The other Americas

SN&R contributor Justin Allen quit his day job and crossed the border to follow his novel aspirations

In Guatemala, a carnival and a cemetery share a common border.

In Guatemala, a carnival and a cemetery share a common border.

Photo By Justin Allen

It begins and ends in Mexico City. In between, there’s a huge ribbon of time, months long, with sights and sounds I haven’t even had time to realize yet: a Ferris wheel rising over a graveyard as the sun sets in Guatemala. A CD merchant with a portable stereo hung from his neck, walking through a Mexico City subway car. The otherworldly screams of howler monkeys over the ancient Mayan city of Tikal, Guatemala. The tranquil Caribbean coast of Honduras, the beach carpeted with garbage. A man in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, wearing two different shoes, with his hands behind his back, pacing up and down the crowded square. Sipping a beer at an open-air restaurant in Managua, Nicaragua, when a woman walked by holding a rag to one side of her swollen, bruised face and stared at me as if I were on a luxury cruise through hell.

How can I assure you readers that Latin America is a beautiful, vibrant place, without doing what my Lonely Planet guidebook does? I don’t want to tell you about stunning seashores, charming markets with quaint indigenous people in colorful “native costume,” skimming over reality to give you the highlights, things of interest to tourists. Likewise, I don’t want to say it’s dangerous or dirty or polluted or poor, because it’s so much more than that. I can say with certainty that Latin America is full of surprises. Some of those surprises are pleasant, and some are not, but visitors surely will leave changed by the experience.

A Guatemalan shrine.

Photo By Justin Allen

I had wanted to travel in Latin America for a long time. When I met my girlfriend, Aurora, one of the first things we did was start planning for a trip, since she shared the ambition. The fact that it is very inexpensive to travel there made it possible to stay for a long time. We planned and saved for about six months in advance of our departure. Neither of us had jobs where we made much money. We simply saved, bought plane tickets, quit our jobs and left.

We sublet our Alkali Flats apartment to my brother and flew to Mexico City in mid-December, not to return until the end of April. The objectives were to learn Spanish; do volunteer work; and experience the Mexican states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, Yucatán and Veracruz, and the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Belize. Also, I wanted to finish writing a novel. Unrealistic? Maybe so. Four-and-a-half months is a long time, but not as long as it sounds.

After we landed in Mexico City and spent a few days there, we took a bus to the southern state of Oaxaca. We rented an apartment and spent a month in Oaxaca City, also taking day trips to the ruins at Monte Alban and Mitla. Our plan was to immediately start Spanish lessons. Somehow, this didn’t happen.

Vendors in Abastos Market in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Photo By Justin Allen

The days stretched out infinitely long. Frequently, the sound of church bells in the afternoon sun had an almost narcotic effect on me. Every day I could wake up early, have coffee and write as long as I wanted. I was fulfilling a fantasy I’d had since I’d read Henry Miller when I was 16: the expatriate American writer, his attention turned to his craft, his back turned to the mechanized dollarland that spawned him, a country too efficient for dreams.

After a month in Oaxaca City, we moved out of the apartment and spent a week on the Pacific coast and then a couple of weeks in San Cristobal, a beautiful city high in the mountains of Chiapas, made famous by the Zapatista rebellion. In Oaxaca, it is the Zapotecs whose ruins you behold, and, later in the day, you meet the descendants of those ancient builders. In Chiapas, it is the many groups descended from the Mayans.

We studied Spanish at a school and visited small towns near San Cristobal, particularly San Juan Chamula. There, a church predating the birth of the United States by more than 200 years has no pews inside—only pine needles on the floor, where locals kneel in front of candles, practicing a mixture of Catholicism and pre-Columbian beliefs. Amid the air thick with incense and the sound of prayers in Mayan language, I felt the mystery held by these people as never before.

The outdoor bus “station” in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.

Photo By Justin Allen

The trip nearly half over, we headed into Central America. It was more challenging than Mexico but very worth the trip. We spent some weeks in Guatemala in the highland city of Quetzaltenango on Lake Atitlán and in Livingston, near Belize. After this, we passed into Honduras and then into Nicaragua for a couple of weeks, and then we began our trip north. The border crossings going south were easy, but as we headed back toward the United States, they became more militarized, with Uzi-carrying soldiers, dogs sniffing for narcotics, currency hustlers and the air of desperation.

I tried to find time to write my novel, but the blur of places and sights demanded my attention. I had to see it before it was gone, to pick something from the stream of details and remember it before my chance to understand had passed.

I tried to capture the microbus ride from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, to the coast by scribbling in my journal: “In a minibus with big windows. Tin fences, tin roofs. A gray horse tied to a brown telephone pole with too many wires on its double crosses. A bus with the letters ‘Jehova es Amor’ in red on its yellow body. A giant inflated Coca-Cola can. Ramshackle houses and stores. ‘Sahara Disco’ it reads on a big, new-looking yellow building. Salva Vida beer logos painted on it. Earlier we passed a Salva Vida truck that had had a catastrophic crash with another semi. The twisted mass of metal made it clear no one in those mashed cabs had survived. A man rides a bike by a weeping willow as it blows in the wind. Huge concrete pipes lay abandoned in the grass by the highway. Cinderblock houses painted sea-green and aqua-blue. A man on a motorcycle rides by, pistol tucked in the back of his jeans below the billowing T-shirt. A sign advertises a future shopping mall in this location.”

The ruins of Mexico’s Monte Alban, the ancient city of the Zapotecs.

Photo By Justin Allen

Only by writing it down could I notice the things that just blended in after a while; the crash and the gun are alarming only in retrospect. At the moment, they were only details. There’s a worn-in, comfortable, flexible, forgiving atmosphere that is indescribably safe in Central America and Mexico. Things that would be apocalyptic in the States are just part of a normal day in Latin America.

Friends and family have asked countless times: Was it safe? There’s no universal answer, but in general I would say yes. And as for the question of taking family or children traveling in Latin America, I would say you are actually safer traveling that way. It is an extremely family-oriented culture. We met a British woman traveling by bicycle with her child from California all the way down to Panama. She told us she’d been treated like royalty.

Before flying out of Mexico City, we had some time to experience the city in depth. The only place I can compare it to is New York City. The thriving sidewalk markets, enormous and easy-to-use subway system, dozens of distinct neighborhoods, and abundance of incredible museums and art galleries are a traveler’s dream. Despite slow poisoning from the air pollution, it’s a city I would be proud to call home, as the Chilangos (Mexico City residents) are. Though I missed home, I didn’t really want to leave—there was too much more to explore.

Four months went by so fast. Volunteering was postponed until another trip, as we’d decided to put language study first. Learning Spanish turned out to be harder than I thought, and my manuscript wasn’t finished, but these weren’t failures. I’d turned my book from a beginning to a nearly finished form. As bad as it still is, my Spanish is vastly better than when I left. I didn’t change and improve the countries I visited by volunteering; this trip, it was enough for them to change me.

I came back feeling like Rip Van Winkle, waking up to higher gas prices, the worsening situation in Iraq and the immigration debate that has the entire country agitated. I feel like I understand, now, a little about why people come to the United States from the countries south of us—and also how difficult it must be to leave it all behind.