As I write this post, I am sitting on my second-floor balcony of Pal’s Guesthouse in Dangriga, Belize. Gazing out, my eyes are met by the tops of the palm trees on the beach below against a black and starry sky. The waves are crashing up against the shore in a soothing and regular rhythm. I am wearing shorts. Thank you, Continental, for the air mile reward points that got me here, and thank you, Francis, for taking care of our two little furry monsters while I’m away.
Back to Jan. 30th. I had a plan to leave Flores sometime around 9 or 10 a.m. on public transportation (usually a repurposed Blue Bird school bus from the U.S.) bound for Tikal. May, the English-Swede backpacker who I’d met the day before, had bought a return-trip ticket on one of the tourist minibuses for 9 am, so we headed toward her bus stop in the morning to grab a bite to eat. We dined on some fine sandwiches of stale white bread, processed cheese slices, and sulfate-rich ham. The little white cat at my feet looked like she needed the food more than I did, so I shared the last bits with her. My Nescafé curdled from the powdered milk, but I choked it down anyway, worried that if I didn’t, I’d end up with a pounding caffeine headache. It seems like this is yet another developing country that exports all of its good coffee and lives on instant crap back home.
May buzzed off to catch her bus, and I went back to my room to grab my bags and check out. When I paused at Los Amigos to catch a moment of wi-fi, I saw her sitting in the lounge. Although she’d been sold a ticket for a 9 a.m. bus, there was none. A bus left at 10 a.m. I sympathized with her predicament, and then grabbed a tuk tuk to the Santa Elena bus terminal. I was immediately told that there were no public buses running on Sunday, and that it would cost me 50 quetzales for a ticket on the tourist minibus (the same price that it would have cost me if I’d left from Flores). Hmph. May and I both got screwed. At least it was just a little bit screwed.
I was excited to arrive at the Mayan ruins of Tikal. I’d made the decision to book a room at one of the three hotels in the park – the Jaguar Inn – so that I could be up there for a sunset and a sunrise. Late afternoon and early morning are the times of the day when the birds and monkeys are most active, and I’d heard that the howler monkeys were completely outrageous. I also booked a sunrise tour. Since I knew nothing about this mysterious Mayan civilization, and spoke no Spanish, I felt that the investment in an English-speaking guide would do a great deal to enhance my experience.
To get a ticket that was good for two days, the rule is that you have to enter the park after 3 pm, so that’s what I did. It still gave me three hours to make my way to some of the ruins that I knew the tour wasn’t going to cover. Admission was 150 quetzales, or about 20 U.S. dollars. One of the guards tried to explain something to me about paying 100 on the first day, and then 50 to him for the second day, and I wondered how his little bit of bribery was going to get me past the next ticket control booth up the road, but I didn’t have to think about it for too long because when I told him that I’d already booked a tour, he shrugged and backed away.
The first thing that I saw when I entered the park was a warning sign. Howler and spider monkeys like to make their presence (and territory) known by defecating on your head, so, hey, watch out! The next thing that I saw was a herd (herd? school? cartel?) of pizotes – small-ish animals (from the raccoon family) with long noses and cat’s tails. Completely unbothered by the people around them, they were walking back and forth across the path, using their noses to dig for grubs. The third thing that I saw was May. With all of the hugeness of Tikal, there she was! She was on her way out, having come up just for the day.
I got to the three-way fork in the road, and when the tour group behind me went to the right, I went to the left. Thus, my first 30 minutes in Tikal were alone and uninterrupted. It was magical. Walking down the path with the jungle canopy over my head, I became alert to different sights and sounds. I saw birds on the ground, and monkeys overhead (not defecating, luckily). I stopped at a couple of sites in the west side of the park, and then walked into the central plaza. It is indeed a take-your-breath-away kind of place. The temples and pyramids rise up out of the jungle, reclaiming their place after many years of being covered by grass, moss and trees. Many of them were built in the 8th century B.C., and stand 35 to 47 meters tall. Standing in the plaza, you can close your eyes (or not) and completely imagine how it would have been a bustling and busy place, especially since at the height of the settlement at Tikal, the population was close to 100,000 people.
Equally fascinating (to me, anyway) were the birds in a tree in the center of the courtyard. Black with yellow tails, they flew from branch to branch, bumping into the huge seed pods that hung on the tree. Their landings were fluttery and noisy, and the seeds inside the pods would rattle. Everything would settle down, and then they’d fly to another branch. They weren’t that big, but when they flew over my head, I could hear the friction sound of the air against their wings – I can’t even make the right combination of letters to imitate what it sounded like. And then there was their call. Long, multi-tonal, and with little twists and turns, kind of like when Freddie Mercury sings Bohemian Rhapsody. I never realized how fascinated I am by birds until this trip, maybe because there are so many varieties, and they’re just really cooooool.
A couple more stops at a couple more places, and then I had to beat it out of the park. I didn’t want to be in there alone when the sun went down, and bad camper that I am, I had left my headlamp in my room. Gates officially close at 6 pm, and I came out at about ten minutes before, so felt like I’d done pretty well for a first go on my own. And tomorrow (Jan.31), the sunrise tour, at 4:30! As Francis said to me when I told him about this, “who are you, and what have you done with my wife?!”