Welcome to the Jungle!

Saturday 22 October

After we finally leave the confines of Jungle Party, a few miles outside Antigua the ambulance blows the cam belt.  Luckily we’re still able to get it back to the town, and bemused and amused faces await us as we return to the hostel for breakfast.

It’s not as serious as first thought and we’re underway within the hour.  Our plan is to cross the border and make some ground into Honduras.  As the vegetation becomes increasingly more green and tropical, we discover that the border is closed for the night.  A swift change of plans sees us making for the small lake side town of Rio Dulce.

Our digs for the night are only accessed across the water, and as night falls we wait for a boat to take us over.  It’s dark by the time we chug out across the lake, with a light at the bow illuminating the many bugs attracted to the gleam.  We approach an opening in the waterside greenery, and it feels like we’re trekking up the Amazon.  The night is alive with sound and noise, mysteriously calling from the dark.  The exotic trees reach to touch our faces as we glide on into the unknown.  It’s an exhilarating experience, but one that puts the fear of god in me.  This is the jungle, and that means bugs.  It reminds me of when I was back in ‘Nam.

Lights appear out of the darkness ahead, and our hostel looms closer.  It is certainly one of the coolest digs so far.  A thatched eco hotel rising from the waters, with interlocking wooden walkways reaching out to dorm rooms and shower blocks.  Low hung lights glow and add to the atmosphere, as do hammocks strung from wooden beams.  Apart from the biggest spider I have ever seen, it feels like a tropical paradise.  After some wonderful food, good company and a hefty blogging session, I turn in, slightly uneasy in seeing the mosquito nets and the giant bug threat.  I curl the blankets around me and pray.

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The long wait

Friday 21 October

So we’re still here.  The ambulance has not been fixed and we’re still in Antigua.  The up side of this is we get to chill out for the day, and spend some more time with the friends we’ve made along the way.  New opportunities present themselves at every turn.  As much as it is wonderful seeing all the sights the world has to offer, so too is meeting wonderful people to see them with.  By the end of the day, I’ve added new friends and travel partners to facebook, who I will be in contact with very soon to check out a new place, or party with until the early hours.

It’s a bit of a non day, but it’s Friday, so we all head out to enjoy the night life for what we hope is the last time.  If the ambulance is still not fixed tomorrow though, it won’t be the end of the world.  Perhaps some of us are keeping our fingers crossed it isn’t.

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Volcano!

Thursday 20 October

Sleep late to discover we’re not going anywhere today.  The power steering pump is still not repaired which mean we’re stuck for another night at least.  As a result, Murray has the notion to drive to and hike up Pacaya, one of the areas many active volcanos.  We have also managed to gather a merry band of travelers who would like to come with us, so in the mid afternoon we pack the ambulance with the crazy bunch and set off.

Of course we get lost.  It’s not an easy drive and we touch into Guatemala city, but spirits are high and adventure calls.  A few doubting Thomas’s are of the opinion that it’s getting too late to trek the volcano.  However we keep the group happy by messing about in the back of the ambulance, and Murray manages to find his way.

It costs us Q50 to enter the national park, andwe’re asked if we want a guide.  After a quick discussion we agree to one, due to the fact that other staff will also watch the ambulance.   We take some pictures for use as “before and after”, and then we climb.  Now I’m not normally this unfit, but after partying for as long as I can remember, I struggle to get into it, and the boys following us up with ponies calling “taxi, taxi?” becomes pretty tempting.

I struggle on and it starts to become well worth it.  The glee in Murray’s eyes and voice echo’s my own as he turns to me and grins; “we’re climbing an active volcano”.  I’m kind of hoping it erupts.  That would be a cool story.  That I would never get to tell.

It’s such a thrill as we climb ever higher, the sun setting behind us.  The views keep getting better and we are all totally psyched about the experience.  As we get closer to the summit, the ground changes dramatically and we’re walking on rugged, crunching, black volcanic rock.  Footing becomes unsteady and we’re losing light fast.  It’s amazing to view the hot steam pouring over the rock in the twilight.  It’s pretty much pitch dark as we approach the possibility of lava.

Slightly disappointed to only see the glow of red from a vantage point near the top.  It’s a damn good job we had a guide, as if we’d been bungling along in the dark we would have fallen in.  it’s a deep crevice with heat pouring from the depths.  Regardless of missing out on seeing a flow, it’s still been a wonderful trek up.  Coming back down is an amazing adrenaline fueled buzz, foot placed in front of foot and only a few torches between us.  Ryan quips that we have managed to climb a volcano with a variety of hats, a blanket and a key chain flashlight.  This after seeing a number of climbers with full gear, spiked boots, ropes and axes.  What an achievement.  A classic combination of bravery and idiocy.  If anything happened, I would blame Murray.

By the time we make it back to the hostel we’re all famished, and we chow down at a local place that looks like someone’s living room.  After the excitement of the day, we’re all in need of a few beers to celebrate one ticked off the bucket list.  Still want to see that lava though.

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Rough

Wednesday 19 October

 

Apparently someone crept into bed with a girl last night who shouldn’t have been there.  I’m getting my first real impressions of hostel politics as the case is thrown into the open in an attempt to find out the perpetrator of the crime.  The girl in question is not so much upset and alarmed as pissed off, and she informs us she told the mystery man exactly where to go.  Of course I’m prime suspect from the point of view of my “friends”, who all firmly believe it was me.  Depending on my alcohol intake, it’s entirely possible that I might have done something I have no recollection of.  I politely enquire if the suspect was clothed.   “Yes” comes the welcome reply, because when I took the kilt off at whatever time I retired with my little American, I was stark bollock naked.  Justice prevails for me, but the culprit will forever remain in the shadows.

Rise at 1pm. Urgh.  Just urgh.  Stagger into a local subway and feed my pain.  Stagger round the city with Ryan taking photographs and trying to feel alive.  Stagger.  It’s a beautiful city surrounded by volcanos.  The skyline is clouded, but you can still see the dramatic, unmistakable outline of natures power, sights I have never seen before.

The second ambulance has broken down.  The power steering pump has gone and it has been turned in to a local garage to be repaired.  Hopefully this will be done on time to ensure we stay on course.  I’m not holding out much hope.  We might as well build a new ambulance with parts mailed from eBay.

It turns out to be a bit of a lazy day, which is much needed after last night’s frivolities.  I’m meeting a wonderfully eclectic bunch of people at the hostel, and our plan is to eat together this evening, before heading out on the town.  We’re on a mission once again, dancing on bars until the early hours.  I’m setting the standard for the rest of my three-year world-wide trip.  I probably won’t make Colombia at this rate.

 

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Um Bongo, Um Bongo!

Tuesday 18 October

We rise a little groggy from last night’s efforts, but the mood is upbeat, and the breakfast excellent. We don’t have much time to see the town, but we stop for some pictures at a charming square.  My first impressions of Guatemala is a really striking, visual, colourful place.  Structures, shacks and ramshackle dwellings litter the roadsides.  As, unfortunately, does litter.  The people are friendly, wearing bright, hand stitched clothing and traditional dress.  Many of the women carry baskets of wares on their heads, or babies slung over their backs.  Traffic and pollution is pretty bad, with trucks billowing black smoke from exhausts.  Buses are rammed to the brim with people, some of whom hang out the back, apparently with no concern for their own lives.  Roads snake into the foggy mountains, with mudslides closing lanes.  The hills are filled with crops, wood carrying locals and jungle foliage.  It feels 3rd world, it’s vibrant and intoxicating, and my eyes drink in the culture shock.

We are disappointed to learn road closures ensure we cannot visit Lake Atitlan, but it proves a blessing as we make good time to push on to Antigua.  It’s a beautiful town with a worldly atmosphere, with many travelers and pale skinned people as much as the locals.  It’s where the tradition of Guatemala meets the creature comforts of a developed city, and it’s wonderful.  Jungle Party is our hostel for the night and it proves to be an inspired choice.  Friendly travelers abound and we hit the town with a vengeance, painting it red until the very early hours.  The kilt gets an airing again and is swished around into the night with my attempts at salsa.  I hit the hay a very happy Stu, thanks to a cute American girl who I will never see again.

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The drive of our lives

Monday 17 October

It’s my day to drive for the first time in Mexico!  After regaling the group with my brush with death last night (at the hands of the toad), we grab some breakfast.  I say grab, the café by the beach is operating on Mexico’s famed notion of Manana; (tomorrow).  This is why nothing gets done fast.  We are seriously behind schedule as we set off.

The day is to become something of a crazy one.  We are stopped for the first time at an army checkpoint.  Great.  Breaking my ambulance drive virginity and we get pulled over.  I think they are more interested in what we are doing and they appear to be greatly amused by it.  Thankfully they allow us on our way.

Driving Mexico’s roads is an interesting experience.  They are uneven, slip away at the edge and pull you all over the tarmac.  I use the term tarmac loosely.  You have to grip the wheel, keep an eye out for potholes as well as being aware of dodgy road users.  A relaxing drive it ain’t.

I make it to the border area with little major issues, in spite of Murray convinced he’s going to die.  We fill up on fuel and switch over, as he has to be the one to cross the border driving.  The next 5 hours become something of a debacle.

We need to get the ambulances signed out.  After reaching the border, we are told that the office to do this is 25km back up the road.  Who would have known?  We then spend hours driving aimlessly round the town of Tapachula trying to find the place.  It’s starting to get dark, and after asking an endless amount of people, manage to get the paperwork we need, and head back to the border.

It’s night as we arrive, and the crossing takes an eon.  We are passed from pillar to post, inspected, scrutinized, and questioned.  We are nearly 5 hours behind as we finally pull away, heading into uncharted territory on Guatemalan roads.

The roads are barely roads at all, and what follows can only be described as one of the most anxious, exciting, adrenaline fueled experiences I will ever have.  Or any of us will ever have.  We drive up into the mountains, into dense, dense fog.  The visibility is near zero and the potholes are atrocious.  We encounter eerie ghost like towns with only snatches of people, huddled together in tiny stone rooms, playing arcade machines from the 80’s.

There are little or no road signs and markings, and we really are guessing when it comes to the map and directions.  Then we catch a break from 3 young kids in a small town.  One calls their English speaking mum at 11 o clock at night to get directions.  In the end they run and get a scooter, and taking point they guide us through the city to the right road on.  It becomes apparent that we would never have found it without them.

We drive on into the night, only three of us awake, running on adrenaline.  Eventually we arrive at Xyla and wind through tiny streets to locate somewhere to stay.  It’s a tall order with poor signage and one way systems, but we manage to find a place that allows us to park the ambulances off the road.  Murray, myself and Ryan are totally shattered, totally relieved, and totally elated all at once.  That was one of the most incredible things I have ever done, and I never will forget.  As much as seeing beautiful sights and scenery is important, the hair raising, white knuckle, life-on-the-line experiences really make this journey worth it.  When can I do it all again?  Tomorrow.

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