Funny Travel Tale
My first 24 hours of arriving in Guatemala 13 years ago consisted of a very early arrival, a catastrophically bad decision (known affectionately within my family and friends as ‘doing a Leon’), a lengthy, drawn out, terrifying near death afternoon, the world’s most awkward meal, hospitalization, and as if that was not enough, 96 hours of highly explosive, ring piece stinging dysentery! Just thinking of how to write up this day makes me smile and wince at the same time 🤦♂️
Here we go........... (deep breath)
At the supposedly ‘mature’ age of 24 I arrived in Guatemala, PUMPED about the blank canvas I had in front of me. I had purposely done absolutely zero research, as I wanted everything to be a surprise, and HO-LY SHIT did I get what I asked for!
I arrived at Antigua at about 7am on a pimped up, neon light covered, Jesus sponsored school bus (standard public buses in Central America). My idea being to find a Spanish school and local family to live with for a couple of months, so I could achieve intermediate Spanish, then travel the rest of Latin America without having my hand held.
With the help of some friendly locals, I found a school, who told me they also worked with local families for home stays, and could also find me volunteer work, Perfect! I was walked by the director of the school, Marcos, to my new family. On arrival, we realised no one was home, so I was shown my room (as Marcos had keys) and told that the family should appear a little later on.
I had just been cooped up on a plane for over 16 hours and was dying to stretch my legs out and get some exercise. I looked out the window and see the picturesque Agua Volcano in the distance. Just ‘down the road’ and ‘not so tall’. I remember thinking to myself it looks just taller than a hill, and quite a bit smaller than a mountain...... interesting
THIS is where the ‘doing a Leon’ happened.
Within a split second, without any filters, without thinking at ANY time that this was anything other than a GREAT idea that should be done IMMEDIATELY without talking to ANYONE first, I decided that I should put my runners on, and go run to the top and back before stretching out and meeting the family. Yeahhhh!!!
Within 2 minutes of having the idea, I was changed into vest and shorts, outside, doing up my laces, small bottle of water in hand, actually commending myself on what a great idea that indeed was. I mean, potentially this could even be my daily morning routine here. Fuck yeah, why not? I mean I live next to a volcano now. Loads of people probably do this. I wonder what the record is? I am going to time myself today and ask the family later......
So, I set off, advising no one of my ‘master plan’, blissfully running toward the volcano, already loving my new life, ecstatic that the first thing I was doing in Guatemala was something I had never done before, my first volcano.
The first thing I noticed after running for about 30 minutes (which to most others would be a huge red flag) was that the volcano did not seem to be getting any closer. I mean, it looked like it was just down the road from my house, but that was in fact, inaccurate. it was actually a good 6-8km away. I thought to myself no worries, I have plenty of time and I said I will climb this thing, so I am not quitting now.
So, arriving at the base of Agua, the gradient changed, and I excitedly started my assent. My legs were already a little tired but thought ‘logically’ I would get a third wind as I started to run uphill, told myself to ’man up’, and continued.
After about 45 minutes I was getting into my groove when I trotted merrily past a squadron of the Guatemalan army, kitted out from head to toe in full military gear and each carrying an immense backpack big enough to carry the person in front of them. I will never forget their faces as I jogged by in my shorts and vest giving them a wave with an awfully British “Hola” (Oh-laaaar).
Their expression was a mixture of disbelief, confusion and surprise that actually caused the whole group to stop and stare (which was weird). I assumed it was the novelty of my ultra-pasty white winter English skin on show and jogged on.
Not too much further on there was a split in the path. Then another, then another. Each time with a higher quantity of paths splitting off. Each time I selected the path which pointed the closest to the top, which I thought was good logic, that was until the path just kind of faded away and became just raw volcano. Even this did not deter me, or indeed even make me even slow from a jog to a walk. I immediately concluded that ‘well this is a volcano; I should just point upwards and I’m bound to get to the top’ (‘genius’)
So, I jogged straight up, the gradient started to steepen and before long I found myself clambering up loose scree. I looked up and thought I was probably only a few hundred meters from the top (I was not, not even close, I would later find out Agua is a whopping 3760 meters high), “almost there” I told myself, “last big push”. From the scree I switched to climbing up a relatively easy rock face to where I thought the top would be. I climbed for about 20 mins, faster and faster, with more and more excitement of conquering my ‘cute local volcano’, only to realise disappointedly, that it was just a ledge that looked like the top from underneath, with the next ledge/potential summit being the same distance as the last one away.
Although this was disheartening, I quickly realised it was not the biggest problem. Looking down I realised that I simply did not have the climbing ability to get back down safely the way I had come up. It is a lot easier to climb up than climb down and I had totally overlooked that in all the excitement of thinking I was about to reach the top. This was the very first moment since I left the house where I felt a little worried, and where I realised that perhaaaaaaps I should have thought this through a little more. But that thought was rapidly replaced by “it’s ok, I’ll continue up and surely find a path soon to come down on.”
So, I climbed further, and further, steeper, and steeper, until I finally reached a massive rocky overhang, which was absolutely waaaay past my skill level to climb. Like not possible even in my wildest dreams. So, I found myself in a genuinely terrifying situation. I now could not go up, or down, I was stuck. Like really stuck.
A wave of terror swept through my entire body. All of the red flags along the way suddenly flashed before my eyes and became obvious in that moment. Me telling no one of my plan or even asking if it were safe (which I realised later would have been a resounding no. Agua is the only volcano tourists are not allowed up by law), The distance to the base of the volcano, the army’s four season attire and reaction to seeing me, the multiple paths, the paths running out, me scrambling on the screen then climbing up rocks I couldn’t climb down.
To make matters worse I realised that my sweaty vest had started to freeze in the cold, and now I had stopped moving I started to shiver. “I’m gunna die here and no one’s gunna know I’m here” I thought to myself with tears running down my face. “You REALLY Leon’d it this time, didn’t you? FFUUCCKK!!”
The only thing positive I could think of at the time was that this was not the first life or death situation I had been in (other stories to come), and I knew that the most important thing to do was not to panic. I needed a clear head to assess my options, and I needed to do that quickly before my muscles cooled down and seized up.
I am not sure if this is the same for other people in this state, but for me the whole world slows down, and my vision and attention becomes laser focused. It is the only time in my life I can say with certainty that I felt 100% ‘focused’. I know this sounds weird but as a hyper child with energy of an entire football team running through my brain and body at all times, focusing, and being calm are not two things I am particularly well known for. But each time I have found myself in situations where if I make the wrong move I die (too many) I impress myself with my ability to finally shut up the unnecessary chatter in my mind, suppress the fear of dying, and systematically and speedily break down the pros and cons of my next move. I guess it is how most normal people feel most of the time. ‘Lucky me’ just needs a cheeky bit of life or death to achieve it ♂️
So, I looked around, to the left, to the right, up and down, hoping in vain that perhaps I just had not noticed the obvious staircase, jet pack or zip line to safety. Unfortunately, there was nothing, and I do mean a big fat nothing, and the worse thing was that the nearest path, and therefore relative safety, was about 100 meters down.
I suddenly noticed that the only thing in sight other than steep rock was a small skinny stump of a tree about 2-3 meters to my right. I noticed that under that tree stump, every few meters or so, there was another rather sad looking mal nourished stump of a treeling protruding from the rock. I calculated that if I could actually get to that initial tree (extremely dangerous and will tell you why), I could (lord please save me from what I am about to consider) drop down and try and grab onto the next one, therefore breaking the fall, and continue doing this until I reached the path, which seemed light years away from where I was.
Let me make this very clear. This was NOT a good plan. No one ever, anywhere, for any reason would recommend doing this, and I absolutely with every molecule of my existence did NOT want to attempt it. But after considering everything around me, and being conscious of my steadily dropping body temperature, amazingly, this plan, this a-b-s-o-l-u-t-e-l-y ridiculous plan had the highest possibility of survival, which tells you everything you need to know about the other options I considered.
Every part of what I was about to do was incomprehensibly dangerous. My hands and forehead are currently sweating just reliving this memory in my head. But of everything I was about to do, the start was the worst. Like brace yourselves you are going to feel awkward just READING this.
Between myself and the first tree trunk there was a 2–3-meter gap of perfectly smooth rock with zero cracks or holds. So, the only way I could get to it was to wait for it.........(drumroll....)
An important detail to add is that I did not have a nice flat run up to run and jump from. That would have been great. No, I was just holding precariously on to a part of the cliff, in a kind of climber stance. I had all four limbs on the rock and needed to somehow SPRING sideways 2 meters over a 100-meter sheer cliff drop and try and grab onto a flimsy looking skinny baby tree trunk, and hope, and HOPE, it can withhold my weight with the added weight of my momentum swinging on it.
For those of you who have not been in a situation where you are trying to prepare yourself for such a ‘genuinely what the fuck are you doing’ moment, it is difficult to describe the series of emotions you go through before launch. Let me try.
First, it is fear, your whole body from head to toe shaking uncontrollably like a shitting dog. Your palms sweat; your grip loosens even though you are telling it to tighten. You cry so much you cannot blink quickly enough to be able to see anything but blur as your tear duct cannot cope with the gushing tap. You scream but you cannot make any noise. Terror paralyses your larynx, nothing comes out, but instead that scream is sucked up inside your head and reverberates at maximum volume simultaneously as you feel the ever-increasing weight of the fear on your shoulders starting to crush you.
Sounds fun right?
Then it is a release of all that fear, usually manifesting it’s self in some sort of curse word warped war cry “AAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH FUCK FUCK FUUUUUUCK AHHHHHHHHHHHH HAHAHAHA REALLY??? WHAT THE MOTHERFUCKING FUCK OF ALL FUCKS THAT EVER FUCKED OOOOOOOOOOOH FUUUUUUUCK”
Something like that....
Then comes focus. You know what you have to do. You know where you have to get. You practice the move over and over in your head, trying to teach your body how to move. Your mind goes quiet, and a calm comes over you. Of course, you are absolutely shitting yourself, but your mind only focuses on the target. The rest of the world ceases to exist.
Then the moment of truth, the jump!
I have to say that it took me three attempts before my body allowed me to spring. I counted down from 3 and both the first and second time when I hit 1, I could not do it, I froze, begging for there to be another way. But there was not, and I knew it.
However, the third time I was 100% committed. I felt a surge of adrenaline rush through my body as I counted down. 3.........2...........1 I jumped. I jumped with everything I could muster from my exhausted body. I flew towards my target, and to my horror as my hands took full grip of the trunk it snapped. I slapped into to wall with force, cutting up my face, elbows, and knees in the process. It did not completely snap off immediately hence the whip lash into the cliff. I was dangling helpless as thread by thread snapped. I had to think fast. But as I tried to look down and see where the next tree was the last thread snapped and I started falling. I knew the other tree was not far, and I knew I had just one chance to flip myself around and open my arms and snatch that tree of life. As my body flipped around, I landed my abdomen violently into the truck and I wrapped my arms round it faster and tighter than I have gripped anything in my life.
To my relief it stayed strong. I was extremely winded, and had a rather large knock to the head, was bleeding all over my body, BUT I was alive, squeezing the life out of the trunk. It took a good couple of minutes to get my breath back. It was not a pretty start, but I was alive, that is all that mattered. The view was terrifying. If I had to sum it up in two words, it would be ‘imminent death’.
The next 30 minutes consisted of me slowly and terrifyingly lowering myself onto my hands, dangling from the trunk I was on, taking aim, and dropping down around a meter or 2 and grabbing/snatching/preying desperately onto the next truck. I repeated this about 20 odd times. It is a really really long time to know if you make one wrong move, you die.
My guardian angels shone bright on me and I somehow got to the penultimate trunk. The last one one below was slightly further away than the others, like 3-4 meters. It is a long way to fall and have to break your fall with your chest and arms. I knew it was going to hurt a lot, and I was already hurting everywhere, but seeing the path down there I was more determined than ever to get to it. This was my last hurdle (so I thought). I just had to make sure I did not snap the trunk or bounce off. As I dangled from my arms, I took aim. I said a prayer even though I am not particularly religious and let go. The last thing I remember was hearing that truck snap, then I black out.
I am not sure how much later I open my eyes. I see I am on the floor, but I am in a lot of pain. My first reaction was to scrunch my toes in my left and right feet, and on realizing I could feel them I giggled a pathetic little giggle in complete disbelief and amazement that I had not broken my back. I slowly turned the scrunching into a kind of snow angel movement and got onto my knees. It appeared that all my wounds were external. I would not say I was doing well as that would be an exaggeration, but I could get up and limp which considering my position 40 minutes before was an absolute miracle.
As I put pressure on my head to stop several cuts from flooding my face I look to the distance and to my (I thought) joy, I saw a little town a few km away. I thought to myself “yessss, yes yes yes yesssss, I’m saved! I’ll just go there and get help and get a lift back to Antigua.”
Side note - if I had asked anyone or read anything about this volcano, they would have (after telling you do NOT go up this volcano) told you under no circumstances go to this shanty town.
So, I am limping back down the paths, with my gaze firmly on the town to maintain my bearing. About an hour and a half later I get close and I see 3 guys talking in front of a gate. I am like halle-freakin- lujah ???!! These guys are going to see I am in trouble and get help, I am saaaaaaved!!!!
Uh hum, did not quite go down like that.
I approached the guys and knowing no Spanish whatsoever at this point I simply pointed at my bleeding face and said, “help me please” They came over and just before I could ask if I could put my arm around one of them to take the pressure off my inflamed knee, one of them punched me right in the face, knocking me to the ground. They all then kicked me for what felt like eternity, one of them stole my shoes, and then they all ran off.
It took a long time to get my breath back, but once I did, I giggled again. I giggled for quite a long time because I mean REALLY???? Like WHAT??? Who does that??? Am I dreaming??? Could today get ANY worse???? (Eeeerm, yep!) I then got up, bleeding, limping AND NOW shoeless, and proceeded into the town. I needed a bus as there was no way I could walk another 8km to Antigua.
The bus station was relatively easy to locate but having no money and looking like a train wreck was not a good combo for being allowed on. It took me 3 hours of waiting and 4 different drivers before one felt sorry for me and said “Adelante”. I had no idea what that meant at the time, it could have meant I will sell your body to the dog food factory for all I knew, but I understood the tone, and appreciatively struggled onto the bus. (I can now confirm it means ‘go ahead’)
I was, rather unfortunately, dropped off at the extreme other side of Antigua from where my house was. To get there I had to walk through the center of town, one of the most popular areas in the whole of Guatemala and have never caused such a scene in all my life (and I have made my fair share of scenes). Picture this. I was bleeding from head to toe, ripped vest, dusty, dirty, limping, AND no freaking shoes. Walking through the square ALL the parents came running from all angles into the square to grab their children, looking at me with disgust like I had the plague. There must have been 500 people in that square alone, all stopping what they were doing, staring intensely at me. There was many a comment made, of which I understood none, probably for the best. I just thought keep walking Leon, this will be over soon.
20 blocks of embarrassment later, 12 hours after leaving, on my last legs, running on fumes, I get back to my house, absolutely exhausted. I just needed today to end. Just give me a bath and a bed pleeeeeease!!!!
Nope! Remember, I still had not met my new host family 🤦♂️ Fuuuuuuuck!!!!!
Just imagine what it was like walking into THAT house, in THAT state, in the MIDDLE of dinner time, with the WHOLE FREAKING FAMILY there. All 18 of them!! Like all the generations, all together, having a big rowdy family dinner.
Immediately everyone stopped eating and stopped talking. An awkward silence filled the room as all 36 eyes met with mine. Suddenly I hear cutlery dropping on plates and then 2 of the kids started screaming. A bunch of adults rushed up to me and to my absolute horror did not speak ANY English at all. They were all speaking Spanish really quickly, all at the same time. I genuinely understood nothing. They were obviously trying to ask me something along the line of 1) who are you? Are you our new student? 2) whaaaaaat the heeeeeell happened to you?
To which I could answer nothing. I just stood there like the world's most special person saying really slowly “iiiiiiim leeeeeeon” “I liiiive heeeere nooow” “pleeease, can I have some waaater” “waaater pleeeease” (doing the pouring a drink action into my mouth which was indescribably dehydrated)
Grandma finally passed me some water and after an awkward exchange of what effectively turned into charades, she finally worked out I was Marcos pupil and took me to my room where I verified it was my luggage. She gave me a towel and showed me the shower.
Getting into the shower was a very bittersweet moment for me. This in my head was going to be the best part of my day. A nice loooong hot shower to wash off all the blood, sweat, dirt, terror and near death from my body. But alas fate had other plans. Apparently, I had not suffered enough. There was well and truly no hot water at all. The only temperature, Baltic!! Aaaaand, as if that were not bad enough, the pressure was almost nonexistent. I cannot explain how painful it was rubbing my wounds and trying to clean myself with that water. Nothing seemed to clean me, I was just kind of spreading the mess around, and shivering uncontrollably. In the end I was so cold I just decided to not continue and left my legs to clean later as I could not handle any more. I was truly miserable, and really needed to go put ALL my clothes on.
By the time I came out of the salon 3/4 of the family had gone (thankfully). I guess they just came round for dinner together. The grandma sits me at the table and says “tienes hambre” pointing to her stomach. I had not eaten since the plane 16 hours earlier and had one of the most exhausting days of my entire life. I was starving on a different level. I answered with a big “SI” (one of my 2 words I knew in Spanish)
Disappointment struck AGAIN when she appeared with what I would describe as a kid’s size starter. 1 fried egg, a tablespoon of frijol beans, a slither of fried plantain, and 2 ultra-thin tortillas. All served with an enormous smile. (I CAN'T EAT YOUR SMILE GRANDMA!!) Now of course I was respectful. This was an extremely modest home, and for sure they are not used to feeding exhausted Leon’s. I literally inhaled the plate before the grandma came back with a glass of juice. Her face was priceless.
I knew that was not going to cut it so politely thanked her for the food and limped down the road to a restaurant where I proceeded to order half the entire menu, and lots and lots of beer. Everything was heightened. Every bite, every sip, it all tasted better than anything I had tasted before. I was so unbelievably happy to be alive, so surprised I had made it, so appreciative of everything and anything. Life felt SO freaking good right now.
This celebrative mindset ended up with me drinking all night until close. As I left the restaurant, I could not even feel my bad knee, I was completely wasted, but the happiest of happy wasted. It had been quite a day, and I was now soooooo ready for the sleep of my life.
As I was wobbling home, I realised that aside from the small glass of water I had on arrival to the house, I had just drunk beer, and a lot of it. I really needed some water, and looked for a shop, but everything was closed. As I stumbled down one of the roads homes, I heard music and saw a beautiful old couple dancing with each other in their living room. I approached the window and kindly asked if they had a glass of ‘agua’. They said si si and rushed off, coming back moments later with a big glass of water. Legends!!
Now, I assumed (I will never assume again) that every household in Antigua would have a filter tap or big bottles of purified water. So, I said thank you and necked the glass in seconds. After giving back the glass I continued home, really happy that I had found that last minute hydration. I remember thinking, ‘well done, your gunna feel waaaaaaay better in the morning because of that’ 🤦♂️
I got home, got into bed with all my clothes on, and just before I passed out, I remember saying to myself “Leon, you are the luckiest man on earth”!
About 30 minutes later I woke up with a really bad sensation in my stomach. When I say bad, I mean BAD. I literally sprung out of bed and charged to the toilet, when just in time, juuuuust in time, with the ‘harmonic’ addition of a Dolby surround sound sponsored orchestra of 50 out of tune tubas..........
The whole world fell out of my ass.
The cramps were so bad I had to make a loud involuntary groaning noise as an extra release method. I stayed their all night, until I heard through the paper-thin walls that the family were sitting for breakfast. I was mortified that there was so little sound protection. You could literally hear everything, as if the walls did not really exist. This was super embarrassing as I effectively continuously sounded like when you let go of a large wet balloon. The more you tried to hold it, the more exaggerated it becomes.
I could not eat, drink, sleep, or spend than 5 minutes away from the toilet for FOUR DAYS! I cannot imagine what that family thought of their new ‘musical’ tenant. So, embarrassing!!
On the 4th day I was so weak I feebly dragged myself to the hospital. I wiiiiish I had the video footage of me trying to explain to the receptionist what was wrong with me. I walked in and after she said “Hola” (assuming she spoke no English) I literally acted out filling up a glass of water from the tap, held my stomach with a wincing face, turned around and pointed at my ass whilst making exploding noises with hand gestures, and finally tapped the calendar and held up four fingers. The receptionist then replied............ in perfect English, “you’ve had diarrhea for four days?”
If I were not so exhausted, I probably would have laughed ALOT at that.
After then explaining in English exactly what had happened, I was taken to the medic, given a saline drip in my arm, then sat for 6 hours in the toilet, half-awake half asleep, staring at the tiled wall in front of me like a magic eye picture, wondering when and IF this ridiculous start to my Latin American adventure was going to end.
FYI - it did end, I did get better, and I did sleep, a lot. I made a personal promise to myself to think more before doing in the future. I mean thinking more really just consists of thinking in the first place. So that should not be a problem, right?
Well, a blissful two and a half weeks followed. I managed to do normal things, in a normal way, like normal people do....
That was until.......
Volcano 2 ....