|Pretty Good Vacation
By 11 AM, the El Quetzal Internet Café had filled with
the usual coalition: British telecom employees slumming
exotically, Dutch twentysomethings of moderate intelligence and
means, a passel of drunken Australians, and a lone,
confused-looking German. A couple of longhaired locals, caramel
upper-class late-teen Romeos, hung around, playing their
guitars, looking to score some hip, affordable gringa
action. Their success usually depended on the vacation schedule
of the Associated Colleges Of The Midwest. These people made
Paul feel so tired. He might as well have been in Prague or some
other bullshit tourist town. Where was the adventure? Two weeks
in country, as he liked to say, but he’d seen nothing. If he
could just find a story, he could deduct the plane fare from his
taxes, even if it didn’t get published in the end.
He sat at a table by the door with John the Irish guy, playing
backgammon. Best of seven. They didn’t have any money but used
the doubling cube anyway, making do with a fanny pack full of
nearly worthless coins. In terms of pure strategy, Paul was
playing better, but the Irish had stumbled into some choice
rolls, and was up three-two.
"You’re a bastard," Paul said.
"What?" the Irish said.
Paul heard the song like he did every day:
Buffalo Soldier/Dreadlocked Rasta….
"Christ!" he said. "Does anyone in this country ever play
anything besides Bob Marley’s Legend?"
Paul liked reggae enough. He occasionally listened to the reggae
channel on satellite radio when he was home. But that channel
played songs recorded within the last 30 years. A little
dancehall would be nice. Rastaman Vibration, at the very
least. These people were morons.
"It’s your turn, innit?" said the Irish.
They’d met a few days before, riding in a flatbed between lake
towns. A fat bag of sticky-sticky, dotted with delicious silvery
flecks, had poked out of The Irish’s waistband.
"You want some?" he said, "Yeah, yeah?"
"Yeah, yeah," Paul said.
For the purposes of saving money and meeting women, with mixed
success on both counts, they’d become roommates. The Irish
hadn’t showered since then. His shoulder-length hair was dirty
and his skin had an oily sheen. At night, he snored as though
the room were soundproofed. Paul couldn’t figure out how. This
country was noisy, especially in the early hours. He’d always
felt that the true traveler should at least try to stay
attuned to the rhythms of daily life as practiced by working
folk. But what was with this 5 AM crap? No one should run cement
mixers before breakfast.
This morning, as he’d nodded between sentences of the first
chapter of The Great Gatsby, the Irish had shot up
stiffly and threw off the sheet. He was completely naked; he
looked to either side and said, "I’d better be putting on some
Paul found himself wishing he could live like the Irish, so
freely, without thinking. The Irish rolled double fives, and
then double sixes. He took the last of the coins.
They finished the salad and smoothie they were splitting to save
money. Neither had tasted very good. Paul suspected that El
Quetzal fudged its claim that everything was made with organic
"I’m still hungry," he said. "You want an arepa?"
A girl staggered into the cafe, wearing a backpack that must
have weighed more than she did. The requisite pair of hiking
shoes, which looked unused, hung from one strap. She unburdened
herself, looking scared, like a kitten separated from the teat.
The anhk tattoo that peeked out from behind the back of her
white tank top betrayed her as a sorority girl of recent
vintage. She bumped into Paul’s chair.
"Watch it," he said.
"Where am I?" she said.
He told her.
"I was really tired," she said, "and told the driver that I was
going to fall asleep but to wake me when we got to the beach,
because I was supposed to get off at the beach in Mexico and
meet some friends. Then I woke up and we were parked in front of
this church or something, and there was, like, this guy
with a chicken sitting next to me. "
"Truly terrible," Paul said.
"That’s OK," the girl said. "I like it here, too."
Her ears twitched at a familiar sound.
"Oh my god!" she said. "I love Bob Marley!"
Some people shouldn’t be allowed to travel, Paul thought. But
she was hot. That made up for most of the world’s sins.
"It’s my birthday!" the Irish said.
"I have to call my mum!"
The Irish bought a phone card. His mother should be home from
work by now, he said. The girl, named Christi, "with an i", she
said, offered to buy Paul a coffee, which he really appreciated.
As she walked away, he wondered how some girls get their legs so
smooth and tan. The backs of her legs were dimpled with perfect
musculature. Paul got up and looked at the bookshelves. Ken
Follett novels in Italian. Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle
Maintenance. A dog-eared Rushdie story collection, published
after the fatwa. Paul decided the best available was a
high-school-teacher’s edition of Oliver Twist. He often
questioned the state of the world’s collective intellect.
On the bulletin board, he saw a bright-pink flier.
"See Pacaya Volcano Guatemala Natural Wonder! Slide The Ash! Bus
3:30 Outside! Fifteen People Max!"
Ten bucks usually meant the trip included a snack. Paul hadn’t
done this one yet. His calves were getting flabby, just like his
Christi with an i came back.
"What’s there to do here?" she said.
Paul showed her the flier. She squinted.
"We’re going to climb that today," he said.
"I went to a volcano once in Hawaii," she said.
The Irish shouted into the phone. He was audible over Exodus,
a song that Paul would have banned from the world if he
could. Movement of the people, my ass, he thought. Still, this
hike would be fun. Maybe he’d have a pretty good vacation after
"You could just wire the money, mum," The Irish said. "Yeah, six
months, that’s not so long…"
Eusebio Aleman leaned against the door of his bus, chewing on a
toothpick and waiting for the gueros. They came every
day, so he was patient. He wore a dirty cowboy-style hat that
hadn’t been nice to begin with, a guayabera recently
stained by spillage from the bottle of roja he drank with his
lunch, and an old pair of work jeans he’d picked up at the
mission over the weekend. Eusebio liked to cultivate a look of
relative peasant suffering, though not of abject poverty. He got
tips that way but avoided excessive pity.
Five years previous, he’d purchased the bus, a yellow Bluebird
from a school district in Michigan, for the equivalent of 150
American dollars. It probably hadn’t been safe for children
since 1988. He gave it a colorful and eccentric paint job that
had no basis in local tradition at all, but never bothered to
fix the torn seats or cracked windows. His types of customers
usually expressed suspicion if the buses were too nice.
Twice or so a week, a guero who’d actually bothered to read a
newspaper article before visiting the country pretended to
sympathize with Eusebio’s "situation." The American today, who’d
made a reservation for three, was typical.
"Es muy dificil para ustedes aqui, si?"
Eusebio nodded solemnly, trying not to wince at the terrible
"Si, senor," he said. "La pobreza es terrible."
In reality, Eusebio owned a two-story cinderblock house,
albeit one in a bad neighborhood with unpaved streets. On the
first floor, he lived with his wife and two sons. Upstairs were
his daughter, her husband, and two grandchildren. His son had
recently developed leftist leanings of which Eusebio didn’t
approve. But Eusebio had put him through college and now his son
was an engineer. Eusebio also had satellite television on which
he’d watched almost all of the World Cup. His bus had made this
possible. Yes, his so-called countrymen were wretched, but why
let on that he was an exception? Let the gueros imagine his
destitution. He didn’t care what they thought.
The passengers started showing up around three, after their
post-lunch naps: a tall, bird-like Dutch couple, a handsome but
greasy British guy who informed Eusebio, for no reason, that he
was an attorney, and two dark-haired, olive-skinned women who
Eusebio guessed were Israeli. One of them got on the bus singing
"Like A Prayer." She had an attitude; she and her friend
sprawled on the backseat, their aggressive posture disinviting
everyone else. Finally, the American showed up, accompanied by a
loping hippie and a rubia that Eusebio thought looked
ripe for the plucking.
Eusebio collected the money, which was more than a lot of his
friends made in a month, and got behind the wheel. His bus
lurched to life, spewing toxic murk into the high-country air.
He drove through narrow colonial-era streets, then into the
squat-hoveled neighborhoods with their ancient hupil-clad
charwomen and Orange Crush signs hanging from every storefront,
and finally out of town where the air grew crisp with incense
and vegetation. Even Eusebio, who rarely enjoyed an uncynical
moment, sometimes felt glad to be sharing such a beautiful spot
with foreigners. But then, inevitably, one of them would start
comparing the scenery with that of Nepal or some other country
that Eusebio would never see, and he resented his passengers
The Dutch murmured gutturally to each other. The Swede was
quiet. Those Israeli girls had their headphones on so high that
Eusebio could almost hear the lyrics of their crappy music. And
the American was authoritatively holding forth to an audience of
the Irish, the rubia, and the British attorney:
"This country was in serious shit for decades. Totally
evil death squads and CIA-sponsored assassinations. They were
killing natives by the thousands. There’s been this peace now
for almost ten years. Land reform still has to happen, and the
old general is in Congress now, trying to come to power. But I
think things are getting better."
"Weird," said the rubia.
"I can’t wait to get out of this country," said the British guy.
"Too many fucking campesinos."
The American looked upset.
"Anybody want a smoke?" said the Irish.
The pungent smell of expensive weed filled the bus. Eusebio
drove slowly up into the hills. The sun had already started to
fall by the time they got to the tiny gravel parking lot at the
volcano’s base. This was not a trip that the government
sanctioned for visitors, because the volcano could blow at any
time. So Eusebio, and a few other mercenary tour guides, had
claimed the adventure dollars for their own.
"Pacaya," he said. "Behind me careful walk slow."
They hiked up a slanted wall of black ash. Eusebio led using a
walking stick, which wasn’t necessary, but he liked the visual
effect. The travelers didn’t seem to have any trouble with the
altitude. They did this kind of thing a lot. About halfway up,
the hike reached its best part.
"Plateau," Eusebio said.
The soil was especially rich here. Gnarled trees from before
recorded time spread across a horizontal plane, accented by
little tufts of purple flowers and splotches of moss that
appeared neon green in the waning light. Directly to their
right, two simple white crosses provided accent.
"For travelers who died," Eusebio said. "Bandits."
The group looked surprised, and maybe a little frightened, but
mostly they were excited. They liked the illusion of danger.
Eusebio knew this, which is why he’d planted the crosses a few
He unsheathed a machete that had been hanging at his side.
"Safety," he said.
The sun had nearly disappeared by the time they got to the top
of the volcano. Little goops of lava spurted from the cone, like
sauce bubbling over. Electric-green lichen spread all over the
rocks up here, and the ash was a deeper black than it had been
lower down. To the west, the dying sun exploded in orange and
purple splashes. The air smelled overpoweringly like sulfur.
"Wicked, innit," said the Irish.
"Another planet," said the rubia.
She took a Power Bar from her fannypack and gave half to the
American. He ate it, then leaned in and whispered something to
her. She laughed, splashed him with a little water from a
bottle, and began to run around the rim of the volcano. The
American growled with fake menace and started to chase her. One
second, the Irish had been staring off into the dusk, but the
next, he snapped awake and joined their little fantasy of
danger, clomping around the dried lava in his thick workboots.
Eusebio let the travelers poke around for a while. When the sky
started to turn gray and the bottom of the volcano disappeared
from easy sight, he indicated that it was time to head down.
They had to surf the ash because there was no other way to
descend; several inches of black powder coated the surface. So
they slid, sideways, whooping. The rubia attached herself
to the American’s back.
"This is awesome!" she said.
Eusebio had been waiting for the group almost ten minutes when
they reached the plateau. He’d gone down straight, without
foolery. It was dark. He took out his flashlight and guided them
down the hill.
Paul felt really good. Hiking always gave him the best workout.
The air had turned, which gave his body a nice chilly glistening
of sweat. He had a two-day growth of beard, his boots were
dusty, and a cute girl cuddled close. Maybe, he thought, we can
spend the rest of the week together.
"The moon is so beautiful," she said.
The bus rumbled down a hill in that seemingly brakeless way that
made the traveling life such a thrill, like a carnival ride but
less expensive. Paul leaned in and parted his lips. She craned
toward him receptively. They kissed and her breath smelled young
and sweet. Minor G-forces pressed them together against the
window. She giggled. He slid his hand under her shirt and up her
back. The bus was quiet except for a little bass boom from the
Israeli girls’ headphones. Paul wondered how far he could get in
half an hour.
At the bottom of the hill, the driver stopped in front of a
shack that had an operative gas pump and a few native
handicrafts for sale. These types of little outposts always made
Paul feel sad for the natives.
"Eat here," the driver said.
The other passengers snorted to life. The Irish rose and
stretched his arms over his head with an enormous roar. As
usual, he looked around like he had no idea where he was.
"I’m not hungry," Christi said.
"It’ll just be a few minutes," said Paul.
Inside the shack were a few tables, a stereo with speakers, and
a couple of sad-looking teenage girls wearing huipiles
and decorative headscarves. Paul wondered if they served flour
or corn tortillas.
Two men in camouflage outfits sat in the corner. A dozen empty
bottles of Gallo littered their table. Their eyes were barely
visible beneath the brims of their caps. They were rolling their
own cigarettes. After a few minutes, the girls brought out some
platos tipicos, with creamy black beans, a fried egg, a
meat tamale of some sort, and a couple slices each of avocado
and tomato. Paul picked at his while Christi stared off
impatiently, but the Irish tore into his dinner like a wolf. The
Israelis apparently weren’t hungry either. When I Shot The
Sheriff started, one of them climbed on the table and
started dancing, which was ridiculous, Paul thought,
because no one dances to I Shot The Sheriff.
Also, did she see the guys in the corner? Did she see the two
Uzis propped up against the wall behind the table? Did she
really think it was smart, or sexy, or both, to grind her hips
and hike up her shirt to reveal her belly, which was
ridiculously hard and ridiculously tan? This wasn’t a goddamn
The Israeli girl got down from the table, to Paul’s relief, but
then her friend stood up and also started dancing. They leaned
into each other. One of them started grinding on the other’s
knee. They waved their arms over their heads slowly and cheaply,
little glimpses of breast poking out from the sides of their
black tank tops. The guys in camouflage studied them carefully.
One of them slid down in his chair. Paul started getting
"We need to go back to the bus," he said.
Eusebio let the soldiers on just before he drove away. He didn’t
want to give his passengers time to make trouble. The soldiers
skulked at the front of the bus for a few minutes. Eusebio
descended the bus into a canyon, which he knew was dotted by the
wrecks of old buses and cars. It was a different route than
before, but the passengers probably wouldn’t notice. These roads
had no guardrails. In the back, the Israelis sat haughtily as
ever, their faces taking on a blue-gray tint in the moonlight.
One of the soldiers walked down the aisle, gun drawn. He pointed
it at the crotch of the girl who’d first started dancing.
"Saque sus pantalones," he said.
"What did he say?" the Israeli girl said.
"He said he wants you to take off your pants," the American
"No way," said the Israeli girl.
"Quitelos!" the soldier said.
The Irish stood. He was right behind the soldier.
"Oy," he said. "You can’t do this."
The soldier turned around and fluidly whipped the butt of his
Uzi into the Irish’s chin. With a little moan, the Irish spun
around, where the butt of the other soldier’s pistol, which was
some sort of Glock, met his left temple. The Irish dropped,
moaning and twitching. He opened his mouth. Blood drooled out,
along with a couple of teeth and what looked like part of his
tongue. The rubia screamed, so the second solider pointed his
pistol at her head and fired. She blew open like ripe fruit.
Eusebio saw all of this in the rear-view and kept driving. The
situation had turned violent. But there was a lot of violence in
the world. Besides, he wanted to make sure the soldiers paid
When Christi got hit, Paul thought: A girl like that, so sweet,
so innocent. The men who killed her must be stopped! But they
had the guns, so he tried to stay cool. Christi’s body had
fallen to the rubber floor. Gore continued to leak out of the
hole. Some of her brains were splattered across his chest. The
British lawyer, who’d been hit with most of Christi’s head,
shivered in the seat behind Paul.
"This is it," he said. "This is it. It’s over. This is it."
He was being naïve.
"Guerillas," Paul said to him. "Probably loyal to the old
regime. This kind of thing happens to tourists here sometimes."
One of the soldiers walked over and looked at Paul directly. In
perfect English, he said,
"Sir, you don’t know what you’re talking about at all."
That soldier stood watch as the other loomed ominously over the
Israelis. The rest of the passengers sat quietly, hands folded
in their laps. Paul decided it would be a good idea to adopt the
European method. After all, it was rare that every
passenger died during incidents like this one.
Usually, the bandits did their dirty work and left. He would
survive. Maybe he’d be able to string an article for a magazine,
or even The New York Times. Someone needed to immortalize
the girl, and also the Irish, if the Irish didn’t make it home.
Paul composed their story in his mind as the bus drove up into
the hills, the night, and a world he would never understand.
Neal Pollack has written three books, including The
Neal Pollack Anthology Of American Literature and the
rock-n-roll novel Never Mind The Pollacks. Later this
year, Akashic Books will publish Chicago Noir, a book,
edited by Pollack, of original crime fiction set in Chicago. He
operates near the dark center of the universe, just off I-35 in