This story is continued from Part 1 here.
Jutiapa, I remembered, was Alejandro’s home town. I’d met him in San Pedro on Lago Atitlan months before. I remembered he had mentioned that there was no work for him in Jutialpa, so he had tried to find something in the more touristy towns on Lago Atitlan. Having no luck, he had returned to Jutiapa to live with him mom.
Alejandro was in his mid 30’s, he spoke a bit of English (he liked to be called Alex by his gringo friends), and was as amiable as they come. I always told him he looked like the Guatemalan version of Denzel Washington. He was always smiling a sort of sly smile with straight white teeth – handsome and charming – and despite the fact that he drank too much and never had any money, everyone loved him. I was happy (and shocked) to see him standing there in the middle of the street. If anyone knew where to find a beer in this strange little town, Alex did.
We walked two blocks up the street to an open tienda where I bought 4 Brahva beers, 2 for each of us. He invited my back to his house which was just a few more blocks away, on the edge of town. I was a bit hesitant, but I trusted Alex, and I knew that he lived with his mom, so I went along. He opened an unassuming door in an unassuming concrete facade and let me inside.
The house was nice. There was a sitting room with two couches, a dining room with a large table and two large vases with fake flowers, and a small kitchen. Alex clicked on the radio and we sat drinking our beers and chatting, drifting back and forth from Spanish to English.
He apologized for the fact that there was no party going on in Jutiapa. We were used to drinking together under livelier circumstances in San Pedro on Lago Atitlan, but I was happy to just sit and drink beers on a couch with a friend. It’s such a simple thing, beers on a couch with a friend, but it’s the kind of thing you don’t realize you miss while traveling. We talked about his art, and how he has no money to buy paint. He told me that he’d even sold his bed a couple days before. He literally had nothing. I worried that without his mother’s help, he’d be homeless.
He told me about his money problems and his girl problems. “It’s complicated,” he kept saying. Everything was complicated. He lamented being single for so long; he wanted a woman in his life, but he really didn’t know how to get one. I told him he needed to get a job, to work and feel confident about himself, to build a life for himself and then he would find his women. The first step was to be able to support himself.
Really we weren’t so different at all. I’d been dealing with the same problem for the last year or so. I’d had an overwhelming sense that something is missing in my life. I’ve got plenty of friends, and I’m always working, and I have no problem meeting women, but I never really have any money, and sometimes I crave the stability of a relationship. It’s easy for me to party and travel and live my life day to day, making just enough money to survive. Alex and I were similar in that respect. And we were both at that point in our lives when we knew we needed something more. It seemed silly for me to be giving him advice about something I still hadn’t figured out for myself.
We finished our beers and I told him I had to leave because they locked the door of my hotel at 10PM. He said that before I left, he wanted to give me a gift – something to remember him by. I tried to protest. I knew he didn’t have much and he’d given me his friendship and that was enough, but he interrupted me by sprinting up the stairs to find something for me. I sat patiently, a little worried, as he banged around in the rooms upstairs looking for something to give me.
After a few minutes he presented me with a very small coin, smaller than a US Dime. It was silver, it was old, 5 Guatemalan centavos with an engraving of a Quetzal on one side. Look at the year, he prompted me. The coin was old, that was for sure, and I had to squint to see the year: 1949. He told me it was real silver, and that it was a part of the history of his country and he wanted me to have it as a gift. I thanked him kindly (it was actually quite a thoughtful gift) and I zipped the coin into a secure compartment in my wallet.
I got up to leave, but Alex wanted to walk me back to my hotel. He said that Jutiapa is actually one of the most dangerous cities in Guatemala. It seemed like such a small, sleepy city to me, but he assured me that they had one of the highest gun homicide rates in the country. I still don’t know how true that is, but I was happy to have him walk with me. Of course, he suggested that we (I) buy beers for the walk home.
I obliged his alcoholic tendencies and we stopped at a modern gas station convenience store to pick up some beers. It was very clean inside, sterile, all white tiles and air conditioning. In the beer section of the fridge they had Budweiser, and Alex got really excited about the imported American beer, and since I was American, he thought it was a sign that we had to buy it. Of course, the Buds cost twice as much as the local Brahva beers we’d bought earlier. But he was so excited I couldn’t let him down.
I bought the beers and we continued our walk back to my hotel. We paused as he was about to open his beer.
“Amigo, you remember the sound? When you open the Cerveza Brahva?” He asked.
It was a strange question. I thought back to the last Brahva and tried to remember the sound it made. “Yeah…” I said, “I guess…” not sure exactly where he was going with this.
“Listen…” he said knowingly, holding the can of Budweiser between us and slowly pulling back on the pop top. It made that perfect beer-opening sound; that pressurized click-hiss that sounds like imminent refreshment. It sounded like a commercial. It sounded perfect. We had both been staring at the beer, but we looked up at each other in silence and smiled. And then we both burst out laughing.
“Right?!” He said.
I laughed, “It sounds great, amigo! Better than the Brahva, for sure!” I wasn’t really sure – I mean I didn’t have a Brahva in front of me to compare it to, and to be honest I never really paid any attention to what they sounded like, but it did sound good, and Alejandro said it was true, so it must be true. He had that way about him. He’d smile and say, “right!?” and he could convince you of anything.
We arrived back at my hotel just before 10PM, and the man with the cowboy hat and the gun on his belt was standing out front, ready to lock the gate. I said goodbye to Alex and went back to my room to get some sleep.
The next morning I caught an early morning microbus to the border. The bus crawled slowly through the market, while the barker hung out of the open sliding door, barking, “Frontera!” to let people know we were heading to the border. From my seat, I had a clear view of the market stalls through the sliding door. It was like watching a TV show, watching the whole town move by in slow motion as we made our way past endless stalls. The meat man was chopping meat with bloody hands while local women jockeyed for position fighting for the front of the line. Children bought chocolate-dipped frozen bananas from an old woman. The fruit and vegetable sellers presided over mounds of produce, waving flies off their goods and waiting patiently for customers. A tinker sat sat forcing a screwdriver into an electric box, surrounded by broken fans, stacks of remote controls and endless boxes of who-knows-what.
Eventually we made it out of the center of town and it was about an hour’s drive through dry desolate fields and through one small town. We finally came to our final destination, a little pueblo on the Pan American Highway on the border of El Salvador and Guatemala called San Cristobal. I hopped off the bus, slung my bag over my shoulder, and hoofed it towards the border. In the Guatemalan immigration window, they stamped me out of Guatemala. 100 yards up the road, on the El Salvadorian side, they took one look at my passport and handed it back.
“No puedes entrar,” they said, you can’t enter. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t enter.
“Look at the date,” they said. And in my head, I said 1949. The date on Alejandro’s coin. I knew they were talking about my 90 day visa. When you enter a country in Central America, they give you an automatic 90 day tourist visa. The date on my Guatemalan stamp said that I still had about 2 weeks left. But as the by-the-book immigration officer explained, I had entered into Honduras a few weeks before that, and by the Honduran stamp, I had over-stayed my Central America visa by 12 days.
Fuck. I’d totally forgotten about Honduras.
I was now suck in some strange no-man’s land between two nations. I’d been stamped out of Guatemala, but never stamped in to El Salvador. At that moment, I was nowhere.
Continued at Part 3: The El Salvador Border