guatemala

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.

***

More photos HERE.

According To Our Strengths

Written January 9, 2016 

I am sitting on the roof of our hotel in Antigua, Guatemala, three floors above the cobblestone streets.  This is one of those times, as I described to a friend the other day, when I wish I could have all of you with me, just so you could see, and hear, and smell the wonderful scenery that surrounds me now; to hear the softened sounds of scooters and trucks from below, and smell the flowers that surround me in pots and on the tops of the flowering trees that encircle me.  Or it could be the clean laundry on the line just behind me.  In front of me, about 3 blocks away, is the yellow mass of the cathedral “La Merced”, and to my right is the towering mass of Volcan de Agua that dominates the view at 3,776 meters (12,388 feet).  All around the terrain is mountainous, and covered with trees.  On the road in yesterday, we topped out at a chilly 3,030 meters (9,940 feet) over one pass.  I still haven’t become used to seeing pine trees and palms growing together.

Recently, Jalene and I have had up and down moods on this trip.  I haven’t fully thought it out, but it seems that on this trip, as it must be on every long journey, there comes a time when the things coming along at you no longer seem so new and exciting, that change stops coming fast enough to pull you along by curiosity alone.  The goal becomes more long-term.  Perseverance and determination must take over to keep propelling you on your way.  I think we knew early on that this was not going to be a vacation, but instead a new vocation, and now the full realization of that has finally set in.  Our task each day is to do what is necessary to move in a logical direction and achieve the short-term daily goals of seeing interesting nearby places and solving immediate problems of money, bike maintenance, where to eat and sleep, etc.  At the same time, we also need to move toward longer-term goals such as the next country, where to buy crucial “big” items like tires or chains, which may require a capital city with a big motorcycle outlet.  You can quickly see that balancing all of these needs while mapping out the route ahead requires a great deal of planning and work.

We divide the major tasks up according to our strengths.  I take care of all bike maintenance, and do all the navigating on the road.  By the end of the day, I’m often mentally toast but physically fine.  Jalene specializes in planning support, and is a whiz at looking ahead when we are coming into big cities and identifying hotels that might suit us, sometimes booking a reservation before we get there (a huge time and energy saver).  She also takes care of bank accounts and money, as well as kitchen stuff, and it’s so wonderful to have a cup of tea handed to me with some hot oatmeal in the morning.  It makes us that much more independent to be able to say “Okay, we’ll just heat up some noodles and veggies for dinner.”  Also, when she makes sure we eat, we make better choices and decisions.  The opposite of me, she is often physically toast by the end of the day, but mentally sharp for the planning tasks and other things she does so well.  Each of us feels that the other does the majority of the work.

Anyway, back to the up and down moods.  We spent all of our time in Mexico just wandering around.  And that was great, but eventually, after leaving Zipolite, we found our moods falling.  After a while we both admitted that the trip wasn’t much fun anymore, and after talking it out we realized that we no longer had any real goal in mind.  Up until Zipolite, we had been steadily moving south, but now in southernmost Mexico, we were circling the Yucatan, and then Jay’s bike broke down (that story momentarily), taking us even farther back west away from our route south.  We seemed to have lost our rudder, and decided that, while still taking the time to see the many various interesting places along the way, we should pursue a southward goal more steadily.  Maybe if we kept moving along, even at a slow pace, where we could continue to see southward progress, our moods would pick up as we regained our purpose.  Just talking and identifying this helped both of us feel better immediately, and now that we are down in Guatemala, it feels like we have made huge progress and our spirits are rising again.

To pick up the story of our two adventurers again – we had left Escarcega, heading west, leaving the Yucatan Peninsula, and preparing to turn south toward the Guatemala border.  The morning began with rain, but dried up to overcast skies in about an hour.  About lunchtime, I suddenly saw Jalene drop back, and her voice on the intercom told me the bad news.  The motor had lost some power for a few seconds, then died.  By the side of the road, after a brief diagnosis, I was pretty confidant that her fuel pump had failed, so I pulled out two straps and towed her about 10 km to Chable, a little place by the side of the road with food.  At that point, we were about 200 km from Escarcega to the east, and 160 km from Villahermosa to the west.  We had some enchiladas, and a couple of Mexican guys on Triumphs pulled in.  We had waved as we leap-frogged gas stops with them earlier that morning, and now they helped us negotiate with some people with a pickup truck to take the bike to Villahermosa, where we could get a hotel and I could work on the bike.  We took off, Jalene shoehorned into in the Ford Ranger truck with a man and a woman, me talking to her through the helmet intercoms.  Soon it started to rain, and by the time we got to Villahermosa, two hours later, it was pouring and dark.  The road was full of potholes, and I was thankful I simply had to follow the truck.  During the ride in, Jalene booked a hotel room for us on her phone.  When we got to the place, the door was completely blocked by all the taxi-vans, so we unloaded the bike on the next block and walked it back to the secure garage.  Finally, I was able to take off my soggy gear and collapse on the bed.  A very, very long day for both of us.

I got on the web to research F650 fuel pumps.  The website F650.com is worth it’s weight in diamonds for this type of thing.  Turns out that many people have fuel pump problems because the power supply wires to the pump are made just a little too short, and as the pump moves around on its rubber mounts over bumps and potholes, the wires pull tight and break at the connector.  When I removed Jalene’s fuel pump the next morning, that’s exactly what I found.  A taxi took me to the local AutoZone, where I got some wire and crimp connectors (I thought I had packed them, but no) and within two hours everything was fixed, with longer power wires, and the bike was running great.  Whew!  While here in Antigua, I intend to lengthen the wires on mine before they break.

We turned south and followed a great road down to Tuxtla Gutierrez, where we found the sun again, and a nice place to sleep for only 250 pesos (about $16 US).  After a night there, we rode south until just before the Guatemala border, where we found the Hotel River in Paso Hondo, again for only 250 pesos.  We had huge Cubano sandwiches for dinner (mine leaving a mild legacy in my intestines for a couple of days), and in the morning it was off to the border.

We had read so much about Central American borders in general that we took the time and did a little research in the days leading up to this.  We made multiple copies of all our documents, and made sure that we changed some of our pesos to Guatemalan Quetzals before we crossed at the little town of La Mesilla.  We got through Mexican Immigrations and Customs (Aduana) without a hitch, where they stamped our passports and refunded our security deposits for temporary importation of the motorcycles.  We rolled over the border stripe into Guatemala, and were immediately directed into a square on the pavement where they spray the tires and underside of the bike with a pesticide.  Then we rolled another 30 feet to the immigration office, where we filled out a little form and got our passports stamped in, then we went another 50 feet and were taken care of by the Aduana office (Customs).  After paying a total of Q484 (about $63 US) for everything, we were finished, and free to travel in Guatemala with our bikes for the next 90 days.  Very easy and professional all the way around, and the whole process took about two hours total.  Somehow I fear that other borders will not be this easy.

I must tell you about the terrain at the border.  In Mexico, we approached over gently rolling low hills and agricultural land, but right where Guatemala and Mexico meet, so begin the mountains.  At a very sharp break they simply burst up from the ground, steep, high, vertical green mountains with so many peaks packed into them.  At the border, you are literally going up the hill and into the mountains, but first you go through the craziness of the vendor markets that choke the gritty road leading away from the border.  It was a neat trick just threading our motorcycles through - I really felt sorry for the trucker towing a trailer with a helicopter on it.  Very soon after crossing, you find yourself entering a steep-walled, narrow canyon, where coffee plants climb the hillsides, and the fresh-picked beans are spread out along the road to begin dryingdry.  It’s funny, but to me they have a kind of sharp, pungent scent that is not like coffee at all.  The roasting must bring out the smell we think of as “coffee.”

Our first night across the border was spent in Huehuetenango, a really happening city where we found a hotel that was cheap by surrounding standards, but more expensive than we had become used to in Mexico.  Still, it was very nice, and so we were glad to have a landing pad after our big day of border crossing.  Walking around to check on insuring the bikes, we met a guy who owns three independent bike shops, and he repeated what a bank had told us – that bikes aren’t generally insured in Guatemala, at least not for foreigners.  But what to do if we have a wreck?!  “Well, you talk.”  People talk and come to a reasonable agreement.  And so, against our better wishes, we’re carefully riding with no insurance, but we still intend to check it out more fully now that we’re settled in Antigua for a few weeks.  It will be interesting to find out what the local riders do here.

Yesterday we rode through the mountains from Huehuetenango to Antigua, and so here we are.  We start our Spanish school early Monday morning, and we will also meet the Guatemalan family that we will be living with for the next three weeks.  This is going to be interesting, to say the least.  This afternoon I went out in search of a can of WD-40.  Two blocks of walking led me to an English-speaking owner of an independent motorcycle service shop, who was working on a couple of bikes with Ontario, Canada plates.  I left a card on the bikes, and shortly afterward got an email from a Canadian couple who would like to meet up with us for beers this evening.  And the shop had some WD-40.

And so it goes, traveling along, meeting new friends around every corner.  The world is a friendly place, and I am so glad to be seeing it for myself.  It will be even better in a few weeks when I can talk to these nice folks without sounding like a pathetic gringo.

***

See more photos HERE and Jalene's Travel Learning HERE.