From Belize City I caught a bus headed westward through the tamed wilderness to Flores in Guatemala. The bus pulled itself up gradual slopes and wound its way through tall trees, slowly making headway towards the border.
This headway frequently abated with progress halted to allow new passengers to join the exodus. A tsunami, free from panic, must have occurred at sea level below. This could be an explanation for people, packed with their life possessions, streaming onto an already over crowded bus.
Or perhaps it was the local community’s biannual market day. Perhaps people replete with hens, small pigs and turnips were on their way to the market to sell their livestock and produce. Or maybe it was simply show and tell at the local community school.
I was sun burnt from the previous day’s sailing. Scrawny hens screeching high pitched screams I could live with. I just prayed none of the locals was going to bring a bull onto the bus. It might be less appreciate of my bright red colour.
I arrived at the Guatemalan border free from attack from hens, pigs or bulls. Here I was surrounded by animals of another kind, currency exchange touts and taxi operators.
I made my way through customs paying an extra small unofficial duty along the way. Having to pay this extra duty was out of my control as I wanted to cross the border into Guatemala and customs had the power to hinder this objective.
However when it came to currency exchange touts and taxi operators I had the power. Or at least I could have if I knew the current exchange rates and where the bus from this side of the border to Flores departed.
The previous night I had been faced with an alternative: drink beer or research the value of the Guatemala quetzal. It appeared an obvious choice. Now in the light of day with a dozen touts surrounding me the correct choice had not changed. But I still had to get out of this sticky situation with my shirt on.
One tout, resplendent in a 1980s styled black see through muscle sweat top was especially persistent. Admiring his choice in clothes I told him I would do business with him if he stopped following me around ‘like a (swearword) shadow’. I needed some space to check my current cash holdings and future cash needs.
Sitting 20 metres up the road from the currency exchange touts who had surrounded and suffocated another prey I calculated the amount of Guatemalan quetzal I would need. Just then a taxi operator approached and offered to take me for a ride to the bus station which was ‘at least 10 kilometres up the road’. I’d never been to Guatemala but I could definitively say I had been on this road before. I found my shadow beneath the overcast, humid sky.
Exchanging my currency at a rate I could accept and he could profit, I then asked for directions to the bus station. 100 metres up the road I was told.
I walked the short distance from the border, over a hill and then turned right. To my surprise I found a small town and then more surprisingly discovered a bus stop. I waited patiently for the bus to arrive. After half an hour of waiting impatiently I began to worry if I was standing at the correct place. I even contemplated walking back to the border to ask the taxi driver for further advice.
Just then an empty bus, headed for Flores, arrived and I boarded. For the next hour the bus drove around the small town enticing passengers on board like a circus. Horns were honking and the conductor was yelling out enticements such as meet the one and only red fleshed human. I sat back and smiled as people climbed aboard to gape at me in amazement.
Finally we departed and by the time we arrived in Flores I was well and truly tired. It was night and the city was enclosed in darkness; dim lights. I was blind, could not see, my senses strange. Where I was? I was told I was confused for good reason. This was Santa Elena. The tourist city of Flores was nearby, across a causeway, nestled upon a small island. I would have to catch a taxi.
I caught a taxi across the causeway that stood between two cities. Arriving at my intended destination I paid my fare, the taxi took off and I was left alone to walk along the cobblestone streets to a nearby hostel. Unfortunately for me this hostel, since the publication of my guidebook, had turned into a home for delinquent children. There was no chance of spending the night there.
I continued to stumble around the cobblestone streets, too tired to contemplate the possibility I might struggle for sleep that night. However I eventually found accommodation in a cheap, well kept hotel that welcomed my United States dollars with open arms.
Early the next morning I retraced my steps from the previous night to get a better impression of the city in the clear light of day. Like a snake wound around a tree the streets gradually rose up a hill reaching a plateau where a church sat overlooking the landscape below.
In the distance was the bustle of Santa Elena. The quite tranquillity of the Lago de Peten Itza surrounded Flores like a serpent undecided as to whether it should cradle or strangle its captive prey. Its calm waters served to separate the sometimes insular life of the tourist from the realities of urban grim and poverty.
I retraced my steps and booked a return bus trip to Tikal, the epitome of Maya ruins. These ruins were situated within a tropical forest a couple of hours drive from Flores. Large stone temples rose through the ceiling of tall trees. From the vantage point of one temple, built on the rise of a hill, you could look out over the roof of the forest and view other temples shooting through the tall trees in an attempt to touch the sky.
I made my way to the main part of the ruins where two temples sat in a clearing facing each other. Feeling strong I climbed up the steps of one of the temples. Reaching the top I sat down. Then for some strange reason an overwhelming feeling of spirituality washed over me; a sense of euphoria. I felt the inescapable, nearly untouchable feeling of internal peace and happiness.
Then an argument of sorts broke out behind me and these feelings flew off, like the distinct colour on the wings of a butterfly that becomes blurred with the distance.
A local girl was wearing a t-shirt, with the picture of a plane flying into two towers printed upon it. At the sight of this t-shirt a United States tourist was close to tears, brawling about how she could be so insensitive.
Personally I thought he was been insensitive by breaking my state of personal spirituality. Besides I had never understood people’s reaction to 9-11. Around the same time many more people had died in an earthquake in El Salvador. This did not trigger the average bystander’s emotions. But the human cost was just the same.
To briefly continue on this topic, I had recently read about the interference of the United States government in Central American politics in the last half of the 20th century. This interference had created a mess, causing chaos and deaths beyond the numbers involved in 9-11. In my view, the United States was nothing more than another imperialistic country trying to enforce its will upon the world. It was only human nature some people would want to punish them and obtain some sort of pay back.
I was feeling my anger rise. I was about to argue my point with the United States tourist.
Well that was my feeling of internal peace and happiness pretty much destroyed. Back to been a tired, unfriendly (swearword) I suppose.