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The Long Central American Goodbye

“The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism – this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us; we lose our identity. The words of human love have been used by the saints to describe their vision of God; and so, I suppose, we might use the terms of prayer, meditation, contemplation to explain the intensity of the love we feel for a woman.”
–Graham Greene, ”The End of the Affair”

“Goodbyes are always long in Central America,” said Lena the Swede, leaning down out of the window of the running bus. Her long, straight, honey blonde hair cascaded down to form a cone with her face at the top. The bottom, widest part of the cone enclosed my upturned face and I lifted myself on the bus’ trim to kiss her one more last time. As if on cue, long after it was scheduled to depart, the motor revved up and the doors slammed shut. I stepped back and focused my Leica, took a picture of her smiling from the window and then another of the bus as it pulled away. Alone again.
I walked back to the Hospedaje San Jose where we’d shared the day and night together in Copan Ruinas. She was going back to Santa Rosa de Copan where I’d spent the last seven months and then home to Sweden after Utila. I was going back to Antigua, Guatemala where we’d just spent Holy Week and then on and up and, eventually home to Ohio.
The room was still mine for a few hours and I stripped and showered then lay back on the twisted sheets, lying on the cloth that still smelled of her, trying to conjure her back to me for a few moments, knowing the odds were we’d never meet again and to this day we never have.

Travel in this day and age, and for the most part for many years prior, is more an act of revisiting, of reevaluation, than of exploration in the classical sense. Perhaps the post-modern concept of internal exploration, of travel as self-revelatory, is so popular because most of everything has already been explored. There is still plenty of danger but no frontiers beyond those we create ourselves and we, the ostensibly civilized, mainly put ourselves in harm’s way out of sport: tying ourselves to big rubber bands and hurling our bodies off bridges, jumping from perfectly good airplanes, photographing other people’s wars and going to sports bars and cheering for the wrong team. Undoubtedly there are many square feet of the planet untrod by human feet but the fact is that human feet have trod probably not that many feet away and, if they haven’t, there is the bleak fact that wherever that might be—Antarctica perhaps—that there probably isn’t much there to see or discover (at least outside of very specialized realms).
True, unsullied exploration is mostly reduced to the most obscure and unreachable of places, the deepest caves in remote regions and the bottom of the ocean: both requiring highly specialized equipment and training. One might barely make the argument for certain areas deep in the Congo and Amazon although those are far from un-penetrated.
And there is space, the final frontier, where we need to go if we are to retain our humanity. But that will not be me and quite likely, not you.
For the rest of us, regardless of our fearless and intrepid natures, there is the rather depressing state of being suspiciously akin to over-monied adventure tourists who slide down ropes in the Costa Rican rainforest and shoot expensive cameras at still sort-of-wild animals in game parks. No matter how rough we travel with our quasi-religious shunning of the package deal we still are little more than tourists. And there is nothing, essentially, wrong with being a tourist as long as you admit it. We all need a vacation.
But, if we want to redeem our tourist status by having some sort of mission we have a two-fold task. There is the voyage of self-discovery with all its rather well-deserved trappings of new-age therapy and aimless, if well-intentioned, whale saving. And there is the reporter’s task of walking in the footsteps of the titans of old and showing the world as it now is and exploring how it has changed — what it has become. This is an admittedly, wretchedly, post-modern task but a necessary one…doomed to repeat our mistakes blah, blah, blah if we don’t know, blah, blah, where we come from, blah. It is the task we have in this world, rarely brave and certainly not new. But it is our task, the mission we are left to fulfill. And we must. And it isn’t all bad.

These are my tales of a roughly five-year mission. From my first days in Central America I knew I had to return and after four trips that desire has only been diminished by the realization of how little time we get to explore this world and of how big the world is. William F. Buckley said that he’s been almost everywhere in the United States except the Southeastern corner of Oregon. I was just there and may very well never be back. I think of all the places I probably will never return to. Not so much the big ones, they are checked off the list anyway and I won’t be terribly disappointed if I never again see Mount Rushmore or Valley Forge or Versailles. I will be disappointed if I never see the Eiffel Tower again because that means I won’t have seen Paris again. But I won’t be disappointed if I never stop again at that gas station in central Alabama or southern Guatemala, though, over my travels, I have. But it is strange and somehow saddening that life passes and that once your feet trod in all those places and you passed by like a ghost, that lips you kissed are kissing someone else’s, that words of love and bravery fall like autumn leaves and are gone.

I woke early, that last morning in Santa Rosa, to the sound of shod hooves on cobblestones. I swung my feet to the cool tile floor, banged on Yoko’s door and heard her mumble, then showered and dressed. I went over my traveling kit, tightening straps and eyeing Yoko’s hard-sided suitcase with a loathing I normally reserved for communists and squirrels. I’d sworn up and down I would be no part of a traveling company that included a hard-sided suitcase — let alone one owned by a five-foot-tall Japanese girl — but I had no choice other than to abandon them both. That I couldn’t do. I had put myself in charge of getting Yoko and her boyfriend (now husband) James and myself from Central America back to Texas overland by bus. James was already ahead of us, having obtained lodgings in Antigua, Guatemala where we would stay during the medieval Catholic pageants of Holy Week. Lena the Swede would meet me there in a few days. She had left town a week before, holding me tight and saying, “I’ll meet you in Guatemala when I’ve finished my business in San Salvador.” It was a small example of what I loved about Central America and its heightened, Romantic sense of life. No one ever seemed to say things like that back in Ohio.
Yoko and I had said all our goodbyes in the nights before. My project with the medical group was done for the time being and Yoko and James had finished out their contracts teaching for the local bilingual school. I’d had my last beer at Lily’s with Dave and Red and Butch the gold miners, one of whom would soon be dead, and Lily had hugged me goodbye with all her 85 lbs. Tears streaming down her face had said, “Of all the gringos in Santa Rosa, I’ll miss you most of all, Andrew.”
“Don’t cry, Dorothy, I’ll be back,” I replied, feeling very Scarecrow and brainless and quite possibly a liar in my by now shapeless and worn clothes and hat.

So we left the apartment, caught a cab to the bus station and slipped away from our Central American home feeling like sneak-thieves in the white-hot morning. The bus pulled away and we were silent and sad. Yoko pulled down her fisherman’s hat and sulked and was still quiet when we changed buses at La Entrada where three years later I would have the best orange juice of my life with caged parrots and a beautiful Canadian girl I’d just only met and would then say goodbye to. The bus from La Entrada to Copan Ruinas was small and underpowered. Sitting across the aisle from us was an incredibly good looking gringo couple. They were dressed in expensive tropical clothes that seemed a bit worse for wear. Both had tinted sunglasses, his blue and hers yellow. They had heavy, hand-wrought silver jewelry.
The bus stopped every few hundred yards to let people off and pick up new passengers. I looked over at the handsome gringos and my keen reporter’s eye noticed they looked terrified. I followed the direction of their gaze, alert as always for trouble but saw nothing but a couple laughing farmers getting aboard. Then I saw what they saw: two very dark men in dirty shirts and frayed hats. Their smiles flashed with gold and from each of their hands dangled a wicked long machete. At the next stop a legless dwarf got on, scuttling up the aisle on strong arms like some campesino spider. He clambered up into the seat in front of them, popped his head over the seat back, cocked his hat and gave them a big gold smile. They shrank back, trying to make their big, strong bodies smaller. The legless dwarf said, “Hola!” in a cheery voice and the girl gasped. Her boyfriend clutched her hand and whispered, “I didn’t expect it to be this authentic.”
Other than a stoned iguana raising hell in Pedro’s Cantina back in graduate school it was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. But I wasn’t in a laughing mood on that day and truth be told I was suffering from a severely atrophied sense of humor. Yoko and I were the old hands then. We’d seen a lot, in a minor sort of way, and felt like battle-weary soldiers coming to the rear from the front and these tourists thought they were at the front. I didn’t want to laugh, even at them, wanted rather to grab them both by the collars of their nice linen shirts and shove them off the bus into the path of an oncoming donkey. That, I thought, would have been funny. And so I am glad to report that, in the intervening years, my sense of humor has returned though images of Hospital Regional de Occidente continue to haunt my dreams.
In Copan we were immediately surrounded by boys and men trying to get us rooms at the hotels, take us to a bar, sell us crafts and I responded like I always do with a polite but forceful “NO”, making good use of my long gringo legs to get me the hell away from them. The problem was my long gringo legs were combined with some very short Japanese legs and a hard sided suitcase whose clever little wheels work well in tiled airports but not so good on cobblestones. I judged that it would be impolitic and quite likely to cause tension if I threw the thing off a nearby bridge so I carried it, cursing all the while and feeling bad at the same time because my American frustration was causing my unfailing polite friend a good case of Japanese guilt. Somehow we managed to struggle into Tunkul bar and shade and I bought two cold beers for us while Yoko went to buy tickets to Antigua. I nursed my Salva Vida, thinking it would be the last I would have, maybe forever. At the dusty border crossing I changed about $100 from Honduran Lempiras to Guatemalan Quetzals thinking I would undoubtedly get a better rate at a bank in the city later on. DO NOT MAKE THIS MISTAKE. A few days later, down to my last Quetzals, I went to the bank and felt my stomach sink at the look on the teller’s face. I was informed that maybe, just maybe, somewhere in the sprawling, dangerous metropolis of Guatemala City there might be a place that would exchange them. Where? No se. I don’t know. Next!
That meant I had to go back to the border to change them, which would have been an incredible, expensive annoyance except it meant I could go along with Lena when she had to return to Honduras.
I have an ability to meet a woman right before I am going to leave, or she is, or we both are. It tends to make for storybook romantic moments but as the years pass and it keeps happening, it leaves me feeling old and tired and just a bit shabby. Now I often am the envy of my married friends, they assure me that the grass is always greener, but I get the sneaking suspicion that by and large they are quite happy and I’m being used as an odd form of free entertainment. Sometimes, flush with adventure, I can sit and pat myself on the back, take pride in my eccentric life and resume, drink a toast to all the girls I’ve loved before, remember the magic moments with Blair or Lena or Katy or even those whose names I don’t care to remember.
I remember back, then, to Guatemala, waiting for Lena to finish that business in San Salvador and her finally arriving and moving into my tiny room at El Refugio. We went and stood on the roof and watched the sun set over the volcanoes and I held her from behind and listened as she told me she had missed me, sounding the tiniest bit angry with herself at having allowed a crack in her heart. We spent the few days in the whirling madness of Holy Week, she and I, James and Yoko, Juan Carlos and a parade of minor characters, making Sunday brunch and dancing in the hotel halls to Frank Sinatra singing ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ while dirge-like parades went by in sun-blotting clouds of incense. Of dressing for a party, she in a long wrap skirt and blouse, long hair pulled back from her forehead and a bare touch of makeup; I in a shirt and tie, slacks and fedora. We lay on pillows on a balcony, as if in some oriental harem, while a wizened French woman said goodbye to her friends, leaving the country the next day, musing on the cult of Maximon that she had adopted as her own religion. I think of that tiny room at El Refugio magnifying the intensity of being together.
And Lena had to leave, back to Santa Rosa and I had to change my money so we returned to Copan, she and I, waiting for our 0400 shuttle on dark Antiguan streets, bone tired from the last days, quoting song lyrics to each other to stay awake, she Anni di Franco and I Warren Zevon.
We had our one-more-night at Hospedaje San Jose, last Salva Vidas and Port Royals and expensive omelets for breakfast at the posh Hotel Marina the next morning. She boarded that bus and told me that goodbyes are always long in Central America. I’m still saying goodbye.

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