Fear & Mystery in Guatemala

Saying goodbye to Caesar and Anna after a week of raucous socializing, adventurous excursions, and unforgettable memories was no easy task.  We had managed to do just about everything under the sun during my time in Comitan.  From our visits to las Cascadas de Chiflon and los Lagos de Montebello to polishing off bottles of cheap tequila and belly-dancing in jangling turkish accessories.  So when the time came to jump back on the bike and head for the fabled country of Guatemala, a land that had always been shrouded in a veil of mystery and exoticism in my mind, I was both smitten with intrigue yet also wistful at the thought of saying goodbye to my wonderfully sweet and quirky new friends.

Anna and Caesar had both warned me that there had been numerous roadside robberies along a particular stretch of the road from Comitan to the Guatemala border and insisted that I take the colectivo to avoid that area.  So, after hugging Anna, struggling awkwardly to get my wide-load bicycle out of her front door and down the steep front step, I began the jarring cobble-stone ride out to the main road on the other side of the center of town.  I had soon arrived at the colectivo station, and after a short wait they had my bicycle belted tightly to the front of the van and we were on our way.  It was a relatively short ride, and as we approached Mexico’s final frontier, I climbed down and began to reload my bags onto the bike.  Again, I had been experiencing the almost intolerable affliction of tumbling panniers jumping off my my rear rack while going over speed bumps or potholes in the roads, so as I loaded the bags on I decided to try a new strategy.  I had acquired some black electrical tape while in Comitan and wrapped a thick layer around the bars of the rear rack underneath where the pannier clips normally sat.  I hoped that the new layer of insulation would reduce vibration and bouncing while crossing rough and uneven terrain, and now, all I could do was forge onwards and hope for the best as I drew nearer to entering a new country which I knew almost nothing about.

It was several kilometers from the exit customs on the Mexican side of the border to the entry to Guatemala, and straight uphill the entire way.  At first the road sloped up rather gently, but within the next ten minutes it was a steep climb, the road perched perilously into the side of the mountainside and a vista of the new terrain that I was to face stretching out off to my side.  Towering cloud wrapped mountains jutted out from the wet, green valleys far below.  As I rode onward, all that I could see before me was the highway stretching ever higher and twisting up into the thick cloud cover.  Although daunted and uncertain of what lay before me, I also felt a tingling of unbridled excitement at this mystical and almost surreal landscape that I was now entering.  I pedaled intrepidly forward, neither racing uphill impatiently nor idling along lazily, and knew that it wouldn’t be long before I would be officially stamped in to the beginning of my Central American journey.  As I finally saw the sign which I had been awaiting, bidding me farewell from Mexico, I also happened to notice hundreds of buzzards crowded menacingly into the blackened skeleton of a towering, leafless tree, sadistically following me with their eyes as I passed along.  A wave of anxiety swept over my boy at the unfortunate omen – but then I remembered that I don’t belief in superstition, or, at least, it’s probably best not to on a journey like this.

But then I turned to look back at the road ahead and began to see a small cluster of buildings rising out from the mountainside.  Speed bumps, gate arms, and hawkers dotted the scene, this must certainly be the border crossing for my entry to Guatemala.  Fortunately, it was not difficult to locate the immigration office and after a few terse words with the officials inside, I was officially accepted into the country.  I returned outside to my bicycle, only to be accosted by an overly friendly gentleman who was more than happy to trade my Mexican pesos for his Guatemalan quetzales.  Although I knew that I had been slightly swindled, I had only exchanged a very small amount of cash and was anxious to continue on with my riding.  It was already getting to be early afternoon and I wanted to cover as much ground as possible today, hopefully finding a nice comfortable place to spend the evening, as the sky looked threateningly unpredictable.  I wove up through the haphazard two and three story edifices which were shoved right up against the road, casting dark shadows across the narrow path before me.  But it was only a small village, and within a few minutes I was breaking free from its chaotic grip and emerging, once again, out onto the towering mountainside, climbing ever higher.

I continued to rise for some short time thereafter, but then, unexpectedly, the road crested and began to slope downward.  Down, down, down, my bicycle sliced along through the moist underbrush which spilled out from the roadsides.  It was beautiful, well, the scenery too, but especially that feeling of cutting through the mists that rose ethereally from the pavement and the satisfaction of knowing that I was now in Guatemala.  I had escaped the United States, lived vibrantly through Mexico, and now I was on to a new chapter of my voyage.  My legs pumped forward with a renewed vigor, propelling me deeper and deeper into the mountains that surrounded me.  Then, as I looked far off towards the distance ahead, I began to feel like Frodo Baggins viewing his path through almost impassible terrain to Mount Doom.  A massive cobalt silhouetted ravine swallowed the highway before me as ominous black clouds swirled above.  This was the way to Huehuetenango?  Oh man, what had I gotten myself in to.  But there was no turning back now, and all I could do was smile and laugh inwardly at the rarity of my situation and wonder just how many people would ever see this world the way that I did right then or feel the true awe and intimidation that these cliffs inspired within me.

As I was engulfed in the gloom that lay deep at the base of the towering cliffs on either side, a ferocious cappuccino colored river roared off to my right.  For the next several hours I and the river would become well acquainted as we followed the carved valley for endless miles together.  I knew at the start of my day that it would be only a matter of time before the wrath of the dramatic blackened sky above was unleashed upon me, and then there it was.  The rains showered down in a heavy drizzle, quickly soaking through my cycling tunic and leaving a glistening sheen on the snaking road that disappeared around the contours of the ravine.  A constant uphill gradient beckoned me slowly deeper and deeper, and with it almost all signs of civilization seemed to fade away.  The already murky day began to give way to the obscurity of night and all around me bleak outlines of jagged mountain ranges glared down at me.  Fear and uncertainty began to seep through my blood.  I had been searching for a hotel, a guesthouse, a campsite, anything, for the past several hours, but to my chagrin it was all fruitless.  The ferocious river deep below me on one side and towering cliffs on the other completely precluded the option of camping, and as the rains persisted and the darkness settled, I could find no one in the surrounding landscape to ask for assistance. 

I carried on desperately, thinking to myself, well, here I am, doing exactly the one thing that I had been told not to do in Central America – riding my bicycle at night.  And not only was a riding at night, but through a pitch black, almost haunted landscape, never knowing what was around the next bend or just how far the drop was underneath the invisibly towering bridge I was crossing as I heard the river thrashing as if miles below.  I was wet, I was cold, my muscles burned and cried out for reprieve, hunger welled up in me and reminded me that I had not eaten since leaving Comitan that morning, and I wondered if perhaps those buzzards back at the border had been more than just coincidence.  By this point I had switched on my little LED bicycle light, but against the misty, pea soup obscurity, it seemed to do me little good.  Then, my heart jumped into my throat.  Was I really seeing this?  Off to my left in the pitch black darkness were more than a dozen motorcycles with Guatemalan men sitting on them – just sitting there…waiting.  Dear God I hoped they weren’t waiting for me, I pedaled along gripping my handlebars tightly and hardly breathing.  But after fearful minutes I didn’t hear any motors or see any lights racing after me.  I began to breath normally again but now with a renewed uncertainty and anxiety to add to my other woes.

The early evening dwindled away and I wondered, would I have to go all the way to Huehuetenango before I could find some place warm and dry to escape the now chilly mountain air.  But deep within myself I knew that I had come this far and that I would be fine.  It couldn’t possibly get much worse that this.  But why is that, every time that you’re in a difficult situation and you have a thought like this, things somehow really do manage to go downhill (and sadly, only in a figurative sense).  I rounded a turn and flames blazed eerily out of the gloom.  As I neared the fire along the roadside I felt completely caught off guard, what could this possibly be??  And then there were faces!  In the flickering reddish light the dark, chiseled features of the indigenous mountain natives were outlined in a liquid light and my mind raced as to what could possibly be going on here.  My rationality told me that it was probably best not to stop and find out, so I mustered up the strength to boost my speed once again and delve deeper into the mysterious night.  But there were other inexplicable fires.  As I rode forward I began to see that they dotted the roadside every several hundred meters – what kind of strange and ancient ritual was this?  Furthermore, off in the inky silhouettes of the distant mountains, I noticed tiny flames weaving slowly along the hillsides.  I wasn’t sure just what mysterious horror movie I had just stepped into, but I most certainly hoped that it wouldn’t have a traditional ending.

But, as with most things in life, these sights began to seem somewhat typical after I had been witnessing them for some time, and hunger and weariness began to eclipse my fear.  Perhaps it would even be better to be offered up as a human sacrifice rather than having to carry on in these unbearable conditions.  I began to see a few small huts along the sides of the road up ahead.  Unfortunately, none seemed to have any lights on, and perhaps were even without electricity, as one appeared to be lit by foreboding candlelight as I passed by.  But up ahead I saw a single light on the side of the rode, slicing into the darkness and thought to myself, perhaps this is salvation.  It was not long before I realized that it was a little tienda, a small square window in the side of a stout concrete building, selling nothing more than packaged snacks and sodas.  But one was or another, this was it, I was done, there would be no more riding today.  I went to the window and timidly yelled “hola,” as I didn’t see anyone inside.  Moments later a short indigenous man cautiously emerged and greeted me.  I queried him as to where we were, if there were any hotels or places to spend the night nearby, or even a place with prepared food, but apparently were were still in the middle of nowhere and the rest of the answers were all negatives.  Regardless of my plight, being that I am still Paul, the first thing that I could think of was satisfying the burning from within that was coming from my stomach, and then, perhaps once I had taken care of my stomach, I could begin thinking lucidly again.

So, I purchased a few small snacks, some taco flavored Guatemalan chips called Tortrix and a large bottle of water, and sad pathetically on a low concrete ledge while I ate.  Meanwhile, another man had come out and was talking to the first in a language that I had never heard before and I had a sneaking suspicion that I was the topic of conversation.  After I had finished my snacks, I could do nothing more than sit there and stare out blankly into the darkness of night, supposedly thinking, but in fact just wallowing in exhaustion.  And then the first man addressed me.  He said that he had spoken to his brother and that he was offering me a bed in his home, asking whether I would like to stay there.  Well of course!  What luck, not only was I done riding for the night, but I would also have a bed to sleep in.  So with little delay we were then walking towards his home, a half a block down the road, my wheeling my laden bicycle beside me.  The house was a squat cinderblock affair, built into the hillside along the road.  As we walked up, I saw the man go up ahead of me into the open front room of the house to speak with his family – I waited outside.  One by one new members of the family appeared to curiously see who this stranger was that had appeared and would now be spending the night.  They were a pleasantly inquisitive group, about ten in all, the women all wearing brightly sewn dresses and shawls, typical of that region.  I quickly learned that they were of Mam descent and that this was also the name of the language which they were speaking, and although we could not converse directly with one another, the first gentleman whom I had met at the tienda earlier was able to translate as they excitedly posed questions to him.

They led me up to a single room which sat on the roof of the house and was only accessible by either a ladder from down below or a door that led outside, facing the street.  As I sat down on the bed, completely worn out and wishing that I could just lay down to rest, I knew that this would probably look terribly rude and instead sat on the bed chatting with the family for almost another hour.  Despite my tiredness, they were such warm and smiling company and I couldn’t help but enjoy their welcome, and eventually the conversation did wind down.  We said goodnight to one another, I closed the door, and almost instantly fell onto the scratchy composite fiber blankets, drifting off to sleep.

I was awakened in the morning by, yes, roosters.  Of course, I probably could have slept a few more hours, as I knew that it was very early, but when you’re sleeping in the home of an indigenous group in Guatemala, you’d hate to be a bad representative for all of your people and let them think that you’re all so terribly lazy (when in fact its really just me).  So I gingerly raised myself up out of bed on my beyond sore legs and shuffled over to the glass-less window to peer out at just where exactly I had arrived to in the gloom of the previous night.  Out back, dense coffee groves wound up into the hillside and two women hung freshly washed laundry out to dry on a low clothesline.  It was an altogether peaceful and serene setting to welcome me to a new day, and after collecting myself I decided that I would go out and enjoy the day – or something like that, seeing as how it was back to the bike.  So I emerged from the room out into the sunlight and as rolled by beast down to the road and glanced around for my host, he just happened to come ambling towards me.  I whole-heartedly thanked him for saving my life before, wished him and his family all the best, and set off once again.  Today would not be a long ride, it was only about thirty kilometers left to Huehue, and if it hadn’t been for the stiffening of my muscles from the previous day’s ride, it would have been a wonderfully pleasant journey.  Not to say that it wasn’t quite pleasant, but it was most certainly a trial as well.

The road seemed to be continually uphill (a fact that I would soon learn was characteristically Guatemala), and progress was quite slow.  Yet, the landscapes that surrounded me were quite breathtaking, as fertile green fields wrapped around the mountainsides like twisting mosaic patchwork quilts, and the dark, fluffy clouds contrasted against bright rays of sunlight that filtered through them.  I continued on, enjoying the scenery, and knew that I was most certainly not far from Huehue now, when the heavens once again opened up and bucketed down on me.  But this was not like the pathetic, dragging showers of yesterday, this time it was a mini monsoon.  Even geared up in my raincoat, there was little reprieve for my waterlogged sneakers and the soaked shorts which clung to my thighs.  Yet, as with all things in life, mood seems to be the deciding factor on how I chose to respond to this turn of events, and rather than ride along begrudgingly, I surrendered myself to the wetness and felt a rush of exhilaration.  The road had now finally gone from endless uphill to undulating, windy hills through pastureland, and I raced forward at full speed, the raindrops spattering incessantly against my skin in little bursts.  However, it the sun was not far above these clouds, and as it rained the lush fields around me seemed to glitter as the sun illuminated each individual raindrop in the radiant scene that surrounded me.

When the storm finally subsided, I was just approaching the first sign directing me off of the main road and towards Huehuetenango.  I was almost there, after all of the previous day’s harrowing trials, my first social contact with the Mam culture, the morning’s cleansing rains, and almost twenty-four hours in Guatemala.  And so I rode towards the town center to search for my new host in Huehue and all the time wondering whether these wild and fantastical events since crossing the border were just unusual coincidence, or whether this was only foreshadowing what other unpredictable and unforgettable adventures were to come.


1 Response to “Fear & Mystery in Guatemala”

  1. 1 m2o
    November 12, 2008 at 2:42 pm

    This was so enjoyable to read, i needed to go astray into nature like that.
    I have been sofar only to the middle of Mexico 20 years ago and can vouch
    for such feelings described. I hope there is more to read….Thank you for taking the time to write this.

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