Two Weeks South of the Border: Part the End
The adventure continues and concludes in this installment, which ranges from ruins to Kaluha (words which also sum up my current existence). See how travel broadened this broad?
After a few days in Belize, my sister, some other Peace Corps volunteers, Cute John, and I rented a “taxi” to take us to Tikal, Guatemala to see some Mayan ruins. Alwyn, our driver, didn’t want more than five people in his car, for the roads are nearly non-existent, and, as Carol Brady would have, he feared for his station wagon. Pointing out that Cute John was spun from nothing more than clouds, fairy wings, and cotton candy, we unwisely coerced Alwyn to allow a sixth in the car.
Tikal was 65 km (let’s call that 39 miles, roughly) from our starting point that day. It was a four-hour drive. To amuse ourselves, we ran through our repertoires of “theme songs from every tv show aired since 1970.” Only Cagney & Lacey stumped the crowd. As I’ve asked myself nearly every day since my adolescence, Where’s Tyne Daly when you need her?
My favorite moment of this journey was when the station wagon got stuck in a rut in from of 10 Guatemalan lads–lazing on the edge of a village well–just as we all reached the high point of the All in the Family theme song “Those Were the Days,” doing our best Edith Bunker impersonations. Jaws around the well dropped, and we set back Central American/North American relations hundreds of years, putting a particular strain on the coffee trade (you no longer have to ask yourselves, “Why can I only get an inferior cup of Sumatran java these days?” After hearing our singing, Guatemalans were thrown into a decades-long bean harvesting paralysis.)
Tikal itself is amazing. We hiked all over the ruins, ending with Temple IV, a building that loomed several hundred feet into the sky, reachable only by maneuvering a series of sideways ladders and grasping at tree roots. I nearly wept at the top for fear of the descent.
Fortunately, right then a group of senior citizens came huffing and puffing around the corner. I eyed them quizzically and asked, “Do you, by chance, know an alternate route down?” They did. All it involved was shuffleboard, ice sculptures, and me sitting on my tush and sliding down the hill).
Dusty and sweaty, we had lunch, bargained at the market, and began the drive home.
Oh. Did I forget to mention that this was the first weekend this particular border crossing between Guatemala and Belize had been open in some time? There’d been a ban because groups of banditos had been attacking tourist vehicles and “molesting” (in all fashion) gringos?
This concern was firmly tucked into the back of our collective head as we started the drive home at dusk. On the worst possible stretch of sheltered road, Alwyn, our driver, slammed on the brakes and yelled, “I smell gas!” Without another word, he hopped out of the car, dove beneath it, jumped out, ran to a nearby shack, and came back with a pan and a bar of soap. What an odd time for a sponge bath, Alwyn.
It turned out we had two dime-sized holes in the gas tack, holes that had been worn through when the tank came into repeated contact with the road as it worked through the ruts that day. Our supply of gas was in rapid leak all over the road. Keeping his head, and smelling of an Irish Spring, Alwyn went to work ripping apart the bar of soap and shoving it into the holes.
Villagers from miles around gathered quietly, silently, in a removed circle around us, watching, sharpening their knives, eyeing our flesh and firing up their barbeques. Cute John prepared to sacrifice his life in defense of the five gringas in his company from the line of men that slowly started snaking its way towards us. He, in other words, plotted the straightest line between himself and the camouflage of the jungle, knowing he could outrun us all.
In truth, we merely felt intimidated, and Alwyn saved the gas and the day. And I had a reflective moment of realizing my imagination was alive and turning cartwheels. We got home safely, gratefully.
The next Monday, Kirsten, Cute John, and I got back on another bus to return north to Corozal. During that bus ride, I finished reading GONE WITH THE WIND for the 32nd time. They all die, by the way. On the way back to Corozal, we spent an afternoon in the smoky, polluted capital, Belize City, where, as we tromped around, I missed squashing a dead rat that lay near a burning garbage heap. Good times.
For the rest of that week, once we got back to Kirsten’s house in Corozal, we visited my sister’s schools, where she was a teacher trainer. Cute John missed out on one day’s school visit, as he was vomiting blood all day, the kind of vomiting that tests the limits of one’s attractiveness.
The kids in the schools were a scream; the teachers were barely adequate. At the first school we went to, the teacher wasn’t in the classroom with her nine 3 and 4-year-olds. She was making herself some popcorn in a nearby building. As far as school supplies went, the only toys or creative materials any classroom enjoyed had been sent down by my sister’s friends and family. But what you can’t do with a little paper and tape…
At the end of the week, we accompanied one of Kirsten’s schools on a field trip to a resort called Don Quixote’s. A few of the kids, after much coaxing, would get into the water of the swimming pool there, on the top step of the shallow end. None would go into the nearby sea. Culturally, there is a fear of being wet, as it leads to sure death, apparently. My sister had already learned that, on the days it was raining, she didn’t even need to get up and visit her schools, as no one would be there.
Towards the end of the trip, Cute John went to Antigua, Guatemala, where the sight of his smile and the smell of his minty breath stopped traffic. My sister and I went to Chetumal, Mexico, where I got a cheap hammock and a wheelbarrow-sized bottle of Kaluha. From there, I took a bus alone back to Cancun and found the myriad “hey, baby” come-ons helped me decide to spend some quality time in my hotel room. In Belize, groups of men hanging out on the corner are known as the Leaky Tire Brigade because of the zzzekkksy “SSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS” noise they make when a female walks by. By the end, I was able to advise my sister that, upon her return to the States, her biggest adjustment wouldn’t be to the vast amounts of produce available in the shiny grocery stores but rather to not being noticed and commented upon with every step in public.
Ultimately, on my last night there, as sweated and scratched at bug bites, I had an epiphany. my biggest point of pride from the whole trip was this: due to a sorry bit of mis-packing back in the States, I had done it all without deodorant.