Monday, August 20, 2012

What You Find On the Mountain

            Light shone on the top of the nearly perfect cone but had not yet reached the patchwork of milpas, or family crop lands below. The dark green of a cloud forest extended down the steep sides of the volcano into shadow, giving the mountain the illusion of ancient, undisturbed wilderness. 
Bernardo, the guide for the volcano who I had seen before but not yet met, was waiting in the lobby of the posada in the half light of dawn and looked a little surprised that I showed up so early. The chill of the morning had not fully penetrated the massive, volcanic stone from which the hotel was crafted. A faint smell of fried fish mingled with ammonia from the kitchen and on the floor.
            Esperese. Ahorita vengo,” he said quietly and to me, a little mysteriously. “Wait. I’ll be right back.”
            As he walked out, I looked questioningly at no one, but the night watchman seemed to read my mind. “Se fue para alquilar una pistola.
            He went for a gun? I thought to myself.
            “It’s for protection,” the guard explained.
            I stopped for a minute to wonder about this: a long climb up a large mountain, unpredictable weather, the wrong equipment, and now armed protection. As an aging gringo in mediocre condition I had to think twice; I barely slept for all my doubts the night before. I left a warm bed, my sleeping wife, two children. But other dreams lingered there out of sight, in the background. There was a mountain. Something told me it was this mountain. Coming to Santiago del Atitlan had felt like coming home, like some other places, other mountains had felt like coming home, but this place had something else, promised something else. There was no doubt that I would go to the mountain if I had the chance. I was here to get something that I had given up, or so the instincts said. Like other mountains this one asked me to get outside the inertia and grind of daily life and to step onto something other, something solid, something requiring immense focus and exertion, something that offered a tangible beyond walls of limitation and exhaustion. This mountain felt like a pilgrimage and something more that I could not put my finger on.
            Before I could get anything else out of the watchman, Bernardo returned and signaled me to join him. I introduced myself and offered him my hand. He dropped his eyes and held his hand out twisted backwards and limp. I wondered if he was crippled somehow, but shook it anyway. He turned, pulled open the heavy door and we both stepped out into the dawn. A sharp chill cut through my t-shirt and jacket. Birds I couldn’t identify sang from the flowered branches of the posada garden. It looked like a paradise. One of the gardeners was already up trimming the grass with his machete. He knelt down and swung the blade in a low, fast, arcing swipe through the grass. The result was the same as a power mower. He did not look up as we past, but bent even deeper to his task, intent on the evenness of his cut.
            We descended the cobble road of the posada to the dusty dirt road that ran between the villages on this side of Lake Atitlan. We would hike until a picop, as they called the many tiny pick-up trucks for hire, came by and offered us a lift. Lake smells mingled with those of cow manure and soap from women washing their clothes along the shore. The detritus of snack culture littered the ditch: chip bags, cigarette butts and packages, bottle caps, along with the organic discards such as banana peels, mango pits, corn cobs. The ditch made walking precarious as there was little space between the path of traffic and the loose, sloping soil of the ditch. We made our way in silence, I at least, glad to be walking. Behind us we both heard the low rumble and rattle of a truck coming up the road.
            “Let me talk,” Bernardo said in Spanish as we shouldered our packs and began to walk in single file along the road that circled the bay in front of the volcano. Sunlight had moved about half way down the volcano by the time a pickup with a cargo rack rattled up the road and slowed to see if we wanted a lift. Bernardo talked low and fast, nodded, and pointed to the bed of the truck. I climbed in before him and stood with the other passengers – a woman in full traditional dress of huipil – embroidered with a dazzling display of roses – a wrapped skirt, and braided hair, carrying a basket full of bananas, a hollow cheeked peasant farmer who had to be in his late sixties carrying something like an adze, and a young guy wearing western clothes and a “No Fear” cap. I nodded and tried to shake off the stares as I hung my elbows over the side of the rack. The truck could haul people, animals, firewood, crops, or whatever else would fit in the bed and between the walls of the rack. I had ridden in the bed of pickup trucks before as a farm worker in the Midwest and as a hitchhiker in the Tetons. Happy days of clear light and tired body, they carry a beauty I find painful to remember. I was so sure back then – confident and stupid but alive.
            Bernardo slapped the side of the truck and the driver accelerated in the dust, spinning his wheels and throwing me back toward the tail gate. I tightened my grip as I caught a glimpse of the old man chuckling to the woman who settled down onto the spare tire smiling as they chatted away in Tzutujil, Mom, or one of the other native dialects.
            The morning promised a cool day – good for climbing. Bernardo said we would be ascending most of the morning and asked if I had brought any water or food. I had and he seemed relieved. He looked at my shoes, some stiff sneakers, and asked to see the tread. I thought the lugs were thick for running shoes, but Bernardo winced a little before agreeing that they were probably sufficient.
            We slid passed ranches with elaborate gates, walls topped with broken glass embedded in concrete, and muddy, rock-strewn main streets with tiendas proclaiming the virtues of Crush and Pepsi. A soccer field tilted wildly toward the lake in a way that would give a great advantage to the team trying to score downhill. Pigs and dogs roamed the streets freely, but bothered no one, having learned how to survive traffic and stay out of people’s way. The truck lurched along the rutted road that climbed out past the town toward the mountain. I was alert and on edge as we neared trail head.
            Bernardo’s calm reassured me. I would never have guessed the contents of his pack, and his appearance was startlingly standard. His T-shirt was worn but clean. It had a Nike swoosh that covered most of his broad chest. He was a compact man and looked like he could climb forever. He had the hook nose and the smooth, beardless face of a Mayan warrior. His eyes were clear and looked at things patiently. His hands had thick calluses, like a cowboys. I had seen those hands on men who worked with tools and tractors. I had seem them often crumbling dirt between the fingers and thumb, testing the soil, savoring and revering ingredients of the land.
            One by one the others climbed down when they came to their destinations until Bernardo and I were the only ones left in the back of the truck. I was about to start up some small talk, but we rounded a corner that exposed us fully to the wind off the lake. It struck us hard and cold and carried so much dust that I had to lower my eyes and cinch down my hat. Bernardo just looked at me and said quietly “mucho aire,” lots of wind, and then pointed up to volcano now looming above us.
            The truck pulled off on a shoulder and Bernardo signaled me to climb down and stand to the side while he paid the driver. He kept his body between me and the cab, shielding me from the view of the driver. After the truck sped off on a cloud of dust Bernardo seemed relieved, more at home in the trees than on the road.
            We left the road and the shore of the lake. Lake Atitlan is about a mile high and we had another mile to climb to reach the crater and summit.
Bernardo stopped when the trees closed around us and asked that I wait while he said a prayer asking the mountain for permission to climb. I waited, not knowing exactly what to do, a little intrigued and a little uncomfortable with such a display of reverence. When he looked up, he nodded and said it was a good time to go and that we should start before it got too light.
The path followed a steep, cobbled road through vestiges of cane fields, the cash crop before coffee, and then we entered the cafetales, coffee fields that grew in closer to the road as we climbed. Soon the road petered out and a trail wound through the rows of coffee plants. Rotting avocados lay pecked over in the dust in the shade of the bushes. Bernardo passed easily beneath the branches through a tunnel that was about his height. I either stooped or swung my elbows to clear away the bean-laden branches. Here the earth was brown, dry, friable – easy going. We climbed steadily as the flank of the mountain grew steeper up its perfect arc.
            Coffee plants gave way to groves of avocado then maize. The contours of the mountain were traced by corn rows held in place by stakes and the stalks from previous crops. Some of them formed a solid stairway up the side of slopes so steep that they would never have been farmed in the states. A blessing of sorts. The big corporate farms were not interested in this land but farmed instead the flat stretch of land between the highlands and the coast. Easy to run a  tractor down there. And the gringos had taken the level land around the lake for airstrips, tennis courts, and hotels. One had even exhumed graves to build a luxury resort.
Between fields the trees grew taller and closer. The woods were dense with fruit and nut trees – zapote, oak, semilla de maranon (cashew); thick undergrowth wound its way up the trunks of  trees. The strangler fig had a way of using a host tree for support as it sucked the life out it with a seemingly passionate entwining. Healthy figs grew over gray, dried hulks of larger host trees reminding me of the perils of love turned to obsession, or desire for comfort to greed. Epiphytes and bromeliads punctuated the heights with fantastic displays of flower, leaf, and root high up the upper stories of the canopy.
            The climbing grew steeper as the earth grew darker. Deep, rich, black soil had been cut into steps that became the regular trail now, switchbacking through the forest with unrelenting incline. Breathe, breathe, breathe, step I told myself over and over. Bernardo stopped just ahead and listened, always keeping me in sight two or three switchbacks above.
            The hours passed and still we moved through high cultivated fields. Bernardo said that these fields were owned by the poorer families who could not afford land further down the mountain, so they carried tools, seeds, food, and water up to the fields and haul the harvest out on their backs. I thought about transport, the cost of elote, corn still on the cob, and it just didn’t add up. But then I looked at the view of the village and the lake, imagining what it must be like to work the fields by day and sleep beneath the stars above the lights of the town and I wondered if on another scale the work wasn’t worth it. I saw the vestiges of the crater rim of the most recent caldera that formed Atitlan, this place they call the umbilical connection between the material and the spiritual. These volcanoes are young, only about 80,000 years old. Only Atitlan, across the bay from us, is still active. The volcanoes provided the raw materials while the lichens and algae did the work of making it usable. Volcanic rock has broken down into rich soil that gets darker as we ascend.
            After the last of the milpas the climbing got dirty. Or rather I got dirty. We were moving up slopes held together by moist, loose, black soil that provided little purchase for the lugs on my sneakers but that left a telling smudge on whatever touched it. I touched it with knees, hands, elbows, hips. I touched it by falling, leaning, losing my balance and just scrambling. I grabbed branches of roots whenever I could to help offset my sliding back after hard won gain. I crawled on my belly beneath roots as the cloud forest became thicker. Eighty foot oak trees shot up to the sky and caught some of the wind that was blowing over the summit. Clouds cut off our view of the sky as we moved in a muted rhythm through a narrow world of fog and ghostly tree trunks.
            Bernardo pointed to footprints in the trail. Someone had been here before us today. He said we were above the fields, so he doubted that it was someone who came up the mountain to work. We had entered old growth forest and saw a wild turkey take wing and roost right in front of us. Like a messenger from a lost era, it sat and preened itself, watching, wondering, perhaps what it is we were doing there. Deer, squirrel, spider monkey are all gone, Bernardo explained. The islands of cloud forest are too small and the pressure to farm too high for them to live here. Natural habitat has receded to the unfarmable slopes of the volcanoes and the deep canyons. Shrinking wild lands and native ways I think to myself. I am sure here that the thread has been broken, that people who still have a connection to place are destined for extinction. I remember something vaguely, like a scent I used to know but have not smelled for a long time. I spills over and through me and I relax. I am glad to be here in this strange yet familiar place, so threatened, and yet so enduring. 
It’s a good place to take a break I say to Bernardo. He agreed.
            My forearms, wrists, knees, fingernails were all stained deep black. Bernardo had some dirt on his shoes. He was too dignified to note the distinction. I gratefully took a pull on my water bottle and got out a Clif Bar. Bernardo unwrapped a roll soaked through with honey. He asked how much my bar was. It was as much as a nice breakfast out would have been and could have bought almost twenty of his honey soaked rolls I told him. He asked how my legs were. Only then did I notice that they felt tight and hot. I asked how far to the top. He said another hour. I didn’t like the sound of that. The steepest was still to come.
            I noticed the yawning distance between us. We find some common ground in Spanish, a second language for each of us. He asked if I have children. I said two sons, but no more. I have made sure of that I told him, holding my fingers up to make the indicate scissors clipping. I wondered how he would react to this, being a member of a Catholic country opposed to birth control. He said he has three but will have no more and has made sure of that, making a similar gesture. “There’s too many people and too few jobs to have any more kids,” he said to me in Spanish.
            Uh oh, I thought. Here come the questions about the US and about life there and how much money can be made, cable TV, celebrity worship how much people look to “El Norte” and consumer culture as the best way to live. But nothing. Bernardo kept musing silently as he chewed his honey bread and took long draws on his water bottle.
            “I used to work as a guide doing horse tours,” he said out of nowhere. “I worked from six in the morning, getting the horses ready until seven at night leading the tours, cooking, cleaning up. The people who took those tours paid fifty dollars each, sometimes eight, ten twelve people. I made two dollars. In your opinion, don’t you think fifty dollars is too much for a horse tour around the base of the mountain?”
            “That does seem pretty expensive,” I answered. That seemed to satisfy him and close the discussion.
            “Don’t you sometimes want to leave here and travel?” I asked anyway.
            “No. My family is here. My life is here. My life comes from the food grown on these hills, my water from the lake. This place is me and I am this place. Why would I want to go anywhere else?”
            “Do you want to do anything else? Go to school? Have a profession?” I heard myself asking, somewhat incredulously and surprising even myself.
            For a long time he was silent. Then he said that many of his friends had either been killed or had disappeared during the civil war. “It was God’s will that I live,” he said, “and when it’s God’s will for me to do something else I will. Right now I just want to stay here. I have plenty to do between my family and my brotherhood, the men of my village, the elders.”
            I wondered if I could live so humbly, so simply. Working long days with no hope of anything better. But then I began to think about things I wanted: more connection to nature, better ties with community, fewer distractions, meaningful work, care for my family, and realized that Bernardo had all this in a simpler form than I was used to seeing.
            When we continued the climb, Bernardo became more animated and pointed to a plant he said was good for a headache, another whose root was good for a toothache, a bark that when boiled made a tea good for skin infections. I tried to memorize them to listen, but my legs were shot through with fatigue. I feared that I would pull a muscle or worse on the loose soil and rocks as the trail continued to steepen. Breathe in. Breathe out. Rest. Climb. Breathe in. Breathe out.
            Miraculously the trail leveled out and we were on the summit, looking into a knot of trees, vines, bushes, and snags that fill the crater. We worked our way around to a rocky outcrop that afforded us a view of the lake and of the village below. The wind whipped at us carrying fingers of icy cloud and fog that brightened or darkened depending on the thickness of the vapor. Bernardo watched the trail closely and found the footprints that went on past the summit and down the other side. They went only one way. Again he relaxed in this place so familiar yet so contested, so rife magic and envy. Bernardo seemed at home with it all, content that he would survive, adapt, hang on, hunker down.
            Here where we were too high to stay for long, we could see far across the lake. Tiny cities hugged the hospitable places wanting to be more. The wind sung in the branches as I tried to decipher its message. Was it warning or mourning or just moving? I couldn’t tell.
            I put on my Gore Tex jacket. Bernardo threw on an old sweatshirt. We found a place on the rocks and watched the clouds come and go above the lake, above the village, above our families far below. Some of the cloud scuttled by like ships below us and I remembered the stories of Atitlan, mother lake, edge of dreams, belly button of the world, source and destination of the people. Naives believe they are blessed if born into Atitlan, for it is heaven on earth, the highest plane a person can achieve. There is no word in the language for people to leave, for each step away is the first step toward return.
For a fleeting second, in the clarity born of exhaustion, I thought I saw what they meant by the lake being a passage to a world we visitors know only in fragments. The village passing in and out of sight, the lake shining like a living jewel, the unbroken line of indigenous life and its contrast with my own. This could be the center, I thought, and there is no need to go anywhere else. In the color drained mist I could see the village standing its ground of contentment in a swirling sea of urge and distraction and need to be to do something else, my world, a world I stand with both feet. The taste was bittersweet. I could see it, like I saw the beauty of the men and women of the highlands, but could never possess it or become it.  It was not enough, would never be enough, but to want more was nothing better than petulant greed. I did not want to become one of the gringos gone native I saw selling jewelry in Panajachel.  
            Bernardo was patient. The cold got into my bones and I wanted to leave. He reluctantly stood, stretched, and said the descent would be tricky. A gringo had tripped over a root not long ago and broken a leg. Bernardo had to fashion a kind of travois to get him out far enough for a rescue team to help.
            We retraced our steps, threading through roots and around switchbacks, hanging on to trees when possible. I slipped and skidded on my butt down some of the technical sections. Bernardo seemed to listen for my sliding before resuming, this time just out of sight.
            As the trail evened out into a steep set of switchbacks with a surface of packed dirt, Bernardo started to trot. He took small steps and held his shoulders smooth, his arms loose, elbows tight in. It was the same stride I had seen old men doing if they were in a hurry carrying heavy loads of firewood. I decided I would follow. I imitated his smooth gait, letting my arms swing loosely, cutting my stride to tight staccato steps that ate through the curves and cut stairs on the steeper stretches. It felt good for a while, maybe even an hour, and soon we passed the first of the milpas.
            My legs turned to rubber then to noodles and then wanted to give out completely. I kept going my limping and swinging them like prosthetic dead weight, careful not to repeat the fate of my gringo precursor.
            I asked Bernardo for a rest break. One look at me and he knew. “How are the legs?”
            “Pretty tired,” I confessed.
            “Let’s drink some water. We need it and it will mean less weight.”
            I sat and drank.
            “Why the pistol?”
            Bernardo looked at me with a new expression. “You never know what you will find on the mountain,” he said. “Men with machetes are sometimes angry. They want more than they have. They see the mountain as giving many things in many ways. It’s not always safe.”
            Hi look told me he would say no more.
            I looked down at the lake and realized we still had a long way to go. The thought sent a crippling cramp through my thigh and I groaned.
            Bernardo helped me up and told me to keep walking and to keep drinking.
Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Step. Limp. Step. Watch out for that rock. Don’t snag your foot on your ankle in this narrow rut of a trail.
One hour. Two. The trail leveled out just as I felt I could not take another step. The dusty road was a relief from the terrible downward tug of the trail. Bernardo had me sit on a rock while he flagged a picop.
Once again, he negotiated and we hitched a ride back to the posada. The truck was crowded and this time the other riders paid me very little attention. They seemed aloof, perhaps even jaded, but giggled when I had my back to them. We make our way around the bay leaving a rooster tail of dust in our wake.
I could barely climb out of the little truck when it stopped at the posada. I had overdone it and would feel the topography of the climbs between the torn fibers of muscle for a long time. I was glad though. I wanted to take a little of the mountain with me.
“How are the legs?” Bernardo asked.
Me duelen mucho,” I replied, they hurt – a lot.
“They will hurt more tomorrow,” he said. I knew he was right.
I got out my wallet to pay him. It felt good to give him the money. “I really wanted to go to the mountain,” I told him. “I don’t quite know why.”
He looked at me squarely. “We all have strong wants. The gifts we get should be appreciated. I hope you get want you want from your trip. Next time, bring boots. There is still more to know.”
With that I offered my hand and this time he took it.