BY MAGGIE BRACKLEY
Maggie Brackley lives in Markham, ON. Copyright is held by the author.
HIS WIFE HAD A BUSY WORK SCHEDULE for the next three weeks, tight deadlines, and meetings in other cities. Feeling his presence to be somewhat irrelevant, Greg decided to take off alone for a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants vacation as he had done in his bachelor days. A few web sites later and he had a cheap flight in and out of Belize.
Three weeks of deep sea diving, caving, climbing Mayan pyramids, bunking down in cheap hotel rooms such as his wife would never have tolerated. Drinking and schmoozing with fellow travelers, eating with the locals in cheap roadside joints, he backpacked through Belize, luxuriating in the sheer freedom and spontaneity of his spur of the moment vacation. Half way through his second week he crossed into Guatemala. He earned bragging rights after braving the hazardous cave trips of Semuc Champey. Swinging by rope across river rapids, scaling cliffs and waterfalls in dark caves, the only light a flaming torch clutched in his hand, he felt invulnerable and ready for more Indiana Jones type adventures.
His chance came when he reached the legendary ruins of the Mayan city of Tikal: several steep pyramids soaring out of the dense tropical rain forest, part of a huge archaeological site littered with remnants of palace complexes, ball courts and stelae, who couldn’t be moved by this lost world of the Maya? As he wandered down jungle paths, from one temple to another, exploring the Grand Plaza, and viewing the stelae, a plan started to form. The “big ticket” experience of Tikal is to get up before dawn, hike through the pitch dark of the jungle to Temple IV, the highest pyramid, climb to the top and perch on a ledge to watch the sun rise, imagining the city that once lived and breathed here. To experience this much-vaunted traveler’s high, this Lonely Planet moment, it’s necessary to stay overnight at one of the park lodges. The park is securely locked at dusk, the guards patrol all the ruins to flush out the last lingerers and only those who have secured a room at one of the on-site lodges are privileged to stay in the park overnight. His budget didn’t run to that expense. He had already checked into a cheap hotel room in the nearest town, an hour’s drive away, and the park didn’t open to non-residents again until well after sunrise the next day.
Using as much charm as he could manage, somewhat hampered by his limited Spanish, he had a word with the supervisor of the guards. Some cash exchanged hands. Guards are not well paid in that part of the world, so not a difficult transaction to pull off. With a blanket purchased from one of the souvenir stands on the site, he was ready for a night with the ghosts of the Maya, as well as the very much alive animal residents of the park. The Tikal brochure boasts the park is home to hundreds of birds, coatis, wild turkeys, snakes, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, alligators, and a little disconcertingly, jaguars. Taxi drivers and park guides insisted they had often sighted the latter running across the jungle paths. Visitors are constantly warned not to mistake the numerous heavy tree roots on the paths for snakes. The deep blood-curling calls of the howler monkeys sound less than welcoming, and to confirm this, the guides warn they will often pee on the heads of anyone at ground level they perceive to be a threat to their territory. Just walking around the vibrant jungle in broad daylight in the presence of other tourists and guides is challenging enough, to willingly stay the night alone, would seem foolhardy, if not raving mad.
As the grey dusk turned to jet-black night, the trees started to light up with fireflies and the eyes of small animals gleamed from the tree branches. On he trudged to Temple IV wondering if this really was the sort of adventure he was seeking. A damp chill began to settle over the screeching, rustling jungle. He climbed up the wooden staircase to the viewing platform and cautiously crept inside the small temple structure at the very top of the pyramid. To his relief there didn’t appear to be any bats in there, or any other living creatures, at least none he could hear or see. He settled down for a long, cold night on a stone slab, frequently waking up, the odd screech piercing the night, possibly some other jungle dweller engulfed in its own nightmare.
To ensure he didn’t miss the Big Moment, he set his watch alarm. Waking up to the alarm in the dark the next morning, aching and cold, he was horrified to hear a light but definite thud on the ledge just outside the enclosure where he was sleeping. A monkey couldn’t make such a heavy sound, of this he was sure, too high and dry for alligators. It had to be, could only be……a jaguar! Remembering all his boy scout training in the woods of North America, when you encounter a bear the thing to do is raise your arms above your head to appear as tall as possible, and shout at the top of your lungs to scare off the bear……hopefully the same technique worked with jaguars. Out he charged, arms waving, on to the viewing platform……aaaaaaaaaarrgh!!!
Hard to know who was more shocked, the elderly English tourists who had climbed up with their guide to view the sunrise, or Greg himself. He probably recovered slightly quicker than they did, certainly quicker than the wife who was shaking and hysterical. If there is a social etiquette for this type of situation, it surely hasn’t been documented. But being a North American, he quickly resorted to that quintessential American traveler’s greeting of “Hi, where are you from?” as if this was a mere casual encounter. The curt, frosty reply “Oxford” didn’t really encourage further conversation and the wife was still hyperventilating. As he settled down next to them, the only other spectators, he gamely ploughed on, trying to make polite, trivial conversation, as they perched on their ledge high above the jungle, awaiting the sunrise.