Sometimes meeting a stranger takes your life in a whole new direction.
He is not quite a man, and not quite an animal. He reminds me of a camouflaged insect, a bent grasshopper. Earth toned clothes worn and patched. Elbows oddly crunched together as he hunches over his knees. Worn brown rubber flip flops. Travel vest patched and yet full of holes. Instead of pants, he wears a length of olive green fabric, wrapped around his waist, making a long skirt.
Grasshopper remains hunched over until the plane begins to move down the runway. Then he unfolds himself, as if from a cocoon, limbs and fabric now stretched wide. His arm dangles dangerously over the armrest: an affront to my personal space. His eyes closed, mouth open, breath smelling like old leaves. Not unpleasant. Musty. Familiar.
I watch his face. Suntanned skin the color of dried apricots. Glasses mended with masking tape.
Suddenly, he opens his eyes. “Do you know anything about butterflies?” he asks, voice hoarse and cracked.
My hands are shaking. I have no time for butterflies. Lift offs make me nervous.
Grasshopper glances at my face. “Butterflies can fly three thousand miles. Three thousand miles just to get home.”
Home. I’m not sure where that is anymore. Right now home is this plane; in a few hours, home will be Guatemala City, where I will be a volunteer teacher to young children.
Grasshopper is still talking, his arm still dangling. Closing my eyes, I try not to think about being on an airplane. There’s the smell of old leaves again. Earthy. Heavy. It reminds me of the road trips I used to take to the California Redwoods with my mother. VW bus moving slowly on the curvy highway. Secondhand army tent we’d camp in at night. Dinner of canned oysters and crackers. Fire snapping twigs and pine.
“Butterflies are how I met my wife.” says Grasshopper, his shoulder touching mine.
Campfires and road trips vanish, replaced with the realization that peace and quiet are not mine to own on this flight. I give in. We order glasses of watery orange juice, and Grasshopper folds back into his seat as he begins to tell his story.
Thirty two years ago, he’d been a law student who had gone down to Mexico for summer break with friends. His father had been involved in politics, and he’d thought about that as a career. But what really interested him were birds. That Mexican summer, he’d brought along all his birding equipment. When everyone else went back home to California that August, he’d stayed behind.
“Weren’t your parents upset?”
They had been upset, but they thought he’d come to his senses before the next semester. He hadn’t. He stayed. He traveled around Latin America, studying birds. Toucans. But it was when he got to Guatemala that he fell in love.
“That’s when you fell in love with your wife?”
No, it took a long time to meet his wife. He fell in love with the river Polochic of Guatemala, which was surrounded by one of the most pristine cloud and rain forests in Latin America. It also was a birder’s paradise. For ten years he was alone most of the time, his only companions the birds and the animals. But one day that changed. He was canoeing down Polochic when he saw a large group of Blue Morph butterflies. Hundreds, clustered together. It was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
When he heard that someone had arrived at Polochic to study the Blue Morph, he wanted to meet them. It was his wife to be. Carmelita. They got married in the Cloud Forest. Magical. Romantic.
“I’m going back to her now. And you, what’s your story? Where are you going?”
I tell him I’m going around the world. I’ve spent a year planning the itinerary. First stop, Guatemala. I’ve already arranged to volunteer at a school there. I’m planning a very structured trip: I don’t want to miss any of the important sights.
“Does your itinerary include Polochic? Or the Blue Morph butterfly?” he asks.
I explain I won’t have time for that. I’ve already planned everything.
Grasshopper reaches into one of his vest pockets and pulls out a worn rumpled business card.
“Here.” he says. “Just in case you decide to visit us. Carmelita will make real coffee. We’ll talk about butterflies."
The pilot announces our flight will be over soon. I put the card in the pocket of my jacket as Grasshopper hunches over, elbows bent in like folded wings, preparing for the landing. I close my eyes. I’m already forgetting his story.
One month later, my perfectly planned itinerary isn’t working out as well as I’d have liked. The small school that I found to volunteer at in Guatemala City is charging me double what they promised for my Spanish lessons. Children who attend my classes are grouped together randomly, and the lesson plans they insist I use don’t seem to work as most of the children are illiterate. The director of the school has several lavish homes and fancy cars, although he presents himself as a poor man with only a bicycle to the volunteers.
I begin to wonder if my plan to travel around the world was a mistake. Maybe I need to go home. Or maybe having such a structured trip—in which I rely on places like this school in Guatemala to make my time meaningful--isn’t what I’m looking for. I’m going to have to make my own meaning.
I travel around Guatemala until I find a remote Mayan village in the mountains where I rent a two room cinderblock house. Dirt floor. Broken windows filled in with cardboard. No bathroom. But the little house rests on the side of the mountain, and when the cardboard is removed from the window panes I have a queen’s view. The sky blue kitchen comes with a tiny stove, and the main room is just big enough to have a tiny school. I begin offering English and art lessons for free. Children eagerly come, sometimes walking many miles barefoot just to attend a single class. My house is surrounded by maize fields, and I learn how to dry maize on my roof and make tamales.
Each morning, a few women come to my kitchen and we sit and drink weak Nescafe at my table. I boil fresh milk and put out plates of snacks. Dry salty biscuits. Penny cookies. Sometimes we sit in silence, other times one of them talks. For the first time in my life, I listen deeply. Listen to stories about husbands, fathers, brothers who went to America. Disappeared. Listen to loneliness. Acute. Aching. Absolute.
Winter comes slowly to the village, but once it comes it is relentless. One day I notice that the father of one of my students has pants which are full of holes, held up with plastic twine. Legs red, chapped from the cold. I offer him a spare pair of my pants and a jacket to keep him warm. He accepts the gifts and takes them home. The next morning, I awake to his son at my door, his hand outstretched. A small wrinkled piece of paper rests on his palm.
Grasshoppers’ business card. I’d put it in my jacket pocket many months before.
The cinderblock house has no heater and each night is colder than the last. I wear all my clothes to bed and wake up to the cement floor slick with frost. My kitchen is now too cold for the morning Nescafe sessions, and my friends stay home. Classes are taught around the stove, which constantly bubbles and hums, boiling milk for hot chocolate. It’s time to leave the little schoolhouse and find someplace warm.
Polochic. Blue Morph butterflies. Grasshopper.
The village matriarch sees me off. She climbs onto the bus and inspects it before as I buy a ticket.
“You’re my sister.” She says. Crying, she hands me a package of warm tamales. She’s never left the village in her entire life and she wishes she could come.
“You’re my sister, too.” I say. I tell her I’ll take pictures. I’ll return.
I read about Polochic as the chicken bus travels into the tropics of Guatemala.
A wide river, it meets the largest lake of Guatemala, Lake Izabal, like a kiss. The wetlands and cloud forest radiate outwards like a lover’s embrace. The lands around Polochic and the lake are part of the Mayan Biosphere Reserve. Within the reserve are multiple smaller refuges, protected havens for animals and plants of all kinds. The only way to reach these reserves is take a boat across Lake Izabal to the other side. A boat. A very small boat.
Fifteen hours later, I’m standing in a tiny office in the city of El Estor, arranging a one week stay in Bocas de Polochic, an animal and plant refuge. There are no brochures, only a single clerk who tells me that once I arrive I must find the hut for guests, called Chapin Abajo.
The next morning I stand on the shore of the lake, waiting. A tiny narrow fishing boat is being loaded with giant bags of beans and maize. The boat is so heavy that the top of the lake is only a few inches from the rim. Once all the cargo is on, I wade out into the lake and awkwardly climb aboard. The boat’s little motor barely moves us across the water. Gasping. Sputtering. Putt-putt. Putt-putt. An hour later, we’re barely half way across. But I can see the refuge, a verdant green blur running along one side of the lake.
We finally enter the wetlands, the lake closing behind us. Oars are brought out and the motor turned off, as we glide into paradise. Vines hang above. Mangrove tree roots twist and turn like bent fingers, clutching at the muddy banks. Princess crowns of water lilies and water adorn the water. Green glitters, laid out like precious stones. Celadon. Jade. Emerald.
Animals have come out to give us welcome. Birds stand in the water on one leg, crests of blue and gold arched forward. Turtles laze on rocks, sliding into the water as we move past. The air is thick with tiny insects, which fly into my nose, ears, and mouth. Alligators linger in the shallows, their olive green heads still as they watch us with unblinking topaz eyes. Howler monkeys sit clustered on vines and branches, adorable until they let out a guttural cry that sounds like a cross between a scream and a flushing toilet.
A refuge welcome station is just up ahead, a tiny Mayan community perched around it. The cement dock is covered in moss, its landing half consumed by the swampy water. A guide comes to take me to the hut where I will spend the next week, and I follow him, trailing behind a few small children.
“You will enjoy the beauty of this place, the animals, the birds,” he says, as he cuts down jungle greenery with his machete, clearing a path.
And then I see Chapin Abajo: it’s not a hut at all, but an enormous guesthouse. It rises spectacularly from the rainforest floor, two stories of bamboo, palm, thatch and tree trunks.
An expansive wrap around porch greets us, covered in rainbow hued hammocks, ready for siesta. The kitchen is magnificent, with massive raw tables and benches, enough seats for twenty people. The bedrooms upstairs are long narrow halls of bed after bed, all empty. I am the only guest.
Adjoining the larger hut are two smaller ones, connected by plank walkways raised four feet above the ground. One building holds the toilet, the other walls in an outdoor shower.
“I’ll be back tonight,” the guide tells me. “Be careful not to wander to far from here, and do not walk at night. Jaguar roam here,” he pauses, drawing a circle with his walking stick around scat near one of the plank walkways. “Jaguar. She will be back.”
Walking back into the large hut, I shut the rickety door behind me. Its screen is torn and loose: not the best protection against hungry jaguars.
Grasshopper, what place have you sent me to?
I spend the rest of my morning unpacking my things. Slowly. Deliberately. Trying not to think about jaguars. I line up my cans of food on the shelf in the kitchen, tie up my mosquito netting over one of the hammocks, and lay out my clothes in little precise piles. My company is the jungle: a cacophony of insects, birds, rustlings, and screaming monkeys meld into an ear splitting hum of noises, screams, calls, and vibrations. A million insects rubbing their wings together at the same precise moment.
It takes me all afternoon to rally enough courage to leave the guesthouse. At first I run across one of the plank walkways to the bathroom, and then run back. Sitting on the porch in one of the hammocks, I swing back and forth, looking longingly out at the trees. I think of Grasshopper, wandering this forest for ten years. Jumping off the porch into the grass, I take off into the jungle, following the first path I see.
The first realization I have after a few minutes is that I’m lost. The second is that I entered the jungle looking down, and it never occurred to me to look up. Up is where the jungle really is: black little monkeys clustered in trees; orchids and bromeliads exploding purple and pink like resplendent peacocks; and flying from branch to branch, toucans. I’m still, quiet, watching. The jungle requires me to pay attention to it.
Something hits me in the head, a huge butterfly. Shades of brown, each wing the size of one of my hands, it lingers near me on a tree trunk, neatly vanishing. An ambassador sent by Polochic.
At my feet, an enormous snail, slowly gliding over debris. On closer inspection, the debris is actually thousands of bugs shaped like perfect brown leaves, gracefully dancing into the air in unison, a carefully orchestrated ballet. Clusters of blue and red tree frogs shine on the trunk of a tree, glossy jewels.
Hearing the sound of water, I walk off the path further, and find myself in a mangrove swamp. At first the tree roots look like they are strangling everything around them, their brown octopus legs reaching, stretching, and suffocating anything in their path. But I step closer and then I see them differently: now they seem to be holding up the earth, lifting it out of the water, balancing mid-air. Their branches curve gracefully, spilling out of their center like rolls of fat, attended by tiny lizards whose tongues dart as they lift off small intruding ants.
The top of Chapin Abajo shows itself, peeking out above the swamp mangroves. I wade across the water, watching for snakes, moving in slow motion. Minutes later I’m back at the guest house—I wasn’t lost at all, only minutes away.
That night I eat my dinner of oranges and canned sardines looking out into the darkness. It is far from silent: night loving animals have awakened and are getting ready to hunt or be hunted, and both prey and predator greet nightfall with uproarious applause. No peaceful bedtime lullaby here; instead, groupies scream at a jungle rock concert.
Inside, too, the night has to come to life. Huge centipedes crawl across the floor. Flying cockroaches, busily flying back and forth, hit me in the face. Invisible insects move in clouds or independently stake a claim on my orange slices. Lizards and geckos click as they cling to the walls. Climbing into one of the hammocks, I wrap myself in my mosquito net like a cocoon. I fall asleep to the sound of the cockroaches, grouped together on my mosquito net, wings rubbing together, strangely melodic.
The next few days fall into an easy rhythm. Awakening to the sound of howler monkeys screeching at four am, I flick the sleepy cockroaches off my mosquito net and prepare a breakfast of biscuits and Nescafe. Once the light appears, I wander the forest, exploring until late afternoon. Children from the village sometimes accompany me, welding machetes against the lush green like King Arthur knights, as they teach me to look for the animals of Polochic. Armadillos. Coati. Anteaters. Otters, Tapir, Kinkajou. I learn to look all directions as I walk along, poking the ground or swamp ahead with a long stick, checking for snakes, thankfully never finding any. Boa constrictor. Fer de Lance. Guatemalan Pit Viper. In the evening over dinner I sit on the porch, listening to the concert of Polochic. The cockroaches and I have come to an understanding: if they don’t crawl up my legs, I’ll let them sleep on my mosquito net. The whirring and rubbing of their wings becomes a sound I look forward to.
The humidity has eaten away at all of my supplies: my matches are limp, my fruit has molded, and even my dry rice and beans have taken on a jungle slime. I’m down to my last can of sardines and peaches, and with no place to buy supplies, I have to leave Polochic.
My last day of wandering I decide to explore the waterways, and finding a small cayuca, traditional dugout canoe, at the dock, I ask to borrow it. The canoe is narrow, scarcely wide enough for my oversized American body, and it’s quite short, so that I’m forced to fold my knees together. Balancing myself takes time, and the canoe almost turns over before I’ve even gone anywhere. I take the heavy oars in my hands, and paddle towards the wetlands.
The scenery changes every five minutes, becoming more verdant and alive, teeming with animals and birds of every kind. I’m not alone: every once in a while another cayuca drifts past, it’s adult passengers sunning themselves while their children gather water lily flowers and bundles of reeds. Sleepy, relaxed, and warm, I lift the oars and allow myself to drift into a patch of water lettuce clinging to the surface.
My eyes close and I breathe in the beauty of Polochic.
Hearing the sound of water moving, I open eyes, alarmed that I might have come across the path of an alligator. But I see nothing. My eyes have trouble adjusting to all of the bright colors here: the water the color of the sky, the red lilies that grow from the trees, the plants shaded in tones of lime and avocado. Then I see something near the boat, just below the water. Carefully moving so I don’t roll the canoe, I look down into the blue. Manatees. A group of manatees swims just under my canoe, their pinkish nostrils coming up for air every few minutes. As they slowly roll and turn, they remind me of grey lumps of clay come to life. Everything halts, my mind quiet, the only sound I now hear the gentle lapping of the manatees as they touch the surface. Glorious.
How thankful I am for you, Grasshopper.
At the dock the next morning, I’m sitting in the fishing boat that brought me to Polochic, waiting to go back across Lake Izabel. Pitch black air, dense with fog, thick with mosquitos. We move through the water, watching the sun flirt with Polochic, its yellow rays lighting up a small patch of sky and the river. Lake Izabel appears, stunning me with its grey splendor. Silver spangled waves move across the surface as dawn fully breaks. A visual feast, this is the sunrise of my lifetime.
We arrive at the shore, and my bag is lifted out of the boat. Something glints blue on it, trapped in the netting pocket. It’s the partial wing of a Blue Morph butterfly. A partial mandala. I fold it into Grasshopper’s business card.
I’m on my way, Grasshopper.
Amy Gigi Alexander
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