Guatemala | Swab

I left Palenque on the 7th of November and took a shuttle bus to the Guatemalan border. The bus’s suspension was bollocksed, so every little dint in the road was translated into a monstrous metallic shutter that jangled my poor bum bones to dust.

The border crossing was an affair to which I am well accustomed after two months traversing Mexico: searing heat, tarmac, machine guns, black uniforms, paperwork and heavy rubber stamps. My papers were all in order, thank goodness, and I made it through without incident.

The Guatemalan landscape was lush; the warm afternoon sunshine gifted friendly hues to the fields and forests and to the strange half-oval hills on the horizon. An hour before the end of our journey, our driver slowed the minivan to a crawl.

“Amigos! Look! Amigos!” he cried.

We’d pulled up alongside what looked like a farmyard pen. Sleepy, I glanced out of the window and saw two dark pigs eating from a trough. There were weird looking pigs, though. In fact-

“SHIT,” I exclaimed, startling the snoozing passengers around me. “HIPPOS?”

Yes, hippos: two fat purple baby hippos, eating watermelon chunks from a trough by the roadside. Beyond them was a gigantic camel with two humps and two blue peacocks wandering around. No idea what the establishment was; didn’t look like a zoo. I stared at the hippos, laughing in delight.

The girl sitting across from me nudged her partner awake to see the animals, herself visibly giddy. Her partner, a middle-aged guy with greying hair, opened his eyes and looked at the hippos for two seconds, then went ‘bah’ and went back to sleep. I thought about that for an hour after: what kind of life must you lead to be able to look at two baby hippos by the side of the road in rural Guatemala and be like ‘the blackness of my inner eyelids holds more interest for me’??? Who the hell can be offered – for free – an unanticipated glimpse of one of the most deadly and endangered animals on the planet, and simply turn away without a syllable uttered?! I’ll tell you who: Nazis.

Unless the man’s dear best friend was mauled to death by a rogue hippo in the recent past, in which case his aversion to the tusky fatsos would be, I suppose, warranted.


The bus dropped us off in Flores an hour later. Flores is a little island on a lake in north Guatemala. There’s a town on the mainland too, called Santa Elena, but tourists don’t really stay here. They stay on the island, because it’s pretty.

The bus drove away and left me standing with my bags, not knowing where the hell to go – a feeling I am familiar with after all these years, but one that, no matter how many times I experience it, always leaves me a little dizzy. The island, connected to the mainland by a long bridge, is no more than 300 metres across. It’s composed of a dozen cobbled streets lined with colourful houses, cafes, galleries and restaurants; it’s very touristic, yes, but it’s also very relaxed and very, very pretty.

My accommodation was on the other side of the lake, and the only way to get there was to either take a 2-minute boat or drive around the lake for an hour. Only problem was: no boats anywhere. It took me an hour of trudging around and gesticulating in bad Spanish to find a boat man to take me; it might have been a smidge easier had I known the word for ‘lake’ or ‘boat’ or ‘across’ or even ‘go’ in Spanish.

My hostel was a giant building, lavish with terraces and climbing flower vines and its own jetty. The place was owned by an excitable extended family who spoke not one word of English. I couldn’t quite figure out who was who in the family; there appeared to be two portly infants, a teenage daughter who never looked up from her phone, three sons with good haircuts, a harried and stern mother, a cocktail-sipping auntie, and a bejewelled grandfather who made the occasional guest appearance.

I lay on my bunk and pondered what the hell I would spend the next few days doing. Any insight into my immediate vicinity had expired on leaving Palenque; I knew nothing about Guatemala. There was one item on my to-do list, however.

The week before, quite out of the blue, I received an email of a disheartening nature. It was one of those anonymous, automated emails you get sent from clinics, informing you that you may have been exposed to a sexually transmitted infection; essentially, that somebody else had tested positive and then given your name to the doctor as a previous partner. Now, I didn’t see any possible way that could be the case: I haven’t exactly been shagging about this year. I’m two rungs above a monk. However, the email freaked me out, so I decided to do the sensible thing and seek out a clinic.

It was my first proper morning in Flores; I spent the previous evening reading on the jetty and went to bed early. I lay in my bunk as the sun rose in the sky, researching ‘sexual health clinics flores guatemala’: not something you expect to find yourself googling. There appeared to be a place on the mainland, so I saved it in the map on my phone, drank a coffee, took a shower, hailed a local boatman and sailed away across the lake in search of a knob doctor.

The boat dropped me on Flores island, and although I was quite sure there was no doctor on the island, I decided to ask, just in case. I approached a woman leaning on the counter of a street-facing laundromat.

“Buenas dias,” I began. “Me puede ayudar por favor?” Can you help me please?

“Si,” said the woman, smiling.

“Necesito un laboratoria.” I need a clinic.

The woman gazed at me a moment while she deciphered my accent. When the sentence registered, she frowned and looked over her shoulder at the laundromat behind her.

“Lavanderia?” she questioned. Laundromat?

“No. Laboratoria, por favor.”

Her bemusement was understandable; nobody in the history of the world has ever wandered into a laundromat and asked for directions to the nearest sexual health clinic. With an ‘okaaaaay?’ eyebrow raise, she pointed me in the direction of the mainland. I said thank you and hurried away.


I hiked across the bridge, passing a group of workmen lifting heavy rocks onto a flatbed in the sun. I smiled at them placidly as I passed, and soon after I arrived at Santa Elena. It was an unpleasant walk in the bright morning heat, and I noted with interest how the touristic aspect of Flores vanished immediately after crossing the bridge. The flower-clung cafes and restaurants of the island were replaced by spartan cantinas with plastic chairs and sizzling meat, and streetside stalls selling tourist tat were replaced by more practical stands: bananas, shoes, cigarettes.

The clinic I’d saved in my phone was a mile away, but I passed a sign for a ‘laboratoria’ after only five minutes, so decided to try this one instead; sandwiched between a motorcycle shop and a money-lender, it looked about as reputable I dared hope for. Back at the hostel I’d pre-translated the issue on my phone: please can you test me for sexual diseases because maybe I have one. The man on the counter read my phone with a solemn expression, then handed it back to me. He wrote the prices down for each STI test on a piece of paper – five quid for syphilis, five quid for HIV, a tenner for chlamydia, a tenner for gonorrhea. Results within one hour.

Thirty simoleons, all in, for peace of mind. I nodded and drew my bank card from my wallet like a sword from its scabbard, upon which he told me: no. Cash only.

“Okay. Dos minutos,” I sighed.

I’d seen an ATM down the road; no big deal. I dodged a couple of trucks and motorcycles to cross the road, slotted my card into the machine, then bopped in my PIN. A minute later, the screen flashed: insufficient funds.

Well, shit. I ought to have had the money; I’d transferred some only yesterday. I made my way down the road to a second ATM: same story. After a third ATM proved fruitless, I decided it wasn’t a machine error – I simply had no money on my card. I needed wifi to swap some funds over.

On Flores, finding wifi would have been very simple: tourists love wifi. Local people, however, are less arsed. I walked along the street, hopping side to side to avoid motorbikes and child-toting mothers and men wielding bushels of coriander. There was no sign of any establishment that might share their wifi password; after twenty minutes the best I could do was a Domino’s. With a resigned groan, I went inside and asked for the cheapest thing on the menu.

The cheapest thing on the menu, it turns out, was a ‘meat feast’ pizza that could feed a family of eight – and it was barely 11am. With the greasy mass glistening on the table in front of me, I entered the wifi password I’d been given by the cashier. I transferred thirty quid onto my bank card, and then, gloomily, force-fed myself a stupid fucking beef bonanza breakfast pizza so I could go and get my knob examined to find out if I had a disease or not.


I slid 300 quetzals beneath the transparent plastic screen in the clinic. Within five minutes my name was called, and I stepped through into the doctor’s office. At first I didn’t realise the middle-aged man standing before me was the doctor; he was dressed in jeans and a polo shirt.

“Lo siento,” I began, “perro mi espanol esta mal.” Sorry, but my Spanish is bad.

He smiled and gestured for me to sit down.

“My English very bad too,” he apologised, toothily.

I laughed and told him he definitely didn’t need to say sorry. Then he asked me a few quick questions about my predicament, and in return I asked him what the test would consist of. It changes place to place; in the UK, for example, STI tests are something you can do yourself at home – you just wee in a little vial thing, nice and easy.


“For syphilis and HIV, is a blood test. For the others, is this,” said the doctor, holding up a sodding spear: a thin cotton swab half a foot long.

I let out an involuntary wheeze. The doctor looked at me and raised his eyebrows, laughing.

“Fucking hell,” I groaned, and the doctor chuckled all the more. I’ve had the swab years ago, in Berlin; it goes somewhere no physical object should ever, ever be inserted. “Which test first?” I asked.

In response the doctor held up the swab, with a solemn expression. I swooned, and he cracked into a grin.

“No es facil,” I croaked. It’s not easy.

“No, no,” laughed the doctor.

I dropped my trousers and the doc closed one eye and took aim. He said something about taking a deep breath, but I didn’t hear because at that moment he penetrated my knob end and I went ‘HOOOWAAAAHHHH’.

I collapsed into a chair when it was done, laughing in delirium. The doctor packed away the swab, making small talk.

“How many days you stay in Guatemala?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I murmured. “This is my first day.”

In the silence that followed, our eyes met.

“Is your first day in Guatemala?” asked the doctor, lowering the needle he was about to stab into my forearm.

“Yes,” I sighed. “Loving it so far.”

We both wheezed with laughter.


It was one hour for the results; I went to a bar and had a couple of beers to pass the time. I went back to the clinic a little merry, and was handed a piece of paper with my results on. Three of the tests said ‘negativo’, which is pretty understandable. The other one, however, said ‘cero’, or zero in English. That sounded good, but I wanted to be certain. To check, I endeavoured to ask one of the receptionists standing by the counter to translate for me.

I said hello and showed her the paper and said, in Spanish, ‘help me’. She read the page in my hand, looked at me as if I was insane, then hurried away. Turns out she didn’t work there.

Never mind, I translated them myself when I got home: all clear!!!

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