Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Chapter 18 - Twisted Trail Back Home

Dave Gallas
Naperville, Illinois

Dave Mobley, Rich Skane, Lisa (la Buge) Crockett
Palmer Station Antarctica

Dear Dave, Rich and Lisa, 28 April 90

Sorry that it took me so long to finally write this letter. It seems like only yesterday since I left Palmer. The trips to Easter Island and Guatemala were nothing less than phenomenal. Easter Island was hot and humid after spending how much time down there! It was beautiful and like a dream--kind of rustic, but exactly how you would picture the South Seas. Rob Robbins and his wife Sandra and I found a nice residential to stay in.

We rented a driver who was the brother-in-law of the owner of the residential and went all over the island. It was great seeing all of the sites that I had earlier read about in the book. I think we saw every stone head carved on the island, every volcano and then some! On the second day, we got up to Anakena Beach on the north side of the island. What a beautiful beach. Almost no people and a white sand beach sloping gently out to the ocean. It was a good feeling to get out in the sun again and fry my skin some!

As mentioned in the book, the islanders are known for their carvings. One of the mornings, I went off to the small market where the locals display all of their wares and found a beautiful carved statue of a moai kava kava. I found the one that I liked best, but then I discovered that he had been dropped on his head and had a huge dent in it. I saw no other carvings that were carved in as much detail. I really wanted that particular statue, so I asked if the woman would take less money for him because of the dent in his head. She said, “Oh, I can have my husband fix that if you’ll come back tomorrow.”

Well, I wasn’t worried about the money that much and really liked the detail on that particular carving, so what the heck. I went back the next day to pick him up and did I have a surprise. At no extra charge, her husband had sanded and recarved in even more detail the carvings on top of the head of this statue. He was even more beautiful than he had been originally. Although history and such of this statue is kind of creepy I really loved it. I say creepy because as their history explains it, he is one of the wandering spirits. After reading the book, this guy was what I remembered and a part of my Easter Island adventure that I wanted to take back with me. While I was already shopping, I also picked up some desktop size volcanic stone moai complete with reddish colored volcanic stone “top knots.” Everyone should have at least a couple of those around the house!

Rob and Sandra were going to spend an extra couple of days to camp out at the eucalyptus grove in front of Anakena Beach. Not being the camping type, I only spent five days there and one day was lost due to rain. We had a downpour that lasted about 18 hours and turned the "streets" or dirt roads into rivers. After it was all over, the plows came and evened the surfaces out again.

I hear that Richie is planning to go there too. If you have the time, it is worth every cent. Easter Island is still so untouched by commercialism and really is a beautiful place. The people are very welcoming and gracious. Make sure to read Aku Aku by Thor Heyerdahl before you go, as it will give you more of an idea about the history, the people and the significance of what you are seeing on the island.

The night before I left, our host at the residential also had a going away dinner for us. He prepared for us some of the freshest tuna steaks around. The fishermen had just hauled them in in the morning and he marinated them in lime juice until they were put on the grill for dinner at 6pm. I have never had such fresh fish. The meat had no fishy flavor or smell and just melted in your mouth.

My stopover in Ft. Lauderdale between Easter Island and Guatemala was very relaxing. I packed up any souvenirs and cold weather stuff and sent it home UPS. Then I spent the rest of the day out at the pool. It was fun to drive again too after not being behind the wheel after 17 months (madman behind the wheel!). Not too much culture shock for me. I fell right back into the pace with few problems. The next day I headed off from Florida to Guatemala.

I thought that the trip to Easter Island would be tough to match, but I was wrong. Guatemala was the best part of all of my travels and proved to be as interesting and as fun as the trip to Easter Island. I don't know if you remember, but I decided to visit Hans, one of the guys on the Illiria who was doing botanical studies on a resort in the northern Peten’ region of Guatemala.

As planned, I made my flight to Guatemala City, stayed the night, then the next morning at 7 a.m. caught the flight to Flores. As Hans said in his telex to me before I left, he met me at the airport in Flores. Thank someone for that--can you imagine the Gringo perdido in Guatemala with only a Spanish/English dictionary?!

Oddly enough, his boss John was also on that flight. From the airport, the three of us headed off to San Benito to run errands and do the shopping for the resort that needed to be done. From there we had a couple of beers and brunch around 10:30 a.m. Sounds a bit early for beer, but with the temps at 90 and the humidity at 95%, they went down easily.

From San Benito, we headed out to Sayaxche (pronounced Say ah shay’) in a Range Rover on roads that looked like our unpaved road up to the T-5 shack at Palmer. That is what they consider a major road. It was basically just a logging road and we passed plenty of trucks loaded with timber as we made our way out to Sayaxche. From what John was saying, only paved road in the Peten’ is the 60 kilometers up to Tikal because of the tourism…that one and the main street in San Benito which happens to be the red light district!

So after 60 kilometers of off-roading through the forest on these logging highways, we pull up to the bank of this river and see a little village on the other side. Across the river is a pontoon which will bring the vehicle and us to the other side. I’m thinking to myself, “Great, we’re finally there!” Boy was I wrong. We were in Sayaxche, but nowhere near to the resort yet.

Hans tells me that John is looking for our canoe driver who will take us 50 minutes up a branch of the Rio Passion from where we are now to the resort. John comes back in a few minutes and has found our guide. So we transfer all the supplies and our gear into a dugout canoe with a 45 horse Johnson outboard motor and up the Rio Passion we head. FYI: If you go the other way, you would be in southern Mexico. The locals use this route to smuggle diesel and other supplies this way from Mexico when the roads are closed off by the guerrillas and supply lines are cut. The birds, turtles and wildlife on the river and all the surrounding jungle are beyond words! The jungle was so green and lush; quite the contrast from Palmer.

We finally got to this little clearing at the end of the river and it opens up to a lagoon or lake of Petex Batun about two miles wide by at least six miles long. We traveled into the lagoon for about ten minutes and then off on the right hand side you could see the smoke from the chimney in the open kitchen pouring into the air from the lakes edge. Now we’re there. Where exactly I have no idea; but we’re there. John’s resort sits on a peninsula called Punta Chimino that juts out into the lagoon. The peninsula was at one time actually dug out to form an island by the Maya. During rainy season the resort is cut off from the mainland and is an island.

John said that one of his main problems has been that wherever he would dig to put posts for buildings, they would end up digging up grinding stones, pottery shards etc. The main temple on the resort has been gone over by thieves a number of times. They nicknamed the mound Temple of the Seven Holes due to the seven holes bored into it by thieves. So before any further excavating is done, they have to call in the Department of Antiquities to get the okay to go any further. Makes for a slow process if you’re building a resort, wouldn’t you say?

Hans and I shared his bungalow which was about a quarter of a mile walk from the main reception buildings. All the bungalows stood on stilts painted with creosote to keep the ants and bugs from crawling into the bungalows. The actual bungalow was constructed so that the bottom half of the walls were wood and the upper halves were screens with the typical palm branch roof. We had electric ceiling fans too (when we had power) to keep a breeze flowing through the bungalow. It was great.

The one night did give me a good scare. I woke up in the middle of the night and had to take a leak real bad. So I quietly get up trying not to wake Hans and go outside to take a leak. Just as I step out the door of the bungalow, about three howler monkeys start screaming and screeching like they are going to jump down from the trees and rip me apart limb from limb! About all I could think about then was getting the heck back in the bungalow and worry about taking a leak once day broke! Hans and John got a great laugh at me the next morning when I told my story. They then proceeded to tell me that these monkeys are only about 2-1/2 feet tall and actually kind of cute. Okay, I’m such a city-boy wimp!

The only plumbing that the resort had was in the shower area and main facilities near the kitchen. We had bottled water for drinking while showers and cooking were normally done with the lake water pumped up to a storage tank up a nearby tree. The water pressure wasn’t too bad! The bathroom/shower area was a rustic shed on a concrete pad about 8 X 8 feet. Sticks were tied together for four walls, which you could see through and an open roof. The hose for the shower was gravity operated. Turn the handle and water showers out on you.

A drain in the floor took the water back out to the lagoon. On the other side of the shower is a toilet mounted on the concrete pad. I’m not thinking there was a septic tank, so I don’t want to know where the rest was going! Better than sitting my hind-end over a log! Primitive but effective. I was never the camping type person, but quickly learned to appreciate the comforts we had. Living in the jungle even with some of the amenities of home was interesting.

During the days I read, listened to music, swam, tried my skill at a dugout canoe (which entertained the locals immensely as I tried to maintain my balance on this shallow dugout) and gave Hans a hand where I could. The one day that I helped Hans, he went out and climbed a rubber tree to the canopy area some thirty feet above, to gather canopy flowers and leaves for his collection. He put these spikes on his shoes and as soon as he dug into the tree trunk with them, a white rubbery fluid bled out of the tree. Later he was telling me that this is the type of rubber that the Mayans would use to make balls for their games.

The weather was hot and humid the whole time and just walking a short distance would leave me drenched from head to toe. The only time my clothes would dry out is when I hung them in the sun on the clothesline in the main reception area (where the future main restaurant and reception building is to be built).

As I expected, the mosquitoes loved me! I was bit up all over even though I was practically bathing in Cutter repellant. Somehow they find the parts that aren't saturated and chew you up alive. I'm still taking malaria pills now. I have to continue to take them for I think six weeks after leaving. I'll be glad when I take the last one, they really rip me up inside.

During my stay there, we made two excursions out to archeological digs. Our first trip was out to the site at Dos Pilas. This site is just shifting into high gear and the Vanderbilt people and the hired natives were digging in many parts of the site. They just uncovered a stairway up to a temple that was beautifully preserved. National Geographic was to come within the next week to photograph it. I did take a few slides of it myself that turned out well.

Our next trip was down to Aguatecha. Aguatecha is located only about 20 minutes (by canoe) at the other end of Petex Batun on our lagoon and is not an active dig. It was worked on in the late 60's. After that it had been put under the park system to be watched and guarded from thieves. If you look at the National Geographic that was just out about Guatemala, you can see on the inserted map where I was. It is on the lagoon between Aguatecha and Dos Pilas.

I have another rather funny story too. The first night out after I arrived, John, Aurora, Hans and I were all sitting out on the screened porch of John and Aurora’s bungalow just talking. Out in the distance across the lagoon, I heard thunder and saw flashes of lightening. I said to John, “Looks like we may have rain coming tonight.” To which he responded, “That wasn’t thunder and lightening; that was the government troops firing on and flushing out the rebels.”

Ok, so I’m a naive gringo. He did add that we didn’t have anything to worry about since it was at least five miles away across the lagoon. Phew! I guess flushing out rebels is kind of like spraying for mosquitoes around here.

The rebel movements did actually impact us some. John was working on conserving diesel fuel. Hans commented that since the week before, John had been cutting off the generator to the resort at about 10pm every night to conserve fuel. The rebels had hijacked a fuel truck bringing fuel into the region, but John had been successful at obtaining black market fuel that had been run upriver from Sayaxche down from Mexico.

I spent a total of nine days at Punta Chimino. For my last three days in the Peten’, Hans and I went up to see the better known ruins Mayan ruins at Tikal (pronounced Tee cahl’). The best way to describe Tikal is like the New York or Los Angeles of the Mayan world. The temples and buildings are beyond description. Hans had been there before, so he showed me his favorite temples the first day. We climbed up three of the five big temples and watched the full moon rise from temple two. The night we went up to see the moon rise, we forgot a flashlight and ended up going the long way around to get back. What a sight!

Hans’ favorite temple was the less-often climbed Temple Three. With all the tree roots at the base and a few of the steps broken up, this temple tended not to be the favorite of too many people…but Hans. When we finally got to the top, it was as beautiful as he had described. While I’m looking around, Hans then digs his hand into his crotch and pulls out a joint! I had no idea. Now I know why he was sweating so profusely two days ago when we were stopped by the Federales checking our passports. He told me that if he would have been caught with that, it would not have been pretty.

Our three days in Tikal were too quick. On the third day we headed back to Santa Elena. Hans caught a bus from San Benito and I caught my plane for Guatemala City that afternoon. The following day I went out to Antigua, the former capital of Guatemala. The town was quaint and has some beautiful architecture. Churches and building that were destroyed from the numerous earthquakes are still left too. I did get in some jade shopping for my mother there too. The quality of jade is supposed to equal that of the Chinese and is at a good price too.

I also unexpectedly ended up buying a wool rug, although that was never my intention. I saw this guy walking around with rugs on his back, and he had spread one out for someone and I liked it. When he saw that I was interested and the other guy declined his sales pitches, he spread it out again and talked himself down from $35 to $25. I had to buy it to keep the guy from talking himself down any further. I figured that even if I didn't keep it, the price was too good to pass up.

Then came the rough part--coming home. I spent the last night in Guatemala City staring at the ceiling in the hotel room; wondering what I was really going back to in Chicago. All in all, the adventures north were worth the 18 months away from society. I had a blast and would love to do it again if I have the money sometime. I would recommend Guatemala to anyone who can get over the jitters of the guerrillas. At least Easter Island was mellow. Now I am realizing that I will have to settle into a more mundane lifestyle, but with my gypsy blood I don't know how long I will stay sane staying at home!

Well, it is too late to call this a long letter, so I guess I'll close this mini-novel for now. Sorry Lisa, I don't drink Campari, but have a Ritamarga for me--the glass is optional as long as you have a good ladle for taste-testing!! Viva la Buge! Please say hello to all the winter-overs and hope all is going well there. Give me a call on the ham radio or over ATS-3 sometime, I'll accept the charges.

Hope to hear from you soon,