Alone in Tikal

by Heather Bonin MacIntosh

  • Literary (Genre) Other
  • Literary (Length) Medium (1000-3000 words)

Bleep, bleep. 4:00 am. My bleary-eyed husband, Ray, rises and scrambles to dress. I roll out of my comfortable bed and pad outside to knock on the neighbouring door. Our nineteen-year-old daughter, Kayla, is awake. She fishes for a flashlight that never appears from her red expedition backpack, its mouth a gaping hole that swallows suntan lotion, shoes, t-shirts. The two of them decide to scurry to the entry with one travel-sized flashlight between them. They must not be late. I stand, barefoot, in the doorway to my room. “Have fun,” I smile and wave as they trod off into blackness. Ray and Kayla don’t understand my decision. How could I miss the sunrise tour to the tallest pyramid in the ancient Mayan city of Tikal? I return to bed and it’s blissful. I’m exhausted, worn out from a rapid fire tour of Guatemala in seven days, bumping along back roads, wandering cobblestone streets until my feet throb, struggling asleep to the booming music of the local dance club. Our jungle hotel is a holiday splurge, a luxury locale amid a week of budget stays and bathrooms down the hallway. I don’t want to miss a minute of this reprieve from the backpacker-style vacation we’d promised our daughter. I know what I’m missing. I’d visited Tikal the day before for a mid-day tour and returned again for sunset in the central plaza, a Times Square landmark at the site. It is a land of myth and mystery with its ruins covered in vines and resurrected buildings that stretch up to the clouds like New York skyscrapers. Partially reconstructed Mayan palaces and temples jostle sections still buried under their earthen blankets, protected from weather and people and the wrath of the gods. We’d visited stone ball courts of glory and sacrifice, and seen ancient steles that no longer share their stories, their hieroglyphic limestone tales washed away decades or centuries earlier. It was amazing, but so is this bed. I roll over to the centre of the mattress. The sheets are white, crisp, clean and quite possibly brand new. They feel fresh against my skin, now able to breathe in the humidity. I drift off to sleep to the peeps and clicks of the tropical forest. I awake and read in bed from a Bolivian novel: a magical tale of inspiration gifted by angels to artisans who then carve a stone cathedral. After perhaps half an hour, delighted not to check the time, I stretch and decide to start my day. Emerging from my chamber, I wander toward reception. Inside at a small kiosk, brightly coloured florals and stylized animals decorate blouses and purses. Miniature carvings of jaguars stalk the table. A short woman at the stall tells me about traditional weaving methods and regional embroidery styles. I’m delighted she’s patient with my muddled Spanish. At the buffet table in the restaurant, I pick up a cup of coffee and carry it out to drink beside the swimming pool, a particularly un-Latin American habit, but no one looks at me sideways; this is a classy establishment. At the pool I sit at a table under an umbrella, sip my coffee, and sniff the air for fragrant hints of frangipani blooms around me. I smell only coffee, which has its own bouquet; my ambrosia, a sentiment I share with other caffeine addicts. I post travel photographs—temple ruins from the neighbouring Mayan site of Yaxha, Kayla sipping from a coconut, towering pyramids from yesterday’s Tikal excursion—to my Facebook page, read a chapter and slip into another realm and time. I fill in a Sudoku puzzle. These are the minor pleasures I’ve missed. I wander back to the room for my swimsuit. At the pool, the water is clear and glittering and as smooth as a mirror. My dive slices its surface and I am embraced by the water. Cool, clean, calm. Emerging from the swim, I towel off and order soup to eat poolside. The Guatemalan sun dries my skin and I relax under boughs laden with dinner-plate sized blooms. Soon my husband and daughter arrive, breathless. As they share their story, words tumble over each other. They forgot Kayla’s glasses and the camera. They reached the gate early yet Rodi, the sunrise tour guide, was not there. An official pointed to a glowing ball that bobbed along ahead: Rodi. By the time their passports were checked and their names and citizenship duly recorded, Rodi’s glimmer had gone. A tour guide with a proper flashlight told them to meet their guide in the central plaza of Tikal. Ray tells us he thought he knew the way, but at a clearing with thatch-roofed huts he became disoriented. He chose a route and pretended certainty so that Kayla would not worry. Our daughter does not blink at this admission. I realize I was sound asleep then, and smile. They entered the main plaza while it was still dark, they tell me, and discovered that Rodi was not there. I nod sympathetically. No one was at the site: no tour guides, no flashlights, no noises of humanity. Kayla’s face glows as she describes the event. She shone a light and a stepped pyramid rose to her left, she says. Ray says it felt like standing beside silent giants dimly lit by stars. I imagine myself in his place, small and insignificant in the inky night within that secret, sacred unreal world of the Maya. A small pang of jealousy needles me—look what you’ve missed, it tells me. “What did you do then?” I ask. “We had to find Rodi so we could see the sunrise at the Temple of the Two-Headed Snake,” Kayla says. I recall from the previous day’s tour that centuries ago – Temple Four of the Two-Headed Snake dates to the Classic Era, about 700 AD – only the priests and the king were permitted to climb the monument. “We ran down a trail and ended up in back of Temple Five,” she says. “It’s far. Remember?” A map of the site scrolls into my mind. Despite the sequential naming, Temple Five is nowhere near Temple Four. “What did you do?” “We ran into another tour group. They hadn’t seen Rodi either, but we were able to follow them to the sunrise Temple.” Ray grins. “We made it in time.” In the twilight of dawn, they tell me, the jungle awoke. They heard birds call, monkeys howl, and leaves fall. I imagine the jungle’s symphonic offering to the old deities. Yellow crickets rubbing their wings in a stridulating melody. Macaws cawing their morning greeting song. Monkeys eeh, eeh, eehing from tree tops as they jump from branch to branch. Kayla bemoans the missing camera once more and gives her father a piercing look. I feel relieved and a little smug that I played no role in the debacle. At the bottom of the monument they found Rodi, they tell me. He was apologetic: it was his day off and he was not sure how the mix up occurred. Neither Kayla nor Ray seems concerned. The tour was worth the early start to the day, the dash along unlit paths, the missing guide, Ray says. The sunrise was spectacular they conclude, but the best part was when they were alone in Tikal. I know exactly how they feel. ### By Heather Bonin MacIntosh

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