A Significant Red Sunrise
|The scolding squawks of a dozen sea birds roused me from a deep slumber. The moment that I opened my eyes I knew that it wasn't going to be an ordinary morning. Instead of a brilliant stab of yellow light, the sun was rising in the form a bloody, angry looking orb. I pushed a covering sheet to the foot of the hammock and pointed my toes into a pair of well-worn huaraches. I had never seen frigate birds on land before and their gawky gate seemed out of place compared to their graceful soaring talent.
I had arrived at the beach in early June, and in the three months that had elapsed I had made friends with the local fishermen. I had even hired some of their older children to build a palapa roof and walls around "The Quicksilver Express" a retired ski transit bus fitted-out as a motorhome. Now a creature of the beach, it took on the appearance of a thirty-foot furry cigar.
I glanced at the fish camp some five hundred meters away but did not see Arturo by his panga. Normally at the crack of dawn the virtually toothless lobster fisherman was loading the boat getting ready for another day diving the reef located twenty miles offshore. A normal morning had me sitting in the bow of his white and red boat looking seaward as the panga skipped from wave top to wave top. Arturo dove for lobster, and I took advantage of an excellent opportunity to snorkel and spear fish the reef, some thirty miles in length.
Indeed just the day before we had simultaneously erupted out of the water and scrambled into opposite sides of the boat. "¡Caray!" he sputtered "That has to be the biggest 'tintoraya' I have ever seen!" I'm no expert on Tiger Sharks, but the sudden appearance and size of the beast left both of us gasping on the floor of the boat. The monster circled the boat a few times and then decided that there had to be easier prey somewhere else. The reef was crawling with fish and animals.
Arturo dove with snorkel, mask, fins, and a bamboo pole with a fishhook wired onto the end. He filled a gunnysack with the spiny crustaceans which usually took four or so hours. In the meanwhile I explored every nook and cranny around the boat careful to not drift too far away. Arturo showed me the curious relationship between eels and lobsters. The lobster made it's home near the eel's den. In turn for cleaning up the debris after a messy eel meal, the lobster enjoyed the relative protection of the creature's mouthful of sharp teeth. Conch was plentiful, and Arturo and his family shared many cauldrons of "Sopa de Siete Mares" with me. We would slurp the hot spicy soup until we glistened with perspiration then rinse off and cool down beneath the shimmering waves. The fisherman's wife was deathly afraid of sharks and refused to enter even ankle-deep water without her husband or one of the children acting as a lookout.
Life on a Caribbean beach in the summer was tolerable right on the water, but the temperature (and mosquitoes) increased dramatically just a few hundred feet inland. Arturo's two oldest children brought me gunnysacks full of coconuts and they teased me about me never climbing a coconut palm. The boys used three leather belts fastened together as a loop around the palm tree trunk. They would shinny up a twenty-foot palm in fifteen seconds or less and then loose a machete on the pod of coconuts clustered beneath the crown.
When I felt brave enough to turn the inside of The Quicksilver into a furnace, I baked Banana Nut Bead which the boys ate ravenously. Instead of rewarding them with coins which were useless so far from the village, I tempted them with slabs of the sweet cake. They enthusiastically maintained my fishing gear and dive gear, patiently rinsing them off with precious fresh water.
The warmest part of the day seemed to be right after breakfast up to the time the soothing Trade Wind came in off the sea. Unlike the popular "paradise beaches" near Playa de Carmen and Cancun, to the North, my beach consisted of a tan colored sand and was bordered by a series of lagoons and mangrove swamps. The water was perfect; bright blue and bathtub warm. But it was the lure of that fabulous reef that called me to such a desolate spot.
The last few days had been uncommonly warm even by Summer-in-Yucatan standards. The normally reliable onshore breeze had failed and searching mosquitoes had driven me to drape yards of netting over my hammock or risk having my blood drained at night.
I glanced at Arturo camp through a pair of field glasses and with a start realized that the entire family was disassembling their driftwood and blue tarp house. The children were piling the materials on the beach next to the painter rope that anchored the boat to the beach. Could it be that the huge shark scared the poor man to the point where he was changing locations? That didn't sound right so I trudged across the golden expanse of sand and greeted the family with a cheery Buenas Dias.
Arturo brightened at my sudden appearance and shook my hand in the gentle manner of polite Mexican custom. I opened my eyes wide in not-so-mock surprise and surveyed the rapidly collapsing campsite. "Oye David" Arturo began "I was going to tell you that Pecho, my brother-in-law believes that a very ugly storm is coming". He motioned toward the east". I started to ask how they learned of a storm as Artúro had the only radio and it had failed a couple of weeks earlier. From the looks of their rapidly disassembling camp however, it was clear that the decision was firm. "Besides" Artúro continued "My cuñada (sister-in-law) wants the family to come visit her in Chetumál".
After a sad farewell, I struck out back to my camp "Rancho Isore". "I'll be darned if I'm going to uproot and abandon all this" I thought, surveying the bulging palápa, makeshift privacy walls of palm fronds, the laboriously built Mayan style barbecue and assorted other "improvements". But then again an age-old sailor's rhyme was coursing through my sub-conscious "Red in the morning - sailor take warning". It is after all, mid September, I thought. Hurricane season was in full bloom. A nagging doubt set in and I unearthed my trusty Radio Shack short-wave receiver. After a few minutes of scanning various frequencies I gave up. Short-wave reception is possible at night, but during the daylight all I could receive was a crackling and fading AM station from a distant city.
I scanned the beach to the north. Artúro had said a few days earlier that he had spotted a camping RV parked at the extreme north end of the beach "It has a parabolico (satellite dish) on the roof" he described". It was more than a mile to the north end of the beach so I drove Nellie Belle, my Méxican rancho-truck look-alike. Sure enough a long motor home sat surrounding by chairs, a portable awning, and barbecue. On the roof sat a folded satellite dish. I boldly walked up and rapped on the door. The windows were closed tight, and an air conditioner was humming.
A well-tanned man who appeared to be in his late fifties opened the door and I rapidly introduced myself as "The neighbor down the beach". With a smile he opened the screen door and I stepped into a bracingly cool and dry environment. "Care for some coffee?" he offered. Within a few minutes I learned that he and his wife were on their way to Belize. "Say how about that red sunrise?" he remarked. "That's partly why I'm here I confessed "The local fishermen are evacuating. They say that a really bad storm is coming". It wasn't long before Don and I were on the roof of his motorhome grappling with the seven-foot dish. Geri sat by the flickering television screen ready to cry out if a picture appeared. "Got it!" she yelled. After some fine-tuning we scrambled off the scorching roof and into the welcome coolness of the interior.
The channel was tuned to an all-weather station, and we sat patiently as the meteorologist covered the entire United States forecast. As the broadcast broke away to a tire commercial I could see that he was standing in front of a huge expanse of gray cloud cover in the Western-Atlantic Ocean. It wasn't long before the weatherman was back on the air giving a tropical forecast. The camera panned onto a gigantic circular mass of clouds with an ominous hole in the center. "Hurricane Gilbert continues to gain intensity" he advised "Now at F4 strength this is a dangerous storm and it's expected to gain in strength until it comes ashore about here" He brushed his hand across the Yucatán peninsula".
Don gave Geri a knowing look and quipped, "Well, you didn't want to visit Belize anyway". I stood up and gave a nervous glance towards the door. "We'd better get your dish down and break camp" Without another word, we climbed back onto the roof and in a matter of minutes had stowed the apparatus. I hurriedly excused myself and started for my pickup, quickly returning to camp.
I heard yelling coming from the ocean. Artúro, his entire family, and possessions were bobbing in the pánga just a few yards offshore. I waded into the water. "I just want to say goodbye again amigo" he explained. "Do not remain here" he cautioned again "It will be Muy Peigroso". I nodded in the affirmative. "The satellite" I explained, motioning toward the motorhome, "Told us that a dangerous storm is coming, its name is Gilbérto". With a chorus of good-byes the family struck off for Chetumál. "Not much protection there, I mused". Chetumál was barely inland from the Caribbéan and had a history of being flattened by powerful hurricanes.
I closed my eyes and pressed on the gas pedal. With a sudden lurch the bus ambled forward, dragging the frond roof and walls with it. In seconds my camp was reduced to rubble. After I had cleared the zone of debris I opened the cavernous rear door and started piling camping gear into the rear. It took an hour and a half, and by the time I connected Nellie-Belle, to the Quicksilver, I was drenched in sweat. As I walked toward the warm sea, Don appeared driving his little pickup that was in tow behind the motorhome. "Say, do you mind if we buddy up? You said you knew the road to Guatemala". I waved my hand in acknowledgement and soon I was beneath the surface of the Caribbéan, for perhaps the last time in a while.
My escape plan was simple and primitive. The approaching storm was coming from the East and my route was designed to place as many land miles as possible between us and the storm. Going to Belize wouldn't offer refuge. The country had been decimated countless times by as many hurricanes. It would take at least two days to transit the country and flee southward into Guatemala. No that route wasn't going to work out. We had to head west.
"Testing one-two" Don's booming voice came over the CB radio speaker. "Are you ready to go?" I slipped the bus into gear and gave my answer in the form of a puff of exhaust. Thankfully Yucatecan highways are straight and are wider than the Méxican norm. Soon I glanced at a speedometer that was registering fifty-five. A scudding cloud cover announced that the hurricane was getting closer.
"Think we'll outrun it?" Geri's voice seemed strained and reedy. I picked up the microphone and tried to reassure her. We came upon a clogged highway on the outskirts of a town and discovered that motorists were queued up in long lines waiting to buy gasoline. I was relieved when Don informed me that they had enough fuel to go three or four hundred miles.
Hours later the brushy trees bordering the roadway were fluttering in front of a stiff breeze. We were approaching a medium sized town and I decided further flight would be futile. Francisco Escarcéga isn't the most aesthetic settlement in México, but it was here that we would weather out the storm. We turned off the main highway onto a level place near railroad tracks.
Sheets of rain were now lashing the metal roof of Quicksilver. I turned the bus round to face into the wind. Don did likewise with his rig. It wasn't long before the wind was shrieking. Panels of corrugated sheet metal were cartwheeling and tumbling across the open area of our parking place. From the look of the paint motif the local gas station had just lost its canopy. The sky turned very dark and the wind gusts slammed into the nose of the bus. The huge windshield wipers lifted clear of the glass and were dancing a frenzied rumba. I suddenly felt chilled and thought perhaps I was I was coming down with a cold (in the middle of a hurricane?). When I glanced at a dial thermometer on my refrigerator I noticed that the temperature had plunged some twenty degrees in a half-hour. I radioed Don and Geri and asked them if they noticed the temperature drop. "Hell yes" Don answered "And my barometer needle is at the bottom peg; it can't register any lower". We waited in vain over the next several hours for the eye of the hurricane to pass, but instead the slashing wind slowly decreased in velocity.
As luck would have it, our parking spot was neither flat nor as porous as the majority of Yucatecan soil; in fact I had chosen the only spot in miles that acted as a catch basin for the torrent of rain that Gilbérto had unloosed. It's no exaggeration to say that I saw miniature whitecaps foaming in the beam of my headlights. The water level rose until it lapped through the folding metal bus door, and against the second step. Would we have to swim for it? Providence intervened and an hour later the rain stopped suddenly, shortly after that the wind exhausted itself and only the sound of dripping water intruded on the night air.
At sunrise, I surveyed the area from the bottom step of the door platform. The water level had dropped considerably but a mirror of chocolate colored water still surrounded our vehicles. Suddenly I heard Don yell, "snake!" and then I heard splashing. Next, a much louder "snake!" came over the CB radio speaker. I reached for the microphone and asked what he meant. "Damned snake in the water" he explained. After I satisfied myself that he really saw a snake, I started scanning the surface of our local lake with binoculars. After a moment, I spotted a snake. I hastily focused the lens and set the glass upon the writhing headæ it had a definite triangular shape to it. "It's most likely a fer-de-lance" I told Don, "and it's probably not too happy about being flooded out". I heard rustling noises over the speaker. Suddenly Geri's voice wailed "Oh God, I hate snakes".
An hour later we heard the sound of a diesel engine roaring nearby and I looked out and saw a Méxican army truck plowing through the water toward us. I noted that it wasn't an amphibious vehicle nor did it act as though it was sinking in mud.
"¿Como estás ustédes?" (How are you?) Came a voice over a bullhorn ¿No estás herridos? (There is no one injured?). We replied that we were all right. The sergento (sergeant) then asked us If we needed a tow. It was time to find out. I explained to Don and Geri that I was going to try to make it onto the pavement. The bus engine immediately came to life and I eased away from my overnight hideout. I made it to the highway and noticed that the Pace Arrow motorhome had followed me without incident. We waved goodbye to the Army rescuers.
Escarcéga, was a mess. Windows had been broken everywhere and debris was piled in the street. The power was off which was no surprise. I drove by a gasolinera and noticed that several people were using a hand pump to transfer fuel into several steel drums. "We will have la Lúz for the planta momentito" one man explained. A trailer mounted diesel generator set was parked nearby and apparently it was going to be used to power up the gasoline station.
Suddenly I felt someone tugging at my elbow "Buénas Dias Señor, Are you hungry?" a voice asked. Before I had a chance to reply that I was famished a short and obviously well-nourished woman pointed at a building next to the gas station. "Come with me and I will serve you a very rich breakfast". I looked quizzically at the men doing the pumping and they flashed knowing grins. I thought "Why not?" and followed the determined "outside salesman" into a dark building. Inside sat three or four people eating by the light of a hissing gas lantern. I noticed a man mopping the floor. I was directed to a table alongside the other patrons.
It was then that I noticed that the ceiling was dripping water in a dozen places. The other patrons greeted me as I sat down. I pantomimed to them about being led to the restaurant by my elbow and they all laughed. "She is strong in the head" one person offered. "But then again she has a lot of fresh food that will go bad if it isn't eaten today. La Luz may be out for several days". I was served a breakfast that would have fed three hungry lumberjacks. I left a generous tip, and returned to the gasoline station. On the way I noticed that the señora had corralled two more breakfast volunteers across the street.
As it turned out one of the individuals doing the pumping of diesel fuel at the gas station was a bus driver. He had made it to Escarcéga at the last minute with a load of passengers. He told me that the road to the west of the town wasn't flooded. I thanked him and departed.
Don, Geri, and I made it further than Palénque and Agua Azúl, but had to turn round because mudslides had blocked the highway to Ocosíngo and San Cristobál de Las Cásas. We decided to wait it out at Misol Ha a beautiful waterfall and pool in a jungle setting. We didn't even mind the reddish-brown storm waters that clouded the pool.
Two days later we learned the road was reopened, so we wound our way up the tortuous grade to San Cristobál. Whether it was exhaustion after the frenzied activity or relief from the Yucatán blast furnace heat, I fell into bed and slept for eighteen hours.
I awoke to the sound of Don and Geri knocking at my door. "Say, our new neighbors told us about some really beautiful caverns around here". As is so typical of México upcoming fun and adventure almost immediately overshadowed an otherwise traumatizing event.
© by David Eidell-May 2000