Tuna Sandwich

Aloe Driscoll

Since the swell was forecast to be meager for another week, I decided to head to Guatemala for something different. Though there is surf in Guatemala, I hadn’t heard about any standout waves. I had, however, heard about volcanoes, colonial towns, mountain lakes, and Mayan ruins. Excited to do some hiking and let my poor ravaged lips heal from all that time in the water and sun, I set off. Casey dropped me off at a bus stop outside of El Tunco, and I proceeded to wait. With a long trip ahead of me, I knew I needed something to eat, and the only food in sight was a roadside stand selling tortas, or sandwiches for $1. The vendor told me that the meat was res, or beef, but as she pulled a mottled gray strip of meat off of a stack, I had serious concerns that it might come with a side of diarrhea. Lacking other options, I choked it down, and surprisingly, I survived. Ultimately, it was a tuna sandwich that set me off.

As the bus cruised into Guatemala, the description that came to mind was Emerald Country. The lush rolling hills and majestic volcanoes contain every shade of jade, emerald, and turquoise, depths of color beyond imagination. It is a jeweled green that manipulates light like a prism, reflecting the full spectrum of the color, an entire rainbow of green.

When I arrived in Antigua, I found A Place to Stay, the aptly named hostel filled with clean, well fed cats and a large, free roaming yellow rabbit. The walls were decorated with funky artwork and scenes from Alice in Wonderland, a sign pointing Down the Rabbit Hole. The owner, Raoul, was a large, gentle man, beloved by the animals, who yowled for his attention. He welcomed me sincerely, and set me up in a dormitory with two girls from Chile, both named Natalia.

The next morning, one of the Natalias wasn’t feeling well, so the other Natalia asked if I would like to go for a walk around the city. We hiked up to Cerro de la Cruz, where we were treated to stunning views of Volcano Agua, and walked through the cobblestone streets of Antigua, admiring colonial statues, antiquated architecture, and Guatemalans wearing colorful traje, or traditional clothing, woven by hand with intricate detail. We visited the museum at the site of the Santo Domingo Monastery, which contained exquisite relics dating as far back as 600 AD. A mix of Mayan and Spanish artifacts, we saw everything from 16th century sepulchers and candelabras used in church ceremonies, to 6th century funeral urns shaped from stone, to carved Mayan jade.

After a few hours of sightseeing, I started to get hungry, which brings me back to that fateful tuna sandwich. The store seemed inviting enough. It offered smoothies, organic nuts, 100% cacao, dried fruit with no sugar added. I had not seen such things in months, and naively trusted this clever front of sophistication and health. The cashier asked me if I wanted my tuna sandwich on whole grain bread. Oh yes.

Next, Natalia and I went to the market to stock up on food. Spanning several blocks, the massive, open air market contained hundreds of vendors selling every kind of fruit and vegetable imaginable, as well as a host of other goods and souvenirs. After about half an hour, I started feeling dizzy and sick to my stomach, so I excused myself and headed back to the hostel. I could feel the tuna sandwich sitting in the back of my throat, my stomach refusing to digest it. What was I thinking? They probably made the tuna salad weeks ago with an old half used bag of mayonnaise. How long did it sit in inadequate refrigeration before it was served up on my plate? Probably a long time, as everyone else is smart enough not to order such a thing in Guatemala.

I showered and lay down in my bed naked, covered by just a sheet, feverish and panting. All afternoon, I writhed and twisted in my uncomfortable bed, which was really just a piece of wood with a thin, worn cotton pad for a mattress. It was like trying to sleep on a sidewalk. I drifted between nightmares and wakeful misery, the dull knot of unbearable discomfort in my stomach punctuated by sharp stabs of an even worse pain. I could feel the bile rising in my throat.

Generally, at the first sight of food poisoning, it’s easiest to purge, make it all go away. But for almost a month, my lips had been terribly sunburned. The thought of throwing up made me want to cry.

Unable to bear my rock of a bed and the cloying, garlic smell of the cluttered dorm, I wrapped myself in a blanket and spent the rest of the night in a hammock outside. The high country of Guatemala is not warm, and by morning I was chilled and shivering. That’s when Raoul found me. I explained to him about the tuna sandwich. He led me into one of the private rooms and told me to lie down on the bed. It had a proper mattress, and it was soft. Thank God.

Raoul produced a bottle of oil and told me to expose my stomach. I protested weakly that I wasn’t wearing any clothes. He told me that he could help me, but I needed to trust him. I thought about how he was with the animals. He meant well.

Moving aside the blanket, I bared a small patch of stomach, and he rubbed oil in vigorous circles, kneading at the lump of pain. I winced, drawing breath in painful gasps. Feeling my hands and feet, he exclaimed at how cold they were, and began to move the blanket aside so that he could massage my legs. I squirmed in protest. “You need to trust me,” Raoul repeated. I gave in. Off came the blanket, and I was laid out naked before this giant of a man who was old enough to be my father. In truth, I was too tired and sick to care. He worked over my stomach, legs, hands, and feet, squeezing pressure points that he said would activate my system. Strangely, I didn’t feel at all threatened, just vulnerable, and within that, relief at being cared for when I am so used to taking care of myself.

Raoul spread the sheet and blanket back over me. Still shivering, I wanted to curl up, but he told me I needed to lie flat in order to let the blood flow. I slipped into a deep sleep, and awoke sometime later to a knock on my door. Raoul was back, and he had a cup full of white pasty liquid which he said was a Guatemalan remedy for digestion. I drank it down with some effort. Next, he produced a cup of strong tea, a mix of herbs that he said would clean my system. After a few sips, I pushed the cup aside, but Raoul insisted I drink the whole thing. Grimacing, I choked it down. And then, I slept – a sweet, restful, regenerative sleep – like a baby in a womb.

Eventually, Raoul returned with more tea, and he said I looked better, that the pale white pallor of my skin had been replaced by the rosy color of health. Indeed, I felt better. My hands and feet were warm and there was a thin film of sweat on my skin under the blanket. Even my stomach felt better. I was still a little nauseous, but the hard, twisted knot of pain had loosened.

Time was a vortex in that room. Day turned into night as I slept and slept, obediently drinking tea that Raoul brought every few hours. One morning, I felt well enough to shower and put on some clothes, though still slow and unsteady on my feet. I thanked Raoul profusely for nursing me with such care. “Con mucho gusto Aloe,” he said, “My pleasure.”

I checked the swell report; waves were on the way. It was time to plan my dash to Mexico. Too bad I never got to climb that volcano, I thought. Just then, a group of travelers walked in and sat down on an adjacent couch. They were leaving to climb Pacaya Volcano in 5 minutes. Yes, there was room on the tour for me to join. I was still weak, but the hike sounded moderate, and since I am generally in great shape, I decided to go for it.

An active volcano, Pacaya last erupted in 2010, and contains a lava field with smoking pockets of heat where you can actually roast marshmallows. I marvelled at the perfect dollop of clouds at its cone, and then noticed that it was actually smoke coming out of the top. The views are spectacular. From an adjacent plateau, one can see Guatemala City, the Lagoon of Calderas, as well as Agua, Fuego and Acatenango Volcanoes.

After the hike, I made arrangements with Raoul to get picked up by a shuttle the following morning, and thanked him again for taking care of me. We had a nice talk about his ethnic background (Spanish, but his family has lived in Guatemala for 200 years) and he showed me a special piece of beautifully carved Mayan Princess Jade which was found on his family’s property, and which he said probably dates back to before Christ.

I experienced many beautiful things, in Guatemala, but my connection with Raoul was the most precious. Traveling can get tiring. Planning, moving, carrying bags, finding food, finding clean water, bargaining – basic things like these can become burdening tasks. And if you’re hurt, or sick, you can’t call on friends or family to come help you. Sometimes all you have is yourself. And anyone kind enough to help if you ask.

I’ve always been independent. But there’s something unbelievably sweet about allowing myself to be dependent, to trust someone, place myself in their hands. It’s nice sometimes to be a child again, to be cared for and nurtured, to just lay down and rest.

One thought on “Tuna Sandwich

  • Posted on June 21, 2015 at 5:55 pm

    Glad ur feeling better.Remember, the more edges yur food has the more apt it is to go bad.i.e. salads, etc. best to stick to meat, cheese, etc. Best is hot dogs or sausage in a casing. I learned that in Girl Scouts. Live for your blogs I love u sooo much. Nana


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