Loving (A Setting) Too Much


Dancing rain god figure, Altar O, Quiriguá, Izabal, Guatemala

The first days of my second trip to Guatemala, everything felt weirdly comfortable, familiar. The sight of the one-legged guy nimbly navigating the steep steps of a chicken bus to ply his scarred palm and sad story no longer blows my mind. Likewise the spiderweb cracks cris-crossing the impenetrable blackness of every car windshield in the city. I have learned the appropriate words to apologize politely for being two feet taller than everybody else on the bus and my backpack clumsily wonking them all in the face. The dudes with tin shotguns on street corners and in tienda doorways no longer fill me with fear. In fact they almost make me feel safer—which may even be their actual purpose.

All of which was satisfying in a way. I felt less helpless, better able to actively participate in my surroundings. But I started to worry I was just on vacation here—that if I wanted the intensity and awe and revelation of my previous experience, I should have traveled someplace else.

I’m always looking for new setting details—unique tidbits of color or scent, idiosyncracies of human interaction that will make an otherwise mundane story leap off the page. I’m also looking for entirely new settings into which I can expand my spotty experience, the range of subjects and places about which I can “write what I know”. This isn’t the only reason I travel, but when I do travel, there’s a strong chance it’s what I’m doing at any given moment: soaking it all up like a sponge. I talked about this once before, including some caveats, in Expatriates and Homebodies.

There’s a danger, though, that I’ve run into repeatedly: falling too hard for a particular setting, loving it so much that it starts to feel wrong, disrespectful, to try to assimilate it into my fiction. I’m afraid to take liberties for fear of screwing up the truth that made me love it so much in the first place. This has happened to me most often and most painfully with respect to precolombian cultures. The Anasazi (more accurately the ancestral Hopi) have had a strong influence on my wild west centaurs setting, but all the stuff that actually includes them is in a trunk never to see the light of day. The Aztecs (more accurately the Mixtecs) I am afraid to even touch. With the Maya, it’s even worse. In the past I have been unable to stop myself writing slavish, Castaneda-influenced historical fiction about how the Mayans possess the spiritual Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything and we white people with all our rationalism don’t have the ghost of a hope. Which I loved, and even managed to sell, but which now fills me with uncomfortable embarrassment. I have endlessly blogged about them. And very recently, tenatively, I’ve been thinking about how I might dip my toe back into writing about them—though in a very different way than before.

I owe this new approach to this second visit to Guatemala.

That initial, superficial sense of familiarity never went away. But it was very quickly superseded by a whole new set of questions. I saw gradations, depth, in what had seemed uniform, and when I looked a little closer, I saw even more. I found myself thinking more and more about individuals—about character. What’s the difference, in terms of circumstance, upbringing, past experience, between the tuktuk operator who drives the white folks in circles to confuse them then tries to charge triple, the tuktuk operator who drives the white folks past his mom’s house to show them off to his nieces and nephews, asks the minimum fare without even haggling, and comes back to get them at a scheduled time at no extra charge, and the tuktuk driver who butters them up with disingenuous chatter, then veers into a blind alley and pulls a gun? (A tuktuk is a three-wheeled golf cart shaped like a giant red egg, powered by a lawnmower engine and blazoned with Jesus slogans, used as a car-for-hire for local transportation.) How do the Catholics and the Protestants get along with the Mayan traditionalists? How do the Mayan traditionalists get along with a more secular, idealistic younger generation? How does Guatemala look to somebody who moves to South Dakota to start a family, then has to come back and spend years away from them trying to secure a visa? And how does any of it develop into an integrated, educated, well-informed indigenous population, still in possession of its cultural identity, yet capable of joining forces to foster positive change, say, to effect a representative government under an indigenous president, like in Bolivia, or take advantage of digital media to foster political change, like in Egypt and Morocco?

The picture I have isn’t full enough, not nearly. I need to go back again, and again after that.

And the answer I have come upon for how to write fiction about a place and a culture I love too much to disrespect? Complexity.

Writing fiction about anything is an exercise in simplification. Words are never enough to encompass anything, the confines of narrative, of storytelling, even less so. The only way to honest about it, with yourself and with your readers, is to admit you don’t have the answers, and to try, to the best of your ability, to demonstrate why. I think the fiction that best succeeds at this (no coincidence, the kind of fiction I love most), is the kind that leaves things open. Borges, Asturias.


A king in the jaws of a jaguar-crocodile, North face of Zoomorph P, Quiriguá, Izabal, Guatemala

It is an ancient Mariner


A Gustave Doré woodcut for Rime of the Ancient Mariner: Death and Life-in-Death game for the Mariner’s soul.

The first issue of Fantastique Unfettered comes out today, featuring my story “The Driftwood Chair”, a tale of nautical tragedy, hallucinatory demon ghosties and star-crossed beach flirting, set in Cape Cod, and much influenced by Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. I wrote it at Odyssey in 2005 as a kind of good-natured challenge with PD Cacek, got some phenomenal criticism from my fellow classmates and Steve and Melanie Tem, then sat on it obsessively revising and revising for the succeeding five years. You know, the usual story. There was way more Mariner in the original draft… but the feel of it (and an easter egg reference or two) is still there in spades. I love this story. Hopefully you will too.

O the Mariner is so awesome, it’s really hard to pick out just one quote.

Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Nightmare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man’s blood with cold.

If you’ve never read it, do so now. In fact, if you’ve only got time for one, skip “The Driftwood Chair” and just read the Ancient Mariner. Of course, if you’ve got time for two….

Tzompantli

A tzompantli is a rack of sacrificial or ancestor skulls which often appears as a decorative motif in mesoamerican architecture and art. I think it originates with the Zapotecs of southwestern Mexico, and spread to other cultures of the region during the period of Zapotec colonialism in the ninth century. The mossy skull that is the namesake of this blog is part of a tzompantli. A lot of people over the years have misconstrued the tzompantli as evidence of the bloodthirstiness and barbarism of these cultures, and used it as an excuse to blow out of proportion their practice of human sacrifice. For modern celebrants of the Day of the Dead, it signifies the cycle of life.

I went to this the other day: Day of the Dead Tzompantli at Forest Hills Cemetery. It’s a celebration in Central and South American style, Christian and prechristian, cross-cultural, nondenominational, in memory of loved ones long and recently lost. I like the Phoenix site’s wording: “This event occurs in the past.” I didn’t take any pictures because they asked me not to, though it was vivid and gorgeous and has left an intense impression on me. But nobody told me I couldn’t write about it, so.

Across the street from my house, one of the iron fence rails of Forest Hills Cemetery has been bent to one side next to a scraggly bittersweet nightshade vine. If I duck down low and wriggle a bit I can get through easy.

The earliest graves here date from 1840, and the occupiers lean heavily to the upper class Victorian. The monumental symbolism features a lot of serene robed women with anchors at their feet, inverted torches wrapped in vines, headstones carved to look like tree stumps, lambs with heads eroded away, stone veils caught by the sculptor in the act of being pulled on or off. There are many old trees of great variety, imported by Harvard in the 1880s for the nearby Arboretum. They held the tzompantli ceremony in front of a cultivar of European beech whose boughs bend all the way to the ground and lie heavy across it like snakes, and whose yellow-brown leaves made a curtain like a reef of feathers. Before it, a broad ring of candles burned in colored cylinders surrounding a fire made from hundreds of white candles in a heap. There were four wooden altars at the cardinal points surrounded by pyramids of apples, trays of pastries, bread, tortillas, candy, flowers. On each altar sat a tall, long-haired white girl in a period smock and porcelain face paint that prevented her from making any expression but the familiar serene one of the statues. These girls, I believe, represented the Victorian ghosts. People in embroidered robes strolled about blowing on smoking copal and sage incense in heavy wooden censers carved in the shapes of animal heads. It wasn’t dark yet. The sun was in maples on the hill.

I knew an offering of food was required, but I didn’t have much in the house, so I brought a handful of red chiles dried from a couple summers ago in the pocket of my hoodie. Later it occurred to me that in the traditions of Peru, due to their potency, chiles were prohibited from certain ceremonies honoring the ancestors. And I’ve known some practitioners of this sort of religion who can get touchy on behalf of their dead. So the chiles stayed in my pocket, and I kept back from the circle a bit. They were my garlic, my piece of cold iron, holding me in this world.

It was the kind of slightly damp cold that creeps in and makes you have to force yourself not to shiver. Preceded by a slowly building whoosh like wind in leaves, fifty children with rattles tied to their ankles filed out from behind the tree, circled the fire and began to dance to drums and the trumpet of conch horns. A lady with a microphone recited verse in English, Spanish and some Aztec-descended tongue, honoring Xocomil, Pachamama and the dead.

I couldn’t get the tenor of the crowd at first. Some of the dancing kids were great showmen, doing pantomime bits about death and the spirit arising, the old resisting, the ancestors stepping in to drag them along when the time is right. They were having fun. They donned skull masks and shook canes at each other. During lulls in the choreography they busted out breakdancing moves. I laughed a lot, and the people around me did too–but there was something in their faces that quietly sobered me over the course of an hour, as the sun went down and the cold got stronger.

After the dances, the songs and the dumb-shows, everybody retreated behind the row of percussion instruments, leaving the circle open. The lady with the microphone invited the crowd to come in, stop at the central fire, and hand to the old woman who sat tending it prayers or poems or the names of loved ones written on slips of colored paper, which she would burn. Once you’d made an offering, you got a lighted candle. I stayed back. In the spirit of camaraderie–and of getting a little warmth into my bones–I climbed up over the wooded hill east of the fire ring. I watched the proceedings for awhile from up there among the pines, then circled back around to join in the parade that followed.

Out among the gravestones was a satellite altar, this one with photos of people, jewelry and candy propped against candles and unopened bottles of soda. This I guess was where the mirth backed off to let in grief. Everybody filed silently past it and on into the graveyard through the dusk. The ancestors and the pale-faced girls came with us. People around me talked about what their kids had been for halloween. Kids passed off candles to adults and then came demanding them back again before they burned down. It felt familiar, sad but comforting, like a wake among family, though I didn’t know anybody there.

We walked back to the circle. The kids danced some more with the windstorms on their ankles and sang and blew the conch trumpets, this time, I gathered, to guide the ancestors safely back from their jaunt in this world to the next. When everything was over, the lady with the microphone invited us to step into the circle and take some of the offerings to eat. I had a crunchy suncrisp apple and a piece of pan del muerto, a sweet bread made with anise seed.

She asked us to fill out recommendations saying why we valued the ceremony we’d just partaken in and why we thought it needed to keep happening. Apparently, it’s at risk. That’s why I’m writing this. Even if I’m somewhere else at this time next year, I want it to happen again, and keep happening.

By this time I couldn’t keep from shivering. I walked home alone across the graveyard in the dark, navigating by the light of Jupiter and the reflected glow of the city from the clouds.

The Third World


Patchwork farmland west of Antigua.

Everybody should visit a third world country at least once, if only so they can come to a more round understanding of that term. I don’t know how I ever got on without having been to one.

Prior to visiting Guatemala, I had operated under the not-entirely-inaccurate assumption that “third world” referred to a region of the planet whose human inhabitants suffered, in varying degrees of severity, reduced access to economic infrastructure including but not limited to sewer systems, utilities, clean water, health care, education, technology, and/or rule of law. As compared to the status of said amenities here in the “first world”. I understood, if only on an abstract, liberal-educated, political-correctness level, that the term “third world” was to be considered flawed in its one-sidedness, its inherent superiority, and its general lack of empathy.

What I didn’t understand until I went there was that none of the above in any way impedes the daily functioning of a society.

I didn’t encounter a single traffic light anywhere in Guatemala outside the capital city, and I traveled a lot. Shockingly, traffic doesn’t screech to a halt at every intersection for lack of a traffic light. Drivers tap their horns three or four times in quick succession, as a warning or a greeting, rather than leaning on them uselessly for minutes at a time like we do here. Then they go with the flow.

Wrecked cars and buses are a common occurrence on the sides of highways; trash is more common–heaps of it, collecting in corners shielded from the wind. Most people’s houses are of flaking stucco: a few low rooms, inadequately windowed, with a sheet of corrugated tin for a roof and rainwater running freely over the floor. Nobody has a lawn. Even the locals can’t drink the water from the taps without boiling or filtering it first, because it contains e. coli bacteria, the result of poor waste management and inadequate sewage systems.

Nobody seems fazed by any of this.

And–after a day or two–I’m not fazed by it either. Clean water running from the tap isn’t such a hard thing to live without. Lots of people have rainwater collectors on their roofs. Lots more have big, terracotta water filters in their kitchens, like Brita filters, only you don’t have to keep buying more of them, and they serve an actual health purpose. Seatbelts–can’t say I really miss those. Have you ever noticed how people, not just in this country, but in Canada, Britain, Europe–pretty much everywhere I’ve been in the “first” world–are afraid to touch each other? On subways, the Tube, public buses, passing in the street, waiting in line. God forbid you give me your cooties. That taboo doesn’t seem exist in Guatemala. One time I spent an hour on a really ridiculously packed chicken bus between Dos Encuentros and Chimaltenango, standing just behind the driver, hanging onto the luggage rack for dear life as we careened around mountain turns, my huge backpack pressed against the shoulders of a dude sitting on a bucket in the aisle, my legs completely enclosed to the point of immobility by the knees and calves and hips and packages of six mayan ladies on their way home from market all crammed into the first row. A little baby napping in her abuela’s lap kept kicking me adorably in the shins. I kept glancing back over the sea of faces in the rows behind me, and every time I did, I found a different kid staring at me with big, brown, liquid eyes, breaking into a huge, shy smile when I caught her gaze. And when it was over, when the dude on the bucket got off and I got to sit down for a minute before we finally made it to my stop, the mayan ladies all started chattering about what a good sport this big galumphing gringo boy had been, standing up all that time on those sharp mountain turns, and how sorry they were they couldn’t have made more room. When I got off, I was pretty much in love with those ladies.


A chicken bus outside Ciudad Vieja, with volcanoes.

There are stray dogs everywhere in Guatemala–not in any sort of evil, ravening pack mentality kind of way–they’re dirty and fleabitten and bone-skinny, and nobody tells them what to do or where to go, but they don’t beg constantly, and they only bark and howl and run around like hooting hordes of ancestor ghosts in the dark of night, in the distance. They’re much more patient, more respectful, than you’d expect any horde of stray dogs to be. Mostly, they just seem tired. For me, it was somehow uncanny to see a long-faced brown mongrel with eight full dugs swinging and ribs standing out against her sides ambling past me down a dusty cobbled street, like the she-wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus. And after the fact, I’m actually more unsettled that I could have become sufficiently detached from reality that the sight of a pregnant dog could come across as something so alien.

The cheap beer, in this third world country? It’s not cheap beer at all–it’s good beer, cheap! The national brew, Gallo, is a thirst-quenching, medium-bodied amber lager with a fine refreshing fruitiness. Gallo makes Corona cry. And I can’t even begin to articulate how badly it beats the tar out of ye great American workingman’s brew. And you know what really blows me about it? They reuse every single bottle they ship out. They don’t throw away their glass. They don’t recycle it. They don’t have to. Every morning, the Gallo truck shows up outside the cantina, drops off full bottles, picks up empties, and takes them back to the plant to be cleaned and refilled. Where the $*%& are we on that, first world?

Also, as far as I experienced it, the entire nation of Guatemala has already switched over from incandescent to CFL bulbs. I didn’t see an incandescent bulb while I was there. And they did it without needing a massive PR campaign or even a giant self-stroking internet site where people can congratulate themselves for accomplishing some kind of change.

All in all, it’s kind of refreshing to see that, yes, life actually can and does go on in the absence of antibacterial cream, small claims courts, individually-wrapped sanitary towelettes, subsidized insurance coverage for antidepressants, styrofoam coffee cups, laws regulating windshield cracks, twenty-four hour news networks, the grocery store, or even a ratio of at least two branded napkins to each food or beverage item purchased. You don’t need any of that stuff to live, or even to be happy. You don’t need phones or the internet or TV either.

All that being said, having been back safe and coddled in the states for a week, with the Haiti earthquake heavily in the news, I am painfully aware that my envy for the lifestyle of the average Guatemalan is at best problematic, and seriously flawed. I went down there with money. They hadn’t just suffered an earthquake, nor were they engaged in civil war. If they had been, I’d have been much more aware of the absence of hospitals and clean water, and the danger of those mountain roads. And I’d have been a hell of a lot more scared of all those dudes with guns.

But the main point, I think, still holds: there’s no third world and no first world. There’s the world. What we do affects them, what they do affects us. More importantly, there, but for the grace of a giant, complicated mess of circumstance and stuff, go we. And vice versa.

I don’t know that it’s a sentiment I can fully convey, without just telling you to go there and see. But okay, how about this? Have you ever had one of those conversations with a dedicated doer of recreational drugs, ecstasy or lsd or mushrooms or even weed, wherein said day tripper gushes about how all the world’s problems would be solved if only the leaders of the world could be introduced to the recreational drug in question?

That’s how I feel about going to Guatemala.

Trouble is, all those world leaders I want to teach a little empathy (or a lot) have probably already been there.

Expatriates and Homebodies


A coati in the gardens outside Tikal.
Nasua narica

So I went to Guatemala the other week.

I don’t get to travel that often. Travel costs a lot, and my life strategy has been to spend just barely enough of my time working to keep myself alive, so as to have as much free time for writing as possible and not much else. I have heard this strategy questioned more than once exactly on the basis that it doesn’t permit me to travel. “How can you have anything to write about,” goes the conventional wisdom, “when you haven’t done anything?” My college advisor asked me that, among others. It sort of pissed me off. I’d like to give more credit than that to the imagination: sure, you can’t write compelling fiction in a vacuum, and yes, uncountable great writers spent their lives wandering the earth. But it’s a matter of how you look at the world, not what you’re looking at. Thoreau never left New England. Emily Dickinson barely left her house. There are new and unique things to see, even in things you’ve looked at a hundred thousand times.

That said, every time I do manage to abroad, I come back with ideas spilling out my ears–like what happened when I went to Yucatan. The conventional wisdom isn’t wrong, it’s just narrow. And it presupposes a certain level of financial independence, doesn’t it? Travel is hard–not just emotionally and physically (as I have well learned), but financially. So is writing. Just ask Nabokov, Lord Dunsany, or Anthony Bourdain: it’s a lot easier to bum around the world telling awesome stories when you don’t have to worry where your next meal is coming from. But nothing beats experience.

Upon returning from Guatemala, I have gained the following:

  • Exactly 25 angry red mosquito bites, mostly on my ankles, hips, and the backs of my knees, that will not f’ing go away.
  • Stomach parasites.
  • A persistent, atmospheric lightheadedness that, for a few moments before waking, makes me believe I never left. Or else that I’m entering the preliminary stages of a mushroom trip. Whether this has something to do with the aforementioned parasites, maybe in the style of those freaky bugs that alter the personality of rodents to make them more inclined to commit suicide by cat, I know not.
  • Enlightenment.

Was all of the former worth the latter? Yes.

So for a little while, this blog is going to turn into a travelogue.


A colossal ceiba tree that grows at the gate to Tikal.
Ceiba pentandra

More next week.