Lynn Bremner
(Illustration: Lynn Bremner)

How I Survived a Wedding in a Jungle That Tried to Eat Me Alive

Nothing says “I do” like a small blood sacrifice

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I lie half naked and miserable in a puddle of my own sweat. I open the tent flap to breathe but there’s no relief, even at midnight. Who comes to the Guatemalan jungle in July?

Yesterday’s hike was rough, but the 15 miles today were raw pain. The mosquitoes were so vicious that by mile two even our local guides had asked to borrow our 100 percent deet. Bugs here suck down lesser repellent like an aperitif. Nothing provides complete protection.

Our destination is La Danta, one of the largest pyramids on earth. It’s located in the ruins of El Mirador, a centerpiece of Maya civilization from 800 B.C.E. to 100 C.E. that was abandoned nearly 2,000 years ago. There are no restrooms, no gift shops. In fact, the site is still being excavated.

This is where Angela and Suley want to get married. So, accompanied by a pair of guides, a half-dozen pack donkeys, and their ten toughest (or least informed) friends, the brides are determined to march us 60 miles over five days through Parque Nacional El Mirador in northern Guatemala to La Danta to say “I do.” It’s our second night on the trail.

I close my eyes and wait for Tara, a.k.a. Tent Dawg, to start snoring. I met her 48 hours ago. Broad shouldered and sharp jawed, she looks like she could win a car-tossing competition or spit and hit Mars. A major in the U.S. Army, she’s been training soldiers on how to survive in the field since before Survivor was a tiki torch in Mark Burnett’s eye. Back in the small town of Flores, the night before we all set off, she’d said something about a kidney condition with a shrug. Nothing fazes Tent Dawg.

I slip out of our nylon cocoon to pee, swimming through the liquid night. Humidity 83 percent. Cicadas buzz from thick-vined shadows—the jungle’s 24-hour booty call.

The misshapen moon shimmers like a mirage. I drop my underwear and flash a rounder moon at the donkeys. A languid tail whips a fly. Because my body temperature nearly matches the outer world, it’s hard to feel the boundary line. So I watch to be sure the piss is pissing. At least it runs clear; I’ve been pounding water to replenish the gallon I sweat off every hour.

No sound emerges from our five tents, just green-black humming in all directions, 1.6 million acres of primeval rainforest teeming with the richest biodiversity in Central America. I shake my hips, pull up my skivvies, and float back to my tent.

I flop down and remind myself, This is the opportunity of a lifetime, when a mosquito the size of a Winnebago chomps my left butt cheek. The pain is electric but passes quickly. After frantic swatting and cursing, I drift off, anesthetized by this single dart.

It was not a mosquito.

(Lynn Bremner)

Four months before this trip, in April of 2017, I sat in a collapsible chair at a campsite in Joshua Tree, California, avoiding eye contact with the breakfast of sardines I had to force down.

“Yes!” I said, before Angela finished her question.

I’d met her years ago when she was a subject in a documentary film I’d directed, and we became friends. An Arab-American medic in the Army, Angela met Suley, a Mexican-American enlistee, and couldn’t resist her thousand-watt smile. Despite the recent repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the policy had left its scars. The military still didn’t feel like a safe place for their love. Although Angela had once dreamed of being a lifer, she quit and Suley followed suit. They launched new careers and big plans for life as wife and wife.

As Joshua Tree’s cold March winds blew dust around our campfire, I swaddled Angela and Suley’s drowsy Chihuahua inside my parka, keeping us both warm. They told me they planned to marry in Guatemala—something about the Maya ruins, a handpicked crew, almost all women, did I want to come along?

I didn’t want details, I just wanted in.

I was a single 39-year-old living and working in Los Angeles, freelance-writing and making films, and my life felt rife with uncertainty. This trip offered a chance to grab on to the one thing I knew about myself. I’d ascended the peaks of the High Sierra, explored the bowels of the Grand Canyon, and snow-camped across north-central Colorado’s Gore Range. My future was a cloudy mess, but I knew this: I am an adventurer.

To be clear, I am not a fearless adventurer—I’m paranoid about viruses and parasites, and have a phobia of ticks. Growing up in Syracuse, New York, a hotbed for Lyme disease, didn’t help. Anything insidious or invisible is my enemy. Give me something I can see and fight, not a freeloader sucking out my life force. (Yes, I have low-grade OCD and watched Alien at an impressionable age.)

But at this moment I wanted to say yes and feel grand for saying it. I’d fallen out of trekking shape; I needed to prove that I still had the stuff. There would be plenty of time for fear. I am the kind of person who says yes.

Had I been listening, I would’ve heard that almost everyone on the trip was professionally fit and ten years younger than me: a soldier, a martial artist, two physical therapists, and several fitness instructors. My regimen of strolls on Venice Beach and Sunday morning flop yoga wouldn’t cut it with this crowd.

Had I been listening, I would’ve heard Angela describe her dream wedding: “A super-trek to a remote destination that we all barely survive but bonds us forever—like how Suley and I met in the Army!”

Had I been listening, perhaps I would’ve said no. Instead, the conversation turned to breakfast. Angela gestured to my sardines. “They’re not so bad if you hide them in the eggs,” she said. The Chihuahua squirmed against my belly.

I peeled back the tin and threw another oily stinker onto the campfire skillet. As it popped and sizzled, I heaved a spoonful of orange whitefish roe into my mouth. Just get it done.

I was choking down sardines and roe at the behest of my acupuncturist. He said that this diet would help prepare my body for the harvest of my own eggs a few weeks later, and I’d learned not to question his methods. (At least it wasn’t the encapsulated deer placenta this time.)

I wanted a sexy adventure buddy and a safe, reliable co-parent to have children with, but he hadn’t appeared yet. Refusing to settle for the wrong guy had felt plucky at 23, but at 39 seemed more like a game of chicken with the universe. Freezing my eggs stretched out the road a bit longer, but it might be for nothing.

A fertility clinic is the one place in Los Angeles where you can’t hide from the realities of aging. I’d never felt less in control as I dropped ten thousand hard-earned freelancer bucks to take my best shot at having a baby. I’d have eaten the sardine can itself if the doctor suggested it.

When I returned to Los Angeles from Joshua Tree, I shot up my abdomen with expensive medicine for several weeks leading up to the egg-retrieval procedure. I didn’t have a partner to help me prep the injection site or hold my hand as I stabbed the dripping needles into my subcutaneous fat. My only companion was the paid model in the injection tutorial video produced by the medicine’s manufacturer. Night after night, I’d mimic her manicured hands—long after I’d memorized the steps.

(Lynn Bremner)

A month before Guatemala, with my eggs successfully retrieved and on ice, I sat across from a travel-medicine doctor in Santa Monica. She’d already vaccinated me for dengue fever, hepatitis A, and tetanus, and given me a bottle of Malarone to ward off malaria. I filled out a form detailing my history with giardia, a parasite in contaminated drinking water that causes diarrhea, exhaustion, and, in my case, so much weight loss that my college basketball coach worried I’d become anorexic. I’d caught it five times on wilderness treks, even when no one else did. “I don’t know what to tell you,” she said. “I guess bugs just like you.”

“What about ticks?” I said. “Do ticks in Guatemala carry Lyme disease?”

“Honey, they got something,” she said. She handed me a prescription for a single doxycycline pill the size of a baguette. “Anything bites you, take this. No hospitals in the jungle. And get the best tweezers you can find.”

I stopped at a drugstore on the way home.

I open my eyes in the misty jungle dawn, grateful to have dozed a handful of hours. Tent Dawg continues her Darth Vader breathing, perhaps dreaming of rappelling from a helicopter or choking out a python. I sit up and listen, hearing only the guttural wail of a howler monkey declaring his territory. The other tents are still.

I start to lie back down, but a tight sensation between my legs grabs my attention.

I face away from Tent Dawg, cross-legged, and peel off my underwear to inspect. Nothing. But what is that ache? I pull my right labia aside and my field of vision snaps into a tunnel.

Behold my nightmare: a tick has bitten my vagina.

The predator is massive—the size of a pencil eraser—with a revolting blood-brown shell and mandibles that rival Jaws.

A dizzying heat rushes to my face. I feel the urge to tip headfirst into an imaginary hole. A voice from some deep place rises. We’ve trained for this, Johnson.

I grit my teeth and pull out a brand-new pair of Mr. Tweezermans—excuse me, Dr. Tweezermans—from my pack. I flip on my phone’s flashlight and assume the butterfly position.

The good part about being bit by a jungle-grade arachnid on the lady taco is that the folds of the labia make it hard for the little jerk to get traction. I spread my labia with my left hand, slit my eyes, and dive into surgery.

The creature squirms and plunges for deeper velvet, legs in blind fury, cruel mouth desperate for flesh. But my wrath will not be evaded. Not today. I grasp its beady head with a firm hand and yank up once, exorcizing the demon from my holy garden.

“Fuck you,” I hiss. I dump it into a plastic sandwich bag and smash out its guts with a rock. I swallow the enormous antibiotic pill in one gulp.

Tent Dawg wakes up, fresh as springtime.

“I’ve had a negative life experience,” I say.

She rolls over and I relay the ordeal with the gravitas of Obi-Wan Kenobi describing the destruction of planet Alderaan.

She bursts out laughing. I decide I hate Tent Dawg.

At breakfast I am, perhaps, a little unhinged.

“I just want everyone to know that I was bitten by a tick on the vagina,” I announce.

The group looks up with full cheeks and wide eyes. Ashley, a bubbly blond yogini who weighs as much as my left leg, offers me tea tree oil from her stash. I splash on so much that it feels like my undercarriage has been power-washed with Listerine. I thank her for this kindness.

Angela pulls me aside. “Hey look,” she says, “If you don’t want to go on with us, I totally get it. That sucks. One of the guides can take you back.”

Just say yes and this will be over. But her tone is so compassionate, so ready to let me off the hook from this hellish trip, that it soothes me out of my tantrum.

The tick is dead. I took the pill. I’ll be fine.

I slap gaiters over my hiking boots and we single-file out of camp for eight more miles through the bush.

(Lynn Bremner)

Another breathless dawn sags over our heads on the third day, but I feel light in a way I haven’t since I boarded the plane at LAX. No matter what else happens, we’ve made it to El Mirador. Now we just need to climb the La Danta pyramid and pull off a secret wedding.

A moment before we leave camp, Suley decides she needs a pre-wedding beauty treatment. She plops on a stump, douses her hair with a water bottle, and shakes off the excess. Ashley uses the tiny pair of scissors from the med kit as Angela brushes bits of hair from her beloved’s shoulders. “Look how prepared I am,” Suley says, showing off her underwear waistband, which says: TUESDAY. Today is Tuesday. Angela smiles. It’s time to go.

I think we’re climbing over natural ridges and hummocks to get to the La Danta pyramid, crown jewel of El Mirador, but our guides, Alejandro and Luis, explain that we’re actually climbing over the half-digested bones of a capital city that would take lifetimes to unearth. With an estimated population of 200,000 at its height during the third century B.C.E., El Mirador was the nerve center of a densely settled network of towns and villages. But the city declined and was largely abandoned in the first century C.E.

This collapse didn’t mean the end of the Maya. But it did mark a low point for civilization in the region. Why did so many of its inhabitants abandon this place, never to return? Warfare? Shifting trade routes? Alien invasion? Richard Hansen, an archaeologist who has conducted research in northern Guatemala for over four decades, points to drought and deforestation as the culprits. Over millennia, the jungle swallowed this once mighty metropolis—no small lesson for a group of Americans about the fate of a society whose power outstrips its wisdom.

Despite aching feet, sopping armpits, and a blossoming case of jungle butt (think adult diaper rash), adrenaline inflates my lungs as we approach the massive pyramid, which is easy to mistake for a sleeping volcano in the canopy.

Angela asks Alejandro and Luis if we can spend a few minutes alone atop La Danta for a period of “quiet meditation,” and they hang back. Although the Maya were no strangers to homosexuality and may have incorporated it in some shamanic rituals, things changed when the Catholic Spaniards arrived in the 1500s. Gay marriage is not recognized in Guatemala today. A gay man and two trans women were killed in a single week during Pride Month in 2021, and at least 19 LGBTQ+ people were murdered in 2020. Alejandro and Luis seem cool, but Angela can’t risk complete honesty. (Also, I’ve changed the guides’ names lest they suffer consequences for being party to our expedition.)

So why choose this spot for their wedding—somewhere that neither woman has personal ties to, in a country hostile to their love?

“I know there were gay people in these communities,” Angela says. “I can’t quite explain it, but I feel connected to them. I don’t want to be disrespectful; I hope the Maya spirits understand.”

Besides, neutral ground doesn’t exist for Angela and Suley. When they announced their engagement back in the States, members of their families cried—and not in the happy way. Despite getting their marriage license in California, the couple didn’t feel safe having a public wedding during the first year of the Trump administration. Choosing peak rainy season has assured them of precious privacy. We have not seen, nor will we see, another tourist the entire week. This is what a history of trauma yields. When you’ve been forbidden to be yourself for so long, a lost city feels like home.

We approach a rickety wooden staircase scaffolded onto the side of the pyramid. Two hundred and thirty-six feet to the top. Lacquered with sweat, I grab at the skeletal railing to hoist myself up platform after platform. My ego refuses to be left behind by my younger, fitter comrades. So what if my lungs explode? The sun beats down upon my pale body as I squint and adjust my hat and sunglasses against its full equatorial force.

We spill out on top of the pyramid and dump our daypacks into the shade of a single tree. The rough slab is the size of a modest backyard deck, with nubs of ancient steps on one side and a simple wooden railing to prevent falls on the other.

We’re standing on sacred ground. No one speaks. Our guides had told us that in the midst of the Maya’s environmental crisis, they had sacrificed everyone from babies to nobility up here—a futile attempt to appease gods for human errors. I’ll later learn that there’s no evidence of human sacrifice in Maya rituals until centuries later. But right now the story of spilled blood feels true.

Looking out, it’s hard to imagine a bustling city or the degraded landscape that followed. All I can see, all anyone can pay attention to, is the great green ocean roiling to the horizon.

The brides slip identical crisp white shirts over grizzled hiking pants and straighten their sweat-soaked bandanas. Joby, a mountain-biking med student, steps upon a rock-cum-pulpit and pulls her hair into a bun to officiate. Tent Dawg, the ring bearer, assumes her post with military posture.

Suley stumbles over her opening lines. Angela takes her hands. These two souls, so full of passion and conviction, choose their own holy words and cast a spell over their future. I have never felt anything close to the bond these women share. Merging with another person requires a kind of faith I’ve distrusted and resisted. But this altar was made for transformation.

The midday sun kindles the white of their shirts into incandescence. I am the weightless reflection of this glow. My body, dearest friend and burden on this journey, appears to have gone missing. In its place the jungle buzzes—a cacophony of life in every direction, vibrating with its inescapable, insatiable, many-mouthed maw, the sound of life’s deep yearning for more. I am that yearning. For to witness love like this and bless it amid the primordial is to be absorbed. To become part of it.

When I feel my body again, I realize I can’t stop smiling. Life to life, creature to creature, the buzz bounces and refracts and compounds everything in its wake with an intoxicating hunger that hits like joy.

After the ceremony, hugs, and a thousand photos taken from every angle, we notice dark clouds rolling in from the west. Rather than climb down, we stand our ground in the stultifying haze. Not even a leaf moves. As the tallest person on the highest promontory, I should be worried about the approaching veins of lightning—but the ceremony has left me invincible. I raise my aluminum hiking pole in defiance. Lightning could no more strike me down than it could shatter the whole of La Danta.

Moments later, when the heavens wash our stinking, ecstatic bodies clean, we shout like children who’ve known no greater pleasure. Then, having dumped its violent bounty upon us, the sky moves on.

In a final touch of magic, when we make it back to camp, we find that our guides have decorated a long table with a plastic, fruit-patterned tablecloth. It feels like the Ritz-Carlton. Alejandro and Luis present us with a pineapple upside-down cake and a magnum of Ron Botran.

My eyes widen and find Angela’s with the same question. Do they know about the wedding? But no. Today is Tent Dawg’s birthday, and they wanted to surprise us. The air dissolves into toasts and merriment while the red sun sinks below the horizon. I gorge my body with sugar and caramel-vanilla rum, offering a small blood sacrifice to the mosquitoes who float like spirits above the feast.

(Lynn Bremner)

On the last morning, I wake up cocky and hungover, and vote to take the shortcut back. Everyone agrees. Let’s abandon the trail and beeline to Carmelita for an early lunch! The jungle isn’t so terrifying after all. We’ve tamed it.

We haven’t tamed shit. Two hours later, our progress slows to a crawl. I follow Alejandro, who slashes his machete against the interminable, intestinal green at every step. Rainy season has yielded super-growth that he didn’t anticipate. The leaves are so enormous, I imagine curling into one to serve myself up as a spring roll for whatever hungry giant patrols this ramble.

No wonder people get lost and die in this park. Angela tells me that Alejandro saved Luis’s life out here years ago. That’s how they met. My stomach flutters.

We pick our way through swamps that stink of death and sulfur. A gang of monkeys hurl branches at us from a tree. I spy a scorpion two feet from my toe and lunge past it. A fer-de-lance, notorious rainforest serpent, pokes its venomous yellow chin out of the muck and I stop breathing. Or is it a vine? No matter, press on.

Thick mud paints my purple gaiters gray; I look like I’m walking on concrete stilts. I use my hiking poles to peel pancakes off the bottom of my boots every 15 minutes.

Trying to enliven the mood, ever sunny Suley interviews Diana with her GoPro. “So,” she chirps, “what did you learn in the jungle?”

“It doesn’t matter what percent deet you use, the mosquitoes still bite you.” Diana has a bite on her eyeball.

Suley turns to Joby. “What did you learn in the jungle?”

“Don’t go in the jungle,” Joby deadpans.

Luis assures us there’s only a mile or two left. “Twenty more minutes!”

Twenty minutes pass. A dour silence falls.

Estela’s knee gives out. Tent Dawg, suffering a nasty bout of trench foot, shuffles like a zombie, but she insists that Estela ride the donkey. None of us yet know that Tent Dawg is also suffering from gout and renal failure precipitated by our salty diet and dehydration.

“Twenty more minutes!” Luis says.

By hour five, everyone stops talking. The only sound is our sludgy trudge and the rhythmic whack of the machete. By hour six, I stop thinking. My quads and calves scream and fire on autopilot. Bugs can’t get traction on my skin, glazed in a slime of sweat, sunscreen, and deet. No mind. Only motion.

One foot in front of the other. Keep going. Another sardine on the skillet. Another date. Another injection. Mimic the manicured hands. Don’t stop. Left foot, right foot, left foot.

Hours (or minutes?) later, our troop lands on a rare dry patch of dirt. Bodies bend over knees. Hands clasp the backs of heads. Lungs suck and exhale.

Alejandro slices a bamboo cane and guzzles water from its hollow core, then offers it to me. Even he looks cooked. Tent Dawg is dead last. Her soaked shirt slings from the angles of her frame. Her face glows with a ghostly yellow tint.

Luis, shirt off, smile forced, can’t resist. “Only 20 more minutes!”

Rage boils up my throat, but before it can release, Ashley, our gummy bear of light and positivity, beats me to it. She wheels on the group with bulging eyes and clenched fists and screams, “You can’t do this to people!” followed by a shriek that would appall a howler monkey.

Who is she yelling at? Luis? Angela and Suley for bringing her? Perhaps she’s yelling at the jungle itself. But the jungle can do whatever it wants to people. As far as the ticks and the scorpions and the fer-de-lance are concerned, we’re just another soft-skinned mammal. Another body to swallow in the mud. Another city to devour.

I dart my eyes away from Angela’s and choke back a giggle. Someone snorts and tries to cover it with a cough. I stare at the ground, but it’s too much. The group erupts into laughter. Resistance is futile. Resistance is suffering. The jungle will eat you. So be eaten.

My future is a cloudy mess but I know this: I am an adventurer. And an adventurer is someone who surrenders to the unknown even when it’s uncomfortable, even when it’s horrible, because once you’ve been absorbed, nothing else will do.

When we set forth this time I feel a new sense of calm. It is only 20 minutes before we happen upon a small bright clearing and turn right to see beautiful Carmelita with its rusty corrugated roofs, dirt roads, and a single horse in a pasture. We have been released.

The group’s mood soars into blue skies—hugging, singing. Blood rushes to my head and washes the backs of my knees, down my stiff calves, and between my toes.

After cervezas and enchiladas prepared at Alejandro’s home by his wife and daughters, we pile our smelly bodies into a passenger van and head off for Flores. I sit shotgun and hold the muscles of my thighs. Thank you, thank you. The jungle whips past my window at impossible speed.

Suley taps my shoulder from the seat behind and points her GoPro at me. My hair is wild and my face is dirty. I’m proud of looking this bad. I tell the camera, “I just feel alive.”

I’m a thousand feet high and flying in this magical old van. I am La Danta, and the roiling green ocean, and the scorpion lurking in the muck. I am a tick on the cosmic vagina. I do not fear not finding love or missing out on motherhood. There’s nothing I cannot do in this life.

It will be a few days before the giardia sets in.

Melissa Johnson (@highhip) is a writer and filmmaker in Los Angeles. She had a baby girl in March.

From July/August 2023 Lead Illustration: Lynn Bremner