The gum smacks are the pulse I’ll follow if my walkman fades: How Stephen Malkmus saved me from mental derangement and a possible incarceration at the Guatemala-El Salvador border

I am an atheist, mostly.

Still, my ears have on occasion been filled with sounds so strange and wondrous that I can only describe them as heaven-sent, as precisely what the voice of God might sound like if he did, or does, or could, in fact exist.

And that voice sounds pretty much exactly like Stephen Malkmus from Pavement.

Stephen Malkmus – Not quite everybody’s God. Courtesy photo.

It took a gutful of pot cookies and a bus ride through the bowels of Nearly Hell to show me the way, but in my hour of darkness, he was there, earnest and nonsensical and speaking only just for me. And it was nothing short of glory-filled.

I swear it happened exactly like this:

One sweltering summer morning a few years back, a Dutch friend and I found ourselves loitering at the edge of a filthy service station in Rat’s Ass, Guatemala. We were hopping buses, angling down, hoping to meet to our companeros at an El Salvadorian beach countless kilometers south before the day’s end. The town had a definite Wild West kind of feel: A mother-and-daughter team of whores in matching black see-through mesh bodysuits roamed the dirt road beyond, eliciting a near riot from the swathes of men camped in groups along the roadside, smoking and puffing their chests. Naked babies perched upon the mini-mountains of substantial bosoms. And junked fleets of old yellow school buses repainted in psychedelic hues were stopping every minute or so to spit out a sweating mouthful of humanity and just as quickly gobble up another.

We were mapping out the cheapest possible route for getting to the playa, which was to involve something in the area of 11 hours on 5 buses with perhaps a leg or two of hitchhiking thrown in, when I suddenly remembered the black baggie of pot cookies wedged into my luggage.

I’d stockpiled them a few towns back, these stinky little hockey pucks. They were dense and round, with tiny choco chips baked in. And they were very, very strong. I’d been nibbling at them demurely for days.

Two girls we’d met had warned us of the brutal consequences of overindulging: projectile vomiting so intense it could shoot clear across a hotel room, interminable hours spent supine on a filthy shower floor, the agony broken up only by the slightly worse agony of a coldwater tap hose rinsing the bile and spit off their trembling, convulsing bodies. These cookies were not for the weak of spirit. They were strong motherfuckers, and I hated to leave them.

Many backpackers in Central America make no bones about transporting contraband across the region’s ragged, untried borders. But I’ve always been a worst-case scenario kind of girl, perhaps on account of the atrocious bad luck I often encounter on my excursions abroad.

Visions of Guatemalan prisons from some terrifying Discovery channel special or another danced in my head. You know, the cautionary tales about idiotic American or Australian travelers who get conned into shoving balloonfuls of cocaine up their asses and end up spending the rest of forever rotting in holes where the food is so bad, people opt to feed it to the rats and eat them instead? Places that make San Quentin look like a reform camp for wayward middle school girls? Yeah, those.

NO WAY was I making a run for the border with them in hand.

Naughty little cookies; Guatemala, 2009. Photo by Erin J. Bernard

I pulled out the baggie, my heart heavy. I saw the faces of my mother and dad as they reach through the corroded bars to hand me a pack of dusty cigarettes, the last earthly pleasure allotted me. They were weeping for me, at me. Our bus was pulling up. Its old, balding tires hadn’t even stopped spinning, but already the scrambling mess of humanity was surging forward.

Kaj pulled on my sleeve. If we didn’t hurry, we’d have to stand for the whole four hours of this leg of our trek. Normally, being forced to stand for a long bus ride is merely an imposition. But when you’re tearing down jungle roads at breakneck clip with nothing to hold onto on any side, and the “door” a foot to your right has no actual door on it, the prospect becomes downright terrifying.

So I did the right thing. As Kaj struggled to lift her large backpack, I opened the bag and began to shovel the treats into my mouth as fast as I could. I couldn’t just throw them away. I couldn’t! Back home in the states, pot food was a rare commodity and was usually bunk anyway even when you did manage to get your mitts on it. Something inside of my heart wouldn’t allow it.

I downed a cookie-and-a-half before I grudgingly threw the rest on top of a pile of nearby trash. A few hapless, thin pups lunged at the bag before I could think to bury it.

I shook my head, shamed at the transgression, and we hopped on.

We scored the last empty seat, near the back of the bus. Kaj piled in first, then me, then a Guatemalan man, then a Guatemalan woman and her child, until there were five of us wedged like sardines into a space intended to hold two children.

A woman with a mouthful of gold teeth hovered outside our bus window, tapping at the filthy  glass and pointing to the plastic tub of goodies she carried atop her head. We shook our heads “No,” but she persisted, holding out bags of sweating pineapple and mango, flashing us a sparkling grin. My stomach started to gurgle as the bus lurched forward.

She of the golden teeth, Guatemala, 2009. Photo by Kaj Schut

Fro the get-go, the heat was pretty much unbearable. And then there was the space issue. My elbows were jammed into my stomach. Someone else’s elbow was jammed into my ribs. I was jammed into Kaj. My slackened jaw knocked thunderously against my skull as we bumped over the primitive roads. I was sweating ferociously and my legs had gone numb.

It took about 45 minutes for the panic to kick in. At first, I was merely buzzed. Then I was high. Then I was stoned out of my mind. A sense of dread began to spread inside of me like some filthy yellow vapor. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t breath. And I was getting higher by the minute. My belly rolled. My brain and body began to detach from each other and I was overcome by that sensation of uncontrolled floating that sometimes signals the start of a bad trip. Like a trap door swinging suddenly open beneath you, where the blessed ground once was. And I’d been through enough of those to know that terrible, terrible things were coming for me if I didn’t get control. Dreadful things.

OK, I muttered to myself. OK.

I needed an anchor, and fucking fast. Something to keep my careening mind from floating up out of the window like a lost balloon. I groped inside the daypack I was cradling on my lap. My hand fell upon my iPod. I quickly inserted the earbuds and pushed blindly at the buttons.

And it happened. He happened.

Stephen Malkmus’ voice rang out, funneling a quick and prodding stream of soothing nonsense into my earholes.

As the thick curdling stench of humanity swirled around my quaking body, he said: The air is so tight I feel so thin hot as the gun I’m closing in.

I perked up.

As the bus slowed to a roll so another half-dozen locals could cram themselves into the aisles and up on the roof, he said: I’m happy to say I’m around / miles accrued / passengers add up.

Yes, precisely!

Tuck in your thoughts / It’s there or it’s not, he advised me.

It was like a generous slathering of Vics Vapo-Rub smeared along the folds of my fevered cerebellum.

Stephen said: Oh my God, oh your God, oh her God, oh his God / It’s everybody’s God it’s everybody’s God, it’s everybody’s God, it’s everybody’s God.

O, great God in heaven above, The layers!

Inside the chicken bus. Guatemala, 2009. Photo by Erin J. Bernard

As Stephen sang, “The check when it arrived / we went Dutch Dutch Dutch,” I glanced wondrously around me: first at the petite and profusely sweating Dutch girl who’d become an all-time favorite traveling partner and who was, at the moment, enduring the aggravation of my sweaty elbow jabbing her kidney with the patience of at least a lesser saint. Then at the dozing, moustachioed hombre seated next to me who carried a bag of tortillas and a dead chicken on his lap. At the young, ample-bosomed mother in the colorful frock who managed, through some feat of balance and endurance, to remain perched atop the furthest outside corner of our cozily-appointed bus seat, her child perched, in turn, atop her.

There was so much grace and beauty in the world! My mind was awhirl with it.

I summoned to mind that story from the Bible where God appears to Moses in that old burning bush, but Moses is afraid to look at him, maybe cause he knows that usually when people see God they get turned into dust or pillars of salt.

So he hides his face, instead, and asks God what his name is.

And God must be in a sort of nonsensical mood, because he says back, “I am what I am.”

And Moses relaxes. The task ahead of him is no less uncomfortable or substantial, but he seems more ready for it. As with Zen, he has been placated by the simple reminder of the nonsense-nature of existing at all. And it is enough.

It was sort of like that with me and Stephen that day on the Guatemala chicken bus.

I was no less high or uncomfortable or rumbly-bellied. In the end, we make our own terrible, terrible fates, and nobody but nobody is going to save us from that.

But in those strange hours, I understood intuitively that this, all of it – was only just what it was, and prepossessed of its own brand of deep, inarguable rightness.

Like Deus es machina and whatnot: me, stubborn, ridiculous, destruction-bent, offered salvation nonethefreakingless. Unlikely, unearned, blessed, blessed salvation.

I’d listened to this little collection of albums hundreds of time since I happened upon it in a Goodwill in Oregon in 2000. But I’d never really heard.

That day, as time passed without fresh air, without toilet, I became as a lamb put to pasture in a heavy downpour, reaching for some inner core of knowing that might alleviate my bodily suffering.

I followed the sounds.

Every single sentence of every single song made perfect sense on its own. But when strung together with all the other single sentences that made up a particular song, all that sense de-evolved to nonsense. BUT WAIT! When all of those nonsensical songs were strung together and considered as a complete whole, it went back to making perfect sense yet again. My mind was a top, spinning joyous loops as the bus lurched forward and the numbness spread up to my middle.

On we rode.

In the end, ditching those pot cookies was a lucky thing. We got stopped by a pair of sinister-looking border guards as we heaved our packs across the desolate one-mile stretch of no man’s land that marked the entrée to El Sal. The cookies were still raging full force: I was dripping sweat. My cheeks burned purple from the exertion. My brain felt mooshy as a bowlful of warm, refried chorizo.

It was me they were eyeballing as they waved us over. Me and my enormous green suitcase, an endless source of harassment from pretty much everyone I met over the course of that six-week trip.

It weighs a lot, your bag, the one in sunglasses said quietly in Spanish. What do you have in there?

I groped for some words, still very, very high.

Um. Clothes? Books?

Stephen’s words were still thunderous in my ears. The policeman flipped through the stamped up, ratty pages of my passport. Eyeballed my blonde mohawk and my red eyes. He seemed to be waiting. And it came to me.

Senor, I said. I am who I am.

He broke into a grin and waved us on. It felt like a Mentos commercial or something. Like something Stephen might have been inordinately proud of.

Me, fucking up royally.

A tired nation so depraved, a tired nation on the fly.

And all of it, in the end, somehow perfectly aligned.

I’m a blank want list, indeed, lost, eternally, as Stephen once intoned, in the foothills of my mind.

Into messiness and nonsense and chaos we are born. And from it, through it, we are also every so often saved.

Me and Kaj, hitchhiking in happier moments. Guatemala, 2009. Photo by Erin J. Bernard


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