Editor’s note: Between July of 2004 and January of 2005 longtime WorldNetDaily.com contributor Anthony C. LoBaido traveled through the Central American countries of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. In this column, he shares his adventure of climbing Guatemala’s Volcan Pecaya on Christmas Day of 2004.
LA ANTIGUA, Guatemala – It was the holiest of nights. The timeless, cobblestone streets of the conquistador jewel of La Antigua, Guatemala, were silent. The stars high above twinkled brightly – winking as though privy to some special secret no human was permitted to authenticate just yet. The city’s ruins stood silently, echoes of a bygone era. They remained markers of time and conquest, the very ebb and flow of Christian civilization and its interaction with the so-called paganism of the New World.
In the distance, several volcanoes proudly dominated the landscape. Puffy white clouds leaking silent lightning could be seen at the summits of these volcanoes. Lava was spewing forth from Volcan Fuego.
Shortly after 11 p.m., this writer found himself walking down the street alongside two Germans. The first was Torsten Hoffman (aka “Hoffie”), a TV network programming buyer. The other was Bianca Weishaupl, a pretty blonde woman wearing a blue shawl over her slender shoulders. Bianca had been working in Mexico for some time, helping expatriates move overseas in our increasingly globalized society.
The truth be known, if it weren’t for Torsten and Bianca I never would have made it through last Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I will always love the two of them for helping me through this past holiday. With my parents gone it was very difficult. You simply can’t imagine what it meant to have them around.
Of course the evening didn’t start out in such grand fashion. The two of them had arrived late to Las Palmas, the restaurant where we had been scheduled to meet. I’d already come and gone, thinking they didn’t show. When they finally arrived they were put out because there weren’t any tables available and I wasn’t there. I returned later in the evening to look for them because I was worried something might have happened to my new friends.
But I’m already getting ahead of myself.
The three of us had met that afternoon on the street. I walked past them and thought, “I know these people,” so I went back to talk with them. We’d gotten along swimmingly. We took photos as I took them on a tour of La Antigua. It was my third trip to the city and I already felt as though it was my second home. We walked through a very old church. (I reminded myself that Germany is the country of Martin Luther.) During our long talk, we realized we had all spent Y2K together on the idyllic island paradise of Ko Pha Ngan, Thailand.
What’s that saying, “It’s a small world but I wouldn’t want to paint it”?
Tortsten, Bianca and I celebrated Christmas Eve with a fine dinner at Las Palmas. For two hours we looked through the best of the many photos I had taken around the world over the past six years. They commented about how I should have a book of my photographs published. In turn, I mapped out their whole vacation to the nth degree as they were heading to Lago Atitlan, Tikal and then Ambergris Caye, Belize. I knew this route like the back of my hand. I must have drawn a dozen such maps for travelers between July of 2004 and January of 2005.
After an amazing evening, including a side trip in which Torsten and I went to pick up his backpack from a local sewing establishment, we hugged and finally said goodnight and “Merry Christmas.” We would be meeting again at 6 a.m. on Christmas morning to climb Volcan Pecaya. I had climbed Pecaya in September of 2004 and told the two Germans it would be a rousing adventure. They agreed to come along in good faith.
I continued walking the streets of La Antigua, zigzagging through the alleyways and passages of this ancient place. Courtyards laden with ivy beckoned without end as the hacienda architecture of the city inspired the interloper with its many intrigues and mysteries. Christmas lights blinked on and off in the sleeping town. Guatemalan children were no doubt busy dreaming of the greatest of all mornings, when the bells of La Merced, built in the mid 16th century, would usher in Christmas Day of 2004.
I thought of all I had seen on these same streets over the past few months: the Independence Day Celebration with children in marching bands wearing coats and ties, beauty queens in long evening gowns and pop singers dressed like they stepped out of the 1950s. Then there was the “Day of the Dead” for All Souls Day with floats, people dressed like vampires and dead people, as well as citizens tossing confetti from the second story balconies along Main Street. One mustn’t forget “Posadas,” a Mexican, Central and South American custom in which locals walk about the town as the Holy Family once did in search of a room at the inn.
I thought of how I’d seen a troika of 3-year-old girls outside of La Merced church with sparklers. They had been jumping up and down in their cute little Mayan outfits that very evening. I thought of all the glorious mornings waking up early in La Antigua to go and lift weights and seeing the clouds rising around the volcanoes while I listened on my CD player to the main theme from “1492″ by Vangelis.
But nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to witness.
I was carrying my dinner in a take-away container – eggplant parmesan, garlic bread and a can of Salutaris mineral water.
Around one particular corner I spotted the strangest looking animal I’d ever seen during my travels to more than 40 nations. It was a stray dog, white and nondescript. Half of its facial hair was completely gone. The animal looked at me oddly. I was both revolted and moved with compassion all at the same time. I leaned over and took a closer look at the dog. Her ribs were sticking out. This was the kind of dog no one would ever adopt, I reasoned sadly.
I took my dinner out of the plastic bag, opened the (eco-unfriendly) Styrofoam container and placed it down in front of the beast. The dog ate hungrily. Then I opened the can of soda water and dumped into the other side of the container. The dog licked it up in no time flat. That done, I knelt down beside the animal. We were then on an eye-to-eye level. I looked at her sad eyes for what seemed like the longest time. It was impossible to guess what type of dog she was – perhaps a border collie like the Texas A&M mascot?
“I’m so sorry,” I said to her in a soft voice.
(That this world is so cruel).
“I’m just so, so sorry.”
(The world is so very cruel).
In spite of her mange, I reached out to pet the dog. She licked at my face as though I were a master of old. Then I hugged her tightly. I thought of my beloved and late parents. I thought of being alone in the world. I had been on the road living out of a backpack for 23 consecutive months.
I began to cry, and then weep.
“I’m so sorry,” I said to the dog.
(That this world is so cruel).
“I’m just so, so sorry.”
(That this world is so very, very cruel).
I collapsed right there on the street while leaning back against a stucco wall, the dog still being held tightly in my arms. I was exhausted and even spent. Green, red and blue Christmas lights flickered over my head while dangling from an extension chord. I had my headphones on as I usually do while traveling alone. The song playing on the CD was “The Host Of Serephim” by Dead Can Dance.
Then the next song came on. It seemed to capture the mood of this Christmas Eve to perfection. It was, “In the Arms of the Angels” by Sarah McGloughlin.
Spend all your time waiting for that second chance
For a break that would make it OK
There’s always some reason to feel not good enough
And it’s hard at the end of the day
I need some distraction … oh a beautiful release
Memories seep from my veins
It may be empty, oh weightless and maybe I’ll find some peace tonight
So tired of the straight line
And everywhere you turn there’s vultures and thieves at your back
Storm keeps on twistin’
Keep on building the lies that you make up for all that you lack
It don’t make no difference escaping one last time
It’s easier to believe … in this sweet madness, in this glorious sadness
That brings me to my knees
In the arms of the angels fly away from here
From this dark cold hotel room and the endlessness that you fear
You are pulled from the wreckage of your silent reverie
You’re in the arms of the angels
May you find some comfort here
Then somewhere between consciousness and sleep I saw a blinding flash of light, as if emanating from beyond the universe. As I drifted off to the other side I saw grass growing in Antarctica. It was snowing in both the Congo and the United Arab Emirates.
These were not ordinary times, I reasoned.
Outside of La Antigua, Volcan Fuego continued to spew fire and lava. The Earth was convulsing.
And though not one soul on a planet of more than 7 billion people knew it, the Asian tsunami was only 36 hours away. …
As I slept, I thought and dreamed about so many things. Mainly the people I had encountered over the past year: Tracey, Sonya, Carina, Heather and Derek, Kara, Kira, Mario, Gemma and Irene, Floyd, Karen Russell, Sitka, C.J. and Fatima. I thought of my time in South Africa, Belize, Tikal and Lago Atitlan. All of these thoughts were like a gateway of sorts – like the delicate arch in Moab, Utah or Eero Saarinen’s “Gateway Arch” in St. Louis.
Every day for the past five months I had gone to the gym. There I had spent time jacking iron. I was so strong that I didn’t even recognize myself. Likewise, every day I had walked to a church or chapel to pray, no matter where I was. I went to pray to St. Veronica and asked her to wipe away my sins with her famous veil. Be it Ambergris Caye, San Ignacio, Santa Elena, La Antigua or Lago Atitlan, the gym and the church beckoned.
I thought of God’s promises:
“You make rivers in the desert and even the jackals praise You!”
“Greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.”
“I alone know the plans I have for you. Plans to bring you prosperity and not disaster. Plans to bring about the future that you hope for.”
“Trust the Lord with all your heart and do not rely on your own understanding, and he will direct your path.”
“No weapon formed against you shall prosper.”
“You will laugh at war and famine.”
And during that time in church I prayed that I would meet my wife, my one true love, marry and perhaps even have a baby or babies.
Sitting there on the sidewalks of La Antigua, Guatemala, I thought of various odd incidents that had recently occurred. They were a strange collection of seemingly unrelated events. Collectively they formed a game of anti-solitaire, I suppose.
The first incident came when I met these wild British guys on vacation in Belize in July of 2004. I had told them at 2 a.m. to lower their radio on the deck of Ruby’s. I thought we might have a fight. The next day, when they left the island to travel elsewhere, they asked if they could leave their backpacks with me. Just like that, out of the blue. Apparently, I was someone they trusted. And so they left their stuff with me and came back a day later to collect it.
Then there was “The Lady Baker,” she being Kira, a British girl I met at Lago Atitlan in Guatemala in October 2004 on the night the Boston Red Sox eliminated the New York Yankees from the playoffs. Kira had long, flowing natural blonde hair down to her waist. She reminded me of The Lady Baker who explored Africa in search of the source of the Nile. I had been reading a book on that subject around this time. Kira had such terrible acne, and I counseled her about how to fix it with micro-flora. Now and again we sat in separate hammocks looking at the stars over Lago Atitlan while drinking Gallo beer. I would have to say that all in all, those were some of the happiest days of my life.
Just before Thanksgiving of 2004 while back on Ambergris Caye, Belize, I woke up in the middle of the night. I walked outside onto the deck of Ruby’s Hotel. The stars were out. There was a soft breeze. Then all at once I felt my late mother, Viola, was with me. And I felt that everything was OK. It’s just so hard to explain, but that’s what I felt. A complete feeling of love, peace and contentment.
My mother seemed to whisper in my ear: “It’s OK. All that’s happened and all that you went through since your father and I died. The money you spent. Belize. South Africa. The UK. God understands. God sees everything. God was with you every step of the way. It’s OK. Anthony, everything is going to be OK!”
Tears began to fall down from my eyes and down my cheeks.
That very same morning at sunrise (around 4:30 a.m.) I met Sonya, a beautiful country girl from Alabama. She said that as soon as she saw me, before she even spoke to me, that she knew I was the man she was supposed to marry, that I was good and kind and that we would live happily ever after.
And after a few hours I knew I felt the same way. Sonya asked me to move to St. Louis, Mo., and I did. We fell in a hopelessly, madly, passionately, can’t-live-without-you kind of love. I thought to myself, ‘There is God, there was my parents, and now there is Sonya. I can go on now because I have found the love of my life.’”
On Christmas morning of 2004, still sleeping under the stars, I awoke at 5 a.m. or so as a brilliant white light flashed through my mind. I had been dreaming of walking out of my hotel (called Don Quixote) amid Christmas lights with only my father’s small flashlight (the one he had used to check the central heating temperature in the middle of the night) and our black and white cat “Mittens” to guide me. I didn’t feel groggy or disoriented. After all, it was Christmas morning. I had a special, even amazing feeling in my heart.
As soon as I awoke I felt a dog reaching out to me, putting its paws up on my chest and licking at my face. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and was moved at the surreal sight of a white Siberian husky with bright blue eyes. It was as though the mangy dog had been transformed. I’m sure she had run off sometime in the night as stray dogs are always on the move.
Soon the Siberian husky’s owner walked up to me.
“She likes you,” he said with a bright smile.
“Merry Christmas,” I said.
We shook hands.
Then I took off toward my hotel to prepare to assault Volcan Pecaya.
In front of Don Quixote I met Masha, a Russian girl living in Holland. I was debating whether to stay up and go to the volcano or go back to bed. Masha convinced me to go on. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life. I gave her extra water and the cookies that Bianca had bought me for Christmas. (I had bought Bianca an authentic Mayan wallet, as well as a trinket or two for Torsten).
Masha and I sat on the sidewalk, talking about her life, the KGB and even singing the old Soviet national anthem. Within a half hour or so a tour bus came around with about 50 passengers. I couldn’t believe so many people had signed up to climb the mountain on Christmas morning. In a way it seemed sacrilegious. On another level, it seemed perfect. I thought of that moving, Hugh Grant World War I archetype film “The Englishman Who Went up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain.”
As noted, I had gone up Pecaya in September of 2004 and met some amazing friends, including Gemma (she jokingly claimed to be Penelope Cruz’s cousin) and Irene (the Cindy Crawford of Spain) as well as some Israeli soldiers. The first climb had been so difficult that I didn’t think I would ever go for a second. (At this writing, I am contemplating a third trip).
On the bus, I met up with Bianca and Torsten. We rode in silence all the way to the base camp of the volcano, which was about one hour away. We passed through the “Killer Fog” as Torsten called it, which thankfully soon cleared.
The columnist, right, with fellow hiker Bianca Weishaupl.
After orientation, we started the climb with horses, dogs, a front and rear guide as well as armed policemen. The organizers of the expedition really take care of the travelers on the climb. In the past, crime – even violent crime – had apparently been a problem.
On this second trip up to the summit of Volcan Pecaya, I met the very best people. It quickly became my favorite adventure, rivaling the British army jungle warfare training in Belize in 2001 and retracing Lawrence of Arabia’s World War I trek through Lebanon and Jordan in 2000.
I felt the Lord had secretly revealed to me that I would sleep a contented sleep on this blessed day, just like the baby Jesus. I was certain of it. Yet so far that notion seemed to be on the other side of the universe. I was already beyond the point of exhaustion, and the day hadn’t even started yet.
But as they say, “There isn’t a fever a 10-mile hike can’t cure.”
The cast of characters along for this Christmas Morning adventure included Lily, a tall Vietnamese gal, Carl (an Austin Powers clone), Torsten, Bianca, Adriana, Genevieve (a pretty, blonde Canadian born on Sept. 11), Andrea, the John Elway guy (one Viktor of San Francisco), Sylvia (a delightful teacher from Port of Rome, Italy) and a New Zealand couple that had been through the Sahara Desert via Chad or some amazingly remote place like that.
The climb up Volcan Pecaya was simply breathtaking. We began climbing at a 45-degree incline. Right from the start it’s something that can only be described as brutal – depending on your level of fitness. I had been lifting weights six days per week for almost five months and I still didn’t feel ready for the hike. It is the kind of hike for which you need to go to bed early the night before in order to attack properly. It was harder than my 176-mile Boer Soul Walk across the entire length of England through the infamous heat wave of July and August of 2003.
The hike was tough and rugged. I walked up the mountain with Bianca and we talked about all manner of things.
I took many photos of everyone, with my own camera and so many belonging to the other hikers. The photos of Bianca didn’t come out very well, but I still mailed them off to her. (She received them in late February and wrote back saying that she really liked them. We still stay in touch, even to this very day.)
Then I left Bianca to encourage a woman who was walking very slowly. Her name was Adriana. She had wanted to quit and turn back.
I said, “No, you can’t. You’re so close to the very top. If you make it to the top, you’ll never forget this day – ever!”
I walked with her over the final mile or more, which is the hardest part. That’s where the trail up Volcan Pecaya turns into a moonscape of sorts. The air is thin and you can experience three seasons within 30 minutes. The truth is you never know how the weather will turn and the wind will swirl.
Finally, we made it to the very top of the volcano. The view was spectacular. It was clearer than it had been the previous September. The volcano had grown, and now it was actually leaking lava. I didn’t have long to stay at the top since I was the last person up; I had been busy encouraging Adriana.
I took a ton of photos. I was busy changing lenses. It all seemed such a blur.
On the way back down, Adriana sprained her ankle. I stayed with her. I felt she was my responsibility because I had been the one who encouraged her to continue to the summit. The trail down from the summit is like a ski slope, and people usually form a human chain to help them traverse over the volcanic ash. Others just “ski” down as fast as they can. As for myself, I scooted down on my backside with Adriana right next to me. She was also sitting down and had her left leg up over mine for support.
Adriana had a 15-year-old brother with her. She had paid for his vacation. However, he had taken off on her. We arranged for a horse and within 90 minutes two authentic cowboys came to meet us near a canyon gorge to pick up Adriana.
As previously stated, here were 50 people on the hike and only four stayed with Adriana: myself, a Brit named Sam, a Canadian English teacher named Meredith and Genevieve. I took a beautiful photo of Genevieve while we passed through a barbed wire fence near a very steep canyon gorge. This was not the usual route back down the mountain, and we were all very careful.
On the way down the mountain, I told our little group about the dream I’d had of Jesus at the Killing Fields in Cambodia. It felt strangely appropriate. After all, it was Christmas Day.
By the time we got to the very bottom everyone was sitting around drinking sodas while waiting for our mini group to return. I paid 50 quetzales for Adriana’s horse, and even though other people said they would chip in, no one else did. I didn’t mind. My late parents would have wanted it that way. I felt like they had been with me during the entire outing.
The level of camaraderie on the trip reached a fever pitch. After the hike, we were all tired and exhausted. My shorts were ripped. I was covered with black, volcanic ash. I had a variety of cuts. A few of them were still bleeding.
We laughed hysterically on the bus while returning to La Antigua. It was like being back in grammar school. It was hard to believe it was Christmas Day. It seemed surreal. I had not laughed so hard in a very, very long time. That’s the thing about traveling in the modern age – you never know whom you’ll meet.
Consider the story of “The King and I.” The woman tutoring the Thai king a century ago … well, it was a big deal back then. Now any British girl on the dole can get a cheap flight, make it to Bangkok and lie on the beaches of Ko Pha Ngan. Traveling can be an escape for anyone and everyone; young or old, rich or poor. It has become the great equalizer and a true global melting pot.
The trip was now officially over. We all hugged and said our goodbyes on the sunny streets of La Antigua. It’s just incredible how you bond on such a trip – walking, working and laughing together. People, once strangers, had shared food, water, stories, blood, sweat and even tears. It’s something Paris Hilton could never understand. And even though there were no TV cameras on hand from the Fox Network, our hike was TV reality-series drama in its purest form. The hikers had demonstrated courage, kindness and genuine decency.
I headed back to Las Palmas. Finally, I would have my eggplant. I sat by the fireplace. The waiters treated me with the utmost care. They looked at me strangely at first, but I told them of my adventure and they understood my appearance. It was like something out of an Indiana Jones episode.
My Christmas dinner complete, I literally stumbled down the streets of La Antigua. I was beyond exhausted. I made it back to Don Quixote and passed out on my bed. It was about 4 p.m., as I recall. I slept straight through until 11 p.m. in the deepest most contented sleep I have ever known, just as the Lord had promised.
On Dec. 26, I rose and went to the gym and then on to McDonald’s for breakfast. Sitting in front of McDonald’s were Adriana and her brother.
I said to him, “We aren’t going to be around to take care of your sister, so you will have to be the man now.”
Adriana thanked me again for taking care of her during the hike, especially after she had been injured.
The news of the Asian tsunami had by now shocked the city of La Antigua,
Guatemala, and the world. I had dreamed since the late 1980s of a giant wave
from which I could not escape. The dreams were so vivid and real as to be
terrifying. When I heard about the tsunami wave, I felt as though I
immediately knew what it was. Two months before I’d had a dream in which my late mother appeared to me and told me “not to go back to Asia.”
The following day, Dec. 27, the greatest cosmic event in recorded human history was detected. It was a “star quake” of SGR 1806-20, a star in Sagittarius that is 50 million light years away. The exact distance is about 3 billion times greater than the distance from the Earth to the sun. The neutron star emitting this rare magnetic flare was only 12 miles across. For a brief period of time, it was brighter than the full moon.
The measure of energy released was 10,000 trillion-trillion watts. In one 10th of a second, it released more energy than our sun puts out in 100,000 years. This “magnestar” spins around once in 7.5 seconds, yet even during its emission its orbit hadn’t slowed down.
Had this event happened only a few light years from Earth our planet would have been totally fried. Even so, the Earth’s upper atmosphere, the ionosphere, was for a time altered by this event.
Perhaps as much as my soul and spirit had been altered through my various encounters on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day of 2004.