Lake Ilopango: Diving Another Central American Volcanic Lake

EL SALVADOR–Pacific Paradise dive boat on the shores of Lake Ilopango. Fuji X100f.

By Andrew J. Tonn

SAN SALVADOR – Sometimes it is hard to get a sense of terrain and space while driving.  You know you are on a road, in the desert, or mountains, or a forest.  You know you are going somewhere, but the overall picture is indistinct, at least until later when you look at the map, your photos, your memories, and piece the whole thing together.

This is not the case for the road between San Salvador and Guatemala City.  I had never driven the route in my own car but had taken it several times in a bus, from one city to the other and back again.  Leaving Guatemala City you travel up and over the mountains through a misty zone of pines and hardwood, crossing the rim of mountains separating the two Central American countries.  When you crest the mountains, you drop down to a hot plain that calls to mind parts of Texas and Mexico, distinct from the cool Mayan highlands.  The highway is not straight but somehow feels that way.  Up and over the mountains, across the plains and valleys, a stop at the border, across a river, and into El Salvador.  The road continues on, close to the coast but never so close as to see the ocean, until you join the sprawl of San Salvador or turn off somewhere along the way.

We turned off along the way, west towards the ocean, until finally the deep blue Pacific appeared like a lake hovering between a gap in the mountains.  There were signs for La Libertad and Surf City and I rolled down the windows, turned off the AC, and the heat and smell of the sea and the land flowed through the car.  I was traveling with two friends who both worked at La Iguana Perdida on the shores of Lake Atitlan: Danny from Switzerland and Giada from Italy.  Danny was one of the Dive Instructors who I had been training with.  In a few weeks he was pulling up stakes and moving on to Indonesia.  Giada was the hotel manager, not a diver, and just wanted to see El Salvador.  Over the last months I had been researching different places to dive in the region.  My own dive experience is somewhat unusual.  I had been certified at Lake Atitlan some 15 years ago and had recently completed my Advanced and Rescue Diver courses on the way to beginning my Dive Master.  While I have been underwater in the Caribbean and elsewhere, a huge part of my diving has been at that curious, cold, beautiful, and murky Mayan lake.  Danny was about to finish up the better part of a year leading nearly daily dives in Atitlan and had been underwater there several hundred times.

Not that freshwater diving is that unusual an activity, but many, if not most recreational divers get their certificates somewhere tropical and salty.  They might, if traveling through, do a dive or two in Atitlan out of curiosity and, according to the instructors, even experienced divers sometimes struggle with the cold fresh water where it’s hard to see, the air is thinner, and buoyancy more difficult.

EL SALVADOR — On dive site Cerro Quemado in Lake Ilopango. GoPro Hero 8 Black.

Danny and I were both fascinated by the prospect of diving in another Central American volcanic lake and we were signed up to do two dives in Lake Ilopango.  Ilopango, like Attitlan, is a caldera, the result of a massive volcanic explosion.  Both lakes are quite deep, with Atitlan at about 1,120 feet and Ilopango at around 755 feet.  Atitlan’s massive eruption occurred some 80,000 years ago but Ilopango only between 410 and 535 AD which would have a great effect on life in the region and perhaps affecting the climate around the world.  Atitlan is in a rural part of Guatemala, is surrounded by three massive volcanic cones, and stands at 5,125 feet at lake level.  Ilopango, at only 1,480 feet, feels peaceful and remote at lakeside, but is basically within San Salvador.  Both are beautiful places though nothing I have ever seen can compare to Atitlan and its phantasmagoric clouds, mountains, and colors.  Another difference is that Ilopango has both islands and rock formations piercing the surface of the lake.  Atitlan had at least one island in the distant past, submerged a millennia or more ago.  But that’s all on the surface.  We were interested in what lay below.

EL SALVADOR — Down in Lake Ilopango. GoPro Hero 8 Black.

We were staying on the coast at the Pelicano Surf Camp, a two-story shack, open to the heat, breeze, and mosquitoes and full of backpackers, surfers, and the sound of waves.  Longboards lined the rafters, and the sand floor of the downstairs bar and common area was a menagerie of dogs, cats, and chickens.  There were tents pitched on the floors and people lounged in hammocks.  Giada had a bed in a dorm room.  Danny and I shared a private room, made private by the addition of a bedsheet strung on cord.  I was reminded of the line from many an action movie about being too old for this, but I took off my sandals, put on my bathing suit and found an empty hammock.  I opened a book.  A chicken was staring at me.  Life could be worse.

Danny had arranged the dives with San Salvador-based Pacific Paradise Divers and I was up before dawn the next morning.  The mosquitoes of El Salvador seemed to treat repellant as a delicious DEET-based sauce.  It was tropical hot even in the early hours of the morning, the bed was somehow both too hard and too soft, and there was a cat sleeping by my head.  We had to arrive at the dive shop by 0730 anyway after close to an hour drive into the city.  There was no point in sleeping in.  Sunrises on Salvadoran beaches are worth getting up for and I cleared my head jogging in the surf line.

The unfamiliar drive went better than I had hoped for, albeit with some flexible interpretation of local traffic laws.  We pulled into the lot, knocked on the door, and were greeted like old friends by Henry and Nuria.  I paid for my dives, helped load tanks into Henry’s old pickup, bought the T-shirt, chatted with some of the other divers, and we headed out following Henry to Lake Ilopango.  It took about an hour to cross the city and some more creative driving along the way, but soon enough we were on the shores of the lake.  It was a fine, sunny day with a strong breeze bringing the waves up.

The waves meant we wouldn’t be able to dive certain sites where it was difficult to get the anchor to hold.  It wasn’t a huge boat but big enough to hold our second tanks.  At Atitlan the diving is from a small, open lancha.  You enter the boat fully geared up except for fins, roll out and pull yourself back in over the low gunwale.  Being used to that rather austere experience made the day with Pacific Paradise Divers seem positively luxurious.  A ladder to get back in the boat you say?  A banana to eat after the dive?  I feel like Thurston Howell III in a wetsuit! (I mean no offence to AtiDivers at Atitlan, by the way, their style of boat diving there is exactly appropriate to the conditions!)

We loaded the tanks and gear and headed out to a jagged formation of rocks breaking through the blue water.  The site was called Cerro Quemado and there were several other dive boats nearby.  We rolled into the water and we swam a hundred feet or so to where Henry had told us we would dive.  There is always that moment of thrill and apprehension descending into a new and unknown site and I think it was particularly special for Danny and myself who had spent so much time diving in another, very special, Central American lake.  Ilopango was different and I think for divers less familiar with Atitlan, the differences might have been small but for us they were significant.  The water was clearer and there were schools of fish everywhere.  The water had a different smell and taste and was warmer.  The plants and algae growing on the rocks were different and though it was no Caribbean reef there were some subtle reds and other colors as opposed to Atitlan’s palette of greens and greys.

We descended to around 90 feet and there were a series of religious sculptures.  It was the first time I had seen manmade statues intentionally placed in the deep.  I had always thought the idea a little silly but there in the cool, dark depths of the Central American lake I found looking upon the cross, and Mary, various Saints, and the outstretched arms of the Savior curiously affecting.  There was something indescribably about kneeling on the rocky bottom, almost 100 feet below the surface, and saying a brief prayer to nothing but the sound of my own breath, that I find impossible to fully describe.  We explored the rock formations, searched for freshwater crabs, and swam through clouds of small fish until it was time to come up. 

EL SALVADOR — On the boat after the first dive, heading to our second where we circumnavigate Isla de Amor underwater.  GoPro Hero 8 Black.

The boat took us over to a small island near the shore.  The islet was perhaps 200 feet across and 100 or so feet high, a lump of tree covered stone called, “La Isla de Amor,” the island of love, accompanied by the local expression, “Two go up, and three come down.”  This turned out to be one of my favorite dives ever because of its form.

We rolled in just 15 0r 20 feet offshore in shallow water, descended to perhaps 30 feet, then swam around the Island of Love, going clockwise keeping the slope off the right shoulder.  In general, I love the idea of going around geographic features, sailing around the globe, circumnavigating bodies of water, circumambulating lakes and mountains.  It was an elegantly simple dive and great fun trying to mentally gauge how far one had come around an island one had only just seen on the surface and never before from below.  We passed the boat’s anchor line with plenty of air remaining, swam a bit farther, retracing part of the circle, then turned back and came up.

After removing our gear, several of us climbed the hill in our wetsuits, dripping lake water on the stone steps.  It didn’t seem that romantic a spot to me, but the view was nice, the sun was hot, and there was a good wind.  I thought I very much wanted to come back, to dive Ilopango again, see some of the other sites and maybe swim around the Island of Love another time. 

A Single Photo: The Dangers of Electrical Work

ZACATECAS–I was walking down the street in Zacatecas, Mexico and heard barking above me. This lineman was working on a tangle of wires and two dogs were on the roof next to him, letting him know he wasn’t welcome. It is a dangerous job, working high above the ground, with high-voltage lines and the complex problems of phone, and electric, and who-knows-what kind of wires all tangled together. Maybe there is even danger from angry birds… But usually, up there, a lineman doesn’t have to worry about dogs, leaving that to his brothers delivering the mail. Leica M9 Monochrome, 50mm f/2 Summicron.

A Single Photo: Auto Safari Chapin or a Park Full of Hungry Dinosaurs?

GUATEMALA — Somewhere not far from the coast, just off the highway, is a sign for “Auto-Safari Chapin.” We had the time and drove down this long road reminiscent of another, fictional animal park also in Central America. As I am posting this, it is obvious we were not eaten by hungry dinosaurs, or, for that matter, hungry hippos, lions, ostriches, giraffes, or any of the other, many animals on this surprisingly lovely auto safari. Leica M9 Monochrome, 25mm f/4 Voigtlander Snapshot Skopar.

How to Keep a Journal (and be a Better Photographer)

05 May 2021         Wednesday           0911

By Andrew J. Tonn

GUATEMALA CITY (HOME)—Keeping a journal seems to be one of those ideas that the world repeatedly rediscovers.  Lately, I see it mentioned in articles on wellbeing, mindfulness, and productivity, and as a way to deal with the stresses and uncertainties of the pandemic.  These are all well and good and potentially effective but keeping a journal, is still something surrounded by confusion and fear which is unfortunate as it is once of the few activities accesible to almost anyone.

I have been keeping a journal off and on since I was  a freshman in High School and (without stating my exact age) I can say that means I have some years of experience in the process!  I have also lived most of my life professionally involved with the written word, studying English Literature as an undergraduate, Writing for my MA, and working as a newspaper reporter, an independent journalist, and media director for international relief organizations.  My current job requires a high level of organization and more technical, official reports and, obviously, I continue to write on my own as well as for various online publications.  And like everyone else I am trying to navigate the waters of the pandemic and the ongoing process of figuring out my own life.  Along the way I have learned a few things about keeping a journal.

I am not one for including too many disclaimers.  Obviously this is my own opinion, my own process, and you are free to use or discard any part of what you read here.  But I do mention it here for a reason.  A journal is a very personal thing and writing for many people is an activity fraught with uncertainty and misconceptions.  Lots of articles recommend you keep a journal but very few offer any good advice on how to do that.  Here is what I have learned in a life spent with letters.

First, and most practically, you need a journal.  Keep in mind that if money or access to buy a dedicated journal is an issue, all you really need is a pencil and some paper.  I have my preferences, which I will elaborate on, but any cheap spiral-bound notebook and #2 pencil is essentially as functional as anything else.

I have a strong preference for the regular, black, 8 by 5 inch Moleskine (or it’s many imitators) (WalMart sells one by Mead that is probably better made and definitely a bit cheaper).  If you’re not familiar with the Moelskine I will tell you why it is the best.  First of all it is a great, practical size.  I like the smaller Field Notes booklets for lists and notes (and longer writing in a pinch) as they fit in a pocket.  The Moleskine, however, is a good trade off between having enough space to get your pen or pencil moving across the page and fitting neatly in a bag or purse.  I find it slips perfectly into the back pocket of my Domke camera bags and can be held in one hand to take notes.  The Moleskine has a couple other features that makes it, for me, the journal of choice.  It is a standard, first and foremost, that has been made for decades.  Once it is full, it can go nearly on a shelf next to its predecessors.  My earlier journals were randomly bought and a disorganized mishmash of sizes and colors and cover materials.  Second, the physical book has several simple but well-thought-out features: an elastic band to keep it shut, a place-marker ribbon, and, to me the most important feature: a pocket inside the back cover that can be used to store receipts, ticket stubs, and other ephemera acquired during the same period the journal was in use.

Now that you have your journal, the big question is what to write?  The answer, quite simply, is write anything you want to.  The journal is the first draft of your own history.  You can show it to anyone you want to, but it is not intended for anyone else’s eyes.  Back in writing school there was one classmate who loved penning un-ironic imitations of 1950s pulp science fiction.  He was a nice guy and very earnest and he loved those tales of ray guns and tentacled moon monsters that had thrilled a generation growing up on the cusp of the space age.  I have no problem with this nor should anyone else.  Having a peculiar genre of escapist literature that makes you happy is a good thing.  This guy, however, was taking a senior-level creative writing course designed for students wishing to become published writers in a different day and age.  The student objected during his critique that he could write anything he wanted to, letting us and the professor know that this was a free country and these were the things he wanted to author.  The instructor was very clear and gentle with him and used the moment to teach us all a lesson.  He said, “Of course this is a free country and you are welcome to write whatever you want in your journal, in private, for your own enjoyment.  But we are here to learn how to write for publication.  In that world you are writing for a public and for an editor and for publishers so in essence you are free to write whatever you want and I am free to grade and critique it as I want.”  Another mentor of mine, Dennis, the City Editor to my cub reporter once told me, “Listen to your editor, Tonn.  You can disagree with an editor—if you can explain why—but an editor will always make your writing better.”

But we are not talking about writing for publication.  We are talking about the journal you are interested in keeping.  So what do you write in a journal?  As I said: ANYTHING.  Really, anything.  I think this more than anything else is what keeps people from beginning.  There is a blank page of paper in front of you and it belongs to you and no one else.  So use it, fill it, it is your space.  This means it can be the first draft of your great novel.  It can also be a grocery list.  It can be bad poetry (or good, but most is bad).  It can be lists of the places you want to travel to, the things you want to buy, your favorites types of dogs in descending order of preference.  It can be free-form rambling about your hopes and dreams and plans.  It can be eloquent story-telling, one true sentence after another.  It can and probably should be all of these things (you can skip the dog thing if you want).  In other words this is a space for you to write whatever you want without fear that you are doing it right or wrong.  There is no right or wrong in how you keep your own journal.

That pretty much covers the psychological.  Here, however, on the practical side, I am going to give some more concrete advice.  In my experience, creativity is aided by organization and preparedness.  As with photography, I can go out and create freely because my camera bags are in order.  I know I have the lenses and batteries and memory cards and film (and the journal and pens) I need and where they all are and thus can concentrate on making images.  With keeping a journal I do several similar things.  First, as we already discussed, I decided on one type of journal and don’t deviate from that choice other than by some necessity.  Second, I have developed a way of beginning each entry regardless of what that entry might be and this centers my mind as well as provides continuity and reference information.  It is quite simple and I am including a photo of how it looks.  I write the date (in military/European format, ie: 24 April 1872) on the left.  In the middle I write the day of the week, and on the right the time of day (23:46).  Then, before the entry begins, I write what is in essence a newspaper Dateline.  The Dateline is the place from which a story is filed, written in all capitals (GUATEMALA CITY—).  Keep in mind that this information alone is a valid journal entry.  If you don’t have time or inclination for more you can still go back and see that, yes, on April 24 of 1872, at just before midnight, I was in Guatemala City.  I often go a little farther with the “Dateline” as well and add a more precise location if I think it important.  Remember that this is your information so your “Dateline” can read, “AT WORK,” or, “HOME,” or anything else that tells you where you were.

The most important thing (as it is for pretty much everything else in life) is to begin.  If you want to keep a journal then go get a blank book and start writing in it.  The above is only a guideline but it’s good to have guidelines, particularly for unfamiliar activities.  And really that’s all you need: blank paper (most conveniently in book form), a writing utensil, and the will to put the two  together in conjunction with your thoughts.

PCS Again: Permanent Change of Station II

NUEVO LAREDO–Waiting in line to cross the border, a man walks up and down the lines of cars trying to sell a crucifix to travelers. Fuji X100f.

Guatemala City–It is the hour before dawn on the last day we will spend in Monterrey, the madrugada of our despedida.  I can smell the desert night that was and the desert day that will be, a day months in coming, postponed, canceled, rescheduled.  It is the end of September and summer still fills the darkness with a memory of stunning light and heat.  It is the end of September and we have yet to leave Mexico.  It is the end of September and we were supposed to be in Guatemala at the beginning of August but the pandemic has put the whole world in a waiting pattern and we can hardly complain.

There is a long drive ahead of us and the first order of the new day is to walk the dog and stretch my own legs.  Burton pulls at his leash and we cross the modernist bridge that arches over Avenida Vasconcelos leading to the Calzado.  I have walked those oak lined trails hundreds of times over the last two and a half years.  Now they are closed.   Burton does what he is supposed to do and then turns around, eager to go home.  The purebred Springer Spaniel joined our family here when he was eight weeks old.  Now he is full grown, 60 pounds.  He is almost embarrassingly handsome with the step and manner of his lineage, but even as a tiny puppy small flaws were evident that ended any career as a show dog.  We like to think that gave him a better deal than his perfect litter mates.  He is our Mexican Springer Spaniel named for an English explorer and he knows things are changing.  For the last week he has been sitting on our feet or placing his body between us and the door, clearly nervous, clearly saying, Do not forget the dogRemember to pack the dog. I am part of your pack.  We have no intention of forgetting the dog and do our best to put him at ease.

I stop at the top of the bridge, looking down the wide avenue that has been an unremarkable, everyday part of my life.  It is the street that leads to my favorite supermarket, my martial arts classes, to church, to a friend’s house.  I can remember the first time I crossed this bridge when I didn’t know where it led.  I look down into the tree shaded park where every Saturday I explored a small flea market and talked with the merchants.  Monterrey has been good to us.  I think of leaving Mumbai three years earlier in a driving rain, so sick and exhausted that I barely cared if the plane crashed so long as it would end our time in India.

The sky begins to lighten and the day will break hot and cloudless and bright.  I will miss Monterrey but it is time to leave.  Our house is empty, the walls stained by two young boys, cookouts with friends, a dog growing from a puppy.  There are holes in them where things used to hang and the space echoes with nothing to muffle sound.  Our black Honda CRV is full, bags and belongings fitted into an intricate puzzle leaving just enough space for humans, canine, and some visibility.  It is still far less than we could have taken with us on a plane.

Back home, my wife is drinking coffee and the boys are in the shower.   There are all of those last minute things and I long ago realized that any road trip departure time is aspirational.  But then we are ready.  I lock the doors for the last time, never to return to this light-filled house.  Our neighbors come into the street to see us off and I hand them the keys then drive the familiar route to work to drop off our ID cards.

It is 1000, two hours later than I wanted to leave, but still well within the safe travel hours.  Our high speed dash will follow a well-paved toll road through the desert almost due north to the border.  This is some of the most dangerous and contested land in North America.  The border city of Nuevo Laredo is a war zone and the non-toll road a few miles to the west, is the regular site of pitched battles between armored columns of cartel gunmen and Mexican military and police.  Statistically there is fairly low risk driving the toll road during daylight but nothing ever is guaranteed.  Every time you step out the door you don’t know when or if you’re going to return.

I always have a set of trips I want to do formulating in my head and journals.  There is this ideal, false in my opinion, that the best trips are unplanned, spontaneous bop prosody behind the wheel, free of care or destination.  I have had incredible trips that sprang, full-formed like an unplanned beatnik Athena from the head of Zeus, but lack of planning usually means a trip will never happen.  Go back and read On the Road.  Kerouac was a planner.

In my journals I have endless notes for trips, complete with itineraries, research, reading lists, expenses, gear, contacts.  I don’t know if these trips will ever happen but that doesn’t stop the planning for them.  The thing is, trips that never happen have a life of their own anyway, complete with memories, gear, and expenses.  Trips that never happen leave us different than we were before.  If you plan to go somewhere and read about its history, religion, geography, research and allocate funds to buy appropriate equipment, begin making time for that in place of something else, then you are different.  That place has changed you even if you never get on a plane.

The pandemic stymied a trip to Tibet as well as a job in Kenya but it somehow made this drive from Mexico to Ohio possible.  When we arrived in Monterrey we were not allowed to drive this stretch of highway.  When the rules changed, we talked about making a trip to Laredo but it never seemed worth the time and risk.  We talked often about how fun it would be to drive home, but it seemed that time and security and other practical concerns would make those plans untenable.  Then the pandemic made travel by air both impractical and unsafe and for those and other reasons we would be leaving by car.  Of course our fantasy of an extended ramble home, stopping here and there and enjoying the great American road trip, would be changed to taking the most direct route, eating drive through food, wiping down fuel pumps, and dreading each gas station bathroom even more than usual.

Plan the details and leave room for chance and improvisation.  I knew what song I wanted the trip to begin with and Creedence Clearwater Revival, Suzie Q, vibrated through the car as the highway headed out of Monterrey.  Just as the road began to open up I pulled over and rearranged things for a better view and then we were off again, merging and dodging semi-trucks carrying all manner of goods, licit and otherwise, north to the U.S. Ports of Entry.  Finally the extraneous traffic peeled away, the highway opened up and so did I, changing the stereo to Dwight Yoakum and accelerating to 90.  There was no reason to linger on that road even if most of the drama takes place just off it.

There is one gas station about halfway through three hour drive but the tank was full.  I wanted to be at the border as soon as possible, and no one needs to see a lone family traveling through the desert, no matter the early hour.   The desert passed in that weird state on an unfamiliar road where time seems to lengthen.  One hour seems like three, two like five.  My wife changed the stereo to Loretta Lynn and suddenly the signs for Nuevo Laredo appeared and then we are there, in line, stopped, a thousand feet from what’s left of the Rio Grande, from our perspective the Rio Bravo del Norte.  Laredo and the United State are just over there, just out of reach.  We wait, inching forward.  People thread their way through the idling cars selling drinks, sunshades, tempting our restless kids with cheap toys.  A man walks by carrying a crucifix half his size.  He is bent under its weight, sweating in the hot sun, looking for someone buy the cross.  Finally, we are almost at the bridge but we have to return a special import tag for our car.  In normal times there is an office, clearly labeled, right on the bridge but it is closed; these are not normal times.  We have to return that tag and get vague directions back into Nuevo Laredo to some office under some bridge but it isn’t as if we can just make a u-turn.  We begin having waking nightmares that we’ll have to cross into the U.S. then recross into one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico.  Halfway across the International Bridge we explain the situation to U.S. Border Patrol Agents and they move some cones and get us turned around, heading back the way we really don’t want to go.  I ask the man if he knows where the office is.

“Hell no, sir,” he replies, “I never go over there.”

But it turns out that the directions weren’t so vague or, anyway luck is with us, and we not find the bridge and the office under it.  A Mexican Customs Agent takes the tag, puts it into the proper bureaucratic context, and wishes us safe travels.  The whole process takes five minutes, only when we get back in line, we are more than a mile farther back than we were at the beginning.  The man is still carrying his cross up and down the exhaust choked Calvary, looking for a buyer.  We are at the border more than five hours before getting to the last checkpoint.  The Border Patrol Agent looks over our passports and asks a few perfunctory questions.  She casts a bored eye across its passengers and we are released back into the wilds of our own country or, anyway, the part called Texas.

Perhaps it is my own BS, my internal stand up philosopher coming up with theories to give some meaning to it all, but I feel this peripatetic yet structured life causes us to perceive time differently.  My simplified version is that Western philosophy and science tend to view time and history as a linear progression.  There is a beginning and an end and along the way some things happen.  The Eastern view is that time is cyclical, that the end is a beginning is an end and that we all take many turns through the cycle of life.  Or something like that.  My guru was out to lunch when I got to the top of the last mountain.  But I tend to see time in the Foreign Service as more of a circular affair and life back “home” as more linear.  The process of our lives makes me aware of each change, each season.  The logistics of assignments and training, deployment and leave all repeat themselves over and over with minor variations, nailed as we are to the great wheel of governmental dharma.

This is an oversimplification, as are most things, but our lives go something like this: there is a list of possible assignments.  You research them, talk about them with your family, fantasize about them, and game the good and the bad of each one in relation to the others.  You officially list them in order of preference and you wait and wonder and worry if you made the best choices.  Then, at a certain point, the esoteric signals of the invisible Mandarins indicate that you have been assigned to one of those places but not to which one.  Something like, Your requests have been looked upon with favor, mortal.  You need not revise your list again.  This, perhaps, is my favorite moment though it lasts no more than a few days.  Think about this.  You have ranked ten places, all with some promise, and after all the anxiety, you know you will be going to one of them.  But not which one.  Imagine you know you will be moving next year but you don’t know if you will be moving to Ecuador, Armenia, Guatemala, Uzbekistan, Morocco, Japan, Nepal, Zambia, Sweden, or Brazil.  You are in this delicious and frightening state of suspended animation, stuck like a sprinter in the blocks, waiting for the gun.  Then they tell you and your soul moves on a little bit, but unlike that sprinter, this is a very slow, very long race.  (In our case we found out we were going to Guatemala, a country I was already familiar with).

But say this is you and your family, not ours.  You are required to take Home Leave in the U.S. after every foreign assignment but, having been in Mexico, you aren’t going to need language training.  So, in essence, you’ll leave one country, go on vacation, and a few weeks later be living in a new country but that’s still at least a year away.  There are all the preparations and paperwork, requests for training and orders to be cut (this is the government after all and you officially have to belong somewhere).  Eventually the day comes and your Permanent Change of Station begins.  You are cut loose, released out from one Post and in transit until your next Post takes possession.  Everything goes into reverse.  The men come and pack your things and nail them into crates. They disappear just like they arrived a few years before.  You wonder about what trucks and ships they will go on and if you will ever see your Household Effects (HHE) again, but it’s really a small worry.  There is nothing you can do about it, and after packing out over and over you come to half hope everything falls into the sea so you can truly embrace your nomadic existence.  Then the day comes and you return to the airport from whence you came, musing on the memories of your first drive into town, wondering if you will ever pass this way again and, perhaps, not much caring.  This part of the circle comes to a close.  There is too much else to do.  There is a new life in a new country to figure out.  In between a visit home where everything has been progressing in a fine, linear way with little to mark time’s passage other than the usual events of the calendar, holidays and birthdays punctuated by births and funerals, and the march of the seasons from cold to hot and back again.  Days turn to nights and nights back to days and it seems, back home, like there is enough time.

You visit friends and they are older and grayer and of course so are you.  It is always fun but there is always an underlying recognition that you left them and in that leaving you are a reminder of the places they have not been.  The passage of time intrudes on the matrix.  You are the specter of age and decay and of missed opportunities in new lines around the eyes, the grey hair that wasn’t there before.  It is always good to be home.  You walk familiar streets and don’t worry about violent demonstrations or malaria or anything else.  It is always good to be home.  You eat and drink with little fear of it making you sick and for a moment you are are returned star telling tales of foreign lands and you think, maybe this wandering life is overrated.  But Home Leave is just long enough for the bloom to come off.  Your friends have other lives now.  You left them after all, and in turn you remember why you left.  And soon enough it is time to go.  You want to smell that clean dirty smell of jet fuel.  More than anything you want to get through the other end with all your people, animals, and baggage intact and open a new door with new keys.

So we crossed into Texas.  This time our circle didn’t take us back to the airport like it had in Mumbai but off on a wild tangent through our home country suffering from a worldwide plague and up against a presidential election.  I know how big Texas is; I have driven through it many times in different directions, yet it still manages to surprise me.  The chaparral desert of low thorny trees and rolling hills goes north from Monterrey and onward into Texas for hundred mile after hundred mile.  The ground I walk the spaniel on is riven with deep cracks and around Dallas the temperature pushes past 110 degrees.  This is no leisurely American road trip with all the perks of that journey.  We don’t go into quaint diners.  The pools at our motels are closed.  There are no roadside attractions.  We eat fast food or grim, gas-station feasts of Doritos and Gatorade.  The land doesn’t really change until we cross into Arkansas but then, suddenly, it does and the deserts are traded for trees and farms and the smell of grass.  We stop in Little Rock and eat submarine sandwiches on motel beds.  It rains during the night.  We are a long way from Ohio, even farther from Guatemala, but Mexico is behind us.
 
 
TEXAS–There is little joy in this pandemic journey other than to finally be moving. Fuji X100f.