A Story About Travel in 1970s Guatemala

Photo by Epicurrence on Unsplash

I’ve long been fascinated with the idea of exploration. Not in its overplayed sense where any backpacking trip through Europe’s most visited cities becomes an exploration shared on Instagram. No — I’m talking about exploration in seeing the unseen. Doing the undone. Learning the unlearned.

I’ve always wanted to be the first explorer somewhere, doing something. Whether it’s a fascination stimulated by my competitive nature or a hankering for adrenaline, it has always sparked a curiosity in me that I can’t quite explain. I’ve wondered if there are any parts of the world to explore before it becomes too late.

Like many of the generation of digital travelers, I’ve been touched by mystifying stories from peers, role models, and strangers alike that have all served as my motivation to seek more from the world than the city I was born to.

There has been, perhaps, no greater influence on my own travels than the seventy-seven-years-young extravagant storyteller, Charles Thomson. Through an extensive adoration and knowledge for worldly matters, he has encouraged me on my own exploration.

He often shared stories of his years in the Navy and months spent living in his van that had me greatly curious about a lifestyle far from the path I was once on.

His youth was circumstantially focused around the counter-culture of the Sixties and early Seventies that rebelled against just about every piece of advice given to him in the decades preceding his adulthood.

Part of this culture led him to an alternative lifestyle concentrated on avoiding conformity — and not just listening to Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ and running around claiming the hippy lifestyle. His choices proved he cared more about the spirit of the movement than the image.

Back then, traveling was much more mysterious and uncertain. No one ever truly understood what they were getting into when they traveled to the other side of the world. Much of the world was still unexplored and unseen. There’s no better example of this than the tale Charles has told countless times about his journey through Central America in his mid-thirties.

The year was 1975. Charles Thomson had just landed in the untouched country of Guatemala without a single expectation. Hell, he didn’t even consider obtaining a visa to enter the country until the moment he reached the front of the customs line. He kept waiting for someone to ask for his visa but no one seemed to mind when he trotted right on through into the country.

Travel information wasn’t so easily accessible, and, therefore, many things (even the bits we consider crucial today) became trivial to the journey. It’s hard to imagine a world so laid-back as to not stress about visas and passports.

Charles was visiting his “main squeeze” of the Seventies, Suzy, who had picked up a temporary nursing position and who was of the same seasonal lifestyle he was bred. She persuaded him to join her in exploring the great Tikal ruins of the northern Guatemalan rainforest in a 1970 Chevy Blazer.

They spent their days trekking up and down temples which were the tallest pre-Colombian structures in the world. They were constructed by the Mayans ’ most advanced civilization dating all the way back to 200 A.D.

One night, thick in the rainforest which was full of jaguars on dinner prowl, at one of the few campsites they could find, Suzy became involved in a backgammon game in the campground’s communal tent.

While this was happening, Charles found himself mesmerized by a conversation he was having outside with a local, Pat. For hours, they occupied each other’s time, but mostly lost in Pat’s timeless and pure narrative of a developing world Charles was still coming to grips with.

Pat wanted to share everything about Guatemala with Charles and he yakked on and on about everywhere they would go together come sun-up.

“But I have an incredible secret I’d like to show you tonight, too,” Pat said, excitedly.

Pat was not a day-time tour guide or someone looking for a healthy tip at the end of this big secret journey. That’s not what his intentions were — nobody had those intentions back then. He sincerely only wanted to share his world with someone who had never seen it at its best.

By this point, Charles was helplessly lost in Pat’s world. He could do nothing but agree to tag-along.

Through thick grasses and various lightly-treaded trails, time passed as they trudged under a moonless, dark night. There were moments Charles questioned his own common sense. He had just been told all about the wildness of the rainforest and now hiked right on through the dangerous unknown.

Soon, the trail led them to an old dirt road — all the roads were made-up of dirt in 1975’s Guatemala.

“Only a little further,” Pat would tell him. Charles, weary already, had come too far to walk back alone.

Besides, despite his weariness, Charles found people to be generally good and trusted Pat’s morality. If only he could trust the jaguars lurking in the brush, he wouldn’t have a reason for concern.

They continued on — led by the stars — but not from the glow — only guided by the line of stars seen through the narrow gap in the rainforest canopy. Pat knew exactly which one to follow.

“Just follow my voice,” Pat said after Charles griped about not being able to see anything in front of him. The guiding stars had been blocked by a suffocating canopy and every step taken had to be made with caution.

It wasn’t more than ten minutes later, Pat stopped at the foot of one of many hills where he grabbed Charles’ shoulder in pitch-blackness and said, “Just a little bit more — up there, at top of the hill, that’s where the surprise is.”

When they got to the top, the trees were dwarfed and the sky opened up. Pat told Charles to lay in the dirt at their feet. Snakes! Charles thought, but he had to lay down; Pat was already on the ground. As soon as they got on their backs, Charles realized he was witnessing something timeless.

“The stars!” Charles exclaimed as he told the story to me for the umpteenth time “– millions of them! They painted the night sky as white as snow. You wouldn’t believe it even if I told the story as vividly as I did forty years ago.”

“It was the most magnificent and shocking sight of my life. Never topped to this day,” Charles explains to me. “If I would have known the opportunity wouldn’t be around to see that view again, I would’ve gone right back to that rainforest hill the next year. It was that special. You’ll never see it like that night in your lifetime. Stars like that can’t be seen anymore.”

He always ends the story like that. Every time he tells it; “You’ll never see a sky like that.”

While I knew he was probably right, I always resented that part of the story. Surely, there had to be somewhere, someplace on this planet that the sky was still kissed with millions of stars like 1975 in Guatemala. Have we really polluted our way out of such magnificent night skies?

I had to find out myself. Charles’ story had inspired me. The search for my own magical starry night sky was on.

It started with a lot of research — on the Internet — a resource not even available in 1975. I had to find somewhere far enough from civilization to give the stars a chance.

I figured this would take me to some far-off island in the tropics of the South Pacific where electricity had just arrived or where humanity wasn’t. Maybe I’d have to traverse Antarctica through the blistering cold unknown. The possibilities scared me, but I had to do it. Despite all the risks, the thought of arriving somewhere so unexplored thrilled me.

That was when I came across a tiny archipelago of European islands in the North Atlantic which quite caught me by surprise.

Four-hundred-some-odd miles south of the Arctic Circle sits one of the least densely populated countries in Europe. In fact, many people across the globe have never even heard of the Faroe Islands.

With headlines for being “the happiest island destination in the world” and having “other-worldly landscapes” with even the slightest chance at seeing the great Aurora-Borealis, I had found my next destination.

I never did find my own Guatemalan night sky of 1975. It was more than forty years too late for that. But what I did find was truth in another lesson Charles Thomson echoes in his stories.

Charles always tells me, “Adam, it’s not about the destination as much as it is about the journey. Once you find your happiness in the journey, the destination almost always fulfills your expectations.”

The Faroe Islands fulfilled all of my expectations and more. If I’m being honest with myself, I never expected to see a sky full of millions of stars. I never truly believed it was out there — if I did, I could have ended up on an island much more removed than the Faroes.

What I was searching for was my own story of a place I could share with later generations knowing full-well it will not exist as it did ever again.

The Faroe Islands became that place for me. After one month in the islands, I learned my lesson — or maybe I taught myself my own lesson: If you want to find what you’re looking for, you have to open up beyond the surface of your intentions.

I found my own small piece of 1975 Guatemalan paradise and it came almost fifty years later and thousands of miles away.

Charles was happy for me when I told him of my discoveries. “It’s not about what you find at the end of the tunnel, it’s about all the details you uncover along the way,” he said.

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** This article was originally published at www.adamcheshier.com **

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