1976 Guatemala

SONG: Adventures in Paradise                                 
Sung by: Minnie Ripperton

I remember it like it was yesterday.,

The sounds of Minnie Ripperton’s lilting magical voice singing, “Adventures in Paradise” as it drifted across the dead flat lake. Across it I gently swam, with each entry of my arm into the water I tried to make less and less of a splash. I swam in time and in sink with the music, which seemed to radiate out onto the lake and then spread like steam on a body of water in the early morning hours.

The year was 1974. Rainy had rented a house for us on the north side of Lake Attitlan. It was an wonderful and very magical house. Actually it was a collection of three houses. For the Q52.00 Quetzals per month rent ($52 US) it came complete with a family of servants, Shama his wife and their 3 young children. They were supposed to do what ever we wanted, but both Rainy and I were uncomfortable having servants so we mostly just let them live in their little hut on the top of the hill.

Shama did, however, have a few things to do each day. But most of the time all he had to do was crank up the generator each evening for two or so hours so we could all have lights and electricity, but mostly his work consisted of gardening and path maintenance. The houses were surrounded by the most incredible collection of tropical plants and trees. Shama had been working more or less full time for the last 10 years on the 5 acres of land. The rest of the time he pretty much drank the local brew, while watching his wife and kids do their daily chores. A fairly typical family arrangement in this part of the world.

The property had a collection of exotic plants that boggled the imagination. There were bushes of bougainvillea in whites and many different shades of pink and purple everywhere. Avocado trees shaded the many stone paths and dropped their fresh fruit everywhere. At one time I even started a collection of all of the different typed of avocados. I got up to a dozen or so distinct shapes and colors, before losing interest. Nevada, our 125 lb. German Shepherd/Doberman dog found that he had a real affinity for the rotten ones and he could frequently be found along the path lapping away at the pungent fruit and then later playing some kind of strange doggy catch with the large seed.

The paths were lined with poinsettia plants by the hundreds. Somehow they always reminded me of Xmas all year long. By the time Xmas finally did come, I felt holiday-ed out and we really didn’t do much at all to celebrate it. The other predominant plant was the Hibiscus and the large red flowers added an almost garish touch to the scene.

The land was really a rocky peninsula which jutted out into the lake. At the shore line huge boulders, some as big as a dump truck, dotted the edge. Many of them were half submerged in the water, and when the sun was at just the right angle and the water was calm, as it was on many occasions, it was hard to distinguish where land and lake separated. Our house was really no more than a one story one room rock house, built on stilts it jutted out to the very edge of the lake. It had large sliding glass doors that offered a stupendous view of the water. There was a wooden porch across the front. The property was situated in the crotch of two giant volcanoes. Standing next to the railing you had a surrealistic view of the volcanoes San Pedro and Santiago.

The other two houses were much larger. One was about 60 feet by 40 feet and it had floor to ceiling windows on all four sides. It was further up the hill and the view in all directions was something. But Rainy and I decided that we wanted to live right on the water.

It was an interesting place to try to get to. We had to drive to the other side of an inlet, stop and either honk the horn or set off fireworks, depending on how strong and what direction the wind was blowing. Then Shama, or his young sun if he was to drunk to row, would bring the small dugout across the inlet and pick the three of us up, and deposit us at the small rickety wooden dock. It was possible to walk around, but there really wasn’t a clearly defined path, and the boulders were quite difficult to walk across especially if we were carrying groceries.

We had driven down to Guatemala in a Jeep pulling a 14 1/2 foot travel trailer. The trailer we left across the lake in a town called Panajachel, or as the locals like to call it Gringotenago, mostly because of the huge collection of foreign visitors. We stayed in Guatemala for almost a year and a half. Most of the time the trailer spent inside a park in the middle of town. We lived in it for a while when we first arrived until Rainy found the house. From then on it became our vacation home. It was about a 4 hour slow and bumpy drive around the lake from our house to Panajachel, so we frequently, really about once a month, spent a few days in it.

But our true love was the little house on the lake. We pretty much gutted the trailer, bringing all off the good stuff to the house. We has hundreds of books, many of them reference books on Central America, and we also had quite large collection of music tapes. Rainy had picked out most of them. There was Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, Paul Simon and Judy Collins, but the one that I remember the  most, the one that always gives me the most vivid memories is Minnie Ripperton. Every time that I hear one of her songs it sends a small shudder of joy through my whole being. Visions fill my head as if I was watching a beautiful movie. It doesn’t matter where I am or what I am doing—it’s there and its as real as it was some 20 years ago. But let me digress and perhaps explain why her songs evoke such vivid memories.

I remember it like it was yesterday….

The vision always starts out the same. It’s evening. The sun is setting in the distance and the sky has exploded into crimson and powder blue fireworks. The volcanoes dark green hillsides have turned into matching and complimentary shades of red and blue, and oh my god the reflections on the water! These are something not to be believed. Perhaps just a few times in most peoples lives does such a picturesque scene occur. Maybe it was during that family vacation to the Grand Canyon when a young child peered over the side and looked far down into the canyon, and in the light of the full moon he saw the silver disk reflecting on the Rio Grande more than a mile below. This is the stuff that strong memories are made of, and this is what the lake looked like almost every night in the dry season, which lasted a full 6 months. Time has done nothing to diminish the memories. If anything they get stronger with each passing year.

The vision continues. I am standing on the porch filled with the beauty of it all. The Sony boom box is on the table and once again it’s Minnie’s voice that sings to the magical scene.

I believe any dream that I want to.
That ain’t the only way of keepin’ hope alive
And if, by chance, I give birth to my visions
Life is so fantastic, it will come as no  surprise
‘Cause every day is Adventures in Paradise

As I watch the sky turns more beautiful with each passing moment, a little voice in the back of my head whispers, “Now!” My body tenses as if I am getting ready to run a marathon, but I shout back, “No, it’s still too early.” Another part of my brain knows what I am really about, and it lets me know in no uncertain words that I am a “chicken”. You see, the lake is at 5500 feet and even though we are in the tropics and close to the equator the water is still very cold, in the low 60’s I would estimate. I carry on the conversation with “my selves.” It really seems like there are three of me, sometimes all talking at the same time. I know that the sun is getting ready to go down quickly, so there is some urgency, but still I must psyche myself up. I continue to listen to the music, but it is becoming more and more difficult to relax as all three of us try to push our agenda through. Finally, I, Peter number one, wave the rest of the voices aside and I walk off the porch and out the back door. I follow the little rough stone path as it steps down to the waters edge, and I remark to myself again just how much stone work there is and how beautifully it compliments the rest of the property. Soon I am standing on my favorite bolder. The water is like a mirror as it reflects the entire scene, making it seem doubly beautiful. A wisp of wind comes up and I can see it’s path as it races along the water. It blows over my body reminding me of just how chilly it is becoming. Now all my voices come into play, as one tells me to get on with it, while the other wants to just continue to soak in the beauty of the moment, but the third wants to abort the whole thing and go into the house and curl up with the current book that we’re reading. Soon the wind is gone and the water calms down again.

“Hey, who’s in charge here?”, I shout out to my multiple personalities.  Each voice answers back at the same time that it is, but Minnie Ripperton’s voice clears the air, with:

I believe I am free—Let it free me
That ain’t the only way of gettin’ past  the jive
And every day something magical  passes—
Sunshine on my body
Rainbows bloomin’ in the sky

And I suddenly become focused. I slowly remove all of my clothing, really just a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, as if I was doing some kind of sensuous, but unconscious strip tease. I walk over to the edge of the bolder and look out across the lake. It seems like it is not possible, but the sky and lake have turned even more beautiful while I have procrastinated. A thought flashes that I must go get my camera to record this memory, but then I remember that I have already shot about a dozen rolls of this same view. The cold air is giving my body goose bumps, and the conversations turn to arguments. I try to be the cheer leader to see if I can get all of the voices into synch, but it doesn’t happen. Finally something moves deep down in my soul and I just dive off the rock doing the most graceful swan dive I can imagine. One moment I’m thinking about getting every limb in alignment to enter the water with as little splash as possible, the next I’m thinking ‘Olympic champion, go for the gold!,” but in the next moment, as my body actually enters the water I know that I have made a terrible mistake. The water is too “Frigging cold!” I’m going to get hypothermia, and I am most certainly going to have a major heart attack and die! I swim like hell trying to warm up, or at least trying to forget about it. One of my minds tries to calm me with the thought that I have done this every night for the past 6 months, but another voice shouts out, “Yeah, but that this will probably be the last.”

I swim as hard as I can, powerfully pulling out toward the setting sun and away from shore. After “power stroking” for 5 or so minutes, I begin to take charge again. Some of the tenseness begins to leave my body as I try to slow down my strokes. I’m looking for grace now as I become conscience of each stroke, and what impact it has on the surface of the water. Look I’m Friggin’ Gene Kelly!”. The cool water has a sensuous feel now as I cut through it to open water. My head clears and I am one with the universe. I think how lucky I am to have taken that YMCA course in swimming just before coming on this trip. But now I can swim. It’s a half an hour later and I am still swimming. Heading out to the horizon and not lookin’ back.

I feel the pull of my muscles as I reach out in front, stretching to the fullest. My arm enters the water and doesn’t even make a ripple. My feet trail behind me, kicking really very little because I don’t want to upset the surface. That is my goal, to glide along the surface of the water like I was a porpoise. I’m in one, in synch with the lake. I am now swimming as if I could swim forever. It seems like I do. All of the voices have gone to their own special resting places, and I AM IN CHARGE!

Abruptly I stop swimming and begin to tread water. I look around at what had taken place on the planet since I have been gone. It’s not real, and feels like I’m in a Walt Disney film or something. The distant shore line looks like a scene from a Lionel train set. It’s too perfect and a little bigger than life-size. Slowly I spin around to see where I have come from. When I see the distance to the shore one of “myselfs”  — the frightened one — gasps as he computes the time and the distance back, but I remember all of the other hours that I have spent in the water, and I know I can do it. The view is a stunner — our tiny stone house can just barely be seen. The volcanoes loom over it, dwarfing every thing else in their majesty. There is not even a whisper a breeze and the water reflects EVERYTHING.  There is no sound save the occasional gentle splash as I tread water.       I shout in surprise as an Attitlan Giant Grebe, also know as the “poc”, makes a sudden appearance. A tan and brown chicken sized diving duck that is mostly flightless, he is found in no other body of water. Our home sits right in the middle it’s only preserve. He tucks his wings under his body, sticks his beak into the water, and kicks his feet up over his head. He enters the water at a perfect angle not far from me. He makes a small “thunk” sound as he dives. I begin the count, “1,001, 1002, 1003…” The waters temperature has gone from pleasantly cool to downright cold. One of my voices returns with, “Your going to die!”, but I shut him up with a continued count of, “1,121, 1,122….”

Instead of seeing the diving duck surface, I hear all of my selves begin emerge.  I lyrically continue to count now in harmony with Minnie whose voice quietly echoes from across the water. I time my gentle treading movements with the music. It’s now just Me and Min. “1,356, 1,357…,” It become my mantra, it lulls me into subconsciousness, and I find myself floating on a cloud. I’m not moving and I begin to feel weightless. I slip deeper into the meditation of nothingness. I am one with the universe. I have arrived where no man has dared to travel before. My spirit begins to leave my body as it floats effortlessly upward toward the very heavens above. I can look back down now as I see that one small body – mine – is gently twirling around in circles. “1,318, 1,319……”  I make a mental note that the earthbound “I” has now lost count, but never mind since it’s the rhythm that really matters.

I float above the surface of the lake and I now quietly hear a dreamy voice. It now comes not from the Sony boom box sitting back on the porch, but from everywhere and nowhere. I think that the angels have now joined in as I fly over the surface.

‘Cause every day is Adventures in Paradise
It is real, if it’s only in your mind
In your mind.

My newly acquired skill of flying is becoming more comfortable, and I start doing tricks. I execute some difficult maneuvers. I think to myself that these might actually be beyond a novice’s skills, but to my amazement they are not, and I fly like I have been doing it all my life. I even dive bomb that poor earth bound soul floating on the surface of the water He doesn’t, however, seem to mind as he continues his now very confused count, “1,899, 1,899, 1,828….,”

 I see a distant splash as the grebe comes up from the depths below. The spell is some how broken as all of my selves awake at the same time. I come crashing down to a now very startled being. “Hey, what the hell is going on”, I shout as I am roughly reunited with the “klutz that can’t count.”  It takes a moment before I realize just what has happened here. One of my selves breaks loose from the rest of the pack and shouts, “You fool, we could have all been killed! You really lost it for awhile.” Another voice perks up and wishes that we were all back safely on shore. As a general panic starts to mount among everyone, again I struggle to gain control. I notice that in my absence the sky has turned a washed out gray. It is getting dark and I have a heck of a long swim back. I begin to swim for shore using the same long and powerful strokes that I started out with. My goal now is to try to make landfall before it gets dark.

As I glide toward home, I reflect on just how fortunate I am to have a once in a life time trip such as this. I think about our home sitting on the shore surrounded by tropical flowers. I think of all of my adventures up to this point Of all of the wonderful people that have come into my life. Life is good. In fact it is downright great! What else could a mere mortal, such as my self want from life. I have it all. Certainly I have more than my fair share. I have come “a long way baby!” From budding Chicago architect to Central American adventurer in just 2 short years. My Father had said I would turn into a bum if I left Chicago. If I am a “bum”, I am one of the most successful ones that I have ever met. Now I am two years into a trip that we expect to last for the rest of our lives.

I stop swimming, and start to again tread water, not because I am tired, but just because I don’t want this experience to ever end. I seem to have lost my sense of time, because the sky has almost completely darkened in my absence, but to my right there appears to be some kind of new light emerging from behind the volcano San Pedro. As it quietly rises I see that it is the full moon. I am mesmerized staring at it’s yellow white light bathing the landscape in it’s serene glow. The light dances across the water as the reflection races toward me. All the while, in the background I can still hear Minnie Ripperton’s singing.

I believe any dream that I want to—
That ain’t the only way of keeping hope alive
And if, by chance, I give birth to my visions
Life is so fantastic, it will come as no surprise
‘Cause every day is Adventures in Paradise

I notice that I have almost made it back to shore. In that moment as I realize that I have once again gone to the very brink of death and disaster, at least according to one of  the most catastrophic inside companions. I can contain myself no more. The moon, the scenery, the singing and the jubilation at having successfully completed yet another adventure, have all combined to make this one of the best days of my life. My body gives a large shudder as it has one of it’s rare moments of “True Happiness” It flows through my body and leaves me weak with joy.

The shuddering reminds me that it is now very dark and the temperature of the water is still cold. I finish my swim to shore a changed person for all pleasure that this experience has given me, but someone gently whispers in the background that the swim in the chilly water has probably give us a cold!

‘Cause every day is Adventures in Paradise
It is real if it’s only in your mind
In your mind.
In your mind.
Step this way for another Adventure in Paradise
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Thanks Minnie, may you rest in peace