FINCA TATIN, Guatemala- The day begins before 7 AM in the eastern Guatemala jungle on the Rio Dulce. I wake up, quietly slip out of bed to avoid waking my still sleeping wife and baby, slip on a pair of shorts, grab my computer bag, a tooth brush, toothpaste, and walk outside. This will probably be the last time I will see the inside of my room until 10 PM. The days are long at the Finca Tatin, but the work is light.
I step outside my room and walk quickly through the still sleeping finca, I notice that my bare feet are becoming ever more calloused and padded against the jagged stones that make up the surface of the paths. Shoes, along with most other articles of clothing, seem a gross impertinence here. I walk down the winding paths and board walks that lead through the jungle to the main dock, I switch on the telephones as I pass through the Casa Grande.
I am usually the first one up here, there is nobody else around in the six AM hour. I go down by the river and look up at the sky, welcome in the day, maybe I stretch a little, too.
I like the mornings here. Any perceptive human would. The world always seems like a hopeful place first thing in the morning — especially in the wilderness, near the apex of one of a jungle river’s many back water tributaries. I watch the Rio Tatin, I enjoy the moments of silence before the guests awake, depart, arrive, children yell, my baby cries, the telephone rings, work duties call. I have only been working here for a week, but I already know what I am in for the moment I wake up each day here, but I don’t shrink from the sequence of events that will come:
I know these Finca Tatin days, and I know that they so closely represent those that precede them to seem beyond the dictation of time.
The river always rolls on, but river days are timeless.
This is a place where a person truly needs clocks to tell them where the day stands. This is a place on a remote river where no roads go — time, the rest of the world, is too easy to forget.
Sometimes, as I stand out on the dock in the early morning light, jungle men are fishing the river before me. They begin work before dawn and seem to continue through the day. They fish with nets that do not seem to bring up much. They spend their lives in boats, floating on the river. I watch them sometimes in the moments before work calls.
Soon enough, a motorboat drives by, the river mirror is shattered into a thousand ripples. The Quiché Maya cooking staff arrives. I say good morning to the three women who do the real work of the hotel as they walk through the Casa Grande. Two women wear the colorful, hand woven long skirts of tradition, one wears a tight, vastly shorter skirt of the modern age. They walk by in unison. They say good morning to me. I raise the blinds in the Casa Grande, we are ready for another day.
I check the reservation book to see who is coming in and who is going out. The guests arrive and leave here solely by boat, there is no other way. The boats come in and often go out at set times each day. At 9:30 AM we have a boat that goes out to Livingston, the nearest place to the Finca Tatin that shows up on a map, at 10 AM a public boat may arrive from Livingston, at 11 AM we expect a boat from Rio Dulce, and in the afternoon the process repeats itself over again.
I check out guests in the morning before their departure, I calculate their bills and they pay. When new guests arrive I show them the rooms — “We have bungalows with a private bathroom, rooms with shared bathroom, and dormitories” — and then give them an introduction to the finca.
“Welcome to the Finca Tatin, we are a hotel in the jungle. Don’t light fires, don’t hang your wet laundry on electrical lines. Dinner is a family style meal and we all eat together. You keep track of your own expenditures on this sheet of paper, each time you take a drink out of the cooler, eat a meal, or take out a kayak make a tally here. Checkout time is 10 AM. We have tours to the Belizean Cayes, to indigenous villages, jungle walks to Livingstone, kayak trips, night time jungle and boat excursions. Have fun.”
My wife and I then coordinate tours, guest arrivals and departures, as well as take telephone reservations throughout the day. We are generally found near the Casa Grande to field any questions from guests or resolve their problems. We also buy fruits, beer, soda, meat, or anything else that pulls up to our dock throughout the day. We try to keep tabs on what we need to restock and what we don’t. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we end up with a stock pile of 20 pineapples. We also keep the books on the money that comes in and the money that goes out.
When there is little else to do, I straighten up the Casa Grande. Where there is really little else to do, I sit behind the desk and work on Vagabond Journey — or I swim in the river or smoke my pipe on the dock.
Around 5:30 PM I turn on the generator, and the Finca is thus given light and electricity. I then put the hotel’s laundry in a washing machine, as Chaya restocks the refrigerator. At 6:30 PM we begin warming up and preparing dinner to be served at 7. The cooks make the food during the day, my job is just to make it warm and edible. When the food is ready I ring a ship’s bell and all the guests, volunteers, and the owner’s family gather in the dinning room to eat. Around 8 PM I clear the dinner plates from the table and put away everything in the kitchen. The next day the cooks will do the dishes.
After dinner, I go around with a clipboard and ask the guests if what their plans are the next day. Some want to go on tours, some want to leave on boats, Chaya and I then make the appropriate arrangements. If I like the present round of guests I talk to them or play cards. If I don’t like them I sit behind the desk in the Casa Grande and work on Vagabond Journey.
The volunteers at the Finca Tatin keep the wheels of the place turning, but rarely do the dirty work. My wife and I are the only volunteers — we work through the day for a free bed, good food, and jungle living. Not bad. The days are long, but the work is light. Few jobs in this world are truly difficult once you know how to do them. The work at the Finca Tatin is extensive — there is a lot to know
At 10 PM I turn off the generator, sit by the river, look up at the stars, swim, walk back along jungle paths and board walks through the finca, go into my room, and go to sleep.
This cycle is repeated the next day — on, and on, and on.
As the Rio Tatin flows by the docks of the Finca Tatin too meet the Rio Dulce beyond.
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