Good-bye To Guatemala
We cleared customs and immigration in the Garifuna town of Livingston, bought some veggies and fruit, bumpity bumped over the shallow bar at the mouth of Río, and sailed out from the protection of the river into the Caribbean. As Ithaka was once again bathed in salt water, I took a wistful look back over my shoulder to the jungle from which wed just emerged. When, I wondered, would we ever return? Cruising has a cruel side. It tantalizes you with experiences that make you hunger for more, but it exacts a high price for the next adventure: First, it makes you say good-bye.
At Tortugal, Ill miss our boat neighbors, such as Dave on Mystic Spirit, who over time told me all about the three books hed supposedly written, and the six wives whod "totally" misunderstood him. And then one day Dave disappeared, ostensibly to fly to New York to sign with a big-name publisher for his goofy-sounding "mystic love trilogy," and then a couple of days later three guys with a court order showed up and took his boat, telling us "Dave" was in jail in the States charged with racketeering. Someone else on the dock heard it was bankruptcy. Then we heard, from an "excellent source" it was terrorism. Then we heard hed been the target of a vast sting operation orchestrated by a pissed off girlfriend. Poor Dave. Typical Río story.
Ill miss Big John, a few boats down from us. Well over 300 pounds, Johns famous in these parts for his Aztec Chile and crispy fried chicken, for which he finally shared the secret ingredient with me only moments before we left: "First you gotta go to the Honda dealership over in Morales, and buy yourself some rice flour..." Typical Guatemalan juxtaposition of unrelated offerings. Here are two others I noticed recently: "Acupressure and Waterfront Lots," "Tortillas & I Wax de Legs."
Ill really miss Erika and Lobo, from Argentina and Uruguay, with their son Juancito. We shared boat projects and haircuts with one another, and talked about everything under the sun. The night before Douglas and I left, over a few glasses of vino tinto Lobo and I admitted to one another that its scary to raise the anchor again after staying in one place for a while. "Boy, you get stale fast in cruising," I said. "I actually have to rethink how to use the GPS..."
"Now that we have the baby," Lobo said, "and weve been here for so long, its a mental hurdle to set sail again. Im pretty nervous about it"this, from a man whos been cruising for 15 years, and done a Whitbread round-the-world race. Once youve had the anchor down a while, its like life, harder to fight inertia and the fear of moving forward. Funny, I thought Id learned this lesson, but on a boat it really hits home how easy it is to plant roots rather than step into the unknown. The Río is a reminder of that. So many gringos have "stopped in" here and never left.
Douglas and I retraced our steps down the river, passing all our old haunts, and stopped in at the AkTenamit school and clinic to see our friends, Kelly McBroom and Katy Mitchell. Kelly, the AkTenamit midwife, had taken her sailboat, Betty Boop, out to cruise the cays of Belize for a few weeks; Katys four-year tenure as director of the clinic had come to and end and she was getting ready to move on to another project. More good-byes. We also were excited to meet Lilian Yanneth Chub Caal, the Qeqchi child whose modest tuition Douglas and I had sponsored as a conglomerate Christmas/birthday/anniversary present for our family this year. Lilian is a second-grader, and because of her, our parents all feel as though theyve gained a grandchild.
We also brought to AkTenamits artesania workshop some handmade fabric folk dolls, which my stepmother, mother-in-law, and friend Stephen had collected for us when Douglas and I had visited the States this past summer. Theyre for inspiration, to show the Qeqchi women how to construct a fabric doll, and how to make traditional clothing for each of them, so they can sell them in the AkTenamit tienda (which wed painted in July, and which was now, thrillingly, open for business). The idea is that each handmade doll would be unique, named after the woman who created it, signed by her, and would include the personal story of the womans family. We wont be around to see what happens with this projectthings move slowly on the riverbut we hope for the best.
Thinking about these dolls reminds me of the colors of Guatemalathe women in their intricate head wraps entwined with their long black braids, their traditional huipile blouses, and kaleidoscopic skirts of woven fabrics; the men in their embroidered pants, and their teeth capped in gold, sometimes with ornate star designs inlaid in the front. Ill miss the chicken buses, and Im grateful we survived their careening around hairpin turns, pedal to the metal, laboring to pile on the speed in an attempt to overtake trucks full of cows, and barely making it by them before another bus comes at us head on. Come to think of it, I wont miss that at all.
Ill miss the vista of volcanoes around Lake Atitlan, as they paw down to the soft edges of the lake lined in marsh grasses. Ill miss the extraordinary songbirds; at Tortugal, we awakened every morning as the sun came up to hear the first rooster calling, then the choirs of parrots chatting and cawing, and then an unknown bird whose clear song wafted out every morning at 7:00 like a familiar heart-breaking melody.
The Río grew on me, and Ill miss it. Behind us are the incredible hot waterfalls at Finca Paraíso that cascade down in a torrent from the mountains, where we soaked and played and swam. Behind us is the rawness of the riverthe wild bank robberies, bus hijackings, and hungry animals. Behind us are the gentle people of the riverthe shy Indians fishing from their cayucos, always nodding hello as they pass; the kind vegetable sellers, who, once they get to know you, tell you to just pay tomorrow if they dont have change. Behind us are the characters and friends we made here, who we may or may not see again.
Relationships are so intense in this cruising business. You tend to get right to the gist of things, to see what other people are made of. When you encounter other boats, right away you wonder in what direction theyre traveling. If you hear theyre on your track, your antennae go up and you try to determine if theyre people you might like to hang out with for a while. If theyre going the opposite way, you pump each other for information about the places ahead, share your marked-up cruising guides, and emotionally move on.
At noon today, during the highest daytime tide we could get (which gave us an extra foot over the six-foot bar across the entrance to the Río), Douglas and I reviewed our waypoints, revved the engine, and headed out. Our six-foot keel kissed the bar gently good-bye three times during the half hour it took us to cross over, then we were free. Breathing easier with the bar behind us, we raised the sails and headed for the protection of Punta Manabique, our last Guatemalan anchorage. Good-byes are never easy when youre cruising. I think about the adventures ahead, I remember the happy times and good friends in the Río. I readjust my brain back into cruising gear, and for the longest time stare blankly at the buttons on the GPS.
Onward, to Honduras.