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Livingston, Guatemala and How to Disappear Completely

The site was a broke down hotel room three floors above the streets of Livingston, Guatemala.

The site was a broke down hotel room three floors above the streets of Livingston, Guatemala. The building was pressed between a narrow produce market and a row of wet fishing docks. Livingston became a hide-out of sorts. On high-sun Friday afternoons I could hitch out from my village in Belize making it to the water taxi customs shack just in time for last boat leaving the country. It’s a 15-mile ride across the bay and under the spotlight of midday sun dolphins would race your boat or jump in its wake. Livingston is a small coastal town full of fishermen and convenience stores. It’s a town with a mood of constant passage, the type where no one takes the time to notice you on the streets

In awkward Spanish I’d ask for the same 50 Quetzal ($7.50) room, number 308. Flashing a smile behind gold-rimmed sunglasses I had no idea just how the hotel clerk chose to categorize me. I’m sure they fit me in as some strange ex-pat down here to fetch up either drugs or women. I wore an unbuttoned multi-colored shirt, a glimmering belt buckle with protruding silver bullhorns and swung from my shoulder a battered black-leather briefcase full of books, t-shirts and beer. I’d make sure to come off kindly but the hostess always seemed to retract while handing over the room key as though certain she were accepting some roguish liability.

The room was a sweaty cement cell with a single mattress, a crooked window leading to the street and a strong colony of rodents. At a small tienda across the street I could buy two cans of Guatemalan beer and the local newspaper to carry back to the hotel’s rooftop overlooking the bay. Sitting at a small table on the roof I could read a paper and drink from cold cans while watching the lazy movements of the bay. The town was buzzing with the weekday release of Friday evening and everything seemed to bend agreeably toward the bay. At this time of the afternoon, as the sun was starting to show its greater shades of red, I’d keep my eye on the fishermen walking the docks and sorting through the day’s catch. Each movement was a thousand years old and many times it felt better to just go sit nearby and be a part of their worn carpentry. Further out massive tankers and smaller yachts quietly crossed a mirrored calm and to my right the cracks and crevasses in the mountains of Honduras were clearly visible by the sun’s afternoon shadows.

At dusk when beer ads lit the town with a polychromatic pulse I’d make to the streets to investigate whatever might be happening. Rapid Spanish pop music came from some nearby but unseen speakers, the girls in small mascara clusters tossed black hair over exposed shoulders while the boys sat on curbs sipping beer and beckoning. The distance settled in and I was pleased to be so deep in the clutter of my own creation, without any reasonable connection, without a way that wouldn’t be my own. The rusty hook of some interest would grab me on a way to a restaurant and I’d find myself following a noise or small crowd. A night football match was taking place in a cement court, everyone shirtless and screaming. I’d make some conversation, maybe join the game if invited and then disappear just before it finished when the energy and anger of defeat could inflame into violence.

Guatemala has a sense of danger that I felt comfortable to be around during those days. Outside of Belize I knew I was on my own and I felt a pleasurable sensation of my own resources being somehow closer to the surface when surrounded by this ill-tempered unknown. It’s a primal feeling that would cut the weekday boredom with the prospect of immediate hazard. The electricity of what could happen at any moment maintained my senses. Walking in the evening passing a small cantina on the way to a restaurant I’d keep peripheral eyes on everyone around me while acting as though I’d walked this street a thousand times. The guy with the jeans and cowboy boots has a large lump in his belt toward the left side. I’d watch the scene from behind a baseball cap focused toward a newspaper or menu while I measured the various motives, threats and faces in the room. It’s always good to have a buddy in these situations so noticing the bartender was Maya I’d introduce myself in Q’eqchi, the local Maya language, to define myself away from the surly crowd.

“Chank chaq’uell?” (How are you?)

“Oos Oos, man, Ut laat?” (Good good, man and you?)

“Doing well, just got into town. How about a beer?”

In the reflection of a store window I might notice two men crossing my side of the street and I watch the eyes of the father passing me with his children to see if he is recognizing a danger by shifting weight to shield his two little girls. The night goes on glistening with the deep avenue grit of streetlights and salt air.

I’m determined that if you are able to keep your eyes open and accurately read the tempo of an area you can find a way to step into anywhere in the world and join the folds. Every group of people has is a pace in which they interact. Those who are apart of this rhythm can almost never notice it themselves but a cautious observer can read its indicators like blinking road signs. A man dips his head to take a drink of his beer and slowly turns and opens his eyes to smile at a friend across from him. There is a method in this tired gesture and plenty is spoken in these millimeter movements of shoulders sagging on frame. The man across from him heaves a sigh and nods an agreement while letting his eyes gaze wander toward the street. It is this timing, contours and momentum of everything around you. I take note of the cadence, syntax and tone between the bartender and the man he bums a cigarette from at the end of the bar. This is an unspoken and unknown art in the bodies of people as they speak loudly to one another through the smallest unconscious indications. To disappear completely one must envelope these gestures and execute them deliberately and appropriately. This chameleon strategy is not only an entertaining side curiosity but can be an important camouflage to keep the tempted eyes of an attacker distracted onto some more obvious target.

In my room late that evening, when the night has tipped beyond the cliff, I’m taking a shower under the copper pipe that juts out of the cement wall in my bathroom. The water is cold and strips the smell of sweat and street from my skin. A novel keeps me awake lying on my back listening to the evening’s drunks slur their last cries and recede into sleep.