of the area after dark. If I hadn’t been so exhausted, I would have shredded that book into a hundred pieces.
Thankfully, the station was clearing out. With things now quiet– and the book’s warning in mind – we decided to stay put. “The sun will be up in a few hours,” I told Heather, “and a missed night’s sleep won’t kill us.” She cast a dubious glance at the hard, wooden benches, the dirty floor and the guy sleeping noisily on the far side of the room. “Okay let’s do it.”
After playing a few games of cards and double-checking the schedule for the next day, we piled our stuff onto the benches and tried for a nap. Minutes later, Heather sat up and asked me if I smelled something “funny.” At that moment, I was more annoyed with the exaggerated snoring emanating from our drunken neighbor. With Heather’s prompting, I inhaled deeply. There was something unpleasant in the air. The smell was familiar, yet repulsive. We checked the soles of our shoes, turned over our packs and looked under the bench. Nothing. I told Heather to forget about it, but the more we tried to ignore the stench the stronger it became.
Fed up, I cautiously approached the side of the room where the guy was sleeping. What I found shocked me. For a moment, my mind refused to acknowledge what my eyes took in. Sitting just inches from the man’s dangling head was a tremendous pile of vomit. It appeared as if he had ingested a whole chicken and several pounds of rice for the single purpose of re-depositing it undigested on the floor. Under the florescent lights, the extruded mound gave off an unworldly sheen. The shape reminded me of Mt. Kilimanjaro – monstrous, unmoving, primordial.
I wanted to scream. I wanted to empty my head of the image. Seeing the expression on my face, Heather came rushing over. “Oh my God!” she gasped and then started to giggle. Thinking she had gone mad, I just stared. Her madness was infectious, however, and I, too, began to laugh. Catching her breath, she said “We’ve got to get out of here.” I agreed. We grabbed our belongings and dashed for the exit.
A hundred pairs of eyes turned towards us; time crawled; the air curdled in my lungs. I felt like I’d been thrust onto a stage in the midst of a play without a script. A high-pitched buzz filled my ears. Danger was all around us.
Once on the street, we headed for the only well lit block in sight. Turning the corner, we found ourselves on a street swarming with people. The scene ignited every nerve in my body. We had stumbled across a circus of the absurd.
Spread out before us was a cast of characters dredged from the darkest corners of the imagination. There were pimps in oily shirts, ragged kids racing about, a cadre of prostitutes, an old man with one leg, a guy with no legs and a pack of skinny dogs. I could have sworn I saw a dwarf dressed as a streetwalker, but my mind– already over overheating – expediently rejected the idea. Instantly, the entire block froze. A hundred pairs of eyes turned towards us; time crawled; the air curdled in my lungs. I felt like I’d been thrust onto a stage in the midst of a play without a script. A high-pitched buzz filled my ears. Danger was all around us.
I don’t know how long I was lost in my reverie. It may have been seconds, perhaps minutes. Heather’s presence brought me back. It was clear that we had to get off the street, but to do so we would have to push on. From the corner of my eye I saw the neon lights of a hotel. It was about ten yards away. I silently communicated our escape route to Heather. Keeping my head down, I navigated the sidewalk like a linebacker. Seconds later, we hit the front door and fell into a darkened lobby.
There were no windows, only a shutter that opened to the hallway. The entire ensemble was a sick joke.
We had reached safety, or so I thought. The hotel was an utter dump. It stank. The carpet and wallpaper were worn beyond recognition, the pieces of furniture so broken they were laughable props. Pornographic images and outdated turista posters covered the walls near the front desk, which itself was encased in bars. The guy seated behind the bars grumbled something unintelligible in Spanish. He had an enormous belly and reminded me of a caged bear. Without taking his eyes from a small, black-and-white television, he announced the rates, collected our cash and handed us the key to room #200.
The corridor leading to the room was eerily quiet. Where were the sounds of prostitutes playing their trade? Where was the drunken laughter, the muffled voices, the chaos of the block? The silence was broken only by the drip-drip-drip of a leaky faucet. I should have welcomed the quiet as a balm to my frayed nerves. Instead, it gave me the feeling I was traveling underground. Heather’s face was a mask of tension. I started to say something reassuring, but she cut me off. “This is it.”
We stood for a moment, silent, bags in hand. The “2” was missing from the door and the double zeros stared back at us with wide eyes. Heather dropped her pack, plunged the key into the lock and broke the seal. There was a slight hiss, and a waft of humid, fetid air rushed out. It hit Heather directly. She staggered back. Not knowing what to do, I reached inside and blindly searched for a switch. Nothing. I heard the flick of a lighter behind me, and the room instantly came into view.
What we found was little more than a cell. The grey walls were stained with cigarette smoke and cracked in several places. A concaved double-bed and a small wooden table took up most of the room. From the ceiling descended a long piece of string which was attached to the elusive light. There were no windows, only a shutter that opened to the hallway. The entire ensemble was a sick joke.
We dragged our packs inside, closed the door and locked it behind us. Heather stared fearfully at the bed, imagining the hundreds of sex acts performed there. The room’s sordid history clung to everything. Worse still, the air was saturated with a cloying smell. It reminded me of rotting candy. Heather had the idea of fighting poison with poison. She lit a mosquito-coil and let the heavy, blue smoke fill the room.
With the smell masked, the only thing standing between us and sleep was the bed. We pulled our tent from its case and spread it over the ratty blanket. To the tent we added a second protective layer – towels and dirty clothing. For pillows we used rolled up t-shirts. There was nothing left to do. I glanced at Heather, she nodded and, with a tug of the string, darkness.
A column of grey light cut through the crack in the door. Morning had arrived in a flash. I opened my eyes but didn’t sit up. Seeing that Heather was still asleep, I lay there for several long moments letting the unsavory memories of the night congeal. Guatemala City had thrown its best punch but couldn’t knock us out. A wave of emotion washed over me. I couldn’t tell if it was relief or pride. It didn’t matter. We were still in one piece. In fact, lying atop the grimy bed in that god-forsaken room, I felt incredibly calm. I was drained of adrenaline, my neurons discharged. There would be no highs or lows for days to come. I had walked through a strange fire, and there was nothing more to do or say.
Just before 7 a.m., Heather came to life. She still looked spooked and suggested we gather our stuff and go. I shared nothing of my meditations. We re-packed the tent, made our way past the front desk and out the door. Once outside, we were greeted by an empty sidewalk and an already glaring sun. The muted rumble of a bus engine caught our attention and quickened our step.
Weaving our way through a column of idling vehicles, we found the bus labeled “Antigua,” paid the driver and minutes later were zooming west. As “Guat’s” concrete environs melted into green countryside, we felt liberated from the city’s sordid embrace. The hum of rubber on asphalt was soporific. I struggled to stay awake, wanting to see the landscape change, to hold onto that feeling of incredible calm. Exhaustion won out, but not before I wished Guatemala City a less-than-fond farewell and solemnly vowed to never see it again.