Lions, CouchSurfing And Murder: On The Perpetual Strangeness Of Existence

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

If I were superstitious, I might have seen the lion as a sign that in an hour-and-a-half I was going to be kidnapped or murdered. From the back of my motorcycle my roommate McKenzie pointed and exclaimed, “Dude, there is lion just sitting in a cage in that vacant lot. A lion!”

I just shrugged and glanced at the lion and said without emotion, “Welcome to Guatemala.” According to the Lukester Dictionary, “Welcome to Guatemala” is defined as: “An exclamation used in response to seemingly inexplicable occurrences frequently happening in Guatemala.”

As an example:

Guatemalan Tourist: Dude, they lost my luggage in Guatemala City’s airport and when they finally returned it, all my stuff was gone and the suitcase was filled with mangos and the The Book of Mormon.

Guatemalan Expat: Welcome to Guatemala!

The lone lion in a cage probably only meant that the circus was back in town and they had decided to park their lion in the vacant lot by my house. If it was true, it was a dangerous day to be a street dog.

Warning! Dog lovers, do not read the next paragraph.

If you have ever seen a circus in this part of the world, it is best described as a combination between animal torture and a cheap burlesque show. The last time the circus came to Antigua, Guatemala, the circus operators were offering $2 for every street dog brought to them. This was the most economical way to feed lions and tigers and bears. Yes, PETA, “Oh my!”

But back to my story. If I were superstitious, I would most certainly have seen the lion caged by my house as a sign not to show up for my 9:30 a.m. meeting. The night before I received a mysterious call from an unknown number. It was from a woman with a Russian accent calling herself “Alla.”

“Is this Luke ?” she had asked. I told her it was and in a pleading voice she implored, “Can I meet you first thing tomorrow morning?”

“Umm, who is this?” I asked.

“This is Alla . . . it is very important that I meet with you. I need some advice. This may seem strange, but all will become clear after our meeting tomorrow. Can you meet me at 8 a.m.?”

My interest was pricked. I told her I had work engagements until 9:30 a.m. This flustered her. Without hiding her agitation she retorted, “So you cannot meet me at 8 a.m.? Very well. At 9:30 a.m. I see you in front of the Jungle Party (a well known Antigua hostel).”

After I hung up my phone I replayed the conversation in my mind, trying to remember whether this same thing had occurred as part of the plot of a James Bond movie. Her Russian accent made it seem all the more ominous.

I couldn’t really imagine what this woman would want with me. Since my work in anti-human trafficking efforts causes me to work against some very bad people, I thought there was a slight chance this could all be a ploy to kidnap or murder me. So slight a chance I decided to still go to this mysterious rendezvous, but still likely enough that I asked a friend to drive there before me to act as a lookout should something shady happen. The caged lion next to my house that morning only added to the perpetual strangeness of my existence.

Despite the buildup, I’m obligated to say that I was neither kidnapped nor murdered. Though my inner idiot thought that it might be fun to be kidnapped, no attempt was made (yes, I did watch a lot of Bond as a kid).

As it turned out, Alla had gotten my telephone number from CouchSurfing. She was not Russian, but from Belarus. She had been traveling with a Russian woman and that woman’s boyfriend. From what she recounted to me, it seemed the female half of her travel companions had a borderline personality disorder. Alla told me about how she had been traveling with the couple and that the woman’s wild mood swings had eventually led to her being dumped off in Antigua while the pair of crazies took the rent-a-car to what had been their mutual destination of Copan, Honduras.

Basically, Alla just needed a reality check — someone to hear her out and agree with her that this Russian woman indeed was a psychopath. I bought her a coffee and listened to her tale. She was still shaken by the incident and I did my best to give her some perspective on it. I told her that in a few hours a shuttle would be going to Coban, so she could still make it there before needing to catch a flight home later in the week. She asked if she could store her luggage in my house and I told her that would be fine.

As I left the coffee shop — heading back to work to deal with a particular human trafficking case — I couldn’t help but feel caught in the middle of some divinely wonderful conspiracy. I am an avid fiction reader, but truth is certainly stranger than fiction.

To some the world can be a boring place of routines. But to others it can be a chaotic mess of unexpected awesomeness. All of this depends on where we position ourselves on the road of life. To take the metaphor further, I recommend to my fellow travelers that we position ourselves on a busy interstate lane where lions show up some mornings and mysterious phone calls cause our cell phones to shake and light up. When translated, “Welcome to Guatemala” can sometimes come off as, “Welcome to Peru. Welcome to Bulgaria. Welcome to Georgia. Welcome to Slovakia. Welcome to the Maldives. Welcome to Funky Town. Welcome to Iceland. Basically, welcome to the world and all of its discoverable strangeness.”

It all reminds me of the letter Benjamin Button wrote in Fitzgerald’s short story, “You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”

By Luke Armstrong


About the Author

LukeArmstrongLuke Maguire Armstrong lives in Guatemala directing the humanitarian aid organization, Nuestros Ahijados. His book of poetry, iPoems for the Dolphins to Click Home About (available for sale on is especially enjoyed by people who “don’t read poetry.” (@lukespartacus)

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