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Apocalypse Any Minute Now

Mired in a jungle, and the only route out, past soldiers and smugglers, is a rented boat--or was it 'borrowed'?

October 29, 2000|ERIC ELLMAN | Eric Ellman is a freelance writer based in Arizona

Thank God we hadn't actually stolen the boat. We knew that. Too bad nobody else seemed to care. Except for one ticked-off campesino, that is. Jumping up and down on the pier, he exhorted the driver of our cargo vessel to hand us over.

We were in Sayaxche, a small town in Guatemala's steamy Peten state. And stranded. One week into crossing the jungle by mountain bike, 500 miles from the nearest parts store, my traveling companion, Mark, had snapped his derailleur. Exhausted and mosquito-bitten, he'd pushed his broken bicycle until he caught up with me in a clearing on the banks of the Rio Petexbatun.

He collapsed on the shore, looked up and spied the boat. I use the term loosely. It was a dugout, hand-hewn from the trunk of a single tree and leaky. No matter. Desperate, Mark suggested we take it and paddle the 10 miles--his estimate--that separated us from Sayaxche.

"No way," I said, aghast that this guy I'd casually linked up with would suggest theft.

But then a boy appeared, and I inquired about renting.

He said he would ask the owner, who lived 30 minutes away.

The boy returned and negotiated. For most of our remaining money we could take it to Sayaxche, and he'd pick it up the next day with his father, who owned a real boat, one with an outboard motor.

Agreed. We threw our bikes on board and, using pieces of two-by-four, paddled down the Petexbatun to its confluence with the Rio de la Pasion at Sayaxche. We left the boat to be picked up and dragged our soggy selves to the wharf.

At Sayaxche, sleek, modern cargo boats take on clandestine loads of beans and corn. When authorities aren't looking, they whisk those goods 24 hours downriver for sale in Mexico. Once the boats are weighted down to the waterline, passenger space goes on sale.

The outboard had just sputtered to life, and Mark and I were just getting comfortable atop gunnysacks of grain, when the screaming campesino appeared.

"Those are the gringos who stole my boat!"

He was distraught. I was confused. Why would he say such a thing?

"But we rented it!" I yelled over the idling motor. "I gave the money to your son," I said in bad Spanish.

He bellowed: "I don't have a son! What did you do with my boat? Come back here! I'll call the police! I'll radio downriver to the military!"

Panic enveloped me. This was Guatemala 1991, years before peace accords would end the country's civil war, then in its third decade. Violence and lawlessness were part of life's fabric. Just three days before, right there in Sayaxche, townspeople had lynched three brothers accused of criminal misdeeds.

Yet except for this one poor man, beside himself at the disappearance of his boat, everything was calm. The jungle was still. Twenty-odd passengers sat on the boat in silence. The motor quietly belched smoke. "What do you want to do?" the driver asked.

What should I do?

"You paid for the boat. Don't worry," he said, skating over the problem that the boat apparently was nowhere to be found.

As for the irate man's threats, "No one here goes to the police," the driver said.

Mark, a few smug boat-lengths from shore, looked from behind polarized sunglasses and asked, "Why are you even talking to that guy?"

I motioned to our captain to pull away. We were out of money, and if the kid who rented us the boat had no connection to its rightful owner, what were we to do?

We motored downriver under billowy clouds. The jungle pressed in tightly. Guerrillas, soldiers, wild animals. No telling who or what watched us from behind that wall of green. The boat chugged along, bearing us ineluctably toward our fate. We used our 24 hours to rehearse our story and cultivate friends on the boat.

Our "friends" disappeared at the first opportunity, an abandoned mission freshly burned to the ground, our captain said, by guerrillas angered that an injured government soldier had received medical attention.

Tension mounted as we joined the Rio Usumacinta, a hydraulic powerhouse whose seething strength and green color reminded me of an anaconda. A guarded sentry station marked the border. Were they waiting for us?

We docked, and I played with the soldiers' pet monkey, less afraid of getting bitten than of learning there was a bulletin out for my arrest.

There wasn't.

And just like that, my imagined ordeal was over. Our passports were stamped, we got back on the boat and we motored across to Mexico.

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