The Beginning, the End, and the Beginning (for ages 12.5–23 7/8)
by Luc Jansen
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The BEGINNING . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
We arrived at the airport in the middle of the day and quickly found a three-member group of shoeless street children, ages 6–8. Unkept black, tangled hair and oversized, hand-me-down casual clothes covering each of them, my colleague handed them chicles, pieces of North American chewing gum.
Appearing similar to a time from 50 years prior, the highway to the green aldeas spun off into a residential area where, after being assigned host families, we relished small bowls of cabbage soup and a cup of hot chocolate among the school teachers. Nearby I gave a large bill to an orphan who was instructed to present it to a lawyer and request a nurturing room and board intervention from any parish.
It was then I was introduced to the host family’s home at the side of the two lane highway. There were only ice cold showers and a modest kitchen in which the home owner spilt a portion of a decorative plant’s soil onto the countertop and left it there for months for no apparent reason.
Weeks past and Spanish school instructors taught us the nuance of the European language’s finer points until finally it was time to drive through the country and observe the work sites. But not before a local townsman who walked uphill fainted directly at the side of my aforementioned colleague. The unconscious man had walked with a relative who seemed exasperated, reached deep into her purse and located a small, lightweight bottle of an herb and evergreen scented aftershave which she applied to his face and neck in an attempt to revitalize the lifeless man.
There were chocolate cookies and pinatas at the local tienda, but they were not particularly enjoyable when considering each week we were challenged by difficult circumstances including foreign flora and fauna in the water supply, and careless bus drivers whose supplies overhead included a half dozen miniature feral opossums in route to a wildlife conservation centre. The cage unexpectantly lifted off the bus roof like a glider’s wings until the creatures smashed into the pavement, scattered and expired.
You could expect a planning meeting would spill over into these unpleasantries and they did, and when we finally did leave the aldea I said good bye to the reptilian juvenile kitten who devoured a rat of similar size and consumed 90% of it as though there were no other sustenance anywhere in the area.
Nearly a five hour drive later we arrived at a quiet town inhabited by two experienced volunteers who housed us through the weekend and prepared decadent, maple syrup covered banana pancakes as rich as a Thanksgiving dinner. In the evening one of them played well known alternative songs like Put the Message in the Box.
Several hundred miles later we surveyed an aquatics farm while a basilisk shot across the surface and arrived 25 meters later at the shore with only droplets of green water on it’s feet. Someone told one of the locals the creature is known as a Jesus Lizard in El Norte, and he asked me if it was true.
“I don’t really know, I’m a Hebrew”, I replied.
When a large toad was located at the side of a creek, it casually swam downstream with one arm behind it’s back.
On other days the volunteers peered out of the forest as though they held dual nationality in the Mayan highlands, and when the hardworking professorial team leader impressed on us the vast amounts of planning and energy required to maintain the reforestation program, the afternoon had ended.
Not long after we all dove into the side of Lake Izabal in our swimsuits brought along for the occasion. In the Morning a tour boat took some of us to a conservation reserve sporting a couple dozen camera seeking melanistic howler apes which according to the wood plaque alongside the pier:
“Migrating from Belize since 1980 to escape Anglican influence.”
Even the strong can be impaired by the drinking water’s fauna, and one of them was in the hotel room the entire time despite his strong stature.
The trainer, similar to a character from one of Michael Blake’s screenplays, someone who would churn an antique wood coffee grinder facing a trio of indigenous visitors while maintaining his cheery position. After all, no one told him what to do.
An academic and generally efficient instructor who was quite safety minded at times, watched out for us on a weekly basis and when the time came to return to the highway and travel to the Occidente he reminded me to keep my arms inside the van.
It was there a Mayan spiritualist appeared in the dawn the day after we were housed by a couple of volunteers in their spacious abode, and using long drawn out rituals superimposed her believe system on everything the Spanish instructors had taught us the months prior in alignment with the solar system’s linearity, the new year and the tour in our minivan. Not long after I began seeing things as they really were.
There was another group altogether, a 15 member cohort directed by a woodsman of Dutch descent, he quickly convinced me to change my name from Johannsen to Jansen, and placed a short text by Hammarskjöld in the palm of my hands.
But not before our taxi driver from the colonial city who was in cloaked mode casually took us halfway home, to a place where a series of massive boulders spun off the 20 degree hillside preventing any passage homeward. Payment in full was required at the starting point, and when the entourage was nowhere to be found, we located a payphone and found our way to staff’s home for the night.
Through time, changing weather patterns and bouts of dehydration, we exited the training center towards our destinations in seclusion from all the aforementioned training, living on tortillas, vegetable soup and scrambled eggs for 24 months.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The END & the BEGINNING . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
And when the canicula lengthened the calendar months, the colleague of mine who missed the view of the howlers on page one, joined me for a cross isthmus journey past the Mayan glyphs of Coban. On the commuter bus a street entertainer boarded with an aged camera and a lighter, and while he took photos of the travelers, the lighter was lit at intervals to mimic the effect of a powerful camera flash.
We reluctantly joined a few backpackers on a journey to Utila where the snorkeling offseason had drawn us. In the mangrove we kayaked the coastal waters in 85F heat, covered in mandatory bug protection spray, until we found a shore to place the kayaks on.
It was there a half hour later under a saltwater cave a few meters under the water, one of us noticed the tail end of a 7.5 foot long nurse shark, resting. We were gone the following morning. There wasn’t any hurry to return to Stockholm, and we parted ways as he began a long journey to the Florida Keys to commence teaching a conference on transcendental contemplation.
Finally in Mexico I crossed the border with an entry stamp obtained days earlier and suggested by another colleague, and flung my duffle bag across my shoulder in route to Zihuatanejo, Oaxaca and finally to the Copper Canyon. It was in the capital I had purchased a train pass without reviewing the schedule. It stated we arrived at 8 am, however they neglected to mention it was 8am plus a day and the only way to curtail any hunger was through consumption of American style ham and cheese sandwiches offered by a vendor in a blue business uniform.
Then a Japanese American professor appeared in a hiking cap and commenced teaching the outline of the course he was planning for the following semester. He was a scholar who devoured teaching methodologies and summarized them in succinct documents. Finally we arrived at the Copper Canyon amongst the tourists in Tarahumara country. It was there the children sat patiently by the roadside selling handmade souvenirs.
I flew to Stockholm the following week bronzed by the solar rays and enrolled in the pony-tailed professor’s online webinar.