Monday, November 2, 2015

TODOS SANTOS HORSE RACE by Peter Nolan Smith

In the autumn of 1992 I was working as a diamond salesman on West 47th Street for Richie Boy and his father, Manny. Business had improved under President Clinton and customers from around the USA traveled to New York for a good buy.

That Christmas Ms. Carolina bought 2-Carat diamond studs. The blonde southerner and I celebrated her purchase with dinner at La Bernadin. We became more than friends over that weekend.

Ms. Carolina was beautiful, but not free.

She had a loving husband below the Mason-Dixon line.

We didn't talk about him much.

Richie Boy and his father were happy for me. I hadn't had a girlfriend in years.

"Ms. Carolina is in you. Get her to buy more jewelry." Manny liked a lock into a good customer.

I didn't push her into any sales. We traveled once a season. Originally from the Adirondacks Ms. Carolina enjoyed getting away from the South.

"Some of those people have small minds," she drawled with a northern sigh.

"Same as the people up here."

New York was becoming a city of the rich.

What they said mattered, because everyone wanted to be a millionaire.

In October of 1993 Ms. Carolina and I headed up to Maine. The Red Sox were not in the World Series. I informed her of the Babe Ruth curse.

"No curse lasts forever."

1918 to 1993 seemed long to me and I said nothing more about the Bosox.

Ms. Carolina loved the lobster in Bar Harbor. I told her everything that I knew about Maine. My family had lived there for generations.

On the long ride back to the city, Ms. Carolina said, "I want to take a trip to another country?"

"What will your husband say?"

Ms. Carolina was a good person. Richie Boy had told me that her husband was a good man. I was starting to feel bad about our affair.

"He doesn't ask questions." The blonde southerner's partner was twenty years her senior. They shared some interests, but traveling to foreign countries wasn't one of them, unless it was to play golf in Scotland. Ms. Carolina touched my hand.

"It will be all right."

We were approaching Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The lobster shack on Badger Island served a wicked lobster roll. I ate mine and half of Ms. Carolina's roll.

"Do you have anyplace in mind?" It was a big world.

"Anywhere as long as it isn't Disney World." Ms. Carolina had a rare sense of adventure.

I held up the book which I had been reading.

John Lloyd Stephens' Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán.

"What about the Yucatan?"

"What's it like?"

I've already been to the Mayan ruins of Tikal.

"Those pyramids were lost in a jungle. I slept atop one listening to the howler monkeys under a tropical moon."

"Sounds divine."

"I also have a hankering to see the volcanos above Lake Atitlan and the temples of Copan are right over the border in Honduras and there's this crazy horse race in Todos Santos on the Day of the Dead."

"Is Guatemala safe?"

The Castillo class had been waging a CIA-approved war against the indigenous Mayan population. The worst atrocities occurred in the 80s under Ríos Montt. This year's truce had halted most of the army's massacres of the Mayans.

"Safe as New York, no, but if we don't drive at night, we should be fine."

According to the NY Times ruthless right-wing militias controlled the roads after dark, but I hadn't read about any recent violence directed against tourists or gringos.

"I'll book the flights."

Later the day Ms. Carolina dropped me on East 10th Street. We kissed good-bye. The next day she was playing a golf tournament in Virginia Beach. For most people it was a fifteen-hour drive. Ms. Carolina had a heavy food. She could make it in twelve.

A month later Ms. Carolina and I flew from JFK to Guatemala City. I had packed a baseball glove, ball, and Red Sox hat.

"Why?"

"Because they like beisbol."

The United flight lasted nine hours. We landed at night and rented a car from Hertz. I told her that we were staying in Antigua, the old colonial capitol, and pointed the car north into the mountains.

"What about not driving at night?" Ms. Carolina looked like she wanted her .45. She was a good pistol shot and even better with a shotgun.

"It's only forty-five minutes on the Pan-Am Highway. I'll follow a car."

Within five minutes our caravan consisted twenty vehicles."

"Safe?"

"There's always safety in numbers, si?" I had to practice my Spanish.

We arrived in Antigua and booked into a hotel, which had once been a nunnery.

Ms. Carolina and I ate a dinner of Pepián de Indio stew and Pollo a la cerveza along with a bottle of white wine purchased at JFK's duty-free. The dining room emptied before we finished our meal and the staff looked eager for us to leave. We were the last two customers.

"Red Sox?" asked the owner seeing my hat.

"Si."

"Me gusto Los Yankees. Time to go."

We settled the bill and after we left the restaurant, the owner flicked off the lights.

The street was dark. No one was on it.

Ms. Carolina stood behind me.

"Stay close." I didn't open the flashlight and we treaded through the night to our hotel.

Once inside we bolted the heavy iron-studded door.

"Now we're safe."

Sleep came easy.

The danger of darkness was vanquished by the dawn.

Antigua was a colonial jewel unsullied by modernization. A fountain babbled in the courtyard and Ms. Carolina murmured from her pillows.

"Safe."

"Seguro."

Flowers bloomed in every corner of the old convent.

Ms. Carolina called me to bed.

I had no power to say no.

We spent the day wandering around Antigua.

The pleasant town was filled with ex-patriates and young Spanish-learning gringos.

On a back street I spotted a man getting into a classic Mercedes convertible.

"Donald Sutherland," whispered Ms. Carolina. She knew her movie stars.

I called out his name.

The star of MASH waved to us and drove down the cobblestoned street.

He seemed a happy man.

"Maybe it is safe." Ms. Carolina hooked her arm within mine and we entered a small cantina to drink Gallo beer and eat Chicharrones y carnitas.

I was fluent at saying, "Una orta cerveza."

That evening I drank more than my share of beer.

It went well with crackling pig skin.

We finished the meal with tequilas.

It was a short walk to the old nunnery.

The old prayer cell had a big bed. Neither of us were in the mood for a shower.

Ms. Carolina lay close to me. The late evening air was fragrant with jasmine.

"I like the way you smell."

I didn't have the heart to tell her it wasn't me.

Sleep was a long time coming that night.

The next morning we checked out of the hotel. Ms. Carolina called her husband from the desk. I stood at a distance. The conversation seemed friendly.

"Is everything okay?"

"Por que no?" Ms. Carolina was picking up Spanish too.

"Give me the keys."

"Bueno." Ms. Carolina liked to drive fast.

The ride to Port San Jose passed through miles of coastal sugar cane fields. Worn men trudged along the road. They carried machetes.

"Peligroso?"

"No, they're just workers." And the jefes of the sugar plantation worked the peons hard.

We reached the Pacific at noon.

"Port San Jose had seen better days." Ms. Carolina parked near the pier.

The dock was warped by decades of weather and the weight of overloaded cargo. Most of the trade had been sugar or bananas.

"It's still Guatemala's biggest Pacific port." No other coastal cities dotted on my Nelly map. A small wave swelled over a sandbar. The air was hot and I asked, "How about a swim?"

"Better you than me." Ms. Carolina liked her tropical waters crystal clear and this ocean was the color of mud.

"

While I swam, Ms. Carolina waited in a rundown seafood restaurant. I emerged from the ocean without my hangover.

I wore my Red Sox hat.

I still got a sunburn.

A plate of jumbo shrimp waited on a table with a frosty beer. She knew what I liked.

We were all smiles until she said, "I've been thinking about leaving Albert."

Albert was her husband.

"Why?" I knew the answer and she said, "I want to live with you."

"In my one-room apartment?" The East Village apartment barely fit me.

"It's more than enough space for me."

"I don't think that's a good idea." I had no intention of breaking up a marriage.

"So you don't love me?"

"I didn't say that."

"But you never say 'you love me'."

And that was the truth.

She hid her tars in a napkins. The staff regarded me as a villain. They were right in so many ways.

Leaving the coast I sat behind the wheel and put on music. Ms. Carolina stared out the window, as we climbed into the mountains.

Now even Tommy James and the Shondells' DRAGGIN' THE LINE improved her mood.

She read a Mayan-English phrasebook and I wondered if she was searching for a magic phrase to make me love her.

We traveled the back roads to Patulul and turned north toward the Pan-Am Highway. Donald Sutherland was probably having a good time.

A man in a Mercedes by himself.

I wasn't him.

Several miles on I slowed down for a crowd of people in the road.

A bus had crashed down a ravine.

I got out to help.

The Mayan faces in the crowd dated back to the greatness of Tikal and Copan.

Miraculously no one had been hurt in the accident. Another bus wasn't due till late afternoon and we loaded a single family of five into the rear of the car. They spoke very little Spanish.

Probably as much as me.

A field of sunflowers lay off the road.

"De donde?" I asked the family.

"San Lucas Toliman." The husband repeated three times. It was the next town. We reached their destination in twenty minutes. The family got out of the car, saying, "Dios bo’otik."

"De Nada," said Ms. Carolina, which was the first words she had spoken since Port San Jose. Her finger punched the reject button and she put on Bob Dylan's ON THE ROAD AGAIN.

"When are we going to get it to Atitlan?"

"Soon." The sun had already dropped behind Volcan Atitlan. There was little sunlight left in the day.

"Good. I could use a drink."

"Me too."

The view across the lake was spectacular.

"This is beautiful. Thanks for coming." Ms. Carolina reached across the console and held my hand. She wasn't giving up on us so easy.

"Thanks for inviting me."

Our bungalow was cheap and cheerful. I opened the last bottle of white wine. We drank it on the patio.

Ms. Carolina cried a little and I held her in my arms.

"No one ever broke my heart before."

She had once bragged to me about being an ice queen.

"I'm no good." Most of my girlfriends had left me.

"I know and I don't care."

At sunset we dined overlooking the lake. Ms. Carolina was done with tears. She ordered two double rhum and cokes made with Zacapa Centenario Rum. The waiter raised an eyebrow.

"Muy fuerta."

"Yo se." Ms. Carolina's Spanish was improving day by day.

The drinks arrived to the table.

"Here's to the road and just because you don't love me doesn't mean I can't love you."

"To the road."

I knocked mine down. We were done driving for the day. Ms. Carolina sipped at hers.

Later after a dinner I tried Quetzalteca Rosa de Jamaica twice. It tasted like moonshine.

The next morning I woke up naked with snoring Ms. Carolina.

My head felt like someone had smacked me with a blackjack.

"Time to get up." I nudged my bedmate.

"No way."

"Way>"

The restaurant served a Caldo de huevos broth for breakfast.

"Por le salud." We weren't the only guests dining on the consommé.

I drank every drop of the hangover cure.

After breakfast we caught the early ferry to San Pedro de Laguna with a minute to spare.

The lake was calm.

Rich people were building big houses on the shore.

"Drug money," a mestizo passenger muttered in English.

"Guatemala is a trans-shipment destination for cocaine from Columbia," I explained to Ms. Carolina.

"Looks like business is good."

"Not for everyone."

Poor people lined the lake.

The modern world was getting farther away with every spin of the propellers.

San Pedro de Laguna was on the other side of now.

We disembarked from the ferry, which was headed to Santiago Atitlan.

These were Mayan lands.

Corn loomed high over our heads.

"Let me take your picture." Ms. Carolina was wearing a smile.

I tried to join her mood. The clean air and high altitude cut through the haze of my hangover and by the time we reached the small town I was feeling 50% human.

Two boys were playing basketball.

I motioned for a shot. They passed me the ball. Ms. Carolina signaled for the rock. I bounced it to her and she scored a jump shot.

She was a good athlete.

An old man yelled at us in front of a souvenir shop.

I had no idea what he was saying in Mayan and told Ms. Carolina, "He probably doesn't like gringos. The Guatemalan Army had been very active on this side of the lake. They killed thousands of Mayans and their officers were white. On my trip from Belize to Tikal I had seen three dead man at an army outpost. They held their decapitated heads in their hands."

"How long ago?"

"1989, but the war was part of the conflict between the USA and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The Contras were financed through the sale of crack in the US by the CIA."

"This sounds like another one of your conspiracies."Ms. Carolina loved my flights of imagination.

"It's the truth." I had no proof, but I knew it wasn't a lie.

"And the war is over now."

"Yes."

"That war was long." President Serrano had been ousted earlier in the year and the new leader de Leon had brokered a fragile peace. "But it's over now."

"La paz."

"Mejor de la guerra."

"Siempre."
Both of us liked guns, but not for shooting people.

There wasn't much to see in San Pedro de Laguna. Most of its inhabitants were working the fields. Tomorrow was the Day of the Dead. It was a big holiday in Latin America.

We drank beers at the ferry landing.

The bar's serving girl had a shy smile.

Ms. Carolina gave her sunglasses, as the ferry approached the dock.

"Dios bo’otik." The girl showed her teeth.

"Mixba’al." Ms. Carolina had a southern accent in Mayan.

The mother wanted my Red Sox cap. I shook my head and wished them good luck.

"Ka xi’ik teech utsil."

I was getting good at Mayan too, but with a Boston accent.

"Why didn't you give the old lady your hat?"

"Because I still need it."

The sun was tough on gringoes in the tropics.

The ferry arrived back at Atitlan mid-afternoon.

Leaving was hard, but Quetzaltenango was two hours away and I wanted to get there before sunset.

Ms. Carolina stopped for vegetables along the highway.

"I love the color."

She snapped photos.

My attempts to hurry her were futile.

Women move at their own speed when shopping.

We passed another accident.

People were driving faster.

No one wanted to caught on the road after dark.

Around dusk a roadblock loomed ahead.

We had blown it.

Cars were stopped on the verge.

Men were kneeling on the grass.

"Who are they?" Ms. Carolina nervously pointed to men with guns.

"Militia." I slowed to a halt and rolled down my window.

A rough-looking man walked up to the car. His soiled clothes resembled a uniform in the dusk and I thought of the bandit from the movie THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE, except this outlaw had sawed-off shotgun in his hand.

His flashlight sliced into the car. Its beam fell on my face.

"Red Sox?" He pointed to my cap.

"Si, estoy un scout looking para un Secundo baseman in Quatzaltenango. Muy bueno."

"Amo Jim Rice."

I was shocked to hear this admission. The Boston media hated the black MVP outfielder.

"E Babe Ruth."

"The curse."

"Si, la maldición."

I handed the gunman my cap.

"Mucho gracias." He waved us through the roadblock.

"Safe?" Ms. Carolina smiled in the murk.

"For Red Sox fans, yes."

We arrived in Quatzaltenango after sunset.

A white Mercedes convertible was parked before the best hotel in town.

"Looks like Donald made it too." Ms. Carolina liked being on a first name basis with everyone. "How about a beer?"

"Por que no?" It was my favorite Spanish phrase.

'Seguro' was my second.

Buses were departing for distant towns.

I was glad to be going nowhere.

The autumn night was cold in the highlands and for dinner we ate Fiambre salad, a Day of the Dead speciality, Chuletas fascinante, and a hearty Pulique stew.

Between bites of the Fiambre I told Ms. Carolina a family story.

"One Halloween my mother made me eat beets before going out trick or treating. I've hated them since."

"Take a taste." She forked a beet into my mouth.

"Good, isn't it?"

"Yes."

"Which goes to show you that you can learn to love things you don't love."

"I guess it does."

I knew better than to argue with a woman when she was right.

That night I dreamed about a ghost in a graveyard. The militia were shooting men. One was wearing a Red Sox cap. I woke up in a sweat.

"What's wrong?" Ms. Carolina was 90% asleep.

"Nothing. Go back to sleep." I got out of bed and checked the locks on the door. Safe was never safe twenty-four hours a day.

A little after dawn we hit the Pan-Am Highway.

Behind the ragged ridge to the north lay Mexico.

We were far away from the USA and I turned on Wes Montgomery's IN AND OUT.

Ms. Carolina liked its swing.

Thirty minutes later the white Mercedes convertible passed us.

Donald was driving the road alone.

I tried to catch up to the Benz.

"Too much power." Ms. Carolina's tone suggested that I ease off the gas. The highway was in good condition for a bad accident.

"He's probably headed to Mexico."

"Oaxaca is ten hours away by car. "

"We're going to Todos Santos."

"Si." I remained true to our plan.

We turned off the Pan-Am highway. The dirt road rattled the rented car like King Kong in a rage.

A mudslide had taken out some of the road. We were used to these detours. Ms. Carolina posed by the debris. A massive rock tumbled down the slope. I backed up the car and she ran out of its path.

"Seguro," she huffed inside the car.

"Siempre."

Off the road it was the 14th Century before the conquest.

A stretch of paved road led to an army base. The soldiers were protecting the 20th Century from the past.

The dirt road resumed after a quarter mile.

Ms. Carolina loved the land.

"We are the only gringos in the world."

She was right again.

We descended into a valley and picked up two passengers. With them in the car we couldn't make it up the hills.

Ms. Carolina had no trouble walking with our passengers.

Everyone was headed to Todos Santos. The race was the highlight of the holiday, because it was time to speak with Cum Hau.

He was the god of the death.

The road got steeper.

Then we hit the bottom of the valley.

We were in Todos Santos.

A white Mercedes was parked by the church.

"Donald," Ms. Carolina and I said in unison.

Mayan children greeted us with 'Ba’ax ka wa’alik'.

It meant 'what do you have to say'.

Ms. Carolina gave them postcards from Virginia.

They loved her for showing them another world.

She bought woven blanket and a straw hat.

I purchased a bottle of pulque, which was the traditional drink of choice for the Day of the Dead.

And other days too.

Thunder sounded from below. The first race was on. Crowds of Mayans lined the course. Shouts spurred on the riders.

A few gringos were watching the race.

The entire scene was chaos.

"It's Donald," Ms. Carolina shouted pointing to approaching horsemen.

The blonde older man raced past us with a chicken in his hand. He wasn't Donald Sutherland, but he was happy and Ms. Carolina was happy believing that he was the movie actor.

"Go, Donald, go."

She hugged me.

"You think he won?"

"Anyone who races wins."

We drove out of Todos Santos before the last race.

Ms. Carolina moved closer to me.

On the Day after the Day of the Dead what other choice did I have.

'Wale hun' or as the Mayans say, "Maybe only one."

And one was always better than none.

Fotos by Peter Nolan Smith other than those of the Todos Santos Race from Lucy Brown.

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