Adventures in ancient lands


It was deadline at the magazine I was editing in downtown Toronto when the phone rang. Like it always does when you're too busy to answer. Fiona was in the doorway - problems with the layouts. John was behind her, waiting to do the pagination. Susan, the production head, was across the hall pleading with the printers to back us up the queue a few notches until the advertising was solid. Down the hall you could hear Marty, the sales guy, haranguing the advertisers to courier their Purchase Orders in right now because we were going to press; every few minutes he would rush down to my office and ask how many minutes were left. When else would the phone ring?

I picked it up and put a hand to my other ear. It was Jim, one of the regular contributors, a group insurance consultant by profession and industry muckety-muck by bent. "Whaddya got for me, Jim?" I asked. "Make it fast. I'm on deadline."

"Feel like taking a trip?"

I had been using Jim as a contributor for a couple of years now, and knew he'd been a pilot for a few decades. Six months earlier, he'd taken me on a two-hour hop to Ottawa in his little Mooney sports plane. It was a business trip for him and he had cars of his own parked in the three cities - Montreal, Ottawa and Winnipeg -- that he visited regularly in the Mooney. "Cheaper than rentals," he explained in his laconic way. I went off to see some friends in Ottawa while he took care of business, and we met up in the evening to go home.

"Where we going this time?" I asked, assuming it must be one of the three cities.


I hesitated. This is a joke. He's got no business dealings in Mexico. "What are we going to do there?"

"Visit the ruins."

"What ruins?"

Chichen Itza. You've heard of it, haven't you?"

"Yeah …." I had, but it still took a second for the light to come on. He was serious. For an moment I imagined myself away from the windblown wintry cityscape of Toronto, under the hot sun in some distant jungle corner of Me-hee-co. My heart beat faster. Then it was back to attention.

"Listen, I've got Huns clamoring at the gate. You at your office? I'll call you back when I get free to talk."

"Yeah. Bye."

That's how it started and at least according to plan, it had the makings of an interesting trip. Hell, it sounded like great fun. We were going to take three weeks, fly the Mooney down to the Yucatan Peninsula to see Chichen Itza, then make our way around to other ruins that apparently lay in various states of discovery all around the Yucatan Peninsula. In between, we could just lie on a beach and soak up sun.

As for the magazine, well, all the new staff were broken in by now, so for the first time in a few years I could actually take three weeks off in a row and still have a job when I got home. "Go for it," said my boss.

I had some initial reservations about spending three weeks cooped up in that snug little Mooney cockpit with Jim. Although I'd worked and traveled with him a bit, I couldn't say I knew him well. He wasn't given to talking about anything other than the minimum it took to get the job at hand done - in our case a monthly insurance column. But that was better than travelling someone who's too mouthy, I'm sure. And he seemed fairly easy-going. I gave him the benefit of the doubt.

I suppose we both considered ourselves adventurers, albeit really of the armchair variety now. I'd done a fair bit of travelling and getting into scrapes as a young man and, now in my thirties, was still given to travel and to outdoor sports like camping, canoing, skiing, white-water rafting - the usual stuff. Jim wasn't exactly an athlete - a bit pudgy, in fact - but he'd done a fair bit of travelling too in his 41 years. I figured the fact that he was a pilot made him an adventurer by definition.

And so, on a frosty March dawn two weeks later, Jim's Mooney lurched down the unpaved runway at Burlington airport and lifted into the air. Neither of us had any inkling of things to come, although I got a foretaste right away.

Jim was of course used to taking off from Burlington's little airport, where you have to climb fast to get over the 300-foot high Niagara escarpment less than half a mile away. For what seemed an awfully long time we were headed straight for a solid wall of evergreen and rock. I sensed my body intuitively pressing itself into the seat back, as if this could somehow defer or deflect the pending impact. Jim glanced over and the corner of his mouth lifted just a hint. I looked back at him and twiddled my fingers to prove they weren't gripping the armrest (any longer).

It seemed like we weren't going to make it but we did, barely clearing the treetops - at least that's how it seemed. And then it was out into that wide and clear morning sky. Jim set the bearing due south. We were going to take on gas in Charlotte NC and should be in Key West by nine that night, he told me as he brought the plane up to our cruising altitude of 8,500 feet. All told, our first leg would be a 1,300-mile jaunt.

We made better time than expected, thanks to a stiff Arctic tailwind. It pushed the little Mooney, quick in its own right, along at a brisk 180 miles an hour, prompting Jim to change our pit stop to Savannah, 200 miles further than Charlotte and 800 miles from home. I got over my little take-off jitters and relaxed. What a great way to travel long distances, I thought as I watched the Appalachian Mountains roll by below us in slow motion, far away but still close enough that you could make out details like rivers, buildings, even cars on slender ribbons of gray pavement, winding through the surrounding verdure.

We landed at Savannah five hours after leaving Burlington field, passed US customs, tanked up, ate and took off again. We reached Key West around eight, just after dusk and an hour earlier than planned. But the good timing was a mixed blessing. The same wind that pushed us south so fast was creating 40-knot crosswinds on the airport's single small east-west runway, making landing dangerous.

Jim set his jaw. "Hold on."

As if I needed to be told while the wind was tossing the Mooney around like a leaf. At least my subliminal urge wasn't pushing me into the seat. Maybe it figured the only time you needed to do that was when you were flying headlong into something. The armrest was getting a good squeeze, though.

Just as we were about to touch down, a gust lifted the plane up sideways. One wingtip dropped perilously close to the ground. Jim fought the controls and righted the plane. He turned it upward, back into the wind and away, out over the ocean to swing around for another try. This time we got lucky and the wind died down long enough to let us land smoothly. I unglued my hand from the armrest.

"That's what flying is all about," Jim said as we made our way to the terminal building. "Hours of boredom interspersed by moments of sheer terror."

We didn't much appreciate the hairy landing conditions and the weather sucked for the same reason - that Arctic wind. Here we were within spitting distance of the Tropic of Cancer, and we still needed our overcoats because the temperature that late March night fell to 40 degrees F. - the coldest in 109 years.

We grabbed dinner and a few beers, and watched the weather reports. We'd hoped to head straight over to Mexico the next day but it didn't look like that was in the cards. The low heavy cloud cover they were predicting would make precise visual navigation around Cuba impossible. And if the wind blew us too far off our plotted course, we'd end up in the crosshairs of a Cuban Air Force pilot.

It was supposed to clear the following day, though, so we had a day to kill. That was our first step backward in time. We'd left a modern urban metropolis the previous day and were now hoofing around historic little Key West, having a drink at Sloppie Joe's (where Hemingway used to drink) and visiting Mel Fisher's museum.

Fisher was a guy who spend several years and millions of dollars of other people's money searching for sunken Spanish treasure galleons. He eventually struck gold and found hundreds of millions of dollars in booty relieved from Maya, Aztec and Inca coffers during the 1600s and 1700s. Tons of it was on display under armed guard at the museum but I had to wonder how real it was. At the same time, though, looking at cords of gold and silver ingots stacked like firewood is a moving experience. Not just for the money, but for the age that it conjured. The museum was our second step backward in time, to the days of sailing ships, conquistadores and cannonade.

The next morning was clear. We were aloft by eight, heading southwest over the Gulf of Mexico, its expanse a scintillating silver and gold carpet under the amber glow of dawn.

"A single-engine plane generally isn't recommended for open water," Jim told me once we were at altitude and out over the open water, during one of his few extended commentaries. "If one engine goes, you can't rely on the other one to get you to an airport like you can with a twin. But we're equipped so we're OK.

"I brought a raft," he continued, pointing his thumb behind him at the heaps of stuff piled on the Mooney's tiny back seats. "We've got water, food, flares. And we've got a mirror. That's the most important thing. You know why? Because you can reflect the sun and get somebody's attention from 20, 30 miles away."

I thought about it, and looked down. "There's a lot of sharks in that water, isn't there?" I asked.

"I suppose so."

Ah, I wasn't worried. It was a spectacular morning, not the kind where things go wrong. The amber dawn was giving way to cerulean shades as we winged along. I watched another small plane - a twin-engine, I noted with nary a twinge -- pass below going in the opposite direction, back towards Florida and the rest of North American civilization. Amazing how fast it flew by, when we seemed to be barely moving over the shimmering Gulf waters below us.

Jim got quieter as the trip wore on. He was busy keeping tabs on the plane's position by triangulating the signals from radio beacons in Florida, Cuba and Cancun. His mood lightened noticeably once we had passed beyond the western tip of Cuba and were nearing the coast of Mexico.

In fact, his mood lightened so much that he decided we'd strafe the beach at Isla Mujeres, a small island just off the Yucatan coast where we'd be staying later. "Yeehaw," I screamed as we buzzed the three-mile length of the beach at 150 mph, less than 100 feet over the wavetops. I was suddenly in that scene from the comedy movie, "1942" where the fighter plane is screaming through the canyon between some downtown skyscrapers.

We passed over a sailboat, the tip of its mast mere feet beneath our fuselage. We were low enough to see the occupants' smiles as they waved to us. I wished I had a red flowing scarf and leather helmet as I waved back.

We were on the tarmac at Cancun airport less than three hours after leaving Key West, and it was a bit of a letdown after the magic of that morning. Behind us, scavenged hulks of airliners littered the grounds. In front was a huge, squat concrete airport building. The sun bore down on the tarmac where we stood, and the tarmac's shimmering reflections made it seem a lot hotter than 78 degrees. Hot and dingy, that's what it was, although I was thankful for the sun's part of the warmth. Finally, some real southern weather.

"You'll love the Mexican entry procedures," Jim volunteered as we walked towards to the terminal building. I soon found out what he meant.

For starters, we were faced with an expanse of concrete wall a quarter mile long, with no sign of any door. The only opening in the wall was for the luggage conveyor. We looked at each other, nodded, and hopped on. Inside the terminal, people waiting for their luggage gaped as we smiled and hopped off the baggage carousel and made our way to the commandante's office.

A corpulent, mustachioed man with a loosened tie and too-small jacket, the commandante took a cursory look at our papers, handed us some forms and directed us to the operations center. At the operations center, we had to close our flight plan and pay a fee. Then we had to take the commandante's forms, along with a completed tourist card, over to Customs and Immigration. The Immigration officer checked our papers, demanded $20, and proffered no receipt. Then it was over to the Customs Officer, who stamped the commandante's papers. Then it was back to the commandante, who requested another fee. Then it was back to the operations center again to file our forward flight plan, and to pay the fee for that. Finally we were free to gas up and take off again. The whole ordeal took almost three hours.

"Don't change any money here," Jim advised as we were trekking back and forth through the vast Cancun terminal building. "You get ten or twenty percent less than at a bank."

"Don't worry," I told him. My legs were getting achy from all this marching back and forth after sitting in the plane for the better part of two days, and I had no intention of going out of my way for anything at the moment.

We eventually made our way back to the plane via outbound luggage conveyor - it was the only route we knew. The gas jockey that Jim had called from the terminal building arrived a few minutes later and tanked us up. The gas was less than half the price in Canada or the U.S., but it turned out that we should have gone to the bank despite the exchange rate. We didn't have enough cash to pay the bill and sorry, no credit cards accepted. We were a dollar short. An awkward moment ensued as we rummaged through all our pockets a second time.

The guy who ran the gas truck had a weathered olive-skinned face, and looked in his forties or fifties - anybody's guess. He was dressed in dirty frayed clothing and dilapidated work boots. He didn't look like he could afford to cover the tab and the only alternative was a 20-minute trek all the way back to the bank in the terminal. For a lousy dollar. We rolled our eyes. The pump guy got fidgety. Jim went into the cockpit of the Mooney and began rummaging around the back seat, maybe hoping to find a bit of loose change. In the process he put the six-pack of beer we'd bought in Key West out on the wing, and the Mexican's eyes lit up. Problem solved.

And so we were soon aloft again, heading southwest over the flat semi-jungle terrain of the Yucatan Peninsula. It was a hundred miles to Chichen Itza - less than an hour by plane, but about four hours by coach, we learned from a tourist while hoofing around Cancun airport.

we could make out the grey stone peak of the Pyramid of Kukulcan, just above the treetops, from ten miles off. As we neared the clearing in which it sat, Jim brought the plane down to 1,000 feet. We swooped in for a close look, I snapping pictures through the now opened cockpit window. Jim dropped the wheel gear. "A cabby sees us circling with the wheels down, they go to the airport," he rightly predicted.

The airstrip itself was a couple of miles from the ruins. We could see the cab waiting beside the bungalow-sized, thatch-roofed oval building that served as the terminal of this "international" (according to the signage) airport.

Our hotel - the Mayaland -- abutted the ruins. We could have climbed the wire fence and gotten in for free, not that it would have been worth avoiding the ten-cent entry fee. The hotel was modern and clean, and had standard rooms in the main building as well as "cottages" on the grounds. The cottages were slightly smaller versions of the airport terminal building. These Maya-inspired thatch buildings were used everywhere, we discovered in our subsequent travels, and for good reason.

They were a terrific design for living in a hot climate because they were so cool inside. Our cottage came with stucco walls, tiled bathroom, fridge and other modern hotel accoutrements, while the native version had walls of woven stick and dirt floors. But all of them were oval and had thatch roofs with peaks 15 to 20 feet high. Any warm air inside the building rose and seemed to dissipate through the thatch, yet rain stayed out. Our model had a ceiling fan to further aid air circulation, but I imagine the countrified versions were just as cool with all the space between the sticks for breezes to blow through.

At night, the natives would sleep in hammocks hung from the central posts of the structure, and in the morning they would move the hammocks aside and use the room as a living area. A fire could be lit in the middle of the floor for cooking, and the smoke would just rise up and out. Simple, but very effective.

We spent the next two days traipsing around Chichen Itza. It was a large site, probably a square mile in total, with more bits being discovered every day. It was one of the last big cities built by the Maya. And it was our third step backward in time, to the time of the Dark Ages in Europe.

We climbed the Pyramid of Kukulcan - almost 80 feet high -- where vanquished foes were sacrificed, their still-pulsing hearts torn from their chests, then their still-twitching bodies flung down the steps of the pyramid. We took in the ball court where they played a soccer-like game and the losing team would be executed. Sometimes Young women, children or the elderly were cast into the Cenote of Sacrifice, a large, deep water well maintained for that purpose.

We watched the hokey sound and light show mounted on the pyramid each evening, although it proved a waste of time. The sound was cacophonous and indecipherable; the "light" consisted of floodlamps turning on and off during the reading of the script, amid the clatter that denoted some climax in the narrative.

Who were these people that lived here so long ago? We bought some books and learned that the Maya arose in the Yucatan around 2600 B.C.. By 300 B.C., they had adopted a hierarchical government ruled by nobles and kings, and during the Classic period between A.D. 200 to 900 they developed highly structured kingdoms that were centralized in cities like Chichen Itza.

They were skilled farmers, weavers and potters, and cleared extensive tradingroutes through jungle and swamp. While Europe was enduring the Dark Ages, the Maya were busy mapping the heavens and developing the only true writing system native to the Americas. They mastered advanced mathematics and invented extremely accurate calendars - much more so than the Gregorian system we use today. They built vast stone cities throughout a large portion of Central America, employing an amazing level of architectural sophistication, with no metal tools and no wheels.

The Pyramid of Kukulcan, for example, is positioned exactly so that at 3 pm on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, shadows cause seven isosceles triangles to form on the balustrade of the pyramid's main stairway, imitating the body of a serpent 37 yards long as it undulates down to join the huge stone serpent's head at the bottom of the balustrade.

Mayas culture flourished until around 900 AD, then suddenly, inexplicably, they began forsaking all their cities, and simply melded back into the jungle from whence they had sprung millenia earlier. No one is sure why, although theories abound. Whatever the reason, they diffused into the countryside and even during the Spanish conquests, they were the only people never completely vanquished in battle.

Today you still see ample evidence of the Maya heritage - the broad flattened forehead and longish nose - in many people now living in the Yucatan. Although now impoverished and downtrodden by their Colonial overlords, their eyes remain proud. And they smile and laugh a lot.

After two days at Chichen Itza, it was time to move on. The plan was to fly to the town of Ticul about 75 miles to the southwest. It had an airstrip so we could come down, rent a car for a day or two and drive around, taking in some other sites.

We came down to 2,000 feet over Ticul but it was not a large town, and we knew it would have no rental car outlet. We turned north 50 miles to Merida, a city of a quarter million people. It was mid-morning when we got to the city center, booked a room for that night and rented a car for two days. Then we quickly fled the bustle of those narrow winding streets, and the acrid stench of diesel exhaust, back to the clean and serene country air.

Our first stop was Uxmal, as large as Chichen Itza at its zenith, but with much still remaining uncovered today. The House of the Magician is an absolutely enormous pyramid - more than 100 feet high and 200 feet on its sides. According to legend, it was built in one night by Itzamna, although it was actually built in several stages. Like all Mayan architecture, it is positioned with the heavens in mind - its enormous western stairway directly faces the setting sun at summer solstice.

We went on the next day to visit smaller centers at Sayil, Labna and Kabah. We marvelled at the intricate friezes covering entire walls of buildings in the Mayan "Puuc" style of architecture. As we drove, every hillock in that otherwise flat terrain could have been yet another undiscovered pyramid. And finally, after four days of wonderment, we called a break in our ruin-hopping.

This being a vacation, after all, we would go back to Cancun, park the plane and take a cab and then a half-hour ferry ride to Isla Mujeres, where we could unwind and soak up some sun for a few days. Afterward, maybe we could scout out some further ruins. We had lots of time left.

Although Cancun itself is a typical tourist mecca of high-rise towers and private beaches, Isla Mujeres had not yet become a "destination"
- it was where the locals went for their holiday. Our ferry was filled to the gunnels with families but the island itself - about five miles long and one mile wide - was uncrowded, unhurried, and cheap. Our large and clean suites in the "pension" were $20 a night. Beer was 50 cents, and breakfast was a buck.

We loafed around town, drank a few beers, read books, took a few pictures. In the mornings we went down to the thatch-roof restaurant beside the pier and watched the fishing boats come in from the Gulf. A hand would get off and bring a bucket of shrimp straight up to the grill. You got a mountain of 'em for three dollars. Mmm-hm.

I met Annie at the pension one afternoon, while Jim and I were having a drink on the verandah. She was a schoolteacher from British Columbia, and she would be staying at the pension for a few days before going on a one-week coach tour of the ruins herself. She'd been to Isla Mujeres before, and loved that it was off the beaten track. "It's not your typical tourist trap, full of bigmouths in bad clothing," she said. "It has charm. It's laid back, and they don't gouge you for everything here, like they do over in Cancun." I nodded agreement to it all.

We told her we'd been visiting the ruins ourselves, and she was most intrigued by our mode of travel. "That's kind of risky, isn't it, flying around the jungle in a little plane?"

"Nah, nothing to it," I assured her. "Strictly routine."

And so we talked. She was traveling alone, I learned. She was supposed to meet a friend for dinner that night, so she had to go get ready soon. Maybe we could meet again tomorrow, she suggested. And then, as I picked up my towel to go for a dip in the ocean she came to me, put her hand on my arm and said, "Be careful - that sun's hot. You'll burn if you stay in the water too long."

I stood for a moment, looking into her eyes. Did I feel a faint stirring somewhere below? "Thanks," I said, my body still not moving. But then the neurons started up again, and I turned and headed for the beach. "See you tomorrow," I called back as I strolled off as casually as possible."

Annie and I met up the next afternoon and went swimming together. She wore the proverbial skimpy bikini. We played in the water and touched. The stirrings grew stronger, till finally they compelled me to embrace her almost naked body. As I drew her near me, I caught the sweet scent of her skin over the briny smell of the sea, exciting me. We kissed. Again. I had risen against her and was momentarily embarrassed. She giggled.

Later we talked more, locked onto each other now in that timeless, placeless zone where lovers go. We slept together in her room that night, and afterwards she called it our "passion under the palms".

Jim and I had been on the island for four days now and I was certainly happy to stay right there for several more, but Jim was getting itchy. The next morning over breakfast, we met a fellow traveler just returning from points further south, and he told us of a place called Tikal, deep in the Guatemalan jungle, that he swore was far more spectacular than even Chichen Itza or Uxmal. Jim looked at me, and I knew it had to be. I briefly envisioned bringing Annie along, but knew there was no room and besides, she had her own plans. So we said our sad goodbyes, promising to write each other, and by early next morning Jim and I were on the ferry back to the mainland.

The plane had to be gassed up and a flight plan had to be filed, but by early afternoon we were aloft and heading due south. The destination was Guatemala City, 550 miles away, the nearest place we knew that had a Guatemalan customs facility. The plan was to clear customs, find a room, and tomorrow we'd fly back the almost 200 miles to Flores, which had a large airport and was close to Tikal. We'd book a place there for a few days and take a coach tour of the ruins. After that we'd just play it by ear again.

The plan was sound, but this was when the horror story began to unfold. It was a damned good thing Annie didn't come along, as it turned out.

All airports are supposed to provide details on local weather conditions for obvious reasons, but we were unable to get any information whatsoever from Cancun Airport about conditions further south. Nor could we get any info from Belize City, some 100 miles east of us as we crossed the Mexican border into Guatemalan air space. Then, as we continued along into the relative unknown, the flatlands of the Yucatan began growing into foothills below us. The foothills grew into mountains alongside us and further off in front of us. And then, suddenly, a grey blanket of cloud enveloped the plane.

Here we were, hurtling at great speed down a mountain valley, and suddenly we could see absolutely nothing. Now being the navigator, I grabbed the charts and double-checked. The mountains encircling Guatemala City rose to more than 11,000 feet, I told Jim with alarm. Higher than our unpressurized Mooney could go. And trying to thread our way through the mountains by beacon in zero visibility was suicide.

Still Jim kept going, probably less than ten seconds in retrospect, but these were the longest few seconds I can ever recall in my life. My body was pinioned into the seat back, my knuckles white, as we barreled straight on into that sinister haze. Behind it, somewhere, and not far enough away for my liking, was solid rock.

Once, several years earlier, I'd had a chance to see what happens to a small plane when it meets a mountainside, or "encounters a cumulogranite cloud", as Jim described it later. I was hiking the mountains of North Wales with Moira, and came across the remains of a plane near the 2,800-foot peak of Moel Siabod. Just a few pieces of charred and mangled frame, and a couple of singed seat cushions - that's all there was left of her.

We learned some of the details the next day at a pub by the base of the mountain. A year earlier, a plane carrying four passengers - three locals and a pilot -- had strayed under foggy conditions and plowed into the mountainside at speed, instantly killing all those aboard. The townsfolk and others had cleaned up the mortal remains, of course, but we had seen what little remained of the wreckage.

And so here we were now, hurtling along at 150 mph towards certain death. My body was trying to force itself through the seat back. My jaw was clenched, as was my hand on the armrest. The hairs on my neck were forcing my skull off the headrest. Jim finally banked the plane, but by now it was of minor comfort. The valley had been narrowing as we flew further and further into it. How much room could there be left to swing around?

Finally, after several more agonizing seconds, the plane righted and we were pointed north. I let out a great sigh, and Jim relaxed a bit in his seat. We were going to go back to Belize City, he told me, some 250 miles northeast of our current position. He radioed the tower in Guatemala City, notified them of our change in destination and got a "roger" in response. That meant they would notify Belize City of our pending arrival. It was just after 6 pm.

Soon the clouds started breaking up. We were back over flat terrain again, I could see with a considerable degree of relief. Jim hadn't said anything in almost an hour. I offered him a cookie from an open box beside my seat. He declined, but at least the heavy silence had been broken.

The sky darkened as we flew on, and soon the stars above us were reflected in points of light from the houses and occasional village in the otherwise dark forest below. All was calming down once again -- that is, until we got about 100 miles from Belize City and Jimstarted trying to radio for clearance to land.

He tried once, and no response. "Maybe we're still out of radio range," he said, dubiously, and tried again five minutes later. Still nothing. He tried again and again. By the time we were 20 miles away, we knew the airport was closed. That would mean no runway lights, and who knew if we could find the strip unlit, shrouded as it would be in the darkness of an almost new moon.

The beacon guided us to the airport property, which revealed itself as a square mile or so of pitch blackness contrasting with the lighted outskirts of the city itself. But triangulation was of no help in finding the exact position of the runway.

"If we can't find it, we'll have to ditch the plane in the ocean," Jim informed me as we took a first pass over the darkened square below us from an altitude of 1,500 feet. "We don't have enough gas left to get back to Cancun, and I doubt there's anything closer that's still open."

I peered down into the darkness but could see nothing. Jim dropped the wheel gear, turned on the front searchlight and extended the wing flaps to slow us down. He began weaving downward, the motion casting the lamp's pencil of light back and forth across the ground. Nothing. We twisted every which way, continuing to descend. A thousand feet. Seven hundred feet. Five hundred feet and still nothing. Then suddenly, off to my right, I caught a brief glimpse, a faint reflection of the moon's waning light on something straight and hard.

"I got it!"


"Over here, to my right. Runs that way," I gestured.

Jim banked the plane hard. Looking straight down for a moment, I suddenly realized how thin and flimsy the cockpit door looked, yet it was all that separated me from the ground below. My body instinctively leaned away, upward. Then Jim banked the other way. And back again. suddenly the headlamp beam caught the runway. It was much closer now. We were down to 300 feet. Jim swung the plane into a tight loop and held the nose down. Two hundred feet. One hundred and fifty feet. One hundred feet. Suddenly the runway was fixed in the now steady headlamp, spreading out before us as we dropped. The seat had enveloped my body, my hand a grip of steel. Fifty feet. Thirty. Then the wheels touched ground for an instant, bounced, and settled down solidly.

As soon as we made contact, Jim did the aviation equivalent of standing on the brakes. At touchdown we were still going 70 mph, and had no idea whether we'd landed at the beginning or the end of the runway. The plane finally slowed to taxiing speed and we turned onto the apron alongside the runway. We were safely down! The windscreen frosted from our exhaled sighs.

Jim taxied slowly towards a row of buildings we could make out a couple hundred yards off in the surrounding darkness, and finally we stopped. We both sat in numbed silence for a few seconds. Everything was quiet, and dark except for the red operating light inside the cockpit. Finally I fumbled with the latch and opened the door. I stumbled out onto the wing and looked up. I saw a semicircle of military uniforms, all holding weapons pointed at me.

It took an immense effort to clamber down from the wing without falling on my ass. I finally stood there on wobbly legs while one soldier came forward and, in a British accent, said: "Welcome to Belize City. And who might you be?"

A British voice? Civilization? What a relief! I started to move my mouth, but couldn't get it to form coherent sentences. I managed to mumble out that we were Canadians and had had to make an emergency landing. By then, Jim was out of the plane. "Ask him, he's the pilot," I finally blurted. Then I bummed a cigarette from one of the other soldiers and inhaled it in a very few gulps while Jim explained what had happened to us.

Once the Brits understood what we were doing on their runway, everything was cool. The Sergeant apologized as he explained that they were obligated to turn us over to the local constabulary. We all stood around yakking until the local police arrived.

Belize was formerly British Honduras, and the soldiers here were part of a 1,400-member contingent that had remained after independence to help maintain national security. They had a camouflaged bivouac on the airport grounds equipped with guided missiles, which one of the soldiers mentioned had been locked onto our plane at one point.

"We thought you were in a helicopter, the way you were coming in," the next one said with a chuckle. "Nice landing."

Jim nodded. "Thanks."

"You're lucky you didn't go off the end of the runway," another told us. "The swamp down there - actually they're all around the airport -- is full of alligators." I think I mumbled something in response.

Eventually the local police arrived in their pick-up truck and proceeded to ransack the plane. They spent more than an hour going through everything down to our film canisters. After all, who else would land on a darkened runway in this part of the world but drug smugglers? And lunatics, I opined to myself.

Satisfied we were clean, they let us repack the plane and then bade us hop into the back of the pickup for the ride downtown. But then the truck wouldn't start. Eventually we all hopped out, put shoulder to tailgate to jump-start it, and hopped back in. Thus were we off to the central police station in Belize City, bumping around the back of a pick-up truck with two armed Guatemalan policemen eyeing us half- disinterestedly and half suspiciously.

We were to be kept overnight, the police captain at the station told us. I looked apprehensively behind us at the chicken-wire cages they used as cells, and shuddered. This was not going to be a good night, for sure. Eventually, though, they let us off that hook. They would take our passports for examination, the captain told us an hour or so later, and let us stay overnight at the "luxury" hotel across the street.

Some luxury. The hotel was a fleabag rooming house, tucked behind some other buildings and accessible down a narrow darkened alleyway. The paint in the halls and rooms was crumbling. Passing the opened doorway of the room beside ours, we saw a middle-aged couple drinking from a bottle of rum. They invited us in for shots but we declined. We went to our own room, closed the door and sat on the edges of our lumpy, sagging mattresses in silence for a while.

"Listen, Jim, we've almost died a couple of times today," I said finally. "I'm in no mood for sleep. Take everything out of your pockets except $20. Leave the rest here. We're gonna go out, find a bar and have a nice cool beer."

Jim looked around the room. Although it was run-down, the locks looked solid and there were bars on the single small window.

"OK. Let's go," he said, so we stashed our wallets and walked out into a balmy Saturday night in Belize City. It was about ten now, and as we ambled over the packed dirt promenade, couples strolled by dressed in their most colorful Saturday finery, talking and laughing. A policeman stood in the middle of the promenade, his kepo??? pulled low over his eyes, looking cool. We asked for directions to the nearest bar. A hundred yards up and turn left, he told us, pointing. You'll see it.

The promenade had street lamps but the turning was little more than a darkened footpath. We could see a light in a basement window maybe a hundred feet on. We headed for it. The door down the stairs was open so we went in. The place was deserted. A dark wooden bar ran about 2/3 the width of the room, with no one in front or behind. On the mirrored shelves behind the bar stood a lone soldier -- a solitary bottle of whiskey.

We called out. No answer. We stood in the doorway wondering what to do next, when a man appeared through the curtained doorway by the end of the bar. He was middle-aged, slender and fairly tall, with a pocked face and curly pepper hair. He struck me, for some reason, as a sailing man, perhaps navy somewhere. "Hi, c'mon in," he said as he gave the bar a wipe with a cloth that materialized in his hand. "Sure, we open. What you having?"

We ordered a couple of beers and settled into stools. We were silent for a while, but by the second beer we were starting to talk with the bartender. That's when the commotion started at the door. First, a couple of young guys came in, took a look around, then went out again. Then they came back with a couple of others, looked around, went out again. Then suddenly there were six or seven of them, all milling around the doorway, talking low. And then they started asking us questions across the room, like: "Where you two from, mon?" and "What you doin' here?"

They were Rasta Men - you could tell by the accent, and they didn't look like they were up to much good. They had just found two Whiteys alone in the bar. And so, after milling and bobbing in the doorway a while, they started taunting us. Occasionally one would come forward and I'd tell him the cops had just run us in and were keeping an eye on us, and that we had only $20. I figured if they knew that they wouldn't bother messing around. But I could see that Jim was getting worried. His jaw was tight and he didn't look his usual easygoing self.

The air soon began to grow heavier, more menacing. The taunts got more strident. I saw a look of worry cross the bartender's face and he reached below the counter, as if for a weapon, then changed his mind. For now. The crew in the doorway got more raucous. Jim got more fidgety. As the noise built to a crescendo the apparent leader of the pack, sensing Jim's discomfiture, finally said: "Sheeit, mon, what you afraid of? We don' mean you no harm."

At this I turned, looked the guy straight in the eye, and said in a loud flat voice, "Ah, bullshit!"

Dead silence. The leader's eyes widened. I didn't blink. Seconds went by. Then suddenly the whole bunch of them erupted into laughter. The ice shattered, the menace evaporated. They came over en masse, their leader left standing in the doorway, looking embarrassed. We bought them a few beers and they bought us a beer. One jabbered excitedly about how a fellow Jamaican called Spiderman had climbed a tower in Calgary the year before, and was a home-town hero. Another offered to fetch us cigarettes.

We explained again, just to be on the safe side, that we'd almost died twice that day, and that the police had all our stuff except $20. Then we yakked on. When he learned Jim had a small plane, one dude named Billy the Pick came up with a number of novel suggestions regarding the transport of commodities like jade or even better, cocaine and ganja. We laughed him off. "With our luck we'd be killed for sure."

We partied for maybe another hour, and got back to our digs around midnight, just about ready for sleep. The couple next door were still up working on their rum bottle. We had a nightcap with them, staggered next door and collapsed into our beds from the combination of exhaustion, spent adrenalin, and drink. The next morning we were fine again. We went across the road, picked up our passports and hopped into the back of the now fully functional pickup for the ride back to Belize City airport.

It seemed like a normal airport now, not the darkened deadly killing ground of last night. Jim did the paperwork while I played some of my rhythm and blues cassettes on the portable I had brought along for musical relief. Soon everyone in the airport was bobbing and weaving. Everybody loved the music, and seemed to be deliberately finding work to do in the same room as us so they could listen. When it came time to leave, one very large, uniformed mamma who had been really loving the music stood up, blocked the doorway with elbows akimbo and announced, "You can go, but the tape stays!"

I didn't want to part with the tape because it was the only copy I had, part of an expensive collection, and I couldn't afford to replace the whole set. I was straight with her, so she let me off if I solemnly swore that, when I got back to Toronto, I would make a copy and mail it to her. She gave me her address, finally moved away from the doorway, and we set off for the plane. I did send the tape but never got a reply, so who knows if she received it?

The people in the flight service had told Jim about a little Guatemalan village right near the Belize border, just eighty-odd miles away, where there was a landing strip and a customs officer who could stamp our papers. From there it was just 50 miles further to Flores, so we didn't have to fly hundreds of miles out of our way to Guatemala City and then back again.

About an hour later we were circling the tiny village of Melchor do Mencos. It had a landing strip, all right - it doubled as the village's main street with the post office, stores, houses and a church alongside. The buildings were set back perhaps 50 feet, but we had to yell at kids and horses to get out of the way before making our bumpy landing on the dirt path. We taxied to a stop past the buildings and the kids all came running over to stare and giggle.

A short stocky man in a clean, pressed and very officious-looking uniform came out of a nearby wooden building, smiling and waving as he approached. He glanced at our passports, wrote something in his notebook, gave them back and waved us off again with a big smile. Boy, that was nothing like Mexico, I thought as Jim turned the plane around.

It was a tricky lift-off from that potholed runway - tough to get to speed and, as in Burlington, there were big hills nearby. I guess I was used to it by now, though - my body wasn't trying to evade anything, my hand relaxed on the armrest as we rose close by the hill crest and into the sky, heading for the big paved military runway at Flores.

We were on final approach at Flores airport when Jim suddenly said "Here, take over," and reached for his camera to capture the little island to our left.

"What do I do?" I asked.

"Aim for the runway."

Oh, OK. I did the best I could, keeping a constant rate of descent, pointing the plane at the foot of the runway and trying not to oversteer, as he had advised me while letting me pilot for a few minutes over the Appalachians. We were less than a quarter mile from the runway when he retook the helm, to my considerable relief.

"You done good," he told me. I hadn't done anything difficult, I thought.

Inside the Flores terminal building, the officials were alarmed that we had no entry stamp in our passports. We were in the country illegally. I thought for a minute they were going to rifle the plane again, but they realized it had been the border guard that screwed up, not us.

Much debate ensued, and in the end they were most helpful. They gave us temporary visas and arranged to have our passports sent back to Melchor for both entry and exit stamps. By the time we were done touring the ruins in a few days, we could pick the passports up and wouldn't even have to stop at the border on our way out of the country.

Great. All was well again. That is, until we got to the hotel registration desk and discovered our traveller's cheques had gone missing. They had been in a wicker basket along with our cameras and some other stuff, and now they weren't there. Did they fall out into the van en route to the hotel? We phoned the van people but no luck. Suddenly almost all our negotiable currency was gone.

We both had plastic but our hotel didn't take it, nor apparently did any other establishments in Flores. We were effectively broke and destitute in the middle of the Guatemalan jungle. We couldn't get our passports back until the day after tomorrow, but we had barely enough valid currency to pay for one night's hotel stay.

We ended up having to beg for credit for a few days, while we phoned the traveller's cheque people to get emergency replacements. The hotel owner eventually agreed, as did the tour operator - after all, we were North Americans and all North Americans were rich, weren't they?

Not exactly happy at this last turn of events, we went off to our room. The hotel had TVs and a satellite dish. I flicked ours on for some entertainment and relief from our recent terrors but guess what? The feature movie that night was "Midnight Express", an even more harrowing travel tale than ours. We watched the movie but it didn't much improve our moods, and I for one had a fitful sleep.

The next morning was clear and warm as we climbed aboard the shuttle bus to Tikal with a handful of other tourists. It was a one-hour drive, so we got to know a few of them. Mostly from Europe they were, with just one couple from North America. This was not your average tourist mecca, it seemed, and those who were with us had all been seeking destinations that were out of the ordinary.

When we arrived at the site, it was indeed far more spectacular than even Chichen Itza. It was our fourth and final step backward in time, to the enormous and stunning city that in its heyday was the capital of all Maya civilization.

Thousands of structures, some of them dating as far back as 800 BC, cover the 25-square mile site. During its peak around 700 AD, Tikal housed more than 100,000 people. There wasn't just one big pyramid, there were five big ones, all of them more elegant and well-proportioned than any we'd seen yet. And there were dozens of lesser structures in the central core of the city.

The largest of the pyramids, the Temple of the Two Headed Snake (Temple IV), towers 212 feet above the jungle floor, making it the tallest structure in North America before skyscrapers came along.
Two even more stunningly elegant pyramids, both more than 100 feet high, face each other across the Great Plaza. Alongside the Great Plaza is an enormous cluster of smaller pyramids and other structures called the Acropolis. Elsewhere, broad elevated causeways span valley floors 100 feet below. This, I thought to myself as we moved around the site, puts modern skyscrapers and developments like Toronto's Eaton's Centre shopping mall to utter shame.

We spent the day at Tikal and on the bus return home, wished we had had more time. But our touring was over for now, our credit already stretched, so it was back to our hotel, lounging around the hotel pool, eating meals and awaiting the replacement of our Thomas Cook traveller's cheques. They never came. We tried calling again and now Thomas Cook wouldn't accept collect charges from Guatemala. We were screwed. We didn't even have gas money to get out of there.

After two days of increasingly persistent dunning for payment by the tour operator and the hotel owner, we found a solution to our predicament. One of the fellows on the Tikal tour had been a German tourist staying at a hotel across town, and he had known of our plight. He managed to convince his own hotel owner, in part by providing a personal guarantee, to give us a cash advance on our plastic so we could pay our bills and have enough money to get back to Cancun.

Unfortunately, the gas in Guatemala was even more expensive than in Canada. I wound up having to sell my tape player for $20 just so we could fill up the tank. Ah well, it was only worth $60 new. And at least when we got to Cancun there would be plenty of banks that took Visa, so our money problems would be over.

The flight back to Cancun was uneventful. By evening we had found a room, and then a restaurant. A shrimp dinner cost us $25 each, on Visa of course. Over dinner, we thought about our options for the next few days but quickly ruled out any further explorations. We'd been gone 17 days but it felt like an awful lot longer. We were both sapped, and really just wanted to get home. Jim figured we could make it to North Carolina by evening, be in Canada the following afternoon. And as it was, we'd need a least a couple of days' rest and recuperation when we got home.

This plan almost unravelled as well. As we passed over the coastline of Florida, heading for NC, we started getting calls from the Tampa control tower to land. Jim told them we were landing in Charlotte. When we didn't land immediately, they called up the jets. It seems that in Florida, new laws required all small planes entering US air space to land immediately at the first available airport.

The controller was hot when we got out of the plane, and the situation was compounded by Jim getting cranky. He started arguing technicalities with the controller, who in turn ordered the entire craft searched and started talking about hefty fines. I pulled Jim out of his face and did what I could to calm everybody down.

Eventually things smoothed over and as the controller watched us repack our airplane, we talked a bit. I jokingly mentioned Billy the Pick's suggestions. "You should have accepted," he told us, deadpan. "You could have made a lot of money." Jim and I stared at each other a second, flabbergasted.

"Sure. You could have accepted, and then notified us on the way in. We could have caught a couple of the big guys. You might have even gotten a reward from us." Jim and I laughed aloud at the thought.

Anyway, the plane got reloaded and the entry fee and overtime charges got paid, and we were allowed to proceed northward to Charlotte. We arrived at our hotel room at 10:05, exhausted and famished. We hadn't eaten since breakfast so after dumping our bags we headed straight to the hotel restaurant, only to find a sign in the window saying it closed at 10:00. Neither of the other two restaurants nearby took plastic, and it was a $25 cab ride each way into town, where there were bank machines that accepted our Canadian cards.

We made our way across a vast parking lot to the only remaining building visible that was open -- a 24-hour gas station/snack bar. Although they didn't accept plastic either, the counter gal felt so sorry for us, standing there drooling at all those plump, juicy wieners going around and around in the hot dog rotisserie, that she gave us two for free. And a bottle of water. Wieners and water was our supper that night.

Next morning we were up at dawn, and by early afternoon we were winging over Lake Ontario, safely home, almost. We had bought several bottles of liquor before we left Mexico (at $5 or $6 each compared to $25 in Canada) and Jim said, "Why don't we forget about going through customs at Toronto Airport with them, and just land at Burlington and go straight home." We both thought for a second, then said "Nahhh" in unison and turned eastward to Toronto.

EPILOGUE: We arrived back in Toronto on Friday and went home our separate ways. On Monday morning I hiked down Yonge Street, the main drag, to my office. A bunch of us went out to lunch for a debriefing on my trip. At one point, one of the girls asked me: "Aren't they really poor in Guatemala?"

I had to think. Yes they were. But then, those Mayan huts were just great. I could have lived in one, easily. And the people there were always smiling and laughing. "You know," I eventually told her, "they might be poor, but it's been a few weeks since I've seen so many miserable looking people as I did walking to work this morning."

The End