Monday, 12 November 2007

Tikal for the Weekend

Monday, 11th November and we are resting after a weekend at Tikal. I’ve been going up two or even three times a week to photograph the most visited and best preserved/reconstructed ancient Mayan city in Guatemala. But that involves an early start and a departure well before sunset, as well as the inevitable haggling over fare. Esta 10 quatzales por una Guatemelteca and usually 15 for uno turisto. Pero muchos collectivos quiren 20 or even 30 quatzelas. No me gusta! It’s a pain haggling with the minibus drivers so we decided to have a weekend away and stay in the luxury Jungle Lodge right next to the gates of the site. We could stay for sunset on Saturday and be up for sunrise on Sunday as well as treat ourselves to dinner on white linen under a palm-thatched roof and Victorian black and white photos of the temples being cleared of jungle.

We checked in with Oliver who has clearly been on a tourism training course that said a real smile is with the eyes and closed them everytime he did smile which was about twice a minute. We had a nice little room with a balcony overlooking a narrow, beautifully planted garden, into the jungle. Georgia was greatly attracted to the open air swimming pool surrounded by jungle. The Lodge lives up to its name!

We managed to eventually find out that for 50 quatzels we could enter the site an hour before official opening at 6am with a guard to be escorted to Temple 4 to watch sunrise. Oliver didn’t tell us this, the ticket seller didn’t tell us this. Only a guar overhearing our enquiry told us this.

We have had two great days wandering around probably the most dramatic Mayan city in Central America. It was one of the biggest and most influential in its day, though not the biggest. However, they still mostly survive as forested mounds with little uncovered to understand a Mayan city. What really makes Tikal are the six dramatic pyramid temples that soar above the forest canopy, Temple 4 is the highest at 70 metres and from here you can see jungle as far as every horizon, look down on mighty rainforest trees, watch branches and trees shake to the swinging and clambering of spider monkey foraging for fruit, follow parrots, toucans, vultures and hawks flutter, swoop, soar and glide above the trees. There are few rainforests in the world with such majestic and high viewing platforms.

Sunset was one where a large dark red fiery disc, fractured by fingers of cloud, sinks lazily towards the horizon. Flocks of green parrots squawked their way from one tree to another in search of a roost. Darkness and silence descended with it.

Sunrise was a gentle, gradual lightening of promise for a new day. The night had been quiet except for the chilling roar of a group of agitated howler monkeys and dark save the overwhelming lights of stars, planets and the Milky Way glimpsed between clearings. We climbed Temple 4 to look over the silhouetted proud crowns of four other pyramids to the east. Then, as half light burrowed into the shadows the jungle began to awake. First the howler monkeys let out their loud roars stating they were here, that others should not invade their tree-top territories. They opened their mouths, inflated their throats, and the jungle raged to the sound of demons unleashed from hell. Then, surprisingly, came silence with the dawn. The howlers stopped. Except it was totally quiet. Now that they could be heard, the birds filled the morning light with song. Sparsely came the notes at first until the sun was above the horizon, then every tree seemed alive with every type of song and call as they too announced their territorial presence. Branches began to bend to the first spider monkeys searching for food, toucans flitted to the tops of fruit trees. Ungainly in their swooping flight and comical with their oversized and overcoloured beaks, they kept high in twos and threes. If ever a bird was created based on the winning entry in a young children’s art contest, the toucan would be it.

Dawn went through a slow blending of grey, yellow and orange hues. Subtly, the clouds grew pink and orange high in the sky, the sun shielded by a larger cloud. Yellow vertical bands of light shimmered on the horizon below the cloud. After the light show, the dozens of other tourists left to start their various tours. We remained on high and were treat to the sound and sight of the jungle without camera shutters or flash bulbs. Cloud hung low in the hollows of the ground, casting treetops in silhouette. The bright oranges and pinks gave away to misty whites and diluted golds and then the sun climbed above the cloud and the jungle shimmered like a sea, the temples like majestic sailing ships waiting to set sail. What a way to spend a Sunday morning!

I have put some of my photographs of and from Tikal on my photography website - Tikal Photos

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Skulls, Drunks and Broken Taps

El Remate, the Peten, northern Guatemala.

On Thursday we decided to head to the village of San Jose on the other side of Lake Peten Itza. It was November 1st, All Saints Day. This is widely and strongly celebrated here because of the mix of Catholic faith and traditional religion which honoured the dead and ancestors. People across the country walk in large numbers to the cemeteries to have picnics with their dead families, wash and paint the graves, and place wreaths of bright flowers. We had been told that San Jose, having a alrge Maya population, had a traditional ceremony where Three Skulls were taken in procession around the village.

The day started well with a beautiful boat trip across the lake from the town of flores to the village of San Andreas only 2km from San Jose. Andreas has the hotels and we´d been recommend Villa Benjamin on the basis of its view and restaurant. After disembarking we climbed the near vertical village streets, following directions further and further up the hill. THe directions got shorted each time suggesting we were really getting closer until the last person we asked pointed and used only one word - arriber - up! When we reached the hotel the view was truly spectacular - right across the jungle-fringed lake and down into the turqoiuse waters below where kids leapt off a wooden dock. The only hitch was the somewhat shady hotel managed who couldn´t say anything - and I mean anything - without winking or suggesting in hushed tones he was doing us the sort of favour that should have involved him producing silk stockings and silver watches from a raincoat. His somewhat dubious antics put us off but being tired and hungry, by now it was 2pm ,we decided just to have lunch before deciding our next move. As the food was great and his wife more normally friendly, we thought we´d take a room as we were here. The gardens were beautiful and we wouldn´t have to speak to him. We paid then heard the shattering news that they were leaving at 4m the next morning to visit her family grave so there would be no breakfast.

Not disheartened by the news, lack of light in the baƱo, unfinished electrical wiring, cobwebs or fake stone walls, we set off along the road to San Jose for a sunset walk beside the lake. The water shimmered blue and aqua in one direction, shades of pink and purple in the other. We hung out on a dock by San Jose´s part-built concrete promenade which promised tourists, cafes and car parks galore. We then thought, as it was nearly 6 and our reports varied between 6 and 7 for the start of the ceremony, we should find the church where the action was meant to begin.

We climbed to the sound of bells and the vision of a white bell tower to find a church almost empty except for three skulls lined up in front of the alter, each with a raised cross on its forehead. After about 20 minutes of sitting in the empty church, except for the occasional bit of activity as a mujer brought a decoration or alter piece out, we thought best to get a drink and come back later.

We pitched up at a small bar for a soda and a licuado de papaya to be hailed from the back by a guy saying ´why not come in´. Why not chat with the locals. The three guys didn´t instanly look like they had been drinking for that long. There were the husband of the woman doing all of the work, his father-in-law (both from El Salvador) and a local friend. Georgia was soon speaking Spanish to the father in law and friend while the other guy decided to talk at me ni English. Neither of us spoke much for the next half hour or so. My amigo had come to Peten after a vision of god while on magic mushrooms after leaving the US Army cadets. He had seen eyes appear on the floor and walls, then the earth at way and in hunger. A voice spoke to him, saying ´why do you think it doesn´t not explode´before two hands cupped the earth. Taking this as a sign that he hd to go to the Peten and show the locals how to save the rainforest by growing vegetables on rafts of waste in the lake, he had ended up drunk in San Jose.

Skulls again
The church bell rang again and we took this as our cue to escape, climbed back up to the chruch to find a full Catholic mass about to begin. THe church was packed, there were plenty of chicos and chicas hanging around outside the open doors and as the mass progressed more people wandered in and out. A dog sallied in, wagging its tale as it sauntered downthe aisle until it found someone it knew and sniffed them. It soon became bored and wandered out again. That was probably the highlight for me. Realising that the mass was going to go on for a long time and that any procession wasn´t shaping up to be that spectacular we decided to walk back to our hotel.

Broken Tap
We crashed out in our room but as the toilet cistern wouldn´t stop filling up Georgia went to flush it again and turn off a dripping tap. Suddenly water was flooding everywhere and I found Georgia trying to keep the tap on the faucet. I took over so she could get the manager, as our room and the balcony flooded. Thankfully he turned off the ater without trying to sell us a new plumbing system or blackmarket coffee and we moved room. About two hours later there was a knock on the door and he shouted something, apparently prompted by his wife. It seemed to be that he wanted us to pay for the tap we´d clearly broken. Giving the general unfinished and uncared for state of the rooms we thught we´d not enter into the conversation.