I’ve lost track of the number of times that someone has exclaimed from the back seat, “I’m SO glad we’re not cycling this!!” as we’ve surfed up and down through the mountain range that runs through the center of these countries. We’ve passed a couple of game folks pushing bikes up long mountain passes, loaded to the gills like we were last year. We always stop to cheer them on, as so many strangers did for us on our journey. The roads on this side of the country are much flatter, but the temperature is much hotter, and it still wouldn’t be our first choice of cycle destinations. We saw them from about a half a mile off, obviously long-haul cyclists, yellow flags flapping jauntily from the rear of their BOB trailers. “Look at them!” shouted the kids, “HEY… I think there are THREE of them, THEY HAVE A KID!!!” We’ve never encountered any other adventure cycling kids. We know there are a few, we correspond with some from time to time, but we’ve never met them. Tony slowed to cycling speed and pulled up alongside the Mom so I could roll down the window and have a chat. We spent a quarter of a mile on introductions and the usual, “Where are you going? What are you doing?” sorts of questions. Then we all pulled over. Our kids poured out of the van to overwhelm little Kate with the usual traveling kid stuff while we shook hands all around with Sean and Ingrid. Ten minutes later they were back on their bikes, with Gabe riding the back of Sean’s tandem and Kate riding shotgun with Hannah in the van and every scrap of their gear piled in and around the kids in the back seat.
We spent the two nights camped at Tikal with the Tomlinson family; lovely folks from the UK who began their journey in northern Canada and are cycling hard for Argentina, hopefully by this time next year. They are also virtual friends with the cycling family we know that’s further ahead of them, the Vogel family. The kids got on famously and fun was had by all as we cobbled together meals out of our spare ration kits (there’s no food to be purchased outside of restaurants in Tikal). There was scarcely a quiet moment as we walked the long jungle trails between the majestic pyramids of this amazing, enigmatic, ancient city. The postcards don’t do it justice. Atop pyramid IV we sat for a long while, looking out over the jungle, stretching as far as the eye could see in every direction, pyramids poking up occasionally like floating stone islands in a sea of leafy green, trying to imagine the city as it was, a mass of humanity with agricultural land in place of rainforest. We wondered at the long lost folks who saw fit to pile these rocks, carve them and then paint the whole lot a brilliant red with paint made primarily from squashed up bugs. The children chattered a mile a minute, all of them happy to have an english speaking comrade, although I think Kate was happiest by far, as she’s an only child.
The animals at the National Park of Tikal are at least as spectacular as the pyramids. Within minutes the children had spotted their first wild spider monkeys, a whole troupe chattering through the canopy right above our campsite. “WATCH OUT!” yelled Gabe, “Remember, they POOP on people on purpose!!” And so they do. “Bombing monkey over head!” Ezra would shout as we hiked through the jungle. Thanks to his vigilance we managed to escape unscathed. The howler monkeys are even more impressive, huge and black, much more imposing than their smaller, brown cousins who laughed through the trees around camp. A whole group of coatimundi joined us for lunch, prancing around the edge of our campsite, tails held high in the air, poking their shovel-like snouts into the ground, munching on ants, or some other insect. The children counted thirty-one. The Agouti bounced around the edge of the forest. Gabe accurately described them as “big, guinea piggish rabbit creatures… without the ears or tail” There were too many green parrots, toucans, iridescent plumed turkeys, odd black birds as big as a turkey with bright yellow beaks, and others, also black with fire engine red wattles beneath their chins to count. Gabe and Tony even saw a jungle cat crossing the road when they were ferrying the second load of Tomlinsons and bikes into Tikal the night we arrived.
The nights at Tikal are intensely black. There are no street lights, no lights in the bathhouse, no lights at all, outside the generator run ones in the little cafe that is open until about ten. The stars paint the sky in ancient stories that can only be read on truly dark nights in the lost places of the world. It was impossible not stand in the middle of the field and read them in the silence for long minutes at a time. We were hung like bats beneath the palm thatched palapas in our tent hammocks. I could lay in safety beneath the mosquito netting and wonder aloud about how low in the sky the north star has gotten and listen to the jungle come to life in the darkness around us. The first night we slept very little. Tony kept poking the flashlight out into the darkness to check on our food box, weighted down with another box to foil the monkeys. I slept intermittently, he takes up most of the hammock. I didn’t mind though, being awake in a living darkness is a pleasant way to spend the night, the snuffling noises coming from the edges of the jungle, the distant, wild cat cries of jaguars on the prowl, and the midnight hour of bone chilling discourse between the howler monkeys, which sound very much like the dinosaur noises in the Jurassic Park movies. The monkeys woke Ezra, who all of a sudden felt very alone in his hammock. I could hear Hannah talking to him in the darkness and we both assured him as best we could, “It’s just the monkeys Ez, they’re talking to each other.” “But I don’t like it!! It’s SCARY,” he wailed. “Well, we can’t make them stop, so you’ll have to tough it out. Breathe slowly, try to think about what they might be saying to one another.” This quieted him for a few minutes, then there was a little more whimpering in the dark. “Can I come in with someone?” asked the child who’s never spent a night alone in his life. “No Ez,” I heard Hannah reply in her most motherish tone, “I’m right here next to you, stay in your own hammock and be tough. It’s just monkeys!” I stifled a giggle, it’s exactly what I would have said to him
We were sad to part with our cycling friends this morning. We loaded them down with extra potatoes and bread for the road and promises to keep in touch and maybe see them down the road one day. Sean issued hearty invitations to join them on the coast of Scotland in two summers for a kayaking adventure and we assured him we’d keep it in mind. It’s rare to meet people with kids who live like we do, and all of the children were sad to say good-bye. We passed them on our way out of the park. I leaned as far out my window as I could and Tony matched their speed so that I could pass off a bag of chewy candies to Kate’s small hand on the back of her Dad’s bike. They too are headed for the Belize border. It will take them three days to make the distance we’re doing today. We’re watching the road with them in mind as we gauge the steepness of hills and lament every time the highway turns to a gravel or dirt track for several miles before turning back to smooth asphalt. It’s going to be a long, dusty ride to the border.