Archive for the 'Guatemala' Category

11
Nov
08

The Israeli Virgin Sacrifice at Volcán Pacaya

PacayaAlthough I’d really had nothing but time on my hands when I was at Lago de Atitlan, and although I had a spare break pad somewhere in my luggage, I never quite did manage to get around to changing my decimated rear break pads before heading for Antigua Guatemala.  And so, thats how I found myself squealing along down the last few slaloms into the little old Colonial tourist hotbed of a village.  But the suspense didn’t last for long, and before I knew it, I had landed smack in the flat valley bottom and was riding through the rather inconspicuous outskirts of town.  Aside from the fact that I no longer had my Swiss Miss, Seri, and that I had no host here in Antigua with whom to discover the city (a luxury which I had become all too accustomed to after the incredible energy and hospitality of the friends I’d made in Mexico), everything appeared to be going relatively smoothly as I arrived in town.  Until I got to the cobblestones, that is.  It was like Xéla, only worse.

Ok, so I must admit that I love the charm and aesthetics of cobblestones, but when you’re riding a bicycle, it’s bad – when you’re riding a bike with another 60 pounds stacked on the back, its a real nightmare.  I rolled as slowly as I could down one of the main streets, not knowing yet what street it was, hoping that my naughty panniers wouldn’t go hopping off the bike during a big bump and go rolling dramatically in front of a car tire.  However, I happened to be feeling lucky that day, and as luck would have it, when I pedaled through the next intersection I spotted the street-sign indicating that I happened to be on exactly the same street as the hostel that I was searching for.  And, moments later, thar she was, The Black Cat Hostel (now, why the hell everything in expat & backpacker-land has to be called the Black Cat or the Black Sheep, I have no idea), so I sidled up to the curb and slowly (and very awkwardly) tried to maneuver my mount onto the not so bicycle friendly sidewalk.

Shortly after I had checked in, strategically placed my cycle in a side storage room and lugged all of my heavy packs up to the third floor of the hostel, I encountered my new roommates for the next several days.  Ziv Kivity (to infinity and beyond!) and Yael Mazuz had just been cleared from the Israeli military, had just began their journey through Central America and they were ready to do some serious traveling.  Although at first glance I had been sure that they’d known one another for years, I later discovered that they’d actually met through an Israeli site for post-service traveling buddies, and had just happened to be remarkably compatible backpackers together.  Although I had barely spoken English since leaving the United States several months earlier (and Even Seri, my Swiss Miss, and I spoke Spanish with one another, lol), I found that it came as quite a welcome relief, as miraculously I was once again witty and charming – as opposed to bumbling, awkward, and over-thinking.

As it were, in between my bouts of illness (which I suspected to be a remnant of some obstinate intestinal amigo who had followed me from Mexico), Yael, Ziv and I managed to explore the city and surrounding areas quite happily together.  Ziv was the quieter, dark-haired party girl with the endearing smile and a sweet, pensive manner, while Yael was the talkative intellectual blond with the heart of gold.  Although over the course of the next few days we did do a little bar hopping, heading to touristy hot-spots like the Mono Loco, the Casbah, and an Irish Pub (and yes, every tourist town apparently also has to have an English or Irish pub as well, otherwise the poor lads from the islands go through withdrawals… oh, and yes, in fact, all of the bars in Antigua are touristy), we shared a wonderful pasta dinner at the home of a new Italian friend of mine in Antigua and climbed a volcano.

Alex was an opinionated and political Italian who had come to Antigua to work with a student travel agency owned by an American friend.  We had met through CouchSurfing, and although he couldn’t host me, he did suggest that we get together and head out on the town.  So, the first time we met, we did just that, heading out for a few drinks with the girls.  But one of the following evenings Alex also invited us all to dinner at his home, to which we readily accepted.  So around sevenish, the girls and I made our way across town (which basically means about 5 blocks away) and towards Alex’s place.  We didn’t quite know what was in store for us until we arrived at the massive stone gates to the walled in complex.  It was primarily a rich expat community, most likely the types who owned the majority of the successful businesses and tour groups around town.  But nevertheless, an impressive place.  Alex met us at the gate and led us in towards the house.  The house itself was essentially a palace for one (Alex was just staying there temporarily until getting his own apartment), owned by his friend and boss, Mark.

Well, the dinner certainly turned out to be a memorable experience in a number of ways.  Alex’s home-style Italian pasta recipe was a sumptuous feast (especially when you’ve been traveling through the gastronomically-challenged Guatemala) and we all happily made quick work of it, while sipping on glasses of red wine (wine, yes wine!  hah, I don’t usually get to drink THAT on a trip like this – well, at least not until Argentina).  But then things got really interesting… or at least, mundane and controversial.  Before we knew what was happening, the conversation had erupted into a subtly polite spitfire of politics.  And wouldn’t ya know it, the rich American had all the right opinions and insisted that everyone else open their eyes to the way things really are.  Ok, so lets just say I’d had about enough of this dinner, and after holding my peace for the next fifteen minutes I could barely stand to hear any more, and politely began to insinuate as to how late it was and that we should surely be going now.

With a little luck and a lot of tact, we were thankfully soon out of the house and Ziv, Yael, Alex, his friend, and I, were on our way to a sedate albeit charming little candelit, old-wooden bar on yet the other side of Antigua.  As it was a weekday, and early in the week at that, there were only a few other patrons in the bar, so we had a sweet, romantic ambience all to ourselves.  We chatted for the next few hours until the languid tones of our voices suggested it was time to retire, and took the pleasant stroll back to our residences along the dimly lit cobble-stone streets.

Our other adventure, which I believe turned out to be quite the highlight of our days in Antigua Guatemala, was basking in the heat of the glowing molten lava at the summit of Volcán Pacaya.  Of course, when we left Antigua early in the afternoon it was a splendidly sunny and cheerful day, but as we made our way out of the valley by bus and along the almost two hour journey to the volcano, it didn’t take long for the floods to let loose.  Of course, this type of climate was no stranger to me, as I had spent many a day pedaling along in the melancholy downpours of Guatemala, but I could certainly see that the girls’ moods had taken a quick downturn, and suggested dismally that perhaps it would clear up before we reached the hike.  Well, by the time we were nearing the mountain, the rain did let up, but not for long.

As we were making the final ascent to the park entrance in our van from Antigua, we were only somewhat surprised (but nonetheless in uproar) that they happened to have decided to dig up the road and put in new huge concrete tubes today, of all the days.  And of course, as is the fashion in these sorts of regions of the world, there was no fore-warning and our driver was caught completely unaware.  Nevertheless, there wasn’t much that we could do, and Yael and Ziv were quite accustomed to this, after having tried to make their way to Belize the week prior and been met my road blocks, the devastation of hurricane damage, and public transportation protests – thereby sitting in several locales along the highway in the jungle for many, many hours over the course of two days and ultimately never reaching Belize but instead turning back to return to Guatemala.  Anyway, so back to the Volcano!

About an hour later the road was patched up, we passed through, and were no sooner arriving at the trail-head.  Now, throughout Latin America, and many third world nations, you’ll frequently be accosted by some sort of persuasive “vendors” as you disembark from transport or arrive at a point of touristic interest, but what awaited us at Pacaya was quite an new and unusual experience for even me.  As the van pulled in towards the small welcome center, throngs of children began to emerge from all corners of the clearing with five foot long sticks in their hands, the children swirling about our trajectory.  As we pulled to a halt and the sliding door of the van was thrown open they crowded in towards us, almost completely blocking our way, and brandishing their sticks menacingly.  They chanted “steeck, steeck… is necessary, vaary vaary necessary,” in awkward foreign accents somewhat reminiscent of the little asian boy from Indiana Jones, and pressed in against us as we pushed through, one by one.

Although I had grown to be quite tactful at dealing with such insistent behavior from similar past encounters, Yael and Ziv weren’t quite as weathered in that department and only a few short moments after we had exited, I had shaken off my Guatemalan niños, but as I turned to look back, Yael was cornered.  They had her with her back pressed up against the van, a fearful look upon her face, unsure of what to do as the hordes of midgets pressed ever forward around her waist.  Finally she succumbed to their insistence and proclaimed herself the proud new owner of a stick.  Now, at this point we didn’t even know what the heck the damn things were for, but we soon learned that they were to be used as a hiking aid.  And on that note, it wasn’t long before the gray clouds began to let loose yet another torrent of merciless rainfall, and the children were going for round two with their foul weather aid.  “Poncho, poncho!,” ok, well this time it was hardly worth fighting it, and anyway, it was really bucketing down now and most of us were really in the mood to schlep up the mountain like a wet rag.

As we marched up the muddy trail, the proud new owners of bright orange ponchos and sticks, the rain-water spilled along our path in muddy, brown riverlets.  But we made out way on intrepidly – well, at least Yael and I did, but the grueling hike had taken its toll on poor Ziv, but fortunately, the natives were right there at our heels with a ridin’ horse to alight her to the summit.  So we bid farewell to Ziv (as the horse route was different from the pedestrian route) and watched he disappear into the mist on her shimmering white steed, led by a small Guatemalan fellow.  Yael and I trudged onward, sloshing through the mud and stopping frequently to catch our breath, and I only once being insulted on my poor Spanish accent (by another Central American girl who happened to be walking past and felt it pertinent to inform me).  Unfortunately Ziv had brought her own raincoat and was quickly discovering that it was not in fact “water-proof” but instead “water-resistant,” as she revealed to me that she was completely soaked underneath.  I offered to exchange tops with her, but she politely declined, as is best since I’m not sure what kind of impression I would have given those poor Guatemalan people by walking around in a wet bra and belly-T.

About an hour and a half and a few hundred meters later we were finally emerging from the tree cover and what lay before us was quite an awesome sight.  The gray rain clouds had cleared away from the volcano summit and only green ribbon of velvety grass skirted along a massive, inky black crater below a ominously coal colored cone which jutted up into the sky, a plume of pale, puffy smoke swirling about its peak.  This was it, this is what we had come up here for – well, almost… where was the hot lava???  But our guide assured us that we were not far now and as we made our way along that last strip of fertile green towards the crater we weren’t quite sure just what exactly to expect.  The descent into the crater atop the jagged, craggy volcanic rock which had been artistically frozen in time as it had once cooled, was certainly no easy task.  As we had met Ziv near the crater-head, I offered to help assist her as we made our way out into the black unknown, and we made our way along hand in hand.

Sizzling and low-pitched whistling noises seeped out from the delicately flaky ground beneath us.  Occasionally, as we picked our way precariously over the awkward formations, we could see the distantly glowing red hot embers through tiny gaps or hollows below our feet.  Although it was a somewhat unsettling experience, it was also quite exhilarating, and I just kept reminding myself that the tour groups probably wouldn’t have brought us here if it wasn’t at least reasonably secure.

Then finally, as we crested a gnarled ridge of volcanic rock, there it was in the distance.  Fiery tie-die patterns of red, gold, and orange lazily churning and threatening to spill towards us, but dying off steadily at its own periphery.  Yay!  We had made it, no where the dickens were those marshmallows??  Fortunately, they were in Yael’s satchel (which somehow I had ended up lugging up the mountain) and we didn’t waste any time whipping the little fellas out and roasting us up a party.  Sadly, due to the earlier road-block, the impedance of the rainstorm, and any other confounding variables, I didn’t have long to lean in and melt a warm, gooey marshmallow for each of us (yeah, of course somehow I ended up roasting ’em all).  So there I was, a too-short, wispy stick in hand, hovering precipitously over molten lava, the smell of burnt marshmallow wafting in the air… no wait, thats leg hair – youch!

Once I had reached my high-temperature tolerance threshold – and received my free depilatory treatment on both my right leg and the right side of my face – I stumbled backwards, away from the wavering super-heated air.  We still had ample marshmallows left to burn, so that was exactly what I planned to do.  I tossed a couple onto the searing lava and they burst into little balls of flames!  Although at first I worried about the ecological impact of such an action, I quickly eased my conscience after thinking through the fact that the marshmallows would instantly be incinerated anyway, and that the amount of fume emitted was surely negligible in the great environmental scheme of things.  Nevertheless, I knew that restraint was the better virtue in this circumstance and that there were starving niños who probably love marshmallows somewhere down below.

About two hours later we were emerging from the infinitely pattering canopy of the forest at the trail-head in the pitch black darkness.  Night had fallen as we were descending from the volcano, and as all of us had heard unpleasant rumors about bandits in the area, we were quite relieved to have arrived.  We returned our sticks to the children of the village in our attempt to recycle and save the earth, and then piled into the van for the somber ride back to Antigua.

A few days later it was time to head on, as I had plans to meet my good buddies from New York in the not too distant Costa Rica soon, and therefore it was thus that I found myself battling by panniers and finally performing some much needed maintenance and changing the break pads of old faithful (the bike!).  Once I had magically stuffed all of my possessions into my packs and my mechanic shop was closed up, I turned to the girls, who had been watching the whole, wretched affair (complete with cursing and tool throwing) and bid them a greasy black handed, teary farewell, promising each other that we would meet again soon, but knowing that it would really probably be years before we saw one another’s smiling faces again, if ever.

Yet, as I bumped and inched out of town, my panniers popping off of my bike and onto the cobblestones as often as they saw fit, I could never have imagined that we would in fact be reunited in the not too distant future – but in an entirely different world, somewhere between the end of their marvelous journey and before the next chapter of mine.

Advertisements
09
Nov
08

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.

09
Nov
08

Plummeting into Lago de Atitlan

Lago de AtitlanFor the first time in my life I understood where the expression “a white knuckle ride” had come from, as I dismally noted the pallid complexion of my clenched fists at the periphery of my tunnel of vision.  My eyes squinted tight against the fat, pummeling raindrops that burned them as I strained to focus on the tightly wound band of road that clung to the cliffside.  But as I felt the tendons in my wrist throb and my fingers searing from tension, all I heard was a liquid squealing as the rubber of my brake-pads cried out in hopeless desperation.  I was still hurtling at almost full speed towards the low metal guardrails, with just murky gray fog beyond the precipice, and I had almost no control over my rapid descent into the unknown below.  And as I flew forward I wondered just how exactly I had gotten myself into this fiasco in the first place.

That morning when I left Xéla (Quetzaltenango) I must admit that although I was excited to finally be heading towards the fabled Lago de Atitlan, of which I had heard marvelous stories ever since my first weeks in Mexico, but my spirits had also been dampened by the relentless torrents of the Guatemalan monsoon season.  There was no doubt that the mysterious and ethereal air which hung to the fog enshrouded mountains enticed me and led me forward, yet I also felt a dismal sense of uncertainty about what lay beyond each curve in the narrow highland road and, deeper within me, a sense of absolute isolation from the anything that I had ever known before.  For some time I pedaled farther and farther higher, up and above Xéla and into the clouds, but there were too many factors fighting against me.  The path seemed to be plagued by intermittent, and often overlapping, waves of impenetrable fog, completely destroyed roadway under construction, blind hairpin turns, and merciless downpours.  Between these obstacles and my painstakingly slow uphill pace, I realized that there was no chance that I would ever make it to Panajachel that day, as I had told my soon to be host Bob that I would.  This was a good time for a little roadside assistance, so I soon found myself at a strategic point to flag down a chicken bus and was soon loading up and on my way to Panajachel in style.

Well, I suppose style is a subjective term, seeing as how I was now crowded into an old fashioned American school bus packed with indigenous Guatemalan campesinos and their livestock, reggaeton blaring on the bus’ stereo system, with my bicycle and all of my worldly possessions precariously balanced on the roof rack as we wailed around endless loops and valleys.  Nevertheless, based on the relative fact that only moments earlier I had been cold, rain-soaked, fragile, and hopeless, this experience was magically transformed into a luxury limo through the third world.  It wasn’t long before we were arriving at los Encuentros – I had missed my stop five minutes earlier, but this was perfectly satisfactory as well.  I knew that it was only a brief slog from here to the lake and I figured that if it was a lake, hopefully it would be downhill.  So a popped off the bus, reassembled my conestoga wagon, and was soon gracefully sliding down the slick, shiny roads in the light drizzle towards Panajachel.

As I turned off of the main thoroughfare and onto the side road to the lake, green hillocks and tourist signs along the side of the road began to greet me.  Well, in at least one way this was a good sign, I wasn’t far.  The rain picked up slightly and I decided to pull over and don my slicker, but I figured that being this near to my destination, I had may as well keep on and hopefully beat any heavier afternoon downpours before they reached maximum intensity and left me stranded only a few miles away from a warm shower (I hoped) and a dry change of clothes.  So onward it was, and not long thereafter the road began to angle downwards more sharply and I whizzed into a sheet of fog.  From one moment to the next buckets of water were suddenly thrown down from the heavens and I found myself in a rather inconvenient circumstance – hurtingly at breakneck pace into the unknown.  The pale, misty silhouettes of low concrete buildings faded into view and the road channeled in between the foot high curbs, flowing and churning with the inundation of rainfall.  My tires gurgled as they sliced through the deep water, throwing waves out on either side of their path.

As I rounded street-corners and wound through the town, I hoped that this was the town of Panajachel and that I had almost descended as far as I could go, but somehow my intuition told me otherwise.  Passing by what quickly became apparent was the last cluster of edifices in this village, I saw it, just the downward sloping bare metal guardrail skirting a white curtain of fog which no doubt stretched mysteriously towards infinity.  I was still very, very high up, and I had a funny feeling that I was about to make my way to the bottom in a hurry.  The roller-coaster had begun and I was just along for the ride at this point.  My palms ached, my bicycle swayed flimsily as I rounded the cliff-sides, and I feared that at any moment I would either be sent careening over one of the futile guardrails or my tires would slide out from under me, throwing me mercilessly scraping and rolling down the paved chasm before me.  But hey, there wasn’t much that I could do about it at this point, so I just laughed psychotically to myself, tried desperately to dodge the weaving cars the materialized from the mists, and hoped that if I did go over, it would all be over quickly.

Fortunately though, it looked like my charisma and charm had won Lady Luck over after all, because after a breathless, ten-minute sky-diving style plummet I breached the clouds, the rain petered off, and a vast, shimmering blue lake revealed its grandeur near below.  I couldn’t see much else, as beyond the nearby shore all was still bathed in fog, but I saw that I was close, and I saw the little village of Panajachel clustered along the lakes banks, calling me softly towards relief.  Thank God!

Ok, so as the road leveled out near the outskirts of the town, I pulled along the side of the road and whipped out my cell phone to give Bob a quick call and let him know I had arrived.  After a too many rings (just for suspense) he picked up and in his most surprised voice exclaimed that he didn’t realize I was still coming!  Apparently since he had not heard from me that morning (although we’d spoken the night before), he assumed that I’d decided to stop somewhere en route to the lake  and wouldn’t be arriving that day… so he had invited another young lady to take the spare bedroom.  That wench!  How dare she encroach on my space!  There was no way that I would let this atrocity go unpunished.  Yet to my relief, Bob followed my stating that it was no problem, we would figure out some way to fit us all in, and that I should come on over.  So after a quick explanation of the route, I was off again, trundling along up little slopes and past store fronts, making my way to his cliffside cottage.

Another ten minutes later I was pulling up to the turnoff for the house, perched atop a hill and overlooking the serene azure splendor below.  I hopped off the saddle and rolled my bike down the steep, cobblestone (ick) pathway through the trees to the house somewhere underneath.  It was a quaint little cottage, tucked into the verdant growth of the shore, about fifty feet above the waterline.  There was a small gate with a door and after announcing myself, I heard a chipper voice welcoming me and the door opened wide.  And there was Bob.  Quite a character indeed, a long straggly beard, round Harry Potter spectacles, and grinning face awaited me and we shook hands, him ushering me in.  The entire side of the flat was a magnificent covered balcony overlooking Atitlan, and now that the gray mists had begun to dissipate, the grandeur of the volcanoes which flanked the opposite shore rose majestically above the shimmering waters.

I laid my bicycle up against the railing of the balcony and Bob told me that I could bring it into the spare bedroom, and mentioned that if I didn’t mind, Seri and I could share the room.  And as I entered, there she was, the girl that had stolen my four star hotel bedroom.  We were introduced and exchanged pleasantries, she sedately and I haggardly, after the trials of the day.  She was from Switzerland and Bob had met her in town earlier that day, looking for a place to stay.  After dropping my things beside the bed, Bob and I retired back out to the balcony chatting while Seri remained inside searching for something from her pack.  I didn’t last long though, before I broke down and asked Bob if I could hit the showers and put on some fresh underwear, as my bits and pieces were undoubtedly in a very small, cold state of affairs.

Once I emerged from the luxurious, magnificent, marvelous, delicious, hot hot hot, high pressure shower (I hadn’t seen anything like this in MONTHS) on the far end of the balcony, I gushed to Bob about what a great job he’d done with the plumbing and then tactfully led into my subliminal hinting regarding how terribly late it was and that I was so sorry that I was holding everyone up for lunch (although no one else seemed to be very hungry but me).  Well we’d soon settled that issue and I headed into the bedroom to put on my dry algodon clothes.  Funnily enough, it didn’t take Seri and I very long to warm up to one another, as I was still in a state of post near-life-and-death-experience delirium and chatting randomly about anything and everything, while skimming down to my bare backside while I suited up for lunch.  Fortunately, Bob had a little old fashioned ride to get us down into town and I didn’t have to wait long to get down to business and get eatin’.

Over the next two days Seri and I became the best of friends and went everywhere together.  Seri was a surfer from Switzerland (yeah, I didn’t know they existed either) who had started her journey eight months earlier from the bottom of South America – hugging the Pacific coastline in search of buenas ondas (no, but literally, good waves).  She was the perfect complement to me, her lugging around a surfboard and I with my bicycle.  That first day we window shopped (ok, a little more along the lines of getting naked inside of thatched kiosks on the side of the street to try on clothes in front of little old indigenous ladies), wandered the town, and chatted it up into the evening.  And that night, like all the rest of our nights together, Seri and I fell asleep in bed together after joking and laughing for hours.

Yet it was the following day was when Seri and I truly bonded, somewhat of another near-death experience that we shared (wow, two in the space of one day! yeah, welcome to my life).  I’m not sure which one of us had this ridiculous idea (ok, it was me), but somehow it was proposed that we should swim from our end of the lake to the other – hey, it didn’t look that far.  Meanwhile, over an our later as we found ourselves only reaching the very middle of the lake and suffering from early signs of hypothermia and muscular exhaustion, we had the difficult decision to make of whether to keep on going and pray that we could get a water-taxi to take two half-naked gringos back to their side of the lake, or to turn back.  So wouldn’t ya know it, there we were again, doggy paddlin’ it back to Bob’s house.  And the way back was most certainly torture – I was just hoping that Seri had the energy to make it all the way back, because it was questionable as to whether I could have helped her out very much in my condition – thank goodness she’s a surfer.  

Well, when we were finally back on dry land, showered, and thawed out, Seri was on a mission, it was indigenous culture photo-shoot day, and no local was to be left unscathed.  Armed with lollipops and our discreet pocket digitals, we set out to get the perfect shots.  Santa Katarina was our destination, a small, little visited cinder-block village about fifteen minutes down-shore.  As we arrived into town we put on our National Geographic explorer game faces and began strolling around town like we were locals (I’m not sure if we fooled anyone, but hey, what else could we do?).  The theme in this town was blues and purples, and host a host of endless embroidery options beyond.  Although the boys, as with almost all remote civilizations that I’ve encountered, didn’t have as much to offer to our cameras, the women and girls were decked out in all their distinctive glamor, and as we finally made our way out of town, comparing shots, we were thoroughly satisfied with our day’s work.

The following day we had decided to make the lancha (long-boat) trip to San Pedro la Laguna, on the other side of the lake, and we were up early and on our way to the docks.  After a nightmarish experience of trying to purchase, pack, and send (aaaaarrrrggghhh) parcels of gifts to friends back home, we finally reached the other side of town and made the arduous trip down to the jetty (moreso because nothing was built for rolling around bicycle tires on – steps and walls and rutted mud streets).  Yet thankfully, we didn’t have to wait long, and within minutes we were skeeting across the placid waves, the spray splashing across our faces, as we stared into the distance mesmerized at the pristine green tinged silhouettes of the mountain ridges that skirted the shore.  About forty minutes later we were pulling in to harbor.

As we disembarked the lancha and hauled our ungainly equipment up the high stone steps from the docks, seedy looking characters lurked off to our sides murmuring under their breath to us, “weed…. kayaks….”  Hmmm, interesting.  But we were all good – I don’t think it would have been very healthy for Seri and I to have laughed much more than we usually did anyway.  We made our way to the right at the main intersection ahead and made our way towards a cheap hostel that someone who recommended to us.  Did I say cheap?  At about four dollars for our own private room, it was a real bargain.  Ok, so it wasn’t exactly first class, but it did have (somewhat) hot water and a spectacular view.  Then, to pass the time away we set out to explore the the neighborhood and see what this infamous town was all about.

However, a few hours later we had soon discovered that, yes, we were indeed in the off-season.  It was more like a ghost town than the party central which everyone had described to us, but to be quite honest with you that was just fine by us.  We were here in search of rest and relaxation, and quite happy to be in one another’s company.  As such, most of the following two days was devoted to getting up early, heading down to the lake for a chillingly exhilarating swim, bumming around town taking photos, soaking in hot baths, and eating whenever possible.  Unfortunately, the fact that none of the ATMs in town worked for the first twenty-four hours put a little bit of a damper on this, and the first night we found ourselves cooking rice and vegetables with tomato sauce in our room with my camping burner – ok, a little ghetto.

We had only planned to spend two days in San Pedro and then on the third day zip out for a day trip to the town of Santiago Atitlan before returning and heading to San Marcos la Laguna for the night, but it didn’t quite work out that way.  After a boat ride of over an hour, we finally reached the village, and if Seri thought it was good shootin’ in Santa Katarina, she hadn’t seen Santiago Atitlan yet.  The town was literally crawling with bustling indigenous people, coming and going from the market and just going about daily life.  It was more than she could stand and we were soon faux posing for portraits for one another while the other took shots over their shoulder.  However, after several hours of this and of searching for some snazzy embroidered shorts for me (which I ended up leaving in Costa Rica anyway – I mean really, where was I planning on wearing these things?) while haggling endlessly, we made our way back to the docks and the boat to San Pedro.  By the time we finally arrived back in town we both agreed that it had grown far too late to both taking the trip to San Marcos and decided to spend another night where we were, heading to pizza night at a local hippy staple called the Buddha.

The following day it was finally time to head on, and after some cliff diving with the young Guatemalan boys of the town and a fruity breakfast by the docks, we found ourselves sitting in a heap of our bicycle, surfboard, and luggage on the dock, eating vodka-soaked watermelon with my pocket-knife (when we got bored the night before we’d sat for about two hours injecting liquor into it using a syringe, but when we finally finished we were too tired to stay up and wait for it to soak in and eat it).  It was a sad day, as unfortunately the truth was that fate was cruel and as we had it, Seri was to go North and follow her journey, while I was to continue Southwards.  We had had such wonderful times together there at the lake and we decided to savor every moment that we could together, catching the bus up from Panajachel to los Encuentros, where she would indelibly be off to Xéla, and I to Antigua.

We didn’t realize where we were until it was too late, when abruptly the bus slowed almost to a stop and the rear door of the bus was flung open by several small Guatemalan men.  The yelled “Antigua, Antigua!” and before I knew what was happening, I saw my bicycle and bags with great haste heave down from the roof-rack and hustled over to another bus which had its back hatch to us and was already slowly moving away.  Oh hells bells!  I’d better get on that bus!  And so, within the space of thirty seconds I grabbed Seri, hugged her tight in my arms, kissed her cheek one last time and took a running jump out of the back of the bus, sprinting towards the back of the other bus and jumping up into the doorway just as it was picking up speed.  As the hatch began to close behind me I suddenly thought one more time of Seri and spun around to say goodbye, only to see her face pressed close to the glass of the window of the other bus, mouthing the words “hasta luego” and slowly waving goodbye.

09
Nov
08

Uphill Both Ways in the Fog – the Road to Xéla

After two nights of rest in Huehuetenango, I had just about had my fill of the nondescript little Guatemalan city, and was ready to forge onward to the beauty of the lofty highlands.  I remounted my steed and pedaled out of town, through clouds of thick black exhaust which sputtered out from behind trucks and buses which roared by.  As I’d grown accustomed to since arriving in the mountains of Chiapas several weeks before, the sky was a patchwork of artistically strewn, silver lined, bubbly clouds against pale blue.  Silver lining eh?  Well, perhaps my luck was about to change, perhaps today would be the day that I would race headfirst up the towering spires of the Guatemalan mountains, through crisp breezes and dazzling blue skies of early afternoon.  Perhaps I would arrive triumphantly at the awe-inspiring summit, throw my arms into the air, arch my head backwards and shout out to the world in glorious conquest, revitalized and rejuvenated by the fruits of my determination.  Ok, well, I guess that’s why dreaming is sometimes better than reality.

So, as usual, I set off with a feeling of determination – but also with the lead-weighted soreness of my resentfully over-worked legs.  After navigating my way out of the little roller-coaster hills of Huehue, the road began to flatten out and I hoped that perhaps this would be the majority of the ride and the great uphill climbs that everyone had warned me of would just be a short blip towards the end of the days journey.  It was amazing how green the landscape returned once leaving the city, a theme which would become quite common over the next few weeks traveling through Central America.  I suppose I didn’t realize just how far I had already ascended since crossing the border from Mexico, but as I took in the scenery around me it appeared that the flora had all gone from steamy, lush tropical palms to somber, monochrome pine forests.  Yet, as I was leisurely ambling along, the road suddenly rounded a bend and fell gracefully downward, disappearing as it wound into the thick tree-cover below.  The altitude continued to drop for some time and at first all I could think to myself was just how glad I was that I was going in this direction.  However, my ephemeral moment of optimism fled once I broke through the tree cover and saw the endlessly looming mountains off in the distance.  I didn’t have to guess that my path would lead me up and over these mountains, I already knew the sadistic pattern that fate seemed to have lined up for me – surely this was no exception.

I finally did reach the trough between my carefree slalom and the beginning of eternity.  At first the incline was so gradual that I questioned whether perhaps the highway would find some intricate pattern of valleys carved through the mountain bases which I couldn’t see.  This carried on for almost the next two hours.  But once I had ridden up high enough to follow the high ridge of the mountain which I had been climbing, I realized that this was just the warm up.  Sinisterly swirling dark gray clouds licked along the massive mountaintop arising off to my left, obscuring its true stature.  This was about to get interesting.  The temperature had also begun to grow chilly and the scent of rain hung thick in the air.  I weaved unwilling into the mountain’s foreboding gravitational pull and not long after a slow, sad pattering had begun to soak through the back of my shirt.  I decided that this was as good a time as any to stop for lunch and hope for the weather to pass, and for once, I happened to be passing a restaurant just as the thought dawned.  So I sat to dine alone in the empty four tabled restaurant, open on one side with hens clucking around me in the empty silence of the rain and a mangy dog lingering around like Eddie’s stomach, not knowing when it would next get fed.

I was very quickly receiving a crash course in just what a difference an international border can make between two adjacent worlds.  It was as though I had taken my bicycle and ridden off of the high mesa of Mexico’s culinary beauty and over the cliff descending into the abyss of Central America’s bleak offerings.  I wondered just what cut of meat I might be dining on as I tried to saw through the rigid, charred creature before me – was it too late to turn back?  Finished and satisfied… well, satiated, I noticed that the rain had tapered off to an insolent drizzle and decided that this was as good a time as ever to head on.  The road just continually wound ever higher along the mountainside, soon disappearing into the mist.  As I rode towards it, I could actually see the foggy clouds sliding UP the mountainside as if coming for me.  I reached for my final drops of adrenaline, using the personified threat to drive me forward, but soon realized that it was losing battle.  My energy drained, my knees began to buckle, and then, like a wave of shivering cold, I pedaled right into the white veil which had thrown itself before me, enveloping me in an ethereally dull world of pale, hazy silhouettes.

From high above me in the surreally invisible world I thought that I heard the muffled laugh of children, almost as though a distant memory was manifesting itself in the hills.  Off to my left side I saw only whiteness beyond the edge of the road, as though the world dropped away beyond existence.  The incline of the road grated against my determination as I seemed to osmose like molasses upward.  Spectral forms partially emerged from the mist, their features swathed in obscurity, but vaguely recognizable as the indigenous campesinos with their wide-brimmed straw hats and side-sheathed machetes.  Twice did I stop to rest and to inquire how much longer my torture would last – the first time receiving an answer of about five kilometers, and an hour of riding later, receiving an answer of twenty kilometers.  Well, I guess I should have remembered to replace the battery in my odometer back in Mexico after all.  My journey had all but exhausted me, and in this dismal gray world I wasn’t sure just how much more I could take.  My breaks were becoming more frequent and my average distance per hour felt as though it was dropping rapidly.  When I finally decided that I wasn’t sure if I could go on, I pulled over to the side of a road to a little tienda, hoping that replenishing myself with something sweet would give me the burst of energy that I needed, but as I sat on the front step and chatted with the owner, he pointed to the road around the bend and said that I was there.  This was the summit of the road and from here on it was almost all downhill to Cuatro Caminos and Xéla.  Of course, I couldn’t really see quite that far beyond the cloud covered street, but I felt a pang of optimism, thanked the store owner, and prayed that this guy knew what he was talking about.

Moments later I was whizzing down the slopes, the wind in my hair, noting that the day was growing uncomfortably late for a bicycle ride.  By this point I had broken free from the swirling mists, but the weather was frigid and the sky drained completely of its color.  I pulled aside to find my jacket to brace against the cold air that rushed by me now, longing for the feel of warm water showering down on my face and a cozy bed to crawl into.  At first I was just descending in short legs, from one ridge-top to another, but once I crossed the final threshold, a marvelous vista opened up off the my left, a smoothly painted fertile green valley, with patchworks of fields clinging to the mountainsides.  At this point I began soaring downwards so quickly that all I could do was grip my handlebars as tightly as possible and cast short glances over my shoulder at the panorama.  However, the majority of the time I was focused forward and as I descended into the fields, little children in sweaters shouting and rolling in the grass along the roadsides called out to me as I passed by.  It was as if I was looking through a window into another world, it felt like Autumn in some past era – children still playing outside, as opposed to desolate American streets, conquered by television and the internet.  

I coasted in  my bubble of warm euphoria through this magically tranquil place, in some ways only wishing that I could relinquish my race and what I knew about the world to instead join their simplicity.  But truly, deeply, I knew that even this life was not that simple and that I had another destiny to fulfill.  It wasn’t long before I rose once again atop a low ridge and was leaving the peaceful valley below.  But on the other side I soon began yet another descent and this time I could see the sparkling lights of a populous civilization down below, nothing like the green hills that I had just passed through.  The day was beginning to fade, but I knew that this would be Cuatro Caminos, and I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that it was only a short way beyond to Xéla.  And to my great relief, not long after, I had passed the chaotic town of Cuatro Caminos, I was bumping along pot-holed roads and into the city limits of Xéla.  I cycled towards the central plaza of the town and after a round of questioning, had finally located the Black Cat Hostel, what would soon become my home for the next week while seeking refuge from the endless rains of Guatemala.

09
Nov
08

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.