Apr/May 2008 Travel

America, America: Snapshots from a Continent

by Various Authors

CANCUN, MEXICO by Xujun Eberlein

Mayans have Chinese blood, a local man tells us. The man has mixed European and native Mexican blood, and speaks nearly perfect English. Any evidence? I ask. "See that woman?" He points to one of the hotel staff walking by. "See her eyes?" I glance at her as she glances back at me, suspicious. Indeed, the Mayan woman's eyes look more like mine than his or my husband's. Further, the Mayans have names such as Chu, Chen, and Qi. "Those are Chinese names," our companion says positively. I find myself unable to dispute.

And the Mayans have Mongolian blood, he adds. "You know about the Mongolian spot, right?" "No." "You don't know?" He is genuinely surprised. "The Mongolians have a black spot here," he places his palm on his lower back, where the tailbone might be. "And the Mayan kids have it too. It disappears at twelve." Some Mayan children will even offer to show their black spots to tourists.



I wouldn't know trillium from glade cress, but I'm sure I have passed both during the 45-minute uphill hike, because the brochure tells me they are here.

In 90-degree heat, the Kentucky forests can be as steamy as a South American rainforest, but the temperature has become noticeably cooler since I left the grassy parking lot at the foot of Pine Mountain. The elevation has a way of doing that. I'm not sure how far I've climbed, but the trail at times has covered eight or 10 vertical feet for only four or five horizontally. The shade has also contributed to the cooler temperatures. The trees here in the Bad Branch Falls State Nature Preserve tower over the trail, giving the air room to move among the tree trunks, gently stirring the dry leaves.

The trail ends and I am staring over the edge of a steep embankment at a boulder strewn creek. Bad Branch Falls cascades 60 feet from the top of the sandstone cliff, colliding with the rocks 30 feet below me and covering me in an icy mist. For the first time since leaving the parking lot, shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt don't seem like a good idea. The sudden change chills me, but it is pleasant after the arduous climb.

Despite the coldness of the water, I am drawn to the deep pool between boulders. I know it would feel wonderful to jump feet first into the frigid water, but I resist the urge. After all, this is a nature preserve and swimming in the creek is frowned upon, even if it is one of the cleanest streams in the state. Instead, I content myself with walking behind the cataract, emerging soaked and shivering on the opposite side of the gorge.

This tiny stream in rural Letcher County is part of the headwaters of the Cumberland River. Two other major rivers--the Kentucky and Big Sandy--head up in the same county on the other side of the ridge. The mother of Kentucky's waters, Pine Mountain is a razor-backed mountain range that runs about 110 miles from the Breaks of the Big Sandy River, also known as the Grand Canyon the South, to Pineville, Kentucky, just north of the Cumberland Gap. It is as wild and unspoiled as any place a traveler is likely to find in the eastern United States. The 2,600-acre Bad Branch Falls State Nature Preserve and the area surrounding it are home to the largest concentration of rare and endangered species in Kentucky.


CHORONI, VENEZUELA by William Reese Hamilton

Each of the main villages in our valley has its own saint, just as each city of Greece once had its patron god. Choroní boasts Santa Clara de Asis, Uraca has its Virgen del Carmen, and Camping celebrates Santa Eduvigis. But the most important of all is San Juan Bautista, the patron saint of the fishermen of Puerto Colombia and June is his month of adoration.

This is not quite the John the Baptist of the Bible. He's been a curious mix of European and African beliefs since early slave days. But the fishermen don't seem to care. He's their saint, perhaps their god. A young priest assigned here a few years back was incensed by what he considered their primitive heresy. He stopped all services in Puerto Colombia and locked up the church to teach them a lesson. But you don't take San Juan away from the fishermen. They broke open the church doors and hauled off their saint for the celebrations.

"Si San Juan lo tiene, San Juan te lo da," they sing. "If San Juan has it, San Juan will give it to you." Break out the aguardiente, shoot off the fireworks, beat the tambores, wave the big bright banners, and dance San Juan's statuette on a chair held over your head through the narrow village streets, down to the malecón, where the great statue of the saint stands watch over the sea.

This year we have the Reencuentro de San Juan. Villages from all along the coast bring their San Juan effigies and parade them down to the sea with brassy marching bands and strutting dancers. The great Brahma bull is chased through town and slaughtered for the feast. June may be the month of San Juan, but this year his celebrations will spill into July.


MIAMI, FLORIDA by Fernando Morro Emerson

"¿Cuándo usted me volverá?" the singer croons before the glittering lights, and the girl in the blue-feathered headdress sways her hips to the drums, shakers, and bells.

My new wife and I sit at a table by the aquamarine pool, and the moon over Miami shines a magic halo. I sip lemon from a Caipirinha. For her, I manage a smile.

"Put it out of your mind," she says. "You've done all you can."

"I'm not so sure anymore," I say.

South Beach has changed since I watched it rise so many years ago——the playground where I worked in the hotel business and ruined my first marriage. I'd like to believe my ethics eroded, but I was corrupt from the start.

Perhaps it was the eight years of maturing in New York City, together with a melancholy about children I have rarely seen. I'm just too guilty to be charmed by the old vices of Spanish guitars and nubile bodies.

"¿Cuándo usted me volverá?" the singer croons. My wife takes my hand. She has called me her prince. Like my ex-wife's new husband, I'm using the battleground of a first marriage to get it right in a second.

I was starting over in New York City, found myself tested each day as I tried to reclaim the old magic. My new life took everything from me. I was an absentee father. When my children's hopes died, they buried me with them. I have no excuse, I know. I looked up to find I missed it all. Where did the time go?

Diana's Café was doing a brisk business in Cuban coffee at the peach mica counter. One side was open to the sidewalk and a wrinkled nut-brown man in a straw hat worked the sandwich press. Women with dark complexions and harried smiles delivered espressos that were strong and sweet to lawyers and other sinners sitting on fixed stools in the shade of a low overhang. I felt foolish on a warm March morning, having flown in from chilly New York, wearing a sweater-vest with a blazer. I took off my jacket and threw it across my shoulder and the lady seemed relieved for me as she served my eggs and salchichas hot from the griddle.

The Miami-Dade County courthouse stood across Flagler Street in my line of sight—a soaring neoclassical tower in terra cotta and granite. I slid a tip across the counter just as my lawyer, Mitch from North Miami, stepped in and crossed to join me. His face was Jewish and handsome, and despite the heat, he seemed at ease in a gray wool suit. He informed me that the hearing I'd sought was actually in a mirrored monolith around the corner.

The blandness of the building belied the drama inside, where families hid their tragedies as they passed through the metal detectors. We went up in the elevator to wait in a hall of corporate emptiness. My lawyer went to talk to the judge and left me staring out the panoramic windows at all the old and new when the elevator chimed, the doors slid open, and she walked in.

She looked good, but time kept me from noticing anything more than a faint imprint that no longer mattered. She gave me the echo of a smile, and her long Spanish black hair held strands of gray.

In the courtroom the judge was a ruddy-faced Florida cracker, the kind who metes out small town justice. In this case an overdue modification of alimony. Then my lawyer brought up the blocked visitations.

"My son is having psychological problems," she told the judge. "He didn't want to come."

"Your son?" the judge said sarcastically. "Your son with your new husband?" (He knew the answer.)

"No," she said. "My only son."

"Then you mean 'our' son," the judge corrected, speaking for me in concept.

I turned to my ex and said, "Our son needs me."

"He needed you a long time ago, " she said trembling. It was only the second time she looked at me, and she wiped her tears. My eyes watered.

My lawyer leaned toward me and whispered, "This crazy woman is doing this to the kid. I've seen it before."

I made a pained look and shook my head no. I never wanted to make war on the mother of my children--too many of my own sins.

"You could get custody," my lawyer said. "At his age of sixteen, two years is your last chance." The magistrate ordered her to appear with our son tomorrow at eleven, one floor below, for family therapy.

So I ruminate. I'm not sure I want custody. My ex has done the best she could. But I'm angry she's blocked my calls. I want my son. What's best for him, I wonder.

"¿Cuándo usted me volverá?" the singer croons. And the girl in the blue-feathered headdress dances like tomorrow will never come.



The stalks of corn glow gold against the sunrise. Beyond them a ghostly veil of mist escapes into the green mountains of Nebaj, Guatemala. Walking ahead of us on the road are several small boys, each with a machete swinging from his belt, the tip just inches from the ground. They march in rubber boots, and one of them wears the tightly woven straw hat that is typical of this region and carries a red and black knitted morral. We offer them a lift. As he climbs into our minivan, the oldest says to me, "I've seen your brothers and sisters come visiting. Don't you have corn where you live?"


LAS VEGAS, NEVADA by Ray Norsworthy

In 1966, the summer of my sixteenth birthday I found myself in Las Vegas, living part-time with my sister, and hanging out with a band of gypsy hippies. Sometimes we'd take Preacher Boy's Caddy convertible and sail ninety miles an hour to L.A. for a weekend cruising Sunset Strip and the canyons.

In Vegas, food was cheap. I'd eat breakfast twice a day (all you could eat for 49 cents), and hit a Casino buffet for lunch (since I was underage, I had to stay out of the gambling area). Sometimes we'd go to Lake Mead and hang out, steal a rich man's boat, water ski. Other times we'd go up to Mt. Charleston and hike around in the cool pines. Every day was joy to my world.

I met my first love there in my sister Bobbie's Sunday School class: Rebecca, a dancer in an Exotique chorus line at the Sands--tall, blond, busty, and fresh as a dew-glazed lily. She was really a simple little Georgia farm girl, so we hit it off like two refugees from the war of bibles and dust. Even now, thinking back on it, I shudder at how madly I loved her. The first time I saw her in that tacky little Sunday School room it truly seemed like deja vu (well before the idea of deja vu became passe), I was convinced I had dreamed of her, and that even though we were strangers, we somehow knew each other in an intimate way. She was only 17, but she was passing for 21.

It was no big deal for Rebecca to get me backstage to see her show. In Vegas then there was still an outlaw mentality, and almost anything went, or was going or gone. It was quite a spectacle for a sixteen-year-old Oklahoma farm boy. I thought I'd never seen anything so mesmerizing, or a girl as beautiful as her when I saw her descend the stairs that were made to look like a multi-colored waterfall surrounded by lush jungle, her head steady as it balanced the feather-plumed headdress. She wore little else besides a dazzling smile and a few sequins. It was the first time I had seen her breasts. I remember thinking, boy, I've got some good times in store for me. So as I'm watching from the wings, who do you think comes up behind me, blowing smoke in my eyes, and whistling? Sinatra, Ole Blue Eyes himself. I wasn't that big a fan of his back then, but I knew who he was, and anyone who lived in Vegas knew who the reigning king was. And who was behind Frank? Sammy Davis, Jr.(who I had never heard of at the time).

"Sammy, I bet this kid's eyeballs are bigger than his cue balls right now," Frank said, slapping me on the back.

Sammy cackled and almost fell to the floor.

I grinned, nervously, and said, "There's my girlfriend," as she was doing some precision high kicks. I don't think he had the slightest idea who I was pointing to.

"Nice lookin' girl, kid." He turned to go. "Stay away from the booze, stick to the cooze," he said, and then he and Sammy departed.

Words to live by. Thanks, Frank.


CANCUN, MEXICO by Marilyn Peake

One day, I decide to try one of those rainbow-colored parachutes, pulled by boats, flying high up into the sky until the people become mere dots. Several Mexican men running the enterprise give me hasty directions through gleaming white smiles: "Just pull the cord when we yell up to you. Easy. Nothing to it."

It's the 1980s. I'm young, naïve, adventurous. Nothing to it. Flight is exhilarating. To pass birds, to soar up into wispy nothingness. I study the air, the sense of height. I look down, notice that people and things are very small. Then--what? People waving arms, frantically. I'm too high up to hear what they're saying. Ahhh, that must be my signal to descend. I pull the cord as instructed, and begin plummeting toward earth. Eventually, I hear screaming, voices of my husband and the Mexican men, telling me to ease up on the cord. I look down again, suddenly realize that I'm heading directly toward the roof of a building. I let up on the cord for a while, follow shouted directions, land safely on the soft white sand.

I guess people mustn't worry too much about lawsuits in Cancun.


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