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Guatemala: Up the Creek with a Paddle and a Jaguar

November 5, 2009

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1) Rio de la Pasion

After visiting the great Mayan site of Tikal in the Peten, my friends and I decided that the time was right to head south into the Guatemalan highlands and explore the rest of this wonderful Central American country, populated largely by gentle people of Mayan extraction.  But we were far from the southern mountains and volcanoes, stranded in the town of Flores, an island on Lake Peten Itza, some 70 kms. south of Tikal.

We consulted our maps.  Sure, the local commercial airline flew directly from Flores several times a week to Guatemala City, but this option sounded boring, and besides, we’d miss traveling through the jungles that lay between Flores and  the mountain ranges further south.  We noticed a town not far from Flores called Sayaxche, hard on the Mexican border.  The Rio de la Pasion flowed from south to north here.  Well, the choice was obvious.  The only decision we had to make was in which direction to follow the river.  The river’s  name had a nice ring to it, too.   Very sonorous.

I’d already spent 3 months in Mexico and did not wish to return, so we thought, why not hitchhike river boats upstream further into Guatemala.  We took a local bus from Flores to Sayaxche, arriving in the late afternoon.  Our first task was to cross the river to the town center, and we easily secured passage on a dugout canoe that plied the river crossing.

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2) Crossing the river in Sayaxche – a local woman on board the motorized dugout with her baby

The colorful scene of the river town enchanted us.  A mix of wooden shanties, commercial warehouses that held lumber and other products for the trade between Mexico and Guatemala, and other nameless structures all perched on the river banks like so many matchstick houses, lending the air of a frontier post to the town.

Once on the far side of the stream, we gathered our gear while nightfall rapidly approached.  After a few questions to the local residents we ascertained that Sayaxche had no hotels..  We sat at a simple outdoor bar and considered our choices.  Fortunately someone suggested we knock on the door of the police station and ask if we might hang our hammocks on their front porch.  An excellent suggestion.

By now darkness had fallen as we picked our way through the muddy streets to the cop shop.  Of course the town had no street lights, and in the dark I slipped and fell.  At the time I was carrying a liter-sized bottle of honey I had purchased as part of our supplies for the upcoming river trip, which we were given understand might entail a ten-day itinerary.

As I fell, the bottle of honey, still in my hand, smashed on a rock. I felt no pain and it was too dark to see if I had damaged my hand.  We carried on to the police station, where an lonely electric light kept the veranda illuminated.  The shock now hit.  My friends said, “Your arm is covered with blood!”  Sure enough, still feeling no discomfort, I looked at my left arm and blood was streaming from my hand in a steady flow.  Upon closer examination I realized that the honey bottle, when it broke, had cut the little finger of my left hand, slashing the portion near the nail clean away.  I could see the bone of my finger through the cut, which looked almost surgical in its precision.

Oh Christ, what now?  Sayaxche had no medical facilities and we were getting ready to embark on a ten-day river trip deep into the rain forest.  Should I turn around and go back to Flores, a bigger town that surely possessed a doctor’s clinic among its other amenities?

Nope.  I had some antibiotics, plenty of bandages, aspirin, and mercurochrome in my personal medical kit.  I’d just have to manage.

So I wrapped up my finger as best as I could after washing it a water tap that hung from the outside of the police station. The cops themselves were friendly but unable to assist, other than by assuring us we were welcome to stay the night on their porch.  So we went to sleep.  At least the bleeding had stopped.

Two days later, after downing a great many tetracycline pills and changing the bandage on my finger every morning, we secured passage upriver on a cargo dugout.  These craft traveled from town to river town with supplies for the residents who lived on the banks.  We  found a different ride every couple of days, slowly making our way upstream.  Small cataracts provided thrills as the boat pilots struggled, with outboard throttles at full power, to navigate rapids and fast currents.

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3) Churning through rapids on the upper stretches of the river

In one village the locals said that we would have to wait at least four days for another boat.  By this time I had largely forgotten about my injury.  My finger never did hurt, and the digit exhibited no signs of infection.  So one afternoon, in the blazing heat of day, I decided with one of my companions, a guy from Toronto, to take an impromptu hike into the jungle.  Chicle gatherers had hacked paths through the forest to collect the sap from the trees of the same name.  The word chicle is the source of the brand name “Chicklets,” and the sap is used to make chewing gum base.  Seemed like a piece of cake to follow one of these paths for a couple of hours and then return to the village.

Well, as I now understand, all jungle trails look alike, as does the forest around them.  Rain forest areas have no landmarks to guide the uneducated hiker.  But oblivious to such woodcraft, my friend I and hiked deep into the forest.  As it was midday, the fauna, smarter than we, were well hidden, so we observed little except for impenetrable thickets and huge fig trees, along with hardwoods and their attending epiphytes.  But we had fun.  Finally the trail stopped at the bank of a tiny creek.  Here, pulled on shore, lay a tiny dugout canoe, complete with paddle.  It probably belonged to a chicle gatherer who stored it here when he didn’t need it for his work.

We looked at each other innocently.  Why not borrow the canoe and paddle down the creek and see where the waterway might lead?  Surely the owner would understand.  So we hopped in the boat and headed into a swamp.

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3) In the borrowed dugout, heading deeper into the flooded forests near the Rio de la Pasion.  Up the creek but at least with a paddle.

After half an hour we started to freak out, to use the term loosely.  What if the owner came back and found his boat missing?  What if he had a shotgun?  What if he hated gringos?  All sorts of scenarios played in our heads, most of them ending badly.  So we turned around and returned the canoe to its original resting place.  For some reason we had a pen and some paper with us, so I left a note in Spanish, telling the anonymous owner that we had borrowed his boat and was grateful to have made use of it.  I also left a pack of cigarettes as an offering of thanks.

We now attempted to retrace our tracks and return to the village.  It took about five minutes to realize we were desperately lost.  Which track was which?  Numbers of them branched in several directions, tracks we hadn’t even noticed during our passage into the forest.  We arrived at a major junction of the trails. One forked left, the other to the right.  I said to my friend, rather stupidly, “You go one way; I’ll take the other.  Maybe we’ll recognize something.”  Yeah, right.

But that’s how we proceeded.  We had each covered about 20 meters when without warning, between the two trails, a mighty roar issued from under a bush.  Yikes!  A jaguar, sleeping through the afternoon heat, had been awakened by our blundering through the woods on either side of him.  I am not sure who was more frightened, the cat or my friend and I.  Everyone took off at full speed.  Fortunately the jaguar elected to run in the opposite direction from us.  I got a glimpse of his tail and spotted rear end.  This was no ocelot, of which I’d seen a few near Tikal, but rather a full-grown Panthera onca.  We bolted as fast as we could down the path, charging along for a good twenty minutes, wondering when the beast would leap at our throats and tear us apart, then leisurely snack on our fresh gringo meat.  Certainly our other buddies at the river village would never have found us.  We’d end up on missing posters at the Canadian Embassy in Guatemala City for a few months, and then that would be the end of our lives in the spotlight.  Not to mention our time on Earth.

But our run proved providential.  We soon recognized that we were actually closer to the village than we had thought, and saw agricultural clearings for maize and yucca.  Gradually the forest thinned and we regained the river.  We’d learned another lesson.  To paraphrase the guy chased by the tiger in “Apocalypse Now,” Never get off the boat; never get off the boat! Or, in our case: Never walk into the jungle alone, never walk into the jungle alone!

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4) jungle tree near the river

5) Riverside sunset, El Pato

Eventually we finished our river journey when further navigation became impossible, and hitchhiked to Guatemala City. The Canadian Embassy referred me to a doctor to look at my finger, which was still raw and unhealed.  But he pronounced me in excellent health, and said, “You had exactly the right kind of antibiotics, and you changed your bandages in the correct manner.  You’re damn lucky not to have contracted gangrene and lost the finger.”  And lucky not to have become snack-food lunch for a jaguar, too.

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