Monday, March 18, 2013

Yikes! The Guatemala Extension

This post is based on a letter that I wrote in February, 2009, to Barbara, the leader of an expedition to Belize and Guatemala. A group of about 75 people, including me, had just enjoyed a week and a half of snorkeling, swimming, and sight-seeing on the cayes of Belize. That trip was over, and just 11 of us were going on the three-day trip “extension” to Guatemala. The expedition leader was not accompanying us. She asked me to write a report to her afterward and tell her how the extension trip had gone.  Well ...

Rural Guatemalan shop

The extension was, well, quite the experience.  Since writing that sentence I have been sitting here for about five minutes wondering where to begin.  First and very seriously I would say that the tour company needs to be told to never, ever, EVER send a group off on its own again without someone from the company along to keep order and make decisions.  For this particular group, not having an overseer along was a disaster.  I would challenge anyone to look through our ship’s passenger manifest and handpick a less likely eleven-some to travel through Guatemala together.  On the one hand we had the Odd Couple, as they came to be known, who never ceased whining, complaining, asking for extra stops, objecting to plans -- you name it.  At the other end of the spectrum was the Texan, who was normally laid-back and cheerful BUT when crossed (usually by the Odd Couple but not always) became steely, intractable, and as difficult as the OC in his own way.  Then there was the Kiwi (from New Zealand).  Although she was generally on the right side of things, she often made the situations worse by her blunt and shrill approach to everyone else.  Poor Melvin, our hapless guide!  That quiet, knowledgeable, sweet-tempered person received the brunt of everyone's displeasure from causes ranging from choice of food (the OC), to attempts to deviate from the printed itinerary to pacify the angry (the Texan), to attempts to stick to the itinerary (an enraged Kiwi, who told him she would send a bad report in about him if he allowed the rest of the group to "hijack" us from our itinerary!).  Argh!  I did what I could, but since I had no official standing I had to be low-key; not my forte, as you both know by now.  I did pull Melvin aside at one point and tell him that this group was an excellent example of how Americans abroad get a bad name, and to please always remember there were some of us working with - not against - him at every turn.  And that we would back him in whatever decisions he made - although honestly, making decisions for a group where someone is going to be angry no matter what you decide was not in Melvin's skill set.  Even the Mild Couple got into it at one point.  I thought the Texan might end up thrashing the Odd Couple. Two people stormed away from the table to their rooms.  As my mother would say, Big Fun!

Melvin, our luckless guide

Okay; enough about that for the moment and a little more about what we actually did.  We left you at the ship (thanks for that) and got into the van with Melvin and Eddie, our driver. The Odd Couple informed Melvin before we had even driven through the marina gates that we were supposed to stop at a particular film shop in Belize City to get them another camera card on the way out of town.  Fine, except that it was closed.  Great distress from the OC.  Melvin said we would stop at one in a town further on, which somewhat pacified them, although he was asked *many* times whether he had forgotten and we had passed it yet.  When we got to that town, that shop was closed, too.  The OC asked if, in order to make it up to them (!), Melvin would take them back to the market we had passed and let them get some fruit.  (Your no-fruit lecture was well taken, as you can see, Barbara.)  Melvin said okay, but actually stopped at a much closer, well-stocked fruit stand instead.  There were protests but we basically shoved them off the van.  Melvin went with them.  The moment the van doors closed, the Texan turned around and (hear this in his slow Texas drawl) said "Those two are nuts."  Everyone laughed and it appeared we were all united, but that didn't last, unfortunately.  Anyway, the OC took twenty minutes minimum at the stand and brought back at least five bags of fruit - and we were about half an hour from the border crossing!  It was not declared and apparently not discovered in the van.  They ate slurpily most of the ride.  I imagine Eddie, the driver, was quietly freaking out.

So, into Guatemala.  The road was *very* bumpy all the way to the hotel (about two hours’ drive), which caused quite a bit of complaint from people with back issues, of which, surprise!, we had several.  We had understood that the hotel was in a town, but actually it was not within walking distance of anyplace else, which was a bit of a disappointment, even to me I must admit. Getting a feel for the people in a new locale is one of my favorite parts of traveling. But I didn't say anything - somebody had to be the designated "keeps her mouth shut," and I was happy to be that person. We didn't arrive until 3pm and hadn't had lunch. so the hotel people gave us a nice list of choices for a special lunch; of course the OC was not happy with any of them and had many particular requests.  

After lunch - I still can't help but laugh, and I'll never think of this phrase the same way again - Melvin offered to take us on a "nature walk" in the jungle across the road from the hotel.  Okay, I had to actually stop writing and have a laughing fit.  Nature walk!  Many started out; three of us finished.  It was the most strenuous climb I have ever been on.  Even the super-fit were red-faced and dripping with sweat by the end.  We went up and up and up a long wooden staircase that was, and I do not exaggerate, little better than a ladder. At the top, gasping, we saw another one ahead of us, and asked how many there would be. “About three” was the vague and somehow ominous answer.  

Up we go.
Every step was slippery.

Stop thinking, keep climbing.

In fact there were SEVEN. It was revealed when we reached the top that we had climbed an unexcavated Mayan pyramid. We sat on the top and listened to the howler monkeys calling around us. They sounded like lions roaring. It was incredible. However, that pleasant interlude passed and it was time to ... climb down. 

Melvin wishes he had a different job.
Down, down, down.

Going down the other side was just as steep and even more challenging than climbing up had been.  It was also slippery in unexpected places, and I have a priceless photo of a "guard rail" sticking out into the open space over a steep drop.  To be honest I eventually started finding it kind of fun, in a "Survival" kind of way, but holy cow!  The "nature" part of "nature walk" was great - families of monkeys overhead, parrots and toucans flying past, amazing trees, etc., etc.  It's the "walk" part that kills me - just a little stroll up a pyramid and back down, don't you know!

The guardrail, keeping us from a very long steep fall...

This was the first indication that no one had adequately prepared Melvin for the physical condition of the people he was in charge of.  We quickly learned that if he described something as “easy,” it would probably be impossible for some and a bit challenging for the rest of us. The times he described something as “challenging,” we all begged off.  

So the three of us who finished the walk went home and collapsed until dinner.  That's when Melvin told us the plans for the next day, and all hell broke loose.  We were to leave for Tikal at 8:15 and to leave from there between 2-3, with plans to stop by a craft center on the way back.  Cries ranging from "I don't want to shop!" and "That's not the WHOLE day!" (the OC) rang out, followed by the Texan, demanding a private car and driver so that he and his wife could stay there all day (at his expense, to be fair, but it was an order, not a request).  The Kiwi was livid that people were challenging the set itinerary, and others wanted to go to the craft shop.  So there was nasty chaos during which two people stormed off.  The end result was that Melvin arranged for two vans to pick us up from Tikal, one at 2-3 and one at 5:30.  We split 6 & 5 on who left when.  Everyone went to bed fuming, muttering, or in some way unhappy - but all were civil at breakfast and nothing was really unpleasant again (except as regards the OC, of course, whose bizarre requests and whiny fussing continued throughout the trip).  

Our first pyramid at Tikal.

The view from Temple IV.
Tikal was stunning.  Most of us went up Temple IV and saw the incredible view of jungle canopy stretching as far as the eye can see in all directions, with the tops of other temples sticking out here and there.  Breathtaking.  Melvin was an excellent guide, we saw a lot of wildlife, from a wide variety of birds to monkeys with babies to coatimundis, my favorites.  Melvin had a beautiful lunch brought to us in the old Mayan marketplace, very atmospheric, and everyone was bending over backward to be appreciative to Melvin and nice to each other (for a short time - that sort of thing never lasted long).  Then the early group left and had a good time at the craft shop and tea and a pleasant rest afterward.  The group who stayed on at Tikal was very happy to have done so, and all was well that evening.  

Wild coatimundi strolling past
Oscillated turkeys - as beautiful as peacocks.

However, it had started raining, and the next day's outing was supposed to be a river trip.  It was also getting cool.  By morning it was pouring and the river had risen too high for us to be able to take that trip, to everyone's relief (Melvin had described the included hike to a small Mayan site as "a little challenging" -- run away, run away!).  So he proposed an alternative activity, a visit to Yaxha, another nearby Mayan site.  Or, we could stay at the hotel and relax.  After a bit of (civil) discussion, everyone elected to go. 

The meaning of "rain forest" became crystal clear to many for the first time that morning.  It had poured all night and the roads were full of potholes - and you may recall that they weren't exactly up to standard to start with.  I had to remind a number of people that if drivers couldn't manage after one night of rain in this climate, there was no way they would make it through the whole rainy season every year.  Anyway, it was exciting but we made it there, stopping for lunch on the way which was *very* pleasant.  We got to try to some local specialties such as breadnut soup - very good.  Everyone drank alcohol and got mellow and happy - and somewhat warm, which was a good thing in light of what was to follow.  

Lunch and drinks in a local restaurant. A last moment of warmth.

We were almost the only people at Yaxha - we saw a total of five other people during our approximately two hours there.  And it absolutely poured buckets of rain the entire length of our visit. We got drenched, drenched, DRENCHED.  Because this was our last day there was no time for anything to dry afterward, either; I ended up throwing away my sodden tennis shoes and socks when I got home.  The site, though, was incredible.  I told Melvin how much I loved it and he said it was his favorite of all the Mayan sites.  Very little was excavated, and there were so many overgrown temples crowded together that it was like being in a valley full of the most amazing, sharply triangular green hills.  It felt much more secretive and private than Tikal.  It sounds sort of pretentious to say I liked it better, but I think I really did, overall.  The atmosphere was unbeatable. Sadly, I couldn’t take any pictures because it was raining too hard, non-stop. I didn’t dare take my camera out of its waterproof case.

Guatemalan rain forest.

Everyone enjoyed Yaxha, in spite of the wet.  However, our (excellent) driver, Eddie, couldn't seem to figure out how to turn down the air conditioning whilst maintaining the vital defrost feature, so we got seriously cold on the way back to the hotel.  I was *so* cold!  The OC complained so loudly and so much ("I didn't come to the tropics to freeze!") that the Texan hurled his cashmere coat at them - which they immediately huddled into without comment.  By the time we got back to the hotel I was so stiff from the cold I could hardly get out of the van. I felt much better after a hot shower.  

The next morning, we leapt all sparkly-eyed from our beds at 4:30, to be on the road by 5:30.  It would have been at least fifteen minutes earlier, but the OC were displeased with the contents of their breakfast-to-go boxes, and new ones had to be prepared. As I commented to the rest of the group on the bus, we might as well end as we started. It had poured again all night, so driving was very tricky - we passed vehicles upside down in the ditches - but Eddie was terrific, and we got to the Radisson in plenty of time to drop off the six people spending the day in Belize City.  Everyone parted amicably but privately swearing never to travel together again in some cases, I'm sure.  The rest of us were delivered to the airport and walked to our flight areas by Melvin.  He was really great.  Barbara, if you can arrange for the tour company to send him a Purple Heart, he deserves no less.

And we were off, and that was that, although I'm sure some of the group who spent the day in Belize City with the Texan and the OC could add more.  As lively and interesting as the city looked that day, I was so glad I wasn't part of that group!

Someday, though, I would love to go back.

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