HOLIDAY DISASTERS

Getting out of the rainforest of Tikal was a test not only of Barbara Eaton's patience but also her Spanish
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The Independent Travel
Getting from the rainforest of Tikal to Guatemala City was proving to be a lesson in survival Spanish.

We sat in the basic bar at the tiny airstrip and ate yet another plate of refried beans while waiting for the check-in to open. Housed in a long hangar-type building, the check-in area was dismal and, at 2pm, unbearably hot. The languid look and body language of the check-in clerk when he finally sauntered into view an hour late did not bode well. We were not on the passenger list.

We raced along the hangar to the three other check-ins for flights to Guatemala City that day. Our skills in negotiating seats were nothing in comparison with the voluble Spanish-speaking businessmen: all the flights were fully booked. After histrionics from me in broken Spanish, the clerk in a sheepskin flying-jacket at the third desk added our name to his list and told us to return half an hour before boarding time at 4pm. His was the last flight of the day, he informed us, adding: "Call me Jesus!"

It's at moments like these in far-flung places that the wisdom of travelling independently is called into question. A large tour group nearby was discussing plans for dinner in Guatemala City. Our immediate future still looked far less certain. Gradually more and more passengers arrived for each of the three flights.

The first flight was called. We were not on it. The American group lumbered off towing great wardrobe-like cases and still discussing what they would eat that evening.

We renewed our visits to the two remaining desks. Whether it was our increased sense of desperation, or better fluency of basic Spanish phrases in which we had had intensive practice for the past three hours, I don't know but suddenly we were on the third and final flight. We would just have to pay Jesus in cash, in quetzales. Panic. We dug through pockets and rucksacks and managed to get the price of two single tickets. Jesus pocketed the money with a grin almost as wide as the check-in counter. Clutching our precious but filthy recycled boarding cards, we fought our way to the plane. They were collected by none other than Jesus, who also loaded the luggage.

The pilot also turned out to be none other than Jesus, now in his fourth reincarnation but this time resplendent in cap with gold braid. He disappeared through the cockpit door which had "Jesus es el Senor" picked out in glittering red above it.

Our flight was the last of the day and as we arrived in Guatemala City it was growing dark. The arrival area was deserted. Our Mayan co-passengers quickly vanished into the night. Lights were going out. Where was the guide we had arranged to meet us and take us up to Antigua? No taxi would risk the drive to Antigua, about 40 minutes away, but a stewardess agreed to ring a special tourist taxi office.

For a small fortune a driver would take us into the city to a hotel. We begrudgingly climbed into the taxi and drove off. On arrival at the hotel, the large American party we had seen at Tikal were crossing the foyer: rested, showered and replete.

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