Published November 19, 2012
On first learning that I would be joining an amazing, top notch production team to explore the Maya ruins in Mexico, I was thrilled to pieces. This was a chance to travel to an exotic place built by mysterious people, nearly two thousand years ago. How many people do you know actually get paid to do that?!
So what if the research said we might be encountering some wild animals such as jaguars and howler monkeys. The producer in me was jumping for joy at the possibility of getting a close-up of the piercing eyes of a jaguar. Wait till I told Chuck about it. I knew he'd be thrilled right? What photographer wouldn't be electrified for an opportunity like that?
My overprotective dad's reaction was, "TU EN LA SELVA?!" In Spanish that means "you in the jungle?!" Si Papi, don't worry. The men on our team are big and tough. I'll stand behind them the whole time.
After rounds of painful shots for tetanus, diptheria, and typhoid -- OUCH! -- and a prescription for Malaria, senior producer, Peter Russo and I were on our way.
We met up with our team at the Villa Hermosa airport. Last to arrive were correspondent Adam Housley, photographer Chuck Denton, and soundman Norman Neuweiler. They were lugging a ton of heavy equipment. I would have taken photos, but the swarm of heavily armed military men all over the airport were making me a nervous wreck. In fact in Mexico armed military men are part of the scenery everywhere you go.
Stepping outside was like walking out to the most intense sauna ever, wearing heavy winter gear. Hot and humid doesn't begin to describe it. Adam, Chuck, Norman, and our driver David Gonzalez were barely able to fit the equipment into the van. And this was the trimmed down version.
On day two we began shooting footage of a tour at La Venta Park with Archaeologist Christopher Powell. This outdoor jungle museum features massive monuments from the Olmec civilization. Adam was impressive with his command of Maya knowledge. This reporter certainly does his homework. And he doesn’t stop there. He also took it upon himself to take beautiful still photographs for the show. He is a total team player.
Chuck captured amazing cool footage of worker ants carrying leaves. I felt like I was in the middle of a National Geographic episode with front row seats. These ants were like little soldiers marching in perfect rows and in unison. They marched up the tree, grabbed the leaves, then went down the other side of the tree, across the ground and disappeared into the bushes on the other side of the path. I was so mesmerized I didn't notice that some of these little critters seemed to have become angry that we had disrupted their trail, and were now crawling over Chuck, Norman, and me. My colleagues had gone on ahead with Dr, Powell. We began slapping the ants away. Some of them were still crawling on Norman's pants when we caught up with the rest of our tour.
In the afternoon we finally got to see up close and personal, the center of the Maya storm. Tortuguero Monument 6 is the object of the world's fascination due to the December 21st doomsday phenomenon. Dr. Powell described to Adam in detail what this monument actually says, as we watched on. This is what all the hoopla is about. After this we hit the road again for the two hour drive to Palenque.
DAY THREE -- PALENQUE:
We headed out early under darkness and through a torrential downpour to climb to the top of the Temple of Inscriptions for a bird's eye view of the sun rising at the summer solstice. We had to climb through the back of the monument because the front was too steep -- not that the back side was much better. But apparently one of the workers had fallen off the front of the massive pyramid a few weeks earlier. From my perspective the climb up was slow and treacherous. The steps were extremely wet and slippery, and very steep and narrow as well. The Mayans were obviously much smaller people than we are today. I had trouble climbing up to the top, but I managed. My buddy Peter kept a close watch on me. Once we made it to the top the view was spectacular! There was such a wonderful peacefulness about the jungle early in the morning. It was incredible to be there.
Adam, Chuck, and Norman got right to work figuring out the camera angles. After daylight broke, we shot b-roll and Adam's stand-ups and tosses. At one point I thought I was going to have a coronary watching Adam get too close to the edge of the temple. I told him to watch the back, but he said not to worry he had a good footing -- Yeah, literally right at the edge of the cliff. But try cautioning a man who's covered wars and all types of disasters in his career. This wasn't a big deal to him.
The climb down was worse than coming up. I kept yelling out every couple of minutes when I lost my footing. I slipped and slid all the way down. It became so bad our wonderful fixer Verity Oswin, had one of our security guides hold my arm the rest of the way down. Climbing up had not been as difficult because your whole body is facing towards the monument. You can hug it if you lose your balance. There is nothing to hold onto going down. I asked Peter if I had made too much noise. He said "Yes, you squealed all the way down!" He can get away with that. We've been friends for many years.
On the last day we travelled by boat to Yaxchilan. But first we had a two hour drive to get there. We stopped to have breakfast at a very bare bones little restaurant off the side of the road. It was so simple there wasn’t even a floor, just gravel. Right before we arrived at the river we loaded up on food supplies to get us through the day. This was going to be the most remote location, pure jungle. No bathroom breaks there.
At one site in Yaxchilan we entered a structure that was basically built like a cave by the Maya. It was a steam room, and very cramped with creatures living inside, such as bats. I didn’t think to be scared of the bats. I was just happy Dr. Powell said he didn’t see any snakes. Peter wasn’t happy about being there. He was the only one who had the good sense to think going in there was a bad idea. And as luck would have it, he was the only one who was bitten by a bat, although he didn’t realize it at the time. When he was home he had to rush to the E.R. and get a round of eight very painful shots!
The trip was amazing, although not free of headaches. We all had about three to four hours of sleep every night. We climbed up and down pyramids the entire time to get the best shots. At one point we encountered a tarantula inside the van. Chuck and Norman got rid of it. Bugs and reptiles were everywhere. They greeted me every day and every night at my hotel door. I was worried the tiny salamanders would fit under my door, and that I would wake up to find them in my bed. My bathroom was swarming with creepy crawly creatures all the time. It got to the point where I just tried to ignore them.
On our last night I took a little longer to join the rest of the team for dinner. I was exhausted, and there was no rush anymore. When I opened my door to go out two huge ugly frogs were waiting for me. The one closest to the door began making its way towards my room. I screamed and slammed the door. I don’t mind the bugs as much. I can always step on them if I had to. Amphibians are different. Slimy creatures absolutely disgust me. At this point I had had enough of the frogs. Every night they tormented me with a cacophony of frog songs, just daring me to go out there. They were everywhere at that hotel. You couldn’t avoid them, but I was not about to let them come into my room and cower me into missing dinner. I was livid. They were close to becoming dinner! I re-opened the door and let it rip! I hollered so loudly at them they jumped away into the bushes, defeated. I don’t know if I woke up some of the dead, but Peter popped his head out from his room all the way down the corridor. “Hey O’Callaghan, Are you all right down there?” I had thought I was the last to leave for dinner. Oh well.
After dinner Peter and Adam walked with me up the hill to our rooms. It was always dark and scary at night. When we got up there Chuck was waiting outside. He said “Hey Iraida, look at this.” Apparently one of the frogs was back, sitting at my bathroom window seemingly taunting me. I asked Chuck if he was playing a joke on me by placing him there, but he claimed he hadn’t. The jury is still out on that one. He did remove it though, and even took a picture of it for me.
This was indeed an incredible trip and assignment. The group we worked with, incredibly talented and professional. Yet they can also sit back and relax during down time and keep the spirit going. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat! And the best part is the incredible show we’ve put together with the wonderful elements we shot.
“Fox News Reporting: Countdown to Doomsday” airs for the first time on Wednesday, Nov. 21, at 9pm ET. It’s hosted by Bill Hemmer, and will feature in the field reports from our intrepid correspondents Adam Housley, Amy Kellogg, and Lauren Green.