Bumping My Head on the Roof of Central America: Volcán Tajumulco, Saúl, and Saúl

Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

Another week of Spanish school here at PLQ in Quetzaltenango is in the books, and I can now add a new teacher to the list: Saúl. Saúl, a single Guatemalan man in his mid-50’s, brings a unique, freewheeling style to teaching, which, at the very least, must keep himself entertained throughout the 20+ hours per week he spends having conversations with people who have anywhere from a two to eight-year-old’s grasp of his native language. To break-up the five hour sessions, Saúl included numerous spontaneous walks to wi-fi friendly areas of the school in order to look-up historical facts about Guatemala, comb through images of paintings (Saúl is a big Andy Warhol fan after I introduced him to this great American), listen to songs in Spanish (highlighted by “De Que Sirve Querer by Malacates Trebol Shop — the Maroon 5 of Guatemala), and poke around on Facebook. In addition to our Internet browsing sessions, Saúl also provided a bevy of unsolicited advice on how to win the hearts of my female classmates, a personal guitar solo and serenade (he gave me the lyric sheet so I could sing along with him — to which I am only slightly embarrassed to say that I did), a slow clap after I finished each grammar exercise, and a laundry list of ridiculous personal stories and anecdotes that blurred the lines between fact and fiction. Some stories, as they grew in absurdity, clearly were completely made-up. For example, one morning as I walked into class, Saúl was standing with his backed turned to the classroom, gazing out the door into the courtyard. When I asked him how he was doing, he remained with his back turned and dramatically responded that that he felt particularly “alive,” more “alive” than he had ever him. Then, spinning around, he explained that this deep feeling of vitality was because of strong connections he made with spirits in the cemetery the night before. When I pressed him on some more details, he explained that he had encountered the spirit of Marilyn Monroe, who had given him a 45 second kiss. This kiss was the best he had ever had. However, Saúl’s voice took on a somber tone as he described how he became suspicious of Marilyn after she told him he was preferable to John F. Kennedy, who was too in love with Jackie to give Marilyn his full attention. With such a beautiful woman throwing herself at him, Saúl wisely became suspicious and consulted the spirit of Dracula, who tipped him off to the fact that she was likely a vampire and wanted him for his blood. I could see traces of what looked like genuine fear in Saúl’s eyes right before his head kicked back as a deep laugh rolled out of him; after a few bellowing guffaws, his head dropped back to eye-level, and he leaned over to offer a high five and a fist pound which I took, laughing. This story, of course, was completely made up. However, this was just one of many stories, and others left more questions than answers. Is he really a clown every Sunday at church? Has he really had relationships with three different women in the United States that all ended because he could not bring himself to leave his beloved Guatemala? Did he really serenade his New Zealand girlfriend over his flip phone for her birthday this past Monday morning? For these stories, the truth remains, and will forever remain to me, a mystery.

After my week with Saúl, the teacher, I would bizarrely spent the rest of the weekend with another Guatemalan man named Saùl, my guide up Volcán Tajumulco. Volcán Tajumulco, standing at 4,220 meters (13,845 feet), is the tallest peak in Central America and has been on my “to do” list since I got to Guatemala nearly two months ago. With only one weekend left in the Xela area (the typical launching off point for Tajumulco treks), I made a point to book a trip with the Guatemalan guiding outfit, Adrenalina Tours, for an overnight ascent. Three other brave students — Marije from the Netherlands, Anna from Montana, and Jasmine from Colorado — enthusiastically signed on as well (teacher Saúl, of course, offered me several high fives across his teaching table after I revealed the male – female ratio of my upcoming trek).

The trek up Tajumulco began on Saturday morning in a quite, private shuttle ride from our school in Xela that was interrupted rudely by the chaos of Minerva Bus Stop, a crowded, hectic chicken bus stop across town. As soon as we stopped, Saúl (the guide) dumped sleeping bags, tents, food, and other supplies in the middle of the street, barking orders in Spanish about who should pack what while simultaneously negotiating our travel arrangements with the ayudantes that had swarmed our shuttle, lobbying us for our business. (Ayundantes are assistant chicken bus pilots that frenetically herd people and supplies on and off of these buses.) In a matter of minutes, our backpacks and supplies were on top of a chicken bus headed to the town of San Marcos, with us improbably inside. This chicken bus was particularly crowded — each seat was packed with three people that were spilling into an aisle that itself was full of standing riders. (As chicken buses are just former American school buses, I recalled that three to a seat is bus-packing arrangement that I grew out of sometime around 3rd grade.) This nearly two hour journey could not have been over soon enough, and the next chicken bus, which took us on a winding, mountain road for a little less than an hour before reaching the trailhead, mercifully was not packed to the brim.

The 9 kilometer (~6 mile) hike up Tajumulco started at an altitude of roughly 3000 meters (~9,900 feet) in the pueblo named, appropriately enough, Tajumulco. After spending a few minutes adjusting our packs, our five person party began ascending a cobble-stoned road through the beautiful, green countryside of San Marcos (the Guatemalan state in which Tajumulco lies). As we ascended, the road turned into a dirt trail, sweeping vistas opened behind us, and thick, grey clouds ominously obscured the higher reaches of the trail in front of us. Saúl set a slow, plodding steady pace up front (“despacio”,”despacio”). After about an hour, he paused as a light rain was beginning to fall. Saúl has mastered how to configure two large sheets of plastic over his pack and head, respectively, to keep the rain off, and he used this brief pause to school us in this art. Saúl’s lesson was well-timed as only moments after the plastic was in place, the light rain turned hard and steady, which would keep our heads fixed down on the trail immediately in front of us for the remainder of the climb. We arrived at the campground, 200 meters below the summit, a little after 2 pm, registering a little over three and a half hours for the hike up. The campsite itself was half-flooded and surprisingly busy — by nightfall, there would be a dozen or more tents crowded together in the dry spots of the campground. The clientele was primarily Guatemaltecan, so the campsite buzzed with Spanish. One exception was the English couple camping beside us that was led by Saúl’s friend, Carlos. Carlos, a friendly Guatemalteco that knew quite a bit more English than Saúl, paid us a visit during dinner in Saùl’s tent (the menu: heaps and heaps of spaghetti) and suggested that we mix our cheap, horrendous-tasting Guatemalan rum, known as Quetzalteca (approximate price per liter: $3), with hot tea. Against all odds, this mix actually tasted worse than Quetzalteca on its own; as Anna and Marije did their best not to spit the hideous concoction all over the tent, I offered Saúl a cup. He declined on the grounds that he is an Evangelical Pastor, his wide grin belying this claim. Laughing, I then handed Carlos cup. He took a sip, smiled, and proclaimed, “¡Es perfecto!”

Anna, Marije, Jasmine, and I were hunkered down in our tent for the night by 7:30 pm, hoping to catch a full-night’s rest before our 4 am wake-up call and summit push. The cold air (temperatures approached freezing overnight) and hard ground prevented this, and most of us had already been awake for hours when Saúl chirped an “¡Hola!” from his neighboring tent promptly at 4 am. We dressed quickly and made it to the frigid, windy summit a little after 5 am, with little more than a dull glow on the eastern horizon. For the next hour, Saúl huddled under his NYC Post-Marathon warming blanket (purchased at a secondhand store in Xela) while the four of us tried a variety of warming tactics to stave off the cold wind. As sunrise approached, clouds and mist obscured the horizon and views of the valleys below, and we braced ourselves for disappointment. However, just after 6 am, the mist and clouds lifted enough to expose the summit — an incredibly interesting martian-like landscape — and the stunning views of the surrounding volcanoes, mountains, and countryside. From the top of Central America, howls and whoops lifted into the air as the now relatively crowded summit of Tajumulco came alive. Over the next few hours, the five of us would explore the summit, the volcanic crater behind the summit, and the peak of Tajumulco’s sister volcano, Concepción, snapping one incredible photo after another. The ample dose of cloud cover added to the beauty, providing spectacular cloud formations that billowed up from the lower elevations and cascaded between mountain ridges.

By 8:30 am, we were headed back down the volcano, racing to beat a rain that would never come. Instead, the race was for the 10:30 am chicken bus which arrived at the trailhead just as were sprinting down the last few meters of the trail, waving and yelling “¡Espera! ¡Espera!” Unfortunately, this would not be the last race we would encounter on our journey home. Shortly after boarding the connection in San Marcos back to Xela, we found the road home blocked off for Guatemala’s premier cycling event, the Tour of Guatemala. For the next 45 minutes, our chicken bus took a meandering detour throughout the surroundings of San Marcos like a chicken with its proverbial head cut off, picking up Guatemaltecos from the side of the road until the bus was, like the previous morning, bursting at the seams. Once the bus finally found its way, we had a bumpy, two hour ride across 30 miles of road before the four of us arrived back in Xela, exhausted but satisfied with having reached the roof of Central America.



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