Guatemala Stories and Tips

Tikal

We flew from Belize in a three-passenger plane. Guy sat up front with the pilot who, according to Guy, had on his iPod. I only saw the back of his head, which was bald. He also had an "earphone" on top of his head, which was pretty strange looking. He had a thick neck. I sat in back with a nice woman who looked about 50 to 60, weathered skin, old hippy type with multiple piercings in her ears. We flew over a vast area of farmland, which she pointed out was all Mennonite. We noticed Mennonites at the Belize Airport and were told that they provide all of the commercially grown chicken and eggs in Belize. When you head out over the jungle you realize what an enormous feat it is to clear it and farm it. Only people with an extraordinary work ethic could undertake it.

She pointed out Belmonpon, the capital city, a smattering of buildings in the middle of bloody nowhere. Then came the jungle—miles and miles and miles of it. We saw one ruin during the 45-minute flight—a stone Mayan pyramid sticking up from the trees was stunning—beautiful and majestic. I’ve seen a lot of survivor movies. Now, after being in it and over it I can say that I wouldn’t try to find my way out of the jungle if the plane went down. It would be useless. Guy did not think so. He brought his compass.

We arrived at the Flores Airport and went through Guatemalan immigration easily. There was a driver waiting with a sign. He didn’t really need the sign since we were the only ones there. We were glad we (read Guy) had squared away the arrangements to get to the Jungle Lodge. It was late in the afternoon and we left right away for about an hour drive to Tikal. By necessity, the Guatemalans live close to the road in rural areas so the little humanity there is hangs out there. There are dogs and pigs and horses in the road as well. Our driver was friendly and we communicated pretty well with his hundred words of English and our 50 words of Spanish. Guy commented, "lots of kids" and he replied "no TV."

When we enter the park, which is gated and manned by armed guards, it’s getting toward dusk. We travel another few miles until we arrive at the Jungle Lodge.

I heard from an old friend who went to Tikal. She and her husband drove from Belize, with an armed escort. At the border, they were briefly detained and escorted to a tour bus filled with Mennonite farmers in suspenders and straw hats. The border guard announced, "here is the rest of your tribe." Apparently there are a great many Mennonites named Schwartz. And when the guards saw "Schwartz" on the passports they assumed that they must be looking for their teammates. They were eventually allowed to continue on their way to Tikal.

And since we’re back on the subject of Mennonites, a fellow in Belize told me that the men are allowed to marry non-Mennonites as long as the woman is Christian. The women may only marry Mennonite. Guy commented that with all of the inbreeding (the Schwartz Tribe being evidence of that practice) they are usually fairly attractive. You would think that after marrying your cousin for a few generations there would be a good number of folks who weren’t quite right.

The Jungle Lodge has its own generator, providing electricity and hot water in the mornings and the evenings. No air conditioning. Lights out at 11pm. The room was Spartan, equipped with a standard size double bed. Two people in a double bed is quite cozy and even cozier with the mosquito netting in place.

We decided to take a guided tour on our first day in order to get a good overview. We met up with Ruben, our Mayan guide, and four Norwegian tourists. Their English was negligible but when we heard they were Norwegian, Guy and I in unison more or less shouted, "Ten tousand Svedes ran tru da veeds, chased by one Nor-wee-gan." They liked that and we got along splendidly.

As we penetrated the jungle on the mile something walk to the plaza, Ruben cheerfully announced (several times) that the humidity was 100 percent. Most of the hike was uphill on rough terrain with a lot of rocks and mud and, of course, mucho calor. After the first few minutes I was soaking wet and I stayed soaking wet for the next 4 hours or so. Nothing ever really dries out in the jungle. We slogged along and more than once I thought about what a dandy thing is the cane. It is very hard for me to understand why everybody doesn’t have one—at least while hiking. Ruben at one point eyed the cane and asked how I felt about taking a shortcut. I said "okay" and we went off the beaten path. After a while it became apparent why Ruben chose this route. "I would like you to meet a bee-yoo-ti-ful lady," he said. He took a couple of leaves and started to prod a small opening to one side of the trail. Before long we saw a couple of long, hairy legs and I knew immediately it was a tarantula. He actually got the spider to come out of its lair and held it in his hand. He petted and prodded her and showed us her fangs extended and the web filament extending from her body. He asked if anybody wanted to hold her but got no takers.

On our third day at Tikal we ventured out alone. Although you meet someone on the trail now and then and here and there, it’s not Busch Gardens. One of the few people we met was a slim, boyish looking girl we noticed even at a distance. She was wearing what looked like a WWII doughboy’s hat. She carried a large sling rather than the usual backpack and it didn’t seem to have much in it. She carried a long, sturdy stick. Seeing her in a sunlit clearing reminded me of an illustration for Green Mansions. We met her later on the path. Two Guatemalan boys were dogging her heels like moths to a flame. (I couldn’t decide which metaphor to use, so you can pick whichever you like.)

"Australia?" one said.

"Non," she said.

"California?" the other said.

"Non."

"La Luna," I said.

"France," she said.

We met another girl from France whose name was France.

When we got to the main plaza, Guy started to bound up the ruins like Captain Spaulding but I hung back and chatted up a Dutch woman traveling alone. Her English was minimal but I understood that she had just explored the same ruin that Guy was currently climbing. She was decked out in flowered pants and a red tank top with a green shirt that made her look like a Christmas tree ornament. She had a perpetual smile and her face was ruddy red. When someone asks "How old do you think I am?" I’m always tempted to reply, "uh...80?" But, of course, I didn’t. She volunteered that she was 68 and I was properly impressed.

Determination overcame weariness and Guy and I explored the North Acropolis together. The Mayans believe that 3, 7, 9, and 13 are sacred numbers. After climbing up a few levels we wandered off to the back of the ruin; looking into the jungle we were eye level with a family of three monkeys swinging through the trees: mama, papa, and baby. Later on the path we would see three toucans directly overhead, and late that afternoon we saw three raucous parrots streaking across the sky. Guy says his lucky number is nine so I thought all of this was mighty auspicious.

It’s as though nature can’t bear to be outdone. While you’re craning your neck at the site of the ancient Mayan architecture, awed and overwhelmed by the accomplishment and the mystery of it all, the monkeys and the birds and the spiders say, "Look at me! Look at me!" In the middle of the plaza yellow-tailed blackbirds swooped back and forth between trees and ruins as if they were on cue.

We returned to the Jungle Lodge and prepared to depart early the next morning. In our room, a huge hairy spider appeared out of nowhere. She was almost the diameter of a small saucer and she scuttled under the chifferobe. Guy tracked her down and killed her dead. It was only then that I realized I had not taken the simplest precautions of shaking out my shoes before putting them on. I walked to the bathroom in the middle of the night in my bare feet without turning on a light. The suitcase was wide open on the floor...

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