The sound of Rogelio’s thick, callused knuckles wrapping on my cabin door jerked me from sleep. What time was it? Thick sunlight was pouring through the cracks in my wooden cabin, the air was intensely hot and I had a bad hangover.
I was in El Paredon, a small and isolated fishing village on Guatemala’s Pacific coast and, as I tried to assess how bad I was feeling, the events of the previous night started coming back. I remembered “Don” Rogelio, as everyone calls him, a 60-year-old evangelist preacher with thickset features, a wispy moustache and a high standing in the village. I also remembered a bottle of tequila and…a hazy recollection of promising to buy some land.
Now, as I stood tired and sober before Don Rogelio in the morning light, I also remembered that I had agreed to buy the land from him. Could I back out? Was it too late?
My concern was not based solely on the fact that Guatemala had only recently emerged from a bloody civil war that had cost 200,000 lives or that any government since had failed to consolidate democracy, reduce acute poverty or control violence, which is higher today than prior to the country’s 1996 peace accords.
I had also had bad luck on this idyllic stretch of beach ever since I had first stepped on its dark volcanic sand in October 2007. That was when I had finished early some reporting on the country’s presidential election and, faced with the prospect of a free weekend in Guatemala City, had entered the words “surfing” and “Guatemala” into an internet search engine.
Two hours later, search result written hastily on a scrap of paper, I was behind the wheel of a rented car and was heading down a road with the capital of Central America’s most populous nation safely to my back.
An hour later, I could feel the air getting warmer as I descended past the towering Pacaya volcano, through Mayan villages bustling with short women with long plaited hair and woven dresses and, finally, to the steaming coastal plains that are home to Guatemala’s sugar cane production.
An hour after that, I was kicking up dust on long and straight unpaved road that ends by a river. That is where you have to leave the car and continue by boat down a winding waterway that cuts through mangrove forests and eventually leads to El Paredon.
All this was an assault on the senses, a place so remote and so peaceful – cars are rarely seen in El Paredon and all the roads are made of the same dark grey sand as the beach itself – that going there seemed like going back in time.
But later that night, as I began to take in this timeless village with its adobe houses and roofs of palm leaves, I stepped hard and barefoot onto the aluminium base of a mosquito coil that I had left on the ground. It entered my heel up to the hilt. It also forced a speedy return to Guatemala City for treatment and stitches.
The second time I went to El Paredon was hardly better – though it was longer. Now friendly with Sandra, Rogelio and a few of the other villagers, I headed down to the water for an early swim.
El Paredon is almost spiritual at this time of day. The waves are big – sometimes eight foot high – but in the early morning and until about 10am they are glassy, crisp and clear. After that, they become choppier, less predictable and they often carry a heavy tow.
I had been in the water for about 20 minutes and was wading back when I felt a deep cut in the arch of my foot. I hobbled back to the sand but as the minutes ticked by the pain grew more intense. Within 15 minutes I had lost the feeling in my legs and then in my arms. I had been stung by a stingray.
With that history, and with a steadily growing hangover, I found myself heading to the mayor’s office of the nearby regional capital with Don Rogelio. I hadn’t considered the implications of buying land in Guatemala. Nor had I thought about the possibility of ending up only with a piece of paper and no land.
But it was too late. A call to the bank, a wire transfer and a signature later, I was shaking Don Rogelio’s hand, then shaking the mayor’s hand and wondering what being the owner of a modest piece of land in El Paredon would mean. I had no idea what the answer was and my head was still pounding. But I knew that it would be the start of an adventure and I knew that there would be no regret.
Adam Thomson is an English freelance journalist living in Mexico City.
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