Marcy and I arrived in San Ignacio, in the Cayo district of Belize near the Guatemalan border, by overland bus, and proceeded straight to the closest Internet cafe because our weekly About.com newsletter was overdue. That last plugged-in task taken care of, we chatted with a couple of Castaneda-quoting hippies looking to reenact Burroughs’ and Ginsberg’s Yage Letters– but all they’d been able to find so far were a few run-of-the-mill cow-patty mushrooms.
A wiry woman in a Jeep saved us: this was Phyllis, sole proprietor of the Ek Tun jungle lodge, and we were her only guests. On the bumpy drive to Ek Tun, we learned that Phyllis had theories: enzymes, raw food, Roswell, twenty-twelve, nine-eleven, you name it. We passed overgrown Mayan ruins that nobody gave a damn about — the entire countryside was littered with pre-Columbian artifacts, but only Xunantanich and Tikal had been excavated. Phyllis told us about a recent find, a massive city much larger than Tikal, and about the Mitchell-Hedges skull, an enigmatic crystal object found in the vicinity in 1926. According to Phyllis, the quartz skulls were likely to be ancient machinery constructed by the citizens of Atlantis as energy sources or time travel devices.
We took this in, met Phyllis’ dog Killer and her monkey Monkey, and spent the next day rubber-tubing, drinking Belkin beer, and looking for tucans.
That night, our host handed us a hand-drawn treasure map, and we were either too excited or too drunk to resist: we would go and find us a time-travellin’ crystal skull of our own! Here’s a scan of Phyllis’s map:
And off we went, ready for our whip-smacking jungle adventure. To misappropriate Francis Ford Coppola: we went into the jungle, there weren’t enough of us; we had no compass or flares or machetes or any equipment at all, and little by little, we went insane.
Phyllis’s map, it turned out, was completely useless in a place so fertile that any path grows over within minutes after it’s been cleared. Later, we found out that it had driven previous guests to extremes — one couple had apparently ruined all their possessions when hacking through the underbrush and swimming across the river seemed like the only way to safety.
Somewhere around the two-hour mark of our odyssey, we experienced a genuine Blair Witch moment when we inadvertently returned to a marker we thought we had left far behind. Darkness was coming, and the dense canopy of trees didn’t offer a hint of the sun’s direction. There wasn’t a village in miles and miles, and the cacophony of unidentifiable animal noises seemed to grow louder by the minute.
It took another two and a half hours of sweaty, confused, and increasingly despairing hiking before we managed, by deduction and pure luck, to find a path that led back to the cabin. Gone were the dreams of Spielbergian pop archeology and shiny artifacts. There was no crystal skull, and our Indiana Jones fantasy had turned into Aguirre, Wrath of God. We knew Werner Herzog was right: “We have to become humble in front of this overwhelming misery and overwhelming fornication, overwhelming growth, and overwhelming lack of order. Even the stars up here in the sky look like a mess.” Here’s my mad Kinski impression:
Obviously, none of this would have happened to Indiana Jones, who, in the opening sequence of the new installment, loudly proclaims: “Compass! I need a compass! North! West! South!” — “East!”, Stalin’s favorite rapier-wielding psychic (Cate Blanchett) adds. Then, Indy braves the usual cliffs, waterfalls, ancient riddles, quicksand pits, convoy chases, outraged natives, sinister villains, creepy crawlies, and even an honest-to-god mushroom cloud. It’s a 100% recycled piece of superfluous brand-name fun, removed by rapidly multiplying levels of metafictional cross-references from anything resembling the vital exhilaration and mortal dread of even the most mundane mid-vacation adventure.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Steven Spielberg, 2008. ***