“So just how long are we staying here?” demanded hubbie, dodging yet another flying stream of excrement from a dive-bombing toucan.
“Just until I work out how to tell them in Spanish that we’re leaving” I muttered, trying not to panic as the baby spider monkey on my head decided to pluck my eyebrows.
“Great, so we’re gonna be here forever then!” The language genius who doesn’t usually dare to even order a plate of chips in the local lingo foolishly decided to have a pop at me.
Feeling too hot to argue I let him off, making a mental note that there would have to be a reckoning later in the trip. It was probably the humidity, and because his wellington insoles had just been stolen by some pesky baby coatimundis for the third time that hour. Or maybe it was because as the hombre he’d been tasked with shovelling shit whilst I’d been given the enviable task of being a surrogate mother to 3 orphaned monkey siblings who had all taken to latching themselves onto me in desperate yet deluded hope. They’d picked the wrong mama. I was more terrified of them than the irritable jaguar in the next pen which had been rescued from poachers the day before. I’d tried to prise them off me but they were so scared of loosing another mum that one of them bit me in fright. So on they stayed, and I was pleased I’d had my rabies jab.
Hubbie and I were at the ARCAS animal rehabilitation centre in the El Peten region of northern Guatemala. It was our first big trip together and, knowing nothing about animals, for some reason we had decided it would be a grand idea to help out for a few weeks before exploring the rest of the country. I think we chose Guatemala because we’d had to use an Atlas to find out where it was, surely a good enough reason?!
It had been a hellish journey getting here, involving 3 days of travel and no sleep, so we looked forward to finally settling somewhere. The overnight at Econo Lodge in Atlanta had been the first mistake. The area was so dodgy that we had to barricade ourselves in the room fearful of the packs of youths that were running feral outside. Next stop was Guatemala City and a 9 hour bus station wait whilst guards with machine guns protected the door. We were advised not to leave as it was too dangerous for tourists outside.
The bus journey was something else altogether. A tin can on wheels which involved being squashed next to sweaty Guatemalan blokes, hubbie having to sit on a plank as there were no seats left, and then of course the obligatory breakdown in the middle of the night. After a few hours waiting on the roadside, the driver having long ago wandered off into the darkness without a word (something that became a common occurrence during our trip), we were eventually rescued by another bus that we hopped on without any idea of it’s destination. When we eventually arrived in Flores at 5am, we waited by the local bomba (water pump) for a boat to come and collect us as arranged.
Before long we were plagued by opportunist locals advising us the ARCAS boat didn’t run on Saturdays. We guessed they were just trying to play us, and stubbornly sat amongst the ants wondering why we hadn’t gone somewhere sensible like Paris, or Greece. Thankfully the boat did come for us, albeit 3 hours late.
Neither of the ARCAS guys spoke any English and I’d been excited to try out my rusty Spanish. After my first tentative conversation with Marcel he revealed he was suffering the final stages of severe Malaria and that nothing could be done for him. Was he dying? I wondered what he was doing showing us around if that was the case, but perhaps I’d got my words mixed up, although he didn’t look too well. We learned there were no other volunteers there so we’d have the place to ourselves. I couldn’t decide if this was a blessing (we’d get the best jobs) or a little strange.
After landing on the island in Lago Peten Itza we struggled with our backpacks through the steamy jungle up to camp and our accommodation. More dubious than salubrious, we’d not been expecting the Ritz, but to say it was rustic would be the understatement of the century. It looked fun from the outside, but upon stepping through the door it was a different matter.
The grimy flee-ridden excuses for matrasses in the dark dorm weren’t so bad, nor were the gaping holes in the walls welcoming all manner of malaria-carrying beasties.
It was the bathroom that did it, and perhaps my current obsession with decent bathrooms when travelling stems from this moment.
Not only was there a stinking pile of used toilet tissue on the floor in the corner, having been festering there for weeks if not months (and no clean toilet paper for us to use), but the toilet was totally blocked and there was in fact no water whatsoever. For flushing, for showering, or even for washing hands.
Rather perplexed I questioned Marcel about this.
“Oh if it rains later we will have water!”
“And when will this be?”
“It could be today, maybe tomorrow, or a few days, I don’t know.”
“So no water at all until then, not even for washing hands?”
So we were expected to be handling animals and their byproducts all day, yet couldn’t even wash afterwards? Hubbie and I looked at one another, but being British didn’t dare to complain just yet. Surely it would rain and all would be ok.
We went about our allotted tasks in the quarantine area, mucking out exotic birds, feeding the coatimundis and battling spider monkeys that were becoming less cute by the minute, all the while glancing skywards in the hope the heavens would soon open. Alas, there was not a drop!
At lunch we were given cold lumpy mash with a side of deep-fried rodent, and then discovered there was no bottled or purified water to drink. Already very dehydrated from working in the heat we had no option but to drink what would inevitably have us hugging the toilet in the not too distant future.
It was the thought of being forced into an intimate relationship with our current toilet that drove hubbie to demand I stop being a wuss and just tell them we weren’t going to be staying. Easy for him to say. I’d had the sentences all constructed quite nicely in my mind, about how we couldn’t stay somewhere without water, but of course when it came to it they didn’t come out quite right and all we got was blank looks in return. I fluffed through it, telling them I was ill already (I wasn’t great on my future tenses) and eventually they understood. Possibly.
One slight problem though. We were on an island and the boat wouldn’t be operating until after the weekend. I contemplated swimming back to Flores, but not being confident I could outpace a crocodile that idea was soon cast away.
Some time later Marcel managed to radio a guy in the village with a boat and he agreed to come and pick up the mad English folk. Walking back down to the shore with Marcel I felt very sorry for him. ARCAS were obviously trying to do something great, and it did seem like we were just giving up. Yet our health had to come first and without water it would have been foolish to stay.
As fate would have it, whilst waiting for the boat to arrive a rumble of thunder overhead heralded what would become one of the biggest storms we’d ever seen, with enough water to fill thousands of swimming pools. Marcel didn’t bat an eye as he stood getting drenched whilst helping us into the boat. Not once did an ‘I told you so’ look cross his face, and he was nothing but genuine in wishing us a good trip. As his bedragled form got smaller and smaller on the horizon I wondered how long the centre would survive, and indeed Marcel himself.
Back in Flores we stopped at the first pension we came to – the Hostel Mirador del Lago – and almost cried with delight when they said a room was available. Inspecting our wounds (I had 64 mosquito bites on my arms alone) and collapsing exhausted on the beds we surveyed our new home. Paint was peeling from the walls, the floor was filthy and the curtains were threadbare. The bathroom door didn’t shut and like many other places all across Central America, water was heated by live wires protruding from above the shower head, giving the occupant an alarming Russian roulette washing experience. Still, to us at that moment it was paradise compared to ARCAS.
Hubbie was so tired he fell asleep sitting up writing his journal, and I crawled under the sheets without bothering to check for spiders (something I never forget to do, even at home!). Breakfast in a cafe next morning was equally delightful, with fresh pancakes and squeezy honey bottles complete with added wasps. Not even the sight of various parts of their anatomy on my plate could dampen our spirits at our escape.
With the onset of ‘travellers tummy’ looming, we wisely decided to find somewhere to stay for several days to sit it out, literally. La Casa de Don David in the little lake-side village of El Remate couldn’t have been a better spot. Sure we spent a lot of time being ill, but when you have a hammock on your veranda, topiary in the shape of toucans on the lawn and caring staff who seem like family, there are worse things in life. Add to that the magnificent Mayan site of Tikal just around the corner and things were certainly looking up!
Disclaimer: I should note that this trip was in September 2005 and looking at the ARCAS website today it appears things may have changed for the better since we visited. I’d love to give it another try should we ever return to Guatemala, as one thing is for sure, their hearts have always been in the right place!
Apologies for the poor photographs – this was before we discovered the joys of an SLR (at least it meant only about 200 photos to trawl through rather than 2000!).