Escape from Guatemala

Go BananasWhen I had one day woken up in Antigua, Guatemala and realized that Kevin and Willie’s flight from New York had left that morning bound for Costa Rica, I realized that it was time to get the hustle on and get my ass down there to meet them.  So, after wrapping up my remaining affairs in the small colonial Guatemalan town filled with drunken 20-something tourists, I headed to Guatemala City to board a TICA bus in sheer excitement at finally seeing my dear friends after several long months on the road.  As my bicycle bumped along the cobble-stoned streets, my equipment incessantly popping right off my rig, the sun shone innocently and it looked like wonderful weather for the brief, albeit initially steep uphill, ride to the city.  I had gotten a late start, and as I trudged ever higher through the dense forests that rimmed the edge of the valley surrounding Antigua, I wondered if I would indeed hold true to the rendez-vous time that I had Alvaro that I would be arriving, or if indeed I would, as usual, be arriving fashionably late.  Well, at that time, I couldn’t have had any idea of what the near future held for me.

    I spun my pedals cheerily as I idled along up the curvy mountainside road in low gear, eagerly anticipating the beauty and mystique of a new and exotic country as well as the companionship of my people.  But as I finally began to see the crest of the hilltop in the near distance, after only an hour or so of riding, I also noticed the rising winds and darkening sky on the horizon.  As the road from Antigua joined with the main highway through the highlands, bustling traffic began to pick up on the road and I raced forward with the speeding vehicles now that the path ahead had transformed into a smooth rise and fall, following along the top of the mountain ridge.  As I rode, I wondered how much longer the weather would hold out, but then up ahead I saw the tree cover fall away and the pale, hazy sky open up above an endless vista into a huge valley far, far off in the distance below.  The highway suddenly took a dip and began a smooth, steady descent towards the lowlands.  I flew down the slope at a maniacal speed, the adrenaline racing through my veins as I kept suit with ever growing evening rush hour traffic pouring down the mountainside towards the city.  For once in Latin America fate seemed to have known that I was coming and paved a wide, tasteful shoulder, and as I arced speedily yet gracefully through the gentle curves ever lower, a roaring explosion of thunder crashed behind me.  I glanced nervously over my left shoulder and saw the entire upper mountainside obscured in brooding black clouds, rolling impatiently after me.  

    The race was on.  I knew that although in some parts of the world these types of storms pass quickly and violently, here in Central America this could be the harkening of a murderous, thrashing squall that might rage for hours on end, long into the dark of night.  A blinding, strobe-like flash illuminated the dramatic panorama that wrapped around me – the sallow grey sky of inevitability stretching out over the valley to my right and the threateningly inky mountainside drawing ever nearer on my right.  And then, with another shuddering crack, as though two trucks had slammed into each other at high speed behind me, the rains began.  Massive, juicy droplets pelted down against my skin, splattering like tiny water-balloons as they exploded on the roadside all around.  The world was quickly transformed and now that the cloud cover had enveloped me, a veil of darkness draped over the road ahead.  Cars sloshed by, wipers furiously whipping back and forth.  I knew that I had to get off this road, the rain had become sharp and painful, I could barely see through the torrent as it fired ceaselessly at my eyes, and the traffic alongside me continued to bounce along treacherously in the rising waters.  As I neared a trough at the bottom of the hill, I spotted a slightly overhanging corrugated steel roof alongside a glass walled building and veered off of the highway in its direction.  A moment later I hopped off the bike, pushed it up against the wall and pressed myself backwards, nearer to the building, to avoid the wind-blown rain which was still spattering against the foundation in endless diagonal sheets.  I huddled there for a few minuted before noticing that a woman inside the windows was waving her arms at me, signaling for me to come inside and seek shelter from the storm.

    Once I had managed to shove my loaded bicycle up the chunky front step and through the door, it was immediately apparent that the luxury of conversation was not an option.  The deafening sound of raindrops pummeling against the corrugated steel roof  high above reverberated throughout the wide open office of what appeared to be an auto wreckage shop.  I joined the employees, two men and the woman who had invited me inside, as we stood trapped inside the apocalyptic din, staring blankly in awe at the tumultuous downpour and thrashing  trees through the wide glass walls.  Yet this lasted for only a few more minutes before the course of the storm radically shifted.  Suddenly a sound like thousands of rocks being fired against steel sounded above us and outside the window the world went white.  Marbles of hail poured down from the heavens, crashing against the scene on the highway before us, almost instantly shutting the world down and jolting the endless line of traffic to a halt.  The roaring pounding was almost unbearable as it shattered on the roof in a chaotic frenzy.  Endless minutes passed and the pellets of ice began to pile up on the ground before us.  But then, just as suddenly as it had begun, the hail disappeared and was instantly replaced by cascading raindrops once again.  By this point I had sat down and gotten myself comfortable, it didn’t look like this would be over any time soon. The next hour dragged by and although I had hoped to call Alvaro, I knew that it was completely impossible in all this noise.  And then the rain decided to come inside.

    At first it was just a long, thin finger of moisture snaking along the concrete floor, but moments later it had widened and began to migrate outward.  I lifted my feet onto the chair beside me as the water level began to rise.  One of the employees had found a broom and was desperately trying to sweep the flood away, but to no avail I wondered just how much longer this would go on as I stared at the shining pool rising below me. But finally the storm outside began to wane and slowly drew from its previous fury to a smug drizzle.  The highway timidly grew to life again, dragging along painfully slowly and igniting a distant memory of the misery of being stuck in city traffic.  Yet I knew nothing of traffic now, and as I was impatient to forge into the Central American metropolis, I gestured a thank you to my hosts and returned to the dripping world outside.

    Now, with my raincoat tightly zipped and a renewed vigor, I steered back onto the roadside.  Zipping by the idling vehicles, I made my way along the highway, soon spotting the first signs for city exits.  I knew that I was not far now, and with a vague notion of the city layout before me, I weaved rapidly through the crawling traffic – now I was back on my turf.  The nostalgia of racing through the city streets of New York, Boston, Atlanta – it all raced back to me and I couldn’t help but smile wryly as I knew all of the motorist glared at me from behind the next car’s taillights.  Mentally I was counting down the streets from the huge plaques above the road and as I neared Alvaro’s side of the city I finally spotted it, the Obelisko (I think you can figure out the translation on that one).  The roadways here were a chaotic knot of underpasses and median islands, but I knew that somehow I had to join the traffic on the other side of the obelisk which curved off to my left.  I followed down the busy four lane roadway until I finally reached a left hand u-turn gap in the median and whipped around, backtracking towards my destination.  Once past the obelisk yet again, I followed around and then took my turn, conveniently pulling up on the street outside of what appeared to be a mall – exactly where Alvaro had instructed me to meet him.  I headed for the awning alongside the building’s exterior, propped my bike up against a bench and tried dialing Alvaro’s number.  When I finally got through I relayed my location (in front of the Hooters – yes, sadly they have Hooters here too) and he told me that he should be there in about forty minutes.  

    So there I was, after several months of the wilderness and small villages of Guatemala and Southern Mexico, wearing the same three outfits day in and day out, and now standing outside of a mall with forty minutes to kill.  So what do you think I wanted to do?  Well, sadly that little bubble of hope was quickly popped when I remember that I had a bicycle loaded with everything I owned sitting on the sidewalk outside – and in Guatemala City nonetheless.  But the Guess store did have a big window that faced right out to the sidewalk…  Alright, so I decided to indulge myself, although I do think that the salespeople probably found it a bit odd that I milled about in the same corner of the store the entire time, suspiciously glancing out the window every few moments.  But even within these confines, after busting my ass though the endless mountains of Guatemala, I knew I deserved some kind of reward.   And so, moments later I was exiting the store, the proud owner of a precioso new tank top, and continuing to wait for Alvaro.

    But hours passed and still no sign of my Guatemalan friend.  By this point I was growing more and more fearful of the ominously lingering dark clouds and knew that it wouldn’t be long before the storm regained strength and stranded me here with my unwieldy two wheeled beast for the night.  I tried calling Alvaro, but after hopelessly ringing on and on for several minutes I remembered that I had his work number, and judging by the time he was certain to be out of there by now. Since Alvaro had given me his address, I decided that the best plan now would be to head for the house and just hope to rendez-vous there.  So, mounting the bicycle yet again, I began wallowing through the still bumper to bumper traffic to cross town.  Fortunately I had mapped my route well and was able to consistently squeeze through the tight lanes of traffic, and with only fifteen minutes I was already on the street where the house should be.  I pulled up onto the sidewalk and out of the way of passing car to have a look at the house numbers, but it appeared that there were none.  Hmm, this could be a predicament.  I  stood there and stared about, but only for a brief moment, as suddenly someone was calling out to me.  It was Alvaro’s mother, my savior!  I had finally arrived – thank goodness for the latin american family!

    A warm and inviting lady, Alvaro’s Mom welcomed me then led me inside and directed me up to the room where I would be staying.  She told me that Alvaro’s cell phone was not working at the moment and that apparently he had gotten stuck in the rain and didn’t have a car – and its virtually impossible to get a cab in Central America when its raining like this.  She also told me that another friend of Alvaro’s was staying at the house and that we could hang out until her son returned.  So I headed upstairs to get settled in and met Brendon, a traveler from Australia who had just come from a journey around the world, passing through the United States, most of Europe, and Asia.  Knackered from my day’s wild and unprecedented course of event, I was more than happy to plop down on the other bed and pass the time away in friendly conversation with my new friend.  

    After an hour of chatting, Alvaro’s mother called us downstairs, informing us that she had prepared some cheese quesadillas to tide us over until the missing link returned from the rainstorm.  When we arrived downstairs my heart went out to the poor woman.  As I had expected, the rains had struck up again with a vengeance, and so forceful was the downpour that the kitchen was flooding.  The matron of the house stood by the kitchen door sweeping vigorously in an attempt to keep the water from spilling out into the living room and motioned towards the steaming plate which was sitting on the countertop, insisting that we go ahead and eat.  We headed for the dining room with our quesadillas but along the way got distracted by the sound of horns outside and after setting the plate down decided to go investigate.  Opening the front door and heading out the the huge gate at the front of the house, we peeked outside and saw that hundreds of headlights trailed off towards the city, reflecting in the wavering water which was brimming up to their doors.  Yes, apparently I had arrived at the right time, because the three foot deep water certainly wouldn’t have been any fun to ride through.  After thoroughly observing the scene before us, we decided that we’d had enough rain and headed back inside for some queso.  

    As we sat at the dinner table eating, we heard the front door open, and around the corner came Alvaro.  He was completely soaked, literally dripping from his work clothes and excused himself while he went upstairs to dry off and change.  When he returned, dinner was ready and we all sat down together, Alvaro furnishing a bottle of Belizean rum which he had brought back from his recent trip to the Caribbean coast.  Although I was thoroughly enjoying the conversation, shortly after dinner I felt that I could barely keep my eyes open anymore after all of the day’s excitement and said goodnight to the guys before heading upstairs and falling onto the waiting mattress.  The following day I was up early, thanking my host for his hospitality and saying my farewells, then heading off towards the TICA bus terminal way on the other side of the city.  I knew that it wouldn’t be long before I saw my dear friend’s Kevin and Willie in Costa Rica, and I could hardly wait.  The only thing that separated us now were the mountains of Central America and two short days.


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