A Trip to Flores, August 10, 1963
(Account written in 1963 by William A. Haviland)
Here begins the true narration of the weekend events at Lake Petén. It has been a memorable weekend, and a fine way to celebrate the birth of a son.
Saturday, Pat, both Eds, Dennis, and I set out for Remate. The occasion was the departure of Pat and Ed, the Bigger. The idea was that they would go on from Flores to Cardenes, hop a barge down the Sarstun to Puerto Barrios, and go from there via bus or train to Guatemala City. The whole trip would be by land from Tikal. Our part was to drive to Remate, where a friend of Tono would meet us and take us by boat to Flores.
We took no chances. Friday afternoon, Big Ed took the big truck, the chain saw, and four men and went about half way to Remate, sawing up four large trees which were down across the road. The time was well spent, for it speeded our trip considerably.
Saturday morning was D-day. We put on Tono’s plates to avoid trouble should we run into the Guardia, and got the pickup truck all gassed up and checked out. Then, who should amble over but the local guardia. I had visions of two years ago when the arm of the law demanded rum for permission to let us go to the lake. My fear was misplaced, for he only wanted to warn me that there were several trees down.
We started at nine on a slightly muddy and slick road, so we really couldn’t pour on the fuel. I was at the helm, with Dennis as co-pilot. The others all sat in back with the spare tire and baggage. The road has really been improved, they say with Alliance for Progress money. Not only are the weeds lower than the windshield, but there are even road signs. Some say “despacio.” Others, at frequent intervals, give the distance to Flores in kilometers. Only trouble is, you have to be driving from Flores to be able to see how far it is to Flores. No matter. In one place is a sign saying “brecha,” where a brecha crosses the road. But really, the road is fine. The Alliance for Progress is a great thing; I think all of three vehicles have used the road since it was re-opened. But, on with the tale.
We hadn’t gone but ten minutes past where Ed had turned around the day before, when we came to a fallen tree. Just a short distance past a sign saying “trabajos FYDEP.” We hauled out the axe and machetes and went to work, but it was hard going. It was a hell of a tree, and the task was no simpler for the fact that the axe head kept flying off the handle, as if it was Guatemala’s answer to orbital flight. Max (the project mechanic) fixed us up in good shape, all right. But we persevered, and on we went. Ten minutes later, what do we find? Another tree. This one a zapote, and hard as nails.
Well, we were lucky. The axe crew worked, on one end, while Dennis and I worked on a big root with machetes. The axe was now rapidly going to pieces. The head would fly off, so we tried cutting a wedge. This succeeded only in splitting hell out of the handle, not exactly our intention. But again, we persevered. We got it cut to a point where we could hook the winch on and drag it out of the road. As it turned out, this was the last tree we had to deal with, which was a good thing considering the condition of the axe. But a new horror awaited us. We were churning our way through a muddy bajo when pow! A blowout in the left front tire. I tried to run on through, but I couldn’t hold it and had to stop. We surveyed the situation; not only was the tire flat, but somewhere along the way we had lost a lug nut.
There was only one solution obviously: put on the spare. Surprisingly enough, we had one along and also a jack and wrench. Big Ed grabbed the jack, and then things went from bad to worse. It was a hydraulic jack, and the little pump came apart. Oil started gushing out like Old Faithful. Like the Dutch boy at the dike, Ed stuck his finger over the hole and stemmed the flow. He tried putting it together, but no luck. I tried; same result. Then Dennis tried and, miracle of miracles, it went together. We ripped out a bench, put the jack on it, and by a combination of jacking and digging the wheel out, we got the spare on.
After this, things started looking up. We went through some wicked bajo, sometimes almost floating rather than driving. But the trusty truck took it all in stride and went on through. Of course, a rainstorm would really have loused things up, but Lady Luck was now smiling on us. Big clods of dirt full of clay gathered on the wheels, to be flung in the air and dropped where the windshield would be, if we had one. They resembled clods of a well-known organic substance. We made Remate by 11:30, to find Julio waiting for us with his outboard. We had a truly delightful trip down the lake to Flores. It was very much like coming to another world, and not unlike a trip down the reach at Deer Isle. Only the water wasn’t salty, and instead of sea gulls, we had millions of butterflies all over the place.
The boat trip lasted 45 minutes to an hour. In the meantime, we acquired wonderful sun tans. Or rather, sun burns. Flores itself is like a world apart, and is utterly fascinating. And, I can now claim to have been in the oldest continually inhabited settlement in the western hemisphere.
We landed and Julio, our guide, took us ashore. The landing itself was lots of laughs, for we simply ran full tilt up to the shore till bam! We ran aground. Then he took us into a back yard, through a kitchen and past several sleeping quarters, and up some stairs. We found ourselves then in the local drugstore, behind the counter. We later learned that the pharmacist was a Tulane graduate. From here we emerged on the streets of Flores. These are wide avenues, although there are no cars. Grass grows between the cobbles, and chickens wander about freely. Those who are enterprising weed the streets in front of their houses, but others don’t, so that the streets present a sort of checker-board pattern. The architecture is fascinating; great houses with balconies, often with big black Sopilotes roosting on the roof. It has an other-worldly charm. The whole island is built up right to the water’s edge. Some 2000 people live there, in a space roughly 500 meters by 250 meters. Padre Avendano, before the conquest of the Itza, gives a similar population estimate. The father of Julio explained the attractions. “No mosquitoes, no snakes”. When Julio suggested lunch, we asked if the place was close. His reply: “In Flores everything is close.”
We were settled in a house all to ourselves, at Q. 1.00 a head, per night. Then we had a delicious meal at about the same price, while some kids across the street serenaded us with a tiny marimba and drums. Midway through this luncheon concert, a cloudburst came, so they all pulled a towel over themselves.
After lunch, we caught a dugout canoe and went to Tayasal. This was a very large site; extensive and with high mounds. There is a beautiful view of Flores from one pyramid, with all the water traffic in dugout canoes around it. We also saw the site of Tono’s new luxury hotel, which is quite nice.
From Tayasal we went to Santa Siena, and walked two kilometers to Jobitsinaj, the cave. This we explored extensively, and it is beautiful. There are huge domed chambers, with cascades of stalactites, as well as some columns. After entering, there is a whole series of large chambers. From these, there is a hard-to-find crawlway leading to another whole series of huge chambers. I hope someday to return here, with adequate lights and a camera. I have never seen such a beautiful cave. As it was, the four of us had only an electric lantern and one flashlight. Pat and Julio sat for two hours at the mouth of the cave.
After all this activity, we returned to Flores, and had another look around. The central plaza is on the highest point of land, and here are located the church, city hail, jail, and governor’s mansion. The church looks from a distance as if it was bombed out, but when you enter it has the usual candles and ornamentation in the front. Part of the church, I gather, dates from the colonial period. There are also three Maya stelae, two of which are built into a wall of the plaza. There is also a basket ball court, and the whole plaza is lit at night by mercury vapor lights. This is of interest, for through the rest of Flores are several street lights, consisting of bulbs dangling from poles by wires. You can tell they are lit after dark, because if you look up, you can see them glowing very feebly.
Supper was excellent, and we were again entertained by some kids. This time, they were watching us while we ate, through a window. They had apparently been exposed to American movies, for at one point they started chanting, in English, “goodnight, my love.” Kids all over town were most interested in us gringos, and followed us around. When we moved into our house, about a dozen kids stood in the doorway staring at us.
After supper, we returned to our house, to find the owner there. He showed us the wonders of modern electricity. You flipped a switch, and a bare bulb in the ceiling gave a dim glow.
Next on the agenda, we all trooped down to the barber and got haircuts, at 75 cents a throw. It was most amusing to see five previously shaggy people closely cropped. That barber really worked for his money.
By this time we were all quite tired, but we were informed that a dance was in progress in Santa Elena. Well, this we had to see, so we all piled in a dugout and went over. We didn’t stay long, but had a few chuckles. The music was by marimbas, an outfit called Ecos del ltza. They had two marimbas, one three-man and one four-man. No one appeared to take notice of the four bearded gringos (Little Ed was unable to raise a beard), until Dennis stepped off a culvert and lost his balance. With this, a hundred women screamed.
With this, we returned to Flores, in the company of a boatman who was a laugh. He spoke slowly, and told one person that he thought it would be much better to sit down. Very slowly be said it, as if speaking was a real effort. Then, silence till we got to Flares. Then, again very slowly, deliberately, “muy bien, hovennes.” As if we had had anything to do with the success of the trip over!
Sunday dawned, bright and clear. And the chief event of the morning concerns Julio’s father, who speaks excellent English. We ran into him the night before at the barber’s, and he spoke of all the Maya sites he had seen. He knew Morley, who had paid him $25.00 for every new ruin he led him to. He spoke also of a big stone wheel he had found at lxlu, and offered it to us for the Tikal museum. “Oh, it only weighs 100 pounds, the boat will take it easily.” This we were dubious about, since on the trip to the island the gunwales had almost been awash. But we agreed to go look at it.
Early in the morning, we went to have a look. I guess it is a mill stone of the colonial era, not an ancient Maya wheel as our host insisted. It was heavy, at least 200 pounds worth. Still dubious, we put a pole through the hole, and four of us paraded through the streets of Flores to the landing place. We must have been quite a sight. Our host reassured us all the while: “Sure, boys, the boat will take it. Only last week there were twenty people in that boat. Three of them drowned.”
We made it to the water’s edge, all right, and there was Julio who took one look and said no. So, there the wheel was left.
After this fiasco, we said our goodbyes to Pat and Big Ed, climbed aboard Julio’s boat, and off we went to Remate. Little Ed was determined to sit in the bow seat, so before anyone else got aboard he hopped in and appropriated it. Everyone else had to climb around him. Dennis and I sat amidships. As it turned out, there was a breeze and the lake was quite choppy. The boat bounced, and of course the worst spot in the boat was the bow seat Dennis and I sat on our calf muscles, which padded us, and we were quite comfortable. But poor Ed. He is skinny and boney anyway, and he bounced around like a cork. Oh, how he bounced. He tried perching on his hands. No good. He tried squatting. No good. He tried turning around. He tried everything, except sitting on his calf muscles, and all to no avail. He kept bouncing around like a marble in a most amusing manner.
We made Remate in good time, got the truck, and went up the road a way to have a swim. We lolled in the water for about an hour of sheer bliss. Dennis used his pants to make water wings to float on. I went in clothes and all, but these I shed. There was a sweet young thing not far away, who was taking a bath, and didn’t seem the least concerned with our presence.
The time came all too soon to climb back into the truck and be off. I was a bit worried about the lack of a spare tire, but we got back to Tikal in jig time with no mishaps. Fortunately, it had not rained at all, so the bajos were no worse than before. One feature of the return trip was that every time we hit a bajo, the hood would fly up. Naturally, I wasn’t about to stop in the mud. I leaned out of the cab so I could see where I was going, and when we hit solid ground, Dennis would hop out and bang the hood down again.
We arrived at Tikal at 11:30, so we must have made very good time. As we came in, the men and kids sitting around gave us a rousing- cheer, and we learned later that Max had been concerned and suggested a rescue party. Perhaps the result of guilt feelings over that horrible axe?