The Exact Same Sensation As This

atitlan

"You know what it is about this lake?" she asked me, this girl whose name meant happiness. "It gets into your blood. It will stay with you. I don't think you can leave." We were sitting on a camp bed in a low-ceilinged room, and the rain on the tin roof sounded like buckets of falling nails. She was holding a lime I had picked from the dripping tree outside, and she didn't know what to do with it. She kept turning it around and around in her hands.

In the street we had passed a procession of men. They were bearing a body wrapped in blankets down the muddy streaming road. They sailed past us like a boat, very quiet, even courteous. No-one spoke. She accompanied me back to the room and didn't leave. She said when she slept alone she had nightmares. Her face felt hot from across the bed, and her breath was very fast. I felt like reaching out to her and I did reach out to her. She froze. The rain clattered down on the roof and on the lake, and perhaps I had already been there for hundreds of days. Half a year later and I feel like saying to her now: "well, happiness, I left."

I swam in the lake each morning, before the rain. The walk took me through narrow mud pathways between houses, past the orange juice sellers and the little girls who sold banana bread, over a rise of tangled greenery and from there down to the boulders. The drop was high enough that I could feel the frightened flinch of nerves inside my feet, and the shock of the cold water smacked all sleep out of my body. I would swim out far from the rocks and turn a full, slow circle, taking in the mountains and the clouds, the unreal green of the volcanoes, the white smoke hanging over the villages. Men fished in small angular canoes, very far apart from one another, with no sound. Further down along the boulders there would be a row of women washing clothes.

A lump of white volcanic rock floated past me. The women used them to scrub out stains. I took it back to where I was staying, and later a little bearded man carved it into a flower with six petals. He was half German and half Italian, and he told me that his surname meant ‘dwarf.’ He was more or less the height of a dwarf, but slimmer, and better balanced. We smoked local mota rolled in fresh tobacco leaves, and one day he announced that he was going to climb the volcano to fast for three days on water and cocaine, and after that I never saw him again.

I couldn't walk out of the room without losing myself. The town was like an unfinished thought, a directionless sprawl of pathways that meandered from the lakeside to the slope of the mountain, disappearing into coffee plantations at one side and fields of maize at the other, or else abruptly ending. Everything was disconnected, but the place somehow managed to function. It was like a socket with all the wires pulled out but the circuit still complete.

"I own this fucking town! I own this whole damn country!" He was screaming incoherently at a crowd of totally expressionless people, this American with a too-smooth face. I stood up to get a better look at him. He shouted, "sit down, fucking sit down, I can have you killed! I can have anyone in this town killed!" and also, "in ten minutes I can have two hundred Indians down here to cut you into pieces with machetes!" I sat down. His fury was so great it caused him to swagger around in a circle like a bee. But he didn't look convincing in his anger. It wasn't something that came naturally to him, like it does to some people. Anger didn't really suit his face. In the crowd there was a tiny old lady wearing the traditional traje of the town, watching with an expression of tired bemusement. I found out later that she was his landlady, and it had originally been an argument about the rent.

After a while he marched off to a small wooden shed beneath a tree and shut himself in there for some time. He came out with a meek, not-quite-apologetic smile, shook hands with a couple of people, and left. I saw him again the next day, wearing a pair of white trousers. A boy was selling him some mangos.

I spent most of my time wandering, the same as everybody else. There weren't many places to end up at, because all the pathways met and turned back on themselves and brought me to the same place that I started. Or else they would turn into something entirely unexpected - a wide paved street would end up as a track through a maize field, or a scrubby paddock with horses grazing - and from there I wouldn't know how to get back. Between the top of the town and the mountain was a forest of low trees with discarded plastic bags carpeted beneath them, and occasionally there would be a wall and a yard with chickens and dogs in it and dark-eyed children staring. When I met people up there they would look at me with polite curiosity, although there was something so deep and impenetrable in their eyes I knew that I hardly existed. I wasn't much more than a ghost to them. I would stay for a time and then leave - for what purpose they would never understand - and afterwards no memory of me would remain.

It was a town of two populations. One always left and the other always stayed. One had existed here forever and always would do, keeping maize and pigs and chickens, fishing in the lake, praying in their churches, washing their clothes with fragments of volcano. Their eyes were silent, inward eyes that gave away nothing. They were dense, close people with hands like shovels, opaque people with skin as heavy as clay.

The other population were the drifters, who did not really seem to exist anywhere. They were transparent people with no substance, nothing to weigh them down. They came and went, and it didn't matter. It was this population that I was a part of, although at the time I didn't really feel a part of anything. Everyone had peculiarly bright eyes.

In the evenings when it didn't rain the sky would turn pink, and glow luminous with the clouds. Bare bulbs would come on in blank-walled rooms. The silhouettes of vultures could be seen hunched in treetops. In the yard outside the room where I was staying, different people would come for a while and settle. Every night a new community formed by the huge green leaves, and there may have appeared a hammock or guitar, a chess game, milk powder, a different type of marijuana. Things would come and go with the need. Smoke would rise from the cooking fires, the dogs would yelp between the buildings, and children would pass carrying baskets on their heads or buckets of maize for grinding. There was always a radio, somewhere; the incessant, manic sound of the marimba.

I became friends with an electrician who was trying to rewire the lights of a hostel. He got electrocuted several times a day. He had been there for seventeen months, and had studied with a local shaman, and didn't know whether or not to go home. "I was sleeping with a girl from the village," he told me one night when we were sitting on the roof. "Something happened that terrified me too much. We were kissing madly in the street, passionate, furious kissing, and then suddenly we were both thrown backwards away from each other, like a magnetic repulsion. And in that instant her face was transformed into something ... hideous. I don't know what I believe in any more, but I know I saw something that I shouldn't have seen. I think I saw her demon. And then she hurried off, and after that I never spoke to her again. Whenever we passed in the street she would cross over to the other side. You see, the thing that really scared me wasn't that I saw hers. But that she must have seen mine as well." I liked this man because he seemed less lost than most of the people here, less loose and purposeless. Perhaps it was something to do with his hands, which were hard, clever hands, hands that would be capable of everything. The other thing he told me was how to get connected in this town. "It's very cheap here, and very pure. There's a yellow door on this street at the top of the town, and if it's open, you go in. You'll meet the lady. Ask for concepción."

I found the yellow door the next evening. It was in the wall of a building next to a low, sunken bar, where men sat on empty boxes drinking beer. I stepped inside the door, and was greeted in the hallway by a six-year old child. The lady was his grandmother, a very gentle old woman with a thick embroidered skirt and incredibly shiny black hair. I said the word concepción and she led me to the scales, measuring out the powder with great care. When all was done she took me to the street, smiling happily, and touched me on the shoulder as I went. There was a power-cut, so everything was lit by candles which threw shuddering shadows on the walls. Faces looked medieval in that yellow, smoky light.

One night I found a giant moth clinging to the outside of my door. Its body was as fat as two thumbs, and its wings were large enough to have flown a bird. It remained there for about three days, staying completely still. The French-Canadian film-maker in the room next to mine watched it for a long time. "That's a big moth," he kept saying.

Everyone seemed to be getting away from something. I used to go to a small bar run by Israelis avoiding their military service. My little Italian German friend would normally be there, and a grinning Frenchman who carried on his shoulder a kitten with very sly eyes. At one table there sat an old man with a flowing white beard, doling out hallucinogenic mushrooms. These people were all linked, somehow. They were part of that same transparent world. I would sit at the edge of a table, on the fringes of the room, and drift between the real and the imagined. I could almost feel myself passing in and out of solidity, being placed and displaced recurrently. There was no way of telling where one thing ended and the other began. But I liked this sense of vagueness, for the time.

Sometimes I would go down to the jetty where the boats came in. Their engines made no sound until they got up close to shore, swallowed by the vastness of the lake. I would watch the different people disembarking, congregating for a minute on the dockside while they gazed around, and then dispersing their separate ways into the town. It was a constant flow of people in and out, one face continually being replaced by another. It was like a natural cycle. On the steps leading down to the jetty there would be a ragged group of jembe drummers, some little girls with their baskets of sweet cakes and banana bread, a couple of dealers here and there, a few touts. Women would be waiting for supplies to be delivered, babies slung tight across their backs. I saw a child who was like a stout little man next to a woman like a stout little child. And the boats would come and then go again, shuttling back and forward through the long, loose afternoons. There was always a part of me that wanted to leave, very urgently at times. And there was always a part of me that wanted to arrive again, with fresh eyes, that saw things newly.

I experienced an intense, unknown nostalgia. I was walking between the mountain and the lake when I came upon a carefully-tended cabbage patch, lying just off to one side of the path. The sky was rough and cloudy, brilliantly blue when it cleared, and the late sunlight was filling the world with a dreamlike luminescence. Something about the scene - the spreading cabbage leaves, the blue, bright air - was so incredibly familiar, intimate, almost, that my chest gave a stab of pain so sweet it hurt me. I can identify four times when this has happened before, the exact same sensation as this. It has something to do with boulders, pebbles, rivers - a memory, perhaps, buried very deep - and an unreal intensity of light. It has something to do with strung-out washing, things flapping in the wind, and scattered bits of rubbish over green, green grass. Everything is sharp and tightened, achingly familiar. It is not beauty. It feels more like history.

"There is something familiar about those cabbages," I thought or perhaps said, when I saw them. And afterwards I wrote that down.

An old man in a shed at the top of the town made me a pair of sandals. He measured my feet by drawing around them on a sheet of newspaper, and when I came back the next day they were finished. The straps were leather, attached to the soles with tiny nails. The soles were cut-out pieces of car tyre. He was a proud, dignified old craftsman, with a creased face and well-trimmed white moustache, and he wanted me to give him my hat. I told him he couldn't have it.

I can't, from this distance, place any of these things in proper order. Everything went round in loops and spirals. The lake was beautiful, the people were beautiful, and everyone was lost. I had only the vaguest sense that time was passing. There was a kind of numbness to it all, attributed only in part to the cocaine, which passed as a constant undercurrent through the town and through people's personalities. It was also caused by the isolation of the place, the frozen beauty of it. It was easy to see how people could chance upon this refuge and stay for years - some had been here for decades - simply by forgetting to leave. Nothing seemed to happen at all, but time went by and weeks had passed. No-one was ever aware of this. They had forgotten their shoes and families. Eventually, and probably for no reason at all, they would leave, but there was never any hurry. They would wander out the same way they had wandered in, following the invisible threads of connection that linked even this place to the world.

I climbed the volcano one morning. It was dawn, and I was running on nothing. I had spent most of the night with two strangers, a jewellery-maker and an artisan, in a dimly-lit room of billowing drapes and mosquito nets, blue smoke and diagrammed walls. I was spun. The room was an intense conversation that kept building and building towards something that seemed at the time truly revelatory, something immense, but would always lose its aim and crumble into nothing. It was like approaching the top of a mountain that kept disappearing from view. The lines went back and forward, cathedrals of ideas mounted and collapsed, my body was surrounded by distractions - feathers and idols hanging from strings, dried green leaves, ephemeral sarongs, a drum-skin - religious clutter and endless jabble. Nothing would ever be resolved here. I became lost. When I finally left the room, my mind was buzzing as if electricity was running through it. Sleep was out of the question and I had nowhere else to go, so I ended up taking the main path through the town and following it until it reached its end, then turning round and pacing back again. I saw no-one, just dogs lying in the road like dead things. The night was so black that I could feel it. Walking was effortless, I seemed to be travelling at great speeds, but I managed to tire myself enough to sleep for two hours when I returned to my room, and woke with my brain still doing spirals. I changed my clothes and threw cold water on my face, squinting at the terrible daylight, and went down to the shore of the lake to meet my guide.

It was uphill for three steady hours. We left the last dilapidated houses of the town behind us early, entering the coffee plantations that sprawled up the slope to the fringes of the cloud forest above. The forest ended in deeply-scored ravines of hanging vines and boulders, which in turn gave way to the coolness of pines. We passed through a dead zone of broken, splintered trees, the early morning mist still rising through them. The pain in my muscles turned into something else, converted itself somehow into energy, and the little man guiding me strode steadily ahead never speaking a word. I reached a point beyond exhaustion, a state of numbness in my legs and brain, and this release into mindlessness carried me almost smoothly up the steep final slope to where the trees cleared, leaving only rock. It was so high up it felt like flying. I looked down on the entire wrinkled world.