Mad Max, Matadors, and Kilimanjaro
From climbing the highest summit it Africa to crashing through pelting hail in a speedboat full of chickens, Wabash students stop at nothing to immense themselves in the countries where they study during their time away from campus.
Mad Max in Guatemala
AWabash political science major boards a speedboat full of chickens and discovers the less appealing side of himself and Latin America.
by Josh Beard '97
An old math teacher used to ridicule my miscalculations by gruffly chortling, "Mr. Beard, do you realize that pattern recognition is a manifestation of intelligence?" It was years later, as I sat in a Guatemala City McDonald's at 3 a.m., that I finally understood what he meant, but it had nothing to do with math.
First I should explain that a semester in La Gran Ciudad de Mexico had left me perplexed. Mexico's Federal District remains to this day my favorite place in the world, but I know that an army of monkeys could run it more efficiently than the PRI. Deep into my culture shock, it suddenly became clear: nothing can be done right in Mexico. It all comes down to one sign right at the Insurgentes metro shop. It reads: "SNACKS AND COOL BEER." Only in Mexico would a commercial establishment actually boast about serving "cool" beer.
Mexico City was suffocating me, so I decided to board a plane for Chetumal, Tabasco and begin a trek with a couple friends through some less traveled regions of Latin America. Before I describe that trip, let me just tell you that for all the abuse they take and all the planes they crash, Mexican airlines are great. Of course I didn't think so at the time. At the time I thought that four hours on the runway was too long. And as the dramamine began to take hold and I slowly slipped into that nether-state of drooling plane sleep, I realized that everyone around me was smoking. I felt like a part of one of those ignorantly optimistic black and white movies, and was somehow reassured. That is until I realized that they weren't just smoking, they were chain smoking. And it wasn't to be glamorous-it was because they were afraid.
Landing in Chetumal, we headed for Punta Gorda, Belize, to catch the ferry boat to Honduras. It was there we met Johnny, a guy who propped himself up in front of a bar on a chair with three legs, had no teeth, and wore a ratty t-shirt that was supposed to look like the U.S. flag. Poor Johnny was our first guide in this strange land.
Johnny informed us that we'd missed the boat, there wouldn't be another boat for two days, and that we needed to find other means of transport. After ceremoniously burning the Let's Go guide right there on the beach, we followed Johnny to Shipmates, a dark room that functioned as a bar for, well, shipmates and other sea-faring people. There, Johnny recommended that we talk to his friend, Paco.
And so we did it. We rode with Francisco Lopez (Paco) to Puerto Barrios, Guatemala. When we accepted, we knew that he had a speedboat and that it would be quicker than anything else we were likely to find (that probably being a burro). What we didn't know was that it was a speedboat full of chickens. And 15 other people. And that refueling would consist of the tallest passenger leaning over the edge and pouring gas from a plastic jug that once held five gallons of Tang. But it wasn't until hail started falling from the sky and we had to put a plastic tarp over our heads that we began to lose patience with our captain. Only when confined to close quarters with several dozen chickens does one realize how good we have it here in the good 'ol U.S. of A.
We arrived relatively lice-free and unscathed, just in time for the Guatemala customs pentathlon. The static began when they tried to charge us $25 each to enter the country. Questioning the guards about the sign over their heads that clearly read $5 only aroused further animosity. So we bargained. With thoughts of Paco and his chickens, we happily paid $15 each and strolled to the bus beneath a large, peeling sign that read "Bienvenidos a Guatemala."
Bouncing down dirt roads through banana farm shanties, the bus we had just boarded suddenly came to a halt.
"Afuera con los gringos!," several guards yelled frantically as they waved machine guns at the back of the bus. Before we knew it we were getting stuck for another fifteen each because our passports were "improperly stamped." By this time our mission was clear. Not halfway through the trip, our mantra became: "I can't wait till we get back to a civilized country." Guatemala might have slowed us down, but it wasn't going to stop us. We were Americans on vacation.
As the bus rattled towards the launch that was to take us to Honduras, I remembered reading something about banana farms. Looking around the dusty bus, I realized that the recently-burned Let's Go guide had warned against breathing the dust from these farms. Something about over-fertilization and cancer Paying 15 bucks just to pass through this place suddenly became irrelevant-I wondered what these people would pay to leave.
Hours later we were standing on a 20-foot high dirt cliff overlooking a river of dung that served as some kind of irrigation canal for the farm. A fellow traveler, Miguel, looked at me and said, "How 'bout a beer?" From a grass hut that functioned as a form of concession stand, we ordered three of the national Guatemalan swill: Gallo. Nothing better than a lukewarm Rooster to wash down the dusty taste of hours of life-threatening over-fertilization. With the last gulp and squint of the eyes, the launch arrived and we became keenly aware that the trip had just begun.
The "launch" was a 25-foot dug-out canoe with a five horsepower motor. With 10 souls on board, the situation was so precarious that the driver warned us not to sneeze or cough. Remarkably, the ride wasn't that bad. Thirty minutes later we docked on a beach where several naked children kindly announced that we were in Honduras. My Homer Simpson victory call announced to everyone that Guatemala was a thing of the past.
But not for long. A day later it was time to head back north-back through Guatemala. Freshly stamped passports in hand, we boarded a bus for Guatemala City. After dozing for several hours, I was awakened by Alan. "Firewatches. We've got to set firewatches," the ex-Marine decreed as we squealed into the city that could have been the inspiration for the movie Mad Max. Arriving at one o'clock in the morning to the smell of burning rubber and feces, we felt justified in having burned that Let's Go guide back on the beach in Belize.
Guatemala City had a feel unlike anywhere I've ever been. Even the McDonalds was a terrorscape. A true political scientist would have wanted to stay on and analyze the situation. My gringo chauvinism just drove me to hate it. Sitting in McDonalds and analyzing the trip, it began to feel more like a painful rite of passage than a vacation.
That's when my old math teacher's words came back to haunt me. "Patterns." What patterns had emerged? We had problems everywhere and with nearly everyone. Yet the one underlying cause of our problems was that we were tourists and not travelers. We weren't mentally prepared to take in everything a trip like this throws at you. A sickening realization hit me in the gut as I stared at the golden arches on the wall: we were the ugly Americans. We stood for everything bad that "whitey" had ever done to these people. I was ready to go home.
Mexico City. El Distrito Federal. The exalted land of the Aztecs and the most civilized place on Earth. I have never loved smog-ridden Mexico City more than the very moment when I stepped off the plane and could smell its thousand wonderful aromas. Days later, reminiscing over the "great" trip, it dawned on me that Alan, Miguel, and I were sitting around drinking-and savoring- cool beer.