I awoke to the morning chorus of birds and packed my bag to leave Palenque, but I had no idea whether or when I would go. I was making a sketch in my journal and lazily sipping away on a cup of coffee when the answer presented itself. A figure materialized and sat down next to me. He asked if I knew anything about border crossings into Guatemala. I didn’t, but it was a subject of interest since that was the general direction I was heading. His name was Andre and he was from the Czech Republic.
[Editor’s Note: Everett Redus, 21, of Baytown, Texas, now one of four surviving brothers, will travel south to Patagonia next week, carrying and spreading the ashes of his slain older brother, Cameron, a senior honors student at the University of Incarnate word who was fatally shot by a campus policeman outside his off-campus apartment on December 6, 2013. The Rivard Report has invited Everett to publish periodic dispatches as he makes his way south and awaits word on the outcome of the criminal investigation into the shooting and a wrongful death lawsuit filed by his family against UIW and the police officer. Read more about Cameron’s life, death, and the aftermath here. Donate to Everett’s trip via his GoFundMe campaign here.]
He was taller and a few years older than me. The status of his hair and the color of his skin showed months of travel, and I saw in his eyes that he didn’t care much for serious things. We agreed to go into town together to gather information, and that I would wait 30 minutes while he gathered his things and finished his breakfast.
After an hour I wasn’t keen on waiting any longer, so I started down the 10 kilometer road by myself. But 20 minutes into the walk there was a whistle and a zoom, and I saw Andre standing in the bed of a pick-up, shouting something to me as he disappeared over the hill. But his lanky figure reappeared as I rounded the bend and saw him walking up towards me from far off. I knew right then that I would like him very much.
We shared a room for two nights in the town of Palenque, prowling over maps and inquiring everyone about transportation to the closest border. We received the same answer everywhere we went – Frontera Corozal. Corozal was a crossing far to the south, but we knew there must be one much closer, since we were quite close to Guatemala already. El Ceibo was the border we were looking for. We confirmed its existence, but could find no transportation going there. But if the buses wouldn’t take us there, we intended to find someone who would.
We set out early, supplied with bread and fruit for the journey. We had hitched a ride into town two days before with extreme ease, so we didn’t figure on having much trouble getting to where we wanted to go. As the morning marched past us, we had only caught two rides, and neither was of much help. We had only made it a few kilometers. The losing of hope is a slow process, and failure is doubly painful when your goal is independence and adventure. Dripping with sweat, and burnt from head to toe, we eventually caved in and flagged down a colectivo headed for Corozal, and our spirits eased a little when we were only charged a fraction of the price that we were quoted in town.
We walked down the last street in Mexico and reached the Usumacinta River that flowed between us and Guatemala, immediately losing all regrets of having to come through this crossing. A lancha, a wooden longboat, ferried us to the other side. We marveled at the beauty and at how unofficial it was. There were no fences, or concrete huts, or customs, or men with guns and ill-meaning looks on their faces. We learned that the immigration office was 30 minutes up the road, so we were physically in Guatemala without being there officially or legally. Anyways, we couldn’t possibly move on just yet. This was a place that deserved enjoyment. We swam in the river and talked with locals till the sun withdrew its traces from the heavens. The whole town was infected with a lazy tranquility that we found irresistible.
As the morning light filtered through layers of green foliage, I allowed the warm night’s air to be washed away by the cool waters. White specters of fog crept through the rolling hills of jungle, as far as the eye could see. It was an aura of peacefulness that moved through me, and I was invigorated with the strength of all optimism.
We rode in truck beds all day, amongst masses off coconuts and machetes. Our last ride was a middle-aged Guatemalteca named Evalyn, and she was one of the best natured people I’ve ever met. She drove us to our destination, and bought us both dinner when we arrived. It was dark as we walked across the bridge to the island of Flores, on the lake of Petén Itzá, a place Cameron had written good things about. We sat with our feet in the water and our eyes on the stars, remarking on how wonderful the day had gone.
In the light of day, we could see that the island was closer to a peninsula with the mainland on one side, so we decided to swim across to explore. It was no small task for me, since I’ve never been a very technical swimmer, but rather a master of the doggy-paddle technique. Of course, when we reached the shore, we found the most perfect place to stay. It was 50 quetzales each for the room, which was more than twice as much as some of the others on the island, but it was well worth it. It was only seven dollars anyways. We swam back across, collected our bags, bought an ungodly amount of avocados and tortillas, and took a lancha back to our new side of the lake.
I set myself to swimming and meditation, clearing my mind of thought, and focusing on the perfection of the present moment. But tales of woe from the land of justice inevitably filter their way down to me. I like to think of myself as having escaped the responsibility of dealing with the never-ending flow of bad news, but that simply isn’t the case. The double talk and poison of politicians hurts just as much here as it does there. Then the sun always catches my gaze and throws it to the beauty around me. I’m reminded not to dwell on things I cannot change. I can only spread Cameron’s spirit, not clear his name. I leave my worries at the water’s edge.
The days passed slowly, and the week, quickly. There was little variation in our day-to-day activities, for there was no need to do anything different. In the mornings, afternoons, and evenings we swam in the lake. We procured coconuts and fruit when we were hungry, and hiked through forest trails when we desired exercise. I rose and retired with the sun, drinking a ritualistic cup of coffee for both occasions. Then during one such occasion, with coffee in hand, Cameron’s words in mind, and first light sparkling over the water, I felt the necessity of movement stir inside of me, and knew that I must submit.
Well before dawn I was walking through the ancient forest. The palpable voice of night echoed all around me, while the encompassing darkness churned with the enchantment of the madrugada. I sat atop the temple of stone while onlookers around me awaited the arrival of the sun. The darkness dissipated, but the heavy fog remained. They groaned and left disappointed and dejected. They had come to see what they wanted to see. I had come to see whatever would happen, and the drifting mists had created an essence of mysticism that ran like ice over my body.
Tikal had been Cameron’s favorite ancient site because of the peace and solitude he had experienced there. Solitude was exactly what I sought. I crept for countless hours through the infinite web of forbidden trails that connect all the main pathways together, encountering no other soul besides my brother’s and my own. I climbed over unexcavated pyramids, and glided through jungle trees beyond detection. I sat not 20 yards from the trail, where people came and went, yet not one person looked my way. They drowned out nature’s sound with their own voices, or kept their eyes glued to maps. I began to feel that if I engrained myself enough in what I was doing, I actually could not be seen. It was the childish thrill of secrecy that I was experiencing, and I resigned myself to it completely.
I dug and sifted through dirt and leaves, searching for artifacts and treasure. And with surprising ease, I found what I was looking for. It was a tooth, obviously ancient and clearly human – a Mayan tooth. I thought of submitting it to the authorities, as a piece of archeological value, then quickly dismissed the idea. It was mine, and I would cherish it more than they ever could. I retreated from the park, with my understanding of Cameron growing ever-deeper.
I said goodbye to Andre in Flores and continued moving south to Semuc Champey. Cameron’s tales of this river in the mountain had long intrigued me, and I was anxious to see it for myself. It was dark when I reached the small patch of grass near the water where I would camp. Straight away, I went to the river bank, found a suitable place, and began gathering wood for a fire. Fire-building is something I take great pride in. Years of camping have taught me the most efficient methods and designs, and I built my fire with the precision of an architect. But this night I was having particular difficulty getting it lit when I was approached by two children. In no more than 10 minutes, we were sitting around a healthy fire, which they had disassembled and rebuilt, correcting my mistake.
We chatted away as I made coffee over the flames, on our way to becoming great friends. They were Julio and Pamela, brother and sister, ages 14 and 12. They partook in the drinking of coffee, and for hours we held mature conversation. Julio and Pamela had an open-minded understanding of the world that was not only beyond their years, but beyond those of most adults I know. They spoke knowledgeably of the Maya and their belief system, and the mysterious way in which they disappeared. The boy’s face shone red with the glow of embers as he led an oration on the energy of the forest, the interconnectivity of all living things, and the importance of living close with nature. We shared stories of our most precious stones and treasures we had found, and they marveled in awe when I showed them my arrowhead I found in Mexico. I gave them both a gift of worked obsidian knife blades. The translucent stones revealed hidden secrets when held to the light. Julio’s glowed with the most brilliant and smooth shade of green. Pamela’s showed an intricate array of black lines of varying thicknesses. They, in turn, gave me a crystal, found in a nearby cave. With this exchange of gifts our friendship became official.
In the succeeding days, when I wasn’t exploring the river, or trying to execute the perfect backflip off a massive boulder, I was with the children, or with their older sister Alejandra. During the day we climbed trees and skipped rocks, and at night we made fire and caught all the frogs we could find.
I spent considerable time with their parents as well. Jenss and Deviana were young, in their 30’s, and they were talented artisans of native jewelry, the best I have ever seen. The whole family was very close, and very happy. Being around them was an inspiration to me. “We don’t have much,” Deviana told me. “But neither do we want much. We’re perfectly happy how we are.”
One evening at dusk, I was wading through the water, mimicking its movements and allowing the pure green ripples to play tricks on my imagination. Jenss and Deviana came to join me, and around my neck they placed a gift – a necklace, made from the seeds of a plant growing on the mountain where we slept. I have never been known to wear jewelry, but I wore it with unmatched pride as we watched the full moon being birthed from the mountains.
I rose at 6 a.m. the next morning to say goodbye to my friends, but it was only temporary. They had invited me to stay at their house in nearby Cobán, and I intended to accept their invitation. I walked to the water and ceremonially built my fire for a solemn cup of coffee. I did not build it of my own design, but of the one taught to me by the children.
After two more days I left Semuc and went to stay with the family in Cobán. I would stay with them for a week in their concrete and corrugated steel house on the outskirts of town. I learned what it was like to live on nearly nothing. I helped with household chores; washing dishes, washing the dogs they rescue from the street, helping the kids with their homework, and teaching the parents English phrases to sell their craft.
Being with the children was very good medicine for me. They were exactly the type of friends I would choose to surround myself with, and they had just fallen into my lap. They held one of the best qualities man can possess – a deep appreciation for simplicity in nature. It’s strange how fire and water, though seemingly opposites, can have such a similar effect on the spirit. Sitting at the edge of a body of water, or staring into the depths of a campfire, the body is released of tension, and the mind is released of thought. It is a recharging of the soul, keeping your attention linked directly to the present by the earth’s expression of pure, natural energy. Young as they were, the children understood these effects, as well as their importance, while so many others have lost sight of these things. I can only hope to be so lucky as to find more friends like these – Friends who keep the company of Fire and Water.
*Featured/top image: Lake Peten Itza in Guatemala. Photo by Everett Redus.