Editors' Choice

Tikal

By Larry R. Moffitt

The author uncovers unusual animal behavior in the Guatemalan jungle.

"Hi," she said.

Her red bandana headband was saturated from the sweat pouring off her face and forehead, and my hair, under the straw hat, was soaked with it. We both stank to high heaven. Hi, followed by conversation, happens easily on the road, easier even than in line at the supermarket. It's the backpacks. They proclaim we are both strangers here and neither of us have any turf to defend or local image that needs propping up. As mochileros, backpackers, we have nothing to offer but ourselves, no story to tell but our own.

We sat on opposite ends of a ten-foot-long granite stone chiseled to the shape and angled precision of a stick of butter by someone two thousand years ago using…what? A piece of flint? banana leaves? This stone, which must have weighed two tons, may have been the entire life's work of the carver. The edges were worn rounded now and the surface was a pitted moonscape as you would expect from having sat out in the rain all this time, the last half century of which was laced with acid.

The stone was alongside a courtyard near a pyramid-like temple rising 200 feet above the rainforest floor. Between the big bang and sometime in the 1800's this tower was the tallest manmade structure in the Americas. We had just climbed up and down it, a rite of passage for visitors to this Mayan city in the jungle of northern Guatemala, abandoned and entombed by Mother Nature for a thousand years except for a few acres that have been restored to near-original grandeur. Before hi, we hadn't spoken or met. We had climbed the steep narrow steps with a half dozen others, gripping the chain handrail that ran up the middle. We stood in an anonymous group at the top, transfixed by a view that sent our imaginations out across a never-ending carpet of treetops.

At the moment, both of us were keeping an eye on an inch-long ant, black as obsidian, crawling over and around the irregularities of the rock's surface. My interest was based on not wanting it to sneak up on my hand and take a chunk out of it. Beverly's interest stemmed from being an entomology grad student from the University of Florida. "Pre-working on my pre-dissertation," she said. A masters degree freshly under her belt, she was in the process of deciding if she wanted to jump back on the treadmill for the long journey to a doctoral. If you're a bugologist, the high-canopy rainforest of Guatemala will probably have what you're looking for. Not that Florida doesn't have enough insects of its own to follow around, but you know what they say, the bugs are always greener on the other side of the fence. And if you need some space to just get your head together, well, there's plenty of that here too.

But right now Beverly was baking in a palm's half shade like me, chugging bottled water. She was early 20s, perky and earnest, wearing the uniform of the day: t-shirt, jeans and the required minimum of at least one item of clothing purchased at Banana Republic – hiking boots in her case. She carried a day pack with water and a couple of those health bars made from factory second dog biscuits. Her passport and money would be in there too. Nobody leaves that stuff at their campsite. She met the world through eyes of an indistinct brownish blue that seemed to be trying to observe everything in case there would be a quiz later. As we talked, she did my eyes and then checked out my hat, upper body, shoes, belt, hands, then a surreptitious check of the perimeter around us, and back again, all the while making the most casual conversation. A survival trait of women who travel alone; I've seen it a lot. I wonder if they even know they're doing it.

Her face was more angular than round, with a strong jaw and chin her best features. Too many nights sitting in the grad school library and scarfing down student union chili dogs had not helped her hips. But they weren't too bad at this point and she was young enough to effect whatever lifestyle disciplines she cared to in order to stay fit. She struck me as nice-looking, and cleaned up, would be even more so. And of course she was blithely immortal as she spoke of her studies and the future, as though her life would always be as it is now. No one in their 20s ever says thank God I have my health.

"Cockroaches," she replied when I asked about the nature of her research. She was doing some kind of comparison between two variations, one in Florida and one in Guatemala, of the same basic brand of roach.

"Really? What kinds?" Like I would have a clue. Getting her to open up about roaches was easier than getting pupae to pupate. She was looking at similarities (or was it differences?) between the genus latinword latinword, which are all over the place in Florida, and latinword latinword which you can find under every other leaf in this part of Central America. Her dissertation title would easily fill three lines in print and seemed to imply some kind of theory about twins being separated at birth and evolving into separate cockroach armies. It had "parallel evolution" and morpho-something in the name, that's all I can tell you.

Did you know there are thousands of species of cockroaches? No you didn't, not really, but Beverly does. Did you know that the flying cockroaches infesting South Florida originally came over from Vietnam in fruit shipments and in fact the merchant marine is the cockroaches' global interstate highway system? They get on with bell peppers in California and get off in Japan. On with mutton in Australia and off in South Africa. We spray and fumigate and stomp the little buggers but cockroaches are tenacious clingers to life. Hearing her describe her crunchy little friends made me feel like things were crawling on me. It must be interesting having an avocation that gives people the creeps. I wanted to ask her what's a nice girl like you doing in a field of study like this, but didn't yet know her well enough.

"So what is this?" I pointed, figuring here's where I learn the Latin word for ant, eatibus anythingibus or some such.

"It's an ant."

"Ah." An entomologist outside her specialty is as Joe Sixpack as the rest of us.

"Look." She pulled a small magnifying glass from her pack and held it over the ant for me to see through. I bent down close. On the other side of the glass it tripled in length and had pincers the size of hedge clippers. As calmly as if she were marking her place in a book, she placed her finger down in front of the ant and wiggled it to see if it would latch onto her fingernail. It did so with a vengeance, lunging into the attack.

"Atta girl," she said, and dragged it forward an inch or so. The monster ant wrestled fearlessly with the fingernail. I was impressed that she had the wherewithal to get so personal with one of nature's most voracious eaters and that she would risk it shooting over the nail and onto the finger's tender flesh. Okay, so she was different from Joe Sixpack.

She asked what I did and I mentally weighed two options. I could say I was a writer, which impresses the heck out of people for some reason, especially young women, but really wasn't true since I spent probably 90 percent of my waking life on administrative work in an office, completely unrelated to actual writing. On the other hand, saying I was a paper-pusher would have zero charisma, but it would carry the armor of truth and a virtue that is undeniably its own reward.

"I'm a writer."

We decided to walk over to the Jaguar Inn for some lunch, the only eatery in the park functioning at that time. That's when we met Ray walking along the same road for the same reason. Middle aged and affable, Ray would fit somewhere inside everyone's notion of average. Of medium height, He wasn't fat, but his chest had sunk into his paunch. He had short hair, thinning on top in the back, and an almost perfectly round head. He had found a trekker's hiking stick and poled himself along with it.

Like us, Ray had a tent in the park at the campground where most overnighters stayed. There weren't any showers anywhere, but there was a pump with a handle that, after a few quick pulls, would yield water. A sign on the pump warned that the water was limited for drinking only and strictly forbade using it to wash clothes or bathe. The sign might just as well have had a another sign appended to the bottom telling you to ignore the first sign, for all the good it did.

In late April, we were still a few weeks away from the start of the serious rainy season that would run well into October. The heat and humidity, and mosquitoes were not nearly the force they would shortly become. With a modest amount of repellant, it was possible to sleep unmolested at night in the string hammock I had haggled for in a market in Oaxaca, Mexico. Still, it was midday in the jungle and the heat was on.

The Jaguar Inn, a few bungalows and a cafe located in the park just a half mile away from the ruins, was the area's sole provider of "indoors." Lunch at the Jaguar was the same as breakfast and dinner – black beans and rice, and eggs. And cold beer. The service was slow and the waitress still mixed up people's orders on the three-item menu. On the other hand, it had a ceiling fan and was a place to sit where the sun and mosquitoes weren't. As soon as the cold beer arrived all three of us snatched up the bottles and touched the icy wetness to our necks and faces. The chill stung exquisitely, like a love bite.

In the silence that settled in around us, Bev asked Ray about himself. The friendship was an hour old and she had already transformed from a Beverly to a Bev, and now the whole tapestry of our existences seemed to be fair game for discussion. That's how fast it can work with strangers who know they will never see one another again after a day or two. Inquires that would be impertinent in any other context are acceptable in this one.

That's why we were surprised when her request, "so Ray, tell us about your life," threw him into a brown study. In the unnatural quiet we sensed an uncauterized wound had been touched by the most routine of inquiries. She hadn't asked him about his work, which would have been easy for him to handle. A person can hide behind his job all day. and besides we had already covered that one. He told us on the walk over that he was a contractor who built things on U.S. Army bases. He traveled all the time doing this. He also played the piano and after hours jammed with pick-up bands of soldiers, other pretty-good musicians who got together when they could.

The waitress brought the food. Beans and rice with a fried egg on top for all of us, along with a basket of fresh hard rolls and a second round of beer. We ate a little to fill the spaces in a conversation becalmed in doldrums. We could see Ray's composure was walking on eggshells. Finally he spoke. "I'm sorry."

"Want to tell us about it?" she asked reflexively, with a slight grimace of her mouth that begged a pardon if asking was making another mistake.

And that's when Ray told us about the inconceivable dual reality he had been living for twenty years. One life was spent as a straight-arrow husband in an empty marriage, the father of two children. a self-made businessman and amateur musician. Regular churchgoer. The works. In life number two Ray was addicted to all manner of homosexual activity, mostly with enlisted men, in rec halls on the bases. There had been officers too, even a major. He described furtive gropings in bathrooms and public buildings. He held nothing back. As he unrolled his map of two decades, we were riveted. He operated on one set of standards at home and a completely different set on the road. As much as anything else, we were struck by the utter aloneness of his existence.

Lately, and increasingly, the separate colors of his two lives had started to run together outside the lines. A lover from somewhere on the road had called his home a few times. He counted it no less a miracle than the parting of the Red Sea that he got to the mailbox first on the two occasions when letters came from a one-night stand whose requests were particularly graphic. "How did he find out where I live?" Ray asked the middle distance in front of him.

"Army bases have computers," Bev offered. "You're a contractor, so you're in the database. I was madly in love with my biology professor a couple years ago. That's how I tracked him down. It was easy…" The last couple words flattened out as she trailed off, expelled a betraying sigh that wound down to a tiny puff. In nothing more than a parenthetical fragment, I thought we may have seen a door behind which lies an entire world sealed off for good.

"He drives past my house," Ray said. Public exposure loomed, and with it community revulsion, heartbreak, devastation. In addition his business had been in a long rough patch and was in serious jeopardy of going down. The crows were gathering and Ray was feeling maybe it wasn't worth it. None of it worth anything.

Ray had come to Tikal to decide whether or not to kill himself.

When somebody tells you something like this, you're supposed to reach out, touch them meaningfully and urge, "no, wait, don't…all human beings are infinitely precious." And Bev did just that. In almost those exact words. She leaned in close, across the table and, I swear to God, touched his arm. I couldn't have gone there to save my life. I felt sorry for him but I've never been very good at this, and deep down in the nethermost dust bunnies of my soul, I wonder how long or happily everyone is supposed to live. Also, I don't impulsively touch gay men and even if I did, I don't say precious to anybody.

It would have been useless to remind Ray that, on the whole, double lives are good things to avoid, because there are enough deceptions and gray truth to keep track of in just one life. So I went for the more practical, "Were you thinking of taking a dive off the temple?" That was the start of Bev kicking me under the table.

"Oh my God, no, " Ray replied. "I'm much too chicken." Not wanting to inconvenience others, Ray would do something less dramatic with drugs or gas when he got home. He had started to accumulate a lot of life insurance and would try to make it look like an accident. "But I did think about it when I was up there," he said.

"So you got all this stress and anguish. And the idea of killing yourself is to escape from that into oblivion?" ka-KICK!

"Something…anything…I just don't want my family to…"

"But what if peaceful nothingness isn't what happens?"

He was wary and irritated at what he thought I was getting at. I got an inkling we weren't the first people he had had this conversation with. "Oh yeah, the burning fires of hell." he said. "Well, I don't buy into any of that."

"I don't either, but of course we never know. And that's the point. Nothingness is only one of a zillion possibilities. What if your suffering still exists and you're trapped in it? I mean isn't that why ghosts hang around and haunt things and rattle chains?" Ray rolled his eyes. Enormous kick, but I had moved my legs and Bev caught the post under the table.

Bev, ever the good cop, jumped in. "This isn't something you've definitely made your mind up about is it?"

"No."

She added, "…because it sounds like you're thinking out loud about… I feel like you're trying to desensitize yourself…like you're working up your courage to…do something." Direct enough I guess considering what she had been doing to my shins for saying what I thought was much the same thing. Neither of us had any way to know how far along he was in his plans, how definite, or if he was a serial crier for help or what. But I thought Bev was right. In front of us, two strangers he would never see again, he seemed to be seriously test-driving the idea.

"Maybe I am," he answered.

Bev and I didn't have a plan for where to take this, but we were connecting. Bev had ventured into euphemisms early on, referring to him as a borderline homosexual and bisexual, but I felt almost certain that wasn't true. I was sure Ray was gay as a box of birds and that whatever had been going on with him and his wife the past twenty years, he had been faking it all the way. That was my two cents and Ray didn't contest it when I brought it up. Bev sat beside me, and Ray across from us alternated looking at me, then her, then me, eyeball to eyeball with each of us. Every time my turn came around I was terribly aware I was looking deeply into the eyes of a man who bats for the other team. Not good for my homophobia, and it required a manual override of my autonomic fight-or-flight.

"Ray, you need to get real," I finally said. "You've obviously built a life you don't like and your business is going into the toilet, but you're talking about killing yourself, pulling the plug for all time. Forever. I think you need to quit playing games and think this thing all the way through because death is pretty fucking irreversible." That last part may have been delivered just a smidgen too loud. Every head in the place whipped in the direction of our table.

We stayed in the restaurant for three hours, holding down our corner as the rest of Tikal's gringo tourists, "banana republicans" we christened them after their sartorial sameness, drifted in, ate their beer and beans and left. I told them of my own decision-in-progress, about whether to keep on working in an office or risk all doing the writing I really wanted to do. If it didn't also involve my wife and kids, no problem, but not being able to provide for them, that was the scary part. The fantasy itself was superb. Getting up in the morning, taking my coffee cup and laptop up the ladder to the tree house in the woods out back. Banging out deathless prose to feed a world of hungry hearts. Coming down only to put on a tux and go to White House dinners. "Nice hallucination, huh?" I concluded.

"The best." Ray winked.

Ray eventually began to lighten up a bit. Nothing like a few cockroach stories to put everyone in a festive mood. Did you know some kinds will eat your eyebrows while you're sleeping? Life stories of broken loves were swapped and it was determined that nobody gets out of this world with their heart in one piece. In the end, a conspiracy was hatched. Sunset on top of Temple IV. Maybe the Mundo Perdido temple because it would be less of a tourist magnet come sunrise if we decided to do an all-nighter.

The only problem were the guards posted after the ruins were closed to the public. "Leave them to me," I assured my companions. The universal language that unites all mankind isn't love. It isn't even money or the barrel of a gun. It's cigarettes. Marlboro cigarettes. American Marlboro cigarettes have gotten me through more closed doors and gates and into the good graces of tinpot dictators with rubber stamps in more places than I can remember. I don't smoke them but it seems like everyone else does. But when we arrived, the guards weren't around. They shooed the tourists out of the park before dusk, hung around to guard for awhile, and then left themselves. Maybe they were off smoking that day's Marlboros. Or maybe they didn't care to be jaguar bait. Either way, they were gone and I was unable to demonstrate my bribing prowess.

The path into the restored part of Tikal was ours for the taking as the sun hovered through the treetops at a steep angle but still decently above the horizon. Provisioned with beef jerky, mucho bottles of piss-warm beer, three-quarters of a bag of sat-on Oreo cookie dust and four useless packs of cigarettes, we scampered up the high temple giggling like kids who had snuck into a ballgame.

We arrived atop the temple in time to watch the sun fall into the seamless covering of treetops spread out below us. We listened to howler monkeys, which sound like jaguars, and jaguars (which also sound like jaguars), down below and around on all sides of us – staking out their territory for the night. We were in the middle of deadly earnest, non-Disneyland jungle. And now it was dark. In retrospect, smart people would not have been where we were.

"What do you suppose killed this civilization?" Bev asked. "War?"

Ray knew. "They ran out of sacrificial virgins. They had nothing left to appease the gods with and so naturally the gods destroyed them."

More thinking aloud than speaking, I added, "We're pretty much out of virgins back home, as far as I can tell."

"Not a good sign," Ray said.

While waiting to be eaten, we held a free-flowing and slightly inebriated all-night dissection of the souls of all three of us. Ray wondered if I had any personal objection to "gay." Feeling no need to pony up the hypocritical preface, "I have many friends who are gay…" I simply told him that some time ago I arrived at the conclusion that "gay" is a stupid waste of time, and that Ray's pothering over his identity in the middle years of his life proved my point. It didn't, but somehow this made total sense in the moment.

I recited a couple of poems and was rewarded with their laughter and approval. They really liked the one about Attila the Hun and concurred that my life would be better spent pushing words around on paper than pushing papers through the colon of some great bureaucracy. We worked on our jaguar growls and taught Bev "Me and Bobbie McGee."

Bev found another giant ant, or rather it found her. She dispatched it with a swat and then started to demonstrate the fingernail bit with one of its friends. If it clamped her nail and didn't bite the finger, Bev would take it as a sign from God that she should pursue her dissertation. We had been urging her to do that all afternoon and the ant backed us up. The little bugger held on to beat the band. Ray hailed her "Dances with ants."

We even discovered a use for the Marlboros: mosquito repellant. We lit six at a time and set them all around us. We would have been driven away by "blood-sucking arthropoda" (a bugologist in the jungle can be endlessly informative) but the breeze above the trees kept most of them at bay, just as the stars and the companionship anchored us there until night melded into daybreak. The sunrise would have been outstanding if it hadn't been for the fog. In the dark of pre-dawn, as the dew was forming all over us like rain appearing out of thin air, the night's coolness and the still-warm earth married to produce a pea-soup shroud that rose from the jungle floor. Before it surrounded us and blocked out the stars, the fog climbed the temple stairs until it covered the treetops at our feet, washing us in reflected moonlight. We pretended to be the last three survivors of a castled city built on a cloud.

Somewhere in the night: "Ray, you need to figure out whatever the hell it is you are and then have a talk with your wife. Maybe the first real talk of your whole marriage. Chances are she already suspects you're gobbling army men since you've had sex with her like what, twice?" Bev, agreed, "I'm sure she must know, but maybe doesn't want to know." There on the top of the temple of ancient Tikal, we made Ray raise his right hand and swear before the orchid bedecked primordial gods of a disappeared people, that he wouldn't do anything dumb like the Mayans did. No human sacrifices. And that he would tell his wife what he should have told her twenty years and two children ago. At dawn we descended back into the present century.

The tall wet grass soaked our boot tops as we headed along the path from the ruins, past surprised guards who had come on duty at sunrise. Back to the campsite to say goodbye, roll our gear and depart on separate buses to our individual destinies, however enriching or pathetically tragic they would turn out to be. The fearsome threesome, unlikely to have met and even more unlikely to meet again. Dances with ants. Dances with words. Dances with soldiers.

* * *
Attila the Hun

Attila the killa
Attila the dog
Attila the Hun and his horde.

Attila would walk on the bed
in his shoes,
get close to your face,
and sneeze.

He'd grease his chin
with a mutton shank and sleep with his wives
and their fleas.

Attila the Hun was such fun.

About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For an archive of these stories go to the Editors' Choice link on The Flying Carpet; for more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.


Read more from Editors' Choice, Larry R. Moffitt

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