This is a time of year that often finds us lugging Christmas across the Yucatán. Last year, almost immediately after the bus pulled out of the terminal in Playa del Carmen we were interrogated by a foul-breathed and palpably frightened German backpacker, who had decided that he might want to explore the lands south of Mexico but knew only enough about them to set his pulse racing.
Obviously what we had to say was far from reassuring because he was soon scrambling up to the front of the bus to ask the driver to stop and allow him to get off in the middle of the peninsula's toasted (and largely uninhabited) scrub. This would have frightened me!
Resigned to reaching the border at Chetumal he went back to his seat behind us, but periodically leaned over my head to voice his trepidations and shower us with cold sweat.
He was visibly afraid of many things, but the thing that ultimately seemed to spook him more than anything else was the sheer quantity of luggage we were transporting with us. Providing him with deliberately vague explanations for this seemed like good sport at the time.
On arrival in Chetumal V negotiated a deal with a mini-van driver who would take us (and all our bags) as far as the Belize-Guatemala border for a remarkably reasonable fee − provided that we recruited a small group of fellow travellers to come with us as far as Belize City. This proved no major challenge for V and within the hour we had assembled a young Dutch law student, an Anglo-Indian solicitor (both bound for scuba adventures on the cayes), a deranged and loudly Islamophobic old Frenchman heading for Dandriga and our permanently cold-footed Kroutish friend.
Granted it wasn't the sturdiest of vehicles, yet all but he seemed genuinely enthusiastic about the prospect of the adventure ahead. I was the last to board and as I opened the door and slung in my heaviest bag there was a screech and the German disembarked in the instant, as if afraid that the door might shut again. We last saw him scuttling back towards the terminal, presumably to catch the next bus back to Cancun.
He might have been reassured by the landscape of northern Belize − undoubtedly one of the most well-manicured in all of Central America. The solictor had planned to fly to Caye Caulker from Corozal, but one look at the aeroplane awaiting him on the grass strip there and he cheerfully rejoined our company for the rest of the ride.
When we left smeggy old Belize City behind us and started to drive towards a sanguine sun setting behind the Maya Mountains, there was just the two of us: the driver and rather of lot of luggage left onboard. Although a card-carrying Mexican now, he had once been a chapin (Guatemalan) he reassured us. Soon he was questioning the logic of us stopping overnight in San Ignacio before crossing into Guatemala the next day: he himself had to carry on to Flores on Lake Petén Itzá − why didn't we come along with him and connect with one of the "first class" overnight services from Flores down to Guatemala City?
Prior to this one, the scariest roadtrip I had ever experienced was on that very same road through the dusky rainforest back in 1988. Much younger and with only two weeks' experience of the developing world behind me (and absolutely none of war zones), this solo jaunt into Guatemala really was a ride into the unknown. The first serious novelty was having an AK-47 pointed at me by a jittery-looking teenager as everybody on the bus was made to get down and present their papers. To this day I'm not sure if this rude interuption was staged by the army or the guerrillas, but as a foreigner I was ultimately of little interest to either.
V on the other hand, had never done this particular ride. Her working (and quite incorrect) assumption was that the road on the Guatemalan side of the border would be much the same as the British-made one on the Belizean side. And the idea of saving a whole day appealed to her. So I was overruled, but allowed to stop at a Chinese supermarket in San Ignacio to get some Durley's Parrot aged rum. The driver even loaned us some local currency for this.
Darkness enveloped us as the mini-van shuddered slowly along this deeply rutted highway. Occasionally you could see the light of a candle glowing amidst the trees on either side of us. In terms of palour and general agitation V now resembled our German chum, whose earlier nervousness looked in hindsight like an well-honed instinct for self-preservation.
V decided to make cheerful conversation with the driver. He clearly had a gun stashed away under the passenger-side dashboard, and repeatedly reached out to touch it. Suddenly the glare of fast-approaching headlights appeared in his mirror. "Don't worry," he said, "It's probably just my boss. He's angry because I'm late."
V shot me an "I'm so sorry!" look and prepared for the worst. We were overtaken by a big white SUV, possibly a Chevy Blazer. It pulled in front of us and stopped and our own driver followed suit. A stocky, lighter-skinned man with a pistol at his waist got down from the SUV and climbed into our mini-van pushing the driver over to the passenger side. At no stage did he acknowledge our presence. The two men started to argue noisily as the newcomer took over at the wheel and started to follow the other vehicle. V still looked like the German, but he had never quite lost the power of speech.
Lacking in basic social skills he might have been, but el jefe turned out to be the same sort of unusually obliging and unencroaching sort of individual as his now chastised employee, and his earlier anger appeared to derive from the latter's inability to keep up with him (time had been wasted in the Belizean "duty-free" zone) which had undermined their habitual convoy approach to the jungle crossing. We were driven to Santa Elena (near the causeway across to Flores) and we had one last moment of uncertainty when they drove us into a compound with a corrugated iron gate which was slammed shut and locked behind us by two men that had clearly been warned of our arrival. This turned out to be just another measure for our own security.
We and our bags were then transfered to another, smaller bus and taken to the muddy thoroughfare from where the overnight coaches set off for the capital. Sadly there were no "first class" services left at this hour. As we had used up the last of our cash settling up with 'shotgun tours' I had to wander off in search of an ATM. The first one I found was actually just a collection of wires sticking out of a hole in the ground: the entire machine had been wrenched from its location in a small booth off the street. Fortunately the next one was still hanging in there.
As is normal on these "second class" services the ayudante had sold a number of numbered tickets himself, so departure was delayed whilst passengers that had bona fide tickets bought at the office (ourselves included) squabbled with the interlopers. In the end I finished up right at the front in the ayudante's own seat (the guy from the office insisted), with V a few rows behind surroudned by tropical snorers. All the losers in the seat war were positioned on white plastic stools along the aisle. I drifted in and out of sleep listening to the amusing chatter between the driver and the ayudante, who bantered hard to keep themselves conscious for the next six hours.
Later, having safely arrived in Antigua with all our gear, we learned that V's brother Oscar had been in a mini-van in Petén the week before which had been sprayed with bullets as it tried to flee a roadblock set up by forest bandits.