Saturday, January 03, 2009

How My Camera Saved Me

Or, It's a Miracle I Didn't Break an Ankle

“Una mas photo?” I said hopefully to the guard who’d approached me in the Grand Plaza.
“Si, si, no problemo,” he replied and wandered away mumbling into his walkie-talkie.

I quickly changed lenses and, using the tripod and remote, took several two-second shots of the Jaguar Temple I. The imposing silhouette against the dusk sky was strikingly beautiful.

The stars were beginning to come out, so when I saw a particularly bright one sparkling over the Central Acropolis, I took a few more photos.
If only I’d followed the rules.

It was definitely darkening, but the road back into the forest was quite visible and I confidently set off, telling myself it was no big deal. I’ve walked in dark forests without flashlights before, after all, and thought myself pretty brave. However, I conveniently forgot to remember several important, salient bits of information: I knew that other path very well in daylight, and there was only the one road, no way to get lost.

In the jungle around Tikal, there most certainly is more than one road and I most certainly did not know any of them well. I’d entered the park a grand total of two times that day, both using different paths. I really should have known better.

The forest got darker. The ribbon of road got fainter in front of me. My heart began to pound as I tried to will away the first uneasy pangs of misgiving.

I’d thought it was a straight shot from the Grand Plaza, but I hadn’t been positive. At first, I could make out the signs pointing to the exit or a temple, but soon enough it got too dark.
The forest was alive around me, creatures singing and calling, hissing and howling. I told myself that no animals here would just attack me, that I had nothing to worry about in the growing darkness. It would be fine. Just keep moving. The packed dirt road was uneven, full of ruts, puddles, and shallow tree roots. Walking had taken concentration in broad daylight, and now I just blithely tripped along, pretending nothing was wrong.

Then I hit a T, running into some ruins and the road seeming to go in different directions. I had a “flash” of genius to use my camera to show me the scene. Unfortunately, the camera wouldn’t auto-focus in the pitch black, and there were no signs to be seen anyway. As a bonus, I was blinded for a few moments each time the flash fired. Each time it took longer for the road to reappear, and each time it was slightly dimmer. Each time the dark forest got darker.

There was both panic and disbelief somewhere in the far recesses of my mind, and for the most part I made sure to ignore them. I began to consider the idea of laying down and hunkering down at some ruins for the night, and waiting for moonlight, or god forbid, dawn.

At this point I had backtracked –or tried to- several times and really wasn’t sure where I was. I took a flash picture of my Tikal map to see if I could get my bearings that way. I examined the photo carefully on the LCD screen, zooming in and around to try to orient myself. No go, since there was no point to orient to. Then I hit upon a truly ingenious idea: using the AF assist lamp as a two-second flashlight. Unfortunately, there were still no damn signs and it was still really fucking dark when it went off.

So I continued on, turning around a couple more times when coming across a Salida arrow. I figured that my best plan now, since apparently that Salida was eluding me, would be to find my way back to the Grand Plaza, because a)there might be a guard around, b)it would be lighter since there was minimal tree cover, and c)it would be a good place to ‘camp out’ in that I’d hopefully be discovered quickly. Oh, and I could look at the stars. After a glimpse of the night sky back in Antigua, I felt desperate to find a place with no light to really see all the stars. Be careful what you wish for.

Then I came across signs for Uaxactun, 23 kilometers away, and in the other direction, signs for comedores and restaurants. I carefully turned and headed toward what I desperately hoped might possibly be the exit. I saw lights. People! Rescue! Salvation!

"Hola!" I called, trying to sound calm.
“Hola,” came the reply, not sounding surprised or worried.
“Soy perdido.” I am lost, I said. “Salida?”
“Salida,” he confirmed. Yes, this was the exit. “Mas persona?” Any more people?
“No, perdido.” No, lost.
“Perdida,” he corrected me.
“Si, perdida. Y stupida.”

I caught up to him and couldn’t explain much of anything with my non-Spanish. I think he probably knew what had happened though: another thoughtless gringa stayed too long in the forest and got caught by the night.

We were indeed on the exit road. The trees cleared and the sky was open and chock full of stars. I gawked upward as I tripped along the uneven path. A faint stripe of the Milky Way was visible. Stars were everywhere and there was no ambient light to distract from them. I hadn’t seen a sky like that in years; it was incredible. What is it about the clear night sky that is so endlessly compelling and somehow mysterious?

The guard pointed out my hotel and I thanked him gratefully as I walked toward the lighted pathway. I couldn’t help but shake my head and laugh at myself—I got lost in the Tikal jungle at night. I was close to sleeping under the stars sheltered by two thousand year old ruins. Stupida, indeed.

That’s what I get for thinking that I don’t really have to follow rules, and when when a forest “closes” at a certain hour, it’s for a good reason! Also, I was stupid to not keep a flashlight with me at all times, just in case something like this occurred. Thankfully my camera stepped in bravely to help. Most of all, I hadn’t panicked (too much); my denial was a powerful saving grace.

I have never felt so grateful to return to a tiny, undecorated hotel room.


CaliforniaTeacherGuy said...

I'm grateful that you found your way out too--I'd miss your photos and musings!

Schoolgal said...

I know you are an adventurer, but I like your idea to follow the rules and use caution from now on.
btw, is your mother reading this?
Don't be surprised if she hides your passport because she is probably on her knees thanking God too.

I am really glad you found your way safely back to your hotel.

Ms. George said...

Thinking of all the things that could have gone wrong, I'm so glad you are 'home' safe. Take care of yourself and try to enjoy your week back at school...

Saii said...

thank God u found the way back!!


I've never been in Tikal!