I could’ve taken a taxi to the airport to meet S, but that would’ve been expensive, $25. Instead, I walked to the bus station, allowing plenty of time for error. A man, seeing me looking at the bus schedule, asked me where I was going, and when I told him Ladyville, said that the buses for Ladyville left from down the street, led me outside and pointed the way. A bus was leaving as I walked up, so I boarded and asked the driver to let me know when we reached the airport turn-off. Twenty-five minutes later, he dropped me, directing me to a taxi that could take me the rest of the way, and for $6, I was at the airport, waiting.
I watched S descend the stairs from the plane and go into immigration.
After waiting 45 minutes, I started to think she had been detained, but she had just got stuck behind a large group of teenagers on some kind of trip, who, along with their chaperones, had no idea how to fill out the immigration forms.
I wasn’t as strange seeing her again after two months as I thought it would be. We Skyped every four or five days, so I had seen her regularly even if
I wasn’t in her presence. I would be sitting in a hotel room in a strange land, and I would be seeing S and my apartment in the background, often my cat wandering into the frame. It was strange seeing home from so far away.
We met Anastacio, our driver from Black Rock Lodge, out front. He had started to worry we weren’t going to show. He gave us a tour as he drove; there is the Belikin Beer plant(Belize’s national beer), look at the landscape now, and watch how it will change as we go along, etc. It was all interesting, but seeing S for the first time in 61 days, I was half-wishing for one of those windows like in limosines you could close so we could talk. We stopped at a place called Amigos for lunch, and two hours later, we were at the lodge. The last six miles took almost half an hour, down a rutted dirt road. A man named Giovanni sat us down and explained how things worked at the lodge. Dinner was pri-fixe, with a meat and vegetarian option. We could tube on the river and ride bikes for free. We told him the tours we wanted to do, and he said he’d put us on a list and see who else was interested.
It was only 4:30pm, so after unpacking, we decided to try and get a quick river tube ride in before dinner. We went to the office, where Peter, told us we could go, but we would have to double time up to the drop in to be back before dark. He took us to the terrace overlooking the final waterfall and explained the best way to go over, saying it was 50/50 whether we’d stay in our tubes or not.
We powered walked to the drop in in 17 minutes. The river started out lazy, and we had to paddle with our hands to get moving. We floated between the canyon walls, bumping over minor rapids. Twenty-five minutes later, we approached the falls. We steered left as instructed, and I watched S go over first, upright and then not. I followed, made it over the first fall, then got turned around and went under, double-backward somersaulting underwater. We got to the pull out and dragged our tubes back to the lodge, exhilirated.
Dinner seating was communal, wedding style, with room numbers on tables. I was again disappointed. The couple seated with us was from Michigan. We introduced ourselves, found that we were all going on the tour to ATM cave tomorrow, and then talked as couples. They had just arrived that day as well, and probably wanted privacy as much as we did.
After dinner, we took beers back to our room and drowsed in the hammocks, looking at the stars between the trees, before deciding it was time to go to bed before we fell asleep outside and were devoured by mosquitos.
We rose early, had breakfast, and met our guide for the tour. His name was Francisco, and he presented a military demeanor. Injuries, ilnnesses, phobias, he wanted to know them all. If he said jump, we were to ask ‘How high.’ I was nervous. Our group was us, the couple from dinner, and a family of four from Atlanta. The ride to the cave lasted two hours. From there, it was a forty minute hike to the cave mouth. Francisco had lightened up, cracking jokes. All I knew about the ATM cave was that you couldn’t take pictures, and getting in involved swimming a fifteen foot pool. We waited for other groups to get a good distance ahead of us as he distributed our helmets and headlamps, before going on. Francisco didn’t like crowds. A mother from another daughter walked by, trying to calm her ten year old daughter, who was clearly terrified at the prospect of going into a cold, dark, wet cave. I felt bad for the girl. I understand challenging your limits, but this was a little girl.
Francisco had a form a single file line, reiterated that we were not to question anything he told us to do, and in we went, one by one, across the cold pool. We waded through knee-high water, climbed over rocks and through tight spaces. Francisco had us play a very serious version of the telephone game, where we would pass instructions from him down the line. He quickly reordered us, slowest first, so no one would be left behind. The couple and their daughters 14 and 18, ended up at the head. I was last. I guess I should have felt complimented, but all I could think was that if there was ever a chance for S to get rid of me, directly in front of me and my only link to the group, this was it.
Francisco told us the story of the cave as we went along, how it was sacred to the Mayans’ they would go down here, on hallucinogens, carrying torches, shadows on the walls, to do what, archeologists could only speculate. The water went from ankle deep to chest deep and back again. We had to contort ourselves to fit through cracks. Someone would bang their knee on a rock and then pass a warning down the line. It was only half a kilometer, but it felt like five. It was like nothing I’d ever done.
Finally, we came to a stack of jagged rocks we had to scale. Francisco showed us the steps. I couldn’t believe they just let regular people do this. We all made it up, unharmed. We were on dry land again. We had to take off our shoes. The treads of shoes had done too much damage to the fragile cave floor, so now people had to walk in socks.
We passed pottery that hadn’t been moved since 600AD. The archeologists had left it as is. There was a skull, and then another. Again, umoved for almost 1500 years. We entered an open area called the cathedral. We waited for other groups again to make the final ascent and return so we could be alone. Francisco told us stories of ghosts he had seen down here.
The was more clambering through jagged, narrow tunnels. We climbed an aluminum ladder. The coup de grace was a complete skeleton of a boy or girl, that was up for debate, laid out where it had been sacrificed. We saw another skull, with two holes in it. The larger was from where a tourist had dropped their camera on it, the reason no one was allowed to bring them in anymore. The smaller, from where another had poked the skull, not believing it was real.
We made our way back out, put on our shoes, downclimbed the boulder, scarier than going up. Francisco had us joing hands, turn off our headlamps, and then led us in pitch black into chest deep water. All S had to do at this point was let go of my hand, and I’d still be lost down there, wandering, looking for the way out, until my headlamp went dead. That she didn’t says something, I suppose.
We cannonballed into the exit pool in celebration, ate our boxed lunches, and hike back to the van, where we changed into our dry clothes and rode back to the lodge.
It was a 6am wake up for our trip to Tikal on Monday. We’d been sat at dinner with our travelling companions, another couple from North Carolina. We met our driver for the day, Anastacio, who had picked us up at the airport. It was an hour to the Guatemalan border. There, we had to change vans, and pick up a Guatemalan driver, some odd Guatemalan law. It cost us $18.75 to leave Belize for the day, and about $3 to unofficially bribe our way into Guatemala, the same mordita I had been expecting to have to pay when entering from Honduras, but was never asked. You could tell them you didn’t want to hand it over, and then the border guard could decide to take a lunch break right then, said Anastacio.
I had been to Tikal thirteen years ago. When we met our guide for the park, Anastacio told him this, and he told me some things had changed,
and some hadn’t, and he would point them out to me. S had never been to ruins like this before. When I had been here, I had arrived in nearby Flores after an eight hour overnight bus ride from Guatemala city. I wandered the park and climbed to the top of Temple IV to watch the sunset. Now Temple IV was closed, the result of a couple people falling and dying while climbing down in the dark. The next morning, myself and a British guy I met snuck back into the park at 4am to watch the sunrise.
It’s strange revisiting places that had a powerful effect on you years back. It’s hard not to expect the same feelings, and it’s inevitably disappointing when then don’t come. You can’t step in the same river twice. Though many of us, including myself, will kill ourselves trying.
I took pictures I had taken before, with a nicer camera.
We climbed some temples that had been excavated since I had last been. Tikal is a difficult experience to describe, other than showing pictures.
It’s remote eight hours from Guatemala city, seven hours from Belize City, with a border crossing thrown in. The remoteness made it relatively empty compared to a Mayan site like Chichen Itza, ninety minutes from Cancun.
Temple tops poke through the jungle.
It looks like a movie set, and it was, as those temples peeking out of the jungle were featured at the end of Star Wars, Episode IV. The Peten is relatively flat, so when you climb to the tops of these temples, you can see as far as the days weather will allow, unlike the mountainous Copan or Palenque, with views cut off by peaks.
Uniformed men carrying guns walked around, increased security as a result of some robberies in the less travelled parts of the park several years back.
As we walked around, Anastacio would disappear, and then reappear without notice, always adding something to what our guide had just finished telling us. Tikal was old hat to him, but still, he climbed the temples with us while our other guide waited at the bottom, or sat and spotted birds in the trees. He had told us on the ride over that he was leaving Black Rock to take another job further south, in management. But he hadn’t yet told us that his last day was the day after we were leaving. We wondered how he would take to a management position, since he clearly loved being out with people.
We puzzled how the Mayans, who invented the concept of zero independently of the Phoenicians, made a calendar that went millions of years back into the past and thousands of years into the future, and built these temples to exact mathematical and astronomical detail, could have been aware of the existence of the wheel, but looked at it, shrugged and said, “Eh, not for us.” Which is what they did. These temples were built without the wheel, or pack animals.
Tuesday, our last day at Black Rock, was our day of rest. We hiked to the to a viewpoint above the lodge. Attempting to take a self-portrait of the two of us, I carefully balanced my DSLR on a bench and set the time. Except it was not so carefully balanced, and it fell as I took my place beside S. When I picked it up, the ‘error’ light was flashing on the display, and no amount of resetting or taking out the battery could make it work again. I started the trip with three cameras, and was down to one. The DSLR was a last minute choice to take. I originally planned to bring my eight month old Sony point and shoot, and my four year old Canon as a backup, and for situations where I wanted to carry something that would be less tragic if stolen. But the Sony had died inexplicably three weeks in, and now I broke the DSLR.
On our way down, we missed a turn off and ended up on the trail to the waterfall. We got back to our room in time for another attempt to tube the waterfall. The water was higher that day. The dam downstream was releasing more water. This time, we both made it over the falls. S got hung up in a eddy above the falls for a bit, so I waited for her downstream at the pullout. We returned out tubes, and passing through the dining area, a woman asked us if we made it over the falls, and when we said we had, she said we earned ourselves a beer. We laughed at the joke. We found out from the couple seated with us at dinner that night that it wasn’t a joke; Black Rock was giving a beer to everyone who made the falls that day, which explained the parade of people we had seen dropping in just above the falls over and over again. I went to the bar and politely demanded our free beer, and got them.
We rocked in the hammocks after dinner, again watching the stars through the trees.
Tomorrow wouuld be the first ever chicken bus ride for S. I wanted her to see a bit of what I had been experiencing the last two months. Belize buses didn’t quite compare to other Central American buses for discomfort, but it would give her an idea. We had also found another couple that wanted to go into San Ignacio for the day, so we could split the $40 shuttle with them.
Half our reunion was over. Tomorrow it was off to Caye Caulker.