This morning I traveled from deepest Guatemala to New York City. I had July to myself and spent it blissed out and bopping around the Lake Atitlan area, tasting everything, jumping off everything, chatting to everyone and then chanting everything while bowing to the seven seas and the four directions in the spirit of Mother Yellow Corn and the Walker of the Red Road—no joke, people talk like that over there and breathe deeply to the point of passing out (I saw it) and there are things you will overhear if you go, which you should, that may include but not be limited to:
“I’m getting there, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to completely eradicate the ego.”
“Never say never.”
“I think my prana is out of whack.”
“Have you tried kirtan?”
“Shit! We’re out of kombucha!!”
I tried my zippy best to fit in with this lot but in the end I went wild and free with this Russian model who was also graciously in situ and under whose watchful gaze and careful guidance no exploration of the mind went unattempted, no tasty offering ungratefully received. The fun we had was perhaps proportional, ultimately, to the irritation felt and later expressed by fellow campmates whose journeys to enlightenment would be ever so momentarily thwarted when Anna and I again went launching over the 3 am fence or skittered away before evening meditation to find Anton—and if you do go to San Marcos you will find this place and there you must order the mushroom pasta in a light cream sauce dusted with garlic and while the others are fasting and you are waiting for all that glory, strike up, say, a conversation with the affable Anton and see where things go. You will be most pleased that you did, arguendo.
At any rate, all of this had to come to some kind of perhaps not end (that is a strong word as Anna and I both live in NYC so there is much ahead) but transition.
I am a minimalist hoarder—one who packs light in a too-small bag but then stuffs it all in and finally hops-sits-hops-sits on the duffle until she gives up, exhausted. I win. And this time the winnings came in the form of new-to-me superfood moringa (lightly secured with twizzle band), a bucket of organic coconut oil whose supple qualities drenched my Guatemalan skin, as I came to regard it, nightly. I tucked in what became known in my group as “chocolate sausages” and this is an apt term for an excellent local bar produced lake-side and fashioned like a hotdog (the hotdog is actually the perfect shape for and amount of chocolate). In the bag.
I dashed in three bottles of organic flower essence that promise to eradicate all “negative ions” and open all chakras and otherwise keep me in the cosmic flow. The same man who sold me that jazz also kindly unloaded some pure macadamia nut oil and a very good jar of eucalyptus extract, owing to the fact he had picked up some strong messages from my depleted aura and it was the only way, the only way.
As the hour of departure approached, I got more serious about things, paying a visit to a neighboring village to pick up a bag of mystery powder pronounced “ah-woosh-tey” and what is surely the only thing standing between me and immortal detoxification. Two bags, please. And then I nipped over to see Keith the “chocolate shaman” who holds court on his porch, distributing cups of “chocolate church”, whereafter he leads these long, rambling ceremonies in which people he has never met come before him, tell of their most intimate traumas, weep openly, and fall asleep. Power of chocolate, you see. I bought four pounds.
“Now when you get to the airport, just glow through it,” Keith’s partner Barbara told me. “They might ask you some questions, for sure they’ll smell it. They may open a bag and test it. Don’t get worried about any of this. Just glow.”
I have, once or twice, gotten on the wrong side of the law. There was a dicey moment of Thai incarceration in my early 20s but all was forgiven after Bangkok police determined that, while confused and perhaps a touch underweight, I was not a significant drug dealer. We chalked whole thing up to the tides and whims of border infractions because in the sobering light of day all I had really done was walk across at the wrong place and failed to get a stamp. Phooey to that. I am a child of the Golden State and if there is one thing California has a grip on, it is its border. Not a very happy place, it is what it is. When that is your measure and rule, the porous, unguarded land that straddles Cambodia and Thailand looks like a joke we are playing on ourselves. Fast forward: incarceration. Fast, fast forward: mug shot. Faster still: I get sprung and there is a story but that’s as close as I’ll ever get to seeing the inside of a cell again all the days of my life, dios mio I swear it.
But this chocolate—and it is just chocolate, pure, raw, unadulterated cacao, none of the sugars, none of the stabilizers, but whole and molded to blocks and sealed—this chocolate is a substance of its own. I tucked my four pounds into my handbag, edge to edge, creating a big chocolate wall. When I got back to my room, I took out my duffle. I examined the blocks.
They looked like the most terrifyingly illegal bricks you’ve ever seen. If it weren’t for the fact that they are dark brown and reek of chocolate, I’d swear it was coke. I was halfway to solitary, I was sure of it.
I took out my meditation stool. I tried to channel the diva. I reminded myself they were just chocolate. What is so illegal about chocolate, anyway?
From the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office: “All travelers entering the United States are REQUIRED to DECLARE meats, fruits, vegetables, plants, seeds, soil, animals, as well as plant and animal products (including soup or soup products) they may be carrying. Prohibited agricultural items can harbor plant pests and foreign animal diseases that could seriously damage America’s crops, livestock, and the environment – and a large sector of our country’s economy.”
And so, with the future of the American economy hanging in the balance of all the organic, raw, unpasteurized wonders our customs officials are so well trained to weed out, I headed to the airport.
Fifteen hours later I was face to face with US customs at Newark International Airport.
Glow. Glow. I am glowing. I do not have illegal substances on me and nothing to declare and I have not just perjured myself on a signed official document, checking all the “no” boxes when it should have all been “yes” “yes” “yes” while swaddled in scarves and the eighth crystal of the goddess yes I am fine, I am fine, I am fine, I am fine, this is all fine, there is nothing to see here because everything is fine.
“Where have you been?”
“Oh? What were you doing there?”
“I was, uh, you know,” No!! When you prevaricate like that you sound like a guilty little rat! Be strong. Clear, decisive answers. Don’t go on and on, but do not—ugh!
“I was at a yoga and meditation retreat.” True. Better.
“What do you do when you’re not doing that?”
“I’m a public school teacher.”
“The South Bronx.”
“Oh, so you have to do yoga and meditation, ha ha.”
“How old are your kids?”
“I don’t have any kids!”
“No, I mean, how old are your students?”
“Oh. About fifteen.”
“What subject do you teach?”
“Hiiiiiigh schooooool Engliiiiiish.” He sort of drew the words out, elongating them through a sweet toffee puddle of nostalgia and memory. Or was that a tar puddle designed to trip me up, get me comfortable enough to make some offhanded reference to chocolate and ah-woosh-tey? No sir, not me. I had to remain vigilant.
“Yes,” I said.
“What did you do before doing this?”
“I worked at the UN.”
“What were you doing there?”
“I was writing speeches.”
“Why did you leave the UN?”
I was really sweating now. This was a lot of questions. Are they this chatty with everyone? It was time for some charm offensive.
“Look, to tell you the whole story of that we’d have to go get a drink or something,” I said. Little wink, little casual asking out of the customs official, no big deal, nothing to see here, we’ll just go sit in a bar somewhere now at 5 in the morning and I’ll talk about the UN and how it was not, ultimately, the right fit for me, professionally, and we’ll drink beers and then maybe something stronger, maybe some whiskey, as the sun comes up and streams into that classy-ass airport bar. Sure. Super casual, super normal. “It’s a long story,” I added.
“But now I’m a teacher. I’m happier as a teacher.”
“That’s good. Have you been to West Africa?”
The ebola concern. Good. We were edging off me, onto more general topics. Good, good. The end was in sight, no lagers needed, no bad sun in disinfected bars. No doubling over pretending to laugh while fingering stale table peanuts. Good.
“No,” I said. Also true.
“Okay. Are those all your bags?”
“Nothing else? No bags checked?”
“No, I didn’t check anything.”
“Huh. You travel light.”
“That’s the way to do it.”
“And what about coffee?”
“WHAT ABOUT COFFEE?!” I practically screamed. I had about three pounds on me. Really good stuff, top Guatemalan beans, all in a loving roasty-toasty pile at the bottom of my handbag. Please don’t make me open my handbag.
“Most people come back with coffee, that’s the main thing we intercept. You don’t have any coffee on you?”
“NO!” Calmly now, please. Calm and ginger. He was like a dentist who had hit the nerve of a very proud patient with a mouthful of softly black molars but unwilling to admit even a single rotten tooth. “I mean, of course, I drank a lot of coffee,” I said. “And the coffee there was, you know, it was extremely good. That’s for sure.” I was going now, holding his attention, engaging his question seriously and in earnest– what about coffee? “And if there is one thing you can say about Guatemalan coffee it is that it is very, very good,” I continued, stupidly. “That is for sure something you can say. Yes.” Still talking. You’re rambling. Shut up. “So that’s about the extent of my coffee, um, contact.”
Coffee contact? Who says that?
“You don’t have any coffee in any of those bags of yours?”
“All righty then.”
“Because that’s a real shame.”
“You should have at least brought back some coffee.”
“I’m joking. Welcome back.”
No! He’s been here all along. Or at least through the morning. This dude wasn’t traveling. Or I had no reason to believe he had been anywhere that would warrant a “welcome back”. It was one of those reflexive things. I picked up my stuff. “Not, you know, not you too exactly. You know what I mean.”
“I know what you mean.”
And like a lemming to the ledge, I rushed away from the counter, around the corner, nearly toppled into a barricade, made an effort to open one door (wrong way), succeeded in finding another (correct) and blazed out into the new day. The sun was just cresting the horizon and the losers were already in the airport bars and the taxi guys were calling and hustling. People moved with their bags toward busses and cars, out into the city and the rest of their lives, with all their treasures tucked away, all the goodies they brought home to share.