A Local Understanding

Written January 30, 2016

It’s Saturday in Antigua, and we’ve been here for about three weeks now.  Our Spanish language school session ended yesterday (I get my diploma tomorrow!), and now it’s time to start packing for our departure on Monday morning.

Improving my Spanish has given me new abilities, too, and that enables much more freedom to roam without assistance.  I go to the store, buy oil and parts for the bike, get my hair cut, and now help others who can’t speak Spanish.  Today I helped a fellow traveler find some chain lube for his bike, walking around and asking at motorcycle outlets until we found what we needed. My trepidation and hesitation has been transformed into an eagerness to explore and learn.  I make all kinds of dumb mistakes, okay, but now can generally get my message across and understand the response.  Liberation!

My Espaniol maestra (teacher) is Carmen.  In the naming tradition here, she is Carmen Jovita Hernandez Garcia del Aguilar, the last three being family names and then her husband’s.  Signing your name can be quite the undertaking here.  She grew up on a coffee farm locally, and has never been farther than about two hours ride from here.  She is of the indigenous people, and lives in a small village (a “puebla”) outside the town.  She speaks many English words, but cannot really speak the language, and so our daily one-on-one lessons were purely in Spanish.  The iPhone dictionary was always at the ready where a little acting or drawing did not suffice.  But it was amazing how she built things up from a very simple base.  I could nearly always puzzle out what was wanted either on the page or from her speaking to me. In addition to the usual schoolwork, we read newspapers, played games, walked around town, used flash-cards, and just sat and talked.  I’ve reached the point where I can slowly read the paper and figure out meanings from context about half the time.  The dictionary is always at the ready for the rest.

I attended a full three weeks, while Jalene, with stronger Spanish skills, elected to go for two weeks and then spend time writing, seeing the town and pursuing other things she wanted to do.  She has also been seeing a physical therapist for a shoulder rotator-cuff injury that has been bothering her since November and making it difficult to ride in some situations.  We’re really hoping that the down-time, exercises, and posture coaching has allowed it to heal sufficiently to let us carry on.

In the meantime, I’ve been able to do a lot of general maintenance on the bikes (“las motos”) in the afternoon after homework is done.  Oil and filter changes, a new switchset for my left handlebar (all burnt up inside!), and lengthening the fuel pump power leads on my bike, new air filters, and so on.  Jalene’s bike was making a loud noise from the front end as it rolled over the bumpy cobblestones.  After some experimenting, I figured out it was the plastic fender occasionally slapping the top of the front tire, nothing to worry about.  We were also able to stock up on some spares from the BMW shop in Guatemala City thanks to our friend Julio (GuateRider on ADVrider) who bought all the stuff for me while he was in the city.  Thanks again, Julio!

We’ve also met some wonderful people while in town.  In addition to Julio, we got to know Evan and Caroline, from Canada and England respectively, Matt Laxton from Australia, and Steve and Janette from England, all traveling on las motos.  Evan and Caroline elected to stop and go to school, but chose the town of Panajachel, about two hours away.  Last Saturday morning we rode over there and visited them overnight.  Panajachel is a touristy town on the shore of the very beautiful Lake Atitlan, a huge blue expanse surrounded by high volcanoes.  Aldous Huxley, when he saw it, called it the most beautiful lake in the world, and I can’t argue that.  While there, we gave in to the urge for comfort food and had awesome barbeque at a place run by a Texas couple.  Massive untrimmed baby back ribs still thick with meat, three sides, Texas toast, tons of sauce, and a Gallo, the local beer of choice, a pretty good can of beer on a hot day.  Gallo means “rooster” or “cock,” so there can be jokes if you elect to get the big bottle.

The ride to Panajachel is a perfect example of riding in Guatemala.  We left town on a cobblestone street, which led to a 2-lane asphalt road winding up into the mountains toward the main highway of CA-1.  The road finds its way through many small towns, and signs here are few and often difficult to find.  Some may be a very bold signs on the corner with arrows left or right, while others might be painted on a wall or cornerstone down low, in a muted color.  Or there may be nothing at all, leaving you to take your best guess after checking the GPS and paper map.  The towns are crowded with vendors, pedestrians, scooters, trucks, buses, bicycles, horses and burros, dogs, and everything else imaginable.  Remember the scene where Indiana Jones is chased through the crowded market stalls?  That’s it exactly.  You just work your way through it, and being on a bike means you just go where you fit, and so you look for a crack and twist the throttle.  Vehicles will give way, knowing that you will be gone in a second, with no hard feelings at all.  Like all the other locals on motorcycles, we ride up the margin, up the centerline, and just flow along with things, taking advantage of any “in-between.”  It’s fun!

When on the road, one must have ALL one’s senses at the ready.  If there is a big pothole, there are no markers.  If the edge of the road has washed out, there might be a few big rocks in the lane to tell you something is around the bend.  Or it might be some tree branches.  A construction section is marked by a cone or two (or rocks) right AT the beginning, where they want you to detour.  There might be a guy with a flag to wave you through.  You do not ride at night.  Advance warning of hazards is simply non-existent.  You must keep an eye on your mirrors frequently.  If you are passed, cars or trucks will not necessarily change lanes to do it, and you may have an SUV whiz by two feet from your left hand if you don’t move over.  The accepted practice is for the vehicle being passed to move over to the right, and the overtaking vehicle can then come by safely even with oncoming traffic, which will also move to the right.  When being passed, I will just slide the bike over onto the margin, because there is nearly always a good shoulder.  On most 2-lane roads, we travel faster than other vehicles, but on the 4-lane “carreteras”, we keep to about 90-100 kph (~55-60 mph), while other cars will often go faster, sometimes much faster.  Most everyone cooperates well, but you have to keep your eyes on the mirrors for the occasional crazies.  It may sound odd, but I’ve come to really, really like this system.  There are massive advantages for las motos.

A family of five riding on one motorcycle. Wow.

Laws in Guatemala are enforced on a selective basis.  For example, motorcyclists here are required by law to wear helmets and orange hi-viz vests, and to have the plate number of their bike on the back of the helmet as well.  But most riders in town have no helmet, and orange vests are rare.  Out on the main highways you see a lot of helmets, but not on everyone.  It’s amazing to sit on the corner and watch the thousands of little motorcycles and scooters go by.  Many of them will have families aboard, with mom and dad and one, two, or even three kids along.  On scooters, one will stand on the floorboard while others are along on the seat.  Often grandma will be riding along sidesaddle, with a big basket in her hands.  How she stays aboard is a wonder, but they make it look casual and easy.  It may seem crazy by American standards, but down here it’s cheap basic transportation, and enables people to get to work, to market, to school, the doctor, and everywhere else on salaries far too low for cars.

Jalene and I got into an interesting conversation with another couple traveling by motorcycle about what it takes to make us feel that our travel is meaningful to us.   Speaking for myself, I feel that if I am going to be of some purpose in this world, then first and foremost I must observe the cultures and people, learn about who they are and about the countries they live in, their environments, their ways of agriculture, their politics.  I feel that I cannot know how best to behave, or begin to contribute, until I have a local understanding by which to judge what will be an effective means to contribute to that society, culture, or industry.  In short, the pleasure I get from just sitting on the corner or in the park, and watching this little part of the world has value in the long run.  Travel itself has intrinsic value.  I feel we must all be travelers wherever we are, even at home, willing to look and listen to the world around us, searching to understand before making assumptions about whether and how to act.

This is not to say that one should refrain from contributing to charities, volunteering, or doing other hopeful and beneficial things if you cannot travel to the places affected.  I only state that one will always be better informed by seeing things first-hand for oneself.

I know you’ve read this before, but Mark Twain said it best - “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”

We’re trying our best.

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More photos HERE.