This is a guest post by my friend Wes Nations who blogs at JohnnyVagabond.com. I met Wes several years ago in Bangkok and he’s been a big help to me providing graphic design on thing like my travel photography book. Wes has had some of the most interesting stories of any traveler I know, and I’m pleased that he has agreed to share one of them here.
Take it away, Wes…..
I met Karl in Flores, Guatemala, a small island town in the middle of Lake Petén. He was a massive man, tanned and with a thick head of white hair and matching beard. I wouldn’t have guessed it but he was 72 years old. He had a heavy German accent but it turned out that he had emigrated to Australia when he was in his teens and was now living in Florida. A full life.
I asked what he had done for a living and he looked down at his feet for a second before answering. “I’m not proud of it but I was a Screw“. When I just stared at him, confused, he added “I was a prison guard. Twenty five years…”
We were hanging out at a cafe overlooking the lake, drinking cheap beer (a buck apiece) and swapping tales when I mentioned that I’d like to see the little-visited Mayan ruins of Yaxha, not far from Tikal. A friend had recommended them but the only way to reach them was to stay overnight in the town of El Remate and then rent a taxi for $40 or so to take you to the one hotel near the park. Also, there was a tour which I wasn’t terribly keen on.
To my surprise, he immediately embraced the idea and suggested that we team up — we’d split the cost of the taxi and the Campamento Ecológico El Sombrero hotel had rooms for $10. The entrance fee was $10 — all in all, a reasonably-priced adventure. He seemed like quite a character so I knew going in that it’d be an interesting trip.
El Remate turned out to be a pleasant town and we spent a couple of days eating cheap tacos and drinking beer while hanging out by the Lake Petén — it’s a big lake. When we reserved the taxi, the agent assured us that the hotel had a car and would drive us to the ruins.
It didn’t, of course. There was a boat option but we’d arrived too late for that. In the end, we’d walk a sweaty seven kilometers just to reach the entrance. Karl outweighed me by fifty pounds and was thirty years older but I struggled to keep up.
That tour was starting to look pretty good.
The ruins were impressive — a large complex set in the middle of wild jungle, surrounded by howler monkeys and macaws. The trails were well-maintained and most of the sites conveniently signed. A season of Survivor had been filmed here and I suspect that the producers had to donate some development funds to seal the deal.
Best of all, we had the entire place practically to ourselves — there were maybe a half dozen tourists in the entire park. When we approached the main pyramid I found a piece of Mayan pottery on the ground which I struggled not to steal (no comment on the outcome).
We climbed to the top where a bored security guard sat and chatted with him as we admired the view. Raw jungle stretched as far as we could see. The pyramid was steep and in great condition without much obvious reconstruction.
After we’d spent a few moment taking each other’s photos, Karl provided me with one of the most surreal experiences of my life.
We were sitting on the cool stone steps, enjoying the view, when he stood up and dramatically raised his arm to the sky. He opened his mouth and just boomed out this incredible aria.
Karl the Screw was an opera singer. And a damned good one.
I nearly fell off the pyramid. The combination of Mayan ruins, wild jungle and a German/Australian singing opera was something my mind just could have never put together. I sat there, stunned, as he finished and then we climbed back down the stairs carefully without saying a word. The security guard waved goodbye, wide-eyed and unsure.
It was then that the howler monkeys started up and Karl was immediately entranced. If you’ve never heard them, howler monkeys produce one of the creepiest, craziest sounds in all of the world. It’s a like a choir from hell. He wandered off down a path, clutching an old-fashioned tape recorder (with a cassette, even!) and I puttered about, taking photos of a ball court.
I went looking for him but it started raining, so I retreated to the ranger station where we had agreed to meet at 3:00pm. The ranger had said that the boat to the hotel left at that time but it actually left at 2:30pm (welcome to Guatemala) so we’d missed it again. Around 3:30 I started to worry, but then Karl came strolling up muttering “amazing, amazing…” and playing his tape over and over.
I lost track of him after we returned to El Remate. He was heading south to Rio Dulce and I needed to go to Antigua to meet a friend.
I have no idea where he is these days but I’d bet a fortune that he’s still listening to that damned tape.