Saturday, July 3, 2010

An Engagement Story

Blinking the sleep from our eyes, Joel and I climbed aboard our TranAir flight bound for Baltimore. We´d have a layover there for about two hours before flying into Cancun. We were traveling lightly - we each had a small backpack filled with essentials, and a satchel that we´d carry on with us. I brought my Essex acoustic guitar, acquired in Australia, so we´d always have some music.

The mission: get to Antigua, Guatemala, within five days to surprise my girlfriend, Jordan. She was in the mountains outside of Guatemala City working with an orphanage, and had no clue her brother and I were coming. The stakes were high - I´d brought a diamond ring with me, and plans for one epic proposal.

We landed in Cancun, Mexico around 1pm. Once we´d cleared customs, we carried our gear outside - it as hot and humid, as expected - and hailed a shuttle bus to a nearby hostel. Our gear stashed on the upper floor of the Maya Hostel, we set out to explore the city. There was little that stood out - we were a few miles from Cancun´s famed beaches, and with a strict deadline (we had to be in Guatemala City by Thursday night) we couldn´t afford to stray far. We spent the rest of the day watching Mexico lose to Argentina in the World Cup (a fear unappreciated by the local population) and tasting some of the local cuisine. Dinner was at an Argentinian restaurant, a mixture of chicken and vegetables with a couple of beers and cigars... tremendously satisfying.

The next morning dawned hot and humid - a perfect day to be trapped in a cramped metal bus/oven. Stopping every ten minutes or so to pick up and let off passengers, the bus to Chetumal - a Mexican border town - crept along the eastern shore of the Yucatan Peninsula. Brief stops in Playa del Carmen and Tulum were hardly enough to stave off hunger and cramped limbs... we arrived in Chetumal half-starved.

Resisting the urge to spend the night, we located a ticket station and bought passage to Belize City. We spent an hour or so jamming with the guitar in the bus station before departure... it was a nice break.

Upon showing up in Belize City, we were informed that if we walked into town we´d probably get stabbed... it´s pretty rough. A helpful local pointed out a bus to San Ignacio, near the Guatemalan border, that was about to leave. We hopped on board and took off. San Ignacio was much better... the climate was cool, as we were surrounded by mountains, and only a few people were roaming the streets. Absolutely starved, we wolfed down plates of chicken and potatos, washed down with a couple of locally-brewed Belize beers. Our hostel was fairly cheap, and right down the road from the bus station. We crashed that night, knowing we had to be up at 6am to catch the 7am bus to the Guatemalan border.

The next day we hit the road on a dilapidated bus. Its muffler clearly shot, it labored noisily up the western Belize hills, grinding to a halt an hour later in Benque, a tiny border town. A cheap taxi took us to the customs office. Joel and I exchanged our Belize currency there (we´re pretty sure we got cheated out of a good 50 Quetzales) and got our passports stamped at the border.

Our next decision was how to get to Tikal. Flores was the next town on the way to Guatemala City, but the ancient Mayan pyramids jutting out of the jungle floor appealed to us too much to pass up. We had the option of taking another ancient bus, but we had a schedule to stick to. We decided to spring for a private cab for $50 each; it was absolutely worth it. Our cab was actually a brand new Toyota pickup truck... our driver took us through gorgeous winding roads in northeastern Guatemala, stopping at an enormous lake for us to take pictures. We swung north to Tikal after that.

Luckily I have pictures, because any number of thousands of words couldn´t possibly convey the splendor of the scene. After a ten minute walk into the jungle and a detour to swing on a few conveniently-located vines, we meandered into the Grand Plaza.

It was enormous.

Towering temples blocked the skies from our views in some places. Crumbling ruins surrounded us in every direction... it was truly a jaw-dropping scene. We spent hours climbing the larger ones, taking hundreds of pictures, and never quite getting tired of them. We were standing atop Temple IV, gazing out over the jungle landscape below, shirts wrapped around our head for protection from the heat, when a series of roars echoed from the jungle. We assumed, at first, that tourist jeeps were simply downshifting through the narrow roads... a few minutes later we realized they were really, really big cats.

Naturally curious, we scrambled down the side of the temple, taking time to photograph a monkey on the way, and once on ground hurried to the edge of the jungle where the roars were the loudest. "Que es?" we asked a local.

"Jaguar," he replied, pointing to a cub perched in a tree.


Being two testosterone-filled explorers, and therefore stupid, we naturally plunged into the jungle in search of a cool picture. Creeping along a winding path, cameras in one hand and large rocks in the other, we approached the sounds, until suddenly they stopped. The silence was eery... we stood, motionless, peering through the jungle... nothing. Even the monkeys had stopped their incessant chatter.

Then we heard it: a deep, low, warning growl, no more than ten feet in front of the dense jungle in front of us. My hair rose on the back of my neck as we realized simultaneously that whatever was in there was pissed off, and it was HUGE.

Very slowly we backed away, adrenaline surging, senses heightened, ready at the first rustle of leaves to slam the rocks forward in self-defense. The rustle never came, and we backed onto the original path, where locals gawked at the stupido americanos.

The roars stopped after that. Neither of us got a picture, but we were happy to escape with our lives.

We finished the afternoon off by climbing on top of a pyramid set apart from the rest and daring each other to take flying leaps from one ledge to the next, a leg-breaking drop the price of miscalculation. Neither of us slipped (which is why I´m writing this in an internet cafe and not a Guatemalan hospital.) We left the ruins around 5 hours after arriving, purchased some souveniers (epic machetes, of course) and left with Felix, our driver.

On the way to Flores, we sat in the bed of the truck with a couple of the park´s employees. We spoke just enough Spanish and they just enough English to carry a conversation... we ended the day standing in the bed of the truck, facing forward, as the scenery flashed by at 70 kilometers per hour. We rolled into Flores, a beautiful town set on an island in the middle of a lake, drank margaritas, and jumped on a night bus for Guatemala City.

We arrived the next morning, Wednesday at 7am, immediately took a bus to Antigua, where Jordan would be on Friday morning. Conveniently we were dropped off in front of a cheap hostel where we could check it early. We happily paid 40 Quetzales (about five bucks) each and crashed for the next six hours.

We weren´t prepared for the splendor of the town. It stood next to a tremendous volcano, several more in the distance behind it. Most of the architecture was Spanish Baroque style, and a number of stunning ruins - collapsed cathedrals from an earthquake in the 1600´s - lay scattered around the town. Joel and I spent the rest of the day photographing as many of them as possible. Because of their status as relics (Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage Site) they´re all gated and locked... but we noticed an unlocked gate and went inside. We didn´t regret it. The beauty was astounding - four hundred year old Baroque ruins, with a volcano as the backdrop. It also happened to be right next to the town´s famous arch, and a staircase wound up to it. We bolted for it, and a minute later we were standing atop it, taking panoramic pictures of the city and volcano.

When we came back the next day the gate was locked, and has been since. We definitely lucked out.

Wednesday and Thursday flew by - both were filled with exploration - and we knocked the jitters out at a chill bar on Thursday night. Friday morning we rose early. We knew Jordan would be showing up around 11:00 am (I´d been emailing her team leader during the entirety of the trip.) Joel and I had found the perfect spot - a restored cathedral with a beautiful fountain in the center of the courtyard. We set up on the upper story, overlooking the fountain, and kept a sharp eye out for the next two hours.

Predictably, I was nervous, anticipating all the things that could go wrong. To calm myself down I opened my journal and starting sketching the scene... the old spires against the volcano. I lost myself in my art and was in the middle of penning an arch when voices rang through the lower corridor.

Joel and I dove down behind a bush and he started videotaping the scene. We dashed in a wide circle around the opening, making sure we were unseen, and sneaked down the stairs into the courtyard´s outer hall.

Pausing for a deep breath and adjusting my cap, I plunged out into the courtyard. Jordan turned and saw me just as I leapt up onto the fountain. She gaped. "What are you doing here?" she asked in shock.

I had a huge speech prepared, but in that instant it flew out the window. "Proposing," I said, and dropped to a knee. "Will you marry me?"

Luckily she said yes.

We´ll be traveling back up to Mexico over the couple of days, (as are pictures... all we have so far of the actual engagement are videos) so more blog entries are coming. It´ll be hard to top this one.

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