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Ryan’s Great Adventures
Volume 11: Tue June 18, 2002
I typically send these out once a week or so, but the last couple of days deserve an e-mail to themselves. They have been the most stressful and adventurous of my Central American travels to date.
First, I am once again traveling the countryside with Amanda. She managed to fly out Saturday morning and arrived in Antigua that afternoon. She actually tried to fly out Friday but was bumped off each of the flights for different reasons. (The dangers of standby.) So, a day late, Amanda finally arrived in Antigua Saturday afternoon.
Which, I might add, she absolutely loves. Based on past mass mailings from me, I don't think her expectations were all that high, so she was pleasantly surprised to discover it was as nice as it was. She spent the night in Antigua to have a chance to check it out that evening and the next day. Because of her late arrival, I actually was in Antigua Sunday morning and once again got to experience the magic of Corpus Cristi at a different church, and this time I got pictures of the beautiful rugs made of pine needles and rose petals laid in the street. Once again, just minutes after finishing them, a procession came by and trampled them.
And on Sunday, we got ourselves a ticket to Flores, which we'd use as our base of operations to venture out to Tikal. Amanda didn't find any Nancy Drew references to Tikal, but she did learn some scenes from Star Wars were filmed there, and being the movie nut that she is, that alone was a good enough reason for visiting Guatemala.
Flores is quite a ways from Antigua involving an eight hour bus ride, and that's only once we made it to Guatemala City first. Being such a long trip, we decided to go first class all the way, damn the money! (Turned out to cost $25 each, from Antigua to Flores.) We also planned to leave Antigua at 6:30 at night, which would get us into Flores at 5:00am. We figured this had a couple of advantages: First, we could sleep through most of the ride, and second, it would save us the cost of a hotel that night. We were pretty smug about our idea at the time....
The shuttle ride to Guatemala City was uneventful, and the bus waiting for us there was luxurious. It looked new. Retractable television sets that would come out when a movie was playing, then pull back in when nothing was on. Air-conditioning. The route even had a 'stewardess service' where a stewardess would attend to our every whim and serve snacks, drinks, and such. We were riding in style!
The movie turned out to be in Spanish—more shocking than you'd normally expect for a Spanish speaking country since ALL movies I've seen have always been in English with Spanish subtitles added later. So Amanda couldn't understand the movie at all, and the volume was so low I had difficultly actually hearing the Spanish, so the movie was a bust.
At about midnight, the bus stopped briefly. The stewardess served sandwiches and Coke. Police boarded briefly, for a reason still unknown to myself. Smokers went out and did their thing, which mostly consisted of smoking and peeing on the bus.
Amanda insists that I also admit to a small accident I had at the stop, which consisted of regurgitating a small quantity of Coke and other stomach contents into the blanket the stewardess kindly passed out earlier in the night. Most of it at least. A small quantity did get on my shirt which I washed up the best I could. I'd have changed my shirt, except all my clothes were currently buried under luggage underneath the bus. The smell wasn't too agreeable with Amanda, as she started to gag herself, so I spent the rest of the night covering the offending mess and oder with another blanket.
At about 2:00 in the morning, we stopped once again. This time the vegetable police boarded, searching the luggage for illegal carrots and man-eating oranges or whatever it is they thought needed confiscating. Smokers went out to smoke and pee on the bus again.
And finally, at 4:00 in the morning, we stopped once again, this time in the town of Poptun. At this point, a man boarded the bus to saying the road up ahead was blocked, but that was about all I understood. (My Spanish still isn't fluent, you know, and these people talk fast!) I also caught something about 8:30 or 9:30, which I hoped meant that whatever the problem was, it would be solved by then and we'd be on our way. Which was perfectly okay by Amanda and myself, since we thought it would probably be easier finding a hotel than at 5:00 in the morning.
However, this meant they parked the bus in the town of Poptun and turned off the engine. They informed us the restrooms on the bus were now off limits, because there was no water. The air-conditioner has a bad thing where when you turn off the engine, the air-conditioner turns off too. If you've ever turned on an oven and forgotten to turn it off within a few minutes, you'll quickly understand the effect that had on the contents within the bus, including us, as the sun began to rise.
By 8:00 in the morning, many of the passengers were fleeing the bus. Either to find facilities elsewhere, looking for breakfast, or just getting out of the heat. Amanda and I fled to a nearby restaurant which we declared our new headquarters until the bus was ready to leave. We wanted to stay close enough to the bus to make sure it wouldn't drive off without us—especially since our luggage was still in its underbelly.
Throughout the afternoon, we continued to gather more intelligence about the situation we were in, along with where we were. We learned the reason the bus couldn't pass was because of a strike. Yep, just like the problem I had getting from Copan to Antigua. I am absolutely convinced the Guatemalan CIA is now tracking my movements and staging strikes to thwart my movements around the country. How else can it be explained? Being in this situation before, I also came to the realization that we may not reach Flores at all that day. And, to add insult to injury, the bus just before us was the last one to make it through before the strikers blocked the road. Yep, we were the first bus to be stopped by the strikers.
The number of tourists walking about town in a confused state continued to grow throughout the day, as more and more buses were thwarted at Poptun. Buses unable to reach their destination began to clog the streets of Poptun.
And, to our horror, we discovered this place we were stranded at is the Barstow of California: Everyone travels through it, but nobody wants to stop there. In fact, Amanda's guidebook even begins the section on Poptun says: "If you ever find yourself stranded in Poptun...." under the assumption that nobody would actually CHOOSE to stay in such a butt-ugly town.
Around noon, we found ourselves, still sitting at the same restaurant, afraid to order food in fear that they'd go behind the restaurant and catch it before preparing it for us. We stuck with bottled beverages. The highlight of the day was when it started to hail (how can it HAIL when it's so freaking hot outside?!). The locals acted as if they'd never seen the stuff before as they picked up the grains of ice and ate them. Like I said, this was the HIGHLIGHT of our day.
At about this time, I had a brilliant idea. (I thought it was brilliant, at least.) I walked to the bus company's office and asked if I could change the destination from Flores to Rio Dulce, which we had actually passed earlier in the night and I've been wanting to visit for months, since they weren't able to get us to Flores. Surely there were buses headed back down the road where we came from, and we could just switch buses and spend a few days in Rio Dulce until the road to Tikal opened again. Nope, they said. WHY NOT?!
And all this time, buses continued to arrive throughout the day, stranding hundreds of confused tourists in the butthole of Guatemala. By this time, Amanda also was not looking to thrilled about my usefulness as a guide to Guatemala. In fact, I started to be concerned that my safety around her was no longer assured....
So, for safety's sake, I decided we'd get ourselves a hotel right then. After a good shower, changing into clean clothes, and being somewhere intentionally might cheer her up and rescue my quickly deteriorating status as a guide. Anyhow, I had my own reasons for wanting to change clothes—still with certain digestive smells on them. And tomorrow, if the strike was over, we'd continue on to Tikal. If not, we'd head off to Rio Dulce. No problem. Anyhow, with all the stranded tourists walking about, there was a good possibility that if we waited much longer, we might not be able to find a hotel room.
The first hotel we checked out we decided was charging exorbitant prices, and decided to check out "the" hotel that everyone was talking about a few kilometers out of town. As we were hunting for a taxi, a man walks up asking if we wanted to go to Flores. Well of COURSE we did! But how could he get us there when nobody else could, and no vehicles were being allowed to pass? And he said he'd drive the 'microbus' (i.e. minivan) as far as he could, then we'd hike around the blockade to the other side where another microbus would be waiting for us.
I have to admit, I had serious reservations about this idea. I didn't really know what to expect from the strike. I didn't know if the crowd blocking the road was chanting "Death to tourists from the USA" or "Let the lizards roam free!" Either way, I didn't like the idea of going near a crowd of irate people that would forcibly block a major road of all traffic. However, I still felt bad about stranding Amanda in the butthole of Guatemala, so I told her what the man had said, and asked if she wanted to try it instead. I didn't really tell her about my reservations, since I figured I was probably being overly worried and paranoid (hard to believe, I know, but it's true!). And I knew she really wanted to get on with the trip, so I didn't try to scare her with all my worries. And naturally, she said, "Okay, let's go!"
We agreed with the man on a price of 50 quetzals ($6.41) for both of us, which would get us ALL the way to Flores (I made sure it was to Flores, and not just to where the road was blocked where I'd "discover" it would be another 50 to get us the second vehicle), loaded up our luggage, and stuffed ourselves into a minivan designed for 15 people but actually held 20 along with three live chickens.
On the way to where the road was blocked there are some pretty bizarre signs. They looked like animal crossing signs, but they would have silhouettes of stuff you wouldn't think would really be a problem. One was a dinosaur—or a brontosaurus to be exact. Another one was a silhouette of a pig with a person riding on the back. It was very strange.
I didn't see any dinosaurs or people riding pigs, though, and the trip to the strike zone was otherwise uneventful. I spent most of my thoughts thinking two things which were: (1) I hope we aren't driving to our deaths, and (2) if we live to tell about this story, it's gonna be a good one! Since you're receiving this e-mail, I'm happy to report that number 2 happened to be how things turned out.
The microbus pulled over just short of the strikers, where cars were backed up as far as the eye could see. The driver then proceeded to start collecting money from everyone—which kind of worried me. I didn't want to pay for the ride until AFTER we arrived safe and sound in Flores, but all the others were paying, and being locals that presumably knew what they were doing, we proceeded to do the same.
A couple of "guides" were there to help us around the strikers, which consisted of barreling down a hill into the jungle, climbing through barbwire fences, all as fast as we could as if the police were right behind us, dogs barking, and time was of the essence. Which it kind of was, because it was about sunset by now, the clouds were threatening to rain, and it was getting dark quickly.
If I haven't mentioned it before, I brought way too much junk with me. Two large bags and my backpack. And I immediately enlisted one of the guides to carry one of my bags with the intention of paying a tip at the end for the help. A second guide wanted in on the deal too, so I gave him my other back to carry.
At this point, Amanda realized she took on more than she bargained for, and started asking me to ask them how far we had to go like this. So I asked, and the man replied it was only half a kilometer or so.
I don't think I've mentioned it before, but the people of Central America are not the best people in the world to ask for directions. You can ask five different people what direction Central Park is, and all five of them will point in different directions and tell you different distances to the park. You'd think at least ONE of them would be right, but that would not be the case. I don't think it's so much that they intentionally want to send you astray, but they're SOOO helpful, they don't want to admit when they simply don't know!
So when the man tells me the hike is only half a kilometer or so, I have my doubts. Serious ones. As we continue winding through cornfields, over irrigation ditches, through barbwire fences at a neck-breaking pace. This is how I always imagined refugees must feel while trying to elude the authorities, carrying all their worldly possessions on their backs.
Finally, we reach a dirt road with a few houses along the way. A bunch of children come out to watch this mass progression of refugees and two gringos wondering through the jungles of Guatemala. I didn't understand what they were asking or saying to the locals, but there were many "Dios mio!"s and "Ay, caramba!"s being said, which didn't sound good for us. Amanda and I started thinking my initial impression about not paying the driver until we made it ALL the way to Flores was probably a good one, but it wasn't until we finally hiked to the main road and there was no other second car waiting for us when we knew without a doubt we had been had.
While sitting on the side of the road, we could hear the chants of the strikers further down the road—although too distant to hear clearly what the contents of the chants were. It didn't sound friendly, though. Another man started joking, "Half a kilometer! Hahahaha!!!!" We thought that was pretty funny too, since Amanda and I figured the hike was more like FIVE kilometers, not a half.
We met another group of folks who had made the jungle trek around the strikers, and a while later a pickup truck was bounding down the road in our direction we managed to flag down. So 18 of us piled up in the back, along with three live chickens and now a live duck that arrived with the other group of refugees.
The truck wasn't going very far, though, and about 15 minutes later we found ourselves once again on the side of the road, trying to flag down another ride the 60-70 or so kilometers left to Flores.
And once again, another pickup truck stops. We all loaded up—only 14 of us now—since others had stopped along the way at their residences (presumably)—with the three live chickens and one live duck. I caught a couple of jokes consisting of words such as "gringos" and "los Estatos Unidos" that everyone but Amanda and I thought was pretty funny, although we didn't quite understand the contents of the jokes themselves.
But they were a very nice, friendly group of people, which helped us out enormously in hitching rides and getting us through the jungle. The duck made one suicide attempt getting out of its bag and making a run for the edge of the truck before its plan was foiled and stuffed back in its sack. The truck made very loud, very strange noises from somewhere under us. The tailgate looked like it was about to fall off, and was actually tied to the truck with rope. I made a special point not to lean on it. The windshield was cracked so badly its amazing the driver could see the road at all. And for the next hour, we watched the fireflies light up the sides of the road—a sight I'd never really been able to see in all its glory while in the cities of Central America.
And, about an hour later, at long last, we arrived in Flores. Actually, Santa Elena to be exact. Flores is a small town on an island which is located in a large lake, and Santa Elena is a much larger town on the "mainland".
We paid the driver—he was asking for 10 quetzals for the both of us and the smallest we had was a 20—so I gave him the 20 and told him to keep the change. As far as I was concerned, I'd have paid a hundred times that amount for that ride to Flores!
Then we flagged down a taxi and made our way to Flores a few minutes later. We found ourselves a fairly decent hotel there, and immediately made ourselves at home. Amanda took her shower, then I took mine and finally ditched my reeking clothes.
I joked to Amanda that some people would PAY to have such an experience as we went through, and she pointed out that we DID pay for such an experience. And after it was all said and done, we enjoyed talking about every thought process we had during that entire trip until we couldn't stay up anymore due to sheer exhaustion. Amanda admitted that after we arrived at the main road from our hike, she thought we'd have to HIKE the 80 kilometers to Flores and we'd be spending the night in the jungles, and suddenly the thought of spending another night on the bus didn't seem like such a bad idea after all. She chastised me for deciding to take the bus because it was cheaper instead of flying from Guatemala City to Flores. In my defense, I told her she COULD have done that and I'd meet her in Flores instead of Antigua. In her defense, I also pointed out that a bus ride would likely be infinitely more interesting than a plane ride. I never imagined it would have turned out THAT interesting, though!
All that was yesterday. This morning, we woke up in rather good spirits, and learned the strike was still continuing and there are many people stranded in Flores unable to get out. Amanda and I like to tell them it could be worse—they could have been stranded in the butthole of Guatemala. Flores is a beautiful little town completely surrounded by water, and we would be quite happy to wait out the rest of the strike right here. We also discovered that the airport had been closed by the strike as well. Air travel to Guatemala City was NOT an option after all!
While typing this e-mail, a man walked into the Internet shop asking if any Americans were here, so naturally I said, "Yep, I'm one!" As it turns out, he was from an American embassy somewhere looking to help get Americans out of Flores. He said we were "essentially hostages", but the American embassy had a few planes at the airport they could use to fly people out. Having just GOTTEN to Flores, after such enormous effort, I turned him down. But if the strike doesn't lift within a few days, I might have to look him up.
Today Amanda and I decided to rest and take it easy, and we've had a great day which I'll tell about in my next mass mailing. If all goes well, we'll visit Tikal tomorrow, and after that—well, I guess that all depends on what's happening with the strike! If you hear about Americans being "evacuated" from Flores on the evening news, though, you'll know what THAT'S all about. =)
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