El Mirador 

3rd Place

In 1988, my second year in the Peace Corps and my last year in Guatemala, my girlfriend and confederate Catalina and I conspired to steal over sweet aguardiente and chuchitos. We contrived ways to make ourselves a little easy money: to seek out the weak of spirit and mind, the fat of wallet and waist, and to take them for what they were worth. We took from tourists mostly: Germans, Dutch, Japanese, Americans and Canadians. Catalina and I didn't discriminate according to race or nationality, and we took American dollars only. I wasn't making any money in the Peace Corps and Catalina convinced me that since we were only robbing the rich tourists, we were sort of de facto Robin Hoods, recycling their opulence through our own means. Catalina had a large, poor family of farmers behind her and a Marxist doctrine up her sleeve. My job so far as a Peace Corps volunteer -- an eager servant to the people of Guatemala -- consisted of avoiding hepatitis, occasionally leading AIDS awareness or health and hygiene seminars, and writing reports that no one in Washington would ever read. I was on the outposts. No one cared much what I did, and I was bored.

Catalina and I lived in Flores, in northern Peten, a city built upon swamps and savannas, and surrounded by ancient ceiba and mahogany trees, with less than 2 percent of the Guatemalan population. Flores was a city of the new frontier, muddy and reckless with bars and hotels amid a solemn, old-world atmosphere. But for us, Flores was time to think, to plan, to enjoy the bounty of my home in the tattered Hotel Peten: simplicity in the soothing breeze of a revolving fan; Catalina's strong hands rubbing coconut oil into my back; fresh guava and papaya for breakfast; mango for lunch; the wild green marijuana of the rain forest and the locally brewed apricot chichas; the hum of the rainy season.

Catalina worked for a local money exchange where they often duplicated the receipts of tourists' cash advances; she swindled tourists fresh off the gringo trail who needed cash -- a beautiful quilt or a Guatemalan weave catching their eye, some silver or jade in the weekly market, buying frenzies encouraged by the atmosphere of fiesta. When I first met Catalina, it was across a counter with black metal bars between us where she smiled so sweetly, the lovely, dark-eyed Mestizo farmer's daughter, the girl next door, who asked me so politely to please sign again.

Your signature is not through the paper, señor. Please, would you.

Catalina demurely stole money from me -- a duplicated receipt that cost my credit card company $500. She thought I was just another turista passing through, my backpack hidden away in a youth hostel somewhere. When I went back to complain and threatened to call the police, she took me out for a lunch of beer and wild rice; we spent that night together wrapped up in the spoon of desire underneath my mosquito net while she told me stories about the crooked government that kept her family in poverty. I listened then but mostly marveled at her long, strong, corn-fed body and my good fortune at having been robbed.

We are minorities. You can't understand what it's like to work and work and work for someone else all your life without decent food and clothes for your family. We are not slaves but our government spits on us anyway.

She never gave me my money back, but since that evening, Catalina and I ran small scams on the gringo tourists, usually groups of five or so. We never hit more than once every two months, and we always initiated our scams amid the anonymity of Guatemala City, keeping our remote town secure. After our first hit together, Catalina introduced me to her family.

This is where my money goes, she said. This is why I rob the tourists.

Catalina never took me there again, but I had seen enough -- the simple lives of farmers, a routine of long hours tending to their sharecroppers' fruit harvest. Everything they had was rented from the government-supported plantation owners.

Eventually, Catalina and I fell into a cool, quiet love, spending our nights together, the gentle whirl of generators and the sounds of Spanish and Creole floating up to my second floor balcony: a quiet, satisfying life. One weekend she took me to the ruins of El Mirador, a Mayan city deep in the jungle.

The Mayans believed this place was a window to the world, Catalina told me. From here everything was clear, questions answered, riddles of the universe solved. From here they read the earth and sky for signals of what was to come. They anticipated life, death, war and peace.

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