Old is new

Here’s what amazed me about Chicago, when I returned:

–The quiet in the mornings. In San Marcos you wake to a loud chorus of roosters/paradisical birdies and dogs, dogs, dogs.

–How big everything looked. Our apartment seemed cavernous. Even the front steps seemed wider than I remembered.

–The harsh, edgy look in peoples’ eyes as you pass them on the street. The cold might have something to do with that.

Safe, sound and on the ground

This is how I got home:

10am lancha (aka, tiny boat). This tiny boat took me all around the lake picking up people, animals and things. Hello, blind Mayan man. Hello, German Shepherd. Hello, box of vegetables. Welcome to this tiny boat.

12pm shuttle to Antigua. Waited in the tiny tourist office in Panajachel, where the owner’s child had some crazy ADD problem and was screaming and throwing a paper airplane around while I tried to read a book. Then, I boarded a little minibus with five old people and we drove to Antigua. The shuttle was supposed to continue onward, with me aboard, to Guatemala City. But they told me to get off and wait in another tourist office for a new shuttle.

3:15 shuttle to Guatemala City airport. Waited in a tiny tourist office in Antigua. Listened while a legless old man in a wheelchair, wearing a cowboy hat, sat behind a desk and told two British chicks how the Mayans think women’s periods work.

8:30pm flight to Chicago. Waited in the airport lobby, had every inch of my belongings inspected 30 times. I was down to my last dollar (Quite literally, I had like 10 quetzales on me, which is a little over $1) and so couldn’t eat much but heartily enjoyed a chicken sandwich and Coke from the McDonald’s.

Just after 2am, O’Hare to home. Kevin picked me up and we waited for a cab in the frigid-ness, which didn’t agree with my socks/sandals combo, and no cabs were out and about. Walked to blue line El. Waited half an hour. Watched homeless people snooze. Wondered why this seemed the least efficient leg of my journey. Though it’s when I had the best company.  (Kevin. Not the homeless.) Blue line to Damen stop in Wicker Park. Cab from Wicker Park to home.


Monday night, I was in my treehouse around 8pm when I smelled smoke. Since the roof is thatched and I´m in, you know, a tree, I figure I should probably check this burning smell out, so I take a few wild spins around the room — what do I need? — and  toss my passport, room key and wallet into a shoulder bag and scamper down the ten tiny steps from the treehouse to the ground. The hillside, about half a mile away, is on fire, one long strip of flame licking at the trees and crackling through the brush. The man who owns the hotel, Gerardo, is outside on his cellphone.

´’Just stay here,’ he says and runs off to check it out.

He returns, shirtless, ten minutes later. ‘It won´t come here,’ he says. ‘This is the wettest place in town, I´ve got 10,000 litres of water if we need it.’

The thing is, we will need it, if the fire does spread — there are no firefighters here. They will have to call the bomberos from the next town, and until then, it will just be the people in the village wetting their clothes and fighting it as best they can.

I stand outside in my thin t-shirt and jeans,  in the ink-black night flecked with stars, and watch it burn, trying to tell if it´s moving towards or away.  A beautiful woman in a sundress holding her baby in a sling, with a  puppy cradled in one arm, appears. Eva, from the Netherlands. We share predictions: it won´t come this far. We share stories: she was in the house when a neighbor yelled to get out.

She asks me to hold her puppy, a docile tan little thing, so I take it in my arms, holding it awkwardly at first and then cradling it against my stomach.  ‘We can control fire with our minds,’ she says. The puppy is heavy and warm against my body. ‘Gives you something to hold on to,’ she says, gesturing to her baby, who is calm in his sling. We watch and watch until we can´t tell if it is coming or going. Finally her husband, with all their things in backpacks, takes them to a friend´s house to get out of the smoke. I hand off the puppy and stay there with Gerardo, drinking a beer and talking about the position of the stars and how they make Lake Atitlan a very special place.

By 9 the firefighters from the town across the lake have arrived, and with the help of the residents it seems to be dying down, flaring up, and then dying down again. By 10pm it is out, and I go back to the treehouse. In the morning, I walk along the path by the lake but don´t see any damage — someone later says it didn´t come down this far, it stayed in the hills and didn´t even come close to Eva´s house.  The smell of smoke hung in the trees the rest of the day, but now it´s gone.

San Marcos things

1) I´ve met two dogs and one baby named Marley. 2) We were eating some amazing whole-grain muffins at breakfast, and Stephany, who made them, was telling us the recipe and concluded with: “Oh, and I put some Reiki in these.” In the tone I´d use for saying I added walnuts.

Things in my bag right now

Things in my bag right now, as I sit here in this internet cafe in San Marcos….  Lonely Planet Guatemala, a banana peel that I need to find somewhere to toss, a cloth journal woven by local Mayan women,  an unpeeled orange, a flashlight in case I´m out past dark, the key to the treehouse where I am staying, 200 quetzales (which is about 30 dollars), a scrap of paper where I´ve scrawled down the info hotline for the plane crash, my Tigo-brand cell phone that I only sort of know how to use, and 2 pills for stomach upset that I thankfully haven´t needed today.

just this morning

i’m here in guatemala, on lake atitlan, which is just clear blue water ringed by volcanoes and sleepy mayan villages, and this morning of course, i’m the girl from clarence again, the one who drove those roads a million times, could etch a map of clarence onto her palm with a ballpoint pen and it would be to scale, the 2.5 miles between meadowlakes drive and long street. my family is safe, they’re all waiting for passenger names, and their voices sound flat and tired on the phone. my phone cards are running out in the middle of conversations; and i’m here, and i can’t get there, and it was just this morning.

So this is Here

This was my night: scramble to finish last-minute work stuff, laundry, pack, jump in a cab to the airport, knots in stomach, feeling like I forgot about nine thousand things, on the plane — crunched in a pretzel trying to sleep, awoke here and there, to flashes of inky sky or the most intense sunrise I’ve ever seen, the sky in ribbons of rainbow lightburst, and then the morning: waking up with a start at touchdown, getting through customs and finding happy relief at the appearance of my shuttle driver, holding a sign with my name, Linds Ay Muskato. I was just so overjoyed to see him, a jovial mid-20s nerd in glasses driving a shuttle bus, and I thought we could’ve talked forever about the trip, about the country, but neither of us spoke enough of the other’s language to get more than a few words in. So we sat in silence and listened to the radio; Iron Maiden and Phantom of the Opera were on the same playlist.

I arrived to early to check into the hostel so I walked across town to find Alex, a woman who’s in my writing workshop. We had never seen each other before, and we had no phone contact, so it was like in the Sun Also Rises, where I had to leave a message for  her at the hotel desk and maybe would run into her at the cafe. No answer at her room. Then I whirled around to go and there she was, I had a feeling, we both said hello at once.

We spent the morning browsing-shopping, ducking in and out of shops, cathedrals, galleries, and every other moment took our breath away, the walled gardens, the ruins of earthquake-torn cathedrals whose ceilings were now just pure blue sky, the dusty reds and brilliant blues and rich yellows of everything. We couldn’t help but say, every other  minute, how beautiful, how beautiful. I think I used the word “wow” more times than ever in my life.

Then back to the hostel for a nap – my simple room is just two beds and four walls, but I slept deeply and now, well, now I’m here.

Tomorrow we’re off to Lake Atitlan, which will make this tiny city of cobblestone streets and tourist shops seem like a bustling metropolis. If I can write more from there, I will.

Caves and airplanes

In theory I am leaving for Guatemala on Friday. In theory. Because it does not seem real, and I am not packed. I can hear this voice still and slow in my head: It will be ok. You will board the plane. But it does not seem real, and I am not packed. There are things to do: buy a Spanish-English dictionary, find extra pencils and contact lenses. People to see: but two weeks is not so long, why this crush of anxiety?

Kevin has left town too for a separate adventure, so I am knocking around like a single shoe in a dryer in this empty apartment. I hear every squeaky floorboard, dripping faucet  and rattling radiator. And I am wondering about cave paintings. Maybe they were painted because people missed home, and the only comfort in a dark cave was thinking about what you left behind to go exploring.

Deprived of everything but your mind

One day last week, Kevin and I were walking by Chicago’s only sensory deprivation center, the SpaceTime Tanks, on Lincoln Ave,  in the basement-level plaza of a sterile 70s-era high-rise. We’d heard of this place. And what else were we gonna do tonight? Go to a coffee shop? Seized by spontaneity, we decided to venture in — and opened a poorly marked entrance to a dead-quiet waiting room with no one  manning the front desk. Kevin pointed to the  “please remove your shoes” sign, so we both got shoeless, and then for about five minutes stood around in our socks whispering “what should we do?”, inhaling the incense, watching the lazy fish in the aquarium. It could’ve been the waiting room of a totally hippie dentist.

Finally, a tall gentleman with an even-tempered smile, hunched shoulders, chin-length blonde hair and zoned-out eyes appeared, (I’ll call him “Gary”) and said he could take both of us for one-hour sessions, even without an appointment. He ushered us into a small room with a shower and a floor made of cedar planks like a dry sauna. Plus a large tank, fit for one person. Thanks to Gary, I learned that this is the process: 1) Get naked. 1.5) Put in the conveniently provided ear plugs. Or you will get tons of salt in your ears. 2) Open the hatch on the front of the tank and climb in. It’s metal, file-cabinet beige and about the size of a two-person tent. Or a very large front-loading washing machine. 3) Lay back in this tank. It is pitch-black inside and  filled with 10 inches of water and tons of epsom salts, which means that you will float without even trying. 4) Float there and relax your whole body for one hour. Don’t touch your eyes. 5) Enjoy. Self-exploration and total relaxation will be yours.

As he led Kevin to a separate room with another tank, he said he would knock on the door to my tank in one hour to let me know time was up. Whoa. The tour was so quick, the alone-ness so sudden.  So. This is it, huh? Just me and space and time. I took off my clothes and opened the door to the tank, then crouched down to step inside the dark chamber  –the bottom felt slick, like stepping onto a slip-and-slide, and I imagined this place got tons of law suits. I managed to get in without breaking my neck, and then started to lay back in the total blackness.  My first thought was: This is what it’s like to die.

My second thought was: Shit, I forgot to put in ear plugs.

So I sat up with great effort, pushing through the water that felt heavy as syrup, and opened the door to the hatch. Ok. The world was still there. Sweet. I grabbed the ear plugs and shoved them in my ears. Back to floating in the room-temperature shallow water that smelled vaguely of ocean, or YMCA pool.

At first I couldn’t feel my body at all. Then one trouble became apparent:  my skin, and especially any place that had ever been scratched or scraped, stung like hell because of the epsom salt. Each part of my body passed through its own stinging stage. Then numbness again. It was so dark that I couldn’t tell if my eyes were open or closed. Even my slightest movement seemed huge. I could fully my relax my whole head and my eyes, nose and mouth could remain above water. Total bliss hit randomly; weightless; being-less; until I bumped my head on the padded side of the tank somehow. I went to scratch my nose and bitter water dripped into my mouth.  I wondered if Gary was a serial killer and about to bust open the door at any minute. I tried to think deep thoughts: What should I do with my life? Does God exist? No answers. I wondered about Kevin and thought maybe we could telepathically communicate, both being in space-time tanks, after all. Kevin, are you as weirded out as I am? Do you want to get out? Meet you by the aquarium?

When I couldn’t take another minute of it, I sat up, pushed open the door, and stood up. Which was a huge relief in itself, and that alone blissed me out for a second. I started washing off the salt under the curtainless shower next to the tank–and then totally freaked out that Gary was about to barge in and tell me my time was up. He’d never knocked. But when I walked out, Kevin was already sitting on the leather sofa with a mug of tea, looking anxious, cold and wet.  It was an hour and a half after we’d gone in. I never got a knock, I said. I just got one a few minutes ago, he said. Our theory: Gary had heard me showering and remembered to knock for Kevin.

Out in the 10 degree January night, our wet hair freezing into hair-cicles, we debriefed:

“I think it would be better the second time,when I’m less bugged out by the oddness of the sensations.”

“Salt dripped in my eyes.”

“I couldn’t help but think about all the other people who’d been in that tank before me. And what they did while they were in there.”

“I wish I could’ve turned my mind off.”

“Yeah. Me too.”