Guatemala, 2001 or thereabouts
A Welsh punk with cerise hair told me years ago about Tikal, the national park just north of a town called Flores. She advised that if I ever visited it, I should climb to the top of Temple number four, but did not explain why. Happily, I discovered the reason years later for myself. Guatemala is one of those countries that one falls quickly and inexplicably in love with. Perhaps the company, the timing or the traveller’s state of mind play a role, or perhaps the place is just bloody brilliant. Since that trip I have thought often of the colours in the streets there, and have claimed it as one of my favourite countries, not least because one of its towns is named Chichicastenango.
In preparation for the trip I attempted to teach my boyfriend Jon some rudimentary Spanish, but unfortunately he was a (deliberately) unwilling student. Rousing fragments of semi-lucid communication from the depths of my Spanish GCSE, I tried to force upon him at least a simple gracias, but when the mood takes him Jon can be as stubborn as… well – me. Had I not bothered, he no doubt would have been fluent by the time we arrived in Central America, and in fact he claims these days that his Spanish far exceeds mine, the git. Time shall tell (I would drag him to Spain purely to prove him wrong).
Various events had already occurred in the south of the country, where frijoles are served with every meal, where I was offered a bar job within twenty minutes of walking into a pub in Antigua, and where I chose not to visit any of the many orphanages (which with hindsight was blatantly a good idea!). Allow me to digress from the explosive matter at hand by first relating a sub-story about Volcan Pacayo, an active volcano on the outskirts of Amatitlan. The surface of the volcano consisted entirely of small shards of volcanic rock, which had the effect of it looking and feeling like it was covered with black snow. Wearing trainers, we struggled to trudge up the steep side as every footstep sunk a few inches into the debris. After three hours we reached the top, jubilant and excited – all ready for me to make a total fool of myself by approaching the handsome Scandinavian type that I’d shared smiles with all the way up, because I was utterly convinced he was someone I knew, someone that had been on the kibbutz with me fifteen years previously. I swore to Jon that it was him, and Jon, having never met or even seen a picture of my old mate Hasse but knowing me well, swore that it wasn’t. It wasn’t, obviously, and Jon always laughed about that, although I fail to see anything so amusing about approaching the wrong Swede at the top of a live volcano.
Perched on the rim, after venturing as near as we dared to the slippery edge and craning our necks to perhaps catch a glimpse of molten magma, someone asked the guide if anyone had ever fallen into the volcano. ‘What? No, no… why would they fall in? There used to be a fence, but… er… no, definitely no one has ever fallen into this volcano… definitely… uh… not.’ He cast a few furtive glances around us and suggested that now might be a good time to return to ground level.
The foot-sucking, deep snow of the surface made getting off the volcano even more difficult than the ascent. Jon, an avid skier, quickly discovered that the easiest method was to use one’s feet as skis, and a second later he was gone, whooshing smoothly down the side of the volcano at high speed and leaving me to wonder how the fuck I was going to get down off the blasted thing. I tried his skiing trick, but I am more or less allergic to skiing and most things sporty, so I promptly fell over and sat there looking down at him waving at me. The wide smile on his face turned to slight panic as he realised he had left me up a volcano.
A German man, after laughing heartily at my pathetic attempts to not be stuck at the top of the friggin’ thing, swished over like they do in Bond films, offered me his arm and said ‘Ve go, ja?’
‘Ja!’ said I. I linked my arm through his and we swooshed gracefully together, from side to side, like Torvill and Dean. All we needed was a bit of Ravel’s Bolero. We reached the bottom and I felt exhilarated. (On our return to London, a colleague dampened the buzz by telling me he’d looked down and seen bubbling magma when he’d stood on that very rim. I’ve never worked out whether he was having me on or not.)
Walking back towards the town from Volcan Pacayo, the guide pointed back at the volcano and gasped in horror, pointing at it and shouting ‘Look! Look! Now it is erupting!’ Jon and I squinted at the volcano which was now a fair way behind us, couldn’t see anything resembling an eruption, and rooted around for the binoculars. Some of the other people in the group were freaking out, but no could actually see what the guide was referring to. ‘Oh my god! Are you sure?’ the Americans among us repeatedly asked him, only to be met with a vehement ‘Yes! Look, look, the lava is rolling down the side!’ British and European people must just be more cynical, for none of those even batted an eyelid at the imaginary lava flow. Jon and I nudged each other and decided to join in the subterfuge. ‘Oh wow, I see the lava!’ we simpered as we gazed intently through the binoculars at the nebulous, dark grey slopes of the cold volcano. The guide, confused for a second at us ‘seeing’ it, realised our game and regained his composure, reassuring everyone that we were far enough away from the volcano not to have to run. We passed the binoculars around and a small number of the group saw what they wanted to see – molten, fiery lava flooding down the side of the volcano we had just stepped off an hour beforehand. One particular woman caught our fancy by loudly proclaiming that she could indeed see the erupting lava, and stating how lucky we were not to have been burned up. ‘Yes! Yes! I can! I can see it!’ (As we hiked on, moving along the gullible, mesmerised woman and her friends with some difficulty, Jon coined the phrase ‘Why lie ‘bout lava?’ which has remained in both our lives in a childish yet irresistible way, and remains in usage to this day in countries as far afield as New Zealand.)
The dismal Spanish lessons continued as we travelled around the country. I continued trying to get Jon to thank people in their language and he continued to accidentally say ‘cerveza’ instead of ‘thank you’, and ‘frijoles’ instead of ‘good morning’. At one point we crossed a crazy border into Belize, a definitive line between two peoples, cultures and languages. On one side, every person is indigenous Indian, speaks Spanish or a local dialect and dresses in brightly coloured woven fabrics. Not fifty yards away, everyone is Afro-Caribbean, speaks English, wears jeans and has that laidback Caribbean vibe about them. The stark contrast was so strange and defined that I even looked back across the border to check that my mind wasn’t playing tricks.
Anyway: monkeys. Tikal national park is a sprawling and beautiful… um… national park, and after a few hours wandering we sought out Tikal Temple IV. A Mayan structure built almost 2500 years ago stood regally in front of us, the tallest (old) structure in the ‘new’ world, soaring into the sky and daring us to climb it. Pyramidal, it held a giant staircase on the front which rose at a 45 degree angle and seemed to go on indefinitely. Warily starting to climb, we could not look to either side as the steps were so narrow and closely-set and we feared losing our grip. We were already ascending on all fours because each step was too narrow to even hold a whole foot. Halfway up I wanted to look behind me but I couldn’t because of that thing where you want to throw yourself off tall buildings or into the path of oncoming vehicles just because you know you mustn’t. At the top of Tikal Temple IV there is a small platform and onto it we briefly flopped before turning to face the world from 65 metres up in the air.
What I saw took my breath away. We were standing in the sky, looking down over the top of the rainforest. The canopy was partly shrouded in the mist which hung in swathes and veils like a colourless Aurora. Trees fought for light, towering above each other and offering their upturned leaves to the provider. A dozen vivid greens constituted a solid mass of pulsating life within which lived 300 different species, some of whom were out to play as we stood gaping. Mexican black howler monkeys leaped and raced between the trees, chasing and shrieking. Parrots, macaws and toucans glided impressively, effortlessly, above them, swooping and screaming. They looked like the multi-coloured streamers that trail behind gymnasts, never remaining in one place long enough for you to gaze your fill. All I could see for miles in every direction was Earth in pure form, untouched and unspoilt by humanity (oh, er, except the massive manmade temple I was standing on). The volume of noise was astounding, and the vastness of it all rendered me speechless, as only Mother Nature can do.
Photographs were an insult to the beauty of that fragile jungle. I did take some, but they look utterly inadequate compared to the picture stamped on my mind. Nothing could convey the purity and complexity of the forest and its plethora of creatures. Further attempts to describe it would be futile, unless Joseph Conrad were here, which would be quite difficult due to him being rather dead.
Ambling back through the park towards the gate in the contented silence that comes with being awed by the majesty of nature, we sat down under a tree, seeking shade. Having stayed so long in the sky, we found ourselves observing the merest beginnings of sunset in the park and the departure of the aggressive heat of the afternoon. Evidently other beings had been hiding from the high temperatures too and as we rested we heard the chattering of spider monkeys waking up from their afternoon siesta.
In front of us was a gently swaying palm tree. Suddenly and without noise or fuss, a spider monkey flew upwards from the centre of its branches, fell gracefully off to the side, and made good his escape across the tops of the neighbouring palm trees. Blinking rapidly, we stared at each other to check that each of us had not imagined it, then glued our eyes to the tree in case the monkey had not chosen to take his nap alone. Sure enough, after a second another monkey burst directly upwards out of the flat top of the tree, arced perfectly in the air, and ran off to join his friend. Hardly daring to breathe, we watched with pure glee as the palm tree spewed out the rest of the springing monkeys like a furry fountain. They appeared to be being fired out of some sort of cannon-like contraption within the centre of the branches; one by one they were blasted up into the air and after cascading along rainbow-shaped paths in various directions they dispersed, scampering and giggling. Two or three mothers burst upwards, trailing babies by the paw, and one adult was at the head of a line of two or three little babies of differing sizes, all holding hands. I laughed and laughed with joy at our unbelievable luck, and I smile even now when I think of it. The tree probably spent only about a minute exploding the monkeys into the air, a group of around twenty, but the sight of it will remain with me for time immemorial.
The love I feel for our damaged world is unfortunately sometimes tempered by people’s behaviour, but it’s also sometimes bolstered by the things I see and experience. I intend to travel the world for as long as I am physically able (financially, more like), and will hopefully gather new stories about exploding stuff. The bad news for you is that I might write about them on this blog.
On the flight out of the country, the Guatemalan stewardess asked Jon how his trip had been. He answered her in Spanish: ‘Si, con guacamole’.