“That was really pretty wild, Emily,” my dad said. “And I’ve done some pretty wild things in my life.”
For those of you that know my dad, this is undeniably true. And since I have not received the permission from him to recount his exploits in this public forum, I cannot expound much further. However, some of his better known experiences – Vietnam, enduring cholera in Morocco, bicycling through much of Europe, and surviving a fall from a multi-story building by catching his foot on the step of a ladder while his children (Lucas and me) watched from below. “Lukey! Look! Daddy’s flying!”
I agreed. The volcano was pretty wild. However, the residual thrill of the lava was to be eclipsed the following afternoon as we hopped into another 8-passenger van destined for Panajachel.
Our options for traveling from Antigua to Panajachel were few – public bus or large van procured through a travel shop. Since the price difference was negligible we decided it would be worth the comfort of a van to chip in a few extra quetzales.
At 8 am the following morning we waited outside our hostel for the van to pick us up. It was late. It was an hour-and-a-half late. OK, fine. Not a big deal. But why was it late? Because one of the tires had a slow and steady leak. One would think the tardy arrival would be due to replacing the tire. One would be wrong. Apparently attempts to fix the leak were made, but in the end the driver decided the air-deficient tire was suitable for travel. Other observations Xavi and I made about the van before hopping in and holding on: no tread on the tires, absolutely bald. From experience, I know where bald tires get you — hydroplaning backwards down the highway at 60 mph directly into an apple orchard. Also, the front windshield and two of the back side windows were cracked. But people make this trip everyday, this was all just run of the mill, business as usual, I told myself. Then I reminded myself that these types of vans and buses crash and kill tourists like me all the time.
There were two other travelers with us on the journey. There was one open seat next to them in the middle row and one open seat in the back row among the large metal-framed traveling backbacks.
“Choose your seat, Em,” My dad said.
OK. Do I sit in the middle row next to the door so that if we should crash into water I might be the first able to escape? No, it would be more likely for me to go plunging through the windshield from that seat. Plus, there was a lot more open space in that location, meaning higher chances of being tossed around and breaking essential bones and/or vertebrae making an underwater escape impossible. So I looked to the back row. I would be flanked on either side by backpacks stuffed with soft clothing and sleeping bags. And in the more likely event of a nosedive off the side of a cliff I could seek cover behind the middle seat and backpacks, then once rested, climb through the rear window. I also took note that the rear window and a side window of the back seat were already cracked, water landing or nosedive into the jungle – this was clearly the optimal seat.
“I’ll sit in the back, Dad.” I replied, feeling a bit guilty for giving him the seat destined for paraplegia and likely death.
Then we were off. I tried to nap, laying my head against the mountain of luggage around me. It worked for a bit, until we stopped in a town about a half hour out of Antigua and picked up a local girl who looked to be about 16, wearing a thin-strapped, midriff-baring pink tank top with a pair of frayed cut-off jean shorts. She was demurely sucking a Chupa Chup lollipop when she hopped in the front passenger seat, gave the driver a kiss on the cheek and settled into the crook of his right arm, the hand of which was now wrapped around her waist instead of the steering wheel.
The ride was easy and tranquil up until this point, but then we entered the mountains. And our driver had an obvious boost in testosterone as he accelerated past all the other vans and tour-buses headed down the mountain toward Lago de Atitlán. I’ve looked, and this passage is not ranked among the world’s most dangerous roads, but honestly that list is quite subjective. Because I would put the likeliness of our deaths in a tragic fiery blaze at the bottom of the Guatemalan jungle that day at 80 percent. The variables were obvious and obviously dire: four tires with no tread, one of them deflating at an unknown rate; several cracked windows signaling a history of poor driving; driver with something to prove as he had his girlfriend under his arm and the sole hand on the wheel was doing double time with a cigarette occupying two of his fingers. Add to this the narrow two-lane road, with sheer rock-face on one side and a sheer 100-foot cliff on the other. There were no guardrails and no shoulders on this road. There were plenty of blind curves and plenty of two-way traffic though.
So as my dad and the other two made light of the situation, I focused solely on survival. I braced my arms against the seat in front of me, placed my head between my arms and my forehead against the seat to lessen the sudden impact and hopefully avoid traumatic brain injury. My legs were planted firmly, one against the floor and the other against the side wall of the car. This was necessary so that when we took corners and two of the wheels would raise slightly off the surface of the road I could displace my weight in an effort to avoid a rollover.
Some should be so lucky to die on such an adventure, I told myself over and over. Stay positive. Die happy, not scared. But most importantly — be prepared to fight your way out of this van. You have the plan, stick to the plan and stay calm. Die focused on survival not in acquiescence of death.
This is also when I first noticed my new method of crying. Having had a difficult previous year, my tears don’t come so easy anymore — they never really have. But when I am stressed, that is my tear-trigger. I wouldn’t say I was crying exactly. My breath was steady and slow, but I couldn’t stop the water from rushing out of my eyes. I figured it was a sort of subconscious sixth-sense. My body knew a possibly tragic event was imminent and the tears just started streaming. It was all I could do to be prepared and hold it together. For the record, I had also planned my dad’s best survival route and planned on explaining it to him in a cool and collected manner as we rolled down the incline to our right.
But then, I felt the tension in my arms relax and the constant teeter-tottering pull from left to right subsided. I looked up and we were on flat ground. We had actually survived. I beat the odds. Everything was against us that day, I was certain one or both of us would end up dead and if there was a survivor, he or she would have been in such a state to have envied the other.
But we pulled up in front of a small cafe in Panajachel and fell out of the van, all of us finally catching the breath we didn’t realize we had been holding the past 2 hours. My face must have drained of its color because Xavi looked at me and said,
“Hey! We made it. Are you OK?”
“No. I am not OK. I need to sit down,” I replied in short staccato breaths. “I thought we were going to die. How can you act like nothing happened?”
“Yeah, that was pretty bad. I was just thinking, ‘Well, here we are. What happens, happens,’” he said, as if it weren’t the life or death situation it was.
Then he handed me a notebook and a pen.
“OK, your turn to go find us a place to stay. Come on, I want to get this stuff put away. Now I want you to be thorough. Feel the beds, I want a comfortable bed. And we should be able to find something pretty cheap. I’m just going to sit here and watch the bags. Now, don’t be lazy, go to any hotel you see. Until you see inside, you never know. Let’s go, I want to get this settled. I don’t want to wait around all day”
I stood up, my legs still shaking and feeling like Jello from being flexed for a solid 2 hours. And as I began walking down the strip of restaurants and shops, whatever guilt I had felt for giving my dad the more deadly seat quickly dissipated. Take me back to ANTIGUA // Take me back to PANAJACHEL