the true stories
When I got married in 1977 I decided that a grand honeymoon was in order. I had always wanted to see the jungle and after much research and study, I chose Guatemala as the place to go. There were fairly recently uncovered Mayan ruins at Tikal and Uaxactun. There were monkeys, crocodiles, poisonous snakes, giant insects, insane missionaries, Cachiquel speaking native peoples, toucan and quetzal birds, bananas, avocados, mangoes, coffee, sugarcane, cinnamon trees, copal trees, lost gold hoards and real silver coins just to mention a few of the attractions.
My eighteen year old wife had grown up in Panama and could hobble along in Spanish fairly well. We booked a flight to Mexico City and took a bus from there to Tapachula which is the last town before crossing the Rio Suchiate into Guatemala. It was a long dusty affair. At a stop not far from the border, we met a young guy who was going the same way and we three decided to team up temporarily as we were hitch-hiking through some rough stuff.
Sergio was a Peruano who was studying at the Universidad de Merida in Yucatan. He had to cross out and re-enter the Mexican border every six months for his visa. He could play keepie-up with a soccer ball for an entire day and was a master of the kena, a cane flute. He gave me a hand-made flute as a gift that I still have today. He was planning to study Eskimos. His dream was to go to the Arctic. We got along well and whenever my wife and I required privacy, like a caballero he would disappear.
The bus squealed to a halt at the river crossing that served as a border and we disembarked. I was filthy with sweat and asked the teenage guard if I could take a quick bath in the Rio to freshen up. He motioned with his Armalite to a path down to the water. The river was about like Lynn Creek in North Vancouver and the water was deliciously cool. I scrubbed what I could with the crowd gawking and just soaked my jeans on my body. The would dry in the heat soon enough.
I came up the rocky path and donned a fresh olive green shirt from my pack. The guard approached and told me in Spanish to take off my shirt and throw it in the garbage barrel while he watched. As he had a gun, I complied without understanding his logic. My wife handed me a white tee-shirt. The guard made me take a solemn oath not to wear anything green during my travels in Guatemala. He then told me that no matter where we found ourselves by sundown to stay put even if it meant sleeping in the bush.
His tone was deadly serious and I took his well-meant advice to heart. It was many years and much reading later when I realized why. Looking back, it is well that none of us knew of the death squads roaming the countryside of Guatemala and the thousands of natives being murdered. I can see it on the faces in my pictures but at the time I was thankfully politically naive. I have never had an interest in politics and still don't but in those days I had no knowledge to compliment my lack of interest.
We walked across the bridge and entered Guatemala. One of our first rides was a pick-up truck with Louisiana plates. A guy from New Orleans was taking his two young sons to do obligatory military service in Nicaragua or Honduras, I forget which. Papa was proud and the boys were excited. I was thinking they looked a bit too young but all the uniformed personnel I had seen all day were boys younger than my twenty years.
First we sought the Pacific coast and then worked our way to the capitol inland over many smoking volcanic mountain ranges. A typical day had us sweltering in a miasma of mosquitos and ticks with monkeys throwing sticks at us from the canopy and then an elevation gain so abrupt as to turn your skin blue. I discovered a wonderful hot drink made of brewed cinnamon bark and sugar called canela.
The towns had wonderful names like Chichicastenango, Retalejue, Momostenango and Huehuetenango. As soon as one was within the borders the language changed from Spanish to Quiche or Cachiquel. The frantic pace of Mexico disappeared and was replaced by a slowness I had never encountered. I kept a book of words as I learned them. My favourite word was the word for delicious. I used it every time I drank the volcanic coffee or ate the salty black beans and tortillas. It was oots pim-pim. We sucked limes and ate rock salt at the urging of Sergio.
“Miguel, the limon and the sal. It’s your blood, it’s your life.”
In one mountain town, I bought a beautiful hand-dyed hand-woven table cloth. It was green, red, white and yellow. It was decorated with quetzal birds. I got a good price because Sergio explained I was Cheróki. My wife had been struck by the poverty of the family of the weaver and lacking anything useful to give, had settled on giving up her make-up to the three little daughters of the woman. The girls twisted the lipsticks fully out and happily ate them down to the nubs. I still use the table cloth.
Once we secured a ride in a Suzuki jeep. It was my first off-road experience and all we saw were camps of soldiers and washed out muddy tracks through dense jungle and steep mountains by turn. My wife threw up from the constant juddering. At one remote stop we went into a jungle camp to eat with the boys in green. I said I'd have whatever our driver was having as long as it was meat. It was called tepesquintla and it retained enough of its gray fur to assure me of its protein content.
Another family we spent the day with took us on a little side tour in return for taking their photographs. The family spent hours getting gussied up in their best clothes for a series of portraits which I sent to them by post when I returned to Vancouver. We were shown to the creek to the clothes washing rocks and then through a jungle path. After a mile or so we entered what looked like a ruined settlement from hundreds of years ago.
The woman explained that four hundred years ago the Spanish had come and built the town. They had been incredibly cruel in their treatment of the Indians. The Indians of her tribe had made a batch of poison from local plants and had poisoned the well in the little plaza. All the Spanish had been killed and their horses as well. She proudly showed us the stone well. What struck me was that her story was told as if she were describing events not yet a year old.
One of our stopping places was a lake called Atitlan. It was a beautiful body of water surrounded by thick jungle. In the sixties, a convoy of hippies had driven there and stopped along the shore. Their camperized school buses were parked along the shore and already overgrown with vegetation. Young children ran semi-naked around chasing chickens and I saw some of their now middle-aged parents watching from the broken windows.
We set up my small pup-tent. Sergio and I left my wife to organize the camp while we procured food. We went to an Indian market and purchased noodles, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, onions, guavas, fish and some peanuts. We convinced an old woman to sell us an earthenware pot to cook it all in. Armed with the feast we happily marched back to camp. Since we were boiling soup, we decided to use the water straight from the lake without adding iodine. I ignored the fact that the pot wasn't glazed on the inside.
We cooked up a nice pottage and told stories while it simmered on the fragrant copal wood fire. After an hour or so it was ready. I was ravenous and had two or three portions. I had been the cook and had sipped the broth a few times before it was done to test for taste. I needed to know how much limon and salt to add. We feasted and before the nightly mosquito attack we all crammed into the tent.
I felt a slight discomfort and my stomach growled and gurgled. Sergio was snoring and my wife was breathing sweetly in the dark totally spent from the days exertions. I rolled over and tried to sleep by listening to the frogs. I felt a momentous wrenching pain and doubled into a small horseshoe of agony. I just cleared the tent in time.
I crawled in the beautiful moonlight as far away as I could get and emptied my stomach violently. I crawled away from the mess and toward the water. The noise had awakened some of the hippies and they could be seen in the bus windows looking for the cause. There were caymans and predatory cats here and perhaps at first my retching sounded like a hungry jaguar or an evil spirit.
Usually, voiding one’s stomach brings immediate relief of sorts. Mine did not. I doubled up into an impossible fetal position with cramps of epic proportions. I could feel what was coming next. I just struggled out of my shorts and boxers in time. There under the full Guatemalan moon I rolled on the ground like a cannonball from Xibalbá. I spewed with heretofore unknown force from both ends of myself. Between bouts I gibbered, cursed and moaned like a shade from hell.
I was eventually empty of all fluid and lay like a wounded animal until I had the strength to crawl to the water and wash off. I redressed and crawled into the tent for the last few hours until dawn brought the monkeys awake. When I told Sergio the next morning I was instructed to eat limon and salt. Other than a powerful thirst which I quenched with Gallo beer, I was fine within twenty-four hours.
My wife was a mass of sunburned welts and was physically wrecked by the time we reached the small capitol city. I booked us a proper room and Sergio disappeared into the streets armed with a numismatic book I had brought along. He returned in the morning with a rare gold coin I had pointed out to him the day before. He wanted to give it to me and I told him to keep it as a momento. He wouldn’t say how on earth he had acquired it and I knew he was almost broke.
We were headed for the ruins of Tikal and it required taking a flight to a town called Flores on Lake Petén Itzá. Sergio didn’t have the money and was broken-hearted. He didn’t want to part with the gold coin either. He was keen to tour the ruins as he was studying anthropology. My wife and I decided to buy his ticket and we would all split up from there.
The flight was wonderful. A small low altitude hop just above the canopy. The plane had roll-down windows and you could smoke on board. We landed in a jungle clearing just before dark on a rough runway lined with burning oil drums. A kid with an Armalite told us where to catch a bus for town. We would have to get another bus in the morning to go the few miles up to the ruins.
The lake had an island that was connected by a causeway to the mainland. The town was a beautiful colonial mass of red roof tiles and Spanish architecture. Sergio took the tent and my wife and I checked into a pensión. We met up the next morning to tour the ruins. We stayed until dark and were ushered out at gunpoint to the bus. Sergio left that night for Merída and before he left he told us to check out a place called Cancún.
He said it was near some similar Mayan ruins and that a woman there had told him it would be developed and ruined itself someday soon. It was cheap, unspoiled and worth the mosquito bites. He had done some archeological workshops there for the university. We shook hands. I imagine he retained the coin. I never saw him again.
My wife and I stayed on for a few more days at the ruins. Before we left for the long road up to Mexico City, I figured we had earned a good swim. Petén Itzá was a jade green sweet water jungle lake and very inviting after the journey we had made thus far. I made inquiries as to the local flora and fauna and any possible nasties to beware of.
Armed with this information I easily convinced my wife to go with me. There was a boat dock where tourists were ferried to the island in the lake. On the island they were served lunch, offered trinkets and given a tour of a radio station that had been set up on a hill. Then the dugouts paddled them back to Florés. We put our swim-suits on under our jeans and skipped down to the docks hand in hand.
First I got my wife to dangle her feet in the water. She screamed. There in the clear top inch of water she could see ten thousand small fish attacking her feet. They were silver, about half the size of neon tetras and voracious. They possessed micro-fangs and tickled like hell as they stripped away exactly one cell thickness of dead skin off any carcass placed in the drink. She replaced her feet and giggled with delight. It tickled in the most exquisite way imaginable.
I told her I had been assured that they grew no larger and there were no other critters for us to worry about. Furthermore they only attacked stationary targets. To add a little spice to our coming swim I dared her to skinny dip. She had the gumption and while nobody was looking we doffed our rags and piled them under the crossbeam of the dock. Once we were in no one could see our bodies in the jade water.
The swim went well and we pushed ahead an empty plastic litre pop bottle to use as an emergency flotation device if need be. Something I had pioneered in Hargraves Pond in Beaumont, Texas. About three quarters of the way across to the island dock we were passed by a slow moving motor launch full of tourists. They docked and we struggled up beside them as they were disembarking for lunch.
As luck would have it the boat was full of obese, arthritic Norteños. The Guatemalan guides were helping them out one by one. It was a glacially slow process. As soon as my wife and I came to a stop, clinging on to the dock beside the boat, the fish attacked! We were tired and would have welcomed a short respite under some nearby trees if we could have broken free to cover the thirty yards.
At any rate we had no choice but to rest a bit before swimming back. The tourists engaged us in conversation and started to take our pictures. We thrust ourselves down up to our necks and kicked furiously. The area from our hips up to our armpits, not being in motion, was being scoured by the little piranhas. My wife had one of those laughs that you cannot ignore and she was wailing with breathless hysteria.
This further slowed the disembarkation of the walking wounded from the motor launch. I was convulsing with laughter and near to being asphyxiated from hyperventilation. The cameras clicked and the guides stared. The word intimate took on a new level of meaning to me that afternoon, such was the ingenuity of the fish at finding crevasses on my body that I hadn't yet guessed at the existence of.
Finally the last lard-ass waddled into the cantina and we were able to stroke for home. Praying all the while that some evil sprite hadn't stolen our robes. We were rewarded with our wish and hastily dressed behind some bushes. The next morning we checked out and went onwards to Mexico City. On the way I bought a nice machete. My mom never let me play with guns as a child, so I played with knives of all types. I still have that machete and I use it to cut brush on a lot I own.
When we got to the airport in Mexico City we were told that our seats had been given away. I had to be to work the next day and was angry and perplexed. We were without enough funds to stay even one night in the cheapest accommodations. I inquired as to what was the problem. I had purchased two round-trip tickets and paid in full. I was patronizingly told that I had failed to re-confirm my departure. To my thinking, once I buy something it's mine. It is no longer able to be resold to someone else. Although I had logged many a mile traveling the world, I had never come across this crapulous, anemic, parasitic policy.
I went to tell my waiting wife the good news. Our adventure had only yet begun it appeared. I took a deep breath and studied the line up. One of those business suited bastards was taking my seats and I'd be damned if they were going to get away with it. My wife started to sob quietly, thinking of the night to come wandering the streets outside.
I saw three airline employees checking in the suitcases. I watched for a few minutes. Then it hit me. It was simply a matter of timing, nothing more. I had originally handed the tickets to the girl before hoisting the packs onto the scale. I got back into a different line and dropped the two packs onto the stainless steel scale.
The lady robotically attached two tags and pushed them onto the conveyer without once looking up at my face. Then I handed her the tickets. She punched some numbers into her terminal and I saw her face darken. Her embarrassment prevented her from saying a word. She turned just in time to see the packs slip under the rubber strips and into the bowels of the conveyor.
She looked up at the lengthening line behind me and recovered her composure. She punched a few extra numbers into her data terminal and smiled as she handed our boarding passes to me. I gathered up my wife and went to the gate. I told her she married a genius and she said she'd think about it.
We had Trout Almandine, green beans, caramelized new potatoes and many beers on the flight home. We toasted the poor sucker who was stranded for an extra night in Mexico City. It was oots pim-pim!
Copyright © 2019 by Michael A. Hawes. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.