Guatemala

Jonathon Engels

USA

It feels like someone has stubbed a cigarette out on my chest. It’s dark, the middle of the night. I’m in bed. And, it happens again. I grope at the burn, some understanding of what’s going on. Fire poker! Again. Again.

“Something just bit the shit out of me!” I’m on top of my newlywed Emma, gritting through my teeth. Then, I’m on my feet in a swift motion, my shirt falling to the ground.

She flicks the light on, and the two of us prod around in my bedclothes, eyes wide but hazy in the brightness, fingers nimble in case… in case… We find a scorpion.

The stings are already swollen and red. The burning has not subsided. Quite the opposite. The honeymoon, as they say, is over. I might be dying here.

We know nothing of scorpions, really. They are common in Guatemala. Shake out towels. Check inside shoes before putting them on. Peek under the covers before getting in.

But, what happens when a person is stung? Four times? In the chest?

*****

Earth Lodge used to be a place where one could pass the time juggling in the lawn. There were whole wheat bagels for breakfast. In the evening, the bar worked on a self-service honour system, and meals were put at the centre of the table to be eaten “family-style”. The place had an easiness that felt like home even if it was meant to be the opposite.

We’d worked as EFL instructors at language school in Guatemala City and were involved with Las Manos de Christine, an NGO that provided free lessons to children who lived around the city dump. “Guate”, as the capital is called colloquially, is crime-ridden and demands constant alertness. Though our school was less than two blocks away, the armed security guard wouldn’t let Emma leave by herself after dark. I, unarmed but burly, or at least male, would meet her to walk her back to our apartment.

We’d go Earth Lodge once a month and got to know the volunteers who lived onsite. The owners, Drew and Bri, were about our age but had managed to land what seemed like the gig of a lifetime. They had built the place from the ground up. We were just looking for somewhere to set our feet comfortably. When we escaped Guate unscathed, nine months of tension collapsed in a cathartic climb aboard a flight across the Atlantic. But Emma had wept as we departed Earth Lodge for what we thought would be the last time. We were off to Turkey.

After we’d taught a few months in Istanbul, the director of Las Manos contacted us with an idea, a proposal. The project was expanding, starting in El Hato, the village where Earth Lodge was. The post included living at the hotel and teaching at the local school in the mornings. He wanted us to pilot the program. We’d vowed never to go back to Guatemala City, even if only to shuttle straight out of it, but within a few minutes of beaming at each other with grins ear to ear, we’d agreed to be there the following spring.

We arrived late that March.

*****

In reality, scorpions live, like people, on every continent except Antarctica.

They are found along Caribbean coastlines and up the 16,000-foot mountains of Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. They are found from Canada to Tierra del Fuego, and that includes my home state of Louisiana just as much as it does Guatemala.

(My father used to tell a story about getting stung when he was a boy. He’d turned a log over and thought he’d discovered tiny snakes. As he grabbed for one, it unleashed on him. But I never saw a scorpion growing up, and when holding a boa constrictor at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, I bawled. There’s photographic proof of my story. My dad never gave any.)

Of course, Australia has them. Unusually, it isn’t home to the deadliest or even the oddest looking.

Some of the worst are found in India, including the Indian red, the most venomous scorpion in the world. The giant forest scorpion, which can get to be over nine inches, is at home in the rainforests of Southeast Asia.

Fossil evidence shows that scorpions have been scurrying around the African continent dating back some 400 million years. These ancient species measured over a meter.

To be honest, this wasn’t even my first encounter with a scorpion. I once impressed an ex-pat neighbour in Istanbul by wrangling a large black scorpion off the steps inside our apartment building with nothing more than a piece of paper. He’d compared me to Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter.

All in all, there are over 2,000 species of scorpions, and only about one percent of those pose any serious mortal threat to a human adult.

As the skin on my chest pulses out of time with the fluttering heartbeat beneath it, I know not of these percentages. Not that it would matter because I also don’t know which scorpions, the fabled one percent or the other 1,980 species, live in Guatemala.

At 4:00 am, there is no one to ask.

*****

We move up to the porch of the main lodge of the hotel because Wi-Fi is not available elsewhere. I take pains to lower my heartrate so as to slow the spread of the poisons surely coursing through me by now. Emma searches for information on scorpion stings.

Earth Lodge sits at 6,000 feet above sea level on a ridge that extends out to provide a one-of-a-kind vista of Volcans Agua, Acatenango, and Fuego. Fuego’s frequent eruptions are a part of the charm of the place. It puffs several times a day, sometimes sending intimidating columns of smoke hundreds of feet high. Every time Fuego fires up at night, EL staff will let out a raucous “lava” so that guests can see the glowing bus-sized chunks of molten rock spitting into the air and the lava streaming down the sides of the volcano.

Guatemala, smaller than Tennessee, has 37 volcanoes. Three of them are active every day. Volcan Pacaya covered Guatemala City in about three feet of ash and gravel that May of 2010. Tour groups still visit this volcano today and roast marshmallows above vent holes with magma flowing beneath them. In 2018, a few years into the future, Volcan Fuego will destroy Ciudad Vieja, former capital of Guatemala, and kill hundreds, most of whom will never be reported because they are from small villages that barely register on the census.

It’s amazing how a tourist attraction can truly become a deadly reality, particularly to actual residents, and equally amazing how few tourists are aware of the danger. Watching Fuego erupt was always humbling, but it somehow never seemed a viable threat. Guatemala City has one of the highest murder rates in the world, but we visitors shuttle through it as if our 80Q ($10 USD) ride is bulletproof. Every co-worker we had in the city was at some time held up.

Not beside the point, scorpions account for about 1,000 deaths a year in Mexico. Numbers in Guatemala are unknown.

The guesthouses at Earth Lodge are tangled amongst organically cultivated avocado trees, the tops of which poke up into the view of the coffee finca that fills the valley directly below us. The neat rows of coffee plants contrast against steep slopes of wilderness surrounding them. Beyond that, the mid-sized town of Jocotenango is still sleeping though the horns of local “chicken” buses have already begun to blast into the darkness, the shouts of “Guate! Guate!” muffled by the time they reach us up the mountain.

I’ve spent hours with this view. Emma has taken dozens of pictures of it. Guests rarely make it to the reception desk without dropping their bags and gawking for a few good beats. It’s the type of miraculous feat of nature that causes people to tell people next to them, staring at the same thing, how beautiful it is. It just demands a reaction beyond silent appreciation.

It’s equally amazing how tourists can pinpoint the best of a place, stuff that locals miss on daily basis during the grind of life. I think of Rome with its ancient ruins mixed throughout the city, people inattentively moving past them in throngs every morning on the way to work. Antigua Guatemala is much the same. It’s a UNSECO World Heritage Site with colonial architecture that dates back to the 16th century, yet second-hand US school buses overcrowded with commuters, cruise across the cobblestone streets coughing out black smoke. Those of us with the time (and money) to stop and look are mesmerized by what’s around us.

I begin to think there are worse places than this to die of a scorpion sting. If that’s what happening. Unfortunately, I can’t see any of those wonderful things in the darkness before dawn.

*****

Aldea El Hato, the village whose children we’ve come to teach English, has only existed for a short time. It is the result of two indigenous communities seeking refuge during Guatemala’s 36-year Civil War.

President Castillo Armas and his CIA-backed rebellion forcibly replaced a duly elected leftist government and instituted “agrarian reforms” on behalf of the United Fruit Company that included torturing peasants unwilling to grow bananas for the US corporation.

Though Armas was assassinated in 1957, the military continued to control the country and maintained the horrendous policies, so guerrilla fighters began to resist. This led to the mass genocide of the indigenous Mayan population, i.e., the peasantry.

The village of El Hato was formed about seven kilometres away from Antigua Guatemala in what were undeveloped mountain ridges. The two groups who moved there spoke different Mayan dialects, so they used Spanish as a common language.

After the war relented in the mid-1990s, farmers in El Hato became celebrated for flowers they grew on the sharp slopes adjacent to the village. The precarious fields had vegetables, with the classic “three sisters” technique of growing corn, bean, and squash still very much in practice. The people would largely subsist (and still do) on what they grew.

Earth Lodge, in the early 2000s, was the first time many villagers had ever seen gringos. The tin houses of the village were connected via dirt footpaths, and there was no electricity or plumbed water available. Visitors would be dropped off at the far end of town and would have to walk about a mile to get to the hotel.

With the increased traffic, a paved road from Antigua to the village soon materialized, and a gravel road through the centre of town followed shortly thereafter. Nevertheless, foreigners remained an odd curiosity even if Earth Lodge had provided jobs and introduced new income.

Now, a cruel twist of fate, the local school has invited Emma and I to teach English to the next generation so that they can earn money servicing tourists from the United States, most of which have no idea about this literal tortured past.

*****

Those of us from temperate climates often think of Central American jungles being full of wild and dangerous creatures, creatures from the Amazon that may or may not have ever come into contact with humans. Guatemala has its share, too.

It is home to 18 species of venomous snakes, with the notorious and irritable barba amarilla (yellow beard) being the scariest of them all. Also known as the fer-de-lance, its potent venom causes haemorrhaging and kidney failure along with excruciating pain.

The lowland waterways near Rio Dulce are home to crocodiles and alligators. Jaguars still roam the province of Petén, where the remnants of Tikal are located. Howler monkeys with gigantic fangs roar from the trees as you tour ancient Mayan ruins.

There are terrifying tarantulas running around as if terrariums don’t exist, and the fiddleback spider is the more serious Latin American cousin of the US’s infamous brown recluse. And, in this collection of frightening arachnids, we find scorpions.

But the fact of the matter is that most of these creatures don’t live in mountains. They are several hours’ journey by bus from where we are.

In El Hato, there is a giant earthworm that can get over four feet long but poses no real threat unless you are organic matter in the soil. Tailless whip scorpions look so horrid they starred as supernatural monsters in Harry Potter, but they aren’t actually scorpions and don’t sting. Even the snakes are tiny and non-venomous.

The scorpion that delivered the series of blows is thumbnail tiny and translucent red, and for some reason, we remember this fact, or create this fact, about scorpions: size doesn’t matter and fainter colouring often equates to increased potency.

While some of the chunky black scorpions —the Arabian fat-tailed, the spitting thick-tailed— are quite dangerous, a sting from waif-like scorpions such as the deathstalker is more capable of killing a person. Of course, we don’t really know any of this.

Without much more to go on than a haphazard hypothesis, finding no definitive “scorpions in Guatemala” information on Google, the numbness settles in. My tongue. My fingers. The little piques on my chest burn even though that particular cigarette was stubbed out about an hour ago.

*****

Emma and I got married on our way to Earth Lodge. We’d been traveling together for four years, hopping from country to country as a teaching duo. Many schools like to hire couples, even unmarried, because they come with the stability of built-in support.

Family and friends had expected we’d individually come “home” after the first year of teaching in Korea. Then, we met. She took me to the UK, and I took her to the States. By the time we’d announced we were heading back to Guatemala, everyone knew it was for keeps.

They’d expected a wedding befitting our lifestyle. Flowery crowns, flip-flops, a secluded beach on a secluded island in a country they only knew of by name, if it all. Instead, we’d gone to Vegas, chosen the cheapest first option outside the courthouse, and invited no one.

Our first marital home was staff housing at Earth Lodge. It consisted of a shared bathroom with a drop toilet and no hot water. Our room was 8 x 11 and could hold no more than a double bed, laundry basket, and small desk.

In order to live at the Lodge, we traded reception shifts for room and board with the caveat of working around our teaching schedules. Bri had acted as a liaison between the NGO and the school, and she was excited about the project. We all were.

Bryant, the founder of Las Manos, had become a true friend and bought us a set of matching bedding as a wedding present. He’d given it to us at his apartment in Guatemala City the night before taking us to Earth Lodge. It was on this bedding that the stinging incident had occurred.

It dawns on me that after surviving nearly a year in a city that the US Government warned against visiting, after volunteering in the Palestinian West Bank for three months before crossing back over the Atlantic, this sting could be the most dangerous situation I’d been in.

It’s hard to say our love is new, the way newlyweds are often viewed, but we have embarked on new life together, living in a new place, making new friends, and having —gulp— new experiences. No one wants that to end after a couple of months.

*****

It’s a long time before Emma can find any relevant information to get us through this. We don’t know if I should be rushing to the doctor. We don’t know if there is time for that. Earth Lodge is half an hour from anywhere and who knows how long it would take to get a ride anyway.

Look up “scorpions in Arizona” and there is a wealth of information at the ready. Look them up for Mexico and there is loads to learn. India. Africa. These places are wrought with write-ups. But Emma has to settle with a generic article on “how to treat scorpion stings.”

Most scorpion stings are treated similarly to wasp stings. In fact, we later learn locals hardly fret over them. The way Emma reads it from the computer is something like: They are only life-threatening to babies and old people. So much for a life (or death) of danger.

It’s a strange thing when learning you are going to be just fine is anti-climactic. It’s as is if you don’t deserve the relief, as if you haven’t earned time with such a vista. I move to the couch inside and try not to acknowledge the numbness or the burning that’s still evident.

The sun is not yet visible, but a warm glow is lighting the morning. I’m still too wired to get back to sleep, and it’s too late to do much good anyway. Concluding that a slightly increased heartrate won’t kill me, Emma continues to coddle and makes coffee.

Drew is the first person up to the Lodge and is surprised to find us huddled on the sofa. He is the type who offers up shots of Jägermeister when someone gets sick, citing that it will kill all the offending germs. He laughs when we tell him our tale of tails and recounts stepping on one once at Lake Atitlan.

Like locals, he isn’t fretting, and that puts me at ease. It puts Emma at ease. It’s another day in paradise, or at least something like it.

*****

I would like to tell you this is rarefied air to have breathed, being stung by a scorpion. It would be nice if it had put me in some category akin to shark-bite victims. But this incident was only the beginning, and survivors like me are a dime a dozen.

About a year later, Emma was in the same bed and a scorpion seemed to fall from nowhere and sting her on the leg. She didn’t even ask for special treatment. In fact, she describes the experience as being relieved it wasn’t a spider because those can be dangerous.

On a trip through Nicaragua a few years later, there seemed to be some sort of season of the scorpion. We uncovered them daily, and the Nicaraguan scorpions had this habit of throwing their pincers out wide, extending their tails, and running like hell in whatever direction they were facing. Every now and again, they were facing your direction.

We did take a trip into the deep jungles around Rio Dulce, scouting out a project in a village far smaller and more remote than El Hato. This is the area of Guatemala with truly dangerous stuff: venomous snakes, crocodiles, howler monkeys.

To get to this village, we had to catch a local bus that had driven us two hours through a series of rubber tree plantations, palm oil plantations, and plantain plantations. We had forded two rivers which would block timely return if the weather got bad or some sort of emergency required it.

Then, the bus stopped, and we hiked another half hour beyond the end of the unpaved road. Someone had given up their home, so we’d have a place to stay. It had dirt floors, open doorways, and net hammocks for beds.

Ever diligent, we were mindful of scorpions getting into our shoes, clothing, and so on. To be honest, I had no idea if a scorpion sting in Rio Dulce would be more than a bee sting. When one gets away scot-free once, preparation becomes even less necessary.

Luckily, I didn’t get stung in the jungle. It didn’t happen until we made the journey over the hills, through the plantations, and back to town again. Slinging my backpack over my shoulder to get off the bus, I felt a familiar flame fry one of my fingers.

It was small. Red. Translucent. It was crawling on the strap of my backpack. My hand was whirring. My heart was pounding. But I swallowed the pain, flicked the scorpion off, and climbed out of the emergency exit like everyone else.

But I’m not like everyone else. How many people have been stung twice by scorpions in two completely different tiny villages in Guatemala? We —if indeed there is a “we” and not just a me — are a rare breed of survivor. Tough as they come.

 Jonathon Engels is a Contributor at Panorama.