Boats, Beaks, Jaws and Claws

“Coffee turkey!” our driver shouts while laughing and slapping his thigh.  An incensed turkey angrily gobbles at our passing car.  The sun has yet to rise and I  have just dumped a cup of steaming hot coffee out of the truck window.  The turkey has the misfortune of being in the path of the stream.

“Do we need to pay for the turkey?” my husband semi-jokingly inquires.  In this remote part of the Petén district of Guatemala, causing damage to livestock comes with a fee.  A chicken will set you back a few dollars.  Harm a cow and expect to have your automobile surrounded by the locals until you can reach a resolution with the village chief.  As the turkey isn’t damaged, just upset, we drive on.

We are making a three-hour drive to Sayaxché, where we will then take a 1.5 hour boat ride down the Rio De La Pasión before beginning a long hike to the ancient Mayan ruins of Ceibal.

Bumping along these rough roads, I regret the two hours of sleep that I got the night before.  Not as much as I regret this raging hangover.  We had stayed out all night with two local friends who harmlessly asked us to dinner before taking us on a whirlwind of a journey that culminated in too much alcohol and the slightest possibility of landing ourselves in a Guatemalan prison.

I will myself to fall asleep.  When we reach the river, my eyes open to an alarming sight.  The dock is teeming with military soldiers, automatic weapons strapped to their shoulders, machetes hooked to their belts.  “Don’t look at them” our guide advises.

A decade ago, as a brutal civil war came to an end, this river is said to1878832530_29fe3cc3a1_o have run red with blood.  During the 36-year campaign of terror, mainly perpetrated by military hands, an estimated 200,000 lives were lost.  The appearance of the soldiers today serves as a bleak reminder that pockets of violence and instability remain.

As the soldiers pack themselves on a boat, my husband takes a risk and snaps a photo.  Despite shooting it from waist level, the digital image shows that this action did not go unnoticed.  Several soldiers angrily stare at the camera.  Days later, this photo mysteriously disappears.

1878800128_5282f01da5_oWe hire a boat and continue our journey.   The boat ride is a nice reprieve from my hangover.  With the wind on my face, I’m able to enjoy the sights of the river.  Caiman slide into the water.  Blue heron perch on floating logs.  Toucans skim bugs from the water’s surface.  We stop the boat to watch three tamanduas pick fruit off of a fallen fig tree, a rare daytime sighting of these nocturnal anteaters.

Our hike begins.  The sun is baking the moisture out of the trees and the jungle is thick with fog.  As we climb our way up a steep forest path, the stifling humidity steals my breath and curls my hair into sticky tendrils.  The excitement of the journey led to a clear oversight of a most important resource: water.

Every step deeper into the jungle intensifies the dehydration created by a night of boozing.  Our guide, Jesus Antonio, comes fully equipped with jungle survival skills.  (“Don’t call me Jesus…it’s too much responsibility.”)

Spotting a strangler vine, he pulls a knife out of his belt and hacks away until water begins gushing out.  The three of us take turns sucking water from the vine.  It tastes of the way the jungle smells, earthy and green,  like drinking a mouthful of chlorophyl.

The nutrients of the jungle turns everything into gargantuan versions of their normal selves.  Single leaves are as big as we are tall. Millipedes seem to stretch on for eternity.  Nothing illuminates this more than the mosquitos.  They sound like B-52 bombers and leave behind welts the size of a quarter.  When starting the journey, Jesus Antonio laughed as we covered ourselves in Jungle Juice, a concentration of 98% DEET.  “That’s not enough,” he said before whipping a can of 100% DEET out of his backpack and spraying both of us to the point that the chemicals turned our eyes red and our lips numb.  “This still won’t be enough.  Don’t stop moving.  The mosquitos will catch up to you,” he had warned.  True to his word, we are now overwhelmed with mosquitos.  The joy of drinking from the vine is short-lived.  As one person drinks, the other two run in circles and swat madly at the air.  The five-minute break results in too many bites to count.

Continuing on, we climb up and down giant hills.  Only when I trip over a rock do we come to find that the hills are not as they seem.  We are climbing up and over uncovered ruins of the Ceibal complex. The dense tropical forest has claimed the ruins over 1100 years.  Jesus Antonio estimates that Ceibal could be larger than Tikal.  He would know.  His father,  a prominent archeologist, began digging Tikal out of the jungle in the 1950’s.  Growing up at the dig site gave Jesus Antonio a keen eye for what lies beneath.

1831419641_589c35ce10_oWalking toward the only two excavated temple platforms, we have the site to ourselves yet dozens of eyes watch our every move.  High above, branches rattle.  Howler monkeys begin to scream, enraged by our presence.  It is a haunting noise, guttural and primordial.  Goosebumps creep up my spine.

(Press play to hear a howler monkey.)

In this clearing, with no trees to shade us from the tropical sun, the need for water intensifies.  We are left to investigate the area on our own while Jesus Antonio searches for more strangler vines.  The heat is unbearable.  We find a single shady spot in the ruins, only big enough for one.  Giant scorpions scurry away as we take turns pressing our backs into the cool stone.  Returning from his search, Jesus Antonio shakes his head with disappointment.  There is no source of water in the immediate area.  It will be a long trip back to the car.

1878022461_0521f76b6e_oJust as we cross back into the trees, my husband gets pegged on the head.  I grab the binoculars and look toward the sky.  Before we can figure out what hit him, it happens again.  From 130 feet above, a hailstorm of small fruit rains down on the forest floor.  We are standing underneath a ramón tree and a large troop of spider monkeys are stripping it of its tiny fruit.

“We can drink from them” Jesus Antonio says, scooping one up and popping the orange-fleshed fruit into his mouth.  We follow his lead.  The skin is astringent but piercing it releases a teaspoon of sweet juice.   Working quickly, we steal from the monkeys, stuffing fruit into our pockets and, when those are full, gathering them in the bottoms of our shirts.   Shrieks ring out as the troop leader discovers our thievery.  Fruit stops falling.  The entire troop quickly moves to the lowest branches of the tree and begin screaming at us in unison.  Several monkeys run down to the ground to grab fruit before we can get our greedy little hands on more.  When one bears his very sharp teeth, we take it as an invitation to leave, dropping the fruits in our shirts as a mea culpa.  One should not argue with a two foot tall primate.

The hike back to the river is mainly downhill.  We make double time, anxious to get to potable water, stopping only to crack a few coconuts that are lying on the  ground.  As we near the boat, a stranger emerges from the jungle, filthy and wild-looking, a large machete in hand.  Startled, I trip over the exposed roots of a banyan tree and face plant into the muddy trail.  The stranger jumps into action, helping me up and fretting over the new gash in my hand.   I pull my hand away, wipe the blood on my pants and clean the cut in the river.  I am not a delicate flower.

The stranger asks for a ride back to Sayaxché.  He’s spent the past four months trekking through the jungle and is now in a hurry to leave.  His machete is simply a useful tool for cutting through the dense overgrowth, for killing dinner, and for protection against the multitudes of poisonous snakes.

He tells us of two days in which he is stalked, of knowing that his life is in danger by an unseen threat.  On the third day, he gets lucky.  A tapir wanders into his path.  In a flash, a jaguar leaps out from behind him and takes out this pig-like creature.   Death is instant.  The predator shrinks back into the jungle with its prey clutched firmly between its teeth.

This, and the other dangers of the jungle, have nothing to do with the stranger’s urgency to get back to Sayaxché.  A few days back, he had come across a village.  The inhabitants passed on a rumor that trouble was on the way…soldiers were supposedly heading into the area.  He does not want to chance an encounter.  I confirm the rumor and my husband shows him the photograph taken earlier that day.  We become his saviors, offering a direct route back to town.

The stranger digs through his pack looking for some way to thank us.  He pulls out several bottles of water and we pounce on them.  He has become our savior.  I down my bottle in three long gulps and settle in for the long journey home.

Here Kitty Kitty

I’m awoken in the middle of the night by a high-pitched cry.

“Did you hear that?” I ask my husband.

We’re camping in our secret spot in the high Uinta mountains.  There is no campsite, no toilet, no picnic table, just a clearing by a small lake covered in lily pads.

It’s a place to go and be alone, far beyond the limits of other campers.  It’s where our time with nature will not interrupted by drunken campers, by loud music at midnight, or by the sounds of generators firing up to power televisions in motorhomes purchased to “get away from it all.”

Our dogs, including a 12-week-old puppy, are sound asleep next to me.  We had led them on a ten-mile hike earlier in the day and for every foot we covered, they covered two and exemplify dog tired.

In our sleeping bags, we lie stick still, ears trained to the sounds of the night.  Another wail cuts through the silence, closer than before.

“It sounds like a baby crying.”

Neither of us feel the need to state the obvious…that there are no babies up here.   The sound is that of a cougar.  Over the ridge from our campsite is a rocky outcrop that dens this lion of the mountain.

Cougars are solitary animals, powerful ambush predators that hunt under the cover of night.  We have no reason to be concerned, however. While cougars occasionally attack humans, their main prey is deer of which these mountains have in abundance.

A wail rings out again, this time followed by several smaller cries.  The cougar is accompanied by two young.  This mother is teaching her kittens the lessons they need to survive, to hunt their own food when it is time to part from her side.  We listen to them cry out, their sounds echoing off the granite hills.

Just as we’re falling back asleep, everything changes.  The cries are now on our side of the mountain.  While it takes us about an hour to hike to the top of the ridge, we know that the cougars can clear it in minutes.

“The puppy makes an easy target” my husband points out.

The cries continue to cut through the night, closer than ever before.  Our dogs wake up with a jolt and let out low growls, their hackles rising from the tips of their tails to the tops of their heads.  They are nervous, sensing that a predator is close by.

We debate not our own safety, but the safety of the puppy.  Nothing but a thin nylon wall separates him from a predator looking to feed her young.  Another cry rings out, this time sounding from near the base of the mountain, almost in the small valley where our tent stands.

David decides not to risk it.  He grabs the car keys and the flashlight and darts out of the tent to our SUV parked 25 yards away.  He comes and goes several times, working quickly to get sleeping bags and pillows, water and dog bowls, and everything else needed to make us somewhat comfortable spending the night in the car.

As soon as the seats are down and the beds are set up, he comes back for the dogs.  The older two don’t need prompting, darting from the tent and leaping into the back of the car.  Closing them in, he returns for me and the puppy.  Once inside the car, we shut the tailgate behind us and put our nerves to ease.

Thirty minutes later, a bell rings out in the night.

*Ding ding ding ding*

Then another.  *Ding ding ding ding ding*

We shine our flashlights out of the car window but can’t see the tent through the trees.  We don’t need the light to know what is making the noise.  Lined up along the inside edge of the tent are three bear bells.  We had taken them off of our dog’s collars just before bed, not wanting our sleep disrupted by ringing every time one of the dogs readjusts themselves.

The ringing of the bells let us know that the cougars are at our tent.   They’re poking and prodding the tent walls, causing the bells to roll and ring out.  I think of a house cat batting around a ball.  Amused, we listen to this noise until our tired bodies lure us to sleep.

The sun rises and the car heats up.  We are anxious to get out and stretch our cramped legs.

David is the first one out.  “Oh wow,” he says.  “Come check this out.”

Three sets of cougar tracks circle the car.  We follow the tracks back to the tent.  In our rush to get to safety, we had left the outer screen of our two room tent open.  The tracks not only go around the tent but into that second room.  Sleeping in the car was a wise decision.

Feeling secure in the morning light, I start a campfire and brew coffee.  Breakfast is consumed while sitting on rocks at the water’s edge and discussing the events of last night.  Our trip is just getting started and we had planned to stay for  several more nights.  As the sun rises high above the ridge separating us from the cougar den, I make a decision.

“Let’s go home.”

Sylvia

“Tortillas”.

The small wooden sign hammered into a dead tree grabs my attention.  I’m soaking wet from a quick-moving jungle rainstorm and am feeling just a tad bit sorry for myself.  I’m also starving, but this small Guatemalan village has no place to grab a bite.

Our local friends have dropped us off at this village on the shores of Lago Peten Itza.  They warn us that they won’t be back for several hours, but an afternoon walking a sleepy village with nothing much to do sounds more appealing to our car-worn bodies than joining our friends on a supply run.

We’ve walked up and down the village multiple times, slow steps helping us while away the hours.   With one hour left to kill before we meet back up with our friends, the promise of tortillas lifts my sodden spirits.

Following a dirt path, we wind deeper into this village of rural poverty.  One-room homes of stone and mud have no doors to keep out the bad elements of weather, nature, or humanity.  We are now a mile away from the heart of the village and the homes are dwindling in numbers.

“Do you really think there are tortillas at the end of this road?   Or are we walking into a trap in which our kidneys will be harvested?” I nervously joke to my husband.  His laughter calms my first world fears.

Hearing the laughter, a cow peeks out of one of the doorways and moos a warning to its owner.  A multi-generational family is sitting on the dirt floor of the home and their heads turn to watch us go by.  Never before have I encountered such poverty.  In this village, sharing your living quarters with a cow is not considered a misfortune.  Instead, the cow is a prized possession, one to keep close and treat as a member of the family.  In this moment, I come to understand how being born in a first world country is like winning a global lottery.  I let this realization reconstruct the fibers of my being and wave at the family as I pass by.  A hunched and wrinkled old woman waves back.  Deciding we are not a threat, the other family members lose their interest and turn away from us.

Several yards ahead stands the border of the town, dense jungle trees marking a spot where we can venture no further.  I’m about to give up on the thought of a warm tortilla when I spot another small sign in front of a minuscule wooden shack.  A stout Mayan woman is in the yard feeding three tiny piglets.  In Spanish, my husband asks her about the tortillas.  The woman shakes her head, not understanding his Spanish.  She speaks Itza, one of the 21 Mayan dialects of Guatemala.  He turns to the international language of charades, miming the act of patting out tortillas.  Her eyes light up in understanding.

“Sylviaaaaaaaaaa!” she screams.  A small girl, no older than eight, comes running from behind the house.  Her mother explains what we want and Sylvia beckons us inside.  A parrot squawks from a corner stool as we enter the dark room that serves as both the kitchen and the living quarters.

Sylvia gets to work.  Reaching into a lye-filled pot, she pulls out a mound of cooked corn.  Tossing a handful of the corn to the parrot, she then slaps the rest on a giant stone molcajete.  The parrot makes happy noises as Sylvia grinds the corn into a smooth paste.  Gathering the paste into balls, she quickly forms the tortillas using her hands as a press.

A fire is already burning under the large sheet of iron that serves as her stove top.  Sylvia arranges the tortillas on the iron and tends to them, flipping them tenderly as the smell of charred corn fills the air.  Once they turn golden and puff up,  she puts them into a small bag and sprinkles on some chunky salt.  In exchange for the tortillas, we hand over a few more quetzals than she is asking for payment.  Sylvia beams and waves goodbye.

Back on the dirt path,  I take my first bite.  My taste buds scream with pleasure.  I have found the holy grail of tortillas.  Before we can make it back to the main road, I decide that it would be a sin to not return for another batch.  Despite the heavy rain that has picked back up, my husband obliges. We make our way back to Sylvia’s house.

Her mother sees us coming and begins to laugh.  “Sylviaaaaaaaaaa!” she screams once more.  The little girl comes running.  Upon seeing us, she joins her mother in laughter, grabs my hand, pulls me inside, and starts the routine again.

Guatemalan Tortillas

  • 2 cups of corn flour (masa)
  • 1 1/4 cup cold water
  • 1/4 tablespoon salt

Directions:

1. Mix the salt into the masa before slowly mixing in the water.

2. When the mixture has a doughy consistency, separate the dough into 10 balls.

3. Shape the tortillas by hand, by clapping the dough between your palms until the tortilla is circular and thin.  Alternatively, use a tortilla press.

4.  Heat a skillet or griddle over medium-high heat.

5.  Cook the tortillas until they begin to puff, turn them over, and cook until they puff further or reach your desired level of golden color.

6.  Sprinkle with salt and keep warm until ready to serve.

%d bloggers like this: