As I left Belize, I found myself wondering if perhaps I had lost the travel fever, and was ready to give up the quest. This feeling faded the instant I entered Guatemala. It is difficult to describe why exactly. The road was shot, the people were extremely impoverished, and the horses tied to the side of the road were in the worst shape I have seen to date. There is something about the overwhelming realness of it though, and the beauty of the terrain, made me feel like I was home. The border crossing was also uneventful, normally-confusing, and involved several encounters with the same friendly people at the same three desks a few times.
For anyone who is curious, on the routine... in general, when you cross a border, you need to go to immigration, to check out your person and get your passport stamped, then you need to go to Adduanas, to check out your vehicle, Then you cross no mans land, and visit the same two places in the next country to check in...Mexico and Guatemala involve the Banjercito, which is basically a deposit for your vehicle guarenteeing its removal from the country...You may or may not get this deposit back...yes in Mexico, no in Guatemala, Honduras.
My first stop was Tikal, about 2 or 3 hours from the Belize border. The ruins are a great travel stop because they are safe, usually have cheap camping, and are generally pretty impressive.
While waiting at the entrance, I met two German travellers who were headed North. We started a conversation about overland expedition rigs and found common ground on the Toyota. One of the German's (Chris) was planning to finish his tour of the America's and then drive a Toyota Hilux which he purchased in Ireland, from Germany to the bottom of Africa. He was extremely German, and was looking for validation in his vehicle choice. I told him that I was having trouble envisioning my trip in any other vehicle, but that I wish I had done something about the shocks and tires before I left...also I wished I had a big front bumper...
He told me that he had these things and more, and seemed even more pleased at the fruits of his planning. He was very surprised when I told him that the camping table I had, was of very little use to me...Even his friend remarked, "Chis! he says the table is a waste of space!"
at any rate he may have a slight re-calculation to make on his provisions...
For the rest of our time together we privately and sometimes (in Chris's case) publicly disapproved of other peoples expedition vehicle choices. There seem to be three basic categories of expedition vehicles...
1) The hippie crap-can. This should be bought from a local or better yet, found. It should do nothing but break down in silly ways (battery fell out on freeway) and it should require the constant attention of local mechanics and good samaritans, because, being a hippie, you are not the least bit mechanically inclined. It is also recommended that you be under the constant influence of drugs, so that the lack of a functioning "anything" does not bother you. Operators of this expedition vehicle should also not be able to speak Spanish.
2) The European Uber-expedition vehicle. This vehicle should weigh between normal and 30,000 lbs (unimog) and not have a replacement part available within 20,000 km. It should not be able to cross some bridges, crest some hills, and board some ferries, due to weight or dimension, or combination of both. It should also stand out like a Motherf***er.
3) Japanese truck. No known issues. More space would be nice, but this would come at the risk of the accumulation of useless crap.
The German's and I were of the same mind on many respects, we all had a healthy dislike of tourist attractions as well as non-adventurers. We compared notes on faulty travel advice, and places that were actually worth visiting, as opposed to recommended by travel guides for a******s.
I probed them for information on Honduras, which generally has a pretty bad reputation on the travelers grapevine. "Wonderful!" they told me.
"What about San Pedro Sula (murder capital of the world)" I asked
"You'll love it!, We spent the night there, no problem at all."
They were also big fans of the East coast of Nicaragua, which is pretty much uninhabited I am told.
I told them about visiting Tolumne and being so aggravated by the tourists that I didnt even go into the ruins, and left town instead.
"You went to Tolumne and didn't go to the ruins!?" Chris said incredulously..."Dis is pretty good, no?"
He was impressed, and the the mutual respect flourished.
There is certainly not any one absolute governing description of a culture, but I do believe that over time and through the infinitude of differing circumstances, national characters have more or less developed, and if nothing else are generally humorous and interesting to encounter. These germans had a crafty, calculating intensity which I found to be similar to that of the Israelis, although they were more good natured in general, and markedly less suspicious.
I am very impressed with the largest structures within the ruins and enjoy wandering about in the footsteps of the Mayans, but I am also slightly ashamed to admit that I am tired of small piles of neatly stacked rocks. I was told by a czeck astronomer that the appropriate amount of time for Tikal was 2-3 days. "If you really want to see all of it"... While Tikal is impressively large in both footprint and structural altitude, I woke up at 530 AM hiked briskly to Temple #4 (61 m high and the largest in all of C.A) for the sunrise, then saw the rest of the structures by 10 AM. I paused briefly at about 800 AM in a prohibited area on top of one of the temples filming monkeys leaping in the trees (email me if you would like me to send you the video). I met the Germans on my way out and impressed them again with my pace, (I was ahead of them by about an an hour or two i think...they would know for sure). Early morning was definitely the preferred touring time as I had to wade through busloads of tourists during my exit. Welcome to Maya-land.
After Tikal I headed south to Finca (farm) Ixobell which is just South of Poptun on the recommendation of Claus, my old German friend from Palenque. This was supposed to be a well worn travelers destination near the border of the Peten, however the whole area looked pretty rundown and a little dicey, so I was really fairly relieved to arrive at Ixobell and find it to be well cared for, secure and full of other travellers. It actually was sort of oddly nice for the area...but more on that later. In the evening I drank a beer and listened to a VERY logical discussion of how it could be possible for Adam and Eve to have been real, to have borne the entire human race, and how most diseases and cancers and such are the result of the mixings of impure genes...
Better to screw your relatives I guess.
Then I went to bed.
In the morning I joined some Americans at a long table for breakfast. They were a group of pretty straight looking, very fit, crew cutted individuals. One of them was probably in his late 40s and the others were mid 20s with tribal fire tattoos on their arms. I asked them which way they were heading and they said to the North, and that they came from the the city (Guatemala City I assume) The older guy was interested in conversation, but the others were pretty standoffish. I talked to the old guy about the area, and the ruins, and then we drifted into some light conversation about the cartels in Mexico and the drug corridors. Then he told me in a pretty serious tone, to stay away from the cowboy looking Guatemalan guys. He then clarified, "Big shiny belt buckles, cowboy boots with long upturned toes, big non-dirty cowboy hat, or baseball cap. Probably open-carrying a weapon."
He went on, " It is illegal to carry a firearm in Guatemala, It costs some SERIOUS money to do it. I was about to thank him for the advice (which I took to be very good advice) when we were interrupted by a pretty obnoxious Canadian.
"So what are you guys doing down here?" He jumped in.
The old guy said they were here to learn Spanish for work back in the States, but that he'd been here for a month and it just wasn't going to "take" with him. He said the young guys were getting it pretty good though...
Note: no one in the group really spoke Spanish. Instead of getting some of their remaining food put in a box, the waitress brought out 3 more full plates of food..."para llevar".
"Oh yeah?" Said the Canadian... "what are you guys? doing some undercover work or something?" He said...with a sort of wink-wink, nod-nod candor.
"Ha, no just on a little working vacation" said the old guy.
"Where you guys from?" asked the Canadian
"Up North" they replied.
It continued this way for a small bit longer, with the Canadian badgering them, the old guy being sort of non-descript, and the young guys looking sort of sullenly pissed that they couldn't just break this guy into two...and then when the three new boxes of food arrived, they hastily excused themselves, wished me a sincere "safe travels" and took off.
I spoke with the Canadian for a while afterwards...mainly listened to him rant about world politics and this and that...he was reading a book by Donald Trump and Robert Kyosaki about how to get rich...He did not appreciate my comment "that those guys made most of their money by selling books about making money" and said that he was living proof of the opposite, because he recently bought apartments in Canada and was renting them out while the boat he bought was being repaired in Rio Dulce Guat. No word on is debt to earnings ratio...
He also told me he had tried to join the "religious" conversation from the night before in order to help them with their logic, but that the Christians had told him to "f*** off."
It was pointed out to me later that the Ixobell was very nearly out of business a few years earlier and was very rundown, but suddenly had a sort of miraculous recovery and began to flourish again. The insinuation was that the US government was using it as an undercover safe house for anti narco operations in the Peten and surrounding area.
After my time there, this seems to be fairly plausible suspicion.
If interested in the politics of Central America, you can find it all at Finca Ixobell, the crossroads of narco cowboys, US special forces, religious nutbars, and Canadians.
I made my way down to Rio Dulce and located what appeared to be an upstanding establishment called Bruno's. The waitress at the bar said I could camp on the lawn for 25 Q per night...which is about 3$, and I agreed. I say "appeared" to be upstanding, because business wise the place didnt really make much sense... The waitresses seemed to have genuine disdain for all of the customers, nobody really seemed to care about anything, and the bar manager was sort of running everything for the hotel, bar and restaurant. I would later find out that the owners had recently gone through a divorce, the man (presumably Bruno) had gone to some other part of town with half of the staff (loyal to him) The woman remained, and presumably got control of the whole operation, but with half staff, minus some vital operational components, and a bad drinking problem...kind of like the place had just recently had its right hand chopped off, and it was still trying to get the hang of wiping.
Rio Dulce is a beautiful place, it is surrounded by water and is probably the most popular port on the entire caribbean for Boaters because it is one of the safest marinas on the entire East coast of the Americas for weathering the Hurricane season. This also makes it one of the densest populations of drunks and philanderers I have ever seen. For some reason people who like to sail also seem to like to be in a tottering torment of delirium on land as well.
From Florida originally, claims to always fall off the portside of his boat. Always seen in full pirate regalia. Sells his own "Portside Tom" t-shirts at Bruno's bar. Actually, I was told he USED to always wear pirate garb, until he got into an altercation in the bar with some local ruffians and they threw his sword into the pool, narrowly missing some kids who were playing...when I saw him he was sans saber.
Walter: The missing Dr Gonzo from Fear and loathing in Los Vegas. a German diesel mechanic, fluent in Spanish, never undrunk, and not really a good person. He literally arrived in port after a five day trip from cuba, staggered past a sunbather on his way to the bar and said " Jeez Christ, you're one sexy ass b****....You can sit on my face all night!" (That was the last we saw of her) He kind of nudged me and then tried to bet me that he could pull it off... I agreed that he probably could and then distanced myself. Later on that night he was overheard loudly promising to kill one of the local girls for sleeping with one of the other boaters, becoming pregnant, and then sending him outrageous text messages. He could not produce the texts however, and she did not appear to be pregnant, she did however appear to be about 45 yrs old, and according to some random other boater would make a pretty good native if you stuck a bone in her nose...Walter was unamused by this comment, and claimed that he killed a man in Belize and then had to pay 4000$ to get a self defense release...
Alfonse: An ex navy helicopter pilot who did four tours in Viet Nam, and then went on to train helicopter pilots around the world for private companies. His last name was Thienes, which I found out through his best friend Willy is pronounced like penis...which is the only reason Willy can remember it. Alfonse also prefers to be called by his nickname...which is Tip...They did not find the same humor in this that I did. Tip was in his late sixties recently had a hip replacement, and had sailed across the Atlantic several times once, with Walter. He was also headed to Utilla Honduras to re-up his Guatemala visa.
I would not normally spend too much time in this type of environment, except that on day one Willy (who is probably the only actually decent character in the whole lot) , told me that Tip was looking for crew to sail to Utilla and I agreed to go... All of the seamy details listed above and more sort of materialized over the coming days. At one point a wayward hippie wandered into the sailor bar and started to sniff around asking if anyone knew of some land he could rent, and that he was going to start a farm and teach the locals about agriculture...This until one of the sailors yelled
"Man, why don't you get the f*** out of here and get a job!"
Tip's boat was a Westsail 32. Which most everyone told me was an excellent boat. Tip told me it was the the same boat the Yachters had in the book "The Perfect Storm", and that there was no record of a Westsail ever sinking...Apparently the boat was found afloat...only the puny human crew had been wiped out by the storm. It had some minor issues which we attacked over the next few days... no dingy, radio didn't transmit, roller furler wouldn't unfurl (AKA front sail didn't work)... etc... We actually got all the stuff to work except for the radio, which Tip said we didn't really need because there wasn't going to be anyone out there to help us anyway... I told him I was basically just concerned that if he fell off the back of the boat, I wanted to be able to call someone and ask them how to turn around... but in actuality I was more concerned with the fact that he appeared to be actively attempting to smoke and drink himself into an overdue grave. Absolutely everyone including Willy, told me that Tip was an excellent sailor and knew what he was doing though, and now,in retrospect this was true. But just before hitting open water I was imagining my epitaph, which I would still like to read:
"Died, happily covering the hand grenade of life"
Until next time,