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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.

Beng, Beng, Bengity Beng, Beng, Beng, Beng, Beng Mealea

BengMealea3Our guide barks a stern warning:  Do not stray from the path, not under any circumstance.

He isn’t concerned about damage to the temple or about one of us breaking an ankle as we climb the immense, moss-covered temple stones that had collapsed long ago.  In this rural area, a former stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, he’s concerned about land mines.

As Cambodia has one of the highest unexploded ordnance mortality rates in the world and an estimated 6 million remaining mines, this is a warning to take very seriously.  While the path through the Beng Mealea complex has been cleared of land mines, a fall into any of the surrounding fields could prove deadly.

This 900 year old temple was not yet on the tourist trail, free of both the fees and the touts of the more popular Cambodian ruins.   We BengMealea6find ourselves alone to explore the ancient structures that the jungle is determined to reclaim.  In nature’s own version of the childhood game “king of the mountain”, tree roots clamber over stones to sprout large trunks on top of the remaining roofs.  Some of these games create two winners as the encroaching vines weave their way into the walls, reinforcing the structures from collapse.  Others result in a clear loser as the structure gives in to nature, crumbling into piles of rubble below.

Childhood laughter sounds from behind.  My mood suddenly darkens.  A family must be approaching and will inevitably ruin my sense of peace.  I am not good at sharing special places.  But then, the laughter rings out from in front of me.  I spin a circle, looking for the source, baffled at how the family could have gotten ahead of us without our seeing them.  I feel eyes watching me, yet cannot make out the source.

A flash of movement andBeng Mealea 7 more laughter, this time from inside a temple.  I’m reminded of a silly movie of a tomb raider searching for jasmine at a temple 63 kilometers from this one.  The laughter of a hidden child led the tomb raider to find what she was seeking.  Where would the laugher lead me?

We follow the sound to a wooden platform and down steps leading to an ominous doorway.  The laughter continues from inside, echoing off the walls.

“We must step carefully and move slowly”, our guide says as we approach the corridor.  “Sleeping snakes live inside.”

“Sleeping snakes?” I ask.

“Yes, sleeping snakes.  If you are bit by one, you will fall asleep and you will never wake up.  Don’t worry.  The sleeping snakes are asleep. ”

Posing a greater danger than the remaining land mines, the  snake of concern is the monocled cobra.  Known as having the highest fatality rate among snake bite victims in Southeast Asia, the firstBengMealea4 manifestation of the venom is often drowsiness.  Respiratory paralysis and death follow within 60 minutes of the bite.

Hesitating at the temple door, I consider the risk.  We are a good 90 minutes away from any hope of an anti-venom.  Having no source of light to guide our passage, pure luck will decide whether a foot rouses a resting cobra.

Laughter emanates from the corridor once again, beckoning us to follow.  I look back at my husband and smile.  “Let’s do this.”

In a single file we follow our guide, toes colliding with fallen stones as we gingerly make our way through the darkness.  I hear the footsteps of my husband behind me as he estimates where my last step had been, trying to place his feet in that exact spot.

We speak no words, our ears listening for any signs of slithering.

At last, light.  We have reached the other side.  Once safely outside, I inquire to what timeBengMealea2 the sleeping snakes wake.  “Five o’ clock”, our guide answers.  My husband looks at his watch.  It is 4:55.

 

Before our adrenaline levels normalize, laughter rings out from above.  Raising our eyes to the sky, we finally identify the source.  A local child is standing on top of the temple that we had just passed through.

He smiles and runs away.  In an amazing display of parkour,  he scampers across the roof, bouncing off tree roots to clear the places where no footings remain.  He leaps from the temple and over the walkway where we stand, landing on the stone wall opposite of us.  The show is worthy of a million YouTube hits, yet in this remote area, the child undoubtably knows nothing of the internet.

Using the branches of a tree as a trampoline, he springs down toward the path in a death-defying act that pays no heed to the dangers of mines possibly obscured by the roots below.  A few feet from the bottom, the child lands in a perfect sitting position onBengMealea5 a natural swing formed by the branches.  We applaud.  With that, he laughs again, pausing just long enough for us to snap a photo before reversing his path and disappearing over the wall.

As we take our own exit, I look back to the empty complex.  In a few years, news of Beng Mealea will spread.  The area will be cleared of more land mines and of the sleeping snakes to make a safe passage for an influx of tourism.  The boy will likely learn to charge for photographs or will give up his antics altogether to sell postcards to tourists.  Knowing that a future return could never be the same, I take one last mental picture of the empty complex and vow to remember the sound of his laughter.

Hairspray, My Momma Told Me Not to Use It!

The first time I laid eyes on the Donger, he was walking across a luggage carousel at a small airport set in the middle of the Guatemalan jungle.

With brooding eyes and a strong posture, he could make you break out into a sweat if he held your gaze a bit too long.  The Donger was in charge of the place and he knew it.  No one could board a plane without his inspection and approval. Continue reading Hairspray, My Momma Told Me Not to Use It!