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Deliver Us From Howler Monkeys – Bethel, Guatemala

Deliver Us From Howler Monkeys

Bethel, Guatemala

Walking to Bethel.
Walking to Bethel.
The golden sunlight slanting across the dirt road was a lovely sight, but not at all welcome. It meant the sun was setting and we had no idea how much further we had to walk. My t-shirt, completely soaked through with sweat, felt cold and clammy against my skin now that the pounding rays of the sun had softened. The roars of unseen howler monkeys reverberated through the thick jungle on either side of the path, sounding more like ravenous jaguars than Curious George. But at least the only tarantula we’d encountered so far was the dead one we’d seen in the middle of the road.

We rounded yet another curve and came upon some young men sitting by the side of the road. Michael greeted them, “Buenos tardes,” and they responded in kind. “Bethel,” he said, and pointed ahead of us down the road. “Lejos?” We had been asking if Bethel was far for the past three hours and had gotten answers as varied as the rocks in the road. There hardly seemed a point in asking again, but it had become a compulsion to ask “Bethel? Lejos?” of everyone we met.

Una hora y media,” one of the guys told us. An hour and a half.

Gracias,” we said, and started walking again. We’d heard an hour and a half before. We’d heard half an hour, and we’d heard six kilometers. We’d also heard we’d be able to flag down a passing car and get a ride to Bethel. So far not a single car or motor vehicle of any kind had passed us. The straps of my Continental Journey dug into my shoulders and there was something wrong with the height of the waist padding, but I was too tired to try to figure out what to adjust. There was nothing to do but keep walking.

It was our own fault. Everyone laughs at travelers who move through countries with their noses stuck in the Lonely Planet. Well, maybe not everyone. But the elite, independent, $3-per-day travelers do. And we aspired to that elite. So when we wanted to take a route that wasn’t in the Book, we decided to just make it up on our own. We’re an experienced traveling couple, almost thirty years old… but you wouldn’t know it by the assortment of mistakes we made trying to get into Guatemala from Mexico.

We wanted to go from Palenque, Mexico to Guatemala – but not to Flores. To Xela, maybe, or at least to Guatemala City. A little box in the Palenque section of our guide described getting to Flores and when we asked Palenque travel agents and bus companies about busses to the border, they all started telling us about trips to Flores. But what we had learned – or what we thought we had learned – was that outside of our native United States there is always a way. Always a collectivo or share-Jeep or something to get you anywhere you need to go.

And sure enough, we found a collectivo out of Palenque, which took us to the border at Frontera Corozal, where we got our Mexican exit stamps and met a French backpacker named Julien. Julien wanted us to go in with him on a lancha (motorboat) down the river to Bethel, Guatemala, where we could go on to Flores. Well, we didn’t want to go to Flores, and the Bethel lancha cost $350 pesos for one to three people. A lancha to La Technica, Guatemala, right across the river, only cost $20 pesos per person. From there we would get a bus to Xela.

So we left Julien to his expensive lancha and took the cheaper one, certain that in La Technica we would find, if not a bus to Xela, then at least a collectivo that would take us somewhere where we could catch a bus. We could not have been more wrong.

La Technica is a one-caballo town, barely more than a crossroads, unless there was more of it hiding back in the trees. But it did have a hotel. Two little boys were watching TV on the porch. A young man with a cold sore in the middle of his top lip came out to see what we wanted.

Migración?” we asked.

“Bethel.”

Banco?”

“Bethel.”

Bus?”

“Bethel.”

We had missed the daily bus to Flores, he told us, but we might be able to get one in Bethel. Was there a collectivo to Bethel? No, we’d have to get a special vehicle. The special vehicle turned out to be his pickup truck in which he’d be glad to drive us to Bethel for 150 quetzales each. We had no quezales, but another young guy, his friend, or perhaps his brother, would be happy to change our pesos, at Q70 to $100 pesos.

We had no idea if this was a good exchange rate. We had no idea if Q150 each was a fair price for a ride to Bethel. We had no idea how far away Bethel was, except for a vague guess based on a rumor that lanchas from Frontera Corozal took forty minutes to get to Bethel. We had no Guatemalan guidebook. We had no quetzales and only $200 pesos, which would not fetch us enough quetzales to afford the ride, which may or may not have been a ripoff. Oh, and since we hadn’t seen Migración yet, we were technically in the country illegally.

Vamos a regresar,” we told them. (“We’ll return.”)

Down the street was a small store. There were two small boys on this front porch too, squabbling over a chair. “Buenos tardes,” we said to the old man sitting there. We asked about buses. The bus to Flores “Se fue,” but we could get a ride to Bethel in a carro for Q10 each. We asked him about a bank. No bank, but they could change money for us over there. He pointed to the hotel. The brother, or maybe friend.

We had little choice, so we handed our last $200 pesos over to the brother or friend and got Q140 for them. But we were not going to deal with that guy and his truck. Back at the old man’s store, we tried to find out which way Bethel was.

“Bethel – qual dirección?” I asked.

Si, si, Bethel,” he said.

Si, pero, que dirección?” I pointed to the right and to the left. The old man responded by pointing straight up. “Bethel,” he said.

By then his wife had come out. I asked them both, “La derecha, o la izquierda?” I pointed in both directions again, after looking at my hands for confirmation that I wasn’t mixing up my left and right. They both pointed up. I tried one more time, exagerrating my movements to the point of ridiculousness, but with no luck.

Gracias,” we said. “Adios.”

After passing one more house, we reached the edge of town. We easily ruled out the direction leading back to the river, but we were still left with three choices. We peeked into the last porch.

Buenos tardes,” we said. “Bethel?” We pointed and shrugged. The two young women on the porch just gaped at us. The young man looked confused for a moment and then pointed to the sky. It finally occurred to us that perhaps up meant straight ahead, so we took a few steps in that direction and asked again. “Bethel?” He nodded.

Sunset approaches.
Sunset approaches.
With this auspicious beginning, we started off on what we hoped was the road to Bethel. The rock-scattered dirt road was wide enough for one car. We discussed what we would say when we flagged down one of the many cars that would surely pass us. It was hot. Lush greenery hugged the edges of the road, but none rose tall enough to shade us from the early afternoon sun’s beating. After a while we stopped and rummaged in our backpacks for our hats. It was 2:15.

“Maybe we should just go back,” Michael said.

“No way. I didn’t like that guy and I’m not getting in his truck. Besides, we don’t even have all the money he wants. The old guy at the store said we could get a ride in a car. Someone will stop for us. They have to out in the middle of nowhere; that’s just the way it works.”

“And if not?”

“Then we’ll just walk. I don’t care. I refuse to deal with that guy.”

I thought that at any moment we’d see something or get someplace. The road twisted from side to side, and rose up and over hills. Each curve seemed to beckon with promise. And when we rounded it to reveal only more empty road, there would be another curve, or perhaps a hill, so tantalizingly close that we simply had to check it out. In this way we soon walked too far to turn back.

But we were still in good spirits then. “That guy’s going to pull up in his truck any minute now,” Michael said, wiping away sweat.

I laughed. “It would be a good strategy: ‘Now do you want to pay me three hundred quetzales?'”

At 3:00 we saw a building in the distance, the only one we’d seen so far. There was a sign, but even when we finally reached it, we couldn’t read what it said. Sounds of activity emanated from behind the small house, and it turned out that several men were building something.

Disculpe,” I said. “Bethel?” We pointed in the direction we had been walking.

Si, si.”

Muy lejos?”

The indescribable snorting sound that followed suggested to us that it was far indeed, and a second later we got the confirmation. “Seis kilometers,” they said.

Six kilometers! But wait, a kilometer is less than a mile, right? I thought back to my cross-country days to try to remember what a mile is like. Back then I could run three and a half miles in twenty minutes. But then I was fifteen years younger and not carrying a too-heavy backpack. And probably there would be no boys’ cross country team waiting at Bethel with Dixie cups full of Gatorade. But there would be restaurants, and hotels, and all kinds of wonderful things. We could do six kilometers no problem.

A few curves in the road later, we took a break. The water in Michael’s half-empty liter bottle felt hot enough to make tea, but we drank some anyway. As we stood there massaging our shoulders and examining each other’s sweat patterns, a Boca Deli delivery truck appeared ahead of us and slowly rattled by the way we’d come, towards La Technica. “We’ll catch that on its way back,” Michael joked.

At 4:00 we overtook the first person we’d seen since the construction workers: a man walking with a machete braced behind his neck. As we approached, he casually plucked a plant from the side of the road and used the machete to slice off its leaves. After we passed him we started to see other people and even the occasional small house set back from the road, but still no vehicles.

When we came upon a crowd of small brown ants feasting on that giant black tarantula squashed in the middle of the road, it disturbed me far more than the man with the machete. If there was one tarantuala, there would be more, and they wouldn’t all be squashed. It was around then that we started wondering if we’d make it to Bethel before dark.

At 4:30 we passed through a tiny town. Pigs rooted through the bushes and a naked little boy played in the road, a real live hint that there was no traffic to be feared. We tried to buy water from two young girls behind a counter of a store the size of a newspaper stand. “Agua,” we said, as clearly as we could, but they didn’t understand us.

Finally one of the girls figured out what we wanted and showed us that they had water in bags. At that point we were not familiar with the bags of drinking water so common in some parts of Central America and the idea seemed weird to us. We bought a warm can of Coke.

After trying for some time to make conversation with the two girls, we realized that our communication problem was not only our poor language skills, but also the fact that they were Quiché Maya and spoke as little Spanish as we did.

We sat down to rest on a makeshift bench that had been set up in the red dirt outside the store. Our presence attracted a shy but eager audience of children. There was a small house directly in front of us and a woman in an old-fashioned slip came to the door to have a look at us. I drank the Coke and Michael, much more of a beverage purist, finished the last of our water. He held out the bottle.

Basura?” he asked, wanting to be directed to a trash can. A wide-eyed little girl came forward shyly, her hands outstretched. Michael handed the empty bottle to her, thinking she was offering to throw it away for us. But she hugged it to her chest with both arms, smiled widely with her half grown in front teeth, and fled into her house.

“I think she took it as a gift,” I said. She was more than welcome to the bottle if she wanted it. Probably plastic bottles come in handy in a place where the beverages come in either cans or bags. But I hoped no one would later figure out that we’d been calling it garbage.

We walked on, and the tangle of vegetation edging the road grew taller and more sinister. That’s when dusk started to fall, and the howler monkeys started to sound more eerie. Howler monkeys make a deafening, sustained roaring sound that echoes through the trees and sounds nothing like what we were used to monkeys sounding like. If we had not already known the sound for what it was, we might not have been able to continue to walk down that path.

But we did walk. And we overtook a family observing a bird in a tree. We greeted them and asked our usual, “Bethel? Lejos?” and the father told us, “Si, seis kilometers.”

Still? Hadn’t we just walked six kilometers? Or at least three? Was this a joke? Was it our Spanish? We tried to clarify. “Seis?” We held up six fingers. “Si, si, seis kilometers.”

Six kilometers is not that far. With a heavy pack and going up and down hills under the searing sun it’s worse, but still, we should have walked it by now. So maybe he was right. Maybe there were six more kilometers to go.

We should have gone to Bethel in the lancha with Julien. What’s $116 pesos each? Twelve dollars each? How cheap could we be? And what’s wrong with going to Flores? I wanted to give up, but there was nothing to give up and do, except lie down in the road with the tarantulas. There was no one we could back down and pay money to. There was no one we could dig out our US dollars for if our quetzales were not enough. There was only thanking the man and keeping on heading toward Bethel.

There comes a time in every miserable journey when you stop talking, stop telling childhood stories and making up road bingo games and joking about being eaten by hower monkeys. You even stop getting your hopes up when you approach bends in the road. You just trudge silently along, shoulders sagging, legs aching, and wait until it ends.

We had long since reached this point when we heard an engine coming up behind us. It was the Boca Deli truck that had passed us going in the opposite direction so many hours ago. The truck swerved off course and drove right at us, so that we backed into the foliage at the side of the road like frightened rabbits. There were three men sitting across the front seat, and a rifle propped in full view against the door. I was almost hoping they’d steal my stupid heavy backpack so that I wouldn’t have to carry it any more.

But despite the fact that they’d forced us off the road to cower in the bushes, they were our very own deux ex machina. They were going to help us, and they weren’t even waiting for us to ask. The driver remained behind the wheel and the other two guys got out of the truck. One threw our bags among the boxes of snacks in the back and got in there with them, and the other motioned us into the front seat.

Our saviors.
Our saviors.
I sat on a plastic bag full of 1-quetzal coins next to the driver, trying to stay off the gearshift and Michael sat next to me. The third guy perched on the edge of the seat, keeping the door slightly open to give himself room. We drove slowly down the rutted road for about twenty minutes and then we were in Bethel. Woodsmoke drifted through the last of the twilight. Never before had I been so glad to arrive in a town I hadn’t wanted to go to in the first place.

The next day we took a bus to Flores. It was our only choice, other than to start walking to Xela.


The author can be contacted at megan at meganlyles dot com.

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