In 1989, two weeks after my 21st birthday, I set off for Latin America on a six-month work and travel adventure. I was young and innocent and this was my first ever trip outside Europe, let alone to a poor and undeveloped region of the world. For three months I worked in Nicaragua, planting trees and digging wells in impoverished rural areas, where electricity came and went, clean water was scarce and I lived on a diet of rice and beans. But I didn't mind at all - in fact I relished the entire experience.
After 3 months, my then boyfriend arrived and we set off on a journey, overland, across Central America and, five weeks later, we found ourselves in Guatemala. After lounging in Antigua and wandering around Lake Atitlan, we began heading north towards Tikal (an ancient Mayan site, which we wanted to view at sunrise). 100 kms or so from Tikal was a place we'd been recommended by fellow travellers - Mike's Farm. According to them, and our battered Lonely Planet guide, it was run by two friendly Americans, Mike and Carole DeVine, who'd always dreamed of leaving the US and making a new life elsewhere.
Unlike most people, however, they'd made their dream a reality. Leaving Iowa for northern Guatemala, they purchased some land, built a few wooden guest houses, adopted two local children and were soon running their 'finca.' According to people I'd met, the place was run strictly on an 'honour system' - on the kitchen table lay a notebook, in which guest were asked to write down food and drink they'd taken from the fridge, and how many nights they'd stayed. The communal spirit of the place appealed to me and after a hair-raising journey, where the local bus was so crowded I climbed up on the roof, we made it there.
In the event, Mike's Farm turned out to be one of the great highlights of my Central American Odyssey. My boyfriend and I ended up sleeping in one of the tree houses on the property - no electricity, just candles to guide us up the steps.
We took trips out to local caves, led by Mike, who knew the area like the back of his hand. Communal meals were served every night and there was no typical guest either. From young backpackers to middle-aged couples and retirees with a sense of adventure, you never knew who you'd end up sitting next to. The only thing you were assured of was engaging company.
I was so taken with the place that I persuaded my boyfriend to stay a little longer. One afternoon, whilst he was out hiking and I was reading in their shady garden, I heard a yell. Mike's farm was also home to two parrots, who flew around freely, squaring like crazy and creating endless commotion. I looked up, and saw the Dutch woman I'd sat next to the previous evening screaming. It transpired that she'd let herself get a little too close, and been bitten for her trouble. After the initial shock, she calmed down and we retired to the kitchen, took two cokes from the fridge (dutifully writing our names in the notebook) and had a good laugh.
On my final night at the farm, I was sitting next to the man himself at their huge, friendly kitchen table. Mike was a fascinating guy - he knew everyone in the locale, and had all kinds of stories to tell. No-one had a bad word to say about him either; no surprise, since he was funny, kind and incredibly modest. I told him about my last few months in Central America - planting trees up in the hills of northern Nicaragua, visiting remote islands off the coast of Honduras and taking buses through tiny villages in El Salvador. The only thing I really missed, I told him, was international news. On the one hand, I liked being ' cut off' from reality.' On the other, occasionally I felt awfully curious about what was going on the other side of the Atlantic.
"I can help you with that" smiled Mike and rose from the table. At the farmhouse door, he beckoned to me and I followed without hesitation. Outside, in the dark, we walked to edge of the path, where sat his battered old truck. He motioned to me and I got into the passenger seat. Inside, he switched on his car radio and fiddled around with the knobs for half a minute or so. And then, I heard something strangely familiar and comforting tones...an English voice announcing "This is the BBC...from London." There I sat, with Mike next to me, in pitch black darkness, listening gratefully to the World Service for close to 40 minutes. It was a treat greater than a hot shower (and I'd only had one in 3 months, at this point).
The next day, feeling somewhat sad, my boyfriend and I left Mike's farm, heading north to Tikal (where we camped next to pyramids, in the heart of the jungle, watching the sun rise at 5am) and travelled on to Mexico and Cuba. When I returned to London, that Autumn, I had gained six months in age but years in life experience. It had been the trip of a lifetime.
Three years later, by then living in San Francisco, I was invited to a party by a fellow grad student. In true West Coast style, I grabbed a Rolling Rock beer and quickly fell into conversation with the guy standing next to me - a French man. We began talking casually about what had brought us to the US (far from our native lands) and it transpired he shared my passion for travel. Somehow or other, we got onto the subject of journeys and, much to our amazement, found that we'd both spent time in Central America, He said he'd loved Guatemala, and Tikal, in particular.
"Me too" I replied. "By any chance did you visit Mike's Farm, not far from there?"
The smile disappeared from his face instantly. He looked at me, pained, and I knew that he was about to give me bad news. He paused and I waited, silently.
"Mike was murdered. Found at the side of the road, his hands tied behind his back. He'd been almost decapitated."
I stood, rooted to the spot, feeling physically sick. After a moment, I managed to speak.
"There were rumours that he'd stumbled on a drug cartel; that he knew too much. That the military turned a blind eye to his killing because they were in cahoots with the dealers. But no-one is entirely sure." He watched as a look of sickened horror spread across my face. "Yes, that's how I felt too, when I found out."
I left the party shortly afterwards...I had no stomach for the merriment. Back at home, images of the farm swam before my eyes - the notebook on the kitchen table, the dinners around the wooden table, that night I'd listened to the BBC World Service with Mike, in his car. I'd always believed the army ruled Guatemala (it was an 'open secret') but, suddenly, the enormity of what I'd been told hit me, hard. I began rifling through some of the photographs I'd brought with me from England. I had photos of Antigua, Salola, Chichicastenange, Atitlan...but nothing from Poptun it seemed. I tipped the box out on the floor to look one last time. And there it was - a ragged print of Mike's two parrots, on their perch.
Today, I've heard that the farm is still running (it's now called Finca Ixobel) which makes me very glad. A US State Dept investigation was eventually held in relation to Mike's murder, at which his wife testified. It transpired that one of the men involved in the killing was a Colonel Alpirez, a CIA informer who apparently gave shelter at his army base to a death squad, sent to kill Mike. Poptun residents came forward to report that they'd seen a white pick-up truck, filled with armed men, waiting close to the De Vine ranch. Some said they had seen that truck enter and leave Alpirez's army base, a few days before the killing. Years later, five 'foot soldiers' were tried and convicted.
It's been 28 years but I haven't forgotten Poptun - not the notebook, not the dinners around the table and not the mad parrots. I haven't forgotten the hospitality, the communal dinners and my conversations with Mike either. I doubt I ever will.