By Mary Jo McConahay
Solas 2012 Best Travel Writing Gold Award Winner Travel and Food
The small restaurant on the island in Lake Petén Itza was so dark I thought it was empty. As my eyes adjusted, I saw Drafter, the only diner, sketching on lined paper with a pencil bearing chew marks, beneath the unblinking stare of an antlered deer’s head. The waitress, a young, dark-haired woman wearing a light cotton dress, stood at his table holding a menu glued to a tablet of wood. Drafter did not look up. He gently waved away the plank, all the time shading something on the paper with the side of the graphite point.
“Armadillo,” he said.
“Si, señor,” said the young woman.
She turned to me and indicated a place a couple of tables away. I sat beneath another antlered head. She approached with the oversized menu.
Behind her in the dimness, high on the opposite wall, I saw a jaguar’s face taking shape. His body sliced away, the head and broad neck came out of the wood panelling like a creature emerging from dark foliage. He roared silently, tongue rich pink, amber eyes open forever. Waiting next to the table, the waitress seemed small and waif-like among the jungle animals.
“Uh, give me a moment,” I said, taking the plank off her hands. “Por favor.”
“Take all the time you need,” she said.
The great Mesoamerican rainforest once called Gran Petén has never been known as a gourmet’s paradise. On the other hand, the continuous tropical land that spreads across parts of three countries was a gastronomical democracy. Whatever might be plucked from trees or picked from the jungle floor, or brought down with gun or bow, is what landed on all plates from southern Mexico’s Chiapas across Guatemala’s northern Petén region to Belize. Beans and rice might accompany the deer, rodent, nuts or bird, but roughly the same meals appeared on the laps of indigenous Maya, and after the sixteenth century, the plates of conquering Europeans. By the 1990s, things had not changed much.
“Tepesquintle,” I said when the waitress returned.
From the corner of my eye I saw the blonde Drafter lift his head and regard me. He seemed to be in his mid-thirties, younger than I, but not too young. I figured he knew I had been staring at him, so I did not return his full-on look. He flipped a page of his notebook and began to draw anew.
The waitress served our meals. Mine looked like pot roast in thick, red-brown sauce, but the light was so poor anything might have looked like stew. Tepesquintle is a 40-lb. rat that roams the jungle at night. I knew it was edible. Old books about Petén wrote of the animal as the occasional food of chicleros, men who tapped jungle trees for chewable sap, boiled it into blocks and sent it by plane to the Wrigley gum factory in Chicago.
I pushed the food around on the plate, cut a small piece. Itdidn’t taste like chicken. It wasn’t gamey or beefy. It tasted like nothing I had ever experienced, rich without being heavy, meaty but light. The aroma was delicious, herbaceous. Finishing, I told the waitress to give my compliments to the cook, and asked for the sauce recipe. She hesitated as if she didn’t understand, but my Spanish is pretty good. She walked toward the kitchen.
“You’re absolutely right,” said the Drafter from his table.
“It’s the sauce,” he said.
The lithe waitress returned, followed by a portly woman in a grease-spotted apron. Wisps of salt and pepper hair bristled out from her blue headscarf. The cook, for that’s clearly who she was, placed her hands on wide hips and recited the ingredients for the sauce. Like the most competitive international chefs, she wouldn’t, or couldn’t, give their precise measures.
“Write it down,” said the Drafter.
“Write it down.”
I took out my notebook and asked the cook to repeat. I thought she might be annoyed, but instead she seemed proud that what she said was being registered, taken down in words. I wondered whether, like most women in these parts, she had never learned to read and write. This time she gave the recipe a title.
Tepesquintle Rodent SauceThyme, laurel, cumin, black pepper, garlic, green or red pepper, tomato, onion, V-8 juice, white wine, cinnamon, honey, consommé, Saborin (like Accent).
She looked over at the Drafter, who was listening intently. Turning to me again, she winked and whispered, “For armadillo, replace the wine with vinegar.”
When I left the restaurant, heading for my hotel, the Drafter followed, catching up and speaking as if he were continuing the thread of a conversation we had begun somewhere, but I had forgotten. “They can be farmed, you know,” he said. “Those raised domestically are indistinguishable to the palate from those in the wild, when prepared in the same sauce.”
He went on about seasoning and spits, chattering in a vaguely public school accent embedded in origins I could not exactly pinpoint. India? The Caribbean? His light skin argued against them, but he didn’t seem British either. I negotiated puddles on the road. I felt confused. My face must have been saying, “What in bloody hell are you talking about? Why are you even talking? Who are you?”
Rounding a corner, he saw my expression, and stopped. At first, his look said the problem was mine, then slowly, his deep brown eyes lost their sparkle. “The tepesquintle,” he said.“I thought you’d be interested.”
That’s when I made my mistake. Or set the course for one of the most memorable week of my life. We faced each other on the walkway that runs a ring around the island, which is only a mile across. Modest old houses with pastel color walls were turning luminous in late sun. Waves lapped softly against the malecon.
“Look, let’s have a coffee, shall we?” I said, feeling apologetic about my snooty attitude.
Travelers tend to skip the thousand small steps that begin the journey of social communication, because they already share the road. In Petén, they know they also share interest in, or a need for, a place off the tourist path; the rainforest ruins of fallen civilization; an atmosphere on the edge of isolation. When travelers meet in Petén they already know a lot about each other, before either says a word.
“I haven’t seen Ceibal or Altar de Sacrificios,” I said, “But I want to go because it means travelling the river that runs past them, the one with the wonderful name, Passion, Rio Pasión.”
We sat on a pier drinking tea laced with the local rum called Zacapa, not the cheap stuff but the aged honey-colored kind, in the bottle encased with woven sisal. The toddy was his idea. I told the Drafter I had been coming to Petén annually for five years, enamored of Maya ruins since I first saw the grand site of Tikal. Stepped temple pyramids rising into hot, blue sky. Carvings of sacred animals, and of lords dressed in fine feathers and jaguar hides. Glyphs, dots and short lines that once spoke to men and women in a language only now being decoded. And jungle, threatening at any moment to hide again the fallen rainforest cities.
“After two weeks I go back to the office feeling like I’ve really been somewhere, you know?”
“Right,” he said, staring straight across the water into the setting sun. It burned orange-red in color, like the circular bands on ancient Maya pots. Only when a boat approached did the Drafter drop his eyes to the lake.
The skipper tied the bow to a piling and jumped from deck to dock. He walked past us toward shore with a friendly Buenas tardes. Empty, the wooden craft left behind rocked slowly in the water, red hull with chipped paint, a faded look to its striped canopy that sheltered passengers during the day.
“I’ve walked to El Mirador, three days from the nearest settlement,” said the Drafter. He was the first I’d met who had been there, the largest ancient Maya city yet discovered, far to the north against the border with Mexico’s Yucatan.
“Wow, and three days back,” I said.
“Not if you are continuing on to Mexico,” he said.
Before I could respond another boat pulled close, but its skipper merely called out, “San Jose? Lake tour?”
“No,” said the Drafter, which suited me fine.
By the next day we were traveling companions. We discovered we both liked going to Tikal, about fifty miles north of the lake, even though we each had seen it before. He knew things, and I knew things. For instance, I knew how we could travel at one tenth the cost of the Tikal tourist shuttle. Just cross the causeway on foot from the island to the mainland, and grab the twice-daily local bus that runs to the village of Uaxactun, where the gum tree tappers and xate gatherers live. Before the bus heads into deeper rainforest on a dirt road, get off at Tikal, and, voilà.
Once at Tikal, the Drafter knew how to avoid the ticket kiosk, where a hefty entrance fee was levied on foreigners. The bus stopped on the old runway, unused for thirty years since archaeologists decided the rumble of propellers was destabilizing the thousand-year old temples. We left behind the bustle of visitors arriving by vans and private cars. Drafter led me around a pond with a sign warning Beware of the Crocodile, up a narrow path through giant matapalo trees, past a corrugated metal house where the resident shaman lived, and beyond, through a palmy grove once home to a family of indigenous Maya Lacandon. Emerging from the steamy forest, we saw the Temple of the Great Jaguar before us, rising into the sky. We were in.
By the end of the day I felt rather bad about not having paid an entrance fee, reckoning the money went to a good cause—keeping up the lawns, fixing stairs on lofty temples so ascending visitors depended less on grabbing tree roots for balance. When the Drafter wasn’t looking, I slipped the amount of the ticket into a donation box near the park’s exit. No use telling him, I thought; we were, after all, almost perfectly compatible for strangers who met on the road.
On the return bus, we watched another foreigner—French, I think—plunging one tortilla after another into his mouth, smearing each first with a dark substance from a small jar.
“I hate it when travelers make an exhibition,” I whispered. “I take it personally.”
“It’s the sauce,” said the Drafter.
The young man wore a shirt made from a huipil, embroidered in a dozen colors and typically Guatemalan-looking, but, please! Huipiles are women’s clothing. His jeans were fashionably ragged with holes at the knees. Even the poorest peasant farmer dons his single decent pair of pants to travel.
“He can’t help it,” said the Drafter. “Nutella.”
That’s the way the Drafter was, as perspicacious and forgiving as I could be critical. In the next days, waiting for meals, for buses, for sleep to come, he drew, and I read. We didn’t talk about where we came from, or how we earned our livings, not from lack of curiosity, at least not on my part, but because such details would have pushed the conversation to a different plane. We were quite satisfied, I suppose, with the air we breathed.
Anyway, it was clear enough we had grown up in different places. He never put his knife down when he ate. Discussing the classic Maya Ball Game, where players re-fought the transcendent battle of the Hero Twins of the Popol Vuh against the Lords of the Underworld, his metaphors came from soccer, mine from football. At night he placed his shoes—they were leather, not canvas boots like mine—outside the room wherever we stayed, as if he expected to awake to them clean and buffed. It never happened. He blew dust from the shoes in the morning, although the pale powder of Petén paths covered them again once we were outside.
“From here on any meat is road-kill,” said the Drafter. “‘Road-kill,’ right?”
“Very good, very colloquial U.S.A.,” I said, and watched him smile.
That night, the evening of the fourth day, I caught myself looking at the Drafter in a certain way, as he bent over pencil and paper in a crummy cantina in Sayaxche, a town on the Passion River. We were waiting for our food.
The waiter delivered two plates of the daily special. I was glad to hear it contained no meat. Just squash flowers on melted cheese.
“It’s the sauce that makes this one rich,” said the Drafter. The special gravy was neither thick nor thin, slightly lumpy, black as tar. Liquified corn fungus. Tasty.
When the table was cleared, the Drafter took a few drawings from his bag and spread them before me. They were impressively detailed, but carried something other-worldly, too, as if my friend saw not just shape and line, but the possibilities of his subjects, their other selves. An antlered head looked alive even missing its body, not hung on a wall but suspended in mist, not trophy but forest lord. A canopied boat, unmanned, self-contained, floating as if at will. A candle and mosquito coil like those we placed on the cement floors of rooms where we stayed, the smoke of each joining the other in the air to create a vision serpent with open jaws.
Before dinner, I supposed, he had made the drawing of the vintage juke box standing near the bar, all chrome strips and rounded shoulders, with colored lights (you knew they were colored, even rendered in black and white). You could almost see those lights flashing on the bass tones, almost hear the ranchero songs. And the old corridos, given we were so close to Mexico.
On the last day I would see him—had I known it was the last I would not have enjoyed myself so much—we drove toward Laguna del Tigre, another lake, near the border with Mexico. We rented the car in my name because the Drafter didn’t drive.
By this time I knew his German father had died in a flying accident in the Guatemala mountains, and his mother was half-Kekchi, one of two dozen Maya indigenous groups whose roots reach back more than a thousand years. “That’s why I don’t like to pay to enter the sacred sites,” he said, meaning, I supposed, Tikal. “They should not belong to the government, but to the Maya.”
It was the closest to a political statement I ever heard him make. I knew “German” in the mountains could mean someone who was not German at all, but light-skinned Guatemalans whose families had lived in the country for more than a century, since the government invited Europeans to plant coffee on Kekchi land. The invitation had been an official effort to enter world markets, which worked, and to “purify” the race at home, which didn’t. In his case, the Drafter said, English came from British tutors in Belize next door, and two years studying art in America.
“I’m Guatemalan enough so they won’t give me another visa,” he said. “I don’t own a house or a business, and we don’t have bank accounts.” No collateral to ensure he would return. I guess the Drafter could not say to the consul at the U.S. Embassy, Of course I won’t stay there forever. My mother lives here.
I liked the idea of knowing he would be in the country when I visited, year after year. I didn’t think to ask how he received permission to live in the United States when he had. Didn’t cross my mind.
What was important was seeing a world foreign to me, alongside him. We watched porters offloading boats on the beach in Sayaxche, stripped to the waist, carrying covered baskets, square tin boxes, squealing pigs. A girl dressed in white, seated on the back of a motorcycle, miraculously unsullied by splattering mud, like old Maya royalty whose feet never touched the ground.
About midday, on the way to Laguna del Tigre, Lake of the Jaguar, some time before we crossed the San Pedro River, I stopped the car in front of a house with a painted sign, Comida, the rural promise of cooked food. In the doorway stood a Kekchi woman, recognizable by her full cotton blouse, loose and lacy where most indigenous women wore heavily woven huipiles tucked tightly into wide cumberbunds. Many Kekchi Maya migrated to Petén when they lost land in the Verapaz highlands, the Drafter’s home. The woman served us a dish I never thought I would eat: beans, rice, and spaghetti heaped together in a bowl.
“I know,” I said to the Drafter. We sat at a plain table outside the house. “It’s the sauce that will make the meal.”
“It’s true,” he said, as the woman spooned it over the food. “It makes the ordinary memorable.”
Homemade tomato sauce, fresh of course, thickened with flour, tarted up with half-inch slices of hot dogs.
”Not bad,” I said.
In an hour, when we could go no farther by road, we walked the rest of the short distance toward the lake under double canopy forest, dark and cool. Somewhere the border ran nearby, but in this wild land there were no markers or fences, no sign of other visitors. As we followed a curve, a dashing movement rustled low foliage just off the trail. We stopped. Probably it was not a jaguar—although that would have been thrilling—because the big cats are nocturnal. Perhaps a peccary, or a brocket deer.
At the lake we lay on our backs, unspeaking, but communicating, it seemed to me, our ease with the moment and place. We didn’t point or cry out to each other when we saw the pair of scarlet macaws fly overhead, electric red and blue with fine yellow collars, their long tails like fiery rays in the pale sky. But I heard the Drafter take the same deep breath as I.
More birds cried softly and flapped their wings in passing, but I don’t know what they were because I had shut my eyes, keeping them closed despite some curiosity. I liked more the dreamy feeling of experiencing the forest through its sounds.
I thought I heard a deep human voice calling from a few feet away. I jumped to my feet in a single move, startled. The Drafter stood too, saying, “Don’t be afraid.”
He waved to the caller, who waited at the forest’s edge with two young indigenous men, and a woman with two children, a boy and a girl. The woman and girl wore pants. This struck me as unusual, because here females wear dresses or long skirts.
“You know that man?” I asked.
“The leader, coyote, guide,” he said.
Figure it out, I thought. Figure out what is happening.
I could not change all these moments, these good moments, by telling you,” he said. “The road is safe. You’ll be alright.”
From his bag he drew out a piece of paper rolled in a tube, tied with a thick blade of grass, handing it to me as he turned to join the others. Understanding flooded my mind as fast and overwhelming as a tidal wave, and I felt helpless against it. For the next weeks this small group would traipse through Mexico and sneak across borders, aiming for destinations in America. The Drafter would walk through my country’s back door, since he had been turned away from the front.
I watched him walk across twenty feet of marshy shore to join the band. I heard him speak to one of the young men in a language I did not understand. He turned and called, “Kekchi!”, smiling, waving, but missing not a step, melting into the forest with the others.
I gazed for a while at where he had been, but saw only trees, huge and brooding. I felt no sense of betrayal, because there had been no promise. I did feel that something of value was disappearing, but whatever it was had never been mine, so I could not say to myself he stole it away.
Inside the car I took the grass tie from the paper tube and unrolled it. I saw myself at a table in a dark room, the head of a great deer on the wall, the figure of a woman looking more sensuous than I had ever believed myself to be. I tossed the paper into the back seat, too brusquely. I drove so fast the tires raised a cloud of dust. I ignored thin figures waving me down, hoping for a ride.
Like a survivor tossed upon shore, I felt whole, but shaken. I was not the same person who—was it only a week before?—had stepped into a dark restaurant on an island floating in a deep blue lake.
That night I returned the car and went back to the cantina in dusty Sayaxche, even though I was not hungry. I did not want to be alone, even though I talked to no one. Black flies studded a sticky yellow strip hanging above the table.
I ordered meat—why not?—picking it slowly from the bone. It tasted dry. There was no sauce.
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