Excerpt from Book

 The Maya storyteller telling the author about "Ancient Antarctica."Chapter One: After Antarctica

© 2015-16, Alexander Nixon, All Rights Reserved

I had read nothing about a lost civilization in the headlines, and doubted I ever would. Part of me had always assumed his stories were allegorical, at best—at worst, pure nonsense. While tantalized by the subject of the lecture, the cynic in me urged me to stay home, avoiding a long train ride uptown to Columbia University and back. “Be real, Alexander. Ixmatá  made it all up. The Centaurs, the Unicorns, the Giant Blue Butterflies, the Immortals,” the realist in me stated with melodramatic exasperation. Could he have been no different than the Kevin Spacey character in The Usual Suspects, having built for me a pleasing and persuasively real palace by carefully arranging a thousand grains of truth? Like Scheherazade, perhaps Penelope, had my Guatemalan storyteller woven his tales as a form of survival? The dreamer in me, the final word on the subject, wanted Ancient Antarctica to be real.
The last few weeks had been all airports and trains on my way “home” to an unfurnished apartment in Brooklyn, wherein my thoughts frequently drifted to plate tectonics. Oceanography had been one of my favorite courses during my studies at Stanford University, long before Ixmatá and Ancient Antarctica. In college, not only did I learn that the earth was round, I learned that the surface of the earth was not the static image on every classroom wall, or on the face of the globe I had grown up spinning. These visual aids provided a snap shot of geological time. Far from being static, the continents and oceans were constantly swirling around like a gigantic three-dimensional yin and yang. The physical relationship between the continents and the oceans influenced, even determined, the atmosphere.
Thus, my theory was that Ancient Antarctica had drifted to the polar region, gradually separating from the other landmasses that eventually became the five continents. Then, according to my theory, the cold temperatures at that latitude froze Antarctica’s temperate forests like that bag of broccoli in the back of my freezer, awaiting a fork, or possibly a pickaxe.
I looked at my snow boots hesitatingly. The dreamer told me to put them on and brave the snow, the trains. The realist reminded me that all I had to eat in the house was the broccoli in my freezer. Noting this improbable alignment of dreamer and realist, I grabbed my boots. After that, it was all momentum. F=MA (Force equals Mass times Acceleration). The more mass I acquired as I put on my layers, the more I accelerated in order to avoid sweating through layer one. Who ever said Humanities majors did not use science on a regular basis?
So I took the 2 Train from Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue to Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Room 1111 was located inside a stately neo-classical building off Columbia University’s main quad, behind the alma mater. Including myself, I counted ten people in the audience. Everyone but me had a pale blue face from the light illuminating on him or her from his or her device. When I had left New York City, bound for Guatemala, owning a smartphone was a novelty. In 2010, the text message had become the lingua franca, and the smart phone, a must-have, in addition to being a constant must-use, apparently. Professor Gatwick approached the podium, organized his notes, and leaned into the microphone.
“Can you hear me?” he asked the audience.
Heads bobbed and everyone set their phones, as well as their voices, on silent. With a last name like Gatwick, I expected the lecturer to have a little old world polish, but a sweaty scalp hiding beneath a comb-over was all the shine he could boast. Nevertheless, hearing someone deliver scientific jargon with such a thick Jersey accent was something that everyone should experience at least once in life. A close equivalent might have been Goofy delivering the Gettysburg Address. Not that everything about him was unexpected: He sported a bushy beard that testified to months without shaving.
“I suppose it is apropos that the cold has discouraged many from attending my Antarctica talk tonight,” he said, tilting his head toward his notecards.
I would never beat my self up about my dreadful French pronunciation again.
“Antarctica has been buried by so many millions of years of snow and ice that we have only just barely begun to scratch its surface. In fact, seventy-percent of the world’s fresh water forms a nearly impenetrable frozen barrier on top of the continent.”
His left fist pounded down on the podium, jostling the screen, revealing a hidden impressionistic architecture of red, green, and blue pixels.
“We have sent rockets to the moon to bring back lunar rocks, when, right in our backyard, so to speak, we’ve had an undiscovered world. Not only that, we could have saved ourselves and NASA a lot of expenses—like the Apollo Program—if lunar rock samples had been all we needed. It turns out Antarctica is a great place to find moon rocks.”
“I could be eating heated-up frozen broccoli right now,” I thought.
“Even now,” he went on, “in this modern age of marvels, Antarctica remains an enigma. The only other remaining frontier on our planet is the ocean floor, and we are well on our way to crossing that off our list. Much further than we are with Antarctica.”
An image appeared on his PowerPoint presentation. It was a computer-generated model of the supercontinent called Gondwana, 650 million years ago, before it fractured into the five continents we know today. Gatwick shuffled his notes.
“These are exciting times for us researchers of the lost continent. The race between the Russians and the Americans resembles our race to the moon. So far, the Russians are winning.”
Gatwick grimaced with disapproval. Apparently his Cold War had never ended—not in Antarctica, at least. He squeezed the remote and a new slide appeared on screen. A tiny red spot was the only blemish on a map of present-day Antarctica and its all-white topography.
“As many of you may know, last fall Russian scientists drilled through the Antarctic ice sheet, where seismic analysis had revealed the possible existence of a liquid lake. Praise Putin, the Russians were right! They had found an ancient lake all right. Lake Vostok had been covered by ice for thirty million years, like a liquid time capsule.”
He looked up from his notes, removed his glasses, and gazed into our minds.
“The question all of you came here to have answered is the same one that I went to Antarctica in hopes of answering: “What is beneath the ice?”
Heads bobbed.
“I am asked this question in a thousand permutations, a colorful speculation often precedes the question: “Ancient aquatic dinosaurs? A secret Nazi submarine base? An underground alien base?”
Laughter.
“The answer to this question,” he continued, “is that there is plenty under the ice left to be discovered, so much so that what little we know is the equivalent of seeing only two brush strokes on the Mona Lisa, the rest still being pure white canvas. But I assure you all that we are well underway toward discovering one of nature’s finest masterpieces.”
I had the impression that Gatwick had minored in Art History.
After his lecture, I approached him with my question, “Excuse me, if someone were to ask you if it is possible that there was once an ancient Antarctic civilization, what would you…”
It was like embarrassment had grabbed the remote and lowered the volume of my voice.
“If the person asking the question were my son,” he answered, correctly guessing what I was getting at, “I would say that anything is possible. If the person were anyone else, I would say no.”
“What about your daughter?” a woman asked.
She was standing behind me, waiting to talk to Gatwick.
He smiled and replied, “We don’t have a daughter, yet.”
“Why not?” I asked, hoping the interloper’s question had not automatically, however unintentionally, ended my time with him.
“No daughter?” he asked.
“No,” I said, clarifying, not sure if the smirk on his face indicated sarcasm. “Why no civilization?”
“Because the human fossil record does not begin until many millions of years later. The only fossilized remains we have found in Antarctica, and are likely to find, are dinosaur fossils. I have a hunch the dinosaurs from the late Triassic Era will be more Gremlins than Jurassic Park.”
He paused.
“Have you seen Gremlins?”
I nodded.
“You’re away in Antarctica for a few years,” he stated, “and the whole world forgets about Gizmo.”
“I know the feeling,” I said, informing him about my two years abroad in Guatemala.
I could hardly claim to have been as isolated from “reality” as Gatwick had been—in the land of sub-zero.
“I would love it if you all discovered a race of Gizmos living down in Antarctica,” I said. “But I suppose penguins are pretty close. As for Jurassic Park, I loved Jeff Goldblum’s character.”
“I wrote my masters thesis about chaos theory because of him,” Gatwick confessed.
“What would he say about the possibility of a lost civilization?” the waiting woman asked him.
I liked her question.
He looked at her and answered dryly, “If we discover a race of Gizmos, do not feed them after midnight.”
My time was up, my question answered, so I thanked Gatwick, grabbed my coat, and left. Home would be my next destination. So I put on my coat and headed back to the subway. Outside, night had fallen. The campus was deserted. I was alone with some rats I saw scurrying around in the shadows. They must have attended a different lecture.
On the platform in the subway station, I sat down on a bench to wait for the train and wondered:
Is it possible that, long ago, ancient ancestors of the modern Maya crossed a land bridge connecting Ancient Antarctica to Ancient South America—like the one between Alaska and Siberia? According to Gatwick, fat chance.
The Tok Tok Tok sound of footsteps yanked me out of wonderland. When the sound stopped, a woman was sitting down adjacent to me on the wooden bench.
“Where ya headed?” she asked me.
“Brooklyn.”
“Me too,” she said. “Seventh Avenue. You?”
“Cortelyou.”
The blank expression on her face said, “never been there.” She took off her red mittens and stowed them into her bag, an import from somewhere Latin American, but definitely not Guatemala. What was the source of my certainty, the color of the bag, the pattern? She removed her blue cap and a head of disheveled blond hair tumbled out, distracting me from her bag’s origins.
“My name is Samantha,” she said, extending her hand.
“Alexander,” I replied.
Our hands met.
“Nice to meet you. Are you a student?”
“I study Geology and Natural Sciences at Brooklyn College,” she answered. “I am writing my honor’s thesis about Antarctica. Can I tell you a secret?”
“Uh-huh.”
She looked in both directions, for dramatic effect, then whispered, “I want to go to Antarctica, but my parents will say no.”
“They prefer Cancun?”
“They think Antarctica is too dangerous. My mom actually said I would be attacked by polar bears. I’m pretty sure polar bears live in the Arctic.”
“They aren’t native to the Central Park Zoo?”
“Where is Darwin when you need him?” she asked.
I looked underneath the bench and shook my head, indicating that he wasn’t there.
“I told my mom that penguins live in the Antarctic and she’s like, I read that they are dangerous too.”
“I think your mom only checks out books from the library of concern.”
“Ever since she discovered the Internet, a day doesn’t go by without her worrying about something new, and worrying on my behalf, about it. Of course, my dad, super-dad though he may be, is powerless against super volcanoes and giant tsunamis.”
“Not mine,” I said.
“Does it run in the family?”
“Any super volcanoes or giant tsunamis hit New York City lately?” I proudly asked.
“Didn’t you just get back from Peace Corps service?”
“Guilty.”
I raised my left hand for effect.
“I wanted to join the Peace Corps.”
“Let me guess: Your mom said no?”
“Guilty,” Samantha said, mimicking me, right down to my raised left hand. “Where did you serve?”
“Guatemala.”
“Was it… dangerous?”
“That all depended on me.”
(Not a bad answer)
“Maybe she thinks…”
Samantha’s voice trailed off, though the thought continued onward inwardly, presumably reaching some kind of juncture, impasse, or whatever, whereupon she turned her attention outward to me again… full circle.
“So why are you after Antarctica?” she asked, as the 2 Train roared into the station.
Our car would remain empty all the way to 42nd street, where and when a crowd of theatergoers boarded. By then, Samantha and I were so engrossed in our conversation about him—his stories—that we did not bother look up at the new arrivals, though I could feel them looking down at us—wondering about her bag too, probably. She was the first person I told about him, including my inner conflict about his quirky, sui generis mythology. I confessed to her that I secretly wanted his stories to be authentic, that I had gone to the lecture in order to cobble together facts in support of a fantasy. I waited for ridicule, but none came.
“Who is this Eeshmetoa dude?” she asked, her green eyes swollen with fascination.
Don Ixmatá and I worked at the headquarters of a coffee cooperative located near the mountainous Mexican frontier, possibly the last place in the world where I, or for that matter, anyone, from anywhere, would wish to spend any length of time—definitely not several years. I did not share with Samantha this less-than-rosy appreciation of my experience, lest I come off sounding like a whiner, not a winner.
Our headquarters was a two-story office building, though it could hardly have been called that by US standards. The structure consisted of four walls, two stories high, made of grey concrete blocks stacked like Legos. The roof was a thin layer of corrugated iron tilted askew to ward off the rain. A row of plywood planks, one plank deep, formed the hazardous “floor” portion of the “second floor.” The coffee storage area on the first floor housed the roaster, as well as enough temporary storage space for thousands of burlap sacks full of green coffee harvested annually. Up a solid stairwell of poured concrete sat the co-op’s accountant (Ixmatá), its new, blue-eyed volunteer (me), as well as our desks, several file cabinets, and two computers equipped with an unreliable internet connection. All of this weight was more than those plywood planks should have supported, I thought on day one. When someone stepped into the room, the plywood floor groaned and creaked, or I did that for fear that the entire second floor would collapse.
Our two other colleagues, Jacinto and Marvin, shared an adjacent room. Themselves coffee growers, they were responsible for the more tangible aspects of coffee production, like lifting one hundred pound coffee sacks on their backs.
“What did you do?” Samantha asked me.
“I was the Agricultural [and mythology] Marketing Expert.”
“What about…?”
“He was the accountant,” I said, stressing the word account, having always enjoyed the idea of a storyteller also being a professional accountant, and this due more to storytelling’s resemblance to accounting than the other way around. Treating storytelling as accounting highlighted the importance of “settling scores” and restoring “balance” in stories—the agency and impact of a story’s characters, expressed in quantifiable terms.
Ixmatá and I could both claim to be representatives of a notorious species of fish, popularly known as the “fish out of water.” My pond was a thousand miles away, his was many less, but each was distinct from the “coffee grower pond,” no less. Ixmatá’s “pond” was about one hundred miles down the road, downhill, and downstream, where one would have been hard-pressed to find a single coffee bush growing, much less an acre of them. This should explain why our combined knowledge about the crop was limited to how much milk and sugar required to lighten and sweeten it to our liking.
Every morning, Ixmatá would put on his ladino (western) appearance for his parallel reality, wherein language, clothing, profession, etiquette, and aspirations were distinct from his village reality. Every night was like stepping into a film negative: The clothing was cleaned, ironed, folded, and kept safe and clean within the closet or wardrobe. Spanish retreated to the back of the throat, emerging only when necessary for expressing anything that could not be expressed in the mother tongue—namely, profanities. Nevertheless, Ixmatá did not hide the indio. For instance, when we had a visitor to our office, which was many times a day, Ixmatá would politely ask him or her, “Tza’n ta’ya tat?”
When we met, he immediately informed me that he was saving for a new motorcycle to spare him the grueling daily bus ride to and from work. He loved to show me the photo of his soon-to-be-purchased beauty. In addition to his motorcycle, our daily conversations touched on subjects like the recently sworn-in mulatto president of the United States, strategies for dating US women, and the Maya prophecy for 2012.
“Several months into my service,” I said to Samantha, “Ixmatá was sitting at his desk adjacent to mine, entering last season’s coffee data into a spreadsheet, when, out of the blue, he asked me what I was going to do when I returned to New York City.”
“What was your answer?” she asked.
“I told him I always wanted to write a fantasy novel.”
“What has been preventing you?” he asked, as he typed a zero into empty cell “1,” located within newly created column “A.”
“Inspiration,” I answered.
Ixmatá suddenly lit up like a car salesman who had just found out his brother-in-law needed a new car. Then, he became serious, removing his fingers from the keyboard.
“My father died a few months ago,” Ixmatá said, crossing his chest, the Catholic gesture. “Before he died, he asked me to preserve his stories.”
“How?”
“He did not say.”
“Why the urgency?” I asked, following up with, “Are you planning on dying soon?”
He did not reply. Had I been indelicate? I feared the worst, imagining he must have had an incurable form of cancer—or something—so I asked him if he did.
“No,” he said, crossing his chest, adding, “Gracias a Dios.”
“So…?” I asked
My yellow pencil teetered at the edge of my desk, directly above a wastebasket full of shredded accounts from years past.
He swiveled his chair around, turning away from his task, his figures, leaving them for the time being.
“You will help me preserve my father’s words.”
“Why me?” I asked him, taking a more serious tact.
“Who else?”
He had a point. Between the graduate student, “let the subaltern speak,” and the Peace Corps volunteer, “ask what you can do for your country,” I’d say that I was ready and willing—but able? Then again, Ixmatá had done little to conceal the urgency in his voice, and, with two + years of service then still-to-be-completed, I wondered, “Why the rush?”
“Is the world ending tomorrow or something?”
His wry expression stated, “Any second now you are going to realize the obvious and feel like a total moron.”
One, two, three… Yup.
“How could you forget about the end of the world?” he asked.
“I am more of a short-term, mid-term kind of guy. I’ll cross that bridge when it comes.”
Did he really expect me share his sense of apocalyptic doom and gloom? I asked him if [his eschatology] was more Catholic or Maya in origin?
“There is only one End of the World,” he said. “For everybody.”
Was he more concerned about the end of the world, or disappointing daddy? Admittedly, I was charmed by Ixmatá’s “Don Juan met The Alchemist met The Prince and the Popul Vuh” proposal. Sure, the likelihood of my book—any book—being published, was slim to none, but I was willing to tweak my self-estimation for the sake of helping a friend, or the gods, whomever. Ixmatá noted me mulling it over.
“I don’t want you to write down the stories word-for-word,” he stated. “You are the writer, not me ¿Comprendes?”
I nodded, indicating understanding—if not total agreement.
“Do you know how to drive a motorcycle?” he asked, shifting gears.
I shook my head.
“This is my propósito,”  he said. “How about you hear the stories first. After that, if you do not feel inspired, at least you will have learned how to drive a motorcycle.”
“Come again?”
“I am going to give you lessons in exchange for your ears,” he answered.
“On whose motorcycle?”
“On la vieja,” he replied. “She’s at my brother’s house. She’s old and can’t travel far, but she’s perfect training until you get yours.”
“Me, a motorcycle?”
“You will,” he replied.
“How’s that?”
“I am going to buy the one I showed you,” he explained.
“How does that get me a motorcycle?”
“Didn’t you say that the only thing you needed was inspiration?”
“What’s the point in buying a new bike, in learning how to drive, heck, in writing a novel, if pretty soon, there won’t be roads or riders, readers or writers, anywhere, ever again, assuming the best case scenario for an “End of the World” situation?”
“Could be worse,” he muttered.
“Yeah,” I said. “You could have cancer.”
His head bobbed in agreement.
A month later, he made a down payment and proudly parked his new bike out front of headquarters for all to see. The coffee growers were happy to know Ixmatá no longer had to suffer the long and cramped bus ride to work. A few of them joked about him having another half-hour in bed every morning, with which to do whatever he wanted, though I am paraphrasing—as well as sanitizing. On that fateful morning, Ixmatá invited me to his home to meet his wife and see his village.
“How am I getting there?” I asked.
“The same way I am,” he exclaimed.
I glanced at his new bike and grimaced.
“Why the worry?” he asked. “You aren’t driving.”
Peace Corps rules expressly forbade riding on motorcycles. This, I told Ixmatá. He reminded me that the buses in Guatemala were hardly seguro. He had a point: I remembered many harrowing moments aboard a bus careening downhill inches away from the edge of a steep cliff.
“Do you have another helmet?” I asked.
“Are you worried about my driving?”
I told him I was more worried about being seen, the Peace Corps booting me.
“You work for the Peace Corps,” Ixmatá stated. “Not the CIA.”
Ha!
“I have another helmet,” he said.
As far as his head was concerned, protecting it was the last thing on his mind. With him wearing a helmet, how were all the passersby to know the name of the one soaring past, Perseus on his flying Pegasus? Not that it really mattered—in the end.
I greeted Arxa,  Ixmatá’s tiny wife, with an outstretched hand. Her reaction was somewhere between “a snake has flashed his fangs at me,” and, “get the insect repellant.” No sooner had I said hola, she was on her way back to the hearth. Inside the kitchen, she looked more comfortable attending to some cold tortillas than to an unexpected guest. I observed the family mule on the opposite side of the kitchen, adjacent to it, where outdoor became indistinguishable from indoor.
I crouched down to tie my shoe and caught a glimpse of Arxa standing over the stove. I could not see her feet, due to some wooden obstruction. Instead, I saw the hooves of Ixmatá’s donkey, and for a split second, I swear Ixmatá’s wife looked just like a centaur—from waist down. When I woke up the next morning, she was still standing in the same place. Eggs and refried black beans sizzled and popped on the grill next to steaming white corn tortillas. Had she slept in the kitchen standing up?
After breakfast, Ixmatá announced it was time for my first motorcycle lesson. He led me to the home of his younger brother, where Ixmatá’s old motorcycle, la vieja, was parked. The walk to his brother’s home was my first real exposure to his village. It was a sunny Saturday morning and everything glowed. Buxúb was a rustic town of earthen homes made of mud and straw. Chickens roamed wild, pecking the dirt wherever they pleased. A trio of hefty middle-aged women looked up from the raw masa that they were slapping in their palms, flattening it into tortillas. They sneered at me as we walked past them. I smiled and said hello in their language. Behind us, the SLAP SLAP SLAP resumed.
As seven or so calico kittens darted this way and that, Ixmatá unveiled la vieja from underneath a blue blanket. Ixmatá looked at me and noticed concern. Next to his new chrome chariot, la vieja was a piece of shit.
“She looks a lot worse than she rides,” he declared.
“Meow,” I said, doing my best kitten impersonation.
The grassy soccer field adjacent to Mateo’s home became my classroom and, in it, Ixmatá taught me how to squeeze the bike’s handle and lean into the throttle to make her motor hum. A humbling incident-free hour later, my instructor deemed me ready for the open road, though I suspected that his decision had less to do with my readiness than with the arrival of a group of boys with a soccer ball. They wanted their field back.
So, with my motor purring, I followed Ixmatá to the Aguas Dulces springs, located a few miles down a gravel road off the main highway. There, cypress knees sprouted from placid pools calling all of nature forth from the otherwise lifeless landscape. The crystal clear waters at Dulces were shallow and still, with a surface that reflected the golden sun, the blue sky, and the cream white clouds with crisp detail. The scene was one of primordial enchantment, except for one dirty and seemingly anachronistic blue pick-up truck. Ixmatá and I were not alone. We saw two men sitting on the truck’s dirty hood.
“¿Se les pegaron las sábanas?” the two men asked Ixmatá, meaning, “Did the sheets stick to you?” a colloquial expression for, “Did you sleep in?”
Ixmatá smiled and introduced me to the Alvarado brothers, who were in their late twenties.
“¿Van a meterse?” they asked, as they started taking off their shoes. “Are you going to go in?”
Ixmatá informed them that we had just eaten a big breakfast. I wanted to know if there was anything nasty lurking around in the depths.
The Alvarado brothers stripped down to their breeches and plunged in.
“At least two,” Ixmatá answered.
I asked Ixmatá how he knew them and he informed me that they had grown up together.
“They spent the night here at Dulces because their wives would not let them inside their own homes.”
“Why not?”
“Before returning home, they squandered all their money on booze and who-knows-what-else,” he whispered, gesturing to his nose, indicating that cocaine was probably involved too.
We watched the carefree Alvarado brothers banter in the water, the picture of brotherly bliss.
“The men in my village act like they are still boys,” Ixmatá noted, semi-fondly, semi-disdainfully. “I don’t know what it is like where you come from; here, in Guatemala, men can easily remain children their whole lives. Drugs and gangs are more attractive than an honest living, because an honest living means total poverty.”
“What about the church?” I asked.
I should have said churches, plural. There were plenty of them everywhere. Against the cinder block and corrugated tin exteriors of the rest of the buildings along the highway, these new churches stood out like lotus flowers sprouting from murk. I was about to learn that this beauty was more about flash than faith.
“Who do you think built all the beautiful new churches popping up like palaces everywhere?”
I shook my head.
“Who has all the plata?” he asked me, meaning money—a dead give-away.
“Narcos,” I said.
Drug traffickers.
He nodded.
As far as I was concerned, no further explanation was needed. During the Bush administration, the US Drug Enforcement Agency had fought a “victorious” war against Colombian cocaine cartels. On CNN En Español, commercials were now touting tourism to Bogotá, claiming, “El riesgo es de que te quieras quedar,” meaning, the only risk [in coming to Columbia] is that you will want to stay. Nonetheless, for the Bush administration, this proved to be yet another embarrassing “mission accomplished” declaration. Victory in the war on drugs would prove as elusive as those weapons of mass destruction that we never found. En fin, the narcos ousted from Colombia resettled in Mexico, and the only way into Mexico was through Guatemala.
Ixmatá collected his thoughts by soaking in his surroundings.
“The secret to survival in Guatemala is never leave your place of birth behind,” he stated, his voice resonant with affected pride. “People who live in [the city] don’t know what a good pot of black beans tastes like anymore.”
At Seventh Avenue, Samantha said goodbye to me with a quick hug and I sat down and retrieved my notebook from my backpack and jotted down what she had told me on the train ride home:
Roughly one hundred eighty million years ago (Mya ) East Gondwana, i.e. Antarctica, Madagascar, India and Australia, started separating from Africa. South America started drifting slowly westward from Africa as the South Atlantic Ocean opened. The separation of the landmasses created “open marine conditions” around Antarctica and ocean currents that slowly transformed Antarctica into a polar region.
I looked up through the car’s window. Jet planes circled in a holding pattern en route to JFK. In the foreground, on the walls of the subway tunnel, unintelligible graffiti whizzed by, offering neither understanding nor consolation.
The inhabitants of Ancient Antarctica would have had plenty of time to flee, provided they had foreseen their doom. According to Ixmatá, there was one inhabitant of Ancient Antarctica whose foresight surpassed all others: Tláloc.
The train stopped at my station and I ascended to terra firma. My trip uptown had been fruitful: Gatwick had nourished my thoughts, and, in only a few minutes, Samantha had given me a hundred million years of understanding, not to mention her email address. I emailed her as soon as I was home. In her reply:
“Tell me all of all the stories about Ancient Antarctica.”

 

Columbia University Geology Professor Charles Gatwick was giving a lecture about Antarctic fossils the week I returned to New York City. Gatwick’s lecture was the catalyst I needed to answer questions that had been bothering me ever since returning from Peace Corps service in Guatemala. Was Ancient Antarctica real? In Guatemala, I had listened to Don Ixmatá’s[1] stories about a lost continent buried underneath the Antarctic ice with rapt enchantment, while trying to take them completely at face value. But there, I had neither the means nor the mindset to investigate the accuracy of Ixmatá’s colorful Maya myths. Now that I was back home in New York City, I had time to investigate, and Gatwick’s Columbia University lecture was a golden opportunity to find out the news from the lost continent. A recent article in the New York Times declared that Russian scientists had discovered an enormous and geologically improbable lake 2.3 miles beneath the surface of Antarctica. I had read nothing about a lost civilization in the headlines, and doubted I ever would. Part of me had always assumed Don Ixmatá’s stories were allegorical, at best—at worst, pure nonsense. While tantalized by the subject of Gatwick’s lecture, part of me kept urging that I stay put, sparing me the long train ride uptown to Columbia University and back. “Be real, Alexander. Ixmatá made up all the stories he told you in Guatemala,” the realist part of me guffawed. Could Ixmatá have been no different than the Kevin Spacey character in The Usual Suspects, having built for me a pleasing and persuasively real palace by carefully arranging a thousand grains of truth? Like Scheherazade, perhaps Penelope, had my Guatemalan storyteller woven his tales as a form of survival? The other part of me, the dreamer, wanted Ixmatá’s lost continent to be real.

Lately, I had spent long hours at airports, on trains, and in my bed in an empty new apartment, speculating about the Antarctic geological record. Oceanography had been one of my favorite courses during my studies at Stanford University, long before I met Ixmatá. In college, not only did I learn that the earth was round, I learned that the surface of the earth was not the static image on every classroom wall, or on the face of the globe I had grown up spinning. These visual aids provided a snap shot of geological time. Far from being static, the continents and oceans were constantly swirling around like a gigantic three-dimensional yin and yang. The physical relationship between the continents and the oceans influenced, even determined, the atmosphere. Thus, my theory was that Ancient Antarctica had drifted to the polar region, as it gradually separated from the other landmasses that eventually became the five continents. Then, according to my theory, the cold temperatures at that latitude froze Antarctica’s temperate forests like that frozen bag of broccoli in the back of my freezer, awaiting a fork, or possibly a pick-axe. Professor Gatwick’s lecture would soon illuminate the flaws in my homespun theory.

I looked at my snow boots ambivalently. The dreamer told me to put them on and brave the snow and the trains. The realist reminded me that all I had to eat in the house was the broccoli in my freezer. Seizing this rare moment of alignment between dreamer and realist, I put on my first boot. After that, it was all momentum. F=MA (Force equals Mass times Acceleration). The more mass I acquired as I put on my layers, the more I accelerated in order to avoid sweating through layer one. Who ever said Humanities majors do not use science on a regular basis? I took the 2 Train from Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue to Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Room 1111 was located inside a stately neo-classical building off Columbia University’s Main Quad. Including myself, I counted ten people in the audience. Everyone had smart phones out. When I had left New York City in 2008, bound for Guatemala, owning a smartphone was a novelty. In 2010, the text message had become the lingua franca, and the smart phone, a must-have, in addition to being a constant must-use, apparently. Professor Gatwick approached the podium, organized his notes, and leaned into the microphone.

“Can you hear me?” he asked the audience.

Heads bobbed and everyone set their phones on silent.

“I suppose it is apropos that the cold has discouraged some from attending my Antarctica talk. After all, we are about to discuss a place that has been buried by so many millions of years of snow and sleet that we have only just barely begun to scratch its surface. In fact, seventy-percent of the world’s fresh water forms a nearly impenetrable frozen barrier on top of the continent. We have sent rockets to the moon to bring back lunar rocks, when, right in our backyard, so to speak, we have had an undiscovered world. Not only that, but it turns out Antarctica is a great place to find lunar rocks too. We could have saved ourselves and NASA a lot of expenses—like the Apollo Program—if lunar rock samples had been all we needed.”

I could have been eating heated-up frozen broccoli right now,” I thought.

“Even now,” Gatwick went on, “in this modern age of marvels, Antarctica remains an enigma. The only other remaining frontier on our planet is the ocean floor, and we are well on our way to crossing that off our list. Much further than we are with Antarctica.”

An image appeared on his PowerPoint presentation. It was a computer-generated model of the supercontinent called Gondwana, 650 million years ago, before it fractured into the five continents we know today. Gatwick shuffled his notes.

“These are exciting times for us researchers of the lost continent. Right now, there is a race between the Russians and the Americans that resembles our race to the moon. A race that, so far, the Russians are winning.

“As many of you may know, last fall Russian scientists drilled through the Antarctic ice sheet, where seismic analysis had revealed the possible existence of a liquid lake. Praise Putin, the Russians were right! They had found an ancient lake all right. Lake Vostok had been covered by ice for thirty million years, like a liquid time capsule.”

He looked up from his notes, removed his glasses, and gazed into our minds.

“The question all of you came here to have answered is the same one that I went to Antarctica in hopes of answering: “What is beneath the ice?”

Heads bobbed.

“I am asked this question in a thousand permutations, a colorful speculation often precedes the question: “Ancient aquatic dinosaurs? A secret Nazi submarine base? An underground alien base?”

Laughter.

“The answer to this question,” he continued, “is that there is plenty under the ice left to be discovered, so much so that what little we know is the equivalent of seeing only two brush strokes on the Mona Lisa, the rest still being pure white canvas. But I assure you all that we are well underway toward discovering one of nature’s finest masterpieces.”

I had the impression Art History had been his minor.

After his lecture, I approached Gatwick with my question, “If someone were to ask you if it is possible that there was once an ancient Antarctic civilization, what would your answer be?”

“If the person asking the question were my son,” he answered, “I would say that anything is possible. If the person were anyone else, I would say no.”

“What about your daughter?” a woman asked. She was standing behind me, waiting to talk to Gatwick.

He smiled and replied, “We don’t have a daughter, yet.”

“Why not?” I asked, hoping the interloper’s question had not automatically, however unintentionally, ended my time with him.

“No daughter?” he asked.

“No,” I said, clarifying, not sure if the smirk on his face indicated sarcasm. “Why no civilization?”

“Because the human fossil record does not begin until many millions of years later. The only fossilized remains we have found in Antarctica, and are likely to find, are dinosaur fossils. Based on some of our initial findings, I expect that the dinosaurs from the late Triassic Era will be more Gremlins than Jurassic Park.”

He paused.

“Have you seen Gremlins?”

I nodded.

“You’re away in Antarctica for a few years,” he stated,“ and the whole world forgets about Gizmo.”

I know the feeling, I thought.

“I would love it if you all discovered a race of Gizmos living down in Antarctica,” I said. “But I suppose penguins are pretty close. As for Jurassic Park, I loved that movie, especially Jeff Goldblum’s character.”

“Me too,” Gatwick nodded in agreement, confessing, “I wrote my masters thesis about chaos theory because of him.”

“What would he say about the possibility of a lost civilization?” the waiting woman asked him.

I liked her question.

He looked at her and answered dryly, “If we discover a race of Gizmos, do not feed them after midnight.”

My time was up, so I thanked Gatwick, grabbed my coat, and left. With no one to call, and no phone with which to call them, home would be my next destination. So I put on my coat and headed back to the subway. Outside, night had fallen. The campus was deserted. I was alone with some rats I saw scurrying around in the shadows. They must have attended a different lecture.

On the platform in the subway station, I sat down on a bench to wait for the train and wondered:

Was it possible that the ancient ancestors of the modern Maya long ago crossed a land bridge connecting Ancient Antarctica to Ancient South America, much like the one crossed by New World settlers from Siberia? According to Gatwick, fat chance.

A woman approached me. It was the female interloper from the lecture.

“Do you live downtown?” she asked, sitting down next to me on the wooden bench.

“Brooklyn.”

“Me too,” she said. “Seventh Avenue. You?”

“Cortelyou.”

“I’ve never been there.”

She took off her red mittens and stowed them into her bag, something imported from somewhere in South America, but not Guatemala. Was it the colors, the pattern, or the shade of purple? For sure, it was not Guatemalan in origin. She removed her cap and a head of disheveled blond hair tumbled out, distracting me from her bag’s origins.

“My name is Samantha,” she said, extending her hand.

“Alexander,” I replied. Our hands met. “Nice to meet you. Are you a student?”

“I study Geology and Natural Sciences at Brooklyn College,” she answered. “I am writing my honor’s thesis about Antarctica.”

Was she not letting go of my hand, or me of hers?

“Can I tell you a secret?” she asked.

“Uh-huh,”

She looked in both directions, for dramatic effect, then she whispered, “I want to go to Antarctica, but my parents will say no.”

“They prefer Cancun?”

“They think Antarctica is too dangerous. My mom actually said I would be attacked by polar bears. Polar bears live in the Arctic.”

“They aren’t native to the Central Park Zoo?”

She smiled again.

“I told my mom that penguins live in the Antarctic and she’s like, I read somewhere that they are dangerous too.”

“I think your mom only checks out books from the library of concern.”

She released my hand.

“Ever since she discovered the web, a day doesn’t go by without her worrying about something new, and worrying on my behalf about it. Of course, my dad, super-dad though he may be, is powerless against super volcanoes and giant tsunamis.”

“Not mine,” I said.

“Does it run in the family?”

“Have you heard about any super volcanoes or giant tsunamis hitting New York City lately?” I proudly asked.

“Didn’t you just get back from Peace Corps service?”

“Guilty.”

“I wanted to join the Peace Corps,” she said.

“Let me guess: Your mom said no?”

She nodded.

“Where did you serve?”

“Guatemala,” I replied.

“Was it dangerous?”

“That all depended on me.”

What a superb answer.

“Maybe my mother thinks I am not ready to handle the danger,” Samantha said, thinking out loud.

She looked at me.

“So why are you after Antarctica?”

The 2 Train shot into the station. The car remained virtually empty all the way to 42nd street, where a crowd of theatergoers boarded. By then, Samantha and I were so engrossed in our conversation about Don Ixmatá and his stories that we did not look up at the new arrivals, though I could feel them looking down at us. She was the first person I told about Don Ixmatá and his colorful stories, including my ambivalence about them. I confessed to her that I secretly wanted Ixmatá’s stories to be true, that I had gone to the lecture in order to cobble together facts in support of a fantasy. I waited for her to cringe, but she did not.

“Who’s Don Eeshmetoa?” she asked.

Don Ixmatá and I worked at the headquarters of a coffee cooperative located near the Mexican frontier in a mountainous region of Guatemala called Huehuetenango.[2] A licensed accountant, Ixmatá was in charge of all the bills, stamps, copies, spreadsheets, and other clerical tasks.

“What did you do?” Samantha asked.

“I was the Agricultural Marketing Expert.”

About my age, Don Ixmatá had a soft, gravely voice, pale olive skin, and a compact build. His exterior was ladino, or western, but underneath the ironed pants and starched shirt was a full-blooded Maya. He did not let his outer shell conceal his heritage. For example, he greeted visitors with the traditional greeting of his people, “Tza’n ta’ya nan/tat?” or, “How is your heart?” Our headquarters was a two-story office building, though it could hardly have been called that by US standards. The structure consisted of four walls, two stories high, made of grey concrete blocks stacked like Legos. The roof was a thin layer of corrugated iron tilted askew to ward off the rain. A row of plywood planks, one plank deep, formed the hazardous “floor” portion of the “second floor.” The coffee storage area on the first floor housed the roaster, as well as enough temporary storage space for thousands of burlap sacks full of green coffee harvested annually. Up a solid stairwell of poured concrete sat the co-op’s accountant (Ixmatá), its new, blue-eyed volunteer (me), as well as our desks, several file cabinets, and two computers equipped with an unreliable internet connection. All of this weight was more than those plywood planks should have supported, I thought on day one. When someone stepped into the room, the plywood floor groaned and creaked, or I did that for fear that the entire second floor would collapse. Our two other colleagues, Jacinto and Marvin, shared an adjacent room. Themselves coffee growers, they were responsible for the more tangible aspects of coffee production, like shaking hands with the farmers and helping shoulder the burden of lifting heavy coffee sacks.

Like me, Ixmatá was not a coffee grower, so our knowledge about the crop was limited to how much sugar and milk we put into it. In this way, also like me, Ixmatá was a fish out of water. His village was not located in the mountains where our co-workers lived. His village was in the foothills of Chiapas. Ixmatá’s daily bus ride from home to work and back took an hour. When we met, he immediately informed me that he was saving for a new motorcycle. He loved to show me the photo of his soon-to-be-purchased beauty. In addition to his motorcycle, our daily conversations touched on subjects like the recently sworn-in mulatto president of the United States, strategies for dating US women, and the Maya prophecy for 2012.

“Several months into my service,” I said to Samantha, “Ixmatá asked me what I was going to do when I returned to New York City.”

“What was your answer?” Samantha asked.

“I told him that ever since I was a boy I have wanted to write a fantasy novel.”

“What has been preventing you?” he asked.

“Inspiration,” I answered.

Ixmatá suddenly lit up like a car salesman who had just found out his brother-in-law needed a new car. Then, he abruptly became serious.

“My father died a few months ago,” Ixmatá said, crossing his chest, the Catholic gesture. “Before he died, he asked me to remember his bedtime stories, to tell them to my son, so that they would not die along with him, my father.”

“Are you planning on dying soon?” I asked him, as delicately as one could ask such a question.

He reminded me about the Maya prophecy for 2012.

“Telling me your family’s stories will not make the stories any safer,” I said. “Besides, I don’t own an ark, and even if I did, it costs a fortune to dock a boat in New York City.”

Clearly, Ixamtá was not amused by my dismissiveness, even if tongue in cheek. Perhaps this had been lost in translation?

“I don’t care about you,” he said bluntly, wiping the smile off of my face. “It’s the stories I am worried about. You must publish them.”

“Your father’s bedtime stories?” I asked.

“They are not his stories,” he said, his blithe tone deepening with reverence. “They belong to antiquity. They sprouted from the earth like corn. They fell from the sky like stars. The gods chose the Ancient Maya to preserve them.”

“Why me?” I asked, taking a more serious tact.

“Who else?”

“What about your son?” I asked him.

“I don’t have one.”

“Yet,” I said.

He smirked.

“Why now?” I asked, guessing the answer mid-way. Was he more concerned about 2012, or about letting down his father? Whichever may have been the case, I was happy to do what I could to lighten his heart. Statistically speaking, the likelihood of my book, or any book being published, was slim to none, but I was willing to tweak my self-estimation for the sake of helping a friend, or the gods, whatever. Admittedly, the graduate student inside of me was charmed by Ixmatá’s Don Juan meets The Alchemist meets The Prince and the Popul Vuh proposal. Ixmatá noted me mulling it over.

“I don’t want you to write down the stories word for word,” he stated. “You are the writer, not me ¿Comprendes?”

I nodded, indicating understanding—if not total agreement.

“Do you know how to drive a motorcycle?” he asked, shifting gears.

I shook my head.

“Tell you what,” he said. “How about you hear the stories first. After that, if you do not feel inspired, at least you will have learned how to drive a motorcycle.”

“Come again?”

“I am going to give you motorcycle lessons in exchange for your ears,” he answered.

“On whose motorcycle?”

“On mine,” he replied. “She’s at my brother’s house. She’s old and can’t travel far, but she’s perfect training until you get yours.”

“Am I getting a motorcycle?”

“You will,” he replied.

“How’s that?”

“I am going to buy the new motorcycle I showed you,” he explained.

“How is that going to help me acquire a motorcycle?”

“Didn’t you say the only thing you needed was inspiration?”

A month later, Ixmatá made a down payment on his brand new bike and proudly parked it out front of our co-op headquarters for all to see. The coffee growers were happy to know Ixmatá no longer had to suffer the long and cramped bus ride to work. A few of them joked about him having another half-hour in bed every morning, with which to do whatever he wanted, though I am paraphrasing—as well as sanitizing. On that fateful morning, Ixmatá invited me to his home to meet his wife and see his village.

“How am I getting there?” I asked.

“The same way I am,” he exclaimed.

I glanced at his new bike and grimaced.

“Why the worry?” he asked. “You aren’t driving.”

Peace Corps rules expressly forbade riding on motorcycles. This, I told Ixmatá. He reminded me that the buses in Guatemala were hardly seguro. He had a point: I remembered many harrowing moments aboard a bus careening downhill inches away from the edge of a steep cliff.

“Do you have another helmet?” I asked.

“Are you worried about my driving?”

I told him I was more worried about being seen, the Peace Corps booting me.

“You work for the Peace Corps,” Ixmatá stated. “Not the CIA.”

Ha!

“I have another helmet,” he said. “With my flashy new ‘ride,’ I suppose I get enough stares already without having a gringo to show off.”

“Am I not flashy?” I asked.

“Less so with a helmet on,” he said.

He was right—I wore one anyways. He didn’t—never did. How else was everyone supposed to know the proud identity of the one riding his proverbial unicorn?

We arrived to his village, called Buxúb[3], after night had fallen. His wife, Arxa,[4] had dark eyes, pale olive skin, like Ixmatá, and mars black hair as shimmery as raven feathers. She greeted me with an outstretched hand and scurried back into the kitchen. It was not her place to make conversation with me. Inside the kitchen, she looked more comfortable attending to some cold tortillas than to an unexpected guest. I observed Ixmatá’s mule on the opposite side of the kitchen, adjacent to it, where indoor seamlessly drifted into outdoor. When I crouched down to tie my shoe I caught a glimpse of Ixmatá’s wife standing over the stove. I could not see her feet, due to some wooden obstruction. Instead, I saw the hooves of his donkey, and for a split second, I swear Ixmatá’s wife looked just like a centaur—from waist down. When I woke up the next morning, she was still standing in the same place. Had she slept in the kitchen? Eggs and refried black beans sizzled and popped on the grill next to steaming white corn tortillas.

After breakfast, Ixmatá announced it was time for my first motorcycle lesson. He led me to the home of his younger brother, where Ixmatá’s old motorcycle, la vieja, was parked. The walk to his brother’s home was my first real exposure to his village. It was a sunny Saturday morning and everything glowed. Buxúb was a rustic town of earthen homes made of mud and straw. Chickens roamed wild, pecking the dirt wherever they pleased. A trio of hefty middle-aged women looked up from the raw masa that they were slapping in their palms, flattening it into tortillas. They sneered at me as we walked past them. I smiled and said hello in their language. Behind me, the SLAP SLAP SLAP resumed. Ixmatá’s brother, Mateo, was not thrilled about me borrowing “his” bike. I saw his wife looking in from the kitchen. Oddly, Mateo had not yet ridden la vieja. As seven or so calico kittens darted this way and that, Ixmatá unveiled his old bike from underneath a blue plastic blanket. Ixmatá looked at me and noticed concern. Next to his new chrome chariot, la vieja was a piece of junk.

“She rides fine,” he declared.

“If it’s good enough for kittens,” I said.

The grassy soccer field adjacent to Mateo’s home became our classroom and, in it, Ixmatá taught me how to squeeze the bike’s handle and lean into the throttle to make her motor hum. A humbling hour later, he proclaimed that I was ready for the open road, though I suspected that his proclamation had less to do with my readiness than with the arrival of a group of boys with a soccer ball. They wanted their field back. With my motor purring, I followed Ixmatá to the Aguas Dulces springs, located a few miles down a gravel road off the main highway. There, cypress knees sprouted from placid pools calling all of nature forth from the otherwise lifeless landscape. The crystal clear waters at Dulces were shallow and still. Their surface reflected the golden sun and the cream white clouds with crisp detail. The scene was one of primordial enchantment, except for one dirty and seemingly anachronistic blue pick-up truck. Ixmatá and I were not alone. We saw two men sitting on the truck’s dirty hood.

“¿Se les pegaron las sábanas?” the two men asked Ixmatá, meaning, “Did the sheets stick to you?” a colloquial expression.

They were in their late twenties. Ixmatá smiled and introduced me to the Alvarado brothers.

“¿Van a meterse?” they asked, meaning, “Are you going to swim?”

They started taking off their shoes.

Ixmatá declined, informing them that we had just eaten a big breakfast. I wanted to know if there was anything big lurking around in the depths.

The Alvarado brothers stripped down to their breeches and plunged in.

“I count two,” Ixmatá answered.

I asked Ixmatá how he knew them and he informed me that they had grown up together.

“They spent the night here at Dulces because their wives would not let them inside their own homes.”

“Why not?”

“Before returning home, they squandered all their money on booze and who-knows-what-else,” he whispered, gesturing to his nose, indicating that cocaine was probably involved too.

We watched the carefree Alvarado brothers banter in the water, the picture of brotherly bliss.

“The men in my village act like they are still boys,” Ixmatá noted, semi-fondly, semi-disdainfully. “I don’t know what it is like where you come from; here, in Guatemala, men can easily remain children their whole lives. Drugs and gangs are more attractive than an honest living, because an honest living means total poverty.”

“What about the church?” I asked.

I should have said churches, plural. There were plenty of them everywhere. Against the cinder block and corrugated tin exteriors of the rest of the buildings along the highway, these new churches stood out like lotus flowers sprouting from murk. I was about to learn that this beauty was more about flash than faith.

“Who do you think built all the beautiful new churches popping up like palaces everywhere?”

I shook my head.

“Who has all the plata?” he asked me, meaning money—a dead give-away.

Narcos,” I said.

Drug traffickers.

He nodded.

As far as I was concerned, no further explanation was needed. During the Bush administration, the US Drug Enforcement Agency had fought a “victorious” war against Colombian cocaine cartels. On CNN En Español, commercials were now promoting tourism to Columbia, claiming, “El riesgo es de que te quieras quedar, meaning, the only risk [in coming to Columbia] is that you will want to stay. Nonetheless, for the Bush administration, this proved to be yet another embarrassing “mission accomplished” declaration. Victory in the war on drugs would prove as elusive as those weapons of mass destruction that we never found. The narcos ousted from Colombia resettled in Mexico, and Guatemala was the only way into Mexico.

Ixmatá collected his thoughts by soaking in his surroundings.

“The secret to survival in Guatemala is never leave your place of birth behind,” he stated, his voice resonant with affected pride. “People who live in the capital don’t know what a good pot of black beans tastes like anymore.”

At Seventh Avenue, Samantha said goodbye with a quick hug and I sat down and retrieved my notebook from my backpack and jotted down what she had told me about Antarctica:

Roughly one hundred eighty million years ago (Mya[5]) East Gondwana, i.e. Antarctica, Madagascar, India and Australia, started separating from Africa. South America started drifting slowly westward from Africa as the South Atlantic Ocean opened. The separation of the landmasses resulted in “open marine conditions” around Antarctica. The resulting ocean currents slowly transformed Antarctica into a polar region.

I looked up through the car’s window. Jet planes circled in a holding pattern en route to JFK. In the foreground, on the walls of the subway tunnel, unintelligible graffiti whizzed by, it all a blur—past, present, and future, blending into one.

The inhabitants of Ancient Antarctica would have had plenty of time to flee Ancient Antarctica, provided they had foreseen their doom. According to Ixmatá, there was one inhabitant of Ancient Antarctica whose clairvoyance surpassed all others: Tláloc.

The train stopped at my station and I ascended to terra firma. My trip uptown had been fruitful: Not only had Gatwick given me a lot of food for thought, in only a few minutes, Samantha had given me a hundred million years of understanding, not to mention her email address. I emailed her as soon as I was home. In her reply, she stated that she wanted to help out with research about Antarctica, but on one condition:

“I want you to tell me more of the stories Don Ixmatá told you.”

“Deal,” I replied, clicking send.

The Maya storyteller telling the author about “Ancient Antarctica.”

 

[1] Ish-ma-TA

[2] Way-way-tuh-NAN-go

[3] boo-SHOOB

[4] AR-sha

[5] Millions of Years Ago

—————————————©2014-15, Alexander Nixon——————————————

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