||"You want to do what?"
I was savoring my last breakfast of Eggs Benedict at the El Chisme Restaurant in Panajachel Guatemala. The bearded youth narrowed his eyes and stared at me like he was confronting a bonafide lunatic.
"Let me get this straight," he continued. "You want me to drive your pickup to the top of the grade, and then you'll give me a ride back to the café?"
I took another sip of coffee. "That's right," I explained. "I can't tow the pickup behind the bus up the mountain to the Pan American Highway, because some of the curves are too sharp."
He nibbled daintily on a corner of a corn tortilla. "And then you're going to hitch the pickup on behind your bus and go into the jungle and stay for the summer."
I smiled. "It's actually rainforest, not jungle, and I have been preparing to do it for over a year."
He shook his head sadly. "Well, I think you're crazy" he concluded. "But I'll take you up on your offer of a free breakfast."
Guatemala has been described as a tiny country. This is quite true, if one isn't attempting to bounce across it from one pothole to another in the Quicksilver Express, a ten-wheeled retired school bus. Like in a lunar landing module, interior comfort was sacrificed in favor of life support equipment; such as a pantry loaded with exotic cereals and pastas. In the cargo area beneath the floor, I had fitted a modern, extremely efficient diesel generator to power (get this) three air conditioners. Poor Nellie Belle, my Mexican Rancho Truck look-alike that I was towing behind, was bearing drums of diesel fuel and huge tanks of butane gas. I also say lunar landing module because if just one of those Guatemaltecan bolts of brilliant summer lightning struck anywhere near the truck, a vast lunar-like crater would have resulted.
Purists may howl that going to El Peten with air-conditioning is cheating -- akin to touring the Grand Canyon in a helicopter. "Leeches, a fevered brow, and clothes rotting in the jungle heat; Now that is the correct way to jungle bash." To the prudes, who flee the rainforest far in advance of the summer rains, I say that "Had Stevens, Morely and Catherwood somehow encountered the Quicksilver Express they would have been pounding on the door, begging to get in."
Camping in the rainforest may have been a perfectly rational plan in my mind, but to the green-clad Guatemalan Army, the overloaded bus was downright suspicious. Time-after-time curious soldiers poked and peered through cupboards, closets and even my dirty laundry bag. Once I had to unload a couple hundred pounds of carefully wrapped and labeled frozen food packages to satisfy them that a howitzer wasn't lurking on the bottom. They grinned with amusement at my full size hammock. Never did they suspect that in the very rear, a secret hatch led downstairs to a cavernous room containing a workbench. (Well, actually it measured seven feet by nine feet by five and half feet tall. Something that Crown Manufacturing included in all school bus designs.)
On the roof, a long metal rack held petates (woven reed mats) and more boxes and gear. Hernan Cortes himself would have probably been green with envy. It takes money to travel like this; a Guatemalan customs inspector was probably still fingering the wad of Quetzales that had bought my way into the country.
I soon found myself being hailed by campesinos waiting alongside the road. They didn't question the fact that the Quicksilver Express had fewer side windows than a Guatemalan bus nor the fact that it had a flatbed pickup attached to the rear. They simply boarded when I stopped, handed me sixty leng and seated themselves on the floor in front of the bulkhead that separated the driver's compartment from the living area. A man and little boy with three large baskets crawled, without a word, onto the roof and sat there.
I was wondering when and how they planned to get off when an old woman gripping three trussed chickens got up and stood beside the door, A hundred yards ahead was a narrow and muddy side road. I stopped at the intersection. Everyone got off and started walking down the side road. I decided that the road must lead to a village, so I pulled off the road and detached the truck. Sure enough about a quarter mile distant a cluster of twenty casas appeared.
I parked the truck and slogged through the mud, retracing my route in the bus. It was soon apparent that a bus had never before entered the village. People stood outside their doorways, pointing and gesturing at the thirty-six foot blue and silver converted bus. I decided that it was best if I exited and walked around a bit to take some of the mystery out of a curious situation.
Unlike Mexicans, the Guatemalans kept their distance but followed every move that I made with their eyes. About twenty minutes later a gray haired man walked up accompanied by a couple of what appeared to be two assistants. He asked me what my "mission" was. I replied that I was a tourist and was just passing through.
A consultation occurred. He then turned and asked to see my tourist visa. I climbed into the bus and fetched my document packet. They took my papers and retreated into a nearby house. After an hour I started to wonder what was going on. Finally in the afternoon heat, I decided to wait things out in the comfort of the bus. I started the generator and fifteen minutes later three air conditioners were dripping under the load of moisture laden air.
I saw one of the assistants exit the house and walk toward the Quicksilver. He motioned for me to follow him back to the tiny house. Once inside I saw that my documents had been spread over a tiny table and the second assistant was busy writing, The Alcalde (village major) was scrutinizing my car permit through a small magnifying glass and relaying information in an Indian tongue that I did not understand. Every once in awhile, the other assistant would depart and then return. In fact he was verifying that the bus and truck were the same ones listed on the permits.
After an hour of this they were apparently satisfied that I was indeed a tourist. A bottle of firewater, raw cane alcohol was produced and passed around. I took a sip and almost choked. I pinched thumb and forefinger together (indicating that I would return in un momento and exited the house. A moment later I returned with a full bottle of Mexican vodka. They certainly knew what it was, because the embalming fluid was hastily dispatched with, and the bottle with the Black Bear on the label was slowly emptied. One of the alcalde's assistants announced that I was permitted to "park" in the village, but I would have to leave in the morning. That suited me just fine; I left the vodka to a certain fate.
As soon as I re-boarded Quicksilver, tiny Indian ladies started knocking on my door. As a unexpected customer I was the target of every entrepreneurial spirit in the village. Shortly I had baskets laden with fruit, a stack of tamales wrapped in a huge green leaf and a kilo of very yellow tortillas sitting on my kitchen table.
The main village industry was the weaving of intricate huipiles of black, green and white coloration. I promised one old crone in sign language that I would purchase one on my way back. She shrugged and walked off.
Amidst a small crowd of well-wishers, I departed at sunup. It was to be the last night spent without air conditioning for the next seven weeks.
Guatemala's topography is such that a range of mountains divides the country -- East & West. The division isn't equal however. In the west a steep scarp rises after a narrow shelf of coastal lowlands. The mountain range averages about fifty miles in width. Then they taper down in rolling hills, which finally give way to the Peten lowlands and then continue to the Caribbean Coast. In the rolling hills cattle are raised and sugarcane is grown in between patches of coffee trees, bananas and fallow open range.
I was rounding a blind curve when I almost collided with a scarecrow figure bearing an impossibly large backpack. Beneath a shock of red hair and above a rusty pad of beard, a gap-tooth grin announced that this was no campesino on his way to market. I slammed on the brakes thinking that perhaps a mirror might have snagged that enormous backpack and flung the poor man to the mud. I opened the door and leaned out only to see the figure bobbing and weaving his way past the puddles whereupon he came to an abrupt halt.
"I bloody well knew that if I stood out here long enough that someone would come by. And from the looks of you, you're a Yank, right? Ian, Ian Wheatley is the name." He stuck out a bony hand. His age was difficult to judge, but mid-thirties came to mind. Ian was wearing square granny-glasses, cut off olive-green jeans with huge cargo pockets, a plaid flannel long sleeve shirt and battered woven leather huaraches.
Before I had a chance to say anything, he rattled on "Came here with two of me mates, but I lost them in Guatemala City and the bloody police tried to hit me on the head but I ran, and then I got on a bus that got stuck back there" he motioned behind me "and then I have walked about ten miles and well, here I am."
Looney or no, I couldn't leave the poor guy on a lonely stretch of road, so I invited him aboard. He unshouldered his pack and had to turn it sideways in order to slide it up the stairwell. "
How much does this thing weigh?" I asked. "What have you got in there, rocks."
He flashed a grin. "How did you guess mate? I've got me mineral samples in there and I'm taking them back 'ome." He grinned at me, then sat down next to his pack.
Up till now, my trip had been rather quiet and introspective. Even the chance overnight stay in the tiny Indian hamlet was subdued and reserved. The difference after picking up Ian was like night and day. "Me and me mates came over on a freighter, not stowaways mind you but as paying customers. Came through the Panama Canal we did, then on up to Acapulco. From there we hitched to Guatemala. We're scheduled to leave on another freighter from Belize City in eleven days, but then it's going to take us back to Spain, and hopefully we'll find a way back to Britain." He gave me another lopsided grin. "At least I hope it's eleven days, I have seemed to lost track of the days. Bloody jungle you know." All the scene would have needed to make it compete was the sound of distant drums and the roar of an enraged elephant.
"Rainforest," I informed him. "Jungles don't have canopy roofs." I shifted into gear and proceeded to resume my journey.
Ian's eyes roamed the bus. "What sort of bus is this?"
"A motor home conversion."
"You mean you live in it?"
"It has all the comforts of home."
"Yes, including ice."
"And you're taking your bus to British
I mean Belize?"
"The Guatemalans are pretty sensitive about the name British Honduras."
"The 'ell with 'em -- it's still part of the bloody crown.
"And you're a geologist -- collecting mineral samples?"
"No that's just a hobby. I raise pigeons."
"You know -- racers. I was hoping to pick some up at the ruins sites here."
"Hoping to improve the breed. They have to avoid peregrine falcons over here you know. Selection of the fittest and all that.
"And you're going to trap them right at the ruins site?"
"Sure, why not?"
"And put them in your backpack with the rocks."
"Of course not. I was thinking along the lines of a small cage, like the ones used for parrots."
"And put them on a freighter and take them to Spain."
"Well actually all the way back to England."
"You mean smuggle them?"
"Sure. Just think, the pigeons will get a fine home and there are less droppings to mar the temples and edifices."
I couldn't argue with logic like that. As we proceeded north east the land gradually sloped down and the trees gradually sloped up. Ian dozed off, his chin banging on his chest at every rut and hole. As I rounded a curve, I noticed people standing in the road. I announced rather loudly, "military checkpoint ahead."
Ian picked himself off the floor and stared through the windshield. "They've more of those bloody things than they have bus stations."
As usual the soldiers peered in every nook and cranny. Ian's backpack got more than a cursory look. A sergeant stared incredulously as one of his privates pulled out rock after rock and lay them on the floor.
"Muestras de minerales," (mineral samples), I added helpfully. I enjoyed the searches about as well as the soldiers did -- and I would do anything to get the hell out of there.
With a shrug the sergeant called off his men and Ian and I headed deeper into the rainforest.
"Gave me a right fright they did going into my pack and all."
"Relax Ian, they wouldn't have taken your rocks."
I concentrated on the road as it was getting to be late afternoon and I hadn't stopped for lunch. The next thing I knew a sweet odor of smoldering vegetation pierced my nose. I glanced over at the red haired man and he was holding an enormous joint like it was a Cuban cigar.
" I couldn't find the words.
"Sorry 'bout that" He began "Where's me manners? Here take a toke -- it'll relax you."
"You crazy sunofabitch! You brought that thing through a military checkpoint? Are you freaking nuts!?"
"Actually, I brought the better part of a half-kilo. Some villagers sold it to me for twenty Quetzales (about seven dollars)"
I stood on the brakes and the bus shuddered to a halt. "Twenty Quetzales? They'll give you and me twenty years if they catch you with that stuff. Off!" I yelled. "Get it off my bus, or you go with it."
"You're quite sure you don't want a toke?"
"All right, all right. Into the ditch it goes."
He took an enormous hit and then pitched both the cigar and paper sack into the tall grass on the side of the road.
"Do you suppose they'll have more up the road?"
After my nerves calmed down, I started searching for a suitable place to pull off the road. As in Mexico, Guatemalas side roads usually lead to a finca or settlement and seldom have a wide-spot suitable for pulling off and parking. We entered a small village and I pulled over and stopped. Ian departed in search of a pension or cheap room and I fixed myself a gin & tonic. "Crazy as a loon," I thought. "But a likeable enough guy."
I slept until dawn. Ian reappeared just about the time I thought the gypsies had taken him. He laughed when he told me about the uptight senora who at first didn't want to rent him a room. "She looked at me like I was an evil spirit or something." He pulled out a wad of banknotes that would have choked a hippo.
"Why are you traveling like a vagabond when you have a bankroll?"
"Oh, this? This is me winnings from the pigeons."
"You have enough there to fly on the Concorde."
"Ha ha. T'isn't possible to carry birds on the Concorde"
"You're hoping to breed a super race of speedy pigeons and get rich aren't you?"
"Oh now, you've gone off and found me out have you?"
He settled into his normal riding posture of wedging against the backpack with bent knees. He grasped the vertical handgrip with his right hand and rode like that for hours. I would have doubled up with cramps and spasms, but Ian took it in stride.
While I prepared a salad lunch he tore into a stale stack of tortillas and a mushy collection of over-ripe fruit.
Ian regaled me with tales of England and his passage across the Atlantic with a freighter crew that consisted of two Koreans, two Indians, a Greek cook and two Libyan deckhands. "They all bloody well hated each other, and only us three Brits would eat Greek food. The cook took out after the Koreans with a huge knife while we were transiting the Panama Canal. After that they took to cooking in their cabins. I hope that going home isn't as interesting."
My destination was the town of Flores, set on the shore of Lake Peten. The arrival of the blue and silver bus in Flores caused a minor stir. Not many converted ski transit buses had been sighted in the ramshackle town on the lake and fewer still had arrived in the middle of a pounding summer thunderstorm. Ian announced that he was perfectly willing to "camp out" on the small section of floor between the seat and door. I gratefully retired to the inner sanctum and collapsed into my hammock.
The drumming of rain on the roof soon lulled me to sleep. I awoke after midnight and discovered that Flores went utterly pitch black after the town generator stopped for the night. Thankfully I had found a place to park distant enough from habitation that the murmur and fumes of my generator would not intrude. Ian had departed. A metal bus floor was no place to spend the night.
The next morning I explored the town. While I was purchasing some groceries in a tiny tienda, I happened to mention that I might be interested in renting a small house. The proprietor wiped his hands on his apron and with a huge smile announced that he had "the perfect house".
"It has to be outside of town, and with enough space to park my bus and pickup"
"No problema," he countered.
"It should have a well," I offered.
"There is a community well a few hundred meters away."
"There are places to put candles."
"And it can't be really expensive."
"One Hundred Quetzales,'mensual' (monthly)."
The landlord won the bargain, hands down. The casa, turned out to be a hundred and fifty square feet of rotting boards, crumbling adobe, rusting sheet metal and fermenting palm fronds. The parking space was an overgrown foot trail leading from the muddy road. By carefully backing the bus I nudged the pintle hook against the front of the house. And by backing Nellie Belle against the bus, it gave two or three inches of clearance between the front of her and the muddy trail that led to town. The neighborhood well produced clear water, but I subsequently boiled every drop vigorously or laced it with chlorine.
Ian had flat disappeared. Whether he made it back to England and whether his race of super pigeons ever materialized is anyone's guess. No goodbye, nada. The jungle does that to a person, you know.
Guatemalans are far shyer than Mexicans (aside from Indians). Tiny children gawked at me as I unloaded a plastic table and chairs, erected a huge awning and unrolled yards of astro turf. I dutifully applied liberal amounts of diesel fuel around the tires, spread tarps across the roof to help insulate against the cruel afternoon sun, and generally prepared my camp in the best tradition of air-conditioned Lewis and Clark.
Day two the ants appeared. We are used to black ants who invade picnic baskets and carry off tiny bits of sugar laced leftovers. Think of them as gypsies whose stealth allows them to get away with cookie crumbs and sugar cubes. These guys were the Mongol horde -- racing along and biting everything in sight, I arose from my dining room table with a howl. They had somehow crossed my 'barrier of death' and were making a play at seizing the whole enchilada.
With a grin equal to the most fiendish Hollywood Heavy, I unearthed a case of industrial bug spray. I launched myself through the door with a 22-oz. can in each hand. It didn't take long to espy their highway leading from the thick vegetation. I eradicated a dozen score of the brown devils as I fumigated under the bus and around each tire. "No way!" I yelled at no one in particular, "can you get through that!"
Twelve hours later I erupted out of my hammock in the middle of the night. A muy macho warrior ant had sunk his mandibles into tender flesh just above my right knee. When I switched on the kitchen light, it illuminated a scene right out of a 50's sci-fi flick. Hundreds of ants were swarming across cabinets, refrigerator and table. I was nonplused. The ant spray that I had applied earlier was potent enough to stun a warthog. Could these rainforest ants have an immunity? Nevertheless, I was prepared.
From under the sink I fetched a can of citric acid and an empty spray bottle. I splashed a dash of the strong oxidizer into the bottom of the bottle and filled it with water. Ants are repulsed by the presence of acid (their main weapon is a mild venom of carbolic acid). I adjusted the spray nozzle to 'fog' and let them have it.
They retreated like the devil himself had appeared. With careful spritzing, I herded the little monsters back out into the night and immediately discovered their new path. A tiny twig of tree branch had innocently sagged against the roof of the bus and, with a highway defined for their renewed blitzkrieg, they had launched their attack. A few dozen pulses of the sprayer around the base of the tree took care of that problem (note: The weak acid did not harm the tree and it probably corrected a high Ph factor in the soil).
The next day I ventured into Flores and happened to bump into five vacationing British women who related a story about spending an exciting day huddled under umbrellas in their palapa as a thunderstorm raged (the same one I might add as the one that greeted me upon my arrival).
"Your roof leaked, right?"
"No, as a matter-of-fact it was quite tight, actually."
"Then why the umbrellas?"
"It was the hail that did it."
"Came through the roof?"
"No. The hail dislodged the scorpions from the palm fronds."
"Yes, dozens of the buggers. They fell upon us, onto the floor and beds and everywhere."
"Yipes! Did anyone get stung?"
"Lucky for us, no. But we had to sweep them out of our beds with our sandals."
"And then you unfolded your umbrellas?"
"And waited the storm out. We moved into town after that."
"Yes, I could see why. Did you happen to see in your travels, a tall, thin, red haired man carrying a backpack?"
All five women chimed in unison.
"Something about Tikal and pigeons."
"Had a wild look about him."
"Got splashed rather badly by a passing truck."
"My God, was he British?"
Rainforests are wet year-round, but especially so in the summer months. Every afternoon around two or so, boiling clouds appeared, followed by an hour or two of heavy downpour. Flores is the archetypal rainforest town even though it is mostly surrounded by water and most of the forest had been logged at one time or another.
Tikal was another thing entirely. The great ruins site reposes in the middle of classic rainforest and exploring it was one of the objectives that I had in mind. It astonishes some people when they learn that visitors visit Tikal and other remote ruins even in summer.
The five British ladies who endured the rain of scorpions had rented a small palapa just outside of the park. Scorpions weren't the only consideration. Poisonous snakes prowled jungle trails after a rain in search of prey. Malaria is a very real concern in the summer months. I had armed myself with prophylactic medicines for the latter and special snake-proof leggings for the former.
To my great surprise the Peten did not get extraordinarily hot. Steamy and humid yes, but in the five weeks that I spent there, the temperature did not rise above eighty seven degrees (nor did it cool down much below seventy five at night). Of course the humidity was another thing altogether. The air was saturated most of the time, with a heavy dewfall occurring just before dawn. The metal surfaces of the bus and truck soon turned green with mold. Anything left outside turned green as well. I spent a number of mornings washing the equipment with a weak solution of chlorine bleach.
Hiking alone in a rainforest disturbed me at first. It's difficult to establish bearings because everything looks relatively the same. True rainforests have a top tier canopy of vegetation that blocks out a majority of sunlight. Little if any ground cover is found. The result is sort of a gloomy, watchful, silence. My forays were short in distance and I marked my trail well with a squeeze bottle of powdered lime.
Hiking around the ruins at Tikal wasn't a problem. However, I found out the hard way that a pair of sturdy grip hiking boots were much preferred over slippery sports tennies. According to the roaring and screeching that went on in the trees near my bus, most rainforest activity occurs at night. Giant moths slapped against my windows when they were attracted to a light.
A typical morning found me sitting at an outside table at dawn. Overhead patters of heavy dew fell upon my canopy as I would survey the new day. I seldom ate a heavy morning meal in the jungle, instead nibbling on croissants and sipping fresh brewed coffee. After a couple of weeks I had run out of lettuce for salad, so I switched to cabbage and found that I had a fondness for ice-cold coleslaw.
The once-shy neighbor children now showed up regularly for a tiny handful of Jelly Belly Beans which I dispensed frugally.
The rainforest was always present. One morning as I sat reading a novel, I felt a burning and stinging across the top of my left foot. Pushing myself violently back I saw with horror that a twelve-inch centipede was crossing over the foot. I shook it off and it crawled away seemingly unconcerned. My skin however rose in a red welt where the insect had made contact. I shuddered to think what would have resulted had the beast sank those formidable mandibles into my flesh. Attack ants, poisonous feet on a centipede, parachuting scorpions -- what other little horrors did the rainforest hold?
Arturo showed up one afternoon just as the rain subsided. His skin was mahogany brown, his figure emaciated and his burra was extremely bad of temperament. As he pulled on a rope leading her up my driveway, she brayed and shook her head fighting the man. He tipped his sombrero politely in my direction as he tethered the obstinate beast to a convenient hook on the bus's rear bumper. I had no idea what was on the man's mind; indeed he could have been one of the neighbors. He ambled over to where I was standing and extended his hand in greeting. We exchanged formalities and then pleasantries. I offered a glass of water which he gratefully accepted.
It was only after Arturo unloaded his saddlebags and stacked dozens of figurines on my table did I realize that he was an artifact looter. He grinned at me showing a mouth gleaming with gold and silver.
"Eh? How much for this one?" he said pushing one of the smaller pieces toward me.
"Sorry," I replied. "It is very illegal for tourists to buy these things."
"Everybody buys them," he countered. "Two hundred Quetzales and this one is yours."
"Oh Si, senor, si puede."
With a smile, I gently pushed the figurine back across the table.
"A hundred a fifty Quetzales, then."
"I cannot buy it at any price."
"Aha! I know the problem. These things are too insignificant for a man such as yourself."
I tried to protest, but he laughed and packed the figurines back into the saddlebags.
The next visit Arturo unpacked two statues that must have weighed twenty pounds each. The burra glared at him with undisguised hatred as he unloaded the twenty-four inch carvings and stood them beside my table.
"These you cannot refuse."
"They are majestic, I agree, but I still cannot buy them. They are illegal."
"You will buy them or someone else will buy them, what's the difference?"
"Senor, I will let 'someone else' get caught with them at a military inspection point."
""Now I understand" he uttered with furrowed brow. He strapped the objects back onto the pack animal and departed.
Four days later he returned. I was getting slightly weary of the process, but to my relief he made no attempt to unload forbidden cargo. He walked up to the table and sat down across from me.
"So it is the inspections that you do not like?"
"Si" I answered, trying to humor him.
"I have something special for you that will not cause problems for you."
"Oh what is that?" I said, suddenly wary.
"This" he replied reaching into a front trousers pocket and extracting a filthy handkerchief. He carefully unwound the cloth. A small ring fell to the table. I picked it up and examined it closely. The band was not straight but rather a serpentine series of coils. The ring was heavy. It was made of gold.
"Man o man o man," I exhaled deeply.
Arturo pasted a smug smile on his face. "See I told you that I would come back with something special."
"This thing is priceless if it's authentic."
He bristled. "It is real. I found it last year out there," he motioned behind him to the heart of the rainforest.
"It is not without price. Three thousand Quetzales."
I tried the ring. It slid down my pinkie to the first knuckle.
"This thing belongs in a museum."
"Museum? Hah! They sell most of what is turned in to the highest bidder. I will save them the effort and do it myself."
With great reluctance I pushed the ring back to him.
"Two thousand five hundred and not a centavo less."
I smiled weakly.
He picked the ring up and dangled it in front of my face.
"Senor, if you do not buy this ring, you are loco.
"Well then, yeah, I've been hearing a lot of that lately too."
Upon my return to Panajachel, I did not glimpse the young man who had driven Nellie Belle to the top of the ridge five weeks before. As I eased the pickup in behind the bus at my shoreline parking spot, a couple of hippies in a yellow VW bus stopped and stared. I had not bothered to wash off the last two weeks of mold from the vehicles and they looked dreadful.
"Hey man, are you the crazy guy that went to live in the jungle?"
"Rainforest" I corrected.
"Wow, that must have been some trip," the other said as he stared at the fungus.
"Foot long centipedes, flying scorpions and golden Mayan rings," I said cryptically.
"Far out!" They replied in unison. "How do we get there?"