© Sean Linnane, June 2016
San Cristobal, capital of the Republic of El Cristobal, lies at the foot of Xiuhtecuhtli, the Mayan name of the volcano that looms ominously over the sleepy city. The ancient Mayans worshiped Xiuhtecuhtli, offered it human sacrifices – virgins were thrown in there annually. The soil on the slopes of Xiuhtecuhtli was particularly fertile for the cultivation of corn, manioc, cacao, potatoes and coffee. And for the Mayan’s offerings and adoration, Xiuhtecuhtli would periodically reward them with eruptions that wiped their fields and villages away, and caused widespread havoc.
And then the cycle would repeat and the Mayans would start over again.
San Cristobal is a throwback to a better time, a time before the hustle and bustle of modern life and all the complications that come with it overtook once pastoral Central American backwaters. The Economic Officer at the American Embassy suggested to me it’s the success of agrarian programs. “There’s more money in the countryside, the volcanic soil is incredibly fertile,” he indicated the volcano through his office window. “Why go to the city? For a campesino to leave the farm and move to the city is to be sentenced to a life of poverty, a permanent slot on the lowest class of society.”
And so San Cristobal remains a unique destination, a quiet provincial town, almost a time portal to the Good Old Days. Somehow I didn’t take the concertina wire and the sandbagged fighting positions on all the official buildings seriously.
Meanwhile Xiuhtecuhtli smolders. The sacred mountain is a forgotten god, a looming presence, overlooking the activities of the mere mortals below...
* * *
“You had one job to do, Linnane. Get your team down to this dinky little place nobody has ever heard of - Cristobal - and ride herd on them while they do what they it is they do. One job! So how the hell did you end up in the middle of a revolution and overthrow the government... on YOUR FIRST NIGHT IN TOWN???”
“Well, Chief, it really all started back here in the States, at the airport, when I met my future self - or at least one of my future selves - getting on the airplane...”
“Huh?” Chief stared at me in consternation, and damn near bit through the butt of the half-smoked cigar that hung eternally from his lip.
* * *
We are all ghosts, haunting our past selves as we look back at them in our memories. There is the sensation of someone ‘walking on our grave’. It comes with a shudder, and the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.
Time and space are not a linear progression of course – Einstein explains this to us. There are intersections and it is inevitable that people cross over; possible evidence of time travel or forms of ‘immortality’ are not unheard of. And so it was the day I encountered my future self, as I boarded my flight to Republica de Cristobal.
Making my way down the aisle I noticed a tattoo on a gentleman’s right arm; a Chinese dragon. The same Chinese dragon I have on my right arm. I mean, EXACTLY the SAME tattoo as mine ...
Glancing over the gentleman I noticed he was tanned, dark hair without a trace of gray - this despite the fact he was evidently several years older than me, and dark piercing eyes. For all the life of me it seemed I was looking straight at an older version of myself. I was tempted to get his attention, roll up my sleeve and reveal MY dragon.
Then I noticed something else. The gentleman – if indeed he was my future self, somehow physically present in this plane – was missing his left arm, directly above the elbow...
* * *
The night I checked into my hotel there was some kind of gathering outside in the street. It was a big crowd, with a woman leading the crowd, giving some kind of speech on a megaphone. Well I had reason to go outside. I wanted a bottle of wine, so I was making my way down the street to a local tienda de vinos. Coming back with my bottle of wine under my arm, I made it less than a block when it became evident the sidewalks were non-navigable, and so was the street, with all the people.
Somebody bumped me sideways and then I was in the middle of the crowd. The crowd was getting ugly, people were yelling at me in Spanish and I couldn't understand a word they were saying and things were on the verge of going out of control. When people started putting their hands on me I realized I had to do something to turn the sentiments of the crowd in my favor so I did the only thing I could think of - I hollered out at the top of my lungs:
“¡VIVA LA REVOLUCION!”
Those were the magic words, apparently, because right away everyone started yelling: "¡VIVA! ¡VIVA!" They picked me up and then I was crowd surfing as the mob made their way to this huge imposing building which I presumed was the Presidential Palace. All the while, you gotta understand, all I was doing was trying to stay alive.
There was a momentary lull at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the imposing edifice, so to keep the spirit of the thing alive I did the only thing that seemed natural at the time: I hurled my bottle of vino rojo. It shattered at the entrance of the marble wedding cake of a building, the crowd surged forward and the Presidential Honor Guard dropped their rifles and ran for their lives.
I guess you could say I christened the beginning of a new era...
* * *
The human wave that was the popular revolution busted down the doors of the Presidential Palace and poured in like a flood, dragging me along. Everywhere you looked they were ransacking the place, until we reached the offices of El Presidente himself; the Inner Sanctum of Power of the Republic. An uncomfortable quiet fell over the crowd, and one by one the rioteers dispersed until it was only the leaders of the mob - and myself - who remained. There was no sign of the former occupant of these ornate offices.
My comrades-in-arms looked about in wonder as it all sunk in, what they had just accomplished. Incredibly, they’d overthrown the hated dictator... with my help, apparently. Then the woman who had led the chanting with the megaphone - not one hour before - looked to me, excited.
“Señor, now YOU are the new EL PRESIDENTE ! ! !” All her colleagues beamed, their smiling faces showing their approval at this logical conclusion.
El Presidente... the title had a nice ring to it. I felt a momentary surge of power go straight to my head.
Meanwhile the smoke had not yet cleared out in the palace grounds, they were still manning the barricades in the streets. In the palace courtyard my predecessor was being given the customary retirement ceremony for dictators who fail to make the last flight out of the city to the South of France... complete with blindfold and last cigarette...
...it occurred to me that I’d just won the booby prize...
“Er, I think a better idea is for la Republica to have its first WOMAN ‘La Presidente’ - think of the legitimacy in the eyes of the international community - much more beneficial for leveraging grants and loans from the World Bank and the international community, no? - versus a gringo like me who can only order a beer in Spanish. I think I can serve the Republic better in a more utilitarian role... Minister of Agriculture, perhaps?
Agriculture means farmland, and as far as I was concerned, the further away I could get from all the madness going on in the capital city, the better. As soon as possible I caught the train to the interior, way up in the mountains, to inspect the state of agriculture in Republica de San Cristobal.
There was much to see in the countryside. An afternoon was spent exploring an ancient Mayan pyramid. It was fascinating to clamber about its step sides, to climb the steep staircase up its center. I imagined the priests and acolytes conducting the Ceremony of the Sun. Did they actually perform human sacrifice, and were these volcanic stones once drenched in blood and gore?
Meanwhile the thing about the arm had been bothering me; the premonition was weighing on my mind. I was really anxious about the possibility of losing my arm. It was a tricky thing. What does one do when one has had such a vivid premonition? Such a significant indicator of a future mishap?
We finally arrived at our first destination and los campesinos were waiting, their bright smiling faces beaming as they presented their harvest. Unbelievable. Simply unbelievable. I was looking at more cannabis than I’d ever seen in my life! Marijuana, Mary Jane, hemp, reefer, dope, more weed than I could ever imagine existed even, dried and cured, bales and bales of the stuff. I mean, there was a LOT of grass! Enough to stone an army...
“But where are the food crops?” I asked, incredulous.
“Bah!” they snorted and hissed. “Thees ees better Señor! Thee ees mucho dinero!” And of course they were right. Any poor bastard can slave away growing corn and beans – this was a cash crop. But how could I apply for grants from the World Bank? “And there ees MORE, Señor!” they exclaimed as they walked me over to the poppy fields and the coca plants growing on the mountainside.
Of course I took notice of the scowling hombres with the military-style caps and crossed bandoliers, toting assault rifles and shotguns. As of any drug-producing operation, this was far from any sort of pastoral idyll.
I put my face in my hands and shook my head; no, no, no a thousand times no, this was not happening to me. Somehow I’d gone from a trip to the bottle shop to the de facto leader of a street revolution to candidate for El Presidente to the head representative and ministerial administrator of a national level drug growing operation. How the hell was I going to get out of this mess?
My senior staff assistant sensed my stress and anxiety. “What you need Señor, where you must go, are los aguas termales minerales – the mineral hot springs.”
This didn’t sound like a half bad idea. Anything to get me away from the drug fields and those heavy rifle-toting characters.
We made our way towards the mineral hot springs, first by truck until the trails became almost impassable. We then took an ox cart up the slopes of Xiuhtecuhtli, the smoldering volcano which presided over the entire countryside like a sulking god. A guide accompanied us, one of the camposinos, who prattled on in a dialect that I assumed was a mix of Spanish and Mayan.
My assistant translated; “This flowering tree is a powerful hallucinogen, if you take this flower you will go directly to the mental hospital. But the flower is very good; if you place the flower beneath your pillow you will sleep soundly, the deepest most restful sleep.
“This plant is inedible, it is poisonous. If you take the seeds and eat them, you will transform into a crazy animal and you will endanger yourself. One time, a campesino took the seeds and the next day they found him naked, trying to outrun a diesel locomotive. The locomotive won, of course, and he died.
“This little animal,” our guide picked up a tiny snail, its shell smaller than the small buttons on a button-down collar shirt, with a curious purple stripe that followed the spiral pattern around its yellow shell, and held his finger out allowing it to travel to my hand. “This little animal can enter the body.” At least that’s what I thought I heard the translator say – he was speaking Spanish, after all, which I barely speak.
I imagined he meant the premature form of the snail? Entering the body through the mouth, or the ear perhaps? I hated to think he meant the urethra, or the other orifice. “It enters the body and it will live inside the mind.” He must have meant the brain but he used the word mente which means the mind, the consciousness. I shuddered at the thought of a snail occupying my consciousness. I placed my finger to the hallucinogenic tree and observed the little fellow making its way across.
And then we arrived at the hot mineral springs, a primitive spa featuring bamboo huts and many pools constructed of haphazardly placed stones and mortar. The jungle canopy provided shade, and the steam of the hot springs rose up. It was impossible to see the entire area as it wound around the mountain. The springs were quite hot, but there were also pools for cooling off. Our guide took us up the mountain to the beginning of the springs, where a large placard announced:
“LAS AGUAS RICAS EN AZUFIRE”
(The Sulphur-Rich Waters)
“Embellacen la piel, el cabello y las uñas y mejoran la circulación sanguínea. Sus efectos analgésicos ayudan a disminuir grandamente el estrés y los Dolores musculares y artricos ya que mediante el proceso de Osmosis el azufre y le resto de minerales medicinales son absobidors por las células del cuerpo...”
It went on:
“...logrando asi beneficiarnos con sus propiedades antiinflamatorias, inmunoestimulantes y regeneradoras las cuales están cientificamente comprobadas desde hace más de 2000 años.”
As I continued to read the unusual Spanish verbiage I strangely began to completely understand every word:
"Embellishes the skin, the hair and the nails and aids the circulation of the blood. Its analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects greatly help decrease stress and muscular sickness and arthritis because through the process of osmosis, sulfur and the rest of the medicinal minerals are absorbed through the skin into the body cells thus achieving benefit with its anti-inflammatory, immuno-stimulants and regenerative properties which are scientifically proven over 2000 years."
We entered the waters and it was indeed very restful and relaxing, but the heat eventually drove us to the cooler pools. Then we’d return to the hot sulphur to soak some more and enjoy its rejuvenative effects which were quite noticeable.
My intent was to remain in the countryside for a week or more, as long as it would take to do a complete tour and determine the needs and capabilities of the plantations. By now my Spanish was perfect, which was odd because all I’d studied in school was French and Latin but there you have it. Odd because I was picking up more than just vocabulary and grammar, I was getting the slang and the local idioms and I even understood the Mayan dialect of the campesinos. There was something more; vivid dreams that seemed to follow into the waking state. Visions of strange creatures from the bas-relief carvings around the pyramids, come alive and talking to me, advising me in my affairs in the countryside.
The volcanic rumblings and tremors were increasing in tempo, to almost daily, and yet the seismic instruments of the meteorological station located halfway up the volcano gave no indications in the signals they transmitted. The fantastic creatures that now spoke to me constantly – an enormous rooster-like bird, a surreal jaguar, a dog-headed man, an enormous feathered serpent – insisted it was necessary we climb the volcano.
Our ascent of Xiuhtecuhtli, the ancient Mayan god, took over six hours, and every inch of the way I was totally out of my skull. I knew they were hallucinations, but they were absolutely real. As real as this bar we’re standing in now, as real as the people around us even now as I speak.
When we got to the instrument station the problem with the transmissions was immediately obvious. A large volcanic boulder lay squat on top of what remained of the station – angle irons and wires and the steel instrument housing protruded out like a large insect squashed beneath a giant’s toe.
To my affected vision the sky was yellow and the mountain was deep purple. There was a rumbling, quite a shaker, and Xiuhtecuhtli coughed a large red hot missile that landed like a mortar round less than half a football field away. Xiuhtecuhtli coughed again and this time a cloud of volcanic ash spilled over the crater and rolled towards us. To my wildly hallucinating mind, a vivid purple cloud of volcanic ash, pulsing and breathing as it rolled downhill toward us.
Xiuhtecuhtli was in eruption. We ran for our lives, of course.
* * *
The evacuation was chaos. The railway was an early casualty of the volcanic ash and the red hot, semi-molten boulders Xiuhtecuhtli was spitting out. The dirt roads and trails out of the hinterland were jammed with ox carts and donkey carts and ancient trucks overloaded until their suspension groaned and hundreds of thousands of campesinos on foot, some pushing bicycles laden with possessions, some beating hapless horses and donkeys.
It took us the better part of two weeks to make our way out of the disaster area. At night we slept under the open skies with the campesinos. None of them seemed aware it was el Ministro de Agricultura with whom they shared their food and drink. Not that it mattered; the only authority that held any power or influence over the affairs of men anymore was Xiuhtecuhtli, the angry God of Fire.
The situation in the capital city was just as chaotic. Between the clouds of volcanic ash plastering the outer suburbs and the almost continual tremors, existence had relegated to daily survival and supplies were running out. Rivers of red hot lava were pouring down the slopes of Xiuhtecuhtli, and the capital city lay right in their path.
I made it to the airport and flashed my passport to a gentleman who was obviously an official of the US embassy. “I gotta get on that plane!”
“Who are you?”
“I’m a US citizen!”
“Yeah, but are you connected to the embassy?” he shouted over the noise and confusion. “This is an official flight. Embassy officials only.”
To hell with that. “I’m the Minister of Agriculture!” I shouted.
He must have thought I said I’m involved with working with the Ministry of Agriculture, some kind of humanitarian operation. Whatever he thought didn’t matter, the man waved me by and I was able to get a seat on what turned out to be the last flight out of there. My last sight of San Cristobal through the passenger window was what looked like a barrage of red hot boulders landing on the far side of the runway and exploding, sending shards of volcanic debris in all directions. I felt sorry for the poor souls left behind. Who wouldn’t? It was like the Last Days of Pompeii.
Back in The World my employers didn’t have much to say to me. The back-pay they owed me made the ass-chewing bearable, and I still had my arm. Still do, in fact. The hallucinations seemed to have quieted down a bit, or at least they’re manageable, which makes me wonder how much of the whole thing really happened and how much was some kind of waking dream – going right back to the beginning, the encounter on the plane, the one-armed man?
* * *
“You still worried about losing an arm?” Mike asked, pouring his guest another beer.
“Nah,” he said, looking at his arm as he flapped it like a wing. “The only thing I’m worried about is the when and where, and the pain. I lose this arm and I win the lottery.”
“I got it insured.” He coughed, a bit of a hack, and a gob of some kind spittle flew out, landed at the foot of the bar. Mike glanced down and saw ... a tiny little yellow snail, with a purple line that followed the spiral of its shell ...