MY ROUGH GUIDE: Peter Eltringham: `The Village Was Convinced I Was Going to Die'
Eltringham, Peter, The Independent (London, England)
Piedras Negras, a Classic Maya city built in an impressive location on a cliff above the Usumacinta River in the Peten of Guatemala, was abandoned to the jungle over 1,000 years ago. The guerrillas who'd occupied it for the last twenty had (apparently) just left and I was rafting down the river with the first archaeological expedition since the 1930s. The archaeologists, Steven Houston and Hector Escobido, were both out at the first lengthy exploration of the site. So they sent a small group of us to find particular glyph carved on a rock face.
Armed with a drawing of the glyph, an old map and a compass direction we set off. The city is enormous and the light was fading, so our chances were not great. I noticed some vertical grooves on an overhang but couldn't make out anything clearly. We had to go across the narrow valley to get a good look. Following the lines upward we slowly began to see the outline of a huge double-headed turtle surrounded by other glyphs. We'd found it and it was undamaged. Favourite meal There's no finer lunch than freshly grilled snapper, lobster or barracuda accompanied by Creole rice and beans - a Belizean staple, washed down with a Belikin beer. After tramping the streets in Guatemala I relish a marketplace meal of black beans, tortillas cooked over charcoal with a bowl of guacamole. If I'm really hungry I'll add a bowl of caldo - stew - and a plate of rice to that, with a bottle of Gallo beer. Bizarre meeting On my first attempt to reach the ruined city of El Mirador, the location of the tallest Maya temple, I was forced to turn back at Carmelita, the village at the end of the "road", still two days walk through the forest from the ruins. The rainy season hadn't quite finished and the mud was too deep to go any further. Still I had found an excellent guide in Carlos Catalan and promised I'd be back "in a couple of months". When I eventually headed back, three months later, it took me two days to reach Carmelita. I wondered if Carlos would be there, as he could easily be out working in the forest. I approached the village hesitantly, not daring to hope for too much, only to find Carlos walking down the road to meet me. "I knew you'd be back this week" he said, "so I waited for you." That was strange enough, as he could have had no idea when I'd be back. After all I'd only decided myself three days before, but how could he know exactly which minute I would come near enough to the village to set off to meet me? "Well," he said, "I knew any stranger must be you coming back, so I promised to pay a Quetzal (worth about 10p) to the boy who spotted someone coming." It still all seemed too much of a coincidence, but as often happens, luck was to be on my side. Carlos had the horses ready (to carry supplies - walking through the forest is quicker and safer than riding) and we set off the next morning for a week in the jungle. Biggest disappointment ever On my last trip government budget cuts had forced the closure of the Archaeological Vault in Belmopan, Belize's tiny capital. …