Guatemala is not a particularly sizeable country and given that I first set foot (or wheel?) in it over two months ago, I’m almost embarrassed to report that I’m still here. It’s fair to say progress of late has been fairly limited, but before you reach for the ‘back arrow’ in outrage and resume Facebook duties, please hear me out, stuff has happened…
Much like a family returning from a prosperous Christmas, I left Cuba laden with new supplies and equipment kindly lugged out by my parents. Visiting a continental cyclist is a risky business, you can guarantee at some point you’ll hear the fateful words “oh and by the way…. would you mind bringing out the odd thing for me?”. Before you know it that extra pair of shorts has mushroomed into a tent, handlebars, brake levers, tyres, chainrings, a selection of three stems, a 6-month supply of anti-malarials, and the list goes on. Be warned.
Having reunited with ‘The Beast’ in the small town of Flores, Northern Guatemala, it was time to put some of these new goodies into action. In my eternal quest for a more comfortable riding position I’d controversially decided to change to a drop handlebar setup as used on road bikes (and inadvertently pay homage to 80’s mountain bike legend John Tomac). Lacking some of the necessary tools for the job, I set off on a rather fruitless search for a bicycle shop. Eventually I was pointed in the direction of a small, dingy room, scattered with broken parts and adorned with fading pin ups of the Guatemalan equivalent of ‘Page 3 girls’. Perfect. Its proud owner, an elderly chap in his seventies, kindly let me take over what little floor space existed and I got to work. Evidently business was pretty slow and an afternoon watching a gringo who’d cycled from Alaska, sweat away over his fancy bicycle, no doubt constituted a fairly noteworthy day at the office.
With ‘The Beast Mach II’ ready to roll, I hit the road once more and started towards Lake Atitlan in the south of the country, around a weeks cycle away. After a month of near inactivity it felt good to be back and buoyed with a refreshed sense of adventure I opted for a less well-trodden route through the lofty West Highlands. This was a fairly snap decision and had I done the slightest prior research I almost certainly would have bailed. Routes are generally less well trodden for a reason and it turned out to be some of the hardest cycling of trip thus far. Unrelentingly steep climbs wound their way up mountains before plunging back down into valleys and starting all over again. It made the French Alps seem like a picnic and to keep you on your toes long stretches of rough dirt tracks were thrown into the mix, giving the bike an absolute battering and causing the odd pannier to bounce off. Despite almost permanently being on the verge of cardiac arrest though, I was strangely relishing it. Growing tired of generic tourist sights it was great to be back ‘in the wild’, riding through spectacular mountain scenery and traditional villages which were largely unaffected by the workings of the modern world.
I got the impression that few foreigners strayed this way and villagers appeared unsure what to make of the situation, simply defaulting to uttering ‘Gringo’ in an almost Tourette’s like fashion. Ordinarily the adults are more restrained, generally just downing tools and simply staring in bewilderment, but even they couldn’t hold it in. It’s as if there’s a ‘Life in Rural Latin America Handbook’ and in the “What to Do If You Come Across a White Man” section it advocates ‘’just say the code word ‘GRINGO’ and everything will be OK”. As such, this bizarre and mildly annoying crescendo generally accompanied me whenever I rode through a vaguely populated area.
One of my more interesting encounters was when I asked a peasant family if I could camp on their land. They were clearly taken aback when I started towards their little hut, with kids running for cover and no doubt all thinking “S#!t we said ‘Gringo’, now what??!”. After the initial commotion had died down however, and they’d satisfied themselves I was just a harmless nutcase on a bike, they were only too happy to let me stay and offered the use of a ram-shackled hut. Before long word had got round and a small crowd had gathered to witness the ‘Gringo Show’. As I unpacked my seemingly space age belongings, ohhs and ahhs from the crowd followed the unveiling of each item, with the tent being the star attraction. The excitement was quite surreal; evidently this was the stuff of front-page news in peasant land. After the grand unveiling, the adults started to lose interest but the kids continued to just stand and stare, making for a slightly awkward situation, as I was keen to get some privacy to change. When your towel is roughly the size of a large handkerchief discretion isn’t really an option. Evidently however, this wasn’t something that phased anyone (I suppose that comes from sharing a hut with six other people), as no one budged after I explained what was about to go down and so I just got on with it.
Following the awkward Full Monty, we moved onto the next part of the Gringo Show, the ‘Magic Stove’. This really got the crowd going and I doubt a pot of boiling pasta has ever been watched so intently. As usual I’d cooked enough for a small family and for once there was actually one on standby to help out. I exchanged some rather lackluster “Penne alla Sardine’ for a stack of freshly baked tortillas and followed it up with a round of Twinning’s English Breakfast Tea. Feeling as though I’d satisfactorily performed by ambassadorial duty (namely wiping up a cup of tea) I retreated to the sanctuary of my tent for some desperately needed rest…
After a brutal day in the saddle it’s often difficult to summon the energy to satisfy the intrigue of curious locals; I’m generally just craving some peace and quiet, as opposed to entertaining the chap who’s decided to sit outside my tent. It’s all part and parcel of this type of adventure though; you’re in their world and for many it’s probably their first close encounter with a real life gringo, not to mention one who’s riding an overloaded bicycle – result! Likewise, it’s part of what makes the trip interesting for me, even if it does mean answering the same old questions I’ve heard a thousand times before. Those awkward ‘how much does that cost?’ ones are a particular favorite, and as a rule I outright lie, generally dividing the value of everything by at least four. Even so, the response never fails to generate astonishment, a constant reminder of the awkward truth that my tent probably costs more than a peasant family’s home/hut.
Finally arriving at Lake Atitlan, I was welcomed by thick fog reminiscent of those dreary days up in Oregon. Evidently those outrageous picture postcard views that had lured me here would have to wait. It wasn’t as if I was in much of a rush though, my plan was to spend two weeks in this volcano-strewn landscape and take advantage of the insanely cheap Spanish tuition on offer. Given that a few months ago my knowledge of Spanish was limited to that of “Como estas bitches?!”, “Hasta la vista baby” and other useful Hollywood one liners, my ‘DIY’ approach to learning had got me surprisingly far. But to stand any chance of ever becoming fully conversational, I knew I’d need help. It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you’re having a grammatically flawless conversation when the other party is too polite to tell you that it’s a load of tosh and you’ve inadvertently been referring to lewd sex acts!
Sold by the cracking lake views, I signed up with Orbita Spanish School who assigned me my personal teacher and a local family to stay with. The days that followed felt as if I’d been transported back to the age of 10. Life was simple; my host family would knock up some breakfast, then I’d run along to school for an intense morning of tuition, before returning for lunch and an afternoon of homework. Despite having the responsibilities of a young child though, it was surprisingly exhausting; one to one tuition, conducted exclusively in Spanish, leaves little room for daydreaming (the chief occupation of an adventure cyclist). Brain cells were rudely awoken from dormancy to find themselves wrestling with the eternal question of what the subjunctive tense actually is. Something akin to ‘What it the meaning of life?’. Fortunately though, my teacher, Celeste, was an absolute star and put up with my incessant questioning remarkably well. Sweet mannered but deadly, even when you thought you were just having a casual conversation, she’d cunningly lead you into practicing the tenses you disliked the most. Brutal.
My time at Lake Atitlan happened to coincide with Semana Santa (Easter week), which, as I soon discovered, is a pretty big deal over here. I’ll let the photos do the talking, but the lengths they go to decorate the streets is truly astonishing and a testament to the incredible strength of community here. With much of this psychedelic street art done at night, I’d emerge bleary eyed in the morning and scarcely believe what I was seeing. Somewhere between joining Alice in wonderland and seeing the world through the eyes of acid dropping hippie, I was seriously impressed.
Now, having just finished my last day of tuition, the time has come to hit the road again and bid farewell to another temporary home. Central America isn’t going to cycle itself and I need to start making some real southerly progress if I’m ever going to get off this continent. The plan is to briefly visit a friend living in Guatemala City (check out his impressive community development work here), before blasting through El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua etc. The beauty of Central American countries is their pint-sized proportions, so the passport’s going to be seeing a fair bit of action and with any luck I’ll be able to brag about crossing a country per week in my next post…!