By Andrew J. Tonn
MONTERRICO — The road straightens out after the turns and twists of the highlands and it feels like you are sliding towards the coast down a palm-lined slide. The change comes on suddenly. You have fought the traffic to get free of Guatemala City and corkscrewed down the mountain. You are in one environment and then you are in another. Mountain trees give way to the vegetation of Central America’s low, hot plains. When you roll down the windows the cool, thin air is now thick with heat and water and the smells of the coast. Slow-water mangrove swamps, fish, sweat, palms, corn, coconut, salt, oil, smoke, and the sea. Your hands relax on the wheel and your foot comes off the gas and the sun is a different kind of bright.
There is an enervating quality to the Guatemalan highlands. They exist in a state of semi-dreaming, a relatively vast region of transition. There are places where the vale between worlds seems thinner, where you feel the hand of the Creator and that you might step through to somewhere else if not careful. I have felt this in Varanasi, in parts of the Navajo Nation, in Oaxaca, and once in a strange thicket of woods in central Ohio. But the whole of the Guatemalan Highlands has this feel of being not entirely of the physical realm, a place of smoking volcanoes, water, and clouds between two vast continent, hot and fertile, cold and rocky, crushed into a narrow isthmian land by the fist of God Almighty.
You often don’t realize you have been living in this waking dream until you leave. The sun in Antigua is hot and bright and will burn you like Icarus, so you stay to cool shadows. Purple flowers fall from trees like rain. The mountain nights grow cold and sometimes you see red lava glowing on black volcanoes. The longer you spend at Lake Atitlan, the harder it is to escape. You are deep in the crater of an ancient volcano, with the water filling it deeper still. Every moment the clouds change, the surface of the lake changes, the wind brings a different feeling and after long, the act of packing up and finding transport and lifting oneself out of the caldera seems just a little too hard. It is one of my favorite places but I determined long ago I would never be fully seduced by it. It is not my native home nor do I desire to make it so. It is my favorite place but I always feel an almost breathless relief upon leaving it, feel the spell of suddenly broken and it is later hard to remember exactly how it felt and what kept you in thrall.
So it is leaving the mountains for the coast. When you see the palm trees and smell the sweet bitter salt of the ocean, you are free of the mountain’s glamour. Under the mountain’s spell you seem relaxed but you are under an unrealized tension, existing in a liminal space where maybe we are not made to spend to long, at least not without surrender. Maybe if you eat the lotus the tension will leave and you can stay on and on, forgetting year by year what came before until you too disappear into the mist.