INCIDENTS OF My TRAVELS to
NEVER SEEKING ADVENTURE YET ADVENTURE FINDS ME
The Travel Companion
Rio Dulce Guatemala 2014
I am often asked, as is the case of at least once every hiking trail I have traveled lately, “What is that on your back?”
They are referring to a girth of a branch that hangs over my shoulder, secured in place by the straps of my backpack. “This is my hiking stick.” I would reply. The look on their faces tells me I need to explain further.
I proceed with the story of my finding it some years back in the Guatemalan jungle. Or, as I more aptly believe, it found me.
In the spring of 2014, I participated in a project with Engineers without Borders. The job was to install a solar panel array to power a pump that provided water to an indigenous children’s school in the eastern jungle of Guatemala. The majority of the students were Mayan and the school, called Ak’Tenamit, was ten miles inland from the Caribbean port town of Livingston. Their current use of a petrol pump required the students to carry five gallons of fuel into the jungle to keep the pump going. We intended of relieving them to the labor and cost of keeping the water flowing.
The project was entirely planned from Chicago offices donating space for our monthly meetings, materials donated, and shipped to the site. The local contingent assisted by clearing an area near the cenote site (a water spring in the jungle) of vegetation, brush, and trees. Once all was in place we few volunteers traveled to the site for the week’s activity of building and wiring the panels.
The experience was surreal. Heat and exhausting treks to and from the site was taxing. The children accompanying us mocked us by running circles around us. Back and forth, they teased as they limberly traversed the slick terrain. The final approach was to descent to the clearing along the rocky and muddy path.
One day, exhausted, I sat on the debris of fallen branches that made the clearing. . My lungs barely purchasing the hot humid air robbed of me by the long trek. I sat there observing the other younger volunteers as they busied themselves in construction. I was called for a wiring issue. I tried to stand but fell back onto the branches. More exhausted than I thought. Therefore, I reach down and pull on a thick branch, arched, and about a meter long. This remnant coffee tree branch, gooey marrow still soft, seemed appropriately strong enough to support my heft.
For the remainder of that stay, it became a crutch. I carried it everywhere. Used it to hang wire and other equipment I had to transport to the clearing when I was a beast of burden. A leaning post when I had no other option when resting. And best of all, I would wedge it in the soft part of the ground and hang my backpack on it to keep it away from invasive insects seeking the sweet snacks in it. Learning my lesson once multiple invading fire ants seeking the same sweet treat stung when I reached in an open pocket.
The branch may have saved my life at one point. I slipped on the slick rock on a decent. Reaching out with the stick in hand it wedged in the crook of a tree and I did not fall into the ravine. Of course, I may be romanticizing the experience. I am sure I would have reached out without the stick in hand. But…
The time came when our work was successfully completed and we prepared to depart. Without consideration, I chucked my friend into the brush behind our cabins, did not give it a thought as we traveled the day to Guatemala City, and boarded our flight back to Chicago.
Fall of 2014, asked to return with another group that was building bathrooms connected to an ABR (Anaerobic Baffled Reactor, a combination of septic tanks with a series of baffles that, over time, clean refuse to separate water fit for irrigation and the resulting ‘mud’ used as fertilizer). This time the demand was more for my translation skills than engineering. Happy to assist I took an additional vacation and joined the crew.
To my surprise, I found the branch where I have thrown it. It was light and I expected it to be washed away from the hill in one of the many rainfalls in my absence. Therefore, I carried it again. Instantly recognized with it. The children called me what sounded like ‘Kiarrick” in the native Quiché language. They would plump themselves up and pretend an imaginary cane to walk. Obviously mocking my thick frame. As they ran off laughing, I asked my translator what the word meant.
“Oh, um, it means…a big man with a stick.” He replied hesitantly in Spanish.
I took it to be a Sheriff Buford reference and I carried it proud any time I heard it called by the kids. Of course, later I find that this was a combination of two Quiché words. Jäq (verb) which stands for broken branch (or twig) and Rì’j (noun) the not so honorific ‘old man’. I now understand my translator’s hesitancy.
Still, I carry this name with honor; it is the name of my Mayan walking stick these days.
The time came for our departure. This time I carried the stick further uphill behind the cabins. Planted it upright in the ground for all to see, if they looked. A bit more worn and most of the bark peeled off it was apparent that it was out of place in all that fallen foliage. But I did not want it to wash away this time around.
I believed this would be the last time I would see it.
As luck would have it, I had an opportunity to return the spring of the following year to help finish the ABR project. Kiarrick patiently waited for me in the same place, fallen palm leaves draped over it but still sturdy in that ground.
More useful this time as my services were required in the extent of the campus. Calls for me at the well prompted a thirty-minute hike. Then recalled to the ABR resulted in a longer hike over a nearing hill. Exhausting, I now leaned on my stick as I translated between the EWB crew and the local carpentry talent.
One such occasion was that the mason was frustrated with the EWB engineer demanding that the concrete walls be nonporous. With local materials, this was near impossible and both were yelling at my translator and me to convey their opinions. The Mayan mason started explaining to me the impossibility and his solution, in Quiché. He kept at it, my translator not having the opportunity to translate. I stood there, leaning on my stick, nodding in understanding. The mason pauses, looking at me for a response. I give him an approving nod and he wanders off satisfied that he won this battle. Meanwhile, I tell the EWB member “Let’s see how his solution fares.”
Incredulous, the translator asked me “You understood all of that?”
“No,” I said shaking my head. “But he sounded so sure of himself I figured he knew what to do.”
It came time to leave this last time. The day came for us to pack and I found my stick missing. Disappointed I considered that someone coveted it thinking I was going to leave it anyway. They must have liked the way I wrapped the nylon cord around it, making it look like a snakeskin sheathe. However, as we said our goodbyes I found that the students took it to the local woodcarver to carve my birthdate in Mayan rune on the hilt.
Touched by the gesture, I hold this treasure near. I carry it on all my travels. It has been with me on trails from Guatemala to Canada. It will be with me when I finally run my planned Pilgrimage on the Road of Santiago de Compostela.
This particular date rune will not repeat in the Mayan calendar for another 3200 years. It is as unique as the felled coffee branch that chose its travel companion.
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About the Author
I have always ended up in unexpected places. So I present a collection of my tales told over the years. Places that due to circumstances I might never go on my own accord.