Way behind on my diaries again. Call myself Kerouacian. Kerouac actually wrote shit. What a problem I am.
Anyway. After a few days of post-volcano resting in Antigua, I left Liv and Mari yet again to venture off to Lake Atitlan. Took a shuttle there, made a few friends on the journey, arrived at night in a lakeside town called Panajechel, which no backpackers can pronounced so gets invariably shortened to Pana. In Pana, which looked nice enough as far as I could see in the dark, I was accosted by a visibly drunk man waffling something about a boat. I needed to take a boat to get to my hostel, so I followed him down to the jetty and paid onto the last boat across the lake. The driver was drunk too, and nearly crashed the boat into another driver as we powered across the black water. Shit me up.
I arrived at my hostel after a hair-raising 30-minute boat ride. The lake is vast, ringed with the glittering lights of distant towns far away across the water in all directions. I walked up to the jetty to my hostel, a place called Free Cerveza. It’s called Free Cerveza because they give you free cerveza for two hours each evening, all you can sup, if you order dinner there. I stayed one night at this place in a little wigwam, and I wasn’t in the mood for beer so I sat in my wigwam and talked to an English girl called Nicky for hours before falling asleep. It was a good conversation: together we discussed our increasing dependence on phones, and envisioned a future in which instead of phones all humans have cute personal robots, in the form of an animal of their choosing, which follow them around and answer their Google questions and give them voicemails and whatever.
Next morning I checked out because they were fully booked. The lake in the daytime was very pretty, ringed with green volcanoes. I felt guilty, however, because I don’t particularly enjoy being a fat useless tourist tanning in the sun while local people strive to get by around me – and there was quite a bit of that: hostel maids, labourers, boatmen, cigarette men, scruffy children selling confectionary out of their parents shop fronts.
My next hostel was called Iguana, and I liked it more because it didn’t have a tacky free beer gringo gimmick. It was opened in 1995 by a backpacker who came to Atitlan and never wanted to leave, and for a very long time it was an earthy off-grid hostel without electricity and dorms in the jungle. Today it has power and wifi, but it retains its character. Better.
I met a strange man there: his name was Cody. He was American and he had been travelling for seven years, and he looked like it. He was very tanned and had long brown hair, dyed lighter by the sun. Green eyes that were alive like an animal. He asked me to play pool with him and I said no twice then said yes. I beat him the first game and he smashed me the second two.
Cody has travelled for seven years without a job and without money. He gets around by hitchhiking, by working for people – odd jobs, gardening and housekeeping and stuff – and by selling sweet banana cakes which he calls Crazy Codys. He spoke loudly and wildly and he didn’t ask me much about my own life but that was fine because you get a bit sick of talking people through your life choices and career path everyday anyway. Cody wasn’t staying at Iguana, he was staying a few hundred metres away along the lakeside at an abandoned hostel that was waiting for refurbishment; Cody was permitted to stay there by the hostel owner, who gave him shelter in exchange for a bit of gardening every now and then.
I stayed one night at Iguana, and in the morning made friends with a very tall Dutch girl whose name escapes me, and through her I met a lot of other Dutch people, and together on my second morning we set off across the lake for a town named San Marcos. I found the town weird: lots of poor local people mixed with lots of dreadlocked white people covered in tattoos wearing harem pants. You could smell the LSD.
I had to find a hostel in San Marcos because Iguana was fully booked that night, and I wandered the town for an hour before finding a crumbly hostel on the outskirts where I would be the only guest. It seemed to be a family that owned the place; one woman, one man, and a thousand children sprinting around playing tig. I booked a bed, dropped my primary rucksack (the one with all my clothes) on my bed, and left with my valuables backpack (passport, laptop).
With the Dutch bunch I had coffee and lunch, and we hiked up a big hill to a place called The Eagle’s Nest – some fancy yoga retreat costing $70 a night, with gorgeous views of the lake from a platform that did look quite a lot like somewhere an eagle might relax and lay an egg or two. We drank fizzy drinks and left after an hour because the hippies were gearing up for an ‘ecstatic dance’ session and I couldn’t be arsed with all the paid-through-the-nose-for-this cosmic limb flailing.
The Dutch decided to head back to Iguana for beers, and they seemed like decent enough people and I had nothing else to do, so I took the boat back with them – another half hour – and there was a storm as we crossed the lake and I felt anxious and wondered how I would escape the boat if it were to capsize.
We arrived safely and drank beers for a few hours, and the hour grew late. The last boat was at 7pm, but I was loathe to take it because I was having a nice time. One of the Dutch didn’t seem to like me very much – he had an eye for the Dutch girls and I was the only other male in our company – and he kept warning me that I really ought to go for the boat now. I was having a nice time, however, and wanted to stay. Then I had an idea: Cody.
I went to find Cody in the hubbub of the hostel; he hung out there all day selling his Crazy Codys. The hostel was throwing a party that night, an odd barbecue and dress-up event. There was a lot of meat cooking on an outdoor grill, and everybody had put on garments pulled from an old trunk somebody had dragged out from a cupboard. I found Cody in the bar, wearing a blue dress with socks stuffed down to give the impression of boobs.
“Dan!” he beamed, clasping my shoulder and clinking my drink.
“Hey man. I wanted to ask you” – you don’t have to bother with formalities with people like Cody – “if I could crash with you tonight. They have no beds here and I booked a hostel in San Marcos earlier but-”
“Of course!” said Cody, grinning. “We can go back later and make some food. I have some noodles we can cook on the camping stove, we can have a midnight feast.”
Huh. That was easier than I anticipated.
“You sure it’s okay?”
“Of course,” said Cody. “I mean, I don’t know what the owner would say, but he’s not here and it’s fine with me!”
Sweet. I drank with the Dutch lot all night, and though I wasn’t supposed to be allowed to partake in the barbecue, they brought a couple of plates of food over for me.
At 10pm Cody came to me and told me he was going to bed. I wasn’t tired yet, so he told me it was fine for me to come later. Even so, I accompanied him to the abandoned hostel so he could show me where to sleep and how to unlock the gate. We walked in the dark along the lakeside, and up a little craggy path to an iron gate. He unlocked it and showed me his home: a two-storey mansion in the jungle. I was speechless. Well, actually not speechless. I swore a lot.
He showed me around: he has two cats there that he’d found abandoned and adopted; a black and white adult cat and a ginger kitten that kept falling over. There was a big industrial kitchen, and a lot of empty rooms with school desks piled high. Other rooms had nothing at all, and on the upper floor, two rooms had mattresses on the floor, alone in the vast expanse of red and white tiles.
“Okay, this will be your room,” said Cody. It was warm inside and echoey. “We can have a midnight snack when you get back. My room is the one next door, along the balcony. If you need to use the bathroom there’s no water or electricity in this building, so just take a torch and a bucket of water to flush it.”
Drinking back at Iguana. The Dutch guy who didn’t like me kept suggesting Cody was a maniac and would sodomise me. By this point I didn’t like the Dutch guy either, so I didn’t laugh at his jokes. He eventually copped off with one of the Dutch girls, and when they cleared off I sat with an Argentinian guy and a French guy until midnight. We talked about football and I pretended to know things. Then it was time to go to bed.
I walked back along the lake path with my torch on, up the craggy path, through the iron gate – Cody had left a solar lantern outside to help me find it – and into the vast, silent complex. I’d known for hours I was in for a weird night, and had got accordingly drunk to help shut up my jumpy mind. I passed the clumsy ginger kitten and went up the stairs to the terrace on the second level, and went into my room in the pitch black. I took my t-shirt and shorts off and lay on the mattress, using a bedsheet as a duvet. The room was so empty that my breathing seemed to echo. Out of the windows was blackness, and the space felt very dead and empty. It had been a long time since I’d slept in a room without a dozen other snoring souls.
I lay in bed and pondered my life choices, and downstairs I heard a couple of doors open and close and a few scraping sounds. I knew Cody was making his midnight snack but I was exhausted, so I closed my eyes and sure enough drunken sleep came quickly.
I woke up at 6am with sunlight pouring in, and through the once-black windows I could see green palms flopping back and forth in the breeze. As I lay on my back, feeling clever and adventurous at having found a night’s accommodation, I saw Cody’s fluffy head pass the window. He glanced in and saw me sitting up.
“Good morning!” he called. “You wanna make some breakfast?”
I joined him on the terrace and told him I slept well.
“How was your midnight snack?” I enquired.
“Huh?” said Cody. “I was waiting for you to come back but I fell asleep. I didn’t make any snacks in the end.”
I blinked at him.
“Oh,” I said. “I thought I heard somebody moving around downstairs.”
“I don’t know about that,” said Cody. “But did you try to wake me up when you got back? I heard somebody say ‘Cody’.”
I told him that no, I hadn’t called his name. And we both looked at each other for a long moment before Cody shrugged.
“I dunno man. Whatever.”
It was only when we’d cooked breakfast and were sitting in the kitchen with coffees that Cody mentioned, very casually, that before it was a hostel, the abandoned building I had spent the night in used to be an asylum.
“Yeah,” he told me, seeing my expression explode, “if you look at the piles of beds in some of the rooms you can see shackles for the feet and stuff.”
I swallowed my coffee with a stiff nod, and glanced around me as Cody washed the dishes.
“You know it’s funny man,” said Cody, sitting back down and taking his cup of coffee, “for years people who have seen my lifestyle have said ‘Cody man, you’re too crazy doing all this travelling stuff. You should be in a mental asylum man.’”
He looked at me over his mug.
“Well,” he grinned, “now I’m here!”
And we both barked a laugh – two very different laughs, that merged into one great yelp that ricocheted around the deepest corners of the silent building.
Why am I like this.