How “THAT” Came About

Part V


The one component that I still didn’t have for my boat was fiberglass. I had ordered it during my last trip to the States and, a few weeks later, I received a notice in the mail from Aduana (Customs) telling me that it had arrived at the port of Santo Tomas. But I hadn’t received an invoice from the company and, without it, I couldn’t’ claim the fiberglass (which would be auctioned off in 30 days if I didn’t pick it up before then). There wasn’t any sense in calling the company because if it hadn’t been sent, it wasn’t going to reach me within the 30 day limit...and if it had been sent, only the gods knew when it would arrive. Mail to the Rio Dulce took any where from three weeks to nine months, and sometimes it never arrived at all.

So, I waited. It was a nerve-wracking business. If the paperwork didn’t show up in time, I would lose $1,000 worth of fiberglass, not to mention the glass itself, which would mean yet another trip to the States to earn more money in order to replace it. I didn’t even want to think about that.

Three days before the fiberglass was to be auctioned off, the invoice came in the mail. I grabbed our entire supply of money (275 quetzales), jumped on a bus to Santo Tomas, and ran up the steps of the Aduana building.

Expecting to pay 10% duty, I handed my invoice to the low-browed, gold-toothed Aduana official behind the counter. He disappeared into a back room to check my invoice against the bill of lading. This time, I didn’t see what could possibly go wrong. I had my Q100 on the counter when the official came back with that ‘we-got-you-by-the-balls’ gleam in his eyes (which I well recognized from all my previous experience with Aduana).

“That will be 600 quetzales, Mr. Hassall.”


“Six hundred quetzales.”

“I heard you, but that can’t be! Ten percent duty only comes to 100 quetzales. I don’t even have 600.”

“Mr. Hassall,” he began, with all the charm of a coiled snake, “this is cloth you’re bringing into the country. The duty on cloth is 60%.”

“Wait a minute. It’s not cloth. I know it looks like cloth, but it’s not cloth. It’s glass. If you had to wear a shirt made of the stuff, you’d know right away that it isn’t cloth.”

“I’m sorry, sir. In my book, if it looks like cloth, then it is cloth. Same with a car. If it looks like a car, then it is a car, no matter if they tell me it’s a box of fruit.”

“But fiberglass is NOT CLOTH...” I wailed. But he had gone on to another customer, and no amount of protest on my part was going to do any good at this point.

I left the building and stood on the front steps, wracking my brain. How could I convince him that fiberglass was glass, not cloth? Especially when they stood to gain nothing by changing their minds. And if I couldn’t convince them, how the hell was I going to come up with 500 more quetzales?

Several minutes passed. I was lighting up a third cigarette in a row when the door opened behind me and a man brushed past.

“Meet me behind the building in five minutes,” he said and kept on walking.

I recognized him as a fellow who’d been hanging around inside, a tramitadore, obviously – one of the many who make their living squirreling around the inner sanctums of Guatemalan bureaucracy.

I finished my cigarette and ambled around to the back of the building. He was standing with his back against the eight-foot cyclone fence that surrounded the government building. A glob of overgrown hibiscus shaded his face while he worked on his fingernails.

“What’s the deal?” I asked.

“Two hundred and fifty quetzales, and I’ll get the stuff out for you,” he said without looking up.

“Shit, I don’t owe more than 100.”

“They say you owe 600.”

They don’t know what fiberglass is, for Christ’s sake. They’re trying to take me for 500 quetzales! No deal. I’m not paying them or you more than I owe.”

He shrugged his shoulders, and I walked off, thoroughly pissed. One thing for sure, if I ever managed to get the boat built, I was going to take great pleasure in sailing away from Latin bureaucracy. After 15 years, I had had a belly full of these officials.

I marched back inside and demanded a hearing. A meeting was called – three Aduana officers and a shipping agent (who was supposed to be my impartial judge), and myself. We met in one of the offices, a cinder-block cell with a lopsided overhead fan teetering in the hot air. A box of fiberglass sat beside the door.

I stated my case; the Aduana officer stated his. The shipping agent was then called upon to give his opinion.

“It is cloth,” he announced. “It even says cloth on the box.” He took his pen and ran it along the words ‘5-ounce fiberglass cloth’ and underscored the word ‘cloth’ several times.

Two of the officers nodded their heads in agreement. The third looked a bit troubled.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Fiberglass is glass. They make it look like cloth, but it isn’t really cloth.”

“Yeah,” I chimed in, surprised and grateful that I had support from anyone in the room.

“You can’t wear this stuff,” I said. “It isn’t cloth in that sense. It’s glass strands woven together to make it a more usable product. It’s only used for building boats, cars, planes things like that.”

“What are you using it for?” Asked the third Aduana officer.

“I’m building a boat.”

“It clearly states on the container that it is cloth,” insisted the shipping agent – a man who, apparently, had no experience in changing his mind but plenty of practice in maintaining his position.

I popped out of my chair, ran to the box of fiberglass, tore off a piece, and rubbed it vigorously on the shipping agent’s arm.

“You think it’s cloth? I asked. “You’ll be itching for weeks on that spot, but I’ll be more than happy to make a pair of undershorts out of the stuff for you. Then we’ll talk about whether it’s cloth or not.”

On and on the argument went. The room became hotter, the fan grew more irritating, and nobody gave an inch. We’d gone from sitting to standing positions. Fingers wagged in front of noses and poked bellies. Faces reddened.

Suddenly, the third Aduana officer staggered backward. Somebody had punched him in the face. I never knew who. The room exploded as if the tension had jumped from fuse to powder keg. Curses flew, arm flailed, papers fluttered, and the overhead fan gyrated wildly. I edged my way along the wall to the backdoor and tiptoed out.

Outside, I checked my watch. Almost noon. The office would be closed in a few minutes and not reopen until 2 o’clock. In two hours they would be back to normal. But the question still remained: what was I going to do?

A plate of beans and tortillas helps an entire continent of people to solve life’s problems and what that doesn’t fix, a two-hour siesta will. I ate a heaping plate of frijoles, hot tortillas and scrambled eggs. Then, over a final cup of coffee, I decided that I was better off paying the tramitadore 250 quetzales than losing the fiberglass altogether, or coughing up 600 from God knows where.

Someday, I wish somebody would tell me how those guys do it. But, I suppose some mysteries are meant to remain forever beyond the scope of explanation. However, he did it. By 4 o’clock, the tramitadore had his 250 quetzales, and I was stacking boxes of fiberglass in the back seat of a taxi.

I was also battling Latin bureaucracy on another front. Bonnie and I had decided to adopt Marquito. Actually, it wasn’t much of a decision; even if Chung remarried (which he showed no inclination to do and, in fact, never did), or somebody else offered to give the baby a good home, we were all past the point of being able to give him up. The usual attorney’s fee for adoption was 2,000 quetzales which was just plain out of the question for us. I explained to the attorney that we could afford to pay no more than 300 quetzales, but that I was willing to do all of the footwork. He agreed, and three months, and much footwork, later, Marquito was legally ours.

While all of this was going on, Chung and I continued to build a boat. I remember the week when we put the main hull together. Like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, we fitted all of the parts into a whole: two frames, four buttblocks, and six compound-curved panels. Now, we had a huge upside-down canoe, 10 feet across and 62-feet long. The same week, we added the 3-foot wing extensions which turned out to be rather handy as platforms. At the end of the week, we were faced with the problem of turning the hull over.

With a 5-ton winch, cable routed through the rafters to a strong tree, two come-alongs, block and tackle to trees on the other side, and six strong men with levers, we began the process of turning eight tons of hull over. She moved by inches; slowly and carefully, we proceeded, watching every cable and line to make sure that nothing snapped. As the hull rose higher and higher into the air, the tension grew. My stomach was as hard and tight as the cables. Martin, the village chief, one of the men whom I had asked to help, watched his men with the eye of a circling eagle, anxious that none of them caused the hull to crash down, and just as anxious that none of them got crushed if it did. When the minikeel was in the proper position, we put the cradle on it. For a few moments, we stared at the monster hanging in the air, and a sinking feeling crept into every stomach present. It didn’t take a genius to realize that I had made a mistake. I’d miscalculated the height of the roof; I hadn’t taken into account the added dimension of the cradle when I had determined how high the roof needed to be in order turn the hull over.

My first thought was that I would have to tear the shed down, and my second was “like hell I will”; What a stupid, idiotic mistake! I couldn’t believe I’d made it. While I was kicking myself from here to kingdom come, Martin walked up to me, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “We dig, Don Marcos.”

So, we dug. All day, and, little by little, the hull settled into the hole, and the space between the rafters and the cradle widened. The next day, we continued turning her over and, by the end of it, we had her right-side-up.

THAT's Hull

God, but she was huge! Upside down, she looked like a big, overgrown canoe; but right side up, with the new gaping maw of her interior, she looked frighteningly immense. Cocksure as I was about most everything, I couldn’t help but wonder, down in the depths of myself, if I hadn’t bitten off more then I could chew.

For one thing, the enormous thing was securely bedded down on the right hand side of the shop, and we needed her in the center of it in order to have room for the wings and floats. Turning her over was one thing, but how were we going to slide her 30 feet?

Martin was a man who liked a challenge. He was short, hard-muscled, 50 or so and, sometimes, it seemed to me that the whole village operated on the strength of his energy. While most of the other men had dull eyes and a slow gait that comes from too much drink and a poor diet, Martin’s eyes were bright as hot coals, and intelligent. He was a canoe builder by trade and, from morning to night, the sound of Martin’s adz echoed through the trees. Everybody (including me) knew one thing: if you need help, if you found yourself struggling with a job that was too much, Martin was the man to call on.

I put Martin in charge and went to the house. No sense in giving a man authority if you stand there and breathe down his neck. For some reason, I didn’t have the heart for this struggle myself. Back at the house, I brewed a pot of fresh coffee, played with Marquito, and tried to ignore the sounds coming from up the hill.

It wasn’t possible. They were too urgently important to ignore. Even the baby listened when Martin yelled, “UNO, DOS TRES!” Grunts, groans, moans, and yelps came from the men. From the boat came the most horrible creaking and cracking that I’d ever heard.

Then, silence. Long interminable silence that tormented me worse than anything. What was happening? Had someone been hurt? Was the boat still in one piece?

Finally, Martin again, “UNO, DOS, TRES!”

More torturous groans and creaks, both human and boat-like.

More silence. Very long silence.

It was more than I could stand. Leaping up, I ran, heart-in-mouth, up the hill, tripping over myself, sure that I would find some unspeakable disaster waiting for me.


The men were all lined up on one side of the boat with pillows on their shoulders and long levers. The air smelled of sweat, and the men’s bodies were shiny with it.

“Don’t push your levers too far,” cautioned Martin. “We don’t want to lift the goddamn thing, only nudge it. You understand? No lift, nudge.”

I was surprised to see how far they’d already nudged it. She was halfway to the center and, in spite of the nerve-wracking noises, seemed to be no worse for the wear. I stood quietly by and watched, thinking that these guys were direct descendants of the Mayans who had built incredible pyramids at Tikal and Palenque. I needn’t have worried.

Maybe not about that anyway, but worry ran like a subterranean river through my soul. I was covered with an itchy red rash from constant exposure to epoxy resin; the skin seemed to sink away from my ribs, and they were clearly countable. I weighed 98 pounds. Almost every night, I drank enough gin to fall into a heavy sleep. I was running out of money again, and I was running out of epoxy resin. I knew no other solution than to work faster. It seemed to me that all of my problems would dissolve on the ocean. All I needed to do was work faster so that I could get my family back to the sea – back to the way it used to be.

In order to earn money, I agreed to build yet another boat for two of my very best friends, Tommie Maer and Paul Parini. They owned a chain of popular pizza parlors in Guatemala City and, when the demands of their business allowed them to, they escaped to the Rio Dulce. They wanted a fast sailboat and, as soon as they bought materials, I was to begin construction on a Brown-Marples 34’ Seaclipper. I hoped that by the time the materials arrived in the River my boat would be in the water, and I could use the empty shed for the Seaclipper.

However, I ran out of resin sooner than I expected. I still had the entire interior of the boat and the decks to finish, all of which required another $7,000 worth of resin. There didn’t seem to be any way around the fact that I had to go back to the U.S. I had just enough money left to buy a round-trip ticket; once there, it would be up to the fates to decide what was going to happen next.

I spent two weeks with my folks in Ventura while looking for work. Some time during the last week, I called an old friend of mine from Guatemala, Arturo Herbruger, who was now living in California. Art and I went back a long way. He and Jim Brown had met back in the 60s in Santa Cruz. In those days, Art was sailing a trimaran, too, but since then, he’d married, had a family, and settled down.

Art was glad to hear from me for more than one reason. Seemed he was getting ready to send a shipment of wine to Guatemala, and it didn’t take him more than a few minutes to figure out that if he bought the resin for me and sent it down with the wine, he could save on wine what he spent on resin because the import duty on wine was a whopping 700%. If he claimed that the resin weighed more than it did, and the wine weighed less than it did, the savings would be considerable.

“I’ve been wracking my brain for weeks”, he said, “trying to find something heavy to send down with the wine. Resin is perfect!”

I drove up to San Francisco to meet with him and, within a week, the wine and resin were loaded onto a ship heading for El Salvador. From there, they were trucked to Guatemala City. Since the Herbruger family is a well-connected one, not a single hitch developed and, in less than three weeks, the resin was stacked at the River’s edge waiting for Chung and I to load it onto our three canoe raft.

Progress on the boat continued. We hung the floats, completed the decking, and dropped in the engine. Visitors came from near and far to see the boat. I remember none of them; all my attention was focused on the boat. Vaguely, I was aware that something was happening. I knew that those long years of paradise I had experienced in the Rio Dulce were drawing to a close. More and more expensive homes were popping up close to the river’s edge. Even in our peaceful little bay, a yacht club now sat not more than 200 yards from our house. They threatened us with guns if we dared to trespass, trained megawatt spotlights on our house, and overturned the Indians’ canoes when they barreled into the bay with 800-horsepower engines.

On all fronts, it seemed that an uneasy change was in progress. For years, I had lived in Guatemala, untouched by violence but, one morning, when I pulled up to the gas dock, a big canoe was parked there. In it were six men with machine guns, and on the dock stood one of our part-time Rio Dulce residents, a general and former president of Guatemala. I stepped out to greet him.

In answer to my “how are you”, he shook his rugged head balefully and said, “Today, I am not good.” He pointed to the men in the canoe. “This morning, they were forced to shoot 35 guerillas.” He shook his head again and went on with the business of paying for his gasoline. While I waited, the vibrations from the canoe-full of men had a chance to envelop me. Never in my life had I felt such gruesome heaviness. Not a man moved. It seemed as though they were not breathing, so perfectly still were they, in shock from their own deed, as dead inside as their victims (whom history tells us were not ‘guerrillas’ but Indians – men, women, and children – who refused to leave the land on which they had lived for generations, land which had been given to the general for his services to the country). I watched them leave, feeling as though I had brushed against something foul and evil and as dark as the backside of the moon.

I crawled off to bed that night, steeped in the sourness of my own darker half. I needed to get out of the Rio Dulce. It was time. Past time. I scarcely recognized my own nature anymore, let alone anything else. I fell into a troubled sleep, tossing and turning. How long I slept, I don’t know, but suddenly a great crashing noise tore me out of a dream.

Bonnie screamed. “The roof!” she cried. “Something crashed through the roof!”

Whatever it was, it was thrashing wildly on the floor.

“Flashlight!” I hissed.

I heard her fumbling under the bed for the flashlight we always kept there. She handed it to me. I flicked it on just in time to see a huge five-foot iguana crash through the Japanese sliding door and sail 20 feet through the air into the river below.

Shaking like aspen leaves in a mountain storm, we managed to brew some tea to calm our frazzled nerves. An hour later, we crawled off to bed again. I lay for a long time, contemplating the huge hole in the thatch over my head where wisps of breeze and the bright light of the moon were now flowing in.

It’s taken me time to understand it, but now I know that change sometimes comes to a man like a flying iguana through a thatched roof. The trick is to keep your eyes on the opening it makes in your roof... through it comes the fresh air and light.

Back to Part IV

Forward to Part VI

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November 9, 2012
© 1997-2012 Phillip Landmeier