Wednesday, September 3, 2003

Finca Ixobel - Part II

We join our muddy, sweaty cavers just as they enter the cave and the water …
That’s when we lose the Dutch girl. She is not a very good swimmer. She turns the corner into total darkness, meets the strong current and decides that this is more than she is prepared to do. She turns around to wait two hours at the mouth of the cave for us to return. Her boyfriend is continuing on. I don’t know his name, but I think of him as Dutch.
We scramble, chest deep in the rushing water, clinging to the left wall of the cave. Fifteen minutes pass and we reach water too deep to walk in. It’s time to swim. This is a welcome break. The hike to the cave has been strenuous and it’s a struggle to stay balanced in the heavy flow of the water. It’s an easy swim with the current. It’s more that enough to propel me forward. I kick and paddle only enough to keep myself away from the porous, jagged, muddy walls of the cave. Most people are struggling with the 3″ flashlights that they bought at the Finca for 18 Quetzals ($2.00 USD). Some are clasping them in their teeth; others are swimming with one hand and holding the flashlight above the black water with the other. Geoff and I have our headlamps. When we put them on at the opening of the cave we were given funny looks by our twenty something companions, but I’m sure they are looking like a great idea to them now. The guide places candles in opportune crevasses in the walls so that any stragglers can find their way. But the light from the candles, just like the light from our flashlights, is consumed by the encompassing darkness. The cave is about 50 ft wide and so high that the beam from our flashlights barely reaches to roof. We swim about 50ft.
There are three rounds of swimming followed by walking waist deep in the cool current. We swim to a dead end. The darkness of the cave makes it hard to tell how fast or how far I’m traveling. It’s very disorienting and I’m losing all sense of time. I’m treading water, then the guides’ points out an opening about 8″ high and 12″ wide - too small to cross without going under water. This must be the one mentioned during our intro. I look up, there are bats hanging upside-down on the ceiling. There are no verbal instructions. I tread water and watch the guide and a few other people go before me. The drill: grab the piece of rope put there for crossing, duck under the water to the other side. My turn comes and I’m not feeling so sure about this. I’m a little winded from swimming and treading water, and it’s so damned dark. I can see some light from the flashlights on the other side coming through the small opening, but I can’t hear anything over the echoing sounds of the rushing water. I take a few seconds to think about this. I can see that I’ll only have to swim for about 3ft, but I’m going to get jostled around - need to be careful to not get scraped up by the rock walls on either side… need to be careful not to come up too soon or I’ll crack my head open on the rocks. I’ve wasted enough time and other people are waiting. I gasp in a winded breath and duck under. I have a white knuckle grip on the rope, nothing is going to make me let go of this thing. I kick with my legs to move forward and us my free hand to keep a safe distance from the rocks all around me. The water rushes even more strongly in the narrow passage and it comes at me from all directions. Even though it’s only a few feet I’d be disoriented without the rope. I rush to pop my head out of the water as soon as I feel with my hand that it’s safe. My heart is racing. I’m gasping for air. It’s only a few feet, but it felt like ten. No time to rest. Geoff crossed before me and we need to catch up to the main group and the guide.
We all swim to the other side and climb unto a flat area. So far we haven’t come out of the water but for this five foot stretch. Back into the water to shimmy waist deep along the wall. The river is turning into rapids. I don’t look around at anything but the wall passing by under the light of my headlamp. I’m not wasting my concentration on anything else. I plan each step carefully along the cave wall: feel around in the dark water for solid footing, find two good hand holds in the crevasses of the rocks (sometimes under water, sometimes above), release my standing leg and balance myself while pulling forward. I’m careful because if I loose my grip I’ll be swept down river into the pitch ahead. I guess I could grab at a wall if I fall, but that would mean serious injury. I can tell by the pattern of the water that their are frequent shallow spots. The rock so jagged and porous that it reminds me of a coral reef. It would cut me up. And grasping at the wall while I was getting swept away wouldn’t be easy. Don’t slip either - there are pointy rocks that could easily impale a knee or calf. “Don’t think about it” I tell myself a few times. “It’s only going to freak you our and you won’t pay attention to what you’re doing”.
The guide stops frequently to let us regroup when we are too spread out. I only lose him completely from sight when we reach a 40ft wide wall that I have to shimmy across above the water. I didn’t see it coming because I am so intent on my current position. Geoff’s in front of me at this point. We climb out of the water and move slowly across the wall on 1″ foot-holds and hand-hold. I realize that I am rock climbing for the first time in my life and there are no ropes, no carabiners, and there are now white water rapids raging below me. That’s why we are climbing the wall. The rapids have turned ugly and it would be impossible to swim or walk along the wall in them. That is where we almost lose Dutch and Mike the 24 year old Canadian we had gone out drinking with the night before. Dutch is a timid guy of small stature that has been struggling to keep has glasses on through all of this. There are so many water drops on his glasses that I wonder if he wouldn’t be better off without them. He gets about five feet and mutters in German, then he shouts over the sound of the rapids that he’s had enough. He will wait here for us to come back. Geoff and I cling to the wall and look at each other. Struggling to be heard above the noise of the rapids, Mike yells “This is a lot more than I expected. I’ll wait here with him”. Geoff shouts at me “What do you think?” I yell back “I don’t know” …

Monday, September 1, 2003

Finca Ixobel Part I

Geoff and I hung out at a Finca (that’s what they call a farm here) for a few days and quite accidentally had a good time putting ourselves in harm’s way. I wrote about it in my journal, and it ended up being quite long, so I’m going to take Geoff’s advice and send it out in a few installments - breaking at the worst possible cliff hangers. Moms, Dads: we swear we didn’t know it would be dangerous…
On August 27th we planned to spend the day on one of Finca Ixobel’s nine guided activities. We stared at the wall of sign-up sheets. Our choices were various trips horse back ridding, trekking the jungle, inner tubing or spelunking through some caves. Quite mundanely we decided to go caving. We had heard from some other guest here, who had heard from some people that he had met on his travels that it was worth while. The journey was supposed to end with the opportunity to jump 15ft into an underground river. Fun, interesting, let’s do it.
The day started out as advertised. Fifteen of us gathered by the Finca’s dinning room armed with drinking water, a flashlight, and lunch, just as the sign-up sheet had advised. Three hours of torrential tropical rain had fallen in sheets the day before causing a main river to overflow and create a secondary stream through the Finca. Every inch of soil was water logged. My feet were prunes from being wet for the last day and the humidity made it impossible to dry out. Geoff and I both opted for our hiking sandals so that we didn’t positively ruin our good hiking shoes. We had been told that the rocks in the cave were sharp so we wore socks for a little added protection.
Before we set out, an English speaking German gave us an overview: We will be following our Spanish speaking guide for a two hour hike to the caves. We will spend two hours hiking in the caves followed by a two hour hike back. There are a couple of places in the cave where we will need to swim 15 ft. or so. There will be a spot to jump into an underground river, but that’s optional. You can climb down a rope if you don’t want to jump. The guide added - with help from the English speaking German - that the rains may have caused the waters to rise so a short duck into the water through an opening in the cave wall might be necessary.
Introductory speech given, injury waiver signed, our disorderly group heads out. Some of us are as old as early fifties and some as young as early twenties. We are Canadian, American, Italian, Dutch and Israeli. What we have in common is a varying command of the English language and our names on the spelunking sign-up sheet.
We start out following a wide grassy path into the jungle that’s marred by deep muddy tire tracks. The sun is bright and the air is humid. We all instinctively hop around the puddles of dirty water and mud, sometimes even using logs as balance beams to make a crossing. One person falls into a puddle here. One person slips in the mud there. Someone fell off a log. An hour into our hike the last of us realized that it was hopeless. We were going to get wet and dirty: very wet and very dirty. After this we all slopped through the mud forgetting all attempts to avoid the dirt. My calves and knees are covered in a brown gritty spray and my feet … my feet are the worst. The sole of each one of my sandals in clinging to 1/4lbs of mud and my socks are soaked through with dirt. There are clumps of mud in my sandals that I try to wash out quickly when I go through a deep enough puddle.
We are a sorry sight against how beautiful the scenery is around us. We are surrounded by lush greenery. Three inch butterflies keep floating by with wings that impersonate the eyes of an owl. Other smaller ones are a mixture of bright yellow, vivid orange and deep red. On several occasions the guide plucks fruits or berries from the jungle and passes them out for tasting.
Two hours later we reach the base of a hill. We are moving slowly, and we are behind schedule. The hill is steep. The downpour from the day before had turned the earth on the trail to a grease and lard. This is going to be tricky. We slip and slid our way up the hill grabbing at rocks and branches to pull ourselves up what would have normally been a 15 minute climb. It took half-an-hour.
Now we need to make our way down the other side which the guide promise will be the entrance to the cave. Going up was tricky. Going down is going to be downright dangerous. I watched each person develop their own technique. Some people stood upright fumbling and grasping for branches when they slipped. Others crouched down with their feet in front of them and their hands on the ground behind them looking like a monstrous debilitated spider. The other Canadian in the group, Mike, decides that to fight gravity is pointless. He crouches down putting all hit weight on one foot and sticks the other out in front of him. Then he launches himself down the hill controlling the direction and speed of his slid with his hands. Geoff and I opt for the slip-fumble-grab-for-a-branch technique. This works out well the time that I slip and catch some bamboo right before I fall off the trail.
Regardless of the technique, we make it to the cave: hot, soaked in sweat and covered from heat to feet in mud - except of course for the guide. His black rain boots, white T-shirt and jeans are spotless, and he hasn’t shed a bead of sweat. The trip has takes 2 1/2 hours.
After a short break at the mouth of the cave for lunch I turn on my flashlight and plunge into the three feet of refreshing running water flowing into the cave. The strength of the current catches my off guard and I’m almost knocked off my feet so I grab for the stalagmites and jagged cracks in rock wall. I move forward chest deep in the water. It takes about 50ft before we turn a corner and loose completely any light coming from the opening of the cave. That’s when we loose the Dutch girl…
Please tune in next season for the conclusion… :-P

Sunday, August 31, 2003

Mayans, Jaquars and drugs

Days later we had another great guide. This one was a storyteller but in a different way. I believed his stories. We had traveled on to Honduras to see the Mayan ruins of Copan. In its day it was one of the largest powers based in the Mayan world. Unlike its larger neighbor Tikal to the north, the stone use at the sight had hardened over time and much of the intricate carving on the temples and Stella’s was still sharp and visible. I had lobbied Cindy for a more comfortable bus for our 5 hour ride from Antigua. Riding in the Chicken buses was cramped and I did not relish the thought of that much time sardined into a school bus with my knees jammed into the seat in from of me.
The bus ride was uneventful and it dropped us off in the quiet little town of Copan Ruinas. It was a tranquil little place about a kilometers walk from the ruins themselves. Along the way we met up with two women travelers, Yael from Israel, and Jenny a surfer girl from California. Needless to say, Cindy impressed them with her ability to slug back a fair amount of vodka at the local 2 for 1 happy hour.
The next day we all headed to the ruins together and decided to split the price of a guide. Instead of just taking the first guide to approach us, Cindy and Yael lucked into a great guide. For the life of me I can’t remember his name so I will call him ‘smoke Jaguar’, Smoke for short, after his favorite Copan ruler. After we bought our tickets, Smoke greeted us and told us in perfect English that hew was feeling ‘very good today’ and was excited about taking us on the tour. Yael had explained to him that we wanted more than the usual tour. We wanted stories about the place.
Smoke was a thin man of average Guatemalan height, which is short. He was smartly dress in slacks, nice shoes and a blue lined shirt. He had bright smiling eyes and a face that looked much younger than his 47 years. He was married and had two young sons under the age of 10. His wife was from Copan Ruinas and it was because of her that he had settled there about 13 years ago. He was well traveled in Central America and very intelligent.
As we walked to the ruins, Smoke told us his story. He had run away from home at the age of 14. He wanted to go to music school but his father would not let him. He somehow managed to pay for the school without the help of his family. He later worked in a traveling rock and roll band and learned to speak English from playing English pop songs. In the 80s he ended up playing music for the United States troops sent down to fight the contras in panama. He would travel with them and entertain them.
Later in life he met his wife and decided to settle down in her town. The ruins were just being excavated and a friend in town encouraged him to try his hand at being a tour guide because he spoke English. He was given books about the Maya to study and set out on his new career. The site was being excavated by a group from an American university and he got to know the workers as well as the site director very well. Smoke soon became a fixture at the ruins and became privy to many of the discoveries and discussions about what the new items that they found where, and the meanings of them in the Mayan world. All the while he took notes in hopes of enhancing his tours. At night he would play music for the archeologists.
Smoke told us that we would be wandering through the ruins and that we would be using our imagination to get an idea of what went on in ancient times. We learned about the ancient rulers and their rise to power of the common people. We learned how the center court might have been flooded during the rainy season to create an artificial lake that was then used to supply water via aqueducts to the nobles. The temples had been brightly painted with rich colors made from plants, flowers and insects. The color red was used every where but it was made with Mercury and the theory goes that the people of Copan did not live a long or healthy life because of their constant exposure to this element. There was so much more information than I could begin to relate here. It was fantastic!
Smoke did tell us of his one experience with a drug used by the Mayan toward the end of their rule. They had found it easier to control the common people and make them believe that they had divine powers if they were under the influence during sacrifices and rituals.
Appropriately Smoke and a friend were hoping to get high by smoking some pot. They searched all over town but could not find any. Smokes friend suggested that they try making some tea out of a common flower found growing wild in Guatemala. So they cut some down and mixed up a batch, drank a cup and waited….. and waited….. and waited. 1/2 hour nothing, 1 hour nothing, 2 hours and still they felt nothing. So they had another cup of tea. Again they waited and nothing happened. Smoke decided to call it quits and go home He said goodbye to his friend and started to walk. It was then that it hit him and took him for the ride of his life. 3 days later he was still having hallucinations. In one of his clearer moments he finally went to a doctor fearing that the trip would never end. The doctor told him that he had overdosed on the tea and that he was lucky to be alive. Smoke was given some medicine and mercifully the trip ended. Smoke liked us and I don’t think that the story was part of his normal tour.

One month in

One month later
Cindy and I can’t believe that we have been out for a month. It has gone by so fast and so slow at the same time. We both feel like we are just getting into the groove of traveling and are really enjoying it so far. Guatemala has been a pleasant surprise and there is so much to do here. Its super cheap and very easy to get around. Any one who is looking for a great vacation idea south of the border should look into it. Tomorrow we head to Ecuador. We have no special plans for the next 4 months other than a plane flight out of Argentina on the 2nd of January.
8/30 Back in Antigua
Our lives have been so busy that it has been a week since I last sat down to write. And what a week it has been. Chicken bus rides to Chichicastenango, Back to Antigua for a day, a nice bus to Honduras to see the ruins of Copan and then north to Flores to see the ruins of Tikal. Along the way was a great stop at Finca Ixobel, a working farm with offerings of river tubing, horseback riding (damn I hate those things), and caving adventures. More about that one later.
While we were at Lake Atitlalan, we ventured across the lake to the town of San Pedro. It was the hippie town before San Marco, but has since grown into a lightly annoying tourist town. While we were there, we decided to take a waling tour to a coffee plantation. Yes we are that starved for excitement. Our guide was named Juan. He was a small slightly build man in his early 30’s. His English was good and self taught. He claimed to have started one of the first Spanish language schools in the town and was in the lonely planet guide. I did not look him up. I gathered that San Pedro was a much smaller town only 3 years ago and all the hotels and eateries that saturated its waterfront were fairly new. Juan said that he did not teach much any more and led me to believe that the tourist office that we had booked through was his. I was called Bigfoot and he liked that we were from Bigfoot country. For some reason, I did not believe him but did not press him about his story.
As we walked, he told us a little about his life. He had always lived in the town and was cursed to have been born on an important Maya holiday. The curse for this date was not revealed until he was a young man of about 10 years of age. One day he had been walking by the water and felt an irresistible urge to enter the lake. He waded into the water and felt some sort of power or energy enters his body. Later walking home, he said that he did not feel right and felt some sort of pressure on his body. He went to his room but was unable to sleep. He felt so ill that in the middle of the night he got up to wake his mother believing that he was going to die. He pounded endlessly on the door to her room could not wake her. Juan told us that she was a light sleeper and that this had never happened before. Something strange was definitely going on. When she finally got up he told her how he felt but she would not believe him and sent him to his bed. She then fell into a deep slumber and had a vision of 3 Mayan priests who were now inhabiting the body of Juan. She was told that they would leave and that he would return to normal in a few days. She also was told that they would return at some point and that Juan might not survive a reoccurrence of this event. Juan never elaborated on this point. His mother woke and immediately rushed to his room to explain her vision and that she now believed that something was indeed wrong with him. His body was now inhabited with the spirits of the dead. She “of course” was a shaman and knew how to help him by giving him herbs and other medicines to cure him. Unfortunately the visitations have happened at least 3 other times in his life and sometimes could last up to a week long. During those times he would go into a deep depression and speak in tongues, and could feel the weight of the spirits pressing down on his body.
Juan was full of stories. He was sure that the ancient Mayans had been visited by extra-terrestrials, because they knew so much about astronomy. He explained to me that a man did not have cancer until a doctor told him that he did. It was only in the act of believing what a doctor said that a person actually got sick. But his best story was about the border dispute between his town and the neighboring town. Many years ago they had a disagreement about which town owned the volcano that sat between them. Both sides claimed that it was within their borders. An official from the government was called in to settle the dispute. The clever elders from San Pedro asked the official if the argument could be settled by looking for ancient property lines set out by the Mayans living there at the time. The Official agreed that if such evidence could be found, he would abide by it. Unknown to him, the San Pedro town elders had gone to the graveyard and removed the oldest tombstones that they could find. These were judged to be at least 300 years old. They then buried the stones in a line at various points on the other side of the volcano and covered them with dirt and leaves. The day of the search, they waited for hours before ‘stumbling’ upon them. The dispute was settled. Of course Juan was 1 of only about 3 people who knew the real story and no one from the other town has ever been the wiser.