Getting into Guatemala shouldn't have been that complicated. David and I had taken a bus from San Pedro, Belize, to the border, but we hadn't known about the exit fee. So, there we were, lining up with the rest of the passengers at the large covered pavilion that housed the custom's office wondering how we were going to get in. The bus, with our backpacks on it, had already passed through the border – if we didn't find some way through, we were looking at a day's walk back to the nearest town, which we weren't certain had accommodations.
With only ten Belizian dollars and not an atm in sight, we decided to play dumb. We got a nice spot in the middle of the line – letting enough people ahead of us to make sure the custom's officials were well in their routine, and enough people behind us to put them in a mood to hurry. Maybe, David suggested, they'd be sympathetic. I eyed the guards. One was blank-eyed with boredom; the other was questioning the other tourists with the seriousness of a dedicated bureaucrat. I doubted David was right.
I let him do the talking. No, we couldn't leave Belize without paying the entire exit fee up front (of course). No, there wasn't an atm on the Belize side of the crossing. But, there was one on the Guatemala side, the bored-but-helpful official pointed out. Smooth-talking David convinced him to let him through to use the atm and return with the money, leaving me and our passports waiting on the Belize side. I could see the small wooden shop where the atm presumably was just on the other side of the border. While David was waved through, I stood off to the side. The line grew shorter. Twenty minutes later, I saw him come out of the shop, a hundred feet and a country away. He shrugged and shook his head “No.” There were a few other tourists left in line. The officials were busy, so I slipped into a crossing pack of tourists and made my way across. We never did find that atm, or pay the entry fee.
All this explains why, a week later, when the power in Flores went out, I got a bit nervous. Well, to be honest, I felt a rush of sheer panic. This was a time when Guatemala had a lingering reputation for guerilla attacks on vulnerable villages. When the entire town plunged suddenly into darkness, I was convinced that we were about to be rounded up into the town square and be machine gunned to death. And it would take weeks before anyone realized we were missing, much less dead. No one even knew we were going to Guatemala. It had been a spur of the moment decision.
Crouching motionlessly, almost deafened by the rush of blood in my ears, I tried to estimate how long it would take to begin searching buildings. I had no sense of the surrounding area and, besides, the town was in the middle of a lake. This feature had seemed charming and picturesque on the ride in. It now seemed like a death trap.
Still screwing up the courage to at least attempt to hide somewhere less obvious, I began to hear and process the sounds from outside. I could hear yelling, but it didn’t sound terrified or threatening. I crawled up and looked out the window and could see people beginning to come outside carrying candles and lanterns. Apparently it was just a grid failure.
We ventured out in to the surreal, darkened town. Shopkeepers lugged broad, shallow display cases of blankets and jewelry out in front of their shops and propped open the lids. Kids and dogs chased each other down the cobblestone streets. Everyone was calm. The almost festive atmosphere made my recent panic seem even more ridiculous. Lit only by candlelight, the village seemed even cozier than it had in the daytime. We wandered through the into a pickup soccer game down at the fields past the market square and watched for awhile until invited to play a bit. The night was warm and the breeze was cool. Neighbors brought lawnchairs out to the sidewalks, sitting in circles, fanning themselves with newspapers and why not, they were up anyway, enjoying a few late-night beers and empanadas. When the lights came on again there was scattered applause and laughter.