Water, Aspirins, Sherpas, Sinatra, Belgians and Volcanoes

...in Guatemala 19 de Julio, 1,998

At the beginning of July I got a rushed e-mail from my hiking buddy Peggy that she would be coming to Guatemala, the following week. Having picked up the e-mail about a week late, I live in the countryside remember? and some hustle, I figured out that she was coming into town the following week. Thus when she got into town, we talked more or less (the voice quality of the phones in Agua Blanca resemble walkie-talkies under water) and made plans to hike Volcano Agua, 3,766 meter high monster on the southern edge of Antigua.

At 5:30am our guide Jose, met us at the house of Peggy's friend Carter. After a 20 minute drive out of Antigua we arrived at Santa Maria de Jesus, Sacatepequez. A largely Cakiquiquel community with an well-named bar called "Donde los hombres lloran" or "Where the men cry." Jose our aggressive hiking, Spanish teacher, lawyer in training began the trip by explaining the tasty delicacy of eating endangered turtle eggs to a Environmental Management Peace Corps volunteer, an environmental writer and a VIPer at the Nature Conservancy, he demonstrated the most important lesson of rhetoric....know your audience.

As we made our way up the volcano, Carter would pause to one side, slide his binoculars to his eyes and begin directing Peggy or I, depending on who had the extra set of binoculars, to the bird that was making himself know through a flurry of leaves. Volcan de Agua is a protected area, apparently not enforced as we watched the local men amble down the mountain under 3 foot stacks of firewood. However, being that it 3 kilometers high, altitude more than anything is protecting the upper regions. There was quite a number of birds as our slow progress up would attest. Of course our heavy packs could also be the reason for our slow progress.

Our confidence in our guide fizzled when upon reaching midway he pointed out Lake Amatitlan, where Peggy and Carted had been the previous day, and said "There is Lake Atitlan." His claim to fifty previous trips also began to come into question.

The humid subtropical climate "de repente" suddenly changes to high sierra with thick meadows of high grass and thistle with burned out husks of trees. Six hours after our start, we arrive at the crater. "The top" announced our guide and then flopped to the ground like a scarecrow without a post. Noting voices coming from above, we decided to continue upward.

From the bottom we had followed a pick-up sized road, momentarily paved in the middle, and then shrank to size of a cattle track. Now it looked like the path of a very skinny deer. We got to the top and amid the glut of radio and television stations had terrific views of Antigua, Volcano Acatenango, and the still smoking Volcan Pacaya. On a clear day, one can see the Pacific 80 kilometers away. We also met a group of 20 energetic Belgians beginning their way down. The most gregarious of the bunch belted out "Hello" and had a quick exchange which became friendly as Carter determined that they indeed were not Germans.

After lunch, and quick trip to a viewpoint only to discover where people who stay overnight on the volcano do their duty. On our way down we observe what must be the only soccer field in the world in the crater of a volcano, and certainly one of the highest in Central America. But what do they do if they lose a soccer ball over the side the volcano? Who's going to hike nine hours (three down, six up) to retreive a soccer ball?

Before heading down we each down a couple of aspirin to relieve our protesting lower backs and thighs. About 30 minutes down from the top, and we were moving pretty fast--Carter was worried about leaving his wife Jackie with their new baby, we were winding around the bottom of a huge ravine, half a click in length, 25 meters wide and 15 meters deep and rimmed with ankle breaking rocks when we heard "Ayude! Ayudenos"! (Help,Help us)

Stopping and turning up the to look at the ravine, Carter checked out the scene with binoculars.

"It's the talkative one from the big group ahead of us. He probably just twisted his ankle. His friends should help him."

"I don't want to leave him" insisted Peggy.

After some debate back and forth. We agreed to wait to hear what this person who was Billy goat swiftly navigating his way down the rocky crevasse. No more than 18 his dark eyes full of fear, the young guide rushed his words, in between his gulps for air. His charge had broken his ankle and wrist and needed help, badly.

We couldn't just leave him. But we also thought that his Belgian friends could lend a hand. So we sent our guide down to get help both from the Belgians and also the local firemen.

We then scrambled up the crevasse and checked out the young Belgian. He was a wreck. One lens of his glass was gone, a bloody bruise marked his temple, blood covered from his knees to his feet, his left wrist turned in the entirely wrong direction, a pale face of shock and a tight but friendly smile that we would come to respect over the next 10 hours. He leaned dazedly against a rock.

After introducing ourselves to Piet, Carter and Peggy, the most first aid conscious of us, took charge.

"We need to get him to lay down" Carter said. "We need to have a place to put his head--Sit here-- Uh what's your name?"

"Carolyn" answered the attractive blond with the slightly too pale complexion indicating her hopelessly lost debonair European air. "Listen your boyfriend needs your help. Please sit here" She did so, thus placing Piet's head in her lap. Later, we would find out about our matchmaking activities. Piet had made his first move on Carolyn only moments before his made a worse move.

"How's that Piet," asked Carter.

"Nice...Ya..Nice" again a smile, only slightly less clenched.

At this point, the wisdom of Jackie, Carter's wife, became apparent. Earlier we had chuckled at the "Family size" Tylenol bottle Jackie had packed. Now we understood and 800 mg later, Piet shared in her wisdom. After a moment of rest, we lifted him to his feet, requiring some careful translations to the guide, and immobilized his wrist with three shirts stripped from off our backs wrapped around his chest and above his shoulder.

Piet's own move is what got him there. His young guide had been leading Carolyn and Piet down the correct trail, when Piet suggested and then insisted that they follow the rock ravine down to the next connection with the trail. An idea to save time, and perhaps a bit of bravado in front of the lovely Carolyn.

Now he was facing a five hour hike in serious pain with dark clouds looking to make the journey even more difficult.

After a brief discussion, it was decided that the Sherpa would be tied to Piet and largely carry Pete to the bottom. I was the Sherpa. I had received the dubious name on the hike up, as I ended up carrying the water heavy pack Peggy and I were sharing. Tied together with jogging pants around our waists and with me perpendiclar to Piet we started gingerly stepping from unstable stone to less stable stone, me lifting from the rightside. At first, his young Guatemalan guide carried from the back, but we moved him, because he didn't understand that supporting was not the same as pushing Piet down the mountain.

As Piet and I walked/wrestled down the crevasse in an amazing clownlike demonstration of body mechanics and leverage. Every so often we came to 3 foot drop which prevented "easy" stepping. Thus, necessity that mother of invention brought us the "butt drag" Slowly lowered Piet in a cartilidge popping dance of pain for my knees and shoulder. We then scooted across these larger boulders until getting to the edge where we would slowly lean down the volcano, taking advantage of physics to propel us to the next step. Forty-five minutes later we had covered the 400 meters to reach the bottom of crevasse. We celebrated with toasts of water, bread and aspirin as well as rests for Piet, Carter, Peggy, our guide, Carolyn and especially the Sherpa.

As Peggy explained later the Sherpa name isn't so far off. Sherpa's are known for carrying monstrous amounts on their backs, while shuffling their feet and zig zagging around all rock outcroppings. They usually arrive at the top ahead of their Everest gringos just in time to film them arriving at the top. My similiarity was the shuffle.

Once rested we began anew. This time Carter acting as Sherpa for Piet. Piet started to feel a bit better and decided against the tying down. Carter walked once step ahead of him providing a steady shoulder to lean on.

We began to wonder what had happened to Piet's twenty friends. Sure a stall of a half hour seemed normal. But an hour, considering the velocity of our guide and the proximity of the group, seemed too long. Our doubts fell on both our guide, who seemed very eager to get home, and the group. The group because apparently Piet was the leader, and the best, perhaps only, Spanish speaker. Perhaps they didn't understand what the guide wanted.

Despite his pain, Piet was pretty talkative. Just finishing his schooling as a chemical engineer, he did his 60 page thesis on beer. This perked up my ears of course. He apparently created a formula using sugar that speeds up the fermenting process from weeks to days. An imaginary economics professor almost shouted in my ear "Higher beer production, using less man hours, using only few more ingredients COULD mean a drop in beer prices......Go Piet!"

The trail down was a rocky muddy maze of turns, well designed to break ankles and bother already broken ankles. At first we were trying to keep Piet's spirits up, but really he was keeping ours up. After talking music for a moment, I began humming a Sinatra song. A moment later Piet starts belting it out"Start spreading the news...I'm leaving today...I want to be a part of it New York, New York." Then the group of us are swinging our legs in harmony like a broadway show. Perhaps we had had a few too many aspirin.

At about 6 pm, just when it's beginning to turn dark and chilly, three wiry fireman burst around the corner with stretcher and medical kit. The first wore a smile of pride, perhaps because he was the boss or maybe because he had beat his collegues to us. Their neatly matched well-pressed white shirt and blue pants and gold nametages belied a sense of pride and the Guatemalan fascination for uniforms. Once the fourth panted his way to us, we lowered Piet onto the wood strecher and with a "Da le (Give it)" we lifted the 6'4" beer expert onto the shoulders of the wiry 5'3" guatemalans. Piet crossed his arms, closed his eyes and relaxed. From here his tough part was over. But in Guatemala everything is poco a poco (little by little).

Carter Peggy and I stood back relieved. We thought our jobs were over. It wasn't to be. Fifteen minutes later, the slow one to reach us wobbled--badly, almost launching Piet into the woods and down the 30 degree incline. I jumped in his spot, bending my knees deeply to the same level as my 5'3" counterparts. I began to doubt their assertion that they do this sort of thing "5 times a week" and come to believe their other assertion that "many die on the volcano."

Ten minutes later the second and much larger group of twelve firemen complete with red firehats and two Antigua policemen came around the corner. We took photos- not only for memory but for Piet's insurance. A more forceful fireman insisted on moving him to a new stretcher. Apparently the red hats had clout because after a small discussion- they moved him- old stretcher and all--onto the new stretcher. It was clear we had entered a fireman turf war between the towns of San Francisco and Santa Maria de Jesus.

An hour later we arrived at the ambulance--a large green ambulance reminiscent of those from something Hemingway would have wrote about in the Spanish Civil War. The puff-chested firemen then told us only one of us could go down with the ambulance. I explained somewhat patiently, that we all needed to go: me to translate, Carter to drive Piet to the hospital when we got to the bottom and Peggy to think for all of us.

After some back and forth with Mr. Puffchest, he grunted his agreeement to let us all go in the ambulance. Peggy and Carter hopped in the front to the apparent delight of the driver, who's eyes followed Peggy's movements more than the road's 3 foot deep undulations. The puff chest and his three assistants jumped on the bumper as the ambulance scraped and dragged down the mountain. In the back, three firemen and I clutched Piet like human safety belts trying to keep him from flying out the back, which lacked doors. Trying to keep his mind off his pain, we talked about the world's sport, soccer. We explained to the firemen that Piet is Belgian, the team that almost beat the Mexicans in the World Cup. All Guatemalans hate Mexicans, be it through family who got left behind by a coyote at the border, or the apparent arrogance of Mexicans. They looked at Piet with new appreciation.

Suddenly the ambulance slammed to a stop. In front, but not blocking was a stalled Chevy truck. All seventeen fireman disappeared to jumpstart the car, or perhaps, to lend moral support to the two attractive women sitting in the car. The puff chest patiently explained to me that it was too dangerous to leave anyone on the volcano at night. Uh huh. Especially anyone with legs to their eyeballs and not especially Carter, Peggy or me.

So we arrive at Santa Maria which is in chaos. The ambulance was immediately mobbed by Guatemalans peeping in the plastic windows like we are the gringo freak show, which we are. I try to charge a quarter each, but three are no takers. I tell Piet I'll be right back--to track down his group co-leader Jan who was to be waiting for us in the village. Almost immediately I bumped into Jan--it's not hard to pick out a 6'5" European in a mob of chin high Guatemalans. We greet and turn to see that the fireman have pulled Piet from the ambulance, placed him on the cement, and seem to be showing him off to the crowd. The crowd, over one hundred people, begin to push to get a close look at the gore.

We pushed our way to Senor Puff chest and I held back my three Spanish swears to ask "What the honorable Senor is doing with my terribly injured friend?"

"We're moving him to the other ambulance." He answered "So why is he sitting here on the asphalt?

His moment of glory cut short, he frowns slightly and orders the firemen to lift Piet into the ambulance.

But my questions for Jan were far bigger. "How come they sent no one to bring him down?"

"They had asked us to send up our four strongest guys. But, we were all tired from the hike and so we didn't."

After waiting another 20 minutes for the driver's brother to show up for the ride to Guatemala city. Carter, Peggy, Piet and I had agreed to take him to the best hospital: Hospital Lleradi Herrardi. I had my own experience there 8 months ago (a tragic broken nose) and found them to be excellent. This was a problem for the ambulance-which only was "supposed to deliver to Antigua." After rejecting three offers to go to Hospital Antigua- I pushed the point in my bluntest Spanish "Vamos a Hospital Herrardi."

It was now 7:40pm an hour to the city and Piet was in severe pain. Having Jan was good for Piet as they revert to Flemish- hand on shoulder the contact of old friends. After Carter and Peggy say their goodbyes, we begin rocketing to the city. Jan, me, Ambulance assistant #1 and #2, Policemen #1 and #2 all crowded around the outstretched body of Piet. Just as the rumble of the cobblestones of San Francisco stop, the ambulance stops as the driver disembarks, yells "Won't be home for dinner" to his wife and opens the back of the ambulance.

"Listen we're volunteers (he makes two hand gestures to indicate NO and MONEY) and Hospital Herrardi is in Guate and out of our district. We don't have enough money for gas to get there."

"How much do you need to get there?" I ask

"200Q" He says.

I gagged visibly. The previous week I had priced out gas for an 8 hour roundtrip in a gas guzzling bus with 60 people--It was 300Q.

He backtracked. "I can write you a receipt, uh, any donation would be great, uh"

Jan brilliantly, although perhaps inadvertantly, offered VISA.

The driver pondered this.

Then I suggested that perhaps "if there's enough gas now we could pay you back once we get there." It seemed to be enough and he hopped back in the front cab, disappointed that his bribe had be denyed. At the edge of town, the bandwagon of assistants and policemen disembarked, perhaps also disappointed there would be no party tonight.

For the next hour Piet, Jan and I finished our french fries from San Miguel and rested. We arrived in Guate where I needed to give the driver directions to the hospital. A pretty funny picture really: A gringo giving a Guatemalan ambulance driver directions to hospital.

Piet was rushed into the hospital where after several discussions about insurance he was admitted. His x-rays showed three fractures in his left wrist, (a number 4, the most intense pain possible), a small fracture in the right wrist and his left foot. The good news was that the ambulance driver disappeared.

Jan worried about the quality of the health care, the doctors and the needles, and insisting that all work should be done in Belgium. I think he saw some horrific AIDs documentary before coming to Guatemala. The specialist who they call in gives a clear decisive prognosis in perfect English (a clear indication of where he studied his medicine). But Piet was decisive. "I want the surgery here." At 11pm, once his french fries were surely digested, they operated.

Jan and I spent the rest of the evening wrestling with the local telephone company, Guatel, to get a line to Belgium. Once the line connected, and all seemed well, I walked to stranger's house. Knowing I wouldn't be able to get a hotel at 11:30pm, Carter had connected with his friends at the Nature Conservancy who live only 4 blocks away to put me up for the night. I met them, shook hands, I wandered to the guest room and fell dead asleep.

The next morning, Carter, Peggy, Jackie, Christian (the baby) and I headed over to the hospital. We met Piet's travel agent/host/driver who urged us to hurry- "Piet is going to the airport right now." We headed back to his room where Piet has his audience with Carolyn, Jan and now us.

Piet looks about he's being prepared for an afterlife as a Phaeroh with full forearm casts, bandaged knees, and casted ankle. But moreover he looked like a King holding court surrounded by friends and admirers. We were all his admirers. With the three breaks he sustained, he never complained, not once. He remained cheery for the duration of a 6 hour hike, calm through the crazy ambulance rides and sane and decisive in the hospital.

Piet is to be sent back for the remaining surgery. Carter appropriately gave Piet the family size aspirin bottle still full enough for the long trip home but now full of names and addresses of his new friends and admirers.

"Nice, that's nice" said Piet with a big smile.