I got drunk when we got to Cha Creek. I stepped off the bus, took a deep breath, and said to myself, “Wolfy, tonight you’re going to get blind.”
We had made it back to Belize by the skin of our fan belt and only London, Nigel and I knew it. Not ten minutes after crossing the boarder, the belt gave way, and I swear it said “HA!” as it went, as though it knew that we had sweated all the way down the Western Highway, praying to every deity we knew, including some we didn’t know, and it took great pleasure in torturing us. When it finally committed suicide, we were within walking distance to a small service station. London smiled his gold checkered smile and off he went up the road to get a new belt. Nigel and I slipped him some cash and said, “Please, buy three! We’ve got four more days to go.” Did I say that I had carried a wad of cash on this trip just for tips and unexpected disasters like busted fan belts? I did -- and I was a poor girl back then, my non-profit salary was not the kind that afforded me the lifestyle of a big tipper. But it said right there on page 3 of my job description, below that line recommending that I be helpful and above the paragraph about the First Aid Kit, that I was to be responsible for all tips -- tips to guides, to inn keepers, to ferrymen, canoe paddlers, and I was supposed to collect tips from the members of my party for certain special situations -- but apparently no one put this in their package of information, so I was looked upon as some sort of grifter when I made requests for their cold hard cash to make tips . . . I mean Americans just don’t get the idea of tipping, they abhor it, and they will do anything to avoid tipping. Tipping is the way of the world -- and I have learned over the years, as an expat especially, that if you are a consistent and generous tipper, the Karma payback is stupendous.
So there we sat on the bus, the Guatemalan sun was behind us and the Belizean sun beginning to set. The natives were cantankerous -- they had no idea how close we were to being stuck on the side of the Western Highway in Guatemala with a busted fan belt and no way to get help. And now they were cheesed-off because we were going to be late for dinner in Cha Creek. The bus ride had been so rough, they’re hemorrhoids were acting up . . . and they had no compunction about sharing this with me, Keeper of the First Aid Kit.
I was very tidily returned to sherpa status the morning after Thanksgiving -- the morning before we would make that long drive back to Belize. It was only natural really, there were bags to be loaded on to the bus, lunches to be made for the trip, tips to be given to our Mayans, and there was to be one more short outing in Tikal. We got the bus packed and everyone checked out and then we walked to Temple Five, the one temple that had not been ascended on our three day adventure in the holy city.
I walked at the back of the group, in fact I trailed them by a good 25 yards or so. Nigel was trying to quiet them so we could see birds, but they were tittering away. I had been up half the night, ill, “too much turkey . . . ” I thought to myself, but I would find in the coming days that it wasn’t turkey, but something else. By the time we would reach Ambergis Cay, I would be unable to eat at all, and my bones would ache from the curse of the Tikal swimming pool, and only Nigel would notice, he would see me picking at my food, pushing it around the dinner plate, “Wolfy, you’re not eating.” . . . I can’t Nigel, something’s wrong. But at the moment, it was just indigestion, and I pushed on, “brought up the rear” and we reached the base of Temple Five. It was a hefty climb, and half of our party chose to remain earthbound, including Rockbottom, much to my relief.
We spotted a Red-capped Manakin and a Social Flycatcher at the top of Five and it was fairly thrilling to be up there. I hung back and took as many varied photos of the view and our group as I could. I was on my 30th roll of film by then -- with only five more film canisters left, I was having to conserve, ahh, something I had forgotten about in this age of digital images! And it was slide film, I have thirty five boxes of slides from that trip! Nigel lead us into the entrance of the Shaman’s chambers -- Mayans believe that caves are entrances to the underworld and their temples took that idea to a higher idea -- these pyramids reached for the heavens, put their shamans in touch with the sun and the gods at an immortal height and provided a portal to other worlds. Just when I was drifting off into my own world, and trying to think what I would do if the bus broke down on the way back to Belize, Nigel came to my rescue, “Wolfy, I want to show you something, follow me.” He told the others to explore the chambers, while we took some photos. Nigel led me to the norhern side of Temple 5, there was a good sized ledge to walk on, probably 4 or 5 feet wide, nothing I couldn’t handle, “Nigel, where are we going?”
“I want you to walk the backside of Five with me Wolfy, its something you can tell your grandchildren about someday.”
“Yes, Wolfy, that’s right.”
We got to the backside of the temple. I now I knew what Nigel was talking about. It was a good 100 yards from the corner we stood on to the southern side of the temple. The ledge was practically not a ledge at all, it was a foot, maybe a foot and some inches wide. I looked east and saw Temple 4 in the distance. I looked down, all canopy. No Net. Grandchildren? How am I going to have grandchildren if I fall from this thing?
“Nigel, how about this, I’ll play Japanese Tourist here. You walk it, I’ll take your photo and I will greet you on the other end, Congratulations!”
“Nope, that won’t do Wolfy. You have to walk it. It will be the thing you remember, the thing you did without Them.”
“Oh, you noticed . . . ”
“I’ve seen alot of these trips Wolfy. Some of the trip leaders have a grand time, and some, some are like you, they get roughed up. The one’s who get roughed up get to walk the backside of Temple 4, its my gift to you.”
“I dunno Nigel, that’s a hell of a walk.” I thought of Stan Laurel negotiating the ledge of a high rise apartment building, of pigeons landing on his head, of a piano being lowered by Ollie, ‘That’s it Stan, steady as she goes!“ The ropes fray, the piano falls, Stan goes with the piano and lands unscathed in a pile of white dust and piano keys. I eyed the ledge and stared down in to the jungle below. And just then a grey fox ran below us, ”Nigel! a fox!“
”That’s a fortuitous sign Wolfy! Let’s go!“
And he was gone, Nigel was already ten yards out and the fox had vaporized into the deep green. I shifted my camera, zoom lens and all to my back, and did like Nigel, put my face to the back of Temple 4, breathing its sacred cold stone air into my lungs, my hands and belly flat against its being as I sidled step by terrifying step, and I imagined being an old woman telling my grandchildren of this moment. I didn’t look down, I watched Nigel and I could see he had done this many times. Was he insane? Probably. I would learn only a few years later that most expats are insane. I felt the infinite air at my back. I was walking, I was flying. Yes, I was flying.
Nigel reached the southern corner and disappeared. I felt very alone without the sight of him, but I told myself he was still with me, waiting for me. I took one, two, three, four more steps, and there I was, around the corner and I let out a long breath, exorcising myself of the weird gods I had inhaled. ”Congratulations!“ Nigel hugged me, ”Now take a picture of your ledge.“ And I did, I put the camera round the corner and pressed the shutter, ledge immortalized. Me? Alive.
So, you see, by the time we reached Cha Creek, I was ready to run amok. I was 29 years old, the youngest one on this trip by a good twenty years -- my oldest member was 80, Nigel was 49, and Mizz Ghandi was fifty something. The rest of them resided in their sixties and seventies. I had been crammed in a self-destructing bus for thirteen days with these people, unable to say a word, my utterances were never appreciated, my humor was inappropriate, and I was part of the establishment. Rockbottom made certain that she had the troops on her side -- I was not to be trusted, it was a well-known fact that I was in fact planted by the international environmental establishment to gather confidential information about each and everyone of them, and make myself so familiar to them that at the end of the trip I would have all their wills signed over to me. You see, that was part of my job really. They were donors to the organization that I worked for and I was supposed to “cultivate” them during this trip -- that is, get to know them so well, that I could provide information useful to fundraisers to make asking these people for money easier.
But its assumed that your donors aren’t hostile to your overtures, they’ve been enamored of your organization’s work for years, so impressed, that they pay good money to travel with you and see what you’re up to in foreign lands, so why wouldn’t they expect to be cultivated? And I had been in the business of dealing with donors for close to five years at that point, I was young, but I was subtle in my approach, but Rockbottom was a cheap old thing and she let it be known that I was an interloper, “This one thinks we’re just going to hand over our money, but we just came here to watch birds, didn’t we?” And for some reason they all looked to her as boss. She had her own agenda. And her heart was hard like a meteorite. She made my task, to be helpful and to represent my organization, almost impossible. Friends and colleagues who had gone on these trips enjoyed some sort of mild hero status on their trips. I was told they felt admired by their trip participants for giving up the high-paying jobs that college educated kids like us could have, for pushing Wall Street aside, and instead working to Save the World. The members seemed to know that we were good kids working for practically no money to ensure that endangered species got a fair shake, but this crowd saw me as some kind of Freeloader. Who was paying for my trip? What exactly did I do to earn a trip abroad with my own private rooms and “nothing to do”? I was suspect in every way.
And by day twelve, I didn’t care anymore. I was going to have some fun, even if it killed me, even if it got me fired. My closest friend at work had done the same trip one year before, and she told me, “Don’t worry, the old folks go to bed early, and then you can stay up, get drunk and have some fun! You’re going to have a great time!’ But she was wrong. My crew was so damn serious, that even when they went to bed, I was left with this storm cloud of anxiety about the next day, and I sat there with London and Nigel at the bar, nursing my one beer, planning the next day scientifically. I wanted nothing to go wrong. I was desperate to please these old codgers. But I had reached my limit . . .