We all make mistakes, but what follows is not your average story of blunder. I don’t mean to brag, but this was a masterpiece of misadventure.
In early July we were on the coast of Lago Petén Itzá in Northern Guatemala. Initially drawn to the region to explore the mystic Mayan ruins at Tikal, we spent several days near the lake. At the invitation of our host we also visited a jungle nature perserve and traditional festival in the village of San Pedro. The next part of our journey was to begin on the other side of Guatemala in Xela, where we would join a trekking group to summit Tajumulco, a dormant volcano and Central America's highest peak (just 155 ft shy of 14er status).
We took a microbus for two hours around the lake to Flores, where we would catch a night bus to Guatemala City, then an early morning bus to Xela, totaling more than 18 hours. On our bus layover in Flores, we caught a ride into the city for dinner.
I had been chewing minty gum and cracking windows all afternoon in an attempt to conquer my car-sickness. By the time we arrived at the restaurant, a tide of nausea and sweaty, disorientation had washed over me. I tried to drink something cool, while Stephan gave me worried looks and obligingly ate both of our dinners.
As our waiter gave me directions to the nearest pharmacy for an anti-nauseant, I realized that my wallet, used to pay the tuk tuk thirty minutes before, was gone. After uselessly searching the curb, we realized how little time we had and Stephan ran to the nearest ATM for cash. He paid for the meal, then we flew out of there in another lurching, exhaust-filled ride. As darkness fell, our driver made a deft stop off, I picked up some dramamine, and we made it to our bus in time. As we waited to board, Stephan, with a look of stunned horror, informed me he had forgotten his debit card at the ATM across town. That was his only card.
It was clear to me now that I was going to be sick. While self-preservation screamed “Don’t get on that bus!” another voice reminded me that we were holding two non-refundable tickets and could no longer access any cash beyond the few Quetzales Stephan had just withdrawn. We decided to stick to the plan, picked seats near the bathroom, and pulled out our phones to start cancelling cards. Just as the Chase operator confirmed the cancellation of all my credit and debit plastic, I had to dash for the bus toilet. I won’t get graphic here, but I will say I may have clocked more time either on or standing over the bus toilet than in my seat. Did I mention there was no toilet paper or water?
By the time we finally stopped in Guatemala City, I was wrecked. Once I got antibiotics and rehydration salts into my system, I started feeling slightly more human but it took a full day of almost nothing but sleep and saltines before I thought to consider our cash situation. I had one credit card stashed away in luggage but in a cash-only culture, it was almost worthless. We tried everything we could think of to get cash in hand. Stephan opened a Western Union account to send money, but it was blocked awaiting a code sent by physical mail to his address in Berlin. I tried to get a cash advance from my one credit card. Several ATM visits and customer service calls later, I discovered you need to set up a PIN 7-10 days before using cash advance for the first time. We decided to go to a Western Union office to see if we could verify things in person or maybe talk to a local bank to problem-solve. We discovered that day, a Friday, was part of a bank holiday weekend, which extended through Monday.
This might have been an even stickier situation than it was if not for two people: one a relative stranger, the other, my best friend. The first was Joel, a volunteer trekking guide, who after hearing our ridiculous story personally accepted Paypal from me to get the cash required for the Tajumulco trek we had planned for Saturday and Sunday.
After the trek we met with Katy: bad-ass, soul-friend, and seasoned Central-America traveler. She graciously made our money troubles disappear. It’s humbling to need help, but I do feel rich to have friends who would do that, or probably anything, to help and encourage me as I navigate a traveling lifestyle. I love you, Katy! (Want to fall in love with her too? Check out her blog.)
When I fail, I hope that I can learn. On this occasion, I observed that a normally careful habit of putting my wallet in a secure place went out the window when I started feeling really sick. I thought the takeaway, was: When things get messy, double-down on minding your valuables.
As fate would have it, two months later I learned this lesson a different way when my purse was lifted from our cart while grocery shopping in Berlin. I would amend the former: Always watch your stuff.
Not exactly profound; it’s probably the same advice your mom gave you before your first field trip in grade school, but there you go.
Here’s what I see when I look at this story a different way.
Failure will happen. Don’t let it kill your spirit.
If you lose your lunch and all your money, you can still end up on the top of a mountain with a little help from friends.