Days 9 & 10 - The Lost Worlds

We close out Eva's with our new friends, both proprietors and tourists. Numerous beers, more burritos, and even a couple of local smokes (Scott says Colonial Lights are like "smoking dirt," but they suit this non-smoker). One slightly rough moment comes when David (the aforementioned sidekick to Bob) sits down to the machine and discovers I've left open a picture from today, as well as several applications–and moreover, that I put a floppy disk in the drive. "Of course," I replied, "I had content to upload." But David is worried about viruses, despite my assurance that I do this shit for a living. I only palliate his good-natured ire when I promise to put him on the site–he also requires that I send him a brand new 300MHz Pentium system if this one comes down with the digital plague. I promise to send him some brand new anti-virus software instead.

Next morning, after a quick lounge in the hammock, and we're back at Eva's bright and early (I'm going to start calling this place "Maarten's South") for a breakfast of coffee, toast, and jelly; to say goodbye to Scott and Stacey (who are departing for scuba diving in the Cayes); and to pick up Aly and Lauren, who are joining us for the trek to Tikal after all. Before we leave, I also score a couple of stylish "Strike 3, Vote PUP, Set Belize Free" political bumper stickers from our guide of the day before. My second awesome souvenir! One goes on the top of the laptop immediately.

There's a lot involved at the Guatemalan border (including fumigation, a new one), but we breeze through very painlessly, all told. Aly's Spanish helps a great deal, but so does the fact that almost everyone working here is civilian and seems eager to get us through, and the process is orderly. They even let use their bathroom. Finally, even the street money-changers are extremely cool; one doesn't quite have change, and leaves me with all of my dolares–and 300 of his quetzales–while he runs for change. Man. We're across the border by 1:30.

Guatemala looks precisely like I expected it to. Cattle dot the lush hillsides, those characteristic Guatemalan trees (sort of like palm trees with a jolt of electricity) are everywhere; there's endless greenery, thatched roof stick-structures, and a solitary lazy river with two lazy young swimmers. There are free range horses; Sara says she hears they "taste better than the regular kind." We pass a ferry on the river–a big wooden raft, with ropes to either shore for manual locomotion. The road is dirt, and fairly washed out from the rainy season; however, we soon come upon a road crew with tractor, dump truck, and a huge amount of dirt (with which they are resurfacing the road). This is what passes for highway construction in Guatemala. 8^) But I shouldn't complain, the stretch they had done was a marked improvement!

This drive is short, maybe three hours, and easy to navigate; as we hit the last crossroads before Tikal, at El Remate, we pull over to admire Lake Peten Itza (on the shores of which the little berg sits). In the shallows, a half dozen women wash laundry; on the inland side of the road, a lively youth soccer game proceeds. The afternoon game sounds joyously fun. The lake is very blue.

Pulling into Tikal National Park, we discover that the last bus back over the border is at 2pm–and it's almost 12:30! This adversely impacts Aly and Lauren's daytrip plans. With good humour, though, they say goodbye, and hop out to get started on the ruins, while we check in at the Tikal Inn. This last is pretty and traditional looking, though they do have a few wee problems with power and hot water (we only had either between 6:30pm and 9:30pm on that particular evening). Still, we're glad to be at Tikal and checked in; and I'm glad to be speaking Spanish again (my little badge of not being a total bozo touristo norteoamericano).

We enter through the visitors building, where we grab a ruins map; then down the living jungle path, along which is a Ceiba, the national tree. As we proceed and the jungle thickens, the first structure catches us by surprise, lurching out of the jungle canopy to our left. It is Temple 38, and I climb about 30 feet to its base, up a rocky half path/half stairway. Unlike Palenque, these rocks are dry, not slick. From below, Sara gives out the inaugural "Monkey!" call. She's jumping the gun, though, it is but a small raccoon-like creature with a long striped prehensile tail, sniffing around us (for food, we imagine). We were later to learn that it is a "kinkajou," of which there are a number in this area. We continue on toward the Gran Plaza (the center of the ruins).

From Fodor's Belize & Guatemala (edited, but elipses omitted): "Tikal is the country's most famous and impressive Mayan ruins; the area was covered with villages and farms 1500 years ago, when an estimated 50,000-100,000 people lived here. What remains includes the tallest pyramid in the western hemisphere. Though the area had Maya communities by 600 BC, Tikal's civilization didn't reach its height until around AD 600. During the Classic Period (AD 250-900), Tikal was an important religious and administrative center. The great temples that still tower over the jungle were at that time covered with stucco and painted bright colors, and a hierarchy of priests and dynastic rulers used them for elaborate ceremonies meant to please the gods and thus assure prosperity for the city. What makes these structures even more impressive is that the Maya had no beasts of burden, never used the wheel for anything but children's toys, and possessed no metal tools to aid in construction. The city of Tikal thrived for more than a millennium, trading and warring with city-states both near and far. But by AD 900, Tikal was in a state of chaos as the entire Maya empire began its mysterious decline and the process of depopulation had begun."

The rear of Temple I rises us before us. We veer off toward the Central Acropolis to the left, trying to savor the anticipation of the big guys for a bit, and Sara explores the Acropolis courtyard. Giving in to our eagerness, we circle back to the Gran Plaza.

This large grass area is bordered on two ends by the identical and towering Temples I and II, and on the long sides by the North and Central Acropolises. Temple 1, the Temple of the Great Jaguar, is the burial place of Ak Cacao, who built the whole Gran Plaza around AD 700. The theory is that his queen is buried (and might one day be discovered) underneath Temple II (Temple of the Masks). TI is off-limits, but we immediately hike up TII. The Tikal workout definitely dwarfs the Palenque workout; these stairs are steep, and we can feel the burn. From up top, we savor the view across to T1, and try to snap some keeper shots. Below us in the Plaza, a couple dozen tourists sack out in the shade of trees; it is very warm and the sun is set on stun–but there is very little humidity. From uptop, we also spot Aly and Lauren trekking up the North Acropolis, way down and to our left. We descend, and set of al oeste out of the Plaza, toward some of the outlying ruins and the South Acropolis.

Back in the jungle, we shortly encounter Temple III, which is accessible only by climbing an awesomely steep and scrabbly slope. I leap up the face like a monkey, clinging to irregular rock, and tons of sturdy roots (which seem to have been put there for that express purpose). My body is having a blast. Up top, I arrive at the front portico, which towers over the jungle canopy; it feels like a great reward for the climb. To get around to the back of the structure, I have to edge crab-like, clinging to the stone face. From the backside, Temple IV (the tallest of them all) is visible jutting from the jungle like some Stone God of the Rainforest, preparing to go on a thundering and lethal rampage. When I zoom in, humans are just visible inside the God's mouth; we will be taking their places tomorrow morning, when we return to try and catch sunset from that (reportedly the best) spot. Simultaneously filled with wonder, calm, and anticipation, I make the dicey climb down (of course, up is always so much easier than down).

Smaller ruins keep leaping out of the jungle at us, as we make our way toward an area in the far southwest corner, known as Mundo Perdido–"The Lost World." En route, we detour to a scenic spot off the path–and the monkey cry goes up again! These are no faux monkeys, but the real thing, squeaking and swinging through the canopy, as we give chase below, cameras held forward stiffly like tricorders. And there are lots of them; Sara and I debate the proper term for this many monkeys. A herd? A gaggle? A coven? A murder? Of course–a barrel, silly!

Christ! do I have a whole new appreciation for Robert Mangelsen, and other wildlife photographers. These furry fuckers just do not cooperate! We arrive at their nest and home tree (fearing that we are now hopelessly lost in the jungle), and try to hold still for a while, so the primates might relax and make themselves more visible. However, I am momentarily distracted by a toucan, and give chase, while Sara mans the Seige of Monkeyville. As I circle with camera, practically hearing the AAs going dry as the LCD sucks power, the toucan lines up on a branch with its mate (or buddy)–the perfect shot. Of course, by the time I zoom, one has taken off and the other has moved–and comes off like a toucan bombadier, to boot. Luckily, I saw the attack coming a mile away, and step glibly to the side. I return to the Monkey Front, where Sara points out a Mama & Baby monkey, who are just visible. The baby's face is tiny and distinct. Only then do a couple of other monkeys come out and pose–and we're pretty sure they were just trying to distract us, so the poor mother could nurse in peace.

El Mundo Perdido is named to perfection. As we enter the secluded and mysterious area, two folks on a low level of a big pyramid are pointing cameras at a treetop–it's another toucan taking it easy, and after much patience and battery power, I get a remotely decent shot. Then, I proceed up the 105 foot pyramid, which is not named, but is the only one in Mundo Perdido. Sara lounges in the courtyard.

The scene and the atmosphere from the flat top are absolutely stunning. Temples III and IV are visible in the distance, and in the other direction an endless expanse of jungle, from which emanates a deep animal roaring, which has me confused and not a little frightened. Luckily, I make the acquaintence of the only other souls uptop, Dave and Jen; they are Americans from Chapel Hill (late of Phoenix), and nice as all get out, and Dave explains to me that we are listening to male howler monkeys proclaiming domain over their territory. I swear, the wind-like rising and falling, the sheer tenor range of the roars, sound like nothing so much as rampaging T-Rexes, which of course fits nicely with the whole theme of this area. (Not really believing in T-Rexes, I originally thought it must have been lions, or jaguars, until Dave set me straight. Dave also told me that the kinkajous are called kinkajous, and later would clue me in that the electrified palm trees that dot the Guatemalan country-side are "cohune palms.")

I call down to Sara to come up and experience this spot–sound is odd around here, and I can converse with her 105 feet below in a barely raised voice (I usually can't be heard at cocktail parties)–but she is having an on-again off-again bout of acrophobia, and passes on this one. I bid adieu to Dave and Jen, descend to the grass, and Sara and I proceed. We explore a few of the hidden rooms of M.P., and outside again I stop to take a picture of Sara in front of the pyramid. Sitting low for the shot, making my own little pyramid, I feel such a serene connection with the scene before me, that I am loathe to get up, and so sit for a while longer.

Proceeding back east toward the South Acropolis, we agree that we can't believe we're actually at Tikal, after all the planning, anticipation–and bad travel experiences getting here. We also agree that it is a good thing we did not turn around and go home at Villahermosa, which I swear we nearly did (so tuckered, frustrated, and snippy were we (well, okay, mostly "was I")). A group of four oscillated turkeys, high overhead, start up a snorty kind of gobbling. Perhaps this is where "turkey ham" comes from?

Several Things Are Funny
It is funny to hear animals that large moving around in the trees, knocking down large branches and leaves. As we move up the trail, we pass a few folks, and think how funny it is to hear Americans, Germans, French, Japanese, all greeting eachother and chatting in Spanish. (Though, of course, it makes sense, as it is one language we're all very likely to have at least a little of in common.) As we climb up a hill where several trees have eaten a building, the monkey howling grows louder, and I can't help but think it's funny that the sound is still frightening and disturbing–but, of course, "frightening and disturbing" is exactly what the howling has evolved to be. Finally, Sara thinks it is capitally funny, and grins archly, when I am attacked by a prehistoric Mayan plant. Luckily, utilizing my commando knife, pepper spray, and blinding mag light (which are always right at hand), I slay the plant and survive its deadly facial embrace. We continue on to the front of Temple V, where a thousand tree-borne somethings or others start up a mighty chirping. But, nothing fazes us at this point. We are like 1,400 year old rocks; meanest hominids in the jungle. We only fear the mosquitos now.

Circling back to the Gran Plaza, we actually make our way up the North Acropolis, and get a cool view of the Plaza.

On the last hop of the day, out to isolated Temple VI (in the southeast corner all by its lonesome, with only the small Group G ruins on the way), legs sore, I sigh and consider how nice it is going to be to get back into my life–working out and playing hoops in the evenings, sitting on breezy patios drinking espressos, or great beer. And at that moment I realize that this trip was not precisely something I needed in and of, as, itself–it was much more something the rest of my life, the regular part, needed for itself. Somehow, this was something I need to do... and to have done... even more than it was something I needed to be doing. The actual doing is fun, but somehow it is secondary to the initial decision to go, and to the relishing I will do afterwards, as components of this act of nourishing my soul with adventure, with elsewhereness.

As I intently inscribe the words above, in front of the stately crumbling structures of Group G, Sara, just ahead, narrowly avoids being pissed on by a monkey.

That night, a quick swim and relax by the pool, showers (speaking of pissing monkeys, the shower here rates an even 2 on the standard Pissing Monkey shower water pressure scale), dress, head out for dinner, and we stumble on Jen and Dave at a humble open-air restaurant. We delightedly join them, order a couple of beers and food (there's a veg special available, and the premier Guat beer, Gallo (or "Rooster") is quite good–it's a little richer, less pilsnerish, and tastier than the Belikin.), and get to know eachother better.

These two have been roughing it at the camp site nearby, and have all their gear with them, piled in the corner behind the table. We discuss Belize (and the political situation there), where Dave just spent a month working on a project with a group of U.S. high school students. He tells a frightening story of driving to the airport to pick up Jen a few days ago, and getting caught in a clash between PUP and UDP political rallies. As he tells it, the two mobs converged on the crossroads of the Western just as he gets to it, and a brawl breaks out: one guy pulls a knife, somebody else clubs somebody. "Shit, what did you do?" I ask. "Rolled up the window."

Amazingly, it turns out Sara has a friend in common w/Dave & Jen–someone she went to Europe with, and they went to high school with. Dave and Jenn are both 24; he went to UNC (we trade Chapel Hill lore, I used to spend a bit of time there), and Jen went to Prescott in Arizona. He was a Latin American Studies major, which surprises no one; he's spent a year in Ecuador, and more in other places, and considers Central America his second home. Dinner comes: rice, beans, cucumbers, tomtatos, fried potatos, and thick tortillas. It's pretty much the best meal we've had, and we get out with two entrees, four beers, and an Orange Crush (these are ubiquitous in Guatemala) for 69 quetzales–about $10.15.

Dave and Jenn are on their way out in the morning themselves, and politely inquire about the possibility of a ride to the bus station at Flores, which is right on our way. We're more than happy to oblige our third set of hitchhikers. If nothing else, a car sure makes you popular down here. 8^)

At shortly after 5am we arrive again at the park gates, flashlights swinging at waist level, with fatigued bodies and not enough sleep. I am particularly not in the mood for it when the guard denies us entry until 6 (after the sun is already up)–mostly because the laptop imploded again last night. This time, it managed to lose all its RAM, save the mere 8meg it has built in. 32meg of RAM, de subito perdido. Perhaps needless to say, 8meg isn't enough even to run MacOS System 8, with all my extensions, so the machine won't even boot. I work through the evening trying to troubleshoot it; I (just barely) get the machine to come up with extensions off–but by the time I do, the machine won't recognize the first Norton disk! Moreover, I am racing against the clock, as I do not have an adaptor for the type of outlets in this hotel. Finally, all my flash memory for the camera is full–unless I can download them to the laptop, it's all chemical photography from here on out. I awoke early (even earlier than planned), and fiddled for a while. With virtual memory enabled, I at least was able to get the camera s/w up, and download the 36 shots from the day before. But, unless I can get more memory warmed up (and I'm thinking I'm going to have to crack the case and check to see if the DIMMs are seated–an operation I've performed once on a 5300, but I also had the proper tools then), this is going to be an all-text travelogue from here on out. Without the ability to fire up Photoshop, there's no way I can do anything more with the pictures than save them until I get back.

So it's these thoughts that are lacerating my tired brain, as the diminuative park guard stands his ground before us. We were, to be fair, warned that the official opening time is 6am, and you can only get in earlier with a paid guide; still, we had hoped we could gloss it. Just then, another couple we recognize from our hotel arrives. They are stopped as well, and immediately begin complaining and negotiating in full-featured Spanish. As I said, you can go in early with a guide, and this little fellow (suprise, surprise) is offering his services, por vente quetzales por persona. We talk him down to fifty for the group of four of us. "Now this is adventure," thought I, "bribing our way across the border." Sunrise is running close on our heels, the air lightening around us, so we set off at a goodly trot, and our guide takes us off the main path–"a shortcut to Templo Cuatro." We clamber through black and narrow trails for about twenty minutes, and emerge at the base of the tallest temple.

The way up is a long series of steep wooden stairs (ladders, really) built into the cliffside. We lurch up them, sucking for breath, and climb out of the jungle canopy onto crumbly and weathered stone–the front porch of Temple IV. Below us, the jungle is a soup bowl of thick fog–and the sounds of the jungle waking up are all around us: barking, croaking, and a hundred different kinds of chirping float up at us. We are the third and fourth folks up there, but very soon about forty tourists, and a kinkajou, emerge from the fog below. The former take up seats, and the latter clambers around, long tail pointed straight skyward, bending its snout upward to sniff, and to happily accept, the bits of bread and Powerbars which are offered it.

The fog is still thick, but someone shouts and points, and there is a surprising quarter disc of the sun, clearly cut by the line of the mist; it slowly fills out into a full sphere, before disappearing again. The east stairs are crowded now, and the fucking Italians are all still chattering like the birds. I think that if you can't shut up in this particular moment, you never can in your whole life. Despite slipping my grip on this little pouch of venom, still the experience is pretty magical for me, and for Sara.

Shower and pack, laptop into its bag, with the power cord snaking out–want to at least get some juice into the brick right away. We pick up Dave and Jen at the cafe, pile their gear in back, and blow this 2000 year old taco stand. We stop for food and gas past El Remate, and Dave uses his masterful Spanish to get us some stellar advice on getting ourselves the full length of the country, to Antigua. We drop them at a bus stop near Flores (which is actually a city on an island on a lake; we take a quick peek), say fond farewells, and exchange e-mail addresses and URLs (this one in particular; hi, Dave, hi Jen!). Jen will be moving to Oakland in the fall, and we promise to get together for a beer.

The road from Flores south to San Luis, is uh, pretty much beyond imagination or conception; it's definitely beyond my humble powers of description. Dominant themes were dust, rocks, and huge gaping ragged holes. Suffice it to say that a normal car would have blown up; and that we are very happy now to have been on the worst road we will ever drive in our lives (anything worse would be undriveable). Still, we have to admit that there were definitely one or two stunning views from the mountains. After almost a hundred miles of galumphing along soley in first and second gear, we emerge onto pavement, amazed that the vehicle hung together–and that it can still run at highway speeds. It's a bit like chopping a thousand tin cans with your ginsu, and still having it slice this tomato paper thin.

We actually see a billboard for a brand of machetes, another for a brand of clutch (this was reassuring), get directions from a guy pulling a donkey with scars on his bare chest so huge we can only figure he lost a machete fight at some point, and emerge into Guatemala City just after it has rained. We are totally exhausted after more than ten hours on the road (and off), and Guat City is, uh, let's call it "pretty rundown." Crawling through it in traffic was not precisely what the doctor had ordered.

But Antigua absolutely was.

We climb out of Guat City into the mountains again, then descend south toward Antigua Guatamela (which means "Old Guatemala City"; in an analogue of the Belize situation, this used to be the capitol, until it was levelled just a few too many times by earthquakes, and they moved the seat of government to a safer location a few score miles away (the current Guat City) in 1773; the old city is now just referred to as "Antigua"). We drop along a steep highway as the temperature cools, the air smells (I swear) pleasantly of ash, and the first volcanos spring into view.

Our first two hours in Antigua, roaming cobblestone streets, ogling at everything, looking for just the right hotel, we fall completely in love–and immediately resolve to stay here an extra day. Every restaurant we pass is candlelit and incredibly inviting; every cafe just DRIPS personality. The breezy night air is a perfect humidity-free 68.4 degrees, and the streets are filled with happy beautiful people from here and from a whole bunch of other nations.

We pass the stunning backlit ruins of a church, and wander startled into the main square, Plaza Mayor, down over which the volcanos half-menacingly, half-protectively, keep watch. Street vendors hawk their wares by candelight, an amazing magical effect; and it even looks like stuff you'd want to buy, like big knives in cool carved wooden scabbards! We finally check into Hospedaje de Santa Lucia, a cool two-story place with lots of Spanish charm, for 70 quetzales por noche.

Antigua is blessed: even my computer has healed itself, miraculously finding the lost 32meg of RAM, in what I have come to think of as the "Immaculate Upgrade." I've been writing this up, first over the most stunningly perfect breakfast, and of late in the sunny second floor courtyard outside our room. I'm going to have a lot more to say about Antigua (and time to say it, we're here two more days and nights)–but for now, if you're making any vacation plans, I'd strongly urge you to think Guatemala. 8^) Sara is working on some postcards, some of you might get something in the smail (possibly as soon as a week or two after we get back). Abrazos y besos de Antigua, Guatemala, CA!

g e a r | i t i n e r a r y | j o u r n a l | i m a g e s