There are levels of fandom. We know this. There are people who know every factoid about their favorite movies or actors. I am not that person. I am the fan that goes oh yeah, I think I heard that or saw it on a documentary somewhere. This blissful ignorance has it’s perks. This blissful ignorance spawned one of the greatest stories of all time and of course, it’s true, hard to believe, and yes, it was magic.

I’m not one for boats. Actually, boats are fine it’s the vastness of water that intimidates me. We were not meant to travel far… I can hang on a small boat on a lake or even go for a bay cruise or take the ferry over to Alcatraz even though I have an unrealistic fear of great white sharks jumping out of the water thanks to a very famous photoshopped picture of a great white jumping out of the water with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. So, boats make me nervous. It isn’t that I get sea sick, or that I can’t swim. It’s that I know I can’t swim that far. Not seeing land is the problem. I thought I was fine with every mode of travel, I’d be fine riding a camel if it meant I got to go somewhere cool. For this trip of a lifetime, I had to get on a boat, on the ocean, and I wouldn’t be able to see land. Cue the nerves.

Long long ago in a place very very far away the fam stood in line with our color coordinated tags on our luggage. We were boarding group brown whatever the hell that means. Me, hubs, and two less than actually thrilled teenagers and my mom were about to get on a cruise ship. I know there are people out there in the world that think cruises are the greatest thing ever, the best way to travel. I was not convinced. This was our first cruise, and in my mind the people on a cruise ship are retired grey haired sandal and sock wearing people from the midwest. Standing in this line waiting to board, this stereotype was more than confirmed. I looked at my husband and said I feel like a three year old, there were couples celebrating their 70th wedding anniversaries. My daughter laughed and said if you think you feel young, I feel like a fetus. This was not going to be a party cruise, but I would still at least get a tan.

The first thing I learned after getting to our room was how to open the window. The second thing I learned is that it is all about the side trips. Ok, it is not life just on a boat for over a week. We had stops along the route and side trips planned. I may have taught history and geography but, really I have no good idea how far one place is from another. This means I have no idea what the best way to get to a place is, or really how long it will take unless google maps tells me. We had some long side trips ahead, really long.

We are cruising down the Eastern coast of Mexico. One stop hubs and I go searching for street food and wander off a bit to far and we ended up having to hop a fence in a construction area that was a mess because of previous hurricane damage. Fence hopping in swimsuits and flip flops, I do not recommend this. But, it was an adventure.

Another stop, hop on a bus and drive for a while. This bus was heading straight to ChichenItza. Ok this would be cool. I know about this place. We get there on National Free day and the place was packed. Like Disneyland packed. I was really excited to hop up on a step of a pyramid and picture sacrificed bodies rolling down all of the stairs. Nope. No touching, let alone climbing to the top. Bummer. I was thinking back as I was standing there in throngs of tourists and realizing my Great Grandmother had been where I was standing some forty years ago or more. That woulda been amazing, actually she was just amazing. A true adventurer.

The next stop is one my mom was super excited about. Guatemala. We were going to Tikal. Ok great at least I’ve heard of it, couldn’t picture it. Blissful forgetfulness? But now, I will never forget.

We leave incredibly early that morning, in the almost dark. A small car and driver pick us up. As we drive through Guatemala City early enough that I needed more coffee, I think ok cool this will be easier than the tour bus. Nope. We turn the corner and I see fence and barbed wire and a building that resembled a small jail…and then I see the next leg of this trip. An “airplane”. Standing next to the “airplane” are guards with large machine gun looking guns. This plane immediately makes me nervous. Ever Indiana Jones where the guy loses his head in a propeller? Yeah, that scene is playing in my head. This plane looked older than me and well, did I mention it started to rain. Great. Propeller plane, armed guards and its raining. In the corner of my eye I see a statue of the Virgin Mary. I am not comforted thinking prayer is a necessary part of the plan. I think one other person from the cruise was on the trip with us at this point but all I could think of was that my whole fam was on this tiny plane that was about to fly over a jungle. I start to imagine episodes of survivalists shows. Nervous as I was, the flight attendant takes out her phone enters a location…yeah google maps was the nav system. I am scared. I didn’t think even Bob Marley on my headphones was going to get me through this one. We take off and I feel like a school bus goes faster, probably has better suspension at the very least. To put it mildly, it was a bumpy flight, I was too nervous to appreciate how pretty it was. Besides, it was raining and I couldn’t really see out the tiny windows.

We land. I thank the gods, all of them. This new airport was an actual airport, not an old jail masquerading as one. I realize that I am going to have to get on that plane again to get back to the ship. Shit. This better be worth it.

Are we there yet? Nope. Get in the van. We start driving and of course have the obligitory stop along the way to the cruise line souvenir shop. Looking at the souvenirs I still have no real idea where I’m going. The stores didn’t have the typical shot glasses and refrigerator magnets to clue me in. We get the history lesson along the way from the guy in the van with the microphone and portable PA system. Yes, this part I knew. It was starting to come together. However, after the last field trip to a world history site I was anticipating more Disney length lines than archeology. I quieted four year old me, reminded her no touching.

We drive into the park, strangely quite a bit like entering Jurassic Park. We are surrounded in jungle and tourists, but this time there were not nearly as many people. This is good news as I’m not sure my nerves had recovered from the plane ride quite yet.

We meet with a tour guide for a small group and begin walking in the jungle. After the plane ride I am already starting to feel like Indiana Jones. I’m on an adventure but I know not to eat the dates. This is cool, I am trekking in a freaking jungle. Then I hear a sound that makes my hair stand on end. The guide casually says oh, that’s a howler monkey. For reference they do NOT sound like a freaking monkey, they are guttural angry sounding things you can’t even see. Ok, that was loud, nifty and a bit scary. We keep walking and in the distance the structures start to appear. Oh, yeah the temples…

The next few moments were for me, legit magic.

The guide says out loud, I promise it wasn’t just me making it up in my head, that we COULD CLIMB THE TEMPLE PYRAMIDS. I look around to make sure Monkey wasn’t playing a trick on me to get me in really, really big trouble. Nope, it was real. I was going to climb to the top.

We started to climb. I was getting the sense that this place was familiar to me. Not the places that pull type of place, not the familiarity that makes you believe in reincarnation. This was a sense that I had seen this before and it was important. Then, finally at the top of the pyramid I see the 2 other pyramids in the distance and it hit me. I WAS IN STAR WARS. Four year old me could not contain herself, grown ass me couldn’t either. I giggled, then laughed at myself then cried. Nerd Alert…I was on Yavin 4. I heard a howler monkey and thought of Chewey. I could not stop smiling. Just F’n Epic. I had just survived a flight on the death airplane of Indiana Jones and been to the Rebel base on the same day. I was in the place of true nerd delight, I was in Star Wars, I could hear Chewey. I waited to catch a glimpse of the Falcon…

One little catch. We were really like airplane required far from the boat we needed to get back to and apparently we were running late. Uh oh.

Late for us means we miss the boat and get transportation to the next port of call…somehow. I was so giddy, and in my own movie magic world that didn’t seem too awful and maybe I wouldn’t have to get on that plane again. We would learn later that for all of the people providing the transportation on the side trips for cruises that when they are late it apparently means losing hundreds of dollars and their coveted well paying jobs. Hundreds of dollars, as in months of salary and fired. This important piece of information that we didn’t get until later, would help make sense of the next few crazy, actually fucking crazy hours.

We get in the van to get back to the airport. We are being hurried along for sure. The van is barreling down the road. Road. Not a highway. Not one with stoplights or traffic rules of any kind as we are in a fairly rural area. There are here, as in many parts of the world I’ve been to, lots of stray dogs running around. This part of the story sucks, and requires sensitivity and understanding that different cultures are…different. It is also important to know that the risk and threat unknown to us at this point of losing months of salary or getting fired is real.


The guy driving the van like a bat out of hell, yep hit a dog. Most of the people on the van make the audible sound of shock. My mother on the other hand begins yelling at the driver. Yes, that sucked but we knew yelling at the driver was sure as hell not going to help us in any way shape or form. We did get her to calm down but she was pissed. Understandably. I’m realizing that this van driver is in a hurry on a level I don’t understand and am honestly in a bit of shock. Then, I realize I have to get on another death airplane. Take me back to Star Wars, please. That was an uncomfortable AF van ride, but we made it and kept my mom from cussing out the driver because nobody wants to go to jail in the middle of a Guatemalan jungle. We were hurried on the plane, at least here there weren’t armed guards as our escorts. Ok, deep breath just think of Star Wars.

This time I intentionally look to the beauty outside the plane to ease myself. Green as far as the eye can see, flying low in clouds, low enough you could see the occasional big ass bird flying below us. Either we were flying really low, or that was a really big bird. The tail of the plane swaying a bit back and forth, I remember to breathe and almost enjoy the flight. We land. Back to the guards with the guns and the Virgin Mary.

The driver calls for us. He’s busily texting and calling. We are something like thirty minutes late already, and the trip over from the boat to the airport it had taken thirty minutes. As bad as I am with directions and time, I knew an hour late wasn’t going to work for anyone. We get in the van and start heading out of the machine gun Virgin Mary airport.

Guatemala City, isn’t a small city. It is a bustling port city, a hub even. Just like any other major city it has rush hour traffic. Perfect Timing. We are definitely going nowhere fast. Then, we see the flashing red and blue lights in front of us, and I imagine the road closing due to an accident. I am now picturing the boat leaving without us. Nope. I could not have been more wrong.

Cue the frantic music, start the chase. We begin driving on sidewalks and through crowded streets, with a high speed police escort. Even a fruit cart was overturned, just like in the movies. The trip that had previously taken us about thirty minutes with no traffic took us what felt like five we are going to die minutes. We were not going through the quick customs check or walking the almost mile back to the dock. We are escorted directly on to the docks by the police right to the boat, like right to it. We didn’t miss the boat, they had waited though honestly we weren’t expecting them to. We see what seems to be all of the passengers all standing around the railings impatiently waiting. I’m fully expecting to be berated and booed by fellow cruisers as we get onboard. Wrong again.

We speedily pull up, I swear the van drifted sideways to a stop in a most cinematic fashion. We get out of the van, quickly albeit nervously… Thunderous applause and cheers erupt from the ship. If they only knew. I don’t think they would have believed us if we tried.

I pictured the upcoming cocktail hour and laughed a bit on the inside. Other people had gone to museums or to see birds. How quaint. How the hell was I going to answer the inevitable how was your day question that night over a friendly much needed Manhattan? Well, I figured that saying it was a day full of fear, caution, pride, nerves, joy, elation, sadness, confusion, compassion, disbelief, awe… a combination of everything on the spectrum of the human experience would be a bit much for casual conversation. I didn’t think is was possible to truly experience what I believe to be every single range of emotion in a day, to feel absolutely alive but I did that day. Not to mention the fact that I had just been in Star Wars and these folks weren’t exactly nerds like me. So to answer their questions, I said it was quite the adventure, and nodded my head.

Life is an adventure we get to share when we are lucky. Sometimes the greatest adventure is found where you least expect it, and sometimes it is exactly where it is supposed to be. That day was one of the greatest adventures of all time and a story that I just had to tell.

We are all stories in the end, make it a good one… and may the Force be with you, always.

Learning to live unafraid.

2 Comment on “Tikal Tale

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