Vagabond Dreams Outtakes are “deleted scenes” from my book. Think of them as a “Special Features” disc of outtakes and curios. This incident took place in the Peten region of Guatemala…
Overgrown jungle pathways linked the main ruins of Tikal, transforming predictable sightseeing into something approaching exploration. I walked quietly and breathed deeply of the damp jungle air. Birds called from the canopy and troops of spider monkeys chattered in the distance. Smells of humid earth and decaying vegetation filled my nose. The intense heat of the flatlands wrapped me in a clammy blanket that I wanted to kick off.
The outer ruins lay as they were found. Walking there alone, it really did feel like I had just discovered the site after centuries of tomb-silence. The ruins hinted at stories long forgotten and enormous tracts of time. Jagged heaps of dislocated stones crumbled under probing and strangling roots. An enormous tarantula picked its careful eight-legged way across a shattered inscription. Whole buildings slept undisturbed beneath a living blanket of tangled growth that was slowly reclaiming the city.
History was digested there. The very land consumed it. Jungles exist entirely in the present, and purely in the physical. Their geography doesn’t allow for abstractions. The jungle misuses nothing because it values nothing. And the jungle never tells what sleeps beneath the trees.
Compared to the half exposed ruins on Tikal’s outer limits, The Great Plaza felt like a prop. Tourists wandered around armed with video cameras; Hawaiian shirts flapped; guides radiated fake cheer into the stifling heat. I had to stretch my imagination to the breaking point to block them all out.
Luck was with me. Some strange conjunction caused all the tour groups to leave at the same time, and none came to replace them. I scurried up the tallest temple, my shoes chuffing on dry rasping stones, to the edge of the platform and the small chamber with its black missing tooth of a door. I looked down on the plaza and imagined myself a Mayan high priest, standing before throngs of people, arms outstretched in benediction or in warning. A bloody heart beat spastically in my hand; I could feel it, just as I could feel the reverberations in my ribcage of the hoarse roar of the crowds below. My arm dripped blood and gore. The temple was a stage set and I was deeply absorbed in my role. The ghosts of the plaza turned to watch with approval, and I felt with my fingers their very touch upon the stones.
It was what I’d been seeking in Panama City when I followed the trail of Henry Morgan. Back there my preconceived agenda had blinded me to subtle emanations, because I hadn’t yet learned how to listen. But in Tikal I glimpsed, however briefly, a new way of sightseeing, one that involved “thick” or “deep” time, a peek into the distant past fuelled by wide reading and that rare conjunction of having the entire stage to oneself. I felt somehow that the Road Gods had blessed me, had rewarded me for my ceaseless struggles, for my honest efforts and my faith. It almost never happens in today’s world of budget travel and accessibility, where everything has been made so easy, interpreted simplistically on big wooden signs to cater to the lazy and the unimaginative.
The great monument builders of the world must have been motivated by the suffocating weight of time. They watched as the creatures of the jungle died, decayed and vanished back into the earth with nothing to show that they had ever lived. The monument builders knew that, though their flesh would pass, the carved stones they left behind would last through the ages.
So many people accept their presence in this world as a given. They plod along in the same well worn track as all those before them, driven here and there by impulse and instinct in a sterile Pavlovian existence. They live nine-to-five lives, affecting no one and changing nothing. The world is no better or worse for their having existed. They leave no trace; like a song they just fade away.
The very idea horrified me. I wanted to change something, to leave my own small footprint in time. A Mayan reminder.
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