When the Whammy Strikes

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, September 1994

When the Whammy Strikes

It's 3 a.m. in a big, foreign city. Do you know where your running shoes are?
By Randy Wayne White

Maybe through influence, but probably through curse, the Temple of the Giant Jaguar was the shaper of my personal policy on urban transportation. I can blame it, thank it, love it, hate it, but the policy remains as unyielding as ever. When I arrive in an unfamiliar city, any city, I abandon my itinerary. I store my gear, put two bottles of beer into a bucket of ice, and then go to the streets and run. Damn the cabs, buses, rickshas, and yak carts--I run. I run aimlessly, though not without purpose, and it doesn't matter whether I am above the treeline or below the equator. This is why I'm pretty certain that I now travel under the effects of a terrible Mayan whammy.

It all started many years ago in the jungles of Guatemala, at the ancient city of Tikal. Located 190 miles north of Guatemala City, Tikal is a massive ruin of temples, shrines, and triumphal platforms. Before the birth of Christ and up until about A.D. 900, this now silent place was a ceremonial center of the Maya, an astonishing people. Generations of craftsmen, mathematicians, priests, and their progeny lived, thrived, and died here. But now, when approached from the air, the only hints of human activity are the bleached combs of pyramids that poke through the rainforest canopy.

I had been to Tikal twice in previous years, but on this particular trip I came by Land Cruiser, not by plane. I was on my own, free to roam haphazardly among the remnants of 1,100 years of constant construction. There were tour groups in the park--there always are--but I held my ground, for I had decided to select one small piece of Tikal and spend the whole day there. When I say "piece," I mean just that. There are six square miles of ruins, and it is numbing if one tries to see too much. The etched stonework soon blurs. Also, a Zen Buddhist friend had recently implied that I lacked spirituality--a ridiculous charge. Even so, I thought that by enduring several boring hours meditating over a single carving, I could prove to this curd-eater that I was as spiritual as the next guy.

The area I chose was the Great Plaza, where the Temple of the Giant Jaguar faces the Temple of the Masks. Between the two temples is a lawn running east to west, on which are several stelae--carved stone markers. It should have been easy to select an etching and sit in quiet communion with the brilliant Maya of long ago.

But it wasn't easy. Tour groups kept queuing up to view my etching, talking loudly. And the strolling beer salesmen wouldn't leave me alone. Stare as I would at the bizarre mosaics of animals with human heads, human bodies with jaguar faces, snakes with weird featherwork, fish, and other strange creatures, I couldn't concentrate. As I reckoned by the Mayan calendar, I sat there for less than one kin--in American time, the equivalent of about a six-pack. Daylight, I realized, is not conducive to meditation; sitting quietly just invited interruption. Which is when I made a fateful decision: I would return to the Temple of the Giant Jaguar that night and have the whole place to myself.

I should say right here that it is illegal to visit the pyramids after dark. Not only that--it's dangerous. As Carlos Ortiz, manager at the time of the nearby Jungle Lodge, explained to me, an armed guard with a dog patrols the park grounds once the gates are locked. Not that I told Ortiz of my plans. This nice man wouldn't have allowed such lunacy. But I was determined.

I left the Jungle Lodge at about 11 P.M. It is about a mile from the lodge to the Great Plaza, and I took my time, walking slowly, feeling my way along the earthen path that tunnels through the trees. There is density to a rainforest at night--it's a little like walking on the sea bottom at two atmospheres. It's quiet, too. I had to remind myself to breathe. But soon the tree canopy thinned. Stars reappeared. And out of the gloom rose the Temple of the Giant Jaguar, a pyramid in silhouette against a scrim of deep space.

The Temple of the Giant Jaguar is nearly 150 feet high, and a ramp of stone steps leads to an open chamber at the top. I couldn't wait to get up those steps, not because I was eager to meditate, but because I was worried about the guard and his damn dog. I half walked, half crawled up the steps to the top of the pyramid and took a seat on the stone platform. Below me, the rainforest of the Petén rolled away in charcoal mist, the trees glittering with fireflies--millions of them, detonating randomly. There were so many fireflies that the visual effect was disturbing. My ears kept straining to hear the noise of those mini-explosions. But of course there was only silence--a deep and complete silence--and I began to imagine that I had gone deaf.

I decided to change the mood by exploring inside the pyramid chamber. For the first time, I turned on my flashlight, shining it on the carved lintel above the doorway. This is what I had come to do: ponder the strange etchings of the Maya. This wooden lintel, more than a thousand years old, was an extraordinary artifact. Carved into it was a swirl of feathers that seemed to form a human face. That figure was connected to an inlay of rectangular shapes that, if you looked closely, formed more human faces. The longer I looked at this mosaic, the more faces appeared, and my true spiritual nature really kicked into gear. Then it began to get a little spooky. I saw a beautiful woman wearing a headdress. Her black eye held me, then dismissed me. And there was a nobleman with something coming out of his ear. A snake? Yes, a snake...and the snake seemed to be crawling toward the open mouth of...a withered old hag who was...gad!...who was copulating with a jaguar.

I backed away from the lintel, filled with a growing sense of foreboding. During the day, Tikal had been as benign as a museum, but now, in darkness, it seemed an eerie reunion of the ancient dominion. And I had the strong feeling that none of those lost souls depicted on the lintel wanted me there. I found the stairs and slowly began to work my way down. Slowly, because the old hag on the lintel had the fickle look of a practical joker, and tripping would have been fatal. Murder, after all, is small potatoes to anyone who would mate with an animal. Back on the ground, I began to walk calmly toward the Jungle Lodge. I was no longer worried about the guard. I would have welcomed human company. And if the dog attacked...well, the old hag would know how to handle him, the poor bastard. Just thinking about her witchy face goaded me to walk faster...faster...until soon I was jogging--jogging, convinced that all the grotesqueries of that place were rising up in my wake, jogging at a strong, steady pace. To hell with the darkness and the bad footing. It was during that fast retreat to the lodge that I had a flash of realization: The instant I started jogging, the forest ceased to be a weight above me; the ruins of Tikal were no longer a sinister presence behind me. The simple act of running had transformed my relationship with the surroundings. I felt safe in a sphere created by my own exertion. Icould still smell, hear, and see the forest, but Iwas doing it on my own terms. Spirituality? I'm still as spiritual as the next guy, which is to say that if God or his long dead want to communicate with me, they can dial direct, day or night, just so long as they leave that jaguar humper out of the loop. Otherwise, I'll be out there running, emotionally bulletproof.

before i suffered the curse at the Temple of the Giant Jaguar, layovers in cities were sensory vacuums: hotel pools, clock-watching, dull museums. Now layovers pack a punch--little mini-adventures with all kinds of potential. But you have to know what you're doing. Remember, on a running tour fitness is a peripheral benefit, not an objective. If you pass an interesting monument or shop, person or pub, you are not only allowed to stop, you should stop. Also, never plan your route. There is a karmic component to this kind of touring, so it is best to follow your instincts rather than a map. However, the wise traveler does carry equipment. I pack American greenbacks in my socks (no coins--too noisy, and I still haven't figured out how to use foreign pay phones). I also carry my tourist card (police are prissy about identification), a compass, and a card bearing the name and address of my hotel (you'll see why). The little extra weight is worth it.

I have jogged through cities all over the world, and not surprisingly the most lasting impressions I have of those cities were collected while running. In my mind, Lima, Peru, is crumbling Castilian architecture and political graffiti on the walls of alleys where children, too hopeless to make eye contact, sleep on cardboard pallets. Managua, Nicaragua, is smog and traffic, rain-slick sidewalks, and baseball fanatics eating bocas outside Mad Monk Stadium, waiting for the game to begin. Perth, Australia, is clean streets, safe parks, and black swans; Singapore is cleaner streets, even safer parks, and plenty of whack-ready rattan growing down by the river. Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, is bamboo forests on the outside of town, filthy rivers, and whole hillsides ablaze, slashed and burned.

Anchorage, Belize, Galway, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Medan, Quito, San José, Sydney--these aren't just sterile cities anymore. They are side streets, the odors of suppers cooking, traffic, shopkeepers sweeping, a stranger's gaze from a balcony window, and other small intimacies. One of the great things about running is that there is no profit in bothering a runner. They are sweaty, walletless, and have too much momentum to mess with. On one of the few occasions when I have been stopped, it was by a desperate man who didn't want money--just important information. He taught me much about how Americans are perceived in the far corners of the world. This was in Nandi, on the western coast of Viti Levu, Fiji, where I had to lay over for a couple of days on my way to another destination. Nandi is not a pretty city. Because of the international airport there, it is a jumble of duty-free shops and cheap hotels that smell of pineapple and kava. Fiji is brutally hot, a terrible place to run at midday. But as I said, the curse is unyielding, plus I was loony with jet lag, and jogging gave me something to do while waiting for the beer locker to open at my hotel. So I ran each day, and each time I ran, concerned strangers would stop their cars and ask polite questions before offering me rides. Why was I running in this heat? Was something chasing me?

I became accustomed to the inquiries and so was not surprised when a tiny Indian man pulled off the road, stepped from his car, and called to me, "Sir, I would be happy to drive you."

I said that I would rather run.

"Ah! You are an American, then?"

Either crazy or an American--those seemed to be the clear options. I said that I was an American.

The man seemed delighted out of proportion to the circumstances. "Really? Is it true? An American!" Then, without even the briefest preamble, he hurried to my side and, while shaking my hand, said, "Thank God I've met you! I've just been married, and you will know. Please tell me--what can a man do to cure premature satisfaction?"

Yes, there are still places where people believe that Americans have an answer for everything. But my reply to this desperate man did not do justice to the pride he had stirred in me: "Geezus, that's right. You guys don't play baseball in Fiji, do you?"

Keep in mind that the kind of running I'm talking about is not sport, but transportation. Road racing is for amateurs and situations in which dogs are involved. I do not run fast, and I wouldn't even if I could--which I can't. This is expeditioning at its most intimate form, and it has its risks, which is why I now carry the aforementioned equipment. To illustrate: Last year I arrived in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, numbed by flight and too many stops in too many cities. It was dark when I got to my hotel, and it was still dark when I awoke at 3 A.M. On the far side of the earth, the hours from 3 A.M. to 6 A.M. are peak jet-lag hours. The brain is disoriented, but the body is ready to kick names and take butt. Two hours later I was still awake, but at least the window of my hotel room was beginning to pale, so I pulled on a sweatshirt, shorts, and shoes and went outside for my get-acquainted run. January in Hanoi is cold, and this was January. It was raining, too. I didn't mind getting wet. Anything is better than being alone in a hotel room, wrestling with jet lag.

Gradually, over 20 minutes, the fog became radiant. Somewhere, the sun was up. I began to recognize shapes. There were trees, there were old men pushing carts, there were people by a lake doing tai chi, a traditional morning exercise, and there was a pagoda on the lake with a big red star affixed to it. I knew I was in some kind of public park. I ran through the park, crisscrossed some narrow streets, and then decided to head back to my hotel. To do that, I believed, I had first to return to the park. But I couldn't find it. I tried to retrace my route, but all the streets looked the same. By now the fog had lifted, but it was still raining. I had been running for 45 minutes, and I slowed to a walk and began to take seriously the job of finding that damn park.

No luck. The thing had disappeared, evaporated with the fog. I tried to ask for directions, but no one I met spoke English, and my pantomime of the park's trees and tai chi only elicited nervous laughter. I spent another half-hour searching before I decided that it was time to get a cab. I didn't have any money, but the driver would certainly be willing to wait while I went to my room for cash. And that's when I had a terrible realization: I didn't know the name of my hotel. Worse, I wouldn't have recognized the place, because I had arrived at night and left before first light.

It is an awful thing to be alone, lost, and penniless in a big city, especially when one is soaked to the bone, wearing nothing but running clothes. And it is humiliating to wander from hotel to hotel, asking clerks, "Do you recognize me? Am I staying here?" Luckily for me, I met an Australian who seemed happy to chauffeur me around, but one should never plan on such good fortune. That's why I now always run with a card bearing the name of my hotel, personal identification, and plenty of money for refreshments. This equipage is imperative, for the curse of the Temple of the Giant Jaguar is without sympathy, and a good sense of direction is no match for the Mayan whammy

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