Friday, October 05, 2007

Stoic Irony in Guatemala

The question of where my family would go in the summer of '07 was answered by an invitation from a fellow high school debate coach to her August wedding in Guatemala. Post Gonzales-Gate terror alerts notwithstanding, we made the travel arrangements.

Part of the preparation for me was formation of focus questions, as we say in the teacher biz. Since the trip included a bus tour- with the wedding party- of the country’s Mayan past, my question became: “What can I learn from contemplating a vanished civilization?” and its companion, “Can I glean clues from my travels as to the likelihood that my ‘civilization’ may be vanishing?” I collected literature on the Mayan past and learned from my readings that the Maya were a highly clever people who were able to develop a surplus out of the meager Mesoamerican soil. The surplus led to a stratified society, with a leisure class. As in all leisure classes, high priests evolved who codified and formalized a system of belief around a core myth. For the Mayans, the core myth was that the gods created the world and people by committing suicide, for people consume the gods in the form of maize. This debt to the gods must be repaid with varying levels of sacrifice. When the debt is deemed in severe arrears, a human sacrifice might be in order. Candidates for sacrifice were culled from the nobility ( a practice we have clearly abandoned). In cases of more quotidian debt, the high priest could make lesser offerings, for instance he might stand on the summit of the ziggurat and cut his penis, letting blood drip onto a piece of bark. The blood was then cooked over a wood fire, generating an energizing smoke for the languishing gods.

Lest anyone jump ahead and conjecture that Mayan “civilization” vanished because it was abhorrent or oppressive, keep in mind that at the time of its pre-Columbian demise, around 900 AD, it had run many hundreds of years longer than any of the present western “civilizations.”

A note: I have put the words “civilized” and “civilization” in quotes throughout this essay. Although a working definition of “civilized” is easy enough to come by (my own is: “A civilized society is one in which people are kept from killing each other to the extent that a leisure class can be sustained”), the word has a positive connotation that has never, to my knowledge, been adequately explained.

So the departure day arrived, and I made my first mistake. I had been on cold-turkey withdrawal from the newspaper horoscope section-almost two weeks!- my fortitude maintained by a deep embarrassment that I could be manipulated by so obvious a scam, when as we were heading out the door I saw the paper open to the horoscopes (Susan does the crossword puzzle cunningly tucked into the same section), and I weakened and took a peek: “Not a good day for an outward journey. Take an inner trip instead.” I slapped my head, “Doh!”, Homer Simpson style. Rationalizing quickly, I reminded myself that the Mayans were obsessed with time, as measured by their complex, double-wheeled calendar. Each day had its own gods and purposes, which the priests could interpret for the people. Surely this was a grand precedent for our watered down divinations.

As it happened, the horoscope did not seem far off. Our American Airlines flight to Dallas, for a connecting flight to Guatemala City, was delayed for three and a half hours. We missed the connecting flight and spent a night in the Dallas Ramada Inn, where, at 5:00am, I encountered a hung-over young man in the internet room resting his forehead against a wall. The point of the airline experience is that, just as there is speculation that the Mayan priestly class could not fend off hypothetical ills of Mayan life, so the longevity of our “civilization” might be forecast by gauging slips in what we call “service.” Specifically, in this case, service to the middle class. It doesn’t matter which airline we used; stories from other travelers illustrated a problem across all carriers: If your flight has no trouble, the service is excellent; if there is a problem, you might as well not exist. I refer not to the flight’s being late (that was caused by weather) but to the void in communication and assistance that ensued. The fault lies not with people in the field. The exhausted airline employee who faced us and about 80 other passengers, none of whom had any idea what to do or where to go, was knowledgeable and hard working. The problem lay with her bosses in the priestly class, the CEO’s, who left her, and us, hanging over a pit of uncertainty for many hours until we could sort things out for ourselves. Of course, given the big picture of global misery, one doesn’t want to whine too much because one’s trip to Guatemala is delayed, but trends are important, and decline in service to the middle class is not a good trend.

Through perseverance, then, we arrived at Guatemala City Airport in late afternoon of our second day, to the sight of hundreds of grim faced young men decked out in battle fatigues with automatic weapons at the ready. They were stationed everywhere around the airport, but an especially grim detachment greeted us at customs. Clearly anyone who screamed, “I’m a terrorist and I’ve got a bomb” would be shot on the spot. We remained dutifully silent, covertly doing what we could against the indigenous sport of cutting in line, proffering our papers and flirting with friendly custom agents where possible, and soon we found ourselves in the chaotic baggage claim area.

A quick negotiation got us a cab for the 40 kilometer trip to Antigua, the site of our friend’s wedding. The cab trip brought us immediate exposure to Guatemala’s upcoming national elections. Everywhere in the noisy urban sprawl of Guatemala City, and even in the beautiful mountain pass leading to Antigua, were campaign posters. All the exhibited candidates were male, ranging from twenty-something to middle aged, and all were smiling as with some delightful secret. The messages were not revealing of intention. The image of a man named Colom grinned over the caption,“Viva Guatemala!” Victor Hugo’s proclaimed, “Puede!" while former General Molina held out a stern "mano dura" which promised order of some sort. We picked a poster at random and asked the driver if he liked the guy; he laughed and said, “No.”

The final winner in the runoff three months later, by the way, was Colom, popular in rural areas. He beat Molina, popular in the crime weary cities, which wanted his "hard hand." People in the provinces feared the hard hand would be a return to military rule. Colom in turn had to fight charges that a study he made of Mayan religious rites showed he was an agent of the devil. That had apparently played well in the cities. By the end of the election process, there had been 50 election related killings. The devil vs. the devil?

Western children learn that the Greek’s invented democracy. But is this what they invented, a flash of handsome face and a sound bite, a moment of choice, then life goes on? It was hard to see any outward differences between the Guatemalan democracy and ours, other than the death count. In either case, it’s a match of pretty faces shouting, “Puede!” Were there any clues to our future health in this system? Maybe we can go on indefinitely with “democracy.” We can only hope.

The first sight of Antigua, the old Spanish capitol, made the hours of aggravation worthwhile. Guatemala has 30 volcanoes, and three very large and looming ones tightly surround Antigua. At intervals they smoke like chimneys, and every few hundred years they provoke intense earthquakes and lava flows, wiping out the contemporary incarnation of Antigua. The pastels of the low buildings, the majestic and crumbling cathedrals, the scarlet sunset behind the volcanic cones: if this is “civilization,” play on!

We were brought sharply out of our reveries by a sudden halt to the bumpy drive over cobbled streets. At every turn that could have led us to the front entrance of the Hotel Santo Domingo, the ritziest hotel in the country and site of the wedding, we were blocked by armed soldiers, seeming extensions of those in the airport. Our driver haggled with them to no avail, and finally we were told to take our luggage and walk a block up a narrow ally to a side entrance. As we trudged past the soldiers, we encountered no smiles; they assiduously did not look at us. I noticed their fingers rested on their triggers. Ethnically they appeared Mayan, but I was told later the army is mostly mestizo. At the hotel entrance, men in black suits talked incessantly into headsets, looking nervously everywhere except into our eyes. At all times during our three day stay at the hotel, the soldiers and men in black were there. The initial explanation offered by the concierge was that there was an international agricultural conference at the hotel. It was not until the day of our departure that we learned that one of the guests was the vice president of Colombia, although nowhere in the country did we see signs of a seething hatred for this man, or even knowledge that he existed. Several shops near the hotel featured photos of Bill Clinton sampling their wares during a trip in the 90’s, no doubt protected, if that's the word, by the same sort of force.

Is it because the place is beautiful that it draws such rage? I wondered if there were lessons for all civilization in the grim state of today's world leaders' personal security. Constant encirclement by armed troops seems more a captivity for leaders than protection, almost making them appear candidates for sacrifice. Modern “elections” may be a ritualized sacrifice, in which we decide, not so much who the new leaders will be, but whom we get rid of. If the U.S. polity is smart, the next presidential election will feature a Republican candidate closely associated with Bush, so that the electorate can experience his sacrifice. The victorious Democrat, a smiling face shouting “Puede!” will represent, simply, the new future sacrifice. [Post script, 3/12/14: Obama turned out to be the victor after Romney was sacrificed. Now, for all his sins, we'll have to sacrifice Obama to the new "Puede!"

Anyway, to be fair, there’s another aspect to Guatemala’s generous use of its army. The country is still recovering from its 36 year civil war, which ended only in 1996. These threatening soldiers with their automatic weapons may or may not face real enemies now, but they face real psychological stresses. The memory of bloodshed lingers with or without an enemy. The ubiquitous troops, found as well in jewelry shops and pharmacies, may be this society’s way of absorbing post traumatic stress syndrome.

Meanwhile, we quickly discovered that the Hotel Santo Domingo is one of the great hotels of the world. It is built among the ruins of a 17th Century monastery. Baroque chamber music plays softly in the long halls and in the ruins. The reconstructed church conducts mass on Sunday. There are niches by the door of each guest room where stand 16th and 17th century Spanish carvings.

The wedding ceremony was held in the chapel, much of whose walls are from the original four hundred year old structure. The new walls are beautifully integrated with the old. It’s hard not to believe that a wonderful hotel like this would not prolong the life of the “civilization” that produced it.

Every culture needs to produce something beautiful, or at least impressive, to look at, if only a hundred foot statue of its leader. Guatemala might subsist indefinitely on its beauty alone.

The several hotel museums are wonderfully arranged, with compelling exhibits, though sometimes the English captions seemed to either lose, or gain in the translation. My favorite was the caption below a mural of ancient Mayans toiling to build a temple: “The Mayan gods were benevolent if offered human sacrifices.” Doh!

The wedding ceremony was conducted by an attorney friend of the bride’s family. She created an amalgam of Jewish, Catholic and New Age sentiment for the occasion. At the end of the ceremony, she explained that the groom, a Guatemalan, would perform the Jewish ritual of stepping on the wine glass (the bride was Jewish), after which, she said, we could choose to shout “Mazaltov!” “Felicidad!” or “Congratulations!” My colleague Cheryl, back home, had an epiphany after reading Strindberg’s “A Dream Play,” the message of which was that the most productive type of spirituality is “hybridity,” where the seeker “wishes to pick and choose idols of worship and beliefs to espouse without the stale, enduring, bland template decreed by an official institution.” It sounds like an evolutionary, flexible approach. Yet which lasts longer, rigid theocracies with armed guards, or intellectual, hybridistic societies? (Of course this question begs another: Is the best society that which lasts longest?).

Antigua is a wonderful place to walk, though you have to walk carefully (the sidewalks are as uneven as the cobbled streets). On one stroll through the central plaza I came upon a bookstore with outrageously priced paperbacks in English (average price: $60-$70). The books were encased in cellophane so I couldn’t browse them for free, but the book jackets were intriguing enough. Most were about the U.S., specifically CIA complicity in the horrors endured by Guatemala. There was much about United Fruit and the coffee business. The picture was of an indigenous people brutally enslaved by American business interests, with puppet governments ensconced or removed by the CIA. Not for the first time I searched my inner self for guilt or lack thereof. None of my ancestors owned slaves, or shares of United Fruit, yet I live, and eat fruit, where Native Americans were wiped out; I benefit from an economy held afloat by military expenditures. Where is this guilt supposed to lead? If people are to be subjected to guilt, then there’s no end to the fallout, because guilt envelops everyone, the ostensibly downtrodden too. Can a society collapse from guilt, like Hamlet’s stepfather? Did guilt weaken the rulers of the classic Maya?

Another book brought me out of my dour meditations. It was by an American who claims to have discovered that the Mayan accounting of time was based on the real thing, which he called “synchronistic time,” while ours, based on the Gregorian calendar, is fake. Further, the events of 9/11 created a rupture in our fake time, a sort of opening into Mayan real time, and this is a moment of opportunity, which we must not miss (price of book: $65). This, I felt, was not so much hybridization as wishful thinking. That doesn’t make it wrong, just overpriced.

Moving on I found a box of old American paperbacks, reasonably priced for the relics they were. I spent $2 for a 1970 science fiction anthology, edited by Robert Silverberg, called “World’s of Maybe,” featuring stories about alternate universes. The first story, “Sidewise in Time,” by Murray Leinster, first published in 1935, was about a “timequake” that hits the earth. The quake causes various time periods to violate their natural borders, so that a Roman phalanx finds itself marching down the street in a 20th century American suburb, etc. This seemed the perfect reading material for Guatemala, which is itself the product of merging realities, the converging point of five tectonic plates, its volcanoes connecting heaven and earth, all in a temporal stew where Mayan (synchronistic?) time merges with colonial and current time.

The moral, though, for our purposes, is that a society with cheaply priced goods is more likely to survive. The delight I found in my $2 book erased all the guilt of my former reverie. When cell phones and airline tickets are too expensive for the middle class, you can start counting the days.

The day after the wedding we boarded a chartered bus with the wedding party for a tour of Guatemala. We were 31 people in what amounted to a group-honeymoon, a charming and, we felt, practical idea (no room for fights between the newlyweds, no longing for the family). The first stop was Quirigua, where a king from the north conquered the area, killed the former king and his family and commissioned large stelae to proclaim his greatness. Nearby was a ballcourt for the famous game of “fireball” in which a solid ball of burning rubber had to be hurled through hoops, soccer-like without use of arms, with the loser sacrificed to the gods. Mayan society was certainly not utopian, in the sense of “good,” though it was arguably “good” in the sense of “long lived” (almost 1,000 years). On the other hand, as the apotheosis of macho culture, it would only be called "good" by those well-treated. Be this as it may, a question appears: is classical Mayan culture gone because of a deficit in its governance, or because it’s, well, gone, as all "civilizations" are sooner or later gone? Will we be gone because we’re making mistakes, or because everything is sooner or later gone? I searched Quirigua vainly for answers (the gloom only partially lifted by our calling out “Stellaaaa….!” Tennessee Williams style).

The next two nights were spent on the River Dulce in steamy little jungle cabins, the first night especially steamy because our air conditioning unit broke. Tropical downpours alleviated the heat and humidity at intervals, but most of the night was spent in frantic claustrophobia, particularly acute for our two boys in the next cabin, who were forced to combine a sudden absence of transmitted communication of any kind with being trapped in a jungle. My wife and I at least had a white gecko on the ceiling to stare at. The saving grace was a dream I had in the early morning, engendered, so I thought, by the heat. This dream seemed in the form of a docudrama showing that Hitler had come to Hollywood in the 20’s, for unknown reasons. I watched as he fell into a scuffle with local toughs around Highland and Hollywood Blvds. It could be that a culture can be saved by its dreams (I vehemently reject recent revisionist “research,” funded by pharmaceutical companies in their quest to make psychology an affair of drugs, which claims to show that dreams are meaningless trash, which the mind must dispose of. Trash, maybe-meaningless, no.), but this dream got me nowhere.

In between the two nights on the River Dulce we took a boat to Livingston, on the Caribbean. On the way we stopped at an island riddled with caves. A local man led us about 40 feet into one narrow passage that opened up into a small cavern. He flashed his light and we could see other passages leading off into darkness. He mentioned the Maya coming here, and I could feel the sweat dripping down my body, and I thought I might feel the closeness of forces watching, waiting, very patient. Were these forces human? Was my sense wishful thinking, the most disheartening of all possibilities? Actually, I felt no force, just the suggestion of how likely a place this would be to find a force. Still, places with perceived “forces” are necessary for a culture, are they not? What would we do in the San Fernando Valley, a place devoid of obvious “forces” (unless you count the 5,000 year old Chumash well, commemorated with an iron grate in the parking lot of the Pick ‘n Save in Encino) without the nearby Santa Monica Mountains, beautiful beyond words where extant.

Livingston, accessible only by boat, is home to descendants of black slaves shipwrecked off the coast, many of whom intermarried with Amerindians. They speak a language called Garifuna, a mixture of African and Amerindian languages. The groups of black teenagers we saw were very attractive, but not outwardly friendly. In a few cases we heard muted conversation as we passed and then raucous laughter from behind. We spent a hot afternoon there amongst lovely pastel colored plaster houses and quiet streams, covered everywhere with junk and debris. Our boys left us to swim at the beach. We strolled about and I noticed that for the first time on our trip there was an election poster for a female candidate: the indigenous activist Rigoberta Menchu. We surmised that Livingston was a restive place. While wandering, I opened the Triple A book and read that Livingston is full of dangers: thieves everywhere, with armed robbery common on the beach, and the sea contaminated with “jungle runoff” and unsafe for swimming. It was then I realized that in spite of the heat and the incredibly beautiful beach, we had not seen a single person, other than our boys, in the water, or even on the sand, and we had passed families of pigs wandering untended down the residential streets, over gutters that no doubt fed into the sea. I rushed back to find the boys about 100 feet out in the shallow sea, very happy and reluctant to come ashore. When they finally rambled out I gave them the sober news, which they found unimpressive. “What a cool beach,” they agreed. For several weeks I watched for signs of cholera, malaria, salmonella, anything, in the boys, but nothing appeared. Surely it’s a sign of a culture’s probable decline when its most valuable assets cannot be used. And yet, the people in Livingston seemed happy, and we heard no reports of people leaving.

On then, the next morning, to the big prize, Tikal. But just as Dorothy and her friends had to pay a heavy price to enter the Palace of the Wizard, visitors to Tikal are referred to a nasty little town called Flores, full of natural beauty it does its best to annihilate. A small island in Lake Peten Itza, with a short bridge attaching it to land, Flores receives its manna from visitors to Tikal. Shopkeepers look at you with a sharp eye and sly smile and say “Tikal?” as if to say, “You idiot.” With the exception of the wonderful Luna CafĂ©, which has soulful food and plays beautiful Latin music, the restaurants are indifferent to the finer points of cooking, and of hygiene (bathrooms offer a common hand towel for customers). There is a general worship of noise for its own sake: at 5:00a.m. a boy riding sidesaddle on a motor scooter behind his mother repeatedly screams that he has the new La Prensa; cars speed about through the day blasting election propaganda; even the gas company truck sports speakers that blare some sort of gas related news. Still, there were many kind and charming people in Flores, and the invasive natural world often brings relief. Case in point, we had our first lunch on a floating platform (reached from the restaurant over a trackless construction zone) that bobbed gently on the lake. I spotted a storm to the south, and within minutes a mighty gale with horizontal rain was blasting through the unprotected platform, washing our tables clean and drenching us, as the smiling waiters wrapped up what food they could. It was pure magic, and on its own came close to redeeming Flores.

We assembled at 6:00am for the trip to Tikal. The early start was necessary to avoid the worst heat. The delightful Professor Merritt, of the Rhetoric Dept. (don’t ask) at UC Berkeley, long time friend of the bride’s father, and his witty wife Karen, sat across the aisle from us on the bus, and the professor told us the story of his sister’s childhood. She had the habit, as a young, headstrong girl, of tearing out each page of a book as she finished reading it, crumpling it up in one hand and tossing it in the trash. Often she would sit at the front of her class and offer the teacher an unrestricted view of this procedure. Not surprisingly, she was kicked out of a number of schools. What struck me was the Zen nature of her act. She was living entirely in the now. When a page was done, it was, well, done. How much more enlightened can you get?

To keep from becoming gloomy at the thought of how impractical enlightenment can be, I switched my attention to the current National Geographic, which I had bought at LAX because, coincidentally, its feature story was, “MAYA, How a Great Culture Rose and Fell,” with a photo of Tikal’s Temple of the Great Jaguar, lit up at night, on the cover. Much of the information was familiar: the temples were built during the classic period, around 600 to 900AD, and were mysteriously abandoned, as were all the Mayan cities in Mesoamerica, sometime after 900. The main focus of the article was the current thinking about Fire is Born, the foreign king from Teotihuacan in the Mexican highlands, who conquered Tikal and is thought to be responsible for much of the classic splendor.

We stopped at the gate to the park and learned that the admission price had tripled that day. After much grumbling and counting of Quetzals, we entered and parked. I was excited, though I had a nagging fear that I would once again suffer what I call the Sistine Chapel effect, which I experienced in Rome four years earlier. After marching through the labyrinthine Vatican museum and using up all my art appreciation neuroreceptors (and tolerance for crowds) on the stunning 19th Century collection of Egyptian artifacts, I made it to the Sistine Chapel, looked up, saw God and Adam reaching out to one another, and felt…nothing. I had the same problem with the Mona Lisa. Maybe this should be called "Lack of Affect at seeing in person a Widely Celebrated Work of Art Syndrome." How awful, I thought, if the Mayan temples of Tikal, subject of many a travel poster, did not move me. My anxiety was for nothing, though. Even the continual stream of sweat down my face did not impede my sense of amazement. These people created an overwhelming work of art to live in, in a fearsome jungle, and now it’s gone, the remains covered in dirt and returned jungle.
"You too will be gone some day," the place seems to murmur. The Pick ‘n Save in Encino will be a piece of rebar sticking out of the ground. Someone will look around and wonder, “What destroyed them?”

The Mayans had the same contempt for the past that we have in Los Angeles. The temples are not solid rock, like the Egyptian pyramids, but chambers filled with debris. The debris was produced by grinding up whatever structures the last Mayans in the area had built. I was upset when our city, Los Angeles, without a moment’s hesitation, allowed the destruction of the Brown Derby restaurant, a landmark known throughout the world. But we did not just destroy it, we sacrificed it, we ate it, and it was subsumed along with the chaparral forests, and Chavez Ravine and the L.A. River into the new us.

Speaking of sacrifice, I pondered it as I stood atop the massive Temple IV, as it is academically known. Were beating hearts really cut out of chests up here?, I wondered. It sure looks like it, but no one really knows, not even Mel Gibson. I wondered if the beliefs associated with this “primitive” site were so different from ours. There is sacrifice all over the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Maya believed that sacrifice was a repayment for the debt of existence. Were Adam's and Eve's bites of forbidden fruit attempts to exist physically, with the "knowing" that entails? Is existing physically a sin? Talk about the punishment fitting the crime- they were punished, sacrificed as it were, as we all have been, by the very granting of their wish. The pain of sacrifice, so essential to Jesus' story, may be the pain of separation of the physical and the "knowing." How fitting that "Nirvana" by extension connotes a state of oblivion. The joke will be on us if it turns out, after all our efforts, that there really isn't anything to know.

Walking back to the bus I tried to put it all together, but couldn’t quite. My meditations were relieved by spry spider monkeys lurching in the canopy above. At one point a remarkable creature, most likely, from what I’ve been told, a coatimundi, walked down the trail towards me and passed blithely on my left, flinching only when it sensed my uncertainty. Also adding to the ambiance was the cry of the howler monkeys, which turns out to be a highly unpleasant and hostile sound, something between an angry lion and a wheezing gorilla.

That night, our last in Flores, I returned (when the frequently failing electrical power permitted) to the Silverberg anthology. It was diverting to find a 1955 parallel universe story by Poul Anderson, titled “Delenda Est,” (short for “Delenda est Carthago,” Latin for “Carthage must be destroyed!”) with a Mayan element. In this universe Carthage defeats Rome in the Punic Wars, and the result is a modern world in which the Germanic tribes of Europe are minimized and the Celts become dominant. The New World is "discovered" by Gauls in the 9th century, and this leads to the north American state of Afallon. This state is not able to wipe out the indigenous cultures, however, but only stimulates them to compete. The “Mayan empire” thrives under the assault, and far from vanishing in the 10th Century, establishes an alliance with the southern kingdom of “Huy Braseal” and enters the modern age. Anderson’s point seems to be that a rival (maybe more like the English, who preferred not to sleep with their conquests) was the missing element in its survival. Post World War II US history seems to corroborate this view. What would we have done in the fifties without the USSR? There would have been no space program, probably, but the more sober thought is that there may have been no coherent U.S.A. Now we have terrorism as our unifying force. If this is a lesson to be learned from the Maya, we ought to learn it fast.

The next morning our party left on the bus for Coban, but we and the Merritts stayed in Flores, as we had to be in Guatemala City the following morning for our flights home. On our shared van ride to the Flores airport, I regaled Professor Merritt with my theories, and he repaid me by sharing the book he was reading, “The Invention of Morel,” by Adolfo Bioy Casares. I flipped open the book to the introduction by Jorge Luis Borges and saw the phrase “stoic irony” and felt I would not have understood what it meant before this trip. At our bravest, we face the universe with stoic irony.

The twin-prop plane ride to the capitol was fun. The pilot expertly weaved back and forth between thunderheads, and we had a close- up view of the environs of Guatemala City. Of particular interest was the construction of houses along the ridges of hills, sometimes abutting sheer cliffs. Our Guatemalan host, the groom, had told us on the bus that these communities are built illegally, making major swaths of the city illegal. He told us that some such areas are the province of organized crime figures, so that it is not uncommon to find Mercedes parked outside on the dirt roads, and plasma TV’s in the corrugated tin roofed houses.

The trip concluded on a surreal note, as we had reserved a room for our last night at the Guatemala City Marriott. Walking into the shining, vast lobby was like falling into a mad dream of opulence. Employees were carefully respectful, lest we be billionaires. In the hotel restaurant, our waiter asked where we were from. He sounded very Angelino, and it turned out he was from San Bernadino. He told us Guatemala City, outside the environs of the hotel and airport, is a dangerous place, made safe where the army sets foot, but a free-for-all where they do not. He said the hotel sees a lot of adoption activity, legal and otherwise, and later we noticed a number of Caucasian women with brown babies. Our waiter said that $5,000 was the going rate for a Guatemalan baby.

Another bit of stoic irony, Mayan babies streaming into the U.S. Maybe those ancient sacrifices are paying off.

Our flights to Dallas and LAX were on time and flawless. My horoscope: “A good day to go home and think about the trip you were not supposed to take.” I had reached no conclusions, but my questions were clarified.