AND THERE WAS ME thinking the Fonz was dead? Apparently not: alive and well, running a small hotel in Flores, Guatemala. I got quite a shock when I walked into the place and saw him. Then I realised it couldn't be him, as the Fonz was always smiling. This grumpy old sod looked like he was twenty years into a life sentence. We informed the Fonz we'd like to take a look at the rooms; with a raise of the eyebrows and a heavy sigh, he shuffled off up the stairs. Everything seemed to be an effort. I can't recall the name of the place, but after a few hours we'd renamed it Hotel Peligroso (Hotel Dangerous).
After the bus journey from the border, I was keen on a shower. It wasn't the hottest, and I was casting doubtful eyes at the dodgy-looking wiring above the shower head. Now you can ask my Dad, or any of my mates who've shared a flat with me, and they'll tell you I take ages in the shower. But I wasn't long in this one once I began to smell burning plastic. Conscious of Guatemala's reputation for electric shocks in the bathroom, I was out of there in less than a minute. Gingerly drying off while stood on my flip-flops while casting suspicious glances at the shower, I put some distance between myself and any water on the floor, trying to instantly forget the fact that electricity can leap through space, anyway. I mentioned it to Kneehead, but I believe he took it as exaggeration. He was in there a few hours later and I got a whiff of plastic again, followed by curses from him in the shower. Apparently the plastic tape around the wires had begun smoking, followed by a bright red glow above the shower head as the tape melted. He was out of there even quicker than I was, much to my amusement. We agreed we were leaving for Tikal in the morning.
Flores is a tiny little island in the middle of a lake, connected to the surrounding land by a causeway; the last point in Central America to fall to the Spanish Conquistadors in 1697. The short road is one-way, and as a result it's a Guatemalan Grand Prix of tuk-tuks, taxis and motorbikes going as fast as possible; not the quietest place. A quick walk around the town and a few drinks, and you've seen and done it. Besides, the four of us were too excited about seeing the ruins at Tikal to be hanging around. Dodging the tout who'd been hanging around, telling us sold-out stories to make us book with him, we went and booked transport for the next afternoon.
After the tat stalls in and around Chitchen Itza, Tikal was a pleasant surprise: there is absolutely nothing besides well-kept ruins and jungle here. We arrived late in the afternoon, soon enough to get in to see the sunset from Temple IV. This is the vantage point for two other nearby pyramids, as seen in Star Wars. One side was covered in scaffold, as the structure was undergoing renovation. Several guides and guards were sat at the top, and one said we could climb through the scaffold to see the sunset, for a bribe. It wasn't much, and through we went, along with a few photographers. I was chatting to the guide for a while, when Kim Bognor's knock-off Adidas bag from Belize began to disintegrate on him. Both straps had gone, and he was trying to tie it together. I chuckled, amused he'd had it less than a week, and said to the guide "Hecho en China?" while gesturing at it. Kim sniggered and cast his eyes left. I followed his gaze and swallowed a laugh when I saw two Asian photographers looking over at me. They looked Japanese. Or Korean. Hopefully. Still, if you'd make the stuff properly, I couldn't make detrimental remarks about it, could I?
The guide informed us that, if we wanted to see the sunrise at 6.30am, we could arrange to meet him and pay the guards off; the park only opens at 6am. Not enough time to get up to Temple IV and climb it, unless you sprinted and knew your way. He wanted 150 Quetzales, but I'd heard you could just pay the guards on the gate Q50 at 5am...no need for a guide. The Bognors and Kneehead were up for it, but our mate Motorbike George wasn't up for an early start. Lazy beggar...come all this way and not see the sunrise? No need for an alarm for us, I assured Kneehead that his nocturnal noises would no doubt have me up at some point.
The Bognors hadn't had much sleep. When I crept through the tented encampment to make sure they were up, there was a horrendous snoring coming from one tent...no-one could have slept through that. They hadn't. Bleary-eyed, they were ready in minutes. Guards bribed, and we were on our way into the pitch-black jungle. The previous day I'd taken a path which had skirted all the other ruins, and led directly to Temple IV. Nicola said we should go that way, but Kim and Kneehead argued for going right through the ruins, as they'd done. They assured us they knew the way; they clearly didn't. We were wandering at random for a while, just a crappy map and scant signage within the park to guide us. I'd stupidly forgotten to bring my torch, leaving it in my big bag in Flores. Kim's light wasn't very strong, and began dimming and flickering at one point. He switched it off to swap batteries, and luckily I had a cigarette lighter to illuminate the scene. If not, and he'd dropped the batteries, we'd have been buggered. With the light out, you couldn't see your own hand in front of your face. I was hardly reassured when Kim told me he'd bought the torch from a Pound Shop in Bognor Regis.
Eventually we reached Temple IV after a spectral walk through the mist. Nicola had clung to Kim, telling us that if the light failed she was going to start screaming hysterically. I'd never seen her so tactile. We scampered up the wooden stairs to the summit, and sat on the topmost steps of the pyramid. Out in front of us were expanses of vast jungle in every direction, shapeless in the pitch darkness. The outlines of the other temples were barely visible. So we sat and waited, soon joined by around 20 other people.
The sky turned deepest purple as light crept from behind the horizon. Outlines of distant trees appeared gradually with the light, swallowed in lakes of morning mist. This was the cue for the howler monkeys to begin the dawn chorus, roaring their message across the jungle, marking territory. Primates from miles away called back, their cries echoing through the dark; surrounding us. The sun broke the horizon, graduated blues replacing the purple above the foliage. No-one spoke. This felt like the beginning of creation; nobody wanted to spoil this intensely atmospheric moment, each of us alone with our thoughts. As the boiling orb crested in the distance the misty lakes receded; shadows retreated. All were smiles as we broke ranks to head back down. I've seen some amazing sights in the last three years, but this was right up there...a special, dramatic experience.
The ruins sprawl over a huge area, and it takes a full half day to see them all. Machu Picchu is a dramatic setting, but I think Tikal tops it, in my opinion. The jungle setting; the intact ruins themselves; and that amazing sunrise. We bumped into Motorbike George an hour later, and had to describe what he'd missed. He didn't care, he said he wouldn't get up at 4.30am for anything. More fool him. (I've bumped into George again recently, and he'd taken his new girlfriend up there to see Tikal and still didn't manage the sunrise)
We wandered over to Temple V and climbed some rickety, near-vertical wooden stairs. I don't normally suffer from vertigo, but this gave you those butterflies in the balls as you reached the top. It's a great view from there, but a hell of a way down if you slip. I don't know about you, but the only problem I have with tall buildings, waterfalls etc is the nagging urge I get to jump. It's nothing suicidal, more the notion that I have some degree of control over life and death from there; I could simply step off and soon cease to exist. Blackness. Nothingness. It sounds odd, I know...and I've only met one person in my life who has had similar thoughts, too. No need to have the men in white coats waiting at Heathrow with a big butterly net or anything, though...honest.
I started heading down the ladder backwards. A woman was making her way slowly up the adjacent ladder, when some idiot decided to climb up the one I was descending, so as to overtake her; a little reckless when we were all a good 90 feet off the ground. I shouted that he was going up the wrong ladder, but he simply climbed back across to the other one, completely ignoring me as he barrelled past at a cretinous speed. Getting a good look at his attire and sandals as he passed, I made an educated guess as to his nationality. Later, at the base of the temple, everyone was feeding the ravenous monkey-like creatures. George had seen me fuming on the ladder, and he asked the nearby sandal-wearer where he was from. "Israel" he said. "That figures" said George, as he turned back to us. (Incidentally, two intrepid travellers I know from the Philippines emailed me after The Unmentionables posting. They'd been in a tuk tuk in Luzon once and, mid-conversation with the driver, he turned round and said "I hate Israelis." Jon Boy asked him why and he replied "Because they never want to pay me.")
So, in summary. Fonzy: not dead. Tikal: incredible. Guatemalan showers: most dangerous since Belsen. Israelis: zero social skills and 90% horrible.