When the Whammy Strikes
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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?
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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,
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
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